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.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.
Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.
We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.
At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Oh the Places I’ve Never Gone: A Story of SPAM

I love a good road trip and, I confess, I have a little bit of an obsession. I collect brochures. I don’t mean that I have a basement full of full color brochures from every place I’ve ever visited. That might actually make sense.

I mean that at every hotel, roadside diner, and rest stop, the first thing I do is check out the tourism brochure rack, and I usually pick up at least three or four. Of course I do this in the places where I’m staying for a while, but also in the places I’m just driving through.

In case you can't read it, that phone number is 800-LUV-SPAM, so you can get all of your SPAM and SPAM Museum-related questioned answered. I'm sure you have many.
It’s Free! And it has bathrooms. And probably tee shirts.

And here’s the strange part, I almost never go to the places in the brochures. But I love to learn about bizarre little tourist sites that get highlighted on those racks. I guess it’s my way of soaking in some of quirkiness of the communities I am privileged to pass through.

There are the standard places like zoos, waterparks, and outlet malls and in this part of the country there’s usually a cave tour or two. Sometimes those are accompanied by interesting stories. But the ones I like best advertise those truly unique places, the ones that are just weird enough that it’s unlikely anyone would ever travel specifically to a particular area just to see them.

My latest find, maybe the best brochure I have ever picked up on a road trip, came from a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota where we stopped this weekend on our way to watch a community theater musical production that featured one of our very talented nieces.

Obviously she stole the show and we were delighted to be there to watch her performance, but I admit, second to that, my favorite part of the trip was the place we didn’t go: The SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota.

Austin is only about a 45 minute drive from Rochester and not particularly out of the way for a traveler headed back to St. Louis, but it was the last day of our whirlwind weekend road trip. We were anxious to head home. And I was the only one who seemed at all interested in going.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.
Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

How could I not be? First of all the museum is free, so even if it’s not everything it’s advertised to be, all you’ve lost is an hour or so of your time, which you can’t ever get back. Still, how can you say no to a tourist destination that boldly proclaims: “Theater! Game Show! Restrooms! IT’S ALL HERE!”

So since my family wouldn’t be convinced to tour the museum (okay so it’s possible I didn’t try that hard), I had to research SPAM the old fashioned way and just Google it.

SPAM hit the market in 1937 and soon dominated the canned meat industry. A spiced ham product initially made entirely from pork shoulder which had been an underutilized cut of meat up to that point in the company Hormel’s canned meat products, SPAM received its iconic name from a somewhat suspicious contest.

The winning entry was submitted by an actor named Ken Daigneau who also happened to be the brother of a Hormel Foods Vice President. There’s no word on whether or not said vice president was in fact the judge of the contest, but Hormel awarded Daigneau $100 for his efforts and it’s a good thing they did because “ham jello” just doesn’t sing as well.

Though SPAM (which Hormel claims stands for “spiced ham” and not the “something posing as meat” that some have suggested) took off largely as a wartime food, its real boost into the popular psyche came from Monty Python’s famous 1970 SPAM comedy sketch, which period actors with brilliant British accents (I’m sure) reenact daily for a fascinated audience at the SPAM Museum.

Alas, I’ve never been. Still, I do have the brilliant brochure that both splits into detachable postcards with fun SPAM facts so you can conveniently invite your friends from all over the world to a SPAM pilgrimage they won’t soon forget and also features a helpful map placing the museum into geographical context with the World’s Largest Stack of Empty Oil Cans. I haven’t managed to collect a brochure advertising that American travel gem yet, but it’s definitely on my list of sites to not visit.

spammap
10,000 Lakes? Big Deal. Come to Minnesota for the SPAM!

No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey

Just over thirteen years ago, a young newlywed couple moved into their first home together in the small city of Rockford, Illinois. You could say that it was the beginning of a wonderful journey on which they would earn a couple of degrees, begin careers, change jobs a few times, travel the world a little bit, have a couple of amazing kids, and own homes at various times in three different states. But theirs wasn’t the only journey to have begun in Rockford, Illinois.

The Swedish-born inventor John Nelson immigrated to the US in 1852 and settled in Rockford where he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker before establishing several manufacturing businesses of his own. But it turns out what captured Nelson’s attention the most was the quest for a comfy pair of socks (and who could blame him?). He sold his other manufacturing plants and invested all of his energy into producing a machine that could manufacture everyday work socks for the everyday working man.

