The Fast and Fierce Life of the Pony Express

The commemorative US stamp for the 100th Anniversary of the Pony Express
The commemorative US stamp for the 100th Anniversary of the Pony Express

There are few images more American in United States history than of the famous Pony Express.  In just 9-10 days, young riders carried the mail by horseback over 1,966 miles from Missouri to California.  This relay system crossed eight states and territories, the fastest east-west communication possible across the Wild West frontier of 1860.  Just the name brings to mind images of courageous young men galloping at break-neck speed across long stretches of open country – facing the threat of death from heat, thieves or Native Americans.  Riders even rode at night when only the illumination of the moon lit the way.

But few may know the famous Pony Express was in operation for only 18 months, between April 1860 and October 1861.  And though a delivery success for the mail, it was a financial failure for it owners.  How could this be true, for such a famous piece of Americana?  There were several reasons.

Thousands moved west, starting in the 1840s, and increasing with the 1849 California Gold Rush.

The growing West needed fast mail communication with the established East. After gold was discovered, prospectors and homesteaders flocked to the West. At the time, the U.S. Post Office delivered mail via steamship from New York to Panama, where it was taken across the Isthmus by horseback, then put aboard ships bound for San Francisco. Under the most optimistic conditions, letters arrived in four weeks.  Some mail was hauled by stagecoach cross-country on a 2,795-mile southern route between Missouri and San Francisco. Although the advertised time there was 24-25 days, stagecoach mail service was often delayed for months.

As pre-Civil War tensions grew, the division between the northern and southern states widened, exacerbating the mail service to the West.  By 1860, almost 1/2 million people were living in the new western states. Those people demanded to have the delivery time of their mail improved. The Pony Express grew out of this desperate need for faster mail service between East and West just prior to the Civil War.  

The completion of a coast-to-coast steam railroad was still years away. At that time, the railroads extended only as far west as the Mississippi River. The completion of a telegraph wire linking both coasts was under construction, but not yet a reality. Three entrepreneurs saw a way out. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell created the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company to carry mail across the county, otherwise known as The Pony Express.

Senator William Gwin of California had persuaded Russell, a stagecoach company owner, to establish a speedy and reliable express service across a shorter 1,966 mile, central route stretching from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Russell’s partner, Alexander Majors, arranged for the purchase of over 400 ponies; the building of 200 way stations in desolate areas; the hiring of station masters; the stocking of provisions; and, of course, the hiring of the young riders. All in just two short months.

The young pony riders made $100 a month, pretty darn good money at the time. It was hard work though, riding in rough terrain, harsh weather and dangerous conditions.  To keep the weight down for the horses, the riders had to weigh 125 pounds or less.  So, a lot were young, skinny teenagers or twenty-somethings willing to face danger for the excitement and money.

About 80 brave young men rode for The Pony Express.

Alexander Majors gave each of them a Bible and required them to sign a loyalty oath that read: “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay.  But it appears that in the Wild West, few Pony Express riders followed their oath to the letter of the law.

The Pony Express route from Missouri to California
The Pony Express route from Missouri to California

They set up their string of relay stations across what is now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Lone horsemen would ride between stations at breakneck pace, switching mounts every 10-15 miles, then handing their mail bag off to a new rider after 75-100 miles. A special leather saddlebag called a mochila held four, padlocked mail compartments. It fit snugly over the saddle and was quickly switched from one horse to another. The ponies also were small, averaging about 14 1/2 hands high and weighed less than 900 pounds. The postage cost was $1 for a ½ ounce letter. That was a lot of money back in 1860, so it was rarely used for common mail.  

The 184 relay stations were placed 10 miles apart along the 1,966 mile route.  

The St. Joseph to Sacramento route followed the famous Oregon Trail for part of the way, then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, before crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. The route stretched through the plains of Kansas, up into Nebraska, along the valley of the Platte River, across Wyoming, through the Rockies, into the Great Salt Lake valley, through the Nevada desert basin, then over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada and finally into Sacramento.

At its peak, the Pony Express had over 180 riders and 400 horses stretched across its long route. The most famous of the riders was a 14-year-old Buffalo Bill Cody, who later earned his fame as a buffalo hunter, then by putting on Wild West shows across America and Europe.

The outposts themselves were usually crude, dirt-floor bunkhouses and a corral for the horses, manned by stock keepers. The first riders left from St. Joseph and Sacramento on April 3, 1860. They each arrived at the opposite end around 10 days later. The arrival of the first rider into Sacramento was greeted with great excitement as the streets filled with people cheering the event and the rider.  The young riders became small town heroes to those anxiously waiting mail. 

Camaraderie and competitions arose amongst the boys to beat each other’s records between relay stations.

The company’s best time came in March 1861, when riders carried the Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln to California in just seven days, 17 hours. Amazingly, only one rider and one mail shipment were ever lost during the running of The Pony Express.  But the future of the The Pony Express always had a dead-end staked out, or on this case, a tall pole in the ground.

1860 Pony Express advertisement
1860 Pony Express Advertisement

On June 16, 1860, only ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized a bill to subsidize a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. This resulted in the incorporation of the Overland Telegraph Company of California and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. 

Just over a year later, and 18 months since the Pony Express started, it was rendered obsolete when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City.  On October 26, 1861, New York City was now in direct contact with San Francisco via telegraph, with messages taking hours, not days, to deliver. The transcontinental telegraph dealt the Pony Express its deathblow.  In November 1861, the last Pony Express letters completed their journey. The Pony Express was officially terminated, the horses sold, and the riders disbanded.

Despite its enduring place in the Wild West, the Pony Express never turned a profit for its three owners. It hemorrhaged cash due to high operating costs and its failure to secure a lucrative government mail contract that the stagecoach companies managed to hold on to. Though hailed in the press for its adventurous spirit, and capturing Americans’ imagination, the Pony Express eventually folded, having lost over $200,000, quite a sum in those days.

Nevertheless, despite operating for only 18 months, its riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier. A 1989, ABC TV series The Young Riders dramatized the Pony Express with a young Josh Brolin starring as William Cody.  It ran for three seasons and can be streamed today on FreeVee.

In March of 1862 the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company was sold at Leavenworth, Kansas to Wells Fargo.  Many of the riders either joined the Northern or Southern Armies during the Civil War, which had started a year earlier, or became stagecoach drivers for Wells Fargo.

Sadly, most of the original trail has been lost to time and development. In the western states, the majority of the trail has been converted over the years to either dirt roads or paved highways.  Short original segments, can be seen only in Utah and California where some of the ruins of the way stations still exist.  A few refurbished relay stations exist in Kansas and Missouri as historical sites.  Still, when driving on any lonely east-west road in the American West, it’s hard to not imagine the spirit of a lone Pony Express rider galloping fiercely along side you, with his packet of precious mail.

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10 Famous Lines from 10 Great Speeches

Anyone who’s had to give a talk or make a speech in public knows how intimidating and challenging it can be! The most famous speeches are a combination of impeccable writing and a polished delivery. Some of great speeches have been given either by charismatic speakers of the day, or under adverse circumstances that made them famous. Here then are 10 of the Greatest Lines you may have never heard. Not included below are the ubiquitous Churchill, King, or Kennedy speeches, whom you’ve likely already heard many times over.

1- ALEXANDER THE GREAT – Speech to his Troops before the Greek invasion of India, 335 B.C. in northwestern India.
Alexander the Great

His troops were exhausted after 10 long years of fighting a war with neighboring Persia. Many wanted to simply to return home to their families. He somehow had to motivate his men and convince them to fight again.

    You and I, gentlemen, have shared the labour and shared the danger, and the rewards are for us all. The conquered territory belongs to you; already the greater part of its treasure passes into your hands, and when all Asia is overrun, the utmost hopes of riches or power which each one of you cherishes will be far surpassed, and whoever wishes to return home will be allowed to go. I will make those who stay, the envy of those who return.
    Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia and Persia, 335 BC
    2. QUEEN ELIZABETH I – Speech to the Army, 1588, at Tilbury, England before the Spanish Armada Invasion.
    Queen Elizabeth I

    Spain and England were at war and a Spanish invasion of the English coast by sea was imminent. She spoke to the doubting army of soldiers defending London to motivate her military and build their resolve.

    “I am come amongst you, at this time, being resolved, in the midst the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king. And think foul scorn that Spain should dare to invade the borders of my realm: So I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general in the field.”
    Queen Elizabeth I of England, 1588
    3. GEORGE WASHINGTON – Farewell Address, 1796, Retiring after 20 long years of public service, to Mount Vernon, Virginia.
    President George Washington

    Published in U.S. newspapers, President Washington attempts to reunite the country. It had begun to devolve into the two warring political parties of his friends and successors, John Adam and Thomas Jefferson.

    In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of passions. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against foreign intrigue, and to guard against pretended patriotism. 
    President George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
    4. SOJOURNER TRUTH – former Black slave, 1851 Speech to a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
    Former Slave Sojourner Truth

    Years before the U.S. Civil War, she gave a speech at one of the first Women’s Rights Convention. It was in response to white gentlemen at the time stating that all women were “frail and should be treated as the fairer sex.” Her fiery response was:

    Ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man, if I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children, and seen most all sold off to slavery; and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?
    Sojourner Truth, Former Slave, 1855
    5. NEZ PERCE CHIEF JOSEPH – 1877,  Surrender speech to the U.S. Army in the mountains of northern Montana.
    Nez Perce Chief Joseph

    The Nez Perce Indians were one of the last indigenous tribes still fighting “The Indian Wars.” They were forced off their native land in Oregon and fled for Canada. The U.S. army relentlessly pursued and ultimately caught them.

