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Remember the Alamo

Posted in United States  by admin on December 17th, 2009

The Alamo, officially named the San Antonio de Valero Mission, is a former mission and military fort in San Antonio, Texas. It is now a museum drawing people interested in Texas history. When people say “Remember the Alamo”, they are referring to a significant battle in Texas’s Revolution against Mexico. The entire event lasted for thirteen days in February and March of 1836. It is famous for heavy rebel losses and illustrious participants, including the Mexican President Santa Anna and David Crockett.

This mission was first conceived of in 1716 and a Spanish viceroy authorized its construction. As the first in a chain of missions along the San Antonio River, it was intended as a vocational school for Native Americans after their conversion to Christianity. Training options included cattle-raising, weaving, carpentry, and stone masonry. However, the church was not completed until 1757, and mission activity was already waning by the mid-1760s! The Church abandoned the site by the 1790s.

Spanish soldiers, noting the defensive potential of the mission’s 12-foot walls, took over in 1803. In the coming years, Spain and Mexico would battle for control of land in North America. After the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, Texas became part of Mexican territory; it was part of a new state called “Coahila y Tejas”.

The Mexican government encouraged people from the US to settle this land. Hundreds of families, both American and Mexican, accepted the invitation. However, after the land became settled and colonists formed provincial governments, the Mexican government increased centralization of power.

Settlers became uncomfortable with President Santa Anna’s centralizing of government. In their view, the 1824 Constitution of Mexico guaranteed stronger states’ rights. Meanwhile, part of the centralization plan included dividing Coahila y Tejas into two states, one of which was Tejas.

Coahila soon seceded to become part of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande. Tejas declared its independence on March 2, 1835 and named itself the Republic of Texas. Settlers provoked the Mexican government early on by taking over military positions in La Bahia and San Antonio. In response, Santa Anna assembled 6,500 soldiers and led many to San Antonio’s Alamo Mission. Thousands of men may have deserted before arrival, but still, they greatly outnumbered the rebels fortressed in the Alamo.

Although they received reinforcements, the Texan rebels were outnumbered and could not sustain more than two weeks of attacks which inside their fortress. Ultimately, the Mexicans penetrated the old mission and killed most of the remaining soldiers through hand-to-hand combat. When the fighting was over, the Mexican forces left only sixteen alive. Most of these survivors were women, slaves, and children.

Although the revolutionaries did not win the Battle of the Alamo, their battle benefited the rebels’ cause overall. Emotionally, the battle stirred up settlers all across Texas and increased their resolve against President Santa Anna. Strategically, Santa Anna’s troops were stalled at the Alamo for two weeks. This allowed General Houston to assemble soldiers and supplies for a critical upcoming battle. Houston would later defeat Mexico in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna would be captured while sneaking off the next day, and the revolutionaries would go on to win their independence. From 1836 to 1845, the Republic of Texas would be a sovereign state between the US and Mexico.

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The Washington Monument

Posted in Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on November 30th, 2009

The Washington Monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Washington, D.C., is truly a city landmark. The 555-foot tall obelisk has punctuated the National Mall since 1884. It honors George Washington, “Father of the United States”, who was unanimously elected the nation’s first President.

When George Washington died in 1799, Congress praised him as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Politicians proposed a Washington monument in the early 1800s, but they disagreed about details. For example, should the monument include Washington’s tomb? Would it be appropriate to depict him in ancient Greek style? When a statue was eventually presented, people objected to the half-clad classical Greek sort of George. Congressional quibbling ultimately led to the creation of a private monument foundation.

The National Monument Society was formed in 1833. The members raised a considerable amount of money within a few years, and in 1836 they announced a design competition for the memorial.

An artist named Robert Mills submitted the winning design. He proposed a 600-foot obelisk that would protrude from a circular base. The base and obelisk would be decorated with statues and frescoes of national heroes, including a toga-clad George Washington in a horse-drawn chariot. In the end, however, the obelisk would be a bit shorter, and the artist’s plan for statues and frescoes would not be realized.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid amid great celebration in 1848. Ceremonially, the National Monument Society ensured that the stone was set with the same trowel George Washington had used when setting the Capitol’s cornerstone years earlier. The city celebrated that night with fireworks.

