Rough Journey on the Underground Railroad

Posted August 9th, 2012 at 6:21 pm (UTC-4)
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I have just returned from a cross-country trip, west to east.  I flew to California to collect Carol, who had spent the better part of three months taking photographs in that vast and varied state, and it was time to drive her and her caravan’s worth of equipment home.

We crossed through drought country — a good two-thirds of the nation — where parched land and withered cornstalks have been the landscape this summer.  It is not drought of recent African proportions, but it was a sad sight, nonetheless.

The widest point of the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky.  (Angrie Aspie, Wikipedia Commons)

The widest point of the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky. (Angrie Aspie, Wikipedia Commons)

 

Our route took us through three adjoining states — Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, along and between which the Ohio River flows.

And crossing that river brought to mind a piece of American history that might interest you.

It’s the story of the Underground Railroad, which some, though certainly not all, Americans know was neither underground nor a railroad.

Slaves are shown escaping by wagon and foot in Charles T. Webber's 1893 painting, "The Underground Railroad."  (Libraryof Congress)

Slaves are shown escaping by wagon and foot in Charles T. Webber’s 1893 painting, “The Underground Railroad.” (Libraryof Congress)

It was the name given to a secret network — an escape route out of the South — for enslaved Africans in the first half of the 19th Century, prior to our bloody civil war that would lead to their ultimate freedom.

In 1793, just 17 years after the nation gained its independence from Britain, the U.S. Congress passed a law called the “Fugitive Slave Act.”  It affirmed that escaped slaves could be recaptured by U.S. marshals or the slave masters’ agents and brought back to their plantations in chains.

The Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law by the nation’s first president, George Washington, himself a slaveholder.  He had once tried without success to find an escaped slave who had been his wife’s chambermaid.

Most southerners viewed this as a property right, since they considered slaves to be human chattel.

The law also made it a crime to help an escaped slave flee or hide.  It made every escaped slave a fugitive for life, subject to capture at any time, anywhere, within U.S. territory.  Children born to fugitive slave women were considered slaves as well; they could also be captured as newfound property of the master.

This spawned the new and thriving occupation of slave-catching bounty hunter.  These men also seized many free blacks, including freeborn northerners.  Southern blacks set free by their masters, too, if they did not have the papers handy to prove it.

The law also spawned a network to thwart it. The Underground Railroad was first organized in northern churches, where preachers urged their parishioners to disobey the law and hide fugitive slaves.

Levi Coffin risked his life many times over, ferrying fleeing slaves to freedom.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Levi Coffin risked his life many times over, ferrying fleeing slaves to freedom. (Wikipedia Commons)

The most outspoken was Levi Coffin, a Quaker minister from Cincinnati, Ohio.  He was so active in helping runaway slaves that he was known as “the president of the Underground Railroad,” and his home as “Grand Central Station” of this effort.

Ohio was a free state, where slavery was not allowed, and Cincinnati lay directly across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky.  Thus it became an important transit point for escaping slaves.

Ohio was also the most direct route from southern states to Canada, then a British dominion, where freed slaves could live with little fear of being pursued and captured.  But bounty hunters haunted the docks at the port of Cleveland, on Lake Erie across from Canada, searching for runaways.

By 1860, when the American Civil War broke out, more than 60,000 slaves had made it safely to the Canadian province of Ontario from as far away as the swamps of Louisiana and Florida in the Deep South.

Many had walked barefoot for hundreds of kilometers, or ridden under sacks of grain in rough wooden wagons.

 

Harriet Tubman, photographed in 1885.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Harriet Tubman, photographed in 1885. (Wikipedia Commons)

Harriet Tubman, a black women who herself had fled slavery in Maryland for a new life in Ohio, became the most famous agent in the Underground Railroad.  She shepherded hundreds of people to safety.

Among the sheltered fugitives was Frederick Douglass, who became one of the nation’s most fiery speakers against slavery.  Josiah Henson, too.  He was the model for “Uncle Tom” in the popular books about slaves’ “life among the lowly,” written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In 1833, an Ohio preacher and a farmer started a new little town and a college, both called “Oberlin” and both devoted to what the founders called the “plainest living and the highest thinking.”

The name was taken from John Frederic Oberlin, a minister and social reformer in the Alsace region of France, an early, and passionate, advocate of free public education.

Oberlin would become known as “the town that started the Civil War.”  No one town was responsible for that cataclysmic struggle between North and South, of course.  Oberlin got the name when, in 1858, a group of townsfolk rescued a fugitive slave.  Twenty-seven citizens from Oberlin and another village were arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Act.

Some of the "rescuers" of the Oberlin citizens on trial for harboring a fugitive slave.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Some of the “rescuers” of the Oberlin citizens on trial for harboring a fugitive slave. (Wikipedia Commons)

Their trial was held in downtown Cleveland, where the citizens sat in jail and more than 10,000 people marched in protest.  Not surprisingly, under that kind of pressure, they were found “not guilty.”  But the publicity surrounding the trial inflamed passions about slavery all across America.

Both Oberlin College and the city, as well as other towns throughout Ohio, have museums or memorials to the Underground Railroad.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Cincinnati is one, and so is the “Pioneer House” in West Liberty, where a flag was tied to a hitching post as a signal that it was safe for runaways to stop there.

The Freedom Crossing Monument in Lewiston, New York, honors the courage of runaway slaves who crossed the raging Niagara River there to freedom in Canada.  (Lee Simonson, Wikipedia Commons)

The Freedom Crossing Monument in Lewiston, New York, honors the courage of runaway slaves who crossed the raging Niagara River there to freedom in Canada. (Lee Simonson, Wikipedia Commons)

A favorite story of courage and cunning along the Underground Railroad is told about one man who turned his home into a “safe house.”  John Finney lived outside Mansfield, Ohio, where one day he was hiding five escaped slaves in a granary.

A party of bounty hunters rode up, demanding the slaves that they had heard he was harboring.

Finney insisted that the men produce a warrant, and while some of them rode into Mansfield to get one, he invited the others in for dinner.  While he said a prayer — a very long prayer — over the food before them, the slaves slipped out of the granary and escaped.

As an Ohioan, I had learned this and similar stories in school.  But the saga of a whispered secret known as the Underground Railroad did not come into focus, until one day, many years later here at VOA, I heard about — and then visited — a place next door to Ohio, in Indiana.

It’s the Connor Prairie interactive history park outside the state capital, Indianapolis, which practices “history by immersion” by way of an unforgettable walk in the woods.

One could find the North Star by imagining a straight path from the outer edge of the Big Dipper, or "Drinking Gourd." It points directly to Polaris. (Wikipedia Commons)

One could find the North Star by imagining a straight path from the outer edge of the Big Dipper, or “Drinking Gourd.” It points directly to Polaris. (Wikipedia Commons)

As escaped southern slaves fled northward, hiding by day and moving furtively at night, often their only guide was Polaris, the North Star, which they found by tracing the handle of the “Big Dipper” constellation, or “Drinking Gourd” as it was remembered in a folk song.  In the sky, the handle nearly always pointed north, to freedom.

But even when the escapees crossed the Ohio and Potomac rivers into the northern states, they were by no means safe.  As I mentioned, slave catchers scoured the countryside, looking for runaways — and the handsome monetary reward that came with each capture.

In the ultra-realistic Conner Prairie presentation, held outside at night and in all kinds of weather along a two-kilometer trail, participants of all races play the part of actual blacks who are rounded up, divided by sex into what the slavers call “bucks and breeders,” and sold like cattle at auction.

With help from white Quakers and free blacks, the fugitives in the park’s “Follow the North Star” program escape and seek hideout stations along the Underground Railroad.

One character, I recall from my own visit to Connor Prairie, advises the escapees to always carry onions with them.  “Rub them on the bottom of your feet,” he tells them.  “That’ll throw the dogs off your scent.  Pepper’ll do the same thing.”

But the encounters are not always so matter-of-fact.  Deep in the woods, the escapees are startled by an angry white man, a rough-hewn Indiana oaf who says he left South Carolina because black slaves took jobs he might have had.

Connor Prairie visitors get an all-too-real taste of the terror and humiliation that bounty hunters brought upon captured runaways.  (Connor Prairie Interactive History Park)

Connor Prairie visitors get an all-too-real taste of the terror and humiliation that bounty hunters brought upon captured runaways. (Connor Prairie Interactive History Park)

Then bad turns to worse when, deeper in the woods, the fugitives are seized by a slave hunter.  When I watched all this some years ago, that part was played by Doug Heiwig, who helped write the script for “Follow the North Star.”

“Well, well, well,” he cackled.  “Lookee what we got here.  I said to myself this mornin’, ‘Ben Cannon, this is going to be your lucky day.  And so it is.’”

After the program, participants attested to the unnerving realism of what they had just experienced. One high-school girl told me, “I felt kind of like an animal.”

