Tag Archives: Interstate

What Ever Happened to The Three Mile Picture Show?

For the past couple of days, I have been trying to track down a film made in 1915: The Three Mile Picture Show.

Directed by Henry Ostermann, the film was produced in the course of a transcontinental journey along the Lincoln Highway, which was at that time the only automobile route across the country. It is thought to be the first motion picture made of an automobile trip.

It was a big, ambitious first step. Traveling from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco, the film crew shot 16,000 feet of film. Three miles of film! The Picture Show is, at the very least, a fantastic artifact of Manifest Destiny, a gargantuan movie, made on a grand scale to stir a growing, already restless nation.

The film was shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and then in cities across the country as it traveled east, back along the very road it documented. A mechanical traveling circus, the film played the country back to itself.

Until this morning, I had not been able to find a trace of the Three Mile Picture Show – not a frame, not a few feet of film, nothing. Now it appears that a copy of the film may have been among the materials donated to the University of Michigan by Gael Hoag and Henry Ostermann, in 1937. (But Ostermann had died in June of 1920, when his Packard slid off the road and rolled, crushing him.)

This, at least, is the most intriguing vestige of the film I have found: a reference in the University of Michigan archives to correspondence between Walt Disney Productions and the University of Michigan library “regarding several reels of film about the Lincoln Highway.” The correspondence runs from 1957-1958.

I’ve written to the library and I’m waiting for more details about the correspondence. Until I know more, I am working from the assumption that from 1957-1958 Disney was trying to acquire the University’s copy of the film, or rights to it.

Why? At this point I can only speculate. A few points deserve some further investigation and consideration:

The Interstate Highway System was on its way to completion by 1957; maybe Disney planned a movie or a theme park exhibition celebrating the new automobile nation, and wanted to use parts of the Three Mile Picture Show as a back story or foil.

In the late 50s, Disney had a number of projects in the works where this 1915 footage might have found a place. Consider for instance the almost unwatchable propaganda film called America the Beautiful Disney showed at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.  Parts 1 and 2 are both on YouTube. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the “18 minute spectacle” showed throughout the day in the Circarama Theater – a continuous 360 degree “movie in the round.”

Finally, it’s intriguing to consider that in 1957-58, the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, had in 1919 traveled the same route as the Three Mile Picture Show, as part of a military motor convoy. (Ostermann led the caravan on that occasion, too.) The Three Mile Picture Show would have played back the President’s youthful itinerary to a nation transformed by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.

The real question of course is: What ever happened to that footage? Does it still exist? Where is it? Are all those reels sitting on a shelf at Disney?

Is High-Speed Rail Un-American?

It’s hard to see very far into the future wearing a green eyeshade, and Wendell Cox obviously didn’t take his off before sitting down to write his grouchy op-ed against the Obama administration’s high-speed rail plans.

For Cox, who served on the Amtrak Reform Council and who has co-authored a study of the Calfornia high-speed rail proposal, the billions already promised for high-speed (and other) rail projects in California and Florida are nothing more than a “political plum”; and, he says, this is only the first installment: the rail projects being planned now, he argues, will require subsidies for a long time to come.

And the benefits are not guaranteed, in Cox’s judgment. His own studies have shown that high-speed rail will have a “negligible” impact on highway traffic. But he doesn’t entertain the idea that American travel habits could change over time – just consider how President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System changed American life in the course of just two decades — and he sneers at the thought of making automobile travel more expensive in order to increase rail ridership, as the French did for their Paris-Lyon line and the Japanese for the Tokyo-Osaka train.

His figures show, further, that the trains are a costly way to reduce greenhouse gases, exceeding, by far, the cost-per-ton “estimates” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published; but he leaves it unclear whether he thinks those estimates are right, or just overly-optimistic, and whether the costs of reducing greenhouse gases would change if people were given more incentive to leave their cars at home and travel by rail – or if we figured high-speed rail into a larger plan to decrease our dependency on automobile travel.

These and other questions linger. But in the end it seems Cox simply can’t imagine a future in which we do not travel between cities primarily by automobile, alone, in our cars, on the Interstate. Travel by high-speed rail just isn’t the American way. “High-speed rail,” writes Cox, “is driven by little more than a romantic notion to confer a European ambiance on American cities.”

The remark is telling, not just because it has a familiar whiff of Francophobia about it (I guess they’re still serving Freedom Fries at Wendell Cox’s barbeques); but also because Cox takes it for granted that his readers will view with suspicion and disapproval the notion of importing into our cities that “European ambiance.” So he never has to say precisely what that ambiance is, or feels like, or how it works.

And it’s crucial that he doesn’t say.

Cox apparently likes to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible – ambiance be damned; and he thinks most American travelers will share his point of view. (So did the Bush administration, which made speed of travel the primary criterion for judging infrastructure projects; the Obama administration has now said that quality of life concerns are also part of the equation.) He figures travelers on the Orlando-Tampa line “will be better off driving,” because “driving would probably be faster.” And on the Charlotte to Raleigh and Chicago to St. Louis lines, where speeds will hover around 80 miles an hour, “car trips will normally be as fast door to door, and they will be far less costly than taking the train and then renting a car” at the destination city.

Leave aside, for the moment, the notion that destination cities might link to high-speed rails with their own trolley or subway systems, obviating the need for a rental car or driving within cities or in sprawl, where traffic tends to snarl. Those urban and suburban infrastructure improvements – all of which contribute to quality of life — apparently aren’t in the cards for Cox.

