A quick entry, since I’ve waited until after midnight to sit down and get something down.
As planned — I have never made so many reservations in advance in my life — Tuesday is supposed to be our longest day driving on the way to western Nebraska. We got started from Tahoe City, on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, at 9:35 a.m. PDT and pulled in here, about 510 miles later, at about 8:45 MDT — a drive of a little over nine hours. Things got slow in the last couple hundred miles because I wanted to stop and take pictures at several spots along the way. Like the shot above, looking north on U.S. 93 about 30 miles north of Wells, Nevada, and 85 miles or so south of Twin Falls, Idaho.
A word about the weather: We are now inside the window where the National Weather Service is offering a forecast that includes Monday, Eclipse Day. And what do you know? The outlook is iffy for most of western Nebraska. Of course, there’s not forecast in the world that can make a call for a two and a half minute period that’s still six days out. But now we’ve got something to obsess about other than where exactly we’ll be standing when the celestial machinery does its thing.
Last Aug. 20, in a rare example of doing well ahead of a long-contemplated event, I mused about possible destinations to view the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. One location I pondered — where we’re headed now — is western Nebraska.
(But why western Nebraska? I hear the question even before the final schwa sound of the Cornhusker State’s strangely compelling name fades away. Answer: Decent chances for good viewing weather and good odds of avoiding eclipse country gridlock. On both counts, we’ll see).
I didn’t do a whole lot in the way of eclipse preparation last year beside write that post, order an eclipse atlas, and spend hours poring over pages of Airbnb and VRBO listings. Like most of West Coast humanity, I searched out places to stay in Oregon east of the Cascades. The now-famous municipality of Madras was already booked up (I’m not counting offers to sleep for only $150 a night in prickly pear patches or cow pastures), and other promising places that would have required a drive of some length did not pan out. (I did not consider Bend, a city of some size and reputation, because I could all too easily imagine Eclipse Morning gridlock, or rangelock or whatever you call it when you don’t have a grid, with traffic heading up the road toward the totality zone.)
Thus thoughts turned again to Nebraska. (Why? See above.) I will unfold our ultimate destination, which is currently semi-unknown, as we travel this week. I can, however, share the first leg of the journey.
Our destination was Lake Tahoe, the northwest side, where an old friend is spending a couple weeks and invited us to spend our first night on the road. So We left Berkeley early in the afternoon and drove up Interstate 80. There was sporadic heavy traffic in the usual places — in Fairfield, through Davis — but we sailed for the most part and got to our spot on the lakeshore by 6:30, in time to watch the evening light descend.
Since the this is a travelogue of sorts, there ought to be a picture. Here’s one of our first and only stop today, at Nyack, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit at an elevation of maybe 5,500 feet above sea level. It’s an unprepossessing image — Shell gas, a convenience store, a tiny Burger King, and a huge expanse of asphalt.
Back in the days when a two-lane road, U.S. 40, ran across the Sierra here, there was a resort called Nyack Lodge. In January 1952, in the middle of a very stormy winter, a westbound passenger train, the City of San Francisco, was halted by snowslides a few miles east of Nyack. Passengers were stranded for three days. When rescuers finally reached the scene, the passengers — cold, hungry, some ill from an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning — were driven to Nyack Lodge. There, they got a nice feed and were put on a rescue train that had come up from Roseville for the trip to Oakland.
In 1847, the Iowa Legislature passed a law creating a state seal. More on the wording of the law, which has caused a stir in the state Capitol in recent times, in a moment.
The straightforward part of the seal is the motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” I like that: Straightforward. A little militant. No Latin.
However, the Legislature offered only a description of what the seal should look like. Here it is (and as you read it, see if there’s a phrase that kind of sticks out as a little awkward):
“The secretary of state … is … hereby authorized to procure a seal which shall be the great seal of the state of Iowa, two inches in diameter, upon which shall be engraved the following device, surrounded by the words, ‘The Great Seal of the State of Iowa’ – a sheaf and field of standing wheat, with a sickle and other farming utensils, on the left side near the bottom; a lead furnace and pile of pig lead on the right side; the citizen soldier, with a plow in his rear, supporting the American flag and liberty cap with his right hand, and his gun with his left, in the center and near the bottom; the Mississippi River in the rear of the whole, with the steamer Iowa under way; an eagle near the upper edge, holding in his beak a scroll, with the following inscription upon it: ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.'”
(Yes — the Legislature wrote “with a plow in his rear.” That phrase prompted an Iowa state legislator in 2010 to offer a bill to amend the wording. Lawmakers did not act on the suggestion.)
That 1847 description left a lot to artists’ imaginations and produced a series of rather passive and homely images. Search for “Great Seal of Iowa” in Google images if you’re curious about what I mean.
I didn’t know any of that history when I visited the state capitol grounds in Des Moines last fall (2016). What struck me about the tablet or relief — OK, technically not a plaque — was what I take to be its direct reference to the Civil War. The soldier depicted is dressed as a Union infantryman. The musket he holds on his left side has bayonet fixed. The Stars and Stripes he supports with his right arm is partially draped around him. He is taking a step toward the viewer. His look is resolute and unafraid.
“Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”? The bas relief makes the statement come alive. The soldier embodies the sentiment. Is there a Civil War message here — a reference, perhaps, to how seriously the state took its duty to preserve the Union?
About 75,000 Iowans — more than one in five adult men — served during the war. Some 13,000 of them died and another 8,500 were wounded and survived. Iowa’s experience largely reflected the experience of every state, North and South. In a way that’s hard to imagine today, when so few serve in our armed forces, the war touched everyone.
An entry on an Iowa state government site that describes the monuments on the capitol grounds notes that the Iowa seal tablet was commissioned in the mid-1880s and completed in the early 1890s. The war was still an enduring, dominant memory for a whole generation of Americans then, just as World War II was in the 1960s — when war stories were common prime-time TV fare and a frequent Hollywood subject.
The Iowa state site also mentions the name of the sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who had a national reputation by the time he got the commission for the tablet and a nearby drinking fountain featuring the cast bronze head of a bison.
Doyle’s reputation rested in part on his Civil War sculptures. But he was not a Yankee nationalist. His commissions came from both the North and from the defeated Confederacy — and he was especially active in New Orleans, where he created a series of statues commemorating Southern heroes.
I think if there’s a message in the Iowa Great Seal tablet, it’s that Doyle was an artist who understood the time he was depicting and the emotional expectations of his audience and knew how to translate that understanding into bronze. His was not a common talent.
So: You’re going to drive down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area on a Friday. To avoid a heavy commute leaving the traffic-strangled San Francisco region — East Bay to be more specific, and Berkeley to be even specific-er — you choose to leave at which hour:
b. 2 p.m.
c. 4:30 p.m., into the teeth of the usual P.M. freeway shitstorm.
If you chose c., you and I think think differently, because I didn’t quite choose to leave at that hour, but leave at that hour I did.
I checked traffic maps before rolling out, and there were long stretches of red and darker red all along the best (actually only) escape routes. No worries, I thought — I will take some side and back roads to make my way over the hills to Interstate 5.
So, I took 580 east through Oakland to Castro Valley, where things were jammed up for the climb over the Dublin Grade to the Tri-Valley area. I could tell from the maps that 580 would be even worse going through Dublin and Livermore and on over Altamont Pass, so I thought I’d use an old cycling route over Palomares Road to Highway 84, which goes through Livermore from Fremont.
Palomares was great, once I found it. Not fast, because it’s a real back road that winds and twists constantly as it climbs the hills and then descends to Highway 84.
Highway 84 was a brilliant idea, though it was bumper to bumper for a long, long way into and through the townlet of Sunol. After that it opened up, and I had just normal non-freeway traffic through Livermore — time now 6:30, or two hours into the trip — and onto Tesla Road and up the last set of Coast Range hills into the Central Valley.
Lots of people use this as an alternate route to the miserable slog on 580 over Altamont, but everyone moved at a spritely pace up the steep, winding road over the top and down into San Joaquin County. In fact, some drivers crossed the line between spriteliness and recklessness. I saw a couple of cars cross the double-yellow line to pass a slower moving vehicle on a nearly blind downhill curve. Well, no one was killed. This time.
Corral Hollow Road, as it’s called on the San Joaquin County end of the road, hooks up with Interstate 580 at a point where it has diverged from I-205 and is usually just screaming along. The speed limit is 70 mph, and if I’m going 75 I feel like kind of a slow poke. But more of that in a minute.
I probably hit 580, which joins Interstate 5 about 10 miles further south, at about 7:20 p.m. It was dusk, and it didn’t make sense to shift over to whatever scenic routes I might devise. The bucolic portion of the drive was over.
If I have myself time — something I never do — I probably would stay off I-5 as much as possible. The side roads going down the San Joaquin Valley are many and, at this time of year, and especially after all the rain this year, beautiful. The countryside is green and welcoming in a way you can hardly imagine if you only see the place in the brown haze of summer or the gray of winter.
The other reason one might stay off of I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A. is that it’s one of the most stressful driving experiences you can find. Speed is part of it. If you’re driving 80 — yes, I know, that’s over the posted speed limit, but still quite common — you really have to be on top of your game.
But it’s not really the sheer speed that gets to you. It’s the varied speeds on the two lanes from the Tracy area down to the bottom of the Grapevine.
I-5 is the major truck route between Northern and Southern California. Trucks have a dramatically lower speed limit — 55 mph, and they seem to stick close to it. That means you have a mix of high-speed four-wheelers mixed in with some very slow moving 18-wheelers. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.
Many of my fellow motorists are driving at 70 or so — some just above, some just below. That’s fine. They may live longer, happier lives than the likes of me. But here’s the thing: They aren’t content to drive their rational 70 mph in the right lane of the two lanes available. No. They would much, much rather cruise at their comfortable, non-threatening pace in the left lane.
Yes, it’s true that there will be slower traffic they need to pass. For instance, the trucks I just mentioned. And then they will need to use the left lane. But the notion of completing the pass in some sort of expedited fashion — taking note of traffic approaching from behind, for instance; not getting into the passing lane before you need to; maybe speeding up a little to complete a pass (a technique I was taught in driver’s ed); and then moving over again (another driver’s ed lesson) — is not one that is widely shared based on the behavior one sees on the highway.
The net effect last night was that whenever the river of left-lane traffic encountered an obstacle — a truck or series of trucks in the right lane, say — the left lane would bunch up and slow down, with lots of nonsensical tapping of the brakes as the flow of traffic went from 75 mph, say, down to 60 or 65. It was kind of like NASCAR in super-slow motion.
The rules of the road, I-5 Edition, seem to be these:
–If you see any traffic ahead in the right lane — even that little speck out there in the horizon — you’ll be catching up in five or 10 minutes. Better get over to pass.
–Life is easier in the left lane. You don’t have to worry about getting over to pass. And why is that guy on my bumper?
–Drive with your brights on — all the time. It helps you see the gestures the driver in front of you is making.
–If the slower jerks in the left lane won’t move over, accelerate — accelerate with extreme prejudice — and pass them on the right. And do it over and over and over again.
And in conclusion let me say: No — I am not on a crusade to change the way the rest of the world behaves, there are serious flaws in the way I do things on the road — speeding, right-hand passes — and I don’t give enough credit to all the people I see who do behave in a rational, courteous way.
To complete the trip narrative, though: I got to L.A. in one piece, arriving at our downtown hotel at midnight after following the Apple Maps directions — which at one point involved exiting northbound 110 at Dodger Stadium and doing a U-turn back onto the southbound ramp — and getting lost briefly on surface streets.
Anyway. Here I am. Today’s travel will be on public transit.
On Christmas Day, I experienced a burst of motivation to clean off my desk to make room for some new electronics. That’s a project that’s still under way. But one of the discoveries I made as I tried to excavate the workspace was the odd and not entirely lovely object above.
It’s a handcrafted flower, in case you’re wondering. Made from partially melted black plastic spoons spraypainted white. It was offered for sale by a man I encountered during a brief stop at the Humboldt County wayside of Weitchpec in August 2014.
How I got there was I had driven up to Lewiston Dam, northwest of Redding, for a ceremony by members of Native American tribes in the area. They had called on the federal Bureau of Reclamation to increase releases into the Trinity River to protect migrating chinook salmon that were at risk of disease or death because of low flows and warm water downstream on the Klamath River.
The bureau, in fact, ordered increased releases into the Trinity River before the ceremony. But I made the trip, met some people, drove to a motel in Redding, had dinner, and wrote a little story on a related court case.
I only had one other item on my agenda: a visit to Shasta Lake, California’s biggest reservoir, which was very low in late August because of the ongoing drought. But with no one breathing down my neck to get back to the Bay Area, I decided it would be good to see a little of the country I had been writing about. I’d head up Highway 299 from Redding and follow the Trinity River up to the Klamath, then follow the Klamath east to Interstate 5, just above Yreka. I’d spend the night back in Mount Shasta — at the end of a drive of about 300 miles.
For the first part of the drive, not much transpired. Just one beautiful scene after another. The Trinity, swollen with the “extra” water released from the dams up stream, looked high and a little wild. After turning north off 299 onto Highway 96 at Willow Creek, I drove through the Hoopa Valley, home of one of northwestern California’s larger native tribes.
North of Hoopa, Highway 96 narrows as it climbs a ridge on the south bank of the river and after a few twisting miles reaches Weitchpec. The settlement, part of the Yurok tribe’s reservation, is the proverbial wide spot in the road. On one side, a couple of homes and mailboxes for outlying residents. On the other side, a grocery and a couple of weathered manufactured homes on a lot that overlooks the spot where the Trinity flows into the Klamath. There was an old, badly lettered sign that offered smoked salmon for sale.
My visit was brief. At first, I overshot the grocery and drove across the bridge across the Klamath. “I’ve got to have a picture of this,” I thought, so I swung back around, recrossed the bridge and parked at the store. I walked back across the span and snapped a few pictures, then returned to the store and walked around back, where I guessed I’d have the best view of the confluence.
A man approached me when I started to take pictures — maybe the resident of one of the mobile homes. A short, spare older man. I thought maybe I’d be called for trespassing — fair enough — and I explained I just wanted to get a shot of the spot where the two rivers joined. He agreed it was a good view. When I was done shooting — it was just a minute or two — he asked if I like salmon. Yeah, I said. Do you have any for sale? He said not yet, but that in a few weeks there would be some.
He was holding a plastic flower, the same one pictured at the top of the post. He showed it to me and said, “I make these and sell them.” How much do you sell them for, I asked. “Ten dollars,” he said.
I took a look. Not something I wanted. But by this time, I had taken in the man’s outfit. One detail stood out. He was wearing a large rectangular belt buckle that said “FUCK” in large chrome letters. That struck me as weird, and I decided I needed to take the guy’s picture. I offered him twenty bucks for the flower, and then asked if he’d pose. He was glad to.
As we walked back to the parking lot in front of the store, I asked his name. “J.K.,” he said. Or maybe it was J.G. or K.G. I didn’t write it down and at the distance of more than two years I honestly can’t remember.
I asked whether he was from Weitchpec. He said he was from the area, but had lived in the Bay Area for years, working as a mechanic for United Airlines in San Francisco. He had been back in the community for several years, he said. I did not ask the question I should have asked, which is why his belt buckle said “fuck.”
I thanked him for the flower, then went into the store. There were a couple of other customers, buying ice and other supplies for what I thought might be a camping trip. I went back to my rented car and got ready to leave when I noticed a community bulletin board on the store’s outside wall.
I honestly only remember one posting: a flyer asking for help in locating a Southern California man who had gone missing in the area two months earlier.
I snapped a picture of the flyer. It’s a habit, growing out of curiosity about the missing and their stories.
But the outline of Jeff Joseph’s story — he had apparently come to this remote part of Humboldt County to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes — triggered a quick episode of paranoia.
Not that I was up there to grow pot, but here I was, a stranger to the area who had not told anyone where I’d be that day. I was driving a new-looking (though nothing fancy) rented car; I had shown my extravagant-looking (but not really expensive) camera around; I had pulled out my wallet and handed a guy a twenty like it was nothing. Gee — it would be easy for me to go missing, too, wouldn’t it, if someone tried to waylay me?
Nothing happened, obviously, beyond my sudden awareness that I could be vulnerable, too.
On my way up the Klamath on Highway 96, I encountered the Happy Camp Fire, the state’s biggest for 2014, burning the forest near the community of Seiad Valley. The fire was active the evening I was driving east toward Interstate 5, and I saw locals and fire crews watching the blaze send towering pyrocumulus clouds into the sky and torch big trees in the distance.
Eventually I made it out to the interstate, and before midnight I was in Mount Shasta, too late to get dinner but just a short drive from Shasta Lake and then a quick trip home. (The album at the end of the post shows some of the scenes I’ve described.)
Finding the plastic flower again earlier in the week made me look up Jeff Joseph again. He’s never been found.
Like many another skywatcher who has never seen a total solar eclipse, I’m scouting places to see the big event that will, failing a world-ending electoral event in the interim, occur a year from now.
For Californians, Oregon is the natural eclipse-watching destination. The path of totality will cross the Beaver State just north of Bend, east of the Cascades and an area that’s reliably sunny.
Lots of people have figured out that this part of Oregon is strategically located. The owner of a 72-room motel in Madras, along the line where totality will be longest in the area — 2 minutes and 3 seconds — says his place has been booked for more than three years.
I admit I can imagine a crowd descending on the area and the roads resembling something like rush hour here in the Bay Area. It’s not an inspiring thought. Still, we’re checking to see what lodging alternatives there might be up there.
My thoughts also tend further east. Maybe to the High Plains. It’s a different world out there. In noodling around looking for places one might stay out in flyover country, I happened across the following description of a tiny hostelry in a very small town. It’s one of the best things I’ve read today. Here it is:
There is a very slim chance that you are going to visit the Longhorn Motel in Tryon Nebraska. There are several reasons for this, chief among them that almost no one lives in Tryon, and it is not on the road to anywhere. The Longhorn’s primary mission in life is to serve as an overflow bedroom when more than one relative comes to visit a resident of Tryon at the same time.
You will not break down in or near Tryon because, as noted above, it is not on the road to anywhere.
Should you need to visit in Tryon, the Longhorn is the ONLY place to stay. That is literally the truth. The rooms are quite small but very clean. Your hosts, Mr. and Mrs Pyzer, are without a doubt the friendliest motel hosts in the business, There is a small TV in each room connected to the satellite system, so there is a wide range of programing available. If you want coffee in the morning the Pyzers will give you the fixins before you turn in. Even though they have a bona fide monopoly on rooms to rent, $40 will get you the finest room in the place.
Sadly there is not WIFI hook up, but all is not lost. One block west on the other side of highway 92/97 sits the McPherson County public school. The school has a nice strong signal to which you can connect if you park near the handicapped parking spots along the highway in front of the school.
The Longhorn does not provide breakfast but just a block and a half west you will find Aunt Bea’s Restaurant. Aunt Bea is a middle aged gentleman who fires up the grill about 9 each morning and can whip you up a sausage breakfast that should make Ronald MacDonald hide his head in shame.
As I said before, you are probably not going to be in or near Tryon, but if you are, you will experience first hand the friendly nature of the folks who live in Nebraska’s fabulous Sandhills. If you do not know what the Sandhills are – you do need to get out more.
Room Tip: All the rooms are good but #3 is the best among equals!
Just to note: A high approach to JFK about 5:15 p.m. on a beautiful early autumn Thursday. We flew over Scranton, Pennsylvania, then just north of the Delaware Water Gap and the New Jersey Meadowlands, then did a long, slowly descending pass over upper Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and Queens again, finally looping back over the barrier islands and the western Long Island suburbs to the airport.
Oh, and by the way: It’s my brother John’s birthday today — the reason I was on the plane. Happy birthday, JPB.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, about 40 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip on Interstate 15. The towers you see (shot from the passenger’s seat of a car traveling about 70 mph toward Los Angeles) are each 459 feet high.
The simple version of how the plant works: Each tower is surrounded by an immense field of mirrors that focus sunlight on a collector at the top of the tower. Thus the beams of light made visible by the desert haze. That intense heat drives turbines that generate electricity. (This isn’t the first time this type of plant has appeared on this here blog.)
For the more complex version of what’s really happening at the plant, check out my friend Pete’s coverage of Ivanpah here and here.
In Seattle, a trip planned on an impulse a couple of months back. I came up here because a guy I used to work with at the San Francisco Examiner, Pete Cafone, mentioned on Facebook he wanted to see the Mariners play at Safeco Field.
I’ve seen Pete all of three or four times since I left the Examiner early the morning of January 2, 1996, when I completed my final shift and went on to a Web startup. (It is hard to believe that was nearly 20 years ago, but here I am walking around with a bunch of people my age all saying the same thing.) The last time Pete and I met was at a memorial/celebration for a copy editor we’d worked with, Courtenay Peddle, who died several years ago of kidney failure, the last of a series of health crises that began almost immediately upon his retirement.
At work, Pete and I weren’t particularly close. I worked a series of newsroom desk jobs while he was one of the evening editors in sports. He seemed loud, tough and funny; he seemed to be a hard drinker, not that we ever drank together; he was from Philadelphia; I knew his birthday was on Christmas; and he liked to talk. Anyway, we got along, and in the few times we crossed paths, it was always good to see him.
So Pete and I aren’t really best buddies. How did it happened I offered to meet him up here for a game — not exactly a casual trip?
I see Pete’s posts on Facebook. He’s detailed a long series of road trips he’s taken since he took a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle six years ago. More recently, he’s recounted a series of health challenges of his own. Here’s what he posted on March 22:
Pete, aka Mr. Positive, has some negativity to report, something we seldom do. As most followers of these postings know, Humpty Dumpty was recently put back together to restore his plumbing to its original form. Unfortunately Humpty has cracked in 3 places and the leakage has created numerous infections — including cdif, an infection in the colon — over the past 5 weeks. As a result, early this coming week we will have our 5th operation in the last year and a half since the first one on Halloween 2013 to remove a rectal tumor. The plan calls for a return to an illeostomy bag while the current mess gets cleaned up and heals. Mr. Positive expects to recover well & soon enough to go on an 11-day trip to Alaska starting May 18. The first 6 days will be on a cruise out of Vancouver, the next 4 on land which includes a fantastic train ride and stays at 2 different spots in Denali National Park and the final day is set for Safeco Field in Seattle to see the Mariners against the Indians. Safeco will be Pete’s 29th baseball ballpark of the current 30 in use — leaving Miami’s new park the only one still to go (we saw a game in the old one the last year before they moved to the new one). So as you can see, there’s no time to be lamenting the latest setback. It’s on to new frontiers.
On the surface, sure, that’s a pretty graphic medical report. You got any pictures to go with that?
But there’s a lot more there, too: frankness, courage, optimism, and joy in new adventures are the first things that come to mind. And without really thinking about it too much — or at all — I found myself making plans to meet Pete up here. Just as a gesture, I guess, in admiration of all those qualities; and also because I knew it would be fun and because I hadn’t seen a game up here, either.
One final piece of this journey fell into place a couple of weeks after Pete’s post. I was having lunch with another friend, Garth, in early April and mentioned I might be coming up to Seattle. When I told him what the trip was about, he said he had a connection for Mariners tickets. He got us four seats in the lower stands, right by first base. All I really had to do was show up and make sure the tickets were at will call for Pete.
The evening was beautiful and I never had to put on the jacket I brought. Pete was with his friend Ken Stutz — Ken’s father gave Pete his first job back in the mid-1960s at a local paper in Burlington County, New Jersey, and Ken is a veteran of sports desks in Philadelphia and San Jose. We kept score, though the slick paper in the Mariners program wasn’t easy to write on. Pete bought me a beer (he stopped drinking years ago). Then the game was over (though not before the Mariners’ closer, Fernando Rodney, did his damnedest to cough up a two-run lead). Before the post game fireworks started, Pete and Ken left for the parking garage so they could beat the mob out of the park.
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.
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:
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.