Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART I

Floyd Collins part I picture
The author at the cave entrance with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

Original publish date:  August 22, 2019

Last month Rhonda and I once again traveled the route of the World’s Longest Yard Sale along Highway 127 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Once again we started just south of Cincinnati and made our way to Crossville Tennessee. We set out on Wednesday morning and by Friday morning we had had enough. It has been our experience that after noon on Friday it becomes a frustrating route of diminishing returns. Traffic slows to a crawl, parking becomes a problem and our patience becomes frayed like an old pair of blue jean cut offs. Don’t even get me started on Saturday. You’re a better man than me if you can survive a Saturday on the 127.
So this year we decided to veer off to Cave City, Kentucky on Friday afternoon and chase the ghost of old Floyd Collins. I’ve always found myself drawn to antiheroes. The men and women who manage to achieve notoriety and great things while orbiting around the fringe of establishment. Some of these personalities seem to be predestined for greatness while others seem to succeed in spite of themselves. Not to be confused with an underdog, an antihero is often doomed to be critiqued (and sometimes ostracized) by people whose achievements would never stack up over a lifetime.
6731_1004064378Floyd Collins is one of those people. Collins was long, lean, logical and legendary. He remains history’s most famous spelunker. Not only because of the way he lived, but also because of the way he died. William Floyd Collins was born on July 20, 1887 in Auburn, Kentucky. He was the third child of Leonidas Collins and Martha Jane Burnett. Collins had five brothers and two sisters, including another brother named Floyd. Which was not uncommon for the time as frontier families often feared that a child might not survive to adulthood.
Central Kentucky, nestled firmly in America’s limestone belt, is not the best for farming. The soil is poor and thin and the bluegrass it produces is best for livestock grazing rather than crop production. However it does produce some of the best caves in the world.

Floyd’s Central Kentucky home rested smack dab in the middle of a region riddled by hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns, most notable of which is Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave became an unlikely tourist attraction after the War of 1812 when British soldiers ventured into it. Soon several other caves opened to serve the adventure seeking tourist. At that time the region represented the far westernmost frontier and a trip to an underground cave system was the capstone to a thrill seeking adventure. The roads, little more than livestock paths back then, were in rough shape and accommodations were scant. Eventually a train was put in that would stop at the various caves and a series of grand hotels were constructed.
z image2The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others: Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. These holes were all owned and operated by men who charged admission to the visiting tourists who were more than happy to pay for the privilege. At the center of it all was Cave City. Here was the depot that brought wealthy visitors in on the hour, all hungry for adventure. And Cave City residents were more than happy to assist these gullible visitors by relieving them of their cash. As we will see later in this article, not much has changed in 200 years.
From his earliest days, Collins spent his time crouching, crawling and slithering on his belly through holes that a groundhog would find challenging to navigate. Floyd learned early that “there was money in them-there holes.” Floyd spent his time through those damp, dark holes collecting arrowheads, “Tommyhawks” and moccasins to sell to the visitors by the pocketful. In time, visiting professors from American colleges and universities discovered the young spelunker’s talent for acquisition and offered good sums of money for any Native American Indian artifact that Floyd would send them. Some of Floyd’s discoveries can be found in the Chicago Field Museum to this day. Floyd was particularly active in the wintertime. He would walk for miles up and down the bluegrass hills looking for telltale puffs of smoke rising from the ground. Floyd knew it was steam rising from an underground passage that just might lead to the next great cave.67473718_10214761854061910_8843633147624030208_n
Floyd, a loner, would often disappear into the underground mazes for hours to explore cracks, crevices and sink-holes, only to unexpectedly pop up in a field or woodlot several miles from his point of entry. Collins usually took along a lantern, a can or two of beans, 70 feet of rope, and a compass on those solitary expeditions. The compass wasn’t to guide him, he claimed, but instead was a good luck charm. Although known as history’s greatest spelunker, Collins broke every rule of caving. He always traveled alone, never told anyone where he was going, always covered his tracks, often caved at night and followed water and, to his ultimate doom, to Floyd every discovery was kept a closely guarded secret.
Floyd Collins 1Collins first tasted celebrity when he discovered Crystal Cave in 1917 when he discovered Crystal Cave (now part of the Flint Ridge Cave System of the Mammoth Cave National Park). Twenty-seven year old Collins had chased a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned out to be a passage to a large cavern Floyd called “White Crystal Cave”. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business, selling options on the cave to a neighbor named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. Johnny and Floyd took turns; one of them stood on the side of the road and tried to talk the tourists inside; the other guided them through the cave’s.
The pair worked unceasingly and spent every dime they had to open their new White Crystal Cave and make it accessible to visitors. It was Floyd who came up with the colorful names for the interior cave formations designed to dazzle visitors. In the decade after World War I, many generations of cavers followed Floyd down the Valley of Decision to the Devil’s Kitchen, left though the Gypsum Route to the Scotchman’s Trap to where the cave REALLY begins, eventually leading through the bowels of Flint Ridge to the surrounding caves. Floyd’s tour led his guests down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals and, much to the dismay of its owners, Floyd’s route eventually connected to Mammoth Cave.
z imageSoon the Collins family found themselves smack dab in the middle of the “Cave Wars” of the early 1920s, where Central Kentucky cave owners and explorers entered into a bitter competition to exploit the bounty of caves for commercial profit. Trouble was, Crystal Cave was the last cave on the road from Cave City. By the time tourists discovered it, they were out of money and interest. During the Cave War years, cave owners competed bitterly among each other in order to bring in visitors. The most common tactic was to deploy a man, referred to as a “capper”, who would suddenly rush out of the bushes, hop onto your car’s running board along the rugged road out to Mammoth to excitedly inform you that Mammoth had collapsed or was under quarantine from Consumption (now known as Tuberculosis) and would persuade you to visit their cave instead.
During the Cave Wars era, if someone finds an entrance to your cave on their property there was nothing to prevent them from exploiting that entrance and making money off of your find. So Floyd, who’s Crystal Cave was the back door entrance to Mammoth, was constantly on the lookout for an undiscovered “new front door” to Mammoth Cave. In the winter of 1925 Floyd decided to take a gamble on an overhanging sandstone ledge that contained a small, already known cave on the property of Bee Doyle. The site would be the first cave tourists would see on the road to Mammoth from Cave City. Collins and Doyle had agreed that, if a new entrance could be found, they would split the profits 50/50.

