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Urban Disasters


The burning of Four Courts during the Battle of Dublin, 30 June 1922, beginning of the Irish Civil War. That is the bank of the River Liffey.

…and Other Fun Stuff

The city scene is often shaped by urban disasters—fires, storms and floods—and other more happy accidents. I had to manufacture one, for example, so that “100% corner” could be vacant when the time came in 1914 for the community’s first freestanding public library. Though the image above is a renowned European example, there are ample cases to draw on in middling American towns like Agincourt, such as the destruction shown here in Loraine, Ohio, of about the same time (June 1924) or an undated flood in Topeka, KS.

Undated flood, Topeka, KS

Tornado damage June 1924, Lorain, OH

Unidentified train wreck

Since other “random” events like this were bound to occur, do you think we should employ some instrument of chance? An Acts-of-God lottery driven by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Many of these things should simply be taken from my hands and left to a roll of the dice.

Candidates might include:

  • FIRE (lightening)
  • FIRE (accident)
  • FIRE (arson)

What have I overlooked?

The Old Urbanism (1.5)

Several years ago, as a grad student in American History, one of my seminars required a paper on American history prior to 1850. Happily for me, that precluded the Civil War, which, along with most other wars, is of very little interest to me. In consultation with the instructor Cathy Matson, we settled on something involving Philadelphia, being one of the few urban areas nearby with a significant amount of unpublished historical material. As I’ve written here before, the initial topic was interesting but probably not going anywhere worthwhile, so it morphed into a study of the Thomas Holmes plan for Philadelphia of 1683.

Among the several things that have been written about old Philadelphia — essentially between South and Vine streets and running between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers — its cartesian grid is guilty of being boring. One of my discoveries put that popular conception to rest; it is, in fact, a highly articulated pattern and surprisingly mathematical. But back to the boredom.

Even the most rudimentary of urban grids has texture. Its blocks are divided into lots which almost invariably run N-S or E-W, such that street corners favor one of the intersecting rights-of-way and one of those streets will be more active than its right-angled counterpart: You are either looking at the front of a building or its side elevation. In the case of my own city, its principle thoroughfares run east-west, and consequentially its business fronts face north or south. Observing the revitalization of the CBD during the past twenty-five years I’ve developed an informal theory that south-facing business fronts are more likely to rent than those which face north and, therefore get very little natural light. Couple that with the current preference for darkened glass windows and the prevalence for neon “OPEN” signs makes sense.

Whether that observation was part of my thinking in creating the Agincourt townsite, Broad Street avoids that issue because all of its businesses face either east or west. The few stores around the corners on the avenues are minimized. So when I run across postcard views like this¹, I get excited because they’re fair game for conscription into the project.

The scale and stylistic “age” of these stores suggest construction in the 1880s — notice the 1877 date in one pediment — and, perhaps, on the “poorer” end of Broad Street [that being another aspect of gridded townsites: there is a “right” and “wrong” side of the tracks, but that’s a story for another time]. Happily, this card isn’t cluttered with labelling, so I can adapt it with impunity for our purposes.

¹ The town is Brainerd, Nebraska, and is currently being auctioned off at an opening bid of $42.00, far too rich for my pocketbook.

Agincourt goes on-line!

Unless something really unforeseen gets in the way, the Agincourt Project will be going on-line during the next few months. That means several things:

  • We’ll be working with a computer-knowledgeable person (i.e., not me) to whip this thing into some sort of negotiable state.
  • It means trimming the content down by about 90% (i.e., eliminating all my fulmination about the current state of politics and my bowels).
  • There will be wondrous new tools for getting around the site, an improved search engine, and other guideposts.
  • The appearance will, I hope, be stylish—at least my notion of style—without being slick. Remember that admonition: Nothing looks so old as that which once looked so new. so I’d vastly prefer tasteful rather than a la mode.

I do have one concern, which I suppose should have been broached long before now: Who owns copyright? Given that things on the web tend to outlast their creators, that’s an issue requiring some attention. Though the notion of having “literary executors” is pretty far-fetched.




I’m told by reliable authorities that our part of Iowa is Milwaukee Road country. Technically, that’s the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul & Pacific railway in its current iteration, shown here in a route map from earlier in the company’s history. That has implications for Agincourt in how directly the city is connected to the mainlines; whether it’s a spur or loop.

It also narrows the types of depots built along its route, varying with time and community size. I’d like it to have been something like this one from Pulaski, Iowa, date unknown. I’m fairly certain this was a Milwaukee Road station, because I found another preserved example from LaMotte, IA from circa 1911 that is damned close to being a twin to Pulaski.  The door and adjacent window are reversed, the brackets are a bit different, and the siding runs opposite, but this is substantially the same. That difference in siding looks like a change in style from the 1880s to post-1900. Chances are very good that Agincourt’s earlier depots — I have no idea how many there may have been — might have been built on this pattern.