Exotic Hunting in Texas

When  I said that I’d seen giraffe run along the fence line as I’d made my nearly weekly Harley run from Austin to San Antonio, I wasn’t exaggerating.   Jpnugent
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A giraffe named Buttercup moved closer to Buck Watson, a hunting guide, as he looks on from a vehicle at the Ox Ranch in Uvalde, Tex. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

UVALDE, Tex. — On a ranch at the southwestern edge of the Texas Hill Country, a hunting guide spotted her cooling off in the shade: an African reticulated giraffe. Such is the curious state of modern Texas ranching, that a giraffe among the oak and the mesquite is an everyday sort of thing.

“That’s Buttercup,” said the guide, Buck Watson, 54.

In a place of rare creatures, Buttercup is among the rarest; she is off limits to hunters at the Ox Ranch. Not so the African bongo antelope, one of the world’s heaviest and most striking spiral-horned antelopes, which roams the same countryside as Buttercup. The price to kill a bongo at the Ox Ranch is $35,000.

 

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Water buffaloes walked across a dam at the Ox Ranch. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Himalayan tahrs, wild goats with a bushy lion-style mane, are far cheaper. The trophy fee, or kill fee, to shoot one is $7,500. An Arabian oryx is $9,500; a sitatunga antelope, $12,000; and a black wildebeest, $15,000.

“We don’t hunt giraffes,” Mr. Watson said. “Buttercup will live out her days here, letting people take pictures of her. She can walk around and graze off the trees as if she was in Africa.”

The Ox Ranch near Uvalde, Tex., is not quite a zoo, and not quite an animal shooting range, but something in between.

 

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Mr. Watson points out a Roan on the Ox Ranch. Roan, originally from Africa, never shed their horns, making them attractive trophies for hunters any time of year. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The ranch’s hunting guides and managers walk a thin, controversial line between caring for thousands of rare, threatened and endangered animals and helping to execute them. Some see the ranch as a place for sport and conservation. Some see it as a place for slaughter and hypocrisy.

 

The Ox Ranch provides a glimpse into the future of the mythic Texas range — equal parts exotic game-hunting retreat, upscale outdoor adventure, and breeding and killing ground for exotic species.

Ranchers in the nation’s top cattle-raising state have been transforming pasture land into something out of an African safari, largely to lure trophy hunters who pay top-dollar kill fees to hunt exotics. Zebra mares forage here near African impala antelopes, and it is easy to forget that downtown San Antonio is only two hours to the east.

 

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A worker replaces a light bulb at the Ox Ranch. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The ranch has about 30 bongo, the African antelopes with a trophy fee of $35,000. Last fall, a hunter shot one. “Taking one paid their feed bill for the entire year, for the rest of them,” said Jason Molitor, the chief executive of the Ox Ranch.

To many animal-protection groups, such management of rare and endangered species — breeding some, preventing some from being hunted, while allowing the killing of others — is not only repulsive, but puts hunting ranches in a legal and ethical gray area.

“Depending on what facility it is, there’s concern when animals are raised solely for profit purposes,” said Anna Frostic, a senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States.

 

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Mr. Watson inspects an Axis buck shot the day before by an 8-year-old boy. Trophy carcasses are hung in a cooler room before being transported from the ranch. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Hunting advocates disagree and say the breeding and hunting of exotic animals helps ensure species’ survival. Exotic-game ranches see themselves not as an enemy of wildlife conservation but as an ally, arguing that they contribute a percentage of their profits to conservation efforts.

“We love the animals, and that’s why we hunt them,” Mr. Molitor said. “Most hunters in general are more in line with conservation than the public believes that they are.”

Beyond the financial contributions, hunting ranches and their supporters say the blending of commerce and conservation helps save species from extinction.

 

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Various bovine species, including Watusi cattle and buffalo, eat from a hay drop at the Ox Ranch.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Wildlife experts said there are more blackbuck antelope in Texas than there are in their native India because of the hunting ranches. In addition, Texas ranchers have in the past sent exotic animals, including scimitar-horned oryx, back to their home countries to build up wild populations there.

