I know..it's been a long time since the latest post. Between packing up and moving away from DC, to a fantastic trip to Switzerland (simply too many pictures to post!) and finally getting to Bass Lake and starting the new job, it's been a very busy 2 months.

I've really enjoyed coming back to Bass Lake...we had visited a couple of times since we left,but it's been fun to look--and really see--all the things that have changed and all the things that have stayed the same over the last 6 years. I've had the good fortune to spend a day in the high country of Toulumne Meadows, and spent Saturday getting reacquainted with Yosemite Valley, the crown jewel of this area.

One of my goals for 2010 is to get back in the habit of posting new information here, including a good look around Bass Lake, Eastern Madera County, and an in-depth look at what we do here at Summit Adventure, so come back often in 2010.


This entry marks a significant transition to this blog, which was originally started while I was deployed to Italy (in case you didn't know.."Filatore" is "Spinner" in Italian; at least in my vocabulary.) and later morphed to highlight a major project (The "Picture A Day" project in 2007) I was involved in. When we moved to DC, it changed again to serve as a great avenue to indulge my interest in history and local attractions.

I've attempted to highlight some of the most significant, yet also entertaining, sites in the DC area, but I feel like I barely touched the surface. I've run out of time, and never got to tell the story of the Pope's contribution to the Washington Monument (it ended up in the Potomac River), or the man who built Haines Point, or the Congressional Cemetery, or a dozen other stories on my list. You'll just have to discover those for yourself.

As many of you know, this month also marks a transition for Ginger & me. My last day in the office in 2 October (tomorrow!), and I officially separate from the Navy at the end of November. It's been an interesting 5+ years--not what we expected, but then again, life rarely is. It's involved travel to areas far and wide, involvement in some of the most relevant issues of our day, periods of separation, new relationships, and times of hardship and struggle. It hasn't always been fun, or easy, or exciting, but we've gotten through with the love and support of many friends and family, of which we are eternally grateful.

I can summarize my time in the Navy by quoting John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, who said: "Any man who may be asked in this century, what he did to make his life worthwhile, can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, "I served in the United States Navy".

We're taking a month off and plan to travel during the month of October--we'll be in Switzerland (and maybe Austria/Italy as well) for much of that time. In November, I'll start work as the Operations Director at Summit Adventure, and we'll go about the business of establishing our life back in the beautiful Oakhurst/Bass Lake area.

This blog will continue, but will probably transition to highlight more of our personal life and adventures in the future. Stay tuned for more details, and when you come to visit, maybe you'll have your Internet 15 minutes of fame!

Thanks for reading, and sharing. We look forward to good times in the future.

August: The Case of the Missing Firehorse

I strongly believe that the best history stories are like a good work of fiction-interesting, suspenseful, and engaging to both your intellect and your emotions. And if it involves a person, place or subject that you know and care about--even better. Here's a little nugget I came across that fits most, if not all, of those criteria.

On 25 June 25, 1937, a small contingent of firemen, animal lovers, involved citizens and ordinary town folks gathered on a gentle rise near the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia. They were there to pay their last respects to a fallen firefighter, although this one had four legs. A large monument of Indiana limestone was hoisted into place over a grave, its surface engraved with "In Memory of Tom, Last Horse in the D.C.F.D.". Who was Tom? What happened to him? Why was he buried out there? More importantly, where is that grave now?

Once upon a time, before the invention of fire trucks and modern equipment, fire crews and wagons were pulled by firehorses. They had to be strong, and fast, and not easily spooked by the chaos and confusion of a fire scene. Much time and expense was incurred selecting a fire ser­vice horse. It was said that the animal that could fill the role of a fire service horse was a one-in-a-hundred selection. A firehorse represented a considerable investment in training time and money. The training of a firehorse took between, on average, one and two years, and some cities even had "horse colleges" where firehorses were trained.