With the cornerstone set, the National Monument Society increased its efforts to fund the project. Ordinary citizens were urged to pledge $1 each. Businesses, professional organizations, foreign governments and Native American tribes contributed stones. Sometimes the stone donations were engraved with messages that didn’t speak to the theme of George Washington; one block of stone read, “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.” Engraved stones make up interior walls of the hollow monument.

Scandal erupted around a stone donation in 1854, and the entire project came to a halt. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party stole and smashed a donation made by Pope Pius IX. They dumped the stone chips into the Potomac River. This resulted in Congress rescinding an approval for $200,000 in memorial funds. The Know-Nothings then assumed management of the monument society, but their legacy is unimpressive. Everything they added to the monument was eventually removed, and no real progress was made until after the Civil War.

Because of the cut in funding, the monument ended up being shorter than originally planned, and without the statues envisioned by Mills. A lag in construction time also led to stone being sourced from different quarry layers, so the coloring of the monument is not uniform.

Work was finally completed in 1884. The monument, though short of its goal, was the largest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed five years later. It was much larger than the Egyptian obelisks that inspired it; these are typically about 100 feet tall. The walls were made fifteen feet thick at the base and narrowed to 18 inches near the top. The monument was capped with a 100-ounce aluminum pyramid. At the time, aluminum was scarce and was valued like silver. This was the largest cast-aluminum item in the world.

Starting in 1888, adult male visitors were allowed to travel up the Washington Monument in a twenty-minute steam-powered elevator ride. Somehow the ride was deemed too risky for women and children; they would have to climb the 800 stairs for a view! Progressively speedier elevators were installed since then, and for safety reasons people are now forbidden to use the stairs.

From the top of the Washington Monument, tourists can see most of Washington, D.C. as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia. In March and April, flowering cherry trees can be spotted in West Potomac Park below.

History and Attractions of Boston Common

Posted in Modern & Historical Art, Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on November 10th, 2009

Boston Common is the oldest city park in the United States. The eccentric William Blaxton settled the land, all alone with his books, in the 1620s. In 1634 he sold the land to English Puritan colonists for use as a shared cow and sheep pasture. Each household contributed six shillings to the purchase. Eventually, the land was also used for military training, sometimes by colonists and sometimes by their British occupiers. Until 1817, the land was Boston’s site for public hangings. Livestock grazing was banned in 1830.

In modern times, Boston Common serves mainly as a recreation center. It anchors Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”, a chain of parks that runs about seven miles through the city. The park itself measures about forty-four acres.As one of the nation’s oldest landmarks, Boston Common has become rich with items of historical interest. The park is home to the Central Burying Ground, one of Boston’s first
graveyards. Among those buried there are choral composer William Billings, portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, and many casualties of the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. Unfortunately, the subway tunneling of 1894 disturbed more than 900 (perhaps 2,000) of the cemetery’s deceased residents! They were later reburied, and a tablet marks the location of the event.

Several monuments can be spotted throughout the Common. The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, for example, is a Civil War monument honoring the first free black regiment in the Union Army. (Shaw commanded the all-volunteer regiment and is depicted in the Hollywood film “Glory”.) Another impressive Civil War sculpture is The Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Located atop the Common’s Flagstaff Hill, this neoclassical work of art rises an impressive 126 feet. Elsewhere, in the park’s Parkman Plaza, statues pay homage to the ideals of Industry, Learning, and Religion.With so many acres of green space, the park has hosted many large public events. In 1713 a public riot broke out in response to a food shortage. Two hundred people were present, and the lieutenant governor was shot during the chaos. A century and half later, in 1969, a Vietnam protest drew 100,000 people. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope John Paul II also drew large crowds for their speeches. The park’s Parkman Bandstand holds smaller crowds for plays and concerts.

Boston Common is full of longstanding attractions for people of all ages. The Public Garden was established in 1837 as the nation’s oldest botanical garden. Prior to that time, the land had been a salty swamp. The 24-acre garden is especially famous for its fleet of swan-shaped boats. Weather permitting, visitors ride the boats from spring through autumn.

