Blog Posts by Christy Karras

  • April 18, 1906: Earthquake, fire rip through San Francisco

    San Francisco residents watch as fire engulfs Sacramento Street on April 18, 1906. (Photo: Arnold Genthe via Wikimedia Commons)

    In 1906, San Francisco was a thriving city of 400,000 residents, full of majestic Victorian mansions, beautiful hotels and a thriving arts scene. But the earthquake that hit on the early morning of April 18, 1906, changed everything — including how today's rebuilt city looks and works.

    The earthquake destroyed many buildings and ruptured gas lines, igniting a three-day fire that ripped through the city. By the time it was all over, three-quarters of San Francisco's buildings were smoking piles of rubble. The author Jack London mourned, "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone."

    Arnold Genthe, who took the photo above, later described the eerie scene: “On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would

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  • April 16, 1908: Roosevelt establishes Natural Bridges National Monument

    With a span of about 225 feet, Sipapu Natural Bridge is one of America’s largest. (Photo: Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service)

    Natural Bridges is both one of America’s most fascinating national monuments and one of the most remote. From the entrance beside a usually empty stretch of highway on a desert plateau in south-central Utah, it's impossible to tell what lies just a few hundred yards away. There, a river is digging a canyon into the plateau’s surface—and carving giant natural bridges in the process.

    A natural bridge is a bit like the formations that populate Arches National Park (also in southern Utah). But while arches are created by wind and precipitation, bridges—true to their name—are undercut by water running below. The three bridges in the national monument’s White Canyon are impressively large. One of them, Sipapu, has the third-greatest span of America’s natural bridges, after Morning Glory and Rainbow natural bridges (both also in Utah).

    Ancient people built these structures, named Horsecollar Ruins, on a protected ledge in White Canyon. (Photo: Neal Herbert/National Park Service)Gold prospector Cass Hite stumbled upon White Canyon, named for the light-colored horizontal sandstone streaks that break up its red-rock canyon walls, in

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  • April 14, 1865: President Lincoln is shot at Ford’s Theatre

    Replicas of Lincoln’s box seats are a prominent feature in the renovated Ford’s Theatre. (Photo: knight94 via Wikimedia Commons)

    Today, Ford’s Theatre stands as a memorial to the president who was shot there in 1865. But for decades, only government workers were allowed inside the historic building. And even though the public can wander through it again now, some believe the building is cursed.

    The redbrick structure on 10th Street in Washington, DC, was originally a church. When the congregation moved out in 1861, John T. Ford renovated it as a theater. Remodeled with plush fittings and decorative woodwork after a fire in 1862, Ford’s Theater was considered one of the city’s finest theaters when President Abraham Lincoln took his box seat to watch “Our American Cousin” on the fateful night of April 14, 1865.

    After Lincoln’s assassination, the U.S. government took over the building, using it for storage and administrative work and expressly prohibiting its use as an entertainment venue. When part of the building collapsed in 1892, killing 22 workers, some saw the accident as additional evidence that the building

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  • April 11, 1951: The Stone of Scone is found in Scotland after theft from London


    A colored plate from the Illustrated London News in 1937 shows the Stone of Scone in King Edward’s Chair. (Photo: The Print Collector/Getty Images)The Stone of Scone has more than a funny name going for it: The shoebox-shaped chunk of mottled red sandstone occupies a major place in the history of both Scotland and England — as well as in a famous 1950 heist.

    The “Stone of Destiny” called Scone Abbey near Perth, Scotland, home for hundreds of years, and generations of Scottish kings used it in their coronation ceremonies. In 1296, King Edward I of England took it to London as spoils of an ongoing war against the Scots. The 330-pound rock was fitted into King Edward’s Chair in Westminster Abbey, where it’s been used ever since as the coronation chair for British monarchs.

    England and Scotland had their ups and downs over the ensuing centuries, to put it mildly, with Scotland rising up again and again to fight for independence. The fact that the Stone of Scone was in English hands — and in a location that reinforced the idea that British monarchs ruled Scotland — always riled Scottish nationalists.

    In 1950, four Scottish students

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  • April 9, 1867: U.S. Senate ratifies treaty with Russia to buy Alaska

    Signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, L. to R. Robert S. Chew, Secretary of State William H. Seward, William Hunter, Mr. Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner, Fredrick W. Seward (Image: Alaska Library via Wikimedia Commons)

    In 1867, the United States Senate approved a treaty with Russia to buy a whopping 586,412 square miles of territory – none of it touching the contiguous American states. Alaska's particulars were largely unknown except to native people at the time, and many Americans weren’t sure what could possibly make it valuable. But gold (and later, oil and tourism) would later bring thousands of immigrants, both permanent and temporary.

    Why did Russia give up that giant resource-rich swath? It was afraid it would lose that land anyway, to an invasion — not by the U.S. but by its immediate neighbor to the south: Britain, which at the time occupied what is now Canada. Having just lost the Crimean War, Russia had tense relations with Britain at the time, and its government anticipated that if war broke out in Europe, Britain would move up and seize Alaska. The Russian government was also desperately short on funds and saw unloading Alaska as a quick way to bring in cash.

