This Day in History
Hurricane Katrina makes landfall near New Orleans, Louisiana, as a Category 4 hurricane on this day in 2005. Despite being only the third most powerful storm of the 2005 hurricane season, Katrina was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. After briefly coming ashore in southern Florida on August 25 as a Category 1 hurricane, Katrina gained strength before slamming into the Gulf Coast on August 29. In addition to bringing devastation to the New Orleans area, the hurricane caused damage along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, as well as other parts of Louisiana.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city on August 28, when Katrina briefly achieved Category 5 status and the National Weather Service predicted “devastating” damage to the area. But an estimated 150,000 people, who either did not want to or did not have the resources to leave, ignored the order and stayed behind. The storm brought sustained winds of 145 miles per hour, which cut power lines and destroyed homes, even turning cars into projectile missiles. Katrina caused record storm surges all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The surges overwhelmed the levees that protected New Orleans, located at six feet below sea level, from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Soon, 80 percent of the city was flooded up to the rooftops of many homes and small buildings.
Tens of thousands of people sought shelter in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Louisiana Superdome. The situation in both places quickly deteriorated, as food and water ran low and conditions became unsanitary. Frustration mounted as it took up to two days for a full-scale relief effort to begin. In the meantime, the stranded residents suffered from heat, hunger, and a lack of medical care. Reports of looting, rape, and even murder began to surface. As news networks broadcast scenes from the devastated city to the world, it became obvious that a vast majority of the victims were African-American and poor, leading to difficult questions among the public about the state of racial equality in the United States. The federal government and President George W. Bush were roundly criticized for what was perceived as their slow response to the disaster. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, resigned amid the ensuing controversy.
Finally, on September 1, the tens of thousands of people staying in the damaged Superdome and Convention Center begin to be moved to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, and another mandatory evacuation order was issued for the city. The next day, military convoys arrived with supplies and the National Guard was brought in to bring a halt to lawlessness. Efforts began to collect and identify corpses. On September 6, eight days after the hurricane, the Army Corps of Engineers finally completed temporary repairs to the three major holes in New Orleans’ levee system and were able to begin pumping water out of the city.
In all, it is believed that the hurricane caused more than 1,300 deaths and up to $150 billion in damages to both private property and public infrastructure. It is estimated that only about $40 billion of that number will be covered by insurance. One million people were displaced by the disaster, a phenomenon unseen in the United States since the Great Depression. Four hundred thousand people lost their jobs as a result of the disaster. Offers of international aid poured in from around the world, even from poor countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Private donations from U.S. citizens alone approached $600 million.
The storm also set off 36 tornadoes in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, resulting in one death.
President Bush declared September 16 a national day of remembrance for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
After four years of separation, Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, and his wife, Princess Diana, formally divorce.
On July 29, 1981, nearly one billion television viewers in 74 countries tuned in to witness the marriage of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, to Lady Diana Spencer, a young English schoolteacher. Married in a grand ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the presence of 2,650 guests, the couple’s romance was, for the moment, the envy of the world. Their first child, Prince William, was born in 1982, and their second, Prince Harry, in 1984.
Before long, however, the fairy tale couple grew apart, an experience that was particularly painful under the ubiquitous eyes of the world’s tabloid media. Diana and Charles announced a separation in 1992, though they continued to carry out their royal duties. In August 1996, two months after Queen Elizabeth II urged the couple to divorce, the prince and princess reached a final agreement. In exchange for a generous settlement, and the right to retain her apartments at Kensington Palace and her title of “Princess of Wales,” Diana agreed to relinquish the title of “Her Royal Highness” and any future claims to the British throne.
In the year following the divorce, the popular princess seemed well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming “a queen in people’s hearts,” but on August 31, 1997, she was killed with her companion Dodi Fayed in a car accident in Paris. An investigation conducted by the French police concluded that the driver, who also died in the crash, was heavily intoxicated and caused the accident while trying to escape the paparazzi photographers who consistently tailed Diana during any public outing.
Prince Charles married his longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, on April 9, 2005.
The most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history occurs on Krakatau (also called Krakatoa), a small, uninhabited volcanic island located west of Sumatra in Indonesia, on this day in 1883. Heard 3,000 miles away, the explosions threw five cubic miles of earth 50 miles into the air, created 120-foot tsunamis and killed 36,000 people.
