Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Brief History of Various Animals Being Shoved Down the Broughton Log Flume

Related image
The Broughton Log Flume was constructed between 1913 and 1923 and ceased operation in 1986. The flume was a 9-mile-long trough of flowing water that carried rough cut timber down from a sawmill at Willard, Washington, to a planer mill at Underwood, along the Columbia River (this map link shows the locations of each, but the route shown is that of the road, not the flume). This webpage is chock-full of historic images and information about the flume. Log flumes such as this were once common in the western timber regions (Wikipedia article). The Broughton Flume was the very last of its kind and seems to have been something of a tourist attraction. Its closure in 1986 drew the attention of the New York Times.

Nevermind the history, though--the cool thing about the Broughton Log Flume is that it was twice used to film TV shows that featured animals taking a ride down the flume. First, was Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, in what seems to have been a trippy (and short-lived) 1976 television show:

That same year, Lassie tried her luck on the flume:

In many places in the American West, such nineteenth-century timbering methods as log flumes, splash dams, and driving logs down rivers continued well into the 20th century, and there is a surprising amount of historic film footage of these activities on YouTube. Today the remnants of the structure continue to be a tourist attraction--but you can't ride the flume anymore.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Lone Confederate (and the Lost Cause) in Eastern Oregon

Behold the headstone of Thomas Carter Steele, who died in 1878 in Prairie City, Oregon, a long ways from home.

A recent discussion about cemeteries and veteran's grave markers got me to thinking about Civil War veterans here in the Inland Northwest. In eastern Washington, in particular, white colonizers arrived in numbers in the decades immediately after the war, and so it is hardly surprising that there many of the men were Civil War veterans. The little rural cemeteries of our region are dotted with the distinctive white headstones placed by the War Department to recognize veterans' graves. The Civil War soldiers beneath the white stones are veterans of the United States, not Confederate veterans, who after all fought for the other side. Former Confederates did settle in the Pacific Northwest, but when they died they were not entitled to the War Department headstones.

So I was curious when I spotted this headstone in Prairie City. "PVT Thomas Carter Steele," it reads, and identifies Steels as a veteran of Company D of the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles. The stone was obviously more recent than the 1878 date of death. Oftentimes the War Department stones are set beside an older, traditional headstone, but that was not the case here--this is the only marker for Steele, who would otherwise be forgotten entirely. I wondered how it got there, and about the man who lies underneath,

A quick search reveals that the headstone was erected in 2001 by the Varina Howell Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, along with some local UDC and Sons of Confederate Veterans chapters. An old Angelfire webpage features some tiny photographs of the dedication, along with an invitation to "Come and give a Big Rebel Yell for a real Confederate Hero!" The dedication seems to have been quite the event, with reenactors in costume, speeches, and a bluegrass concert and dinner at the Prairie City Grange Hall. Someone even brought a cake.

Treason cake!
The website also includes a biography of Steele, which is fascinating. The ninth of thirteen children, he married in 1857 and joined the Confederate States Army in 1861. Steele fell sick and spent more than a year in hospitals in Chattanooga and Murfreesboro. He rejoined the CSA just in time to be captured at the Battle of Chickamauga and spent the rest of the conflict in a prisoner of war camp in Chicago. The decidedly Lost Cause narrative tells us that "Thomas suffered greatly while in prison. The scarcity of food, extreme cold and lack of sanitation would follow him throughout the rest of his life."

Steele and his family made the six-month journey on the Oregon Trail in 1877. This is late for travel on the Oregon Trail, which experienced the great bulk of migration from 1846 to the late 1860s. It is not known what drew the Steeles to the area, but it may well have been friends or family who had already settled in the region, as Prairie City grew out of an earlier mining camp named Dixie. Steele, who had tuberculosis, might also have been seeking a drier climate to improve his health.

The change did not help. It must have been a brutal first winter for the family, which included Steele's wife Mary Jane and their ten-year-old daughter. Snow was already flying when the Steeles arrived in Prairie City. It is easy to imagine the family, exhausted by the six-month journey, huddling in a primitive cabin or tent as the unfamiliar snow of the high desert piles up outside, punctuated by the worrisome and constant coughing of the tubercular father. By spring Thomas was dead. He was only 40 years old. Oregon was not much kinder to Mary Jane. She remarried in 1879 but died the next year, apparently from complications of childbirth. The newspaper noted that "she left two babies two weeks old." 

