Saturday, January 30, 2010

Officer's last call in Big Thompson Canyon



“I'm stuck, I'm right in the middle of it, I can't get out...about half mile East of Drake on the highway. Tell them to get out of the low area down below. And soon as the water starts picking up … (static)… high ground… " Colorado State Highway Patrol Sergeant Hugh Purdy’s last radio transmission at 9:15 on July 31, 1976, recorded by a dispatcher in Greeley.

A fierce, sudden, but long-lasting, thunderstorm dumped nearly 12 inches of rain in four hours in the Big Thompson River watershed on the eve of the Colorado Centennial celebration. The river rose 19 feet above normal and raged through the narrow canyon killing 144 people, destroying 418 private residences and 52 businesses (138 other homes had additional harm), accounting for more than $35.5 million in damage. This earned it the title of the worst natural disaster in Colorado history.
Sergeant Hugh Purdy was off duty and had been watching the Olympics with his wife at their home in Loveland, but was called by dispatcher Jay Lorance, when two of the men under his supervision were dispatched at either end of the canyon upon initial reports of rockslides on U.S. 36, according to David McComb’s 1980 book “Big Thompson: Profile of a Natural Disaster”.
Officer William Miller, who was at the upper end of the canyon near Estes Park, responded to a citizen’s report of rocks in the highway and Officer Tim Littlejohn, who, at the time of the call, was cruising just south of Fort Collins was asked to assist.
Miller became the first to officially report flash flooding when he radioed the following from the upper end of the canyon.
“Advise, we have a flood. The whole mountainside is gone. We have people trapped on the other side. I’m going to have to move out. I’m up to my doors in water! Advise, we can’t get to them. I’m going to get out of here before I drown!”
Miller was able to abandon his car and scramble up the hillside to high ground and relative safety.
At about the same time Miller was reporting this, Purdy asked Officer Littlejohn, who had made as far as Drake in the canyon, to stop and setup a roadblock to turn travelers back down the highway. Meanwhile, Purdy continued on toward Drake.
Littlejohn armed with his loudspeaker and flashing lights tried to warn people in Drake to flee for their lives. In his car pushing through the high water, he was able to make it up the grade to Glen Haven. “The officer kept his wheels ahead of the water as it covered the roadway. He could hear the deep rumble of large boulders as they ground together in the dark water, the clatter of rocks bounding off cliff sides, and the splintering of wooden houses. Over his radio he briefly talked to his Sergeant,” wrote McComb.
Purdy continued on to see for himself what those under his charge were reporting, but ordered an officer following to turn back and cut off entry into the canyon from below. At 9 p.m. Purdy warned of a sudden rise in the river and told the Patrol to warn those in Loveland and below the narrows of the coming surge.
His next and final transmission told of his own dire circumstances.
Purdy’s car was found crushed under a slide of rock and mud near his last known location, two miles downstream from Drake, along with eight other cars.
According to highway patrol reports, the only item that allowed identification of the patrol car was key ring found still in the ignition. His body was discovered on a sandbar, eight miles downstream.
Officer Littlejohn was able to get his patrol car to high ground and spent the night in Drake helping as he could in the aftermath of the deluge. Later, his car became a focal point for the helicopter evacuation.
“I’m grieved when I think I didn’t save more people, but how could I imagine what was coming down? I had trouble getting people to believe the feeble excuses I had, much less something of that magnitude. Now, I regret turning people back down the canyon, because we all know that anyone caught in the canyon had no chance. There was no way to foresee where the danger zones would be. Nobody really knew until it got there,” Littlejohn related in an oral history interview afterwards.
“The wall of water moved so fast that, even had Highway 34 not been washed out, the only avenue of escape was up the canyon walls. Vehicles and buildings became death traps for unsuspecting campers,” according to reports by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Of those killed, 41 lived in the canyon. The rest were visitors to the area. Five victims reported as dead have never been found. One man reported as missing turned up, alive and well, living in Oklahoma in 2008.
###
Photo by W.R. Hanson, U.S.G.S.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hurling heat for the high altitude hometeam


