Thursday, December 31, 2009


The last decade of the 19th century was not a good time for American business as the country attempted to weather the effects of an economic depression. Among the industries to feel this downturn were the railroads, the heart and soul of the nation’s transportation network. It was at this time that the Missouri Kansas and Texas Railroad, the - M.K.T. line - hired a public relations guru named William G. (Willie) Crush as an assistant to the vice president. Crush, who had been associated with the P.T. Barnum enterprise, was given the task of developing programs to promote a greater public appreciation for the sprawling rail line whose tracks connected Texas with key cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis, and through those hubs with the rest of the country. Known affectionately as the “KATY” line, the company was wide open to suggestions, and it was hoped that Crush was just the man to have a few.
What Crush knew was that train wrecks were like ”mothers’ milk” to headline-hungry newspapers and the public alike. It seemed to him that a well-planned and heavily-promoted train wreck would be just the ticket to focus national attention on the KATY, and management of the line soon agreed. It remained only to select a location, consult the engineering and technical experts, and set the publicity ball rolling. The most logical spot for the event was a long straight
level stretch of track with hills at both ends just to the north of Waco, Texas. Since no town existed at that location, one would have to be built, so two water wells were drilled, a temporary depot was erected, viewing stands built, and all the accoutrements to serve an expected gathering of 25,000 people installed. Not a man to miss an opportunity for a little self-promotion, Willie named the new town – what else, “Crush”. And so the event became advertised and promoted everywhere as the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”.
The technical aspects of the plan involved not insignificant considerations. Crucial was the question of whether or not the impact of two trains traveling at great speed might cause the boilers to explode. Supplying the power to drive a steam locomotive was a boiler made of thick heavy metal capable of withstanding pressures resulting from steam expanding to a volume 1675 times that of water. Already, the world had witnessed the consequences of such a disaster, as with the sinking of the steam ship “Sultana” on the Mississippi, which took the lives of 1700 returning Union Army soldiers in 1865. But not to worry: all but one of the railroad engineers consulted assured Willie that such would not take place.
Then there was the question of speed, point of impact, and the integrity of the hitches connecting each locomotive to the string of six cargo cars making up the train. The two aging Baldwin engines selected – No. 1001, and No. 999 – with their old-style diamond-shaped stacks, would be painted alternately, green with red trim, and red with green trim, and would begin their speed run from two directly-facing hilltops separated by four miles of track. The sides of the box cars were painted with large advertising signs, including one for the P.T. Barnum Circus who would be supplying a huge tent to house food and other services for the event.
As part of the advertising campaign, the two colorful trains puffed their way to many parts of Texas during the preceding weeks, and tickets for round-trip transportation for the event were sold for $2.00. (The big show itself would be free.) The “instant” town of Crush soon took on the appearance of an amusement park, with rides, concessions, medicine shows and entertainment galore. Just to make sure nothing would get out of hand 300 police officers were brought in to control crowds expected to include many who would indulge in more than lemonade, and barriers were erected to make certain that no one other than photographers and officials could get closer than 200 yards.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 15, 1896, thirty passenger trains fanned out across the state to haul enthusiastic minions to a city which – for one day – would be the second largest in all of Texas. The crowd is estimated to have numbered over 40,000.
At 5:00 PM, the two trains touched cow catchers at milepost 881, the appointed place of impact, then slowly backed their way to the tops of the opposing hills as the thousands of viewers held their collective breath. At 5:10 William George Crush lifted his hat and quickly brought it down as the crowd let out a roar. The two locomotives began the journey belching black smoke, their throttles tied wide open. After four turns of the drive wheels, the two crews leaped from the accelerating cabs as planned. Fireworks placed on the rails and the blast of whistles tied open accompanied the rumble of the trains as they swept down the hills, the crowd raised on tip toes and straining for the best possible view of what was about to happen.
At a combined speed of 90 miles per hour the two trains crashed together with what might at first have seemed a rather disappointing lack of drama, the remains seeming to collapse downward onto the tracks. A few seconds ticked by, then the two boilers exploded simultaneously, sending timbers and debris into the sky and showering the entire area with thousands of shards of metal shrapnel. Three observers were killed outright, a newsman blinded in one eye, and others injured.
In the aftermath, “Willie” Crush was fired, and the families of the victims quietly compensated. As MKT railroad derricks moved in to clean up the debris, they found there was almost nothing to retrieve. Souvenir hunters were in such a hurry to claim their piece of history, some ended up with burned fingers.
Agent Crush was quietly hired back within two days, Scott Joplin wrote a song about the incident, MKT noticed an increase in passenger travel, and the country moved on. Today, all that remains of the famous “Crash at Crush” is a small, hard-to-notice marker beside a freeway interchange 14 miles north of Waco, Texas. That is, if you don’t count thousands of strange pieces of ragged metal scattered on mantels and gathering dust in attics and basements across the state of Texas.

