Category Archives: History

The Eruption of Mount St. Helens (18 May 1980)

At 8:32 am on Sunday, 18 May 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted in one of America’s most notable eruptions killing 57 people and causing widespread destruction that forever changed that area.

Mount St. Helens prior to 18 May 1980 Eruption.
Photo taken by Jim Nieland, US Forest Service.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mount St. Helens is in the Cascade Range of Washington state and stood 9,680 feet before the 1980 eruption. Located 98 miles south of Seattle and 52 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, it is considered the most active volcano in the Cascade Range. It last erupted in the 19th century. The area it was in a popular area for sportsman, campers, hikers and generally anyone who wanted to enjoy the lovely area. Nearby Spirit Lake had numerous lodges where people could stay and fish on the lake. The most notable was Mt. St. Helens Lodge owned by Harry R. Truman who famously refused to comply with the evacuation order and ultimately died in the eruption.

The first sign of activity began on 16 March 1980 with a series of small earthquakes. Finally on 27 March, the volcano erupted for the first time in over 100 years with steam explosions that blasted a 200–250-foot crater in the summit. A week later the crater had expanded to 1,300 feet and two giant crack systems appeared crossing the entire summit area. Eruptions stopped on 22 April but then picked up again on 7 May and all the way to 17 May. Earthquakes now grew to over 10,000 and the north flank had a noticeable bulge growing outward at a consistent rate of 6.5 feet per day. This told the geologists that molten rock (magma) had risen high in the volcano. This was an alarming state and why evacuations were ordered, and people told to stay away.

Eruption of Mount St. Helens 18 May 1980
Photo: Austin Post, USGS
Public Domain

An earthquake at 8:32 am on 18 May 1980 occurred and the northern bulge and summit became the largest debris avalanche on Earth ever recorded. An eruption plume rose from the summit crater up 650 feet in the air. The debris avalanche swept north at first then turned westward at speeds of 14 mph down the North Fork Toutle River forming a deposit and a volume of 3.3. billion cubic yards.  The lateral blast from the volcano, the first ever recorded, would overtake the avalanche speeding 300 miles per hour of hot gas that would flatten the dense forest in the immediate area and leaving a 230-mile devastated area covered in hot debris. The eruption cloud would reach 80,000 feet and would continue erupting for 9 hours. Prevailing winds carried 520 million tons of ash eastward across the United States. Cities like Spokane and Yakima would suffer complete darkness as the ash cloud passed over them dropping tons of ash on homes, streets and just about everywhere. The ash fell in Montana and the Great Plains as well.

Aftermath

The eruption was the deadliest in terms of lives and economically destructive to date in the continental United States. In addition to 57 lives killed directly from the eruption, 200 houses, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railway, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. Due to the lateral explosion, the height of the mountain was reduced by 1,300 feet with a crater of 2 miles wide and 2,100 feet deep with the north end open in a huge breach. Timber from the logging camps was damaged or destroyed, though about 25% of it was eventually salvaged. The thick ash fell downwind on areas where agricultural crops were grown. Wheat, apples, potatoes and alfalfa were destroyed by the ash. Needless to say, all the deer and elk in the area were killed in the eruption along with millions of salmon when the hatcheries were destroyed. According to the U.S. Geological Survey report, Mount St. Helens released 24 megatons TNT (7 came from the blast itself) which is equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Mount St. Helens after the 18 May 1980 eruption. Photo taken from Johnston’s Ridge.
Photo: Harry Glicken, USGS
Public Domain

Cleaning up the ash literally became a Herculean task. The ash fall itself closed highways, made driving difficult due to low visibility, and air traffic had to be contained. With all the ash, it became a major task to clean it all up after the eruption had subsided. Ash caused significant damage to filtration systems in cars, contaminated oil and water, and the fine particles damaged glass in vehicles, buildings, and anything else it was blown into. Removing all the ash was not easy. For homeowners and cities, the ash could not be simply washed away as it became sludge and even more of a problem. It had to be either shoveled or mechanically collected and moved away from where it fell. Due to closed roads and other civil works closed by the ash, it had to be moved quickly to wherever could be dumped such as quarries, landfills, or anyplace that could take the ash. For both homeowners and cities, it was a nightmare to deal with but it was eventually all cleaned up though sometimes, while driving out many remote areas of Washington state, you might places where the ash is still lingering.

