Archives for December 2012

Moving Bridge

December 31, 2012 by cynick | Posted in timelapse

Another of my hobbies is documenting the range of motion of movable bridges. Examples of such bridges that exist today are limited mostly to railroads, but a few notable highway survivors, such as the Stillwater Lift Bridge, still trundle along.

Most of these movable bridges can be photographed in motion at any time, but sometimes a bridge moves just once in its entire lifetime.

Still rare to this country is the concept of building bridges in some safe place and then transporting entire completed spans to their eventual resting spot, so when I learned that the main span of the new Mississippi River bridge at Hastings, Minnesota would be built in a field, barged a mile downriver, and cabled up into place, I knew I had to be there.

I made several trips to Hastings over the summer to observe the progress on the span’s construction; this photo gallery dates to about a month prior to the installation:

Sadly, I dropped the ball and missed the move from land to barge. The event was not highly publicized, and the local authorities took steps to prevent people from getting a good look.

It sat in the river, off to the side of the main channel, for a couple more weeks, ostensibly to wait for the weather to cooperate, but finally it was announced that the installation would take place between the 22nd and 24th of September.

Other than that they had obtained a 72 hour window to close the river and the existing highway bridge at that point to perform the installation, I had no idea what to expect.

I arrived on Saturday morning at 11am. The bridge had already been floated down from up near the dam, where it had been berthed since being moved onto the barges.

I found a good spot near the bank next to a piece of laser-sighted survey equipment, set up my tripod, programmed my intervalometer for a 30 second interval, and got comfortable.

An only-in-Minnesota fair-like atmosphere persisted all day long. A lone vendor, a guy in a trailer selling hotdogs, mini-donuts, and coffee, did great business.

The vibe reminded me of a similar occasion back in 1995: the implosion of the Montgomery Wards tower. It was a Sunday morning, at dawn, in, as I recall, below zero temps, and there were hundreds of people out on the streets to watch it go down. I remember a car with Nebraska plates pulling up, and someone from within hollering, “What’re y’all doing out here??” They couldn’t possibly have understood. It was a Minnesota thing.

As the afternoon went on, very little appeared to happen. The span moved once in a while, but the movements were so small that they could only be detected by keeping completely still and comparing the relative distance between a piece of the existing bridge and a piece of the new one. It was a bit like trying to detect the moon’s movement with the naked eye.

Families posed in front of the police tape and had their picture taken with the bridge in the background. I heard more than one kid grumble about how boring it all was, but I thought that they would probably be grateful, twenty years down the line, to have a record that they had been there The Day the Bridge Went Up.

Others became upset and demanded action; from whom, I’m not sure. I helpfully reminded many people that this thing wasn’t going on for their entertainment (although there was a bit of a laser light show at the end when they were doing their final measurements prior to raising the span!)

Misinformation abounded. Some of it was purely ridiculous, but some was just plausibly true enough that I began to wonder whether it was the product of some mischievous rumormonger.

Instead I realized that it was the result of collective armchair engineering. People, given nothing to watch and nothing to do, and wary of the dreaded “uncomfortable silence” will conjure up all manner of bullshit speculation, which would then be passed along to the next person, becoming more and more distorted along the way.

The longer I sat there, the more people got the idea I was somehow involved with the project, and would come over to ask me questions. I was privy to a bit of true information, since from time to time an engineer would come by to check the equipment nearby and would volunteer a little about what was happening, but I certainly didn’t have anything close to a full picture. After telling people what I knew, I’d then engage in the same kind of speculative talk as the others.

Eventually, the same ideas were repeated and recycled, and nothing new was suggested or seen.

A old man came by and said, “Did you know they made it a few inches too short?” Without missing a beat, I retorted, “Did you know that’s the sixth time I’ve heard that joke this hour?” His wife laughed and laughed. He did not.

I finished the book I had started. The crowd began to thin. I stuck around, knowing that ultimately, the timelapse video would tell a much more interesting tale than realtime reality.

By late afternoon, as I started getting the shakes from full bladder, empty stomach, and rapidly dropping mercury, I thought about packing it in, but stayed transfixed at the scene. Leaving then would seem a bit like turning off the car radio in the middle of a favorite song after arriving somewhere. You don’t go into the house, you sit there like an idiot singing or head-bopping along with the song until it’s over.

But then, as the sun was going down, my information source said that they were now working on the rail system to slide the span from the barges to the bottom of the pylons, and that this was a 12 hour operation.

That sounded like a good time to go home and recharge. I used pennies to mark the location of my tripod legs, packed up my gear, and biked back to my car.

