Wednesday, October 27, 2010

B.C.'s First Aviation Death?

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

One of my favourite categories of records at the B.C. Archives is the inquest and inquiry files created by B.C.’s coroners. The older ones (1858 – 1971) are now considered archival records, and most may be viewed by the public. They are not for the squeamish or the oversensitive but do reveal fascinating information about the way people lived, and of course, died.

The indexes to these records are generally a sad catalogue of workplace accidents, suicides and deaths due to natural causes, all of which needed the involvement of a coroner because the death was unusual or unexplained in some way. But sometimes, when I’m casting my eye through the indexes, a particular verdict will jump out and demand further investigation. (I’m currently looking through some of the early index entries because the Victoria Genealogical Society is working on a database of the coroner’s records for the Archives).

Last month I noticed that on October 10, 1894 a man named Charles H. Marble had “drowned in the Fraser descending from a balloon by parachute”! Fascinating for so many reasons. What was he doing descending from a balloon? Was this an extraordinary event, or something that people in New Westminster were doing on a regular basis in 1894? It begged investigation, and a blog entry.

The full inquest record, contained in an accession known as GR-0431, Attorney-General Inquests, 1865 to 1937, includes the formal verdict of the coroner’s jury and various witness statements. The inquest was held at the Court House in New Westminster, over two days, immediately after the body was retrieved from the Fraser River. At that time it was standard procedure for the jury to view the body in person, before considering the evidence, so the inquest was held as soon as possible.

It transpired that poor Mr. Marble was an “aeronaut” who had been hired to put on a performance as an “aerialist” for the crowds who were attending the Royal Agricultural and Industrial Society of B.C.’s Exhibition at Queen’s Park. (This was a forerunner of the PNE). An aeronaut was what we would call a balloonist today – and an aerialist is a tightrope and trapeze artist. Although only 26, Marble claimed to be an experienced showman who would somehow manage to perform like a trapeze artist on a bar, while suspended from a balloon, which he would ultimately descend from by parachute!

I have not been able to find any B.C. photographs or films of this type of extraordinary performance, but Marble was obviously akin to some of the earlier daredevils like Charles Blondin, who is best known for walking across a wire tethered to the opposite sides of Niagara Falls in 1859. Blondin died safely in his sleep in 1897, a rich and internationally known figure. A 19th century engraving (right) shows an ascending balloon with a parachute attached.

Our poor Mr. Marble, who may well be B.C.’s first aviation death, drowned after he miscalculated the wind strength across the Fraser and quite literally didn’t make it to the other side. The inquest record reveals that he had been warned not to attempt to cross the river, and had been offered a life preserver, which he refused. The Police Chief, who was watching the performance, stated that he thought Marble “was doing all right” until the last few moments when it became clear that the balloon was descending too rapidly for Marble to make a safe parachute jump. Although he cut away from the bar, he fell into the water with the parachute on top of him. Other evidence tells us that the balloon was made of cotton, created in Seattle, and filled with hot air by a wood stove. The coroner’s jury was informed that the wages of an aeronaut varied from $10 to $25 per day.

The Daily Columbian (also available at the B.C. Archives) duly reported on the incident the next day, describing it as a “Fatal Balloon Ascent”. They recorded that Mr. Marble was a native of Los Angeles, who “had been at the work from boyhood”. His remains were claimed by friends from Edison, Washington – where he is presumably buried.

Exhibition Buildings, Queen's Park, New Westminster, ca 1905 B.C. Archives HP-035392

I don’t expect that this particular life and death will ever attract much attention, but perhaps I will be surprised. Is there a budding author out there who feels inspired by this man’s story? If so, you know where to come for the facts. You’ll find more information about the collections at

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Aliens sighted all across BC!

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer,Royal BC Museum

Imagine all of the amazing things behind the doors of a museum. Did you ever imagine that the Royal BC Museum would have John Lennon’s 1965 “Yellow Submarine” Rolls-Royce?

In 1966 the rear seat was modified to convert to a double bed. Telephone, portable refrigerator, Sony television and custom interior-exterior sound system were installed, with loud hailer in nearside front wing.

How did we get such an item you must be asking? In 1986, Jim Pattison was the chairman for Expo ’86 and arranged for the Rolls-Royce to be loaned for the exhibition from Ripley’s Believe it or Not where it was on display as “the most expensive car in the world”. Later that year, the title for the car was transferred to Jim Pattison Industries and he donated the car to the Royal BC Museum.

The car was designed and painted by Steve Weaver of Chertsey, England in 1967.
Rarely used by the Lennons in the USA, the car was loaned to several other rock groups for special occasions.

For many years the car was exhibited in the British Columbia Transportation Museum at Cloverdale, near Vancouver. When they closed in 1993 the “Yellow Submarine” then came to Victoria. Since that time, the car has been displayed on occasion in our lobby, but it can’t stay there permanently and is currently safe in storage.

The majority of our collections are in storage both onsite and at facilities around the city. The Royal British Columbia Museum collection includes over 10 million objects and specimens and millions of significant government documents and records and archival material. Our exhibitions and galleries are only able to show a small fraction of the collection and the research that goes on here.

It was for that reason that we opened our current feature exhibition, Behind the Scenes: Part 1 Natural History. We wanted an opportunity to show you some of the things that aren’t normally displayed. It’s also why we have been doing our Backstage Pass Tours that take visitors behind the scenes and into our Natural History collection areas. You won’t see the Rolls-Royce but you might just see something else as wild and wonderful! Imagine what you might discover.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Risky Business

From the desk of Colleen Wilson, Conservator
at the Royal BC Museum

In the past, Scots prayed to be delivered from “ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”.

But what about dropping and soiling and losses of data? We hope to deliver the collections of the Royal BC Museum to future generations free of these threats and more.

Judicious care can make a difference to longevity, but with huge and varied collections and limited budgets, what to do first? Replace cardboard boxes? Install ultraviolet filters? Put furs in cold storage? Put plastics in cold storage? Put all collections in cold storage?

This was a fur hat before the clothes moths found it and reduced it to hide. We have not had a major pest infestaion since Integrated Pest Management began 25 years ago.

In the Olden Days, such decisions were made by hoary alpha males with a lifetime of devotion to their particular discipline. Ornithologists argued for budgets for birds, archaeologists lobbied for dirt, cartographers for maps, but their expertise was in the study and acquisition of collections, not long term storage and maintenance. And there was considerable scope for charisma – a really eloquent historian, mounted on his hobby-horse, could corral money and staff, leaving a shrinking entomologist with little more than a butterfly net. Overall collections care was sometimes erratic.

We live in more rational times. The Museum’s experts now include collections managers and conservators who are at this moment involved in Collections Risk Assessment. Although it sounds like a project only an insurance adjuster could love, numbers can clarify in a way that words may not. When asked about the likelihood of a “probable” event, staff rated it as anywhere from 25% to 95%; “unlikely” could mean 1% to 45%, depending on whom you ask. Arguing for action is always more effective if data can be cited.

This fire at the Carving Studio happened in 1981. This winter Helmcken House will get a sprinkler system.

Using a formula developed at the Canadian Museum of Nature by Dr. Robert Waller, the Magnitudes of Risk are being determined using information from all collections. “Risk of what?” you may ask. Physical forces, fire, water, criminals, pests, contaminants, light, inappropriate temperature, inappropriate relative humidity and disassociation of information all threaten collections. They can be rare and catastrophic, sporadic, of intermediate severity or frequent and mild. We ask what fraction of each collection is susceptible to each risk. When is it likely to happen? How much of the value could be lost? Of course there are many kinds of value, so how can we recognize when value is lost? Some collections have monetary value, (for insurance purposes) but the worth of research specimens can scarcely be calculated in dollars and cents. Most items in our collections can never be replaced, and their cultural significance cannot be quantified. Is a basket less valuable when faded? What if the colour is still visible inside? Not surprisingly probability is easier to determine than value: we infer the future by examining our history and history is our business. How many artifacts have been stolen in the past ten years? How many roof leaks? How many specimens dropped?

A contracting protractor. Some plastics are not going to be with us forever - cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate break down giving off damaging fumes.

Risk Assessment is a means of ranking dangers. Is the risk of damage from an earthquake greater than the accelerating disintegration of cellulose nitrate film? Repeating the exercise demonstrates how effective improvements have been and pinpoints what to do next. This will be our third risk assessment to ensure that we are deploying resources wisely, protecting the province’s heritage from flooding and fading and acid migration, not to mention the things that go bump in the night.