Tusayan Ruins

visiting the Grand Canyon at the end of January proves an understandably more subdued experience than making a trip in the height of the summer tourist season. off the main track on the road to the eastern entrance to the park, it’s a bit hard to imagine more than a handful of people exploring the Tusayan ruins on a given day during the peak of the year. that said, I am thankful we took the 20-odd mile trek to find it before heading back to Vegas.

storage rooms

people have inhabited the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years, first as hunter/gatherers, and later in established settlements, like Tusayan or those at Mesa Verde, as subsistence agriculture became the norm. people constructed this pueblo site around 1185 C.E., based on tree-ring data. at any time during the twenty years in which the site was inhabited, somewhere between 16 and 25 individuals lived in the pueblo. the excavated ruins consists of a series of living chambers, storage rooms, and a kiva. down the hill from the structure, a small parcel of farm land has also been identified. compared to the farms near which we live, it’s interesting to consider how a community of nearly two dozen people could subsist on a plot of that size, supplementing their diets with gathered plants and what animals they could hunt or trap.

evidence on the site suggests that a small, timber-construction kiva burned down and was replaced at some point with a much larger, stone one in the southeast corner of the compound. used for ceremonial activities, both kivas are larger than any other room in the complex. it’s large enough to for the entire community to gather comfortably, perhaps when colder winter weather kept them inside and the living quarters (really only large enough for sleeping) might prove a bit to close for comfort. the kiva ruins have a bench lining about half of the interior of the structure, with posts set into them to help support the roof of the kiva. entrance to the kiva was via a ladder that descended through a main hole in the roof; early kivas were often located underground, but by the time the Tusayan kivas were constructed, kivas were becoming more elaborate and were more likely to be constructed above-ground.

ruins of the larger kiva

there is no clear evidence as to why the inhabitants of this pueblo abandoned it after only twenty years, though it may have had something to do with conflict with other people nearby. charred timber ruins at other once-inhabited sites around the Colorado Plateau suggest that fighting among bands of people in the region was likely common. whatever the reason, Tusayan was largely left alone until the early 20th century, as tourism to the Grand Canyon became more popular. in 1928, a “trailside museum” sponsored by Laura Spelman Rockefeller (wife to John D. Rockefeller) in the style of a Hopi structure was erected to introduce tourists to the site. two years later, a group from the Gila Pueblo Archaeological Foundation of Globe, Arizona (founded by a New York stockbroker) began investigating and excavating the site further. preservation took place in 1948 and again in 1965, and the government placed the site on its National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Old Las Vegas Post Office & Federal Courthouse

one of the places I found most interesting in downtown Vegas was the courtroom on the second floor of what is now the Mob Museum, and what once served as the Las Vegas Post Office and a Federal Courthouse. the Mob Museum (about which more later) was interesting, but I was somewhat dismayed by how generic most of the building felt. the courtroom was one of the few places in the museum that not only retained its original character but also used the feeling to the benefit of the exhibit.

an Federal administrator named James Wetmore oversaw the design and construction of the Las Vegas Courthouse. he began working for the government as a court reporter, then for the Treasury Department while he worked on a law degree from George Washington University. in 1911 Wetmore became executive assistant to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury; four years later he became “acting head” of the department in the expectation the post would be temporary. he retired from that position 18 years later and in the intervening years saw his name go onto buildings from Des Moines (US Courthouse) to Juneau (State Capitol) to Baltimore (Post Office & Courthouse) to Albuquerque (Federal Building & Courthouse), as well as the courthouse in Vegas. during his tenure overseeing New Deal works projects, Wetmore supervised 1,700 draughtsmen and had his name inscribed on the cornerstones of over 2,000 federal buildings.

stylistic decisions fell to a subordinate, Louis Simon, who exhibited a fierce preference for the classical style.  (have you ever wondered why so many federal buildings of the 1930s have such a similar classical or neo-classical style? now you know why!) both aesthetic frustrations (a desire to experiment with more modern styles, such as Art Deco and Moderne) and the use of in-house architects rekindled an animosity between Wetmore’s office and the American Institute of Architects. the Depression had taken a notable toll on the employment prospects of the members of the AIA and during the 1920s, Wetmore nearly doubled his staff (to some 750 people). how can your private sector members expect to find work on large projects, notably those funded by one of the few places with money to spend, when they’re bursting with workers? moreover, although a 1926 act allowed the government to commission private architects to work on projects, it did so sparingly.

the Las Vegas Post Office was part of the federal building program initiated by Hoover and went up between 1931 and 1933. neo-classical in style, the design aimed to inspire similarly tasteful private architecture endeavors; the owners of existing and future casinos took no notice and made no effort to follow the governmental example. undertaken at the same time as the nearby Hoover Dam, the Post Office & Courthouse was the first federal building (excluding a smaller post office built a few years earlier) constructed in Las Vegas and, for law-abiding citizens, proved a source of pride. (perhaps for those citizens living or working outside the bounds of legality, too …) when it opened, the first floor offered 11 windows for postal service transactions; fewer remain in use today, but we did buy our entrance tickets from someone behind one of those windows.

once construction began, problems cropped up — for a start, it was discovered that the building was 32 feet off-center from Third Street. footprint already excavated and foundation already poured, the  intended impressive/imposing view down that avenue had to be abandoned. shortly thereafter, it came to light that the company that won the contracting bid (by undercutting their nearest competition by $10,000) had forged important signatures; his contract was terminated, a grand jury convened, and a new bidding process launched. once a new bid was accepted six months later, work continued without incident until the post office began operating in November 1933.

the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in thirty years ago last week and continued operating as a post office for several years. the government turned over control of the building, to become a museum and cultural center, in 2002; the Mob Museum opened this time last year.

Underground Seattle

elevated indoor latrine

as many of you know, each year several of my college friends meet up for a mini-reunion weekend and, along with all the catching up, watching cheesy movies, and generally having a rollicking good time, we make it a point to visit someplace “odd” or go on a tour of someplace kitchy or uber-touristy. while the more fantastic-than-kitchy Chihuly exhibit would have sufficed, we’d already penciled in a trip beneath Seattle’s streets around Pioneer Square.

in the heart of the northwest woods, the original buildings of Seattle were made of timber. in June of 1889 a cabinetmaker knocked over flame and set his glue alight; when he tried to extinguish the fire with water, it simply spread. upon responding, the volunteer firefighters overtaxed the water pressure by using too many hoses and as a result some 31 square blocks of the fledgling town were destroyed. this devastation proved something of a boon for city planners, however, who had plans to improve living conditions in the city but lacked the means or mode to make it happen.

essentially, the relationship between the sewer system of early Seattle and tide waters into which the effluent flowed wasn’t terribly favorable for those who wished to keep sewage in sewers rather than all over the insides of residences and otherwise clean and sanitary buildings. while the tide was out, the plumbing worked just fine with the aid of gravity, taking the unwanted materials out to the low tide flats at the edge of Puget Sound; when the tide came in, however, it went rushing back up the pipes with unwanted effect. city planners wanted to level out the grade of the Denny Hill, bringing it down from something ridiculous (I swear our guide said 45 percent …) to something reasonable (along the lines of 10 or 12 percent) but the presence of buildings and business owners with businesses in said buildings who opposed the idea of closing down for the years a regrade would require made that challenging. even the fire and destruction of those buildings didn’t temper the protests of the business owners — the regrade was projected to take upwards of a decade and they had no intention of waiting that long to rebuild. so the two sides came to a compromise of sorts: the business owners would go ahead with their speedier plans and rebuild on the same level and in the existing grid pattern while the city would move forward with their regrade project and deal with the height disparity when the problem presented itself. between 1902 and 1911, water from Lake Union was pumped to the top of the hill where hydraulic mining techniques basically flushed the top of the hill down towards the bottom of the hill.

former underground marketplace

thus the Seattle Underground. even though the regrade project began in 1902, with retaining walls put up to protect sidewalks before filling and repaving the streets at the new level, the elevation of sidewalks didn’t occur for several years. instead, ladders stood at corners and people were obliged to climb up and down them to access businesses. according to our guide, this proved somewhat dangerous for the largely-male population of early-20th century Seattle; go out for a few rounds with mates, get confused about where (or whether) a ladder stood and end the evening with a tumble in to the underground. allegedly, several death certificates from this period have “involuntary suicide” down as the cause of death.

eventually, new sidewalks went up, supported by brick archways, but that didn’t eliminate shopping on the now-underground level — it just became an early indoor mall which was great in Seattle’s weather. to make the underground shopping experience more appealing, some areas of the new sidewalk included glass blocks that allowed light to filter to the subterranean level. initially, the glass was clear using the recently discovered technique of adding manganese to the process. now those same blocks appear amethyst in color due to the effects of time on manganese.

deciding under purple light
to walk through the dark bank vault

as business shifted to the upper levels, the lower were given over to less savory elements — including a huge rat infestation. underground markets had been held on wooden platforms built over hard packed dirt floors, allowing plenty of space and resources for vermin to thrive and potentially spread unwanted diseases, like the  bubonic plague. stemming from fear of a disease outbreak at an inopportune time, Seattle condemned the lower levels of buildings in 1907 though they remain, quite clearly, structurally sound and the routes the Tours take are cleaned up though in varying states of upkeep. it was incongruous to see some, situated beneath abandoned or disused buildings, filled with detritus and broken furniture while another, situated under a thriving department-type store, was swept up, well-lit and immaculate.

when our guide discovered that our group consisted entirely of people over the age of consent, she gave us a choice of how to make our way out of the second-to-last underground space: with the lights on like scardy-cats or like spelunking adventurers (my phrases) using naught but the light of our collective cell-phones to guide us. we opted for the latter and, just as we set off across the uneven footing she told us that the ghost of a failed bank robber was rumored to haunt the abandoned bank vault through which we were about to walk. in the dark. said alleged ghost did not attempt to snatch any of our party.

once back on the surface, it was back across the intersection of Yesler and First, under a wrought-iron pergola built in 1909 and knocked over twice by semis in the last eleven years, back underground for one last nugget of tawdry history and out through the conveniently-connected gift shop and “museum.” the area’s now recognized as an historic district and resides on the National Register of Historic Places.

oh! and once again, one of my favorite forms of social-media-based entertainment had an entry that inspired me to get working on a post I’d been mulling for some time! check out the “Subterranean Cities” episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class for more about some famous or infamous underground places. they don’t make any mention of the Victoria Arches in Manchester, though, which sound fascinating and a bit like Underground Seattle!

Pike Place Market

along with the Space Needle, the Pike Place Market is one of the most memorable landmarks in Seattle. running since 1907, it’s one of the longest continually-running public markets in the United States. while we were there I saw a smattering of young info-pushers promoting the “your community market” dimension, trying to shift local perception of who uses the market and why you should use it as your local fruit, veg, and fish market.
prior to the establishment of the Pike Place Market, an outdoor public market operated nearby and at which produce was sold primarily via wholesalers rather than farmers themselves. the additional middlemen — necessitated by the time demanded by farming and which precluded spending time selling in an urban public market — resulted in unsavory business practices and sometimes shocking price irregularities (sometimes farmers couldn’t make a profit on the produce they sold to middlemen; between 1906 and 1907 the price of onions went from $0.10 per pound to $1.00 per pound). in advance of the opening day of the newly-established public market, thugs for the wholesalers reportedly went around to farms closest to the city and bought up produce or intimidated farmers, warning them against participating.
despite threats, about 10 farmers and over 50 customers showed up the ribbon cutting and, ceremony concluded, the customers climbed over one another and began buying produce of carts faster than the farmers could keep up tallying sales. by noon all the produce had gone, into the hands of paying customers. the first covered market building opened in November of 1907 and by 1911 demand for stalls resulted forced a doubling in the number available. with the growth came complaints from farmers, who felt the rent and accessibility were unreasonable and inconvenient, respectively, though little action from the market owners. farmers proposed a $150,000 ballot initiative, at which locals balked, while the mayor counter-proposed a more modest $25,000 market improvement initiative that voters supported. the nearby property owners (the Goodwins) continued with their own plans to improve on their holdings and ended up expanding the market five stories down the bluff face of Western Avenue. this expansion held restaurants, bakeries, butchers, a creamery, and all manner of shops. on our visit more than a few of the lower storefronts stood empty; one pair of spaces had an art gallery and attached studio in which the artist was working as we passed. in another there was just an easel with a partially-finished painting though no obvious signs of ongoing work.
over the decades, various attempts to change or update the market have met limited success. in 1920 the city worked to move farmer stalls off the street because of complaints about traffic flow (which makes sense — all the stalls are inside now and the traffic on Pike Place as we visited was still pretty terrible; distracted and wandering tourist-pedestrians don’t help the mix, I’m sure). in 1963 the city proposed demolishing the market in favor of a new building to house a hotel, apartment complex, hockey arena, parking garage, and offices. thankfully, supporters of the market banded together to get it named as an historic preservation area and returned to public control. in the 1980s cuts to government funding of public assistance programs threatened projects run by the market’s development authority, such as a free medical clinic, senior center, and food bank; to preserve these projects the authority established a fundraising arm that ran successful capital campaigns, including one to pay for tiling the floor of the top-floor arcade (to prevent water leaking down and causing damage lower levels) by selling tiles stenciled with donor names for $35 a piece. over the course of more than two years some 45,000 tiles were placed.

Fort Jefferson

approaching Fort Jefferson on the Yahkee Freedom II

situated on Garden Key, Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western hemisphere and served as a military prison and outpost during the 19th century. located 70 miles west of Key West, it sits at the tail end of the archipelago and, really, ought not to support human life. the collection of islands originally got their name from the sea turtles that nested there; in short order map-makers added the “dry” designation to warn sailors of the lack of potable water. upon scouting the keys for possible military installations, Commodore David Porter reported that the Dry Tortugas consisted of sand islands barely above the surface of the ocean with scarcely enough land to permit construction of a fort, much less support one without sinking below the waves.
the moat from the atop the walls of the Fort

Porter’s observations not withstanding, the government determined the islands useful to house, at the very least, a lighthouse. three years after Porter’s initial observations, a successor stressed the strategic importance of the islands in the Gulf shipping channel, prompting movement on a permanent, fortified outpost to defend U.S. interests.

harbor light atop the Fort wall

work on the structure began in 1846 and never finished, though construction (by slaves and prisoners) continued for 30 years. the original lighthouse stood within the fort walls but, after it suffering damage during a hurricane, was relocated to Loggerhead Key some 2.5 miles distant. the design originally called for a three-tiered, six sided brick structure; the sides met at corner bastions, which allowed some of the 410 guns to fire along the walls at ships crazy enough to come within range of the cannons. most of the armory and artillery improvements went unused. my favorite one, which I’m almost sad never got used, was a building designed to heat up cannon balls so that, when fired at enemy ships, the shot would start the wood on fire, burning and sinking the ship simultaneously. as construction progressed, however, concerns arose that further weight would cause the structure to sink (further) and result in further damage to the cisterns and undermine stability of the fort.

