Jean Bonnet Tavern

Jean Bonnet Tavern

A ghost’s eye view of the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Four miles west of Bedford, Pennsylvania is the Jean Bonnet (bo-nay’) Tavern, which has hosted travelers since the mid-1700’s. The Jean Bonnet Tavern has seen it all – war, peace, crime, rebellion, trade, Indian raids and westward migration as the nation grew. The tavern occupies a very strategic spot, sitting at the base of the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains at the intersection of the Forbes Road (Route 30) and Glades Pike (Route 31). Those roads follow old Shawnee trading paths and are still the major east-west highways through the region.

The tavern is renowned for its old world charm, history, rustic decor and great food. It is also famous for its ghosts and hauntings.

In 1742, the French built a small fort and trading post here to carry on trade with the Shawnee. It was abandoned during the French and Indian War.

After the war, the British constructed a building on top of it and there has been one there ever since. The real Jean Bonnet bought the property from the British in 1779 and built the current structure using the thick stone walls of the French fort as the foundation. Those same stone walls are the walls of the downstairs restaurant today. The Jean Bonnet Tavern was very successful. Back then, this was the edge of the westerrn frontier. Anybody headed west over the mountains stopped here. It was the last place to outfit and prepare before heading into the frontier. Soon, it became a hub for commerce, exploration, socializing, politics – and justice.

Dining room with gallows beam

Part of the main dining room with the gallows of the French spy highlighted. There is also a good view of the original French fort walls.

It was a meeting place for both sides during the Revolutionary War. It survived the Indian raids of 1780 that savaged the region. Later, it was a gathering spot for farmers involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal troops sent to quell the rebellion, led by President George Washington himself, encamped near the grounds. That was the one and only time the Commander-in-Chief has led troops in the field.

It watched as battles of the Civil War were fought less than 90 miles away, including Gettysburg and Antietam. In the week before Gettysburg, Pennsylvania militia troops skirmished with Confederate cavalry in Everett, only 10 miles away to the east.

At least two men are known to have been hanged here.

The Forbes Expedition of 1758 stopped here on its way to attack Fort Duquesne, the French base at the junction of the three rivers in modern-day Pittsburgh. A suspected French spy was hanged in the basement which is now the restaurant. His body was buried under the floor so the French would never know his fate. The beam that served as the gallows is still there. According to legends and ghost hunters, the spirit of the French spy is still there too.

In the 1760’s, a second floor was added to the original structure and was used as a circuit courtroom. Frontier justice was swift and several men were reportedly hanged. The only one documented with any certainty was a horse thief who stole horses from the Shawnee. He was tried and hanged while the Shawnee waited outside. They took his body with them.

In 1980, the tavern underwent a major renovation. Underneath the old floor downstairs workers found a human skeleton. Although it was never identified, testing showed the bones dated back to the late 1700’s.

Stone fireplace in the dining room.

The fireplace. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. It’s massive. Old pots and cooking utensils hang nearby. In the winter, there is a roaring fire going in it. They keep a smaller one going in the summer to fend off the chill of the night air in the Pennsylvania mountains. The room view in the previous picture (with the gallows pole) is directly behind the camera.

Hauntings and paranormal events have been observed or recorded at the Jean Bonnet Tavern for years. These include cold spots, strange lights, objects being moved, anomalies on pictures and apparitions. These have been observed or experienced by customers, guests and staff, including the owners. The tavern was featured on the Biography channel’s “My Ghost Story” in 2012. A Google search will bring up many more happenings.

However, most people come here for the atmosphere and the food. Going into the main dining room is like stepping back in time. It is quiet, cool and windowless with thick stone walls and the original massive exposed chestnut beams and columns. The focal point is the large fireplace that was once used to prepare the tavern meals. People with buckskin clothes and three corner hats would be right at home here.

Being a local native, I’ve been here dozens of times. Even though I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for over 40 years, we make annual family visits and Jean Bonnet’s is always on the itinerary. I’ve never seen a ghost or had a bad meal. It’s the kind of place where you can just relax, enjoy the food and savor the surroundings. There are very few like it.

The GPS coordinates for the tavern are 40.0424, -78.5606. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

If you like history and exploring, you’re surrounded by it here. Fort Necessity, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Flight 93 Memorial are all within an hour’s drive. Two hours will take you to Gettysburg, Antietam, Fort Ligonier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Falling Water. That’s just for starters. Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. That will give you plenty to see and do when you’re not hiking, biking or kayaking, which abound throughout the region.

Good haunting and bon appetite… Boris and Natasha

Battle of Grant’s Hill

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major Grant disobeyed orders, which stated he was not to get decisively engaged in a battle. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh.

Summer 1758 in present-day western Pennsylvania. The French and Indian War is in its fourth year and so far, it’s been all French and Indians. There is no British military presence on the western frontier except a regiment of part-time volunteer Virginia militia commanded by George Washington. For three years, they have been fighting a lost cause, trying to hold back French and Indian raids across the depth and breadth of the colonial western frontier. These raids have plundered as far north as Lake Erie and south to the Potomac River while moving east as far as the Susquehanna River in the center of Pennsylvania.

The base for these raids is Fort Duquesne (dew-cane’), located at the junction of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh. This location was simply referred to as “The Forks”. From the northeast flows the Allegheny River.  Up from the southeast flows the Monongahela River.  They join at “The Forks” to form the Ohio River, which flows southwest to the Mississippi River. With all the navigable rivers and tributaries that connect to this water network, one can go from the Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Whoever controls The Forks controls this inland water super highway, making it the most strategic and valuable piece of real estate in the interior.

There were several reasons why Great Britain was in this fix. The French and Indian War was part of the much larger Seven Years War. It was the first true world war and Britain was fighting world-wide on both land and sea.**Historical Footnote: They were fighting the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and Swedes (yes, Swedes). Their only ally was Germany.** The British government considered the French and Indian War to be a sideshow and a problem the colonials would have to deal with themselves. British officers and government officials already in North America tended to be dismissive of the colonials and especially the Indians, who they had no use for at all. The French, however, welcomed Native American support. The Indian tribes of North America were some of the best light infantry/guerrilla fighters in the world. They became a lethal mercenary wilderness army for the French.

Second, the British, who were the masters of the European battlefield, had no idea how to fight in the wilderness and were terrified of their Indian adversaries. Time and again, they were outfoxed and outfought by the French and their Native American allies. In fact, throughout the entire war, it was taken as gospel by the British that attempts to operate independently in Indian country were tantamount to suicide. It simply wasn’t done.

Outline of Fort Duquesne

This overhead view of “The Point” in Pittsburgh shows the outline of Fort Duquesne. It was tiny. The interior courtyard was about the size of a tennis court. Fort Pitt, which replaced it, was built in the same area and covered 13 acres. The settlement the sprung up outside the walls became Pittsburgh. **Historical Footnote: Both the fort and the town were named after William Pitt, the Leader of the House of Commons, future Prime Minister and driving force behind the British strategy to expel France from North America. Without his focus on that strategy and the means to carry it out, we might all be speaking French today.**

In 1758, Britain entered the war in force and with a newfound vigor. **Historical Footnote: Great Britain paid Germany to continue the fight in Europe. That freed them to throw the might of their empire into the North American War.** The most important strategic objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock had tried it three years earlier. On July 9, 1755, his force was cut to pieces on the banks of the Monongahela River by a smaller force of French and Indians. Braddock was killed. The ghost of Braddock’s Defeat haunted the British for the rest of the war. The unspoken rule for commanders was – “No more Braddocks”.

