How Did They Levy Tolls on the Erie Canal?

As you drive across America’s Interstate Highway System you may notice certain special off-ramps that only large cargo trailers take. These weigh-stations are used by the states to check permits, as well as determine whether a truck is within weight limits based on how heavy it is. The truck simply drives onto a large platform with a scale under it, sometimes stopping, sometimes not.  The scale measures the truck’s weight and if all is well the truck goes on its way.  It’s all very quick and easy. But it has roots in an earlier transportation system: America’s canals.
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How Do You Support a 5-ton Elephant?

Meet Henry.  He’s a male African bush elephant who first graced the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History in 1959.  Constructed of metal lathe, wood, plaster, and a lot of clay Henry weighs in at over 10,000 pounds.

Henry the elephant greets visitors to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

While it might not occur to visitors to the Museum, supporting that kind of weight (to say nothing of Henry’s setting, the nearby information booth, or all of the people walking through) isn’t easy.  So how does the Museum do it?  Steel beams in the floor would seem logical and would get the job done, but the real answer is something much less mundane.  Henry is actually standing on tiles. Continue reading “How Do You Support a 5-ton Elephant?”

Two Friends, a River Hotel, and the Legend of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant – The Battle of Fort Donelson

Nestled on a quiet stretch of the Cumberland River, in a small, quiet town just south of the Tennessee/Kentucky border sits an unassuming two-story building, with a long porch on the south side and a balcony overtop.  While it may not look flashy or magnificent, it was here at the Dover Hotel that the Battle of Fort Donelson would end and the legend of Ulysses S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant would begin.  While small in scope when compared to Gettysburg or Shiloh, Fort Donelson was a significant battle that set the tone of the War in the Western Theater for the next two years.  Today, Fort Donelson National Battlefield stands as not only an exquisite example of original Civil War earthworks, but also a tribute to those who struggled in an important and often overlooked event in the history of the United States.

Fort Donelson’s lower battery, overlooking the Cumberland River

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Central Park and the Long-Lost Ramble Cave

In New York City’s Central Park, just below the 79th St. Traverse, lies a heavily wooded area, interwoven with narrow, winding trails, and dotted with large granite boulders.  While The Ramble, as it’s known, may appear to be the most natural place in the city it only looks that way thanks to the efforts of Central Park’s planners Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, as well as the original builders of the Park who put in countless hours constructing a landscape that would seem rustic and remote.  But for all their hard work, Central Park has changed.  Like everything else in New York City the Park is constantly evolving, but if you know just where to look you can still find traces of its original features.  One of the more interesting cases is that of the long-lost Ramble Cave.

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The Puzzling History of the “Irving House”

Sandwiched between Park Ave. and Third Ave., just east of Union Square, is the small stretch of city street known as Irving Place. Extending south from Gramercy Park, it was once the fashionable district of artists, actors, and the creme-de-la-creme of Gilded Age high society. At the southwest corner of 17th Street and Irving Place sits a small two-story house of red brick, curiously out of sync with the other houses around the area. While it, and several dwellings behind it along 17th are all of the same basic design (and all preserved as NYC Landmarks in 1998 as the “East 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District”), the house at the corner, 49 Irving Place, is decorated just a little more than the others. While all are preserved, stories say that this house was once home to famous early-American writer Washington Irving. A large bronze plaque on the north side of the “Irving House” confirms his involvement here. There’s just one little problem.

Irving never so much as crossed the doorstep.


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“Don Quixote” in 18th Century French Tapestry

First, a little background. While a copy of “Don Quixote” has been sitting on my shelf for the last 15 years or so I never bothered to read it until last Fall when I thought to give it a go. I was going through a bit of a rough patch at the time and reading the alternately comedic and tragic tale of the mad gentleman of La Mancha somehow made things easier (I also had Linda Eder’s version of “Man of La Mancha” stuck in my head a lot of the time, but that’s neither here nor there). Since then I’ve been captivated by all things Quixotic, from the history of the book itself (, to different translations, to various illustrated versions (my favorite remains Gustave Doré‘s, although I also enjoy Salvador Dali’s). So when The Frick Collection had an exhibition this past spring centering around a series of tapestries of “Don Quixote” my interest was piqued. The tapestries in question were produced by the Gobelins Textile Manufactory in France from 1717 to 1794, as well as other versions by Flemish manufacturers, but the images that provided the central focus of each tapestry were created by French painter Charles Coypel. I enjoyed the Frick’s exhibition and purchased the catalog of their exhibition, a thin volume with a bright red cover, which I then proceeded to bury unread beneath a massive stack of other books.

Fast forward to last week when I was walking through the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to see the Queen’s Vermeer “The Music Lesson” (I’m trying to see every Vermeer in the world and this one happened to be in Buckingham). On the way out of the Picture Room I passed down a short hallway with four tapestries, two hung on either side. I recognized one as Quixotic instantly (“Sancho Awakes in Despair at not Finding His Beloved Grison”; the image of Sancho sitting atop four stilts is iconic) and excitedly examined the others. They were all of the same series as those I had seen earlier at the Frick! When I returned home I immediately pulled out the little red volume to try to find out more. What followed was an education, however lite, into tapestry history and creation with Coypel and Don Quixote as my guide.

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Defending the Hudson

It was October, 1777, and the Continental Army had a problem. Although they had just won a resounding victory at Saratoga, they were just as soundly defeated further south at Forts Montgomery and Clinton, key strategic outposts on the Hudson River. With the victory at Fort Montgomery the British quickly set about tearing down the lanky chain the Colonists had stretched across the river to impede the British Navy. Now the Hudson River, and important cities like Poughkeepsie (Continental ship-building hub), Kingston (the state capital), and Albany (the second largest settlement in the state after New York City) lay wide open to attack.


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The Incongruity of Hastening Slowly

A little background.  I first stumbled across the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” when I was in high school.  It was used as a plot device in “The Rule of Four” by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (think what “The Last Supper” was in “The DaVinci Code” only better) and although I knew that much of what they wrote about the book was fictional I was overjoyed to discover that such a weird and mysterious book did actually exist.  Even better Jocelyn Godwin had recently finished the first English translation, which had been published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the book’s original printing in 1499.  I was thrilled!  I lived in a smaller town without many bookstores but there was this new website called “Amazon” that I had heard radio ads for (yes, none of those things were all that long ago).  The “Hypnerotomachia” would be the first book I’d order online and I eagerly awaited its arrival.  When it was finally delivered I unpacked that box like I was Indiana Jones revealing the Ark of the Covenant.  I removed the dust jacket, opened the front cover, started to read, and…

Holy crap, this is the most boring book ever written.
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The Inglorious Tale of Thomas Blood and the Crown Jewels

In researching the history behind Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling “Captain Blood” (click here to check out that episode) I came across a story that is as weird as it wild.  Although Sabatini never said explicitly what inspired him to dub his pirate with the moniker “Blood” it would not be outside the realm of reason to presume he borrowed it from one Thomas Blood.  While not a pirate, Thomas was certainly a rogue, brigand, and a thorn in the side of authority.  His most notable exploit, and the one for which he is most remembered, is his sensational (and nearly successful) attempt to steal the Crown Jewels of Great Britain from the Tower of London.  For punishment Blood earned himself a royal pardon and a royal pension.  And if that sounds improbable, just keep reading. Continue reading “The Inglorious Tale of Thomas Blood and the Crown Jewels”