January 27, 2013

Riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight


It’s easy to think of the railroad as the technological marvel that modernized the American West.

The iron rails that first connected Nebraska to California at the close of the 1860s (and would, within a few decades, connect the rest of the western frontier) brought fence posts and farm towns and telegraph lines and far more settlers every year than ever crossed the Oregon Trail with ox teams and covered wagons. A letter that once took months to sail from Boston to San Francisco could make the trip by railroad at the jaw-dropping speed of 10 days.

So who would have guessed that long-distance trains would one day be regarded as the slow-it-down way to travel? Today the Amtrak Coast Starlight takes 20 hours to chug between my hometown of Olympia, Washington, and the east shore of San Francisco Bay—a journey I made both directions last week for a two-day family reunion. (more…)

January 14, 2013

The Inaugural Victory Ball


Washington State Governor Roland Hartley wouldn’t have dreamed of hosting his inaugural ball in the rotunda of the state capitol.

The Washington statehouse was only half-finished in 1925 when Hartley—a hot-tempered timber magnate opposed to big government and high taxes—took the oath of office. His inaugural ball that evening, held at the American Legion Hall, featured fir boughs, cedar garlands, and a special “log cabin” viewing stand for the governor and his family, to show they were just plain folks.

The new fancy-pants state capitol was an easy target for Hartley, who called the Neo-Classical structure “a monument to extravagance.” He especially delighted in slamming plans for the building’s custom-made furnishings, insisting that standard desk chairs and coat racks ought to be good enough. While campaigning for re-election in 1928, Hartley carried select examples of capitol furniture with him, whipping up public furor over government spending and waste.

So Hartley would be stunned to discover that every Washington governor from 1985 forward has held his or her inaugural ball in the marble halls of the statehouse. And he’d be even more flabbergasted by the fuss that flared up when planners for this year’s party tried to move the big night somewhere else. (more…)

January 2, 2013

Cement City


There’s not much romance in Portland cement.

Lumber towns have their logging lore—the ox teams and skidders, the great Northwest woods. There’s a brawny caulk-boots-and-flannel appeal to towns built on timber and sawmills. But plain gray industrial cement doesn’t have quite the same rugged charm. When it comes to promoting heritage, a town with a name like Concrete is starting from miles behind. (more…)