Technology, History, and Place

Category: USA (Page 2 of 10)


Splendid little monuments

(and not-so-little monuments)

On a street corner in Walla Walla, Washington, the town where I went to college, a gray stone soldier stands silently on a gray stone pedestal. Monuments like this blend easily into the urban landscape, and for years I didn’t pay any attention to it. When I passed by it, I simply assumed that it was a Civil War monument, based on the uniform worn by the soldier and ignoring the chronology. (The US Civil War ended in 1865 but Washington didn’t get statehood until 1889.) When, in my fourth year of college, I finally stopped to look at the monument up-close, I was startled to find that it was not for the Civil War but for the next big war in US history, the Spanish-American War.

Like the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War of 1898 isn’t much remembered or talked about in the United States anymore. But unlike the war with Mexico, the war with Spain inspired a frenzy of monument-building. Some of them, like the Dewey Arch in Madison Square, New York, were temporary structures, but many still stand, dotting the American landscape and blending right into it like the statue in Walla Walla. Once I noticed that this statue was for the Spanish-American War, I started to see monuments to the war all over the place. Here are some that I’ve seen and had the chance to photograph.

About the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War took place over the course of just under four months in 1898, late-April to mid-August. The United States fought with Spain over its last remaining colonial holdings in the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines. Because the war was over so quickly, it was nicknamed “The Splendid Little War” by people who didn’t participate in it, but it was in reality a bitterly-fought war, with American forces suffering high casualties from enemy fire as well as tropical diseases and conditions for which they were totally unprepared.

Before the war began, on February 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine had blown up in Havana harbor, killing 261 sailors and sparking public outrage in support of a declaration of war against Spain. The fiercest fighting in the war took place in Cuba, as Spanish forces fought against Cuban revolutionaries and American forces that were supposedly supporting the Cubans. There was also a huge naval battle in Manila, in which the US Navy under the command of Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. In Puerto Rico, the Spanish forces surrendered without offering hardly any resistance.

After the war, Cuba gained its independence, but only nominally. The United States reserved the right to meddle in Cuban affairs whenever there was a dollar to be made. (This created resentment that led to Cuba’s communist revolution in the 1950s.) The Philippines became an American colony, although Filipinos themselves resisted US control for three years in a bitter, bloody insurrection that left thousands dead on both sides. The Philippines finally gained its independence from the United States after World War II. Puerto Rico also became an American colony, and it remains one to this day, having never been fully integrated into the United States or granted independence.

It isn’t hard to see why we in the United States don’t like to remember the Spanish-American War. Although this country has always been an imperial power, we were able to convince ourselves that our expansion across the North American continent was somehow inevitable (although it definitely wasn’t). But in the Spanish-American War, the United States became an overseas imperial power, just like Britain and France and apparently no better than them. In the end, we were probably worse imperializers. While France has legally integrated its overseas territories like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guyana into France, the United States continues to refuse to make Puerto Rico a state or grant Puerto Ricans full citizenship rights unless they move to the mainland.

Relics of the Battleship Maine

Parts were salvaged from the battleship Maine after it blew up, and some of them have found their way into permanent public monuments.

A mast of the Maine stands atop a monument in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Battleship Maine mast

Mast of the Maine in Arlington National Cemetery

Predictably, some parts of the Maine have ended up in the state of Maine. Portland has a gun from the Maine and Bangor has its impressive frilly bow decorations.

Battleship Maine gun

A gun from the Maine in Fort Allen Park, Portland, Maine.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

USS Maine plaque in Bangor

The plaque of the Bangor USS Maine monument.

The monument in Walla Walla

The Spanish-American War monument in Walla Walla honors Company I of the First Washington Volunteer Infantry. Being from a West Coast state, the regiment shipped out to the Philippines rather than Cuba. It arrived after the Spanish had surrendered, but it participated in the fierce fighting with the Filipinos. It was dedicated in 1904.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

Dewey Monument in San Francisco

The biggest Spanish-American War monument I have seen is the Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square, which honors the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay. The Dewey Monument is an 85-ft-tall monumental column, crowned by a statue of the goddess of victory carrying a trident. It is an impressive monument, but it blends imperceptibly into the urban environment. The vast majority of shoppers at Macy’s and the other stores on the square probably have no idea what the monument represents.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

There is also a statue honoring Spanish-American War veterans on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Bonus: Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River

Wheeler Dam is a Tennessee Valley Authority dam in northern Alabama, and I have already profiled it in “A gallery of Alabama dams.” Of course, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Spanish-American War monument, but I include it here because it is named after a prominent officer from the war, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who commanded troops in Cuba. He had earlier been a Confederate officer in the Civil War.

