I’ve just finished a book I’d forgotten I had in my library, an 1863 account of the daring attempt by a group of some 20 Union soldiers to steal a railroad locomotive near Marietta, Georgia, and hightail it back toward north Alabama and Union lines, burning bridges and destroying the rails along the way.

It’s called “Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure,” and it was written by William Pittenger, one of the soldiers who took part, after he was released from a Confederate prison almost a year after he was captured when the raid failed.

If you grew up, as I did, in north Georgia, you know the outlines of the story (or if you ever watched the Walt Disney movie, “The Great Locomotive Chase”): J.J. Andrews, a civilian Union spy from Kentucky, led a group of 20 men, almost all of them from an Ohio regiment, who took over a train, the General, in the midst of a Confederate military camp in Marietta, near Atlanta, and then headed north, cutting the telegraph line to prevent anyone from alerting those along their path.

If Andrews had succeeded, Chattanooga would have been cut off from reinforcements and perhaps would have fallen to Union forces, Knoxville might have been taken, and Union troops could have swept up the Shenandoah Valley, attacking Robert E. Lee in his rear and ending the war.

But that did not happen.

Instead, an intrepid railroad conductor, William Fuller, chased Andrews and his men in the locomotive Texas, the General ran out of fuel just south of Chattanooga, the raiders fled, were captured and eight of them, including Andrews, were hanged and eventually buried in the military cemetery in Chattanooga. The survivors, including Pittenger, were the first U.S. troops to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The General now resides in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in Kennesaw, while the Texas graces the front of the Atlanta History Center, which also includes the gigantic Cyclorama painting of the Battle of Atlanta.

Pittenger’s account includes details of how the raid failed as well as how close it came to success, plus a good look at life in northwest Georgia during the war. As one example, he notes how many Union sympathizers there were in East Tennessee, many of them imprisoned for their views, and even insists that there was a group of about 400 Unionists in Atlanta, some of whom smuggled cash and provided other assistance to the “engine thieves,” as Confederate newspapers called Andrews’ raiders, when they were imprisoned there.

He reveals that his raid was actually the second attempt to destroy the rail line–Andrews was in Atlanta with a group of raiders months earlier but the engineer who was to meet them and drive the train north was assigned elsewhere so they returned to the Union troops who at that time had advanced past Nashville to Murfreesboro.

The raid failed, according to Pittenger, for two reasons – Fuller’s unexpectedly energetic pursuit, but also the unexpected presence of three southbound trains on the single Chattanooga-Atlanta rail line, that required them to stop and allow them to pass.

According to an excerpt from an Atlanta Confederate newspaper’s account of the raid (which Pittenger includes), the troops, railroad personnel, and passengers were stunned when Andrews’ men uncoupled all but three cars from the engine and suddenly steamed northward. There was general laughter however, the newspaper reported, when Fuller and an engineer started out in pursuit, on foot.

But after running several miles, Fuller encountered a work crew with a hand car that could be propelled on the rails manually, which speeded his chase.

Andrews, expecting no immediate pursuit, stopped to destroy the rails, but his men had no specialized tools and it took longer than expected to bend them out of shape. Fuller’s handcar plunged down an embankment when it encountered the gap in the rails, but no one was hurt, the handcar was placed again on the tracks, and the pursuit continued.

Again Fuller was fortunate in that a few minutes later, he encountered a locomotive on a siding, at full steam and ready to roll.

From that point, Andrews and his men never had enough time to destroy the rails or any bridges sufficiently to halt Fuller’s chase. They loaded cross ties into one of the cars they were still pulling and tossed them on the tracks behind them, but most of them bounced off the metal. An attempt to embed a rail end-on toward the pursuers failed by a matter of inches when the cowcatcher on the front of the Texas pushed it aside.

In Dalton (where I am writing this about a block and a half from the rail line used by both the General and Texas), Fuller dropped off a telegraph operator who had joined him earlier to send word ahead to Chattanooga about the raiders, only two minutes before Andrews’ men cut the line.

