By Ken Zurski
In June of 1893, when the 264-foot high Ferris Wheel opened at the Chicago World’s Fair, the man who created it, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., said that it would work flawlessly on every spin. But there were doubters. That’s because when the Fair officially opened on May 1, 1893, the wheel did not. A delay in construction keep the ride closed at least initially. Ferris’ waited as patiently as everyone else.
A month later when the wheel finally took it’s inaugural spin, Ferris was right. It worked flawlessly every time. Ferris was there to blow the “golden whistle.” and watch it go. “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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
By Ken Zurski
From the end of the American Revolution and into the early 19th century when brave men began exploring the land between New England and the Mississippi River in areas that covered parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, the food source came from what was available – either seeded or caught.
For hunters, this meant meat. Wild turkey, white-tailed deer and elk were in high supply, but as many historians point out from this time period, there was another critter which grazed the land in large numbers and soon caught the fancy of the early explorers and their families who took root in these areas.
“So plentiful were squirrels,” wrote David McCullough in his book The Pioneers, “that hardly a day passed without a few hundred being killed.”
And so squirrel became a meal and it showed up frequently in a recipe that is still cited today, although likely not as often partaken: squirrel pie.
It’s almost farcical that modern day historians like McCullough mention “squirrel pie” without an explanation: “ …at a dinner given by Captain William McCurdy featuring squirrel pie, he found Mrs. McCurdy ‘very agreeable.’”
But why should they.
Certainly having squirrel on the menu would raise a few eyebrows, but in the late 18th century, of which McCullough was referencing, “squirrel pie” was a staple, like an apple pie or pumpkin pie would be today. Only this pie was no dessert. It’s ingredients were more savory than sweet.
It was a meat pie, plain and simple. A form of pastry filled with minced meat and vegetables. Today in Britain, meat pies are famously sold at London football matches like hot dogs are in America. Only the British meat pie’s don’t have any squirrel in it – or so we think.
Nevertheless, a recipe for an old “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” can be found on the internet on a website which rightfully claims to be a “field to fork foodie adventure.” To add some flavor, a “root mash” is added on top so the whole caboodle looks more like a casserole than a pie.
That’s not the case for most recipes of squirrel pie which usually resemble a traditional round pie in a pan, either large or small (like a pot pie), or a hand held type pastry with pinched edges. Some recipes for squirrel even leave out the pie distinction and offer up just “fried squirrel.”
But why digress.
When it comes to squirrel pie, there’s one main ingredient: one squirrel, once skinned.
The author of the article about the “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” points out that a “well fed” winter male squirrel can yield 110 grams of cooked meat. “Cook it slow” the recipe states for squirrel meat is very lean and it must be cooked for an extended period of time to tenderize. If cooked “low and slow” for 4 hours or more, the “meat was falling off the bone.” The result: although the meat is “quite fiddly” (a British term for being complicated or awkward), the taste is “surprisingly good,” rates the website.
Certainly when foraging for food like the early settlers did, one didn’t have the time or resource to be fussy. Squirrel was available in large numbers and easy to trap or shoot. So they caught it, ate it and likely enjoyed it.
But that was 200 years ago.
You would think by the early part of the 20th century, the taste for squirrel, especially in the Midwest, would have come to an end. But not so fast. In October of 1938, an Akron, Ohio newspaper named the Beacon Journal announced the winning recipe for a daily pie contest that went to a Mrs. Elizabeth Hindman for her “squirrel pie recipe.”
This was no novelty concoction. In fact, squirrel pot pies were “the favored recipe for the late hunting season,” the paper noted.
As for that day’s winner, Hindman, at the age of 82, was “one of our oldest readers,” the Beacon reported. “We know that when she learned to make squirrel pie there were no restrictions as to when these animals could be killed.”
Hindman even offered some tasty advice. “The squirrel may be removed from the bones,” she points out, “but some men prefer to have the meat left on bones. You may fix the meat to suit your family.”
For her efforts, Hindman reaped a cash reward of one dollar. She explained that if a squirrel was out of season or “you do not get any squirrel,” save the recipe and use a rabbit instead. “Most of the recipes sent to us for squirrel pie,” the paper cited, “could also be used for rabbit or chicken.”
“Judging by the number we saw,” the Beacon continued, “there should be enough rabbits for every hunter.”
They likely tasted better too.
Unfortunately here in the 21st century, the once revered squirrel, especially when it comes to eating, are referenced mostly as a joke.
(Sources: David McCullough “The Pioneers;” various internet sites)
By Ken Zurski
The winner of the first lottery designed to help the colonists of the New World is a man named Thomas Sharplisse, a tailor from London.
We know this rather trivial historical fact thanks in part to a another man named John Stow who decided to chronicle English life in in the 16th century. His book Survey of London was released in 1598, a life’s work indeed, since he was dead just seven years later at the age of 80.
At the start of the 17th century, however, other diarists picked up the slack, commissioned by King James I, and continued to record anecdotes and life experiences of fellow Londoners. The Stow’s Chronicles is the result.
And because of it, we know the name: Thomas Sharplisse.
Sharplisse had nothing to do with America except, as other Londoners did at the time, a passing interest in what was going on in the New World. It was after all 1612. The stock holding Virginia Company of London, had funded the first English colony in North America, the struggling James Towne, or more commonly known as Jamestown, named of course in honor of his majesty.
The newly established settlement (actually it was the second incarnation, the first was James Fort) was reeling from sickness, starvation and occasional attacks by hostile Indians. They were in desperate need for more supplies, but the Virginia Company was broke. So the King approved a lottery, a game of chance really, but also an opportunity for fellow countryman to invest at a time when charitable contributions didn’t exist.
Marketing for the lottery was in the guise of a song:
To London, worthy Gentlelmen,
goe venture there your chaunce:
good lucke standes now in readinesse,
your fortunes to advance
In June of 1612, Sharplisse was among the crowd that gathered in a specially constructed “Lotterie house” near St. Paul’s Church in London to watch tickets drawn in the first Great Standing Lottery or the Jamestown Lottery as it is more referred to today.
Little else is known about Sharplisse except that he spent two-shillings-and-sixpence on the chance. And according to Stow’s Chronicles, Shaprlisse’s ticket was the Grand Prize winner – four thousand crowns in “fayre plate, which was sent to his house in a very stately manner.” It was a fortune at the time.
Two Anglican churches took home smaller winnings
After the Virginia Company paid for the prizes, salesman, managers, and other expenses, the remaining revenue covered the cost of shipping people and supplies to Jamestown. It was such a vital resource that Captain John Smith referred to the lottery as “the real and substantial food.” Disappointing, however, was the turn out. Nearly 60-thousand lottery tickets went unsold. Eventually, the crown banned lotteries that benefited Jamestown because of complaints that they were robbing England of money.
More than a century later, the First Continental Congress tried a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War.
(Some text was reprinted from The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution; Source: Colonial America Lottery by Steve Swain)
By Ken Zurski
Ella Kate Ewing literally “grew up” on a rural Midwest farm.
Born in La Grange, Missouri in 1872, Ewing was a normal sized toddler, but by the age of six began to quickly grow. By age 14, Ella had sprouted to over six feet tall, nearly a full foot or two taller than most of her classmates.
Her rapid rise in height was attributed to a rare hormone condition.
By the time she reached 18, Ella was close to seven feet in height. When she stopped growing at age 22, she topped out at an astounding 8-foot, 4 inches.
Of course she was stared at and teased. “The girls of my own age shunned me,” Ewing would later say about her childhood in tiny Gorin, Missouri. “My tastes were the same as theirs; I loved dolls and scrap-books and it was as much fun for me to make mudpiles as it was for them.”
“When I called on my friends there were no chairs large enough for me to sit on,” she added, “and I was out of place apparently, everywhere.”
But for oddities like Ella, there were opportunities.
The circus came calling.
“I reckon you must mean Ella Ewing,” a local was quoted as saying when a museum agent from Chicago came to Gorin on a tip of a “wonderful giantess” in town. “She’s the biggest gal in these parts, and I calc’late she hain’t got her growth yit.”
The agent went to Ella’s home. A newspaper writer described the meeting this way:
“‘Was Miss Ewing in?’ [he asked]. Yes she was, and she soon entered the parlor, being compelled to stoop to get through the door. Her head almost grazed the ceiling and the agent looked upon the tallest human being he had ever seen.”
The agent soon “made known his errand.” Ella’s parents were reluctant at first. Ella was self-conscious about her height and hated the idea of people gawking at her. She and her family thought celebrity-hood clashed with their strong Christian beliefs too.
But money talks.
Ella was offered $1000 to spend four weeks as an exhibit at a Chicago museum. Another report claims she was offered $500 a week for forty weeks. Either way, it was an offer Ella and her parents couldn’t refuse. “If people are going to gawk,” a friend convinced, “make them pay.”
Ella instantly caught the attention of other museum mangers throughout the nation. “She was a giant in reality and none of the other living giants wanted to share a stage with her,” the Palmyra (Missouri) Spector reported. Ella was larger than the “famous Chinese Giant” who stood seven-feet eleven inches tall, and P.T. Barnum’s Colonel Ruoth Goshen who was seven-feet six inches “in his thickest soled boots.” Ella, at over eight feet tall, “readily looked over the heads of either of these two men,” the Spector explained.
After the museum stint, Ella was featured at Chicago’s 1893 Worlds Fair. From there she appeared in state fairs and other events near her home earning her the nickname ‘Missouri Giantess.” Eventually, P.T Barnum hired Ella for his traveling circus. Ella became the “Giant Giantess” for Barnum and billed as “A true giantess far exceeding in height all other giant’s that ever lived.” Typical of a Barnum “freak” show, he paired her with other human oddities like the Midget Man who was “only six-inches tall” and a “cyclopean young lady” weighing in at “over 300 pounds.
Ella towered above them all. “I am delighted with it and find it quite different from what I expected before I entered it,” she said about circus life. “I have always received the best treatment from all the people in the show, and enjoy traveling about and seeing the country.”
For six-months work , Ewing received $3,250 dollars, which made the days on the road more bearable and homecomings more special. Even the attention became commonplace and acceptable. “It was terribly embarrassing to me at first,” she explained referring to the constant gawking, ” but I have almost gotten used to it now.”
In 1897, after making a good living on the circuit, “the tallest lady on Earth” finally settled down. Travelling had become burdensome. “I couldn’t get into the berth of an ordinary sleeping car,” Ella told the St Louis Dispatch, “and had to travel day and night in an ordinary car. The rooms of a hotel have always been a torment for me.”
Ella returned to rural Missouri, bought a modest farm house near her parents and rebuilt it to her specifications: 12-foot ceilings, 6-feet tall windows, and over-sized furniture.
“I’m always glad to get back to our peaceful Missouri home,” she said. “Here everybody knows me and I’m not considered a “freak.”
At home, Ella’s stature continued to grow. She received constant attention from locals who came to marvel, not at her, but at a privilege only the “Giantess” could afford: a telephone.
She never married claiming her size prevented her from finding true love. “I have never given matrimony a serious thought,” she exclaimed in 1899, “and I have no doubt that I shall live and die an old maid.”
Ella died of tuberculous in 1913 at the age of 40.
By Ken Zurski
On December 26, 1975, a Friday, millions of viewers tuned their TV sets to NBC and watched a special hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, featuring dancer Gene Kelly and starring a performer most people were not all that familiar with.
Not yet, at least.
Almost overnight, Doug Henning would become a household name.
Doug Henning’s World of Magic became the highest rated show of the evening and the third highest rated show of the week behind sitcom giants All In the Family and Maude according to AC Nielsen. Most importantly, it was the top magic television show of all time, drawing an estimated 50-million viewers.
Henning, a Canadian native from Winnipeg, Manitoba, had already been a successful act on Broadway starring in the rock musical The Magic Show in 1974. Henning had initially funded the project himself, calling it Spellbound, and opening to rave reviews in Toronto. When New York came calling, Henning reworked the show into a hit that ran for more than four years.
Henning says he got interested in magic at an early age while watching acts on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He started doing magic as a teenager but quit because he didn’t want to be just “a magician for kids.” While finishing up his physiological psychology degree at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario and preparing to enter medical school, Henning’s love for performing returned. He also met a young writer and director named Ivan Reitman, who would direct Henning’s Spellbound production. (Reitman would go on to make several successful Hollywood movies like Stripes and Ghostbusters.)
The TV Special was the next logical career step for Henning. Sporting long curly hair, a bushy mustache and a big-toothed grin, Henning looked more like a happy hippie than a magician. He also wore colorful body suits rather than the traditional tuxedo and tails associated with magic acts. “Henning appears to be one of the last cheerful survivors of the Age of Aquarius,” wrote Jay Sharbutt, the television writer for the Associated Press.
Henning didn’t call himself as much a magician as an illusionist, saying it in a way that emphasized his point. “I’t’s an Illuuusion” he explained in a close up camera shot with his hands expressively fluttering the air in wonderment.
In Henning’s hands, things disappeared, vanished into thin air, then reappeared again. It was a magic in a sense, but in a sense, it was magical too.
“It’s important to me to create the largest wonder,” Henning told The LA Times in 1984. “If I produce a 450-pound Bengal tiger, it’s going to create a lot more wonder than if I produce a rabbit.”
In the first TV special he went big. For the finale, Henning recreated, in his own frantic way, Houdini’s “Chinese water torture” trick. The first trick of the show was a bit simpler, involving a coin in Henning’s hands.
Thanks to a sponsorship from oil giant Mobil, the show was broadcast live and without commercial breaks. Henning himself insisted there be no interruptions. “What’s the use of creating a sense of mystery and magic,” he explained,”when suddenly you see a guy pumping gas into a car.
“The reason why I wanted to do it live is that I feel magic has never been performed successfully on TV before. People are always suspicious of trick photography; they can’t really see what’s going on. I have created five illusions specifically for television in which a hand-held camera will be used extensively to give viewers a close look at the hocus pocus.”
Henning continued to enjoy popularity through most of he 80’s appearing on a dozen more TV specials and numerous talk shows. He worked on Micheal Jackson stage shows and went back on Broadway for another magic inspired show, “Merlin.” Henning also appeared on several segments of TV’s “The Muppet Show.” “Believe in your own magic and then nothing is impossible,” he told Robin the frog, Kermit’s nephew.
“With a curly mane of hair and a near-constant grin, Mr. Henning was one of the most famous illusionists in the world,” The New York Times explained. “In each case, he stunned audiences with a seemingly impossible array of disappearing assistants and levitating ladies. Doves became rabbits in Mr. Henning’s hands, and horses took wing.”
Before his death due to illness in 2000 at the age of 52, Henning had transitioned from magic to what he called the “real magic:” meditation and transcendental levitation. Some say he just dropped out of sight, but he claims it was more personal. “Magic is something that happens that appears to be impossible,” he said. “What I call illusion magic uses laws of science and nature that are already known. Real magic uses laws that haven’t yet been discovered.”
In his obituary, the LA Times wrote: “Wonder, Henning always said, is necessary in life, and magic can reawaken the wonder that occurs naturally in children but is lost to cynicism as people grow up.”
“Henning’s own sense of wonder,” the Times continued, “fueled his professional success and personal appeal.”
Even today, Henning’s groundbreaking TV special still resonates: “Every magician that’s out there working today owes Doug Henning a great debt,” said Las Vegas stage magician Lance Burton.
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1958, physicist William Higinbotham was part of a research team at New York’s Brookhaven Laboratory when he came up with an idea that had nothing to do with nuclear science.
A nuclear weapons specialist during the war, Higinbotham or “Willy” as his friends called him, was instrumental in helping develop the first nuclear bomb. Now a decade later, “Willy” and others were studying the application of nuclear energy in more practical and peaceful means. Higinbotham had lost his two brothers in the war.
To show off their work, every year, the Institute held an open house – or Visitor’s Days. And every year the scientists tried to find ways to make the visit more exciting for their less than scientific-minded guests.
So Higinbotham looked around for inspiration. The laboratory had several analog computers and “a book which tells you how to do a bouncing ball and some other things,” Higinbotham explained. “I look at it and say, well, obviously, with this machine I can fix it so instead of having it pre-programmed, people can control it.”
Within two days he created what some people believe to be the very first video game.
Tennis for Two, as it was called it, was played on an oscilloscope and used an electrical charge to show the path of a bouncing ball. “Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racket’s swing.”
“It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working,” Higinbotham said. Even though the screen was small – about 5 inches in diameter, “Everybody stood in line to play. It was a big hit.”
In context, Andrew Ervin, author of Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our Lives, explains it this way: “Imagine trying to create a playable version of Minecraft on a contraption made out of Lincoln Logs, wires, and a few 9-volt batteries hooked up to an Etch A Sketch.”
