Penn Central Crash

In City Journal, a look back at the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad (hat tip: Instapundit), which provides some salutary lessons on how not to run a business:

After the merger [of the Pennsylvania and the New York Central], the railroads discovered that they had incompatible computer systems, which threw railyards into chaos and angered customers. The Penn Central’s three top officials, too, were incompatible. They “scarcely spoke to one another,” write Daughen and Binzen. Stuart Saunders, the board chairman, was a political guy. Alfred Perlman, the president, was a trains guy. These different outlooks could have complemented each other, but personalities got in the way. Rounding out this dysfunctional triumvirate was Penn vet David Bevan, the top financial official, perpetually “angry and humiliated” at not being picked for the top job.

Bevan had two ideas for keeping the cash-bleeding Penn Central alive: corporate diversification and financial trickery. If a railroad couldn’t make money, he thought, perhaps it could invest its cash in entities that could make money. The Penn had a head start in this; it already owned vast swathes of real estate around Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, including five hotels and a share in Madison Square Garden, as well as the New York Rangers and Knicks.

Bevan added to this conservative legacy portfolio a bizarre array of new business interests, from an executive-jet company (he was its best customer) to pipelines, speculative land tracts in the southern U.S., and a travel agency. “Nobody . . . could name the 186 different companies . . . under the Penn Central’s umbrella,” Daughen and Binzen write. Under Bevan’s stewardship, these companies often sold stakes of themselves to one another, generating illusory paper profits. The Penn also had touchingly optimistic views about the future, booking years’ worth of profits, for example, when a third party agreed to buy a tract of real estate for which it wouldn’t actually be able to pay for years. Bevan was also determined to take some of the supposed profits of these deals for himself, setting up an “investment club” with several associates to buy and sell shares in these side companies before the much bigger Penn Central did, thus benefiting from the subsequent price changes.

These innovative methods didn’t generate the money that the Penn Central needed to balance the books, however. So Bevan turned to straightforward borrowing. With $1.5 billion in annual revenue, the Penn borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation’s largest banks, including more than $100 million in the nascent “commercial paper” market. This market of short-term loans was meant not for permanent operating deficits but to cover temporary shortfalls like meeting payroll just before a customer paid for a big order. The banks didn’t ask questions, though, because Penn Central had such a solid reputation—and because it was such a good fee-payer.

This three-card monte game lasted—until it didn’t. At First National City, the predecessor of Citigroup, chief Walter Wriston was “furious at his loan officers for getting his bank so deeply involved”—$300 million in loans—“without knowing what a hole the Penn Central was in.” Members of the Penn Central’s august board were also mad—though many of them perhaps never thought to ask questions because they headed companies that were themselves customers of or vendors for the railroad.

The banks’ and the board members’ big idea was to ask the federal government for a bailout. President Richard Nixon vacillated but ultimately said no, on the basis of the now-quaint idea that Congress would have to agree, which it did not.

The railroad then declared bankruptcy in June 1970, having lasted just 871 days. “Never before had there been a cataclysm as stunning as this,” write Daughen and Binzen. “What had been conceived of as the most awesome transportation machine in the world had ended as the most monumental business failure in United States history . . . How the mighty fell: Stuart Saunders, businessman of the year in 1968, business bankrupt of the year in 1970.” Saunders had a rejoinder: “I didn’t have anything to do with the concept of the Penn Central.”

Read the whole thing

Bronze Age Cash

From UPI (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

Objects suggest Europeans used standardized money 4,000 years ago

New research suggests groups of farmers living in Central Europe were exchanging standardized money — in the form of bronze rings and ribs — during the early Bronze Age, nearly 4,000 years ago.

According to the latest archaeological analysis, described Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, the use of standardized money in Central Europe may have developed independently from money systems that emerged in the Far East and Mediterranean.

Throughout the 20th century, hoards of rings, ribs and axe blades made of bronze have been recovered from early Bronze Age archaeological sites in Europe.

