Magna Carta


Magna CartaMagna Carta: The Birth of Liberty
by Dan Jones

Last year was the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. To commemorate the occasion, LibriVox recorded a collection of essays — (Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, edited by Henry Elliot Malden) — which had originally been published on the 700th Anniversary in 1915. I’ve got to admit that this was some of the toughest reading I’ve ever done for LibriVox. Dry, scholarly, and littered with snatches of Latin and French. True, I did learn a lot from it, and found it edifying. But it was learning purchased at the cost of much mental sweat, rather like being back in a tough college course all over again.

Now, months later, browsing through the “new nonfiction” display at my library branch, I discovered this account of the Magna Carta by Dan Jones. This one kept me engrossed all the way through, without ever finding it a struggle. My sister Meg and I used to say that we “liked our history with the people in it” — and that pretty much explains the difference. The book we read for LibriVox last year was all analysis and no people. This new book is filled with people, their desires and activity and personality. Yes, there’s also analysis, but that follows in the wake of the human story.

The story begins with the period of anarchy known to contemporaries as “the Shipwreck”, the two-decade war between rival claimants to the English throne, Stephen and his cousin Matilda. (I mentally “place” this period in my mind as the era which forms the backdrop for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery novels.) In 1154, Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet became King Henry II. In a reaction against the chaos of the recent past, Henry asserted royal power aggressively, setting the tone for the other Plantagenet kings who followed him. The story of the constant power struggles between Plantagenet kings and English barons and churchmen is the topic of the first half of this book.

Magna Carta King Taxes BaronsIn the chain of feudal obligations which structured medieval society, from the king at the top to the peasants at the bottom, traditional obligations bound each link to the links above and below. Ideally, it should be a two-way street. The vassal owes loyalty and pays his feudal dues to his overlord. The lord protects the vassal and recognizes his traditional privileges.

But in practice, the balance of power can too easily be tipped by a powerful lord who refuses to abide by his side of the expected arrangement. What countering force can prevent a baron from mistreating his tenants? Perhaps a king might, if he chose, force his barons to behave. But then, what force can keep a king from mistreating his barons? Who has the kind of power that could check a runaway king?

Sometimes, the church tried to do that. Popes have excommunicated kings, and independent-minded bishops have tried remonstrating with kings, insisting that the church is not merely another vassal of the king, but retains its independence in matters spiritual. Henry II’s famous battle with Thomas a Beckett was probably the most notable case of such a struggle during this era, but King John’s wrestle with the Pope over the appointment of Archbishop Stephen Langton was another example.

Other than the church, the other potential force capable of checking a king’s arbitrary misuse of power was a determined resistance by a coalition of powerful barons. Uprisings of barons happened more than once during this century, as three Plantagenet kings (Henry II, his son Richard I, and Richard’s brother John)  exercised a heavy hand, consolidating financial and political control in the monarch. Fees and feudal dues demanded of the barons were ratcheted up. An obstinate baron could be destroyed simply by being driven into debt and then stripped of his holdings.

Magna Carta Barons RevoltBy Easter 1215, in the 16th year of John’s reign, disaffection among the barons had peaked, as the king failed to show up for a promised Easter meeting with the barons. Led by such men as Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vesci, the barons “concocted a list of demands that they were determined John should concede to if he were to avoid being violently deposed.” John was not inclined to concede, and battle was joined. The barons took London, cutting off John from his treasury, and again pressed their demands.

Archbishop Langton, though his personal sympathies may have been with the rebels, acted as a neutral mediator, while the king’s loyal baron William Marshall, respected by both sides, did what he could to facilitate the negotiations. John had no choice but to go through the motions of conciliation, though by all accounts he was resistant and extremely angry.

As for the barons, their motives were as mixed as their different individual personalities:

They were not only angling to rebel against a king who had treated them roughly and who had failed in war; they were also preparing to challenge a raft of political issues that reached to the very core of the Plantagenet system of government.. … They wished to make a number of specific amendments to policy, setting strict limits to the king’s ability to tax and fine his subjects. But they also sought to set out grand and sweeping philosophical statements concerning the king’s basic duties to church and people. It is unlikely that all of the aims were shared by all of John’s opponents. No doubt some simply wanted to be revenged on a man who had extorted, bullied, blasphemed, and murdered his way through life and kingship for far too long. But others — and there were many — saw in the immediate crisis of 1215 a chance to change their world in a more fundamental way. It was the alliance of these interests that would make the baronial reform movement of 1215 so irresistible and enduring.

