Monday, June 25, 2012

Commentary by Marie Akerman on the poem "Map" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

We recently attended a family reunion and Art's aunt proudly shared the essay that her granddaughter, Marie Akerman, had written for the History of Cartography Project, No. 20, a commentary on "Map" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub. It is a delightful essay and brought back memories of the many maps in my life. The poem that inspired the essay was written by Julie Cadwallader-Straub, who lives in Burlington, Vermont. She included “Map” in her first published collection of poetry, Face to Face (DreamSeeker Books, 2010); it is also featured on her website, and Garrison Keillor read it on National Public Radio, in The Writer’s Almanac for 23 March 2011 (

Here is the beginning of Marie's commentary:

Like Julie Cadwallader-Staub I, too, have grown up surrounded by maps. When I was a kid my family crowded into our car each summer, my sister and I buried in the backseat with luggage and several unwieldy road maps. My dad led us on exhausting trips across the web of highways that link Chicago, my hometown, to every other place on the continent. Although my dad was the one who toiled lovingly over the itineraries, my mom was no passive bystander on the road. She was the navigator, pointing out when my dad had strayed from the bold line of red marker that highlighted our route—“Jim! That was the exit!” At the time I didn’t realize the significance of these well-worn pieces of paper, but as I have gotten older I have come to appreciate my dad’s collection of personalized road maps. They record a childhood’s worth of family trips; they are memories of summers and days that I can no longer remember on my own. ..... Read the rest of this wonderful essay written by Marie Akerman at the History of Cartography Project.

Like Marie, I have many memories of maps, and like Julie-Cadwallader-Staub, I grew up in Minneapolis. (Her poem recalls childhood trips with her family in Minnesota as she visits her aging father.)  When I was a child, my family made annual summer trips from our home in Minneapolis to visit our relatives in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and once, all the way to California. This was before the days of freeways and I remember poring over the maps as we drove, calculating the total distance by adding up the distances between towns, dividing it by our speed (which was difficult because it constantly varied) and trying to estimate our time of arrival.  After I grew up and got married, some of our trips took us to Chicago where we visited my husband's relatives, which included  Marie and her family.  On one of those trips I remember using a Triptych from AAA, a kind of map flip-book that broke down each section of the trip into a page size segment.  Today, as we travel, my husband likes to use his GPS to get us to our destination, but I still prefer a paper map. Like Julie, I like to imagine us as a tiny dot following those black lines across the paper.  At any moment in time, I want to "see" where we are on the map. 

I hope you will follow the links to read Julie Cadwallader-Staub's poem and Marie's full essay.  
No. 20. “Map,” by Julie Cadwallader-Staub,Commentary by Marie Akerman was first published 2012 as a limited edition broadsheet by the History of Cartography Project, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 550 North Park Street, Madison, WI 53706-1404, U.S.A.
Marie Akerman is daughter of geographer Luann Hamilton and map historian James Akerman, of Chicago. She recently graduated from Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, where she majored English.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: The Birthplace of Aviation

Wilbur Wright, Kitty Hawk, NC
On December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. In the summer of 2008, as part of a family vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I visited Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk and  saw the museum displaying their airplanes, the workshop, and climbed to the top of the small hill where their flights were launched.
Orville Wright, Kitty Hawk, NC
Before building airplanes, the Wright brothers made and sold bicycles in Dayton, Ohio.  Their experience making bicycles helped them develop the skills they needed to build and fly airplanes.

In 1899, Wilbur and Orville began making airplanes in their bicycle shop.  Other people were also working the invention of flying machines, but no one had successfully flown one. Wilbur and Orville realized that flying a plane was similar in some ways to riding a bicycle.  It required constant small adjustments to keep it in balance.  This idea, combined with the Wright brothers skill at assembling machines, contributed to their success at creating the first airplane.

Museum at Wright Brothers National Memorial

As part of our visit to the museum, we listened to a presentation by one of the park service volunteers, who demonstrated how the various parts of the plane could be controlled by the pilot and keep the plane airborne.  Everyone–including all four generations of our family-- enjoyed the visit and learned things we didn’t know before.

Did you know?  On October 24, 1911, at Kitty Hawk, NC, Orville Wright established a new world soaring record in a 50 mile-per-hour wind of nine minutes and forty-five seconds.  This remained a world’s record for 10 years.

View of the Wright brothers' flight path from top of hill

Details: You can get directions and plan your trip to Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers National Memorial at
History of the Outer Banks:  click here for some nice images, history of the Kitty Hawk area and links to more information.

During the rest of our week on the Outer Banks we enjoyed swimming at the beach and in the pool of our rented house, bike riding, eating fresh local crabs, watching fiery summer thunderstorms from the safety of our porch, and basically, just relaxing.  It was the perfect place for a summer vacation!

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Golden Gate Bridge: Celebrating 75 Years!

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, view from the Marin Headlands
On April 19, 1937, four days after the paving of the deck was finished, the first ceremony celebrating the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge was held.  Two companies of soldiers from nearby Fort Scott and a group of officials, which included Joseph Strauss, Chief Engineer, and San Francisco’s Mayor Angelo Rossi, marched to the center of the bridge.  There, after listening to several speeches, they stood back to watch while a ceremonial gold rivet was driven into place by Edward Stanley, a bridge worker who had also driven the ceremonial first rivet.  His nickname was Iron Horse Stanley.
Unlike the steel rivets for the bridge, which were always heated to make them pliable, the gold rivet, being made of a softer metal, was thought to be sufficiently pliable to be driven cold.  However, much to the embarrassment of Stanley and everyone else, the gold rivet proved to be too difficult to drive, and after a great deal of effort, the attempt was abandoned.  Later, the gold rivet was successfully placed in a nearby panel.

Cutting the ceremonial chain on opening day for cars, May 28, 1937
There were two official opening days for the public–one on May 27 for pedestrians only, and one the following day for automobiles.  The morning of May 27, 1937 was cold and foggy, but this did not deter the crowd of 18,000 people, all eager to be among the first to cross the bridge.  Some, including a boy Scout named Walter Kronenberg, had been waiting since 7:00 pm the night before.  Kronenberg was identified as being the first in line to cross the bridge.  Like the others, he had paid the required five cents pedestrian toll. At noon on May 29th, in Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key announcing that the bridge was in public use.  More than one hundred ships were waiting in the water below the bridge to begin their salute.  Overhead, five hundred Navy airplanes flew in formation over the bridge and at the same time, throughout the Bay Area, every foghorn, ship’s whistle, church bell, automobile horn and siren bleated, honked, and blared in a noisy cheer for the new bridge.

Caroline's parents at the 50th Anniversary Celebration, 1987
Over the years, the bridge has witnessed numerous anniversary celebrations including the 25th, 40th and 45th anniversaries of its completion.  On January 5, 1983, the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the bridge construction was celebrated.  Many of the men who had worked on the bridge came together again and shared memories.  A garden plot commemorating the five year period of bridge construction was planted in nearby Golden Gate Park.  Then in March 1987, the bridge celebrated the 50th anniversary of its completion as 300,000 people crowded onto the bridge, testing the limits of its weight capacity.  The day began as "Bridgewalk 87", a reenactment of "Pedestrian Day 37".  By 11:00 a.m. the bridge was cleared for a motorcade of vintage automobiles.  As a token of appreciation to the thousands of motorists who use the bridge each day, the board of directors suspended toll collection for the day.
Now, in 2012, the Golden Gate Bridge celebrates its 75th anniversary with a year-long series of events which began with a festival on May 27th, culminating with glorious firework display.  Events and exhibits will continue through the year.

