transportation trivia roundup

It’s time to slake our thirst at the trough of trivia. Get in a gondola, ride the monorail, hop a steamer, slide down the zipline, strap on a jetpack, pull yourself a rickshaw, or hop on fanboat, then saddle up, buckle up, and giddy up for a transportation trivia roundup.

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1. Though we think of them as quaint relics of the old west, one of the largest train robberies in history occurred in England in 1963. They hooked a battery to a track signal to turn the light red and the engineer dutifully stopped the train, whence it was commandeered, and unburdened of some £2.6 million, or $77 million in today’s dollars. It was a 17 person job, despite the fact I explained the entire strategy in less than a sentence. It only makes sense: history shows us that criminal conspiracies only become more bulletproof as more people are involved.

The train plunderers absconded to a nearby farmhouse to divvy up the riches before lamming. They left behind the truck used to haul the money, mail sacks, banknote wrappers, and a game of Monopoly. The detritus was their undoing: while holed up, they’d played a game of Monopoly using real money (which, to be fair, is one of the first things I’d do if I had a million dollars in cash) and left fingerprints behind. Most of the pilferers received 30 year sentences, though several were never caught. The ringleader, Bruce Reynolds, was on the run for four years; he was released from prison in 1978. He went on to a life of semi-notoriety speaking about the heist, and his son went on to start the band that wrote the intro music for The Sopranos (no joke!).

file photo: train robbery

More interesting, perhaps, are train robberies as political actions. For example, the Kakori conspiracy (India, 1925) was undertaken by a group of Indian socialists attempting to wrest their independence from the British empire. They robbed a train headed for the British treasury to fund their revolutionary actions. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they were captured and executed, though most staged a hunger strike before their death. The Rogów raid (Poland, 1906) was a group of Polish socialists fighting Tsarist/Cossack/Russian control—they got away with it. The Bezdany raid of 1908 was similar; the funds were intended to build a tram system but were instead used to fund military insurrection. The heist itself was conducted by the famed general who later become the leader of the second Polish Republic.

The Sallins robbery (Ireland, 1976) wasn’t political in nature, but the four people arrested for the crime were beaten and forced into confessions, then imprisoned for several years before being acquitted. I thought for a moment this was the storyline to In the Name of the Father, but it turns out that was a different case of people being beaten, forced to confess, and wrongly imprisoned in 1970s Ireland.

Other notable train robberies include:

  • The Baxter Curve Train Robbery (Texas, 1912), notable because a hostage managed to kill both of the bandits before they could escape
  • the Great Gold Robbery (London, 1855), which involved the theft of 200 pounds of gold, and was later turned into a book and movie by Michael Crichton (The Great Train Robbery, though, very clearly, it wasn’t that great by historical train robbery standards)
  • the Fairbank Train robbery (Arizona, 1900) was considered the last of the “Old West” train holdups. Unable to open the safe, the perpetrators escaped (briefly) with only 17 pesos.
note Connery’s disembodied right hand

2. I’ve always been fascinated by things that are invented long before their utility is quite realized. The Olmec, for example, used wheels on toys but not for transportation. That says more about the landscape of Olmec culture than it does about the Olmec’s creativity: they didn’t have domesticated animals to pull plows, so wheels weren’t of particular use besides as a novelty. The paddle wheel for boats was described all the way back in the first century BC, where its suggested use was as an odometer. It took ~five centuries or so before anyone was using it for propulsion.

paddle_boatPaddlewheel boats became commonplace with the rise of steam power in the 19th century. The Sirius was the first paddlewheel boat to make an Atlantic crossing, beating the Great Western by only a day. History is written by the victors: Sirius had essentially cannibalized itself on the journey, limping into port only by burning furniture and other onboard items for fuel, but that’s not noted in the record books.

Among the plethora of 19th-century paddle boats was the Arabia, which in 1856 sank into the muck of the Missouri River. The death toll: one goat. In 1987, the location of the wreck was pinpointed: a farm field half a mile from the river, which had shifted course in the intervening years. When excavated, the wreck was so well preserved—the inorganic eqiuvalent of a bog body—that even the packing straw used in its cargo was mostly intact. The recovered items are now housed in a particularly neat looking museum.

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3. In the 19th century, the Miami and Erie Canal flowed straight through Cincinnati, cleaving the town in two. Then rail overtook shipping, and the waterway lapsed into disuse, then dryness. By the end of the century, it was nothing more than a dry gully running through town.

the dry canal
the dry canal

Looking to revitalize the “dead old ditch,” the town made plans to repurpose it into a subway system. WWI was a wrench in the works, but by 1920 plans had been agreed upon, bonds sold for funding, and ground broken. By 1927, seven miles of tunnel were dug. Then bond funding ran out. No track had yet been laid. Plans to resurrect the subway were scotched and delayed thanks to the untimely interventions of—in order—the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and WWII.

unused tunnels
unused tunnels

So, the tunnels just sat there, unused and unfinished, blamed for forcing people to abandon downtown for the suburbs and for increasing traffic congestion. These may have been plausible complaints had flight and congestion not happened in every city, not only those with disused subway tunnels. In the intervening years, alternative use proposals abounded: air raid shelters, warehouses, concentration-camp escape routes, a vast wine-cellar, underground mall/night club (obviously the best idea of the lot), or filming locations. None came to fruition. Currently, a water main runs through the tunnel, along with, I can only assume, a river of slime:

Side note: actually, the tunnels from Ghostbusters II are based on the Beach Pneumatic Transit System, a one-block-long demonstration tunnel in NYC that opened in 1870. It was opulently appointed: the tunnels were painted with frescoes and the platform adorned with sitting chairs. Plans for expansion of the system were thwarted, much like Cincinnati’s, by a stock market crash.

Apparently, most Cincinnatians aren’t aware the tunnels are even there, though twice a year they can be toured by the public and they are well-maintained. Bonus Cincinnati trivia: it was the first city to publish greeting cards (1850); had the first Jewish hospital in the US (1850); first professional baseball team (Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1869); baseball’s first night game (1935), and, surprisingly, was the host to the nation’s first all-electronic stock exchange (the Cincinnati Stock Exchange, 1976). In the 1800s, Cincinnati earned the nickname Porkopolis because it was a major hog packing center. This fact was taught to me a by a kindly, white-haired bowtied geography professor in a tweed jacket who lectured by showing us actual slides, all of which he’d taken. Please enjoy a brief video here

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4. Before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt kept a ranch in the hinterlands of North Dakota, on the banks of the Little Missouri River. He kept a boat docked there to cross the river and get to his preferred mountain-lion-hunting area. But on a March 1886 morning the boat turned up missing, with only a cut rope and a “red woolen mitten” left behind. The Roosevelt Boys were determined to crack The Case of the Red Mitten.

The culprits were evidently a notorious group of banditos who lived upriver. In Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, Roosevelt described them: “The three men we suspected had long been accused – justly or unjustly – of being implicated both in cattle-killing and in that worst of frontier crimes, horse-stealing; it was only by an accident that they had escaped the clutches of the vigilantes the preceding fall.” Ah, indeed—this was a horse-stealing gang of ruffians living on borrowed time.

Rendered boatless and with no means of tracking their quarry, TR and his ranch hands then took the next three days to build a new boat. In the movie version, this would be the montage sequence, set to Heart’s on Fire. Then, fortified by bacon and hardtack (Roosevelt also carried a camera and, not kidding, a copy of Anna Karenina), the trio pointed themselves downriver and floated through three days of subzero temperatures in the ice-chocked waterway before finally chancing upon the thieves’ encampment.

a young Roosevelt
a young Roosevelt

According to the Hammurabi-an laws of the old west, Roosevelt would have faced few recriminations for simply hanging his captives and taking back his boat. But that wouldn’t do. Instead, Roosevelt and his men built a prison and courthouse and…no, that’s wrong. The boat thieves were taken prisoner, cowed into submission when Roosevelt punched the face off an attacking mountain lion, saving them all. Actually, after waiting out an 8-day ice jam with the scofflaws in tow, TR took the criminals ashore and hired a rancher to transport them to the nearest town, then walked behind the wagon to guard it during the 1.5 day journey. He was rewarded with $50 for his semi-accredited marshalry and mileage accrued (that’s not a joke), none of which I’d guess went to the ranch hands who were probably rolling their eyes at his bullshit when he was like “Men, far better it is to dare mighty things and win glorious triumphs than to be snookered by a vigilante pack of boat thieves! It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage and building our own boat to chase these scofflaws that we might triumph! No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause, of finding my boat.” TR’s beneficent treatment of the boat burglars was so atypical that one later sent him a letter, asking that he stop by to visit him in prison.

You know, I could have made this whole thing up—even the part about Anna Karenina—and it would still be totally believable, wouldn’t it?

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5. Between 1961 and 1965 nearly 4000 Amphicars were produced. Combining all the luxury and performance of a modestly priced Studebaker with the convenience of a boat, and the chic appearance of a sort of boatish-car-thing, Amphicars were the first—and almost the only—amphibious car produced for the public. Only recently has another company waded in, producing high-speed carboats; the original amphibious vehicles were the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen used in WWII and the ducks of Wisconsin Dells.

Amphicar on land
Amphicar on land

The Amphicar was said to be “a vehicle that promises to revolutionize drowning.”

pictured: Don Draper
pictured: Don Draper

LBJ delighted in driving the car towards the lake on his ranch, then yelling “no brakes” as the car plunged into the water, his passengers terrified. All things considered, better to be on the receiving end of that then to have LBJ peeing on you as a joke/dominance ploy.


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