JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Saturday, December 16, 2017


I can tell you the very moment the chain was broken.  At 4:55 p.m., Howard and Marjorie Boggs were returning from a Christmas shopping trip to the river side town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Marjorie, who was just 18, was driving. And as they crossed the half mile wide Ohio River, bound for Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Howard remembered “the old bridge began to gently bounce, as always” - as it had done every day for the last forty years. But on this December day, perhaps it felt different. Perhaps Marjorie was more sensitives because her 15 month old child was also in the car. Whatever the cause, Marjorie turned to her husband Howard and asked, “What would we do if this thing were to break up?”.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, West Virginia has had only two exports: coal and people. The old joke said “The Mountaineer State" school children studied their three “R's” - reading, 'righting and route 35. Over the decade of the 1950's one in four residents - almost half a million people- took the “Hillbilly Highway” north, looking for better work and new homes.
And the choke point for most of this coal miner diaspora occurred 265 miles downstream from Pittsburgh, at a single two lane link just upstream of the mouth of Kanawha River and just downstream from a C.and O. railroad bridge,  between the tiny villages of Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio (above).
The design was put out for bids in 1926 by West Virginia. It called for three separate bridges, tied together. Beginning in downtown Point Pleasant, the two lane, 22 foot wide roadbed crossed a standard 380 foot truss bridge to the southern pier in the Ohio River. For the next 700 feet, the road would be suspended by twisted steel cables hanging between two 510 foot towers. From the northern pier a second truss bridge carried the road 380 feet to the Ohio shore, and a 400 foot approach ramp. But the primary subcontractor for the winning bid, had a couple of suggestions.
First, the American Bridge Company wanted to raise the northern pier by eight feet, to give the roadbed 102 feet of clearance over the barges that used the river. And secondly, they suggested replacing the steel cables with a new technology – 45 to 55 foot long bone-shaped heat treated steel I-bars, joined into chains.  I-bar chains had a century of use behind them, but this would be the first time the new heat treated steel bars with a maximum working stress of 50,000 pounds per square inch, would be used in America.
Eyelets drilled at the ends of each I-bar allowed an 11” diameter steel bolt, washer and nut to lock adjoining bars into a chain, or into a sealed triangular junction which transferred the horizontal load of the roadbed to the vertical towers. The stronger steal would require just a single I-bar on each side of the chain, and the “give” designed into the joints allowed the load to be transferred as traffic moved across the structure. Because they were forged off site and were quickly assembled on site, construction cost was just $825 thousand, and was completed in just six months. The new bridge, painted silver, opened on Memorial Day, 1928 A rain storm failed to dampen the inaugural day spirits. As the “The Engineering News Record” crowed,  the Silver Bridge would last 100 years.
It was later estimated the new bridge added $1 million a month to the local economy, the traffic growing to 4,000 vehicle crossings a day, 340 cars and trucks every hour. But built to spur the economy of West Virginia, it instead become a link in an immigration chain that ran north from Charleston to Point Pleasant, and then Columbus or Cincinnati, Ohio, and the steel belt beyond - St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
During the 1960's the population of West Virginia fell by another quarter of a million, an exodus of another 44 people every day heading north. The joke now went, St. Peter was giving a tour to a new arrival in heaven. When asked about a section surrounded by a wall, he explained, “Oh, that's where we put the West Virginians. Otherwise they all try to go back home on the weekends.” And each year, between Thanksgiving and New Years, the back splash of homesick exiles became a tidal wave, filling the country roads with nostalgic melancholy expatriates returning home to West Virginia.
As with any chain, there were weak links. The Point Pleasant (above) approach terminated at a traffic light at the corner of Sixth and Main streets. Every red light cycle backed up traffic onto the bridge. Another traffic light on the Ohio side added to the load, and the redundancy was further stretched by progress. 