“Ranchers can sell these hunts and enjoy the income, while doing good for the species,” said John M. Tomecek, a wildlife specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Animal-rights activists are outraged by these ranches. They call what goes on there “canned hunting” or “captive hunting.’’

 

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To ensure a healthy herd, the Ox Ranch introduces fresh blood lines using animals bred on other ranches. April Molitor watches with her father, Jason Molitor, the chief executive of the Ox Ranch, as newly arrived blackbuck antelope are released from a trailer. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

“Hunting has absolutely nothing to do with conservation,” said Ashley Byrne, the associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “What they’re doing is trying to put a better spin on a business that they know the average person finds despicable.”

A 2007 report from Texas A&M University called the exotic wildlife industry in America a billion-dollar industry.

At the Ox Ranch, it shows. The ranch has luxury log cabins, a runway for private planes and a 6,000-square-foot lodge with stone fireplaces and vaulted ceilings. More animals roam its 18,000 acres than roam the Houston Zoo, on a tract of land bigger than the island of Manhattan. The ranch is named for its owner, Brent C. Oxley, 34, the founder of HostGator.com, a web hosting provider that was sold in 2012 for more than $200 million.

 

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Three kangaroos that live in front of the Ox Ranch lodge are mainly for attraction purposes and are not hunted. They greet arriving guests and are often fed corn by the newcomers and by guides.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

“The owner hopes in a few years that we can break even,” Mr. Molitor said.

Because the industry is largely unregulated, there is no official census of exotic animals in Texas. But ranchers and wildlife experts said that Texas has more exotics than any other state. A survey by the state Parks and Wildlife Department in 1994 put the exotic population at more than 195,000 animals from 87 species, but the industry has grown explosively since then; one estimate by John T. Baccus, a retired Texas State University biologist, puts the current total at roughly 1.3 million.

 

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A hunting blind stands among trees near a game feeder at the Ox Ranch. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The Ox Ranch needs no local, state or federal permit for most of their exotic animals.

State hunting regulations do not apply to exotics, which can be hunted year-round. The Fish and Wildlife Service allows ranches to hunt and kill certain animals that are federally designated as threatened or endangered species, if the ranches take certain steps, including donating 10 percent of their hunting proceeds to conservation programs. The ranches are issued permits to conduct activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the Endangered Species Act if those activities enhance the survival of the species in the wild. Those federal permits make it legal to hunt Eld’s deerand other threatened or endangered species at the Ox Ranch.

 

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Mr. Watson petted Buttercup the giraffe. Hunters are not allowed to shoot the ranch’s giraffes.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Mr. Molitor said more government oversight was unnecessary and would drive ranchers out of the business. “I ask people, who do you think is going to manage it better, private organizations or the government?” Mr. Molitor said.

Lawyers for conservation and animal-protection groups say that allowing endangered animals to be hunted undermines the Endangered Species Act, and that the ranches’ financial contributions fail to benefit wildlife conservation.

“We ended up with this sort of pay-to-play idea,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is absolutely absurd that you can go to a canned-hunt facility and kill an endangered or threatened species.”

 

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Wildebeest run free on the Ox Ranch’s rangeland. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The creatures are not the only things at the ranch that are exotic. The tanks are, too.

The ranch offers its guests the opportunity to drive and shoot World War II-era tanks. People fire at bullet-ridden cars from atop an American M4 Sherman tank at a shooting range built to resemble a Nazi-occupied French town.

“We knew the gun people would come out,” said Todd DeGidio, the chief executive of DriveTanks.com, which runs the tank operation. “What surprised us was the demographic of people who’ve never shot guns before.”

 

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A World War II-era M4 Sherman tank. The ranch also has a shooting range built to resemble a Nazi-occupied French town. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Late one evening, two hunters, Joan Schaan and her 15-year-old son, Daniel, rushed to get ready for a nighttime hunt, adjusting the SWAT-style night-vision goggles on their heads.

