Saturday, October 18, 2014

Biking From Boston to New York, Through Lots of People and Lots of History

Back in the 1960's, Jeff and a college roommate biked from Jeff's home in New York City to Boston in four days.  Louise and Jeff followed a somewhat similar route, in reverse, and did it in fifteen.  In his 20's, it was all about how far you could bike each day as you made your way to the destination.  Now, it's how much can we see and learn as we make our way through the interesting space between here and there.

This is one of the most densely populated parts of the U.S., yet we rarely felt hemmed in by all those folks.  Our route took us, as usual, down many quiet roads, along many others not so quiet but at least safely supplied with a bike lane or wide shoulder, and down some amazing bike trails.

As we started out, our focus was repeatedly drawn to New England's history, particularly its preeminent role in bringing the Industrial Revolution to the U.S.  Our last blog entry featured two mills we canoed past.  The second one was a silk mill, shown again in today's blog.  Poke around on the web and you can find a 50,000-word history of Hemlock Gorge, the area of the Charles River where we photographed it.  The first mill, a sawmill was built here in 1688, then a grist mill in 1710 and a fulling mill in 1715!  This was, needless to say, a long time before what we call the Industrial Revolution, but it shows how early New Englanders were harnessing nature to do work for them.  The true Industrial Revolution started fifty miles away with the mechanized production of thread in the 1790's, and by 1823 the first three mills here were torn down and replaced, indeed, by a water-powered factory making cotton thread.  By 1884 it was outdated and closed, but it reopened a year later as a silk mill.  That survived another 80 years until becoming, like so many other well-built mills in New England, an office complex, and so it is today.
Samuel Slater industrialist.jpg
The week earlier, we had sought out the Sudbury/Concord Rivers and the Charles River for canoeing, though history came along for the ride.  We now headed to the Blackstone River to get an even deeper immersion into the past.  We rode 30 miles to reach it at Woonsocket RI, then another 30 miles down the Blackstone from Woonsockett to Pawtucket, but we'll start at the end of the ride because it's where the Industrial Revolution began.  In 1790 a fellow named Moses Brown wanted to build a cotton factory, but hadn't a clue how to do it.  Enter Samuel Slater, a 22-year-old Brit from Derbyshire who had recently finished an apprenticeship in a cotton mill.  It was illegal to take drawings or descriptions of textile machines out of England, so Slater memorized how they worked and emigrated to the U.S. to make his fortune.  Together with Brown and another investor, they opened what is now called Slater's Mill in 1790.  It was the first true factory in the U.S.

Slater's Mill is now a National Historic Site, and we took the tour for a second time because the tour we had here 5 years earlier was one of the best history tours we have ever had.  It was once again terrific.  We started with a house that predates the mill, to see how folks lived at the time.  Much familiar stuff for us, except for the tea.  What did the Patriots throw into Boston Harbor at the Boston Tea Party?  Not barrels of loose leaf tea, as you might have imagined.  Too bulky to transport and too prone to water damage.  No, it was bricks of tea like the one on the table!  To make a pot of tea, you got out a knife and scraped.  Just to the right of the tea, by the way, are some nutmeg seeds.

We next went to a mill built in 1810 next to Slater's Mill, Wilkinson's Mill.  This was a machine shop powered by the waterwheel you see here, though the gears would have been wooden when it was built.  Our guide used electricity, not waterpower, to get the overhead drive shaft moving, then slipped drive belts onto it in various locations to power up several of the power tools.  As he pointed out, the machinists were well paid, about twice what a textile worker made, but the shop was very noisy and fairly dangerous.  When he had those machines running, we could understand what he said with all our senses, as well as our intellect.

Our final and longest stop was Slater's Mill itself.  For the first 30 years it made only cotton thread, then was used for a variety of things until 1921, when early 20th-century industrialists like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler and Harvey Firestone turned it into a museum.  The National Park Service took over in the 1960s.  Our guide started with a bale of cotton as it would have come to the mill from the South.  He pulled out a handful of cotton and then ran it through one of Eli Whitney's cotton gins, invented in 1794 just in time to speed along the American version of the Industrial Revolution.  In succeeding stages we saw older hand methods and then newer factory ways of carding the cotton (getting the fibers lined up in the same direction), roving it (bundling the fibers into a loose rope-like shape) and spinning (tightly twisting the roving into thread).

In later years the mill was used for weaving, so at the end of the tour we saw a weaving machine.  The metal pegs on the left are a precursor to the binary computer.  Each peg was an instruction to the loom to lift up at that point with a peg, or not lift in the absence of one.  It was an idea that had been born in France and Belgium in the 18th century, then adapted to what some consider the world's first mechanical computer by Charles Babbage in the 19th, and again (this time with punchcards) by IBM in the 20th.

What powered all these marvelous machines?  Not steam, since New England lacked adequate wood or coal until railroads could bring it in, much much later.  Water.  New England is fairly hilly and it gets a fairly reliable 40-45" of rain each year, so it has lots of rivers falling lots of feet on their way to the sea.  We rode past a number of dams as we made our way from Massachusetts into Rhode Island, every one of them built originally for a mill, most now converted to generating hydroelectric power, but also generating a look and feel of nature's power and beauty for all who encounter them.

From the Blackstone River, once called "the hardest-working river in America" for the vast number of factories tapping its power in the 19th century, we made our way across Rhode Island and into Connecticut where we encountered even older history at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.  The Pequot tribe had the misfortune to become involved in the first major war between British colonists and indigenous people, back in 1636-38.  It ended poorly, very poorly, for them, though in 1666 they did receive what is now one of the oldest reservations in the U.S.  In the 1970's and 80's they won a lawsuit to invalidate sale of much of that land by the State of Connecticut in 1856, and in 1983 won federal recognition and a land settlement that fixed the size of the reservation today at 1,250 acres.  Not a lot of land, but they have done economic miracles with it, including construction of the fabulously successful Foxwoods Casino (seen here from the museum's observation tower), and this museum.  The museum is housed in a stunning building (though sometimes difficult to navigate), and it had excellent displays on the area's natural and geologic and well as human history.

The heart of the museum is the Pequot Village, showing life at the time of first encounter with Europeans.  You could wander through and see these very life-like villagers engaged in everyday tasks.  By punching in numbers on your audio guide, you could get explanations at 20 or 30 different spots, with additional segments for those who wanted more in depth on a narrower topic.  From a couple literally "setting up house" to kids climbing on the roof and taking out the garbage, from outside activities to the inside of a lodge, it was all fascinating.

After all this history, it was time to visit with some people who are doing a great job preserving history.  We met Carol and Steve Huber in South Carolina in 2008, while we were biking up the East Coast.  It started with questions about our bike and where we were headed, and within ten minutes turned into an offer to stay with them at their winter home in Hilton Head.  That visit, a week later, was so successful we were invited later in the same trip to visit their summer home in Connecticut, and the house (part of it built in 1649) where they display their wares.  Carol and Steve own and are the pre-eminent dealers in the U.S. in "schoolgirl art," samplers and other textile arts created by young women in the period 1650-1850, primarily at private finishing schools.  These delicate items are both artistic and historic, sometimes quite simple but at times far from it.  Here are Steve and Carol and Jeff and Louise posing with a few samplers and silk-embroidered pictures, and do check out the website for many more examples that Carol and Steve have for sale right now.

 Once again we had an enjoyable 2-night stay with our friends.  We each find the other couple's lifestyle quite different and fascinating, but we also find much common ground for discussions on other topics, and Steve and Carol are always willing to indulge us in our favorite card game, "Oh Hell."  Wow, what more can you ask for?  To top it all off, on this, our third visit to the Connecticut house, we finally got out in a canoe on the pond their house overlooks, the final canoe trip of the summer as it turned out.  It's only a 3/4-mile-long kettle pond, but over half the shoreline is a state forest, and it was Oh, so peaceful!

When we finally took off, it was on a route following the Connecticut shore.  We were paralleling I-95 and Amtrak's high speed Acela line, two of the busiest transportation corridors in the Northeast, but we were able to find peaceful routes close to the water again and again.  On one occasion Google Maps helped us find a mile-long rail trail on an abandoned trolley line that cut across a salt marsh.  For a moment, you could almost forget the masses of people on the move just out of sight.  Offshore, we spotted several houses on small islands, some that even seemed to overpower the islands they were on.

We don't have bumper stickers on our bike, but if we did, one of them might say "We brake for fine art museums."  We have seen many excellent ones in New England over the years, from the magisterial MFA in Boston to the small but priceless Currier Museum of Art in Manchester NH.  One important one had escaped us 'til now, the Yale Gallery of Art.  We spent two nights close to campus to recharge our batteries with the excitement of campus life, and to visit Yale's two art museums.  Yes, unknown to us until we got there, they have not only the Gallery of Art but also the Yale Center for British Art, the largest collection of British art outside Great Britain, thanks to the generosity of Yale alum Paul Mellon.  You can see the entire collections of both online, so here are just a few highlights, from Edward Hopper's "Motel" (1957) to Thomas Dewing Wilmer's ethereal 1890 painting "Summer" and Frederick Church's dramatic "Chimborazo Volcano" of 1884.

After a very full morning at the Art Gallery we had a leisurely lunch at a nearby cafe, then stolled the campus, which is a three-dimensional art work in its own way.  That's a statue of Nathan Hale in the last shot, outside the dorm where he lived.  As most of our readers know, he did not live long, only 3 years, after graduating from Yale in 1773, but his memory lives on from his famous last words.

Back over in the Yale Center for British Art there was much more to see, but after two art museums in one day, we kind of felt like the child in John Everett Millais's painting "L'Enfent du Regiment."  

Next day we had our final ride along the Connecticut shore, to Bridgeport, then hopped on one of the two ferries that cross Long Island Sound, the one to Port Jefferson (the other one connects New London CT with Orient Point, the northeastern-most point on LI).  This part of Long Island is a little thin on motels, but airbnb found us two delightful places to stay in Port Jefferson and in Northport that worked perfectly.  Worked perfectly except for the hills, that is, but we can't blame airbnb for those.

OK, we're now on Long Island, basically a pile of sand left behind by two of the continental glaciers that covered the northern part of the US 10,000+ years ago when they stalled out and eventually retreated with warming weather.  For the most part the northern part of LI is hilly, the center and south part a flat outwash plain.  And the whole place is absolutely covered with people.  The eastern half of LI is Suffolk County, the "rural" part of LI that nonetheless houses 1.5 million folks.  Next west is Nassau County with 1.3 million (but in a space 1/3 the size of Suffolk County), then two of NYC's five boroughs, Brooklyn (2.6 million) and Queens (2.3 million).  Oh, yes, then we hop over to Manhattan Island, the heart of New York, with its own 1.6 million people crowded into 23 square miles (by comparison, SF has half that number on twice the land).  How are we going to make it through this crowd?

Well, first, by finding a few places worth visiting.  The first one was Sunken Meadow State Park, where it truly was possible to forget that there are almost 8 million people on this island with you.  Jeff remembers going there once or twice every year for picnics with his folks and 4-5 families of their friends, but at that age his focus was entirely on the other kids and what they were doing, not the surroundings, so it was delightful to see it for the "first" time.  It was now after Labor Day, so bike riding was allowed along the 3/4 mile long boardwalk.


Our goal from this point was not so much to sightsee as to get through the city alive and well.  We did have two more points of interest, though, the Vanderbilt Parkway and Forest Park, a place where Jeff spent a measurable percentage of his youth wandering about with his little buddies.  Didn't stop for photos there, but we did click one shot on the Vanderbilt Parkway, originally called the Long Island Motor Parkway.  This fairly obscure 4-mile bike trail of today is actually the site of the first road in America built exclusively for automobiles, started in 1908.  It had banked turns, guardrails and a reinforced concrete surface, bridges and tunnels to bypass busy roads along the way, limited access points and, alas, tolls.  In fact, it was the first limited access highway in the world!  There's a terrific (yet terse) history of this little-known piece of history online at, for those of you who would like to learn a bit more and see a few more photos.  As revolutionary as it was in 1908, it was obsolete by 1938 and the state of New York refused to buy it from William Vanderbilt.  Only bits and pieces remain, the largest one the section we rode in Queens.

So, just how do you bike between a few million people and, if not enjoy it, at least do it without clenched jaws the whole way?  For us, a copy of the bike maps for Suffolk and Nassau Counties (relevant portions printed out last Spring and brought along) and of the NYC Bike Map (picked up 2 years ago and double-checked recently online) gave us a general idea of which routes looked promising.  We then turned to Google Maps, which has become quite adept at finding decent bike routes when you put it in bicycle-routing mode.  Typically Jeff asks it to plot from Point A to Point B the night before or earlier, then uses "Street View" to sample a few points along the way.  Here are examples from Google Street View of roads we took in Nassau County and Queens:

A road in suburbia with a wide shoulder, appears to have light traffic (it did):

A narrow road with moderate traffic.  Part of it was downhill, and the rest we tolerated for a mile+ until it widened with a decent shoulder.  In this area we had few alternatives, none great.

A sevice road adjacent to the Long Island Expressway (I-495).  It was occasionally busy, but it had a very wide shoulder so was not at all worrisome, though a bit noisy.

A street identified by the NYC Bike Map as having a bike lane, which it did.  Very pleasant ride through a leafy neighborhood of nice homes.

A side street Jeff identified as a quiet alternative to an extremely busy commercial street two blocks away.  We took this street almost 2 miles and had no traffic, though we did have to slow down for almost every street crossing.  That's a trade-off we'll take any day.

Here's the map Google gave us to get restarted from a bike shop we went to to pick up a spare tire.  We had to get past two enormously busy roads, the Long Is. Expressway and Northern State Parkway.  But Google found us pedestrian overpasses to get by both barriers.

Even before we got there, we could see with Google's Street View what this particular pedestrian overpass would look like.  The following photo is one we took half-way across the 10-lane Long Island Expressway.  Whew, glad we're not in that frantic traffic.

Looking at that map Google created for us, how do we follow all the turns?  Out in the country, directions are usually "take this road 5.3 mi.; turn L, take this next road 4.9 mi.; etc."  We generally carry a map we've printed out ahead of time, and when we get to each way point, Jeff tries to remember to look at the bike computer to see what mileage we're at, add the miles to the next point, and then he knows when to start looking for the next turn. 

In the city, some of the directions are in feet, not miles.  Enter Andy the Android, the tinny voice on our smartphone.  See the handlebar bag on the front of the bike?  It's made especially for smartphones, with a pocket at the top to hold one and an opening just under the cover that allows the sound to come out.  So when we have a route with lots of turns, Jeff asks Google to map our route, makes sure it's right, then hits "Start."  In moments, Andy is telling us which way to head.  The only fly in this ointment is passing traffic, which sometimes gets loud enough to drown out Andy's none too robust voice.  Before next summer rolls around, we hope to have found the perfect one-ear wireless headpiece for Jeff to wear so he can hear Andy loud and clear.

We had one more adventure ahead as we closed in on Manhattan.  We called ahead to Louise and Masaharu's son Edowa, an architect by trade but a cyclist by love.  We picked a meeting spot on the Queens side of the imposing 59th Street Bridge, and got there a few minutes ahead of him.  As he was crossing the bridge far above us, he took this next shot of us waiting on our park bench.

Before ascending the bridge for that spectacular entry into the heart of the city, we rode over a much smaller bridge to Roosevelt Island.  This skinny island in the middle of the East River has a special place for Jeff, as his brother spent a year living in Goldwater Hospital here in the 1980's after a stroke.  The wrecking cranes are currently dismantling the last of that part of the hospital, and the next tenant will be Cornell University, in collaboration with Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.  That partnership, known as Cornell NYC Tech, won a competition with some of the most famous universities in the world to be the creator of a new high tech campus that will be built in stages over the next 22 years.  In exchange for giving up this amazing piece of real estate, New York City is hoping that Cornell NYC Tech will help keep New York at the center of high tech entrepreneurship for decades to come.

We rode the perimeter of Roosevelt Island with Edowa, past these fanciful sculptures in the East River, to the southern tip of the island, home of the recently built Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.  When it was proposed for this site, the NY Times editorialized that it would "face the sea he loved, the Atlantic he bridged, the Europe he helped to save, the United Nations he inspired."  And so it does, with FDR's Four Freedoms Speech from the 1941 State of the Union Message the centerpiece of architect Louis Kahn's design.

Having "done" Roosevelt Island, we hopped back over the small bridge, climbed the equivalent of 13 stories up the 59th Street Bridge, and then had a spectacular coast down into Manhattan.  With Edowa we then headed up First Avenue on a new bike lane, then across to Central Park, around the Park and over to the Hudson, and our final treat, meeting up with Louise's older brother Richard, who lives in New York.

With a ride down the Hudson River on yet another bike path, we rounded Battery Park and came up a few blocks past Wall Street to the Best Western Seaport Inn.  It was a Sunday night, and from an earlier stay we knew they sometimes had amazing deals on the weekend, and so they did -- a safe and comfortable room in this old corner of downtown Manhattan for only $140, with overnight lodging for our tandem in a storage area no less! 

Well, we made it safe and sound right into the heart of the Big Apple!  Join us in our next blog entry for a ferry ride right out the other side to the Jersey Shore.