Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’ve often heard it said that Europe is a bit surreal for Americans because it has been heavily settled for a very long time, and so many things there are much older than recorded history in North America.  I recently ran across an interesting example of exactly that.  Cerne Abbas is a small village in Dorset, England with a population of less than 1,000.  It’s known as a tourist town for several reasons, but the biggest is found on a hill just north of town.


Photo straight from Google Maps (the Trendle ruins are visible above the giants head at the hill crest)

The Cerne Abbas giant is part of the National Trust which makes it an official historic landmark in the United Kingdom.  The giant is a 180 ft tall 167 ft wide outline carved into a hillside just outside Cerne Abbas.  The outline was created by digging a roughly 1 ft wide by 1 ft deep trench in the desired shape which was then filled with chalk.  The giant is carrying a club and blatantly male due to the highly visible erect penis roughly the same size as his head.  He is carrying a club in one hand and archaeologists have discovered evidence that a cape or something similar was draped over his outstretched arm but has been allowed to deteriorate until no longer visible.

Photo also from Google maps.  With buildings for scale.

Photo also from Google maps. With buildings for scale. (Click to biggen.)

No one is quite sure how long the giant has been on the hillside.  The style is reminiscent of Iron Age artwork, and there is ample evidence of Iron Age settlements in the area, but no written record of the giant can be found until 1751 leading many scholars to believe he was constructed in the late 1600’s.  National surveys in the area don’t make mention of the giant until around the same time frame and some historians think it may be a parody of Oliver Cromwell.  The presence of an abbey in Cerne Abbas also casts doubt on the possibility of the giant being created earlier because most consider it unlikely the monks of the abbey would allow a pagan symbol so close to their home.

Fresco of Hercules with the skin of the Nemean lion from the Museo Archeologico di Milano (Archaeological Museum in Milan, Italy)

Fresco of Hercules with the skin of the Nemean lion from the Museo Archeologico di Milano (Archaeological Museum in Milan, Italy)

Competing theories posit that the giant was created during or before the Roman occupation of Britain due to its resemblance to Hercules.  These theories are partially based on the presence of ancient ruins known as The Trendle on the hill above the giant  These theories gained enormous weight after the discovery of the obliterated line indicating something draped over his arm as that creates a parallel to Hercules with the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his arm.

Local legend says that the giant is the outline of an actual giant who traveled to Britain from Denmark and was slain on the hill.  It’s also considered a fertility symbol, and sleeping between the giants legs would grant you a child.  This theory was given a little extra weight in 2010 when it was reported that women in the area around the giant have a much higher fertility rate.  Apparently it seems likely enough to give it an effort because the local constables receive a lot of calls about couples in the grass around the giant.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the giant has bee used to sell everything from condoms to jeans, and in 2007 he was used as part of a publicity stunt for the Simpsons movie when a giant Homer Simpson holding a doughnut was painted in the field next to the giant.  Homer was painted with biodegradable paint and local pagans who were very offended by his proximity to the giant were reported to conduct rain magic to wash Homer off as quickly as possible.HomerGiant

In the 1930’s the British Home Office received an outraged request from the Bishop of Salisbury to cover up the giants prominent phallus in some way but it came to nothing at the time.  The Bishop did partially get his request during World War II when the giant was covered up so that Nazi bombers flying across the channel could not use him as a landmark to find their way to targets.

Prevailing academic theory seems to be that the giant was built in the 1600’s, but I prefer to think he’s a lot older than that.  I much prefer the theory that he is Hercules and was created during the Roman era in Britain.  Creating the giant would be a huge amount of effort before the invention of construction equipment which makes him seem more of religious significance than some sort of political parody.  The giant also seems to be very high maintenance (the National Trust used a flock of sheep to keep the grass trimmed for years) so it wouldn’t be difficult for him to disappear for a few centuries until the time was right for him to return.


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niihausatI’ll admit, I have a bit of a fascination with the TV show Hawaii-Five-0.  It’s a blandly satisfying mix of action scenes and nearly static characters, but explosions and guns aren’t why I’m fascinated with it.  No matter how much the episodes resemble each other week to week I can’t quit watching it because it’s just so different from Tennessee, and it has great beauty shots every time it comes back from commercial.  (I can’t quit watching Nashville for similar but opposite reasons.)  From time to time I learn something interesting just by virtue of its physical and cultural distance from me.  Last time it was about  the history of money, and this time it’s the Forbidden Isle.