Not deterred in the least by the boredom, or the rumors that the bridge wouldn’t be raised until Monday, I was back at the same spot by 10am on Sunday. It took about ten minutes to locate the pennies, and I recreated the shot within a pixel or two.

This time I came a little more prepared. I brought some bread and hummus, the Sunday NYT crossword, and more layers of clothing.

I sat there all day, going in and out of consciousness, meditating on a single leaf fragment on the ground, and listening for the clicks of my shutter.

Once again, by late afternoon, I was feeling the constraints of my bladder, but I didn’t feel like trusting my equipment to the crowd enough to steal away for a few minutes.

And then I was saved! My building’s caretaker, Mike, a longtime Hastings resident, happened by. I chatted with him for a while, and then asked if he’d watch my stuff for a few minutes.

I could barely walk, but I made it the hundred yards to the port-o-john, and came back seemingly pounds lighter.

The highlight of the day had been the painstaking move of the span off the barges to its place between the pylons, again, barely perceptible to the naked eye. In comparison, the work to hook the cables to the bridge went by in a flash.

But then nothing happened for hours. The talk was that raising the span was a five hour operation that would be completed by morning.

Now I had a choice to make. Surely, if I were to go home, and come back again, the span would be up, and I would have essentially wasted the whole weekend.

I decided to stay at least until I saw the bridge moving upward. An elderly gentleman took up a spot beside me, and we kept each other awake into the evening by noting every small thing that was happening, and postulating that after each thing that the bridge’s moving just had to be imminent.

At 9pm, he gave up and went home.

Another guy, who had his tripod set up nearby, came over to chat. We talked about all manner of topics for a few hours, which made the time go faster, but he, too, gave up. By then the temperature had dropped into the high 40s.

I was losing hope, and starting to entertain the idea of packing up, when lo! around midnight the bridge made its first tentative jerk skyward!

Reinvigorated, I decided to stay. But would I be able to last another five hours? Would my camera’s batteries?

As it turned out, the relative lack of wind made it possible to raise the bridge faster than had been thought, and it was completely in place by 3am. Orion had just come up over the bridge, surely symbolic of something, but of what I don’t know.

The camera’s batteries had gotten down to 15%, (a great test of the power consumption of my camera!), and after sitting there for 17 hours, with no food or drink over the previous twelve, my own personal batteries were somewhere south of that!

As I packed up, and made my slow, cold, stiff ride back to the car, I thought I had really achieved something, and I think the timelapse video bears that out. I’m currently looking into possibly getting it used as filler on public television, but until then, here’s an animated gif that contains the money shots:

A Bibliophile Christmas

December 16, 2012 by cynick | Posted in bibliophilia , saint-paul

I am a lifelong adherent of the Theory of “Scroogenomics”.

This is the rather unintuitive idea, promulgated by a Pennsylvania professor of economics, that compulsive gift giving during the Christmas season actually harms the economy rather than boosts it, due to the great deal of waste that such giving creates.

The only thing I hate more than feeling obligated to give people perfunctory gifts that they did not ask for, will not use, and will either end up in a landfill or a Goodwill, is receiving such gifts, and having to put on a veneer of false gratitude, lest I hurt someone’s feelings, and then having to file away little notes of remembrance in my brain to display, wear, or talk about such gifts each time I encounter the cretin who gave it to me, so that their feelings aren’t hurt in any future time as well.

Bah humbug! What could be more exhausting?

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a terribly stingy person, in fact, I think I’m fairly generous, and I do not limit that generosity to one narrow time of year. However, I’m only willing to display that generosity with things that are truly meaningful and useful to a person.

Sometimes, quite rarely, a great gift opportunity comes along that actually coincides with Christmas.

Now, my great friend Mike, who I’ve known virtually all of my life, comes from a long line of artists, and is himself a professional artist. I had always known that one of his ancestors has portraits of governors hanging in the Minnesota State Capitol, but it was only at the beginning of this year, on a field trip with Mike to the Capitol to seek out those paintings, that I learned more details about the man who made them: Mike’s great-great grandfather, Nicholas R. Brewer.

Mr. Brewer, it turns out, wrote an autobiography toward the end of his life, and after having expressed my interest in reading it, Mike pointed me to the website of the Library of Congress, where a scanned copy of this book could be viewed, page by page.

Since I am a person with a deep interest in the historical roots of St. Paul, this book proved to be an amazing document indeed! Mr. Brewer was born in Olmstead County in the year before Minnesota became a state, moved to St. Paul in 1875 with thirty-four dollars in his pocket – a true St. Paul pioneer! – and worked his way up to becoming a celebrated artist.

