We are coming down to the last days of summer. The Autumnal Equinox is 23 Sept 2015 at 4:22 AM EDT (adjust local time accordingly). Already Halloween decorations are out in stores and there are even reports-gasp!-of Christmas decorations appearing as well. Longer nights and shorter days are coming. Out here in Northern California we are having a mini heatwave. Our long dry spring and summer allowed for grapes and other crops to mature early. Grapes were harvested early this year. Sadly the drought has meant fewer crops planted,farmland gone to waste, and many jobs lost. Few understand truly how economies are interconnected. The farmer cannot plant much because there is little water to spare. That means he highers fewer workers to assist. Crops then need fewer people in the production and distribution sectors (canning, packing etc). Less inventory but high demand means prices go up. And so it goes. And if you do not have workers getting employed in the agricultural areas, it means retail and fast food stores sell less. There is less money going into the local economy which effects growth. Where the drought is the most severe, people are simply packing up and leaving. Worse for the state in areas where groundwater is dangerously low or empty, it means the land above it starts sinking. Which means infrastructure like bridges, roads and other things start sinking too.
Once long ago people flocked to California fleeing bad economic times that shuttered farms in the Midwest. It is quite possible now the reverse may happen.
On 15 September 1858 transcontinental mail service between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, CA began when the Overland Mail Company sent out its first stages. Under contract with the U.S. Postal Department, it would transport mail twice a week between those two points in 25 days. It avoided the slow ocean voyage and promised quicker transport of mail between east and west. Although subsidized by a $600,000 by the federal government, Overland Mail Company would spend over a million dollars establishing way stations (10-20 mile intervals) and improving the 2,800 mile route.
Custom-built stages driven by teams of horses soon were racing across the open spaces of the West. They carried more than mail with passengers willing to spend 25 days in carriage that was hardly comfortable. Way stations along the way provided some comfort but pricey. And if you got off the stage at a way station, there was a possibility the stage might take off with out you. In that case you were stranded until the next one arrived but if it was full it might be a while for the next one as well. Aside from the dust that was ever present, there were no comforts and the coach ran night and day. Toilets were few and far between (as were places to wash off the dust). Then there were other problems as well. Coaches were targets for robbers and even the occasional Indian attack making it sometimes a risky proposition. Add to it that some stage drivers were not always sober making the ride more uncomfortable. Some of the routes connected states like Alabama to California through Texas.
In 1860 Overland Mail was taken over by Wells Fargo that operated the Pony Express mail service and other operations. With the Civil War looming, the Overland would be forced to change its route by an Act of Congress. Its contract with the government would end in March 1861. During the war, many of the West and Southwest and stations would be become targets of either the Union or Confederacy to prevent their use by the other side. Wells Fargo would resume stagecoach transcontinental service but it would end on 10 May 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Local stagecoach service though would continue on (to ferry people, cargo, and mail away from trains) until the advent of the automobile. Today there is an effort underway to preserve the transcontinental route as a heritage trail.
Susan Q. Stranahan writing for Smithsonian Online gives an excellent account of the tragic events of the SS Eastland, which rolled over while docked in the Chicago River in 1915. The death toll was appalling and most of those who died were under 25. It was a sensational story in the papers yet it faded. The Titanic, which sank in 1912 is still remembered today while Eastland is just barely remembered. So what happened?
Titanic became a symbol for the age she was built in, part Gilded Age, industrial, and the last embers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The ship became iconic and achieved immortality, something rare in historical memory. James Cameron’s movie cemented that in recent years. And the high money fetched in authentic Titanic memorabilia shows how strong that memory still is. Mention things like the Children’s Blizzard (1888), the General Slocum disaster(1904) or the 1918 flu pandemic and you get stares. Mention things like the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and that still has historical memory especially for people in Northern California that still live in its shadow.
One argument for the loss of Eastland memory is that there was no one rich or famous aboard. Possible but I do not think that is why it is forgotten. It is forgotten perhaps because the tragedy never reached a certain level that ingrained itself like some disasters do. Why is it that an old Great Lakes freighter is remembered while other ships that sank in those cold waters not? A song by Gordon Lightfoot called Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. While some knew about the tragedy in the news, it was this song that put it into a national consciousness. Titanic had books, songs, plays and movies. The Eastland has a few books, historical societies, newspaper records, and testimony at hearings. Yet it got no national memory because while tragic it simply did not stick into the historical memory. We may never know exactly why. And that is what historians and historical societies are for, to make sure such things do not pass into the realm of forgotten.
And even if there was someone famous or rich on Eastland that day, that is no guarantee it would be remembered beyond a certain radius. Historical memory can be shocking in its forgetfulness. All we can do is try to shine a light on what happened so that people do not forget what has happened before.
Many years ago I was in an office building in which a crazed man gunned down people several floors above. It was a terrible event and local media (and later national as well) all reported on it. Many months later an employee of the firm circulated a memo that, in part, made fun of the event. I was one of the few who challenged him about doing it, others simply ignored it or threw the memo into the trash bins. He got indignant, as I recall, when challenged about using the event as a joke (and using office resources to do it). At any rate, it forced management to put an end to sending out personal interoffice correspondence without approval. That was in the days before the Internet, email, tweets, and other social media that now permeate our world.
The events of 9/11 were seared into many who saw what happened that day. To this day the national media hides some of the more graphic sides, namely of people throwing themselves out of buildings since the choices was either burning/choking to death or a quick end by leaping out of the building. Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani recalls hearing this thudding sound outside of the building he was in. It was the sound of bodies hitting the ground. Now you can find this information, some are included in documentaries or in still photographs from that day. But generally media avoids showing this because of how awful it was. Few jest about what happened and jokes about 9/11 are generally avoided. And comics who go that route take a serious risk of alienating their audience and ending gigs lined up.
Titanic, because it has become iconic, has its own special place in history and culture. 1500 people died because the British Board of Trade never bothered to update regulations on lifeboats and because of complacency. Captain Smith never considered icebergs a problem and despite ice warnings, moved Titanic through an ice field at night when visibility was limited due to lack of moonlight and binoculars for the lookouts. So many what ifs can be pointed out that could have changed the outcome that night. Whole families were lost and families separated forever. What ought to have been a glorious day of celebration when Titanic arrived in New York was one of great sadness when the survivors came ashore. And the only thing left of Titanic were the lifeboats.
That happened in 1912, 101 years ago. Last year saw a major remembrance of the sinking and how still Titanic is part of our culture. Despite that you see things like tacky Titanic shaped ice cube molds. Or Titanic slides that kids slide down not understanding its implication. Then there are t-shirts out there that say “Titanic Swim Team.” And finally what drew the ire of many was Red Bull’s advert that made light of the tragedy. Red Bull says it was just in fun and certainly that was their intent. They got away with it because the uproar was light. They got what they wanted, publicity for an energy drink but it comes at price. The price being it turns off a lot of people who may never buy Red Bull again. It is one thing to do a show like MASH and poke fun at war but show its serious side but another to mock. Hogan’s Heroes was a show meant to get laughs out of showing the prisoners running a major underground operation right under the watchful eyes of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. Most people do not realize that it was purposeful to depict the Germans as idiots. And Werner Klemperer, whose father was forced to leave Germany when Hitler came to power, demanded that of the producers.
Some argue that over time we can be desensitized to past events we have no connection to.There is a point to this and sometimes it is ignorance or lack of empathy. When either occurs, it becomes all too easy to simply look at past tragedies and not care much. And that makes it possible for people to make light of tragedies and come up with dumb products or t-shirts. It means that those who do care have to work harder to remind people not to forget the human cost of the events they trivialize.