Most have been found in Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland and Poland, but also in France in Denmark.

Researchers have previously surmised that these bronze objects, of similar size, shape and weight, constituted a primitive money supply.

However, proving as much has proven difficult.

“It’s an idea that has been around for some time. There’s a paper by a German professor, Majolie Lenerz-de Wilde, from the nineties who had a first go at trying to show this using histograms,” study author Maikel Kuijpers told UPI in an email.

“The problem is that such a method does not work very well. So, it remained a plausible but poorly evidence suggestion,” said Kuijpers, an assistant professor of European prehistory at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Instead of relying on histograms — the visualization of numerical data — Kuijpers and Leiden colleague Catalin Popa used a psychology principle called the Weber fraction to analyze more than 5,000 bronze objects.

“We went back to this data, added a lot more and — importantly — developed a novel method to calculate standardization from the perspective that people in the past were not weighing with the use of scales, but with their hands,” Kuijpers said.

The Weber fraction describes differences in weight that are imperceptible to human hands – when two objects are similar enough in weight, they feel the same in a person’s hands.

Researchers determined 70 percent of the bronze rings were within the Weber fraction. Smaller but significant portions of the ribs and axes also fell within the Weber fraction.

More (including pictures) at the link.

Ambiguous Place Names

Things I should have known but only discovered recently:

Ionia (right) and the Ionian Islands (left). Google Maps.

• The Ionian Islands are not in Ionia. Ionia itself is in western Asia Minor, and includes such cities as Miletus and Ephesus, and the islands of Samos and Chios. But south of the Adriatic Sea (which lies between Italy and Croatia) lies the Ionian Sea, and the islands off the western coast of the Greek mainland are known as the Ionian Islands. There are seven of them, and thus bear the collective name Heptanese (“seven islands”) – probably the most famous of them is Ithaca, home of the legendary Odysseus, although Corfu and Cythera also possess a certain notoriety.

Aeolia (right) and the Aeolian Islands (left). Google Maps.

• In a similar way, the Aeolian Islands are not in Aeolia. Aeolia was north of Ionia and includes the island of Lesbos, but the Aeolian Islands are in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north of Sicily. I suppose that both groups of islands were settled by people from these respective areas in Asia Minor.

Mississippi Delta, Mississippi River Delta. Google Maps.

• The Mississippi Delta is not the same as the delta of the Mississippi River. From Wikipedia:

The Mississippi Delta, also known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, or simply The Delta, is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi (and portions of Arkansas and Louisiana) which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers…. 

Despite the name, this region is not part of the delta of the Mississippi River. Rather, it is part of an alluvial plain, created by regular flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers over thousands of years…. 
 
The shifting river delta at the mouth of the Mississippi on the Gulf Coast lies some 300 miles south of this area, and is referred to as the Mississippi River Delta. The two should not be confused.
 

The Fastest Manmade Object Ever

From Business Insider (from 2016; hat tip to Tom MacMaster):

The fastest object ever launched was a manhole cover — here’s the story from the guy who shot it into space

The very first underground test was nicknamed “Uncle.” It exploded beneath the Nevada Test Site on November 29, 1951. But the tests we’re interested in were nicknamed “Pascal,” during Operation Plumbbob.

[Astrophysicist Robert] Brownlee designed the Pascal-A test — the first designed to contain nuclear fallout. The bomb was placed at the bottom of a hollow column — three feet wide and 485 feet deep — with a four-inch-thick iron cap on top.

The test was conducted on the night of July 26, 1957, so the explosion coming out of the column looked like a Roman candle. Brownlee said the iron cap in Pascal-A exploded off the top of the tube “like a bat.”

Brownlee wanted to measure how fast the iron cap flew off the column, so he designed a second experiment: Pascal-B.

Brownlee replicated the first experiment, but the column in Pascal-B was deeper at 500 feet deep. They also recorded the experiment with a camera that shot 1 frame per millisecond. On August 27, 1957, the “manhole cover” cap flew off the column with the force of the nuclear explosion. The iron cover was only partially visible in one frame, Brownlee said.

