Category Archives: History

Everything you always wanted to know about jack o’ lanterns but were too busy to Google

Best. Jack O' Lantern. Ever.

Who doesn’t love a nice jack o’ lantern?

These modified pumpkins were a big deal in my family when I was a kid.  Once we had them carved, we’d set them on the fireplace mantle and light candle’s inside them.  Then we’d turn out the lights and sing every Halloween song we knew.  I’ll never forget those spooky nights.

Now that I have kids of my own, Meadow and I always take the time to carve pumpkins to their requested specs.  Boo’s this year was a painfully intricate scene from How to Train Your Dragon.  West and Coulter had regular scary faces– but Coulter requested his have a mustache, because mustaches are just plain cool (remind me to tell you his comment about my 5 o-clock shadow sometime).  Miss Ella’s pumpkin was Coraline.  Deedle’s was Nacho Libre.

What is it about pumpkins and candles, darkened rooms and spooky songs that delight us so?  Where did the jack o’lantern come from?  Check out the links below: History of the Jack O’ Lantern video: All About the Pumpkin Jack O’ Lanterns

(Hat tip to Hailey for the pumpkin chef pic above)

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Posted by on October 28, 2010 in Halloweentime, History


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The case of the Fairfield shooter, or, Who owes John Carson a wall patch job

Exhibits A and B

When I promised Monday to write some more on Camp Floyd/Fairfield’s colorful history, I had forgotten is that I had already touched on my favorite story in an earlier post.  That’s ok– it’s still a cold case.

What drives me nuts about this story is that I can’t seem to dig up the details on it.  The only account of this event comes from this wall plaque at Fairfield’s [possibly haunted] Stagecoach Inn:

The plaque

My thoughts when I read this plaque:

1. When did this take place?
2. Who was Guest A?
3. Who was Guest B?
4. Did Guest B need to change his britches after the shot passed 2 feet over his head?  And,
5. Did he beat up Guest A in the morning?

Crazy, I know.  Heaven forbid somebody make a passing mention in a journal somewhere.  Well I’m certainly not losing sleep over this, but how cool would it be to know little stuff like this?

The Utah State Parks Service made the plaque based on information provided by the descendants of John Carson, who built the inn in 1858.  According to Parks Service staff at Camp Floyd, there was no registry kept at the inn, and the story of the shooting was passed down through oral tradition.  Gotta love that!

Guest A (the shooter's) room

Guest B (the almost victim's) room

Fortunately the evidence is there.  One bullet hole in one wall, a matching hole through the other, and pellet marks on both.  We know the inn was frequented by the legendary Porter Rockwell, but just for fun I think we can rule him out:

First, it’s doubtful that an ace gunslinger like Porter would have accidentally discharged a shotgun.  Second, if he had been Guest A, Porter would have profusely apologized to Guest B, bought him a new pair of britches, given him free drinks for life at one of his saloons, and patched the walls himself.  That would have made it into a newspaper somewhere.

Could Porter have been Guest B?  Well, as far as we know, Guest A made it out of the inn alive.  Just sayin’.

So it looks like I’m out of luck on this one.  At least for another 20 years or so until somebody’s great great great great grandkid finds a journal in an attic.

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Posted by on October 27, 2010 in Ghost Towns, Halloweentime, History


Is Fairfield’s Stagecoach Inn really haunted? See for yourself

The haunted(?) Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

When it comes to places you’d think might be haunted, the Stagecoach Inn in Fairfield, Utah doesn’t immediately come to mind.  No ghastly crime took place within its creaky walls.  No ghoulish legend lurks in its past.

The old inn’s claims to fame are its age– it was built 152 years ago– and its roster of colorful guests.  Among the notable characters that frequented the inn were General Albert Sydney Johnston and Orrin Porter Rockewell.  Beginning in 1860, the inn served as a stop along the Pony Express route.  So while the Stagecoach boasts no tales of death or torture,  its past is storied just enough to give it some haunted cred.  Utah State Parks staffers and Fairfield residents reservedly acknowledge strange occurrences in the old place.  Rumors of otherworldly phenomenon at the inn even prompted a paranormal investigation a few years ago.

More on this and some of the inn’s lore Wednesday.  For now, though, why not set a few hours aside on October 29 to participate in Camp Floyd’s  annual public ghost hunt?  Click here to read more about Camp Floyd, then here for info on the ghost hunt.

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Posted by on October 25, 2010 in Halloweentime, History


Remembering the ghost town of Bauer

Bauer, Utah, circa 1923 (copyright Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.)

Bauer’s fate was sealed when its last viable operations were destroyed by fire. Rulon Aufdemorte’s final task was to dismantle and ship off any salvageable properties. When the last truckload finally pulled away, Aufdemorte gathered his belongings and drove to Salt Lake City, leaving Bauer’s crumbling ruins to the wind and ghosts.

The first ghost town I ever visited was officially Cortez, Nevada.  My first Utah ghost town, however, was Bauer.  I haven’t written anything about that trip because it ended up being a wild goose chase.  Tyler and I had no waypoints or directions to guide us to the townsite– nor did we know anything about the town’s history.  And it probably didn’t help that we were searching for this ghost town after dark.

To be sure, we got close that night– within at least 50 yards.  We may have seen a few outbuildings, none of which we logically attributed to the town itself.  Disappointed, we moved on to the next ghost.

Years later I realized that the odds had been stacked heavily against us.  Not much was left of Bauer by the time we tried to find it.  The few walls and foundations that remained were quite visible in daylight, but obscured by the adjacent Tooele County Landfill and were inaccessible to the public.  At present, most of Bauer has been bulldozed.  Oh, and it’s a Superfund site.

I don’t foresee being able to explore the remains of the town any time soon, but recently I was able to interview a few old miners who lived there back in 70’s.  For the interviews and a quick run down of Bauer’s history, check out my Hometown piece at the Tooele Transcript Bulletin:

Remembering Bauer: Former employees reflect on camaraderie, memories shared at historic mine

Miners at Bauer, date unknown (Copyright Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.)


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Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

Glare from the rising sun had botched my photo efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to fly in close.  Really close.

A Western Air Express Douglas M-2 bi-plane used for Airmail in 1926 (source unknown).

The following originally appeared in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“How’s your head?”  Brian Staheli asked as he piloted the Cessna Super Skylane in a low loop over the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore.

“All good!” I lied.

I figured my airsickness was the last thing Brian needed to worry about as he executed a highly technical maneuver.  Moreover, we both had jobs to do.  His was to safely position the aircraft over the extreme northwest tip of the mountain range; mine was to spot our target on the ground and snap a decent photo.

Glare from the rising sun had botched my efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to come in close.  Really close.

Brian made a tight turn over Lake Point and flew northward, hugging the Oquirrh flanks.  I popped my ears and steadied my camera.

“Just to let you know,” he warned, “this might feel kind of weird.”

Salt Lake City Air Mail Radio Station, March 1925 (photo courtesy FAA).

Many private aircraft owners fly for recreation.  Far fewer, I imagine, take to the skies for historical reconnaissance.  Our target that morning was a rare piece of aviation history—a 60 foot array of concrete slabs situated atop an Oquirrh bench in the Lake Point area and arranged in the shape of a double-tailed arrow.   Aside from a certain mystique, the large northeastward-pointing arrow shares another characteristic with phenomena like crop circles or the ancient Nazca lines of Peru:   it was meant to be viewed from the sky.

Brian brought this fascinating structure to my attention in 2008.  A corporate pilot and a flight instructor, he had noticed the arrow while flying around the Oquirrhs.  We did some research and identified the structure as a relic of an era less celebrated, but every bit as adventurous as the Pony Express.

The story begins in the early days of powered flight, when open-cockpit airplanes were equipped with only a compass and an altimeter, and pilots used railroad maps as navigational charts.  Seeking to speed up delivery service, U.S. Postal Department introduced the U.S. Air Mail system in 1918. This new class of delivery service had a definite cool factor, but it was wildly inefficient—mostly due to the fact that flight was restricted to daylight hours.

That changed after an experimental flight in 1921, when pilot Jack Knight completed a night flight from Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska, guided by bonfires lit along the way by Postal Department employees and helpful farmers.  Beginning in 1923, a system of tower-mounted light beacons was installed along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, which connected New York and San Francisco via airfields that included Salt Lake City.

Airway beacons were placed at 10 mile intervals and featured rotating million candlepower lights (photo courtesy FAA).

The 51 foot tall towers were placed at 10 mile intervals and each was topped by a 1 million candlepower rotating lamp that was visible within a 40 mile radius.  Two additional color-coded course lights pointed up and down the airway and flashed a Morse code letter that identified the beacon.

To enhance daytime navigation, most beacon towers were built atop large concrete arrows, which pointed in the direction of the next beacon.  This arrow/beacon system grew exponentially when the Air Mail Act of 1925 required that Air Mail service be contracted out to various commercial airlines.

Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes were established along the Transcontinental backbone.   Salt Lake City became a major terminal field along five CAM routes, with 11 beacons housed in Tooele County.  Information on our Lake Point beacon site was scant—not even the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum could track down a construction date, though they estimate it was placed sometime between 1923 and 1925.

Sadly, all we know about the beacon is its official designation of “Airway Beacon 61A,” which it probably received during a 1934 revamp of the routes.  61A is unique in that it marked the junction of two CAM routes to Salt Lake City from San Diego and San Francisco—hence the arrow’s double tail.

The arrow is located on property owned by Rio Tinto.  Van King, a Rio Tinto asset manager, accompanied Brian and I to the site last month.  There we noted the tower’s four steel footings set at each corner of the center slab.  The tower itself had been cut away with a torch at some point, and its twisted remains lay beside the concrete array.  Traces of orange paint on both the concrete and steel provided an idea of coloration.  There were no signs of the beacon itself.

A standard airway beacon setup. When possible, beacons were powered by a small generator shack built at the arrow's tail (photo courtesy FAA).

The anatomy of Airway Beacon 61A. There is no evidence of a generator shack (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Airway Beacon 61A's arrow from the ground with the remains of its beacon tower visible just to its right (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Just how long Airway Beacon 61A serviced the routes is unknown, but most of the network’s 1,550 plus beacons had been phased out and dismantled by the early 1970’s.   Walking along the concrete “Y” shape was like stepping back in time.  And while it was satisfying to see the structure up close, the adventure wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it the way the original air mail pilots did—low and slow from the air.

I tried to picture the Cessna with primitive controls and an open cockpit as we climbed from the runway in Erda.  We explored the Great Salt Lake and the Saltair area before the sun rose high enough to illuminate the beacon site.  My head didn’t start seriously spinning until our third pass, but it was mind over body when it came to the mission at hand.

One of the last surviving airway beacons stands in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“I’m going to put you right over it,” Brian said before executing an uncoordinated flight aptly referred to as a “slip,” which rapidly dropped us to 50 feet above ground level and gave me a square-on view of 61A.  Whether I got the shot or not, it was time to pull out and touch back down in Erda.

King says Rio-Tinto is intrigued by the history of the arrow and is reviewing ways to protect its cultural value.  61A may be just a concrete slab, but it’s a slab pilots like Brian hope to fly over for decades to come.


Special thanks to Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Brian Staheli.


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Adventure = (Air + Concrete + Steel)

Tonight’s TTB column addresses a little-known period in postal history.  I know what you’re thinking– what could possibly be more riveting than postal history?

Well, what if I told you this story about little-known period in postal history has all the elements of a grand adventure?

  • A fascinating backstory that stumped even the Smithsonian? Check.
  • The discovery of forgotten historical artifacts? Check.
  • A hike? Check.
  • An acrobatic airplane flight? Check-o-rama.

Here’s a hint:

Check tonight’s Transcript Bulletin for the story.  I’ll repost here on Monday.


Overdue: Shedding some light on the George Washington library book story

The copy of Vattel's The Law of Nations that was given to the New York Society Library by George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

I’m at once amused and fascinated by the matter of George Washington’s overdue library books.  Amused because, after all, Washington sewed seeds that changed the world.  Men of his honor and caliber rarely grace the history pages.  Considering the political scandals of present, it’s fun to look back on trivialities of the past.

My fascination with this story is based less on the historical facts themselves and more on the process of connecting the jigsaw puzzle.  I hated history in high school (no offense, Mr. Madsen) because the work had been done for me.  My grade depended on memorization and regurgitation, not investigation.  I wonder how many kids who think they hate history would realize they actually love it if their teachers thought outside the textbook.

My post about Washington’s library books last week was supposed to be a simple Friday blurb about an interesting historical factoid (a great date night conversation piece!).

But the more I researched this story, the more questions arose. Not big conspiratorial questions– just curious questions about the timeline and some inconsistencies in the press reports. Some news reports had mentioned two books, others mentioned only one. Beyond this, I wished somebody had taken time to flesh the story out a little more.

I started by contacting the New York Society Library and the media office at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to ask for help. Both parties were extremely helpful, taking time to answer my questions and send me all sorts of good information. The information presented below was culled from Washington’s diary, press kits, and my interviews with NYSL and Mount Vernon staff. So, I’d like to present you what the late Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

In 1789, the U.S. government was based out of Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan. Occupying the top floor of the building was the New York Society Library, which was founded in 1754. The library was a useful resource for government officials and it was frequented by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Jay, and sometimes the president himself.

By fall of 1789, Congress was in recess and the president was preparing to tackle the touchy issue of diplomatic affairs with Britain. In fact, he’d be meeting with Chief Justice John Jay and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton about these matters on October 7. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that Washington would check out library material on British parliamentary dealings and international diplomacy.

Federal Hall, the shared location of the New York Society Library and the Federal government in 1789 (courtesy of the New York Society Library)

October 5, 1789: Washington (or an aide- we don’t know) walked upstairs and checked out two books from the library: The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates. The transaction is recorded in the library’s leather-bound charging ledger. In the borrower column, the librarian simply writes “President.”

October 15, 1789: Washington leaves New York for a tour of New England. Though he keeps a detailed diary, no mention of the books is made.

November 2, 1789: The books are due, but Washington is fishing for cod off of New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbour. Washington notes in his diary that he and his companions only caught two fish between them. Then, in true fisherman tradition, he justifies the skunking by blaming an improper tide. The  library books are likely the last things on his mind. Though no official fine record exists, a pennies-per-day fine would begin accruing after this date.

April 1792: The 18 lb. ledger is filled and is filed away. It is later misplaced– likely during one of the library’s re-locations.

Dec. 14, 1799: George Washington dies at Mount Vernon. Most of his belongings, including books, are divided up among his family.

1934: NYSL staff rediscover the deteriorating ledger in the basement of the library’s fourth Manhattan location. The ledger’s pages crumble to the touch, so it is used only rarely for reference until the beginning of its restoration in 2007. NYSL staffer Sara Holliday suspects that the Washington transaction was noticed sometime after the ledger was found, as it had been discussed unofficially and anecdotally among library staff for years.

2007: NYSL begins restoring and digitizing the ledger.

2010: Restoration complete, NYSL staff check their inventory again. Washington’s books are still missing. The New York Daily news picks up on the Washington transaction and breaks the story. The fine estimate of $300,000, according to Holliday, was calculated by the Daily News, not the NYSL. She says fine policies changed over time, and that an exact total would be tough to determine. Anyway, it’s something the NYSL has no interest in tracking.

Upon hearing about the overdue books, staff at Mount Vernon search their own archives with no luck. Considering The Law of Nations the much more significant of the two books, they purchase an identical copy online for an undisclosed amount (I’m told the price reported by one outlet and echoed in several others is inaccurate).

May 19, 2010: In a ceremony at NYSL, Mount Vernon President James Rees and Librarian Joan Stahl present the replaced book.   Most media reports focus only on the return of The Law of Nations, making no mention of the still missing Commons Debates.

Holliday says restoring the ledger familiarized NYSL staff with habits of their 18th Century counterparts. Patrons from the Federal government were commonly referred to by their titles, which is why the informal “President” appears next to Washington’s checkouts in the images below.

Exhibit A: the portion of NYSL's charging ledger that shows the Washington transaction. I've highlighted the relevant rows.

Exhibit A.1: The same portion of the ledger, but I've identified the columns.

Washington is off the hook– at least for The Law of Nations.  And that’s where the media called it good and skipped out.   But the father of our country still has one overdue book out, and though history has certainly forgiven this oversight, it’s going to drive me nuts until somebody finds it.  Maybe it’s time to book a trip back east!


Copyright 2010  All images courtesy of the New York Society Library.  Special thanks to the NYSL‘s Sara Holliday and Mount Vernon‘s Melissa Wood and Joan Stahl.


Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Americana, History


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