Writing Project Wednesday: Trains

I think I grew up knowing more than the average person about trains. My dad used to work for the railroad and there was always a healthy appreciation for these iron horses in our house. Sadly, the age of the train has long been on the decline. It was such a treat to get to research trains during their heyday! I’m sharing a few of my favorite tidbits of research below:

-Colorado’s history and growth is intrinsically bound up with the development of rail lines through and across the state. Colorado Springs was no exception. Until 1971, Colorado Springs had a functioning passenger train service. The historic train depot is still there. Until 2011, it was home to Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant.

-The Colorado Springs train depot is the very same one Nikola Tesla arrived at in 1899. Tesla is just one of many famous faces who passed through that depot. If you’re ever in Colorado Springs, you should pay a visit to the beautiful old building. You can see my pictures of how the building looked at the end of 2014 here. Here’s how it looked in 1871:

-At the end of the nineteenth century, steam locomotives were still used to power passenger trains. They weren’t fully replaced by electric and diesel locomotives until the first quarter of the twentieth century.

-In 1876, the Transcontinental Express train made the journey from New York to San Francisco in just 83 hours. A few days after its historic trip, passenger service began.

-In the 1890s, railroad lines covered the eastern side of the United States, but were comparatively sparse in the west:

-There are many examples of steam locomotives in museums across the country. If you visit Colorado Springs, there’s an example of one in the park across the street from the train depot. Here’s a rendering of one:

If you ever have the opportunity to take the train across Colorado or more broadly, across America, I would highly recommend it! It’s one of the most fascinating ways to experience our country as the railways take you through places you would not otherwise be able to see.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about food!

Writing Project Wednesday: The Alta Vista Hotel

The Alta Vista Hotel in Colorado Springs is notable because it is where Nikola Tesla stayed while he worked in Colorado Springs. Though it no longer stands, there are photographs and a smattering of information about it. For today’s Writing Project Wednesday, I’m going to give you the history of Tesla’s home away from home in Colorado!

-The Alta Vista Hotel was built around 1889, just a few blocks from the train station. It was torn down in 1962. You can see pictures of it during the demolition on The Colorado Springs Gazette here.

-It was located at 112 N. Cascade Avenue. The Kirkpatrick Bank and its parking lot sit on that site now. You can see the spot where it stood in my pictures from my trip to Colorado Springs here.

-The Alta Vista Hotel was made of stone and brick. You can see a beautiful colorization of it here. Additional photos of it can be found on The Tesla Universe site here and The Pikes Peak Radio and Electronics Museum site here.

-Tesla stayed in room 207 or 222, depending upon whom you ask. Most of his biographers agree that it was 207. As the story goes, he selected his room because the number was divisible by 3, a prime number.

-Tesla also famously asked for eighteen fresh towels to be delivered to his room every day. The biographies about Tesla abound with these details as if every biographer seems keen to prove Tesla’s eccentricity.

-In researching more facts for this article, I stumbled across a copy of the breakfast menu at the Alta Vista Hotel that is in the New York Public Library’s digital collection. I have to say, some of my most fascinating research is seeing what people used to eat.

-I also found a sample of the letterhead from the Alta Vista Hotel on the Tesla Universe site.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about trains!

Writing Project Wednesday: Tesla, Edison, and The War of Currents

While the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison predates my novel-in-progress, it’s still a fascinating story that few people are familiar with in present day. If you’re a younger person, you’ve probably seen The Oatmeal’s lengthy comic which summarizes Tesla’s life and also mentions the famous feud. You can see that full comic here.

I’m going to summarize the issues and introduce you to the major players in The War of Currents. For an extended look at the issues, I recommend Tesla Vs Edison by Nigel Cawthrone, a well-researched book that really covers this issue in depth. Eventually, I’m going to do a post ranking all these different Tesla biographies since I’ve read so many of them.

Ok so first things first as we dive into The War of Currents:

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856. He arrived in America in June of 1884. At this time, he had already been experimenting with the alternating current (AC) motor. After he failed to raise money to back his invention, he accepted an offer from Charles Batcherlor to go and work for the Edison company in New York.

-This is Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was a genius inventor who was born in Ohio in 1847. Edison either invented or improved upon a number of things we still use today like the lightbulb. In 1884 his electric company was busy lighting up New York with direct current (DC) power.

-Nikola Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison in 1884 and stayed for nearly a year. All the while, Tesla continued to work on his AC motor.

-When Tesla left Edison’s employ, he became to file his own patents. Tesla applied for patents on his AC motors, which were ultimately granted in 1888.

-This is George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse was an inventor turned entrepreneur who was born in New York in 1846. Westinghouse invented the air-operated brake for railroad cars. In 1885, Westinghouse decided to develop an AC power system. In 1888, Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s AC motor patents. Tesla then became a consultant with the Westinghouse Electric Company.

-Meanwhile, Westinghouse and Edison were fighting The War of Currents with their rival electric companies and rival power systems.

-Edison claimed that AC power was dangerous. In February 1888, Edison published an attack on Westinghouse and AC.

-Enter a fourth player, Harold P. Brown. Brown was an electrical engineer who also published an attack on Westinghouse and AC power in June of 1888. Brown knew he needed an ally so he called on Edison, who accepted.

-Brown then began to stage demonstrations that involved shocking animals with DC and AC power. Brown electrocuted dogs, calves, and horses to prove his point that AC was dangerous.

-In 1888, New York adopted electrocution as its preferred method to administer capital punishment.

-Brown was then hired by the prison system of New York to design its electrical equipment. Naturally, he decided to use the Westinghouse AC generators.

-In May of 1889, William Kemmler was convicted of murder and was set to become the first person to be executed by electrocution. Kemmler’s lawyers protested that electrocution was an inhumane punishment and the defense team began to dig into Brown’s background which later revealed that Brown was working with Edison. Nevertheless, the sentence was upheld and Kemmler was executed in August of 1890.

-By 1890, The War of Currents largely began to wind down. The Panic of 1890 caused by the collapse of Barings Bank in London created havoc for both Edison and Westinghouse. Faced with financial trouble, Edison General Electric and Thomas-Houston merged, Edison was dropped from the name, and the new company become General Electric. At this point, Edison also stepped away from the electric lighting business to focus on other things. By the end of the century, AC would become the undisputed winner in The War of Currents. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison continued for the rest of Edison’s life, though not quite at the same magnitude.

* Some of you may have noticed I included AC/DC’s logo in my title image for this week’s Writing Project Wednesday. The story goes that Angus and George Young noticed the initials AC/DC on their sister’s sewing machine and thought that would be a cool name for a band!

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders!