“Wild Sublimity and Weird Grandeur:” A Ride Up the Columbia River

Frank and Nell are finally finishing up the Continental US portion of their vacation. In this section, they travel up the Columbia River to Portland, noting the many natural wonders that can be seen along the way. Frank compares the Columbia to the Hudson River, but dares to say that the East Coast river barely compares. I wonder if Frank’s New York cousins thought he was bragging a bit too much in his letter? The Felters mention several other noteworthy items here: the impressive Oregon lumber and produce industries in action, the mighty Cascade Locks, and a funny story about a stubborn pony that just won’t get on their boat. At the turn of the century, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were still lush and contained many natural resources that would have stood out compared to areas in the East that had been clear cut long ago. We end with the Felters boarding the steamer “Cottage City” finally headed for Alaska!

Now we are passing Multnomah Falls. The stream as it leaves the mountain top above, is Thirty feet wide, yet it seems but a foot or two across, so high is it: the fall being 860 feet perpendicularly.

A little later we are abreast of Cape Horn, which is seemingly a mass of rock and metal fused at some time ages ago, and at a later period the bottom gave way and a portion went down, leaving an almost perpendicular cliff 2500 feet high.

There are numerous points in the upper Columbia that resemble the Hudson River scenery: but in the Columbia’s ocean of waters, its score of cataracts, its rugged crags and towering precipices, its snow capped peaks, its beautiful colorings and changing shadows, its majestic heights and awful depths, and in its wild sublimity and weird grandeur,- the Hudson cannot, -nor can any other river compare favorably with the Columbia.

The Cascade Locks some 40 or 50 miles East of Portland, were built by the U.S. Government at a cost of Twenty Millions, and now the steamers pass through these locks, where formerly a railroad had to be used to transfer passengers and goods around these dangerous rocks to the steamers on the other side.

Cascade Locks

Cascade Locks and Mt. Adams, 1920. Library of Congress.

So rapid is the current here, that to make a few hundred feet progress diagonally across and up the river, requires an hour or two of time when the river is high and to go directly up the stream, through the rapids would be impossible.

It is along here that this mighty river has found its way through and across the Cascade range of Mountains. At this point the average yearly rainfall is Eighty (80) inches, while a mile or so further East it is only Eighteen (18) inches, or less than one-fourth the amount.

We reach our destination The Dalles about eight o’clock in the evening, two hours late from the fact that our boat was stopped 121 times, more or less, to take on or put off freight and passengers, during the trip. Once we saw a man on the bank waving his arms wildly about, and the Captain therefore ran the boat over against the sandy shore, and a gang plank was run out. The man ashore tried to lead a horse up the plank, but the horse didn’t want to come abroad. Then two men pulled while two men pushed: but all to no purpose, the little animal jumped off the side of the plank and swam ashore. This occurred several times, and the Captain, very much disgusted, rang the bell to go ahread, and we left out friend and his obstinate little cayuse on the shore. The man was very much crestfallen, but the cayuse shook himself and winked at us, and seemed very happy to still be on dry land. We lost about 20 minutes by this episode, but were well repaid by the diversion it gave us. Continue reading


Relishing His Crime: SCI Graterford and the Stolen Hotdog

On March 20, 1952, an inmate at Pennsylvania’s SCI Graterford prison was written up in the Warden’s Daily Log for stealing a hotdog (“larceny of frankfurter”) from the mess hall. Not what I was expecting to find as I was searching for a prisoner admission record, but worthy of mention here I think.

Graterford Hotdog

PA State Archives RG15.HH.

I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of hot dog thefts or of inmate E-1832 at SCI Graterford. Hopefully he had a frank discussion with the warden and cleaned up his act…I hope he didn’t meat with any other consequences.

Because activities in prisons were usually documented in extreme detail, these records can be a gold mine of information for researchers. If you’re interested in learning more about prison history in Pennsylvania, the State Archives has records from several state prisons that are really great!