When he used this information to find out how fast the cap was going, Brownlee calculated it was traveling at five times the escape velocity of the Earth — or about 125,000 miles per hour.

This dwarfs the 36,373 mph speed that the New Horizons spacecraft — which people say is the fastest object launched by humankind — eventually reached while traveling toward Pluto.

At the time, Brownlee said, he expected the manhole cover to fall back to Earth, but they never found it.

Since then, Brownlee’s concluded it was going too fast to burn up before reaching outer space. “After I was in the business and did my own missile launches,” he said. “I realized that that piece of iron didn’t have time to burn all the way up [in the atmosphere].”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.While the USSR was the first to launch a satellite, Brownlee was probably the first to launch an object into space. Since it was going so fast, Brownlee said he thinks the cap likely didn’t get caught in the Earth’s orbit as a satellite like Sputnik and instead shot off into outer space. 

“The pressure at the top of that pipe was enormous,” he said. “The first thing that you get is a flash of light coming from the device at the bottom of the empty pipe, and that flash is tremendously hot. That flash that comes is more than 1 million times brighter than the sun. So for [the cap] to blow off was, if I may say so, inevitable.” 

Interesting! Although note there have been doubters

The Public Universal Friend

Portrait of the Public Universal Friend (1821). Wikipedia.

A Wikipedia discovery (hat tip: Robert Black):

The Public Universal Friend (born Jemima Wilkinson; November 29, 1752 – July 1, 1819) was an American preacher born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, to Quaker parents. After suffering a severe illness in 1776, the Friend claimed to have died and been reanimated as a genderless evangelist named the Public Universal Friend, and afterward shunned both birth name and gendered pronouns. In androgynous clothes, the Friend preached throughout the northeastern United States, attracting many followers who became the Society of Universal Friends.

The Public Universal Friend’s theology was broadly similar to that of most Quakers. The Friend stressed free will, opposed slavery, and supported sexual abstinence. The most committed members of the Society of Universal Friends were a group of unmarried women who took leading roles in their households and community. In the 1790s, the Society acquired land in Western New York where they formed the township of Jerusalem near Penn Yan, New York. The Society of Universal Friends ceased to exist by the 1860s. Many writers have portrayed the Friend as a woman, and either a manipulative fraudster or a pioneer for women’s rights, while others have viewed the preacher as transgender or non-binary and a figure in trans history.

Read the rest of the article for more on this fascinating character. 

The Seal of the Public Universal Friend. Wikipedia.

The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872

From Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

If you’ve ever been to NW Colorado, you may have seen Diamond Peak. If you’ve wondered if there are diamonds there, the answer, sadly, is no. But there is a story—one the San Francisco Chronicle called “the most gigantic and barefaced swindle of the age.”

It concerns two prospectors (or, more accurately, two grifters)—the flamboyant Philip Arnold, a Kentuckian born in the same county as Honest Abe Lincoln, and his taciturn cousin John Slack. Arnold had worked for a short while at the Diamond Drill Co. During that period, he had “acquired” a number of uncut industrial-grade diamonds. The diamonds were not especially valuable, but they looked impressive—enough so to thrill several San Francisco investors.

The cousins had a knack for causing such thrills. They told investors that they had found a huge diamond deposit. They appeared concerned—almost overly concerned—about keeping the location of their find secret. This only intrigued investors.

There’s a reason they called this the “Great” Diamond Hoax. Arnold and Slack could have taken the initial relatively modest amounts they were given as investments and run. But instead they traveled to London under assumed names, purchased more uncut diamonds and returned to San Francisco with more “proof” of their find. The list of willing investors grew and grew. It included Charles Tiffany, General George B. McClellan, and General (and Congressman) Benjamin Butler, among many other prominent citizens of the day.

These investors weren’t complete idiots. They insisted that a well-respected mining engineer be taken to the location and examine the evidence. But the engineer—Henry Janin—was duped by the diamonds and other precious stones that the cousins had “salted” the ground with.

The eventual hero of the story was Clarence King, a Yale-educated geologist, who was born on this day in 1842. He and his team of government surveyors had been carefully mapping out the large mountainous area around the so-called diamond field. They happened to be on the same train with Janin, who talked about what he had seen. King was alarmed at the story in part because he feared it would reflect badly on his work to have missed any evidence that such a find was possible.

Although winter was fast approaching, he took his team to the area Janin had described and eventually found the sign for the cousins’ claim. It didn’t take long for him to determine that it was an elaborate hoax. The diamonds and other precious stones were implausible places. The plausible places had no diamonds. The kinds of stones that were placed together would not be naturally found together.

He blew the whistle and the scheme came crashing down, much to the embarrassment of some of America’s most prominent citizens.

There’s more at Smithsonian Magazine

The Stone Pile

A former student of mine shares a Facebook post of local historical interest:

The Georgia Photography Fanatic.

The accompanying text:

Ten miles north of Dahlonega, GA, at the intersection of US 19 and State Road 60, you’ll come up to a roundabout with something odd in the middle: a big stone pile inside a triangle! It’s known as the Stone Pile Gap & it has quite a history!

The historical marker reads:

“This pile of stones marks the grave of a Cherokee princess, Trahlyta. According to legend her tribe, living on Cedar Mountain north of here knew the secret of the magic springs of eternal youth from the Witch of Cedar Mountain.

Trahlyta, kidnapped by a rejected suitor, Wahsega, was taken far away and lost her beauty. As she was dying, Wahsega promised to bury her here near her home and the magic springs. Custom arose among the Indians and later the Whites to drop stones, one for each passerby, on her grave for good fortune. The magic springs, now known as Porter Springs, lie 4 miles northeast of here.”

According to lore, the Georgia Department of Transportation has tried to remove the stones on more than one occasion during road construction. Supposedly each time it happened, at least one person died in accidents while moving the pile, leading many to believe that removing a stone from the pile will bring the curse of the witch of Cedar Mountain upon the thief, so only recently they decided to do the next best thing; build a roundabout around the stone pile!

The Georgia Photography Fanatic.

The historical marker is quoted accurately (although according to the GHS website the maker is currently “down”):

Georgia Historical Society.

Of course I would need to do more research on this question before coming up with a definitive answer (who exactly were these people who died?), but my hunch is that this entire thing – both the original story and the story of the subsequently immovable pile – is B.S. If nothing else, the Cherokee did not have “princesses,” and any story that refers to one should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Local Exploration

• I just finished reading Joseph B. Mahan’s History of Old Cassville, 1833-1864, kindly leant to me by my neighbor Mark Leary. I was pleased to learn that Mahan was a graduate of Reinhardt College. The book tells how the Western & Atlantic railroad passed Cassville by, so the city decided to become an education center by sponsoring two colleges: Cherokee Baptist College and Cassville Female College. These closed during the Civil War and were transformed into hospitals, and then destroyed in retaliation for the murders of ten US soldiers whose bodies were dumped on the grounds of the Female College. 

I was pleased to encounter this map, which is probably the most accurate reconstruction of the Cassville Affair that I’ve seen. Note the road that leads to “Wofford’s Crossing,” which is what White was called at the time. 

• On Brooke Road stands one of those chimneys that was once part of a house. You see them here and there around these parts; they make for interesting follies. 

This one, apparently, was once part of a school, according to an Etowah Valley Historical Society sign on the road:

The Boston-Brooke Schoolhouse is not yet included in the catalogue of Bartow County schools on the EVHS website. 

• The iron furnaces mentioned earlier on this blog are not the only industrial remnants on Stamp Creek. If you walk down Old Mill Road and continue on the trail after it ends, eventually you come to the remains of a bridge that once spanned the creek. Presumably this was how the Pool Creek furnace was supplied. 