Magna Carta RunnymedeIn June 1215, at a meeting between the two sides on neutral ground in a meadow called Runnymede, the king granted his barons a list of 63 promises which have come to be called the Magna Carta. Oaths were sworn, documents were copied and sealed. But the agreement proved to be anything but enduring. Within a few months, the barons accused the king of breaking his oaths, and invoked clause #61, which specified that in such a case, the barons would be absolved of allegiance to the king and free to take up arms against him — which is exactly what happened.

When John died the following year, leaving his 9-year-old son to succeed him, the kingdom was in a tumult and the young king’s position was insecure, as a number of barons were ready to overthrow him in favor of Louis of France.

And here is where the Magna Carta, that dead and broken agreement, was resurrected for the first of many times. As a signal that the new king was willing to recognize and abide by his traditional feudal obligations to his subjects, the Magna Carta was reissued under the seal of the new monarch. There were tweaks and alterations — notably the omission of clause #61 — but the general gist of the document was the same. As an olive branch, it worked. The rebels returned to the fold, Louis returned to France, and Henry III was accepted as king.

After that, it became a custom for a new king to reconfirm and reissue the Magna Carta and other charters upon coming to the throne. The provisions of such charters changed with the years, and kings didn’t always scrupulously observe what they had promised. But the expectation was clearly  that the king should demonstrate some recognition of his subjects’ traditional rights and of certain limits to a king’s power.

The common man, whether free or serf, was barely remembered here. These early charters dealt with a king’s obligations to his own. How much of a fee might be charged for the inheritance of an estate, how much a baron owed in knight’s fees, how far a king might interfere in the remarriage of a nobleman’s widow, all of these issues had no direct bearing on one who lived far down the feudal chain.

But the principle, once established, was hard to flout. Magna Carta meant that there were limits to the ruler’s power, that a king had obligations, that the law bound him as well as it bound his subjects, that the duties which subjects owed to their monarch depended upon reciprocal duties which a monarch owed to his subjects. As the centuries passed, these principles revealed wider and deeper applications than had ever been imagined by a handful of resentful medieval barons and their overbearing king.

[Note: The pictures in this post were created using this delightful Historic Tale Construction Kit at “Bildwirkery von Bayeux”.]


The Frozen-Water Trade


Frozen Water TradeThe Frozen-Water Trade
by Gavin Weightman

Ice cream is surely the all-American dessert, almost as ubiquitous in winter as in summer. We Americans are known to drink tea iced, beer cold, and mixed drinks “on the rocks”. At first thought, we might assume that these tastes developed in the first half of the 20th century, with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. But they actually began almost a hundred years earlier, in the first half of the 19th century. They were dependent on the exploitation of a natural resource so commonplace that it was taken for granted — Ice.

In the cold winters of New England and the Midwest, ponds and rivers froze regularly and solidly during the heart of winter. The locals would cut the ice and store it in ice-houses, providing themselves with enough to last through the summer. It was a small-scale individual operation which flourished only in regions where nature provided the ice, and even then, only if you happened to own access to your own bit of frozen shoreline.

In 1806, a Boston merchant named Frederick Tudor had what seemed like a crazy idea. He loaded a cargo of Massachusetts ice aboard a ship and set out to sell it in Martinique, confident that it would fetch a good profit in that tropical island. That first improvised and less-than-successful attempt was ridiculed by other New England businessmen. Investors ran the other way when approached about the project.

But Tudor stuck stubbornly to his idea, and committed himself to working the bugs out of the project. Improvements in the insulation of the ice dramatically reduced loss in transit. Arrangements to have ice-houses built and waiting in advance of shipments, and to organize expeditious unloading of the cargo, stopped loss at the destination. Marketing strategies familiarized those who were unfamiliar with the product, demonstrating proper transportation and home ice storage technique. Recipes for such treats as mint juleps and ice cream drummed up demand for the ice. Ice-water dispensers were provided to restaurants and taverns to whet customers’ appetite for cold drinking water.

By the 1830’s, Tudor had created a thriving market for ice in the American south, shipping tons of New England ice to New Orleans, Charleston, and Atlanta. He was shipping ice to Cuba and other Caribbean ports. And in 1833, he tapped the markets of British India, shipping ice over a distance of 16,000 miles to Calcutta, then to Madras and Bombay.

Tudor had launched a business that rapidly outgrew him. By the late 1800s, the United States was home to a huge ice industry. Hundreds of ice companies employed thousands of men to harvest millions of tons of ice every year. Many more were employed in the development and manufacture of specialized ice-harvesting tools and equipment, and in the shipping and handling of the ice.

Ice, which was an imported luxury in other parts of the world, had become a commonplace pleasure to Americans. Every home had its ice-box, and the ice-man’s wagon was a familiar sight on the streets of towns and cities across the country. While in rural regions, many farmers continued to harvest their own ice, the urban dwellers now also expected ready and convenient supplies of ice. Milk and eggs were kept cold, fruits and vegetables fresh and crisp, meats unspoiled. The ice-cream freezer, a small churn with a crank to be turned while the treat froze, was found in kitchens everywhere.

On a larger scale, the availability of tons of ice made possible refrigerated railroad cars, which were the lifeline of the Chicago meat-packing industry. Farmers could tap markets outside their local regions by shipping milk, butter, and fresh produce cross-country. Florida oranges reached New York, and New York apples reached Texas. Hospitals discovered the uses of ice for treating fevers, and began expecting regular supplies.

Ironically, all of this activity was overlooked by the economic bean-counters. Ice was a gift of nature, free for the taking. It didn’t require planting, so it wasn’t categorized as agriculture. It wasn’t a mineral ore, so it didn’t count as mining. Because ice in shipment frequently served as ballast, it tended to be overlooked by shipping statisticians tracking values of cargoes. Although the patent office was seeing many designs for new and improved ice houses, for home iceboxes, and for tools and systems for harvesting and transporting ice, somehow this booming business still remained almost invisible.

Remarkably, [in the 1850’s] this wild beast of an industry … which was growing as fast as, or maybe faster than any branch of commerce in the United States, did not figure in any official statistics. Since it could be classified as neither mining nor farming, it was not subject to any taxes that would have given federal or state governments an interest in it.

It wasn’t until late in the century, when the ice industry had become well-established, that officials recognized what a major factor it had become. In 1880, the very first time the U.S. Census collected data on the subject, it was discovered that the twenty largest cities in the U.S. consumed 4 million tons of ice annually, and that over a million tons of ice were harvested in one season in the state of Maine alone.

Well into the 20th century, after the invention of the electric refrigerator, many homes still continued to use iceboxes, with refrigerator use only becoming really widespread after W.W.II. While reading parts of this book aloud with Daddy, he got started reminiscing about how it had been his chore to help empty the drip pan under the icebox. This was in the old days before they moved to Van Stallen Street, which was where they lived when Grandpa bought their first electric fridge. That fridge was small, similar to an icebox in size, but with the round electric motor perched on top, so the whole contraption looked like a square robot with a round cake-shaped head.

Even when they had the fridge at home, Grandpa continued to use big blocks of ice in his milk truck, because the truck wasn’t refrigerated. Those heavy blankets that I remember seeing stored in the basement were the ones he used in the milk truck. The big ice blocks were broken with a mallet and chisel into manageable sized chunks, and the wooden cases of glass milk bottles were buried in ice chunks, with the blankets keeping everything cold as Grandpa made the milk rounds for the day. When the route was done, the remaining ice was dumped in a heap at the curb to melt, and kids would grab ice chunks to play with on hot summer days.

So it turns out that this book isn’t the story of some long-ago time, but a part of familiar daily life in the not-so-distant past, within living memories.

