The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow

On the morning of August 28, 1888 residents of the Dimmock Hollow area woke up knowing that it was going to be a memorable day. They couldn’t have known how right they were.

A political rally had been planned by some local Republicans to support Benjamin Harrison in his presidential campaign against Grover Cleveland. Republicans knew that the race would be close, nowhere more so than here in Cleveland’s home state of New York.

The rally was planned after Democrats raised a liberty pole near the schoolhouse in Dimmock Hollow, a tiny crossroads close to the Ostego-Chenango County border between South New Berlin and Morris. Republicans were determined not to let their rivals have all the fun.

NY State Map
Map of New York State, circa 1876. Dimmock Hollow is in the red circle. Image credit: New York Public Library.

Liberty poles raisings  were important events for local communities; enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and unity for like minded neighbors. The very first liberty poles in the United States had been raised during the American Revolution as an act of defiance against the British. Later generations of Americans claimed the symbol for their political parties, making liberty poles a central part of their rallies.

“Raising the Liberty Pole 1776,” Frederick Chapman, c. 1875. Image source: Library of Congress.

As was the custom of the time, Republicans from Dimmock Hollow and other neighboring towns decided to raise their own, taller, liberty pole nearby (theirs was 124 feet tall). It was also custom for pole raisings (sometimes called “jollifications”) to include a full day’s worth of revelry and celebration. It was a time when carousers could give raucous speeches, share a keg of hard cider, and make a lot of noise.

The Republicans planned, as one attendee later remembered, an “elaborate program” for the day. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.

A picnic and grand campaign speeches for supporters and curious onlookers alike were planned to accompany the pole raising. But here is where it gets interesting:  some of the more “athletic” Republicans thought the day would be more memorable if they fired a cannon during the proceedings.

The hauled an ancient cannon to Dimmock Hollow, said to have been a relic of the Mexican War. It brought by Addison Hill, the son of a local army veteran. Hill stuck around to oversee the loading and firing of the gun, but the actual work was left some fearless young men.

Powder and dry sand were mixed together in equal parts and loaded into the old cannon. The crowd, eager to hear the cannon’s  roar, gathered around the gun. After the first discharge, one of the axles shattered from the force of the explosion. Undaunted, the men repaired it and the cannon was reloaded. “The old cannon had a vicious recoil and it didn’t take many shots for the brute to kick itself loose from its carriage,” one witness recalled. Unfazed by the shattered carriage and dire warnings from a Civil War veteran in the crowd, Hill and his assistants balanced the muzzle of the cannon on a log and prepared to fire another Republican salute at noon before they paused for lunch. Afterwards they would all return and finally raise their liberty pole.

Vera Cruz
The cannon probably looked like these ones used at the 1846 Battle of Vera Cruz. Currier & Ives, 1847. Image credit: Library of Congress.

As the band began to lead the way to the picnic ground, an extra heavy charge of powder was loaded. Crammed in with paper wadding and tamped down with sand, the charge was packed into the barrel and the fuse lit. It only took a few seconds for the festivities turn into a horrifying disaster.

An old iron gun,
Of course its gonna blow up,
Now three guys are dead.

Several jagged pieces of the cannon were hurled into the crowd of onlookers and claimed the lives of John Dixon, Fred Sage, and his cousin Albert Sargent. They were struck in the head and all died instantly. “The spectators stood as though paralyzed for a moment,” one reporter wrote, “and then the entire throng surged toward the three victims of the explosion.” All three men were local, and had been standing in the nearby crowd with their families. They were all 26 or younger.

Onlookers tried in vain to aid their friends. One jumped on a horse and hurried to find a physician. When he arrived at the doctor’s office, he discovered that his “trousers  from the knee to the bottom were bespattered with brains.”

No one ever figured out why the cannon exploded that day. Some thought the men loaded the cannon with too much powder. Others thought that it was simply too old and shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. Addison Hill was never able to give a satisfactory explanation.

Oddly enough, none of the men firing the cannon were killed or even harmed, though one man did loose part of his hat and several pieces of the barrel crashed through the wall of the nearby cheese factory several yards from the explosion.

Distraught, the men in charge postponed the liberty pole raising and abandoned the picnic lunch and other activities of the day. The next day local papers reported that “the pole still lies prostrate and it is probably that no further attempt will be made to raise it.

How could this have happened? Were presidential politics really this intense and eventful in 19th century American towns? Yes. Yes they definitely were. Though this particular rally at Dimmock Hollow’s ended on a tragic note, the day’s activities were far from uncommon.