Ms. Schaan is the executive director of a private foundation in Houston. Daniel is a sophomore at St. John’s School, a prestigious private school. They were there not for the exotics, but basically for the pests: feral hogs, which cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage annually in Texas.

“We are here because we both like to hunt, and we like hunting hogs,” Ms. Schaan said. “And we love the meat and the sausage from the hogs we harvest.”

 

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Joan Schaan takes a photo of her son Daniel Schaan, 15, as he prepares for a night boar hunt.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Pursuing the hogs, Ms. Schaan and her son go off-roading through the brush in near-total darkness, with a hunting guide behind the wheel. Aided by their night-vision goggles, they passed by the giraffes before rattling up and down the hilly terrain.

Daniel fired at hogs from the passenger seat with a SIG Sauer 516 rifle, his spent shell casings flying into the back seat. Their guide, Larry Hromadka, told Daniel when he could and could not take a shot.

No one is allowed to hunt at the ranch without a guide. The guides make sure no one shoots an exotic animal accidentally with a stray bullet, and that no one takes aim at an off-limits creature.

One of the hogs Daniel shot twitched and appeared to still be alive, until Mr. Hromadka approached with his light and his gun.

 

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Larry Hromadka, a hunting guide, fires his pistol to end the suffering of a feral hog shot and wounded during a night boar hunt. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Hundreds of animals shot at the ranch have ended up in the cluttered workrooms and showrooms at Graves Taxidermy in Uvalde.

Part of the allure of exotic game-hunting is the so-called trophy at the end — the mounted and lifelike head of the animal that the hunter put down. The Ox Ranch is Graves Taxidermy’s biggest customer.

“My main business, of course, is white-tailed deer, but the exotics have kind of taken over,” said Browder Graves, the owner.

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Many trophy carcasses from the Ox Ranch are taken to Graves Taxidermy in Uvalde for mounting. Meg Rowland, a newly hired assistant, works on a customer order in the workshop.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

He said the animal mounts he makes for people were not so much a trophy on a wall as a symbol of the hunter’s memories of the entire experience. He has a mount of a Himalayan tahr he shot in New Zealand that he said he cannot look at without thinking of the time he spent with his son hunting up in the mountains.

“It’s God’s creature,” he said. “I’m trying to make it look as good as it can.”

 

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White stags and white elk graze on the ranch at sunset. CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Small herds passed by the Jeep being driven by Mr. Watson, the hunting guide. There were white elk and eland, impala and Arabian oryx.

Then the tour came to an unexpected stop. An Asiatic water buffalo blocked the road, unimpressed by the Jeep. The animal was caked with dried mud, an aging male that lived away from the herd.

“The Africans call them dugaboys,” Mr. Watson said. “They’re old lone bulls. They’re so big that they don’t care.”

The buffalo took his time moving. For a moment, at least, he had all the power.

 

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An ostrich and grazing fallow deer are illuminated by the headlights of a ranch vehicle.CreditDaniel Berehulak for The New York Times
Correction: October 19, 2017 
A photo caption with an earlier version of this article misidentified the animals walking across a dam at the Ox Ranch. They are water buffaloes, not zebus.

 

 

Milky Way Over Monument Valley–Photo

 

 

The Milky Way over Monument Valley 
Image Credit & Copyright: Tom Masterson
Explanation: You don’t have to be at Monument Valley to see the Milky Way arc across the sky like this — but it helps. Only at Monument Valley USA would you see a picturesque foreground that includes these iconic rock peaks called buttes. Buttes are composed of hard rock left behind after water has eroded away the surrounding soft rock. In the featured image taken last month, the closest butte on the left and the butte to its right are known as the Mittens, while Merrick Butte can be seen farther to the right. Green airglow fans up from the horizon. High overhead stretches a band of diffuse light that is the central disk of our spiral Milky Way Galaxy. The band of the Milky Way can be spotted by almost anyone on almost any clear night whenfar enough from a city and surrounding bright lights, but a sensitive digital camera is needed to capture these colors in a dark night sky.   source

Door County Photo

door county  Just now I’m visiting with Susan and George at their rental house  on the Door Peninsula shore of Green Bay.

