Category Archives: History

Berkeley in January: A Foot (or More) of Rain

I can hear the rain pounding down right now, just as it has been for much of the last few days and for most of January.

Our modest electronic rain gauge shows we’ve had 4 inches of rain in the last five days and 9.5 inches since Jan. 7; that’s 9.5 inches in half a month. I am a lousy record keeper, but I know we’d had about an inch and a half or 2 inches this month before Jan. 7. So we are looking at 11 to 12 inches of rain so far this month. Which I call a lot.

The current month’s record’s from Berkeley’s “official” weather station on the Cal campus aren’t available (the most recent available through the National Climate Data Center are from November; I’ve failed over the years to figure out how to get more current numbers from the folks who monitor the station).

But to double-check my half-informed guesstimate, I asked my friend Pat, whose boyfriend Paul is a weather geek with his own home weather station, how much rain they’ve seen at their place up in the Berkeley Hills. The caveat is that their place is at an elevation of 900 feet or so and is likely to get more rain than we do here at 120 feet above sea level in the Berkeley flats.

Nonetheless, here’s Pat’s Sunday afternoon report: 13.05 inches total rainfall since Jan. 1 and 4.59 inches over the past five days.

And one other cross-check, this time from a spot that I know is significantly wetter: Tilden Park’s Vollmer Peak, at 1,905 feet the highest point in the Berkeley Hills. The state Department of Water Resources reports readings from a gauge on the peak. It shows 16.5 inches for the month so far and 4.9 over the past five days.

I’ll declare it confirmed: What people have been seeing all over Northern California and the Bay Area is true in Berkeley, as well — we’ve had a very wet January. Although … not the rainiest we’ve ever seen in these parts.

Berkeley’s official weather record goes back to 1893. According to the precipitation data maintained by the Western Regional Climate Center, Berkeley’s rainiest January occurred in 1916, when 16.54 inches were recorded at the campus station.

Because the record for that month is incomplete — five days are missing — the January 1916 record is not officially considered our rainiest January. Instead, almost-as-soggy January 1911, when 15.99 inches fell, is listed as our January maximum. Huh — one could question the logic in that.

Either of those months — January 1911 or January 1916 — would qualify as Berkeley’s rainiest month on record.

Assuming I’m correct and we’re in the 11- to 12-inch mark for January rain, this would mark Berkeley’s 14th January with 10 inches of more or rain. And it would be the rainiest since 1973, when 12.47 inches fell.

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Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

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Fighting Faiths and the Marketplace of Ideas, Redux

So, I’ve mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) before. More than 11 years ago, in fact, not that I’m particularly proud of that.

Holmes’s dissent is to fans of the First Amendment as Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is to opera buffs, except Holmes didn’t take his act on the road. It’s a brief, tour de force exposition of the idea that governments should only in the most exceptional circumstances interfere with speech and expression.

Why does it come to mind now? Maybe it’s a light in dark, uncertain times. Although these are times, too, when the central premise of Holmes’s dissent — that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” — is contradicted by the recent triumph of unashamed bullshit.

Anyway, here’s the oft-quoted passage from the dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

One of Holmes’s coinages there — “fighting faiths” — has always thrown me a little. My own clarification, after a little reading: He’s referring to ideals — freedom, for instance — that one feels compelled to fight for.

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History Behind Us, Hatred in Front of Us

Reflecting a little on what’s happened this week, and on this very disturbing piece of business here — an interview with the most straightforward, thoughtful, well-spoken white supremacist you’ll ever encounter, and all the more disturbing for that — it occurred to me once more how eager our white society has been to put its grossest transgressions in the rear-view mirror and act as if, now that we’ve resolved that little problem to our own satisfaction, everyone should move on. Nothing to see here, folks, but lots of unpleasantness we can just leave behind.

Listening to Richard Spencer, the white “nationalist” referenced above, talk about his ideas for a white “ethnostate” and his belief that at bottom, the governing sentiment among those of different races is hate, I was struck by his unwillingness or inability to confront the toughest question his African-American interviewer threw at him:

What’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being?

After dodging and weaving a little and saying he would not engage with the notion of “a hypothetical Klansman,” Spencer said this:

I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.

He and his ilk are different because — well, they are. You just have to trust him on that. And besides, it’s 2016 and we need to put that behind us and pursue a grander idea. (At one point in the interview, Spencer shares a few of the “values” he holds dear: “greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.” That list brought a name to mind: Leni Riefenstahl.)

The grand idea is, as mentioned before, a “white ethnostate,” what he terms “a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. … All European people … [so] we would always have a safe space.”

This isn’t really a new idea, as he says. He points to Israel as such a state. But of course there’s an example much closer to home — in fact, a state founded on the very same principles of white supremacy that underlies the idea of white nationalism.

Many of us treat the Confederacy and the Civil War and the long siege of Jim Crow that followed as objects in the rear-view mirror; curious, glorious or shameful objects that have receded almost from view. Let them stay in the past.

Lincoln was one who understood the past has its claims, and that it’s not so casually left behind. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a little more than a month before the war’s end and his assassination, he spoke about how each side had called on divine support for its cause:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And it was beyond humans, Lincoln said, to understand what price providence might demand for the crime of slavery. It was beyond us to know when the debt had been redeemed.

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

I think the first time I encountered the address was at the Lincoln Memorial, where it’s inscribed in marble. That passage — “until all the wealth piled … until every drop of blood drawn ” — has always stuck with me.

First, I think, because of Lincoln’s sober consideration of the magnitude of the “offense” that had led to the war.

Second, because of his suggestion that there was no way of knowing when the nation’s offense would be expiated — or even whether it could be expiated.

And third because, even though I am not one of Lincoln’s faith and I don’t imagine an omnipotent deity who wills human cruelty and then doles out punishment for it, the renewed encouragement of racial hatred we’re seeing now makes it clear that we’ve yet to really reckon with the worst chapters of our history — slavery, Native American genocide, the Klan’s reign of terror, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. And now, it seems, we’re listening to people who are eager to write the next dark chapter of history.

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Road Blog: Battlefield Cemetery

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Kate and I flew to Nashville Wednesday so that she could attend a national conference of science teachers and so that I could tag along. There would be plenty to do in Tennessee’s state capital, but as soon as I thought about coming out here I had only one destination on my list: Shiloh.

For you who have been poring over your James McPherson or Shelby Foote or who binge on Ken Burns, you know that Shiloh was one of the principal battles of the Civil War. More than that, its 23,000 casualties — the dead, the wounded, the captured and missing — signaled that the war had the potential to be very long and very costly.

I have visited other Civil War sites: Gettysburg, Antietam, the little house where Stonewall Jackson died after Chancellorsville, and others. But this visit is different somehow. My interest has evolved. I’m still interested in the ebb and flow of battle and who did what where, and I’m still curious about what could move human beings to endure and inflict the cruelty that typified the Civil War battlefield.

What’s changed for me is that the war has lost that quality of right, of honor, of transformation and finality that it had for me when I first encountered Civil War stories and when I first visited a battlefield when I was 17. Historians have long since re-evaluated the war in light of the South’s postwar racial code and enduring political power; in light of the North’s antebellum economic dependence on slavery and on Northern whites’ widespread rejection of the notion of racial equality.

So now the war is something different to the world, and it’s something different for me as well, part of a process that’s still being played out. It’s an interesting frame of mind to bring to a place dedicated to remembering the terrors and accidents of a single confrontation in the war.

I got to the battlefield on Thursday, late in the afternoon, just as a very heavy downpour began. I spent at least a half hour in my rented car down by the side of the Tennessee River, at the site of the landing that the Union commander, U.S. Grant, used to get to the battlefield after his army was surprised by a Confederate army on April 6, 1862. I wasn’t channeling thoughts about what it must have been like on that day; I was just listening to the din of the rain beating on the car (a rented Jeep Patriot if you’re hungry for details).

Eventually, I drove up to the battlefield headquarters, then strolled through the national cemetery where most of the Northern dead (and some from the South) were interred. I took some pictures, but felt that in some way I wasn’t connecting with the place. It started to rain again, so I left and started a drive around the battlefield. Hardly anyone was around.

I happened across the site of the church from which the battle took its name. I was surprised to find that there is a working church there — built in fits and starts from the 1920s through the 1950s, as well as a cemetery that apparently goes to the founding of the original church in 1851.

What caught my attention first was the fresh decorations on many graves. When I stopped and looked, I found many fairly recent burials. In fact, a former governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, was buried there in 1996.

But a more modest grave, one of those closest to the road, caught my attention: Jewell Smith. Born Sept. 10, 1904. Died Oct. 10, 1918. At first, I didn’t notice her photograph, a very serious portrait, embedded and well preserved in the headstone.

What happened to her? No real idea. But her date of death suggests something to me: the great influenza pandemic was sweeping the United States in the autumn of 1918.

Nearby was another headstone was a photograph: Freeman A. Cotner, died in 1951 at age 38. The portrait is striking because he’s wearing a uniform of some kind, maybe with a badge, definitely with a gunbelt. Oh, and there’s the horse.

Cotner was killed in a car accident near Fayette, Mississippi, along with his apparently sometimes-estranged wife. They either ran into the back of or head on into a large truck on U.S. 61. A daughter was with them in the car and survived. Of note: Cotner’s mother-in-law held a separate funeral for his wife, who was not buried with him.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.


The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

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Talking About the Weather

“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

–Samuel Johnson, quoted in “The Invention of Clouds,” by Richard Hamblyn

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Gleanings from a Parish Register

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Part of the family lore I absorbed long ago was the emigration of my mother’s mother’s family — the O’Malleys and Morans — from a place called Clare Island. I’ll call it a speck of rock standing at the very edge of the Atlantic on Ireland’s western coast, but with the stipulation it’s a good-size speck, maybe three miles wide at its widest point by five miles at its longest. The terrain is dramatic. Cliffs dominate much of the island’s coastline, and on the northwestern quarter of the island, a mountain rears up 1,500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

I went to the island once, long ago, and it seems hardly a day passes that I don’t think of it. Maybe that journey was left unfinished in some way. That’s another story for another day.

I have accessed my family’s story there another way, though, one that has involved scores if not hundreds of hours of looking at census returns and other genealogical records online. It’s been sort of thrilling to find the family I grew up hearing my mother describe in the census registers and to seize a few kernels of the family’s story.

Just one example: In 1894, my great-grandfathers Martin O’Malley arrived in the United States and settled with his in-laws, John and Bridget Moran, in a neighborhood just east of Chicago’s Union Stockyards. I’ve got the date of his emigration from his 1910 naturalization papers; and the address comes from the Morans’ longtime domicile on West 47th Place. In 1897, Martin’s wife, Anne Moran O’Malley, brought their eight children to Chicago.

The family shows up in the 1900 census on West 47th Street, about half a block from the Morans. Under “Occupation,” Martin and his two eldest sons, Patrick and John, are listed as “labor at yards.” The third eldest son, Mike, was listed as a “messenger boy,” and I’m guessing he worked in the yards, too (he later became a butcher and owned his own shop a couple miles south of the yards). So, we have documentary proof of the family’s existence, with enough specificity about ages — someone went through the ages of the O’Malley kids and “corrected” them at some point — to make you feel like your looking at something precise.

Well, maybe.

One thing I noticed looking at the various records for the O’Malleys — and the Morans, too, though I won’t go into that here — is how much their ages move around. Take Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran, for instance: In the 1900 census, he’s listed as having been born in July 1854, which made him 45 as of the 2nd of June, 1900, the day the O’Malley household was enumerated by someone named John P. Hughes. Anne Moran is listed as having been born in July 1864, which made her 35.

All fine. The problems — no, not problems; discrepancies — start the moment you look at any other record concerning the family. I haven’t found the 1910 census record for Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran and their clan. But there is a 1910 naturalization record for Martin, witnessed by two of his brothers-in-law, Anne’s brothers Edward and John. What does it say about Martin’s age? That he was born Nov. 9, 1856, more than two years after the date recorded in the 1900 census.

But let’s not get hung up on one tiny little difference. Turn to the 1920 census record, taken at the O’Malley home on South Yale Avenue on Jan. 6 by a Mrs. Grace Cawley. The birth month and year for household members are not recorded, but ages are. Martin is listed as 60 years old — meaning he was born in 1859 or 1860, a five- or six-year jump from the date listed in the earlier census and three or four years from the date listed on his naturalization. Meantime, Anne’s age had advanced a full 20 years, and she was listed as 55.

Martin died in June 1929, so he wasn’t around for the 1930 census, taken April 9 by a Marion Baker. But Anne was. She’s 67 — meaning her birth year has now shifted backward a couple years, to 1863 or even 1862. Most of her children, all well into single Irish Catholic adulthood by now, were living with her on Yale Avenue. The one daughter born in Ireland, Mary O’Malley, is listed as having been 35 — or born in 1894 or 1895; the 1900 census, which may even be accurate, gives her birth year as 1887.

In 1940, census enumerator Katherine Johnson visited the 6500 block of South Yale on April 6. She recorded Anne’s age as 78, which moves her birth another year back, to 1861 or 1862. Let it be noted that the 1950 census has not yet been released, and won’t be until 2022, so we don’t know what Anne or her household informants said her age was that year. But that is one more historical/actuarial data point to consult moving into the 1950s — the headstone on her grave in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, the big Catholic marble orchard — my dad’s term — out on 111th Street at Austin Avenue. There, her dates are listed as 1865-1952.

Well, the 1952 part is pretty reliable. But the 1865 part?

Anne was buried right next to Martin, and his dates are given as 1851-1929. Again, the later date is pretty well fixed. But remember that his explicit or implied birth year moved from 1854 to 1856 to 1860 in the census and naturalization documents. Where the heck did 1851 come from? And was he really 14 years older than his wife?

Now enter a parish baptismal register for Clare Island digitized sometime in the last few years by the National Library of Ireland. It’s hard to know how complete it is, but it does appear to contain birth and/or baptism information for Martin O’Malley — or Malley, as virtually all of the O’Malleys are listed in the book — and for Anne Moran and eight of her siblings.

Martin’s parents were said to be Patrick O’Malley and Alice O’Malley, and the book lists just one Martin with those parents. He was born, almost certainly, on June 20, 1852. So if you’re keeping track at home, I think we have five different dates for him from five different sources. Me, I’m inclined to go with the earliest dates, especially since there’s something like a contemporary record of his birth.

Now let’s look at Anne, whose birth has been hovering in the early 1860s. She was the first child recorded for John Moran and Bridget Prendergast. The parish register gives her date of birth and baptism as July 19, 1860. Again, virtually every later record gives a different actual or implied birth year for her.

I grew up with the notion that chronology was something that was definite, fixed and objective, or at least could be. I grew up with a web of family dates in my head — birth dates and anniversaries and dates of death, dates we moved from one place to the other — and I’ve always been the pain in the ass who remembers what date Lincoln was shot (April 14, 1865) and reams of other key historical moments. I can tell you that I was born one April morning at 9:21 a.m. — or at least that’s what the records say — and 9:21 a.m. therefore bears some significance for me.

So the floating dates with these not-so-distant ancestors throw me a little and make me wonder how it all happened. It must have been a combination of things: perhaps a lack of specific records; census interviews in which the informant had only a vague idea of everyone’s age, census enumerators and immigration clerks who were inattentive and sloppy or rushed, and interviewees who might have been a little vain or reluctant to give up personal information or just not too concerned with exactitude.

More gleanings to come.

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A July Surprise: Actual Rain

The fact it’s July notwithstanding, the National Weather Service forecast rain for Thursday. Our seasonal but only faintly known monsoon — it occasionally brings heavy rain to the Sierra and other ranges but rarely visits the lowlands with rain — has been potent this year. Despite that, it was a surprise when rain began pattering on the roof early this afternoon. And just as surprising when showers started up again about nightfall.

How much did it add up to? Our rain gauge, which has gotten very little use since we set it up in the spring, recorded .05 of an inch. Other weather stations around town — I find it hard to find the “official” reading here — recorded up to about .10.

Checking the Western Regional Climate Center records for Berkeley, it appears the official record for the date here was .10, in 1974. The average monthly July rainfall for Berkeley, in records that go back (though with some gaps) to 1893, is .03 of an inch.

And the wettest July day ever recorded in Berkeley is actually kind of surprising: 1.40 inches, on July 8, 1974. That was part of a storm that swept the region and yes, made headlines. Here’s the front-page portion of a story from the Marin Independent Journal (and below that, the PDF of the entire front page, which features a six-column picture of a flooded U.S. 101 in Corte Madera as well as some better-known history):

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Daily_Independent_Journal_Mon__Jul_8__1974_.pdf

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Along the Road: Leonidas Taylor and the Steamer Belle

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Again, from our recent trip to Woodland: Headed from Woodland toward Sacramento, Old River Road is a levee highway, generally keeping to the top of the embankment separating the Sacramento River from the flood plain to the west and south. If you like seeing the river, the surviving remnant of riparian landscape and the adjacent farms — orchards interspersed with fields ready for row crops — it’s a beautiful drive.

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I’m guessing about halfway between Woodland and Sacramento, you pass the obelisk above. It’s along a stretch of 55 mph highway, meaning much of the traffic is faster, and the pullout is minuscule. We ran past it heading south toward Sacramento, then turned around and pulled in heading the wrong way up the road.

The obelisk is a memorial to a young Philadelphia native named Leonidas Taylor, one of the many victims of steamboat disasters/mishaps in mid-19th century America. He was clerk aboard the steamer Belle, which, according to newspaper accounts from the time, left Sacramento at at a little after 7 a.m. on February 5, 1856, and headed up the foggy river bound for Red Bluffs (today, it’s Red Bluff, singular). That’s roughly 120 miles in a straight line, and one would guess about 150 river miles. About 40 people were aboard.

About an hour later, 10 miles above Sacramento, the Belle’s boiler blew. The explosion obliterated the front half of the 75-ton sternwheeler, flinging passengers, cargo and wreckage into the Sacramento. The Belle sank quickly. The papers reported about half those aboard were killed in the blast or drowned. Here’s how the Sacramento Union described the toll:

From the most reliable information obtainable, we cannot learn that there were over forty souls on board. Of this number, however, we fear that a great proportion are no longer in the land of the living, and there is little probability that their names will all be recorded, save in the registry of Heaven. This deplorable tragedy, as well it might, has cast a deep gloom over our city.

Among those whose name was known was Taylor — referred to in the early press accounts as Alonzo Taylor. His family reportedly offered a $500 reward for recovery of his body. Today he is unique among the Belle casualties in having a permanent roadside monument that passers-by snap pictures of and blog about.

The obelisk, said to be of Italian marble, was put in place about eight months after the Belle blew up. Here’s the item from the October, 7, 1856, number of the Union:

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And yes, that’s precisely the inscription we read when we stopped on Old River Road a few weeks back — weathered but clearly visible. The monument itself is a little different from what the Union describes. The base is neither 5 feet square nor 5 feet high, and the shaft is about 10 feet, not 13. I’m guessing that the needs of various road makers and levee builders over the intervening 159 years have probably led to some alteration in size and location. Still — pretty surprising to me that it has survived for so long. I’m tempted to go out to the spot next February 5 to see if there’s some little ceremony out there.

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Portrait of the Drought: Lake McClure

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Over the weekend, I went on a quick jaunt up to what I’d call the central Sierra foothills to take a look at a couple of the drought-drained reservoirs up there: Lake Don Pedro, on the Tuolumne River, owned by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, is the fifth-largest reservoir in California at just over 2 million acre-feet (enough water, by a popular rule of thumb, for about 4 million households); and Lake McClure, on the Merced River, which is one of the 10 biggest reservoirs at 1 million acre-feet or so.

As usual, I was running late, made more stops along the highway up to the lakes than was prudent, and got up to Don Pedro as the light was getting pretty long. Lake McClure was just a few miles away, though, and I got there when sunset colors were still in the sky. Still, not ideal reservoir portrait conditions.

Here’s a little history to go with the images: A month ago, February 3, Lake McClure fell to its lowest level since it was filled in the 1960s. Per statistics from the state Department of Water Resources, Its volume shrank to 63,489 acre-feet (remember, capacity is 1 million) and its surface was at 585.99 feet above sea level. That broke a record set during the six-year drought of 1986-1992, when the lake fell to 66,228 acre-feet, 588.48 surface elevation.

The Lake McClure nadir during the terrible drought of 1976-77 — the drought that saw Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, among others, fall to their record lows, was 72,200 acre-feet, 594 surface elevation.

Tomorrow, perhaps: some pictures of the Lake Don Pedro. The pictures here are from one of the boat ramps at the Barrett Cove area of Lake McClure.

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