May I pimp my employer for a moment?
The Dallas Morning News’ historical archives — images of every page of every DMN issue from 1885 to 1977 — are online and full-text searchable. Which means it serves as a big historical Nexis of sorts.
If you’re a history-oriented, journalism-oriented geek like me, this is a source of endless fun. (It’s also a source of endless fun for me because, well, it’s free for me. You have to pay, although the prices seem pretty reasonable to me: $9.95 for an unlimited day pass, $29.95 for a month, $79.95 for 3 months.) If you have a free day and $10 to kill, pony up the cash and spend some time searching for things like your home town, your alma mater, your grandparents who used to live in Dallas, et cetera.
For instance, I searched for “Rayne,” my hometown in Louisiana. Tons of interesting stuff came up, in particular a series of stories from 1897 when an outbreak of yellow fever killed 298 people in New Orleans. (Yellow fever killed over 40,000 New Orleanians in a series of 19th-century outbreaks.)
Rural Louisianians — already used to thinking of New Orleans of a den of vice, squalor and iniquity — were terrified that the fever would cross the Mississippi and infect the countryside. So they instituted a formal quarantine on the city — no one goes in, no one comes out. Which is the background for this great story:
“Lafayette, La., Sept. 29 — The effort of the business men, city and state health authorities of New Orleans to effect a modification of the rigid quarantine restrictions of the various parishes of this state by a conference of the parish and town quarantine officials along the Southern Pacific and Texas and Pacific [rail]roads ended abruptly this afternoon.
“The train carrying the physicians who were to take part in the conference to be held on board the train which left Algiers this morning, passed through Lafayette this afternoon, but failed to proceed any further than Rayne, where the people, armed with shotguns, refused to let it go through.
“When the train reached the corporate limits of Rayne a body of men flagged it down and informed the passengers aboard that it would not be allowed to go on; that under no circumstances would it be permitted to enter the corporate limits of Rayne. Determined men with shotguns and rifles pointed the deadly weapons at Engineer Gregory and declared that the wheels would have to stop. Members of the body of citizens threatened to tear up the track if the train persisted to run through the town.
“The reception was too warm to even permit of a parley and the officials of the train decided that it would be wise to make its way back.
“An unsuspecting fellow walked from the depot at Rayne and entered the train to deliver a telegram to one of the physicians. The guards found it out and would not let him get back into the town and in consequence the unfortunate messenger was compelled to remain on board…
“The news that the physicians who were on the train had recently been in contact with yellow fever patients caused a great deal of unfavorable comment.”
I’ve got the few books that exist on the subject of Rayne history, and this event isn’t in any of them. It’s pretty telling, too, on a few fronts. It shows the vaguely ornery/suspicious attitudes rural Cajuns had (have?) toward outsiders, and it shows the massive mental disconnect between the small towns and the sinful big city. It’s also an echo of the vigilante period in south Louisiana history, when wars between rival extralegal groups served as justice on the prairie.
Finally, the fact the Rayne men were willing to “tear up the track” if the train persisted on entering the city — not even stopping, just entering — shows how big a deal this was to the town. Rayne exists solely because of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Originally founded a few miles south, the entire town was picked up and moved north so that it could meet the tracks when they were laid in 1880. The railroad was the conduit for the entire economy. So if the men of Rayne were willing to rip out the track just to stop this train, they meant business.
Anyway, if you’re interested in 19th/20th-century American history — particularly in Texas — it’s a great resource.
May I pimp my employer for a moment?