Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dam Tourists!

Before going on a public tour, I try to give the tour guide a heads up. My dad and I are not your average tourists. Unfortunately, I forgot to warn our Glen Canyon Dam tour guide. Caught unprepared for our detailed, unusual questions, she tried to deflect: “I’m not allowed to give those specifications, but you can look them up on the internet.”

By halfway through the tour, she was exasperated. Unable to answer our questions, she began questioning us. What was our background? Why did we want to know this stuff? Simple curiosity didn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.

I had to remind my dad of the time he almost got thrown off the coffee plantation tour in Hawaii because they thought he was an industrial spy. Glenn Canyon Dam is protected by Homeland Security, and I really didn’t want to get into too much trouble. So we just closed our mouths for the remainder of the tour.

On the elevator ride back to the top of the dam, our guide admitted to us that she usually goes all day without having a question she hasn’t already answered a hundred times before. All of our questions were new.

When she returned to the comfort zone of the front desk, she immediately turned me over to the NPS ranger for answers. The ranger tried to refer me to the movie in the auditorium, but I had too many comparable statistics from Hoover Dam to be placated by a general video. The ranger retreated to the back room and sent out a superior.

I urge the NPS and the tour guides at Glenn Canyon to think about our questions and their mission to educate their visitors. For most people, the standard tour is enough. But for the occasional visitor who wants to know more, have knowledgeable guides on staff who can engage in a detailed discussion.

As with most of the tours I go on, I’m always trying to answer the question, “Why do people want to see this?” In the case of the Glenn Canyon Dam, clearly tourists don’t want to learn about electricity generation. If they do learn the fundamentals of hydro-electric power, I think that’s great. But a quick check in at the coal powered power plant only two miles from the dam confirmed my suspicions. There were no regularly scheduled tours, no gift shop, no interest from the public.

Kennecott Sidetrip II

Just as I was bemoaning the fact that geologists never discover ore in convenient locations, I come across the Kennecott Copper Mine located just off Interstate 80 in suburban Salt Lake City.

Just as Kennecott was closing down its interests in Alaska, they bought up the Bingham Canyon mine. It was a very different grade of ore and required a very different type of mine. They pretty much invented open pit mining. This is one big hole.

As a museum professional, I hated the visitor center. I could list all of the faults I saw with it, but I was clearly in the minority opinion. Walking through the center, I heard Spanish, French, German, and English being spoken. The audience was incredibly diverse, especially for Utah. Intergenerational groups were talking with each other about copper. All around me a heard exclamations of, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” A quick look over their guest book showed geologists from Germany, visitors from South Korea, and folks from over a dozen different states – and that was only for today. Despite my reservations, it was clearly a success.

What is your inclination?

Articulated trucks low gear!

Box trucks watch out.

Car to truck conversion?

Trucks probably shouldn't be on this road if the cars are having problems.

Not even safe for bikes?

So Much More than Potatoes!

This is my first trip to Idaho, and I am loving it! Not only is it a beautiful state with friendly people, but it also has a number of surprise attractions for the Technical Tourist.

Tired of driving, we pulled into the tiny town of Challis. Showing no signs of sustainable economic activity (not enough agriculture, clearly not a tourist destination, no factory infrastructure), we were puzzled as to why there were a dozen motels lining the main road. Of course, when there is no outward sign of industry, look underground. The bartender at our motel confirmed our suspicions – mining! But not just any old mine, this is the only molybdenum mine in North America. Who doesn’t love moly?

Thomas Creek does offer tours of the mine. Our bartender (who also drives the fuel truck up there sometimes) gave us the phone number of the guard station, but everyone in town suggested we just drive up to the mine. Unfortunately, when we arrived all of the managers were in a meeting and no one could give the authorization to get us in. Better luck next time.

Continuing our drive south, by noon I was getting peckish, and forced my dad to pull over in the town of Arco. Another grand surprise. As the sign outside city hall proudly proclaims, Arco was the first city to be lit by atomic energy. We went inside to find out more information and discovered the front desk staff leafing through the archives of the local newspaper, the Arco Advertiser. Arco is celebrating its centennial this year, and they are busy putting together a cd of the town’s history.

The exceptionally friendly staff told us all about EBR-1, the experimental breeder reactor down the road a few miles, and encouraged us to take a tour. They also urged us to return to Arco in a few weeks to celebrate Atomic Days, their annual town celebration. I’m tempted.