This evening, George caught this brilliant sunset between the silhouetted trees in front of the house.           Thanks George.

From this viewpoint we see cormorants fishing.  Like loons and anhingas, cormorants have adapted for swimming underwater. Often we see only neck and head.

These birds are often seen standing in a sunny spot with their wings spread, drying them.  They don’t have the oil glands  that ducks and geese have to provide a water repellant in their feathers.  Susan says she hasn’t seen a loon this year but has heard their eerie  “wail call“.

In a Florida state park we saw and alligator and an anhinga at opposite ends of an oval pond, looking at each other..  We could see only the alligator’s eyes above water and only the head and neck of the bird.  It did appear that something was going to happen!

One of our black cats is “Annie”  for the black anhinga.

When Susan and her sibs were young we camped in Peninsula State Park in this same area.

Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

 

One summer we visited a friend who was working as a ranger at Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore on Lake Superior in Northern Michigan.  I remember just one thing of that trip.

The rangers were living in a former Coast Guard station where I went to the 2nd floor for the bathroom.  When I sat down there, I was facing a plaque that said, “You are sitting in the radio shack that received the first distress signals from the S.S. Edmund Fitrzgerald.”  There was the story of the  Great Lakes freighter that went down the horrible day and evening of November 10, 1975, with its crew of 29.

Image by R. LeLievreImage by R. LeLievre

The reason for the sinking has been argued, but I’m interested in the theory of the Three Sisters. ” Perhaps the most romantic theory about the wreck of the Fitzgerald is that the ship succumbed to the forces of the Three Sisters, a Lake Superior phenomenon described as a combination of two large waves inundating the decks of a boat and a third, slightly later monster wave that boards the vessel as it struggles to shrug off the effects of the first two.”

Image result for gordon lightfoot photos
Gordon Lightfoot song

SS Edmund Fitzgerald underway, photo by Winston Brown

Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971
History
Name: SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Owner: Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company
Operator: Columbia Transportation Division, Oglebay Norton Company of Cleveland, Ohio
Port of registry: United States
Ordered: February 1, 1957
Builder: Great Lakes Engineering Works of River Rouge, Michigan
Yard number: 301
Laid down: August 7, 1957
Launched: June 7, 1958
Christened: June 7, 1958
Maiden voyage: September 24, 1958
In service: June 8, 1958
Out of service: November 10, 1975
Identification: Registry number US 277437
Nickname(s): Fitz, Mighty Fitz, Big Fitz, Pride of the American Flag, Toledo Express, Titanic of the Great Lakes
Fate: Lost in a storm on November 10, 1975, with all 29 crewmembers
Status: Sank because of weather conditions
Notes: Location: 46°59.91′N 85°06.61′WCoordinates: 46°59.91′N 85°06.61′W[1]
General characteristics
Type: Lake freighter
Tonnage:
  • 13,632 GRT
  • 8,713 NRT (from 1969: 8,686 NRT)[2]
  • 26,000 DWT
Length:
Beam: 75 ft (23 m)
Draft: 25 ft (7.6 m) typical
Depth: 39 ft (12 m) (moulded)
Depth of hold: 33 ft 4 in (10.16 m)
Installed power:
  • As built:
  • Coal fired Westinghouse Electric Corporation steam turbine at 7,500 shp(5,600 kW)
  • After refit:
  • Conversion to oil fuel and the fitting of automated boiler controls over the winter of 1971–72.
  • Carried 72,000 U.S. gal (270,000 L; 60,000 imp gal) fuel oil
Propulsion: Single 19.5 ft (5.9 m) propeller
Speed: 14 kn (26 km/h; 16 mph)
Capacity: 25,400 tons of cargo
Crew: 29

Why Do Brits Drive on the Left ?

Why Do the Brits Drive on the Left?

 Note:  A man we worked with was killed trying to cross a street in London.  He looked to the left before stepping into the street, never saw the bus coming on his right.  rjn

 

 Let’s be honest, this question is only phrased this way to appease the two-thirds of the drivers of the world that now drive on the right-hand side of the road. The real question, the question that deserves to be asked, is this: why did everyone else stop driving on the left?

Taking the left hand side in traffic is a habit that goes back hundreds of years, possibly as far as the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, but certainly to an era when people habitually carried swords when traveling. As around 85-90% of humans are right-handed, passing on the right-hand side would leave carriage and cart drivers more open to attack from people coming the other way. Knights with lances, squires with knives, peasants with pitchforks, everyone had to be ready for a dust-up at a moment’s notice, and that meant keeping to the left so you could get a good swing at your assailants. Granted, this did mean they were more vulnerable to be attacked from the pavement, but no system is entirely foolproof.

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Note: It’s said that horses are trained to be handled and mounted on the near-side (left) because in olden times riders would have swords on their left hips with right hip and leg free to swing over in mounting.  rjn

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In 1773, the British Government introduced the General Highways Act, which encouraged horse riders, coachmen and people taking their vegetables to market (while carrying swords) to drive on the left, and that was that. The Highway Act of 1835 later reinforced this, making it the law of the land.

However, things were slightly different elsewhere. Russian authorities, for example, had already noticed that their people tended to favor the right (maybe swords are less of a worry if you have to wear heavy coats all the time), so their first edicts on the topic were that they continue to do so. The pre-revolutionary French were on the left, but having revolted, they moved over as part of a general reordering of all society, and when Napoleon took over the army and began invading nations, he ordered them to stay on the right hand side too. Popular myth suggests this was also because he was left-handed, but there were other advantages; it would prove unsettling for his enemies, it would show him to be a great military tactician, and it would irk the British. Perfect!

Everyone else kept left, but with increasing traffic on the roads in mainland Europe, this began to cause confusion, and slowly, over the course of the next hundred years or so, the European nations began to move over too.

Also, this divergent approach occurred at a time when the British and the French were very busy colonizing the world. Every country occupied by the Brits—like Australia, New Zealand, India and the West Indies—kept to the left, and the ones occupied by France moved over to the right. The Americas were split, with the new arrivals from Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal keeping to the left, and the French colonies insisting on the right.

look rightFrom Alice in Sidney, Australia:  “Still having trouble crossing streets. In tourist areas there are signs- see picture . . . On the sidewalks most people walk on the left. I have to keep moving over.”

However, two vehicles were about to force this situation to change. In the late 1700s freight wagons (including the great Conestoga wagons) became more and more popular, particularly in America. These were pulled by a chain of horses, arranged in pairs. The best place to sit in order to control these mighty beasts was on the back of the left-hand horse at the back, so you could whip the others with your right hand. With the postilion driver in position, the best way for one wagon to pass another without accidentally banging wheels was the right hand side of the road. And where the wagons went, everyone else followed. So driving on the right became more common.

And then the motor car arrived. While original designs for cars put the driver in the front and center of the vehicle, it wasn’t long before the advantages of having the driver able to see down the middle of the road became clear. And in those countries where car manufacturing became an essential industry for export (America, this means you), right-hand-drive vehicles with the steering column on the left quickly became a worldwide norm, forcing relative latecomers like Sweden to give in and move over too.

Although it’s interesting to note that this arrangement does favor the left-handed driver somewhat, as their dominant hand is the one that never leaves the steering wheel. A right-handed driver in a British car spends a good deal of their time steering with his or her right hand while fiddling with the gear stick with their left, which seems the safest way.

This may account for the relative popularity of stick-shift gearboxes in British cars to this day.

Oh and one last thing. In Japan, they historically drove on the left—partly by choice, partly because British engineers built their railway network to be left-hand drive—until 1945, when U.S. rule forced the Okinawa Prefecture to switch to the right. They returned to the left in 1978.

Time Travel

Next month, Alice will fly to Melbourne, Australia, from Los Angeles, a 16-hour flight, leaving on Tuesday and landing on Thursday.  What happens to Wednesday?

Returning aboard ship, Alice will cross the International Date Line again and have two Fridays, one after the other.

It’s like her 4-hour flight, Chicago to Los Angeles,  which lands 2 hours after take-off.  She has crossed two time zones.

We have clocks, watches, calendars, sun, moon, and planets to organize ourselves and cooperate with other people.  But that’s just an artificial, agreed-upon system of dealing with time for practical purposes.

People didn’t used to have to be so precise.  There’s a movie in which two guys make a date this way:  I’ll meet you on the west side of the mountain next  spring.

Einstein showed in his thought experiments that people travelling at different speeds … measure different time separations between events … Wikipedia

We have a love song:  “today the minutes seem like hours, the hours pass so slowly”.  That’s another kind of time, isn’t it?

Related image

There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

A. H. Reginald Buller in Punch (Dec. 19, 1923): 591.
More on time travel.

Tour of “Hidden Union Station”

 

Furnished by John

November 11, 2015

The hidden Union Station: Take a tour        source

crains-tours-hidden-union-station.jpg

A historic photo of Union Station’s old ticket room, now being converted to a first-class passenger lounge.

Anyone who’s seen “The Untouchables,” the Kevin Costner version, has an idea of how stunning Chicago’s Union Station used to be.

The famous baby-carriage scene in the 1987 film showed some of the station’s beauty, set on marble steps flanked by brass railings that flowed into a huge room. It suggested what used to be the reality: Union Station was the O’Hare International Airport from the mid-’20s until the Korean War, the meeting place for the nation.

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The famous Union Station staircase scene from “The Untouchables.”

Recently, Crain’s photographer Manuel Martinez and I got a chance to look at what is hidden behind the walls of the million-square-foot structure. And, despite tarnish and dust and soot, it’s a lot.

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One of the many hidden areas of Union Station that commuters don’t see.

Tucked behind impervious walls and locked doors or accessed only by keyed elevators is a different world—700,000 or so square feet of empty but usable space, below, which station owner Amtrak is seeking partners to redevelop.

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The entire west wall of the building, flanking the Great Hall, used to be a mass of men and women’s lounges, a 17-barber barbershop and three-story Fred Harvey House Restaurant, both a cafe and a fine-dining room.

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Above, historic photos of Union Station’s cafe, barbershop and dining room. Below, the barbershop then and now.

The cafe closed after a fire in 1981 and is empty—except for the Christmas decorations and fixtures stored in a corner, the blackened walls and the boarded-up three-story windows.

One small room in the station has been redeveloped as a lounge with Wi-Fi, satellite and other perks, at $20 a day. But at the moment, that’s about it.

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The redeveloped lounge.

There’s almost as much space on the east wall, underneath Canal Street. That used to be high-end retail, with a Marshall Field’s-esque look. Included: a false exterior wall with no ceiling (below), designed to give retailers a place to display their wares to pedestrians and to let a little more natural light enter. One section is being eyed for an indoor/outdoor cafe. Another room, once used to sell tickets, is being remodeled into a lounge for first-class passengers.

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The remains of the false exterior wall today.

Lightwells are a frequent feature of the building, which was partially designed by Daniel Burham—of Burnham Plan fame—before his death. “Daniel Burnham was a pain in the butt because he was a build-forever (type of guy),” says Amtrak building manager Paul Sanders. “Well, guess what. We’re at forever.”

That’s seen even better upstairs, in the seven empty floors that used to house railroad offices and that flank the Great Hall’s glass atrium, which, miraculously, is still there.

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Above, a now-empty area where a new first-class lounge could be located.

The offices are empty, stripped to the walls, wheelchair accessible and ready for development, Sanders enthuses.

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A walled-off area in Union Station that used to house a women’s lounge.

The area collectively is referred to as the station headhouse, and Amtrak is hoping to return it to what it looked like when it opened after 10 years of construction in 1925—and to make a few bucks off of it, too.

Union Station’s Great Hall, then and now.

Amtrak also is hoping to peddle adjoining air rights, too. If responses come in to its bid requests, the passenger rail service will get some badly needed money. And Chicago will get a piece of its history back.