Except when it was eating, a firehorse lived with a bit in its mouth. It had to be ready to go at all times. In those days, a fire alarm rang in every station simultaneously, but the specific pattern of bells indicated which station was to respond. A good firehorse could discern when its services were needed, and many would start kicking the stalls the moment they heard their unique call. Once harnessed, the three-horse team would burst from the station, ears back, nostrils gaping, muscles pumping. I'm sure there were few sights more stirring, or comforting (if it was your house burning), as a team of strong firehorses rounding a curve at full clip.

Fire Company 205 answers an alarm in Brooklyn (NY) on 20 Dec 1922 (all other photos in DC)

These horses were meticulously cared for and teams were matched in size, color and general appearance when possible. These animals became local celebrities with residents, especially children, who often brought their favorite firehorse treats, such as sugar cubes or apples, during the horse's daily exercise jaunt.

In the late 1800's, as many as 200 firehorses worked for the DC Fire Department, and every fire station included a stable and manure pit.

But progress waits for neither man nor beast. The D.C. fire department got its first motorcar in 1910. A year later, Engine Co. 24 opened on Georgia Avenue with a motorized pumper. It was also the first station built without a stable or manure pit. The horse era was ending.

In 1925, the last horse team -- Barney, Gene and Tom -- made a final ceremonial run. (It was captured on film and several pictures can be seen below.)

Barney, Gene and Tom on the final run

Out of the way chickens!

Some firehorses, when no longer needed, were transferred to the street cleaning department or sold to merchants who used them to haul goods, but firehorses were ill-suited for other kinds of work. They were trained to run, and react, and didn't like to stand on the sidelines. Many times, instinct would take over when they heard an alarm and they would tear off down the street. The lucky ones were put out to pasture at Blue Plains. (At the time, Blue Plains was a rural enclave that included an old folks' home, a paupers' burial ground and fields that ran down to the Potomac and Oxen Cove. It's on the east side of DC just across the Anacostia River.) Barney and Gene died at Blue Plains in 1932, but Tom lived for a few more years, appearing in Labor Day parades and, if the old stories are to be believed, cocking his head at the smell of smoke, wanting to get in on the action.

How Tom died is somewhat of a mystery. Firehouse legend has it that in June of 1937, Engine #25 was responding to a fire and travelling down Overlook Parkway (what would later become I-295). That section of road ran parallel the fence and pasture where Old Tom was enjoying his retirement. Tom, hearing the bells and seeing the hoses and fireman (his people!) and not quite knowing (or liking) the concept of retirement, went into action. In a heartbeat. Tom was running next to the road, stride for stride with the motorized truck as it sped down the road. Later that day, workers found Tom dead, his heart no longer up to the task of responding to his last alarm. It should be noted that this has not be verified, but it makes a good story.

Regardless of how he died, he was buried on that warm summer day in 1937. The 26 Jun edition of the Washington Post provides the details: Miss Virginia W. Sargent, president of the city's Animal Protective Association, was the principal speaker. Her group had spearheaded the effort to remember Tom. She lauded the horse's gentleness, courage and loyalty. Capt. Raymond E. Oden of Firehouse #25 praised Tom's long service. Private E. M. King sounded a final tribute: 27 notes on a fire engine gong, one for each year of Tom's life. Pictures of the event show schoolkids lined up around the new memorial stone.

Tragically, his monument was lost over the years. Somehow, no one knows, or remembers, where the monument was placed. Maybe it was moved in a bit of construction. (Ironically enough, much of the old Blue Plains retirement home was turned into the DC Fire Academy). Maybe someone found the monument and took it home. Maybe it is still there, grown over by brush and weeds, waiting to be discovered. . .

31 Days of History Conclusion

For each of the last 31 days, I've highlighted some historical person, place or thing that has a local connection to the DC area. In closing this month long experiment, there are a couple of points I'd like to make.

First, history is not just some isolated, one-time event that happened a long time ago. I firmly believe that who we are is a result of all the things that have come before us--personal decisions by our family and ancestors, political decisions from national leaders, environmental events, etc etc. Obviously, there is a large degree of personal initiative, but we are heavily influenced by what has come before. When
I read history, recent or ancient, local or distant, I always look for the personal connection. If you dig deep enough, it's always there.

