Posts Tagged ‘history’

20170224_115819Where 19th Street ends in Windber is where a frightening, fascinating journey begins.

With permission, you drive past the gated entrance to a long 20-acre piece of private property. You bounce around as you make your way back into a forest on the rutted dirt road. About 100 yards back, you see a rusted hulk of a streetcar laying on its side.

Besides wondering what caused the streetcar to look like it had been discarded by a gigantic child, another question arises: Where did it come from because Windber hasn’t had a trolley since the 1936 flood washed out the Johnstown to Windber trolley line.

You move around the streetcar, only to see more streetcars—some on their roofs, others on their sides, a few still upright. Had some massive unreported accident happened here years ago?

Across from the streetcars are buildings that Berwind Coal used to use to build and repair coal cars used for the shipment of coal from the Windber area. In between the buildings and the streetcars is a parking area for what is called the Windber Trolley Graveyard.

The trolley graveyard20170224_120033

Nearly four dozen streetcars have found their final resting place here, but they used to run in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

“The MBTA in Boston still uses some of the same type of cars that I have here,” Ed said. “They are running into problems finding spare parts that are no longer manufactured. That’s where I come in.”

The trolleys are spread throughout the property along more than a mile of rail track. Their windows are busted. Leaves and debris litter the interiors. Many of the cars are covered in graffiti.

“Mother Nature has taken its toll as you can well imagine because some of these cars have been here since the mid-90s,” said Ed Metka, president of the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company and owner of the graveyard.

The cars sit there, seemingly forgotten, but Ed, remembers. He can tell you the story behind just about every streetcar on the property. The streetcars from Boston used to run on a suburban trolley line. The ones from Chicago were part of the L system, the elevated tracks that run through the city. Two 1912 streetcars from Grand Rapids, Mich., had previously been used for a lakefront cabin.

Ed can even tell you about the parts of some of his streetcars that wound up in trolleys in places like Dubai, Aruba, and San Francisco. He has even sold entire streetcars to a small trolley system in Kenosha, Wis.

20170224_115611Trolley attraction

Ed grew up in Chicago in the 1940s. Trolleys were starting to lose ridership to cars, but they saw a temporary resurgence during WWII. The large vehicles running along streets powered by a thin pole connected to a wire caught Ed’s attention.

“I was five years old, and it always fascinated me to see these things come down the street on a track,” he said.

Ed would ride on the streetcars with his mother and stand next to the motorman and pretend to be driving the trolley.

As a teenager living near San Francisco, he discovered that trolley museums existed, and he joined one in the Bay Area.

“I had thought I must be the only one who liked that stuff,” Ed said.

Like other trolley museum members, he started taking pictures of streetcars and collecting books and magazines about streetcar systems.

Trolleys were a slower form of transportation, primarily designed for urban areas that provided mass transportation around a city. However, they fell victim to the same problems as trains. After WWII gas rationing ended, people began purchasing and using automobiles, and trolley ridership declined.

So by the 1950s most of the trolley systems in the United States had gone out of business, and their cars had been junked, sent off to museums, or abandoned.

It is because of the streetcars at the Windber Trolley Graveyard that Ed moved to Windber in 1992. Before that, he was living in Thurmont, Md., and working in Washington, DC, with the Army Corps of Engineers. However, he had the opportunity to purchase 10 streetcars from the Philadelphia Transit System (SEPTA). He decided that he needed to buy them to help keep that vanishing era of history from disappearing entirely.

He rented a railroad siding near his home and stored his streetcars there. Then the opportunity came to buy even more streetcars.

“Well I couldn’t fit them all in my driveway, but by then I was retired and flexible about where I lived,” Ed said.20170224_114913

He began searching for a suitable and affordable piece of property and found the old storage yard in Windber. He rented the property from Berwind Coal.

“It’s kind of amusing,” he said. “The railyard was all covered over with trees and bush, and several local Windber residents didn’t even realize there was a railyard back there.”

That is also the most fascinating part of the trolley graveyard. Once you walk past the buildings, you follow the track through some brush and trees to see lines of trolley cars.

If you climb in them, you need to be careful. Some of the floors are missing, and most of the windows have been broken so there is lots of glass on the floor.

The dozen trolleys that are in decent shape and Ed hopes to see restored are kept in the repair building out of the elements. However, such a restoration project is a massive undertaking and impossible for one man. So he keeps those trolleys protected in the hopes that one day they once again run in one of the communities with whom he works.

His “hobby” of collecting streetcars is now a business. He restores the best of the trolleys, sells parts from the ones that are beyond hope, and lobbies cities to include trolley lines in their tourism and economic development plans.