Now it was the mission of General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Forbes’ second-in-command was Lt.Col Henri Bouquet, a Swiss soldier-of-fortune who had been fighting for a living for 20 years. He may have been the best field officer in the British Army. Tough and savvy, he understood wilderness fighting and didn’t buy into this gospel that Brits alone couldn’t operate in Indian country. When they got close to Fort Duquesne, he decided to give the French and the Indians a taste of their own medicine – a raid on the stronghold at The Forks.

The officer selected to lead this mission was Major James Grant, an officer with Montgomerie’s Highlanders. Grant was a bad tempered and impatient Scotsman who was tired of building wilderness roads and waiting. In his view, it was time to fight. Although he had been in the army since 1744, he had no wilderness fighting experience. Nevertheless, he convinced Bouquet that they should go big with a large force of several hundred men conducting what the military calls a “reconnaissance-in-force“. Grant left the British forward base at Fort Ligonier on September 9 with 800 men – about 400 highlanders and 400 militia troops. The Forks were about 50 miles to the west. Their orders were to create as much mayhem as possible around Fort Duquesne, take prisoners and bring back detailed information on the fort. The most important part of his orders was a directive to not get involved in a decisive engagement. Basically, it was get in and get out.

Grant planned and executed his movement well. They traveled light and carried everything in their haversacks. Noise and light discipline were strictly enforced. No fires at night. Barking dogs encountered along the way were killed. On September 13, they reached a hill several hundred yards away from the fort. They had gotten there undetected. Grant estimated there were 200 defenders and no sign of any Indians. Against all orders, he decided to attack the fort. His plan was to decoy the defenders out and ambush them in the open with a bigger force. Another section would be held in reserve further up the hill. Fifty Virginia militia troops were left further back to guard the packs. Some militia officers advised against the plan. Grant, who was openly contemptuous of colonial units, brushed them off.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Built in 1884, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh sits on the site of the Battle of Grant’s Hill. The hill itself was leveled in the early 1900’s to make room for development, but the area is still called Grant’s Hill. The first floor of the courthouse in the photo used to be the basement.Other than a few commemorative plaques, there’s no battlefield to visit.

At dawn on September 14, 1758, the French defenders of Fort Duquesne were greeted by an unbelievable sight. One hundred Scottish Highlanders, kilts and all, were marching towards the front gate to the music of bagpipes. The gates opened and defenders came rushing out while Indians came running up from the river banks where they were encamped unseen. Grant’s estimated 200 defenders inside the fort quickly became over 500 swarming all over them with more on the way from across the Allegheny River.

The decoy force was overwhelmed almost immediately. While that brief action was going on, other defenders went down to the rivers, ran along the banks and came up above and behind the rest of Grant’s force. The whole attack plan fell apart and desperation set in so the British used what they knew – European linear tactics. On the heavily timbered hillside, they tried to form up in ranks and volley fire.

It was right out of the Braddock playbook. Grant was on the verge of a completely successful mission when he got stupid. All up and down the hill, groups of British soldiers were surrounded and cut down by an enemy they couldn’t see or fight. Some of the British broke and ran for the “safety” of the river. Panicked soldiers raced headlong into the water, preferring death by drowning to the slow torture they knew they would face from the Indians. The only reason Grant’s force wasn’t completely annihilated is because the Virginians guarding the packs came forward and counterattacked. It bought enough time and space for survivors to bug out.

Of the 800 men who left Fort Ligonier, only 400 came back. The rest were dead or captured, with wounded men dying on the retreat. Grant himself was taken prisoner. It was a complete disaster and the very thing that Forbes and Bouquet had sworn would never happen on their watch. They still had no hard intelligence other than what survivors told them. They painted a picture of an impregnable fortress with thousands of defenders.

Despite that, Forbes pushed on, overwhelming the French with sheer numbers and a slow methodical approach. As they closed in on Fort Duquesne on November 25, the French blew it up and bugged out. The next day, the vanguard of Forbes’ army walked up to the gates of Fort Duquesne without a shot fired. There was nothing left but chimneys and iron frames, but that’s not all they found.

On their final approach march, they walked through Braddock’s kill zone from three years earlier. The bleached bones of Braddock’s men were still laying all around. When they got to the fort, they made another horrifying discovery. The heads of Grant’s captured highlanders were impaled on stakes a short distance away by the river bank. There was nothing to be done except bury them. Such was the nature of frontier warfare. But after five years, the British finally had Fort Duquesne. It was the beginning of the end for New France. Things went downhill fast for them as the British tightened the noose, driving the French out of the colonies and attacking Quebec and Montreal. The French surrendered after the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760.

**Historical Footnote: Major Grant was a POW in Quebec for a year. He was released in a prisoner exchange and went home to England, becoming a member of Parliament. He returned to serve during the American Revolution, then returned to Parliament until his death in 1802. He blamed the colonial militia for the debacle that bears his name and his family connections blunted any political fallout. He was never held accountable for anything nor did he ever express any remorse or regret. He’s buried on his Scottish Estate.

**Historical Footnote: General John Forbes was a late-comer to the army, having been a physician first. At the time of his assignment to the Fort Duquesne mission, he was a dying man, ravaged by a disease (never identified) that kept him bedridden much of the time. He was the brains of the operation and Lt. Col. Bouquet was the brawn. Together, they got it done. Forbes left Fort Duquesne in early December, arriving in Philadelphia after a grueling six week trip on a litter slung between two horses. He died in early March and is buried in Philadelphia.

**Historical Footnote: Lt. Col. Henri Bouquet stayed at The Forks and built Fort Pitt. Five years later, he was in Philadelphia when Pontiac’s War exploded on the western frontier. Fort Pitt was attacked and under siege by a large force of Indians. Bouquet gathered a force and marched to relieve it. He was ambushed by Indians near a tiny way station called Bushy Run, about 40 miles from Fort Pitt. After two days of fierce fighting, he decisively defeated the attackers and moved on to relieve the fort. The Battle of Bushy Run broke the back of Pontiac’s War and got Bouquet promoted to Brigadier General. He was re-assigned to command Britain’s new souther command based in Pensacola, FL. As soon as he got there, he went down with yellow fever and was dead a week later. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola but his gravesite is unknown.

Author’s Comments

Well, there’s not much to say. Major Grant “screwed the pooch” as we say in the military. Military history is full of guys like Grant – Braddock at Monongahela, Sickles at Gettysburg and Custer at the Little Bighorn come to mind. Combat actions favor the bold but there’s a fine line between that and recklessness. If you win, you’re bold. If you lose, you’re reckless. Sometimes you don’t know which until you go for it.

Taking Fort Duquesne was a big deal. It wasn’t pretty. The French defended aggressively as far forward as they could by attacking the attackers. When things got terminal, they destroyed the fort and bugged out to fight another day. They deprived the British of the satisfaction of capturing the fort intact. The Forbes Expedition never did prove its mettle in a fight. It was plodding, methodical operation that lasted for over six months. It was a marvel of logistics and engineering. They cut a new road through the wild, rocky and steeply wooded Allegheney Mountains that is still in use today – Route 30, also called the Forbes Road. Most importantly, it gave Britain a win when it sorely needed one. John Forbes was hailed as a hero destined for great things. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

The city of Pittsburgh (my hometown) is one big museum. The steel mills and their rotten egg smell are long gone. Modern skyscrapers are mixed in with one-of-a-kind diners and everything in the Grant’s Hill neighborhood is within walking distance. Make sure you take the Duquesne Incline up to Mt. Washington for dinner. Also take a ride on the Gateway Clipper fleet, paddle wheelers that tour the rivers. Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt are gone, but they live on in the John Heinz Museum at Point State Park. There is still a blockhouse standing from the original Fort Pitt.

If you like to find or collect things, Pittsburgh is the Mother Lode. Geocaches, Munzees, benchmarks, letterboxes and NPS Passport Stamps are in abundance here. The city is safe to move around in, unlike Fort Duquesne days. The only time you’ll get scalped is if you try to score Steelers tickets in the parking lot on game day.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did……Boris and Natasha

The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Titan Missile Museum – Green Valley, AZ

“Anybody who isn’t wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day.”
……Sarah Connor, Terminator 2

Warhead of a Titan II ICBM

This R2D2-looking thing is a re-entry vehicle (RV) for a Titan II ICBM. It carried a single Mark-53 nine megaton nuclear warhead. That’s over 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb dropped at the end of World War II. The Titan II would have carried this payload over 6,000 miles in roughly 30 minutes after a launch sequence that lasted 58 seconds. This RV is on display at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ. It is the only museum of its kind, safeguarding and preserving a piece of Cold War history – a complete Titan ICBM launch facility. If you get up to South Dakota, you can check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site  near Wall, SD.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: April 1, 2020. Due to the emergency conditions resulting from the Chinese virus, the museum is closed until further notice. The Pima Air and Space Museum is closed as well.**

I admit it. I’m a Cold War junkie. I grew up in the days when we did “duck and cover” drills in school. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my 20 years in the Marine Corps were spent as a cold warrior. Now I’m a road warrior, but I’m still fascinated by the whole Commie/nuke/Dr Strangelove thing. Looking back on it now, a lot of the stuff was ludicrous (nuclear land mines, anybody?), but it was deadly serious back in the day.

If you lived in Tucson between the early 1960’s and the late 1980’s, you were surrounded by 18 Titan II ICBM’s and the Soviets knew all about them. That means in the event of war, there were probably several dozen Soviet missiles targeting Tucson’s Titan force.

Fortunately, it never came to that thanks to the deterrent effect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). When the Titans were taken out of service during the Reagan administration, the missiles were reconfigured as launch vehicles for NASA. The launch facilities were gutted except for this one. Launch Facility 571-7 was kept intact, a deactivated Titan was placed in the silo and a museum was born. The 571-7 designation is shorthand for the 7th launch facility of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron. It was one of two missile squadrons, along with the 570th, belonging to the 390th Strategic Missile Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Got all that?

When we came to Tucson for the winter several years back and discovered the Titan Missile Museum, it was high on the bucket list. I went there not knowing what I might find. Some of these military museums are little more than roadside attractions with a bunch of junk laying out on tables. Happily that is not the case here.

Blast door

There are four of these blast doors in the blast lock area at the bottom of the access steps. They work in pairs like an air lock. One pair seals off the crew from the outside world. The other pair seals off the silo area from the crew area. Each door weighs 6,000 pounds and is opened/closed manually. They are perfectly mounted and balanced on simple pin hinges. Even after hanging there for over 50 years, they can be moved with one hand. The design and construction of these launch facilities is unbelievable. In addition to the obvious workmanship and attention to detail, everything is redundant and backed up. Nothing was left to chance. When all sealed up, the facility could survive just about anything except a direct hit by a nuke.

Tucked away in the Sonoran desert hills, the museum is a hidden gem. They have static displays inside and out, a documentary film and several kinds of guided tours that go through the whole underground facility. The silo contains a de-activated Titan missile. You’ll get a good look at it from above and below. There’s also a simulated launch conducted in the control room with the tour. Afterwards, you can walk around topside for as long as you want. Photography is allowed throughout. The all volunteer staff is knowledgeable and includes several docents who worked as missile crew or contractors. Everyone is very informal and friendly. The cost is $13.50 per person. The museum is a private non-profit entity and also a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab a hard hat when they offer them. There’s all kinds of head bangers underground.

The entire facility and tours are very informative. Some of the revelations are downright jaw-dropping. For instance, assuming they survived, what did the four person crew do after the launch? They had a 30 day supply of food and water but only two weeks of air in their sealed underground bunker. The hard reality was that there was no plan. They were on their own. It was assumed that the crew commander at some point would begin to probe outside the facility. Now there’s something to look forward to. If the main access route was untenable, there was an emergency escape tunnel that would take them outside. At least, that was the theory.

Titan II ICBM

The star of the show – the museum’s Titan II ICBM. The Titan II was the largest ICBM deployed by the U.S. during the Cold War, measuring 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It also carried the largest warhead. The Mark-53 had a yield of nine megatons, i.e. nine millions tons of TNT. A train carrying nine million tons of TNT would be 1,200 miles long. Weighing around 8,000 pounds, it was a thermonuclear bunker buster.

We’ll never know what targets the Titans would have hit but with nine megatons of firepower, they weren’t going to be used on radar sites and truck parks. It’s a virtual certainty that they would have gone after command centers, key military installations, industrial centers and nuclear storage facilities. Even the launch crew didn’t know the targets. A total of 150 Titan II’s were built. Fifty were used as test and evaluation platforms. Fifty four ended up in silos with nuke warheads. There were 18 each in Tucson AZ, Wichita KS and Little Rock AR. One of the missiles in Little Rock blew up in its silo in 1980.  Built in safety locks kept the RV and warhead intact.

The Titan II missile was a rock steady and reliable system and performed several roles simultaneously. At the height of the Cold War, it was the most dangerous missile on earth. In terms of speed and accuracy, the Soviets had nothing like it until the late 1970’s. Twelve were used to launch the NASA Gemini manned space missions from 1964-66. In 1977, two modified Titans (Titan III) launched the Voyager satellites on their journey out of the solar system. Others were used to launch scientific and commercial payloads from Vandenburg AFB. The last Titan II was launched in October 2003. A platform with a planned service life of 10 years lasted 40. It was finally done in by the economics of its high maintenance.

In a way, the museum’s launch facility is still involved in a Cold War scenario. The START Treaty requires measures to verify the absence of weapons that may be in violation. The RV on display in the exhibit room has a big plexiglass cutout to show at a glance there are no weapons on board. Also, the 760 ton sliding silo hatch is locked in the half open position so Russian satellites can keep an eye on it.

Museum entrance

This is the place. GPS coordinates N31.9020636, W110.9995385. Click on the coordinates for a Google map. Click the following link to find out all about the Titan Missile Museum. BTW, Count Ferdinand von Galen is a real person and a real German Count. He’s also a successful Arizona businessman, aviation enthusiast and chairman of the Board of Directors for the Arizona Aerospace Foundation.

When you finish at the museum, you can fire up the smart phone and start gathering up some of the dozens of geocaches and munzees in the immediate area. Cell phone coverage is excellent along the I-19 corridor. Then it’s time for some Mexican food. El Patio, El Rodeo, Agave and Manuel’s are all excellent and about 10 minutes away. There’s also a Taco Bell nearby.

Then you can walk off the calories and the guilt at the Pima Air and Space Museum. One of the largest non-government air museums in the world, it’s magnificent.

Enjoy your visit …. Boris and Natasha

America’s First Railroad Tunnel

In the steep heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains of south central Pennsylvania is an obscure historical treasure that most people have never heard about and probably never will. We stumbled upon it quite by accident while exploring and geocaching along the Path of the Flood Trail. In these hills, 30 years before the Civil War, America’s first railroad tunnel was built. It was drilled, blasted and carved through 900 feet of solid rock – the length of three football fields.

From 1826 to 1833, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built a canal system linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. To get over the Allegheny Mountains in the center of the route, they built a railroad. Canal boats were taken out of the water, mounted on flatbed cars, dragged over the mountains via a series of inclines by mules or locomotives, then put back in the water to finish the journey. It was a giant two way 40 mile portage between Hollidaysburg in the east and Johnstown in the west. The 395 mile canal was called the Pennsylvania Main Line. The railroad was called the Allegheny Portage Railroad. One of the many technical challenges they faced was to build a tunnel through a mountain of bedrock. When it was completed, the Staple Bend Tunnel was the final link in the canal and the first railroad tunnel in America.

Eastern end of the Staple Bend Tunnel

The northeastern end of the Staple Bend Tunnel near Johnstown, PA. The two hikers silhouetted in the southwestern portal add some interesting perspective. Believe it or not, they are 1,000 feet away. And even though you can see both ends, the middle half of the tunnel is pitch black inside when moving through it. Bring a flashlight.

Running from northeast to southwest, construction started in November 1831 and was completed in June 1833 at a cost of $38,000. To build it, workers had to blast through 900 feet of bedrock and haul away 15,000 cubic yards of debris. It was drilled and blasted from both ends at the combined rate of 36 inches a day. The final rock face in the center of the tunnel was blown in December 1832 and the tunnel became one. The two halves matched up perfectly. Abandoned in 1854, it served as a carriage route and lover’s lane until the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which destroyed the routes leading to it. After over a century of neglect and disrepair, it was restored to its present condition in 2001 by the National Park Service.

Southwest portal of the Staple Bend Tunnel

The southwest portal. Note the rather large and elaborate cornice. The other end had one too, but it was stripped away by looters. In the original design documents, they are described as “Roman revival” architecture with “Doric columns”. Half the money spent on the tunnel was for these two entryways, however, there was a method to the madness. They were designed to keep rocks and debris from falling off the mountain and on to the tracks. The names and initials of several of the original stone masons are still visible.

The canal and the portage railroad were technical, engineering and logistical triumphs. The transit time between Philly and the Three Rivers went from four weeks in a Conestoga wagon to a four day canal boat ride. One of those days was spent on the portage railroad. Unfortunately, it was a financial disaster and lost money every year it was in operation. It simply didn’t generate the volume of traffic needed. Much of it was siphoned off by the highly successful (and profitable) Erie Canal in New York, which didn’t have to contend with bedrock mountains. The Main Line Canal became a black hole for the state’s money and by the time it went under, they had thrown $20 million into it. Meanwhile, railroad technology was growing by leaps and bounds and entrepreneurship was booming. In 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad, a publicly traded company chartered in 1846, completed a continuous rail line between the two cities. To negotiate the mountains, they built the world famous Horseshoe Curve. A four day canal boat ride was now done on a train in 13 hours. The Main Line was finished. In 1857, the railroad bought it for $5 million and dismantled it.

trailhead1

The trailhead of the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail. You can bike or hike to the tunnel along the flat two mile long crushed limestone trail. Dogs are allowed but leashes are required. The GPS coordinates for the trail head are N40.376243° W78.835094°.

The decayed ruins of the Allegheny Portage Railroad became a National Historic Site in 1992. The National Park Service has done an incredible job of salvaging, excavating and reconstructing it to be enjoyed by all. Parts of the Pennsylvania canal system have been preserved by local governments or private organizations. The best source of information on restored canals is the Pennsylvania Canal Society.

Every year on Halloween weekend, there are ghost tours and demonstrations from the tunnel building days. Click these links for more information on the Staple Bend Tunnel and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. And while you’re in the area, check out the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

This entire area of south central Pennsylvania is filled with fascinating places and events that most people have never heard of. If you like to explore off the beaten path, this is a great place to do it.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

NPS Passport Stamps – More Things to Hunt

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. Boris and Natasha

Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ

Hi again,

If you like to explore off the beaten path, it’s hard to beat Arizona.  We recently checked out a place we’d never heard of before – Tuzigoot National Monument.

Tuzigoot (which is Apache for “crooked water”) is a puebloan ruin on the banks of the Verde River that was built and occupied between about 1100 and 1400. People lived here for longer than the United States has been a country. Then 100 years before the first Europeans arrived, the occupants moved on, leaving few traces or clues as to where they went or why.

Tuzigoot National Monument

The builders of Tuzigoot picked their terrain well. The pueblo was built on a strategic ridge that provided easy access to the river and was highly defensible. Construction was continuous for its entire 300 year existence.

The Verde River in northwest Arizona is one of the few in the state that runs all year. It has a watershed of almost 6,000 square miles along its 170 mile length. The Verde River Valley was a natural draw for the hunter-gatherers that migrated there. At its peak of pre-European settlement, there were at least 40 separate pueblos in the valley.

Defense of a pueblo.

This painting by Paul Coze appeared in the August 1951 edition of Arizona Highways. Pueblos were built for security, not comfort or convenience. There were few doors and none on the first floor. Ditto for windows. Access to rooms was by a hole in the ceiling and a ladder. That was also the only ventilation for smoky cooking fires and summer heat. Pueblos were at constant risk of raids, especially once the Apache showed up. That is thought to be one of the main reasons the entire area emptied out in the space of a generation.

After its abandonment, Tuzigoot spent the next 500 years wide open to the depredations of both nature and man. The National Park Service excavated and restored it in the 1930’s. It was designated a National Monument by President Roosevelt in 1939. The name Tuzigoot came from a member of the excavation crew who was an Apache Indian. It has nothing to do with the original structure or people.

Here’s a before and after picture comparison of Tuzigoot.

Tuzigoot in 1934.

A 1934 National Park Service picture of Tuzigoot before the excavation began. It’s taken at the southern end of the pueblo looking up the hill to what was known as the Citadel. Many more historical photos can be found in the National Park Service gallery.

The Citadel.

The same view taken in 2014. The re-construction you see dates to the original work in the 1930’s, although there is considerable maintenance.

The people who built and lived in Tuzigoot and the other pueblos in the valley are called the Sinagua by anthropologists. “Sin agua” is Spanish for without water. Dominating the skyline of Northern Arizona are the San Francisco Peaks, which can be clearly seen from the Verde Valley. Those 12,000 foot mountains have no rivers flowing out of them. The Spanish called them “sierra sin agua” – mountains without water. The name was applied as a generic name for pre-European native people in central Arizona. They were hunters, gatherers, farmers and traders. The Hopi, Zuni and Navajo all trace their lineage back to the Sinagua.

Rooms at Tuzigoot

There were around 110 rooms at Tuzigoot, built over the course of three centuries. They ran north-south along the spine and spread down the hill to the east and west. It was a sizable community. Excavations revealed that all the rooms had evidence of food preparation, unlike many pueblos where some rooms were used only for storage

Inside construction at Tuzigoot

Inside construction was solid, with wooden beams as uprights and also cross-members. Thatched mats covered the beams which were in turn covered with adobe to make a ceiling. The beams were cut from Arizona sycamore trees that grew prolifically along the river. Everything was done with stone tools and manual labor. The Sinagua had no horses and the wheel was unknown to the them.

Central Arizona has many pueblo ruins that are now under state or federal protection. Montezuma’s Castle, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments are within easy driving distance. So is Sunset Crater National Monument, site of a volcanic eruption that affected the surrounding area around 1000 A.D. For a different type of exploring, check out Jerome, AZ and Prescott, AZ. There’s also historic Route 66 weaving its way through the entire area. Like we said earlier, if you like to explore, you’ve come to the right place.

The Tuzigoot Visitors Center (click the link for a map) is located at 25 Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ. Just follow the signs. The GPS coordinates are N34.7723230, W112.0278880. The visitor center is small and was built in the 1930’s as part of the re-construction. There is a 1/3 mile (500 m) trail that takes you in and around the pueblo. You can see the whole thing in about an hour.

There are geocaches everywhere in the area. Cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging and there are few munzees. There is a healthy supply of letterboxes.

BTW, if you go to Jerome, try lunch at the Haunted Hamburger. Fantastic burgers with a view of the San Francisco Peaks. On weekends, be prepared to wait for a table.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Hi again,

President James A. Garfield

President James Abram Garfield
20th President
Born: November 18, 1831
Inaugurated: March 4, 1881
Shot: July 2, 1881
Died: September 19, 1881 (age 49)
Time in Office: 200 days

I know what you’re thinking. C’mon Boris. The James A. Garfield NHS? Y-a-a-a-a-w-w-w-n. The same thought occurred to us when we visited recently. We needed a break on our annual pilgrimage to Pennsylvania and this sleepy little suburb east of Cleveland was in just the right place. Besides it had a National Passport Stamp and a couple of munzees and geocaches to boot. We figured we’d do our collecting, take a quick look around and be on our way in 30 minutes. We stayed several hours. It’s a very cool place and our 20th President was an interesting and admirable man.

Information about James Garfield often includes the phrase “self-made man” and he certainly was that. The youngest of five children, he was born in a log cabin and raised in abject poverty by his widowed mom, Eliza.  Despite the hard scrabble upbringing,  he became a highly educated and successful man. He was a college professor, ordained minister, lawyer and Civil War veteran all by the age of 30. He spoke several languages, could write in two languages simultaneously with both hands and was one of the most gifted orators of his day. So naturally, all of this led him to his real calling – politics. After two years as an Ohio State Senator, he set his sights on the United States Congress.

**Historical footnotes: Garfield was the last of seven Presidents to be born in a log cabin. He was the first left-handed President, the only ordained minister to serve in the office and the only candidate to be elected President straight from serving in the House of Representatives. Last but not least, he was the first President to have his mother attend his inauguration.**

James A. Garfield NHS

The house that’s there now bears no resemblance to the one that 14 year Congressman James A. Garfield bought in 1876. He had always wanted a farm to be near his constituents, raise his growing family and escape the heat and politics of mosquito-ridden Washington, DC during the lengthy legislative breaks. He found it in Mentor, Ohio not far from the shore of Lake Erie and less than 20 miles from his childhood cabin in Moreland Hills. Along with 158 acres of land came a ramshackle 1 1/2 story nine room white clapboard farmhouse built in 1831. Before long, crops, livestock, orchards and voters were being tended to and the house was getting renovated. This is the eastern side of it. The Garfield family always referred to it as the Mentor Farm. Since livestock roamed and grazed all the way up to the house, the press soon dubbed it “Lawnfield”.

Garfield had a new family, successful law practice and political ambitions when the Civil War broke out. Nevertheless, he was determined to do his part. He was a staunch abolitionist who openly advocated a scorched earth war against the Confederacy, whom he considered traitors. He could have taken a safe job far removed from the fighting and still checked the veteran’s block on his political resumé, but he didn’t. Despite having no military background, he wanted a combat command. Initially commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ohio militia, he was put in command of a brigade and sent to Eastern Kentucky, where the Confederates were recruiting and establishing a foothold. His orders were to clear them out.

On January 10, 1862, Garfield’s brigade attacked and defeated a larger rebel force at the Battle of Middle Creek near Prestonsburg, KY. It wasn’t a big battle but it was important for two reasons. One, it gave the Union a victory when they really needed one. Two, President Lincoln was profoundly grateful that his home state hadn’t been hijacked by the Confederates. Garfield’s star was rising and he became the youngest General in the Union Army. Fighting at Shiloh, Corinth and Chickamauga, he acquitted himself well in those actions, earning his second star as a Major General. For the rest of his life, he was referred to by everyone as General Garfield or simply “the General”.

 While on medical leave in the fall of 1862, he ran for Congress in his home district (Ohio 19th) and won easily. He returned to the fighting while also carrying out congressional duties.  After Chickamauga in September 1863, he resigned his commission at Lincoln’s behest and assumed his elected office. Despite his earlier rapport with President Lincoln, Garfield refused to support his re-election in 1864 because he thought Abe wasn’t being aggressive enough in the war.

Home of President Garfield.

The structure of the old house is built into the current one. The clapboard section with the small porch in the foreground is part of the original farmhouse. If you take the inside tour, the ranger will point out walls, doorways and stairwells that were also part of it. The house was under continuous renovation for years under the direction of Garfield’s wife Lucretia. It has a mix of styles, including Victorian, Tudor and Cape Cod, all of which can be seen in the picture above. It soon grew to 20 rooms housing their seven children and close relatives from both sides of the family. It also had running water and natural gas for heat, light and cooking. The water and gas came from wells on their property which can still be seen today, although they are no longer in use. After Garfield’s death, Lucretia added an ornate library with a room-sized steel vault on the third floor. It became the very first Presidential Library and is still there today.

Another term you’ll hear to describe Garfield is “dark horse” and he is that, too. It refers to his surprise nomination for President at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago. After 36 ballots, none of the listed candidates could corral enough votes. Garfield’s name was placed in nomination as a compromise and the other candidates released their voting blocs. He was nominated on the 37th ballot.

**Historical footnote: The 37 ballots at the 1880 Republican Convention is still a record for the party. The Democratic record is an unbelievable 103 ballots at the 1924 convention in New York that dragged out for three weeks. That nominee was John Davis, a prominent lawyer and diplomat. He lost to the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.**

Front porch of the Garfield house

On this front porch at the southwest corner of the house, James Garfield changed the way Presidential candidates campaign for office. In prior Presidential elections dating back half a century or more,  a protocol had been observed that the candidates didn’t do much campaigning and didn’t talk about themselves. It was considered unseemly and undignified. They let their colleagues, friends and others speak for them. Garfield thought that was crazy, especially since he was a better speaker than anyone in his circle. On the other hand, he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers by turning conventional wisdom upside down. Thus was born “The Front Porch Campaign”. Instead of the candidate running around making speeches, the people came to him. People showed up at Lawnfield from all over the country to hear Garfield talk about the issues of the day and mingle with the crowd, which sometimes numbered in the thousands. Presidential campaigning (and governing) was up close and personal. Schedules were published in the paper. There were no body guards. No security whatsoever. It was perfectly acceptable for a person to walk up to a candidate – or even the President himself – anytime, anywhere and ask questions or air grievances.  Candidate Garfield liked to work the farm and often had people – total strangers – walk up to him in the fields and barns to talk politics. Garfield gave dozens of  front porch speeches in the summer and fall of 1880. Parts of them he did in German, since many of his supporters were German immigrants. He mingled with thousands of people. In the end, he was successful. Future Presidential candidates would use this model very effectively and eventually strike out on the campaign trail themselves.

**Historical footnote: Garfield also brought another innovation to campaigning. In a small shack behind the house that served as his campaign headquarters, he had a dedicated telegraph line installed and hired people to man it 24 hours a day. Dispatches came and went night and day as the Garfield campaign pioneered the use of communications media.**

His Democratic opponent was retired Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, the “Hero of Gettysburg”. Defying the odds, Garfield threw himself into campaigning and won by the narrowest of margins – about 1/10 of one percent. The self-made man, dark horse and master of Lawnfield was now the 20th President of the United States.

James Garfield at home

This picture of President-elect James Garfield was taken sometime before he left for his inauguration on March 4, 1881. He would never see Lawnfield again.

