Tuesday, August 26, 2014

D-Day+81: Vaulting the Seine: Tn. 5's Triumph

Advance, Brave Canadians!

GRAY Bridge over the Seine at Elbeuf. (Sources, 1, Curated by Michael Sabarly)

Are you tired of picturesque Ocean Falls, British Columbia? I know I'm not. This is Kimsquit Lodge, the women's dorm.

City of Vancouver Archives

Let us say it's 195-- Okay, I've already used "194Q," so, let's say, "195R." That is, this the year that the future begins, so you are never actually there. You've been in Ocean Falls, man and boy, since before 1924, and you're thinking about next year, or the year after that. The year things start to move in this hick town. (The only Simpsons clip this could possibly link.)

So you're not overly impeded by reality, is what I'm saying. You can see the future. The company brings in unattached women to do women's work. (You know: staff the cafeteria, type, clean up. Obviously you don't put the nurses and teachers and head secretaries here. Obviously.)  They meet millwrights, they marry, they buy a home in Martin Valley. They get a car. By that time, the road is through. Their kids go through the class-enhancing magic of high school, and drive the 600km or so to Williams Lake, the 1200 or so to university to Vancouver. The 2500 or so to golden California and the kind of magical, middle-class jobs that people have been lighting out of the coast for since time immemorial --but now they can come back! No more people complaining about the isolation! Before you can turn around, there'll be one of those new-fangled "shopping malls" in town!

So what's a "Kimsquit?" A small town in B.C. This is what it looked like in 1913.

 And this is what it looks like today:

I don't want to make some German Indianer cosplayer squee himself to death or anything, but the burden of the picture is that Kimsquit was abandoned years ago. (Almost. James Sirois still lives there.) It's not the forest primeval. There's been some logging, and there's an air strip to accommodate fly in anglers. 

If you can get away from that kind of thinking, you will notice that that's the Dean River issuing into the head of Dean Channel at 52 degrees 13 minutes North, and you will appreciate that this is nice farmland at the mouth of one of only three rivers that punch through the Coastal Range: the Fraser, the Skeena and the Dean. The first two host major seaports. (Prince Rupert has a container terminal now. That qualifies as "major," right?) So why not a third?

Because, we say now, in our diminished world where 195R never happened, because. It's just impossible. Not even worth bothering about. No-one's going to farm way out there, or build a railway connection. Or a town. We don't do that sort of thing any more. Better to leave the Dean River as a veritable Mecca of anglers, the place that makes every fly fisher's eye gleam at the mention, because of the superlative quality of the super-steelhead trout which inhabit this best of all possible rivers.*

Our booster/dreamer can be spared for not thinking that way, for naming the women's dorm "Kimsquit Lodge" as a step on the inevitable progress that leads to the moment (soon now!) when the road that links Ocean Falls to the world, the road that has to pass through Kimsquit anyway, climbs the Dean River valley to Anahim Lake.

From this distance, we can see the absurdity of this road that descends the Dean Canyon and climbs passes between  four watersheds on its way from Kimsquit to Ocean Falls. Looked at from the other side, the fact that the road goes through four heavily forested watersheds is an advantage. All of that fibre, tied to Ocean Falls forever!

This will be 195R. 

Perspective: here's work on Wong Chee's Corner, the turn around the bluff that takes Ocean Falls Road from the townsite to Martin Valley in 1924, per the Ocean Falls Museum. 

Shovels and wheelbarrows. That's 1924.

Here's work on U.S. 10, the later I-90, in Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, in 1950, from the University of Washington Library's Flickr account.

We're not even building interstates yet, but a bit of a change in methods, don't you think? 195R is the year when roadbuilding gets this easy on the road to Ocean Falls. It's year that never comes, a year as imaginary as flying cars.

In the imagination of Walther Model, briefing his Fuehrer on the evening of 25th August, the question was one of managing the withdrawal of Army Group B behind the Somme-Marne line in the respite given by The Allied halt and regrouping on the Seine. The Somme line would not hold forever, but it would provide a place on which to reconstitute the battered remnants of his command. Walther Model does not believe in 195R. But he is still wrong.

Model, too, imagines a future that will never be. a future where the Allies wear themselves out and reach an accommodation that lets the Third Reich keep some fraction of its spoils. Perhaps even Alsace and Lorraine. Germans tend to think that those provinces belong to Germany, anyway. Why not salvage some justice from a long war?

This morning,, while the world's attention is captured by the birth of the Fourth Republic in Paris, Canadians, British and American units close up the Seine.

Stacey, Victory Campaign, via Hyperwar
 Tomorrow, they will cross it, and end the dreams of a great German Reich forever.

Because they will keep going.


So what the fuck happened? Well, a beaten German army, of course. And air superiority, and good, fast tanks.

This post, of course, is about something else, about the mobile infrastructure that has emerged to build instant roads so quickly that bridging columns can practically advance as fast as the roads can be built. Not quite the magic of Graydon Saunder's Line infantry (buy the book here), but fast enough. 

You need roads to reach the front. Sure, behind the static front of July, the Royal Engineers have built up a steadily-increasing "plant" of bulldozers, angledozers, "scrapers," "continuous-bucket scrapers," "blade or motor graders," "Ruston-Bucyrus No. 19 crawlers." 

They have built a railway depot at Bayeux, and repaired the lines and bridges of Caen, and the Americans, not to be outdone, have built three rail yards to clear Cherbourg of the cargos accumulating there, but even with even with everything that has been done, the railhead is 35 miles behind the Seine on the day that the engineers get their ducks in a row and begin to build a new bridge across it, on 31 August. On 30 September, the first train will cross that bridge, and, ironically, it will be on its way to Antwerp, for this will be the last link on the main line to Antwerp to be completed. (Other bridges are smaller jobs for various reasons.)

Nor does it help that the bridge is a bit of crap. The goofy trestles are the "camel's foot" thingies on which Tn. 5 devoted so much effort. They are necessary, because the bridge is being built clear of the encumbrance of existing bridges, and there is no time to sink proper pilings, but they even look makeshift, and will not survive the floods of the late fall. Notice, though, that the bridge is therefore only part of the story, because approaches to it have to be built on both sides of the river.

It is all very much to the credit of the Transportation Directorate and the mechanics of the REME, the two civil engineers reporting, J. H. Pooley and Henry George Follenfant** tell us. But it is also to the credit of the anonymous motor pool of trucks that move the materials. On the one hand, the design effort that created truck-mobile modular rail bridges is vindicated, even if the bridges are kind of awful in practice. On the other, it's a credit to the anonymous men of the motor pool. That's a lot of trucks, and, as the veterans tell us, most of them were driven by Black American soldiers, seconded to the "Red Ball Express" with no experience in truck driving, on the assumption that it was the kind of work that Coloured folk did in wartime. 

Since something of a controversy is going to erupt on the Western Front in the next few weeks over the matter of supply haulage, it is as well to notice that underneath the debating generals and behind the convoys rolling up to Patton's advanced guard, the teach-yourself-to-do-it-while-you're-doing-it truck drivers and mechanics of the REME, RCEME and the Red Ball Express are doing their best to overcome the problem by advancing the railhead. Seventy years ago today, while de Gaulle hears a Te Deum in Notre Dame (and all honour to him, too, for all his infuriating quirks and suspect politics), it is these men who are winning the war, conjuring an entire rail bridge out of nothing --and this with not-exactly ideal equipment in the form of the 2 1/2 ton truck. 

In other words, this isn't about equipment. It's about people, about skills, about well paid construction jobs. Enough has been learned in all of this to build a transcontinental interstate network. So why did 195R never roll around? 

*Totally objective information on Dean River angling conditions courtesy of Dean River trout fishing outfitters.

**George Henry Follenfant and John Douglas Watson, "Military Railway Cosntruction, Part III: Construction and Repair in North-West Europe, June 1944--445," 590ff in CEW 1.


