The roads of the people

This might or might not be any comfort to the special task force that has recommended fuel tax increases to raise money to maintain our roads and bridges, and build new ones where necessary.  But it might add some context to their work.

A century ago, Governor Elliott Major made his farewell address to the General Assembly.  In his first year in office, 1913, he had issued a proclamation declaring there would be two “Good Roads Days” in Missouri.  By the time he left office, fifteen other states had held annual “Good Roads Days.”  Major thought those special occasions had helped push Missouri to making “more progress in the construction and maintenance of good roads in the last two years than it has in any period of ten years preceding.”

Now, there’s a goal for today’s Missourians!

A century ago, Governor Major thought Missouri’s dirt roads were the most important ones in the system.  Today we might refer to those roads, years from the time when they were dirt, as our farm-to-market roads. But Major’s point about the importance of those roads has a lot of validity today.

In some ways, his message in 1917 is pretty close to the message we could hearing this year—with some modern language.  Here’s what he told the legislature:

The public highways of the country have ever marked by distinct epochs its civilization, and agricultural and commercial progress. It has marked it in the life of Missouri and of the American Republic. Until the highways stand abreast our broadest civilization, we will not be living up to our best privileges and the highest standard we can maintain in our civic and commercial life. We need to continue the construction, improvement and maintenance of our dirt and our hard surface roads. The dirt road, however, is the most important of all the roads. It constitutes ninety per cent of the road mileage of the State, and will continue so to do for many years to come. It is the real road of the people and the great highway of commerce.

We are in favor of the construction and maintenance of macadam, rock, concrete and other high-grade roads because every road that is constructed and passes through a section of country that produces something is an internal improvement of inestimable value. While we favor the construction of these splendid traffic ways, yet these are not the roads which mean most to the whole people. It is the dirt road, representing the first leg of the journey and over which moves the traffic of the State that serves us most; the road which enables the producer to bring more products to the railway stations and to the first markets of the country; the road which enables him to double the size of the haul and make the transit in less time, save wear and tear on harness and wagons and the lives of horses; the road that would bring additional hundreds of  thousands of acres under cultivation; the road that would increase the value per acre of all the lands through which it passes; the road that will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in shrinkage in the delivery of live stock; the road that will increase the attendance in the public schools of the country; the road that will lessen that part of the cost of transportation which begins at the producers’ door; the road every tendency of which is to improve community life and make it better morally, civilly and commercially.

There are bad dirt roads and good dirt roads. Bad dirt roads are a liability, good dirt roads are an asset. Missouri can not afford bad dirt roads, but it can afford good dirt roads. The dirt roads reach out into country life like tentacles and over them are moved the products representing the real commerce of the country, and their improvement will mean more to the State and Nation than any other one internal achievement which can be brought about. We can not make all the roads in Missouri high-class roads, but we can make all the bad dirt roads good dirt roads, and in the meantime construct as many high grade roads as possible. ,

Missouri has 63,370 miles of unimproved dirt roads and 54,264 miles of improved dirt roads. We have 3,420 miles of gravel roads, and 1,417 miles of macadam roads. ‘We have 570 miles of sand clay roads, and 700 miles of roads made from chats. We have about 400 miles of patent surface and other miscellaneous roads, making the grand total in the commonwealth over 124,000 miles. Last year there was placed upon these highways betterments valued at approximately $8,000,000. Under the new inter-county-seat drag law, we have about 10,000 miles of inter-county-seat roads, regularly dragged by the State, and upon which during the biennial period the State will have expended more than $225,000 for this purpose, while the people themselves have placed thereon special betterments in the sum of $1,500,000. ‘

The general state road fund law (Article 5, Chapter 121, R. S. Mo. 1909) should be amended so the moneys going into that fund may be used, if necessary, in securing the moneys the federal government may wish to give, meet expenses of convicts when working on or building public roads, or used to meet other important and necessary contingencies which might arise in road construction. It goes without saying that the federal government will give special aid, but it may require the states or the people to expend dollar for dollar. Should this be true, then with the general state road fund statute amended, Missouri can be the first state to receive the federal moneys. It would be well if the committees on roads and highways would, in a limited way, revise the road laws. The laws upon the subject are too numerous and confusing, and this Legislature can render a good work in revising same.

And here we are a century later hoping we can have enough transportation funding to match available federal funds.  The total mileage in our transportation system would astonish Major and the legislators of 1917 and thousands of those miles are the former dirt roads that the counties used to drag.  The amount the state spends on the system might be greater than they could comprehend although still not enough.  Convicts no longer provide free labor to build our roads and although we have more than twenty-five thousand convicts, they would not be nearly enough to give us the system we need.

Roads remain today as they were in Major’s time, links “to improve community life and make it better morally, civilly and commercially.” The language might seem a bit expansive in this Twenty-first century, but the point is the same.  A good transportation system is essential for many different purposes.  And the funding to capitalize on that essentiality remains as vital today as it was when dirt roads were the people’s roads.

To paraphrase Governor Elliott Major: “Bad roads are a liability; good roads are an asset. Missouri cannot afford bad roads, but it can afford good roads.”  We’ll be waiting to see the strategy that will convince tight-fisted Missourians they can afford good roads—or alternately, that they can’t afford not to have good roads.

Notes from the road–November

(Tick line, Kansas)—Trivia question:

What was the tick line?

Nancy and I crossed it a few days ago on our ten-day excursion to and from Colorado, where we spent Thanksgiving helping our son and his family move into a new house.

Kansas had a tick line.

In the years right after the Civil War, there was a shortage of beef in the northern states.  At the same time, Texas had millions of cattle and no significant market for them. But a lot of those cattle were infested with ticks that killed Kansas farmers’ dairy cows, leading the legislature to pass a law basically banning Texas cattle east of Topeka, an area that was filling up with new farmer-settlers.

A nice tourism magazine we picked up in Abilene tells the story of one Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois fellow who realized Texas’ two-dollar-a head cattle were worth twenty times that much in Chicago and set out to find a place west of the tick line where trains could haul those infested longhorns to Chicago for slaughter, eliminating contact between them and the Kansas dairy cows.

McCoy settled on Abilene, then a place of “about a dozen log cabins and dugouts” where one entrepreneur was trying to solve the community’s prairie dog overpopulation problem by selling pairs of them to tourists for five dollars.  The town fathers sold McCoy 480 acres of land that became the destination point for those desperate Texas cattle-raisers. The cattle drives enabled Abilene to flourish—but it did so at the expense of a Missouri city. The unsigned article in the Abilene Chamber of Commerce magazine is a little condescending on this point:

Herds were transported in 1866 to Sedalia, Missouri along the first cattle trail.  Why Sedalia isn’t genuinely recognized as the first Cowtown of the West is because very few cattle herds actually made it to their destination.  There were a series of hillbillies guarding the Southern border of Missouri to ensure that the Texas Longhorns carrying the deadly tick fever were not going to cross over. Several drovers lost their lives in an attempt to break through the Missouri wall.  The Sedalia trail was also a nightmare even without the coonskin-capped border patrol because the path would send the drovers through the Ozark Mountains, which isn’t exactly the Rockies, but it wasn’t the best to run thousands of cattle.  Beyond the Ozarks, there was always a possibility of Indian raids in which there were still tribes looking around to establish their dominance in the Wild West even though the government had forced many Native Americans out to unwanted lands.