**Historical footnote: The Constitution originally mandated March 4 of the year following an election for the Presidential Inauguration. March 4 was chosen because that is the birthday of the Constitution – March 4, 1789. That changed in 1933. The 20th Amendment designated January 20 as Inauguration Day.**

Garfield became President in the early years of the “Gilded Age”, a time of unprecedented growth in America lasting from the 1870’s until the turn of the century. The issues he faced were right out of today’s headlines – corruption, labor unrest, immigration, civil rights and economic opportunity. It was the time of the “Robber Barons” – the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the Morgans and the Mellons. It was also the time of the big city political machines like Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Throw in labor unions, Indian wars and the first rumblings of prohibition and women’s suffrage and you have your work cut out for you.

His most immediate priority was stopping the onerous White House patronage system of staffing civil service jobs. In years gone by, people would line up outside the White House for an audience with the President seeking a job in the new government. Garfield believed that people should be hired for their abilities and fitness for the job. He immediately shut down the job line and sought the development of a merit based civil service selection system.

In that job line was a schizophrenic lawyer named Charles Guiteau. His family had him committed to a mental institution in 1875 but he had gotten loose at some point. Now he sought a career as a diplomat in the new administration as a reward for his campaign support. Guiteau hung around the White House and the State Department for weeks and even had a meeting with the President. Finally, in May, he was banished from both places and told never to return. The voices in his head told him to kill President Garfield. He bought a .44 caliber revolver and with the aid of the daily White House schedule published in the newspaper, began stalking the new President.

Garfield assassination

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield went to the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad about ten blocks from the White House. His destination was a speech at his Alma Mater – Williams College in Massachusetts followed by some vacation time in New England. With him were two teenaged sons and Secretary of State James Blaine. Also at the station to see them off was Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War and the son of Abraham Lincoln. As usual, there was no security, even though Guiteau had announced his intentions for weeks through letters to cabinet officials, military officers and Republican Party leaders. When the President arrived in Blaine’s horse and buggy, Guiteau was waiting inside. As Garfield walked into the waiting area at 9:30 A.M., Guiteau stepped up close behind him and shot him twice at point blank range. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s right arm. The second entered the President’s back on the right side by the first lumbar vertebra, lodging near the pancreas. It missed the spinal cord and vital organs. Guiteau was immediately apprehended. He’d seen his last sunrise as a free man, but he wasn’t an assassin yet. The President was still alive.

**Historical footnote: Garfield was alive but he would not govern again. His governing tenure lasted 120 days although his official time in office is 200 days. The only President to serve a shorter time was William Henry Harrison, the 9th President. He died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841 after only 30 days in office.**

Garfield on his death bed

At his trial, Charles Guiteau admitted shooting Garfield but contended his doctors killed him. That’s also the historical hindsight concensus of the post-shooting care the President received. It was downright medieval and he suffered horribly. He lingered for 80 days while doctors poked and prodded with their fingers trying to find the bullet, which they never did. All they accomplished was to set off rampant systemic infection throughout his body. To cool his fever, he was moved to Elberon, NJ, a resort town on the coast. Garfield lost 80 pounds in 80 days as his doctors tried to feed him a concoction of raw eggs and whiskey to improve his constitution. Finally on September 19, 1881 – wasted away to almost nothing, wracked with fever and draining infection from every orifice in his body – President James Garfield died. He was 49. His wife Lucretia was at his side as she had been the whole time.

**Historical footnote: Despite this second assassination of a sitting President, there was no action taken to protect them. It would take the assassination of a third – William McKinley in 1901 – to get the federal government to deal with it. The task fell to the Secret Service, which was created to chase counterfeiters after the Civil War. The law creating the Secret Service was signed by Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 – the day he was assassinated.**

President Chester A. Arthur

Upon Garfield’s death, his Vice-President Chester A. Arthur took office as the 21st President and finished out the term. He declined to run for a term of his own in 1884. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Governor of New York, became the 22nd President that year.

Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau.

Charles Guiteau went to the gallows on June 30, 1882 – two days before the first anniversary of the shooting. He turned his trial into a circus, exhibiting bizarre, irrational behavior never seen before in such a high profile public venue. He was convinced until the end that he would be released and was planning a lecture tour.

Lucretia Garfield

Lucretia Garfield buried her husband at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, then returned to private life at Lawnfield. Since there were no government pensions or support, benefactors set up a trust fund for her that totaled almost half a million dollars. This enabled her to live a quiet, comfortable life until her death in 1918 at the age of 85. She is buried with her husband.

The house remained in the Garfield family for another five decades. After Lucretia’s death, her brother Joseph lived in it until he died in 1934. During the years after her husband’s death, Lucretia began selling parts of the farm as the Cleveland metro area moved outward. When she died, the children continued. By the 1930’s, it was down to eight acres. The current site is five acres.

Main entry to the Garfield house.

In 1936, the Garfield children donated the house and all its furnishings to the Western Reserve Historical Society. In 1980, it became a National Historic Site and the Park Service took over. A 12 million dollar restoration project in the 1990’s restored the house to its turn of the century glory, which is what you see today. Over 80% of the furnishings in the house are the originals owned by the Garfields. It’s a magnificent work of art, style and architecture. This is the formal entryway into the house.

As we explore off the beaten path, we continually run into things that are interesting and educational beyond our expectations. The James A. Garfield National Historic Site is certainly one of those places. If you find yourself in the Cleveland area, take an hour or two and pay it a visit. It’s located at 8095 Mentor Ave, Mentor, OH 44060. Here’s the park web site.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Park entrance

The entrance to the park. Located 35 miles east of Raton, NM it is definitely off the beaten path. It’s not hard to get to. It’s just not on the way to anything. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.778739°, W103.980068°. (Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.) The really cool thing is that you can drive to the top and hike around the crater. The word “capulín” is Spanish for chokecherry, which grow in abundance here.

February 1943. Against the backdrop of a world at war, a monumental geological event is taking place in Mexico. In the small village of Paracutín about 200 miles west of Mexico City, a volcano is about to be born. A peasant farmer named Dionisio Pulido is working in his corn field. The ground has been rumbling for weeks and a six foot wide fissure has opened up in his field. At 4:00 PM on February 20 all Hell broke loose. Señor Pulido was there to see it – and lived to tell about it.

First came the hissing of superheated steam and sulphur fumes. Then ash and rocks. By nightfall, rooster tails of lava and red hot rocks were shooting over 1,000 feet into the air. Smoke and ash went much higher and fell as far away as Mexico City. Lightning from static electricity flashed through the dense black clouds. As the lava, rocks and dirt came back to earth, they started to form a cone shaped cylinder around the fissure. It grew with amazing speed. Within 24 hours, it was 150 feet high. Within a week, it was 500 feet and visible for miles.

Paracutín Volcano eruption

Filmed as it happened – the eruption of Paracutín. Date unknown but probably in the first months after the initial blast. The cone has grown substantially and is still going strong.

The violent eruptions continued unabated for several months. Then things quieted down. The Paracutín Volcano continued to erupt at irregular intervals for nine years. Then on February 25, 1952, it quit as suddenly as it had started. Its magma chamber was completely spent. When it died, it was 1,345 feet above Pulido’s old corn field. Its lava flow had destroyed 100 square miles, including two towns. Miraculously, no one was killed.

The Paracutín event was the one and only time in human history where a volcano was scientifically observed for its entire life cycle. Otherwise, it was far from unique. 60,000 years earlier, the exact same thing happened in present-day northeastern New Mexico near the of town of Capulin.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

From the National Park Service, an aerial overview of the 800 acre Capulin Volcano National Monument. Annotations added by yours truly.The highly symmetrical cinder cone rises almost 1,400 feet above the prairie, reaching an altitude of 8,182 feet above sea level. It was designated a National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson in April 1916 and gets about 50,000 visitors a year.

