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A Daring Journey Into the Big Unknown of America's Largest National Park

Smithsonian Magazine

With a trekking pole in one hand and an ice ax in the other, I am naked except for the rigid mountaineering boots on my feet. With all my clothes in my backpack, I cross three braids of the glacier-fed Chitina River in Alaska, stopping to partially recover from the cold on the gravel bars in between. But I know the last ford is going to be the trickiest.

Heavy brown water is pouring through the valley in dozens of plaited streams. The torrents are so forceful there is a roar in the air—water gouging its way through old moraines and rolling boulders along the bottom of the riverbeds. In some places a strand of the flood may be only ten feet wide and one foot deep; in others it is too deep to ford. I consider hiking upstream a few miles and scouting a different crossing. But that will take too long. The bush pilot is arriving in an hour. Besides, I know this route; I crossed here at 5 this morning. It has been a hot day in southeast Alaska, though, and meltwater has been gushing off the glaciers all afternoon.

I step into the water, facing upstream, the toes of my boots pointing into the current like salmon. I shuffle sideways with small steps. I’m hoping the streambed won’t drop and the water won’t rise. Then it does. When the river reaches my waist, I realize I’m in trouble. My trekking pole can’t penetrate the surging current. I’m only 15 feet from the far bank when the freezing water rises to my chest and sweeps me away. I flounder desperately, weighed down by my pack, trying to swim. The pole is ripped out of my hand and I’m frantically clawing and being rushed downstream. In a weird moment of clarity I realize I could drown, and what an absurd death it would be. I don’t know how I keep hold of the ice ax, but I manage to swing it wildly as my head is going under. The pick sinks into the sandy bank and I drag myself out of the river on my hands and knees, coughing up gritty brown water.

I’d come here to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to experience its spectacular environment, a vast mountainous terrain dominated by glaciers and riven with furious meltwater. I’d heard that the whole landscape was being profoundly altered by warming temperatures and accelerated melting, but I thought the signs would be more subtle. I didn’t expect to be knocked off my feet and nearly drowned by climate change.

Ecological anxieties aside, there is no other place like Wrangell-St. Elias. The largest national park in the United States, it encompasses 13.2 million acres, an area larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone and all of Switzerland combined. It is remote and not much visited. While Yellowstone gets four million visitors a year, Wrangell-St. Elias last year saw just 70,000, not enough to fill the University of Nebraska football stadium. The wildness is unparalleled. There are some 3,000 glaciers in the park covering more than 7,000 square miles. The Bering Glacier is the nation’s largest. The Malaspina Glacier, the largest piedmont glacier in North America, is larger than Rhode Island. The Bagley Icefield is the largest sheet of ice in the Northern Hemisphere outside the pole.

A huge wilderness park of mountains and glaciers in Alaska (Map by LaTigre)

It’s an astonishing world of ice many thousands of years old, and nobody knows it better than the residents of McCarthy, the fabled bush town deep inside the park. McCarthy is at the end of a road, but you can’t get there by car. After a seven-hour drive from Anchorage, the last 64 miles on shock-destroying washboard, you arrive at a parking lot on the west side of the Kennicott River. The river is deep, fast and about 100 feet wide. Twenty years ago you crossed the river by sitting in a basket and pulling yourself along a mining cable suspended over the raging water. When the cable became too old and sketchy, McCarthy’s 250 or so summer residents, revealing their independent spirit and Alaskan pride, voted against building an automobile bridge. Instead, they erected a footbridge (which is just wide enough for an all-terrain vehicle).

McCarthy has one short main street, all mud, bounded on both ends by bars-cum-restaurants, the Potato and the Golden Saloon. At 61 degrees north latitude, just 5 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the summer sun in McCarthy hardly sets—it just swirls continuously around the 360-degree horizon, dropping behind the pines between 2 and 4 a.m. Nobody sleeps in the summer. I saw children playing the fiddle at 1 a.m. in the Golden Saloon. People were wandering the one muddy street in broad daylight at 4 in the morning. There was a sign for ATVs nailed to a tree on the main street that read, Slow Please, Free Range Kids and Dogs.

Not long after I arrived, in early July, Kelly Glascott, a lanky, easygoing 24-year-old who works for St. Elias Alpine Guides, invited me to go ice climbing on the Root Glacier with his clients. After a shuttle ride and an hour walk over the rounded white hills of the glacier, we reached a steep wave of ice. The clients all learned the basic crampon and ice-ax techniques and eventually scratched their way up the face. Afterward, Glascott said he had something special to show me. We hiked for 20 minutes before coming upon a giant hole in the glacier, a moulin (pronounced moo-lan, French for “mill”).

“We call it the LeBron Moulin,” Glascott, said, making it rhyme.

A moulin is a nearly vertical shaft formed by meltwater running in a small clear river atop the glacier, disappearing into a crevasse and burrowing a hole straight down to the bottom. The warmer the summer, the more water in the supraglacial rivers, and the bigger the moulins.

“There are moulins all over the glacier every year,” Glascott said.

The mouth of the LeBron Moulin is circular, 20 feet in diameter, with a waterfall on one side. As I peered down into the shaft, Glascott asked me if I’d like to drop into it.

Rigging up several ice screws, he lowered me 200 feet into the hole, so deep I was getting soaked by the ice water pouring down from above. I was in the throat of the beast and felt as if I was about to be swallowed. If we’d had enough rope, I could have been lowered hundreds of feet more, to the glacier’s bedrock bottom. Swinging tools, kicking my crampons, I climbed up and out of the ribbed gullet of blue ice.

Ice climbing inside moulins is a rare and beautiful experience anywhere in the world—in decades of climbing, I’d only done it once before, in Iceland—but it’s a common activity for St. Elias guides, which is what attracts many of them, like Glascott, who is from New York’s Adirondacks.

“I’ve never been anywhere where people have such a deliberate lifestyle,” Glascott said as we ambled back off the glacier. “Everybody in McCarthy chose to be here. The guides, the bush pilots, the park personnel, the other locals—we all love this place.”

People who live here are not your ordinary Americans. They have no fear of bears or moose or moulins, but are terrified of 9-to-5 in a cubicle. They’re free-range humans, eccentric, anarchic, do-it-yourselfers. They gaily refer to themselves as end-of-the-roaders.

Mark Vail—60, bushy white beard, sunburn-red face, wool beret—came here in 1977, caught 35 pounds of king salmon dip-netting, and decided this was the place for him. In 1983, he bought five acres of mosquito-thick spruce sight unseen. “But then I needed to make a grubstake, so I worked as a cook up on the North Slope, base camps and remote lodges.” Vail built his dry cabin—no running water—in 1987 and began living off the land. “Was a challenge to grow anything with only 26 frost-free days a year. Luckily, one fall I canned six cases of moose meat. I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he boasts.

Today Vail barters garden produce such as kale, lettuce, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini with the Potato for food. He also works as a naturalist, and told me he’d seen the park change dramatically in the past quarter-century.

“Bottom line, the glacial rivers are growing and the glaciers are retreating and diminishing,” Vail said. “The Kennicott Glacier has retreated over half a mile since I first came here. Ablation has shrunk the height of the glacier by hundreds of feet in the last century.”

That change was made manifest to me when I climbed up inside the historic 14-story copper mill in the nearby town of Kennecott. In century-old photographs, the Kennicott Glacier looms over the great wooden mill structure like an enormous whale. Today, from the mill you look down onto a shriveled glacier blanketed by stony debris.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mark Vail, who has stayed in his cabin in Mc­Car­thy since 1987. “I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he says. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Glaciologist Michael Loso at the Kennicott Glacier (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Townspeople parading for the Fourth of July (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Guide Sarah Ebright, who winters in Montana (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Backpackers head out for a four-day trek in the preserve section of the park. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. A moose-hunting cabin awaits occupants in the park’s preserve, where sport-hunting is allowed. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Geophysicists and bush pilots Jack Holt and Chris Larsen stand on Larsen’s land in McCarthy. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Wrangell Mt. Air bush pilot Bill McKinney chats with the author, Mark Jenkins, on a glacial silt strip he uses for landing close to Iceberg Lake. (original image)


The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 drew prospectors deep into the Wrangell-St.Elias region. But it would be copper, not gold, that panned out. In 1899, Chief Nicolai, of the Chitina Indians, agreed to show these white intruders an outcropping of copper-rich ore in exchange for food. A year later, a prospector by the name of “Tarantula” Jack Smith staked a claim to a steep valley above the Kennicott Glacier, saying, “I’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep pasture in Ireland.” The size of the deposit was so immense, Smith declared it a “bonanza,” a name that stuck.

Construction of a railroad that would connect the Bonanza Mine (and the nearby Jumbo Mine) with the southern coast of Alaska began in 1906. It was a colossal undertaking, exemplary of the industrial vigor and expansionist vision of the early 20th century. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a road to hell,” bragged Big Mike Heney, the head of the project. Employing over 6,000 men, after five years and $23.5 million (roughly $580 million in today’s money), Heney had carved a 196-mile railway through the mountains from the Alaskan port town of Cordova north to what was now called the Kennecott Mines (a sincere but misspelled tribute to the Smithsonian Institution naturalist Robert Kennicott, who died on an expedition to Alaska in 1866). Everything to build the Bonanza Mine, which is nearly 4,000 feet above Kennecott, was shipped from Seattle to Valdez and later Cordova, then hauled in by horse sleds and by railroad. A thick steel cable almost three miles long supported the trams filled with ore.

The mines, owned by titans of American industry Daniel Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan, paid off handsomely. A single train in 1915 carried out $345,050 worth of copper ore ($8.5 million today). Over the next two decades the Kennecott Mines, one of the richest deposits ever discovered at the time, produced 4.5 million tons of copper ore, worth $200 million (about $3.5 billion today). Among other things, the extracted copper produced wiring that helped electrify all of the lower 48. But the bonanza didn’t last. The price of copper dropped precipitously in the 1930s, and operations at the mine ceased in 1938. Kennecott suddenly became a ghost town.

Kennecott, which sits in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The National Park Service began stabilizing and restoring the significant buildings in 1998. The general store, the post office and the recreation hall have all been refurbished. The mine opening itself has been dynamited shut, but the immense wooden structures still stick out from the mountainside. The towering 14-story barn-red mill building is one of the tallest wooden structures in North America, and guiding companies provide tours of it. You can still almost feel the sweat and blood of man and beast that was required to build this mine.

At its zenith, 600 miners lived in this company town, eventually digging 70 miles of tunnels in the mountain above the mill. Paid $4.50 a day in 1910, with $1.25 taken out for room and board, most of the miners were from Scandinavia. Kennecott was “dry,” and the miners were not allowed to bring their families to the mining camp. Not surprisingly, another clapboard frontier town sprang up at the turnaround station five miles down the tracks—McCarthy. It had saloons, pool halls and an active red-light district.

Kennecott miners “lived without seeing the outside air from the first of November to the end of March,” recalled William Douglass, who grew up there. They were “captives of the company.” (Frederick C. Mears Papers / UAF - 1984-75-426 / Archives / University of Alaska Fairbanks)

McCarthy is still the place to go for a meal and a drink and some music, or to run into a world-class glaciologist who will tell harrowing stories of the fate of an overheated planet.


I met Michael Loso on the planked outdoor patio of the Potato. He was playing clawhammer banjo in a ragtag band and folks were dancing wildly, swinging each other in circles. A 49-year-old glaciologist, Loso is the park’s official physical scientist. A slight, scruffy-bearded former mountaineer, he told me the ominous story of Iceberg Lake, a feature 50 air miles southwest of McCarthy that is no longer there.

Iceberg Lake was on the edge of a western tributary of the Tana Glacier, but in 1999 the lake suddenly vanished. Dammed on its southern end by ice, the water, with persistently warming temperatures, had bored a hole under the ice and escaped through tunnels to emerge ten miles away and empty into the Tana River.

The sudden drainage of a glacier-dammed lake is not uncommon. “Some lakes in Wrangell-St. Elias regularly drain,” Loso said. Hidden Creek Lake, for instance, near McCarthy, drains every summer, pouring millions of gallons through channels in the Kennicott Glacier. The water gushes out the terminus of the Kennicott, causing the Kennicott River to flood, an event called a jokulhlaup—an Icelandic word for a glacial-lake outburst flood. “The Hidden Creek jokulhlaup is so reliable,” said Loso, “it has become one of the biggest parties in McCarthy.”

In summer, warming ice melt bores under the glacier that dams Hidden Creek Lake, draining the lake and stranding icebergs on the rocks. (Nathaniel Wilder)

But the disappearance of Iceberg Lake was different, and unexpected. It left an immense trench in the ground, the ghost of a lake, and it never filled up again. The roughly six-square-mile mudhole turned out to be a glaciological gold mine. The mud, in scientific terms, was laminated lacustrine sediment. Each layer represented one year of accumulation: coarse sands and silts, caused by high runoff during the summer months, sandwiched over fine-grained clay that settled during the long winter months when the lake was covered in ice. The mud laminations, called varves, look like tree rings. Using radiocarbon dating, Loso and his colleagues determined that Iceberg Lake existed continuously for over 1,500 years, from at least A.D. 442 to 1998.

“In the fifth century the planet was colder than it is today,” Loso said, “hence the summer melt was minimal and the varves were correspondingly thin.”

The varves were thicker during warmer periods, for instance from A.D. 1000 to 1250, which is called the Medieval Warming Period by climatologists. Between 1500 and 1850, during the little ice age, the varves were again thinner—less heat means less runoff and thus less lacustrine deposition.

“The varves at Iceberg Lake tell us a very important story,” Loso said. “They’re an archival record that proves there was no catastrophic lake drainage, no jokulhlaup, even during the Medieval Warming Period.” In a scientific paper about the disappearance of Iceberg Lake, Loso was even more emphatic: “Twentieth-century warming is more intense, and accompanied by more extensive glacier retreat, than the Medieval Warming Period or any other time in the last 1,500 years.”

Loso scratched his grizzled face. “When Iceberg Lake vanished, it was a big shock. It was a threshold event, not incremental, but sudden. That’s nature at a tipping point.”


I ran into Spencer Williamson—small, wiry, horn-rimmed glasses—in the Golden Saloon late one Thursday night. The place was packed. Williamson and a buddy were hosting an open-mike jam session. Williamson was pounding the cajón, a box drum from Peru, Loso was working the banjo in a blur of fingers, a couple of youths were ripping fiddles. Patt Garrett, 72, another end-of-the-roader—she sold everything she had in Anchorage to get a lopsided cabin on main street McCarthy—was being twirled around by a tall, bearded Irishman in pink tights and a tutu.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Bagley Icefield is 127 miles long, six miles wide and 3,000 feet thick—so vast that early explorers didn’t realize it joined the even larger Bering Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. At 127 miles long and six miles wide, Bagley Ice Field is the largest nonpolar ice field in the world and covers most of the St. Elias Mountains. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mount St. Elias at center juts from the Bagley Icefield. The 18,000-foot peak is the second-highest in North America after 20,310-foot Denali. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Peaks of the Chugash Mountains in the southern portion of the park protrude from the Bagley Ice Field; a melt pond on Root Glacier. (original image)

“If you really want to see what’s happening to glaciers,” Loso had told me, “go pack-rafting with Spencer.”

During a break in the music, Williamson, an ebullient, hard-core kayaker, volunteered to take me boating first thing in the morning. Since it was already morning, we were soon walking through the woods with our inflated pack rafts bouncing on our heads.

“I’d guess there are more pack rafts per person in Mc-Carthy than any place in America,” Williamson said.

Weighing only about eight pounds, these ultralight, one-person rafts have completely changed the way adventurers explore all across Alaska, but particularly in Wrangell-St. Elias. Because there are few roads and hundreds of rivers, climbers and backpackers were once confined to small, discrete areas, hemmed in by enormous, unfordable waterways.

Today you can be dropped off with a pack raft, paddle across a river, deflate your boat, load it into your pack, cross a mountain range, climb a peak, then raft another river all the way out.

We dipped our Alpacka rafts into the cold blue Kennicott Glacier Lake. Wearing dry suits, we stretched our spray skirts over the coamings, dug in our kayak paddles and glided away from the forest.

“See that black wall of ice?” Williamson said, pointing his dripping paddle to the far side of the lake, “That’s where we’re going.”

We slid over the water, stroking in unison, moving surprisingly quickly. When I noted how easy this was compared with trying to traverse along the shore, Williamson laughed.

“You got it! Bushwhacking in Alaska is a special kind of misery. With a pack raft, you can just float across a lake or down a river rather than fighting the bushes and the bears.”

Williamson, 26, a guide for Kennicott Wilderness Guides, works May through September. He migrates south in the winter. This snowbird lifestyle is the standard in McCarthy. Mark Vail is one of only a few dozen hearty souls who actually winter over. The other 250 residents—some 50 of whom are guides—abscond from fall to spring, escaping to Anchorage or Arizona or Mexico or Thailand. But they return to tiny McCarthy every summer, like the rufous hummingbird that flies back from Latin America to the same Alaskan flower.

We glided right up beneath the black wall of ice. This was the toe of a 27-mile-long glacier. The big toe, as it turned out. We paddled around the peninsula up into a narrow channel. It was like a slot canyon in ice. Rocks melting off the surface of the glacier plunged 50 feet, splashing like little bombs all around us. Past this channel we paddled through a series of icebergs, moving deeper into the glacier until we entered the final cul-de-sac.

“We couldn’t go this deep just three days ago,” said Williamson excitedly. “The icebergs that blocked our way before have already melted! That’s how fast the ice is vanishing.”

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias has four mountain ranges, 12 volcanoes, 3,000 glaciers and one town, which requires a seven-hour drive over some hard roads to reach. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Detail of one of the lobes (or fingers of ice) of the Tana Glacier near Iceberg Lake in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Many of the park’s 70,000 annual visitors go there for the opportunity to ice-climb on glaciers like the accessible Root Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Iceberg Lake had been a glacially dammed lake. When the dam broke in 1998, the lake vanished, leaving behind a six-square-mile mudhole. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Erie Mine tram clings to a slope above Root Glacier with the Stairway Icefall in the distance. The tram brought miners up and ore down. (original image)

He spotted a hole in the headwall and we paddled over to it, passed through a thin curtain of ceaseless dripping, and entered a low-ceilinged, blue ice cave. I reached up and touched the scalloped ceiling with my bare hands. It felt like cold, wet glass. This ice is thousands of years old. It fell as snow high on 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn, was compressed into ice by the weight of the snow that fell on top of it, and then began slowly bulldozing its way downhill.

We sat quietly in our boats inside the dark ice cave and stared out at the bright world through the line of dripping glacier water. The glacier was melting right before our eyes.

Williamson said, “We are seeing geological time sped up so fast it can be witnessed in human time.”


Wrangell-St. Elias is not like any park in the lower 48 because it is not static. El Capitan in Yosemite will be El Cap for a thousand years. The big ditch of the Grand Canyon won’t look a bit different in A.D. 3000. Barring some tectonic catastrophe, Yellowstone will be burbling along for centuries. But Wrangell-St. Elias, because it is a landscape of moving, melting glaciers, is morphing every minute. It will be a different park ten years from now.

According to a recent scientific report, between 1962 and 2006, glaciers melting in Alaska lost more than 440 cubic miles of water—nearly four times the volume of Lake Erie. “Ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica get a lot of press,” says Robert Anderson, a geologist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, “but these melting Alaskan glaciers matter.” Anderson has been studying glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias for two decades. “What is rarely recognized is that surface glaciers, like those in Alaska, are probably contributing almost 50 percent of the water to sea-level rise.” NASA reports that the current sea-level rise is 3.4 millimeters a year, and increasing.

“One of the most startling, and devastating, consequences of this rapid melting of the ice was the Icy Bay landslide,” says Anderson.

The Tyndall Glacier, on the southern coast of Alaska, has been retreating so quickly that it is leaving behind steep, unsupported walls of rock and dirt. On October 17, 2015, the largest landslide in North America in 38 years crashed down in the Taan Fjord. The landslide was so enormous it was detected by seismologists at Columbia University in New York. Over 200 million tons of rock slid into the Taan Fjord in about 60 seconds. This, in turn, created a tsunami that was initially 630 feet high and roared down the fjord, obliterating virtually everything in its path even as it diminished to some 50 feet after ten miles.

“Alder trees 500 feet up the hillsides were ripped away,” Anderson says. “Glacial ice is buttressing the mountainsides in Alaska, and when this ice retreats, there is a good chance for catastrophic landslides.” In other ranges, such as the Alps and the Himalaya, he says, the melting of “ground ice,” which sort of glues rock masses to mountainsides, can release enormous landslides into populated valleys, with devastating consequences.

“For most humans, climate change is an abstraction,” Loso says when I meet him in his office, which is down a long, dark, heavily beamed mine building in Kennecott. “It’s moving so slowly as to be basically imperceptible. But not here! Here glaciers tell the story. They’re like the world’s giant, centuries-old thermometers.”


Before leaving Wrangell-St. Elias, on my last night in McCarthy, I am in the Potato, typing up notes, when someone runs in shouting, “The river’s rising!”

This can portend only one event: the Hidden Creek Lake jokulhlaup. Dammed by a wall of ice ten miles up the Kennicott Glacier, Hidden Creek Lake has once again bored beneath the glacier and is draining.

The whole town goes out to the walking bridge. Sure enough, the river is raging, a full five feet higher than just a few hours earlier. It’s a party, a celebration, like Christmas or Halloween. The bridge is packed with revelers hooting and toasting this most dynamic of glacial events. A guide named Paige Bedwell gives me a hug and hands me a beer. “Happy Jokulhlaup!”

How Climate Change Will Transform the National Parks’ Iconic Animals and Plants

Smithsonian Magazine

“There he goes! There he goes!”

Michael Magnuson lowers a battered pair of binoculars, pointing to a rocky debris field a short distance away from a visitor parking lot in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. The National Park Service (NPS) wildlife biologist has just spotted his quarry: a small, round, rodent-like mammal that darts between boulders and tufts of red mountain heather while clutching a leafy branch between its jaws. This is a rare sight, explains Magnuson. The creature, an American pika, spends most of his time in the home he has made in the dark spaces between the boulders, a rocky sanctuary against the hot July sun.

When it comes to temperature, pikas—the real-life inspiration behind the popular Pokémon character Pikachu—are notoriously particular. When winter comes, they must take care to stay warm, burrowing in their cozy rock dwellings, which by then are buried beneath layers of insulating snow. In years when the snowpack is too thin, they risk freezing to death. But for now, with the summer heat in full effect, they leave their shady burrows only for the purpose of harvesting plant material to create “haystacks,” which they will munch on during the winter.

Having a cool shelter is crucial for pikas in the summer on account of their thick fur. “If they sit in the sun too long, they get too hot,” Magnuson explains. He points out a typical pika home that he has identified based on the mounds of scat surrounding the entrance. “They typically prefer the bigger rocks, because there’s more space underneath them,” he adds. “If you stick your hand under, it’s several degrees colder. It’s pretty cool—literally.”

It is the pika’s sensitivity to temperature, coupled with its intrinsic cuteness, that have made it the Park Service's poster critter for examining the potential effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems. In 2010, the NPS embarked on a 5-year study called “Pikas in Peril,” which aimed to quantify the vulnerability of park pika populations to climate change. Magnuson conducted annual pika surveys for the large-scale study, which became a pilot study for developing cutting-edge techniques that could be used to understand the climate change vulnerability of many other species. “What we learn here can be applied in other places without having to reinvent the wheel,” says Jason Mateljak, general natural resources manager at Lassen.

Knowing how to apply those lessons is becoming increasingly urgent. Today the NPS is confronting the most daunting challenge it has faced in its 100-year history: human-influenced climate change, which promises to transform not only these iconic landscapes but also the plants and animals who inhabit them. This looming threat to our nation’s parks recently attracted the attention of President Obama, who visited Yosemite National Park to speak about how climate change is damaging the parks. Without action, Obama warned, Yosemite and many other national parks could be dramatically different places 50 years hence. "Make no mistake," he said. "Climate change is no longer just a threat—it's already a reality."

The transformations many park lovers fear are already well underway. Several national parks in the U.S. have already experienced "extreme" climate change effects in recent decades, according to a 2014 assessment in the journal PLOS ONE. That assessment found that average temperatures at many parks “are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions,” and that rain and snow patterns have also warped over time. Some native park species are already in danger of going regionally extinct.

Michael Magnuson surveys the land for pikas in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is bracing itself for changes. (Ker Than)

Facing an era of unprecedented change, the NPS is now rethinking its entire approach to conservation. The agency, which has historically focused on preserving and restoring natural landscapes, is now embracing the idea that many of the parks and their inhabitants may be irrevocably altered. With numerous possible scenarios, park managers also face the challenge of uncertainty. “When we do a restoration project, should we be restoring for how it was or how it could be?” Mateljak says. “If the latter, what models and metrics can we use to help define that future condition?”

There was a time when the notion of letting prized native species die out seemed heretical. Now the agency is bracing for the possibility that some of the species under its care simply won’t make it. It is also openly discussing the possibility of “assisted migration”: manually relocating some animals and plants if it turns out they can’t survive within the park’s changing landscapes. These kinds of last-resort actions are controversial even amongst conservationists, but the NPS believes it is time to consider implementing them one day. “We don’t rule out managed relocation in the future,” says Patrick Gonzalez, the agency’s principle climate change scientist. “But there are a lot less costly and less risky things we can try first.”

The NPS is taking the threat of climate change seriously. Since 2010, in addition to the Pikas in Peril project, the park service has established a central task force devoted to climate change, increased environmental monitoring within its parks, and expanded efforts to communicate climate change impacts to the public. The agency is also incorporating scientific studies and assessments into its decisions in a deeper way than before, and embracing “scenario planning,” a tool for making long-term flexible plans and responding nimbly to future environmental changes that it borrowed from the military and business worlds.

"Among all of the federal land management agencies, they are probably paying the most attention to climate change," says Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation's associate vice president of conservation science and climate adaptation.* "That isn't to say they're doing it uniformly well, but there are a lot of people within the park service who are really being thoughtful about this. … They're openly having those conversations and engaging in the kind of scientific investigations that are going to be essential for answering the tough questions."

Which is good, because those questions are only going to get tougher.

Lake Helen, still frosted with ice in July. The park is slated to grow hotter as climate change takes its toll. (Ker Than)

This isn’t the first time the NPS has faced an identity crisis. In the 1960s, following years of public criticism over the culling of Yellowstone’s ballooning elk population, then-U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall directed a scientific committee to review the NPS’s wildlife management policies. The resulting Leopold Report—named after its primary author A. Starker Leopold, the son of noted ecologist Aldo Leopold—declared that "a national park should present a vignette of primitive America." The report recommended that the ecosystems within each park be maintained—or where necessary, recreated—to mirror as closely as possible the conditions that existed before the arrival of Europeans on the continent.

The Leopold Report set the tone for an era of restoration, in which the agency’s goal was to rewind the landscape to a time before humans had encroached upon it. By advocating that parks should be maintained in their natural states as much as possible, it paved the way for everything from “controlled burns” to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. But today, that nostalgic idea of a return to the past may no longer be possible, says NPS director Jonathon Jarvis. "The problem now is that that vision of maintaining a vignette of primitive America has been disturbed by human-driven climate change," Jarvis says. "Now there are winners and losers in the environment, and we have to decide which is which.”

Before becoming the parks director in 2009, Jarvis was the regional director of the NPS's Pacific West Region, which covers most of the western continental U.S. and Hawaii. In that role, he often heard stories from his superintendents about how climate change was impacting their parks. "That stayed with me,” Jarvis says, “and when I became the director, I said, okay, it's time to step up and really address this holistically.” One of his early actions was to appoint a committee of scientists to revisit the Leopold Report and examine whether its vision and principles for resource management were still relevant—or even feasible.

That committee's report, published in 2012 and aptly titled Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks, helped the NPS reexamine its goals for managing the ecosystems entrusted to its care. Among its recommendations was that the NPS significantly expand the role of science within the agency, and move to protect habitats that might serve as climate sanctuaries, or "refugia," for threatened species.

Most of all, the new report urged the agency to prepare for “continuous change that is not yet fully understood.” During his time in office Jarvis has strived to do just that, setting up a Climate Change Response Program within the NPS to coordinate the agency’s strategy for responding climate change in different parks. That strategy is broadly organized into four pillars: using science to help parks understand and manage climate change, adapting to an uncertain future, mitigating or reducing the agency's own carbon footprint, and communicating the impacts of climate change to the public and parks employees.

Of these pillars, adaptation is by far the most complex—and the most controversial. The question of what adaptation means for the parks has forced the agency to grapple with some of the toughest questions it has ever faced, and is already "pushing our policy paradigm," according to Jarvis. “I don't think our mission has changed,” he adds. “But it is going to cause us to rethink some of our policies."

One more pika photo, for good measure. (Wayne Steffes)

Along a narrow band of the Golden State’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, ancient wooden skyscrapers extend toward the firmament. Giant sequoias, which can reach heights of 300 feet and live for thousands of years, are currently facing a two-pronged threat from declining snowpack and rising temperatures. Increased warming could decimate many of the big trees. “If temperatures keep rising and we get another drought that is even more severe than the one we saw in 2014, it’s possible you might see more sequoias dying,” says Nathan Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the United States Geological Survey.

Stephenson also fears the possibility of a disease outbreak. “You might wonder if there’s a native insect or pathogen out there that doesn’t really affect sequoias now, but could start knocking them off if the climate changes enough and the trees are stressed enough,” he says. There is precedent for this: In the early 2000s, vast groves of pinyon pine in the American Southwest were devastated by the pinyon ips beetle—a native insect that was simply an annoyance until the combination of warmer weathers, shorter winters and more stressed-out trees transformed it into a raging pestilence.

Faced with the possibility of losing one of its most iconic symbols, the park service must now consider what lengths it is willing to go to save the giant sequoias. One of its options is assisted migration, also known as managed relocation or climate translocation. Last year, NPS scientists used this technique to move bull trout in Montana's Glacier National Park. The researchers transferred trout from a lake where their numbers were dwindling—as a result of warming conditions and predation from another invasive trout species—to a higher-elevation lake that was cooler and free of predators.

A sequoia relocation project in California would be even more ambitious. "We managed the giant sequoia forests now in such a manner that they can reproduce, but do we know whether or not that particular niche will allow those trees to mature in the future?” Jarvis says. "Is there a place in the Southern Cascades, as opposed to the Sierras, that we should be thinking about planting giant sequoias so that they'll still be around a thousand years from now? That's the way we've got to be thinking. We are in the perpetuity business here, so that's the space that we're beginning to explore."

Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings National Park, says the NPS's plans for assisted migration of giant sequoias are still purely speculative.* "I would say we are at least five to ten years away from having to decide whether we need to take that step," Brigham says. “So far, a warming climate hasn’t really been hurting the giant sequoias,” adds Stephenson.

Other species, however, may not be so fortunate. 

Karner blue butterflies may soon be regionally extinct at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. (Bookguy / iStock)

In 2012, the Karner blue butterfly population in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore suffered a devastating loss. An unusually warm spring that year caused many Karner caterpillars to hatch before the wild lupine they feed upon could bloom. When the lupines eventually emerged, many of them perished in the hot, dry summer conditions. As a result, the Karners that hatched later also starved to death. "We panicked. Everyone panicked,” says Gia Wagner, Indiana Dunes’ acting chief of resource management, who monitors Karners at the park. “There was literally nothing anyone could do about it."

The last time anyone spotted a Karner at Indiana Dunes was in 2013. If field surveys fail to turn up traces of the insects this year, the NPS will deem the butterfly extirpated, or locally extinct. Karners “are not in a good position to adapt to the velocity of climate change,” says Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the agency’s climate change program. “They have a low ability to disperse … and their specialized habitat has been further hemmed in by human habitat destruction.”

The Karner case brings up uncomfortable questions. These butterflies are locally beloved, but they’re no giant sequoias. Plus, they’re only one of hundreds of species facing similar threats. In an era when species triage may be necessary, how do you decide which plants and animals are worth saving? For now, the NPS concedes that some species within its parks won't be able to adapt to climate change and will be lost, but says it is not prepared to decide which species to let go of just yet. "That's a very tough question, and one that we're wrestling with," Jarvis says. "I can't say that I have the answer to that."

Species triage is not an issue that can be decided solely with science. There are moral and cultural considerations, which have complicated efforts of the "Climate-Smart Conservation" working group that the NWF's Stein co-chairs to help NPS and other agencies better incorporate climate considerations into their work. "We did not try and get into that sort of ethical guidance because that really depends on an agency or institution's core values," Stein says. "We did not say, 'Here's the point at which you give up on something.' What we did say is that there's going to be a need to have those hard conversations and to review what our conservation goals are or should be."

Right now the park service is focused on ensuring that as many of its species as possible survive. Sometimes, that means letting a species die out within park boundaries and ensuring that it at least lives beyond park borders. The agency is partnering with sister agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even private landowners to help ensure that plants and animals forced out of national parks due to climate change can find asylum in neighboring landscapes. “We haven't given up on trying to conserve species in national parks, but there is an increasing recognition that it might not be possible under the most serious climate change projections to save every one," Gonzalez says. "If a species can exist elsewhere in the landscape, that's still a good thing."

The Karners—which were christened in the 1940s by novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov—may still get a happy ending. While they aren’t found in any other national parks, the butterflies are present in other protected lands, including in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio. Wagner says discussions about reintroducing Karners back into Indiana Dunes have already begun between the NPS and other agencies. 

Magnuson and Jason Mateljak (right), general natural resources manager at Lassen, stand by a pika burrow they have identified by traces of scat. (Ker Than)

Lassen's beloved pikas are also expected to survive under projected climate scenarios, thanks to the population's healthy genetic diversity and tendency to cluster in low-elevation patches that will be less affected by warming. In Lassen, the biggest projected impact of climate change is on the park’s snow patterns—when it snows, how much it snows, how much water is in the snow and how long the snow lingers. “Snow has the ability to insulate itself, and the slow release of water is a key process for the park,” Mateljek says. “And because we’re the headwater for four drainages, what’s happening up here influences what’s happening in the lowland areas, even as far away as Sacramento.” 

Not all of their relatives will be so fortunate. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, researchers predict the species will be extirpated by 2100. The irregular prognosis for pikas presents park managers with a dilemma: Should places like Lassen serve as refugia for pikas from other parks? “Transplanting pikas would be very expensive,” Mateljek says. “And would it even work? Also, do we want to use our limited resources to preserve this one species when perhaps what we should be doing is monitoring and evaluating other species?”

Another drastic option is to transplant pikas into parks where the animals once existed but are not currently found. “Great Basin National Park is a place that looks like it could support pikas,” says Tom Rodhouse, an NPS ecologist who headed the Pikas in Peril project. “But if we do that, it’s controversial. These are really interesting conversations, and I think the park service is going to have many more like them in the coming decades.” 

Questions of species conservation are complex, and thus there are no easy answers. Irrevocable changes are already sweeping across the parks, and freezing them in time to echo a bygone era is no longer possible, if it ever was. For now, even though the Pikas in Peril Project has ended, Magnuson continues to survey Lassen’s pikas yearly. He visits about 100 sites every fall, scanning the landscape for signs of little haystacks. “I’m just making it a priority to keep the project going,” he says.

NPS director Jarvis says that if the parks are to survive another century, there is no question they will have to change. He gives the example of the iconic Joshua Tree National Park in California. “We may not be able to maintain Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, but that doesn't mean that Joshua Tree National Park is somehow devalued,” he says. “It will just become home to something new.” 

Editor's Note, August 9, 2016: This article initially used outdated titles for Bruce Stein and Christy Brigham.

Maupin-Lanteri Black Diamond

National Air and Space Museum
Pusher biplane with one 50-horsepower Roberts 4X engine. Very similar in layout to the Curtiss Model D Pusher of the same time period. Natural finish overall.

The Maupin-Lanteri Black Diamond represents a significant, segment of early American aeronautical activity: the dozens of lone amateur enthusiasts who successfully built and flew aircraft of their own design using hardware store supplies and dogged determination. L.B. Maupin and Bernard Lanteri patterned their airplane after the successful early Curtiss pusher biplanes, with front and rear horizontal control surfaces and a tricycle landing gear. Yet, many of the details were of Maupin and Lanteri's own design. They built a very successful aircraft with little guidance and, in the hands of pilot Weldon B. Cooke, it made numerous significant flights and won several important flying prizes in 1911 and 1912.

Although some secondary accounts suggest that the Black Diamond flew in 1910, a series of newspaper articles chronicling its construction appeared between March 4 and September 23, 1911, that indicate it was built during the first half of 1911 and first flown in June of that year.

The Maupin-Lanteri Black Diamond fills an interesting and significant niche in early aviation history in the United States. Many of the flying exhibitions and competitions of the pre-World War I era were dominated by aircraft designs of the leading pioneers of the day. Wright, Curtiss, Blériot, Voisin, Antoinette, and Farman machines claimed many of the prizes and were flown by the most celebrated pilots of the period. The Black Diamond represents a different, but equally significant, segment of early American aeronautical activity: the dozens of lone amateur enthusiasts who successfully built and flew aircraft of their own design using hardware store supplies and dogged determination. Their names are unknown to nearly all but specialists in the study of early flight; yet the exploits of these historically lesser-known aeronautical trailblazers claimed headlines at the time and notably contributed to aviation after the basic technology was introduced and developed by the more famous pioneers. The Wrights, Curtiss, and the other leading figures all established successful manufacturing firms and thus formed the nucleus of an aircraft industry. But these core efforts were complemented, especially in the United States, by a sizable community of individual practitioners, typically building only one or two aircraft of unique design, who brought considerable public attention and technical advancement to the nascent field of aeronautics.

The Black Diamond and its makers, L.B. Maupin and Bernard P. Lanteri, are an example of this community of experimenters who worked outside the mainstream circle of the "big name" pioneers and manufacturers. They built a very successful aircraft with little guidance and, in the hands of pilot Weldon B. Cooke, it made numerous significant flights and won several important flying prizes in 1911 and early in 1912. Moreover, individual airplane builders such as Maupin and Lanteri represented an important segment of the market for suppliers of aircraft engines and other components and equipment. As such, the Black Diamond holds an important place in the NASM early flight aircraft collection. Along with the Ecker Flying Boat and the Wiseman-Cooke aircraft, other examples of successful amateur efforts in the collection, the Black Diamond beautifully complements NASM's Wright, Curtiss, and Blériot machines.

Beyond the Black Diamond's significance in the broader context of early American aeronautics, this aircraft also has an important California local history. Fred Wiseman fabricated the first California-built airplane to fly, taking to the air in 1910. The Black Diamond flew the following year, making its first brief hops in June 1911, in Pittsburg, California. Before February 11, 1911, the town of Pittsburg was called Black Diamond, hence the name of the Maupin-Lanteri aircraft.

At the time they began work on the Diamond airplane, L.B. Maupin was the captain of a dredger working on the Sacramento River. Bernard Lanteri was co-owner and operator of the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard in Pittsburg, California, the place where the Black Diamond was built. The Diamond resembled the successful early Curtiss-type aircraft in basic configuration, i.e., a pusher biplane with front and rear horizontal control surfaces and a tricycle landing gear. However, many of the details were of Maupin and Lanteri's own design. The Diamond was originally equipped with a 40-60 horsepower Elbridge engine and a Requa-Gibson propeller.

Many secondary accounts, written decades after the fact, state that work on the Black Diamond began in 1909 and that it was first flown in 1910. Primary documentation seems to dispute this. The apparent source for most of these secondary accounts is an article by a Hal Wiltermood appearing in the October 1933 issue of the Port of Oakland Compass, a monthly magazine published by the Board of Port Commissioners of Oakland, California. The article was based partly on a lengthy letter to Wiltermood from Herbert L. Miller, the then husband of Bernard Lanteri's widow, Anna Lanteri Miller. In Wiltermood's article, he states that, in 1909, Maupin and Lanteri witnessed an exhibition by Glenn Curtiss with one of his early airplanes at the Tanforan racetrack in San Francisco. He goes on to say that they surreptitiously viewed the Curtiss machine through a rear flap of the tent where it was being stored and made some hurried notes and sketches. They built their own aircraft based on this information, test flying it late in 1910. This version of events was repeated again and again in many newspaper articles and other written accounts of the Diamond after 1933.

Certain undisputed historical facts belie this chronology. For example, Glenn Curtiss did not make any flights in California until January 1910, when he flew at the first Los Angeles air meet held at Dominguez Field. Moreover, by that time he had only built a handful of his classic Curtiss-type pushers, and none were flown in California before 1910.

The first appearance of such aircraft in Maupin and Lanteri's area was in January 1911 at an air meet in San Francisco. This event also included the highly publicized first landing of an airplane on a ship, the U.S.S. Pennsylvannia, by Eugene Ely in a Curtiss Pusher on January 18, 1911. Also, early in 1911, Glenn Curtiss began his flying with the U.S. Navy at North Island near San Diego. Given this history of Curtiss's activity in California, the story citing the 1909-1910 dates for the design and construction of the Black Diamond would appear to have little credence.

The strongest evidence of a later date for the construction and first flight of the Diamond lies in the available primary sources. A series of articles appearing in a local newspaper, the Antioch Ledger, from the period March 4, 1911, through September 23, 1911, indicates that the airplane was built during the first half of 1911 and first flown in June of that year. These articles chronicled the progress Maupin and Lanteri made on their aircraft in anticipation of planned public flights at a major local Fourth of July celebration. What makes these references most convincing is the regular progress updates contained in them. They are not passing mentions. They contain specific details of the work on the aircraft. For example, the April 8, 1911, edition of the paper contains an article entitled, "Biplane is Almost Complete," which states, "Trial flights will take place at Pittsburg in about a month." "... the work of assembling and stretching the canvas would be commenced next week." "The engine is expected to arrive from the east next Tuesday...." "After that comes the painting and the adding of finishing touches...." Given these kinds of detailed descriptions of the work in 1911, it is hard to imagine that the airplane was built and flown in 1910. The series of articles continues with mentions of Maupin and Lanteri's progress as the Fourth celebration approached. On June 3, the paper states that they are nearly ready for "trial flights." On July 1, the Ledger reported that they were "making flights during the last week." Thus, it seems the best evidence supports a June 1911 first flight date. The airplane was built at the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard in Pittsburg, of which Lanteri was co-owner and operator. A Leo Jackson also assisted in the construction of the Diamond.

After this date, the history of the Black Diamond is fairly clear. In August of 1911, Weldon B. Cooke and Richard Williamson joined Maupin and Lanteri as partners. As Oakland residents, Cooke and Williamson heard of the Diamond airplane and traveled to nearby Pittsburg to meet the builders and see their aircraft. Williamson's role was primarily that of mechanic. Cooke offered his services as a pilot. The September 30, 1911, issue of Aero and Hydro reported that Cooke had been flying the Diamond for several weeks, making 160 "jumps and short flights." It went on to say that Cooke would begin exhibitions in the Diamond airplane soon. Cooke had no experience flying powered airplanes before his association with Maupin and Lanteri, but he had experimented earlier with gliders. The financial arrangement between the parties regarding profits from the planned exhibition flying was one-third each to Maupin and Lanteri, and Cooke and Williamson would split the remaining third.

Cooke made the first major public flights with the Diamond on October 6 and 7, 1911, at the Grape Carnival at nearby Walnut Creek. He flew an exhibition at an Oakland Columbus Day celebration on October 12, making a flight from Alameda to Adams Point on Lake Merritt. During his takeoff from Adams Point for the return flight to Alameda, Cooke failed to get the Diamond off before hitting the water, and the airplane had to be transported back by wagon. Beginning late in October, for a period of three weeks, he flew exhibitions at nearby Fitchburg. Photographic evidence shows that by this time the Diamond had its single-surface fabric covering on the wings sewn on top of the rib structure. Earlier images show the fabric originally attached beneath the ribs. When this change was made is unclear, but the Diamond flew in this configuration (fabric on top) for the remainder of its operational life.

Further exhibition flights were made in Stockton, California, late in November, and at an Oakland race track called the Motordrome in early December. These exhibitions included racing with automobiles and motorcycles. Cooke took several men and women passengers aloft during these flights, including his brother Robert and his sister Alma. During this series of exhibition flights the original Elbridge engine was damaged and replaced with a 50- horsepower Roberts 4X engine turning a Paragon propeller. The Elbridge blew a cylinder upon starting, ruining the engine.

Among Cooke's most notable flights of the Diamond was his flight over Mt. Tamalpais on December 19, 1911. The one-hour, twenty-minute flight started at the Motordrome in Oakland, passed over the University of California, over Point Richmond, and around the summit of Mt. Tamalpais at an altitude of 915 m (3,000 ft), 122 m (400 ft) above the mountain. While over the University, Cooke dropped two personal letters, one addressed to his brother Robert, who was an instructor there, and one to the President of the University, Benjamin Ide Wheeler. Weldon Cooke was a 1907 alumnus of the University of California.

On December 31, 1911, and January 1, 1912, Cooke continued flying exhibitions with the Black Diamond at Santa Rosa, California. He made another significant flight in Oakland on January 13, 1912. Before officials of the Pacific Aero Club and a crowd of enthusiastic spectators, Cooke performed the requisite flying skills to qualify for his pilot's license. In addition to receiving his pilot's certificate, Oakland mayor Frank Mott presented him with a loving cup for his achievements. The license, along with the well-publicized exhibition flights of the previous few months, qualified Cooke for the upcoming international flying meeting to be held the following week at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles. Cooke and his partners Maupin, Lanteri, and Williamson were collecting several hundred dollars per exhibition while flying the Diamond in the Bay area. Participation in the international competition in Los Angeles would provide the opportunity for substantially greater sums and popular acclaim.

The Los Angeles international meet was held from January 20 to 28, 1912. Cooke won the duration event, flying the Black Diamond. During six days he stayed aloft for a total of 18 hours and five minutes out of a possible 22 hours and 30 minutes of flying sessions, collecting a $7,000 prize. He also won the altitude event on three days, and came in second in altitude on two other days during the meet. Complete coverage of the 1912 Los Angeles can be found in the January 6, February 3, and February 10, 1912 issues of Aero magazine.

Cooke's success using the Roberts engine brought a great deal of publicity to the company. A photograph of Cooke and the Diamond in the air at the Los Angeles meet, with copy highlighting the Roberts engine, graced the cover of the February 1912 issue of Aeronautics magazine. Other advertisements touting the performance of the Roberts engine and Cooke's achievements at Los Angeles appeared in various aeronautical publications of the day.

The flying career of the Black Diamond came to an end on the day after the Los Angeles meet concluded. On January 29, 1912, Cooke's friend and mechanic, Richard Williamson, was attempting to qualify for his pilot's license with it, but during the flight the front elevator control broke and the airplane crashed. Williamson sustained only minor bruises. The Black Diamond was transported back to Pittsburg and stored at the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard. The Roberts engine was sold and the partnership between Maupin, Lanteri, and Cooke and Williamson was dissolved.

Cooke went on to further aeronautical acclaim. He purchased a second airplane built and flown by Fred Wiseman (not the one that Wiseman flew in May 1910), improved it, and installed a new six-cylinder Roberts engine. This aircraft is also in the NASM collection (catalog number A19490037000) and is referred to as the "Wiseman-Cooke aircraft." Cooke became one of the premier exhibition pilots of the period. He was killed in a flying accident at a Pueblo, Colorado, air show on September 16, 1914. Bernard Lanteri went on to become mayor of Pittsburg, Ca., and was killed in a boating accident in 1921. L.B. Maupin died in 1947.

The Black Diamond aircraft was later moved from the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard to Maupin's barn in Yuba City, California, in 1927 or 1928. It remained there until 1930 when it was displayed publicly for the first time since the Los Angeles air meet in 1912. Under Maupin's direction, it was reassembled and restored by students at the Yuba Junior College in Marysville, California. The airplane was restored to be exhibited in a local parade and fair held September 23-28, 1930. Work did not begin until September 15, so it was a very quick and cursory job. Details are limited on precisely what was done during this first restoration of the Diamond, but comparing photographs taken of the airplane in 1930 with those from 1912 show that the control wheel, front wheel yoke, the tires, and possibly the wheels were replaced. In addition, triangular fins visible on the front biplane canard in 1912 are missing in the 1930 photographs. Also, an article in the September 11, 1930, edition of the local Appeal-Democrat newspaper stated that to prepare the airplane for exhibition, the fabric covering would have to be replaced, probably with material that was different from the original. Also, there was no engine on the airframe at this display.

The Black Diamond finally left the possession of L.B. Maupin when he and Anna Lanteri Miller (former wife of the deceased Bernard Lanteri) donated it to the Oakland Municipal Airport at a ceremony held on November 12, 1933. Public exhibition space in an airport building was dedicated specially to the Diamond and the accomplishments of Weldon Cooke. By this time a four-cylinder Kemp engine was mounted on the Diamond. It never flew with this engine. The Wiseman-Cooke aircraft was also turned over to the Oakland airport. The Black Diamond was displayed there from 1933 until 1948. In August 1947 it was briefly displayed at McClellan Field in Sacramento at an Army Air Forces Day celebration. It was also shown at the local state fair later that week.

Paul Garber, curator of the then National Air Museum, became aware of both the Diamond and the Wiseman-Cooke airplanes in 1947 and approached the Oakland airport officials about acquiring them for the national aeronautical collection. Plans were then in motion to expand the National Air Museum's facilities and staff. In a letter dated April 9, 1948, Garber reported to the Oakland airport authorities on the progress that had been made on the expansion of the NAM and inquired if the heirs of the builders of the aircraft would consent to turning them over to the Smithsonian Institution. The families enthusiastically agreed. On May 31, 1948, at a ceremony at Oakland airport commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Charles Kingsford-Smith's flight to Australia in the Southern Cross, the Diamond and Wiseman-Cooke aircraft were transferred to the National Air Museum. Paul Garber, representing the Smithsonian, was on hand to accept the donation personally. Both aircraft were immediately transported to Washington, D.C., and placed in storage.

The Wiseman-Cooke was restored by NASM in 1983-1985 and is currently on display in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. The Black Diamond was restored in 1997-1999 for NASM by the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California, and is currently on loan to that museum.

The Unsolved Murder of Civil Rights Activist Harry Moore

Smithsonian Magazine

It was late on Christmas night, 1951, but Harry and Harriette Moore had yet to open any gifts. Instead they had delayed the festivities in anticipation of the arrival of their younger daughter, Evangeline, who was taking a train home from Washington, D.C. to celebrate along with her sister and grandmother. The Moores had another cause for celebration: the day marked their 25th wedding anniversary, a testament to their unshakeable partnership. But that night in their quiet home on a citrus grove in rural Mims, Florida, the African American couple were fatal victims of a horrific terrorist attack at the hands of those who wanted to silence the Moores.

At 10:20 p.m., a blast ripped apart their bedroom, splintering the floorboards, ceiling and front porch. The explosion was so powerful that witness reported hearing it several miles away. Pamphlets pushing for voters’ rights floated out of the house and onto the street, remnants of a long fight for justice. Harry Moore had spent much of the last two decades earning the enmity of Florida’s white supremacists as he organized for equal pay, voter registration, and justice for murdered African Americans. And yet despite his immense sacrifice and the nation’s initial shock at his assassination, Moore’s name soon faded from the pantheon of Civil Rights martyrs.

After the attack, Moore’s mother and daughter knew they would be unable to get an ambulance willing to transport a black victim, so nearby relatives drove the wounded Harry and Harriette to the town of Sanford, which was more than 30 miles away on a dark, two-lane road bracketed by dense foliage. Harry died shortly after arriving in the hospital, Harriette would die a little more than a week later. When Evangeline arrived at the train station the next day, “She didn’t see her mother and father, but she saw her aunts and uncles and family members. She knew something was wrong,” says Sonya Mallard, coordinator for the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, who knew Evangeline before her death in 2015. Her uncle broke the news on the drive to the hospital, and “her world was never the same again. Never.”

In the years before his death, Harry Moore was increasingly a marked man—and he knew it. But he had begun charting this course in the 1930s, when he worked tirelessly to register black voters. He later expanded his efforts into fighting injustice in lynching cases (Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state at the time), putting him in the crosshairs of Florida’s most violent and virulent racists.

“Harry T. Moore understood that we had to make a better way, we had to change what was going on here in the state of Florida,” says Mallard. Traveling around the state on roads where it was too dangerous to even use a public restroom, Moore’s mother, Rosa, worried he’d be killed, “but he kept on going because he knew it was bigger than him,” says Mallard.

Moore was born in 1905 in the panhandle town of Houston, Florida. His father, Johnny, owned a small shop and worked for the railroad, and died when Harry was just 9 years old. After trying to support her son as a single parent, Rosa sent Harry to live with his aunts in Jacksonville, a hub for African American business and culture that would prove to be influential on the young Moore. After graduating from Florida Memorial College, as today’s university was then known, Moore likely could have made a relatively comfortable life in Jacksonville.

However, the climate in Florida as a whole as hostile to African Americans. His formative years were ones of pervasive racial violence often unchecked by officials. Before the 1920 election, displaying the impunity enjoyed by white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan “marched in downtown Orlando specifically to intimidate black voters,” says Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society. When a man named July Perry came to Orlando from nearby Ocoee to vote, he was beaten, shot and hung from a light post and then the primarily African American town was burned in a mob rampage that killed dozens. For decades after, Ocoee had no black residents and was known as a “sundown town”; today the city of 46,000 is 21 percent African American.

A portrait of Harry T. and Henrietta V. Moore (Courtesy of the Moore Cultural Complex)

In 1925, Moore began teaching at a school for black students in Cocoa, Florida, a few miles south of Mims and later assumed the role of principal at the Titusville Colored School. His first year in Cocoa, Harry met Harriette Simms, three years his senior, at a party. She later became a teacher after the birth of their first daughter, Annie Rosalea, known as Peaches. Evangeline was born in 1930.)

His civic activism flowed from his educational activism. “He would bring his own materials and educate students about black history, but what he also did was bring in ballots and he taught his students how to vote. He taught his students the importance of the candidates and making a decision to vote for people who took your interests seriously,” says Brotemarkle.

In 1934, Moore joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an indication of his growing interest in civic matters. In 1937, Moore pushed for a lawsuit challenging the chasm between black and white teachers’ salaries in his local Brevard County, with fellow educator John Gilbert as the plaintiff. Moore enlisted the support of NAACP lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, the start of their professional collaboration. The lawsuit was defeated in both the Circuit Court and the Florida Supreme Court. For his efforts, the Moores later lost their teachings jobs—as did Gilbert.

In the early 1940s, Moore organized the Florida State conference of the NAACP and significantly increased membership (he would later become its first paid executive secretary). He also formed the Progressive Voters’ League in Florida in 1944. “He understood the significance of the power of the vote. He understood the significance of the power of the pen. And he wrote letters and typed letters to anyone and everyone that would listen. And he knew that [African Americans] had to have a voice and we had to have it by voting,” says Mallard. In 1947, building on the U.S. Supreme Court case in which Marshall successfully argued against Texas’ “white primary” that excluded minority voters, Moore organized a letter writing campaign to help rebuff bills proposed in the Florida legislature that would effectively perpetuate white primaries. (As the Tampa Bay Times notes, Florida was “a leading innovator of discriminatory barriers to voting.”)

Before his death, Moore’s efforts in the state helped increase the number of black voters by more than 100,000, according to the Moore Cultural Complex, a figure sure to catch the attention of influential politicians.

But success was a risky proposition. “Moore was coming into a situation in Central Florida where there was a lot of Klan activity, there were a lot of Klansman who had positions in government, and it was a very tenuous time for civil rights,” says Brotemarkle. “People were openly being intimidated and kept away from the polls, and Moore worked diligently to fight that.”

Moore was willing to risk much more than his job. He first became involved in anti-lynching efforts after three white men kidnapped 15-year-old Willie James Howard, bound him with ropes and drowned him in a river for the “crime” of passing a note to a white girl in 1944. The perpetual inaction in cases like Howard’s, in which no one was arrested, tried, or convicted, spurred Moore to effect change. In a 1947 letter to Florida’s congressional delegation, Moore wrote “We cannot afford to wait until the several states get ‘trained’ or ‘educated’ to the point where they can take effective action in such cases. Human life is too valuable for more experimenting of this kind. The Federal Government must be empowered to take the necessary action for the protection of its citizens.”

Moore letters show a polite, but persistent, push for change. His scholarly nature obscured the profound courage it took to stand up to the hostile forces around him in Florida. Those who knew him recall a quiet, soft-spoken man. “The fiery from the pulpit speech? That was not Harry T. Moore. He was much more behind the scenes, but no less aggressive. You can see it from his letters that he was every bit as brave,” says Brotemarkle.

Two years before his death, Moore placed himself in harm’s way in the most prominent manner yet with his involvement in the Groveland Four incident. The men had been accused of raping a white woman; a mob went to drag them from jail and not finding them there, burned and shot into nearby black residents’ homes. After their arrest, conviction by an all-white jury was practically a foregone conclusion, despite attorneys’ assertions that the defendants’ confessions were physically coerced. The case also pitted Moore against Sherriff Willis McCall, who was investigated numerous times in his career for misconduct related to race.

While transporting two of the suspects, McCall shot them, killing one. McCall claimed he had been attacked, but the shootings elicited furious protest. All this took place against the backdrop of the ongoing legal battle—eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a re-trial, which again ended in the conviction of the surviving suspect, who was represented by Thurgood Marshall. (In recent years, Florida has posthumously pardoned and apologized to all four of the accused).

Moore wrote repeatedly to Governor Fuller Warren, methodically dismantling McCall’s claims. He admonished Warren that “Florida is on trial before the rest of the world,” calling on him to remove the officers involved in the shooting. He closed with a reminder that “Florida Negro citizens are still mindful of the fact that our votes proved to be your margin of victory in the [runoff election in] 1948. We seek no special favors; but certainly we have a right to expect justice and equal protection of the laws even for the humblest Negro. Shall we be disappointed again?”

Compounding Moore’s woes, just weeks after the shooting of the Groveland suspects and weeks before his own death, he lost his job at the NAACP. Moore had clashed with the organization’s national leadership for his forward political involvement and disagreements over fundraising. It was a severe blow, but he continued his commitment to the work—albeit now on an unpaid basis.

During the fall of 1951, Florida saw a rash of religious and racial violence. Over a three-month period, multiple bombs had hit Carver Village, a housing complex in Miami leasing to black tenants, in what was likely the work of the KKK; a synagogue and Catholic church were also menaced. “As dark shadow of violence has drifted across sunny Florida—cast by terrorist who blast and kill in the night,” the Associated Press reported days after the Christmas bombing. If lesser known black residents were targeted, then Moore’s prominence meant his situation was especially perilous.

“Moore ruffled a lot of feathers, and there was a large population of Florida that didn’t want to see the type of change that he was part of,” says Brotemarkle.

“I tried to get him to quit the N.A.A.C.P., thinking something might happen to him some day,” Rosa Moore told a reporter after the bombing. “But he told me, ‘I’m trying to do what I can to elevate the Negro race. Every advancement comes by the way of sacrifice, and if I sacrifice my life or health I still think it is my duty for my race.”

News of Moore’s Christmas night death made headlines across the country. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her sadness. Governor Warren called for a full investigation but clashed with NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who accused the governor of not doing enough. Warren said White “has come to Florida to try to stir up strife” and called him a “hired Harlem hatemonger.”

While Moore may have been out of favor with the NAACP’s national leadership shortly before his death, he was venerated soon after. In March of 1952, the NAACP held a fundraising gala in New York City, featuring the “Ballad of Harry T. Moore,” written by poet Langston Hughes. His name was a rallying cry at numerous events.

“The Moore bombings set off the most intense civil rights uproar in a decade,” writes Ben Green in Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. “There had been more violent racial incidents…but the Moore bombing was so personal, so singular – a man and his wife blown up in their home on Christmas Day – that it became a magnifying glass to focus the nation’s revulsion.”

While the publicity helped galvanize awareness for civil rights on a national level, the assassination soon had a chilling effect on voter registration in Florida. “People were petrified, they were scared,” says Mallard. The KKK “terrorized you, they killed you, they lynched you, they scared you. They did all that to shut you up.”

Meanwhile Harriette Moore remained hospitalized for nine days, dying from her injuries one day after her husband’s funeral. “There isn't much left to fight for. My home is wrecked. My children are grown up. They don't need me. Others can carry on," she had told a reporter in a bedside interview. Harriette’s discouragement was palpable, after years of facing the same threats side by side with Harry. “She adored her husband,” says Mallard.

The crime has never been definitively solved, despite commitments from notorious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in the bombing’s aftermath and from Florida Governor Charlie Crist in the mid-2000s. After almost 70 years, the identity of the killer or killers may never be pinpointed, but those who have studied Moore’s life and the multiple investigations of the case are confident it was the work of the KKK.

“As the movement’s ranks swelled and the battle was carried to Birmingham, Nashville, Tallahassee, Little Rock, Greensboro and beyond, the unsolved murders of Harry and Harriette Moore, still hanging in limbo, were forgotten,” Green writes. “For Evangeline and Peaches Moore, the pain and heartache never ceased. The murderers of their parents still walked the streets, and no one seemed to care.”

A quote by Harry Moore adorns a fountain outside the Moore Cultural Complex (Francine Uenuma)

Moore’s life and death underscore that not all heroes become legends. Today cities like Selma, Montgomery and Memphis—not Mims—evoke images of the Civil Rights struggle. Moore worked for almost two decades without the weight of national outrage behind him. No television cameras documented the brutal violence or produced the images needed to appall Americans in other states. The Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial situated across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizes martyrs from 1955 until Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968. That was 17 years after the Moores were killed.

“When you talk about the contemporary civil rights movement, [people] look at the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 as kind of the starting place for the timeline, and while that can be seen as true in a lot of ways, it overlooks a lot of activity that led up to that,” says Brotemarkle.

Nonetheless Moore’s work and legacy helped lay the groundwork for the expansion of civil rights onto the national platform, and Moore has received some belated recognition in recent decades. The Moore Cultural Complex in Mims welcomes visitors to a replica of their home, rebuilt on the original property. Several of their personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

In looking back at Moore’s life and work, it is abundantly clear he was never motivated by name recognition in the first place. Moore’s goal was singular - his daughter would later remember him saying before his death that “I have endeavored to help the Negro race and laid my life on the altar.”

How First Lady Sarah Polk Set a Model for Conservative Female Power

Smithsonian Magazine

In July 1848, as hundreds of women suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls to demand the right to vote and assert their right to participate in the public sphere, one prominent woman in Washington, D.C., was busy shaping the nation’s policy and guiding its direction at the highest level of government. Unfortunately for the activists, she didn’t share their politics.

First Lady Sarah Polk formed half of an unusual political partnership with her husband, President James Polk, during his sole term in office from 1845 to 1849. Despite his brief time in office, Polk had an outsized influence on American history, particularly with regard to the Mexican-American War.

As president, Polk sought his wife’s counsel on decisions, relied on her smart politicking and benefited from her popularity. Her active role in his presidency made her the most powerful woman of the era, asserts Amy S. Greenberg, professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the new book Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.

Religious and conservative, Polk didn’t support the suffragists’ campaign; she had no need for what they sought. Polk had leveraged her privileges as a white, wealthy, childless and educated woman to become “the first openly political First Lady, in a period when the role of women was strictly circumscribed,” explains Greenberg, whose book hits shelves amidst a wave of feminist political activism. 131 women were sworn into Congress this January and the race for the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential election features multiple women candidates.

It’s with some irony, then, that this first breakthrough in national politics would come from Polk, a figure who viewed women as subservient to men, owned slaves, created a false, populist persona and would post-White House be a stalwart supporter of the Confederacy. Over 170 years after Polk left Washington, Greenberg writes, “she set a model of conservative female power that grew and flourished in the century after her death, and which actively shapes our current political moment. Phyllis Schlafly, Nancy Reagan, and Ivanka Trump: all are political heirs of Mrs. James K. Polk.” Smithsonian spoke with Greenberg about the First Lady’s life and legacy.

Sarah Polk was the most powerful woman in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. How did she come by that power? How did that power manifest itself?

Her power would not have been possible without her reliance on the power of the men around her. We have this idea that before women got suffrage, women were not political actors. But, here's a woman who was, in many ways, super conservative. She didn't support women's rights, and she was surrounded by men who would say, generally, that they did not think that women were deserving of having the vote. She became powerful by being the exception to the rule. It was a rule that even she believed in, which was that politics was really something for men, not for women.

The other super important thing is that her husband, the president, relied on her to help him. He really pushed her to be more politically involved than she might have been otherwise. They figured out early, I think, in the relationship that they weren't going to have kids. He said to her, “Look, why would you just stay at home like these other wives do? Why don't you accompany me on my travels and help me with my political work? Read all these newspapers and tell me what you think about them.” Either because he didn’t want her to be lonely, or because he perceived that this was something that was going to help him.

What did her partnership with her husband look like?

President Polk was super unlikeable. From early on in his career, politicians around him found that they were better off communicating with James through Sarah. I found records of when she was in the White House where politicians would come to the White House and they were coming deliberately to meet with her.

She also was James’ communications director. There's all these really remarkable letters where men are writing to James, but they'll say in the letter, “If Mrs. Polk is reading this, then please convey so and so.”

While James was in the White House, he was also sick often. So, she held receptions without him, or he was too busy to hold the receptions. She became the means by which James was able to accomplish all of this stuff during his one term, even though nobody liked him and people, basically, didn't trust him. It seems to me that Polk couldn’t have successfully prosecuted a war against Mexico without her lobbying other politicians on his behalf.

Why was she so popular among Americans?

There hadn't been a beloved figure in the White House since Dolley Madison. Sarah was just immediately popular because she was extremely pious. She did a really good job pretending to be down to earth. During this time period, her party, the Democrats, were supposed to be the party of the common man. Sarah just did an amazing job presenting herself as a first lady for [the people], which she did by emphasizing her religiosity. She kept the Sabbath, which, oh my God, people loved that about her. Everything about her appearance seemed really modest.

She was very, very good at manipulating her public persona with the press by making sure that stories were printed about her work with the poor. One of my favorite early anecdotes about Sarah was that Congress allotted a tremendous amount of money for remodeling the White House, which was in serious disrepair. But Sarah let it be known that she was not an extravagant person, and so she would only take half the amount of money allotted; people thought that this was fantastic.

The reality was she was super extravagant. Personally, she spent a ridiculous amounts of money on her clothes. She wasn't interested in remodeling the White House because she would rather spend her time lobbying politicians and reading newspapers. But [the news reports] made the public think, “Oh, well we have this, actually, thrifty person. That's so fantastic.”

How did she negotiate between the masculine and feminine spheres of the era?

In a time period when the vast majority of the public believed women were only suited for the private sphere—life within the home, taking care of children, making the house beautiful and being pious—Sarah managed to amass power.

She never presented her opinions as her own opinions. She always presented herself as representing her husband. She was able to amass and exercise political power by saying to men, “Well, Mr. Polk thinks this, or that.” Or, “This is really what Mr. Polk would like to have done.” She was so good at presenting herself as deferential to the beliefs of the men that she talked to, so they knew she wasn't trying to challenge them. She worked within their system and could be an aid to them in this way.

She never challenged men, even on minor points. She always represented herself as submissive, and above all deferential. This allowed her to move back and forth between the world of women and men in a way that other women weren't able to.

Although Sarah enjoyed her political power, she didn’t support pathways like suffrage for other women to gain power. Why not?

I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t support suffrage because on some level, she just didn’t need it. She found a way to gain her political power without suffrage. In a way, there’s a hypocritical aspect to her personality, which is that she’s perfectly fine with not allowing other women the rights that she, herself, has.

If you wanted to be more generous, you could say, “Well, she didn't support suffrage because she was coming out of this extremely conservative, religiously based mindset whereby hierarchy is enshrined in the Bible.” She’s a huge supporter of slavery, and she believes that the Bible says wives be subservient to their husbands and that black people be subservient to white people. In this time period, a lot of rich, white women out there figure out that their class position is allowing them to operate in ways that our historical narrative doesn't tell us about, which is that they're able to be really powerful because they’re rich, because they’re white, and because they’re surrounded by men who acknowledge their right to exert influence in the political arena.

What role did Sarah play in championing “Manifest Destiny” and the war with Mexico?

Sarah grew up in a household where the family became wealthy by moving onto the land that was taken from Native Americans, and then farming and growing cotton on that land with slaves. She grew up believing that the way to wealth was through moving west, because this is what her family had done.

She supported Manifest Destiny from the beginning, as did her husband who grew up in a similar situation. [During the presidential campaign,] James Polk was the most explicit about claiming that God had chosen the people of the United States to expand across the continent.

While other Democrats were more restrained, about the idea of Mexico being entitled to the land that they owned, or even Great Britain having some rights on the continent, James was really out in front and saying, “No. No, America’s destiny is to occupy all of the lands that are currently being occupied by these less deserving people.” Those were Sarah's views, too. She maintained until the end of her life that one of the greatest achievements in American history was the war that her husband had directed against Mexico because it led to annexing California, Nevada and most of Arizona to the United States.

When she was in the White House she was very careful to make sure that veterans of the Mexican-American war were invited to parties and shown particular respect. While the U.S. was fighting Mexico, she had extra evening receptions at the White House, complete with military music, preferably with veterans in attendance, where she could lobby different members of Congress to continue supporting the war.

Sarah and James owned dozens of slaves. Can you talk about her time as a plantation owner?

When James ran for president, he had to conform to the views of many Americans, especially Americans who lived in the North, that slavery was not necessarily an ideal system. He maintained that he never bought or sold slaves, except to keep families together. To the extent that was true, it was only true because of Sarah. When she married James, she insisted that the slaves she had inherited from her father be allowed to stay with family members, and she wouldn't let any of them be sold away from the family.

After James died, she became the sole owner of their cotton plantation which James had bought and stocked with very young slaves, despite his claims that he wasn't buying and selling slaves. With Sarah’s help, he was buying all sorts of young people, taking them away from their families and sending them to Mississippi, which was absolutely the worst place to be a slave in the United States. The work was back-breaking, and all these people had been taken away from their families.

Sarah had a relationship to her slave property that could best be described as paternalistic. She was invested in this view that she was a “good” slave owner. Of course, in reality, she wasn't a good slave owner because she was holding these people in bondage.

Throughout the 1850s, she managed this cotton plantation herself, which forced her to come to terms with the fact that there was no such thing as being a beneficent slave owner. She ended up selling slaves away from the plantation, despite her claim that she would never do such a thing. Then right before the Civil War, she sold a half-interest in the plantation and made a tremendous amount of money by basically selling slaves en masse.

When the Civil War started, Sarah was a widow living in Tennessee. How did she behave during the conflict?

She remains in her house throughout the Civil War in Nashville because her husband's grave is there. She says she'll never leave it, so she stays when a lot of other wealthy and powerful Confederates leave.

Sarah manages this remarkable trick, which is to claim that her house is neutral territory, that she, herself, was neutral and that she was entitled to be treated with respect by everybody because she was a First Lady. Her husband had given his life to the Union, and so she needed to be treated not only with respect, but actually to get special favors from the Union army.

All of these Union generals really don't trust her and believe she's actually a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Confederate, which I think basically she is. They have to do what she wants because she is First Lady Sarah Polk, and she manages to actually pull this one over.

While all these Union generals are treating her with respect and allowing her to travel around and to sell cotton, despite the ban on Confederates selling cotton, Sarah is secretly working on behalf of the Confederacy. She’s not a spy, but she’s hiding valuable confederate property in the house for people who aren't as well-situated as her, sending money on behalf of imprisoned Confederates, and asking for special treatment of and leniency for Confederate soldiers. She spends the entire Civil War using her power to help the Confederacy.

What was Sarah Polk’s lasting influence?

Sarah Polk left a legacy that we still see today of conservative women who pretend to be deferential to men and use that pretense to actually amass and exercise power. I see her as the beginning of an American tradition of conservative women who, because of their wealth, political connections and power, are perfectly happy exercising rights that they're not necessarily willing to extend to other people.

From Medical Pariah to Feminist Icon: The Story of the IUD

Smithsonian Magazine

The IUD is a clever little T-shaped object that does a really good job of babyproofing your uterus. It’s relatively safe, last up to 10 years, and is 20 times better at preventing pregnancy than birth control pills, the patch or the ring. Today the IUD, which stands for intrauterine device, has become so trendy that you can find it on necklaces and earrings on Etsy, and read upfront memoirs by women about their experiences. But it wasn’t always this way. 

In the 1960s and '70s, the device started hitting its stride as an icon of liberated feminism. But in the mid-'70s, disaster hit. For decades, the IUD was roundly shunned in the United States by women and doctors alike. Today it is by far the most-used reversible contraception method in the world, with 106 million women relying on it for long-term contraception. And yet it’s still relatively rare in the U.S., where nearly half of all pregnancies are still unintended.

That may be changing. Directly after President Trump took office, news outlets reported on the rush for long-acting birth control, speculating that the new urgency was fueled by fears that the administration would slash Obamacare requirements for insurers to cover intrauterine devices and other forms of contraception, as well as stop Medicaid reimbursements for Planned Parenthood. (Most forms of the IUD, it turns out, can outlast a presidential term.) Suddenly, it seemed that the IUD was destined to become a symbol of modern feminism once again.

To which longtime IUD-users say: Duh. What took you so long? Let’s go back to the beginning.

“Two Strands of Coarse Silkworm Gut”

In 1909, a German medical journal published a paper on a funny-sounding device meant to prevent pregnancy. The device, according to the article, consisted of “two strands of coarse silkworm gut … united by a thin bronze filament,” which were inserted into the uterus using a female bladder catheter (ouch!). The idea behind this and other early IUDs was that putting foreign objects in the uterus tended to spark an inflammatory response that made life tougher for sperm, says David Hubacher, an epidemiologist who studies contraception at FHI 360, a human development nonprofit.

Prior to this point, the main form of internal contraception was known as an “interuterine device,” a device made of metal or silkworm-and-glass that was originally used for "therapeutic purposes." This device had a major drawback: it crossed both the vagina and the uterus, thus connecting the uterus to the outside environment by way of the vagina. In a time when gonorrhea was more common and had no good cure, these devices resulted in a high rate of pelvic inflammatory disease. 

The 1909 paper’s title, “Ein Mittel zur Verhütung der Konzeption” (a means of preventing conception), was no doubt shocking to readers at the time, for whom birth control was a taboo topic, according to a contemporary medical journal. That might explain why, although it was “the first genuine IUD,” it seems not to have been widely used. It wasn't until 1928 that a German physician named Ernest Grafenberg developed a variation on the silkworm gut IUD, made of metal filaments shaped into a ring, which became more well-known.

Still, regulation was poor. As IUDs increased in popularity, so did reports of cases of pelvic inflammatory disease associated with them. By the late 1940s, only a miniscule number of American women were using European IUD technology, says Hubacher, who has written on the history of the device.

The IUD's first heyday dovetailed with the liberated 1960s and '70s. They got another bump when, in the 1970s, Senate hearings featuring safety concerns over the birth control pill pushed many women toward the IUD. Soon the little device had become, in the words of one doctor’s 1982 history of the IUD, the “unofficial status symbol for the ‘liberated woman.’ IUDs were worn as earrings even as bras were being burned.”

It seemed the IUD was finally destined to have its day. At one point in the '70s, nearly 10 percent of American women using contraception were choosing an IUD. But then, just as it had become the anti-pregnancy choice du jour among liberated women, one popular model turned out to be deadly. Enter: Dalkon Shield.

An image from the 1971 patent application by Dalkon Shield for an "intrauterine contraceptive device." The device would end up being linked to thousands of illnesses and fatalities. (USPTO )

An American Tragedy

Today just the name "Dalkon Shield" evokes collective wincing among a certain generation. In the 1970s, this crab-shaped IUD model was beginning to be linked with reports major health problems including pelvic inflammatory disease, septic abortions, infertility and even death. In 1974, amid media reports, congressional hearings and falling sales, the device’s manufacturer suspended sales. By July 1975, there were 16 deaths linked to the device, according to the Chicago Tribune.

By 1987, the New York Times was reporting that “as many as 200,000 American women have testified that they were injured by the device and have filed claims against the A.H. Robins Company,” the one-time maker of Chapstick Lip Balm. (The Washington Post cited more than 300,000 victims.) The manufacturer filed for bankruptcy in 1985, and a $2.4 billion trust was established in the late ‘80s for women who’d been affected. The failure of Dalkon Shield would have consequences for decades to come.

Between 1982 and 1988, the use of IUDs and other long-acting reversible contraceptives in the U.S. declined significantly. That year, updated devices came out that met new FDA safety and manufacturing requirements, but the damage had been done. The shadow of the Dalkon Shield hung over the entire market, dissuading American women from even considering IUDs even as their popularity in Europe grew.

Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine, says that in the 80s, when she discussed contraceptive options with her patients, IUDs were not even considered as a remote possibility. “There was no person who would have let me put one in,” she says.

In 1996, The Washington Post ran a story about a family planner from New Jersey working with IUD-using populations in Senegal, Nigeria and Kenya who herself had trouble finding an American physician willing to give her one. (At that time, only 1.4 percent of American women using birth control were using an IUD.) A year later, a Virginia physician trying to test a new IUD for market reported that he couldn’t give the device away for free.

The reasons for the Dalkon Shield’s problems are still a topic of debate. During the fallout of the device’s problems, researchers reported that a major problem with the device was the particular design of the Dalkon Shield’s tail string, which is used both to help women make sure the device is still in place, and to aid in its eventual removal. Unlike other IUDs at the time, the string on the Dalkon Shield was made not of one filament but of many tightly wound filaments.

According to expert testimony in legal cases and reporting from that time, the multifilament string acted as a wick, pulling “bacteria and sexually transmitted viruses into the wombs of Shield wearers,” as The New York Times put it in 1987.

But Hubacher and Minkin say it was never clear how much the device’s tail string was at fault. Rather, says Minkin, who was an expert witness on behalf of a trust later established to pay out women hurt by the device, the object’s pronged, crab-like shape made it difficult to insert. That, possibly combined with poor doctor training, meant that it probably wasn’t being placed correctly, she says. As a result, some women got pregnant while wearing the devices, leading to septic abortions and, in some cases, death.

She and Hubacher add that another potential danger for women was the fact that screening for pre-existing STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea wasn’t as good in the 1970s as it is now. Inserting an IUD into a woman with an infection might have spread that infection, potentially leading to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause infertility. 

What's certain, however, is that the Dalkon Shield's failure rippled out to Americans' perceptions of all IUDs. After the controversy, all but one were pulled from the market by 1986. Even today, says Megan Kavanaugh, a senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, some young women she interviews say their mothers have told them to avoid the devices.

Trends in long-acting reversible contraceptive use, by age. (CDC/NCHS, National Survey of Family Growth, 1982, 1988, 1995, 2002, 2006–2010, and 2011–2013)

 Contraception's Gold Standard

Over the last 15 years, cultural attitudes toward this maligned device have been warming. Ameican IUD use has been on the upward swing since the early 2000s, and several new brands have hit the market featuring names like Skyla, Kyleena and Liletta (apparently there’s a mandate that new IUDs sound like pop stars). In the years 2011 to 2013, around one in 10 American women aged 15 to 44 who relied on contraception used an IUD—a five-fold increase over the previous decade, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

“A safe IUD is the answer to all birth control prayers,” writes a woman on Huffington Post who put her two teenage daughters on the device. “I switched over a year ago from the pill to an IUD, and it has made a world of difference,” writes another, adding: "I am EXTREMELY forgetful, and it is how we ended up with my now-5-year-old!" A gynecologist who herself wears an IUD recently wrote about the advantages of using a form of birth control that “you’re supposed to forget.”

Kavanaugh attributes the change in great part to a recognition within the scientific community that modern IUDs are “extremely safe.” It helps, she adds, that a younger generation of women and doctors don’t have the strong negative associations as those who grew up during the time of the Dalkon Shield. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends the IUD as the gold standard of birth control, calling them “safe and appropriate ... These contraceptives have the highest rates of satisfaction and continuation of all reversible contraceptives.”

These days there are two major types of IUDs: hormonal and copper. The copper IUD, physicians believe, is toxic to sperm, slowing and damaging the little wrigglers as they swim toward the egg like heat-seeking missiles. The hormonal IUD releases progestin—the synthetic version of the naturally-produced hormone estrogen, and the same hormone found in the pill—which makes cervical mucus thicker and more hostile to sperm. While the mechanisms are different, the result is the same: Never the twain shall meet.

Hubacher and Minkin attribute the safety of modern-day IUDs to a number of factors. First of all, screening for STIs is much better nowadays. In addition, because they use copper or hormones rather than merely plastic, modern-day IUDs are more effective at preventing pregnancy. (That means that IUD users are less likely to get pregnant, which can lead to medical issues like ectopic pregnancy.) Moreover, if the multifilament string was ever at fault, modern-day IUDs use single filament strings, eliminating that potential cause of infection.

Many physicians now back the IUD so much that it's become something of a cause to champion. Kavanaugh points to an organization in Washington, D.C. and a task force in New York City that promote IUD use and offer insertion training to medical professionals. IUD advertising has increased, and magazines like Cosmopolitan and Elle are running stories singing the praises of these tiny objects. Rates of IUD use have been growing across many demographic groups, says Kavanaugh, and the pace is especially rapid among young women. Now, a woman who becomes sexually active at 17 but doesn’t want a baby till she’s in her late 20s might be a good candidate for an IUD that lasts years.

Anecdotally, gynecologists say they’re seeing a major increase in demand. “About six months [ago], I was doing one to two IUD insertions a week and now I’m doing one to two a day. It's a huge increase," says Brandi Ring, an ob-gyn in Denver who’s part of a new generation of doctors and patients embracing the IUD. As of 2012, 10.3 percent of women who use contraception were using an IUD – slightly more than what it was before the Dalkon Shield fiasco. Of course, because the U.S. population has grown, that means “more women in the United States are using an IUD than ever before,” Hubacher says.

“I break it down for my patients in terms of how often they have to remember or think about their birth control,” says Ring. “I start with the pill, and I say: In the next year you will have to think about your birth control 365 times. For your IUD, you have to think about it twice: once to tell me you want it, and once when I put it in.” Even better, because the IUD gets inserted by the doctor and lasts for years, there’s little opportunity for user error. It has a “failure rate” of about one percent—compared to condoms, which have a 13 percent failure rate over the course of a year, or the pill, at 7 percent.

That said, the IUD isn’t perfect. Both forms can cause bleeding and cramping directly after insertion, and ParaGard (the copper version) is known in some cases to initially make periods heavier and cramping more intense. It is possible, while rare, that an IUD could perforate your uterus, particularly if you have never had children or have recently given birth; this serious risk usually happens during insertion. There is also small risk that your body will expel the device. (Check here for more common side effects for each type of IUD.)

The financial downside to IUDs is that women need to pay a chunk of change upfront, depending on insurance coverage. The price ranges: Right now, Obamacare generally covers the bulk of the cost of getting an IUD, sometimes leaving women with a few hundred dollars. Meanwhile, the cost of getting one without any insurance could be upwards of $1000 dollars, according to Kavanaugh. But over the long-term, the IUD ranks among the most cost-effective of contraceptives once you factor in things like the cost of unintended pregnancy.  

In the end, it's your body, your choice. But if you do go forth and get an IUD, know that the tiny device in your uterus comes with a long and tangled history. 

The History and Science Behind Your Terrible Breath

Smithsonian Magazine

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid offers some words of advice to the amorous. To attract the opposite sex, he writes, a seductive woman must learn to dance, hide her bodily blemishes and refrain from laughing if she has a black tooth. But above all, she must not smell foul.

“She whose breath is tainted should never speak before eating,” Ovid instructs, “and she should always stand at a distance from her lover's face.”

Though the quality of this advice is questionable, the dilemma it describes remains all too familiar. Ancient peoples around the world spent centuries experimenting with so-called cures for bad breath; scientists today continue to puzzle over the factors that lay behind it. Yet stinky breath continues to mystify us, haunting our most intimate moments and following us around like a green stench cloud.

Why is this scourge so persistent? The answer requires a 2,000-year detour through history, and might say more about our own social neuroses than about the scientific causes of this condition.

Listerine ads promised to kill germs instantly and stop bad breath. They also played off consumers' fear of social rejection—like this one, from a campaign that began in the 1930s. (Kilmer House / Johnson & Johnson)

Our efforts to battle bad breath showcase a history of human inventiveness. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, appear to have invented the breath mint some 3,000 years ago. They created concoctions of boiled herbs and spices—frankincense, myrrh and cinnamon were popular flavorings—mixed with honey to make sweets that could be chewed or sucked. In the 15th century, the Chinese invented the first bristle toothbrushes, made by harvesting hairs from pigs' necks. More than 5,000 years ago, Babylonians began trying to brush away bad breath with twigs.

Talmudic scholars report that the Torah decried bad breath as a “major disability,” meaning it could be grounds for a wife to seek divorce or could prevent priests from carrying out their duties. Fortunately, the Talmud also suggests some remedies, including rinsing with a mouthwash of oil and water, or the chewing of a mastic gum made from tree resin. This resin, which has since been shown to have antibacterial properties, is still used as gum in Greece and Turkey today.

In Pliny the Elder’s early encyclopedia Natural Historypenned a few years before he was killed in the Vesuvius eruption, the Roman philosopher offered this advice: “To impart sweetness to the breath, it is recommended to rub the teeth with ashes of burnt mouse-dung and honey." Pliny added that picking one's teeth with a porcupine quill was recommended, while a vulture's feather actually soured the breath. While many of these efforts no doubt freshened the breath temporarily, it seems that none provided a lasting fix. 

Literary references from around the world confirm that bad breath has long been regarded as the enemy of romance. In the poet Firdawsi's 10th-century Persian epic, the Shahnama, persistent mouth-stink dramatically changes the course of history. The tale tells of how King Darab's young bride Nahid was sent home to Macedonia because of her intolerable bad breath. Unbeknown to her either her husband or father, King Phillip, she was already pregnant with a baby boy.

Her son would grow up to be none other than Iskander—better known as Alexander the Great. That meant that, in Firdawsi's tale, Alexander was not a foreigner but a legitimate king of Persian blood reclaiming his throne.

In Geoffrey Chaucer's classic Canterbury Tales, the “jolly lover” Absalon prepares for a kiss by scenting his breath with cardamom and licorice. (Unfortunately, the object of his attentions ends up presenting him with her naked rear-end rather than her lips.) In describing the horrors of Rome, William Shakespeare's Cleopatra laments that “in their thick breaths, / Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, / And forced to drink their vapour.” In Mucho Ado About Nothing, Benedick muses, “If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the north star.”

Jane Austen's elegant novels don't dwell on topics like bad breath. But the author was more candid in her personal correspondence. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she once complained of some neighbors: “I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”

This 1928 ad for Listerine was certainly not subtle. The text continues: “No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you – but it is an effort.” (Kilmer House / Johnson & Johnson)

While historic peoples were certainly aware of this mood-killing scourge and sought ways to counteract it, it wasn’t until the early-20th century that the affliction officially became a medical diagnosis. That’s when the condition known as halitosis came into being, thanks in large part to the savvy marketing efforts of a company called Listerine.

In the 1880s, Listerine wasn’t just a mouthwash. It was a catch-all antiseptic, sold as anything from a surgical disinfectant to a deodorant to a floor cleaner. Historic advertisements show that Listerine was pitched as a supposed remedy for diseases from dysentery to gonorrheaOthers assured consumers that all they had to do was “simply douse Listerine, full strength, on the hair” to get rid of off-putting dandruff.

What the brand needed was a focus. So in 1923, Listerine heir Gerard Barnes Lambert and his younger brother Marion were brainstorming which of Listerine's many uses might become its primary selling point. Gerard later recalled in his autobiography asking the company chemist about bad breath. “He excused himself for a moment and came back with a big book of newspaper clippings. He sat in a chair and I stood looking over his shoulder. He thumbed through the immense book,” he writes.

“Here it is, Gerard. It says in this clipping from the British Lancet that in cases of halitosis . . .” I interrupted, “What is halitosis?” “Oh,” he said, “that is the medical term for bad breath.”

[The chemist] never knew what had hit him. I bustled the poor old fellow out of the room. “There,” I said,” is something to hang our hat on.”

Seizing on the idea, the elder Lambert began leveraging the term as a widespread and truly disgusting medical condition, one that destroyed exploits in love, business and general social acceptance. Fortunately, this national scourge had an easy and effective cure: Listerine. Today, his product has become known as an effective weapon against the germs that cause bad breath.

The halitosis campaign capitalized on several wider trends of the time. One was a growing awareness—and fear—of germs and how they spread in the early 20th century. “There was a rising consciousness” of germs, notes Juliann Sivulka, a historian who studies 20th-century American advertising at Waseda Univesity in Tokyo, Japan. “A lot of products were introduced as promoting health with regards to germs, things like disposable paper cups and Kleenex tissues.”

In addition, the general social liberation of the era made all kinds of previously unmentionable subjects suddenly fit for the public eye. “There were things discussed in advertising that were never mentioned before—things relating to bodily functions which, in the Victorian era, were taboo,” says Sivulka. “A glimpse of the stocking was something shocking; you'd never refer to things like athlete's foot, or acne.” Now advertisers boldly referred to these scourges and their potential cures, using the attention-grabbing strategies of tabloid journalism.

Beginning in the 1930s, Listerine ran ads featuring bridesmaids whose breath doomed them to spinsterhoodmen who seemingly had everything, yet were social pariahs; and mothers whose odors ostracized them from their own children. In the 1950s, Listerine even produced comic books to illustrate how the product improved the lives of football stars and cheerleaders. The campaign was so successful that Lambert—who had many accomplishments in fields ranging from businesses to the arts—lamented that his tombstone would bear the inscription: “Here lies the body of the Father of Halitosis.”

Why did the halitosis-fueled Listerine campaign seem to strike such a chord? Lambert’s campaign exploited a primal need for social acceptance and fear of rejection—fears that remain alive and well in those who suffer from bad breath, says F. Michael Eggert , founder of the University of Alberta's Bad Breath Research Clinic. “We're social animals, and very conscious of the signals that other people give off,” says Eggert, who hears from many of his patients about the reactions of those around the breather.

“People are fearful about social interactions,” he adds. “If somebody recoils from them for some reason, maybe at work, they begin believe that it's bad breath that's coming from them.”

Listerine wasn't the only breath-fixer in town. This advertisement for oral hygeine preparation Sozodont dates to circa 1896. (Sozodont)

What actually causes these most offensive of oral odors? It’s only in recent times that scientists have begun to make some headway on this mouthborne mystery. What they’re finding is that, while notorious foods like sardines, onions and coffee can surely inflect our aromas, what we eat isn't ultimately to blame. Instead, the real culprits are invisible, microscopic bacteria that hang out around your tongue and gums, feasting on tiny bits of food, postnasal drip and even oral tissues.

Identifying these bacteria is the first step toward figuring out how to manage them, says Wenyuan Shi, chair of oral biology at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Dentistry. According to Shi, most bad breath is produced by the types of bacteria that give off particularly smelly gasses, especially sulfates, to which most people seem especially averse. (For reference, the smell of sulfates reminds most of rotten eggs.)

Saliva is the body's natural way of rinsing these bacteria and their offending olfactory byproducts out of the mouth. That means that a dry mouth is a smelly mouth: Excessive talking or lecturing, mouth breathing, smoking or even some medicines can help kickstart bad breath, says Shi. But merely keeping your mouth moist won’t guarantee a fresh exhalation.

Unfortunately, all the weapons we use against these bacterial beasties—brushes, floss, mouthwash—can only mask their impact or temporarily keep them at bay. In other words, we may be doomed to the Sisyphean task of getting rid of these bacteria day after day, only to have them come back in the morning full force. As Shi puts it: “It’s a constant battle.”

“The problem with hygiene is that it's just a short-term solution that's never really going to generate a long-term effect,” he explains. “No matter how much you clean your mouth, by the time you wake up you have as many if not more bacteria in your mouth as before. … Using mouthwash, brushing, or scraping your tongue are a lot better than nothing but at most they just get rid of the surface layer and the bacteria are easily growing back.”

It's worth noting that not all bad breath is caused by bacteria. Some stenches have nothing to do with the mouth, but actually originate in the stomach; in rare cases, bad breathe can even suggest serious metabolic problems like liver disease, Eggert notes. "It's not purely dental and it's not purely oral,” he says. “There's a very significant component of individuals who have bad breath that has nothing to do with their mouth at all.” 

But when it comes to victory over bacteria-based bad breath, at least, Shi harbors hope. His vision doesn't include wiping out all the bacteria in our mouth, because many of them are valuable contributors to our oral ecosystems.

“The road map to an ultimate solution is clearly going to be more of an engineered community,” he says. “That means seeding more of the bacteria that don't generate odors, and targeting treatment to get rid of the ones that are causing the problem. It's like weeds growing in your grass: If you use a general herbicide, you damage your healthy lawn, and it's always the weeds that come back first. The solution is to create a healthy lawn and have all the different niches occupied so you don't give those weeds a chance to grow back.” 

Until that sweet-smelling day, try to keep some perspective. While socially repugnant, in most cases, occasional mouth-stink is generally harmless. So if you’re afflicted with less-than-rosy breath every now and then, remember: You’re not alone. Love isn't always eternal, but bad breath just might be.

In a Groundbreaking Exhibit at Mount Vernon, Slaves Speak and History Listens

Smithsonian Magazine

You are dining with the President. Frank Lee, standing tall in his red-and-white livery, takes your note of introduction in Mount Vernon’s entry hall. The enslaved butler chooses a spot for you to wait–either in the elegant, robin’s egg blue front parlor, or in the cozier “little parlor”–while he alerts George Washington and wife Martha to your arrival.

As the opal haze of a July afternoon rolls off the nearby Potomac River, Lee’s wife, Lucy, labors alongside another enslaved cook, Hercules, to ready dishes for the 3:30 p.m. dinner. Frank, with the aid of waiters Marcus and Christopher Sheels, serves your meal. Around 6 o’clock, they wheel out a silver hot-water urn, and you adjourn to the portico for coffee, tea and conversation with the first family.

Above, in a guestroom, enslaved housemaids, like seamstresses Caroline Branham and Charlotte, go about the last tasks of a day begun at dawn. They carry up fresh linens and refill water jugs. Mount Vernon’s enslaved grooms make a last check on the horses.

This was how English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe likely experienced his July 16, 1796 visit to Washington’s estate. During his stay, he sketched the grounds and the people with customary fervor. In Latrobe’s first draft of a painting of his day with President Washington, the silhouette of an enslaved man (possibly Frank Lee) was part of the picture. But in the finished watercolor, he is gone.

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a new exhibit at the Virginia estate, on view through 2018, brings Frank, Hercules, Lucy, and other slaves at Mount Vernon to the fore. It’s a project that has been many years in the making. “Our goal was to humanize people,” says Susan P. Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s Robert H. Smith Senior Curator. “We think of them as individual lives with human dignity.”

The exhibition centers on 19 of the 317 enslaved individuals who worked and lived at Mount Vernon during the Washingtons’ lifetime. Mining a rare cache of material culture, artwork, farm tools and plantation records, curators partnered with scholars and descendants of the enslaved to retell their shared past through the stuff of everyday life.

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. "Negroes belonging to George Washington in his own right and by marriage, July 1799." (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Gift of Ella Mackubin, 1953. Ambrotype of an enslaved man identified only as Tom (original image)

Image by Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904. Portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1798 (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Bequest of Helen W. Thompson, 1964. The East Front of Mount Vernon, by Edward Savage, 1787-1792 (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Portrait of Edmund Parker, wearing his uniform as guard at Washington's Tomb in the 1880s and 1890s. Mount Vernon superintendent Harrison Howell Dodge drew this portrait for his 1932 memoir. (original image)

Image by Gift of Annie Burr Jennings, Vice Regent for Connecticut, 1937. Washington’s Kitchen, Mount Vernon, by Eastman Johnson, 1864 (original image)

Image by Purchased with funds provided in part by an anonymous donor, 2013. View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza, July 16, 1796, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012. The Washington Family / La Famille Washington, after Edward Savage, 1798 (original image)

Image by Purchased with funds courtesy of an anonymous donor and the Mount Vernon Licensing Fund, 2009. The Old Mount Vernon, by Eastman Johnson, 1857 (original image)

Image by COPYRIGHT © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Portrait of George Washington's Cook, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1795–97 (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. “A map of General Washington's farm, of Mount Vernon from a drawing transmitted by the General,” Letters from His Excellency General Washington, to Arthur Young… (1801). (original image)

“I know that they are speaking again,” says descendant Judge Rohulamin Quander, a member of one of the oldest traceable African-American families in the United States. “Those voices were unsung up until 1799, and we don’t have any pictures or voice recordings of what they had to say. But they have reached out beyond the grave and said to each of us, we’re depending upon you. You have to do this for us.”

In his 1799 will, Washington included a slave census and a directive to emancipate his slaves. His decision to do so–which Martha promptly carried out–reflects the nearly seven decades the President spent thinking about slavery’s effects on farming and families. Boldly, Lives Bound Together raises a thorny set of questions: What sort of slave owner was Washington? How and why did his thoughts on slavery change?

Records show that George, a slave owner since age 11, brought fewer slaves to his 1759 marriage than Martha. Visitors to Mount Vernon left behind conflicting accounts of Washington’s treatment of his slaves. Whippings and hard labor were frequent forms of reprimand. Yet Washington depended on the enslaved population to take care of his family and secure plantation profits as he took on military and political duties. Often written far from home, some of Washington’s most fascinating correspondence was not with other “founders” but with his farm managersOn New Years’ Day 1789, for example, as the new federal government began to take real shape, Washington turned his attention to Mount Vernon’s needs. He wrote one overseer with clear instructions: 

“To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light—work ’till it is dark—and be diligent while they are at it can hardly be necessary, because the propriety of it must strike every manager who attends to my interest, or regards his own Character—and who on reflection, must be convinced that lost labour can never be regained—the presumption being, that, every labourer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow of.” 

Despite his mounting responsibilities on the national stage, Washington remained a shrewd businessman. He relied on slaves to keep his Virginia plantation running at a profit, says David Hoth, senior editor at The Papers of George Washington editorial project. “He was inclined to suspect his workers of malingering and petty theft, perhaps because he recognized that they probably saw slavery as an unnatural and unpleasant condition,” says Hoth. “He sold at least one runaway to the West Indies and threatened others.”

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The butler's pantry, referred to on the inventory of Mount Vernon taken after Washington's death as the "closet under Frank's direction." (original image)

Image by "Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860 Conservation courtesy of Harry and Erika Lister". Originally hung on the south end of the Mount Vernon Mansion, this bell rang to alert enslaved servants that they were needed for some task. (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Interior of the reconstructed greenhouse slave quarter at Mount Vernon (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Artifacts archaeologically excavated at the House for Families (original image)

Image by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The dining room at Mount Vernon (original image)

In private, the president came to support gradual abolition by legislative act and favored measures, like non-importation, that might hasten the change. He pursued Mount Vernon’s runaway slaves, albeit quietly, without using newspaper advertisements. By 1792-93, according to Hoth, George Washington began to mull the idea of emancipation.

“It’s important to tell the story of his views on slavery and how they evolved,” says Schoelwer. “He was in the position of trying to balance private concerns with his public commitment to the survival of the nation.” At the same time, he used legal loopholes to make sure his slaves were kept enslaved.

The Mount Vernon exhibit collects a diverse medley of African-American sagas that reconsider the 18th-century world’s understanding of slavery and freedom. Via short biographies, reinterpreted artifacts, and new archeological evidence from Mount Vernon’s slave cemetery, 19 lives emerge for new study. A new digital resource, an ever-evolving slavery database, allows visitors to search Mount Vernon’s enslaved community by name, skill or date range.

So far, the database has gathered information on 577 unique individuals who lived or worked at Mount Vernon up to 1799, and compiled details on the more than 900 enslaved individuals with whom George Washington interacted during his travels, according to Jessie MacLeod, associate curator at Mount Vernon. But though it shows a thriving plantation, the database also tells a different story. “You really get a sense for how often people are running away,” says MacLeod . “There are casual mentions in the weekly reports, of people being absent sometimes for 3 or 4 days. It’s not always clear whether they came back voluntarily or were captured. There’s no newspaper ad, but we do see an ongoing resistance in terms of absenteeism, and when they’re visiting family or friends in neighboring plantations.”

In the museum world, reinterpretation of slavery and freedom has gained new momentum. Mount Vernon’s “Lives Bound Together” exhibit reflects historic sites’ turn to focus on the experience of the enslaved, while exploring the paradox of liberty and slavery in daily life. In recent years, historians at Mount Vernon, along with those at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier, have rethought how to present those stories to the public through new signage, “slave life” walking tours, and open archeological digs. A series of scholarly conferences--sponsored by institutions like the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and many more--have been hosted at the former presidential homes.

Latrobe’s portrait of life at Mount Vernon may have initially included the slaves who made Washington’s estate hum, but the finished painting only tells part of that story, Lives Bound Together completes the picture by depicting the shared journey of the Washingtons and the enslaved. “We helped build this place and make it what it is. We helped make the president who he was,” says Shawn Costley, a descendant of Davy and Edy Jones, in the exhibit’s film. “We might not have had voting power and all that back then, but we made that man, we made George Washington, or added to or contributed to him being the prominent person that he is today.”

Opening on June 28, 2017: An exploration of the largest ideas and ideals in American history

National Museum of American History

As the museum's social media manager, I get to see many snapshots our visitors share on social media while they're here. Frequently appearing in photos is the statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough. Visitors often share their photos of the toga-wearing statue with a sense of awe—and occasionally they poke a bit of a fun at George. "Great abs on this guy!"

A stone statue of a seated George Washington in a classical style toga. He is bare to his lap and holds out a sword in a scabbard with his other hand raised, index finger aloft

When we open our new floor, centered on the theme "The Nation We Build Together," I think visitors will find something new in Washington's statue, positioned at the entrance to the new space. "This nation isn't going to build itself," Washington seems to hint, offering his sword to the viewer. "Better start working together on this!" What a monumental task and a fitting way to orient visitors as they enter the new wing.

I chatted with the museum's Elizabeth MacMillan Director John Gray to find out what excites him most as we prepare to open "The Nation We Build Together" on June 28, 2017.

One of the first things visitors see in the new wing will be a statue of George Washington, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. What will that Washington statue communicate to our visitors as the "landmark" or "gateway" object for that space?

George Washington's most extraordinary act, one of the most profound acts in our history, was to give power back to the people. That statue is a symbol of that action. The statue portrays Washington extending his arm and offering back his sword—which represents power—to the nation. As visitors enter the second floor and see into "The Nation We Build Together," that giant statue prepares them for the experience of the whole floor.

The museum's new floor unites several different exhibitions under the unified theme of "The Nation We Build Together." Can you talk about what that theme means to you?

We really want our visitors to have the opportunity to explore the largest ideals and ideas in America. And the name, "The Nation We Build Together," says we are a people and a nation that works collectively through our democracy to forge our nation. This is an ongoing and complicated process—but we are always working toward our national motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). It is so important that, as Americans, we view ourselves as part of the body of America, working together, being together, and building this nation together.

On a deep blue background with grids like technical drawing paper, An eagle on a pair of prongs, the Statue of Liberty, and an old bell are drawn in white with their names and years written beside them.

We know "The Nation We Build Together" has been in development for many years. But why is that theme an important one to explore in 2017?

"The Nation We Build Together" is an important theme that resonates across our history, one that's fundamental to understanding America, ourselves, and the larger political process—not limited to party politics, but how we learn, make, and determine how we are governed together.

That said, there's never a better time than the present to understand America. Every election turns out to be different than some people expected. That was true last year, four years ago, four years before that, all the way back to our founding—it's the nature of democracy as we practice it in America! Our new exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith will help our visitors understand and contextualize the inherent changes we see over time in America. It's both reassuring and inspirational.

What are we trying to inspire visitors to think or do differently after visiting "The Nation We Build Together"?

The whole floor is about inspiring engagement—understanding that you are part of the process in a bigger way. Many Voices, One Nation inspires all of us to participate in building American communities—really build them! American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith reminds all of us that we must play an active role in our democracy to keep our nation vital and responsive. And Religion in Early America helps us understand the historical underpinnings of how we practice and celebrate the diversity of religious experience in America.

A lobby with glass cases of objects and a stairway. The ceiling is a lurid red. In the center is a lego statue resembling the statue of liberty, resting on a large rectangular display with short glass walls surrounding it that have signage on it.

A large Statue of Liberty made of LEGO bricks has appeared in our Constitution Avenue lobby. Can you talk about why Lady Liberty is an important image in the museum right now and what that means to you?

Look at the icons that we've taken from American history and championed. We have the Star-Spangled Banner on display here at the center of the building—and we also have President Lincoln's hat. Each one helps us recognize something we know about or identify within American history—and Lady Liberty is one of those powerful symbols. The image of the Statue of Liberty is inspiring to so many of us. She embodies all of the complicated ideas that form our American history and drive our nation's future.

We try to always have a major object in the museum's Constitution Ave. lobby to send a message about what is happening in the rest of the building and that's what the Statue of Liberty does for us. For many visitors, she's a great photo opportunity and we've seen lots of selfies snapped there. But it's also a spot where people stop to discuss: What does that symbol mean to you? That is an essential discussion we want to see happening in our museum.

An illustrated model of what a portion of a museum exhibition will look like, centered around a lunch counter with four seats. There are images and signs in and outside a low glass wall.

Before we get into specific exhibitions, is there a favorite spot in "The Nation We Build Together" that you want to call out in particular for our visitors?

Well I love that we're going to display Thomas Jefferson's desk and a church bell made by Paul Revere. But I'm also very excited about how we've re-positioned the Greensboro lunch counter in Unity Square. We've given it its own powerful and poignant installation where it will be the center for programs that get visitors talking about America's freedoms both in real life and symbolically. It's called American Experiments and it's going to be a great way to explore, through civic discourse, how we constantly pursue and ensure our freedoms.

The skeleton of a house in a large room. There are railings with signs and dioramas.

Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith is one of the exhibitions opening in the Linda and Pete Claussen Hall of American Democracy. What do you hope our visitors take away from that exhibition? Do we want to inspire them to be more civically engaged?

Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith is incredibly engaging, moving, and a real enticement to act. It's about political history, which is one of our most important collections, but the ultimate emotional impact is that visitors will want to be more engaged in the civic life of our country—both because it's necessary to protect our freedoms but also, in America, it's essential and invigorating to participate in our democracy. You'll see public engagement over time in this exhibition.

Don't forget to look up in that exhibition, too! You'll spot a media installation showing the cacophony of political advertisements that surround Americans, featuring ads from the 1950s to the present day. The installation, which the staff has nicknamed "the cloud," features 81 separate video screens showing American political commercials—powerful, funny, sad, positive, negative—and representing the ways in which we learn who we want to vote for and who we don't want to vote for. It's both fascinating and fun to see the complicated ways in which we make our case to the people.

In recent years, national politics have become a (seemingly) non-stop source of news in the United States. How will the museum's new exhibitions cut through the noise? What will they add to our national conversation?

Politics is often perceived as noise. That's one of the things it's about. But when you get beyond the proverbial "noise" you can explore the ways we express our ideas and beliefs over time. So it's very important to see this constant activity—that's part of what democracy is about. Our exhibition shows how those ideas continue—freedom, who can vote, how people participate—and we believe that every American wants to participate and has the obligation to participate in a democracy that preserves their life, freedom, and opportunities.

A green short sleeved jersey. It has the team name and a Nike symbol on it in white.

Many Voices, One Nation explores the emblem on our country's Great Seal: E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One. Do you have a favorite object or story in that exhibition?

The "Fugees" soccer team story is one of my favorite vignettes in that exhibition! It's about how people came to America with their own traditions and, when they got here, they broadened those traditions, adopting and adapting them. That case is about soccer, sports, school—all these places where people intersect on the playing field and in communities. That's one of my favorite contemporary stories.

As far as a story from further back in time that I love, don't miss the Peter Glass marquetry table. First of all, it's visually striking. Second, it tells a story of isolation, integration, American symbolism, all wrapped up in the story of German immigrants to America.

In Many Voices, One Nation, we investigate the interactions and intersections of different people and the ways in which we have negotiated and worked through differences and challenges to achieve something more than the sum of its parts. Why is it important to study these negotiations and more challenging moments in our shared history?

One of the most exciting ideas in Many Voices, One Nation is that Americans have negotiated with each other for better lives, for a place in the country, for their lifestyles, in ways that have benefited them and, importantly, have benefited America. People from all around the world have come to America, including people who were already here and people who were brought here, and come together over time—sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord—to create the America we know and we love. Understanding that process is both reassuring and instructive for our future.

The museum's second floor will focus on some of the most discussed issues in America today—politics, religion, migration, and immigration, for example. What is the role of history museums within these big debates?

One thing that's really wonderful about understanding American history is that the hot issues of today were the hot issues of yesterday and the day before. That is a very important notion regarding the dynamic nature of American history. Your National Museum should always be involved in topics that are relevant to people today as well as to those who came before us. Our goal and our deep hope is that we will provide more context to understand the issues to bring us together.

A gray bonnet. with ribbons

What's happening on opening day, Wednesday, June 28, 2017?

It's going to be a fun day! Opening day for "The Nation We Build Together" will feature live music, wandering Statue of Liberty characters, a fun LEGO make-and-take activity, and a performance at our Greensboro lunch counter in Unity Square. I'm excited to hear jazz, a conjunto ensemble, and blues in our museum that day as we celebrate the opening. Let's cut some ribbons!

Erin Blasco is the museum's blog and social media manager in the Department of Programs and Audience Development.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - 08:00
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Combat Photographer: Vietnam through the lens of Marine Corporal William T. Perkins, Jr.

National Museum of American History

The Vietnam War was the nation's first televised war. Within hours, combat footage of young Americans in uniform in the jungles of South Vietnam could be seen in living rooms across the country. Among those capturing the footage was Corporal William T. Perkins Jr., a 20-year-old Marine deployed to Vietnam as a combat photographer.

Armed with a Bell and Howell 16mm motion picture camera and his personal 35mm still camera, Perkins documented the actions of his fellow Marines as they supported and defended the South Vietnamese people against the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. For his heroism in protecting those Marines, Perkins became the only combat photographer ever honored as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

On a boat with waves in the background, a young man with blonde hair holds a video camera to his face. He wears a military vest and pants with bare arms. In front of him--the subject he is filming--is a gun or other military equipment on the boat. An operator's forearm is visible holding/manipulating the gun or equipment.

Born on August 10, 1947, Perkins grew up hearing rich stories of his family's military service in the Civil War and World War II. After Perkins expressed an interest in photography, his father bought him a Kodak camera that he used to learn about the hobby while a member of his high school photography club. After graduation, in 1965, Perkins enrolled at Los Angeles Pierce College to study photography. Restless and patriotic, the following year Perkins enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Black and white portrait of a young man wearing a military uniform with a white hat. He has a smile, square chin, young face, and attractive eyes.

During boot camp, Perkins expressed a desire to be a Marine photographer. After receiving this assignment, to his chagrin, he found the work as a still photographer at Marine Corps Supply Center, Barstow, California, dull and unfulfilling. "All I do is take photos of the general in parades," he told his family, as his father recalled years later.

That fall, Perkins requested assignment to the U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to receive training in motion picture photography. His headquarters agreed, but with a caveat: Perkins could attend the school, but his follow-on assignment would likely include service in the Republic of Vietnam. Undeterred, Perkins headed east and eagerly immersed himself in the art. "I can't believe how lucky I am to be doing exactly what [I want] to be doing," he wrote home to his family.

Two photos. A young man with short blonde hair is indoors operating a film video camera. He wears a uniform. He looks into the viewfinder in one image and adjusts a setting in the second image.

On July 17, 1967, Perkins arrived in the Republic of Vietnam. The following day in Phu Bai, the Marines assigned Perkins as a photographer with Service Company, Headquarters Battalion, 3d Marine Division (Reinforced), and issued him a Bell and Howell 16mm Filmo motion picture camera and a .45 automatic pistol. The Bell and Howell proved Perkins's primary weapon in the field, supplemented with his personal 35mm still camera. Almost weekly, Perkins mailed his family rolls of his film, taken throughout the Marine bases in the northern provinces of South Vietnam.

Below are examples of photographs Perkins took during his travels in and around the northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam in August and September 1967, paired with words he wrote home in letters to his family.

Two photographs of military equipment. The first has a background with trees and mountains. The second has a background seen from a helicopter--a rocky, green, mountainous landscape.

Three children (probably boys), who are barefoot, stand in front of a building with a hut-style thatched roof. The entry way in front of them is made of wood. A garden on both sides of the boys.

Photo taken on the water, a calm river. Thre small canoe-style boats in the water around one much larger boat with wide netting around it held up by wooden poles. About 12 people total in the boats.

On October 11, Perkins joined the men of Charlie Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment, for Operation Medina. The operation intended to find, fix, and destroy enemy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in the Hai Lang National Forest. The following day, NVA forces ambushed the Marines in a shower of grenades and bullets. As the ambush intensified, other Marines established a defensive perimeter where they cleared fields of fire and prepared a landing zone to fly out the 11 wounded and one killed and bring in reinforcements. Medevac helicopters arrived that afternoon and Perkins filmed the entire operation.

Just as the last helicopter flew off from the clearing in the dusk's fading light, all hell broke loose. Three NVA companies assaulted Charlie Company on two sides. Enemy blast and fragmentation grenades rained down upon the Marines from NVA soldiers who tied themselves high up in the trees on the perimeter edge. Green tracers of the enemy weapons slashed across the American lines as friendly red tracers answered back, the roar of battle punctuated by screams of the wounded. Enveloped by darkness, Perkins took up a position by a log on the edge of the landing zone perimeter together with Marine Corporal Fred Boxill and Lance Corporals Michael Cole and Dennis Antal.

Black and white photo taken from a low position on the plant-covered ground. Military personnel huddle around the opening of a helicopter with blades spinning, loading someone in. Behind them, a young man in uniform is filming or photographing the scene.

Enemy fire was relentless. Suddenly, an enemy grenade appeared in the air, silhouetted against the flash of another explosion. Antal saw the grenade falling, as did Perkins. Propping himself up on his arms, his Bell and Howell still strapped to his chest, Perkins cried out "incoming grenade" as the explosive landed behind the log, three feet from the huddled Marines. Perkins dove at the grenade, kicking Antal in the process, and tucked it securely beneath his chest. The grenade exploded, the blast lifting Antal in the air as shrapnel wounded both him and Boxill.

As a fellow Marine treated the two wounded men, a navy corpsman arrived to check on Perkins. When Antal asked, "Is he all right?" the corpsman shook his head. As dawn broke on October 13, 1967, eight Marines—including Perkins—lay dead, 39 men were wounded, and 40 enemy lay dead scattered in and around the landing zone perimeter.

Photograph of a film camera. Viewfinder and film reel are visible. It appears to be worn and hard-used, perhaps slightly destroyed in some areas.

In a private ceremony at the White House on June 20, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon presented Corporal Perkins's posthumously awarded Medal of Honor to his parents, William and Marilane Perkins. The citation accompanying the decoration proclaimed how Perkins,

in a valiant act of heroism, hurled himself upon the grenade absorbing the impact of the explosion with his own body, thereby saving the lives of his comrades at the cost of his own. Through his exceptional courage and inspiring valor in the face of certain death, Corporal Perkins reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country. 

Black and white posed photo taken outside the White House. A woman holds a Medal of Honor in a frame. She wears white and stands beside a man in a suit. Around then, President Nixon and others.

Citation for Medal of Honor. Gold text, blue ribbon image. Text: " a valiant act of heroism, hurled himself upon the grenade absorbing the impact of the explosion with his own body, thereby saving the lives of his comrades at the cost of his own. Through his exceptional courage and inspiring valor in the face of certain death, Corporal Perkins reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country."

Fifty years after his heroic deed, Perkins's actions are not forgotten. In the Medal of Honor section of the museum's exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, visitors will be able to view Perkins's posthumously awarded Medal of Honor and Purple Heart beginning in early November 2017. These decorations accompany Perkins's Bell and Howell camera, bearing the scars of an enemy grenade and dirt from the Hai Lang Forest. The camera is on loan to us from the National Museum of the Marine Corps; this display is the first time the camera and Medal of Honor have ever been presented together. They'll be on display here for at least a year. Perkins's films from his time in Vietnam remain preserved for viewing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. His footage captures the faces and actions of his fellow Marines, images preserved by a selfless young man whose love of country and photography made him a national hero.

Young man with no shirt on military boat on a river or ocean. He holds a pop can. Two plates of food in front of him.

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 07:00
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Where Are They Now?

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist, with contributions from Emma Wolman, Susan Eldridge, Carrie Tallichet Smith, Robin Camille Davis, Killian Escobedo, Julianna M. Barrera-Gomez, and Greg Palumbo

Every summer, and sometimes fall, the Archives welcomes interns who are interested in getting some hands-on experience in an archival environment. The Digital Services Division wanted to catch up with some of its former interns to see what they are up to now.

Emma Wolman interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2009. Photo courtesy of Emma Wolman.Emma Wolman

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2009
  • Project/Focus: Digital Preservation (migration of digital files, inventory of assets, digitization of analog materials and metadata entry, and development of digitization methodology)
  • Favorite Memory: It was really exciting and enriching to get to use what I learned in the classroom in a real archival institution. I especially enjoyed getting to work with historic primary sources.
  • What are You Doing Now?: I am the Digital Assets Manager for the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon, since 2010. I create, migrate, preserve, and catalog digital assets and am part of a team working hard to increase access to art digitally.
  • Blog Post: To Market, To Market, The Bigger Picture blog

Susan Eldridge 

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2010 while I was getting my masters from the University of Michigan, School of Information. 
  • Project/Focus: Conversion of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recordings of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra from the 1990s. The recordings had to be converted in real time, which meant I got to enjoy jazz concerts nearly eight hours a day. However, if something went wrong, I had to start the conversion of that tape all over, which meant I had to be careful to avoid software/hardware disruptions and crashes - more delicate work than it seems! In addition to the conversions, I also prepared a report on the format and the best practices of converting DAT recordings. My internship at the Archives is one of my fondest memories of grad school. I immensely enjoyed getting to know the staff, volunteers, and other interns at the Archives, as well as all the exciting projects they were working on. Those three months went by much too quickly! 
  • Favorite Memory: Beyond the archives, I loved experiencing Washington, D.C., in the summertime. Having Fridays off allowed me to explore many, but sadly not all, of the museums and sights in the area. One of my favorites was the National Museum of American History and its dresses of the First Ladies exhibit. I also was able to take in a game at the Nationals' ballpark (the Giants won . . . and would later go on to win the World Series that year!), and watch the fireworks from the Lincoln Memorial on July 4th. Yes, it was hot, muggy, and very crowded, but it was all well worth it.
  • What are You Doing Now?: Currently I am an instructional designer at San Francisco State University. I work with faculty to (re)design and improve their courses, whether they are face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. I also help instructors incorporate instructional technology into their courses in order to ensure every student gets the most out of the course, and hopefully help the instructors use their time more efficiently. Though not an archive or museum, working in academic technology allows me to be at the heart of a university, solve interesting problems, and work to make the higher education experience better for all.
  • Blog Post: Swingin' and Swayin' in the Archives, The Bigger Picture blog

Carrie Tallichet Smith interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives from 2010-2011. She participated in the Smithsonian Human Sunburst photo during the staff picnic, by Dane Penland.Carrie Tallichet Smith

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: June 2010 - February 2011.
  • Project/Focus: I participated in a wide variety of projects, many of which involved digitizing analog materials, recording metadata, and performing quality control. I worked with digitizing and collecting metadata for a large quantity of photographs. I also contributed to a project to convert DATs to WAV format and fulfilled some researcher requests requiring audio-video migration. Lastly, I researched and prepared training materials for embedding IPTC metadata  into digitized images. This involved merging metadata stored in a Microsoft Access database with the corresponding images. 
  • Favorite Memory: I have two. The first would be the weekly ritual of doing the crossword with Ricc Ferrante and Peter Finkel over lunch. The second would be forming the Smithsonian Human Sunburst during the staff picnic. See the picture with the arrow pointing to me. 
  • What are You Doing Now?: As of November 2013, I am an Archivist in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Special Access unit of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Previously, I was a Reference Archivist in NARA's Electronic Records Division. 

Robin Camille Davis interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2011. Photo courtesy of Robin Camille Davis.Robin Camille Davis

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2011 as web preservation intern.
  • Project/Focus: I set up the initial web preservation workflow for Smithsonian-created web content. In two months, we captured more than 680,000 pieces of content, ready to be appraised and preserved. 
  • Favorite Memory: My favorite place in DC is the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. After work on Fridays, some of the other interns and I would go there to listen to live jazz and eat salty chocolate cookies from Teaism. 
  • What are You Doing Now?: I am the Emerging Technologies & Distance Services Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. I love my job - I explore how new technologies can facilitate knowledge discovery and creation in an academic library. By night, I'm also a graduate student in Computational Linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center, studying natural language processing.
  • Anything Else to Add: Doing real work in the Archives was such a blast - what I learned hands-on at the Archives, I use every day in my job! 
  • Blog Posts: Five Tips for Designing Preservable Websites and Saving the Smithsonian's Web, The Bigger Picture blog

Killian Escobedo

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2011 
  • Project/Focus: Assessment and preservation recommendations for digital video accessioned at SIA.
  • Favorite Memory: Crossword puzzle lunches. It's amazing how quickly a group of archivists can solve a crossword puzzle. A close second were daily, rooftop lunches overlooking DC. Tied for second was riding my bike over a closed-to-traffic Arlington bridge after 4th of July fireworks on the Mall. 
  • What are You Doing Now?: I'm an interaction designer in San Francisco at Practice Fusion, which is a free, web-based electronic health records (EHR) platform for ambulatory care. I get to design the user interface for a records management solution that holds more than 80 million patient records. 
  • Blog Posts: Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs and Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog

Julianna M. Barrera-Gomez

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: I interned at the Archives in the summer of 2011, as part of an IMLS-funded project from the University Of Michigan, School Of Information that linked aspiring archivists with host institutions for internships. 
  • Project/Focus: I got to work with Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig and Ricc Ferrante in the Digital Services Division, where I learned how to process digital material that came in with various accessions. 
  • Favorite Memory: I was absorbed in processing the born-digital collections of Dr. Devra Kleiman, a research scientist at the National Zoological Park. It really made me think about the issues involved in accessioning born-digital collections, the dangers of obsolescence, the importance of metadata (and how it can be missing, lost, or changed) and the impact archival processing can have on users who may need to make sense of her data. Processing this collection really sparked my interest in research and academic records, which was a major driver in my future career decisions.
  • What are You Doing Now?: I am the University Archivist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, busily accessioning, processing, describing, curating, and facilitating access to our many collections, which are in nearly every format imaginable.
  • Anything Else to Add?: I felt like I'd landed the Most Amazing Internship Ever while I worked at the Archives. I still can’t believe how beneficial it was for me to get the chance to process digital collections, and even take charge of a collection I could explore in-depth. But working at the Archives did more than build my archival skills.  All of the archivists, volunteers, and other staff at the Archives were generous with their time and shared their skills and knowledge freely. It was an excellent place to learn.
  • Blog Post:Passwords and Paper Printouts: Preserving the Electronic Records of the Devra Kleiman Papers, The Bigger Picture blog

Greg Palumbo interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2011. Photo courtesy of Greg Palumbo.Greg Palumbo 

  • Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Fall 2011
  • Project/Focus: CAD (Computer Assisted Design) archiving and preservation research of Smithsonian architectural plans.
  • Favorite Memory: My favorite part of interning at the Archives was getting to work with records from around the entire Institution. On a day-to-day basis I was able to work with a wide variety of materials from a number of different and interesting disciplines. I also enjoyed being able to take part in collaborative efforts with other organizations and institutions around the country, and the world, as we continued to develop strategies and methodologies for archiving born-digital materials. 
  • What are You Doing Now?: I now work as a contractor for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. As part of the Office of Curatorial Affairs, I manage our digital assets, including audio, video, and still images, as well as oversee our rights and reproductions efforts.
  • Blog Post: Digital Dilemma: Preserving Computer Aided Design (CAD) Files, The Bigger Picture blog

The Smithsonian Institution has many internship opportunities. Learn more from the Office of Fellowships & Internships.

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Arctic Shipping: Good For Invasive Species, Bad For the Rest of Nature

Smithsonian Magazine

On September 27, 2013, the Nordic Orion, a commercial bulk carrier owned by the Copenhagen-based shipping company Nordic Bulk Carriers, became the first bulk carrier to cross the Northwest Passage—a route that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans above Canada—arriving off the coast of Greenland after departing from Vancouver, B.C. ten days earlier. The ship was loaded with British Columbian coal, and was able to haul 25 percent more than it could have carried if it had been forced to take the Panama Canal, where ships have to sail higher in the water and carry less. The route, which snaked through Canada's Arctic waters, saved the shipping company nearly four days and $200,000 by the time the ship reached its final destination in the Finnish port of Pori. This shortcut wouldn't have been possible decades ago, but because of a reduction in Arctic sea-ice coverage in recent years, ships are now able to navigate more northerly passages, both through Canada's icy waters, and in Russia and Norway's northern seas. But cargo isn't the only thing that they're transporting: some marine biologists worry that ships carting cargo through the Arctic's newly opened waterways are introducing invasive species to the area—and bringing invasive species to some of America's most important ports.

Why is Arctic shipping suddenly a big deal?

For centuries, explorers have been searching for a Northwest Passage—a route connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic; the search for the Northwest Passage was the entire basis for Lewis and Clark's famed expedition. And they weren't the first, or the last, to go looking for it. As it turns out, these expeditions were just a bit early: rising global temperatures have caused Arctic waters to warm, decreasing the amount of ice cover. In the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on Earth. Over that same 30-year period, according to satellite images, Arctic ice cover has declined by 30 percent in September, the month that marks the end of the summer melt season. Arctic ice loss is a problem for global warming, because it creates a kind of warming feedback loop—less ice means more dark water exposed, which means more sunlight absorbed by the water, which in turn leads to more warming.

What Arctic melting isn't bad news for, however, is the shipping industry, where 90 percent of all goods are moved via carriers. Until recently, ships that wanted to travel between oceans had two primary paths—the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, both located in warm, tropical latitudes. As warming Arctic waters open up a northern route for shipping, the routes turn out to be more appealing for a few reasons. First, they're shorter, shaving valuable days off of traditional shipping routes. This means faster turn around for ships, and less fuel, all of which translate into big savings for the industry. Container ships that go through Arctic waters also aren't subject to cargo limits imposed for certain routes, like the Panama canal. Finally, ships passing through the isolated Arctic don't need to worry as much about piracy, adding a level of economic security.

An increasing number of ships have been using this new northern network of shipping passages in the past years. In 2013, 71 ships transited the Northern Sea Route, a route that crosses the Arctic Sea along Russia's northern coast. In 2012, the year of the lowest recorded Arctic sea ice coverage, 46 ships made the same crossing. In 2011, that number was 34. Contrast that to 2010, when just four ships made the journey. Nearly 19,000 ships cross the Suez Canal each year. So the number of ships crossing through Arctic waters is likely going to increase: a 2013 study published in PNAS argued that due to global warming and Arctic ice loss, by 2050 even ships not equipped with ice-breaking hulls will be able to navigate Arctic shipping routes.

So are people just using the Arctic for shipping?

Shipping routes through the Arctic are appealing to shipping companies, but that's not the only reason the Arctic might see more traffic in the coming years: melting sea ice has revealed natural resources ready to be exploited for profit.

"A lot of those [natural resources] are submarine, and as the surface ice dissipates, ships can get in there and explore and drill," explains Whitman Miller, a research scientist and assistant director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's Marine Invasions Research Lab, who along with his collegue Gregory Ruiz wrote a commentary about invasive species and the Arctic published in Nature Climate Change. "There’s also mining. Greenland, for example, as its ice is melting, is opening up some of the land for mining of rare earth metals, which are really important for a lot of consumer electronics." So, as Arctic ice melts, there will be two types of traffic plying these waters: a kind that uses the Arctic as a thoroughfare between Pacific and Atlantic ports, and a kind that uses the Arctic as a destination for obtaining natural resources. "All of these things mean invasive species—organisms are going to be moving with these ships," warns Miller.

Why will Arctic shipping increase the threat of invasive species? Aren't they transported via traditional shipping routes, too?

Yes, shipping containers and bulk carriers do currently contribute to the spread of invasive species—it's something that has been irking marine biologists for a long time. Bulk carriers (and ships generally) have things called ballast tanks, which are compartments that hold water, in order to weigh a ship down and lower its center of gravity, providing stability. Ships take in water from one location and discharge it in another, contributing to concerns about invasive species. The zebra mussel, an invasive species that has colonized the Great Lakes and caused billions of dollars of economic damage, is believed to have been introduced from the ballast tank of ships coming from Western European ports. Shipping is already the primary way that invasive marine species become introduced—contributing to 69 percent of species introductions to marine areas.

But Miller and Ruiz worry that Arctic shipping—both through the Arctic and from the Arctic—could make this statistic even worse. 

A cargo ship releases ballast water from its hull into the ocean. Microscopic organisms often thrive in ballast water, and when ships release the water in new ports, the new species can start an invasion. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

"What’s happening now is that ships move between oceans by going through Panama or Suez, but that means ships from higher latitudes have to divert south into tropical and subtropical waters, so if you are a cold water species, you’re not likely to do well in those warm waters," Miller explains. "That could currently be working as a filter, minimizing the high latitude species that are moving from one ocean to another."

Moreover, the Panama Canal is a freshwater canal, so organisms clinging to the hulls of ships passing through have to undergo osmotic shock as saltwater becomes freshwater and back again. A lot of organisms, Miller explains, can't survive that.

These new cold water routes don't have the advantage of temperature or salinity filters the way traditional shipping routes do. That means that species adapted to live in cold waters in the Arctic could potentially survive in the cool waters in northern port cities in New York and New Jersey, which facilitated the maritime transport of nearly $250 billion worth of goods in 2008. And because routes through the Arctic are much shorter than traditional shipping routes, invasive animals like crabs, barnacles and mussels are more likely to survive the short transit distance riding along inside the ballast tanks and clinging to the hulls.

Ok, but the Arctic is pretty far from where I live. Why does this matter?

Invasive species are always cause for apprehension—a Pandora's Box, because no one really knows how they'll impact a particular ecosystem until it's too late. In an interview with Scientific American in March of 2013, climate scientist Jessica Hellmann, of the University of Notre Dame, put it this way: "Invasive species are one of those things that once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to put her back in." There aren't many invasive species from the Arctic that are known, but one that is, the red king crab, has already wreaked havoc on Norway's waters; a ferocious predator, the red king crab hasn't had much trouble asserting near total dominance over species unfamiliar with it. "You never know when the next red king crab is going to be in your ballast tank," Miller warns.

Invasive species pose two dangers, one ecological, the other economic. From an ecological standpoint, invasive species threaten to disrupt systems that have evolved and adapted to live together over millions of years. "You could have a real breakdown in terms of [the ecosystems] structure and their function, and in some cases, the diversity and abundance of native species," Miller explains.

But invasive species do more than threaten the ecology of the Arctic—they can threaten the global economy. Many invasive species, like mussels, can damage infrastructure, such as cooling and water pipes. Seaports are vital to both the United States and the global economy—ports in the Western hemisphere handle 7.8 billion tons of cargo each year and generate nearly $8.6 trillion of total economic activity, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. If an invasive species is allowed to gain a foothold in a port, it could completely disrupt the economic output of that port. The green crab, an invasive species from Europe, for example, has been introduced to New England coasts and feasts on native oysters and crabs, accounting for nearly $44 million a year in economic losses. If invasive species are able to disrupt the infrastructure of an American port—from pipes to boats—it could mean damages for the American economy. In recent years, due to fracking technology, the United States has gone from being an importer of fuel to an exporter, which means that American ports will be hosting more foreign ships in the coming years—and that means more potential for invasive species to be dispersed.

Invasive species brought into the Arctic could also disrupt ecosystems, especially because the Arctic has had low exposure to invasions until now. Potential invasive species could threaten the Arctic's growing economic infrastructure as well, damaging equipment set up to look for natural gas and other natural resources in the newly-exposed Arctic waters.

As Arctic sea ice melts, new sea routes are connecting the Atlantic and the Northern Pacific Oceans for the first time in two million years. (Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)

Is there anything that can be done to minimize these risks?

Obviously one big picture way to stop the spread of invasive species in and around the Arctic is to slow the rate at which the Arctic ice is melting—that means slowing, and decreasing, the rate at which we emit common air pollutants like soot and smog, as well as seriously curbing our carbon emissions over the long-haul.

Realistically, implementing these measures will take serious political and individual action—and in the short term, as long as Arctic ice is melting and allowing ships to pass through, shipping companies will look to those Arctic routes as a way of saving time and money. That means that steps need to be taken more immediately to minimize the possibility of invasive species spreading to and from the Arctic. 

One step, Miller explains, could be a wider-implementation of open water ballast exchange, which has been mandatory in the United States for the past ten years. Open water ballast exchange is when a ship replaces ballast water from coastal areas with water from the open ocean. Invasive species tend to be exchanged between one coastal water region and another (such as ports), but they are not likely to survive in deep water ecosystems. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is also looking into creating standards for the total amount of organisms a ship can discharge in its ballast water, sort of like current standards with smokestacks and pollution—if a ship's ballast water exceeds whatever limit is imposed, they must treat that water before releasing it. Currently, no standards or onboard treating systems exist, but it's an attractive option because it would create global standards for ballast water treatment.

Hulls are a more complex problem, Miller explains, but proper hull maintenance could help minimize the threat of things like barnacles or mussels making it to foreign ports. Hull husbandry is also important economically for ships, because it lessens drag through the water, leading to greater fuel efficiency.

As long as the Arctic continues to grow—via shipping, infrastructure and even tourism—Miller and Ruiz argue that it's in the world's best interest to give serious thought to limiting the spread of invasive species. "I think, probably more important than trying to pinpoint individual species, is the notion that there’s going to be such a mixing of the biota in a way that’s never occurred before," Miller notes. "That’s something that we need to give thought to."

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Earth’s Past Climates

Smithsonian Magazine

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson considers the Western sagebrush. “For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it,” she writes. “It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.” She is lamenting the disappearance of a threatened landscape, but she may just as well be talking about markers of paleoclimate.

To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. That’s particularly true for climate scientists, who need to understand the full range of the planet’s shifts in order to chart the course of our future. But without a time machine, how do they get this kind of data?

Like Carson, they have to read the pages of the Earth. Fortunately, the Earth has kept diaries. Anything that puts down yearly layers—ocean corals, cave stalagmites, long-lived trees, tiny shelled sea creatures—faithfully records the conditions of the past. To go further, scientists dredge sediment cores and ice cores from the bottom of the ocean and the icy poles, which write their own memoirs in bursts of ash and dust and bubbles of long-trapped gas.

In a sense, then, we do have time machines: Each of these proxies tells a slightly different story, which scientists can weave together to form a more complete understanding of Earth’s past.

In March, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History held a three-day Earth’s Temperature History Symposium that brought teachers, journalists, researchers and the public together to enhance their understanding of paleoclimate. During an evening lecture, Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Richard Alley, a world-famous geologist at Pennsylvania State University, explained how scientists use Earth’s past climates to improve the climate models we use to predict our future.

Here is your guide to Earth’s climate pasts—not just what we know, but how we know it.

How do we look into Earth’s past climate?

It takes a little creativity to reconstruct Earth’s past incarnations. Fortunately, scientists know the main natural factors that shape climate. They include volcanic eruptions whose ash blocks the sun, changes in Earth’s orbit that shift sunlight to different latitudes, circulation of oceans and sea ice, the layout of the continents, the size of the ozone hole, blasts of cosmic rays, and deforestation. Of these, the most important are greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat, particularly carbon dioxide and methane.

As Carson noted, Earth records these changes in its landscapes: in geologic layers, fossil trees, fossil shells, even crystallized rat pee—basically anything really old that gets preserved. Scientists can open up these diary pages and ask them what was going on at that time. Tree rings are particularly diligent record-keepers, recording rainfall in their annual rings; ice cores can keep exquisitely detailed accounts of seasonal conditions going back nearly a million years.

Ice cores reveal annual layers of snowfall, volcanic ash and even remnants of long-dead civilizations. (NASA's Goddard / Ludovic Brucker)

What else can an ice core tell us?

“Wow, there’s so much,” says Alley, who spent five field seasons coring ice from the Greenland ice sheet. Consider what an ice core actually is: a cross-section of layers of snowfall going back millennia.

When snow blankets the ground, it contains small air spaces filled with atmospheric gases. At the poles, older layers become buried and compressed into ice, turning these spaces into bubbles of past air, as researchers Caitlin Keating-Bitonti and Lucy Chang write in Scientists use the chemical composition of the ice itself (the ratio of the heavy and light isotopes of oxygen in H2O) to estimate temperature. In Greenland and Antarctica, scientists like Alley extract inconceivably long ice cores—some more than two miles long!

Ice cores tell us how much snow fell during a particular year. But they also reveal dust, sea salt, ash from faraway volcanic explosions, even the pollution left by Roman plumbing. “If it’s in the air it’s in the ice,” says Alley. In the best cases, we can date ice cores to their exact season and year, counting up their annual layers like tree rings. And ice cores preserve these exquisite details going back hundreds of thousands of years, making them what Alley calls “the gold standard” of paleoclimate proxies.

Wait, but isn’t Earth’s history much longer than that?

Yes, that’s right. Paleoclimate scientists need to go back millions of years—and for that we need things even older than ice cores. Fortunately, life has a long record. The fossil record of complex life reaches back to somewhere around 600 million years. That means we have definite proxies for changes in climate going back approximately that far. One of the most important is the teeth of conodonts—extinct, eel-like creatures—which go back 520 million years.

But some of the most common climate proxies at this timescale are even more miniscule. Foraminifera (known as “forams”) and diatoms are unicellular beings that tend to live on the ocean seafloor, and are often no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Because they are scattered all across the Earth and have been around since the Jurassic, they’ve left a robust fossil record for scientists to probe past temperatures. Using oxygen isotopes in their shells, we can reconstruct ocean temperatures going back more than 100 million years ago.

“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth,” Carson once wrote. Those stories, it turns out, are also hiding in the waters that created those beaches, and in creatures smaller than a grain of sand.

Foraminifera. (Ernst Haeckel)

How much certainty do we have for deep past?

For paleoclimate scientists, life is crucial: if you have indicators of life on Earth, you can interpret temperature based on the distribution of organisms.

But when we’ve gone back so far that there are no longer even any conodont teeth, we’ve lost our main indicator. Past that we have to rely on the distribution of sediments, and markers of past glaciers, which we can extrapolate out to roughly indicate climate patterns. So the further back we go, the fewer proxies we have, and the less granular our understanding becomes. “It just gets foggier and foggier,” says Brian Huber, a Smithsonian paleobiologist who helped organize the symposium along with fellow paleobiologist research scientist and curator Scott Wing.

How does paleoclimate show us the importance of greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases, as their name suggests, work by trapping heat. Essentially, they end up forming an insulating blanket for the Earth. (You can get more into the basic chemistry here.) If you look at a graph of past Ice Ages, you can see that CO2 levels and Ice Ages (or global temperature) align. More CO2 equals warmer temperatures and less ice, and vice versa. “And we do know the direction of causation here,” Alley notes. “It is primarily from CO2 to (less) ice. Not the other way around.”

We can also look back at specific snapshots in time to see how Earth responds to past CO2 spikes. For instance, in a period of extreme warming during Earth’s Cenozoic era about 55.9 million years ago, enough carbon was released to about double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The consequentially hot conditions wreaked havoc, causing massive migrations and extinctions; pretty much everything that lived either moved or went extinct. Plants wilted. Oceans acidified and heated up to the temperature of bathtubs.

Unfortunately, this might be a harbinger for where we’re going. “This is what’s scary to climate modelers,” says Huber. “At the rate we’re going, we’re kind of winding back time to these periods of extreme warmth.” That’s why understanding carbon dioxide’s role in past climate change helps us forecast future climate change.

That sounds pretty bad.


I’m really impressed by how much paleoclimate data we have. But how does a climate model work?

Great question! In science, you can’t make a model unless you understand the basic principles underlying the system. So the mere fact that we’re able to make good models means that we understand how this all works. A model is essentially a simplified version of reality, based on what we know about the laws of physics and chemistry. Engineers use mathematical models to build structures that millions of people rely on, from airplanes to bridges.

Our models are based on a framework of data, much of which comes from the paleoclimate proxies scientists have collected from every corner of the world. That’s why it’s so important for data and models to be in conversation with each other. Scientists test their predictions on data from the distant past, and try to fix any discrepancies that arise. “We can go back in time and evaluate and validate the results of these models to make better predictions for what’s going to happen in the future,” says Schmidt.

Here's a model:

It's pretty. I hear the models aren’t very accurate, though.

By their very nature, models are always wrong. Think of them as an approximation, our best guess.

But ask yourself: do these guesses give us more information than we had previously? Do they provide useful predictions we wouldn’t otherwise have? Do they allow us to ask new, better questions? “As we put all of these bits together we end up with something that looks very much like the planet,” says Schmidt. “We know it’s incomplete. We know there are things that we haven’t included, we know that we’ve put in things that are a little bit wrong. But the basic patterns we see in these models are recognizable … as the patterns that we see in satellites all the time.”

So we should trust them to predict the future?

The models faithfully reproduce the patters we see in Earth’s past, present—and in some cases, future. We are now at the point where we can compare early climate models—those of the late 1980s and 1990s that Schmidt’s team at NASA worked on—to reality. “When I was a student, the early models told us how it would warm,” says Alley. “That is happening. The models are successfully predictive as well as explanatory: they work.” Depending on where you stand, that might make you say “Oh goody! We were right!” or “Oh no! We were right.”

To check models’ accuracy, researchers go right back to the paleoclimate data that Alley and others have collected. They run models into the distant past, and compare them to the data that they actually have.

“If we can reproduce ancient past climates where we know what happened, that tells us that those models are a really good tool for us to know what’s going to happen in the future,” says Linda Ivany, a paleoclimate scientist at Syracuse University. Ivany’s research proxies are ancient clams, whose shells record not only yearly conditions but individual winters and summers going back 300 million years—making them a valuable way to check models. “The better the models get at recovering the past,” she says, “the better they’re going to be at predicting the future.”

Paleoclimate shows us that Earth’s climate has changed dramatically. Doesn’t that mean that, in a relative sense, today’s changes aren’t a big deal?

When Richard Alley tries to explain the gravity of manmade climate change, he often invokes a particular annual phenomenon: the wildfires that blaze in the hills of Los Angeles every year. These fires are predictable, cyclical, natural. But it’d be crazy to say that, since fires are the norm, it’s fine to let arsonists set fires too. Similarly, the fact that climate has changed over millions of years doesn’t mean that manmade greenhouse gases aren’t a serious global threat.

"Our civilization is predicated on stable climate and sea level," says Wing, "and everything we know from the past says that when you put a lot of carbon in the atmosphere, climate and sea level change radically."

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have helped warm the globe 2 degrees F, one-quarter of what Schmidt deems an “Ice Age Unit”—the temperature change that the Earth goes through between an Ice Age and a non-Ice Age. Today’s models predict another 2 to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100—at least 20 times faster than past bouts of warming over the past 2 million years.

Of course there are uncertainties: “We could have a debate about whether we’re being a little too optimistic or not,” says Alley. “But not much debate about whether we’re being too scary or not.” Considering how right we were before, we should ignore history at our own peril.

At an Army Base in Kansas, There's a Secret Collection of Incredible Finds

Smithsonian Magazine

Located on the outskirts of Kansas City and home to 2,500 soldiers, Fort Leavenworth houses a 4,000-piece art collection, and almost no one knows it exists. The United States Army never meant to hide the collection, but also never meant to amass it.

Now, thanks to a local art gallery owner, portions of the collection have been on public display and the collection has a name: “Art of War, Gifts of Peace.”

In 1894, Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) — originally intended to educate domestic officers on the science and art of war — opened its doors to foreign officers. Since then, more than 8,000 have graduated from its Command and General Staff Officer course, including three sitting heads of state: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

Domestic alumni include President Dwight Eisenhower, General George C. Marshall, General George Patton, and General Colin Powell.

This year, 119 students from 91 nations will spend almost a year in the accredited master’s-level courses to earn a Master of Military Art and Science. They also have the option of earning one of 12 other degrees by taking additional courses at a nearby university. Officers in foreign armies with the rank equivalent of a U.S. Army major are eligible to apply within their respective countries; the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense choose which nations may send students.

“As you look through the years, the countries that participated trace the arc of our national security strategy,” says Jeff LaMoe, Chief of Staff of the CGSC. “When I came through, we didn’t have any Vietnamese officers, we didn’t have any European Eastern Bloc officers. We’ve had graduates from Iran, but right now we’re not terribly friendly with Iran.”

The origins of the gift-giving tradition are uncertain. The oldest known gift is a portrait of Robert E. Lee gifted by the Daughters of the American Confederacy, but the first catalogued gift was a plaque given by Poland in 1943.

Over the years, several, if not most of the esteemed officers presented something to the college upon graduating — but most of the items disappeared into storage. A select few adorned private offices and hallways, until they became part of the furniture, common objects no one gave much thought to.

Intricately carved ivory sailboats, gold-plated swords, and hand-worked pewter vases silently joined jewelry, bronze statues, and detailed ebony masks in the storage room. Regardless of the material or value, LaMoe says his obligation as a government employee is to accept the gifts and ensure that they are catalogued and stored properly. Nothing more.

So, the gift collection has grown in the darkness of the storage room for decades.

“Think of where they stored the Ark of the Covenant in the Indiana Jones movie,” LaMoe says, himself a retired Army colonel. “An extraordinary, valuable piece, and here it is hidden away in a government warehouse.”

He adds, “The taxpayers have folded up Army bands… The last thing they’re going to fund is an art curator for the Command and General Staff College.”

But the CGSC does have a non-profit foundation, funded by grants and private donations, that handles what the Army does not. The foundation hadn’t considered involving itself in the gifted objects, but now, thanks to the staff of a local art gallery, has taken an interest in finding out what’s in their collection.  

In 2015, a member of the foundation’s board invited Todd Weiner, owner of an eponymous gallery in Kansas City to view the collection. Weiner asked two of his staff, Meghan Dohogne and Poppy Di Candeloro, to accompany him—their experience in archival research and collections management made them ideal candidates to take on the gargantuan task facing them.

“We were blown away by what we saw. They had amazing gifts of all different media from across the earth,” Weiner recalls.

Their initial thought was that the Army didn’t know what it had — it was classifying three-story tall stained glass windows as “durable goods.”

But LaMoe says the Army knows exactly what it has and is eager to share.

“It’s not our stuff. It belongs to the Army and the Army belongs to the taxpayers,” LaMoe explains. “And the taxpayers ought to be able to see it and appreciate it and know what it is and where it came from.”

However, the challenges of identifying all the items and their provenance are still in the early stages of being addressed; each object presents multiple questions about how the giver selected the item, and where he or she acquired it.

After the initial meeting, Weiner made a proposal—he wanted to create a better catalogue system and make the gifts available for public viewing. He recalls being nearly laughed out of the building. Undeterred, Weiner and his team then spent three months learning about the collection and building a case to support greater care of the gifts.

“As an American who didn’t serve and grew up during the Gulf conflicts and watched all this, I’ve always asked myself, what can I do to give back to my country,” says Weiner. “When this revealed itself, this huge endeavor, it felt natural, it felt right, and it felt on time.”

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Detail on a large plaque from Sri Lanka (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. From left - Meghan Dohogne, Poppy Di Candeloro and Todd Weiner, all of the Todd Weiner Gallery, looking over some of the objects in the collection. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Left to Right - Poppy Di Candeloro, Meghan Dohogne and Todd Weiner, all of the Todd Weiner Gallery, looking over a gift an officer of the Israeli Defense Force in 2007. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Some of the gifts are flags or fabric, which are also being sorted and organized. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Not surprisingly, some of the gifts from various officers are swords. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. You can see some of the gifts on display in cases in the atrium of the Lewis and Clark Center at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, KS. Some of the cases pictured hold gifts, like the one at upper left, while others hold materials from The Frontier Army Museum. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Of course, military headwear is also a part of the collection. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. The gifts are sorted by country on rows and rows of shelving in a room in Eisenhower Hall. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. Major Jose Aguirre of Spain is one of the visiting officers taking part in the year-long training offered by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, KS. He talked about how he decided what gift to present when he arrived. (original image)

Image by Reed Hoffmann. A number of the gifts are on display in the Lewis and Clark Center. (original image)

At the end of the three months, Weiner presented his plan more formally and got the team officially in the door. For the past year-and-a-half they’ve volunteered their time to the collection, with the Weiner Gallery bearing the fiscal responsibility until — they hope — private donations start coming in. 

As they learn more about each of the pieces, which includes talking with recent graduates about their gifts, Weiner’s staff will load their findings into a publicly searchable database.

Major Jose Aguirre of Spain’s airborne brigade is a second-year student in the college’s School of Advanced Military Studies He says he gave a gift at graduation in the same spirit he would give wine to the host of a dinner party and chose a ten-inch-tall replica of the brigade’s emblematic Almogávar statue that honors Spanish soldiers from the 13th and 14th century. To date, this gift is on display in a hallway of the main CGSC building.

On a short break from class, Aguirre explains the importance of the Almogávar to Spanish paratroopers. “It’s like our warrior ethos,” he says. “We’re inspired in the way of fighting, in the will to fight. They used to go to combat saying Wake up iron! They hit their weapons against their shields in order to make the weapons wake up.”

Though he selected the gift, Aguirre says it’s meant to be from all recent Spanish students. Decorum and diplomacy are ingrained in the very ethos of the school, so discussion of who paid for a gift would be inelegant, says Aguirre. This in turn puts any registrar of the school’s collection at a disadvantage, one not faced at an accredited institution like the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Even though such information would add to the object’s story as far as the Weiner Gallery team is concerned, not every piece of information can be gleaned--even directly from the source.

Each class also commissions an oil painting — half of the 70 oil paintings entered the collection this way. The college’s international hall of fame inductees give gifts, too. And sometimes, American civilians commemorate special occasions by giving a memento of some sort.

LaMoe thinks the college has done reasonably well handling its glut of treasures, but acknowledges the need for improvement.

The college’s gift storage facility measures just over 1600 square feet and is at capacity. Organized alphabetically by country of origin, wood shelving splits out into about 250 cubbies, where each gift is wrapped in paper. At the top of most shelves is a strip of white copy paper with a country name and its respective flag taped to the wood.

Di Candeloro explains that she and Dohogne wrapped and numbered each item shortly after they were granted access, but they know it’s still falling short of best practices. Redesigning the storage facility is on the list of activities that will require funding beyond what the Weiner Gallery can afford.

A few hundred unlabeled dust-covered items are on display in the hallways’ glass cases, a seemingly arbitrary assortment of plaques, sailboats and weaponry. Weiner says that his team will thoughtfully curate and label new exhibitions throughout the school this month.

A quick look at the “I” section of the storage room shows that Israel has given 24 gifts; Italy has given 57. And though many of the paper wrappings are tagged to correspond with a number in the Army’s existing database, the gifts are difficult to locate on demand, one of the shortcomings Weiner’s team will remedy.

Dohogne says that she and her colleague have been working to educate the collection’s handlers about safe archiving practices. “We found a letter that was in a wood box. Wood will degrade paper quickly, so taking it out, putting it in a Mylar slip, those sorts of things,” Dohogne says of their progress.

She’s standing by a table with gifts from each continent that she and Di Candeloro have just pulled from the shelves. The two have worked on about 100 items so far, but don’t know too much about these seven.

Dohogne picks up a nine-inch long wooden paddle elaborately engraved with what appears to be a face. Information in the register reads: “Weapon of dark wood, intricately carved, with mother of pearl inlays and name plate on handle, 1961, given by MAJ Cecil C. Jordan.”

With a little research to round out the information, the team learns that the paddle is a Maori weapon and that the officer was from New Zealand. Turns out the paddle isn’t a paddle at all, but a short club called a kotiate — a rough translation yields: to cut or divide the liver.

The art historians haven’t figured out what type of wood it’s carved from, but that’s next. Di Candeloro says, “Once we know what the object is, we start researching what materials are used in that region.”

Having partially solved the mystery of the paddle, updated the database, and created a gallery didactic — information card—the kotiate will go back into storage until Weiner either secures a public exhibition for it to appear in, or decides to include it in one of the glass cases in the classroom’s hallways.

When the CGSC erected a new building in 2007, the Army hired an interior decorator to place the paintings. LaMoe laughs and says that was probably the equivalent of organizing library books by size and color.

Weiner estimates that to fully fund the project will cost about $3 million, half of which will go to the CGSC Foundation’s annual budget to support their outreach programs. The rest of the funding will go to appropriately archiving the collection and creating a searchable digital database for public use, as well as a documentary and large picture book—any revenue generated from these would go to the college and the foundation, Weiner says.

To date, the exhibitions have been curated to reflect the space they’re hosted in for maximized public engagement. For instance, an upcoming public library exhibition incorporates the idea of research. Dohogne and Di Candeloro have selected gifts with next to no information available about them — they will look to patrons to engage with the objects as investigators.

In the case of a yarn doll wearing a backpack, the team hopes a library patron will recall playing with a similarly styled doll at a grandparent’s house and volunteer a lead about its country or period of origin.

As each artifact is unpacked and presented to the American public, members of both Fort Leavenworth and the Weiner Gallery hope that they’ll act as a way of connecting the two communities and offer a narrative of decades’ strong diplomatic relationships between the United States and the rest of the world.

Halibut Hook

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022.

From card: ""V" shaped halibut hook, of two pieces of wood fastened with iron nails as well as cord lashing. Interior point of iron lashed on. Line remains on side opposite hook. This specimen was found (1960) in the old office of Dr. Paul Bartsch, Curator of Mollusks. It appears to have been collected by [William Healey] Dall, because the label is the same as other specimens known to have been collected by him between 1865 and 1890."

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 5-8-2014: Halibut hook Halibut are one of the most important wild foods in the Aleutian Islands. Traditional wooden hooks like this were tied to long lines made of seaweed. Stone weights held them near the ocean floor where halibut swim and feed. The line was connected on the surface to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion. When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line. "Likewise we catch fish: halibut, cod, sculpins, pogies, great sculpins, flounder, black bass. The implement for catching the halibut is called yarus [Russian, 'fishing tackle']. At the end of its line there is an inflated bladder. That's its float. When the bait has been tied onto the yarus, the float is thrown into the sea. When the halibut takes the yarus in its mouth, the float dives. Thus the halibut that has taken the yarus in its mouth is choked and dies." - Arseniy Kryukov (Nikolski, Umnak Island, 1909-10). The Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), which can grow to over 400 pounds, has always been a key food species on the islands of the Aleutian chain. The large fish were traditionally eaten raw, cut up and cooked on flat stones, or dried and stored for the winter in thatch-roofed fish sheds. Captain James Cook was present in 1778 when the chief of Unalaska dined on delicate "cheeks" from the head of a fresh-caught fish, prepared raw and served to him on a bed of grass. As Unangan Elders described in 2003, a chuumlagii [eating raw halibut] feast of halibut "sushi" served on grass was still a special occasion when they were children. Arseniy Kryukov's description of halibut fishing (above) was recorded in the Unangan language on a wax cylinder recorder by anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson in 1909 or 1910. In the old method, the fisherman placed his bait on the bone or iron point of a large wooden hook which was called yarus [Russian, 'fishing tackle'] or cha}am u{ta{ [halibut hook]. He tied the hook to a stone weight and dropped it to the sea bottom on a long line made of oiled, stretched, and dried seaweed (kelp). The baited hook floated just above the sea floor, where halibut feed. The line was connected to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion. When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line. As Henry Elliott's painting shows, fishermen pulled the halibut up by hand and killed it with a wooden club. They fished up to ten miles out to sea above the deep channels where the fish congregate. Halibut that were too large to be put inside the kayak were towed home. A later method, described in 2003 by Maria Turnpaugh and Vlass Shabolin of St. Paul, was to jig for halibut from a dory (open wooden boat), moving the hook up and down to attract the fish (see Elders’ comments). Wooden hooks were eventually replaced by iron ones. Long lines with hundreds of steel hooks are used in modern commercial halibut fishing. Elder Bill Tcheripanoff (born in Akutan, 1902) described how to make a wooden hook. Two pieces of yellow cedar - available only as driftwood on the treeless Aleutian Islands - are carved into shape and pegged together at the base. The bone point is then added. Before using the hook, fisherman rubbed it with the leaves of wild celery (Heraculum lanatum), also known as putchki (Russian). Wild celery has a strong smell and covers human scent. This "Aleut perfume", as Father Ishmael Gromoff (born St. Paul, 1924) called it, was also used to erase human scent when setting fox traps.

From Elders' discussions of the hook in 2003 (see web page cited above for the full entries) with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). Vlass Shabolin: Homemade halibut hooks at Unalaska, all the way down the Aleutian chain, they were all similar, because the men were actually from the Aleutian chain. They went to the Pribilofs for the fur seal with the Russians. Then a year later when they went back, they found a way of building some homes, and then they brought some of their families back to the Pribilofs. When they [Russians] looked over from St. George from the highest cliff, they saw another island, so they got to St. Paul Island. When they went there, they found that people were already there, because they found a bonfire there that was warm yet, a broken piece of pipe and some other items. So, the Aleuts with the baidarkas [kayaks] were there before the Russians discovered St. Paul. Daria Dirks: What are we going to call this in Aleut then? Maria Turnpaugh: Chag^am . . . (Halibut . . .) Mary Bourdukofsky: Chag^am . . . x^umxig^ain. (Halibut . . . fishing gear.) Aron Crowell: Were there different size hooks to catch a larger halibut? Vlass Shabolin: That'll catch any size you want. From a chicken halibut to an eight-footer will get on that. Maria Turnpaugh: There’s one like this in my son’s cabin. He’s making all these old things like that. Daria Dirks: What kind of wood? Vlass Shabolin: It's got to be redwood, because a lot of redwood was used in early days. Mary Bourdukofsky: The only way they found the wood is from the beach, driftwood. Aron Crowell: How were they used? Maria Turnpaugh: Well you just put the line on-

Mary Bourdukofsky: See, right here [middle of side opposite hook]. Maria Turnpaugh: You have the weights on it, big weights. I'd see my father make them. He'd have a mound of big lead weights. Most of them were like that [approximately baseball-sized]. Vlass Shabolin: About three pounds, five pounds. Aron Crowell: How would you put the weight on? Vlass Shabolin: The weight will be on your extended line [on lead attached to same point as main line at middle of side opposite hook], so it will come down with the sinker. And you've got a lead about that far [approximately two feet long], so your sinker is at the bottom and your hook is above the bottom of the ocean floating. It'll float like this, on the side [horizontally], moving up and down, back and forth. It's floating, and you've got bait on the hook. The halibut will come in there and close his mouth [on bait] and hook himself on there, and then you pull it up. They do it that way, or you keep your lead above too, and then you play with your sinker. You're jigging, so you're bobbing it up and down on the bottom there, and the halibut will come over there and grab it. Aron Crowell: Did certain families have fishing spots that were theirs? Vlass Shabolin: No, everybody went to the spot where they knew there was halibut. You have to know where the halibut is in the channel. In other words, you're out there fishing maybe a mile out, then you hit a channel that comes down at least fifty feet and then back up. In the channel, you'll find the halibut going with the current. So you fish where the channel is, and you fish with the current so you don’t have to go too far from the island, because in those days they didn’t have outboards [motors], so they were oaring their boats in and out. Aron Crowell: And when did people stop doing the jigging? Vlass Shabolin: They're still doing jigging. Maria Turnpaugh: But it's on a machine, and one line has how many hooks? And they're all baited and put down. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, from the big boats, but the dories are just jigging. Vlass Shabolin: Now you get a whole set of three-hundred foot skate with maybe 200 to 300 hooks on it. You set it and let it soak over night, then you go back the next day. If you're lucky, you'll bring in ninety halibuts off one line. So that's the new way of doing it. But for subsistence, some of us go out only in a skiff, a nineteen-foot skiff or something like that, and go jigging the old way. I like to go jigging. Aron Crowell: What time of the year do you do the most halibut fishing?

Vlass Shabolin: With the weather on St. Paul and down the Aleutian chain, from May until about the middle of August. If we do have good weather, then we go as much as we can, but the weather changes so fast nowadays. And then when we used to fish maybe a mile from the island, last year we had to go about twenty-five, thirty-five miles off the island to catch some halibut. Like some people say, the weather is getting too warm, and the halibut are staying in the deeper end where the water is cool. So it became a problem with our boats, because we only have thirty-two footers and going out that far, you have to watch with the weather, otherwise you get caught in a storm, and there's no bigger boat that will come out there and bring you in. Mary Bourdukofsky: Before the war [World War II] - we were just kids then - when they went jigging, they stayed out all day, maybe eight to ten hours, and even the women watched the water. And then they would see from far away two men walking with a long stick and something hanging, and they called for us children to come get clean green grass and that’s what we do. They had an oilcloth, and they laid it on the grassy spot, and then they laid the halibut on the clean grass. On the side there are two containers, one with plain water and one water with salt. The women are the ones that butcher the halibut to eat raw as soon as they bring it, like sushi they call it nowadays. Vlass Shabolin: Womenfolk would gather together when we bring in the fresh halibut and cut it up, and then they eat some of that raw halibut. Chuumlag^ii [eating raw halibut] we call it. They'd all sit there and eat that halibut, then after they're done, they'd go back in the house and drink tea. Mary Bourdukofsky: But if the weather is bad outside, they bring the oilcloth with grass and portions of halibut in the house. There's salt and knives all over. The men go first and have a feast, what they call chuumlag^ii. Our father didn't go out fishing because he was the storekeeper, so our mother gave us a plate, "Go there and just ask for a couple of pieces, so dad and I could have some." Of course they filled our plate for us and sent us home. Aron Crowell: And is halibut an important food now? Maria Turnpaugh: Oh, yes. Daria Dirks: It's hard to get enough to keep for the winter. Vlass Shabolin: Always was and still is very important, because down on the Aleutian chain we don't get too much salmon. And where I'm from, it's halibut and cod, that's what we fish. After halibut season comes black cod. The fish that we grew up on was halibut. Come summer, we fish for halibut, and then we fillet them or cut them in steak sizes and fish pie and then freeze them in Ziploc bags nowadays. In the early days, we used to just put them inside a coffee can or a five-gallon container and put some water in there so it would stay fresh and then freeze it. We didn't have freezer and stuff like that, we just got what we were going to eat for a couple days, maybe three days. And if the weather's good, then you go out almost every day, catch enough and bring it in. But if there was a storm coming, then you take an extra halibut with you and bring it home. Of course everybody provided for the whole village anyway. All the fishermen, we were just like one big happy family where everybody helped each other. If an elderly person couldn't go fishing, then somebody used to bring an extra halibut and give it to them. We still do it to this day. When our first halibut season comes in, the halibut that they catch on the first day are given to senior citizens that need it, and then we divide it among the families after that. So, halibut is very important in the Pribilofs. Aron Crowell: Is there anything you do or sayings about fishing, halibut especially, that might bring you bad luck or good luck? Vlass Shabolin: I fished with my uncle, John Kozloff, who had eleven-foot wooden dory - people on St. Paul made their own dories then. The first halibut I caught, we cut it up, and he gave me the heart. It's a tradition that the first halibut you catch, if you want to be a good fisherman, you have to eat the heart. That was a big heart, still thumping. He gave that to me and he said, "You eat that." I just took it and swallowed it. I didn’t even chew it [laughs]. That’s a good luck charm. Also, in the early days you never could take a woman out on the water in a fishing boat, they called that bad luck.

Mary Bourdukofsky: And another story I have is about the umbilical cord of a baby. When the first child is born, they [women] save that and when it dries up make a little pouch, drop it in there and tie it. When the men are going out fishing or hunting, they put it around their husband's neck for good luck. Maria Turnpaugh: A good luck charm. My father had an icon, it was porcelain. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, I've seen those. St. Nicholas? Maria Turnpaugh: Yes. My mother stuffed it with some kind of cotton to keep it from breaking, and then she got [animal] gut and made a little pouch around it, sewed it around really tight. And I know she used to take it out every time he was going out hunting or fishing. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, they wore it around their necks. They believed St. Nicholas helped them on the sea. Maria Turnpaugh: Well, he's the saint for all travelers. Vlass Shabolin: Almost every boat that's on St. Paul has St. Nicholas inside. It's to protect you when you're out fishing. Another thing is after they cleaned the halibut, the bones and that stuff were not thrown into a garbage can. You put it out in the green grass, someplace where it's cleaner. If you didn't take care of the catch you got that day, sometimes your luck would change for fishing halibut, so you have to take care of what you got. Notes: Baidarka [kayak] comes from the Russian word bajdarka "kayak." According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, x^umxig^ain [fishing gear] refers to a fish hook, sinker, line, and rod. Mary Bourdukofsky later identified the word for hook as ux^tax^ [fish hook] or cheripuchka [hook], a Russian loanword.

The History of the American West Gets a Much-Needed Rewrite

Smithsonian Magazine

Not too long ago, historians of the American West joined their artistic brethren in celebrating what we now think of as the “Old West.” For historians and artists, the “winning of the West” was a glorious achievement that heralded the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery.” Indeed, by the conventional scholarly wisdom and orthodox artistic vision, the vanquishing of Indians and the march of manifest destiny made America great and made Americans special.

In recent decades, however, most historians—and many Americans—have rejected this perspective. Dismantling cherished fables about the Old West and stripping the romance from the history of “Westward Ho,” newer studies have exhumed the human casualties and environmental costs of American expansion. Offering little glory, these interpretations of how the West was lost have accented the savagery of American civilization.

The de Young Museum’s exhibition, “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” and its companion, “Wild West: Plains to the Pacific” at the Legion of Honor—both in San Francisco—invite us to scrutinize both the celebration and its demise. In many ways, this revisioning of western American art parallels alterations in the content and meaning of western American history. In both art and history, longstanding and powerful myths have fallen as subjects have broadened and contemporary viewpoints have shifted. 


The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Back in the 19th century, celebrations of territorial expansion were commonplace among American historians. In his multi-volume account of The Winning of the West and other historical writings, Theodore Roosevelt admitted that the shedding of blood was not always “agreeable,” but deemed it the “healthy sign of the virile strength” of the American people. As president of the American Historical Association and as president of the United States, Roosevelt exulted in “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” He judged it “desirable for the good of humanity at large that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated Northern provinces” and wrest the rest of the West from Indians.

Popular as Roosevelt’s histories were in his time, it was his contemporary, Frederick Jackson Turner, who put forward the interpretation that gained enduring scholarly traction. Most prominently in his 1893 essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner assigned westward expansion the central role in the history of the United States. He contended that it had not only enlarged the nation’s territory, but had also accounted for the individualistic and democratic character of its people and its institutions. In Turner’s view, the process of moving west separated Americans from their European roots (and in Turner’s imagination, the designation “American” referred exclusively to people of European ancestry). From what Turner and his contemporaries referred to as the “Great American West” then sprang the sources of American exceptionalism and American greatness.

Subsequent generations of historians of the American West took their cues from Turner’s “frontier thesis.” Some echoed it. Some extended it. Some amended it. Through the first half of the 20th century, however, few sought to challenge Turner’s belief in the fundamental importance of the frontier to American development or to question the exaltation of westward expansion.

That has changed over the last half century. Protests against the Vietnam War and the spread of various civil rights movements had a profound impact on the interpretation of American history in general, and western American history in particular. If American expansion led to Vietnam, a conflict that drew frequent metaphorical comparison to the supposed lawless violence of the “Wild West, then it was not something to be cheered.” At the same time, liberation struggles at home inspired historians to look beyond the white, male protagonists who had previously dominated frontier epics. In step with other American histories, scholars of the American West turned their attentions to the expectations and experiences of the unsung and the undone.

With a wider cast and an anti-imperial angle of vision, interpretations of the western past veered from the triumphant to the tragic. The titles of the two most influential surveys of what came to be called “the new western history” attested to this shift in orientation: The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick (1987) and It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White (1991). Synthesizing scholarship from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these books asserted that conquest and its legacy brought misfortunes aplenty to the defeated and even to the supposed victors. The more general misfortunes traced to the environmental blowback that followed efforts to turn the land into what it was not, to transform a mostly arid and sparsely populated region into an agricultural “garden” and a home for multiplying millions of residents.

Image by Ed Ruscha. "The Absolute End," Ed Ruscha, 1982 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," Ed Ruscha, 1963 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Adios," Ed Ruscha, 1969 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "America’s Future," Ed Ruscha, 1979 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Busted Glass," Ed Ruscha, 2014 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Coyote," Ed Ruscha, 1989 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Desert Gravure," Ed Ruscha, 2006 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Dead End 2," Ed Ruscha, from the series "Rusty Signs," 2014 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "The Fourteen Hundred," Ed Ruscha, 1965, from "Twentyfive Apartments," series published in 2003 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Dodger Stadium," Ed Ruscha, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., 1967, from "Parking Lots," series published in 1999 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Gas," Ed Ruscha, 1962 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Hollywood," Ed Ruscha, 1968 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Noose Around Your Neck," Ed Ruscha, from the series "Country Cityscapes," 2001 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Pool #7," Ed Ruscha, 1968, from "Pools," series published in 1997 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Pepto-Caviar Hollywood," Ed Ruscha, 1970 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Lockheed Air Terminal, 2627 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank," Ed Ruscha, 1967, from "Parking Lots," series published in 1999 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "A Particular Kind of Heaven," Ed Ruscha, 1983 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Rodeo," Ed Ruscha, 1969 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Schwab’s Pharmacy," Ed Ruscha, 1976, from "The Sunset Strip," series published in 1995 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Standard Station," Ed Ruscha, 1966 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," Ed Ruscha, 1962 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Teepees," Ed Ruscha, from "Cameo Cuts," portfolio published in 1992 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "The End," Ed Ruscha, 1991 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Your Space Gravure," Ed Ruscha, 2006 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Pick, Pan, Shovel," Ed Ruscha, 1980 (original image)

Image by Ed Ruscha. "Sunset—Gardner Cross," Ed Ruscha, 1998–1999 (original image)

In the revisionist mirror, the Great West didn’t look very great anymore, a gloom and doom view that not all historians, and certainly not all Americans, embraced. Critics claimed the new western history overlooked the achievements and exaggerated the evils of American expansion. The unbalanced exposition, complained the novelist Larry McMurtry, unfairly presented the western past as an unrelenting course in “failure studies.”  

Similar debates erupted among art historians and grabbed much public notice in 1991. That year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the American Frontier, 1820-1920.” In the exhibition, the curators challenged both the realism and the romance of western art. According to the exhibition’s gallery guide, the assembled works, which included masterpieces by the most renowned artists of the American West were “not so much records of activities or places” as they were “a means of persuading people that westward expansion was good for the nation and would benefit all who participated in it.” This proposition put western art and western artists in the service of manifest destiny, an ideology that led painters, sculptors, and photographers to mask “the problems created by westward expansion.”

“The West as America” exhibition was quite controversial. Some visitors limited their vitriol to the comments book in the gallery. Others vented their outrage in op-ed pieces. In response to the uproar, several congressmen demanded that the museum be defunded for allowing this blasphemy to be perpetrated against western art. That campaign failed, but the planned national tour of the exhibition was cancelled.

In terms of public notice, by far the greatest impact of changing views about the history of the American West registered at the movies. The social currents emanating from the 1960s that rewrote western histories and reinterpreted the meaning of still images also dramatically upended the art of motion pictures. For decades, “Westerns” ruled Hollywood. “Epics” and “B-westerns” filled movie theaters from the 1920s to the 1950s—and dominated American television programming in the 1950s. But during the 1960s, traditional, heroic Westerns began losing their popular appeal. Far fewer were produced. Those that were often inverted the genre’s conventions about heroes and villains and the righteousness of violence and manifest destiny. In landmark films such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the Old West became a stage on which 1960s critiques of American capitalism and imperialism played out. Arguably, though, the reversing of traditional western roles did not reach its apotheosis until 1991 when Dances with Wolves won eight Academy Awards.

Dances with Wolves reigned at the box office and at the Oscars, but over the last quarter century, the best historical scholarship has aimed at more than mere inversion of old myths about the Old West. One important direction has been to compare and connect what happened in the American West with parallel places and processes elsewhere. Departing from Turner’s claim that the frontier set the U.S. apart from its European roots, historians of the American West have instead emphasized the commonalities between American and other “colonialisms.” More specifically, the construct of “settler colonialism” has emerged as a key to situating the American experience in a broader global context. Further depriving the American West of its uniqueness, historians have adopted the lens of “ethnic cleansing,” or worse “genocide,” to understand American expansions and the accompanying displacement and sometimes devastation of indigenous peoples.

The most compelling western histories written in the last quarter century confront the complexities of past and present. This begins with the recognition of how deep that past is, with histories that commence well before the West was American and with excavations that reveal the diversity and dynamism of Native America prior to the arrival of European colonizers. From archaeological and other sources, historians have now recovered rich precolonial worlds and complex societies that continued after Indians encountered people from Europe and Africa, weaving a fascinating new understanding of how natives and newcomers met and mingled.

Rescuing indigenous people from the condescension of New Age romanticism that turns them into ever peaceful, perfect ecologists, newer histories have shown how Indians not only resisted European colonialism, but also in some parts of North America carried out their own expansions. The best of these newer western histories detail as well how prolonged interactions resulted in ethnic crossings as well as ethnic cleansings. Most visibly, this intercourse produced mixed-race offspring, but historians have also tracked a wide range of exchanges that led to a blending of cultures. Such amalgamations have remained a hallmark of western American cultures in the 20th and now the 21st centuries

The history of the American West, like the art of the American West, isn’t what it used to be. No doubt, many lament the changes and pine for the myths that western histories (and western art) once celebrated. But if we are to make sense of the West’s multi-faceted evolutions and figure out how we can live together, and live sustainably, in this region, we don’t need one-dimensional tales. Rather we need histories and art that respect the past, wrestling, as historians and artists must, with the complexities that challenge us still.

What Geology Has to Say About Building a 1,000-Mile Border Wall

Smithsonian Magazine

Last month, President Donald Trump took steps to make good on a campaign promise to turn the United States’ existing border fence into a "big, beautiful" wall. On January 25, the White House issued an Executive Order announcing the creation of a “secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier … to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” Now the U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the office tasked with enforcing border regulations—is scrambling to make that order a concrete reality.

Today’s fence consists of roughly 650 miles of disparate segments, made out of a combination of steel posts and rails, metal sheeting, chain link, concrete vehicle barriers and wire mesh. To replace that fence with what has been described as a 20- to 50-foot concrete structure that will traverse 1,000 of the some 2,000 miles of the U.S.’s border with Mexico will be no easy feat. Besides dealing with a proposed Mexican lawsuit and navigating the private ownership of much of Texas’ lands, there is another concern few have addressed in detail: geology.

Compared to building a marble palace or high-steepled church, erecting a wall may seem relatively straightforward. It isn’t. (Just ask the Chinese, whose Great Wall took 2,000 years to build and failed to keep out invaders.) Though most wall designs are fairly simple, builders must adapt to a wide range of terrains, explains Gary Clendenin, a senior hydrogeologist at ICF. The southern U.S. border alone contains desert, wetlands, grasslands, rivers, mountains and forests—all of which create vastly different problems for builders.

“The length of this thing presents challenges that just aren’t typically undertaken in a construction project,” says Clendenin.

Can these hurdles be overcome? asked two scientists, a geophysicist and a hydrogeologist, which geologic factors the wall’s builders should take into account first if they are to execute this ambitious project.

Some 650 miles of disparate segments of fence stand along the almost 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico. Many segments, like the one pictured above, still allow some communication across the border. (Brian Auer / Alamy Stock Photo)

Surveying the Situation

The Tower of Pisa was never meant to lean. Built between 1173 and 1370, the off-kilter structure was positioned atop roughly 30 feet of fine river sediments underlain by a layer of ancient marine clay. But as builders assembled the tons of marble, the river sediments didn’t compact evenly. So by 1178, when they had finished work on the third story, the tower had already acquired its characteristic tilt.

The Italian government has since spent millions of dollars to make sure this beloved landmark doesn't topple over. Such structural failures serve as a reminder that, while our ancestors did manage to successfully erect many impressive feats, “they don’t necessarily stay upright,” in the words of field geophysicist Mika McKinnon. To circumvent such problems today, modern builders have added a crucial step to the construction process: surveying. Though time-consuming, this step is critical to ensure that the resulting structure can remain standing on terra firma for years to come.

Before a single brick is laid, teams of scientists assemble on scene to investigate a litany of details, from bedrock depth to soil chemistry. In the case of the border wall, they would have to traverse the entire length of the proposed path, working in segments to evaluate the region, collect data, develop plans. (This necessity makes the process of erecting walls—especially ones spanning thousands of miles—more challenging than building, say, a 95-story skyscraper.)

“Quite frankly, that would take years to do,” says Clendenin, who specializes in linear projects like railways and roads. McKinnon agrees. One project she worked on, a three-mile stretch of pipeline, is now on year five of field surveys.

Yet Trump’s order appears to allow a mere six months for all surveying and planning efforts. Within its long list of required steps, his executive order states:

“Produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border, to be completed within 180 days of this order, that shall include the current state of southern border security, all geophysical and topographical aspects of the southern border, the availability of Federal and State resources necessary to achieve complete operational control of the southern border, and a strategy to obtain and maintain complete operational control of the southern border.”

When contacted by, the Customs and Border Protection agency declined to comment on the current timeline for the wall, saying in an email that "it would be speculative to address the questions that you're asking at this point.” But according to scientists spoke to, it isn’t going up anytime soon.

Getting to Bedrock

The prehistoric city of Petra stands as a prime example of ancient geologic foresight. Around the 4th century BC, Petra’s inhabitants carved the basis for this once-bustling trading city directly into the rugged pink and tan sandstone cliffs between the Red Sea and the Dead sea. Though winds and rain threatened to erode the structure top down, its firm rooting in bedrock—the solid rock that lies beneath the earth’s loose layers—has kept this structure standing tall for thousands of years.    

Such grounding in bedrock is a key feature when building a megastructure, says McKinnon. For something as extensive as a 1,000-mile wall that stands upwards of 20 feet tall, builders will need to anchor the whole thing beneath the surface to the underlying rock if they want it to stay upright.

The problem is, getting to bedrock can be a doozy. Great swaths of the border feature a hefty layer of loose sediments—dirt, soils, sand—laying atop the bedrock. In some regions the bedrock is hundreds if not thousands of feet down. “Some places the bedrock will be too deep—you'll never be able to reach the bedrock in an affordable fashion,” says McKinnon.

“That's okay if you want to [build] a tiny house because you just have it floating on its foundation,” she adds.

But if you’re building a megastructure, “you have a problem,” she says. 

The border fence that runs through the Algodones Sand Dunes in California is of special construction to accommodate the ever-changing dune environment. The narrow, 15-foot-tall posts "float" above the sand and can be moved vertically as the dunes shift. (United States Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security)

That’s not to say that building on sand is impossible. But to safely erect such structures, geophysicists today conduct extensive seismic surveys to image what lies beneath. To create these pictures, they install rows of spike-like geophones, which are 3D microphones that detect minute vibrations of the ground, converting them into an electric signal. Then they make a large noise, often by triggering an explosion or using a heavy weight to thump the ground. The geophones record the scattering and reflection of vibrations to image underground structures, and tease out problems that may lay under the surface.

McKinnon experienced one of these problems firsthand, during the construction of a hydroelectric dam that was meant to be built across a valley that spanned about a mile. The team did all the proper surveys of the region, and discovered that beneath their riverbed lay a second channel buried in dirt. “If we hadn't found it and we tried to build our dam across, then the water would have just eroded that old channel underneath and we would have had a river under our dam,” she says.

There are two options for overcoming such problems with sediment: compact the sediment and add a deeper foundation. For a wall roughly 20 feet tall, the foundation should extend six to eight feet beneath the surface, Clendenin says. All of these steps are expensive and time-consuming. But skimp on any of them, and "you get your Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa situation," says McKinnon.

Of course, many modern regions don’t have the economic resources to do such surveys and construction of deep foundations. The cities of Campania, Italy, are built atop loose sediments that are prone to sliding—a situation worsened by local clearcutting of the vegetation and unregulated construction that commonly lacks adequate foundations. These factors leave them vulnerable to the whims of their region’s geology: In 1998, when a mudslide rippled through the city, the houses crumpled under the weight and movement of the sludge, leaving at least 95 dead.


Dirt Drama

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” begins Robert Frost’s poem "Mending Wall." Frost may not have been a geological surveyor, but he got one thing right: When it comes to building walls, soil swelling is a major headache. That’s why, after surveyors finish assessing the kind of rock and earth they’ll be building over, they start studying the dirt.

Sediments, particularly in clay-rich materials, can take on water, swelling like a sponge in a bowl of water. The resulting cycles of swelling and shrinking during wet and dry periods can crack the very foundation of structures. And these types of soils are common in many states where the border wall will be built, including Texas and parts of New Mexico. In fact, about half of American homes are built on soils that expand significantly, and nearly half of those suffer damage yearly because of the soil, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Dirt can also eat up the wall’s support system. Soils that are naturally acidic or have high chloride levels can rapidly degrade iron-rich metals, says McKinnon. These soils could “corrode any, say, nice big metal rebar that you're putting in there to stabilize your foundation,” she says. Other soils have a high amount of sulfates, a compound found in the common mineral gypsum that breaks down both metals and concrete. Sulfate-rich soils are common in what’s known as the Trans-Pecos soils along the border in the southwestern arm of Texas.

Upkeep of such a lengthy structure is challenging. And even if such a wall can be erected, the size of budget necessary to keep it standing remains unclear. (Kevin Foy / Alamy Stock Photo)

“You're going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of soils along [such a lengthy] linear pathway,” says Clendenin. (In fact, there are over 1,300 kinds of soil in Texas alone.) And many of those soils aren’t going to be the right type to build on top of. At that point, would-be wall-builders have two options: Spend more time and money excavating the existing soils and replacing them with better dirt—or avoid the region altogether.

One thing they can’t always avoid, though, are regions at risk of earthquakes and floods. Rivers run along a sizeable portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, which can create a very real danger of flood. Building adjacent to rivers can also present unexpected legal issues: A 1970 treaty necessitates that the fence be set back from the Rio Grande river, which delineates the Texas-Mexico border. Because of this, the current fence crosscuts Texas landowner’s property and has gaps to allow landowners to pass.

Earthquakes are also relatively common in the western U.S. Depending on the build, some of these tremblors could cause cracks or breaks in the wall, says McKinnon. One example is the magnitude 7.2 quake that struck in 2010 near the California-Mexico Border, according to Austin Elliott, a postdoctoral student at the University of Oxford whose research is focused on the history of earthquakes. “If there had been a wall at El Centinela [a mountain in northern Mexico] it would have been offset,” Elliott writes on Twitter.

Even if all the proper surveys are completed and the boxes checked, success isn’t guaranteed. “There are just so many things that have to be done before you even shovel out the first scoop of dirt,” says Clendenin.

Despite all of our modern surveying tools and careful planning, the earth will still surprise you, adds McKinnon. “This part that you thought was boring and simple and easy to predict is actually totally complicated,” she says. “Look at any major excavation for a subway system, any major bridge construction, any large tower complex; all of them had intense surveys beforehand, extensive design phases, and still had to modify while building.”

After the announcement of Trump’s Executive Order, McKinnon took to Twitter to leave a foreboding reminder of the consequences of underestimating the Earth. “Earth doesn’t forgive sloppy,” she wrote. She added in an interview: “Ignore geology at your peril.”

Preserving Silence in National Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

The preservation of natural sounds in our national parks is a relatively new and still evolving project. The same can be said of our national parks. What Wallace Stegner called "the best idea we ever had"* did not spring full grown from the American mind. The painter George Catlin first proposed the park idea in 1832, but it was not until 1872 that Yellowstone became the first of our current 391 parks. Only much later did the public recognize the park's ecological value; the setting aside of Yellowstone had more to do with the preservation of visually stunning natural monuments than with any nascent environmentalism. Not until 1934, with the establishment of Everglades, was a national park instituted for the express purpose of protecting wildlife. And not until 1996 was Catlin's vision of a prairie park of "monotonous" landscape, with "desolate fields of silence (yet of beauty)," realized in Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

As one more step in this gradual evolution, the Park Service established a Natural Sounds Program in 2000 with the aim of protecting and promoting the appreciation of park soundscapes. It would be a mistake to think of this aim as having originated "on high." In a 1998 study conducted by the University of Colorado, 76 percent of the Americans surveyed saw the opportunity to experience "natural peace and the sounds of nature" as a "very important" reason for preserving national parks.

But noise in parks, as in society at large, is on the rise—to the extent that peak-season decibel levels in the busiest areas of certain major parks rival those of New York City streets. Airplanes, cars, park maintenance machinery, campground generators, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft all contribute to the general commotion. The more room we make for our machines, the less room—and quiet—we leave for ourselves.

*Apparently Stegner was not the first to think so.  In 1912 James Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States, said that "the national park is the best idea American ever had."


Several times I heard park officials refer to the Natural Sounds office in Fort Collins, Colorado, as "Karen Trevino's shop," a good description of what I found when I stepped through the door. Cases of sound equipment—cables, decibel meters, microphones—were laid out like a dorm room's worth of gear on the hallway carpet, not far from several bicycles that staffers, most of them in their 20s, ride to work. A few members of the team were preparing for several days of intensive work out in the field. As animated as any of them was Karen Trevino.

"If the mayor of New York City is trying to make what people expect to be a noisy place quieter," she said, referring to the Bloomberg administration's 2007 revision of the city noise code, "what should we be doing in places that people expect to be quiet?" 

As a step toward answering that question, Trevino and her crew calibrate sound level information and convert it into color-coded visual representations that allow a day's worth of sound levels, and even an entire park's sound profile, to be seen at a glance. (Probably by the beginning of 2009 readers will be able to see some of these profiles at The technicians also make digital sound recordings to develop a "dictionary" by which these visual depictions can be interpreted. Much of their research is focused on creating plans to manage the roughly 185,000 air tours that fly over our parks each year—a major mandate of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. The team is currently working on its first proposal, for Mount Rushmore, a 1200 acre unit with 5600 air tour overflights a year. Franklin Roosevelt once called this park "the shrine of democracy."

"When you think about it," Trevino says, "what's the highest tribute we pay in this country—really, in the world—of reverence and respect? A moment of silence. Now, that said, nature isn't silent. It can be very noisy. And people in parks aren't quiet all the time." Neither are things like cannon in a historical park like Gettysburg—nor should they be, according to Trevino. "Our job from a public policy standpoint is asking what noises are appropriate, and if they're appropriate, are they at acceptable levels?"

Trevino sees this as a learning process, not only for her young department but also for her. Some of what she's learned has passed to her private life. Recently she asked her babysitter to stop using the terms "indoor voice" and "outdoor voice" with her young children. "Sometimes it's perfectly appropriate to scream when you're indoors and to be very quiet when you're outdoors," she says.


Though much remains to be done, the Park Service has already made significant progress in combating noise. A propane-fueled shuttle system in Zion National Park has reduced traffic jams and carbon emissions and also made the canyon quieter. In Muir Woods, library-style "quiet" signs help keep the volume down; social scientists have found (somewhat to their surprise) that the ability to hear natural sounds—15 minutes away from San Francisco and in a park celebrated mostly for the visual magnificence of its trees—ranks high with visitors. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which have a major naval air station to the west and a large military air training space to the east, park officials take military commanders on a five-day "Wilderness Orientation Overflight Pack Trip" to demonstrate the effects of military jet noise on visitor experience in the parks. Before the program started in the mid-1990s, rangers reported as many as 100 prohibited "low flier" incidents involving military jets every year. Now the number of planes flying less than 3000 feet above the ground surface is a fourth to a fifth of that. Complaints are taken seriously, especially when, as has happened more than once, they're radioed in by irate military commanders riding on jet-spooked pack horses on narrow mountain trails. In that context, human cursing is generally regarded as a natural sound.

Image by Alexandra Picavet. View of Mineral King Valley at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park from a honeymoon cabin. (original image)

Image by Mark Lellouch, NPS. A group of boaters make their way down the peaceful Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. (original image)

Image by National Park Services. Sheep Lakes at Rocky Mountain National Park (original image)

Image by Mark Lellouch, NPS. View of the Grand Canyon from the Yavapai Observation Station. (original image)

Image by National Park Service. Sprague Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park (original image)

Image by National Park Services. A rainbow emerges over the Grand Canyon. (original image)

Image by Alexandra Picavet. Large sequoia trees at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)

Sometimes the initiative to combat noise has come from outside the park system. Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, has the distinction of being the only one in the nation with a federal ban on air tour over-flights, thanks mostly to the League of Women Voters chapter in neighboring Estes Park. Park Planner Larry Gamble took me to see the plaque the League erected in honor of the natural soundscape. It was in the perfect spot, with a small stream gurgling nearby and the wind blowing through the branches of two venerable aspens. Gamble and I walked up a glacial moraine to a place where we heard wood frogs singing below us and a hawk crying as it circled in front of snow-capped Long's Peak. But in the twenty minutes since we'd begun our walk, Gamble and I counted almost a dozen jets, all in audible descent toward the Denver airport. I'd flown in on one of them the day before.

The most intractable noise problem in our national parks comes from the sky. The reasons for this are both acoustical, in terms of how sound propagates from the air, and political. The skies above the parks are not managed by parks. All commercial air space in the US is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a reputation for safeguarding both its regulatory prerogatives and what is often referred to in aviation parlance as "the freedom of the skies." Passengers taking advantage of that freedom in the United States numbered around 760 million last year. But much of the controversy about aircraft noise in our parks has centered on air tours.

A twenty-year dispute over air-tours above the Grand Canyon has involved all three branches of the federal government and, for protraction and difficulty, makes the court case in Bleak House look like a session with Judge Judy. A breakthrough seemed likely when the Grand Canyon Working Group, which includes representatives of the Park Service, the FAA, the air tour industry, environmental organizations, tribal leaders, and other affected parties, eventually managed to agree on two critical points. First, the Park Service's proposal that "the substantial restoration of natural quiet" called for in the 1987 Grand Canyon Overflights Act meant that 50 percent or more of the park should be free of aircraft noise 75 percent or more of the time (with no limits established for the other 50 percent). They also agreed on the computer model of the park's acoustics that would be used to determine if and when those requirements had been met. All that remained was to plug in the data.

The results were startling. Even when air tour overflights were factored out entirely, the model showed that only 2 percent of the park was quiet 75 percent of the time, due to noise from hundreds of daily commercial flights above 18,000 feet. In other words, air tours could be abolished altogether and the park would still be awash in the noise of aviation. Those findings came in over two years ago. The Park Service has since redefined the standard to apply only to aircraft flying below 18,000 feet. The Working Group has yet to meet this year.


Noise can be characterized as a minor issue. The pollution of a soundscape is hardly as momentous as the pollution of the seas. But the failure of an animal to hear a mating call—or a predator—over a noise event is neither insignificant nor undocumented. (One 2007 study shows the deleterious effects of industrial noise on the pairing success of ovenbirds; another from 2006 shows significant modifications in the "antipredator behavior" of California ground squirrels living near wind turbines.) On the human side, the inability of a park visitor to hear 10 percent of an interpretative talk, or the inability to enjoy natural quiet for fifteen minutes out of an hour's hike—as the Grand Canyon plan allows—does not mean that the visitor understood 90 percent of the presentation or that the hiker enjoyed her remaining forty-five minutes on the trail.

In dismissing the effects of noise, we dismiss the importance of the small creature and the small human moment, an attitude with environmental and cultural costs that are anything but small. Not least of all we're dismissing intimacy: the firsthand knowledge and love of living things that can never come exclusively through the eye, the screen, the windshield—or on the run. This struck home for me in a chat with several members of the League of Women Voters in a noisy coffee house in Estes Park, Colorado. I'd come to learn more about the air tour ban over Rocky Mountain National Park and ended by asking why the park and its natural sounds were so important to them.

"Many people just drive through the park," said Helen Hondius, straining to be heard above the merciless grinding of a latte machine, "so for them it's just the visual beauty." For Hondius and her friends, however, all of whom walk regularly over the trails, the place needed to be heard as well as seen. "It's like anything else," Lynn Young added, "when you take the time to enjoy it, the park becomes a part of what you are. It can shape you."

Robert Manning of the University of Vermont has worked with the park system for three decades on issues of "carrying capacity"—the sustainable level of population and activity for an environmental unit—and more recently on issues of noise. He feels that the park system should "offer what individuals are prepared for at any given stage in their life cycle." In short, it should offer what he calls "an opportunity to evolve." He admires people "who've developed their appreciation of nature to the extent that they're willing and anxious to put on their packs and go out and hike, maybe for a day, maybe for a two-week epic adventure, walking lightly on the land, with only the essentials. But—those people probably didn't start there. I bet a lot of them went on a family camping trip when they were kids. Mom and Dad packed them into the car in the classic American pilgrimage and went out for two weeks' vacation and visited fifteen national parks in two weeks and had a wonderful time."

Seen from Manning's perspective, the social task of the national parks is to provide an experience of nature that is both available to people as they are and suitable to people as they might become. Such a task is robustly democratic and aggressively inclusive, but it is not easily achieved. It obliges us to grow, to evolve as the parks themselves have evolved, and we may best be able to determine how far we have come by how many natural sounds we can hear.

Garret Keizer is at work on a book about the history and politics of noise. You can contribute a story to his research at:

How to Talk With Evangelicals About Evolution

Smithsonian Magazine

Rick Potts is no atheist-evolutionist-Darwinist. That often comes as a surprise to the faith communities he works with as head of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Human Origins Program in Washington, D.C.

Raised Protestant — with, he likes to say, “an emphasis on the ‘protest’” — the paleoanthropologist spends his weekends singing in a choir that sings both sacred and secular songs. At 18, he became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, because he felt it was antithetical to people trying to understand each other. In college, he studied comparative religion. “I wanted to understand that universality of human beings,” he explains, framed by the early hominin skull casts that line his office on the National Mall. “How do you understand all of human beings as a totality, rather than the divisions between people?”

That’s why, for him, human evolution is the perfect topic to break down entrenched barriers between people in an increasingly polarized, politicized world.

Potts first joined the Smithsonian Institution, the United States' vast network of public museums and research centers, back in 1985, and he knew he wanted to create a new kind of human evolution exhibit — one that went beyond phylogeny and taxonomy. The hall’s lofty title — “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” is no accident. “Ours is the only one to ask that larger question,” he says of the installation.

Still, by 2010 Potts says he realized that the only people coming to the exhibit were those who had no quarrel with the science of evolution. In order to reach the more than 100 million Americans who still question that science, he would have to take the evidence — carefully packaged — to them.

Such was the origin of the Human Origins Traveling Exhibit, which wrapped up last year. The idea was to bring key parts of the permanent installation in the nation's capital to diverse communities, including ones that were rural, religious, remote. At least 10 of the 19 sites the Smithsonian visited were deemed “challenging” — places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject, for religious or other reasons. The exhibit would be accompanied by a team of clergy members and scientists handpicked by the Smithsonian, and they would engage the public and local clergy in conversations about this fraught topic.

This project was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a well-resourced organization that backs efforts to bring religion and science into harmony, as well as the Smithsonian's Peter Buck Fund for Human Origins Research. Part of the stated goal was straightforward science education. After all, evolutionary theory is the backbone of chemistry and biology, the through-line that makes sense of all the sciences. Human evolution is also “one of the highest hurdles — if not the highest hurdle — to science education in America,” says Potts, a 64-year-old with wire-rim glasses and a gentle demeanor.

But merely teaching evolutionary science wasn’t the point. Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

Image by Springfield-Greene County Library. Rick Potts leads an evening science program at the Springfield-Greene County Library in Missouri. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Human Origins Program. Human evolution is “one of the highest hurdles — if not the highest hurdle — to science education in America,” says Potts.The traveling exhibition aimed to engage local communities in the global scientific exploration of how humans have evolved over time — while also inviting discussion about what it means to be human. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Human Origins Program. Human evolution is “one of the highest hurdles — if not the highest hurdle — to science education in America,” says Potts.The traveling exhibition aimed to engage local communities in the global scientific exploration of how humans have evolved over time — while also inviting discussion about what it means to be human. (original image)


If you aren’t caught on one side of the evolution debates, it can be hard to grasp what all the fuss is about. Here’s the short version: Charles Darwin’s crime wasn’t disproving God. Rather, the evolutionary theory he espoused in "On the Origin of Species" rendered God unnecessary. Darwin provided an explanation for life’s origins — and, more problematically, the origins of humanity — that didn’t require a creator.

What would Darwin think if he could see the evolution wars rage today? If he knew that, year after year, national polls find one-third of Americans believe that humans have always existed in their current form? (In many religious groups, that number is far higher.) That, among all Western nations, only Turkey is more likely than the United States to flat-out reject the notion of human evolution?

Those who research the topic call this paradigm the “conflict mode" because it pits religion and science against each other, with little room for discussion. And researchers are starting to realize that it does little to illuminate the science of evolution for those who need it most. “Acceptance is my goal,” says Jamie Jensen, an associate professor who teaches undergraduate biology at Brigham Young University. Nearly all Jensen’s students identify as Mormon. “By the end of Biology 101, they can answer all the questions really well, but they don’t believe a word I say,” she says. “If they don’t accept it as being real, then they’re not willing to make important decisions based on evolution — like whether or not to vaccinate their child or give them antibiotics.”

In 2017, biology education researchers at Arizona State University tested whether teaching strategies could lower this sense of conflict. For a study, they added two-week modules in biology classes to directly address students’ philosophical roadblocks and brought in contemporary scientists with religious backgrounds. By the end of the class, the authors noted in a paper, students who perceived a conflict were reduced by half, leading them to conclude that discussing the compatibility of religion and evolution "can have a positive impact on students that may extend beyond the classroom.”

This work is part of a wider movement seeking to bridge the gap between evolutionary science and religion — whether real or perceived. The big players include the BioLogos Foundation, an organization that stresses the compatibility of Christianity and science founded by Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a program that aims to encourage science dialogues within faith communities.

These groups recognize that cultural barriers, not a lack of education, are what’s preventing more Americans from accepting evolution. “I never want to downplay the importance of teaching our students evolution, I think it’s the most important thing we do,” says Elizabeth Barnes, one of the co-authors of the biology education paper. “But it’s not enough if we want students to actually accept evolution.”

Skull casts of early human ancestors traveled the country as part of the exhibit, which encouraged visitors to consider evolution as something that links all of humanity, rather than divides it. (Smithsonian Institution)

The museums traveling evolution exhibit may be among the most ambitious efforts to bridge the science-faith divide. The idea of going from a debate to a conversation “is a game changer, in terms of the rules of how you listen and how you talk to someone,” says Potts. To do that, he sought to bring human evolution not only to people who wanted to hear about it, but to those who really, really didn’t.


“We knew there’d be backlash," says Penny Talbert, a 47-year old who was born into a Pennsylvania Dutch family and now works as a librarian and executive director of the Ephrata Public Library in Pennsylvania. “We didn’t expect the anger.”

Of all the communities chosen to host the Smithsonian exhibit in 2015, Ephrata would prove to be the most challenging. The town, which means “fruitful” and gets its name from the biblical site of Ephrath, is in the heart of Amish country. Most of its residents are conservative Christian and Anabaptist (Amish, Mennonite, Brethren); more than 70 percent voted for Donald Trump. Ephrata was also the only town that staged a substantial boycott to the exhibit, which included touch-screen kiosks, casts of prehistoric skulls, and a panel pointing out that Homo sapiens share 60 percent of their genes with bananas, 85 percent with mice, and 75 percent with chickens.

But it was a near life-sized likeness of a female Neanderthal and her naked child that sparked the most furor among the 30,000 people in the area the library serves. The reproduced statue was stationed at the library’s front entrance on a wooden support. When families entered, they would often cover their children’s eyes throughout the exhibit. A group called Young Earth Action started a website called “The Devil Comes to Ephrata," and an editorial in the local paper accused Talbert of “waging spiritual warfare” on her community.

“What troubled me most was your statue of a naked little boy and lady — right as you walk into the library,” one woman wrote to the library’s board. “I was shocked. Our local library should be a safe place for our children, not a place where we have to worry what our children will see when we come into the library.” The letter was signed, “A Troubled Mom.”

Image by Smithsonian Institution. A reproduction of this bronze statue depicting a curious two-year old Homo neanderthalensis learning from his mother generated charges of pornography at a library in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. (original image)

Image by Tompkins County Public Library. A small visitor views the display at Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca, New York. (original image)

Image by Rachel E. Gross. Skeletons in the Human Origins Hall show how humans adapted to hot climates in the past. (original image)

When I visited Talbert last summer, I asked her if she could think of any topic more offensive to her community than human evolution. She was wearing jeans and maroon sunglasses; her hair was brown and streaked with gray.

“Library abortions would probably be more offensive,” Talbert replied, “but that would probably be it.”

Of course, no one who comes to the Human Origins exhibit enters as a blank slate; visitors come in shaped by a lifetime of culture and environment. And a growing body of scientific research suggests that facts don’t change people’s beliefs — particularly when those beliefs are wrapped up in their sense of core identity.

“In what has become a relatively contentious society, can we create spaces when people who have serious and profound differences in views can actually engage each other in conversation?" asks Jim Miller, the president of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith and an adviser for the Human Origins Program. The hope, Miller says, is "that we can reach not necessarily a level of agreement, but some level of understanding.”

Dan Kahan, a science communication expert at Yale Law School, thinks that's possible, but only if we abandon some tired rhetorical terrain. Asking people whether or not they “believe” in evolution is the wrong question, Kahan's work suggests, because it forces them to decide between what they know and who they are.

When I told Kahan about the Smithsonian’s project, he agreed with the premise. “I think the organizers are hitting on a really important point, which is that you don’t want to put people in the position of choosing between what science knows and being who you are as a member of the social community,” he says.

“In fact, the literature suggests that’s the worst thing you can do if you want people who have that identity to openly engage with evolution,” he adds.

Better, he suggests, to ask these communities how they think science would explain the mechanisms behind evolution. “Science should be true to science, and then figure out how to make the experience as accessible as possible to as many diverse people as they can,” Kahan says. This involves “teaching them what science knows, you’re not making them into another person.”


About halfway through the Human Origins Hall, an interactive kiosk asks the titular question, “What does it mean to be human?” Here, visitors can view past responses: “We appreciate beauty,” reads one. “To believe in right versus wrong,” says another. “Write poetry and equations … To create and talk incessantly about it … Imagine the impossible … Laughter … To weep for the loss of a loved one … Understand our connection to other living creatures.”

Then visitors are invited to write in their own answers. Many of these, which appear on the Human Origins website, are God-focused, anti-evolution, or have nothing to do with science, but that doesn’t bother Potts. Of course, he’d like to see a society that more readily accepts the science of evolution. “But my philosophy about that is that acceptance has to come from within,” he says. “It doesn’t come from an external effort to gain acceptance.”

What can come from the outside is understanding through conversation. Even in Ephrata, Talbert suggests, the biggest surprise was how much engagement there was around the exhibit. “Not everyone left those conversations feeling incredibly thrilled,” Talbert says, “but I think they all left feeling like they’d been heard.”

And for Potts, that has always been the goal: to change the national rhetoric from a roiling debate to a simmering conversation. “The conflict mode is something we have inherited from past generations, and it’s really up to us whether we want to continue that,” he says. “You have a choice.”

The Commoner Who Salvaged a King’s Ransom

Smithsonian Magazine

George Fabian Lawrence, better known as “Stoney Jack,” parlayed his friendships with London navvies into a stunning series of archaeological discoveries between 1895 and 1939.

It was only a small shop in an unfashionable part of London, but it had a most peculiar clientele. From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, and its only visitors were schoolboys who came to gaze through the windows at the marvels crammed inside. But on Saturday afternoons the shop was opened by its owner—a “genial frog” of a man, as one acquaintance called him, small, pouched, wheezy, permanently smiling and with the habit of puffing out his cheeks when he talked. Settling himself behind the counter, the shopkeeper would light a cheap cigar and then wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. He waited at the counter many years—from roughly 1895 until his death in 1939—and in that time accumulated such a hoard of valuables that he supplied the museums of London with more than 15,000 ancient artifacts and still had plenty left to stock his premises at 7 West Hill, Wandsworth.

“It is,” the journalist H.V. Morton assured his readers in 1928,

perhaps the strangest shop in London. The shop sign over the door is a weather-worn Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins…

There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.

H.V. Morton, one of the best-known British journalists of the 1920s and 1930s, often visited Lawrence’s shop as a young man, and wrote a revealing and influential pen-portrait of him.

This higgledy-piggledy collection was the property of George Fabian Lawrence, an antiquary born in the Barbican area of London in 1861—though to say that Lawrence owned it is to stretch a point, for much of his stock was acquired by shadowy means, and on more than one occasion an embarrassed museum had to surrender an item it had bought from him.

For the better part of half a century, however, august institutions from the British Museum down winked at his hazy provenances and his suspect business methods, for the shop on West Hill supplied items that could not be found elsewhere. Among the major museum pieces that Lawrence obtained and sold were the head of an ancient ocean god, which remains a cornerstone of the Roman collection at the Museum of London; a spectacular curse tablet in the British Museum, and the magnificent Cheapside Hoard: a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar shortly before the First World War. It was the chief triumph of Lawrence’s career that he could salvage the Hoard, which still comprises the greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed.

Lawrence’s operating method was simple but ingenious. For several decades, he would haunt London’s building sites each weekday lunch hour, sidling up to the laborers who worked there, buying them drinks and letting them know that he was more than happy to purchase any curios—from ancient coins to fragments of pottery—that they and their mates uncovered in the course of their excavations. According to Morton, who first visited the West Hill shop as a wide-eyed young man around 1912, and soon began to spend most of his Saturday afternoons there, Lawrence was so well known to London’s navvies that he was universally referred to as “Stoney Jack.” A number, Morton added, had been offered “rudimentary archaeological training,” by the antiquary, so they knew what to look for.

Lawrence made many of his purchases on the spot; he kept his pockets full of half-crowns (each worth two shillings and sixpence, or around $18.50 today) with which to reward contacts, and he could often be spotted making furtive deals behind sidewalk billboards and in barrooms. His greatest finds, though were the ones that wended their way to Wandsworth on the weekends, brought there wrapped in handkerchiefs or sacks by navvies spruced up in their Sunday best, for it was only then that laborers could spirit their larger discoveries away from the construction sites and out from under the noses of their foremen and any landlords’ representatives. They took such risks because they liked and trusted Lawrence—and also, as JoAnn Spears explains it, because he “understood networking long before it became a buzzword, and leveraged connections like a latter-day Fagin.”

London navvies–laborers who excavated foundations, built railways and dug tunnels, all by hand–uncovered thousands of valuable artefacts in the British capital each year.

Two more touches of genius ensured that Stoney Jack remained the navvies’ favorite. The first was that he was renowned for his honesty. If ever a find sold for more than he had estimated it was worth, he would track down the discoverer and make certain he received a share of the profits. The second was that Lawrence never turned a visitor away empty-handed. He rewarded even the most worthless discoveries with the price of half a pint of beer, and the workmen’s attitude toward his chief rival—a representative of the City of London’s Guildhall Museum who earned the contemptuous nickname “Old Sixpenny”—is a testament to his generosity.

Lawrence lived at just about the time that archaeology was emerging as a professional discipline, but although he was extremely knowledgeable, and enjoyed a long career as a salaried official—briefly at the Guildhall and for many years as Inspector of Excavations at the newer Museum of London—he was at heart an antiquarian. He had grown up as the son of a pawnbroker and left school at an early age; for all his knowledge and enthusiasm, he was more or less self-taught. He  valued objects for themselves and for what they could tell him about some aspect of the past, never, apparently, seeing his discoveries as tiny fragments of some greater whole.

To Lawrence, Morton wrote,

the past appeared to be more real, and infinitely more amusing, than the present. He had an almost clairvoyant attitude to it. He would hold a Roman sandal—for leather is marvelously preserved in the London clay—and, half closing his eyes, with his head on one side, his cheroot obstructing his diction, would speak about the cobbler who had made it ages ago, the shop in which it had been sold, the kind of Roman who had probably brought it and the streets of the long-vanished London it had known.

The whole picture took life and colour as he spoke. I have never met anyone with a more affectionate attitude to the past.

Like Morton, who nursed a love of ancient Egypt, Stoney Jack acquired his interest in ancient history during his boyhood. “For practical purposes,” he told another interviewer, “let us say 1885, when as a youth of 18 I found my first stone implement…. It chanced that one morning I read in the paper of the finding of some stone implements in my neighborhood. I wondered if there were any more to be found. I proceeded to look for them in the afternoon, and was rewarded.”

A Roman “curse tablet”, recovered by Lawrence from an excavation in Telegraph Street, London, is now part of the collection of the British Museum.

Controversial though Lawrence’s motives and his methods may have been, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was the right man in the right place to save a good deal of London’s heritage. Between 1890 and 1930 the city underwent redevelopment at a pace unheard of since the Great Fire of 1666; old buildings were demolished and replaced with newer, taller ones that required deeper foundations. In the days before the advent of widespread mechanization in the building trade, much of the necessary digging was done by navvies, who hacked their way down through Georgian, Elizabethan, medieval and finally Saxon and Roman strata that had not been exposed for centuries.

It was a golden age for excavation. The relatively small scale of the work—which was mostly done with picks and shovels—made it possible to spot and salvage minor objects in a way no longer practicable today. Even so, no formal system existed for identifying or protecting artifacts, and without Lawrence’s intervention most if not all of the 12,000 objects he supplied to the Museum of London, and the 300 and more catalogued under his name at the British Museum, would have been tipped into skips and shot into Thames barges to vanish into landfill on the Erith marshes. This was very nearly the fate of the treasure with which Stoney Jack will always be associated: the ancient bucket packed to the brim with a king’s ransom worth of gems and jewelery that was dug out of a cellar in the City of London during the summer of 1912.

It is impossible to say for certain who uncovered what would become known as the Cheapside Hoard, exactly where they found it, or when it came into the antiquary’s possession. According to Francis Sheppard, the date was June 18, 1912, and the spot an excavation on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside in a district that had long been associated with the jewelery trade. That may or may not be accurate; one of Lawrence’s favorite tricks was to obscure the precise source of his most valued stock so as to prevent suspicious landowners from lodging legal claims.

This dramatic pocket watch, dated to c.1610 and set in a case carved from a single large Colombian emerald, was one of the most valuable of the finds making up the Cheapside Hoard–and led historian Kris Lane to put forward a new theory explaining the Hoard’s origins. Photo: Museum of London.

Whatever the truth, the discovery was a spectacular one whose value was recognized by everyone who saw it—everyone, that is, but the navvies who uncovered the Hoard in the first place. According to Morton, who claimed to have been present as a boy when the find was brought to West Hill by its discoverers one Saturday evening, the workmen who had uncovered it believed that they had “struck a toyshop.” Tipping open a sack, the men disgorged an enormous lump of clay resembling “an iron football, the journalist recalled, “and they said there was a lot more of it. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery.”

For the most accurate version of what happened next, it is necessary to turn to the records of the Museum of London, which reveal that the discovery caused so much excitement that a meeting of the museum’s trustees was convened at the House of Commons the next evening, and the whole treasure was assembled for inspection a week later. “By that time,” Sheppard notes, “Lawrence had somehow or other got hold of a few more jewels, and on June 26 sent him a cheque for £90…. Whether this was the full amount paid by the trustees for the hoard is not clear. In August 1913 he was paid £47 for unspecified purchases for the museum.”

Morton—who was 19 at the time of the discovery—offered a more romantic account many years later: “I believe that Lawrence declared this as treasure trove and was awarded a large sum of money, I think a thousand pounds. I well remember that he gave each of the astounded navvies something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these men disappeared, and were not seen again for months!”

Whatever the truth, the contents of the navvies’ bucket were certainly astonishing. The hoard consisted of several hundred  pieces—some of them gems, but most worked pieces of jewelery in a wide variety of styles. They came from all over the world; among the most spectacular pieces were a number of cameos featuring Roman gods, several fantastical jewels from Mughal India, a quantity of superb 17th-century enamelware, and a large hinged watch case carved from a huge emerald.

A finely-worked salamander brooch, typical of the intricate Stuart-era jewelry that made up the Cheapside Hoard. Photo: Museum of London.

The collection was tentatively dated to around 1600-1650, and was rendered particularly valuable by the ostentatious fashions of the time; many of the pieces had bold, complex designs that featured a multiplicity of large gems. It was widely assumed, then and now, that the Cheapside Hoard was the stock-in-trade of some Stuart-era jeweler that had been buried for safekeeping some time during the Civil War that shattered England, Ireland and Scotland between 1642 and 1651, eventually resulting in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived puritan republic.

It is easy to imagine some hapless jeweler, impressed into the Parliamentarian army, concealing his valuables in his cellar before marching off to his death on a distant battlefield. More recently, however, an alternative theory has been advanced by Kris Lane, an historian at Tulane whose book The Color of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires suggests that the Cheapside Hoard probably had its origins in the great emerald markets of India, and may once have belonged to a Dutch gem merchant named Gerard Polman.

The story that Lane spins goes like this: Testimonies recorded in London in 1641 show that, a decade earlier, Polman had  booked passage home from Persia after a lifetime’s trading in the east. He had offered £100 or £200 to the master of an East India Company ship Discovery in Gombroon, Persia, to bring him home to Europe, but got no further than the Comoros Islands before dying–possibly poisoned by the ship’s crew for his valuables. Soon afterwards, the carpenter’s mate of the Discovery, one Christopher Adams, appropriated a large black box, stuffed with jewels and silk, that had once belonged to Polman. This treasure, the testimonies state, was astonishingly valuable; according to Adams’s wife, the gems it contained were “so shiny that they thought the cabin was afire” when the box had first been opened in the Indian Ocean. “Other deponents who had seen the jewels on board ship,” adds Lane, “said they could read by their brilliance.”

Cheapside–for many years center of London’s financial district district, but in Stuart times known for its jewelry stores–photographed in c.1900.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that when the Discovery finally hove to off Gravesend, at the mouth of the Thames, at the end of her long voyage, Adams jumped ship and went ashore in a small boat, taking his loot with him. We know from the Parliamentary archive that he made several journeys to London to fence the jewels, selling some to a man named Nicholas Pope who kept a shop off Fleet Street.

Soon, however, word of his treachery reached the directors of the East India Company, and Adams was promptly taken into custody. He spent the next three years in jail. It is the testimony that he gave from prison that may tie Polman’s gems to the Cheapside Hoard.

The booty, Adams admitted, had included “a greene rough stone or emerald three inches long and three inches in compass”—a close match for the jewel carved into a  hinged watch case that Stoney Jack recovered in 1912. This jewel, he confessed, “was afterward pawned at Cheapside, but to whom he knoweth not”, and Lane considers it a “likely scenario” that the emerald found its way into the bucket buried in a Cheapside cellar; “many of the other stones and rings,” he adds, “appear tantalizingly similar to those mentioned in the Polman depositions.” If Lane is right, the Cheapside Hoard may have been buried in the 1630s, to avoid the agents of the East India Company, rather than lost during the chaos of the Civil War.

Whether or not Lane’s scholarly detective work has revealed the origins of the Cheapside Hoard, it seems reasonable to ask whether the good that Stoney Jack Lawrence did was enough to outweigh the less creditable aspects of his long career. His business was, of course, barely legitimate, and, in theory, his navvies’ finds belonged to the owner of the land that they were working on—or, if exceptionally valuable, to the Crown. That they had to be smuggled off the building sites, and that Lawrence, when he catalogued and sold them, chose to be vague about exactly where they had been found, is evidence enough of his duplicity.

A selection of the 500 pieces making up the Cheapside Hoard that were recovered from a ball of congealed mud and crushed metalwork resembling an “iron football” uncovered in the summer of 1912. Photo: Museum of London.

Equally disturbing, to the modern scholar, is Lawrence’s willingness to compromise his integrity as a salaried official of several museums by acting as both buyer and seller in hundreds of transactions, not only setting his own price, but also authenticating artifacts that he himself supplied. Yet there is remarkably little evidence that any institution Lawrence worked for paid over the odds for his discoveries, and when Stoney Jack died, at age 79, he left an estate totaling little more than £1,000 (about $87,000 now). By encouraging laborers to hack treasures from the ground and smuggle them out to him, the old antiquary also turned his back on the possibility of setting up regulated digs that would almost certainly have turned up additional finds and evidence to set his greatest discoveries in context. On the other hand, there were few regulated digs in those days, and had Lawarence never troubled to make friends with London navvies, most of his finds would have been lost for ever.

For H.V. Morton, it was Stoney Jack’s generosity that mattered. “He loved nothing better than a schoolboy who was interested in the past,” Morton wrote. “Many a time I have seen a lad in his shop longingly fingering some trifle that he could not afford to buy. ‘Put it in your pocket,’ Lawrence would cry. ‘I want you to have it, my boy, and–give me threepence!‘”

But perhaps the last word can be left to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, something of a swashbuckler himself, but by the time he became keeper of the Museum of London in the 1930s–after Stoney Jack had been forced into retirement for making one illicit purchase too many outside a guarded building site–a pillar of the British archaeological establishment.

“But for Mr Lawrence,” Wheeler conceded,

not a tithe of the objects found during building or dredging operations in the neighborhood of London during the last forty years would have been saved to knowledge. If on occasion a remote landowner may, in the process, theoretically have lost some trifle that was his just due, a higher justice may reasonably recognize that… the representative and, indeed, important prehistoric, Roman, Saxon and medieval collections of the Museum are largely founded upon this work of skillful salvage.


Anon. “Saved Tudor relics.” St Joseph News-Press (St Joseph, MO), August 3, 1928; Anon. “Stoney Jack’s work for museum.” Straits Times (Singapore), August 1, 1928; Michael Bartholomew. In Search of HV Morton. London: Methuen, 2010; Joanna Bird, Hugh Chapman & John Clark. Collectanea Loniniensia: Studies in London Archaeology and History Presented to Ralph Merrifield. London: London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1978; Derby Daily Telegraph, November 20, 1930; Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, March 17, 1939; Gloucester Citizen, July 3, 1928; Kris E. Lane. The Colour of Paradise: the Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010;  J. MacDonald. “Stony Jack’s Roman London.” In J. Bird, M. Hassall and Harvey Sheldon, Interpreting Roman London. Oxbow Monograph 58 (1996); Ivor Noël Hume. A Passion for the Past: the Odyssey of a Transatlantic Archaeologist. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2010; Arthur MacGregor. Summary Catalogue of the Continental Archaeological Collections. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1997; Francis Sheppard. Treasury of London’s Past. London: Stationery Office, 1991;  HV Morton. In Search of London. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2002; Derek Sherborn. An Inspector Recalls. London: Book Guild, 2003; JoAnn Spears. “The Cheapside Hoard.” On the Tudor Trail, February 23, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2013; Peter Watts. “Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard.” The Great Wen, November 18, 2010. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Havana's Hidden Architectural Gems

Smithsonian Magazine

A high piece of wall came down in the middle of dress rehearsal. The musical was Victor/Victoria, the gender-bending comedy, and young dancers in black leotards ran and scattered in all directions, screaming, as the patch of plaster broke free, plummeted down, and landed with a harmless thud off stage right. A puff of powder marked the strike zone, amid elaborate lighting fixtures that run up each side of Teatro América. The big lights were designed to frame rising rows of seating and to illuminate the audience, not the stage. In the Havana of the 1940s and ’50s, the people themselves were the drama.

Jorge Alfaro Samá, the theater’s artistic director, didn’t move. Standing at center stage, he quickly dismissed the falling plaster as “nothing.” The dancers returned, to nervous giggles, and then listened to him finish reviewing their call schedule. Entire buildings collapse all the time in Havana, so losing a patch of wall or ceiling is routine, even in one of the city’s most cherished and popular venues. This is a dress rehearsal, Alfaro Samá reminded the actors—call it good luck and hit your marks.

Offstage, the director suggested that I follow him to a quieter location—presumably one with solid walls. We climbed up the long empty rows and crossed through the marble lobby, with its twin sweeping staircases and fat balustrades. Opened in 1941, the theater evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere wrapped in zodiac signs. It’s all curves and soft corners; extravagant art deco styling is squeezed into ticket booths and tangential lobby bars. Alfaro Samá led me through a small office, into a smaller one, and finally into a tiny area behind it, filled by his desk and the two of us. Like the innermost chamber of a snail’s shell, this is the impresario’s safe space. Photos of Latin performers who have appeared at the theater, dating back decades, crowded the little area behind him.

The problem of the plaster, Alfaro Samá said, was typical of Cuba. He was determined to restore the theater “to how it was in its golden age,” but could do little more than repair a few details. The space was heavily used (acts from rappers to musical theater were booked four nights a week, and I’d once felt imprisoned here during an hours-long rumba performance), allowing no time for proper restoration. Maintenance of a public building is the responsibility of bureaucrats outside the theater anyway. “I’ve worked here 18 years, and in that time we learned to work around problems,” Alfaro Samá said. They had patched walls and ceilings before, and they would do it again.

In more than two decades of reporting in Havana, I’ve grown accustomed to the visual signatures of the city: grimy old buildings, rattletrap cars, little that is new or bright. But that is only on the surface; in Cuba, there is always an inside, a life of interior spaces, and this is especially true amid the city’s hidden gems of architecture.

Teatro América is one such gem, concealed in plain sight behind a dull screen of gray polygon concrete on Galiano Street. When the theater opened, this part of Centro was the commercial artery of Havana, and the marble walkways held the names of now vanished department stores. Galiano is still chaotic—during my visit in March, I was nearly flattened by a man unloading smoked ham hocks from the trunk of a 1950s car, and had to push aside mattress vendors to reach the theater. But step inside and you are in the museum that is Cuban architecture.

There is no city in the world so layered with hidden beauty. Yet today, as Havana opens to the world, it is also poised at the edge of collapse. Love of the city, which I have visited regularly for a quarter century, brought me back looking for answers: Can a place long known for its decay become dedicated to preservation? What can be done to protect its architectural legacy? And how can that be accomplished while also meeting the growing demands of Cuba’s hard-pressed and ambitious people?

Lesson one: Keep your eyes peeled for chunks of falling plaster.

Performers at Teatro América, like these dancers on break, sometimes need to be wary of falling plaster. (João Pina)


Havana is a city easy to navigate, limited by the sea and divided from its suburbs by a river. Each neighborhood seems defined by historic landmarks. Old Havana, founded in 1519, still spreads out from the original Plaza de Armas, the civic space of medieval Spain. Next out from the harbor, in distance and time, is its modern equivalent, the Parque Central district, overseen by the National Capitol building, based on the Panthéon in Paris (not the U.S. Capitol, as sometimes claimed). Next are the elegant and faded apartment blocks of fin-del-siglo Centro, followed by the Vedado business district, still dominated by Welton Becket’s 1958 Hilton hotel, a 25-floor modernist statement renamed the Hotel Habana Libre. Beyond, there is the 20th-century suburb of Playa, visually defined by the spacious and arrow-straight Avenida Quinta (“fifth avenue”), lined with the luxurious mansions of Cuba’s old rich and miles of precise topiary.

Even symbols of communist power—the tower of what was once the Soviet Embassy in Miramar, or the barren asphalt plain of Revolutionary Square—have redeeming value in making orientation easy.

Then all you have to do is look up. “Havana is a library of architecture,” says Raúl Rodríguez, a Cuban architect-in-exile with a deep passion for Cuban history and architecture. “Every style is well represented there, and the reason for its magic is the tripartite culture”—African, American, European.

From the very beginning, the city was a mixture: star-shaped forts from medieval Europe, shaded Moorish colonnades, Greco-Roman columns, French landscaping, and the iconic Malecón seawall built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Exiled Bauhaus stars like Walter Gropius visited Cuba during the 1940s, and with an influx of influential Cuban architects trained at Columbia University, the city became an eclectic crossroads.

Various structures and styles competed for attention. In 1930, the Bacardi family built a tower named for themselves that mixed art deco with eccentric combinations of etched amber and steel, and terra-cotta bas reliefs by Maxfield Parrish. (Ask to see the old private bar.) I’m particularly fond of another art deco excess, the Maternity Hospital erected in 1940 by José Pérez Benitoa. The gorgeous Cine-Teatro Sierra Maestra movie theater, located in the Rancho Boyeros suburb, is art deco but features a Maya-motif interior.

The layers continue through 1958, with only a few gestures since then, notably the National Art Schools in suburban Cubanacán. It was there that a collective of Cuban architects turned a private golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and elaborate classrooms. It was a utopian dream of social progress, but by 1965 the project had collapsed and was abandoned to the jungle. Now partly reclaimed, it struggles along like the revolution itself, leaking badly but still active.


Rodríguez is proud of that extensive catalog of eras past. But most critical to Havana’s architecture may be what has not happened since. “There’s a crust that has developed,” says Washington, D.C., architect Gary Martinez, “an age of time over the entire city.”

Martinez has visited Havana for 15 years, studying the city’s theaters, dance studios, and other public spaces. I asked him the question every visitor grapples with: What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” Martinez said. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.”

He described finding an old theater with a retracting roof. Judging from its appearance, he expected it to be abandoned. Instead, he and some companions discovered men repairing cars in what used to be the lobby. Pushing farther inside, they found a dance troupe training onstage. Thanks to decades of improvised and incomplete repairs, the roof still retracted—sometimes.

The past has not passed, not in Havana. It’s very much present. And yet—this is the key—so are the Cuban people, persevering in the here and now, against the odds and after a span of many difficult decades. The result is a surreal overlap of eras, a time-travel experience on every block. That is the magic.

“They were fixing cars in the lobby,” Martinez marveled.

Image by João Pina. The National Art Schools began when Cuban architects turned a golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and classrooms. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Inside the National Art Schools (original image)

Image by João Pina. The Hotel Nacional is a towering presence in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Opened in 1941, Teatro América evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere. It’s all curves and soft corners. (original image)

Image by João Pina. What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” says architect Gary Martinez. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.” (original image)


I’ve had that moment—that strange, surreal feeling—often in Cuba. It occurred the next day when I walked the length of the Calzada del Cerro, a neighborhood that twisted toward Old Havana, each house fronted by a portico, loggia, or arched arcade that created one continuous shaded walkway for a mile or so. The richly ornamented 19th-century buildings had become dilapidated. One family invited me inside to drink strong coffee and watch baseball on a flat-screen TV. Rooms were separated only by towels, the stairs were jerry-built out of concrete blocks, the living room was now a garage, and tin roofing kept the rain out.

“The government said it would get the tiles we need” to maintain the historic character of the building, “but it never comes,” said Elmis Sadivar, the matron of the household. As we watched the ball game, she was anxiously checking her cell phone for updates about her adult daughter, who had recently left for America illegally. The family couldn’t afford to fix things themselves, she said: “A bag of cement costs half a month’s salary.”

Next door I found a man in his 70s trying to build a roof for his home, which in the meantime had blue-sky views. A house on the corner was similarly roofless, at least on the front side, and a careening garbage truck had recently taken out two of the four columns supporting the 19th-century arcade. People living in the back had refused to move out of the house, valuing the close-in location more than they feared the risk of collapse.


Yet the revolution has treated some of its treasures with great care. These include homes confiscated from wealthy exiles in 1959, many of them parceled out as embassies and cultural centers. The revolutionary government transferred the contents of those homes—a trove of ceramics, paintings, statues, and other objets d’art—to official buildings and Cuban embassies, as well as to small museums, including the Museum of Decorative Arts in Havana.

Located in the 1927 mansion of José Gómez Mena, whose sister María Luisa was a high-society Havana hostess and patron of the arts, the museum is an overstuffed repository of 33,000 knickknacks and other memorabilia. Sèvres porcelain and Louis XV vitrines are crammed everywhere, mounted on pedestals or encased in flimsy display cases that look vulnerable to any tourist stepping back for a selfie.

I’d come here to ask deputy technical director Gustavo López about our shared passion for art deco architecture, but he immediately clarified a point as we sat down in his office. American-style art deco is strong in Cuba, López said, but it’s not unique; it also exists in Florida and New Zealand. Colonial architecture is more often regarded as “the jewel here,” he explained. And the gems of colonial architecture are in Old Havana, the protected part of the city.

Old Havana, with its narrow streets and centuries-old fortresses, has been largely saved from ruin for one reason: “It had the good luck to be inside the jurisdiction of the city historian,” said López, speaking of Eusebio Leal, an unassuming but highly regarded official. Leal was given unprecedented authority in the early 1990s to rebuild the entire district, serving as its de facto mayor and renovation tsar.

The best example of Leal’s power and methods may be the Plaza Vieja (“old square”), which is, as the name implies, the oldest of Havana’s original five plazas. “I remember as a student climbing over mounds of rubble there,” López said, describing the 1980s. “You had to be careful.” Leal was allowed to create special tourism companies, which recycled income into new renovations that, in turn, created more tourism revenue. The process can be slow—in another neighborhood, I watched Cuban workers take more than a decade to renovate what is now the Parque Central, the district’s flagship hotel—but the improvements have been undeniable.

When I first saw the Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings, the houses all around it apuntadas, or “on points,” and braced against collapse. Today the Plaza Vieja is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by ordinary Cubans—elementary school students on a class trip, young lovers taking selfies, teenagers chasing soccer balls. The surrounding blocks are dense with longtime residents. “Against wind and tide, he’s done it,” architect-in-exile Raúl Rodríguez said of Leal. “He is a hero even to Cubans who left Cuba. What he has done is going to outlast him and us.”

But Leal’s brief has mainly covered Old Havana, and a few of the oldest historic sites outside it. In much of the rest of the city, budgets for architectural restoration are much less robust and don’t necessarily benefit from tourist revenue. Leal’s team has “more resources; they have their own methods,” López said with a sigh.

When the author first saw Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings. Today, the oldest of Havana’s plazas is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by locals. (João Pina)


Where no one has the resources or personal interest to help, however, gorgeous architecture crumbles to ruin. One elegant building at risk is the Club Náutico. This prestigious old beach club in Havana’s suburbs is an airy, overlapping series of shells designed in 1953 by Max Borges Recio, who also designed the Tropicana Club. The facility has been corroded by sea spray, a huge problem on the waterfront.

Other grand buildings have been lost in this way, including a seaside amusement park in Miramar called, improbably, El Coney Island. Rusted carousels and a tiny Ferris wheel once fronted a sea-facing pavilion here, but in 2008 Chinese investors replaced it with a concrete theme park called Coconut Island.

In 2013, Camilo Valls, a Cuban arts journalist, told me about a beautiful old Moorish theater whose landmark bronze doors had simply disappeared one day—looted. By 2016 he was losing hope: The imperiled buildings of Havana would soon be “all gone,” he said. Valls then described to me the new Cuban vernacular, which he called “kitsch style.” This is the cringe-inducing tendency to rip out historic features and replace them with new-money displays. People toss away “old” light fixtures and install made-in-China chandeliers and flat-screen TVs. I heard of one man who tore the corner off his art deco house—with a bulldozer—to build a media room for his PlayStation.

“There will be a disaster if we don’t have norms,” López told me.


One building that epitomizes those risks is the López Serrano, an elegant tower in the modern downtown. In 1932, the 14-story apartment building was the tallest structure in Havana, an emblem of modernism that evoked Rockefeller Center. It still has great bones—the ziggurats and shafts of the building, by Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich, make it a kind of vertical art deco—but walking up to it, I saw how badly it had aged. The gray concrete is sweat-stained, with many of the wooden window frames cracked and the odd piece of glass punched out and replaced with cardboard. Air conditioners and improvised laundry lines clutter the narrow spaces overhead; rain cracks begin near the roof and run down the facade.

“Five hundred and forty-four windows of real wood and glass,” explained Sarah Vega, a Cuban journalist who lives on the seventh floor. Vega has made a short film, Deconstruction, about the building’s history, which was designed to represent Cuban aspirations for a modern society. The twin portals at the front door are bronzed bas reliefs, still gleaming, and visitors pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera infused with aerial speed and futurism. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. Even the light fixtures on the ceilings are wired shut to prevent anyone from swiping the fluorescent bulbs.

Vega gave me a tour of her apartment, which she shares with her mother and son. The López Serrano was aimed at Cuba’s rich, but the rooms are relatively small—the ideal customer also had a big country house. The 1932 bylaws even banned children—which was possible because this building was the country’s first co-operative apartment corporation, emblematic of Cuba’s turn toward an urbanized society. The building wasn’t progressive—the same 1932 bylaws banned black people from buying apartments—but the López Serrano was long associated with one of Cuba’s greatest heroes, the crusading reformer Eddy Chibás, who kept his offices on the top two floors. In the 1940s, Chibás railed against corruption and dictators from an office with sweeping views of the Cuban Republic. He shot himself while hosting his radio program one day, a suicide-protest commemorated with a plaque by the building’s front doors.

In ’59, the rich fled and the needy moved in. Vega is proud that empty apartments and houses across Cuba were handed out to the poor. But it was a “culture change,” she noted, with many new residents unconcerned with the López Serrano’s history or its preservation. It’s a pervasive problem: “People often don’t know where they are living, when it was built, if it was a famous architect,” said Gustavo López. “If you don’t care for what exists, it disappears.”

During the desperate economy of the 1990s, some of Vega’s neighbors began selling off elegant fixtures and even the building’s original toilets. That’s when the art deco clock over the elevator disappeared. “It’s not just money,” she said of the building’s problems. “It’s lack of knowledge.”

Image by João Pina. The López Serrano building (original image)

Image by João Pina. Visitors to López Serrano pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. (original image)


As in many endeavors, when it came to preserving the López Serrano, Cuban officials had good intentions and poor execution. Distant bureaucrats with scarce resources oversaw the building, making sporadic and only partly effective repairs—the massive front doors were refurbished, but when new elevators were installed, workers trimmed away marble detailing to make them fit. For decades the government vowed to fix the original windows but recently gave up pretending. Residents would have to pay for the job themselves. “That costs a lot of money,” Vega said. “We can’t afford it.”

Perhaps this is the greatest threat to the López Serrano: No one really owns it anymore. The revolutionary government nationalized all apartment buildings in 1959, but about a decade ago retreated from that policy, returning ownership of apartments to the residents. Yet the government retains responsibility for the shared public spaces and exteriors. That works in high-priority areas like Old Havana, but in the rest of the city, decay is the rule. Many buildings look substantially worse now than when I first arrived in 1991. An astounding portion of the city’s buildings are roofless wrecks. No one is truly in charge.

Sarah Vega’s mother suggested they would forge ahead, offering a Cuban truism: “We’ll fix what we can, with what we can get, with what we have,” she said.


The ziggurats of the López Serrano point to a difficult future. If the residents there—at least some of them more educated and historically conscious than the average Havana resident—are incapable of saving their building, what of the rest of the city, and of Cuba?

Paradoxically, there may be hope in Cuba’s economic weakness: In a land with little money but plenty of skilled craftsmen, simple forms of preservation are often the best option. Wealthy foreign developers are not allowed to overwhelm whole neighborhoods, yet Cubans, as they gradually earn more money, can renovate bit by bit. Part of one building becomes a restaurant, a house becomes a hotel, and even without a master plan, the scale of a block and the character of a district are maintained. “Kitsch style” encroachment could be staved off by strengthening Cuba’s historic preservation standards, particularly for exemplary buildings.

Architect Gary Martinez favors this approach. Huge areas of the city are fallow, with buildings either underutilized or simply abandoned, he said; let people fix them up, slowly, on their own. “There is so much building stock,” noted Tom Johnson, his business partner, “that it can almost infinitely accommodate small changes.”

There is also talk of big change—the Cuban government has asked for investment to rebuild the port of Havana, with new and much needed housing on the far side of the harbor. But Havana’s social peace will depend on keeping Habaneros invested in the city themselves. Just as Eusebio Leal has been able to preserve the residential character of Old Havana as he rebuilt it, others should be empowered to extend that model to other parts of the city. The challenge is to accommodate the next Havana, even while preserving all of the previous ones.

Read more from the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Cuba Issue

In Ponzi We Trust

Smithsonian Magazine

Editor's Note, December 19, 2009: In the wake of the scandal surrounding investor Bernard Madoff, Smithsonian looks back at the crook who gave Ponzi schemes their name

John Kenneth Galbraith once observed that "the man who is admired for the ingenuity of his larceny is almost always rediscovering some earlier form of fraud." Although the details may vary, all flimflam games rely on their basic ability to make a lie look like the truth. Even today, confidence artists continue to work their scams with great success. Time and again, people from every walk of life demonstrate their ability to abandon common sense and believe in something that is simply too good to be true by succumbing to the con man's call.

Yet when all is said and done, the Internet is merely a vehicle for swindlers to reach their victims. "What is new—and striking—is the size of the potential market and the relative ease, low cost and speed with which a scam can be perpetrated," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky told a Senate subcommittee during a February hearing on Internet fraud. But there is nothing new in the scams themselves: they are the same pyramid schemes, phony business opportunities and phantom storefronts that have been fooling the unwary and greedy for centuries.

Many of these computer-savvy crooks have taken their cue from an Italian immigrant named Charles Ponzi, a dapper, five-foot-two-inch rogue who in 1920 raked in an estimated $15 million in eight months by persuading tens of thousands of Bostonians that he had unlocked the secret to easy wealth. Ponzi's meteoric success at swindling was so remarkable that his name became attached to the method he employed, which was nothing more than the age-old game of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. The rules are simple: money taken from today's investors is used to pay off debts to yesterday's investors. Typically, these investors are lured by promises of exorbitant profits—50, even 100 percent. Often, they are coached to recruit more investors to enrich themselves further. The problem is that there is no actual investment going on; the only activity is the shuffling of money from new investors to old ones. Everything is fine until the scheme runs out of new investors and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

We still hear about Ponzi schemes, or pyramid schemes, as they are more frequently called. Last year, the collapse of dozens of Ponzi schemes in Albania sparked mass rioting that escalated into a national crisis. And in New York, investors were out an estimated $1.5 billion when the Bennett Funding Group, described by regulators as a "massive, ongoing Ponzi scheme," went belly-up. On the Internet, a company called Fortuna Alliance promised investors monthly returns as high as $5,000; more than 8,600 people bought into the scheme, which was shut down by the FTC in 1996. Fortuna eventually stipulated to an injunction prohibiting its alleged scam. In January 1998, a judge ordered the company to start paying back its investors. The FTC says it is seeking $5 million in refunds for consumers.

Ponzi himself was probably inspired by the remarkable success of William "520 percent" Miller, a young Brooklyn bookkeeper who in 1899 fleeced gullible investors to the tune of more than $1 million. Years later, "Honest Bill," as he came to be known after a jail term in Sing Sing and a turn down the straight and narrow, questioned the workings of Ponzi's enterprise. "I may be rather dense, but I cannot understand how Ponzi made so much money in so short a time," Miller observed to a reporter from the New York Evening World mere days before the bottom fell out of Ponzi's scheme.

But whatever Ponzi lacked in originality, he had plenty of finesse—and chutzpah. "He was a fascinating crook—the ultimate con man," says Ponzi biographer Donald Dunn. Ponzi's investors ran the gamut from working-class Italian immigrants like himself to cops and politicians. He even accepted money from a priest.

In the summer of 1920, Ponzi was front-page news virtually every day in the Boston papers. But prior to 1920, few people outside Boston's Italian community had ever heard of Charles Ponzi. He told the New York Times that he had come from a well-to-do family in Parma, Italy. He also claimed to have studied at the University of Rome, but said that he was not suited to the academic life. "In my college days, I was what you would call here a spendthrift. That is, I had arrived at the precarious period in a young man's life when spending money seemed the most attractive thing on earth."

When his money ran out, young Ponzi decided the wisest course of action was to head west. On November 15, 1903, he stepped off the gangplank of the SS Vancouver in Boston Harbor with only a couple of dollars in his pocket—the result, he said, of being taken in by a cardsharp during the transatlantic crossing. "I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me," Ponzi later told the New York Times.

The road to riches was a long one for the ever-optimistic Ponzi, who waited and bused tables in New York City, painted signs in Florida and worked small jobs up and down the East Coast. In 1917, he headed back to Boston in response to a newspaper ad placed by merchandise broker J. R. Poole, who needed a clerk.

He soon met young Rose Gnecco on a streetcar and wooed her energetically. A small, pretty woman from a modest background, Rose was swept off her feet by her older, seemingly sophisticated suitor. Rose's youthful innocence shines through even in newspaper photographs, as does her unswerving devotion to her husband. The couple married in February 1918. Ponzi took over his father-in-law's grocery business and proceeded to make a mess of it. (He had already left Poole, who apparently failed to recognize his new clerk's latent financial genius.)

It was not long before Ponzi struck out on his own, and finally hit upon the scheme that—for a short time—was to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. He had come up with the idea for an international trade journal, which he believed could make a tidy advertising profit. But the bank where he sought a $2,000 loan, Hanover Trust Company, did not agree. Following a brusque rejection by the bank president, Ponzi sat alone in his little School Street office and pondered his next move.

It came to him while opening his mail one day in August 1919. As Ponzi relates in his shamelessly exuberant autobiography, The Rise of Mr. Ponzi, a business correspondent from Spain, interested in learning more about Ponzi's aborted journal, had enclosed a small paper square that put the well-oiled wheels of Ponzi's imagination into overdrive.

The little scrap of paper was an international postal reply coupon, and the Spanish correspondent had enclosed it in prepayment of reply postage. Purchased in a Spanish post office for 30 centavos, it could be exchanged for a U.S. postage stamp worth 5 cents, a redemption rate that was fixed by international treaty. But the Spanish peseta, Ponzi knew, had fallen recently in relation to the dollar. Theoretically, someone who bought a postal reply coupon in Spain could redeem it in the United States for about a 10 percent profit. Purchasing coupons in countries with weaker economies could increase that margin substantially, he reasoned. It should be possible, then, to make a financial killing by buying huge quantities of these coupons in certain overseas countries and redeeming them in countries with stronger currencies. Ponzi called his new business the Securities Exchange Company, and set out to promote his idea.

It was a big idea—one that Ponzi managed to sell to thousands of people. He claimed to have elaborate networks of agents throughout Europe who were making bulk purchases of postal reply coupons on his behalf. In the United States, Ponzi asserted, he worked his financial wizardry to turn those piles of paper coupons into larger piles of greenbacks. Pressed for details on how this transformation was achieved, he politely explained that he had to keep such information secret for competitive reasons.

Of course, there was no network of agents. Nor, for that matter, did Ponzi expend any effort to corner the market on postal reply coupons. A final audit of his company's assets after the whole business was over turned up $61 worth of the coupons, according to Dunn.

Dunn's book, Ponzi! The Boston Swindler, provides a dramatized account of Ponzi's wild ride to riches and shows that, if anything, Ponzi's genius lay in psychology, not finance. Ponzi knew that his concept—the path to easy riches—was so alluring that the worst thing he could do was try to sell it too aggressively. Borrowing a page or two from Tom Sawyer, he cultivated an image among friends and acquaintances as a man on the verge of wealth who preferred not to discuss his good fortune in detail—unless, of course, he was pressed. In his role as the busy but cheerful investment expert, Ponzi showed up at boccie games and neighborhood cafés, plied his pals with good cigars and bonhomie, then rushed off to meet with one of his many important "clients," Dunn relates.

Only after his victims were well primed was Ponzi ready to dangle his bait: the grand plan in which his investors received 50 percent interest in 90 days. (Later he sweetened the pot, promising 50 percent interest in 45 days.) By December, the money had begun to roll in.

Most of the actual investment pitches were done by sales agents who were trained by Ponzi and received 10 percent commissions for investments that they brought in to him. In turn, many of those sales agents recruited "subagents" who received 5 percent commissions for new investors. Once Ponzi paid off his first round of investors, word of the financial "wizard" on School Street spread quickly. Ultimately, some 40,000 people joined the feeding frenzy. Many people simply reinvested their profits with Ponzi, thereby relieving him of actually having to make good on his promise. At the height of his success, Ponzi had offices from Maine to New Jersey, and was fending off shady offers from prospective "partners" in New York.

The newspapers caught wind of Ponzi after a man named Joseph Daniels filed a $1 million suit against him in July 1920, according to Dunn. Daniels, a furniture salesman, laid claim to a share of Ponzi's fortune on the basis of an old debt. His lawsuit for what was at the time an enormous amount of money started a buzz about Ponzi outside the circle of investors he had cultivated.

By then, Ponzi had built the lifestyle he had pursued for so many years: a 12-room mansion in upscale Lexington; servants; a couple of automobiles, including a custom-built limousine; and fine clothes and gold-handled Malacca canes for himself, and diamonds and other baubles for Rose. He purchased commercial and rental properties all over Boston and acquired stock in several banks. He even bought out his former employer, Poole. "The more I bought, the more I wanted to buy," Ponzi wrote. "It was a mania." But what he really wanted was control of a bank. He arranged a takeover of Hanover Trust, the same bank that had turned down his loan application the previous year. A few months later, when Ponzi fell, so did Hanover Trust. (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it turned out, had $125,000 on deposit with Hanover Trust—a revelation that figured in the September 1920 resignation of State Treasurer Fred Burrell.)

On July 24, 1920, the Boston Post ran a front-page feature on Ponzi with the headline: "DOUBLES THE MONEY WITHIN THREE MONTHS; 50 Per Cent Interest Paid in 45 Days by Ponzi—Has Thousands of Investors." The article described his rags-to-riches ascent, including details of his postal reply coupon scheme. It pegged Ponzi's worth at $8.5 million.

Monday, the 26th, started out as a banner day for Ponzi. The scene that awaited him as he approached his office that morning in his chauffeur-driven Locomobile "was one that no man could forget," he later wrote.

"A huge line of investors, four abreast, stretched from the City Hall Annex, through City Hall Avenue and School Street, to the entrance of the Niles Building, up stairways, along the corridors...all the way to my office!...

"Hope and greed could be read in everybody's countenance. Guessed from the wads of money nervously clutched and waved by thousands of outstretched fists! Madness, money madness, the worst kind of madness, was reflected in everybody's eyes!...

"To the crowd there assembled, I was the realization of their dreams....The ‘wizard' who could turn a pauper into a millionaire overnight!"

Interestingly, the U.S. Post Office Department announced new conversion rates for international postal reply coupons less than a week later—the first change in the rates since prewar days, the New York Times reported. Officials insisted that the new rates had nothing to do with Ponzi's scheme. However, they also insisted it was impossible for anyone to do what Ponzi claimed to be doing. (Postal authorities today say the same thing: although international postal reply coupons are available at post offices where there is a demand for them, regulations make speculation in them impossible.)

The tide turned quickly against Ponzi. He had come under investigation by postal and legal authorities as early as February, but they appeared to be making little progress in their efforts. Meanwhile, the editors at the Boston Post, possibly chagrined at having published the article that injected so much momentum into Ponzi's enterprise, launched an investigation into his business. The bad press enraged Ponzi. At the advice of his publicity agent, a former newspaperman named William McMasters, Ponzi offered to cooperate with the U.S. District Attorney's office by opening his books to a government auditor and declining to accept new investments, as of noon that day, July 26, until the audit was complete.

Word that Ponzi was closing his doors prompted a huge run, as thousands stormed School Street to redeem their investment vouchers. Ponzi directed his clerks to refund the money of everyone who presented a voucher. On one day, the Post reported, Ponzi paid out more than $1 million. Frightened investors who cashed in their chips early got back only their principal, which, Ponzi noted, saved him considerable interest.

Ponzi maintained a cool head. He played games with the authorities—on the one hand appearing to cooperate with them, and on the other snubbing them to talk to reporters, who provided daily coverage of the unfolding drama. "‘POSTAGE STAMP' KING DEFIES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO LEARN HOW HE PROFITS," the Washington Post reported on July 30. In the article, Ponzi shrugged off the notion that he was under any obligation to reveal details of his business dealings to officials. "My secret is how to cash the coupons. I do not tell it to anyone," he asserted. "Let the United States find it out, if it can."

As the run continued, Ponzi ordered up sandwiches and coffee to be distributed to the mobs of people waiting outside his office. He directed that women be moved to the front of the line, after hearing that several had fainted in the sweltering summer heat. Uncertain whether he was a crook or a hero, the crowds simultaneously booed and cheered him. Many people changed their minds while waiting to turn in their vouchers, convinced that their investments would pay off in the end. The Boston Post reported how one man proclaimed Ponzi "the greatest Italian of them all." With false modesty, Ponzi pointed out that Columbus had discovered America and that Marconi had discovered the wireless. "But Charlie," the fan replied, "you discovered where the money is!" Meanwhile, speculators in Ponzi's hire bought up notes at a discount from the worried, Dunn reports.

The investigation slogged on. "OFFICIALS BALKED BY PONZI PUZZLE," the Boston Post observed. Then, on August 2, the Post dropped a bombshell after enlisting the cooperation of McMasters, Ponzi's erstwhile publicity agent, who wrote a copyrighted, first-person report in which he proclaimed Ponzi "hopelessly insolvent." "He is over $2,000,000 in debt even if he tried to meet his notes without paying any interest," McMasters declared. "If the interest is included on his outstanding notes, then he is at least $4,500,000 in debt."

Still, McMasters found it difficult to condemn the little financier: "No wonder Ponzi is confident: He sees an apparently unlimited pile of cash...the public dippy about him...and Wall Street ‘experts' who never did anything like it themselves offering ‘sure-thing' explanation of his ‘operations'—is it any wonder the thing has gone to his head?"

Note holders besieged the School Street office the day the McMasters article ran. Ponzi hotly denied the charges of insolvency, and threatened to sue both McMasters and the Post.

The public circus escalated. On August 10, Ponzi gave a luncheon address at Boston's Hotel Bellevue for the Kiwanis Club, which had invited him for a "battle royal" with a mind reader named Joseph Dunninger. The idea was that Dunninger would "throw the X-ray of clairvoyance on the subtle brain of the little Italian and reveal what he found to the audience," the Boston Globe reported. But the spectators were so enthralled by Ponzi that the contest apparently never came off; at 2:45, Ponzi was still fielding questions from the audience.

Ponzi audaciously implied that he dealt directly with foreign governments in order to purchase the vast quantities of coupons needed to support his enterprise. Because the governments from whom he bought coupons profited themselves, they "naturally would not care to reveal" the exact nature of their business, he explained. "PONZI TELLS KIWANIS CLUB HOW HE GOT HIS MILLIONS," the Globe shouted from its front page. Editors at the Chicago Tribune, which also reported on the Kiwanis Club affair, were more skeptical: "PONZI REVEALS PHILOSOPHER'S STONE: 0+0=$," the headline ran.

On August 11, the Boston Post made the sensational revelation that the financial wizard was a former jailbird, having served time (1908-10) in Canada for forging checks. The article, the result of the Post's own investigation, ran complete with mugshots of Ponzi from Montreal police. Later, it was learned that Ponzi had served another term in a federal prison in Atlanta for smuggling five Italians from Canada into the United States.

The next day, Edwin Pride, the government auditor, concluded his examination of Ponzi's books. He found Ponzi to be $3 million in the red (he later revised it to $7 million). Ponzi was placed under arrest. "PONZI WEARING HIS SMILE EVEN IN EAST CAMBRIDGE JAIL," the Boston Evening Globe reported. "The man's nerve is iron," his jailer marveled.

Half-a-dozen banks crashed in the aftermath of Ponzi's fall. His note holders received less than 30 cents on the dollar; many investors held on to their notes, clinging desperately to the belief that their hero would somehow come through, Dunn says. For its relentless reporting, the Boston Post won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ponzi was convicted on federal charges of using the mail to defraud. He served 31/2 years and was paroled. In 1925, he was convicted on state fraud charges. Out on bail while the verdict was under appeal, he headed for Florida to raise money by selling swampland under the name "Charpon." He was quickly arrested and convicted of fraud. He jumped bail when he learned that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had upheld his conviction in that state. With authorities in two states in pursuit, Ponzi fled to Texas. He signed aboard as a seaman on an Italian freighter, but was captured in New Orleans. Ponzi was returned to Massachusetts to begin his sentence at the state prison in Charlestown.

When Ponzi emerged from jail in 1934, balding and 40 pounds heavier, immigration authorities were on hand with a deportation warrant. He had never become an American citizen and was considered an undesirable alien. On October 7, after his appeals to remain in the United States were rejected, he was deported to Italy. Rose stayed on in Boston with plans to join him once he found employment, but after two years she tired of waiting and finally divorced him. For years, says Dunn, who interviewed her not long before her death, she was dogged by rumors that she had a secret stash of her husband's ill-gotten gains. But Rose was a victim herself: she and eight of her relatives had loaned Ponzi more than $16,000. After Ponzi's departure, Rose led a pinched and quiet existence, eventually remarrying after her husband's death and moving to Florida, where she tried to escape the notoriety of her former husband's escapades.

Accounts of Ponzi's life after his eviction from the United States vary. According to one version, he talked his way into a high-ranking financial ministry job in Mussolini's government. When officials realized that he was not the financial genius he purported to be, he fled carrying two suitcases stuffed with cash and caught a steamer to Brazil.

Dunn, who's done the most extensive research on Ponzi, uncovered a different story. He reports that Ponzi got help from his second cousin, Col. Attilio Biseo of the Italian Air Force, who was commander of the Green Mice Squadron and a friend of Mussolini's. Biseo landed Ponzi a job with a fledgling airline doing business between Italy and Brazil. This new career kept Ponzi in high style between 1939 and December 1941, when the United States entered World War II and the Brazilian government cut off supplies to Ponzi's airline, having learned that it was ferrying strategic supplies to Italy.

Out of a job, Ponzi scraped by, teaching English and French and later working as an interpreter for an Italian importing firm, according to Dunn. But his eyesight was failing and a stroke in early 1948 left him partially paralyzed. Ponzi died in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro on January 18, 1949, leaving $75 to pay for his burial.

Why does anyone fall for such scams? "It's human nature," says Susan Grant of the National Consumers League. "The crooks know that there are basic human factors that they can appeal to—the desire to do what you think you see other people doing around you, making money and getting rich."

In other words, wishful thinking. In 1920, people saw Ponzi as a man who could make the impossible possible. Today, many people in search of lucrative investment opportunities "see the Internet as a place where all things are possible," observes Paul H. Luehr, who chairs the FTC's Internet Coordinating Committee. Sometimes, they simply can't tell the difference between a legitimate business enterprise and a hoax. But other times it's clear that they don't really want to know. Grant and Luehr tell of inquiries they've received from consumers in search of reassurance that an attractive scheme is legitimate. But when cautioned against it, they become angry. "Many times people are mad at the government for spoiling a ‘good' investment opportunity," says Luehr.

Today's operators often use high-tech bells and whistles to lure their prey. Ponzi's approach was more charismatic. But the bait is always the same and the outcome is inevitable. Up to 95 percent of the people who buy into Ponzi schemes eventually lose all their investments, says Luehr. Generally, it is only the con man who gets the easy money. For Ponzi, there undoubtedly were other rewards as well: excitement and power. Richard Ault, a retired special agent and criminal profiler for the FBI, speculates that, more than anything, Ponzi wanted to be "something special." A poor immigrant, he sought to become part of the Boston establishment that had excluded him, Ault believes. "It was an impossible goal, but he managed to achieve a little bit of it for a short period of time."

To Ponzi, it was all a grand, desperate game that he was determined to play to its conclusion. At the end, he had this to say about the mad caper on which he had led the people of Boston: "Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims!... It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over!"

To Charles Ponzi, who began with nothing, ended up the same way but enjoyed a brief interlude of power and fame, it undoubtedly was.

Mary Darby, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., invests in mutual funds, and hopes not to lose her shirt.