My America...Journeys

"Let every fellow tell his tale about." Chaucer

Sunday, September 24, 2006



Topside, the waning rays of the setting sun bathed the eclectic grouping that gathers each evening for the sunset ritual on Key West's Mallory St. Pier. They probably didn't know it, but they were standing on the birthplace of the Florida Keys.

"You will naturally inquire how we live, and the reply is very simple; by and through wrecks. Stop that and we cease to live". So wrote attorney Charles Walker to a friend in 1840, clearly defining what made this little dot of coral scrub pine and sand the richest city per capita in the United States for almost sixty years.

Between 1810 and the Civil War, before Hemingway, before Faulkner and Dos Passos, before Truman--Capote and Harry--before Flagler and his folly, before the two lane blacktop that connects but a few of the 800 keys, before there were T-shirt shops every twenty feet on Duval Street, Key West was a booming, vibrant, rough-and-tumble town that owed it's good fortune and very existence to the five-mile wide reef three miles offshore, and the Louisiana Purchase.

Upwards of 150 ships a week circled the horn of Florida, bringing raw goods from the delta to the markets up north; hard goods and supplies from the industrial north to the south. It was an arduous trip, and each year, providence, poor navigation, bad weather, and lack of lighthouses combined to wash hapless wooden-hulled ships onto the reef. In 1842, for example, fifty ships were dashed on the reef, in 1855, sixty-nine.

In 1821, John Simonton, a New Jersey businessman and wrecker, bought Key West from Spaniard Pablo Salas and established a wrecking station. He was joined by other adventurer/entrepreneurs—hard nosed Yankee businessmen, New England fishermen and Britons from the Bahamas, the original Conchs--who took up the wrecker’s dangerous but lucrative pursuit. Spotting towers dotted the shoreline and wreckers would put out at first light after the sighting of a wreck, remove the passengers, and establish salvor’s rights Warehouses were centered on Mallory Square, which was owned then by Asa Tift, the second richest man in Florida and wrecker extraordinaire.

Key West became a society focused on wrecks, wrecks, and more wrecks. The treasure was not gold, silver or stones, but the everyday things of life: cotton, dry-goods, industrial machinery, anything and anything that could be redeemed for cash, including slaves, and in one instance, a steam locomotive which took wreckers three days to float and return to port In 1880, Mary Munroe wrote to a friend that "A wreck was the most wished for and thoroughly enjoyed thing that could happen."

Little remains of what was salvaged. It was a cash business, and the goods were moved quickly. The legacy the wreckers left was Key West itself. The homes they built, the signature conch architecture. The Hemingway home, the James Audubon house and the Curry Mansion, all open to the public, were built by wreckers.

The Oldest House In Key West is now the Wrecker’s Museum, complete with furnishings and out-buildings, showing the rewards and lifestyle enjoyed by those men who deigned to challenge the sea successfully. Built in 1929 by wrecker Captain Francis B. Watlington, the two buildings comprise a sterling display of the 19th century lifestyle, so far from Washington, so close to the sea. The main house, where the family, including their nine daughters lived, and The kitchen house--in keeping with southern style and tradition, is separate from the main house—If you can’t stand the heat, move the kitchen, so to speak.

Many other homes still in private ownership, such as the Heritage House built by Hog Johnson, and the Porter Mansion, can be seen on a walking tour of the island.

On August 5, 1856, the packet ship Isaac Allerton, with a cargo valued at four hundred thousand dollars set sail from New York, bound for New Orleans, racing against the oncoming hurricane season. It lost. It foundered in a hurricane over five-fathom deep Hawk’s Channel and dashed up on Washerwoman Shoals.

The five year-old Key West Shipwreck Historeum is a re-eation of the original Asa Tift Warehouse on Mallory Square complete with an eighty foot spotting tower. Every two hours, every day, there is a show and a tour that opens the early days of Key West to the visitor’s eyes and ears. While there's more than a touch of hokum and a flair for the showmanship that would do wreckers proud, there is also a sense of history here.

. These are not the canon, emeralds, silver and gold on display at Mel Fischer's Maritime Museum down the street. They are simpler things; a gentleman's top hat and a lady's lace glove, shoes, silverware, china by the barrel, household goods, candlesticks and merchant's scales; jewelry, buckles, buttons and broaches; scales and telescopes, ivory and meerschaum, inkwells and paperweights; all things very ordinary, all bits and pieces of people's lives and business in 19th century America. These are artifacts of how they lived. It is hard not to be transported back in time, just a little.

