Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Oyster Train

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  We were at the edge of the land and a long way from open water, and the oyster farmers had built a tiny railroad across the marsh to where they tended their oyster beds. Oysters like the brackish water in tidal estuaries. Chesapeake Bay is the largest oyster producing body of water in the U.S., and the population of oysters there used to be able to filter all excess nutrients in the water in 4 to 5 days. Oyster farming helps to preserve the quality of water in the bay for all of the traditional species.

Alas, we never got to see the beds, never got to ride the train.  The words of Jonathan Swift come to mind, "It was a bold man that first eat an oyster."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bayside Geometries

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: We followed a long dirt path beyond the point where it could be called, "road," but it constantly promised to bring us to the bay's edge. Eventually, we came upon what looked to be a house under construction and still no bay.  We thought this would be another path with no payoff.  In fact, the two workmen we met, worked on an oyster farm. The building under construction was for the farm. When we asked if there was anything worth photographing, they encouraged us to continue.  The path went beyond where the car would go, but we followed it a short distance and saw the bay.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I have no idea what Delmarva is like once the tourists begin to arrive, but I suspect it has the same battered, half-populated look it had in April when I was there. The towns are working towns with too many shops for rent and good breakfasts. Of course battered and under-populated was what we were after, and with my friend Gary as guide, we pursued the likeliest roads toward the shore. That meant we were often on unpaved paths and eventually, always at a dead end. Those edges I yearned for can be hard find, constantly shifting.  In the end, it is not the edge we were after but convincing shots.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Cape Charles Chiaroscuro

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  There are few edges to life where I live. The Housatonic River and the ridge of mountains that follows it hint at an edge, but once one is there things are much as they were before until finally there is the Hudson. It is similarly so for an hour or two in most directions, and so, except when I hike, my navigational brain map has become a scattering of intellectually held points without ever quite feeling the lay of the planet under me.  Perhaps it is the result of having grown up in Manhattan where all you need to know is East Side and West Side, and you can get all over a geography neatly bordered by rivers.  Periodically it is necessary to find edges and honor them.

So it was an exercise in planetary exploration to drive out of the hills, last month. From previous explorations, I could feel as I dropped south of Red Bank and left the security of having Manhattan close at hand. The coast line is  an edge to be relied on and it was out there to my left as population thinned through the Pine Barrens, and I was still not far from the fixed coast through which I had driven a year earlier, coming north from Cape May just ahead of Hurricane Sandy. This time I would steer the less traveled middle path through the Delmarva Peninsula. Although I had been this way before, this time I would have time to explore some of the jagged coast  and the small towns down the bay side to Cape Charles and back up on the ocean side.  Now that's edge.

I had come this way before.  I had driven north into Delmarva on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It was a fine trip but it has come to seem a violation. That perfect lobe of land must have a proper end.  It was a violation I'd come to correct. This time I would have the satisfaction of putting myself at the end, the stopping point of the peninsula.  

Well, I never reached the National Wildlife Refuge at the geographical tip.  Perhaps that will be a planetary exploration for the fall. I did reach the tip, however, as far as transit was concerned, the Cape Charles train depot where freight cars are still loaded and unloaded from barges that cross Chesapeake Bay.  My camera had failed a couple of hours up the road.  I was glad I had a backup. At the end of a long drive and a good dinner, it was a great place to test the limits of my backup camera in the setting sun off the edge of the peninsula where the barges dock.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cubist Composition

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL -  a curious note in an unknown hand found crumpled and abandoned in a brown, office waste can:  "I've been watching the small application inside my computer that monitors the functions of the computer's brain: the thought load carried by the central processing unit; the amount of shelf space left for remembering important people, places, sums, balances, dates; the number of in-out bins for facts and faces that can be quickly forgot. There's a special spot that monitors the all-important subconscious of the hard drives and activity along the neural passageways that connect to the outside world and sometimes produce tangible artifacts there. 

"The constant functioning of this application reminds me that, along with the megatons of physical waste we produce every moment, that thought itself produces a torrential overflow of data: ekg's, orders on Amazon, GPS positions, eye scans, electricity flow, blog entries, Google searches and the status of nuclear silos poised for earth's annihilation; waste which we call "history," and which clerks, librarians and statisticians constantly cull and cross cull, struggling to rescue it from nature and oblivion." 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Office of the City Erk, Sterling Opera House

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Perhaps no function says "civilization," so much as "clerk." The clerk is the active memory of the community. In some places before there was writing, the person who filled this office was called a "remembrancer."  Is it the first function of society from the times when everything was tribal and familial, the first, hard-won step out of oblivion?  We can imagine the gathering of elders by the fire and silence, maybe far off thunder, at the summoning of the remembrancer and his strange magic pictures or beads or knots or stones, fetishes that helped him wind back time and recall all they had previously settled and what disputes remained outstanding.

The sacred duty entrusted here is first, to record accurately from those seeking to deceive, and impartially from those seeking sway, all the business of the community; and second, to manage the paradoxical responsibility of protecting the privacy of all that should be private while providing quick and easy access to all that should be public and to do so while always maintaining, what we now call, "transparency," in all things.  When partisans rise to disputation, it is the clerk who must refer them to processes for resolving differences and must remain firm that due process is followed. When the dispute is not settled, sometimes the powerless bureaucrat who suffers blame from both sides is the clerk.

Soon after landing at Plymouth Rock, one of the first acts of the new colony was to appoint the recorder to thenceforth record all of the transactions of the pilgrims: births, deaths, marriages, production, consumption, transactions and treaties, and today we can know what they did and didn't eat and how they lived from the time they arrived.  What is it worth today to walk into a town hall and take in your arms the heavy bound volumes? Sometimes they flake and you can feel time's grime. You turn the thick pages and find the name penned in ancient handwriting where a clerk long ago recorded the birth, marriage or death of your grandparent there, in that place on that date.  And who were the other people listed there: neighbors, friends, colleagues, strangers? Or is the record of your grandparent lost, and you move on ignorant of any connection to that place, a stranger in time. 

The Office of the City Clerk is at the front of the Sterling Opera House. As in most cities, it was the first point of contact for everyone with business to transact in town. This was the office of the City Clerk until 1969, and all the business of Derby passed through here.  Then they packed all the memories in boxes and carried them off to the new City Hall where, we presume, they can still be found.  It's no wonder the experts say the building is haunted.

Monday, May 20, 2013

City Jail

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  As it turns out the ambitions of the leaders of the Borough of Birmingham were prematurely swollen. The Sterling Opera House, that opened its doors in 1889, was attached to considerably more than a borough hall or even town offices for all of Derby. In fact, architect Henry Ficken had delivered to their specifications, in addition to the opera house, a city hall complete with offices for mayor, city council, and a city police station with a half dozen prison cells.

The vision of the town fathers was premature, but the building gives it lasting form in stone: The vision is of a metropolis whose extent encompasses the three shores where the rivers meet and where bodies toil, while the guiding spirit manages from atop the hill in the very center of the town square laid out a half century earlier by Sheldon Smith and Anson Phelps for their industrial village. Sterling Opera was at once town center, city center, cultural center, religious center and capstone of a democratically ordered and benevolently corrupt life; it would become a memorial to its creators.

Add whatever H.G. Wells visions they might also have imagined of a spaceport built after to gild their memories, and that is the City of Birmingham, Connecticut, that never came to be, but it would be a long time before anyone realized quite how wrong they were.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

At the Sterling Opera House


It is literally true, the opera house is no longer for skating. Wagner's principles of perfect site lines in theater design called for raked seating.  Inside the Sterling Auditorium one feels the aspirations of the town swelling, striving to grow into a city. It features a democratic seating plan. Although the inexpensive top balcony seats are only benches, hard like church pews unless you bring your own cushion, those seated there and standing behind them are promised the same unobstructed contact with the proceedings.

In April of 1889 the state legislature resolved the three-town dispute by making Ansonia a township, independent of Derby. The course was set; in 1893 Ansonia was incorporated as a city; Derby was made a city the following year. Huntington became a city in 1915 and incorporated with the town of Huntington as the City of Shelton in 1919, but by then, although they remained rivals, the three cities were cooperating on a variety of common needs, and the Sterling Opera House was booked regularly, and the current Episcopal and Methodist churches were taking up their axis points with the Congregationalists beside the  Sterling on the town Green.

Whether you came to see the latest melodrama or vaudeville show or to hear the great Caruso or the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, the master of ceremonies at the Sterling and in auditoriums everywhere was a new mechanical contraption of levers and strings stretched over a heavy, iron frame called a fortepiano, or loudsoft. They had to be loud to fill a concert hall and soft to caress a tear. Like clocks, pianos use many brass parts. Pianos became an important niche of the Brass Valley economy.

Look inside the fine houses on the Birmingham Green and along the town's central streets, named a half century earlier for Sheldon Smith's daughters, Caroline, Minerva, and Elizabeth, and for Anson Phelps' wife, Olivia.  There, inside the velvet and crystal parlors with their chiming mantle clocks, were pianos and often children practicing, and in Derby and Ansonia and towns throughout the northeast merchants and professionals also had parlors, and once you had a parlor, the next acquisition was often a piano with a bit of tatting and a ceramic or glass compote rattling on the top.

My grandmother was a pianist. Though my great grandfather was only a cigar maker in Hartford, she was good enough to be offered a scholarship to study with the great Horatio Parker at Yale which she turned down to marry my grandfather, a haberdasher. My great grandparents raised 6 children in half of a two-family house they rented from a cousin.  The story is told in an old letter of how my grandmother, Sadie, avoided chores by playing piano for her father as he read the newspaper in the parlor. Parker is most famous today for attacks against him by his most famous pupil, Charles Ives of Danbury.

The piano had become more than an MC; it was one of the stars of the show. The great age of the piano had begun and virtuoso pianists were striving to succeed the great Franz Liszt by performing feats of pyrotechnics at the keyboard, and they were followed by legions of fansentrepreneurs staged Monster Concert spectacles with dozens of pianos shaking walls and trying to stay together.  The Sterling Piano Company had grown to occupy 15 buildings, and across the river in Shelton another manufacturer was offering inexpensive pianos with machines inside that let the pianos magically play by themselves, no lessons required. 

Like the seating at the opera house, the distribution of swelling aspirations was similarly democratic with the toughest rump for those at the back but with prospects swelling for all. Once one possessed a mantle clock, the next essential tech toy was often a piano whether it was to play the old hymns, new rags, or strive for the Moonlight Sonata.

See previous blog post for link to source information: 

Ansonia Opera House interior:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Welcome to the Sterling Opera House

NOTE:  Special thanks to Markanthony Izzo for his help in providing access to the old Sterling Opera House and for submitting to pose as the opera house phantom. Also thanks to Robert Novak for providing the background history which I have mauled for this journal entry. For a complete and accurate account of the valley schism, I recommend his article on the subject:

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It is 1889. One has only to step inside the vestibule of Birmingham's new Sterling Opera House to feel how aspirations have swelled since 1870 when Ansonia's Opera House was built. Some say the Sterling is unconscionably extravagant, the product of overweening pride. 

Others say it is civic pride, and lay claim to a kind of vision. They tell us Sterling Hall is a tribute to the memory of an esteemed citizen, the late Charles A. Sterling, and it is a natural partnership between the people of Birmingham and the Sterling Piano Company, a major Birmingham employer which has put up a good part of the money. The results speak, or rather, sing for themselves. The hall is acoustically perfect. It has been built following principles developed personally by Richard Wagner and his architects at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany. They say that in one step the hall is making Birmingham the cultural center of the whole Northeast. 

With a hall even better than Mr. Steinway's, on 14th Street in New York City, the greatest artists of the day are flocking to Birmingham. The Birmingham town fathers assert Birmingham's new status demanded the upgrades to public infrastructure and the town green that were recently made. The people of Birmingham, including many who run mills in Birmingham and across the Housatonic River in the newly incorporated borough of Shelton, envision a united Derby with the shining town green on the hill as its cultural center. When that happens, all Derby will benefit.