Changes coming? Above, Union Station’s cafe, then and now.

Update, 12: 45 p.m. — In a somewhat related matter, two Illinois Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Dan Lipinski, have been named to the Senate/House conference committee that will hammer out the first multi-year road and transit bill in a decade.

The bill at the moment does not include financing for Amtrak, which is expected to be funded in a separate bill. But one key item is support for freight rail, with several projects in the pipeline that would help unclog Union Station, which was built as a long-distance rail hub but now mostly houses Metra’s commuter service. There’s also some pots of money at issue that Amtrak could tap for Union Station work.

Lipinski told me in an interview that his priorities in the conference include freight rail, as well as securing the somewhat higher overall spending level the Senate wants. Lipinski said he believes funding problems involving Chicago Transit Authority projects—especially extension of the Red Line south to the city limits and rebuilding the Red Line north—appear to have been taken care of. But the situation remains flexible until a bill is enacted.

Present-day photos by Manuel Martinez; historic photos via Amtrak.

Inca Road Builders–Extreme Terrain No Obstacle

 

For Inca Road Builders, Extreme Terrain Was No Obstacle

 

The Inca were innovators in agriculture as well as engineering. Terracing like this, on a steep hillside in Peru’s Colca Canyon, helped them grow food.  Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

One of history’s greatest engineering feats is one you rarely hear of. It’s the Inca Road, parts of which still exist today across much of South America.

Back in the day — more than 500 years ago — commoners like me wouldn’t have been able to walk on the Inca Road, known as Qhapaq Ñan in the Quechua language spoken by the Inca, without official permission.

Fortunately, I have Peruvian archaeologist Ramiro Matos by my side. He is the lead curator of an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.”

A suspension bridge made of twisted plant fibers stretches high above the Apurimac River in Peru. Local residents, descendants of the Inca, have been making bridges like this for some 500 years.  Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

That’s “Inka” with a K, as it’s spelled in Quechua. And today, we’re taking a virtual journey down what was once more than 20,000 miles of road traversing some of the world’s most challenging terrain — mountains, forests and deserts.

The Inca road began at the center of the Inca universe: Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, said to be built in the shape of a crouching puma. It actually was not a single road but a network of royal roads, an instrument of power designed for military transport, religious pilgrimages and to move supplies.

“As far as the road stretches, the empire stretches,” says Ramos.

The road spanned modern-day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. The museum exhibition’s photographs of it are vertigo-inducing: Massive pathways wind up tall mountains and touch the clouds; sturdy staircases unwind into lush, green valleys, as if the brutal nature of the landscape had been just a small inconvenience to work around.

Families walk from the center of Cusco to a temple site at Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.  Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

“The highest part of the road crosses from Argentina to Chile, nearly 20,000 feet high,” Matos says.

How did they build this?  “Local experience.  The Inca were master engineers. But like most conquerors, they also tapped local experts. The exhibition highlights a long bridge made of woven plant fibers, still in use today.

“There’s an inventory of over 100 bridges in all of the empire — this is one of the few which remain. It’s made with icchu or puna grass,” Matos says.

The Inca Empire only lasted about a century. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, that intricate road made it easier for them to move around and access precious mines that the Incas themselves had been exploiting.

Today, most of the old road has been destroyed — both by the Spanish conquest and by modern highways. Some parts remain and are still in use.

Schoolchildren around the world learn about the ancient Roman roads and the Great Wall of China — but most people have heard little about the great Inca Road. Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, says the road is largely forgotten because it just doesn’t fit into a typical Western narrative.

“Indians play one of two roles in that narrative,” he says. “They are either the opponents of civilization or they are literally part of the nature that was there to be settled and conquered. We’re not taught that some of these were very advanced civilizations, because that means this wasn’t a wilderness. And that means somebody had to be displaced. And it wasn’t necessarily a noble endeavor.”

The National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” will run until June 1, 2018.  Paul Morigi/AP Images for Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

That’s why the museum created the exhibit, which is on display till 2018.

The great Inca Road reminds us that, once upon a time, all roads led not to Rome — but to Cusco, Peru.