I can pretty well figure out the source of my interest in 19th century American history; some of it can be blamed on the Little House Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But the larger portion can be laid squarely at the foot of my mother’s subscription to American Heritage Magazine. Which she still has, but the magazine is a pale, paltry and advertisement-poxed version of what it was when Mom first began subscribing, shortly after the beginning of the magazine itself. There were only a handful of the very earliest, dawn-of-time-issues which I did not know very, very well. It was a bi-monthly, or quarterly hard-back publication, with no advertisements and articles by serious, well-respected if seemingly obscure historians who managed to be interesting without being the least bit sensational. I have the impression that most of them were passionately interested in their topic – whatever it might be, and wrote with enthusiasm equal to their knowledge of subject. The articles were well-illustrated with contemporary art or historic photographs, or an appealing mix of modern photographs, drawings and artifacts. I couldn’t have imagined a better introduction to the vagaries of our national history.
These articles and essays ranged over three centuries of American history, events and movements, personalities, triumphs and tragedies great and small, obscure or well known, all mixed together, and I pretty well sucked up every word. In hitting up the library shelves over the last few years to research for my own books, I’ve been reminded of some events that I first read about, courtesy of American Heritage. These events hit at a most peculiar nexus in our history; just at that point when a certain level of technological development combined with a decided carelessness as to consequences when people were encouraged to move to a part of the country where large numbers of people had not been before. Or in some cases, where too many people happened to gather in a venue where not so many of them could have been accommodated previously. At the same time, communications and travel were made much easier, while the appetite for national news grew ravenous. Did anyone think that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ was an invention of the present cynical age? Or that breathless coverage of a disaster was something that came along after the invention of radio and television?
Oh, no, my friends. From about 1870, until the beginning of WWI, our nation was rocked pretty regularly by horrific disasters, natural and otherwise. The astonishing thing is that most of them have been forgotten, save by local historians. For every one that is noted in the textbooks and in the memory of popular culture; the Chicago fire, the Johnstown Flood, the sinking of the Titanic, there are a half a dozen others.
The Peshtigo Fire, for example: a tornado of fire that roared through Wisconsin in 1871 and burned a thriving lumber town on Green Bay. That fire incinerated perhaps 2,000 people. Those who survived took refuge in a river, where they had to keep ducking under water, as the fire burned all around with such intensity that their hair kept catching fire. But that fire happened at the same time as Chicago was burning to the ground, and so a major city in flames grabbed most of the headlines. Twenty-three years later, another huge firestorm swept through another Minnesota lumber-town; Hinckley, where about four hundred saved themselves in a nearby gravel pit and a shallow, muddy lake, while another four hundred suffocated or were burned alive. The heroes of that day were the crews of three trains, who stayed to evacuate residents until their coaches were all but catching fire from the blowtorch flames around them.
Catastrophic weather took a toll in that last bit of the 19th century, accurate forecasting being more of a dream than a reality. On a January day in 1888, the temperatures across a wide swath of the upper Plains abruptly dropped nearly seventy-degrees in a few hours. It was a mild day until early afternoon, until a sudden blizzard swept over Montana, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Kansas. Farmers doing chores a short way from their homes were suddenly isolated, and children were trapped with their teachers in their tiny schoolhouses. Over two hundred were dead of exposure – many of them children. One of the heroines of the ‘Schoolhouse Blizzard’ was a young teacher who supposedly tied her 17 pupils together with clothesline and led them all to safety in a house a bare mile away.
Along the Texas Gulf coast, two hurricanes ten years apart destroyed Indianola, the Queen City of the West. At the turn of the century a third hurricane hit like a pile-driver through Galveston – it is thought at the cost of over 8,000 lives. The city fathers of Galveston rebuilt, raising the level of their barely-sea-level island behind a huge sea-wall – and the benefits of accurate weather forecasting and storm watches became clearly evident.
The loss of the White Star liner Titanic, colliding with an ice-berg in the mid-Atlantic is one of those things that practically everyone knows about – but barely ten years before, the steamship General Slocum burned within sight of New York harbor. It was an excursion ship, hired for the day by a large Lutheran church on the lower East side, to take the families of its parishioners for an all-day picnic outing on Long Island. The General Slocum burned while the captain tried to run it aground where the fire wouldn’t endanger anyone else – while his crew discovered that the fire hoses were rotten, the lifeboats couldn’t be dislodged from their places, or lowered away if they could – and the life-vests were filled with rotted cork. Over 1,000 people were lost; like the Schoolhouse Blizzard disaster, many of them children. Another excursion steamship, the Eastland was hired in 1915 for the employees of Western Electric Company’s annual company picnic. The Eastland was an unstable and top-heavy ship, and while taking on passengers at a Chicago dock rolled over to one side in 20 feet of water. Almost 900 of her passengers died within 20 feet of the dock – but the Eastland has nothing of the enduring grip on the imagination that the Titanic does.
This is only a partial list of these sorts of disasters; I’ve probably missed at least this many and more – but they had an effect, even if the headlines did not last as long. The inquiries into the Slocum and the Eastland disasters resulted in safety improvements as regards their operations. The train of natural disasters caused by weather likewise resulted in such things as forecasting, and storm tracking being taken more seriously. The loss of whole cities and a good chunk of the countryside to fires became unacceptable, after Chicago and Peshtigo fires – and especially so after the Hinckley fire. It was all cumulatively too much. People got very tired of opening their paper every few years and reading of some horrendous loss of life – and then finding out that it might have been, could have been, and should have been prevented. Just blindly trusting to luck, goodwill among men, and a benevolent nature would no longer cut it, now that disaster news could fly beyond a single town, or a neighborhood and touch people half a world away.
Still, it’s curious, how few people have heard of some of these I have listed. My daughter only knew about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and only because it was her freshman history textbook.