Krakatau exhibited its first stirrings in more than 200 years on May 20, 1883. A German warship passing by reported a seven-mile high cloud of ash and dust over Krakatau. For the next two months, similar explosions would be witnessed by commercial liners and natives on nearby Java and Sumatra. With little to no idea of the impending catastrophe, the local inhabitants greeted the volcanic activity with festive excitement.
On August 26 and August 27, excitement turned to horror as Krakatau literally blew itself apart, setting off a chain of natural disasters that would be felt around the world for years to come. An enormous blast on the afternoon of August 26 destroyed the northern two-thirds of the island; as it plunged into the Sunda Strait, between the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, the gushing mountain generated a series of pyroclastic flows (fast-moving fluid bodies of molten gas, ash and rock) and monstrous tsunamis that swept over nearby coastlines. Four more eruptions beginning at 5:30 a.m. the following day proved cataclysmic. The explosions could be heard as far as 3,000 miles away, and ash was propelled to a height of 50 miles. Fine dust from the explosion drifted around the earth, causing spectacular sunsets and forming an atmospheric veil that lowered temperatures worldwide by several degrees.
Of the estimated 36,000 deaths resulting from the eruption, at least 31,000 were caused by the tsunamis created when much of the island fell into the water. The greatest of these waves measured 120 feet high, and washed over nearby islands, stripping away vegetation and carrying people out to sea. Another 4,500 people were scorched to death from the pyroclastic flows that rolled over the sea, stretching as far as 40 miles, according to some sources.
In addition to Krakatau, which is still active, Indonesia has another 130 active volcanoes, the most of any country in the world.
On this day in 1939, the first televised Major League baseball game is broadcast on station W2XBS, the station that was to become WNBC-TV. Announcer Red Barber called the game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York.
At the time, television was still in its infancy. Regular programming did not yet exist, and very few people owned television sets–there were only about 400 in the New York area. Not until 1946 did regular network broadcasting catch on in the United States, and only in the mid-1950s did television sets become more common in the American household.
In 1939, the World’s Fair–which was being held in New York–became the catalyst for the historic broadcast. The television was one of fair’s prize exhibits, and organizers believed that the Dodgers-Reds doubleheader on August 26 was the perfect event to showcase America’s grasp on the new technology.
By today’s standards, the video coverage was somewhat crude. There were only two stationary camera angles: The first was placed down the third base line to pick up infield throws to first, and the second was placed high above home plate to get an extensive view of the field. It was also difficult to capture fast-moving plays: Swinging bats looked like paper fans, and the ball was all but invisible during pitches and hits.
Nevertheless, the experiment was a success, driving interest in the development of television technology, particularly for sporting events. Though baseball owners were initially concerned that televising baseball would sap actual attendance, they soon warmed to the idea, and the possibilities for revenue generation that came with increased exposure of the game, including the sale of rights to air certain teams or games and television advertising.
Today, televised sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, with technology that gives viewers an astounding amount of visual and audio detail. Cameras are now so precise that they can capture the way a ball changes shape when struck by a bat, and athletes are wired to pick up field-level and sideline conversation.
On this day in 1835, the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appears in the New York Sun newspaper.
Known collectively as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The byline was Dr. Andrew Grant, described as a colleague of Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer of the day. Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope. As Grant described it, Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid description of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.
The New York Sun, founded in 1833, was one of the new “penny press” papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price and a more narrative style of journalism. From the day the first moon hoax article was released, sales of the paper shot up considerably. It was exciting stuff, and readers lapped it up. The only problem was that none of it was true. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Intended as satire, they were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.
Readers were completely taken in by the story, however, and failed to recognize it as satire. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.
On September 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles had been a hoax. People were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer. The Sun continued operation until 1950, when it merged with the New York World-Telegram. The merger folded in 1967. A new New York Sun newspaper was founded in 2002, but it has no relation to the original.
After centuries of dormancy, Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy, devastating the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands. The cities, buried under a thick layer of volcanic material and mud, were never rebuilt and largely forgotten in the course of history. In the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, providing an unprecedented archaeological record of the everyday life of an ancient civilization, startlingly preserved in sudden death.
The ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum thrived near the base of Mount Vesuvius at the Bay of Naples. In the time of the early Roman Empire, 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, including merchants, manufacturers, and farmers who exploited the rich soil of the region with numerous vineyards and orchards. None suspected that the black fertile earth was the legacy of earlier eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was a city of 5,000 and a favorite summer destination for rich Romans. Named for the mythic hero Hercules, Herculaneum housed opulent villas and grand Roman baths. Gambling artifacts found in Herculaneum and a brothel unearthed in Pompeii attest to the decadent nature of the cities. There were smaller resort communities in the area as well, such as the quiet little town of Stabiae.
At noon on August 24, 79 A.D., this pleasure and prosperity came to an end when the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded, propelling a 10-mile mushroom cloud of ash and pumice into the stratosphere. For the next 12 hours, volcanic ash and a hail of pumice stones up to 3 inches in diameter showered Pompeii, forcing the city’s occupants to flee in terror. Some 2,000 people stayed in Pompeii, holed up in cellars or stone structures, hoping to wait out the eruption.
A westerly wind protected Herculaneum from the initial stage of the eruption, but then a giant cloud of hot ash and gas surged down the western flank of Vesuvius, engulfing the city and burning or asphyxiating all who remained. This lethal cloud was followed by a flood of volcanic mud and rock, burying the city.
The people who remained in Pompeii were killed on the morning of August 25 when a cloud of toxic gas poured into the city, suffocating all that remained. A flow of rock and ash followed, collapsing roofs and walls and burying the dead.
Much of what we know about the eruption comes from an account by Pliny the Younger, who was staying west along the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius exploded. In two letters to the historian Tacitus, he told of how “people covered their heads with pillows, the only defense against a shower of stones,” and of how “a dark and horrible cloud charged with combustible matter suddenly broke and set forth. Some bewailed their own fate. Others prayed to die.” Pliny, only 17 at the time, escaped the catastrophe and later became a noted Roman writer and administrator. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was less lucky. Pliny the Elder, a celebrated naturalist, at the time of the eruption was the commander of the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples. After Vesuvius exploded, he took his boats across the bay to Stabiae, to investigate the eruption and reassure terrified citizens. After going ashore, he was overcome by toxic gas and died.
According to Pliny the Younger’s account, the eruption lasted 18 hours. Pompeii was buried under 14 to 17 feet of ash and pumice, and the nearby seacoast was drastically changed. Herculaneum was buried under more than 60 feet of mud and volcanic material. Some residents of Pompeii later returned to dig out their destroyed homes and salvage their valuables, but many treasures were left and then forgotten.
In the 18th century, a well digger unearthed a marble statue on the site of Herculaneum. The local government excavated some other valuable art objects, but the project was abandoned. In 1748, a farmer found traces of Pompeii beneath his vineyard. Since then, excavations have gone on nearly without interruption until the present. In 1927, the Italian government resumed the excavation of Herculaneum, retrieving numerous art treasures, including bronze and marble statues and paintings.
The remains of 2,000 men, women, and children were found at Pompeii. After perishing from asphyxiation, their bodies were covered with ash that hardened and preserved the outline of their bodies. Later, their bodies decomposed to skeletal remains, leaving a kind of plaster mold behind. Archaeologists who found these molds filled the hollows with plaster, revealing in grim detail the death pose of the victims of Vesuvius. The rest of the city is likewise frozen in time, and ordinary objects that tell the story of everyday life in Pompeii are as valuable to archaeologists as the great unearthed statues and frescoes. It was not until 1982 that the first human remains were found at Herculaneum, and these hundreds of skeletons bear ghastly burn marks that testifies to horrifying deaths.
Today, Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. Its last eruption was in 1944 and its last major eruption was in 1631. Another eruption is expected in the near future, would could be devastating for the 700,000 people who live in the “death zones” around Vesuvius.
On this day in 1902, pioneering cookbook author Fannie Farmer, who changed the way Americans prepare food by advocating the use of standardized measurements in recipes, opens Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery in Boston. In addition to teaching women about cooking, Farmer later educated medical professionals about the importance of proper nutrition for the sick.
Farmer was born March 23, 1857, and raised near Boston, Massachusetts. Her family believed in education for women and Farmer attended Medford High School; however, as a teenager she suffered a paralytic stroke that turned her into a homebound invalid for a period of years. As a result, she was unable to complete high school or attend college and her illness left her with a permanent limp. When she was in her early 30s, Farmer attended the Boston Cooking School. Founded in 1879, the school promoted a scientific approach to food preparation and trained women to become cooking teachers at a time when their employment opportunities were limited. Farmer graduated from the program in 1889 and in 1891 became the school’s principal. In 1896, she published her first cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which included a wide range of straightforward recipes along with information on cooking and sanitation techniques, household management and nutrition. Farmer’s book became a bestseller and revolutionized American cooking through its use of precise measurements, a novel culinary concept at the time.
