It was surprising to wake up and hear that a group of workers were trapped in a salt mine — especially since it was a salt mine near Ithaca. Actually, they were trapped on the elevator, but hey: salt mine!

Yes — New York is big in salt mining and has been since the 1700s. Originally it was the area around Onondaga Lake where salt was king. Syracuse was the Salt City and Salina is called Salina for a reason.

Back in the day, the Onondaga brine springs spit out salty water that was boiled down to crystals — but in other parts of Central and Western New York, salt production turned to mining. Today, these mines are deep and vast. The Cayuga Salt Mine near Ithaca goes down more than 2300 feet and covers 18,000 acres, spanning five miles from its origin in some spots

You might think that a bad day at work beats a good day in the salt mine. Yes, it’s just salt, but any work like that is hazardous. Nevertheless, I would love to get a tour of the salt mine, sketchy elevator and all. It would be amazing to go that far below the earth into these caves carved from salt. I imagine you could lick your lips and just taste it.

Breaking the Ice

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the old days when the Hudson River iced over.

The river was once a major thoroughfare to Albany — indeed, the Thruway of its day — and even after trains became a thing, the river was still important for moving people and freight. But when the river was clogged with ice?

Before steam power, clearing ice must have been impossible — and even then, until the advent of massively powerful diesel engines, it couldn’t have been easy.

Fast forward to 2015.

Much is made of the crude oil shipments that come by rail to the Port of Albany, but few stories mention the final leg of the oil’s trek to refineries that begins with a barge ride down the Hudson. And it doesn’t stop for winter. In recent weeks, I’ve seen the Coast Guard icebreaker making its way up and down the river, clearing the way for commerce.

One thing about these ships plowing down the river: they’re loud. There’s no sound quite like their hulls cutting and crashing though the ice field, making their way by sheer force against nature’s best.  When it’s fire against ice, fire wins.


I like the drive south down River Road.

Glenmont, Selkirk, Coeymans, New Baltimore — keep going and you’ll go through Coxsackie and to Catskill. Route 144 gives way to Route 61 which leads to Route 385, but it’s all the same.

Roads like this were busier before the Thruway, and if you look closely you’ll see the remains of old gas stations and tourist cabins that dotted way — and places like the Bridge Diner.

It’s near two bridges in Coeymans, actually; the railroad bridge that carries freight across the river and the Thruway’s Castleton Bridge. The diner must have been a busy place when that Thruway bridge was being built in the late 1950s — ironic,  because it was the Thruway itself, not far behind the diner, which must have stolen a lot of the traffic away from Rt. 144.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

While the building looks vaguely like a railroad car, the only time it rolled anywhere was when it was shipped to its destination in four-foot segments and assembled on site. The diner was built by the Bixler Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio sometime between 1931 and 1937 when the firm went out of business. Back in the day, you could buy a pre-fab diner like this one on credit — and hope you got enough business to make your payment.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

I don’t know anything about how the Bridge Diner ended up as it is today. It’s too bad somebody couldn’t have put the building to use — or break it back down into four-foot sections and cart it off to where it could be live again, a place for a couple of fried eggs and some hash browns on a chilly morning.

Ice Ice Baby

It’s perfectly natural to sit at work and complain. Oh, why is my computer so slow, what’s up with this email, are those edits to my work really necessary, why are we doing this?

That’s when you’re lucky there isn’t an old-time Hudson River iceman standing behind you, because surely he’d smack you in the back of the head and tell you to shut the hell up. Those people knew a thing or two about hard work, spending their days sawing away at the river ice and stacking it in warehouses.

There was a time when the shores of the Hudson were crowded with ice harvesting operations; you can see evidence of the ice trade up and down the river — including just off Rt. 9J south of Stuyvesant.

What you’ll find there is the ruins of the R&W Scott Ice Company: the shell of the building that housed the steam engine that powered conveyor belts and an elevator — and you can trace the foundation of a massive six-story structure where the ice was stored. Here are some photos: Continue reading “Ice Ice Baby”

The First Family

It’s inevitable that today I remember my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, who used to hand out shiny new Kennedy half dollars to her best students. I was not one of her best students and never got one. But before I go call a shrink, let me tell you that I was obsessed with JFK when I was a kid.

I have no recollection of his assassination, but in the basement I would pore over the copies of Life magazine and Newsday that my father stashed away, remembrances of that terrible time in 1963.

But my favorite thing was The First Family. My friend, Chuck Reamer, had a copy of the comedy record his older brother left behind. We’d sit in his room muching on Fritos, listening to Vaughn Meader and company spoof Camelot.

In the same way I learned about classical music from Looney Tunes cartoons, The First Family gave me perspective on the Kennedy years.

Meader’s career skyrocketed on the back of his JFK impersonation. After Dallas, Lenny Bruce quipped, “Man, poor Vaughn Meader.”

