Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Electric City, VI: Royers Lock: Or, the Fall of Antwerp

It's been a long time since I wrote an addition to "The Electric City" series, and they're all old and crappy and digressive Also, this "tag" thing was then foreign to me. (1,2,3, 4). The intent, however, was from the first to build to this. Not the biggest and most important of electric cities, but the one that counted for the most at the critical turn towards modernity: Antwerp, and specifically, Royers Lock.


Germany went not unhappily to war against America in December of 1941. The country may have had few illusions about the cost to itself of facing an entire American army on the field of battle, but the thought was that this army would never cross the Atlantic. Indeed, the  Great Siege of Britain would not only prevent this, but bring down Germany's other Western enemy in the bargain. 

That strategy failed. This is known. Yet, I would suggest, that it failed much later than we tend to believe, albeit for a lesser value of "failed" than total victory. Nazi Germany might have held off the West, secured a peace short of unconditional surrender had it only held off the Americans long enough. The Siege's means and goals had gradually de-escalated over time, and even in the last week the V-1 bombardment had been defeated. There remained, however, one key aspect of the siege: port denial. The Americans might cross the Atlantic. They might have a forward operating area in Britain. They might have a beach-head and multiple army groups in Europe, but if port clearance could be held below the level needed to fight those armies, the war might still not be lost.

Then, on September 4th, 1944, Antwerp fell, usable, into Allied hands. It was the final triumph of the "electric city." You're seeing why I'm emphasising the "electric" part, right? It's all because of Royers Lock. 

Wait... not obvious at all, I should say.

So, here: If I am going to rip off Wikipedia, I might as well go all out. Here's the port of Antwerp in 1886.
And here is a satellite photograph illustrating the extent of hydraulic management work before the building of the left bank tidal pool turnaround, but after the building of the Berendrecht Lock, which made Antwerp available to Panamax ships.

Antwerp proper is the purple blob just below the centre of the photograph and off to the left. Its story is as obvious as it can be in top down views like this. Long ago when the Escaut/Scheldt ran free, its waters came curved to rightward until they were stopped by a hill. The hill is both a good place to land without sinking into the mud and disappearing, and the delimiter of a watershed. That is, this is the place where you want to get out of your boat and carry it to the banks of the Meuse/Maass. Once you're up on the hill, you might also want to proceed by the Coalwood Road east to Cologne. As to the reason why it was called the "Hand Taking," I will leave it to comparative Indo-European/Celtic mythologists to note the parallel with the Red Hand of Ulster: Go ahead, knock yourself out. Get Game of Thrones in there if you can, too. The "Red Wedding" might be appropriate.

I guess that explains why there's a town at Antwerp. It doesn't explain why it is second largest port in Europe. The head of an estuary is a good place for a port in general, because you can exploit the tidal lift to get, in this case, fifty-five miles inland. If the Scheldt were a really huge river, we might imagine it giving giant, ocean-going ships the means to get practically to the water-step of the Coalwood Road. That is, a port with having quays that can dock a 27ft draft ship, such as the Liberties. Unfortunately, the Scheldt is a mediocre river, not quite small, but not large, either, with a discharge of 150 m/s (Thames: 80; Hudson and Sacramento, 600ish; Fraser, 3400).

And it is not just a quay. Antwerp has a massive complex of docks, which, in 1944, made twenty-six miles of 30ft quays available, served by more than 600 hydraulic and electric cranes,  nearly 900  warehouses a granary with a million bushel capacity, plus 498 POL tanks on 208 acres capable of taking 124 million gallons, five hundred miles of infraurban railway fully connected Belgian national system, and the waterworks, and, via the waters of the dock system, with 1370 miles of navigable canals, including the great Albert Canal work, the current and massive iteration of the Scheldt-Meuse navigation. Antwerp's potential clearance rate in 1944 has been estimated at between 80 and 100,000 tons per day, more than enough to doom Germany. The last German effort is going to be a lunge at Antwerp. After that, it will wait to the Rhine breakup, to fight a battle on its banks for the sake of national honour, but it really is all over.

So the question is: on the one hand, how did the game end this way? Cherbourg was destroyed on a massive scale before it was surrendered to the Allies. So were all the other Channel ports. There were substantial demolitions in and around Antwerp, and arguably the Germans lacked the resources to destroy such a gigantic port extensively. But the water could do it for them. 

