1703 – Russian Tsar Peter the Great founds the city of St. Petersburg – Tsar Peter the Great, born in 1672, is notable as being the first Russian Emperor. He earned this title after securing some substantial expansions into new western territory following a number of successful military campaigns. But he couldn’t have done this without first learning why the other imperial powers of Europe were so successful. In the 1690s, he traveled incognito to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and England to learn from experts there about ship building and civil engineering. It was clear those empires had some better ideas about how things ought to be done. When he returned to Russia, he set about reforming the government and culture – including abolishing the practice of arranged marriages among noble families, and enforcing a beard tax that encouraged noblemen to shave their long beards and dress in a modern fashion. But most important was upgrading Russia’s navy. At the time, Russia had but one maritime port, Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, which was so far north that it was inaccessible during winter months. Other ports coveted by the Russians were controlled by the Ottoman Empire to the South and Sweden to the west. To correct this, he oversaw the massive construction of what is today the city of St. Petersburg on the coast of the Baltic Sea along the Neva River. The city was built by conscripted peasants from across Russia, tens of thousands of which died during construction. Peter the Great founded the city on this date in 1703. The city’s strategic location proved invaluable in the following decade, as Russia defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War, claiming the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and establishing itself as a major European power. Peter died at age 52 in 1725, but lived to see the establishment of numerous colleges and universities there, which contributed to St. Petersburg becoming Russia’s cultural capital. St. Petersburg also served as the imperial capital of Russia until, on Nov. 7, 1917, forces, led by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the city’s Winter Palace in what became known as the October Revolution. Lenin claimed control of Russia for the Soviets, making way for the rise of the Communist Party. Today, St. Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city, after Moscow, and the northernmost city in the world with a population of over one million.
1813 – American forces are victorious in the Battle of Fort George during the War of 1812 – Today, Fort George is a National Historic Site of Canada, located on the southwestern coast of Lake Ontario at Niagara-on-the-Lake. But, at the start of the 19th Century, Fort George was one of many British military installations in Upper Canada. In 1796, the British had been forced to abandon Fort Niagara, located on the eastern bank of the Niagara River in Youngstown, New York. A new fort, on the western banks, was completed in 1802, making it the westernmost of the British fortified posts on Lake Ontario. When war between the British and the United States broke out in 1812, neither the British stationed at Fort George nor the Americans at Fort Niagara felt confident that they would be successful in fending off an invasion. In October 1812, Fort George was damaged by cannon fire from Fort Niagara during the Battle of Queenston Heights. In early May 1813, Americans who had just been successful in the Battle of York were transported to Fort Niagara to take part in an attack on Fort George. Bombardment of Fort George began on May 25. The British were taken off guard, on this date in 1813, when at dawn, four waves of American soldiers totaling around 4,000 arrived on the lake shore to the west. The British forces, including just 1,000 regular soldiers and around 300 militiamen, had anticipated their arrival along the Niagara River. The American troops were aided by the guns of some nearby US schooners, and so were able to easily fend off a bayonet charge by the Glengarry Light Infantry, who, along with the Royal Newfoundland Infantry, suffered heavy losses. In the end, the Americans suffered only about 150 casualties to the over 350 sustained by the British. The Americans held the fort until British forces reclaimed it in December 1813.
1941 – The mighty German battleship Bismarck is sunk in the North Atlantic – “In May of 1941, the war had just begun / The Germans had the biggest ship that had the biggest guns / the Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the seas / On her deck were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.” Those are lyrics from Johnny Horton’s classic chart-topping 1960 single “Sink the Bismarck,” based on true events from World War II, when the Allied navy pursued and eventually sank the German battleship the Bismarck, on this date in 1941. Named after German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the battleship (which was over 250 metres long) was launched in 1939 and commissioned in the summer of 1940. At that time, it and its sister ship the Tirpitz, were two of the largest ships then built by any European power. It conducted only one offensive campaign during its eight-month service career, under the command of Captain Ernst Lindemann. Lindemann’s mission was to break into the Atlantic and raid shipping convoys bound for Great Britain. On May 24, 1941, the Bismarck was attempting to gain entry to the North Atlantic and engaged the British navy at the Battle of Denmark Strait southwest of Iceland. There, the Bismarck sunk the battlecruiser the HMS Hood, then considered the “pride of the Royal Navy,” killing over 1,400 British soldiers. The Bismarck also damaged and forced the retreat of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The British Navy ordered all warships in the area to begin pursuing the Bismarck, which had sprung an oil leak in the battle. Struck by torpedo bombers that evening, the Bismarck was damaged, but continued to flee at a speed around 28 knots (52 km/h), which most British ships could not match. Though the pursuing British ships suffered fuel shortages, it was not long before they had the Bismarck surrounded, with vessels including the King George V, the Rodney, the Norfolk and the Dorsetshire striking some crucial blows. Over 2,800 shells were fired at the Bismarck, scoring more than 400 hits, but they could not sink the massive ship. Around 10:40 am on this date, the Bismarck capsized following another torpedo attack. Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 114 survived.
1962 – The Centralia, Pennsylvania mine fire is thought to have started when a fire is set at a landfill situated above a coal mine – Since 1962, a coal seam fire has been burning in underground coalmines below what was once the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Though the true source of the fire is disputed, it is widely thought to have started following a municipal meeting in the lead up to Memorial Day celebrations. The local landfill, located in a surface strip mine, was thought in need of cleaning up. Some firefighters were hired to “clean up the mess” (burn the trash) on this date in 1962. It was thought that incombustible material lining the bottom of the pit would prevent the fire from seeping into the underground coal seams, however, a large hole that had been obscured by trash allowed the fire to slip below. Throughout that summer, smoke and odour was regularly reported, and numerous efforts were made to douse the fire at the surface, as it grew slowly but surely underground. High levels of carbon monoxide began to be reported, along with dangerously high temperatures. Through the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on failed fire suppression projects, until, in 1984, Congress allocated about $42 million to relocate Centralia residents. Between 1980 and 2013, the population of the town was cut from 2,761 to around 10. In 1996, the nearby town of Byrnesville also had to be abandoned, as the fire had expanded below it as well. Now over 50 years old, it’s estimated the fire could burn for another 250 years.