Carlos F. Hurd was a reporter that had gained international notoriety in 1912 for his series of interviews with survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. He was no stranger to disaster, to stories of human suffering and to gut wrenching stories of family tragedy. Nothing, however, prepared him for coverage of the vicious race riots in East St. Louis during the summer of 1917. His initial story published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on July 3 opened with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.”
His first person report continued with shocking detail. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. There was a horribly cold deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.” Additional articles provided gruesome and proven details; a person nearly beheaded by an assailant with a butcher knife, a twelve-year old girl pulled from a trolley, people shot as they desperately tried to escape by swimming the Mississippi River, a mother beaten to death in front of her children.
Even though the incident took place before certification of Route 66, I wrote of it in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales from Bloody 66. The riot in East St. Louis was not an isolated incident. There was a similar event in Springfield, Illinois in the same period, and a few years later, an even more horrendous riot occurred in Tulsa, the city where Cyrus Avery, the man heralded as the father of Route 66, owned businesses. These prejudices, these racial hostilities would be woven into the fabric of Route 66 development and it would affect everything from tourism to trucking, motels to restaurants.
The years between 1890 and 1930 were an incredible period of dramatic technological advancement and societal upheaval and evolution. A tsunami of immigration was transforming the very fabric of the country. The era of the western frontier was drawing to a close but there were still violent clashes with Native Americans such as the incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890. The labor movement was dawning, and that too led to violent clashes.
One of these was an incident now known as the the Bisbee Deportation. On July 12, 1917, in Bisbee, Arizona, about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders were attached members of a deputized posse. The deputies forced more than 1,200 men into cattle cars, at gunpoint, and shipped them to New Mexico without food, water, luggage or anything more than what they carried in their pockets and the clothes on their back.
Bicycle mania swept the country during the 1890s but in the shadows the automobile was about to take center stage. Ransom E. Olds was experimenting with steam and gasoline engines. The Duryea brothers had began building automobiles for sale, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave one of their “motor wagons” top billing over the albino and fat lady. The first automobile race in America took place in 1898, people were driving coast to coast by 1905, and in that year a Stanley steamer was driven to a new speed record that was just short of 150 miles per hour.
Between 1909 and 1930 the number of horse drawn vehicles manufactured plummeted but while automobile production soared. Traffic lights and motels, service stations and garages became a part of the roadside culture. In a span of less than thirty years air travel evolved from rudimentary experimentation to becoming an integral component of the modern military and even coast to coast passenger service.
A few points to ponder. Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame died in Los Angeles in 1929. Geronimo was photographed in a Cadillac. Between 1898 and 1930 there were more than 1,500 automobile manufacturing companies launched. Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail by ox cart, and the National Old Trails Road by automobile. The movie theater was introduced and those movies became talkies.
These heady times are being woven into a rich and colorful tapestry, my latest presentation series – In The Beginning. It promises to be informative, fast paced and to inspire some interesting conversation. It is a bit of time travel to what is, perhaps, one of the most amazing forty year period in our nations history. Curious? Contact us today to schedule a presentation for your event, festival or fund raiser.