Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado's Deadliest Floods was released by 
The History Press on September 4, 2017. 

Tomorrow morning, September 14, 2017, I will be interviewed by Ryan Warner on "Colorado Matters," Colorado Public Radio. We will discuss the stories in the book, including the story of the Denver flood of 1864.

The show starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m., but I believe there are two interviews. I was told by the radio station that "To hear it live, people can stream us online at, and on station 90.1 for Greeley. The story and audio will be found online later in the day to access anywhere at anytime." 

I've also been asked where to buy "Colorado's Deadliest Floods. You can purchase the book online at Amazon; Barnes & Noble: History Press --click on the title to go to the page. The book is also available in many bookstores, including independent, local bookstores. You can Google the title. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Oregonian, Thomas Dryer, Henry Pittock, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood

 Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon. Public domain. Courtesy of Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. Released into public domain when submitted to FHWA with 2005 Nomination Application.

This is an odd sort of story that I first heard on a television anthology show. It is a story of adventure, exploration, volcanoes, climbers, daredevils, tall tales and great accomplishments. It is complicated, but fascinating at the same time. When I attempted to research the tale I discovered there was less and more to it than the writers of the show originally implied. I would love to hear from some native Oregonians who know more about this tale than I do! Nevertheless, it is a fun tale, a
tall tale about challenges and danger, and the insatiable desire for men to be the "first" to go where, in the unforgettable words of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, "no man has gone before!" Whether or not some of the men involved achieved their goals is up to speculation,but there is no doubt that they tried, and the attempt to achieve is part of the great beauty of the history of the American West.

So, I will begin by apologizing for my very long hiatus. I've been writing a history book, and as it turns out, the book required much more research than originally anticipated. It will be finished soon and I miss hearing from my fellow fans of the Wild West. Therefore, I will begin with a post I started before I disappeared, a story about two men who worked as journalists in the Old West--Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock, whose lives were intertwined through their career choices, their place of employment, and their hobby and love for mountain climbing. 

Mount Hood at Sunrise. U.S. Forest Service photo/public domain.

I feel a connection to these men. I also love the outdoors, hiking, exploring, and that feeling that I am the first human to see a stunning vista or hear a trickling creek. I also started my writing career as a journalist and received my first writing award from the Denver Womens Press Club when I was 19 years old. I know that feeling, that drive to compete. For this and many other reasons the story of Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock intrigues me. I am also intrigued that there are many versions of the story and that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in this tale--a common problem with stories about the American Old West. 

  Thomas J. DryerPublisher and Editor of the Oregonian, public domain.

The story begins in Portland, Oregon with a man named Thomas J. Dryer (January 8, 1808 – March 30, 1879). Dryer was a popular character in Portland. He founded The Oregonian, one of the oldest newspapers in the Old West. Dryer was a member of the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1857, so he was also a politician, as was common for newspaper publishers in the Old West. The most important aspect of his life for the purpose of this story, though, was the fact that he was an avid mountain climber and claimed to be the first to climb both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in a personal account he wrote and published in The Oregonian.

According to The Oregon Encyclopedia, Dryer established The Oregonian at the request of local residents. Dryer had a drier sense of humor (pun intended). In the Old West, newspapers were used to attract settlers and help establish towns by encouraging commerce, and as we learned in an earlier examination of The Rocky Mountain News, publishers like William N. Byers and Thomas J. Dryer of The Oregonian were well-known for their satirical approach to politicians and others who might disagree with them, an approach that included name-calling, insults, and sometimes bordered on harassment. This approach was both admired and encouraged. In fact, The Oregon Encyclopedia refers to it as "the Oregon style of journalism."

USFS Photograph taken before 18 May 1980 by Jim Nieland, US Forest Service, Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Public domain.

