Oct 262016


The Erie Canal opened on this date in 1825 with New York governor DeWitt Clinton of New York pouring a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. Originally the canal ran about 363 miles (584 km) from Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, at Lake Erie. It was built to create a navigable water route from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.


The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices as surveyors and as engineers. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were judges whose experience in surveying was in settling boundary disputes. Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours before his work on the Canal.[16] Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer who persuaded New York Governor DeWitt Clinton to let him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a mathematics teacher and land speculator. Somehow these amateurs built a massive canal that overcame enormous obstacles of engineering, learning as they went.


Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 miles (24 km), from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate the canal would have taken 30 years to complete. The main hold-ups were felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil, which took longer than expected, but the builders devised ways to solve these problems. To fell a tree, they threw rope over the top branches and winched it down. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts. Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could clear a mile in a year.

The remaining problem was finding labor, and increased immigration helped fill the need. Many of the laborers working on the canal were Scots Irish, who had recently arrived in the United States as a group of about 5,000 from Northern Ireland, most of whom were Protestants who had enough money to pay for their own transportation. However, Irish immigrants were usually assumed to be Catholic, and many laborers on the canal suffered violent assault as the result of misjudgment and xenophobia.

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. When the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), it was rumored over 1,000 workers died of “swamp fever” (malaria), and construction was temporarily stopped. However, recent research has revealed the death toll was likely much lower, as no contemporary reports mention significant worker mortality, and mass graves from the period have never been found in the area. Work continued on the downhill side towards the Hudson, and when the marsh froze in winter, the crews worked to complete the section across the swamps.


The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820, and traffic on that section started up immediately. Expansion to the east and west proceeded, and the whole eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare. The Champlain Canal, a separate but interconnected 64-mile (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.

After Montezuma Marsh, the next difficulties were crossing Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River near Rochester. The first ultimately required building the 1,320-foot (400 m) long “Great Embankment” which carried the canal at a height of 76 feet (23 m) above the level of the creek, which was carried through a 245-foot (75 m) culvert underneath. The river was crossed on a stone aqueduct 802 feet (244 m) long and 17 feet (5.2 m) wide, with 11 arches.


After the Genesee, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with two sets of five locks in a series, soon giving rise to the community of Lockport. The 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder, and the inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.


The Erie Canal had a huge economic and cultural impact from the outset. It greatly lowered the cost of shipping between the Midwest and the Northeast, bringing much lower food costs to Eastern cities and allowing the East to ship machinery and manufactured goods economically to the Midwest. The canal also made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West.


The Erie Canal was an immediate financial success. Tolls collected on freight had already exceeded the state’s construction debt in its first year of official operation. By 1828, import duties collected at the New York Customs House supported federal government operations and provided funds for all the expenses in Washington except the interest on the national debt. Additionally, New York state’s initial loan for the original canal had been paid by 1837. Although it had been envisioned as primarily a commercial channel for freight boats, passengers also traveled on the canal’s packet boats. In 1825 more than forty thousand passengers took advantage of the convenience and beauty of canal travel. The canal’s steady flow of tourists, business people, and settlers lent it to uses never imagined by its initial sponsors. Evangelical preachers made their circuits of the upstate region and the canal served as the last leg of the underground railroad ferrying runaway slaves to Buffalo near the Canada–US border. Aspiring merchants found that tourists proved to double as reliable customers. Vendors moved from boat to boat peddling items such as books, watches, and fruit while less scrupulous operators sold patent medicines or passed off counterfeit money. Tourists were carried along the “northern tour,” which ultimately led to Niagara Falls, just north of Buffalo, becoming a popular honeymoon destination. In fact, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there in 1986.


Two villages competed to be the terminus: Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and grew into a large city, eventually encompassing its former competitor.


Since Buffalo is the terminus of the Erie, Buffalo wings have to be the celebratory dish – the first dish my wife and I had on our honeymoon. At the time we had never heard of them because they were not anywhere near as popular or as widespread as they are now. There are several different claims about how Buffalo wings were invented. One of the more prevalent claims is that Buffalo wings were first prepared at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo by Teressa Bellissimo, who owned the bar with husband Frank. Several versions of the story have been circulated by the Bellissimo family and others:

  1. Upon the unannounced, late-night arrival of their son, Dominic, with several of his friends from college, Teressa needed a fast and easy snack to present to her guests. It was then that she came up with the idea of deep frying chicken wings (normally thrown away or reserved for stock) and tossing them in cayenne hot sauce.
  2. Dominic Bellissimo told The New Yorker food writer, Calvin Trillin, in 1980, “It was Friday night in the bar and since people were buying a lot of drinks he wanted to do something nice for them at midnight when the mostly Catholic patrons would be able to eat meat again.” He said that it was his mother, Teressa, who came up with the idea of chicken wings.


Cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and melted butter are the basis of the sauce, which may be mild, medium, or hot. Typically, the wings are deep-fried in oil (although they are sometimes grilled or baked) until they are well browned. They are then drained, mixed with sauce, and shaken to coat the wings, completely covering them in the sauce. To cover the wings completely you should place the cooked wings and sauce in a lidded contained, close it up and shake vigorously until the wings are coated on all sides. Originally Buffalo wings were served with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. This may seem like a strange combination, but the first time I had it I was a convert. Who knows what the actual story of the origin of Buffalo wings is, but putting together chicken wings, hot sauce, celery, and blue cheese sure seems like a last minute emergency dish made late at night from what odds and ends happen to be around. It’s a winner in my book.

Dec 012015


On this date in 1913 the first line of the Buenos Aires Subte (Metro) was officially opened. Amazingly, the original Belgian-made rolling stock survived for a full 100 years, when it was finally replaced in 2013 with more up-to-date cars. A great shame in my humble opinion. The subte (Subterráneo de Buenos Aires), is an incredibly successful, but hopelessly overcrowded, mass transit system, with most lines these days carrying between 300,000 and 400,000 riders per day !! There’s a trick to getting a seat which it took me over a year to completely figure out. It involves knowing what stations to use, what times to travel, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving. Even so, most of the time I had to simply grit my teeth and endure 20 minutes or so of liver-crushing purgatory. It’s very cheap (2 pesos flat fare), and efficient. City buses are cheaper, but slower, more uncomfortable, and no less crowded.

When the first section of the subte (Plaza de Mayo-Plaza Miserere) opened in 1913, it was the first underground railway in Latin America, the Southern Hemisphere and the Spanish speaking world, with the Madrid Metro opening five years later in 1919.


The network expanded rapidly during the early decades of the 20th century, but the pace of expansion fell sharply after the Second World War. In the late 1990s expansion resumed at a quicker pace, and four new lines were planned for the network. Despite this, the rate of expansion has still been largely exceeded by the transportation needs of the city. Currently, the underground network’s six lines comprise 51.4 kilometers (31.9 mi) of route, serving 83 stations.


Discussions on the need to build an underground transportation system in Buenos Aires began in the late 19th century, alongside the tramway system, which was one of the most extensive in the world at the time. The first trams appeared in 1870 but by about 1900 were in crisis because of monopolies opposed to modernizing (especially electrifying) the system because of expense. Over the course of the 20th century the subte entirely replaced trams. All that remains of the trams are a few ghost tracks on old cobbled streets.

The first proposals for building an underground system were made, along with requests for government grants: first, in 1886, and several more in 1889, but the Ministry of Interior (Ministerio del Interior) denied the city administration the power to license building in the subsoil of the City. For this reason, subsequent drafts were submitted directly to this ministry. When in 1894 it was decided to construct the Congress building in its present location, the underground idea was revived, as it might shorten the travel time between Casa Rosada (site of the executive branch of government) and Congreso (the legislature). Miguel Cané, former Mayor of Buenos Aires (1892–1893), also proposed in 1896, a more general idea of an underground railway system similar to the one in London.


The first line was built by the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company (Compañía de Tranvías Anglo-Argentina), which had been given permission to build in 1909. That line linked the current stations of Plaza de Mayo and Plaza Miserere. As can be seen from contemporary photographs, the technology used was the same as that used to build London’s Metropolitan line. Trenches were dug in the avenues, tracks laid, then the trenches were roofed over, and repaved as roads. Once the subte expanded around the city, this technology had to be replaced with tunneling techniques.

Nowadays the subte is an artistic marvel with the stations of each line being distinctively tiled. Here is an album of photos I took over the course of 2 days riding each of the lines.


Ironically, stations on the first (line A) and most recent (line H) lines are the least ornamented. Tiling in stations built in the 1920’s to 1940’s is extraordinary.

bam17 bam16 bam15 bam14 bam12 bam11 bam10 bam8

Because of overcrowding, you don’t see too many people eating on the trains themselves, but there are plenty of kiosks and cafes at the stations serving the Argentine version of fast food, such as panchos (hot dogs), facturas (pastries), and empanadas. My sisters fondly recall getting a submarino at Retiro station on family trips from our barrio, Villa del Parque, to Centro. This is basically a mug of very hot milk and a slender chocolate bar which you dip into the milk until it dissolves. Very popular even now, but not to my taste. In fact, I’m not inclined to eat whilst commuting in general. That’s typical of Argentinos in general. Fast-food items are called minutas, and even though they are quick to prepare, they are rarely eaten on the run.


A favorite minuta is lomito, a steak sandwich with a fried egg, and pretty much whatever else you want. It is usually served open faced on a plate, but you can get it as a regular sandwich to go if you like. The main ingredient is a painfully thin cutlet of Argentine beef grilled to perfection. No other steak will do – sorry. It has to be fresh, juicy, and ever so tender. A fried egg is also essential – runny yolk. Melted cheese over the steak is also popular. Most people add lettuce, onions and tomatoes (the trinity of Argentine salads). You can also eat the salad on the side. If so, sprinkle it with olive oil.