Roller Skating in the Old West

In History of Wyoming, T.A. Larson writes that roller skating rinks operated in Wyoming cities in the 1880s. They were popular with adults as well as youngsters, and in the eastern U.S. as well. I suppose most rinks in Wyoming had wooden floors, the same as most sidewalks of the 1880s.

Wyoming has cold winters, but the plains have few ponds for ice skating.  Indoor roller skating rinks provided fun all winter long. Imagine — cowboys roller skating on their trips to town.

Buried Treasure from 1856 America: Part Two

The discovery of the buried 1856 riverboat Arabia and its 200 tons of cargo began with a house call to repair the refrigerator of “some old character” whose name has been forgotten. Refrigeration company co-owner David Hawley showed up for that repair in the 1980s and recently told me the man had three walls covered with newspaper and magazine clippings: one wall of UFOs, another of Bigfoot or something similar, and a third wall with clippings about sunken steamships. This last was the only one he “could get into,” he said with a smile during my visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

David Hawley read old newspapers and maps to find the nearby Arabia. He was joined in his treasure hunt by his father Bob, brother Greg and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell.

In 1987, they visited the owner of a farm, a retired judge, and told them they believed there was an old steamboat filled with cargo deep below his field, a half-mile from the Missourri River. (The river shifted course after the steamboat sank.) To their surprise, Judge Sortor said he knew, and that his ancestor Elijah Sortor had known when he bought the land in 1860. The story, and the exact location, had been passed down through the generations.

The next step, said one discoverer, was like playing the board game Battleship. Test drillings encountered the hull, and to find the perimeter of the boat, the men used a magnetometer and planted orange flags in the soil.

Farm field with outline of the 171-foot-long buried boat.

The water table was only ten feet below ground, thirty-five feet above the main deck. Massive pumping was required so that the hole would not fill with water.

20,000 gallons of groundwater per minute were pumped out.

First, they found wood from the ship, then a shoe. The contents of the first barrel dazzled them. It was packed with beautiful china.


Arabia Steamboat Museum

Arabia Steamboat Museum
One discoverer recounted in the museum’s film that the family went home and stayed up late into the night, thrilled. They knew they would find 200 tons of cargo from 1856. He said on that night he realized that this collection should not be sold piecemeal or broken up. Judge Sortor, the owner of the land, agreed.

The treasure included everything a frontier settler, rich or poor, might expect to find in a store. My previous post describes the find, some of which is on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Once unearthed, the artifacts needed to be preserved, and quickly. The discoverers, some of whom owned a refrigeration company, installed huge coolers in caves. Some dug a hole (80x20x10 feet), put in artifacts, and kept a garden hose turned on for two and a half years while they contacted museums for advice. The solution was polyethylene glycol.

How much did all this cost? A cool million.

One discoverer described this project as a joy for the family and friends. I visited the museum twice, and each time the lights came up after the movie, a member of the Hawley family stood in front to welcome us and answer any questions. That’s how I got to chat with David Hawley and ask him about the day he learned about sunken steamboats and buried treasure.

Buried Treasure from 1856 America: Part One


After 132 years in mud, the champagne still fizzed when uncorked. It tasted fine, as did the pickles preserved before Lincoln was president, and none of the 20th-century treasure hunters got sick from this antique food or drink. The French perfume bottles still held a sweet, floral fragrance. You can dab on a reproduction at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, where I went with fellow attendees of the Women Writing the West Conference.

In 1856, when the steamship Arabia snagged on one of the many fallen trees near the banks of the Missouri River, the impact frightened its passengers, including women and children traveling to reunite with their husbands and fathers on the frontier. Children fell in the river. Although all the people were rescued, the steamship and its 200 tons of cargo sank into the river silt immediately.

The cargo, intended for stores at the edge of the frontier, is a gateway to the past. Most of the 200 tons was intact. More than two tons of metal tools and hardware were recovered.

Kansas City Thursday 017 (800x600)

Skeleton keys, keyholes and white doorknobs in the foreground.

The website of the Arabia Steamboat Museum,, states that this is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. While buried in the mud for 132 years, the temperature remained constant and there was no oxygen, factors which helped preserve the items. Proteins like leather did not decompose. More than 4,000 boots and shoes were recovered, and when the Arabia sank with them, it may have created a shortage of footwear, a hardship for frontier families.

Bed keys for tightening ropes that supported mattresses.
Bed keys for tightening ropes that supported mattresses.
Trays for Calling Cards
Trays for Calling Cards
About 20% were luxury items, like the Davenport Ironstone in the foreground.
About 20% were luxury items, like the Davenport Ironstone in the foreground.

From cognac to wedding bands to two pre-fabricated homes, the recovered cargo is a buried treasure of historic significance.

The 400 barrels of Kentucky bourbon on board were never recovered.  None were found when an 1897 effort sent a chamber under water, and none when the entire steamship was unearthed 90 years after that, by five local business owners.  They speculate that the men on the Eclipse, which salvaged an engine from the Arabia shortly after it sank, might have helped themselves to “Kentucky’s finest.”

Those five Kansas City business owners discovered this steamship and its cargo in 1987-88. Finding  the Arabia started as a hobby and became a quest.  I will post that story next Thursday.

Snapshots of Fourth of July, 1903

Happy Fourth! In 1900, town picnics and other community events, like church picnics, were the order of the day.

I love zooming in on online digital photographs.  Below is a link to a candid shot of people enjoying the Fourth of July at Alpine Park in Salida, Colorado, in 1903. The lone man in the bandstand may have just finished reading the Declaration of Independence aloud, which was usually part of July 4 celebrations. Two women talk under a parasol. People are dressed up, and girls wear ruffly dresses.

Click here  to open the link to the photo. (Trouble linking? See end of this post.)

Zooming in amazes me.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Locate the yellow bar with a minus and plus sign at each end. Beside the plus sign is an icon that says Full Browser when you scroll over it.
  • Click on Full Browser. (If you want to return to previous view, just click this again.)
  • Move the blue square along the yellow bar, toward the plus sign, but not all the way. This enlarges the center of the photo.
  • Hold the mouse key down and drag the picture up. As you move, wait for the new parts of the photo to load. You can drag from side to side.

Here’s another photo of the same celebration with a carriage draped with flag bunting and the decorations on the horses’ heads. Check out the little girls in their best hats!

I will start posting on Thursday mornings. Happy Fourth of July!

Trouble linking? Type in and search for:  City Park Salida 573 and Alpine Park Salida 574

Old-Time Cash Registers

These look so quaint now, but they work the same as the ones when I was a kid.  This was made about 1900.

This one has two drawers.
This one has two drawers.

Mechanical, not electronic. Push a button with the price and a metal tab comes up.

Tabs with prices:  65 cents, 85 cents.
Tabs with prices: 65 cents, 85 cents.

Looking at these now, I realize the cash registers I remember from the 1960s and 1970s were low-tech compared to today. They were like the one above but they could print a receipt. But they were plain, not with decorated brass sides, back and top.  No marble.

The cash register was first invented in the early 1880s to keep employees from stealing.  It kept track of the money. That’s also why there was the ding of a bell when the drawer rolled open, so the manager or owner would know the cash was exposed to the cashier or customer.

Cash Register in Hoofprints of the Past Museum in Kaycee, WY (800x600)

I remember the No Sale key and tab. When someone came in to the store and asked for change without buying anything, the cashier obliged by pressing No Sale, which made the cash drawer pop out.  This register has a wide, red tab that says Sale Not Yet Recorded.

I took these photos at  Hoofprints of the Past Museum in Kaycee, Wyoming. Talk about the real West.

Jews in 1850 Los Angeles

In 1848, nothern Mexico ceded California to the US, and gold was discovered.  Suddenly the town of Los Angeles, located among rancheros, became a stop for gold prospectors heading north from their homes in Mexico, Central and South America.  Hearing of the exorbitant prices near the gold fields, some of these men bought their mining supplies and clothing as they passed through Los Angeles.  This was an opportunity for merchants, and competition was fiercer in San Francisco, the gateway to the gold country, than in relatively sleepy Los Angeles.

The Jews listed in Los Angeles’ first US Census outfitted these gold-seekers and the increasing number of Angelenos.  The 1850 census document, donated to a museum by Cecil B. De Mille, records 3,530 people in all of Los Angeles County, only eight of whom were Jewish.

A microcosm reflecting the settling of the American frontier, all of the Jewish residents were single men, and almost all were young.  There was a forty-year-old tailor, but all the others were merchants ranging in age from 19 to 28. These gentlemen lived behind their storefronts in the Bell’s Row block of Los Angeles.

They were born in Germany and Poland, and all had lived elsewhere in the United States, so they spoke their native languages and possibly other European languages, had learned English, and picked up Spanish in their stores, doing business with Spanish-speaking locals and gold seekers. Multi-lingualism was a key to success in early Los Angeles.


The two census pages listing these men were a small part of a wide-ranging exhibit, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, at the Autry National Center.  I was fortunate to have a tour with a docent offering more information than was on display — guided tours are a great way to see a museum exhibit. This exhibit has a companion book of the same title, published by the University of California Press.

A Log Cabin and Its Town

Sheridan, WY 014 (1280x960)

This log cabin practically grew into a town.  It was built in 1880 by George Mandel, in a green valley where Sheridan, Wyoming, now stands.  The logs are original and dovetail at the corners of the cabin.  It was larger than at present, about 18 feet by 36 feet, and had a wood floor.

Men squared off the logs with tools, and the marks still show.

To handle mail in those days, you applied to the government, and once you were approved, you rode to a justice of the peace who swore you in as postmaster or postmistress.  George Mandel did this, and because there was no town, he named the post office with his name.  Below, you can see the sign over the door.

Mandel Post Office Sign

John Loucks, a town founder, bought the cabin for $50 and was approved and duly sworn in as the new postmaster.  Mr. Loucks used a cracker box to hold the mail in this cabin and started selling goods alongside, making it the area’s first store.

The gray sod roof of the cabin. The roots of the grass bind the soil.
The gray sod roof of the cabin. The roots of the grass bind the soil.

He bought an old cabin that had been abandoned by Dutch Henry and hauled it to this one and attached it.  It became a kitchen for his wife, Annie, and they graciously allowed a teacher and children to use it as Sheridan’s first school.   Mr. and Mrs. Loucks hosted many social gatherings and an election — women cast ballots in the cabin in the early 1880s.  (Wyoming Territory granted women suffrage in 1869.)

Then this cabin was moved and added onto, and it later housed the first law “office,” inside the store.

The Mandel Cabin and Post Office is now in Whitney Commons Park, very close to its original site.  It is owned and maintained by The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wyoming.  This group and the Wyoming Society deserve a pat on the back for preserving the cabin, giving tours, and printing brochures with the cabin’s story.

Idaho and the Key to the Cosmos

Its bordello museum had just closed for the winter, so I almost did not stop in Wallace.

The Wallace depot now houses a railroad museum.  The interstate behind it skirts the protected historic downtown.
The Wallace depot now houses a railroad museum. The interstate behind it skirts the protected historic downtown.

The Coeur d’Alene was the most productive silver-mining district in the United States.

Lake Coeur d'Alene has scenic bike trails and an annual IRONMAN Triathlon.
Lake Coeur d’Alene has scenic bike trails and an annual IRONMAN Triathlon.

Every downtown building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wallace, Idaho

I was hoping the Oasis Bordello Museum would be open, despite what I had read.  I’m writing about the red-light district in another mining town, Cripple Creek.

It was cold and windy, so I warmed up with a latte and friendly conversation with the coffeehouse owner.

I took a stroll, and was I in for a surprise.

The arrow points to a manhole cover.

Click here for the logic behind the mayor’s 2004 proclamation and to learn more about Wallace and the Coeur d’Alene area.