Confederate memorial in Seattle's
Capitol Hill cemetery, with commentary

This lone confederate grave in the Oregon desert points towards some under-appreciated aspects of Northwest History (grad students looking for topics, are you listening?). The first is the migrations of southerners and outright Confederates into the region. The Civil War had a greater impact here, and the population was more divided in its loyalties, that is generally appreciated. Well after the war a few areas within our region maintained a southern flavor.

Another underexplored topic is the continuation of a Lost Cause narrative in the Pacific Northwest. The 2001 dedication of the grave of Thomas Carter Steele was organized and attended by UDC and SCV chapters in the Pacific Northwest--there was at that time, for example, an SCV chapter at the Dalles. Six SCV "camps" remain in existence in the PNW. There are also a surprising number of Confederate monuments and place names in the region.

Finally, this little exercise illustrates the power of cemeteries to tell the stories of local history. As with so many places in rural America, the cemetery at Prairie City has far more residents that the town of Prairie City. Cemeteries were meant to be monuments and reminders for future generations, and read collectively they still tell the stories of these communities. The demographic information on headstones can also be leveraged with digital resources to uncover forgotten aspects of the past.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Spokane Historical at 500 (Stories)

In 2012, my students and I launched a modest digital project: Spokane Historical, a website and smartphone app for local history. It was a shameless knockoff of a similar project in Cleveland, and in fact we licensed their software. Students in my digital history class researched and wrote 30 stories of local history (mostly in the downtown core) and we put them online. It was kind of cool:

Ye olde Spokane Historical, 2012.

We got some nice local publicity, and my bosses seemed to like it, so I kept having students write Spokane Historical stories each quarter. The stories online grew from 30 to 60 and more. At first I wondered if we would run out of stories, but as I came (through the writing of my students) to know the city better, I realized that would never be the case. The chronological and geographic range of the stories expanded as well. This spring we posted our 500th story: Chief Skolaskin: Dreamer-Prophet and Political Prisoner by Nicolle Southwick.

This seems a good point at which to stop and reflect a bit on this remarkable project--how it began, how it has shaped my teaching and career, and where it might go next.

In the summer of 2008 I quit my job as a tenured professor at Missouri Southern State University to take on a new, joint position at Eastern Washington University and the Washington State Archives. Digital Archives. The job was to revive the Public History program at EWU and to use it as a bridge for collaborations with the Digital Archives.

I was looking for a digital project to do with my students. The "Jesus phone"--the first iPhone--had recently come out, and it occurred to me that with if people were going to be walking around with personal computers in their pockets, ones that connected to the internet and included GPS locations, there ought to be a way to use those for place-based storytelling. Somehow.
Image result for jesus iphone
The next year I attended the Museums+Mobile conference, a two-day virtual conference to connect museum types with IT types. The second day was mostly vendor presentations along the lines of "Here is a neat platform we built to sell tacos but you could use it for history!" The platforms were either not quite suited for history work, or expensive, or were in the business of getting you to provide free content so they could sell it. My mind was turning with ideas that I did not know how to implement.

(I should add here that I do not code, or know how to query a SQL database, or anything like that. My training is in ethnohistory.)

A few months later I was at the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola. At a random dinner I met a friend of friend named Mark Tebeau, then a history professor at Cleveland State University. He showed me his digital project--a smartphone app called Cleveland Historical. I was entranced--this was exactly what I had been looking for. I asked if there was a chance to adapt the software to other communities. He answered that he had come to Pensacola looking for such partnerships. The next year Spokane Historical was launched, using Mark's Curatescape platform.

Spokane Historical transformed my teaching. Writing Spokane Historical stories became the go-to assignment in all my classes. In a digital history class, students will produce rich stories with multimedia like this one. In other public history classes, the story assignments will be simpler, requiring only text and images. The Spokane Historical story assignment fills a lot of public history pedagogical goals. Students learn the importance of place. They learn to do the kind of fine-grained local research that is common in public history, consulting property deeds, newspapers, oral histories and the like. They learn how to write for a public audience--"Tell a bigger story, using fewer words!" I tell them.

EWU students learning archival research at the Eastern Region Branch of the
Washington State Archives,  guided by Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld.

The digital aspects of the Spokane Historical assignment are also instructive. Students learn about copyright and permissions. They master some basic tasks like cropping and resizing photos and working with a database. In the digital courses they conduct oral histories and edit audio and video.

Each time I teach a public history class I work with a community partner, and Spokane Historical is often the means of our collaboration. My students have partnered with local museums, community advocacy organizations, local governments, and the National Park Service. Spokane Historical has greatly increased the reputation and visibility of my department and university. And Spokane Historical has taught me about my community. And we get to go on trips! Most classes include a field trip or two to the neighborhood or other place that we are interpreting that quarter. I am not from Spokane, and when I took this job I knew next to nothing about its history. After five years of editing stories, I have a pretty solid knowledge base, one that helps me in other public history work. Thanks, students.