    I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. The old men are all dead. He who led on the young men are dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food, perhaps freezing to death. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
    Chief Joseph, Thunder Travelling to the Mountain Heights, 1877
    6. BRITISH KING EDWARD – His Abdication Speech, 1936, from Windsor Castle via radio.
    King Edward VIII

    King Edward VIII shockingly abdicates the throne to his younger brother George, when the British Cabinet would not allow him to marry twice-divorced American, Mrs. Wallis Simpson, as his consort.

    I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was something thing I had to judge entirely for myself. But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
    British King Edward VIII, 1936 abdication
    7. LOU GEHRIG – Farewell to Baseball Speech, 1939, Yankee Stadium, New York City.
    Lou Gehrig

    NY Yankees First Baseman Lou Gehring was suffering from ALS, a degenerative disease, that prevented him continuing to play the sport he loved. He gave his famous speech to the fans from the infield at Yankee Stadium in New York.

    Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans … I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
    New York Yankees Lou Gehrig, 1939
    8. JOSEPH WELCH – Chief Counsel for the U.S. Army, speaking to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy Communist Infiltration Hearings, Washington DC.
    Lawyer Joseph Welch

    Junior Senator Joe McCarthy and his reckless Red Scare Conspiracy had run rampant across America, from Washington to Hollywood, labeling innocent people as Communists. That is, until he was finally challenged by Joe Welch.

    Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? … Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you.
    Joseph Welsh, Army-McCarty Hearings, 1954
    9. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER – Manhattan Project Director, 1965 Interview during a TV broadcast on the Atomic Bomb.
    Robert Oppenheimer

    By the 1950’s, the famous Robert Oppenheimer had come out opposing the deadlier hydrogen bomb. As a results he had been stripped of his security clearance, and was dying of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking cigarettes.

    We knew the world would not be the same. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
    J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965 TV broadcast on the Atomic Bomb
    10. MARGARET THATCHER – Member of Parliament, 1965, at a National Union of Townswomen’s Guild Conference, London.
    MP Margaret Thatcher

    Margaret Thatcher was a staunchly conservative and outspoken member of Britain’s Parliament since 1959. She was also blunt when it came her opinion of the role of women and men in British politics and society.

    Practical work gets done by women. They don’t waste time. If there’s a job to do, a project to organise, they get on with it. … In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything accomplished, ask a woman. … There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime – the male population is simply too prejudiced.
    MP Margaret Thatcher, 1965

    So there, you have it – 10 famous lines from 10 great speeches from history. They have perhaps been overshadowed over the years by the albeit many great speeches from the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy. Today’s public speakers have a high standard to meet in order to top any of them. Always remember that great speeches must be well written, impeccably delivered and well timed.

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    How did Francisco Pizarro and 168 Conquistadors Defeat the Incan Empire?

    Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro
    Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro

    How could the massive Inca Empire have been conquered by Francisco Pizarro and just 168 Spanish conquistadors?  Pizarro and his men were the first Europeans to make contact with the vast Inca Empire, high in the Andes Mountains. In less than a decade, the Spaniards defeated the entire Incan army, hundreds of thousands of warriors strong.

    The Inca Empire was the consolidation of former warring tribes of over 12 million, covering 700,000 square miles. The Empire had built over 15,000 miles of stone roads to connect its cities. Even before Columbus, the Incas possessed the largest empire in the Americas, surpassing even the Aztecs. Their land was also rich in gold and silver. Their empire included territory between the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon River, and stretched from today’s Ecuador down to northern Chile.

    Who was the man who accomplished this?  Francisco Pizarro was born in 1474 in Trujillo, Spain. His father and mother were poor farmers of low birth. Lured by tales of gold and adventure in the New World, a 28-year-old Pizarro joined 300 other settlers, to establish a colony in present day Colombia. Three months into their settlement, with food running low, only 100 managed to survive the natives and tropical diseases.

    There, Pizarro next joined forces with Vasco de Balboa as a captain on the 1513 expedition to found a new colony on the opposite side of Panama.  There they ‘discovered’ the Pacific Ocean and it became the first Spanish settlement on the South American west coast.  From 1519 to 1523, Pizarro served as mayor of the town of Panamá and slowly grew wealthy and powerful. But this was not enough for the ambitious Pizarro. He’d read Hernando Cortes’ account of the conquest of the Aztecs and was greedily inspired. Pizarro partnered with another fellow soldier, Diego de Almagro. From 1524 to 1528, they sailed numerous voyages of discovery and conquest down the west coast.

    In 1526, Pizarro arrived on the coast of Peru and heard stories of the Incan Empire, a great ruler, and his vast riches, high in the Andes mountains. They encountered an Incan trading ship full of silver and gold. He captured the ship and trained some of its crew to be interpreters.  He then sailed back to Spain to get royal permission to claim the land for the Spanish Empire. King Charles agreed and promised him governorship of any lands he conquered.

    Pizarro quickly returned to Columbia on his quest.

    In 1532, Pizarro was 54 years old, with now three decades of fighting experience in the Americas. He was accompanied by three half-brothers and two other conquistadors, Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Soto.  They landed on the Peruvian coast and began to march inland.  But even with a handful of experienced soldiers, how did this small company defeat the mighty Incan army?  Pizarro’s company consisted of only 168 men who were generally lower class, illiterate, and title-less.  Joining military campaigns in the New World offered one of the few ways to better one’s status by stripping the wealth from the natives.

    Through his interpreters, Pizarro learned that the Inca Empire had recently been embroiled in a long civil war, following the death of the former Incan ruler Huayna Capac. Atahualpa, his younger illegitimate son, had just defeated his older half-brother Huascar in a battle at the Incan capital of Cuzco.  This war had divided the people’s loyalties. Atahualpa was still in the middle of reuniting his weakened kingdom when Pizarro and his men arrived. The conquistador realized the new Incan ruler was vulnerable. On his way inland to the capital, Pizarro began secretly recruiting warriors still loyal to Huascar.

    Similar to Cortes’ earlier conquest of the Aztecs, Pizarro benefited from confusion on the part of the native people.  When the Spaniards first entered their empire, the Incans were not sure whether the armored Spanish conquistadors atop horses they had never before seen were gods or men

    Word reached the Emperor that they were in fact evil men who enslaved people and cherished gold.  Rather than attacking, Atahualpa agreed to meet with Pizarro’s half-brother and Hernando de Soto.  The two men vigorously denied the rumors and said that they were there simply to bring the word of their benevolent God to the Incan people.  They invited him to meet with Pizarro in person at the city of Cajamarca, at a great feast in honor of the new emperor. Atahualpa agreed.

     It would prove to be a deadly decision.

    On November 16, 1532, Francisco Pizarro daringly sprung his trap on the Incan emperor with only 168 men. Though the emperor had nearly 80,000 warriors in the surrounding mountains, Atahualpa attends the feast with only 6,000 unarmed men. The Spanish conquistadors arrived fully armed with their armor, artillery, horses and weapons hidden. 

    On reaching the square, Atahualpa remained high on his litter. The emperor was met first by Vicente de Valverde, a Catholic friar holding a crucifix and a bible. “I am a priest of God, and I teach Christians.  And in like manner, I come to teach you what God says to us in this holy book. “

    While Pizarro’s men lay in wait, Valverde urged Atahualpa to convert to Christianity and accept King Charles V as his sovereign. Atahualpa asked for the book, then carelessly tossed it to the ground.  “I know well how you have behaved, how you have treated my people, and robbed from my storehouses.”

    Upon seeing and hearing this, Pizarro, came out with only four men and approached the litter where Atahualpa sat.  He jumped up, seized the emperor’s arm, crying out a signal his hidden men, “Santiago!”

    A bugle was sounded, artillery guns fired off, and the 168 conquistadors, on horse and foot, rushed in.  The Spanish gunfire, artillery and cavalry stunned the Incans, allowing the outnumbered Spaniards to dominate the attack.  Trapped in tight quarters, the unarmed Incan soldiers made easy prey for the conquistadors. Some panicked and ran. The horsemen rode them down, killing them in pursuit. 

    Pizarro still held the Emperor by the arm, with his sword drawn.

    In a short-time, most Incans were shot or put to the sword.  All those surrounding the litter of Atahualpa were his chiefs. They were all killed as well. Pizarro’s men slaughtered over 6,000 Incans in just over an hour … with no Spaniard lost.  The end result was the capture of Atahualpa himself. Pizarro took Atahualpa to his headquarters, ordered his royal robes removed and replaced with native clothes.

    “Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, by  Christians so few in number. I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours for the dominion of the King of Spain.”

    Francisco Pizarro to Emperor Atahualpa

    Pizarro knew Atahualpa was more valuable alive than dead. He kept the emperor captive while he made plans to take over his empire.  Pizarro forced Atahualpa to order his military leaders to back down and not attack them. This was key for Pizarro, as he was heavily outnumbered.  They marched to the capital of Cuzco and used Atahualpa to control the Incan army and people. 

