Thursday, September 3, 2020

Sea Shells in the Church Walls (& other mysteries of the Casper Formation)


For geologist and bishop Nicholaus Steno, science was a way to understand God's work (source).

On the morning of August 13,1894, mason Michael Bergin picked up a stone to add to the new Episcopalian church in Laramie, Wyoming. But upon inspecting it, he spotted a fossil very different from the others he had found.

"CURIOUS FOSSIL. Found in the Sandstone Rock of the Cathedral" announced a headline in the Laramie Boomerang (newspaper) later that day. "It is a shell exactly like a miniature buffalo head ... the solid part corresponding to the head is about an inch in diameter, the horns about an inch long and three inches from tip to tip." Bergin set the stone aside for Professor J.D. Conley, curator of the University of Wyoming Museum.

Stonemasons at St. Matthew’s Cathedral regularly found fossils, saving the better ones for Professor Conley. He had already identified the clam-like allorisma, snail-like bellerophon, and pinna, which resembled a razor shell oyster. "The professor is gathering facts to put into a bulletin on the subject," explained the Boomerang.

But the article ignored the remarkable mystery these creatures implied. They were marine—all inhabitants of oceans. Yet the stones were quarried just east of Laramie. How did sea shells end up so far from a sea, and 7000+ feet above sea level?

A Persistent Question

Four centuries earlier, in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, scientist Nicholaus Steno asked the same question, but in Latin: “Quomodo res marinae in locis a mari remotis derelictae fuere?” How was marine life abandoned in places far from the sea?

No answer was immediately forthcoming. In the 1600s, geology did not exist, and knowledge was strongly shaped by church teachings, which did not address things like sea shells high in the mountains. Steno had to rely on field work and his own clever mind to solve the puzzle.

After examining many specimens, all of which looked like sea shells down to the finest level of detail, he concluded they were sea shells, now entombed in rock. They must have risen from sea level, thousands of vertical feet! This meant the surface of the Earth was dynamic, changing dramatically since the Creation. Steno's findings contradicted strict biblical interpretation—that God had created an immutable Earth—but the Church did not object. Science was increasingly seen as a way to understand and appreciate God's work.

Steno's interpretation of an angular unconformity, from his Prodromus, 1671.


How appropriate then that St. Matthew’s Cathedral contributed to our understanding of local geology. Specifically, the fossils revealed when the rock formed. "These specimens all serve to identify and locate more definitely [in time] the geological formation of the sandrock lying east of the city ... This is the carboniferous [Period] in the upper Paleozoic [Era]."

But the Boomerang mentioned none of the immense numbers geologists love—millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years. That's because in 1894 there was no way to determine absolute ages of rocks. We now know the Cathedral sandstone formed sometime between 325 and 300 million years ago, when much of southeast Wyoming was submerged.

For millions of years sand, shells, and limey muck accumulated on the floor of that Paleozoic sea. Then they lay buried for several hundred million years more, gradually changed to sandstone and limestone.

The Rocks Rise

While Nicolaus Steno was convinced that rocks could rise thousands of feet, he never came up with an explanation for how. In fact, how mountains rise proved to be a most persistent question. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that it was answered satisfactorily: The Earth's surface consists of giant shifting plates that collide, sink, override, fuse, and more. The effects can be dramatic.

Between 70 and 30 million years ago, the Pacific plate was diving under the North American plate, compressing and crumpling the interior of the continent, creating among other things the Rocky Mountains. With uplift of the Laramie Range, ancient marine limestones and sandstones, carrying fossil shells, rose thousands of vertical feet. Erosion later exposed these rocks, setting the stage for Laramie's promising building stone industry.

Quarrying stone just east of Laramie; date unknown.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming (AHC).

Inexhaustible Supply of Rock

On May 11, 1886, the Boomerang proudly announced "Vast Deposits of Sandstone Only Three Miles from Laramie." This was great news. Planning was underway for the University of Wyoming's first building, to be constructed entirely of sandstone. However the nearest quarries were in Rawlins and Ft. Collins; transportation probably would be too costly.