 The reason that Antwerp has those miles of deepwater quays is that vast quantities of river water are retained behind shiplocks. Completed in 1908, the Royers Lock was a miracle of Edwardian harbour engineering. Three sliding gates close the Lock, each capable by itself of maintaining the 30 ft depth of the quays of the right bank docks. That is a lot of hydrostatic pressure. To work properly, they have to be ballasted by pumping in massive quantities of water before they are extended. Omit that, and the  weight of water will, unless I am missing something, tear them away like tissue paper. Do that, and you can be confident that Antwerp will be a gravely hampered port for the duration of the war.

So Why did that not happen? Why, on the other hand, did the Allies fail to plan for Antwerp? I think that it is fair to say that no-one really grasped the scope of the issue. This is the late summer of 1944, when Cherbourg has gone from a planned 8000 tons/day clearance to a planned 24,000 tons/day, primarily because D-Day was launched with the thought that armies would be got over first, and the development of their position inland gradually extended with each port taken. This is not how things have developed. Antwerp, so close to Cologne and the Ruhr was a suitable objective of the Victory Campaign, not the pursuit phase of the Battle of Normandy! Besides, who cared? It was not a port-as-destination, a desperately glamorous London or New York. The ships come in; are unloaded into the warehouses, and the warehouses are cleared expeditiously into the European rail network.

This last is kind of important. Antwerp is like the rail roundhouse that probably exists in your city. Crucial to its economic organisation, but have you ever been to see it? Probably not, because it is probably in the midst of an industrial wilderness of tracks and sidings, quite possibly on the far side of a dyke from anywhere that people live. That's Antwerp. A few months after the fall of Antwerp, when the American Army had filled up the 80,000 tons of storage space allocated to them without making a sufficient bite on the Liberty ships still being used as floating storage in European waters, the Communications Zone finally noticed the city's limit. Antwerp lacked sufficient storage space. A mere 900 warehouses simply did not cut it.

In one, limited sense, the importance of the electric city is summarised by Royers Lock. We mere human engineers are tampering insouciantly with powers before which demon princes bound to mortal sorcerors by their True Names are as nothing: acres of water held 30 feet deep. That tampering is accomplished by a few, quotidian electric pumps powered by the coal-burning plants of Antwerp, no different from the more dramatic ones that run its dockyard cranes and considerably less sophisticated than the ones in its electric railcars. They're there. They do their work, and no-one even noticed them until, a week after the fall of Antwerp, German 15th Army awoke to their importance and began sending frogmen against the Locks.

In another sense..... Here, let me just summarise Roland Ruppenthal. Or, rather, let me summarise Ruppenthal ten years ago.*

The Allies obviously attacked Normandy with all equipment new, and therefore faced a light maintenance schedule until the fall, when they expected to be fighting as much as two hundred miles from the beaches. This caught up with them in the pursuit. Instead of the routine maintenance cycle the clock came up on every vehicle at once. From 100% availability on its preplanned D-Day, availability of key logistics units (DUKWS and lighters) fell to as low as 25% in October. The intended maintenance target was 650t per division slice per day, but this was predicated on beachhead depths not achieved. By  1  July US discharge on the continent averaged only 20–25,000 tons compared with 30,000t planned. Paradoxically, this meant that supplies were building up in dumps at the same time that the army was not receiving the artillery ammunition it needed. With truck and rolling stock deliveries falling behind, so that only 35%, instead of 80% of lift being by rail, and Cherbourg's port authority having only a fifth the needed number of truck companies, the dumps were building up a surplus that would continue to saturate the delivery lines from Normandy for months after the lift deficiency hurdle was overcome.

I hestiate to say that the Allied logistical effort was a victim of its own success, because it was much more perverse than that. Antwerp was greatly needed, scoring over Cherbourg/beaches not only in inherent capacity but rail clearance capacity of 20,000t compared with 10,000t for the landing area, but because its storage capacity was not yet utilised. (48) With the fall of Antwerp, US planners leaped ahead to anticipate the use of the Dutch ports, meaning Rotterdam. (56–7) Meanwhile, beach clearances fell off during fall due to weather and the DUKW maintenance clock expiring. (2, 58–9.) SHAEF wanted the MULBERRIES winterised, but faced fierce opposition inspired in part by the desire to curtail PHOENIX construction. The MULBERRIES were wanted to clear Liberty Ships, as the backlog of unloaded Liberty ships was constraining global strategy. 

Meanwhile, Cherbourg had to be cleared and operated. there were not enough cranes or military operators (80–1), not enough marshalling yard space (82) not enough trucks (84) not enough discharge: a backlog of 70,000 tons had built up by the end of August. (85) Colonel Sibley(?) OC Port, was relieved at that time. His replacement requisitions more of everything, visitors are shocked, just shocked, etc. (87) It appears that discharge figures have been inflated by including coal and rolling stock, in part because coal ports were not provided for on a sufficient scale, since Paris had not been expected to fall into Allied hands. French civilians would face a cold winter, with only 50% of their minimal coal allocation met, a large part of that through a ludicrously feather-bedded motley set of Norman fishing ports improvised into coal ports. (101) 

The salvation here were Le Havre and Rouen, notwithstanding the failure of yet another hasty engineering improvisation, the “caisson pier,” intended to support planned Liberty unloading. Lighters unload 33% of cargoes through Le Havre. (102–3) 8 November Rouen takes all coastal traffic and minor ports are closed. (104–5) 

Yet it is Antwerp that is the prize. Here, we need to move beyond the fighting and look back on the siege. In late November, the coastal fleet available to meet British industrial needs was drawn down to the extent of the whole 625,000t coastal shipping originally allocated to Overlord. It had been intended to be draw this down to 250,000t by D+42. This could not be achieved. As I have already noted, UK depended on these, and a quarter of UK blast furnaces had to close during the coaster-intensive phase of Overlord. Into the fall, 560,000t were still in military sealift pool in November (125). 500,000t of coasters were left under SHAEF right through VE Day (125). 126–7. With ocean-going ships spending 46.5 days in European waters in turnaround, by 20 October 240 ships including 140 Liberties anchored under load in UK waters, were awaiting discharge in ETO. (2--3). The only way to deal with this was to unload in British ports, reship on coasters and LSTs, unload them again in Europe, and then clear them to the front --somehow. 

Clearance, in Britain, had its own implications: Planning had called for closing US installations rapidly after D-Day, with total US forces drawn down to 650,000 including 137,000 inpatients by 11//44. this was vital to reduce strain on the UK domestic economy, which needed everything from the utilities diverted to these camps to the simple, physical space. By the end of September, the end of "Bolero in Reverse" was in sight, with only 34,000 men remaining to ship –at which point 2 divisions on ship had to be diverted to the UK. This was within planning limits —what wasn’t was a “flood” of an additional 12 divisions over the next 3 months. Just putting these men away produced severe UK rail congestion (289). 

US Forces in UK Strength (Condensed version of full table, Ruppenthal 2 (3?): 289


Field Force






31 May








30 Sept








31 Oct








31 Jan







0 (?10?)

30 April


270 men






The absurdity of an American army short on troops and combat formations in Europe having to strain British resources to store them on the far side of the Atlantic did not go unnoticed. Coaster turnaround was falling, and there was a shortage of UK labour in depots. (403)

On the far side, the implications of slow port clearance was a logistical negative feedback loop. More rail equipment was needed, but the ports could only take so much, and, lacking clearance, heavy rail supplies built up in the ports. The US originally depended on British equipment for RR repair, but on the continent soon found the equipment made to German specifications by the Luxembourg rolling mill at Duppenthal preferable and used them in 90% of their bridge reconstructions. In short, if rails and girders were clogging ports, why not build back to the ports with good Acelor material? For rolling stock, Allied planning called for 2,724 2-8-0s, 680 0-6-0s and a smaller number of diesels; 1,358 2-8-0s and 362 0-6-0s were available from UK by end June. A requirement of 20000 [cars??] was to be met from the US, including 450 already shipped to UK and loaned to British operators by Mid-June supply from all sources was threatened while expected captures fell short, distances were greater than expected, but of course retaining coasters and taking up the required locomotives would choke the UK (152). By the end of the year, 1500 locomotives had been moved across the Channel; the US was also to supply 57,000 cars, 20,000 of which were shipped dismantled and assembled in the UK.