Forests Have Always Been a Play Place for Children in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s forests comprise some of the best places to relax and see grand natural views in the state. In the 1920s, over 1.3 million acres of Pennsylvania was covered in forest. Though this may seem like a lot, it was actually a small amount compared to 100 years earlier, when forests covered practically every square mile of space in the Keystone State. A voracious lumber industry decimated the Pennsylvania forests in the 19th century, leaving 5 million barren acres known as the “Pennsylvania Desert.”

In the early 20th century, prominent Pennsylvanians finally took notice of their dwindling forest spaces and began took efforts to preserve them. “Why not restore Penn’s Woods?” Governor William Sproul asked in 1920, “why not let these mountains contribute once more as they have done in the past to the wealth, prosperity, and beauty of Pennsylvania?” Sproul was joined by other champions of Pennsylvania’s forests- Joseph Rothrock and Gifford Pinchot– and created a Department of Forestry and dozens of state parks and forests.

Pennsylvania’s forests were never empty natural spaces, they have always been full of people and activity. Before European colonization forced them westward, Pennsylvania’s woods were inhabited by the Shawnee, Erie, Iroquois, Susquehannock, Lenape, Delaware, and Munsee tribes. European settlers used Pennsylvania’s forests to build homes, industries, and entire communities as they spread across the state. By the early 20th century, no other state had more people living in rural areas than Pennsylvania. And most of those rural Pennsylvanians lived in or around forests. Striking a balance between harvesting protecting these forests makes Pennsylvania the perfect place for any hunter, hiker, or nature lover of any age today.

Below are a few pictures of Pennsylvania children who played and lived in the forests of Pennsylvania. Some of these are taken in State Parks, built to preserve the state’s forests, while others are from logging camps and other unprotected natural areas. All paint a picture of a vibrant play place where there were plenty of things to do for any kid. All of these photographs were taken from the Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20: Department of Forests and Waters, Public Relations Office, Photographs and Negatives 1890-1971. Please cite the State Archives if you copy any of these images!

Promised Land Lake

“Promised Land Lake,” Delaware State Forest, Pike County, 1928, P.E. Gottshall


“Wading,” Hammersley Region, Clinton County, W.T. Clarke

The Kiddies Have Been Playing

“The Kiddies Have Been Playing,” Near Betula, McKean County, W.T. Clarke

Playing Among the Trees

“Playing Among the Trees,” Penn State Forest near Milroy, July 2 1924, J.S. Illick

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Historic Photos of Hunting and Fishing in Pennsylvania

I came across a great collection of hunting/fishing photographs the other day at the Pennsylvania State Archives. All of these were taken by the PA Department of Forestry in the north and west parts of the state between 1915 and 1935 to document the uses of Pennsylvania’s natural areas. The folks in these pictures don’t look too different from the hunters of today.

All of these photographs were taken from the Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20: Department of Forests and Waters, Public Relations Office, Photographs and Negatives 1890-1971. Please cite the State Archives if you copy any of these images!

A Hunting Party

“A Hunting Party,” Logan State Forest, June 1925 photo by H.B. Kirk

Ole Bull Public Camp Ground

“Ole Bull Public Camp Ground,” December 1922 photo by W.A. Luey

A Catch of Coons Rabbit and Pheasants

“A Catch of Coons, Rabbit and Pheasants,” photo by H.W. Shoemaker

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Al Capone’s Secret Release from a Pennsylvania Prison

ESP Capone Mug Shot

Al Capone’s Eastern State Penitentiary Mugshot. ESP Historic Site.

In the spring of 1929, Al Capone left a meeting of mafia leaders in Atlantic City and was traveling back to his Chicago home when he was arrested in Philadelphia. The mobster was caught carrying and concealing a deadly weapon, a .38 caliber revolver. After a quick trial, Capone and his bodyguard Frank Cline both pled guilty and were sentenced to serve one year in Eastern State Penitentiary. If you visit the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site today, you can even see Capone’s cell as it looked at the time. But what most people don’t know is that Capone was secretly transferred to SCI Graterford the day before his release.