A lot of effort and excitement went into 19th century political rallies like this one. For the citizens of Dimmock Hollow, a presidential election was the perfect opportunity to support your candidate and have a good time…at the same time. There were more connections between small town American life, politics, and entertainment back then than you might expect. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow”


History of a Wandering Yankee: Cliff House and Sutro Baths

After Frank and Nell arrive in foggy San Francisco, it doesn’t take long before they begin to explore the city. The Felters were particularly excited about visiting sights along the coastline like the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and Seal Rocks. I like the description of the water slide (“chute”) and the different ways bathers ride the copper chute down into the pool. As Frank says, “tis a most fascinating sport!” The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were both sadly destroyed by fires in 1907 and 1966.

Cliff House and Seal Rocks
Frank and Nell could have looked out this very same window out onto the Pacific Ocean! Cliff House and Seal Rocks, circa 1905. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

[Spring 1900]

Our trunks come and we unpack and rest ourselves, ready for the morrow’s excursions.

Recollecting that we are almost alone in a great city, we get a City map and guide book, lest we may lose ourselves.

There is a splendid car service in Frisco, and one can get a good idea of the City by patronizing the car lines, on some of which, by their system of transfers, you can ride an hour of two for a nickel.

Frisco has many hills, and the cars, mostly cable, have to climb grades as steep as 26%, which is a rise of 26 feet in every 100 feet of travel.

Cliff House
Cliff House, circa 1902. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During our stay in Frisco we rode out to the Cliff House many times. This Hotel is built on a projecting rock at the entrance to Golden Gate and can be seen many miles out at sea.

From the balcony which faces the ocean, and which is entirely enclosed in glass, one can get a beautiful view of the Pacific in all kinds of weather and look down into the water as it breaks into foam and spray against the cliff below.

Seal Rocks.jpg
Seal Rocks circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

A few hundred feet out are some large rocks which are often covered with thousands of seals and from that fact are called Seal Rocks.

Close to the Cliff House is the entrance to the famous Sutro Baths, and the Museu, the largest salt water baths in the world. There are seats surrounding the tanks which will accommodate 10,000 spectators. The building is 500 feet by 250 feet. The main tank is 300 feet long, and this, with five smaller ones, ’tis said will hold 2,000,000 gallons of water, and will accommodate thousands of bathers.Here one can sit for hours and watch the bathers dive off the high perches, -swim about, -or slide down the chutes. The water is heated to different temperatures in the different tanks, and one can choose any degree of heat desired. Depth of water varies from two feet to eight feet in order to accommodate women and children as well as the strong swimmer. The tanks can be emptied and filled by the action of the tides. Twenty-five cents admits one to the building and pays for a bathing suit. We were particularly interested in the chutes, which consist of a slide commencing 18 or 20 feet above the water, and extending downward in an almost vertical line about twelve feet, and then gradually curving until it reaches the surface of the water  horizontally.

Sutro Baths
Sutro Baths, circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

This slide is covered with copper plates, and when in use, a stream of water is constantly flowing over its surface which makes it extremely slippery. The bather mounts the stairs to its top, and looks down. If ’tis his first trial, he puts one foot over, then the other and holds on the sides with both hands, then after waiting four or five minutes, he either tries to get back and give it up, or else takes a long breath and lets go. In less than three seconds he has slid down and gone under water several feet. If the individual happens to be of the female persuasion she invariably screams when she starts and of course goes under water with her mouth wide open. This is more interesting to the spectators than to her, but she comes up all right, and after a while her friends persuade her to try it again, and go down head first. This takes lots of nerve, but is entirely successful, and as she comes down with tremendous speed, is shot out and skims gracefully along the surface of the water half across the tank, -all in a few seconds. Having acquired the nerve and the proper method, ’tis a most fascinating sport, and some parts of the day an almost continuous stream of bathers is shooting down this steep incline: sometimes several going down together holding to each other as in a chain.

Sutro Baths today
The ruins of the Sutro Baths as seen in 2012. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During afternoon and evening there are concerts, and this immense building is filled sometimes with the sweet strains of a dream ragtime. Here one can find ample accommodation and amusement for several days, as there is a Hotel, a restaurant, theatre, museum, and picture gallery, all enclosed in this class covered structure.

I could write a week of the beauties and sights of San Francisco, and then not do justice to the subject. In many respects Frisco is like all large cities, having its system of Public Parks, its museums, observatories, theatres and churches, fountains, libraries, Art galleries, public buildings, cemeteries, race-tracks, etc., etc.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.