There have been some downsides. When I began this project I was naive about the amount of editing that is required to bring student work up to a publishable quality. Fortunately, my department and the state archives provide funding for two graduate assistants to be assigned to the archives and public history program. Students like Julie Russell, Lee Nilsson, Frank Oesterheld, Anna Harbine, Zach Wnek, Allie Honican, Logan Camporeale, Charlie Byers, Josh Van Veldhuizen and others have edited hundreds of stories, untangling prose, hunting down additional images, and organizing stories into tours. Without their help I would have given up on this project after the first year.

The great visibility of Spokane Historical means that I am often mistaken for the historical society. Every week I get at least one email from a stranger who found Spokane Historical. Can I accept a donation of grandma's photo album? Can I help research a History Day exhibit or a genealogical project? Just this morning a Canadian Scholar asked what more I knew about A.K. Mozumdar.  Sometimes they skip the email and just mail me something--an unidentified 100-year-old photograph of a woman that was taken in Spokane Falls, or a collection of yearbooks from Hillyard High School in the 1910s. I forward these queries to people who know more than I do and the objects to the local museum.
Do you know me? This showed
up in the mail one day.

And there have been professional advantages as well. Because of Spokane Historical, I have been able to serve on NEH review panels, been approached to review books on regional history, given guest lectures, put together conference presentations, and am even sometimes mistaken for a digital historian. When it was time to go up for promotion to full professor, I put forth Spokane Historical as my major piece of scholarship, equivalent to a peer-reviewed monograph. There was a little push back, but with some strong letters of support from public historians at other institutions (thanks guys) I received the promotion.

It has been a wonderful five year ride, with no end in sight. The Curatescape platform has continued to evolve, and the partnerships keep branching out. In this past year we worked with Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area to create two historical tours of their unit, a project which also led to one of the students getting a National Park Service job after she graduated.

At some point it might make sense to export the project into GIS or something. We will see what the future holds. For now, though, it is more great student stories on Spokane Historical.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Whatever Happened to Dick Slocum?

On my way back from a recent conference in Boise, I stopped at a little thrift store in Uniontown, WA, to stretch my legs and look around. A plastic bag labeled "Old Record from Military Man to Family" caught my eye. I bought it.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, indoor

The record came in a custom mailing envelope from the American Safety Razor Corporation and was postmarked from San Francisco, California in 1942. Addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Slocum in Priest River, Idaho, and with a return address of simply "Richard" it was obviously a something a son had recorded as he went off to war in the Pacific Theater. The graphics of the envelope and the record itself are interesting. Men and women, soldiers and civilians, link arms around the record, showing unity of purpose. Above their heads are the slogans "Buy Stamps" and "Buy Bonds."

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling

The back of the disc features "Authentic scenes of Gem Blade reporters making thousands of free voice-o-graphs throughout the nation."

Image may contain: 7 people, people smiling

The Museum of Obsolete Media tells us that Voice-O-Graphs was "a recording system about the size of a telephone box that allowed people to record their voices directly onto a phonograph disc." Developed just before the Second World War broke out, companies like Gem Razor hit on the idea of providing free recording booths at military training centers, along with "reporters" to help soldiers use the unfamiliar technology. It is not clear how many soldiers recorded their messages in this way, but from the prevalence of these recordings on Ebay and the like it must have been tens or hundreds of thousands. The recording machines became popular novelty items at carnivals and the like into the 1960s. Today, roots rocker Jack White has a restored 1947 Voice-O-Graph at his Memphis Record store, where patrons can record their own discs for $20. (You can listen to some of these modern recordings at the link.)

“ Soldiers of Hispanic descent were integral in the war effort overseas and at home. Special Services soldiers stationed at the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation during World War II made a difference in the morale of soldiers...
Hispanic soldiers at a Voices of Victory mobile recording studio in Riverside,
California. Image courtesy of the National Archives.
So what about our Richard Slocum and his record? I wondered if it was even playable, and if I had any gear on which to play it. The record itself reads: "Play this on any phonograph--Use any needle." Sounded encouraging. I have a turntable that has settings for 33 and 45 rpms, both of which proved too slow. With a finger assist to speed it up, however, I was able to play the record so that it was perfectly audible. Check it out!