Second, people have told me that it's easy to find history since we live in DC, but not so easy elsewhere. I'd have to disagree---there are connections to the past everywhere, but we tend to overlook them when it's in our own backyard. Look around your area--are the streets or neighborhoods named after certain people or places? When was the city started? Famous people from your area? How does your city/state/area fit into the larger scale of American history? Trust me--we are all connected somehow, it's just that sometimes those connections are harder to see.

Third, I'm glad the month is up. I need to break from blogging.

31 Days of History: 31 July

In 1990, Governor of Hawaii John Waihee proclaimed 31 July to be Ka Hae Hawaiʻi Day, or the Hawaiian Flag Day. It has been celebrated each year since then on this day.

Hawaii, the 50th state to be accepted into the Union on 21 August 1950, has a unique flag. It’s the only flag that has flown over a kingdom, a protectorate, a republic, a territory, and a state. It is also the only flag that incorporates the British Union Jack as part of its design—the Union Jack is a holdover of the period in Hawaiian history when it was a British protectorate (1794–1843).

The field of the flag is composed of nine horizontal stripes symbolizing the nine major islands that compose Hawaii (Hawaiʻi, Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Niʻihau and Nihoa).

There are various accounts of the how the flag came into the current design. The most commonly accepted version relates how King Kamehameha I flew a British flag, given to him by British explorer Captain George Vancouver, as a token of friendship with King George III. Kamehameha would often fly the flag from places of honor until one of his advisors noted that the British Flag could draw Hawaii into international conflict as his kingdom could be seen as an ally of the United Kingdom. During and after the War of 1812, a flag of the United States was raised over Kamehameha's home, but British officials objected to this as well. To placate the two nations, Kamehameha combined the two into a new creation.

King Kamehameha

(A brief bit of background: Kamehameha (1738-1819), also known as Kamehameha the Great, conquered the Hawaiian Islands and formally established the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1810. He was the first ruler to bring all the Hawaiian islands under central rule. His full name was Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea).

King Kamehameha's statue in the Capitol Visitors Center

The DC connection: In the United States Capitol, you can find the National Statuary Hall Collection. Congress has invited each state to select and make two statues of famous, noted individuals from each state and send them to the Capitol. With the addition of New Mexico's second statue in 2005, there are 100 statues scattered throughout the Capitol. (For example, you can find John C. Calhoun and Wade Hampton from South Carolina.) One of Hawaii’s statues is King Kamehameha, and it is the largest statue in the collection, weighing more than 6 tons. You can find it in the New Capitol Visitors Center.

Hawaii's other statue, Father Damien

So if you have a Hawaiian flag, today is the day to fly it proudly!

You can find 50 statues here.

31 Days of History: 30 July

On this day in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring "In God We Trust" to be the nation's official motto (there was no national motto prior). The law, P.L. 84-140, also mandated that the phrase be printed on all American paper currency. The phrase had been placed on U.S. coins since the Civil War and the Secretary of the Treasury, George Humphrey, suggested adding the phrase to paper currency as well.

This occurred two years after Eisenhower amended the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase "under God".

Of note, one possible origin of the phrase "In God We Trust" comes from Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the poem that would become the National Anthem. Written in 1814, the final stanza contains the phrase:"...And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust'."

The arguments supporting and opposing the phrase are varied. Consider the following:

President Eisenhower wrote, "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future. . ."

The 84th United States Congress had required that the words appear on all currency, as a Cold War measure; a sort of religious safety valve. "It is proper to remind all of us of this self-evident truth--that as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail."

President Theodore Roosevelt took issue with placing the motto on coinage as he considered it sacrilegious to put the name of God on money. Roosevelt wrote, "it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements."

The "Establishment Clause of the First Amendment" states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Critics contend that the motto's placement on money constitutes the "establishment" of a religion by the government. However, the Supreme Court has upheld the motto because it has "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content".

The first paper money with the phrase "In God We Trust" was not printed until 1957.