Newspaper articles published shortly before Capone’s March 1930 release date warned that the mob boss’ enemies were coming to meet him at the prison gates and crowds of onlookers started showing up at the ESP gate to get a glimpse of “Scarface Al” in person. Worried about violence and “possible harm, bodily or otherwise,” the ESP Board of Trustees and Warden Herbert Smith came up with a plan: release Capone from another prison. SCI Graterford, built in 1927, was only 30 miles north of Philadelphia and there was plenty of room for Capone and Cline. The two men were both quietly driven to Graterford in the warden’s private car. They spent their last nights as prisoners in a Graterford cell. The public didn’t catch on to the trick until it was too late.

Capone Slips Away NYT Headline

The New York Times was among the papers waiting to see Capone at ESP.

The next morning Capone and Cline walked alone out of Graterford’s gates and into a Buick sedan that sped back to Chicago. Later that day, a crowd of two thousand reporters and curious Philadelphians were disappointed to hear that they wouldn’t get to see America’s most infamous mobster walk free. “We certainly stuck one on your eye,” Warden Smith shouted to the crowd, “the big guy went out of here…we shot him out in a brown automobile.”


Capone and Cline’s commutation record. PA State Archives, RG15.18

Al Capone’s year at Eastern State Penitentiary and SCI Graterford was the first prison sentence he ever served. Some newspaper accounts claim that he arranged to be arrested on purpose in Philadelphia to keep himself safe from rival gang assassins in Chicago after the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone always denied this charge, and a month after his release from Graterford said: “One thing I would like to set at rest is the report that I went into jail to dodge something. If I wanted to go to jail, I certainly wouldn’t pick one in Pennsylvania. I would have looked around for one where there were more conveniences.” Whatever the case, Capone’s stay at ESP and Graterford mark an interesting chapter in Pennsylvania’s corrections history.

Graterford Warden Log_March 1930

Capone’s record (prisoner C-5227) in the Graterford Warden Daily Journal is buried amongst the details of routine prison activities. PA State Archives RG15.HH.

Administrative staff at SCI Graterford recently helped transfer a large collection of their historical records to the State Archives in Harrisburg, including a 1930 Warden’s journal that describes Capone’s secret transfer and release from Graterford. This journal is the only known record that confirms Capone spent time at Graterford. These records will be preserved in the archives building and will be available to visitors to look at in the coming months. The State Archives also has Capone’s ESP admission records and his sentence commutation order, personally signed by Governor John Fisher.

If you’d like to learn more about Al Capone and his prison time in Pennsylvania, read this New York Times article: Capone Slips Away From New Prison_NYT18301930 or contact the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site or the Pennsylvania State Archives for more information.

Vacationing Among Oregon’s Salmon Canneries

After they’re done visiting the horse canning factory, Frank and Nell explore a salmon canning facility. Apparently they were really interested in the industrial food processing in the Pacific Northwest! In this section Frank goes into detail about the procedure of cutting, canning, and boiling salmon that his New York cousins probably bought and ate. In the late 19th century, Oregon canneries employed thousands of Chinese workers, who worked long and dangerous hours for little pay or respect. Frank does seem to be a little impressed with their efficiency and hard work though. After this, they return to admiring the sights in northern Oregon- they’re most impressed with the Columbia River. The Felters are almost done with the continental U.S., they’ll be in Alaska soon!

Scandanavian Salmon

Columbia River Salmon label (canned in Astoria, Oregon), 1885. Oregon Blue Book.

Passing on by the Horse Cannery, we see between here and Astoria a great many Salmon Canneries, and Salmon wheels, which latter, huge affairs cost come $4000.00 each. The wheels revolve in the water by action of the current and as they turn around lift up and empty into a trough or chute any and all salmon foolish enough to try to pass up stream at this point. The Salmon are also caught in the sein or net, and millions of dollars are invested in this industry of the Columbia. This season is an unprofitable one for the canneries.

Columbia River Salmon

Seining on the Upper Columbia, c. 1906. Library of Congress.

