Archive for the ‘Disasters’ Category

The Great Fire(s) of October 8, 1871

July 14th, 2017 3 comments

The night of Sunday, October 8, 1871 saw a huge, destructive fire rage through the city of Chicago, Illinois. The Great Chicago Fire started in the barn of one very unfortunate Mrs. Patrick O’Leary on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets. The fire raged to the northeast, eventually consuming some 2,000 acres and 17,000 buildings of Chicago, killing 300 people and leaving 100,000 people – a third of the city’s population – homeless. [1]
That fire is not the subject of this article, for it was only the second-worst (perhaps even third-worst) fire of that terrible evening in loss of life.

Who’s Heard of Peshtigo, WI?
The greatest fire in terms of loss of life happened that same night in Peshtigo, Wisconsin and surrounding areas. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 resulted in the deaths of between 1,200 and 2,500 people (800 in Peshtigo alone), and is the deadliest fire in U.S. History. [2] Because the fire was mainly rural, it is called a forest fire in many sources. Fires had actually been burning in the Peshtigo area for weeks, but due to extremely hot and windy conditions Sunday night, these merged and grew into a firestorm which engulfed Peshtigo on October 8. The Peshtigo fire scorched about 1.2 million acres of land, and actually jumped Green Bay to burn parts of Door and Kewaunee counties on the Door Peninsula.
The poor people of Peshtigo and neighboring towns did not know the danger they were in until a wall of fire raced towards the town. We get a glimpse of the horror of that night in this newspaper article from October 11th:

From the survivors, we glean the following in reference to the scene at the village and in the farming region commonly known as the “Sugar Bush.” Sunday evening, after church, for about half an hour a death like stillness hung over the doomed town. The smoke from the fires in the region around, was so thick as to be stifling and hung like a funeral pall over everything and all was enveloped in Egyptian darkness. Soon, light puffs of air were felt, the horizon at the south east, south and south west began to be faintly illuminated, a perceptible trembling of the earth was felt, and a distant roar broke the awful silence. People began to fear that some awful calamity was impending, but as yet, no one even dreamed of the danger.
The illumination soon became intensified into a fierce lurid glare, the roar deepened into a howl, as if all the demons from the infernal pit had been let loose, when the advance gusts of wind from the main body of the tornado struck.
Chimneys were blown down, houses were unroofed, the roof of the Wooden Ware Factory was lifted, a large ware house filled with tubs, pails, [kanakans?], keelers and fish kits was nearly demolished, and amid the confusion terror and terrible apprehension of the moment, the firey element in tremendous unrolling billows and masses of sheeted flame, enveloped the [doomed?] village. The frenzy of despair seized on all hearts, strong men bowed like reeds before the firey blast, women and children, like frightened spectres flitting through the awful gloom, were swept like Autumn leaves. Crowds pushed for the bridge, but the bridge, like all else, was receiving its baptism of fire. Hundreds crowded into the river, cattle plunged in with them, and being huddled together in the general confusion of the moment, many who had taken to the water to avoid the flames were drowned. A great many were on the blazing bridge when it fell. The debris from the burning town was hurled over and on the heads of those who were in the water, killing many and maiming others so that they gave up to despair and sank to a watery grave.
In less than an hour from the time the tornado struck the town, the village of Peshtigo was annihilated! [3]

The firestorm that destroyed Peshtigo has been compared to the man-made firestorms of World War II which decimated Dresden and Tokyo. Like those cities, there was nowhere to hide from the advancing wall of flame:

People didn’t just die in Peshtigo. They spontaneously combusted and were cremated by heat that reached 2000 degrees. They succumbed instantly from breathing in poisoned, superheated air. They died of smoke inhalation, were run over by panicked livestock and drowned in the river where they sought refuge. Others were crushed in collapsing buildings, impaled by flying debris and pulverized by all kinds of things dropping out of the sky on top of them. Still others committed suicide rather than face death by fire. There is one known case where a father killed his three daughters and then himself to avoid that fate. [4]

The same hot and windy conditions that fanned the flames of the Chicago and Peshtigo fires also resulted in The Great Michigan Fire, which burned several towns in the thumb of Michigan and may itself have resulted in over 500 deaths, placing Chicago third on the list of fatal fires that night. [5]

1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicting a shocked Mrs. O’Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking. [6]

Vox’s Take: You should know that a newspaper reporter admitted to making up the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow starting the Chicago fire. Even though the story was debunked almost immediately, it has survived all these years – some sources still casually cite the actions of this supposed bovine arsonist as fact.