The argument over the appropriateness of that motto has been raging ever since.

31 Days of History: 29 July

On this day, 29 July 1862 (147 years ago) Confederate spy Marie Isabella "Belle" Boyd is arrested by Union troops and detained at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. It was the first of three arrests for this skilled spy who provided crucial information to the Confederates during the war. Throughout the War, she became known as the “Cleopatra of the Secession”.

Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd was just 17 when the war began. She was from a prominent slaveholding family in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), in the Shenandoah Valley. On 4 July 1861, a band of Union army soldiers broke into her home, intent on raising the U.S. flag over the house. When one of them pushed her mother, Belle drew a pistol and killed him. A board of inquiry exonerated her, but sentries were posted around the house and officers kept close track of her activities. She profited from this enforced familiarity, charming at least one of the officers into revealing military secrets. "To him," she wrote later, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and a great deal of important information." Belle conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watch case.

After the shooting incident, Boyd realized she could use her “natural gifts” to further the Confederacy. She used her “charms” to engage Union soldiers and officers in conversations and acquire information about Federal military affairs (Historical documents of the day claim she was not blessed with a pretty face, but she was particularly noted for having the best looking ankles around!). As one record states, “She looked at men through her long lashes, assuring them that she had no intentions hostile to the North, while she stole whatever secrets were at hand and filched others practically from their pockets.” Suspecting her of spying, Union officers banished Boyd further south in the Shenandoah, to Front Royal Virginia, in March 1862.

One evening in mid-May 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel. Belle hid upstairs, eavesdropping through a knothole in the floor. She learned that Shields had been ordered east from Front Royal, Virginia, a move that would reduce the Union Army's strength at Front Royal. That night, Belle rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on 23 May, Belle ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson's men. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that, "the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all." Jackson did and the Union soldiers were routed and thoroughly defeated. That evening, Gen Jackson penned a note of gratitude to her: "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today." For her contributions, Boyd was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. (It should be noted that Virginia Code section 18.2-176(b) still remains in effect-making it a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $500, to "wear any Southern Cross of Honor when not entitled to do so by the regulations under which such Crosses of Honor are given.")

The Southern Cross of Honor

Before she reached twenty-one, Boyd had been imprisoned twice, "reported" nearly thirty times, and arrested six or seven. After her lover (read: source) gave her up, Belle Boyd was arrested on 29 July 1862, and brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Her incarceration was evidently of limited hardship, as she was given many special considerations, and even she became engaged to a fellow prisoner! Upon her release one month later, she was shipped under a flag of truce to Richmond.

(Historical detour: The Old Capitol Prison was a former boarding house which was turned into a prison during the Civil War. John C. Calhoun, South Carolina politician, former Vice President of the US and one of the leading advocates of slavery and states’ rights died of tuberculosis in the boarding house in May 1850. It was demolished in 1929 and the US Supreme Court was built on the property.)

The Old Capitol Prison and John C. Calhoun

After a second imprisonment, Boyd became a courier of secret messages to Great Britain (the Confederacy was seeking recognition from European countries. In 1864, her ship was captured off the coast of North Carolina, and the ship and crew were taken to New York. Captain Samuel Hardinge, of the USS Connecticut, took command of Boyd's vessel, but when the ship made port in NYC, he was seen dining and shopping with Belle Boyd, his “prisoner”. He followed her to London, and they were married soon after. (There is some evidence that he was relieved from naval service as a result of his conduct with Belle Boyd.)

Boyd was widowed soon after the end of the war, but the union produced one child. Still just 21, Boyd parlayed her spying experiences into a book and an acting career, and was perhaps telling the truth when she wrote, “"A true woman always loves a real soldier.". She died in Wisconsin (!) in 1900.

Belle Boyd's book, published in 1865

To read a detailed account of Belle Boyd’s activities, click here:

31 Days of History: 28 July

On this day in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is passed, establishing African-American citizenship and guaranteeing due process of law.

As a brief reminder, the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It is the foundation and source of the legal authority underlying the existence of the US and it provides the framework for the three main branches of the government: executive, legislative and judicial.

