Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Routes to Mackinac Island

Records kept by the American Fur Company

Connected by narrow straits, three of the five largest Great Lakes, Huron, Michigan and Superior converge near Mackinac Island. Located amidst these waterways, the Island and some of its surrounding shores served as a base for exploring and, later, for developing an expansive fur trade in the Great Lakes.     

In the 17th century, the French claimed the territory surrounding the Great Lakes. At this time, their Jesuit priests and explorers paddled up the Ottawa River from Montreal, eventually making their way through Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and then on to Superior and Michigan.  Some even canoed through Lake Michigan to the rivers of Wisconsin and with a short portage made their way to the Mississippi River.
What drove people to undertake these life-endangering expeditions?  The very earliest explorers, like Samuel de Champlain, were searching for a new route to China that would enrich themselves and the French nation.  For priests like Father Jacques Marquette, the answer was clear: saving souls by bringing the Indians the sacraments of the Catholic Church. For the voyageurs like Jean Nicolet, the response was a search for adventure and fortune.

The lands and waterways surrounding the Great Lakes were rich with fur bearing animals – such as beaver, marten, lynx, mink, otter, bear, and fox. Once the Indians learned what the Europeans had with them – knives, hatchets, cooking pots, muskets — they sought to acquire these modern metal items. Local Indians brought the highly valued pelts to the trading post on Mackinac Island where the exchange of goods took place.  Each side had a clear incentive and therefore trade flourished.

Control of these great northwestern territories shifted from French, to British, to American. After the French and Indian Wars, 1756-63, sovereignty was transferred from France to Britain. Soon thereafter, with the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, the boundaries were settled between the United States and Great Britain/Canada as large parts of the Great Lakes came under the American flag.

Mackinac Strait Suspension Bridge, i.e. Big Mac
There was strong competition to benefit from the wealth of the fur trade.  In 1809, John Jacob Astor organized the American Fur Company in order to challenge the British monopoly that extended from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. Astor was a remarkable entrepreneur. In addition to establishing a trading fort in Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, to compete directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he traded along the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. On Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan, he established a trading center and by 1822 held a monopoly on the Great Lakes fur trade.

At its Mackinac Island base, Astor’s American Fur Company, set up a warehouse, dormitory, retail store and boat yard. A resident manager was put in charge, while Astor himself never came to the island.

Astor became one of the richest men in the world of his time, a credit to his entrepreneurial skills, some well-timed assistance from the federal government in forcing out British competition, and finally, superb timing of selling his fur business just as the European fashions shifted to silk.  After he sold out his interest in the company (then a US monopoly) in 1834, he reinvested his wealth in New York City real estate. John Jacob Astor was a man in the right place at the right time, many times!


Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Commercial shipping is a major economic activity on the five Great Lakes. The lakes were carved out by the last retreating glaciers and cover over 23,000 square miles, 14,000 of which are in Canada. Because of their great size, the lakes behave more like oceans, which demand especially skilled navigation. On both the Canadian and American sides, the lands surrounding the lakes are rich in minerals (copper, iron and limestone) and agricultural products (grains of all sorts). All these raw materials must find their way to market or to manufacturing sites. And thus major amounts of cargo are transported on the boats that ply these northern waters.

In the early 19th century, wooden sailing vessels of steadily increasing size carried goods through the Great Lakes. These wooden ships were a maximum of 150 feet in length. The steam engine at first supplemented sails, and then, as reliability increased, replaced sails altogether.  Stronger iron hulls replaced the wooden hulls and the size of the boats on the Lakes could increase accordingly. 

Today, automated, computerized freighters 1000 feet long efficiently ship ore and other raw materials through the lakes. The hulls of these boats are boxier with greater capacity per unit length. For example, the Stewart J. Cort, the first of the thousand foot boats or Lakers has a carrying capacity of 58,000 tons!  As few as 19 in crew can operate the thousand foot boat. The Laker usually carries its own loading/unloading boom and ship-long conveyor belts so, at port, these jobs are done automatically. When a Laker cruises by, it goes on and on and on, being more than three times as long as a football field. The critical issue for shipping efficiency is cargo size.  And the new Lakers are as large as a boat can be and still navigate the ports and current locks of the Great Lakes. 

Other types of boats sail in the Great Lakes as well. An unusual one is an Articulated Tug/Barge (ATB). When the hull of a ship is still serviceable, but the motor and mechanics less so, a new hybrid can be formed. Engineers remove the boilers and propellers, seal the ship while framing a spot in the rear for a push tug to fit right in. Thus, the original boat is transformed into a barge without any means of propulsion. The push tug is designed with a tall bridge so it can propel the barge from the rear while the captain has a clear view of the waterway ahead.