For Washington state, it took a massive hit on tourism for a while, especially in the area near Mount St. Helens as various meetings, conventions, or other events were cancelled or moved elsewhere. The once beautiful area that people loved to visit though was forever changed. While it no longer looks like the surface of the moon, life has returned as nature has started to remake the area.  The geologist who took the incredible photographs of the eruption and first to report of it– David A. Johnston–died at the observation post. The USGS trailer was found in 1993 but his body was never recovered. Two volcanic observatories were named for him: Johnston Ridge Observatory near Mount St. Helens and the USGS office in Vancouver was renamed David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory. A memorial fund at University of Washington, where he did his graduate and doctoral studies, was created. Two trees were planted in his honor in Tel Aviv, Israel and in his hometown the community center was renamed Johnston Center.

Sources

—. “Mount St. Helens Erupts.” HISTORY, 17 May 2022, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mount-st-helens-erupts-2.

—. “Mount Saint Helens | Location, Eruption, Map, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 May 2024, www.britannica.com/place/Mount-Saint-Helens.

1980 Cataclysmic Eruption | U.S. Geological Survey. www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mount-st.-helens/science/1980-cataclysmic-eruption.

Rhp. “The Eruption of Mount St. Helens in Pictures, 1980.” Rare Historical Photos, 4 Nov. 2021, rarehistoricalphotos.com/eruption-mount-st-helens-1980.

Remembering History: Lewis & Clark Expedition Begins (14 May 1804)

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

Under President Jefferson, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 for a price of 3 cents per acre for some 828,000 square miles of land. It is considered one of the best land deals ever. Jefferson commissioned the expedition of Lewis and Clarke to explore this territory  from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. On 14 May 1804 this “Corps of Discovery” as it was called, left St. Louis with 45 men (only 33 would make the full journey) for the newly purchased American interior.

Modern map of United States showing the Louisiana Purchase of 1803
Sources: Natural Earth and Portland State University
Uploaded by William Morris to Wikimedia Commons at request of author.

Traveling up the Missouri River in six canoes and two longboats they would winter in Dakota before crossing into Montana where they saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time. They would meet the Shoshone Indians on the other side of the Continental Divide, who would sell them horses. The journeyed through the Bitterroot Mountains, down the rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, until they reached the Columbia River and to the sea. They arrived at the Pacific Ocean on 8 November 1805 and were the first European explorers to do this overland from the east. The paused for the winter and then made their journey back to St. Louis in the spring.

The journals that were kept noted longitude and latitude with detailed notes on soil, climate, animals, plants, and native peoples. They identified new plants and animals (the grizzly bear for one). They also named geographic locations after themselves, loved ones, friends and even their dog. They experienced a variety of diseases and injuries during their journey but only one person perished. Their expedition is considered one of the most consequential and remarkable in U.S. history. Their travels in Oregon would lead the U.S. to able claim territorial rights later.

Shop for books on Lewis & Clark expedition on Amazon

Sources:

Buckley, Jay H. “Lewis and Clark Expedition | Summary, History, Members, Facts, and Map.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/event/Lewis-and-Clark-Expedition.

—. “Lewis and Clark: Expedition, Purpose and Facts | HISTORY.” HISTORY, 28 Mar. 2023, www.history.com/topics/19th-century/lewis-and-clark.

—. “Louisiana Purchase | Definition, Date, Cost, History, Map, States, Significance, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/event/Louisiana-Purchase.

This was first published in 2020. It has been updated in 2024 with new sources.

 

 

Remembering History: Lindbergh Baby Found Dead (12 May 1932)

Lindbergh Child Poster 1932
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby would shock the nation and bring heartbreak to the Lindbergh family. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne lived in a house in Hopewell, New Jersey. Around 9:00 pm on 1 March 1932, the kidnapper or kidnappers climbed a ladder into the second-story nursery and abducted the child. A ransom note of $50,000 was left behind. The child was found missing an hour by the nanny, Betty Gow. The local police were notified and turned the case over to the New Jersey State Police. The search found the ransom note, muddy footprints in the nursery, and a ladder a distance away from the home. Footprints from the ladder led into the woods at the edge of the property.