The Constitution was adopted on 17 September 1787, by the Constitutional Convention (or Constitutional Congress]) in Philadelphia and later ratified by conventions in each state. It has been amended (or modified) twenty-seven times. As mentioned earlier, the handwritten original document is on display at the National Archives.

The 14th Amendment, along with the 13th and 15th, are called the “Reconstruction Amendments”, as they were adopted during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The 14th Amendment represented a significant reversal of the Dred Scott decision (Dred Scott v. Sanford; 1857) which ruled that black people (more specifically, people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants) were not and could not become citizens of the United States, were not protected by the Constitution, nor could they enjoy any of the privileges and immunities of citizenship. Dred Scott also established the slaves were private property of the slave owner.

FYI: The 13th Amendment officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and indentured servanthood, while the 15th Amendment prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (i.e., slavery).”

31 Days of History: 27 July

On this day in 1909, exactly 100 years ago today, 1909 - Orville Wright set a record for the longest airplane flight. He was testing the first Army airplane and kept it in the air for 1 hour 12 minutes and 40 seconds—this flight took place at Ft Myers, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.

I’ve written about Ft Myer (here and here) in the past—it’s where we stayed for 10 days when we first moved to town and were looking for a place to live. It’s an exceedingly small but exceedingly immaculate base—due primarily to its location (immediately adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery), it’s occupants (the Joint Chiefs of Staff and much of the higher Army brass live here) and place in US history.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were two brothers who are generally credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained flight on 17 December 1903. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed wing flight possible

Orville (left) and Wilbur (right) Wright

After the successful flight of the “Wright Flyer I” at Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, NC, the Wright brothers continued to refine their technology and applied for a US Patent in 1906 for a "Flying Machine". As mentioned in the post on 25 July, patent applications required demonstrations.

The Wright Flyer I takes flight at Kitty Hawk

Orville demonstrated their invention to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, on 3 September 1908. It was so successful that on 17 September, Orville had another flight and took Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge along as his passenger, serving as an official observer. Unfortunately, a few minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 100 feet, a propeller split and shattered, sending the aircraft out of control and crashing to the ground. Selfridge suffered a fractured skull in the crash and died that evening in the nearby Army hospital, becoming the first fatality of an airplane crash. Orville was badly injured, suffering a broken left leg and four broken ribs. Seven weeks of hospital rehabilitation followed.

After the crash. . .

Lt. Thomas Selfridge

If you’d like to read the description of the event from the New York Times, click here:

A final flight followed in July 1909 which satisfied the demands of the Patent Office and US Army. They sold the aircraft to the Army's Signal Corps for $30,000.

It should be noted that on 25 May 1910, Orville & Wilbur took a 6 minute flight together, the time the Wright brothers ever flew together. They had promised their father they would never fly together to avoid the chance of a double tragedy. After that flight, Orville took his 82-year old father (Milton) on a nearly seven-minute flight, the first and only one of his life. The airplane rose to about 350 feet while the elderly Wright called to his son, "Higher, Orville, higher!"

31 Days of History: 26 July

Charles E. Bolles was an English-born immigrant who settled in New York when his family came to the United States in 1831. In late 1849, Bolles and his cousin took part in the California Gold Rush, eventually ending up on the North Fork of the American River in northern California. After an unsuccessful attempt at mining gold, Bolles returned east where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Johnson in 1854. By 1860, the couple had made their home in Decatur, Illinois.

Charles E. Bolles

On 13 August 1862, Bolles enlisted as a private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment. He was an adequate soldier, taking part in numerous battles and campaigns and was discharged on 7 June 1865 in Washington, D.C. (there’s your only connection to DC for today). He returned home to his wife in Illinois, but the quiet life of farming held little appeal to him. Two years later, he had left to prospect for gold in Idaho and Montana, promising to write to his wife when he “struck it rich”. In an August 1871 letter to his wife he mentioned an unpleasant incident with the Wells Fargo Bank and vowed to “pay them back”. That was his last letter; he stopped writing and never made contact again with his wife. She could only assume he was dead.