The newspaper article quoted above conveyed better than I could the horrific situations these people experienced.






[1] What (or Who) Caused the Great Chicago Fire?, SMITHSONIAN.COM
[2] List of disasters in the United States by death toll,
[3] The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
[4] Peshtigo Fire, Peshtigo, WI,
[5] The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871, National Weather Service
[6] Catherine O’Leary,

“Good” Friday?

May 8th, 2011 No comments

Good Friday – the Friday before Easter, has not been so good for the residents (human and otherwise) around Prince William Sound, Alaska. Two disasters, 25 years apart, continue to leave their mark on the area.

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

The first, which occurred on Friday, March 27, 1964, was the Good Friday Earthquake, also called the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. At 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, this was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America, and the second-most powerful in the world. I remember watching a documentary on this earthquake many years ago (sorry, I can’t remember the name), where a man was describing the scene during the 4 to 5 minutes of shaking: “You think of the ground as being solid. I looked out, and saw the ground rolling like the waves of the ocean.” A woman tearfully described seeing a fissure in the ground open up, her son fall in, and then the ground close up again. However, the earthquake had a very low fatality rate due to the sparsely populated area where it occurred, and the fact that most buildings in the shaking zone were made of wood. Most of the 131 deaths actually resulted from the ensuing tsunami, which killed people in Alaska, Oregon and California. [1] One of the highest fatality areas was the dock area of the port of Valdez, where a section of land 4000 feet by 600 feet slid into the ocean. [2] The ground was permanently raised in some areas by as much as 30 feet, and lowered in other areas by eight feet.
Downtown Anchorage after the quake

Downtown Anchorage after the quake

The town of Portage on the Turnagain Arm was lowered to below sea level, and so had to be permanently abandoned. The village of Chenega was destroyed by the tsunami and 23 of the 68 inhabitants killed. The downtown area of Anchorage experienced heavy damage. Seeing the second story of some buildings at street level makes it a wonder to me that more people weren’t killed. The effects of the earthquake were felt worldwide: “Seiches, a sort of sloshing of water back and forth in a small body of water like a boat harbor or swimming pool, were observed as far away as Louisiana where a number of fishing boats were sunk. Oscillations in the height of water in wells were reported from as far away as South Africa.” [1] An asphalt storage plant near Valdez was destroyed, spilling an unknown quantity of asphalt into Prince William Sound. With the area inundated with relief efforts pertaining to the earthquake and tsunami, no particular clean-up effort was attempted for this spill. Today, remains of the asphalt spill are mixed with remains of another spill [3], which brings us to the second Good Friday disaster.
Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

On March 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez was navigating Prince William Sound (outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice) when it struck Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million of its’ 53 million gallons of toxic, unrefined crude oil into the sound and fouling 1,100 miles of coastline. [4] This spill was particularly egregious because it happened in a wild and beautiful setting and because of the culpability of the captain, third mate and Exxon itself in causing a completely avoidable disaster. In the aftermath of the spill, Exxon did not take the high road, dragging its’ feet in the cleanup and contending and delaying any payout for punitive damages, claiming they were not appropriate in an “accident”. More than 20 years later, the effects of the spill are still being felt in the area, with some wildlife species still not having recovered. [5]
Vox’s Take: Sadly, the infamous Exxon Valdez Spill is dwarfed by the Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010, which spewed an estimated 218 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. [6] Given the Exxon example, and the ability of huge corporations with their teams of lawyers to avoid accountability for their misdeeds, its seems unlikely that British Petroleum (BP) will end up paying for more than a small fraction of the damages.