Great time and distance had separated “Smoky Joe Wood” from his outstanding professional baseball career (mostly with the Boston Red Sox) by the time he was 91 and living in New Haven, Connecticut. But in a UPI story appearing in the Reading Eagle on April 19, 1981, there was still talk of possible inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame and still fond memories of how he developed the basic skills and interest on fields of dreams of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “I’m not interested in it now,” Joe Wood was quoted in the UPI story at the time. “So many of those fellows I played against and with are not in. Take our third baseman, Larry Gardner, from Enosburg Falls, Vt., on of the best players that ever played. They never mention him.”
Playing for the town team in Ouray, he learned the trade on the diamonds of his home field and mining towns and camps like Rico, Silverton, and Telluride in the heyday of town team ball.
“Town teams, not professional teams, were the fans’ favorites, favorites they supported with cheers, their turnout at home and away games and their pocketbooks that fattened or withered with the outcome of every game. Betting on the local nine was a primary pastime of the game,” noted San Juan historian Duane A. Smith in his recent book “San Juan Legacy: Life in the Mining Camps.”
From an early age Wood loved and lived the sport.
“I was born with a baseball in my hand. That’s all I thought of. That is all I think of really. That all I used to do as a kid, play ball. Except for making a few nickels and dimes. We were so darn poor.”
Howard Ellsworth Wood was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1889 and acquired the moniker “Joe” after he and his family attended a circus and found two clowns so funny that they started calling their two sons by the stage names of the clowns and both nicknames stuck for life.
“Joe Wood’s reign as on of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history lasted a brief two seasons, but it left an indelible impression those who witnessed his greatness first-hand,” wrote Michael Foster in an article for the Baseball Biography Project.
Among those impressed: The Journal Courier noted that the legendary Ty Cobb called him “Without a doubt, one of the best pitchers I ever faced.”
Walter Johnson, considered by some to be the greatest hurler of all time, said when asked to compare himself with Wood. “There is no man alive that can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”
Paul Shannon, a sportswriter of the old Boston Post, labeled Wood “Smoky Joe” because of the heat of his ‘dead ball era’ fastball. Earlier in his career, in the minor leagues, he was known as “Ozone” Wood because he fanned so many batters.
Joe Wood’s father Jonathon, was a one-time successful Chicago Lawyer and later, a country lawyer with a wanderlust for gold. After stints in the Klondike in Yukon Territory, in 1900 he loaded his family in a covered wagon and set out for Colorado, eventually ending up in Ouray. “Working out of the family’s Fifth Street home, he renewed his legal practice and began publishing a weekly newspaper, the Ouray Times,” wrote Foster for the Baseball Biography Project.
Ouray at the time was “the wild and wooly west where guards sat up on the old stage coaches coming down from the mines loaded with bullion,” Joe Wood told UPI in 1981.
By 1905, the family had returned to Ness City, Kansas and Joe, who finished school in Ouray, and began playing for the local Ness City club.
“As the close of the 1906 season approached, baseball fans in Ness City learned from posters posted on storefronts across town that the Ness City Nine was slated to take on an unusual opponent, the National Bloomer Girls out of Kansas City. Though they advertised themselves as an all-girls team, the popular bloomers outfit routinely augmented their strength by adding young boys, ‘toppers,’as they were known, to the roster. Joe sparkled in a 23-2 trouncing of the visitors that afternoon, and at the close of the contest Bloomer owner Logan Galbraith offered him $21 a week to join the team for the duration of the summer,” wrote Foster.
After that summer beginning his pro-baseball career, Joe signed with Cedar Rapids Rabbits, then later Hutchison White Sox, Kansas City Blues and caught the attention of the Big Leagues. His contract eventually ended up being purchased by the Boston Red Sox. He made his Big League debut on August 24, 1908 at the tender age of 18.
In 1911 and 1912, Smoky Joe won 57 games for the Red Sox, including pitching a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns. He tied an American League 16 straight wins in the last half of the 1912 season. He also won three games for the Sox in 1912 World Series.
The next year he had to fight hard to get his annual salary up to $7,500.
“In baseball, you get paid for what you have done, not what you are going to do. Today, the big money some players get is out of hand,” Joe noted in 1981.
Players also didn’t make huge sums endorsing products.
Wood endorsed one product when he was pictured in an ad for Regal Shoes.
“The whole world loves a winner. How would you like to be in Joe Wood’s shoes? Smoky Joe wears Regals,” said the ad. The company paid him in shoes; a dozen pairs.
In 1913, Joe slipped on wet grass fielding a bunt and broke his thumb. He continued to pitch for several more years maintaining a winning record and low ERA, but because of the injury and recovery time, he was forced to pitch far fewer games. He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Indians where he embarked on a second career, this time as an outfielder, (much like his one-time team-mate Babe Ruth) and batted respectably (.366 in 1921), staying in the league until 1922 when he set a personal best of 92 RBIs.
He went on to coach baseball at Yale University. Among his players there, was his son who went on to a brief career of his own in the majors, and a young George Bush, destined to be President. Later, he and his brother opened a golf range in California.
“I made more money in that seven years than I did my entire time playing and coaching baseball,” Joe is quoted in the Baseball Biography Project. In 1985, at the age of 95, Smoky Joe died while living in a convalescent home in New Haven.
Today, Ouray still remembers him. Youngsters dream of perhaps their own possible place in the Baseball Hall of Fame as they compete with others from Ridgway, Montrose and nearby rivals on Joe Wood Field in Fellin Park in his old hometown. Just last year, the city of Ouray spent $3,100 to add 50 tons of infield material in the park.
###

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Blue Bear's story and a good man.




It is told that at a large spring there suddenly appeared a Bear whose body was sky-blue and so bright that it seemed like part of the sky itself. This was Blue Bear, and Earthmaker brought him there for a special purpose. Standing to the side of Blue Bear were twelve men. Then, unexpectedly, four times the Earth shook, and each time a great spirit being came up from the Earth. When the third of these emerged, the Earth erupted in fruit of every kind and in plenty it was spread over the Earth. And Earthmaker told Blue Bear that he, and all who were with him, were to go to a gathering at Red Banks. As they tread the Earth, it shook, and the leaves with spiny edges changed to men, and so too the thorns and briars, the serpents with sharp fangs, and the birds of prey with the sharp talons -- all these became men under the charge of Blue Bear. When they arrived, they found that a place had already been prepared for them, but they did not tarry there long. Blue Bear announced that Earthmaker had made these men to be spiritual guardians to ward off evil from the Hotcâgara, for they were all soldiers among the living things of this world. When this was made known, everyone dispersed to their homes, but those who remained behind as men became the Hotcâk Soldier (Bear) Clan.
From Bear Clan’s Origins Myth –Winnebago, First People/The Legends.


When I was a kid, my friend Mark was, for all intents and purposes, pure physical talent. Strong as ox, big as grizzly, fast as Mercury. He, of course, excelled at every sport in which he participated.
As a two-step punter, he could boot the football so high and deep, the special teams had time to drink a beer before stopping a return.
In track, he would routinely clock 56-second quartermiles, and though they called him all kinds of mean and nasty names, his court presence and ability inspired fear in the hearts of rival basketball teams.
Despite this great talent, speed and size — he didn’t seem to mind hanging out with mere mortals such as myself. In fact, though by many of the measures that count with such youth, he was double the material structure or physical form of my own rather stunted size, speed and talent — yet, we developed a sturdy bond.
And though we rarely see each other or have contact today, I still carry a great measure of respect for the man. As no doubt evidenced by this missive.
Some of my favorite recollections are centered around his fearlessness. The guy will try just about anything once.
One time, we had these snorkel diving goggles that we were trying to use to spear sucker fish over at Big Rock. He would dive off the front of the rock, push himself all the way to bottom and try to go after mutant ninja suckers in the little cavern carved out by the current under the rock.
Another time, also on the river, we had cut a circular piece of plywood out and laced it inside a log skidder tube with nylon rope to make our own homemade raft. The two of us, one on each side with a paddle, would then ride it horse style, as the beer rested in the center on the plywood. It was amazingly stable as it road high in the water and turned on a dime in the rapids above town.
Completely fearless on the ski slope, in the river, in his pickup — it was a lot of fun to load up his slobbering dog Lucky (St. Bernard), and seven or eight knuckle-headed buds in a little orange Ford Courier headed to the big city of Cortez back then.
Another hallmark with Mark is his steadfast determination. He does not give up or give in.
I think the single most memorable noise I have ever heard is the pop of his upper arm breaking during an arm wrestling contest in Dolores.
"Good men are the stars, the planets of the ages wherein they live, and illustrate the times," wrote Ben Johnson way back in 1640. I always thought Mark was a good man.
But as I said, I don’t see him much any more.
Still, I don’t think that changes a thing.

###

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Colorado in America?


Is Colorado in America?
During the Cripple Creek mining district strike of 1903-1904, both sides – labor and management, asked the question. And media, in its own way, tried to answer.
The violence that erupted between members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and corporate mining interests determined to smash the union in the district, was state, national, and even international news for much of the first decade of the last century.
Newspapers from around the world could not resist the temptation to comment and weighed-in with their own versions of the compelling story. From the local Victor Record, to the New York World, to Denver’s Polly Pry weekly that covered everything from debutantes to labor conflicts, the press was fascinated by the fracas.
In 2004, historian Bridget Burke contrasted the flair of Nell Anthony’s Polly Pry accounts with those of union printer Emma Langdon of the Victor Record.
“Each offered a competing vision of community,” noted Burke in lectures.
The Record was considered “the voice” of the WFM and Langdon and a crew of replacements barricaded themselves inside the Record when martial law was declared and produced a morning edition.
This, she accomplished after the arrest of her husband, brother-in-law (both Record typesetters) and the editor George Kyner.
“Somewhat Disfigured, But Still In The Ring,” screamed the headline on that forbidden edition.
Later, martial law activities and deportation by Colorado Governor James H. Peabody prompted The New York World to telegraph the Governor and demand answers.
The World asked Peabody for a “statement of your reasons for permitting Colorado troops to dump 91 union miners on the Kansas line, leaving them destitute on the prairie, miles from habitation. No explanation of this action has reached the East.”
Peabody answered, “The reason for deporting the strikers and agitators from Cripple Creek was the dynamite outrage of June 6, whereby fourteen non-union miners were instantly killed, and the subsequent street riots and killing of two non-union miners by the same element … Rioting, dynamiting, and anarchy has had its day in Colorado.”
“Big Bill” William D. Haywood, secretary-treasurer of the WFM, answered the answer.
“There has been no insurrection in Colorado except that emanating from the occupant of the capitol building. Nowhere in the United States will you find a higher class of working men than this Commonwealth … And it must be remembered that no violence of any description had taken place until after the governor had ordered out the troops, and in the language of George Bell, then ‘hell began to pop.’”
Advertisements from the labor side of the fight during the conflict complained “Habeas Corpus suspended in Colorado, Bull pens for union men in Colorado, Soldiers defy the courts in Colorado, Union men exiled from their homes and families in Colorado, Corporations corrupt and control administration in Colorado, and Citizens alliances resort to mob law in Colorado.”
All of the above captions appeared on posters under a the banner asking, “Is Colorado in America?”
As with most media coverage, the answer to the questions may not be found in any one specific account. But truth lies in everyone's insistence on telling their side of the story.
###
Please see other related stories
• Mad Bomber of Cripple Creek
• Big Bill Haywood

