All posts by Mark Taylor

Remembering History: United States Connected By Rail To Both Coasts (10 May 1869)

East and West Shaking hands at the laying of last rail Union Pacific Railroad
10 May 1869
Andrew J. Russell (1829–1902), Restored by Adam Cuerden
Yale University Libraries (via Wikimedia Commons)

There was a time that traveling coast to coast was an arduous task. You could take a long ship voyage down to the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and then sail north to get to San Francisco. You could get off at the Isthmus of Panama and walk over to the Pacific (and later by train) but it had its own risks as well. Or you could go as far west as the train would take you and take either a long wagon train voyage (or possibly a long stagecoach ride) until you got to the west coast. The completion of the transcontinental railway ended that on 10 May 1865 in Promontory, Utah.

The need for a transcontinental railroad was noticed as early as 1832. Connecting both coasts was needed in order to move freight, people, and even the military if needed. It was not until 1853 that Congress approved money for surveys to be done on possible routes. Tensions between North and South caused delays and where the line should begin. In 1862, with the Civil War going on, Congress approved the Pacific Railroad Act (1862) which gave loans and public land grants to build the railroad. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines began construction in Omaha and Sacramento.

Construction was arduous and difficult for both lines and the workers who built them. The Union Pacific used mostly Irish laborers, many who had served in the Civil War. Conditions in towns and settlements they had to use in most cases was simple and often miserable. Making it more difficult were the hot summers and often cold winters along with a great deal of lawlessness as well. The Central Pacific used Chinese laborers who worked brutal 12-hour days and were paid less than their counterparts on the Union Pacific. Building in the Sierra Nevada mountains proved very difficult, and avalanches were a frequent hazard in which whole work crews would be killed. Also misuse or mishandling of explosives would also take lives as well.

Yet despite all of this (and even initially building the lines that did not connect), the transcontinental railroad got done ahead of schedule in 1869. Remarkably it came under budget, which is extraordinary for a massive project of this type. Its construction allowed for the rapid expansion and development of the United States thanks to the rapid movement of freight and people across the country. By the end of June 1869, it was possible to travel entirely by rail from Jersey City, New Jersey to the Alameda Wharf in Oakland, CA. From there you hopped on a railway owned ferry to take you across the bay to San Francisco.

Sources


World War II Ends in Europe (8 May 1945)

German Instrument of Surrender signed on 7 April 1945 effective 8 May 1945.
Original source: U.S. Government Employee
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

It was a day long anticipated for both Great Britain and the United States. After years of hard fighting on both land and sea, the war against Germany was at an end. 8 May 1945 all German troops in Europe laid down their arms and surrendered. In formerly occupied cities and throughout Britain and the United States, celebrations broke out. Flags and banners were hung, people gathered in the streets, many went to church to give thanks to God for this wonderful day to finally arrive. Nazi flags, banners, and reminders of their former occupiers were quickly taken down and destroyed. The hard work of rebuilding would begin soon and for many countries that had suffered under Nazi occupation, it would take time. Germany in many areas would have to be rebuilt from the bombardment that had destroyed many cities. American and German prisoners of war were released and sent back home.

VE Day in London, 8 May 1945. Crowd is at Whitehall waiting to hear from Winston Churchill.
Source: Imperial War Museum
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

German troops tried, if possible, to surrender to British or American forces. They believed they would be better treated and a better chance of living. The Soviets had a reputation for being particularly nasty to captured German officers and soldiers. In Salzburg, Austria the two oldest sons of Captain Georg von Trapp, later to be immortalized in The Sound of Music, found their home they left behind when the family fled Austria to Italy (their tale, to be recounted later, is a fascinating one). They learned their home had been occupied by none other than Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the hated SS and under whose leadership the Final Solution had been carried out. The Trapp family would later give their home to a religious order that lives there to this day.

