Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: The White Cascade

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist chronicles the events surrounding the killer storm of February, 1910 in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains.

A record-breaking blizzard delays two Great Northern Railway trains as they cross the Cascades near Stevens Pass: a passenger train, the Seattle Express, and a mail train, the Fast Mail. At first it doesn’t seem so serious, but as time wears on, the storm’s intensity increases. Although Superintendent James H. O’Neill and his men work around the clock, they are unable to clear the way for the two trains to get through. Stranded near the tiny railroad town of Wellington, passengers can do little more than wait it out, hoping their various destinations and projects won’t be too inconvenienced by the delay.

But the storm doesn’t abate, it only gets worse. It leaves so much snow on the tracks that the equipment can’t carry it off fast enough. Passengers get edgy as the days pass without relief. Over a six day period enough snow has fallen to bury a two-story house, and still there’s no letup.

As the weather warms, conditions get more dangerous with the threat of avalanches. Forests surrounding the trains have been thinned from fire, making conditions for avalanche even more likely. Thunder and lightning heighten the danger as the snowfields disintegrate.

Gary Krist does a remarkable job keeping suspense high throughout the book. With skill and meticulous detail he weaves local history, the personal lives of passengers and workers, newspaper accounts and meteorological conditions culminating in a killer avalanche, and finally the inquest resulting from the tragedy. Steam railroad buffs will find this book fascinating with its vivid descriptions of the ins and outs of railroading in early twentieth century. But you don’t have to be a railroad enthusiast to enjoy this book–it’s a piece of history skillfully presented.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Coast is Clear: Oregon Lighthouses Shine Through

"Danger! Keep away!" For decades, ship captains have heeded warnings from lighthouses along Oregon's rugged coastline.

Lighthouses carry an image of by-gone days when ship captains depended on lighthouse guidance and trusted them for safety. Today, automated lighthouses still play an important part in coastal navigation, but with far less effort than in the past when safe shipping depended on an unerring light keeper and his light.

On a recent trip to Oregon's coast, we were "enlightened" with the stories behind these lighthouses that played such an important role in the state's history. While catching our breath after climbing the Yaquina Head Lighthouse tower's 114 steps, a volunteer guide explained the old-time light keeper's difficult job.

During the day, the keeper's main tasks were to trim the lamp wicks and clean soot, fuel and drippings from the lens. Keepers wore linen aprons so that they wouldn't scratch the lenses. Often times the keeper had an assistant, possibly a member of his family, and together they cleaned, polished and maintained the facilities.

When the light was lit at night and during foggy days, keepers made sure the lamp had sufficient fuel. This meant hauling fuel up the stairs to the top floor. Fuel varied ─ some lamps required lard, others whale or coal oil. The keeper’s duties also included winding the clock mechanism every four hours to ensure the light emitted its signature signal. On the occasions when the clockworks malfunctioned, the keeper on duty turned the lens by hand until dawn when repairs could be made.

The arrival of electricity in the 1930s marked the end of the need for many of the lighthouse keepers. Then, with automation in the 1960s, there was no longer a place, except in history, for the old-time light keeper.

The responsibility of Oregon's lighthouses eventually passed to the U.S. Coast Guard who became the caretaker of the properties and keeper of the lights. In the 1960s, after the installation of automated beacons, the Coast Guard began transferring their lighthouse holdings to other government agencies.

Today’s mariners still depend on these beacons for coastal navigation. The lighthouse serves more than just a warning of approaching land or rocks—each lighthouse's unique sequence of flashing lights is noted on navigation charts to enable the captain to determine the ship's position.

Oregon’s lighthouses provide unique destinations. Following are lighthouses open to the public, listed from north to south. Many are still in active use, others deactivated but worth a visit:

Cape Meares: Deactivated. A pretty little lighthouse with an unusual lens design.
Yaquina Head: Active. Tallest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. Original Fresnel lens still in use.
Yaquina Bay: Deactivated. In service only 3 years. An unusual structure that combined lighthouse and living quarters.
Heceta Head: Active. Strongest light on Oregon coast. The keeper’s quarters is now a bed and breakfast.
Umpqua River: Active, with lens that emits distinctive red and white automated flashes. The first lighthouse in Oregon territory.
Coquille River: Deactivated. Last lighthouse built in Oregon.
Cape Blanco: Active. Has the longest continuously-operated beacon

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: These is my Words by Nancy E. Turner

These is My Words subtitled “The Diary of Sarah Anges Prine 1881 - 1901, Arizona Territories,” by Nancy E. Turner, was inspired by the Arizona author’s original family members. The novel is rich with authentic details about the early settlers of Arizona Territory.

As a sixteen year-old girl traveling to the southwest with her family, Sarah sees and endures enough harrowing action to last a lifetime, but it’s only the beginning of Sarah Prine’s amazing life. She loses beloved family members on the trail and by the time they reach their destination, exhausted, the diminished family struggles to carve out a life.

Sarah marries a neighboring homesteader and has a child, but is soon widowed. Army Captain Jack Elliott, who led the wagon train, occasionally weaves into their lives. Sarah, busy with a horse ranch her late husband started, is often overwhelmed with caring for her child, never-ending work and loneliness.

At first resisted, an enduring love eventually develops and Sarah’s life changes, though her responsibilities increase. A woman of true grit, humor and fierce determination, Sarah faces life challenges in surprising and creative ways.

The book is in the form of a journal and is a vivid historic account of Arizona pioneer life. It is the first of a three-book series and is followed by Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden. These is My Words, Winner in the Arizona Author Award and Finalist in the Willa Cather Literary Award, is an exceptional read.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Riding Muleback to a Forbidden Village: Kalaupapa’s Leper Colony

.....Just before the plunge

It was probably one of the most difficult ventures I’d ever undertaken, riding a mule down a 1700-vertical foot, 26-switchback trail to the formerly forbidden village of Kalaupapa on the Island of Molokai, Hawaii.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park’s mission is to preserve the memories and experiences of the past in order that valuable lessons might be learned from them. Since no roads connect Kalaupapa with the rest of Molokai, the village can be approached only by flying in, hiking, or by mule. Visitors must come with a designated group, so arrangements must be made in advance.

When I was a high school junior, I wrote a report on leprosy, more properly called Hansen’s Disease, and learned about Father Damien. Elevated by the Catholic Church in October, 2009 to Saint Damien of Molokai, he dedicated his life to those who suffered that most terrible disease, leprosy. Since writing my school report, Father Damien and the leper colony has held great fascination for me.

The early days of the colony were bleak. In 1863 leprosy had spread to epidemic proportions, and in 1865 King Kamehameha V signed into law the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy, which authorized isolating persons with the disease. The site chosen was the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the tip of the island of Molokai, Hawaii.

Those condemned were taken by schooner on the open sea to the colony’s shore. Often whole families came as some would not part with a loved one. The large ships couldn’t land in the rough waters, and because the disease was so contagious, the crew refused to take them to shore on small boats. The result was the crew threw the sick, terrified people into the ocean, followed by their belongings and limited supplies. The strong made it to shore where they found no shelter, no food, no medicine, and no hope of ever leaving.

Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest originally from Belgium, came along in 1873 with strict orders from his superiors not to touch those he was going to serve. He was to administer to their spiritual needs but to keep his distance. He arrived in a stark land void of all amenities. Except for a small chapel, there were no buildings. The inhabitants lived in rock caves or shelters made of driftwood and leaves. Father Damien settled in under a pandanus tree until he could build a house.

Father Damien’s first project was to build a proper cemetery. Rather than follow the custom of dumping bodies into shallow graves for wild dogs and pigs to root out, he built coffins, obtaining materials from “topside,” the part of Molokai outside the quarantined area, or from Oahu. Each death was celebrated with a requiem Mass, proper funeral ceremonies, and a decent burial. He concentrated on restoring in each leper a sense of worth and dignity.

A skilled carpenter, Father Damien trained people to help construct buildings, adapting tools to fit their physical limitations. They built cottages, a hospital, a school, a rectory, and a home for orphaned children.

Soon after his arrival, Father Damien set aside his fear of contagion to give himself to his people. He no longer avoided touching the afflicted, he became one of them. He wrote to his brother, “This is my work in the world. Sooner or later I shall become a leper, but may it not be until I have exhausted my capabilities for good.” He died of the disease in 1889 at the age of forty-nine.

Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease, still affects 11 million people, 5,000 of whom are in the United States. It is considered a tropical disease and is still common in Africa, Asia and many of the Pacific Islands. Since the mid-1940s, leprosy can be treated and cured. With treatment, patients become non-infectious. Isolation is a thing of the past and most cases are treated on an outpatient basis.

With treatment, residents of Kalaupapa were free to leave, but many were so disfigured that they felt more comfortable living among their own in their peaceful, if isolated, community. A few elderly residents who have chosen to live out their lives on Kalaupapa still remain in the village.

As we approached the village, I wondered what we’d see. Mostly, I wondered if I would live to see it. My mule, Mr. Ed, seemed capable enough, and I knew that mules were sure-footed. Still, they have an irritating habit of swinging wide on switchbacks. The mistake is looking down. Oh, my! The heck with looking like a sissy–I gripped the saddle horn for dear life.

Our group of 12 finally arrived and met with a tour guide, himself a victim of leprosy. To assure privacy and respect for the remaining residents, visitors are not allowed to freely roam the park. Our delightful guide spent several hours with us, sharing facts about the leper colony, its people, incredible tales of struggle and human suffering, along with stories about courage and love. We ate lunch overlooking sea cliffs, waterfalls, dramatic ocean rock formations and a wild, crashing sea.

We again mounted our rested mules and rode them up the steep three-mile trail–actually easier for the rider than coming down, I found. I’m sure Mr. Ed would not agree. Kalaupapa National Historical Park was a highlight of my life, one I’ll never forget.