  1. 195R depends on the construction of money; the answer to "what creates money?" that's politically operative.

    BC has never, so far as I know, managed to get any other answer than "resource extraction!" and never mind what else could be done with the water transport and the resources if you were trying to emulate say Norway in terms of land use. Norway had a long time to diffuse population into place; BC did, too, but with neolithic tech and with a political goal of removing that population, so they didn't get to contribute much to settlement patterns or habits of use.

    How you start that kind of use pattern, where import replacement is obviously a good thing to invest in, starting from a polity dominated by profit-maximizing extractors, without the centuries of bondar and their small fields and very mixed economy and robust habit of blacksmithing, I have no idea. I suspect that it starts with the blacksmithing equivalent, because that's what made central exercise of control difficult for long enough.

  2. I was hoping for a solution that doesn't involve knocking it all down so that we can rebuild.

    It just seems a bit wasteful to me. Also, call me a sloped forehead, F250-driving Neanderthal, but I don't think of forestry as resource extraction. The trees do grow back.

    1. Renewable resources are still resources. (Farming is, after all, mostly set up as a resource extraction business; the distinction between latifunda and free-holders.) I think a resource-extraction business is one where a broad base of production feeds into a small number of customers, with concentration and selection but without any addition of value intended to make the products desirable to a final customer.

      I've struggled for years for a way to put "import replacement" in operative terms, I think Jane Jacobs nailed the existence of import replacement to the floor as a core economic activity over historical time, and said some good things about the conditions under which it happens, but didn't identify it to the process level.

      The price of trees is set by what the mill will pay, and all the structural pressures want to push that price down. That's a situation where the people cutting trees (and running the mill, and shipping wood and wood-derivatives) are in a position where being more efficient doesn't benefit them. When the people doing the work don't benefit from doing the work with greater efficiency, something structural has gone wrong. (I think that's an axiom; lots of people would disagree.)

      My first guess would be there's no way to get capital to do anything new; that's a very common problem, bankers hate making loans to anything new, because there they are guessing about the risk. My second guess is that the sheer capital density for the established forest-products business keeps pushing for trees to be cheap, and you never get the specialization-machinery-better-machinery-new-businesses chain going. (BC yellow cedar goes into a lot of wooden sailing yachts, but so far as I know, no one builds them in BC. Sitka Spruce laminates, etc.)

      I figure the goal can be summarized as "get closer to the final customer", but I have no idea how you do it; the general conditions, sure, broader energy base and the rise of additive machining and all the wet-nanotech stuff is going to help, a different banking system would help, but how you go from cutting down trees to making machinery to make the waterproof cellophane wrappers in more sizes, that's probably not visible aforetime.

  3. Added value in forestry is a pretty complicated question. B.C. primarily does pulpwood, plywood and structural timber, where the value-added comes from making higher quality final product out of the cheapest possible inputs. That certainly means downward pressure on stumpage, as our American cousins keep complaining, but it also means recovering more of the fibre. The waste on the old time cutblocks was horrific, and we can and have learned to do so much better. With particle board and regenerative fuelling we go even further.

    (I'll take a moment here and stress that high value added and product innovation is not always obvious to the customer, because it may go into "invisible" stuff like cheap particle board.)

    But, there is also value-added in trees. Higher grade timber will fetch higher prices. And now we get to the question of who owns the woodlots, which becomes stickly political. Companies Formerly Known as Railways? Rich old family dynasties? First Nation bands? Who planted that stand of black cherry, and who plans to make enormous fortunes selling it to bespoke furniture makers in seventy years?

  4. That's a somewhat whimsical example in that very few people plant crops that they intend to harvest in seventy years. There is, however, also the question of rapid regrowth. I've seen forest giants with fewer than 40 rings. Trees grow a great deal faster on good land than bad. One might ask why trees are being grown on good land in the first place, but given that that is the situation we have in BC, it's the one we have to live with politically.