We suggest the MISSOURI Chamber of Commerce, or at least the Sedalia Chamber, might find itself sipping from the cup of umbrage at that characterization.  Coonskin-capped border patrol?  Hillbilly guards?   Hmmmmmphhhhhhh!

About three-thousand cattle were being brought into Missouri from Texas in the pre-Civil War years but the Texas ticks were hurting Missouri cattle, leading to a proposal in the 1855 legislature to ban diseased cattle from Missouri.

Sedalia, however, became a point for Texas cattle, particularly after the railroad reached there in 1860.  And when the KATY railroad built a line from Sedalia to Texas, the city became a major watering stop for the steam-powered trains that hauled cattle to Chicago in the post-Chisholm Trail days.

But when Joseph McCoy set up shop in Abilene, Sedalia’s development as THE western cattle trail head quickly ended.

The Texas cow boys (it was two separate words in those days) drove a couple million head of cattle up the Chisholm Trail from San Antonio to the railroad at Abilene from about 1867-71. By then, those bothersome Kansas farmers who had learned that winter wheat could flourish in Kansas and argued their land had become too valuable to be tromped on by ticky Texas Cattle, had expanded operations and the tick line kept getting moved farther west and other towns, including rip-roaring Dodge City, had become the cow towns of American West fame.  On March 7, 1885, Kansas enacted a strict quarantine banning Texas cattle everywhere except for December, January, and February—the cold weather months when tick-borne diseases were less likely.

By then the cow boys didn’t need to go to Kansas because the railroads had gone to Texas, including the KATY with its links to our own Abilene-maligned Sedalia.

(Concrete, America)—Covered a lot of miles on I-70—a road that makes any state boring except Missouri, where lax billboard standards just make the state look boring AND trashy—on that trip.

Saw a lot of hybrid vehicles on the road with us including a few Teslas and, as frequently happens, wondered about where they go to recharge.

We recalled that one of the diesel cars we owned years ago had a book in the glove compartment listing gas stations with diesel pumps for cars—they were kind of rare in those days—and we wondered if anybody provided a source for electric car owners that listed places where they could plug in.

Turns out there are at least two sources: Ameren.com and solvingev.com.  Might be kind of nice in MODOT had a webpage with the same information.   But the two sources that we looked at a minute ago show there are a LOT of places to plug in, power up, and go on (kind of a modern Timothy Leary phrase).  And the increasing number reflects the changes that are gaining momentum in our transportation system.  Doesn’t solve the pothole problems, though.  That might be a challenge for the legislature: figure out the equivalent of a gas tax on EV battery fill-ups.

A few years ago we suggested to a national motel chain that it might pick up a lot of customers if it had charging stations for overnight guests.  Still a good idea although we have yet to see a motel with a charging station.

(Wakeeny, Kansas)—This. place. is. starting. to. feel. weird.  Regular readers might recall that last summer we stopped at a motel in this town of fewer than 1800 people three counties away from the Kansas/Colorado border and ran into someone who recognized us from the time many years ago when he worked at the Capitol while I was scratching for news there.  This time we stopped and the young lady behind the desk was from Boonville and used to listen to “Across Our Wide Missouri,” the daily historical program we still do on the Missourinet.

I don’t know, after this, how often we want to stop at Wakeeney in the future.  It’s starting to feel a little Twilight Zoneish, like we’ll wake up some morning and be the only people in the town and we won’t be able to get out.

(Mailbox, Mo.)—Stopped at the post office and picked up our mail held for the last ten days.  46 things.  Ten were catalogs although we were surprised that only one was from L. L. Bean, which usually seems to send us a new one every three days, or from the Duluth people who are almost as prolific.  Of the 46 pieces of mail, only four were personal (cards or letters) unless you count the three bills.  Eleven were solicitations, usually reminders that it’s getting late in the year and you better donate to our cause so you can beat the IRS.  Eight were non-catalog ads, including one from Barnes and Noble which seems to have forgotten that it closed its store here months ago (we also get a lot of email solicitations from Sears, which took their store away from us months ago, too).

Less than ten percent of our mail was from people contacting people.

(Stamp Counter, Mo.)—Mailed a letter the other day and stuck one of those “Forever” stamps on it—you know, the one that’s good no matter what this month’s postage rate is. (We include this in the “notes from the road” entry because we drove to the nearest postal facility to mail the letter instead of raising the flag on the mailbox on the curb.)  The idea came to mind that the postal service should change the image on future “Forever” stamps.    It should be a

Snail.

A 95-year old observation whose time might have come

We are four years away from the centennial of Missouri’s centennial.  Missouri’s bicentennial of statehood also will be the centennial of the Missouri Centennial Road Law.   Not everybody thought it was a good idea then. One editor C. G. Sagaser of the  Huntsville Herald might have been something of a seer when he wrote in his June 10, 1921 edition about an upcoming special session of the legislature that would decide how Missouri’s road system would materialize.

Momentum had been building for a decade to develop a system of hard-surface roads.  Voters in 1920 approved a $60 million dollar bond issue to finance those roads.  The legislature and the governor decided to wait until the summer of 1921 to make that decision.

Four days before the session began, Sagaser said, “Something is about to take place in Jefferson City which means more to Missouri than anything which has happened in the past half century…It is up to this special session to say whether this hard surface road building shall be postponed until road material prices have had an opportunity to decline, or whether we shall blindly proceed to hand out this $60,000,000 at once…”

Then there’s another proposition:  Do we want hard surface roads at all?  I certainly have my doubts about their desirability.  If the legislature will postpone any action on the road building program for two years, we shall then have an opportunity to more thoroughly study and acquaint ourselves with the history of hard surface roads in other states, which would assist us in arriving at a conclusion as to what kind of hard surface roads we want, if any at all. (We have added that emphasis for this entry.)

“…The professional politician does not desire a delay in the road building program, because it would give the people too much time to think things over…It has been a long time since Missouri had a state-wide system of hard surface roads, and we have all lived and been a very happy and cheerful race of people, therefore, we should easily be able to live two years longer without even thinking about hard surface roads.

“And when the machine politician talks about ‘hard surface roads,’ he means concrete roads. The hand of the cement trust is plainly visible. I expect the whole thing to terminate in a gigantic steal if it is put through.

“…I say frankly to the people of Missouri that a system of concrete roads will work havoc with us as a state.  In a few years they would become impassable, owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

  There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

The legislature met for several weeks in the hot and stuffy Capitol before finally compromising on a system of 1,500 miles of roads of a “higher type than claybound gravel” connecting the population centers.  But one-third of the bond money plus $6,000 a mile from the other two-thirds of the bond issue would be used for secondary roads important to farmers.

It was the kind of legislative compromise that used to be possible—an agreement nobody really liked but something that was acceptable.  The Centennial Road Law of 1921 was the beginning of our 32,000 mile state highway system.

But sure enough, as C. G. Sagaser noted ninety-five years ago, the specter of impassibility looms today owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

Our former press corps colleague, David Lieb of the Associated Press, wrote an excellent analysis earlier this week pointing out that our transportation department not only doesn’t have enough money to build roads and bridges, and make comprehensive repairs on our roads and bridges, it’s having to dip into its capital improvements budget to pay off the latest big bond issue approved several years ago to re-surface our deteriorating highways and replace hundreds of dangerous bridges.

A special committee has been looking for solutions in the interim between legislative sessions and a possible fix is expected to be put on the list of bills to consider next year.

The question then will be whether Sagaser is still right with another observation: “There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

Really?   Still?    Is Sagaser right after all, these ninety-five years later?

 

 

Folk lore

Several good stories about the Missouri Capitol were dispatched to the cutting-room floor when the original 727-page typescript of the next Capitol book was pared down to a size the publisher can handle and this is one of them. Well, actually, two.

This particular segment is only sixteen lines long.  The story behind it is much longer, as you will see if you endure the telling of it all the way to the end, and a forerunner to the today’s highways and transportation issues.

(“The cutting-room floor” is a movie industry term that refers to the footage that is cut out of the final version of the film during the editing process.  But you probably already knew that).

One of the stories began with an old postcard. Old postcards can be fascinating reading. Many are pretty mundane but sometimes the brief messages on the back are flash views into someone’s life and there have been times when I’ve gone to the internet to see if I can track down the person who received the card all those years ago or the person who sent it to learn the story to which the brief message refers. Sometimes the reader of the back of an old postcard can mentally create a scenario around that message.  Robert Olen Butler did that several years ago in his book, Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards. It’s a fun read.

But the postcard that led to the following story that has wound up on the new Capitol book’s editorial cutting-room floor had nothing on the back.  The front did have a short message, mentioning that Governor Joseph Folk was standing on the front steps of the capitol, the one that burned a few years later.  He’s the one on about the fifth step who appears to be talking to a bearded man named Ezra Meeker.

One of the stories here  is of the image and the other is the sixteen lines about Folk that have been excised from the new book.

This postcard shows Meeker’s covered wagon next to one of the first automobiles in Jefferson City.  Old Ezra was a heckuva guy.  His legacy is the Oregon Trail.  And Joe Folk has legacy in Missouri transportation history.

Ezra Meeker, his wife of one year, Eliza, their newborn son, Marion, and his older brother, Oliver, went west from Iowa to Oregon with an ox team in 1852. The trip took six months.   Ezra became the first postmaster and the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington and he and Eliza raised five children.  A sixth died in infancy.

When Ezra was seventy-five years old, he became convinced that the Oregon Trail and its stories were being forgotten as plains farmers plowed up its ruts and communities were built over sections of it.  He decided the way to bring that part of our history back to public attention was travel it backwards.  He got a couple of oxen named Dave and Twist, a collie dog named Jim, and a covered wagon and retraced his path of a half-century earlier.  He encouraged the communities he visited to put up monuments marking the trail.

Twist died in Nebraska, perhaps having eaten something poisonous, and Meeker replaced him with another ox named Dandy.  By late November, 1907, Meeker was in Washington, D. C., where he showed his wagon to President Roosevelt and spent more than a month urging Congress to mark the Oregon Trail.

He left D. C. in January, 1908 and went into winter quarters in Pittsburg until early March.  By then, Congress was considering a bill to spend $50,000 to mark the trail. Other legislation called for a federal-state partnership to build a national highway along the Oregon Trail as a memorial road.  He got a frosty reception from the Mayor of St. Louis and left after staying a few days, “greatly disappointed.”

“I had anticipated a warm reception. St. Louis, properly speaking, had been the head center of the movement that finally established the Oregon Trail. Here was where Weythe, Bonneville, Whitman and others of the earlier movements…had outfitted, but there is now a commercial generation, many of whom that care but little about the subject.”

He did, however, find some ‘zealous advocates’ of the effort to mark the Trail, including the automobile club and the Daughters of the American Revolution.” His drive from St. Louis to Jefferson City “was tedious and without results.”  But, “Governor Folks came out on the state house steps to have his photograph taken and otherwise signified his approval of the work, and I was accorded a cordial hearing by the citizens of that city,” he wrote in his 1916 book.

And that’s what we see on that postcard.  Dave and Dandy, the wagon, a car, and Governor Folk talking to Meeker, who made it back to Seattle, Washington on July 18, 1908.  He travelled the Trail again by oxcart, 1910-1912, and by 1916 he was writing, “A great change has come over the minds of the American people in this brief period of eight years.  Numerous organizations have sprung into existence for the betterment of Good Roads, for the perpetuation of ‘The Old Trails’ and the memory of those who wore them wide and deep.”

Ezra traveled the Oregon Trail for the last time in 1924—by airplane, when he was 93.  He died in December, 1928, about three weeks short of his 98th birthday.

Now we switch focus a little.

The Good Roads movement traces its beginnings to a 1902 proposal to build a memorial road from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville.  By the time Ezra Meeker started his second trip on the Oregon Trail, numerous local efforts to establish a good roads program were underway, leading to the national good roads movement.  Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration wrote that one of the pioneering efforts was the National Old Trails road, “an outgrowth of two movements in Missouri.”  The first of those efforts was promotion of a road linking St. Louis and Kansas City.  The second of those movements was spearheaded by the DAR to mark the Santa Fe Trail.  “In the summer of 1907, Governor Folk…expressed an interest in a cross-State macadam highway,” he wrote.

But, actually, Folk had spoken on the subject earlier when he announced in August, 1906, a plan to finance road development in Missouri, first linking Kansas City and St. Louis and a second road from the Arkansas border to the Iowa border.  He said he would ask the 1907 legislature to require Missouri dramshops to pay a state license fee of $200 a year.  The Automobile magazine commented in its August 23 issue, “As there are 650 saloons in Kansas City alone, it may be easily seen that the revenue derived would be large.”  Folk told a group in Kansas City, “It is my view that the highway department of the state should be organized after the same manner as the public school system, to the end that there may be good roads in every portion of the commonwealth.”

And this is where we finally get to the sixteen lines that won’t be in the book—and the story of Folk’s misadventures behind the wheel of an automobile, as reported by The Cole County Democrat on June 20, 1907.

Folk, who had called in his 1905 inaugural speech for a constitutional amendment setting a tax to finance a road building system in Missouri, was the first Missouri Governor to call for a cross-state highway which led the State Board of Agriculture’s Highway Department to suggest three routes.  His interest in roads might have motivated him to become the first sitting Governor to drive a car, secretly negotiating an outing with Ed Austin, the commissions clerk in the Secretary of state’s office.  Austin drove about four miles from the capitol on a road known as “Ten Mile Run,” then switched seats with Folk, who “proceeded to violate the speed limit going down the very first hill,” as newspaper reporter Charles B. Oldham reported.  Folk estimated they had been traveling at least thirty miles an hour. But by the time the car reached the top of the next hill “it was not traveling at the rate of a mile a week.”

He also observed that no court of justice would fine him for the speed he made going down hill, because the machine was not obeying his will.

While this conversation as going on the automobile stopped to listen.  The Governor could not make it start.  Mr. Austin commanded it to go, but it refused to budge.  When he had worked an hour on the intestines of the vehicle, the Governor inquired the distance from town. 

Mr. Austin thought that as the bee would fly, it was about four miles.  Just then the vehicle commenced throbbing and sputtering.  The Governor yanked the lever about and they went straight into a deep ditch.  The occupants did not take the usual time to alight.  As the ground was soft, neither was injured.

Meanwhile, some parties in town had learned of the departure of the two gentlemen, and a relief party was fitted out in charge of Col. Wm. Irwin.  When they reached the Governor and Mr. Austin the latter were still working to get the vehicle out of the ditch.

The relief party came to their assistance and presently got it back on the highway.  The Governor consented to ride back to town in the automobile, providing the relief party would follow immediately in the rear with a buggy.  In this way the party reached home safely.

The three-road idea also went into the ditch during Folk’s term but was pulled out by his successor, Herbert Hadley.

 We don’t know if the car next to Meeker’s wagon in that April 1908 postcard is Austin’s car.  But it might be. Pictures of REOs from 1907-08 show cars looking like that one and steered with a lever, not a wheel.  The REO was built by Ransom E. Olds, whose cars later became, of course, Oldsmobiles.

It’s a little hard to pinpoint where Folk’s great adventure happened.  Jefferson City developed a North and a South Ten Mile Drive as it spread west. North Ten Mile Drive became Truman Boulevard in the Capital Mall area.  But the area in 1907 was ‘way out in the country, so far out that the state’s chief executive would be away from the public eye when he tried out Ed Austin’s contraption.

Old postcards.  Love the stories they tell.

Notes from the road: Solving a great musical mystery

(Boston)—The locals warn out-of-towners to forget about trying to drive in historic downtown Boston.  Traffic is terrible. Roundabouts are hopelessly confusing.  The old streets are narrow and leave strangers bewildered.  Better, they say, to stay in the suburbs and ride the subway into the heart of the city or catch a Gray-Line Tours bus if you want to see the many historic sites in one day.

Those who choose to ride the subway buy fare cards that are inserted into slots that open the gates to the platforms.  The fare cards are known as “Charlie Cards” (which you might want to remember for a trivia contest sometime).  They’re called Charlie Cards in memory of the hapless, trapped, subway rider named Charlie who became world-famous, thanks to a 1949 campaign song for a progressive mayoral candidate who campaigned against the city’s complicated subway fares which included an “exit fare,” a way to increase the taxes without changing the fare collection system at the start of the trip.  The Kingston Trio made it a hit song in 1959.

It tells the story of Charlie, who paid his dime at the Kendall Square Station then changed lines so he could reach Jamaica Plain, a place founded three centuries earlier by Puritans looking for land to farm and eventually became one of America’s first streetcar suburbs. But when he got to “JP,” as local folks call it, he did not have the extra nickel to pay his exit fare, dooming him to roam beneath the streets of Boston forever because “he couldn’t get off of that train.” His devoted wife went each day at the Scollay Square Station (pronounced “Scully” by the natives) and waited for the train to slow down enough that she could pass him a sandwich through an open window. At least, that’s how the song tells the story.

One of America’s great mysteries is why she never gave him a nickel when she gave him the sandwich.

We have done some historical research on that issue because it has bothered us, too, for decades.  We think we have uncovered the entire story in the microfilm room of the Beacon Hill Metropolitan Library, which is a short distance from the former Bull & Finch Pub that is now called “Cheers” because it was the prototype for Sam Malone’s tavern in the television show; its entrance was featured in the show’s opening.  The story found in the records of the Beacon Hill Democrat-Challenger, a long-dead newspaper, turns out to be a rather sordid matter.  But it does have a happy ending because Charlie, in real life, did get off of that train.

Charles J. Faneuil was a descendant of Peter Faneuil, the merchant who in 1740 built a market house that became the centerpiece of the early Boston independence movement.  Despite his historic family name, Charles was a middle-class bookkeeper for a suburban department store.  He was a solid and dutiful husband who left each morning and came home each night from his apparently dead-end office job that paid him enough to keep food on the table and a two-year old car in the driveway.

Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil, born Ann Revere Adams, was a descendant of two early Boston families whose “old money” was spent several generations previous to her marriage to Charles.  They had three children, Samuel Adams Faneuil, Betsy Ross Faneuil, and James Otis Faneuil.  Ann was a housewife but longed to be part of Boston’s upper social strata made up of descendants whose “old money” still existed and had multiplied because it was not squandered by previous generations. She yearned to be part of the kind of organizations that would refer to her as “Mrs. Charles Faneuil” instead of “Ann Faneuil,” as her friends did in the Tuesday Evening Mahjong Society.  In time she came to see her husband as an adequate provider but someone who would never give her a chance to live her dream.

The first public indication that the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil was not all peaches and cream (and sandwiches handed through subway car windows) is the notice that Mrs. Faneuil had filed for divorce, charging desertion and abandonment of family.  She claimed Charlie had willfully absented himself from the family home by intentionally taking only a dime with him when he left for work that morning, knowing that he would need another nickel not only to get to work but would need another dime and a nickel to ride the subway back home that evening.  She suggested in her filing that Charlie did so because he had become enamored of one Theodora Williams, whose friends called her “Teddy,” a fellow rider on the subway. And she claimed that Teddy did not loan her husband a nickel, either, because she didn’t want him to leave the train so she could make sure he would be there for her.

The case was filed for Mrs. Faneuil by Quincy Kennedy Kerry, the Faneuil family attorney, whose main reason for representing the family was his attraction to Ann Revere Adams Faneuil. When he had heard of Charlie’s predicament, he had visited Ann to express his sympathy and found her surprisingly willing to accept it, not knowing that she—weary of being a simple housewife and child-raiser—had fantasized about what life would have been like if she had married a lawyer many years ago, instead of good old steady Charlie, and how nice it would be to dine at the club, wear elegant clothes, and travel to beautiful places that lawyers like to visit.

Charlie learned of the action when he read about it in a discarded copy of the Democrat- Challenger that he found on a seat in his subway car after the morning rush hour.  The news stunned him.  He did not know Teddy although he thought she was a fellow passenger during baseball season when she rode the train to Fenway Park. Teddy worked at the will-call window of the ticket booth.  They had hardly spoken other than an occasional “good morning” when she took a seat across from him. In fact, she had shown no interest in having a conversation.

That’s when it also dawned on him that divorce was a reason why Ann never put a nickel in the sandwich bag and, further, never put an additional fifteen cents in it so he could get home.  He had many times regretted not grabbing some extra change from the dish on the table by his front door as he left that fateful morning and had been grateful that he found the dime that he had left in the pocket the last time he wore those pants. Not until he got aboard the train did he discover there was not a nickel in that pocket, too. He would have said something to Ann during the sandwich deliveries, but she always timed her delivery so it happened as the train began to move again, leaving no time for discussion.

Teddy learned about the divorce filing when she heard some of the other girls in the ticket office chattering among themselves that same morning.  “Charlie who?” she wondered.  She also wondered if it might be the strange guy she sometimes saw in the subway who always wore the same increasingly rumpled suit and, in fact, seemed to smell bad in the few times she had been forced to sit across from him.  His hair was much too long and his scraggly beard had not filled out well in the weeks—or was it months?—since she had first noticed him.

Charlie also worried that he had lost his job because of his growing list of absences. His mood darkened in the next few days, likely driven by increasing hunger and his deepening concern about his job, to the point that he was thinking of leaving the train without benefit of nickel by throwing himself onto the tracks from the rear car and lying there until the next train ended his misery.

But that was when conductor H. W. Longfellow (his friends called him “Hank”) noticed Charlie’s state and took the steps that saved his life.  Charlie and Hank had formed something of a bond on the long low-passenger hours during the day shift when Longfellow worked. Longfellow, feeling some responsibility for Charlie’s situation because he was the conductor who told him “one more nickel” arranged for Evangeline’s Pizza to deliver one of its specialties to Charlie each day at the Scollay Square Station, a savvy move for Evangeline’s because the story of Charlie was starting to gain some public attention and Evangeline’s got some great public promotional value out of being Charlie’s food supplier. Longfellow also brought a pillow and some blankets from home for Charlie to use at night to sleep with at least a little comfort. Longfellow has come in for some criticism because in all the time Charlie was trapped on the train, Longfellow did not loan him a nickel.  But it was strictly against MTA policy for conductors to give nickels to passengers who claimed to have “forgotten” to bring one from home. The authority knew that it soon would be dealing with hundreds of “forgetful” passengers if it let its conductors loan nickels or even to let a passenger promise repayment on the next trip.  Employees who showed such kindness had been known to be kindly excused from their jobs, a circumstance Longfellow could not risk because he had a wife and family, too.

But Hank had something else that became important in the long run.  Hank knew a lawyer.

Hugh Louis Dewey was an ambulance-chasing attorney whose grandson, Hugh III, became nationally famous as the busy attorney for two Italian brothers who ran a car-repair shop in suburban Cambridge where they purportedly “fixed” cars they had never seen after diagnosing the problems during a telephone call without consulting maintenance manuals. When Huey Louie Dewey, as he was known in the office on Harvard Square, got involved, the case really got juicy.

Dewey could have paid Charlie’s exit fare to get his client off the train but he advised Charlie to continue to ride while Dewey called the local press and arranged for some sympathetic news coverage. Charlie’s story took up two full pages of the Sunday feature section of The Democrat-Challenger, including pictures of Charlie with his now-long hair and beard and later, clean shaven, trimmed, and wearing a new suit—all of this provided by Dewey to show the man Charlie had become since his wife took up with the family lawyer and stopped providing nickel-free daily sandwiches and then showing him as the man he once was and could be again.

Dewey hit Mrs. Faneuil AND lawyer Kerry with an alienation of affection suit and, since Mrs. Faneuil didn’t have any money, asked for substantial damages from Kerry, whose law firm was one of the upper-crust firms in the city.  If it had been in Memphis, and if John Grisham had been writing novels when all of this was going on, Kerry’s law firm would have been the prototype for a best-selling novel.

And Charlie DID get off of that train. He did not, in fact, “ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” nor was he “the man who never returned.”  Folk song stories, one must remember, are just stories, not history.

Dewey eventually provided the nickel for Charlie to pay the exit fee a week after the big newspaper article. He was put up in a motel while he waited for the lawsuits to work their way through the courts and while he looked for a new job.  His friend, Longfellow, convinced his MTA bosses to hire Charles J. Faneuil temporarily as the company’s first passenger-relations agent. The move garnered some positive publicity for Charlie and the as well as a modest income so he didn’t have to live on Evangeline’s pizza anymore. It also scored some public relations points for the MTA, which had been pilloried by the Democrat-Challenger, and avoided a lawsuit threatened by Dewey alleging Charlie’s continued presence in the subway constituted a form of kidnapping and the exit tax was a form of ransom.

Dewey also rushed to Fenway Park to meet with Teddy Williams and sign her up for a separate lawsuit accusing Ann and lawyer Kerry of libel.  She also wanted damages for pain and suffering caused by extensive office gossip.

It took about eighteen months for all of this to work itself out.  Charlie did not contest the divorce although he did fight Ann’s efforts to get alimony and child custody.  The judge ruled that Charlie had not abandoned Ann. In fact, the judge said, Ann—by ending the sandwich supply runs—had abandoned Charlie and in doing so had endangered his health. Therefore, said the judge, she was an unfit parent and the children were given to Charlie.  She was allowed to keep their house into which Quincy Kennedy Kerry moved after a respectful interval.  He, however, turned out to be only a member of his law firm and not one of the top partners whose memberships at exclusive clubs were picked up by the firm.

Teddy Williams settled out of court for ten-thousand dollars and a public apology from Ann and Quincy.  She and her partner, Dorothea “Dix” Hancock, used the money to open what became a successful wedding cake business in the Back Bay area.

By the time H. W. Longfellow retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA of folk song fame, had become the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

And Charlie?  He left his job at the MTA when the suburban department store gladly rehired him as an assistant manager, thinking it could capitalize on his notoriety.  He was the store manager when he retired.  The three children grew up to be good citizens and showed no scars of the split-up of the family. By then Charlie had married a widowed high school social studies teacher, had slipped from public view, and was living quietly in a middle-class Boston neighborhood. He refused to take part in the changes at the MTA. “I’m so tired of hearing that damned song,” he once confided to his wife.

On December 4, 2006, the MBTA ended its exit fares and began using “Charlie Cards.”

That afternoon, two elderly men got their cards from a machine and used them to go through the gate to the platform. Charlie Faneuil and Hank Longfellow took a ride to the Harvard Square Station.  Nobody noticed them.   No newspaper photographers were there.  Nobody wrote about them in the next day’s newspaper.  When they got off the train, they caught a cab for a short ride to 73 Hamilton Street, a place known as the Good News Garage, where a couple if Italian guys claimed to have fixed Charlie’s car, a 1960s Dodge Dart. It had 21,294 miles on the odometer, not many miles for a car so old.

That’s because, of course, Charlie rode the MTA.

(photo credits: MBTA, etsy.com)

Missouri’s first air mail

Email.  Snail mail.   Remember AIR mail?

At least one generation has never known a time when someone would pay extra for a letter to be stamped “Air Mail” when it had to get a long way away, fast.  Every now and then we still see a now-ancient attempt at humor—a mail box on a tall pole above the regular mailbox. The upper box is labeled “air mail.” But an increasing number of people passing by have no idea what it’s all about.

We got a snail mail letter a few days ago from Elvin Smith in Macon, who had heard our Across our Wide Missouri radio program story about the nation’s first air mail flight, suggesting we look into the story of the nation’s first air mail flight by airplane (as opposed to hot air balloon), which he said happened in December, 1912 on a biplane flight between Callao, Bevier, and Macon.

The problem with writing something was the “first” is that different people have different interpretations of “first.”

Some say the first air mail fight in this country carried one letter in 1793—from George Washington in Philadelphia to whomever owned the property where the balloon came down. That was all of thirteen miles.

The first official airmail flight is considered to have been another balloon flight that began in Lafayette Indiana in August 1859, but was terminated by weather at Crawfordsville, thirty miles away. The mail went to New York by train. The National Postal Museum put out a stamp several years ago commemorating that flight.

But we Missourians know the postal service was wrong. Six weeks before that puny little hop in Indiana, four men in St. Louis climbed into the basket hung below a balloon of varnished Chinese silk, carrying a bag of mail, and headed for New York.  They suffered from the altitude (two miles), went through a frightening storm over Lake Erie and Niagara Falls, and eventually came down into a tree near Henderson, New York, almost one-thousand miles from St. Louis. They had averaged about fifty miles an hour.

