Tag: railroad

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

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Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

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The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading. Read more…

Day 760: The Classic Kings Of Edmonton

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Having spent all but three weird months of my life in Edmonton, a portion of my available fascination is perpetually woven into the snug threads of the city’s storied history. Admittedly, when the frigid fingernails of a late November cold spell are scraping bone through skin I will occasionally entertain a baffled speculation as to the reasoning behind Edmonton’s founders choosing this spot in which to settle. But they did, we’re here, and some magnificently cosmic clattering of fate’s dice landed me at birth within these city limits.

A tremendous Facebook page, operated by a former resident who finds the constant fluctuation of our city’s urban visage to be a matter of fascination and deeply in need of public documentation, is an inescapable vice for me. It was nothing short of a revelation to me that before our cold, brutalist courthouse we had a splenderiffic edifice, complete with Roman pillars and a classic aesthetic. I’m still amazed that we had an incline railway that once covered the same ground as the parkade where I occasionally stash my Toyota during the workday.

My workplace view overlooks our pointy, modernist City Hall and the Chicago-inspired McLeod Building, and I take a moment to soak in a fresh smidgen of our landscape every day. But beneath that landscape is a brief but hurried urban history, one which propelled us from a frontier trading post to a 21st century metropolis with astounding speed. I’d like to learn more, to dig my feet a little deeper into local lore. And where better to start than with the decadent facial hairstylings of our first mayors?

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One hundred years before I was legally entitled to fling a ballot into the steampunk apparatus of civic democracy, Matthew McCauley was elected our town’s first mayor. I poked around his legacy for a smattering of dirt, but all I could uncover was an unending procession of awesomeness. Our school system, our first hospital, our Chamber of Commerce… they all are smeared with Mayor Matt’s fingerprints. He was the quintessential first mayor every town needs. Read more…

Day 446: Blood-Bananas

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Summing up the extensive history of the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita, the banana people) in a thousand words without glossing over a handful of jaw-dropping incidents won’t be easy. Nor do I anticipate an easy slide into my routine of bacon-inspired smartassery and Star Wars references. I do, however, expect that once this day’s endeavor is complete, I won’t ever again be able to bite into a Chiquita banana without tasting the spilled blood of thousands whose lives were crushed beneath the heels of this corporate giant.

That’s a little grotesque, sorry. But this is far from the hitch-up-your-bootstraps family business success story. Instead it’s a tale of how one corporation elbowed its way to the front of the fruit market, leaving death and devastation and a tanker full of broken laws in its wake. And we owe it all to this guy:

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That’s Costa Rican president Próspero Fernández Oreamuno, who took over the keys to the country in mid-1882. His predecessor had hooked up with American railroad tycoon Henry Meiggs to construct a section of track to connect San José and the port of Limón. Right around the time of Oreamuno’s election, Costa Rica ran out of money and defaulted on their payments. To make things right, Oreamuno gave Meiggs’ nephew (Mieggs had already punched his ticket to the train station in the sky) 800,000 acres of Costa Rican land. Minor C. Keith, the nephew, was thrilled.

Okay, naming your kid ‘Minor’ seems a bit cruel. You’re almost asking for him to grow up with a complex, a need to prove himself via whatever ruthless and amoral means he should find available. I’m not going to say that this is exactly what Minor C. Keith did, but it’s totally exactly what Minor C. Keith did. Read more…

Day 385: Zoned Out On Time Zones

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If you’re ever looking to torment your brain with impossible logistics and a seemingly unattainable global cooperation, I recommend you do a little reading on time zones. It has taken centuries to scrunch this mess into a workable system, and even now it’s a jumbled splatter.

The theory behind it is simple. Noon in Chattanooga should look the same as noon in Tel Aviv. To accomplish this, someone had to divvy up the globe into imaginary regions. The starting point was chosen to be Greenwich Mean Time, or the time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, because hell, if the British were going to be the first to take the initiative and figure this crap out, then they get dibs on the starting point of standardized time.

Whoever plants the big spinny thing in the ground first gets to rule the world's clocks.

Whoever plants the big spinny thing in the ground first gets to rule the world’s clocks.

The first method was simple. It was also stupid. For every degree of longitude away from GMT a place was located, they tweaked time by four minutes. This would mean that New York and Boston – about two degrees apart – would differ in time by eight minutes. People didn’t travel a lot back then (nobody ever complained about horse-lag), but when trains suddenly showed up on the scene, figuring out when one train might collide with another on the same track became something worth watching. Read more…

Day 1: The Hole In Phineas’s Head

Since nothing sells better than graphic sex and nauseating violence, I was hoping Wikipedia would help me launch this project with something juicy. I tried to weave a sexy yarn into some prose about the Rugby Club Pobednik, but I was starting to creep myself out. Luckily, another click of the mouse brought me to Mr. Phineas P. Gage, the tamping-iron-through-the-head-guy. Perfect.

In 1848 Gage was a grunt worker in a work gang, laying down the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, a small line in the American northeast. Phineas was part of the blasting crew, which he no doubt hooked up with so he could pick up chicks (or whatever girls were called in the 1840s). He was 25, he was the crew foreman; Gage had it going on.

I like the part of disaster bios when they paint the victim’s picturesque, ideal life before the incident, so I’m going to stretch this out. Let’s see… Gage had just won a case of sarsaparilla by betting on a cockfight tournament. His years-long letter-writing campaigns to establish both Wisconsin as a state and bring about the end of the Mexican-American War had recently been successful. Also, he had train tickets to head out to California to pan for gold ahead of the big rush, leaving on September 14.

There, that sounded convincing. All was rosy and glorious – everything was coming up Phineas. Then, on the afternoon of September 13, right as Gage was reflecting on his good fortune (and, for the sake of drama, let’s say he was also planning on releasing some dirty information that would have crippled Zachary Taylor’s current presidential campaign), it happened. Read more…