"Hi Mom and Pop! Boy it sure is swell down here, we're having a fine time." Dick begins. "I guess you won't have me home this Christmas but we'll be home next anyway, so what's the difference?" He mentions some fellow sailors from his hometown (he calls them and himself "kids") and sends well wishes to friends and relatives. "I'll be seeing you whenever I get my first leave. So long." he concludes. The recording is brief and poignant. He is so young, so optimistic. It is as if the war is a lark to him, and he has little idea what he is entering into.

So what happened to our young blue jacket from Priest River? Unlike the last time I tried to follow up a local boy setting out to the Second World War, I am not sure. Richard Slocum is a more common name than you might think, and I am really not very skilled with and similar resources.

So I ask you, Dear Readers, what happened to Dick Slocum? Where was he deployed? Did he survive the war? Marry and settle down? And does he have surviving ancestors, who might like to hear this record? Anyone want to take a crack at telling the rest of the story?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Digitized 78s at the Internet Archive

Ladies and Gents, Dear Readers, I present to you, direct from 1924, The Walla Walla Fox Trot:

This goofy gem is actually from a popular Broadway musical of that year, Flossie. It is one of 25,000 records digitized by a Philadelphia company, George Blood Audio LP. The the George Blood collection is now a part of The Great 78 Project, which describes itself like so:

The Great 78 Project is a community project for the preservationresearch and discovery of 78rpm records. From about 1898 to the 1950s, an estimated 3 million sides (~3 minute recordings) have been made on 78rpm discs. While the commercially viable recordings will have been restored or remastered onto LP’s or CD, there is still research value in the artifacts and usage evidence in the often rare 78rpm discs and recordings.

Here is the landing page of the George Blood collection, where I found this little gem. Like the wax cylinder recording archives I have blogged about before (Wax Cylinder Recordings Online and Exploring turn-of-the-century social history via wax cylinders), this is another great resource for exploring the past--and also for free music to use in podcasts and the like.

Explore! You might fine something like "Pussy Pussy Pussy" from the Light Crust Doughboys:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Documentary on the Spokane Indians in the War of 1858

Except for the one joker who comes on at minute eight, this documentary about the Spokane Tribe in the War of 1858 is quite good.

A little background: This documentary was funded by the Wellpinit School District and was approved by the Spokane Tribe. Varius Media made the film, which was directed by Trask McFarland.  It explicitly views the war from the point of view of the Spokane Indians, which is long overdue. Some of the details that come from the native experts who are interviewed are things I had not heard before. I was moved to hear Spokanes singing the death song that was first sung by a member of their tribe before Wright had him hanged. It is amazing that this song has been remembered and performed for 170 years.

My own involvement with the film was not extensive--I was interviewed for a couple of hours, out of which they used two snippets. Which is fine--the film maker put the native voices front and center, as they should. It is also good that they used my friend Don Cutler to frame the events of the war, as his new book on the conflict is great.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Tweeting Spokane's Great Fire of 1889

Anna Harbine, Tom McArthur, Logan Camporeale and Katie Enders tweeting
the Great Fire of 1889 at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Here is a fun project that came together quickly, and is going live even as I type: Spokane historians to re-enact the city’s great 1889 fire, on Twitter.

On August 4th, 1889, the frontier city of Spokane pretty much burned to the ground. The fire could not have been more dramatic. The blaze started at 6 p.m. and Spokanites were confident that their new, state-of-the-art fire fighting equipment would take care of it. But the city official in charge of the water works was off fishing, and a mechanical failure deprived the firefighters of water. The inferno raged into the night, as a firestorm devoured the entire downtown in about three hours. The scene was chaotic--a burning man leapt from the second story of a hotel, while the mayor rode through the crowd on horseback looking for someone who could fix the water system. The next day Spokane was a pile of smoking ruins.

Dramatized view of the Spokane Fire from a 1930s bank mural, now at
the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture
The story has everything you need for a great digital history project, including drama, tons of contemporary documentation including newspaper reports, letters, photographs of the ruins, and artistic representations. So when a local history enthusiast, Tom McArthur, contacted me with the idea for live-tweeting the event I knew it was a good one. However, he came up with the idea on Monday night, and the fire anniversary was Friday. Could we pull it together that quickly?

I shared the idea with some local historians and institutions, including two employees of the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, Anna Harbine and Logan Camporeale. They loved the idea, and quickly obtained permission for the museum to spearhead the effort and to use their Twitter feed.

