Examples of old infrastructure in America

Popular Mechanics has some examples of “the oldest working infrastructure” in American cities:

Water System: Philadelphia Water Department. The City of Brotherly Love has one of the oldest water systems in the United States. While the pipe that broke two weeks ago was built in 1895, the average age of a Philly water line is 78 years, and the wastewater lines average 100 years old, according to the city’s water department. Eighty-seven percent of the more than 3000 miles of water mains are made of cast iron, which was the preferred building material until the 1960s. Drawing water from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the system supplies 1.5 million Philadelphia residents. The mains are supposed to function properly for 100 to 120 years. The Philadelphia Water Department is still investigating what caused the most recent break…

Concrete Road: Court Avenue, Bellefontaine, Ohio. Using concrete as a road surface was unheard of in the late 1800s, until George Bartholomew pioneered its use by paving Court Ave. in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Bartholomew learned about cement production in Germany and San Antonio, then moved to Bellefontaine because of the neraby deposits of limestone and clay, the two main ingredients in cement. He had to fork over a $5000 bond to convince the city council to let him pave the square around the town’s courthouse, guaranteeing that the concrete would last at least five years. To preserve the historic avenue, Bellefontaine closed the street to traffic in the late 20th century but reopened it because of the traffic and parking problems the closure caused. Court Avenue is still open to light-vehicle traffic, but a statue of Bartholomew at the end of the street keeps trucks off the concrete…

Hydroelectric Power Plant: Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant. The Mechanicville Power Station sits perched on the Hudson River about 20 miles east of Schenectady. It was built in 1897 to provide power to Schenectady’s burgeoning industry, and today is the oldest three-phase power plant still in operation in the United States. The system uses two three-phase, 40-cycle 32,000-volt circuits, and each of these operates at 6000 kw. These circuits are each capable of handling the station’s entire output, so that service is uninterrupted if one of them goes down. Each of the seven generators runs at 40 Hz and provides 750 kw.

Old infrastructure isn’t necessarily bad if it is well maintained and still meets modern needs. Why, those Romans built aqueducts that have lasted thousands of years – can’t some of our infrastructure do the same? Actually, this brings to mind the David Macaulay book Motel of the Mysteries where a future archeologist discovers a long-lost American hotel room and comes to some interesting interpretations. What exactly will survive from our society?

Would you rather have been a European or Native American in 1491?

A 2002 article from The Atlantic about pre-Columbian North and South America includes this fascinating paragraph:

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him—or that’s what my grandfather told me, anyway.

Some of reasons for making this choice:

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of the world’s largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán dazzled Hernán Cortés in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land was “so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people … [that] I would rather live here than any where.”

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European life. France—”by any standards a privileged country,” according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger’s constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts “like common dung” (the simile is Daniel Defoe’s) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, “merely a realistic detail.”

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson’s history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: “the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe.” Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams wrote, “they will not conclude of ought … unto which the people are averse.”

Much to take in.