Parsons, the seal not the engineer, gets a new life

sealWilliam Barclay Parsons, the brilliant engineer whose name and the company he founded, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is behind the original New York City subway, the Second Avenue Subway project, the Cape Cod Canal, the Panama Canal, and Boston’s Big Dig, to name just a few mega-projects, now has his name attached to a slightly cuter project: The rescue of a male harbor seal pup.

The National Marine Life Center just released 3 harbor seals that had been rescued after being stranded back in May. One of the pups was named “Barclay,” (that’s him above) in recognition of Parsons, who designed the Cape Cod Canal, a project that celebrated its 100th anniversary this summer. Barclay (the seal, not the man) was treated for dehydration, curious bite wounds, malnourishment and maternal separation before being released on Friday, Sept. 12. at Scusset Beach in Sandwich.


The other two seals released along with Barclay were Rose, a female that was rescued last June in New Hampshire, and Mary Arnold, rescued over the summer in Truro. There were about 100 people on hand to watch the release.

“With the recent closure of a seal hospital in Maine, the National Marine Life Center is the only federally authorized wildlife hospital open for sick and injured seals in northern New England,” Kathy Zagzebski, NMLC President & Executive Director, said upon the seals’ release. “The need is great, and public support is critical to help return these amazing and important animals to the wild.”

William Parsons himself was born in 1859, and graduated from Columbia College and Columbia’s School of Mines before going on to design some of the world’s biggest engineering projects. His first giant project was taking on the New York City subway, which had been a lifelong interest of his, and finally opened on Oct. 27, 1904, seven years after Boston opened America’s first subway in 1897. I tell his life story in great detail in “The Race Underground.”

Parsons would go on to design canals, bridges, roadways, railroad projects, and more until his death at the age of 73 in 1932.

Fall events for Doug Most and ‘The Race Underground’

FirstTrolleysOutOfSubwaySix months ago “The Race Underground” was published by St. Martin’s Press. Amazon named it a “Best Book of the Month”, “The New York Times” and “The Economist” had really kind things to say, and I got to sit in front of 300 people with Mike Dukakis. How cool is that? It was more than 5 years of research and writing and so I am in no hurry to stop sharing the amazing story of how America’s first two subways were built after years of contentious debate. I’m thrilled to see so many great reviews on Amazon and to hear so much feedback from random readers around the country. This fall I’ll be out there, from Arlington to Boston to Newton to Newport, R.I. to Brandeis University to Framingham and to Boston again for the annual Boston Book Festival to Regis College in Weston to my old hometown in Barrington, R.I. 

Here is a more detailed list (click on “Events” above for more info), thanks for sharing and please spread the word, especially if you know anyone in the area of these events who might be interested in talking subways, inventors, American history, and the great Gilded Age.

September 3 in the evening at the Arlington Robbins Library.

September 10 at noon at the wonderful Boston Athenaeum

September 11 for a lunchtime talk at Brandeis for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute:

September 18, 8 p.m., Mass Bay Railroad Enthusiasts at Union Church in Waban.

October 1, Framingham Public Library, with Framingham State College, 7 p.m.

October 9 at the Newport mansion, The Elms, 6 p.m., for the Preservation Society of Newport County.

October 25 at the Boston Book Festival.

November 4, Regis College in Weston, for a lunchtime talk.

December 6 at the Barrington Public Library

The Race Underground book Doug Most




Slow-motion video of great dog jumping into lake

This has nothing to do with subways, history, the Gilded Age, Boston, New York, or anything at all to do with my book, The Race Underground. It’s just a really cool slow-motion video that I shot this summer of a dog jumping off a dock into Lake Winnipesaukee. However, please do still buy my book and tell people about it. Naturally. Thanks!


Mensa and Subways

mensaI have done at least 50 different events related to “The Race Underground”, but holy cow was my event at “Brilliance in Beantown,” the annual Mensa convention, a rollicking good time. It was a crowded room, probably close to 100 people, and they were loud, eager, excited, and, yes, sorta smart. They were quick to jump on me if I misstated something, or said something historical that’s considered debatable.

When I connected Thomas Edison with inventing electricity, they pounced all over me like bees to honey. “REFINED IT, MAYBE!” one voice shouted out. OK, fine.

But by far the best line came when I said I was going to read a passage from the book, from the first day Boston’s subway opened, September 1, 1897. An odd, audible sigh came from the back of the packed room, and I said with a smile, “What? Was that a sigh?” And another voice piped up, “She remembers that day fondly.”

The room erupted in laughter. A great time, thanks for the laughs and keeping my on my toes, Mensans. Here is my earlier link to some Mensa trivia.


Horses in big cities have a long, important history

subwayphotoIt’s hard to believe that the horse is still hanging around in big cities like Boston. After all, when the city’s trolley tracks were electrified around 1890, it all but ended the need for working horses in the city. But not only are horses still here and still working, they are at the center of a spat between City Councilor Stephen Murphy and Police Commissioner Bill Evans. 

The debate is over the police department’s Mounted Police Unit and whether it’s a waste of money and serves only to make kids smile when they see the magnificent animals walking the streets during a parade, or whether they are actually valuable for community policing. When Evans failed to show up at a council meeting on June 24 to explain the need for the police horse unit, Murphy felt miffed and ordered an aide to find Evans and demand him to come to the meeting. Right now!

This passage from Meghan Irons’ story sums up what happened next:

More than 35 minutes after the start of the hearing, Murphy tapped his gavel twice to signal the end of the recess, and an angry-looking Evans arrived, saying he had spent the morning huddled with his commanders preparing to launch a major city anti-violence effort. And now he was in City Hall. “I’m trying to prevent kids from getting shot on the streets,’’ Evans said, composing himself. “That was where my priorities were.

In an age when cops on bicycles zoom around the city, it’s sort of hard to see how a horse is more practical and nimble than a bike, if the need arose for a quick chase. There were multiple reasons for why horses had to be replaced as a mode of transportation in cities in the late 19th century.

They were filthy and their manure smelled to the heavens, especially in the summer. As I write in “The Race Underground,” In 1860 New York’s “Second Avenue Street Railway could collect as much $4.60 per horse for its manure annually. By 1885, that figure had dropped to $1.10, and some stable owners were losing money on manure because it cost them so much to cart away.”

Also, keeping stables for horses in cities proved dangerous. A stable fire in New York City on May 27, 1887, leveled blocks of midtown Manhattan and killed more than 1,000 horses, along with 156 streetcars and four snowplows. Again, from the book: “The sounds from inside, of horses neighing and crying and bucking against their stalls, was agonizing for those on the streets.”

And they were expensive to maintain and a strong horse only lasted 2-3 years pulling heavy streetcars. Once Henry Whitney’s West End Street Railway company electrified its system in Boston, the horse quickly became irrelevant. In 887, his company had 8,000 horses. Five years later it had 3,754.

The horse did not entirely disappear, however, in Boston. On March 4, 1897, six months before Boston’s first subway would open, a devastating gas line explosion at the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets killed 10 people. It’s the subject of an entire chapter in “The Race Underground,” and this photo shows that people were not the only victims.

28 dead horse






‘Brilliance in Beantown’: Things you didn’t know about Mensa

Dumb and Dumber ToWhen I told my mother that I had been invited to speak about “The Race Underground” at the annual gathering of Mensa in Boston in July, she almost choked. Let’s just say she was curious if they inspected my high school or college transcripts before asking.

Anyway, I really am going to speak at “Brilliance in Beantown,” the Mensa convention on Wednesday evening, July 2 (details here). And I thought I’d do my homework (for a change!) and learn about this group before I addressed them. You’d be surprised what I learned. For starters, those guys in the picture above? Not Mensa members! Here’s their movie trailer. (Dumb and Dumber To)

1: You can qualify for Mensa  one of two ways. Simply provide evidence that you scored “in the top 2 percent of the general population on any of more than 200 tests that Mensa accepts for membership.” Or, go take the actual Mensa Admission Test. And ace it! If you are curious about IQ, Mensa officials explain that every IQ test is different, so a score of 130 on one test might be 140 on another. But you get the picture. 

2: The oldest Mensa member? 102 years old. The youngest? Two. Though I’m not quite sure how that worked.

3: Of the 60,000 or so members, roughly 65 percent are male or 35 percent are female. I can’t help wondering, however, if that’s just because more guys want to brag to women they belong to Mensa, than women feel the need to brag to guys. Just a thought.

