Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Deep snow, steep slopes, wringing the Liberty Bell


“The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches.”
__ e.e. cummings


Deep snow in winter is an obvious reality in Colorado, and particularly in the San Juans. Where there is deep snow and steep slopes, it is only a matter of time before something or someone is lost in a slide.
“The Colorado Mountain railroads are endeavoring to keep their trains moving, but it is with considerable difficulty,” read the Feb. 23, 1897 edition of the New York Times. “They no sooner clear a dozen snow slides from some canyon road before a half dozen more come down the side of the mountain, and pile up debris higher than ever.”
The same edition called attention to Aspen’s isolation caused by the slides.
“The first train arrived in Aspen today since Friday, and for three days it has been bucking snow in the Grand Canyon, near Glenwood Springs. The storm shifted its course tonight and the snow is falling faster than ever. Since Friday, eleven feet on the level has fallen. A slide came down Aspen Mountain this evening and swept away John Kauble, an ore hauler, and his team. He escaped but his horses were killed.”
In San Juan Range, that same storm struck with even greater vengeance.
“In the Ouray district the snow is deeper than at Aspen, and avalanches occur three and four times a day. One carried away Henry Jones and a pack train of eleven Jacks, every one of the latter being killed. On Cumbres Hill, between Durango and Alamosa, the snow is fifteen feet deep, which breaks the record for twelve years.”
Five years later the snow caused real trouble in the Telluride area. “Devastating Snow Slides Kill Scores,” barked the heads in the Feb. 28, 1902 edition of the Telluride Daily Journal.
“At 7:30 this morning a tremendous snow slide swept away the boarding and bunk house and the tramway station and ore loading house at the Liberty Bell Mine.”
Early reports placed the dead at 50 to 75 because it was thought all mining buildings were wiped off the slope, but the slide was selective.
“The buildings destroyed and swept away are the boarding house, tram house, and one corner of the new bunk house. The old bunk house, in which the night shift was sleeping — some sixty men — escaped,” according to the report in the Telluride paper.
The same paper relates an account of L.M. Umsted who was in a nearby stable, preparing his horse to go to work on the Tram.
“The stable grew suddenly dark as night, and stepping to the door he opened it and found the outside totally dark and air filled with flying snow. Thinking it was a terrific gust of wind, he slammed the stable door shut and waiting for a few seconds, he peered through a crack and as it grew light again he opened the door and saw the tram cable swinging about and the buckets rolling down the hill. As the snow in the air settled, he stepped out a few feet and looking up towards the boarding house, he could see no signs of these buildings. Then looking down the hill he saw boards and timbers sticking out of the snow and scattered about.”
Umsted, at that point tried to help.
“He then went up to the ore and tram house, or where it had stood, and saw what he thought was a piece of overalls. Grasping it and attempting to pull it out he found he had hold of a man’s body; tearing away the snow and boards he pulled out the body of Gus Kraul. His body was terribly mangled and his head crushed till is was no thicker than two hands laid flatly together.”
Those who rushed to help the first slide victims, became victims themselves.
“At 1:30 word came to town from the Liberty Bell office asking that bulletins be posted asking for all the help possible, as a second slide had come down covering the rescue party… At 2:15 word came to town to send no more men up: that the storm was so severe that the work of rescue could only be carried on under the most extreme danger to the living, and that men buried in the snow were all dead beyond question.”
An account about Colorado avalanches in the April 15, 1906 edition of the New York Times labeled the Liberty Bell disaster the worst to date.
“The worst snowslide in the history of Colorado was that which overwhelmed the Liberty Bell Mine, in the Telluride district, in 1902.”
It noted that the second slide killed nearly a score of rescuers.
“Then came one slide after another, the first having loosened great masses of snow at the top of the mountain. Six slides came in rapid succession, burying victims in a mass of wreckage eighty feet deep. For many days no work of rescue could be carried on. The place was fenced off and guards were put about the mine property to keep people away from the scene of horror. It was not until summer, when the snow had melted, that the bodies of the victims could be recovered."
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Smooth and comfortable on the right side of gate


















In the mountainous or hill region Ireland, many small lakes or springs are known as the Pooka’s Pool or Pollaphuca, named in respect for the changeling of Irish folklore. Some of these are the source of Irish rivers like the Liffey or River Bann. In County Down, Pollaphuca on the Mountain Mourne, is the home of a pooka of great notoriety. In rural County Down it still a custom to make the right side of your front door and gate comfortable, with the top of the gatepost smooth, and a with a bench. The left side gatepost is built with jagged rocks. The good friendly pooka will sit for a chat outside a house on the right of the door. The left side, with its rough and uncomfortable furnishings is reserved for malicious fairies, which are generally not as welcome.


