Big Time

On October 1, 2017 · 0 Comments

Quite awhile ago, Twelve Mile Circle looked at some Remarkable Sundials. I found some rather amazing timepieces in a lot of different places, some of them quite large. Now I wondered about the largest actual clock with a face and hands. I didn’t know why the notion suddenly came to me after the passage of so much time. However, it did for some reason and I got curious. A couple of simple rules underpinned this examination: It needed to be a regular clock face and it needed to be permanent.

Makkah Royal Clock Tower


Makkah Royal Hotel Clock Tower
Makkah Royal Hotel Clock Tower. Photo by Basheer Olakara on Flickr (cc)

By that definition, the search for the largest clock led to Saudi Arabia. There in Mecca, overlooking most sacred site in Islam, stood the Makkah Royal Clock Tower (map). The clock adorned the third tallest building in the world, Abraj Al-Bait. The Saudi government built and owned this cluster of seven towers, the tallest and largest a Fairmont hotel finished in 2012. I noticed rooms available for as little as $125 per night although I imagined rates would be considerably higher during the Hajj.

The hotel tower rose 601 metres (1,972 feet), with 120 floors. The clock sat near the top. Each side of the clock’s face measures 43 m (141 ft). Reputedly, the clock could be seen from a distance of 25 kilometres (15.5 miles). I guess that meant that nobody in Mecca ever had a valid excuse for losing track of time and missing an appointment.


Central do Brasil


Central do Brasil
Central do Brasil. Photo by Sebástian Freire on Flickr (cc)

A clock in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil qualified as the largest example in the Americas (map). Railroad officials placed it at Central do Brasil, the city’s most important train station. This site served as an extremely important transportation hub, both for the city and for the nation. It served trains heading in all directions, and offered a connection to Rio’s subway system and bus station. Trains ran on regular schedules to it made sense to put a big clock where everyone could see it. The clock at Central do Brasil with a 20 m (66 ft) diameter sat near the top of a 135 metre (443 ft) tower.


Duquesne Brewing Company Clock


Blank Clock
Blank Clock. Photo by Brian Siewiorek on Flickr (cc)

The largest clock in the United States, found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, came to be known as the Duquesne Brewing Company Clock. The name stuck even though the company went out of business in the 1970’s. The 18 m (60 ft) face originally adorned a prominent place on the hillside of the city’s Mount Washington beginning in 1933. I rode the incline to the top of Mount Washington a few months ago. That would be an ideal spot for a giant clock. However, the Duquesne Brewing Company purchased it and removed it from the mountain to adorn its brewery (map). After the brewery went out of business, the building owner painted company logos on the clock for a fee. Apparently nobody wanted to take advantage of that opportunity lately. The clock face now remains blank albeit still tracking time.


Grozny-City Towers


Grozny 8
Grozny. Photo by Alexxx Malev on Flickr (cc)

The largest European clock could be found in Grozny, Chechnya in Russia. It adorned the Grozny-City Towers (map), built in 2011. This 13.6 m (45 ft) diameter clock sat 140 m (460 ft) above street level. Grozny-City Towers also included apartments, a hotel and a business complex in addition to its giant clock.

Many of the world’s largest clocks dated to the 21st Century. That surprised me. Apparently an oversized clock competition started sometime in the last few years. What sparked that, I wondered?


Bonus Clock


Flavor Flav
Flavor Flav. Photo by angela n. on Flickr (cc)

Of course, no discussion of oversized clocks would be complete without mentioning Flavor Flav.

Heartland, Part 2 (How Not to See a City)

On June 11, 2017 · 3 Comments

Undoubtedly we’ve all seen articles in print or online with titles like “Three Perfect Days in [whatever city].” They highlight the virtues of a given place with all sorts of supposed insider tips that push beyond the usual tourist hangouts. This won’t be one of those articles. In fact I’m pretty sure this could be the worst city guide ever. Why would I even include Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a series of articles on the American Heartland? Even though the geographic footprint of the "Heartland" varied somewhat from person-to-person, undoubtedly little if anything in Pittsburgh met even the most generous definition.

That highlighted my situation. I never made Pittsburgh my destination. It always served as a waypoint on some other adventure, a perpetual bridesmaid of Twelve Mile Circle travels. That was a shame because it offered a lot. Nonetheless, I began to nibble around its edges on three separate visits in the last two years. Let’s take a closer look.


Great Allegheny Passage


Hot Metal Bridge

It shouldn’t take much effort for someone living in the Washington, DC area like I do to visit Pittsburgh. I could get there in about four hours if traffic cooperated. Sure, I’ve connected to flights through its airport and clipped past it many times before on the Pennsylvania Turnpike although those didn’t count. Oddly, I’d never actually set foot within its city limits until April 2015. I didn’t stay there very long, either.