But the General never made it to Chattanooga, instead running out of fuel a few miles south of the city in Ringgold. Andrews’ men might have still had a chance to escape, but military authorities in Chattanooga, alerted by telegraph from Dalton, quickly organized a widespread search effort. By chance, the militia from the surrounding area were all gathered in town that day, and they spread out over the countryside, using bloodhounds to track down Andrews and his men.

Pittenger leaps from the train before it stops and quickly heads off into the woods. He is an amateur astronomer in his native Ohio, able to navigate by the stars. But on this day it is overcast and raining, and the sun provides no guidance as to north or south. At one point he walks for an hour, only to end up at the place from which he started. He knows he needs to head northwest, south of Chattanooga, to ford the Tennessee River and look for the Union lines, but he keeps ending up on the road to Chattanooga.

He hears the dogs in the distance and says he understands for the first time what it feels like to be a slave, trying to escape.

He is cold, soaking wet, hungry and exhausted from lack of sleep when several men on horseback confront him and ask where he is heading. He tries a bluff, saying he is from Kentucky, hates the Yankees, and is looking to enlist in the Confederate Army, but they are suspicious. They take him to a nearby hotel and question him about Kentucky, asking what county he is from, about its county seat, about the names of the surrounding counties. Finally he gives up, telling them he is a Union soldier but will only discuss his mission if he is taken to proper military authorities.

Pittenger is at extreme risk. He is traveling in civilian clothes, with no proof that he is a soldier, and it is easy to accuse him of being a spy, punishable by death. Once he admits his identity, he is threatened with hanging, but cooler heads prevail and he is taken to Chattanooga, where he ends up in a dismal below-ground prison with several of his fellow raiders.

From that point on, his book details almost a year in captivity. When an attack on Chattanooga seems imminent, the prisoners are moved through Atlanta to Madison. When the threat recedes, they go back to Chattanooga, where Andrews, their leader, attempts a desperate escape, fleeing from his jailers and swimming across the broad Tennessee River and hiding out on an island near present-day Moccasin Bend. He is hiding in a tree and his pursuers appear to have given up the hunt when two young boys see him and he is captured, taken to Atlanta, and hanged.

The other raiders are hauled off to Knoxville, where seven of them, chosen for no apparent reason, are courtmartialed. But there are Union attacks nearby and the raiders are moved back to Atlanta. Unexpectedly, the seven court-marshalled prisoners are taken out and hanged, leaving Pittenger and his fellows fearful of their fate.

At one point, they learn from a guard that the Secretary of War has sent a note to their jailor, asking why they have all not been executed, and they decide to make a daring attempt at an escape, overpowering their jailer and several guards. Eight of them do get away, but Pittenger does not.

He is later moved to Richmond, to a jail opposite the notorious Libby Prison where several hundred Union soldiers and Union sympathizers are held, and is eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Pittenger’s view of the South in general and northwest Georgia in particular is not a sympathetic one. There are a few “chivalrous” Confederate officials who treat the prisoners kindly, but many are filled with hate, he says, and often drunk.

He occasionally mentions “poor whites” who are illiterate and struggling to eke out a meager existence and avoid military service.

He is struck by the horrid fate of loyal Unionists, many of whom have been imprisoned in wretched conditions since the war began. Unlike the Union prisoners, they have no friends in the North or South to argue on their behalf. For much of his time in prison, he and his fellow “engine thieves” are accompanied by a group of east Tennessee Unionists, some of whom are eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Given that his book was published in 1863, before Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, he is circumspect about his friends there, except to claim that an active group of at least 400 Union supporters exists.

They provide money and information. At one point, he says, a gentleman tosses a newspaper into their cell and whispers “from a friend” before disappearing.

There are also several spies. One joins the crowd of locals crowding into the jail to see the Yankee thieves, but he is confronted the following day and makes his escape only by dashing aboard a train pulling out of the station. Another, arrested and confined with Pittenger, pretends to be drunk and then steals the coat of his jailer to saunter past the unsuspecting guards.

