Sunday, June 23, 2019

Street Lights - Kerosene to LEDs

Starting 1878, the Town of Maynard committed to shining a light (lights, actually) on the nighttime thoroughfares of this new town. Amory Maynard, 74 years old at the time, was on the committee, as were Joel Abbott and John K. Harriman (grocery owner, father to sons who later operated Harriman Bros. New Method Laundry). The result was twenty-five, six-foot tall street lamps installed on downtown streets,

Example of a kerosene street lamp from another town.
 Lighting streets expanded over time. The original effort, under management of a superintendent of street lamps, expanded to 36 lamps, to be lit 17 nights a month. By 1891, railing against darkness encompassed 74 lamps, lit 19 nights a month, sunset to midnight. (anyone out past midnight was expected to have their own kerosene lamp). Records show Fred Taylor as the last lamplighter, in 1901, paid 3.5 cents per lamp. The job was not easy. A horse-drawn wagon went from lamp to lamp each evening. From a ladder, wicks were trimmed, glass cleaned of soot, more kerosene added if needed, and lit. After midnight a second visit was required to turn down the wicks, thus extinguishing the lamps. A few businesses, but not the Town, supplemented street lights with their own far more luminous gaslights.

Night lighting via oil or kerosene lamps was not a novel concept. In cities, people out afoot at night could hire lantern-bearers to escort them from place to place. By the mid-1700s Paris had thousands of oil lamps. Kerosene, which burned cleaner than plant or animal (whale) oils, was originally made by heating coal in the absence of oxygen, liberating coal gas, coal tar and crude kerosene – then known as coal oil. Processes extracting and purifying kerosene were perfected and patented in the 1850s. In time, petroleum became the preferred raw material for extracting kerosene, as it is today. Kerosene (also known as paraffin oil) is used in heaters and for cooking in areas of the world without access to natural gas.

Kerosene road torches, also called smudge pots, pre-dated battery-powered 
lights as a means of indicating road construction barriers. The most popular
 model was THE TOLEDO TORCH (Internet download).
People of a certain age may remember driving through construction sites at night, the sides of the road sporting 55-gallon metal barrels as barriers, and instead of battery-powered lights, kerosene-burning road torches, which were black, rounded top, a bit smaller than a bowling ball, open-flame. The effect of this lurid, flickering light was to make one feel one was driving through hell, or if not hell, a road next door to hell.  

September 1, 1902 saw a contact between the Town of Maynard and the American Woolen Company (AWC) to provide power for 92 electric lights. As with back in the kerosene days, the lights were not turned on during nights when moonlight sufficed, and were not lit all night. Over years, the extent of electric lighting expanded both for area and nights’ duration. News items in the September 1920 newspaper noted that a proposal was being considered to expand night lighting hours from eight hours to all night, at an estimated revised operating cost of $22 per light per year. At that time Maynard has approximately 250 street lights.

Circa 1931, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston began supplying power, there having been contentious debate that the American Woolen Company charged more than market rates for its monopoly on electric power. An engineers’ trivia fact here is that AWC power was 40-cycle alternating current while the U.S. national standard had settled on 60-cycle (many countries use 50-cycle). A lower frequency had the advantage of less power loss during transmission, the downside being a noticeable flicker in incandescent light bulbs and arc-type street lamps that were common back then.

Today, Maynard’s several thousand street lights are all LEDs (light emitting diodes) with the exception of early 20th century style ‘historic’ fixtures in downtown locations. The conversion to LEDs was expensive, but power requirements are lower, and the lights are supposed to last 15-20 years, so maintenance costs are lower. Additional advantages over the replaced yellow-tinted sodium lamps and white-tinted metal halide lamps included reducing glare impact on night vision and less light pollution. One negative is that street-directed LEDs leave sidewalks relatively dark. This can be remedied by adding sidewalk-directed lights. Unknowns include the long-term effects of LED street light wavelengths (less yellow, more blue and green) on plants and nocturnal animals.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Dearth of Trees

Maple Street, Maynard, 1910. Click on photos to enlarge.
Using Maple Street, Maynard, as a perhaps not entirely typical example, there is strong evidence for attrition of the urban treescape. A postcard in the collection of the Historical Society shows both sides of Maple Street (and the east side of Brooks Street) lined with maple trees; a 1910 photo shows the same trees  on Maple Street, larger, and allows for an estimate of perhaps forty trees at least six inches in diameter. Today, 110 years later, only four survive – one slowly dying. The greenway between the street and sidewalk contains these plus three replacement trees. The business district has suffered a similar loss. Roughly fourty sidewalk squares along Nason, Main and Walnut streets plus grass islands in the municipal parking lots were designed to host trees; many are treeless. Lastly, construction of the Assabet River Rail Trail through the center of town resulted in the loss of more than 600 trees more than four inches in diameter. Replacement plantings were perhaps one-fifth that number, and most of those north of Summer Street.

Maple Street, Maynard, 2019. Sickly tree on left is one of the
originals, most likely planted when houses were built in 1870s.
In addition to deliberate deforestation, our trees are at risk to species-specific diseases, invasive insect species, invasive plant species, uncompensated storm damage and deferred maintenance. Nationwide, chestnut blight took out three billion trees, elm disease another one hundred million. The larvae of Emerald Ash Borer have a fatal impact on ash trees, as does the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on hemlocks. Oriental bittersweet vines grow into the tops of mature trees, overshadowing the trees’ leaves and breaking branches with weight, until the trees die.

Urban trees have value. A study conducted at Devens, MA, concluded that house prices in tree-rich neighborhoods are higher, energy costs needed to cool houses when trees provide share are lower, and asphalt streets have a longer lifespan before repaving is required due to a dampening of the daily heat/cool cycle. Trees capture rain, reducing the needs to channel and process stormwater runoff. Trees provide shade for outdoor activities, and muffle street noise. Plausible research suggests that patients in hospitals need less of pain relief meds and heal faster if their windows look out over gardens and trees versus a parking lot.

Nason Street, Maynard: stump of
removed urban tree.
Counter to this, there is persistent lack of funding for urban forestry, consequence of tight budgets and an attitude that trees are “nice to have” but not necessary. Once a town or city has fallen behind maintaining an existing urban canopy, reversing the trend with an accelerated planting program is seen as too expensive. Only when a community recognizes that the commercial and personal health benefits of a trees sustainability program are real and important do annual budgets reflect the need.  

Norway spruce trees flanking house,
Glendale Street. 
Not only is Maynard suffering from a dearth of trees, it has no examples of remarkable trees. A pair of Norway spruces on Glendale Street approach 100 feet. There are sugar maples and white pines here and there that top 100 feet. Prior to the arrival of European colonists, New England’s white pines could top 160 feet, sugar maples 135 feet, eastern hemlock 130 feet, and tulip poplar trees 120 feet. Groves of 100-foot tall trees with trunks exceeding three feet in diameter were common, likewise trees 300 to 500 years old.    

The dearth of big trees rests on our history. To the colonists of the 1600s, every tree deserved an ax. Wood burning for household heat was so profligate that visitors from England wrote home that people were so extravagant as to having more than one fire burning at the same time! By 1850, more than half of New England was field or pasture, the remaining forests were second or third growth, good for firewood but not lumber. Locally, much of what had grown in abandoned farmland was leveled by the 1938 hurricane. A fair guess is that Maynard is home to no trees more than 200 years old, and that the majority is under 100 years old. What we have are adults with growing ongoing.


European copper beech, Acton Street, Maynard, MA.
Estimated 90' tall and 90' wide. 
EXTRA: there are two European copper beeches that may be the largest-trunked trees in Maynard. One is next to St. Bridget's Church. The other is in a side yard on the west side of Acton Street. The oldest known introduction of copper beeches to the United States dates to around 1830.
The church beech may have been planted when the building was completed, in 1884. It has a girth of 14'11' at four feet from the ground, meaning a diameter of roughly 4.75 feet. European beech trees can reach ages of 250 to 300 years and diameters of 10 feet, with a few exceptional trees exceeding 500 years and diameters of 20 feet. Maynard's two stately copper beeches will likely be with us and holding us in awe for decades into the future.

The Town was designated a Tree City USA in 1999 and 2000, and refiled the necessary documentation for re-certification in 2001. Allowed to lapse, but applied and approved in 2016. The DPW Highway Department is responsible for the maintenance of all public shade trees.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Never Eat Lobster Alone

For the English colonists who started arriving on the American coast in large numbers during the 1600s, lobster was what you ate if you could not catch enough fish. In fact, lobster was used as bait for fish. Lobster developed a reputation as hardship food, and food for the poor. All along the coastal communities, it is bandied about that indentured servants were known to complain if they were fed lobster too often. What changed all this – what converted lobster from poor man’s to rich man’s food – was a combination of the canning industry and the restaurant industry.  

Industrial canning and transportation by steamship and railroad developed in the mid-1800s. Inland, where a person would never in their lifetime see a live lobster, canned lobster was a reasonably priced commodity. The Burnham & Morrill Company was one of the early lobster canneries in existence in Maine, now better known for its B&M baked beans. Lobsters were still so plentiful that anything under three pounds was thrown back as not worth the labor needed to remove the meat for canning. Upper-class restaurants in Boston and New York began offering fresh-cooked lobster. The doings of the well-off were grist for gossipy newspapers, then trickled down to the upper middle classes.

Lobsters can exceed 25 pounds and be more than 50 years old.

Thorstein Veblen, a noted economist and sociologist best known for his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, popularized the concept of “conspicuous consumption.” The term refers to spending money on luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power. While initially applied to the very wealthy, who might have large properties, yachts, etc., in this country it expanded in time to the fuzzy-edged definition of middle class, where discretionary income (or modest inherited wealth) allowed displays such as trading in for a new car every year or two, vacationing in Europe – and serving lobster (or caviar, or expensive wines) to one’s guests at celebratory events.  

The economists’ term “Veblen goods” applies to types of luxury goods for which purchases increase as prices increase, thus running contrary to the normal laws of supply and demand, which dictate that purchases decrease as prices rise. For luxury goods, higher prices make products desirable as a status symbol. Manufacturers abet this trend by deliberately limiting supply, per prestige clothing, or else the supply may be naturally limited. Oddly, when the price of a luxury item decreases, its prestige may suffer and demand decline.    

Six Maine (Portland-bought) lobsters transported across state lines to
Massachusetts, for a celebratory group dinner.
The current world market situation for live lobster is interesting. Last year, the abrupt imposition of a Chinese 25% tariff on lobster imports from the U.S., in response to the trade war started by the U.S. government, the market for shipping live lobsters to China, which was approaching $100 million per year, crashed to near zero (Canadian lobster filled the gap). The sudden surplus depressed market prices. A year later, the tariff is still in place, but the industry adapted. “Boat price” increased from $3.92 per pound in 2017 to $4.05 in 2019 despite a larger harvest, and more to the point, growth for demand for frozen lobster tails and trendy restaurant offerings such as lobster tacos absorbed the surplus. As of June 2019, local supermarket prices for live lobster are $10-12 per pound. Going forward, a new problem affecting lobster harvesting is a shortage of bait for the traps. Quotas are being set for herring catch, which will translate to higher lobster prices as substitute bait is purchased.

Returning to the premise of the column title, “Never Eat Lobster Alone,” as noted, today, lobster is strongly identified as a prestige food and a celebratory food, meant to be eaten in public restaurants, where people can be seen by the less fortunate. Even when purchased for consumption at home, the prevailing practice is for a couple (or family) to eat lobster together on special occasions. This shared consumption is a self-confirmation of worthiness and good fortune. For all these reasons, eating a lobster alone, whether at a restaurant or at home, is counter-productive to the very idea. The mouth may say “Yes,” but the brain will say “Sad.”