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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

COLLISION

I know why George Lamb was anxious to get moving, and so do you. But according to the “rules of the road” George was supposed to wait at the “3 mile siding” switchover at the southern edge of Lafayette, Indiana, for no less than thirty-five minutes for the Northbound “Cincinnati Express” passenger train to pass him on its way to Chicago. Instead, after only twenty minutes, George turned to his fireman, John McClory, and announced, “We can make Culvers”, referring to a small station and water tower (later renamed "Clarks Hill") some eight miles to the south, where there was another siding which would allow two trains to pass each other safely.It was a few minutes after three-thirty on Monday afternoon, Halloween,October 31, 1864. And what George Lamb could not have known as he throttled his fourteen year old 4-4-0 steam engine (above), named the “Clinton”, which was pulling a nine car cattle train, back onto the main line track, was that his attempt to save fifteen minutes would cost the lives of thirty-two human beings. Railroads were still new technology in 1864. The Broad Street work shops of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, where the “Clinton” had been assembled in 1850, was the Boeing Aircraft of their day; employing 1,700 highly skilled workers producing 2,000 locomotives every year. But the history of American railroads is in large part a series of abject lessons in how not to run a railroad.Most of the lines were single track, meaning there were many more collisions in America than in Europe. The valid justification for this was that America’s railroads had to cover hundreds of miles between large cities, which made dual track lines outrageously expensive to build and maintain. But worse still, in terms of bloodletting, was America’s addiction to unfettered capitalism.While producing many centers of growth and innovation, this horror of regulation also produced extraordinary waste, death and dismemberment. One example was at Lafayette, which during the middle of the 19th. century became a railroad crossroads. It was astride the shortest north-south route between Chicago and Cincinatti, and the shortest east-west route between Pittsburg and St. Louis. In Lafayette the two routes crossed, as the Chicago and Cincinnati Railroad (later called the Big 4)and the Toledo and Wabash Railway.Since every rail line was a competitor, although the maps present the image of an integrated network, each comany did its best to restrict its competitors access to its customers. Rail lines did not physically cross without inentse and protractred negotiations. Even Lafayette, a town of less then 10,000 people in 1864, had three seperate passanger and frieght stations, thus adding intense buisness competition and duplication to the pressures for profit. Did this impact safety?
In 1860 the first remote controled vacuum braking system was patented by a mechanic, Nehemiah Hodge. In 1868 Eli Janny invented the knuckle coupler. And in 1869 George Westinghouse was granted a patent on his centralized air braking system. But it would not be until 1893 before the Federal Railway Safety Appliances Act required all of these safety features to be installed and used on America’s railroads.In the intervening thirty years literally tens of thousands of passengers would be killed or injured and thousands of workers would die or suffer crushed fingers, mangled arms or severed legs, and untold fortunes would be lost or destroyed in damaged freight, because of obsolete and needlessly dangerous equipment.The problem of communication was paramount. It was not until the advent of steam engines that humans were able to move faster than biology could carry them. No human or horse could maintain twenty-five miles an hour over thirty or forty miles. A civil war era steam locomotive, like the “Clinton”, had no trouble maintaining that pace. Still, humans could know what was speeding down the track toward them only as far as they could see, which is why junctions and sidings often had elevated towers to keep watch and provide some limited warning.And even though the telegraph allowed George Lamb to know that the “Cincinnati Express” had left Lebanon, Indiana almost sixty minutes before, there was no way for George to know exactly where that train was in the 37 miles between Lebanon and Lafayette. That was why the company rules required George’s “special” to wait until the Express was 35 minutes late before moving past “3 mile siding”. And that is when the safety rules ran up against the opportunitism of capitalism. On a normal day George Lamb worked in the machine shops of the Lafayette Rail Car Company on the north side of Lafayette. (Purdue University students, who often found part time work in the shop, are still known as “Boilermakers”.) And the local ticket agent undoubtedly charged extra for the “special” delivery of those nine car loads of cattle, bound to feed the Federal armies blocking old John Bell Hood’s attempt to re-capture Nashville.The trick for George Lamb was to smoothly slip his “special” in between the already heavily scheduled traffic between Chicago and Cincinnati and beyond to the war front in Tennessee, without gumming up the regugular service. For doing that he would earn a bonus. And so, when George Lamb heard a distant whistle, he assumed it was the regular southbound train bound for Indianapolis which he was to follow, south.So he felt confident in heading south twenty minutes early. Engineer Lamb accelerated across the Wea Creek Bridge, and slipped along the rails onto the flat prairie beyond.Twenty minutes later, as he slowed for the graceful curve north of Culver’s Station (now Clarks Hill), George Lamb abruptly realized he had made a horrible mistake. For he was staring into the terrible Cyclopes eye of the “Cincinnati Express”, barreling toward him at over thirty miles an hour. There were five hundred and eight souls aboard the Express, mostly Union soldiers on leave. Engineer Lamb said there was no time to even apply the brakes. He and fireman McClory threw them selves from the cab just before......the two boilers slammed into each other with a closing speed of over seventy miles an hour, exploding in screams of steam and souls. Everyone aboard the first wooden passenger car of the “Express” was killed as the wooden cars splintered and telescoped into the rear of the engine,...slamming its human cargo into a mass of bent iron and brass and broken bone and splattered blood. Long after the collission had ceased, after the last bit of wood had snapped and the last passenger car had cartwheeled in the farm fields to the right and left of tracks, the injured cattle began to scream.
The telegraph operator at Culver had to run up the tracks above the accident to tap undamaged line and call to Lafayette for help. A rescue train was sent at once and carried aboard it eleven local doctors.It was well after dark before the first of the 35 injured reached Lafayette, and were sheltered at the “Bramble House” hotel at 3rd and South Street, and katty-cornered, in a billiard room at the Lafayette House Hotel. The thirty-two deceased were left in a freight house at the bottom of South Street along the tracks. Ten were later buried in St. Mary’s cemetery.Twenty-two Union soldiers who were either too injured to be identified or whose bodies were unclaimed were buried in Greenbush cemetery in Lafayette, their tombstones lined up in rank.The Grand Jury blamed Engineer Lamb for “…reprehensible carelessness and disobedience of rules and regulations”, but at least they also mentioned that the Lafayette and Indianapolis Railroad had employed him, despite knowing that Lamb had caused an accident at Culver’s Station the year before, which had caused property damage but no injuries. It seems likely after this latest disaster the L&I would not continue to make that mistake. After the Grand Jury verdict Engineer Lamb disappears from history. But his is a conundrum that sounds far too familiar.There are always working stiffs willing to take Engineer Lamb’s job, desperate for a paycheck or a promotion, who would violate the written rules and risk their own and other’s lives to secure a job. (The Jury didn’t even mentioned the ticket agent who sold the “Special”.) Engineer Lamb understood the unwritten rules. Most people who survive paycheck to paycheck understand the unwritten rules. But, like the members of the Coroner’s Grand Jury, they are torn between the reality they know and what they have been taught, between how they know the game is played and their faith in the sanctity of the rules. As I said, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

