John’s Believe It Or Not… May 16th

* 1806 – Philemon Wright starts his first timber raft down the Ottawa River. * 1944 – First of Over 180 Thousand Hungarian Jews reach Auschwitz * 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising ends * 2014 Pioneering TV journalist Barbara Walters signs off * 1964 Mary Wells gives Motown Records its first #1 hit with “My Guy”

Mary Wells

It’s Hump Day Wednesday! Did You Know…

* 1806 – Philemon Wright starts his first timber raft down the Ottawa River.

Quebec and Canada’s forest industry began as a solution to the supply problems that started to plague Great Britain in 1802. Because of the hostilities that pitted France against England, British shipbuilding yards were short of wood to repair the ships of the British fleet. And since Britain’s power was directly related to its dominion of the seas, the British navy turned to Canada for a solution. In 1804, to encourage imports of Canadian timber, Great Britain introduced its first tariff on wood imported from the Scandinavian countries, from Prussia, and from Russia. This was the beginning of Colonial Preference. Three objectives were sought by the adoption of this tax, namely the increase of the price of wood imported from the countries located on the Baltic Sea; a change in the trading practices of the British merchants; and the making of Canadian timber more competitive on the British market. This first tariff gave birth to Canada’s forest economy. The Continental blockade ordered by Napoleon in 1807 prohibited European countries from trading with Great Britain. The result was an accelerated growth of the timber trade, fostered by the introduction of new tariffs, and Canadian timber flooded the British market. In 1812, when the blockade fell, the Canadian timber trade was firmly established. Britain’s protectionist tariff policies remained in effect until the early 1840s, which contributed to the continued growth of the lumber trade, in Canada, in Quebec, and in the Outaouais.

It’s in this context that Philemon Wright (image) and his men assembled the first great square timber raft that was scheduled to leave from the mouth of the Gatineau River on June 11th, 1806. Wright’s decision was motivated by financial circumstances. When he settled in the Township of Hull in 1800, he had $20 000 at his disposal. His start-up capital was almost exhausted, and he needed an export product to sustain his young farming community. The Ottawa Valley timber trade that took off at that point in time would be Wright’s financial lifeline.

Christened “Columbo” by its owner, this first Wright raft was made up of 700 pieces of squared oak and pine, 900 planks and beams, and a variety of other forest products. On this raft that Wright and four of his men start off on their long journey down to Quebec City. The trip down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence is beset with difficulties. It takes them 25 days to drive the Long-Sault Rapids, the distance that separates Hawkesbury from Carillon. Along the way, Wright sells the planks and deals that are piled aboard the raft. The “Columbo” finally docks in Quebec on August 12th, 1806. But they have to wait until the end of November to sell the timber raft.

This endeavour a success. Imitators spring up all along the Ottawa River and its tributaries. Timber contractors of every description followed Wright’s lead and invested in the assembly of square timber rafts and in sawmills that manufactured deals for the British market. Production took place in places like Hawkesbury, Buckingham, North Nation Mills (Petite-Nation), and a good number of other Ottawa Valley towns.

1806: Philemon Wright starts his first timber raft down the Ottawa River.
1806: Philemon Wright starts his first timber raft down the Ottawa River. (Twitter)

* 1944 – First of Over 180 Thousand Hungarian Jews reach Auschwitz

By May 1944 word of the Holocaust had reached the outside world and had been condemned by the United Nations. The report of Rudolf Vrba, who had escaped from the camp in April, had also been circulated by the Slovak resistance.

Filip Muller survived at Auschwitz as a prisoner in the Sonderkommando, dealing with the victims’ property. He was one of the few eye witnesses to survive the camp and write a detailed description of the process:

The two new pits had considerably increased the capacity of the four crematoria at Birkenau.

It was just a matter of adding the finishing touches. There was a constant stream of trucks delivering materials of all kinds, such as old railway sleepers, conifer branches, waste wood, beams, rags, large quantities of wood alcohol, barrels of waste lubricating oil, rammers, coarse and fine-meshed iron sieves, cement, wooden planks, boards and barrels of chlorinated lime. Wherever the fuel was stacked in the open, it was roofed over.