From the start, that was one the reasons I was drawn to the newspaper business. The “Daily Miracle” was periodically new every time you picked it up. And the business marinated in the latest thing — in change. Maybe it is my short little span of attention, but the constant change appealed to me.
I liked elements of the past but the big draw was how much, and how fast, the world moved.
“A reporter is always concerned with tomorrow, “ wrote Edward R. Murrow. “There is nothing tangible of yesterday. All I can say I’ve done is agitate the air 10 or 15 minutes and then boom — it’s gone.”
It is true, you don’t change much yourself, but at least you are right there when it does.
Early exposure in the hot-type backshop of the Dolores Star, and then again, while hauling daily copies of the Durango Herald around in the front and back of the pouch that my head poked through the center of, seemed to rub off on me like the black from the paper itself.
I liked the way people waited for the news everyday. It was nice to be needed.
Patty Hearst, the Nixon resignation, the Watergate hearings, even sightings of the Florida Skunk Ape… they were all things that they cared about.
I liked the clang and ka-chunk of the linotype… the smell of lead burning into the oak floors along with the distinctive waft of ink and solvent, and good-natured razzing of the pressmen.
“Robber who Carries a gun,” is how printer Filbert “Shorty” Lobato used to mangle my name at every appearance in the Star building.
Later, when I dropped bundles of other papers I had worked on, I would still marvel at the usefulness of the product. And of particular usefulness, the small-town weekly paper.
Dean Alfred Vivian of College of Agriculture of Ohio State University wrote of the importance in the early part of the last century.
“Unless personal convenience is placed first, I think it could be shown that a country community needs a home newspaper even more than it needs telephones. Telephones are convenient means of communicating between individuals mainly for their personal concerns. The home-town paper speaks not with an individual voice, but for the community, not to individuals but to everyone, from the rich man on the hill to the poor man in the roadside cottage. Nothing goes further toward unifying a neighborhood than a good weekly or semi-weekly paper.”
It was the unifying effect of the paper (but in this case a daily) that I recognized back in 1974 as folks like Don Wallace, Emmy Froede and Bill McCabe waited each afternoon for the latest installment in the continuing saga of Patty Hearst, the seven-headed cobra and Symbionese Liberation Army, or President Nixon and White House tapes, possible impeachment and Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
I was an agent of change, or at least the messenger, and the right side of their gatepost was smooth and comfortable for me when I would arrive. They would always offer up space on the bench to go over what appeared in the papers that day, or the day before. And together we would speculate on what would appear tomorrow.
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Please click below to see related posts:

• Tales of the future, straight from the horse's mouth.

• Pooka, Patty, Photos, Papers and let's ride.

• Humor, sadness and the angry bear in a trap.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Too stunned to believe what they were seeing


Since the advent of airplanes, stretching nearly back to the Wright brothers, there have been air shows in Colorado. And almost since then, distinctively in Colorado, there have been air show disasters.
Ralph Johnstone, who was trained by the Wright Brothers at Wright Flying School, of course established the pattern when he dropped from the sky in front of thousands of spectators at Overland Park in Denver in 1910. Arch Hoxsey, the other half of the ‘Stardust Twins’ as he and Johnstone were known for their exploits in Wright Exhibition Flying Team, crashed and was killed a very similar crash about a month later on New Year's Eve in a Los Angeles accident while trying set the altitude record. Just a few hours before taking off in that effort, Hoxsey had telegrammed his condolences to the family John Bevins Moisant, who died in air crash near New Orleans the day before.
Flying was hazardous in those early days.
But it was still deadly 40 years later.
“Flagler, Colo. — As the single-engine plane roared toward the crowd, Lyle Stone saw his parents each grab two children under their arms, jump off the low air field fence, and run as fast as they could. Moments later, virtually everyone left on the fence was killed as the plane cut through the crowd like scythe. Twenty were killed including the pilot,” according to Kit Miniclier of the Denver Post in article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Of the twenty, thirteen were children.
“Rhynold Fager remembers seeing a friend on her knees, dying, impaled by a propeller blade. Charlie Keller, whose wife and two children were killed that day, was able to identify his wife’s remains only by a birthmark on her leg.”
Today, a granite memorial with the names of those killed on Sept. 15, 1951, rests in a park across I-70 from the airfield.
William Barker, a Denver Post reporter that was covering the event at the time described it this way in the Post and the weekly Flagler News the next day:
“The plane crashed into the stunned mass of spectators from an altitude of less than 200 feet, cutting a bloody swath and strewing gasoline-drenched wreckage over a 150-yard area… The chaos that followed is beyond description … it was like the end of the world. Bodies were everywhere. The blood was everywhere too,” wrote Barker in 1951.
“I stopped as the scene ravaged my senses. Cars crushed. Bodies … and parts of bodies… Blood on staring faces. People milling like sheep around the fallen. Voices rising and falling oddly, without hysteria. Without panic. Stunned. Too stunned yet to believe what we were all seeing.”
Flagler, a town of only 600, had a hospital, but only two doctors, John C. Straub and William L. McBride. McBride, it was said, had delivered nine of the 13 children killed in the disaster. Medical personnel from miles around soon arrived to help out.
Though it was the worst, the Flagler incident was not Colorado’s last air show mishap.
In June of 1997, and Korean War-era F-86 fighter jet performing before a crowd estimated at 50,000 at air show in Broomfield, crashed in a massive fireball after failing to pull out of a steep dive. Retired Colonel, “Smiling Jack” Rosamond, 63, the pilot of jet was the only casualty when the plane plowed into the ground 300 yards from the nearest spectators.
In October of 2000, again it was only the pilot killed, when the Russian-made Sukhoi 26X, spun out of control at the Telluride airport during an air show, crashed near the runway and burst into flames, killing pilot Kent Pfleider, of Grand Junction.
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Daredevil Aviator: "It's going to get me someday."









































A hundred years ago — to most folks — flying in an airplane seemed to be just taking one step toward death’s door. The presumption was reinforced at Overland Park in Denver one November afternoon in 1910, as thousands of air show spectators watched Ralph Johnstone plummet to his death in front of them.
“He had gambled with death once too often, but he played the game to the end, fighting coolly and grimly to the last second to regain control of his broken machine. Fresh from his triumphs at Belmont Park, where he had broken the world’s record for altitude with a flight of 9,714 feet, Johnstone attempted to give the thousands of spectators an extra thrill with is most daring feat, the spiral glide, which had made the Wright aviators famous. The spectators got their thrill, but it cost Johnstone his life,” according to newspaper accounts at the time.
It was actually Johnstone’s second flight that fateful day. He had gone through a series of dips, rolls and glides without incident with others of the Wright Brothers trained flying crew. The former Vaudeville bicycle stunt performer took the biplane up once more and out toward the foothills to gain altitude.
“Still ascending, he swept back in a big circle, and as he reached the north end of the enclosure, he started his spiral glide. He was then at an altitude of about 800 feet. With his plane tilted at an angle of almost 90 degrees, he swooped down in a narrow circle, the aeroplane seeming to turn almost in its own length. As he started the second circle, the middle spur, which braces the left side of the lower plane, gave way, and the wing tips of both upper and lower planes folded up as though they had been hinged. For a second, Johnstone attempted to right the plane by warping the other wing up. Then the horrified spectators saw the plane swerve like a wounded bird and plunged straight toward the earth,” said a report appearing in the Savannah Tribune at the time.
Ever a cool one, the young aviator didn’t panic however.
“Johnstone was thrown from his seat as the nose of the plane swung downward. He caught on one of the wire stays between the airplane and grasped one of the wooden braces of the upper plane with both hands. Then, working with hands and feet, he fought by main strength to warp the planes so that their surfaces might catch the air and check his descent. For a second it seemed that he might succeed, for the football helmet the wore blew off and fell much more rapidly than the plane.”
About 300 feet from the ground the plane turned end-over-end then plunged, scattering fleeing spectators.
“Scarcely had Johnstone hit the ground before morbid men and women swarmed over the wreckage, fighting with each other for souvenirs. One of the broken wooden stays had gone almost through Johnstone’s body. Before doctors or police could reach the scene, one mad had torn this splinter from the body and run away, carrying his trophy with the aviators blood still dripping from its ends. The crowd tore away the canvass from over the body, and even fought for the gloves that had protected Johnstone’s hands from the cold,” said the Savannah paper.
When Ralph Johnstone died his widow was quoted in the Kansas City Times, "I never was worried about Ralph. He was so brave and careful. It seemed nothing could happen to him. I did not take into consideration a mishap to his machine."
Just three days before his final flight Johnstone was quoted one last time. "It's going to get me some day. It's sooner or later going to get us all. Don't think our Aim is the advancement of science. That is secondary and is worked out by the men on the ground. When you get into the air, you get the intoxication of flying. No man can help feeling it. Then he begins to flirt with it, tilt his plane into all sorts of dangerous angles, dips and circles. This feeling is only the trap it sets for us... the non-mankilling airplane of the future will be created from our crushed bodies."
A year later, reports in the New York Times noted that his wife had decided to take up flying herself.
“Widow of Man Who Was Dashed to Death to Try for License,” said the the Sept. 14, 1911, headline in the Times.
“Although leading aviation schools have steadfastly refused to teach feminine pupils at any price, women are gradually forcing their way into the hazardous game, and followers of the sport are discussing with interest today the report that Mrs. Ralph Johnstone of Kansas City, whose husband was killed at Denver, is soon coming to New York to master the craft that widowed her. It is understood that she will take lessons at the aviation colony on Long Island with a view to becoming a licensed professional aviator. There are only two licensed women aviators in this country at present-- Miss Mathilde Moisant and Miss Harriet Quimby---both of whom are now on Long Island,” reported the Times.

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