Pittsburgh’s historic Point State Park (map), a tip of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers joined together to form the Ohio River, marked the starting point of the Great Allegheny Passage. I hopped from of a shuttle with my bicycle and followed its path for the next 150 miles (240 kilometres) to Cumberland, Maryland. Leaving the park, we took surface streets through the city for about a mile, merged onto a dedicated trail, crossed the Hot Metal Bridge and pedaled past abandoned industrial sites too numerous to count, in a steady rain. Thus ended my first trip to Pittsburgh. It lasted as long as it took to bike beyond its city limits.


Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium


Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium

I returned to Pittsburgh about a year-and-a-half later. This time I stayed a bit longer, my first overnight trip to the city. My real purpose centered on capturing previously unvisited counties in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Pittsburgh put me close enough to my target to serve as a good staging ground. Plus I had my son with me and I needed to bribe him. He loved zoos so we spent a full morning at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium (map).

When my son visits a zoo he does it thoroughly. We saw every single animal and exhibit in excruciating detail. That seemed fair enough. I made him go to a brewery inside of a former church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Then I dragged him around to increasingly obscure geo-oddities for the next couple of days.


Rivers and Hills

That brought me to the latest adventure. I wanted to capture a bunch of rural counties in Ohio so Pittsburgh, once again, served as a great launching point. I noted in that earlier Zoo article that I really wanted to visit the city’s famous inclines. It became my singular fixation this time around. I had to ride the inclines. Nothing else mattered.

That, geographically, placed me on the South Shore of Pittsburgh across the Monongahela River from downtown. Station Square provided the best access to the inclines. It had a little bit of history too, with roots as a terminal for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and as a freight yard well into the 20th Century. Unfortunately it declined over time along with many of the rust belt industries.

Developers turned Station Square into an entertainment district in the late 1970’s, focusing on the tourist market with plenty of chain restaurants and sightseer kitsch. The Pittsburgh skyline added some colorful scenery as a backdrop. However, Station Square still presented all the ambiance of a generic mall, a place where busloads of middle school kids on their first overnight field trip might enjoy. It certainly didn’t represent the essence of Pittsburgh although I’d made that decision knowingly so I could get closer to the inclines. We all make our choices.

Ducks


Point State Park

I didn’t intend to ride the Ducks. Nonetheless, as we walked towards one of the inclines, I spotted a Duck filling-up and saw that the next tour started in only ten minutes. I guess I felt a little guilty for completely ignoring an entire city to climb a hill on a glorified escalator so it hit me at a vulnerable moment. Ducks, for those unfamiliar with them (photo), were used by the United States Army during the Second World War as amphibious landing vehicles. They could function either as trucks or as boats with the pull of a few levers. Various sightseeing companies purchased surplus Ducks and converted them for land/water tours. Pittsburgh had them too.

It was every bit as touristy as I imagined. Even so, it offered a decent orientation of the downtown area and I certainly enjoyed floating along the river for a unique perspective on the city. The inclines would still be waiting for us.

Inclines


Monongahela Incline

Only so many people could fit within a valley carved by the three rivers. Pittsburgh expanded greatly during the Industrial Revolution and pushed people onto the hills. Its mills and factories needed labor so many of the workers lived atop a ridge directly across from downtown called Coal Hill. Workers descended rickety stairways several hundred feet down to their jobs in the morning, and trudged back uphill again in the evenings. Many of them had immigrated from Germany and they remembered “steilbahns” (inclined railroads) from their homeland. Those would work great in Pittsburgh too. Nearly a score opened in the city during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Only two survived, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1870 and 1877 respectively.

We took the Monongahela Incline on a slow, relaxing ride up the steep embankment. A man who rode the incline as part of his daily commute gave us a tip: a tourist could save a few bucks by purchasing a single ticket with a transfer rather than two individual tickets. Transfers lasted a couple of hours; more than enough time to ride up, look around and ride back down. Now you know too.

Mt. Washington Neighborhood


Pittsburgh Skyline

Coal Hill later got a more attractive name, Mount Washington, and a reputation for spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh. We lucked out. It rained intermittently all day and then the clouds parted as we rode up the Monongahela Incline (map). From there we walked along the appropriately named Grandview Avenue. The path took us from the upper Monongahela station to the upper Duquesne station. I would recommend the same route for anyone visiting. It offered a nice scenic stroll of about eight-tenths of a mile (1.3 km).

The city placed frequent viewing platforms along the ridge too. We even stumbled upon a wedding taking place on one of the platforms. The best views of the city — the most iconic images — occurred at the upper Duquesne station. That station also offered a unusual opportunity, a chance to see the inner workings of the incline. Visitors could pop a couple of quarters into a turnstile and take a self-guided tour of the machinery beneath the station (photo). We watched ancient gears turn and cables roll as cars climbed and descended Mt. Washington.


Wrap Up

So far my incomplete city guide to Pittsburgh includes:

  • Point State Park
  • Great Allegheny Passage Bicycle Trail
  • Church Brew Works
  • Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
  • Station Square
  • Just Ducky Tours
  • Monongahela Incline
  • Duquesne Incline
  • Mt. Washington Neighborhood

Someday I would like to return and see the city properly, not as an afterthought. Twelve Mile Circle readers should feel free to suggest attractions I should visit when I come back in a few months or years from now. You know what I like.


Articles in the Heartland Series:

  1. Why, oh Why?
  2. How Not to See a City
  3. Foiled by Memorial Day
  4. Beyond Covered
  5. Not Just Farmland
  6. Americana

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cog Railways

On July 5, 2011 · 6 Comments

Many years ago my fiancé (now wife) and I traveled through northern New England for two weeks. This was so long ago that we actually tent-camped our way through a string of rustic state parks with few amenities. That changed to Bed-and-Breakfasts once we got married, and then changed again to whatever hotel happened to have an indoor pool and a free breakfast buffet once the kids came along. Imagine though, a time when I once trampled through the wilderness without regard to creature comforts.

One of our stops delivered us to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point in the state of New Hampshire and indeed anywhere in the northeastern United States: 1,917 metres (6,288 feet). The observatory atop the mountain claims to be the "Home of the World’s Worst Weather" but it didn’t live up to that reputation during our visit. It was postcard perfect.



View Larger Map

We saw a terrible column of black smoke rising from the valley. What could possibly burn on the barren rock above the tree line? It moved closer. Soon enough we saw that it belching from an ancient machine, a mighty hissing steam engine pushing a passenger car, the Mount Washington Cog Railway


Mount Washington Cog Railway

I didn’t know anything about the cog railway prior to our visit. I will take a ride if I ever return, now wiser and lazier after the passage of more years than I’d like to admit.

The Washington Mountain Cog Railway is an institution. It was the very first mountain cog railway ever constructed, and of course it continues to be the oldest by definition. Tourists have taken the railway safely to the summit of Mount Washington since 1869, pushed along nearly unimaginable gradients up to 37%.


Cog Railway Mechanism
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain

Generically it’s a "rack and pinion" railway, a technology particularly suited to steep mountainous terrain. The rack is a toothed track strung along a rail bed and the pinion is a cog wheel that aligns with the rack. It’s easier to picture than describe. They’ve been deployed worldwide in places where ordinary trains would spin their wheels on their tracks.


United Kingdom



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A rack and pinion design has worked efficiently for over a century at Snowdon, the highest peak in the British Isles other than Scotland. The Snowdon Mountain Railway rises to a 1,085 m (3,560 ft) summit from Llanberis, a village in Gwynedd, North Wales. It is the only example of a cog railway in the United Kingdom.

Reputedly the SMR served as an inspiration for the fictional Culdee Fell Railway, which in turn spun off into the whole Thomas the Tank Engine phenomenon. That probably doesn’t matter much to you unless your household went through a Thomas the Tank Engine phase, as mine did when the kids were younger.


Australia



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Not every cog railroad dates back to the Nineteenth or earliest days of the Twentieth Century. The technology continues to fill a small but important niche in the modern world.

Perisher is a large ski resort in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. The only road into the area was frequently blocked by the same weather that makes the resort so attractive, an overabundance of snow. The proprietors dug a tunnel through a mountain to provide an alternate path, and within the tunnel they constructed an underground rack railway. Perisher Skitube Alpine Rail has delivered skiers to the resort since 1987.


India



View Larger Map

A segment of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu, India, is a cog railway climbing up through thick, uninhabitable jungle slopes. The rack-and-pinion portion of the railway running from Kallar to Coonoor includes "208 curves and 13 tunnels, and 27 viaducts" as noted by UNESCO when it added Nilgiri to the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site. It has operated here since 1908.


Brazil



Exibir mapa ampliado

More accessible, yet also confronting the challenges of extreme topography, the Trem do Corcovado of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, climbs to the top of Morro do Corcovado. This is the famous mountaintop crowned by the statue of Cristo Redentor — Christ the Redeemer — that is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic images of the nation.

There are other examples, but Cog railways are still a rather unusual phenomenon. Even so, a rack-and-pinion design is still the best technology for a very special set of circumstances. That hasn’t changed in more than a hundred and fifty years.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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