In 1902, Farmer left the Boston Cooking School and founded Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. In addition to running her school, she traveled to speaking engagements around the U.S. and continued to write cookbooks. In 1904, she published Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, which provided food recommendations for specific diseases, nutritional information for children and information about the digestive system, among other topics. Farmer’s expertise in the areas of nutrition and illness led her to lecture at Harvard Medical School.
Farmer died January 15, 1915, at age 57. After Farmer’s death, Alice Bradley, who taught at Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, took over the business and ran it until the mid-1940s. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is still in print today.
On this day in 1950, officials of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) accept Althea Gibson into their annual championship at Forest Hills, New York, making her the first African-American player to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition.
Growing up in Harlem, the young Gibson was a natural athlete. She started playing tennis at the age of 14 and the very next year won her first tournament, the New York State girls’ championship, sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), which was organized in 1916 by black players as an alternative to the exclusively white USLTA. After prominent doctors and tennis enthusiasts Hubert Eaton and R. Walter Johnson took Gibson under their wing, she won her first of what would be 10 straight ATA championships in 1947.
In 1949, Gibson attempted to gain entry into the USLTA’s National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, the precursor of the U.S. Open. When the USLTA failed to invite her to any qualifying tournaments, Alice Marble–a four-time winner at Forest Hills–wrote a letter on Gibson’s behalf to the editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine. Marble criticized the “bigotry” of her fellow USLTA members, suggesting that if Gibson posed a challenge to current tour players, “it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” Gibson was subsequently invited to participate in a New Jersey qualifying event, where she earned a berth at Forest Hills.
On August 28, 1950, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 in her first USLTA tournament match. She lost a tight match in the second round to Louise Brough, three-time defending Wimbledon champion. Gibson struggled over her first several years on tour but finally won her first major victory in 1956, at the French Open in Paris. She came into her own the following year, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at the relatively advanced age of 30.
Gibson repeated at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the next year but soon decided to retire from the amateur ranks and go pro. At the time, the pro tennis league was poorly developed, and Gibson at one point went on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis during halftime of their basketball games. In the early 1960s, Gibson became the first black player to compete on the women’s golf tour, though she never won a tournament. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.
Though she once brushed off comparisons to Jackie Robinson, the trailblazing black baseball player, Gibson has been credited with paving the way for African-American tennis champions such as Arthur Ashe and, more recently, Venus and Serena Williams. After a long illness, she died in 2003 at the age of 76.
The modern United States receives its crowning star when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs a proclamation admitting Hawaii into the Union as the 50th state. The president also issued an order for an American flag featuring 50 stars arranged in staggered rows: five six-star rows and four five-star rows. The new flag became official July 4, 1960.
The first known settlers of the Hawaiian Islands were Polynesian voyagers who arrived sometime in the eighth century. In the early 18th century, American traders came to Hawaii to exploit the islands’ sandalwood, which was much valued in China at the time. In the 1830s, the sugar industry was introduced to Hawaii and by the mid 19th century had become well established. American missionaries and planters brought about great changes in Hawaiian political, cultural, economic, and religious life. In 1840, a constitutional monarchy was established, stripping the Hawaiian monarch of much of his authority.
In 1893, a group of American expatriates and sugar planters supported by a division of U.S. Marines deposed Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii. One year later, the Republic of Hawaii was established as a U.S. protectorate with Hawaiian-born Sanford B. Dole as president. Many in Congress opposed the formal annexation of Hawaii, and it was not until 1898, following the use of the naval base at Pearl Harbor during the Spanish-American War, that Hawaii’s strategic importance became evident and formal annexation was approved. Two years later, Hawaii was organized into a formal U.S. territory. During World War II, Hawaii became firmly ensconced in the American national identity following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
In March 1959, the U.S. government approved statehood for Hawaii, and in June the Hawaiian people voted by a wide majority to accept admittance into the United States. Two months later, Hawaii officially became the 50th state.
On this day in 1911, a dispatcher in the New York Times office sends the first telegram around the world via commercial service. Exactly 66 years later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sends a different kind of message–a phonograph record containing information about Earth for extraterrestrial beings–shooting into space aboard the unmanned spacecraft Voyager II.