    Whoo, boy, the politics. I've walked great tree farms where you can see signs indicating the year that it was cut and reforested, and realise that companies have risen and fallen in the time it has taken those trees to grow half the way to the next harvest. It is government that decides in the end which tree farm licenses should go to which "successor company," and no-one trusts Victoria to do it honestly, with your suspicion of bias flavoured to taste by ideology.

    I have also walked patchworks of woodlots on southeastern Vancouver Island where logging machinery will suddenly show up and cut a block one year, and even locals aren't sure who owns the land and who decided to cut it; or whether the land will be reforested or proposed for subdivision, afterwards. Now we have a whiff of ancient corruption descended into modernity by moss-encrusted trust funds big enough to keep someone puttering around their mansion in Shaugnessy with just enough nose candy to fight off the blues. Where's the social good? we cry. Also, "the rent is too damn high" in those subdivisions.

    Though it is weird that while the rent is too high, the developers are having a hard time filling their buildings. I'd blame offshore money or zoning if it weren't the leading edge of a continental problem, making it look more like a coordination issue. Something something monetary issue, which since I understand these things not at all, is basically saying that I think that a wizard is making me pay a grand a month for my one bedroom in Kitsilano, while my employer looks desperately for "full time part timers" staring at $10.50/hour to staff our outlet three blocks down the street.

    The segue there is that this is, of course, logged land. The lumber may have gone to build Lima because San Francisco wasn't much of a market yet, but it was logged once. Now there's a neighbourhood of a great city, built around forestry and a port and secondary lumber processing.

    Now, Vancouverites would love it if the wood that flowed into our waters was turned into something more value-added than just plywood and particle board and tissue paper. How do you conjure up a great industrial centre, especially one making novel products? Bosters have been turning that one over for years. I'm inclined to say that if it's not just the military-industrial complex, then the other causes of great industrial conurbations work very uncertainly indeed.

    1. Have you read Jacobs' Cities and the Wealth of Nations? It's in a lot of ways a historical approach rather than an economic one, and you might like it.

      Industrial -- import-replacing -- cities arise because they started making something and it kept ramifying in a dendritic way as the local skills density grows. It's much much better to be making lots of kinds of things, but it starts with "we could make that here" and away it goes. Venice with glass, Japanese industrialization with bicycles, Ontario with iron for shipbuilding when it meant bolts for lake schooners. BC had two, well, three, disasters; the politics have never been the least bit honest; Victoria/Esquimalt, that perfect, perfect Black Fleet deep water harbour where the coal mine is right there isn't where the population is, in part because it's not where the railroad or the navigable river where the resources came out happens to end, so there's this pre-existing bias for going over the horizon; and it looks like the capital never got diffused enough to innovate. (Chartered banks on the Canadian model are a tool for preventing innovation, because they're determined to only invest in a sure thing. You need something that will take risks and which has its capital bolted to the region.)

      So, yes, much innovation and improvement at being better resource extractors; no amount of recovered fibre will get you industrial take-off because the skills don't generalize that far, unlike, say, welding or machining.

      Going from the pulp mills skill-set to more general chemical engineering with non-fossil feedstocks might be a route, but it's still starting with the heavy capital, and the historical evidence tends to point to skills development not working like that. It seems to take small-scale -- all those truck drivers coming home and finding ways to make their mechanical skills work in small businesses invented 195R, it wasn't planned particularly -- and it often seems to life off of luxury goods; carbon fibre is in racing bicycles and yacht masts and tennis rackets before it's in any substantial application, sort of thing.

      It's a hard problem.

  5. Or perhaps it is an easy problem when you look at it the right way.

    Let me, again, take my stand at Ocean Falls. We have here a seaside camp dedicated to producing goods on site and exporting them out of the labour of a floating proletariat. Arguably, the caesura of "discovery" obscures the fact that this is literally an age-old process, that the very human colonisation of the Western Hemisphere started out of this economy. (The coastal migration hypothesis, archaeological sites in Chile, long distance Inuit coastwise migrations, etc.)

    In and around WWI (why then? because war? Because of South African gold?) a new industry was added to the old mix: pulp and paper. Ocean Falls, like Port Alice, is a good place for doing that, so we start this new kind of plantation.