Wheeler Dam pan

Panoramic view of Wheeler Dam in northern Alabama.


Forgetting the Mexican-American War

This post is a follow-up to my piece from last year, “Remembering the United States intervention.”

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was a hugely important event for both nations involved. At the end of the war, a defeated, humiliated Mexico lost nearly half of its territory. The United States gained this territory, including the strategic harbors of San Francisco and San Diego and the gold- and silver-rich Sierra Nevada. The aftermath of the war would lead to bitter civil wars in both countries, the War of the Reform in Mexico (1857-1860) and the American Civil War in the United States (1861-1865).

Given its importance, it is not surprising that the Mexican-American War is well-remembered in Mexico, with huge monuments in the capital and streets honoring the heroes of the war in cities across the country. In the United States, though, it is another story. There is very little cultural memory of the war, and virtually no monuments to it. (I am not including monuments to the Bear Flag Revolt in California, because the monuments never portray the conflict as a part of the bigger war.) I never even heard of the war before I was in 11th grade, and my students in college-level US History 1 know little or nothing about it.

Why do we not remember the Mexican-American War in the United States, even though it was so important? That is a question I have pondered for some time. I unexpectedly came across an answer to this question when I found an article about memory of the Mexican-American War while researching a different topic.

The article is by Amy S. Greenberg, and it appeared in the October 2009 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association. According to the article, it was between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Spanish-American War in 1898 that Americans forgot about the war with Mexico. There were a couple of reasons why collective amnesia set in during this time. One was that the heaviest fighting in the war had taken place in territory that was still a part of Mexico, and there were thus very few soldiers’ graves on US soil to pay homage to on the new holiday of Memorial Day. (To this day, the US government maintains a cemetery of American war dead in Mexico City.)

There was also a political reason. In the Second Party System, the Democrats had been in favor of the war with Mexico while the opposition party, the Whigs, were opposed to it, seeing it as nothing more than a brazen land grab. (Great Whig statesman John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives while railing against a proposal to honor the generals from the war with Mexico. He never recovered and died shortly afterward.) The Whig Party fell apart shortly after the war, splitting north and south over the issue of slavery.

In the North, most former Whigs joined the nascent Republican Party. After the Civil War, Whigs-turned-Republicans maintained their dislike of the Mexican-American War. From their perspective, the Civil War had been a righteous crusade to preserve the Union and liberate the slaves, while the war with Mexico had been a shameful attempt to seize more land for slavery. Republicans blocked the efforts of veterans’ groups to build a national memorial for the Mexican-American War or to preserve battlefields from the conflict.

As it is, I have seen precisely one physical monument to the Mexican-American War on American soil, and it isn’t much of one. The waterfront in Vallejo, California, on the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, has a display of a couple of cannons. One of them has a plaque stating that the gun “participated in the capture of Guaymas and Mazatlan” in 1847.

And that’s it. If you want to see much more than this, you are going to have to go to Mexico!

24-pounder cannon plaque

Plaque for a Mexican-American War cannon on the waterfront at Vallejo, Calif.

Naval cannons in Vallejo, Calif.

The cannon from the USS Independence in Vallejo (foreground). The other cannon is a post-Civil War cannon from the USS Hartford.


  • Greenberg, Amy S. “1848/1898: Memorial Day, Places of Memory, and Imperial Amnesia.” PMLA 124 no. 5 (Oct. 2009): 1869-73.


  • https://www.nps.gov/paal/index.htm Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Texas. The first clash of the Mexican-American War took place north of the Rio Grande on land claimed by both countries. The battlefield was not preserved as a historic park until more than a century after the war.

Power outages in Northern California and Northeast India

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There are two places I have lived on planet Earth where power outages are a common occurrence: Northeast India and Northern California. More specifically, outages are common in the East Garo Hills (now North Garo Hills) district of Meghalaya, where I spent a year as a volunteer schoolteacher eleven years ago, and the hills of Napa County, where I live now. Although outages are common in both places, the reason for and character of the outages are different for each.

