transportation trivia roundup

With another fortnight gone by, it’s time to once again 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.

train robberies :: paddle boats :: cincinnati :: boat thieves :: amphicar

• • •

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. It was a 17 person job (if history has taught us anything, it’s that the strength of a conspiracy is directly correlated to the number of people involved, right?). 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 ($77 million in today’s dollars).

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. That detritus was their undoing: while holed up, they’d played a game 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 before being caught, and was released from prison in 1978. He went on to a life of semi-notoriety speaking about the heist; 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, is that several historically-famous train robberies were 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); and 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. It’s interesting to look back at things that were invented early but not quite fully realized for a long time afterwards. The Olmec, for example, used wheels on toys but not for transportation (though, in fairness, they didn’t have domesticated animals to pull them, so wheels may not have been much use). The paddle wheel for boats was described all the way back in the first century BC—as an odometer. It took five centuries before anyone was using it for propulsion. Or, rather, the Romans were writing about it, the Chinese were actually doing it.

paddle_boatWith the rise of steam power in the 19th century, paddlewheel boats became common. The Sirius was the first to make an Atlantic crossing, beating the Great Western by only a day. Of course, the Sirius wasn’t actually designed for long voyages and had made it to port only by burning furniture and other onboard items for fuel, but then that wasn’t noted in the record books.

Among the plethora of 19th-century paddle boats was the Arabia, which tragically sank into the muck of the Missouri River in 1856 (the only loss of life was a goat). As fate would have it, the river shifted, leaving the boat’s wreckage buried under dry(ish) land. In 1987, the location was pinpointed—in a farm field half a mile from the river—and excavated. The wreck was so well preserved—like a bog body—that even the packing straw on its cargo was largely intact. The recovered items are now housed in a particularly neat looking museum.


3. In the 19th century, Cincinnati’s downtown was geographically separated from outlying areas by the Miami and Erie Canal. But as rail overtook shipping, the waterway lapsed into disuse, and, looking to repurpose the “dead old ditch”, the city made plans to convert it into a subway.

the dry canal
the dry canal

WWI took some of the starch out of their sheets, but by 1920 the plans were drawn up, bonds sold, and ground broken. By 1927, seven miles of tunnel had been dug out, but bond funding ran out and no track was ever laid. This situation might have been fixable, but plans were mothballed thanks to the untimely interventions of—in order—the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and WWII.

unused tunnels
unused tunnels

Instead, the tunnels just sat there, their unfinished state blamed for forcing people into the suburbs and increasing auto congestion downtown. Which might be a logical complaint if the same thing hadn’t happened in every city, not just the ones with incomplete subway systems. Many different uses have since been proposed: air raid shelters, supply warehouses, or concentration-camp escape routes (during WWII), a vast wine cellar (1960s), underground mall and night club (1970s, obviously the best idea of the lot), or locations for Hollywood films (1980s). All fell through. Right now, a water main runs through the tunnel, and nothing else…except a river of slime:

(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. Oddly, any plans for the expansion of the air-powered system were thwarted 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


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 hunt mountain lions, but on a March 1886 morning the boat turned up missing, with only a cut rope and a “red woolen mitten” left behind (here’s where I envision some young adult fiction in which the Roosevelt Boys 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.” The gang of ruffians were living on borrowed time.

Rendered boatless, 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). Fortified with bacon and hardtack and a means to trail their quarry (and Roosevelt with a camera and—no joke—a copy of Anna Karenina), the trio pointed themselves downriver and floated through three days of subzero temperatures in the ice-choked waterway until 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. 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, at the next ranch TR took the criminals ashore and sent the ranch hands on downriver. He hired the rancher to transport them to the nearest town, and walked behind the wagon to guard it during the 1.5 day journey. He was rewarded with $50 for his semi-accredited marshalry (and also—not joking—for mileage accrued). His 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?


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 appearance of…a boatish car, the Amphicars were the first—and almost the only—amphibious car produced for the public (only recently has another company taken a stab at it; they’re producing high-speed, high-performance carboats. The original amphibious vehicles were the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen used by the Germans in WWII. Also the ducks at 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 pointing the car at the lake on his ranch, then yelling “no brakes!” to the terror of his passengers. All things considered, better to be on the receiving end of that than him peeing on you, another LBJ classic. The Moller Skycar, tragically, is not a car and a plane:



I’m still going to wait for the skycarboat.


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