So yesterday we met at the museum for about two hours and hammered out the tweets. Harbine, the museum archivist, had a long table ready with writings and photographs about the fire. Harbine and Comporeale were there, along with Katie Enders from the Spokane Historic Preservation Office, Tom McArthur, two people from the museum's marketing and social media, and Spokesman reporter John Webster. We agreed on a hashtag of #greatfire1889. We talked a little bit about some of the issues and agreed to tweet in the present tense, to do things in real time as much as possible, and to tweet about the fire from August 6 to a somewhat arbitrary end point of August 14th. We created a shared Google Doc and started punching out the tweets.

It was a blast. We each worked from a different resource about the fire, books and letters and newspaper articles, and pulled out striking and dramatic bits. The 144-character limit of Twitter was not as much of a problem as I would have thought, and we quickly figured out that 144 characters equaled about one-and-a-half lines on the Google Doc. We tried to keep the Tweets roughly chronological as we added them to the document. The Google Doc had the great advantage of allowing everyone to see what the others were working on and avoiding duplicate tweets on the same subject. We added brief citation notes to each tweet, not to be tweeted but to document where we had found the information in case there were questions later. We also looked at some of the dramatic photographs that Harbine had identified from the collections and wrote tweets to highlight those images.

After ninety minutes or so we had in excess of thirty tweets that did a really nice job of telling the story of the fire. Camporeale then assigned times to each tweet. The tweets went into Hootsuite, a social media tool that allows one to schedule tweets in advance, each set to be tweeted at the right time.

Honestly I went into the meeting yesterday thinking that we would agree that it was too late to launch such a project for the next day and we should do it next year. But the enthusiasm of the MAC employees swept us all along.

Live tweeting a historical event would make a great classroom project for digital and public history courses. This presentation lays out how they did a similar project on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has some good tips. Here are the steps as I see it:

  1. Pick a historical event. Something dramatic, well-documented, and with contemporary interest. It needs to be an event that took place over a few days, not months. Choose a time period that you will be tweeting, maybe 3-7 days?
  2. Choose a hashtag. Make sure that it has not been taken.
  3. Assemble some resources. It really worked well to have different people pulling their tweets out of different sources. Resources could be a mix of physical and digital, with digitized books and newspapers offering a rich set of perspectives. Make a Google Doc with links to the digital resources.
  4. Write the tweets. If I were working with a larger class, I would organize the Google Doc a bit in advance by making headings for each days tweets. Encourage students to find relevant images to attach to the tweets.
  5. Schedule the tweets with Hootsuite or a similar social media manager.
Publicity is also a concern. Which Twitter account will be used? Who will retweet the tweets? Can you get local media interested? In the #greatfire1889 project we lucked out that the local newspaper took and immediate interest. In fact, our project was on the top of the front page today:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Greetings from Boise

Traditional Basque dancing at the NAGARA closing party in Boise.

I am here in Boise at the tale end of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators Annual Conference. A few highlights:

1. The conference has been terrific. Some very interesting sessions, but more valuable to me have been the many networking opportunities. I have met archivists from national, state, and local government, and even one tribal archivist. "Hi, I am Larry." I say to them. "Do you have any job openings? Hire my students!" I got some good leads.

2. I moderated a session where three of my friends and coworkers from the Washington State Archives presented. Todd Henderson showed off Scribe, the crowd sourcing tool that use to add metadata to historic records. My recent MA graduate, Charlie Byers, demonstrated his MA project, a pilot study of using facial recognition technology with historic photographs. (Spoiler: It works pretty well!) And June Timmons presented Correct That, a digital tool the archives developed to batch crop and correct scans of historic documents, thousands of images at a time. Each of these was a practical solution to common archival problems, and the audience loved it.

Todd Henderson, sharing the Good Word of crowd sourcing.
3. On my way to the session I kept thinking, "I would really love to take the afternoon off and rent a hotel bike and explore the Boise River Greenbelt trail, a paved bicycle and walking path that stretches for 40 miles along the river. But I better not because my boss is here." I met my boss before our morning session and he said "Hey Larry, I know you like to bicycle. This afternoon you should rent a hotel bike and explore the river trail. It goes for miles--you'd love it." And I did. Great boss!

4. I had not been to Boise before and this city is a revelation. I explored sections of town three times, twice with a friend who is a public historian at Boise State. It has the usual accretion of plaques and monuments of any state capitol, but also a lot of clever public history going on. I may make a separate blog post about this.