ZEPPELIN

I would like to have been there when they walked the monster out of its shed on the first day of October, 1916. I would like to have asked the people shepherding the behemoth from its cage and those watching if any of them really thought this idea could have ever worked?Each of the “Air Ships” that left their sheds on that Sunday afternoon were floating contradictions. Almost ten city blocks long and more than 200 feet in diameter, and weighing 32 tons, they bobbed mystically, gently suspended four feet above the ground, steered by tugs on their guide ropes from the 100 plus ground crewmen who walked each monster out as if it were a well trained dog. For all of 1915 the Zeppelins had invaded England with impunity, undetected on moonless nights, untouchable even when in full view, unreachable at 10,000 feet.The new “Super Zeppelin”, L-31, was the lead ship in this eleven ship mission. It had been commissioned just 3 months earlier. It carried 5 tons of bombs and a crew of 20. It’s six, 240 horsepower Maybach engines propelled the giant through the thin air above 15, 000 feet at over 60 miles an hour.But like all of her comrades, old and new, within the aluminum ribs and buttresses of the L-31 were confined great bags of buoyant hydrogen gas. These ‘ships of war’ sailed into battle separated from becoming an instant inferno by only a casual spark.At the age of 33 years, Capitanleutnant Henruch Mathy, commander of the L-31, was at the peak of his profession. He had been picked for Zeppelin command straight out of the Naval Academy. This was his 15th combat mission and he was personally responsible for more than two/thirds of all the damage the Zeppelins had done over Britain in the war. On one raid alone, on September 8th, 1915, Mathy’s bombs had killed 22 Londoners and caused a million and a half pounds of damage. It was an achievement that earned him in England the infamous title of “Zeppelin Scourge”.Newspaper readers in Germany were thrilled at his accounts of action over London. “A sudden flash and a narrow band of brilliant light reached out from below; then a second, third, fourth and fifth, and soon more than a score of crisscrossing ribbons ascended. From the Zeppelin it looked as if the city had come to life and was waving its arms about the sky, reaching out feelers for the danger that threatened it, but our deeper impression was that they were tentacles seeking to drag us to our destruction…"When the first searchlights pick you up, and you see the first flashes of the guns below, your nerves get a little shock, but then you steady down and put your mind on it, what you are there for….When we are above the Bank of England, I shouted through the speaking tube…”Fire slowly!”…I soon observed flames bursting forth in several places. I tried to hit London Bridge and believe I was successful, - to what extent in damage I could not determine…Having dropped all bombs, I made a dash for home. We had not been hit.”But on the second of September, 1916, a British fighter plane using new incendiary ammunition brought down the German Army Zeppelin SL-11 over London. And from that moment every Zeppelin was doomed.Henry Tuttle was just ten years old, but he remembered the reaction of the citizens of London when one of the tormenting giants was finally brought down. “It was a fantastic sight, like a big silver cigar, and it seemed to be going very slowly by this time. A lot of people came out of their houses and then all of a sudden flames started to come from the Zeppelin and then it broke in half and was one mass of flames. It was an incredible sight: people were cheering, dancing, singing and somebody started playing the bagpipes. This went on well into the night.”
The view was different on the German side of the lines, of course. Pitt Klein, an engineer aboard the L-31 wrote, “...you know that I'm no coward… But I dream constantly of falling zeppelins. There is something in me that I can't describe. It's as if I saw a strange darkness before me, into which I must go." And privately even the commander of the L-31, Henruch Mathy had admitted to his wife, “If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.”As darkness fell on Sunday October 1st, 1916, eleven German airships struggled through a cold rain to cross the English Channel. Some were forced to return when too much ice formed on their canvas hides. Some were blown off course.But by 8:00 PM the L-31 was approaching London from the northwest, alone. Gliding silently, using his engines only when needed to maintain headway, Mathy tired to creep onto his target. Then, at about 11:45 PM, the L-31 broke through clouds over the Thames and was immediately caught in the shafts of a handful of searchlights. Desperate to quickly escape, he dropped most of his bomb load and struggled to seek the safety of the high clouds. An American reporter was there below, and described the scene. “Among the autumn stars floats a long gaunt zeppelin. It is dull yellow – the color of the harvest moon. The long fingers of searchlights, reaching up from the roofs of the city, are touching all sides of the death messenger with their white tips. Great booming sounds shake the city. They are zeppelin bombs – falling – killing – burning. Lesser noises - of shooting – are nearer at hand, the noise of areal guns sending shrapnel into the sky."A streak of fire was shooting straight down at me, it seemed, and I stared at it hardly comprehending. The bomb struck the coping of a restaurant a few yards away, then fell into London Wall and lay burning in the roadway. I looked up and at the last moment the searchlight caught the ‘zepp’ full and clear. It was a beautiful but terrifying sight.” In the Chestnut neighborhood of London, the windows of 300 homes were shattered by the German high explosives, but only one woman was injured. High above, Mathy tried to turn his massive ship back to the west. As he did a single tiny British fighter pulled up unseen behind the L-31 and fired one long burst of tracer and incendiary rounds.The Canadian pilot, Wulstan Tempest, saw the huge ship begin to glow from within like “a giant chinese-lantern”. Two million cubic feet of hydrogen sucked in the oxygen. The flames broiled through the canvas skin, and quickly consumed the vessel. The monster began fall apart and to plummet.Also underneath the Zeppelin was English reporter Michael MacDonagh. He wrote later that night, “I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre, a ruddy glow, which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint, even to the waters of the Thames. The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound - almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When, at last, the doomed airship vanished from sight, there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before - a swelling shout, that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity.”Just at midnight, the second of October, the great dying ship crumpled into a ball of brilliant light. The doomed craft crossed Cotton Road in the village of Potters Bar at 30 feet, and a final guest of wind carried the ship into the open space of Oakmere Park (below). An explosion threw the gondola from the ship and the frame broke in two. The skeletal bow smashed onto a 700 year old 120 foot high English Oak tree. A bobby, rushing to scene of the crash, had to dodge a spinning propeller.The aluminum frame bent and screamed on impact, and collapsed and melted in the white hot flames. The diesel fuel and ammunition exploded. The crew either burned alive before impact, or jumped into the darkness to their deaths. Henruch Mathy leapt to his death. He left behind his impression in the soft soil of England. Seventy miles to the south, over Norfolk, the crew of the L-21 saw their fellow zeppelin caught in the searchlights and falling to earth in flames. They would report back to Gemany that another mighty zeppelin had fallen to the English innovation. At first light a “thick clammy mist” shielded Potters Bar, and the young reporter, Michael MacDonagh, stepped into the barn just beyond the still smoldering “Zeppelin Oak”.Inside he found a row of blanketed bodies. He stooped and lifted the edge of the first and found himself staring into the blank face of a clean shaven man wearing a thick muffler. MacDonagh recognized the face instantly from German propaganda photos, Henruch Mathy.It is hard not to think that Mathy's life, and the lives of his crew, were wasted by the German leadership. There were 115 Zeppelins which flew 150 raids over England during World War One. Each of those ships cost over one hundred thousand pounds apiece.Seventy-seven of those ships were destroyed either by the Allies or in accidents on the ground. The crews suffered a 40 % casualty rate. All told the raids killed only 557 civilians (no soldiers or sailors) The cost of building those seventy-seven ships was five times the damaged the Zeppelin raids had inflicted upon the English. The idea of using zeppelins filled with explosive hydrogen gas as weapons was insane, and had more to do with the investment of egos than in practicalities. But in every war you find such insanity. It is buisness as usual. It is war. In 1926 Frau Mathy quietly visited her husband’s grave in Potters Bar. She came back in 1976, shortly before she died. And I find myself wondering what she tried to tell her husband about his sacrifice.

But she left behind no diary or writing to explain to anyone else what she felt.

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