Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.
Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place. But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.
Have you ever heard of Leo Frank? His case, a lesser known piece of American history, had tremendous long-lasting impact on the nation -- leading to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and reviving the Ku Klux Klan. There’s also a Washington, D.C. connection.
In 1913, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man originally from New York, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed. After a month-long trial, with prejudice heavy in the air, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Due to the judge’s fear of mob violence, Frank and his family were not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
Shortly before midnight on Friday, July 2, 1915, police responded to the U.S. Capitol where an explosion had just rocked the Senate wing. Fortunately they found no fatalities – a byproduct of the fact that Congress was not in session and the building was lightly staffed at night. But, there was plenty of carnage and, obviously, great concern about security.
The next evening, Washingtonians opened their Evening Star newspaper to find a peculiar letter under the headline, “Letter Received by the Star Thought to Have Bearing on the Explosion.” The diatribe began, “Unusual times and circumstances call for unusual means.”
“Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notices given by the imperial German government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies are liable to destruction in these waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
The same warning was printed in papers all across the United States – a harbinger of things to come as World War I raged in Europe.
“Scan all the annals of Washington base ball as you will – go back to the very inception of the national game – there will be found no day so altogether glorious no paean of victory changed by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday in honor of the opening of the season on 1910.” So read the Washington Post the morning after the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 season-opening victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.
The account may have been a bit rhetorical, but D.C. had reason to be excited, beyond the normal good cheer of baseball’s opening day and the happy result of the game. On April 14, 1910, the city had made history by inaugurating a now-famous tradition: the Presidential first pitch.
Tonight our favorite documentary series, American Experience premieres a film about Thomas Edison, which you can watch on WETA TV26 and WETA HD at 9pm. Of course Edison is most known for his many inventions at his New Jersey lab. But, he also has a very unique connection to Washington.
The year was 1915. World War I was raging in Europe and Americans were uneasy at the prospect that their country would soon be brought into the conflict. As a man with a history of creative ideas, it's no surprise Edison had some thoughts on the situation and he was not shy about sharing them:
"The Government should maintain a great research laboratory, jointly under military and naval and civilian control. In this could be developed the continually increasing possibilities of great guns, the minutiae of new explosives, all the technique of military and naval progression, without any vast expense. When the time came, if it ever did, we could take advantage of the knowledge gained through this research work and quickly manufacture in large quantities the very latest and most efficient instruments of warfare."
It took a few years, but he finally got his wish and it left a lasting impact here in Washington.
If a local architect and a couple of U.S. Senators had been able to get their way, instead of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington might have honored the 16th President with a grandiose stadium patterned after the Roman Colosseum.
It was January 1911, and Congress was about to pass legislation to create the Lincoln Memorial Commission, to advise on the final plan for a monument to the slain president along the banks of the Potomac. But architect Ward Brown, secretary of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, dreamed up an exotic alternative to the shrine and statue that most others had envisioned. The Washington Post, in a lengthy article entitled "Planning a Gigantic Stadium in Washington to Dim the Glory of Rome's Noble Colosseum" described Brown's plan for a marble and concrete elliptical stadium 650 feet long and 550 feet wide, and standing 10 to 12 stories in height--roughly the size of Roman Colosseum, except that the latter was slightly taller. The proposed structure featured other classical affectations as well, including two great triumphal arches, 40 feet wide and 85 feet high, which would serve as the main entrances. Six smaller portals would have surrounded them. The stadium would have seated 87,000, with room for another 15,000 standing spectators.
Spending a Sunday afternoon at the ol’ ballpark is pretty commonplace nowadays. But 100 years ago? Notsomuch.
In the early 1900s, debate raged about whether it was appropriate – or, for that matter, legal – for ballclubs to suit up on Sundays. Blue laws in many states put severe restrictions on what could and could not be done/consumed/enjoyed/observed on the traditional day of rest.
In the District, regulations stipulated that “no public exhibition of any entertainment, play, opera, circus, animals, gymnastics, game, dance or dances, or vaudeville performance of any kind, except the exhibition of moving or other pictures, vocal or instrumental concerts, artist or artists, not in character costume, lectures, and speeches” could take place on Sunday.