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By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

They say we got as far as mile 225 because that’s where they found our boat. It was shored securely at the crude mile marker. They assume we made camp and I stabbed Glen to death and ran away, never to be heard from again. That’s how legends go and I can tell you EXACTLY how this legend came to be, but it would ruin the true story of our disappearance, so I’ll just continue from our docking (without the benefit of a dock, mind you) at mile 225.

Bessie and Glen Hyde by LauraMoncur from Flickr

By the time we had made it that far down the river, I was so tired I wanted to just sleep in our tent for a hundred days, but my ambition and drive wouldn’t let me. Glen was exhausted as well. This wasn’t the honeymoon he had imagined for the two of us. The rapids of the Colorado River are a far cry from the roughest waters of the Snake River in Idaho. He had gotten more than his fill of running the river. Every moment that passed, my vision of our large boat named The Hydes of the River, dimmed in my mind. Glen wanted to quit.

“This is near harder than anythin’ I ever done, Bessie.” My mind scanned my history. Was this the hardest thing I had ever done? It was physically exhausting, for sure, but it hadn’t been the most arduous experience of my life. When I tracked my lying and cheating first husband to the home of the woman he left me for, THAT was my hardest day. It felt as if my heart was pulled out of my body through my eyes and ears. The sight of him in her home and every hard-hearted word he said to me left me barely alive, even though I breathed still. It was only Glen who brought me back to life.

“I’m going to be the first woman to run the Grand Canyon. We have to finish this. We told everyone that we were going to do this.” Maybe it wasn’t Glen who brought me back to life. Maybe it was the river itself. Never before had I felt such a part of something. It was the closest I had felt to being a child in the Ohio River all over again. I was exhausted, but I wanted to master this body of water. I felt like the river was mine and that I could live on it for the rest of my life.

Glen Hyde by LauraMoncur from Flickr“Don’t matter what we told everyone back home. All that matters is that we’re alive. This river’s near killin’ me from the tired of it all.” I tried to reason with him, even though sanity and reason weren’t on my side. “Think about it, Glen. When we conquer this river, we’ll be the first. We could survive on that alone. No struggling for money, no wondering about where food is going to come from, no potato farming. We could use that fame to make a life for ourselves that is better than anything we ever imagined.”

Glen reached for the tent and camping supplies. “I like potato farming.” With those four words the final glimpse of our future boat named The Hydes of the River slipped under the water and disappeared from my mind. I nearly choked with the grief of it, but I was not willing to give up on the title I felt was rightfully mine. Glen replaced the gear in the boat at the sight of me. He knew that he had dashed my dream. He tried to replace it with another one.

“Why don’t we test the Water Breathers? We haven’t even stopped for a moment on this trip to give them a try.” He returned the tent and pulled out my inventions. The ride on the river had been so involving that I had nearly forgotten my Wondrous Water Breathers. By distracting me with another ambition, my loving husband had achieved what we both desperately needed. Some rest.

By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

Bessie and Glen Hyde by LauraMoncur from FlickrOf all the gadgets that I regret leaving on the boat, the camera is the only one I would have risked going back for. At least I have the Kolb photo that they plastered all over the newspapers after we disappeared. By the time we reached Bright Angel Trail, I was tired. Emery Kolb, the photographer in the area, snapped photos of all the hikers on Bright Angel Trail. I only wish I could have been feeling fresher for that photo, maybe even given him a smile, but I had no idea that it was going to be the most important photo taken of me as Bessie Hyde.

Once we got to the top of the canyon, we rested and cleaned. The photographer’s brother, Ellsworth, was rapidly working on his photographs, while we ate a simple meal. The room was full of a group of tourists and their guide. All of them were tired and wishing for a story. “How long you two been here?” Glen asked, always willing to start a friendly conversation. He had directed the question to Ellsworth, but the tour guide answered, “Don’t bother ‘im while he’s workin’. They been here since 1904. Back then, Congressman Ralph Cameron hisself was givin’ tours to Bright Angel Trail.” The tourists were eager to hear him tell a story after their long hike back up the canyon and so was I.

