Steamboat Days

Monday, August 26, 2013

Some pioneers and goods traveled west by steamboat. As noted in last week’s post, the Missouri River made a great road. For the times. If you were lucky.

In the years before the Civil War, steamboats carried passengers and freight up and down the Missouri River. It could be a hazardous journey. The river was constantly changing course and washing away the riverbanks, causing trees to fall into the water. The submerged trees were the death of many a steamboat.

That includes the Arabia. On September 5, 1856, it hit a submerged log that ripped open the hull. The boat was close to the banks and took a while to sink, so passengers and crew had time to climb into a rowboat that made multiple trips until every human being on board was safely on shore. The only casualty was a mule who had been tied up and was forgotten in the scramble.

The boat’s owners may have thought they could come back in the morning to salvage the cargo, but by that time most of the Arabia had sunk into the silt. The boat and its cargo were lost.

Fast forward 130 years, when several local businessmen heard about the Arabia and became obsessed with finding and recovering it. They were ordinary small businessmen, not scientists or archaeologists or even historians, but they studied and they learned and they did it right. After locating the steamboat in a farmer’s field and getting the farmer’s permission to excavate the site, the men took all possible precautions to preserve the boat and its contents.

Our vacation included a stop at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, where the history and the cargo are on display. Much of the ship had crumbled over the years, but most of the cargo was intact. That includes china, woolen goods (coats, bolts of fabric, and hats), and even wooden clothes pins. All of the cotton dresses had disintegrated, but they left thousands of buttons behind.

Fashions change and dryers have replaced clothes pins, but I appreciate people who preserve our history.

The Lure of the West

Monday, August 19, 2013

Can you name the longest river in North America? No, it isn’t the Mississippi. The correct answer is the Missouri. It starts on the western edge of Montana and flows east partway through North Dakota before turning south. It continues south through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa; cuts through the north-east corner of Kansas; and flows east again through Missouri before joining the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.

The Missouri River is deep and wide and makes a great road for river travel. No wonder Lewis and Clark chose to follow it on their way west.

The picture at the top of this post shows the Missouri River at Fort Osage, which was one of the sites we saw while on vacation. The original fort was built under the direction of William Clark. (Yes, that’s the Clark from Lewis and Clark. He noticed the location while on his expedition west and thought it would be a good place for an outpost.) The fort functioned as both a military compound to foster good relations with the Indians and a trading post between 1808 and 1827. The second picture shows the current buildings, which are a reproduction.

River travel wasn’t the only way west, of course. Another of our sightseeing stops was at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is dedicated to the three overland trails that began at or near Independence: the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Oregon Trail.

Heading west meant leaving extended family and friends behind, and the parting at journey’s beginning was often the last time they saw each other. But that didn’t mean the pioneers forgot the people they left behind, and they made use of every opportunity to send or receive letters. How those letters arrived changed over time, but for a year and a half (from April 1860 to October 1861), they travelled by Pony Express.

St. Joseph, Missouri, has a Pony Express Museum located in the original Pony Express stable (partially reconstructed after a fire). There were Pony Express stations all along the way where riders changed horses several times before they handed the mail pouch off to another rider.

The Pony Express service was inaugurated with a race between mail heading west and mail heading east. Both left on April 3, 1860 and took ten days, but the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento before the eastbound mail arrived in St. Joseph. They didn’t leave at the same time, however, so I’m not sure who actually won.

The last two pictures show the Pony Express Museum/Stable and a tableau of the start of the race from St. Joseph.

I may be a Midwestern girl at heart, but I'm still fascinated by the lure of the West.

The Forgotten War

Monday, August 12, 2013

Until World War II came along, World War I was called “the great war” and “the war to end all wars.” It was the first war featuring airplanes and armored tanks and chemical warfare and submarines. (Although submarines had been used in earlier wars, their design turned them into one hit wonders. See my August 6, 2012 blog post on the H.L. Hunley.)