The price demanded for the chinooks 7-1/2 to 10 cents per pound of gross weight, as compared with 4 cents per pound paid by the Canneries last year. We spend a couple of hours in one of these Canneries at Astoria, and was surprised at the cleanliness shown in the process. A large Cannery may employ as many as One Thousand chinamen.

The fish are weighed in huge boxes and then emptied where a man is stationed, who cuts off the head, rips open and tears out the offal, passes the fish along to the next chinaman and commences on another fish, the whole operation taking less than five seconds. Just as rapidly does the next man do his part and pass along to the third who does likewise, until eventually the salmon are canned, nicely wrapped and put in cases ready to ship. A few points were impressed on my mind, so much that I will repeat them.

Chinese Workers in Oregon Cannery.jpg

Chinese Workers in Astoria Cannery, circa 1900. Oregon Historical Society.

First, the fish are thoroughly washed but are never scaled. Second, the cans are soldered by machinery. Third, the fish are not cooked until after being sealed up. Iron trays on wheels holding from 500 to 1000 cans are shoved into a boiler where they are kept two or three hours, in steam sufficiently hot to cook the fish. Fourth, the flat cans are filled with the choicest parts of the fish, and the tall cans are mostly filled with the scraps and small pieces. Fifth, you probably knew all this before, so I will put the subject aside.

Celilo Salmon

Celilo Salmon label, 1890. Oregon Blue Book.

At Astoria, Ten miles above its mouth, the Columbia river is nine (9) miles wide and some distance further ’tis (17) seventeen miles across.

A few days following our trip to Astoria, we started out to travel the upper Columbia as far as the steamers navigate, about 100 miles East of Portland. At 7-45 on this morning, we find ourselves opposite the town of Vancouver, and now we have the beautiful view of Mount Hood, to the right of us, 11,000 feet high: and on our left are Mount Rainier 14,448,- Mount St. Helens 9700: and Mount Adams 12400 feet high, each and all being covered with snow at their summit.

Below its junction with the Williamette, the Columbia is bordered mostly with low lands covered with trees and grasses, while some distance above the junction it is entirely different in character, and the trip is rightly said to be one of surprises, each bend of the river showing up new and wonderful formations.

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.


The Dalles and Mt. Hood from the North Side of the Columbia River, 1912. Library of Congress.

Thoreau Imagines The Greatest History Never Written

“You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in 1775 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and plowing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.”

The Field.jpg

Alice Pike Barney, The Field. c. 1892. National Museum of American Art.

I was reading Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” and this passage struck me. In my work as an archivist, I spend a lot of time thinking about historical records and the stories and information they contain. When I appraise new records to see if they should be in the archives, I try to prioritize documentation of underrepresented communities, stories, and perspectives in. It’s always a struggle to predict what kinds of records researchers will want to use in the future.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau. Library of Congress.

Thoreau argues that many important stories from history were never recorded by conventional means, and we need to think creatively to learn about them. On top of that, there is an important difference between histories that are written by people who can speak for themselves, and those who cannot (or choose not to).

Just because history isn’t recorded in your typical books, newspaper articles, diaries, etc., doesn’t mean it’s lost, it just needs to be unlocked. I think this is a really important lesson as historians today are getting more interested in the experiences of historically marginalized groups such as racial minorities, people with disabilities, people of various sexual and gender identities, etc. We should try looking for other types of non-traditional “documents” these communities left behind (or possibly didn’t leave behind as well) and think about them carefully. This requires a lot of thought, but these stories are too important not to tell.

We do need to be very careful about how we interpret these unique records. It’s a lot harder to “read” and understand a farmer’s field than your every-day book, and I’m sure what I would notice or pay attention to could be very different than that farmer. I know many historians are already thinking really hard about how to find non-traditional sources and use them to diversify and expand our understanding of history, and I think Thoreau would be happy to know that.

