Hello fellow historians and welcome back to This Week in History! Since Halloween festivities are kicking in this week, let’s look at some fascinating and slightly spooky history!
The first event this week marks a major turning point for U.S. Transportation. On Oct. 31, 1913, the Lincoln Highway was dedicated, providing the first transcontinental automobile highway in the U.S.
With a western end at Lincoln Park in San Francisco, California and an eastern end in Times Square, New York, the highway became an engineering marvel and a cultural icon up to the modern day.
In 1913 the highway itself was 3,389 miles in length and crossed hundreds of cities and towns along its span. For many civilians, it was the best way to travel in a car from San Francisco to New York — only being surpassed by Interstate 80 in the 1960s — leaving the Lincoln Highway as the chief linkage of the nation for nearly 50 years.
Today, the highway has largely been replaced, with many branch routes built out of the past marvel. However, in some mid-western states, small sections of the highway are relatively unchanged and even declared historical landmarks.
Taking an exit off of the highway, the next event of the week is the haunting holiday Halloween, occurring for the first time as early as the fourth century — although the day was possibly celebrated many centuries before that.
The true background of Halloween is theorized to be of Christian or Pagan background and comes largely from early Celtic cultures. While the specific origins are still up for debate, it is known that the day was not always about dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating, but rather meant to honor deceased saints and relatives.
The modern take on Halloween is thought to come from Scottish and Irish immigrants to the U.S., who had practiced a similar celebration in their home countries. Moreover, the date Oct. 31 was selected as it takes place on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, a long standing Christian holiday.
Regardless, whether you’re trick-or-treating or “guising and souling” as it was called in the past, stay safe and save the best candy for last!
Shifting focus towards World War II, Oct. 31, 1940 marked the British victory of the Battle of Britain, a vitally important air conflict occurring over the British Isles.
After the fall of Poland and France, Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany who was supposedly preparing to launch a naval invasion. Codenamed Operation Sealion, the invasion was set to knock the British out of the war, potentially granting Germany total control over Western Europe as a result.
Hoping to weaken the British before commencing the naval invasion, the German Luftwaffe sought to destroy military and industrial targets, but later focused on civilian targets in major cities.
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) fought back against the Germans for nearly every hour of the day for over three months. The importance of the heroic acts of British pilots cannot be understated, should Nazi Germany have been able to succeed in their aerial campaign, the entirety of Western Europe would be in jeopardy, potentially changing the outcome of the entire conflict.
The next two events for this week occurred in the Western Roman Empire, the westernmost half of the Roman Empire established as a result of Emperor Diocletian’s split of the Roman Empire into east and west in 286 A.D.
On Nov. 1, 365, the Western Roman Empire would be ravaged by the invading Alemanni from modern day Germany.
With thousands of Germans surging into Gaul, Emperor Valentinian I moved to Paris and commanded legions to fend off the invaders. Of course, these efforts would only slow the gradual decline of the Empire’s ability to maintain its borders, culminating in the collapse of Western Roman power with the deposition of the final Emperor a century later.
That final emperor would ascend on Oct. 31, 475, when the teenager, Romulus Augustulus was crowned, never to have a successor. The reign of Augustulus was full of war and strife, not helped by the fact that he was essentially ignored while his father Orestes managed most affairs. His brief 10 month rule would end with Orestes’s death at the hands of the barbarian leader Odoacer, who ruled as the first King of Italy. The deposition of Augustulus is considered to mark the end of antiquity and the arrival of the medieval era.
And that concludes This Week in History, now knowledgeable on some important world events and the fall of a long standing empire, have a great Halloween! See you next week!