The real captured slaves a century and a half earlier were often whipped, draped in chains and leg irons, and sometimes tugged, barefoot, behind a horse or wagon, back south.  Sometimes the slavers would cut off the front of the escapees’ feet so they couldn’t run.  When they got back to the slaveholders’ property, they would be a powerful example to those in captivity who might consider a run for freedom.

Participants discuss and reflect on their Follow the North Star experience. (Connor Prairie Interactive History Park)

Participants discuss and reflect on their Follow the North Star experience. (Connor Prairie Interactive History Park)

At the end of the “Follow the North Star” program, participants learn the fate of the real fugitives whom they portrayed.  Not everybody made it safely to Canada.  Some were captured; others died.

The experience was so powerful that some participants spent the entire hour and a half in tears.  Others, especially black visitors, quaked with anger.  One Jewish group used the opportunity as a springboard to discuss their ancestors’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Whizzing through Indianapolis on a high-speed interstate highway, one would never guess that such lessons could be found amid the cornstalks outside of town.

That’s one of the downsides of those highways.

Frederick Douglass is depicted on the cover of The Fugitive's Song sheet music.  (Library of Congress)

Frederick Douglass is depicted on the cover of The Fugitive’s Song sheet music. (Library of Congress)

Is Email at Death’s Door?

Posted July 27th, 2012 at 4:50 pm (UTC-4)
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A lot of Internet tech talkers are preparing a coffin for electronic mail.  Some are even shoveling dirt on it.  And while it’s pretty obvious that email is not dead dead at age 41, it’s looking pretty pallid.

Email's ever-present "at" sign.  Will it go back to being an obscure symbol?  (Editor at Large, Wikipedia Commons)

Email’s ever-present “at” sign. Will it go back to being an obscure symbol? (Editor at Large, Wikipedia Commons)

Those of us who must swim through a daily email stream of spam, scams, advertising pitches and messages having nothing to do with our work or our lives have muttered that we wish it would go away and die.  But the alternatives — texting and tweeting and IMing and such — don’t appeal to everyone.

IMing.  We’re in such an all-fire hurry, as my mother used to say — so addicted to shortcuts and shorthand — that we can’t even type out the words “instant messaging.”

Blame it on the kids!

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, says, flatly, “Young people no longer use email.”

And if they don’t use it, the reasoning goes, it’s doomed.  After all, today’s teens will be tomorrow’s tech-savvy, impatient adults.

“They prefer SMS,” Zuckerberg continues.  “They want something more immediate like texting and chats for their conversations.”  They?  Zuckerberg is 28!  A geezer.

A young person doing what young people do.  (kamshots, Flickr Creative Commons)

A young person doing what young people do. (kamshots, Flickr Creative Commons)

SMS is more shorthand.  It was coined to describe the “short message service” provided by telecom companies so the young’uns could send and receive short blurps of 160 characters or fewer — texts, we now call them — rather than bothering with tedious emails.  And, of course, there’s Twitter and its 140-character limit, which is a free service on the Internet.

Life in haiku!

There’s virtue in getting to the point, but what’s to become of nuance, the pleasure of writing or reading an artfully crafted thought, of storytelling?

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest.  Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked . . .

And? And?  What happened next?

Sorry.  Out of characters.

American society has become restless, antsy, almost caffeinated.  Who has time for rich conversation?

You think I exaggerate?  Check the sales of “energy drinks” and “energy shots.”  Forbes magazine reports that Innovation Ventures, the maker of one such product, “5-Hour Energy,” is selling 1.4 million 59-mL bottles each day.

The two-way radio: one of our first "hand-held communication devices."  (AV Hire London, Flickr Creative Commons)

The two-way radio: one of our first “hand-held communication devices.” (AV Hire London, Flickr Creative Commons)

I first encountered the world of shorthand conversation decades ago on one of my jobs as a lowly street-crew worker, patching cracks, fixing potholes, cleaning storm drains.  Supervisors, lolling in the truck while we toiled in the hot sun, chatted back and forth on what we called, for lack of a better word, “two-way radios.”  They used a mix of military, police, and street-crew jargon, laced with nicknames.

“Yeah, Charlie. Greg.  Gimme your 10-20 on that black job.” “Black” was short for asphalt.

They’d talk like that all day, even when they weren’t on their walkie-talkies.  I imagined them arriving home at night and calling out, “Hey, Gloria, what’s the 10-35 on dinner?”

Now our whole society communicates in quick bursts, devoid of subtlety.

Which brings us back to the death knell of email.

Two years ago, independent researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project completed an extensive study of teens’ use of mobile phones.  Not surprisingly, they found that “text messaging is exploding” in that age group as “a vital form of daily communication with friends.”  Almost 9 of 10 teens with cellphones texted every day.

All day long, in many cases.  Pew reported that “a typical teen sends about 50 texts per day.”  Cryptic texts, not emails.  Many teenagers barely used their cellphones to make phone calls.  “The only person I call is my dad,” one teen reported.  “He doesn’t know how to text yet.  So I just call him.”

You can guess which form of communication is LEAST likely to be used by teens.

Email.

To a young person, stationary computers might as well be room decorations.  Not very attractive ones, come to think of it.  (gjs, Flickr Creative Commons)

To a young person, stationary computers might as well be room decorations. Not very attractive ones, come to think of it. (gjs, Flickr Creative Commons)

A full 41 percent of teenage respondents in the Pew survey said they never used email to communicate with their friends.  “Email is almost exactly like how it sounds” to a young person, technology writer Damien Douani noted last year: “a mere electronic version of traditional paper mail with a mailbox and ‘carbon copies’ (CC).”

In other words, so last century.

Email is not made for easy interaction, collaborating, or coordinating, Douani continued.  Its overuse has “resulted in watering down its significance.  Even though there may be measures to prevent spam, so much of what is received goes directly into the trash.”

And “the volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business,” Thierry Breton, CEO of the information-technology company Atos Origin, proclaimed last year.  In February, he announced plans to eradicate company email within three years.

“Email is on the way out,” he said.

“What’s the matter with Email?” Jill Duffy asked in PC Magazine last December.

Now THIS looks like my inbox, expecially after I've been away a few days.  (Tidewater Muse, Flickr Creative Commons)

Now THIS looks like my inbox, expecially after I’ve been away a few days. (Tidewater Muse, Flickr Creative Commons)

Frankly, email is wasteful.  Sure, it doesn’t require chopping down trees like paper mail, but it creates a mess of data that often winds up in the hands of people who don’t need it.  Those recipients waste their time reading messages just in case they do pertain to them, or more likely, deleting emails as a never-ending struggle to clear their inbox of irrelevant clutter.  In both cases, the clock is ticking and the meter is running.

Ah, yes.  The clock.  So much to do.  So little time.   Less is more, so write less.  Blathering on in an email is ineffective and wasteful of your time and that of the recipient. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy for Fun and Profit

Posted July 23rd, 2012 at 3:16 pm (UTC-4)
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It’s fantasy season in the United States.

Now, of course, one can fantasize about being a princess or drift into reverie about winning the lottery, any time of year.

I’m talking about a specialized kind of fantasy.  An ongoing, all-consuming, often dead-serious one that’s geared to different seasons.  An obsession, shared by an estimated 35 million Americans.  That’s more people than live in any U.S. state except California.

Fantasy addicts have helped make the National Football League football the most popular, and profitable, sport in America.  (Matt McGee, Flickr Creative Commons)

Fantasy addicts have helped make the National Football League football the most popular, and profitable, sport in America. (Matt McGee, Flickr Creative Commons)

They are the ever-growing number of participants in fantasy sports leagues.  And if it’s a football league, they’re all a-flutter right now, two months before the professional National Football League begins playing real American-style football games.  Owners of fantasy sports teams are about to assemble their own “dream” teams that will compete in lock step with the actual NFL schedule, all the way to the Super Bowl championship game next February.

Obviously a plumber or shoe clerk in a fantasy league isn’t assembling a flesh-and-blood team.  The guy has probably never met an actual pro-football player.  I say “guy,” because the lion’s share of fantasy players are men.  Lots of American women love sports and follow games avidly, too.  But more men are “hard-core,” digging deep into player statistics, hanging on to every rant of sports-talk radio hosts, and devouring published analyses from other sports wonks.

Even the board game Monopoly has a version that gets into the fantasy-football craze.  (mjpeacecorps, Flickr Creative Commons)

Even the board game Monopoly has a version that gets into the fantasy-football craze. (mjpeacecorps, Flickr Creative Commons)

There are fantasy leagues for basketball, ice hockey, and college football, too — and baseball, which has passed the mid-point of its season.  Baseball’s season stretches over 162 games, and the pace of play — on the field and among its fantasy followers — is unhurried.

But the National Football League’s regular season is compacted into just 16 games.  For fantasy-team owners, each week is its own, intense pressure cooker.  Unlike owners of the real NFL teams, they can — and do — jettison poor performers, pick up new players, and trade with other league owners just about every week, trying to improve their teams.

When I say “teams,” I don’t mean that a fantasy player simply picks the Pittsburgh Steelers or Oakland Raiders and follows their fortunes all season long, as fans do, often from childhood.  Fantasy owners select their teams from the league’s entire roster of players. So the starting running back could be from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the quarterback next to him from the Seattle Seahawks.

Who wins the real NFL games on Sunday or Monday is irrelevant.  For fantasy teams, winning is determined solely by the statistical achievements of the players on the team in categories such as passing yards and “sacks,” or tackles, of the opposing quarterback. These stats come from real players playing the real games each week.

Just “skill position” players among the 11 offensive and 11 defensive players, plus a few who are on the field when kicks for points are being attempted, are on a fantasy team.  There’s little use of the few statistics produced by those at blocking positions such as center and guard.

As you can see, fantasy draft day is a casual occasion in most leagues.  (JoeyZ, Flickr Creative Commons)

As you can see, fantasy draft day is a casual occasion in most leagues. (JoeyZ, Flickr Creative Commons)

As you read this, fantasy owners are assembling their teams using a “draft,” in which they take turns picking players.  Very often this draft takes place in person as a quasi-social occasion in one owner’s “man cave.”  Other times, it’s strictly an online exercise.

One by one, in an order everyone agrees to, the owners pick players for their team, from any eligible position they chose.  If I’m first, I might pick a quarterback, the player who runs real teams’ offenses.  You might be next and also pick a quarterback, or you might prefer to choose a star wide receiver, the player who catches the lion’s share of a quarterback’s passes.  And so it goes until each team’s roster is complete.

Sometimes, in what are called “keeper leagues,” team owners may carry over a few players from the previous season if they like.  More often, fantasy teams are built from scratch.  The owner of an assortment of players one season may have a completely different squad the next.

This is one league's final draft selections.  Note that fantasy team owners often have nicknames, such as the last guy's "Dogz." (Boz Bros, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is one league’s final draft selections. Note that fantasy team owners often have nicknames, such as the last guy’s “Dogz.” (Boz Bros, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m a fan of the New Orleans Saints’ NFL team.  But that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily pick my favorite Saints players for my fantasy team.   It’s possible, but only if I thought a Saint was the best “on the board” when it was my turn to select.  As B.J. Rudell, my guide to the world of fantasy sports, reminds me, loyalty goes out the window when you’re drafting your fantasy team.  You pick whom you think is the best available player, even if it’s someone from a team you dislike and root against.

The hard work comes in evaluating players, based on an array of statistical measures, lightly sprinkled with one’s own “gut feelings” about which players will shine.  If you want to win, though, B.J. says, you’d best keep hunches to a minimum.

Most fantasy leagues are small-time affairs: 10 to 15 friends or office colleagues who throw $20 or $30 in a pot, winner-take-all to the owner of the team with the best record at season’s end.  That’s after post-season playoffs to determine the champion, just as in the real NFL teams’ playoff runs toward the Super Bowl.

Let’s let B.J., who has written a new book called Fantasy Football for Winners, carry the load from now on, explaining the highs, lows, and nuances of fantasy sports.

A bit more about him:

Here's B.J.

Here’s B.J.

B.J. Rudell is an eclectic fellow.  He’s 39, married, with a first child on the way.  He has worked as a Congressional aide, a civics teacher, a writer and editor, and a comic performer at “improvs,” or extemporaneous comic performances — the last as an outlet for an offbeat sense of humor not necessarily suited for strait-laced business settings.  He’s now a “senior consultant for a program-management firm.”  It would take me some time to explain what that is, exactly.  B.J. and his wife, Carey, spent the past two years in India, where B.J. telecommuted to that job.

They now live in the Washington, D.C., area, where — at least until the baby arrives — B.J. spends a good deal of his free time immersed in fantasy sports.

What’s the attraction, I asked him, about crunching statistics, trying to come up with a mishmash of players who you think will perform well?

It combines people’s love of following sports with their own competitive spirit.  The teams they follow may have had bad luck or bad fortune.  But suddenly I can create my own team and have control over it.

That seems awfully impersonal — more work than fun.

It’s true.  We don’t have time to fall in love with the players on our team.  That’s because you’re always picking new players.  Suddenly all the players that helped you win the league last year are worthless to you.  You’re focusing on the here and now.

Whether they’re upstanding citizens or first-class “knuckleheads,” in currently popular sports parlance?

An illustration by Will Harding in B.J.'s book underlines the seriousness with which most fantasy-football owners take the task of choosing and following their players.  (Will Harding)

An illustration by Will Harding in B.J.’s book underlines the seriousness with which most fantasy-football owners take the task of choosing and following their players. (Will Harding)

Yup.  It’s cold and heartless.  But we have seeming control over our destiny.  We’re not relying on a team’s actual general manager [to pick players] or on players we’ll never get to know. 

B.J.’s humor peeks through in his book when he frequently refers to fantasy players as “losers.”

And we ARE.  Even if you make it to the championship game and lose, you have failed to win.  Being in second place in fantasy sports, as in real sports, hurts.  And maybe we’re losers in another sense, because we’re watching football on a Sunday for nine hours rather than getting out and “having a life.” Read the rest of this entry »

Without Pierre

Posted July 16th, 2012 at 3:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Out west, in the land of Black Hills and jackrabbits and a mountainside carving of four famous American presidents, is a little state capital.

The state capitol looms over Pierre, which, as you see from the absence of skyscrapers and housing developments, is a small town: population just 13,600.  (Pierre Chamber of Commerce)

The state capitol looms over Pierre, which, as you see from the absence of skyscrapers and housing developments, is a small town: population just 13,600. (Pierre Chamber of Commerce)

It’s Pierre, South Dakota.  Pierre, like Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer, you would think.

Except that everybody in that rugged north-central state pronounces it PEER.

This is curious, since the fellow for whom the capital is named was most assuredly a Pierre, not a Peer.  Pierre Choteaux ran the American Fur Company’s trading post that grew into the town.

When you ask South Dakotans, even university linguists, how Pierre became Peer, they give you rather mushy explanations. The Dakota Territory was settled primarily by Germans and Norwegians, who elbowed the few French trappers aside, they say.  These Northern Europeans didn’t fool much with the flourishes of the French language.  Or if they did, they soon got lazy and squished the two syllables of Pierre’s name into one.

Pee-AIR became PEER.

And there are a lot more such anomalies across our country.

The western state next to California is Nevada: Neh-VADD-uh.  And the nearby mountains are the Sierra Neh-VADD-uhs, too.  But the people who live a Missouri city of the exact-same name call it Neh-VAY-day.

Cities often take their names from great heroes or historical places.  Lima, Ohio, gets its from . . . well, one of these.  At least that's how the folks pronounce the name there.  (kthread, Flickr Creative Commons)

Cities often take their names from great heroes or historical places. Lima, Ohio, gets its from . . . well, one of these. At least that’s how the folks pronounce the name there. (kthread, Flickr Creative Commons)

Lima in Peru is LEE-muh.  But the town in Ohio is LY-muh, like the bean.

And there are a couple of Midwest towns named after the South American nation of which Lima is the capital: Peru, Illinois, is Puh-ROO, like the country.  But in Indiana, the old folks, at least, call their town PEE-ru.  I’m told it’s called that because the founders wanted a short name, and Miami Indians in the area had a word that sounded like PEE-roo, referring to a straight place along a river.  That fit the description of the townsite, so PEE-roo it became.

Of late, though, younger townspeople and newcomers don’t think PEE-roo sounds real dignified, so they call it Puh-ROO.  It’s Puh-ROO High School, for instance.  But they still chant a favorite cheer at sports events:

PEE-roo High, PEE-roo High,

We’re for you. That’s no lie.

Onward ever, backward never.

We’re for you, PEE-roo High!

The queen's chamber at Versailles.  Definitely NOT in Kentucky.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The queen’s chamber at Versailles. Definitely NOT in Kentucky. (Wikipedia Commons)

Those of us who’ve visited Versailles in France will never forget Vair-SYE Palace.  Ver-SALES, Kentucky, spelled Versailles just like Vair-SYE, isn’t quite so memorable.

Pity poor Des Moines, pronounced deh-MOYNE, the capital city of the Midwest state of Iowa.  Deh-MOYNE sure sounds French, and a few historians have tried to sell the story that the name comes from a group of French Trappist monks who lived on a mound over in Missouri, a good 300 km away. It would take me the rest of this posting to explain how that name stretched all the way to Iowa.

But Des Moines doesn’t really translate from the French at all.  It was apparently an attempt by the town’s settlers to Frenchify, and thus dignify, a crude name given to the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet by native peoples.  In their language, deh-MOYNE roughly translates as “Excrement Face.”

More odd examples.  A VOA colleague, science writer Steve Baragona, spent his first five years in Bogota, New Jersey.  Not BOH-guh-taw, like the capital of Bolivia.  Buh-GO-tuh, New Jersey, sounding like a Japanese pogoda.  There’s a Vienna in Jersey, too, only the locals pronounce it VY-enna.

