Sunday, January 23, 2011

Floating Palaces

 [Note to readers: with this post, I am now offering images that can be enlarged by clicking on them. Often, the detail in the enlarged image greatly enhances the beauty of the picture. If the image can be enlarged, the mouse arrow will change to a hand when hovered over the image.]

Floating Palace: you don't hear the term much anymore but at one time it was the supreme compliment for a passenger-carrying ship.  Rich paneling, gilded fixtures, lush carpeting, detailed Corinthian columns supporting a dome or skylight, grand staircases - a Floating Palace had all of these and more.   Often (but not always), the words were used to describe an ocean liner. The steamboats which plied America's lakes and rivers in the 19th century also cultivated business by offering sumptuous furnishings and decor.

Scanning the fascinating photographs in the Library of Congress archives, I came across this photo which seemed filled with a melancholy for the past. The image was entitled, "Old Boats Beached to Rot Away, New York City."

Old Boats Beached to Rot Away

This photo is part of the Detroit Publishing Company archive at the LOC.  The date could only be determined to be sometime between 1900 and 1910.  The large steamboat in the left background can be easily seen to be the the Drew in this enlargement of a segment of the picture below:


Steamer Drew
 The poignancy of the image captured my imagination and I wanted to know more.  I did a little googling and learned that the Steamer Drew was built in 1865-66 for the People's Line, a company that operated steamboats on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany.  The line specialized in so-called "night boats", steamboats with sleeping cabins to accommodate overnight trips. The Drew might have been named for Daniel Drew, one of the shrewdest steamboat operators and Wall Street investors of the 19th century but I couldn't find documentation for this and there was already an earlier steamboat named the Daniel Drew sailing the Hudson.

The Drew cost $800,000 to build, an enormous sum in the closing days of the Civil War, and was equipped to handle the tastes of even the wealthiest of clients. The ship was almost 400 feet in length and had 284 staterooms on three tiers of decks.  The ship was powered by a vertical walking-beam engine having an 81 inch cylinder with a 14 foot stroke.  That is a massive single-piston engine!  Steam to feed the engine was supplied by two boilers mounted out on the external edges of the ship behind the paddlewheels.  In the photo above, the boilers and side-mounted paddlewheels have already been stripped off the old ship.

Ad from 1900 magazine
The Drew sailed without incident for over 30 years with its sister ship, the Dean Richmond. In the fall of 1896,  the new steamboat, Adirondack, was added to the People's Line. The Drew continued to carry passengers for a few more years but was finally retired in August of 1901.  The ship was sold to J.H. Gregory of Perth Amboy, New Jersey to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, the retired steamship burned to the waterline from a fire of undetermined origins on July 2, 1902.  The picture above must date from sometime between August 1901 and July 1902. If you look closely at the image, you can see some men in the wreckage near the bow of the ship.  Were these workmen or were they vagrants looking for something to plunder and were perhaps the source of the fire?

Further searching of the Library of Congress archives turned up a beautiful Currier and Ives print of the Drew that was published in 1876 at the height of her glory.

 The external boiler is clearly visible on the near side of the ship behind the paddlewheel.  In fact, the semi-circular box that enclosed the upper half of the paddlewheel was a work of art in its own right.  As you can see in the magnified view below, the paddlebox was painted to mimic the interior ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, complete with painted sculptures on either end of the arc.

  The Drew was only one of hundreds of steamboats that sailed the Hudson in the century following Robert Fulton's steamboat, North River (often called the Claremont), which first sailed in 1807.  Many of these ships, including the Drew, became legends in their own time.  We have nothing like them today except perhaps the ever-bigger oceangoing cruise ships that have become small cities on water. They, too, are Floating Palaces but somehow they seem to lack the grace of the old steamboats of the Hudson.  The real Queens of the Waters are gone forever.
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Outside the Box

Ships have been with us for a long time. We all know what they look like - a long rectangular box with a pointed bow and rounded stern. A few structures somewhere on the top of the long box to provide a place for the crew to live and to operate the ship.  A smokestack sticks up somewhere - usually towards the rear of the ship.  What could be more ordinary?  But why does it have to be that way? Why not think, if you allow me the little pun, outside the box?

Take a look at the ship in the picture below.  Something just looks... well... different about this ship, doesn't it?  Whose slightly delirious dream was this?

Steamer A.D. Thompson
Library of Congress Collections

The ship in the picture is the A.D. Thompson and it is a class of ship known affectionately to those who sailed them as a whaleback.  Whalebacks were never used for whaling.  Most of them (but not all) sailed on the Great Lakes.  The name (nickname, really) came from the shape of the hull which looked like a whale's back sitting low in the water when the ship was fully loaded.  The name was intended to be descriptive, even complimentary.  If you look at the way the bow comes to a little flat point, you can immediately understand the origin of the other, more derogatory nickname - the pigboat.

The whaleback design was the brainchild of ship's master, serial-entrepreneur, and inventor, Alexander McDougall. McDougall was born in Scotland in 1845.  His parents emigrated to the Lake Huron region of Ontario when he was a young boy.  His father died when McDougall was only ten and he took up a variety of odd jobs to help feed his family. By his late teen years, he had signed on as a deckhand on a Great Lakes freighter.  Being talented and hardworking, he rose rapidly and got his ship master's license when he was just 25, one of the youngest captains on the Great Lakes.

In the latter decades of the 19th century, the Great Lakes were the Northern highway for bulk freight traffic as lumber, iron ore, and grain were shipped from the western regions to the population centers in the East. The Great Lakes were home to hundreds of ships.  At first, these were schooners and other forms of sailing ships, but steam engines rapidly took over as the means to power these ships.  The size of the ships wasn't initially limited by the steam engines, it was limited by the small canals, channels, and locks that the ships had to navigate.  To increase the amount of tonnage that could be hauled on each trip, smaller ships began towing small barges (sometimes called consorts). McDougall was an experienced captain and he knew the difficulties of pulling these unpowered hulls, often through large waves and high winds.  Towing a barge could be a decidedly tricky task, more-so as the weather got bad.

McDougall began thinking about how to design a better barge. He wanted the most volume for the least perimeter, the least resistance to winds and waves, and a shallow-draft design that could be moored at docks with only a limited depth of water.  His innovation was his patented hull design, later dubbed the whaleback.  McDougall built his first consort, named simply Hull No. 101, over the winter of 1887-1888.  It was a technical success. But when McDougall tried to raise capital to build more consorts using his novel design, he was met with derision by the experienced businessmen around the Great Lakes.  Undaunted, he headed to New York where he enlisted the financial backing of several Eastern capitalists including John D. Rockefeller.

Two whaleback consorts in tow out of Poe Lock
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Library of Congress Collections

McDougall founded the American Steel Barge Company in 1889 and began building his cheap, efficient barges in Duluth, Minnesota. After he had built five whaleback consort vessels, McDougall moved his entire shipbuilding operation next door to Superior, Wisconsin.  In 1890, McDougall built his first self-powered whaleback steamer, the Colgate Hoyt (named for one of his first financial backers).  This ship cost just a little more than twice the cost of one of his unpowered barges and could steam at 16 knots - very respectable for its day.

In 1893, McDougall built his only whaleback passenger ship, the Christopher Columbus.  The ship was used to ferry passengers from downtown Chicago, six miles south to the World's Columbian Exposition.  Following the Exposition, the passenger ship was placed in regular service between Cleveland and Chicago.

S.S. Christopher Columbus
Only Whaleback Passenger Ship Ever Built
While McDougall's innovative vessels proved themselves to be workable, the design never caught on.  Whalebacks suffered from a few practical limitations: the curve of the hull made the hatch openings smaller than on conventional ships and barges. This also made the hatches more prone to being bent in the loading and unloading process.  The hatches were expensive to repair. The design also lacked a protected passageway below decks from the front to the back of the ship making it difficult for the crew to communicate in rough weather (remember that this was before radio was invented).  Mostly though, the design just didn't look good to the more established shipping company owners.  The American Steel Barge Company was eventually absorbed into the American Ship Building Company in the late 1890s.

McDougall, ever the entrepreneur, didn't limit himself to ship design.  He operated a company that managed over a thousand stevedores on various Great Lakes docks. He owned an insurance company that wrote policies on Great Lakes shipping. He sat on the board of directors of several electric companies. And in 1899, after selling the whaleback company, he bought the Collingwood (Ontario) Shipbuilding Company, reorganized it, and ran it successfully for many more years building conventional ships.

McDougall died in 1924.  While his vision of a new type of hull did not have the impact that he had hoped for, he was able to demonstrate that his technical ideas were highly workable.  The whaleback ships were gradually scrapped out over the years.  One, the Thomas Wilson, lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan just outside the Milwaukee harbor entrance and is a popular diving destination.

Now, only one whaleback remains in existence.  The S.S. Meteor has been slowly rusting away as a museum ship in Superior, Wisconsin, where it was built in 1896.  When she's gone, none of these daring and innovative ships will remain.  But the old photos still tell the tale of the days when the whalebacks were the talk of the Lakes.

S.S. Meteor
Superior, Wisconsin

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Early Automobile Era: 1895 - 1910

Library of Congress Image
Detroit Publishing Company Collection

The story of America and the automobile has been going on for over a century.  We love our cars.  We love the sense of freedom they bring.  But it is much, much more complicated than that. Cars are modes of transportation, status symbols, a way to express who we want to be, and one of the mainstays of our economy. They have changed how and where we live, how we work, who we know, and even how some of us will die.

Let's play a little association game.  Don't try to be to self-conscious about this. Just remember the first thing that pops into your head when I say a word.  Ready?


Now don't edit it.  What image came to mind - because it will most likely be an image.  Here's another:


Did you think Henry Ford?  Old-fashioned?  How about these words:

General Motors

The quick image, now.  Bailout? Your father's Oldsmobile/Chevrolet/Buick? Crappy quality?

We could play this game forever and in fact, Americans a century ago could have played the same game. The automobile began to encroach on our collective and historic lives as far back as 1895 but the wheel really got rolling (bad pun intended) in the first few years of the 20th century. How some of that happened is the focus of a now out-of-print book entitled,  America Adopts the Automobile, 1895 - 1910, written by James J. Flink and published by the MIT Press in 1970.

 I came across this book in a used bookstore and I just had to buy it.  Something about those founding days of the automobile industry fascinate me.  Actually, the founding days of any industry fascinate me - but I digress.   The years covered in Flink's book were a period when we were thunderstruck by this glorious machine and willingly made the Faustian bargain to trade our very souls to become (in the term of the day) automobilists. Flink, who was not a historian of technology but a historian of American culture, wrote a number of books about the automobile but this was his first and it is a good one.

This is not the usual book of over-hyped color photos of "American Classics".  It is a thoughtful look at many aspects of how automobiles so rapidly became embedded in every aspect of our lives.  In his 300+ page book, Flink used as his primary sources most of the motoring periodicals of the day such as Horseless Age,  Motor Age, and The Motor Way.  He also referenced a number of books written shortly after this embryonic period when first hand knowledge of the beginnings of the automobile industry was still abundant.  There's plenty of data here and also some nice black-and-white car ads and car images that come out of the magazines of the day.

Why was the automobile so quickly adopted? Most people saw very quickly that an automobile was cheaper and a heck of lot easier to keep (not to mention less cranky) than a horse pulling a buggy.  For some occupations (such as the family doctor), the automobile allowed a more rapid and reliable way to get around town.  Contrary to our usual image of early automobiles broken down on the side of the road, they were in fact quite reliable even in their earliest designs.  What wasn't reliable was the tires on the car which gave endless reasons to the automobilist to curse until the tire technology finally began to catch up to the rest of the vehicle.  Those early trips were measured more in number of tires changed than in miles per gallon.

Flink covers topics such as how and when automobiles first began to be licensed.  At first, automobile registration was perennial.  Do it once and you were done.  Pretty quickly this proved to be impractical - not to mention the loss of tax revenue from annual renewals.  In the earliest days, automobilists had to license their car in every state in which they planned to drive.  Similar issues surrounded licensing of drivers.  Not surprisingly, this came about after a few hot-headed drivers managed to mow down some pedestrians and wreak havoc on the local horse-and-buggy traffic.

Licensing and regulatory issues were just some of the reasons that local automobile clubs formed quickly in the first decade of the century. Clubs formed to allow enthusiasts to share their passion for the car but also to band together to build garages and maintenance facilities.  In that first decade, townspeople didn't have garages and their automobile was more often a Sunday drive hobby.  They needed a place to park.  It was later that people began to recognize that their cars would get them to work more comfortably than they could get there on the streetcar.  If the owner was wealthy enough to own a stable behind the house, Ol' Dobbin was turned out and the shiny new Hupmobile or Packard took his place.

Flink spends some pages discussing why the gasoline-powered automobile quickly came to dominate the steam and electric cars of those early days. He also describes the chaos of the early manufacturing market with literally hundreds of companies jumping in to try to catch the wave.  How could so many people afford to start auto-making companies?  The early car manufacturers had an ideal set of business conditions.  People went crazy for cars and every car built was sold before it hit the end of the assembly line.  All purchases were strictly cash and people lined up to plunk down their money. The auto companies were essentially assemblers who bought almost everything from suppliers and demanded that the suppliers bear the cost of all the parts inventory.  Hence, very little capital was needed to get into the auto assembly business in this early stage.  That all changed, of course.  When Henry Ford introduced the Model-T in 1909, the jig was up for many of those still in the game.  More than that, most of the early car makers had focused on building higher priced (and more profitable) cars for the middle and upper-class markets. By 1909, these markets were already saturated and the game was then to build a reliable, low-cost car for the mass market.

The book doesn't go beyond the introduction of the Model-T.  The outcome of that era, though,  is still evident everywhere we look: suburbs, a vast network of highways, acres of parking lots, air pollution, and roadside carnage. But there is no going back.  Last week the venerable Ford Motor Company, which introduced the Model-T in 1909,  announced its first all-electric car.  GM already has the Chevy Volt and hybrids are becoming so common as to be non-events.  Our love of the automobile will go on but it will never be the same as those days in the first decade of the 20th century that Flink so ably describes. Maybe the same will be said for our own day with the excitement about the internet and the social networking of the world.  It looks great from here.  We shall see... or rather our great-grandchildren shall see.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Of Photos and History

I love old photographs.  They show the technologies of the past in ways that words often fail to convey. My last post described the Shorpy website which features a variety of images, mostly beautifully cleaned up images, from the Library of Congress Archives.  I wanted to highlight two other websites I came across recently that are mashups of Google Maps and historical photos.

The first website is historypin.  This recent entry out of the UK provides a unique way to combine old historical views (worldwide) of street scenes with the more recent Street Views available in Google Maps.  The historical images can be switched on and off to allow you to see them superimposed on the way the street looks like today.  The site encourages users to upload their own images although in the current beta release version uploads are limited to five per user. There is also a place to annotate the photos under what the site calls Stories. The site has a little over 29,000 photos "pinned" at this point and is definitely worth a look.  There is a map view that lets you enter an address to see if there are any photos in locations that interest you.  Your best bet at this point is to look at the larger cities.

The second website, similar in concept, is SepiaTown.  This site also encourages you to upload your own images and shows the historical image in a side-by-side comparison with the current Google Street View of that location.  The website allows viewers to leave comments or share the photos through various social networking sites.  SepiaTown is also a relatively new entry and I haven't seen much in the way of posted comments but the photos are interesting and seem distinct from those on historypin.

All of these site are getting at a new way of social networking historical images. If they can get enough users, the power of the network will allow all of us to benefit with the accumulated knowledge that is in our collective heads.  I hope they live long and prosper.  But I think these sites are just the beginning experiments in how to plumb the depths of our knowledge about the more recent past. The pictures are interesting but they lack so many other ways in which they could be made even better.  For example, how about building links to Wikipedia articles or automating a simple Google search of keywords.  Which brings up another point: none of these sites allow tagging the images which would help to build out a set of images.  Other connections could include the vast libraries of online images in Flickr, Picasa, or any number of other photo sharing websites.  Online databases of historical newspaper articles could supplement the images in some cases. Just some thoughts.

If you know of any other websites like these or have any other suggestions on how sites like these could be improved, I would appreciate hearing about them.  Drop me a comment!