When the United States was a baby nation, it had lots of wheel-busting wagon trails, but hardly any highways. Traveling was difficult—unless water was nearby. Then you could FLOAT yourself and your stuff to market. Rivers don't always flow where you want to go, so Americans did what ancient Egyptians and medieval Chinese and Europeans had done. They built CANALS, the BIG idea in America in the early 1800s, and none was more important than the famous Erie Canal.
On July 4, 1817, at tiny Rome, NY, the digging began. In the next eight years, thousands of men sweated, clearing woods, and digging miles of ditch, four feet deep, 40 feet wide! They built up a TOWPATH beside it for the animals, who'd pull the boats along, when the ditch was full of water. Inventive engineers built 83 LOCKS, too, in which the water moved up or down over the land, and 18 AQUEDUCTS (bridges to carry water over deep valleys).
Finally, early on October 26, 1825, at Buffalo, NY, a cannon BOOMED! Trumpets tootled! New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and his guests stepped onto their packet (or passenger) boat. A team of horses tossed their heads, eager to start. More horse-drawn packets waited to join the parade. Off they'd go, four smooth miles per hour, to Albany, seven days and 363 miles away, on the very first ride on the completed canal, the longest in the world.
People atop the flat-topped packets waved at the folks on the land. They watched out for low bridges—or else: splash! From Albany, the canal boats (minus the horses!) glided down the Hudson River, past dark hills sparkling with bonfires.
Bells rang and flags fluttered that November 4, 1825, as the packets passed Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Then Governor Clinton emptied a keg of Lake Erie water into the harbor. Why? To show that the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean were connected and that Americans were connected to the world. In the next decades they'd build miles of canals— until their next BIG idea came chugging down the railroad track.
The wedding of the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean waters
Boats were pulled by horses walking along a towpath beside the canal.
Here's a treat for you. Cheryl Harness is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator. This is a spread from her book "The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal."
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
A cowardly bully came out
of his cave today to
trespass on our shining city.
Out of the blue
he had the nerve
to punch out its
two front teeth.
The pain is excruciating;
Bleeding is everywhere.
The remaining stumps are
We've lost our pretty smile.
We can't bite a big apple.
It's hard to look at mutilation.
Dazed, we check for damage.
Although choking on thick air,
we are very much alive.
Our heartbeat is strong.
There is no drop in our vital signs.
Blood rushes in to replace
Slowly we discover
we can still chew
and make a fist and
Oh yes, we'll make sure
this "holy" terror
can never return
to our playground
or our friends.'
How do we shadow box
a villain who doesn't
play by the rules?
We see evidence
of our noble,
and loving spirit.
Yet hate destroys
within as well as without.
Here then is our challenge:
We must keep this wound
becoming toxic to ourselves.
We must imagine the unimaginable
to thwart evil
before it comes back for more.
We must seek justice,
not vengeance to
preserve our soul.
We must trust our leaders
who see more
than this one tormenter.
We must be brave
As good as we believe
ourselves to be,
we must become better.
Scar tissue is stronger
Text copyright © 2001 by Vicki Cobb
Reflection: I wrote this poem on September 12, 2001. I am a New Yorker. One grandson, who was 4, was starting school, a few blocks from ground zero. My husband was working in the city. It was a terrible day. I wrote this poem to try and make sense of it for my readers. Do you think it is still true today?
Here I am in 2014 on the 43rd floor terrace in lower Manhattan. The brand-new Freedom Tower, on the site of the Twin Towers lost on 9/11, soars behind me. It is 1776 feet tall.
We give 'em reading that gets 'em talking!
Learn from many voices....