Hawaii is made of eight major islands and a lot of smaller specks of land not quite big enough to geographically justify being called an island.  The one I want to talk about is Ni’ihau, the Forbidden Isle.  For perspective the largest Hawaiian island, and the one the state is named for, is 4,028 square miles and has a permanent population of 185,079.  The smallest island (not including the bits and specks of land too small to be called an island) of Kaho’olawe is 44.6 square miles and has no permanent population.  Ni’ihau ranks seventh of the eight major islands in size and population with an area of 69.5 square miles and a population of 170 (2010 census).

Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, let’s get to the interesting part.  Ni’ihau’s nickname, and the reason for it, are what caught my attention.  Turns out that Ni’ihau is called the Forbidden Isle because it’s private property owned entirely by the Robinson family.  Showing up without an invitation is trespassing, and the Robinson family doesn’t appreciate uninvited visitors.  The island has been off limits to the general public since the 1930’s and even family members of island residents need special permission to visit.

In 1863 Elizabeth Sinclair left New Zealand with her extended family intending to buy a ranch in Vancouver.  When Canada didn’t prove to her liking the family moved on to Hawaii, then often referred to as the Sandwich Islands.  The family decided against buying various tracts of land in what is now downtown Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and Pearl Harbor at which point King Kamehameha IV made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.  Kamehameha offered them the island of Ni’ihau which was home to approximately 600 native Hawaiians.  After the dust settled the family had traded 68 pounds of gold (then $10,000 and roughly $1.4 million at the time of this writing) for the 69.5 square mile island.  (Try here for a snapshot of what the island was like when the Sinclairs bought it.)

Before the family took possession the island was considered property of the Kingdom of Hawaii and after the sale the native residents were allowed to stay.  Turns out that this wasn’t one of those incidents where the white man got one over on the natives.  Kamehameha saw the Sinclair family coming and took advantage of the opportunity to make some easy money on some land not worth much.  At the time the Sinclair purchased the island it was lush and green from two years of abnormally high rainfall, but it usually averages no more than 25 inches per year making it difficult to grow much on the island.  The residents had been trying for years to buy the island from the Kingdom but couldn’t raise the money due to the barren nature of the island.   However, as often happens with real estate, the family did end up with the better end of the deal just by holding onto the island for 150 years while the Hawaiian islands became a tourist mecca.

The purchase of the island may have turned out to be something of a good thing for the natives that lived on it.  Elizabeth Sinclair and her heirs turned out to have a healthy respect for native Hawaiian culture and history and have preserved a lot of Hawaiian heritage over the past 150 years as the rest of the islands were acquired by the United States and progressively modernized and became more homogenized with mainland US culture.  To this day Ni’ihau is undeveloped and is in a condition pretty close to what it looked like before European explorers discovered the islands in the 18th century seemingly thanks to the stewardship of Keith and Bruce Robinson, current owners and 5th generation heirs of Elizabeth Sinclair.   Keith Robinson is an environmentalist and is acclaimed for using the remote island to nurture varieties of plant life that are extinct on all the other islands of Hawaii.

Legally speaking, residents of the island are ‘guests’ and can be evicted at the discretion of the owners, but Robinson provides housing and some healthcare, such as vaccinations.  When the family operated a cattle ranch on the island most of the natives were employees and all were provided free meat.  There are conflicting reports, but it seems that these days most of the natives have to spend at least part of the year working on the neighboring island of Kauai because the Robinsons haven’t had a lot of success at making money on Ni’ihau.  Most food and supplies are brought over from Kauai and the primary monetary influx to the island is from the US Navy that rents part of the island for a radar station to monitor the Pacific Missile Range Facility .  The island has recently been opened up to a limited amount of tourism in the form of day tours on the island.  The other major source of income on the island is collection of the unique shells that wash up on the island’s beaches.  Leis and other native art made from Ni’ihau shells are highly sought collectibles in the art community.

The Robinsons have had to fight fiercely to maintain the island as their own property.  They’ve used income from their other holdings in Hawaii to subsidize life on Ni’ihau and pay taxes.  They’ve faced a fair amount of opposition from Hawaiian sovereignty  groups demanding the island be seized and turned over to the residents.  There have been demands that the state use eminent domain to turn the island into a state park, and an effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare large chunks of the island off limits due to the endangered plants.  They’ve reportedly also turned down very lucrative monetary offers from the US government as well as large commercial interests.  There’s even a 2005 documentary about the Robinsons and their fight to keep the island private.  So far the Robinsons have successfully resisted any attempts to open up the island and it will be interesting to see how the island fares as the next generation of Robinsons takes over.