All the Men in the Sea


All the Men in the SeaAll the Men in the Sea
by Michael Krieger

“Could not put this down” is what I said about this book to co-workers who saw me reading it on break and asked if it was any good. It’s a gripping true story, told in a way that lets me experience events from inside the skins of the ordinary men involved in them. An anxious teenaged deck-hand, a dogged tugboat captain, a fatherly ship’s-storekeeper, an experienced deep-sea diver — one by one, they become real to me. This was an examination of an accident on a work-site, but it was never impersonally statistical. It stayed grounded in the lived experiences of individuals, and the story is always given to the reader through the eyes of human beings. That may be the reason why it grabbed me the way it did. As my sister has pointed out before, I tend to prefer my history “with the people in.”

There was plenty of general information and factual detail here, too, of course. Written for the general reader without any technical background, the book has to explain what’s involved in the process of laying a pipeline on the bottom of the sea. We get clear explanations of whatever we need to know in order to understand the events, enough to grasp what was involved in the various decisions, without getting too bogged down in reams of data.

The DLB-269 was a 400-foot-long barge built for the job of laying undersea oil pipeline. She carried pipe-laying equipment, including two towering derrick cranes, several tons of cement-coated pipe, a diving bell and decompression chamber for the dive crew, a warehouse of parts and supplies, generators, compressors, lathes, and the living quarters and kitchens to support a crew of 245 men.

Such a massive barge had no motive power of its own, but depended on tugboats to tow her into position and hold her there against drifting. As the welded lengths of pipe were lowered down a slide at the stern of the barge, the divers descended to the sea floor to seal the connections and position the pipe in its trench. Then the tugs would move the barge very slightly to a new position, and the process would be repeated.

In the fall of 1995, the DLB-269 was laying pipe in the Gulf of Mexico when Hurricane Roxanne approached. Instead of towing the barge into harbor to shelter from the storm, the owners decided to have her ride out the storm at sea. Because her position was too shallow for safety, she was towed a short distance into deeper water. Obviously time and money played into this decision, as the time lost in towing the short distance to deep water was less costly than the longer trip all the way to a harbor. When Roxanne had passed, she could be quickly towed back to her original position, ready to resume laying pipe.

But riding out Roxanne at sea had taken a toll on this aging barge. There were leaks — and the pumps were struggling to keep up with them. And then, to make matters worse, Roxanne made a U-turn and headed straight back at the barge for a second time, at increased strength. Caught in the shallower water, with no time to be towed back to a deeper position, and already suffering from serious leaks, the barge was in trouble.

The most impressive heroes of the story, to me, were the crews of the tugboats. The barge’s own two tugs, the North Carolina and the Captain John, fought valiantly to keep the lines secure and hold the barge in towering 40-foot waves, keeping her from running aground in the shallows. A distress call asking for help brought out one more tug, the Ducker Tide, the only one whose captain dared to risk leaving safe harbor. When the lines to the barges snapped, the tug crews risked their lives to re-attach them, working on open decks swept by the wind and sea. Despite all their efforts, the barge finally broke free.

Listing heavily, beset by leaks, the barge began to sink, dragged into the shallows and torn to pieces by the waves which slammed across her deck. The barge crew couldn’t hang on any longer. One by one, two by three, they jumped overboard, into towering waves, powerful winds, blinding spray, bobbing in their life jackets, specks in the stormy ocean.

It would seem, at this point, that these men were surely all doomed. Yet the tugboats never gave up. Though they were themselves being battered by the weather, they kept circling faithfully, the eyes of their crews searching the debris for every hint of a man in the water. One after another, survivors describe being seized by the arm, by the collar, by the strap of a life jacket, by their hair, being yanked into the air and dropped onto the crowded deck of a tug.

The decks of the tugs were awash with waves, the tug crews were sometimes swept overboard and needed rescuing themselves, but they kept going. The Captain John, despite being the smallest tugpulled 89 men from the water, the North Carolina got 54 more, and the Ducker Tide arrived in time to save 79 lives. Of the 245 crewmen aboard the sunken barge, 222 were accounted for at the end of that weary day.

The remaining 23 were presumed to have died, as surely none could live much longer in the sea. But the survival battle was actually not finished yet. Fifteen men, including the teenage deckhand, were still alive, clinging to the only portion of the barge which remained above water — the 260-foot boom of the giant derrick. These fifteen managed to keep their grip on this precarious perch through several days of cold winds and dashing spray until they were finally spotted from the air and saved.