So why are there so few World War I memorials compared to World War II memorials? At least it seems that way in our U.S. travels, where Roland and I have seen several memorials and museums dedicated to World War II and its various battles but none (that I remember) dedicated to World War I.
Until last month, that is. On our vacation to Kansas City, Missouri, we visited the
World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, pictured above. The second picture shows the grounds as taken from the top of the tower.

Why did we enter World War I? After all, the war was happening “over there” and had little direct impact on the U.S. Although some Americans travelled to Europe to volunteer to fight or to serve as nurses in field hospitals and many immigrants worried about their relatives in Europe, the war didn’t touch most people living in this country. Then Germany sank the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, and American lives were lost. (See my July 2, 2012 post.) Even then, the U.S. was reluctant to enter the war.

Historians don’t agree on the actual precipitating event, and it may be a combination of several factors, including the Lusitania. Then there was the British interception and decoding of what is known as “the Zimmerman note.” The message from Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico involved a German plot to persuade Mexico to declare war against the U.S. in order to keep us occupied and out of the war against Germany. And it didn’t help Germany’s cause that its submarines seemed to be targeting U.S. cargo ships after Germany had promised President Wilson that it would leave neutral shipping alone. If Germany was trying to discourage our participation, its actions had the opposite effect.

There is practically no one left who remembers World War I, and that may be part of the reason it tends to be forgotten. But the Civil War was even earlier, and that war still generates significant interest. So the problem is probably the seeming remoteness of the war’s effect on Americans. The Civil War was fought on our soil: World War I was not. U.S. involvement in World War II also started on our soil—or at least in a U.S. territory at a U.S. military base—when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and it took us by surprise. Our involvement in those wars also lasted longer and had more American casualties.*

Still, World War I was a significant episode in U.S. history, and it is worth remembering.

* * * * *

* The Civil War lasted for four years with approximately 625,000 casualties (Union and Confederate combined), and our involvement in World War II also lasted almost four years with just over 400,000 U.S. casualties. The U.S. involvement in World War I, in contrast, lasted less than two years (April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918) with less than 125,000 casualties.

Learning Our Heritage

Monday, August 5, 2013

Can you recite the U.S. Presidents in order? I can’t. But I can, and do, enjoy learning about them. Many people don’t realize how much history they can absorb just by visiting the Presidential Libraries spread across the country.
When Roland and I went on vacation last month, we spent the majority of it in Kansas City, Missouri. What is there to do in Kansas City, you ask? More than we had time for in six days. The vacation was actually eleven days because we made some other stops to and from, but Kansas City was our main destination.
Okay, so we aren’t into beach vacations. Well, Roland might be, but I’m not. Since we both enjoy learning about history, many of our trips have that as the focus. This one was no exception.
Our first stop was West Branch, Iowa, where we visited the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above). The library part of any Presidential Library is primarily a research facility, with that president’s papers as the backbone of a larger collection. These libraries are manna for biographers.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, like most, is also a museum, which is the part aimed at the general public. The exhibits show Herbert Hoover’s life and times and include many interesting tidbits. Did you know that Hoover met his wife while they were both geology students at Stanford University? In the late 1800s, that made Lou a very progressive woman.
Herbert Hoover’s birthplace is located in the same complex. The second picture shows the tiny house. Two small rooms for a family of five. 

The second day we were in Kansas City, we visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. The third picture is the building, and the fourth shows one of the exhibits: a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman's tenure.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. Even though Harry Truman and Bess Wallace knew each other since they were children, they did not get married until they were in their 30s. Bess’s well-to-do parents did not want her to marry Harry because he was just a farmer without a college education, and he was also a poor businessman. Guess they couldn’t see that presidential job coming . . . .

The U.S. government runs Presidential Libraries and Museums for every former President from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush. You can find their locations at this link: Some earlier Presidents also have Presidential Libraries and Museums run by private foundations. I’m aware of (and have visited) two: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum located in Springfield, Illinois, and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum located in Staunton, Virginia.

If you want to teach your children about their American heritage or learn about your own, check out the Presidential Libraries.