John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: July, 2019

IRT EL Trains Go to War

This story begins on June 1, 1940 when the City of New York merged the two privately operated subway lines, the BMT, (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) and the IRT, the (Interborough Rapid Transit) systems into the IND, their municipal system. Overnight, the city fathers accomplished a form of urban renewal so extensive that even Robert Moses might have been impressed, if he ever gave a damn about rapid transit which is doubtful.

On that day, most of the original elevated lines serving Manhattan and Brooklyn were condemned to oblivion. Like a light switch being clicked, two of three IRT Manhattan Elevated lines ceased to be in service, the Second Avenue Line and the Ninth Avenue Line. (The Sixth Avenue Line had ceased operating in 1938.) In Brooklyn, the BMT’s Fulton Street Line and the Fifth Avenue line also ceased operating.

Coincidentally, a similar scenario played out in San Francisco Bay area as two of the three interurban passenger lines that only began running from Oakland to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge in 1939 quit in early 1941. Only one, the Key Line remained.

After the fall of France in June of 1940, when Britain stood alone. FDR rallied a reluctant America with his “Short of War” aid to England, lend lease, destroyers for bases and the beginnings of our arsenal for democracy.

Henry J. Kaiser was already building merchant ships for the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) when they accepted his proposal to build a new shipyard in Richmond a suburb of Oakland on December 20, 1940. Initially, its purpose was to build sixteen merchant ships for Great Britain. On April 14, 1941, steel was laid for the first ship, the SS Ocean Vanguard. Five months later, work began on a second shipyard to build the new class of inexpensive merchant ships, simple-to-operate that could be produced quickly to replace the drastic loss of ships being sunk at the hands of the Nazi U-Boats. Rightfully deemed, the Liberty Ship, the first was built at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Yard and christened the SS Patrick Henry. Each Liberty ships was engineered to finish one Atlantic crossing should it be lucky.  

The SS James Otis was the first to be built at Richmond, laid down in September of 1941 and delivered early in 1942. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR’s arsenal grew to become a manufacturing behemoth beyond imagination. Kaiser increased production at Richmond, again and again opening shipyards 3 and 4. Workers were recruited nationwide reaching a total of 93,000 shipyard workers of whom 27% were women – Richmond’s pre-war population of 23,000 multiped to 130,000.

An entire new infrastructure had to be created; housing, schools, medical facilities, shops and schools. Transportation for the workers and their families was critical. The shipyards operated seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. At their height, those four yards turned out two new vessels every week a feat unequaled by any other shipbuilding facility.

Ferries carried workers across the bay from San Francisco. Car-pooling workers earned extra gas and rubber coupons to drive to work and bus lines were extended to the shipyards. Still they were not enough to transport all the workers. Another solution was needed, a commuter railway from downtown Oakland to all four shipyards with intermediate stops at the new housing projects within the shipyard.

The Key System obtained a cost-plus contract from the Marad to build and operate a line that didn’t exist. Built from scratch, the line relied on scrap and whatever other materials were available. The rails came from abandoned streetcar lines. The overhead wiring came from the Bay Bridge and the wooden supports needed to build a vital overpass came from timbers once used at a discontinued ferry mole.

That left the need for rolling stock. After the demise of the Manhattan els, the wooden cars were mothballed in the IRT’s massive two-level train yard north of the Polo Grounds. Marad selected 90 of these units all dating from the turn of the century, removed the wheel assemblies, lifted the bodies onto flatcars and shipped them cross-country to the Key Line shops in Oakland. On arrival, they were re-assembled, overhauled and converted from third rail ready to overhead wire ready by removing the third rail shoes, strengthening roofs and mounting pantographs. Service commenced on January 18. 1943 and continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week until September 30, 1945 when the yard closed after delivering the last of 747 ships.

This total was a record number for any shipyard, they included 519 Liberty Ships, 143 Victory Ships, 34 C-4 troop ships, 24 coastal cargo carriers, 15 LSTs and 12 corvettes.

The Maritime Commission offered to sell the shipyard railway to the Key System for a nominal sum, but management wisely declined. Without the Richmond Shipyard it became a line to nowhere. The line was quickly demolished but two cars, #561 and #563 were donated to the Western Railway Museum.

Both have recently been restored and are believed to be the oldest operational electric cars in the United States although the folks at the New York City Transit Museum may take exception to that boast.

The story behind the Richmond Shipyards and the Shipyard Railway is not uncommon and demonstrated the scope of America’s industrial might and the nation’s determination to do whatever was necessary to win the war.

What was extraordinary became commonplace and once the war ended these facilities created nation-wide solely to support the war effort were dismantled and disappeared as if they never existed.

America, God shed his grace on thee…   

Hush My Mouth

A recent piece in The New York Times brought back a bizarre memory of a night many years ago when my big mouth combined with alcohol and a dose of New York sarcasm came close to getting me thrown off the Waterman Steamship Account.

The piece ran under the headline: “Which States Are the Safest?” It detailed a study produced by an outfit known as WalletHub that focused on five categories of safety concerns. The maximum total for all five categories was 100 points but it was heavily weighted by the first category, “Personal and Residential Safety,” worth 40 of those points. The other four categories, “Financial Safety, Road Safety, Workplace Safety and Emergency Preparedness,” were each worth 15 points. No states finished higher than 64.43 points (Minnesota) while Mississippi finished last with 33.11 points.

Curiously, I noted that five of the six New England states finished in the top ten (Rhode Island was 16) and all five of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico finished dead last joined by Arkansas. This last fact is the one that resurrected memories of my unfortunate experience.

On one of my early trips to Mobile, Alabama to visit Waterman I hosted a dinner at the Epicurean Café for Robert Parker, Waterman’s risk manager, his wife Betty and his boss, Robert Haskins, Waterman’s treasure. This fine dining restaurant occupied an ante bellum mansion on Government Boulevard just outside of downtown Mobile. The restaurant was Mr. Parker’s favorite so long as it was on someone else’s dime. Fine dining indeed, with a glimpse of the white-gloved south. It was here that I discovered stone crab claws and Marsh & McLennan proudly picked up the tab.

Making conversation, Mr. Haskins reached into the inside pocket of his jacket to produce a sheet of paper. Waving it in the air he asked, “This is a list of each state and the total cost to live there. Can any of you tell me what state is the least costly?”

With youthful enthusiasm, I announced: “I believe that would be Mississippi.”

“Why, that’s correct. My, my,” Haskins exclaimed, “Tell me John, how did you come to know that?”

“Well, Bob, I thought about the quality of life and how much the state spent on their police force, public works and education and it seemed to me that these expenditures in Mississippi are so low that taxes must also be very low too.”

With that, I had dug myself into a hole but one that I could still climb out of so long as I stopped yakking away.  But: No, No, No; not good ole John Delach. Instead, I continued: “I am curious, Bob, what is the second least costly state on the list?”

When he replied, “Alabama,” my heart, soul and confidence dropped under the table.

I had no place to run to and no place to hide. I waited for the inevitable but nothing more was made of my remarks by any of my guests and the conversation moved on to other subjects. I was left in a state of remorse and confusion; had nobody noticed what I said?

We said our goodbyes; the Haskins drove off and the Parkers drove me back to the Admiral Simms Hotel (named after the loser for the Battle of Mobile Bay.) Bob Parker didn’t express any indication that he was upset, and Betty was her charming self. I said goodnight and retreated to the bar for a nightcap wondering if the shit would hit the fan at next day’s meeting.

It didn’t. Neither Bob ever brought it up and, of course, neither did I. To this day, I don’t know exactly why I survived committing hara-kiri, but my best guess is their manners were such that my New York sarcasm was inconceivable to them and what I was implying went right over their heads.

Delta upgraded me to first class on both the flight to Atlanta and the second to LaGuardia giving time to reflect on my near miss in comfort.

Since I couldn’t prove how I ducked the bullet, I invented my personal quip to describe how sometimes fate lets us out of a jam:

                                            “Only the good.”

                                                        Dy Yung

Pet in Room

Owning a vacation home is like owning a boat; it’s both a luxury and a burden. A happy house leads to great times with friends and family, a place to experience precious moments. Yet, it’s still a house where things go wrong usually at the most inopportune times. These random crises remind me of the boatowner’s slogan: “The second-best day in the life of the owner is the day he bought his boat. The best day is the day he sold his boat.”

Since we purchased “Little House” in the fall of 1984 it has been a treasure but not without problems. For many years I opened and shut down the plumbing system all by myself following detailed instructions I wrote down from the first owner and its builder, Joe C. Joe and his wife had built it ten-years previously and for us it was love at first sight.