The war would linger a day longer in the East. The Soviets continued to battle small pockets of resistance in Silesia until they surrendered. This marked the end of hostilities in Europe for the Russians, who consider 9 May 1945 their day to celebrate the defeat of Germany. Stalin announced the end on a radio broadcast: “Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

 

Sources:

History.com
World War II Database
Wikipedia

Remembering History: Sinking of Lusitania (7 May 1915)

RMS Lusitania Coming Into Port (circa 1907-1913)
George Grantham Bain Collection, US Library of Congress, Digital Id cph.3g13287.
Public Domain

On 7 May 1915, the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed off Ireland and sank within 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, only 761 would survive. 128 of the passengers were American.

World War II had begun in 1914 between Britain, France, and Russia (including Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Serbia) and Germany, Austria Hungary, and Turkey (then called Ottoman Empire). The United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, declared neutrality. Since the U.S. was a major trading partner with Britain, problems arose when Germany tried to quarantine the British Isles using mines.  Several American ships ended up being damaged or sunk as a result. In February 1915, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare around British waters. This meant any ship entering these waters were subject to being attacked and sunk by German forces.

To make this very clear, the German embassy in Washington had advertisements run in New York newspapers in early May 1915 that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. In one case, the announcement was on the same page as advertisement of the Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool.

Warning issued by Imperial German Embassy in Washington about travelling on RMS Lusitania.
Author Unknown
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The British Admiralty issued warnings, due to merchant ships being sunk off the south coast of Ireland, to ships to avoid the area or take evasive action (zigzagging was advised). The British objected by pointing out that threatening to torpedo all ships was wrong, whether announced in advance or not. During her construction, subsidized by the British government, it was done with the proviso she could be converted to an armed merchant cruiser.

A compartment was also installed to for the purposes of carrying arms and ammunition if it were needed. Gun mounts were installed for deck cannons, but they were not installed. At the time of her sinking, she was not operating in any official capacity as an armed merchant cruiser. The Germans suspected the ship was being used to transport munitions and her repainting to a grey color was an attempt to disguise her (it was, but to make it harder to spot from a periscope).

The Lusitania was one of the fastest liners on the Atlantic capable of 25 knots (29 mph) with many refinements. With lifts, the wireless telegraph, electric lights, and more passenger space (and more sumptuous accomodations), traveling on the Lusitania or her sister ships Aquitania and Maurentania was considered a good experience by seasoned travelers. The fact that she traveled so fast makes it likely it was simply being in the right place and the right time for the German U-boat. She could not possibly have caught the speedy vessel otherwise (there are arguments about what speed Lusitania was doing at this time off Ireland).

Engraving of Lusitania Sinking by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915
Public Domain(Wikimedia)

Captain William Turner did not use zigzagging while in the area (many argue that it does not really work). The commanding officer of the U-boat,  Walther Schwieger, ordered one torpedo fired around 14:10 (2:10 pm). It struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow. A second explosion within the ship occurred and the ship began to founder starboard quickly. While the crew tried to launch the lifeboats, the severe list made it difficult and impossible in many cases. Only six of the forty-eight lifeboats would be launched. The ship sank in 18 minutes taking with her 1, 198 souls. Of the 764 that did survive (and that is a heroic tale of itself), three would die later from wounds sustained from the sinking. Though close to the coast, it would be some time before assistance arrived. Local fishing ships were the first to provide assistance, and later the naval patrol boat Heron. Other small ships provided assistance as well.

Aftermath

The sinking provoked international fury at Germany. Germany defended its actions saying the ship had been carrying contraband and was an armed auxiliary military cruiser. The reaction within Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey was criticism of the sinking. The German government tried to defend the sinking, even though she was not armed, by saying she was carrying contraband and they had warned this would happen. The official statements did not go over well in the United States or in Britain. Editorials in newspapers denounced what Germany had done calling for more to bring them to heel. It was hotly debated within the Wilson administration what to do. Wilson condemned what Germany had done but internally but William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State, argued for trying to convince both Britain and Germany to ratchet down some of the actions that had led to Lusitania sinking. Bryan was antiwar and like many did not want the U.S. getting involved in the European war.

President Wilson would send three notes to Germany that made his position clear on the issue. First he said that Americans had the right to travel on merchant ships and for Germany to abandon submarine warfare on such vessels. Second, he rejected German arguments about Lusitania. This note caused Bryan to resign and was replaced by Robert Lansing. The third note was a warning that any subsequent sinkings would be “deliberately unfriendly.” That last one made it clear America’s position on the matter. While many wanted to stay out of the war, if the Germans did do it again they likely would find themselves at war with them.