A time-worn news photograph captures a staged face-off between the two KATY trains just prior to the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”in September, 1896.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


A classic EMD-E7, in Western Pacific colors receives a lot of attention at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. One of the most-loved diesel-electric “streamliners”of all times, nearly 500 of this locomotive model and its offspring were built.

I have often thought that Dame Fortune smiled in a special way upon anyone born early enough in the 20th century to know the long mournful call of a steam locomotive. Late at night, curled deep in the protective folds of an eiderdown in an attic bedroom, I have traveled to distant and mysterious destinations on the wings of that solo refrain carried to my garret window by an errant breeze. Rising and falling, mellowed by distance and intervening topography, sometimes jubilant, sometimes plaintive and seductive, always filled with a yearning no other man-made orchestra has ever been able to match, the song of steam is so powerfully evocative, it is clenched tightly in the memories of a generation or two who can only lament its passing.
I thought of all this recently as I spent a day at the California Railroad Museum in old town Sacramento, wandering among and even touching more than a hundred years of railroading history, where acres of restored and even serviceable locomotives and rolling stock tantalize the imagination of young and old alike. There I sat in the engineer’s position in one of the only remaining “cab forward” locomotives in the country, examined the unbelievably narrow kitchen of a Santa Fe dining car, and revisited one of the rolling post office cars which serviced daily the small-town America of my youth.
For the fan of combustion locomotives, there are two dozen beautifully-restored models on display, including two Electro-Magnetic Diesel Corporation streamliners in “Super Chief warbonnet” paint jobs. And for those of us who are closet historians and researchers, the on-site book store is worthy of a full-day visit all on its own. (I now have six months of reading to do and a host of Santa Fe dining car recipes to try out in my kitchen.)
My own personal love affair with the fading days of American railroading began with the stories heard at the feet of a father, who in his youth decided to “see America” by riding the rails. From his home state of Washington, he “hitched” his way from state to state, stopping long enough to earn a few dollars, harvesting hay, or wheat or hops, or loading logs, before moving on, gathering tales from engineers, brakemen and fellow travelers. Along the way he witnessed several derailments and wrecks while learning lessons in geography and civics his stories brought to life for his four sons.
By the time I was fourteen, I had traveled with such hallowed names as the beloved “Pennsy”, the Delaware & Hudson, New York Central, Long Island, Canadian National and Central Vermont. In the decade to follow, I would come to cross the continent nearly a dozen times by rail on military courier missions, covering the miles between New York and Texas or California on many of the great trains of the early 50s from the Super Chief to the Texas “Katy”. It was during a time of war, and the uniform I wore and the orders I carried had an unexpected but welcome effect on conductors and porters, who quietly saw to it that I enjoyed dining car meals far beyond the reach of the parsimonious military “meal tickets” I carried, and a first choice of sleeping berth at night. I always chose an upper Pullman berth, where the swaying motion of the car was more pronounced, and the clickety clack of the rails a soothing counterpoint. When escorting prisoners, I often had a compartment assigned to me for greater security,
and that was especially luxurious.
One of the most interesting train journeys was a 935 kilometer trip on a steam-powered, narrow gage railroad from Tokyo to the city of Iwakuni at the extreme southern tip of occupied Japan. Tunnels through mountains were numerous and long, and almost every small town we passed had its waiting audience of small children vying for the candy and chewing gum we threw to them from the moving train. We slept on swaying hammocks which dropped from the ceiling at night and dined on military rations. A brief stop to take on coal and water at a station overlooking the devastation of Hiroshima was an eerie experience. I don’t think any of us spoke as we looked down on what once had been a thriving city.
By 1916, there were 254,000 miles of railroad tracks in America, and passenger rail traffic had reached its zenith. By 1920, 1.8 million people were employed by the industry. But big changes were ahead, one of which was Americans’ growing love affair with the automobile, another the coming of the combustion engine itself. The construction, maintenance, and operation of steam-powered locomotives was an expensive proposition, and diesel power offered greater economy in all three areas. For awhile the two ran side by side, to the delight of a portion of the public who loved the mystic of steam.
Today, only 154,000 Americans are employed in the rail industry, yet we manage to haul four times the freight tonnage of the heyday year of 1920 !
Except for a handful of tourist trains scattered around the country. steam-powered rail travel is only a fading memory, but one filled with enough glory to be worth passing on to our grandkids.

Clinchfield caboose number 1078 is connected to a coal train near Mt. Holly, No. Carolina, one of the last of a dying breed. Rendered redundant by new technology, the venerable caboose was mostly dropped from service in the 1980s.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I knew right from the start this would be a good day. (When it comes to certain rituals, I believe in karma.) As I carefully scraped the ashes of last night’s fire through the grates for transfer to the waiting scuttle, there hidden in and protected by an insulating layer of gray wood ash were two or three still-living coals, glowing red with promise; the remnants of a pinyon knot, imbued at its core with natural resins bestowed by a long-ago marriage of sun and sapling. Open the draft, ply with a feathery wreath of cedar bark and voila ! We have flames, ready to be cajoled with a “teepee” of hand-split cedar withes into the day’s birthing fire. And without having to resort to the calumny of paper or match !
For the dedicated wood-burner, there is something particularly and deeply satisfying about building that first-of-the day fire. No matter the dimension or design of the hearth, there is something undeniably primal and elegantly elemental in an act which connects us with generations of fire-makers stretching back to humankind’s very roots.
It is especially satisfying when outside, gray storm clouds are reaching earthwards, the west wind is bringing showers of rain and sleet on its chill breath, and warmth produced by human hands begins to fill our log home’s frosty interior. The progressive placement of slender pieces of dry white pine and hand-split billets of red cedar which have been curing for two years under a home-made outdoor shelter are each a steppingstone in the ritual. The Dutch West’s double layers of cast iron begin to tick and ting as they expand, joining the song the chimney draft and crackling wood are singing.
I can’t help but notice that among the cradles of fire wood toted from barn to hearth individual pieces bring their own sense of history and personality with them: there is that knot-filled twisted juncture of cedar burl I almost gave up on splitting last August; here is the single silver-white length of cottonwood salvaged from a lightning-struck branch which had to be cleared from the trail along the river bank after a springtime storm, and mixed in are those misshapen, impossible-to-stack odds and ends purposely set aside, or thrown on the top of a finished stack and just begging to be gotten rid of on a bed of hot coals. The symmetry of an artfully constructed section of a near-perfect corner or end-stack reminds me of a weekend when a visiting grandson took the time his grandpa never would have to show his architectural skills. Here and there, as I work my way through the wood pile I will happen upon a tiny stack of still-green meadow grass, where a far-sighted deer mouse built winter quarters, and wonder if its inhabitants escaped the notice of a California king snake I knew hunted nearby.
As I travel the backroads of the New England I love, and where my own association with wood-gathering and wood-burning was first given life, I am always on the lookout for the inevitable evidence that cold-weather providence is still alive and well. I see wood stacks that are straight-and-true, short or long, sometimes circular or even whimsical in shape and design; out in the open, or under carefully-crafted shelter. These stacks, of course, are made up of white birch, some ash, and a lot of long-burning, BTU-rich maple – the true wood-burner’s ”fillet mignon” of the hearth. Sometimes I stop to admire or even photograph what most travelers would pass by with hardly a glance. And . . if I think no one is watching, I will even saunter over to the stack, and allow my nostrils to inhale deeply of an amalgam of forest perfume which has the power to open the memory vaults of my mind to the magic of a thousand morning fires.
Each Fall as we take temporary possession of a primitive cabin overlooking the Atlantic in coastal Maine, I pray for the first night of frosty weather, or better yet, an actual “Nor’easter” , so that I can feed split chunks of gathered and carefully-husbanded maple into the waiting fireplace.
Just outside my back door here in southern Utah, I keep a chopping block and splitting axe – as I have wherever I have lived, down through the years - so that I have to walk by them every day. They, and what they stand for remind me of who I am, and of a legacy of self reliance which helps to define me.
I was right this morning. This has been a very good day. Day number 27,950.

A neat home-built shelter houses a supply of split hardwood at historic “Furnace Brook Farm” in Chittenden, Vermont.
For many New England farm families, firewood gathering is a never-ending, year-round job.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


As Admiral Nagumo’s fleet turned away from Hawaiian waters and headed back to the safety of homeland seas on December 8, 1941, they had every reason to believe they had accomplished a great victory for the Japanese Empire. They had sent most of America’s Pacific Fleet to the bottom and either destroyed or damaged much of the infrastructure needed to support fleet operations. Nearly half of all military aircraft on hand had been eliminated in ninety minutes, mostly on the ground, and the dead and wounded – half of that total aboard the U.S.S. Arizona – would send shock waves across a “sleeping” America.
Like their American counterparts, Japanese admirals were still following a naval doctrine advanced by English captain, Alfred Mahan which held that ultimate victory at sea would always be determined in one great battle between opposing battleships. With virtually all U.S. battleships and heavy cruisers out of the equation, Admiral Yamamoto and his planners figured they would have at least one year to complete the conquest of the Philippines, Guam, the East Indies, Singapore, and New Guinea, while strengthening their hold on Korea, Indochina, Manchuria, and the string of Pacific islands which served as a protective shield for their homeland. And they were confident that a weak and self-absorbed America would be sufficiently demoralized to seek reasonable terms for a non-aggression agreement.
The Japanese, of course, were wrong on almost every count. To begin with, the three aircraft carriers they thought would be at anchor were safely at sea, and would shortly play a key role in reversing the fortunes of war. In the months to come, the greatest sea battles ever fought would take place – between opposing fleets which would never even come within sight of each other. It would be the aircraft launched by those fleets which would secure both victory and defeat. The vaunted battleship would become mostly a gun platform supporting invasion actions, and the aircraft carrier would become the new “capitol ship”. And Pearl Harbor would “rise’ again, as the arsenal of victory in the Pacific. The massive fuel depots, submarine pens, dry docks and repair shops, along with the fleet headquarters complex itself, were left untouched by the first two waves of bombers, and for reasons which will be forever debated, Nagumo failed to launch the third wave which might have corrected that oversight.
But there is more to this part of the Pearl Harbor story. Of the eighteen fighting ships sunk in the attack, all but two would be raised from the dead to play roles in the final defeat of Japan and the Axis, some of them within six months. In what must be recognized as one of the major engineering feats of all time, teams of underwater divers worked round the clock, making 5000 dives in the most treacherous and toxic environment imaginable to make the impossible possible. Navy and civilian divers spent more than 20,000 hours in oil-and-sludge-filled waters, both outside and inside ripped and torn hulls, not counting the many hours spent in a decompression chamber normalizing blood nitrogen levels following prolonged stays underwater. Exhausting efforts and great care went into recovering human remains, ship’s documents and ammunition.
On the other hand, the Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor did not fare so well. Of the six carriers which delivered the 420 bombers, fighters and torpedo planes, four were sunk in the battle of Midway six months later, with the fifth going down at Coral Sea, and Zuikaku , the sixth, in Leyte Gulf in 1944. Two of the Imperial Fleet’s battleships were sunk at Guadalcanal in November, 1942, and two cruisers, Tone and Chikuma sometime later.
In the end, despite all the military errors and oversights which can be ascribed to both sides in that initial battle of a war which would drag out for four more years, the Empire of Japan made the most fateful by profoundly misreading the people of America. The consequences of that mis-judgement was perhaps most succinctly captured by Admiral Hara Tadaichi who said, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”

Exhausted U.S. Navy divers stand in front of a decompression chamber at Pearl Harbor following the December, 1941 attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


America’s history is so crammed with the stories of exceptional people who did exceptional things that it has become easy to lose track, overlook, or under-appreciate many. It would be difficult to find a more deserving character than an immigrant boy of the 19th century to honor with a brief remembrance – especially during what has euphemistically become known as “the Holiday Season”.
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany on September 27th, 1840. Six years later, he and his family undertook immigration to America, settling in New York. Young Thomas had a difficult time fitting in, right from Day One. He was short, fat and unattractive. He was a poor student, slow to learn basic English, and was soon sent home from public school as “unpromising”.
Making use of cast-off crayon remnants supplied by a neighbor, Thomas began to fill his lonely hours by drawing pictures of the everyday neighborhood in which he lived. His talent got him into an art school about which we know little – except that by age 15, he no longer had the funds to continue, or to enter the kind of long, drawn-out apprenticeship program the times required.
In the days before photography, the publishers of journals and newspapers employed illustrators to add visual interest to the printed media which served a public hungry for news and entertainment. Motivated by desperation and sheer audacity, young Thomas presented himself to the publisher of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. To get rid of the persistent pest, Leslie gave him a drawing assignment and deadline he knew the petitioner couldn’t complete. To his surprise, Nast appeared at his desk the next day with the finished work in hand. He was hired on the spot.
While working for Leslie, Thomas learned the exacting art of carving wood cuts – the technique of creating a reverse image on a wooden plate which when inked would produce a near photo-like reproduction on paper. Some time around 1858 or 1859, he tried his hand for the first time at drawing a political cartoon. It was immediately bought by the publisher of Harper’s Weekly where Nast found a new “home”. Not only had he become adept at depicting current happenings in life-like illustrations, but he quickly revealed a rare insight into what was going on in the world of politics around him. It was Thomas Nast who invented the democrat donkey and the republican elephant, and many historians give him credit for developing the Uncle Sam image which remains a national institution.
The impact of Nast’s cartoons was deep and widespread, and they informed the public in a way mere words couldn’t. He helped to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed political machine in New York and to elect Rutherford B. Hayes U.S. President in 1876. In fact he was eerily successful in picking political winners, and in six successive presidential campaigns, his cartoons were a predictor.
During the Civil War, Nast became depressed with having to illustrate the tragedy of death on the battlefields, and in 1862 he decided to try to bring something uplifting to the nation with the beginning of a series of what came to be known as his “Christmas Drawings”. The first depicted a plump, bearded, hearty, happy elf of a man in a sleigh delivering gifts to soldiers. Building on the old European idea of a stark, stern, black-robed “Father Christmas”, Thomas Nast began polishing and fine-tuning the new Santa Claus, building on the popular Clement Moore poem, T’Was The Night Before Christmas, suggesting a home in the North Pole, and the expanding storyline which quickly captured the imagination of children and grown-ups around the world. For the next 24 years Nast would produce 76 original Christmas engravings, including everything from the idea of a Santa workshop to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, finally giving us the Merry Old Elf image we have today.
The chubby immigrant boy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge who carved his art in wood went on to become one of the most successful, wealthy and honored artists of his day, ending his career as U.S. ambassador to Ecuador. What his world of admirers didn’t know, was that Thomas Nast had a secret. He had never learned to read or write. His devoted wife – his greatest admirer – was his window on the world, mentoring his searching mind and reading aloud to him even as he carved.
The Santa Claus Thomas Nast gave us will be 147 years old this Merry Christmas !