Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Alert


     On Halloween night, don't worry about ghosts and vampires spoiling your fun. The real threat to your holiday happiness is the increasing infiltration of Zombies in Cortland County. They're everywhere. A frequent claim is that Zombies are undead. But scientific research indicates that Zombies can be dead or alive.
     Many citizens are unaware of how serious the threat is. A few insiders know that Zombies have infiltrated SUCC campus, occupy high positions on staff, control primary and secondary education throughout the county, and occupy positions in state and local government. 
     A few years ago, Cortland's former mayor fired two of them. The identified Zombies had obtained questionable appointments to city government. Police, sheriff, emergency management, and county health department officials were notified shortly after the Zombies were dismissed. For reasons of public safety, these two Zombies are still being monitored daily.
     The Zombie situation in Cortland County is more alarming than in the city. This year the county chairperson reassigned several legislators who, it is generally believed, are Zombie sycophants or larvae. They were accused of following orders issued by the leaders--alleged Zombies--of the two major political parties. If you were unaware of the morbid details, now you know.
     Fortunately, Cortland's Zombies have not displayed any indications of violence or aggression to date. They do not appear to be hungry. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to stay vigilant. Take inventory of your family's relative safety. Do you know where your children are? Are your pets safe? Is grandma protected and secure? The sheriff speculates that Zombies are waiting for a cell phone call to begin the Zombie Apocalypse in Cortland County. Be ready.*

     Parents often accompany their children when children Trick or Treat on Halloween. Look closely at these parents. Study their faces. Do they appear hungry? Ask yourself, are these parents and their children Zombies? Zombies don't need masks.
     It is known that Zombies survive by assimilation, and it is your brain that they would assimilate. If your brain has been devoured, it is already too late.
     A Zombie Apocalypse may be coming to Cortland soon. Study the chart above. Left click to enlarge.Take necessary precautions for your self-defense.
     This is a special Halloween Alert.

*CDC Zombie Emergency Kits
  Zombie Identification
  Zombies Moaning Audio Clip

Sunday, October 28, 2012

That Miracle Bullet

Drawing by Randolph Caldecott, Author-Artist
     Two old friends, George and Sam, are swapping stories at Hyde's Diner in Cortland after breakfast.
     "Mind you, George, this hunting story I'm about to tell you is ninety-five percent respectful of the truth and five percent outdoor philosophical decoration."
     "I'm listening, Sam."
     "Last year I set up to hunt deer near the junction of County Road 38 and Crofoot Hill Road, just west of Constableville. It was still dark when I got there. I got behind a big tree. There was a clearing in front of me and a pond beyond that. I had my .30-06 rifle, and I was dressed in camouflage jacket and pants. When dawn broke, there was this great view of the clearing and pond in front of me. The sun was behind me. It was a warm day for late October, as I recall. The bass were jumping for bugs near the surface of the pond, big circles were left in the water, and I saw ducks swimming out in the middle of the pond. I guess the chickadees in the woods got used to me because they started chattering again. So I waited for a buck to show up. By and by, a big eight-pointer came along--skittish, ears up, head turning every direction. He was browsing by some thickets and moving slowly toward the clearing. I didn't move at first, afraid I might spook him. As he entered the clearing, I raised my rifle and aimed. Just then I saw a turkey across the pond almost in line with the buck. That turkey saw the buck too. It was ever so curious, long neck stretched out, looking at the buck, and looking at me."
     "So you shot the turkey?"
     "Not intentionally, mind you, but yes, I surely did. When that eight-pointer walked into my line of sight, I fired. The buck dropped to the ground and died instantly. The bullet went through his heart. But the bullet didn't stop there, George, that miracle bullet continued across the pond, went straight through a jumping bass, dropped a fly the bass was trying to eat, killed a duck that started to fly from the surface of the pond, and then killed the long neck turkey on the other side of the pond. Now hold on to your seat, George, that wasn't the end of it. The bullet went through the turkey, just as it went through the buck, and then it hit a boulder. That miracle bullet shattered into three fragments, my best calculation. Each one of those fragments ricocheted. One of them killed a squirrel, another killed a crow and the third killed a blue jay. I made seven confirmed kills--only one intended. I never found the fly so I won't count it."
     "That's the most unbelievable story I've ever heard."
     "You weren't there."
     "I'll be most respectful of your feelings, Sam, so I won't ask if that story is true or not. My grandfather, if he were alive today, would call that kind of story one hundred percent bear scat with a fly stuck on it." 
     "Well, I guess it is somewhat hard to believe--"
     "Sam, you should have been a politician. A story like that, with a bunch of political promises mixed in it, would get a helluva lot of votes. I'm not wearing my barn boots right now. If you've finished your coffee, I reckon it's a good time to leave."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Tell a Story

How to Tell a Story by Mark Twain

     The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length -- no more and no less -- or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended -- and then you can't surprise them, of course.

     On the platform I used to tell a negro ghost story that had a pause in front of the snapper on the end, and that pause was the most important thing in the whole story. If I got it the right length precisely, I could spring the finishing ejaculation with effect enough to make some impressionable girl deliver a startled little yelp and jump out of her seat -- and that was what I was after. This story was called "The Golden Arm," and was told in this fashion. You can practise with it yourself -- and mind you look out for the pause and get it right.

The Golden Arm

     Once 'pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de prairie all 'lone by hisself, 'cep'n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she had a golden arm -- all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz pow'ful mean -- pow'ful; en dat night he couldn't sleep, caze he want dat golden arm so bad.

     When it come midnight he couldn't stan' it no mo'; so he git up, he did, en tuck his lantern en shoved out thoo de storm en dug her up en got de golden arm; en he bent his head down 'gin de win', en plowed en plowed en plowed thoo de snow. Den all on a sudden he stop (make a considerable pause here, and look startled, and take a listening attitude) en say: "My lan', what's dat!"

     En he listen -- en listen -- en de win' say (set your teeth together and imitate the wailing and wheezing singsong of the wind), "Bzzz-z-zzz" -- en den, way back yonder what de grave is, he hear a voice! -- he hear a voice all mix' up in de win' -- can't hardly tell 'em 'part -- "Bzzz-zzz -- W-h-o -- g-o-t -- m-y -- g-o-l-d-e-n -- arm? -- zzz -- zzz -- W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l-d-e-n arm?" (You must begin to shiver violently now.)

     En he begin to shiver en shake, en say, "Oh, my! Oh, my lan'!" en de win' blow de lantern out, en de snow en sleet blow in his face en mos' choke him, en he start a-plowin' knee-deep toward home mos' dead, he so sk'yerd -- en pooty soon he hear de voice agin, en (pause) it 'us comin' after him! "Bzzz -- zzz -- zzz -- W-h-o -- g-o-t -- m-y g-o-l-d-e-n -- arm?"

     When he git to de pasture he hear it agin -- closter now, en a-comin'! -- a-comin' back dah in de dark en de storm -- (repeat the wind and the voice). When he git to de house he rush up-stairs en jump in de bed en kiver up, head and years, en lay dah shiverin' en shakin' -- en den way out dah he hear it agin! -- en a-comin'! En bimeby he hear (pause -- awed, listening attitude) -- pat -- pat -- pat -- hit's a-comin' up-stairs! Den he hear de latch, en he know it's in de room!

     Den pooty soon he know it's a-stannin' by de bed! (Pause.) Den -- he know it's a-bendin' down over him -- en he cain't skasely git his breath! Den -- den -- he seem to feel someth'n c-o-l-d, right down 'most agin his head! (Pause.)

     Den de voice say, right at his year -- "W-h-o -- g-o-t -- m-y -- g-o-l-d-e-n arm?" (You must wail it out very plaintively and accusingly; then you stare steadily and impressively into the face of the farthest-gone auditor, -- a girl, preferably, -- and let that awe-inspiring pause begin to build itself in the deep hush. When it has reached exactly the right length, jump suddenly at that girl and yell, "You've got it!"

     (If you've got the pause right, she'll fetch a dear little yelp and spring right out of her shoes. But you must get the pause right; and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook.)
Wikipedia/The Golden Arm

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Good--No, Great Ideas


Jack Kerouac, the writer, once said that good ideas are a dime a dozen. I've come to believe that they do more harm than good and that great ideas do even more harm.


In times like these, it's understandable that people yearn for solutions, gravitate to ideas, which, if implemented, would bring some improvement to our lives. The problem is that there are reasons why things are as they are, and that the destruction of our quality of life did not all take place during the last four to twelve years but rather during the last fifty. Without a solid understanding of the causes of our current problems and the forces that keep them in place, and a plan to neutralize them, we're doomed to a future of 'try this, try that' without ever regaining the quality of life historically associated with our country. For example, the recent financial crisis (meltdown) is not the cause of our situation--it's a symptom.


'The Economist', my absolute favorite publication, has published a special report, The New Progressivism*, in which they do a superlative job of analyzing the world's economic/social problems, including our own. I strongly recommend that you read it. You'll find out, among other things, that income inequality is a symptom, that dealing with it is critical to growth, and why current plans to deal with it won't work. And you will better understand how crony capitalism (government by special interests, including public sector unions) stifles growth.


Alas, 'The Economist', as always, is long on analysis and proscription of policy changes but short on the nitty-gritty of getting it done. It's up to us (We have seen the enemy, and it's us.) The American public is clearly enjoying the current campaign and has no time for real problems; our media are making a bundle providing tons of infotainment, and our politicians love the current system (except for all that time on the phone). In Europe, things still aren't bad enough to call a spade a spade, so we can see that we've got a ways to go.


What does it take? Is anybody out there pissed off? How pissed off?

Joe Bakewell
*The Economist, October 13-19, 2012





A BIRD NAMED ENZA & WILL’S WAR are now available as e-books on all major sites including www.smashwords.com (in all formats) for $2.99

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Requests for DA Endorsement Declined

     The staff at the Cortland Contrarian recently received a request to endorse incumbent District Attorney Sue Benn for reelection. Supporters of challenger Keith Daydream also requested our support and endorsement.
     As the $119,703 base salary for the district attorney's office was increased an additional 17% by the state legislature this year, we have decided to withhold our endorsements for the major party candidates, and pursue a write-in campaign for our below-poverty-line staff member Sherwood.
     We ask the public to write in Sherwood's name for district attorney in the appropriate location on the ballot on election day.

P.S. Sherwood is licensed to practice law in New York State. So are several other well-known Cortland (male) apes of lesser aptitude than Sherwood.

"I could be your next District Attorney!"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Turtle

     The inventor of the first submarine deployed in combat was a Connecticut Yankee: David Bushnell. The submarine was nick-named the Turtle because of its shape and features.
     On the night of September 6, 1776, this one-man craft with attached mine slipped into the Hudson River near Washington Heights. It was piloted by Continental Army Sgt. Ezra Lee. His orders were to attack the British ship HMS Eagle which was anchored near Governor's Island. Floating on the outgoing tide, Sgt. Lee maneuvered the submarine on the surface of the Hudson until he sighted the British ship, a 64-gun ship-of-the-line.
     Sgt. Lee submerged the Turtle but miscalculated the distance to the British ship and his own speed. He surfaced downstream from the HMS Eagle. He waited more than two hours for the tide to reverse before approaching the warship. Riding a high bicycle seat within the submarine, with foot pedals that were attached to shaft and propeller, he made his way in darkness to the side of the British warship and then he submerged the Turtle. He attempted to place a mine onto the hull of the warship by use of a large drill. He was unsuccessful; the warship was a copper-clad ship. 
     Afraid of discovery by the ship's watch, he surfaced, separated from the HMS Eagle, and made for shore. Despite the darkness, he was spotted and the crew of the warship lowered boats to chase him. He submerged again. Due to the limited air space within the submarine, he could only stay underwater half an hour. When he resurfaced, British sailors saw his craft and hailed him from their boats. Sgt. Lee and his submarine were passing the Battery and entering the East River. He detached the mine, which had a timer. The British long boats were drawing closer to him now, as he pedaled his submarine toward shore.
     When the mine exploded, a spectacular geyser rose from the Hudson. On shore, the Continental Army cheered and fired musket balls into the early morning air. The British boatmen, fearful of additional mine explosions and gunfire from shore, returned to their ship.
     The British fleet raised anchors and sailed for the lower bay.
     The Turtle was a sophisticated craft made of rudimentary materials. It was made of oak, fastened with iron bands and covered with pitch for waterproofing. The pilot used foxfire, a moss that glows in the dark, to see the water depth gauge and compass. The submarine was 7 1/2 feet tall and 6 feet wide at the center. It had a special leak-proof intake valve to obtain fresh air when the craft was on the water's surface. Water was used as ballast for submerging and raising the submarine.
     David Bushnell invented the submarine while he was a student at Yale. He also experimented with gunpowder and underwater mines, and discovered that the density of water increases the effectiveness of explosions.
     David Bushnell was born on a farm near Saybrook, Connecticut. The year of his birth is in dispute (1740 or 1742). After the Revolutionary War, he moved to Georgia and established himself as a teacher and later as a medical doctor. He died in 1824.


1) Navy Department Library
2) MIT--Inventor of the Week
3) Military.com--Sgt. Ezra Lee

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tromptown Run, DeRuyter, New York

The History of the Tromptown Run

The village of DeRuyter in central New York State was originally called Tromptown. Jan Lincklaen, an agent for the Holland Land Co., whose territory included Cazenovia and areas south, named it. In the winter of 1653 the British had clamped an airtight blockade on the Dutch coastal cities causing serious shortages and the resulting hunger riots caused the Dutch Admiral Marten von Tromp to attempt to break the blockade. On July 31, 1653 the Dutch lost 4,000 men and 13 ships in the battle. Tromp was killed and Admiral Michiel de Ruyter was now in command. In the years following the British navy was strengthened in readiness for a second Dutch war. However widespread corruption and waste and eventually the bubonic plague in the summer of 1665 causing the death of nearly 100,000 in London gave the Dutch a chance to rebuild their fleet. In June of 1667 Admiral de Ruyter sailed up the Thames river, shelled London, destroyed many English warships and captured the British flagship the Royal Charles. De Ruyter was now a hero and Jan Lincklaen being one to "run with the tide" changed the name of Tromptown to DeRuyter and so it remains today.To learn more about DeRuyter and the area visit the DeRuyter-On-Line-site.

A "voyage of discovery" was initiated between our village and the Netherlands because no other village, town or city in the world is known to bear this name. The ship Admiral DeRuyter of the NATO fleet designated DeRuyter as their "Flagship Town" in 1982. In April of 1982 the Royal Netherlands Marine Band and members of the Dutch Navy and diplomatic legations of New York and Washington came to our community for two days of celebration in recognition of 200 continuous years of Dutch-American diplomatic relations. The Indian name Tioughnioga (tie-oth-nee-o-ga) means "meeting of the road and waters" or more poetically "a bank of flowers" was given to our local river and lake and to our excellent volunteer fire department. Both our fire department and village serve a greater area community with an unusual variety of businesses, services, churches, organizations and one of the smallest central school systems in the state. Local activities range from hang-gliding, snowmobiling, skiing and water sports on the lake. The DeRuyter Firemen's Fair is one example of the total community involvement in such activities.

In 1888 horse-trotting races became a popular event and a track and grandstands were built. Precedent for the Fair was set by Sig Sautelle's Circus, which wintered and trained in DeRuyter from 1896 to the early 1900's. In 1908 the first four-county fair, Cortland, Madison, Chenango and Onondaga, was the immediate forerunner of the present Firemen's Fair which was started in 1927. The grandstand and racetrack are gone and 2-legged runners, the Fair's major opening night event, have replaced the 4-legged ones.

Over three decades ago, Steve Camelbeek, a local teacher, track coach and volunteer fireman decided to initiate a cross-country race as part of the Firemen's Fair program. Win Skeele, a local businessman and former teacher entered and came in last of the 24 runners. Since then Win has gone from participant to director and the Tromptown Run has become a full-fledged running event. The distances were first measured by automobile as 3, 6, and 13.2 miles. However the "too fast" times prompted us to investigate and accurately re-measure the distances as 2.7, 5.86 and 12.7 miles. Oops!!

As the number of runners went from tens to hundreds, the starting line was moved to the school athletic field on grass and the distances were changed to 3 miles, 10 KM and 13.2 miles. The perilous turn at the finish on loose gravel and the need to conform to international standards prompted us in 1982 to change to standardized distances of 5 KM, 10 KM and Half-Marathon and with no gravel turn at the finish. This required revised measurements and certification, three different starting times and lines, revised mile markers, more workers and a lot of work.

Since then, the courses have been re-certified to reflect the required correction factors. The start was moved from grass to pavement near the cemetery. The 10 KM race was discontinued in 1996 for safety reasons but is still certified and may be back in the future as safety factors are corrected.   
Race Records