The next year in 1959 during another Visitor’s Day, Higinbotham displayed an improved model of Tennis for Two. It had “a larger monitor, a button to increase the force of a serve and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet.” But that was all for the game. The following year it was gone without explanation. Higinbotham later said he focused on other projects instead.
Today, some argue the game had no video signal, only electric voltage, so the “video” tag might be a stretch. Others disagree, like Ervin who puts Higinbotham and Steve Russell, the inventor of Spacewar! in 1961, together as the “two dads” of video game history. “They are the true creative pioneers,” Ervin explains.
Regardless of who gets credit for the introduction of video games, Higinbotham found no use for his creation. He never patented Tennis for Two, a mistake he would later regret. “Even if I had [patented it], the game would’ve belonged to the government,” he said. “I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Years later, in 1972, one company was smart enough to take a variation of Higinbotham’s idea and market it.
That company’s name was Atari and the video game was called Pong!
By Ken Zurski
On June 24, 1899, on the one year anniversary of the Battle of Las Gusaimas, about a hundred soldiers who called themselves the Rough Riders gathered together to celebrate victory in the Spanish-American War. Where they gathered wasn’t as important as why. But when it came time to organize such an event only one Old West town seemed appropriate: Las Vegas.
Yes, Las Vegas.
Only this was not the Las Vegas built in the middle of the Nevada desert. That town’s reputation was still several decades away. No, this was the City of Las Vegas in the New Mexico territory.
Why this Las Vegas? Well, there wasn’t anything particularly glamorous or glitzy about New Mexico’s Las Vegas, but there was a train track and a depot built in 1880. Many of the recruited Rough Riders had boarded the train there to depart on to their destiny with war.
As usual, for a town like Las Vegas, the accessibility of a railroad stop also brought it’s share of shady characters. Some of its more notable visitors are famously known, like Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. “Murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, vagrants, and tramps poured in, transforming the eastern side of the settlement into a virtually lawless brawl,” was one article’s assessment.
The article goes on claim in it’s title that Las Vegas was “as wicked as Dodge City.” One can argue that. But the point being that before Las Vegas, Nevada, Las Vegas, New Mexico was the place to go for a rip-roaring party, good or bad.
Now in 1889, a handful of Rough Riders came to Las Vegas, New Mexico to celebrate.
Some were returning, others came for the first time. Many were there to to see old friends and honor their leader, a man whose reputation had been cemented by stories of a valiant charge up a hill. Now as Governor of New York and on a pathway to the White House, the corporal, Teddy Roosevelt, came to Las Vegas to accept the rewards and thanks from his soldiers; a band of misfits ranging from good horse riders, lawyers and Ivy League men Roosevelt recruited. Roosevelt had whipped this rag tag bunch into a fighting force and despite some discourse among the ranks, in part to an unexpected drought of imported smoking and chewing tobacco, the Rough Riders defeated the Mexican army and saved the border territories for the U.S.
Roosevelt arrived in Las Vegas to find not only his men waving their hats in unison for him, but nearly ten-thousand adoring spectators too. They greeted the governor – who wore his old military uniform – with hearty cheers and sincere thanks. According to author Mark Gardner Lee, “there were plenty of medals and medal ceremonies.”
Among the most decorated was Roosevelt of course, who received what Lee describes as a lapel made of solid gold. “The elaborate medal featured the New Mexico ‘coat of arms,’ crossed sabers, and, raised in relief, a highly detailed eagle with outstretched wings.”
The festivities were not without its circuses, however. Several displays and depictions recreated the battles including the infamous charge of San Juan Hill. There were speeches, brass bands and in the evening elaborate firework displays. The highlight was a mile-long parade through town. “A Hot Time in Las Vegas,” the papers reported. “Teddy and his terrors renew the bonds of Comradeship.”
Roosevelt’s speeches were grandiose: “I am proud of you because you never flinched. When you went to war you knew you would not have an easy time; you expected to encounter hardships and you took them without a murmur.”
Roosevelt told them that only a reunion with his old regiment could him take him away form his duties in New York City. “For that purpose,” he expounded, “I would have gone to Alaska or anywhere else, for the bond that unites us one to another is as close as any bond of human friendship can be.”
New Mexico, the territory, was the perfect setting for a reunion of soldiers in the Spanish-American War. Even the New Mexico Governor Miguel Antonio Otero got an honorary member award. Although it was only symbolic, this rankled a few of the more hardened veterans who felt one should have served with the others before receiving such a distinction. Nevertheless, Otero humbly accepted the “membership” and as the papers noted, “the society almost closed its role by agreeing that honorary members must hereafter be men who were under fire with the regiment in Cuba.”