Pittenger is a devoted abolitionist and is pleased that most of the African-Americans he encounters understand that the Union is fighting for their freedom. He initially underestimates how much they know about the progress of the war, but in prison soon learns that while they may be assigned to menial labor, they are valuable allies in smuggling in contraband and local newspapers.

Pittenger survived the war and became a minister, his faith strengthened by his experiences.

His book is a reminder that while there are over-arching themes to history, there are also hundreds of thousands of individual stories, where the slightest change in circumstances are the difference between life and death.

But it is also a testament to the determination and bravery of the U.S. forces who persevered to destroy the privileged Southern planter aristocracy and end the wretched institution of slavery. That they did not also demolish the oppressive economic system in the South that impoverished both poor blacks and whites and persisted for another 100 years is not the fault of Pittenger and the other courageous soldiers who accompanied him. Their Medal of Honor and the thanks of their countrymen and women were justly deserved.

I wrote this in August of 2019, six months before the Iowa caucuses.

Nope, I didn’t get it all right.

I missed Mike Bloomberg and the Black Lives Matter movement and thought Biden would pick Elizabeth Warren as his VP. And Covid 19, tho by that time the race was over.

But I did predict Biden would finish no better than 3d or 4th in IA and NH, but would win SC and then do well on March 3. I thought the Dems might be headed for a contested convention, tho predicted Biden would win on the second ballot because of the Super Delegates, most of whom supported him.

It’s a good reminder of all of the twists and turns of our lengthy presidential campaigns, even though Biden lead this one in the polls almost from the outset.

Anyway, here’s my August post:

Ladies and gentlemen…I believe it is time to prognosticate. The Iowa caucuses are less than 6 months away, and it is less than 7 until March 3, the monster knockout Super Tuesday vote. 

I’m looking for the primary winner, VP, how it unfolds, and a prediction for the general. We want multiple chances for glory or embarrassment.

In fairness, I’ll go first:

Joe Biden will win the Democratic nomination, choose Elizabeth Warren as his VP, and defeat Donald Trump in a landslide.

Um, how? Basically, the race will narrow to Biden, Warren and Bernie, Biden will have a plurality but not a majority at the Dem convention, but on the second ballot, when the 700+ super delegates can first vote, they will put him over the top.The key is March 3. The following states vote: California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, AlabamaArkansasColoradoMaineMassachusettsMinnesotaOklahomaTennesseeUtah and Vermont. That is a HUGE cache of delegates, more than ever before. Only those candidates receiving at least 15% of the vote in a congressional district get delegates, so essentially, after March 3, everybody except the top 3-4 are out cuz they will be so far behind in delegates there is no way to catch up.

The top 3-4? My take is that Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will be a wash. Biden will place no better than third in Iowa and New Hampshire, but will win South Carolina. Nobody will care about Nevada (tho Warren will win). Bernie and Warren will split New Hampshire.

So what about Harris or Buttigieg or Booker? If they are going to have any chance on March 3, they have to make a dramatic breakthrough in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina and that is very hard. Harris might finish second in Iowa (to Warren) and third in New Hampshire (to Warren and Bernie) and if she won South Carolina, she might get enough press to boost her on Mar. 3. But today’s Post and Courier South Carolina poll shows her in 4th place, behind Biden, Warren and Sanders. Hard to make that up while also spending lots of time Iowa and New Hampshire. And then there is her problem in California, her home state. She has three polls from six weeks ago showing her narrowly winning. But one from three weeks ago shows her trailing Biden/Warren/Sanders. If she doesn’t win IA/NH/SC or NV and places 2d or 3d in her home state, where does she win?
Buttigieg and Booker have worse problems. It is hard to see either winning IA/NH/SC or NV and even if they do, and get decent publicity, that seems unlikely to put them ahead of Biden/Warren/Sanders on Mar. 3.