Another novel Great Lakes vessel has been created when an older boat is removed from service. The original bow and stern is severed, saved and re-attached to a new, elongated middle section to grow the size of the boat. American ingenuity.

Other boats to be seen – private sail and motor boats, Coast Guard cutters, passenger ferries, and small ice breakers.  With highly accurate GPS determinations, these boats can replace navigational buoys in exactly the same place from which they had been removed during the previous winter when Great Lakes shipping stops because of ice.

To us, the most interesting vessels are the very few cruise boats* taking passengers through the Great Lakes.  Living aboard the boat and traveling day to day, you can experience the natural beauty and historic significance of the Great Lakes and surrounding shores firsthand.

St. Clair River - Plant in Ontario

Coast Guard boat

Detroit's new Renaissance Center. Central tower 72 stories high.

Forest of smoke stacks

Refitted Great Lakes boat. Now a barge with a push tug.

Entry to River Rouge, MI.

Monday, June 22, 2015


In the late 18th century, a remarkable group of men came on the American stage. Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Jefferson….to name but a few of our nation’s outstanding political thinkers and nation builders.

In the late 19th century, another group of brilliant minds converged --- Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. These inventors and entrepreneurs transformed how Americans would lead their lives.  As persons of genius, persistence, confidence, and grand thinking, they tackled and solved technological problems of their day in the fields of transportation, communication, and lighting.

Henry Ford was determined to design, construct and market a completely new motorcar. He wished to democratize (his word) the car so everyone could afford and drive one. Ford made a dramatic breakthrough in reducing costs when he created a totally new manufacturing procedure, the moving assembly line. At its affordable price, the Model T could be purchased by a large segment of the American population. Two, then three, million automobiles rolled off the assembly line giving every new owner unheard of mobility. Now one simply needed to know how to crank, throttle, steer and stop the horseless vehicle—and off one could go!

A new age of exploration was ushered in. Not for the professional mariner, but this time for the American family on the road. …who could now drive to sites of cultural importance, historical interest and natural beauty throughout the nation…. or just take a Sunday drive and picnic in the country.

Today we’re used to seeing malls with a repeat of the same stores – T.J. Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, Dick’s Sporting Goods… In earlier days, enterprising shop owners put out quirky roadside signs advertising their hotels, diners, and gas stations to catch the eye of the tourist. Now these roadside advertisements are collector’s items, recapturing an earlier period in American history.

Roadside diners served the wandering traveler. Their design echoed the original horse drawn lunch wagons and called to mind the more elegant railroad dining car, both eating venues well known to the traveling public. The word “diner” was, in face, a shortened form of “dining car.” Diners came directly from the factory. Clovis Lamy’s Diner, 1946, was manufactured at the Worcester Lunch Car Company with 16 built-in stools, 6 hardwood booths, and a stainless steel bar and then shipped to the spot where it stood on the side of a well-traveled road, beckoning the hungry motorist.

Gas pumps were initially placed curbside in front of homes or businesses.  But it was soon found that cars parked to purchase gas blocked the roadways.  The pumps were then moved back to open lots—hence the gas station.

After Henry Ford’s auspicious beginning put Americans on the road, soon followed the Holiday Inn motel chain, Airstream caravans, Triptiks, and much more, leading into our modern day Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, Waze app, Google maps, E-Z Pass, etc.
Lamy's Diner Interior

Old Car Rally - L, Studebaker!

Diner Exterior

St. Ann, Missouri

Chinook, Montana

Model T with Bob -- both antiques!

Coolidge pictured with Ford, Edison, Firestone and others, the inventors/entrepreneurs of the early 20th century.

Can we just stay home?

Friday, June 19, 2015


Buffalo, at the western terminus of the Erie Canal, was a very wealthy city in the19th century. It was a prime site of architectural experimentation. It was here that major American architects broke with European tradition to create an aesthetic of their own.  By focusing on a few buildings, we saw the evolution of forces that transformed the architecture in Buffalo and many other American cities.

19th century inventions and advances in several fields of engineering allowed building to take new shapes.  These changes are mirrored in the architect preserved in downtown Buffalo.

1. BUILDING ENGINEERING – Originally the structure of buildings was supported by weight bearing walls. This engineering fact limited the safe height of buildings and the size of windows that could be cut to allow light to the interior.

With advances in technology, a steel skeleton could now be used to bear the weight of the building. Curtain walls could then be attached to the steel framework but now were no longer needed to bear weight.  Louis Sullivan took advantage of this principle in designing his visually soaring skyscrapers.
4 story building with weight bearing walls

Old Post Office, EXTERIOR, Victorian Gothic, Henry H. Richardson, architect, built 1894-1901

INTERIOR built around large courtyard with ornate glass ceiling to provide outside light in addition to limited electric lighting inside.

Louis Sullivan's Prudential Building, 1895-6. Design elements emphasize verticality.


2. ELECTRICITY – In the late 19th century, the prolific experimenter and inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, was able to produce light through an incandescent bulb. He founded the Edison Electric Light Company that was supported by investors, including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family. This new capacity to generate electricity at a central location and distribute it locally made this power commercially viable. Now buildings were not restricted by reliance on outside ambient light, from dawn to dusk, but had their own reliable, interior source of lighting.

3. ELEVATOR – Elisha Otis, from Troy and Albany, NY was a tinkerer, who came up with the idea of a SAFETY elevator, one which has a device to keep it from falling should a cable be severed. His idea took off after it was featured at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York.

The elevator powered by an electric motor joined together with steel skeleton construction from the new science of building engineering and the invention of the light bulb allowed the design of the new skyscrapers—a design which would provide the towering and iconic images of the American city and those around the world.


Trunk in which Huck Finn manuscript was found


Front page - manuscript
Serbo-Croatian translation
In the middle of Buffalo’s downtown district with its eclectic buildings, covering the breadth of American architectural history, sits its modern public library. While of interest in itself, its greatest little treasure is a museum quality display – the Mark Twain room.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) had married and lived in Buffalo for many years, working for a while as editor of the Buffalo Morning Express. Asked to give a manuscript of one of his books to the library, he presented them with Huckleberry Finn in his own handwriting. The person in charge sent one-half of the manuscript off for binding but forgot about the other half. Years passed. Two nieces received items from the estate of their aunt. And miraculously in 1990, the missing half was discovered when an antique trunk was opened in an attic in Los Angeles. Rather than putting it up for sale, the manuscript was reunited with its first half. It rests now preserved and displayed in the Mark Twain room.

The library had already collected numerous copies of Twain’s works—complete editions, special editions, and many foreign language editions – Portuguese, Hebrew, Chinese, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, along with the expected

Romance languages. In a prominent place, the Mark Twain room exhibits his many works, but especially the trunk in which the lost half manuscript was found. What a marvel to read the Duke’s words in his creator’s own handwriting.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Hard to believe but Oswego, NY, on Lake Ontario, was the only spot in America where persons fleeing from the Nazi Holocaust found refuge. In 1944, after the US Army gained control of most of Italy, FDR agreed to take in 1,000 refugees. While thousands more were turned away, a lucky 982 (mostly Jews) gained passage across the Atlantic on the Henry Gibbons, a troop carrier, also carrying many brave wounded soldiers. FDR allowed these displaced individuals to come as long as they signed a paper guaranteeing that they would return to their former homes in Germany, Italy, and the Balkans at war’s end.

Refugee family disembarking

Coming from Europe aboard a US Navy troop carrier

Eleanor Roosevelt visits the Oswego Safe Haven

Imagine the fright of these refugees as the ship was met by a train to transport them to Oswego NY to reside at Fort Ontario, a deactivated military base, surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. Could this be a continuation of the Holocaust?  Their fears were assuaged by Ruth Gruber, a liaison from the Interior Department, who spoke many of their different languages. She had accompanied them from Italy all the way to Oswego, and reassured them that they would be safe here in America.

Those residing in the Fort Ontario shelter were accepted by the Oswego community. Mr. Smart, a principal, arranged for the children to attend local schools where they played and learned along with local children. Townspeople came back from church and invited refugee families for a home-hosted Sunday dinner. Residents of the camp earned some immediate cash by working odd jobs in Oswego. Adults were taught woodworking, hairdressing, and other useful skills. All learned English. After years on the run, they now could develop a cultural life and published a newspaper and put on shows and concerts. Eleanor Roosevelt, always concerned about refugees, visited to offer support.

After the war, Harry Truman voided the order that the refugees must return to Europe. After all, their homes no longer existed and America was a land of immigrants and opportunity. The US government provided buses so the refugees could cross over the Rainbow Bridge to nearby Canada. In Canada, they were provided stamped papers so they could reenter the United States on a legal path to citizenship.

Individuals from this group have made great contributions to our nation – helping develop the MRI, the Minuteman and Polaris missiles, composing music, and in other ways. Many reunions have taken place in Oswego; the Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum is a small treasure undergoing expansion. It memorializes a fascinating story of the rescue of 982 refugees who found a safe haven in Oswego during WW II.

P.S.  The Oswego story is a far cry from the way the US government had treated the ship St. Louis carrying a boatload of escaping refugees from Europe. That ship was turned back from Havana and then Miami, forcing the refugees to re-cross the Atlantic to Europe. In this “voyage of the dammed,” the passengers faced almost-certain death at the hands of Nazis whose anti-Semitic mission was to exterminate all Jews.



The Erie Canal, built 1817-1825, was a grand project relentlessly promoted by DeWitt Clinton and sometimes called “Clinton’s Ditch.”  Its construction challenges were overcome with basic American ingenuity and hard work – removing trees, widening narrow passages, crossing wide rivers, for example. Local and immigrant workers dug the 363 miles long canal with backbreaking labor and the absence of any high tech or even low tech machinery. As William Stone said in celebrating the canal, the builders "have built the longest canal in the world, in the least time, with the least experience, for the least money, and to the greatest public benefit."

The canal penetrated the barrier created by the Allegheny Mountains. It created a far faster route to the west and opened up America’s expansion to the fertile lands of Ohio, Michigan, and the rest of the Middle West.  Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago became major cities of commerce. The canal remained an important commercial route until the end of the 19th century when its convenience and speed were surpassed by the advent of railroads.  Expanded and rerouted into the Erie Barge Canal, it continues to operate to this day, used annually by over 100,000 pleasure boats and an occasional commercial craft.

For more canal history, see Peter Bernstein’s Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.  Also, take a look at our June 7, 2013 blog based on a visit to the Erie Canal Museum.

Falls next to the lock

Swing Bridge 

Entering an Erie Canal lock

Jane & Bob on the top deck

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


The city of Troy is situated on the Hudson River slightly north of Albany and just south of Cohoes Falls (second largest water volume to Niagara), where the Mohawk River enters the Hudson. Troy, the most significant port between New York City and the Erie Canal, blossomed in the 19th century. It served as a major commercial hub in the opening of the west.  Large ships came up the Hudson and transferred their cargo, including immigrants, to barges for the journey west to Buffalo and beyond. Soon the traffic became two-way as western grain and other commodities headed to NYC for consumption around the world.

In 1840 census, it was the 4th wealthiest city in the United States on a per person basis and attracted entrepreneurs from New England and New York. For example, Troy housed a large factory to manufacture detachable collars and cuffs sold around the world. Hannah Montague, a Troy housewife, invented this to save her husband’s shirts. The idea caught on around the world and the company later became the iconic Arrow Shirt Company.

The wealthy citizens funded the installation of many stained glass windows by Louis Tiffany and built many treasured examples of Victorian architecture--  still standing and part of the revival of Troy’s downtown. 
Arrow Shirt Factory

Sam Wilson, a Troy entrepreneur, the original Uncle Sam

"Satisfaction Guaranteed and Money Cheerfully Refunded"

Victorian Mansion

Tiffany Window of the Printing Press in Troy Public Library


West Point (a name which describes its location on the Hudson) is the narrowest spot on the river. During the Revolutionary War, it was of strategic importance for the colonial forces struggling to overcome British control.  To block enemy ships, a massive iron chain was strung from shore to shore which effectively blocked the passage of British ships as the Royal troops sought to cut New England off from the rest of the colonies in revolt.

Founded in 1802 in the administration of President Thomas Jefferson, the US Military Academy has served the United States well in peace and war. It was the first engineering school in the nation and provided the skilled men who planned and built our national canals and our railways in the 19th century.  And of course, it provided the largest number of officers and generals in the Civil War for both North and South. Since then, leadership of the nation’s military has depended primarily on women and men rigorously trained at West Point.

As an historical aside, Hamilton had proposed the building of a military academy at West Point during Washington’s administration. Jefferson and his fellow Republicans opposed it fearing it would become a power base that the Federalists might use to threaten the young republic and create a military dictatorship or monarchy.  When Jefferson became President, he recognized the importance of trained military officers who could lead a national army and the militias against any threatening European state. Politics were put aside and the United States Military Academy at West Point was born
General Sedgwick, Civil War hero

USMA Honor Code basics

Civil War Battle Monument

Looking north up the Hudson from West Point