Muse of History
Text originally sent as an email to Perry Townsend,
Thanks for sending me the old postcard picture of Chester Park. It was a place where I spent many hours as a boy. In fact, the rock sticking out of the water at the left side I know to be Schley Rock, which story I learned as follows.
As a young boy I, and my friend Paul Mitchell, helped a man named William T Dyson tear down an old shed in his backyard. Mr Dyson lived on Madison Street and was Paul’s neighbor at the time, an old man, long retired. He had been a veteran of WWI and was an old friend of your neighbor Mr Canivan. In the shed had been an old mantle clock with a picture of a ship on it and the carved wooden head of a man. He offered me the choice of either 25 cents or the clock in as payment for helping him tear down the shed. He told me that the man on the clock was Captain Schley (he pronounced it almost like “sly” in one syllable but sch-lie). Mr Dyson told us when he was a young boy he was taken to a Forth of July festival in Chester Park. It was in honor of the heroic Captain Schley who addressed the crowd from a decorated rostrum. To commemorate his visit a prominent rock bordering Ridley Creek was designated Schley Rock. The rock he described was on the Chester side of Ridley Creek just west of the bridge and he said it bore the inscription ‘Schley Rock’.
I had been on that rock many times but never paid attention to the name. I went again and was happily surprised to see the very inscription. Mr Dyson was right about everything but the clock. Some years later when I had the clock restored I learned that it was a Dewey Clock. The carved portrait was that of Admiral Dewey and pictured was his flagship Olympia. Dewey was famous for destroying the Spanish fleet in 1898 at the Battle of Manila Bay, a very real retaliation in response to a false accusation that the Spanish blew up the Maine. It was an act that promoted the United States into a world recognized navel power and extended our influence across the Pacific Ocean.
So, who was Schley? Surprisingly my later life interest in arctic and antarctic exploration led me to find the answer to this youthful puzzle. Among the well noted disasters of polar exploration is the Greely expedition. In 1881 Lieutenant Adolphus W Greely was chosen by the US Government as the leader of an expedition to Grinnel Land, in the Arctic Circle. Assigned to set up a permanent scientific station, his ship, the Proteus, a powerful steamer with an iron prow for breaking ice, pushed through sea ice to a landing site established on the North side of Discovery Bay. Leaving twenty five men and two years supplies, the Proteus sailed for New York. Unknown to Greely, the Proteus was crushed in ice and sunk. The Greely party built a base and recorded scientific measurements until winter darkness settled upon them. In the spring of 1882 they again explored with dog sleds and succeeded in breaking the British record for reaching the most northerly point. An expected supply ship that summer failed to reach their base and was forced to turn back. In the spring of 1883 they further explored the interior of Grinnel Land. Again a relief steamer failed to arrive and in August they abandoned their camp, loaded their small boats made a desperate dash for known depots 500 miles south. After a very difficult journey they reached Cape Sabine where they retrieved a small store of supplies which would ration only until March, long before another ship could reach them. A number of heroic but disastrous attempts were made to obtain more food. On January 18 the first of the party died. Later they executed one of the men for stealing food. Finally a small seal was killed its skin was carefully measured and divided in order to last long enough for a relief vessel to arrive. When the last few square inches of the seal’s skin was gone the men lay in their sleeping bags wondering who would be the last to go. Days away from certain death, the ship Bear commanded by Winfield S Schley found the surviving party.
When asked by one of the rescue party “Greely, is it you?”
A dazed and bewildered Greely answered, “Yes–seven of us left–here we are–dying–like men. Did what I came to do–beat the record.”
The seven survivors were restored from the brink of death and Schley was a national hero.
However, this is probably not why we have Schley Rock in Chester Park. On July 3 1898, Schley, in command of the American fleet in Cuba, became the popular hero of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba when he led the destruction of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron during the Spanish-American War. There is little doubt that this military action, exactly one year earlier, prompted the festivities in Chester Park which were recalled to me by Mr Dyson. This also connects Schley with the Dewey Clock and the Olimpia, which was a ship in that battle. Dewey and the Olimpia had already become famous as the Commodore and flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, where the Spanish squadron in the Philippines surrendered on May 1, 1898.
If you don’t believe it, in Chester Park is a rock in which Schley’s name is durably enshrined. You can stand on it and feel a part of American History. And when you come to visit me sometime, I will show you the clock hanging above the mantle.