April 19, 2006

The Pony Express by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Last night I finished reading The Pony Express by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Spencer Press, 1950). I found the book interesting, fun, and educational. The Pony Express was a cross-country mail-delivery route that went from St. Louis, Missouri to Sacramento, California in 1860 and 1861. The book relates the background, equipment, men, finances, politics, scandals, and heroic stories of the Pony Express.

The sparsely-populated California of the 1840s became a bustling country with hundreds of thousands of new arrivals during the 1850s as a result of the California gold rush. Easterners who had moved to California were desperate for news and letters from relatives back east. Likewise, people in the east were eager for news and letters from the west. The standard route mail followed from New York to California took three to six weeks. It travelled by steamship from New York to Panama, went overland through the Panama jungle, and travelled by steamship from Panama to San Francisco. Everyone hated the delay. News was scarce and out-of-date. The cost of a three-month-old New York Tribune in Sacramento was $8. (p. 48) Several companies tried to develop overland mail services, but they all failed due to bad terrain, bad weather, starvation, insufficient funds, and hostile Indians. Snow in the plains and mountains was the greatest obstacle. In 1857 Congress awarded John Butterfield a $600,000 contract to deliver mail by his "slow but safe" southern overland route that went from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California by way of Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona.

Russell, Majors, & Waddell was a successful and respected freight business that used oxen-drawn wagons to carry supplies to towns, forts, and mining settlements in the west. The three owners -- William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell -- wanted to develop a faster and more reliable mail-delivery system that would serve the west until the east-west telegraph line was completed. They founded the "Central Overland & Pike's Peak Express Company" to run their new "Pony Express" mail service. They envisioned a well-maintained overland trail on which fast horsemen would deliver mail between St. Louis and Sacramento in ten days. The trail was almost 2,000 miles and went through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. The company built the trail, built and supplied the relay stations, bought fast horses, and hired riders. According to one newspaper ad the riders had to be 19 to 25 years old, less than 130 pounds, of good moral character, able to read and write, and experienced with horses. (p. 28) The pay was $100 a month and included food and lodging. Company men carefully handpicked riders at both ends of the trail. There were dozens of applicants for every opening, so the company could be very selective. Each rider had to swear an oath that he would conduct himself honestly, be faithful to his duties, act so as to win the confidence of his employers, and that he would not use profane language, quarrel or fight with fellow employees, or drink liquor. (p. 38) In their training the men were taught to protect the mail first, their horses second, and their lives last. For the system to work the mail had to always go through.

The Pony Express started on April 3, 1860, and it worked. The mail rate was $5 an ounce, so letters were written on thin tissue paper. (p. 58) The mail was carried in hard leather boxes called "mochilas". The mochilas were delivered like batons in a relay race. Each rider got a fresh horse every 10 to 20 miles and rode about 75 miles before handing his mochila to the next rider. When another rider came from the other direction, the first rider would take the mail and ride back to his starting point, where another rider would take the mail and ride on. No delay in the schedule was ever considered. If the next rider was sick or not at a station, the rider to be relieved had to keep riding for another 75 miles or so until he could hand off the mail to the next rider. Riders rode day and night, and mail was delivered twice a week in both directions. The whole country loved the fast new mail service. Pony Express riders were treated like heroes. Crowds cheered the riders like sports fans cheer their favorite teams. Every good citizen wanted the Pony Express to succeed, and it did. (p. 111-112) In its nineteen months of operation before the east-west telegraph line was completed, the Pony Express only lost one mail delivery. (p. 86) Pony Express riders were known to be the best of the best. Former Pony Express riders were highly sought after by employers. Although the Pony Express succeeded at delivering the mail, it was a financial failure. The three owners spent $700,000 of their own money and received only $200,000 in payment. (p. 146) Congress never subsidized the Pony Express.

Several individual stories are worth relating. After proving he could shoot and ride, a persistent underage boy was hired at a Colorado station as an extra rider. One day he was needed for a special run. He was to carry a box of money along with the mail that day, but two bandits who had tried to rob a stagecoach were reported to be on the trail. The boy thought about the problem, put a blanket over the mail and money boxes, and then added decoy mail boxes filled paper over the second blanket. At a narrow spot in the trail he was stopped at gunpoint by the two bandits. The men said he would be filled with holes if he didn't give them the goods. He whined, "Oh, go on, take it then!" He threw the decoy mochila at the man, quickly drew his gun, and shot the man who was catching the mochila. He then rode down the second man with his horse and made good his escape, saving both the mail and the money. The boy was William F. Cody, later to become famous worldwide as Buffalo Bill. (p. 110) Wild Bill Hickock was another famous Pony Express employee. He was too tall and too heavy to be a rider, so he was hired as a stock tender at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska. (p. 160)

One of the most famous riders was Pony Bill Haslam. When he first met a horse he would flip it on the nose. If it didn't try to bite him he passed it up because it didn't have enough spirit. During the Pah-Ute Indian war in Nevada, he arrived at Reese River Station to change horses after riding 75 miles. The station was empty. All the horses and mules had been taken to fight the Indians. At Buckland Station 15 miles farther, the next rider refused to ride. No reason is known. Haslam switched horses and continued for 35 miles, switched horses, rode 37 miles, switched horses, and rode the final 30 miles to the next station where Jack Kelley took his mail. After riding hard for 190 miles Haslam fell immediately into a deep sleep on a cot at the station. Then he was awakened by the station man who said the eastbound rider had arrived crippled from a fall and couldn't continue. Haslam asked how long he had slept. The man told him an hour and a half. Haslam took the mochila and started his return trip. There were five dead men and no horses at a station where he had switched horses a few hours before. The warring Indians had been there. At the next station the superintendent forbade him to continue until dark because of the Indians. Haslam slept. He rode on at dusk, spotted Indians twice, and had to outrun Indians once. When he finally made it back to his starting point, he had ridden 380 miles on less than eleven hours sleep. (p. 115-118)

The rider who probably held the speed record was Bob Moore. In June 1860 government messages were sent to California with the instruction to "Rush". Moore rode his route but refused to let the less-experienced rider take the mochila at the hand-off station. He rode both routes; 140 miles. As soon as he handed off the mochila another rider came in from the west with special orders to "Rush", but the scheduled rider wasn't there (probably killed by outlaws or Indians). Moore took the mochila, rested for ten minutes, and took off back the way he had come. Moore made the whole run of 275 miles in 14¾ hours, for an average speed over 18 mph. (p. 118-119)

Jack Keetly held the record for the longest time in the saddle. When there was a shortage of riders he rode for 31 hours straight and covered 340 miles. (p. 120) Once in Utah a Mormon rider's horse stumbled and went over a cliff. The rider was saved by a scrub juniper pine at the top of the cliff. He climbed down the cliff to the dead horse, got the mochila, climbed up the cliff back to the trail, and carried the mail the last eight miles to the next station on foot. His name is not known. Twice mail arrived at stations on riderless horses. Once the rider had been ambushed and was dead on the prairie. (p. 86) Another time the rider was laying by the trail wounded. (p. 120) Once Tony King and Henry Worley were scheduled to pass each other on the trail in Colorado. King arrived at the station and said he hadn't seen Worley. Worley arrived at his station and told them they'd better send a search party after King. Searchers left from both stations. It turned out the riders had passed one another on the trail while asleep in their saddles. (p. 121-122)

April 16, 2006

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by James C. Whittaker

I have just read this 1943 account of eight men lost at sea when their airplane, a B-17 Flying Fortress, went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The story is written in the first person by Lieutenant James Whittaker of the U.S. Army Air Corps Transport Command. He was the copilot and eldest crewman. A passenger on board was Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous war hero who had shot down a record 26 enemy aircraft in World War I. Whittaker wrote We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing from his recollections, from entries in his diary, and from a series of stories about the ordeal in the Chicago Tribune. Since World War II was still being fought when the book was published, some details were omitted regarding the plane, equipment, mission, destination, and rescue location.

The introduction "The Loneliest of Oceans" by Charles Leavelle remembers the famous and unsuccessful searches for Amelia Earhart and Sir Charles Kingford-Smith. Leavelle emphasizes the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. He says it covers over 68 million square miles and more than a third of the globe. He says when Captain William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty was set adrift in 1789 he travelled 4,000 miles without encountering any land. Even more amazing, he says Magellan sailed almost 12,000 miles without seeing land.

Whittaker's crew delivered a B-24 Liberator to Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii and was scheduled for a stateside leave, but the leave was cancelled and they were given a new mission to fly Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his aide somewhere on a secret mission for the War Department. The crew consisted of: Captain William T. Cherry, Jr. (pilot and mission commander), Lieutenant James C. Whittaker (copilot), Second Lieutenant John J. DeAngelis (navigator), Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk (engineer), Staff Sergeant James W. Reynolds (radio operator), and Private John Bartek (second engineer). The passengers were Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his aide Colonel Hans Adamson.

Halfway into the takeoff of their B-17 one of the wheels partially locked and they veered off the runway toward the hangers. Cherry managed to put the plane into a tight 50-mph spin to avoid hitting the buildings and keep the plane on the field until it lost momentum. DeAngelis, the navigator, mentioned that his octant had been thrown across the nose compartment during the spin and suffered quite a blow against the side of the plane, but it appeared to be okay. They transferred their gear to another B-17 and took off at 1:30 AM on October 21, 1942. Many hours later they missed the island that was their first stop, possibly due to the damaged octant. After various unsuccessful attempts to determine their position they ran low on fuel and had to fly the plane into the sea.

In the confusion after impact the man who had been assigned to bring the food and water forgot his assignment. When they got the three tiny rafts inflated and took inventory of their supplies they discovered they had no water and only four anemic oranges they had found floating beside the plane. Their other supplies included: air pumps for the rafts, two knives, two flare guns, 18 flares, two .45 caliber pistols, aluminum oars, some fishing line, and some fish hooks. The three rafts were incredibly small. Three men were assigned to each of the two larger rafts which had inside dimensions of only 5½ x 2½ feet. The third raft was too small for just one man, but two men had to use it. After much experimentation the only way they could sit was facing each other with their legs over each other's shoulders. After they tied the rafts together and settled on seating arrangements they noticed the water around the rafts was filled with sharks. The sharks were always there from that point on. What followed was 21 days adrift with starvation, dehydration, praying, roasting under the hot daytime sun, shivering at night, skin ulcers, and delirium. One man died -- Kaczmarczyk, the engineer. Rickenbacker was the strongest personality and vehemently cussed out any man who expressed any negativity or uncertainty about rescue. The author thought some of the men survived just to spite Rickenbacker.

Several events are worth mentioning. It rained a few times. Those rains were the only source of drinkable water. One day the rafts capsized and most of the supplies were lost, including the flare guns and flares. One day a "sea swallow" ("about half the size of a seagull" p. 60) landed on Rickenbacker's head. Rickenbacker managed to catch the bird. The men shared the tiny bit of meat and baited fish hooks with the bird's guts. They managed to catch two small fish that way. Each man got a fish steak about one inch square. One day a school of minnows swam past and the men were able to scoop enough minnows into the rafts so that each man got to eat three 2½-inch minnows. One night two fish being chased by barracuda jumped into a raft. One day they caught a baby shark about two feet long and ate it, however, in killing it they stuck a hole in the bottom of a raft. One day a ten-foot shark flipped its tail catching Captain Cherry full in the face and breaking his nose. One of the author's most vivid memories was a hallucination he experienced in which he slid over the side, sank to the bottom, and had a conversation with Davy Jones and Jim Blood on the bottom.

On the eighteenth day they saw a patrol plane pass in the distance. They saw it twice more on the nineteenth day. On the twentieth day they cut the rafts loose from one another in hopes that three separated targets had a greater chance of being seen than one target. Captain Cherry took the smallest raft. The next day Whittaker's raft made it to an island where DeAngelis, Reynolds, and Whittaker ate coconuts and discovered an abandoned hut where they slept. On the twenty-third day they met with natives who took them to a village and radioed the nearest US outpost. Meanwhile Captain Cherry had been spotted and rescued by a search plane. Then Rickenbacker's group was also found and rescued. Rickenbacker, Cherry, Whittaker, DeAngelis, and Adamson were flown to a hospital in Samoa where they made complete recoveries. Bartek and Reynolds were too sick to fly to Samoa, but they too were treated and recovered. Captain Cherry was sent to Washington to help redesign life rafts. Whittaker was ordered to visit west-coast factories telling his survival story to war production workers.

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing was published in 1943 by E. P. Dutton & Company. It is illustrated with drawings and photographs.

An illustrated account of the story including details of the rescue location can be read online here.

Update: Eddie Rickenbacker also wrote a book telling the story, Seven Came Through.

Update: There is a third book about the same ordeal, by John Bartek, Life Out There.

Update: According to David Weed, John Bartek's grandson, Bartek's book Life Out There was written by a ghost writer and Bartek did not approve of the book. Bartek later wrote another book about the ordeal "My Raft Episode, 21 Days Adrift at Sea". See the comment by David Weed below, dated September 10, 2013.

April 12, 2006

The Neanderthal Parallax by Robert J. Sawyer

I have just finished reading The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer. The story follows a handful of scientists after a quantum experiment opens a portal between our version of Earth and an alternate version of Earth in which Neanderthals became the dominant human species. The story allows the author to examine our society, science, culture, and religion as an outsider might -- criticizing humanity's errors and identifying questionable scientific assumptions. The author also shares his vision of what a Neanderthal world might be like.

I judge science fiction on its stimulating ideas. A good story with well-developed characters is desirable, but often missing. The Neanderthal Parallax tells an interesting story revolving around two fairly-deep main characters. Ponter Boddit is extremely likable. The supporting characters are shallow, particularly in the second and third books. I highly recommend reading the first book, Hominids (which won the Hugo Award in 2003) and skipping the next two books. Hominids is filled with educational and thought-provoking ideas about anthropology, physics, paleontology, genetics, and religion. The second book, Humans, includes more romance than scientific speculation, although there is at least one fascinating discussion among scientists about halfway through. The third book, Hybrids, is the weakest of the three. I was quite disappointed in the last fifty pages, which include a big unnecessary coincidence, characters behaving unbelievably, and use of a clichéd plot device that writers wore out decades ago. The most interesting parts of the third book deal with neurotheology.

April 3, 2006

Webmasters -- Files in 404 Error Log

There are several recurring 404 errors I see in my 404 error log each month. I investigated some of the more mysterious file names. Perhaps the list below will save other webmasters some research.


This is an information file that shows what FrontPage Server Extensions are installed, their version, and what type of server they're installed on. I assume this file is requested if your web site is accessed using FrontPage. Some sites say this file is requested if your web site is viewed via MS Office.

This is a Microsoft FrontPage file. It is probably requested when your site is viewed using FrontPage.

owssvr.dll (see section "More Information")
This file is used by Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services to process discussion requests. Some sites say it is requested from Internet Explorer when the Discuss Toolbar is turned on.

I found several sites that say this file is requested when a visitor who has MS Office installed uses Internet Explorer to view your site and has the Discuss Toolbar turned on.

A site owner can list his site's main pages in this file. The file is requested by the A9 Toolbar, A9 SiteInfo - Firefox Extension, and any other toolbar that uses the standard. If the file is present the site visitor can click a button on the toolbar and get a drop-down menu of pages on the site.

noexist_[code deleted here].html
I haven't found out anything definite about this one, but it seems to be related to Google Sitemaps. The long code I deleted from the file's name above is a Google Sitemaps verification code.

I don't know what someone or some program is looking for when it seeks 666666, but that file name has been sought in more than one month. It could be a hex color code, an ICQ number, or who knows what.

April 1, 2006

Car Heater Problem -- Check Your Coolant Level

The heater in my 1996 Mercury Sable didn't work right. The heater would blow hot air for about 30 seconds and then the air would turn cold. I checked the fuses. They were fine. I checked the external coolant reservoir and it appeared to be dry. So poured a gallon of antifreeze into the reservoir. (I knew I should add a 50-50 mixture of antifreeze and water, but I was traveling in the mountains and the store where I was still had insulated covers on the outdoor faucets.) The heater worked perfectly and the temperature gauge stayed near the center of the dial all the way home. At home I added about a quart of water and brought the level in the reservoir to the maximum cold-fill line.

I was amazed by what I read in the car's manual about coolant. Here's an excerpt. "Have your dealer check the engine cooling system for leaks if: you have to add engine coolant more than once a month, or you have to add more than a quart (liter) at a time". I have had the car since 2003 and I have never added coolant. Apparently losing coolant is acceptable in a Mercury as long as you don't lose more than a quart a month. Amazing.

In my defense for not checking the coolant, I was spoiled by my Toyota. I drove a Tercel for 19 years, from 1984 to 2003, and I never added coolant. I checked it periodically and it was always to the top of the radiator and my antifreeze tester always showed that I was protected to a reasonable temperature. Of course the coolant was flushed and replaced a few times at recommended intervals based on the maintenance schedule, but other than that I never had to worry about it. When I gave the car away in 2003 it still had the original radiator hose, and the hose was still in good shape. I drove the car for 19 years and it never broke down, never stranded me, and never even had a flat tire. I guess I'm about to learn that Mercurys aren't made to last like that.