By the early 20th century, thanks to the success of the Rough Riders gathering, Las Vegas, New Mexico became known for its cowboy reunions. The brash affairs were sponsored by the Las Vegas Cowboy Reunion Association and complete with a slogan: “Git Fer Vegas Cowboy.” Thousands of ranchers and farm hands attended the events with ran annually from 1910 until 1931.
Ironically, the cowboy reunions ended a year after the Hoover Dam in Nevada was built. Thanks to the new power supply created by the massive man made dam, a small establishment nearby opened its first gambling house.
The town already had a name: Las Vegas
(Sources: Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt , his Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge of San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner; “New Mexico Legends – Las Vegas – As Wicked as Dodge City”. Legends of America. Retrieved 2012-07-13; The Los Angeles Times June 25, 1899.)
By Ken Zurski
Seven years before President John F. Kennedy announced intentions to put a man on the moon, Walt Disney, in his own magical way, was doing just that. Not physically of course, but imaginatively.
It started in July of 1955, when Disney’s visionary theme park Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. Inside an area dubbed “Tomorrowland” was an 80-foot rocket named the “Moonliner.” It’s purpose was for show, but it’s intent was far-reaching. This was “tomorrow’s” transport and the goal: space travel.
The exhibit was sponsored by Trans World Airline (TWA) with a promise that the air carrier “would send passengers to the moon in 30 years” [That would be 1985 back then]. Rocketing along at flight speeds of 172 mph, TWA claimed the trip would take about eight hours. Next to the rocket was a multi-sphere building and a sign that read: “Rocket to the Moon.”
At the base of the rocket was an explanation: “Stabilized in flight by gyroscopes, it would be controlled by automatic pilots and magnetic tapes. Landing tail-first, no air-foils or wings would be necessary, its vertical descent controlled by its jets. The 3 retractable landing legs would be equipped with shock absorbers. Launching and landing would be done over a “firing center” to confine and lead off the superheated exhaust gases.”
Inside “Rocket to the Moon,” thanks to a projection screen both on the ceiling and on the floor, park guests could experience this flight themselves – or at least a simulation of it. “You don’t actually land on the Moon, but you get to fly around the back side of the Moon,” was the ride’s description. “Along the way, you learn interesting facts about the Moon and the planets. Soon you’re heading back to Earth. After your craft turns around, you see your destination on the floor screen. Prepare to land.” The total duration of the ride was about ten minutes.
Disney himself explained it this way: “Kids and grown-ups too can take a trip to the moon from here. Well, at least they can board a passenger rocket and have all the thrills of such a trip – and in accord with the latest scientific theories on interplanetary travel.”
Yes, “scientific theories,” is how Disney put it in 1955.
He added: “Timid souls who don’t care to risk outer space can peer at the U.S. from an inner space, man-made satellite orbiting 500 Disney miles above the earth.”
In 1961, TWA dropped its sponsorship and Douglas Aircraft took over the”Moonliner.” The rocket was repainted to represent Douglas Aircraft’s color and brand. It lasted until 1966, when it was shut down and the building demolished. By this time the prospects of a moon flight was in reach. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” President Kennedy famously said in September of 1962, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
In 1967, the ride was rebuilt, adding more amphitheater rooms and more seating. A pre-show lobby was redesigned and featured the park’s animatronic figures. Gone was the “Moonliner” rocket, or as one Disney historian described: “It had been scrapped.”
The exhibit was given a new name: “Mission to the Moon.”
Then in July 1969, millions of Americans watched as a man walked on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” astronaut Neil Armstrong proudly proclaimed upon making the first footprint. Suddenly, Disney’s futuristic moon ride was no longer “tomorrow’s” fantasy.
“First Think. Second, dream. Third, believe. And finally, dare,” Disney once said, although he wouldn’t live long enough to witness man’s first flight to the lunar surface. He died in 1966 at the age of 65.
The ride stayed open through all six manned Apollo Missions. Finally, in 1975, the name changed again. This time passengers were still going into space, but now they would travel further than the moon and certainly farther than any man so far.
“Mission to Mars” opened in March of 1975.
The ride closed for good in 1992.