July 15, 2014 15 Comments
[This was the very first post on Nebraska Energy Observer, and I doubt many have seen it. So I thought for the third anniversary of the blog, which is today, I would bring it back. I hope you enjoy it, because I still think it speaks to some important things.]
I recently had an opportunity to travel by train back to Nebraska from Philadelphia. As most of you who have ever traveled by train know, it gives you a fair amount of time to think about whatever crosses your mind. For some reason this trip (which I actually take roughly every year) caused me to reflect on the industrial powerhouse that was America. If you travel by train, you see a lot of industrial areas new and old. What struck me this time was coming through Pittsburgh, northern Ohio and northwest Indiana was remembering these areas when I was a kid back in the 60’s, when it was very common still to see the black smoke and flames shoot into the air at the steel mills. These were the mills that industrialized America and made the steel that built the machines that won two World Wars and conquered a continent and fed the world.
It is commonly said that steel built the railroad industry and the railroads built the steel industry and it’s true; if one includes coal in the steel industry. What awesome plants they were, for instance, the main street of Gary, Indiana (itself named for a steel executive) ends at the main gate of US Steel Gary Works. And remember a basic element of US Steel; Carnegie Steel produced more steel than Great Britain in the 1890’s. Pittsburgh was much the same, only possibly more so. Here was the steel produced that made the railroads, which then made the largest common market in the world, and the steel for the agricultural equipment that still feeds the world, and the steel for the American automobiles and the weapons and transportation of the American military that won two World Wars and the Cold War. Just a few weeks ago, USS (X) was dropped from the Standard and Poor’s 500 because it was no longer valuable enough.
On this trip you pass by the old Pullman Plant in Michigan City, Indiana that built railcars, mostly freight cars in this plant (the passenger cars came out of the plant in Pullman, Illinois). Now it is an outlet mall, and American passenger trains have Canadian built cars. You also pass the ruins of the Studebaker plant in South Bend as well as the old Bendix plant (this one is still operating, now owned by Robert Bosch AG).
Most of the plants are still there, many in ruins, some still operating, that gave this region the nickname of the Rust Belt. There are a lot of reasons why it is now the rust belt; without going into those reasons, it is a melancholy sight for a person that remembers these areas in full operation to see it half-shut down and falling into ruin. This may truly symbolize the greatness of America in the future, the country that provided a far better living to the average man than anybody had ever dreamed possible; and provided much of it to the entire world as well.
Has that America gone forever? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I think the individual drive to succeed still exists. The one that caused Henry Ford to remember the hard life on a 19th Century farm and create the Model T to make the farmer’s life easier, the Cyrus McCormick that made the reaper, the John Deere and Oliver that made plows so much better than had ever been dreamed of, the Andrew Carnegie that started as telegrapher on the Pennsylvania Railroad and built the largest steel company in the world (and then built Libraries all over the country, to further help the common man) or for that matter Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They all made everyone’s life easier and more fulfilling. They also got very, very rich in a society that rewarded the man who would take a planned risk with a product that worked.
Where is that flamboyant public endeavor now? I think it’s still there, but now instead of trying to emulate the successful man (or woman) we castigate them for making money. Note that I said making money, for that is what they do. Without them, going back to Paul Revere (yes, the famed horseman) who founded the Revere Copper Works to provide the copper bottom for the USS Constitution and Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin (and the interchangeable parts in the Springfield 1793 musket) we would still be a strip of dirt along the Atlantic seaboard doing little more than subsistence farming, as a bunch of upstart rebels to the rightful King.
Am I the only one able to remember the glory of the early space program, I doubt it. Recently, I saw a clip of Neal Armstrong speaking at the dedication of Purdue’s new Engineering Administration building (Armstrong Hall, of course). After all, it couldn’t be Aeronautical Engineering (That’s in Grissom Hall). (There is also a dorm called Earhart Hall as Amelia Earhart was on the faculty and Purdue provided her Lockheed Electra.) Purdue isn’t called the ‘Cradle of Astronauts’ for nothing, besides having both the first and the most recent men on the moon as alumni. We may be called Boilermakers but engineering (as life, itself) marches on. What glorious days those were for America, I recall the entire world stopping to watch Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon. We need that daring, that quest back, to me, that is the essence of America.
And, so, the eternal question, Quo Vadis, where are we going now? Will we choose to subsidize half of our population indefinitely so they don’t have to work or will we go back to our individualistic, self-reliant past.
Yes, we had wreckage along our route, lots of it. Living here in Willa Cather country you can still see how and why this country broke the weak, he sickly and the unlucky. But, you know, it was a fairly small percentage and what a country they bought with their lives and courage and blood and toil and tears and sweat.
We must never forget that we; the whites, the Hispanics, the Native Americans, and the blacks, and even the Chinese, all were here and had a hand in the epic that is America. We are the descendants of the people who one way or another had the courage to come here and build lives and fortunes and hold on to that sacred honor that Jefferson spoke of. You know, all my life I’ve heard that mutts are the best dogs; I guess it true of nations too, If you can’t find a descendant of any nationality on Earth that is an American, you are not trying very hard!