cells were left open to the elements, to prevent added weight

at its peak, some 2,000 people lived at Fort Jefferson, including military personnel and (occasionally) their families, prisoners, and (prior to the Civil War) slaves. it served as a harbor for war ships defending Gulf ports, such as Pensacola, New Orleans, and Mobile, general deterrent for anyone considering an attack against U.S. merchant ships, and evocative symbol of America’s intentions towards any potential aggressors (we’re lookin’ at you, Mexico!).

 it remained under Union control throughout the Civil War, which resulted in some tensions with Key West, which, naturally, fell under Confederate control. Union ships used Fort Jefferson as a port in the blockade of Southern ports and it became a military prison, primarily for Union deserters, but also for special civilian prisoners, including Dr. Samuel Mudd. following his assistance during a yellow fever outbreak in 1867, President Andrew Jackson pardoned and released Mudd and, in 1874, the Fort ceased to function as a military prison.

balls placed at the far end heated up as they came down the chute

while Fort Jefferson was more or less abandoned by the Army in 1874, it did prove useful in other ways over the next half-century. the Navy used it as a coal refueling station for warships (we got to snorkel around the refueling dock pylons — lots of very cool fish); it served as a quarantine station for a time; the USS Maine sailed for Havana from Fort Jefferson, and other warships followed during the Spanish-American war; a wireless station operated from it around the turn of the 20th century; it briefly served as a seaplane base during the First World War.

the Fort contains 2,000 archways like these

beginning in the 1930s, activity in the Dry Tortugas gave over to biological research and historic preservation — the Carnegie Institute operated a marine biological institute on Loggerhead Key beginning in 1930 and, following a visit in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Fort Jefferson a National Historic Landmark. Fort Jefferson was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and the Dry Tortugas became a National Park 1992.

recent boat used by Cuban refugees — Fort Jefferson counts as American soil for refuge purposes

Key West Lighthouse

as I’ve done in San Diego and Portland, I felt compelled to take in the views from the top of the lighthouse in Key West. the original structure, built in 1825, stood on the shore and was flattened by a hurricane in 1846. the keeper, Barbara Mobrity (who succeeded her husband who died in 1832), survived but six of her children perished in the storm.

seriously — you have to climb these!

rather than replace it with one on the same spot, they erected the new lighthouse and keepers quarters in the middle of the island. the new building rose to 46 feet (compared to the original’s 65 feet) initially, but was extended in to 86 feet in 1894 to make it visible above the rising tree line. Barbara stayed on as keeper upon its completion in 1847, but lost her position at the age of 82 after making statements against the Union (which controlled Key West and the lighthouse) during the Civil War.

the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1969 and turned the property over to Monroe County, who leased it to the Key West Art & Historical Society, which now runs it, in 1972.

of all the lighthouses I’ve visited, climbing the one in Key West unnerved me the most. generally, I don’t have a problem with heights, but something about ascending 88 narrow, open-backed, iron stairs up the center of the structure unsettled me and made it somewhat difficult to enjoy the remarkable views from the deck.

perhaps it also had something to do with the warning, immediately inside the door, not to stay in the tower when there’s a thunderstorm. so much of the damn thing is metal and isn’t what one might consider “safe” to stand on and/or in during storms as I understand iron makes a pretty good conductor, making the 86 foot tower an effective lightning rod that can kill you.

driving down the Keys

I’ve heard that expression before “driving down the Keys,” but never fully appreciated what it meant before. you’d think “archipelago, obviously it’s a bit of a drive” and yet … I was also surprised at how quickly we got out of Miami and onto the coastal highway. once we cleared the snarly right outside the airport, it was a nice, easy drive with only a slow-moving gawker or two.

in its early days, Key West was a bustling town as it was so accessible by water; even before Henry Flagler built his railroad link, the city was home to 30,000 residents. Flagler developed an interest in Florida towards the end of the 19th century and became a resort developer, constructing a series of hotels down the east coast, culminating with the Casa Marina hotel in Key West.

