American history

Tom Dooley: Television’s Face for Cancer

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By Ken Zurski

On April 21 1960, a Thursday, CBS television aired a taped documentary titled “Biography of a Cancer” that for its day, was as timely as it was informative. That’s because in the 1950’s doctors had just begun experimenting with a combination chemotherapy and radiation as treatment. In the public eye, there were just as many questions about its clinical usefulness as there were answers. So the network’s objective was to present a cancer patient and show “truthfully and graphically” the various stages of the disease.

They found the perfect subject in Dr. Thomas A. Dooley.

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Dr. Tom Dooley

A lieutenant and rising star in the Navy, Dooley scrapped plans to be an orthopedic surgeon, left the military, and devoted his life to serve those in less fortunate areas of the world. He was profiled by some as a globetrotting playboy, both good looking and successful, who became an “idealistic, crusading servant of the poor and depressed.”

Dooley didn’t care how he was perceived. His mission was clear. But due to this mix of admonition and admiration, his story got notice. Dooley wrote three best-selling books about his humanitarian crusade. One was titled: “Deliver Us From Evil.”

Then he got cancer.

When Dooley agreed to be filmed by CBS he was just about to have surgery on the malignant tumor found near his shoulder.

In August of 1959, the cameras rolled.

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Nearly a year later in April, the show aired.

One that day, a newspaper preview titled “Today’s Television Highlights” read like this:

CBS Reports looks at cancer in general and the case of Dr. Tom Dooley in particular on tonight’s “Biography of a Cancer.” Using Dooley as a typical case, we follow his treatment. There are shots of two operations – an exploratory one and a major bit of surgery – which are fairly strong stuff, but important in the complete story. And at the end, there is a conversation between Dooley and cancer researcher Dr. Murray Shear which is an abrasive, no punches-pulled affair. The conclusion, in both Dooley’s case and the broader story in general, is what producer Albert Wasserman terms, “Judiciously Optimistic.” Anyone concerned with cancer should see this, and might be wise for everyone to look in; it dispels a few myths.  

One person who didn’t see the TV special airing that night was Tom Dooley.  That day, he was in Southeast Asia treating the sick. In fact, Dooley kept a constant travel schedule even after the diagnosis and surgery.  His will and determination was an inspiration to the staff of MEDICO, the world-wide health organization Dooley founded. Many of his patients called him “Dr. America,” but his team knew him simply as “Dr. Tom.”

“Walt Whitman, I think, said that it’s not important what you do with the years of your life, but how you use each hour, “ Dooley told the television viewers in the CBS special. “That’s how I want to live.”

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Eventually his body weakened, but not his spirit. “I’m not going to quit. I will continue to guide and lead my hospitals until my back, my brain, and my bones collapse,” he said after being admitted for treatment for the last time.

On January 18, 1961, just a month after returning from a mission to Bangkok, Tom Dooley died. He was one day short of his 34th birthday. For all his frantic and tireless efforts, both in front and behind the camera the end was “a quiet, peaceful slipping away,” a friend said about Dooley’s final hours.

At the time of his death, the dedication to his work, and not the brief stint on television, was the focus of numerous articles and memorials.

“Tom Dooley didn’t lose the fight,” one newspaper headline read.  Even to the end, “he was fighting for time to carry on his work as long as he could”

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The Story of Baseball’s Eating Champion is a Little Hard to Swallow, But Who Cares. It’s Crazy!

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Frank “Ping” Bodie

By Ken Zurski

Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish, the kind his mother used to make.  So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie proved it by competing in a head-to-head, no holds barred, eating contest against an unlikely opponent – an ostrich!  Instead of hot dogs however, Bodie and the bird would eat plates of pasta.

The whole thing sounded absolutely ridiculous and whether it actually happened as reported is doubtful, but it sure makes for an interesting story.

As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own worth.  ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing: himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.

Despite being a self-professed braggart, the players loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with  managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.

Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat.  Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.

Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater must have preceded him.

While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col. T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie about Percy and the challenge was on. From that point on the accounts of the contest are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.

But who was questioning?

Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.

For anyone who believed that, the rest of the story was just as easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.

The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.

There was no mention of the eating contest or the supposed dead bird.

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Doth One Wonder Where the Starlings Come From? It’s a Literary Tale. Literally.

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By Ken Zurski

In 1890, a man named Eugene Scheiffelin, a member of the American Acclimation Society, a group designed to exchange plants and animals from another part of the world to the United States, imported about 40 starlings from Europe to New York City.