Two other ransom notes would be received raising the demand to $70,000. Attempts to contact the kidnappers failed. Ultimately a retired New York City teacher named John Condon placed advertising in a Bronx newspaper offering to act as intermediary. He got a note from the kidnappers that he would be acceptable. Condon used newspaper columns under the name of Jafsie to send messages. The kidnappers responded with leaving secret written messages at locations in New York City. Additionally, the kidnappers sent the child’s sleeping suit as proof of identity. On 2 April 1932, a meet was set up to deliver the ransom with Lindbergh nearby. Condon talked with someone called John. He accepted $50,000 (the original amount) and said they would find the baby on a boat named Nelly Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A search for the boat turned up nothing. The money paid were gold certificates whose serial numbers were recorded by the Treasury Department.

Sadly, on 12 May 1932 the body of child was found less than 5 miles from the Lindbergh home. The child was positively identified as the missing child Charles Lindbergh, Jr. An autopsy determined the baby had been killed by a blow to the head either during or just after the kidnapping. The Lindbergh’s were deeply saddened and decided to leave the area, and the house was given to a charity. Investigators checked everyone connected to Lindbergh and John Condon. Nothing was found. Outrage over the kidnapping convinced President Roosevelt to order the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (renamed later to Federal Bureau of Investigation) to investigate.  Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act (known as the Lindbergh Law) on 12 June 1932. The law makes kidnapping a crime across state lines and that the person(s) convicted of it would face the death penalty.

Aftermath

A year later a service station attendant in New York City recorded the license plate of a man who had paid with a $10 gold certificate. The gold certificate was registered as one that was used to pay the kidnappers a year before. It was traced to a Bronx residence who matched the description of John who Condon had met with. On 10 Sept 1934, Bruno Hauptmann was arrested and a $20 gold certificate from the ransom payment was found on him. More gold certificates would be found, and his penmanship was similar to what the kidnapper(s) used. Hauptmann claimed he was holding the money for Isidore Fisch, who had returned to Germany and had died. Hauptmann was indicted for murder on 8 Oct 1934. He went on trial in January 1935. This “trial of the century” was mostly circumstantial rather than direct evidence. Condon’s telephone number though was found on a closet door frame and Lindbergh recognized his voice as the one heard the night of the ransom payment. Hauptmann took the stand in his defense claiming he was innocent. He claimed he was beaten by the police and forced to give handwriting samples. He was found guilty on 13 February 1935. His legal appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court were rejected. He was executed on 3 April; 1936.

There have been many books over the years that dispute the fingerprints, the police methods and the investigation claiming he was at best innocent or worse framed for the crime. Some have argued that Lindbergh himself was responsible though the outcome of the dead infant was unplanned. Others have sifted through all the evidence and found the evidence compelling enough to warrant the conviction. The strongest support of that is he fit the description that Condon gave, and Lindbergh recognized his voice.

Spoiler Alert Warning!

A more fantastic idea comes the alternative history novel The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth. In this book, Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt. As president, he signs peace accords with both Nazi Germany and Japan keeping the U.S. out of the war during his time in office. He also enacts policies against the Jews and other things that start moving America more towards a fascist state. After his presidency ends (he flies off and disappears never to be seen again), it is revealed that the Germans had organized the kidnapping and brought his child to Germany. They used this as leverage to compel Lindbergh to enact policies in line with the Nazi’s. At the same time, it was spread that Jew’s were responsible for the kidnapping encouraging antisemitism in America.

However, Lindbergh was not as keen in doing what they wanted (about the Jews in particular) and resisted. His vice president though was in tune with implementing the more radical policies they favored. It is not clear what really happened to Lindbergh. Was his plane brought down by engine failure, did he deliberately crash his plane, or did the Nazi’s have something to do with it? His disappearance allowed the vice president to take control and operate more like an authoritarian leader the Nazi’s would approve of lending credence to this theory. It fell apart thanks to Lindbergh’s wife taking to the radio and asking for it to stop. It does and ultimately Roosevelt would be president in the next election ending the Nazi plot.

Sources:

“Lindbergh Kidnapping.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 21 Oct. 2022, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/lindbergh-kidnapping.

Mullen, Matt. “Kidnapped Lindbergh Baby Found Dead.” HISTORY, 10 May 2022, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/body-of-lindbergh-baby-found.

Sullivan, Missy. “Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped.” HISTORY, 28 Feb. 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lindbergh-baby-kidnapped.