A lot of folks know that Charles Lindbergh flew the mail from St. Louis to Chicago for a while, crashing a few times along the way—which didn’t discourage him from thinking he could fly from New York to Paris.  The Postal Service says the first regularly scheduled airmail service in this country was a route linking New York City, Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia in May, 1918.

Elvin believes the three cities linked on the first REAL air mail flight were Callao, Bevier, and Macon, Missouri on December 4, 1912.

Young aviator Ralph E. McMillen (shown with his wife about 1909)  was flying a Curtiss Model D pusher plane that he had purchased from Glenn Curtis, himself, after graduating from the Curtiss Flying School, a competitor to the Wright Brothers school, when he arrived at the United Aviators field in the northern part of Macon, Missouri on November 29, 1912.  He flew from there, over Bevier, and landed at Callao, about nine miles west.

He was flying with one leg tightly strapped into an iron “trough,” the result of a crash in May while giving flights in Perry, Iowa.  His passenger that day panicked when they were up about 125 feet and grabbed the control wires. McMillen was unconscious for four days with two broken legs and busted ribs among other injuries. The passenger also survived.

The Macon newspaper praised him as “a skilled bird-man,” a man of “splendid courage and self-confidence.”  His historic airmail flight came a few days later, on December 4 when he flew from Callao with a “large package of letters” addressed to Macon residents.  He dropped a package at Bevier. He didn’t get all the way through to Macon on the first flight.  Clouds forced him to return to Callao in the morning after package-drop at Bevier.  But the afternoon turned clear and he flew straight to Macon in about half an hour, the last five minutes spent circling the town.

The accounts say he set a record by climbing to 8,000 feet although he cruised at 2,000. “By travelling at great elevation it gives the aviator better control of his craft, should the engine balk or anything happen; he could pick out his place to alight, and descend slowly, while at an altitude of 100 or 200 feet the craft would select its own place to light,” said the Macon Republican.

The next week, on December 10, he made a successful twenty-mile flight north to LaPlata.  He decided to follow a Wabash passenger train between the two towns so he couldn’t get lost, which excited the train passengers, who got off at stops in Axtell and Love Lake to watch him flying overhead.  Passengers wanted the train to pause in LaPlata so they could watch McMillen land, but the trainmaster was afraid such a stop would put the train off-schedule.

Maconians who thought they were seeing, and reporting on, the first airplane-mail flight didn’t know, however that a pilot named Fred Wiseman had carried three letters from Petaluma, California to Santa Rosa on February 17, 1911.  And the first airmail delivery under the authority of the postal Department had been made by Earl Ovington in his French Bleriot XI on September 23, 1911, when he flew from Garden City, New York to Mineola, two miles away.  He pitched the mail bag filled with 1,280 postcards and 640 letters out of the plane at an altitude of 500 feet.  It burst on impact, scattering the cargo all over the place, but at least it was delivered. One of the letters in the bag was addressed to Ovington.  It was from the Post Office Department and it christened him “Official Air Mile Pilot #1.”

In fact, it appears there were a lot of air mail flights in 1912.  A webpage (http://www.aerodacious.com/PIO1912.HTM) has photos about numerous flying exhibitions throughout the nation, almost all of them involving mail.

So Ralph E. McMillen wasn’t the first in the nation to make an airmail flight in a plane.  But he was ONE of the first, and his flights from Callao to Bevier to Macon is the first such flight IN MISSOURI—until somebody comes along with information to the contrary.

Many of the stories of those early aviators and their accomplishments that fired the imaginations of their witnesses and led to the airline industry we know today are lost to history. Elvin’s note has enabled us to bring McMillen out of the lost pages of our past and recall him as part of an important era in our country.

And we have found there’s quite a bit more to his story.

McMillen was born in Perry, Iowa. He was one of the first speeders on the early dirt roads near there before he headed to San Diego to the Curtiss School.  His Curtiss pusher arrived in Perry on a train, disassembled on May 11, 1912.  Gerald Meyer reports McMillen put it together and took it up for the first time two days later for a fund-raising promotion for the city fire department.  The crash that left him with broken legs and ribs was the very next day, May 14. He didn’t fly again until September 5 when a huge crowd at Grinnell watched him stay in the air for 24 minutes and reach 5,000 feet.

He barnstormed during the next couple of years before joining the Nebraska National Guard where he became the only pilot for the new Aviation Corps, the first such outfit in the country. (The photo dates from that time)  He practiced bombing with fake bombs on the state capitol (this was six years before Billy Mitchell proved bombs from airplanes were good tactical weapons) and once hit a moving street car.  He also made night flights, practiced early aerial photography, and developed reconnaissance and aerial delivery systems. Some took to calling him “World’s Greatest Aviator.”   Others have referred to him less grandly as the “One Man, One Airplane National Guard.”

He wanted to fly air support for Pershing’s troops on the Mexican border but the Army refused to let him go because of his 1912 injuries. He continued to make exhibition flights in the four-state area until September 2, 1916 when his plane lost power 1,200 feet above a crowd near St. Francis, Kansas.  Captain Ralph McMillen was 27 when he died that day.

The Nebraska Adjutant General’s office remembered two days later, “His service has been of most unusual value to the Guard of this state, being characterized by ready tact, unfailing courtesy, and indefatigable willingness to work.  He was universally liked and respected by his brother officers and comrades who will greatly miss his ready wit and sunny disposition.”

Meyer has written that the Nebraska Aviation Corps was disbanded soon after that.  The state didn’t have a National Guard air unit for another thirty years.

So Elvin’s tip about a piece of history didn’t turn out quite the way we thought it would. But if not for his snail mail, we wouldn’t have discovered a broader piece of our national past.

At least, we have the story about MISSOURI’S first air mail flight by plane. And we’ve remembered the courageous young man who died creating a significant part of our lives today.

Thanks, Ervin.

(photo credits: Mailbox, carmaro5.com; McMillen and wife and picture of people holding back his airplane before takeoff, earlyaviators.com; McMillen and friends in front of airplane, DOMmagazine.com; headon view from 1916, Nebraska State Historical Society)

Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

The stripes

We’ve been thinking more about our Missouri Bicentennial license plate, particularly about the wavy lines at the top and the bottom of the plate.  As the designers have noted, they represent the rivers that have been and remain important to our state.

The Mississippi River that became the eastern boundary of Missouri was for many years the western boundary of the United States, the line that separated the nation from Spanish territory.  Failure by the British to gain control of the river during the American Revolution (thanks in no small part to the 1780 Battle of St. Louis) was key to the nation’s survival and development.

The Mississippi and its tributaries—the Wisconsin, the Illinois, and the Ohio, for example—brought the first explorers and settlers to Missouri.  Father Jacques Marquette and his voyageur partner Louis Joliet followed the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers in 1673 to the Mississippi and followed the it until they encountered a “dreadful” river flowing into the Mississippi, “an accumulation of large and entire trees, branches and floating islands issuing from the mouth of the river Pekitanoui with such impetuosity that we could not without great danger risk passing through it.”  It was the Missouri, of course.

LaSalle and Tonty came down the Mississippi in 1682. It was LaSalle who envisioned a string of French settlements that would control trade with the Indians and exploit the land with mining.  He took control of the area and named it for his monarch, Louis the Great, Louis XIV.  In 1720, Phillippe Renault set up lead mines and brought the first slaves to Missouri to work them.  Etienne de Bourgmont (sometimes spelled “Bourgmond”) built the first fort in western part of the state when he put up Fort Orleans on the north bank of the Missouri a few years later in response to French concerns that Spain was coveting the territory and might mount an expedition from Santa Fe.

The Ohio brought George Morgan and his settlers to New Madrid to establish the first American settlement in this area—on the Mississippi.

Another Mississippi River tributary, which defines our northeast corner, caused thirty years of disputes about where the line should be separating us from Iowa.  The northeast corner was defined as a line that reached the rapids of the Des Moines River.  But nobody knew where those rapids were. Or are.   The dispute triggered by that search almost led to Missouri going to war with Iowa, the famous “Honey War.”   The U.S. Supreme Court finally decided the issue.

The St. Francis River, which flows from Iron County into the Mississippi about 425 miles south, was instrumental in shaping Missouri’s southern border.  When John Hardeman Walker wanted his farm in Missouri, not in Arkansas Territory. the St. Francis River became the eastern border of the Bootheel created to include Walker’s land.

Missouri’s original western border was the western side of Worth, Gentry, DeKalb, Clinton, and Clay Counties until 1836 when the federal government convinced the Indians living in the area between there at the Missouri River to move west.  The Platte Purchase added six counties in an area abut the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined and extended our northwestern border to the Missouri River.  That’s how the Missouri became part of the border of—Missouri.

Most of the founding settlements of Missouri were on the rivers: Ste. Genevieve, where some accounts say people were living as early as 1722 although other accounts date the founding at 1735 and permanent settlement at 1752; St. Louis, 1764; St. Charles, 1769; Portage des Sioux, 1779, New Madrid, the first American settlement, 1789; Cape Girardeau, 1793.  When lead mining developed in eastern Missouri, one of the biggest challenges for the miners was hacking a road through the forests to get to the river to ship their lead out.

Up to the start of the Civil War, the ten most populous cities in Missouri were all along the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers.  St. Louis, located near the junction of the two greatest rivers, was the largest city in 1860 with 160,773 people. The population of the other nine combined equaled only one-fourth of the St. Louis number.

The importance of rivers is emphasized by the location of the state capital city.  The first state legislature determined the capital should be centrally located.  And how did those lawmakers define central location?  On the Missouri River within forty miles of the mouth of the Osage.  On a principle river not far from an important secondary river that linked central Missouri with the southwest, a capital city that was accessible by a network of rivers that in those days linked all areas of the state, including the northwest corner added a decade after government moved to the City of Jefferson.

The Missouri River gave us, in addition to St. Charles and Jefferson City, the now-vanished communities of Cote Sans Dessein and Franklin, as well as Hermann, and Boonville (which tried in 1831 to take the seat of government away from Jefferson City), Lexington, and eventually Westport and Kansas City, then St. Joseph—and Omaha, and Council Bluffs.

By 1820, some settlers had moved up the Osage and formed what became Warsaw and by 1831, Lewis Bledsoe was running a ferry operation on the river, near the present Truman Dam.

The great rivers brought us legends, mechanical and human—Mike Fink, the fur traders and trappers like Hugh Glass and Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick and the men of Ashley’s Hundred; of the Natchez  and the Robert E. Lee and their epic race to St. Louis,  and great pilots such as Joseph LaBarge, who never lost a boat in fifty years, or Joseph Kinney, whose magnificent home called “Rivercene” is now a B&B across the Missouri from Boonville, or Grant Marsh and his steamer Far West, best remembered for setting a downstream record on the Missouri when he carried survivors of Custer’s fight on the Little Big Horn 710 miles down the treacherous river in 54 hours, and with them brought the first news to the outside world of Custer’s fate.  It’s the river of Stephen H. Long and his Western Engineer that started an epic trip west that led to the Great Plains being called “The Great American Desert” for decades.

And what would Samuel Clemens had been if the Mississippi River was not so much of his character?

And all along the courses of these great rivers, now greatly changed, there are remains of the boats that didn’t make it all the way up or down stream and took dreams and people with them, sometimes, to the bottom.   Sometimes the ribs of those boats are exposed when the dry times drop the river levels low enough.  A couple of times—with the Arabia  in Missouri and the Bertrand in Iowa—the remains are found incredibly preserved under layers of mud that used to be the river channel and amaze visitors who have never known when these rivers were the highways that developed our state and led to development of the entire western part of our nation beyond the Mississippi.

And there’s more to the heritage of our rivers—in the form of other avenues that sprang from them.  Former Missouri River ferryman William Becknell, in 1821, left Franklin for a cross-country trading expedition that opened the Santa Fe Trail that created Missouri’s first foreign trading partner and created that path that led to American acquisition a quarter-century later of the Southwest.

And from the village of Westport, the great wagon trains set out on the Oregon and California trails that extended the reach of those first river-borne Missourians to California and to the Northwest.

It was to the river town of St. Joseph, then the westernmost point on the nation’s rail network, there came one day in August, 1859 a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad who caught a steamboat at the city wharf and went further upstream to the river town of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  There he met young surveyor Grenville Dodge who was finding a cross-Iowa route for a railroad.  Dodge, just back from a Colorado trip, and Abraham Lincoln looked west and discussed the best route for a line to the Pacific Ocean.  Dodge became a Union Army officer, was wounded at Rolla, Missouri, and in the Battle of Pea Ridge that pretty much settled any hopes the Confederacy had of retaining an organized presence in Missouri. When Congress passed an act that led to the creation of a transcontinental railroad, then-President Lincoln summoned Dodge from the field to counsel him on where the line should begin.  Lincoln’s executive order in 1863 setting construction in motion established the legal headquarters of the Union Pacific in Council Bluffs and the operating headquarters across the Missouri River in Omaha.

Rivers brought the pioneers and the pioneering spirit to Missouri, and from the towns on the great rivers, new roads of dirt and steel opened the West.

It’s a small gesture to their significance that all of this is represented by some wavy lines on the Missouri Bicentennial license plate.  But it’s a significant gesture and maybe those wavy lines will encourage us to think more about those rivers that continue to shape us as Missourians and as Americans.

It’s always a surprise

—to return from a trip that is incredibly stirring to find that nothing has changed when you get home.   When we rolled into Jefferson City about 1:30 a.m. today (Saturday, October 9), the businesses we drove past were the same as they had been two weeks earlier. The Jefferson City Oil Cartel was still charging twenty cents more a gallon for gasoline than the people in Fulton were paying. McDonald’s drive-through window was still open, serving the McMuffin that was a welcome bit to eat for travelers who hadn’t had anything since lunch at the Miami airport after our flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador that morning. American Airlines didn’t even drop its usual paltry package of pretzels on our drop-down tray tables on the flight from Miami to St. Louis. And if you expect to find any place to grab a quick bite at Lambert-St. Louis airport when your flight arrives sometime after 10 p.m., forget it. Lambert is a ghost town after 6.