While Scheiffelin’s reasoning was scientific, it was also borderline fanatic. He loved the writings of William Shakespeare. In fact, he loved Shakespeare so much that he planned to transplant all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America. Starlings were native to Europe, Asia, and Africa and had not yet been introduced to North America. “I’ll have a Starling [that] shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer;” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV.

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Schefflein released about 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park and the following year released 40 more. He really had no way of knowing what effect the birds would have on the ecosystem, good or bad.

Or did he?

About thirty years earlier a man from Brooklyn named Nicolas Pike imported a group of house sparrows from England with good intentions it seemed. Soon, the birds multiplied and spread throughout North America. At first their presence was helpful. They ate caterpillars of certain moths which frequently threatened city shade trees. But their numbers became unbearably large. They were, however, considered friendly birds.

The starlings, because of their aggressive and destructive nature, would be much worse.

Like the sparrow, within a decade at least, tens of millions of starlings plagued the countryside. Today in the Book of North American Birds, the European Starling (whose name still playfully carries its immigration status) is found in nearly all of inhabitable North America and year round, unlike the common robin, which is seasonal in many parts of the country.

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“The starling is ubiquitous,” The New York Times wrote in 1990, the 100th anniversary of the starling in America, “with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and noxious birds on our continent.”

Costly because it eats – no, hordes – seeds and fruits.  Oftentimes this is done in packs of thousands that can devour whole fields in a single day.

Noxious because its droppings are linked to numerous diseases not only to animals but humans too.

Of course starlings eat insects, lots of insects, perhaps more than any other bird species in the U.S. But that doesn’t offset their flair for destruction and overall annoyance to farmers, gardeners and city dwellers.

“Starlings,” wrote an ornithologist, “do nothing in moderation.”

That would include depositing – or the aforementioned “dropping” – of their waste. Since they eat so much, they go and go and go (as in the amount of excrement discharged).  And because they roost in large numbers and in well populated areas, they usually “go” in places – and on things – we least want them too.

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Schefflein died in 1906 and for a time enjoyed the pleasures of seeing Starlings in and around New York City’s Central Park, but only Central Park.  This, however, meant that his plan to migrate the birds throughout the country was failing. Then in 1896, a nesting of starlings was discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History, which was directly across the street from Central Park. Then in 1900, a letter to the editor of The New York Times asked, “Can you inform me what sort of bird it is which frequents this neighborhood?”

The Starlings were on the loose.

Shakespeare would have been proud, Schefflein must have thought at the time.

He had no idea.

Today, there are roughly 200 million starlings in North America.

Check your car’s windshield. You’ll see.

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George Washington Received the Declaration of Independence on July 8. It Got Worse From There.

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By Ken Zurski

On July 8 1776,  four days after the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, a copy was sent to General George Washington who was preparing for battle in New York City.

Washington anxiously awaited word from the assembly in Philadelphia. He knew how important the declaration would be to his troops. Up to that point the New York contingent of the Continental Army, who had been together for nearly a full year, hadn’t fired a single shot yet. They were frustrated, antsy and for the most part continually drunk. The declaration would help boost morale, Washington thought.

Already, talk of such a declaration had been stirring up emotions within the ranks. In May of that year, in words later shaped by Thomas Jefferson, Virginian George Mason drew up a sentence about being “born equally” with “inherent natural rights.” And on June 7, Virginian Richard Henry Lee, introduced a congressional resolution declaring that the United Colonies “ought to be free and independent states.” Even Washington , in the spring of 1776, crafted a statement that supported the idea of independence as an incentive to fight. “My countrymen, I know, from their form of government and steady attachment therefore to royalty, will come reluctantly into the idea of independency,” he wrote.

 

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So on July 9, at six o clock in evening, Washington ordered his troops to gather. He had previewed the contents of the document and included it in his “General’s Orders,” which would be read aloud to the men.

But it came with a caveat. Washington had warned the troops of the consequences that any official documentation of independence would mean if defeated. Treason, he implored, was something the British ruler did not take lightly. Traitors in the past were subject to gruesome disemboweling and beheadings, he explained. Washington himself knew if captured, he would be hanged.

This was literally a fight to the end, he argued.

The men stood with anticipation as the “General’s Orders” were read. Patiently they waited as several paragraphs of typical military reports and directives were announced. One included the procurement of a chaplain assigned to each regiment. “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger,” the missive proclaimed.

Then finally…

“…The Honorable the Continental Congress impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the connection which subsisted between the Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of America, free and independent STATES.”

Upon hearing the words, the men let up “three huzzas” a witness reported. In fact, their enthusiasm led to an act of debauchery that irked Washington. The soldiers marched down Broadway Street and proceeded to topple the large statue of King George III, decapitating it in the process.

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Washington was livid. He told the troops that while their “high spirits” was commendable, their behavior was not. The general wanted an army of orderly respectful men, not savages. Even defacing the likeness of the British King was inadmissible in his eyes.

However sanctimonious that may have sounded, Washington must have been pleased that the statue’s 4 ,000 pounds of gilded lead was melted down to make nearly 43-thousand musket bullets.

Washington was also thrilled by his troop’s eagerness to fight. “They [the British] will have to wade through much blood and slaughter before they can carry out any part of our works,” he wrote about the impending conflict.

Then on July 12, several British ships, including the forty-gun Phoenix, cut through a thin American defense and blasted the city. It was a show of force meant to rattle the colonists into submissiveness. It certainly rattled the nerves of Washington’s untested soldiers who were shaken and distressed by the cries of women and children fleeing the blasts. There was little resistance.

Washington later expressed his disappointment. “A weak curiosity at such a time makes a man look mean and contemptible,” he said chastising the troops.

After the embarrassment, British commander William Howe offered Washington clemency for the rebels if the General surrendered. Washington flatly refused.

The following month, it would get worse. Due to more defeats, the rebels were forced to flee New York to Pennsylvania and reorganize.  Later that year, in December, Washington would famously cross the icy Delaware River for a surprise attack in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Revolutionary War would continue for another seven years.

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One of the First Rotary-Wing Pilots is Someone You Already Know

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By Ken Zurski

 

Amelia Earhart and the Autogiro

On April 8 1931 at Pitcairn Field in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the most famous woman pilot in the world stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pioneer aviators for more than a year.

Her name, of course,  was Amelia Earhart, who in 1928, had become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Now several years later, a large appreciate crowd was on hand to see her attempt another record. This time an altitude peak in the mostly untested autogiro, a prototype for the modern day helicopter.

She would not disappoint.

Introduced in the 1930’s, the autogiros was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane. It was also unstable and unproven. There were, however, striking differences in flight. Autigiros could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. But unlike the airplane, it could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground.  The blade on top was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.

Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design without the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the helicopter, one person must be recognized.

One you famously know.

The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.

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So in 1931, with a large contingent of press on site, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.

She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.

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That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”

Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily acknowledged to the crowd.

While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.

She went back to an aircraft with wings and a propeller in the front.

Tragically, six years later in 1937, over the Pacific, her legacy as it is known today would begin.

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For a Long, Long Time No One Knew who ‘Betsy Ross’ Was

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1752, in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, Elizabeth Griscom was born to a strict Quaker family who emigrated to the United States from England in the late 17th century.

A free spirit in her twenties, Elizabeth ran off and met John Ross an upholsterer’s apprentice and an Episcopalian. Her parents forbade the union outside the Quaker faith, but Elizabeth didn’t care. She married John in a ceremony that took place in a tavern and formally became Elizabeth Ross or “Betsy,” for short.

Today, Betsy Ross is certainly name we recognize.

So much so that in contemporary surveys, many people acknowledge the name Betsy Ross more than interminable historical stalwarts like Benjamin Franklin or Christopher Columbus.  However, until her name became synonymous with America’s symbol of freedom, Betsy Ross was a sister, a mother, a widow (three times over), a seamstress, and by the time the rest of the country got to know her – dead for nearly 50 years.

If there was something special about her life, a slice of American folklore, perhaps, she told her family and no one else.

In 1870, however, that would change.

That year, Ross’s last surviving grandson William Canby went before the Historical Society in Philadelphia and told an amazing story about his grandmother, General George Washington, and the birth of the American Flag.

According to Canby, Washington had visited Ross’s upholstery shop in Philadelphia with a sketch idea for a unified flag and asked if Betsy could recreate it. “With her usual modesty and self-reliance,” Canby related, “she did not know, but said she could try.”

Canby says among other revisions, Betsy suggested that the stars be five-pointed rather than six as Washington had proposed (Washington thought the six-pointed star would be easier to replicate). The story was as revealing as it was skeptical. No one had heard of Betsy Ross and previous stories of the first flag was apocryphal at best. There were many nonbelievers and even today historians have doubts. There are no records to support Canby’s claim, they insist, even though Canby had signed affidavits to back up his story.

At the time of Washington’s proposed visit in 1777, Ross would have been in her 20’s. Her life was typical for a young women at the time. She endured two marriages that ended tragically (her first and second husband’s death were both attributed to war.) A third marriage produced five children. She passed away in 1836 at the age of 84.  There is no documentation that she publicly promoted her own role in making of the flag – or was even asked. Apparently only her family knew.