Further reading:

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Metrocenter through the years

As a follow up to my last post on some of the history of development and the levees at Metrocenter I wanted to post this sequence of maps from the US Geological Survey.  They’re all on the same scale and cropped to roughly the same area.  You can find them for yourself at the USGS map store.

This is the 1952 map, and it’s the base map all the others get their contours from.  I want to point out Cumberland Airfield in the left-center area, along with the big swamp and the railroad spur.  You’ll also want to note Bush Lake.  A helpful commenter from the Nashville Scene tells me Bush Lake was originally a quarry created by  W.G. Bush & Company.  In a few paragraphs the location of Bush Lake will be important.

Next up we have the 1968 map.  Bush Lake is still there, but Cumberland Airfield is gone and the swampy area in the center seems to have been drained with the exception of a few small ponds.  You can see the proposed location of what is now Rosa Parks Boulevard on the hill south of Buena Visa Park.  This would have been after Cheatham Dam was built, but before the levee.

Now we have the 1983 map with the purple items showing what has changed since the previous map.  This would have been 5-10 years after the levees were built.  Bush Lake is gone and several buildings are where it used to be on the eastern edge of the area.  Most of the streets and drainage canals are in place but only the eastern side seems to have many buildings.  The western portion is now the site of a golf course.  Rosa Parks Boulevard has been built, but it’s north of Buena Vista Park and at the bottom of the hill rather than the proposed location from the previous map.  (I assume this was changed in order to avoid the heavy residential area on top of the hill.)  The large purple blob in the center is much as it is today.

The last map is from 1997 and is largely as it appears today.  Bush Lake is mostly gone with all the buildings along Great Circle Road built over its old location.   If you look closely you’ll see a sliver of blue still on the old Bush Lake site.  Google maps still calls it Bush Lake but these days it’s not much more than a stormwater detention pond.

That’s the geographic history of the Metrocenter as best I’ve been able to trace it.  I’m particularly bummed that the earliest map was 1952, but this type of mapping requires aerial capabilities that weren’t really available for civilian use until post World War II.  If you’re so inclined, you can find the 2010 map at the USGS map store link above.  It’s not significantly different from the 1997 map above other than including

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Note: I pieced together this narrative based on archived articles from the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner, as well as accounts from friends who lived in Nashville in the 1970’s.  All conjecture is based on my own personal experience.

Metrocenter was already a going concern when I moved to Nashville in the mid 1990’s, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about the building boom out there over the years.  A quick look at the map makes it obvious the entire area is a floodplain, and yet it’s also the site of a huge office park that includes the Titans practice field, one of Nashville’s four TV networks, a Comcast facility that provides internet for a good portion of middle Tennessee, an art school, and a Metro park and golf course.  During its heyday in the mid 1990’s there was even an outdoor mall with a multiplex until it went under and was repurposed as the campus for Watkins Art Institute (Watkins moved from downtown to make room for the main Nashville library building in the late 1990’s).  After an acquaintance at Metro Water Services told me the infrastructure and improvements in the area were worth $4 billion I decided to spend an afternoon sifting the library’s newspaper archive just to satisfy my curiosity about how it went from the city dump on a floodplain to the tail that wags the dog in Nashville’s flood mitigation plan.

Road and terrain map of the area. Note how the land rises to the south toward Capital Hill

Historically most of the land contained wetland areas or was used for farming.  The earliest reference I found to the area was a story about the girls from St. Cecilia Academy sitting out watching gunboats duke it out on the river during the Civil War.  (The school is on West End now, but back then it was on the grounds of the convent on the hill above Metrocenter.)  There was a small airfieldon the floodplain in the late 1940’s and early50’s and the Nashville landfill was there for a while back in the days when nobody cared what floated down the river.  I’ve also been told that a glass factory was located on the hill and used the floodplain to dispose of a lot of their excess product.  Rumor has it if you dig deep enough in the right areas you’ll find glass under some of those parking lots.  (An old timer told me Capital Nissan’s new lot is on top of the glass disposal area, but I have no idea if it’s true.)

