MARCH 2017

MARCH  2017
The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903


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Saturday, March 11, 2017


I don't blame C.C. (Cadwallader Colden) Washburn for the tragedy of 1878. Forty years earlier, the ambitious 21 year old had arrived in Chicago with just $5 in his pocket. But by 1855 C.C. had passed the bar, had been elected to Congress from Wisconsin, and was worth at least half a million dollars. Not bad for a kid born with epilepsy. It was about then that his older brother Elihu wrote him, “I don't believe you will be happy until you could buy the entire world.” Elihu was teasing, because C.C. didn't actually have half a million dollars. That was how much he owed for the companies he had already bought. And now he was trying to rescue a cousin, Dorolus Morrison, who had invested in a money pit called the The Minneapolis Mill Company. The firm had water rights on the west bank of the Mississippi at St. Anthony Falls (above), and the idea was to lease access to mill owners. Within two years, the Mill Company was broke and going broker.
C.C. immediately saw the problem. There were only 4,000 people in Minneapolis, and space along the the falls was limited. In 1856 C.C. bought a controlling interest in the Mill Company, borrowed more cash to build a dam across the falls, and dig a 50 foot wide 14 food deep canal (above) down the west bank, more than tripling the available access to the power of the falling water. Then he brought in his younger brother William to run the company, while he concentrated on being a congressman. Older brother Elihu was already a congressman from Illinois and baby brother Israel, Jr. had been elected from Maine. They were a very ambitious family.
Within ten years the customers of C.C.'s Minneapolis Mill Company - grist mills, saw mills, cotton mills and woolen mills - were so profitable, that upon his return from service as a Union General in the Civil War, C.C. built his own flour mill. Against the advice of experts, who were predicting a post war recession, it was the largest flour mill in the world. And on William's advice, C.C. hired George Christian to run the Washburn “B” Mill. Quickly the “B” Mill was a success, in part because of Christian's management and in part because there was no recession.
After two more terms in Congress, and a single term as Wisconsin Governor, C.C. returned to his home in La Crosse,.Wisconsin. But he did not retire. On the advice of George Christian, C.C. decided in 1874, to build a second, even larger flour mill in Minneapolis. This one he called the Washburn “A “ Mill.
The “A” mill was 100 feet wide and 147 feet long. Wheat entered on the ground floor and a screw, powered by turbines in the basement, driven by falling water from the canal, lifted the grain seven and one half stories. Here the grain was fed into a container, into which hot air was blown. 
Once dry, the wheat was carried by another screw down to the sixth floor and crushed between the first horizontal millstones, which cracked the hard center and released the bran. 
Floor after floor the bran descended, with each successive grindstone, 24 pairs in all, crushing the wheat ever finer, and shakers (above) repeatedly shifting the flour...
...until it was returned to the ground floor where the employees bagged and loaded it into....
...railroad box cars waiting outside, along the 32 tracks that then carried it to a hungry nation - half a million barrels of flour shipped in 1873, three quarters of a million barrels in 1874, a hundred thousand more in 1875, and one million barrels in 1876 .
Just like every other day for the previous four years, at six in the evening on Thursday, May 2, 1878, 200 workers were released from their 12 hour day shift at the Washburn “A” Mill, leaving behind 14 men to clean up and ready the mill for Friday's shift. 
It is unknown if they faced any difficulties or problems that night, but at approximately 7:20 a man walking across the tenth avenue bridge (above)  reported seeing a flash in the twilight and a “stream of fire” leaping from the basement windows of the Washburn “A”.
He continued, “Then each floor above the basement became brilliantly illuminated, the light appearing simultaneously at the windows as the stories ignited one above the other...Then the windows bust out, the walls cracked between the windows and fell, and the roof was projected into the air to great height, followed by a cloud of black smoke, through which brilliant flashes resembling lightening passing to and fro.” It was later reckoned the massive roof was thrown 500 feet into the air.