Why Biden? March 3. He will do well in Texas (most polls have him beating Beto) and Alabama and NC and VA and it is just too expensive for the other candidates to campaign in all of those places. We’ve had two debates, and he has gotten almost no positive stories, yet he is still leading, so the claim that his support is just from name recognition is a myth. Yeah, he’ll have gaffs, but his policy positions, IMHO, are more in line with a plurality of Dem voters and the more liberal folks (Bernie and Warren) will split the vote. 

The key here is Bernie. If he really wanted a progressive to win, he’d drop out and Warren would defeat Biden head to head. But I think the real story will be that stubborn Bernie refuses to fold, splits the liberal vote, and Biden gets a plurality.

As for that tied convention… The 700+ super delegates are mainly elected officials — senators, reps, governors, and state party officials, and I’m pretty certain that they largely favor Biden, altho poling as to how he does vs. Trump as compared to Warren might change some minds. 

Oh yeah, why pick Warren for VP? Because he’ll need to rally progressive activists more than black and Hispanic voters. He’ll count on the Obamas to help out with them. MAYBE, he promises to only serve one term, setting up Warren as his successor. Not sure how that would play out.

The general? I think the number of Dems who didn’t vote last time because, why bother, Hillary had it won, is larger than Trump’s fired-up base. Expect record turnout, but the intensity of the anti-Trump vote tops the pro-Trump folks. He loses FL, PA, MI, WI, NC, and maybe even TX or GA. 

Your turn…

I’m going to add a post linking to some of the better stories I’ve done recently. I’ve left my position as a journalism professor to move back to reporting, covering healthcare, which is a fascinating and a bit challenging subject. But I also get a few non-health stories as well.

There’s a fun local road up the side of Signal Mountain called the W Road (that is the actual name) because of some hairpin turns shaped like, well, a W (or an M, depending on your perspective). Big trucks always ignore the warning signs and get stuck in the turns and have to be towed out.

If you are a senior, the fear of falling can be almost as bad as the falls themselves.

A new study says doctors should push to lower patients blood pressure to a systolic level of 120 (that’s the top number).

For about a dozen years now, there has been a push to recreate the Tennessee River’s population of lake sturgeon, which grow to be rather large. Now those efforts seem to be reaching fruition. 

Chattanooga’s air quality has improved dramatically since 1969, when it was rated the most polluted city in America.

A look at how the marketplace is shaping up in Tennessee.

In a pilot program, surgeons at Erlanger Hospital will use 3D printers to make models of  diseased organs before surgery.

Everyone needs a flu shot doctors now say, or else you can lock yourself up alone all winter.

A new program will offer halfway homes for teenagers who turn 18 and are too old for foster care. I just noticed that the AP picked this up, which is why this clip is not from the Times-Free Press.

A new adult day care care that offers comprehensive medical treatment as well is an alternative to nursing homes.


ApplePhotosApple’s new Photos app has a clean interface and seems to be faster at moving through large volumes of photos.

But it offers almost no new photo editing capabilities, leaving the app as a so-so beginner-level photo processing tool.

What’s worse, Apple is trying to tie it to a new iCloud photo sharing scheme that will cost most users $20 per month for a service of limited utility.

Thankfully, there are better, cheaper alternatives.

Apple Photos is intended to replace both iPhotos, the venerable photo editing app that comes free with all Macs, and Aperture, a more advanced software program aimed at professional photographers. It also shares more of the look and feel of Apple’s photo apps on the iPhone and iPad, making it easier to move from one device to another.

The look and feel of the new program is completely different from iPhoto. Gone are the gray backgrounds, replaced by a clean white design.

You can’t just go to the Apple store and download Photos. It is part of the latest update (10.10.3) to Apple’s operating system, Yosemite. It took me about 45 minutes to download and launch the upgrade and then when I launched Photos, it took another hour to load the 10,000 photos from my iPhoto library.