Nearly a century later, however, in the midst of the Reconstruction period, a changing nation embraced Canby’s story of his grandmother and Ross became the face of America’s first flag. The early flag became affectionately known as “The Betsy Ross Flag,” and trinkets of the thirteen stars and stripes were a big seller.

Even hardened critics, who claim many seamstresses may have played a role in the flag’s creation are willing to concede, for history’s sake at least, that one name gets credit for the five-pointed stars.

Betsy Ross.

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One Day. One Song: ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’

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By Ken Zurski

Bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa was never one to hurry a piece of music. A tune would come to him and he would play it over and over in his head until it was just right – or as he called it, the “brain band” would perform it before a single note was ever recorded.

That’s exactly what happened in 1896, while Sousa was returning from a trip overseas.

Sousa was forced to cut the trip short after receiving news that his longtime manager had passed away. Pacing the deck of the steamer Teutonic, Sousa heard a tune in his head and the “brain band” took over.

“Day after day,” he said,” as I walked, it persisted in crashing into my very soul.”

When Sousa returned to America, he set it to paper: “It was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, and definite and I could not rest until I had finished the composition.”

“Stars and Stripes Forever” quickly became Sousa’s most popular march.

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The Immortally Important Fifteen-Star and Fifteen-Stripe Flag

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By Ken Zurski

In December 1794, on the opening day of the Third Congress of the United States, the first order of business concerned the country’s symbol of freedom: the American flag.

In question was whether or not it should be changed.

Senator Stephen R. Bradley had introduced legislation that called for the flag to carry fifteen stripes and fifteen stars, two of each added to the current flag, to represent the newest additions to the Republic, his home state of Vermont and Kentucky. The measure passed through the Senate without debate.

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Stephen R. Bradley

The House however was another matter. Traditionalists wanted to keep the flag as originally intended. “We may go on adding and altering at this rate for a hundred years to come,” a Massachusetts Federalist argued.

Another lawmaker named Israel Smith was also against change. “Let us have no more alterations of this sort,” he insisted, citing among other things, the expenditure. Basically, he contended, continually altering the flag would be a costly venture. “Let the flag be permanent,” Smith demanded.

In the end, a slight majority agreed the flag should represent all states, lest they be offended.

The legislation passed 50-42.

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Nearly two decades later, during the War of 1812, it was the sight of that altered fifteen-star flag flying high above the battle scarred Fort McHenry that inspired a Maryland lawyer to put his emotions into words.  “O, say does that star spangled banner yet wave. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Eventually the words of Francis Scott Key, who was aboard the British ship Tonnant to negotiate the release of U.S prisoners, was set to music and “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was soon being performed at military inspired gatherings.

In 1931, thanks to a congressional resolution, a shortened version of the original song officially became the national anthem of the United States of America.

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Note: In 1818, the fifteen stars and stripes flag was amended to twenty to represent the addition of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi.

Father’s Day was Originally Marketed as a ‘Second Christmas’ for Dads

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By Ken Zurski

Nearly every May in the 1930’s, a radio performer named Robert Spere staged rallies in New York City promoting a day set aside not just to honor moms, but dads as well. Meaning together, as in one, was Spere’s thinking.  His hope was to change “Mother’s Day” to “Parent’s Day” instead.

Spere, a children’s program host known as “Uncle Robert” told his attentive audience: “We should all have love for mom and dad every day, but ‘Parent’s Day’ is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together.”

Spere was onto to something, but it would have to wait.

Much earlier, in 1908, a day set aside to celebrate mom, affectionately known as Mother’s Day,  became a national day of observance. But there was no enthusiasm for a day set aside for fathers. “Men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving,” one historian wrote.

Retailers, however, liked the idea.  They promoted a “second Christmas” for dads with gifts of tools, neckties and tobacco, instead of flowers and cards. But it never gelled. Even Spere’s “Parent’s Day” idea hit a snag when the Great Depression hit. (Today, “Parents Day is officially celebrated on the fourth Sunday of every July.)

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation honoring fathers on the third Sunday of June. Then six years later, in 1972, with President Richard Nixon’s signature, “Father’s Day” officially became a national holiday.

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Roof Top Barrels Served a Practical Purpose

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By Ken Zurski

In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops.

Today, pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to the train towns (in the photo below it’s “Ponca City (Oklahoma)” for example).

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But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s. 

Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground.

Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.

Here’s how it worked: 

The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations, water was scarce and the air dry.  So the threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. 

The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases,  a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.  

In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed. 

When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly extinguished. 

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History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example  that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least.  While the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could.  Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have? 

If anything, the barrels on rooftops helped calm nerves each time a train whistle blew and sparks flew.

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