initially, the Overseas Railway was referred to as “Flagler’s Folly” — who’d think that a 128 mile extension over a coral archipelago would succeed? it necessitated immense amounts of labor, as well as innovations in railway construction. work began in 1905 and trains began running to Key West in 1912. hurricanes disrupted progress in 1906, 1909, and 1910 and, ultimately, destroyed it. trains rain until 1935, when the Labor Day Hurricane struck at Islamorada and swept away several sections of bridge, in addition to killing nearly 400 people. the company didn’t have finances to repair or replace the damaged sections and, eventually, they sold the remaining tracks and roadbed to the State of Florida, which turned the route into the highway it is today. while many of the bridges were replaced in the 1980s some remain as pedestrian and fishing bridges. you could tell the locals — bronze figures either running along otherwise desolate stretches of concrete, or planted in one of the fishing alcoves with a rod or two.

portions of the road were tolled until 1954. the Seven Mile Bridge was one of the longest bridges when it was constructed and once crossed over Pigeon Key (home to Flagler’s railway company) but now bypasses it as the original structure is unsafe for vehicular travel. the road, now designated U.S. 1 runs from Key West to Fort Kent in Maine.

I’m thankful that we ended up making the drive while it was sunny out. being on the road, with the water on both sides and the sun beating down, set the tone for the weekend wonderfully.

Old Main

Old Main from the south
Celebrating 175 years of Knox College

it comes as something of a surprise to me that I’ve yet to write about Galesburg or Knox (the cow mailbox post notwithstanding since I started this post immediately after finishing that one). the college celebrates it 175th anniversary this year (don’t ask me to type or pronounce the word they came up with to describe the milestone) and Old Main, our oldest building, the building in which I had approximately half my classes, is the last site that remains from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

fun fact that I just learned: during renovations in preparation for the College’s centennial, Janet Post saved the building’s original pine timbers (which were replaced with a steel and concrete skeleton) and reclaimed them to use as the paneling in the Common Room. the bricks in the fireplace were also from the original building material (also — they were handmade! presumably just like those on the brick streets around downtown Galesburg).

Old Main from the north side of the building

everyone who went to Knox has an Old Main story of some kind — working your way along your first  Pumphandle line with brand new friends from your suite; watching assigned films for a memorable class you had; migrating to the Common Room to complete an exam in greater comfort; finally getting around to seeing the Lincoln Chair towards the end of your senior year; running into Roger wandering the halls; discovering that there are, in fact, offices in those nooks off the stairs, offices sometimes occupied by department heads; meeting with Dean Bailey for any number of reasons in his office; staring up at the historic building as your commencement speaker addresses your class…

the Lincoln-Douglas debate platform was set up
along this side of the building

at the very least, you’ve told someone the story of how, upon discovering that the platform set up for the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate butted up against the western doors of Old Main (which, turned out, opened outward, who knew?), Stephen Douglas walked around the building but our 16th President climbed out one of the windows and quipped “At last I’ve gone through college.” the building is fairly drenched in Lincoln history and no matter how much I groaned about trudging up the stairs to class, every time I made the climb I found it supremely cool how the stairs are all grooved from the use of over a century’s worth of students. no two steps are the same and during the winter months you have to watch your step on the smooth, uneven surfaces or you’ll be on your bum at the bottom of the stairs. Old Main engenders still a lot of pride in my alma mater, no matter how many times it tried to toss me down the stairs.

enjoying the National Parks

growing up, our vacations almost always had an historical or natural focus to them — lots of national parks/monuments/forests. my sister and I even got “National Park Passports” at one point to collect stamps from all the places we visited. I still have it, but don’t carry it around and don’t usually pick up stamps on slips of paper when I visit places these days. as with a lot of my “standard” childhood experiences, I tend to think people my age went on similar road trips with their parents — unwillingly made to learn things on vacation. (Becca’s family took those kinds of trips, so I’m not totally off base.) it always surprises me a little when it arises in conversation that people haven’t been to iconic National Parks, like Mount Rushmore, or the Grand Canyon since, in my mind, they’re powerful visual representations of the U.S.
of course, lots of National Parks (including Mount Rushmore) are quite far from anywhere and, while there are lots of other National Parks in close proximity to Rushmore, those areas of the country have to be your destination. part of what makes them so great is their inaccessibility — it preserves the natural elements that made them worth preserving in the first place. 
the first effort to preserve natural landmarks for the benefit of the nation came in 1832, when Andrew Jackson set aside land to protect hot springs in Arkansas. the federal government wasn’t given any legal authority over the land, though, and control wasn’t sorted out until 1877. Yosemite was the first true national park; established in 1872 from land within federal territories, at the time there were no local governmental authorities that could take responsibility for the preservation of the valley, which consequently fell to the federal government. it succeeded in part because the Northern Pacific Railroad saw the financial benefits of creating a major tourist destination on their rail line and their support helped legislation pass Congress. 
initially, each national park was managed independently but because of the discrepancies in quality of management, Stephen Mather petition the government to develop a singular authority. in 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that created what is now the National Parks Service. in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt reorganized the Executive Branch to consolidate responsibility for the growing number of federally protected parks/monuments/memorials/cemeteries/etc. under the jurisdiction of one office. prior to this reorganization, for example, the War Department oversaw National Military Sites (e.g. Gettysburg, Revolutionary War battle sites) and one line of National Monuments (which included Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego), while the Department of Agriculture oversaw another line National Monuments (which included Gila Cliff Dwellings in  New Mexico and the Grand Canyon, among others). following the reorganization in 1933, there were 137 sites under the administration of the National Parks Service. today, there are 392 sites, most of which are National Historic Parks/Sites (123) but the National Parks see nearly twice as many visitors. while the largest ones are out west (not surprisingly), there are sites in every state and territory — which means no one has an excuse for not visiting at least one. find the one closest to you or, even better, plan a road trip!

behind Hoover Dam

travel is all about trying new things, sometimes simply by virtue of being someplace new, but also because it brings you into contact with all kinds of new people who are involved in all kinds of different activities. take my second trip to Las Vegas, for example (it was the second, wasn’t it? or the third?), friends of the friends I was visiting were heading out to Lake Mead on their boat. those of you who have known me for long enough understand that I grew up in a canoe-outing, fishing-off-a-pontoon-boat type family and this was my first experience on a personal motor boat.

the coolest thing about being on the water was coming up to the back side of the Hoover Dam. on my previous trip to Vegas, we walked across the top of the dam and took in the looooooooong view down to the surface of the Colorado River at the base. construction lasted from 1931-1935 but the location had been scouted as a location for a potential dam beginning at the turn of the century. increasing population resulted in increasing demands for reliable irrigation systems and electricity. at the time construction began, Las Vegas claimed roughly 5,000 residents and somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 unemployed workers descended in hopes of getting a job on the project. at its peak, just over 5,200 people were on the payroll (which, by terms of the contract, expressly prohibited Chinese labor and, by practice, included no more than 30 black people). not surprisingly, extreme weather and harsh working conditions led to the death of 112 laborers during the course of the project; the first man died in 1922 while scouting the location and his son was the last man to die, exactly thirteen years later. the official record doesn’t include deaths marked down as “pneumonia,” which workers claimed the company used to avoid compensating families for what was actually carbon monoxide poisoning from tunnels (which reached upwards of 140 degrees).

it’s been years now since I visited (four? five?) and I wonder how much lower the water levels have gotten. spillways run along either bank but they’ve only been used twice — once in 1941 to test their functionality and once in 1983 due to natural flooding. following both uses, engineers found major damage to the concrete lining of the spillway tunnels and the underlying rock. the cause each time was the same — cavitation — and, in theory that’s now been fixed. like I said, though, who knows if or when the Colorado River will raise to sufficient levels to test the spillways out. not any time soon, judging by how contentious an issue water has become out west.