Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Great Molasses Flood

One of Boston's quirkiest, but no less tragic, historical events took place on this day 89 years ago. It was around noontime on January 15, 1919, that a huge 50-foot molasses tank in Boston's North End exploded and sent a wave of the thick, sticky liquid through the city streets smashing houses and any structures in its path. In the end, 21 people had died and 150 people were injured. For a great read on this event, get a copy of Dark Tide from Stephen Puleo. (I talked more about the book in an earlier post.)
The only sign of this disaster that you'll find today is a small plaque that marks the location of the tank at 529 Commercial Street. The plaque is inlaid on the wall in front of the bocce courts. (Behind the bocce courts, by the way, is an old statue that used to be on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor honoring graduates the U.S. Maritime Service Radio Training Station.)

The plaque reads: "On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Boston & Beyond Map Exhibit at Boston Public Library

A new exhibit opened this week at the Boston Public Library (BPL) entitled Boston & Beyond. The exhibit displays 48 maps taken from the library's Norman B. Leventhal Map Center that provide bird's eye views of Boston and New England cities, with a handful of foreign cities as well. (Leventhal, by the way, developed the Boston Harbor Hotel, and one of the hotel's lobby is filled with great old maps of Boston and New England.) It's a must-see for any carto-philes (yes, I made that word up), budding Mercators, or anyone who enjoyed coloring in maps in junior high social studies.

Most of the maps date from the 1870s and the 1880, and it's fascinating to see how Boston and other cities looked back then. This map of Boston is typical of the maps in the exhibit. Even though the maps provide a bird's eye view, the cartographers did not soar to the sky in a balloon to get their perspectives. They walked the streets of the cities and made sketches that they transformed into these perspectives. There is a sketch book in the exhibit that shows how these map-makers produced these views.
The exhibit includes stunning maps of Boston, including ones in full color. (It's funny to see how much the city has changed. For example, the area out by Fenway is wide open, undeveloped land in some of these views.) Not only downtown Boston views-but neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain. Another section has maps of mill cities such as Nashua and Manchester in New Hampshire (no television satellite trucks or presidential candidates in these 1880s maps) and Springfield, Worcester, and Lowell. There are coastal cities such as Gloucester and Newburyport. Another section includes maps of suburbs such as Newton, Waltham, and Watertown (aka God's Country).

One of the most interesting pieces in the exhibit is an early map of New Amsterdam (New York City). You won't recognize Manhattan circa 1672 with its steep hills and winding streets. And for good reason! The map is a blatant copy of a 1617 map of Lisbon, Portugal. You can check out the New Amsterdam and Lisbon maps yourself on the BPL's web site.

After you visit the exhibit, there's no more appropriate place to grab a bite to eat than at the Sebastian's Map Room Cafe inside the library. It's right next to the exhibit.

The exhibit runs through June 30, so there's plenty of time to check it out. Lectures are scheduled for March and April on map topics, and they include a gallery tour after the talk. If you can't make it, you can check out these maps and others on the web site of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Primary Eve Report

It was bumper to bumper traffic yesterday on Elm Street, the main drag in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was primary eve and the city was crawling with candidates--and media and media. Christmas lights have been replaced by the constant glow of klieg lights brightening up the night sky. I'm sure Public Service of New Hampshire, the local power utility, is going to have a pretty profitable month--along with every television station in the state. No word on the primary's carbon footprint yet, but Al Gore wouldn't be too happy.

Here's a tip if you ever want to get your name in print or on TV: go to New Hampshire the day before the primary and declare yourself as an undecided voter. The media swarm around you will be as fierce as the summer mosquitoes on Lake Winnipesaukee. John McCain held a rally at City Hall Plaza in Manchester yesterday afternoon. There must have been as many media people there trolling to find that elusive undecided voter as actual voters. The guy next to me got interviewed by three different outlets in the course of 45 minutes.

It was interesting to see the crowd for McCain, the presumptive Republican front-runner in New Hampshire, a day after seeing Hillary Clinton, who is supposedly in a free-fall. There was no comparison between crowd sizes. The McCain crowd was probably only a few hundred people compared to the 3,000 or so who have turned out for Obama and Clinton. The McCain rally was held on Monday, not Sunday, but Manchester was crawling with people so I'm not sure if that was a factor in the crowd size or not. I think it's fair to say though that overall there's more buzz and energy among the Democrats at this point than the Republican candidates. It will be interesting to see what happens tonight.