[1] The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Alaska Earthquake Information Center
[2] The Great Alaskan Earthquake & Tsunamis of 1964, by Thomas J. Sokolowski, West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Palmer Alaska
[3] The Good Friday Catastrophes in Prince William Sound, Alaska, U.S. Geological Survey Energy Resource Surveys Program
[4] Exxon Valdez oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth
[5] A Report on the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Spill from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC), Information About Alaska
[6] Deepwater Horizon oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth

The Perfect Swarm

April 30th, 2011 No comments

Have you ever heard of the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus)? Mid-western farmers in the 19th Century sure knew of it. Every 7 to 12 years, this normally benign grasshopper entered a gregarious (swarming) phase and became a locust, and what swarms they made! The largest recorded concentration of animals ever, according to The Guinness Book of Records, was a swarm of Rocky Mountain Locusts. [1]

Rocky Mountain Locust

Rocky Mountain Locust

The swarm was observed by Dr. Albert Child of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1875, remembered by midwest farmers as the Year of the Locust. From timing the swarm as it passed overhead for five days, and telegraphing associates in other towns, Dr. Child estimated the size of the swarm as 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide: 198,000 square miles containing 3.5 trillion grasshoppers! [2] Swarms of locusts, though not usually this size, descended on farming communities from Texas to Minnesota like a Biblical plague, eating every green thing in sight. When the plants were gone, the hungry insects ate leather, cotton and wool (still on the sheep). Housewives vainly placed blankets over their gardens. The pests ate the blankets, then the gardens.

Brief extracts from contemporary accounts will suggest the nature of the locust plague: “They came like a driving snow in winter, filling the air, covering the earth, the buildings, the shocks of grain and everything.” “Their alighting sounded like a continuous hailstorm. The noise was like suppressed distant thunder or a train in motion.” “They were four to six inches deep on the ground and continued to alight for hours. Their weight broke off large tree limbs.” “By dark there wasn’t a stalk of field corn over a foot high. Onions were eaten down to the very roots. They gnawed the handles of farm tools and the harness on horses or hanging in the barn, the bark of trees, clothing and curtains of homes and dead animals — including dead locusts.” [3]

A swarm of locusts devastates the family farm in Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s book On the Banks of Plum Creek. After this biological tsunami passed through, the crops were devastated and the settlers faced starvation, forcing the Federal and state governments to supply the stricken pioneers with food, clothing and seed for replanting crops.

Persons in the East have often smiled incredulously at our statements that the locusts often impeded the trains on the western railroads. Yet such was by no means an infrequent occurrence in 1874 and 1875-the insects pawing over the track or basking thereon so numerously that the oil from their crushed bodies reduced the traction so as to actually stop the train, especially on an up-grade. – Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture For The Year 1877. Washington, DC 1878. [7]

So why don’t you hear about these critters now? Because, in the space of 27 years, the Rocky Mountain Locust population went from an estimated 15 trillion to… zero. Nada. Extinct. The last known pair was collected in 1902, and is now at the Smithsonian Institution. The species was declared extinct in the 1950’s. How can such a thing happen? Just as “being smart is no guarantee against being dead wrong” – Carl Sagan, it turns out that large numbers are no guarantee against a spectacular decline.

Locust-Killing Machine

Locust-Killing Machine

During the settlement period of the midwest, farmers tried many contraptions to try to eradicate the grasshoppers. It was like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. However, the species had an Achilles heel, and that was: like Monarch Butterflies, after the swarming phase the population naturally declined and retreated to its breeding grounds. In the case of the Rocky Mountain Locust this was the fertile mountain river valleys. The whole population of these grasshoppers in this phase of their life cycle could fit into a 20-mile diameter circle. [2] It just so happened that the farmers who were so chastised by the locust were plowing up these same river valleys, and in the process, inadvertently decimating the locust’s breeding grounds. Farm records from the late 19th Century tell of plowing up egg sacs by the thousands during the spring planting. And so the grasshoppers died. It is one of the few agricultural “pest” species to have been eradicated, and it was done by accident.
Vox’s Take: Accidental demise or not, the story of the Rocky Mountain Locust is a cautionary tale we should heed. Life on this third rock from the Sun can be more fragile than is commonly supposed.


