As the Covid-19 Pandemic has spread across our nation, so has the battle for or against the wearing of face masks. Part of the problem has been the conflicting analysis as to the value of the masks between one doctor and another, one politician and another, or even the same doctor at different times during the crisis. Many states, cities, and even establishments have rules about wearing a mask, with varied levels of enforcement. Of course, we were told to “shelter in place” and close any “non-essential” businesses, a catastrophic event for the economy. Everything from schools to bars, and theaters to salons was closed. Cities became virtual ghost towns, and things like Facebook and Twitter, Zoom and Google Classroom, texting and phone calls became vital. People’s sanity began to take a hit, and loneliness became the norm…especially for anyone who lived alone.
It’s been a grim time, but it isn’t the first time. During the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, mask wearing started with the first masks being made out of gauze, which was quite porous. Still, in an effort to stop the spread, or as we would say these days, flatten the curve, all the people were now asked to wear masks. In fact, in the Fall of 1918, it became mandatory. With the second surge in December 1918, new restrictions went into place. The January 1919 ordinance had a much larger impact in creating resistance to wearing a mask in public by American citizens. However, it too was short lived, and on February 1, 1919 the city ordinance requiring every citizen of San Francisco going out in public to wear masks was voted down. The mandatory mask laws for COVID-19 are not new. This has already happened twice in American history and if you do feel strongly about not wearing one, it has been protested successfully before in a pandemic caused by a much deadlier virus.
I don’t believe the resistance, with was called the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco fell along party lines, like much of today’s resistance seems to be, but were rather a diverse bunch of individuals with varying professional backgrounds. Its members included physicians, libertarians, and many others. Many of the same arguments we have today, were in place then, and it is debatable as to whether or not the masks of today are any better than the ones back then…with the possible exception of the medical grad hazard wear, the N-95 mask, and the Head gear. Pretty much everything we’ve tried with Covic-19 was also used in 1918 to try to prevent the spread of the flu…close schools, wear masks, don’t cough or sneeze in someone’s face, avoid large events and hold them outside when possible, and of course, no spitting. There were many ways to get the word out, like in Philadelphia, where streetcar signs warned “Spit Spreads Death.” In New York City, officials enforced no-spitting ordinances and encouraged residents to cough or sneeze into handkerchiefs (a practice that caught on after the pandemic). The city’s health department even advised people not to kiss “except through a handkerchief,” and wire reports spread the message around the country. I don’t know…does any of this sound familiar to you, because it sure does to me. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun. In western states, some cities even called mask ordinances a patriotic duty. In October 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a public service announcement telling readers that “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” This was in reference to the type of World War I “slacker” who didn’t help the war effort. One sign in California threatened, “Wear a Mask or Go to Jail.” The PSA in the Chronicle appeared on October 22, just over a week before San Francisco had scheduled its mask ordinance to begin on November 1. It was signed by the mayor, the city’s board of health, the American Red Cross and several other departments and organizations, and it was very clear about its message: “Wear a Mask and Save Your Life!”
“Red Cross headquarters in San Francisco made 5,000 masks available to the public at 11:00am, October 22. By noon it had none,” wrote the late historian Alfred W Crosby in America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. “By noon the next day Red Cross headquarters had dispensed 40,000 masks. By the twenty-sixth 100,000 had been distributed in the city… In addition, San Franciscans were making thousands for themselves.” Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, the Spanish Flu Pandemic infected 500 million people…about a third of the world’s population at the time, in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. With all the safeguards, and the lack of success in “stopping the spread,” I guess it is up to each individual to decide on the effectiveness, or the lack thereof, concerning the safeguards that were put in place. To me, it seems that we have done pretty much the same things today as they did in 1918, so only time will tell us if they were successful, or a waste of time and money. Still, since the Spanish Flue had 4 waves, it doesn’t seem like we successfully stopped anything.
Very few people these days haven’t heard of Captain Chesley B. “Sulley” Sullenberger III and co=pilot Jeff Skiles who made their now famous landing on the Hudson River in New York City after a bird strike left them powerless. We all know that everyone “miraculously” survived that crash landing. It was an undeniable miracle, but it was not the first time such a thing had happened. On October 16, 1956, Pan Am Flight 6, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser on a nighttime flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, developed engine trouble in one and then two of its four engines. Pan Am Flight 6 was about halfway across the Pacific Ocean at the time and the malfunctioning engine propeller sent the airplane into a descent. I can only imagine the thoughts racing through the minds of the pilots, given the fact that they were not going to find a highway or a field on which to land safely. There was only ocean. This was not the first time a plane had to ditch in the ocean, but I doubt that was any comfort to the men who were flying the plane, since the other ditching events had fatalities.
Pan Am World Airways first started flying in 1927, delivering mail between Florida and Cuba. The carrier was based out of New York City for nearly 30 years, until it went out of business in 1991. The airline left a legacy of firsts. “It was first across the Atlantic, first with flights across the Pacific and the first to offer around-the-world service,” said Kelly Cusack, the curator of the Pan Am Museum Foundation. Most airlines celebrate a lot of their firsts, but there is one first that no airline wants to celebrate, or have on their list of firsts at all…a crash. Nevertheless, on October 16, 1956, a crash was exactly what was going to happen. This crash took place 53 years before “Sulley’s” famous water landing into the Hudson River. “This is a particularly memorable and a proud part of our legacy because of two words: happy ending,” said Jeff Kriendler, who was Pan Am’s vice president for corporate communications in the 1980s and has written several anthologies about the airline. Airlines have ditched in the ocean before, but this was the first to do so with no fatalities. Like “Sulley’s” famous flight, ditching in the ocean without fatalities…was unheard of. Unlike “Sulley’s” landing, which was caught on camera, a nighttime flight in the middle of the ocean in 1956 was not likely to be caught on camera.
The flight started out smoothly, but then developed engine trouble in one, and then two of its four engines. Pan Am Flight 6 was about halfway across the Pacific Ocean at the time and the malfunctioning engine propeller sent the airplane into a descent. The decision to land the plane in the sea with 24 passengers and seven crew members aboard was not made until all other options had been considered. Captain Richard Ogg, the pilot, wrote an account of the episode a year later, saying that he had to weigh many factors. Should he jettison fuel and try to land on the water immediately or fly until daylight provided better visibility? One thing was clear, the bad propeller was causing the plane to burn fuel too fast. He would not make it to San Francisco or Honolulu. Apparently, it was no coincidence that the ship was nearby. In the early days of long flights over water, Coast Guard ships were positioned in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, offering weather information to flight crews and relaying radio messages, according to Doak Walker, a Coast Guard historian who participated in the rescue of Flight 6. In preparation, the cutters were placed near what was expected to be the point of no return. That is the area where a plane would have burned too much fuel to turn back in case of an emergency.
Ogg opted to fly an eight-mile circuit above the Pontchartrain until morning while planning for the water landing. Remembering that during another Pan Am Stratocruiser ditching, the tail had broken off, Ogg had the passengers in the back of the plane move forward and asked those seated by the engine to move as well. “We will try to stay aloft until daylight,” Ogg radioed to the Pontchartrain. When the passengers learned the flight would circle and not attempt to land in the dark, “it gave them a lot of confidence,” said Frank Garcia, 91, the flight engineer and a guest of honor at the Pan Am event. Passengers were also comforted knowing “someone was out there waiting to give them as much aid as they can,” Garcia said. Standing watch on the cutter just after 8 a.m., Walker, 83, recalled that “the seas were extremely calm and the weather was good and we were hoping there wouldn’t be much of a problem.”
Just as Ogg had expected, the tail broke off as soon as the plane hit the sea. Then the nose of the airliner went under the water. “I felt as if somebody had grabbed the seat of my pants and was pulling,” Garcia said. “I saw the water. I was more frightened if the windows broke, then the water would come in.” From the cockpit, all Garcia saw was water. “I can’t tell you how many seconds, it was less than a minute, and I saw the water receding,” Garcia said, as the front of plane surfaced. On the Pontchartrain many thought they had just witnessed a disaster, Walker said. “It was so sad,” he said. “We knew nobody could survive that.” Rescue boats sped toward the plane, while other Coast Guardsmen filmed the event. Captured moments included life rafts bobbing by the aircraft’s fuselage, transferring survivors to rescue boats, the sinking plane, and the lifting of twin toddlers, Maureen and Elizabeth Gordon, from a lifeboat into waiting seamen’s arms. And, everyone was saved. It was a miracle at sea.
The massive number of ships that sail and have sailed the oceans are mostly safe, but by pure logic, there would also be a number of them for whom safe passage was not to be. For the steamer Alaska, August 8, 1921 would go down in history as the day when her number was up. Shortly after 9:00 pm, the Alaska was sailing south along the California coast, bound for San Francisco, when it hit Blunts Reef…twice. Blunts Reef is located 40 nautical miles south of Eureka, California.
Immediately, the crew knew they were in trouble. Wireless distress signals were flashed. Five miles away the steamer Anyox of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada picked up the signals…quickly, while disregarding fog and placing themselves in danger of striking the same rocks as the Alaska, put on full speed to the rescue. At 9:30 pm the Anyox received the Alaska‘s final message: “We are sinking by the head.” Before the Anyox could reach the stricken Alaska the ship had sunk, but that was not all that happened to the Alaska.
As the ship sunk, the ship’s boilers exploded…passengers and members of the crew of the steamer Alaska were blown from the decks of the vessel into the ocean. The Anyox, traveling dangerously fast in the foggy night, came upon a lifeboat with survivors from the Alaska. The boat was partially filled with sea water and oily scum. The oil, survivors said, had been thrown over them and into their boat by the explosion of the Alaska‘s boilers, which wrecked the Alaska amidships. The sinking of the Alaska took the lives of 48 of the 214 people on board.
According to the survivors, some of the deaths were caused by the explosion, which threw some passengers and members of the crew into the ocean. Some of those blown into the sea regained the vessel or were saved by clinging to wreckage or finding their way into lifeboats. Others, unfortunately, were either killed or drowned before help came. The Alaska’s sinking came so quickly that all the vessel’s lifeboats could not be deployed. JH Moss and CL Vilin, both of Chicago, said the lifeboat they finally reached had been swept off the decks of the Alaska as the ship settled into the ocean. Other lifeboats, never left their davits and went down with the ship. HS Laughlin of Washington DC, where he worked with the United States Shipping Board, said that a Mr and Mrs Phillips tried for an hour to be taken into a lifeboat after they had been thrown off the Alaska into the water. The survivors all praised the efforts of the officers and crew of the rescue ship Anyox under Captain Snoddy, without whom they would not have been alive.
When the Anyox picked up the first lifeboat and took its passengers aboard Second Officer Andrew Sinclair requested permission from Captain Snoddy to take the Alaska‘s lifeboat and seek survivors in the water who were swimming about and clinging to wreckage. Permission given, three seamen volunteered to accompany Sinclair. They took the lifeboat and within thirty minutes had rescued thirty persons from the water, rafts, and wreckage, and had put them aboard the Anyox. Captain Harry Hobey of the Alaska, the survivors declared, went down with his ship. Coast Guard vessels Sunday patrolled the waters looking for the wreck. The Coast Guard tugboat, Hanger brought in twelve bodies, all covered with oil. Later fishermen brought five additional bodies to San Francisco. Passengers criticized the Alaska‘s lifeboats. It was said some were not properly manned, had insufficient oars and leaked when put into the water. Nevertheless, those lifeboats had held long enough tp get the complaining passengers to safety. Sometimes, it seems like people forget to be thankful.
There is a wall that lots o people might have known about, or maybe few people know about, but while I’m sure I’ve seen parts of it in movies, I didn’t really know about it. The series of walls, known as the East Bay Walls or the Berkeley Mystery Walls. Of course that doesn’t really apply to one area, because the reality is that there are many of the crude walls throughout the hills surrounding the San Francisco Bay area. In some place the walls are as much as 3 feet tall, and 3 feet wide. The walls are very old and they were built without mortar. The walls run in sections, and they can be a few feet to over a mile long. Even more odd, is the fact that the rocks are a variety of sizes ranging from basketball-sized rocks, to large sandstone boulders weighing a ton or more. Parts of the walls seem to be just piles of rocks, but in other places it appears the walls were carefully constructed. No one knows the exact age of the walls, but they have an old appearance. Many of the formations have sunk far into the earth, and are often completely overgrown with different plants. The walls are not continuous, so they are not fences. They are not tall enough to have been used as defensive walls. The East Bay Regional Park District simply calls them “rock walls” and insists that they are not mysterious. Livestock, such as cattle, have grazed in the east and south Bay Area hills since the arrival of European settlers. Clearing land of scattered rocks would have eased the ability to move livestock. Placing the rocks into walls would have helped to guide the movement of the animals or to help corral them. That makes sense, but some of those rocks were very heavy. So how did they do that.
There is no written documentation to identify when they were built, by whom, or why. So, some people consider them mysterious. It has been suggested that the Ohlone Indians might have been the builders, but in reality, they were hunter-gatherers, and didn’t build permanent structures. Some specialists have mentioned that the walls look similar to structures found in rural Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, but they are different in that those walls were built around farms by the early setters, and these don’t have the same kinds of layouts. In 1904, UC-Berkeley Professor John Fryer suggested that the walls were made by Mongolian Chinese who traveled to California before the Europeans. Unfortunately, there is little evidence for this or for pre-Columbian Chinese influence in America. Forensic geologist Scott Wolter has theorized that the wall is only two to three hundred years old, suggested by the thick weathering rind on the limestone rock he was authorized to sample. Recent testing of lichen on the rocks suggests that they were probably built between 1850 and 1880, the early American era in California. Settlers might have built the walls using Chinese, Mexican, or Native American laborers, although specifically who built them has not been determined.
One of the many old stone walls that appear around the San Francisco Bay area is in the foothills of eastern Santa Clara County. The stone walls are accessible in several area parks, including Ed R. Levin County Park in Santa Clara County and Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Alameda County, as well as many other parks. As of 2016, archaeologist Jeffrey Fentress has been measuring and mapping the walls, hoping to eventually gain protection from development or other destruction. Additional stone walls with unclear origin or purpose occur in other places near the San Francisco Bay, and researchers continue to discover more information about the walls. Whether these walls had a purpose at one time or not, they are certainly strange to those who try to look into them these days.
My Aunt Ruth Wolfe was raised on a farm, around horses, and she loved them, as well as most other animals. She really thrived on the country life. She worked hard, alongside her mom and siblings, especially during World War II, when her brother, my dad, Allen Spencer was serving in the Army Air Forces. She helped at the farm and also as a welder at the shipyards…one of the women known as riveters. Later in her life, when she was married, she and my Uncle Jim Wolfe lived in the country outside Casper, Wyoming. They gardened, canned, and raised farm animals. Aunt Ruth was one tough lady. She could do just about anything she set her mind to. From that hard work of farming, to canning, to haying, to playing any instrument, to painting, my Aunt Ruth was simply a multi-talented woman.
I think one of the strangest moves Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim made was the one to Vallejo, California. I couldn’t quite figure out why a person who loved the country so much, would move to a city. Vallejo is a suburb of San Francisco, California, and very different from Casper, Wyoming or Holyoke, Minnesota. I suppose they decided that they wanted a change of pace, and I can understand that, because my family and I lived in the country for a number of years before we moved into town in Casper. For us, the city life was more…us, at least the small city life. I don’t think I would want to live in a big city like New York or San Francisco. Still, I can understand why my aunt and uncle might be drawn to the big city life, and the warmer California weather.
After a time in California, the quiet country life again drew them from the big city to the mountains of Washington state. I can’t say that the move to the mountains surprised me much, because it seems like country life was like the blood that ran through my aunt and uncle’s veins. It was a part of who they were, as much as their DNA was who they were. Once they settled in eastern Washington, they never moved again. They bought the top of a mountain, and built three cabins there…one for them, one for their daughter, Shirley and her husband, Shorty Cameron; and one for their son Terry and his family. For Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim, this would be their forever home. Having been on their mountain top, I can say that I understand why they thought it was so beautiful, but in the years since I moved back to town, I know that I would not want to live permanently in the country, or on a mountain top again. Nevertheless, that was their favorite place to be. Today would have been my Aunt Ruth’s 92nd birthday. It’s hard to believe she has been gone 26 years now. Happy birthday in Heaven Aunt Ruth. We love and miss you so very much, and can’t wait to see you again.
Most people would agree that the prospect of taking a nation into war is a scary one at best…especially for its citizens. In 1916, the world was in the middle of World War I. Isolationism had been the order of the day, as the United States tried to stay out of this war, but by the summer of 1916, with the Great War raging in Europe, and with the United States and other neutral ships threatened by German submarine aggression, it had become clear to many in the United States that their country could no longer stand on the sidelines. With that in mind, some of the leading business figures in San Francisco planned a parade in honor of American military preparedness. The day was dubbed Preparedness Day, and with the isolationist, anti-war, and anti-preparedness feeling that still ran high among a significant population of the city…and the country, not only among such radical organizations as International Workers of the World (the so-called “Wobblies”) but among mainstream labor leaders. These opponents of the Preparedness Day event undoubtedly shared the view voiced publicly by one critic, former U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who claimed that the organizers, San Francisco’s financiers and factory owners, were acting in pure self-interest, as they clearly stood to benefit from an increased production of munitions. At the same time, with the rise of Bolshevism and labor unrest, San Francisco’s business community was justifiably nervous. The Chamber of Commerce organized a Law and Order Committee, despite the diminishing influence and political clout of local labor organizations. Radical labor was a small but vociferous minority which few took seriously. Nevertheless, it became obvious that violence was imminent.
A radical pamphlet of mid-July read in part, “We are going to use a little direct action on the 22nd to show that militarism can’t be forced on us and our children without a violent protest.” It was in this environment that the Preparedness Parade found itself on July 22, 1916. In spite of that, the 3½ hour long procession of some 51,329 marchers, including 52 bands and 2,134 organizations, comprising military, civic, judicial, state and municipal divisions as well as newspaper, telephone, telegraph and streetcar unions, went ahead as planned. At 2:06pm, about a half hour after the parade began, a bomb concealed in a suitcase exploded on the west side of Steuart Street, just south of Market Street, near the Ferry Building. Ten bystanders were killed by the explosion, and 40 more were wounded, in what became the worst terrorist act in San Francisco history. The city and the nation were outraged, and they declared that justice would be served.
Two radical labor leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren K Billings, were quickly arrested and tried for the attack. In the trial that followed, the two men were convicted, despite widespread belief that they had been framed by the prosecution. Mooney was sentenced to death and Billings to life in prison. After evidence surfaced as to the corrupt nature of the prosecution, President Woodrow Wilson called on California Governor William Stephens to look further into the case. Two weeks before Mooney’s scheduled execution, Stephens commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, the same punishment Billings had received. Investigation into the case continued over the next two decades. By 1939, evidence of perjury and false testimony at the trial had so mounted that Governor Culbert Olson pardoned both men, and the true identity of the Preparedness Day bomber, or bombers, remains forever unknown.
Sometimes, it has to be accepted that just maybe, something is impossible. Still, when a challenge seems impossible, there is always someone who comes along and proves that it can be done. Alcatraz island, and the prison that is located there were known to be impossible to escape from. Over the years that Alcatraz was open, there were 14 escape attempts. Myths and mysteries surrounded Alcatraz, and it’s seemingly inescapable water fortress for years. One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no “man-eating” sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The real obstacles the prisoners faced were the cold temperatures…which averaged 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the strong currents in the water, and the distance to shore, which was at least 1¼ miles. Those things combined were known to have bested most people who attempted to make it from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
The prisoners tried every possible escape plan they could think of…from simply climbing over a fence to the most elaborate attempt which was made famous by the movie “Escape From Alcatraz,” when on June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin cut through the walls, and made false walls to conceal their work, then placing “dummy heads” in their beds, so they would have all night to make their escape. Using raincoats turned into floatation devises, they made their escape. A cell house search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests…one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate, oars, as well as letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. No sign of the men was found. Several weeks later a man’s body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified. Speculation continues to this day as to whether or not the other two made it to safety.
The official statement says they drown, and while it is likely that they did, it has been proven that it was indeed possible to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Prior to the Federal institution opening in 1934, a teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and several years ago two 10 year old children also made the swim. The official stand on that is that if a “person is well trained and conditioned, it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However, for prisoners, who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge of high and low tides, the odds for success were slim.” As to the escape attempts in which no body was ever found, we will never really know if they somehow managed to beat the odds and went on to live a quiet life under an assumed name or if they were swept away to be basically buried at sea. Either way, it is a very interesting subject to speculate on. I personally think that at least one of the three men made it.
Have you ever wondered how the Interstate road system got started? People didn’t just wake up one day and envision a great system of roads that could transport us from one side of the country to the other. There had to be some reasons to do such a thing, right? Well, there was. In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was feeling a bit disenchanted with life, because his wife and infant son were living 1,500 miles away in Denver, while he was a 28 year old lieutenant colonel stationed at Maryland’s Camp Meade. He was bored and miserable, and so he and his fellow soldiers wasted the hours playing bridge and complaining about being kept stateside during World War I. What do people do when they need to break through the boredom…what else, a road trip!!
Eisenhower heard that two volunteer tank officers from Camp Meade were needed to participate in a coast to coast military convoy to San Francisco. It was the perfect adventure, so Eisenhower immediately volunteered his services. Granted, it wasn’t the thrill of battle that the young soldier had planned to spend his time in the service engaging in, but it was far better than playing bridge. Little did he know just how grueling the trip would be. Remember that these were the early years of the automobile, and drivers were just as likely to encounter roads to nowhere, as they were the open road. Highways were not usually paved. Dirt roads could be a muddy mess or so dry that they were either dust clouds or full of ruts. Sixty miles an hour was unheard of and many roads could only be driven at the pace of a brisk walk. As a means of transporting military equipment quickly from one coast to the other…this system left much to be desired, in fact it was a miserable excuse for a road system at all. Something had to change.
Fast forward a few years…37 years to be exact, and you will find then President Dwight D Eisenhower signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 privately, without ceremony, on June 29, 1956. The system would take decades to build, and in reality is always under construction. The project was the largest public works project in American history. The project would pour billions of dollars into the nation’s economy all over the country, putting many people to work. Today, it continues to be a boon to the economy because of the maintenance and repairs needed to keep it going.
In 1990, as a tribute to Eisenhower, on the centennial of his birth, President George H W Bush redesignated the interstate system as the Dwight D Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Interstate 80, would be quite familiar to Eisenhower. It starts just across the Hudson River from New York City, then goes through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and into Ohio, where it follows generally the route of the 1919 Army convoy to San Francisco that had sparked Eisenhower’s interest in such a system in the first place.
Television was invented by a 21 year old man named Philo Taylor Farnsworth, and first successfully demonstrated in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 1927. It’s odd to think that my dad, Allen Spencer lived both before the invention of television and after it. I suppose that isn’t so very odd, because I have lived before and after the cell phone, and that doesn’t seem strange to me at all, so I suppose it didn’t seem strange to my dad either. Then, on March 25, 1954…just a month and a half before my sister, Cheryl Masterson was born, RCA announced that it had begun producing the first color television sets in its Bloomington, Indiana plant.
I’m sure it was a while before most homes made the move to color televisions, and then, of course, there was the wait for shows to be filmed in color. I know that I remember watching a black and white television, and I’m sure most people my age can say the same. The current generation would have no idea what it was like to watch a black and white television, or an early color television. They have seen everything from HD television, to cell phones with television, as well as tablets. The old televisions would seem completely antiquated…and in reality, my generation would look at them that way too. It amazes me just how quickly we get used to new technology, and it amazes me just how long people will hold on to the old stuff before making the transition too. I suppose some think that if it isn’t broken, there is no reason to replace it just yet, but others simply wait until the see how well this new fangled gadget is going to work, or if it’s around very long. So many fads come and go, and are never heard from again. Others, like televisions, cell phones, and computers are here to stay.
Television sets have gone from average size to ultra big, to ultra small, and everything in between. Of course, as we all know, the television has continues to improve in color and clarity too. Sometimes I think the color is almost better than real life…if that’s possible. With new abilities in editing, color can be enhanced to amazing levels. I’m sure that there are some people who would think enhanced color is not a good thing, and sometimes…if it seems completely outlandish, I would have to agree, but when it comes to watching television, I think they do a pretty good job, and I can’t imagine going back to a black and white television.
The San Francisco gold rush was a crazy time in American history. It was almost giddy in many ways. Gold does funny things to people. Just the thought of striking it rich made people pull up stakes and move west to try their hand at gold mining. Once people had made their fortunes, many decided to head back home to the east. Apparently the idea of wagon training back was not so appealing on the journey home, so these now, people of wealth decided to go by ship. The easiest crossing was through the Panama area. Of course, the Panama Canal was not built yet, although the French had tried to do so, but it wasn’t done yet. So the trip became a two ship journey.
On August 20, 1857, several hundred passengers in San Francisco boarded the SS Sonora, of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, and headed south toward Panama City. The 1857 value of the gold on board was 1.6 million, so just imagine today’s value. Thousands of freshly minted 1857-S double eagles, some earlier $20 coins, ingots, and gold in other forms were among the treasures. Some of the double eagles were stacked in long rows or columns and nestled in wooden boxes. Elsewhere around the ship, passengers had their own stash in purses and boxes reflecting their success in the land of gold. Once they arrived in Panama City, they were transported by train to on the Panama Railroad, which was a 48-mile line, completed in 1855 and had facilitated the crossing of the isthmus in about three or four hours as opposed to paddling and tramping through the jungles for several days. When the train arrived in Aspinwall, the passengers disembarked, and the treasure was transported to storage.
The next leg of the trip was aboard the side-wheel steamer SS Central America. The ship had been called the SS George Law, but the name was later changed to the SS Central America. It was now on its forty-fourth voyage for the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company. The Atlantic Mail Steamship Company was operating under federal mail contract to provide mail to the people between the east and west. The steamers had Navy captains at the helm, men of proven reputation and experience. Capt. William Herndon commanded the Central America.
In early September 1857, the gold treasure was carefully packed aboard. The passengers found their cabins, and all were ready for the pleasant voyage to New York City. It was an ideal time of year for travel. A few days later, on September 7, 1857, the ship docked in the harbor of Havana. It was a popular stop for the passengers, who set about buying souvenirs and exploring the sights of the town. The trip toward New York continued to be pleasant. The skies were sunny and the sea smooth…temporarily.
At 5:30am on Wednesday, September 9, the ship’s second officer noted that the ship had gone 286 nautical miles in the preceding 26½ hours. He noted that a breeze was kicking up, and perhaps they were in for a storm, but expressed no concerns, because they were experienced and could handle a storm should it occur. That would prove to be the first mistake made. The storm grew furious and they were too far from a port to do much except keep the SS Central America into the waves. By Friday morning, September 11, the crew was still in control, but the ship was taking on water through the drive shaft, broken or open lights and elsewhere. The ship was tossing violently. It was virtually impossible to feed coal into the boilers.
At 11am Captain Herndon told the passengers that the ship was in grave danger. He enlisted the help of all men to bail water with a bucket brigade. By 1:00 in the afternoon the rising water in the hold doused the boiler fires. The ship’s paddlewheels stopped. The SS Central America was at the mercy of the sea. By Saturday, the 12th of September, 1857, the storm started to pass, but it was too late. The SS Central America was doomed. The people were told to abandon ship, and the SS Central America went down with all of their treasure. In all, 425 lives were lost to the sea. Only 153 were pulled from a watery grave by the brig Marine, which was also damaged by the storm, though not to the degree of the SS Central America. The ship was discovered again on September 11, 1988, almost exactly 131 years after she went down in a hurricane on September 12, 1857. It was a rich find for Thomas G Thompson and his crew…and the museums who would reap much of the benefits.