Saturday, November 26, 2022

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 1952, I: The Jersey Turnpike

 So the original plan was to write Postblogging Technology, August 1952, II: Clever Subtitle, I Wish, this weekend. But then two things happened. First, my final week of holidays for 2022, reappeared after getting itself mysteriously lost last month. (Just kidding, I know exactly what happened to it, but I don't see that there's much reason to press one schedule writer's screw-up if he's not inclined to own up to it.)

I don't know about you guys, but I'm not at my  best planning around weeks off that appear on my work schedule with four hours' notice. Second, my flu shot is scheduled for tonight, which might or might not wipe me out tomorrow. 

The upshot is that I'm going to write the postblog starting tomorrow and then head off to Vancouver Island for the weekend to meet up with my Mom and my godlike sister-in-law and my bigshot brother who is a doctor and also my bigshot nephew who is also now a doctor. (And getting married! Whoo-hooh, M.!) And also maybe the other nephews and nieces on that side, depending. 

So instead here's some technological appendixing, about what might be, depending on how this whole "global warming" thing plays out, the most historically significant single highway in all of human history. (If we do, it's the Royal Road.)


Wikipedia lays out the story in a more accessible way than a seventy-year-old number of Engineering: Interstate traffic from New York through Philadelphia, the first and third largest cities in the country, combined in northern New Jersey with traffic for the capital and the South and with western traffic via the Pennsylvania Turnpike to create intolerable congestion for New Jerseyites as automobile use advanced through the Jazz Age. Then, a combination of the Depression and World War II prevented any more gradual remediation until by 1948, the situation was intolerable, leading to capos getting separated from carloads of bodyguards on the Jones Beach Causeway, with unfortunate consequences. 

The Governor of New Jersey therefore authorised a "turnpike," or toll-supported highway, to run from the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey with Manhattan, to the Delaware Memorial Bridge (actually, an interchange next to the bridge; close enough). On 5 November 1951 (but not really, because of delays in deliveries of the rolled steel components of the Hackensack and Passiac river bridges) only three years later, the Turnpike opened to traffic, which is only a bit less astonishing than the schedule of its complementing Delaware Memorial Bridge, begun on 1 February 1949 and opened on 16 August 1952. (Between province and city, we have a commitment, announced 2 October 2019, to replace the George Massey Tunnel under the main channel of the Fraser River between Richmond and Delta with an eight-lane tunnel that will be completed in "2030.")

Notice how the map doesn't even both to label the Susquehanna? The navigable rivers of old America are just so much chopped liver, I guess. Civil engineering technology doesn't usually get much discussion. A successful work becomes part of the landscape, and probably the most distinctive feature of the Turnpike on reflection is how old-fashioned it is, in spite of various makeovers. Curves and gradiants are acute enough on the northern end as to require speed reduction postings to 50mph, and at various points along the route, traffic is narrowed to four lanes. The decision to thread the Turnpike underneath an already existing piece of infrastructure, the Pulaski Skyway, seems pretty Mickey Mouse in retrospect and occasioned some pretty heroic measures when it came time to rehabilitate it in 2007.

But at the time, separate grade and controlled access along the entire route of a major highway was something extraordinary, and it did not just happen. In particular, in order to find a non-congested way out of New York City to the south, the highway had to avoid crossings and development further up the Hudson, and cross the New Jersey Meadowlands, an area of waterlogged marshland that was absolutely not the kind of place where previous generations of civil engineers built major highways. 

The solution was to lay an enormous amount of sand dredged from the lower reaches of New York Harbour straight on top of the marine clay and peat of the Meadowlands, inset with a regular lattice of sand-filled steel pipes, or "sand drains." 
It worked fine, but not to be a Late Boomer curmudgeon or anything, I can only imagine the environment impact statement that would be required before doing this kind of work on a major riparian wetland in the suburbs of New York City on a three-year timeline. 

Immediately south of the Meadowlands, the Turnpike crosses the two main tributaries of the Passaic system, the Passaic itself, and the Hackensack.   I feel like the Passaic doesn't get the historical credit it deserves. Apart from Natty Bumppo being born somewhere up in the river headwaters, it is probably one of the cradles of the North American fur trade. 

Anyway, crossing the two rivers in rapid succession, the designers turned to steel-deck bridges, using rolled steel girders of unprecedented size, at least in America, breaking down into 100 ton loads for transportation purposes. Fitting these bridges into the highway resulted in the traffic flow restrictions I've already mentioned. 

Below the river crossings, the Turnpike at first passes through highly built-up residential and industrial neighbourhoods, with numerous viaducts, again steel spans. South of Newark/Elizabeth, however, it is routed through farm country, an easier construction regime. The author of the Engineering article (which is a precis of a paper given at a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers) is very impressed with the "fifty ton plus" "super-compactors" that pounded the roadbed into shape on the Turnpike's very tight schedule, and which is probably the boring-looking roller on the bottom right of the included pictorial.  
As I've said, the technology here, important as it is, almost escapes description because of how boring and quotidian it is. How many readers of this blog are in a position to evaluate the magnitude of the achievement represented by those "sand drains" stabilising the road through the Meadowlands? I'm certainly not! 

And yet:

Take a look at that upward curve of individual mortgage holdings! I can't really comment on the extent of change implied by a very short term, albeit steeply upwards climbing curve of mortgage debt as proportion of GNP, as apparently the financial industry considers the ratio to be "historically" stable, without defining the length of time that makes it "history." But it sure seems like things are changing!


Given that this is a well-established suburb photographed in 1952 it is probably practically an inner city neighbourhood by modern developmental standards, but I don't care, I love the photo and I am going to use it to illustrate this whole "suburb" thing that these new superhighways are servicing. Social change! Technological change! Automotive infrastructure! Carbon release! Global warming! 

We have a snow warning in Vancouver tonight, because it's almost December. Six years ago, I would have had to commute through it early in the morning all the way to Richmond. Now, of course, I don't, so no worries, right? Let the young people deal with it. 

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