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).
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.
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.
By Ken Zurski
On July 10, 1850, MILLARD FILLMORE unexpectedly became the Thirteenth President of the United States.
No one saw it coming, not the least of which was Fillmore, who had been vice president to Zachery Taylor at the time, a job he sought but ultimately didn’t think he would get.
Even Taylor, a popular military general, had reservations about running for president. But duty called. “If my friends deem it good for the country that I be a candidate,” Taylor obliged. “so be it.” Fillmore, not known as politically savvy or ambitious, was picked as Taylor’s running mate because he was more of a Whig, especially on slavery.
Once in the White House, however, Fillmore had little to do. The job held no great power or influence and only one vice president, John Tyler, had ever assumed the presidency unexpectedly, when the ninth president William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just 31 days into his term of office.
In similar unexpectedness, just sixteen months into his own presidential term, Taylor was dead.
A bad stomachache and poor medical care did him in. A Stunned Fillmore took the oath of office and set the stage for what is considered to be one of the worst presidencies in history.
An attribution that was set with Fillmore’s first act as president.
As the story goes, immediately after Taylor’s death, the members of his cabinet, in ceremonial unity and respect, turned in resignation letters. They fully expected Fillmore to deny their requests. Their thinking was two-fold. For one, Fillmore was inexperienced. In another sentiment, he surely needed their help. Plus, Fillmore and Taylor were associates, not adversaries. Politically speaking, and in technicality too, they were all on the same team. Whether they personally liked the vice president or not, and most did not, a nation’s stability and Taylor’s legacy was at stake.
Clearly, Fillmore could grasp that, they thought.
They were wrong.
Fillmore accepted their resignation letters and in effect fired them all. But, he asked, could they stay on a month so he could appoint a new team.
Each one refused.
By Ken Zurski
In the heart of Brooklyn, in 1858, a group of men known as the Pastimes, hiked up their wool trousers, buttoned-down their flannel shirts, and ran onto an open grassy field to play a game they fondly referred to as “base ball.”
The team was one of several in the New York area, but the Pastimes were different. Instead of being a ragtag lot of patchwork players, the Pastimes billed themselves as more refined and high-minded. Many of the members were prominent citizens, some even held government jobs. They enjoyed spending the day together, socializing and being seen.
Base ball, the game, they said, was just good exercise.
To signify their self-worth, the Pastimes arrived at away games in carriages and usually in a line. “Like a funeral procession passing,” remarked one observer. You couldn’t help but notice.
After the game they invited their rivals, win or lose, to a fancy spread of food and spirits. Oftentimes this was the reason for getting together in the first place. The game was the appetizer. The day’s highlight however was the feast. The opposing players rarely complained.
Despite the revelry off the field, the Pastimes did actually play the game. But it hardly represented what we know baseball to be today. Pitchers tossed the ball (there was no “throwing” allowed) and strikes were rare. With no called balls, a batter could wait through 30 to 40 tosses or more before deciding to hit it. The batter was out when a fielder caught the ball on a fly or on “a bound.” And player’s running the bases rarely touched them. After all, who was going to make them? “What jolly fellows they were at the time,” wrote Henry Chadwick, a New York journalist and Pastimes supporter, “one and all of them.”
Most of the early history of baseball hails from New York, with Cooperstown, considered to be the place where the game was invented and the current site of the Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum, as a prime example. While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team emerged in the 1840’s calling themselves the Knickerbockers. While they’re not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed some rules.
The play itself was raw, almost comical, but enjoyable for spectators. “Ball Days” became popular, and the Knickerbockers were fun to watch. Soon other teams would join in, some more determined than others. The Pastimes had their reasons too.
At some point, as more teams participated, the game started changing. It became more challenging and competitive and the Pastimes who had been enjoying a day of friendly raillery – and not much more – had to adjust. “Until the club became ambitious of winning matches and began to sacrifice the original objects of the organization to the desire to strengthen their nine-match playing,” Chadwick wrote, “everything went on swimmingly.” But losing takes its toll. And for the lowly playing Pastimes, the fun went out of the day. “Finally the spirit of the club, having been dampened by repeated defeats at the hands of stronger nines, gave out,” Chadwick grumbled on. “The Pastimes went out of existence.”
