Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Arresting Vancouver Police Museum


Burrard Inlet was a prospering, boisterous settlement in the 19th century when Jack Deighton, nickname Gassy, started its first business–a saloon. Burrard Inlet became Granville, which became Vancouver, Canada’s excellent West Coast city with a surprisingly seedy past.  After visiting the Vancouver Police Museum, I understood why its first building was a saloon, not a church.

The Vancouver Police Museum (VPM), North America’s oldest, is not too far from Gassy’s saloon in a heritage building that was once the city’s morgue and crime lab.  Built in 1932 to “investigate unusual deaths” and provide space for coroner services, it was used until 1980.

I was far from alone as I went through it.  In each room Chinese students were sitting around bored with many trying to take naps.  They were on a field trip from China with the overall purpose of learning English, and I couldn’t help wondering why their teachers thought Chinese teens would benefit from learning about Canadian crime.  Kristin Hardie, VPM’s Curator, told me that such groups have become fairly routine in her museum. Hmmmmm.

I found the museum far more interesting than they did and closely studied displays of prohibited and confiscated weapons, one a wicked-looking Triple-action Pepper Tear Gas dispenser the size of a small cell phone.  There was fascinating stuff about counterfeit currency and marked cards.  A key to unlocking this particular system used words like “Spades-nipple missing, left breast”.   I learned how and why the death penalty was totally abolished in Canada in 1998.  I read every word that described several unsolved crimes. The Pauls, for example, a normal Russian Mennonite family was beaten and its members shot several times in 1958.  All died.  Cause and perp still unknown.  The Vancouver Police Museum claims to have one of the largest collections of sub-machine guns among museums that specialize in weapons, and just inside its door was a case showing new additions to its 20,000 artifacts.  One was a fingerprint comparator.

When I entered the morgue area, I was a bit shocked to find many Chinese students totally involved.  A sign said “Please do not open morgue drawers…they are authentic and irreplaceable”, but these kids had opened several and were jotting notes on them as if they were school desks.  One boy was closely examining a bite mark station near a Frankenstein table on which bodies used to be examined.   I saw the cause of the boy’s interest after he walked away.  A paper explained how bite marks on pencils and the like are often useful to investigators.  If you’re interested in CSI and longing to become a morgue technician, this is the place for you.

I was in the Vancouver Police Museum because the staff at the 5 Compass Canada Place Visitor Centre told me it was an often overlooked gem.  They were right.


The Atypical Institute of Texas Cultures


The lady carrying the pot on her head was an early Texan.  She was a member of the Caddo tribe and lived in what is now the eastern part of the Lone Star State.  Her town had temples and plazas.  The men she knew were farmers and hunters.  If she lived in the middle of the 16th century, she may have seen some male European explorers.  About 5,000 of her people still live in Texas, Oklahoma, etc.   I took her picture in the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.

The Institute of Texas Cultures is affiliated with the Smithsonian.  Its building was once a World’s Fair pavilion because back in 1968 San Antonio hosted HemisFair, an international exposition involving 30 countries. HemisFair’s theme was the celebration of the many groups, like the Caddos, who contributed to Texas culture.   After the fair closed, some wise curators kept the good stuff on view and ITC became a permanent, excellent museum.

The Institute of Texas Cultures provides a lively, often unexpected education in the history of the people of Texas.  Well prepared volunteers, like some quilting ladies, were available to tell me about the past.  After I learned about the Clovis people and other native settlers, I moved on to Irish, Scots, and Brits and realized that this is not your ordinary ethnographic museum, as in thousands of unread, dry facts.  11 men from Ireland died at The Alamo.  Half Scot, half Cherokee Jesse Chisolm established a wagon route from Kansas to Oklahoma that became the history-making, cattle-driving Chisolm Trail.  Dealey Plaza was named for two Brit Brothers who owned the Dallas Morning News.

To me the most surprising story in the entire museum involved African-American Stella Hollis. Stella began researching her family history in 1990 and learned that her great-great Grandmother, Emeline Miller, lived in the White House!  When she was 8, Emeline was given by President Andrew Jackson to his 3-year-old grandniece Mary as a christening gift.  Emeline, Mary’s “personal servant”, moved to Texas in 1855 where she earned her freedom and had 8 children.

Germans are the 4th largest ethnic group in Texas, and many towns like Fredericksburg have German names.  Born there, Frank Van der Stucken Jr. conducted the 1st American concert in Europe, led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and entertained Edvard Grieg with his compositions.

Many Hungarian Texans struggled with loyalty issues during the Civil War. They and other immigrants, especially those from Europe, didn’t know whether to join the North or the South.  This must have been true for great numbers of folks struggling to learn English and become Texans who had no background with American civil unrest yet had to take sides.  The ethnic group I had no knowledge about were the Wendish.  The Institute even asked, “Who are the Texas Wends?  Their ethics roots were in Lusatia, part of Saxony and Prussia.  600 of them landed in Galveston in 1854 after a difficult Atlantic crossing.

Polish Pola Negri was a big movie star.  She made more than 20 movies like Good and Naughty for Paramount in the 1920s.  Her last film was Walt Disney’s The Moonspinners in 1964.  Pola moved to San Antonio where she lived quietly until she died in 1987.

At a party last night Pat told me that he thought there were only 4 American cities whose histories were important to learn about when visiting–New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, and San Antonio.  Like Tejanos and Hungarian Civil War soldiers, here was something new to think about.


Argyle Diamond Mine, Part 2


When Aboriginals regain the property that is now the Argyle Diamond Mine in 2020, they will also receive a village, a huge hole in the ground, a landing strip, etc.  When we actually toured the mine, our guide was an Aboriginal gentleman named Ted Hall.  He told us that his people weren’t sure what they’d do with this property when it was returned to them.  Under discussion were a resort or a training center.

Ted told us that an Argyle Good Neighbor Policy allowed diamond concerns that were initially looking for uranium and accidentally found diamonds instead to start mining operations in 1980.  A native tribunal negotiated for the Aboriginals, and in 2005 a new agreement allowed Argyle to go underground.

Ted told us some technical stuff about the operation.  There are now 24 miles of underground tunnels of 4 types:  2 carry vehicles, 1 aids ventilation, and the 4th moves the ore out.   Two crushers work constantly underground to process all mined material.  11 million tons of ore go through them each year.  Crushing is the 1st of 6 stages that eventually liberate diamonds from dirt.  The crushers are replaced every 2 to 4 weeks.  Diamond chips that can’t be used for jewelry go to China where they’re sewn into gowns.  20% of mine operators are females who have a reputation for looking after their machinery better than males.  Indians cut and polish all but the pinks that this mine is known for.  Pinks go to Perth.

After the mine closes, Aboriginals anticipate 5 years of land rehabilitation.   Some elders want to flood the pit and create a recreational lake.  Because industrial seepage into already existing Lake Argyle might become a problem, the Federal Government is heavily involved.

Then Ted lowered his voice and became emotional.  He told us that 4 elders signed over their tribal land for less that $400,000 per year and lots of corruption ensued.  Family votes were bought as were Toyotas that didn’t last very long in a place with few paved roads.  In their society younger tribal members like Ted couldn’t challenge the elders and many left.  Two of the elders died by 1998, and the remaining 2 invited him and the others back under a new management plan.  All income now goes into a fund and shares are sold.  This has led to investments in a dialysis machine, sports equipment to keep kids in school, scholarships, etc.  Ted said his hope is that his people and the other clan involved will never return to welfare dependency.  He then began explaining the concept of barramundi dreaming and lost me.

He brought my attention back when he said that there were still diamonds in the airstrip.   Sorters were watched constantly and searched before toilet breaks.  There was no trust in the system, and I couldn’t help but recall Ted’s words the next morning when Ruth & I attended a street fair and one booth was selling raw, unprocessed diamonds.

Our visit ended in the mine’s small, limited access museum with lots of locked doors where the largest diamond ever found in the area is on display along with lots of others.


Murder Scene: Louisiana State Capitol


The United States’ tallest capitol building is in Baton Rouge.  It’s a monumental 34 story tower that looks out-of-place in a town of no other soaring multi-level buildings.  It can be seen for miles as you approach. Inside, it’s showing its age, 83 years.  Inside, there are 26 kinds marble and one bullet hole.  The bullet hole is what most intrigued me.

I would have missed it if a guide hadn’t engaged Ruth in conversation and taken her to see the House and Senate.  I didn’t go because I was reading about the first Governor of Louisiana, William Charles Cole Claiborne, who voted for Thomas Jefferson as President and was described as a Democratic Republican.  Ruth and the guide found me, and he asked if I wanted to see the bullet hole.

Sure.  He led us down a corridor and pointed to what looked like a navel in a column just outside the Governor’s office.  It resulted from the many shots that were fired on Sunday evening, September 8, 1935.  The hail of bullets immediately killed Dr. Carl Austin Weiss.  He sustained 24 gunshot wounds. Huey Long, former Louisiana Governor and a U.S.  Senator, died about 40 hours later from a single gunshot wound.  The entire incident is still cloaked in mystery including which bullet caused the hole.

I vaguely remembered reading about this some years ago and seeing the Academy Award winning film All the King’s Men, but I was hazy about the details and asked if there was a book I might read.  The guide recommended The Day Huey Long Was Shot.  I finished it last night.

Huey Long was certainly a controversial public figure.  An explanation of what happened that Sunday evening is next to the bullet hole.  It says that to some Long was a champion of the poor who promised to share the nation’s wealth with them and that in 1935 he had Presidential aspirations.  To others, he was the Kingfish, a powerful demagogue who threatened constitutional liberties.  He was used to having his way.  His main goal to create the tallest one in the country, Long had his capitol built during The Depression in 14 months at a cost of only $5 million.   Three years later he was murdered inside and buried just outside.  The picture above is of his funeral that 100,000 people reportedly attended.  An imposing statue of Huey hovers over the grave and can be seen from the observation deck on the 27th floor.

In 1935, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss was thought to be the man who killed Huey Long.  The Day Huey Long Was Shot, written by David Zinman in 1963, offered many theories about what happened on 9/8/35.  Zinman’s conclusion was that Weiss probably didn’t kill Huey Long.  All the versions he presented add up to one reliable conclusion–we’ll never know for sure what really happened that day.





Argyle Diamond Mine, Part 1


The Argyle Diamond Mine tour left at 7:15 am.  Every seat was taken because these bus excursions from Kununurra occurred only 4 times a year. Otherwise, visitors had to fly in and pay about $750 per person for a guided tour.  We paid about $100 per person for a roughy 200 mile trip with 2 stops at the Doon Doon Roadhouse, a multi-course meal at the mine, a visit to its museum, etc.  The trip there was semi-beautiful with the Deception and Saw ranges often in view as were vast stretches of Indian sandalwood under cultivation.

Keith our driver, a retired pharmacist who knew the area well, kept up intermittently interesting commentary.  The commonly seen Boab trees that grew only in this part of Australia lost their leaves in the winter.  Yawn. Aboriginals watched for bright yellow flowers on native wild Kapok trees to follow the breeding cycle of freshwater crocs.  They relied on croc eggs for food.  Yuk.  Only 1% of crocodiles made it to maturity due to predators like eagles and, apparently, Aboriginals, who could gather as many eggs as they wanted.

The only vehicles sharing the road with us were nickel and iron ore mine trucks.  Keith told us that the blue, red and white ones carried nickel and the blue and yellow ones were loaded with iron ore.  Appearing exactly every 20 minutes with stunning regularity, they were heading for the port of Wyndham.

Keith told us we were about to drive over a new bridge.  Yawn.  But then he told us about the annual mountain bike challenge on the Gibb River Road from Derby to El Questro that drew an average of 750 contestants enduring heat and hardship over slightly more than 400 miles of severely corrugated, unpaved road.

As we neared the dirt road up to the mine, the talk became more about the mine.  Rio Tinto, its owner by contract until 2020, began extracting diamonds from a pit that became 1 ½ miles wide and ¾ mile long before Rio invested $3.6 billion in tunnels to move the operation underground.  Of the 400 employees at the facility now, only 25% were local Aboriginals.  Most of the others lived in Perth, 1,367 miles away, and worked 12 hour shifts with 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off.  This is surely one of the longest work commutes in the world.  The mine had its own airstrip and workers paid nothing for commercial flights.  Nice job perk but an industrial, incredibly remote work site.

Things quickly became eerily interesting.  No photography was permitted in diamond recovery areas, and we were warned that if we dropped our cameras or anything else not to pick it up.   We would be in a world of hurt involving security personnel if we forgot.  And our guide while at the mine, Ted Hall, was an Aboriginal who had a lot tell us about his people and the impact of the mine on their lives.