Dryer first published the Weekly Oregonian on December 4, 1850. On September 3, 1853 he published an account of a climbing expedition that he claimed took place on August 25, 1853. Dryer stated that the expedition consisted of "Messrs. John Wilson [an employee of The Oregonian]; Smith [identit unknown]; Drew [possibly Edwin Drew, a local Indian Agent, or Charles Drew, a militiaman]; and ourself," The men stocked enough rations for three days and established a base camp on Mount St. Helens, (the same mountain that exploded in May of 1980 destroying a large portion of Washington State's forestland. Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens are called "The Guardians of the Columbia River"). In his report Dryer says the mountain (volcano) is "sublimely grand, and impossible to describe." He states that they camped for the night at timberline, built a pyramid of rocks to mark their campsite then began their descent on August 27, 1853. 

View of Mt. Ranier from Ricksecker Point. Photo by George A. Grant courtesy of the US National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

Unfortunately, Dryer's accounts of his expeditions were questioned from the start, and to this day. According to an investigation by Harry M. Majors, which appeared in Northwest Discovery in August of 1980, Dryer's account of the ascent to the summit of Mount St. Helens contains numerous errors. When Dryer referred to Mount Rainer, Majors claims Dryer was actually looking at Mount Adams. Majors also points out that a later ascent made by another expedition group in 1860 and numerous other ascents to the summit failed to locate the "pyramid of loose stones on the highest spot of level earth and ashes" that Dryer claimed he and his party left on Mount St. Helens.

For these and other reasons Dryer's account is questioned by historians, but most historians do believe Dryer was the first explorer to reach the summit of Mount St. Helens. And yet, to a man like Dryer, his life as a politician, newspaper publisher and his reputation as the first man to climb to the summit of a famous American mountain was not enough. He needed more. He quickly planned another excursion, this time up the infamous Mt. Hood. It is his account of his climb to the summit of Mt. Hood that created a scandal and made his successor at The Oregonian, Henry Pittock, a famous explorer, as well.

Thomas J. Dryer. Photo by unknown photographer from Oregon Native Son, Vol. II, No. 7. Photo is in public domain. 

Mount Hood rises 11,239 feet (3426 meters) above sea level, its base is 92 feet wide. It is an active volcano, considered a high threat by the USGS 2005 Early Warning System assessment. It is believed to be the second most climbed mountain in the world, and it is a nightmare for mountain rescue crews. Thomas Dryer and Henry Pittock may have been among the first to attempt to climb Mount Hood, but they were not the last. It is estimated that 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Hood every year. Trying to create an estimate using various sources, I came up with an estimate that more than 170 people have died on Mount Hood since the 1800s, and although many sources site avalanches as the culprit in the Mount Hood death trap, most people die from falls or hypothermia. Sadly, many people have died from attempts to find a position where they could have a clear view from the summit. 

The undeniable fact is that Mount Hood is dangerous. It is a fact that was well-known to people even in the 1800s, and when Thomas J. Dryer rushed into his newspaper office shouting that he successfully climbed to the summit his claims naturally attracted a great deal of attention, as well as a bit of skepticism, and perhaps even a little jealousy from other local adventurers. 

Henry L. Pittock, The Oregon Encyclopedia. 

This is where Henry Lewis Pittock enters the story. In 1853, Henry Lewis Pittockfuture editor and publisher of The Oregonian newspaper, was born in London, but raised in Pittsburgh where he worked at his family's printing company. After completing his studies at the Western University of Pennsylvania's Prepatory School at 17 years old, Pittock left Pennsylvania and joined thousands of trappers, traders, and pioneers on the 2,200 mile hike of the historic Oregon Trail. Pittock was searching for a new life in Oregon--the same reason most people headed West in the 1800s, because they wanted a new life. Although Pittock was an explorer in search of an adventure he was also broke and used his education and experience in printing for financial support. He soon found employment as a typesetter for The Oregonian newspaper. 