How can the technical tourist refuse an invitation to see the first experimental breeder reactor? Of course I knew the basic history of the Manhattan Project and the reactor at the University of Chicago, but I had no idea that Idaho played such a big part in researching the use of atomic energy. Idaho National Labs is clearly still doing some interesting research, but the Department of Energy clearly wishes to confine tourists to its historic work.

My final Idaho surprise came after a disappointing trip to the Hagermen Fossil Pits (Don’t get your hopes up. There are no fossils to see.) On a whim, we turned off the road to see the National Fish Hatchery. I was surprised to discover we weren’t the only tourists viewing the fish hatchery on a random Tuesday afternoon. I was even more surprised to learn that their visitation rate would make most museums jealous. And I was even more surprised to find out that 75% of the stocked trout in the US is grown in the high plains of Idaho. It takes about 11 months to grow a fish. They had just shipped out all of their stock, and they ship all over the country. Now, every time I see a truck on the highway, I wonder if it is full of fish.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Kennecott Sidetrip

The luxury of traveling in your own vehicle is that at any point along the way you can on a whim decide to turn right and drive 94 miles down a pothole-filled, gravel road hoping that there’s something worthwhile at the end. Admittedly, it often ends with a headache, sore back, screaming at your traveling companion, and being rejected by the hotel when you show up at 11:00 pm due to the size of your dog. (We had even double checked on this when we made the reservation before heading down that bumpy road. Argh.) But sometimes the trip is actually worth it.

Thus we toured the remains of the Kennecott Mine. It’s a fascinating industrial site situated in the middle of a picturesque, rugged landscape, but makes me wonder why geologists can’t ever seem to find ore in more easily accessible places.

One of the books I have along with me on this trip is The Official Guide to America’s National Parks (Fodor’s 12th edition). In its glowing description of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, it gushes that “the largest protected roadless wilderness in the world, encompasses towering mountains, glaciers, meandering rivers, and volcanoes.” Nowhere in its description of “the mountain kingdom of North America” does it mention that one of the nation’s most productive copper mines – a company town that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – sits in the middle of this wilderness. (Nor does it mention the second-growth trees surrounding the town. During the heyday of the mine in the early 20th century, they clear-cut the forest for fuel for the trains. I wonder what the backpackers would think if I suggested denuding the forest?)

Some of the buildings in Kennecott are privately owned, some are in varying stages of collapse, and some are being restored, or at least stabilized, by the National Park Service. The most impressive building in the group is the mill house, which cascades 14 stories down the side of the mountain. Perhaps one of the more structurally unsound buildings I’ve explored lately, but I’m thankful that the Park Service let us in at all.

You can only tour the mill by paying for a guided tour with the St. Elias Alpine Guides, who were unfortunately unable to answer any of my technical questions. Of course, the NPS rangers couldn’t answer my questions either. A suggestion to the Park Service: If you are going to preserve two major copper mine sites, you should be able to make a comparison between the two. You just might get a crazy tourist or two who have been to both. (The other copper mine, Keweenaw, is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and is worth an excursion. They were mining elemental copper, which is just plain cool.)

Dredging Sounds So Much Easier

So I’ve seen the pictures of the Klondike Goldrush stampeders, and it really doesn’t look like fun. It looks cold and muddy, and I know I’d never make it. (I think it is good to know your own limits, and I’m pretty sure mine fall well short of trekking hundreds of miles in 50 below temperatures hauling a year’s supply of food on the chance that I might strike it rich. I’m more suited to playing the lottery or aiming to marry well.)

What I didn’t know was that gold mining quickly became industrialized. Goodbye Jack London shivering in a log cabin. Hello giant machinery. (Log cabins lack structurally integrity anyway – who thought it was a good idea to build a straight wall by stacking round things on round things.)

As soon as the completion of the railroad made the transportation of these behemoths feasible, they arrived on the scene. A team of up to 120 workers would steam the permafrost in advance of the dredge so that it could scoop out the muck and the rocks, sort out the gold, and spit out tailings in its wake. Dredges transformed the landscape into snaking piles of large rocks. I’m sure in a thousand years archeologists will speculate what caused men to make such strange mounds.

There are dredges scattered about the area – Dawson City, Chicken, Fairbanks, Skagway. They all seem to be in a slow state of decline. Some have passed through multiple owners who now can’t tell you how they operate. And just about everyone is reluctant to let you inside. What are they afraid of – that we might learn something?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Alaskan Pipeline

More to follow when I have better internet access...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Failure of Communication

If you saw this sign at kilometerpost 0 of the Dempster Highway:
would you expect to see the ferry at the Peel River up on skids on land?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Modern Camping Technology

I’ve been getting some complaints that I haven’t been updating my blog regularly. I’ve been camping in the Yukon. I haven’t been eaten by a bear. I just haven’t had any internet access or cell phone service. It’s almost primitive.

For those people who know me, you know I am not a camper. I really like technological advances that have led to modern comforts and conveniences. I’m a true booster for industrialization. I like things like beds and walls and central heat when it is negative 7 degrees Celsius. Turns out my dog doesn’t like camping either. Emmeline was shivering so much that I ended up sharing my sleeping bag with her. I don’t know which is stranger: sharing a sleeping bag with an English Mastiff or the fact that we were both snuggled under a toasty electric blanket.

That latter statement might give you pause considering we were “camping.” Just to be clear, we do not have an RV. We are simply driving a Ford F-250, standard stock around here. But it is a truck with character, and perhaps it is time to give it a proper introduction.

My dad started modifying the truck in anticipation of this trip. He started off with seemingly obvious and necessary modifications, such as the clamshell storage bins for our clothes, but somewhere – and I’m not entirely sure where – he crossed a line. Now, anytime we stop for a bite to eat or to fuel up, we always attract onlookers who are puzzled by some aspect of the truck.

He started with an extra gas tank. That isn’t too unusual on a truck. It’s a very smart idea when traveling long distances between gas stations in northern Canada and Alaska to have a spare 80 gallons of fuel. We can also hedge diesel prices a bit. Best price so far $0.71/liter (Alberta); worst: $1.32 (Yukon).

Then he added the sleeping platform across the back seat for my dog. Emmeline is an old dog with arthritis and the truck is high off the ground, so the steps were a good addition too.

He added two 110-pound, deep discharge, lead-acid batteries that hook into the truck’s electrical system for recharging. The batteries drive an inverter mounted under the dog’s platform with a quad receptacle. This is extremely convenient. We can charge our cell phones. I can work on my laptop while on the road. I’ve already mentioned the electric blanket. It also powers our mini-refrigerator and our satellite radio. The easy access to electricity makes me very happy.

On the trip my dad and I do want to get out and explore the wilderness a bit, but my dad has a bad heart and can’t do too much hiking. So about a year ago he bought his latest toy: a Segway. This may start pushing us over the limit to craziness, but Dad claims it as a qualifying medical expense. Most of the people we encounter haven’t seen a Segway in real life, especially one with all-terrain tires.

Dad built a special spring-loaded rack for the Segway that attaches to the trailer hitch for easy loading and unloading. Unfortunately he spring balanced the rack instead of mass balancing it. The bumpy unpaved roads have been a bit rough on the contraption, leading to idle conversation about free body diagrams and how it could be re-engineered to be better. For the record, the Segway doesn’t like the cold any better than Emmeline or I do. Its electrical system starts complaining when the temperature approaches freezing.

I can’t keep up with his 12 mph Segway, so I had to bring my bike, but bikes are commonplace along the Alaskan highway. Everyone has bike racks on the back of their SUVs. Mine is only distinguishable because it is on the second story of the truck rack. That’s right, Dad built a steel tube framed second story for the truck. Not everyone has a 2 x 2, 14-gauge square steel tubing upper deck.

The upper deck allows for two additional storage bin (one for camping equipment and one for tools). It also allows for four, half barrel beer kegs, now filled with potable water, two dedicated to cold water and two to hot water. The hot water is created by circulating the water through a braised plate, Alfa Laval heat exchanger with the truck’s coolant pump circulating radiator fluid tapped from the heater hoses through the other side of the heat exchanger. The hot water runs at approximately 70 degrees Celsius, that is, the running temperature of the engine. A design review of the system should note that significant sub-freezing temperatures were not anticipated (our water lines have been freezing at night). It’s been a very cold spring. Even the Canadians are complaining.

The water system is pressurized with compressed air coming from our 12 Volt, DC, 150 psi air compressor, reduced via a pressure regulator to standard residential pressure of 40 psi. In short, my dad built a shower.