You can find the whole album on this person’s YouTube page.

Spacing Out

I Googled “Italian astronaut jokes” early this morning after hearing how NASA cancelled the EVA of Luca Parmitano after an EMU malfunction. Space geeks know that an EVA is a spacewalk and an EMU a spacesuit.

It seems that Parmitano, the first Italian astronaut to walk in space, was having a little trouble with his helmet: it was filling with water. Yes, that’s a little trouble.

Speaking of space, I just read two terrific books about space travel, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach and Riding Rockets  by former Space Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane.

Roach’s book, which examines the science behind putting humans in space, is laugh out loud funny as it closely examines things like zero gravity pooping and the hazards of vomitting in your helmet. The most minute detail of everything astronauts do has been studied to death — often in bizarre ways.

Mullane writes about life as one of the original Space Shuttle astronauts. It’s a frank and hilarious (and mildly profane) glimpse of what it’s like to prepare for and fly in space. It’s also pretty heavy, too. Mullane worked closely with the crew aboard the Challenger — and early in his book he discusses the worries over the disasterously ill fated o-rings on the solid rocket boosters.

Anyway, the only Italian astronaut joke I could find goes like this:

Q: What do you call an Italian astronaut?

A: A specimen.

Please accept my apologies.

Here’s the Church and Here’s the Steeple

stpatsThe death watch at St. Patrick’s church in Watervliet seems to go on forever.

Unwanted by the Albany Diocese, the St. Patrick’s property was sold off to a developer, and where people once prayed, they now will shop. Yes, I suppose it’s a little sad; the building holds many memories — and in terms of the environment, a nice old church has more eye appeal than a supermarket. By the time you read this, it will most likely just be a pile of rubble.

When it comes to buildings like this, everything’s relative. In our young country a church built in 1891 seems ancient. In Europe, something constructed in 1891 would not be thought of as terribly old. When I visited Transylvania, there were truly historic churches everywhere, like the Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral, which was completed in 1520. Now that’s old!

Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral

Naturally, the St. Patrick’s demolition has turned into a media orgy, with some stories bordering on the ridiculous, like the apparation of a “face” on the wall. Could it be St. Patrick? We’ll never know.

One funny thing about all this, though: throughout the week, local news outlets have had to station photographers at the church, because nobody wants to be the guy who missed the bell tower coming down. Are we sentimental or do we just like watching buildings demolished. I’m voting on the latter.

God Save the Queen

The theory of six degrees of separation is alive and well.

Take this for example: yesterday I read in All Over Albany about a documentary project that will look at the neighborhood obliterated by the construction of the Empire State Plaza.

They ripped down a thriving section of town and carted it away; now it’s entombed in the area east of Frisbie Avenue. Me and my son, like amateur archaeologists, used to find bits and pieces of the demolition debris as we prowled the site of the former landfill near our house in Albany. We once discovered a half-buried doll’s head. Creepy!

Then, I read of the abdication of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who, as legend has it, inspired Governor Nelson Rockefeller to spruce up Albany by gutting a huge swath of the city and building the South Mall. She was visiting while still just Princess Beatrix, and Rocky was embarrassed by shabby old Albany, or so the story goes.

Queen Beatrix, directly linked to one of America’s most notorious urban renewal projects — and a new film!

I hope you’ll join me and throw a few bucks into the pot for the documentary, titled The Neighborhood That Disappeared. Among the filmmakers is the talented local actor John Romeo, who worked for years at the NYS Theatre Institute. John was also the voice behind the TV work I’m most proud of, things that would have been quite mediocre if not for his great talent.

If you ask me, the former queen should also pony up some money, wouldn’t you say?

A Brief History of Newspapering

James Franklin, Ben’s older brother, was a printer in Boston and in 1721 he had the big idea to start a newspaper, The New-England Courant.

The Courant, which sold for four pence, was a good way to keep the press busy and bring in some extra income. It didn’t take long for James to get into trouble with the authorities, and they threw him in jail the following year for writing “scandalous libel.”

Thus modern journalism was born.

At some point, people figured out that newspapers could be a stand-alone enterprise, rather than just a sideline for commercial printers, and this gave way to the business model of newspapers owning a printing press — not the other way around.

Fast forward to 2013.

Our local paper, the Times Union, just installed a new printing press, which might seem like a bad idea as newspapers are biting the dust all over America. What next, are they going to go back to using kids to distribute their product? But amid the much ballyhooed coverage about serving the customers better and spitting in the face of the print’s downward spiral is this single line from an AP story:

The new press also will allow the newspaper to perform commercial print jobs.

Well, there you go. I’m not suggesting that the newspaper will be just a sideline for a printing operation (even though I joked about it on Twitter), but it will sure help to have some extra money coming in. And if that means keeping journalists and photographers on the job, then it’s a good thing.