    Americans disagreed about

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  • April 7, 1788: Pioneers reach Ohio, start first settlement in Northwest Territory

    Arrival of Rufus Putnam and American pioneers to the Northwest Territory on April 7, 1788. Fort Harmar is in the background. (Image from John T. Faris, ‘On the Trail of the Pioneers,’ 1920 via Wikimedia Commons)

    The Northwest Territory was the first American push westward outside the original 13 colonies. The Revolutionary war was over and the Constitution was on its way to being ratified, so enterprising Americans turned their thoughts westward, thinking of the potential for settling new lands and making new lives for themselves in the process.

    Rufus Putnam and Manasseh Cutler personally and carefully selected their Ohio Company of Associates, the first group to buy a land grant from the federal government. The 48 men setting out from Massachusetts and Connecticut that winter included former Revolutionary War soldiers as well as surveyors and administrators.

    If they’d known what was ahead, they might have waited until spring: an unusually severe winter would test the skills and endurance of what George Washington called “the bravest of the brave.” (Later, they would have to deal with the native people who had already called the area home for generations.)

    The men built two flatboats (the 45-ton

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  • April 4, 1768: Philip Astley stages world’s first circus

    Astley's Ampitheatre in London as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosm of London, 1808-11. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    The circus and travel are inextricably intertwined: circuses travel, and patrons travel to see them. It was that way almost from the very beginning, when Philip Astley, an enterprising horse trainer and riding instructor in London, opened his first equestrian-themed show in 1768.

    Astley was both a great rider and a savvy businessman. After serving with the military, where he developed his skills as a rider, he dreamed of opening a riding school that would teach skills including trick riding. He opened his school near London, teaching in the mornings and entertaining in the afternoon with tricks that included straddling two cantering horses and doing headstands in the saddle.

    His biggest innovation: Rather than performing back and forth in a straight line, as other riders did, he began riding in a circle. That gave audiences a better view of performers and allowed trick riders (including his wife) to take advantage of centrifugal force, which helped them stay on the horse even while

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  • April 2, 1513: Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León discovers Florida

    This fragment of 16th-century fold-out map of the Atlantic shows a landscape, 'Terra Bimene,' around a spring—the source of eternal youth? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    When Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León discovered Florida, he was said to be looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth — which adds a touch of irony to the state’s current status as one of America’s top retirement destinations.

    Ponce de León earned a reputation as an able fighter during Spanish wars against the Moors and got his first taste of adventure at sea when he joined Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the New World in 1493. He went on to help subjugate the native people of Hispaniola, the island that is now home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the Spanish crows granted him land and a post as governor.

    He earned even more money and favor when he found gold in what is now Puerto Rico (although his name has long been associated with searching for the Fountain of Youth, he more likely cared about the gold) and became governor there.

    The Ponce de León Inlet lighthouse on Florida’s east coast (Photo: Stan Kruslicky via Wikimedia Commons)His next assignment: explore northward, where more islands were rumored to lie. On April 2, 1513, his three ships arrived at what he

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  • March 31, 1889: the Eiffel Tower is completed in Paris

    The Eiffel Tower was finished in time for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    The Eiffel Tower, 125 years old today, is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks — and one of its top tourist destinations. In 2010, the total number of visitors topped 250 million, making it the most frequently visited paid attraction on earth.

    The tower wasn’t always so popular. Paris's pointy wrought-iron structure may look charmingly old-fashioned to us now, but back when it was built in 1889, its “modern” design stirred up controversy. French artists and architects banded together to protest what they called a “useless and monstrous” tower that would dwarf existing monuments like Notre Dame cathedral and the Arc de Triomphe.

    Gustave Eiffel’s construction company built the tower to commemorate the French Revolution’s centennial during the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, known as the Exposition Universelle. At about 1,000 feet tall, the tower also celebrated advances in engineering, especially in the use of metal as both a structural and decorative material.

    Work entailed many

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  • March 28, 1566: Knights begin building Valetta, Malta’s capital

    The War Siege Bell Memorial overlooking Grand Harbor honors those who lost their lives during World War II. (Photo: courtesy of the city of Valletta)


    The tiny country of Malta is a jewel in the Mediterranean Sea. Its capital city, Valletta, is itself a gem, with majestic stone buildings rising above the island’s rocky shores.

    The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, or Knights Hospitaller, founded the city as a fortified base for its defense of Christian lands. Under the order’s leadership, Malta had fought off an attack by the Ottoman Empire a year earlier. That victory strengthened Europe’s claim over the Mediterranean but prompted the knights to build a well-defended fortress city. The order’s grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette, laid the foundation stone of Valletta on March 28, 1566, in Our Lady of Victories Church.

    Ramparts tower above the harbor. (Photo: Maximilian Bühn (User:Queryzo), via Wikimedia Commons)Along with fortified walls, the Christian knights built a modern (for the time) city, with wide, straight streets and substantial palaces, churches and houses reflecting the Renaissance that was sweeping Europe. Later architects added graceful Baroque buildings. The city’s technical name is The Most Humble City of

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