Additional air sockets are included in the system for powering tools, such as an impact wrench if needed for an emergency tire change (good idea). The air compressor also energizes the horns (less good idea). These are not your normal horns. Purchased off of eBay, they came from a CSX locomotive. They are loud, and we have encountered numerous train enthusiasts who want a demonstration.

Finally there are the propane tanks. Is it cheating to start your camp fire with a propane torch? It definitely makes cooking easier.

Mile vs KM Smackdown

We’ve driven 3,761 miles to get to milepost 0 of the Alaskan Highway in Dawson Creek. But we’re in Canada, so it kilometerpost 0. That doesn’t really roll off your tongue. Everything along the highway is delineated by its milemarker. When Canada went metric, it led to some unit confusion. Businesses line the highway with billboards advertising the locations of their identity crisis: “Mile 54 Truck Stop. 16 km ahead”

Alberta Oil Sands

No Tourists Allowed

Why is Alberta so hostile to historians? After all, to get to this provincial site, we’ve already driven 30 km down an unpaved road unheeding the warnings of the “Winter Road Closed” sign. Do you really think this sign is going to keep us from exploring?

Bitumount is the site of the first commercial oil sands plant in Alberta. In 1927 Robert Fitzsimmons formed the International Bitumen Company and began drilling through the oil sands with the mistaken belief that he would eventually find pools of liquid oil. The following year, Dr. Karl Clark develops a method for separating bitumen from the oil sands, but it took decades of investment to develop effective oil sands mining.

Charles, an interpreter at the Oil Sands Discovery Center, told me that there are plans to restore the abandoned Bitumount site and open it to the public, but the completion is at least a decade away.

A Winter Road in Summer

My dad had seen an episode of Ice Road Truckers, and so we had to go see what the winter road looked like. Heading out of Fort McMurray, we drove towards Fort Chipewyan. The first 60 km are paved. Then you have about 20km of a nicely compacted unpaved road. Then you have the winter road, which closed in March — it’s hard to keep ice roads functioning in above freezing temperatures.

The road bed is a single lane of gravel road paired with a single land of a sand road (the natural soil of the area). The first 25 km are currently under construction with crews working to convert it to year round use. We stopped to talk to some surveyors who were out working on the Victoria Day holiday. They were restaking the shoulder. Apparently, an engineer in the head office had discovered an error after they had originally staked it and now they had to move the road over a bit.

We didn’t drive as far as we could have down the winter road. It eventually deteriorates to a sandy bog that is only passable by all-terrain vehicles. Then you hit a few rivers and a lake or two. We are betwixt and between seasons. The ice bridges have closed, but ferry operations haven’t begun to cross some of the rivers in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, hampering our plans to drive to Yellowknife and Inuvik.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dynamic Earth

Putting some miles behind us, we arrived in Sudbury, Ontario, to explore the town’s nickel and copper mining industry. We couldn’t swing a tour of the active mining operations, but were able to simulate the experience at Dynamic Earth, a science museum focusing on the area’s geology. (

The museum has two main exhibit galleries. The lower level has a children’s activity area and an interactive station for controlling mining machinery that mimics a radio-controlled mining operation. The upper level has a permanent display of gems and minerals and room for temporary exhibits. The traveling exhibit Diamonds recently premiered in the temporary gallery. Nadia, a geologist who had worked on diamond exploration expeditions, was on hand to answer any of our questions. It was a pleasure to have someone with industry experience on the museum floor to offer explanations and anecdotes. More museums should invest in content-area specialists for their floor interpreters.

Although the exhibits are interesting, the real draw to Dynamic Earth is its simulated mine. I have toured numerous mines – both real and constructed – across Europe and North America, and I have to rank Dynamic Earth’s simulation near the top. An elevator takes you down a 65-foot cut into the rock. After donning hard hats and passing through an airlock chamber to separate the mine’s ventilation system from the museum’s, you arrive in a cut drift. The guided tour takes you through one hundred years of mining history. Beginning with a 1900s mine, it shows the evolution of mining technology, from hand tools to pneumatic hammers, to radio-controlled electric machinery.

