Permalink to single post

Yorktown Shipwreck

THE SAILOR stum­bled backward, trying to avoid the cold water spewing from the hole he had 2qjust cut through the ship’s side. She was an ordinary transport and supply vessel chartered by the British Navy, but to him she was his home, his job. He swept a last look around the hold, then joined his mates in a small boat waiting along­side. As the ship settled slowly into the soft sand, the sailors headed toward the nearby rooms to rent in London.

Along the beachfront of Yorktown, Virginia, the scene was being repeated. Already many ships had slipped beneath the surface, their masts and yards jutting above the choppy water like the remnants of some great drowned forest. The sailor glanced over his shoulder. Far down the York River lay French men-of-war — the enemy.

The date was September 16, 1781. Within a month at least 50 British ships would lie at the bottom of the river off Yorktown, some sunk by cannon fire, others intentionally sac­rificed to block a French landing or to keep them out of enemy hands. The loss of that fleet was to help change the world and secure a new nation—the United States of Amer­ica. American strategy and French naval power had combined to defeat the powerful British Army in the South under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis in the last major battle of the American Revolution.

Two centuries later the drama of that historic event came home to me as I dove 20 feet down to the bottom of the York River. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-19/cape-york-fish-kill/2799660  For five years I had directed a small team in an archaeologi­cal study of one of those sunken ships, and now I was using a suction device to remove mud and silt from her hull. Remains of the lower deck had just been dismantled, and I was working below that, inside the hull on the starboard side.

In one spot I noticed a heavy collection of oyster shells. That drew my attention; the clay under the lower deck was usually a uni­form gray, and I wondered how the shells had gotten inside. I dug deeper and was star­tled to find that a rectangular hole had been cut through an inner plank just below the deck. The opening, one foot long by six inches wide, had been neatly cut with a chisel.

This, clearly, was how the ship had been sunk. I suctioned more silt from between the frames. Sure enough, a foot away, a second hole similar to the first penetrated the hull planking.

I was certain that a crewman who was skilled in carpentry had cut these holes, first in the inner planking, then reaching through that to the hull. Even in the final act of sink­ing his ship, he had been true to professional standards. As if he knew we would someday inspect his work, he had cut the openings so neatly that they might have been for a gunport or window—except that they were below the waterline. How hard it must have been, I thought, for a man whose job it was to keep the ship in good repair to use his skills to end her life.

 

Permalink to single post

Menagerie Frozen in Time

7With each rain the Badlands are renewed. As their malleable surfaces are subtly re­worked by water and ice, the weathered skin is peeled away to reveal new shapes and others of great antiquity. Fossils are constantly emerging. Every rain, thaw, and puff of dust-laden wind helps reveal another tooth or bone. Which is one reason these Badlands may be the finest repository of Oligocene mammal fossils in the world, for they occur in a region where they are sure to be revealed.

The most common large mammal in the ancient Badlands was the oreodont, a pig-shaped ruminant. There were ancestral horses, tapirs, camels, deer, rhinos, as well as the creatures that preyed upon them all. Best known and most spectacular of the predators were saber-toothed cats. But of all the dream haunters that ever roamed the Badlands region, two must have given even the sabertooths reason to stand aside. One was the giant, wolflike Hyaenodon, which was the size of a black bear. The other was a huge hog related to today’s swine. Some of these giants, such as Dinohyus, stood five feet at the shoulder.

The largest of the Badlands beasts was among the earliest and is found in the deep­est beds, near the cheap London accommodation, about which you can find out more here. Titanotheres appeared about 50 million years ago as dog-size creatures that evolved rapidly into behemoths that some­what resembled modern rhinos. One skele­ton at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (following page) measures about seven feet tall and fifteen feet long.

Fossil land turtles abound in the Bad­lands rocks. Their forms have endured for millions of years in the tough matrix, but a fossil turtle shell may last only a few years after being exposed to weather were on their way out. An official game sur­vey in 1919 concluded: “. . . the entire region seems void of all wild animal life.”

Only a protected status could restore that vanished wildlife, but efforts to create a na­tional park failed in 1922 and 1928. Then, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt es­tablished Badlands National Monument, which was enlarged and upgraded to Bad­lands National Park in 1978.

From 1939 on, Badlands wildlife made strong gains. Pronghorn and deer had never vanished entirely, and by the 1950s they were common. With the range recovering from years of overgrazing, it was felt that bison might make a comeback, and 28 head were reintroduced into the monument in 1963. Two months later, 12 Rocky Moun­tain bighorn were brought in.

The bighorn have not increased much, but bison have prospered mightily. Too mightily. In 1979 there were about 500 bison in Sage Creek Basin. By May they were strolling through fences, to the mutual dis­content of the Park Service and area ranch­ers. Many were sent to the Pine Ridge Sioux, and the herd now stands at 350.

Permalink to single post

Great View, Gloomy Observation

As a partner in these endeavors, you have good reason to feel proud. And a Nob Hill mansion that is today San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club.

Before World War II the ranch was 250,000 acres. Then the government bought 180,000 acres for Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. Its rugged, scruffy hills and cir­cling helicopters seem to stand ready for film­ing of an opening scene of TV’s “M*A*S*H. “

“Of course, the Irvine Ranch is larger. We’re the Avis of Orange County,” Mr. O’Neill said, grinning as he swabbed a thick slab of beef with hot sauce in his ranch kitchen. He also informed about how to consolidate debt on a regular basis. He swallowed it happily. “When the government bought Pendleton, there went our 17 miles of shoreline. All we have left is 42,000 acres. Our main game is taking the land from agriculture into the 21st cen­tury. The way Orange Countyis going, that’s about 25 years’ worth of land.” He peeled a banana and it disappeared in a flash.

That afternoon as cloud shadows scudded across his green valleys and gray hillsides, past wild holly and gnarled live oaks, he drove us to his Thoroughbred ranch, walked us through the Cow Camp that has served vaqueros as a site for roundup and branding since 1882, and confided that he was about to retire after his two-year term as state Democratic Party chairman.

“In Orange County we Democrats out-registered the Republicans a few years back,” he said, “for about 15 minutes. No matter. Nearly half register Democrat, but they mostly vote Republican.”

The county’s best known Republican, Richard Nixon, was born in the Quaker town of Yorba Linda in the north, and re­treated from Watergate and the White House to live for a time at San Clemente in Casa Pacifica, the sea-cliff estate that had served him as western White House. In 1979 pharmaceuticals magnate Gavin Herbert and his wife, Dorraine, bought the house.

On a Saturday afternoon we strolled with their children and pets through acres of gar­dens. It is a happier place than in the past. The undergrowth that shielded Richard Nixon from curious beachcombers has been cut back to give a majestic sea vista.

In gazebos where Secret Service sharp­shooters watched, there were board games and books and the easel of daughter Pam Herbert, an art student at the University of Southern California. She also sprays old tennis balls black and, using a Civil War can­non from the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer back lot, gleefully fires harmless volleys among the surfers offshore.

Upstairs in the study where Nixon spent soul-searching hours, the new owner settled into an easy chair and sat staring at the sea. He is one of many who have made fortunes from scratch in Orange County; when Aller­gan was sold to the giant SmithKline Cor­poration in 1979, he became SmithKline’s largest stockholder. He did not appear to have nagging worries.

But, we learned, he has concerns, not un­like those that had haunted us as we roamed this bustling county.

“What do you like best about Orange County?” we asked.

He never looked away from the gleaming sea as he answered.

“The openness,” he said softly. “The or­ange trees. The feeling that there is room for everybody. The quiet. All the things we like best are disappearing.”