Right off the bat, you’re asked whether you also want to upload your photos to Apple’s iCloud remote storage system. The advantages of doing so seem obvious, but Apple does not tell you what it costs, at least not at this point in the process. If you do upload your photos, they are then accessible from any other Apple device you own, such as an iPhone or iPad. The actual photos reside on Apple’s servers, but a thumbnail is downloaded to your devices, so the shared photos don’t take up all of your limited iPhone or iPad storage space. When you click on the thumbnaijl, an image sized appropriately for your device is downloaded. In addition, when you edit one of the photos, the edited version appears in seconds on all of your other devices.

It’s a cool feature, but I question whether it is worth the money. Money? Did I mention what this costs? Apple gives you 5 gigabytes of storage for free. For $1 per month, you get 20 gigs; for $4 you get 200 gigs; or $20 for a terabyte. That sounds reasonable (I paid $100 annually for the old dot.mac service), but consider the competition. Google gives you 15 gigs for free, and 100 gigs for $1.99. A terabyte will set you back $10 a month, half what Apple charges.

But why pay at all when Flickr gives you a terabyte for free? Yep, venerable old Flickr, owned by Yahoo, wants NOTHING for the privilege of storing your photos. Flickr has an app for your iPhone or iPad so you have access to all of your photos on any device. Yes, there are limitations: Flickr has no editing tools whatsoever, so you have to clean up your photos elsewhere and then upload them. And no, if you edit your photos on your home computer or iPhone, the edits don’t show up elsewhere.

But how often do you edit your photos anyway? Not much? Then none of this matters. You’re looking for the lowest price and free beats not-free. You regularly do heavy editing? Then Photos is not very useful to you anyway.

Photos has basic photo editing options. You can crop the photo, adjust the color to get rid of the blue tint you got from standing too close to a fluorescent light, get rid of red-eye, and change the white and black levels to sharpen the contrast. There are adjustments for sharpening the focus, adding some silly Instagram-ish tints, lightening shadows and darkening highlights.

But all of these adjustments apply to the photo as a whole. If your subject is sitting in front of a window and silhouetted by the bright back-light, you can lighten their face, but only by brightening the overall image. You can’t just go in and lighten only the face.

Adobe’s Photoshop allows you to do this and that’s one of the reasons it is the gold standard of photo editing. Photoshop has multiple selection tools, so you can choose and manipulate every element in an image. In addition, Photoshop allows you to superimpose one image over or under another and then play with the way they combine. Or you can clone one part of an image to cover up something else, an often under-appreciated feature. Don’t like the light switch sticking out of your subject’s head? Just clone the blank wall adjacent to the switch to cover it up. Or if the color is uniform, select the paint tool and paint it away.

Photos has no such tools. In fact, it has nothing that really improves on its predecessor. And the tools it does have are hidden where many users won’t find them.

Open Photos and go to the main screen to edit your images and you may be baffled. Apple design guru Jonny Ives loves to strip down products to their most basic form, but here he has pushed form over function and the result is a botch. if you look long enough, you’ll see a very small “Edit” button at upper right. Click on that, and you will see links to seven options: Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust, Retouch and Red-eye. Five of them, Rotate, Enhance, Red-Eye, Crop and Retouch, are all part of the Quick Fixes in the old iPhoto. I stared at them for a long time trying to figure out if that was all there was. Eventually, after clicking on each option several times, I noticed that when I clicked on the Adjust link, an Add link appeared at upper right. What could that possibly lead to?

Oh my! An entire set of advanced photo editing tools are all here, buried two clicks deep. The Add button allows you to add a Histogram plus Sharpen, Definition, Noise Reduction, Vignette, White Balance and Levels options to your screen. Closer examination, however, reveals that none of this is new. The old iPhoto also had an Adjust option, but it was in a large tab at the top, next to Quick Fixes and Effects. In iPhoto you get your histogram, and you can adjust for Sharpness, Definition, and to tweak Noise, Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Highlights, Shadows, Temperature and Tint. I haven’t compared every option, but they seem identical even if a couple of labels have been changed.

So where does that leave us? Basically, back where we started. iPhoto, an under-achieving photo editing tool, has been replaced by Photos, which strives for no higher ground. Perhaps Apple has a secret project to create a serious rival to Photoshop, which has angered many semi-professional users by switching to a monthly rental fee to access the program.

