History for the Rest of Us

Transcontinental Railroad ‘Done’

Transcontinental Railroad ‘Done’

May 9, 2014

Final Spike Driven After a swing and a miss by an official from Union Pacific, and a second swing and a miss by another, two construction supervisors took turns driving in the last spike and completing the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The spike and the original sledge used by the UP officials were wired to transmit the sound to the nation. The word ‘done’ was telegraphed across the United States on May 10th, 1869 at 12:47 P.M. with the Union Pacific’s No. 119 facing Central Pacific’s ‘Jupiter’ at Promontory Summit, Utah. Golden Spike Leland Stanford President of the Central Pacific Railroad Co. brought four ceremonial spikes which were dropped into pre-bored holes in the ties as part of the proceedings. Among the four was the famed ‘Golden Spike’ inscribed ‘the Last Spike’. Competition Groundbreaking for the Central Pacific Railroad took place in Sacrament six years earlier on January 8, 1863, while the Union Pacific broke ground on December 2nd of the same year on the Missouri River bluffs. Competition between the two companies helped drive the efforts forward. Charles Crocker who was in charge of labor issues for Central Pacific claimed they could lay 10 miles of track in one day. Union Pacific officials claimed it was impossible. On April 28th 1869, with a $10,000 bet hanging in the balance, CP set the record by laying 10 miles of track. Challenges The efforts were not without setbacks as Central Pacific faced labor shortages with workers leaving the effort when in 1865 silver was discovered in Nevada, and Union Pacific facing Native American raiding parties. Central Pacific resolved their issues by hiring Chinese workers to fill the shortages while UP appointed Grenville Dodge, a former ‘Indian fighter’ as Chief Engineer to resolve their challenges. Summary The Transcontinental Railroad played a major role in Western expansion, served the North during the Civil War, and was instrumental in building fortunes. Its importance has dwindled with time and the advent of other means of transportation, but its impact on United States history...

Rediscovery of Machu Picchu

Rediscovery of Machu Picchu

Jul 18, 2013

On July 24, 1911, Hiram Bingham III, a lecturer at Yale University, was led by Melchor Arteaga to a site Melchor called Machu Picchua (“old mountain”), a largely forgotten Inca city. Bingham wrote, “The morning of July 24th dawned a cold drizzle. Arteaga shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to play him well if he showed me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. But when he found I was willing to pay him a sol, three or four times the ordinary daily wage, he finally agreed to go. When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up to the top of the mountain. No one supposed that they would be particularly interesting, and no one cared to go with me.” Leaving camp at approximately 10:00 A.M., Bingham, Seargeant Carrasco, and Arteaga soon crossed a bridge that so unnerved Bingham that he crawled across it on his hands and knees. Around midday they reached a ridge near Machu Picchu after climbing a precipitous slope. The group rested for a time, and Bingham was told that an 11-year old guide, Pablito Alvarez would lead him to the site. Pablito revealed to Bingham a series of white granite walls – the remains of the Royal Tomb, Main Temple, and Temple of the Three Windows – that Bingham found to be the finest masonry he had ever seen. While not the first explorer to reach the site, Hiram was the first to bring worldwide attention to it. He returned in 1912 and 1915 with support from Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Perhaps it was his love for the area, as evidenced in the following statement, that helped assure his ability to bring the city out of hundreds of years of obscurity. “I had entered the marvellous canyon of the Urubamba below the Inca fortress. Here the river escapes from the cold plateau by tearing its way through gigantic mountains of granite. The road runs through a land of matchless charm. It has the majestic grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, as well as the startling beauty of the Nuuanu...

