Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Bent's Fort, What Happened?

 Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

Photo property of the author

This year they are celebrating the bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail. One of the stops on the Mountain Route was Bent's Fort also known as Fort William. 

Trade officially opened up with Santa Fe around 1821. The Santa Fe Trail touched the far Southeast corner of Colorado but the Mountain Trail went further north. Although more difficult to transverse than the southern route, it had the advantage of water most of the way.

By 1833 the Bent brothers, Charles and William, along with Ceran St. Vrain, had opened what we know as Bent's Fort on the northern side of the Arkansas River. At the time the river was the dividing line between Mexico and the United States.

Photo property of the author

The fort was the only structure other than a blacksmith shop located in Kansas that one would find on the American side of the trail. Many mountain men, traders, Indians, and for a time the military all used the fort.

William Bent's first wife was Owl Woman of the Cheyenne, and he later married her sisters Yellow Woman and Island. It was from this connection that trade with the Indians grew. 

In addition to the Bent's, the list of those who spent time within the walls of the fort reads like a who's who of the opening of the west. George Ruxton, John Smith, William Guerrier, Francis Parkman, Susan Magoffin, Francis Preston Blair Jr., Lieutenant James Aber, along with Kit Carson and Jim Beckworth.

The trade was not just with the locals, it was a worldwide concern trading goods from around the world. The languages spoken were English, Spanish, French along with the native languages.

Photo property of the author

The Fort was extremely profitable through 1849. It was that year that a cholera epidemic spread across the plains wiping out a substantial number of people. (The epidemic years were 1846-1860.) It was in 1849 that the Fort burnt down. William Bent moved to a spot further about forty miles downriver and built Bent's New Fort.

Did William burn the fort to keep it from being used as a military fort? Perhaps he fired it because of the cholera epidemic that had taken the lives of some of his family. Maybe there was a reason we will never know. Regardless, the fort was a lifeline for so many in the early days of trade along the Santa Fe Trail.  

Photo property of the author

As Susan Magoffin says in her diary." It fills my idea of an ancient castle. It is built of adobes, unburnt brick, and Mexican style so far. The walls are very high and very thick with rounded corners." This reconstructed fort is a trip back to the early days of the country and is rich in history to be excavated. Perhaps one day we'll know what really happened when the fort was destroyed.

Photo property of the author

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Angela Raines - author: Telling Stories Where Love & History Meet

Post (c) Doris McCraw All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 27, 2021

My 12 Favorite Western Movies - Part One

Admittedly, any list of anyone’s favorite of anything is going to be subjective and this list is no exception. There will be people who will be convinced that I have lost my mind to include a particular movie on this list, and others who are just as convinced of my mental defects because I didn’t include a particular movie. So, right out of the gate, I’m expecting disagreement, controversy, name-calling, and maybe even some shootouts in the street at high noon.

I have included one film which is not technically a Western. Westerns are generally considered as taking place during the last half of the 19th century. This film is loosely based on an incident in the life of someone that took place in 1823. The movie, however, contains elements and themes that are common stock in the Western genre of film and literature. I’ve also included several titles that were each aired as a mini-series, not as individual films, but I saw no reason to discriminate based on length.

So, here you have it. My list of the twelve Western movies that I like the best. I’ve listed them in order from my least favorite to my most favorite. If you have a favorite that you think should be in everyone’s top twelve, but didn’t make the cut in my list, make your case for it in the comments below.

This post will cover the bottom six movies. My post for the month of October will cover the top six on my list.


#12 – The Searchers

Released in 1956, directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, and Vera Miles. I struggled with where to include this film in the twelve. It could have easily been much closer to the top of the list. This is arguably both John Ford’s best picture and John Wayne’s best performance. Based on the 1954 book of the same name by Alan Le May, the story is based on the true-life account of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker who was abducted from her home on the Texas frontier in 1836 by Comanche Indians.

John Wayne plays anti-hero Ethan Edwards, a bitter Civil War veteran, who returns home to Texas after the war. When his brother’s family is killed or abducted by the Comanche, Ethan sets out on a journey to find the surviving family members and bring them home.

This film was nominated for six awards and won three, including a Golden Globe in 1958.


#11 – Centennial

A twelve-part mini-series that aired between October 1, 1978, and February 4, 1979. Based on the 1974 epic novel by James A. Michener, the movie featured a cast of dozens of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Robert Conrad, Barbara Carrera, Richard Chamberlain, Brian Keith, Andy Griffith, Lynn Redgrave, Raymond Burr, and on and on…

The series tells the story of the founding of the American West by looking at the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado, from its settlement in the late 18th century to the present. At the time it was made, it was the longest, the most expensive, and the most complicated film project of its time. It ran for a total of 26 hours, cost 25 million dollars, had a cast of over 100 speaking parts, four directors, five producers, and several hundred extras.

Several of the episodes were nominated for various awards, including two Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes.


#10 – Open Range

Released in 2003, Produced and directed by Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Benning, and Michael Jeter (who passed away before the movie was released).

Open Range is an old-fashioned Western with cowboys, cattle drives, a ruthless land baron, gunfights in the street, and a love interest for Costner’s character. The plot is simple, the characters are well developed and genuine, and the chemistry between Costner and Duvall is apparent.

The movie is based on the 1990 book, The Open Range Men, by Lauran Paine. Paine was a prolific writer who wrote under numerous pen names, publishing over 1,000 books in different genres. Only two of his books were ever made into movies and both of them were Westerns.

Costner and Duvall play two cattlemen driving a herd across the open range. They stop for supplies in a small Montana town where they discover the local land baron has laid claim to all of the open rangeland and is determined to steal the herd and kill the cattlemen. Costner’s character, Charley Waite is tortured by his past as a Confederate sharpshooter and all of the killings that he had done. He and Boss Spearman (Duvall) are not the kinds to stand by and watch their men and cattle be killed and taken from them.

Although there are some authenticity issues with the film (the magic six-shooter that never has to be reloaded), the inevitable shootout with the bad guys at the end is probably the best in any Western film. Open Range would have made it into my top twelve for the final shootout alone—it’s that good.


#9 – How the West was Won

How the West was Won is the story of three generations of the Rawlings/Prescott family as they make their way from New York to California between the years 1839 and 1889. This story of westward expansion includes Indians, river pirates, the civil war, the building of the railroads, outlaws, and lawmen. The cast of stars that were assembled for this film is phenomenal and includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Gregory Peck, and Debbie Reynolds, to name just a few. The film is also narrated by Spencer Tracy.

The film was directed by three veteran directors, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. Oddly enough, it was first released in London, in the UK, in November of 1962, and then released in the US in February of 1963. Produced at a budget of fewer than 15 million dollars. It grossed over 50 million at the box office, making it a huge success for MGM, and one of the studio’s last great “epic” films.

The music for the film was composed and conducted by Alfred Newman. The score was nominated for an Academy Award. It lost out but was later selected to fill the #25 spot in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Film Scores” list.

How the West Was Won was the winner of ten different awards, including three of the eight Academy Awards that it was nominated for.


#8 – Into the West

Into the West is a 2005 mini-series composed of six two-hour episodes. It chronicles the westward expansion of the United States, beginning in the early 1820s. It’s told through the eyes of two different families, one white, one native, as the family’s fates become intertwined.

Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) leaves his parent’s home in Virginia and heads west to seek adventure. He is taken under the wing of the legendary mountain man, Jedediah Smith, who teaches him how to survive in the wilderness. Loved by the Buffalo (George Leach) is a Lakota holy man, who’s calling it is to try to understand a prophesy that has his people being wiped out by the encroaching white settlers. Jacob marries Loved by the Buffalo’s sister, Thunder Heart Woman, thus tying the destiny of both families together throughout the rest of the story.

Its scope covers six generations of the two families and depicts both fictionalized and historical events and people.

Into the West has an impressive cast, with over 250 speaking parts. Each of the six episodes had a different director, and the project had eight different producers – most noticeably were Steven Spielberg and Kirk Ellis, who was also one of the writers for the mini-series.

Into the West received 16 Emmy nominations in 2006, picking up two wins. It was also nominated for an award by the Screen Acts Guild.


#7 – The Cowboys

The Cowboys, released in 1972, directed by Mark Rydell, is based on the book by the same name, published in January of 1971 and written by William Dale Jennings, who also wrote “The Ronin.”

This is one of John Wayne’s later films, and also stars Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, and a handful of young cowboys, notably Robert Carradine and A. Martinez.

The Duke plays an aging cattleman by the name of Will Anderson, who needs to drive a herd of cattle from Butte, Montana to Belle Fourche, South Dakota - four hundred miles away. However, just before the drive begins, his cattle hands get the gold bug and run off to the Montana gold fields leaving him stranded and desperate for help. With no other able-bodied men available to help him move his cattle, he reluctantly enlists the aid of eleven school boys, ages nine to thirteen.

Roscoe Lee Brown does an outstanding job of portraying Jebediah Nightlinger, the camp cook. Probably the best performance by any of the cast comes from Bruce Dern as Asa “Long Hair” Watts, an ex-con who tried signing on as a drover but was turned away by Will Anderson who caught him in a lie. Watts and his gang follow the herd seeking an opportunity to steal it away from the inexperienced cowboys, but the young boys do a lot of growing up throughout the cattle drive, and taking the herd from them is not as easy as Watts and his gang thinks it will be.

The Cowboys was the recipient, in 1972, of the Bronze Wrangler Award (best theatrical motion picture of the year) from the Western Heritage Awards.

(Next month, the top six on my 12 Favorite Western Movies list.)

Mike is an award-winning Western author currently living in a 600 square foot cabin in the mountains of Western Montana. He has been married to his redheaded sweetheart, Tami, since 1989. He is a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist three years in a row and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers as well as brick and mortar bookstores. His first Western novel, The Sons of Philo Gaines, was released in November of 2020. It is available everywhere books are sold. Mike is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. You can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MichaelRRittAuthor, or at his website https://michaelrritt.com.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Larry D. Sweazy - A Pantser who Plots

This next interview is with Larry D. Sweazy, an award-winning author of Westerns, Mysteries, and more.  I love that he is a Pantser who also does some plotting. These interviews give the reader and writer an insight into the process of various writers and the work that goes into telling a story on the page. Read on, there is so much to learn.

Author Larry D. Sweazy

1. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? 

I was an early reader, but I really fell in love with stories via the television. We had a black-and-white nineteen-inch Motorola with rabbit ears (with aluminum foil on the tips) that brought the outside world into our one-bedroom apartment. It was the 1960s, so there were a lot of Westerns on TV at the time, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and my mom’s favorite, The Big Valley. I liked Batman, but I didn’t fall for Star Trek or cops shows like The Mod Squad and Mannix until I was older. All of those shows were an escape, and I found the same kind of escape in books. It wasn’t until eighth grade when a poem that I’d written to a girl got intercepted by a teacher that I began thinking I might be able to write. He held me after English Lit class, told me the poem was pretty good, gave me a few books to read, and suggested that I pay attention in class. I did. It was the first good review I had. “You’re pretty good at this,” can go a long way to a small-town kid with no other visible talents.  I continued to write poetry in high school, and then after I left home, I pretty much decided that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. At that point, in my early twenties, everything I did, read, and invested in, revolved around becoming a published writer. 


2. Did you chose the genre you write in or did it choose you?

Interesting question. I didn’t start out writing westerns, or mysteries for that matter. I started writing short stories, some speculative fiction, some horror in the Stephen King vein. Carrie came out while I was in high school, and I was an instant King fan. I still admire his work and his dedication to the craft and the writing life. I moved on to writing novels after a few years, and the third unpublished novel I wrote was a modern-day police procedural. There was a mystery conference not far from where I lived, and I attended out of curiosity, hoping to learn more about the genre. That conference really changed the direction I was heading. Once writers were real and in-person, the writing dream seemed more possible than it ever had. I tried writing mysteries for several years after that with no luck. I came close a couple of times, but I just couldn’t find a way to get published. Fate intervened a few years later. Or being in the right time, right place. Whatever you want to call it. A little luck brought an invitation to me to write a short story for a Marty Greenberg/Ed Gorman anthology. Ed asked me to write a modern-day Texas Ranger mystery short story and I did. It came out in a western anthology, with my story being the only modern story in the collection. I thought I was writing a mystery. That story, my first professionally published short story, went on to win the WWA Spur Award for short fiction. I was shocked. I went to the conference, met some amazing writers like Elmer Kelton, Don Coldsmith, and Loren Estleman, and a new world was introduced to me. But, of course, it wasn’t a new world. I had loved all of those western TV shows and movies as a kid. My first published novel (but the seventh one I’d written) was The Rattlesnake Season, the first book in the (seven-book, so far) Josiah Wolfe series. I would say westerns chose me, but maybe I was destined to write westerns from the beginning.  

3. Do you write in other genres? 

So far, I have published eight westerns and eight mysteries. But it depends on how you look at each novel. Most of my novels have elements of both genres in them, western and mystery, so the lines become blurred as far as I’m concerned. Genre gets defined by other people, librarians, publishers, booksellers, etc. And I don’t mind working in the confines of genre—just like I’m sure John McEnroe didn’t mind playing tennis inside the tennis court. It’s what a writer brings to the table that counts. What I love more than anything is story. And most of my stories involve characters on their own, facing the elements of nature, the harshness of life, loss, the cruelty of humans, all the while doing their best to survive, and being productive people making a contribution to the greater good. I like stories about reinvention and survival. Westerns are a great place for that kind of tale. But so is science fiction, horror, and every other genre. At this point, I hope to continue to grow and get better as a writer, and I think writing in other genres helps to keep me fresh, but I also think there’s a wide palette to work off of when it comes to writing westerns. I have a lot more stories to tell. 


4. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m a pantser who plots two or three chapters ahead. I usually work off a synopsis of the story while giving myself permission to stop in and take in the view or visit someplace that looks interesting that I didn’t know existed when I started out. I think there has to be room for spontaneity, but I also like to know where I’m going (most of the time) when I pull out of the garage to take a trip or sit down to write a story. E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I think that pretty much covers how I write.


5. Is there a writing routine you follow or do you write when the muse strikes?

I grew up in a factory town and come from a blue-collar background. Punch in, punch out, show up every day or you don’t get paid. Slack off and you lose your job. I show up everyday. That’s pretty much my routine. I write a thousand words a day, five days a week, and most times seven days a week when I’m writing a first draft. If I waited for the muse to strike, I’d never hit a deadline. I would get distracted by something else. Oh, look a squirrel! I’m curious about everything. I have to be disciplined and regimented in most all of the aspects of my life, or I would just sit and watch the birds at the birdfeeder all day (or the squirrels) and get nothing done.


6. Where did you get the idea for your latest release and tell a bit about the story?

I really wanted to explore a western hero who is a hero until he screws up. Then what is he? Lost Mountain Pass is the first book in my new series from Kensington featuring Trusty Dawson, a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1888 Indian Territory. Trusty makes a fatal mistake while escorting a federal judge home from a trial and spends the rest of the book trying to redeem himself and regain the meaning of his name. I wanted to defy expectations a little bit. Trusty is not the usual western hero. I know that’s a risk, but I’m hoping readers will enjoy the ride, all the while experiencing the expected trappings of what a western is supposed to be and what a western can be. 

Pre-order from Amazon

7.  What advice would you give to those who dream of writing, or what advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be desperate to get published. If you’re going to be desperate about something, be desperate about becoming a good writer. Be willing to serve an apprenticeship. No one is a master craftsman out of the gate. Don’t publish until you’re ready. Just because you can publish your work doesn’t mean you should. You won’t avoid rejection. If you self-publish and have no sales, that’s rejection. If you send your work out too soon to an agent or publisher and get rejected, that’s part of the journey for us all. Rejection is part of the deal. I still get rejected. I have a project out on submission right now that’s been rejected thirty-four times. Writing doesn’t get any easier. It’s a long-haul proposition. But if you stick with it, don’t let anyone or anything discourage you, then maybe luck will find you sitting at your desk. Maybe luck will ask you to write a story for them. You never know where that bit of luck will take you. But you have to be ready. And the only way to be ready is to write. Read and write. That’s the secret. Read and write as much as possible, and don’t give up, no matter what.  

I hope you enjoyed this interview and perhaps learned even more about this career we call writer/author. 

Amazon Author Page


Follow on Twitter: @larrydsweazy 


Post (c) by Doris McCraw All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 23, 2021


the blog about the medicine and surgery of yesteryear

Keith Souter aka Clay More

Six months ago I wrote a post about the history of the hypodermic syringe. I said it then and I say it again now, it is one of the most important developments in medicine. It eventually also greatly facilitated the process of vaccination. Since I have been vaccinating over those six months I have used and discarded  at least several hundred syringes, because of course nowadays each syringe is used only once. 

In the early days a single hypodermic syringe was a prized possession that would be used multiple times.

A Short recap

Syringes had been used in medicine for centuries, but for introducing fluid into bodily orifices, or to suck out fluids or pus. Some attempts to give drugs by injecting them into the body were made in the early seventeenth century, but they were not successful and fatalities did occur. In those days it would be highly likely that infections would have been directly introduced to the tissues.

The first necessity was to produce a hollow needle. This was done by Dr Francis Rynd (1801-1861) an Irish surgeon in 1843. He successfully develop a technique with a hollow needle for injecting opiates to treat neuralgia.

Dr Thomas Wood (1817-1884) a Scottish physician, who i am proud to say was born in my hometown of Cupar in Scotland invented the first hypodermic syringe in 1853. Apparently he tried to copy the action of a bee sting, so he used a hollow needle that could be attached to a metal syringe.  He used it to inject morphine and other opiates in the treatment of neuralgia, which was at that time  an umbrella label for all manner of painful conditions.

 Dr Thomas Wood (1817-1884)

The Civil War -  missed opportunity to help so many

During the Civil War most surgeons simply dusted morphine into wounds or gave opium pills. Dr John Billings (1838-1913), a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union Army was the first doctor to use a hypodermic syringe in the field. Despite his advocacy of it, however, probably less than a dozen were used during the war in the Union Army. Many thousands of men could have benefitted from its use.

 Dr John Billings (1838-1913)

Dr Billings would go on to become one of the most prominent physicians and librarians in American medicine. Indeed, after the war he developed Index Medicus a bibliographic index of medical articles from journals all over the world. It ran from 1879 until 2004. As a young medical student and then as a hospital doctor I used it extensively to research papers in medical libraries. Medical historians have called it 'America's greatest contribution to medical knowledge.' I think few doctors of my and earlier generation s would disagree with that. 

  A mid-19th century hypodermic syringe

Dr Julian John Chisolm (1830-1903)

I have written several posts about Dr Billing's counterpart during the Civil War.  Julian John Chisolm, often referred to as John Julian Chisolm, or as J.J. Chisolm was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1830. He obtained his MD medical degree from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1850, then travelled to Europe to study medicine and surgery in Paris and London.

Dr Julian John Chisolm (1830-1903)

He returned to Charleston in 1860 and took up the post of Professor of Surgery at the Medical College, from whence he had graduated a decade previously. He kept the position throughout the War and in 1861 published the first edition of his textbook A Manual of Military Surgery for the use of Surgeons in the Confederate States Army.

Dr Chisolm's 'talisman'

This book is a rich source of information about medical and surgical treatment during the Civil War. In it, Dr Chisolm also advocates the use of the syringe and the injection of morphine. 

Hes says:   " by the use of this simple process, a new and extensive field for doing good is open to the humane military surgeon, and he who is the fortunate possessor of this talisman (a Wood's endermic syringe - see above) will receive daily the thanks and blessings of his suffering patients.'

And he gives several cases as examples, of which this is one.

Captain M was accidentally shot in the neck with a Colt's pocket revolver. His head being turned, the ball entered the skin over the larynx, coursed downward and backward through the posterior triangle of the neck, and was found under the skin of the shoulder over the spine of the scapula, and was removed. 

Posterior triangle of the neck

Considerable swelling and extravasation followed, which, diffusing itself, discoloured that side of the neck. Some branches of the brachial plexus of nerves (the nerve supply to the upper limb) must have been injured by the ball, as the patient was seized with violent  pains shooting down the arm towards the fingers, and which, although never altogether absent, would increase to torture as evening advanced. Toward morning they would remit and allow sleep, after a restless and painful night. Gum opium and morphine in large doses, gave him no relief. the arm was so sensitive that he would not permit its being handled. One fourth of a grain of morphine, in three or four drops of water, was injected under the skin of the shoulder; in five minutes all pain had left him, and his arm could be examined rudely without the slightest suffering. 

Although other cases of gunshot woulds could be detailed in which the endermic use of morphine gave immediate and entire relief from pain, the above recital will suffice as proof of its decided usefulness. 


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Favorite Movies and TV Featuring Railroads by Scott D. Parker

When you think of what makes a western a western, railroads and trains naturally make it onto the Top 10 list. They may not be in the Top 5, but they certainly play a significant role. I know they did when it came time for me to write my own western stories, especially with the creation of Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective. You see? It's right there in his title.

David Cranmer (aka Edward A. Grainger) and I emerged on the scene more or less at the same time, now over a decade ago. We each ended up creating a western hero. He created Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal, who, along with his partner, Gideon Miles, deal with outlaws and desperadoes wherever they rear their ugly heads. For me, I spawned Calvin Carter, a former actor who, in the course of tracking down the man who killed Carter's father, learned he had a knack for detecting. He often dons disguises and uses his acting abilities to bring a certain amount of flair to the role of his lifetime.

A while back, David suggested we team up our heroes and, after a decade of stops and starts, the first pairing of Cash and Carter will be published this fall. In Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, owlhoots have hijacked the inaugural run of the fastest train in the west, and it's up to Cash and Miles to retake the train. Unbeknownst to them, Carter is on board, in disguise, as he, too, attempts to thwart the hijackers while saving the passengers, including the renowned actress Lillie Langtry.

David thought it a fun idea if I made a list of favorite trains in movies and TV. I agreed, but then quickly realized something. Not only did my list almost instantly get filled with non-western ideas, but some of the more well known westerns to feature trains were movies or TV shows with which I am not familiar. Thus, you won't find Hell on Wheels on this list because I simply haven't watched it. And while I have watched both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, I can't speak with any authority because I can't remember a lot of the plot. 

So, with these caveats in mind, here's my list.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If I'm being honest, this might be the first heist film I ever saw. From the opening of Sean Connery's voiceover explaining how the gold is transported and secured, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if he and his team will pull off the robbery from a moving train. 

Many of the scenes I first saw in my youth remained with me, but two always rose to the top. The ending, when Connery's Pierce, escapes on the police carriage as he was destined for jail, smiling all the way, his arms extended in a sort of bow, really stuck with me. Only now that I think of it do I think a part of Carter's DNA must have emerged from Connery's performance.

The other scene that has always stuck with me is Donald Sutherland's Agar as he runs into the train office and makes wax impressions of the keys, all within 75 seconds. I was enthralled by that kind of thinking and ingenuity. I think this film might've set the stage for my continued enjoyment of heist films, and it undoubtedly enamored me with the charming con man.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I only saw this film for the first time this century as it is my wife's favorite western. And really, what more is there to say about this Sergio Leone epic that hasn't already been said? Ennio Morricone's score is brilliant, giving the film not only its epic feel but saying, through music, how the modern world is encroaching on the frontier in the form of the railroad.

I appreciate how the locomotive and the building of the railroad serve as the central character in this film, a character that is, in effect, the march of time and we people must adjust to it or get out of the way. And, unlike many westerns that feature railroads, it was a dirty, hot, and mind-numbingly brutal job, but a job that needed to be done, no matter the cost. Of all of Leone's films, this one remains a favorite.

From Russia With Love

I love James Bond and nearly all of his films, but as I've gotten older, I've become more interested in the movies with smaller stakes. This film, the second in the franchise, has a pretty spectacular train sequence that the historian in me loves. 

After Bond and Tatiana Romanova have escaped with the Lektor cryptograph machine, they flee on one of the most famous trains: the Orient Express. In these scenes in the middle of the film, you get to see what it was like to travel in style in what is probably the last major decade where train travel was considered a viable economic means of transportation before planes surpassed it.

Key to my enjoyment of the train sequence is the fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw). It is the close confines of a train compartment that give the fight its brutal nature. No gadgets, just fists and brawn and brains. A different Bond (Roger Moore) would again fight in a train (Moonraker), but this Sean Connery version--look at that; two Connery films--is my favorite.

The Wild Wild West

No discussion of westerns and railroads would be complete without a mention of The Wanderer, the train and tricked out rail car of James West and Artemus Gordon. Again, TWWW was my first, favorite western TV show. Being a Star Wars kid, I loved the gadgets, the steampunk-before-steampunk-was-a-thing vibe, and West and Gordon's "home." No matter how many time owlhoots or Dr. Miguelito Loveless boarded the train, you knew there was something the Secret Service agents could do to get themselves out of any predicament. 

Not only the gadgets, but I also appreciated how there was science equipment for Gordon to do his investigations and his disguises. 

Like the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise, so many episodes either began or ended on board The Wanderer that it became a crucial component of a wonderfully entertaining TV show.

Back to the Future: Part III

When David asked me the question about railroads in the old west, this is the first one that came to mind. 

I consider the first film to be one of those perfect films not only as a time capsule of its time, but the storytelling mechanics within the movie itself. The second one gave us three looks: their future (2015, now our past), an alternate 1985, and a trippy return to the events of the 1955-part of the first film. 

But I have a special love for Part III. Set almost entirely in the old west, director Robert Zemeckis basically made a western that held true to all the aspects we have come to love about westerns, but with a twist. Doc Brown not only makes a steam-powered ice machine but he also gets a delightful love story.

Act III's central action sequence is on a train, one they have to get up to 88 MPH as it pushes the futuristic Delorean down the tracks and back to the future. Plus we get a spectacular crash as the locomotive in 1888 falls off the incomplete bridge and crashes into Eastwood Ravine.

As fun as that is, however, it's in the movie's closing moments when we get a truly over-the-top train. Doc Brown, his wife, and two boys (Jules and Verne) return to 1985 to say good-bye to Marty McFly in a *flying train*. 

Well, those are my favorite trains in movies and TV. What about yours?

Scott Dennis Parker lives, works, writes, and listens to music way too loud in his native Houston, Texas, with his wife and son. He is the Saturday columnist at DoSomeDamage.com and has a long-running blog at ScottDParker.blogspot.com. Learn about his other books at ScottDennisParker.com.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

On This Day in the Old West: Sept 10

    In this post, we celebrate two milestones from 1858 that you may not realize occurred so long ago. Often, we tend to think of the 20th Century as “the modern world” and the 19th Century as “ages ago.” However, many so-called modern inventions actually had their basis in the 1800s or even earlier. Today, we’ll talk about athlete John Holden and scientist (and Catholic priest) George Mary Searle. 

On September 10, 1858, baseball’s first “World Series” was played and John Holden made history. Baseball at that time was a mostly New York sport and nine clubs (four in Brooklyn and five in Manhattan) were deemed “the best.” Because the Brooklyn Atlantics seemed a certain winner, all-star teams were selected instead (they were called “picked nines”). The chosen venue was Neutral Fashion Racecourse in Nassau County, though access from Manhattan wasn’t easy. Baseball fans had to take a small steam ferry from the foot of Fulton Street up the East River to a landing near what is now La Guardia Airport, then take a bumpy train ride to the track. Long Islanders traveled over dirt roads in carriages and omnibuses (some so large they required 10 to 14 horse hitches).


The pricy admission fee—50 cents (at a time when $1.65 a day was the top wage for a skilled workman!—was needed to pay the expense of renting the field and putting in a baseball diamond. The sponsors of the Series also didn’t seem to want or expect large, noisy crowds. They scheduled the games during midweek when most workers would be occupied. Nonetheless, the opening game saw a crowd of over 4,000 well-dressed fans.


Baseball in 1858 wasn’t the same as today’s baseball. It was more like softball, with a slightly larger ball and underhand pitches. Flyballs caught on the first bounce were “putouts,” not an easy feat with a ball of India rubber. The team lineups represented all the major New York clubs. The New York Nine featured two players each from the Knickerbockers, Eagles, Gothams, and Empires plus one from the Unions, while the Brooklyn team consisted of three Atlantics players, and two players each from Excelsiors, the Eckfords, and the Putnams. Brooklyn was a slight pregame favorite and they did lead 5-1 at the end of two and a half innings. However, New York settled down and began to wear down Brooklyn’s Matty O’Brien. In the eighth inning, trailing 18-17, New York scored five runs to take the lead and win the game 22-18. 


John Holden, Brooklyn’s second baseman, hit the world’s first recorded home run, winning $25 for his feat. A wealthy fan of the Eckfords, Holden’s home team, bet $100 that he would “hit one out of the park,” promising Holden a fourth of that as a reward. Holden waited for just the right pitch—waiting out the pitcher was perfectly safe, as balls and strikes weren’t called (although extreme delaying tactics were considered unsportsmanlike)—and hit a line drive to deep rightfield for the homer. This was the only home run of the Series, though. The other games were much more ordinary.


Also on the same date, though obviously not at the same time, astronomer and Catholic priest George Mary Searle discovered asteroid 55 Pandora from the Dudley Observatory near Albany, New York. It was Searle’s first and only asteroid discovery, although he did discover six galaxies. The asteroid is named after the woman of Greek myth who unwisely opened the box that allowed evil into the world. Apparently, the name itself was chosen by Blandina Dudley, widow of the observatory’s founder. The asteroid shares its name with one of Saturn’s moons.


55 Pandora orbits the sun with a period of 4.58 Earth years, with an orbital plane that lies at angle of 7.2 degrees to the plane of the elliptic. It has a cross-sectional size of 66.7 kilometers, so it’s a pretty large asteroid. It’s also pretty bright, so it’s easily spotted with a good telescope. The asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Its total mass is about 4% that of our moon and half of that is taken up by its four largest asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. Within this belt lie perhaps millions of solid, irregularly shaped bodies. 


For about 200 years, scientists believed there must be a planet in between Mars and Jupiter. It wasn’t until the 1800s that William Hershal coined the term “asteroids” after the Greek term for star-like (because no matter how powerful their telescopes, the asteroids never resolved into discs like the planets did). By 1807, four asteroids had been discovered, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that science understood there was a “belt” of the bodies out there. By mid-1868, 100 asteroids had been discovered, including 55 Pandora.


The original theory of the formation of the asteroid belt was that a large planet had somehow broken apart into the individual bodies we have today. More recently, it is hypothesized that instead, the asteroids come from the remains of several planets which were unable to fully form due to Jupiter’s gravitational influence. There are three basic groups of asteroids: those with carbonaceous material (C-Type), those made of silicates (S-Type), and those rich in metal ores (M-Type). 


Did you realize that baseball’s first World Series occurred during the era of the cowboy? And what about those asteroids—isn’t it amazing that they had already found so many before the 20th Century? Your characters could follow John Holden’s athletic career, along with his fellow baseball team members, or they could have a more scientific bend and wonder about the origins of the asteroids. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Elizabeth Smith: A Black Entrepreneur in Arizona


           Over the last few years historians have been thinking and writing about Black history in new and exciting ways. A lot of the focus has been on the South, but there is also a rich African-American past in the West.

Everyone knows about the Buffalo Soldiers, Black troops who fanned out across the West and who fought in some of the most violent conflicts in the region, from the Indian Wars to the bloody cattle ranching clashes in Wyoming. But the African-American experience wasn’t all about war, and the life of entrepreneur Elizabeth Smith, who spent the better part of her life in Wickenburg, Arizona, is a lesson in not taking well-worn narratives for granted.

Among the first African-Americans in Arizona Territory were soldiers posted at the forts which had been established in the wake of clashes with indigenous tribes. They were soon joined by miners eager to cash in on the gold and silver which was first discovered during the Civil War years. Black men also worked as cowboys on cattle ranches.

In 1870 there were twenty-three Black men in Arizona Territory, and five women. By 1890 there were 1,173 men to 184 women. Many women worked as cooks on military forts or did other domestic tasks, whether they were in the territory with their husbands or not. African-Americans also began to move into growing cities such as Phoenix and Tucson.

One up and coming town was Wickenburg, about fifty miles northwest of Phoenix. Founded in 1863 when German immigrant Henry Wickenburg discovered a rich gold vein soon named the Vulture Mine, the town of Wickenburg was also a center for agriculture and ranching. By the 1890s it was fast becoming a community of families, not just miners and cowboys, and Wickenburg had a diverse population of Anglos, Mexicans, Chinese, and European immigrants.  

Wickenburg was a welcome stopping place for people traveling between the former territorial capital of Prescott and the new capital Phoenix, in the booming Salt River Valley. The Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railroad recognized Wickenburg’s importance to the territory’s economy and added a stop there in 1894. Sometime around 1897 Bill and Elizabeth Smith stepped off the train and onto Railroad Street.

Their early history is murky. Even documentation from census records is confusing, but the two were born in the southern states (either Alabama or South Carolina). At some point they both lived in Illinois and were married in 1896, when Bill was possibly in his mid-thirties, and Elizabeth in her late twenties.

Why they decided to come to Wickenburg is unknown, but soon after their arrival Elizabeth was working as a cook at the Baxter Hotel. By the summer of 1900 the couple owned the hotel and soon added a second story. The railroad brought in a steady stream of drummers (traveling salesmen), cowboys, miners, and capitalists. They all needed a place to stay and the Santa Fe railroad knew it.

Sometime before 1905 the railroad’s managers approached the Smiths and suggested that they build a new hotel to accommodate the rising tide of travelers. The couple hired architect James Creighton to design a neo-colonial brick structure which they named the Vernetta, for Bill Smith’s mother.

The hotel was a hit from the start. The February 16, 1908 issue of the Arizona Republican reported that the Vernetta was already too small for the swarm of mining men coming to town. Bill Smith was quoted as saying he could fill twenty more rooms every night.

Elizabeth Smith transcended expectations for Black women in her life at the Hotel Vernetta. Although Bill was listed in records as the hotel keeper, Elizabeth was the face of the enterprise. She made the lobby a welcoming place for all manner of weary visitors and fed them well with produce from local farms. 

But she also did this out of necessity. Bill regularly wandered out of town, leaving Elizabeth to run the place alone. She was more than capable of managing the property, and in 1912 she divorced Bill, who then dropped out of history.  

Elizabeth was one of the pillars of the new Presbyterian church, accepted despite her skin color. She was welcome in the homes and businesses of local residents. But this changed as Wickenburg grew in the years before World War I. Incorporation, the hiring of town officials, and an influx of new residents changed attitudes toward African-Americans in general and Elizabeth in particular. 

She became less welcome at places where she had walked freely, even at church.  Elizabeth Smith had no doubt experienced prejudice from the people who came through her hotel, and even from some locals, but this wholesale shunning was something different. For possibly the first time since she moved to Wickenburg, she was judged wanting because of her race.

But Elizabeth prevailed. She owned a lot of real estate around Wickenburg and continued to run the Vernetta. She kept the place looking smart with new paint and varnish in 1921 and hosted local dances there. She remained at the hotel desk until her death on March 25, 1935, leaving behind an estate of nearly $25,000.

But even in death there was a final indignity: residents refused to bury Elizabeth in Wickenburg’s white cemetery. However, she was welcomed at the Garcia Cemetery, established by early settler Ygnacio Garcia in 1890. He had given some land to be the final resting place for Mexicans and Chinese killed by the floods which tore through the region when the Walnut Grove dam collapsed that February. When Elizabeth Smith passed, the graveyard’s proprietors gave her a place, too.

The Hotel Vernetta is now the Hassayampa Building and serves as office space. But Elizabeth Smith’s life and memory do not just exist at her Garcia Cemetery memorial.

When the town of Wickenburg commissioned artist J. Seward Johnson to create a series of sculptures depicting figures from the city’s past, Elizabeth Smith was on the list, and today her life-sized bronze welcomes tourists at the site of her old hotel.

Image of Hotel Vernetta courtesy Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg.