The Mine Field

The Mine Field

I was vaguely aware of the horrendous 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Missouri before commencing with research for the book Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of Route 66: Tales from Bloody 66But as I studied the incident one question began to dominate my thoughts. How can a tragedy of this magnitude be so obscure?

The answer was relatively simple. History had been censored. It had been expunged from the historic record. It was an ugly truth that did not fit into the acceptable narrative of the era. It was a national embarrassment.

And so it was not included in the text books used by students. As a result, with the passing of years and of the witnesses to the events, it this national tragedy became a forgotten footnote to history.

If in school you had been taught about the heinous atrocities committed during an event know as the Fort Pillow Massacre, would your perception about what the Confederate battle flag represents be different? Would this education have fostered a less romanticized view of the Confederacy?

If you knew that poor Irish immigrants that had died during construction of the railroad had been buried without ceremony in a mass grave in Funks Grove, Illinois, would your views about the settlement of the west be different?

How would your perception of manifest destiny and the settlement of the American west have been altered if you knew of the conflict between the Yavapai and Hualapai, or how the Apache warred against other tribes?

When we censor history because it is uncomfortable, because it is offense to modern sensitivities, we stifle progress. We also deprive future generations of context. Even worse, we become a society that feels honor bound to protect future generations from offense. As a result we become a colorless society. We become a people without comparatives.

The recent uproar over Dr. Seuss books makes for an interesting case study. Some titles in a series of books that have helped generations of children learn to read, and to make memories with parents that read to them, have been deemed offensive. And as a result they are to removed from view. Perhaps they should be burned to ensure that people do not have their sensitivities offended in the future. Obviously I am being facetious.

Yes, some images in the books are racist and insensitive when viewed from modern eyes. But this modern ability to recognize racism or offensive imagery was derived from historic context.

The demand for removal of statues and memorials to heroes of the Confederacy are another example of our increasing hunger to sterilize history. These memorials should never have been erected, but they were. Removing them will not correct the offense. It will, however, deny future generations of needed context.

Would we not be better served if the monuments, the statues were transformed into educational tools that help us better understand why they were erected, who these people were, the decisions that they made, and why they fought to maintain the institution of slavery? Then these memorials would become an instrument of long overdue healing rather than tools for the fostering of divisions. Then they would become milestones that measure our progress as a people.

History must be taught as it was. It must be taught with context. And it must be taught with sensitivity, a respectful awareness that what was once deemed socially acceptable is often now offensive. But how do we know that behavior of the past is offensive? It is because we have context. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to preserve history, no matter how painful.



In The Shadows

In The Shadows

It was a very odd story. On the evening of October 4, 1919, about twenty-five miles west of Seligman behind a small hill along the National Old Trails Road, a shepherd tending a flock made a startling discovery: the smoldering body of a man. Yavapai County sheriff department investigators determined that the victim had been shot in the back of the head with a .38-caliber pistol, wrapped in a blanket, dragged about a hundred feet from where a car had been parked, doused with gasoline, and set afire. Though the body was badly charred, officers determined that the victim was wearing a military uniform with insignia indicating that he was a member of the Twentieth Canadian Battalion of Infantry. Tracing the serial number of the military insignia, Canadian authorities helped identify the deceased as Arthur De Steunder.

Nostalgia and the perception of simpler times may underlie the popularity of Route 66, but for many enthusiasts there is also an interest in its history. Occasionally that interest is tinged with a bit of morbid curiosity.

In the era of Route 66 renaissance where the old road is viewed as America’s longest attraction there is a myopic view that often centers on neon lit nights, tail fins, and I Like Ike buttons. It is easy to forget that this highway was marketed as the Main Street of America for more than five decades. Even more obscure is the origins of that moniker. Judge Lowe of the National Old Trails Road Association penned that slogan in about 1913 to promote that pioneering coast to coast road.

Today iconic Route 66 may be a living, breathing time capsule, a destination for tens of thousands of enthusiasts seeking the romanticized image of an authentic American experience. But before being replaced by the interstate highway system it was a corridor of commerce, legal and illicit. It was traveled by vagabonds and vagrants, vacationing families and serial killers, movie stars and murderers, escaped convicts and people simply seeking a better life in the promised land that was sunny California. It was known as bloody 66, and not just because of the staggering number of traffic fatalities.

Route 66 also served as the backdrop for countless headline grabbing tragedies, disasters, and industrial accidents. Even though Nat King Cole crooned about getting your kicks on Route 66, Todd and Buzz cruised it in search of adventure, and Lucy and Desi followed it west to California in a series of comedic episodes on their popular television program America’s most well known highway had a dark side.

Blink and you will miss Budville, located a few miles west of Laguna, New Mexico. Budville never amounted to more than a garage, service station, and store complex with a roadhouse across the highway, the Dixie Tavern & Café—but this tiny service center is linked to several murders. Many enthusiasts are aware of the story about the murder to the trading posts founder and owner. But there was another bloody incident a few miles to the west.

On January 10, 1956, Ralph Henderson Rainey, a forty-six-year-old butcher from Santa Monica, was found dead along Route 66 just west of Budville. He had been shot twice in the head, and his body run over by a car. Weeks later an incident in Las Vegas, Nevada led to the arrest of Rainey’s killer and unveiled a string of murders along Route 66 and in Nevada.

Shortly before dawn on January 23, 1956, Police Sergeant Dick Barber was on duty in North Las Vegas near the Nellis Air Force Base and stopped a Buick with California plates. He estimated that the car had been traveling at more than seventy miles per hour. The driver, a man of about thirty-five with wavy brown hair, responded politely when asked for his driver’s license, which identified him as Kenneth Short of Burbank, California. Unbeknownst to Officer Barber, Kenneth Short was listed as a missing person last seen in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Then, without warning, the driver of the Buick fled the scene, and Barber pursued at high speed.

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On East College Street, the driver of the Buick lost control, rolled the sedan, crawled from the wreckage, and vanished into the residential neighborhood. Soon a massive manhunt was underway, but the driver had taken shelter—and a hostage—in the home of Loren E. Tracy. For several days the driver eluded police, but on January 24, the man who had identified himself as Kenneth Short was apprehended in Caliente, Nevada. By this time police had learned that the real Kenneth Short was an electrical engineer who had purchased a new Buick in Michigan in early January and headed west to meet his wife, Mira, in San Francisco. He had been due to arrive on January 21.

In Caliente, the mysterious driver introduced himself as Samuel Stuart and claimed that he suffered from amnesia. When pressed during interrogation in Las Vegas, he said, “I got this darned amnesia. Now I recall finding this car of Short’s parked in the hamlet of Santa Rosa in New Mexico. Any papers you found in it must have been there when I drove it off.”

On January 26, the FBI reported that Samuel Stuart was actually David Cooper Nelson, whose lengthy record included six years served in the Montana State Prison for armed robbery. Additionally, his fingerprints matched those found in Ralph H. Rainey’s blood-spattered, abandoned car. Agents then discovered that Nelson had cashed travelers’ checks belonging to Short in Lowe, Utah, and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Nelson steadfastly stuck to his claim of amnesia until February 6. Though he would later recant the confession, Nelson outlined a trail of murder through several states.

Rainey had picked him up hitchhiking near Flagstaff, Arizona, on January 9. They later argued, according to Nelson’s testimony, over his refusal to drive, and Rainey ordered him from the car near Grants, New Mexico. Nelson said, “Then I reached in the back seat and took my gun from my suitcase. Then I took over the wheel and put the gun between my legs. At one point Rainey reached over for the gun and I hit him in the wrist with a judo blow. I told him not to goof off again. Later he reached for the gun again and I used a judo blow and hit him across the nose with the edge of my hand. Then I got a little mad and shot him in the head. I guess I had driven about fifteen miles when Rainey moaned, ‘Why did you do it?’ It was then that I fired the second shot.”

It was more than horrendous car wrecks that gave U.S. 66 its recognition as Bloody 66. Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

While making the confession, Nelson was unaware that police had recovered the .38-caliber revolver used to murder Rainey. When confronted with evidence of his involvement with the murder of Short, Nelson again claimed amnesia. Then, as with Rainey, a few days later he launched into a rambling confession about killing Short west of Tucumcari and dumping the body in an arroyo along US 66. Nelson said, “Kenneth Short picked me up up hitchhiking near Sapulpa. Oklahoma. Some twenty-five miles west of Amarillo he parked the car on a farm road. I slept in the front seat, Short in the back. I overpowered Short while he was sleeping. I tied his hands in front of him. He opened his eyes and asked what I was doing. I told him I needed the car and if he did what I said nothing would happen to him. Then I thought, they can’t hang me any higher for two than they can for one. So, I shot him in the back of the head with the .38.”

Then Nelson dropped another bombshell: “And I also killed a fellow named John Valente on January 4.” Police listened intently to his story, as Valente had been found in the bathroom of his home at Pioche, Nevada, on January 5. Investigators had been working to determine if his death was a murder or suicide.

Before the trial for the Rainey murder, Nelson disavowed his confessions. Then, at his first trial, Nelson maintained an insanity defense, but after evaluation was found sane and guilty. At the second trial, the confessions were disallowed, but he was again found guilty. After his conviction, before pronouncement of a death sentence, Nelson tried to escape from prison. Prior to his execution, he requested that Warden Cox provide two prisoners in the cells next to his with special meals after his death. Nelson was executed in the gas chamber at 12:20 on August 11, 1960.

These are just a few of the macabre stories uncovered while conducting research for the book Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. The dark side of Route 66 is also the subject of the next episode of Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. And soon I will be sharing more true crime stories on a special pay per view program, the first in a new series of Jim Hinckley’s America programs that highlight unique chapters in Route 66 history.


Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet

Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet

Author Jim Hinckley heading home. Photo Sylvia Hoehn.

A key to success is an awareness of shortcomings. We all have an Achilles heel. For me there is a daily struggle with distractions. As an example, this afternoon while preparing for the next episode of Coffee With Jim, the live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page, I was thumbing through a 1929 Rand McNally atlas. As this weeks program with be a virtual tour along U.S. 6, I was looking for information about the highways course in Pennsylvania.

I have yet to drive the highway from its eastern terminus at Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Bishop, California. And I have yet to drive the section to Long Beach that was renumbered in the 1960s. I have, however, driven many sections of the highway in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah. And I have also driven some of the highway in Nevada and California.

Let’s see, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Distractions. Well I made a few notes after reviewing the old atlas and realized that I was hungry. I also realized that it was well past dinner time. As it is an absolutely beautiful day, I made a sandwich, heated a couple beer battered cod fillets and some potatoes, and sat outside to enjoy a bit of sunshine.

Just sitting still is not something that I cam capable of. About halfway through lunch I remembered that the Garmin needed to be updated. So, I went back into the office and started the download. And as I need the Garmin for tomorrows trip to a regional tourism conference, thoughts drifted to the conference itself.

After lunch I sat down to finish the outline for the Sunday program. And that led to making adjustments to the original idea by leaving it open so I can include pertinent information from the tourism conference.

Research for the Sunday program led to an interesting discovery about an incident in the mid 1920s. In an astounding mid winter drive in 1924, the legendary driver Cannonball Baker set a new record of seven days, seventeen hours and eight minutes on a drive from New York City to Los Angeles. A portion of this drive was over what would become U.S. 6.

Well, after stumbling on to the story I book marked the page for future reading. As I had shelved work on this weeks episode of Coffee With Jim until after the conference, I began reading the story about Cannonball Baker. To set this record Baker drove an eight cylinder Gardner, a car manufactured in St. Louis.

Since this wasn’t a car that I was familiar with, I pulled up some books as well as trade journals and publications from the 1920s to find out more about Gardner. As it turns out the story of the company and its founders is quite interesting. So, since I was due to write another feature about automotive history for Motoring NZ, I made notes, did some more research and cranked out an article about the Gardner.

Linked with features written for Motoring NZ is a corresponding audio podcast, 5 Minutes With Jim. Can you guess what happened next? Well, I dug out some more books and began researching automobile manufacturing companies that had operated in St. Louis. And then I wrote the script for the podcast that will be recorded on Friday.

The day had started with a completely different set of goals in mind. It started simple enough. Breakfast, my daily German language lesson and emails. The original plan had been to work up some white board ideas for the new video project being developed in limited partnership with MyMarketing Designs. The intro teaser was completed recently and will tie into the tourism conference tomorrow. The plan is to have the pilot complete by Saturday. Then, if we can land sponsorship or funding, it will be developed as a series.

Author Jim Hinckley in his native habitat, the back country and lost highways

We had worked on a similar video series to promote the Kingman area several years ago. We even completed two episodes (see video above) and put out DVD’s that were sold along the Route 66 corridor. But funding remained elusive and so we shelved the project. Since then the owner of the marketing company has created a multimedia news network, The Bee, that reaches and engages several hundred thousand people each month. And I have cranked out another book, developed a new series of feature articles, and honed Jim Hinckley’s America. So, we decided the time was right to give it another run.

Instead of the white board, I was distracted by some unexpected issues. There was an issue with entering my time card for the community education program developed for Mohave Community College. And then there was some correspondence from Kingman Main Street that needed an immediate response. That was followed by resolving an issue with a book order (singed copies of 100 Things To Do On Route 66 Before You Die are now available for order). By then it was time to meet with a county supervisor to discuss ideas for a tourism initiative during a walkabout.

And so there you have it. A day in my world. And it isn’t over yet. I still need to make some adjustments to the website. And I see that the publisher has sent an email pertaining to the current book that requires to be addressed.

I am unsure when I decided to make a living, or try to make a living, from telling people where to go. All I know is that for as long as I can remember tremendous pleasure has been derived from telling people where to go. It has been a grand adventure, to say the very least. Boredom is never an issue, even in the age of pandemics, paranoia induced insurrections, the Ice Age in Texas, and assorted disasters.

Disasters And Tales of Tragedy

Disasters And Tales of Tragedy

Truck wreck on Route 66 near Sullivan, Missouri. Photo Joe Sonderman collection

On August 11,1955 a horrendous accident along Route 66 a few miles west of Clines Corner, New Mexico claimed the lives six men. In May 1957 at a highway junction near Cuba, Missouri a two car collision killed five members of a Chicago family. Two weeks prior on Route 66 in western Missouri another wreck took the lives of five people from Indiana. The Indiana Gazette carried the story as filler as wrecks along Route 66 were a common but tragic occurrence. ,

Dateline Springfield, Missouri – Five persons died in an automobile accident about 15 miles northeast of here Saturday night. Sergeant Al Leslie of the Missouri Highway Patrol said the brand new hardtop apparently was doing between 100 and 110 miles per hour when it ran of U.S.66. Four of five occupants thrown from the vehicle died instantly. The fifth succumbed to injuries before he could be extricated from the wreckage. He had been pinned in the vehicle by the engine and impaled by the steering column.

Today in the era of Route 66 renaissance we can have our cake and eat it as well. We can enjoy the essence of the historic Route 66 by cruising the shade dappled highway through the Ozarks, spending a restful night at the time capsule that is the Wagon Wheel Motel, and enjoying a hearty breakfast at Shelly’s. And if we are in a hurry, the interstate highway is an option.

We tend to see Route 66 in the context of neon and tail fins. It is easy to forget that the highway was know as bloody 66 for good reason. And we also forget that the highway was more than a linear theme park. It was an artery of commerce, both legal and illicit.