The book is peppered with names that litter today’s landscape – eg., Isaac Staples, Archbishop Ireland, James J. Hill, Pierce Butler, Frank Kellogg – and contains Mr. Brewer’s observances and anecdotes from conversations with these men.

One remembrance I found particularly interesting was his recounting of the horse-drawn streetcar on Fourth Street. On the “steep grade on a couple of blocks of Fourth St.” – presumably between Minnesota and Wabasha streets – the cars needed an extra horse to get them up the hill. This “reinforcement nag”, as he called it, was smart enough that they could unhitch him, and tell him to go back to the bottom and wait for the next car.

Mr. Brewer, being a lad of 18 who had only just arrived in town, assumed the horse was a runaway, and thinking he was doing the owner a favor, tied the horse to a post to prevent him from running too far afield – and in return received a severe tongue lashing from a driver of one of the cars, and slight mockery from some girls who were riding the car! He remarked,“I never go down that street to this day that I do not recall what a hayseed I was”; and now whenever I’m on those particular blocks of that street, I think about that story and smile.

Mike had said that one of his long term wishes was to find a copy of the book; over his many years of searching, he’d never found one. I made it my goal to find a copy of this wonderful book for my friend.

I strongly felt that if it were to be found anywhere, it would be at Larry McMurtry’s storied bookstore, Booked Up – which is less of a bookstore and more of a book campus, comprised of four separate buildings – therefore, on a recent trip to San Antonio, I went 400 miles off course to tiny Archer City, Texas, not certain of what I’d find.

On the way there, I had read that only a couple months prior, Booked Up had hosted an auction wherein about three-fourths of the collection, some 300,000 books, had been sold off; McMurtry wanted to scale back in order to avoid overburdening his children. Choosing in this instance to be a ‘glass-half-full’ guy, I still thought it was worth a try. I had budgeted up to three hours of time to look through the labyrinth of shelves – the layout is self-described as “whimsical” – or up to the first onset of mold-induced wheezing, whichever came first.

I pulled up in front of Building #1, next to a car with Maryland plates – another book hound on a similar quest, perhaps – and went inside. A friendly young woman was sitting at a desk in there, with the requisite cat or two for companionship. Usually when I enter such a place, I’m not looking for anything specific, indeed, my pleasure is mostly derived from the unexpected find, but in this case, I was able to clearly state that I was looking for a book called “Trails Of A Paintbrush”, by Nicholas Brewer.

She frowned, and said that she was fairly certain that most of the art books had been sold in the auction, but she rose and started off through a doorway to the back shelving area, beckoning me to follow. We turned a corner, went through another doorway to an adjoining space, down about three rows of shelves, and turned another corner into a dead end aisle, where she stopped in front of a tall shelf, probably 10’x6’, positively crammed with books.

She suggested I start scanning that shelf, and, failing that, there were a couple other areas she could show me.

And then something utterly amazing happened: the FIRST book my eyes focused on was the book! Forgetting decorum, I blurted out, “Holy shit! There it is!!”

It was near the top of the shelf. I got up on tiptoes and pulled it down. It wasn’t musty or moldy, and the binding wasn’t broken or loose at all. No dust jacket, but that is to be expected for a 75 year old book. As I leafed through it, every page was there, and in fact, a couple appeared to be uncut!

And then I arrived at the first page: It had been signed by Mr. Brewer himself, to Clifford K. Berryman, who a quick Google search revealed to have been a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington DC political cartoonist who had worked at the Washington Post, and for most of the first half of the 20th Century, at the Washington Star.

I had budgeted three hours, with fairly low expectations – even the story that I had explicitly driven there to look for it would have had some value! – but instead, after three minutes, I had come up with a signed copy! I am still geeking out about it; I can’t imagine coming up with such a miraculous find ever again in my lifetime!

As I drove away from there, I was grinning ear to ear.

When I returned, over thirty hours later, to St. Paul, I was actually scheduled to attend a concert with Mike the next evening but I said not a word of any of this. I wanted to wrap it and give it to him as a surprise Christmas gift.

And indeed, a couple weeks later, after a lengthy dinner conversation, still not having mentioned the book, I started my speech about Scroogenomics, and said, “but then sometimes… hang on a minute, I got you something”, and I went out to the car to fetch it.

His stunned reaction upon folding aside the tissue paper and seeing that book, and holding it in his hands, brought me every ounce of joy that I had hoped it would, a memory which I will savor for many years to come!