The Road Taken; The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski. Bloomsbury, 2017 paper.

Henry Petroski, civil engineer and historian, reports on our aging transportation infrastructure: roads, bridges, curbs and gutters and, when provided, sidewalks and bike lanes. He also talks about what he calls the “software” component of that infrastructure, the conventions and rules of the road. We abide by these conventions such as driving on the right side. The signs that remind us of the rules of the road.

Road signs have been standardized. Those that command us to stop are now hexagonal and red. The green light and red light are well-understood if not obeyed. Yellow is cautionary, but not always able to command caution. No parking and speed-limit signs are rectangular and white. The interstate system has its own common signs.

Petroski is most concerned in this book about the transportation system, and he is critical of our governments – national, state, and local – for neglecting other infrastructures and their states of repair. He includes a chart of their periodic evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers on a scale of A to F. Bridges get relatively high grades Cs – thank heavens. Roads are mostly Ds. Drinking Water D and D-. Solid waste got Cs mostly, but recently B. Good! Levees have been graded D in recent years!  So lots of bad grades; the American Society of Civil Engineers has high standards. Good again!

Security concerns are getting much attention at our airports but are not yet part of the ranking system. It would be interesting to learn how other infrastructures vary according to their degree of security from acts of nature or saboteurs.  All those pylons strung through the countryside, carrying our electricity; the grade of F?

Back in July 1919 Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower was part of a military convey that traveled across the country to examine first-hand the state of the country’s roads and bridges. That sobering 3,250-mile auto journey may explain the Eisenhower Administration’s creating the Highway Trust Fund in 1956.

In the 1910s and 1920s promoters created various cross-country routes and gave them numbers in an effort to give some order to the hodge-podge of roads. If of continental in length, they were named, or “branded” in today’s terminology. The “Lincoln Highway” (Highway 30) from New York to California crossed through Iowa, just fifteen miles south of my home. The “Old Spanish Trail” ran from St. Augustine to San Diego. The “Woodpecker Trail” passed through Gainesville, Florida on the way south and north. The branding attracted mom-and-pop motels and filling stations. Petroski describes the new roadside ‘color’ along these routes, though they are now mostly abandoned and dismal.

Road terminology has never been settled. Some of us talk about the expressway. Others interstate or freeway. Mostly free, but some are tollways.  In some regions where appropriately landscaped they are parkways. There are Avenues, Streets, Lanes, Places, Terraces, Drives, and more. Petroski comments that “Avenue” suggests something grand, even Parisian rather than the two-block road on which he lives.

Bridges. These days bridges are generally given a projected life span. This is partly because bridges face heavier and heavier vehicles and traffic loads. Access roads to the bridges have often wandered through city streets, subject to their own obsolesce.  Also bridge builders face an ever-evolving technology of design and construction, making existing bridges obsolete. But then there’s the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. This year is its 142nd anniversary.

Henry Petroski lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood and relies heavily on public transportation to get about. Hence he is much affected by the decision, made in the late nineteenth century, to go underground rather than expand the elevated railroads or “els.” The decision was also made that the subway lines would be constructed by the private sector, though planned and permitted by the city. Undergrounding involved tunnels that mostly followed the surface street layout. Hence the maze-like character of the NYC subway system.  Chicago still has its els, and they are rickety.

There has been much discussion at our various levels of government about how our road system should be financed. Should it be by a user tax? Then possibly tolls are best. Petroski prefers a more sophisticated user fee based on how much the vehicle is driven, perhaps using a GPS system. But the tracking necessary might become a privacy issue.

Most funds used in constructing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure have come from a tax on gasoline, a set cents-per-gallon. But because the revenue generated does not change as consumption rises, it has not been keeping up with infrastructure needs. A sales tax on fuel purchases might be better because it would rise with the amount of gas purchased. Electric cars do not pay the gasoline tax, though they use the roads constructed by the tax. Also in general there has been an increase in fuel efficiency. Good, but not good for the Highway Trust Fund.

Clearly we have not resolved the growing problem of how to finance infrastructure maintenance, let alone the improvements necessary for a growing economy.

Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. Penguin, 2015, paper.

 Many professional actors and film makers working in the Hollywood industry volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II. They were recruited into units that made documentary films for the War Department. Mark Harris tells the stories of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. They were all film directors with a reputation, all in their late 30s or 40s.

Most of the films that Hollywood produced during the War were training films. Some, like the “Why We Fight” series, were, however, efforts to explain the War to recruits and draftees. Eventually Hollywood also produced films intended for an American theater audience. They were part history and part propaganda but always intended to gain support for all-out warfare and final victory.

These directors wanted their productions to be interesting, adding plot, characters, and humor where possible. One element missing was romance, for which Hollywood films were famous. Shouldn’t remind soldiers of what they were missing.

The five biggest studios in the decade of the 1930s and into the 1940s: Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, RKO, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and Paramount. Along with three smaller companies: Columbia, Universal, and United Artists, they dominated the industry. They had the major directors and actors under contract, plus production facilities and thousands of employees. They also controlled theater distribution. So they brought considerable organization to the task of producing movies for an America at war. The film industry was willing to do their share in supporting the war effort. Yet little planning, Harris contends, went into how the War Department would partner with the film industry.

This wartime partnership began with an adversarial relationship between the film industry and American political elites – Hollywood and Washington. While the Japanese were planning their attack on Hawaii, a House committee was holding hearings to discover levels of corruption in the industry, but moving on to the undue influence of foreigners, and particularly European Jews. Hollywood was leftist, even “proto-communist.” Un-American, the House committee thought.

Rivalry? In 1940 sixty million people, more than half the adult population, went to a movie at least once a week. Nowhere in the American political system could you find such enthusiasm.

The theater experience began with Fox Movietone News or a competing newsreel, followed by a cartoon for the kids, then a series of “shorts” from five to twenty minutes long, followed by the “main feature.” Much of the industry’s wartime production was aimed at creating these newsreels and shorts.

One dilemma discussed throughout Harris’s book was the use of actual combat footage shot by a Field Photo Unit, versus reenactments. Frowned on by all film directors, reenactments were often necessary to convey the full story. On the other hand, live coverage of the battlefield had to be carefully planned to have the right filming equipment and personnel in the right place at the right time. Not easily accomplished on a battlefield. Of course, the narrative voice and the sound tracks were always added in the studio.

Many of the films in production in December 1941 seemed trivial at best and at worst a betrayal of our fighting men and the American public, now turning their backs and minds to war production. But we still needed Hollywood to entertain us. One solution was to place Hollywood preoccupations – romance, adventure, family – in a war setting. “Mrs. Miniver” (MGM 1942) involved a Britain struggling to deal with the erosion of traditional class barriers set in the first months of World War II.  

The Roosevelt Administration had created an “ABC” of regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. It regulated the flow of war information by the creation of yet another agency. The Bureau of Motion Pictures had to approve a film before it was released for theater distribution. According to Harris the Bureau was more cautious than Hollywood thought it ought to be.

John Ford enlisted in early 1942 and was put in charge of film production for the Office of Strategic Services, our intelligence agency during the war. Harris notes the rightward drift of Ford’s politics, and that made a difference in how Hollywood covered the war, particularly Russia’s role. George Stevens was part of the U.S. Army film unit that photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, later used as evidence against Nazi bigwigs at the Nuremberg trials.

Perhaps the three best wartime films were released as the war ended. “Best Years of Our Lives” (Warner Brothers 1946) directed by William Wyler, was about the problems of returning veterans. It followed three soldiers and their ordeals of adjusting to civilian life while suffering from battle fatigue (PTSD). Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also about the difficulties faced by a returning navy pilot (Liberty Films 1946). “They Were Expendable” by John Ford (MGM late 1945) was about a torpedo boat squadron defending the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in 1941-1942. The Battle of the Philippines was a major military defeat for the Allied forces stationed there. Their commander, Douglas MacArthur, decamped to Australia.

John Huston’s “Battle of San Pietro” (1945), critical of American intelligence during the Italian campaign, was thought too revealing for a wartime audience, and only premiered at the end of the war. Much of the documentary footage produced during the war by Huston and his colleagues only became available after the war. A ten-year-old boy growing up in Garwin, Iowa, going to movie, and watching early television saw lots of it.

Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine by Thomas Graham. University of Florida Press, 2014.

In the early 1900s Henry Flagler eased himself out of Standard Oil and his partnership with John D. Rockefeller to pursue a career in railroads and resort hotels. He was among the richest men in America in an era of enormous private wealth accumulation, but also wealth inequalities. Florida benefited from that new interest and the money behind it.

Flagler and his first wife had come to St. Augustine for her health. He found the accommodations in “America’s Oldest City” inadequate and began to think about the construction of a hotel that met his standards. He was inspired by, or perhaps he inspired a local physician, Dr. Andrew Anderson, to begin thinking big as well. Anderson owned an orange grove adjoining the town center and a good hotel location. The hard freeze of 1894 had pushed the orange groves farther south and left the town needing new enterprises.

Henry Flagler was a “mover and shaker.” He knew a lot of the East Coast social elites that had made money during the prosperous years of the late nineteenth century, and what they might want in the way of a resort hotel. So they found much to like in Flagler’s Ponce de Leon. Flagler soon acquired two more existing hotels, the Cordova and the Alcazar. These early resort hotels were not year-round hotels. Rather, the hotel’s season began after the New Year, remained open into the hot months of Florida’s long summers, and then closed for the season June.

Graham follows the annual seasons at the Ponce de Leon as described by Mrs. Anna Marcotte in her gossipy local publication, the Tattler. The elaborate parties attended by the rich and famous that both Graham and Marcotte describe are like the destination weddings and other celebrations common amongst the well off in this century.

The hotel guests liked sports, though mostly as spectators. The Chicago Colts (later Cubs) trained in St. Augustine in the spring. There were tennis and golf tournaments, various equestrian events, and prize fights. Later auto racing, though it eventually relocated farther down the coast at Daytona.

Late nineteenth-century American cultural life was brought to its audiences by itinerant lecturers and musicians. But the town also had its own concert band that performed at formal dances to benefit the local hospital or fire station. Tin Pan Alley’s ragtime was the rage in the two decades before the First World War. “Negro melodies” sung by the hotel’s black staff were also popular with the guests. Gambling was about the only known vice.

Hotel patrons got around the town in horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and cycle rickshaws. They rented cars for short drives down the coast, but most guests continued to arrive by rail at Jacksonville with connections to St. Augustine.

Graham follows Flagler’s railway construction as it makes its way to Miami and then the Keys. At the same time Flagler’s sometime business partner – sometime rival, Henry Plant, was building a railroad down Florida’s Gulf Coast and the magnificent Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant’s hotel would rival the Ponce de Leon in size and splendor and draw off wealthy vacationers from Flagler’s hotels. That rivalry has often been portrayed as contentious; Thomas Graham does not think it so.

Both the Atlantic and Gulf Coast tourism were vulnerable to the frequent recessions. Certainly the great age for the Ponce de Leon was prior to the Great War. Graham reports that it never made a profit after the 1924 season. It now houses Flagler College. The Tampa Bay Hotel was a flop from the beginning. It now houses the University of Tampa.

Florida was, during the careers of Flagler and Plant, part of the Jim Crow South. That meant that the huge staffs of the hotels could not be of mixed race but rather either white or black. Flagler made the choice of employing an all-black staff. Most of the staff were recruited in the North and brought by special trains to St. Augustine for the season.

In December 1964, I was married in Gainesville and had arranged to spend a brief honeymoon at the Ponce De Leon. It was still a grand hotel. Both of us were graduate students, so I had reserved the cheapest room available. We arrived in the early evening and were shown to our room. It was dazzling and I decided that either I or the reservation desk had made a big mistake.

I went down to the desk and explained the mistake. The clerk with pleasure said that the hotel was not busy and they had decided to give us their “honeymoon suite” at the price I had paid for the cheaper room. I suspect that Henry Flagler would have approved of their magnanimous gesture.

Encounters at the Heart of the World; A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2015 paper. Pulitzer Prize.

The Mandan were a tribe settled on buttes overlooking the Heart and Knife Rivers, tributaries of the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn won a Pulitzer Prize in history last year for her Encounters at the Heart of the World.

They lived in agricultural communities, growing corn (maize), squash, beans, and tobacco in their fields.  Their earthen lodges surrounded a central plaza and were made from timbers of willow trees growing along the rivers, prairie grasses, and sod. They hunted buffalo and from them obtained meat, robes, and many other products, including glue made from boiling their hooves. Eventually the settlements were fortified to protect them from raiders on horseback.

The Mandans were great traders, and their villages were trading centers for other tribes of plains Indians. They also welcomed white traders from three different directions: from the French trading posts on the Upper Great Lakes until France lost Canada; from Britain’s York Factory on Hudson’s Bay; and from the Spanish and later Americans paddling up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from St. Louis.

The Mandans demonstrated considerable market-place savvy, Fenn claims, taking advantage of competition amongst these trading partners. They adopted what we would today call a free trade policy, welcoming all traders. Eventually, however, Europeans began to usurp the ‘carrying trade’ between various grading communities which for centuries had been Mandan.

In exchange for corn and other produce of the land they received manufactured goods made of iron and steel – hoes, hatchets, kettles, and ‘buttons and bows’ which they used for decorating their clothing. Historians have called attention to the ‘buttons and bows’ they received for valuable goods such as corn or animal skins and hides. But the Mandans were well satisfied with the exchange.

The Spaniards held back on selling Mandans and other tribes guns, but the British, French, and Americans were happy to do so.

These settled trade patterns were disturbed by the arrival of two new animals, the horse, spreading out of the southwestern plains, and the Norwegian rat that probably arrived with traders and riverboats from St. Louis. The rats consumed the corn stored underground in cache pits. The horses, Fenn points out, allowed the Mandan to range farther afield in their hunting and trading. She concludes that the horse resulted in the Mandan “reinventing themselves on horseback.” But it also facilitated Sioux raids on their villages.

The greater mobility of Western Indian tribes and the coming of steam boats up the Missouri River meant that pathogens also traveled more widely. The Mandan villages were decimated by a small pox epidemic in 1781. They also suffered from whooping cough and cholera. Travelers through Mandan territory probably exaggerated Indian populations in the 18th century. Nevertheless it is clear that populations plunged precipitously. By the mid-nineteenth century Mandan populations were in the hundreds. Pathogens not only killed thousands, it also disrupted their traditions and their understanding of the worldly order. It shattered clans and fractured families.

The paddle-wheels, steam driven, were powered by wood. There were few trees on the Dakota plains, and they were soon consumed by the boats, robbing the Mandan of their major source of fuel.

The Mandans were known for their hospitality. They invited many traders and explorers into their lodges to accept their food and shelter and the frequent smoking of the calumet or ceremonial tobacco pipe confirmed that hospitality. This openness resulted in numerous accounts of their cultural life, from which Fenn and other historians have drawn. They were fond of games, and ceremonial dances, which she calls “plays.” They were essentially reenactments of past glories. Mandans liked sports: running, archery, and horse races. They were enthusiastic gamblers.

Perhaps their most celebrated guests were the members of the Corp of Discovery, in 1804-1805, better known as the [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark Expedition. It was guided west by Sakakawea, a young slave woman bought by a Mandan. I would have preferred the company of Maximilian of Wied, a tourist-adventurer, who visited the Mandan villages in 1833. He was accompanied by an artist, Karl Bodmer, whose aquatint prints of the Mandans are reproduced in Fenn’s Encounters. She has also included reproductions of George Catlin’s portraits of Mandans that capture their dignity and nobility.

Elizabeth Fenn makes the point that European observers generally found what they were looking for. They designated preferred leaders among the native people, making “first chiefs.” That disrupted traditional hierarchies, but also created individuals with whom U.S. authorities could negotiate. It created opportunities for negotiations amongst feuding tribes as well.