Well that and the start of the war too.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Civil War slowed the progress of the game. And that was true, to a point. Inevitably as men marched off to war, there just weren’t enough players to take the field. Many top players did heed the call to serve, but others chose to delay their service and keep playing. Plus there were always reserves, especially in a well populated state like New York. The game carried on, despite the conflict. In fact, it was just as popular for the soldiers who shared a good game of nines to help pass the time. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers. Baseball was a game that required an open space, a stick, something to hit, and not much else. Reports of ball games in prison camps were widespread.
Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players were either injured, weary from the war, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in, skills improved, and rules were implemented.
Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.
The Pastimes would have never fit in.
Perhaps the most appealing part of the early game would have also pleased the more ardent followers of baseball today, especially those who crave the action on the offensive side of the ball. On October 28, 1858, the Pastimes played the Newark Adriatics. According to the rules back then, a game played out every half inning, even in the ninth, and even if the home team was winning.
That day, the Adriatics came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. They were leading 45-13.
The crowd likely cheered them on for more runs.
By Ken Zurski
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the start of the Civil War in 1861 slowed down the progress of a game like baseball, a sport that was gaining popularity in the years before the conflict began.
And that is true, to a point.
Inevitably as men heeded the call to serve, there just weren’t as many players to take the field. But there were reserves to take their place, especially in the well populated state like New York, which holds the distinction of introducing the world to Base Ball (then written as two words).
While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team called the Knickerbockers emerged in the 1840’s. While not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed rules.
Other teams formed and crowds grew.
Then came the war.
Although pick-up games continued, the sport shifted to the battlefront instead. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers.
Union soldiers would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.
Otto Boetticher was a Union prisoner at Salisbury, North Carolina. In 1861, at the age of 45, he enlisted in the 68th New York Volunteers and left his job as a commercial artist. The following year he was captured and ended up in Salisbury before a prisoner swap set him free a few months later. Before leaving, Boetticher did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.
Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly representative of prison camp descriptions at the time. “Despite the bleak realities of imprisonment,there is a sense of ease and contentment in the image, conveyed in part by pleasures of the game, the glowing sky and sunlight, and the well-ordered composition,” one assessment of the drawing goes.
Boettchler’s lighthearted look at prisoner life wasn’t his fault. The harsh reality of the POW camps would come later with the woeful Libby and Andersonville among others where the prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldiers waited for their name to be called.
Why not play a spirited game of baseball?
Boetticher’s print may have been from a July 4th game, when prisoners were allowed to celebrate the nation’s holiday, as one prisoner described, with “music, sack and foot races and baseball.” But if weather permitted and “for those who like it and are able,” baseball was played everyday.
Some might think Boetticher’s depiction of prison life is more deception than reality. But prisoner recollections support the claim that despite the animosity between them, a game of baseball was good fun for both sides.
“I have never seen more smiles today on their oblong faces,” William Crosley a Union sergeant in Company C wrote describing Confederate captors watching a match at Salisbury. “For they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw.”
Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players who went off to war, were either injured, weary, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in. Skills improved, rules were implemented and the game became more about the playing and the winning rather than just a friendly “game of nines”
Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.
By Ken Zurski
In 1674, while exploring the Illinois River for the first time, French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal: “We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parroquets, and even beaver.”
Certainly the reference to parroquets, or perroquets, (French for parrot) raises some eyebrows. But a species called the Carolina Parrot, now extinct, did inhabit portions of North America, as far north as the Great Lakes, as early as the 16th century.
More puzzling, however, is the mention of the bustard.
Even the Illinois State Museum in the state’s capitol of Springfield questions this unusual reference.
“What is a Bustard?” the Museum sign asks in an exhibit showcasing birds native to Illinois, then answers: “We’re not sure.”
Of course, the bustard is a real bird. In Europe and Central Asia it is more commonly known. In North America? It just doesn’t exist. But did it at one time? According to the Museum’s notes, several French explorers described bustards as being common game birds of Illinois and said they resembled “large ducks.”
A Great Bustard can stand 2 to 3 feet in height and weigh up to 30 pounds making it one of the heaviest living animals able to fly. Its one distinctive feature, besides its size, is the gray whiskers that sprouts from its beak in the winter.
Father Marquette was more a man of the cloth than a scientist. His mission was to preach to the Illinois Indians or “savages” as he calls them. Along the way, however, he described the scenery and game in detail. The “bustard” comes up quite often in his journal. He even refers to hunting them, possibly eating them too. “Bustards and ducks pass continually,” he wrote.
Perhaps, as some suggest, Marquette was describing a common wild turkey. His recollections seem to imply they were airborne, which wild turkeys can do, despite the myth that they cannot fly (the “fattened” farm turkey – the one we use for Thanksgiving – does not fly).
