Category Archives: 1800s

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Carmel Mission

This is the eighth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the California Gold Rush. This week, I turn to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel, better known as the Carmel Mission.

In the Writer’s Note for Trouble at Mono Pass, I inform the reader that the novel highly fictionalizes the mission, in that it was largely inactive from 1836 to 1884. Early in the story, however, the mission is dilapidated after years of having been abandoned. The mission comes into play as Union Army veteran Jack Grier returns to California after the Civil War. Jack hopes to build a relationship with the daughter he left with friends fifteen years earlier. Helen has been raised with the understanding that she is the child of Eli and Sofie Monroe. In this scene (pp. 27-29), Jack visits the grave of his wife Ileana, Helen’s mother.

Jack hitched Bishop to one of the posts outside the cemetery walls of the long-abandoned church. It was just as he recalled. Mid-morning, the fog had drifted into Carmel Bay. Jack took in the salt air and the warmth of the early morning sun as he walked into the small cemetery.


Meanwhile, Helen hitched Saladin next to Bishop, black like her horse, but a hand higher. She wondered who had come to this largely abandoned spot. She stealthily approached the entry and watched as the middle-aged man spoke to the grave that had attracted her curiosity over the years. She had made it her mission to learn the past of all those buried here, but had learned little about Ileana Cortes.

The mission’s dilapidated condition is described by William Brewer in the journal compiled while he served as a member of the Josiah Whitney survey, the first geological survey of the state of California. Up and Down California in 1860-1864: the Journal of William H. Brewer (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1930). I relied on Brewer’s description of the mission in a scene where Jack’s brother Richard visits the Monroe family. Richard asks Sofie Monroe if the family attends services at the mission (p. 74):

“No. The mission is practically falling down. Squirrels have overrun the grounds and the birds have turned the sanctuary into an aviary. *** We hope to rebuild the mission someday. Helen is leading the campaign.”

From this point forward I exercise the fiction writer’s prerogative to take liberties with the facts. It is consistent with the fictional characters I have introduced into the history of the period following the Civil War. Helen successfully leads a campaign to bring the mission up to snuff. In the story I restore the mission to its current condition, absent the modern amenities of electricity and plumbing (p. 181):

Repairs had been made to the crumbling brick and stone exterior, which was resurfaced with fresh stucco. Terra cotta barrel tiles were laid on the arched roof. New bells had been installed in both towers. Miguel had repaired the eight statues on the altar wall, the two most prominent being Jesus on the cross and San Carlos, the Spanish saint for whom the church was named. Lois had carefully painted all of the statues with their original colors. Unlike American Protestants, whose marble statues were left unadorned, the Spanish had carved these statues from wood and painted them in vivid life-like colors.

Helen had ordered six two-tier wrought-iron chandeliers to light the center aisle of the church. Hector and Jorge Montoya had laid the red-tile floors. Other local craftsmen had built the black oak pews.

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Thus, any visitor to the Carmel Mission will recognize the church as described in the novel. Had there been a Helen Monroe, I am convinced she would have brought the mission back to life well before it actually occurred.

Please consider a longer read. Trouble at Mono Pass is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

The prequel, New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations.



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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The California Gold Rush

This is the seventh in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada. This week, I turn to the California Gold Rush.

In my research of the Gold Rush, I consulted many historical texts: The Age of Gold, by H.W. Brands; The World Rushed In, by J.S. Holiday; Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Samuel Lee Johnson; They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, by Jo Ann Levy.

I immersed myself in the material to put myself in a position to give the reader a flavor of the period in the context of a story. New Garden’s main character, Jack Grier, marries the daughter of a wealthy Mexican after the Mexican War. Jack’s father-in-law funds a miners’ supply company, Sierra Dry Goods, which Jack operates in California. Very few miners prospered during the Gold Rush; a number of suppliers became very wealthy. Thus, the story sets up Jack for success. When he arrives in Monterey, California, he finds most of the locals have left to search for gold (New Garden, p. 93):

“All of the men have left for the gold fields.”

Father Jesus only slightly overstated the truth. The old men and young boys had remained in Monterey. Any able-bodied man with a horse or a mule headed northeast toward the Sierra Nevada. Others walked or rode with friends. The Presidio’s enlisted men, with no legal authority and under no legal obligation to serve in California, abandoned their posts. Their officers soon joined the gold rush.

Ship captains were warned to avoid the port of San Francisco for fear of losing their crews. It happened so often that many abandoned ships were converted to lodging or warehouses. Jack and his partner Eli worry about how gold fever will affect their prospects (New Garden, p. 99):

Jack and Eli could not manage the supply venture by themselves. Before leaving Mexico, Jack had recruited thirty-two American army veterans to work for Sierra Dry Goods in California. **** Cortes warned Jack that he might lose his men to gold fever. It was this fear, not the usual seasickness, that rocked Jack’s stomach as the ship docked in San Francisco.

Suppliers’ costs were high and their profits even higher. Once Jack’s venture gets underway, the story illustrates the miners’ desperation and begrudging acceptance of the suppliers’ high prices (New Garden, p. 103):

“That’s highway robbery, mister. I ain’t buyin’ what I don’t need.”

Delmar Reed, the same age as Jack, looked ten years older after a summer in the diggings. He wore the pale blue wool britches and matching shirt Jack recognized as a United States infantry uniform, with the private’s stripe removed. He had replaced his blue forage cap with a wide-brim straw hat after baking his neck half the summer under the California sun. Summer temperatures frequently hit one hundred degrees in the diggings. His hair and beard, coal black and gritty, reeked from dirt, grit, and sweat. The loose soles of his army-issue boots flapped whenever he walked.

“Suit yourself,” said Jack. “You don’t have to buy and I don’t have to sell. The prices will only go up the closer I get to Sonora.” ****

“I reckon I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Many miners gave up after losing everything, often relying on a loan or passage paid from a relative back home. In the story Jack recruits a skilled carpenter to come to work for him at his hacienda in Carmel Valley, but only after the man has exhausted all hope of gaining his fortune (New Garden, p. 107):

He had tired of living in squalor, chasing the whisper of the Gold Siren’s song: Just a little longer, Miguel. Just down the river, Miguel. Just up the creek, Miguel. Just over the hill. Others have found me and become rich. Why not you?

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).



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Savannah – Sherman’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Sherman's handwritten note to Lincoln

Sherman’s handwritten note to Lincoln

For some of us, the City of Savannah elicits thoughts of ghosts in America’s Most Haunted City. Many southern college students see the city as a St. Patrick’s Day celebration when the city is awash with green beer and visitors in the tens of thousands.

But this month also marks the 150th anniversary of General William T. Sherman’s capture of Savannah. On November 15, 1864, after Confederate General John Bell Hood left Georgia for his army’s ultimate destruction in Nashville, Tennessee, Sherman left Atlanta for his famous march to the sea to make Georgia howl. He cut his supply lines behind him and his men grew fat on the livestock and produce that lay in their path from Atlanta to Savannah.

On December 13, Union troops took Fort McAllister, outside Savannah. Eight days later, Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered the city to Sherman and Union troops marched into Savannah. Afterward, Sherman sent President Lincoln a message:

I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.

Lincoln received the dispatch on Christmas Eve. Sherman, who had wrecked Atlanta and pillaged and burned his way through Georgia, had applied a gentle touch to Savannah.

In one rare moment, after burning his way through Georgia and before doing the same to South Carolina, Sherman spared the town’s historic architecture from the hard hand of war.

Sherman's march into Savannah "March to the Sea" (Source:

Sherman’s march into Savannah (Source:

If you have the pleasure of visiting this historic Southern city with its many beautiful town squares, whether to search for ghosts or to lift a glass of green beer, pause to give thanks to “Uncle Billy” (the troops’ nickname for General Sherman) for sparing much of the beauty that surrounds you.


  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.


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Thanksgiving 1864

In November 1864, the Confederacy was on life support. Its leaders had held on in the early years of the conflict, hoping for recognition from Great Britain or France. They then held on in the hope that Lincoln would be supplanted by a President who would allow the South to leave the Union in peace. This last hope was dashed when Lincoln won reelection earlier in the month. Now Southern leaders were merely “holding on.”