Photos is certainly not that alternative. Yes, it appears to be faster than iPhoto, but it offers no improvements for editing. That’s a disappointment, given the Mac’s tradition as the world’s premier graphics computer. There are promising alternatives (see our review of Affinity’s Photo, above) and my bet is that several challengers to Adobe will soon appear on the scene. It’s too bad that Apple is not among them.


Affinity Photo, a new image manipulation app released in beta last month, just may be what Adobe-hating Photoshop users have been looking for — a professional level photo editing program that does not require a monthly payment to Adobe.

Let me be clear at the outset here — I love Photoshop. It is a wonder and has been my favorite app since the first time I saw it at a trade show in Atlanta way back when it would only work in black and white.

What I don’t like is Adobe’s pricing scheme, that requires me to pay a monthly fee instead of outright selling me the program. Yes, I know, I can get Photoshop alone for as little as $10, per month, at least for now, but I would be locked in to Adobe, and if for some reason I decided not to pay, whoosh — Photoshop no longer works on my computer.

There are a number of rivals to Photoshop out there such as Pixelmator or GIMP or even Photoshop Elements. But none of them are full-featured professional image editing programs.

So that’s why I’m intrigued by Affinity, which I’ve been trying out over the past few weeks. It’s not (yet) a Photoshop killer, but it has a depth of features that should have the folks at Adobe looking nervously over their shoulder. If this is what is in the beta, then where will the program be in a couple of years?

First off, go download the free beta yourself. It seems to be bug-free and most everything is working.

I had two main impressions when I first opened the program: 1) This looks a lot like Photoshop, and 2) Wow, there are a lot of features.

The left side of the screen really resembles Photoshop’s tool bar, from the arrangement of the tools right down to the icons. Click on the Blur icon, e.g., and out pop alternate choices for Sharpen and Smudge, just as in Photoshop.

On the righthand side of the screen, however, things are different — there are icons that duplicate much of the functionality of Photoshop’s Adjustment menu. Click each one and an adjustment option opens, with a slider to change the intensity of the effect.

At the top right is a row of abbreviations. Click each one and the menu below changes. In addition to the Adjustments menu I just mentioned, there is one for a histogram, color, swatches, brush shape and hardness, layers, effects such as bevel and glow, a styles option that I can’t figure out, and a link to Shutterstock for stock photos.

One nice improvement over Photoshop is a “before/after” toggle for most of the options that lets you drag a vertical bar left and right to preview and review the effect.

I use Photoshop CS6, primarily to edit photos, and in several days of playing with Affinity Photo, I haven’t discovered any feature in Photoshop that I’m missing in Photo, although I’m certain there are some, because both programs offer so many options.

Affinity Photo also has a series of “personas” or modes that offer additional functionality. A Liquefy persona overlays a mesh over your image, allowing you to warp portions of it. There is a Develop persona that is still in development and apparently offers features for Camera Raw editing. And there is a Sharing persona that allows you to export your image. The logic for making these features “personas” doesn’t seem clear. Editing Camera RAW images seems to be a major feature set, while the Warp feature is very similar to other relatively minor menu items. And there is yet another icon, this one NOT a persona, that offers a range of options to determine how objects snap to a grid or to each other.

That’s my one reason for caution in recommending Affinity Photo. I’ve gone through most of the menus and clicked on the icons and adjusted sliders on several dozen effects, but I have not come close to testing all of the options in the program. it seems to meet my needs for photo editing, but your experience may differ. But the current free beta seems like a great opportunity to find out.

The pricing for Affinity Photo has not been set, but Serif, the company behind the program, already offers Affinity Designer, an Illustrator alternative that launched in June, for $49.99. I think it is certainly worth a try. Adobe badly needs some serious competition.


Well, at least the basic version is free.

Go to vennage.com to sign up.

They have a lot of basic templates for charts and a decent selection of infographic templates as well.

