26 January 2014

January Disputes in the Old West

It might have been cold, but the weather never seemed to stop a man once his blood was up.

It was in mid January 1836 that Sam Houston sent Col. Jim Bowie and twenty-five men to San Antonio. What followed became history, became legend. Ten years later President Polk sent Gen. Taylor and 4,000 troops to the Texas border as war with Mexico loomed, and we know what happened after that.

They may have involved less men, but new-found mining deposits fuelled both disputes and organised crime, and in turn saw the rise of the Vigilance Committee. Virginia City, MontanaTerritory, had a lynching in 1864 of five members of The Innocents, including Jack Gallagher, a deputy sheriff. It wasn’t much better in the aptly named Hell’s Gate.

Disputes of a more personal nature were the norm, and we may never know of their extent or regularity.

In 1876, in Mobeetie (Sweetwater), Texas, Bat Masterson was dancing with a saloon girl when an army corporal from nearly Fort Elliot took offence. The woman, Mollie Brennan, died when the corporal opened fire. Bat Masterson was wounded before shooting the man dead, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

In 1896 Albert Jennings was travelling with his eight year old son from Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, to his home near Las Cruces, but both were murdered along the way, the bloody scene but no bodies being discovered later. Talk was that notorious outlaw Black Jack Ketchum was to blame, but many looked to Oliver Lee, noted rancher, land developer and part-time Deputy US Marshall. No one was ever charged with the Albert Jennings' murder, and those charged with his son’s murder were acquitted. It was one of a number of incidents that contributed to the region's lawless reputation and delayed its statehood until 1912.

11 January 2014

Enjoying the Weather, Back in the Day

January is with us already. I hope you are coping with the weather, wherever you are pitched. I thought I’d start the year by looking back aways and the weather seemed a good place to start.

The first item I found was from January 2nd 1862: waters from the Colorado and Gila rivers flooded Arizona Territory between Fort Yuma and Pilot Knob. Reflecting more of today, on January 9th, 1875 in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, the temperature fell to -38F. It wasn’t much better ten years later in Bismark, Dakota Territory, where it was reputedly -35F at noon.

We might grumble into our coffee about what’s outside our window, but we sure need to give thanks for modern clothing and houses, and think of those who made the best of what they had. I wouldn't want to change places.

Image "Prospect Park, Niagra Falls" c1893-1902
By Keystone View Company -- Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

24 December 2013

Sending Friends & Neighbors Seasonal Greetings

Whether you are surrounded by family or riding a lone trail, take a moment to gaze at the stars. Be humbled, and grateful for their presence. One of them shines on you.

May the New Year bring a peace of spirit and a determination to do good in this world.


24 November 2013

The Englishman Who Brought the Grand Canyon to the World

When the first US government survey team set eyes on the Grand Canyon its leader reported that the region was “altogether valueless”. When Fred Harvey saw it less than forty years later, he knew it would make him a fortune.

Fred Harvey was a man of vision. He left England in 1850, a fifteen year old seeking his fortune in an America gripped by gold-rush fever, but he got no further than pot-washing in a New York restaurant. He learned fast, though, most notably how the emerging middle class aspired to a luxury lifestyle, and he became determined to provide it for them. 

His own first restaurant fell foul of the American Civil War, but with the cessation of hostilities he joined one of the new cross-continental railroads, immediately seeing how the provision of good quality fare at restaurants and hotels enroute would benefit passengers, the railroad and, most importantly, himself. The Fred Harvey Company was born.

A fastidious man, Fred Harvey was appalled by the conduct of his male waiting staff drawn from the cow-towns of what, in the 1880s, was the height of the Wild West. He advertised in eastern newspapers for young women, 18 to 30 years old, of good character, attractive and intelligent and paid a stunning salary of $17.50 a month, all found. His specially trained ‘Harvey Girls’, attired in black with a white apron, reminiscent of the staff attendant in an English tearoom, brought a sought-after decorum to long distance travelling just as the West was opening up to a new industry – tourism.

Fred Harvey understood the merits of preserving the landscape and the way of life of its indigenous peoples, even to the extent of organising ‘Indian Detours’, a forerunner of the cultural tourism we know today. If the participants weren’t always authentic, few patrons knew the difference.

The Grand Canyon, the prize of the Southwest, beckoned. By the late 1890s it could be reached by stagecoach from the nearest railhead at Flagstaff, but that took a bone-jarring eleven hours with little in the way of comfort to greet travellers who managed to reach the south rim. When a spur line was mooted, Fred Harvey decided he’d have a hotel of splendour to meet it. Alas, he died in 1901, not living to see it open. 

El Tovar, early 1900s
The rustic El Tovar, built in the style of a European hunting lodge in stone and spruce, remains the Grand Canyon’s most prestigious hotel, its elegant entranceway a few steps from the rail terminus and a mere 20 feet from one of the most awe-inspiring views in the world. If you want a room there mid-season, you’d better consider booking it two years in advance.

