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Posts Tagged ‘government’

Iconography and Foolishness

How incredibly iconic is this image?

This is a picture taken in 1869 at the joining of two great railroads — the Union and the Central Pacific — in 1869. Setting aside the poor quality of mid-19th century photography, this is terrific photo. How better to depict years of labor by hardworking Americans and immigrants, and the importance of joining the battle-scarred and reconstructing East to the Pacific Coast, a land of wealth and promise, than this image? You see the engineers and work crews of the two big railroads, sharing champagne and smiles at the importance of the moment. This event was celebrated with drink and fiddles, dance and jubilation, pomp and circumstance. The joining of the railroads, one of those moments that marked significant change for this nation, beautifully captured for all time in this great iconic image.

Important it was, too, for this country was made strong by the railroads. Like the Internet of today, the railroads meant everything to 19th century America. They expanded commerce. They enabled safe travel. Because the telegraph shared the right-of-way, they improved communications. Most importantly, they tied the country together, and they eventually did more to unite the country than the War Between the States. No longer would you have to spend weeks of misery traveling across the country on horseback or in wagon trains, subjected to the harshness of the elements and the dangers from bandits and natives. You could now board a train in Philadelphia and — depending on your fortitude — eventually disembark in San Francisco.

I am one of those folks who maintains romantic views of these old railroads. I find the whole history of the railroads wonderfully fascinating, and places like Golden Spike NHS enforce this fascination. They have two terrific, working replicas of the two locomotives: the Pacific Central’s Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s No. 119, sitting on rebuilt tracks on the original rail bed. The site itself is still remote, on the opposite side of the Great Salt Lake from Utah’s big metropolis. You can feel the winds of the plateau, smell the lake’s salt spray, and imagine yourself in this desolate land in 1869, laying the final tracks to unite a great nation.

Of course, our iconic and romantic imagery of these great railroads is not accurate. The railroads were not perfect. Because they were powered by burning coal, they were filthy. They were also noisy, uncomfortable, prone to breakdown and delay, and were occasionally assaulted and robbed. They gave rise to the Robber Barons, men of such wealth and influence they seemingly ran the nation from seats of financial power to the detriment of the nation and the ire of Teddy Roosevelt. Even the east-west joining of the railroads does not stand up to our romantic notions. In fact, this activity can be used to show how government interference into commerce and industry is inefficient and stupid.

You see, the government funded the creation of the transcontinental railroad, starting with the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. Through it and several other bills throughout the years, the government provided land grants across the vast unpopulated areas between Omaha and Sacramento. The government also paid railroads to lay track across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the inaccessible plateaus in between. To this day, this still sounds like a shining example of the types of investments the federal government should make, investments whose resulting projects would provide great benefit to the entire nation.

Of course, the implementation itself proved to be horrid. First of all, the railroad land grants were far larger than they needed for these railroads, so they were able to sell parcels at tremendous profit, none of which made it back to government coffers. This, coupled with other forms of corruption during construction, means the government basically enabled the robber barons to become those tyrants and puppet masters we hear of today.

Then there were the foolish reimbursement formulas. The government basically paid the railroads by the mile, and also paid extra for crossing difficult terrain. This inspired the railroads to create winding and inefficient railways, and multiple cases of crossing difficult terrain instead of taking a simpler path in order to earn more government reimbursement. This led to that great anathema to those of us with engineering and scientific mindsets: tremendous inefficiency, idiocy, and profiteering displacing sound design and technological competence. Maddening, ever so maddening, and it is still a process that continues today in the form of pork-barrel projects, unnecessary weapon systems, and bridges to nowhere.

Promontory, Utah itself represents this misdirected mindset of federal funding. It has been debated that, had the railroads concentrated on building efficient East-West connections instead of taking advantage of flaky federal reimbursement rules, the railroads wouldn’t have been anywhere near Promontory. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it is definitely true that the spot was bypassed 35 years later, and hasn’t been a part of the transcontinental railroad since then. It is a dead, empty stretch of the Utah plateau, irrelevant except for a small plot of land celebrating the Golden Spike ceremony of 1869.

I still loved my short visit to this site. Regardless of the tainted history, it’s still an incredibly romantic, iconic moment in American history. And in an ironic way, the abandonment of Promontory by the transcontinental railroad has actually worked towards preserving the site as it was on a sunny day in May of 1869. Take a visit when you’re in the area, watch a steam engine demonstration, and imagine yourself in a bygone era, when a single moment changed the course of American history.

[The first two images are taken from the National Archives. The rest are my own photos and copyrighted as such.]

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Links:

Golden Spike National Historic Site

An essay on federal aid and the transcontinental railroad

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

Google map to Promontory, Utah

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Who Cares National Park

Poor Cuyahoga: the Park of No Love. The great national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, all the others) have huge amounts of visitors and worldwide acclaim. They have spectacular geologies or magnificent trees or rare wildlife. Everyone knows their names, knows what they are about. But no one cares about a little strip of land on a forgotten river nestled between two Rust Belt cities, a little strip of land known as Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine FallsCuyahoga is a park that preserves a small valley cut in the Appalachian Plateau. The Cuyahoga itself is a meandering river, most notable for a series of canals used as transport in the late 18th to early 19th century (before railroads took over). It’s nice that preservationists lobbied to protect this patch of river. I believe that we should strive to protect all natural areas (not just those with spectacular flora, fauna, or geology) wherever possible.

The problem lies with putting this spot in the National Park System. If you listen to “park-o-philes”, like those on National Parks Traveler, Cuyahoga NP is the result of pork-barrel spending that most Americans heavily despise. I don’t know how to react to that. Usually pork projects only benefit those who win the contracts to build them. Sometimes these projects end up having no value to the community whatsoever, being proverbial white elephants until some future pork barrel project tears them down or repurposes them in an endless cycle of valueless taxpayer expenditures.

Everett Road Covered BridgeBut does government money spent on natural preservation count as “pork”? Many believe so. I don’t. See, I believe that natural preservation is the gift that keeps on giving. Natural lands help clean the air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and plants. They also act as carbon sinks, something the world needs a lot more of right now. Parks also provide venues for recreation and a chance for urbanites and suburbanites to experience nature (something heavily needed in the manufacturing-laden cities of the Old Northwest Territories).

ButterflySome, especially those who want to profit off land development, think these “benefits” are a crock of tree-hugging bullshit. It’s just getting in the way of progress and economic development. But think about it: do we really need to carve up more of our fields & woodlands? Do we really need to divert more rivers or fill in more swamps in the name of “economic development”? Take a look around: everywhere you travel, you see abandoned properties, empty factories, vacant strip malls. Do we really need to pave over nature to build more crap, when we have thousands, if not millions, of already-paved land just sitting there, doing nothing? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, redevelop these existing stains on the landscape for economic development? Do we really need to make new stains? That’s what I think is bullshit.

Yeah, turning Cuyahoga into a National Park probably wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money, but at least there’s a stretch of green in the middle of Rust Belt America. I think it’s needed.

Beaver Marsh

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cuyahoga Valley. Pics are courtesy of the National Park Service. Actually, they have some pretty nice photos on their Cuyahoga website.]

[UPDATE: I visited Cuyahoga again since my original post. I now have some pics, located here.]

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Links:

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Benefits of Open Space Preservation: Land Trust Alliance

Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 Report (Dept. of Interior)

Google map to Cuyahoga Valley

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