Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Along the Way: John Wise, Early Balloonist

John Wise Memorial
I had first stumbled across the name John Wise years and years ago. The brief mention of his name in the article I was reading failed to reveal any details about his life and at the time I was working on a different project so his name got filed away and mostly forgotten about.

Recently I was reading a book about mysteries of the Great Lakes and his name reappeared. A little bit of research had brought me to Lancaster where, on the corner of North Lime and East Marion Streets, a simple plaque honoring John Wise exists. Parking along East Chestnut Street, I crossed through Musser Park and was soon standing at the plaque.

Born February 24, 1808, near the spot where the memorial stands, John was the fourth of eight children of John and Mary Weiss, who anglicized their son’s name to Wise. By the age of sixteen he was an apprentice to a cabinet maker and by his early twenties he was working as a local piano maker.

But working with wood was not his true love. After reading an article about ballooning at the age of fourteen John was interested in the subject, but it wasn’t until he turned twenty-seven that he constructed his first balloon. In May of 1835 Wise made his first ascent in a balloon in Philadelphia.

At first Wise’s interests were not commercial, but to satisfy his own interests. Wise was especially interested in what would happen if the balloon would rupture or deflate. His design allowed for the bottom half to fold into the top half, turning the balloon into a large parachute. During one ascent, John exploded his balloon, and his design worked and he successfully landed safely.

John also made design changes to use drag lines to help with stabilization and a rip panel that allowed for a controlled deflation of the balloon once it was on the ground in order to prevent dragging on the ground.

During his observations, he noted a large body of fast moving air at a high altitude. He envisioned using this body of fast moving air as a means of transporting people in the west quickly eastward. This fast moving air that Wise was observing would eventually be known as the jet stream.

Close-up of the plaque
On the Wise Memorial
On August 17, 1859 John Wise would attempt the first balloon mail for the United States postal system. On that day his balloon Jupiter lifted from Lafayette, Indiana headed towards New York City carrying a mail bag carrying 123 letters. Due to unfavorable weather (the winds were carrying him southward instead of eastward) he was forced to land at Crawfordville, Indiana. Though the trip did not go as planned, Wise had the first official airmail flight.

Just a quick note: This was not the first time mail had been transported by balloon. This was the first time that it was officially recognized by the Postal Service.

Wise did attempt to have his balloon to be a part of the Civil War, by making a bid to be the head of the Balloon Corps. John and his balloon would be involved in the Battle of First Manassas. He arrived late in the battle with papers instructing officers to allow him to inflate his balloon. Wise inflated the balloon, which was tied to a wagon to help control how high the balloon would ascend and what direction the balloon would go. When the wagon moved forward, the balloon became entangled in trees ending Wise’s attempts at the becoming the head of the Balloon Corps and his involvement in the Civil War.

On September 28, 1879 John Wise made his final ascent with George Burr as his passenger. The two of them were last seen over Carlinville, Illinois headed over Lake Michigan. George’s body was later recovered floating in Lake Michigan, but neither Wise nor his balloon was ever found.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Fall of Flight 624

Grave of the unidentified victims of Flight 624
St. Ignatius Cemetery, Centralia
I am going to start this one with a warning: there is a mine fire burning underground in the area of Centralia. Gases seep from the ground and when I have visited the area the dust and ash in the air has irritated my throat. With this being said, I take no responsibility if you choose to visit the area and get injured.

Also, the sight of the plane crash is on private property. Please DO NOT trespass on posted lands.

"Are you sure he's buried here?" Mike asked as the two of us spread out and searched the stones among the freshly cut grass.

"The article I read said he was in the back corner of the cemetery. It is a flat stone and is easily overlooked," I replied. The two of us had been searching the back corner of the cemetery for close to ten minutes, walking over ground we had already searched.

"Are you sure?" Mike asked again. "I really don't see him back here." I had to agree, the man we sought was not in the back corner of the cemetery like the newspaper article described. Maybe I had read it wrong. A strong feeling of disappointment hung in the air as the two of us moved on and checked the other stones in the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery.

I had wandered over to check out some of the older tombstones when Mike called out excitedly, “Hey, I found him!"

Mike was standing in a spot I had just checked, but there, partially hid by day lilies was the stone I sought. We stood in silence as we paid our respects to the man, and to the forty-two others who lost their lives on June 17, 1948.

Even before the fire that killed the mining town of Centralia occurred, Centralia was familiar with death. Alexander Rea, who was the first to exploit the coal buried beneath the town was shot and killed by a group of men later identified as members of the Molly Maguires. Alexander’s story can be found elsewhere on my blog:  Murder of Alexander Rea and Trial of Patrick Hester.

The mining community had known death as the mines claimed the lives of loved ones. Within the mines dangers such as gas and falling rocks had claimed the lives of some of the miners. Sadly many met their deaths trying to provide for their family.

On June 17, 1948, the town was propelled into the national spotlight as tragedy once again struck the town. At 1:41 in the afternoon, United Airlines Flight 624 slammed into the mountain between Centralia and Aristes, killing all forty-three people on board. Thirty-nine passengers and four crew members lost their lives that fateful day.

The flight had been a normal one for the first leg on the journey. However the last routine call to La Guardia Airport happened at 12:27 pm when the plane was cleared to descend to between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. Almost immediately (at 12:31) the pilot radioed in that there had been a fire on board and that the fire extinguishers had been released. In an excited voice, an emergency descent was being declared.

The Douglas DC-6 airplane fleet had just come off a four month grounding due to a major design flaw. The cabin heater intake scoop was positioned too close to one of the fuel tank air vents. If the flight crew allowed the tank to be overfilled, the excess fuel could flow out of the tank vent. The excess fuel could then be sucked into the cabin heater system, igniting the fuel, causing a fire in the forward cargo compartment.

When the fire alarm went off, Captain Warner radioed in that there was a fire in the cargo compartment. He pulled the release on the CO2 and then dropped in altitude in order to depressurize the airplane. Flight 624 was now dropping at a rate of four thousand feet per mile.

While it will never be known what exactly happened in the cockpit that fateful day, but the official report places the probable cause of the crash as a build-up of CO2 in the cockpit. This was due to the failure to open the relief valves, which would have allowed the build-up for carbon dioxide. The final report declared that there had not been a fire in the compartment at all – the warning had been false.

Grave of George Von Sebo
Victim of the Flight 624 crash
International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery
Eventually, the two of them would have passed out, putting the plane in a steady decline towards the ground, rather than descending slightly before leveling out. The plane was moving erratically north and south as it continued to rapidly descend. It is believed that one of the crew regained consciousness to try to pull it back up, but unfortunately it was too late. The plane pulled rapidly up and sharply to the right, but the right wing clipped the 66,000-volt wires of the transformer that supplied power to the Mid-Valley Colliery at Wilburton.

The plane exploded.

The scene of horror is one that I cannot even start of fathom. The newspapers of the time describe it as a scene of carnage with pieces of the plane and body parts strewn over an acre of mountainside. Miners attempted to reach the wreckage in an attempt to search for survivors, but the fire was so intense that they were driven back by the heat.

The task of identifying the dead was nearly impossible. Some were identified while that of others still remains a mystery.

On board the fateful flight was Earl Carroll, a Hollywood night club owner. A native of Pittsburgh, he made a name for himself as a producer of "Vanities." His shows were among the most popular of the age due to the fact that they were the first Broadway shows to have full nudity. Though married, little seems to be known about Earl's wife - he was known to have many women with him and he eventually would settle down with the star of his newly revived Vanities Theater, Beryl Wallace.

In an odd twist of fate, that morning Earl had received a phone call from Maxie Rosenbloom. They were to meet to discuss Rosenbloom's appearance in one of Carroll's upcoming shows. Earl told Rosenbloom that he was tossing a coin: if it was heads he and Beryl would stop in Detroit to talk with him, if it was tails they were going to continue to New York where they could get together. The coin came up as tails - they were heading to New York.

Another odd occurrence happened only a short time before: Earl had changed his will stating if they died at the same time, his desire was to have their bodies cremated and their ashes buried together. Beryl was thrown clear of the wreckage and was easily identified; Earl was only identified by his fingerprints. Their remains would be fully cremated and buried together in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. 

Arcade card featuring
Beryl Wallace
From my personal collection
Also on board was Mrs. Venita Varden Oakie. She was a former Follies girl; the divorced wife of Jack Oakie, a movie comedian. Henry L. Jackson, the men's fashion editor of Collier's Magazine was also on board the plane that day; and so was Parker W. Silzer, the only son of the late Governor George S. Silzer of New Jersey

Of those identified, most were sent home to be buried among relatives. However one of the identified victims was not: George Von Sebo, the head of warehousing and merchandising control division of Devoe and Reynolds, Inc. was buried among the former residents in the IOOF Cemetery overlooking town. Although he was a stranger buried in a strange land, he was not forgotten as locals decorated his grave and people still place flowers on at the grave, remembering him and considering him a part of their community.

As I stood there, the plane crash from so long ago suddenly took a turn in my head. The articles, the statistics, and the reports suddenly had even more meaning. George was no longer a statistic - his tragic death suddenly became real.

George Von Sebo is buried in the IOOF Cemetery in Centralia. St. Ignatius is the big cemetery on the eastern side of Route 61 at the southern edge of town. Directly across from the entrance to St. Ignatius is a dirt road, which is labeled on some maps as Second Street. The cemetery is located along this road roughly one hundred yards from Route 61. Entering the cemetery, there is a paved sidewalk dividing the cemetery - follow the walkway to the back of the cemetery. George's final resting place is on the right along the fence.

I finished paying my respects before we resumed walking the small cemetery, reading the stones of the former residents. Once we had finished, we crossed Route 61 to pay our respects to those unidentified victims buried there. Entering through the gates into St. Ignatius Cemetery, we turned right at the first intersection and then a left at the next. We discovered the marker roughly halfway between that intersection and the next, located a couple feet off the roadway on the left side.

After paying our respects, we left the cemetery in silence, remembering those who perished that fateful day.

A note of interest: I originally posted the article four years ago. Shortly after it was posted, Stacy wrote stating there was another stone for the unidentified located on the grounds of the Tifereth Israel Hebrew Cemetery near Mount Carmel..

Friday, September 23, 2016

Along the Way: The Kecksburg UFO Incident

The Kecksburg UFO Monument
I won’t start this entry by saying that Kecksburg does not appear in my GPS unit, nor does the postal code for Kecksburg.

I won’t even start this entry by saying that the last few miles to the monument site I was followed by a black SUV with tinted windows (that thankfully continued on when I turned onto Water Street).

After all, if I started the article with either of those two events that happened on my way to Kecksburg it would seem if I was paranoid. Just because something strange fell out of the sky one winter’s night does not mean there’s some massive cover up that has existed since December 9, 1965 and continues to this day.

I pulled into the lot located along Water Street and couldn’t help but stare at the odd monument that sits a top the pole at the back of the parking lot. Looking like a large acorn with hieroglyphics the monument was originally used in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about the strange incident that happened in Kecksburg.

That evening thousands in at least six state and also in Ontario, Canada watched a fireball streak overhead. Reports of metal debris falling and starting fire across Michigan and Ohio were reported as it streaked eastward. As it approached Pittsburgh, reports of sonic booms were reported by residents.

The object crashed into the woods near Kecksburg. A local boy said he saw the object crash into the woods and his mother reported seeing a wisp of blue smoke rising from the area. Others reported that they felt a vibration in the ground at the moment of impact.

The first people on scene reported an object that was the size of a Volkswagon Beetle and appeared to be acorn shaped with strange writing all over it. Things would turn even stranger when the Army arrived and quickly removed the object. The military would later claim that they searched the area and found nothing.

The official explanation has been it was a meteor that crashed into the woods northeast of Kecksville. However, there is a better explanation that has a more Earthly answer and would explain why the military arrived quickly to recover the object.

After looking at a number of sources I think that there are two very likely sources that brought the military to Kecksburg that evening..

The first theory is it was a part of the Kosmos 96, a Russian spacecraft that fell to Earth on December 9, 1965. The spacecraft was launched with the hopes of it doing a flyby of Venus, but the craft failed to make it out of a low Earth orbit. When it was launched on November 23, 1965, one of the fuel; lines ruptured during the third stage of the flight, causing an explosion which caused the rocket to tumble out of control. The craft was released, but did not have enough power and stability to remain in orbit. On December 9, 1965 it was destroyed when it returned to Earth.

The vast majority of the spacecraft crashed in Canada earlier that day, but maybe a portion of it crashed within our borders.

A second theory is it was one of our own spy satellites that crashed into the woods. Some seem to think it was a GE Mark 2 reentry vehicle that had been launched a few days before over the Pacific Ocean. After looking at some pictures online, it may be the answer to what fell near Kecksburg that night.

Do I personally think it was a flying saucer? No, I don't. And for the record I don't think it was a meteor or a fireball either. I personally believe that whatever the object was, it originally came from Earth and was part of a satellite that had failed and came plunging back to Earth. Whether it was ours or one belonging to the Russians, we may never know.

Of course there is the possibility that it was a spaceship piloted by little green men. But I don't place much faith in that theory.

And for the record, Kecksburg still does not appear in my GPS unit…..hmmmm.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bigham's Fort

State Historical Marker just east of Port Royal
At junction of Routes 74 and 3002
Only a handful of vehicles were in the lot as I pulled into the parking area for the Juniata Junction Restaurant, located at the junction of Routes 74 and State Route 3002 (old Route 322), just east of Port Royal. The smell of bacon drifted in the air, making me regret the fact I had stopped earlier for breakfast. I took a couple pictures of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Bigham's Fort, which stands near the parking lot's entrance. 

While the state historical markers fascinate me, I turned my attention westward. I had known about this marker for years, but had only recently discovered another monument that exists near the spot where Bigham's Fort once stood. The directions I had in hand stated that the stone marker stood along Route 75 about “four or five miles” west of Port Royal. Almost fourteen miles later I arrived at the marker located a couple miles east of the community of Honey Grove.

Parking at the end of a farm lane, I stepped out of the vehicle and took in the beauty of the rolling farmlands of the Tuscarora Valley. Standing among a small grove of pines next to the lane is the stone memorial for Fort Bigham, which is also referred to as the Fort at Tuscarora and Bingham's Fort in some of the early writings and records of the state.

In the grand scheme of Pennsylvania's history, the block house and small stockade should have been listed among the "forgotten" forts. The simple fort was erected on Samuel Bigham's lands by himself, his neighbors John and James Gray, and Robert Hoag (also recorded as Hogg in some accounts) close to the Tuscarora Path that followed the valley. The exact year they erected the fort is not known, but many assume it was built in 1754, although a couple sources claim it existed as early as 1749.

I've read that the fort was also located along the Trader's Path, which is a path that I cannot seem to locate. At first I thought that maybe it was an alternate name for the Tuscarora Path, but after reading and rereading the early histories of the region, I believe that the Trader's Path was the path used by settlers to travel over the mountains and into Carlisle. This would be the same path that John Gray and Francis Innis were traveling along on the day the fort was burned. So possibly the fort was located near the junction of these two paths.

The attack that occurred on June 11, 1756, secured Bigham's Fort a place in Pennsylvania’s history when the place of refuge for the settlers became a bloody piece of land.

Stone memorial along Route 74
About 14 miles west of Port Royal
When the McCord's Fort fell in April of 1756, it placed doubts and fears in the hearts of the settlers. If this fort could fall, then it was possible for any structure to fall to the raiding Indians.

The Provincial Government's policy in dealing with the Delawares and Shawnees was also changing in the early months of 1756. The Pennsylvania Government passed the Scalp Act in April 1756. The Scalp Act was approved with the blessings of the Six Nations.

The reality of the Scalp Act is enough to send shivers down my spine. The government was offering $150 for every male Indian prisoner aged twelve or older and $130 for every female or male Indian under the age of twelve. A reward of $130 was offered for every scalp belonging to an Indian male aged twelve or older and $50 for every female Indian. For the settlers, it did not matter if the Indian was friend or foe - any Indian in their sight was worth money.

The Scalp Act only caused the tensions and the warring between the Indian and the settlers to intensify. The raids on the settlements increased.

On June 11, 1756, Bigham’s Fort became the next fort would fall on the Pennsylvania frontier. On the day of the attack, John Gray and Francis Innis were returning to their homes in the valley after going to Carlisle for salt. As they were descending the Tuscarora Mountain, John Gray's horse spooked when a bear crossed their path, throwing John from the saddle before running off. While John tried to recapture and calm his horse, Francis Innis, eager to see his wife, continued on without waiting for John.

After two hours of searching for and then calming his horse, John was finally on his way home. His bad luck was the only thing that saved his life that day. King Beaver, the Delaware chief, had led a raid into the Lower Juniata and Tuscarora Valleys that terrible morning. John had to have seen the smoke filling the sky as he approached the fort. By the time he arrived there, the last of the fort had been consumed by fire.

The marker for Fort Bigham
John searched the remains of the fort to see if any of the remains were those of his family. He would discover that his family was not among the dead, but his wife Hannah and daughter Jane (age three) were taken captive. Nor did John discover his friend Francis or his family.

In all twenty-two people were killed or taken captive during the raid. The home of Alexander McAllister was also burned and his cattle and horses were driven off. Alexander and his wife were listed among the missing.

All of the prisoners were taken to Kittanning and from there they were taken to Fort Duquesne. After arriving at Fort Duquesne the prisoners were parceled out and most were adopted by Indians. George Woods was given to an Indian known as John Hutson. George would later purchase his freedom and would return to the Juniata Valley.

An interesting note: George would later help lay out Pittsburgh in 1784 – Wood Street was named in his honor.

Francis and his wife were sold to the French and taken to Montreal. On the way northward in the December of 1756, the youngest of their three children became sick. The Indians who were taking them to Canada broke a hole in the ice of a river and pushed the child under. While prisoners in Montreal another child, James, was born. Francis and his wife were released by the French and returned to their home in the Juniata Valley. Their children remained among the Indians until the autumn of 1764 when they were returned home to their parents.

Hannah Gray was captured and despite her husband's attempts was not able to return home until nearly to four years after her abduction. At the end of Pontiac's War, she hoped that her missing daughter would be among the children returned, however she was not. The fate of Jane Gray is a mystery to this day. She may have died among the Indians. She may have died on the journey home. She may have stayed with the Indian family that raised her.

When the children were returned by Colonel Bouquet, Hannah searched among the children, and not finding her daughter, took a girl who was about her daughter's age -- a child no one else would claim her as their own. Hannah's good intentions and actions resulted in one of the most famous property cases in early America and possibly history. The court case was Frederick et al. versus Gray or, as it is more commonly known - The Gray Property Case.

John's will left half of the farm to Hannah and half to Jane if she ever returned from the wilds. If there was no heir, then the estate went to John's sister. In 1789, the heirs of John's sister went to court to claim John's farm, which covered between three and four hundred acres of prime farmland in the Juniata Valley. For more than fifty years the sister's heirs and the captive's heirs fought over the land until the courts finally decided to rule in favor of the sister's heirs.

History on the memorial
I could not even start to imagine the pain John Gray felt the day he discovered the devastation that occurred here; to never know if his family was alive or dead had to place a pain in his heart and had to rip his soul to pieces. John would later march to Kittanning with the Armstrong Expedition, but would fail to find his wife or daughter. By the time his wife, Hannah, had managed to return home, he had already died - some say it was from a broken heart.

Fort Bigham would be rebuilt in 1760 and named Fort Bingham. It would be attacked and destroyed again a few years later.

I want to add an interesting note: all sources I’ve found state that the fort was destroyed for the second time in 1763, but for some reason the marker that the site states it happened in 1766, which I believe is a wrong date.

Friday, September 9, 2016

From the Files: Sky Mystery Over Kane Has Crowd Gazing

The McKean County Democrat - July 31, 1952

While jets whined into the air over Washington D.C., in search of unidentified objects - Kane residents, at least a half-hundred of them, where pondering a sight in the skies over Hilltop Saturday morning - a large cylinder like object which hovered over the air at about 2,000 feet altitude for an hour - possibly more.

The object was sighted by a carload of workers headed from Kane to the Dresser Mfg. Division plant in Bradford. They stopped and watched it. Not willing to be stuck with a story on their own they flagged other cars and soon a long line of cars was at the road side on Rt 6 a few miles east of Kane - and fully a half-hundred persons viewed the "thing."

The men had to get to work and proceeded east on Route 6 - keeping an eye aloft at the object. When they reached Lantz Corners, eight miles east they could still see the object - which then looked about two feet in length. Estimates from original observations indicated the object from 100 to 200 feet in length. One observer said "it looked like a canoe, with a couple of guys in it." Others agreed.

Early morning light, clear skies, and absence of wind in a dead calm, seemed to make the object stationary in the skies. From descriptions of the object, it was believed to be a large weather balloon.

One observer, a scoffer on "flying saucers" and other mysterious objects in the skies said, "I'll believe anything now" but I wouldn't have believed what I saw if the others had not seen it too. He said the way cars were stopping on the highway that scores of persons must have seen it and watched its progress.

Maybe it was the "thing" - maybe not, but Hilltop skies were full of aircraft over the weekend - some low flying military planes included. The planes continued over the area on Sunday and early Monday morning two huge "B-36s" moved over the area, going over Kane shortly before 9 a.m. at very high altitude. One continued directly west, the other changed course to the south. Both were jet equipped.

From the Files: A Peddler Sees A Ghost

The Reading Eagle, November 10, 1881

Manatawny, Nov. 10 -

A peddler who passed through this place, declares that he saw a ghost not far from here. As he was walking along the road he saw an object in front of him, which seemed like a human skeleton, with eyes of fire. He tried to overtake it when it turned on him and moaned. His story is generally credited.