In 1854,while Pittock was hard at work, his employer, Thomas Dryer, rushed into the newspaper office declaring he had just completed a remarkable feat. He claimed he had climbed Mount Hood, which would make him the first known human to make it to the summit. He told how he could see as far as California from the peak, and printed his story in his newspaper.
The Oregonian Building in 1900. This building was completed in 1892, and was demolished in 1950. The newspaper moved to another building in 1948, and both the old and new buildings were/are called The Oregonian Building. Public Domain.

Now, to understand how remarkable this claim would be, one has to understand Mount Hood. The mountain is 11,000 feet above sea level and known for its dangerous weather conditions, such as sudden, blinding blizzards and deadly glaciers. Nevertheless, over 10,000 people attempt the climb each year. 
Mount St. Helens. Photo taken by Harry Glicken, USGS, on May 17, 1980, one day before the volcano exploded. Public Domain. 

Pittock could not help but feel a twinge of jealousy and frustration. According to Mysteries at the Castle, Pittock not only doubted his employer's claim that he climbed to the summit of Mount Hood, he also decided he would take the challenge himself, document the event, and prove his employer wrong. It took Pittock a few years to save his money and gather his friends for the ascent, but in 1857, 22 year old Henry Pittock left the newspaper office and headed for Mount Hood. 

Mount Hood Oregon. Painting by artist William Keith, circa 1881.

On August 6, 1857. Pittock and four of his friends established a base camp on the south side of Mount Hood and began their ascent. They passed Crater Rock, climbed the Hogsback snow ridge, then completed their journey to the summit. 

The men were beyond thrilled when they realized they had reached the summit. They were young, bold, adventurous, and knew in their hearts that they had just achieved what many men in Oregon could only dream of accomplishing. They had also made detailed observations every tortuous step of their climb. By carefully surveying their surroundings and comparing these details to the account made by Dryer, the men quickly realized that Dryer had actually stopped his climb at least 350 feet below the summit, most likely because he and the rest of his expedition members had chosen the eastern route and became confused. 

Using Pittock's detailed records, historians have concluded that Henry Pittock and his friends were the first men to reach the summit of Mount Hood. They carved their names in a rock to make certain no one would question their claim and left a flag waving in the wind at the summit before returning to their base camp then to Portland. 

One of Pittock's friends and a fellow expedition member, James G. Deardorff, wrote about the achievement in the Democratic Standard, The Oregonian's competition. The Oregonian's Thomas Dryer responded with his usual disdain in an editorial, claiming the "young men" were simply bragging, trying to make themselves appear tough and strong to an older, more experienced generation of climbers. Pittock waited seven years to tell his own story so he would not insult his employer and lose his job.  By the time he told his story, Pittock had climbed Mount Hood several times. 

Henry Pittock, March 1, 1835 – January 28, 1919. Photo circa December, 1900. Public Domain.
Dryer may have been bold and adventurous, but as it turned out he was not a particularly skilled businessman. In 1860 he was forced to turn over The Oregonian to Henry Pittock in exchange for unpaid wages and on February 4, 1861, Henry Pittock, editor and publisher, introduced his six-day a week Morning Oregonian. Pittock's mansion is now on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Pittock Mansion. This photographic work of art by Geremia is one of few that I found that captured the mansion's great beauty. The photograph is in public domain. The Pittock Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reference number 73001582.

  • Dryer, Thomas J. "First Ascent of Mount St. Helens, Washington. August 26, 1853." Excerpt from The Columbian, originally posted on September 24, 1853. The article originally appeared in The Oregonian on September 3, 1853. Accessed 1/7/2016 on USGS website: Volcanoes/Volcanoes and History/Cascade Range Volcanoes.
  • "First Ascent of Mount Hood, Effects of a High Elevation Up the Human System.", Vol.VII, p.321, 1854. Littell's Living Age, 1854,
  • Stein, Harry H. "Henry Lewis Pittock". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed March 19, 2016.
  • "Mysteries at the Castle." Travel Channel. First aired 3/10/2016.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...