Lessons for Filming with Video in the Great American West

It was a quick trip with six stops for shooting test video in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming… three places along the Platte River (east of where the North Platte and the South Platte join to form the Platte), Courthouse & Jail Rocks, Chimney Rock, and the deep trail ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming.

My first three stops were in the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. The Platte River is too shallow for even canoe travel and, I suppose, is why there is an abundance of wildlife along its course. Lesson #1: eagles and other birds live here and they don’t have much tolerance for a small drone aircraft trying to film their habitat. Mine was chased behind a tree by a large golden eagle and was approached by him if ever I left the safety of that tree. It was a beautiful bird, but the drone was expensive and I didn’t want to lose it. He can be seen chasing another bird just above the water’s surface at the :50 mark… just before he veered off toward me.

Lesson #2: since the Platte is termed a “braided stream” it has a swampy, and yet sandy, bottom and has various islands and sandbars that are determined by the amount of water flowing in the river. Many emigrants in the 19th century lost wagons to quicksand and I suspect that it was not a wise idea for me to be walking alone on the wet sandbars to fly the drone. Danger from quicksand is probably unusual, but I’ve read accounts of when it has happened.

Having said all of that, videography using the drone at altitude along the river is the only way to view this remarkable landscape and put it in context with the surrounding area.

In Nebraska, Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock together create a formation that, from a distance, resembles a jail next to a courthouse. It looks best from a distance of 3 to 5 miles away. I followed a county road to a “park” that led nearly to the base of these two formations and it was really too close to make out that resemblance. However, I was close enough to get some nice aerial video of the two rocks as rock formations. I was careful to fly over areas that I could retrieve the drone if it “came down”, leading to lesson #3: “Rattlesnakes are common in this area”. They are camouflaged in scrub brush throughout the west, and a guy in shorts and running shoes has no business trekking through that landscape even if it is to retrieve his camera mounted on a drone.

The next stop was Chimney Rock in Nebraska, and lesson #3 applied here as well (it actually applies about everywhere in the west). In fact, there were numerous signs in the area reminding me of that special rule. The National Parks Service has specified an area around this rock formation as a “no fly zone” so I needed to fly outside of this area. It wasn’t hard to do, and it led to my learning about lesson #4: many things in the west are bigger and further away than the eye comprehends. Whether I flew 200 feet side-to-side to get an aerial view or ascended to 200 feet to get a good view really didn’t hold much of an advantage over video filmed with a terrestrial video camera. This, it turned out, was a valuable lesson in good videography.

The last stop for video testing was at the deep trail ruts in Guernsey, Wyoming. There is an airport right next door, so flying a drone for video was not even a consideration. It was here that the Oregon-California Trail narrowed and the wagons were forced to go in a single file though this area. Some of the ruts in this area are, probably, 6 feet high and six feet wide carved mostly from thousands of wagon wheels and the hooves of so many animals pulling them. Even though the video camera was right there in the ruts it was difficult to capture the height, narrowness, and ruggedness of the ruts. Probably filming in the early morning or late afternoon would be best so that the shadows show some of the relief of the terrain. Also, it may be that video just cannot capture this well and a physical trip to the ruts is necessary to see for yourself what the emigrants endured as part of their hardships traveling west.

For me, travel in the Great American West is a nostalgic and romantic experience. Filled with rivers, incredibly large objects, unimaginable distances, an almost limitless horizon and skies sometimes filled with stunning cloud formations it tells a story of the beauty of our land. To the Native Americans, who were its custodians for thousands of years, it is described by author, N. Scott Momaday, as “a dream landscape filled with sacred realities… powerful things. It is a landscape that has to be seen to be believed… and may have to be believed in order to be seen.”

Click here to see a short video from this trip in August, 2016.

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 5 Comments

On the Road Again in the Great American West

I’m on the road again in the Great American West following the Oregon-California Trail in the 1850 footsteps of John App. This time it is a quick trip to test how best to film the landscape in the west as compared to how it is filmed in eastern states. I’ve learned a lot, and hope to apply this knowledge when creating a family video documentary of John App’s journey from Pekin, Illinois to California’s gold fields.

The first place I tested filming was along the Platte River in Nebraska, which according to Wikipedia “is about 310 miles (500 km) long, is a tributary of the Missouri River, which itself is a tributary of the Mississippi River which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The Platte over most of its length is a muddy, broad, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom and many islands—a braided stream. These characteristics made it too difficult for canoe travel, and it was never used as a major navigation route by European-American trappers or explorers.” It was a crucial element in forming the path taken by the emigrants on the Oregon-California Trail, and in the next post I will have some video demonstrating the “look” of this river.

The next stop was sort of serendipitous and not intended for filming, but it was a very important stop for the travelers along the trail. Ash Hollow was an oasis where many travelers rested before beginning the more arduous journey to the west along the last of the relatively flat trail. It was a place where animals could be watered and fed, and where wagons and equipment could be repaired.

Ash Hollow

Ash Hollow

Ash Hollow

Ash Hollow

The Nebraska Historical Society describes it this way: “Ash Hollow is four miles in total length, from about 1,000 feet wide between its gateway cliffs near the North Platte up to 2,000 feet rim to rim, and with an average depth of some 250 feet. Most emigrants who passed through Ash Hollow stopped for rest and refitting. According to Merrill Mattes’s Great Platte River Road, “In a country otherwise devoid of noteworthy features, Ash Hollow, with its high white cliffs, flower beds, oasis-like patches of trees and shrubbery, and beneficent clear springs, is an outright marvel.”

 

 

The second place to test filming was Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Nebraska. Resembling from a distance a jail next to a courthouse, it certainly was a recognizable landmark for the travelers. The National Parks Service describes the landmark this way: “Courthouse Rock was first noted by Robert Stuart in 1812 and quickly became one of the guiding landmarks for fur traders and emigrants. It is a massive monolith of Brule clay and Gering sandstone south of the trail, which was variously likened to a courthouse or a castle. A smaller feature just to the east was called the Jail House or Jail Rock. Courthouse Rock was the first of several impressive natural landmarks along the trail in western Nebraska.

Courthouse and Jail Rocks

Courthouse and Jail Rocks

In November of 1841, Rufus B. Sage recorded, “A singular natural formation, known as the Court House, or McFarlan’s Castle . . . rises in an abrupt quadrilangular form, to a height of three or four hundred feet, and covers an area of two hundred yards in length by one hundred and fifty broad. Occupying a perfectly level site in an open prairie, it stands as the proud palace of Solitude, amid here boundless domains. Its position commands a view of the country for forty miles around and meets the eye of the traveler for several successive days, in journeying up the Platte.”

Stop number three was at Chimney Rock, arguably the most notable landmark along the entire Oregon-California Trail. Visible from sometimes 40 miles away it stood as an ancient beacon to the travelers as a place to rest and find water and grass for their animals.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock

It also served as an indicator for gauging the rate of their progress west along the trail. It is probably considered to be “the symbol” of the great western migration. It is a natural geologic formation (from erosion) that towers 480 feet (146 meters) above the North Platte River Valley. It is visible proof that things out west are certainly larger and further away than a human eye can judge.

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 2 Comments

The Story of Pvt Andrew Longley (American Civil War)

Andrew LongleyAndrew Longley was a nineteen year old farm boy who on February 25, 1864 mustered into Company C, 9th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers as private in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The family farm was located a few miles south of Elkhart, Indiana on 80 acres of land where the house still exists today.

His story is not too different from thousands upon thousands of other stories during the war, but after more than 150 years we have his story to recall and to ponder. Most profound stories in life come from average people who have become forgotten once they have taken the more eternal path.

Andrew Longley had been in the service less than three months when he was wounded near Dalton, Georgia while fighting along with William Tecumseh Sherman on his march to Atlanta. He was shot with a Minié Ball (conical bullet) that pierced his left lung and lodged in his left shoulder. Two thirds of the wounded during the Civil War succumbed to disease rather than directly from their wounds. Forty two days after he was shot at the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, Andrew Longley died of pneumonia with the bullet still lodged in his shoulder.

During this time Andrew was able to write three touching letters home to his parents. We have copies of his letters along with other military, medical, and death records, but only this one photograph exists and shows him in uniform. He was my great-great uncle on my mother’s side of the family (Moore/Longley). Andrew’s mother, Julia Longley, was my great-great grandmother, his sister, Frances Anna, was my great grandmother, and Bernard Moore (Anna’s son) was my grandfather. In the video below, Andrew is alive again for six minutes.

Andrew Longley was originally buried in a cemetery just south of Elkhart, but in 1910 he was re-buried in the Prairie Street Cemetery where his mother had purchased some family plots. Bernard Moore, Andrew’s nephew, owned a well drilling company in Elkhart and carried the casket on his horse drawn wagon about two miles to the new resting place.

He was referred to as “Uncle Andy” by my uncle, Wayne Longley Moore. Although my uncle never knew Andrew he had heard stories from his grandmother, Frances Anna, and his middle name of Longley was given in honor of his great uncle.

Andrew Longley is buried next to his nearly unreadable sand-stone monument in the old section of the Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart, Indiana. At monuments such as this one the owners have left us their names… but some have left us their stories.

The Pvt Andrew Longley Story
Posted in Civil War Soldiers' Posts | 6 Comments

Following John App’s Journey to California – Summing it All Up

I have followed John App’s journey west to California for the gold rush by car for the past eleven years. He left in March of 1850 from Pekin, Illinois where he was the mayor’s assistant, and arrived in what is now Nevada County, California probably in late July or early August of that year at the same time quartz-bearing gold was discovered near present day Grass Valley, California. It was here that he learned how to mine gold from quartz veins.

Dividing his journey into five segments I followed him in 2003, 2008, 2010, 2012, and now in 2014. His hand-written diary ended after segment 4, although it is certain he maintained his diary in another book that we do not have. His segment 5 travels are based on fact, and where there are few facts we can only surmise, based on his character, what he may have done. That is the value of traveling in his footsteps. It is one thing to read his diary and it is something else entirely to follow him on the trail. It is living history at its best when you are there sensing his emotion on the journey… something that can’t be explained, only experienced.

While learning quartz mining techniques first in Nevada County and later in Amador County, John had met Leanna Donner one of the surviving daughters of the Donner Party. At the time she was living near Sonoma, California with her younger half-sister at the home of the Brunner’s (an elderly Swiss couple) who took them in as orphans after they were rescued from being trapped high in the Sierras during the winter of 1846-1847 (see the story of the Donner Party). Sometimes Leanna would travel to Sutter’s Fort (now present day Sacramento). Sacramento was a supply depot for the gold fields and that is undoubtedly where they met. In February, 1852, John wrote Leanna a love poem so we know that an important relationship had been established. In late July of 1852 John was east in the Sierras (possibly prospecting for gold) and joined the Clark-Skidmore Party (a wagon train made up of men from Indiana and Ohio) somewhere along the Carson River trail near where it branches off and follows the Walker River (basically, an unproven trail). It was known for some time that large pockets of quartz-bearing gold were being discovered in the foothills near Sonora, California and all of the men had an interest in getting there as quickly as possible.

Joseph Morehead, a scout, was sent out from Sonora to intercept wagon trains and divert them to that area thus keeping them from going to other mountain camps to mine. Morehead convinced the Clark-Skidmore Party to follow him since it would be a shorter and quicker route. Unfortunately, Morehead did not blaze his trail and missed a critical marker taking them on a much more arduous and lengthy trip out of the mountains. The men were starving and weary. Along the route a mountain lake was encountered that they could not go around and they had no resources or strength to turn back. Thinking “outside the box” they got out their shovels and dug tons of dirt and rock to partially drain the lake so that the wagons could pass over the muddy end of it. This is a very short version of a much longer story about one of California’s most notable pioneer wagon trains, but John App arrived in the Sonora area around the first of September, 1852.

John prospected for gold along the Wood’s Creek area of Jamestown, California before leaving for Sacramento where he and Leanna Donner were married on September 26, 1852. They returned immediately and built a home near Jamestown which still stands today. Over the years John App founded the App Mine (one of the largest gold producers of the southern mines) and owned other mines and properties sometimes as part of the App Consolidated Mining Company. Laurie, a fifth cousin of mine, is researching all of the mines and properties that he owned in the area (Tuolumne County). Big job!

This was a fun research trip for me, but the best was researching with Laurie, being with (and being taken care of by 5th cousins) Lois & Jerry, seeing Ricky and his wonderful family, and interviewing (with video) three other distant cousins Frank, “Tis”, and Patricia (Pat seems more like my California mom, I think). Their stories of the past are now preserved digitally so that future generations can enjoy and learn from them. They have accomplished an important thing by keeping alive a part of the history of true California pioneers that cannot be found in textbooks. Thank you.

John App and wife Leanna Donner

John App and wife Leanna Donner

Diagram of the App Mine shaft levels

Diagram of the App Mine shaft levels

Frank and "Tis" Gurney

Frank and “Tis” Gurney

Pat Heiskell Hillman

Pat Heiskell Hillman

The 5th cousins at Pinecrest Lake

The 5th cousins at Pinecrest Lake

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 2 Comments

Following John App’s Journey to California – Concluding Research

The past two days (August 18 & 19, 2014) have been devoted primarily to research at the Carlo De Ferrari Archives in Sonora, California. To help fill in some of the missing pieces of John App’s journey through California, my 5th cousin, Laurie Ennis Walsh and I have been attempting to document all of the properties he owned, all the mines he owned, and look for his obituary.

Yesterday when I arrived at the Archives Laurie had already found John’s obituary in an August 24, 1898 edition of “The Mother Lode Magnet”, at the time a local Tuolumne County newspaper. I had never seen the document before and wondered if it might contain some hints of his earlier life. It did.

The issue of the properties and mines owned is a little more difficult to track because John was continually buying and selling. Fortunately, he documented just about everything… just not always in a sequential way. Bits and pieces to this puzzle are found, sometimes, randomly. However, Laurie is “hot on the trail” of this information.

The App Mine itself was one of the largest producers of the southern mines and that is very evident to see. The homestead house still exists but is vacant now. Although it appears to be a little “ragged” the structure itself is still rock solid. It was built in 1852 of sugar pine wood from the Algerine mill which was located some distance away. John would take a horse and wagon down a dirt trail to the mill each day for a load of wood, and then drop some of it by the church he was helping to build (today’s Jamestown United Methodist Church) and the rest to the house he was building for Leanna and himself. It must have been a tedious process, but that’s what he did day after day. Today, there are buyers interested in period restoration and preservation of the house as an historic site.

John died on August 18, 1898 in Stockton, California while travelling by train back to Jamestown from San Francisco. He hadn’t been feeling well and went to see a doctor for his difficulty with “yellow jaundice”. He was not a drinker but was taking lots of 1898 medications. He had sent for his son, John Quincy App, to come to meet him for the return trip so that he could die at home, but he only made it as far as Stockton. The funeral was at his home and the obituary concluded with “To the widow and children of the deceased it is a pleasure to know that in the opinion of his acquaintances he was an affectionate husband and father, a generous friend and public-spirited citizen, whose loss is deeply felt in this community.”

The John App homestead 2014

The John App homestead 2014

App Street with the App Mine in the hill beyond

App Street with the App Mine in the hill beyond

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 2 Comments

Following John App’s Journey to California – on the Trail to Sonora

Sunday, August 17, 2014, was a day with two important discoveries. The first was a family get-together/picnic at Pinecrest Lake in the Sierras with App descendents who have an interest in preserving family history. Lois & Jerry O’Day, Laurie Ennis Walsh and her mother “Dot”, Ricky Modrell and his beautiful family, and me. We compared historical notes and thoughts and were surprised (and satisfied) that individually we had come to the same conclusions on various matters that involve questions on this segment of John App’s journey. History aside, it was great being with these wonderful people in a beautiful place after… well, 162 years!

After the picnic Lois and I drove up to Sonora Pass for a glimpse of the geography that John App and the Clark-Skidmore Party needed to overcome to arrive safely in Sonora, California. In yesterday’s post I had been talking about John’s arrival and showed some pictures of golden, rolling hills and an arrival from the north of Sonora. Please understand that this was MY arrival into Sonora from the north on a paved road in an air-conditioned car. In this post I have included some photos of JOHN’S trip toward Sonora, along with the Clark-Skidmore Party, in 1852. There is a dramatic difference in the two arrivals, as you can see.

In 1852 the Walker-River route that John App and the rest took was essentially an unproven route (except for the Bartleson-Bidwell Party 11 years prior in 1841). They had no road, 57 hungry men, and crossed the pass at over 9,600 feet. A person can read about their trip and understand it, but they would have to actually be here in person to appreciate the enormity of this feat. Even the pictures displayed here cannot do justice to the situation, but they will have to suffice.

In the photo of the plaque there is a line that reads “This route was not attempted by wagons until 1852”, which is a reference to the Clark-Skidmore Party and their struggles. This is followed by a comment by “Grizzly Adams” (yes, the real Grizzly Adams who lived in this area) about the wagon parts he found from the Party’s slog through the mountains two years prior.

What an interesting day!

The App descendants history squad

The App descendants history squad

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass and the incredible journey

Sonora Pass historical marker

Sonora Pass historical marker

Modrell's dog, Timber

Modrell’s dog, Timber

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 2 Comments

Following John App’s Journey to California – Arriving in Sonora

On Saturday, August 16, 2014, two National Park Rangers and I had scheduled a trip to an area of the Stanislaus National Forest to get a good view of the last part of the route of the Clark-Skidmore Party though the Walker River route and nearly to Sonora, California. Unfortunately, their vehicle would not start and by the time it was repaired there was not enough time to make the lengthy trip. This was the first “research casualty” and a bit of a disappointment, but can be overcome with a workaround.

The Parks Service has boxes of 35 millimeter slide photos taken over the years by rangers who have hiked the entire route and they will provide me with some really nice pictures when they have them digitized. This is important because to appreciate the enormity of the Clark-Skidmore situation you must actually be there or see photos. Just reading about it does not do it justice.

For example, late into the trip a guide was leading the party to Sonora but he missed a critical turning point to reach Sonora safely. The reason was that when the guide went out to meet the group he did not blaze his trail well (very bad news). There was a point where a mountain Lake was completely blocking their travel. There was no way to go around it, and they did not have the resources to go back. Thinking outside the box, they decided to partially drain the lake so they could take the wagons and traverse over one end of it. I had read that it was an especially muddy crossing, but it paid off as they all broke out their shovels and moved “thousands of tons of earth” to allow the lake to drain a little. It is one thing to read about this and it is another thing to be there (even looking at a photo) to see the geography, imagine the men’s’ weakness from lack of food, and to realize they did this at 10,000 feet in altitude!

The following photos are from along Highway 49 when I arrived, and not of the route that the Clark-Skidmore Party travelled. I will post pictures from that route tomorrow. It is unbelievable!

Just outside Sonora, California
Just outside Sonora, California

 

Just outside Sonora, California

Just outside Sonora, California

John App & wife Leanna (Donner) App gravesite on the outskirts of Jamestown, California

John App & wife Leanna (Donner) App gravesite on the outskirts of Jamestown, California

Posted in California-Oregon Trail Posts | 2 Comments