Archive for category Places

Cape Cod oddities: Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Force Base

Jenny Lind TowerVisitors to Truro, one of the towns on the outer edge of Cape Cod, are in for an unusual sight, if they know where to look. If they’re not too distracted by the view of the Atlantic Ocean, they might notice what looks like a giant chess rook and golf ball standing in a field near the Highland lighthouse.

The stone tower, which stands 70 feet tall and looks like it was taken from a European castle, is actually part of a train station. It was one of two towers from the Fitchburg Railroad depot in Boston, and is known to Cape Codders as the Jenny Lind Tower.

Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” gave a concert in the auditorium above the station in 1850. Legend has it that Lind sang from the top of the tower to quell an angry mob of people who couldn’t get tickets.

The story may be fake, but it was enough to convince one of Jenny’s fans, Henry M. Aldrich, to save the tower when the station was demolished in 1927. The tower was transported stone by stone and reassembled in Truro.

The land the tower sits on later became part of the North Truro Air Force Station. Constructed shortly after World War II, the site was part of the Air Defense Command (ADC). North Truro’s radar units (including the large golf ball-shaped array next to the Jenny Lind Tower) scanned the skies for incoming Soviet bombers, an important task during the paranoid Cold War years.

With the Cold War over, most of the base was decommissioned in 1994. However, the radar installation still functions was part of the Federal Aviation Administration/NORAD Joint Surveillance System, routing information to FAA and Air Force control centers.

The radar unit is unmanned, so the rest of the base has been abandoned since 1994. It sits on the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the National Park Service is trying to develop it for community use as the Highlands Center. Until then, the old buildings will be a great spot for urban exploring.

To get a closer look at these architectural oddities, take Route 6 to North Truro and look for the Highland Light exit. Turn right onto Highland Road, make another right onto South Highland Road, and then make a left onto Old Dewline Road.

The Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Base radar can also be seen from the Highland Lighthouse, especially if you climb to the top of the 66 foot tall tower!


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Finding Kurt Vonnegut’s Saab dealership

Kurt VonnegutGreat minds sometimes need not-so-great jobs to pay the bills. Herman Melville worked in a customs house, Einstein in a patent office. For Kurt Vonnegut, this cruel practicality came in the form of a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan (this blog is named after the fictional city of Ilium, New York, where many of his stories take place), and as a writer on all things automotive, I had to know more.

Vonnegut started selling Saabs in 1957. He thought the dealership would be an easy way to make money while he concentrated on his writing. Unfortunately, the cars were difficult to sell, as Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country. 

“The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two door sedan, but with the engine in front, It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas, you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.”

Since no one could remember to add oil to their Saabs’ fuel, the cars had limited appeal. Running the Saab store also cost more than Vonnegut expected: Saab forced him to buy his inventory and pay for ads in local newspapers. Consequently, the dealership closed the same year. Vonnegut said that he would never win a Nobel Prize because of his hatred of the cars.

Saab was still in business when I started looking for Vonnegut’s store, but there were no dealers on Cape Cod. The trail went cold, until I found this link, which shows the exact location of the former Saab of Cape Cod.

Vonnegut used to sell Swedish cars out of a small stone building with a curved roof, off Route 6A in Barnstable, the next town over from Hyannis and the Kennedy Compound. The building sits unused amid a small cluster of other buildings on a relatively quiet stretch of a road that carries thousands of tourists every year.

I made the pilgrimage to Vonnegut’s Saab dealership last year on a family trip to the Cape. After almost missing the nondescript building, my brother and I jumped out of the car, touched a copy of Player Piano to the wall, and took a few photos. We’d been coming to the Cape for years, and had probably passed the former Saab store many times, but we had finally found it.Saab of Cape Cod

If you want to visit a car dealer owned by a literary legend, find your way onto Cape Cod via the Sagamore Bridge. After crossing the bridge, you’ll be on Route 6, the main highway that runs the length of the Cape. Exit to get on 6A heading toward Barnstable and points east. As you drive through the West Barnstable, the building will be on your right, just past the intersection of 6A (Main Street) and Parker Road.

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A (railroad) bridge to nowhere

NY&NE bridge piers Southbury, CTYou never know where you’re going to find industrial ruins. A narrow road winding along the Housatonic River in picturesque Southbury, Connecticut seems like the last place to look, yet some man-made construction still mingles with the scenery. If you drive down the appropriately named River Road, you’ll find two stone piers rising from the water. These towers hold a phantom railroad bridge.

This is where the New York & New England Railroad once made its way from Providence, Rhode Island to the Hudson River.

Today, I-84 is the most direct way to get from New York to points east, because it cuts diagonally across Connecticut. In the 19th century, railroad builders sought an east-west route across the Nutmeg State for the same reason. However, Connecticut’s topography got in the way. The state is full of rivers that run north-south, creating hills and valleys that are difficult to cross.

That didn’t stop the builders of the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad from trying it. Construction began in 1847, but the extension from Waterbury, CT to the Hudson wasn’t finished until 1881. By that time, the HP&F had been taken over by the more impressive-sounding New York & New England.

The hilly route, including a very steep grade out of Waterbury, was never profitable. The NY&NE was absorbed by its arch rival, the New Haven, in 1895. The latter controlled most of the rails in Connecticut, and almost immediately bypassed the Waterbury-Southbury portion. The New Haven only used the westernmost portion (Danbury-Hopewell Junction and Beacon, New York) of its former competitor, so it could reach the massive bridge over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, NY.NY&NE Southbury bridge from River Road

The rails from Southbury to Waterbury were lifted in 1937; the rest, including this bridge, went in 1948. Today, that’s not very surprising. Even with I-84 less than a mile away, this site is pretty rural. The road that runs underneath the bridge’s east abutment is so narrow that there’s hardly room to pull over. It’s hard to imagine a freight train sailing over people’s houses and disturbing the peace in this neighborhood.

The stone bridge piers probably couldn’t support a modern freight train anyway, but they have weathered time pretty well. The fact that they are so out-of-the-way is probably the only reason that no one has tried to take them down. Sixty-four years after the trains stopped running, the bridge is still here (sort of). Sometimes it’s good to keep things hidden.

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USS Olympia: A flagship in need of a port

USS OlympiaThere are many historic warships that survive as “floating museums,” but none of them has the pedigree of the USS Olympia. The Age of Fighting Sail and World War II are well represented in this museum fleet, but what about the Spanish-American War?

The U.S. fought Spain over 110 years ago, ostensibly over the USS Maine explosion, but really for a desire to seize territory and expand America’s influence overseas. It was also a complete cakewalk; more soldiers died from malaria than from enemy fire. The Spanish-American War was like the Guilded Age version of Desert Storm.

The only difference was that, instead of cruise missiles, the high-tech showpieces were armored battleships and cruisers like the Olympia. She was the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay, where the U.S. fleet sank or captured its Spanish counterpart without any loss of life. Six days later, when news of the battle reached the U.S., Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt headed down to Texas to join a cavalry regiment. That is a battle worth remembering.

Today, the Olympia is moored at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, along with the submarine USS Becuna. Olympia is the only vessel from the Spanish-American War still afloat, and consequently you’ll never see another ship quite like her.

She may have been the most powerful ship in the U.S. fleet in 1898, but Olympia looks like a toy compared to modern warships, or even the WWII-era USS New Jersey, which is moored across the river in Camden. Olympia wears white paint (in wartime she would have worn gray) with a U.S. shield on the bow, a scheme meant to impress foreign dignitaries.

Also meant to impress foreign dignitaries are the six-pounder guns sticking out of Olympia’s flanks. There is no gun deck; several of the guns are mounted in the wood-lined officer’s mess, where diplomatic negotiations would take place. In fact, the Olympia looks like a child’s drawing of a battleship, with guns coming out of everywhere. It’s much cooler looking than the sleek and stealthy look of modern warships.

Unfortunately, like many historic artifacts, the Olympia needs help. She was stewarded by the Independence Seaport Museum and Cruiser Olympia Association for decades, but the cost of maintaining a 100-year-old construct of steel and wood that floats on water were too much. I visited the Olympia several years ago and, while she was a beautiful ship, she was also in need of some repairs. Now, she is also in need of a new home.

After failing to come up with $10 million needed for stabilization work, the Independence Seaport Museum decided to give up the Olympia, and is currently trying to transfer Dewey’s flagship to another museum. As of November 2011, four groups were in the running: one wants to keep the ship at its current location, another wants to move her to Beaufort, South Carolina, and a third group wants to set up a museum in Washington, D.C. Mare Island Historic Park, located at the old Mare Island Navy yard in Vallejo, California, also wants the Olympia.

Regardless of where she ends up, the Olympia deserves some attention. The USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) and USS Missouri (the ship where Gen. MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender) have become national shrines, but we wouldn’t have gotten from one to the other without the Olympia. That ship and the war it fought in brought America onto the world stage as a military power. History is important because it tells us where we have been, but we need the whole story.

For updates on the Olympia preservation effort, click here.

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Worcester: You can’t escape

Worcester: Illinois and GrandSometimes, memories of places you’ve been will not go away, even if you want them to. I went to Clark University in the dystopian city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and as a junior I wrote a short article for the school paper about Worcester’s uncanny fame. Four years later, it’s still bizarre.

Like many New England cities, Worcester is a former industrial powerhouse that progress seems to have left behind. A city that once manufactured everything from corsets to railroad cars is now an eyesore, full of abandoned buildings (and people) that wouldn’t look out of place in a zombie apocalypse movie.

The logos of Worcester-based companies may have disappeared from American products, but Worcester itself still clings tenaciously to the popular consciousness. Because of its central location in Massachusetts, Worcester is often used as a reference point for weather reports.

The city alternately known as the “Heart of the Commonwealth” and “Wormtown” is also the birthplace of the birth control pill and the smiley face. The rocket Robert Goddard built in the basement of a Clark academic hall shares the main lobby of the National Air & Space Museum with the Spirit of St. Louis and Apollo capsules.

I thought leaving would allow me to escape Worcester’s grip, but no. Reading a biography of John Adams, I learned that his first job was as a schoolmaster in Worcester. Fair enough, Adams was from nearby Boston, but I expected another book on Thomas Jefferson to be Worcester-free.

Instead, I was surprised to see historian Joseph J. Ellis open his biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx, with a Jefferson impersonator performing at Worcester’s American Antiquarian Society.

Worcester is more interesting than it appears; what other city is a crossroad for rocket scientists and Jefferson impersonators? Most people who go there are eager to get away, but Worcester is so intwined with American culture that I’m beginning to think that’s impossible.

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Great Bookstore in Peril

If you wish you were reading this on a piece of paper (I wish I was writing this on one), then here is some unfortunate news. For the week of January 11th, the Village Voice compiled a list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” which included the staff of the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

According to the Voice, the “staff’s jobs are on the line if either of the seemingly inevitable occur: the continued rise of e-books and the fury of Cooper [Union] students at the possibility of having to pay tuition.”

St. Mark’s rents its space from Cooper Union, which gave it a rent reduction reprieve. The highly selective college has traditionally admitted students for free, and it seems unlikely that it would give up one of it’s biggest selling points before raising the bookshop’s rent.

I’m not a fan of e-books; one of the reasons I prefer the printed variety is because it gives places like St. Mark’s a reason to exist. It’s not just a bookstore: it caters to a very specific clientele. You will never find a more complete selection of Emma Goldman texts, or a wider variety of philosophy books. And, especially if e-books take over, you will never be able to rub shoulders with the people who read them. Isn’t it nice to know that you aren’t alone; that other people share your interests?

The avid read will not be able to find the types of books St. Mark’s specializes at Barnes & Noble, and it will be awhile before some of the more esoteric titles get made into e-books. Of course, there’s always Amazon… but who wants to browse for books on socialism without socializing?

St. Mark’s is an unusual bookstore, and for that reason alone it deserves to survive. The Internet is making consumerism much more efficient, but it is also making it boring. Consumerism is the engine that drives the American economy (it’s not like we make anything anymore), and spending all of one’s time buying the same types of items from the same vendors sounds like a form of dystopia.

If the fashion-conscious can have their quirky boutiques, and gastronauts can have bakeries with $5.00 cupcakes, readers deserve to have quirky, physical bookstores. More casual readers may turn to e-books, but those who are more committed to the written word shouldn’t let the unwashed masses drag them down. If you’re in downtown Manhattan, go to St. Mark’s and show your support.

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Want to help save a lunatic asylum?

The Worcester State Hospital Clock Tower looks like it could house a colony of vampires. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Worcester, Massachusetts would be the perfect place to film a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. This city, about an hour from Boston, was a manufacturing powerhouse and is now a poster-child for American urban decay and economic depression. The upside is that it’s full of interesting old buildings. Among the most interesting is Worcester State Hospital.

The remains of what was also called the “Lunatic Hospital” stand on a hill overlooking Lake Quinsigamond. Times have certainly changed since the hospital was built in 1877: it’s surrounded by biomedical research companies and the UMass Medical Center.

Today, only two buildings remain: the Clock Tower, an administrative building that, with its Victorian Gothic style, looks like a mad scientist’s mansion, and the Hooper Turret. A significant portion of the hospital was destroyed in a fire in 1991, the rest was demolished to make way for a new hospital beginning in 2004.

In the interim, Worcester State Hospital became a favorite site for photographers, urban explorers, and even college art students. When I was in college at Clark University, some of my professors talked about taking their classes to the Clock Tower for outdoor drawing sessions. You used to be able to drive right up to it, but the site has been fenced off while demolition and construction work have been going on.

The demolition work denied Worcester State Hospital its “15 minutes of fame.” In 2008, there were plans to film the movie Shutter Island at the hospital, but the ongoing demolition made that impossible and filming was done at Medfield State Hospital.

If the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management has its way, the demolition will continue until none of the original buildings are left. At a recent meeting with preservationists, they announced plans to demolish the Clock Tower and Hooper Turret prior to opening the new hospital in March 2012.

The buildings may be in poor condition, but it would be a shame to see them go. Worcester holds an important place in the history of mental health: Sigmund Freud made his only public appearance in the United States at Clark in 1909, and the American Psychological Association was founded there.

The hospital itself is one of the oldest of its kind in the United States. With that in mind, it would be very fitting to turn the remaining two buildings into a mental health museum. It would give tourists a reason to visit Worcester (the city needs all the help it can get) and, at the very least, a museum could serve as a reminder of how far the treatment of mental illness has come and a warning from history about the potential for abuse in institutions.

Photo by Jon Doe.

Worcester State Hospital is off Route 9 (Belmont Street), just before Lake Quinsigamond and the Worcester/Shrewsbury line. Turn onto Plantation Street; the Beechwood Hotel should be on your left and the UMass Medical Center should be on your right. Take the first possible left. Make a right and look for Clocktower Drive. Go as close as you can get before the fence.

It might be best to leave your car and walk to the site. Some good views can be gotten by walking through the grass between Clocktower Drive and Hospital Drive. I’ve also heard that there are some weak spots in the fence.

If you would like to help save the Clock Tower and Hooper Turret, Preservation Worcester is running a letter-writing campaign. You can find all of the pertinent information at or look up “Save Worcester State Hospital” on Facebook.

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