It was a highway of commerce traveled by truckers and salesman. Vacationing families traveled the well promoted highway on trips to the Grand Canyon, to California, to the newly opened Disneyland and to see the scenic wonders of the southwest. Gangsters and outlaws traveled the highway in flight from the law. And serial killers and grifters drove the highway in search of victims.

Wreck on Route 66 from the Joe Sonderman collection

It was also a segregated highway. The accident at Clines Corners sparked an investigation by the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In article published by the Albuquerque Tribune  on August 16, 1955, Edward L. Boyd, special assistant with the NAACP said that the accident was not surprising. Neither was the determination that fatigue had been the cause of the accident. He noted that the men killed, African-Americans, “…could not have found a welcome at any of the courts, motels, or hotels on Route 66 from Amarillo to Albuquerque.” He also noted that the investigation had determined that less than eight percent of the more than one hundred motels and auto courts along Central Avenue (Route 66) in Albuquerque would provide lodging to “Negro travelers.”

Like tens of thousands of Route 66 enthusiasts I derive a great deal of enjoyment from traveling this storied old highway. But knowing its history enhances the sense of time travel. Being aware of the stories of tragedy and disaster blur the line between past and present seamlessly.



Well, That Didn’t Work

Well, That Didn’t Work

A collage of illustrations from the authors collection for an episode of Coffee With Jim.

I had prepared the script with rich detail about Ludlow, Daggett, Newberry Springs and other outposts of civilization along the Route 66 corridor in the Mojave Desert. For illustrations I had combed my archives and created a well designed presentation. There was a blend of rare historic photos, award winning photography from several of our adventures along Route 66 in California and historic maps. As the program was going to close out our series that profiled each of the eight states that constitute the Route 66 corridor, this episode of Coffee With Jim had to really shine.

Well, that didn’t work. For reasons unknown, I was unable to get the screen share function to work. And so I went live on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page with just the script and a smile. At least I had pants. I am confident that most folks can relate. In this past year we have had to adapt to a world of Zoom meetings hindered by internet interruptions and odd filters. And we have learned to roll with the punches and to come up with quick fixes and bluffs while maintaining a modicum of dignity.

Then after the program I went with plan “B” and made lemonade out of lemons. I took each slide of the presentation and created a series of scheduled posts on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t I had planned. But it worked.

The audience for Coffee With Jim, our live stream program, was understanding, cordial and even supportive. And so far the series of posts on the Facebook page are performing well. The reach and engagement is exceeding most of the posts this month. Is it possible that I have stumbled (or been tossed) into a formula to enhance the Jim Hinckley’s America network?

Every day is a new experience, a new opportunity for teaching this old dog new tricks and new levels of frustration. It is a grand adventure, to say the very least.

Let’s see how next Sunday’s episode of Coffee With Jim goes. The program will be a fun filled, informative fast paced bit of time travel. I have created the presentation and am rather pleased with the result. The program is entitled Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet and will highlight what each of these has to do with the formation of the American auto industry. I will also be delving into the origins of the great American road trip and sharing some interesting stories about people like David Buick and companies such as Pierce Arrow, Jackson and Chrysler.

Two areas of focus in coming weeks pertain to the development of revenue streams needed to fund proposed Jim Hinckley’s America projects. I have a core of loyal partners that support our crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platform, and for that I am humbled and grateful.

I have tested the waters of pay per view programs using Facebook live. There has been moderate success, and I was able to repay crowdfunding partners by providing the programs at no cost to them. But the Facebook platform is limited and restrictive.

And so I have set up an Eventbrite account. In the next few weeks, if all goes according to plan, I will host another pay per view presentation using Zoom and Eventbrite. There is still a bit of learning curve but that too seems be a component of the new normal.

On this program I will draw from my latest book Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. It will be a rich tapestry of stories about serial killers, gangsters, race riots, robberies turned deadly encounter, and shootouts. The dates for this event as well as for episodes of Coffee with Jim, and On The Road With Jim are posted here on the Jim Hinckley’s America page as well as on the event section of the Facebook page.