Now, lack of space is a pain in the ass; but the problem is clearance, not space. If you cannot clear your storage space, it is because people are sending you too much of the wrong stuff, or you are not doing a good enough job of moving the stuff to the end user. I say this as someone who would like to kick the distributed shippers of Clover Leaf Tuna Snakpaks and Ziploc Storage Containers in the backroom with my steel-toed safety shoes again and again until somehow the violence is communicated to the people who slipped them into our deliveries. People say that logistics is important. The problem is that they are never willing to commit the resources where and when it is needed. That is why "chokepoints" develop, like the stack of shippers at the corner by the shipper-receiver's office that we threaten to wipe out with every liquid milk skid going to the cooler.

 When we consider that at both Cherbourg and Antwerp, it was "Quartermaster Supplies Category II" that were building up, and that this meant, above all, the materials and machines for rebuilding the European rail network, we are on the verge of an epiphany. This is what a logistical vicious circle looks like. This might be the place to look at the "Red Ball Express" and watch everyone blame everyone else while carefully avoiding talking about the lack of big trucks (and trained truck drivers). Which is to say, what the Allies lack is the ability to clear any port. They have underbuilt their logistic clearance capability, largely because any plausible assessment of the scale of lift required founders on the limits of actually existing gasoline engines. The logistical situation is not going to be settled until the European rail network is rebuilt, and that cannot happen overnight. Lots of bridges will have to be rebuilt. Perhaps more importantly,the loss of locomotives and rolling stock imposed by six, if not sixteen years, of neglect must be made up. 

Come back around, then, to the electric city. This thing we have, of a living place/working place built around a distributed network of electrical power which invisibly maintains even the landscape, is very hard to explain and describe. Frankly, we don't want to hear it explained, because the implication is that if it is going to operate satisfactorily, it will require more resources than we are happy committing. The story of the fall of Antwerp and the "Battle of the Scheldt" is very hard to tell in coherent terms because we are talking about a war fought on top of an infrastructure whose origins go back so far that it might not be a complete mistake to ask an "Indo-European comparative mythologist." We're coming in at the end, here, and pretending that we get what we have done, in all of its complexity, and that may be a very serious mistake.

The "may" is a weasel word here. We impounded the waters of Antwerp more than a century ago, now, and we think we've got a pretty good handle on it. If we're wrong, and if it is a demographic problem, as I suspect that it is, than we'll realise it about a generation too late to do much about it. I am not saying that someday the landscape of the lower Scheldt will be flooded again, although I think that that was the thought that led the burghers of Zeeland to keep Antwerp shut for two long centuries, but I do think that we need to to focus attention (again) on the neglected European rail network of 1944, and hang a question mark over it.  As important as bombing and sabotage was, there was that "captures fell below expectations." There was not the luxurious abundance of rolling stock in Europe, just as our imagined US Army of abundant trucks in practice fell miserably short of the needed lift. How does something so vital, and yet so quotidian, come to be neglected? Because we never did understand the electric city.  Just be glad that in 1944 the solution to this problem was to throw resources at it until it worked to its potential.

Part II

Now: are you missing the goofy digression of the previous Electric City posts? Got you covered!

Here's where you're supposed to look at pictures, maps and embedded videos and get I what get at them. Your mileage may vary.

(i) Here's my cheap aluminum bike, photographed late last winter a block off the intersection of Adera and 41st, at the highest elevation on my homeward commute from work on the delta plain down in Richmond, B.C.
The picture makes me look far more hardcore than I actually am. This is fat and wet snow with absolutely no effect on traction, and this was actually quite a fun ride home. I had a nice little "runner's high" going, which this picture commemorates.

Context: Vancouver is shaped like a mitten. The exciting bit is the thumb, False Creek is the hollow, and the point of the  analogy is that the rest is kind of a hill or plateau or ridge. The top is full of nice neighbourhoods  like this one, notwithstanding that traffic has to go through it. To reconcile the needs of traffic with the sinister social engineering of long-gone city planner (or because of topography), the roads are canalised in various devious ways (that is,we're Canada, so we can't afford separated grades, so grids fail to connect, and one way streets lead back onto the main thoroughfares). Cars are carefully discouraged from getting off 41st or  going up Adera instead of Granville, I'm saying.

Then we got to the modern era of bike commuting. If there's one thing all motorists can agree on, even rich ones, it's that they'd rather not be stuck behind the sweating, straining, ludicrously dressed ass of cyclists inflicting their hobby on commuting automobilists. From this you get to the logic of the off-major-route bike commuter corridor. Thing is, though, that if I need to get from Richmond to Kitsilano, so my commuter route goes through these neighbourhoods. Off the canalised routes. That is  how my bike route comes to go by nice houses on quiet, leafy streets. So why haven't the sinister forces of class-based social segregation stepped in? Because the route goes up and over a hill. The same thing that makes this a desirable neighbourhood means that hardly anyone uses the "major bike route." (Except for doctors and cranked up rich people. So, basically, the neighbourhood.)

In cities, real estate is valued in proportion to its inaccessibility, might be one way of saying it. Or, more crassly and basically, "Hey, nice neighbourhood you got there! Those houses sure look expensive!" Real estate: it's a great investment, because they aren't making any more of it.

Like I said, I am not sure that we understand this world of ours as well as we think we do.


If America's World War II had been properly audited, there would have been some tough questions about the Alaska Highway. The standard of effort put into the 2700 kilometer road that connected Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Fairbanks, Alaska is pretty strongly suggested by the fact that subsequent straightenings have cut 300 kilometers from the route. That's some pretty sketchy route planning, especially  for the post-aeroplane age. You can fairly argue that that all the corner cutting made it cheaper, but that was kind of my point in the header. Building a road to Alaska  starting in the summer of 1942 so that you can defend it from the Japanese in case they win absolute naval superiority off the Pacific Coast is --Honestly,  I do not even know quite where to begin. (The line about the need to service airfields leading to Russia would be more persuasive if the Yukon River were not available.)

I'm not going to go further down that road (heh), just point out that if you buy the logic, being able to get to Fairbanks by road is a good idea because there's a railway from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The Japanese would presumably land at Anchorage and advance up the railway, and you'd need a road to counter Japanese logistical superiority, Fairbanks being strategically crucial on account of the already noted Yukon River.   

And at this point you might be wondering why there is a railway from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The answer is that Anchorage got its sort as a sort of northwest coast entrepot (fish, fur, whales, farming**), while Fairbanks is on a big alluvial plain where there's lots of gold in the gravel, so there were lots of placer mines there in the decades after the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes, and there were lots of people mining gold and they needed stuff, and shipping it up to Fairbanks by rail made more sense than using horse-drawn wagons. 

For example, farms around Fairbanks did not supply the town's full needs. I have mentioned the farms in here twice because of the WTF scope, but it's true. Wasila, of late mild fame, is a suburb-turned-town on Anchorage's late farming district, settled in the 1930s by impoverished farmers sent north as part of the New Deal. (So if you've ever wondered whether high minded bureaucrats tried to improve the lives of landless Minnesotan sons and daughters of the soil by sending them north to Alaska, the answer is "yes." And if you're wondering whether it can get even weirder, the answer is, again, "yes.") As for farming in Fairbanks, at a latitude of 64 degrees North, I can only assume that Wikipedia isn't lying to us. Needless to say, the Alaska Railway did not make much money, and was nationalised by the Federal Government before completion in 1914. In spite of the crucial actions being taken by a Democratic Administration, President Harding dropped in to drive the golden spike  of completion on the Northwestern tour that terminated with his death in San Francisco, just barely cheating Vancouver of the fame that Errol Flynn would later bring it.

Once the "problem of Alaskan development" is properly understood, the Alaska Highway comes into a little clearer perspective. It might not be the first-pass solution to the strategic problem of Alaska, but it does float into view pretty quickly when the question is which approach to winning World War II will deliver the most Alaskan development for the buck. It would not pass accounting measure, but wars are not about cost-benefit analysis. Are the resources available? Can they be put to better use? Will they help win the war this way? If the answers are "yes," that is more than enough. 

iii) This is Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.

Source: TripAdvisor
This is Haines, Alaska.

And this is the road between them:

It is mentioned about five minutes in to the video. The planners of the Alaska Highway decided that it needed a convenient port, and noticed that the route intersected the old Dalton Trail (a former Chilkat Tlingit grease trail converted into first a gold prospector's trail and later (in part) as a wagon road giving access to two copper mines that exported a total of 30 tons(!) of copper to the wide world via the port of Haines in the years before WWI. These must have been pretty rich deposits, I would think, and thus quite old, and I would suspect that this was a case of the government of British Columbia assuming its proper role as state agent for enterprises that well predate the "settlement" of the province. Whatever: it's pretty much dead history, left for an archaeologist with the imagination to see that adopted European "artefacts" do not mean colonisation, but rather an interaction and acculturation with "European" civilisation that precedes the formalities of discovery and and colonisation. (If I may add my own gloss on Prince's work, I suspect after indigenous elites had completed their ethnogenesis.)

Haines has an earlier history in the 1880s, when Canadian railway surveyors were completing the good-faith but futile task of finding a "better" Pacific port than Vancouver for the terminus of the continental rail network. There's deep Canadian history here that someone, somewhere might care about, dressed up in a claimed immanent geographical logic, but the point here is that there was an ongoing dispute over ownership of the Alaskan Panhandle, and the case was seriously made that, inasmuch as Haines was the natural outlet port of the Yukon Territory, hence so important to the development of Canada, or British Columbia as to be well worth risking a war with the United States over, because derpy-derp-derp. (Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Canadian style.) 

Haines, Alaska, had a population of 2,508 in 2010. I have no information about the location and status of its historic agricultural district, although the reference to a wagon road suggests that someone thereabouts was growing oats in 1910, but chances are their voice is lost. At one point in the 1960s, vehicles were only allowed on the Haines Highway with a working radio, because if they got into trouble, that was the only way that they would get help. 


That's not really a verdict on the fatuousness of the CPR surveyors who wished that Haines was in Canada in the 1880s, even though I've linked them to a modern windbag. It's more a verdict on the vain hopes of the 1880s, and we can push that a lot further. Vain sighs over Haines (or the Dean Channel) recede into irrelevance compared with Kitimat, British Columbia

Map: because it is unlikely that you know, or care, where Kitimat is.

The yellow line shows the course of Highway 19, but also what used to be the Grand Trunk Railway and is now a CN branchline serving Prince Rupert, an excellent north coast port now with its own container facility that might finally allow it to break into the first rank of West Coast shipping ports after a century of blighted hopes. The hopes are born of the fact that the rail enjoys the second lowest pass over the Continental Divide, while Prince Rupert is the closest of any North American port to Asia via the Great Circle shipping route.

It was not, however, Prince Rupert that attracted the CPR surveyors in the 1880s. Not far from the city, as these things are reckoned in the north, the rail line passes through Terrace, where the valley of the Skeena River is separated from that of the Kitimat River by a pass that is so low that might be better called a sill. Kitimat is located in a filled-in glacial "U" valley, which makes for a lot of flat ground above flood-plain level, a pretty rare and special resource in this part of the world. And, as was noted fairly early, the fact that the Interior Plateau encroaches on the sea closely to the south while retracting away dramatically to the  north means that a railway to Kitimat can utilise good grades, while there is substantial water power promised by the abrupt 2000+ feet plunge down to sea level. 

As with Haines, and for that matter Kixmuilt, the world's reaction was an enormous lack of concern for the geographic advantages of the ass end of nowhere. Until 1948, when it was suggested that this water power might be put to use making aluminum. The provincial government in Victoria decided for Alcan's proposal, and allowed it to dig a 17 mile tunnel to divert a somewhat debatable amount of the Nechako River's water down from the plateau to the sea at Kemano on the Gardner Canal, not far from Kitimat and the mouth of the Kitlope River, thereby generating almost 1000 mW of electrical power for the making of 250,000t of aluminum a year. A proposal to double this production with a second tunnel was left on the table from completion in 1954 to the mid-1990s, when it was spiked at a kill cost of $250 million. 

The wet, whimpering death of Kemano Phase II only makes sense when we go back to the birth of the town of Kitimat. Alcan did not want to build a "company town." They're bad investments both in business terms and public relations. It did want to build a town. This is, remember, the city seriously floated as an alternative to Vancouver. So when the townsite was laid out, as a fashionable "garden city," in 1948, room was provided for 50,000 people.

The population of Kitimat today is 8,300 citizens. United Steelworker-level jobs in the aluminum refinery means that they are quiet and contented citizens, but Kitimat has certainly not grown to a great Canadian city, and as British Columbia let the hydroelectric installation be built by private capital, it has no stake in the city beyond its tax base. When people objected to Kemano II on environmental grounds, the province was happy to leave another 1000mW on the table for fear of the loss of a single river's worth of salmon. 