Of the eight who remained missing, only five bodies were ever recovered. Investigations were called to look into reports of faulty life jackets and inadequate training for the support crew, many of whom were landsmen who had no previous experience at sea. Then there were the questions of whether the barge ought to have headed for port before Roxanne’s first approach, or if she had not done so then, whether she ought to have done so during the interval when the leaks were first discovered. Were the leaks an ongoing problem predating the storm, as many of the crew insisted?

But the crew never had the legal backing or resources to battle the company. The Mexican deck hands were given a small settlement and forbidden to sue. The American dive crew were given larger settlements, but also had to agree not to sue. The case ended there.

What stays in my mind, though, are the moments of individual courage and heroism, especially by the tugboat crews. When a hurricane is threatening your own boat, when you have just seen a larger neighbor sink with all hands, when 245 men are just specks bobbing in 40-foot waves, scattering rapidly in the storm, it seems impossible that there would be anything you could do that would make any difference. Yet the tugboats stayed on the job, focused on finding one man at a time, and one by one, they saved the lives of almost every man who went into the sea.

Whoever had messed up, it wasn’t the tugboat captains and their crews.

Mavericks of the Sky


Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem:

Beginning May 15, 1918, pilots of the U.S. Army Signal Corps would begin delivering Uncle Sam’s mail in order to gain firsthand experience in the art of navigation. Contact flying — that’s what pilots needed, experience at flying over long stretches of unfamiliar territory. And now, with the help of the U.S. Post Office Department, they were about to be given that skill by flying the mail 218 miles between New York and Washington. The idea was to put a green Army pilot on the mail run for a couple months and give him experience at flying from city to city without slamming into a mountain or riding into a thunderstorm. Theoretically, he’d then be ready to be shipped off to the front. 

From the day this plan was dropped into the lap of Major Reuben Fleet until the day he was expected to pull off the first scheduled mail run in front of an assortment of dignitaries, including the President, was a mere nine days. In barely over a week, Fleet was expected to get a whole new program up and running, from scratch to fully functional. It was an unreasonable expectation, but somehow it had to be done.

First, three airfields had to be found and prepped — one at each endpoint in New York and Washington, and one at the midway point in the relay. Major Fleet easily found an open pasture in Pennsylvania for the mid-point, and arranged to use the grassy infield of Belmont Racetrack for the New York terminus. But the Washington airfield was chosen for him. It was a small picnic ground near the Lincoln Memorial, for the convenience of President Wilson and the dignitaries. It was a dinky space hemmed in by trees — with one tree right smack in the middle of the landing space. Major Fleet argued in vain. Overruled. The best he could manage was to have that tree in the middle of the runway surreptitiously cut down one night.

Six pilots were needed for the first run, four to fly the four legs of the mail relay, and two back-ups. Of the six, two were the kind of inexperienced pilots that the program was intended to nurture. But with the eyes of the President on this first run, Fleet had hoped to use the four more experienced pilots that first day, saving the rookies for future flights with less publicity. Again, overruled. The two new pilots were connected to important men in Washington, and they were to have the honor of being part of this first run. They were sure they could do it. Major Fleet crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, the planes had been purchased on a rush order — Curtiss Jennies equipped with new powerful engines for long-distance cargo hauling. To everyone’s frustration, they were not delivered until two nights before they were to fly. And they were delivered in crates on trucks, unassembled, with missing and broken parts, and maddeningly confusing assembly instructions. “Fleet’s team had only eighteen hours to uncrate, assemble, service, tune, and flight-check each aircraft. Like so many frantic parents trying to assemble their children’s toys on Christmas Eve, Fleet’s crew began a long night’s struggle to piece together the half-dozen aircraft.” It was a mad race against the clock to have flyable planes by the next day, so there would be time to ferry three of them to Washington and Pennsylvania and get them into position.

After an all-night plane-assembly session in New York, only three of the planes were ready to fly. Four were necessary to complete the relay. With no time to lose, Fleet himself undertook to make the longest preparatory flight, ferrying one plane to the Washington terminus where it would be ready for the return run. The other two planes, in the hands of two of the relay pilots, set out for Pennsylvania. The fourth plane was still under construction, hopefully to be ready in time for the takeoff from Belmont Racetrack.