Until the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built in 1964 to join Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge had the longest center span of any suspension bridge in the world.  It is still one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. To find out facts about the bridge's construction and answers to questions ranging from toll and traffic information, the formula for the distinctive orange paint for the bridge, and “When did the Golden Gate Bridge appear on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine? (February 26, 1976),  go to the website of the Golden Gate Bridge Organization.

I first crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in 1966 when I came to visit my parents, who had recently moved to San Francisco from their home in Minneapolis.  I have crossed the bridge many times since, in wind and rain, sun and fog.  The view is always spectacular.  In anticipation of the 50th anniversary celebration of the bridge, I wrote a book for children, The Golden Gate Bridge (Franklin Watts, 1986.)  It has long been out of print, although you might be able to find it in a library.
[The photograph above, from my book, is of the opening day for cars in 1937, and is courtesy of the archives of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.]

Monday, June 4, 2012

The La Brea Tar Pits: A Treasure Trove of Ice Age Fossils in Los Angeles

The George C. Page Museum, which houses the Ice Age fossils found in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits, sits in the heart of the busy city of Los Angeles.  The sticky tar found in the area around the museum not only trapped unwary animals 40,000 years ago but preserved their bones after they died, providing us with one of the world’s  richest sources of information about life in the Ice Age.  Recently, when a parking garage was being excavated for the adjacent County Art Museum, a spectacular new cache of fossils was discovered, which included the remains of dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, horses, bison, and ground sloths, as well as hundreds of smaller animals and plants.  Most rare of all was a well-preserved male Columbian mammoth fossil, nearly complete, with 10-foot long tusks. He has been nicknamed Zed. Scientists estimate that this new find could double the collection of fossils by three to four million specimens.
The remains of over 420 different kinds of animals are among the Rancho La Brea discoveries. 
The tar pits and Page Museum are my favorite places to take visitors to Los Angeles.  Nowhere else on Earth is there a place like it.  In geologic time, 10,000 years ago is quite recent.  It is not hard to imagine that if we were living in California back then (and there were Native Americans living in the Los Angeles basin at that time) that we could have had mammoths in our back yards. The fact that the tar has preserved the remains of so many of the animals that lived in California during the Ice Age, and which are now extinct, makes the La Brea discoveries unique.
The museum is very kid-friendly, with numerous hands-on exhibits.  You can touch a fossil bone, try to pull a rod out of sticky tar, or listen to the roar of an animated wooly mammoth.
The Rancho La Brea Tar Pits are on land that once belonged to Captain G. Allen Hancock, who operated oil wells there.  Today, the oil wells are gone, and the land is a county park named after Captain Hancock.  In the park are both the tar pits, including pit 91, which is still being excavated, and the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries.  Several models of Ice Age animals including giant ground sloths and a short-faced bear are also located in the park. 
In the lake outside the museum, models of a mother and baby mammoth appear to be sinking into the tar, just as real mammoths met their deaths in the past.
Most fossils found at Rancho La Brea are used for scientific research, but inside the museum are representative examples of all the larger animals, providing visitors with an appreciation of the enormous variety of life that roamed the Los Angeles basin 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.  Many of the bones excavated from the tar pits are of predators–dire wolves, sabertooth cats, American lions (yes, North America did once have lions), and short-faced bears.  One of my favorite exhibits is a frieze of dire wolf skulls. The wolves hunted in packs.  When their prey became stuck in tar and they jumped on to attack it, the wolves often became victims of the tar as well.
The remains of more than 1600 dire wolves, more than those of any other single animal, have been found. 
I always take visitors to watch the short movie that introduces the museum and gives an overview of the Ice Age and tar pit discoveries.  You can also look through a window into the lab and see people cleaning and sorting fossils.  Some of the most important finds are the micro-fossils, small bits of plants, seeds, bones, and other remains that provide clues to the overall environment.

The Page Museum is open 9:30 to 5:00 pm every day of the year except July 4, Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1.  For information about tickets, parking, directions, and everything you need to know to plan a visit, go the the Page Museum website plan-your-trip page.