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl.

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl. (Source:

Meanwhile, the soldiers, North and South, did the fighting and the dying. The Southern lines at Petersburg (and on every other front) stretched thin and the rations fell to near-starvation levels. The Northern lines grew stronger and the soldiers enjoyed bountiful rations when they were not dodging bullets or cannon fire. My maternal ancestors include soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most likely were among those men who struggled for life on the Petersburg line. But survive they did, due to the randomness of war which allows me to write this piece today.

Thirteen months earlier, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the Union League of New York was determined to do something special for the Northern soldiers. My paternal ancestors likely benefitted from the League’s efforts, which produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of food of every variety (turkey, ham, pies) and $56,000 in cash (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2014). The League’s officers included Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the future President.

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we sit around enjoying one another’s company, overstuff ourselves with nature’s bounty, and finish off the day with three professional football games, all of us should set aside a few minutes to think about how the random nature of events allows us to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. You may look to any of a panoply of events – war, disease, or other catastrophes. I can look to both sides of the Petersburg line. Happy Thanksgiving!

For more detailed articles about Thanksgiving, 1864, see:

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A Long, Cool Drink

Several years ago, I was on the hunt for water bottles that would keep ice water cold for long periods of time. My search carried me to a local hiking/biking/climbing store. When I told a store clerk about my dilemma, he told me that the body better absorbs the benefits of the water if the water temperature approximates that of the human body. My jaw dropped to the floor. While he may have been right, the last thing I want during a hike is 98.6-degree water. I think most people would side with me on the question.

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source:

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source:

Our ancestors were no different. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans enjoyed ice-cold beverages whenever they could get their hands on ice. Yes, I’m talking about the wealthy and powerful ancient ones.

Fast forward to 1850 America, and ice had become the United States’ second leading export, thanks in large part to the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor of Massachusetts. The wealthy had had access to ice long before Tudor arrived on the scene. Initially, in 1806, he focused on making deliveries to the Caribbean. He continued to export ice around the world, but by 1830, he devised the infrastructure within the eastern United States to make ice available to people of modest means.

In the East, the ice was harvested in New York and New England. In the West, Californians got their ice exclusively from Alaska until the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada and added the mountain lakes as another resource.

Tudor established ice houses, which served as supply houses (analogize to gasoline tank farms that fuel gasoline delivery trucks). By the late 1800’s, many ice houses were warehouse-size.

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source:

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source:

The “ice man” drove his wagon to an ice house and loaded the ice for distribution in 25-100 pound blocks to his customers. The ice man chipped the ice to fit his customers’ ice boxes. Ice was used for many purposes other than cooling beverages and as an essential ingredient in ice cream. It also was used to preserve certain foods and medicines.

Ice was exported abroad, sometimes used as ballast in the ships making the deliveries. Saw dust was often used to insulate the ice, both on ships and in the ice houses.

Twentieth century refrigeration brought an end to the large-scale ice business. But each time we go to our “ice box” for a few cubes of ice or a cold beverage, we should realize that our ancestors did not just wait around for the invention of the refrigerator. They knew where to find the ice, and Frederic Tudor devised the means to meet the demand.

And, yes, I found water bottles that fit the bill (novara 24-ounce insulated bottles). I pack them with ice and put them in an insulated Igloo Maxcold pack, which I stuff in my backpack before heading out on an all-day hike. Even after refilling them once in a river or a creek, I always have some ice remaining at the end of the day. No, it’s not 98.6, thank goodness. And, like our ancestors, I’m not waiting around for someone to invent a power backpack to keep the water cold.

The video below is silent but shows how the ice harvesting process worked

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Frederick Law Olmsted – Central Park and More

Through his writing, his farming experience, and his social and publishing contacts, Olmsted had established the credentials that won him the Central Park directorship in September 1857. Half the battle was won. He still had to fight for the new park’s design.

Calvert Vaux (Source:

Calvert Vaux (Source:

To his benefit, the architect Calvert Vaux solicited Olmsted to partner with him in the design competition. The London-born Vaux had won substantial recognition when he came to work as Andrew Jackson Downing’s assistant seven years earlier. After his initial hesitation, Olmsted joined forces with Vaux. The two men were awarded the design along with a $2,000 prize ($60,000 in today’s money) in April, 1858. Their plan had to accommodate the traffic of a large city while affording a 700-acre country-like setting to the park’s visitors. The designers did this largely by building four transverse roads that ran beneath pedestrian traffic.

Olmsted biographer Laura Roper highlighted the fact that the label “landscape architect” was new to the American lexicon:

With Central Park, Vaux and Olmsted stood at the beginning of the life work that was to raise them and their calling to recognized professional standing. Olmsted understood well that this first essay in the creation of beautiful and extensive landscape for public enjoyment was an important departure for the art in the United States, making its benefits available not to a privileged few but to citizens generally.   – Roper, FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, p. 144 (emphasis added).

While Vaux’s name is seldom mentioned when commentators speak of Central Park, Vaux’s contribution was every bit equal to that of Olmsted.

Over the next nine years, Olmsted worked off and on with Vaux on the Central Park project. The “off” came with the Civil War, when Olmsted directed his energies to the private Sanitary Commission, a medical philanthropy that provided severely needed support to the Union army during the Civil War. Olmsted served as Executive Secretary of the commission. Both in New York and on the battlefield, Olmsted found his greatest obstacles were political – Central Park’s controller in New York and a host of politicians, especially the army’s surgeon general, in Washington. In both instances, Olmsted learned to work around the obstacles. During the Civil War, he won praise from both Lincoln and Grant for his work on behalf of the troops.

Despite his contribution to the care of the Union soldiers, Olmsted grew tired of the politics, and was persuaded by Charles Dana in August, 1863, to take leadership of the Mariposa Company, the struggling gold mining company that occupied 70 square miles in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The land had originally been claimed in 1847 by John Fremont, the adventurer who ran as the Republican Party’s first candidate for President in 1856. Whether due to too little gold or poor business acumen, Fremont managed only to run up debts. Despite Olmsted’s best efforts, the mining company remained unprofitable, and Olmsted left his post in the fall of 1865.

Photo Yosemite National Park

Photo I took at Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park

Olmsted did not leave California empty-handed. While there, he fell in love with Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias. He wrote in support of protecting the land from private development. His work earned him appointment to the first Yosemite Commission. For the rest of his life, he continued to support the landmark’s preservation for public enjoyment. (Yosemite was designated as a National Park in 1890.)

In the summer of 1865, Olmsted and Vaux were reappointed as landscape architects to Central Park. With an annual salary of $5,000 (at a time when the average annual wage was around $350), Olmsted could return to the profession for which he was most suited. With the rebellion and Mariposa behind him, he was ready to build his legacy as America’s premier landscape architect. That legacy included parks in Boston, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Milwaukee, among others.

He did miss the mark once when he said San Francisco’s climate and topography precluded construction of any park similar to New York’s. Mining engineer William Hammon Hall proved him wrong with Golden Gate Park. But unlike many inflated egos, Olmsted later confessed error and had only praise for the accomplishment. Olmsted’s work included a proposal ultimately put into effect at the United States Capitol – broad marble terraces on each side of the Capitol Building, providing a formal transition from the building to the mall extending to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Whether one visits New York City or San Francisco, the nation’s capital or Yosemite – to mention only a few – the visitor likely sees some significant contribution by America’s preeminent landscape architect. His legacy continues to reward those of us fortunate enough to witness his achievements.


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Frederick Law Olmsted – Before Central Park

Frederick Law Olmsted (Source:

A younger Frederick Law Olmsted (Source:

In the world of landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for his first major project, New York City’s Central Park. But one must know Olmsted’s interests and accomplishments before Central Park to grasp a full understanding of the man.

Born the son of a prosperous Connecticut merchant in 1822, Olmsted received a smattering of schooling, less than one term at the university level, but more than most men of his day. Pampered by an indulging father, Olmsted spent most of his formative years meandering from one interest to another.