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gold-coins-pileToo Much Government Spending Forces Fiscal Change

The U.S. Government went off the gold standard for the last time in 1968.

The United States originally went on a gold standard in 1834. That is, it controlled how much money it issued based on how much gold it held. It’s a fiscal policy that limited the U.S. Government’s spending, which is why the government is no longer on a gold standard.

Going off the gold standard

Seven central bankers for various countries, including the United States met in secret meetings in March 1968. The result was the creation of a two-tiered pricing system of gold. The first tier was that transactions between governments represented in the meeting would continue at $35 an ounce while other transactions could find their own market price, which was expected to be between $40 and $45 an ounce.

Why the government needed to go off the standard

There are times, particularly during a war, where the government needs to spend a lot more money. A gold standard limits how much money they can spend by how much gold is in their treasury. The U.S. Government first suspended its gold standard during the Civil War in order to meet its expenses.

Other Suspensions of the Gold Standard

Many countries, including the U.S., suspended the gold standard during WWI. This led to Germany’s hyperinflation problem following the war. It kept printing money, but it had little gold to back it up so prices soared.

By the time of the Great Depression, the U.S. owned most of the world’s gold, but President Franklin Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard, which freed up the government to spend heavily on his New Deal Programs.

The Gold Standard Following WWII

After WWII, the U.S. and other countries made an agreement that essentially put them all back on the gold standard. The countries agreed to fix their national currency exchange rates to the U.S. dollar. In return, the United States promised to fix the price of gold at $35 an ounce.

France began a long process, however, of exchanging its dollars for gold, which weakened the U.S. dollar. At the same time, the U.S. was fighting the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson needed to spend huge sums of money on his Great Society programs.

This is when the central bankers met to come up with the two-tiered system.

The Gold Standard Breaks Down

Left with a ballooning budget and a country that was still partially on the gold standard, President Richard Nixon eliminated it all together for the United States in 1971.

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thinking_man_PNG11607“Are you a historian?”

That’s a question I get occasionally, and I’m never sure how to answer it. I don’t have a degree in history, but then, I know people with a degree who don’t call them a historian.

I don’t study history in general or teach it for credit. I find stories in history that interest me, and then I research the details of the story as I begin to formulate the story (if it’s a novel) or organize the events to see where I need more information (if it’s non-fiction).

I don’t consider myself a historian. I think of myself as a writer who often writes about history rather than a historian who writes about his research.

To me, there’s a difference. My focus is on the writing and story and I use the history to make it interesting. You’ve probably read some of my stories on this blog. I’ve read plenty of history books that are BORING! Those are the ones that I usually keep for reference. My books aren’t meant to be reference books. They are meant to be read and enjoyed.

I have heard occasionally that I’m not a historian because I didn’t study the proper research techniques that are historians are taught. Yet, I have read books written by some of those authors who selectively present facts to support the point the writer wants to make. Other times, they extrapolate a fact to such an extent that you might consider it fiction.

Those are things I try not to do with my nonfiction. I strive to tell a story, getting all of the facts to fit together. Because I am writing about real life, some facts are outliers. If it’s something that could make a big difference to the story, I note the outlier but don’t give it much emphasis.

I do my best to get the history right, just as I try to use correct grammar and spelling.

So I ask you: Am I a historian?

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embalmingThough embalming the dead has been done for millennia, modern embalming methods that rival those of the ancient Egyptians have only been around for about 160 years.

The Egyptians were known for their masterful ability to preserve the dead, but American techniques of the 19th Century were far cruder.

According to Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers in The History of American Funeral Directing (Brookfield, Wisc.: Burton & Mayer, 1995, pg. 199), one technique involved disemboweling the corpse and packing the empty body cavity with charcoal. The corpse was then wrapped in a sheet that had been soaked in alum.

French Develop First Effective Modern Preservation Method

Most sources point to 1836 as the birth of modern embalming. That is when Jean Nicolas Gannal, a French chemist, preserved a corpse by injecting it with six quarts of acetate of alumnia through the carotid artery. His idea was that his formula could preserve corpses for medical study.

“Very quickly, however, he realized that his embalming method would also find a market among funeral directors,” Thomas J. Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

Funeral directors had been seeking a way that bodies could be left on display for a few days before burial. Craughwell suggests that it may have been a way to imitate the way bodies of royalty and other important people were displayed after death.

Gannal’s tests involved burying several bodies for 13 months and then exhuming them.

“When their coffins were opened, the dead embalmed by Gannal looked as fresh as the day they had been buried,” Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

Sucquet Took Preservation One Step Further

One of Gannals contemporaries was J. P. Sucquet, another Frenchman who was also seeking an effective embalming method. His solution was to inject five quarts of a 20 percent solution of zinc chloride into a corpse through the popliteal artery. Besides preserving the body, it also gave the skin the appearance of white marble, according to Robert G. Mayer in his book Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice.

Civil War Creates American Demand for Embalming

The Civil War created a need for embalming in the United States as loved ones sought to have the bodies of their fallen sons, brothers, and fathers returned home for burial. As such, embalming was done in military camps before shipping a body home.

“President Lincoln took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial,” according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association website.

Holmes Develops an American Preservation Method

Dr. Thomas Holmes was a captain in the Army Medical Corps during the Civil War. He was assigned to Washington D.C. where it is said that he embalmed more than 4,000 soldiers killed in battle.

When Holmes realized the commercial potential in some of the methods he developed, he resigned from the army and began offering embalming to the public for $100, according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association website.

No War, No Need For Embalming

Following the Civil War, embalming fell out of popularity. Most people died in their hometowns where ice could be used to preserve the body until burial. Another reason for its falling out of fashion was that there were too few undertakers who could do embalming.

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davidmccullough-thewrightbrothersI’m a big fan of David McCullough. After all, he’s the one who showed me that a non-fiction history book could read like a novel (1776).

I can’t say The Wright Brothers was such a book, but I definitely enjoyed it and was looking forward to reading it. Like many people, I know the Wright Brothers were bicycle makers who made the first powered manned flight at Kitty Hawk that introduced the age of modern aviation.

I was very surprised that the narrative reached the historic 1903 flight so quickly. When that happened, I realized that there must be a lot more to their story. While the brothers certainly went through a lot of trials to take to the air in Kitty Hawk, I was very surprised at how much resistance they met with not only in Europe but also from the U.S. government. In fact, the Europeans embraced the brothers sooner than the U.S. government did.

Although Orville made the historic first flight, he wasn’t the brother who took the most risks. That was Wilbur. Poor Orville seems to have been the one who was injured the most. He was the pilot of the first fatal airplane accident that killed his passenger on that flight.

Also, I was surprised by how quickly aviation advanced once the Wrights broke that initial barrier.

McCullough does a great job of humanizing the brothers and their close relationship. He also throws in lots of interesting little factoids, such as the person who took the famous Kitty Hawk picture had never taken a picture before. The first photo he took became iconic.

I can’t say that this is my favorite McCullough book. That honor belongs to 1776 and The Johnstown Flood. I definitely enjoyed it, and it didn’t become overwhelming like some of McCullough’s longer books. As always, I learned a lot more about the subject of the book and enjoyed the process.

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about UFOs in West Virginia.


A photograph of a UFO supposedly sighted in West Virginia in 2016.

Tad Jones was driving to work one January morning in 1966 when he saw something blocking the two westbound lanes of Interstate 64 about a mile from the Institute exit. Jones told the Charleston Daily Mail that he drove his truck within 10 feet of a “dull aluminum sphere which hovered about four feet above the ground.”

He further described the unidentified object as being about 25 feet in diameter with two antennae protruding from the top and four legs and a propeller on the bottom of the sphere.

“He said it was rotating slowly when he stopped his truck. Jones said he did not leave his vehicle, watched the propeller start spinning, and that then the object rose swiftly, without noise, odor, exhaust or any sense of heat, and disappeared skyward like ‘it had been shot out of a gun,’” according to an article in the Daily Mail.

Two years later, a reporter tracked Jones down and asked him if he still believed he had seen an unidentified flying object.

Jones told the reporter, “I believe what I saw. It was there. I never saw anything like it before, and I haven’t seen anything like it since, but it was there that morning on I-64.”

Jones’ story is one of the many stories West Virginians can tell of objects, lights and spheres they have seen that defy explanation or identification. At one time, West Virginia had the reputation as the UFO capital of the world.

The reason?

“Seeing is believing, and more people in West Virginia have seen unidentified flying objects than people in any other state,” J. Ralph Jarrett, president of UFO Investigators, told a newspaper in 1969.

Reports of spaceships date back to Biblical times when Ezekiel wrote, “And when the living creatures went, then wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.” Ezekiel’s account is also believed by some to include a description of aliens.

The Beckley Register and Post-Herald also noted in 1972, “Granite drawings, estimated to be 47,000 years old now at the University of Peking, show people on ground level looking up at cylindrical objects in the sky. Carvings of sculptured rocks in the Sahara Dessert (sic) traced by the carbon method of the year 6000 B.C. show earth people staring at ‘human beings’ with strange round heads and other mystifying characteristics.”

UFOs and flying saucers became part of the American vocabulary on June 24, 1947 when the first report of a flying saucer was made. Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane when he saw “a chain-like formation of disc-shaped objects” near Mt. Rainer, Washington.

Though West Virginia wasn’t the location of the first sighting, it soon became a popular destination for UFOs.

Charlie Connor of the Daily Mail wrote tongue-in-cheek, “We may be at the bottom of a lot of other activities, but we’re up among the top in UFO sightings. When the unknown beings from outer space decide to colonize Earth, there is no doubt they’ll settle among the hills and valleys of West Virginia where they’ve had such a receptive audience in the past.”

Some other West Virginia reports of UFO’s include:

  • July 7, 1966 – Victor Camp, 18, John Parker, 18, and John McVay, 16, all from Clendenin, reported they saw a UFO that came so close that their car engine and radio quit, and they jumped out of the car and scattered.
  • March 4, 1967 – Night supervisor Adam Rohrig of the FAA control tower at Kanawha Airport reported that controllers there saw a formation of three lights crossing from southwest that moved “slower than meteorites but faster than jets.”
  • June 5, 1968 – Dr. John Herlihy observed a UFO from his porch in Charleston and Charles O’Dell and Shirley Shelton, both of Summersville, said a UFO flew parallel to them along U.S. 60 near Shrewsbury.
  • Jan. 6, 1969 – Air-traffic controllers Paul Anderson and Ted Curtis of the Mercer County Airport said they witnessed a mysterious, pear-shaped object over Bluefield several nights.
  • Oct. 26, 1978 – Many people see unidentified lights in the sky during the week, including 11 police officers who saw unidentified lights hovering over Parkersburg before they moved off.
  • Sept. 15, 2002 – A group of people, including a guard at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort, saw an object that hovered over Cheat Mountain and “looked like a child’s top with green, red and clear flashing lights, but there was no sound coming from the object.”

There seems to be no reports or few reports of UFOs in West Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the dawning of the new century, though, reports have begun to pick up.

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In 1921 and 1922, salesmen from the Point of Purchase Advertising Association visited retail businesses across the country with a simple pitch. If the business joined the advertising association, then it was eligible to receive a dollar a month (roughly $15 today) for each electric sign from a national advertiser that it placed in its business windows. Business owners could not only continue to generate their own sales with products advertised in their windows, but just the act of advertising them would generate income for the business.

“The Point of Purchase bid fair to reap a golden harvest for its promoter, due to the fact that it sounded feasible to retailers,” the York Dispatch reported.

Then in mid-June 1922, the officers of the association were arrested at their York headquarters. York Police took LeGrand Dutcher, president; Charles A. Hoffman, vice president; and Charles W. Newport, secretary, into custody and held on $5,000 bond each. The National Vigilance Committee of the Advertising Clubs of the World had investigated the company and shown their findings to the legal authorities. The investigation showed that the Point of Purchase Advertising Association was running a fraud scheme on the unsuspecting business owners.

The officers were charged with making “Fraudulent representation to organizations using prominent national retailers enabled Point of Purchase to make headway in a national membership campaign,” according to the York Dispatch. The newspaper also pointed out that the case was the first national fraud of its type.

The salesmen sold the membership contracts to retailers who then agreed to place the flashing electric signs in their storefront windows. In exchange for providing window space for the advertisers, the business owners expected a monthly check. The problem was that the retailers were led to believe that plenty of national retailers had signed up to have their businesses advertised when, in fact, they hadn’t.

“In many cases the first intimation they received that their name was being used to sell signs came from the national vigilance committee,” the York Dispatch pointed out.

Attorneys pointed out that the Point of Purchase Advertising Association’s name had been chosen with special consideration. The name reassured retailers who believed that national advertisers were anxious to reach customers at the local level where they purchased their goods.

What made things worse was that as the plan started to unravel, the salesmen went rogue. They would sell memberships and keep the money for themselves. They would call on the business once to collect the membership fee and were never seen by the business owner again. Some memberships were even sold to businesses that didn’t have the proper electrical service to operate the flashing signs.

The York Chamber of Commerce and York Police started receiving telegrams early in 1922 asking for information about the Point of Purchase Advertising Association and whether it was a legitimate business. The police department got so many telegrams that it created a form letter that outlined the scant details that the department knew. These letters were sent in reply to each person who sent a telegram.

Because the scheme had crossed state lines and used the U.S. Mail, the legal case also involved the Office of the U.S. District Attorney, Middle District Pennsylvania. Andrew Dunsmore prosecuted the case and won convictions of the officials.

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