The Symbol, a large piece of modern art sculpt...
“The Symbol.” at Rockford’s Riverfront Park. It’s nice, but I think a giant sock monkey would have been even better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After partnering with fellow inventor W. W. Burson, Nelson patented his first knitting machine in 1870 and by 1873, the two had created the world’s first seamless sock produced by an automated process. The partnership between Burson and Nelson dissolved, Nelson founded the Nelson Knitting Company, and then he died in 1883.

But the quest of sock perfection continued with his three sons. The Nelson boys started Forest City Knitting Company, eventually merging with Nelson Knitting to become the world’s dominant sock producer.

Business was humming along, but over the years the industry had attracted a number of competitors, all of them producing brown work socks with a tan toe, top, and heel. To distinguish the original and best out there, Nelson Knitting decided to get a little wild. In 1932 it introduced to the world what it called the “De-Tec-Tip” sock, which was a brown work sock with (and I’m sorry if this sounds a little shocking to more delicate readers) a RED heel.

It was certainly a risky move, but the world was ready for it. Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. History has forgotten who was first to pin it to their Pinterest page, but Nelson Knitting was rewarded the patent for everyone’s favorite stuffed animal in 1955.

All buckled up and ready for takeoff!
All buckled up and ready for takeoff!

No worries, however, for the craft bloggers out there because the patent expired in 1970 and since then sock monkeys have been popping up everywhere. And that’s where our two stories come together.

A few Christmases ago, when our sons were very small, my husband received a sock monkey (alas I am not a craft blogger so this one was not homemade). The boys named him “Steve” and he became a permanent fixture in our family culture, taking on quite a mischievous personality (because he is, after all, a monkey).

So fast forward a few months. The not quite as young and not quite as newlywed couple got the opportunity to leave their two young children with Grandma and Grandpa and take off for a week together in Hawaii.

We had gone away for a weekend a few times, but this was the longest I had ever planned to spend away from my little guys. So I was trying to figure out a way to help them know they were on our minds and feel like they were in some way part of our trip. It was my wonderful mother-in-law (and yes, I do mean that sincerely) who suggested that we photograph a favorite stuffed animal along the way and post the pictures so the boys could follow our adventure. We stuffed Steve in a suitcase and we were off.

Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some "pineapple juice."
Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some “pineapple juice.”

Steve has been our family’s travel mascot ever since. When either “Mom” or “Dad” heads out for a conference, Steve travels with us. He always shows up on family vacations. He kept family and friends posted during our cross-country move this past year.

Most recently Steve and I attended the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve never been there, just trust me when I tell you that a lady walking around taking pictures of her sock monkey doesn’t really garner much attention. At one point I posted a picture of Steve sitting behind a friend’s book table at the conference and captioned it: “Steve is hoping to sell some copies of his self-published memoir entitled No Shoes Required: My Life as a Well-Traveled Sock Monkey.”

The crazy thing is that I’ve had several people tell me they would be happy to buy the book. Now, I’m fond of Steve. And I am delighted to know that his journey and ours began in the same place long before our paths crossed and we started to travel together. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into the sock monkey genre (Worldcat lists 33 new sock monkey entries for 2013-2014) and I do NOT have time to ghostwrite for a stuffed animal.

I do apologize to Steve’s many fans out there. A blog post will just have to do.

The ladies sure do love him.
The ladies sure do love him.

Avast Ye Wedding Lubbers

Multnomah Falls

On a recent family excursion to Multnomah Falls, a place I’ve been too few times, I noticed a sign along the trail that I hadn’t read before, probably because I assumed it had something to do with rock formations and/or water volume as most of the signs do.

But this one was different. It described an event from September of 1995 when a boulder weighing 400 tons (according to the sign that is approximately the same weight as a school bus filled with concrete, and go ahead and disprove that) fell from the rock face next to upper Multnomah Falls, plunging 225 feet into the pool at the bottom. Upon entering the water the school bus boulder produced a 70-foot splash that washed over the observation bridge, completely dousing a wedding party that had been posing for pictures. Now, I may not care much about geology, but I am a big fan of wedding photos.

In case you haven’t been to the falls, though, let me just provide a little background. Located on Interstate 84, just outside of Portland, Multnomah Falls drops a total of 620 feet, making it the highest waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge and the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Between the upper and lower portion of the falls spans Benson Bridge, constructed in 1914.

And if geology is your thing, Multnomah Falls is allegedly a fascinating place to visit because rumor has it you can see something like six different lava flows, evidence of flooding that occurred thousands of years ago, and probably even some really interesting differences in rates of erosion that have led to the tiered formation of the falls and the occasional plunging school-bus-sized rock. Personally, I just care that it’s pretty.

In fact, all those impressive geological goings-on coupled with the well-placed bridge in the middle make the easily accessible Multnomah Falls an ideal spot for all your magical wedding photo needs. Then there’s the tragic and super romantic mythological accompaniment that I didn’t even mention yet.

According to one Native American legend, the chief of the Multnomah people had a beautiful and beloved daughter. He arranged for her to marry a strong young chief from the neighboring Clatsop people and planned many days of feasting and celebration during which tragedy struck. A terrible sickness descended on the wedding festivities. The only solution, as determined by an honored medicine man, was for an innocent maiden to sacrifice herself. The idea was that her sacrificial love would impress the Great Spirit and the sick would recover. When her betrothed fell ill, the young maiden took it upon herself to save her people. She climbed up to the high cliff and leapt to her death. As a token of her loving sacrifice, a spring welled up on the cliff top, the water descending as a lasting bridal gown testimony to the young maiden.

I don’t know about you, but had I gotten married in Oregon, I think we would have made the effort to get that picture. But even though the myth lends a certain wild sentimentality to the photo op, I have to wonder if it ultimately makes a lot of sense to get fancied up in tuxedoes and ball gowns and go for a hike. Assuming here that your daily wear is somewhat less formal, don’t the memories painted by such pictures just ring a little false?

Yet as anyone who has ever tried to make small talk with relative strangers for hours at a wedding reception while waiting for the bridal party to arrive knows, couples do this kind of thing all the time. In fact, my husband was a groomsman at the beginning of this summer and while I’ve not yet seen the photographic evidence, it sounds like things may have gotten a little out of hand. Let’s just say there are some modern art sculptures on an undisclosed Midwestern college campus that are probably feeling a little violated. What that has to do with the celebration of marriage, well, you’d have to ask the couple. No one else seems willing to talk about it.

So the sign at the falls got me thinking about wedding photos and it happens that a few days ago some good friends of mine celebrated their wedding anniversary. It’s one of those that I always remember not only because I was a bridesmaid (and I actually liked the dress, and yes, I have even worn it since), but also because they had the foresight to get married on International Talk like a Pirate Day.

They’re a great couple and I am honored to be featured in their wedding photos, in which I never once posed with any modern art sculptures. But as I was looking back through the pictures, I realized that along with the lined up bridal party, the first kiss as husband and wife, and the gathered family, were some of the other kinds of photos as well: the ones in which excessively well-dressed people are deliberately posed in unnaturally casual ways.

Clearly these men are pirates. You can tell by the way they are standing.

Ultimately, though, I think these are the ones I like best because it says a lot about a photographer (and how well they know the couple whose wedding they are trying to capture) and even more about the couple themselves, because if the photo didn’t somehow resonate with who they are, then it never would have made the wedding album. For my friends, their memories will forever include a nod to the internationally celebrated holiday with which they share their special day. And because of their willingness to embrace it, their friends will never forget to leave a heartfelt message on their Facebook pages: “Arr. Ye be havin a jolly anniversary ye old scurvy dogs.”

I am happy to report, too, that the Multnomah Falls wedding deluge resulted in no major injuries. In an interview after the wedding, the bride said of the event, “We got the tragedy out of the way and now we’re home free.” That’s a great attitude that I assume has led to many years of happily ever after. I just hope someone managed to snap a picture of the splash.

Just a bunch of well-dressed people casually hanging out in a courtyard, cuz that’s how we roll.

Wedding photos by Layne Aumann Photography. www.aumannphotography.com/

These wedding pictures are used by permission and may not appear elswhere without consent, lest ye be wantin to walk the plank.

Something Kind of Awesome

Gulf Shores, Alabama. Beach.
Gulf Shores, Alabama. Beach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Hurricane Isaac slammed into the Gulf Coast causing evacuations, flooding, property damage, fear, and all the terrible things a hurricane can bring with it, something kind of awesome happened, too. On a thin little stretch of Alabama beach that reaches between Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan on the east side of Mobile Bay, Isaac’s fury revealed a shipwreck, about 136 feet long and previously burned, from days gone by.

English: Map of Bon Secour National Wildlife R...

If you’re unfamiliar with the location, glance at a map of Alabama, concentrating on that little southern piece that meets the Gulf of Mexico. And then look more closely because you probably missed it the first time. It’s not much more than a single main road lined by bits of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and beach front vacation homes.

Every couple of years for as long as I can remember a portion of my family vacations there. It’s always the laid back family reunion sort of vacation where folks may come and go as they can and you’re always sure to see some cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends you haven’t seen for a while along with a few new faces, too. There’s never much of an agenda beyond a little beach wiffle ball (in the water is probably a homerun; if you cause someone to plunge into the surf chasing your ball, you’re a hero) and inside someone is always cooking something wonderful.

And at the risk of sounding like a court mandated BP commercial, it’s really beautiful. If you’re a beach vacation kind of a person, it’s worth giving a try. I don’t always make it for the big family gathering, but I have been there several times over the years and I have managed to take both of my sons as well. Sometime in the coming  years, I’m sure we’ll return because we love it.

So when my cousin (via my aunt) brought the story of this discovery to my attention, I immediately pulled out vacation photos and explained to my 5-year old son that an old ship had been found upon the very beach where he played in the sand as a small babe. His eyes as big as saucers, he whispered, “You mean a shipwreck?”

I can only imagine what was going through his head: images of sharks chasing frightened little fish through portholes, peg-legged pirates running wildly to save their damaged ship, a prince floating adrift in the open sea awaiting rescue by a pretty singing mermaid. And why not? Don’t we all love a good historical mystery?

But even though this was the first time I’d ever heard of the ship, it’s not the first time it has ever been seen. Hurricanes in 1969, 1979, and even 2004 all revealed parts of the wreck in the sand, but Isaac has shown us more of it than has been seen in a long time. In 2004, when Hurricane Ivan uncovered a smaller portion, there was enough of the wreck visible to get historians really going, trying to figure out just what ship they were looking at.

The list pretty quickly got whittled down to just three good possibilities:

  1. The 136 foot Monticello was a Confederate blockade runner that failed to outrun a Union navy gunboat and burned to the keel.
  2. At close to 150 feet, the schooner Rachel was run aground with a load of lumber (and rumor has it, illegal booze) in 1923 by a tropical storm. The ship was later burned, for unclear reasons, though local legend chalks it up to insurance fraud.
  3. A captured rum runner, Aurora, carrying around 1400 cases of liquor (toward the end of prohibition) was being towed toward Mobile by the US Coast Guard when it caught fire and sank somewhere near Fort Morgan.

Kanawha "cutting out a blockade runner fr...

Though these wrecks each bear some resemblance to the mystery boat, there are a few clues that have pointed historians to their final conclusion. First, the wreckage contains woven steel cables, not used in shipbuilding during the Civil War era. The beam construction of the ship, too, points to a design that was more useful for stability than for speed, so it’s not likely that this was the blockade runner Monticello or any of the other many sunken Confederate Blockade runners that might have been contenders for consideration.

There’s also some evidence that suggests that the wrecked ship was a steam-powered vessel, and though little is known about the Aurora, its 8 crew members were safely aboard the Coast Guard vessel when it burned and 8 seems to historians a pretty small crew to be operating a steam vessel of that size.

This leaves us then with the Rachel (not just a popular 90’s hairstyle). I confess I am a little disappointed. Historians have pretty much all agreed that this was just a working lumber ship that fell under some trouble. Thankfully, her crew made it to safety. But they never were very forthcoming about her cargo so if she was smuggling booze, well, we’ll never know for sure. And whether she was burned intentionally in order to cash in on insurance we can only guess. So maybe there is still a little mystery.

And who knows?  Maybe the crew was rescued by a singing mermaid. They never said they weren’t.