Are there any fields, or buildings, or other non traditional texts you can think of that record stories and experiences outside our main stream history? How would you use them to write history? I’m really interested to find new types of “records” and make sure that we’re preserving them for the future!

P.T. Barnum was an Early Adopter of the Telegraph- So he Could Prank his Co-Workers

A few months ago I posted about David Lechler’s telegraph prank. He had been tricking old Pennsylvania Dutch farmers into believing that he could send newspapers and clothes from Philadelphia to his Lancaster office in mere seconds using the brand new telegraph lines. I had written that Lechler’s prank reminded me of the 19th century king of practical jokes and humbuggery: P.T. Barnum.

I’m sure Barnum would have been impressed with Lechler’s telegraph prank, though he would have been disappointed that he didn’t make any money off of the trick.

Well, it turns out that Barnum pulled off his own telegraph prank, just a few years after Lechler. Believe it or not, the fraudulent showman pulled one over on his own employees while they were on tour with Jenny Lind in 1850. I had assumed that Barnum would have seen the telegraph as another opportunity to take advantage of others and make a quick buck, but it turns out that he used it for an April Fools Day laugh at the expense of his co-workers. I discovered this amusing anecdote while reading Barnum’s autobiography. The greatest conman was very proud of his telegraph prank and described it in detail. His autobiography is full of dishonesty, exploitation, and con-man games, and I have to admit it was nice to read about a fairly harmless scheme for once. I highly recommend his “The Life of P.T. Barnum,” originally published in 1855. That crummy movie they made about him recently doesn’t do any justice to the real guy.

Anyways, here is an excerpt from the Nashville Daily American that Barnum reproduced on page 336-337 in the book. Enjoy!

A series  of laughable jokes came off yesterday at the Veranda in honor of All Fools’ Day. Mr. Barnum was at the bottom of the mischief. He managed in some mysterious manner to obtain a lot of blank telegraphic dispatches and envelopes from one of the offices in this city, and then went to work and manufactured ‘astounding intelligence’ for most of the parties composing the Jenny Lind suite. Almost every person in the company received a telegraphic dispatch written by E.T. Nichols, under the direction of Barnum. Mr. Barnum’s daughter was informed that her mother, her cousin, and several other relatives were waiting for her in Louisville, and various other important and extraordinary items of domestic intelligence were communicated to her. Mr. Le Grand Smith was told by a dispatch from his father that his native in Connecticut was in ashes, including his own homestead, etc. Several of Barnum’s employees had most liberal offers of engagements from banks and other institutions at the North. Burke, and others of the musical professors, were offered princely salaries by opera managers, and many of them received most tempting inducements to proceed immediately to the World’s Fair in London.


Telegraph register machine, circa 1850. National Museum of American History.

One married gentleman in Mr. Barnum’s suite received the gratifying intelligence that he had for two days been the father of a pair of bouncing boys, (mother and children doing well,) an even which he had been anxiously looking for during the week, though on a somewhat more limited  scale. In fact, nearly every person in the party engaged by Barnum received some extraordinary telegraphic intelligence, and as the great Impressario managed to have the dispatches delivered simultaneously, each recipient was for some time busily occupied with his own personal news.

By-and-by, each began to tell his neighbor of his good or bad tidings; and each was, or course, rejoiced or grieved according to circumstances. Several gave Mr. Barnum notice of their intention to leave him, in consequence of better offers; and a number of them sent off telegraphic dispatches and letters by mail, in answer to those received.

The man who had so suddenly become the father of twins telegraphed to his wife to ‘be of good cheer,’ and that he would ‘start for home t-morrow.’ At a late hour last night the secret had not got out, and we presume that many of the victims will first learn from our columns that they have been taken by Barnum and All Fools’ Day!

14 People from History You Should Learn More About

To celebrate Another Century’s 2nd year, I thought I’d go back and look at some of the most interesting individuals that have appeared in the blog so far. I asked my wife Andra to pick 14 people appearing in blog posts that she thought were cool or fun to read about, and I’ve put them together in a list for your reading pleasure. If one of these characters catches your eye, go back to the original post to learn more!