The Frog Pond is another popular destination within the park. The Frog Pond is a popular children’s wading pool in the summer. During the brisk Boston winters, it freezes into an ice skating rink. When the Frog Pond first opened in 1848, school was closed for a day just so children could play in the fountain! Today the Tadpole Playground is adjacent.

Boston Common is flanked by other points of interest, such as: the Massachusetts State House, which stands to the north; Park Street Station – America’s first subway station – in the eastern corner; and Boylston Street Station – America’s second subway station – to the south. For those who prefer to walk, the Freedom Trail (a popular walking tour) also starts to the south of Boston Common at the Visitor Center.

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Mammoth Cave National Park

Posted in Modern & Historical Art, Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on July 21st, 2009

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky includes the most extensive cave system known in the world. More than 367 miles of cave passageways have been mapped, and there may be more miles still uncharted. The national park preserves this cave system along with Kentucky’s Green River Valley and the surrounding hills. Since becoming a national park in 1941, the area has also been designated a World Heritage Site and an international Biosphere Reserve.

Mammoth Cave started to develop 350 million years ago in a layer of limestone. Over 70 million years, water slowly dissolved the stone and left the extensive network of tunnels. Then a new layer of rock, sandstone, formed a stable roof for the tunnels. Different layers of tunnels were formed by the Ohio River during the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods. Most of the caves are now dry, but the lower level of tunnels continues to be carved by the Green River, which is 450 feet underground. It can be seen outside, where it emerges along the eastern border of the park. When the river floods, whirlpools swell back into the cave system; similar whirlpools formed the cave’s larger rooms millions of years ago.

Anthropologists believe that Native Americans first found the caves about four thousand years ago. Artifacts like torches, pottery, woven cloth and petroglyphs show that people explored the cave network for two thousand years. They likely lived at the entrances and mined the tunnels for salt, gypsum, mirabilite and other minerals.

Why did the natives leave the area? Nobody knows for certain, but a gruesome 20th century points clearly in one direction. In 1935, cave guides found the mummified remains of a gypsum miner. He’d been crushed by a 5-ton boulder! Park officials named him “Lost John”. Several other ancient bodies were preserved in Mammoth Cave, and most seem to have buried there on purpose. One mummy was sold to P. T. Barnum. Lost John was displayed until the 1970s, when he was given a proper burial.

White settlers first arrived in the 18th century. Miners starting taking saltpeter (potassium or calcium nitrate crystals) in 1792; it was used to make gunpowder. The saltpeter demand dwindled after the War of 1812, but word of the unusually large cave system spread. Mammoth Cave quickly became a tourist attraction. By 1816, crowds of people in formal attire chiseled their names and the date into the cave walls. (Nowadays, people are encouraged to wear sneakers, and the practice of leaving messages is forbidden.)

Under the direction of a slave-owner and prospector named Franklin Gorin, a 17-year-old slave named Stephen Bishop began charting much of the network in 1830. Bishop was praised for his genius in many areas, and he excelled in geology. He explored the caves for many years and was the first to cross the now-famous Bottomless Pit. This opened the cave to further exploration. In 1839 he found two rivers and their odd eyeless inhabitants. In 1840 he discovered Mammoth Dome, a 192-foot tall structure draped in stalactites. Stephen’s discoveries continued until his death in 1857

Today the National Park Service makes many tours available. These range from the hour-long Mammoth Passage Tour, which is less than a mile long, to the 6-hour Wild Cave Tour that passes through five miles of the cave network. Some tours are pre-lit, but others require tourists to carry a paraffin lamp. Photography and videotaping are allowed. The cave is always chilly, so visitors are advised to bring a warm layer of clothing.

Explorers might spot some of 130 rare animal species. These include bats, beetles, fish, and the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp. It is blind and albino; there is little need for sight or pigment in the depths of a cave. At least eleven other Mammoth Cave species are eyeless and unpigmented.

After the darkness of spelunking, cave visitors might enjoy catching sunlight along Mammoth Cave National Park’s 70 miles of trails. These are open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.

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