Boise's Freak Alley.
5. Basques have it going on. Boise is home to the largest population of Basque peoples outside the Iberian peninsula. There is a Basque Block with restaurants and a really excellent museum--which is in fact a model for smaller, focused museums. Basques are interesting because the numbers in which they migrated to America are fairly small compared to some ethnic groups, their peak immigration was well before the Second World War, and they scattered over most of the American West. Any yet they continue to have a strong sense of their ethnic identity, with Basque associations all over the west. How do they keep the flame burning when so many other immigrant groups have been subsumed into mainstream American culture?

Sheepherders wagon at the Basque Museum.
Tomorrow I do the loooong drive back to Spokane, hopefully with time to visit some of the site along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Goodnight.

Looking down on White Bird Canyon, on the long road between Spokane and Boise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Path of Totality: Pulling Meeting Minutes Out of the Shadows

Guest post by Logan Camporeale

On Monday, August 21st, 2017 the moon will pass between the sun and the earth casting a wide shadow over parts of the contiguous United States for the first time in nearly four decades. This unusual event, a total solar eclipse, will only be visible from the path of totality—a seventy-mile wide strip of earth that arcs across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina.

Skywatchers and armchair astronomers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond will flock to central Oregon in hopes that mother nature will offer a clear sky to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. Nearly all reservable lodging options within the path of totality, including campsites and home rentals, have been booked. Cities and towns have been planning for the influx of people, holding town meetings and brainstorming ideas to generate revenue from the visitors. Stores are planning to stock up on the necessities and farmers are considering turning fallow fields into fertile campgrounds that they hope to rent for hundreds, or possibly thousands of dollars per site.

This is not the first time that the Pacific Northwest has fallen in the path of totality. In 1979, a total solar eclipse swept across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota before proceeding into Canada. The event, billed as the country’s final total eclipse of the century, generated a “solar mania” comparable to today’s excitement. Taverns in the path created specialty drinks like the “Total Eclipse.” And the Seattle Science Center chartered a plane to fly above the Columbia Gorge for a champagne-enhanced view of the eclipse with no chance of pesky clouds getting in the way.

Keyword searchable newspapers are a useful source to understand how Pacific Northwesterners engaged with the last total solar eclipse, but they can be hard to come by. In fact, there does not seem to be any freely-accessible keyword-searchable Washington State newspapers from 1979. Not even a subscription service at has anything. (Although it did provide some local details, the clipping above came from the Associated Press in a newspaper out of San Bernardino, California.) Fortunately there is another keyword-searchable collection that can help use to fill in the gaps and provide a more nuanced local perspective when newspapers are not doing the job.

The Minutes and Meeting Records Collection at the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives is made up of official accounts of meetings conducted by over two hundred local government agencies from the 1850s to the present. They are a running record of the most important business conducted by an agency. The records are completely keyword searchable and they provide a different window into the challenges of the eclipse in 1979. Instead of city councils and boards of commissioners laboring over how to accommodate an influx of visitors, as might have been expected, a keyword search for just the word “eclipse,” and then a handy date sort, shows that it was school districts that were talking about the event.

Unlike this year’s eclipse, the one in 1979 occurred in February well before children got out of school for the summer, and in the middle of winter when camping trips and others vacations were not as appealing. Instead of concerns about inundated cities and public lands, the records show that at least five school districts in Washington State had educators and administrators that were worried about the possibility of students damaging their eyes while trying to watch the solar eclipse on their way to school. The concerns were raised in public meetings, and in Vancouver School District an ophthalmologist was consulted to guide an action plan. Most school districts instructed teachers to educate their students about the risks of looking at the sun and agreed upon different start times to ensure that students were not walking to school when the event occurred—a practical local-level response to the eclipse, but not the one that was expected.

This is not an earth-shattering discovery shedding light on the long duree history of human responses to eclipses, but it is an interesting bit that fills in our understanding of how communities reacted to previous eclipse events. It also shows us how a simple change in the circumstances of these two events—the time of year—vastly changed the local response.
Using keyword searches of the Minutes and Meeting Records are an effective way to unpack local perspectives on national issues, and they certainly are not limited to the eclipse. For example, while trying to understand local impacts of forced relocation, searching the collection for the word “Japanese,” and then sorting it by date, revealed an organized effort to prevent displaced Japanese from resettling in their communities during World War II. The Grant County Commissioners were even in favor of establishing a concentration camp within the county to imprison those who were relocated.

Similarly, a researcher interested in the AIDS epidemic in Washington State would be handedly rewarded from a simple keyword search for the word “homosexual.” The query revealed that in the 1980s agencies like the Snohomish County Health District were actively engaged with the challenges their community faced with the spread of HIV. It was such a pressing issue that an “AIDS Update” was a recurring agenda item at their meetings.