67502677_10214761411570848_5865336772552032256_n
The author at the cave’s mouth with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

On January 30, 1925, true to form, ventured alone into “Sand Cave” in search of that new entrance. Floyd had known of this spot since his childhood days and had already done some preliminary work with a stick of dynamite to dislodge a couple of huge precariously perched boulders that guarded the entrance. The Sand Cave site is nestled in a wooded surrounding, hidden by sandstone ledges of overhanging rock, each sheltering a crescent-shaped spot. The constant dripping of water leeching through the sandstone keeps the moist soil cool and plantless. That day, Floyd, with rope and lantern, entered the tight, mud-lined passage alone and unnoticed. The 150 foot claustrophobic mud slick tube could only be slithered through in most spots, with little room to crawl, let alone sit up or stand. It was absolute darkness and the damp, rock-strewn passage turned, narrowed or switched back underneath itself, and at times, Floyd, unable to turn around, was forced to wriggle upside down to traverse its depths.

67407493_10214761865942207_4703050409583837184_n
Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave Entrance today.

Floyd had been down this far before, having earlier removed some large stones and other obstructions that revealed a 10-foot-long chute so tight and steeply sloped, that Floyd knew he had to drop into it feet first for risk of being unable to push himself up and backward to a turnaround spot. Floyd dropped down the chute, where, at the bottom he worked his hobnailed boots into a narrow crevice, referred to as a “pinch” by cavers, met the chute horizontally at 90 degrees. Collins believed this spot to be the final secret link into a much larger cavern below, as he could feel the cave winds blow as he inched his feet farther into it. The coffin like crevice rose only about six inches above Floyd’s chest, tight on each side, and perhaps ten feet long before it opened onto a wide ledge overlooking a 60-foot drop.
imgFloyd was encased under a 4′ x 4′ square, two ton block of solid limestone ceiling, the sidewalls of the tunnel were composed of loose stones, pebbles, sand and mud. Floyd was careful to avoid bumping or displacing anything likely to cause a collapse. Collins made it through, muddy, soaked and sweating, after leaving his securely attached rope for a future trip into the 60-foot precipice he had yet to see. He wriggled head first back into the tight gravelly crevice leading to the steep, serpentine chute he’d just come in by. Pushing the kerosene lantern ahead of him as far as he could, he would then twist and squirm, shrugging ahead inch by inch till reaching the lantern before repeating the pattern by pushing ahead. Suddenly, Floyd’s lantern fell over, broke and went out.
Normally, the cave-savvy Floyd would take it in stride, but this development was unnerving. On his way into the tight pinch Floyd had noticed a peculiar hanging stone and had been particularly careful not to disturb it. Now, while he “crawfished” backward in the dark, his knee dislodged the 27-pound rock which dropped, wedging his left foot into v-shaped groove in the floor of the passage like a guillotine. His progress halted, Floyd lay on his back, tilted to his left at a 45 degree angle, his arms pinned down to his sides, and a solid limestone block five inches above his face. With lime water dripping maddeningly onto his face, Floyd discovered that the more he struggled, the more loose stone and dirt settled around him. Soon he was frozen in place. Floyd Collins was trapped in a narrow crawlway, 55 feet underground, and to make matters worse, no one knew he was there.

67739620_10214761857061985_4693809014352379904_n
The author with an original Floyd Collins cave car window decal and aerial pennant.

Next Week- Part II- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

Abe Lincoln, Museums, National Park Service, Presidents, Travel

The Perfect Summer Getaway: Chasing Lincoln and Mark Twain. PART I

Part 1

Original publish date:  July 25, 2019

I travel a lot and for years my editors have been trying to get me to write a travel article. I have always resisted because I just didn’t believe the trips I take were meant for everyone. Most of the places I visit revolve around history and not everybody likes history, at least not everybody likes history the way I like history. However, for all you history lovers out there, I think I’ve found a perfect trip for a long weekend. I’ve visited Springfield, Illinois many times over the years and have written a few articles about my visits there too, but here’s a Springfield trip with a new twist that I can highly recommend.

40126164_10211693501603027_278799203495313408_n
Lincoln’s Tomb.

If you’re looking for a nice 3-night / 4-day getaway, consider driving first to Springfield for a night and then journeying on to Hannibal, Missouri for the next two. Springfield, of course, is best known as the 17-year home of President Abraham Lincoln. Here you will find the only home he ever owned and visit his tomb in Oak Ridge cemetery. Springfield is the state capitol, so finding a place to spend the night is pretty easy and will fit any budget. But in Springfield, it’s not really about the hotel because you’ll be spending most of your time out of doors anyway. Should you experience Lincoln overload, no problem. Springfield is also home to the famous Route 66 Highway and offers many sites connected to that famous road well worth visiting.

IMG_2503
Gutzon Borglum’s Lincoln statue at the tomb.