Basic Concept of Physical Attraction

     "What do you know about gravity, George?"
     "I can tell you that I discovered gravity when I was five years old, Sam. I fell out of a tree."
     "Hurt yourself?"
     "I fell on my side and banged my head on the ground. It wasn't the best of falls. But I learned quickly that gravity works."
     "That fall may explain why you have such a laconic sense of humor--perhaps your brain was rearranged in the fall."
     "Sam, when I was twenty-three I fell off a donkey in Mexico. Donkey crap all over my clothes, humid weather and flies! That told me something about gravity and donkeys. I was so damn mad that I changed my political persuasion. I've been a Republican ever since."
     "Sure the donkey didn't kick you in the head?"
     "I'd remember if it did--maybe not. After I fell, the donkey wouldn't let me back on the saddle. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot in donkey crap along the path. That smart ass followed me with a swagger and a smile."
     "Why were you in Mexico and where?"
     "I was on vacation near the Caves of Garcia, a short distance from Monterrey. The donkey path led to a waterfall called The Horse's Tail. I walked to a spot just short of the falls. I couldn't see the falls--so using my best Spanish I asked the Mexican donkey boys for directions. They burst out laughing when they heard my best Spanish."
     "What did you say that made them laugh?"
     "Donde esta la cola de caballero?"
     "What the hell is that?"
     "It translates: Where is the gentleman's tail?"
     "Ha! I can understand why they laughed at you."
     "I guess I got the Spanish word for horse and gentleman mixed up. A horse is caballo."
     "So what else do you know about gravity besides falling out of a tree and falling off a donkey?"
     "Well, to be truthful, I know as much about gravity as I know about Spanish. I know that Newton got the idea by watching an apple fall from a tree. What's all this about gravity? When did you become a rocket scientist?"
     "Yesterday I was watching a young British scientist, Brian Cox, on TV. He said there was something missing about our understanding of gravity."
     "What did he mean by that? Is a planet missing?"
     "If there is, he didn't mention it. He explained that Einstein thought space and time were united. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more time and space are compressed. He said that's what created the effect of gravity. I was impressed."
     "Did you fully understand it?"
     "I don't either. So why should this be the number one topic of discussion in this Cortland diner so early in the morning? It doesn't pay the bills. Besides, my eggs and toast are getting cold."
     "I'll tell you why. It made me curious. How many times have you heard an educated person say, 'Think outside the box?'"
     "I haven't been in a classroom for over 50 years, Sam. Besides, that's what my dentist tells me to do when I say I don't have enough money to pay him. 'Think outside the box.'"
     "But Einstein was right about gravity, George. It has something to do with space-time."
     "You won't hear me argue with Einstein."
     "Neither will I. Einstein added a new concept to Newton's formula for gravity."
     "Do you know Newton's formula?"
     "No, can't say I do. But I understand it and I think I can explain it. You see, it's a basic concept of physical attraction. Take two bodies consisting of mass--like me and my wife. I'm skinny and she's fat. I'll whisper this to you so no one else can hear: women don't appreciate it when you talk about their weight. I swear my wife weighs twice as much as I do. She was heavier than I was when we got married, would you believe it?"
     "I won't touch that one."
     "It's because she's so much heavier than I am that I'm attracted to her. It makes scientific sense. A large mass attracts a small mass. That's Newton's theory in a nutshell."
     "I don't think Newton or Einstein would subscribe to your interpretation."
      "Probably not."
     "Sam, the only thing that makes scientific sense now is that my breakfast is moving toward absolute zero. I'm going to eat now, if you don't mind, before my eggs turn into ice."

How Gravity Really Works--YouTube

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Great Chain

MPI/Getty Images

                              Head-Quarters, New York, 21st July, 1776.

     Sir--You are without delay to proceed to Fort Montgomery, or Constitution, in the Highlands, on Hudson's River, and put yourself under the command of Col. George Clinton, or the commanding officer there,--to act as Engineer in compleating such works as are already laid out,--and such others as you, with the advice of Col. Clinton, may think necessary: 'Tis expected and required of you, that you pay close attention to this business, and drive on the works with all possible dispatch. In case of attack by the enemy, or in any action with them, you are to join and act with the Artillery on that station; and to return to your duty in the regiment as soon as you can be spared from the works.
                               I am, sir, your most humble serv't.
                                               GO. WASHINGTON

     George Washington's order was addressed to Captain Thomas Machin, an engineer in the Continental Army. Captain Machin had distinguished himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he laid out the fortification lines and was wounded in the arm during the battle. He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and he participated at the Boston Tea Party.
     In 1778, Captain Machin designed and installed the Great Chain which was floated across the Hudson River from West Point to Constitution Island. The chain was manufactured in six weeks at Sterling Iron Works in Warwick, New York. When all of the links were assembled, the chain measured 600 yards across and weighed over 65 tons.
     Rafts were built of 12 foot waterproof timbers. Each raft held ten links, a swivel and a clevis. The rafts were attached to each other with 4 waterproof logs 16 feet in length. When these rafts were floated into position on the river, the chain links were joined. The south end of the chain was anchored at a cove on the West Point of the river, and the north end of the chain was anchored at Constitution Island. Both ends of the chain were anchored in heavy log cribs filled with large rocks on shore.
     A separate log boom was built and installed about one hundred yards downstream from the chain. This was an additional barrier to slow or halt British ships, which would then be targets for shore batteries located on both sides of the river.
     The chain remained in place from 1778 to 1783. To avoid winter ice damage to the rafts, the chain was removed each winter and put back in the river each spring. No British ship ever passed or attempted to pass it.

1) West Point Fortifications
2) Wikipedia--Hudson River Chain
3) History of Schoharie County, Thomas Machin
4) AG Corps Print--Washington's Watch Chain
5) Chain and Boom History

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Much Is A Smile Worth?

