Video: Old West Ghost Town Of Bodie, California


Here’s a double dose of American nostalgia for you. Back in the 1950s, Maxwell House coffee had an “American Scene” series of TV shorts. This episode takes us to the ghost town of Bodie, California.

Gold was discovered in Bodie in 1859 and soon it became a boomtown with more than a dozen large mines and countless smaller claims. Some $80 million in gold was extracted from the surrounding hills, a huge amount for the 19th century.

Bodie is a popular destination these days and is lovingly preserved by the California State Parks. Back when Maxwell House filmed there, it was still not quite a ghost town. It had a population of nine, and one rugged miner was still looking for a big strike. The few diehards hoped that Bodie would become a boomtown once again. It was not to be.

So sit back and enjoy this show from the early days of television, talking about the early days of the Old West.

Civil War Ballooning Revived This Memorial Day Weekend

Civil War
During the Civil War, the clashing armies used many new technologies to try to gain an advantage.

One military innovation was the balloon. Although the first balloon ascent had taken place in France in 1783 and the French army had already used them in battle as early as 1794, military aviation was still in its infancy and the United States and Confederacy became the second and third countries to use it.

Balloons were handy for spying on enemy movements. Observers would send back information either with signal flags or via a telegraph wire leading to the ground. The more industrial North had an edge in ballooning, but the South used them effectively too. Despite their best efforts, neither side was able to shoot these daring aviators out of the sky.

Now these early experiments are being re-enacted in Virginia. On Saturday, May 26, there will be a Civil War Balloon Observation Exhibit at the Yorktown Battlefield. There will be presentations on how balloons were used by both sides. It’s part of a weekend of lectures and re-enactments.

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, at the Gloucester Main Street Center, there will be a Civil War re-enactment featuring a 45-foot diameter replica of the Union’s balloon Intrepid. Re-enactors will portray Union and Confederate balloonists. Those who prefer more recent military history can meet special guest Richard C. Kirkland, who flew 103 combat missions in World War II and whose 69 helicopter rescues in Korea inspired the movie and TV series “M*A*S*H.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Visiting Ford’s Theatre, Where Lincoln Got Assassinated

Ford's Theatre
On April 14, 1865, a few days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, John Wilkes Booth finally decided to do something for the Confederacy.

The famous actor had supported the South from the start, but he had spent the entire Civil War in the North, playing to packed theaters and making lots of money. Now that the war was winding down, he felt he needed to take a stand.

Booth and a small circle of conspirators had been planning to kidnap Lincoln but nothing much had come of it. On April 11, Booth attended a speech given by Lincoln in which the president said he supported giving blacks the right to vote. That was the last straw. Booth reportedly said, “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

On April 14, while Lincoln and his wife watched a popular comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, Booth appeared with a knife and pistol. The bodyguard that was supposed to watch over the presidential box had gone off to a tavern, and Booth was able to walk right up behind Lincoln unnoticed. He shot him once in the head, stabbed an officer sitting nearby, leaped onto the stage, and made his getaway.

The nation was stunned. Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day. It would be like if Tom Cruise shot Obama. The nation plunged into mourning and even many Confederates expressed their shock.

%Gallery-155130%Despite having broken his leg while jumping onto the stage, Booth was able to elude a giant manhunt for 12 days before being cornered in a barn and fatally shot. His fellow conspirators were rounded up. One had attacked and wounded Secretary of State William Seward. Of the eight conspirators, all were found guilty. Four were hanged, including the first woman to be executed in the United States, and the rest received prison sentences.

You can see the site of America’s first presidential assassination. Ford’s Theatre is both a theatre and a functioning playhouse. Some of the tours include a one-act play. Across the street is the Petersen House, a private home where Lincoln was taken and clung to life for a few hours.

Unfortunately, much of what you see is not original. Ford’s Theatre was turned into offices and had to be completely reconstructed when it became a National Historic Site. The Petersen House also contains many replicas, such as the bed where he lay and much of the furniture in the room, which are at the Chicago History Museum. The reconstruction is well done, however, and the two buildings manage to take you into the past.

Included in the ticket is a visit to the Center for Education and Leadership, attached to the Petersen House. There are displays on Lincoln’s presidency and his legacy, including many interactive exhibits. This really seemed to engage visitors and the kids especially appeared absorbed. Lincoln is an American icon and everyone wanted to learn more about him. People passed through this museum much more slowly than usual.

As I was walking out, I saw a black woman taking a photo of a giant copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. I was tempted to take a photo of her face, which bore an unforgettable expression that was a combination of pride, joy, and another emotion I couldn’t quite identify because, well, I’m white.

The fact that Lincoln can still provoke such emotions almost 150 years after his death is a testament to his greatness. He wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions on social issues and much of the public hated him for it. That didn’t stop him for doing what he felt was right, even if it meant losing his life.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

The Green Book: A Guidebook For The Age Of Segregation

Green Book, segregationIt’s hard to imagine nowadays when the only limitations to travel are money, time and health, but for much of America’s history a large segment of the population had trouble traveling just because of the color of their skin.

During the days of segregation, most hotels were off-limits to African-Americans, as were other facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and campgrounds. Those that did allow blacks to enter had strict rules of segregation. Stopping at the wrong restaurant could lead a black family to being insulted or worse.

Yet a rising black middle class had just as much hunger for travel as anyone else. The problem was: how does one travel safely? One answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels and restaurants open to black people. While it wasn’t the only such guidebook, it was one of the most popular and long lasting. It was started by Victor H. Green in 1936 as a guide just for New York City, but soon expanded to include the whole country and eventually Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

I’d never heard of this book until I saw it mentioned on the excellent website I’m Black and I Travel. I downloaded a free PDF of the 1949 edition from the University of Michigan website and found it a fascinating read. The book introduces itself as a resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Then come the listings. I took special note of places I used to live. Tucson, Arizona, only had one listing for a restaurant and no lodging mentioned. Columbia, Missouri, had a hotel and a tourist home, which was a private home that rented out spare rooms to travelers. The hotel has since disappeared and the land on which it stood is now taken up by an adult store and theater. The guesthouse is now a private residence. New York City, of course, had plenty of listings. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Harlem listings are longer than the listings for many states.

%Gallery-153462%Another city that has a sizable listing is Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 28 years before, the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood had been burned to the ground and hundreds of black people killed by a white mob in the worst race riot in American history. By 1949, numerous black-owned businesses had literally sprung from the ashes and got into “The Green Book.”

The advertisements open up a different era too. How long has it been since hotels boasted they had hot water and radios in every room? Only two national companies advertised in this edition: Esso, which was a leader in selling franchises to African-Americans, and Ford Motor Company, which placed an ad for its very cool 1949 convertible. Green also advertised his own reservation bureau, noting that a shortage of beds for black travelers made it essential to plan ahead.

There are also a couple of articles, including one on what to see in Chicago, highlighting its large black neighborhood as well as more general interest sights. Another article talked about Robbins, Illinois, which was of interest to the black reader since it was a prosperous town owned almost entirely by black people. The guidebook notes that with “no prejudice and restrictions” the community was able to boom. The article finishes: “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at what an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to pitch in and help.”

One thing that struck me most about this book was the absolute lack of rancor. The problem of segregation is noted, and in a couple of places Green hopes for it to end one day, but there are no angry tirades against the injustice that black people were suffering. If I had been black in 1949, I doubt I would have been so charitable.

“The Green Book” is a sobering reminder of a sad time in U.S. history, and also a reminder that things occasionally get better – not 100% better, but time has seen a major improvement. Green stopped publication after 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is now a rare item and it’s not even clear if a copy exists for every edition. If you think you or your grandparents may have a copy tucked away in the attic, go check. It should be preserved.

Do you have memories of travel in the age of segregation? Tell us about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy University of Michigan]

Civil War Sesquicentennial events: where to learn what’s on

Civil WarAs the nation continues to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, an increasing number of reenactments, special exhibitions, lectures, and living history demonstrations are taking place. There are so many that it’s hard to know what’s going on when! Two websites will keep you informed of upcoming events.

Civil War Traveler bills itself as “your headquarters for 150th anniversary information” and it sure delivers. Broken down by state, it gives travel information and maps to all of the major, and many minor, historic landmarks. The events section gives a rundown of what’s coming up. Civil War Traveler also acts as a clearinghouse for state and local tourism agencies. If you fill out their online form telling which regions you’re interested in, you’ll get information from several sources in your mailbox.

Civil War News covers some of the same ground as Civil War Traveler, with a searchable calendar covering events. This site goes beyond travel to cover issues such as battlefield preservation and goings-on in the reenactment community. Some news stories are free, and the full bimonthly issues are available by subscription.

The Sesquicentennial has led to a wealth of blogs of the “this day in history” style. The best I’ve seen is the Civil War Daily Gazette, which is one of the only blogs I read on a daily basis. It’s addictive. See you in the comments section!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.