United States

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Over the centuries, there have been many exploratory expeditions all over the world. Some were privately financed, while others were financed by groups, governments, kings and as in the case of the 1955 to 1958 expedition to Antartica, the Commonwealth of England. The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) was an expedition that successfully completed the first overland crossing of Antarctica, by way of the South Pole. It was also the first expedition to reach the South Pole overland for 46 years. t was preceded only by Amundsen’s expedition and Scott’s expedition in 1911 and 1912. Antartica is a fierce, snow and ice covered, wilderness, which makes me wonder why anyone would want to be on an expedition there. Nevertheless, I suppose that it’s the adventure of it that attracts so many to attempts it.

Traditionally, polar expeditions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration were private ventures, and the CTAE was no exception, even though it was supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States, Australia and South Africa, as well as many corporate and individual donations, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II. The expedition was headed by British explorer Vivian Fuchs and included New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. The group from New Zealand included scientists who were participating in International Geophysical Year research while the British team were separately based at Halley Bay.

Fuchs took the Danish Polar vessel, Magga Dan and went for additional supplied, returning in December 1956. The southern summer of 1956–1957 was spent consolidating Shackleton Base and establishing the smaller South Ice Base, located about 300 miles inland to the south. The winter of 1957 found Fuchs at Shackleton Base. Then, finally, he set out on the transcontinental journey in November 1957. The twelve-man team traveled in six vehicles, three Sno-Cats, two Weasel tractors, and one specially adapted Muskeg tractor. While they traveled, the team was also tasked with carrying out scientific research including seismic soundings and gravimetric readings. This was, after all a scientific expedition.

Hillary’s team began setting up Scott Base. This was going to be the final destination for Fuchs. It was located on the opposite side of the continent at McMurdo Sound on the Ross Sea. Using three converted Ferguson TE20 tractors and one Weasel, which had to be abandoned part-way, Hillary and his three men…Ron Balham, Peter Mulgrew, and Murray Ellis…were responsible for route-finding and laying a line of supply depots up the Skelton Glacier and across the Polar Plateau on towards the South Pole, for the use of Fuchs on the final leg of his journey. The remaining member of Hillary’s team carried out geological surveys around the Ross Sea and Victoria Land areas. The Hillary team was not originally supposed to travel as far as the South Pole, but when the supply depots were completed, Hillary saw the opportunity to beat the British and continued south, thereby reaching the Pole…where the US Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station had recently been established by air, on January 3, 1958. While he wasn’t supposed to go, Hillary’s party became the third team to reach the South Pole, preceded by Roald Amundsen in 1911 and Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. Hillary’s arrival also marked the first time that land vehicles had ever reached the Pole. It was a great historic moment.

Fuchs’ team finally reached the Pole from the opposite direction on January 19, 1958, where they met up with Hillary. From there, Fuchs continued overland, following the route that Hillary had forged to get to the South Pole. Then, Hillary flew back to Scott Base in a US plane. He would later rejoin Fuchs by plane for part of the remaining overland journey. The original overland party finally arrived at Scott Base on March 2, 1958, after having completed the historic crossing of 2,158 miles of previously unexplored snow and ice in 99 days. A few days later the expedition members left Antarctica on the on the New Zealand naval ship Endeavour, headed for New Zealand, with Captain Harry Kirkwood at the helm.

Although large quantities of supplies were hauled overland, many forms of resources were used in the expedition. Both parties were also equipped with light aircraft and made extensive use of air support for reconnaissance and supplies. US personnel working in Antartica at the time provided additional logistical help. Both parties also used dog teams for fieldwork trips and backup in case of failure of the mechanical transportation. The dogs were not taken all the way to the Pole. In December 1957 four men from the expedition flew one of the planes…a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter—on an 11-hour, 1,430-mile, non-stop trans-polar flight across the Antarctic continent from Shackleton Base by way of the Pole to Scott Base, following roughly by air the same route as Fuchs’ overland party. For his accomplishments, Fuchs was knighted. The second overland crossing of the continent did not occur until 1981, during the Transglobe Expedition led by Ranulph Fiennes.

“Who was Winston Churchill?” It’s not a question you often hear, because Winston Churchill had a presence. His features were distinct, but he was not a big man. Churchill stood 5’6½” tall and weighed 187 pounds. He was maybe 35 pounds overweight, but not in bad health, especially considering he smoked as many as ten cigars a day, and when you consider that he lived to be 90 years old, it would seem that none of the normal “risk factors” applied to Winston Churchill. He dealt with daily stress, poor eating habits, excess weight, and smoking, but outlived many people in this era or that. How people felt about Winston Churchill, depended on which side of the subject in question they were on. When he made up his mind on a matter, he rarely changed his mind, and he didn’t back down.

He was responsible for one of the most famous speeches of the Cold War period. It was a speech in which former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe and declared, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Churchill’s Cold War speech is one of the “opening volleys” announcing the beginning of the Cold War. When he was defeated for re-election as prime minister in 1945, he was invited to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, which is where he gave this speech. President Harry S Truman joined Churchill on the platform and listened intently to his speech. Expressing praise for the United States, Churchill declared that the United States stood “at the pinnacle of world power.” England and the United States have long had a “friendly, but competitive relationship,” and it would soon become quite clear that a primary purpose of his talk was to argue for an even closer “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain…the two great powers of the “English-speaking world.” But, would it be in the best interest of the United States to agree?

World War II had ended, and as in any post war situation, things were still pretty chaotic. Nevertheless, it was necessary to set policies, and to organize the losing countries so that things didn’t escalate out of control again…not an easy task. The Soviet Union was well known for its expansionistic policies and was unlikely to stop trying to take over its neighbors without some kind of intervention. In addition to the “iron curtain” that had descended across Eastern Europe, Churchill spoke of “communist fifth columns” that were operating throughout western and southern Europe. Churchill compared the Soviet Union to disastrous consequences of the appeasement of Hitler prior to World War II, saying that in dealing with the Soviets there was “nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.” Therefore, without intervention, they would quickly get back to the same disastrous practices they used before, and the war would have to fought all over again.

The speech was well received by Truman and many other US officials. Everyone knew the truth, and somebody simply had to come right out and say it. They had decided that because the Soviet Union was determined to expand, only a tough stance on a united front would deter the Russians. Churchill’s “iron curtain” phrase immediately entered the official vocabulary of the Cold War. It was a term everyone knew, and it perfectly described the problem. Of course, agreeing with Churchill, didn’t necessarily mean that the US officials enthusiastic about Churchill’s call for a “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. They weren’t concerned that Great Britain would again try to have some influence over the United States, but rather they were well aware that Britain’s power was weakening, and the US had no intention of being used as pawns to help support the crumbling British empire.

Of course, the Russian leader Joseph Stalin had a very different view of the speech, saying that it was “war mongering” and referred to Churchill’s comments about the “English-speaking world” as imperialist “racism.” The British, Americans, and Russians, all of whom were allies against Hitler less than a year before the speech, were now drawing the battle lines of the Cold War. It didn’t take long for the similarities between Hitler and the Soviet Union to become glaringly clear, and they had to be stopped. I don’t know why dictators feel the need to enslave other people. The “Iron Curtain” would “come down” like all other forms of tyranny must eventually do, but unfortunately, a lot of lives are lost before victory is achieved.

The Cold War, and the Soviet Union’s sudden announcement on August 30, 1961, to end a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing, brought about a shift in US policy, and a number of to nuclear test operations. One, known as Operation Fishbowl was a series of high-altitude nuclear tests in 1962 that were carried out by the United States as a part of the larger Operation Dominic nuclear test program. Flight-test vehicles were designed and manufactured by Avco Corporation. The test planned for the first half of 1962, called Bluegill, Starfish and Urraca were originally planned for the first half of 1962, but the first test attempt was delayed until June. Planning was complex, but necessary.

The launch sites were planned from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean north of the equator. The island was the chosen launch site, rather than the other locations in the Pacific Proving Grounds. However, the testing was not without push back. Even as early as 1958, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, opposed doing any high-altitude tests at locations that had been used for earlier Pacific nuclear tests. The motivation for concern was the fear of the flash from the nighttime high-altitude detonations might blind civilians who were living on nearby islands. Still, Johnston Island was a remote location. It was more distant from populated areas than the other potential test locations. Nevertheless, in order to protect residents of the Hawaiian Islands from flash blindness or permanent retinal injury from the bright nuclear flash, the nuclear missiles of Operation Fishbowl were launched toward the southwest of Johnston Island. The detonation part of the test would be farther from Hawaii.

The Urraca test involved about a 1 megaton yield at very high altitude of just over 621 miles. With the damage caused to satellites by the Starfish Prime detonation, the proposed Urraca test was always controversial. Because they couldn’t put the fears to rest, the Urraca test was finally canceled, and an extensive re-evaluation of the Operation Fishbowl plan as a whole was made during the 82-day operations pause after the Bluegill Prime disaster of July 25, 1962. When prime was added to a test, it indicated that the main test had failed, so when Bluegill Prime failed, it was the second test fail for that test series, which in this case (Bluegill Double Prime), ended in disaster when the Thor suffered a stuck valve preventing the flow of LOX to the combustion chamber. The engine lost thrust and unburned RP-1 spilled down into the hot thrust chamber, igniting and starting a fire around the base of the missile. Bluegill would go on to have two more tests, before they finally achieved success.

A test named Kingfish was added during the early stages of Operation Fishbowl planning. Two low-yield tests, Checkmate and Tightrope, were also added during the project, so the final number of tests in Operation Fishbowl was five. Tightrope was the last atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the United States, as the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into effect shortly thereafter. A total of Seven rockets carrying scientific instrumentation were launched from Johnston Island in support of the Tightrope test, which was the final atmospheric test conducted by the United States. I suppose testing is necessary, and I don’t know where else or how else it could be done, but the whole thing seems crazy to me. I do think that in light of this and other nuclear test disasters, care should be taken to better protect human life.

The American Revolutionary War actually began on April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. At that time, it wasn’t considered a full-blown war, and attempts were still being made by July 5, 1775, to avoid that full-blown war. The Olive Branch Petition, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 5, 1775, and signed on July 8th, was the final attempt to avoid the full-blown war between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies in America, that became known as the American Revolutionary War, and ended with full independence of the United States.

It seemed that in the early days of the Revolutionary War, the main weapon was a volley of petitions and proclamations. The Second Continental Congress had already authorized the invasion of Canada more than a week earlier, but the Olive Branch Petition affirmed American loyalty to Great Britain, asking King George III to prevent further conflict. The petition was followed up with a July 6th Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, making the success of the Olive Branch Petition unlikely in London. By August 1775, London officially declared the colonies to be in rebellion by the Proclamation of Rebellion, and the Olive Branch Petition was rejected by the British government. In fact, King George had refused to read it before declaring that the colonists were traitors.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775. At that time, most and most delegates followed John Dickinson in his quest to reconcile with King George. He could not picture a world with an independent United States. I suppose there are always those people without a vision for the future. However, there was a small group of delegates, led by John Adams, who could see that war was inevitable, and that we would need to become independent of Great Britain. Nevertheless, there is a right time, so they decided that the wisest course of action was to remain quiet and wait for the opportune time to rally the people. This allowed Dickinson and his followers to pursue their own course for a reconciliation that would ultimately never happen.

Dickinson was the primary author of the Olive Branch Petition, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Rutledge, and Thomas Johnson, all of whom also served on the drafting committee. Dickinson claimed that the colonies did not want independence, but rather, wanted more equitable trade and tax regulations. He asked that the King establish a lasting settlement between the Mother Country and the colonies “upon so firm a basis as to perpetuate its blessings, uninterrupted by any future dissensions, to succeeding generations in both countries” beginning with the repeal of the Intolerable Acts. The introductory paragraph of the letter named twelve of the thirteen colonies, all except Georgia. The letter was approved on July 5 and signed by John Hancock, President of the Second Congress, and by representatives of the named twelve colonies. It was sent to London on July 8, 1775, in the care of Richard Penn and Arthur Lee. Dickinson hoped that news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord combined with the “humble petition” would persuade the King to respond with a counterproposal or open negotiations.

Finally, Adams wrote to a friend, telling him that the petition served no purpose. Everyone knew that war was inevitable. Adams said that the colonies should have already raised a navy and taken the British officials prisoner. Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted by British officials and news of its contents reached Great Britain at about the same time as the petition itself. British advocates of a military response used Adams’ letter to claim that the petition itself was insincere, and it was rejected. The hostilities which Adams had foreseen undercut the petition, and the King had answered it before it even reached him.

With the King’s refusal to consider the petition, came the opportunity Adams and others needed to push for independence. Now the colonists viewed the King as unwilling and uninterested concerning the colonists’ grievances. The colonists finally knew that they had just two choices…complete independence or complete submission to British rule. They chose complete independence, and the rest, as we all know, is history.

While Independence Day is celebrated on July 4th each year, with all the festivities, days off, barbecues, and fireworks, our nation…formally known as the thirteen colonies, actually obtained legal separation from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia declaring the United States independent from Great Britain’s rule. Called the Lee Resolution, it was also known as “The Resolution for Independence” and was the formal assertion passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2nd. The Lee Resolution resolved that the Thirteen Colonies, at the time referred to as the United Colonies, were “free and independent states” and were now separate from the British Empire. The resolution created what became the United States of America.

After passing the vote for independence, Congress could turn its attention to the Declaration of Independence, which would be the official statement explaining this decision. The Declaration of Independence had been prepared by a Committee of Five, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. While Jefferson collaborated extensively with the other four members of the Committee of Five, i,t was largely his writing and his wording that made up the Declaration of Independence. It was composed in isolation over 17 days between June 11, 1776, and June 28, 1776. Jefferson was renting the second floor of a three-story private home at 700 Market Street in Philadelphia at the time. The house, within walking distance of Independence Hall, is now known as the Declaration House.

Of course, as with any document brought before Congress, they debated and revised the wording of the Declaration, and for reasons unknown, removed wording in which Jefferson had vigorously denounced King George III for importing the slave trade. They finally approved the document two days later on July 4th. John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3rd, stating, “The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Of course, as we all know, Adams’s prediction was off by two days. Nevertheless, his idea that a day should be celebrated forever, did become a tradition, not on July 2nd, but rather on July 4th, because of the Declaration of Independence. That was because of the date shown on the much-publicized Declaration of Independence, rather than the date the resolution of independence was approved in a closed session of Congress. In addition, historians have disputed whether members of Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, even though Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all later wrote that they had signed it on that day. Many historians believe that the Declaration was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776, and not on July 4th as many have believed. Nevertheless, they have been unable to prove their theory or to change the date on which we celebrate our independence.

One thing that I find very interesting is the fact that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were the only two signatories of the Declaration of Independence later to serve as presidents of the United States, both died on the same day…July 4, 1826, and within five hours of each other. They were also the last surviving members of the original American revolutionaries. It was also the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. James Monroe, while not a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, but who was another Founding Father who was elected president, also died on July 4, 1831, making him the third President who died on the anniversary of independence. There was one president who was born on Independence Day…Calvin Coolidge, who was born on July 4, 1872.

As the United States was being settled, a number of wars were fought between the Native Americans and the White Man. So much anger and so many hard feelings had passed between the two groups that it seemed like peace could never be achieved. Finally, in an attempt to convince local Native Americans to make peace with the United States, the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet met with the Sioux leader Sitting Bull in what is present-day Montana. He saw an urgent need to make peace and decided to go for it.

De Smet was a native of Belgium, who came to the United States in 1821 at the age of 20. Once in the states, he became a novice of the Jesuit order in Maryland. De Smet was ordained in Saint Louis, and as a priest, decided to be a missionary to the Native Americans of the Far West. It was an ambitious goal, but in 1838, he was sent to evangelize the Potawatomi villages near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. De Smet met a delegation of Flathead Indians there. The Indians had come east looking for a “black robe” whom they hoped might be able to aid their tribe. Of course, a “black robe” would be a priest, and since De Smet was indeed a priest, they had found what they were looking for. De Smet worked with the Flathead Indians several times during the 1840s in present-day western Montana. While there, he established a mission and actually secured a peace treaty with the Blackfeet, who had previously been the irreconcilable enemy of the Flathead.

His hard work earned De Smet a reputation as a white man who could be trusted to negotiate disputes between Native Americans and the US government, which was not something that very many people could boast. The disputes between the Indians and the US government became fairly commonplace in the West during the 1860s. The Plains Indians, like the Sioux and Cheyenne resisted the growing flood of white settlers invading their territories and killing their game animals. As the conflicts continued, the US government began to demand that all the Plains Indians be relocated to reservations, another source of contention. The leaders in the American government and military had hoped that the relocation could be achieved through negotiations, but in the absence of a peaceful relocation, they were perfectly willing to use violence to force the local Native Americans to comply. It was futile to fight the change, but anyone can see why the Native Americans would try. They didn’t want to be forced to stay in just one area and to be told what they could and could not do…and in reality, the reservations have not proven to be the best thing for either side. Nevertheless, that is where we are today, and in many ways, the situation hasn’t improved much, except there aren’t Indian wars, so I guess that is a good thing. The disputes are handled differently now, but the feeling of a nation inside a nation is one that really isn’t perfect. Still, the Indian Nation does exist inside the United States, and they do have jurisdiction in their own territory, and I don’t suppose the feeling of separation will ever change.

The first official space flight occurred on April 12, 1961, when Soviet astronaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who, aboard the first successful crewed spaceflight, became the first human to journey into outer space. Traveling on Vostok 1, Gagarin completed one orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961. While that was the first official manned space flight, there were other times that man touched space.
The North American X-15 was an experimental US single seat rocket powered airplane that was taken aloft by a B-52 bomber acting as its “mother ship” and released to test extremely high speed and extremely high-altitude flight. The first such flight took place on June 8, 1959.

The hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft known as the North American X-15, was operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft. While it didn’t exactly go into space, the X-15 set speed and altitude records in the 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design, making it a precursor to the spacecraft of today. The X-15’s highest speed, 4,520 miles per hour , was achieved on October 3, 1967, when William J Knight flew at Mach 6.7 at an altitude of 102,100 feet or 19.34 miles. This set the official world record for the highest speed ever recorded by a crewed, powered aircraft, and it remains unbroken to this day.

While pilot, William Knight flew an all-time record speed of Mach 6.7 (4520 miles per hour), the fastest speed flown by a powered and manned piloted aircraft, in 1967, his flight wasn’t the first record setting flight in the X-15. This incredible speed was not even close to the maximum potential of the X-15. A typical commercial passenger jet flies at a speed of about 460 – 575 miles per hour, when cruising at about 36,000 feet, which figures to about 75-85% of the speed of sound. I can’t imagine going any faster than that, much less wrap my head around more than 4520 miles per hour!!

In 1963, pilot Joe Walker flew his X-15 into the history books by flying it to a record altitude of 67 miles and achieving a speed of almost Mach 5 (3794 miles per hour). While there is no sharp physical boundary that marks the end of atmosphere and the beginning of space, it is generally marked at the Karman line, and for purposes of space flight defined as an altitude of 60 miles, although some place the line at 50 miles above Earth’s mean sea level.

The X-15 program continued until 1968, when the rocket planes were retired. On notable pilot was Neil Armstrong, who was also the first man to walk on the Moon, of course. Armstrong made 7 flights in the speedy rocket plane. Also interesting to note is the fact that during the X-15 program, 12 pilots flew a combined 199 flights. Of the 12 pilots, 8 pilots flew a combined 13 flights that exceeded the altitude of 50 miles, thus qualifying these pilots as being astronauts!! Of those 13 flights, two (flown by the same civilian pilot) met the FAI (Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale) definition of 62 miles of outer space. The 5 Air Force pilots qualified for military astronaut wings immediately, while the 3 civilian pilots were eventually awarded NASA astronaut wings in 2005, 35 years after the last X-15 flight.

These days, when a president or other elected official is inaugurated, the ceremony is often followed that evening by an inaugural ball. In fact, it is pretty much expected, like the celebration of victory after a long, hard-fought battle. When our first president, George Washington was sworn into office as the first president of the United States, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, New York, on April 30, 1789, all tradition concerning elections was brand new. Our country was still trying to figure out what our traditions would be at that point.

A week later, on May 3, 1789, George Washington attended a ball in his honor. These days inaugural balls are planned and held with every inauguration. In fact, most presidents attend several balls on inauguration night. Still, in 1789, they were brand new, and it would be another decade before the practice was revived, with the inaugural of James Madison, the fourth president. Dolley, President Madison’s wife, threw a gala for 400 people at Long’s Hotel in Washington. Tickets cost $4.00, which would have amounted to about $100.00 today. That was actually very reasonable, considering that they run about $350.00 today. I suppose that if you were part of high society, you would think nothing of that amount for a ball which would show your support of the new president, as well as, your position in society.

Since Madison’s inaugural ball, the events have become more or less a quadrennial presidential fixture. Today, we think nothing of the event, assuming that it is just part of the grand tradition of our electoral process and seating a new president. Nevertheless, there have been years that the Inaugural Ball has been cancelled. Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, and Warren Harding, in 1921, both passed up balls, citing the need to economize. Franklin Pierce canceled his in 1853 because of the recent death of his son. President Franklin D Roosevelt was another exception, choosing to work through the night rather than attend his first inaugural ball in 1933. He canceled the next three galas because of the Depression and World War II.

At the first ball, Washington danced with many ladies who were considered the cream of New York society. New York was the temporary site of the newly established federal government. Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary, recorded her impressions in her memoirs. She wrote that Washington liked to dance the minuet, a dance she thought was “suited to his dignity and gravity.” In what would seem strange today, Martha Washington apparently did not attend the Inaugural Ball. One month to the day of her husband’s departure for New York, Martha Washington set out on her own triumphant trip to the seat of the new government, thereby becoming our first, First Lady.

If you lived in Eccles, West Virginia in 1914, you or someone in your family most likely worked at the Eccles Mine Number 5. Eccles was a tiny town in Raleigh County. Mine number 5 was opened in 1905, and by 1914, the mine employed most of the local men and even the teenagers. Life was mundane for the most part. Not much happened in the town, and April 28, 1914 promised to be just another boring day. On that Tuesday morning, dozens of local men and teens left their homes to go to work at the Eccles Mine Number 5, which was one of group of coal mines in West Virginia owned by the New River Colliers Company. Everything was going along fine, when suddenly, at 2:30pm, a sudden explosion rocked the Number 5 mine. In an instant, more than 180 workers who had left home as usual that day, would never go home again.

The explosion was caused by coal-seam methane. At least 180 men lay dead, at least that was the death roll published as of 2011 by the National Coal Heritage Trail. A monument at the cemetery lists 183 victims, and the records of the county coroner list 186. When the mine was rocked by a series of violent explosions, parts of the mine collapsed while other parts were heavily damaged, which trapped the miners inside. Of course, the people of Eccles and officials from the mining company rushed to the scene to aid the rescue efforts. Despite their best efforts, it was soon obvious that this would be a recovery effort, and not a rescue. That day, all of the miners in Eccles Mine Number 5 were killed, including five who were under the age of 14 years of age. In addition, nine workers in a nearby mine were killed when deadly gas from Mine Number 5 seeped into their mine. Ironically, one of the men who died in the nearby mine, was an insurance agent from Charleston, West Virginia, who had only gone into the mine to solicit business from the men. He was only there for a few minutes. It was there that the salesman, who had unfortunately chosen that day to visit the mine and sell insurance to its workers, was also killed. The blast and the subsequent damage to the mine, left many of the victim so mangled and torn apart, that most of them could not be positively identified because of their horrific injuries.

In the early 1900s, coal was in great demand. Production in the United States had increased from 50 million tons of coal in 1850 to 250 million tons of coal in 1903. Unfortunately, the increasing demand and the rush to supply, brought with it worsening work conditions. The danger occurred when the men were digging for coal in deep mines, in which chambers of gas lay just underneath. That meant that highly explosive gasses could come into contact with carbide headlamps. The next thing they knew, they had an explosion on their hands. The mine disaster brought attention to an overall safety problem in the West Virginia mining industry. Sadly…at least in that it didn’t happen sooner, the disaster actually aided the unions’ attempts to improve the workers’ conditions. The labor union helped to ban carbide headlamps in West Virginia. It was suspected that the headlamps were most likely the cause of the Eccles explosion, as well as a second mine explosion 18 years later in Illinois.

John Jacob Astor IV was born on July 13, 1864 at his parents’ country estate of Ferncliff in Rhinebeck, New York. He was the youngest of five children and only son of William Backhouse Astor Jr, a businessman, collector, and racehorse breeder/owner, and Caroline Webster “Lina” Schermerhorn, a Dutch-American socialite. His four elder sisters were Emily, Helen, Charlotte, and Caroline (“Carrie”). John Astor IV was an American business magnate, real estate developer, investor, writer, lieutenant colonel in the Spanish–American War. He came from a long line of the very prominent Astor family.

Astor’s was an accomplished writer, having published “A Journey in Other Worlds” (1894), a science-fiction novel about life in the year 2000 on the planets Saturn and Jupiter. He was also an inventor. He patented several inventions, including a bicycle brake in 1898, a “vibratory disintegrator” used to produce gas from peat moss, and a pneumatic road-improver, and he helped develop a turbine engine. He was a great visionary, and his contributions to the world were amazing.

Astor married socialite Ava Lowle Willing on February 17, 1891. The couple had two children, William Vincent Astor (November 15, 1891 – February 3, 1959), businessman and philanthropist, and Ava Alice Muriel Astor (July 7, 1902 – July 19, 1956). The couple divorced in November 1909. Astor IV remarried shortly thereafter, compounding the scandal of his divorce. At the age of 47, Astor married 18-year-old socialite Madeleine Talmage Force, the sister of real estate businesswoman and socialite Katherine Emmons Force. Astor and Force were married in his mother’s ballroom at Beechwood, the family’s Newport, Rhode Island, mansion. There was also much controversy over their 29-year age difference. His son Vincent despised Force, yet he served as best man at his father’s wedding. The couple took an extended honeymoon in Europe and Egypt to wait for the gossip to calm down. Among the few Americans who did not spurn him at this time was Margaret Brown, later fictionalized as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She accompanied the Astors to Egypt and France. After receiving a call to return to the United States, Brown accompanied the couple back home aboard RMS Titanic.

Astor IV died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic during the early hours of April 15, 1912. Astor was the richest passenger aboard the RMS Titanic and was thought to be among the richest people in the world at that time. He was also a true gentleman, who would never have been on a lifeboat without knowing that all the women and children were on lifeboats. Astor IV had a net worth of roughly $87 million when he died, which would be equivalent to $2.44 billion in 2021. Astor, like his predecessors also made millions in real estate. In 1897, Astor built the Astoria Hotel, “the world’s most luxurious hotel”, in New York City, adjoining the Waldorf Hotel owned by Astor’s cousin and rival, William. Later, the complex became known as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria was the host location to the United States inquiries into the sinking of the RMS Titanic, on which Astor died.

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