The Price of Freedom

Western trails in Nebraska. Blue = Mormon Trai...

Image via Wikipedia

I wrote this back in 2012 and I think it’s worth a revisit.

Let’s start with a song, shall we:

Keep that in mind, we’ll be coming back to it.

As I sit here in my office, looking out the window, I can see 7 of the great American migration routes, from north to south:  The Lincoln Highway, US Highway 30, The Transcontinental Railroad, Interstate 80, The Platte River, The Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and  the Pony Express Route. Think about how many hopes and dreams have passed through here.

Now combine that with Shenandoah. The song came about in the early 19th century and was made famous by US sailors all over the world. what does it speak of? It speaks of loneliness, of likely never seeing your friends and family again, and does it hauntingly. It was very appropriate for those sailors, and it was equally appropriate for (and loved by) those thousands/millions trekking through Nebraska on their way to a new and hopefully better life.

Why did they do it? Some, of course, to avoid the sheriff, or their girlfriend’s father but, mostly they were going to, not running from. To what? A better life, maybe, but they were going to have to build it themselves, and if you’ve ever driven I-80, you know what a trek it is today, let alone to walk it, as most did.

What motivated them is the same thing that has motivated American from the very beginning: Freedom. Freedom to build your own life. Freedom to be left alone, Freedom to be the very best that you can be.

What was the price they put on that freedom? That they would most likely, whether they succeeded or failed, never see their family and friends again. If they were very lucky they might receive a few letters in the course of the rest of their life.

And remember, it was out here, on the Oregon trail (and it’s fork in the road, the California trail) that the saying became true. “The sick died, the weak never started”, it was that kind of migration.

That freedom had quite a price, didn’t it?

What is yours worth?

How We Got There: US 30 in Fort Wayne

70px-US_30.svgA couple of weeks ago, I promised a little post about the history of transportation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I haven’t forgotten.

The Fort was founded in 1797, to guard against Indian attacks, remember that this was disputed territory after the revolution, and would remain so until after the War of 1812. The fort, and the town, were named after General (Mad Anthony) Wayne, the victor at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which took place not all that far away. I note that the fort has been reconstructed, and it looks like a good job.

But the Indian agency moved on (to the Logansport area) and because the subsidies paid by the government to the Indians had made them dependent on the government, and the town on them, the town languished.

Like most cities in America, Fort Wayne was built on transportation. In 1843, the Wabash and Erie Canal opened, making agriculture somewhat viable for the first time in Indiana. Before this, it cost more to get a crop to market than the crop was worth. although canals were not really good enough, they were a start. US 24 is roughly on this route today.

Incidentally, The News-Sentinel has a pretty good early history of the city posted, here

In any case, in the 1850s the railroad came to town, and as The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago railway, completed to Chicago in 1859, Fort Wayne became fully connected with the rest of the country. This was the western continuation of the Pennsylvania (always and to this day called “The Fort Wayne”) formed one end of one of the great trunk lines that built America, and finally and for the foreseeable future made American agriculture the marvel of the world.

I didn’t really see anything about it, but we can probably assume, that like South Bend, a lot of money was made in Fort Wayne during the Civil War. In South Bend, the contract to make ambulances for the army, was the basis of the Studebaker Brothers’ fortune, and I’d guess that this is the era when the Fort Wayne started the engine works and car shops just out of Fort Wayne.

But for most of us, the railroads are interesting but not how we get around, that’s what cars are for. 🙂 The earliest trace I could find on Google earth was something out around Columbia City called Old Trail Road. At a guess, this is fairly close to the Fort Wayne-Fort Dearborn Trail, which was the original road to Chicago.

Old 30

US 30 in Fort Wayne Click to embiggen

The next famous one was the Lincoln Highway, which usually is close to US 30’s original routing, as it is here. It started setting up just prior to World War I. Note that the backers included the Pennsylvania Railroad, which foresaw an integrated system using motor vehicles for short distances and trains for long distance. It didn’t quite work out that way. Almost anytime you find a street named Lincolnway, or something similar, you found its route.

A local note, the original Lincoln Highway went from Fort Wayne to Elkhart (roughly US 33) over through South Bend and then back down to Valparaiso (SR 2). Not very long after it was realigned along the Fort Wayne, roughly on the US 30 Alignment. The shaky green line on the map is my best guess as to the original alignment through town, note that as in many towns it split into westbound and eastbound streets. In the 50s, it was rerouted onto what I learned as Bypass 30 when I was a kid, which is basically Coliseum Boulevard (SR 930) with I think an extension on California St. to connect up. When the interstates were finally built, it was again rerouted onto the ring route, as usual.