London, England, as many people know, lies on the Thames River.  And there’s a New London on the Thames in Connecticut.  But over here, it’s not the “Tems.”  It’s the “Thaymes.”

This is the "Secession House" in Beaufort.  You'd know it's the Beaufort in SOUTH, not North, Carolina if you knew that the South left, or seceded, from the American Union in that state prior to the U.S. Civil War.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is the “Secession House” in Beaufort. You’d know it’s the Beaufort in SOUTH, not North, Carolina if you knew that the South left, or seceded, from the American Union in that state prior to the U.S. Civil War. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There are two decent-sized port cities of the same name — Beaufort — on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.  One, in North Carolina, is BOH-furt.  The other, in South Carolina, is BYEW-furt.  Yet they’re both named after the same English duke.  He was a BOH-furt.

U.S. agents keep a sharp eye out for illegal border crossings along the Rio Grande River between Mexico and Texas.  To Mexicans, it’s the “Rio GRAWN-day,” in proper Spanish, with a couple of trills in there.  To Texans, the same river is the plain, old “Rio Grand.”

But Texans aren’t the only Americans who mispronounce it,  Far to the north in Ohio in 1847, some folks were starting a town that they called “Adamsville,” after one of the founders — only to learn that another Adamsville, Ohio, had preceded it.  They needed a new name.

According to lore, someone read in the newspaper that a war with Mexico was underway down in Texas, with heavy fighting along the Rio Grande.  He thought Rio Grande was a catchy name, and Rio Grande, Ohio, it became.  Except that nobody thereabouts had studied Spanish or heard a Mexican or Texan pronounce the name.

So they called their town RYE-oh Grand.  And it’s RYE-oh Grand to this day.  There’s even a college there by that name.

Some folks say that Ree-OH became RYE-oh just so it would rhyme with Ohio.  Don’t believe it.  It’s revisionist etymology!

I could go on — and will!

Read the rest of this entry »

Queen City of the Prairies

Posted July 9th, 2012 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Sedalia is a little town of 400,000 — ok, that’s just in August, when it hosts the Missouri State Fair at the third-largest fairground in the country.  Just 21,000 people live there the rest of the year.   It’s a town that has overcome daunting obstacles to become one of the nation’s most unlikely tourist destinations.

Downtown Sedalia is a history-lover's playground, all right.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Downtown Sedalia is a history-lover’s playground, all right. (Carol M. Highsmith)

You don’t run across Sedalia, pronounced “sih-DALE-yuh,” easily.    It’s east of big Kansas City, but an hour and a half’s drive away — a little too far to stretch the K.C. suburbs or to comfortably drive into the big city to work.

Missouri’s obscure state capital, Jefferson City, lies an hour away in the other direction.  If it weren’t for the Capitol and state office buildings, Jeff City wouldn’t be any bigger than Sedalia.

And that’s about all of note in the region unless you’re into grain silos.

Worse for a prairie town like Sedalia, when the federal and state governments stretched the big, four-lane Interstate highway across Missouri beginning in the 1950s, they ran it 29 km (18 miles) to the north of Sedalia — too far away for the town to tap into the usual growth around Interstate exits.

Sedalia’s not one of those glitzy planned communities or trendy places built around a big tech center or research park or sports complex.  It’s an old city that easily could have fallen into ruin.

There’s not even a river running through town, along which the city fathers (and mothers) might have built a nice walking trail and a bandshell.

With that kind of introduction, you wouldn’t think there’s much to do in Sedalia beyond grabbing a malt at Eddie’s Drive-In or Griff’s Burger Bar.  Check that.  Both those classic joints closed last December in the face of competition from the usual parade of Small Town America fast-food outlets.

This could have been grim, all right, not the upbeat success story that you’re about to read.

An early postcard view of Ohio Street.  Unusual at a time when cities scramble to "modernize," Sedalia has the same look today,  (Courtesy, Becky Carr Imhauser)

An early postcard view of Ohio Street. Unusual at a time when cities scramble to “modernize,” Sedalia has the same look today, (Courtesy, Becky Carr Imhauser)

Sedalia was founded in 1860 as “Sedville,” hardly the most catchy of names, by George R. Smith.  “Sed” was his daughter Sarah’s nickname.  A former officer in the state militia, Smith had helped usher Mormon settlers out of Missouri Territory at the point of a gun.

For that work, he was awarded the title of “general,” which he carried with aplomb in business dealings throughout central Missouri.  Smith made sure the railroad, moving west fast across the nation, ran right through Sedville.

Or rather, Sedalia.  His business pals convinced him that “villes” were dot-on-the-map hick towns, not the spectacular “Queen City of the Prairies” that they and he envisioned.

“Sedalia” had a more elegant, important ring.

An 1881advertisement for the Katy line.  (Wikipedia Commons)

An 1881advertisement for the Katy line. (Wikipedia Commons)

Sedalia got its railroad — in spades.  Four main lines would eventually converge on the tiny town — and General Smith made sure he had a piece of the building boom that came with it.  Sedalia became a maintenance hub of the Union Pacific, bringing lots of jobs with it.

And the famous “Katy Line” — from its “KT” stock-exchange code; it was formally the Missouri, Kansas, and Pacific — made its way up there all the way from Texas.

Even before the Katy got there, Sedalia had been a trailhead — a “cow town” — the destination for dusty cattle drives out of Texas and along the edge of Indian Territory in what is Oklahoma today.  An endless stream of beef on the hoof was loaded aboard freight cars in Sedalia and sent east to slaughterhouses in St. Louis and Chicago.

The Katy Depot is a magnet for train buffs.  (Sedalia Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Katy Depot is a magnet for train buffs. (Sedalia Convention and Visitors Bureau)

On top of that, Sedalia was the site for large encampments of U.S. Army soldiers, who battled rebellious southern Confederates until 1864 and then confronted decidedly unfriendly Shawnee Indians, whom white settlers had been trying to push out of the territory.

So early Sedalia was awash in thirsty and rowdy railroad men, cowhands, and soldiers.  It was a boomtown so prosperous that 22 impressive brick business buildings sprang up in one year, 1871, alone.

Besides sweet stuff, Snyder's Confectionery sold cigars, hamburgers, and chili on Ohio Avenue from 1913 to 1944.  (Courtesy, Becky Carr Imhauser)

Besides sweet stuff, Snyder’s Confectionery sold cigars, hamburgers, and chili on Ohio Avenue from 1913 to 1944. (Courtesy, Becky Carr Imhauser)

And there was plenty of hootin’ and carousing inside some of them.

“The Sodom and Gomorrah of the nineteenth century,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper called Sedalia.  Not exactly the slogan a chamber of commerce would want to paint on the welcome signs outside of town.  Vice was so rampant in Sodom and Gomorrah on the Jordan River, you’ll remember from your Bible or Quran study, that God destroyed them with a heavenly hail of fire and brimstone.

Sedalia was spared such sudden divine judgment, but the boom faded.  Cattle drives and the Army went elsewhere.  Kansas City stole most of the railroad passenger business, which nearly withered to a stop after World War II.

These days, just two Amtrak passenger trains in each direction stop in Sedalia.

And the Katy line’s maintenance shops closed for good in 1940.

A bird's-eye view of Sedalia, drawn by panoramic artist Albert Ruger in 1869.  I wonder how he did such sketches.  From a balloon?  (Library of Congress)

A bird’s-eye view of Sedalia, drawn by panoramic artist Albert Ruger in 1869. I wonder how he did such sketches. From a balloon? (Library of Congress)

Even the Minuteman missile silos that ringed the town beginning in 1964, during the stare-down with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, were dismantled in the 1990s after a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed.

So Sedalia could easily have become Case Study No. 1 of a decrepit, dying small town.

Instead it is thriving because it embraced and began promoting its colorful history.  It restored many of its classic structures rather than tearing them down as so many towns across America were doing.  And it shrewdly used the annual state fair as a showcase, adding musical events and artistic displays to the usual array of hog-judging contests and pie bake-offs.

Check out some of Carol’s photos, and see if you don’t agree that one can stand in downtown Sedalia and feel like you’re in a crisp and tidy 1920 postcard scene.

The classic Missouri Trust Building, which was finished around 1890, still stands and is as beautiful a specimen as ever.  (Carol M. Highsmith).

The classic Missouri Trust Building, which was finished around 1890, still stands and is as beautiful a specimen as ever. (Carol M. Highsmith).

You can pose in front of what was once a cigar or lady’s hat store, a theater where the town’s first “talkie” movie was screened, a church where services were held in German, and all sorts of former saloons and speakeasies.

Barns and archways and swine and sheep pavilions — even a “Woman’s Building” — too, on the State Fair grounds.  The oldest structure there dates to 1903.

I believe there’s a growing fascination with, if not hunger for, such places in our fast-changing nation, and Sedalia has packaged nostalgia beautifully.