As pajama-bound historians we often rely too heavily on keyword-searchable newspapers to understand local impacts of national events, even when keyword-searchable minutes and meeting records from local government agencies are readily available. As more states and local governments put their minutes online and make them keyword searchable, a deep chest of immensely valuable local history sources will become easily accessible to historians trying to understand local impacts of national events. Let the keyword searches begin.

Eclipse image courtesy of Temple University Libraries.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Of Facebook, Air Crashes and UFO Movies

This is a fun one. A couple of years ago, as a sort of experiment, I started a Facebook Group: Spokane History Buffs. I wanted a digital space where people who had a research interest in Spokane history could exchange information. And I was frustrated by the nostalgia Facebook pages like "You're Probably From Spokane If..." that specialized in an endless loop of "Hey Who Remembers Expo?" type posts (along with regular theft of intellectual property--but that is another post.)

The experiment paid off nicely. I have met a bunch of folks who have real expertise in local history and who I never would have met otherwise. And we have solved a few historical mysteries together.

Yesterday, a user named Josh at CityofSpokane asked the group a question:

Hi History Buffs. I recently acquired this 1932 map of Spokane County and found some handwriting on it that piqued my interest. An arrow points to an area just north of Fort Wright with the words "crash occurred about here" and another arrow points to a spot directly to the east of that with the words "area for spectators." The other two arrows point to Baxter Hospital and Fairmount Cemetery. Don't know what this is referencing. Might be completely insignificant but I thought I'd share. Thanks!

Josh shared a couple of pictures of his mystery map:

I quickly tried to Google up an answer (we get a little competitive at Spokane History Buffs) and came up empty. But group member Jeff Sims immediately recognized the map markings as referencing a 1944 crash during an airshow over Spokane. He shared a 2007 report on the crash from an aviation history site. The report, "Information on Observing the Location of the Military Air Crash the Occurred Near Spokane, WA, on July 23, 1944" by Darcey Hildebrand, is incredibly detailed.  It turns out a Paramount Pictures newsreel crew was on hand and filmed the whole tragic thing. Hildebrand took stills from the newsreel, images from Google Maps, and quite a few photographs he took himself to precisely pinpoint the crash location. Sample illustration from the report:

Hildebrand did some terrific detective work. He also mentioned that the Paramount film footage of the crash had been used in at least one feature film.

The crash itself was horrific. "Crowd Sees Two Planes in Fatal Crash at Air Services War Show" reads the headline in the Spokane Chronicle. "Before a stunned and almost unbelieving crowd estimated at 100.000, two of a formation of three army dive bombers came together in mid-air and crashed in a great ball of flame yesterday afternoon," the story continued. The show was to promote the war effort and the audience had been promised realism, so "some refused to believe that the sickening crash was not part of the show." The four men in the two planes were killed in a "rolling ball of flames and smoke."

You can view the 1944 newsreel footage here on the Critical Past website--be warned, it is pretty disturbing.

And here is where the story goes from macabre to weird--and a little sad. In the days before CGI, a film director who wanted a dramatic airplane crash in a film was facing an expensive proposition. The choices were to do something with models, which was expensive and hard to film, or use misdirection. In the film Patton, for example, when director Franklin J. Schaffner wanted an airplane crash he filmed a plane flying behind a hill and then set off some explosives on the hill's backside. So this high-quality footage of plane crash in Spokane had real commercial value.

Behold the 1956 movie, Earth vs the Flying Saucers. Our Spokane plane crash is at the start of this clip:

One wonders what the widows and orphans and relatives of the four men killed might have though, when they wandered into the theaters a dozen years later and witnessed their loved ones being killed by UFOs?

(A big thanks to Josh at CityofSpokane for letting me use his map photos, and especially to local history expert Jeff Sims for cracking the case!)

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Long Lingering Death of the Google Newspaper Archive

Once there was a happy land where historians could go online and explore by date and keyword through most of the historic newspapers of their town. In this favored place, researchers could quickly hunt down the names of specific people, or keywords like "Indians" or "temperance" of "I.W.W." and perform what used to be months of painstaking research in moments. Gone were the painful days of rolling microfilm through a projector and squinting at columns of cramped text, hoping against hope that you would find something on your topic. The Google News Archive, which contained most of our historic newspapers, promised a revolution in local history research. And the people did rejoice.

"Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time," Google crowed in 2008, promising to make "billions of pages of newsprint from around the world searchable, discoverable, and accessible online." Spokane was among the first cities to get the Google News Archive treatment, as the company scanned the microfilm copies of the Spokesman-Review, the Spokane Chronicle, and other newspapers and added them to the database.