[1] Rocky Mountain Locust, Wikipedia
[2] Six-Legged Teachers: Lessons from Locusts and Beetles, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, WyoFile
[3] A Plague of Locusts, by Gerry Rising, August 1, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News
[4] Albert’s swarm, Wikipedia
[5] Looking Back at the Days of the Locust, By Carol Kaesuk Yoon, April 23, 2002 issue of The New York Times
[6] The death of the Super Hopper, by Jeffrey Lockwood, High Country News
[7] When The Skies Turned To Black: The Locust Plaque of 1875, Hearthstone Legacy Publications

Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster

March 19th, 2011 No comments

I would make a bet that if you took a poll, asking the average Joe what is the worst U.S. maritime disaster, you would get “The Sinking of the Titanic” as the number one answer. I would agree that the RMS Titanic is by far the most famous, but it was not really a U.S. disaster, and not the worst in terms of loss of life (in U.S. History). That grim distinction belongs to the explosion and subsequent sinking on April 27, 1865 of the SS Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler.

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

The Sultana was a new, state-of-the-art steamboat, built in 1863. She had been making regular runs up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans during the last two years of the Civil War. On her last trip, she was commissioned by the Federal Government to carry Union solders upriver, on their way home as the war came to a close. In fact, most of the passengers were newly released prisoners of war, from the Cahaba and Andersonville prisons.
The high death toll was due to the fact that the ship was dangerously overloaded. She was by law limited to 376 passengers and crew. However, there were thousands of former Union prisoners at Vicksburg, Mississippi, anxious to take the first available ship and get home. The government was paying a lucrative $5 per soldier to get them home, so the ship’s captain, J. C. Mason of St. Louis, was incented to put as many passengers on board as possible. According to some, the military officers were being paid a kickback of $1.15 per person to look the other way and ignore the overcrowding. [2] At any rate, the Sultana was carrying 2,200 to 2,400 people at the time of the disaster, six times the legal limit. So many people were crammed on board they decided not to make out a passenger list. As you can see from the photo taken the day before she sank, the Sultana was packed with people literally shoulder-to-shoulder. Extra stanchions were installed to support the hurricane (top) deck, which was sagging from the weight of the passengers.
At Vicksburg, the engineers discovered leaks and a bulge in one of the boilers. Not wanting to lose time and take a chance on another steamboat getting the opportunity to carry the passengers, the captain decided to patch the boiler rather than replace it, which would have taken three days.

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

The Disaster: After stopping in Memphis, Tennessee, Sultana started upriver, headed for the next stop at Cairo, Illinois, where most of the passengers were scheduled to disembark. The spring runoff was underway, so the river was high and the current strong, which meant that the Sultana needed a higher than normal head of steam to make her way upstream. The steamboat, top-heavy from too many passengers, was careening from one side to the other. At 2:00 a.m. on the 27th, about seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of the four boilers exploded. The explosion tore a gaping hole in the Sultana and sent burning pieces of coal flying everywhere, which quickly caught the wooden ship on fire. Men were blown off the ship, or jumped into the icy spring water to escape the flames. Soldiers drowned, burned, died from hypothermia, or were crushed when the smokestacks collapsed onto the stricken ship. About 500 men were rescued from the water, of which some 200 to 300 died later from burns, hypothermia, or their general poor health resulting from their captivity. Altogether some 1,700 to 1,800 people died, making it the worst maritime disaster in American History.
The Cause: The explosion was likely caused by four factors: the steam pressure was probably abnormally high due to the need for extra power to overcome the strong current. The hasty boiler repairs were inadequate to insure safety. The careening could also have played a part – the four interconnected boilers were arranged side-by-side, which meant that water could flow from the highest boiler to the lowest as the ship tilted to one side then the other. If the water level was not properly maintained, hot spots could develop, where the iron boilers become red-hot due to lack of water, then when the water rushes back it would instantly turn to steam, causing a sudden surge in the overall steam pressure.