The Fred Harvey Company finally took possession of all concessionaires on the rim when the Grand Canyon was granted National Park status in 1919, and the ethos of its founder has been preserved ever since. There are no garish billboards or signage, no tacky gift shops or litter. Even the pernicious automobile, just beginning its ascendancy when Fred Harvey died, has been contained by some judicious planning and the use of a free low-emissions shuttle bus service. 

There are still horses, of course, or at least sure-footed mules, waiting to take the adventurous down to the Colorado River. Even in Fred Harvey’s time Bright Angel Trail had enough of a draw for a photographer’s studio to be sited on its lip. Kolb Studio still stands guard and is now a bookshop and exhibition hall showing many of the Kolb brothers’ early photographs.

Every visitor, then or now, wants to witness a sunset over the Canyon, to try to capture on camera the changing colours of the buttes and mesas as they turn through pinks and reds to hues of mauve and purple.

If dusk is full of shared murmurs of awe and the clicking of digital cameras, a dawn is full of silent reverence as small groups gather on the overlooks for the first glimpse of the Canyon bathed in the light of a new day. No one says a word. Hardly a breath is taken as the ambient light rises to reveal skeins of pale mist woven around the ghostly shapes of rock formations millions of years old. In a diamond flash, sunlight breaks the horizon and the piercing rays slowly make their way one mile down to illuminate the hiking trails and ultimately the Colorado River.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fred Harvey gives you… The Grand Canyon

26 October 2013

Today in 1881… Fact became Legend became Myth

There are no silver stars for guessing that today marks the anniversary of what has become known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The fact is that such a gunfight occurred; the how and the why and the who are what turned that fact into a legend that has become mythologized in its constant retelling, mostly on the large and small screens that dominate our view of what was the ‘American West’.

 Life at the time was no walk in any park, as an almost contemporary photograph of Tombstone attests. The town came into existence around 1877 due to the productivity of its silver mines, estimated at $40m-$80m in just over the 10 years of its heyday. 

Tombstone: date disputed 1881 or 1891
"Decent folk" certainly tried. There were four churches, a school, ice-cream parlour, bowling alley and an opera house, but alongside over 100 saloons, 14 gambling halls, numerous dance halls and brothels, and situated only thirty miles from no-questions-asked Mexico, anyone attempting to uphold the law certainly had his hands full. 

Wyatt Earp

Vigil Earp was the City Marshal as well as Deputy US Marshal for the area; Wyatt Earp no more than a temporary City Deputy on whom his brother knew he could depend. Yet it is the younger Wyatt who claims the mark in history, probably due to his life extending into the era of the movies. 

The silent 'Westerns' certainly fascinated him, and he became an advisor to both William S Hart and Tom Mix, eager to hear first-hand of life during their childhoods. Standing in the shadows were John Ford and a very young Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne.

But it seems Wyatt never spoke directly of the Gunfight. It wasn't until after his death in 1929 that a biography was published in 1931 by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. It might have been fictionalised, but it gripped the imagination. A year later the Gunfight at the OK Corral eased onto the big screen as Law and Order (dir Edward Cahn) with Wyatt Earp masquerading as 'Frame Johnson'. 

The rest, as the saying goes, is legend and mythology.

Photograph reputedly of Wyatt Earp 19 months after the Gunfight.
Photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

31 August 2013


As I watch the pictures continue to come in from the devastating wildfire in Yosemite, and consider the plight of the brave souls trying to bring it under control, I’m reminded that Nature has always had its way.

1871 was a hellova fall for fires. The best known, the Great Chicago Fire, started on October 8th, burning for three days. Although the story of a cow kicking over a lamp in a barn turned out to be fiction, the wind the fire produced to feed itself was fact. Over 300 died and 100,000 were made homeless, yet this was nothing to what was going on elsewhere.

Wisconsin, like other states in the region, had been suffering an outbreak of wildfires due to the extended dry conditions. Near Peshtigo one took lethal hold to become a firestorm. Of the town’s 1,749 residents, more than 350 were later buried in a mass grave “primarily because so many had died that no one remained alive who could identify them”. Twelve communities were destroyed, leaving well over 1,200 people dead or missing.

Coincidence can be disconcerting. The same day the cities of Holland and Manistee in Michigan, and Port Huron, all fell to the same fate, adding another 200 deaths. Four days later Windsor, Ontario, joined the list.

Today we talk of $billion devastation. Considering our crowded communities, perhaps we should be grateful the figure is merely dollars and not death toll.

26 August 2013

Looking at Outlaws

The derring-do - or mostly just the goddamn awfulness - of folks history has labelled Outlaws, has always been a large part of the Western writer's research. From snippets of their sorry lives come the secondary research as to the why and the how that makes up the motivation driving a wholly imagined character.

So I was pleased to come across, by accident as often these things happen, the blog of The American Cowboy and his post which lists a whole host of lesser known varmints.

And no sooner do I turn around than I find that Tom Rizzo has a post about the exploits, or lack of them, of the Jennings Gang.

Do check them out. Both well worth the read.