In 1928 (above),  the average fully loaded truck weighed 5,500 pounds, or 2 ¼ tons. Thirty years later the weight of a tractor-trailer was up to 60,000 pounds, or 30 tons. By 1967 such trucks were 20% of the traffic crossing the Silver Bridge, and rush hour, particularly during the holiday season, had extended until it lasted all day long.  The bridge seemed to deal with this increased load easily, in part because, as was noted by “The Engineering News Record” back in 1928, it was not possible to examine the underlying I-bar in the triangular joints, nor was it possible to make “any adjustments in the chains...after erection.”
The state gave the Silver Bridge a “full inspection” on 8 and 9 April, 1965, and $30,000 was spent on repairs to the roadway, replacing peeling paint, and patching some erosion on the chain anchorages. But inspector Paul McDowell admitted later he completed only 11 of the 21 standard checks. Lack of funding prevented him doing a full, eyes on, examination of the links before using his “engineering judgment”,  to declare the bridge “structurally safe”.  When the bridge was checked again on 6 December 1967, the maintenance engineer used binoculars to check the I-bar chain links, and saw nothing of concern. Ten days later, just after 4:50 on the cold Friday afternoon of 16 December, 1967,  Lloyd Forge, a semiretired welder from Point Pleasant, was crossing the bridge when he spotted a large steel nut lying in the road bed near the Ohio shore. It was, according to all reports, the first evidence of any failure to any structural part of the bridge. And it was already too late to do anything about it.
Five minutes later, at the intersection of Ohio Route 7 and U.S. route 35 (above), a hundred feet north from the Ohio approach ramp, Mr. H.L. Whobrey was loading the evening's first sale from his Christmas tree lot into the trunk of a customer's car, when he heard what sounded like an auto crash on the bridge. To gas station owner Dick Kuhn, working on the south side of the same intersection, it echoed like a shotgun blast fired from under the bridge. Other witnesses heard a jet -like roar., or a clanging noise. Bank employee, Roger Wysell was eastbound on Route 7, and had just pulled up to the traffic light at the intersection with Route 35,  between Whobrey and Kuhn, when his passenger, Cathy Zuspan, screamed, “My God the bridge is falling.”.
A half mile south, Bob Rimmey was parked in front of the Point Pleasant court house, a block from the bridge, when he head a loud crack. He could see nothing from where he sat, so he stepped out of his car. In the distance he saw the Silver Bridge swaying, and watched one tower after the other fall, then saw the roadway pitch over to one side and collapse into the 42 degree water. It took less than a minute before it was over. He ran toward the bridge.
Looking up from the tree he had just loaded, Mr. Whobrey saw “the bridge just keel over, starting slowly on the Ohio side, then following like a deck of cards to the West Virginia side...I saw it but I didn't believe it”  The last car to clear the collapsing bridge pulled into Whobrey's parking lot and screeched to a stop. Whobrey noted the driver “...looked like a ghost. He just sat there - then he was sick right in the car.” Station owner Kuhn ran to the riverbank and watched a truck floating south with the current. "There was a guy hanging onto the roof yelling his head off. I think they got him off.” There were now, just seven minutes of daylight left.
A half mile away, 20 year old Charlene Wood was heading home from her job at a hair salon. She was 5 months pregnant and had just driven her yellow Pontiac through the traffic light at Main and Sixth streets in Point Pleasant. “I was traveling in the right lane about 15 miles an hour when this car in front of me started going in...I felt a shaking of the bridge...I threw my car in reverse. The shaking was so severe my car died, but it kept rolling back because of the incline. As I was watching in horror, the bridge was falling right in front of my eyes. It was like someone had lined up dominoes in a row, and gave them a push, and they all came falling down and there was a great big splash of water. I could see car lights flashing as they were tumbling into the water. The car in front of me went in. Then there was silence”
A few seconds later Bob Rimmy and a West Virginia State Police officer reached the yellow Pontiac just four feet from the broken end of the roadway. Charlene Wood's hands were frozen on the steering wheel, and she did not respond to their shouts. Rimmy and the officer helped Charlene out of her car and back to safety. Four months later she would give birth to twins.
