the promised land

Two AM arrived at my seat in the form of our car’s conductor rousing me awake just outside Salt Lake City. I hazily gathered my things, picked up my pack from the baggage compartment on the first floor of the car, and waited along with a few others for the train to squeak to a stop. The doors hissed open, and out into the warm summer air we went. Some of my fellow passengers paused here for a smoke break; the departing train itself was no exception.


The Zephyr waits for fuel and a fresh crew in Salt Lake City before crossing the desert.

My friend (and recent Denver transplant) Aierell was waiting nearby with a car, and off we drove into the lonely streets of Salt Lake. At this hour, even Denver still has life within it: night shift workers out for a smoke, bar patrons stumbling home, street vendors selling them tasty late-night burritos and tortas. Here, there was only the quiet, dark streets; it seemed all of SLC was already tucked into bed for the night.

The next day, I decided to take in some local culture, so we headed down to the city’s focal point: Temple Square. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons) settled Salt Lake City in the 1840s, and this was one of the first plots laid out in their new city. In fact, three of the busiest streets in the city are all somewhat confusingly named Temple. The ten acre campus contains two visitors’ centres, a genealogy library, the Tabernacle (home to the world-famous choir of the same name), and the 1882 Assembly Hall among others. The square was full of large, well-dressed families, and a huge proportion of what appeared to be newly minted, smitten young couples. This is the holiest site in the Mormon religion; a temple which took forty years to construct. Entry into most of the buildings on the site is allowed to all visitors, but the temple itself requires both Mormon faith and a special church warrant. It is a fascinating place, to be sure.


The Salt Lake Temple from a nearby rooftop. The dome-shaped building behind it is the Tabernacle.


Temple Square during the capstone laying ceremony in 1892.

While impressive, Temple Square was also, frankly, a slightly weird place to be. Aierell and I were clearly outsiders, our relatively casual clothing and manner in contrast to the near black-tie attire worn by the masses of Mormon pilgrims. After learning about not only special Mormon underwear but Joseph Smith’s holy stones which allowed him to translate the Book of Mormon from a previously unknown ancient language, we frankly could use a drink. And, contrary to urban legend, there are actually bars in Salt Lake! It took us all of a block and a half down Main Street to find the cleverly named Beerhive (the beehive figures heavily in Utah’s symbology), where we encountered our first, albeit tiny, missionary at the bar’s icy rail.


I’d like to introduce you all to Elder George!

After tasting the fruit of the Beerhive, Aierell took me to feast my eyes upon a series of alleys near downtown which happen to contain some of Salt Lake’s finest graffiti art.


This elaborate mural of the Virgin Mary takes up the entire side of a four-story building.


Aierell poses in front of one of the graffiti walls.

We ventured south down State Street in the lengthening evening shadows until we arrived at a pub with a garage for a front door. The sign above said ‘The Republican’, and inside, the Irish flags draped on the walls left no doubt as to the theme – if ‘theme’ is the right word – of this bar. Yes, the beer and whiskey flows here in Salt Lake, although with some fairly arcane restrictions. The Mormon church, to which more than half of Utahns belong, preaches against the consumption of alcohol, and over time this belief was codified in Utah’s mind-bogglingly complex liquor laws.

For instance, every prospective bar patron’s ID is scanned with a handheld reader. If the ID is forged, the device informs the bartender immediately, and the wannabe drinker’s night is over in a hurry. Also, behind every bar is a small, black plastic donut with a hole the size of a bottleneck. When a mixed drink or a shot of hard liquor is ordered, the bartender takes the bottle down from the bar and fits the mouth of the bottle into the donut. Inside the donut is a tiny magnetic valve that meters out precisely one Utah shot – 1.5 fluid ounces (44.3 mL) of booze. This ensures that your friendly bartender can’t pour your drinks just a little stronger – to do so is illegal in Utah. So is serving a double: for example, it is legal to serve a whiskey sour with a shot of vodka on the side, but serving the same drink with a second shot of whiskey on the side is illegal. Happy hours and drink specials are illegal; prices must be fixed. Even outside the bar, liquor is heavily restricted. Booze, wine, and any beer stronger than 3.2% can only be purchased at state-owned stores – of which there are 44 in the whole of Utah. Also, if you’re having a party, you may want to plan ahead – most don’t stay open later than 7 P.M.

Aierell and I exited the Republican slightly more loopy than before, and headed to another bar in the Avenues, a part of town so called because of its street names – whereas most streets in SLC have somewhat cryptic numeric names (such as 300 East or 600 South), the Avenues have letters as well as numbers. This is one of the oldest parts of Salt Lake, and the bar was a relic, straight out of the late 60s lounge era. The clientele was anything but old however, mostly young hipsters out on a beautiful summer night. We closed the bar, made a few new friends in the neighbourhood, and called it a night. An apartment a few blocks away on K Street was our stop, and with the clock’s hands now well into the next day, I settled off to sleep. Tomorrow, I would head back across the Rockies to Denver the slow way – by bus.

The next morning came too early, and as the light began to creep across the city, Aierell and I made our way to the Greyhound station. Ahead of me lay 16 hours on Highway 40, almost all of it on two-lane mountain roads. I said my goodbyes to Aierell, and after one last tip of the hat, I was off, headed back to Colorado.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 2

As the train pulled out of Glenwood Springs, I noticed a reddish haze in the air. At first, it was barely perceptible, seen only when it turned the disk of the midday sun blood red. Soon, we left Glenwood Canyon and continued west, the haze thickening the partly cloudy sky into a roiling mixture of reddish-black and grey. The source of the haze had not been apparent, but as we rounded a bend in the track, it was suddenly clear: the miles-long plume of thick, black smoke before us left little doubt. We were headed straight for a Colorado wildfire.


Before long, Forest Service and fire trucks were frequent sights at grade crossings.

By the time we entered De Beque Canyon, through which both the rail line and Interstate 70 run, the fire was burning on the tops of the ridges next to us and down the canyon walls. The sky became completely obscured, save for a crimson sun, by a thick smoke that appeared to glow red at times from the reflected flame. I ran to the lower level vestibule of my car and began taking photographs and video out of the window – which, when I pressed my hand to it, was almost scorching hot to the touch. A few tense minutes later, we were clear of the canyon, and the dispatchers at Union Pacific (who currently own the line) shut it down – we were the last to pass. The adjoining Interstate was shut down as well, and the nearby communities of De Beque and Palisade were put on evacuation notice. The fire consumed more than 12,000 acres by the time it was extinguished – but fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Zephyr passes through the Pine Ridge Fire as myself and a fellow passenger look on. Click here for the BBC version.

After a few tense minutes, we cleared De Beque Canyon unscathed and headed into Grand Junction, a city at the far reaches of the Colorado Rockies. From here, we would set out across the desert for Salt Lake City, arriving there early in the morning. The sun had begun to set, still hazy red from the fire to the east. I disembarked, along with the train’s passengers stretching their legs as a fresh locomotive crew did their checks before setting off for the night. The city’s former depot, a grand turn-of-the-century building, sits dilapidated next to the current station. It was built in the early 1900s by the Rio Grande, and was meant to be the centerpiece of the town; a place that the citizens of Grand Junction (which essentially exists because of the railroads) could take pride in as a representation of their community. Inside were 22 foot high ceilings and arched stained glass windows. Now, Amtrak uses an unremarkable 70s-era building next door that originally served as a restaurant for the depot. In February of 2012, a Texas-based realtor purchased the dilapidated structure for just over $188,000, though with admittedly no real plans to start with. Time will tell what happens to this historic structure, one which has no doubt seen some interesting, if better, times.

