Archive | June, 2013
June 24, 2013

On the Road – Into the Wild West


When you think about the “Wild West,” what comes to mind?  Cowboys, cattle drives, Native Americans, gun fights, bank robbers, and saloons?  The Wild West was indeed wild!  It was a place where the normal order of our society had not yet reached – there was little government, few roads, temporary towns, and wide open spaces.  It was where people had to be determined, resourceful, independent and strong.  The Wild West was hard work and not for everyone.


The Wild West was that part of America that was west of the frontier – that part of America that was beyond the towns and farmers.  Where the Wild West started was constantly changing as people continued to move west and organize themselves into communities.  For example, anything west of the Mississippi River was considered the American frontier after the Louisiana Purchase.  Gradually, the frontier moved west as the land was organized into states and settled by farmers.


The federal government considered itself to be the owner of the Wild West – it purchased the land or conquered it, depending on your point of view.  And, it took a while for the government to sell the land or give it away under the Homestead Act.  So, in the meantime it was available to anyone who was willing to make the journey.


Eventually the federal government caught up and surveyed the land, allowing people to own it over time and establish communities.  Many times, the railroads paved the way – as the railroad tracks pushed west across the country, land ownership and organized communities followed.  This process continued over and over, until the order of “civilization” reached the Pacific Ocean.


Why did people travel to the frontier? For many, it was that deep hunger to own land. For others, it was part of Manifest Destiny – that belief that it was America’s destiny to conquer all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  For even more, it was that desire to make some money and provide for their family.  Some people went west because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.  Others hoped to make it rich in the Goldrush.


If you want to learn more about the Wild West, consider going to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.  The Center has five museums, which are dedicated to preserving the Spirit of the American West.  They also tell the story of the life and times of William Cody, otherwise known as “Buffalo Bill,” and his famous Wild West Show.



June 21, 2013

Yellowstone – A Super Volcano

Under Yellowstone is a “hotspot” – a place where the earth’s crust is very thin, allowing intense heat to rise up from the earth’s inner core.  This hotspot creates all the hydrothermal features that are unique to Yellowstone.   This hotspot also makes Yellowstone the largest volcano in North America.  It is actually considered to be a “super volcano.”

Thousands and thousands of years ago, a huge volcano erupted within Yellowstone.  In fact, it was so huge that over one-third of Yellowstone is contained within the “caldera,” or giant hole created by the explosion.


Ancient Activity


There have been 3 massive volcano eruptions in Yellowstone’s history – scientists estimate the first was about 2 million years ago.  The last one was about 600,000 years ago.

At that time, magma pushed up from the earth’s core and formed a massive dome.  Eventually the pressure was too much and there was a huge volcanic eruption, leaving a gaping hole in the earth.  It was one of the most violent explosions the earth had ever seen.  Scientists have found ash from that eruption as far away as Iowa, California and Louisiana!

The volcano continued to be active for more than 500,000 years – lava flowed up to the surface and filled much of the giant crater, forming the Yellowstone Caldera.  The Caldera covers a lot of Yellowstone – it is 35 miles wide and 50 miles long.


The Yellowstone Super Volcano is Still Active


Each year, Yellowstone experiences between 1-3,000 earthquakes.  Most are so small that they are not noticed – a few per year are felt by people in the Park.  They are evidence that the Yellowstone super volcano is still active.

Scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory monitor Yellowstone’s volcanic activity closely.  The geological activity within Yellowstone has not changed much in the last 30 years.  As a result of all the data, scientists don’t expect another huge eruption for thousands of years.

Yellowstone’s hydrothermal system is also powered by its super volcano – in fact, Yellowstone contains almost half of all geothermal features found on earth.  These geothermal features are very sensitive to earthquakes and other volcanic activity.  In the past, earthquakes both near and far have increased the geyser eruptions within Yellowstone.


June 11, 2013

On the Road – Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is in the Black Hills.   The faces of four famous American Presidents are carved into the face of the mountain – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.


South Dakota’s historian came up with the idea in the 1920s to try to increase tourism in the state.  He contacted a sculptor named Gutzon Borglum, who agreed to do the job.  Originally, the idea was to carve faces into the granite pillars nearby called “the Needles” – but it was determined that the Needles were not strong enough to withstand the sculpting process (which involved a lot of dynamite and jackhammers).  So, they had to pick a different site.


Eventually, Mount Rushmore was chosen as the site because it had a large carving area, hard granite, and it faces southeast so the sun would shine on the Presidents almost all day.  Mount Rushmore was on federal land so they needed to get approval from the government before any work could begin (Congress approved the project on February 3, 1925).


Once they had a site, they needed to settle on the people that would be portrayed.  After discussing several options, including Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody, it was decided that a national focus would draw more people and provide more funding from the government.  That was when they decided to carve the faces of famous Presidents.


Four Presidents were chosen – each one represents a significant period in America’s history:


Founding:  George Washington was America’s first President led the American Colonists through the Revolutionary War and helped to create our new country and its unique government.   Many  people call him the Father of our country.


Expansion:  Thomas Jefferson was the author of our Declaration of Independence.  He also expanded America geographically – nearly doubling the size of our country through the Louisiana Purchase.


Preservation:  Theodore Roosevelt expanded our country economically – he led the country through part of the industrial revolution and improved working conditions for all those people working in the new factories.


Unification:  Abraham Lincoln held our country together during one of the most difficult times in our history – the Civil War.  In addition, he abolished slavery and established the idea that every man is equal (paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement).


Mr. Borglum started carving President Washington’s face in 1927.   Each face was unveiled separately as they were finished – and they were huge – about 60 feet tall!  Mr. Borglum developed a unique method of blasting away rock with dynamite – he learned to be so precise that he could remove rock within inches of the finished surface.  Then, he devised a “honeycomb” system, in which the workers would drill holes just inches apart all over the surface.  The honeycombing would weaken the granite so it could be removed easily either by chisel or sometimes even by hand.   In all, the workers used dynamite, jackhammering, chiseling and sanding to create the smooth surface of the Memorial.


Almost 400 people worked on the Memorial, under wild and dangerous conditions.  They had to climb 700 steps to get to a “bosun chair,” which was attached to a cable and lowered them over the front of the mountain to where they were working.  It was windy and cold much of the time.


There was only one big snafu in the process – originally, President Jefferson was carved to the left of President Washington.  But, Mr. Borglum wasn’t happy with the quality of the granite in that location, so his face was blasted off and started again on the other side of President Washington.


Mr. Borglum had a dream of carving a Hall of Records into the mountainside below the Presidents – to hold important documents that tell the story of our country (and information about the memorial).  Unfortunately, Congress only agreed to pay for the carving of the Presidents so the Hall of Records could not be completed.  Finally, it was completed in 1998 – tablets with information about our country are sealed inside.  The Hall of Records is sealed and not open to visitors.


It took almost 15 years to carve the entire memorial – it was finally completed in 1941 and the National Park Service has been taking care of it ever since.  Mr. Borglum’s son became the first park superintendent.