‘George A. Wyman, 1st Across America’

George A. Wyman waypoint, Emigrant Gap, California, August 2017.

We happened across the sign above along Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit at the beginning of a road trip to see the August 2017 solar eclipse. 

It took me nearly five years and a chance encounter with this image to actually look up George A. Wyman and what the whole “1st Across America” thing is about.

In short: Back in 1903, he made what is said to have been the first trip across the United States via motorized vehicle — in his case, a motorized bicycle produced by a company in San Francisco. The trip began at Lotta’s Fountain, on Market Street in San Francisco. The fountain became famous several years after Wyman’s departure as a meeting place in the aftermath of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, a bit of history that’s commemorated with a pre-dawn ceremony every April 18, the date of the catastrophe. 

Naturally, you’ll want to read more about George A. Wyman and his machine.

If I’m write, you’ll want to check out the George A. Wyman Memorial Project, which has published a day-by-day account of the adventurer’s cross-country journey. The site includes a pretty good tale, too, about how the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times found and restored a 1902-vintage motor bicycle that he believed to be the one Wyman rode.  

The day-by-day account mentioned above is drawn from Wyman’s dispatches — including pictures — to a publication called Motorcycle Magazine, which sponsored the trip. The story that unfolds in those reports shows Wyman to have been unflinching in the face of often hostile conditions along his route and the frequent breakdowns of his 90-pound, 1.25-horsepower machine. Especially in the West, he regularly found the bone-rattling ride along railroad ties — yes, he was riding on the railroad— preferable to the deep sand or intractable mud that made it miserable to travel on what passed for roads. When the trip was over, he estimated he’d ridden 1,500 miles on the cross-ties; on several occasions, he had close calls with trains that overtook him when he was on the tracks.

Occasionally, Wyman turned in truly dramatic accounts of his travels. His June 4, 1903, entry, describing his trip through a mountain downpour between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming, is a must-read.

But mostly, he was matter-of-fact about most of his difficulties. Here he is a few days later, mentioning a piece of equipment had broken:

One more cyclometer was sacrificed on the ride from Ogallala to Maxwell (Nebraska), snapped off when I had a fall on the road. I do not mention falls, as a rule, as it would make the story one long monotony of falling off and getting on again. Ruts, sand, sticks, stones and mud, all threw me dozens of times. Somewhere in Emerson I remember a passage about the strenuous soul who is indomitable and ‘the more falls he gets moves faster on.’ I would like to see me try that across the Rockies. I didn’t move faster after my falls. The stones out that way are hard.”

He frequently commented on the reception he got along the way — which was mostly amazement at both the length of his journey and the technology he was using. On June 24, he stopped for the night in Ligonier, Indiana, a town about halfway between Chicago and Toledo:

“I thought that when I got east of Chicago folks would know what a motor bicycle is, but it was not so. In every place through which I passed, I left behind a gaping lot of natives, who ran out into the street to stare after me. When I reached Ligonier I rode through the main street, and by mistake went past the hotel where I wanted to stop. When I turned and rode back the streets looked as though there was a circus in town. All the shopkeepers were out on the sidewalks to see the motor bicycle, and small boys were as thick as flies in a country restaurant. When I dismounted in front of the hotel the crowd became so big and the curiosity so great that I deemed it best to take the bicycle inside. The boys manifested a desire to pull it apart to see how it was made.

Wyman’s motor bicycle was a sort of hybrid, consisting of what looked like a conventional bicycle frame fitted with a small gas tank and motor. A leather drive belt — which broke and required mending constantly — ran between the motor’s crank shaft and a pulley on the rear wheel. The motor and transmission apparatus had given out as Wyman neared the end of his journey. Luckily, he could simply pedal the bike, and pedal he did, riding the last 150 miles from Albany to New York City without stopping overnight to sleep:

I made frequent stops to rest and I attracted more than a little attention but I was too tired to care. I can smile now as I recall the sight I was with my overalls on, my face and hands black as a mulatto’s, my coat torn and dirty, a big piece of wood tied on with rope where my handlebars should be, and the belt hanging loose from the crankshaft. I was told that I was ‘picturesque’ by a country reporter named ‘Josh,’ who captured me for an interview a little way up the Hudson, and who kept me talking while the photographer worked his camera, but to my ideal, I was too dirty to be picturesque. At any rate, I was too tired then to care. All I wanted was a hot bath and a bed. 

Wyman’s arrival in New York after his 50-day epic attracted little attention, it seems. A scattering of papers across the country carried a brief Associate Press story that hailed him as “the first man to cross the American continent on a power-propelled road vehicle.” Motorcycle Magazine suggests one reason the feat may not have gained wider attention: Wyman himself didn’t boast about it.

“Now that the narrative has been completed and a review of the whole trip can be taken, it stands out in its entirety as a supreme triumph for the motor bicycle,” the magazine said. “It was not only the most notable long distance record by a motorcycle, but also it was the greatest long trip made in this country by any sort of a motor vehicle.  This is a fact to which attention was not called by Wyman in his story and it is one that should be emphasized.  In fact, Wyman’s story was altogether too modest throughout.”

Mini-Exhibit: Water, Dams, Mulholland, L.A.

Like everyone else who’s walking around with one of these “phones” equipped with a high-quality camera (or are they really decent cameras with mediocre-quality phones?), I take lots of pictures. Sometimes I try to discover a theme in what attracts my attention, but aside from “landscapes” or “birds” or “infrastructure” or “stuff on the street,” I would struggle to name any real thread that ties any of my images together.

But a couple of days ago I was looking a few pictures — just three — I had taken on three separate trips to other parts of California over the last few years and was surprised to see something of a story there.

Here are the images:

That first shot is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Owens Valley just across the highway from Manzanar, the site of the internment camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Kate and I camped nearby, just outside the town of Independence, in 2018. After spending a beautiful September afternoon touring Manzanar, we wandered down to the aqueduct as the sun was setting.

The second shot is the Hollywood Reservoir and Mulholland Dam in Los Angeles. I had wanted to see this place for years, and we made it up on a Sunday afternoon last June while visiting our son Thom.

The third shot shows part of the wreckage of the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, in northwestern Los Angeles County. The dam collapsed in March 1928, killing about 450 people downstream. You have to hunt a little for the site of the dam, which Kate and I did on the same 2018 trip that took us to Manzanar.

I like the fact all three images were shot on film using relatively antique (1970s-era) Japanese rangefinder cameras. But what ties them together, perhaps obviously, is the connection to Los Angeles, water, and L.A. Department of Water and Power chief William Mulholland.

Mulholland was the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system: He played a leading role in helping secure (or steal, depending on your perspective) the Owens Valley water rights for the city. He engineered the aqueduct that brought the water to Los Angeles. Although he was initially reluctant to build dams and reservoirs to store that water, he designed and supervised the construction of Mulholland Dam, which took all of 16 months to complete in 1923-24. He used that structure as a sort of template for the St. Francis Dam, which was completed in 1926. Mulholland visited St. Francis Dam just hours before it disintegrated and pronounced it sound; the catastrophe ended his career. Although he apparently believed Owens Valley saboteurs were responsible, as they had been for the destruction of some of the aqueduct facilities in the eastern Sierra, he took public responsibility for the tragedy. “Don’t blame anybody else,” he told a coroner’s inquest. “You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”

As I say, I just happened to look at the three photographs together the other day and see a story. If I ever have a show, I thought, I’d want to present them as a group. For some reason, I thought a presentation like that would be more complete with a fourth image. I remembered a 2017 visit to Los Angeles during which we stopped at the Department of Water and Power building (a.k.a. the John Ferraro Building), at the corner of First and Hope streets, and just across the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former home of the Oscars.

I took some pictures when we were at the DWP building — all with a digital SLR, not film. Looking back, I found one that I thought I could add to the group — post-processed from color to black and white. It’s looking up from a corner of the building up toward the roof, with the sun just obscured:

What kind of statement is that making? I haven’t come up with words yet, though I like the image. And as I say, if there ever is a show, this one’s going in.

Executive Order 9066

Manzanar Cemetery Monument.

The original version of this post was published February 19, 2005

The Writer’s Almanac notes today is the anniversary of the date in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote internment camps. It’s an event we all know in the sense we’ve heard of it. Having heard about it, most of us have an opinion about it; the prevailing view, embraced eventually even by a president as conservative and all-American as Ronald Reagan, is that it was a tragic mistake.

In another way, it’s a history we know little about. Especially in a place like Berkeley where more than 1,000 residents (the official number, published in the Berkeley Gazette in April 1942, was 1,319) were forced to leave. Several older Japanese-American couples lived in our neighborhood when we moved here in the late 1980s. They were of a certain age — my parents’ age — that made me wonder not whether their families had been sent to the camps but what their experience of incarceration had been. I never talked to them to find out. But you realize that on this street, or the next one over, and all over town, families were sent packing. To the California deserts, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, wherever the camps could be set up quickly.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle ran a story marking the departure of the last “Japanese” from the city.

“For the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco. The last group, 274 of them, were moved yesterday to the Tanforan assembly center. Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals. “

At the University of California’s commencement, campus president Robert Gordon Sproul announced that the senior class’s top student “cannot be here today because his country has called him elsewhere.” Three weeks earlier, the student, Harvey Akio Itano, had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California. (While his family remained incarcerated, he was released soon afterward and allowed to begin his medical studies in St. Louis. As a researcher after the war, Itano played a key role in discovering the molecular basis for sickle-cell disease and is recognized today as a pioneer in the study of blood diseases.)

Among the other UC seniors forced out of school before graduation was Yoshiko Uchida, who lived with her family on Stuart Street near Shattuck Avenue and kept a scrapbook (online through the University of California) of her new life (and later wrote many books about it).

You can go looking for scraps of the internment history, and sometimes they find you instead.

In October 2004, I was driving back to the Bay Area from Mojave and decided to take the long way, up U.S. 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern flank. Late in the afternoon, speeding north up the dry floor of the Owens Valley, I passed a sign saying Manzanar was just ahead. I knew the name, that it was one of the camps, that it was out in the middle of the desert someplace, but not much more than that. Suddenly, here it was. So I turned off and spent a while driving around what is now a national historic site.

Sagebrush has claimed most of the camp, though you can see come of its streets leading off into the desert, and several barracks buildings have been rebuilt. The most-frequented place at Manzanar — not counting the visitor center — is the cemetery. The bordering fence is heavily festooned with origami cranes, and lots of impromptu memorial offerings have been left behind. The gleaming white cemetery monument is carved with the kanji “I rei to,” or “soul-consoling tower.”

Reservoir was originally built to serve a nearby agricultural community in the Owens Valley. It was improved and enlarged during World War II by internees. See: Manzanar Reservoir.

Sounds and Sights and Sounds of the Valley

Sandhill cranes at Merced National Wildlife Refuge. February 14, 2022.

We spent last weekend in the San Joaquin Valley looking at birds. Thousands and thousands of birds — snow geese and white-fronted geese, shovelers, pintails and teals, killdeer and meadowlarks, avocets and ibises, stilts and wrens, red-winged blackbirds and red-tailed hawks, tundra swans and sandhill cranes.

Part of the experience of entering into the world of the birds is the sound. Actually: part of the experience? Visiting these places where tens or hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have gathered is mesmerizing, electric, sometimes overpowering, utterly enveloping and at moments gives a hint of what this place we live was like before we began the project of radically reshaping it.

Here are three snippets of that sound. The first is from Super Bowl Sunday, when Kate and I found ourselves virtually alone — except for the birds — in the 10 square miles of the Los Banos National Wildlife Refuge. After that clip are a couple from the Merced National Wildlife Refuge — the crazily energetic stylings of a marsh wren and a surprise overflight of about 300 sandhill cranes at midday on Valentine’s Day.

‘Battle Mountain’ and ‘The Tule River War’

Battle Mountain historical marker, Tulare County, California (see text below).

Kate and I encountered the marker above a few years back while driving on a back road in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. The text is hard to read, but it’s transcribed in full below.

Battle Mountain
 A long period of unrest between the settlers and Indians of Tulare County erupted in war during the spring of 1856. Untrue reports that five hundred head of cattle had been stolen in Frazier Valley and the burning of Orson K. Smith's sawmill aroused the local settlers. A group of volunteers under the command of Foster DeMasters located a party of over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions on the cone-shaped mountain in the valley below. Unable to breach the Indian defenses on their own, the volunteers sent for help. A second company of Tulare County volunteers under Sheriff W.G. Poindexter, miners from Keysville on the Kern River, settlers from as far north as Merced and Mariposa, and Army detachments from Fort Tejon and Fort Miller responded. Captain Livingston of Fort Miller assumed overall command of a combined force estimated at three to four hundred men. Unable to withstand assault by this combined force and their Army howitzer, the Indians disappeared into the pine forest above you. Reports indicated three settlers were wounded and several Indians killed. 
 Dedicated October 20, 1990 
Dr. Samuel Gregg George Chapter 1855 of E Clampus Vitus

When it comes to roadside markers, the easiest thing in the world to do is pick apart their abbreviated rendition of past events. There is no way that even a relatively prolix text, such as the one on this marker, can convey much in the way of detail or nuance. Too bad they don’t contain hyperlinks, though now that I’ve had that thought: QR codes. You know: “To read more about the Chicago Fire, or the Haymarket Square affair, or the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison, scan this code.” (Yes, I know there is history outside my native city.)

So perhaps the highest and best functions of these markers is to awaken someone’s interest to past events and send them looking for more. I know that’s what happened five years ago when I was driving around Oroville, a town that had been evacuated because of fears that part of a dam would give way, and happened across a marker commemorating Ishi.

As I wrote at the time, “Ishi is an instantly recognizable name for those who have spent any time in California. Ishi is the legendary last member of his native tribe, the Yahi. In 1911, he was ‘discovered.’ Meaning: starved and alone, he gave up his home country in the foothills on the northeastern side of the Sacramento Valley and entered “civilized” California.”

Here’s what Ishi’s plaque says:

The Last Yahi Indian
For thousands of years, the Yahi Indians roamed the foothills between Mt. Lassen and the Sacramento Valley. Settlement of this region by the white man brought death to the Yahi by gun, by disease, and by hunger. By the turn of the century only a few remained. Ishi, the last known survivor of these people, was discovered at this site in 1911. His death in 1916 brought an end to Stone Age California. 

“His death brought an end to Stone Age California.” An entire people, an entire world, dispatched in one succinct sentence. But stumbling upon the plaque prompted me to finally read a well-known and unwittingly tragic account of Ishi’s life and final years, “Ishi in Two Worlds.” It’s a story I think of often as a reminder of how complex the history around us is and how little I know.

But back to Battle Mountain. What to make of this marker, erected in 1990 by a society dedicated to the lore, if not always the true history, of old California? There are some details in the account that don’t smell right. One I wondered about was the notion that a force of white volunteers encountered “over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions.” The concluding line about casualties — three white settlers wounded “and several Indians killed” also sounds vague and sanitized.

What do other sources say?

Wild West magazine recounts the battle as part of “The Tule River War.” That account suggests a much higher casualty count among the Native Americans — members of the Yokuts group of tribes who also faced some ugly post-battle repercussions. 

Searching the excellent California Digital Newspaper Collection, here’s contemporary comment from the May 31, 1856, edition of the Sacramento Union:

The Last “End of the Tulare War.’— We have frequently had occasion to remark that the accounts of Indian hostilities, not only in the north, but in the south, are almost invariably exaggerated. A small affair is soon magnified into a battle, and the origin is not unfrequently attributed to Indian outrages, when the account should read “white man’s oppression.” The following extract from a private letter written to a gentleman in San Francisco, from a friend at Fort Miller, and bearing date the 25th of May, is the latest, and it may be one of the most truthful accounts from that quarter:

“The Indian war is defunct. The volunteers from this place have returned, swearing most roundly at the [white] Four Creeks people, whom they term Petticoat Rangers, from a kind of armor made with canvas padded with cotton, which they wear in shape of a frock or blouse around their persons for protection. The whole matter has been a cowardly farce, the threatening legions of Indians turning out to be but about one hundred, seeking refuge in a brush from the rowdies, who, on the least occasion, delight in the sport of shooting them.

“As in all cases of the kind, the fault has been with the whites. The herds of cattle said to have been stampeded, have turned out to be a single calf taken to supply the deficiency of meat during an Indian feast. Retaliation, of a brutal character, for this trifling offense, created all the disturbance.”

There are plenty of other newspaper accounts of the “war” published around the same time. Some content the tribe’s “depredations” warranted a violent response, but most seem to have held to the view that the initial provocation — the “theft” of a small number of cattle during a time of starvation — served as a pretext for wanton killing of indigenous people wherever they were to be found in the area. It is not a unique story. But it’s disappointing that such a credulous mid-19th century narrative made its way onto a marker placed at the end of the 20th century.

Mariposas

A monarch butterfly, emerged May 2020.

This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.

One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.

We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.

But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.

Asclepias curassavica, meet Danaus plexippus.

Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.

Chrysalis on bike cable; pupated April 19.

A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)

Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.

The bike-cable chrysalis; eclosed on May 7.

What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.

***

A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.

“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.

It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.

An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.

September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.

This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.

Nothing's Permanent

The Leader building on Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.

On Fairfax Avenue just north of Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles. The Leader sign is attention-getting — it got mine, anyway, when Kate and I were strolling past last March —but what is/was it about?

Answer: From 1946 through 1989, the building housed a well-known and very busy beauty shop. The L.A. Times ran a very good story on its closing: Nothing’s Permanent: Fairfax Beauty Shop Closing After 43 Years. If you’re too busy for the link, the driving factor was rising real estate prices, and the family that ran the business cashed in on their property.

The July 1989 story notes that two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood were going for about $950 a month.

Road Blog: Disaster Detour

Part of the ruins of St. Francis Dam, northeast of Los Angeles.

We managed to spend a whole day on the road today without getting out of Los Angeles County.

That was partly due to a detour to the Santa Monica Pier as we headed out of town. And then a second detour to the REI in Santa Monica. And then a third detour to Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. (We’re allegedly going camping and need to be real prepared.)

The main detour of the day was a search for the site of St. Francis Dam, which collapsed in 1928, killed at least 450 people, ended the career of William Mulholland, and wrought major changes in dam design and engineering.

We finally made it to the dam site in the waning half of the afternoon and spent a half an hour or so hiking part of the area (it’s worth more time; I hope to come back … soon-ish).

There is a lot of great background material on what happened at the dam. The best may be from J. David Rogers, a Berkeley-trained professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who has spent decades investigating why the dam failed and documenting the disaster’s effect on the practice of engineering.

In one of his many papers and presentations on St. Francis Dam, he summarizes the catastrophe:

“The dam failed catastrophically near midnight on March 12/13, 1928, in its second year of operation. … The resulting flood swept down San Francisquito Canyon, with an initial depth of 140 feet above the streambed. About five minutes later, the flood destroyed a powerhouse (and workers’ community) approximately 7,300 feet downstream, killing 126 of the 129 people living there. The flood wave swept on down the canyon, widening considerably at its juncture with the Santa Clara River coming out of Soledad Canyon. It then swept through Castaic Junction and on down the Santa Clara River Valley, blasting a Southern California Edison construction camp (killing 84 of the 140 workers encamped there), thence inundating the migrant farm community at Camulos, before skimming the lower elevations of the established cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo. The flood waters reached the ocean around 5:30 a.m., after traveling approximately 52 miles. The official death toll was 432 persons, making it the greatest engineering tragedy recorded in America in the 20th century. But those official statistics did not include Mexican migrant farm workers, of which, an unknown number also perished. One hundred seventy-nine of the listed victim’s bodies were never recovered, including those of damkeeper Tony Harnesfaeger and his 6-year-old-son.”

As to what that disaster looked like, here’s one great resource, by way of the Los Angeles Times: “From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.”

The magnitude of the tragedy is a little hard to grasp standing at the dam site. There are some monumental heaps of rubble. If you look around, you can see evidence that the piles of broken concrete were part of something bigger.

But nature is reclaiming the site. A cool wind blew up through the cottonwoods and maples that have taken over the streambed where the calamity began. San Francisquito Creek sounded fresh and alive.

One note: It’s a little odd that there’s no official recognition of the site beyond a state historical marker about a mile and a half away — at the powerhouse that was destroyed in the 1928 torrent. This is a place — apparently national forest land — that deserves to be remembered and interpreted.

Road Blog: Days and Nights in L.A.

The Eli Broad wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Avenue.

I have spent nearly all of the last 42 years in California, and all of that in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve visited Los Angeles about a dozen times. I only get to double figures by counting episodes like the time I delivered a drive-away car, a white Chevy Vega station wagon, to its perhaps rueful owner in Venice Beach; and day trips to do interviews for stories I’ve worked on; and visits to Disneyland, which some may dispute involve a visit to “Los Angeles.” It is not an impressive list, especially considering you can’t have any real idea of California without at least a passing acquaintance with this place.

So here we are on Day Three of dropping in for a visit and just … staying put for the most part.

Example of what I mean by “staying put.” Thom and Megan found an apartment that’s a short walk from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Today, we went to check the place out and spent the afternoon there (and spent virtually all of the time visiting one exhibit on the evolution and applications, practical and artistic, of three-dimensional imaging technology.

After that, it was back to the apartment, then a hike to the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market — which is actually a warren of dozens of restaurants and shops, including a couple that sell produce, that is reminiscent of the shopping district adjacent to Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine — to buy some salad stuff for dinner, which was pizza.

Anyway: This is Night Three in Los Angeles — and I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever spent three nights here in a row.

Tomorrow: Breakfast here, then heading out. Only one stop set on the itinerary: the site of St. Francis Dam, northeast of the city, which collapsed 90 years ago this year and killed about 450 people. Considered by many to be the biggest civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. (William Mulholland, the general manager and chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, had pronounced the new dam sound 12 hours before it failed.)

Road Blog: The PIts

The skeleton of Bison antiquus (Ancient bison) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

The tourists in Los Angeles today:

1) Did not fall down on the sidewalk.

2) Went to the La Brea Tar Pits (more below).

3) Watched a painful (for us) college football game.

4) Drove up to the Griffith Park Observatory, along with a huge crowd on hand to mark the equinox. We saw lots of people, lots of lights in the city below, and no parking spaces. We shall return.

About the pits: Growing up, the La Brea Tar Pits seemed to be part of an obscure joke. Visiting today and seeing them in person — the real science growing out of the millions of fossils recovered there and how the place fits into the ancient and modern city — I wondered why I thought so.

In the 1950s, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “My Bunny Lies Over the Sea,” that makes an incidental mention of La Brea. It’s something slight and before my time, so I thought I must have picked up on the joke someplace else.

Johnny Carson came to mind. I don’t doubt that he was just one of many who found something odd and out of place about the asphalt deposits right in the middle of Los Angeles and made them part of a punchline. Having watched Carson many, many times — and given his long tenure here in L.A. — it seems likely that that’s where I picked up on the tar pit jokes.

Thanks to the Sometimes Magic Memory Machine, here’s an extended Carson riff — one bad joke after another — on the La Brea Tar Pits.