St. Louis Union Station

This blog will serve as a postscript for my trip to the city.  After my visit to St. Louis in October last year, I wrote a blog about the struggle of older cities like St. Louis to thrive in this day and age.  In many cases, the downtown areas have become shells of their old selves, likely to also be surrounded by neighborhoods which are in a state of disrepair.  Most of the better-off population tends to live in the suburbs.  When people think about reviving such downtown areas, it is mostly about attracting businesses and tourism, but not about making the place more livable.

St. Louis Union Station is an example of this approach to downtown revival.  Opened in 1894, it was at one time the largest and busiest railroad station in the country, serving as a gateway between the east and west.   But times change, and the last train departed St Louis Union Station in 1978.  Today, the space has been re-purposed for a different function, a sign of changing times.

The first sight I got of the the station during this trip was from Interstate 64. The highway is elevated at this point and as you are driving, off to the side, you can see the distinctive roof-line of the old station.  The structure is quite big, and it looks like it is in a state of disuse, like an old industrial building.  The roof looks like it is rusting and falling apart.  At that time I was told that the structure I was looking at was Union Station, but I did not know what lay under it.  I then got the opportunity to see the station from another perspective, from the road that went past its former entrance.  It did look grand, and it turned out that this was now an entrance to a hotel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was later, the day after Angela’s surgery, and she was interested in going for a walk.  We headed out to the location of the station on foot because I had expressed a curiosity about it when we had driven past earlier.  We were actually expecting it to be an Amtrak train station.  When we arrived, we found that we could not enter the building from the doors on the side.  It seemed liked they had been deliberately disabled.  The place looked shabby and I was thinking that there must be some concern about security in the area.  We went back to the front.  The signs indicated that it was an entrance to a hotel – no sign of an Amtrak railroad station.  There were attendants in front of the building waiting to help guests.  We entered one of the doors into a huge open space.  To our left, we could see the old station building.  Some of the rooms had been converted into hotel suites.   To our right were structures that looked new. This seemed to be the  space occupied by the hotel. The space where we were standing was probably near where the train tracks and the platforms terminated in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The place had an empty feel about it.  We walked through the hallway hoping to find a way into the station itself, but it appeared that this was the entrance only to the hotel, and we were uncertain if we could walk into the station area that surely lay beyond the hotel.  We ended up exiting the hotel from one of the side doors (one which we had previously, unsuccessfully, tried to open from the outside).

We then walked along the outside of the station building to its other end.  There were no other people around, and the place did not look inviting.  There were extensive signs of construction work going on.

It was only then that it dawned on us that this was not a real train station any more.  We found a way to enter the premises and a surprise awaited us.  There were a couple of high end restaurants under the station area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the distance, towards the front of the station, you could see the hotel buildings, a multistory affair that fit comfortably under the roof in the cavernous space of this huge structure.  There was a big pool of water immediately in front of us where a show with music, fire, and light began just as we entered.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were fish in the pool.P8040018-1.jpgWe could feel the heat from the fires that were being lit as a part of the show, and I was wondering how all of this affected the fish.  Perhaps they were crowded to the side of the pool for reasons other than the promise of food from a tourist.  There were very few people around to watch the show.  In fact, there were very few people around at all.

You probably realize by now that there were no railway tracks left in this space.  This was how this area, the train shed, looked in the old dayshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Union_Station_St_Louis_diagram.jpg(Image from Wikimedia)

What a change!

There were actually a few tracks left, and they were in the space on the extreme left side of the picture above. The tracks ended on platforms without roofs. These tracks converged into a single pair that joined this section up to the mainline.  Perhaps this section was still in use for special events and occasions. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I read later that this conversion of the station into a place for tourists happened in the 1980s.  It turns out that there was even a Ferris wheel present in front of the train shed at some point in time.  It was probably taken away before the present renovation stated.