    In response, Atahualpa appealed to his captors’ greed.  He told Pizarro that in exchange for his freedom, he would give the Spaniards a great quantity of gold and silver, ‘enough to fill a room twenty-two feet long and seventeen wide, up to the height of a man.’  Pizarro agreed of course, without ever intending to release the emperor.  He told him to send off messengers with this order.

    The Spanish conquistadors oversaw the Incans gathering gold and silver from across the Empire.  They brought vases, jars, statues, and furniture made of gold and silver. Hundreds of thousands of pesos worth arrived, and undertaking that took two months to complete. The Spaniards began to melt it down to prepare it for shipment back to Spain. 

    Having received their ransom, Pizarro was now faced with what to do with Atahualpa. 

    Now that the emperor had played his part, Pizarro considered him disposable. A rebel chief informed Pizarro that Atahualpa had secretly sent orders to collect troops to march against and kill the Spaniards.  Pizzaro then spoke to Atahualpa, “What treason is this that you have prepared for me? For me who have treated you with honor, and have trusted in your words!”  Atahualpa reportedly answered with a laugh, saying: “What am I and all my people that we should trouble such valiant men as you are? Do not talk such nonsense to me.”

    Incan Emperor Atahualpa
    Incan Emperor Atahualpa

    Pizarro brought Atahualpa up on charges of insurrection and treason. The emperor was to be publicly burned at the stake—a fitting death for a “heathen.”   Friar Valverde offered the emperor clemency from the fire, if he would convert to Christianity.  Atahualpa submitted.  He was baptized by the Friar, then executed by strangulation at the stake the same day, August 29, 1533.  It is said he died without showing fear. The body was left there until the next day when the Spaniards conveyed it into a new church, where it was buried with honors.

    Pizarro replaced him with a puppet emperor from amongst the resistance, Manco Inca Yupanqui.   However, after three years, the young emperor escaped and gathered a guerrilla army against Spanish rule. A final Spanish-Inca War started with the siege of Cuzco in 1536. 

    The empire had been able to conquer neighboring lands. However, their weaponry proved to be less effective against the conquistadors. Incan warriors were armed with spears, arrows, and axes; and were skilled at hand-to-hand combat. This was not well-suited for fighting Spanish armor, swords and guns. Another disadvantage was the efficient Spaniard cavalry. Like the Aztecs, horses were completely foreign to the Incas, though Pizarro’s force included only 37.

    The Incan army had lost Atahualpa’s top 3 generals, in fighting following the emperor’s execution. The siege of Cuzco lasted a year, from 1536 to 1537. Manco Inca’s 200,000 troops began their assault, occupying most of the city, while 196 conquistadors and 500 native allies held out in the city center. The conquistadors then counterattacked. They battled brutally in the streets for days, the Spaniards using their guns and cavalry to push the rebels out.

    Manco Inca’s forces failed to oust the handful of Spanish conquistadors from their own capital city. The Incan army was forced to retreat into the mountains.  From there, Manco Inca would be hunted through the Andes until his ultimate death at the hands of the Spaniards in 1544.

    What became of Francisco Pizarro in the end? 

    Pizarro’s old partner Diego de Almagro became his rival for control of Cuzco in 1537. Almagro took control of Cuzco after one of Pizarro’s half-brothers was killed during the revolt. Pizarro was in Lima, now too old to fight, so he sent his other half-brother to Cuzco. They succeeded in defeating and capturing Almagro.  Pizarro had him beheaded for treason.

    In retaliation however, armed supporters of Almagro’s son, snuck into Lima and broke into Pizarro’s palace at night.  They assassinated the conquistador in his bed chamber on June 26, 1541, brutally stabbing him in the throat.  For the Spanish conquistador, who claimed only to be spreading Christianity to the heathens, it mirrored the old biblical adage, he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.

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    Anne Bonny, the Fierce, Forgotten, Female Pirate

    18th century depiction of pirate Anne Bonny
    18th century depiction of pirate Anne Bonny

    Anne Bonny is one of the most famous female pirates of all time.  She was known for her Irish red hair, fierce fighting skills and ruthlessness. Her exploits occurred during the notorious period known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” During her time as a pirate, Anne proved herself an equal to any man onboard.  She sailed, drank, swore and fought alongside her fellow male pirates. The mysterious circumstances of Anne Bonny’s ultimate fate, has only fueled modern stories of her adventurous life.

    Anne Bonny was a fiercely independent woman, centuries ahead of her time. The 18th century was still an age when men ruled the world and women had few rights, if any. Nevertheless, Anne Bonny became a respected crewmember and pirate.  She challenged the old sailors’ adage that a woman aboard ship was bad luck.  

    Much of what we know about her comes from the book A General History of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, who some historians believe is a pen name of Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.  It was released in 1724, only a few years after the end of the Anne’s pirate career.

    Anne Bonny was born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland around 1697.

    She was the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William McCormac and a female servant, Mary Brennan. To avoid scandal, he had the maid dress Anne as a boy, called her ‘Andy’ and explained the child was a relative entrusted to his care. When the baby’s gender was discovered, McCormac’s wife made his adultery public.  After losing his reputation and marriage, McCormac, Mary and baby Anne left Ireland and sailed to America to start again. They settled in Charles Town, South Carolina where William shortened his name to Cormac.  He began his legal career again and later bought a plantation.

    Mary died in 1711, when Anne was only 13.  Young Anne was then forced to take care of her father’s household. She despised Georgian standards, in which women were expected to live at home and tend to their husbands and children. She began exhibiting a “fierce and courageous temper.” In her teens, she proved to be “difficult,” often getting into fights.  She’s said to have stabbed a disrespectful servant girl with a table knife.

    Her father, now a successful planter and merchant, disapproved of his daughter’s rebellious ways, claiming the endless rumors were damaging his business. Young Anne was attractive, with her Irish red hair, and considered a “good catch.”  She reportedly beat half-to-death a young suitor who tried to rape her, sending him to his bed for several weeks. Nevertheless, Anne was still a highly eligible wife and her father betrothed her to a local businessman.  Anne, of course, resisted.

    In 1714, at 16, she instead fell in love with and married a poor sailor named James Bonny. 

    Bonny also happened to be a small-time pirate, which appealed to Anne’s rebellious spirit. Legend has it, he hoped to come into possession of her father’s estate after his death.  But that never happened, as Cormac disowned Anne and kicked her out for not marrying the husband HE chose. There is no proof, but some stories mention that her father’s plantation house mysteriously caught on fire shortly thereafter ….

    Anne and James Bonny set off for New Providence (Nassau) in the Bahamas, a sanctuary for pirates, called the “Republic of Pirates.”  They had a hard time making a living, so James became a pirate informant for Governor Woodes Rogers, collecting bounties. Governor Rogers, a former pirate himself, composed a “Most Wanted” list, including pirates like Blackbeard.  Anne disagreed with her husband’s line of work.  She’d made pirate friends on the island and began to idolize their lifestyle.  She spent much of her time drinking at local saloons, carousing with pirate men. 

    This fueled arguments amongst the married couple. Anne only increased her visits to the taverns, taking in the stories of pirate life. Unhappy in her marriage, Anne grew enamored with handsome John “Calico Jack” Rackam, a nickname he earned due to his brash clothing.  Rackham felt the same way about Anne and offered to pay her husband for a divorce (a common practice), but James Bonny refused.  So in 1718, Anne left her husband and ran away to join Rackam’s pirate crew.

    Calico Jack was a small-time pirate who raided merchant vessels around Jamaica and the Bahamas in his sloop, the Revenge. He wasn’t particularly successful, but he knew how to spend money with style.  Aboard ship, everybody knew that Anne was “the captain’s woman.” Rackham’s decision to have Bonny as a crew member was unusual, as women were considered bad luck aboard ships. Female pirates were an anomaly and perceived liability. Anne refused to be deterred. Upon joining Rackam’s crew, she’s said to have silenced a rival shipmate by stabbing him in the chest!

    Bonny never concealed her gender from her shipmates, except when pillaging another ship. 

    Then she disguised herself as a man and participated equally in armed conflict.  She would wear a man’s loose tunic and wide, short trousers, a sword hitched by her side, a brace of pistols tucked in a sash about her waist; a small cap perched atop a kerchief hiding her dark red hair – quite the romantic figure. Between those sporadic bouts of marauding, pirate life was all about sailing and maintaining a ship at sea.  Our modern romantic picture of pirating come more from Pirates of the Caribbean movies than from historical reality.

    Anne eventually became pregnant and when Rackam found out, he dropped her off in Cuba to deliver the baby. There are several theories about what happened to Anne’s first child. Some think she abandoned the boy as it did not suit her pirate lifestyle.  Others believe that Calico Jack had family in Cuba, who agreed to raise their child. Others think her baby died at child birth.

    Craving the pirate life at sea she, she divorced Bonny and married Rackham to continue their life as a married couple.  After a few months, she returned to Rackam’s ship, but now one Mary Read was also on board. According to Johnson’s book, the Revenge had taken an English ship, and Mary Read was among those brought on board, disguised as a boy.