Sixty thousand years ago, the climate here was a colder, wetter Ice Age environment. Thick pines and junipers covered the land. Giant bison, camels and mammoths roamed, preyed upon by sabre tooth tigers. Man was still 50,000 years away. Millions of years before that, rivers of lava pooled underground creating a volatile and unstable region that covered 8,500 square miles in southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico. Geologists now call it the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. Over the course of many millennia, there were hundreds – probably thousands – of Paracutín Volcanoes. Evidence of this activity is everywhere. The oldest ones are worn down to almost nothing, but Capulin is still young and in good shape.

Capulin crater view

This is a photo taken from the highest point on the crater rim. The crater is 1,500 feet wide and 400 feet deep. The rim parking area is towards the center of the image as is the trail down to the bottom of the crater. Down and back is ½ mile. The crater rim trail is about one mile long and has some steep climbs that get your attention with the 8,000+ feet of altitude. Clearly visible off in the distance are extinct cinder cone volcanoes as far as the eye can see. The ridges, cuts and mesas in between them are old lava flows. Capulin Volcano is in the center of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field and surrounded by these ancient geological sentries. The field is still considered geologically active, but the chances of another eruption anytime soon are very slim.

Capulin and all the other remnants in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field are a type of volcano called cinder cone or scoria volcanoes. They start as flat ground. Pressure from magma and ground shifting eventually causes a fissure, then an explosive eruption to relieve the pressure. Secondary vents open as the crater builds and lava flows. Cinder cone volcanoes are monogenetic . They erupt once, then go dead. The eruptions typically last only a few years. Along the way, they create their own mountain – just like at Paracutín. The mountains tend to be symmetrical because all the debris falls back around a single original fissure. Made up of small cinders, the cones are unstable in the early stages. Eventually, plant life takes root and stabilizes it. That’s where Capulin is now. Eventually, weather and erosion take their toll. In a million years or so, Capulin Volcano will be no more. But for now, it’s worth checking out.

Distant view of Capulin Volcano

These cinder peaks have been used as navigation landmarks for centuries. In our more recent past, both branches of the Santa Fe Trail came right through here. In fact, this is the best area for exploring the trail. Some of the original wagon ruts are still visible.

Capulin Volcano National Monument is the perfect Off the Beaten Path destination. In a one or two day road trip, you can explore Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the Santa Fe Historical Trail, ghost towns, old railroad towns and more. If you like exploring along back roads with lots of history, geocaches, more cows than cars and the occasional bullet-ridden stop sign, you’ve come to the right place.

Capulin Volcano Visitor Center

If you like your volcano monuments quiet and austere, you’ll love Capulin. The Visitor Center has some displays, a small gift shop, restrooms (of course). No food, no camping but some great picnic areas and hiking trails. But let’s face it – the reason you come out here is to drive the two miles to the top of the volcano. It’s very cool. (BTW, you’re not allowed to walk it. No RV’s either.) For us, the park also had a couple of geocaches, munzees and NPS Passport stamps. So we got the off-the-beaten-path hat trick.

Much of what you see in the park is due to the efforts of one man – Homer Farr. A Kansas farm boy, he bought 160 acres of land just south of the cinder cone around 1910. For the next decade, he ran several successful businesses and promoted his little slice of heaven, which became the town of Capulin. He was the postmaster. The volcano became a national monument in 1916 and he became the superintendent in 1921. In 1925, he dug the first road to the crater summit using a horse and plow. It’s the same route used today. Superintendent Farr got the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) out to the monument in the 1930’s. They improved the road as well as building walls, trails and other infrastructure that are still in use. Homer Farr served as the superintendent at Capulin until 1955.

That’s all for now.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Handgun Training at Front Sight, NV

Hi again,

The firing line

Ready on the firing line.

I recently finished the Four Day Defensive Handgun course at Front Sight, a training facility just outside of Pahrump, NV. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. I’ve had lots of handgun training, so that wasn’t the problem. To be honest, Front Sight has a reputation out in the online gun community as a second rate facility.  I got a chance to go with a certificate that cost me $100 as opposed to the full price of $2,000. So off I went to the Feb 13-16 class.

It was outstanding.  It exceeded my expectations across the board. The instruction was excellent. Everybody there was helpful and professional. We did a lot of shooting.  I learned a lot. The biggest lesson I took away from it is that I didn’t know as much about this stuff as I thought I did.

I’m not going to chronicle the day to day activities.  A Google search will bring up lots of detailed summaries and reviews.  Here’s a good one.   I read it several times and it was very helpful.  I did learn a few things that were not mentioned anywhere else, so here are some thoughts on the Front Sight experience.  I think they would also apply to just about any other training program.

The Training Environment

Range break area

The only shade on the range.

1. This is the desert and they train all year. In February, the lows were below freezing and the highs were very pleasant. The week after my class, it got cold and snowy. Summer temps routinely hit 100. The shooting ranges themselves are constructed with 12 foot earthen walls on three sides. There’s lots of sun, not much shade and little wind. The firing line can get really brutal no matter what time of year. Plan accordingly.

2. It’s very taxing, both physically and mentally. Forget about hitting the casinos or taking in a show at night. You’ll be too tired.

3. All that aside, you don’t have to be a young stud to do the class. We had 44 students with a real mix of people. About 1/3 were women. There were several families there with their teenagers. The guy next to me was in his 70’s. This was his 18th time taking the course over a ten year period. He just likes doing it and he’s good. I’m 61 and I did fine.

4. Get a hotel room in Pahrump, which is only about 20 minutes from Front Sight. The two main ones are the Saddle West Casino and the Best Western- Pahrump Station. Both offer Front Sight discounts and fill up every week, so book early.  If not, you’ll have to stay in Vegas, which is an hour or more away. Pahrump is an ugly town but the people are nice. The town has stores, restaurants, gas stations and amenities plus some casinos, so you’ll have everything you need. Front Sight hosts up to 1,000 students a week in various courses and it’s big business in Pahrump. The town is a little nervous about all these gun fighters running around, so the lower your profile, the better.

5. The pace is fast and the days are long. Plan on being there until 5 or 6 PM. It’s pretty much non-stop with the exception of the one hour lunch break. Snacking, hydrating and loading magazines are done on the fly between relays or during transitions. That said, if you get tired or just need a break, it’s OK to sit out a relay.

6. Take with you to the range everything you need for the day – drinks, sun screen, ammo, snacks, etc.  Your car will be nearby but you won’t have time to make trips back and forth.  I had a range bag and a cooler. They have water there in a big vat, but it’s not very cold and it runs out. Plain water has its limitations. Be sure to take some Gator-Ade or something for electrolytes. A 50/50 water and Gator-Ade mix is ideal. Orange juice is good too.   I used the Gator-Ade powder.  Saves weight and room. I took an insulated water bottle and carried it all the time.  You can’t have it on the firing line but it’s ok on the ready line.  You want to have immediate access to drinks and ammo all day.

7. In four days, you’re going to draw that weapon, work that slide, push those levers and buttons and load those magazines thousands of times. By the end of the course, your hands will be cut up and sore – especially the fingertips. Take some medical tape or tough band aids to wrap them with. At night, use some hand lotion to heal them up.

8.  I took some disposable vinyl medical gloves with me to lather on the sun screen.  It keeps your hands from getting all slick and oily. Your firearm will thank you.  When I first started doing it, people just stared at me.  By the end of the course, several others were doing it too.

9.  I ordered the box lunch every day. It’s quick, convenient and filling. They run about 12 bucks. You can pre-order when you get your course confirmation email or do it when you get there.