The Illinois State Museum goes even further by speculating that the bird Marquette was referencing was not a bustard at all, but the Canada Goose which is similar in size and appearance to the Great Bustard.
But, as the Museum concedes, even that is “open to question.”.
By Ken Zurski
In Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s brilliant but unconventional retelling of the life and death of George Armstrong Custer, a part of the author’s captivating account is the detailed descriptions of what it would have been like to live, explore and fight in the vast and mostly uncharted territory of the Western Plains.
A land that Custer among others were seeing for the first time.
Custer’s life, of course, ends in Montana at Little Bighorn. But in the context of his story, and examined in Connell’s book, is the role of the country’s most populated mammal at the time: the buffalo.
The human inhabitants had vastly differing opinions on the buffalo, both revered and reviled, but Connell wisely avoids a scurrilous debate. Instead, he gives a fascinating glimpse, based on good research and eyewitness accounts, on what it was like to see the massive herds up close and why they were ultimately decimated. The reasons were just as divided as cultures.
At first the descriptions were formidable. “Far and near the prairie was alive with Buffalo,” Francis Parkman, a writer, recalled after seeing the herds in 1846, “….the memory of which can quicken the pulse and stir the blood.”
Indeed Parkman was right about the prairie being “alive” with buffalo, but unfortunately there is no exact number of how many were in existence before the Calvary arrived. That’s because there was no way to survey the population at the time. Connell doesn’t speculate either, but based on recollections like Parkman’s, others have estimated from 30 million to perhaps as much as 75 million buffalo may have roamed the plains at some point, maybe even more.
“Like black spots dotting the distant swell,” Parkman continued, “now trampling by in ponderous columns filing in long lines, morning, noon, and night, to drink at the river – wading, plunging, and snorting in the water – climbing the muddy shores and staring with wild eyes at the passing canoes.”
The description of herd sizes is nearly incomprehensible. Col. Richard Irving Dodge reported that during a spring migration, buffalo would move north in a single column perhaps fifty miles wide. Dodge claims he was forced to climb Pawnee Rock (Kansas) to escape the migrating animals. When he looked across, the prairie was “covered with buffalo for ten miles in each direction.”
In 1806, Lewis and Clark, one of the earliest explorers to encounter the massive herds gave an ominous warning. “The moving multitude darkened the whole plains,” Clark relayed.
The sound of the migrating herd was just as impressive as the numbers. The bulky animals each weighed close to a ton each, so when they all galloped, the ground shook. “They made a roar like thunder,” wrote a first settler along the Arkansas River.
The large groupings, however, made it easier to strike them down. And when the killing started, it didn’t stop. In 1874, when Dodge returned to the prairie, he saw more hunters than buffalo. “Every approach of the herd to water was met with gunfire,” he recalled
Killing buffalo became a sport, even for foreigners. Connell reports that The London Times ran ad for a trip to Fort Collins and a chance to kill a buffalo for 50 guineas. Many gleefully went for the adventure, not the challenge. As Connell explains, English lords and ladies came to sit in covered wagons or railway carriages and fire at will. You couldn’t miss.
“Enterprising Yankees turned a profit collecting bones,” Connell wrote, explaining that it was the hide and bones and not the meat they were interested in. “Porous bones were shipped east to be ground as fertilizer; solid bones could be whittled into decorative trinkets – buttons, letter openers, pendants.”
Many settlers not knowing what else to do with a wayward buffalo grazing on their land, just shot it and left it for the wolves to feed. “The high plains stank with rotten meat” Dodge wrote.
“In just three years after the gun-toting Yankees arrived,” Connell soberly relates, “eight million buffalo were shot.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, they were nearly all gone.
The Native Americans killed buffalo too, but it was for survival, not sport. Nearly every part of the animal was used for food, medicine, clothing or tools. Even the tail made a good fly swatter. According to the Indians, the buffalo was the wisest and most powerful creature, in the physical sense, to walk the earth. Yet the Indians still played a part in the animal’s near extinction. Large fires were set by tribes in part to fell cottonwood trees and feed the bark to their horses. The massive infernos, some set one hundred miles wide, were necessary to clear land for new grass. Although no one is quite sure, thousands of buffalo and other animals surely perished in the process.