The British government and press were not happy with Wilson over these notes. He was widely castigated and sneered. The reality was that American public opinion was not in favor of war. Wilson knew this and hoped Germany would stop attacking merchant vessels. There was some attempt within the German government to forbid action against neutral ships, which did curtail unrestricted submarine warfare for a while. British merchant ships were targeted, neutral ships treated differently (boarded and searched for war materials), and passenger ships left alone. But in 1917, Germany announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson was furious and began preparations for war with Germany.

Sources:

History.com
The Lusitania Resource


Remembering History: The Hindenburg Disaster (6 May 1937)

Airship Hindenburg crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937
Photo originally taken by Murray Becker, AP
Public Domain

On 6 May 1937 the German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while trying to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst near Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 passengers and crew, 35 perished and one worker was killed on the ground.

Airships were a popular way to travel. They were comfortable and often afforded their passengers the ability to see things that passengers of airplanes would not often see. The Germans had perfected the use of airships while the United States suffered humiliating crashes that confounded designers. The German Zeppelins used hydrogen for many years without any major incident until 1937.

Hindenburg over New York hours prior to the disaster. (Public domain)

The event was caught on newsreel and on radio. Herbert Morrision’s radio coverage is classic and you can listen to at History.com. You can also listen to this one on YouTube which points out that Morrison’s voice was much higher than normal due to the tape recording speed (he was known for his deep voice). His actual audio report sounds different when you hear it as it ought to have been. A British Pathe newsreel of the disaster be viewed here.

While sabotage was suspected, neither the American or German inquiries concluded that was the cause. The American report concludes:

The cause of the accident was the ignition of a mixture of free hydrogen and air. Based upon the evidence, a leak at or in the vicinity of cell 4 and 5 caused a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air to form in the upper stern part of the ship in considerable quantity; the first appearance of an open flame was on the top of the ship and a relatively short distance forward of the upper vertical fin. The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable.

The many theories that continue to persist are:

  • Sabotage
  • Lightning
  • Static Spark
  • Engine Failure
  • Incendiary Paint
  • Hydrogen Leak
  • Fuel Leak

Mythbusters examined the incendiary paint hypothesis and concluded it did not cause the catastrophe. Many believe the most likely reason for the explosion is that a tiny tear in the fabric or an exposed piece of metal was the entry point for static electricity to ignite the hydrogen. Hydrogen would never be used again for airships after this.

Airships faded from use though the famous Goodyear blimps over sports and other events are used to film the events below. And with the desire to conserve our environment these days, helium filled airships may yet return as a means of travel.

Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
National Library of Australia (via Wikimedia Commons)
Public Domain

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area. The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born

Building it was another matter. The French gave it a try and it was a complete failure. The construction costs quickly mushroomed, and they lost 20,0000 workers due to malaria and accidents. The company collapsed and many speculated it could not be done. The US, for both maritime and military reasons, decided to buy up the French company and do it themselves. At the time, the proposed canal was in Columbia resulting having to negotiate terms for the digging of the canal. However, Columbia and the U.S. could not come to terms, leaving the U.S. with a problem. The area of Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. So, with the full support of the US, Panama declared its independence in November 1903. The treaty signed between Panama and the US allowed for the construction of the canal but gave the US sovereign rights in the canal zone. This allowed the US to not only build the canal but administer and defend it as well. Fees for using the canal would go to the zone but also to Panama as well.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.

Sources:


Welcome to May

May, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416)
Limbourg brothers (fl. 1402–1416)
Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

May is the fifth month on the current Gregorian and the old Julian calendar. It is named for the Greek goddess Maia. On the old Roman calendar, this was the third month. May has 31 days. The full moon in May is sometimes called the Flower Moon since many flowers bloom during this month.

May is commonly associated with spring in the Northern Hemisphere but autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Usually, it is also the time that plants begin to grow. It is a time for many festivals and celebrations as well. The ancient Romans had several of them during May and many Europeans today have events during the month. Late May is often considered the beginnings of the summer season in many places.

The May symbols are the emerald (birthstone), along with Lilly of the Valley and Hawthorn as the birth flowers.

Emerald from Muzo Mine, Mun. de Muzo, Vasquez-Yacopí Mining District, Boyacá Department, Colombia
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Find Gifts for Mother’s Day. Shop Amazon for Mothers Day Gifts.

Remembering History: US Army Liberates Dachau (30 April 1945)

Young and old survivors in Dachau cheer approaching U.S. troops.
29 April 1945
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #45075
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Established in 1933, 10 miles northwest of Munich on the outskirts of a town called Dachau, this concentration camp would initially house 5,000 political prisoners. The number of those opposed to the Nazi regime would increase from the original Communists it held. Soon it would include Roma (Gypsies), religious dissenters (Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.) repeat criminals and homosexuals. In 1938, Jews began becoming a large number of those sent to this camp.

Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers for German armaments production and was used as a training facility for SS concentration camp guards. Prisoners were also used in hideous medical experiments resulting in many dying or being crippled for life. While many thousands died at Dachau, many were sent to the extermination center near Linz, Austria until a gas chamber and crematorium were added in 1942. Satellite camps supplemented the main camp and were set up near armaments factories. Collectively all these camps were administered by Dachau and part of it.

The situation by April 1945 was dire for Germany with Allied forces closing in. Many prisoners were sent from camps nearer the front to Dachau resulting in epidemics and overcrowding. Over 7,000 mostly Jewish prisoners were forced to March from Dachau to Tegernsee in the south. Most of the camp guards left Dachau and only light resistance was given to the U.S. Army troops that arrived on 29 April 1945. Near the camp, they found 30 railroad cars full of corpses. More bodies were found at the camp but there were 30,000 survivors, many who were emaciated. The scene was appalling to the American troops. Many would write or talk about it later as one of the most horrific things they had ever seen. 30 captured SS guards were killed by American soldiers over what they saw (others claim it is was a lot more). German citizens of Dachau were later forced to bury the 9,000 dead inmates found at the camp.

(Here is a video on the liberation, but you will need to view it on YouTube.)

Sources:

Books

Gilbert, Martin: The Holocaust-A History of The Jews of Europe During The Second World War, Henry Holt & Company, New York 1985

Snyder, Lewis: Encyclopedia of The Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1976

United State Holocaust Memorial Museum: Historical Atlas of The Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing USA, New York 1996

Internet

History.com
Holocaust Encyclopedia
Jewish Virtual Library

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Remembering History: Hitler Commits Suicide;War in Europe Nearly Over (30 May 1945)

U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes announcing Hitler’s death
2 May 1945
Original source: U.S. Army
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler–the leader and founder of the 1,000 Reich–committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in the underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. It would lead to the end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945 when Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied powers.

Since the defeat of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, it had become increasingly apparent that Allied forces had turned the tide. Germany had been pushed out of North Africa at this point, faced Allied armies in Italy, and of course on 6 June 1944 the Allied invasion of Europe had occurred. An attempt on his life was unsuccessful in July 1944 (he was saved when the briefcase with the explosive was pushed under a heavy table) but resulted in imprisonment and executions for many who were involved. Field Marshal Rommel was forced to commit suicide rather than a public court martial.

Hitler had become more erratic, and many were concerned with his mental state. After withdrawing to the underground bunker in January 1945, he met with Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels. By 22 April 1945 though he realized the war had been lost with Soviet troops now in Berlin. On 23 April, Goering seeing that Hitler was encircled in Berlin, tried to take over as his presumed successor. Hitler stripped him of his powers and orders his arrest (this was futile since Goering surrendered himself to American forces). Himmler also had hopes of succeeding Hitler. In April, he was negotiating through a Swedish diplomat and with the Americans. When Hitler learned of this, he was stripped of his powers and his arrest ordered. Himmler tried to escape posing as an ordinary soldier but was caught and arrested. He committed suicide by taking poison.

By the end of April most of his aides and lieutenants (with some exceptions such as General Krebs) had deserted him with only Goebbels and Martin Bormann staying along. Albert Speer had declined to carry out Hitler’s orders to carry out a scorched earth policy in Berlin. Believing Germany had been unworthy of his genius and allowed themselves to be defeated, he decided to commit suicide. He married his long-time mistress Eva Braun in the early hours of 29 April 1945. He then dictated his last will and political testament that justified what he had done.  The will itself is quite short while the separate political testament that laid out a defense of his life and work, as well as appointing those who would lead the German government after his death.

In the afternoon of 30 April 1945, Hitler pointed a gun to his head (though he may have taken poison as well) and committed suicide while Eva took poison. Their bodies were burned, in accordance with his instructions, in the Chancellery garden. Goebbels transmitted a message to Admiral Karl Doenitz that Hitler had died and appointed him Reich President. Six hours later Goebbels and his wife committed suicide after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

Hitler’s death was broadcast on 1 May 1945 by Hamburg Radio. On 2 May 1945, German troops in Italy surrendered (it was signed on 29 April 1945) and Berlin surrendered to Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov. More surrenders of German forces would follow. German forces in Denmark, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on 4 April 1945 (effective the next day). The German Ninth and Twelve armies surrendered to U.S. forces.

Sources:

Books

Snyder, Lewis: Encyclopedia of The Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1976

Internet

Britannica.com
History.com
World War II Database


Remembering History: Mussolini Caught Fleeing Italy and Executed (28 March 1945)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Attempting to flee Italy into Austria dressed in a Luftwaffe coat and hat, the deposed dictator of Italy–Il Duce–Benito Mussolini was caught by partisans along with his mistress Clara Petacci. The partisans executed him and Petacci, transported their bodies to Milan, and hung them upside down so that everyone (especially his supporters) could see he was dead. He ruled Italy from 1925-1943, when he was deposed and subsequently imprisoned. He was rescued by Hitler’s forces and made the puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. With German troops in retreat, he hoped to avoid being captured by either British or American forces. Pictures of his body being hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan would be spread to prove that Il Duce was no more.

Sources:
History.com

Remembering the Sultana (27 April 1865)

“Sultana” at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865.
Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)

On 27 April 1865 the steamboat Sultana carrying recently released Union army prisoners of war exploded on the Mississippi River resulting in 1800 deaths. It is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

The steamboat was already in dire need of repairs before it departed on 24 April from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sultana’s captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, was told a proper repair would take days. However, the War Department was paying $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Not wanting to miss a big payday, Mason ordered temporary patches and filled the steamboat with as many officers and enlisted that he could. Thanks to a corrupt Union Army quartermaster, 2,400 enlisted and officers were steered to a ship that was rated to carry only 376.  Its decks began to sag and needed reinforcement before it departed for Cairo, Illinois its final destination.

After unloading cargo in Memphis, Tennessee the Sultana appeared top heavy. The boilers were forced to work hard against the current and swollen Mississippi River. Sometime around 0200 on 27 April three boilers exploded instantly killing many. The explosion caused massive holes and flaming debris that included hot coal that came raining down back on the ship. The Sultana erupted into flames. Frantic Union Army soldiers jumped overboard but many were weakened by being prisoners of war. Some clung to debris, and so many clamored to get on a lifeboat after it was lowered that it sank. Bodies would be found far down river and in trees.

Sadly, other historical events, such as the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and the capture of John Wilkes Booth pushed this news story aside. It never got the attention it should have.

While overcrowding and corruption are considered the reasons for the disaster, some claim sabotage by Confederate agents using a coal torpedo. Some evidence, such as testimony of eyewitnesses, suggests its possibility. However more recent examinations such as done on History Detectives shows it more likely a disaster caused by overloading a ship that was already in dire need of repair.

Sources
1. Christopher Klein, The Forgotten History of America’s Titanic 150 Years Ago,History.com,27 April 2015.
2. Sultana (Wikipedia)
3. Stephen Ambrose, Remembering Sultana, National Geographic, NationalGeographic.com, 1 May 2001.
4. Sultana Disaster, Tennessee State Library and Archives: Disasters in Tennessee, www.tn.gov
5. The Sultana Disaster (American Battlefield Trust)