South of this bridge (but north of Pool Furnace, and on the opposite side of Stamp Creek) are the remains of a building. I took these photos in April, hence the vegetation. 

I am told this was a carriage works! 

• The nearest railway depot to Cassville was Cass Station, two miles to the south of Cassville, not far from where Burnt Hickory Road crosses the Western & Atlantic. The depot burned down in 1969, but the nearby ruins of the old cotton warehouse and Quillian’s store may be explored. I took these photos in July. 

UPDATE: A couple more discoveries:

• The Goodson Cemetery is found on Goodson Cemetery Road near Lake Allatoona. The road itself is blocked off and the cemetery is in a rather unkempt state, which is a shame (a YouTube video illustrates what the cemetery looked like in 2015; whatever cleanup they did at the time has since been erased by the forces of nature). 

I was interested to discover the grave marker of Jacob Stroup (1771-1846), one of the major figures in the local antebellum iron industry, in the form of a miniature iron furnace. 

It reads:

Sacred to the
Memeory [sic] of
Iron Master
Jacob Stroup
Born 19 Mar 1771
Died 8 Nov 1846
GGG Grandfather of
John R. Jackson
Phone 770 445 3591

Judging from the font (and the publication of a phone number, including area code!), it would appear that this marker was erected by Mr. Jackson some time in the late twentieth century. It’s a shame that it wasn’t better constructed in the first place, though. 

It seems that the current grave marker of Stroup’s third wife Sarah Feuell Stroup dates from the same point in time. 

This one dates from much earlier – 1817, which is really quite early for white settlement in this area.

Of course, there are also many poignant reminders of just how common childhood mortality once was. 

• This photo is not historical as such but these two street corner preachers, spotted on January 2 in Cartersville, are certainly in a long tradition: 

I’ve got to commend their creativity, although I have no idea what “Hooters Hookers” or “Twerker Berzerkers” are…

Smallpox and the Revolution

From National Geographic from last spring (hat tip: Dan Franke):

How a public health crisis nearly derailed the American Revolution

George Washington confronted a smallpox epidemic with a belief in science—and a controversial plan.

When American colonists launched their revolution against Britain, they quickly encountered a second but invisible enemy that threatened to wipe out the new Continental Army: highly contagious smallpox.

But luckily for the young nation, the army’s commander was familiar with this formidable foe. George Washington’s embrace of science-based medical treatments—despite stiff opposition from the Continental Congress—prevented a potentially disastrous defeat, and made him the country’s first public health advocate.

A hard lesson

Washington’s wisdom came from personal experience with the horrors of an epidemic. “Was strongly attacked by the small Pox,” Washington wrote as a teenager in 1751, while visiting the Caribbean island of Barbados. At the time, the disease caused by the variola virus killed as many as one in two victims. Washington was lucky. After nearly a month of chills, fever, and painful pustules, he emerged with the pockmarked face typical of survivors—but alive, and with immunity to the illness.

Washington’s encounter with the virus proved fortunate for the new nation. In 1775, smallpox arrived in Boston, carried by troops sent from Britain, Canada, and Germany to stamp out the growing rebellion. Many of these soldiers had been exposed and were therefore immune, but the vast majority of American colonists were not.

In the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Washington’s Continental Army had set up camp across the Charles River from the stricken city. To the dismay of many patriots seeking refuge from the British, the general prohibited anyone from Boston from entering the military zone. “Every precaution must be used to prevent its spreading,” he sternly warned one of his subordinates about the virus. To John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, Washington vowed to “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

By immediately isolating anyone suspected of infection and limiting outside contact, Washington “prevented a disastrous epidemic among the Continental troops,” historian Ann Becker says. In March 1776, when the British withdrew from Boston, Washington even specified that only soldiers who had suffered from smallpox be allowed into the city and its surroundings.

More at the link, including Washington’s defense of “variolation” (i.e. inoculation). I suppose this article is supposed to be “timely” but it’s good to remember that not all diseases are the same. COVID-19 does not kill one in two people, for instance.