Across the river in the heavily populated hillsides of Ansonia, people are not so sure. They grumble, what good is an opera house where you can't skate? Our Opera House was designed for practical people and it is as good as it ever was except for the shows lost to the Sterling. It still earns investors a tidy profit. Common sense has made Ansonia the economic center of Derby. Will Ansonia ultimately pay for all the Birmingham frills when the debts come due in Derby township?  Mostly, however,  people are galled by the bombshell that dropped from the front page of The Transcript on the day after Christmas: Birmingham, it announced, is petitioning to become the City of Derby with Ansonia and Shelton made boroughs thereof. No one saw it coming.

People in Ansonia are shocked at the swollen arrogance of it all; in Shelton they are stunned.  Shelton has always been part of the town of Huntington, not the town of Derby.  Of course, all the land in Shelton is owned by the Ousatonic Water Company of Birmingham which built and runs the dam on the Housatonic River. They take the profits of the Shelton Mills, and, since the owners live in Birmingham, Derby is where the taxes get paid. Everyone in Shelton has known that the power company and their slick lawyers have always done as they pleased there with little opposition from the rural, hillside farmers who run the town of Huntington of which Shelton is a borough. 

In Shelton now they are contemplating all the mills on their side of the river and their outstanding record of growth, while making snide comments about the wisdom of Shelton annexing Birmingham some time soon when Shelton becomes a city.

It was a classically tumultuous year, 1889 and in the decades that followed. There were many parties of interest to the doings in the lower valley, and the whole region was soon embroiled. What you thought probably depended on where you lived. The Evening Transcript supported the Derby plan and editorialized, “United in one community we would soon advance to the front rank among the prominent and progressive towns of the State.”  The Sentinel opposed it and supported Ansonia's own petition for separation from Derby and incorporation as an independent town, unshackled from Birmingham's debt. Wherever you lived, you were entitled to claim moral indignation and outrage against the other side with certainty that high ethical principles were at stake. 

Of course there are also those who believed that it was always just about ego, greed and lust for power, and there are those who look back and wonder if it mattered much after all.   Up and down the valley town streets were being paved and lighted and new trolleys took a growing leisure class to places that had not existed a few years beforeWhatever you believe, one feels the aspirations of the age inside this hall. The opera house is no longer for skating.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Behind TIme


We thought Time was our natural inheritance, god-given and not subject to earthly tampering, but Time was the first to change. The clockmaker's wizardry looks intricate consisting of astronomical calculations and tedious tinkering with gears and escapements, teasing out tiny efficiencies and tuning verges to mimic the heavens and meter out our moments precisely. We scarcely understand or remember how the clockmakers came to possess and warp time, nor do we recall tattered circadian harmonies.

Clockmakers were in the Naugatuck Valley early, working in wood even before the first brass mill rolled metal, and it's hard to overestimate their influence. In 1801 Eli Terry registered the first United States patent for a clock mechanism. It was a clear sign of genius. The mechanism called, "an equation clock," modulated the flow of minutes to mimic sun time, perceptual time, time as it was given by the heavens. 

It was no simple thing to get a clunky machine to figure the tilt of the earth and the living flux of days as they varied in length; to get escapement and verge to lay down 86,400 moments in the ever-changing span between every sunrise and sunrise. Today such a clock would be an antique, always hopelessly wrong.  It measured old time, the time most people knew, but it would never have made Eli Terry famous or wealthy in the times ahead.

Most of Eli Terry's clocks were not equation clocks. They were ordinary clocks that beat in even moments. His clocks became famous because they made time cheap. In 1806 he accepted a contract to make 4000, wooden, 30 hour, shelf clocks in three years at $4 each. Creating a 30 hour, shelf clock in wood presented technical challenges, but skeptics laughed at the thought of producing any clock for $4, and nobody could make 4000 of them in three years when the most a single clockmaker could turn out in a year was under a dozen. Clocks were expensive tech toys for aristocrats, or they were purchased as a common community resource.