    Our Anne, tried to seduce the handsome new recruit. Mary, perhaps trusting another woman aboard ship, confided in that Anne that she too was a woman.  Impressed by her courage, Anne promised to keep Mary’s secret and the women became close friends, confidantes and, depending on your source, even lovers!

    They had much in common; Mary was also an illegitimate child who excelled at living in a man’s world. At age 13, dressed as a boy, she served as a “powder monkey” on a British man-of-war, carrying bags of gunpowder. She fell in love with her bunkmate and divulged her secret to him.  They informed their captain she was a woman and she quit sailing.  She married the young sailor, who unfortunately died shortly thereafter.

    Mary Read resumed her life as a man and sailed the West Indies on an English ship.

    Her shipmates never suspected Mary’s true gender.  Like Anne, she was aggressive and ruthless, always ready for a raid, and swore like a classic drunken sailor. Loose clothing hid her breasts, and no one thought twice about her lack of facial hair.  Her shipmates, most of them in their teens and early twenties, were also smooth-faced.

    Initially, Calico Jack was jealous of Anne’s relationship with “Mark,” and one day burst into Anne’s cabin, intending to slit his/her throat. To save her life, Mary stood up and ripped opened her shirt, exposing her breasts.  With one woman already aboard, a shocked Rackam agreed to keep Mary’s secret from the crew and, like Anne, treat her as an equal. During battles, Anne and Mary now fought side by side, wearing men’s attire, wielding a sharpened machete and loaded pistol in either hand.

    1720 proved especially lucrative for the Revenge. They took seven fishing sloops near Harbor Island. Anne and Mary had led a raid against a schooner, shooting at the crew and cursing loudly as they gathered their plunder of tobacco and tea. Calico Jack started to build a reputation and the English government took notice. The accounts of Anne’s exploits as a Caribbean pirate also became known. Bonny’s name got so notorious that Governor Rogers added her to his “Wanted Pirates” circular, widely published in newspapers.

    In October, they were anchored in Dry Harbor Bay, Jamaica after a successful raid. Anne and Mary noticed a mysterious sloop gliding up alongside them early one morning. They realized it was one of the governor’s vessels, and called their crewmates to arms. Captain Barnet, an ex-pirate, now a pirate hunter and commander in the British Navy, was under a commission from the Governor of Jamaica to attack Rackam’s ship and arrest the crew.

    A men few rushed to the deck, but many were passed out drunk from the previous night’s debauchery. They’d been celebrating all night after capturing a Spanish merchant ship. Captain Barnett ordered the pirates to surrender, but Calico Jack instead fired a deck gun at them. Barnett ordered an attack, and the barrage disabled Rackam’s ship.  The few crew on the Revenge’s deck to ran into the hold for cover.

    But not fearless Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

    Pirate Anne Bonny repelling invaders aboard the Revenge.
    Pirate Anne Bonny repelling invaders aboard the Revenge.

    They remained on deck, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses at the boarders.  Mary was so disgusted by her drunken crew she stopped fighting long enough to peer down into the hold and shout at them.  “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” When not a man came up, she fired into the hold, killing one of them.  Anne, Mary and Calico Jack were quickly overpowered and outnumbered.  Rackam surrendered the Revenge and were all taken prisoner.

    Every member of Rackham’s crew, including the two women were chained and transported to to Port Royale in Jamaica to stand trial. The island was shocked when the real identities of Anne Bonny and Mary Read were revealed. The crew’s trial was a huge sensation when the background of the two famous female prisoners was revealed.

    Calico Jack and the male crew members were all found guilty of the crime of piracy. The sentence by Governor Lawes was death by hanging.  Calico Jack was to be executed in early November.  His final request was to see his beloved Anne. But rather than consoling him, she stared at him through the bars with disgust  “Had your crew fought like men, you need not be hanged like a dog.” The body of the hanged Rackham was placed near the entrance of the Port Royale’s harbor as a warning to all.

    Ten days later, Anne and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court.  Both of them pleaded not guilty to all charges, nevertheless both were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged as well. Here is where their tale takes an interesting turn. Read and Bonny then both revealed they were “quick with child” and “pleaded their bellies,” asking for mercy because they were pregnant!  In accordance with English law, both women received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth.

    Mary Read died in prison from fever following childbirth in 1721.  But the fate of Anne Bonny is unknown.  The exact fate surrounding her imprisonment and execution have never been verified by any remaining accounts. There is no historical evidence of Bonny’s release or execution, so her last days remain a tantalizing mystery.

    Anne literally disappeared from history.

    Stories vary on the rest of her life. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Anne Bonny’s father paid the governor for his daughter’s release and brought her back to Charles Town. There in 1721, she gave birth to Rackham’s second child.  She supposedly remarried and lived a conventional life in South Carolina as a simple wife and mother, and had SIX more children. In this version, she lived a long life and died at the age of 80.

    This seems far too boring a choice for the adventurous Anne we know.  Another story says her father married her off to a Jamaican official, where she changed her name to Annabele and lived out her days quietly, dying at a ripe old age. Still another says she lived out her life on the English coast, where she purchased a tavern and regaled the locals with tales of her exploits in the Caribbean.  Some believe she took on a new identity and continued her pirating ways on the open sea.

    Whatever Anne’s Bonny end, stories of her wild life made her one of the most popular female pirates of all time. Her fame only rose as she appeared in many works of fiction. Artists portrayed her as a fierce pirate, standing on deck with pistols drawn, dressed in battle-torn man’s clothes. She was the inspiration of many stories of woman pirates in novels, plays, songs, movies, and even video games. Her rare, adventurous life was highly unusual in a time when very few women managed to escape the shackles of male-dominated society and simply live their lives as they wished.

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    Podcast: 10 Forgotten Facts about the Women’s Suffrage Movement

    August 2020 marked 100 years since women in the U.S. were finally given the right to vote.  Though the Declaration of Independence in 1776 declared that all ‘men’ are created equal, the U.S. Constitution did not grant such equality to women.  For the next 144 years, U.S. women were denied the right to vote, up until the start of the Roaring Twenties in 1920.   So America had the automobile, the telephone, even the airplane, all before women had the equal right to vote, same as men.

    Suffragettes protesting for the right to vote
    To read a blog post of this podcast CLICK HERE
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    The Worst US and UK Coal Mining Disasters in History

    Two of the worst coal mining disasters in history, one in US and one in the UK, took place only six years apart – in West Virginia in 1907 and Wales in 1913.  Let’s take a closer look at them both.

    December 6, 1907 – Fairmont Coal Company, Monongah, West Virginia – 361 Dead

      Fairmont Mine Disaster, Monongah, WV, 1907
      Fairmont Mine Disaster, Monongah, WV, 1907

      On the 6th of December 1907, a massive explosion ripped through the Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and 8 mines in Monongah, West Virginia. The powerful blast shook the earth above and was heard miles away.  It killed at least 361 men and boys, making it the worst mine disaster in U.S. history. Most of the men at the Fairmont Mine were recent immigrants from Italy, Hungary, and Russia living in the small village. The actual cause of the disaster is disputed to this day.

      Hundreds of men and boys entered the No. 6 and 8 Mines of the Fairmont Coal Company on the morning of Friday, December 6th, 1907.  Coal mining was, and still is, a dangerous profession and there were no child labor laws back then. American miners died regularly to produce enough coal to feed the booming steel and railroad industries of the U.S.  Ironically, the Monongah Fairmont Mine was thought to be one of the safest in the country.

      Then, at 10:20 AM, a huge explosion occurred in the No. 8 Mine.  The blast continued its destructive path to the connected No. 6 Mine.  It was so great, the concrete roof of the engine house was torn to chunks.  One piece was blown more than 500 yards away.  The shock wave was felt as far away as 8 miles and damage was not confined to the mines alone. The glass windows in Monongah were shattered. Streetcars were derailed. People and horses on the streets were thrown to the ground.

      Deep under the earth, those who didn’t die instantly in the blast were slowly asphyxiated by the spread of deadly gases, replacing the breathable air.  Directly after the explosion, only 4 miners stumbled from the smoke and ashes, dazed and covered in coal dust.  They were unable to tell anyone what had happened or if anyone below had survived. Ironically, Fairmont was considered to be a ‘modern’ mine, with technological advances for producing as coal as fast as possible.  At an inspection just two months earlier, officials had praised the operation.

      There were no mine rescue teams in those days. 

      People above ground began to frantically move wood and rocks from the entrance in an attempt to reach those trapped inside. Wrecked cars and heavy timbers blocked the tunnel, but more worrisome was the so called “blackdamp” (methane gas) inside the mines.  The first brave volunteer rescuers were quickly overcome with fumes and had to be rescued themselves. The village of Monongah was unprepared for the disaster.  Additional forces were hurried in from adjacent cities and towns.

      After 6 back-breaking hours, one miner was rescued at about 4 PM.  Volunteers had heard moaning around a crop hole. About 100 feet down, Peter Urban was found crying hysterically, sitting next to the body of his dead brother. A dozen doctors stayed closed to the mine openings all day, but their services were barely needed.  Urban would be the last living man recovered.  The Dec. 7th issue of the Fairmont Times shouted the headline: “All Hope is Gone.”  The newspaper estimated the death toll would be around 425. In a morgue established at the Monongah National Bank, only six dead bodies lay. 

      That first terrible day, frantic women clustered around the opening of the mines.  Their collective moans of agony could be heard into the town. One Italian woman, whose brother, husband, and son were among the dead, tore out her hair. Grief-stricken mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends waited and wept. Some prayed, some sung hymns, and some became hysterical.

      Miners from as far away as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio raced to Monongah.

      Rescue crews with just picks and shovels inched through acres of underground shafts and gangways, battling cave-ins and deadly gases. Many acts of bravery were performed by the volunteers who entered the mines in search of survivors.  As ventilation was restored, the mutilated bodies of men and boys—some as young as eight—were pulled from the wreckage. Some had died without moving a muscle.

      Fairmont Mine officials, as well as those of the B & O Railroad, took an active part in the relief effort. The appeal for funds to carry on the relief work for the families met with a quick response. Mass meetings were held in a number of towns throughout WV at which contributions were made to a relief fund for the families. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie himself made a liberal donation to the comfort and care of the survivors.

      As the week progressed, the makeshift morgue overflowed, and bodies lined the street outside. Men dug graves in the hillsides and families struggled to identify their loved ones.  Three days later, the death toll reached 175. Within a week, 337 bodies had been recovered. Hopeful families still kept vigil at the entrance, but rescuers knew the chance of finding any more alive was slim.

      During the clean-up of the mine in the weeks to come, 25 more bodies were found. That left the official death toll at 362 men and boys. But everyone knew that number was much greater.  The actual number of deaths was likely much higher because the mine’s identification ledgers were also destroyed in the explosion.

      There was a great deal of speculation about what caused the disaster. 

      The Fairmont Mine was considered the best equipped in the state. A state mine inspector two months before the disaster had expressed himself as “being well pleased with its condition.” He said there were no traces of gas or dust. So to investigators, there was no grounds, as far as the inspector’s report was concerned, for the explosion being caused by methane gas or coal dust.

      Inspectors wrote that the lack of living miners to provide any information as to the conditions at the time of the explosion, plus the sheer devastation below made determining the cause next to impossible.  In January 1908, Chief Mine Inspector James Paul reported that the explosion was caused by “either a blown out shot, or by the igniting of coal powder.” As to what caused the initial explosion, the evidence and opinions were conflicting.  

      On January 16, the verdict of the coroner’s jury upheld the opinion of Chief Mine Inspector Paul.  They further stated that in the operating of the mine, the company had complied with the laws of the state of West Virginia.  With over 60,000 persons employed in the state’s mines, they recommend that only 6 additional mine inspectors be appointed.

      In the following weeks, 3 other major mine disasters occurred, prompting the month to be called ‘‘Black December.’’ In all, 3,241 American miners were killed that year, the most in a single year in US history. Yet in spite of that number, large corporate mines, including Monongah, continued to ignore safety precautions, like banning open candles, watering walls to prevent dust, and conducting methane gas detection.

      The public could agree on one thing – something had to be done to improve coal mine safety.

      Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial
      Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial

      As a result of the national outcry, Congress was forced to initiate reforms. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt asked for formation of a federal agency to oversea mines. Two years later, the Bureau of Mines was formed. It would be responsible for looking into mining disasters and inspecting mines to make sure they were safe for miners.

      Today, there are two historical markers in Monongah, WV — one for the miners killed and one dedicated to the mothers, wives and children left behind.  There is also one in San Giovanni del Fiore, Italy, where a large number of the miners came from. In 2009, Congress designated December 6th, the day of the Monongah disaster, as “National Miners Day.”

      October 14, 1913 – Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, Wales – 439 Dead

      Universal Colliery Mine Disaster, Senghenydd, Wales, 1913
      Universal Colliery Mine Disaster, Senghenydd, Wales, 1913

      At 8 AM on Tuesday the 14th of October 1913, a methane explosion ripped through Universal Colliery in Senghenydd near Caerphilly, in southern Wales. The explosion was the worst in the history of British mining. 439 men and boys were either killed in the explosion or suffocated from the effects of carbon monoxide left after the blast.  The death toll could have been far worse as 950 miners had been down Universal’s three shafts at the time of the explosion.  

      The Universal Colliery was at the head of the Aber Valley, Glamorganshire, 12 miles from Cardiff. It was owned by Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Limited.  For the last 12 years, Edward Shaw had been the manager of the colliery. The Universal Steam Coal Company had dug its first shaft at Senghenydd in 1891. In the years leading up to World War I, there was an unprecedented demand for Welsh coal, most of it being used on Royal Navy battleships. The privately-owned Universal Company prospered handsomely.

      The village of Senghennydd grew up around the Universal Coal Company. As the demand for coal increased, deep mines became much more profitable to work, despite the difficulties of mining under these dangerous conditions.  Miners worked in confined spaces, with frequent flooding, flammable gas and the ever present coal dust. Senghennydd was very familiar with all these dangers. In 1901, there was a severe explosion in the very same mine when 82 were killed. But 12 years later, there would be another disaster in the same place, the most severe in UK history.

      Universal Colliery coal mine was the largest employer in the area. Following the explosion of 1901, recommendations were made regarding deep mine safety, and the dangers of the Universal mine were well known.  But production continued to increase with little change, as did the number of workers working underground under dangerous conditions.

      At 8 AM on Tuesday morning, October 14th, a huge explosion rocked the town of Senghenydd.   

      On that particular day, nearly 950 men were working below ground. Half would be killed or injured by the violent explosion and release of poisonous gas before they even knew what had happened.  Before the hour was out, it was clear to everyone above ground, miners and their families alike, that this disaster was to be a tragedy of major proportions.

      The explosion was most likely ignited by an spark from electric signaling gear igniting methane gas, “firedamp” as it was called back then. Then the methane explosion caused coal dust lying thick on the floor of the mine to rise up.  This then caught fire and exploded outward in a second gigantic roar. The shock wave caused even more coal dust to rise and ignite. In effect, what happened was a series of cascading explosions.

      The blast was so violent, that it blew a 2 ton cage back up the mine shaft, destroying the winding gear at the pithead. A miner standing close by was decapitated by a piece of flying debris.  The fires spread through the underground gangways, quickly followed by “afterdamp” – gasses formed by the explosion, mainly carbon monoxide.  This meant those miners who’d escaped the explosion gradually suffocated due to lack of oxygen.

      Rescue teams from Cardiff rushed to the scene, but attempts at getting survivors out was hampered by fallen debris, roof collapses and raging fires. Stories of heroism and tragedy were everywhere. They managed to find some men and boys still alive in the wreckage.  By the early hours of Wednesday morning, only 18 had been rescued alive. The anxious Senghenydd families greeted each rescue with shouts of joy and the belief that their own loved ones would soon be next.

      But the hopefulness of the rescue was tinged with anger, as many felt the mine’s owners and manager had failed to heed the warnings of the disaster 9 years earlier. For those who grew up in the village, it was a feeling which never went away. Everyone in Senghenydd was touched by the tragedy as the total number of dead constituted about one in eight of the population. The emotional wounds took long to heal because of the sense it was an avoidable disaster.

      Work continued until all survivors or bodies were recovered from the mine.

      As the days wore on, survivors grew fewer and the carrying of bodies became the norm. The rescue attempt lasted three weeks, although by then, everyone knew the chances of finding anyone alive had long since passed. Some of the bodies had been so badly mutilated that they could only be identified by the clothing they wore. One man was recognized by new boots he’d worn for the first time that day; a young boy by the patch his mother had sewn onto his jacket.

      The official report on the disaster does not even list the victims by name, but rather gives only a number, job, and the cause of death. 421 bodies were identified and eight were not. The number included seven who were brought from the mine alive and later died in the hospital. Eleven bodies were left in the mine, buried under falls too massive to clear, which brought the total death toll to 439.

      Because of the scale of the tragedy, there was much interest across Britain in what had happened. Photographer W. Benton reached the area shortly after the disaster in order to record the event, later publishing a series of 25 postcards. The black & white images were similar to what we would expect on television or the internet today.

      The manager and owners were prosecuted, but the result was a disappointment for the mourning families.  Despite the resulting enquiry, which found numerous errors that faulted the owners and manager; when compensation and fines were levied they came to a mocking £24 on mine manager, Edward Shaw.  As one newspaper commented, it meant that a miner’s life was worth little more than six pence. 

      All charges were dropped against the mine owners.

      Senghenydd Mine Disaster Memorial
      Senghenydd Mine Disaster Memorial

      The Universal Colliery was back in use by the end of November.  The outbreak of World War I, just a year later, sadly obscured the memory of Senghenydd in British minds. Outside of Wales, few Brits recall it, and only vaguely know it had something to do with coal mining.  Very few people appreciate how serious it was, the sheer scale of the devastation, and the raw emotions of the people involved.

      The Universal Colliery mine lasted another decade.  Miners were given just one day’s notice before its closure in 1928. The Senghenydd shaft was finally filled in, in 1979. No memorial for the victims was unveiled until 68 years later in 1981.  Nant y Parc Primary School, which now stands on the site of the former mine, is where the memorial sits.


      The real tragedy of both Monongah and Senghenydd does not lie in just the 1907 and 1913 disasters. The history of the US and UK corporate industrial past is littered with greed, exploitation, tragedy, loss and grief.   But no other mine disasters in the US and UK are worse than Monongah and Senghenydd, the 2 days when similar avoidable tragedies, struck similar unfortunate villages, in the span of just six short years. 