When I refer to power outages, I am not talking about emergency outages caused by, say, a tree limb falling on a powerline (or for that matter, powerlines burning down in a cataclysmic wildfire). Emergency outages are definitely more common in the Garo Hills and Napa County than other places I’ve lived, but they happen everywhere. The outages I’m talking about here are planned outages, when the electric utility turns the power off on purpose.

In Meghalaya, the state electric utility isn’t always able to generate enough power to supply all of its customers. This is especially the case in the hot months, when reservoir levels of the hydroelectric projects are low and power demand is high because everyone is running their electric fans at full-blast. In times like this, the state electric utility will selectively turn off power to certain areas based on a predetermined schedule. This is known as load shedding. The power will go off for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the afternoon, say from 10:00 AM to noon and again from 2:00 to 5:00 PM. Load shedding is annoying and inconvenient to be sure, but it’s not the worst that can happen. Since the individual outages are not very long and are predictable, it isn’t too hard to adapt to load shedding.

In California, not having enough capacity is almost never the issue. Only very rarely (and I mean once in every twenty years rarely) does the electric utility PG&E not have enough electricity to supply all of its customers. Instead, what makes PG&E turn power off is a red flag warning, or fire weather.

Fire season in California strikes in the late summer and fall. The most dangerous weather pattern in fire season is a windstorm with very low humidity. In these conditions, any fire that starts can spread uncontrollably. When this type of weather is in the forecast, the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning. Since power transmission equipment is a risk factor for starting fires, PG&E has taken to shutting off power preemptively during red flag warnings in order to avoid setting a fire and being held responsible for it.

I should point out here that while power transmission equipment has started several fires in recent years, PG&E is not the only starter of fires. Other ignition sources include fireworks, ill-advised campfires, and something that is legally considered an act of God: lightning. Most notoriously, PG&E equipment started the Camp Fire two years ago, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed 85 people. Although it seems to me that a poor alert system is partly to blame for the tragedy, PG&E has taken all the blame for it. Thus, when PG&E shuts off the power during red flag warnings, it does so as much for legal reasons as for humanitarian reasons of protecting lives and property.

Enter the PSPS, the Public Safety Power Shutoff. After the weather service issues a red flag warning, PG&E will announce a potential PSPS, giving details on the affected area and expected times for power shutoff and restoration. And then we are on our own to prep for the coming mini-apocalypse. We get out our flashlights, candles, and oil lamps. We take hasty showers and fill up jugs of water, because no electricity means there will be no power for the pump on the well. Those of us who have generators make sure they have enough gasoline. We wolf down leftovers from the fridge and get out dried food. And we wait for the lights to go out.

When the power goes out, the lights flicker off and the hum of the refrigerator dies down, to be replaced in short order by the rumble of the neighbors’ generators.

The average PSPS lasts about 48 hours, give or take. The power goes out in the evening before the windstorm strikes, and all that night the wind howls through the trees. The next morning, fallen leaves and branches are everywhere, and the neighborhood is a-rumble with the sound of generators. The power is off for the entire day, and it remains off throughout the night and into the morning and afternoon of the third day. The power comes back on in the late afternoon or early evening of the third day, as much as two full days after it went off.

Everyone who lives in a PSPS-affected area has learned tricks for how to survive the outages. I bake bread before outages and set aside backpacking food to eat for supper. Before the power goes out, I fill up a bucket of water to use for a bucket-bath on the day without any power at all. I’m lucky that my gas stove works without power (I just have to light it manually), and the thermostat in the gas furnace has a battery, so it works as well. I also have an office that gets power from an on-campus generator and cogeneration plant.

Despite the tricks, every PSPS is an ordeal. A two-day PSPS in Napa County is so much harder to manage than a load-shedding event of a couple hours’ duration in the Garo Hills. The interminable length of every PSPS is of course a factor, as is the stress of wondering where the next fire will start and when you will have to evacuate your house. Probably the most serious factor, though, is the industrialized culture of productivity in the United States. We set very high expectations for ourselves, and in order to meet them we have to be productive all the time. Thus it is stressful or infuriating when the power is out at night and we can’t catch up on emails or grading or whatever else we have to do. A culture less obsessed with productivity would make PSPS events more tolerable.

Fire season in California ends in November when the rains come. It is always a relief when the rain arrives at last.

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