Just for general interest on the map, I looked up the location of the various train stations as well. Pennsylvania (Baker St) station is still there, as is the New York Central Depot (now a yarn shop), and the elevated platform of the Nickle Plate is still there as well, although the station is long gone.

I should probably note that as long as I’ve been around, US 30 has been a major artery in Indiana, and is fully dual laned (and occasionally more) Wkipedia’s article is pretty good, as well.

The Price of Freedom

Western trails in Nebraska. Blue = Mormon Trai...

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s start with a song, shall we:

Keep that in mind, we’ll be coming back to it.

As I sit here in my office, looking out the window, I can see 7 of the great American migration routes, from north to south:  The Lincoln Highway, US Highway 30, The Transcontinental Railroad, Interstate 80, The Platte River, The Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and  the Pony Express Route. Think about how many hopes and dreams have passed through here.

Now combine that with Shenandoah. The song came about in the early 19th century and was made famous by US sailors all over the world. what does it speak of? It speaks of loneliness, of likely never seeing your friends and family again, and does it hauntingly. It was very appropriate for those sailors, and it was equally appropriate for (and loved by) those thousands/millions trekking through Nebraska on their way to a new and hopefully better life.

Why did they do it? Some, of course, to avoid the sheriff, or their girlfriend’s father but, mostly they were going to, not running from. To what? A better life, maybe, but they were going to have to build it themselves, and if you’ve ever driven I-80, you know what a trek it is today, let alone to walk it, as most did.

What motivated them is the same thing that has motivated American from the very beginning: Freedom. Freedom to build your own life. Freedom to be left alone, Freedom to be the very best that you can be.

What was the price they put on that freedom? That they would most likely, whether they succeeded or failed, never see their family and friends again. If they were very lucky they might receive a few letters in the course of the rest of their life.

And remember, it was out here, on the Oregon trail (and it’s fork in the road, the California trail) that the saying became true. “The sick died, the weak never started”, it was that kind of migration.

That freedom had quite a price, didn’t it?

What is yours worth?

Roads, How we got Here.

The Yellowstone Trail Park in North Fond du La...

Image via Wikipedia

This post was inspired by a discussion I was involved in over at Freedom, by the way’s shop a few days ago. We were off in side discussion about maintaining roads in post about stupid debate questions. Here’s her comment (excerpted a bit).

Folks may not realize but before the national Interstate system was built there was a HUGE constitutional discussion about whether the federal government had the constitutional power to use taxpayer dollars for building roads. (Roads were historically built and maintained by states and localities). I think the interstate system is a marvel, but it’s a shame that the federal transportation department has turned into this monstrosity that takes everyone’s tax dollars and doles them out to the states and localities for projects–with a bigger price tag–state control. Why did every state raise their drinking age to 21? Because if they refused, federal transportation dollars would be withheld. It would have been much better for the federal transportation dept. to simply have been a project manager for a limited time and then gotten out of the road business. The state DOTs are responsible for maintenance anyway. Ditto for education. Why do our tax dollars leave our state, go to DC, and then get funneled back to the state? CONTROL, that’s why.

This is my response also excerpted:

Excellent point, which of course is why the official name is “Interstate and Defense Highway”. We’ve periodically had the same discussion/argument all the way back to the National Road. This was also a factor in the land grant railroads; they had to carry troops at a very low rate as part of the deal.

You’re right on control also. By the way, states are no better. Here if the city wants to put a stop sign on a state highway, they have to get the state to approve it, after umpteen studies and whatnot.

It used to be up to the neighboring property owners, by the way. Trucking companies pay enough use taxes combined with your gas taxes to maintain them though, except for market anomalies caused by the government. For instance where I live a laborer makes about $10-12 at most, unless he works for a paving contractor. Then he makes Omaha union scale (which is reasonable in Omaha but, not here) which is about $25 an hour, more than a skilled journeyman electrician does.

She is very right on the control. Remember how the feds forced us into the ridiculous 55 mph speed limit. OK, it might be reasonable some places around major cities, but if you’ve ever driven across Nebraska (or Texas or Montana) you’ll readily recognize what I mean.