      Today, we see the harmful, climate-changing effects on our planet of burning coal since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  After two centuries however, with the dawn of other sources of energy, the end is perhaps finally in sight for the global coal mining industry.  One can only hope.

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      SKYLAB – America’s Forgotten First Space Station

      The modules of America’s Skylab Space Station – 1973

      The International Space Station has been in operation since 2000. But America’s very first space station was in fact SKYLAB.  It helped pave the way for permanent operations in low-Earth orbit over 50 years ago.  Skylab spent six years in orbit from 1973 to 1979, with three successive three-man crews on board for a record setting 28, 56 and 84 days in orbit.  The 169,950-pound space station included both an orbital workshop and a solar observatory. 

      Each crew, consisting of a commander, pilot, and scientist, was transported to the station using Apollo-era Saturn IB rockets. Astronauts conducted 270 experiments in biomedical sciences, solar astronomy, earth observations and materials processing. Most importantly, for the first time, astronauts tested their physiological responses to long-term space flight. 

      Skylab’s life came to a dramatic and tragic end.  Its decaying orbit, due to atmospheric drag, caused it to prematurely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It broke up and scattered large chunks of debris over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia in 1979.  What happened in between however, paved the way for the Space Shuttles and ISS.  Without Skylab, neither would have been possible.

      The Skylab project began as part of the Apollo Program in 1968 to develop human space missions using technology originally developed to land astronauts on the moon. Experience gained from Apollo provided a foundation, but Skylab demanded both innovation and ingenuity.  NASA had considered ideas for an orbiting space station long before Skylab launched.

      In the 1960s however, the agency focused on President Kennedy’s moonshot space race with the Soviet Union. 

      As Apollo missions began to wind down in the early 1970s, the famous rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, proposed building a space station out of an unused second stage rocket. As it turned out, the hydrogen tank of the Saturn S-IVB stage offered ample room for setting up an orbital workshop. When it became apparent that several Saturn V rockets would remain unused after the Apollo 17 mission, NASA decided to use one of them to launch Skylab into orbit.

      Skylab consisted of 4 major components: the Orbital Workshop (OWS), Airlock Module (AM), Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) and Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). The AM allowed astronauts to conduct spacewalks and provided an airlock between the MDA and OWS.  The MDA included two docking ports for Apollo spacecraft, which acted as taxis for the astronauts.  The ATM contained telescopes for solar observations and four solar arrays for power.

      The Orbital Workshop was the heart of the station and served as the main working, living and sleeping crew quarters.  It contained exercise equipment, galley, zero G shower, sleeping bags and scientific experiment. Two large solar arrays would provide 12.4 kilowatts of power.  Altogether, the OWS contained equipment, provisions and quarters to support three-person crews for up to 90 days each.

      Skylab was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on 14 May 1973.

      Shortly after liftoff, a large micrometeoroid shield on the station, designed to both protect the workshop and act as a thermal blanket, began to loosen in the vibrations of launch. Within seconds, aerodynamic forces stripped the shield completely away. As the shield tore off, one of two main solar arrays partially began to deploy too early. When retro rockets fired to separate the 2nd stage booster from the station, exhaust from the rockets impacted the partially deployed solar array and ripped it off completely!

      Once in orbit, more problems were soon detected by a stunned mission control.  The opposite solar array, while still attached to the station, had been tangled in debris and failed to deploy.  The missing micrometeoroid shield exposed the station to higher levels of solar radiation. Temperatures inside the station rose to an unlivable 126 F (52 C).

      Fortunately, the four solar arrays on the solar telescope deployed as planned, but they generated only 25 watts of power. This at least allowed controllers to operate the station from the ground, until repairs could be made by astronauts. If they oriented the station panels toward the sun to maximize power, temperatures rose too high inside.  A rotation that minimized heat build-up significantly reduced power generation. 

      The first Skylab crew, scheduled to lift off the next day, was delayed while tools and techniques quickly had to be developed to repair the crippled station.  The launch of the first crew was delayed 10 days as astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin began training for their revised mission to make the station habitable. The astronauts practiced using special tools to unjam the remaining solar array to allow it to provide electrical power.

      On 25 May 1973, the first Skylab crew lifted off from Kennedy Space Center.

      They carried with them new solar shades and a variety of cutters and tools designed to free the remaining jammed solar array. With an internal temp. well over 100 degrees F, astronauts could spend only short periods of time inside the station.  On their second day, the crew was able to spacewalk and deploy a solar shade, known as the ‘Parasol’. The 22×24 ft sheet, composed of mylar and aluminum, reflected enough solar energy to lower the internal temp. to tolerable levels.

      The crew’s next challenge was to deploy the last solar array during a second spacewalk. However, initial attempts failed as a metal strip holding it down refused to give way. Team members vented their frustration with four-letter words, realizing the tools sent up with them would not work.  A second attempt a week later, successfully released the solar panel. Astronauts were able to cut the metal jamming the solar wing. Using a rope sling, they forced the array to fully deploy, finally providing electrical power.

      While the incident was frustrating for the crew and team, it demonstrated that it was possible to fix badly damaged space hardware while in orbit.  These lessons-learned were later adapted by the Shuttle for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit.  With the station back on track, the crew was able to focus on their mission – materials processing in microgravity, Earth observations, solar astronomy, and most importantly, proving humans could live and work in space for extended periods. 

      Despite the added workload required to repair the station, the first crew was able to complete nearly all planned scientific objectives before returning to Earth after 28 days.  Following splashdown, NASA had high praise for the crew and the entire team: “For the first time, a crew of astronauts has returned from an extended tour in a space laboratory.”

      Skylab in low Earth orbit in 1974

      Skylab’s 2nd mission launched in July 1973, with Alan Bean, Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma aboard.  With problems behind them, the crew focused on experiments ranging from the crew’s exercise time to nutritional requirements to daily hygiene schedules.  Everything came under scrutiny.   The crews also focused on science. The solar telescope allowed the astronauts to observe solar flares in action, and even Comet Kohoutek as it swung close to Earth. This second crew returned to Earth in September 1973 following 59 days in orbit.

      The third and final Skylab mission, with astronauts Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson and William Pogue was launched in November 1973 and extended to 80 days.  Skylab’s second crew had exceeded their performance expectations, prompting NASA to assign the third crew with even longer, laborious tasks.  Things weren’t always that smooth between mission control and the astronauts. Skylab’s third team complained about being overloaded with too many tasks and seemingly superhuman expectations.  

      Skylab’s last crew left in February 1974, leaving the station in orbit unmanned.

      NASA planned to bring more crews into orbit, but budgetary shortfalls and the Shuttle program turned attention elsewhere. An effort to send an early shuttle mission there also fell through. Skylab was parked in an orbit expected to last at least 8 years. It was planned to use the 2nd shuttle mission to add a propulsion module to Skylab, but that did not happen either.

      Due to intense solar activity heating up the Earth’s atmosphere, causing drag on the station, Skylab’s orbit decayed faster than expected. NASA was faced with its inevitable fall to Earth.  They adjusted the station as best as they could to splash down in an ocean, so it wouldn’t hit populated areas upon reentry.  On 11 July 1979, Skylab re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Large pieces of debris broke off the station.  It fell over the Indian ocean and parts of populated western Australia. Thankfully nobody was hurt.

      America was not alone in earth orbit.  When the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon, they instead focused on their own space station program.  There were no less than six Salyut, single-module space stations in successively in orbit from 1971 to 1986.  This was followed by the very successful Russian Mir modular space station in orbit for 15 years from 1986 to 2001 with crews of up to six cosmonauts.

      Skylab’s demise marked a temporary stop to NASA’s work on long-duration spaceflight.  Through the lens of the successful ISS, Skylab is not a well-remembered in the public eye. It was not until the 1990’s that the agency resumed long flights during the Shuttle-Mir program in partnership with Russia.  This laid the groundwork for the 16-nation International Space Station in 2000. In 2016, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikail Kornienko spent a year aboard the ISS.   

      Despite nearly catastrophic problems, Skylab proved highly successful and completed all of its major objectives, proving that humans could productively work for prolonged periods in orbit. As a result of Skylab, astronauts today can candidly air concerns about workload and distance from family life– without repercussions.  Because of Skylab, astronauts follow a strict exercise regimen of about two hours a day on a treadmill, exercise bike or weight lifting machine.  This sort of exercise reduces bone loss, muscle atrophy and other medical problems in spaceflight.

      Made possible by both its ground crew and nine astronauts, the importance of Skylab’s accomplishments for the future of human spaceflight are clearly evident.  “It contributed to an orderly transition from the Apollo era to the space shuttle fleet in 1986 and helped pave the way for long-duration missions in low-Earth orbit aboard the ISS.” – NASA

      Two flight-qualified Skylabs were actually built by NASA in the 1970s.  The second, Skylab B, was never used.  You can see it today, proudly on display at the Smithsonian’s cavernous National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington, DC.