Sudbury mines 10% of the world’s nickel, and the active mines still have at least 100 years of life in them, but the current economic outlook is grim. The local mines are laying off employees and instituting 4-6 week mandatory shut downs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Scenic RR machine shops

Most people journey to Cass, WV, to ride the scenic railroad. Cass State Park has a virtual monopoly on Shay, gear-driven, steam locomotives that climb the 10% grade into the mountains with ease. The park opens to the public next week. Of course a “No Authorized Persons Beyond This Point” sign rarely stops the intrepid technical tourist. We nonchalantly strolled past the water tower, around the bend to the maintenance shed. Happily we found the staff working away, firing up four of the steam locomotives, and finalizing the winter maintenance in preparation for the tourist season.

Park Superintendant Dave Caplinger soon caught up with us, but instead of shooing us off, he handed us visitors passes and gave us an impromptu tour. The town of Cass developed in the early 20th century with the formation of the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company. The saw mill employed 150 men who worked two 11-hour shifts, six days a week. Additionally, there were 1,000 loggers in various camps in the surrounding mountains. The loggers cut 10 acres a day, and five to six 11-car trains of logs arrived at the mill daily. At its peak, the mill sawed 100,000 board-feet of wood a day.

The saw mill closed in 1960, and a fire destroyed most of the buildings in 1982, but the rail line remains. Cass is an interesting undertaking for a state government. The park includes not only an operating railroad, but also the entire company town of Cass. Its full time employees include skilled workers who weld gear teeth, replace bearings, and flush the steam boilers.

The factory that time forgot

Looking for a place to stop and have lunch, we were lured off the highway by a sign for a factory tour of Masterpiece Crystal in Jane Lew, WV. ( At the end of a tiny residential street, nestled behind a senior center, stands the forlorn cinderblock building. The factory was built in the 1930s, and in many ways it appears as if modernization passed it by.

Masterpiece Crystal is the last factory in the United States to produce handmade glassware for restaurants, wineries, and other boutique outlets. Debbie gave us an impromptu tour of the facility where we watched a four man crew blow and shape wine glasses. Each shop produces approximately 1,000 pieces a day, and two different shops were operating that day.

Tours every half hour, Monday to Friday, 9:00-5:00.

No digital pictures, please

The advertisement in the back of the magazine claimed that Green Bank, WV, was home to the largest, steerable, land-based object: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank radio telescope. ( With such a fantastic claim, we had to go take a look. Unfortunately, sometimes we really should plan ahead. The adjacent Science Center is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We arrived on a Tuesday. (Note they are open daily Memorial Day to Labor Day)

Although the Science Center was closed, the grounds were open, and we were able to walk a mile or so along a curving road through a field of radio telescopes of varying size and functionality. Some were clearly not in use, noting the hawks that were nesting in the dishes, but the air conditioners hummed in others, and we could only guess as to what they were mapping.

The prize of the area is the 100 meter Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Frederick Law Olmstead couldn’t have designed a better approach to the telescope. As you walk the winding path, the looming giant disappears behind the tree line and reappears at a different angle, teasing the visitor about its true size. Along the way there are single-panel displays explaining some of the research at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, as well as markers showing the relative distances of the planets from the sun – Pluto still ranks as a planet here.

Digital cameras and other personal electronics are not allowed in close proximity to the telescopes because of the interference.

2009 is International Year of Astronomy, so go out and explore your universe.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tech Tour 2009 Officially Begins

A girl, her dad, her dog, and a really tricked out truck – it’s either a country song cliché or the beginning of a great adventure.  Let’s hope for the latter.

Tech Tour 2009 is officially underway.  The ostensible purpose of this trip is to drive the Alaskan Pipeline in preparation for a talk I am giving at the Society for the History of Technology's annual meeting in October.  Along the way we will be stopping at sites of interest to the technical tourist.

The general route begins in Richmond, Virginia, with the first planned stop in Green Bank, West Virginia.  We will then head north, crossing into Canada at Niagara Falls.  We will meander westwards across Canada before turning north up the Al-Can highway.  Hopefully we will make it to Barrow, Alaska, before heading south and returning to the lower 48.  We will head east across the mid section of the US.  Approximately 8,000 miles or so round trip.  Of course, we are lousy planners, so who knows what the trip will entail.

This blog is an experiment in expanding my research beyond the history of factory tours to include other types of industrial tourism.  I welcome your comments as I shape my manuscript, The Ultimate Vacation: Watching Other People Work, a history of factory tours in America.