Onward now, as the locomotives sounded their horns, and with fresh crews aboard, we headed out for the evening. As the sun began to set, I headed to the diner car for dinner and a smuggled pint. The car was surprisingly lively, with groups of passengers scooting closer to the window to see what the eastern reaches of Colorado held in store. The Mennonites had returned, settling in en masse to the swiveling chairs on a whole side of the car to watch the sun come down behind the flat-topped mesas that stood guard to either side of our route.


Passengers in the Zephyr’s lounge car socialize as the sun begins to set on the Colorado Plateau. Just ahead lay the Utah border – and about 260 miles of desert.


In motion – the Zephyr’s lounge car as we cross into Utah

Spray painted on the side of one of these weathered red sentinels were the words ‘UTAHCOLORADO’ – denoting the literal line in the sand where the border lay. Eastern Utah is where sci-fi directors go when they’re looking for an alien planet to film on. Before the sun set, it cast the bizarre landforms of the immense desert in an unearthly glow. The Zephyr was picking up the pace now, the track straightening out as we exited the heart of the Rockies. We wouldn’t stop until we hit the tiny oasis of Green River, seventy miles ahead.


This siding, at a place called Brendel, held a number of flat cars carrying half-length metal casks marked ‘RADIOACTIVE’ – as well as a similar number of unmarked black pick-ups. Turns out this location is used to hold lightly radioactive mine waste from a uranium mine near Moab before its burial nearby.

We hit Green River just as the sun set, our train stopping for no more than a breather before pushing off again into the night. Ahead, we would cross the rest of the desert under the stars, climbing the last, faraway range of the Rocky Mountains in the moonlight before descending into Salt Lake City around one in the morning.


Night owls in the Zephyr’s lounge car around midnight.

After sundown, I returned briefly to the vestibule of the car where I had witnessed the fire before. The magic window once again opened, and in the warm night air of the desert, I could see the distant lights of a power plant. They winked at me again and again as they passed behind ridge after mountain after canyon wall. Soon, the lights appeared just up the track, and swiftly flew past us into the night again.

I headed back to my seat, only to remember it had been given to part of a family before – sleeping bodies now occupied my whole row. I elected to become a nomad, and found myself a quiet corner of the car next door with a conveniently unoccupied row of seats. Across the aisle was a fellow traveler named Sam. I asked Sam if the seats were free, and in a Cockney accent, he replied “I dunno, I just sat down in this one!” Brilliant plan! I checked one more time above my seats for reservation slips, and, finding none, I settled off to sleep.

Julia tracked me down and roused me a few hours later, just short of 1.30AM. A few minutes later, I stepped off the Zephyr at my final destination, the promised land: Salt Lake City. The train squeaked to a stop and I disembarked under a star-filled sky.


Julia bids me farewell with one more dose of sass.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.


The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

my name is Sam, Sam the Record Man

Toronto’s Yonge Street has a reputation as the city’s main drag, extending its pavement from the foot of Queens Quay on the shore of Lake Ontario to the city limits at Steeles Avenue and beyond. Lining its route are all manners of attractions for the curious, including the huge Eaton Centre (Toronto’s largest shopping mall), Dundas Square, and that most holy of Canadian shrines, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since 1959, the corner of Gould and Yonge Streets played host to one of the most recognizable landmarks of Toronto: two giant, gaudy, neon-filled records, ‘spinning’ in the dark. This was the flagship location for one of Canada’s largest and best-loved music stores: Sam the Record Man.


Sam the Record Man on its final night – photo courtesy JBCurio via Wikimedia

Sam’s started in 1937, in an shop in a faraway corner of Toronto. Sam Sniderman (the eponymous Record Man) and his brother Sidney started the operation as a department within their family’s radio store, but by 1959, Sam was ready to strike out on his own and moved his operation to 347 Yonge Street – next door to competitor A&A Records. As his empire grew, Sniderman opened hundreds of outlets across Ontario and the rest of Canada, eventually dethroning A&A from of its position at the top of the Canadian record biz – and eventually taking over their neighboring Yonge Street store. Boxing Day sales were legendary at Sam’s, with deep discounts on records (and later, tapes and CDs) generating queues of chilly Torontonians that stretched around the block.