1. Jean LeBlanc

Ok, technically Jean LeBlanc is not a person, he is a horse. But is cool enough to start this list with. When Edmond Mandat DeGrancey traveled to the Dakota Territory to inspect his land investments in 1883, he purchased a fine looking horse he named Jean LeBlanc. DeGrancey wrote that Jean’s “acrobatic accomplishments are the subject of general admiration.”


DeGrancey riding Jean LeBlanc. Bibliotheque nationale de France.

2. George Washington Hill

George Hill was the autocratic president of the American Tobacco Company. He lived to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. Hill was responsible for creating tons of controversial advertisements for his beloved smokes, and they were always sure to make someone mad.

George Washington Hill

George Hill spend a fortune advertising Lucky Strikes. And made an even bigger one selling them! Sold American: The First Fifty Years.

3. P.T. Barnum

Most people have heard of P.T. Barnum and his famous circus and his American Museum in New York. But did you know he also introduced the Dutch Belted Cow to America? He brought the black and white striped cow over from Europe in the 1880s as a circus attraction, its a great story (trust me, I looked it up).

PT Barnum and Tom Thumb

Posing with General Tom Thumb, Barnum could swindle a buck from even the cleverest of people. National Portrait Gallery.

4. Thomas Hicks and Andarin Carbajal

Hicks and Carbajal were both runners in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis. Carbajal, a Cuban athlete, lost all his money on the trip to St. Louis and had to hitchhike to the race. During the race he stopped to eat some apples, they turned out to rotten and he passed out on the course. Carbajal ended up reviving and getting fourth anyways! Hicks, the race winner, nearly died during the race too. Choking on the dusty Missouri roads, his trainer administered him strychnine, hard boiled eggs, and brandy to keep him going. Hicks, a native of Massachusetts, finished the race ashen-faced and eight pounds lighter.


Starting line of the St. Louis marathon. Hicks is #20 and Carbajal is #3. The Olympic Games, 1904.

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Another Century Turns Two!

I can’t believe this blog is two years old! It really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but my first post was published on this day in 2016. I started writing about nine months after I got my Masters degrees in history and library science from the U. of Maryland. Once I had entered the real world and was working a 9 to 5 job, I realized that I missed doing research and writing about history. At the same time, my tenure in graduate school was marked by a hundred books that I never had time to finish and a thousand more ideas that I thought would make a good paper one day. My first post, “Are you a Cowboy or a Colonel?” was actually an extended review of a book I stumbled upon one day in school and never got a chance to read until after I graduated. If you haven’t read that post, it’s a fun one that you can find here.


Last year I conducted a records inventory in an abandoned patient ward in a Philadelphia mental hospital. There was no power and broken windows made for a dark and drafty job.

When I started this blog, I was a few months out of school, recently married, and just starting my career. At the time I was a lowly contract processing archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropology Archives. A few months later I got a job offer at the Pennsylvania State Archives and Andra and I moved up to Harrisburg. I’m working in acquisitions section, traveling around to different government offices and institutions to look for their historical records. I’ve gotten to dig documents out of squirrel infested attics and moldy basements that were just as creepy as you might imagine. My job takes me to places like prisons, fish hatcheries and executive offices; anywhere historical records are to be found I go and check them out!

Being at the PA State Archives has also had an impact on this blog. You may have noticed that there are a decent number of posts I’ve done on topics from Pennsylvania history. This seems pretty natural since I sift through the state’s history 8 hours a day. I have also gotten into more posts that touch on my own family history. A lot of genealogists  visit our archives and I guess I got hooked too! It has been fun finding my own family’s connections to interesting historical events, especially in the travel adventures of Frank and Nell Felter and in the tragic death of Albert Sergeant at Dimmock Hill. I’m still working on several more posts like these so check back soon for those.

I started this blog just as a personal exercise in research and writing, and as a way to keep a running list of historical books I’d like to read one day. I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and am excited to see what happens in the next two years. Thanks for reading!