Coal Torpedo

Coal Torpedo

Sabotage? Another possible cause for the boiler explosion was reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in an article on May 6, 1888. [4] In this article, William C. Streetor, a resident of St. Louis, reported that while he worked as a clerk and assistant keeper in the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons, an ex-Confederate Secret Service agent and boat-burner, Robert Louden (or Lowden), claimed he had smuggled a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana at Memphis. The coal torpedo was a small explosive device made to look like an ordinary lump of coal, but would explode in a coal furnace, causing a secondary explosion of the boiler. (During the Civil War, a broad variety of explosive devices were called “torpedoes”.) Some sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate agents during the war. [5] The sabotage theory was called “wholly baseless” in one source [2], and given credibility in others. [5]
Why is the Sultana Disaster unknown? When the Sultana’s boilers burst, the nation was inundated with news. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and John Wilkes Booth had been caught and killed on April 26th, the day before the Sultana exploded. Also on the 26th, the last major Confederate Army, under Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered to William T. Sherman. Possibly because of the shady nature of the circumstances around the overcrowding, the Army was not anxious to publicize the story. The public was either tired or desensitized to news of death, having just gone through a war in which at least 618,000 soldiers were killed. Finally, anything which happened in the West received less coverage in Eastern papers.
Vox’s Take: Whether the sinking of the Sultana was accidental or deliberate, it was an especially tragic end for the Union prisoners of war who survived incredible deprivation in Southern prison camps, only to be killed when they were so close to getting home. In a small way, the incident helped bring former enemies together: the people of Memphis cared for the survivors and raised funds to help them. [3] One ex-Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have single-handedly rescued fifteen Union survivors. [2] Perhaps someday this incredible story will find its way into the history books. Interestingly enough, the remains of the Sultana may have been found in 1982, 32 feet under a soybean field in Arkansas. [3] The Mississippi River has changed course many times, and the wreckage is now two miles from the current location of the main channel.


[1] Remembering Sultana, National Geographic News
[2] Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865,
[3] SS Sultana, Wikipedia
[4] Sabotage of the Sultana, Civil War St. Louis
[5] The Boat-Burners, Civil War St. Louis

Those Old, Cold Winters

March 6th, 2011 No comments

In December 1972, during my Senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School, we had a cold snap that froze and burst the schools’ water pipes. Consequently we enjoyed an extended Christmas vacation. (Unfortunately, we had to recoup those days in June – no free lunch, you know). At any rate, I remember it being cold enough, -18 °F or so, that in the early mornings the snow actually looked blue. And we’ve had some great blizzards to remember, such as the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982, when I was working in Oklahoma City and we had driven back to Denver to spend Christmas, and were stranded at my in-law’s house for several days. It was actually great fun for us! Another great, memorable blizzard occurred in March, 2003, dumping around 40″ of snow in parts of the Metro area and stranding my wife in Kansas for a week. (That was NOT fun!)
But how do these modern storms and cold spells compare to some of those in the past? Climate is notoriously variable and hard to summarize: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” – Mark Twain. However, there have been some exceptional winters in the past that make our recent winters look pretty mild indeed. Have you heard of The Little Ice Age? This was a period of relatively colder weather between about 1300 and 1870, with particularly cold spells beginning around 1650, another starting in 1770 and another beginning around 1850. [2] Let’s take a look at each.

