Tuesday, 29 June 2010

National Parks and the Romance of the Rails

The railway companies of North America were instrumental in the creation of the United States' and Canada's National Parks. Though seen as rapacious destroyers of the environment - felling tree, mountain and buffalo alike in their relentless march westward - preserving wild spaces was a logical goal for the Railway Barons. They held out the allure of the tourist dollar.

Canadian Pacific Railway train arriving at Glacier House,
now Glacier National Park, British Columbia.

Northern Pacific at the northern gate of
Yellowstone National Park.

Every tourist meant not only a ticket on the train, but a hotel room, backcountry lodge, horse outfitter, and fine dining for weeks on end. For a government jurisdiction starved for cash, the interest of the railways was crucial. They constructed the amenities and, often, the necessities of the parks' operations. First came the rails, then the stations, then the hotels, then the roadways, along with the sewer, telegraph and telephone lines.

Canadian Pacific Railway's Banff Springs Hotel, Banff National Park.

Santa Fe Railways's El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon National Park.

Magnates began to treat the parks like private fiefdoms. Northern Pacific strove for the creation of Yellowstone. Great Northern got it's hand in with Montana's Glacier National Park. Southern Pacific staked out Yosemite. Santa Fe laid tracks directly to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Union Pacific took the north rim, with Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks along the way. Union Pacific also snuck into the western side of Yellowstone, and claimed Grand Teton National Park with it. The Canadian Pacific Railway had near-uncontested domination of Banff, Yoho, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks in Canada. Grand Trunk Pacific, later Canadian National Railway, took up the cause of Jasper National Park. And each one tried to outdo the other in competition for tourists, providing unparalleled luxury and appointment.

Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon,
Northern Pacific and Yellowstone,
Canadian Pacific and Glacier, 1910's.

These hotels and their services became parts in a chain that we would recognize today as the all-inclusive vacation. When "The Empire Builder" James J. Hill consolidated a hodge-podge collection of failing railways into Great Northern, he introduced a line dubbed the Oriental Limited. The Oriental Limited was so-named because it was, Hill asserted, the premier route from the Eastern United States to the Far East, via Great Northern Steamship from the Pacific coast. It was also the premier route to Glacier National Park. Great Northern's Glacier Park Lodge, on the southern fringe of the park, was mere steps from the station. Inside its grand lobby with towering tree trunk pillars, the oriental theme continued with Japanese lanterns and tea service.

The lobby of Great Northern's Glacier Park Lodge.

Inside the Oriental Limited's observation car.

Great Northern's Oriental Limited
to Glacier National Park, 1920's.

It was Great Northern, during the dark days of the Great War, that coined the "See America First" campaign. With the European tourist market shut down, it was the needed opportunity to strike a blow for homegrown tourism. This was quickly leapt upon by the National Parks Service itself. Meanwhile in Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway had a different compulsion with their advertising. To this day, one of the spectres haunting the True North's park system is a confused mandate that, early in its history, had these tracts of lands preserved for the benefit of hunters and anglers rather than for the ecosystems themselves.

Seeing America First.

Canadian Pacific travel booklet cover.

The Canadian Pacific did promote other sports and activities through the mountains, including the allure of mountain climbing. Materials sent to Europe and the American eastern seaboard extolled the virtues of "The Canadian Alps" and promised "Fifty Switzerlands in One". Aspiring mountaineers responded to the call of "Why go to Switzerland", resulting in the tragic death of Philip Stanley Abbot on Mount Lefroy, in 1896. As a result, Canadian mountaineering was in danger of being extinguished entirely. To redeem it, the CPR imported guides from Switzerland in 1899 who could accompany tourist climbers, assuring their safety. The Swiss Guides became an indelible part of Canadian Rocky Mountain culture in places like the majestic Abbot Pass, high above Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The pass was named in testament to the deceased.

Canadian Pacific ad, c.1910's.

A pair of Swiss Guides.

Abbot Pass.