    If a generation is not too short a time for homeostasis, for a "deep past," then this is what we have, going forward to 1948. The floating proletariat is willing to circulate through these pulp mill towns, the product finds markets, there is enough raw material.

    In 1948--195R (more likely 196R, but never mind, the Fifties have their own resonance), something new happens. The floating proletariat demands not to be a proletariat. On northern Vancouver Island, a network of communities coalesces around logging camps on the east coast; cheap, rough and ready roads are carved through vast expanses of wilderness to connect Port Alice with "civilisation." In Ocean Falls, notwithstanding talk and hope, this does not happen. The camps along what might have been a road to civilisation fail to coalesce into communities. Ultimately, the mill itself is abandoned, and the emergent community dissolves back into the floating proletariat.

    Are we talking about geographical determinism, or is there something else going on here? I am arguing for the "something else." It was a slackening of the economic activity, the end of the secular period 194Q-195R that is decisive.

    Put a number to "Q" and "R," and we might have an explanation for what is going on here. But one thing that I am confident about is that "innovation," and "education/training" have been susceptible to use as ideological covers. The latter, for example, allows wage repression: if you do not have the education/training, how can you justify receiving a living wage? There's a trick involving a carrot and a stick that works very well for extending the life of this ploy.

    It is not necessarily the case that "innovation" and "training" are everywhere and always ideological covers. But there is most emphatically a case for seeing them as working best as such on a demand side basis. Training works best when the employer needs someone who can do something. A need is identified, and the employee is in a position to bargain learning effort for compensation. WWII is an excellent example of this.

    So the question is: is our only politically viable hope for getting this process going again a restarting of global warfare? I assume that the answer is repugnant to those in a position to make policy. I therefore ask them to take it seriously, and explore alternatives. I do not think that cutting off trade (or migration) or petting cities and making them extra comfy or spending even more money on universities are among those serious alternatives.

    My bike is aluminum, and it works just fine for a 55 minute commute. I'm frankly a lot more interested in the history of the Shaughnessy mansions in the neighbourhood I ride through on my route from work.

  6. Well, you can have success or you can have control when considering some new large enterprise.

    Once you have success you want control. I think 195R (which I also think happened around 1970) as a declaration of success on the part of whoever actually makes decisions, followed by a desire for control and maximal rents.

    What's needed, how I understand what you're describing as a process of exchanging effort for compensation, is also a way to get the existing elites to stop thinking they've succeeded. Wars work for that traditionally because a war, unlike any kind of economic dislocation, is an existential threat to an elite. The conqueror might put the lower orders back to work and marry a few heiresses but the most part of the defeated elite is for the chop one way or another. (I think this is why we got industrialization; the English elites during the Napoleonic wars would rather elevate the lower orders than have Napoleon conquer them, and grudgingly accepted enough social change to allow industrialization to happen.)

    As the global elites homogenize and become a highly mobile aristocracy less and less connected to their nation of origin and detached from large ancestral estates, I bet it's harder to get them to feel an existential threat. I don't think war would work any more; it's too easy to make an argument that large global wars, with whole nations beaten into dust, won't happen in a context of MAD.

    Climate change might be enough; it's certainly global, it's certainly existential, and it's proof that no, we haven't succeeded, if success means anything involving "increasing capability" and "getting copies into the future". Unfortunately the dominant value of success seems to be "enormous pile of money", which looks suspiciously like that repeated failure mode of empire again.

    Aluminium in bicycles is interesting, in that aluminium frames were a "we aren't making as many aircraft, what can we do with this stuff?" response, same as the Russian production of titanium garden tools when they stopped making so many aircraft.

    So, if we can get agreement among the elite that their grandkids will be roasted and eaten if they don't make fossil carbon extraction something that carries a death penalty while maintaining a thriving and capable industrial culture, we've got our substitute for global war. Is that politically viable? I hope so; there's a whole lot of effort being expended against it, which is perhaps a hopeful sign.