 

Today is Ascension Sunday

Christi Himmelfahrt by Fresken von Gebhard Fugel
1893/1894
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For most Christians and the Roman Catholic Church, today is Ascension Sunday when Jesus ascends into Heaven. The word ascension has a different meaning when applied in a religious context. Ascension is generally defined as ascend, or to go up. For instance, you ascend stairs, or you ascend a mountain path. Or it could be used to denote moving up to higher job level (he ascended to company president after the retirement of the previous one). Ascension in Judaism though means going to Heaven either without having to die first or after dying. In Jewish scripture, Elijah was taken directly to Heaven. The same applies to Enoch (Noah’s great-grandfather) as it appears from the text this happened as well.

In the case of Jesus, according to Christian teaching, he died and was resurrected. He then spent 40 days with his disciples. On the 40th day, he and the disciples went to Mount of Olives near Bethany and was also near Jerusalem. Only two gospels-Mark and Luke-record this event while the other two (Matthew and John) don’t though John does reference it. It is also recounted in the first chapter of Acts of the Apostles. The event was accepted by the early Church and also referenced in the Epistles. The traditional site (Mount of Olives) had a church built upon it in the Fourth century but was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. The current structure is the Chapel of the Ascension and is easily discerned by its octagonal shape. It is considered a holy site by both Christians and Muslims.

Traditionally Ascension Day is held 39 days after Easter Sunday, so it falls on a Thursday. The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, so it is not celebrated at the same time as the Western Christian churches. Check out the liturgical calendar from the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church for more information. Ascension Day is a day of obligation meaning church attendance is required. Usually as part of the service, the Paschal candle that was lit on Easter will be extinguished to symbolize Jesus departure from earth. In some Catholic and Lutheran countries, it is a public holiday (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, German, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and some cantons in Switzerland). Ascension Day is not celebrated in the United Kingdom, United States, or Australia. Some Christian denominations may not mark it for celebration on Thursday and move it to Sunday.

For many years the Roman Catholic church celebrated it on Thursday, but that is no longer always the case. Back in the 1990’’s there was a movement in the United States (starting out on the West Coast) that started moving the day to the nearest Sunday. The movement to move mid-week holy days of obligation had been going on for some time already in the church. The reasons were both practical and spiritual. Since many people work during the week, they cannot always get to church. And by moving some holy days of obligation to Sunday, it will allow that important solemnity to be more widely celebrated. Many countries in Europe and elsewhere now have dioceses that have moved Ascension Day to Sunday. The Vatican now allows (with permission from the Holy See) each countries bishop conference to move some holy days of obligation to Sunday.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops now allows Ascension Sunday to take place on the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, dioceses that wish to observe on Thursday can do so. Currently the archdioceses and dioceses of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia are the only ones in the United States that celebrate Ascension Day on Thursday.

Sources:

 Pope, Msgr. Charles. “Ascension Sunday: The Lord ‘Taken up Into Heaven.’” NCR, 10 May 2024, www.ncregister.com/features/ascension-sunday-the-lord-taken-up-into-heaven.

Boelke, Rob. Why Do We Celebrate the Ascension on a Sunday? | Sacred Heart Catholic Church. 6 May 2024, sacredheartfla.org/2024/05/06/why-do-we-celebrate-the-ascension-on-a-sunday.

Rees, Neil. “What Is Ascension Day and Why Do We Celebrate It?” Christianity Today, 9 May 2024, www.christiantoday.com/article/what.is.ascension.day.and.why.do.we.celebrate.it/141704.htm.

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 the US 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.

Advertisements carried in The Salt Lake Daily Telegraph showing both Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads ability to know travel between both the East and West coasts of the United States. Appeared the week that the two rail lines were joined in Utah on 10 May 1869.
Source: The Cooper Collection of US Railroad History
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sources

“—.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May 2024, www.britannica.com/technology/railroad/The-transcontinental-railroad.

—. “Transcontinental Railroad Completed, Unifying United States.” HISTORY, 9 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/transcontinental-railroad-completed.

Staff, History Net. “The Transcontinental Railroad: Facts and Information.” HistoryNet, 24 Apr. 2023, www.historynet.com/transcontinental-railroad.

—. “Transcontinental Railroad.” Wikipedia, 29 Apr. 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcontinental_railroad.

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.

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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.