This stuff used to work.
It was exciting--but Google's support for the ambitious effort faded quickly. Google mostly abandoned the project in 2011, without ever providing a reason for doing so. Soon after that, the company merged the archived news into the same category as current news, in the process breaking many of the search features. With some clever manipulation of Google search parameters and patience you could still tease a lot of information out of search, but it was a crippled feature.

Then, one day last fall, search suddenly stopped working at all. Oh a search like "Spokane Indian tribe" will come up with a few interesting hits from the historic newspapers, but compared to be able to narrow that search by newspaper, year, etc. it is pretty thin gruel. You can still (for now?) browse individual issues of Spokane newspapers at the Google News Archive (scroll down) but without search, they are far less useful.

Users of the archives got another shock last fall when, without warning, Google yanked all of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from public view. This is because that newspaper, which is still in business, worked out a deal with the commercial electronic publisher Newsbank to add its back issues to their pay-walled database. Google even deleted those issues that are in the public domain. Will this happen in other cities? (Hint: yes.)

Attempts to contact Google have proven fruitless, and it appears that the News Archive joins the long list of abandoned Google projects. It would be nice if we could get the newspapers that Google has imaged into the Chronicling America site, but I have not been able to get anyone at either institution to speak about the possibility. The most likely future for the Google News Archive is that it simply disappears one day.

There is a larger lesson here, a story about the perils of relying on private corporations to provide what could be a public utility. The huge scanning projects of Google Books and Google News Archive could be replicated with a public effort--a few hundred million would do it. We could have nice things.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Preliminary Notes for the Case Against Ken Burns

As Americans we must acknowledge that our sins are many. Slavery, conquest, the pillage of the environment, inequality--the list hardly bears repeating. But what in our whole storied past have we done to deserve Ken Burns?

Image result for ken burns
Telling us stories we like to hear.
Burns has ruined the historical documentary film for at least a generation. His bloated, tear-jerker, The Civil War, was a monster hit that changed the rules of the game. Where before the American Experience documentaries were tight, disciplined 50-minute films, now they became hours-long, multi-part spectacles. Nothing was left on the cutting room floor anymore. “Interview with an old woman who pet LBJ’s beagle in 1960?! Ratings gold! We have 9 hours to fill after all! Go back and see if you can get her to cry.”

Worse than the length and endless digressions of the Burn’s method is the sentimentality. Burns is forever delving into the feelings (or imagined feelings) of the characters rather their motivations and importance. Historians are replaced by poets and political hacks and novelists (and, always, Dayton Duncan), brought in to narrate a history that they barely grasp. The cringe factor is off the charts.

The greatest sin, however, is that Burns is at heart a consensus historian from the 1950s. The Civil War is wrapped up in a “it was all a tragic misunderstanding” narrative that minimizes the ways it was a fight over slavery and white supremacy. The omnipresence of Shelby Foote, with his endless love of the Confederate heroes, drives this home. Lewis and Clark is similarly cursed with serial plagiarist Stephen Ambrose, who knows everything about Meriwether Lewis (except the fact that he was obviously freakin’ gay) and nothing at all about the Indians or even American expansionism. Real scholars of the period like Jim Rhonda and John Allen Logan were barely present, making room for Ambrose, William Least-Heat Moon and Erica Funkhouser--none of whom know much about Lewis and Clark.

Burn’s huge popularity and influence have made his sins viral. Now every damn thing on PBS is a big budget multi-part week-long extravaganza. Some of these are actually not bad. But their very length assures that they will have less cultural relevance. A five-hour series on the French and Indian War airs once, maybe twice, and disappears forever. It is too long for classroom use, and copyright and encryption on the DVDs ensures it will not be edited or remixed into something useful. The old American Experience was devoted to 50-minutes stories that were shown again and again--I can’t tell you how many times I have shared Demon Rum or The Orphan Trains with a college class. The new documentaries do not have a shelf life.

Honestly, someone needs to write a book with the title of this blog post--The Case Against Ken Burns. It will not be me, as such an effort would involve hundreds of hours watching and rewatching his films. So Dear Reader, I give the idea to you. Run with it, I promise to buy the book. In the meantime, I offer a list of some trenchant critiques to get you started:

Ken Burns’ The Civil War

Ken Burns’ Lewis and Clark

Ken Burns’ Jazz

Ken Burns’ The West as America

Ken Burns’ The National Parks

Ken Burns’ The War

Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait

Overall Critiques and Parodies: