Oh-lee-o-lay-dee: Gene Autry’s Other Christmas Song is One You Probably Know

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1951, cowboy crooner Gene Autry released a song titled “The Three Little Dwarfs,” that playfully told the story of three “helpers” trusted by Santa to “drive” his sleigh on Christmas Eve.

The song was written by Stuart Hamblen, a singer, songwriter and politician who ran for President of the United States in 1952 on the Prohibition Party ticket.  “A cowboy singer, former racehorse owner and converted alcoholic,” Time magazine wrote that year about  Hamblen who picked up 73,000 votes, second most by a third party candidate.

Before politics, the Texas born Hamblen was known for being one of the first singing cowboys and in the 1930’s hosted a popular radio show called “Family Album.”

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Stuart Hamblen

Hamblen wrote several hits for country radio but nothing quite as enduring as “The Three Little Dwarfs.”

The most famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry recorded the song and released it as a single with a B side tune titled “32 feet – 8 Little Tails.” In December 1951, Columbia Records ran an ad in Billboard listing the label’s “best sellers.” Autry’s “The Three Little Dwarfs” was listed just ahead of his version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

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Gene Autry

Today, Autry’s version of “Rudolph” is considered a holiday staple, while “The Three Little Dwarfs” is mostly forgotten.

The song itself however is not.

It was immortalized in a two-minute stop-animation cartoon titled “The Three Little Dwarfs,” but more commonly known as “Hardrock , Coco and Joe.” 

Oh-lee-o-lay-dee, o-lay-dee-I-ay

Donner and Blitzen, away, away

Oh-lee-o-lay-dee, o-lay-dee-I-oh

I’m Hardrock! I’m Coco! I’m Joe!

The short premiered  on Chicago’s WGN-TV on Christmas Eve 1956.

Autry’s song was not the one used in the short. The tune was re-recorded and reworked. For instance, a narrator is used to speak some of words rather than sing them.

But the most recognizable difference was in Joe’s line. In Autry’s rendition, Joe is sung in a high-pitched voice rather than the distinctive and memorable deep bass of “I’m Joe” featured in the animated version.

Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey

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By Ken Zurski

It’s hard to imagine anything other than the majestic bald eagle as the symbol of the United States of America. But back in the late 18th century, when good and honorable men were deciding such things, there were several considerations, mostly other animals, vying for a symbol which best represented the new country.

Was the turkey one of them?

Perhaps, but it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin who nominated the turkey, as some history lessons would later suggest.  Franklin’s choice for America’s national symbol was much different than both the bald eagle and the turkey.

He did however admire the turkey.

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Here’s the backstory:

In 1783, a year-and-half after Congress adopted the bald eagle as the symbol of America,  Franklin saw the image of the bird on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati of America, a military fraternity of revolutionary war officers. He thought the drawing  of the bald eagle on the badge looked more like a turkey, a fair and reasonable complaint considering the image looked like, well, a turkey.

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But it was the use of the bald eagle as the symbol of America that most infuriated Franklin. “[The bald eagle] is a bird of bad moral character,” he wrote to his daughter. “He does not get his Living honestly.”

It was a a matter of principal for Franklin. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. He had a point. Considered a good glider and observer, the bald eagle often watches other birds, like the more agile Osprey (appropriately called a fish hawk) dive into water to seize its prey.  The bald eagle then assaults the Osprey and forces it to release the catch, grabs the prey in mid-air, and returns to its nest with the stolen goods. “With all this injustice,” Franklin wrote as only he could, “[The bald eagle] is a rank coward.”

Franklin then expounded on the turkey comparison: “For the truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird…a true original Native of America who would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”

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Franklin’s suggestion of the turkey as the nation’s symbol, however, is a myth. He never suggested such a thing. He only compared the bald eagle to a turkey because the drawing reminded him of a turkey. Franklin’s argument was in the choice of the bald eagle and not in support of the turkey, an idea he called “vain and silly.”

Some even claim his comments and comparisons were slyly referring to members of the Society, of whom he thought was an elitist group comprised of “brave and honest” men but on a chivalric order, similar to the ruling country to which they helped defeat. This might explain why Franklin’s assessment of the bald eagle in the letter is based solely on human behavior, not a bird’s.

Perhaps when Franklin made the disparaging comments against the bald eagle he was also harboring a nearly decade old grudge.

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In 1775, a year before America’s independence, Franklin wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and suggested an animal be used as a symbol of a new country, one that had the “temper and conduct of America,” he explained. He had something in mind. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders;” he wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage”

Eventually the image Franklin suggested did appear on a $20 bill issued in 1778, adopted for use as the official seal of the War Office, and may have been the inspiration for the Gadsden flag with the inscription, “Don’t Tread On Me.”