Great Fire of Rome

Great Fire of Rome

Jul 13, 2013

On July 19, 64 AD the Great Fire of Rome began in the merchant area of the city and burned for six days. Three of Rome’s fourteen districts were ‘leveled to the ground’ and seven others were reduced ‘to a few scorched and mangled ruins’ according to Tacitus. There are contradictory accounts explaining the cause of the fire. Rumors were rampant that Nero had sent men into the city to set it on fire, while he sang songs of the destruction of Troy and played on his lyre. The following verse, orally conveyed or posted on a city wall at the time, expresses the sentiment of residents of the city: Though Nero may pluck the cords of a lyre, And the Parthian King the string of a bow, He who chants to the lyre with heavenly fire Is Apollo as much as his far-darting foe. Suetonius indicated that ‘Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called the “beauty of the flames”; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end’. Some believed that the fire was an accident. Tacitus says that Nero wasn’t in Rome when the fire started but was in Antium, returning only when the fire threatened a mansion he had built. Many inhabitants of the city were further convinced that the fires should be attributed to Nero when he decided to build the ‘Domus Aurea’, his ‘Golden House’, a massive palace complex, on the site. Nero placed blame on the Christians as indicated by Tacitus. ‘…to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians’. Related Stories: Temple of Mars Ultor Nerva Forum of Nerva Forum of Trajan Belly Button of Rome Elsewhere on the Web: Yale Courses:Notorious Nero and his Amazing Architectural Legacy Items from the Creating History...

Mercuralia – Festival of Mercury

Mercuralia – Festival of Mercury

May 14, 2013

Mercuralia was a Roman celebration that was also known as the ‘Festival of Mercury’. Mercury, was a Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes although there are myths regarding Mercury that are distinctly Roman. He was a god of trade, thieves, and travel. The name is closely related to merx, mercari, and merces which respectively mean merchandise, to trade, and wages. For good luck, on the Ides of May (May 15th) which was considered his birthday, the merchants of Rome would use laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers! Related Stories: Neptunalia Ludi Apollinares Vestalia Matralia Portunalia Items from the Creating History...

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo

May 4, 2013

Cinco de Mayo is observed mainly in the state of Puebla, Mexico in commemoration of the Mexican Army’s surprising victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Mexican-American War, Mexican Civil War and the Reform Wars had left the Mexican Treasury near bankruptcy. President Benito Juarez suspended all foreign debt payments for two years on July 17, 1861. The Spanish, French, and British sent naval forces to demand reimbursement. Spain and Britain were able to negotiate a settlement and withdrew their forces. The French looking to expand their influence in the West, drove President Juarez and his government into retreat. However, as the French advanced towards Mexico City, their 8,000 man army was decisively defeated by a poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,000 near Puebla. The defeat was the first for a French army that had not been defeated in nearly 50 years, and gave the Mexicans a significant boost in morale. While the War would continue for a number of years, the Battle of Puebla would stand as inspiration for the Mexicans throughout the War. Eventually with the end of the Civil War in the United States, the Mexicans with U.S. assistance were able to expel the French. The Battle of Puebla represents the last time any country in the Americas has been invaded by a European military...

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2012

During the reign of Henry VIII of England, radical Puritan reformers wished to move from a calendar filled with nearly 150 days when people were required to attend church, forego work, and in some cases pay for expensive celebrations, to a calendar that only consisted of special Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving. These days were to be selected based on events that demonstrated divine providence. For example, Days of Thanksgiving were held following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. First Thanksgiving The tradition continued when the Puritans emigrated into New England in the 1620s and 1630s. Which of the various Days of Thanksgiving should be considered the official ‘First Thanksgiving’ is a matter of debate. Notably there were Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and one in Boston in 1631. The Spanish held a service of Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565 in St. Augustine Florida, and a codified day of Thanksgiving was established in 1619 in Charles City County, Virginia. Date of Thanksgiving Originally, proclamations of ‘Thanksgiving’ were made primarily by church leaders, but eventually politicians began to influence the proclamations. November 26, 1789 became the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration in the United States after a proclamation by George Washington for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” From the first nationwide Thanksgiving until the time of Abraham Lincoln, the date the holiday was observed varied by state. In an attempt to built unity in a divided nation, Lincoln, by means of a presidential proclamation in 1863 named the final Thursday of November as the official date for Thanksgiving. The Confederate States of America refused to recognize the authority of the proclamation, and a nationwide date wasn’t realized again until the 1870s. The current date, the fourth Thursday of November was determined by a joint resolution of Congress signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 26, 1941. The slight change was decided upon as a measure to give the country an economic boost by lengthening period between Thanksgiving and...