Which is not, admittedly, a small cost. But, you know, global warming.  The problem is that this whole electricity-intensive industry thing has failed to deliver either provincial revenues or electoral votes, so, really, who cares? The largest centre in the northwest continues to be Terrace in its role as communications hub. Gas station jobs might not pay as well as smelter jobs, but they're the growth industry, whereas there's something of a global glut in aluminum driving prices down. Per Wikipedia, electricity accounts for between 20 and 40% of the production cost of aluminum, and while 5% of American electric power is absorbed by aluminum manufacture, the largest, and growing producer is China, with the United Arab Emirates coming on strong, thanks to cheap and abundantly available natural gas. Victoria might be forgiven for suspecting that most of the power generated by Kemano II would go, not to good-paying smelter jobs, but for export to California. And, yes, that does imply pretty serious transmission line losses. But whatcha gonna do?

Antwerp: a big city, an important city, infilled and maintained at enormous cost; Fairbanks, a small city, a peripheral city, but one that had grown just big enough to catch a break on the easy money of World War II on the strength of gold and incidental agriculture in spite of its polar location; Haines, forgotten and obscure in spite of the same advantages; Kitimat, an underachiever in spite of being at the foundation of the postwar industrial era. Representing stages in the end of the age of grass, I propose that the differences between them illustrate the intensity of the rising wave of World War II, and the speed of its contraction. The reclusive beauty of the neighbourhood at the top of Vancouver illustrates the value of some real estate, while the empty acres around Kitimat reveal literal worlds of prime real estate that we now lack the capacity to develop. Unlike Ocean Falls, where we're just letting the power flow away, day by day, Kemano II is big enough to be industrially significant, but also not available without paying a significant environmental cost that I am uncomfortable arguing is worth the investment. 

Peroration? Not yet. I've linked to this monster before, but I want to make a bigger deal of it:

This is the Jagdtiger. As Antwerp falls and September advances, the first of these 71.7 ton "tank hunters" are being delivered to the two Heavy Tank Battalions that will be given the heart-breaking task of putting these potentially-battle-winning-if-they-can-only-be-made-to-work monstrosities in the field. 

It's a futile task, of course. They are far too large to be practical, the biggest armoured fighting vehicles ever built, and absurdly overarmed. That is a 128mm/L55 gun sticking out of that mantlet. Effectively, the same gun as the British 4.5" long range cannon. In one of those developmental decisions that cause one to wonder if the Nazis were a little too liberal with the little red pills, the Germans decided that the existence of enemy 4.5"/122mm/60 pounder guns justified experimenting with a 128mm "anti-tank" gun. Having developed a weapon that delivered 12 mJ at the muzzle (basically, enough to go through any conceivable amount of armour at any useful distance) and which could drop a 60lb shell 24 kilometers away, the Germans decided that a ten ton draw weight was impractical in a field gun. You don't say!

So they put it in an AFV, instead. With about the consequences that you would expect. Specifically, they did a very good job of denying the use of the road net to combat units. Just not the side that planners hoped would be impeded.

Now I am ready for my peroration. The Jagdtiger is an illustration of what we don't understand about the Electric City. We choose to see it as a technological innovation, with solutions accessible through further innovation. The Jagdiger is the, oh, say, Google+ of its day. You see a problem, you solve it with Technology. I do not discourage this. Google+ is fun, and the Jagdtiger is cool. But look down from those heights at the quiet and tidy houses of the Steelworker-salary-drawing workers of Kitsilano-Alcan and see the real foundations of the Electric City: people. First, young men (and some women), working, learning, earning, on and supporting the battlefields of World War II. Skills first. Then, households, incomes. 

The skills are sufficient, I used to think. Now I am starting to wonder. According to the received story, this development is irreversible. According to the actual story, playing out on the ground, it is anything but. Are we losing the skills in fact (as the Boseruppian story goes), or do we start by losing the incomes via "deskilling?"  Does "deskilling" lead to deskilling? Because if the story is as banal as a steady extraction of income-driven demand, the story of real estate is not that "they're not making any more of it," but rather that the amount usefully available is shrinking as we burn up the stores laid up in the Age of Grass.

*Roland Ruppenthal, United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations: Logistical Support of the Armies Vol. 2, September 1944–May 1945 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1959), 8
**"World's largest cabbage." Seriously?


