vintage

Posted by Ellen

After some of you fussed yesterday about the lack of a story to go with the picture, I've got a story for today--the beginning of a two-part story, in fact. It could be classified as another entry in an irregular series dealing with places I've never been to and probably have no business writing about.

The picture looks down on the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1905, from a vantage point near the top of the city's new inclined railway. The railway may look like part of the town's extensive industrial infrastructure, but it was actually a people-mover, built by the city in the late ninteenth century at the instigation of real-estate developers who wanted to sell houses high up the hill above downtown. "The Incline" operated for about 50 years, powered by an electric motor at the top and working a little like an elevator, with a dummy-car counterweight on the left track that moved downhill when the passenger car on the right track was pulled uphill.

What I didn't know about Duluth could fill several hard drives. Here's what little I did know: it's Bob Dylan's hometown, and the winters are ridiculously cold. The Dylan factoid is only partly true--yes, he was born in Duluth, but he really grew up a hundred miles north in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town that had to relocate itself because the mine got too big. As for the factoid about Duluth winters: yes, of course, they really are brutal, with a spell of forty below or worse most years. But "the Incline" was so steep that snow never piled up too deeply on the tracks, not even during blizzards.

As for the things I  didn't know about Duluth: Number one, around the time of this photo, it was among the wealthiest towns in America, claiming more millionaires per capita than anyplace else. It thrived because of a confluence of geology, geography, and the highest technology of the era.

In the 1870s, northern Minnesota had a gold rush; no commercially significant gold was ever found, but the prospectors did stumble on high-grade iron ore in the hills north of Duluth. They'd discovered Minnesota's Iron Range, one of the largest iron deposits on earth and the subject of tomorrow's part of the story.

By the 1880s, Duluth and the Iron Range were connected by railroad. Ore from the mines was off-loaded from the trains at Duluth onto large ships. The ships would have been stuck forever in Lake Superior, unable to exit, had not construction been completed around that time on the mechanized locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which helped ships to descend the 21 feet between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ore ships from Duluth sailed a thousand miles across the Great Lakes to the newly constructed steel mills in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York, where newly invented Hulett machines automatically unloaded the ore from the ships and dumped it into blast furnaces. As soon as the new steel cooled, it was snapped up by new factories assembling cars and tractors and locomotives and wringer washing machines and everything else that used to be made in America.

All cities that boom must implode. (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds about right.) What happened to Duluth was World War II, with its extreme demand for iron ore to build tanks and planes and ships to replace the ones that were being consumed in battle.  The Iron Range couldn't keep up; huge wartime scrap-metal drives were needed to supplement the mines.The track of the inclined railway was itself torn up and sold for scrap. By about 1950, all the good ore in the entire Iron Range had been clawed out of the earth and shipped away through Duluth. The city languished.

Fortunately, scientists at the University of Minnesota had seen this coming and were hard at work on a work-around.  Within a few years they came up with a way of using the Iron Range's low-grade ore, called taconite, Taconite isn't as valuable as the old stuff, and it has to be compete with cheap ore now coming in from places like Brazil, and anyway, most of the old steel mills and factories are no longer operating, but Duluth remains a fairly active port to this day. Last year, it handled 500,000 railroad carloads of taconite. The railroad also brings grain to Duluth from all across the northern Plains, which also gets loaded there onto ships.

But nowadays, more valuable than wheat or taconite to Duluth's economy are tourists. Now that the smoke is gone from the old ore processing works, the city's scenic lakeside setting attracts vacationers interested in all the outdoor activities of the north country: boating, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and so on. Along the top of the hill is a string of popular state parks. Even the sand bar that protects the harbor, seen in the distance in the photo, is now a park, and also a seaplane base. Visitors are buying up the old houses on the side of the hill to use as vacation homes.

Somewhere in the city, I can't figure out where, is a trail they've named the Bob Dylan Walking Path. Must be near Highway 61.

 

Posted by Ellen

Obviously, this picture was taken on a Monday. The scene is the tenement backyard at Park Avenue and 107th Street in New York, probably in the year 1900.

Setting up these clotheslines was not a trivial task, especially on the higher floors. A man would come around calling out "I climb poles!" and for about 25 cents he'd climb up and run the rope out over the pulleys. He also sold rope and pulleys, but if you'd planned ahead and bought them from the hardware store, you could save a few cents.

Notice the train track at the bottom of the photo--I'm guessing the whites were whiter at the far end of the block. Just on the other side of the tracks is the building where baseball player Lou Gehrig grew up, a few years after this picture was taken.

I suggest viewing this image as large as possible, so you can peep into the windows.

Posted by Ellen

I'm sure there are more than two stories that can be linked to this street corner in Washington, D.C., but I see two in the photo.

The first one is a tale of two gas stations: The year is 1925, cars have only been on the road for a few years, but already here we see a derelict gas station, rundown, boarded up, the gas pump already removed. The parked car may or may not be a junker, but it's not much of an advertisement for the carwash service. But look across the street, at the far right edge of the picture. You may want to enlarge the photo to see full detail. (Or ask me to send you the very high-resolution original photo, 2.6 MB file.) That's a brand spanking new Standard Oil Co. gas station, the original category killer--so Story #1 is about how Mr. Rockefeller probably put this guy out of business and blighted this corner of my hometown.

Story #2 is about the corner itself. It's 2nd Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, which is stunning to those of us who feel they know Washington. Mass Ave is one of the businest streets in the city, and the intersection is in the heart of downtown, about four blocks from Union Station. In 1925, there wasn't even a line painted down the middle of Mass Ave. Furthermore, based on the trees and their shadows, we can deduce that  the picture was taken in late afternoon or early evening--rush hour. Perhaps it was Sunday, but still--the wide-open emptiness is not consistent with our notions of a major downtown artery. This scene feels like a small town, or the edge of a city, not the center of the nation's capital, just eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol building.

What's there today? Nothing. Grass and a couple of curving walkways--I think the local term is pocket park. It's an unusual park, however, built on the air rights above the I-395 freeway as it dives underground just north of Massachusetts Avenue. Rumor has it that behind this park, they're planning to build offices and even stores and apartments, all on the I-395 air rights. This is said to be the biggest construction project in Washington right now that hasn't been suspended--maybe it hasn't been suspended, but it's not yet what they call shovel-ready.

And for what it's worth, the Standard Oil station isn't there any more either; that corner is occupied by a medium-sized brick office building that serves as Washington headquarters for a business association.

Posted by Ellen

Family camping in 1891 was what it was--the striped skirts, the upside down teacups, and most notably, the tennis racket played as a guitar. "These people are related to me," observes West Coast painter Amy Crehore, who found the old snapshot in a box of old family treasures.

The woman making music on her tennis racket may be particularly closely related to Crehore, who often paints scenes in which women are playing ukeleles. Here is one of her recent works, "Monkey Love Song."

Posted by Ellen

In the summer of 1913, Hazel Reiber winds up for a pitch near the ocean in the big sandlot at Long Beach, Long Island. Her bathing costume looks skimpier than the outfits many women wore back then, but her boots would do just fine for a professional wrestler.

That is a baseball in her right hand, but I'm guessing--hoping--that the person she's throwing to is not swinging a bat. It doesn't look safe for slugging thereabouts.

Posted by Ellen

Breitner-like.

It means weather like what we see in this early twentieth-century photo of Amsterdam by George Hendrik Breitner. Somehow, the laundry and the grainy gray make the Netherlands look less tidy and perfect than we've come to expect.

Breitner's name entered the Dutch vocabulary in reference to a kind of weather--dark, damp, chilly, misty, gloomy--based on his well-known late-ninteenth-century paintings of the Dutch landscape. But in 1996, a drawerful of photos by Breitner (including this one) was discovered in somebody's attic in Amsterdam, and it turns out that the atmosphere in Breitner's photographic landscapes is just as in his paintings. Breitner-like.
 

Posted by Ellen

The town of Clearfield in the hills of west-central Pennsylvania grew little or not at all between 1910--when a photo was taken from a nearby slope, painted by hand, and reproduced lithographically--and the 1960s--when a color photo taken from nearly the same spot was published as a picture postcard. Town population still stands at about 6,000 today. The dark church steeple in the upper right of the older picture is the white steeple in the center of the more recent view.

Apparently, the years have not been kind to Clearfield as far as the artistic level of its town boosters' bird's-eye views is concerned--but that's typical; a lively American artistic genre has been poorly replaced, first by Kodachrome and more recently by Google Earth.

Time marches on, however, in Clearfield. In 1977, the town became the home of Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, where the cook "enjoys making  burgers bigger than your head, all the way up to the insane 123-pounder."

Posted by Ellen

This 1954 photo was part of a magazine advertisement. Makes me want to buy a Buick, sort of--must be the pearls and the black glove, and that little tiny trunk key.

Posted by Ellen

When the Custom House tower opened in 1913, tthe zoning code for the city of Boston limited building height to 125 feet. Because the Custom House was a federal installation, it could flat-out ignore the restriction; this tower is 496 feet high, making it the tallest building in Boston until 1964. The exterior is essentially unchanged to this day, though the interior has been drastically redesigned. It's now a time-share condo complex operated by Marriott.

Underneath the tower is a large Doric temple built in 1847, an imposintg structure that housed the warehouses and regional  financial offices of the customs service. Most of the federall government's income in those days came from import levies, so in port cities such as Boston, custom houses were typically the nicest buildings in town.

In this picture, the clocks at the top of the tower have no hands. This is probably because repairs were being attempted; the wooden minute hand was so big and heavy--22 feet long--that the clock mechanism struggled to push it up from the 6 toward the 12, often failing. Until the hands were replaced with plastic a few years ago, the clocks rarely kept good time.