The Times decided to send its 1911 telegram in order to determine how fast a commercial message could be sent around the world by telegraph cable. The message, reading simply “This message sent around the world,” left the dispatch room on the 17th floor of the Times building in New York at 7 p.m. on August 20. After it traveled more than 28,000 miles, being relayed by 16 different operators, through San Francisco, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Bombay, Malta, Lisbon and the Azores–among other locations–the reply was received by the same operator 16.5 minutes later. It was the fastest time achieved by a commercial cablegram since the opening of the Pacific cable in 1900 by the Commercial Cable Company.
On August 20, 1977, a NASA rocket launched Voyager II, an unmanned 1,820-pound spacecraft, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the first of two such crafts to be launched that year on a “Grand Tour” of the outer planets, organized to coincide with a rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Aboard Voyager II was a 12-inch copper phonograph record called “Sounds of Earth.” Intended as a kind of introductory time capsule, the record included greetings in 60 languages and scientific information about Earth and the human race, along with classical, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll music, nature sounds like thunder and surf, and recorded messages from President Jimmy Carter and other world leaders.
The brainchild of astronomer Carl Sagan, the record was sent with Voyager II and its twin craft, Voyager I–launched just two weeks later–in the faint hope that it might one day be discovered by extraterrestrial creatures. The record was sealed in an aluminum jacket that would keep it intact for 1 billion years, along with instructions on how to play the record, with a cartridge and needle provided.
More importantly, the two Voyager crafts were designed to explore the outer solar system and send information and photographs of the distant planets to Earth. Over the next 12 years, the mission proved a smashing success. After both crafts flew by Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager I went flying off towards the solar system’s edge while Voyager II visited Uranus, Neptune and finally Pluto in 1990 before sailing off to join its twin in the outer solar system.
Thanks to the Voyager program, NASA scientists gained a wealth of information about the outer planets, including close-up photographs of Saturn’s seven rings; evidence of active geysers and volcanoes exploding on some of the four planets’ 22 moons; winds of more than 1,500 mph on Neptune; and measurements of the magnetic fields on Uranus and Neptune. The two crafts are expected to continue sending data until 2020, or until their plutonium-based power sources run out. After that, they will continue to sail on through the galaxy for millions of years to come, barring some unexpected collision.
On this day in 1909, the first race is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, now the home of the world’s most famous motor racing competition, the Indianapolis 500.
Built on 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, the speedway was started by local businessmen as a testing facility for Indiana’s growing automobile industry. The idea was that occasional races at the track would pit cars from different manufacturers against each other. After seeing what these cars could do, spectators would presumably head down to the showroom of their choice to get a closer look.
The rectangular two-and-a-half-mile track linked four turns, each exactly 440 yards from start to finish, by two long and two short straight sections. In that first five-mile race on August 19, 1909, 12,000 spectators watched Austrian engineer Louis Schwitzer win with an average speed of 57.4 miles per hour. The track’s surface of crushed rock and tar proved a disaster, breaking up in a number of places and causing the deaths of two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators.
The surface was soon replaced with 3.2 million paving bricks, laid in a bed of sand and fixed with mortar. Dubbed “The Brickyard,” the speedway reopened in December 1909. In 1911, low attendance led the track’s owners to make a crucial decision: Instead of shorter races, they resolved to focus on a single, longer event each year, for a much larger prize. That May 30 marked the debut of the Indy 500–a grueling 500-mile race that was an immediate hit with audiences and drew press attention from all over the country. Driver Ray Haroun won the purse of $14,250, with an average speed of 74.59 mph and a total time of 6 hours and 42 minutes.
Since 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been held every year, with the exception of 1917-18 and 1942-45, when the United States was involved in the two world wars. With an average crowd of 400,000, the Indy 500 is the best-attended event in U.S. sports. In 1936, asphalt was used for the first time to cover the rougher parts of the track, and by 1941 most of the track was paved. The last of the speedway’s original bricks were covered in 1961, except for a three-foot line of bricks left exposed at the start-finish line as a nostalgic reminder of the track’s history.
On this day in 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is placed under house arrest during a coup by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.
Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system. Combining perestroika (“restructuring”) of the economy–including a greater emphasis on free-market policies–and glasnost (“openness”) in diplomacy, he greatly improved Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States. Meanwhile, though, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics, including conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials who thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power. On the other side were even more radical reformers–particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia–who complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.