At 21, Olmsted attempted to find some direction in life by going to sea. His service on a ship bound for China taught him that he was not cut out for a seafaring life. Service was hard. Officers took the best food and treated crewmen little better than slaves. Then, of course, came the seasickness. Olmsted returned home in 1844, not hale and hearty as he might have hoped when he left New York Harbor, but an ill skeleton of his former self. The experience led him in later years to advocate for a professional merchant marine, where officers and crew were bound by rules and regulations rather than by cruel captains meting out harsh punishment to the dregs of society.

No surprise, Olmsted’s interest shifted from the sea to land. He apprenticed with family friends who owned a Connecticut farm. He pursued an active social life and attended numerous lectures as an informal means of continuing his education. He tried Yale, but left before the end of the term. He returned to farming, and wanted to work on a model farm where he could enhance his scientific approach to farming. In a New York editorial office, he met and impressed Andrew Jackson Downing, the preeminent authority on gardening and domestic architecture. With Downing’s reference in hand, Olmsted landed an apprenticeship at George Geddes’s New York farm, Fairmont.

Olmsted stayed at Fairmont only six months, but with lessons learned from his service, he persuaded his father to purchase a 70-acre farm, Sachem’s Head, on Staten Island. The island was home to a number of prominent families, including the Vanderbilts. While he brought the farm up to snuff, Olmsted had difficulty remaining still. In 1850, he traveled to England with his brother John and their friend, Charles Loring Brace. While there, he saw the first public parks he had ever seen, parks open to everyone. No such parks had been set aside in America’s cities. He was smitten by the idea that large open spaces should be open to everyone, not just the wealthy.

After his travel, Olmsted directed his attention to writing, primarily about farming. His writing included a compilation of his travel journal, molded into Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852.

Although he considered slavery evil, Olmsted had little tolerance for abolitionists. He wanted to take a different tact, one analyzing slavery purely from an economic viewpoint. In December 1852, he set out to interview slaves and slave owners for a series of New York Daily-Times (now the Times) articles. He came to the conclusion that the slave economy benefited neither master nor slave. Slaves were kept in a perpetual state of ignorance and had no incentive to improve their performance.

Free Northern laborers were two to four times as productive as slaves in comparable tasks. In the few cases where slaves received some form of reward for productivity, the slaves worked harder. Thus, apart from the immorality of the practice, the “peculiar institution” was economically inferior to free labor. Olmsted’s observations converted him to the cause of abolition.

Not all went well for Olmsted. He joined a publishing venture, Putnam Magazine, with literary colleagues. While the magazine received widespread literary acclaim, it failed as a financial venture. After that failure he was not sure where his life was headed.

In August 1857, Olmsted traveled to Morris Cove, Connecticut, to work on a book. While at tea one day, he sat next to a member of New York’s new Central Park commission. Life would never be the same.


  1. Roper, Laura Wood, Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore: 1973).
  2. Martin, Justin, Genius of Place, Da Capo Press (Philadelphia: 2011).
  3. Rybczynski, Witold, Clearing in the Distance, Scribner (New York: 1999).

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The Panama Canal – And Then Came the Americans

Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal under construction, in 1906 (Source: BBC)

Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal under construction, in 1906 (Source: BBC)

Teddy Roosevelt wanted to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, and no one was going to stop him. First, we need to remember that before the Americans began the massive engineering project, what we now know as Panama was part of Colombia. When the Colombian government did not agree to the terms desired by the Roosevelt administration, the United States supported a junta-led rebellion that otherwise would have been crushed by the Colombian military.

The United States sent gunboats to both shores and a battleship to Colón, Panama to insure success of the rebellion. The collaboration included a French engineer (and investor in the earlier French project, who stood to gain significantly when the United States compensated the French company for its rights) who immediately after the rebellion negotiated an agreement with Secretary of State John Hay on behalf of the junta. The terms included United States sovereignty over a ten-mile-wide swath of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This was not one of those bright, shining moments in United States history.

Once the United States took control of what would become the Panama Canal Zone, the Isthmus Canal Commission, the governing body of the zone, had to conquer the enemy that had ground the French to a halt – the yellow fever- and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Timing is everything. In 1880, French Army Surgeon Charles Laveran first discovered parasites in the blood of a patient suffering from malaria. In 1886, 1890, and 1897, Italian scientists made further discoveries about the specific malaria parasites. Also in 1897, British medical officer Ronald Ross demonstrated that malaria parasites could be transmitted from patients to mosquitoes and from bird to bird, and that the parasites could be developed in and spread by mosquitoes.

During the American occupation of Havana after the Spanish-American War, army surgeons developed programs that reduced mosquito breeding, thereby eradicating yellow fever and greatly reducing malaria. In 1904, Colonel W.C. Gorgas applied the lessons of Cuba in a seven-prong program to attack mosquito breeding in tropical Panama: draining pools near villages and homes; cutting brush and grass near villages and homes; using oil to kill mosquito larvae where drainage was not possible; spreading larvacide where oiling was ineffective; dispensing quinine to workers as a prophylactic measure; screening government buildings and living quarters (screening for living quarters was limited largely to quarters for white workers); killing adult mosquitoes found in houses during the daytime.

Just as in Cuba, the program largely eradicated yellow fever and dramatically reduced deaths from malaria. Hospitalizations for malaria decreased from 9.6% of employees in 1905 to 1.6% in 1909.

As I said earlier, timing is everything. Without the discoveries made in the decades preceding the United States’ success in Panama, the Americans may well have met the same fate as their French predecessors.


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Before the Americans Built the Panama Canal

Before it became a republic, Panama was a department within the country of Colombia. Before the Americans built the Panama Canal, the French attempted to build one. And before the French attempted to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the French and the Egyptians built the sea-level Suez Canal, which on November 17, 1869, knocked six thousand miles off the nautical journey from Western Europe to India.

As a young diplomat and entrepreneur, but not an engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps achieved great fame for orchestrating what many said could not be done – constructing a canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His role was that of promoter extraordinaire, convincing the Egyptian viceroy of the merits of the massive engineering project. Egypt put up half of the money and 25,000 Frenchmen put up the other half. Upon completion of the canal, de Lesseps was honored as the world’s greatest living Frenchman. [Parker, Panama Fever, Doubleday Edition, pp. 50-51 (first published in the United Kingdom by Hutchinson in 2007)]

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

De Lesseps was 64 years old when the Suez Canal opened. One might think he would have rested on his laurels. But men had dreamed of a nautical passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific since 1513, when Balboa laid eyes on the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. De Lesseps thought he was just the man to turn the dream into reality.

When an international group to study the prospects for an interoceanic canal assembled in Paris in 1879, the Suez Canal was paying investors 14% annual dividends. De Lessep’s primary opponent to the sea-level concept was a French civil engineer, Godin de Lepinay. De Lepinay recommended constructing a series of locks on either end of the canal, the approach the Americans ultimately would adopt after conceding the futility of a sea-level canal.

Panama presented a host of problems that Egypt did not: a complex mountain chain, a tropical jungle, 105 inches of annual rainfall, and endemic diseases for which the real culprit (mosquitoes) had not been identified. But hubris is a terrible fault. Virtually all of Western Civilization had spent the past ten years extolling de Lesseps as the man who had accomplished what most men had said was impossible.

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Blinded by praise, convinced that he could accomplish what others could not, de Lesseps led 800,000 French investors to financial disaster and over 20,000 men to their deaths in yellow fever- and malaria-ridden Panama. His insistence on a sea-level canal doomed the project from the start. When he finally brought Gustav Eiffel into the project to build a lock-system canal, it was too late. Too much money had disappeared. The company had spent one billion francs and had accumulated three billion francs in debt. (At the time one U.S. dollar traded for five francs.)

Along the way, the canal company had lined the pockets of French politicians, money-men, newspaper men, and foreign companies. De Lesseps’ son, Charles, went to prison after an 1893 corruption trial. The father escaped prison only because of his failing health. Eiffel was among those prosecuted; his company had made a seven-million-franc profit on work it had barely started. (Convicted, Eiffel’s conviction was reversed by the French Supreme Court.) Ferdinand de Lesseps died in 1894, remembered for the great Panama failure and the accompanying corruption scandal rather than the great Suez achievement.

SIDE NOTE: Last week, I noted the Panama Canal’s expansion plan, which is nearing completion. The Egyptian government has announced plans for expanding the Suez Canal. Egypt contends that upon completion of the expansion, the Suez Canal will accommodate double the number of ships it currently handles and will afford a speedier route than the Panama Canal for container ships travelling from Shanghai to the East Coast of the United States (26 days rather than 28 days).



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“Damn the Torpedoes” The Battle of Mobile Bay

Torpedo: 1. electric ray; 2. a large, cigar-shaped, self-propelled underwater projectile for launching against enemy ships from a submarine, airplane, etc.; it is detonated by contact, sound, etc.; 3. a metal case containing explosives, especially one used as an underwater mine.

                                      – Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition)

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was a history buff and a big fan of World War II movies. For me, the second definition of “torpedo” came to mind whenever I heard the term.

Admiral David Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes." (Source:

Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes.” (Source:

You might remember United States Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” a quote which seemed out of kilter with a sea battle that took place in August, 1864. The Confederates had invented the first submarine, the CSS Hunley, but it was nothing like its progeny of the first and second world wars, and it certainly did not launch torpedoes.

My fifth-grade teacher recognized the annual confusion of young boys who watched too many war movies. She explained that during the Civil War, a torpedo referred to the third definition, a metal case containing explosives. “Ohhh,” all of my male classmates nodded as one, “just like the mines the Nazis planted in the English Channel at Normandy in The Longest Day (for the younger readers, The Longest Day was a three-hour 1962 black-and-white movie about D-Day).

The significance of the Battle of Mobile Bay cannot be overstated. Grant’s troops were bogged down at Petersburg. Sherman had not yet taken Atlanta. Lincoln expected to be a one-term President.

Southern-born, Admiral David Farragut led the Union armada. Maryland-born and a former United States Naval Academy superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the Confederate forces.

The Southerners had built an ironclad, the Tennessee, to thwart the Union’s largely wooden-ship navy. Fully understanding the probable outcome of challenging the iron beast with wooden ships, Farragut waited for the arrival of four ironclads of his own.

Entitled "Surrender of the 'Tennessee,' Battle of Mobile Bay", it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source:

Entitled “Surrender of the ‘Tennessee,’ Battle of Mobile Bay”, it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source:

Three forts stood in the Union’s path: Fort Powell near Cedar Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. Chief among these was Fort Morgan. Farragut had hoped to employ a large contingent of infantry on Dauphin Island to keep the rebels at Fort Gaines occupied. Because the Union had lost so many troops in Grant’s Virginia campaign, only 2,000 soldiers were available. The number proved sufficient.

The Union spent weeks attempting to remove the torpedoes in their path. Farragut had doubts about whether they could remove all of them, but found some comfort in reports that many of them had corroded and were no longer effective. On Friday morning, August 5, Farragut’s armada tested the waters. One ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit one or more non-corroded mines. The Tecumseh went down with 94 of her 114-man crew. The commanding officer of the lead ship, the Brooklyn, declined to go forward, for fear of the mines.

It was under these circumstances that Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford, took the lead. Farragut had climbed the mainmast rigging above the smoke and ordered a sailor to tie him there with a rope. He would not be denied. The line between folly and courage is a thin one. From his vantage point, like Ulysses tied to the mast when skirting the sirens, he shouted his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Not all went smoothly afterward. Buchanan (who previously had commanded the ironclad Virginia) commanded the Tennessee and inflicted considerable damage on the Union fleet before taking a hit that fractured his knee. The ironclad and the rest of his fleet ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. By August 23, all three forts were in Union hands. The victor of New Orleans sixteen months earlier, Farragut had added Mobile Bay to his list of major conquests. With the Union victory, Lincoln’s autumn prospects brightened significantly.


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