But the significant thought that I had about all of this was mainly about the incongruous nature of what I was seeing.  It all seemed quite out of place.  This was not a touristy area of town, and in fact that place looked uninviting.  The surrounding area had a gritty feel to it and there were not too many people around.  Yet, here was a very high end hotel hidden under a somewhat decrepit looking shell.  And they were seemingly in the process of reviving a concept that I was not sure had worked that well for them the first time. Based on what I saw, I guessed that there might have been a time in the past, before the reconstruction, when there had been more commercial establishments in the place, and that these had disappeared over time.  One could take a guess as to what had happened.

Here are a couple of parting shots that show elements of the structure of the roof from the outside of the station.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While one hopes that things work out for the city of St. Louis in their attempts at urban renewal, it is my fear that making a success of this particular effort for the long run is going to be quite difficult.

And then there were the other, different, types of impressions I got on the occasions that I went to Forest Park, each time for a different purpose.  The early morning run, almost 6 miles, approximately along the perimeter of the park – past a museum, golf courses, ball fields, a zoo, etc.., and past older homes and an Interstate highway on the outsides of the park, revealed the vibrant and resilient side of the city.  They have succeeded in making this place very inviting for the locals.  There were a lot of people around early in the morning on foot and on bikes.  It was a diverse crowd.  Being in a new place, I was trying to keep to myself, but I had to respond to the many cheerful good mornings.  (Some day I would like somebody to take a picture of my face when I am running – without my being aware of the presence of the photographer!)   And then when we went to see the play in the park later in the evening, at the Muny, the crowd was quite animated.  It was a well dressed, but less diverse, crowd where we were sitting towards the front.  There was a palpable sense of pride about their town, perhaps because of the fact that the musical we were watching was about St. Louis.   If anything is going to keep the city alive it is its people, and I hope they do not simply depend only on a misplaced sense of nostalgia in what they are attempting to do.  Times change!

I hope for the best.

Da St. Louis Blues

I am headed home.  What can I say?  All good things must come to an end, and I got the St. Louis Blues.  But what better way to end the trip than with music and dinner at BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soup, where we rocked yesterday evening away to a blues set by Big Rich McDonough & Rhythm Renegades.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was raining heavily outside the 7th floor apartment.  Sheets of water were pouring down from the dark sky in bursts.  Luckily, there is not much planned for the day.  The National Blues Museum is located downstairs in the apartment building and I was going to spend the day there (with an interruption in the middle for a trip to the dentist to look at an ulcer that had formed in the mouth (now healing!) after the surgery).

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The lady at the counter told me that I could spend 45 minutes to an hour there, but I ended up spending a few hours trying to soak in all the details, very little of which I can remember a few days later.  It is interesting to recognize and understand how this music of the downtrodden black people not that far back in time became the foundation of the present music form over the years.  And the music is still relevant today.

Angela was going back to work on Wednesday and so I accompanied her to the free Boeing museum (which is called Prologue) located at her work place.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am addicted to technology related to flying, and, once again, I spent more time in a museum than predicted by other people, immersed in the information.  When I was young I used to look for and read anything I could find about flying.  (I even found a way to get to the local airport to see the Boeing 747 when it came into town for the first time.  I would also have studied aeronautics had it not been considered a less desirable engineering pursuit at that time.)  The details of what I read and learnt as a youth get lost in the backrooms of my memory over time, and today was the time to try to remember stuff – about commercial and military aircraft history and development over the years,  about space travel, about other “stuff” related to moving through the air through unnatural means.  They had great information for the curious.  They even had full size capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programs (that helped launch man into space). These were set up in the then McDonnell (now Boeing) facilities for training and testing purposes.  These were fully functional even though they did not go into space.

I found it easier to follow the developments in commercial flight than those in the military realm.  People will spend more money and effort to experiment in the military realm so that there ends up being much more variety in the end-products that result.  Nothing much has changed in this regard over the years.

Since I had more time to kill that day (since Angela had a few more hours to work),  I drove to St. Charles, a little town on the other side of the Missouri river.  Lewis and Clark spent some time here in the past on their way west.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese days, the main street has been developed for the tourists.  It seemed lively at lunch on a week day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is an Art Center at the end of town which supports local artists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe art center is set in a location where there is also a big factory that runs along the river called the American Car and Foundry Company . The company is still operational, but the sections that one can see from the trail that runs along its side look run down and abandoned.

And then there is the Katy trail that runs past St. Charles closer to the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found out that the Katy trail considers itself the longest rail-trail in the country.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe name comes from MKT, the initials of the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad, whose right-of-way has been transformed into a comfortable biking trail of crushed limestone.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABiking this trail may be something to consider in the future, but days like the one I spent in St. Charles would be too hot for an endeavor like this.  A plus for the trail is that it seems to include support services and B&B’s for overnight stays along the way.

And then it was time for the entertainment.  We ended up going to an establishment that all of us in the family (except for Angela) had gone to on a previous trip through the city. It was the only place having live entertainment that day at a reasonable time. It was within walking distance, and we convinced ourselves that it would be a safe walk from our apartment later in the evening even though it was located a short distance from downtown in an open area that was full of empty parking lots.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a great time.  Both the food and the music were great.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe band mostly seemed to be a bunch of local artists who had come together to play that evening.  The drummer was a college kid – could not figure out if he was a graduate or undergraduate student.  What a thrill for a young man to be able to play music for the public in this environment with people who are so skilled in the art!  Much of live jazz and blues is improvisation, with the band following its leader as he plays what he is feeling at that moment.   It looked and sounded like the band was having fun.  It was Angela’s first visit to a blues bar, and I hope it will not be here last.

And then it is time to head home today.  All good things must come to an end. I got the St. Louis blues…

 

Meet Me in St. Louis

I am in St. Louis for the next few days.  I came to help Angela with the process of recovery after having her wisdom teeth extracted.  Things seem to be going very well so far, to the extent that I am pretty useless even a day after the procedure.

But this trip may also end up being about the opportunity for me to indulge in quirky pursuits that end up lifting spirits in unexpected ways.  Something about being dropped into a new and somewhat unfamiliar place tends to get the blood flowing.  And then there are the moments that one never anticipated.

The first morning in town found me on my own in an empty apartment with a need to step out to get coffee.  It was my opportunity to walk the streets of downtown St. Louis.  A vaguely familiar smell of the big city, and its morning sounds, assailed my senses as I walked down Washington Avenue towards City Museum.  The city also seemed to be coming to life at this time of the morning – folks picking up their morning coffees from the cafes; trucks making morning deliveries while stopped on the main road, blocking lanes.  I made somewhat random turns into side streets, trying to get some measure of familiarity with the new environment while observing city life.  It felt somewhat energizing to  be in this frame of mind – observing things going on around me that I do not usually experience in daily life.  I felt alive once again in a strange way.   And I could walk forever!

Things were going so well in the evening the day of the dental procedure that I decided to step out of the apartment in the evening to take a walk to the nearby Gateway Arch to stretch my feet.  I had not seen the place after the completion of its recent renovation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe riverboat was out on the Mississippi,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the downtown buildings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn unexpected treat awaited.  There were signs for an event that was going on.  It turns out that it was the first weekend of the “Blues at the Arch” festival, and that it happened to take place on Fridays in August , and the day that I was there was the first Friday in August!  I had come upon a distinctly St. Louis event by sheer chance.  There had two bands playing each evening and I had arrived in time for the second one of that evening.  There were crowds of people chilling out in the grass in front of a stage next to the Eads bridge.  Food and drink were available for tents on either side of the stage.  The band began to play and I was hooked for the rest of the show.  Zac Harmon, from Jackson, Mississippi, led a band of folks from Texas in a bluesy set that set the place rocking.  People were moving to the beat of old classics.  The band was good.  Instead of walking back home, I decided that I was going to grab a Schnickelfritz from the Urban Chestnut tent, and a chicken kabob from the neighboring stall, and settle in on the grass for a evening of music.  The feeling that came over me can only be described as sheer bliss.  Every other aspect of existence was forgotten as I immersed myself into the experience of that moment, enjoying the feeling of the music, and my food and beer, and the feeling of being one with the mellow crowd.  And I had happened upon all of this by pure chance.  These are moments to live for.

In spite of having spent more time than I expected outside yesterday, and having returned back to the apartment later than expected, I went out early this morning to Forest Park for a birding tour.  That was fun in spite of the fact that almost all the birds we saw were familiar to me.  The group that went on this tour was quite large and was led by two birders associated with the park.  We basically wandered over to a section of the park where we had a decent chance of finding birds of different kinds.   It was an opportunity to chill out with other people while walking around in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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A juvenile black crowned night heron
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A goldfinch
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A catbird
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A red-winged blackbird
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Queen Anne’s Lace

We might go out to see the musical Meet me in St. Louis at the The Muny in the park some evening.  Maybe a trip to the National Blues Museum another day.  If I get the chance, I will also go for a run around the park.

I think St. Louis is going to keep me occupied during this trip!

Harpers Ferry Forever

Some of you who may have read my previous blogs could be wondering about the motivation behind this trilogy of blogs on Harpers Ferry.  My first inclination had been to write only this particular blog that I am about to pen, and this was based on a trip that we had made to the town very recently. But then I realized that I have been experiencing Harpers Ferry and writing about it for some time.  Some history in this regard was needed before proceeding.  The earlier blogs on the topic of Harpers Ferry, and the background material needed for them, flowed quite naturally from this realization.

If you are a regular reader of my blog,  you know by now that Harpers Ferry has been a part of my weekend runs for several years on the C&O Canal, although more frequently in the past than in current times.   But one does also occasionally wander into the town itself from across the river, either when one decides to cross over the river to the tip of Harpers Ferry, to the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah, or when one goes into town for tourism purposes when we have visitors from other parts of the world.

Thus is was that we found ourselves recently visiting the place twice this year, in quick succession, accompanying visitors. You would think that such visits into town would tend to become monotonous, but the amazing thing is that I am finding new things about this place called Harpers Ferry.  I am actually beginning to get a better sense for what life must have been for people living here in times past, starting from when Robert Harper moved to the area in the 1760s.  I am now also more fascinated by the history of the town in the simplest sense of the word, i.e., in terms of how people lived there rather than in the sense of its place in history, about how the town grew and even prospered before the inevitable impact of the passage of time, and even about simple things like how the layout of the town changed over the years (there were actually even a few canals that flowed through town at one time or the other).  Perhaps a day can come when I can even get a sense for how people generally felt about their lives in Harpers Ferry.

So what is it that has roused my enthusiasm about the place you ask!  As background for getting a better insight into my frame of mind and my thinking about this subject, I will note that one of the first things worth knowing about current Harpers Ferry is that the National Park Service (NPS) has done a bang-up job bringing the town back to life, both physically and virtually, after its having been destroyed over and over again by floods, something that almost led to abandonment.  Today, people only live in the upper parts of town above the flood lines.  The lower part of the town is dedicated to the tourists.  Besides the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, there are still many previously abandoned buildings of the old town that remain in this lower part of town.  In spite of having been to Harpers Ferry many times, this was the first time I discovered that many of these abandoned buildings have been converted to museums.   Each building addresses a different aspect of the town’s history and background.  This is a work in progress, but the NPS have already done an excellent job.  There is an attempt to cover all aspects of life in a little town over the entire period of its existence in a systematic way.  Of course, significant turning points in history, like John Brown’s insurrection, and the important battle that took place in and around the town during the civil war, are prominent subjects for presentation, but one also learns about the life of ordinary people, including the experience of blacks at that time in history,  or the commercial story of the town (as noted, it was once a prosperous town), the functioning of the armory that the town came to be identified with, and the impact of the railroad and the floods on the town over the years.  You can feel like you are living the experience.

With more and more trips to the town, I might actually begin to remember what I see and read in the museums and be able to relive those times in my mind rather than just remember the experience of being in the town!   This year was the first time we walked through the ruins of Virginius, a little island on the west side of town that at one time was Harpers Ferry’s center of commerce.  They made good use of the power of the waters of the Shenandoah to fuel the commerce and help the place flourish, by diverting some of the water into tunnels under town in order to use its power. But ultimately the river was not controllable!

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Site of water inlet from the Shenandoah into Virginius
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Waterways below the ruins at Virginius

For the first time, we found the original site of John Brown’s fort, originally a guard and fire house.  The site is on top of an embankment that once used to carry a railroad line into town.  (The remains of the railroad track can still be seen under the sand in places.)  The embankment runs parallel to Potomac street.

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Marker at the original site of John Brown’s Fort

John Brown’s fort has itself been moved around quite a bit over time, even to places outside of Harpers Ferry. It has come to rest in its current location near the confluence of the rivers most recently.

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John Brown’s Fort

And then we discovered the site of the original buildings of The Armory behind the embankment I mentioned earlier.  None of the armory buildings still  remain, having been razed to the ground to support a railroad yard more recently in time.  But you can walk in the area and get a sense for the place.    There are markers that tell you a little more about the place itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Picture of buildings on Potomac Street taken from across the armory site and beside the Potomac river

It turns out that after all these years I am still learning new things about Harpers Ferry.  I even have a better appreciation for how the place must have looked in different times.   I will be back, and hopefully I will continue to have my curiosity piqued, and I will actually remember some of things I read, and I will also continue to learn.  Maybe Harpers Ferry will remain with me forever!

Shravanabelagola

Shravanabelagola is a town in the state of Karnataka in India.  It has two hills.  The smaller one, called Chandragiri, has a Hindu Temple Complex on top.  The other hill, the Vindhyagiri, is more famous, and is one of the great pilgrimage sites for followers of the Jain religion. It is known for the temple on top with a giant monolithic statue of Gomateshwara, also called Bahubali, the son of the first tirtankara of the Jain religion.  There are several smaller shrines (called basadis in Karnataka) on the hill.  The climb to the top of this hill is a challenge, but it is undertaken by tourists and pilgrims of all ages and many faiths in great numbers.  Here are some pictures from our climb.

The first picture was taken near the start of the climb.  As you may notice, the steps are carved into the rock and are quite uneven.  You also have to leave your footwear at the bottom before you start up the hill.  On a hot day one might have to wear socks to be able to walk on the hot rock.  At this point in the climb you cannot see the temples at the top of the hill.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe climb is quite steep.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlong the way you get a good view of the town’s water tank, the belagola (white pond), and the smaller Chandragiri hill.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou want to keep a good hold on the railing while climbing!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a flat area and a place for a temporary stop after the first section of the climb.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next section of the climb is shorter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is an additional short section that needs to be climbed before reaching the main temple where the statue of Bahubali is located. They were in the process of preparing for the Mahamastakabhisheka, a Jain festival that is held once every 12 years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the logo of the 2018 festival, courtesy of Wikipedia.We found a Jain priest at the foot of the statue who was blessing the devotees of different faiths who came up to him with offerings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the view of the town from the level of the temple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we were on our way back down to the intermediate level.  There were some folks who insisted on sliding down the railing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA closeup of the Chandragiri temple complex across town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the artifacts on the hill.  I am not sure what exactly it is.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our way down to the bottom of the hill.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was a unique experience and a visit recommended for anybody in decent physical shape.