Our day that started in Guayaquil ended in our own bed in Jefferson City about 2:30 this morning. We don’t know if today’s younger generation finds nothing remarkable about that. But our generation, or many in our generation, still have a “Gee Whiz”–a phrase of our generation–feeling about this sort of thing. We started our day on the south side of the equator trying to sort out what the Spanish-speaking airport attendant was saying over the loudspeaker in our gate area (among other things, I was summoned to the TSA security office downstairs because my checked bag had been randomly selected for a search—I have great sympathy for those people who have to search through bags of rank clothing that had clothed travelers for two weeks.). We finished it in our home in Jefferson City.

We might post some pictures from these two weeks some time later. Nancy already has been sharing some things on her Facebook page. But your correspondent doesn’t do Facebook or LinkedIn, or other internet stuff like that. Too much going on in the real world. And the “what I did on my autumn vacation” slide show isn’t what this series of observations is for.

The big bags have been unpacked. The two remaining clean shirts and one pair of clean socks are back in the drawers. The new washing machine will be getting a big workout this weekend. Sometime in the next few days, Nancy and I will go through the hundreds of pictures we took, considering how we have been changed by these last two weeks.

We met someone whose parents likely were alive during the French and Indian War. I hiked an ancient trail 9,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to look down on a mysterious village. Nancy stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We both explored a unique ecosystem populated by hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, a place where studies done almost two centuries ago continue to produce massive angst among those who believe understanding of our world should be limited to the words written by the author of Genesis.

We were among our fellow creatures of brown skin, yellow skin, white skin, red feet, yellow feet, blue feet, claws, and scales. We walked among the living and the dead. We heard the music of man and the music of nature. We walked on modern and ancient paths. We spent two weeks eating only things that had been cooked or peeled, washing our teeth with bottled water, and throwing toilet tissue in wastebaskets because leaving it in the toilet would damage the sewage system. We rode planes, trains, boats, and buses. And we drove a car to start the whole thing. We wandered in societies that seek God through the sun, the puma, the crucifix, and through being one with nature’s god. We lived with a country that uses currency requiring calculation of value with purchases that often involve bargaining and in a country that imports United States currency to use as its own money and gives back coins in change that are a mix of United States coins and the local country’s coins. We stayed in rooms that were unlocked with cards that fit into slots, or unlocked doors with a wave of the card, or with great big skeleton keys. Some restaurant menus listed various forms of beef, pork, chicken, or guinea pig. Some of our group sampled dozens of beers you won’t find in the liquor section of the grocery store. I was in a place that didn’t have any Coke or Pepsi products, so I had had a bottle of Inka Cola which was kind of a light cream soda.

Peru and Ecuador. Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. And other places.

We didn’t talk to a single person in any of those places who gave a tinker’s dam about Donald Trump or John Boehner, Obamacare, Governor Nixon’s veto of a right to work bill, and the insane pursuit of millionaire campaign donors by people thirsting for power.

And then we came home, changed people returning to a seemingly unchanged community where “Gee Whiz” experiences are unlikely. Travel once again has made us realize that the comfort of sleeping in one’s own bed has its value. But travel makes sure that sleeping in one’s own bed does not turn into living in a rut.

Overgrown is good

We see that the Mayor of Florissant has asked Governor Nixon to call a special legislative session to increase the gas tax by two pennies so the state will not miss out on hundreds of millions of federal-collected matching-fund tax dollars coming back to Missouri for road and bridge work.

The legislature muffed the chance to do that in the recent session. Some lawmakers, to be frank, will oppose any tax increase for any purpose and will exert efforts to block approval of one. Based on his past record, Governor Nixon is unlikely to call a special session unless legislative leaders guarantee the bill will pass.   Once burned, twice shy, and Nixon got burned a few years ago.

The Missouri Department of Transportation needs some strongly visual reminders of how bad things are in our road system. The public and the legislators need to be reminded of how tight things are and what their continued wandering in the world of smaller government is costing.

We were driving along one of our highways a few days ago when we saw a department crew mowing the roadside and the median. We thought, “Why is MODOT spending money on mowing when it needs every penny it can get to keep more of our roads from turning back to gravel and more of our bridges from turning to rust?” We have noticed several medians and roadsides have not been mowed and on our recent trip across Kansas and into Colorado we saw a lot of tall grass in miles of rights of way.

MODOT needs to cut the cutting.

Let the grass and the weed and the flowers and the brush grow. Let the roadsides and the medians get absurdly shaggy. Let those areas represent the financial shabbiness of our state transportation program. And when the public complains, be truthful. “We can’t afford to mow our rights of way because we need that money to fix potholes and a few bridge decks. The legislature could ease that problem but it won’t. If you’ll give me the name of your senator or representative, I’ll look up his/her phone number. I’m sure they’d be glad to hear your concerns.”

A good friend, “Cutter” Short, who once was in the road-building and repair business, has cautioned against such a practice. He points to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for “vegetation control” that say the reasons to mow are:

  • Keeping signs visible to drivers.  (Hey! We’re talking about grass in this discussion, not tomato plants, grape vines, kudzu, etc.)
  • Keeping road users–vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians–visible to drivers. (We are not suggestion that the grass be allowed to grow tall ON the roads, just beside them or in the medians).
  • Improving visibility of livestock and wildlife near the road. (It’s nice of the FHWA to want cows and deer to be able to watch cars and trucks go by.)
  • Helping pedestrians and bicyclists see motor vehicles. (Yes, they’re at least as important as the cows. See also point 2 above)
  • Keeping sidewalks and pedestrian paths clear and free from overhanging vegetation. (Grass doesn’t “overhang.”
  • Removing trees close to the roadway which could result in a severe crash if hit. (Again, we’re talking grass here.  It’s okay to remove some dangerous trees. We don’t know what to suggest about the rocky bluffs, though)
  • Improving winter road maintenance in snow and ice areas. (Never can tell when one of those big salt trucks with dozer blades on the front might get entangled in the roadside or median grass, you know.)
  • Helping drainage systems function as designed. (They’re designed to handle grass clippings when rain moves in right after a mowing?)
  • Preserving pavements through daylighting and root system control. (A little extra height on the grass isn’t going to keep daylight from arriving when the sun does.  But we will concede that grass roots can be dangerous for our highways.  Not as dangerous as a lack of funding to pay for pothole repair, though)
  • Controlling noxious weeds in accordance with local laws and ordinances. (Let’s call on our courts to sentence people convicted of DWI to a week of Musk Thistle-pulling.)

We can add another couple of plusses to letting the grass grow.  It will hide those unsightly but necessary cables in the median that are designed to stop crossover crashes.  In fact, if the grass is thick enough it might help retard the momentum of the wayward vehicle.  And, for those who look for reasons to punish the Department of Conservation, there is the argument that taller grass will give deer, opossums, armadillos, and turtles more places to hide until they can jump out and attack unsuspecting motorists.

But it’s worth the risk to let the grass grow to emphasize the need for the legislature to overcome its horrible fear that Missourians might have to fork over a few pennies to pay for something like roads and bridges. The danger, of course, is that our lawmakers might not do anything to increase funding for mowing and for concrete and steel work. Instead they might declare roadway grass is a new official state symbol. They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.   Essentials, sometimes, not so much.