Springfield is an easy 3 1/2 hour drive from Indianapolis. So you can leave Indy after rush hour and avoid the headaches that go along with all that. The landscape will comfort the traveler by offering views and scenes familiar to every Hoosier eye; flat, rolling fields of corn and soybeans dotted by old family farms and crowned by Midwestern blue skies. Danville, just over the Indiana state line, is a pretty good place to stop and stretch your legs. It was home to the last surviving Burger Chef restaurant until just a few years ago, and, should you need to refuel, you can stop at the McDonald’s. I’d recommend you skip the drivethru, park, and go into this Mickey D’s because it is a literal shrine to Danville’s favorite sons; Dick Van Dyke and his brother Jerry. The walls are lined with photos sure to make you smile.

IMG_2621
Old Capitol Building.

When you get into Springfield and check into the hotel, head to the old downtown district and tour the Lincoln home and old State Capitol building. Both of these sites are free. The Lincoln Homestead is run by the National Park Service and tours depart regularly every half an hour or so. The Park service has done a fantastic job with re-creating the Lincoln home (located at eighth and Jackson) and the surrounding neighborhood to look the way it looked when the old rail splitter and his family lived there. Wooden sidewalks, pebbled streets, pioneer gardens and outhouses (for demonstration purposes only) add to the interpretive plaques and audio tours made easily accessible by cell phone for visitors at all hours. If you are an early riser (like me) you’ll find no better place in Springfield to watch the sun come up than from in front of the Lincoln home. The tourists are not yet stirring at that hour and you usually will have the place all to yourself for at least a couple hours. From here, the old State Capitol is an easy walk (and even easier drive) away.

1860-2010
Lincoln’s Home Now and Then.

The old State Capitol building is impressive and a must-see. A visitor will surely stand in awe of the massive Greek revival columns during the walk up and once the massive doors are swung open, that awestruck feeling continues. Here the prairie lawyer practiced his trade. Here he delivered his famous “house divided” speech in June 1858 and here his lifeless body was carried up the stairs to lie in the same spot seven years later. From here I would recommend walking across the plaza to Mangia’s (518 E. Adams St. ) for a fine Italian dinner. The old exposed brick walls stand as mute witnesses to the spot where Abraham Lincoln gathered with friends on election night to learn he had won the Presidential Election.

IMG_2609
One of the surprises found within the plaques of the Springfield Capitol Square.

The old Capitol Square in Springfield is a worthy, standalone complex of historic sites and buildings that should be made a part of any visit to Lincoln’s city. The Lincoln – Herndon law office has been restored to its appearance as Lincoln would have known it, right down to the frontier post office Lincoln visited daily downstairs. Also worth visiting is a classic bookstore known as the “Prairie Archives” located on the square. The old-fashioned bookstore is stacked top to bottom with books, documents, publications, leaflets, posters, artwork, and bric-a-brac from the pages of Springfield’s history including a good selection of Lincoln items as should be expected. If you’re hunting antiques on the square, “Abe’s Old Hat & Country Store” is worth a visit. There are many other quaint stores, coffee shops and restaurants located on the square as well.IMG_2718
The Great Western Railroad depot is located not far from the historic town square and is well worth a visit. Here is the spot from which Lincoln departed Springfield never to return. Of interest to Hoosiers is that Lincoln’s first stop after leaving his hometown was the Bates House Hotel in Indianapolis on his way east to assume the presidency of the United States. It was at the Bates House (where the Embassy Suites now stand) that Lincoln spent his 52nd birthday and also where his son Robert momentarily lost the inauguration speech. If you’re lucky you can catch the depot building when it’s open, but that can be sporadic. Better yet you may witness an old-fashioned train crossing on your visit here because the tracks are still very active.

IMG_2598
Abe. Mary & Tad Statue on Capitol Square.

There are many other Lincoln related sites in and around the old Capitol Square. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a short trip away, offers a cool respite for visitors to view Lincoln relics and memorabilia in a state of the art atmosphere (for a small admission fee). The library also offers a generous slate of free lectures and discussions as well as a free tour of Lincoln’s old haunts which no longer stand in the downtown area (consult their website for schedules).
If you are feeling more “Route 66ish” than Lincoln, head over to the Cozy Dog Drive-in. Originally located on old Route 66, the Cozy Dog is credited as the inventor of the corndog. The walls are full of classic memorabilia and although it would never be considered as fine dining, the atmosphere is worth the trip. Should you find yourself eating elsewhere in Springfield, the locals will insist that you try the “horseshoe”, an open-faced sandwich invented in Springfield. It consists of thick-sliced toasted bread (often Texas toast), a hamburger patty, cheese sauce; smothered by french fries & gravy.
Next a visit to Oak Ridge cemetery is a must. If you happen to plan your visit in such a way that you are here on a Tuesday night, visit the cemetery around 7 PM and you can witness the American flag retirement ceremony hosted by uniformed Civil War soldiers, complete with a 21 gun salute, a canon firing and presentation of the retired flag to a lucky family in attendance. It is a perfect way to end an evening. After you’ve visited the Lincoln tomb, make sure you venture around to the back and stop a minute in front of the ornate wrought iron door with the Lincoln name inset in a laurel wreath. Behind this door, which once guarded a large open area, rested Lincoln’s sarcophagus for over 50 years before he and the family were removed and placed inside the tomb.

40099883_10212473500336424_2488593438161764352_o
Lincoln’s Temporary Tomb.

Take the stairs located behind the tomb down to the spot of Lincoln’s two temporary tombs where his body rested during construction of the current tomb. Make sure you go over to the belltower (it still rings out every hour) which has incorporated into its side the original slab upon which Lincoln’s body lay when it first arrived in Springfield awaiting burial. The cemetery also features the final resting places of many Lincoln Associates, friends and family members alongside luminaries from all fields dotted throughout the burial yard. It is a perfect place to spend time and reflect.
Be sure to stop in at the “Lincoln Souvenir & Gift Shop” (1407 Monument Ave.) and see my friend Melissa Price-King, whom I profiled in a previous article. This fantastic log cabin gift shop, owned and operated by Melissa and her family since before the Great Depression, is a trip back in time and has something for everyone. Before you leave Springfield for the next leg of your journey, a stop at “Mel–O– Cream” donuts (Mel’s for short) is a must. They have two locations, their doughnuts are legendary and will travel well on your way to Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri.
Next Week- Part II- The Perfect Summer Getaway:
Chasing Lincoln and Mark Twain: Hannibal, Missouri

Civil War, Gettysburg, National Park Service

Barb Adams- Gettysburg’s Nurse of Artillery.

20180628_183212

Original publish date:  September 13, 2018

155 years after the last cannon shot was fired in anger on the hallowed fields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a dutiful volunteer keeps watch over the cannons located there. The Gettysburg National Military Park is 9.358 mi.² in size and features some 1,300 monuments and 400 cannons. It takes an army to maintain the monuments but there is only one angel left on the field caring for those artillery pieces, many of which saw use in the battle itself.
I ran into Barb Adams quite by accident in late June 2018, just a couple days before the 155th anniversary of the great battle. I was visiting Gettysburg with my wife and friends Kris and Roger Branch. I have recently taken up a new hobby of “etching” tombstones, plaques and monument faces at the many historic places I often find myself visiting. Etching is a fairly simple hobby that involves paper pencil and a little masking tape. If you, like me, ever traced a Lincoln penny with a pencil by rubbing the graphite over the surface of the coin, then you have etched too.
Roger Branch is a former U.S. Army artilleryman with an interest in cannons. Last year I found an “artsy” photo collage of the crest of Little Round Top which I gave to Roger. One of the photos was a close up of the muzzle from one of the big guns. Little did I know, that minor gift would set him on a quest to find that cannon, the very gun pictured in that old photographic display. Kris, Roger and I hit the battlefield at dawn in search of the many rock carvings made by soldiers still existing there. (Sleepyhead Rhonda stayed behind) I was determined to make a couple etchings if practicable. I also knew I wanted to make etchings of the Irish brigade monument along with the Hancock, Sickles and Lewis Addison Armistead wounding monuments. Especially since Armistead was the man I named my son Addison after.
Roger wanted to make an etching of the Alonzo Cushing marker at the bloody angle just yards away from the high water mark of the Confederacy. All of these we did and more. Etching can get into your soul and literally seep into your blood. Once you’ve been out etching, you notice that your fingers are covered with black graphite. It gets on everything you touch from that point on. Oh, it washes off easily, but somehow that sooty residue makes you feel authentic, especially when you’re on a battlefield.
Flush with excitement and caught up in the moment, our grimy little trio headed to the massive Pennsylvania monument in search of Roger’s cannon. We had checked all of the guns at the high watermark for comparison; to no avail. While checking the muzzles of the guns near the First Minnesota monument, it occurred to us that we could easily etch those muzzles. The guns are dated per time of manufacture, so the thought of getting one etching from each year (1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, & 1865) became our quest of the moment.
There we stood, three middle-aged graphite-stained 8-year-olds tracing our little hearts out. Kris held the paper taut like a spider web on a gutter spout. Roger traced away like a Hollywood makeup artist on an aging starlet. My job? To keep watch. Because we weren’t entirely sure we were allowed to do this. We were stretching the boundaries of our usual mantra: “Take nothing but pictures-leave nothing but footprints.”
Suddenly, a car pulled up and out stepped an athletic looking woman whose shirt, pants, shoes, wrists, fingers and elbows were be-dabbed with paint. She walked up to our sheepish looking little trio and for a few seconds we wondered if we were in trouble or not. Roger remained cool, calm and collected and never stopped etching. He remained focused and was determined to complete his task. Turns out, this handsome suntanned lady was Barb Adams and she was the keeper of the cannons.
We asked if we were in trouble, and she answered, “No, I just want to watch you do one.” Roger finished his etching as we chatted with Barb and she informed us of what she does every day. Her job is to maintain, clean and repaint every cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield. She knows them all by heart and maintains a detailed accounting of every gun on that field. Roger immediately pulled out his cell phone and asked, “Do you know where this gun is?” To which Barb answered, “Are you guys going to be here for a while? I can go check my book and let you know.”

20180628_174947
Heading into the cannon shop at Gettsyburg.

She jumped in her car and drove back to her office, returning several minutes later with her binder identifying the location of her cannons. “Sorry guys, that gun is not on this field.” came Barb’s reply. To say we were crestfallen might be an understatement. Our spirits were lifted when Barb invited us to come visit the cannon restoration shop later that day. “I have to get permission from my boss first, but I don’t think he’ll mind,” she said. So off we went to spend our day trying to contain our excitement until 5:30 rolled around and we could visit what we were sure was going to be a magical place.
The Gettysburg cannon shop is located just off Confederate Avenue on the outskirts of the Lutheran seminary. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless someone (like Barb) gave you directions. Our little group, now joined by Rhonda, entered the shop and were immediately transformed back to 1863. The shop is littered with all things cannon. There are barrels, carriages, limbers, wheels, and parts of every sort. Guns, howitzers 3 inch ordinance rifles, 10 pound parrots, and 12-pound Napoleon’s; Wrought Iron, Bronze, and Cast-Iron; Smoothbore’s, James and Whitworth’s; 6 pounders, 10 pounders, 12 pounders, 14 pounders, 20 pounders, 24 pounders, and 3-inch ordinance rifles. Truly, an artilleryman’s dream.
20180628_183203Barb guided us through every step of cannon restoration, carefully explaining what it took to keep her guns in perfect order. This was heady air we were breathing. Terms like breeches, swells, trunnions, rimbases, chambers, astragals, base rings, vents, bores, girdles, chambers, cascabels, knobs, wadding, windage and calibre seeped into our heads like sand through an hourglass. Barb Adams knows every inch of these guns.
She explains that the cannon restoration program was started by the “Friends of the National Park” at Gettysburg over 20 years ago. Barb spends her days, especially in summertime, on the un-shaded, boiling hot fields of Gettysburg. “I try to get out there early, before it gets too hot and the buses start rolling in, ” she says. “I love talking to people, especially schoolkids, but I never seem to get enough work done because I get wrapped up in talking about cannons.”
Barb’s routine is a patient one. Each cannon, when removed for restoration, is taken back to the shop where it is sandblasted and the carriage refurbished. “The wood wears down quickest and we have to replace the wooden carriages and the spokes of the wheels most often. It takes two months just to get each gun to my paint room.” Barb continues, “Each cannon gets two coats of primer, two coats of green paint and two coats of black paint. Anywhere two pieces of metal meet has to be caulked to keep moisture out.” Add to those duties that Barb also paints the white letters on all of the coal black battery markers and itinerary plaques found scattered throughout the battlefield, and you can tell she has her hands full.
I wondered, how did a distinguished looking lady like Barb get started in this meticulous business? “It was my husband’s dream to paint a cannon. Just one cannon. Somehow, one cannon turned into all of them.” Barb explains that she met her husband, John Scott Adams of the Washington Post, on the battlefield July 1st, 1998. The couple was married in 2001 and John died in 2002. In her previous life, Barb was a nurse from Rochester, New York, which seems fitting for someone who cares so lovingly for the cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield. “I was a fan of Lincoln and that’s what brought me to Gettysburg. I met John here and he told me he had always wanted to paint a cannon, which I thought sounded interesting. So we did. That’s how it all started.”
Sixteen years later, Barb is the only volunteer caring for the cannons full-time. She’s at it everyday, weather providing, with her ancient brown metal folding chair, coffee can full of paintbrushes, paint rags, paint cans and, pardon the pun, an abundance of patients. “You’d be surprised how much wear and tear these big guns take.” Barb says. Besides schoolkids climbing all over them and overzealous reenactors incessantly rubbing / leaning on them, Barb says squirrels cause a lot of damage. “Squirrels sharpen their teeth on the wooden carriages and even on the metal parts like the rings, axles, knobs and necks of the guns. If you look close you can see their little tooth scratches.”
Barb explains that while there are many good part-time volunteers that sometimes help her in her task, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what still needs to be done. “At any given time, there are 30 to 40 cannons waiting to be restored.” she says. When asked who will take over when she decides to hang it up, Barb forlornly replies, “I don’t know. I’m the only one left. There just doesn’t seem to be an interest anymore. I tried giving it up once, and answered the phones at the desk for two weeks, but then I said that’s enough of that and headed back out to the battlefield. Luckily, there are other people just as passionate as I am about these cannons. You should talk to Bruce Vanisacker, he lives in your neck of the woods near Monroe Michigan. He knows everything about the history of these cannons.”
Well you didn’t have to tell me twice. I can talk to an expert from the adopted hometown of General George Armstrong Custer? Yeah Boy! I called him straightaway. Although it is a 7 hour drive from Monroe to Gettysburg, Bruce seems to know every inch of that battlefield like the back of his hand. Like Barb, who is 435 miles away, Bruce knows every gun on that field. He knows where every gun is placed, which ones have been restored and which ones are waiting. Bruce created a large wall map hanging just inside the door of the cannon shop featuring hundreds of tiny red and blue cannons designating their condition.

Vanisacker
Bruce Vanisacker & President George W. Bush.

Bruce’s expertise is in the repair and manufacture of broken or damaged cannon parts. A dedicated tool and die maker who makes the 45-mile (one way) commute every workday, Bruce can cast any artillery replacement part in a flash. He visits Gettysburg on average three times a year and has for the past quarter century. He is a walking textbook of Gettysburg artillery. Bruce notes that in 1916 there were 410 cannons, which he calls “tubes”, placed on the field. Attrition brought that number down to 370 by 2002 “counting cannons damaged by vehicles or trees falling on them.” Bruce says that cannons were largely ignored until 1896. Bruce recalls how 8 cannon tubes were taken from storage and traded away to other parks for other items to add to the Gettysburg NPS Museum. “The carriages were in pretty bad shape so it seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1930s one cannon was removed from the field and sent down to the Stones River Battlefield. It had the name “Murfreesboro” carved in the barrel so we sent it home.” says Bruce.
He explains how most of the ordinance stacks (cannonballs and parrot shells) were removed in the late 1970s / early 1980s. “The only original stacks left on the field are located on Benner’s Hill. There are a couple stacks at the Confederate High Water Mark, but I believe those are cast in bronze and not original ordinance. The High Water Mark does have the earliest tubes on the field though, place there in 1892. I have records showing that 60 original 24-pound field howitzers were shipped to Gettysburg in the 1890s. They were left laying in an open field for 3-5 years before being mounted.” Bruce states that before the age of battlefield preservation at Gettysburg, there were howitzers being used as flagposts on parts of the field, muzzle up with the “flags sticking out of the tubes. We had two cannons stolen back in 1968 and 1972 and they were never recovered. But one of those was a replica, so…” Bruce states that since the artillery restoration program began in 1996, “We started pulling tubes off 10-12 at a time for restoration and repair. When those were finished we’d pull another 10-12 off and replace them with the restored tubes.”
I couldn’t resist asking Bruce about the range of firepower used on the field during those three hot days back in 1863. “The best example I can think of is that the Union was using 10 pound parrot guns and three-inch ordinance guns placed on top of Cemetery Hill. Those guns could easily hit the tree line on Seminary Ridge 3/4’s of a mile away. They could fire over a mile but were most accurate at 3/4’s distance. The most common ordinance was canister shot. Like a coffee can filled with golf balls that was deadly at 400 yards or closer.”
Bruce can’t say enough good things about Barb Adams. He worries that hers is becoming a lost art. And, that there is no one to replace her. “There is absolutely no one to take over when she leaves. No one with the enthusiasm and pride that she has. It’s more than a hobby to her, it’s a labor of love. She is so humble that I don’t think she realizes how truly talented and valuable she is to the Gettysburg battlefield.”
On our last morning at Gettysburg, we revisited the crest of Little Round Top to drink our morning coffee atop the ridge and watch as the fog rolled in over Devil’s Den. About 30 yards away from the rock where the life-size statue of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren stands (the only rock on the entire battlefield visitors are forbidden to climb) rest the cannons known as “Hazlett’s guns”. This is truly hallowed ground. Here alongside these guns Brigade commander Stephen Weed fell mortally wounded, and when Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett knelt to hear the General’s dying words he, too, fell mortally wounded.
Roger decided to check and see if one of these cannons, some of the most famous Union cannons in the history of the Civil War, might be the one from his photo. We were stunned to find that the object of our search had been right under our noses the entire time. Roger found his cannon and we immediately left the summit in search of Barb Adams. We found her at the bloody angle painting one of Cushing’s guns. She was elated at the news, saying, “I thought we were looking for a 6-pound gun, those are 10 pounders up there. See, YOU taught ME something new.” No Barb, YOU taught us everything we know. And what of her husband, the cannon man John Scott Adams? Barb wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Meaning that, although he’s been gone for 16 years now, he’s still with his bride Barb… cleaning cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield everyday.

20180628_180242
Barb Adams and Alan E. Hunter
20180628_182436
The picture of the St. Gaudens Lincoln Statue in the break room of the cannon shop.
Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART II

z download

Original publish date:  August 18, 2009

On April 14, 1943- Four Alcatraz prisoners, Indianapolis bankrobber James Boarman, Harold Brest (a kidnapper serving life plus 50 years), Floyd Hamilton (Bonnie & Clyde gang member), and Fred Hunter (partner of Alvin “Creepy” Karpis & member of Ma Barker’s gang) took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water’s edge.
One of the overpowered guards, Henry “Bullethead” Weinhold wriggled free and began to blow his whistle. At that moment, tower officer Frank L. Johnson saw the men heading for the water and sounded the alarm. Within seconds, Johnson trained his powerful Springfield 30-06 rifle towards the water where he could see the bobbing heads of the escaping inmates through the fog. The shots from the powerful gun spattered the waters around the escapees with tiny geysers. Within 30 yards from shore, the first rain of bullets grazed Hamilton, who shuddered and sank beneath the choppy waves with the sounds of the island’s sirens wailing shrilly through the eerie fog.

Alcatraz New Industry Building Part II
New Industries Building from which the Alcatraz inmates escaped.

Brest and Boarman were swimming side by side traveling swiftly stroke by stroke like two athletes in an Olympic race just a few hundred yards from shore when Boarman suddenly stopped. Brest reached out to assist his now silent friend as slowly, the water surrounding them began to turn a bright crimson red. Brest recalled that Boarman’s eyes were open but glazed over with saltwater and it was a struggle to maintain a grip on the sinking, silent form beside him. Brest managed to get hold of the dying man’s leather belt, which ironically had been Boarman’s own idea for the escapees to wear as an attachment device for the canisters, just as the Alcatraz Island boat appeared from the fog with guns of the on board officers aimed at Brest’s head. Instinctively, Brest loosened his grip in preparation for his eminent apprehension just as the belt snapped and James Boarman’s body sank slowly into the green waters of the bay. As the body turned over, Brest could plainly see the fatal bullet hole behind Boarman’s left ear. It would be the last time anyone would see James Boarman’s body, which presumably rests somewhere on the bottom of San Francisco Bay to this very day.
Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston announced to reporters; “Brest was nicked by a bullet before he was captured. Boarman is gone.” and continued with, “We’re positive that Hamilton is dead. He was shot, and we saw him go under.” The fourth escapee Hunter, shivering in his underwear, was discovered hiding in a cave located in the cliff wall so near the escape scene that it was filled with discarded tires from the prison mat shop. Hunter had injured his back and chest in his leap over the fence and his journey down the sheer cliff wall had cut his hands to pieces. He gave up trying to swim, entered the cave and covered himself with the floating tires to avoid discovery. “Guards took a boat to the entrance of the cave, where they found bloodstains on the entrance—as if someone had been leaning on the rocks for support,” the Warden said. “One of the guards called for Hunter to come out. He refused. Then the guard fired a pistol shot and Hunter came out. Both the recaptured men disclaim knowledge of leadership in the attempt. Each says he ‘just got in on it a couple of days ago. We will probably never find the bodies of the other two. Sometimes bodies come up in the bay after nine days, sometimes after 30 days—but usually they don’t come up at all.”

z b783612baf42d8700afaa34d64f027ca
Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston inspecting his officers.

