All posts by Mark Taylor

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:

—. “Allied Nations Worldwide Celebrate V-E Day.” HISTORY, 7 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/victory-in-europe.

Chen, C. Peter. “Germany’s Surrender.” WW2DB, ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=152.

Imperial War Museums. “What You Need to Know About VE Day.” Imperial War Museums, www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-ve-day.

Swick, Gerald, and Gerald D. Swick. “V-E Day 1945: The Celebration Heard ’Round the World.” HistoryNet, 4 Oct. 2021, www.historynet.com/v-e-day-1945-the-celebration-heard-round-the-world.

—. “Victory in Europe Day.” Wikipedia, 9 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_in_Europe_Day

Remembering History: The Devastating Eruption of Mount Pelée on 8 May 1902

This is not a photo of the eruption on 8 May 1902 but a subsequent one on 27 May 1902
Photo: Angelo Heilprin, American geologist (1853-1907)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On the lovely Caribbean island of Martinique, Mount Pelee erupted at 7:50 a.m. on 8 May 1902 killing 30,000 people most who were in the city of Saint-Pierre. Concern over the volcano had been growing due to is recent activity. In April explosions had begun at its summit. Numerous quakes, ash showers, and thick clouds of sulfurous gas affected the entire region. This caused many ground insects and snakes to come into Saint-Pierre causing serious problems for everyone and livestock. 50 people died from snakebites mostly children. As volcanic activity continued, water sources became contaminated with ash resulting in livestock dying. Outdoor activities near the mountain were cancelled and by May many were  worried.

On 5 May, a crater gave way sending a torrent of scalding water and pyroclastic debris into a river and burying workers at a sugar works. The lahar (the name for such flows) was traveling 62 mph (100 kph)when it hit the sea causing a small tsunami to flood the low lying areas of Saint-Pierre. By 7 May things were getting worse with more ash clouds and glows of reddish-orange being seen from the craters at night.

Many began fleeing into the city (it was believed safe from lava flows)while many were trying to flee. Those that did leave would realize later how lucky they were.

A relief map of Mount Pelee (Montagne Pelee in French) showing the area affected by the eruptions of 8 May and 30 August, 1902.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A large black cloud composed of superheated gas, ash and rock rolled headlong down the south flank of Mt. Pelée at more than 100 miles per hour, its path directed by the V-shaped notch at the summit. In less than one minute it struck St. Pierre with hurricane force. The blast was powerful enough to carry a three-ton statue sixteen meters from its mount. One-meter-thick masonary walls were blown into rubble and support girders were mangled into twisted strands of metal. The searing heat of the cloud ignited huge bonfires. Thousands of barrels of rum stored in the city’s warehouses exploded, sending rivers of the flaming liquid through the streets and into the sea. The cloud continued to advanced over the harbor where it destroyed at least twenty ships anchored offshore. The hurricane force of the blast capsized the steamship Grappler, and its scorching heat set ablaze the American sailing ship Roraima, killing most of her passengers and crew. The Roraima had the misfortune of arriving only a few hours before the eruption. Those on on board could only watch in horror as the cloud descended on them after annihilating the city of St. Pierre. Of the 28,000 people in St. Pierre, there were only two known survivors.
(How Volcanoes Work: MT. PELÉE ERUPTION (1902),Geology Department,University of San Diego)

Remains of St. Pierre by Angelo Heilprin (United States, 1853-1907), 1902.
Public Domain

It was the largest loss of life due to a volcano in the 20th century. And the only volcano in French history to cause loss of life (Martinique is a department of France). The city of Saint-Pierre was no more. The French warship Suchet found mostly ruins and corpses. Anything in the direct path of the pyroclastic flow was destroyed completely (about 8 square miles). Outside of that zone the damage was less and more people survived. Another eruption on 20 May would obliterate what was left of Saint-Pierre killing 2,000 most of whom were rescuers, engineers and mariners. On 30 Aug another eruption occurred causing more fatalities and a tsunami. It was the last fatal eruption of Mount Pelee. It would erupt again in 1929 but authorities evacuated so no lives were lost.

The city of Saint-Pierre was never rebuilt and small villages now exists where it once did. Mount Pelee has been quiet but is under constant watch and considered an active volcano.

 

Sources

Devastating Disasters. devastatingdisasters.com/mount-pelee-volcanic-eruption-may-8-1902.

—. “Mount Pelée Begins to Erupt, Burying Caribbean City.” HISTORY, 6 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/volcanic-eruption-buries-caribbean-city.

“The Eruption of La Montagne Pelée.” History Today, www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/eruption-la-montagne-pelee.

—. “1902 Eruption of Mount Pelée.” Wikipedia, 6 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1902_eruption_of_Mount_Pel%C3%A9e.

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.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

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.

Shop For Lusitania books on Amazon

Sources:

—. “German Submarine Sinks Lusitania.” HISTORY, 6 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/german-submarine-sinks-lusitania.

“The Lusitania Resource: Passengers and Crew, Facts & History.” The Lusitania Resource, 14 July 2023, www.rmslusitania.info.

 

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.

Sources

—. “The Hindenburg, Before and After Disaster.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/story/the-hindenburg-before-and-after-disaster.

—. “The Hindenburg Disaster.” HISTORY, 5 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-hindenburg-disaster.

—. “Hindenburg Disaster.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindenburg_disaster.

 

Remembering History: Battle of Puebla Shows Mexicans Can Defeat a European Power (5 May 1862)

Battle of Puebla 5 May1862
1870
Located at Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, Mexico
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 5 May 1862 Mexican troops defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. The victory, while not a major one for the French Mexican War of 1861-1867, was an important morale booster for Mexico.

Background

In 1861 Benito Juarez became president of Mexico. Mexico at time was facing a several financial crises. Mexico had taken out loans from British, French, and Spanish creditors. Due to the inability to pay the mounting debt, Juarez declared a 2-year moratorium on interest loan payments. This brought condemnation from Britain, France, and Spain due to this unilateral action. Both Britain and Spain would initially support French intervention in Mexico. Due to the American Civil War, the United States was unable to do anything.

A Spanish fleet sailed into the port of Veracruz on 14 December 1861 and took possession of it and later the city. French and British forces arrived on 7 January 1862. Spanish General Juan Prim issued a manifesto on 10 January to make it clear they had no come to conquer but to have negotiations with the Mexican government over their claims of damages. These claims were presented on 14 January 1862 to the government I Mexico City. After some back and forth over having the foreign forces leave Vera Cruz, it was decided to hold a conference in Orizaba. The agreement that was signed on 23 January formally recognized the Juarez government and Mexican sovereignty.

Talks broke down on 9 April 1862 as it became clear the French were interested in invading Mexico rather than resolving the debt issue. The British decided to not support the French and told Mexico of its intent to leave. This lead for an agreement between Mexico and the United Kingdom (and Spain as well) over the debt issue. The British and Spanish would leave. The Mexican government made it clear that if the French continued, it would lead to war. French Emperor Napoleon III (a nephew of the famous Napoleon) saw this as an opportunity to carve out an empire in Mexico.

As had happened in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, there were many Mexicans who sided with France. Napoleon III, like Napoleon, was seen as bringing much needed changes to their country. The French issued a proclamation on 16 April 1862 inviting Mexicans to join them in establishing a new government.  Mexican general Juan Almonte, who had served as foreign minister under the conservative government, was brought back by French and assured the Mexican people of the benevolent French intentions. The French thought the war would be brief and defeated small Mexico forces at Escamela and then capturing Orizaba. With 6,000 troops, French General de Lorencez reasonably believed he would easily defeat Mexican forces. Juarez had been forced into exile in late 1861when French troops had landed. Now operating out of the north, he assembled faithful soldiers and sent them to Puebla. General Almonte used the time to consolidate the Mexican pro French supporters and got some major cities to join him like Orizaba and Veracruz. Former officers of the Mexican Army, now aligned with France, joined as well.

Juarez had ordered the fortification of Puebla forcing the French forces trying and failing to capture the forts Loreto and Guadalupe situated on top of the hills overlooking the city of Puebla. Lorencez went up against a smaller force of Mexicans that comprised between 2,000-5,000 that managed to stave off the larger and more powerful French army. The French were better armed with long rifles that were better than the muskets the Mexicans had. Many French soldiers, thinking it was going to be nothing more than a quick fight, did not bother to get their weapons ready to go. The French started the morning with loud bugle cries and bayonet drills to intimidate the city. After a full day of warfare, which included three failed uphill attacks on the forts, Lorencez was forced to retreat to Orizaba. The victory was a huge morale booster for the smaller Mexican forces and Mexico in general. The battle was just one of many during the war, that would rage till 1867. But the day is celebrated in Mexico because a mouse had defeated a roaring lion called France.

