Liars, Outlaws, and Mandatory Fun

We’re in our second week of a heat wave here in the St. Louis area, the kind that pushes the heat index well over 1oo degree Fahrenheit and keeps us all stuck inside and miserable. We’re fortunate to have air conditioning and lots of fun places to escape the heat, but one day last week, it wasn’t enough.

It was one of those rare days when neither of my children had plans with friends and both were bored and cranky. We needed to get out of the house, to someplace else cool, obviously, but the struggle of agreeing on a destination proved too much. Finally I’d had enough. I decreed that we would have a “Mom’s Choice Mandatory Fun Adventure Day,” marched them to the car, and refused to tell them where we were going.

barn sign
For some reason once we hit I-44 it didn’t take the kids long to figure out where we were going. photo credit: el-toro Meramec Caverns Barn Ad via photopin (license)

Then I drove them an hour through winding back roads over to Interstate 44, to Meramec Caverns, the most widely toured cave in Missouri and where it’s always a crisp 60 degrees. If you’ve ever driven along I-44, you’ve seen the billboards. A lot of them. And a few painted barn roofs, too. Many of them identify Meramec Caverns as the one-time hideout for Missouri’s most infamous train and bank robber Jesse James and his gang. Sounds to me like a great place to get away and hide out from the heat for a while.

The story, as shared in complete earnest by our highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide goes something like this: Because the cave was a good source of saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), which was necessary for producing gunpowder, The Union Army used the cave as a munitions factory during the American Civil War until a group of Confederate guerrillas blew it up and put it out of business. Among those guerillas were the James brothers, Jesse and Frank.

Then in the mid to late 1860s, when the brothers began their crime spree, they remembered the cave and returned to use it as their hideout. It was a good one, too, because on at least one occasion a pursuing sheriff figured out their hiding spot, stood guard at the entrance, and waited to starve the criminals out. The man waited for three days before creeping further into the cave to discover a second exit through chilly 40 degree water that feeds into the Meramec River.

jamesbrothers
Jesse and Frank James welcoming visitors to their alleged super secret cave hideout. photo credit: Jinx! Meramec Caverns via photopin (license)

It’s just the right kind of story to capture the attention a couple of squirrely boys who have been forced into an afternoon of cave adventure fun. The story continues to capture the imaginations of around 150,000 cave visitors per year, and countless others who drive along I-44, wondering whether they should stop.

So I suppose it’s probably not a huge surprise that it isn’t likely true. I mean, yes, the cave, which explorers originally named Saltpeter Cave, did serve as a mine and munitions factory for the Union Army, and it was attacked by Confederate Guerillas. There’s even a chance Jesse and Frank James were among the soldiers responsible. But there’s really no reliable evidence that the brothers ever returned to the cave. In fact, it seems unlikely that they did.

caverns sign
You’d think it might be obvious that’s where Jesse was hiding out, what with the neon sign and all. photo credit: Jinx! Jesse James Hideout in Neon! via photopin (license)

The “proof” of the story comes from Lester Benton Dill, the man responsible for developing the renamed Meramec Caverns into a tourist destination. Soon after purchasing the cave, Dill began to expand its accessible parts, which led in 1941 to the discovery of a room beyond a crevice normally underwater, but slightly exposed during times of extreme drought. Dill claimed that the room beyond the crevice contained a strong box connected to a well known train robbery committed by Jesse James and his gang. He opened up the cave to create more access and the room now contains mannequins of Frank and Jesse and is a part of the tour.

But no one is totally clear on when Dill, a master marketer who was known to occasionally push the limits of truthfulness, made this fascinating discovery and the only witness who could testify to the truth of the cave hideout theory was a man by the name J. Frank Dalton, who at the age of 102 claimed to be Jesse James. An imposter, he said, had been shot and killed 67 years earlier. He also said that yes, of course the James brothers had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout and handy escape route.

Of course the James family and DNA evidence both denied the new Jesse’s identity claims, but he’d already breathed life into the tale Dill had been trying to spin on billboards all across Missouri.

me and my book
If you happen to like history that has been commandeered and cleverly woven into other stories and is occasionally a little made up, you should check out my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

So basically, this guy just commandeered the tale of an interesting historical figure, and wove it together with his own story, sort of making up history a little in order to promote himself. Frankly I don’t know what kind of person might do such a thing. But personally I don’t really mind so much, because Meramec Caverns does make a great hideout on a hot day with bored kids, and a little tall tale doesn’t change that.

The cave features all kinds of wonders, including an amazing formation that looks like a genuine stage curtain on which the tour guides project lights and patriotic images while a recorded Celine Dion belts out a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced on a cave tour, and that’s including the James mannequins.

But it’s a literally cool tour in a figuratively cool place, well worth the stop if you find yourself driving down I-44, or in the middle of a heat wave with bored, cranky brothers who need to have some mandatory fun.

Advertisements

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Lately my youngest son, who tends to like to play the pessimist anyway, has become obsessed with things that don’t work.  It’s something of a family joke that stems from our recent vacation to Disney World in Florida, and it started with the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster in the Magic Kingdom.

My son had picked out our first Fastpassed ride of the day and it was a good choice. Neither of my kids love roller coasters, but this one was just the right kind: not too fast and not too jerky, not too upside down or backwards, and not too dark.

We had a great time on the ride. Then, as soon as we exited, they shut it down temporarily because of technical difficulties. We counted ourselves pretty lucky at that point and felt it was a great start to our adventure. And it was.

castle
We really did have a great trip, and I don’t think we actually broke Disney World.

But it turned out that this was the beginning of a trend, because it began to seem to us that every ride we either went on or were just about to ride had to be shut down. We thought it must somehow be us.

It happened when we were in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Test Track, and Splash Mountain. The Kali River Rapids, Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarf’s Minetrain, and even the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover and the oddly fascinating Carousel of Progress, all shut down for a while not long after we exited them. And either all or part of our group was actually caught in a mid-ride shutdown on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Great Movie Ride, and Spaceship Earth.

It really got to be pretty funny. But our greatest shut-down adventure occurred on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride on which we remained stuck, three boat lengths from the exit, for about half an hour.

jacksparrow
The live version of Captain Jack was a little less creepy.

Opened at California’s Disneyland in March of 1967 and at Florida’s Disney World in 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the older rides in the Disney collection, spawning the billion dollar movie franchise and wowing Disney guests with animatronic creepiness and complete historical accuracy.

Well, that might be a stretch (the historical accuracy, not the creepiness), but the ride does make great use of its theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio, paying loose homage to that old timey sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest.” That song, featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island published in 1883, has allegedly been around so long the origin of it is unknown.

Except that it’s not. Stevenson’s book itself was probably the most influential work of fiction defining the image of the Golden Age pirate until 2003 when Johnny Depp hit the big screen as Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out Stevenson’s pirate song was pretty influential, too. When versions of it began to show up on the stage and the small screen decades later, the origin of the words had become muddled, lending credence to the rumor that this was a song that had been in the air for centuries.

And that’s how folklore is born. Because “Dead Man’s Chest” is a Stevenson original, and “Yo Ho” is a sort of Disneyfied version of it, written for use in the creeptastically wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Of course it also appears in the movies and is a favorite of Jack Sparrow’s. If you ride the attraction at Disney World, you can hear animatronic Jack sing it to a parrot while resting comfortably on a chair in a room full of treasure, about three boat lengths from the exit.disneyworldstopped

If you’re lucky enough to get stuck on the ride at that point, you might even have time to learn some of the lyrics, if you can hear them over the complaints of the nine-year-old sitting beside you insisting that he needs to use the restroom.

I have to give Disney World some credit, though.  After about fifteen or twenty minutes, they did raise the lights and turn off the sound, leaving only a kind-of-creepy Jack and his parrot moving silently to the tune. And for our trouble, we received Fastpasses that fortunately did not have to apply to the same ride.

Actually, I think it was a highlight of the trip. We got a great story out of it, a few laughs, and when anyone asks my son about his vacation, he smiles and happily responds, “We broke Disney World.”  In a strange way, the experience has even continued to help him work through his impatience since we’ve been home, too. When something doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, he shrugs and says, “We’re just experiencing technical difficulties. It figures.”

Being Discovered for Discovering a Viking Discovering Boston in a Metal Bra

In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn published his book Antiquitates Americanae. In it the Danish historian most known for his work translating Old Norse literature, suggested a location for Vinland. What many scholars assumed to be only a land of legend, Rafn placed in North America. And at least one North American was listening.

800px-eben_norton_horsford
Eben Norton Horsford. Brilliant chemist. Not as brilliant archaeologist. Responsible for Boston’s “Dude in Metal Bra” statue. By Unknown – [1], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Harvard professor and wealthy inventor of double-acting baking soda, Eben Norton Horsford, became obsessed with the notion. This brilliant chemist turned less brilliant amateur archaeologist confidently declared his discovery of the onetime foundation of a home belonging to Leif Erikson. Conveniently, the foundation stones were discovered along the banks of the Charles River, not far from Horsford’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Other, more established archaeologists, determined that the alleged Viking foundation stone was more likely a pile of relatively insignificant rocks. But that didn’t stop Horsford from producing a great many books  about the huge amounts of evidence he found made up of a Viking settlement in the Boston area that predated Christopher Columbus by about five hundred years.

At least a few North Americans listened to him, too.  That’s why, since 1887, there has been a statue of a young, thrusting Leif Erikson on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings ever visited Beantown.

pile-of-rocks
This might be a pile of construction rubble at my neighbor’s house. OR it could what’s left of the foundation of an Old Norse Starbucks. You be the judge.

Legitimate archaeological evidence did finally surface in Newfoundland in 1960, which places Vikings in North America a good 500 years before Christopher Columbus made the trip. And since 1964, the sitting US President has issued an annual proclamation, calling for the October 10th observation of Leif Erikson Day.

But despite all that, I have to admit, I never knew there was an alleged Viking connection to Boston. That little tidbit of fabricated historical fun I picked up from middle grade author Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson fame. As the mother of two voracious middle grade readers who both gravitate toward the fantasy genre, I have become a big fan of Mr. Riordan’s work, which playfully borrows from the world’s great mythological stories and introduces a new generation of thoroughly modern young heroes.

One of his newest series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is set in Boston, where the hero, who dies at the beginning of the book only to find himself in Valhalla, discovers that Boston is a stronghold of Norse Mythology, which he probably should have always known because of that statue of the man with the leather bra.

This summer, as part of a crazy road trip adventure, my family and I spent about half a day in downtown Boston. The first thing my oldest son wanted to do was to set out to see if we could find the “dude in the metal bra.” And since the request was inspired by literature, what could we do? Of course, we found him!

Then in a moment of pure inspiration, I got famous. I decided to tweet a picture of the statue to Rick Riordan. My buddy Rick (who I happen to know reads my blog whenever he’s not busy writing a gazillion books, which, just to be clear, is never), liked and retweeted my tweet. And soon some of his followers (he has just a few more than me), also liked and retweeted my tweet. Even now, several months later, I get a new notification every week or so that someone else has found and liked my tweet of discovering Leif Erikson discovering Boston in a metal bra. It’s gotten more action than anything else I’ve ever sent out into the Twittersphere, and the activity stats tell me that it’s been seen by around 45,000 tweeps.

So the naysayers may tell you that the Vikings never settled in Boston, but I know better, because I’ve seen the proof. Thanks to the wonders of instant Internet fame, so have nearly 45,000 of my closest friends.

And that’s the almost sort of true story of how Leif Erikson and I became famous discoverers in Boston.

Take a Walk, Ya Scurvy Dogs

A couple weeks ago, I had a run-in with a pirate. It was a sunny, post-tropical storm day in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that takes great pride in its pirates. We’d been in the area to celebrate the wedding of a niece and decided to take in a little bit of the colorful local history.

That’s when the pirate showed up. He was everything you’d expect with tall boots, a real sword, and a trusty parrot sidekick named Captain Bob. He knew everything there was to know (or at least everything I’d ever think to ask) about the swashbuckling personalities that graced the waters from North Carolina to Barbados during piracy’s Golden Age.

pirate-eric
Eric the pirate and Capt. Bob of Charleston Pirate Tours.

We walked with our pirate companion quite a few city blocks and along the oceanfront park where convicted buccaneers were once hanged for their crimes. This same site today still hosts scores of Charlestonians engaging in unsavory acts. Like yoga.

But the true treasure of the experience was the vast knowledge shared about real people from history including Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate who gave up a life of privilege in Barbados to play pirate with his hired friends. And Anne Bonny, a society girl gone wild, with a preference for scallywags. And that most famous of all pirates known sometimes as Edward Teach, or less commonly as Edward Beard, or more commonly as Black Beard. Boy, that guy didn’t turn out to be quite what we (or Wikipedia) thought.

You might begin to wonder how I, a respected practical historian, could simply trust the word of a pirate, not necessarily assumed to be the most honest of men. But I think I did mention he had a parrot, right? Also, never once did he utter the sound Arrrr.

 

079
My only previous encounter with live pirates, at the St. Louis Renaissance Fair. These were somewhat less concerned with historical accuracy.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. He did say it once, when he informed us that to the best of his knowledge (and that of everyone else that knows about these things) pirates didn’t actually say Arrrr.

That, along with that uniquely gruff Piratey accent and the stubborn reluctance to correctly use a possessive pronoun or conjugate the verb “to be,” is an entirely fictional construct, popularized mostly by British actor Robert Newton in his role as the one-legged Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island.

It turns out that though they were probably a little more well-versed in nautical terms for boat riggings and sea monsters than was the average landlubber, pirates most likely talked like, well, guys of their era. Their language, like ours, was shaped by their various heritages and experiences, and would not have been particularly uniform.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that no pirate ever said the words “Shiver me timbers!” without getting laughed off the plank.

 

800px-pyle_pirate_plank_edited
Actually plank walking has a somewhat dubious history, too. Illustration by Howard Pyle, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now I know that like me, this revelation must concern you somewhat. After all, International Talk like a Pirate Day is rapidly approaching (on September 19, which you no doubt already knew) and you haven’t a thing to say.

The holiday, begun sort of unofficially in 1994 by two guys playing racket ball and talking like guys of their era, became slightly official when columnist Dave Barry gave it a rousing stamp of approval in 2002.

What started as friends having a little fun irritating the heck out of their coworkers, has blossomed now into a truly international event prompting (if you can believe the handy pirate map on the holiday’s official website) perhaps dozens of organized events designed to annoy the heck out of way more people’s coworkers.

But beneath all of the irritation, the day really is about having fun, together with your friends, talking like average guys of your era, the kind of guys who think that pirates said things like, “Arrr, treasure I ain’t got nor knows wheres, but ye be cutthroats and ye better serve up yer peace or I’ll feed ya piecemeal to the rats, ya scurvy dogs.”

So join in the fun and celebrate the day like Long John Silver would, says I. Plunder some booty, shiver some timbers, and irritate the heck out of your coworkers with your creative grammar and imaginative slang. But if you ever find yourself in South Carolina, look up Charleston Pirate Tours and take a walk with Pirate Eric and Captain Bob. I promise it’ll be worth ye the hour, me mateys.

 

St. Louis Goes Big, Warts and All

In 1874, Richard Compton, a sheet music publisher from the St. Louis area, hatched a large-scale plan to promote the city he called home. He was attempting to capitalize on an artistic trend in which cities across the United States were engaging. He recruited Camille Dry, an artist who specialized in pictorial maps.

By the late 19th century, every city that was a city had one, a map that highlighted (and exaggerated) its finer qualities. The details of these maps were stunning. Every street, every building, even many windows accounted for, they were designed to attract industry and promote trade.

20160203_111819
One book: St. Louis-Made Population Enlarger and Me: This Sort of Thing is my Bag, Baby

St Louis needed the boost. Its central location and close proximity to the Mississippi River had caused it to boom, but Chicago was booming at a faster clip. Just four years before Dry began his sketches, St. Louis had been embroiled in a scandal over the bribing of census takers to overinflate its population. (Inflate-gate?)

And so the plan was hatched. The artist responsible for producing pictorial maps of eight cities in five different states in 1871 and 1872, took to a hot air balloon (rumor has it anyway), tethered to the East side, and in about a year (probably working with a team), drew a map the likes of which the world had never seen.

Larger and more detailed than any pictorial map then or since, Dry’s work consists of 110 separate drawings, each about 11 x 14 inches in size, that when laid out, cover an area 24 feet long and 8 feet high. Because folding such a map would probably prove challenging, Compton published it, along with 112 pages of business listings, as a book titled Pictorial St. Louis: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, a Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875.

Eades Bridge
Dry’s map shows almost ten miles of riverfront and more than 40 square miles west of the Mississippi. This panel shows the Eads Bridge, which today is just north of the Arch. But not in 1875.

With a whopping price tag of $25 dollars (which in today’s money is quite a bit more than you’d shell out for your average convenience store road map), and a cumbersome title that didn’t yield great search results on Amazon, the project was a financial flop.

But this beautiful map remains as a point of pride for the city it depicts. Since last May, the Missouri History Museum, located in St. Louis’s Forest Park, has featured an exhibit entitled “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis.” The map has been blown up to 10 feet x 30 feet panels, showing exquisite details like the tents of a visiting circus, a man driving a herd of cows through the city streets, and a mob making a run on a local bank.

Interspersed with the map are the stories of the lives of St. Louisans in 1875, including the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and the parasites they ingested in their drinking water. The special exhibit will be open through February 14, and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t get there until time had almost run out. But I’m glad I saw it.

What impressed me the most was that while other cities used their beautiful maps to gloss over their warts, exaggerating and sometimes out-and-out lying to prospective businessmen and settlers in order to lure them in, Compton and Dry took a different approach. The warts are shining brightly on this map. St. Louis wasn’t a perfect Utopia in 1875 and I would never suggest that it is now.

history museum
Missouri History Museum, just one of many places that makes St. Louis great. And wouldn’t it be fun to color?

But like Richard Compton, I love my city. I know we’ve had some problems. Race relations are tense, crime has crept up, and I hear some football team chose to leave us for LA (a city that in 1875, barely took up one page of map). The press has been unforgiving. Still, St. Louis is an amazing place with a lot to offer and I’m proud to call it home.

So here’s my idea. What the city of St. Louis needs to do is promote itself in a medium people can respect. We need to jump on the biggest trend to sweep across this great nation since the pictorial map craze of the 19th century and show off not just our warts, but also everything that is amazing about our city.

That’s right. What we need is a St. Louis-themed adult coloring book. A really, really big one.

 

Funky Art and Monkey Math

When Chicago lawyer Sebastian Hinton was a boy his mathematician father devised a unique way to help his children better understand three-dimensional space. Years later in 1920, Sebastian recounted the tale at a dinner party in the home of the superintendent of schools in Winnetka, Illinois.

What the elder Mr. Hinton had done was build a three-dimensional grid of bamboo poles that his children could climb on, more funky sculpture than traditional toy. When a coordinate was called out (X,Y,Z), young Sebastian and his siblings raced to that location.

Patent picture by Sebastian Hinton, depicting his
Patent picture by Sebastian Hinton, depicting his “JungleGym.” {{PD-1923}}, Public Domain in the US, via Wikimedia.

Sebastian Hinton explained he’d like to build a similar structure for his own children, though he admitted that it had meant more than developing math skills to him, that he’d really just enjoyed scrambling all over it like a monkey. The superintendent, who’d been looking for ways to incorporate more physical education into his curriculum, was impressed.

Not long after, Hinton applied for a couple of patents and set to work creating and installing the first official “Junglegym.” Despite his monkey math skills, Hinton’s first attempt proved too dangerous (even by 1920 standards), but by the second prototype, he had it. Today that second attempt remains on the playground of Crow Island School in Winnetka, where children still scramble all over it like monkeys.

Whether they are learning math in the process or not, children love to climb and swing and explore. And that’s why, when my boys (8 and 10) had the day off school last Friday, I took them to one of our favorite St. Louis destinations, the St. Louis City Museum.

The first floor contains a gorgeous series of tunnels and climbing tunes that winds through animal sculptures, a large treehouse, caverns, and a ton of surprises like a huge aquarium housing giant river fish.
The first floor contains a gorgeous series of tunnels and climbing tunes that winds through animal sculptures, a large treehouse, caverns, and a ton of surprises like a huge aquarium housing giant river fish.

I know the media currently portrays St. Louis as one of the most dangerous cities in the US and I know we’ve had some challenges over the last year or so, but that’s why I have to tell you about some of the great things you’ll be missing if you choose to avoid the city altogether.

Because my city is awesome. And The City Museum is absolutely amazing.

Built inside (and outside and on top of) the old International Shoe building downtown, the “museum” is a giant, evolving, work of art constructed almost entirely of reclaimed industrial and architectural materials. Everywhere you look you’ll find playful sculptures, beautiful mosaics, funky decorations, and more fun than you can imagine.

You’ll receive no map when you enter, and you’d likely not be able to follow one anyway. What you will find is a wildly imaginative series of structures on which people of all ages are encouraged to climb and explore.

Did I mention the skate park (minus the skate boards). Seriously fun.
Did I mention the skate park (minus the skate boards). Seriously fun.

There are enchanted caves, tunnels leading through and below a giant whale and a whimsical tree house. Slides of various sizes (including one that is ten-stories high) snake through the building and circus performers present several shows a day.

Outside the building is a pair of dodge ball pits, suspended aircraft fuselages and a fire engine to explore, a castle turret, lots more slides, and all kinds of connecting walkways and tunnels.

Ball pits aren't just for kids anymore. Well, but they do have a separate one for the wee kiddos, so go ahead. Jump in and play some dodgeball will your obnoxious pre-teens. Just no head shots or you'll be asked to leave.
Ball pits aren’t just for kids anymore. Well, but they do have a separate one for the wee kiddos, so go ahead. Jump in and play some dodgeball will your obnoxious pre-teens. Just no head shots or you’ll be asked to leave.

Opened in 1997, the City Museum has become a downtown destination in St. Louis, unlike any other in the world. It’s a place where children (and adults who WILL be sore the next day) can learn about art, creativity, and imagination, about the kinds of materials that make up a city, and yes, probably even a lot about math, if they want to do that sort of thing. It’s in that sense that The City Museum really is a museum.

But mostly it’s just a great place to climb like a monkey.

Fire Hydrants, Creepy Inventors, and Sharknados: Why You Should Travel with a Writer

Last week I wrote about the wonderful anniversary trip my husband and I took to the impossibly beautiful and powerful Niagara Falls. And it really was a great trip, complete with a bicycle wine tour through the Niagara wine region and all the romance you might expect from the first honeymoon capital of the world.

But the trip didn’t end there. Because if you happen to marry a historical fiction writer (which you’d only do if you have a quirky sense of adventure), then you occasionally have to make a side research trip.

This is what it's like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That's right. It's awesome!
This is what it’s like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That’s right. It’s awesome!

Fortunately my husband does have a quirky sense of adventure and is generally up for the occasional odd research side trip. So after the falls, we headed next to the little town of Lockport, New York to take a ride down the Erie Canal.

That’s where I was introduced to Birdsill Holly. In 1863, in the then booming canal town, hydraulic engineer and inventor extraordinaire Birdsill Holly brought together several of his previous inventions and introduced the world to his Fire Protection and Water System.

Holly wasn’t the first person to patent a fire hydrant. That honor probably goes to an engineer by the name of Frederick Graff, Sr., who allegedly patented a hydrant design in 1801, though history may never know for certain because the record of it was destroyed (ironically) by a patent office fire.

What Holly can be credited with, however, is putting together a system of pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring high pressure water to hydrants placed throughout a town. He started in Lockport, but several cities liked what they saw and Holly’s system was soon in place in major cities across the nation, eventually including Chicago, which unfortunately rejected the system until after the great fire of 1871 when it quickly came around to the idea.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite the fact that Holly is largely responsible for the introduction of modern fire protection and steam-powered central heating systems, and was a friend of and occasional collaborator with Thomas Edison, I’d never heard of him.

And if fire safety and steam heating aren't enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you're into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?
And if fire safety and steam heating aren’t enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you’re into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?

And it turns out the reason why may be because nobody (except perhaps Edison who was impressed by the man’s genius) seemed to like him very much. Holly made himself a social outcast shortly after setting up his company in Lockport by divorcing his wife and marrying his ward Sophia who was around 12 at the time.  Even by Woody Allen standards, that’s pretty creepy.

And then there was the free whiskey he provided for the low-wage workers who dug out the large tunnel through which he supplied hydromechanical power to three Lockport businesses including the Holly Manufacturing Company. His logic was that he could not be held accountable for accidents if his workers chose to be drunk on the job.

An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don't worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.
An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don’t worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.

But at least he limited how much whiskey was given to the “powder monkeys” (young boys employed to pack and ignite explosives in hard to reach areas because they were 1.smaller, 2. faster, and 3. more expendable). He only allowed the children half the whiskey that the adult workers were encouraged to consume every hour.

All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.
All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.

Of course it turned out that industrial hydromechanical power was short-lived, as easier energy-producing methods came along soon after, but the tunnel is still open for tours.  After our thoroughly informative (and actually pretty fantastic) ride down the Erie Canal, we toured the (drunken) man-made Lockport Cave and learned all about the man who had it constructed, including the wonderful piece of information that the Holly Manufacturing Company, producer of fire hydrants and provider of fire protection systems throughout the nation, eventually burned to the ground. And the citizens of Lockport thought that was pretty funny.

In just a quick (and frankly not exactly exhaustive) Internet search, I have not been able to find reference to that part of the story, but I did with my own eyes see the remains of the destroyed building’s foundation and a picture of the blaze.

Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.
Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.

And that, my friends, is why you should consider traveling with a historical fiction writer. Because you never know what characters you may meet and what great little stories you might discover when you set out on a quirky little research side trip.