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John’s Believe It Or Not… September 21st

In 1826 – Col John By starts to build the Rideau Canal. In 1792 Monarchy abolished in France. In 1938 The Great New England Hurricane. In 1985 Clooney makes Facts of Life debut. In 1904 The great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph dies in Washington.

It’s Therapeutic Thursday! Did you know…

* 1826 – Col John By starts to build the Rideau Canal.

Lt.-Col. John By’s death in England in 1836 was an ignoble end to a life unfairly stripped of its due recognition. Four years earlier, By had completed work on the Rideau Canal, among North America’s most impressive feats of civil engineering. He had also founded and laid out a town — Bytown — that would become the nation’s capital. Yet instead of retiring with the knighthood he perhaps hoped for, By endured his final days under a cloud of impropriety shaped by unfounded accusations and political expediency.

Had he lived longer, By would have witnessed a further erosion of his legacy: Colonel’s Hill, where his house overlooked the canal, was renamed Major’s Hill Park for By’s replacement, Maj. Daniel Bolton. In 1855, Bytown was renamed Ottawa. In 1926, a small granite base for a statue of By was unveiled, but it would be 45 years before any statue appeared.

The 202-kilometer (126 miles) Rideau Canal was built between 1826 and 1832 in the tense aftermath of the War of 1812 as an alternate military supply route between Upper and Lower Canada, should American forces blockade the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Montreal. Its almost 50 locks (some now combined) raise watercraft 83 meters from the Ottawa River to Newboro, then lower them 50 meters to Lake Ontario and Kingston.

“By’s greatest contribution to the Canal,” wrote Mark Andrews in For King and Country, his 1998 biography of By, “and the reason for which he should be highly regarded, comes from his ability to mobilize, direct, and instill a desire to succeed in all those who were involved. Under his direction and guidance, the officers, contractors and workers overcame almost insurmountable obstacles in a wilderness environment and managed to complete the work in five short construction seasons.”

The task itself was extremely dangerous. An estimated 1,000 men died during the construction of the canal, most from disease, including about 500 of malaria. During the worst months of 1830, for example, from August through mid-September, almost 800 of the 1,300 men employed in the southern portion of the canal contracted malaria. Twenty-seven of them died, as did 13 women and 15 children.

Additionally, many workers died in blasting explosions or were crushed by falling rocks or trees. John MacTaggart, then clerk of works for the canal, wrote, “I have seen heads, arms, and legs, blown in all directions; and it is vain for overseers to warn them of their danger, for they will pay no attention.” A half-acre parcel of land in what is now downtown Ottawa became a cemetery for canal workers, as did other sites along its route.

Colonel John By supervising construction of the locks at Bytown. Painting by C.W. Jeffreys.
Colonel John By supervising construction of the locks at Bytown. Painting by C.W. Jeffreys. (Ottawa Citizen)

* 1792 Monarchy abolished in France.

In Revolutionary France, the Legislative Assembly votes to abolish the monarchy and establish the First Republic. The measure came one year after King Louis XVI reluctantly approved a new constitution that stripped him of much of his power.

Louis ascended to the French throne in 1774 and from the start was unsuited to deal with the severe financial problems that he inherited from his predecessors. In 1789, food shortages and economic crises led to the outbreak of the French Revolution. King Louis and his queen, Mary-Antoinette, were imprisoned in August 1792, and in September the monarchy was abolished. Soon after, evidence of Louis’ counterrevolutionary intrigues with foreign nations was discovered, and he was put on trial for treason. In January 1793, Louis was convicted and condemned to death by a narrow majority. On January 21, he walked steadfastly to the guillotine and was executed. Marie-Antoinette followed him to the guillotine nine months later.

1792 – French Revolution: National Convention – the absolute monarchy abolished.
1792 – French Revolution: National Convention – the absolute monarchy abolished. (History Bytez)

* 1938 The Great New England Hurricane.

Without warning, a powerful Category 3 hurricane slams into Long Island and southern New England, causing 600 deaths and devastating coastal cities and towns. Also called the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.

The officially unnamed hurricane was born out a tropical cyclone that developed in the eastern Atlantic on September 10, 1938, near the Cape Verde Islands. Six days later, the captain of a Brazilian freighter sighted the storm northeast of Puerto Rico and radioed a warning to the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service). It was expected that the storm would make landfall in south Florida, and hurricane-experienced coastal citizens stocked up on supplies and boarded up their homes. On September 19, however, the storm suddenly changed direction and began moving north, parallel to the eastern seaboard.

Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau, was sure that the hurricane was heading for the Northeast, but the chief forecaster overruled him. It had been well over a century since New England had been hit by a substantial hurricane, and few believed it could happen again. Hurricanes rarely persist after encountering the cold waters of the North Atlantic. However, this hurricane was moving north at an unusually rapid pace–more than 60 mph–and was following a track over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

With Europe on the brink of war over the worsening Sudetenland crisis, little media attention was given to the powerful hurricane at sea. There was no advanced meteorological technology, such as radar, radio buoys, or satellite imagery, to warn of the hurricane’s approach. By the time the U.S. Weather Bureau learned that the Category 3 storm was on a collision course with Long Island on the afternoon of September 21, it was too late for a warning.

Along the south shore of Long Island, the sky began to darken and the wind picked up. Fishermen and boaters were at sea, and summer residents enjoying the end of the season were in their beachfront homes. Around 2:30 p.m., the full force of the hurricane made landfall, unfortunately around high tide. Surges of ocean water and waves 40 feet tall swallowed up coastal homes. At Westhampton, which lay directly in the path of the storm, 150 beach homes were destroyed, about a third of which were pulled into the swelling ocean. Winds exceeded 100 mph. Inland, people were drowned in flooding, killed by uprooted trees and falling debris, and electrocuted by downed electrical lines.

At 4 p.m., the center of the hurricane crossed the Long Island Sound and reached Connecticut. Rivers swollen by a week of steady rain spilled over and washed away roadways. In New London, a short circuit in a flooded building started a fire that was fanned by the 100 mph winds into an inferno. Much of the business district was consumed.

The hurricane gained intensity as it passed into Rhode Island. Winds in excess of 120 mph caused a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet in Narragansett Bay, destroying coastal homes and entire fleets of boats at yacht clubs and marinas. The waters of the bay surged into Providence harbor around 5 p.m., rapidly submerging the downtown area of Rhode Island’s capital under more than 13 feet of water. Many people were swept away.

The hurricane then raced northward across Massachusetts, gaining speed again and causing great flooding. In Milton, south of Boston, the Blue Hill Observatory recorded one of the highest wind gusts in history, an astounding 186 mph. Boston was hit hard, and “Old Ironsides”–the historic ship U.S.S. Constitution–was torn from its moorings in Boston Navy Yard and suffered slight damage. Hundreds of other ships were not so lucky.

The hurricane lost intensity as it passed over northern New England, but by the time the storm reached Canada around 11 p.m. it was still powerful enough to cause widespread damage. The Great New England Hurricane finally dissipated over Canada that night.

All told, 700 people were killed by the hurricane, 600 of them in Long Island and southern New England. Some 700 people were injured. Nearly 9,000 homes and buildings were destroyed, and 15,000 damaged. Nearly 3,000 ships were sunk or wrecked. Power lines were downed across the region, causing widespread blackouts. Innumerable trees were felled, and 12 new inlets were created on Long Island. Railroads were destroyed and farms were obliterated. Total damages were $306 million, which equals $18 billion in today’s dollars.

Map: Path of 1938 hurricane.
(Weather Underground)

* 1985 Clooney makes Facts of Life debut.

On this day in 1985, a little-known actor named George Clooney makes his first appearance as a handyman on the popular TV sitcom The Facts of Life. Clooney appeared in 17 episodes of the show, which aired from 1979 to 1988 and chronicled the lives of a group of young women who meet at a fictional boarding school. Years later, he moved on to Hollywood superstardom in the hit TV medical drama ER and such films as The Perfect Storm, Ocean’s Eleven and Michael Clayton.

Clooney, who was born on May 6, 1961, in Lexington, Kentucky, is the son of the journalist and TV host Nick Clooney and the nephew of the well-known singer Rosemary Clooney. His early acting credits, in addition to The Facts of Life, included small roles on the popular sitcom Roseanne and the drama Sisters. Clooney also appeared in single episodes of such shows as The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote. Clooney first shot to fame as Dr. Doug Ross on the medical drama ER, which debuted in 1994.

While appearing on ER, Clooney headlined such movies as Batman & Robin (1997), in which he played the caped crusader himself; Out of Sight (1998), which co-starred Jennifer Lopez and marked the first time Clooney worked with the director Steven Soderbergh, his future frequent collaborator; and Three Kings (1999). After leaving the long-running medical drama, he went on to starring roles in The Perfect Storm (2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its two sequels, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007). Clooney made his directorial debut with 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about the game show host Chuck Barris, who claimed in his memoir that he also worked for the C.I.A.

Clooney won an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role in Syriana (2005), a complex thriller about the oil industry. He also received Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar nominations for Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), about the 1950s journalist Edward R. Murrow and his conflict with the anti-Communist U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy. Clooney earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in the title role of 2007’s legal thriller Michael Clayton.

Still picture from the show Facts of Life.
(Paste Magazine)

* 1904 The great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph dies in Washington.

On this day in 1904, the remarkable Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph dies on the Colville reservation in northern Washington at the age of 64. The whites had described him as superhuman, a military genius, an Indian Napoleon. But in truth, the Nez Perce Chief Him-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (“Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains”) was more of a diplomat than a warrior.

Chief Joseph-as non-Indians knew him-had been elected chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians when he was only 31. For six difficult years, the young leader struggled peacefully against the whites who coveted the Wallowa’s fertile land in northeastern Oregon. In 1877, General Howard of the U.S. Army warned that if the Wallowa and other bands of the Nez Perce did not abandon their land and move to the Lapwai Reservation within 30 days, his troops would attack. While some of the other Nez Perce chiefs argued they should resist, Chief Joseph convinced them to comply with the order rather than face war, and he led his people on a perilous voyage across the flood-filled Snake and Salmon River canyons to a campsite near the Lapwai Reservation. But acting without Chief Joseph’s knowledge, a band of 20 young hotheaded braves decided to take revenge on some of the more offensive white settlers in the region, sparking the Nez Perce War of 1877.

Chief Joseph was no warrior, and he opposed many of the subsequent actions of the Nez Perce war councils. Joseph’s younger brother, Olikut, was far more active in leading the Nez Perce into battle, and Olikut helped them successfully outsmart the U.S. Army on several occasions as the war raged over more than 1,600 miles of Washington, Idaho, and Montana territory. Nonetheless, military leaders and American newspapers persisted in believing that since Chief Joseph was the most prominent Nez Perce spokesman and diplomat, he must also be their principal military leader.

By chance, Chief Joseph was the only major leader to survive the war, and it fell to him to surrender the surviving Nez Perce forces to Colonel Nelson A. Miles at the Bear Paw battlefield in northern Montana in October 1877. “From where the sun now stands,” he promised, “I will fight no more forever.” Chief Joseph lived out the rest of his life in peace, a popular romantic symbol of the noble “red men” who many Americans admired now that they no longer posed any real threat.

Portrait of Chief Joseph

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Ottawa Citizen                                 

* This Day In History – What Happened Today              

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

11 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… September 21st”

  1. That hurricane was horrific, wow. 700 deaths 😦 On a lighter note, George Clooney was great on that show and then when he went on to ER he was such a heartthrob! Now he’s got a family and is a big movie star ~ an enchanted life for him!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it seems that George has lived a charmed life. Hurricanes seem to do the greatest damage when people aren’t prepared. These events make my complaints about our 6-month winter in Ontario seem ridiculous!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, I didn’t know about the 1938 hurricane. How horrific! The devastation from hurricanes this year has been
    so overwhelming that it’s almost incomprehensible. And, it seems there are more to come. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they are coming fast and furious – with little recovery time between. I felt bad when I heard that San Juan, Puerto Rico was hit hard. We sailed our last 2 cruises from that port – and stayed 4 days at their International Hotel/Resort there each time. I wonder what’s left of that place. Thanks, Gwen!


  3. Col John By was certainly vilified for no reason other than having workers blown up. The monarchy was abolished in France and I think Louis should have accepted the fact. The Great New England Hurricane took the coast by surprise. You have to wonder how that happened? George Clooney is a likable actor. The great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph is an example of the buck should stop here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, he was vilified because a disgruntled ex-employee falsely accused him of using canal funds to line his own pocket. He was cleared eventually, but the damage had been done. His town was re-named: Bytown to Ottawa.

      I’m no expert, but I don’t think that in 1938 the weather prognosticators had the technology at hand to accurately track that hurricane’s path – ie no satellite pictures, etc.

      I always thought George Clooney was a decent man. Thanks for your comments, John!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The hurricane picture is unfortunately very topical right now.
    I read a book on Chief Joseph when I was at college. It had quite an impact on me. I must dig it out. I think I still have it. I can’t remember too much about it. I was very much into anthropological books – Native American Indians, Zulus, Aborigines and South American Indians. I had a desire to be a hunter/gatherer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s why I included that hurricane story – they didn’t have the satellite pictures, etc. to track these storms in 1938 – so they could sneak up on you. It was the first time I heard of Chief Joseph. Thanks, Opher.


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