However, as the recording industry became more Internet-based, Sam’s (as well as many other music retailers) saw their sales plummet. Even competitor HMV, whose huge, multinational industry reach (and conspicuously located store across the street from Sam’s at 333 Yonge) had helped edge them above Sam’s in the record business, couldn’t keep their heads above water. On 30 October 2001, Sam’s filed for bankruptcy and closed all of their wholly owned stores, leaving only the Yonge Street flagship (reopened the next year with Sniderman’s sons at the helm) and 11 locally-owned franchises open. Sam the Record Man managed to linger on until finally, on 30 June 2007, the iconic signs were switched off (though they’d be relit once for Nuit Blanche in 2008 – see above photo) and Sam’s closed its doors for good. The building that housed it was soon purchased by nearby Ryerson University to be used as a new student centre; to that end, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the end of 2009.

The building had been hastily declared a Heritage site in an effort to preserve the iconic neon record signs (as the Ontario Heritage Act has no provisions for saving signs without their buildings), but with the demolition of the building, the fate of the records is now in serious question. Part of the deal with the city of Toronto that allowed the demolition of a listed building included a clause that says the university is obliged to take the signs, repair them and put them back on one of two sites — either the new Learning Centre or another building nearby. However, the powers-that-be at Ryerson have indicated that, due to money, they no longer intend to do this, instead opting to replace the signs with ‘digital representations’ – likely video projectors that would shine a facsimile of the sign onto the sidewalk next to Yonge Street. Not quite the same thing.

During Sam’s swan song at the beginning of 2009, I happened to find myself in Toronto, and one night, in the company of Dresden and Rustblade, we paid our respects to the Record Man. In just a few short weeks, Sam’s would be reduced to a pile of rubble, so we elected to strike while the iron was hot. Our entry point was, as things go, a pretty sketchy one, but the impending doom of this site meant the risk-to-reward ratio was unusually high. Plus, at this late hour of night, traffic on busy Yonge Street had slowed to a crawl. With lookouts posted at the ends of the the alley, Rust and I poked and prodded until, inevitably, we found our way in. We beckoned to the others, and into the now-derelict landmark we went.


Dresden surveys what remains of the first floor of Sam’s.

Preparation for demolition was well under way, the walls and floors mostly stripped to their structural foundations. Piles of salvaged pipe, conduit, and wire littered the floors, and loose boards threatened to send us flying at the first misstep. The adjoining rooms were much the same, and we had the sense that workers had been here quite recently, salvaging the last of the materials inside Sam’s that were worth keeping. The squad then whipped out our respective cameras, and the *whoosh* of traffic passing on Yonge Street was soon joined by the occasional clicking of our shutters as we photographed what remained of the first floor.


Looking towards the Yonge Street entrance, the advanced state of demolition prep is apparent.


A magic-marker mural decorates the wall of the basement. By this time, the famous signature panels upstairs that held thousands of rock star autographs had been removed.


Some of the larger store decorations, like this handmade sign, remained behind.

As we proceeded upstairs, we found that things were much the same, but the hastily deconstructed state of the upper floors gave off a strange sense of urgency. Not only had the walls been stripped of their electrical conduit and wiring, some appeared to be losing their plaster as well. The workers had been here recently, too, leaving work lights, empty wrappers, and even a few wayward hard hats and Nomex bunny suits to mark their presence. However, for the time being, we were still by ourselves, with only our own curiosity to lead us farther up the stairs.


A hole in the side of the building reveals cars passing below on Yonge Street. This hole may have been the consequence of the removal of the huge record signs which adorned the front of Sam’s.

Access to the upper floors allowed us to move between the original store on the corner and the two adjoining buildings that Sam’s took over and assimilated into itself during its existence. In the early years, Sam’s did daily battle with their archrivals A&A Records, with only Steele’s Tavern in a narrow slice of a storefront separating the two along Yonge Street. With each new acquisition, interior walls fell to their new owner, and the previously separate buildings were fused together.