Tourists required guidebooks as much as guides. These promotional and informative pamphlets whet their appetites for the wonders the railway was ready to unfold before them in full-service vacation packages. Northern Pacific, for instance, provided the following guide to Yellowstone, which is viewable by clicking on the cover...

Some texts endorsed the Grand Railway Hotels, such as this pamphlet on the Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel. The author, Fred Harvey, was the main concessionaire common to the lion's share of the American parks. His company began with the idea of selling hot, fast, good food to rail travelers on the Santa Fe and it grew into a great chain of hotels and resorts.

Santa Fe Railroad itself chose a more thorough and literary approach with their anthology Titan of the Chasms, on the Grand Canyon...

The United States Railway Administration created a series of pamphlets of their own, promoting the full line of National Parks. Click on the cover for Yosemite to peruse a collection that includes Crater Lake, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Hot Springs, Mesa Verde, Mt. Rainier, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and General Grant, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

A critical move for the railways was using fine art to appeal to fine tastes. The likes of John Fery and Thomas Moran were commissioned by the railways and given incredible access to the lines and the parks in order to create their Victorian and Edwardian landscape masterpieces. These, in their showings in Eastern and European galleries (as well as on the walls of stations and hotels), did as much to advertise the railway destinations as straight commercial script and graphic art.

John Fery, Many Glaciers Region, Glacier National Park (c.1910);
for Great Northern Railway.

Thomas Moran, Golden Gateway to the Yellowstone (1893);
for Northern Pacific Railway.

Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, Lake Louise (1912);
for Canadian Pacific Railway.

Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, Coming Storm in the Rockies (1914);
for Canadian Pacific Railway.

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne,
Mount Cheops, Canadian Rockies (1895);
Van Horne was the president of the Canadian Pacific,
as well as a painter.

Eventually, the romance of the rails gave over to the institution of the Great American Roadtrip. Automobiles replaced steam trains and horse-drawn surreys in carrying tourists, not to Grand Railway Hotels, but the burgeoning autocamps. Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana, was completed in 1932, crossing the Continental Divide over Logan Pass. Kootenay National Park in British Columbia was established in 1920 around a highway rather than a railway. Nowadays, RV motorhomes and Harley-Davidsons are the signs of National Park travel.

Some of this railway romance still exists. Throughout the American National Parks, the former Fred Harvey Company and its hotels are now under the Xanterra brand. In Canada, most of the former Canadian Pacific hotels now carry the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts brand, after the global corporation was bought by Canadian Pacific in the 1990's. Modern railway companies run on many of the old lines. Great Northern replaced the steam-era Oriental Limited with the diesel-era Empire Builder, which is now run by Amtrak and continues service to Glacier National Park. For a measly $8000 dollars, one could take the Royal Canadian Pacific luxury train vacation. The Rocky Mountaineer has a more affordable run on the CPR route while Via Rail runs on the Canadian National route through Jasper. The old Santa Fe line into the Grand Canyon has been taken over by the Grand Canyon Railway.

Camp Hampton with the Teton Mountains in the distance,
Grand Teton National Park, from the Haynes Photo Fargo
Northern Pacific Views

Blackfoot First Peoples arrayed at
Glacier National Park, Montana.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Larklight (2006)

Recently, Mike Perschon reviewed Philip Reeve's young adult novel Larklight, and on his recommendation I found and devoured a copy for myself. Like Mike, I also cannot help but frame my review in Reeve's only-slightly-less recent screed on "The Stink of Steampunk".

Unfortunately, for whatever reasons and perhaps bowing to whatever pressure, Reeve removed the article from his weblog (it has been preserved, in part, here). His gist was that Steampunk has become a creatively dead genre which he has felt himself lumped into as a "half-digested peanut" is lumped into a pile of excrement. His description of the bowl's contents is vivid:
Returning again and again to the same tiny pool of imagery, the writers of Steampunk are doomed to endless repetition. What I used to love about Science Fiction as a teenager was the way that, when you picked up one of those yellow Gollancz SF titles at the library, you had no idea where it would take you; it might be to some dazzling technological future or post-apocalyptic wasteland; it might be to another planet; or it might all be set in the present, just around the corner. But when you pick up a Steampunk book you know pretty much exactly where you're going; it will take place in an 'alternate' nineteenth century which will be neither as complex nor as interesting as the actual nineteenth century. There will be airships; rich villains will be hatching plots involving clockwork and oppressing the workers; rich heroes will see the error of their ways... Steampunk is a genre cul-de-sac: it's Science Fiction for people who know nothing about science; historical romance for readers whose knowledge of history comes from costume dramas.

He asserted that his series Mortal Engines is something other than Steampunk, but lamented that Larklight falls squarely in the genre. He hoped that the novel's humour would be the enema that eased it passage.

I agree with Mike that sometimes you can't trust the artist, though I will take that in a different direction. When I reviewed the short film The Anachronism, I disagreed with the director that it was Steampunk. There was too much interesting stuff going on in its brief 15 minutes to limit it to goggles and barnacle-like encrustations of brass cogs. It may have been to Matthew Gordon Long's consternation, since he willingly adopted Steampunk as a marketing label. My words to Philip Reeve may be more reassuring. Don't worry Philip, Larklight is not Steampunk.

Well, it's not Steampunk by the current definition, which Reeve so succinctly described. Had Larklight been written ten years ago, it would have been full-blooded Steampunk and delightfully so. It would have sat, celebrated, alongside contemporaneous works of the 90's and early 2000's like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dinotopia, Wild Wild West, Sakura Wars, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, City of Lost Children, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Girl Genius and Disney's European and Japanese themeparks. At the time, Steampunk was defined simply as Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi and Fantasy, not yet having accumulated the rigid set of repetitions that define the style today. Reeve cannot be blamed, nor should he feel ashamed, by the fact that Larklight did not come into existence until the same year that certain people decided to call their lifestyle "Steampunk". Accidents happen.

Let us then take the novel on its own merits for what it is. Let us dispense with the label that neither Reeve nor myself like and return to his admitted roots in Victorian-Edwardian Scientific, Planetary and Imperialist Romances. After all, Reeve's influences and love affairs are still valid despite how they may have been coopted. In the same essay he confesses,
Back in the 1980's, when I started forming the ideas that would eventually turn into Larklight and Mortal Engines, I naively felt that I'd found a nice little niche for my imagination, well away from the computers and starships of mainstream Sci-Fi and the elves and pixies of the fantasy crowd. I was inspired by the Science Fiction of HG Wells and Jules Verne, and while I was dimly aware that sixties writers like Michael Moorcock had briefly revived the scientific romance (presumably in the grip of the same fad that persuaded people like the Beatles into Edwardian military tunics), I wasn't really aware of many in my own generation writing about airships and steam engines.

What we get when we go back to basics is a riotous satire that indulges obvious nostalgic affection for the genre while permitting a modern smirk over its heightened absurdities. To paint a picture of it, Larklight is something of a cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Treasure Planet set against Space: 1889-style exposition, but with Isaac Newton in place of Thomas Edison as the inventor who cracked the problem of passage between the spheres.

How nostalgic and how smirking? The story opens aboard the estate of Larklight, floating in the aether around the vicinity of the Moon. Our narrator is Art Mumby, son to an obscure Xenomorphologist and younger brother to Myrtle Mumby. He describes the tizzy that the house is sent into with the word that they will be visited by the esteemed Mr. Webster of the Royal Xenological Institute. Dr. Mumby sets the steam-powered servant automata into action while aspiring Myrtle wonders if he is one of the Berkshire Websters or identified in a great tome of English Lords. It turns out that Mr. Webster is a giant spider in a bowler hat. As Webster and his arachnid minions capture Larklight, Art and Myrtle flee in a Meliesesque escape pod to embark on their cosmos-spanning adventure.

Unlike Mortal Engines, Larklight is not driven by any small central contention. Instead, Reeve seems to be coming from a recognition that this is his big chance to just throw as many of those antiquated tropes in as he can. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach makes it as much a reader in the genre in its own way as Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Where Moore makes pastiche of specific characters and events, Reeve throws in a few specific historical personalities but largely rests on allusions to his influences. Mars and Jupiter's moons are like something out of Burroughs with a few Wells references for good measure, there is a giant canon that shoots space-pods, a lunar surface silver and barren but for the mushrooms, a lush Venus, air pirates, British ironclads, ancient civilizations, the Crystal Palace, lines directly from War of the Worlds and Star Trek, and a climax that is part H.G. Wells and part Will Smith. Only the dinosaur-infested centre of some planet is absent, but there must be limits I suppose.

The jokes, as Reeve hoped, do carry it through. It would be a charming romance delivered straight, but the spot-on humour puts it over. For example, gravity is not simply measured in Earthlike terms, but in British Standard Gravity. Both Art and Myrtle are obsessed with being good British subjects each in their own way. Art, our narrator, is full on Boys Own Adventure stories while Myrtle wishes above all else to be seen as a proper lady. During one encounter she laments her inability to faint from shock as a true well-bred woman ought to, according to the books.

Larklight is lighter fare; a right jolly bit of entertainment with one eye wide open and the other giving a sly wink. It is so nearly perfect for what it is that I almost feel sheepish about reading its two sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm. Nevertheless, the official website for the trilogy can be found here.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

VEx June Contest - Facebook Exclusive!

This month we're going to be doing things a little bit differently. If you look to the sidebar you will see that we have a growing Facebook group. Not only is the group a direct feed to get the latest posts from Voyages Extraordinaires on your Facebook news page, but we also feature other posts and interesting tidbits from around the series of tubes.

To celebrate and thank our Facebook community, this month's contest will be a Facebook exclusive. To enter to win an R1 copy of Studio Ghibli's Castle in the Sky DVD - with an extra copy of My Neighbor Totoro thrown in for good measure - just post a comment to this listing on the VEx Facebook group. The draw will be at midnight Mountain Time on Saturday, June 26th. Our group can be found here.

Thank you very much for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires. It means a lot and it is my pleasure to give something back to you. Good luck!

The results: Congratulations to Scott Beallis of the Voyages Extraordinaires Facebook group for winning a copy of Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro on DVD! Scott, look for a message in your inbox. And to everyone who joined out Facebook group and entered, thank you! Keep an eye out next month for another giveaway!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Thomas Edison's Yellowstone

The wonders of the world's first National Park did not escape the cameras of Thomas Edison's film company. Well, one of them didn't, being the Lower Falls of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. This short compilation of Edison's Yellowstone footage from 1899 includes that, as well as tourists coming and going.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Antique Views of Yellowstone

The world's first and most famous national park... Yellowstone National Park is a global icon, as well as a massive super-volcano whose tremendous geological forces are only vented by its 3,000-strong army of blistering geysers. Yet this harsh landscape is also home to the grandest prairie wildlife: elk, wolves, grizzlies, and the monarch of the plains, the bison. Let us begin our tour of vintage Yellowstone with a visit to its most famous resident, Old Faithful, and her ken...

Old Faithful Inn, a classic example of
National Parks Rustic architecture.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Antique Views of Hawai'i Volcanoes and Haleakala

Hawaii National Park is the world's classic of living volcanism.

It is a gentle land and a hard land—of brooding silence and explosive violence; of enchanting wilderness and barren desert; of pounding surf and lofty mountains; of gleaming snow and never-failing summer.

It is a changing land—new and fresh and awesome.

A complete history of Hawai'i Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks can be found in The Land of Pele, republished online from the original 1953 Hawaii Nature Notes publication.

Volcano House, 1866.