However, the warden was hasty in his proclamation, for Hamilton wasn’t dead at all. During the frenzied shooting, the former Bonnie & Clyde cohort managed to swim to a small rock located about a hundred yards offshore known as “Little Alcatraz”. Here he caught his breath and swam back to shore underwater as bullets whizzed above his head, surfacing only briefly to gulp for air before continuing on his panicked journey. Hamilton ended up hiding in the same cave with Hunter, but did not surrender when the warning shot was fired into the cave. Hamilton would hide in the tires as the guards hauled Hunter out of the cave. He would remain there for three days dressed only in his underwear as the 58 degree waves crashed against his body. Hamilton recalled the most harrowing ordeal of his 3 day brush with freedom was battling the many aggressive crabs in the cave that constantly nibbled away at him whenever he tried to sleep. On April 16th, Hamilton crept back into the old electrical shop where, cold and weak from hunger; he curled up in a pile of rags and was found lying in a fetal position by old “Bullethead” himself who must’ve thought he was seeing a ghost.
z 7010813_1039845019What didn’t change was the fact that 24-year-old Indianapolis resident and “baby” of the Alcatraz escape outfit, James A. Boarman was dead, the victim of the prison guards’ gunfire. Ranger John Cantwell took me to the old Model Industries Building, now off limits to the public and home to the protected nesting California waterfowl that populate the island in summertime, to show me the approximate place of Boarman’s demise. Over his years of service, Cantwell has become an expert on Alcatraz escapes and the 34 men who attempted them. One former inmate, “Alcatraz from the Inside” author Jim Quillen, was a close friend of Cantwell’s. The dedicated park ranger did not miss the opportunity to ask Quillen about that 1943 escape. Quillen, a bank robber and kidnapper imprisoned on the island for ten years from 1942 to 1952, knew James Boarman.
Cantwell was aware of the official Alcatraz version told by tower gunner Frank Johnson, who claimed he was firing warning shots in front of the escapees and that Boarman “accidentally” swam into the fatal bullet. According to Cantwell, Quillen quickly dismissed this version saying that Boarman was a “good con” who didn’t deserve such a fate. Quillen, who died in 1998, remained convinced that Boarman was intentionally “murdered” by Johnson, claiming bluntly that the gunner “took the top of his head off…that was no warning shot”. If you read Quillen’s book, it’s easy to understand his motivation in sticking up for his fellow con, for Jim Quillen’s life story might as well be Jim Boarman’s life story. A couple of Depression era kids who wandered into a life of crime as a means to survive until a line was crossed that sent both men to America’s own Devil’s Island known as “The Rock”. Boarman didn’t murder anyone, he was just a thief, a thief that paid his Alcatraz tab with his life.

z dsc_0153
Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

Cantwell, who was a pall bearer at Jim Quillen’s funeral, wanted me to know that his friend had no disillusions about himself or his fellow inmates, recalling how Quillen often told him that “We were all young and we were all bad boys who didn’t know any better. We all deserved to be here.” But Quillen used the lesson of the ill fated breakout and death of his fellow con in part to turn his own life around, eventually becoming a good family man and successful medical technician in San Francisco after his release from Alcatraz. An opportunity Jimmy Boarman never got.
As I stood there with Ranger John Cantwell in front of the “Old Modern Industries Building” on Alcatraz Island, looking at the last site on earth that my fellow Hoosier, James Arnold Boarman ever gazed upon, I could not escape the overwhelming feeling that permeates this dilapidated old building now existing in a state of “arrested decay” as that of sheer hopelessness. The drop over the fence is treacherous, the face of the cliff is steep and foreboding, the waters of the bay crash and swirl in whirlwind fashion and the land across the bay is forever away. What would it take to cause a man to attempt such a foolish escape? Hopefully, none of us will ever know.

Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART I

Alcatraz boarman musshot Part I
Indiana Alcatraz inmate James A. Boarman

Original publish date:  August 11, 2009

I first ran this article in 2009 on the 75th anniversary of an Alcatraz escape attempt by a desperate inmate with ties to fountain square. I thought it might be worth another read. Next week will mark the 84 years since the escape escape attempt. Since the time of my visit, the Island has changed much. The area where the escape attempt occurred, closed to the public back then, is now open to visitors.

z alcatraz-1954
Alcatraz Prison and lighthouse.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened on August 11, 1934, exactly 75 years ago last week. I visited “The Rock” last Tuesday morning for an exclusive “Behind the Scenes” tour led by arguably the most famous face on the island, Emmy award winning park ranger John Cantwell. If you’ve ever seen a television program on the subject of Alcatraz, Cantwell’s face should be very familiar as he’s appeared in nearly every taped segment made on the island over the last dozen or so years. A Wisconsin native, Cantwell has worked for the National Park Service for almost 20 years having started as a clerk in the Alcatraz book store while still in high school. During his tenure, he has befriended over two dozen former inmates, countless former island residents and more than a dozen former guards, several of whom were like family to Cantwell often staying with John and his wife in their home while visiting the island for reunions and book signings. Sadly, the ranks of these former alumni have dwindled drastically in the last few years to the point that during the official 75th reunion ceremonies, only 5 former inmates and 2 former guards were in attendance.

z 4396975203_761c1da998_z
Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

The subject of my visit was a young man by the name of James A. Boarman, an Indianapolis bank robber with eastside ties who served two and one half years on “The Rock” from 1940 to 1943. James Arnold Boarman was born on November 3, 1919 in Whalen, Kentucky, the sixth of eight children. His father was a carpenter who died of an accidental drowning when James was only seven years old. His mother moved her brood to Indianapolis where all 9 family members shared residence in a small apartment on the cities’ southeast side. Young Jimmy Boarman attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Fountain Square until dropping out at age 14 when he got a job as a gardener to help support the family. His mother recalled that he was a “good boy” who didn’t mind turning his earnings over to her to help support the impoverished family.
At the age of 16, Jimmy was arrested for stealing an automobile, placed on probation and released to the custody of his sickly mother. However, he quickly stole two more cars (one in Indianapolis and another in Oklahoma) and, with two accomplices, headed to California where the trio was quickly apprehended. Unbeknownst to James, with this crime, he had graduated from a small time car thief to an enemy of the Federal Government by transporting a stolen car across state lines. His mother traveled west to plead for mercy for her son to no avail as James was sentenced to three years in Federal Prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. Boarman quickly became involved in several escape attempts and was considered such a high flight risk that he was transferred to the more secure facility at Lewisburg less than a year after arriving in the Sooner state. Unrepentant, James continued to fight, plot escape and hoard weapons until his release right up to his release in Christmas of 1939.
James headed back to Indianapolis and tried to “go straight” by getting a job at the RCA plant on Sherman Avenue. A series of layoffs and rehires pushed Boarman back into a life of crime. James was later quoted as saying: “When I came out of Lewisburg, I intended to go straight. I got me a job and did go straight. I lost that job, and couldn’t find another one for hell. I tried to join the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps and didn’t get in, so I went and got me a gun and started robbin’.” A sympathetic parole officer attempted to help Boarman in his quest to join the military by contacting recruiters directly, but the armed forces representatives felt that James’ past criminal conduct made him an unsuitable prospect for military induction. In August of 1940, James began what would be his last crime spree by stealing a car a gunpoint from an Indianapolis auto dealer and robbing the “Fletcher Trust Company” bank of $ 12,812 in cash. He was quickly arrested in Frankfort, Ky. after drawing attention to himself by spending over $1,000 of the stolen cash on a new car, firearms and several suits of flashy clothing.
When questioned by police, Boarman proudly claimed that while in town, he had amused himself by holding up several gas stations, grocery stores and “two ladies in a parking lot.” His F.B.I. report describes James as a “vicious menace to society… a highly unstable and impulsive youth…quite proud of the fact that he committed the instant offense without the aid or advice of others…He is convinced that he is entirely capable of whipping the whole world.” Sentenced to 20 years in Federal prison, true to form, James would again attempt escape while enroute back to Lewisburg by violently kicking the back of the driver’s seat of the police car transporting him, causing the car to veer off the road into a ditch. James struggled in a vain attempt to wrest the revolver away from the officer earning instead a one way ticket to Alcatraz, arriving 2 days before Halloween of 1940.
Boarman was a “Con’s Con”, generally well liked by his fellow inmates and always on the lookout for a viable escape plan. Ironically, Boarman would hatch his plan for freedom in early 1943 while working in the Island’s mat shop manufacturing cement ballast blocks for submarine nets used by the military during the war, the very same military that denied him employment as a citizen before his incarceration. Boarman, along with three other inmates, Harold Brest, Fred Hunter and Floyd Hamilton, would plan their escape for April of 1943. Brest was a kidnapper and bank robber destined to serve two separate stretches on the rock, Hunter was a member of the Ma Barker / Creepy Karpis kidnapping and robbery gang who made it to the F.B.I.’s legendary “Public Enemy” list, and Hamilton was one of the most famous men on Alcatraz at the time, a bank robber intimately linked to the famed 1930s outlaw couple “Bonnie & Clyde” and former “Public Enemy # 1” on the F.B.I. most wanted list of 1938. The four inmates planned their escape carefully and by April fool’s day were ready to go. However, Hoosier James Boarman insisted that they wait until the time and conditions were perfect for them to “Do the Houdini” and escape.
z 1d0f1fbf-0205-3d74-354f283f1068d086-masterTuesday April 13, 1945 dawned unusually cold with a dense layer of fog blanketing Alcatraz Island. The four convicts walked nervously down the narrow gravel road that led from the cell house to the mat shop located in the old “Model Industries Building” on the far northwest corner of the island. The building was built by the U.S. Military in the years that Alcatraz served as a disciplinary barracks before the Federal prison arrived in 1934 and as such was filled with many hidden corners and blind angles, not to mention a design flaw that seemingly allowed the back corner walls to drop directly into San Francisco Bay. The inmates had previously cut through the steel mesh covering the windows in preparation for their big moment. At 10:00 am, they made their move.
One of the guards, Custodial Officer George Smith, was overpowered by Hamilton, quickly tied up, gagged and dragged into a back room just as the Captain of the Guards, Henry Weinhold, a former Marine that the inmates called “Bullethead”, rounded the corner. James Boarman, armed with a knife and a hammer, began to beat the massive officer repeatedly with the heavy carpenter’s tool until finally subduing and tying him up to join his fellow guard now lying helpless on the floor. The inmates pushed the metal bars off the window and placed a cloth covered wooden ramp over the barbed wire fence located just a few feet from the window. The fugitive foursome then scooted carefully across the makeshift bridge and dropped to the narrow ledge below. The desperadoes, clad only in their underwear and leather belts, miraculously escaped grave injury during their bare-footed 30-foot plunge down a sheer cliff to the rock-strewn shore below. The quartet brought with them two empty cans designed to keep them afloat in the bay, each stuffed with stolen Army uniforms with which they hoped to make good their escape. Keep in mind that 1943 was the height of World War II and the shores of San Francisco Bay were lined with Army units and defense gun crews as well as being a major debarkation point for U.S. soldiers heading off to war in the Pacific theatre. Armed with the false confidence of their makeshift flotation devices and oblivious to the fact that they were surrounded by enough guns to fill an armory, the quartet hit the water.