The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.
Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a “new reign of terror.” The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.
Gorbachev was released and flown to Moscow, but his regime had been dealt a deadly blow. Over the next few months, he dissolved the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic states, and proposed a looser, more economics-based federation among the remaining republics. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned. Yeltsin capitalized on his defeat of the coup, emerging from the rubble of the former Soviet Union as the most powerful figure in Moscow and the leader of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
On this day in 1969, the grooviest event in music history–the Woodstock Music Festival–draws to a close after three days of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll in upstate New York.
Conceived as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was a product of a partnership between John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang. Their idea was to make enough money from the event to build a recording studio near the arty New York town of Woodstock. When they couldn’t find an appropriate venue in the town itself, the promoters decided to hold the festival on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York–some 50 miles from Woodstock–owned by Max Yasgur.
By the time the weekend of the festival arrived, the group had sold a total of 186,000 tickets and expected no more than 200,000 people to show up. By Friday night, however, thousands of eager early arrivals were pushing against the entrance gates. Fearing they could not control the crowds, the promoters made the decision to open the concert to everyone, free of charge. Close to half a million people attended Woodstock, jamming the roads around Bethel with eight miles of traffic.
Soaked by rain and wallowing in the muddy mess of Yasgur’s fields, young fans best described as “hippies” euphorically took in the performances of acts like Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Who performed in the early morning hours of August 17, with Roger Daltrey belting out “See Me, Feel Me,” from the now-classic album Tommy just as the sun began to rise. The most memorable moment of the concert for many fans was the closing performance by Jimi Hendrix, who gave a rambling, rocking solo guitar performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
With not enough bathroom facilities and first-aid tents to accommodate such a huge crowd, many described the atmosphere at the festival as chaotic. There were surprisingly few episodes of violence, though one teenager was accidentally run over and killed by a tractor and another died from a drug overdose. A number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War, a sentiment that was enthusiastically shared by the vast majority of the audience. Later, the term “Woodstock Nation” would be used as a general term to describe the youth counterculture of the 1960s.
A 25th anniversary celebration of Woodstock took place in 1994 in Saugerties, New York. Known as Woodstock II, the concert featured Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash as well as newer acts such as Nine Inch Nails and Green Day. Held over another rainy, muddy weekend, the event drew an estimated 300,000 people.
While salmon fishing near the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory on this day in 1896, George Carmack reportedly spots nuggets of gold in a creek bed. His lucky discovery sparks the last great gold rush in the American West.
Hoping to cash in on reported gold strikes in Alaska, Carmack had traveled there from California in 1881. After running into a dead end, he headed north into the isolated Yukon Territory, just across the Canadian border. In 1896, another prospector, Robert Henderson, told Carmack of finding gold in a tributary of the Klondike River. Carmack headed to the region with two Native American companions, known as Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. On August 16, while camping near Rabbit Creek, Carmack reportedly spotted a nugget of gold jutting out from the creek bank. His two companions later agreed that Skookum Jim–Carmack’s brother-in-law–actually made the discovery.
Regardless of who spotted the gold first, the three men soon found that the rock near the creek bed was thick with gold deposits. They staked their claim the following day. News of the gold strike spread fast across Canada and the United States, and over the next two years, as many as 50,000 would-be miners arrived in the region. Rabbit Creek was renamed Bonanza, and even more gold was discovered in another Klondike tributary, dubbed Eldorado.
“Klondike Fever” reached its height in the United States in mid-July 1897 when two steamships arrived from the Yukon in San Francisco and Seattle, bringing a total of more than two tons of gold. Thousands of eager young men bought elaborate “Yukon outfits” (kits assembled by clever marketers containing food, clothing, tools and other necessary equipment) and set out on their way north. Few of these would find what they were looking for, as most of the land in the region had already been claimed. One of the unsuccessful gold-seekers was 21-year-old Jack London, whose short stories based on his Klondike experience became his first book, The Son of the Wolf (1900).
For his part, Carmack became rich off his discovery, leaving the Yukon with $1 million worth of gold. Many individual gold miners in the Klondike eventually sold their stakes to mining companies, who had the resources and machinery to access more gold. Large-scale gold mining in the Yukon Territory didn’t end until 1966, and by that time the region had yielded some $250 million in gold. Today, some 200 small gold mines still operate in the region.