     Would you believe 8 million kronor, or $1.2 million dollars? That will be the award given by the Shadow Nobel Prize Committee to Cortland's Mayor Brian Tobin on December 10, 2012 at a ceremony to be held in Roswell, New Mexico.
     Mayor Tobin won the Best Smile on Earth award based on several photos published during his 2011 mayoral campaign. The committee did not look at his cute baby pictures, although several were submitted by his parents. It seems that Brian Tobin won despite a dissenting committee voter--an alien called Humphrey Bogart DeMond. DeMond said that he voted against Tobin because he believed Tobin's smile was "disingenuous and designed to influence voters."
     Mayor Tobin was officially notified by an extraterrestrial visitor at his home in Cortland on Friday, October 12, 2012. His response to the ghostly image was immediate: "Is this a joke? Is this an early Halloween prank?" When he was informed that it was not a joke, he asked: "How much is the award?" He was told $1.2 million dollars.
     Contacted by the Cortland Contrarian, Mayor Tobin confirmed that he is the recipient of the Best Smile on Earth award, and he said that he will donate all of the money that he receives to his favorite charity--Smile Train.
     A troublemaker at the Cortland Contrarian contacted former Mayor Tom Gallagher and asked for his opinion of the Best Smile award. Gallagher claimed that he has the best smile* in Cortland, and that the Shadow Nobel Prize Committee obviously made a mistake in judgment, or has come under the influence of young female Democrats--political groupies--who adore Brian Tobin.
     You be the judge.

Tom Gallagher
Brian Tobin

Thursday, October 11, 2012

East River Fire

     Excitement filled the air.  Over 1300 passengers, mostly women and children, moved forward on a Manhattan pier jutting into the East River as they boarded the excursion steamship General Slocum bound for Long Island. It was June 15, 1904.
     The passengers were members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. They were German-Americans who lived in the Little Germany neighborhood of Manhattan. The trip to Eaton's Neck, Long Island, was an annual group picnic event.
     Whistles and bells announced the ship's departure at 9:30 A.M. As the ship steamed past East 90th Street on the East River, a fire started in the forward Lamp Room. Captain William Van Schaick was notified at 10:10 A.M. The ship's crew was ordered to put out the fire, but most of the fire hoses were in a state of disrepair. Some were so rotten that they fell apart. Meanwhile, passengers found life preservers that were rotten with age, and as useless as the fire hoses. Some life preservers that could be used were soon waterlogged and too heavy. Many children and women who wore them sank in the river and drowned.
     The crew of 30 had never practiced a fire drill. Lifeboats were secured with wire and even painted in place and impossible to lower. Passengers were jumping over the side with or without life jackets. Most of the women and children did not know how to swim. Some passengers were caught in the ship's side-paddles as they went over the side to escape the fire. Others died when the fire-ravaged wood decks collapsed.
     Captain Van Schaick turned the ship into the wind, which fueled the fire. In addition, paint in forward lockers caught fire. Soon the triple-decked, side-wheel steamship was ablaze, fire out of control. The ship was taking on water and listing. The captain made one final effort to save the ship by grounding it on North Brother Island off the Bronx shore.
     It was estimated that 1,021 passengers and 2 crew members had burned to death or drowned. There were 321 survivors. It was the worst disaster in New York City's history before the tragic loss of life on September 11, 2001.
     A Federal grand jury indicted eight people after the maritime disaster: Captain Van Schiack, two inspectors, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company president, secretary, treasurer and commodore.
     Captain Van Schiack was convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to ten years in prison. The other defendants were found not guilty.

(left click on photos to enlarge)

1) New York Times, June 16, 1904.
2) Wikipedia, General Slocum
3) North Brother Island
4) Cortland Standard


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Triangle and Capitol Fires, Four Days Apart

     The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire occurred on March 25, 1911 in New York City. One hundred forty six garment workers died. Twenty victims fell to their death when an exterior fire escape twisted from the heat and broke apart. More than sixty leaped to their death from windows to escape the flames.
     The factory was located on the eight, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place. (It is now known as the Brown Building and it is designated a National Historic Landmark.) There were ten stories in the building. The fire started about 4:40 P.M. on the eight floor under one of the cutter's tables. It soon spread to the higher floors.
     About five hundred workers were in the factory when the fire started. There were two stairways and two freight elevators. A door leading to the Washington Place stairway was locked. The Green Street stairway provided an escape route for three minutes before it was engulfed in flames and smoke. Workers escaped by freight elevator until electric power failed. Others climbed a stairway to the roof. Some of the workers decided to leap from windows.
     An eyewitness, Lewis Waldman, described the event: "...looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as a mangled, bloody pulp... Occasionally a girl who hesitated too long was licked by the pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies."
     The fire was extinguished in half an hour. Most of the one hundred forty six workers who died were young women. The Fire Marshall concluded that a match or cigarette butt started the fire under a cutter's table.
     One hundred thousand people attended a public funeral march a few days later. Victims of the fire were buried in more than a dozen cemeteries.
     The New York City District Attorney indicted the two owners of the factory on manslaughter charges. Evidence was introduced to show that it was common practice to lock the doors of the factory to prevent theft and unauthorized worker's breaks. The owners were acquitted when a jury determined that the owners did not know a door was locked.
     "The monstrous conclusion of the law is that the slaughter was no one's fault," New York's Literary Digest opined. "There are no guilty. There are only the dead."
     Reform was demanded by the people of New York State. Al Smith, Speaker of the Assembly, and Robert F. Wagner, Majority Leader of the Senate, led a Factory Investigation Committee. Committee members toured factories and mills all over the state. Working conditions were examined and documented. The commission drafted bills governing fire protection and work safety. Special restrictions were written into law for women and child labor. Between 1911-16, the state legislature passed sixty work safety bills.
     Four days after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, a fire roared through the State Assembly chamber in Albany, New York. On March 29, 1911, the State Library was gutted by the fire, a night watchman was killed, and several offices were damaged. The cause of the fire was never determined.
     Approximately 450,000 books and 270,000 manuscripts, including some historical records of early Dutch and colonial history, were destroyed. Archivist A.J.F.Van Laer claimed: "The loss in this room means that the very basis of the early history of the state has been wiped out."
     As a result of this fire, a bill was pushed through the state legislature to place the historian's office under the Education Department.

1) Wikipedia, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
2) New York Under Fire by Bruce W. Dearstyne, former program director at the New York State Archives.



Cartoon credit: G.S.

Sunday, October 7, 2012



     In 1958 the U. S. Department of Defence, under President Dwight Eisenhower, started to build the DEWLINE, or Distant Early Warning Line, 3,000 miles across the North American Arctic region. It was a series of radar and communications stations strung from Alaska to Greenland. A 28 minute video at the National Archives details the construction and operation of the project.
     The DEWLINE project was conceived when the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a "cold war." Both nations were armed with atomic and hydrogen bombs, which were deliverable to distant targets by airplane. The shortest routes for delivery were across the North Pole.
     In the United States, paranoia on the subject of communism and the Soviet Union developed in Congress, state legislatures, churches and industry. Atomic bomb shelters were built in backyards and in basements of houses throughout the USA. Short-range missiles were deployed near potential target areas across the United States, such as the power facilities at Niagara Falls.
     The DEWLINE project was conceived about the same time as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Bell Telephone and its subsidiary Western Electric were lead contractors for the DEWLINE project.
     Click on this National Archives website and then click on the video to see and hear the incredible details of building the DEWLINE. Alternately, click on Wikipedia history of the DEWLINE.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Year Without Summer

1816 - The Year Without Summer

By: Lee Foster, Meteorologist

As we all know living in New England means enduring long winters and savoring the short summers. However, in 1816, the summer season was shorter than normal and is commonly referred to as “The Year Without Summer”. I first heard about this infamous summer from my grandfather who lived his entire life in Northern New Hampshire. He was not alive in 1816 but stories of that summer were passed down from generation to generation. His stories about that summer peaked my interest in the actual conditions in 1816 and after some research I discovered that indeed the summer of 1816 was not your typical summer.

The indications of a possible cool summer were evident during the spring time. The middle of May brought unseasonably cool temperatures to the region with light snow reported in Quebec Province with frost as far south as Virginia. Mild and sunny conditions returned to the Northeast by the last week of May before a strong cold front crossed New England on the 28th with light snow again reported in Quebec and frost as far south as Pennsylvania. Reports of fruit trees being set back and acres of corn killed in Maine were common.

After a warm start to June, the month quickly turned stormy. A strong Nor’easter developed along the east coast on the 6th with rain mixed with snow in Quebec City and light snow observed over the highlands of New York and most of Northern New England. As this winter type storm moved into the Canadian Maritimes on the 7th, the storm dumped 6 to 12 inches of snow over most of Northern New England with reports of 2 foot drifts in Quebec City. Strong high pressure followed the storm from the 8th through the 10th with frost every morning and reports of trees blackened or scorched across most of New England. By the end of the month the weather became more typical of June with even a heat wave from the 22nd through the 24th.

If June was bad enough, July started out no better. A strong Canadian cold front crossed New England killing corn, beans, cucumbers and squash and the first talk of famine started. However, by the middle of the month, thoughts of a famine were almost forgotten as the hardy grains such as wheat and rye along with potatoes were doing quite well.

The fine weather continued into the middle of August when another frost occurred over interior New York and all of New England damaging many crops. Then on the 20th a strong cold front crossed the Northeast with violent thunderstorms. Reports of temperatures falling 30 degrees after frontal passage were not uncommon. Frost was reported the next day as far south as Massachusetts with snow reported on Mt Moosilouke in New Hampshire. Corn was destroyed from Albany to Boston. If that cold spell wasn’t enough, it all came to an end on the 28th when another strong cold front crossed the Northeast with severe frost that ended the growing season in most of Northern New England.

The consequences of this season were harsh. Only a third to a fourth of the hay was cut with only 10 percent of the crop harvested in some areas. Orchard yields ranged from barren to moderate but enough grains, wheat, and potatoes were harvested to prevent a famine but hardships did occur. There were reports of people eating raccoons, pigeons, and mackerel. Corn prices rose from $1.00 a bushel to nearly $3.00 a bushel. With crop failure and the shortage of hay, farmers turned to selling their cows and pigs which drove the price of meat down. With so much meat on the market beef prices dropped from $15.50 to $7.50 a barrel with pork falling from $16 to $4 a barrel.

So what caused this unusual weather during the summer of 1816? Some believe it was caused by sinners while some even blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments. However, climate data obtained from trees, ice cores, marine sediment and historical documents indicate 1816 was part of a mini ice age that lasted from 1400 to around 1860. During this time lower solar output produced harsh winters, shorter growing seasons and drier climates which were blamed for a host of human suffering and crop failures such as the Irish Potato Famine. Another possible cause was the eruption of the Tambora volcano on the island of Soembawa in Indonesia on April 15th 1815. The eruption lasted one week and rumbled for 3 months. The mountain elevation dropped from 14,000 feet to 9000 feet, killed close to 10,000 people on the island and another 80,000 people would eventually die from starvation and diseases related to the eruption. Tambora was one of the largest recorded eruptions with estimates of 1.7 million tons of dust put into the air equaling 6 million atomic bombs. The theory is that the dust reached the Northern Hemisphere during 1816 reducing solar output.

Whatever the cause, the next year saw the first general migration from the Northeast to the Midwest and 1816 also became know as the Poverty Year. The following poem from Eileen Marguet summed up the year:

It didn't matter whether your farm was large or small.

It didn't matter if you had a farm at all.

Cause everyone was affected when water didn't run.

The snow and frost continued without the warming sun.

One day in June it got real hot and leaves began to show.

But after that it snowed again and wind and cold did blow.

The cows and horses had no grass, no grain to feed the chicks.

No hay to put aside that time, just dry and shriveled sticks.

The sheep were cold and hungry and many starved to death,

Still waiting for the warming sun to save their labored breath.

The kids were disappointed, no swimming, such a shame.

It was in 1816 that summer never came.

Editor's note: This article displayed for education use only, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration newsletter Maine-ly Weather.
Eighteen Hundred and Starve to Death takes a slightly different view of the weather events of 1816 and can be found at blog Choosing Voluntary Simplicity.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


     "Today I have a new riddle for you, George."
     "Let's hear it, Sam."
     "Listen carefully: the man who invented it doesn't want it; the man who bought it doesn't need it; the man who needs it doesn't know it. What is it?"
     "A coffin."
     "How the hell did you know that?"
     "Sam, you must be losing it. You ask me that same riddle at least once a year."
     "Try another one then. A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew each owe a dead friend $100. As they stand over the casket in remorse for not having paid the debt while the friend was alive, the Catholic and the Protestant each throw in a $100 bill, saying 'better late than never.' The Jew agrees with the sentiment and tosses in a check for $100. So what's the answer to the riddle?"
     "That's easy. He threw in a check because he knew the dead friend can't cash it."
     "Did I tell you that one before?"
     "No, but any school kid would understand that riddle. Besides, it's more of a joke than a riddle. Give me a real riddle."
     "You want a riddle? Here's a riddle. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?"
     "Sam, you never asked this one before. But this doesn't seem like a riddle. It's more like a missing person or criminal case."
     "Oh, there's a riddle in this one. James R. Hoffa disappeared in October 1975. He was last seen alive in a restaurant parking lot. They never found his body. The FBI led the investigation and they claimed that Hoffa was rubbed out by mobsters. The FBI didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute. Hoffa was the former head of the Teamsters Union. Yesterday I was watching TV and I heard a news reporter say that police were looking for his body under a driveway someplace in Michigan."
      "Did they find the body?"
      "No, that was another false alarm. So what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?"
     "Damned if I know. Do I look like a psychic? Your riddle about Hoffa reminds me of the Mad Hatter's riddle in Alice in Wonderland. 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?' Alice answers: 'I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answer.' Sam, no one knows what happened to Jimmy Hoffa."
     "Well, George, there's still a riddle in it and I can show you where it is. As for Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, as I recall, Lewis Carroll gave an explanation for the Mad Hatter's riddle: 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?' After the book was published, Carroll wrote: 'because it can produce a few notes tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front.'"  
     "Sam, don't tell me you remember that from grade school?"
     "George, I'm not suggesting that I did. I was watching PBS last week and I heard a woman discussing it. By the way, just so you know, Jimmy Hoffa's full name is James Riddle Hoffa."
     "Is that the truth?"
     "It is."
     A young waitress walks by their table with a pot of hot coffee.
     "Miss--a refill, please--regular coffee. Thanks."
     "Same. Thanks." 
Reference: Gangsters, Inc.