In contrast, Connell includes claims by early pioneers that the Indians were just as wasteful as the “white man” in killing the buffalo, leaving the dead carcasses where they lay, and extracting only the tongues to exchange for whiskey. These reports contradict that of agents stationed at reservations after government agreements were reached. James McLaughlin who was at Standing Rock in South Dakota helped organize mass buffalo killings, but only to stave off starvation, he claims.
Regardless, the difference in attitudes is what may have inflamed tensions between the “palefaces” and the natives.
Dodge claims the buffalo were shot because they were “the dullest creature of which I have any knowledge.” Dull meaning stupid in this sense. They would not run, Dodge purports. “Many would graze complacently while the rest of the herd was gunned down.” Dodge says his men would have to shout and wave their hats to drive the rest of the herd off.
So according to Dodge – and Connell’s book supports this – the buffalo were removed for meager profits and to get them out of the way of railways and advancing troops. This incensed the Indians, especially the Lakota, who in spite of their reliance on the buffalo, had more respect for the embattled “tatanka,” in a spiritual sense.
After all, in comparisons, they named their revered leaders and holy men after the beasts.
Custer knew one.
His name was Sitting Bull.
By Ken Zurski
Beginning with the first line of the first chapter, “Incurably insomniac Anton Vowl turns on a light,” and in every sentence thereafter, nearly 300 pages in all, there are no words with the letter “e” in the French novel, A Void.
Not just words that start with the letter “e,” mind you, but any word with the letter “e” in it.
Therefore, while words with an “e” are consciously left out, in the context of the text, they don’t actually exist.
…A rumour, that’s my initial thought as I switch off my radio, a rumour or possibly a hoax.
Propaganda, I murmur anxiously—as though, just by saying so, I might allay my doubts—typical politicians’ propaganda. But public opinion gradually absorbs it as a fact.
A Void was the brainchild of author George Perec, who wrote La disparition (disappearance) in 1969, and was later translated to English in 1994.
Why a writer would take on such an unusual challenge defies explanation. A good author should add to his repertoire of tools, not subtract them, right? So leaving out a vowel, especially the most popular one, just doesn’t make any sense.
To clarify, according to the book “From Cryptographical Mathematics,” the letter “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language and nearly 13-percent of all words contain it, at least once.
For example, the first sentence of this very article has nearly 40 words in it; sixteen words containing at least one “e,” for a total of 22. So excluding it, even in French, which uses the same English letters, seemed to be an insurmountable task. (The French or Latin alphabet is similar to English and vowels are the same, expect written with accents like ê. So the prose is somewhat disjointed, especially in translation.)
But this is exactly the kind of discourse Perec reveled in.
Perec was born to Polish Jew immigrants, both victims of the war– his father died a soldier and his mother likely perished at Auschwitz. He started writing at the University of Paris and joined a fringe literary group named Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “Oulipo,” for short.
The name means “literature potential,” but certainly not potential in the practical sense. “[We] seek new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” the group described. To achieve this, constraints (in writing) were encouraged, which was far more challenging. The group also included mathematicians since problem-solving was part of the writer’s methodology and often involved works that delved in complicated mathematical patterns. Suddenly Perec had a mission, as did the group, to experiment and twist the conventional rules of fiction.
A Void, therefore, is a lipogram, meaning a single letter is left out.
The protagonist of Perec’s story is a detective named Anton Vowl (Voyl in French) who must confront a missing void, possibly his own, in a world of impending doom. “I must admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard,” Perec writes in the book’s postscript, perhaps tongue in cheek. “I had no inkling at all, as an acorn contains an oak, that anything would come out of it.”
Some literary critics, however, have established a deeper implication. After all, Perec was a Holocaust orphan. Perhaps the loss of his mêre (mother), pêre (father) and familie, one modern day writer surmised, are words he cannot repeat. All have the letter “e” in them. The missing “e,” therefore, is his personal void.
“The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning,” author Warren Motte speculates in an article about Perec written in 2104.
Perec’s later work would be equally complicated and puzzling. He even wrote a novel where ê was the only vowel used.
Many feel his greatest literary contribution is a 700-page book titled Life a User’s Manual, another exercise of intricacies. “The sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once,” Motte writes.
And If that wasn’t interesting enough, there is the constraint: ‘Perec used an algorithm, “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10,’ to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life.”
In 1982, at the age of 45, Perec, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.
Even sick, Perec continued to work at a feverish pace. “There was not a day gone by that he didn’t write,” a friend ascribed. Shortly before his death, Perec sent a letter to his publisher. It was reported to be a list of works he wanted to complete.
Sadly, we will never know what else he had in mind.