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Thoughts on Our Transportation Heritage

Aviator C

When it comes from getting to “here” from “there,” there has been a constant push  to do it faster (until the demise of Concorde at least), more reliably, and more comfortably.  The steamship doomed the sailing vessels by eliminating the need for a following wind, and steam locomotive made long distance train travel possible.  The Wright Brothers' use of controllable devices made sustained powered flight possible, and the jet engine brought extreme speed to air travel.   

I am always excited to fly on a new type of aircraft or visit a newly built airport, but at the same time, I am dismayed because it means an older aircraft is closer to retirement or a familiar building could soon meet the wrecking ball.  Thankfully in recent years, the preservation movement has grown.  When the old Penn Station in New York was torn down for the current Madison Square Garden, the uproar could be heard across the land.  The uproar grew louder when Grand Central Station was also threatened.  Still, even with an active preservation movement, not every transportation edifice is saved or should be, but consider this:  I recently visited a friend of mine who lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and we took the MARC commuter train into Washington.  The Martinsburg train station is the oldest operating depot in the nation, and dates to 1846--that’s 17 years before the Civil War!  Just imagine all the different people who passed through the station over the years.  Every day, it still does what it was built for, providing shelter to travelers. Of course, it is probably easier to save buildings.  Take the aircraft from the airport, the train from the station, and the ship from the docks, and the buildings can live through other purposes.  Unfortunately, the planes, trains, and ships themselves don't have very many options for retirement.

The best thing and the worst thing about being a transportation nut is that, what was shiny and new a few years ago, is out of date and ready for scrap today.  Just try and buy a ticket on a Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, or even a Lockheed L-1011 today.  You can’t.  The grand streamlined trains with their dome cars and colorful equipment brought America back to the rails after World War II, until those same 707s and DC-8s in turn doomed most of those trains.    In addition to dooming the streamliner, the 707 and DC-8 turned almost brand new propellor aircraft like the DC-7 into scrap metal because everyone wanted to travel by jet.  The jet's conquest was most complete at sea.  Today we have lavish cruise ships whose sole purpose is to visit popular destinations, but only one part-time scheduled transatlantic service sails between New York and Europe.  Cruising to the tropics is much different than grand ocean liners crossing the rough and gray North Atlantic on a regular schedule.  Once the jetliner brought Europe within a few hours of New York, no one wanted to spend several days crossing the Atlantic.  The grand ships were doomed.

Prior to World War II, if you wanted to go to Europe, you went by ship.  The North Atlantic shipping lanes to Southampton, Le Havre, or Bremen were as competitive as today's flights from the Northeast to Florida.  The RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, the SS Bremen, and SS Normandie were among the fastest transatlantic ships and carried the flags of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France respectively.  After the war, the two Queens, along with the new SS France faced competition from the SS United States.   

On her maiden voyage in 1952, the United States captured the Blue Riband with the fastest eastbound and westbound crossings to date.  In fact, the ship still holds the record for the fastest westbound crossing.  Reflecting the design style of the 1950s, the ship had no wood interior fittings at all, and its fittings instead were made of glass, spun glass fiber, and metal.   

The United States remained in service until 1969, about the same time that the Boeing 747 was entering service.  After being towed around half the world in retirement, the United States is now moored along the water front in Philadelphia, not too far from Commodore Dewey’s flagship cruiser, the USS Olympia that helped seal victory in the Spanish-American War.  Unlike the Olympia, which is a museum, the United States just waits and waits, and waits, and waits.  It has been spared from the scrapper in the nearterm, but her longterm future is still very much in doubt.    

There is still a chance to save this proud representative of a time when America had a large and active civilian maritime fleet, and if you are interested, visit the blog of the SS United States Conservancy for more information

Explorer C
Hi Brian, Nice post. I'm a bit of a history buff myself, particularly of WWII. Keep up the good work. Thanks Jeff How about some link luv? 🙂
Aviator C
Jeff, thanks for the comments, and you are now linked. Brian
Explorer C
Hi, Brian....Great post! But one correction- the New York Central/New Haven RR station in Manhattan is Grand Central TERMINAL-one of the most common mistakes made! There was a Grand Central Station (now gone) in Chicago that served the C&O and B&O railroads......Jim Jefferys