Time moves on, and the scenery moves west. It is 1875, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. The Wells Fargo Bank was extremely profitable, and their famous stagecoaches carried large sums of money throughout the west. As a stagecoach slowly winds through the mountain passes, the driver is forced to stop at the sight of a man standing confidently in the middle of the road. He wears a long dirty coat and has a flour sack over his head with a pair of holes cut for the eyes and brandishes a double-barreled 12 gauge shotgun. He politely tells the driver, “Please throw down the box”. The legend of Black Bart-the nicest, most polite, mild-mannered and articulate-stagecoach robber in history- is born.

Here’s where things gets even more interesting. In the early 1870s, the Sacramento Union (a local newspaper) ran a serial-style adventure series called The Case of Summerfield. In the story, the villain, who dressed in black, had long unruly black hair, a large black beard and wild grey eyes, would rob Wells Fargo stagecoaches and brought great fear into those who were unlucky enough to cross him. The character's name was Black Bart, and apparently life decided to imitate art, as “someone” brought Black Bart to life.

Between 1875 and 1883, at least 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches were robbed across northern California and Oregon. Black Bart was having a very successful career and made off with thousands of dollars a year. To make things more interesting, he began to leave poems at the sites of his crimes as his “signature”. Here are a couple of his poems:

"I've labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you've tread,
You fine-haired sons-of-bitches.”


"Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow.
Yet come what will, I'll try it once,
My conditions can't be worse,
And if there's money in that box,
'Tis money in my purse.”

Wells Fargo was not content to let these crimes continue. In the 1870’s, they hired James Hume, one of the West’s most prominent detectives and lawmen, as a Special Agent. Hume would spend much of the next 8 years tracking Black Bart. He visited the sites of all the robberies and patiently put together a valuable list of information, interviewing all of the witnesses and Wells Fargo employees that had any connection to the crimes. As hard as he worked, he could never catch Black Bart, who on at least one occasion, told the stagecoach driver (as he was leaving with the cash), “Give my regards to Detective Hume.”

The big break came on 3 November 1883. In the process of robbing a stagecoach outside of Sonoma, Black Bart was wounded by a Wells Fargo driver and fled the scene of the crime. A bloody-handkerchief was left behind with the laundry mark “F.X.0.7”. With this evidence, Hume decided to visit every laundry in California if he had to, starting in San Francisco (that’s where he lived and worked). After visiting 56 laundries, he hit paydirt: the “F.X.0.7” mark was identified as belonging to “C.E. Bolton”, a man who lived in a hotel on Second Street. The arrest of Black Bart was at hand.

James Hume

Bolton described himself as a "mining engineer" and made frequent "business trips" that happened to coincide with the Wells Fargo robberies. After initially denying he was Black Bart, Bolton eventually confessed. When booked, he gave his name as “T. Z. Spalding” but the police found a Bible among his possessions, a gift from his wife, inscribed with his real name: Charles E. Bolles.

Black Bart, aka C.E. Bolton, aka Charles E. Bolles

Bolles was convicted and sentenced to six years in San Quentin Prison, but his stay was shortened to four years for good behavior. When he was released in January 1888, his health had clearly deteriorated-he had visibly aged, his eyesight was failing, and he had gone deaf in one ear. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released. They asked if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches. "No, gentlemen," he replied with a smile. "I'm through with crime."

Bolles disappeared without a trace shortly after his release from prison. His San Francisco boarding-house room was found vacated in February 1888 and he was never seen again. However, one 14 November 1888 (7 months later) another Wells Fargo stagecoach was robbed by a masked highwayman. The lone bandit left a verse that read:

“So here I've stood while wind and rain
Have set the trees a-sobbin,'
And risked my life for that damned box,
That wasn't worth the robbin'”

Once again, Detective Hume was called to examine the note. After comparing it with the Black Bart poetry from the past, he declared the new poetry was the work of a copycat criminal and declared the case closed. No sign of Black Bart, real or imagined, was ever seen again.

