I was watching a History Channel documentary the other night on the Chicago Union Stock Yards.
In 1848, when Chicago was only a hub for transporting livestock from the West to the rest of the country, small stockyards such as Lake Shore Yard and Cottage Grove Yard, were scattered throughout the city along various rail lines.
As the railroads expanded westward, Chicago evolved into a large railroad center. With the increase in the number of trainloads of livestock, the need for a centralized stock center became obvious.
In 1864, a consortium of nine railroad companies acquired three hundred and twenty acres of swampland south west of The Loop, and the Chicago Union Stock Yards was born.
By 1890 the yards were handling more than nine million cows, pigs and sheep a year. That’s a lot of hooves!
But I wanted to know who took care of all those critters.
Before the creation of the stock yards, tavern owners provided pastures and care for cattle herds waiting to be sold. Eventually they built 2300 livestock pens on the 375-acre site.
[They also built hotels, saloons, restaurants, and offices for merchants and brokers, but that’s another blog.]
My next question: who moved all those animals around? I had visions of cowboys working in downtown Chicago. [No, not THAT kind of Cowboy!]
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a storyline there, after all. The cowboys only moved the doggies as far as Dodge City, Kansas City, and all the other termini of the cattle drives.
In the early days of the Stock Yard, drovers herded cattle, hogs, and sheep down two wide thoroughfares from the railroad cars to the pens. Then the railroad consortium built more rail lines, bringing the livestock right to the holding pens—and removing the need for the drovers.
It’s a shame really. A thousand head of longhorns mooing their way down Michigan Avenue ahead of a couple of heart-stopping cowboys would have been entertaining.
It started as a publicity stunt. Crash two locomotives together and sell tickets. It had been done in Ohio to the cheers of delighted spectators.
William G. Crush, agent for The Missouri-Kansas-Texas “Katy” (MKT) Railroad knew that the public was fascinated by train wrecks. People would travel from miles away just to get a look at the twisted metal and destruction, the victims scalded by the explosion of the engine’s steam boiler.
[This is Mr. Crush as sketched for the Galveston Daily News on September 16, 1896.]
So, William pitched an idea to Katy Railroad officials: intentionally crash two trains in full view of spectators. It had been done successfully a few months earlier in Ohio, to the delight of spectators.
Needless to say, his superiors loved the idea.
The town of Crush, Texas, complete with a depot, was constructed just for the event. A special branch line of tracks was laid about 4 miles outside of the town of West, Texas. Wells were dug, water was run, food and drinks were available for purchase, and a huge tent was borrowed from Barnum & Bailey Circus to serve as a grandstand and protect the elite guests from the weather and the common spectators.
Rather than charge admission to the event, the railroad decided to make the event free—and charge $2 round-trip for a ride to site of the crash.
Everything was ready when dawn came on September 15, 1896. The train engines, #999 and #1001 were painted bright green and bright red, respectively. Both had been stripped down to ensure nothing went wrong. Six cars were attached to each engine to enhance the crash.
The organizers expected around 20,000 spectators to show up and planned accordingly. By the time the event started, more than twice that number jammed the small valley. Every inch of ground was jammed with people waiting to see two trains smash each other into scrap metal. A carnival atmosphere prevailed, complete with medicine shows, game booths and souvenir stands.
The men, women and children were given until late afternoon to listen to speeches and spend their money.
At 5pm, the two trains nosed together as if shaking hands and posed for pictures. They then backed up the low hills to opposite ends of the four mile track, and at ten minutes after 5pm, as Mr. Crush sat on horseback and waved a white hat as a signal, the engineers opened the steam to the predetermined setting and put the trains into motion before jumping off.
I’ll let the reporter for The Dallas Morning News describe what happened:
“The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry. … They rolled down at a frightful rate of speed to within a quarter of a mile of each other. Nearer and nearer as they approached the fatal meeting place the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder …
“Now they were within ten feet of each other, the bright red and green paint on the engines and the gaudy advertisements on the cars showing clear and distinct in the glaring sun.
“A crash, a sound of timbers rent and torn, and then a shower of splinters.
“There was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded simultaneously and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel …
“All that remained of the two engines and twelve cars was a smoking mass of fractured metal and kindling wood, except one car on the rear of each train, which had been left untouched. The engines had both been completely telescoped, and contrary to experience in such cases, instead of rising in the air from the force of the blow, were just flattened out. There was nothing about the cars big enough to save except pieces of wood, which were eagerly seized upon and carried home as souvenirs.”
The plan was for the trains to reach approximately 10mph by the time they met in the middle. Instead, they were traveling closer to 45mph. The impact sent shrapnel flying more than 100 feet into the air—and into the crowd. Miraculously, considering the size of the crowd only three people were killed.
William Crush was fired the evening of the crash, but Katy Railroad officials rehired him the very next day, and he worked for the company until he retired.
The “Crash at Crush” was immortalized by famed Texas ragtime composer Scott Joplin in his march, “The Great Crush Collision March.” Click here to listen to the music – complete with crash and scream:
“A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” – Mark Twain
When I began doing research for my debut novel, Touch of Texas, I knew I was searching for a special type of location. It needed to be isolated, with a means of support for those who settled in the town. I didn’t want the town to be too prosperous – that eliminates some of the available conflict for a story. Also, the area had to be right for the nefarious to operate – cattle rustling, horse stealing, etc. – and have numerous places for them to hide.
The hero of the book was a Texas Ranger, the tall, dark and dangerous type, who preferred taking on assignments that sent him out alone, far from civilization. My mental picture of the heroine was his total opposite, a fragile-looking woman with golden hair…
Golden? Aha! A gold mining town. But was gold ever mined in Texas in the 1800’s? I don’t mind making stuff up in the name of my art, but I believe fiction needs to have a basis in the credible.
Silver mining has been going on in Texas since the Franciscans Friars discovered the precious ore near El Paso in 1680. These mines were hidden by the good Friars from the Jesuit brothers and the locations lost for many years. One mine was rediscovered in 1793, then lost again, then found again thanks to church records in 1872. In 1880 the Presidio Mine was discovered. In the ensuing years, strikes were made in all over the western half of the state, and even in the Hill Country.
From The Handbook of Texas Online: “In 1905, 387,576 ounces of silver were produced in the state, and in 1908 the Bonanza and Alice Ray Mines in the Quitman Mountains in Hudspeth County were producing ore valued at $60 to $65 per ton. In 1918 the Chinati and Montezuma mines closed. The Presidio Mine was one of the most consistent producers of silver in the country; from 1880 until it closed in 1942 it had produced 2,000,000 tons of ore from which 30,293,606 ounces of silver, about nine-tenths of the total output of the state, had been extracted, along with a small value in gold and lead.”
There it is. The answer to whether anyone ever mined for gold in Texas. The operations weren’t profitable, but there have been gold mines in Texas since the 1800’s. In fact, there has been a gold mining operation going on in the Hill Country continuously since the expedition of Bernardo de Miranda y Flores left San Antonio in February, 1756.
Most gold mining took place in the far southwestern part of the state, in the area called Big Bend. (That’s a picture of Big Bend National Park to the right. Gorgeous, isn’t it?)
There was some mining around Fort Davis and in the Davis Mountains, and also in Presidio County.
While researching the history of Fort Davis, a United States Army post in operation from 1854-1891, I found mention of a wave of gold seekers coming through on their way to California from San Antonio. The need to protect these adventurers and pioneer was part of what helped drive the placement of the fort.
Amateur prospectors have discovered arrastre, granite bedrock milling stones, abandoned by the Mexicans and Spanish in and on the banks of the creeks where they searched in vain for gold.
But since when has gold fever been cured by the words “you aren’t going to find it here”.To this day, the persistent legends of large veins scattered through the state are enough to keep hopeful panhandlers searching.
Panning still turns up small amounts of gold around the ruins of Fort Davis, as well as in the Hill Country around Llano and Mason Counties, where there were mostly placer mines—that’s the mining of alluvial or sediment deposits for minerals. Despite the odds against finding anything, they’re still mining for gold in the Lone Star State.
While no one person or mining company ever got wealthy digging or panning for gold in Texas—the total recorded value of the gold dug out of the ground is less than $250,000—they did and still do hunt for the precious metal. And for a fiction writer, that’s all I needed to create my own little piece of the past.
Maybe Mark Twain had it right – although I’d rather consider myself a weaver of a tall tale rather than a liar.
Last month, while attending the Romantic Times BookLovers Convention to promote my latest release, TOUCHED BY LOVE, I had the pleasure of participating as part of a panel on “Historical Romance Through the Ages.” The writers, five in all, covered the gamut of settings, from 1100s Scotland, through Georgian, Regency and Victorian England, and across “the pond” to the American West.
Our discussion concerned what set apart a romance in our chosen time period. In my case, what makes a western a western.
I enjoyed listening as those who wrote European-set stories discussed social mores, etiquette, keeping Mama happy, and buying just the right hat at the right store for that party that all the right people will attend.
In a western, in my opinion, the environment has more influence on stories than most other factors. Think pioneers, survival, and hardship; taking care of yourself and looking out for your neighbors because that’s what a good person does. Hats and parties were important, especially to young ladies of a “certain age,” but, for the most part, people concerned about survival don’t care if their clothes are the latest fashion – they’re just glad to have clothes to wear.
As to social etiquette, the proprieties were certainly observed, but I imagine they were often tossed off the wagon in deference to survival. Of course, the backlash of ignoring them makes for great conflict in our stories.
When a family moved west, they took what they could carry and left everything and everyone else behind. Letters moved slowly, if at all, leaving these westward pioneers isolated from everything familiar. They had to suck it up and create their own “familiar”, their own new lives, friends and routines. They even had to build their own surroundings. Young men suddenly had to provide for their families. Women learned to create a home wherever they decided to put down roots. It took real grit to make it when nothing was familiar. And if the crops failed, or a fire destroyed the house, or their livestock were rustled, they brushed themselves off and started over.
Westerns are about hope and opportunity. That’s a big part of why I love writing them. There was a chance for those who had “fallen” to redeem themselves or turn their backs on the past and begin again. No matter the hardships, they had an opportunity to make a happy-ever-after for themselves and the generations to follow.
How about you? What makes a western a western for you?
Right out of the chute, let me say how thrilled I am to be joining Petticoats & Pistols as a new Fillie! I’ve loved this site since the day it opened and now I get to be here among these fabulous western writers on a regular basis.
I love history. That’s no surprise, of course, to anyone who knows me. I not only enjoy writing about the past, but researching those bits and pieces that make the historical story I’m writing realistic, interesting and accurate.
Research comes in many forms. I can spend hours in a library, hunting through books. Or online, looking for one particular fact. But my favorite type of research is the kind I didn’t plan.
In my trips to research a story, I’ve come across some fun facts. Did you know there was a salt war in Texas? Neither did I was researching for this blog. Bonus: I discovered the Texas Historic Sites Atlas while looking for a picture of the marker.
Were you aware there was a Revolutionary War battle in St. Louis, Missouri? That’s right, halfway up the mighty Mississippi. The Battle of Fort San Carlos was fought when British-led Sioux, Sac, Fox and Winnebago warriors attacked a newly built French entrenchment in May of 1780. That historical fact came from a local newspaper article my mother forwarded.
Ever heard of Crash, Texas? It’s a town that was built for the express purpose of allowing spectators to witness a train crash up close and personal. A friend sent me that news story.
Then there’s the Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race, begun in 1848 and revived in 1977. I found out about it when researching the coach stops along the Santa Fe Trail after visiting the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Do you read the footnotes and attributions at the end of a historical research article? You might take a stroll through the archived blogs right here at Petticoats & Pistols –the Fillies have shared some wonderful research.I love running across obscure information while I’m researching something else. And you can find some of the most interesting—and mostly useless—tidbits in some unlikely places. ebay® is one place that surprised me. I found some cool info on china and crystal and Texas artifacts there while researching my latest release, Touched by Love.
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Now, you’ll have to excuse me. There’s a museum website I just heard someone mention.
What’s the most unusual fact you discovered in the most unlikely place?