Aftermath

French forces retreated and regrouped after the battle. When word of the defeat reached Napoleon III, he dismissed Lorencez and ordered more troops to Mexico. The French would win the second Battle of Puebla in 1863 and then capturing Mexico City forcing Juarez into retreat into more remote northern parts of Mexico. The Second Empire of Mexico would be proclaimed. Napoleon tapped the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian to be Emperor of Mexico. Supporters of the Mexican Republic would continue to wage war as guerilla bands much like those that had formed in Spain to fight the French who had invaded and conquered the country. The Empire of Mexico was recognized by the European powers but crucially not by the United States. Since it was embroiled in its war with the Confederates States of America, it did not formally oppose it.

Once the war was over though, U.S. policy changed significantly by recognizing the government of Benito Juarez as legitimate over that of the Empire of Mexico. Napoleon III had thought America would come out weak in the end, but instead the North won the war, and the union was restored. This left Napoleon III with a significant problem. While the U.S. was not aiding Juarez directly (though it was indirectly), it was made very clear that the Empire of Mexico was not welcome, and that France should get out. Not wanting to face war with the United States, he began withdrawing troops in 1866. Maximillian had limited support and while liberal on many causes, he did not have the widespread support he needed to stay in power. As French troops began to depart, he declined to abdicate and leave with the French. He was captured with two of his generals by Republican forces and executed by firing squad on 19 June 1867. The short-lived Empire of Mexico was at an end.

Sources:

—. “Battle of Puebla | Mexican Victory, Cinco De Mayo, Zaragoza.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Puebla.\

—. “Outnumbered Mexican Army Defeats French at Battle of Puebla.” HISTORY, 4 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/cinco-de-mayo.

“Napoleon III.” Biography, 22 Feb. 2024, www.biography.com/political-figures/napoleon-iii.

—. “Battle of Puebla.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Puebla.

—. Second Mexican Empire – Wikipedia. 5 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Mexican_Empire.

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

View from a unidentified sailing ship during a storm at Cape Horn
Circa 1854-1954 (no exact date exists)
Source: National Library of Australia
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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 Try and Fail

Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) photographed by Nadar
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After building the Suez Canal in 1869, the French government thought it could do the same in connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Sitting in their comfortable rooms back in France, they perceived no difficulty. Hence the first problem-not fully sending an expedition to completely survey and determine exactly how such a canal would need to be built. In 1876, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique was created to create the Panama Canal. It obtained an exclusive concession from the Colombian government to build the canal in Panama. The concession was to last for 15 years and then the canal would revert to Columbia. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had headed up the Suez Canal project, was put in charge. Having his name attached made it easier to attract investors to the company.  Lesseps though, was not an engineer and did not fully comprehend how much different it would be to build this canal. A canal through the desert was easy to what they found in Panama.

In order to make a canal feasible, you had to have a way to accommodate the fact that its lowest level, it would still be 360 feat above sea level at the lowest crossing point. Lesseps initially proposed a sea level canal but it would require enormous excavation of rock. And the rock was not very stable either. And then there was the problem of the rivers that would cross the canal creating in certain times of the year creating currents that would danger shipping. So the Chagres would have to be diverted to avoid this problem, which added more complexity to an already complex building project. Then there was the problem of tropical diseases of which both malaria and yellow fever were the worst. It was not understood how they were transmitted, but mosquitoes were prevalent and not understand as the transmitter of such diseases.

An international body headed up by Lesseps started in 1879 in Paris. The Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal brought together 136 delegates from 26 countries but only 42 were engineers. Others were a variety of people interested in the project and so it was mostly a fundraising event and to make legitimate the Lessep idea was (drawn from plans made by Lucien Bonaparte-Wyse and Armand Réclus) of a sea level canal that would be as easy to complete as the Suez Canal. Ultimately only 19 engineers would approve the plan but except for one, had never been to Central America. It was originally projected to cost $214 million, then revised down to $168 million. For reasons never explained, Lesseps reduced the estimate twice down to $120 million and that it would take six years to build.

 Oops, we need to start over!

 Construction began on 1 January 1881 with digging at Culebra on 22 January. A huge labor force was needed and a lot of them came from African-Caribbean workers from the West Indies. There was no shortage of experienced engineers needed but, as in the case of the workers, disease made it hard to retain them. And once word got out that the fever canal was not a good place to work in, it became harder to find engineers willing to put their health at risk. The death toll from 1881-1889 is estimated to be over 22.000 but is likely higher.

Then in 1885 another shock hit. The sea level canal was not possible to build owing to the fact that there was no way to remedy the elevation difference between where the lowest point is still 360 feet above sea level. It became obvious that only a lock canal plan would work. Lesseps was not convinced but ultimately engineering studies proved it was the only practical way to achieve this. It was finally adopted in 1887 but the scandal caused by the engineering problems, financial problems, the mortality rates rising, and worse frequent floods and mudslides indicated this project was in peril. While work on the new plan continued, it would end on 15 May 1889 when the company went bankrupt. The canal was about two-fifths done and over $234 million had been spent.

And it got worse back in France where investigations into how this ended so badly. An official commission was ordered by the French parliament. Worse were some were blaming Jews who speculated on the project. Despite all of this, the French government decided to keep it going, if nothing else to recoup expenses and show the world it could complete the canal. A new company was formed to finish the canal (Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama). A new concession was obtained from Colombia and work started up again this time with the plan of a two level, lock based canal. However, they ran into a wholly different problem than before as the United States was getting involved and was going to build a canal through Nicaragua instead. This made the French canal through Panama useless, and the company started looking for a buyer with deep pockets. And they found one. The United States bought it up and a whole new ballgame had begun.

The U.S. Builds the Canal

The French had negotiated a concession with the Columbian government, but the U.S. found it difficult. The U.S. bought the French company and land. A treaty was signed in 1903 (Hay-Herran Treaty) that gave the U.S. the rights to build in Panama. Unfortunately, the Colombia senate did not ratify the treaty. This left the U.S. with a company and land in Panama but no rights to build the canal. Now the area in 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. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made it known that if the natives did seek independence, the U.S. would support it.

Photograph of the USS Nashville (PG-7) at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 8 January 1898
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 3 November 1903, a revolt took place with the natives proclaiming their independence from Colombia. The USS Nashville had been stationed there to prevent any Colombian interference. The result was the new Panama government gave the U.S. complete control of the Panama Canal Zone and through a signed treaty gave the new country 10 million, the right of the US to administer and defend the canal and split the fees for canal use.

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.

Panama Canal (1923)
Original Source: Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Buy David McCullough’s excellent Path Between The Seas:The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

Sources:

Panama Canal: History, Definition & Canal Zone – HISTORY. “Panama Canal: History, Definition and Canal Zone – HISTORY.” HISTORY, 6 Sept. 2022, www.history.com/topics/landmarks/panama-canal.

Worthington, William E., et al. “Panama Canal | Definition, History, Treaty, Map, Locks, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 May 2024, www.britannica.com/topic/Panama-Canal.

“Isthmus of Panama – on Historic Routes.” On Historic Routes, 27 Mar. 2021, on-historic-routes.com/featured-routes/isthmus-of-panama.

—. “Cape Horn.” Wikipedia, 3 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Horn#.

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.

Bouquet of beautiful red roses
Davidjose365, May 2015
Wikimedia Commons

May is commonly associated with spring in the Northern Hemisphere but autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. As the bridge month between spring and summer, the month has some days of hot and cold depending on location. There is an old expression that says “Warm January, cool May” that sometimes is accurate. In more olden times, when you sealed up the home for winter, it is now time to open the windows and let the warm spring air in! Spring cleaning was (and still is) a time to clean out the home after a long cold winter and freshen it up. If you ever saw the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, granny would have everything put outside so she could thoroughly and completely clean their mansion.

A sure sign spring is here is when lambs appear.
Spring Lamb In The Sunshine
Photo: Tanya Hall/publicdomainpictures.net

Spring is the time that plants begin to grow, and many festivals and celebrations have grown up around it. 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.

For more information

“The Month of May 2024: Holidays, Fun Facts, Folklore.” Almanac.com, 1 May 2024, www.almanac.com/content/month-may-holidays-fun-facts-folklore.

The Month of May. www.timeanddate.com/calendar/months/may.html.

—. “May.” Wikipedia, 2 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May.

Researchers: Titan Submersible Implosion Likely Due to Shape and Metal

Titan (submersible)
Becky Kagan Schott, OceanGate

The sudden implosion of the Titan submersible has led to many theories as to how it happened. According to researchers at the University of Houston, the most likely reason was the shape and the metal used.

According to NewsNation, a paper submitted to Proceedings of the National Academy of Science indicates after studying simulations of the implosion that shape and metal were likely the key reasons for the implosion. Submarines, which are spherical, are designed to evenly distribute the pressure throughout the ship. Submersibles are designed the same way but are much smaller and often go to depths where most submarines cannot go. Titan though was not spherical but cylindrical in design and held passengers. The news report indicates that the scientists say a cylinder shape would work but any imperfection in the metal would lead to uneven pressure distribution. Titan was made of carbon fiber and titanium. Unlike steel, carbon fiber is more subject to wear and tear that would allow for this type of catastrophe.

An official investigation is still ongoing and likely will not issue a report until the end of this year.

Source:

Whiteside, Steph. “Titan Submersible Likely Imploded Due to Shape, Carbon Fiber: Scientists.” NewsNation, 2 May 2024, www.newsnationnow.com/travel/missing-titanic-tourist-submarine/titan-imploded-shape-material-scientists.

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Uproar on Titanic Memorabilia Auctions

Image: Henry Aldridge & Son/PA Media/dpa

As you will recall, the gold watch that John Jacob Astor had on him when he died was put up for auction and sold for $1.175 million. The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse group posted online (Twitter and probably elsewhere) that they hoped the buyer would put it up for display and not keep it in a private collection.

“We are increasingly uneasy with the auctioning of recovered Titanic family artifacts. We hope John Jacob Astor’s watch now finds its way to a museum and not into the hands of a private collector never to be seen again.” (Titanic Lighthouse Memorial)

Others on the Internet chimed in agreeing with and going further. Some did not understand that such items are not from the Titanic wreck itself and thought salvage laws apply. They do not, of course, since these items were not brought up from the wreck. The auction house, Henry Aldridge & Son, which handles a lot of these auctions, were surprised by the pushback. For their part, they do point out that in many cases the purchaser does elect to put it on public display at a Titanic exhibition or museum. Of course, some may not do that and just add it to their Titanic collection. Both sides have a valid viewpoint.

RMS Titanic beginning sea trials, April 2, 1912.
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration,ARC Identifier#306 RG 306)

On one hand, we would like such memorabilia connected to Titanic put on public display. In this case, the watch is made of 14 carat gold, which makes it extremely up there with a Faberge egg in terms of its uniqueness. The other hand is that these items were held in private hands and not part of any public collection (meaning formerly owned by a museum etc.) so we cannot compel a private citizen who purchases such items to put them on display. I know one collector of music who loans out his collection to museums and gets a nice tax break because of it. Hopefully the person who purchased this watch will loan it out to museums. One does not see a 14-carat gold watch every day.

Note: The violin case that held Wallace Hartley’s violin was auctioned off at the same time. It was sold for £290,000 ($361,955). Titanic Memorial Lighthouse has posted this message on Twitter about it:

“As the world’s largest group of Titanic descendants we ask the new owners of Bandleader Wallace Hartley’s valise to reunite it with his violin currently at Titanic Belfast. These unique artifacts must be publicly displayed for future generations to study and enjoy.”

 

Sources:

Khosla, Alanah. “Auction House Hits Back in Row Over Sale of Gold Pocket Watch Recovered From the Body of the Richest…” Mail Online, 30 Apr. 2024, www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-13359381/Auction-house-hits-row-sale-gold-pocket-watch-recovered-body-richest-man-Titanic-1million-fans-claim-museum.html.

Save Titanic Memorial Lighthouse [@TitanicNewYork] BREAKING NEWS! Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley’s Violin Case sells for £290,000 / $362,000 in an ‘Internet Bid’. Twitter. https://x.com/TitanicNewYork/status/1784246136691171687

Watch Found on John Jacob Astor’s Body Sold For Astronomical Sum at Auction

Image: Henry Aldridge & Son/PA Media/dpa

The gold pocket watch that was recovered from the body of John Jacob Astor, who died on Titanic, was sold at auction for $1,146 million (£1,175 million) to an American buyer (name unknown). The gold watch was found on his body, along with a diamond ring, cufflinks, and British and American currency, and was turned over to his family. The watch was completely restored and worn by his son. The 14-carat gold Waltham watch had a starting bid of $60,000 and was originally thought to sell between £100,000-150,000. Auctioned off by H. Aldridge & Sons in Devizes, Wiltshire on 27 April, it broke the record of $1.1 million for Wallace Hartley’s violin sold years ago by the same auction house.

“The prices fetched by the Titanic memorabilia at the sale were “absolutely incredible,” auctioneer Andrew Aldridge said. “They reflect not only the importance of the artefacts themselves and their rarity but they also show the enduring appeal and fascination with the Titanic story,” he said.

 Sources

Welle, Deutsche. “Titanic Passenger’s Gold Watch Auctioned for Record Price.” dw.com, 28 Apr. 2024, www.dw.com/en/titanic-passengers-gold-watch-auctioned-for-record-price/a-68939475.

Reporter, Guardian Staff. “Gold Pocket Watch of Richest Man on Titanic Fetches Record-breaking £1.2m.” The Guardian, 27 Apr. 2024, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2024/apr/27/gold-pocket-watch-of-richest-man-on-titanic-fetches-record-breaking-12m.