31 Days of History: 25 July

On this day in 1966, two men, Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert, were at the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (California). They walked over to the edge, enjoyed the view, and hurled themselves into the abyss. Pelkey and Schubert are credited with making the first BASE jump (BASE is an acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: Bridges, Antennas, Spans and Earth) from El Cap. How does that have a connection to Washington, DC? Keep reading to find out. . .

El Cap; Yosemite National Park

Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert; 1966

Over the edge...

The idea of a parachute—using a device to slow the fall of an object to earth, has been around for hundreds of years. Leonardo Da Vinci composed early sketches of a parachute, and early demonstrations of a parachute occurred as far back as 1617. These were very rare, and the parachute didn’t enter mainstream though until the late 1700’s. A few brave (very brave) souls demonstrated the parachute, mainly from hot air balloons throughout the 1800’s, but the design and execution was less than perfect.

Fausto Veranzio’s early design for a parachutes;1595

Case in point: In 1912, Franz Reichelt, a tailor, jumped from the Eiffel Tower to testing his invention, the coat parachute. Unfortunately, his coat parachute didn’t work, and he died in the attempt. (It was his first ever attempt with the parachute and he had told the authorities in advance he would test it first with a dummy. He didn't, but simply tried it himself first! Maybe he was the dummy?)

Franz Reichelt in his "Overcoat Parachute"; 1912

Enter Stefan Banic (23 Nov 1870-2 Jan 1941). Banic was a Slovakian immigrant to the US and who worked as a coal miner, stone mason and as an employee of the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company. In 1912, Banic witnessed a tragic accident (he never provided additional details) that impressed (terrified?) him so much that he started to think about the construction of a “modern” parachute. By 1913, Banic had constructed a prototype of a parachute in 1913 and submitted it to the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. At the time, patent law required either a model (for some larger items, a full scale example wasn’t practical) or a demonstration. Patent officials and military representatives were present to watch Banic leap from a tall building and float safely to the ground! Banič received a U.S. Patent (No. 1,108,484) for his invention, but donated it to the US Army Air Corps and received little fame and no fortune his creation. After World War I Banič returned to Slovakia and disappeared from the realms of history.

Stefan Banic; c. 1913

(A side note to clarify a historical aberration. Some stories claim Banic jumped from a 41-floor building to demonstrate his parachute. If you are even a casual spectator of DC, you’ll recognize that the highest structure in DC is the Washington Monument (at 555’). As a matter of fact, DC has a law, the “Height of Buildings Act” which legally restricts the size of DC buildings—no building will ever be taller than the Washington Monument. Banic couldn’t have jumped from a 41-story building, because there never have been and never will be a 41-story building in DC! Most of the larger buildings are in the 10-14 story range, which makes one wonder if some ancient scribe accidently turned “14” into “41”?).

It’s not my desire or intention to give a detailed account of how BASE jumping evolved into what many call “the original extreme sport”; if you desire that info, you could find it here:

Which takes us back to Yosemite. . .The technology that Pelkey and Schubert used to BASE jump from El Cap is a direct descendent of what happened in Washington, DC 96 years ago. The next time you want to go for a BASE jump, think of Stefan Banic.

One final bit of housekeeping: BASE jumping in Yosemite was prohibited in 1980, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, it just means you can get arrested, spend a night in jail, and get fined $2,000 if you are caught. As a matter of fact, shortly after we moved to the Yosemite area in 1999, a female BASE jumper from the San Francisco Bay area, Jan Davis, planned on making a “protest jump” to highlight what she perceived as unfair treatment BASE jumpers were receiving from the National Park Service. She contacted the NPS, along with many members of the media, and wore a striped “jail outfit” to make her point. In what can only be described as tragic irony, her chute didn’t open and she died in the attempt. The picture below was taking by her husband (!) as she hurled herself into eternity. . .

You can read an blurb in Outside magazine about the event here:

If you'd like to read about the first jump from El Cap, click here: