Primal Pump


Reighard’s Gas and Oil, which stands at 3205 Sixth Avenue in Altoona, Pennsylvania, looks pretty much like a thousand—or twenty thousand—other service stations across the country. You can buy a tankful of gasoline there, of course, and put air in your tires once you’ve fed a quarter into the machine (because nobody gives away free air anymore). What sets it apart from many of its fellows is the fact that the employees there still check your oil and water and clean your windshield.Read more »

A Better Mousetrap

In a nation of inventors it has always been the single most invented thing. At this very moment hundreds of Americans are busy obeying Emerson’s famous dictum—even though the machine he exhorted them to build has existed in near-transcendental perfection for almost a century.

IT IS RALPH WALDO EMERSON whom we most commonly accuse of having coined the saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But in his Journal , 1855, we find this entry on “common fame”: “I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must.Read more »

Morning On The Upper Delaware

A canoe trip along a river not far from industrial America reveals that the footprints of human history have been all but covered over by what looks like a primeval paradise

We slid the canoe into the river just above Skinner’s Falls, which is not really a falls but a rift, the word locals use for rapids. I had tried once before to run it and got hung up halfway through, cutting too close to the right bank down what looked like a safe channel but turned out on closer acquaintance not to be. This time I very much wanted to make the run cleanly. That was my son, Evan, sitting up in the bow, and while he knew me too well to be overly impressed by anything I did, it would have been nice to have, however modestly, shone.Read more »

The Scene Of The Crime

Long-lost views of sunny, easy days at a wealthy lake resort foreshadow a terrible tragedy

Two weeks after completing a film, in 1989, on the Johnstown Flood, I received word from a woman in New London, New Hampshire, that she had some photographs I might like to see. Read more »

The House Of Many Layers

The Colonial Revival was born in a time of late-nineteenth-century ferment, and from then on the style resurfaced every time Americans needed reassurance

What would you do if you owned a Rembrandt that had been painted over by Picasso? A similar problem confronted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1969, when it came into possession of Carter’s Grove, a mansion on Virginia’s James River that had been built between 1750 and 1755 and extensively remodeled in the 1930s. Should the house be restored to its original condition to portray the life and society of Virginia’s colonial aristocracy, or should it be preserved as it was received, to illustrate a more contemporary social milieu?Read more »

Father Of The Forests

Ninety years ago a highborn zealot named Gifford Pinchot knew more about woodlands than any man in America. What he did about them changed the country we live in and helped define environmentalism.

Like most public officials, Gov. Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania could not answer all his mail personally. Much of it had to be left to aides, but not all of these realized the character of their boss. When a citizen wrote in 1931 to complain angrily about one of the governor’s appointments, Pinchot was not pleased to find the following prepared for his signature: “I am somewhat surprised at the tone of your letter.… It has been my aim since I became Governor to select the best possible person for each position.Read more »

The Road To The Future

Fifty years ago the builders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike completed America’s first superhighway—and helped determine the shape of travel to come

Most American motorists take for granted the concrete and asphalt web of interstate highways that has penetrated so deeply into the nation’s economy and thinking. The 43,000-mile system of fouror-more-lane divided, limited-access roads reaches from the canyons of California to the beaches of Florida and the urban bustle of the Northeast Corridor. But of course there was a time when the superhighway idea was brand-new.Read more »

The Powder Maker’s Garden

When Pierre S. du Pont bought the deteriorated Longwood Gardens in 1906, he thought that owning property was a sign of mental derangement. Still, he worked hard to create a stupendous fantasy garden, a place, he said, “where I can entertain my friends.”

As I walked down a side path at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on a bright, sunny day in June, two quite distinct sights converged just in front of me. One was a middle-aged foursome of fellow visitors, all clad in the near-mandatory style of the vacationing 1980s American: immaculate pastel sports clothes and bulbous white sneakers. The other sight was a spectacular tree, one whose branches, instead of ascending toward the heavens, droop mournfully down to the ground—what garden people call a weeping form.Read more »

The Children Of Gettysburg

The storm broke over their small town and changed their lives forever

Beside [our] little front porch … lay two dead Union soldiers. I had never before seen a dead man, yet I do not recall that I was shocked, so quickly does war brutalize.” Charles McCurdy of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was ten years old in July 1863 when he came upon those corpses.Read more »

Collecting History

Wherever you travel in this country, you have a good chance of bringing a piece of the past home with you

I drove twenty thousand miles and got just one real bargain. That was up the Hudson River on a boisterous, wind-scrubbed October day fifteen years ago. My friend Harris is an antiques dealer who at the time was specializing in live steam: elegant old working models of freight locomotives, tugboats, ocean liners. He had spotted a tiny ad buried in the part of The New York Times where they usually herald auctions of kitchen equipment; it announced a live-steam sale that Saturday in Claverack, New York. Harris was jubilant.Read more »