4: Geena Davis. Mensa member. So is author Joyce Carol Oates (below), boxer Bobby Czyz, author Isaac Asimov, and Adrian Cronauer. Who? The crazy DJ guy Robin Williams portrays in Good Morning, Vietnam, that’s who. Other reported (but not confirmed) members include director Quentin Tarantino, my favorite comedian, Steve Martin, (Update: Through the miracle of Twitter, Martin tells me it’s a false rumor. Oh well, at least he still plays a wicked mean banjo with the Steep Canyon Ranchers) and actress Sharon Stone. oates

5: What does Mensa mean? Good question. Let’s let the really smart folks at Mensa answer: The word “Mensa” means “table” in Latin. Mensa is a round-table society, where race, color, creed, national origin, age, politics, educational or social background are irrelevant.

I could go on, but all this research sort of depressed me. Made me wish I’d studied a little harder in school. So let’s just say I’m honored they invited me, I can’t wait to impart a little of what I learned after 5 years of studying subways. And let’s hope I come away from ‘Brilliance in Beantown’ a little more brilliant.

Oh, and if you’re curious what a sample Mensa question looks like, it looks like this:

One of the following proverbs is closest in meaning to the saying, “Birds of a feather, flock together.” Choose one:

The first Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, dies

monafreemanYes, there used to be a pageant competition of sorts to crown Miss Subways of New York. The first Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, died recently at her California home, according to The New York Times.

This how the Margalit Fox in the Times described the annual crowning, which began in 1941:

For a generation of midcentury straphangers, Miss Subways, smiling down from placards in thousands of cars on the IRT, IND and BMT lines, was as deeply ingrained in the city’s workaday fabric as Schrafft’s, the automat and that heavenly coffeeRun by the New York Subways Advertising Company in conjunction with theJohn Robert Powers modeling agency, the contest was conceived to draw riders’ eyes to the surrounding advertisements.

It was, believe it or not, a very big deal for Freeman. She went on to Hollywood and appeared in multiple films, including “Junior Miss” (1945), “Black Beauty” (1946) and the “Dear Ruth” trilogy (1947), along with some “Perry Mason” episodes.

Naturally, Wikipedia has a list of all the women who held the Miss Subways crown. That link is here.

As I write in “The Race Underground,” when men and women rode New York’s first subway in October 1904, it took only a few hours for the first man, F.B. Shipley of Philadelphia, to politely give up his seat to a woman. Of course, that happens all the time today. Right, fellas?

Who invented the elevator? A dramatic moment in history

Elisha_OTIS_1853As if simply designing, digging and completing the gargantuan Second Avenue subway project in New York City was not challenging enough, when you add in an unusual, diagonal-traveling elevator, it’s a surefire recipe for construction headaches and delays. Sure enough, as Matt Flegenheimer reported recently in the New York Times, that’s the latest snag to hit the project.

As Flegenheimer wrote: The idea for a diagonal elevator — two, actually, to go with the station’s escalators and vertical elevators — dates to the project’s genesis more than 10 years ago, the authority said. Angling the structures at an incline was thought to be less expensive than tunneling in relatively straight lines, down and across.

The story of America’s first subways that I tell in “The Race Underground” unfolds during the second half of the 19th century, an amazing time of innovation in this country. The dishwasher, electric motor, telephone, light bulb, dynamite, even the ballpoint pen, are just a few of the inventions that were born during this time. So was the elevator, and it’s a story that plays a significant role in “The Race Underground.”

The story behind the invention of the elevator dates back to a time before subways. The world’s first subway, of course, opened in London in 1863. But 10 years before that, in New York City, an inventor from Halifax, Vermont by the name of Elisha Otis, one of six children in his family, unveiled a contraption at the American Institute Fair. A mechanic, he needed a machine that could hoist heavy machinery, but at the time all the contraptions for that work relied on a single cable. If that cable or rope broke, the platform came crashing down. Not very comforting.

Otis developed a spring that, if a rope snapped, would fully extend as if it was stretching out, and it would catch on the side rails the elevator was sliding up and down in. The platform would then hold until the cable or rope was replaced. Otis needed to convince people his safety catch worked, and the only way to do that was to prove it in front of a live audience. So at the American Institute Fair in 1854, at Crystal Palace Hall, he rode an open-shaft elevator up four flights, and then had an assistant cut the rope. As his riveted audience below gasped, the elevator briefly plummeted a few feet and then jerked to a stop. It worked. Over the next three years he installed more than 40 freight elevators and his first passenger elevator in a New York store.

Of that day, the Elevator Museum writes: Halfway up, he had the hoisting rope cut with an axe. The platform held fast and the elevator industry was on its way.

So while Otis did not invent the elevator itself, he invented something far more valuable — the device that makes sure our elevators don’t drop like a stone in the event of an accident. Otis