10. They have a well stocked pro-shop and armory on site but they are outrageously expensive. A MagLula 9mm speed loader that I got on Amazon for 20 bucks was $70 at the pro shop.

11. Watch your speed on the road to Front Sight. It’s a target rich environment for cops, especially on Day 1.

Bring enough gun

On the line

If your firearm has a glitch, this place will find it.

12. MUY IMPORTANTE: The fact that you are taking a shooting course with a concealed weapon does not allow you to carry off site. Do not carry concealed off the Front Sight facility unless you have a Nevada permit. CCW reciprocity in Nevada is a circus. They honor almost nobody else and it changes all the time. In the past, students have carried, been stopped by the cops and busted. That’s a Class C felony. On the other hand, open carry is legal. So you can strap on your gun and motor on down the road if you want. Just make sure you don’t accidentally cover it up. Front Sight rules say no loaded weapons or weapons handling in the common areas. My advice: Lock it up in the trunk and retrieve it at the range.

13. Even if you have a Nevada permit (which I do), stay out of North Las Vegas and Boulder City (which is just up the road from Hoover Dam). They don’t like concealed carry and you’re in for a big hassle if they find you packing. Yeah, it sucks, but what can you do? If you want to take a test case to the Supreme Court, be my guest.

14. Forget about revolvers. You can use them but the course is built around the semi-auto handgun. A lot of what they teach is transferable to any weapon. My carry weapon is a S&W 642 .38. I took it to the range after I got back and was able to successfully apply things I learned using my 9mm at Front Sight.

15. Don’t take a brand new gun to Front Sight. Run several hundred rounds through it before you start training. There were a surprising number of gun problems on the range. Front Sight has a gunsmith on site who can fix anything. If your gun has problems, the staff will run it up to him. He’ll fix it and notify the range when it’s ready, usually within an hour or so. Take a back up gun just in case. If you have other guns you want worked on, like new sights or a trigger job, take it with you and drop it off. This guy is very good.

16. I gained a real appreciation for the new generation of striker fired, DAO semi-auto handguns – Glock, Springfield and M&P. I used a 9MM S&W Shield. My backup was a Beretta Px4 sub-compact, a sweet shooting piece which I’ve had for over 10 years. I’m glad I didn’t have to use it. In fact, I might even sell it. The Shield ran circles around it. IMHO, semi-autos with external hammers, thumb safeties and de-cocking levers are almost obsolete. That includes some fine weapons like Sigs, Berettas, Rugers and 1911’s, all of which I have owned. I’ll never buy another one.

17. Speed and accuracy are what we’re looking for and the aforementioned relics come up short. The benchmark drill at Front Sight is to draw from the holster and fire two rounds center mass in less than two seconds. Having a double action first round makes it almost impossible. A guy on a nearby target had his new Sig Sauer out there and he had trouble all week. Plus, all those extra levers and edges make it harder to work the slide in the fast aggressive manner needed for clearing malfunctions and re-loading.

18. Then there’s the weapons that you carry cocked and locked, like 1911’s and Hi-Powers. True story: The last day of the class, we had a guy shoot himself in the leg while holstering his cocked and locked .45. Fortunately, it just barely grazed his outer thigh, giving him about a four inch racing stripe. It barely broke the skin. His wife was shooting next to him and she was a basket case. After the paramedics patched him up, they got in their RV and left. Still want to carry that hog leg in Condition 1?

19. This new generation of handguns minimizes or eliminates those problems. Next time I go to Front Sight, I’ll be shooting the M&P full size 9mm and the Shield will be the backup.

20. Take lots of magazines, especially if you’re shooting a single stack weapon. Front Sight says bring at least three. I’d say a minimum of six. I had eight and I was still busier than a one armed paper hanger all week.

21. I had my ammo in neat plastic cases and my Israeli MagLula speed loader ready to go. I ended up putting about 50 rounds in my pocket and refreshing my magazines the old fashioned way on the ready line. I’d load them up with the speed loader in the morning and after lunch. After that, there simply isn’t time to pluck the rounds one at a time out of the box and employ the speed loader. Some of the students had trap shooter bags full of loose ammo hanging from their belts. That worked well. I’ll be looking into one of those for next time.

22. Front Sight catches a lot of crap from the handgun community because they continue to emphasize the Weaver stance. Actually, it’s more of a modified Weaver or Chapman stance. According to the naysayers, the Weaver is obsolete. Everybody now uses the combat isosceles stance. I personally like the Chapman and that’s what I shoot. It just works for me. If you get to Front Sight and are Hell bent to shoot isosceles, they won’t say a word other than to suggest you keep an open mind and try their stance.

The Front Sight business model

Range HQ

This is it. This is main street of the Front Sight resort community.

Front Sight was started in 1997 by a California chiropractor named Ignatius Piazza, who still runs the place. He had big plans. His vision for Front Sight was a “shooting resort” with ranges, adventure training, martial arts, homes, condos, shops, restaurants, etc. To move forward with it, he sold memberships, which cost up to $25,000. These memberships entitled you to free classes, prime lots and amenities like a Front Sight hat and T-shirt. (Seriously. That’s two of the many benefits he touts.)

Twelve years ago, when I first divorced, I almost bought a Bronze membership for $5,000. I decided against it. For at least two years after, I was bombarded with e-mails and slick flyers about all the things that I was missing. They went on and on about all the great things that were happening at Front Sight.

Well, most of it was b—s—t. None of resort stuff and luxury amenities ever happened. I drove into Front Sight expecting a desert oasis. With the exception of the ranges and house trailers used for offices, there’s absolutely nothing there. They didn’t even have running water until about four years ago. Ignatius Piazza has been sued repeatedly yet continues to bang the drum for all the great things going on at Front Sight and is still selling memberships.

This is the angle that gets most of the bad comments in the handgun community. However, I found a clear separation between the business end and the training program. The ranges are modern and well maintained and the staff are all very professional. At no time did anybody try to give us the hard sell. In fact, it wasn’t mentioned at all.  Don’t let the business/marketing thing turn you away.

The going rate for a Front Sight course is $500 a day. That’s the same as other trainers like Gunsite and Thunder Ranch. I took the course for $100 with a Front Sight certificate. Here’s Front Sight’s dirty little secret – nobody pays full price for a course. Here’s why. When customers buy full price memberships, they get a bunch of course certificates and full fledged memberships to give away or sell. I got my certificate through a friend. Then I came back, started looking around for another one and found a guy on E-bay who was selling memberships. It sounded too good to be true.Take any course I want any time I want for the rest of my life. I emailed and called the guy trying to coax out of him what the catch is. There wasn’t one. It’s a full blown, honest-to-goodness Diamond level life membership with a retail value of $7,000. It cost me $250. I’ve got my membership card, diamond certificate, hat and T-shirt. These things are everywhere on the Internet. If I had spent the five grand for a membership, I would not be a happy camper. Never pay full price for a Front Sight course.

One has to wonder how long they can stay in business like this. There have been rumors and reports over the years that they were going under, but I saw no evidence of that. I went into this with my eyes open and figured even if they close tomorrow, I got a $2,000 course for $350. I think they’ll be around a while. They have a large course offering and lots of students.

I had a very successful week. My score on the skills test the last day put me in the top 3 shooters. Now that I’m snowbirding in Arizona, I plan to go back at least twice a year. In addition to the full size M&P on my wish list, I may have to buy a new rifle and shotgun for those courses.

This post turned out to be longer than I planned, but that’s usually the way it goes. Hope this helps. Maybe I’ll see you on the line some time.

Semper Fi …. Out here …. Boris