I haven’t even mentioned a name that became synonymous with an entire genre of music — a name that most Americans would associate with Sedalia, if they’ve heard of the town at all. Read the rest of this entry »

The Incredible Shrinking Newspaper

Posted June 29th, 2012 at 6:56 pm (UTC-4)
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If you’re a regular reader, you know a bit about New Orleans, the old, southern seaport where I once lived and that I still love.  When my family dwelled in that historic, dreamy place for five years in the 1980s, I had four daily rituals:

Waiter Linus Noel delivers a plate of savory beignets and cups of tart chicory coffee at the French Quarter's Cafe du Monde.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Waiter Linus Noel delivers a plate of savory beignets and cups of tart chicory coffee at the French Quarter’s Cafe du Monde. (Carol M. Highsmith)

 

• drink strong chicory coffee, preferably accompanied by a Café du Monde beignet fresh out of the deep fryer

 

• listen to authentic New Orleans jazz or blues live on the street or via WWOZ, the most offbeat and culturally authentic radio station I’ve heard in the nation

 

• talk with at least one native New Orleanian, just to soak up the inexplicable accents and idioms: “earl” for “oil,” “making groceries” instead of shopping for them, “Where Y’at” instead of “What’s going on”

 

• and read what was then the 150-year-old — and now the 175-year-old — daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune

 

 

A "Times-Picayune" front page during the dreadful days when Katrina's floods turned parts of New Orleans into soggy death traps.  (Wikipedia Commons)

A “Times-Picayune” front page during the dreadful days when Katrina’s floods turned parts of New Orleans into soggy death traps. (Wikipedia Commons)

It wasn’t the greatest journalistic exemplar, the kind you’d use in journalism class, although in 2005 it won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for its heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina floodwaters that inundated swaths of the city, killing more than 1,800 people.

The “T-P” was, and from the look of its Web site still is, insular and idiosyncratic, stubborn in its defense of local traditions, and blind to much of what happens outside the bayou.

While parts of the world explode or default, it fills its columns with biographies of Carnival captains and princesses, creole recipes, and in-depth analyses of the New Orleans Saints football team.

Recession?  Foreign wars?  Maybe worth a blurb on page 4.  Of more import in “the City that Care Forgot”:  The Krewe of Comus is announcing its Mardi Gras parade theme!

The word “myopic” fit the Times-Picayune’s worldview when I was there.

Even today as I write, two of the four “recommended stories” on the newspaper’s Web site concern howls of protest by residents about Coca-Cola ads on the French Quarter’s sidewalks and a citation of rapper Lil Wayne for allowing the grass to grow too high at his gated mansion.

The two other flagged stories describe acts committed by local citizens that I never thought I’d see headlined in a respectable family newspaper.

And you wonder why New Orleans is so enticing.  This is City Park, right in town, not some swamp scene clear across Louisiana.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

And you wonder why New Orleans is so enticing. This is City Park, right in town, not some swamp scene clear across Louisiana. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Still, once one felt the lulling rhythm of the city, the don’t-worry-be-happy ethic, the intoxicating ethos of the sultry Louisiana Gulf Coast, the T-P’s insularity seemed sensible.  New Orleans is a world of its own and a world apart.  Why shouldn’t its daily paper be as well?

Only the Times-Picayune soon won’t be daily any more.

Its absentee publisher, Advance Publications, a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate owned by the powerful Newhouse family, announced that because of the declining revenue in this digital age from the Times-Picayune’s  print editions, it will cut them to three days a week sometime this fall.

If and when that happens, New Orleans will be the largest American city without a daily newspaper.

“The proportion of New Orleanians who read the Times-Picayune is the highest in the nation,” the paper’s John Pope reported.  Subscribers and callers to the newsroom are “irate,” he added.

New Orleanians can be a contrary lot.  They will happily stand for hours in freezing temperatures to snag cheap beads in a [Carnival] parade, and they will loyally support a less-than-stellar football team for 40 years — and go crazy when that team wins the Super Bowl.

They are just as passionate about the newspaper.

The table is not set quite so elegantly for New Orleans's grand old newspaper any longer.  (cammon, Flickr Creative Commons)

The table is not set quite so elegantly for New Orleans’s grand old newspaper any longer. (cammon, Flickr Creative Commons)

But the cold fact is that while the T-P had a daily circulation of 261,000 in 2005, by this March the reported figure was half that — 132,000.  Of course, Katrina, which drove 29 percent of New Orleans’s residents from town — tens of thousands of them for good — had something to do with that.

But for a publisher, the bottom line is the bottom line.

Still, the newspaper’s staff, already reduced several times, was shocked by the decision to eliminate four publishing days a week.  And devastated to learn that the publisher will cut 200 newsroom positions — half of the existing jobs — when the change takes place.

Was it symbolic and fateful, if unintentional, that on the day the draconian cutbacks were announced, the newspaper’s front page was dominated by a story about a model of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, bobbing in Lake Pontchartrain on the city’s northern border?

Print advertisements account for more than 86 percent of the $24 billion in ad revenue collected by U.S. newspaper publishers last year. But the New York Times reports that “print revenue is falling so rapidly that the industry is roughly half the size it was as recently as 2007.”

And producing a printed paper also carries significant costs, including expensive presses, warehouses full of newsprint, fleets of delivery trucks and a manufacturing process that hasn’t changed significantly in decades.

OK, scenes such as this were captured almost a century ago.  But the pleasure of a good newspaper "read" endured until the Digital Age got it in a death grip.  (Library of Congress)

OK, scenes such as this were captured almost a century ago. But the pleasure of a good newspaper “read” endured until the Digital Age got it in a death grip. (Library of Congress)

While lots of Americans, including me, still love to collect the paper on the front walk, bring it inside, slide it from its wrapper, and read it at great leisure over morning coffee, Carol and dozens of my friends, relatives, and VOA colleagues prefer to sip that coffee at their computers, clicking briefly and selectively on online stories.  Time’s always a-wasting in our increasingly busy days. Read the rest of this entry »

The (Long) Forgotten War

Posted June 21st, 2012 at 5:52 pm (UTC-4)
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We call the Korean War of 1950-53 “The Forgotten War,” because most Americans were busy buying homes and cars and refrigerators and trying to forget World War II, which had ended a few years earlier.

But much longer forgotten is a war whose 200th anniversary we’re marking this week. Not very rousingly, either, except in a few places such as Baltimore, Maryland, for reasons you’ll soon understand.

The conflict with Britain was the War of 1812, a classic misnomer, since it lasted well into 1815.

If it weren’t for three or four events from that war that show up in history textbooks, we might ignore it entirely.

This is one War of 1812 site still standing, in Baltimore. You'll learn about it shortly. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is one War of 1812 site still standing, in Baltimore. You'll learn about it shortly. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There are precious few War of 1812 battlefields and cemeteries to explore, compared to those from the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  But there’s a fort in Baltimore that I’ve visited that’s central to the story of that conflict. It and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay beyond its ramparts — remember that word; I’ll come back to it — are the nexus of a week of War of 1812 commemorations.  Not celebrations, certainly, since most people wouldn’t know what would be worth celebrating about a war so long-ago and so obscure.

Of course, at least 618,000 Americans, from the North and South, died in the Civil War.  At most, 18,000 Americans perished in the War of 1812 — four-fifths of them from disease.

Yet that conflict was as responsible for the existence of a United States of America as was the Revolutionary War that wrenched our freedom from Britain 35 or so years earlier.

That’s why, if you look hard enough in the reference books, some people consider the War of 1812 our SECOND war of independence.

An Ecqadorian tall ship arrives in New Orleans for a War of 1812 Bicentennial ceremony.  (Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth Robinson, U.S. Navy)

An Ecqadorian tall ship arrives in New Orleans for a War of 1812 Bicentennial ceremony. (Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth Robinson, U.S. Navy)

Pull up a chair, cancel your application to a war college, and I’ll tell you about some subplots and tangents that made this war more interesting than you might think.

It’s a very big deal to our northern neighbors in Canada, for instance, where many ceremonies are on tap throughout the remainder of the year.  That’s because Americans invaded Canadian — then British — territory over and over again during the conflict in ways that left no doubt we were bent on annexation.  We probably WOULD have stayed if we’d won many battles there.  We didn’t.

In Britain, the War of 1812 is a footnote, a sidebar to the larger war it was fighting at the time with the French Empire — which included parts of the old Holy Roman Empire as far away as Portugal.  It was only when Emperor Napoleon abdicated the French throne in 1814, following his army’s bitter retreat from a disastrous foray into Russia, that the British could turn their attention to smiting the upstart Americans.

Britannia ruled the waves at the time, and its armies had performed well against the French, so Britain fully anticipated quick victories that would restore Britain’s errant former colonies to the empire.

It was the United States that had actually declared war, however, on June 18, 1812, over what it considered outrages to its hard-won sovereignty.