But it never officially became the preferred symbol of the new country.

That belongs to the bald eagle.

Franklin’s choice: the rattlesnake.

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Gold Ring: The Original ‘Black Friday’ Goes Back 150 Years

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By Ken Zurski

Before Americans began rushing to stores the day after Thanksgiving and calling the shopping frenzy, “Black Friday,” the term itself was used to describe a dark and devious part of our nation’s history.

Here’s the story:

The original “Black Friday” begins with a man named Jay Gould.

A leather maker turned New York railroad owner, Gould was the youngest of six children, the only boy, and a scrawny one at that; growing up to be barely five feet tall. What he lacked in size, however, he made up for in ambition.

A financial whiz even as a young man, Gould started surveying and plotting maps for land in rural New York, where he grew up. It was tough work, but not much pay, at least not enough for Gould.  In 1856 he met a successful tanner – good work at the time – who taught Gould how to make leather from animal skins and tree bark. Gould found making money just as easy as fashioning belts and bridles. He found a few rich backers, hired a few men and started his own tanning company by literally building a town from scratch in the middle of a vacant but abundant woodland. When the money started to flow, the backers balked, accusing Gould of deception. Their suspicions led to a takeover.  The workers, who all lived quite comfortably in the new town they built and named Gouldsborough, rallied around Gould and took the plant back by force, in a shootout no less, although no one was seriously hurt.

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Jay Gould

Gould won the day, but the business was ruined. By sheer luck, another promising venture opened up. A friend and fellow leather partner had some stock in a small upstate New York railroad line. The line was dying and the stock price plummeted. So Gould bought up the stock, all of it in fact, with what little earnings he had left, and began improving the line. Eventually the rusty trail hooked up with a larger line and Gould was back in business. He now owned the quite lucrative Erie Railroad.

Ten years later, in 1869, Gould got greedy and turned his attentions to gold.

Gold was being used exclusively by European markets to pay American farmers for exports since the U.S currency, greenbacks, were not legal tender overseas. Since it would take weeks, sometime months for a transaction to occur, the price would fluctuate with the unstable gold/greenback exchange rate. If gold went down or the greenback price went up, merchants would be liable -often at a substantial loss – to cover the cost of the fluctuations. To protect merchants against risk, the New York Stock Exchange was created so gold could be borrowed at current rates and merchants could pay suppliers immediately and make the gold payment when it came due. Since it was gold for gold – exchange rates were irrelevant.

Gould watched the markets closely always looking for a way to trade up. He reasoned that if traders, like himself, bought gold then lent it using cash as collateral, large collections could be acquired without using much cash at all. And if gold bought more greenback, then products shipped overseas would look cheaper and buyers would spend more. He had a plan but needed a partner.

He found that person in “Gentleman Jim Fisk.”

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Jim Fisk

Jim Fisk was a larger than life figure in New York both physically and socially. A farm boy from New England, Fisk worked as a laborer in a circus troupe before becoming a two-bit peddler selling worthless trinkets and tools door to door to struggling farmers. The townsfolk were duped into calling him “Santa Claus” not only for his physical traits but his apparent generosity as well. When the Civil War came, Fisk made a fortune smuggling cotton from southern plantations to northern mills.

So by the time he reached New York, Fisk was a wealthy man. He also spent money as fast as he could make it; openly cavorted with pretty young girls; and lavished those he admired with expensive gifts and nights on the town. Fisk never hid behind his actions even if they were corrupt. He would chortle at his own genius and openly embarrass those he was cheating. He earned the dubious nickname “Gentleman” for being polite and loyal to his friends.

Fisk and Gould were already in the business of slippery finance. Besides manipulating railroad stock (Fisk was on the board of the Erie Railroad), they dabbled in livestock and bought up cattle futures when prices dropped to a penny a head. Convinced they could outsmart, out con and outlast anyone, it was time to go after a bigger prize: gold. There was only $20 million in gold available in New York City and nationally $100 million in reserves. The market was ripe for the taking and both men beamed at the prospects.

But the government stood in the way. President Grant was trying to figure out a way to unravel the gold mess, increase shipments overseas and pay off war debts. If gold prices suddenly skyrocketed, as Gould and Fisk had intended, Grant might consider a proposed plan for the government to sell its gold reserves and stabilize the markets; a plan that would leave the two clever traders in a quandary.

Through acquaintances, including Grant’s own brother-in-law, Gould and Fisk met with the president.  In June of 1869, they pitched their idea posing as two concerned (a lie) but wealthy (true) citizens who could save the gold markets and raise exports, thus doing the country a favor. They insisted the president let the markets stand and keep the government at bay. Fisk even treated the president to an evening at the opera – in Gould’s private box. The wily general may have been impressed by the opera, but he was also a practical man. He told the two estimable gentlemen that he had no plans to intervene, at least not initially. But Grant really had no idea what the two shysters were up to.

A few months later, when Fisk sent a letter to Grant to confirm the president’s steadfast support, a message erroneously arrived back that Grant had received the letter and there would be no reply. The lack of a response was as good as a “yes” for Fisk. Grant was clearly on board, he thought.

He was wrong.

On September 20th, a Monday, Fisk’s broker started to buy and the markets subsequently panicked. Gold held steady at first at $130 for every $100 in greenback, but the next day Fisk worked his magic. He showed up in person and went on the offensive. Using threats and lies, including where he thought the president stood on the matter, Fisk spooked the floor.

The Bulls slaughtered the Bears.

Gold was bought, borrowed and sold. And Fisk and Gould, through various brokers, did all the buying. On Wednesday, gold closed slightly over 141, the highest price ever. In his typical showy style, Fisk couldn’t help but rub it in. He brazenly offered bets of 50-thousand dollars that the number would reach 145 by the end of the week. If someone took that sucker proposition, they lost. By Thursday, gold prices hit an astounding 150. The next day it would reach 160.

Then the bottom fell out.

At the White House, Grant was tipped off and furious. On September 24, a Friday, he put the government gold reserve up for sale and Gould and Fisk were effectively out of business. Thanks to the government sell off, almost immediately, gold prices plummeted back to the 130’s. Many investors lost a bundle, but the two schemers got out mostly unscathed.

The whole affair became famously known as “Black Friday.”

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Steely Dan

In 1975, Steely Dan, the rock group consisting of multi-instrumentalist Walter Becker and singer Donald Fagen, wrote a song titled ‘Black Friday” and released it that same year as the first single off their album “Katy Lied.” The song reached #37 on the Billboard charts.

When Black Friday comes
I stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor

The band confirmed that the song is about the 1869 Gould/Fisk takeover but that it also has odd references that have nothing to do with the original story.  For instance, an Australian town named Muswellbrooke (“Fly down to Muswellbrook”) is mentioned…and then there is the line about kangaroos (“Nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos”).

Fagen later confirmed in an interview the town name was added by chance: “I think we had a map and put our finger down at the place that we thought would be the furthest away from New York or wherever we were at the time. That was it.”

Today the term “Black Friday” is referenced in relation to the Friday after Thanksgiving and traditionally the busiest shopping season of the year. The day retailers go “in the black,” so to speak.

Steely Dan had none of that in mind when they wrote the song.

 

 

The Gettysburg Address We Don’t Remember

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Edward Everett

The beginning and final sentences of Edward Everett’s speech on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of Gettysburg’s National Cemetery:

“STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature..

..But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.”

The Boston orator was the obvious choice for the occasion. During his 40-year career as professor, diplomat, and statesman, he had consistently dazzled audiences with his brilliant oratory.  On November 19 in Gettysburg, Everett held the crowd “spellbound” for nearly two hours. But his words are not the ones that are remembered today.  

Shortly after Everett’s speech, President Abraham Lincoln spoke for less than three minutes.

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The following is from Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address” New York Times http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/…/the-other-gettysbu…/…

“Edward Everett had spent his life preparing for this moment. If anyone could put the battle into a broad historical context, it was he. His immense erudition and his reputation as a speaker set expectations very high for the address to come. As it turned out, Americans were correct to assume that history would forever remember the words spoken on that day. But they were not to be his. As we all know, another speaker stole the limelight, and what we now call the Gettysburg Address was close to the opposite of what Everett prepared. It was barely an Address at all; simply the musings of a speaker with no command of Greek history, no polish on the stage, and barely a speech at all – a mere exhalation of around 270 words. Everett’s first sentence, just clearing his throat, was 19 percent of that – 52 words. By the time he was finished, about 2 hours later, he had spoken more than 13,000.” 

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(Quotes and text culled from various internet sources including http://www.massmoments.org)

Milton Hershey’s Chocolate Challenge

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By Ken Zurski

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Milton Hershey

In 1903, candy maker and entrepreneur Milton Hershey invented a recipe for milk chocolate that he planned to sell en mass to Americans.

Hershey certainly did not discover the benefits of chocolate (which dates back to the Aztecs in 450 BC) or the first chocolate bar for that matter (a cocoa butter based solid used by the Dutch in the early 19th century), but what he did do is mass produce it.

Hershey had successfully opened up a caramel factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but producing chocolate in large quantities proved to be a major challenge. The problem was in the process.  Specifically, how does one heat sugar and milk in large kettle pots without burning the mixture or making a sticky goo?

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Lancaster Caramel Factory

Hershey and his team worked for hours, day thru night, trying to figure it out.  They experimented with less ingredients, then more. They tried whole or skim milk. They even changed the breed of the cow hoping for better consistency. Nothing seemed to work.  Every experiment they tried met with the same result: lumpy, burnt residue – not creamy delicious chocolate.

Hershey knew financially millions of dollars were at stake. So he hired a chemist. But even that failed. Desperate, Hershey called on a trusted worker at the caramel factory to give it a go. The worker had an idea. He focused on the cooking rather than the mixing. He combined the milk, sugar and other ingredients and adjusted the temperature; slowly cooling it down then heating it up again to reduce boiling and burning.

It worked.

“Look at the beautiful batch of milk,” Hershey exclaimed.

Not only did the new batch taste good, but it was creamy and smooth too.

Inspired by the new process, Hershey decided to produce larger pieces to sell.

Instead of small bites, like “kisses,” Hershey envisioned a chocolate piece that was longer and offered multiple bites in one.

He called it the Hershey Bar.

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(Sources: Hershey: Milton S. Harshey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams – Michael D’Antonio; various internet)

George Washington Ferris and the Fate of the Original Wheel

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By Ken Zurski

In June of 1893, the 264-foot high Ferris Wheel opened to great fanfare at the Chicago World’s Fair.

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The man who created it, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., had told doubters that it would work flawlessly on every spin.  But when the Fair opened on May 1, 1893, Ferris’ wheel wasn’t ready. A delay in construction keep the ride closed at least initially.  When the wheel finally took it’s inaugural spin, Ferris was right. It worked flawlessly every time.

“Then it revolved and 1,000 people rose and fell with its majestic sweep,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Ferris was there to blow the “golden whistle” and watch from the ground as the wheel turned for the first time. “A modest young man in a gray suit with a drooping mustache covering his determined mouth,” the Tribune described. Ferris dedicated the wheel to the profession of modern engineering.

Born in Galesburg, Illinois, the Ferris family moved to Carson City, Nevada when George was five. In 1876, he came east, began his schooling, and graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a Civil Engineering degree.

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In 1891, Ferris moved to Chicago and took up the challenge as did others to come up with a structural design that would make the Fair stand out, like the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, France in 1889 . Although initially rejected due to safety concerns the wheel was eventually chosen and construction began just four and half months before the Fair open. “The design was a novelty and so absolute and original that the powers of the fair hesitated to so much as give it recognition,” newspaper dispatches would later report. But Ferris’ persistence paid off.  He also offered to raise the money needed to build it.

The Fair itself was considered an overall success and so was the Ferris Wheel, but it all ended tragically for the city. Just days before the closing ceremonies on October 28, 1893, Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison was gunned down by a disgruntled office seeker. Then a fire destroyed several fair buildings.

Three years later, in 1896, after a quick bout of typhoid fever, Ferris was dead at the age of 37. By this time, Ferris was already a broken man. His 10-year marriage had recently ended and attempts to gain financial rewards from his popular attraction were failing. Ferris was busy fighting legal battles when he developed symptoms of the deadly fever on a Friday and died several days later on Sunday November 22. “The attending physicians say his system was greatly run down by overwork,” the papers announced. Ferris and his estranged wife Margaret had no children.

Defeated and alone and so sudden was his death that some speculated Ferris had committed suicide instead.

Ferris certainly had his share of disappointments. After the Fair, he dismantled the wheel, moved it to a park on the north side of the city, and sued exhibitors hoping to win back profits based on the wheel’s attendance. “There must be a million people down there,” Ferris once said about the line of spectators waiting to board. But the dispute was effectively over after Ferris’ untimely death.

The wheel however was another matter. The 400-ton steel structure was too large and costly to keep dismantling and transporting to different locations.  Eventually it ended up in St. Louis where the novelty wore off. So on May 11, 1906, thanks to 100 pounds of strategically placed dynamite, the original Ferris Wheel collapsed into a twisted mass of scrap steel. “Utter uselessness,” the Chicago Tribune opined, unjustly implying that Ferris had kept the wheel around too long.

In truth, the company which bought the wheel went out of business.

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By that time, Ferris was gone and didn’t personally feel the sting of criticism.  His name however would carry on. Two years after the Fair in 1895, London built a mammoth 308-foot tall Great Wheel modeled after Ferris’ original design. And soon after that, similar but smaller versions of the Ferris Wheel began popping up in parks and carnivals throughout the world.

Then in 1995, a Ferris Wheel returned to Chicago’s lakefront on the newly renovated Navy Pier. In 2006, it was replaced by a more technically advanced and larger wheel (196-foot tall) with 42 climate controlled gondolas. It was dubbed “The Centennial Wheel” and remains one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions.

It is currently the sixth-tallest wheel in the United States.

“One of Chicago’s most prevalent but overlooked cultural contributions is not a building,” a Chicago architecture website explains, “it’s the Ferris wheel.”

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Q&A: Author Ken Zurski on his Award Winning Book ‘UNREMEMBERED’

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Author Ken Zurski (Peoria Stories & The Wreck of the Columbia) answers questions about his book UNREMEMBERED Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten a Readers’ Favorite award winner in the category of “Non-Fiction Adventure”

Unremembered is an interesting word. Why did you choose it?

I really liked it for one. It’s not used very often, but I saw it once and immediately knew it fit what I was trying to do.

And that would be a blog of forgotten history stories?

Well, yea, sort of. I was thinking a book first and thought it would make a terrific title. I had stories but wasn’t sure of the direction. I had a list of people and events I’d read about and wanted to write so I started the blog first and now here we are two years later and finally a book.

Unremembered

 

The book is different from the blog in that it tells multiple stories but within the context of a flowing or entwined narrative. Was that planned?

Mostly, yes. I didn’t want to do a bathroom book with just a bunch of articles. The stories on the blog are short so there would have to be a hundred or more in the book. I began thinking of stories intertwining and that sparked my interest in telling stories of people and events and their connections to each other, something I did in an abbreviated way with my book Peoria Stories. Some of the connections are more obvious than others and there are four parts to Unremembered so there are different themes, but with a thread that connects them all.

Some people seem to pop up and leave and others reemerge. Is this because of their connections?

Oh, Yes. There are probably 70 people featured in the book all under the same guise of being nearly famous or not quite forgotten. Some appear briefly others more prominently.

George Francis Train is one character that seems to have his hand in everything. Did you know that going in?

Oh, of course. Train was probably the person that best exemplifies what I was trying to convey in Unremembered. He was a resourceful figure and had some pretty amazing accomplishments in his lifetime, but he tried too hard to be important. Eventually his antics led many to believe he was insane. Others greatly admired him. In the end though, hardly anyone remembers him.

So he fits under the category of “nearly famous”?

Yes, I suppose, in how time treated his story. Today, he’s certainly not famous when compared to others, but in the later half of the 19th century he was a very famous figure, prominently in the news and influential and controversial too.

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George Francis Train

And Nellie Bly, the journalist, where does she fit in?

She is sort of like Train but never seemed to push herself into the spotlight like Train did. Certainly traveling around the world is a heady stuff for a woman at the time, but she did it to further her status as a journalist, not become a celebrity. That she became famous was a bonus.

So she is not quite forgotten?

Exactly her name comes up in books about the early history of journalism. But most people don’t know all of her amazing story.

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Nellie Bly

Train and Bly seems to be main characters but don’t enter the book until the third part, especially Bly. Was this by design?

Sort of. Train has a connection to a man we meet in the first part Cornelius Vanderbilt, who has a connection to a steamboat disaster in New York whose tragic events has a connection to a young printer, it just follows along. Train is actually in every part in some way.

Niagara Falls is an interesting subject? How did you choose that to continue the narrative in Part Two?

Beyond the nature part of the beast, there’s a human story to the Falls which really interested me. Why did people risk their life to challenge it? So many stories emerged I had to tell it.

And yet, somehow it ties into balloon travel which ties into the birth of transportation

Yes, Part Three is about reaching new limits and new heights in transportation both by water and air. Some interesting and forgotten stories can be found here beyond the more familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and even the Titanic.

So there is an “unremembered” ship?

There is. Again famous for it’s time, but mostly forgotten now.

And then we’re back to a tragedy in Part Four?

Yes, the Great Chicago Fire.

And a familiar face emerges?

Yes, Train has a history there as well.

It’s all very fascinating stuff and the book covers a lot of ground.  Were you ever surprised by the connections?

Most everything in the book is included because of the connections, but there were a few that were unexpected and came about while during research.

They call that writer’s luck, right?

Exactly

Ken Zurski