The Frozen Thames 1677

The Frozen Thames 1677

17th Century: The River Thames used to freeze over regularly, and between 1608 and 1814 Londoners held a Frost Fair on the frozen estuary. During the Great Frost of 1683-84, the river was frozen solid for two months. The Frost Fair of 1814 turned out to be the last one, as the winters became a little milder and changes in the river flow made it less likely to freeze. [3] In North America, the severe, river-freezing winter of 1609-10 and a feud with the Powhatan Indians contributed to an 80% mortality rate among the settlers of the Jamestown Colony, a winter they called “The Starving Time”. Some colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Army Cabins, Jockey Hollow

Army Cabins, Jockey Hollow

18th Century: In American History, students are taught about the severe winter and deplorable conditions that George Washington’s army suffered at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the harsh winter of 1777-78. That winter was rough on the Continental Army, and gets all the press in the history books. It was, however, not nearly as severe as the winter of 1779-80, the worst during the Revolutionary Period. During this winter Washington established a winter camp in an area called Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey. From here the Continental Army could keep an eye on the British occupying New York but still be relatively safe from attack. In January 1780 the temperature fell to -16 °F, and remained cold so long that every harbor from North Carolina to New England froze over, including New York Harbor and the Hudson and East Rivers. [6] It was now possible to simply walk from Staten Island to Manhattan, and even port heavy cannon over the ice, which had frozen eight feet thick in places. The British were apprehensive of a winter attack by the Patriot forces, since their natural defenses of river and harbor were temporarily ineffective. The Patriots, however, were in no position to mount an attack – they were fully occupied in simply trying to survive the winter. [7] The Colonists had learned important lessons at Valley Forge, and the survival rate was better at Jockey Hollow due to improvements in camp construction and hygiene. The cold and lack of food was still exceptionally trying for the enlisted men, and desertions were common. The men were close to mutiny, and one of the miracles of the Revolution is that the army held together. [8]

Train Stuck in Snow, Minnesota 1881

Train Stuck in Snow, Minnesota 1881

19th Century: There were a number of harsh winters during the 1800s. In Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volume 1, p. 353, he tells how, as a boy in 1849, he went ice skating at night (without permission, of course) on the Mississippi, which had frozen over from shore to shore. The story becomes really interesting when the ice starts breaking up when he and his friend are a half-mile out from shore! [9] Another harsh winter, that of 1880-81, is documented by Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter, the sixth of her Little House book series. On the Great Plains, this seven-month winter was ushered in with a three-day blizzard in October, followed by so many snowstorms and so little thawing weather that some towns were without railroad service until May. People in the rough, rural conditions froze in the fierce blizzards or starved because the trains could not get through the frozen drifts to deliver food. A rancher in Nebraska tells of losing all but 800 of his 3,000 head of cattle to the harsh winter, with cattle starving in sight of the hay that the rancher put out but unable to move through the frozen snow. In the towns, the snow accumulated to the roofs, and people resorted to tunneling to move about the place. In open areas, the snow was often up to the level of the telegraph wires. [10]
Wall Street, Blizzard of 1888

Wall Street, Blizzard of 1888

Of the many accounts of fierce storms and blizzards during the latter half of the 19th Century the deadly storms of 1888 stand out. In the West, January 12, 1888 saw the Children’s Blizzard of 1888. It’s called the Children’s Blizzard because it ambushed so many rural children walking home from school, and as many as 400 people died. [11] Two months later, from March 10 to 13, 1888 the Great White Hurricane hit the East Coast, where another 400 people died amid cold temperatures around 6 °F and high winds up to 80 MPH which drifted the snow to 52 feet in places. New York was paralyzed with the snow drifts, and people unaccustomed to the dangers of going outdoors in blizzard conditions became lost and froze to death. The web of overhead electrical and telephone wires presented an unexpected new hazard when the wind and the weight of the snow brought many of them down.
Vox’s Take: It’s a little hard to compare the severity of a winter 123 years ago with one today, since we have so much better technology now to deal with the cold and snow. I can go from my centrally-heated house to my heated four-wheel-drive truck to my heated office building in relative comfort – not exactly like having to hitch the team to the sleigh in the blowing snow. However, the historical record gives credence to the idea that winters really used to be harder, (how many times recently have we heard of New York Harbor freezing over, or 52-foot snow drifts?) and all the more so given people’s ability to cope with them.

[1] The Little Ice Age, Environmental Resources
[2] Little Ice Age, Wikipedia
[3] River Thames Frost Fairs, Wikipedia
[4] The Jamestown “Starving Time”, Colonial Williamsburg
[5] Morristown, Where America Survived, NJN Public Television and Radio
[6] Winter of 1779-80 In New Jersey, Sons of the American Revolution
[7] Soldiers face starvation at Jockey Hollow, The Star-Ledger
[8] Morristown: Worse than Valley Forge, Washington Association of New Jersey
[9] Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, (see page 353), The Mark Twain Project
[10] The Hard Winter of 1880-81, History of South Dakota by Doane Robinson
[11] Winter: Blizzard of 1888 puts winter in perspective, Rocky Mountain News
[12] Homesteading, Eliza Jane Wilder, Prologue Magazine, National Archives
[13] Blizzard of 1888 makes our winter woes look like tempests in a teapot, The Star-Ledger
[14] Blizzard of 1888, Celebrate Boston
[15] Great White New York, The New Yorker
[16] America’s Worst Winter Ever, American History Magazine, April 2010

Sinking of the Lusitania

February 13th, 2011 No comments

The RMS Lusitania, launched in 1907, was one of the fastest ocean liners of her time, holding the Blue Riband for fastest Atlantic passenger liner crossings along with her sister ship, the RMS Mauretania. With the help of state-of-the-art Parsons steam turbine engines generating 68,000 horsepower [1], fed by 25 boilers and turning four huge screws (propellers), she regularly cruised at 25 knots.

RMS Lusitania coming into port

RMS Lusitania coming into port

On May 7, 1915, during World War I, she was nearing the end of a crossing from New York to Liverpool. South of the coast of Ireland, her lookout saw a trail of foam rapidly approaching the ship and shouted “Torpedoes!”. There was just one torpedo, but it slammed into the starboard side and detonated. Moments later a huge secondary explosion rocked the ship. She sank in just 18 minutes amid a chaos of trying to launch lifeboats, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board, including 128 Americans. [2]
The torpedo came from the German submarine U20. The sinking of the Lusitania outraged Americans and helped turn the national sentiment, which had been very isolationist and neutral regarding the great European war, decidedly against the Germans. The Lusitania incident contributed to America eventually entering the war on the side of Britain and France. Why would the Germans attack a passenger liner with innocent women and children on board? Was this a wanton case of barbarism, as the English news stories claimed?
As always, there is more to the story than this. Near the start of the war in August 1914, the British, wanting to leverage the might of the Royal Navy, imposed a blockade of German ports. This blockage was very effective, causing starvation in Germany and the eventual deaths of 763,000 civilians, according to official statistics [3]. Germany responded with the only advantage she had, which was her submarine service, the most advanced in the world. Germany declared the North Sea and the area around the British Isles a British “military area” and warned that any ships entering this area, including those from neutral countries, were subject to submarine attack. The British admiralty responded to this declaration with orders for a merchant ship who encounters a submarine to steer straight for it at utmost speed – in effect instructions to ram the small and vulnerable submarine. The “rules of war” up to this time called for warships intercepting merchant vessels to stop them and allow for passengers and crew to disembark before firing on the ship, unless the ship resisted, attempted to flee, or was part of a convoy. The Germans were aware of the British admiralty instructions and the extreme vulnerability of a submarine on the surface. In addition, a submarine with a surface speed of 15 knots could not possibly keep up with a fast liner like the Lusitania. In light of this, in February the German government announced that allied ships in the war zone would be sunk without warning.

German warning notice

German warning notice

Most passengers were unaware of two crucial facts about the Lusitania. First, she was secretly subsidized by the British government, and in return was built to meet with specifications to allow her to be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser if the need arose. She had magazines for powder and ammunition, and gun mounts concealed underneath her decks. Second, on her final voyage she was carrying contraband (military cargo), including 4.3 million rounds of Remington .303 cartridges, used in both rifles and machine guns. Passengers were not aware of the contraband, but the Germans, via their spy network, almost certainly were. In fact, the German Embassy in Washington took out an ad in the New York newspapers, warning people not to book passage on the Lusitania. The German notice was printed next to a Cunard Line advertisement for the voyage, and caused a stir. Many people took heed, and the Lusitania was only at about half capacity on the final voyage.

All of these factors combined to a situation where the U20 issued no warning and simply fired a torpedo when the Lusitania came within range. The propaganda offices in both Britain and America were quick to portray the attack as a war crime. The Kaiser was quick to defend it. So the question for discussion is: was the commander of the U20 justified in this situation to fire on the Lusitania, or were the newspapers correct, and this was a barbaric act and a war crime?
Vox’s Take: War is a very difficult thing to conduct in a “civilized” manner. In the words of William T. Sherman, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” [4] Certainly, it’s hard to see how the sinking of a passenger liner loaded with civilians is justified. But did the Germans, with their people starving, have a right to enforce their own blockade in the manner they could, as the British were doing? And what did the Brits intend to do with the 4.3 million rounds of ammunition? Why, shoot them at the Germans of course. It can be argued that the Germans did indeed give warning, not on the high seas but before the voyage even began. My take is that the sinking was not “civilized”, but was not a war crime, given the conditions in which it occurred. What’s your take?

[1] The Sinking of the Lusitania, Eyewitness to History
[2] RMS Lusitania, Wikipedia
[3] The blockade of Germany, Spotlights on history, National Archives
[4] Union General William Tecumseh Sherman,

Boston Molasses Disaster

January 22nd, 2011 1 comment

The Boston Molasses Disaster or Boston Molasses Flood is one of the more bizarre disasters in American history. On January 15, 1919 a huge molasses tank failed explosively, sending a flood of hot, sticky, sweet molasses through the streets of Boston’s North End.

Boston Molasses Disaster Aftermath

Boston Molasses Disaster Aftermath

The steel tank, operated by the Purity Distilling Company, was 58 feet high and 90 feet in diameter, and held something close to its capacity of 2.5 million gallons. When the tank burst, the concussion of the explosion or “rush of air” was strong enough to knock a truck into Boston Harbor. The splitting seams sent rivets shooting out like bullets, and pieces of steel flew out like shrapnel. The real destruction, however, came from a 7 to 15-foot high, 35-MPH wave of molasses with a pressure of 2 tons per square foot. The molasses swept buildings off their foundations, crushed the girders of an elevated railway and swallowed up dogs, horses and people in its path. 21 people were horribly killed – crushed or burned or drowned in molasses. Another 150 victims were injured. It took six months and 87,000 man-hours to clean up the molasses.
Crushed girders of the elevated railway

Crushed girders of the elevated railway

As you might expect, over a hundred lawsuits were brought in the months and years following the disaster. Over 3,000 witnesses testified in court, and 45,000 pages of testimony and arguments were generated. The Purity company tried to blame the tank’s failure on an outside explosion, a bomb planted by an anarchist (the disaster occurred right after World War I, when the “anarchy scare” was at its height). The supposed motive was because the molasses was destined to be made into industrial ethyl-alcohol, which was used in the munitions industry. The prosecution argued that the tank was not reinforced properly and was not properly inspected. Other factors could have come into play, such as the fact that the temperature went from 2°F the prior day to an unseasonably warm 41°F the day of the explosion, and internal pressure could have built up in fermentation or other processes. In addition, the tank had only been filled to capacity eight times, putting a cyclical load on the structure. After 6 years, the trials eventually found no evidence for a bomb and laid the blame on the Purity company. Around a million dollars was paid out to claimants (about 12 million today).
A number of urban legends have persisted in the years following the disaster, such as the one which states that on a hot summer day, one can still smell molasses in the North End. Another legend purports the tank was overfilled in expectation of Prohibition (since molasses is also used to distill into rum). Time has distanced us from the tragic nature of the incident and allows us to appreciate the local’s name for it: “The Boston Molassacre”.
[1] What caused the great Boston Molasses Flood?, The Massachusetts Historical Society
[2] The Molasses Disaster of January 15, 1919, Yankee Magazine
[3] Jan. 15, 1919: Morass of Molasses Mucks Up Boston, Wired Magazine
[4] Boston Molasses Disaster, Wikipedia

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