Britain had imposed harsh trade restrictions on the young nation, mostly to keep it from supplying the enemy French.  That was galling enough, but the tipping point that led to war was the Brits’ impressing of American merchant sailors, especially those who had been British-born, into the Royal Navy.  British warships simply swooped in and plucked able-bodied crewmen off American ships.

A wilderness battle between U.S. Army and Indian forces.  (Library of Congress)

A wilderness battle between U.S. Army and Indian forces. (Library of Congress)

And the British were even busier meddling on the American mainland.  They supplied weapons to Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory around the Great Lakes, just beyond the 15 existing coastal states.

Their hope was that an independent Indian confederation might blunt American migration into lands that the British hoped would be ripe for their own expansion out of Canada.

This, in turn, emboldened Americans to sally forth into lightly populated British Canada with expansionist designs of our own.

U.S. President James Madison sent a message to Congress on June 1, 1812, listing the nation’s grievances against Britain.  He did not ask for a declaration of war, but in the closest such vote in American history, 59 percent of senators voting and 61 percent of voting House of Representatives members gave it to him.

Here’s one of the interesting tangents I promised:

Seven days earlier in London, an assassin — not a Frenchman but a Briton with a grievance against the Crown — had killed Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. His successor, Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool, favored rapprochement with the Americans, but it took three weeks for word of this to cross the Atlantic.

By that time, the war was already on.

A depiction by John Wyckliffe Lowes Forster of the Americans' surrender of Detroit.  (Wikipedia Commons)

A depiction by John Wyckliffe Lowes Forster of the Americans' surrender of Detroit. (Wikipedia Commons)

Things did not go well at all for the Americans at first.  After being repulsed in an attempted invasion of what is now Ontario, Canada, a motley American militia lost its own strategic outpost of Detroit on Lake Erie as well.  Then the British crushed a second foray into Canada, this time north of Niagara Falls above Lake Ontario.

And Indian forces, which had set aside tribal differences to align with the British, overwhelmed a number of poorly trained and equipped U.S. forces in the deep woods of the American interior.

After awhile, too, the mighty British Navy, freed from chasing the French about, arrived and set about blockading most of America’s Atlantic coastline.  Its commanders exacted tribute from coastal cities in return for not leveling them.

And one spectacular British success in particular, in August 1814, would make history:

Enraged that American expeditionary forces had sacked parliament buildings in York  — now Toronto — the provincial capital of “Upper Canada” in 1813, the British were determined to “deter the enemy from a repetition of such outrages” by attacking the American capital itself.

A force of 2,500 soldiers, transported from Bermuda aboard British frigates and sloops, landed south of Washington, dispensed with a ragtag American militia at Bladensburg, Maryland, and marched triumphantly into town.

President Madison, his cabinet, family, and slaves fled, taking with them a few valuables and a giant portrait of the first president, George Washington, which First Lady Dolley Madison had cut from its frame.

George Munger's painting of the U.S. Capitol after the burning of Washington.  (Library of Congress)

George Munger's painting of the U.S. Capitol after the burning of Washington. (Library of Congress)

The British torched the Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol — the familiar central portion and dome had not yet been constructed — in the process incinerating all the books of the Library of Congress, which was then located there.  The Redcoats then headed up Pennsylvania Avenue and likewise set the Treasury Building ablaze.  Before burning the White House, their commanders drank the wine, ate the food, and made off with the silverware.

The burning of Washington had symbolic meaning, but the city was of little strategic importance.  So the British got back on their ships and sailed up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore, then the nation’s third-largest city, with Philadelphia and New York in mind for unwelcome visits soon thereafter.

But Baltimore Harbor would prove to be the zenith of Britain’s attempt to, as a Smithsonian Magazine story [1] put it, “reduce Americans to obedient colonists once more.”

British soldiers were attacked immediately upon debarking, during which a sniper killed their commanding general.  Still, British warships, which had timed their arrival to nicely coincide with that of the army, began a merciless, 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, protecting Baltimore.  With lights extinguished throughout the city, only the exploding shells illuminated the fort at night.

Francis Scott Key watches the bombardment of Fort McHenry in this painting by Percy Moran.  (Library of Congress)

Francis Scott Key watches the bombardment of Fort McHenry in this painting by Percy Moran. (Library of Congress)

Watching it all was Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer who was in town to negotiate the release of a prisoner held on a British warship.  Detained on that ship during the shelling, he wrote a poem expressing his elation to see that the fort survived.  What he first called “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” soon became universally known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The word “ramparts,” which I asked you to remember, shows up in Key’s poem:

The bombs burst in midair “o’er the ramparts we watch’d,” he wrote, and a miraculous visage of “broad stripes and bright stars” of the U.S. flag appeared at dawn, still “gallantly streaming” over Fort McHenry.  More than a century later, in 1931, the U.S. Congress chose Key’s patriotic verses, sung to the melody of an old English drinking song, as the nation’s anthem.

It’s uncertain, these many years later, where the British Navy went after it withdrew in disappointment from Baltimore.  It never attacked another U.S. city in force.

Perhaps it was because things were going poorly for the erstwhile invaders elsewhere.

British and American warships fought at close quarters in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.  (Library of Congress)

British and American warships fought at close quarters in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. (Library of Congress)

Commanders of outmanned American fleets — Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry most conspicuously — had already seized control of the Great Lakes.  Just 28 years old at the outset of a raging battle for control of Lake Erie, Perry began the confrontation with the vow, “If victory is to be gained, I will gain it,” and ended it with an even more enduring proclamation:

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”  His triumph marked the first time in history that a British naval squadron had surrendered and lost every ship to capture.

Elsewhere, two future presidents helped save the day for the Americans.

William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory, commanded U.S. forces in the Northwest Territory.  His fiercest opponents were not the British but Shawnee Indian forces under the brothers Tenskwatawa — known as “the Prophet” — and Tecumseh.  Already a hero called “Old Tippecanoe” for the river on which his men routed attacking Indians at the outset of the war, Harrison led the Americans to victory at the Battle of Thames in Upper Canada.  In it, Tecumseh, fighting alongside the British, was killed.  Tenskwatawa escaped and survived the war.  He would help relocate the defeated Shawnees to reservations near what is now Kansas City, Missouri.

The coup de grace for the British was delivered by “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson.  Seems like a lot of our military heroes are “Old” something-or-other, no matter their age.  Jackson was a backwoods lawyer from Tennessee who led a motley coalition of Army troops, fellow frontiersmen, Native American allies, and rascally pirates — including Jean Lafitte, whom you may have heard of.   Near the port city of New Orleans on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, they confronted, and defeated, the largest and most determined British force of the war.

Another Percy Moran painting, this time an idealized look at Andrew Jackson's commanding presence at the Battle of New Orleans.  (Library of Congress)

Another Percy Moran painting, this time an idealized look at Andrew Jackson's commanding presence at the Battle of New Orleans. (Library of Congress)

This victory enhanced Jackson’s already-formidable reputation as a fighter.  He rode his fame as “the Hero of New Orleans” into politics and the U.S. presidency.

Unbeknownst to Jackson and the others on the bloody battlefield, a peace treaty, ending the war, had been drafted in Ghent, Belgium.  It would be signed shortly after the British surrendered in New Orleans.

The U.S.S. Constitution pummels the British Guerriere in this painting by Anton Otto Fischer. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S.S. Constitution pummels the British Guerriere in this painting by Anton Otto Fischer. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

There had been one other notable American achievement— 2½ years earlier at sea — when incessant cannon fire from the U.S. frigate Constitution battered the British vessel Guerriere into submission off New York City. 

Constitution, in turn, withstood enemy fire so well and miraculously that she entered seafaring lore as “Old Ironsides.”  This and other surprising American victories at sea lifted the U.S. Navy into the top echelon of the world’s fighting forces.

So the British, who’d hoped to repossess their former American colonies, left empty-handed. The British Navy thereafter kept its hands off U.S. ships and sailors. Indian tribes’ hopes of independence — perhaps even some official nationhood — were dashed.

And the independence of the United States of America, declared more than a generation earlier, was assured.

In that sense at least, the famed historian Richard Hofstadter is selling the War of 1812 short when he calls it “a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”

"Old Ironsides" is still afloat, at the Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Sustainable Sustainability

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 6:12 pm (UTC-4)
3 comments

At least two of my VOA colleagues are all a-tizzy, in a scholarly sort of way, about the “Rio+20” conference coming next week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Rio+20 logo.  (United Nations)

The Rio+20 logo. (United Nations)

It will mark the 20th anniversary of the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development — now commonly called the “Earth Summit.”

There, thousands and thousands of people from 172 nations, observed by 10,000 journalists, came together to confront issues of “forest principles,” climate change, and biological diversity.  The Earth Summit put such issues into the international spotlight for the first time and raised the consciousness of at least a few people.

It also thrust the concept of “sustainability” into the everyday lexicon.  These days, that word pops up everywhere, and in every conceivable way.  In the past week alone, I’ve seen stories about, or advertisements for, everything from “sustainable living” to “sustainable recipes” to “sustainable trash bags.”