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      The World War I Christmas Truce of 1914

      British and German troops together, Christmas Day, 1914
      British and German troops together, Christmas Day, 1914

      On Christmas Day 1914, in the cold, muddy trenches World War I’s Western Front, a truly miraculous event occurred. For a few brief hours, opposing soldiers, British, French, Germans and Austrians in the “No Man’s Land” of France and Belgium, declared their own cease fire.  They laid down their arms, climbed from the trenches, and shared their carols, food, and even games of football. The Christmas Truce remains one of the most hopeful moments of “The Great War,” or any war thereafter.

      In the 4 years of World War I, between 1914 and 1918, over 25 million were killed or wounded on both sides. Yet there was still a unexpected moment of joy and hope in the battlefield trenches during the first Christmas of WWI in 1914. Some two-thirds of troops, about 100,000 men on both sides, are believed to have spontaneously participated. But what actually happened to precipitate the famous Christmas Truce?

      By the winter of 1914, the terrible Western Front stretched thousands of miles across Belgium, Flanders, and France. Countless soldiers lived in misery in the trenches, while tens of thousands had already died. By December, the men were now very familiar with the harsh realities of the battlefield.  Any idealism they’d carried into war the summer before was long gone.  They were told by their commanders it would be over by Christmas, yet here they were – still cold, muddy and ready to kill the enemy at a moment’s notice.

      Then Christmas came

      Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas truce in 1914, but the idea was quickly rejected by commanders on both sides.  Then, on Christmas Eve, December 24th, several weeks of miserable soaking rain was replaced by a thick, hard frost, creating a light dusting of snow along the front. It made the men on both sides feel that something truly spiritual had taken place amongst the hell of war.  It was enough to motivate troops to simultaneously initiate a temporary truce on their own.

      The first signs that something unusual was happening occurred after dark on Christmas Eve. Around 8:30 pm, an Irish officer reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches with dozens of candles, are singing songs, and shouting ‘Happy Xmas’ to us. Compliments are being exchanged, but I am nevertheless cautious.”

      Most accounts say the truce began with that spontaneous singing of Christmas carols.  “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, one British private recalled.  He was sad to be spending Christmas Eve shivering in the muck, miles from home, fighting the Germans just a mere 100 feet away.  They crouched together in long trenches just 6 feet deep and 3 feet wide.  Each day was marked with constant fear, stale biscuits and soggy cigarettes.  It seemed the only chance of getting home was in an ambulance or a coffin.

      About 10 pm, other British troops noticed an odd sound.

      Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of raised voices.”  The Germans were singing Christmas carols! Another solder wrote; “First, the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours.  Until we started up O Come, All Ye Faithful, then the Germans joined in singing the same in Latin, Adeste Fideles. And I thought to myself, well, this is really most extraordinary ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols—the German Silent Night was met with a British, The First Noel

      The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by joviality and Christmas carols from both sides. Not a shot was fired.  The dawn arrived crisp, clear and cold.  What happened next would shock the world and forever make history. In the British sector, troops noticed the Germans had placed small Christmas trees along parapets of their trenches.  “All down our line there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldiers, English soldiers, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’”

      Then voices added:  ‘Come out, English soldier; come out to us.’ For some time, they were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down the line, they heard the men answering Christmas greetings from the enemy. One soldier wrote: “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we were at each other’s throats yesterday, and would be the next?

      You come half way and we’ll come half way,” the British soldiers replied.  

      A message was sent back saying, that ‘If you do not fire at us, we will not fire at you.’  Enemy soldiers began to climb apprehensively out of their trenches to meet unarmed in the pot-marked “No Man’s Land” that separated the two armies. Normally, the British and Germans fired bullets across the tangles of barbed wire, with only occasional cease fires to collect their dead. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness.

      Slowly, greater parties of men from both sides began to venture into the space that separated them, until literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands.  A Scots Guards wrote that he met a German private who offered him a drink of schnapps and a cigar.  The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and booze, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the chilly morning.

      Descriptions of the Christmas Truce appear in several letters of the time. “During the early part of the morning, the Germans started shouting, all in good English. ‘Have you a spare bottle?  We will meet you in the middle.’” In other trenches, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and even hats.

      It was a welcome break from the hell they’d been enduring for months.

      They came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet, it seemed like a dream.” Another British soldier recalled, “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!

      The Christmas Truce also allowed both sides to finally emerge and bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks, rotting in the cold mud of “No Man’s Land.” There were even numerous accounts describing men helping enemy soldiers collect and carry their dead away.

      And it wasn’t confined to any one battlefield. The same basic cease-fire sprung up spontaneously at other points. Pockets of French, German, Austrian and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front. Thousands spent Christmas day mingling with their enemies. The event has been seen as a true miracle, a rare moment of peace during a war that would ultimately claim over 15 million.

      Just how many soldiers participated is hard to say, but over 100,000 may have took part, along at least two-thirds of trench line that scarred Belgium and France.  There are several mentions of impromptu kick-abouts, and even a few organized matches. One British fighter described an icy pitch where: “A ball appeared from somewhere. We made up some goals and then it was just a general kick-about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.”

      The German soldiers also described a pick-up football game.

      “The English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet strange it was. Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends, if only for a time.” In another recollection, “Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us.  There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. Nothing like formal soccer.”

      World War I troops play a football match in 1914
      World War I troops play a football match in 1914

      Communication was difficult.  But football by then was played professionally in Britain and Germany for decades.  It was likely inevitable that freed from the claustrophobic trenches—they would take pleasure in a simple kick-about.   German Saxons played a game against Scottish troops. Eventually, this developed into a football match with helmets laid out as goals. A Scotsman wrote: “It was hard to play on the frozen ground, but we kept to the rules.  Despite the fact that we were all amateurs, we played with huge enthusiasm. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.” Another legendary match was played between the British and the Germans, refereed by a regimental priest—which the Germans claimed to have won, 3-2 as well.

      The military’s official history insists that no matches took place because “it would have been most unwise.” When the truce spontaneously broke out, the leaders on both sides were reportedly horrified and incensed. Commanding Officers sent orders that all football games must stop. Top command issued subsequent orders that it should NEVER happen again and generals should explicitly prohibit any “friendly intercourse with the enemy.”

      In most places, up and down the front, it was accepted that the truce was purely temporary.

      Men reluctantly returned to their trenches at dusk, and for the most part, the peace was preserved until midnight. One Irish infantryman had become friends with a German artilleryman who spoke English, and said as they parted: “Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”

      What stands out are these memories the soldiers preserved in their own writings. “Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.” In 1914, this curious holiday reminded all those involved that wars were fought not by military forces but by human beings. Indeed, one British soldier, said: “I came to the conclusion that if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.

      And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Fighting erupted again the next day. The war was on again, and there would be no further Christmas Truces until the final armistice at 11PM on November 11, 1918. Many of the thousands who celebrated the Christmas Truce would not live to see that final peace. But for those who did survive, the truce was something they would never ever forget.

      A century later, the Christmas Truce remains a testament to the power of humanity in one of the darkest hours of our history. It’s been immortalized and fictionalized in numerous books, songs and movies. It speaks to the deep human desire for peace, no matter how fleeting it may be. To mark the centennial in 2014, Britain’s Prince William unveiled a memorial in Staffordshire – a large circular metal frame representing a soccer ball, with two bronze hands clasped tightly inside it. 

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      The SS Eastland Disaster topped both Titanic & Lusitania

      SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, 1915

      In July of 1915 on the Chicago River, the SS Eastland, carrying over 2,500 passengers and crew headed for a Western Electric company picnic, suddenly listed to port and rolled over into the muddy river.  844 souls perished, more than on the Titanic or Lusitania; yet the SS Eastland is lost in history to most.

      On the morning of Saturday, July 24, employees of Western Electric Co. were heading to an annual picnic on Lake Michigan. About 7,300 people arrived around 6 AM at the docks between LaSalle and Clark Streets to be ferried out to the picnic site by 5 steamers. While small bands played, 2,500 workers and their families boarded the first ship scheduled to leave, the Eastland. These were mainly Polish, Czech and Hungarian immigrants who came to America for a promised better life.

      Despite the cool, wet weather, 2,573 passengers and crew crowded aboard the Eastland and the atmosphere was festive! They were poor coworkers from Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero. The Great Lakes Excursion Steamer Eastland was chartered to carry workers and their families on a pleasant day-long outing from Chicago to a park 38 miles across Lake Michigan in Indiana.

      The passengers boarding the Eastland had chosen their best summer outfits to wear, for this was to be THE social event of the year for the poor workers.  Women wore long, brightly-colored dresses and their best hats.  Men wore their Sunday-best suits and pressed white with stiff white collars. It was a rare Saturday break from a 6 day work week assembling telephone equipment. It promised to be a gala day of food, parades and sporting events.

      The SS Eastland was the slickest, most glamorous ship at that time sailing on the Great Lakes. What a great part of your company picnic it would be to have the opportunity to sail on this magnificent excursion steamer.

      Employees had been advised to get their families to the docks early.

      By 7 AM, men, women and children were boarding the Eastland at the rate of almost 50 per minute. A loud mixture of English and Eastern European tongues filed the gangplanks, decks and gangways.  At 7:15, the crew prepared for the morning’s journey and hauled in its gangplanks, forcing late passengers to leap aboard from the wharf along the Chicago River.

      As a steady drizzle was falling, many of the women with young children in their arms or in tow, took shelter below decks in the drier air. A small band played Ragtime for dancing in the main hall and tea and coffee were being served.  On the upper decks, passengers crowded about to find empty wooden seats or space at the railings. It promised to be a splendid outing.

      The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and routinely ferried people from Chicago to points along Lake Michigan. Launched in 1902, it was designed to carry only 650 passengers, but a major retrofitting in 1913 allowed a whopping 2,500 people. The sleek, white steamship was called ‘The Greyhound of the Lakes,’ but also had another reputation as being unstable and top-heavy.

      The SS Eastland prior to the 1915 Chicago River capsizing

      The boat relied on poorly designed ballast tanks in the hold to keep it upright. Changes in maritime law after the Titanic sank in 1912 required ships to carry enough lifeboats and lifevests for all. This made the narrow Eastland even more top-heavy. It was in now compliance with the law, but that extra weight created a serious hazard. The boat had listed heavily and nearly capsized on at least two prior sailings.

      The SS Eastland had become an accident waiting to happen.

      As the Eastland continued to fill with passengers, between 7:10 and 7:15 AM, it began to list slightly to port, away from the wharf. The movement didn’t seem to alarm the picnic-goers, but it caught the attention of the crew, the harbormaster and observers on land. Some of the passengers had gathered on the port side to wave at the crowd gathered on the riverfront to see them off.

      The Captain of the Eastland was Harry Peterson, an experienced officer who’d sailed the Eastland many times. The Chief Engineer was responsible for the ballast system.  As the ship listed, Engineer Joseph Erikson opened two of the starboard ballast tanks to hold water and stabilize the ship. By the time the last passenger arrived, the boat had righted itself, but only briefly.

      At 7:23 AM, it again listed, even further to port this time. Dishes begin sliding off shelves in the pantry and crashing to the floor. Water began pouring through open portholes and gangways into the lower engine room. The crew there, realizing what was about to happen, began scrambling up ladders to the main deck.  Thousands of horrified onlookers witnessed the Eastland’s roll. Other Western Electric workers, waiting along the Chicago River shouted out:

      Look out! She’s tipping!

      At 7:28 AM, the Eastland had listed to a precarious 45-degrees. The piano on the promenade deck rolled swiftly into the port wall, crushing two women.  A refrigerator icebox also slid to port, pinning a woman and her child beneath it. Panic ensued as passengers screamed and grabbed for any piece of the ship to hold onto.  Even more water flooded into port open portholes below deck.

      Suddenly, the 275 foot long, fully-loaded ship completed her death roll into the Chicago River, completely submerging her port side, as one reporter described it, “Like a dead elephant shot through the heart.” The Eastland carried 11 lifeboats, 37 rafts and enough vests for all 2,500+ passengers and crew, but they were all useless now. 

      When the boat started to topple, those passengers on the port side of the upper decks were unexpectedly hurled off, like rocks sliding down a hill.  In an instant, the surface of the river was covered with hundreds of struggling, crying, splashing passengers. The ship’s twin smoke stacks tilted with the ship and headed for the water.

      By 7:30 AM, the Eastland was lying completely on its port side in 20 feet of murky water, still tied to the dock. Shocked passengers on the right side could climb over the starboard railing and stumble across the exposed hull to safety, barely wet. They were the lucky ones. In the murky river, parents clutched their children and disappeared together beneath the brown water. Infants and babies separated from parents, floated about like corks, then sank as well.

      Hundreds of passengers and crew were still trapping inside the floundering ship.

      Alarms rang out throughout the city.  More than 10,000 people were on the busy riverfront that day, including the other Western Electric workers waiting to board their ships. Horrified onlookers raced to the rescue, men jumping into the river to pull bobbing survivors to the wharf. Others threw ladders, boards, chicken crates, whatever they could grab to provide flotation for those struggling. Eye witnesses described the pitiful screaming as the most horrible aspect of all.

      Passengers were hauled out of the river, and others dragged through starboard portholes. Many were cut and bleeding. Nurses and doctors rushed to the scene.  The injured were taken to a nearby hospital, which quickly became overwhelmed. The less injured were bandaged and sent home. Because of a shortage of ambulances, American Express trucks were enlisted to help.

      Fire Department rescuers attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people trapped alive.  Police divers entered the river searching for survivors, but only pulled up body after body. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent floating corpses from washing out to the lake. “And the pitiful smallness of them!” one witnesses recounted:

      Children, and yet more children.

      A passengers fate was determined by where they were on the ship. Those clustered on the port side that rolled into the river, were doomed.  Those people inside found themselves in the new bottom of the ship, buried under hundreds of other people and furniture. River water flooded into portholes and doorways to claim them.  If you were on the starboard side, you were above water, but the way out was now up.

      As the casualties mounted, the nearby Second Regiment Armory on Sangamon Street was converted to a morgue. As news of the disaster spread, families of Western Electric workers rushed to the docks and a line of grieving relatives grew. Just before nightfall, the public was admitted, 20 at a time, to look for family members. Hundreds of bodies lay in long rows waiting for a relative to lift a sheet and identify a loved one. Many of those that perished did not drown, but actually suffocated to death, crushed beneath other people and debris. 

      By 8 AM, almost all of the survivors had been pulled from the river. The flooded Eastland settled to the bottom of the river, its starboard side still out of the water. Then came the gruesome task of locating and removing bodies. Seven priests arrived to administer Last Rites, but there there was little work for them. 844 had perished.  Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

      By Noon, divers finally reached bodies that had been trapped underwater in the portside cabins.  They seemed to be mainly women and children who’d come in from the rain. Stretcher-bearers traversed the hull as stiff bodies were carried out, sometimes two bodies stacked on a stretcher as they ran out.

      By Sunday, the next day, the magnitude of the disaster was most apparent in the Eastern European immigrant communities. House after house was draped in black crepe as weeping families sat inside mourning.   By Tuesday, all of the bodies lying in the armory morgue had been claimed.

      On Wednesday, July 28th, Chicago was a city of funerals.

      So many were scheduled that there were not enough coffins, hearses and gravediggers, working 12 hours a day. By day’s end, almost 700 Eastland victims had been buried. In the days to come, an estimated half a million people arrived to view the Eastland and the disaster scene. Boat owners charged 10 cents to ferry the curious past the floating wreck, lying like a beached whale in the river.

      The SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River in 1915.

      Affixing blame for the accident began quickly. Eastland Captain Harry Pedersen, chief engineer Joseph Erickson and other senior crewmembers were taken into custody on Saturday, in part to protect them from the angry relatives of the victims. Two trials resulted from the Eastland disaster.

      Charges were brought against the ship’s officers and owners for criminal negligence and manslaughter. Those charges were changed however by the presiding judge to conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship.  The verdict eventually handed down was that All Parties were found to be Not Guilty, as no conspiracy could be proven. Although evidence strongly suggested the crew had been negligent, no officers were prosecuted.

      Another poor outcome was the pay-out to the victims’ families. A second civil trial was to determine the extent of the liability of the ship’s owners and crew. This trial was not completed until 20 years later. The court determined that the chief engineer was to blame for not maintaining the ballast system. Erickson died as the proceedings dragged on and that made him a convenient fall guy.

      By Maritime Law, pay-outs to the victim’s families was limited to: the value of the Eastland wreck (around $50,000) minus what the ship’s owners had to pay for raising the Eastland from the river (about $35,000) minus the cost of the coal, and even the picnic concession company. All creditors had to be paid first. In the end, victims and families received little or nothing. Any money they received came from Western Electric and the Red Cross.

      As to why it happened, experts concluded it was a poorly designed, unstable ship, with a bad ballast system, mismanaged by the crew, that had been rendered top-heavy as a result of the post-Titanic safety measures to add lifeboats, then overloaded with 2,500 passengers. The disaster was a tragedy that was essentially waiting to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if it would capsize, but really a matter of when.

      The SS Eastland was pulled up from the river by it owners and repaired. Renamed the USS Willimette in 1920 it was converted into a naval reserve training vessel. Following World War II, in 1947 it was carved up and turned into scrap metal.

      Just 10 weeks before the Eastland disaster, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, with a death toll of 785 passengers. In 1912, 829 passengers had died when the Titanic struck an iceberg. 844 Eastland passengers died on a city river, just feet from the dock in 20 feet of water. Seventy percent of them were under the age of 25. Despite the immense loss of life, little attention has been given to this disaster historically, compared with those other more famous, albeit lesser, maritime disasters, or even the Great Chicago Fire.

      Why? you might ask. It’s really quite simple. There wasn’t anyone rich or famous onboard the SS Eastland, no popular stage actors, wealthy industrialists or famous socialites. It was all poor, hardworking, immigrant families that few cared about outside the working class streets of Chicago.  A full listing of all the victims names can be found at eastlanddisaster.org/people.

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      Podcast: 6 Theories on the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe

      Edgar Allen Poe was the Stephen King of his day.  A master poet and author of mystery and the macabre. To this day, his name alone evokes a chill down ones spine. Amongst his most popular works were Murders in the Rue Morgue and Masque of the Red Death. His life may have been cut short, but it was filled with brilliance, scandal, tragedy, and heartbreak. Perhaps fittingly, Poe’s death has also long been cloaked in mystery, with competing, twisted theories as to how and why in 1849, he vanished for a week, then passed away at only 40.

      To Read a Blog Post CLICK HERE.

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