Metrocenter as it looks today

In the early 1970’s the property owner realized he had a huge swath of unoccupied land within shouting distance of the state capital and downtown Nashville.  Add the new Interstate being built next door and it had the potential to be the best real estate in town, if only something could be done about the regular flooding.  This all happened before my time so this is a bit of speculation based on some old editorials from the Nashville Banner, but as best I can tell the property owner basically hired some bulldozers to pile up dirt along the river bank, called it a levee, and started subdividing tracts.  (I’m sure it was a little more complicated than that, but the details are hazy so I’m going with poetic license.)  In the end he had a home-made levee bounded on one end by Clarksville Highway on a high fill as it goes up to the bridge at Bordeaux, and on the other end by what’s now I-65 (called I-265 until TDOT redesignated it in 2000) on top of roughly fifty feet of fill as it goes up to cross the river and merge with I-24.

I don’t have any good idea of how the levee construction was done in this case, but a levee is usually constructed with an  impermeable clay core surrounded by well compacted soil and built well above the expected flood elevation.  It’s a very expensive undertaking, and from the reports I’ve seen the Metrocenter levee wasn’t constructed to any that exacting standard.  It stood for nearly 30 years on it’s own so it obviously worked well enough to keep out the intermittent small floods on the Cumberland, but by the 1990’s the Metrocenter levee was starting to look shaky, and there was a lot of concern about it holding up through a major flood.

The 2000 flood map to the right shows the flood situation in the 1990’s.  The flood studies showed the levee would keep out a 100 year flood (darker gray), but anything greater than that would overtop the levee and completely flood the interior (lighter gray is the 500 year floodplain).  This analysis also assumed the levee doesn’t fail at some point, which may not have been a valid assumption.  (This has been the legal floodmap since 2000.  An update is underway to revise it to take into account the Corps recent modernization project.)

By this point the area was covered with office parks, and a breached or overtopped levee would cause major damage ($4 billion per Metro Water Services), so the landowners and tenants called in Metro, and the Corps of Engineers.  This resulted in a multi-phase levee modernization project.  Phase 1 was completed in the mid-2000’s and consisted of strengthening the levee and raising its top to protect from higher floods.  Phase 2 to remove the vegetation on the levee and plug a couple of holes should be finishing up any time now.

And with that, somebody made a ton of money and managed to get Metro to do all the new levee work and assume all the risk of future flood damage.  It’s really the only logical policy choice for Metro considering the huge potential damages and the modernization project proved to be timely by keeping Metrocenter mostly dry during the May 2010 flood.

I’ve got several more posts in the works discussing some of the details of the Metrocenter levee including how it held up during the 300 year flood in May of 2010, and how I became involved in the project.

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Historic marker in Winchester, TN (Franklin County) (source)

In doing some follow-up reading for my recent ‘state of Scott’ post I discovered an interesting counter-balance to that story.  It seems that Franklin County was impatient with the Tennessee’s delay in leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.  It came to the point where they actually voted in favor of leaving the state of Tennessee and becoming part of Alabama since Alabama joined the Confederacy five months before Tennessee.  The citizens of Franklin County ended up forgiving the rest of the state when Tennessee joined the Confederacy before they could make good on the plan to join Alabama.

Adapted from Google Maps

I haven’t been able to find as much supporting evidence online for this as I did for Scott County.  But I did find the above photo of a historic marker in Winchester, TN.  I also found what purports to be the petition from Franklin County to the legislatures of Tennessee and Alabama (scroll down to mid-page).  I recommend reading the entire thing, but I clipped a few choice bits below:  (emphasis added by me, I particularlly love the part where they call President Lincoln a mental dwarf)

1. Resolved, That the action of the State of Tennessee, on the 9th inst., is to us a source of unfeigned mortification, and regret, as we hoped that her course would have been so different, as to have, by the 4th day of March next, divorced Tennessee forever from her present bonds of political union, and have united her fate-for weal or woe, with her seven proud and gallant sisters of the South, which have so divorced themselves.

3. Resolved, That we hope that the Northern fanatics have read the speeches of the Presidents- DAVIS and LINCOLN, (Made enroute for their respective seats of government) and see the difference, and from it learned a lesson of common sense, which will cause them to hush their insane croaking about the ignorance of the Southern people, since, they must see that while the Confederate States have for their representative a gentleman, a scholar and a statesman, the Federal Union has a wag, a mental dwarf.

Reading that resolution leads me to doubt all the current pundits who claim partisan politics are more combative now than ever before.

The resolution was passed on February 24, 1861 but it was never carried out because Tennessee voted to secede on June 24, 1861.  There are quite a few reports that Confederate recruiting was going on in the county before Tennessee voted to leave the Union, and Isham Harris, the Confederate governor of Tennessee, was from Franklin County.

The county by county turmoil wasn’t limited to Tennessee and I ran across reports of a lot of different counties and regions attempting to pick a side other than the one their state picked.  It seems West Virginia was the only one that was really successful at it.

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Historic marker located in Huntsville, TN (Scott County seat) (source)

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized Tennessee was a slave state during the Civil War, but I remember being mortified about it.  I took some consolation in the fact that Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy and the first to leave it after the war.  I also felt a little better when I took the mandatory Tennessee History class in 7th grade and they taught us that east Tennessee mostly disagreed with the vote to leave the US.  If the state approved history text book was to be believed the entire eastern portion of the state very nearly decided to split from the rest of the state in order to remain part of the good ole USA.

The text book left out one very important thing that I didn’t discover until 25 years after my 7th grade Tennessee History class (also known as ‘last month’).  When war broke out in 1861, Tennessee had 84 counties.  But a few months later, Tennessee only had 83 counties because Scott County voted to leave Tennessee by a vote of 541 for and  19 against.  They struck out on their own and declared themselves ‘the free and independent state of Scott’.  Union Colonel William Clift organized the 7th Tennessee Infantry Regiment primarily out of volunteers from Scott County.  The 7th Tennessee fought a few skirmishes around Scott County but appears to have disbanded fairly quickly.  (The Confederates also had a 7th Tennessee Regiment formed out of western Tennessee.)

Image adapted from Google Maps

If you’re not familiar with Scott County, it’s a rural county in east Tennessee north of Knoxville.  Back in 1860 its population was about 3,519 (0.3% of the state population) and it was the 9th smallest of the 85 counties in Tennessee.  These days its population is around 20,000 (0.03% of state total) and it’s the 36th smallest county out of 95.  Its biggest town is Oneida (founded after Scott left Tennessee) and the most famous person from Scott County is probably Howard Baker, Jr who was a powerful US senator from 1967 to 1985 (in the position later held by Al Gore),  White House chief of staff during the Reagan presidency, and US ambassador to China during George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Baker, Sr. was a US Representative and unsuccessfully ran as governor of Tennessee.)

For me, by far the most interesting part of this story is the reunion of Scott County and the rest of Tennessee.  It seems that the vote to leave Tennessee was not repealed until 1986 so you could consider Scott County to not be part of Tennessee for 125 years.  Local residents seem to consider it a sign of the independent nature of people from the area, but since the county paid state taxes and received state revenue it seems more likely that everyone probably just forgot or wanted to let everyone cool down after the war before asking to be readmitted to the state.

I originally discovered this bit of Tennessee history on Wikipedia, and I haven’t found supporting evidence in print, but I managed to find enough online sources that I think it’s a legitimate story.  In my abundant free time I’m hoping to look into what life was like in Scott County during war time.  Various questionable sources I’ve found online indicate that a lot of Confederate raiders were funneled through the area in an effort to teach the ‘traitors’ of Scott County a lesson.

Update: Check out the follow-up post for the story of angst in Franklin County happening at the same time.

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The Old Chicago Water Tower

During my research for the water tower post I ran across some interesting info about a historic water tower in Chicago. I wanted to showcase it because it combines form and function in a way rarely allowed these days.

The tower was built in 1869 on the banks of Lake Michigan. A pumping station is built into the base, and the 154 ft tall tower provides supplemental pressure. It’s one of the few buildings that was still standing after the famous Chicago fire in 1871. It’s no longer used as a functioning water tower, but the area where it stands has become known as the water tower district and one of Chicago’s many skyscrapers is named after it. It was reportedly described by Oscar Wilde as “a monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it”. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the castle design
inspired the White Castle logo. I had trouble finding good pictures because most were copyrighted and not available for reposting.

You can see the tower here on the left with another famous Chicago tower behind it.

The tower also inspired this painting by Thomas Kinkade.

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