But there are other advantages of high-speed rail travel he doesn’t consider. You don’t have to do the driving. You’re not alone. You get to spend time with other people – other Americans. Trains are more likely to roll in bad weather or winter weather that might make driving dangerous. You can take a high-speed rail to one city and connect to another high-speed rail to another city. While aboard, you can eat, nap, have a coffee or stretch your legs if you like. You can work on your laptop, use wifi services, talk on the phone, and do business. You can look out the window and think about the country.

Romantic? Maybe. But it also sounds downright American, doesn’t it?

Enough Shovels

Its exact provenance remains a mystery, but over the past month or so the phrase “shovels in the ground” has become a touchstone of the political vocabulary. “If we’re going to really make infrastructure work,” Governor Ed Rendell said at the National Governors Conference in November, “we have to have shovels in the ground quickly.” In Colorado, Bill Ritter has “100-plus projects that we could have shovels in the ground in 90 days.” Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, too, wants to “put shovels in the ground and paychecks in workers’ pockets.”

When politicians start handing out shovels, there’s usually a pile of horse manure nearby.

Taking their cues from President-Elect Obama, who has promised “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” governors are touting infrastructure investment by the federal government as a quick fix to their states’ woes, an engine of job creation, and a way to jumpstart economic recovery. Talking about “shovels in the ground” helps them conjure a scene right out of WPA propaganda: sturdy American workmen stand at the ready, shovels in hand, dutifully awaiting the go-ahead from their Governors. Everybody is ready to start digging our way out of this mess, right away.

Obama himself said over the weekend on Meet the Press that the top priority of his plan would be “shovel-ready” projects. Put aside for the moment the question whether this is the right priority: it is certainly expedient, given the political pressures from the states. My concern is whether in responding to the economic emergency and to all those shovel-wielding governors, the President-elect will miss the bigger picture or overlook the longer-term benefits that history suggests can be derived from wise infrastructure investment.

To get a sense of how an investment in our nation’s infrastructure can have long term payoff – as well as unintended consequences – just look at the development of the Internet. Better yet, consider a story that apparently is, or at least ought to be, very much on Mr. Obama’s mind these days, and to which he made passing reference in last Saturday’s YouTube address: the story of President Eisenhower’s Interstate project.

The project took shape in Ike’s mind long before he took office. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a military vehicle convoy that traveled from the Zero Milestone marker in Washington, D.C. to California’s Golden Gate. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy’s journey “through darkest America” at a time when there was no national network of roads, and in some places no roads to speak of, was rough going. But it gave Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower a political education and a feel for the whole country, and helped persuade him that America needed a national highway system. This conviction only grew after General Eisenhower saw firsthand what the Germans had accomplished with the Autobahn system.

After the war, Ike became the political architect of our federally-funded, multi-lane, interstate highway system. A Highway Trust Fund was established to finance the system from Federal gas and motor vehicle taxes, so it would be self-financing and its ongoing development and expansion would not contribute to the Federal deficit. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways had an important strategic military purpose, but it also promised to relieve congestion in towns and cities and improve farm-to market commerce. By the 1970s, the Interstate had changed the country even more profoundly than the railroad, creating new and more efficient ways to move people and goods, transforming industries and work habits, and determining where and how people lived. Along with television, it made us less regionally diverse, more homogeneous; and it revolutionized how we imagine our freedom. Think Jack Kerouac, or Thelma & Louise.

When President Eisenhower warned the nation against the military industrial complex, he couldn’t have foreseen that the Interstate system he built would give rise to so many of the problems we face today. On a visit to the United States, Khrushchev drew Ike’s attention to what we now know as suburban sprawl; since then, the Interstate has altered forever our landscape and cityscapes. We depend every day on an expensive, dirty, inefficient means of transportation. Now we’ve driven ourselves into a foreign oil rut — which Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, has rightly characterized as a major national security threat. The Cold War system originally intended to keep us safe now leaves us vulnerable, easily manipulated and exposed.

Rahm Emanuel is right: our current crisis gives us a great opportunity — to think big, and to think strategically. That’s why General Jones has urged us to approach our dependence on foreign oil “with the same degree of seriousness as when General Eisenhower said, ‘let’s build a highway system.’” Seriousness of this order demands more than filling potholes and fixing bridges.

There are a number of proposals already on the table. Building a Smart Grid – using information technology to create a more responsive, resilient and reliable power grid — will help us move energy more efficiently and securely, and lay the groundwork for delivery of alternative energy sources. An Infrastructure Bank could do more than the Highway Trust Fund ever could, especially if it allowed for new combinations of public and private financing. More broadly, we need to fund research, encourage innovators, and provide incentives for new business development. That, in turn, will spur real economic growth and job creation.

Beyond these measures, and I would say above all, we need research that challenges science and engineering, and helps us understand how the decisions we make now might affect our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties in the future.

If, as I believe, Mr. Obama is ready to lead, and not just break ground with the governors, this is the national conversation he needs to start right now. There are plenty of shovels to go around.

China enters the Eisenhower Era

To alleviate the strain placed on its economy by the world financial crisis, China is planning an “infrastructure spending spree,” according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The $586 billion stimulus package unveiled this week will go mostly toward building highways, railroads and airports — to connect rural areas with cities, make industry operate more efficiently and help farmers bring goods to market. The plan will give China 53,000 miles of highways; the U.S. Interstate system developed by Eisenhower and realized in the last half of the last century stretches 47,000 miles. The Chinese plan sounds distinctly 20th century, designed to stimulate the economy without too much regard for the environmental impact.

Meanwhile, here in 21st century America, our political leaders and their economic advisers are also touting infrastructure investment as a way to shore up our failing economy. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough pressure on our leaders to make smart choices and the right investments, to convert our existing, inefficient infrastructure to more energy-efficient, sustainable purposes.