See: cobra-like growth for sustainability!  Or at least mentions of it.  (Google)

See: cobra-like growth for sustainability! Or at least mentions of it. (Google)

If you look at Google’s “n-gram” site that tracks the appearance of words in English-language books over the years, “sustainability” has risen like a cobra since 1980.  You can’t quantify this or put a percentage gain on it, but it’s clear that lots of people are talking about it.

Understanding it is another story.  I asked three different really smart people who aren’t science writers, “green” activists, or subscribers to environmental magazines to explain sustainability to me.

“Tell me,” I asked one, “What’s a sustainable fishery?”

“What’s sustainable energy?” I asked another.

“What’s sustainable agriculture? I asked the third.

They looked at me as if I had asked them to name the capital of the Seychelle Islands.  They hemmed.  They hawed.  Then they gave me variations of the kind of answer I would have given:

“Well, ‘sustain’ means lasting over a long period of time at pretty much the same level it is right now.  So you want resources to still be available years from now and not depleted by overuse.”

Not bad, though I can hear my science colleagues clucking.

And I’d cluck right back.  Instead of tossing around ecological jargon like it’s a secret code amongst you, how about doing a better job of telling the average Jane and Jose what words like “sustainability” really mean?

Rio+20, for instance, is formally titled, “The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.”

Now check out the explanation, right on the first page of the official conference Web site:

“Sustainable development emphasizes a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels. It emphasizes not just strong economic performance but intragenerational and intergenerational equity.”

There’s a lot of equitable equity there.  A lot of, as I put it in the headline, sustainable sustainability.  But not much clarity.

Images such as this always make me think of the fragility, as well as beauty, of our planet.  Same with you?  (NASA Photo)

Images such as this always make me think of the fragility, as well as beauty, of our planet. Same with you? (NASA Photo)

At this point I’m sure all you “green” readers are all fluffed up that my friends and I just don’t get what is, as we used to say, “as plain as the nose on your face.”

Clear and obvious, in other words.  (You’ve seen my nose.)

Thankfully it is obvious to my friend and former colleague Art Chimes, who’s sustaining his retirement in part by continuing to contribute science stories to the Voice of America.

Think scenes like this are rare around the world?  Think again.  (Alfred Palmer, Wikipedia Commons)

Think scenes like this are rare around the world? Think again. (Alfred Palmer, Wikipedia Commons)

Art rescued me from my puzzlement over intra- and intergenerational equity to explain sustainability in digestible sentences, for which I was grateful:

“A coal-fired power plant depends for fuel on a finite resource,” he began. “There may be a lot of coal in the ground, but there’s only a finite amount  — or more realistically, a finite amount that can be extracted and extracted at a reasonable cost.  Eventually there’s no more fuel left to burn. So over the long haul, it’s not sustainable.”

I got it!  I think I got it!

“Solar power, on the other hand,” he continued patiently, “is ‘sustainable,’ given that the sun delivers energy to our planet every day, and when we harness it, we do not deplete the supply.  Eventually, the sun will sputter out, but that apparently doesn’t count [among the sustainability crowd], possibly because we — not just you and me, but homo sapiens — will be gone by then.”

Let’s hope.

But what about all the damaging “development” that they’ll be talking about in Rio?  And all the consumer products that are part of our lives?  You can’t make those with sun-drenched veggies from your organic garden. Read the rest of this entry »

The Incredible Saga of the Salton Sea

Posted June 5th, 2012 at 5:51 pm (UTC-4)
8 comments

(Courtesy, Salton Sea History Museum)

(Courtesy, Salton Sea History Museum)

You’ve probably heard, and perhaps even dreamed, of the French Riviera:

(Baptiste Rossi, Wikipedia Commons)

(Baptiste Rossi, Wikipedia Commons)

This, however, is the story of California’s Riviera on the Salton Sea, which turned out to be quite a few cuts below, and many, many a yacht short of, the Mediterranean playground:

(Carol M. Highsmith)

(Carol M. Highsmith)

It’s hard to believe that such scenes as this abound in what was supposed to be a Shangri-La in the sand.  But dreams and schemes of paradise along the shores of the Salton Sea, a tranquil, buoyant, low-lying inland sea in the bleak and blistering desert at the very bottom of California, never came close to reality.

The sad reasons why are a confluence of geology, hydrology, history, hokum, and hope.

Picture, first, what lies a mere 45 minutes to the north of the Salton Sea in what was once similar bone-dry, nearly uninhabited terrain.

Palm Desert even has a neat mountain view.  (tracie7779.jpg)

Palm Desert even has a neat mountain view. (tracie7779.jpg)

It is now lush Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage, the resort playgrounds of California’s rich and famous and those who come to play golf and to “winter” in style there among the pools and palms.

It’s also green to the south of the Salton Sea, along the Mexican border in the Imperial Valley, where irrigation was put to a less-glamorous purpose: creating one of the nation’s most bountiful vegetable patches.

So from high in the air above Southern California, looking east and a little north from San Diego, one sees coastal mountain ranges — the ones that trap most of the moisture that swirls ashore off the Pacific Ocean.  Then a craggy desert wilderness.  And finally, that strange sandwich I described: green golf courses and palm-lined estates above; green fields of onions, artichokes, and a hundred other crops below; and a dying saline sea in between.

The evocative cover of deBuys's and Myers's book.  (University of New Mexico Press)

The evocative cover of deBuys's and Myers's book. (University of New Mexico Press)

The “accidental sea,” conservationist and gifted storyteller William deBuys calls it in Salt Dreams, which he published with photographer Joan Myers in 2001, when the saline level of the Salton Sea was already 25 percent greater than that of the Pacific Ocean.  “Accidental” for reasons to be explained.  A few fish species were hanging on there back then, and hopes that the sea might somehow be “reclaimed” as a recreation paradise were still bouncing around the arid lowlands.

Really low lands, 70 meters (230 feet) below sea level.

But most of the politicians and commissions and study groups that once gave voice to saving the Salton Sea have moved on or given up, in part because California is broke and in part because the sea is fast approaching what experts call the “tipping point,” beyond which it simply could not remain viable.

Already, the air above the seawater stinks of decayed algae blooms each spring and early summer, and of dead fish all year long.  Only a hardy, amazingly adaptive freshwater fish, the tilapia, imported from Africa, survives in any number.  The sea’s saline levels have risen to 40 — some say 50 — percent higher than those in the Pacific.

Yet on the sea’s western shore you still see grand street names in little Salton City, which was to be the center of the Shangri-La that never was — “Yacht Club Drive,” “Sea King Place,” “Sea Urchin Avenue.”

This, no doubt, was planned as a busy resort intersection that was not to be.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This, no doubt, was planned as a busy resort intersection that was not to be. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But the yacht club and urchins and kings — as in Hollywood’s glitterati who at least dipped their toes into the Salton Sea — are long gone, and a small Indian casino is the lone tourist attraction.

Sonny Bono had longer hair and wore beads when he was singing with Cher.  Here, he's a congressman.

Sonny Bono had longer hair and wore beads when he was singing with Cher. Here, he's a congressman.

Gone, too, is the one person who, through the dint of his determination, might have had a shot at saving the sea.  Salvadore “Sonny” Bono, the singing, wise-cracking husband in the popular Sonny and Cher pop-music duo of the 1960s and ’70s, became mayor of Palm Springs, then a U.S. congressman from the district that included the Salton Sea.

According to a widely repeated story, a plane carrying Bono and a top aide had just taken off from San Diego and flew over the Salton Sea.  Looking down, Bono wistfully recalled his idyllic youth in the 1940s, lolling and water-skiing there.  The sea wasn’t much then — the fantasia hype was a decade away — but it was fresher and cleaner, and families had built cabins around it.

Told of the dire plight of the Salton Sea below him, he pledged to devote his energies to save it.  And Bono followed through, exciting Congressional and regional interest in the isolated sea.  Today, the wildlife preserve in the area is named for him.

At one time, many boats tied up to these posts.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

At one time, many boats tied up to these posts. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Following Bono’s death in a skiing accident in 1998, Congress passed a bill establishing the “Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project.”  But without his charismatic personality to drive the effort, reclamation of the waters that, for a brief time, had drawn more tourists than California’s famed Yosemite National Park, was all talk and little action.  It never got beyond the study stage.

Let’s back up here and unfold the tale from the moment of the Salton Sea’s creation about a century ago.

There was already a parched desert sink there, left when an ancient sea evaporated.  The depression in the sand was an unsightly sump — a giant puddle that gathered rainwater, agricultural runoffs, and chemicals leeched from the desolate western desert.

Influxes of pure water were limited in this endorheic basin — meaning it has no outlet to the sea — since the sunbaked terrain receives only 6½ centimeters of rain a year.

But when the rains do come, as when hurricanes blow up from the Gulf of California, they come in torrents.  Flash floods pour minerals into the sump.  They dissolve in the water and collect along the shore.  Salt was left there and across the desert floor in such quantities that railroads built spurs from civilization down into these badlands to extract and ship it.

At this narrow point, you can see both shorelines and understand where the sea gets its name.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

At this narrow point, you can see both shorelines and understand where the sea gets its name. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Fifty kilometers (30 or so miles) to the east, though, fresh, mountain-born water gushed in abundance.  The Colorado River, which now forms the border between California and Arizona, ran down to the California gulf.  Seeing the potential for an agricultural utopia in the Imperial Valley at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, engineers built canals and drainage pipes to tap into that great river. Read the rest of this entry »

The Golden Gate Bridge — A Diamond Over the Rough

Posted May 25th, 2012 at 3:52 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

There’s a huge festival coming up this weekend in California.  That’s not breaking news, since California may hold more festivals than any other place on earth.  It throws them to honor artichokes, garlic, butter and eggs, olives, mustard, ducks, numerous ancestries, frogs that jump competitively, and swallows that fly back to an old mission from South America en masse each Spring.

There’s even a “Fungi Festival” to celebrate edible mushrooms.

But they all pale, literally, in comparison with this weekend’s bash honoring the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, which connects lovely San Francisco to an old-growth redwood forest across a narrow strait called the “Golden Gate.”

A panoramic view of the bridge with San Francisco in sight.  (Brocken Inaglory, Wikipedia Commons)

A panoramic view of the bridge with San Francisco in sight. (Brocken Inaglory, Wikipedia Commons)

The festival will include artists’ exhibitions, vintage car and motorcycle displays, a watercraft parade beneath the soaring structure, the predictable assortment of music and dance, and, no doubt, sales of enough bridge trinkets to clog the passageway if everyone decided to discard them at once.

The reference to “Diamond Over the Rough” in the headline is meant to be clever.  Emphasis on “meant to be.”  The 75th is traditionally the diamond anniversary, and the “rough” refers to the churning, fast-moving water beneath the bridge, which links San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

The strait was named by American explorer John C. Frémont in 1848.  He said it reminded him of Istanbul’s Golden Horn Harbor.

How rough are its waters?  Ask the half-dozen men who tried to swim it  — or traverse it on a makeshift raft made of old raincoats — after escaping from the notorious federal prison on Alcatraz Island, which sits  just four kilometers east of the strait.

Good luck finding them.  Those few who made it as far as the cold, swift currents of the Golden Gate Strait were presumed drowned.

But legends that two or three of the escapees survived were powerful enough that a movie, cleverly titled, “Escape from Alcatraz,” was made about them.

The bridge's south tower, freshly painted.  (calibas, Wikipedia Commons)

The bridge's south tower, freshly painted. (calibas, Wikipedia Commons)

My reference to other festivals’ “paling” in comparison to the big weekend bash is a nod to the legendary “international orange” color of the great bridge’s paint, which was specifically formulated to combat the corroding properties of the salty fog that gathers so artistically thereabouts.  The legions of environmentalists in the San Francisco area would be dismayed to learn that until recently the prominent rust-fighting ingredient in this and other outdoor paint was lead.

The bridge is re-painted almost continuously, though I figure the painters will be taking this weekend off.

The distinctive dark-orange hue of the enchanting span is one reason it jousts with San Francisco’s fabled cable cars as the informal symbol of the “City by the Bay.”

When the Golden Gate Bridge was finished in 1937, a trip up the California coastline on U.S. Highway 1 no longer required a ferry crossing from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marin County shore.

Looking north toward Marin County.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Looking north toward Marin County. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The bridge, which can sway almost eight meters in a gale — of which there are many — and will rise a couple of meters due to expansion on a hot day and drop three on a cold one, is a triumph of modern engineering, especially considering those swift currents in the 60-meter-deep water below.

And few would disagree that the Golden Gate Bridge makes the short list of the most-photographed sites in the world — alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, ruins in Rome, and (I’m sorry to say) the stars in the sidewalk at Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.”

To understand the bridge’s amazing engineering, picture an incredibly sturdy hammock, suspended between two massive support towers.

One-meter-thick cables — each a bundle of more than 27,000 wires – drape over the bridge’s towers, then stretch back to bedrock in San Francisco and the opposite shore.  Each cable began with a single wire across which a spinning shuttle wheel rode back and forth, and back and forth, twisting together thousands more wires.  The whole thing is a wonder of the modern world, if you ask me — or the American Society of Civil Engineers.

A nightime view from the north end of the bridge.  (Daniel Schwen, Wikipedia Commons)

A nightime view from the north end of the bridge. (Daniel Schwen, Wikipedia Commons)

The finished cables support the “hammock” — the bridge’s rigid road surface and railings — suspended below.

A cross-section of those cables, mentioned above.  (David Ball, Wikipedia Commons)

A cross-section of those cables, mentioned above. (David Ball, Wikipedia Commons)

During four years of construction, 11 men lost their lives in the swirling winds and treacherous currents.  Nineteen others who fell were saved by a safety net and inducted into the informal “Halfway to Hell Club.”

More notoriously, the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of an estimated 1,200 suicides.

After all, how does one suicide-proof a bridge that’s 2½ kilometers (almost 9,000 feet) long?

In 2008, the Times of London reported that the Golden Gate Bridge is, in fact, the most popular place in the world to take one’s life — if “popular” fits such unfortunate plunges to the frigid waters 75 meters below.

The heaviest load the bridge has carried was the weight of an estimated 300,000 people who marked its 50th anniversary by walking across on May 24, 1987.   This caused the center span of the bridge to flatten out under the weight, an alarming development that explains why there will be no such mass crossing permitted for the 75th.

Singly, about 2 billion vehicles are estimated to have traversed it since it opened.

The deadly 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 severely damaged the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge around the bend on the San Francisco peninsula, but the Golden Gate Bridge came through nearly unscathed.  Still, authorities thought it prudent to undertake a three-part seismic retrofit, which began in 2002.  The retrofit — too complex to summarize here, not that I could very well — included an added support tower.

The fellow responsible for this remarkable structure was Joseph Strauss, [1]a dreamy engineer and poet whose previous specialties had been drawbridges and railroad spans.  Included among the latter was an 89-km bridge across the Bering Strait.

That’s right: one bridge almost 90 kilometers long!

This is Point Bonita, a rocky outcropping on the north shore of the strait, and its lighthouse, oceanward from the Golden Gate Bridge.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is Point Bonita, a rocky outcropping on the north shore of the strait, and its lighthouse, oceanward from the Golden Gate Bridge. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Strauss was encouraged to design a suspension bridge across the roiling Golden Gate strait, but he faced significant opposition.  From ferry operators, naturally, but also from the U.S. War Department, which staffed a fortress — Fort Point — on the city side of the strait and worried that a bridge would impede shipping traffic.  That fort is still in place, tucked under the southern edge of the bridge.

But Strauss got strong support from the emerging cadre of automobile enthusiasts, the auto industry, business leaders in San Francisco, and folks on the northern side of the strait who had grown weary of waiting for ferries to head over to San Francisco for a night on the town.

Strauss, though, had little to do with the artistic look of the structure, including its Art Deco streetlights, railing, and pedestrian walkway.  Or its color, first thought to be gaudy but now adored as iconic.  Locals persuaded the bridge authority to snazz up the bridge in vivid orange in preference to the standard dull gray or the Navy’s preferred black with yellow stripes.

The procession of delighted Californians and others on opening day in 1937.  (National Archives)

The procession of delighted Californians and others on opening day in 1937. (National Archives)

The $35-million construction job took four years to finish.  The opening celebration began on May 27, 1937 and lasted a week. According to one account, “the day before vehicle traffic was allowed, 200,000 people crossed by foot and roller skate.”

An official song, “There’s a Silver Moon on the Golden Gate,” commemorated the event.

It’s fair to say that this tune doesn’t rival “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” three quarters of a century later.

Strauss, the poetic engineer, even wrote a ditty for the occasion.  Called “The Mighty Task is Done,” it’s affixed somewhere on the span.

When it was completed, the Golden Gate Bridge became the longest suspension bridge main span in the world.  That lasted until New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964.

And seven or eight other bridges have since surpassed them both.

My favorite additional Golden Gate Bridge detail, noted here for bridge buffs: It’s held together by 1,200,000 rivets.

I can’t for the life of me imagine who did the counting.

Carol's sublime view of the scene from below.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol's sublime view of the scene from below. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Beholding the Golden Gate Bridge from a distance on the day it opened, the San Francisco Chronicle described it as “a thirty-five million-dollar steel harp.”

It certainly makes beautiful music visually.  My photographer-wife Carol M. Highsmith — whose images, as frequent readers know, grace the pixel space next to these ramblings today and often — is drawn, almost magnetically, to the bridge every time we visit San Francisco.

In a description that would surely annoy the International Orange crowd, she calls it “Big Red.”

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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