That first opening in late November 1984 brought with it our first crisis. Little did we know the consequences of winter conditions. I turned on the power to the hot water tank before it had filled destroying the heating element. This led to our first plumber’s visit. That happened a second time several years later but even when winter openings went well, they were still a bitch.

 When Joe C. built the house, he decided to go with electric heating assisted by wood burning stoves. Our power provider is New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, (NHEC) whose rates were only second in the nation to Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO,) our provider in Port Washington. Both had been players in nukes that failed to open, NHEC is Seabrook and LILCO is Shoreham. Their customers were left to pay off the debt and lucky us, we drew both.

As we aged, weekend trips to Marlow over the Martin Luther King birthday holiday became too much of a burden to open and close the house. Our season evolved into ending our visits after the Christmas holidays without re-opening until late April.

This didn’t prevent its own list of crises culminating in the closing of 2017 and the opening in 2018. Just our luck, a Polar Vortex enveloped Marlow, a town that already had the reputation of being, “The icebox of Cheshire County.”

It was so cold that even with the fireplace and wood stove blazing and the electric heat cranked up we could feel the cold seeping through the walls. We bailed and shut it down as best we could. Our plumber did his best and yet, that spring one toilet was lifted six inches off its base by a frost heave and the water pump quit. $3,500 later we were back in business.

This year, our opening was uneventful. We made three trips, two in May and one in June and Little House hummed. Our first extended stay would be for the 4th of July and for the first time in a long time everyone planned to be there.

Mary Ann and I arrived on Saturday, June 29. We brought our two granddaughters, Marlowe (yes, named after the town but with an “e”.) and Samantha. Sam’s mom, Jodie, met us there having deposited her son, Matthew at a rugby camp at Dartmouth. We picked Matt up on Monday and settled in awaiting the onslaught of our other family members late on July 3rd and early on the 4th.

About noon on Tuesday our collective experiences with using the two toilets forced the realization that they were not emptying. “Houston, we have a problem!”

Two possibilities; the septic tank was full, or we had a blockage. Better to go down both roads, call our plumber and the septic company. We couldn’t contact, John, our plumber either by phone or text, but the septic company dispatched, Dan, their technician to evaluate the problem. Dan discovered that a coupling on the sewage line had slipped crippling the line. He couldn’t fix it, his service couldn’t fix it and recommended we call a plumber. Since John was unreachable, we tried a local firm only to be told their wait was three weeks.

Time to pull the plug but Mary Ann and I couldn’t leave until tomorrow to shut off things, take home that which spoils and dispose of garbage accumulation. Jodie headed home with the three kids, and I decided to call the Days Inn in Keene for a room in suite. When the clerk answered, he tried to sell me a package, but I cut him off with: “Do you allow dogs?”

“Yes,” he replied, “No more than two, twenty dollars per pet and you are responsible for all damages.”

I had heard all I needed to know. Reservation made, we headed to Keene for dinner then checked in to what was obviously a pet room, perfume and all. We opened a window and put on the a/c to make it bearable. Max and Tess looked at us like we had lost our minds. But when we turned out the lights, Tess jumped into my bed, Max into Mary Ann’s. Tess stayed with me the entire night.

Early wake-up, coffee, clear the room, feed and walk the dogs and check-out. I looked at my receipt; the room charge was $98.62.

Listed separately was this surcharge: Code: PET, description: PET IN ROOM: $40.00

While heading for the City of Keene waste transfer site where we prepared to pay $2.00 for each bag of garbage by check, (no cash or credit cards accepted,) John the plumber called Mary Ann. He apologized for a breakdown in his answering system and confirmed he was away on vacation with his family but that he would fix our broken line first thing next week.

We returned to Little House after the drop off to clean and pack before returning to Port Washington.

Crisis resolved; life is good.

“On the Outside Looking In” will not appear next Wednesday and will resume on July 24.      

Manhattan Towers

Due to circumstances beyond my control, today’s blog was delayed until this late hour. I will relate this experience in my next Blog: “Dog in Room.”

From 1934 until 1973 when the South and North Towers of the World Trade Center were completed with heights of 1,355 feet and 1,348 respectively, the world’s three tallest skyscrapers were the Empire State Building (1,250), the Chrysler Building (1,046) and the RCA Building a.k.a. the GE Building and 30 Rockefeller Center (950.)

 Manhattan was historically the skyscraper capital of the world beginning with the completion of the Woolworth Building (792) in 1910. Completion of the Twin Towers returned the record back to downtown, but Manhattan’s dominance ended less than a year later when Chicago wrestled the title away with the 1974 completion of the Sears Tower a.k.a. Willis Tower (1,450). The title never returned to the Big Apple while the Second City and America’s run ended when the Petronas Towers (each 1,483) opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1998.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the destruction of the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings on September 11, 2001 delivered a profound blow to the psyche of metropolitan New Yorkers. Critics questioned whether people would ever again be willing to work, live or play that high in the sky. While the debate over the idea of replacing those buildings went on, both Asia and the Middle East, after taking a deep breath, decided to press on building new structures to unprecedented heights.

Taipei, Taiwan secured the title in 2004 with Taipei 101 at 1,667 feet only to be blown away by Dubai, UAE in 2010. The Burj Khalifa rose to an amazing 2,717 feet in height. More than one thousand feet higher than Taipei 101, the Khalifa Tower, as it is usually called, holds almost every superlative building record ever invented. A multi-use tower the Armani Hotel occupies floors 1 to 8 with the hotel’s resident apartments on 9 to 16, condominium residences from 19 to 37 while Armani suites fill 38 and 39. 

Additional residential apartments are located from 42 to 72 and 77 to 108. The so-called “At.mosphere” restaurant rests on 122 and the so-called “At the Top Observatory” on 124. Corporate Suites look down on these teeming mases from lofty pieds-a-terre on 125 to 135 and 138 to 147. “The New Deck Observatory” sits on 148.

The six top occupied stories, 149 to 154 are devoted to the so called, “One-Percenters,” perhaps in this instance, the top half of this elite group? These chosen few command a view so vast that on a clear day with a pair of Swarovski EL 10X42 binoculars ($3,299.00) they may be able to spot a highjacked airliner 25-miles out giving them the ample opportunity to say a short prayer.

The Khalifa Tower has rendered all other edifice complexes to shame so far. Closest to date, the Shanghai Tower in 2015, (2,073.) The Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower, (1,971) in Mecca in 2012 and The Ping An Finance Center, (1.965) in Shenzhen, China in 2017.

(A 3,300-tall tower was proposed for the UEA in 2016 but to date, with no sponsors.)

While the world moved forward, New York City remained trapped in our post- 9/11 trauma. It seemed for a time, Manhattan would not recover. The cost of locating, securing and arming One World Trade Center, a.k.a. The Freedom Tower exploded making it untenable. Any other commercial building would have been cancelled but New York proud said otherwise. The Port Authority of NY and NJ stepped in by increasing tolls on the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels to pay for it. One WTC (1,776) opened in 2014 while the tolls for the Lincoln Tunnel rose from $8.00 in 2001 to $15.00 in 2019 to pay for it.

With One WTC under construction, the shackles binding developers, builders, architects and engineers were released and new era of innovation and building is changing the Manhattan skyline once again. The Empire State Building has already dropped to third place and the Chrysler Building to eighth place and 30 Rock doesn’t make the top 10. When One Vanderbilt, under construction, occupying the entire square block; Madison to Vanderbilt, Forty-second to Forty-Third will grab second tallest at 1,401 feet when it opens.

Sadly, not all these towers deserve recognition. A combination of new technology a fluke in zoning laws, the need of mega-wealthy Russian, Chicom, Turkish, Greek, South American etc. to park some of their wealth in Manhattan towers has led to the creation of pencil skyscrapers that alter the landscape. These blights on the Manhattan Skyline include 432 Park Avenue (1.397) completed in 2015, but the worst is yet to come. Two pencil towers are piercing the skyline, both due for completion next year: 111 West 57 Street (1,428) and Central Park Tower (1,550.)

These freaks plus other more legitimate new buildings will push both the Empire State and the Chrysler out of the top ten. So far, no developer has had the chutzpah to propose a pencil tower to exceed the height of Number One WTC and recent reviews of the engineering behind the heights of these pencils may curtail future construction. I sincerely hope so. Meanwhile, perhaps I can interest these esteemed owners the same binoculars recommended for those high up on the Khalifa Tower?

My hero in this piece is Manhattan. Once again, Manhattan renews itself and unabashedly moves forward into the future. In the words of the late, John Lindsay: “It’s the fastest track in the world.”