Terry formed a partnership with two young joiners and spent the first year designing the clock, and the systems and jigs to mass produce it. If parts could be uniformly made, much time could be saved in precision finishing. The partners spent the remaining two years refining methods, and producing the required number. Terry was mass producing time and delivering it to the masses; it was a milestone in mass production comparable to Henry Ford's a century later, but Terry had learned enough to know what to do next.

He sold his share of the business to his partners and took all he had learned about mass production and clocks and applied it to the design of a wholly new, made-for-mass-production, 30 hour, shelf clock, and in 1816 began manufacturing the first machine of any kind made from wholly interchangeable parts. By 1825 Terry held 5 distinct patents and his clock delivered time to the rest of us and dominated clockmaking for 25 years. In 1833 Terry retired wealthy from labors. He spent the next 22 years quietly making unique, fine, precision time pieces the old-fashioned way, fitting each wheel to it's place in a unique clockwork.

It was for Terry's partners, Seth Thomas, Sirus Hoadley, Chauncy Jerome and others to ramp up the production of Terry's clock and fix us firmly in the gears of clock time. Chauncey Jerome was an innovator, and after the railroads came through, he took Terry's methods and translated them for manufacturing clocks of stamped metal. He made time even less expensive and more accurate, and he was widely imitated. 

In 1813 Seth Thomas, another partner, went over the hill from the original Plymouth shop and began manufacturing Terry's clocks in the part of the Valley known then as Plymouth Hollow. His success was in making Terry's manufactured clocks look hand-crafted. Now everybody could dream of having a parlor, and Plymouth Hollow became Thomaston. Of influential clocks in public places, few can vie with the famous, four-sided clock that sets the pace in the center of Grand Central Station; it is a Seth Thomas clock. Although the Seth Thomas Co., continued making clocks up until 2001, they never made an electric clock.

When clocks were wooden they spent half their time in darkness; before the Civil War we had not lit night to resemble day, but we were already leaving Circadia. In 1850, we agreed to standard time zones so that railroads could make timetables, and more and more we needed clocks.  The hands of Seth Thomas's Grand Central clock still gracefully circle like planets orbiting a star, as we circle round the clock's faces toward our trains and planes and cars. How are we changed by glimpsing digital watches blinking our disconnected seconds as we wait for the train to move? How do our tools change us? 

And when we first stepped from Circadia, was there shock? How did the harmonies change as we began to dwell in a "well-tempered" world with rigid, 24-hour intervals? There is a curious incident, a marker in the history of human consciousness that relates; in 1826 citizens of New Haven were outraged when Eli Terry set his new clock into operation on the town Green? What feelings prompted their ire?

Eli Terry was a master at wooden tower clocks, and one was needed on the New Haven Green to mark time for the daily firing of the canon by which the residents of the town set their sun dials. The clock that Eli Terry provided had a complicated mechanism that operated two sets of dials. One of these dials was operated by Terry's equation mechanism that varied the length of hours throughout the year in order to provide the correct sun time.  The other dial offered the clock time we use today.  

The New Haven citizens protested - wanted nothing of new-fangled, clock time - wanted it gone. Heated words and esoteric arguments were exchanged in the local newspapers. Terry himself contributed anonymously to the exchanges, but Terry still owned the clock. He showed his spite by removing the equation mechanism leaving only warped, clock time. Of course, in reality the matter had already been settled. It was decided by the many clocks of Terry's design that were already mass-produced, inexpensive and chiming the hours in homes and parlors for a decade before the protest and a half century before the lights came on.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Seth Thomas Tower


To Eli Terry and his Four-Dollar Clocks

We rode the even gait of time
like cowboys on the drive,
easy in the saddle;
or like turnips and beans
in the black earth.
Daybreak opened our eyes
as the cock opened our ears;
we made music
when there was moonshine.

Until the wooden wheels of time,
the even grinding of their teeth
reset the axis of the earth
so equal moments fill each hour,
snug as cans sealed in a carton.
We sleep while the sun shines
or party 'til dawn
or work the nightshift
to moonlight at daybreak.