Most said they heard three distinct, massive explosions. Reported the Minneapolis Tribune, “ a twinkling of an eye...the largest, the highest, and probably the heaviest stone structure in Minneapolis, the great Washburn mill...was leveled to the ground....Soon the burning buildings sent their messengers of flame on the wings of the merciless north wind on to other fields of destruction. ... the wonder is that the whole lower portion of the city escaped the fate with which it was threatened.” Great limestone corner stones landed in the back yards of homes eight blocks from the milling district.
The volunteer fire department reported all their alarms went off at the same instant, but if that was because some one near the “A” mill hit the alarm just after the first explosion, or if the blast short circuited the line, will never be known. Ten miles away, the explosions broke windows on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, whose Globe newspaper issued a special edition, saying, “"There is an 'earthquake’ was the expression and thought of hundreds ... and the word went from lip to lip, almost with the rapidity of lightning, that the Washburn mill, which has long and justly been the pride of Minneapolis, had exploded and was destroyed … It was a night of horror in Minneapolis.”
The 130 volunteers of the fire department dispatched every man, rig and horse they had, and quickly found an explanation to the three great crashes which had reverberated across the city. The exploding Washburn “A” mill had set off identical if smaller explosions in the adjacent Diamond and Humbolt mills. The horse drawn steam pumps of the fire department ran for ten hours, pumping over six million gallons of Mississippi River water on the smoldering wreckage of six flour mills, a cooper shop, a lumber yard, a grain elevator, a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, a planing mill and dozens of railroad cars. The entire fourteen man night shift at the Washburn “A” mill was killed, as well as four men at adjacent mills. Said the Tribune the next day, “Minneapolis has met with a calamity, the suddenness and horror of which it is difficult for the mind to comprehend.”
C.C. arrived by train the next day, and immediately announced he would rebuild. That calmed the bankers and citizens in a city which had just had the majority of its industrial base blown sky high. But massive explosions still had to be explained. Those who favored conspiracies suggested a railroad car loaded with nitroglycerin had been parked next to the Washburn “A” mill, but that was quickly dismissed because even that much nitro would not have produced a big enough blast. A Mill owner from Indiana suggested the spinning turbines had spun so fast they had separated the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water, leading to a hydrogen buildup in the mill. But George Christian, respected operator of both Washburn mills, scoffed at the idea. The cause, he explained, was simple flour dust.
The flour dust did not explode, Christian explained, it just burned very, very quickly. And Professors Peckman and Peck, from the University of Minnesota confirmed this, by experiment. They also suggested the initial spark had come during the night shift's clean up. It was likely a worker was running two millstones in the basement without flour between them, as a shortcut to remove any residue. And like most shortcuts, this one eventually blew up in their faces. Stone sparking against stone had ignited the flour dust raised by the cleaning crew. That is what killed eighteen men.
C.C. made sure his workers were kept on the payroll, by finding them jobs in the old “B” mill. And he did rebuild. But he did not do so by himself. He brought in new money, John Crosby, and as a silent partner added the technocrat William Dunwoody, who went to Europe as an industrial spy, and stole the best new ideas for milling, like getting rid of the horizontal grindings stones and using steel rollers instead. They gave off fewer sparks, lasted far longer, and by operating in sequence would allow the grain to be ground continuously. The bigger new “A” mill opened in 1879, under the name “Washburn Crosby “A” Mill”. With new dust scrubbers cleaning the air, it would run safely until 1965. under the company's new name, General Mills. And what is left of the building is today the “Mill City Museum.”
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Friday, March 10, 2017


I think it a profound insight that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this idea was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark, when he realized there was more money to be made in selling  telescopes to rich people than in just painting portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self-images, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said this self taught optician could feel imperfections in the glass lenses through his thumb while polishing them. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass over time all lenses tell lies. Even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Mr. Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion. At his father's insistence Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars. 
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who drew the first detailed maps of the planet's surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet. He described the grooves in Italian as “canalii”,  a word meaning a channel, or path.  It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian. 
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill.  Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate irrigation system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.” 
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides the “Tarzan” series, wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was recognized as the world's expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, Mr. George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a  newer, bigger, telescope,  proved to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye.  Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X.  But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then,  in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark atop Mars Hill.  But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.  You know?
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France.  Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb,  finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence.  It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight,  just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
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Thursday, March 09, 2017


I doubt Galileo ever considered the full human implications of his experiments with falling objects. But the formula he came up with reduces the problem to startling simplicity. Six and one half seconds after she threw herself off the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, Evelyn McHale landed on the roof of a limousine parked on West 33rd Street, 1,050 feet below. The science of that event was very simple. The humanity - not so simple.
You would not know it to read the headlines but every year twice as many Americans kill them selves as kill each other. Suicide is the dirty little secret about being human. There is another suicide in the United States every 17 minutes. It is only the 11th leading cause of death overall ( 7th leading cause of death in males, 16th in females), but suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for all humans between the ages of 15 and 24 years of age, and the second leading cause of death in college students. And the working theory seems to be that if we just don't talk about it, it will go away. Honestly, that simply does not seem to be working.
In 1947 Evelyn McHale was a 20 year old bookkeeper at the Kitab engraving company, in the Long Island community of Baldwin. Over the weekend of April 19th she traveled by rail the 67 miles to the little town of Easton, Pennsylvania. It was known as the “City of Churches”, with the highest ratio of houses of Christian worship to overall population in America.
But it had also been known during prohibition as “The Little Apple” where police protected the speakeasies, which every weekend were filled with New York City tourists. On the hill overlooking Easton was the (then) all male Lafayette College, a military school of higher learning. And one of the 2,000 students attending Lafayette College in 1947 was Evelyn McHale’s fiancee.
In 1929 the twin luxury hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, occupied a block on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets (above). For over fifty years these jointly managed edifices were the social abode of the vaunted "Four Hundred", the supposed cream of New York society. The number represented how many could comfortably fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.  Between the four star restaurants in each hotel ran a winding corridor, lined with marble Corinthian columns and dubbed “Peacock Alley”, for all the elegantly dressed women who strolled there to be seen. That year the management company sold both properties for $13.5 million to the Empire State Corporation. And the instant the sale was finalized, the president of Empire State, John Jacob Raskob, led the contractors through the front doors. He was intent upon capturing for his Connecticut estate the peacock alley columns he had often admired. To his disappointment, those symbols of Gilded Age luxury and extravagance proved to have been plaster impostors.
Construction began on the Empire State Building on March 17, 1930. The frame rose at the astounding rate of 4 ½ floors a week. Midway into the construction, one of the steelworkers was given his notice while on the job. He threw himself down an open elevator shaft, becoming the first person to commit suicide on the new premises.
John Jacob Raskob may have thought about joining him, because 410 days later, a month and a half ahead of schedule, the building opened. The final cost was $5 million under budget, mostly because the depression had devalued the dollar. And because of that, on opening day, May Day, 1931, the Empire State Building was well over half empty.  It remained so for years. A decade later the press was still referring to The Empire State Building as a financial disaster.
Evelyn McHale's 1947 visit to Pennsylvania had also proven to be a disaster. Her fiance had broken off their engagement. In some ways this kind if thing was to be expected. So many lives had been placed on hold during the Second World War, and so many lives had changed during the war, and were still changing once the war had ended. The divorce rate, which pre-war had been two out of every one thousand marriages, had doubled in 1946. But those were statistics. And when Evelyn returned broken hearted to her bookkeeping on Monday morning, the numbers she oversaw brought her no comfort. And in the weeks that followed she obsessed on her disappointment.
People do not commit suicide (from the Latin “sui caedere”; to kill yourself) because they are depressed. But add depression to alcohol or other drugs, and the risk of suicide increases by 90%. If there is a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or if friends have recently committed suicide, the risk grows even greater. And finally, if the person at risk is a Christian the risk is greater still. Protestants and Catholics kill themselves much more often than do Jews, or Buddhists or Muslims.
In the first fifteen years after its opening, 16 people threw themselves to their deaths from the Empire State Building.  But 1947 was a very bad year. In January a suicide injured an innocent pedestrian on the street below, and a lawsuit was threatened. The Empire State Corporation, which still owned the building, began to slowly consider alternatives. Still, at about 10:30 on the morning of Thursday May 1st, 1947, when Evelyn McHale stepped from the elevator on the 86th floor observatory, there was nothing between her and eternity, except the impulse to clamber atop the chest high wall (above)  and take the step.
First she took off her grey cloth coat and draped it over the wall near the south west corner of the observation deck. Then she laid her purse on the floor. She removed her shoes. Then she deliberately let her scarf float from her fingers into the void. She watched it swirl and float in the wind eddies. And when she saw it begin to slip downward, she pulled herself up atop the lip of the wall, stood and after a brief moment, threw herself into space.
Six seconds is long enough to think, and if Evelyn McHale was not radically different than those who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, then we know what she was thinking as she plummeted weightless toward the pavement. Universally these failed California suicides report that their first thought after jumping was, “This is the worst mistake of my life.” After that first second, however, the sensory overload would likely have not left her with the ability to even think of a prayer.
In the first second of the end of her life Evelyn McHale dropped 32 feet, or about three stories. Over the next second she fell an additional 64 feet. Over the third second she traveled another 128 feet. Over the fourth second she fell 238 feet. By the fifth second she was traveling over 60 miles an hour, and the sensation of falling would have caused her body to release massive amounts of adrenalin. But she would never feel its effects. She would have felt an eerily calm, which I suspect surprised her. She might have realized she was falling away from the building, driven by the wind and by her effort to avoid the abutments and ledges that lined its sides. And if she had felt the regret for her decision to jump, it was now too late. At the speed of about 100 miles an hour, her body slammed into the sheet steel roof of a Cadillac limousine parked 200 feet up 34th Street.
Something caught traffic cop John Morrissey’s eye. He was working at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he looked up he saw a white cloth, dancing lightly about the upper floors of the Empire State Building. It was just 10:40 A.M. and suddenly there was a loud crash, and the wrenching sound of bending metal. Officer Morrissey ran west on 34th Street. He found a crowd gathered around the big black limo, with United Nations’ license plates, parked on the north side of the street. All of the windows were shattered, and the roof had been caved in. There, embraced by the folded steel, Officer Morrissey saw the body of a young woman.
Her white gloved left hand seemed to be playing with the pearls strung around her neck, almost as if counting a rosary. Her white gloved right hand was cautiously raised as if seeking permission to interrupt. She was barefooted. One stocking was bunched about her crossed ankles, as if she had been caught in the act of undressing. There was no visible blood, no dismemberment. She was a sleeping beauty. But images can be deceiving, as the workers from the medical examiners office could have testified.
When they picked her up, her once firm body must have behaved more like Jell-O. Every bone would have been fractured and splintered, and her internal organs turned to mush by the violence of her death. Those who contemplate suicide should consider the impact of their actions on the innocent who must clean up after them. Suicide is the rudest way to exit this world.
A few minutes after her death, Robert Wiles, a young photography student, approached the scene. He had been eating breakfast across the street, at the same lunch counter as the limo’s driver. Now he approached the scene and snapped a single photo. He immortalized Evelyn McHale. He sold the photo to Life Magazine, which published it a week later, on page 43. The caption (above) read; “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her body punched into the top of a car.” Robert Wiles never took another professional photograph. Each suicide, it is figured, shatters the lives of six other people. I suspect, Robert Wiles was one of the first shattered by Evelyn McHale.
The New York Times headlined the story, “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20”. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Doubting Woman Dives to Death”, and the Chicago Tribune claimed, “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” The photograph, now labeled as "The Most Beautiful Suicide”, may have been at least partly responsible for the July 14th, 1947 fatal leap of a 22 year old man from the same observation deck. Guards were now stationed to stop any copycats.  And during October and November, they managed to avert five more deaths. But not that 22 year old man.
Finally the management was forced to admit this was not a temporary trend, and in December the now iconic inwardly curving fencing was installed to discourage those possessed by the impulse to end their lives.
If you think someone might be suicidal, then they are. Do not leave them alone. Immediately remove their access to firearms and all drugs, and call 911. Death can be a release, but it is never beautiful. Never.
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