Fleet and the other two pilots flew through a pea-soup fog out of New York, struggling to reach the Pennsylvania airfield before darkness. Early the next morning, Fleet took off for Washington, arriving just in time to greet the arriving dignitaries and to give instructions to the rookie pilot who would fly this first leg of the relay. To everyone’s relief, they had word that the fourth plane had made it to Belmont and was ready for takeoff. The postal truck loaded the mail onto the Jenny, making special ceremonial flourishes over a letter added to the mailbag by the president.

So far, so good. Until the moment of takeoff, that is. The Jenny was out of fuel, after Fleet’s morning trip from Pennsylvania. A supply of fuel had been ordered to be ready and waiting, but the Lieutenant who had been delegated that job had neglected to get it done. Amidst much fury and embarrassment, hasty improvisation was the only option. After using a hose to siphon gas out of another nearby gas tank, the plane finally got off the ground.

Unfortunately, the rookie pilot promptly got lost. He went 30 miles the wrong way before making a rough landing in a freshly plowed field. By the time the word of this predicament got to the transfer point in Pennsylvania, the second leg of the relay was already late for takeoff. With not a scrap of mail in his plane, the second pilot in the relay took off anyway, knowing that there was a crowd waiting at Belmont Racetrack who expected to see the plane arrive. He flew in to cheers and applause. “Who cared that President Wilson’s letter and all the other mail from Washington was lying upside down in a Maryland field? It was the feat being honored.”

The Long Island Railroad had brought the mailbags from New York out to Belmont. They were loaded into the waiting plane with lengthy speeches by assorted officials, and the pilot took off. This leg of the relay went perfectly. The pilot reached the hand-off point in Pennsylvania, transferred the postal cargo, and saw the final leg of the relay take off six minutes later. The final pilot was one of the two rookies, but unlike the other, he did not embarrass himself by getting lost. Squeaking past the encircling trees and the crowds on the field, he brought his plane in for a safe landing at the Washington picnic ground and actually delivered the first sacks of airmail to make it to their destination.

All of this excitement happens in just the first three chapters of the book. Take my word for it — the rest of the book is just as action-packed, and if I were to describe it all, this blog post would be far longer than it already is. As we watch the struggles of the airmail service to expand routes across the country, we meet all the daring pilots who learned by dangerous experience how to fly over mountains, how to fly at night, how to fly in fog and rain and wind and snow, how to find landmarks and create useful flight maps. Cross-country aviation was a death-defying job in those days, and the number of pilots killed in action in the mail service reminds the reader shockingly that the mail service was not any safer than wartime flying.

By the time the airmail service was separated from its origins as a military adjunct, standing on its own as a division of the post office, it had come a long way from its shaky start. Planes were flying across the Appalachians and the Rockies, carrying mail from coast to coast. And rarely losing either the mail or the pilots anymore, thanks to everything that had been learned by the hard experience of those early airmail pilots.

The San Francisco Earthquake


San Francisco Newspapers Cover PictureThe San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
by a number of nameless but intrepid newspapermen

A few months ago, I began working on a LibriVox recording with my usual LV team — (GregG and AnnB) — A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitkin & Hilton, written in 1906 just a few months after the events described in the book. In the course of working on that project, I became particularly interested in the work of the newspapermen of that city. The headquarters of all the major newspapers were destroyed, along with their printing presses, and yet the reporters still managed to collect and publish news of what was happening around them. On the Library of Congress website, I found this collection of historic newspapers, including several issues of the San Francisco Call from the days following the earthquake. That led to my most recent solo project, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire as Reported in the Newspapers of that City.

Reading these newspapers, more than a century old, felt surprisingly familiar. It connected in my mind with the reading I do at Reachout Radio, where we do live readings from today’s newspapers. In the Aitkin & Hilton book, even though it was written shortly after the event, the story was told in the past tense, as something already beginning to pass from “news” to “history”. In the newspaper readings, everything is happening in the present tense, in the immediate here and now. If only radio had existed in 1906, I might have been a Reachout Radio reader, turning the pages of the papers, looking for the articles that would be most informative to the listeners on the other end of the airwaves.