It was the middle of May 1944 when the first transports of Hungarian Jews arrived in Birkenau. By now the Sonderkommando had been increased to 450 men, a number soon to be almost doubled. At the time when the machinery of extermination was running at full speed, there were about 450 Hungarian, 200 Polish,180 Greek, 3 Slovak and 5 German Jews as well as 19 Russian prisoners of war, 5 Polish prisoners in ‘preventive custody’ and one Reich Deutscher Kapo. Three more cremation pits were dug in the backyard of crematorium 5, making up the five Moll had ordered.

In addition, the farmhouse which had served as a place of extermination in 1942, was put in running order. Its four rooms served as gas chambers while an additional four cremation pits were dug outside. The changing rooms were located in three wooden barracks, and the whole complex was known as bunker 5.

There were now nine of these large pits in addition to the crematorium ovens, making it possible to burn an almost unlimited number of corpses. All these installations originated in the brain of mass murderer Moll who had succeeded in turning a small corner of the earth’s surface into something of such unspeakable vileness that it made Dante’s Inferno appear like a pleasure garden.

From the outset, the camp authorities took rigorous care to obliterate all traces of their crimes. For this reason, the ashes of the burnt corpses were thrown into fishponds or the river Vistula. In this connection, Moll had thought up a new technique to expedite the removal of ashes. He ordered an area next to the pits adjoining crematorium 5 and measuring about 60 meters by 15 meters to be concreted; on this surface, the ashes were crushed to a fine powder before their final disposal.

At the time this concreting work was in progress, the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry was in full swing. It seems incredible that eleven months before the end of the war it was possible for long trains to travel constantly back and forth between Hungary and Birkenau when one would have thought they were urgently required for the war effort.

Almost daily several trains consisting, on average, of forty to fifty cattle trucks, arrived on the newly built ramp at Birkenau. The trucks into which up to 100 people had been crammed were bolted; they were unlocked only when the train had reached its destination. The people were parched with thirst since, during their journey lasting several days, they had been given not a drop of water. Many died en route from the rigors of the journey.

Long columns of those who during the selections had been chosen for the walk to the gas chambers struggled along the dusty roads, exhausted and in low spirits, mothers pushing prams, taking the older children by the hand. The young helped and supported the old and sick. Some had strayed into this procession because on the ramp they had implored the SS not to separate them from their frail and helpless relatives; how were they to know that only hours later their relatives would require no more help.

The road from the ramp to the gas chambers led past long barbed-wire fences. Behind them the victims walking to their death could see emaciated figures in zebra-striped prison garb, moving about apathetically. Those who arrived at night looked into the glare of thousands of lamps spreading over the lifeless landscape a pale and ghostly light, the somber effect enhanced by the SS guards on their watch-towers with their machine-guns at the ready.

So bleak was the sight which met new arrivals day or night that somehow it plunged them into a state of apathy. In addition, they were invariably plagued by raging thirst, particularly during the summer heat, and the thought of water so preoccupied them that they seemed no longer able to think of anything else or of paying more than the most cursory attention to the unusual surroundings in which they found themselves.

See Filip Muller: Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chamber. Some sources say the first Hungarian Jews arrived on the 16th May, others believe it was earlier, possibly the 2nd. Filip Muller says ‘in the middle of May’.

First Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz
First Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz (WWII Today)

* 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising ends

In Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising comes to an end as Nazi soldiers gain control of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, blowing up the last remaining synagogue and beginning the mass deportation of the ghetto’s remaining dwellers to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Shortly after the German occupation of Poland began, the Nazis forced the city’s Jewish citizens into a “ghetto” surrounded by barbed wire and armed SS guards. The Warsaw Ghetto had an area of only 840 acres but soon held almost 500,000 Jews in deplorable conditions. Disease and starvation killed thousands every month, and beginning in July 1942, 6,000 Jews a day were transferred to the Treblinka concentration camp. Although the Nazis assured the remaining Jews that their relatives and friends were being sent to work camps, word soon reached the ghetto that deportation to the camp meant extermination. An underground resistance group was established in the ghetto–the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB)–and limited arms were acquired at great cost.

On January 18, 1943, when the Nazis entered the ghetto to prepare a group for transfer, a ZOB unit ambushed them. Fighting lasted for several days, and a number of Germans soldiers were killed before they withdrew. On April 19, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler announced that the ghetto was to be cleared out in honor of Hitler’s birthday the following day, and more than 1,000 SS soldiers entered the confines with tanks and heavy artillery. Although many of the ghetto’s remaining 60,000 Jewish dwellers attempted to hide in secret bunkers, more than 1,000 ZOB members met the Germans with gunfire and homemade bombs. Suffering moderate casualties, the Germans initially withdrew but soon returned, and on April 24 they launched an all-out attack against the Warsaw Jews. Thousands were slaughtered as the Germans systematically moved down the ghetto, blowing up buildings one by one. The ZOB took to the sewers to continue the fight, but on May 8 their command bunker fell to the Germans, and their resistant leaders committed suicide. By May 16, the ghetto was firmly under Nazi control, and mass deportation of the last Warsaw Jews to Treblinka began.

During the uprising, some 300 hundred German soldiers were killed to the thousands of Warsaw Jews who perished. Virtually all the former ghetto residents who survived to reach Treblinka were dead by the end of the war.

Jewish people being led for deportation in the Warsaw Ghetto, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Jewish people being led for deportation in the Warsaw Ghetto, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Time)

* 2014 Pioneering TV journalist Barbara Walters signs off

On this day in 2014, broadcast journalist and TV personality Barbara Walters retires from ABC News and as co-host of the daytime program “The View.” In a landmark career that spanned some 50 years on the air, the 84-year-old Walters blazed a trail for women in TV news. On Walter’s May 16th “View” sendoff, Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer, and Katie Couric were among the more than two dozen female broadcasters who appeared on the show to pay tribute to the legendary newswoman.

Born in Boston on September 25, 1929, Walters, whose father was a nightclub owner, grew up in Massachusetts, New York City, and Miami. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Walters worked as a TV writer and producer in New York before joining NBC’s “The Today Show” in 1961 as a writer and, eventually, on-air reporter. In 1974, she was named an official co-host of the program, the first woman to hold the job. Two years later, Walters became the first woman to co-anchor a nightly network newscast, earning a record $1 million a year. However, after experiencing tension with her “ABC Evening News” co-host, Harry Reasoner, and low ratings, Walters left the program in 1978. From 1984 to 2004, she was a co-host and producer of the TV newsmagazine “20/20.” Additionally, in 1997, she created “The View,” co-hosting the program from its inception until her retirement.

Best known for her interviews, over the decades Walters went one-on-one with American presidents (she interrogated every commander in chief from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama), world leaders, movie stars, convicted killers and scores of other newsmakers. In 1977, she convinced Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to submit to their first joint interview, and that same year she also traveled to Cuba for a headline-making sit down with dictator Fidel Castro. In 2001, she interviewed President Vladimir Putin of Russia and asked whether he’d ever ordered anyone killed (he said “nyet”). She also conducted interviews with such notorious figures as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi and Syria’s Bashir al Assad. In 1999, Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment, gave her first TV interview to Walters; a record-breaking 74 million viewers tuned in, making it the highest-rated news program ever broadcast by a single network.

Walters, who interviewed almost every major Hollywood celebrity, also earned a reputation for skillfully asking probing questions that made a number of her famous subjects tear up. However, one question Walters had a tough time living down occurred during a 1981 on-air conversation with Katharine Hepburn. After the actress compared herself to a tree, Walters said, “What kind of tree are you, if you think you’re a tree?”

On May 13, 2013, Walters announced that after more than half a century in TV, she would retire the following year. Shortly before the acclaimed journalist made her official farewell on “The View” in May 2014, her longtime employer, ABC, honored her by naming its news headquarters in New York City the Barbara Walters Building.

How Barbara Walters Changed Everything
How Barbara Walters Changed Everything (Huffington Post)

* 1964 Mary Wells gives Motown Records its first #1 hit with “My Guy”

In 1959, Berry Gordy started his first record label, Tamla Records, running it out of a house he purchased at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan—a location better known as Hitsville, USA. Over the next three years, Tamla made its headquarters live up to its name, turning out a string of hit records that included “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong (1959), “Shop Around,” by The Miracles (1960) and “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes (1961)–which is why a young aspiring songwriter named Mary Wells was so excited to be offered a recording contract by Berry Gordy in 1962. The catch was that Gordy wanted to make a record with Wells and issue it on a brand new label that had no identity or reputation in the marketplace: Motown Records. Not really in a position to argue, she signed on as the fledgling label’s very first artist, and two years later, Mary Wells gave Motown its first #1 hit when “My Guy” reached the top of the Billboard pop chart on this day in 1964.

Shortly after signing Mary Wells, Berry Gordy transformed her from a songwriter to a performer of other writers’ material. In this capacity, she was one of the first singers in the Motown stable to record a song by the now-legendary Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team. That song, “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” (1963), featured the Supremes and the Temptations singing backup to Wells—an indication of where she stood in the Motown hierarchy at the time. It was the songs of Motown Vice President and chief Miracle William “Smokey” Robinson, however, which brought Wells her greatest successes. In 1962, Wells earned her first and Motown’s first top 10 hits with the Robinson-penned “The One Who Really Loves Me,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Two Lovers.” And then in 1964, she earned her first #1 with Robinson’s “My Guy.”

Motown Records would go on to release another 32 #1 hits in the next 10 years, but “My Guy” would be the last solo hit for Mary Wells, on Motown or any other label. Three days before “My Guy” topped the charts, Wells celebrated her 21st birthday by exercising her right to opt out of her Motown contract. At what would prove to be the peak of her career, Mary Wells became the first significant artist to leave Motown Records, signing a large contract with 20th Century Fox Records. Only one record Wells made at her new label—1964’s “Use Your Head”—managed to crack the Billboard top 40.

Mary Wells, who gave Motown its first #1 hit on this day in 1964, died of throat cancer at the age of 49 on July 26, 1992.

Mary Wells “He Holds His Own” (From the LP Mary Wells Sings My Guy, 1964) – DJ Larsupreme
Mary Wells “He Holds His Own” (From the LP Mary Wells Sings My Guy, 1964) – DJ Larsupreme

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Outaouais’ Forest Industry                            

* On This Day – History, Film, Music and Sport               

* World War II Today                                                               

* 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.

15 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… May 16th”

  1. These accounts of what happened in Poland during the occupation are so horrific, John, they seem virtually unbelievable. The Polish people were also treated so badly. I have just finished listening to Ludwika, a book about a Polish woman by Christoph Fischer. I learned a lot about the occupation of Poland.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The horror of the death camps is numbing and must never be forgotten. What has always amazed me is that some emerged from this hell who were able to transcend the evil. Viktor Frankl’s work is stunning in that regard. Thank you, John, for keeping this alive for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With the rise of the hate groups commonly referred to as the alt-right, I think we are on a very slippery slope that leads to open discrimination and even genocide. This is why I included these events today. Lest we forget. Thanks, Gwen!


  3. The timber boat was genius. Like most who commented I hope the Holocaust is never forgotten. Hard to imagine the evil that spawned such a thing. Also hard to imagine a human being carrying out orders to make it happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That evil is still present, I’m afraid.
      I agree that the timber raft was an inspired idea. Why build a ship when you can fashion such a raft? Thanks, John.


  4. I can’t help looking at the Jewish people in those old photos and thinking of the fate that awaited them. I pray we never forget the Holocaust, if only to prevent such atrocity from happening again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll second your prayer. The images from the Holocaust videos I showed my classes over the years will haunt me forever. So the enabling of racists in the past couple of years just makes my blood boil. Thanks, Mae!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Another great history read. As much as I know about the holocaust, I did not realize that the concentration camps were so late in the war. The Mary Wells story was a pleasure to read. So sad that she died young. I met Barbara Walters at a family wedding many years ago, along with Diane Sawyer. Diane was a lovely, gracious lady. Let’s just say that Barbara lived up to her reputation…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL! I understand that Barbara is an acquired taste! The concentration camps started earlier but “the final solution” as in the death camps came later in the war. I often told my classes that bigotry of any type starts with the “socially acceptable” jokes – but the Holocaust was the end point. Kids argued with me that the jokes were ok. So I asked them to give me examples of jokes based on race, religion, and gender. I then repeated the jokes back to them eliminating the racial, religious, or gender identifiers. They didn’t find any of them funny. I just nodded at them solemnly. They aren’t funny but they are insidious because they mask bigotry as something that is ok. By the way, I hated teaching the WWII unit because I had to teach them about the Holocaust. I hunted down the most sickening videos I could find and I played them in their entirety. They had to realize just how horrifying that was and that as long as there is bigotry, it can happen again.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wow! John, this is remarkable. What you did for your students to teach them about bigotry was absolutely the right thing. I vividly remember seeing Life magazine in high school, with the cover story about Treblinka. What a shock and what a wake-up call. After that, I never looked back.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Jennie. After viewing those sickening videos of the death camps in class, I would draw attention to the conspiracy theory that the Holocaust was a hoax. My next comment would be something like, “I wonder who would volunteer to act out the scenes we just witnessed?”

          Liked by 1 person

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