The corner of Yonge and Gould in 1973 – A&A and Sam the Record Man adjoin each other at this point, but by the 1980s, all three buildings would belong to the Record Man. The second record sign would later be installed on top of Steele’s. – Photo courtesy Bob Whalen via Panoramio


This part of Sam’s was once the home of A&A. The plaster on the wall was removed haphazardly to get at the conduit and wire underneath, revealing this graffiti of sorts from bygone days.

All of a sudden, the relative silence was broken by a group of wailing sirens coming down Yonge Street. The sirens grew nearer, until they stopped just as they were about to pass by. We spent a few breathless moments paused in an upstairs corridor, waiting to see if we had been found out. After a few minutes, there was still no sound coming from downstairs, no shouts or doors slamming; it seemed the fire was somewhere else, so to speak, so we continued on. Finally, we reached the building’s final ladder, and with nowhere to go but up, the deed was done. We paused for a moment on the roof for gratuitous self-portraits, overlooking the garish lights of nearby Dundas Square.


The squad on the roof of Sam’s; this excellent view would no longer exist in roughly 3 months’ time.

After paying our respects to the soon-to-be-dust Record Man, we headed back for ground level and made good our escape. No alarms, no sirens at the end of the alley, just the four of us rejoining the foot traffic on Yonge, heading off into the night with a new story to tell.

Sam’s has been reduced to an empty lot now, and soon construction will begin on Ryerson’s new student centre – leaving only photograph and memories of those huge, spinning, neon records, twinkling away in the night. However, for the multitudes of Torontonians that grew up with Sam’s as the cool place to be, those memories will remain especially strong.

anchors aweigh!

Deep in the bowels of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, Shipkeeper Chris Friedenbach speaks tenderly of the sixty year old vessel he maintains. His voice, though barely louder than a whisper, reverberates off of the towering walls of the ship’s engine room. The cavernous space he stands in, thick with the smell of the oil covering every mechanical surface, is still much the same way as it was when the O’Brien was launched in 1943. He tells me of steam engines, specifically the immense four-story-tall example in front of him – standing at the bottom of the engine room, we can’t even see the top of the engine around all the pipes and walkways. “Everything on this ship is powered by steam, even the coffee pot,” he tells me, and indeed, the O’Brien’s original percolator has a direct line to the engine room, still caffeinating the sailors who tend to her now as it did the merchant mariners who sailed her across the Atlantic so many years before.


The O’Brien rests in her berth at San Francisco’s Pier 45. (photo via Wikimedia)

The O’Brien is a ‘Liberty ship’, a type born from a need for cheap, easy to build freighters to replace Allied losses in the U-Boat infested Atlantic during World War II. Shipyards across the country, including the Kaiser Shipyards across the bay from her current mooring spot at San Francisco’s Pier 45, cranked out these ships at phenomenal rates. On average, it took these shipyards an incredible 60 days to build a ship, from the laying of the keel to the launch – the O’Brien took only 56. Out of the 2,710 that went to sea, only two remain in seaworthy condition. The O’Brien survived the landings at Normandy, two crossings of an unforgiving Atlantic teeming with U-Boats, and sixteen months in the South Pacific. When she returned to the US at the end of World War II, she was laid up in the Suisun Bay mothball fleet, just north of San Francisco Bay.

In the late 1960s, Washington politicians floated the idea of preserving an unmodified Liberty ship as a museum and memorial to the Merchant Mariners of WWII. Rear Admiral Thomas Patterson and the newly established National Liberty Ship Memorial elected to save the O’Brien from the scrap heap as she was still in relatively good shape for an abandoned ship. Finally, on May 21, 1980, a crew led by NLSM director Capt. Edward MacMichael managed to relight the veteran ship’s immense boilers. The O’Brien, after sitting in a rusting flotilla of ships for more than 30 years, simply started up and sailed away from the Suisun Bay ghost fleet under her own power – a feat few ships of any kind have ever managed. The only other Liberty still in existence, the John W. Brown, required three years of extensive restoration in drydock before her boilers could even be lit.


