Crusader for History

05.14.13

Meet America’s Indiana Jones: Andrew Carroll Searches for Forgotten History Across the U.S.

Did you know there’s a room in the Supreme Court where the justices once watched porn? Nina Strochlic talks to Andrew Carroll about his quest to find and document America’s forgotten history.

In an effort to identify and locate the most pivotal of American history’s overlooked moments, Andrew Carroll has traveled to all 50 states, amassed two dozen file cabinets of research, and even attracted the suspicions of the FBI.

The result is Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, a 457-page book documenting his four-year journey to bring attention to uncelebrated stories “that reverberate nationally” and the sites where they occurred.

In 2009 the Washington, D.C.–based author set out to track down these little-known landmarks. For months at a time, he crisscrossed the country in an erratic route he likens to a Jackson Pollock painting. Among his many trips, he has traveled to Hawaii’s farthest inhabited island, owned by a family of Scottish ranchers, where the Japanese landed during World War II; he has located the Rigby, Idaho, farm where a young Philo Farnsworth first found inspiration that led to the invention of the electric television; and he paid tribute to the North Carolina highway where legendary African-American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson died in a car crash.

“I love stories about the underdogs—people who haven’t gotten their due,” Carroll says.

Carroll’s obsession with history began as a sophomore in college, when his family’s home burnt down and their letters from family and friends were destroyed. He was devastated, a reaction that caused the self-proclaimed “history hater” to reverse course and decide to embark on a career in historical preservation.

In the late ’90s, Carroll launched a campaign called the Legacy Project to collect soldiers’ letters. He enlisted the help of Dear Abby’s Jeanne Phillips, who told him, “Sweetie, let’s do this,” and proceeded to publish his request for submissions to her readers. To date, Carroll has acquired 100,000 letters, and this April the collection was archived by Chapman University. As he sorted through the soldiers’ notes, which span from the Revolutionary War to Iraq, Carroll kept finding nuggets of little-known historic tales. “How have I never heard of this before?” he’d wonder. He began stashing the stories in his “forgotten-history file,” which has since morphed into 24 file cabinets full of research.

But the story that first piqued Carroll’s interest was a little-known tale about Robert Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, who at one point wrote a letter about a near-fatal fall onto a New Jersey train track. As a train began to pull out of the station, Lincoln described being hoisted onto the safety of the platform by none other than famous actor Edwin Booth—brother to John Wilkes Booth—after slipping onto the rails. Two families, intrinsically woven together by both good and evil.

“[The station's] still active, and there are all these commuters and tourists getting off it every single day, not realizing there was this incredible encounter that took place here 150-some years ago,” he says. Carroll’s desire to track down this train station was the genesis for the much larger project that followed. “It got me thinking, I wonder what else is out there that isn’t well known and we walk by every day.”

In the course of his travels, Carroll has amassed some hilarious, touching, and serendipitous tales from the road. At each new site he visits, Carroll meets up with regional historians to ensure it hasn’t yet been given an official historical marker denoting the event it once hosted.

But his documentarian habits haven’t always been well received. A trip to what Carroll thought was a defunct military base in Utah led two FBI agents to visit him at his D.C. apartment months later. Fatefully, this visit resulted in more fodder for his work. The agents’ house call sparked a conversation with his neighbor, a WWII veteran, who revealed that Carroll’s apartment used to be occupied by an FBI agent who passed the Cold War days spying on the Russian Consulate across the street. Carroll thinks it’s little tidbits and serendipities like these that bring past events to life. “History is often seen as this kind of distant and abstract thing,” Carroll says, “but it’s much closer to us than we realize, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Through Here Is Where, Carroll says, he hopes to “remind people that there are all these hidden stories around us waiting to be discovered. When you find out where something extraordinary happened, it just kind of changes how you see the world around you.”

Carroll plans to erect his own historical markers at the locations identified in his book so that they will not be forgotten—again—by posterity. He’d also like to inspire others to search out undiscovered sites on their own. “There are all these great places around us that we don’t even realize, and I want people to have this sense of discovery and exhilaration that I experienced,” he says.

Carroll may have just completed his book, but he is already onto the next project. He’s preparing for another cross-country trip, this time to Seattle to meet with a teacher who has absorbed his project into her curriculum. He’s also in talks to turn his gonzo-style research methods into a documentary series. And his journey around America has piqued new interests, including private homes with historical relevance, New York City–specific sites, unmarked birthplaces, and grave-site doubles (he’s found two graves for Daniel Boone and three for Jesse James). “I could almost do a whole book of Dick Cheney sites,” Carroll jokes. “Wherever I go, people are telling me Dick Cheney stories.”

“This is a labor of love," he says. "I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Some of Carroll’s favorite forgotten spots exposed in Here Is Where are:

Washington, D.C.: In 1964, as the Supreme Court was arguing over the censorship of films deemed obscene for the landmark Jacobellis v. Ohio case, there was a room in the building where the esteemed judges would actually watch pornography (for research purposes, of course). Carroll tells a story of one elderly justice who was nearly blind, and, for kicks, would sidle up to the most prudish conservative of the bunch and ask him to explain what was happening in the film. No one could remember the room’s exact location until David Kendall, who clerked for the court at the time, got in touch with Carroll and pointed him to a ceremonial room on the first floor. Does Kendall’s name ring a bell? He went on to represent President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial.

Chicago: One place Carroll found himself returning to was Chicago, where sites connected to the infamous gangster Al Capone remain largely undocumented. Even the spot of the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre, which sparked a federal crackdown on the Mafia, remains unmarked.

Paisley, Oregon: This small Oregon town of barely 250 people is where the oldest DNA in America was discovered. The 14,500-year-old sample of coprolite (fossilized excrement) found in a system of caves has helped scientists understand a little more about our Paleoindian ancestors, like their diet and habitat.

Miles City, Montana: Maurice Hilleman may not be a household name, but many researchers credit him with saving more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. He’s credited with inventing, or drastically improving, around 40 vaccines in his lifetime, including MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella). When Carroll arrived in the scientist’s birth town, he discovered that people at the historical museum were unaware Hilleman had been born right down the street from them. “Here’s someone who’s had an extraordinary impact on all of us, and yet he’s sort of been forgotten,” Carroll says.

Washington, D.C.: One of Carroll’s favorite stories took place in 1995, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin stayed at the Blair House on a visit to the U.S. One night he got drunk and wandered out of his residence in search of pizza—clad only in his underwear. Unbeknownst to his security detail, Yeltsin was ushered back to his room by vigilant Secret Service guards who saw him attempting to hail a cab on the street.

Madison, Wisconsin: One University of Wisconsin dorm room was the site of a pivotal moment in the environmental movement, when future Sierra Club creator John Muir had an epiphany and became interested in nature and botany. The naturalist would go on to become one of America’s most influential conservationists. Ironically, Dick Cheney lived in that same dormitory decades later.

Rigby, Idaho: In the 1920s, a 14-year-old named Philo Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electric television after noticing the straight lines in his potato field and realizing a picture could be beamed across a screen in a similarly linear fashion. Carroll tracked down the farm address with the help of a local Rigby police officer.

San Antonio: Back in 1908, 25-year-old schoolteacher Adina De Zavala barricaded herself inside the Alamo as the historic building was about to be torn down. In the end, she succeeded in saving the building, and her plight brought national attention to historic preservation. Carroll hopes to erect a plaque in her former home and at the hotel where she also lived.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that "Dick Cheney taught in the same hall" that John Muir lived in. It has since been updated.