We would have to begin with the leading articles, the ones which pull together the big picture of what’s happening. Where are the present fire lines and which way is the fire moving? Where are the civic leaders meeting and what is their game plan? Where are people to go for safety, and how are they to get there? Before the internet, before television, before radio, the printing press was the clearing house for everything people most desperately needed to know.

Then there are the small and personal items. A wealthy woman lost all her property in the fire, but announced that she was giving half of what she had in the bank to the relief fund. Two men in what appeared to be a Red Cross wagon stole blankets and jewelry from the homeless camped in Golden Gate Park. Enrico Caruso got a black eye during an altercation over luggage at the ferry boat wharf. A University of California professor rescued the paintings at Hopkins Art Institute by cutting them out of their frames as the flames surrounded the building, rolling up the canvases and taking them to safety.

The reporters diligently collected data and more data, and devoted full pages to making it available. People seeking friends and relatives checked the hundreds of names and addresses published in the papers. Lists of people hospitalized at various locations were available, with a brief description of their injury. Locations of relief stations and food distribution stations were published in the paper. Businessmen, driven out of one location, turned to the newspapers to announce new temporary locations and to ask their employees to check in.

Even the “Personals” were fascinating little glimpses of small human details in the larger story. Herb asked Eve in a classified ad, “Where are you?” Mr. Monteverde published an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of the children of the Mexican Vice President, who had been staying with a Miss Velasco. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart announced that their building had escaped unharmed and that school would resume Monday. An enterprising Oakland real estate broker advertised “an earthquake-proof 5-room cottage” and advised the reader to “Grab it quick!”

The San Francisco newspapermen were working under serious disadvantages. All three major papers in the city lost their buildings to the fire on the first day. But being true news hounds, they weren’t about to give up when they were standing in the middle of a big story. Reporters from the three rival papers pooled their stories on the first day, located a borrowed press across the bay in Oakland, and put a small 4-page edition on the streets of San Francisco the next morning. By the following day, each paper had organized a temporary location of its own and was ready for some serious reporting. By the third day, the San Francisco Call was putting out eight pages of fine print, including stories from surrounding towns like Santa Rosa and Mendocino.

Of course, the newspapermen couldn’t help including an article about themselves. “Call Distributed Free to the People from Automobile — Crowds Rush Frantically to Secure Paper Wherever Stops are Made” announced a headline of pardonable pride.  Yes, we did a good job, the boys of the press told themselves and their readers. It was true; they did a job of notable importance and they did it well. And to top it off, they temporarily waived profit for the sake of their deeper mission — the perennial mission of the press, yesterday and today and always — keeping the people informed.

London Under


London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

Curse of the Narrows


Curse of the NarrowsCurse of the Narrows
by Laura M. MacDonald

I first got really interested in the Halifax Disaster years ago, when we still had the family deli. One of our customers became buddies with my dad, and they used to “chew the fat” together on slow days. One day, the subject drifted to immigration, and Harry started talking about the explosion that devastated Halifax. Harry’s ancestor — (grandfather? grandmother? I’ve forgotten details) — was living in Halifax then, and fortunately escaped the explosion unscathed, but was left out of a job in a city struggling to put itself back together. That’s how they came to the United States, walking over the border somewhere in New England. Out of this whole story, the part that caught my attention was the part I hadn’t known anything about. What was the story with Halifax? What had happened there?

Since then, I’ve gotten the details from articles in history magazines and encyclopedias, and brief references in books about shipwrecks, but not until now have I read an entire book focused on the event. This book begins by describing the Halifax of the WWI years, a center of Atlantic shipping with a bustling port. The fear of German submarines had led the Halifax harbor to close every night, with anti-submarine nets stretched across the entrance to prevent entry or departure until morning.

In December 1916, the French ship Mont Blanc arrived at Halifax from New York, loaded with explosive munitions bound for the war in Europe. She was to wait at Halifax for the convoy that would take her across the ocean. Arriving late in the day, after the nets were in place, the Mont Blanc had to wait outside the harbor until morning. Meanwhile, inside the harbor was the Imo, a Belgian relief ship ready to depart. But loading her coal took longer than expected, and the Imo also missed the window and had to wait for morning.