‘Finished with Engine’


Shipkeeper Chris Friedenbach shows off the O’Brien’s engine room.

Back in the engine room, video monitors play a loop of footage from James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic. When the producers of the movie sought a life-size marine steam engine, they found the O’Brien and her triple-expansion engine a perfect fit. “People talking at a loud bar would be noisier than this engine when it’s running,” Friedenbach says. And it’s true; when the film’s sound crew edited the scene, they dubbed in their own synthetic steam engine noises because the O’Brien’s plant was not noisy enough!


The O’Brien’s steam engine is still fired up occasionally for cruises during Fleet Week and other special events. This is only a small slice of the three-story high engine that Freidenbach helps maintain.

the engine underway – video courtesy of PRThatRocks

Friedenbach hoists himself up an impossibly steep staircase, moving with practiced grace, like a dancer rehearsing a well-known routine from memory. He crouches through a half-height door and slinks down another ladder into the ship’s steering gear compartment. “Think of it as big power steering,” he says, pointing to the massive gears before him connected to the rudder. This room would have been unmanned, he explains, except in the case of a steering failure – if the ship’s wheel on the bridge stopped responding, the O’Brien could be directed from here. Later, as we head up towards topside, Friedenbach points out a room that almost certainly would have been manned in the ship’s glory days: the wireless room. Inside sits a vintage marine radio that looks straight out of a Hollywood set, covered in serious-looking gauges and a myriad of knobs and switches. Like the steam-powered coffeepot, this original piece of equipment still works (its call sign is KXCH/K6JOB if you’re a Ham and would like to chat the crew of the O’Brien up), and is used occasionally to broadcast live while the ship is underway.

Friedenbach has been tending these machines as well as the rest of the ship for the past ten years, along with the ship’s cook, known only as Vanucci. Vanucci, like Friedenbach, speaks in endearing tones about his favourite piece of kit on the ship. Vanucci’s imposing cast iron stove is, according to him, the last coal-fired marine stove in existence. “It takes three hours to turn on and heat up!” he exclaims. An average day finds him using his impressively sized range to cook up plate after plate of food for not only the crew, but for the visiting landlubbers as well.


Vanucci inspects his fire-breathing marine stove.

Thousands of visitors climb the gangway to the O’Brien every week, and Vanucci plays not only the role of cook for them, but of ambassador. His smile is as warm as the fossil burner he uses to cook his dishes, and the visitors to the ship see his hospitality right away. As I watch, a quintet of Japanese tourists walk past the galley’s window, and Vanucci beckons them to try his latest creation. Today, it’s Cuban chicken and rice, and the tourists eagerly grab a plate and dig in. The sense of history in the mess hall is not lost on the people who visit her. Vanucci tells me of a former merchant mariner who visited a few years back. “He came in to the galley and sat down,” he says, “and then he started crying. He said to me, ‘It’s just like it was 60 years ago.’ Turns out he had worked on a Liberty during the war.”

Outside, the wind coming off of San Francisco Bay nearly knocks Friedenbach down as he steps through a hatch to the main deck. They’re firing up her engines this weekend, he tells me, and next month they’re taking the ship out onto San Francisco Bay. The O’Brien’s engine is not started at the flick of a switch, and for Friedenbach, it’s going to be a full day. “It takes between 13 and 15 hours to start the engine because we have to wait for the steam to get superheated. Initially there’s a lot of condensation [to get rid of] in the pipes.” He doesn’t sound like someone who dreads a long day at the office, rather, he’s visibly excited about spending his weekend in the engine room of a 60-year-old ship. For Freidenbach, like so many of the sailors who came before him, the O’Brien is like a good friend – and as long as there’s a ship to tend, it’ll stay that way.