Veteran globe explorer Megan McCormick spans the American Midwest and its Great Lake States in search of the innovations that ignited an industrial revolution and united America after the divisive conflict of a bloody civil war. The so-called “Rustbelt” region was coined back in 1984 by ex-Vice President Walter Mondale to describe a hinterland of collapsed industrial manufacturing. But on her travels, Megan discovers that this is also a region bristling with life. For the young are moving in, regenerating the once monumental metropolises of America’s gilded age, with their enterprise and zeal.
Megan kicks off her grand ’Rustbelt’ tour on Lake Erie’s eastern port of Buffalo, where the opening of the Erie canal in 1825 transformed this small town into the grain capital of the world. She kayaks the waterways surrounding Buffalo’s giant grain elevators and parades Delaware Avenue, where the magnates who made good with the grain and cereal trade built lavish mansions for themselves. Yet it’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s quirky Darwin Martin complex house which takes the eye. Megan tours this Prairie style home which was built for the for index card inventor, Darwin Martin. She learns from curator, Susana Tejada, how modern American architecture blossomed with the industrial technologies that were materialising at the start of the 20th century.
Her next stop is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – a once mighty steel city situated on the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. Megan takes the Duquesne incline/ funicular up Mount Washington and meets volunteer Tom Reinheimer who shows her the gear room. The incline once carried Pittsburgh’s abundant coal supplies to the innumerable steel plants across the Mon valley. It was devised by a German immigrant workforce who brought mining technology with them when they migrated to America.
Pittsburgh’s steel reputation was raised by Andrew Carnegie who built his revolutionary Homestead mill here in 1873. But he incurred the ire of his overworked steelworkers who went on strike almost 20 years later. Megan tours the Homestead plant by boat, where ‘Rivers of Steel’ Historian Ron Baraff, recounts the fateful day in July 1892, when Andrew Carnegie’s right hand man, Henry Clay Frick, hired Pinkerton guards to break the workers’ will. It was a plan that badly mis-fired, after it left 7 steel workers and 3 Pinkerton men dead during a bloody battle. More importantly, it brought to heel the American Labour movement right until the Great Depression.
The automobile becomes Megan’s climactic object of interest – mass manufactured in Detroit in 1915 but inspired by the whirlwind of inventions throughout the Great Lake States in the late 19th century. Megan rescues motorist Dave Hjotnaes who sits stranded on his empty tanked, Model T Ford motorcar by the side of the road. She helps to push the Model T to the nearest gas station and filling up, she introduces the motorcar and… yes, another Midwest titan who changed the fortunes of America: John D Rockefeller. Rockefeller built a kerosene empire with his Standard Oil Company in nearby Cleveland, Ohio. He refined it and made his extract, – gasoline – the fuel of this new, horseless carriage. On this sanguine note, Megan hops on a Subaru (a much more reliable way to gad about in the 21st century) and scoots to Akron, Ohio – the rubber tyre capital of the world!
Akron is where all the great rubber tyre companies made their name: Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich and Firestone arcing high above the parapet of rubber’s success. Megan meets ‘Wheels of Fortune’ author Steve Love and learns how a philanthropic Frank Sieberling and Harvey Firestone built beautiful kit homes for their workforce in order to keep them happy and loyal to their booming rubber factories. Megan ends this first part of her Rustbelt adventure joining Goodyear marketing man, Keith Price at the Wingfoot Lake Hangar where the world’s humungous advertising blimps are primed, tested and take flight.
With thanks to:
VISIT NIAGARA FALLS & BUFFALO NY
ALL-AMERICAN SOAP BOX DERBY
ELEVATOR ALLEY KAYAK
GENE MCCARTHY’S TAVERN
GOODYEAR RUBBER & TIRE COMPANY
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE GREAT LAKES
RIVERS OF STEEL
STAN’S AUTO SERVICE
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