Talk about a time waster and it didn’t save much fuel either, cars in the early 70’s were designed to operate at 75 to 80 miles an hour. It has to do with gearing and power, every mechanical system has an optimum operating speed.

Does the government have to maintain the roads? Local ones maybe, at the county or state level at most.

Here we get right back to theory of government: states are plenary governments, they can do anything not prohibited. The Federal government, on the other hand, is a government of enumerated powers. It can only do those things it is permitted to do. That’s the theory behind the Constitution and a lot of the problems we have today stem from our multiple violations of that theory.

Anyway, maintaining paved highways is not like keeping the dirt roads of the nineteenth century passable. It takes equipment and engineering knowledge beyond the average homeowners. That’s why it has evolved to being a government job.

Interstate and major Federal highways don’t have to be done force account by the government, though. Indiana, for instance, seems pretty happy with their decision to privatize the Indiana Toll Road (for those who don’t know, both I-90 and I-80 run on the Indiana Toll Road). From what I hear, it’s better maintained and the price is lower (or hasn’t gone up as much, which is pretty much the same thing) than it was under state control.

The thing is, those major highways, like the Interstates, you don’t have to use them, almost everywhere the roads they replaced, the state and federal highways still exist and are pretty good, albeit slower.

About those earlier roads, US 30 for the most part follows the route of the Lincoln Highway, which ran from New York to San Fransisco, was built by a private association. Out here in Nebraska, for example, I-80 follows US 30, which follows the Lincoln Highway, which follows the Union Pacific, which follows the Oregon Trail, which followed the Mormon Trail which followed the Platte river.

Forming a year earlier was the Yellowstone Trail, which was a grassroots effort as opposed to the business backing enjoyed by the Lincoln Highway (like the Pennsylvania Railroad). The Yellowstone Trail ran from Plymouth, Massachusetts all the way to Seattle, Washington across the northern states.

Anyway the point I’m making here is that is really no need for the federal government to be involved in roads. Wouldn’t it make better sense to pay somewhat more state taxes (or form more toll roads or turnpikes, an earlier term, for you Easterners, which comes from England where they quite literally turned a pike after the toll was paid) and keep 100% of your states money at home rather than paying federal taxes and getting maybe 60% back.

The other point is that what we need in roads in central Nebraska is not what is needed in suburban Washington D.C., and not to be too parochial about it, why should we be paying for your roads.

The Free Market: A Case Study

The new American railroads - anonymous photogr...

Image via Wikipedia

We hear the free market damned everyday, lately. Problem is those damning the free market don’t have a clue what the free market is. America’s problem since 1890 or so has been that we haven’t had a free market.

What we have had is a semi free market distorted by whatever advantage could be bought from the Congress. (By the way, one of my favorite jokes is: If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?) Let’s look at a one industry example.

We had the most magnificent transportation system the world had ever seen for both passenger and freight (and mail). What did we do? We came very, very near to regulating it death. The remnants of this system are still the backbone that allows all our other systems of commerce, particularly steel and electricity to function. What am I talking about here? The American Railroad network.

During the First World War the government actually took over the railroads and ran them into the ground (and only paid for a fraction of the damage they did.) World War Two was a little better but not by much. Especially after the looting of the ’30s.

In the late ’40s and ’50s there was enough vitality remaining to help rebuild Europe’s railroads, but the depredations continued. Forbidden by law from being allowed to innovate, forbidden to make a reasonable profit they just kind of held on.

Because of the way the bidding was done the railroad never made a profit on the carrying the mail. By the way, when I was young you could mail a letter at 3:00 pm in New York and it would be delivered in Chicago by 10:30 am the next day, Try that now. FedEx didn’t exist, because the market was covered.

And for that matter, if you ordered your new piano from New York it would arrive shortly in say Moorefield, Nebraska, no problem, take your wagon down to station and pick it up. Now you know how Sears and Montgomery Ward (and for that matter, Chicago, itself) got so big in the 19th century. It was the railroad, and the continent sized common market they created. By the way, you, yourself could take that trip too. Almost any trip over about 15 miles was done by train.

Since we have mentioned Moorefield, let’s talk about it a little more. The last time I was down there it had about 50 or so inhabitants, and one business. That business is a grain elevator owned by a farm coop.

Its serves as a collection/sale point for the local farmers and ships their grain to the far corners of the world. It does this in trainload lots. Some of those mile to mile and a half long trains of covered hoppers you are waiting for today may well have come from tiny little Moorefield, that doesn’t even have a gas station, let alone a grocery store.

Now multiply that by one of these elevators placed every ten miles from roughly the center of Nebraska to Eastern Ohio and from North Dakota to Texas. That is the miracle of American agriculture. There is nothing in the world, and never has been, to compare with it.

How did we get here? When Kentucky and Tennessee were settled in the early years of the 19th Century, and somewhat before, the first settlers were hunters, followed closely by farmers. As soon as somebody could get a mill working (for profit, oh the horror) they would grow wheat. They seemed to like bread. There is a letter written home to Russia from the American midwest in the late 19th century that states, “and we eat wheaten bread, every day.” You see, in Russia, indeed most of Europe, wheat bread was so expensive that it was only for holidays.

Soon though they were growing that all American crop; corn. They did well with it too, with astounding (for the day) yields. They had far more than they could use and they were broke.

What to do? Of course what they did was call their Congressman and lobby for a subsidy to not grow corn, that’s the right answer.

What, you don’t believe those tough old Scots-Irish who would become the backbone of America got subsidies? Well, you’re right. They did have a problem though, if you know anything about handling grain (or flour), you know that packing it in a burlap bag and shipping it in a leaky wooden boat isn’t going to work.

What to do? What to do?

Two things actually. One is raise hogs. Ohio, southern Indiana, and Kentucky corn made Cincinnati the pork capital of the world, for a while. Porkopolis, they called it. The second is to make whiskey, which can easily be described as concentrated corn. Now you know why the American Whiskeys such as Bourbon come from Kentucky and Tennessee. Keeps you warm on cold nights, too.

This is one of the stories about the westward migration you don’t hear much about. Farmers going broke because it cost more to ship the crop to market than it was worth. This happened all the way to the Mississippi River before the Civil War. This is also why states like North Dakota and Nebraska and a bunch of the others, even Texas to a large extent were the highway, very few stopped to settle.

They could tell that the prairie was fertile, and it was obviously going to be easier to till ( assuming the steel plow) than working around the trees of the old Northwest. But it was, and still is to some extent, lonely. (Read your Willa Cather.) That has a lot to do with how middle America has remained so individualistic, compared to city folk. And you couldn’t possibly float a crop down the Platte River, then or now.

It took the railroad, with its unequaled capacity to carry high bulk, low value commodities to make this land productive. And it is a miracle of the ages, the way America produces food stock and move it to market.

Railroad are funny creatures though, they cost a lot to build, particularly since they had to purchase their own right of way, unlike highways and pay property taxes. To break even on a railroad, you need a certain amount of traffic, which depends on a bunch of factors. The weird thing is though; you can expand your traffic, within reason, above this point and make a bunch of money, without raising your costs much, but if you go below the break even point, your costs don’t decrease significantly. This is called a high fixed cost business. The way we regulated railroads had nothing to do with this, of course, we mostly insisted that the railroad maintain every mile of road they had ever built, and pay the men whatever they wanted, whether it had any traffic at all or not.

The automobile became the curse of the railroad. In the beginning the railroads  helped. The Pennsylvania Railroad was one of the sponsors of the good road movement, which had a lot to do with the Lincoln Highway. The Pennsy also owned a pretty good chunk of Greyhound. Their thinking was that for short-haul, farm to market, or local delivery the motor vehicle would fit very nicely into the existing transportation system.

They were right, it would have, and did for a while. Where it bit them in the backside was, the government still wouldn’t let them abandon track, and motor vehicles (and) roads improved to the point where long distance travel was fun, and trucking was feasible .

They made the same mistake with airlines incidentally.

But the real problem was that roads were subsidized by the taxpayer, as were airlines. You really didn’t think that your gas price, or for that matter your airline ticket, actually paid for all the expenses they generated, did you? No, they don’t. The railroad is the most efficient transportation system ever invented.

I hope you realize that I am not referring to government sponsored and subsidized so-called high-speed rail. If it was such a good idea, it wouldn’t need government money. Another name for it is pork. Oink.

So there is a short story of one industry that started in the free market and was almost killed, in some ways, it actually was, by overbearing regulation.

Maybe we should try the free market, before we condemn it so thoroughly.

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