“Ever since Cameron lost his seat in Congress, rumor has it he’s been here. Can’t near show his face in the park nowadays, though.” A bright-faced woman asked, “Who is he?” The tour guide jumped at the story-telling bait. ” Ralph H. Cameron was the worst thing to happen to the Grand Canyon. He used ta charge people just to hike this very trail.” I scanned the faces of the tourist, knowing that they each had paid a sum just to hear this story and hike the trail and waited for the inevitable question. “How’s that different than us payin’ you?”

The tour guide’s eyes widened and his voice dropped to a whisper, “Back then, Cameron told everybody that he owned Bright Angel Trail. We wasn’t a national park back then, so he had a bunch of mining claims that he thought let him just take over the park, even though Teddy Roosevelt himself protected it. He even ran for Congress. When he won, he tried to make the canyon NOT be a national park. Now that he’s not a congressman anymore, they say he’s back here, illegally minin’ the park!” The tourists gasped and the ladies fanned their faces. Glen and I were even drawn in by his storytelling.

“That isn’t the worst of it. Some folks go missing. Sure most of them just drown theyselfs in the Colorado River, but I done heard that they’s folks who end up minin’. They’re held prisoner by Cameron and he makes ’em dig silver out of the park.” The mood of the room changed and what had been a spooky story told over simple food and drink shifted to a tall tale. None of the tourists said a word, but I could tell that the tour guide should have finished his story with the illegal mining and left the white slavery rumors unsaid.

One of the ladies turned to me and asked, “You weren’t with our tour group. How’d you get here?” Glen was eager to sing my praises, “We’re rafting down the Colorado River in a scow I built.” He put his arm around me. “Bessie, here is gonna be the first woman to ever ride the Colorado River all the way down the Grand Canyon.” The tourists were rapt with attention and a tiny part of me enjoyed it. My vision of our boat came before my eyes again as Glen continued, “They’re gonna call us The Hydes of the River.”

By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

If my penance in Reno felt as if it took an eternity, the wedding and family events in Idaho flew by before I could regain my step. There were so many new faces and names to memorize that I knew I would never remember them all. Before I knew it, all those faces were gone and it was just Glen and me on our way to the Grand Canyon with his homemade boat strapped to the roof of his car.

Glen and Bessie's Car“I’ve been doin’ a little readin’ ’bout the Grand Canyon, Bessie.” I nodded as I watched the Utah scrub brush slide by the car window. Glen continued, “There ain’t never been a woman who rode the whole river through it. You could be the first.” The sage and grass blurred at his words. I repeated, “First?” Glen smiled as he realized the tremendous gift he had given me. “Yep, you could be the first woman to ride the Grand Canyon. That’s why I bought the camera and all that film. We hafta prove that you were there the whole way.”

My mind swam. I had relished the idea of being the first in my family to see the Grand Canyon. You can only imagine the giddy joy that overcame me at the thought of being the first woman to conquer the Colorado River. It was at that moment that I saw myself on the cover of Life Magazine. I could see an illustration of me and Glen on his boat drawn by Norman Rockwell himself. The story of my brave adventure would be serialized with wit and humor by none other than Dorothy Parker. I could barely contain the vision within me.

“Glen, do you know what this means?” He smiled and nodded while I continued talking, “When we finish this river run, I will be famous. We can use that fame to do whatever we want.” My mind raced with the possibilities. “We’ll have to move to the Grand Canyon. Everyone will pay a hefty sum to go down the river on your boat. They’ll travel from all over the world just to take a ride on the river with us.” The vision of our future came to me faster than I could recite it to Glen. “We will be the Hydes of the River.” I could see a large boat with that very name stenciled on the side. “We’ll raise our family there. I’ll be the first pregnant woman to ride the river as well. Our whole lives will be on that river.”

In my excitement from the vision of our future, I turned to look at Glen. His hands were tight on the steering wheel and his jaw was clenched. I stopped my raving of our future as the miles flew under our tires. Glen’s silence was unnerving. “What’s the matter?” Glen was quiet, but he finally spoke, “I just don’t like the idea of leavin’ my family. Can’t we just be famous and NOT move to the Grand Canyon?”

My beautiful vision of our life in the national park dimmed a little. The name of the boat faded a bit and Norman Rockwell transmogrified into a young man with a strange camera. “Sure, honey,” I said, “We’ll become the Hydes of the Snake River instead.” Glen smiled again and we discussed our future all the way to Arizona.

By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

Reno, NevadaBack in 1928, waiting for residence in Reno to go through so I could legally get a divorce felt like an eternity. Glen drove down from Idaho as often as he could to visit me, but I spent most of that time in a purgatory of my own making.

There was an entire community of women in Reno, earning their right to divorce their respective husbands, but I had so little in common with any of them. They were jumping from one husband to the next with children in tow. Although I had Glen eagerly waiting for my divorce, I felt like I was different somehow. I knew with a knowledge so strong that I didn’t need Glen to survive. I loved him. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but I also knew that if I found myself cuckolded and abandoned again, that I would survive without him. I remember how grateful I was to my bum of a first husband for teaching me that painful lesson. It was the only good thing he ever did for me.

My ability to find friends among the future divorcees of Reno was also hindered by my technical obsessions. Growing up with a Naval father, an intellectual mother and two Navy-bound brothers made me ill-equipped to feign interest in the tedium of child-raising. Since the conversation of these women could focus on little else, I preferred to perfect my Wondrous Water Breather rather than congregate in the yards around our meager living quarters. With that much time alone, my prototypes were completed quickly.

University of NevadaThere was no where to test the WWBs except for the swimming pool at the University of Nevada. I ingratiated myself with the maintenance staff and gained access at night to test my equipment. You can’t imagine my joy the first time I was able to make it work. Learning how to set the pressure, hold the apparatus in my mouth and swim with the bulky canister strapped to my back took some time.

For years, I scolded myself for Glen’s death. If only I had insisted that he have more practice with the WWB before we left for the Grand Canyon, he might have survived that night. I truly felt that it was only my experience and dexterity with my WWB that saved me and his ineptness with the equipment that killed him. I was miserable during my lonely penance in Reno, but it was that solitude and the clandestine visits to the college swimming pool that saved my life that fateful evening.

By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

“How about a trip to Hollywood?” The minute the words came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t something that I wanted. “If you want. I never been to Hollywood.” We were waiting for my divorce to go through, biding our time in Reno until I could legally petition. “What I’d really like to do is go back home to Idaho and show you off to my family.” I smiled at that thought. No one had ever been proud of me before.

“Well, we’re going back there to get married. Isn’t that enough?” I watched Glen’s face for signs of peculiar attachment to them, but his love for his family seemed normal and just as it should be. “Sure, it’s enough for now. So, where do you want to go for our honeymoon? Hollywood?” I shook my head and he rattled off different destinations, “Niagara Falls? New York? Chicago?” I shook my head to all of them while I fiddled with my latest obsession: the Wondrous Water Breather.

Underwater DivingFor years, people had been underwater diving with air pumped from the surface. Heavy diving suits with helmets that weighed as much as I did after a bout of stomach flu. They never worked for me with all their bulk. I wanted to explore underwater, but I could never endure the weight of the equipment.

My brothers in West Virginia were in the Navy and the three of us had gone diving as children. Deep breaths and strong legs could take us to the bottom of a shallow lagoon in the Ohio River, but I wanted more. No matter how strong my lungs and legs were, it always felt like I was in desperate need of air by the time I ever saw anything interesting. Months before my exile in Reno, I had tried to modify a surface pump method of diving using my snorkeling equipment. Glen would pump the air to me while I tested and explored the bottom of the Snake River in Idaho. It worked reasonable well, but the two of us had to take turns; one pumping while the other explored. We couldn’t enjoy the experience together.

Then I remembered the compressed air canisters that my brothers showed me. They provided air on the submarines. It took me months to find a company that could make a small canister of compressed air for me. I knew that if I could somehow take a canister with me on my back, I would be able to breathe under water without a connected line to the surface for air. Not only could I enjoy the freedom of untethered exploration, Glen and I could explore together.

Old Snorkeling Gear“Maybe we should go to San Diego or Florida so we can test the Wondrous Water Breathers. By the time I get my residence in Nevada, I should have them finished.” Glen pondered the idea. He had never snorkeled or dived in the ocean and I think it scared him a little. Growing up a potato farmer in Idaho was very different from my Navy family upbringing in Virginia. He had never seen the ocean. I had practically lived in it.

“How about the Colorado River. We can take my boat down it and stop whenever the water looks good enough to dive. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. We should try that.” The idea seemed perfect to me. The Grand Canyon had only recently been made a National Park. The thought of being the first of my family to conquer its waters was yet another feather I could put in my cap to compete against my brothers. With their naval service, they had many firsts to their names, but none of them had been to the Grand Canyon.

I set down my complicated pieces of snorkel and tubing and walked over to Glen. I put my arms around his neck and kissed his face. “The Grand Canyon it is.”

By Laura Moncur in The Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde

Bessie and Glen Hyde by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe sirens of fame and fortune has lain wreck to many a boat, including mine. In 1928, Glen and I had just gotten married. We were going to set a new speed record for the fastest rafting of the Grand Canyon and I was going to be the first woman to conquer the rapids. I could imagine my face on the cover of Life Magazine with Glen and our scow that he built with his own hands. Our honeymoon was going to make us a lot of money and all the folks back in West Virginia were going to see my face in the newspaper. We were going to be famous and rich.

It’s funny how clearly I could see my fame back in 1928. I saw it with such clarity that I KNEW it would happen. I had no doubts. Even today, looking at the spread in Life Magazine, it looks exactly how I had imagined it would when we were rafting through the Grand Canyon. Sure, I’m on a different boat and Glen is no longer by my side, but the photos of me are just as I envisioned.

Do I feel guilt? Nope, not a bit. I wish I could have done things differently, but I did the best I could do.

Never thought of telling this story. I’ve kept quiet and lived the life of another woman for so long that the name Bessie doesn’t even feel like my own anymore. I’ve hidden longer than I needed to, but once you try on a different life, it’s pretty hard to take off that skin. But something about that fateful winter in 1928 needs to be told. I don’t know if I feel like bragging about my inventions or haunted by the reason that Glen’s no longer with us today. Either way, I have to tell the true story about the disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde.

Steampunk Movies

December 23, 2009
By Laura Moncur in Meta-Steampunk

When we were choosing movies to show at our steampunk-themed Halloween party, we were hard pressed to find movies that we felt fit our theme. Two months later, however, I have collected a vast array of movies that I feel are the best of steampunk movies, some of which were filmed before steampunk even had its name.

Time After Time at Amazon.comTime After Time starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen This movie is one of my all-time favorite movies. Malcolm McDowell plays a young H. G. Wells, who has invented a time machine. Unbeknownst to Wells, David Warner, his close friend, is Jack the Ripper. When the police have traced Jack the Ripper to Wells’ home, the murderer gets away from them using the time machine. Feeling as if he has unleashed a monster upon Utopia, Wells follows Jack the Ripper to the mid-1970’s in an effort to track him down and bring him to justice back in England, but Jack will have none of that. He feels right at home in San Francisco during the height of the sexual revolution. Can H. G. Wells stop Jack the Ripper before he strikes again?

This preview shows more of the movie than you probably should see if you don’t want too many spoilers:

Wild Wild West at Amazon.comWild Wild West starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Salma Hayek I didn’t see this movie when it came out, but it quickly became apparent that I needed to include it in our steampunk movie repertoire. Whenever I tried to describe to the uninitiated what steampunk was, so many people responded with, “You mean like the bad guy from Wild Wild West?” We weren’t five minutes into the film before I realized that it was the PERFECT steampunk movie from the exploding head of Abraham Lincoln to the mechanical spider walking off into the sunset. Kudos to Will Smith for having the foresight to star in that movie, even though it wasn’t a box office smash.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at Amazon.comThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery This movie is what I consider the definitive steampunk movie. It doesn’t follow the storyline of the graphic novel very well, but it is beautiful and gadgety. It’s what happens when English teachers run amok with a story. Every person in the movie is a character from literature, but we get to see them all in a whole new light. If Captain Nemo and the Nautilus were the sole heroes of this movie, it would be steampunk enough, but adding Allan Quatermain to the list pushes it right into steampunk ecstasy. It’s a shame it didn’t earn more money when it was released, because I would have loved to see the sequels, including the tripods and their War of the Worlds invasion.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow at Amazon.comSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, and Giovanni Ribisi A largely forgotten movie of brilliance that should be ushered into the steampunk hall of fame is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I loved every moment of it. There are flying dirigible airships, eye patches and plenty of gadgetry. I have NO idea why this movie didn’t kill at the box office. When Mike and I got out of the theater, we counted the days until we could buy it on DVD. I think it was just a little ahead of its time. This movie is completely steampunk, right down to the lens cap!

Back to the Future III at Amazon.comBack to the Future III starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Mary Steenburgen Just because there is a time machine in a movie, doesn’t make it steampunk, but the third movie in the Back to the Future series DEFINITELY fits the steampunk genre. From Doc Brown’s huge contraption that creates ice for his drinks to the super fuel that they throw into the locomotive boiler to make the train speed up to the required 88 miles per hour, this movie is full of the gadgetry that steampunk is known for. Additionally, the time paradox with Buford Tannen (and his progeny) is just a lovely icing on the cake to the whole thing. When Mike and I saw that Mary Steenburgen was reprising her role as the time traveler’s girlfriend, we both sighed with delight.

Around the World in 80 Days at Amazon.comAround the World in 80 Days starring David Niven What list of steampunk movies would be complete without at least one Jules Verne? This iteration of the story is my absolute favorite because David Niven plays the PERFECT gentleman. When he is bet that he cannot circumnavigate the world in eighty days or less, he takes that bet and spends a fortune to make it a reality. Is the honor of winning the bet worth risking life, limb and property? Apparently it is. There are few gadgets in this film, but it is a steampunk adventure nonetheless.

Young Sherlock Holmes at Amazon.comYoung Sherlock Holmes starring Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came to VHS back in the mid-Eighties, so it was a treat to revisit it and see how steampunk this movie was, all before steampunk had a name yet. This young Sherlock Holmes is more Indiana Jones than Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, so the action is undeniable and fast-paced. There are few gadgets (even less if you don’t count a magnifying glass), but the hallucinatory drug and its effects are enough coolness to make this movie count as a steampunk movie.

I couldn’t find the trailer for Young Sherlock Holmes, but here is the movie review from Siskel and Ebert.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at Amazon.comThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen starring John Neville, Eric Idle, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams It was so difficult for me not to include so many Terry Gilliam movies on this list. Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Time Bandits were set in the wrong time eras, but had the beautiful steampunk-style gadgetry. It wasn’t until I found this movie that I realized that Terry Gilliam HAD done a steampunk movie back in 1989, with plenty of airships, journeys to the center of the Earth and large sea creatures to satisfy any steampunk craving.

Van Helsing at Amazon.comVan Helsing starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale I’m going to be completely honest here. The ONLY reason I included Van Helsing on this list is because of the crossbow. Sure, it’s set in about the right time, but it really doesn’t fit the bill for a true steampunk movie. Van Helsing’s crossbow is so badass, however, that it supports it all on its own. The vampires are fun, the movie has a lot of action, but I really just liked the gadgety appeal of the weaponry in this movie.

Jules Verne's the Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth at Amazon.comJules Verne’s the Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth starring J.P Simon and Kenneth More So many of the movie versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth have more to do with the time they were filmed than the time the story was set. The bad acting aside, this movie is the most faithful to the HISTORY of the story. Don’t even get me started about the recent Brendan Fraser version of the story. It’s a shame it carries the same name.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at Amazon.comIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade starring Harrison Ford and Sean Connery I wouldn’t say all Indiana Jones movies are steampunk and even this movie is stretching the definition quite a bit, but I wanted to include it on the list for a couple of reasons: the travel map and the devices that protect the grail. Steampunk has a great basis in travel and watching Indiana and his crew travel across the globe with a red line on a map is such a steampunk thing to do that it makes up for any lack of cool gadgetry. The devices that protect the Holy Grail ARE cool gadgets, but they pre-date the supposed steampunk era by hundreds of years, so I really can’t claim them under the steampunk moniker. It’s a stretch to include Indiana Jones on a steampunk movie list, but I just had to keep him there.

Kate & Leopold at Amazon.comKate & Leopold starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman Although most of this movie takes place in present day, the first half hour of this movie is entirely steampunk. Hugh Jackman plays Leopold, the supposed inventor of the elevator. He is transported in time to present day by falling through a portal in the space time continuum. The true invention of the elevator goes to Henry Waterman, so during the entire movie, I was expecting Leopold to stay in present time creating inventions like toasters that toast bread CORRECTLY instead of warming them or burning them to a crisp. The writers decided history be damned, however and Otis, Leopold’s butler, is given the honorific of the elevator instead of giving credit where it’s due, to Elisha Otis. History aside, Kate and Leopold isn’t really what I would consider a steampunk movie, but it had so many elements, I had to include on the list.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Odometer was born in the Denver Museum of Art. Last September, Mike, Stacey, Dan and I all visited Denver. While the three of them attended the iPhone Developers Conference, I toured the museums of Denver. I took in the exhibits alone, which is a surprising treat that I’m not accustomed to. I was able to stay as long or as little as I wanted at each showing. If they had been with me, I would have been rushed past the small odometer hiding in the back display cabinet and this story would have never been written.

What Is Truth?

Perambulator by LauraMoncur from FlickrFrank McDonough Jr.’s odometer really IS at the Denver Art Museum, but there is no history or even a plaque explaining the gadget. Odometers typically attached to perambulators like this photo shows, but Mr. McDonough’s odometer is still in its case. I DRASTICALLY fictionalized what this particular odometer could do, but Frank McDonough Jr. is a historical cipher as far as the Denver Art Museum is concerned with no explanation given to his artifact. You can read more about odometers, perambulators and surveyors wheels here: Surveyor’s wheel – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Golden Spike Ceremony and the fact that it wasn’t the “real” completion of the first transcontinental railroad is true. That missing bridge across the Missouri River was a technicality that history has forgotten. The Kansas Pacific Railway was the true completion of the first transcontinental railway, but no museums celebrate its accomplishment. That bounty goes to Utah. I was unaware of all of this before I wrote this story and I felt a little guilty when I learned that we Utahans stole Denver’s thunder. You can read more about this moment in history here: Golden spike – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Colorado Stereograph by LauraMoncur from FlickrThis photograph is half of a stereograph of the Colorado plains. Stereographs are photos taken with two cameras at once. Using a stereoscope, the two photos merge together to create a 3D image. If you’re really good, you can cross your eyes and see the 3D effect as well. This technology has been around for YEARS and predated your toy ViewMaster by at least a century. You can see the full stereograph here: Colorado Sterogram on Flickr You can read more about sterographs and stereoscopes here: Stereoscopy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

What Is Fiction?

Poor Frank McDonough Jr. was a real person, but I have been unable to find out what he surveyed with his odometer. I have no proof that he worked for any railroad. He was a real person, but the character in this story was entirely fiction. I sure hope his ghost doesn’t come back to haunt me.

Fig Andrews by LauraMoncur from FlickrFig Andrews is also purely fiction. I found this photograph somewhere online. I have NO idea who it is a picture of, but the image was saved with the name: andrews_fig01b.jpg. I think “fig” refers to the word “figure,” but the name Fig Andrews sounded so good to me that I used the name. I needed a villian and this photo jumped out at me while I was searching on Google. Sure hope the man in this photo doesn’t come back to haunt me either.

Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe second I saw this odometer in the museum, I wanted to write a steampunk story about it. It just screamed out to me, begging to have a fantastical narrative written in its honor. What I described in the story would be more aptly named a magical pedometer since Frank wears the gadget on his belt and it measures distance based on his gait. The power of speed and revenge were also completely fictitious, but I really wanted to tell the story of a beloved gadget that takes that love too far in defense of its owner.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Personal Journal dated June 7, 1869:

Owing to my odometer, my chest fills with pride, despite the fact that I must forever lock it in a box and use it nevermore. I shall never again feel the wind whip past my face with the sweet scent of the Colorado meadows. I shall never look down at my pocket watch and realize that I have traveled further in five minutes than I could have traveled all day on horseback. I cannot bear to destroy it, but I must never place it on my belt ever again. Today’s events are so upsetting that I can barely put pen to paper, yet I must because they are so fantastical that I can hardly believe them myself.

The odometer has allowed me to complete survey work of a hundred men. I’ve finished the survey for the Denver Line and pending the review of my measures, our team will be able to construct it. We have hired a double team, one to build from Denver and the other to build from the current end of the Kansas City Line. They shall meet somewhere in the Colorado Eastern Plains. My odometer has allowed me to traverse them many times in the last few weeks. We should be able to complete the line within a year, beating Fig Andrews’ team with our industry.

Telegraph by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe telegraph that I received last night from Fig about my accomplishment was an insult to polite society. It read, “Contesting your measures. We’ll beat you with bureaucracy.” I was so incensed by it that I took a walk. Each time I thought of Fig Andrews and his team, the anger within me swelled. Before I knew it, I found myself on the bank of the Missouri River. Within the span of a couple of hours, the odometer had brought me to face the very man I had such a burning desire to bring down with fisticuffs.

His surprise at my presence was satisfying. Now, I could finally reveal the blessings of my odometer and the reason I had been able to survey the Colorado Plains with such speed. When I explained my gadget, I took it off my belt. Oh, if only I had left it safely on my person! Fig, with his swagger and bravado, grabbed it out of my hands, intent on testing it himself.

I tried to explain to him that it needed calibrating to his gait, but he rushed away from me, clipping it to his own belt. He sped away, but I could hear his agonizing cries. I grabbed a nearby horse to race after him, following the gut-wrenching sound of his screams, but I was too late. The odometer had burned a hole clean through his torso. It was as if all my anger for the man had built up in my odometer, so when it finally came in contact with his person, it released all my hatred in one swift and agonizing blow.

That is why I am on a train heading back to Kansas City tonight. My shaky hand is not merely from the movement of the railway cars, but from the shock that I have received. I must never wear my odometer again. If only I had the force of will to put it under the steel wheels of the locomotive.


The rest of Frank McDonough Jr.’s journal marks the banal trivialities of life in the West. Frank McDonough Jr. took a wife and raised many healthy children. The Kansas Pacific Railway DID complete the line before the Missouri River Bridge was finished, but history still gives credit to the Golden Spike in Utah, which was a constant source of grief and shame to Frank until the day he died.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Personal Journal dated May 31, 1869:

As unsettling as it is in reality, I am hoping that putting my thoughts and observations in words will make it seem less unnerving. Over the last week, I have surveyed more of the Colorado landscape than I have ever done before. Miles and miles have flown under my feet at the mere thought of Fig Andrews and his team finishing the Missouri Bridge before my team is even allowed to start construction.

I cannot explain it and it is certainly to come under the scrutiny of the Kansas Pacific Railway officials. I strap on my new odometer and start to work. I survey miles and miles of land, expecting the sun to give me rest in the evening, but when I check my pocket watch, a few minutes have only passed. I have traversed miles faster than the locomotive that will certainly glide across these plains.

Kansas Pacific Railway by LauraMoncur from FlickrMy speed feels leisurely to me. I am unfagged by the exertion. Today, I set out from Denver to retrace my previous surveys of the line. With just an angry thought of Fig Andrews and his team, my work breezed past me like a warm southern wind. This evening, I saw Kansas City on the horizon. Its inviting and familiar boarding house welcomed me, but I shivered through and through.

Somehow, this odometer not only helps me survey the land, but traverse it far faster than any other method of perambulation. I am eternally grateful to it and what it promises me, yet I fear its power and jealous nature.