Young Howard Boggs did not remember the fall, or escaping from the car. He did recall feeling the river bottom , thirty feet down, under his feet . When a Gallopolis ice and fuel boat pulled him from the cold water, he told his rescuer, “I just hope to God Marjorie and the kid got out okay.” His wife and baby were pulled out of the river, still inside their crushed car, six weeks later.
Volunteer fireman Lee Long responded to the call and found a scene of confusion. “It was a hell of a mess”, he told a reporter. “I saw this car float past. It looked like there were people inside beating their hands on the windows....We couldn't see very much, but we could sure hear it."
"There was a tractor-trailer rig hanging on the riverbank, partly in the water. The driver was hanging from the open door of the cab, dead. Then we heard this banging from the back...it was the driver's partner who'd been sleeping...We worked two hours to cut him out of there...Standing there naked except for his shorts...Man, was he shivering. Then he saw his partner, and he just broke up.”
Sixty-four people in 31 vehicles were dropped into the river or on the Ohio approach.. Forty-four of them died, most by drowning or from severe trauma.  
Two of the dead were lost to the Ohio River. Eighteen others survived.
It was later decided that the break began with a speck of impurity in the steel of one particular I-bar, labeled as C-31, used to form the second link in the western chain from the top of the north tower. Hidden beneath a locking nut, it took forty years of heat and cold, tension and release, to expand to one tenth of an inch in length. 
At that instant, it went critical, snapping through the lower side of the eye-let. The I-bar shifted outward the next time it flexed. That threw the locking nut onto the roadway, and left the entire load of the bridge, the steel, the roadbed, the traffic, the human beings, a 15 month old baby, balanced on half of an unhinged I-bar. It could not carry the load and gave way. 
That transferred the entire load to the opposing chain link, which gave way. Like the collapsing floors in the World Trade Center on 9/11, each successive member of the bridge was now asked to carry even more weight than the failed member before it.  Each link thus failed in their turn more quickly, until the entire structure of the bridge fell in less than sixty seconds.  
The engineering lesson was, as it had been before and will be again, that redundancy must be designed into  entire structure, not merely in the individual members of those structures. .
The lives of 15 month old infants are simply too valuable to risk on a single support.. 
- 30 - 

Friday, December 15, 2017


I find it curious that Ernst Theodore Hoffman (above) is considered a romantic. I think of him as a manic depressive, and justified at that, considering that Napoleon spent most of Ernest’s life turning Europe into a slaughterhouse. As a young man Ernst did fall in love, but the lady was married. And when she turned up pregnant Ernest’s family shipped him off to Poland, where he labored as a petty bureaucrat.  But he spent his free time composing classical music and writing vaguely creepy stories. One of his more successful tales was a sort of 19th century “Jaws”, except instead of a 25 foot Great White Shark, Ernest’s villain was a mouse bent on revenge. In Hoffman's story seven year old Maria receives a mechanical doll as a Christmas present, which her older brother Fritz promptly breaks. She sits up late trying to repair the toy, until an army of mice attack her doll.  She saves the toy by throwing her shoe at the rodents.  Now, maybe I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I think this idea has ballet written all over it.  Interestingly, that idea never occurred to Ernst.
Nor did it occur to Alexander Dumas (above), the vulgar and prolific son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave woman. See, Alex liked the Parisian good life a lot more than he liked writing. He had at least 40 mistresses, but he made enough to afford his profligate lifestyle by out doing Andy Warhol at marketing his art. Alex kept a warehouse full of writers who ground out stories under his direction, such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”, and its sequels. And one of his minor best sellers was a direct steal of Ernst's hallucination, which Dumas changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit – like changing Maria's name to Clara.
Then, seventy years after Ernst died of syphilis (the ultimate romance disease), and 12 years after Alex died of a stroke in 1870, the ballet idea finally did occur to Marius Petpa (above), celebrated head of the Bolshoi Ballet Company in Russia. In 1882 the Imperial Theaters hired Marius and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky to create the “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. This was such a critical and financial success that it established the Bolshoi as the world's premier ballet company, and Marius as a world class genius. And then like a modern Hollywood producer looking for a project to fit the marquee talent, in 1890, the theatre brought the pair together again.  But this time, having over inflated these two monumental egos, the management merely suggested a sort of theatrical sandwich – a double header, both a serious but short opera and a light, meaning short,  ballet staged on the same night.. Marius would script the story for both, and Pyotr would put them to music for both/ 
The one act opera was clearly intended to be the meat in this theatrical happy meal, and being the foremost Russian composer of the day, Pyotr (above) got first choice of subject matter. He decided on a Danish story of a blind princess named Iolanta.. But then, early in February of 1891, in Saint Petersburg, Marius handed Pyotr a detailed synopsis and bar-by-musical bar outline for a two act classical ballet based the story Dumas had filched.  Pyotr was appalled. He though it childish and unworthy of serious application. But, if it meant he got paid to write another opera, he would somehow make the silly ballet work. After struggling for a month he tried to remain optimistic. He wrote to one of his brothers, “I am working with all my strength and reconciling myself to the subject of the ballet.” But he also admitted “I am experiencing a kind of crisis.” This was good, since Pyotr had a lot of experience with those.
See, Pyotr had a secret that held the potential to turn every problem in his life into a crises. He was approaching fifty, and had reached an uneasy equilibrium with his homosexuality. He had tried to go straight but his marriage to Antonina Ivanova (above) had blown up after little more than a month. This raised again the threat of exposure by envious and bigoted court and church officials, who at any moment could end his career.  Each contract, including this one, could be his last. What little stability existed in his life was supplied by his younger sister Aleksandra and her seven children with Lev Davydov. Pyotr wrote many of his 11 operas, six symphonies and three ballets on their Ukrainian estate near Kamenka. And now, in March, while on his way to a concert tour of America, and still trying to come up with something presentable for Marius's ballet, he learned of Aleksandra's death.
He had just seen Aleksandra (above) over the Christmas holidays, so he must have known how ill she was. Still, Pyotr was hysterical. And then, pausing in Rouen, France, he managed his agony by putting it to work.  His genius was always his ability to combine the Russian musical themes with Western ones, and to subjugate his true identity into the restraints of his art. And in the “grand pas de deux” for the lead dance character of Clara, he weaved in threads from the Russian Orthodox funeral service  The musical themes of the entire ballet became darker and more nuanced. As one critic has put it, “In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister.”  A ballet about wealthy Victorian children, became, with the talent of Pyotr's genius, a work for people of all ages and for all time.
When Pyotr returned from his wildly successful 25 day American tour (he inaugurated Carnegie Hall in Manhattan) he delivered his musical score to Marius in St. Petersburg, to be animated.  But as the opportunity approached, the world renown genius, Marius, suffered his own crises of self confidence. The primary symptom of this understandable panic was an attack of Pemphigus vulgaris, a debilitating skin disease, usually afflicting Ashkebazi Jews – of which Marius was one. Scratching his itching skin produced open sours, which made it impossible for Marius to concentrate on the ballet. So his assistant, Lev Ivanov, took over.
Lev (above) had been with the Bolshoi since he was eight, and had a natural talent as a musician, as well as being an excellent dancer. But where Marius was a classical ballet master, Lev was, like poor Ernest, a romantic. He followed Marius's general guidelines. He had to, the music had already been composed based on them.  But Lev also arranged his dancers like an impressionist painter, throwing patterns of sugar plumb fairies and swirling lines of snowflakes on point, about the stage. It was the shape and flow of the dance that interested Lev, and somehow the combination of all these hearts and souls, the romantic Ernst and the hedonist Alexander, the classicist Marius and the dark Pyotr, and now that other romantic Lev, they all gave birth, on 15 January, 1890, to the premier of “The Nutcracker” ballet at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The audiences seem to have been enthusiastic, giving five curtain calls to the Sugar Plum Fairy. The next morning Pyotr wrote to his brother, “The opera in particular was to everyone’s liking ... The productions of both...were superb” But it was a very long evening, with the Nutcracker not ending until well after midnight. 
The weary critics took it out on the dancers, calling the lead ballerina (above) corpulent and pudgy. The battle scene between the mice and the nutcracker confused them: “Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.” The Grand Pas de Deux, so inspiring to the composer, was labeled ponderous and “completely insipid”. A week later Pyotr wrote to another brother, “Once again I am not embittered by such criticism. Nevertheless, I have been in a loathsome spirit, as I usually am...in such circumstances.” After 11 performances the double bill was closed.
Less than a year later, in October 1893 Pyotr would die during a cholera outbreak, his secret still secure. Although many have suggested he committed suicide, he did not. Lev Ivanov followed nine years later. Finances forced him to work until his death “in harness”, in December of 1901. About the same time the Bolshoi brought in the upstart Alexander Gorsky to replace the aging Marius (above) as director. While watching his intended replacement rehearsing on his stage, Marius was heard to shout, “Will someone tell that young man that I am not yet dead?!.” Within a year it did not matter; Marius was quietly retired. He did die in 1910, at the age of 92.
A year after its premier the opera Iolanta would be preformed by itself in Hamburg, Germany. But although still performed occasionally, it is now largely forgotten. The Nutcracker, on the other hand, had to wait almost 20 years before it would be performed again, staged this time by the Bolshoi's new director Alexander Gorsky, in Moscow. He saved it.  Alexander savaged Marius choices, paring away minor roles, replacing the children cast as Clara and the prince, with adults, thus adding a romantic story line for them.  Standing alone, the ballet was now far better received, and short enough for modern attention spans. And after the Second World War, it became the classical Christmas season production for every ballet company in the world, responsible for up to 40% of their income.
It just goes to show you – those silly romantics may be naive simpletons, but their ideas grow stronger with time because they are positive and simple, and keep being reinvented. When in doubt, we are always inspired by the romantics within us.
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Forty-Six

I can only imagine the shock felt by Major General John Gregg when an officer walked into the capital building (above)  just after seven on Wednesday evening of 13, May 1863, to announce the arrival of full General Joseph Eggleston Johnston across the street at the Alabama and Ohio railroad depot. Gregg was conferring with the commander of Jackson, the fearless Brigadier General John Adams. Together they were trying desperately to cobble together a defense for the city. What they needed was more cavalry, more infantry and more guns, not another general, and lest of all one who outranked them both. Neither man had received so much as a hint that Johnston was coming to Mississippi. The flabbergasted generals had just minutes to adjust to the new reality before the slight thin gray haired Johnston made his appearance.
They had all met the previous December, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis dragged Johnston (above) with him on an inspection of the new Mississippi theater of operations. But now the 34 year Gregg was meeting his 56 year old commander in the midst of a full blown crises. The punctilious Virginian, always a stickler for formalities, calmly exchanged salutes and with no small talk, asked for a full tactical update. Johnston sat and closed his eyes as he received it, having spent the last 4 days and nights bouncing across three states and five separate railroad lines.
Gregg began by sharing his last message from Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. “The enemy is apparently moving in heavy force toward Edward’s Depot...With my limited force, I will do all I can to meet him.” Gregg explained that Pemberton had 2 divisions, 40 miles to the west at Bovina, along the Southern railroad. General Loring's division was 10 miles closer at Edward's Depot, along with Wirt Adam's cavalry regiment. All together Pemberton had immediate command over 17,000 men. He had 2 more division in Vicksburg, but President Davis's order to hold that city at all cost meant those men would remain behind their fortifications. In any case, Pemberton had ordered Loring to probe south, to find out exactly where Grant's army was.
The day before, Tuesday, 12 May, 1863, Gregg's 4,000 man brigade had been mauled by a 7,000 man division of Yankee General James Birdseye McPherson's Corps, 21 miles to the south west at Raymond. Gregg had been forced to retreat, but the Federals did not seem to be advancing and Gregg assumed the Yankees had been hurt and were regrouping. But this afternoon there had come reports from Clinton, 10 miles due west of Jackson, of what seemed to be a brand new Federal division, which Gregg could only assume was part of Sherman's Corps. Obviously Grant had turned on Jackson, and it seemed obvious the greatest threat was Sherman's Corps at Clinton, just 10 miles from the city trench lines. Before Johnston's arrival, Gregg and Adams had been rearranging their available men to defend against that assault.
General Adams did have some good news to share with Johnston. In the city were a recently arrived Georgia brigade under the competent Brigadier General William Henry Talbot Walker, as well as a regiment from Charleston, South Carolina, under 31 year old Brigadier General States Rights Gist - in total another 3,000 men. In addition at any time Adams expected 38 year old Brigadier General Samuel Bell Maxey to arrive at the head of another 3,000 man brigade. Within 24 hours, there would be 9 or 10,000 men to defend Jackson. Having made their report, Gregg and Adams watched the frail old man sitting, eyes closed. They thought for a moment he might have fallen asleep.
But Johnston was thinking. He was thinking that behind him on the same rickety and broken rail lines he had just spent 4 days on, were another 3,000 infantry and artillery from Braxton Bragg's Army of the Tennessee. Once they arrived, and with the units he had just learned of, he could take on a full Yankee Corps. But Bragg's men would not arrive in Jackson for several days. And when they did, they would be as exhausted as he was. And recent experience taught Johnston to expect similar delays in Maxey's arrival. No, Old Joe had only the remaining 3,000 bloodied troops of Gregg's brigade, and the fresh 3,000 men of Walker and Gist, with which to defend Jackson.
After a long and uneasy silence, Johnston opened his eyes, and now leaning over the map table, he said simply, “I am too late.” Unwilling to sacrifice 6,000 men to slow 30,000 Yankees attacking from 2 directions, Johnston ordered that Jackson would have to be abandoned. It would be only the second Confederate state capital to have fallen to the Yankees. The undercurrent of doom, which had motivated the flurry of defense preparations, now fully descended on the three men and their staff. There was no argument with Johnston's assessment. Only a dark chill.
In the morning, Gregg could take 2 brigades out the Clinton road, Johnston ordered, to delay Sherman's men. Meanwhile General Adams would collect as many supplies and as much ammunition as possible, load it all on trains of the New Orleans and Ohio Railroad, or wagons, sending it all 20 miles northeast to the town of Canton, Mississippi. Johnston ordered that the capital must be evacuated no later than 3:00pm the next day, Thursday, 14 May, 1863.
The the only practicable line of retreat was to the north. So all reinforcements would have to find their way around the Yankees to Canton. Having issued his orders, at 8:40pm Johnston composed a message for General Pemberton. “I have lately arrived, and learn that Major-General Sherman is between us, with four divisions, at Clinton. It is important to reestablish communications, that you may be re-enforced. If practicable, come up on his rear at once. To beat such a detachment, would be of immense value. The troops here could co-operate. All the strength you can quickly assemble should be brought. Time is all-important."
And then, because the telegraph lines had been cut, Johnston asked for a volunteer to carry his message across Yankee controlled territory to Bovina. Captain James Rucks Yeager stepped forward. He was a New Jersey native, who after graduating Princeton in 1859 had moved to Mississippi to become a planter. With the coming of war Yeager had sided with the south, and Johnston recognized him from the 1862 Peninsula campaign. The General accepted Yeager's offer. Recognizing the importance of the message, Yeager picked two more men to carry copies, to ensure the message got through.
Johnston then sent a telegram to the Secretary of War Seddon in Richmond, knowing that President Davis would be reading it as well. It began, “I arrived this evening finding the enemy's force between this place and General Pemberton, cutting off the communication. I am too late." And then he walk across the street to the Bowman House hotel (above) to catch a little sleep. 
There are deep basements in parts of modern day Richmond Virginia, where you can still hear echoes of Jefferson Davis's response to that telegram. Although, what Joe Johnston was supposed to do with the steaming mess Jeff Davis handed him, was never made clear. Like Jesus or Mohammad or even Buddha, if all you ever ask of your heroes is the impossible, they are often going to fail. And that is not their fault.
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