The next day, when the harbor was again open, both departing and arriving ships rushed to get where they were going. The harbor was also bustling with local ferries, tugboats, barges, and general water traffic. All of this business was regulated by the system of “Rules of the Road”, guided by local pilots, adjusted by a conversational language of ships’ whistles.

The Imo and the Mont Blanc both had local Halifax pilots aboard to guide them through the harbor’s traffic. Exactly who signaled what to whom, and how those signals were interpreted, was a matter of much investigation afterward. The Imo was certainly on the “wrong” side of the channel, strictly speaking. But it seems that in Halifax harbor signals and whistles were subject to flexible interpretation. It was common for one ship to signal an intention, and for another ship to either signal agreement, or to signal a contrary intent, which might then be accepted or rejected in turn by the first ship. The Imo had already been forced to the “wrong” side of the channel by two earlier vessels which had refused to give way to her, and the Imo now in turn refused to give way to the Mont Blanc.

If everyone had known of the Mont Blanc‘s precariously touchy cargo, they might have been readier to give way to her wishes. But the usual red warning flag had not been raised on the Mont Blanc, as that would have made her a sitting duck for enemy subs during her night outside the harbor. So the reason for her reluctance to risk sailing too close to shore, for fear of jolting her explosive cargo, was never obviously apparent to onlookers. When, at the last minute, the Mont Blanc changed course to gain distance from the shoreline, her move seemed like a baffling attempt to cut off the Imo.

After the collision, the ships drifted apart, spinning slowly to opposite sides of the harbor. The Mont Blanc was burning, and the fire was growing hotter and less controllable. Her crew abandoned ship. Onlookers ashore rushed to the harbor to watch as she drifted closer to a downtown pier. Small boats came from around the harbor to try to help, to fight the fire, to tow the burning ship away from the docks. Still nobody was aware of her cargo — except her own fleeing crew, whose warnings couldn’t be heard over the noise and at a distance.

When the Mont Blanc detonated, it was the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen — not surpassed until the atomic age began. In a split-second, it blew in windows for miles, shattering glass into flying shards that blinded anyone watching the scene from a window. It reduced buildings to splinters. A mile and a half of Halifax was instantly turned to rubble. Boats were blown out of the water and smashed. The Mont Blanc was almost entirely vaporized, her anchor landing miles away in one direction, her deck cannon miles in the other direction. About 2000 people were killed, another 6000 wounded.

The suddenness of the disaster stunned people, paralyzed reactions at first. I shake my head thinking of some of the stories. Children walking to school or settling into morning classroom routines, women pausing in their breakfast preparations to stand at the window wondering at the fire, ferryboat passengers on their ways to another ordinary day at work, suddenly — everything stops — and then — the world is all turned upside down in an instant.

The bulk of the book details the individual stories of one and another of the people caught up in the disaster. Waterman Charles Duggan, thrown from his tugboat onto the opposite shore, badly injured, struggling to walk home, only to find his wife and baby dead. Schoolboy Ginger Fraser, who started out to see the excitement as a thrilling break from school, and ended as an energetic helper in the crisis, running messages, making food deliveries, and escorting searchers at the morgue. Public-spirited banker Abraham Ratshetsky and doctor William Ladd, who organized two relief trains from the city of Boston and got them to Halifax through a raging blizzard. Medical student Florence Murray, who had been absent the day the class studied anesthesia, thrown into a chaotic makeshift operating room and told to do her best, trying not to let her uncertainty show, gradually gaining confidence. Nine-year-old Helena Duggan, who dragged herself up out of the basement of her collapsed school and ran home to rescue her mother, three sisters, and younger brother from the ruins of their house. George Cox, a former ocular specialist who had become a simple country doctor, suddenly discovering a use for his expertise in eye surgery, confronted with hundreds of people who had received a faceful of glass shards.

The individual stories fill up the pages of the book, dozens and scores and more. Each person with their own story. Somewhere in all these stories, there must have been Harry’s grandparents, doing something, thinking something, during those hours and days and weeks which eventually brought their feet walking in this direction.

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