Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917

Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917 Destruction at Halifax Harbor
On December 6, 1917, the munitions ship Mont-Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, in the biggest man-made explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.

While sailing into the harbor on the morning of December 6, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc—with its cargo of 2,925 tons of explosives for the Allied war effort—encountered the Imo, a Norwegian ship headed to New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium. The Imo was traveling on the wrong side of the Narrows (the narrowest part of the harbor), and after miscommunication between the two ships, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc. The sparks from the collision caused some of the Mont-Blanc’s cargo to catch fire, and its crew, unable to stop the fire and knowing what would happen, abandoned ship.

The smoke cloud attracted many onlookers on shore, who came to watch as other ships tried to put out the fire and pull the Mont-Blanc farther from land. But at 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded, incinerating the ship and sending out a powerful shockwave that broke windows up to 50 miles away.

Destruction at Halifax Harbor

An estimated 1,500 people were killed instantly or nearly so from the explosion and shockwave, as well as from flying glass and debris, collapsing and burning buildings, and the tsunami created in the harbor that crested at 45 feet. An estimated additional 9,000 people were injured, and over the following hours and days, the death toll would rise to 1,952, nearly 500 of them children. 12,000 buildings in a 16-mile radius were damaged, with 1,630 completely destroyed, leaving 6,000 people homeless and many thousands more without adequate shelter.

Almost immediately, the rescue effort began, facilitated by the soldiers and sailors present in the wartime boomtown. Initial rescue efforts were hindered by rumors of a potential second explosion, which caused many people to flee the disaster area. Efforts were also slowed by a heavy snow storm that hit the area the following day. In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, other areas of Canada, as well as the United States and other countries, sent relief supplies, including food, blankets, clothes, money, and medical supplies, in addition to nurses and surgeons.

Rescue effort following Halifax Explosion
Though a government commission initially determined the following February that the Mont-Blanc held full responsibility for the disaster, higher courts eventually ruled that no one party was to blame.

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Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses: November 7, 1940

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses
On November 7, 1940, at 11 a.m., the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed into Puget Sound just four months after its opening.

Although locals had wanted a bridge between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula for decades, it wasn’t until the U.S. military got behind the idea as a defense measure that the idea became a reality. Construction began on November 23, 1938, and was finished a little over a year and a half later. At the time of it’s opening on July 1, 1940, the bridge was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, with a center span 2,800 feet long. It was extremely slender, with a deck just 2 lanes (39 feet) across and 8 feet deep, making it the most flexible suspension bridge in the world.

Before the bridge opened to the public, workers noticed that even in light winds the bridge deck developed rippling vertical waves and nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie.” The motion was sometimes so pronounced that it caused some workers—and later motorists and pedestrians—to feel motion sick. Bridge engineers worked to find a solution to dampen the bridge’s movement, but when initial methods failed, they hired a university professor to solve the problem. The professor’s report was released just a week prior to the collapse and before any of his suggestions could be implemented.

Opening of new Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1950

On the morning of November 7, under winds that eventually reached 42 mph, the bridge began its typical undulations. The waves became so bad that the bridge was closed to traffic. Finally, one of the cable bands slipped, and the bridge took up a new twisting (torsional) motion. The unexpected twisting (caused by the bridge’s design and aereoelastic flutter) put too much stress on the bridge, and it collapsed 190 feet into the Sound. The only fatality was a dog in a car abandoned on the bridge.

World War II interrupted the rebuilding of the bridge, so the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t completed until 1950. The new “Sturdy Gertie” bridge, which abandoned the extreme slenderness of the old bridge, is still in use today.

Do you have any family stories about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? Tell us about them! For more information about the collapse, start a search on Newspapers.com.

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds cartoon
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre staged a radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds that fooled at least some Americans into believing that Martians really were invading the United States.

In order to make the adaptation of book to radio more interesting, the show was set up to seem like a normal music program that kept getting interrupted by increasingly alarming, official-sounding “news bulletins” that tracked the violent progress of a Martian invasion centered in New Jersey. Traditional accounts maintain that despite announcements that the show was fictional, vast numbers of Americans thought the broadcast was real. In fact, newspapers the next day carried tales of mass panic and hysteria as listeners allegedly fled their homes, and Orson Welles met with the press to express regret for the confusion.

Recent scholarship on the subject, however, tends to argue that the mass panic caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast was exaggerated by the newspapers of the time. Even according to the papers themselves, not everyone strictly believed the Martian story: those who only caught part of the broadcast or heard the news secondhand often merely believed that a disaster of some kind had struck the East Coast. And many people who had initially been fooled called their local newspaper or police station to verify the story and thus quickly learned that it was fiction. Still, many people were indeed at least initially frightened by the broadcast, and the hysteria reported in the newspapers did exist to some extent, though it was more likely on an individual rather than group level.

War of the Worlds' Broadcast Creates Panic in the East

While the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast might not have been as panic-inducing as originally believed, a similar broadcast in Quito, Ecuador, in 1949 really did cause hysteria. A local version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds program caused radio listeners to panic, and when the broadcast was revealed as fictional, their fear turned into an angry riot. The radio station was attacked, causing $350,000 ($3.5 million today) in damage and multiple deaths.

And those aren’t the only instances. Renditions of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast also fooled listeners—at least to some extent—in Chile in 1944 and in Buffalo, New York, in 1968.

Did any of your family members experience Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast? Tell us about it! Or you can learn more about the radio program by starting a search on Newspapers.com.

The Galveston Hurricane: September 8, 1900

The Galveston Hurricane: September 8, 1900

Example of devastation at Galveston following the hurricane
On September 8, 1900, Galveston—a low-elevation sand island just off Texas’s Gulf coast—was struck by a category 4 hurricane that decimated the island and killed thousands of people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

On the day before the hurricane struck, heavy swells were noticed in the Gulf, and by the early morning of the 8th, coastal areas of Galveston had begun to flood. Rain showers started later that morning, with heavy rains beginning by noon. By 3:30 p.m. water covered half the city, and it continued to steadily rise until about 8:30 p.m. In total, the storm surge rose about 15-20 feet, completely submerging the island (which sat just 9 feet above sea level). In addition to the flood of water, hurricane-velocity winds started around 5 p.m., topping out at an estimated 140 miles per hour and turning debris into deadly projectiles. The storm center passed over around 8:30 p.m., and finally, around 11 p.m., the wind began to subside.

The next morning, survivors discovered the hurricane had left mass devastation in its wake. The lowest estimate of those killed is 6,000, though estimates of 8,000 or 12,000 are also common. More than 3,600 houses (about half of the residence portion of the island) were totally destroyed, with all remaining structures suffering varying levels of damage.

The vast number of dead, combined with the heat and humidity, quickly created a horrible stench across the island. Residents originally tried to bury many of the dead at sea, but when the tide washed the bodies back to shore, they began to burn the bodies instead.

Path of the Galveston hurricane
A nationwide relief effort was launched to help Galveston’s devastated population, and in the months and years following the hurricane, Galveston rebuilt. Between 1902 and 1904 a 3-mile-long seawall was built to try to mitigate the damage of future storm surges. Likewise, from 1904 to 1910, sand was used to raise the city’s elevation 17 feet near the seawall, with a gradual downward slope toward the bay.

At the time of the hurricane, Galveston had been a major port and a leading city in Texas and the Gulf region. However, afterward, Galveston never regained its former glory, and Houston became the powerhouse in the region instead.

Did you have ancestors who lived during the Galveston Hurricane of 1900? Tell us about it! If you want to learn more about the hurricane, start a search on Newspapers.com.

Klondike Gold Rush Begins: August 16, 1896

Amelia Earhart Disappears: July 2, 1937

Editorial cartoon about the Klondike gold rush

On August 16, 1896, gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek in northwest Canada, launching the 1896–99 Klondike (Yukon) Gold Rush.

It didn’t take long after gold was discovered in the Yukon for word to spread to the surrounding areas. Prospectors from nearby parts of Alaska and Canada quickly snapped up the most promising claims. But due to a lack of contact with the outside world, word didn’t reach beyond the area until prospectors toting large amounts of gold got off ships in San Francisco and Seattle in mid-July 1897, nearly a year after it was first discovered.

As word of the discovery of gold spread like wildfire, people rushed to buy passage on ships heading north, and the gold rush understandably became a major story in the newspapers. But Klondike gold permeated more than just the headlines. It was the subject of editorial cartoons as well as advertisements, such as those selling supplies for the Yukon and those drumming up support for mining ventures. One paper even used the prospect of winning a small amount of real Klondike gold as an incentive to increase subscriptions and advertising.

In all, about 100,000 people started off toward the Yukon to find their fortunes. It was a long, difficult trip to get there, and Canadian authorities required each person to bring a year’s worth of food and supplies since resources were scarce that far north.

Illustration showing the character and dress of the men now at Klondyke
While some people traveled the entire way by ship, the majority traveled partway by ship and then came the rest of the way via various overland and river routes through Alaska and Canada, braving rough terrain and freezing weather. Unfortunately, when the main rush of newcomers arrived in Dawson City (the boomtown nearest the discovery) in late June and early July of 1898, they found that the best claims had already been taken, as it had been two years since the original discovery.

Out of the 100,000 people who set out for the Yukon, only about 40,000 actually made it. Of those 40,000, about 20,000 worked claims, but only about 4,000 ever found any gold. And of those who found gold, only a few hundred made it rich.

Do you have an ancestor who was part of the Klondike Gold Rush or just want to learn more about it? Start a search on Newspapers.com.

Elvis Joins the Army: March 24, 1958

Elvis Joins the Army

On March 4, 1958, 23-year-old Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army.

Elvis to be sent to Ft. Hood

Elvis, like other young men, had registered for the draft when he turned 18. Then, despite his ensuing fame, he was declared eligible for induction in January 1957, with his draft notice arriving that December. Though he was supposed to report to the Army in January 1958, Elvis was granted a deferment until March so he could finish his current film, King Creole.

Elvis was processed into the Army on March 24, 1958, at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, surrounded by family, friends, and a sea of reporters. The singer entered regular Army service as a private, rather than joining Special Services, in which he would have entertained troops. Elvis was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, for basic training and was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division. While he was at Fort Hood, his mother, with whom he was very close, became seriously ill. Elvis was granted emergency leave, and he was able to make it to her bedside before she passed away in August.

With his training complete, in September Elvis was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division and was sent to Germany. There, Elvis apparently served dutifully and well as a driver, despite the constant media attention and fledgling amphetamine abuse.Elvis showing his sergeant's stripes
It was while he was serving in Germany that he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would later marry. Elvis achieved the rank of sergeant in February 1960, and a month later, on March 5, he was honorably discharged from active duty at the age of 25.

While Elvis had been busy with the Army, his manager, Tom Parker, had been busy keeping the singer’s career rolling. Over the two years of Elvis’s service, Parker released songs that had been recorded before the singer left. Less than a month after returning home, Elvis recorded a new album and a single, “Stuck on You,” which hit number one on the charts the following month. Despite his fear that his fans would leave him in his two-year absence, Elvis was back in business.

Are you an Elvis fan? Find more articles about him on Newspapers.com.

The Sinking of the USS Maine: February 15, 1898

Sinking of the USS Maine

Headlines from the day following the Maine explosion
On February 15, 1898, at 9:40 p.m., the battleship USS Maine exploded then sank in Havana Harbor, killing about 260 of the 355 men on board. This international disaster, which was blamed on Spain, became an important catalyst for the Spanish-American War.

At the time, Cuban guerillas were engaged in a brutal fight for independence from Spain. Riots in Havana in January 1898 prompted the United States, which supported Cuba for both humanitarian and imperialistic reasons, to send the Maine to Havana as a show of strength. The ship, commanded by Captain Charles Sigsbee, arrived on January 25 and sat quietly in the harbor for the next few weeks.

Remember the Maine
But on the night of February 15, two explosions rocked the ship, sinking the Maine. The casualties were predominantly among the enlisted men, as they were quartered in the forward part of the ship, where the explosions occurred.

Although there was no hard evidence that the sinking was caused by the Spanish, a sizeable portion of the American public began clamoring for retribution almost immediately, spurred on by “yellow press” accounts that focused on sensationalism more than fact. “Remember the Maine!” quickly became a rallying cry.

An official U.S. court of inquiry was set up soon after the loss of the Maine to investigate the cause. Its findings, which did not assign blame, revealed in March that the sinking was caused by an underwater mine, which had led to the explosion of the forward magazines. Under pressure from all sides, the pro-peace William McKinley finally saw war with Spain as inevitable (for a number of reasons, though the Maine was the most visible instigating event). President McKinley asked Congress for a resolution of war, which was declared on April 25.

Spanish blamed for sinking of the Maine the day after the explosion
In later years, two other major investigations into the loss of the Maine were completed. A second official investigation in 1911 came to the same conclusion as in 1898: the Maine had sunk as the result of a mine. However, an investigation led by Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded in 1976 that the explosions were caused by a coal-bunker fire adjacent to one of the ship’s magazines. Disagreement and speculation on the cause of the sinking continues to this day.

Learn more about the sinking of the USS Maine and the Spanish-American War on Newspapers.com. You can also find some additional records from the Spanish-American War on Fold3, including the Service Record Index and compiled service records for Florida.

Theodore Roosevelt Dies: January 6, 1919

Theodore Roosevelt Dies: January 6, 1919

Theodore Roosevelt
On January 6, 1919, around four in the morning, Theodore Roosevelt quietly died in his sleep at home in New York after a battle with chronic illness that had rapidly worsened in the final months of his life. He was 60 years old.

Roosevelt’s funeral, held two days later, on January 8th, was a small, quiet affair. A short prayer service was held in the family home. Next came the funeral, which took place at a nearby church. Only 500 people were allowed to attend, and there was no music or eulogy. The mourners then followed the casket to the cemetery, where he was interred after the firing of three volleys and the playing of taps. His wife Edith attended neither the funeral nor the burial, instead mourning at home. Two of Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit and Ted, were also absent, as they were still serving overseas in the military.

Church where T. Roosevelt's funeral was held
The nation was largely shocked by Roosevelt’s death. He had kept his illnesses quiet and displayed as charismatic and capable a public face as ever. Once the newspapers learned of his protracted illnesses prior to death, many of them attributed his declining health to grief over the death of his son Quentin, who had been killed during the war. Numerous editorials were published about his life and accomplishments, and though many acknowledged that Roosevelt had been a polarizing and controversial figure, nearly all commemorated him as a patriotic man, larger than life, who had—through skill and passion—achieved so much in so many arenas.

Though very few were allowed to attend his funeral, people honored the former president in other ways. President Wilson ordered the White House flag be flown at half-mast. Newspapers reported that stock exchanges would close and that Congress had adjourned early. The Boy Scouts planted trees in his honor, New York held a minute of silence, trains temporarily stopped running in Illinois as did streetcars in Chicago, some small businesses closed, and towns held their own memorial services.

T. Roosevelt's gravesite
Though Roosevelt had as many enemies as he did friends, he had an undeniable impact on the nation, living life so energetically that few could keep up with him. Observed vice president Thomas Marshall, “Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would’ve been a fight.”

Find many more articles about Theodore Roosevelt’s life and death on Newspapers.com. Or search for other topics that interest you.

FDR Moves Thanksgiving: November 23, 1939

FDR Moves Thanksgiving: November 23, 1939

President schedules Thanksgiving for 1940
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt upset the majority of the nation when he changed the date of Thanksgiving. Up to that point, the date of Thanksgiving hadn’t been set by federal law, but since Lincoln’s presidency, it had become tradition to hold the holiday on the last Thursday in November.

In 1939, though, November had five Thursdays, so Thanksgiving was going to fall on the 30th, which retail lobbyists worried would shorten—and therefore hurt—the Christmas shopping season. So in August, Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving up a week, to the second-to-last Thursday, the 23rd.

Happy Franksgiving
The move created an uproar. Not only did many people dislike this change to what had become a tradition, but moving the date of Thanksgiving disrupted vacation plans, football schedules, and calendar production.

Since Thanksgiving’s date wasn’t determined by federal law, individual governors could decide whether their states would side with the president or keep the holiday on its traditional date. That first year, 23 states celebrated on the old date, 22 on the new day, and 3 on both. The two dates began to be known as Republican Thanksgiving and Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving (also commonly called “Franksgiving,” based on the president’s first name), though the division wasn’t entirely along party lines.

Majority of Americans don't want to move Thanksgiving in 1939
The following year, 1940, Roosevelt again moved Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday, and that year 32 states celebrated with the president, while 16 stuck with tradition. Come 1941, data from the last two Christmas shopping seasons revealed that making Thanksgiving come earlier hadn’t had a significant effect on sales, so Roosevelt decided to bow to popular opinion and move Thanksgiving back to its traditional date, with the change to take effect in 1942.

But in the fall of 1941, Congress decided to cement the date of Thanksgiving once and for all by passing a resolution that officially set the date for the fourth Thursday in November. President Roosevelt signed it into law on December 26, 1941.

Find more articles about Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving experiment on Newspapers.com. Or search for other topics that interest you.

The Great Chicago Fire: October 8-10, 1871

President McKinley Shot: September 6, 1901

Cow cause of Chicago Fire?
The Great Chicago Fire—a fire that would ultimately kill 300 people and destroy more than 17,000 buildings—started in a cow barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary around 9 p.m. on October 8, 1871. Although folklore states that the fire began when Catherine’s cow kicked over an oil lamp, no one really knows how the fire actually began.

It had been unusually hot and dry in Chicago, and in a city predominately built with wood, that meant the fire spread quickly. Despite the efforts of the fire department, the fire raged throughout the night, even jumping the river. Firefighters tried to fight the massive flames with their fire hoses until the city’s waterworks burned, cutting off the hydrants’ supply of water.

Destruction caused by Chicago Fire
The huge fire burned for about another 24 hours essentially unchecked—consuming a large portion of the city, residential and business districts alike—until it began to burn itself out on the night of the 9th. A light rainstorm that same night helped douse the remaining flames. When the fire was finally out, on the 10th, an area about 4 miles long and almost a mile wide had been burned to the ground, leaving 100,000 people homeless.

Nationwide, newspapers kept their readers up-to-date on this major disaster and its aftermath, reporting the latest fire news they had received by telegraph. The papers also reported on relief efforts, as cities, businesses, and individuals across the country donated money and food to the beleaguered city.

Very latest news on the Chicago FireOn the 11th, the Chicago Tribune published an issue packed with details of the fire, calling it “a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history.” (Though in fact the same day as the Chicago fire, October 8, the deadliest fire in U.S. history burned in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing more than 1,500 people; but that fire was largely overlooked by newspapers outside Wisconsin in favor of covering the Chicago blaze.)

Despite the devastation of Chicago’s fire, reconstruction (this time using less wood) began almost immediately and businesses quickly reopened, though many in new locations. Within a little more than 20 years, Chicago would rise from its ashes to become a booming city deemed worthy of hosting the 1893 World’s Fair.

Find more articles about the Great Chicago Fire on Newspapers.com. You might even find your Chicago ancestors in the lists of people missing or “lost and found” following the fire.