Ever the civic promoter, the Boomerang declared Laramie's stone to be "equal to any in the world. ... It is useless to send to Colorado at great expense for rock which is not one particle superior, either in strength, beauty, evenness ..." The local quarries were inspected, the stone tested. In August, a contract was signed. The University Building (today's Old Main) rose quickly, completed in time for the first classes in September 1887.

Old Main under construction, University of Wyoming, ca. Dec. 1868 (AHC).
Though the industry never became a booming business, Laramie's dimensional stone was used in local buildings into the 1950s. These included the Albany County Courthouse, Ivinson Mansion (Laramie Plains Museum), Ivinson Home for Ladies, many buildings on campus, and perhaps most spectacularly, St. Matthew's Cathedral.

"One of the Most Beautiful and Complete Churches in the entire Western Country"

In 1892, on September 21 (St. Matthew's Day), the Boomerang gave front-page coverage to the laying of the cornerstone of St. Matthew's Cathedral. In the recently completed basement, hundreds listened to distinguished clergymen speak eloquently and at length. Then three officers from the Grand Lodge of the Free Masons—equipped with square, level, and plumb—set the stone.

St. Matthew’s Cathedral as originally planned; the final was somewhat smaller. Laramie Boomerang, Sep 22, 1892.

It was said that the Cathedral would be completed within a year. But the walls would rise in spurts, as funding waxed and waned. Bishop Ethelbert Talbot traveled far afield in his fund-raising. Big donors included friends in the east, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt ($1500) and J.P. Morgan ($1000), and the Mother Church in England.

By the end of 1896, the grand structure was ready to serve its congregation and was dedicated before a crowd of almost a thousand on December 17. Twenty years later, Edward Ivinson made a large donation in memory of his wife, Jane, to finish the towers.

St. Matthew's Cathedral before towers were completed (in 1916); photo ca. 1910-1915 (AHC).
St. Matt's in 1935 (AHC).

According to common knowledge, the cathedral stones came from the university quarry, nine miles northeast of Laramie. But an 1894 Boomerang article about a proposed railroad building suggests otherwise. Planners noted that cathedral stone was less expensive than university stone, as the cathedral quarry was closer to town. But which of today's abandoned quarries it was remains a mystery.

Adding to the puzzle is confusion regarding rock type. Cathedral descriptions variously refer to limestone, silicious limestone, limey sandstone, or sandstone. The Casper Formation, where Laramie's quarries were developed, contains all of these.

Reading the Casper Formation

To a geologist, a formation is a group of rocks that is both recognizable and extensive enough to map. The Casper Formation extends from Casper Mountain south along both sides of the Laramie Range into Colorado. It's a mix of limestone, sandstone and everything in between. Herein lie important geological clues!

Geologists say they study the past by "reading the rocks." What have they learned by reading the Casper Formation? We already know from its fossilized sea shells that there was an ocean here 300 million years ago. But there's more.

Let's start with limestone, which forms from limey muck deposited in deep water far from shore, out of reach of sediments from land. The northern part of the Casper Formation is dominated by limestone, indicating the area around the towns of Casper and Douglas was submerged in deep water during much of the Paleozoic Era (tour map below shows features mentioned here).

But in the Laramie area, the Casper is mainly sandstone with occasional beds of limestone. Sand, being coarse, doesn't travel far, so sandstone is a sign of shallower water closer to shore. The limestone beds are a bit of a mystery, with geologists still debating the details. Most likely they formed when the sea advanced, perhaps with rising sea level. So Laramie probably was in deep water occasionally, the shoreline farther away.

The Casper Formation also contains clues about the shoreline itself. Not far south of Laramie are outcrops of cross-bedded sandstone (criss-crossed layers). These are remains of sand dunes deposited by wind along the ancient shore.

Just beyond the dune field was the Ancestral Front Range. We know of these ghostly mountains because the Casper sandstone contains abundant feldspar. Feldspar is a soft mineral that breaks down quickly. It must have been carried to the sea by fast-flowing streams from mountains close by.

Tour Paleozoic Laramie

Yellow very roughly outlines the Casper Formation (above and below ground).

With an able imagination, you can tour the Laramie area 300 million years ago. Start in a dune field at the foot of the Ancestral Front Range. Venture into shallow waters of the Paleozoic sea and then to its depths. At the final stop, careful beach combing should turn up some of its ancient inhabitants.

1. Sand Creek National Natural Landmark straddles the state line along Sand Creek Rd. (CR 34; gravel) about 19 mi south of Laramie. Amidst monuments and hoodoos of cross-bedded sandstone, imagine yourself in a field of dunes at the base of a rugged mountain range, looking north across the Paleozoic sea. The Landmark is mostly private with two small parcels of WY state land; an ownership map is needed to explore beyond the road.
"Grotto at Sand Creek"—S.H. Knight photo, 1899 (AHC).

2. Visit Roger Canyon to see the Paleozoic seafloor up close. From Reynolds St. in Laramie, go north on 9th about 0.7 mi to where it becomes Roger Canyon Rd. ZERO YOUR TRIP ODOMETER HERE. At 6.9 mi ("No Winter Maintenance" sign) stop in the tiny turnout right (private land; stay on shoulder). Across the road is the reclaimed university quarry. Here the Casper is limey sandstone (well-cemented). Head up the canyon. At 8.0 mi, you will enter public land and limestone—having traveled back in time to when the water was deeper and the seafloor covered in limey muck. Public land continues for about a mile.
Chris and Ed of Laramie brave the smokey air to ascend lithified seafloor muck in Roger Canyon.

3.  St. Matthew's Cathedral stands on the northeast corner of Ivinson and 3rd. Wander the grounds to admire Laramie's fine dimensional stone in the walls of the highest Cathedral in the US (steeple reaches 7276 feet above sea level). Search for sea shells in the exterior stone, but please don't touch (binoculars are handy).

About that Miniature Buffalo ... any ideas?
Professor Conley reportedly left Laramie in a huff in 1896, having been passed over for department head. The fate of the Cathedral specimens is unknown, and no bulletin was published. Michael Bergin’s curious fossil remains among the mysteries of the Casper Formation ... unless you recognize it. If so, please leave a Comment below!

This is my latest contribution (with extra photos) to the Laramie History series in the Laramie Boomerang (published August 30, 2020).

Friday, August 14, 2020

My Purple Tree on a Lovely Day in the Park

Last month, an afternoon thunderstorm kept me from visiting the chokecherry tree I'm following. So when I saw it yesterday, I was really surprised. It's purple!
In the wild, chokecherries have green leaves. But there are purple-leaf cultivars that turn from green to purple over the summer. They're said to turn gradually, but having skipped July, I missed the transition.
I especially like the trunk.
In June, I visited shortly after a heavy wet snow fell. With trees already leafed out, the town was a mess of downed branches. This tree suffered a broken branch, a major one. But it stayed in place, and the vascular cambium (main growth tissue, under the bark) continues to function—plenty of leaves and cherries.
The damaged branch droops, but is covered with leaves and cherries.
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are native to North America, from Canada to northern Mexico. "Choke" refers to the astringency of the berries. Indeed, it takes a lot of sweetener to convert chokecherry juice into syrup, jelly or wine. I'm happy to leave them on the tree for birds to harvest.

LaBonte Lake, known to locals as Stink Lake, was emitting no foul odors despite our consistently warm weather—highs in the mid 80s F (~30º C). Through binoculars (for birding) I could see that the City's aerator was working, bubbling away. It was such a lovely day in the park. So I stayed awhile.

This is my monthly contribution to the virtual gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrel Basket. Consider joining us—it's interesting, fun, and stress-free! More information here.

Monday, July 13, 2020

A Tree-related Post

I had it all planned: errand 1, errand 2, … errand 5, then to LaBonte Park to visit the tree I’m following. It would be a nice outing by bicycle on a sunny afternoon in Laramie. True, a dark sky loomed to the north. But the wind was from the south, should be fine.

The first raindrops fell when I left the post office for the park. Then more. Did I continue, sit under a picnic shelter, wait it out? No. Now I’m home listening to raindrops, thunder and the howling wind.

Consider joining us; more information here.
Fortunately, the Squirrel Basket, who hosts our monthly gatherings, has noted: “Some of you may be able to visit your trees but for others any tree-related post will be acceptable during these unusual times. I’m sure you will think of something interesting to say.”

I don’t really qualify as being unable to visit my tree. But in any case, I didn’t. So I offer this post about fir broom rust, a fungal pathogen of true fir trees in North America. An overpoweringly sweet one stopped me on a hike last month.
Is that a little fir tree in the big fir tree? No, it’s a witch’s broom!
Chickweed is the alternate host for this rust (a fir tree isn’t enough). USDA Forest Service.

Rusts have a reputation for being so complex and esoteric that only a bionerd would want to learn about their life. Yet among the readers who enjoyed the post were a musician and a paleontologist. Maybe you will too …
Rust life cycle 'simplified' ... yikes!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Rust in the Forest – complicated, but at times sweet

Little yellow fir tree on big green fir tree?
First I spotted it—dense yellow growth on a subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). Then I was hit by a powerfully sweet odor reminiscent of evening primroses opening at dusk. Up close, it was truly nauseating! The similarity of the deformity to the tree suggested a pathogen had modified its growth. But why the sickeningly sweet smell?

At home it didn’t take long to learn more. This is a common fungal pathogen of North American true firs—the fir broom rust, Melampsorella caryophyllacearum. Like all rusts, it’s an obligate parasite, unable to live on its own. It causes the fir to produce a dense growth of small shoots, a witch’s broom. Why? For reproduction, of course!

A simple answer, yes, but this is where things get really complicated.
Dense small needles on dense small shoots make a witch's broom.
Maybe you're like me, with vague memories from your college days of the notoriously complex life cycle of rusts. The fir broom rust fully lives up to this reputation, as it is macrocylic, passing through five different stages, each with a specific type of spore and reproductive structure. Furthermore, fir broom rust is heteroecious—requiring two different plant hosts. Can this really work?!

There’s no need to learn a lot of intimidating terms to appreciate the amazing life of a rust. Just being exposed to its convoluted but successful reproductive strategy—to understand it in a general way—is worth the time and effort. Let’s start at a convenient point in the life cycle.
Life of fir broom rust simplified (spore names added for interest).
A broom rust spore is carried by the wind (1. in diagram above) to a lower branch of a fir tree. If it happens to land on the growing tissue of a recently-opened bud, it produces a tiny tube that enters the host and causes growth of short disfigured shoots—the broom.

From the needles of the broom grow fungal reproductive structures of two types. The first produces sexual spores (2. in diagram above) in droplets with the distinctive too-sweet odor. This attracts insects, some of which might manage to carry a sexual spore to meet another of its kind for fertilization. If successful, a third type of reproductive structure is produced (photos below), releasing orange spores to be carried off by the wind (3. in diagram).
Infected, sickeningly sweet needles.
Ruptured aecia (fruiting bodies) of fir broom rust on needles; Bruce Watt photo.
This is the part that amazes me. These spores CANNOT infect fir trees; an alternate host is required. In the case of fir broom rust, perennial chickweeds serve as alternate hosts. They are members of  the pink family, Caryophyllaceae, which explains the second part of the rust’s scientific name.

If one of these wind-borne spores happens to land beneath a chickweed AND conditions are suitably moist, infection will occur. After a few weeks, reproductive structures of yet another type grow on the stems, leaves and flowers of the chickweed (photo below). These produce spores that can infect other chickweeds (the spreading infection at 4. in diagram). And so it goes through the end of the summer.
Fir broom rust on mouse-ear chickweed; US Forest Service RM Res. Stn.
The rust persists through the winter in the base of the chickweed plant; in spring, it infects new growth. But this time a different kind of spore (5. in diagram) is produced from a different kind of reproductive structure, and only on the lower leaves of the chickweed. These spores then divide to produce another kind of spore (actually, a familiar one). Millions of these fly with the wind to maybe land on … can you guess? … a fir branch! We’re back to 1. in the diagram.

It spite of massive numbers of spores, it seems the chance of success in such a life cycle is slim. Though a single broom produces millions of spores in a season, rate of chickweed infection is quite low. An infected chickweed in turn produces millions of spores, but rate of fir infection is equally low (except in monocultures such as Christmas tree farms). Yet the fir broom rust carries on. That’s optimism!
Brooms typically are on a low branch (arrow). Field assistant for scale.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Naming Trees

all the trees have names,
both family and genus
on small brass plaques at the base of each …
looking once like any other
burlapped ball of roots
when it was lowered to earth
those decades after the war. (1)

Tree-following sometimes becomes a struggle in identification (2). If we don’t know a tree’s name, don’t know its kind and all the information that goes with that, may we follow it? Sure, why not? But of course we feel a little guilty, and still hope to learn its name.

The tree I chose for 2020 has partially revealed its identity. With its elongate clusters of flowers and small fruit, it looks like a chokecherry. But the leaves differ from our native ones (Prunus virginiana). Is this a landscaping cultivar? I will check with the City arborist, whom I recently met (more below).
Leaves on sucker shoots are more chokecherry-like.
In the photo below, do you see that the left side of the crown is a bit droopy? A large limb broke with the heavy wet snow we had about a week ago. Unfortunately, all our trees had leafed out, so now the town is quite a mess with downed branches, especially from cottonwoods. Cleanup is underway.
Broken limb.
Cones and truck signal cleanup underway (note branches under cottonwood/poplar).

Next I visited the puzzling tree with maple-like samaras at the Art Museum, which I considered following earlier this year. It's now leafed out, in flower, and filled with busy insects.
Flowers not unlike maple flowers ... but leaves?
These sure look like maple samaras!
It’s puzzling because the leaves don’t look like maple leaves. Or so I thought.

But then two trees with names showed up in my yard. Please meet Winter King Hawthorne, Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’.
And … FANFARE!! … here's the dazzling Hot Wings Tartarian Maple, Acer tataricum 'GarAnn' PP 15023. Note the leaves on this maple!
These young trees reside in my yard courtesy of Rooted in Laramie. Laramie's arborist helped select locations. Tiger Tree did the planting, complete with stakes, mulch, slow-release water bags and trunk protectors. Through the fall, there will be in-person health-checks and e-mail reminders about caring for my new trees. All this for just $50 US per tree! I'm grateful to all the local businesses and organizations that contributed.
Two pros had the trees in the ground in no time.


(1) “Naming the Trees” by Bruce Guernsey was inspired by the national cemetery at Gettysburg. Read the entire poem at Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry (thanks to Tom Rea of for sending it).

(2) We tree-followers pick a tree to follow each year. We report on it monthly, in virtual meetings kindly hosted by The Squirrel Basket. Read the latest news here. Consider joining us! Jump in any time.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Laramie’s Opera Houses—culture on the frontier

Apparently Swain & Little's public brawl didn't hurt their business.
On a chilly February evening in 1874, Laramie grocer A.G. Swain stepped before a large crowd and declared: “There is no public virtue left!” He was forced to shout over the ensuing uproar. “Silence! Your throats offend the quiet of the city!” This so angered Geo. Little, his business partner that Little ordered a sword-brandishing horde to attack Swain. But W.M.C. Wilson, proprietor of the Brunswick Billiard Hall, showed up just in time. With his superb swordsmanship, he defeated the horde and saved his dear friend Swain.

Was this just another confrontation in the rough-and-tumble young town? Were Swain and Little settling a grocery dispute in true frontier style? Not at all! This was the grand opening of the Laramie Opera House.

“Opera” brings respect
By the 1870s, opera houses were common in the West. So great was the desire for decent entertainment that any town near a railroad had one. But most were operatic in name only. “Theater” was more appropriate but “opera house” sounded more respectable—a sign of transition from frontier to civilized society.

On February 23, 1874, just six years after Laramie was established, a large ad appeared in the newspapers: “GRAND OPENING OF THE LARAMIE OPERA HOUSE! Entirely New Scenery and New Costumes!” However, the costumes were still en route from New York, so the date had not been set.
Just four days later, the doors opened to a large crowd eager to witness the “Sublime and Thrilling Drama of Damon and Pythias.” Like many hits of the time, it delivered an uplifting moral message—the power of true friendship. The tyrant Dionysis (played by Judge L.D. Pease) was so impressed by the love and trust between Damon (grocer Swain) and Pythias (billiard hall owner Wilson) that he spared the lives of both.

The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative, as was the case whenever local talent took to the stage. “The universal verdict is that [the performers] succeeded beyond everybody’s most sanguine expectations” according to the Daily Sentinel. The play was far better than expected, or even possible for a company of amateurs.

The location of the Laramie Opera House now seems to be lost. Nor do surviving newspapers reveal who owned it, or how it came to be. But once operational, it was regularly in the news. Laramie sat on a major east-west rail line, and had ready access to traveling entertainment—popular drama, lectures, novelty shows, comedy, concerts, travelogues and more.

Quality was not guaranteed, however. Sometimes the “orchestra” turned out to be a piano player, or the “troupe” a single actor. But that was the exception. “Usually the touring companies had a good voice or two among them, and the melodies alone were worth the price of admission. What good luck for a country child to hear those tuneful old operas sung by people who were doing their best,” recalled author Willa Cather, from her girlhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Opera House in Red Cloud, Nebraska, c. 1903. Nebraska State Historical Society.

Lecturess and martyr
Among the highlights of 1874 was a lecture by Victoria C. Woodhull, well-known suffragette and proponent of ‘free love’ (a woman’s right to divorce). She was freshly out of jail, having been arrested for sending obscene literature through the mails, specifically a widely-read article about the affair between Henry Ward Beecher— popular pastor of a fashionable New York church—and the wife of his good friend Theodore Tilton.
Victoria C. Woodhull was nominated for president by the Equal Rights Party in 1872 (though women could vote only in Wyoming and Utah). Headline from Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, April 22, 1871; added photo by Matthew Brady, c. 1870.
When the charges were dropped six months later, Woodhull promptly hit the lecture circuit, drawing tremendous crowds. “Her subject will be a review of the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, entitled ‘The Naked Truth.’” The Daily Independent was adamant: “Mrs. Woodhull is highly spoken of as a lecturess of fine talents, and also as a martyr who has been sadly traduced by her prosecutors ... We advise our citizens to go and hear the lecture.”

Ireland comes to Laramie
In October, another nationally known act appeared at the Opera House—Healy’s Hibernian Gems. This well-known first-class troupe will present “a magnificent panorama of Ireland, on which is delineated nearly all the cities, towns and splendid ruins” announced the Daily Independent.

Hibernicons—Irish panoramas—were popular novelties of the time. These were early moving pictures, with sound! Healy’s 10,000-foot long canvas was attached to two spools; a hidden operator turned one, causing the other to unwind. As each of the 85 scenes appeared on the stage, the narrator served as tour guide while musicians, actors and comedians provided Irish-themed entertainment.

The Opera House also hosted dances, political and religious meetings, graduation exercises, trials, wrestling matches and more, with events regularly in the news. But after April 1875, they inexplicably disappeared, making the end of the Laramie Opera House as mysterious as its beginning.

High society gathers in a Thespian temple
In May of 1884, the famous German-American actor Daniel E. Bandmann and his troupe arrived in Laramie, shortly after returning from a five-year 700-performance world tour. Though best known as a Shakespearean, Bandmann was equally skilled in other genres. His leading role in the popular drama Narcisse was especially admired. No wonder high society was all aflutter—Bandmann would perform Narcisse in Laramie!
German-American Shakespearian actor Daniel E. Bandmann; date unknown (before 1905). Harvard Theater Collection.
On May 12, Herr Bandmann stepped on stage before “fashionable, cultivated and critical” citizens from Laramie, Cheyenne and Rawlins. The Laramie Boomerang proudly noted that the ladies were dressed “in the latest style and most elegant costumes, while the gentlemen, in many cases, appeared in full evening dress.” They were given delicately perfumed programs, skillfully designed by George Garrett, the Boomerang’s typographer.

The first act was “rather tame” but when Bandmann made his appearance in the second, as Narcisse Rameau, the mood changed entirely. His account of the terrible wrongs inflicted upon him, and “his subsequent bursts of histrionic pathos” brought warm and vigorous applause.

While he was just a young scholar, Narcisse Rameau’s wife had left him to become Madam Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. But virtue triumphed in the end. Madam P died and fell into the arms of the husband she had abandoned. Narcisse lived happily ever after with his new wife—the young, clever and beautiful actress, Doris Quinault. “Doris” was played by Louise Beaudet, herself a young, clever and beautiful actress. She also was co-owner of the theater company, and, infamously, Bandmann’s mistress.

The occasion for Bandmann & Beaudet’s Narcisse was the grand opening of the Holliday Opera House, above Holliday’s store and offices on the east side of Second, between today’s Garfield and Custer. A successful merchant and builder, W.H. Holliday spent between $20,000 and $55,000 on the project (reports vary).

Only first-class opera house between Omaha & Salt Lake City
The Daily Sentinel declared the new opera house to be “the only building and stage between Omaha and Salt Lake City for the rendering of first class dramas and spectacular scenes.” It was designed and supervised in person by stage architect H.W. Barbour, formerly employed by the Union Square Theater and Grand Opera House in New York, as well as theaters in Colorado, and Central and South America.
Holliday Opera House c. 1885. The building burned to the ground in 1948, in the great Holliday Fire, which destroyed much of downtown Laramie. From 1885 Laramie City map; Laramie Plains Museum.
The Opera House occupied the entire second story of Holliday’s building, with a 36-foot high ceiling, 70 x 36-foot stage, and seating for 700-800. The stage included a drop curtain featuring the Bay of Naples at sunset, and a full set of 12 x 20-foot “flats” [scenes]: Kitchen, Parlor, Prison, Garden, Horizon, Dark Wood, Rocky Pass, Snow Scene and more (18 total). Painted by Sosman & Landis of Chicago, they were “as fine as may be seen anywhere in the world” (Laramie’s press was reliably complimentary).

In marked contrast, the lighting was old tech—kerosene lamps, notoriously hazardous with their open flames. Many large lamps were installed, but even so, the light was dim; nor could it be adjusted once lit. When performing in lamp light, actors resorted to heavy makeup and exaggerated movements to connect with the audience.

But just a year later, a Boomerang reporter watched in amazement as new lights came on in Holliday’s Opera House. “As one row after another of burners were lit overhead and about the walls, the footlights and finally the chandeliers—the hundreds of jets of pure steady flame set burning—the great improvement became manifest.”

Coal or “town” gas moved through a system of pipes controlled with wheels and levers, making the lights easily adjustable. “There was no hitch during the whole evening though several changes of light were made.” But the open flames made gas lights just as risky as kerosene lamps. Though electricity was much safer, Holliday considered gas “better adapted to such a place than electric illumination.” Perhaps electric lights were still too expensive.
Note sewer line running from Holliday's Opera House (pink arrow) to river. A second one starts near the Union Pacific's Round House. They were recent additions, mainly for storm runoff, a serious problem in this part of town. From 1885 Laramie City map; Laramie Plains Museum.

Opera comes to the Opera House
In January of 1886, the Boomerang had exciting news. The Milan Grand Italian Opera Company, with full chorus and orchestra, would present Donizetti’s popular tragedy “Lucia Di Lammermoor”—in the original Italian! “Reserved seats will be on sale Monday morning at 9 o’clock. Carriages may be ordered at 10:30 ... the Company’s Librettos, in English and Italian, will be for sale by the ushers.”

The review the next day underscored the aspirations of small towns with their opera houses: “It is to be hoped that the success of this company will enable us to have a regular season of Italian opera every year, and thus educate the masses to a general appreciation of this style of music.”

Another opera house fades from the limelight
In 1893, the lighting in Holliday’s building was upgraded to electricity. But by then, it had been years since an earnest actor stepped onto the brightly lit stage before an eager audience. Holliday had closed his opera house in 1887. “It was quite a blow,” lamented the Boomerang. Laramie needed an opera house, “both as an advertisement for the [town], and for the pleasure of the citizens.”

Fortunately, Maennerchor Hall also offered many fine performances, and another opera house did open, in the 1890s. But these are stories for another day. Laramie’s long rich ‘operatic’ history can’t be squeezed into a single article!

Postscript: This is my final article in a series for the Laramie Boomerang's "Laramie History" column. We volunteers have been contributing weekly to help the paper during hard economic times, and to provide an alternative to covid news. It has been a pleasure!
Editor Judy always complains about my head shot, so I sent her a this as a joke.
She used it, and readers liked it! Hmmm ...

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Tree-Watching and Spinning Birds

Among its many lockdown articles, The New York Times featured one last week that I think might be of interest to fellow tree-followers: “7 Tips for Watching Birds During the Spring Lockdown” by David Sibley (in the Opinion section). In the subhead he adds: “Here are some principles you can apply to any form of nature study.” And later: “I’m writing about bird-watching here, but these same seven principles apply just as well to any form of nature study. Take some time to really look at a tree …”

That's what we do every month! And that’s what I did yesterday in LaBonte Park, home of the tree I’m following. Where I quote Sibley below, “tree” is substituted for “bird”.
So nice to see spots of green waving in the wind :)
Notice Trees  “With a little practice you’ll be amazed at what you can see.” We tree-followers are already pretty good at this. Each month we look carefully at the tree we're following, and provide an update at the virtual gathering. This month, there were big changes for my tree—emerging leaves and flower buds! I took many photos; fortunately a few were in focus.
All but one of my close-ups looked like this, due to "Wyoming spring breezes".
Look at the leaves and flowers  “In most cases, if you can get a good look at the leaves and flowers [or bill and face of a bird] it will be possible to identify the species.” I’m still working on this. It will be easier once the flowers and leaves open. And as Sibley says in his introduction “You don’t have to identify the species, although there is a wealth of information available if you know a tree’s name. The most important thing is just to notice trees, slow down and really watch them.” I agree.
Think about what the tree is doing  After a long winter, this tree is about to spread its pollen somehow (hope to learn more). Maybe it will get some from a neighbor for fertilization and eventually seeds. It also is starting to spread its leaves and photosynthesize—capture energy from sunlight and make sugars, for growth.

Be curious  “If you stop to watch, ask a question and pick out some details, you will remember those details, as well as other things that you didn’t even focus on.” This will lead to “lots of interesting discoveries.” I wondered what this tree will look like when covered in leaves—very different I'm pretty sure.

Next, I tried bird-watching. Though cool and windy, the lakeshore looked inviting. I forgot to bring my binoculars and bird book, but as it turned out, I didn't need them.

In addition to the familiar mallards and gulls, there were smaller birds on the water that looked like shorebirds, with thin bills and long necks. But if shorebirds, why were they swimming around out on the lake?
See the mallard butt? Click on these bird photos to see details.
Gulls, home from a hard day at the dump. Note smaller bird behind.
There are seven of the smaller birds in this photo, some with white stripes and brown patches. What are they?
I sat down to watch the smaller birds, and think about what they were doing, following Sibley's advice. Big surprise—they were spinning in place! I’m not exaggerating. Each one quickly whirled around, and then did it again, over and over. I thought and thought ... hmmm.
Above and below: spinning birds in shallow water.
After downloading my photos, I zoomed in and decided these were phalaropes. The bird book agreed—Wilson’s phalaropes, a bird of inland waters including shallow lakes, marshes and reservoirs. Perfect! And phalaropes will feed on the water. When they do, they “spin like tops” to stir up invertebrates in the shallow water. Ah hah!

Here's Wilson's Phalarope up closea female in breeding plumage. I saw several of these on LaBonte Pond. The white stripe on the back of the neck and orange-ish brown patches on the sides were sometimes visible even without binos. Photo courtesy Dominic Sherony.

I used four of Sibley’s seven tips; more next time. If you want to read his article but hit a paywall, email me for a PDF  (see Contact tab above).

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