  1. If you look at the facts, and the facts say you can't have what you most want, you either do the hard work of adjusting what you want, or you pick a delusion. (Exactly what delusion is involved in the Jagdtiger is debatable, I think; the facts were "we can't stop the Red Army", and perhaps the delusion was "because they're building tanks faster than we can destroy them".)

    You can't have security through wealth, power, or control; security takes general social success, broad agreement among statistically everybody that the present run of society is making all its participants better off. The usual delusion undertaken when faced with this is to decide that greed is a virtue. (Happens over and over again through human history; even just Western Europe has bunches of cyclic examples, monks being burned at the stake for saying in writing that the ten commandments had been replaced by one, "bring hither the money".)

    So, in the case of the electric city, you run into the distinction between hoard and treasure; war is the only socially-acceptable reason to convert hoard, the pile of money locked away, into treasure, broadly circulating value that creates and re-affirms social relationships and obligations. It's been two generations since treasure was a reasonable public stance because there's a bug in the wetware and the greed-is-good camp repeat and repeat that greed-is-good so the only legitimate form of money is the hoard.

    The amount useful available is certainly shrinking. (The climax forest shades out the ground, and dies, and burns, and then you get something else.)

  2. The Antwerp/loggie stuff is really superb.

  3. Let's think about this, put yourself in the place of a guy who is delaying retirement from the Alaska desk of the Department of the Interior because of the Japanese menace in 1942. You can be in the position of someone whose first boss worked for Seward in 1867, with a lifetime's experience of trying to turn a place that can export gold and furs and fish into a place where the Department doesn't have to foot the bill for schools. Seventy-five years of failure as you try to persuade people to go there and be ratepayers with every kind of incentive in terms of free land and travel subsidies.

    Nothing. Then along come the Japanese and there's an argument for building a 1500 mile road through raving wilderness to a town in the middle of Alaska. Seventy years later, the town is still there, with a university campus even!

    This didn't happen out of taxes. The Federal Government did raise taxes, but the revenues raised were nothing like enough to fund projects like this. In fact, the dubious strategic value of the Highway demonstrates, as clearly as it is possible to demonstrate, that WWII was not constrained by costing at all. There was an implicit promise to tax back the money spent in the future, but it was mainly interest rates lower than inflation that did the work. Yet even as fiscal repression "euthanised the rentier," it created equity gains that actually benefitted the active investor.

    So it's not greed. At least, I don't think that it's greed. Laziness might be more on target, the typical human assumption that if you shirk the work, someone else (Mom!) will do it. Someone else will move to Alaska because reasons (people are crazy), and that means I don't have to pay taxes to build an Alaska Highway --even if, in the long run, it's in my best interests.

    Obviously there needs to be a motivator to get people on board with fixing it themselves. The problem, I suspect, is as simple as that historically we've had that motivator --war--, and we have yet to face the fact that we need a replacement.

    Or a war. I'm pretty sure Putin is looking at us funny. Him and Merkel. I mean, look at that smirk. It's like there's something funny going on. That we amuse them.

    Alex, at least, is lucky that he lives in a country that lives in constant terror of having the Falklands taken away from it. Or is "terror" quite the right word here?

  4. I think even the Alaska Highway is constrained by greed; who were the contractors? Where did that money go?

    What would have happened if the not-obviously-cost-constrained WWII spending had tried to, I don't know, provide free health care or federal schools for blacks? The idea that there was free money was real, but it was also sharply constrained in use in terms of who it benefited.

    The Sixties can be considered as a failed attempt to get a different motivator; the problem there is that the folks profiting from war aren't much constrained by scruples and they really don't want someone else getting at the machinery built for war on a moment's notice. (War does get you around class issues and race issues very easily, war might be the politically easiest thing because it actually is, there might even be an inverse correlation between political willingness to embrace war and political ability to deal with the hard problems.)

  5. The story as I understand it is that the Alcan contractors were "government entrepeneurs" of the same breed as Kaiser and his Five Company associates, Higgins and Budd. That is, that they were strong supporters of the Administration.

    That being said, the connection does not exactly jump out of the available information, apart from the fact that the contractors are heavily concentrated in Iowa and Minnesota for maximum electoral impact in states that the Roosevelt coalition had won in 1940 but could be expected to have difficulty holding. Maybe something will jump out when I track down the contemporary press coverage.

    Now I am just wondering how "Alcan" migrated from its attachment to the Alaska Highway to the Aluminum Company of Canada.