I look out to sea, close my eyes, and I can almost hear a wreck being ground up on the reef. Well, almost. WDJ


Monday, September 11, 2006


The Erie Canal had its role in history literally cut out in that period before the beginning of time by receding ice flows; by dint of geographic anomaly it was the only east-west water route through what we now call the Appalachian Mountain chain, used by Native Americans for hundreds of years between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes

With the arrival of the white man, design followed dreams, and following the American Revolution, a series of jerry-rigged canals connected the inland waterways between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes.

In 1807, a failed entrepreneur and speculator named Jessie Hawley, while serving time in a Canandaigua debtor’s prison, wrote a series of articles detailing his ideas and laying out the first viable plan for a canal system connecting the river and the lake.
On July 4, 1817, newly elected Governor De Witt Clinton oversaw the first shovelful of dirt that was turned in Rome for what was called by detractors, “Clinton’s Ditch” connecting with Utica, fifteen miles away. It changed the face of North America forever.

Completed in 1825, It was forty feet wide at ground level, four feet deep, and twenty eight feet wide at the bottom. It was a magnificent accomplishment, the 19th century equivalent of the first moon landing. Obstacles were met with ingenuity and brute strength, hand tools and dynamite as they built over, cut through, or went around them.

At the Eastern end, they built nineteen locks to circumnavigate the seventy foot high Cohoes Falls and the Mohawk River, to raise the barges one hundred and seventy feet from the Hudson River to the Mohawk Valley Plateau. In Lockport, they cut and blasted their way through the Niagara Escarpment, a seventy-five foot high wall of solid granite, creating five locks that would carry barges out to the Great Lakes.


Where they found rivers, valleys and swamps, they reached back to Roman designs and built eighteen aqueducts, bridges of water over water. They cut and meticulously fit limestone blocks for aqueduct piers, sidewalls and locks, invented concrete that would adhere under water and pioneered techniques that would eventually be used to build the Panama Canal. They did it all by hand, and they succeeded, cutting a 363-mile monument to determination and will across the state in seven years.

With a total east-to-west lift of 675 feet, the first Erie Canal served its purpose far beyond anyone’s expectation or wildest imagination; within a year of its completion, 2,000 boats, 8,000 men and 9,000 horses were employed on the canal. Within twelve years of its completion, What had been a wilderness frontier was slowly peeled back to a vast three hundred mile long farming and commercial corridor.

Cities such as Rome and Syracuse, towns like Cohoes and Amsterdam grew and prospered with the demand for finished goods, while small towns along its banks, such as Camillus, Jordan, Port Byron, Fairport, Gasport and Lockport came into being to serve the canal traffic and the western New York farmlands.

The Mohawk Valley and western New York absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, entrepreneurs and farmers. Some came and stayed, others went on as the canal accelerated the nation’s westward movement.

The present day canal system—completed in 1917-- is a modern, sophisticated waterway, with locks three hundred feet long, forty four feet wide, providing lifts of ten to forty feet, capable of transporting thousands of boats, ships and people annually. And it almost came to a complete end.

Since 1983, there has been no commercial barge traffic. It is used entirely by pleasure boaters and tour boats. It has been saved and preserved for future generations by people with vision; in some cases reaching back to the canal’s past to preserve its future.

In the 1970’s, the historic value of these empty ditches began to surface in the public consciousness.

Rome’s Erie Canal Village is a glimpse of how the preservation movement began. Twenty-two buildings and homes were donated and moved here and it offers the only horse drawn canal boat ride in existence.

In Camillus, they re-created the Sims General Store, stocked with donations from attics across the state, built a gate keepers shack, Unique to Camillus is an eight-foot high section an orginal lock unearthed from the clay where it had been buried one hundred and fifty years ago, and the hand-cut stone piers that supported the Nine Mile Creek aqueduct, standing today like New York’s Roman ruins. Built between1838-1842, it is the only one of the original the canal’s thirty-two aqueducts still in existence. .

Ron Trotter charters out seven double-ended European style canal boats, each weighing upwards of twelve tons catering to well heeled Canal cruising buffs seeking a leisure week on the water.

“The European canal systems--Germany, England, France and the Netherlands--have extensive canal networks, but physically, they can’t hold a candle to the Erie Canal”, he says.

“With their history, they do have the infrastructure, though...I mean, every town and village has restaurants and canal-side facilities which we don’t have. Yet”. That is changing, as towns all along the canal gear up for new development that they hope with change the face of upstate New York

The canal is timeless. At speeds of less than ten miles per hour a visitor can travel from the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains to the Finger Lakes vineyards, to Lake Ontario and Erie. It rolls on, rising and lowering, still the essence of men’s hopes and dreams, it’s potential still to be realized.