The scene inside the Radisson hotel in Manchester was jumping yesterday afternoon. MSNBC was broadcasting Hardball from the lobby, C-SPAN had guests coming in and out of their studio, the local FOX affiliate was doing their newscast on the convention center side, and a whole bunch of radio stations were set up inside. Plus, there were ABC and NBC anchors everywhere you looked. Matt Lauer, Brian Williams, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert were all in and out of the hotel. Not sure if anyone is left back at 30 Rock.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Primary Fever, Catch It

Headed up to the Granite State yesterday to check out the scene two days before the New Hampshire Primary. As they mocked on The Simpsons last night when Springfield held the first-in-the-nation primary, New Hampshire was "overrun with candidates, newshounds, spin doctors, hacks, flacks, Russerts, Blitzers, and even the occasional voter."

We went first to the Hillary Clinton rally at Nashua North High School. The doors were scheduled to open at noon. We got there at 11:15 and had to park about a mile away because so many people were there already. The doors didn't open until after noon and the line was gigantic. So many people showed up that an overflow room was necessary. That seems to be pretty common up in New Hampshire in the last few days of the campaigns. Fire marshals have had their hands full. It's a good sign that voters are energized--at least on the Democratic side.

It's somewhat hard to tell if there's a strict correlation between crowd sizes in cities such as Nashua and Salem along the Massachusetts border and candidate support among New Hampshire residents since quite a few interlopers such as me drive up from the Boston area. Looking around at the cars parked at the Clinton rally, there were quite a few out-of-state plates. Probably no more than two-thirds (and I think it was closer to one-half) of cars had "Live Free or Die" on the plates. And as is the case at many rallies, there seemed to be two reporters and cameramen for every voter. (That's the head of Chris Matthews in front of me in one of the Hillary pics.)

The Hillary crowd was definitely older than the Obama crowd that showed up in Boston last month. (Obama was in the same gym the day before and The Boston Globe reports he drew a slightly larger crowd.) Seems to be continuing the demographic trends in Iowa. Hillary showed up around 1, spoke for about 15 minutes and then started taking questions from the audience. Hillary started turning up the rhetoric on Obama: "If you gave a speech, and a very good speech, against the war in Iraq in 2002, and then by 2004 you're saying you're not sure how you would have voted, and by 2005, 2006, 2007 you vote for $300 billion for the war you said you were against, that's not change. If you give a speech saying you're going to vote against the Patriot Act, and you don't, that's not change."

A lot of people had print-outs of candidate schedules yesterday, criss-crossing the state. NHPrimary.com is a good site with a listing of candidate appearances. The Boston Globe, too. If you're going to a Hillary or Obama rally, it's pretty clear you've got to get there really early, probably 90 minutes before the door opens. So bundle up and bring some reading material. And you better not have a problem with crowds.

You won't be guaranteed to see the big names, but it can be a lot more fun to just wander down Elm Street in Manchester and hang around the Radisson and Merrimack Restaurant to get a flavor for the campaign in the final days. There will be plenty of supporters carrying signs and chanting. You'll inevitably run into many well-known media people. Yesterday, we ran into ABC's Charles Gibson doing a segment walking down Main Street (at least until some Ron Paul supporters tried to get behind the shot and disrupt it). Plus, you might get a glimpse of some of the candidates (probably more of the second-tier candidates) dropping by the radio stations set up in the Radisson and Merrimack and the C-SPAN studios, right in the Radisson.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

La Salette Shrine Festival of Lights

Happy New Year! We rang in the New Year last night with a visit to the Festival of Lights at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro. (The Missionaries of La Salette were founded in 1852, six years after an apparition of Mary appeared with a message of reconciliation to two shepherd children in the small French hamlet of La Salette.)

For more than 50 years, the shrine has hosted this traditional Christmas light show. More than 400,000 lights illuminate the grounds of the shrine, and the work of putting the lights up starts around Labor Day. Giant white snowflakes hang from the trees along with colored stars and bells. On one side of the shrine, lights surround the frozen Rosary Pond (which has the largest rosary I've ever seen--the string of beads looks like one of those floating lanemarkers separating the kiddie area from the adult area in a swimming pool). There's a large manger scene and a gingerbread house. It's pretty impressive being in the midst of the lights, but it's even more amazing when you take in the entire scene from the roadway in front of the shrine.

About a half million people come to see the lights every year. The Festival of Lights runs from Thanksgiving through New Years. The lights are turned on at 5 PM and go off at 9 PM. We got there around 5:30 PM and crowds weren't a problem. That's probably because most visitors come in the first few days and in the weekends leading up to Christmas. So if you want to avoid the throngs, going by our experience, visit after Christmas.

There is a cafeteria at the shrine and little huts selling hot cider and hot chocolate. You can even buy some of the shrine's hot chocolate mix, which is called "Holy Grounds." (And no, I"m not making that up. Not sure if that's the Vatican house blend.)

Parking and admission are free, although donations are welcome. We got a little lost getting there, so it's definitely worth printing up a map of the area. The shrine's probably a 45-minute drive from Boston.