Momentous or Merely Memorable
70 Years Ago
Food For Fraught
In an attempt to bridge the gap between farmers with unsold crops and the hungry urban poor, the USDA rolls out the United States' first food stamp program May 16, 1939, in Rochester, New York.
The experimental program provides 50 cents' worth of free blue stamps, good for surplus items—butter, eggs, grapefruit and dried beans, for a start—for every dollar's worth of orange stamps (good for all other food) bought by consumers on relief, as welfare was first known. By the program's end in 1943—World War II having provided a market for both food and workers—some 20 million people have been served.
80 Years Ago
Oscar makes his debut in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel ballroom May 16, 1929, when Douglas Fairbanks presents the first Academy Awards. Honorees in 14 categories accept the gold-plated statuettes, but there are no tearful gasps of surprise; the winners were announced weeks before. In an odd, one-time pairing, there are awards for both Outstanding (Wings) and Unique and Artistic (Sunrise) pictures. To date 2,744 Oscars—the nickname is made official in 1939—have been awarded, on television since 1953.
120 Years Ago
Two days of record rains topple Pennsylvania's South Fork dam May 31, 1889, sending 20 million tons of water—"in which seethed houses, freight cars, trees and animals," a witness recalls—crashing into Johnstown, 14 miles downstream. The flood and ensuing fires kill more than 2,200 people. In its first foray into peacetime disaster relief, Clara Barton's American Red Cross comes to the aid of some 25,000 survivors.
140 Years Ago
Telegraphs transmit the hammer blows May 10, 1869, when the last spike is driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, to unite the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads and complete the nation's first transcontinental railway. Since 1862 the two had been competing—the Union Pacific west from Omaha and the Central Pacific east from Sacramento—to see which could cover the most ground before they met up. When the ceremonial golden spike is driven (and quickly replaced by an iron one), the Union Pacific, with the easier terrain, wins the mileage race 1,086 miles to 690. The new railway, which includes existing tracks east of Omaha, turns a four-month cross-country trip into a week's jaunt.
140 Years Ago
Yes We Can
One-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell leaves Green River, Wyoming, May 24, 1869, with nine men and four boats to explore the Grand Canyon via the Green and Colorado rivers: "With some anxiety we start, for the old mountaineers tell us it cannot be run." After 99 days, Powell, minus four men and two boats, arrives 950 miles downriver to proclaim that it can.