• A Friend of the Devil is friend of mine

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Medicinal whiskey and "The Loophole."


During prohibition in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, it was often referred to as “the Loophole.”
Section 6 and 7 of the Volstead Act, provided a way to legally purchase and sell Whiskey at a time when it was otherwise — a criminal activity.
“No one shall manufacture, sell, purchase, transport, or prescribe any liquor without first obtaining a permit from the commissioner to do so, except that a person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes …” There was more legalese, stipulations and etceteras, of course, but the lawyers saw light in Section 6, and Section 7 gave some power to the Doctor.
“No one but a physician holding a permit to prescribe liquor shall issue any prescription for liquor. And no physician shall prescribe liquor unless after careful physical examination of the person for whose use such prescription is sought, or such examination is found impracticable, then upon the best information obtainable, he in good faith believes that the use of such liquor as medicine by such person is necessary and will afford relief to him from some known ailment.”
Men of vision, like pharmacist-turned-lawyer George Remus, memorized the Volstead Act and imagined and realized tremendous profit from its “Loophole.” Remus bought his first pharmacy when he was only 19 but tired of the business and became a lawyer at 24, according to author Thomas M. Coffey, in his 1975 book “The Long Thirst – Prohibition in America, 1920-1933.”
Remus specialized in murder cases and at the beginning of prohibition he noticed that many of his clients, of whom he had no great respect for their intelligence, were making a tremendous amount of money. About the same time he began an affair with his secretary, Imogene, divorced his wife, and decided to use his knowledge of the law to profit from prohibition.
He and Imogene were soon remarried (she had a 13-year-old daughter, Ruth), and they moved to Cincinnati to be near the bourbon distillery country.
Remus bought distressed distilleries and pharmacies and amassed a network that sold and transported legal whiskey from his distilleries to his pharmacies scattered across the country in specially designed trucks.
Much of the product, somehow “fell off the truck” on the way to its destination. In his first three years at that business, it was reported that he made $40 million.
By New Year’s Eve of 1922, he was making so much money and spreading it around so quickly that all the female guests at a party at his mansion, hosted by he and his wife Imogene, received a new car. But not to leave out the men; diamond watches were offered for their husbands. The wives and husbands just happened to be well-connected politicians, policemen, government officials, and such. “The Loophole” was very good to George Remus.
It, and the path it carried him down, also eventually landed him in jail. Perhaps because of something that “fell off the truck.”
And, while he was in jail, his wife Imogene, ran off with a “revenuer” (Franklin Dodge, prohibition agent) and “liquidated” his fortune. When he got out, he tracked her down and killed her in front of her daughter Ruth, and then successfully defended himself in court with a “temporary insanity” plea.
But Remus wasn’t the only one that saw benefits in “The Loophole.”
Though prohibition killed many good whiskey distilleries, some of the oldest operations surviving today found shelter in the medicine business at that time.
American Medicinal Spirits, for example, was formed around 1920 and preserved such longtime brands as Old Grand Dad, Mount Vernon, Hermitage, Tip-Top and Old Crow. All of these brands as a result were well positioned after repeal.
Interestingly enough, the decriminalization of marijuana, decided by Colorado voters in 2000 with a constitutional amendment that allows people with “debilitating medical conditions” to register with the state to use marijuana and allows “primary care givers” to legally supply for medical conditions — sounds more than vaguely familiar.
I’m surprised we are not already calling it “The Loophole.”
###
Please click on the following for related posts:
• Raise the glass: celebrate Repeal Day
• Colorado whiskey river don't run dry