For $19.95 per month, you get a few more templates, in particular, a map of the U.S. that allows you to display data for each state, plus the ability to publish your graphic as a pdf file. Of course, with the free version you can just do a screen grab and embed that. With the free version, you can only have five infographics live at a time, which might crimp your style for regular usage, but isn’t an issue for occasional work.

The graphic above is one I created for a class, using some data from a Google Forms survey asking students where they ate on campus in the previous week.

Every part of the template is customizable, generally by clicking on the element, which opens up a panel.

If you’ve discovered a better free or inexpensive tool for creating charts and infographics, let me know.


KnightLabs is giving away a nice tool to create timelines, using Google Spreadsheets.

I was trying to embed it here but realized I can’t do that since I’m using WordPress.com instead of WordPress.org, so that type of embed is not allowed.

But you can click on the link to see the timeline live.

It all works off of a Google spreadsheet that organizes the media and text, which is then published to the Web and a link thereto is embedded in your blog.

Seems to be very powerful, though I have yet to play around with trying to change the media.


In 1902, long before any sign of Ebola or the creation of the Centers for Disease Control, a small cluster of hospital buildings on a little more than 25 acres of land in the middle of New York harbor were the main U.S. defense against infectious diseases carried by the millions of immigrants streaming into the country from all over the world.

Most of us know the story of the main processing building on Ellis Island and its cavernous hall where some 12 million people were screened before being sent on their way into Manhattan, New Jersey, or points farther north, south or west.

But about a tenth of those immigrants, some one million, only made it off the island after spending time in the two-story cluster of brick and plaster buildings directly across a small harbor from the main building — the island’s medical facilities. Bustling in the 20 years of the island’s heyday, the examination rooms, ward rooms, kitchen, power plant, mortuary and even the prim Victorian home of the superintendent were abandoned in the 1950s, with much of the buildings’ furnishings remaining in place,

In their day, they were staffed by some of New York’s top doctors and they arguably included the best-trained and most knowledgeable infectious disease experts in the U.S. And they had to be, given the range of diseases that found their way from all corners of the globe past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island, the largely man-made stopping point built up in part by dumping debris from NYC’s newly-dug subway lines.

Think of it as an early version of today’s TSA airport screening.

The first step in the medical screening was a spiral staircase in the main building, specially requested by the doctors, who could thereby evaluate the incoming immigrants from all angles before they were even aware that they were under observation. Anyone who had difficulty climbing that one flight of stairs drew immediate attention.

If the doctors believed further investigation was needed, they put a mark on the immigrants’ clothing and sent them out from the main building down to the right through the ferry terminal, into the Y Hallway.

The hallway got its name from the way it divided at its eastern end. To the left, a corridor led to the wards where pregnant women and anyone who seemed to have mental problems were examined. To the right were the infectious disease wards, where nurses and doctors could evaluate whether their disease would soon run its course or whether the immigrants should be sent back to their homeland. Most only stayed a few days, but a couple, suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, remained on Ellis Island for more than a year, too sick either to be sent back aboard ship or allowed into the U.S.

Only a handful failed to get entry to the U.S., a little over one percent. Some 3,500 died on the island of their illnesses, most buried in a pauper’s grave near Rikers Island, unless they were fortunate enough to have their body claimed by a local relief organization from their particular religious or ethnic group.
Save Ellis Island, a non-profit group, has now been given permission to conduct tours of the abandoned medical facilities, limited to about a dozen visitors at a time. For signup information, go here.
An added treat — the French artist known as JR has enlarged a number of vintage photos of immigrants on Ellis Island and superimposed them on walls, windows and doorways at various points in the tour, bringing the hallways and ward rooms to eerie life.

QuartzCoverQuartz (qz.com) has been one of my daily must-reads since I discovered the site over a year ago. Created by Atlantic Media (which also runs The Atlantic magazine and TheWire.com) Quartz covers international business, sort of. I say sort of because, unlike the Wall Street Journal or even The Economist, Quartz makes no attempt to cover everything. Instead they focus on what they call “obsessions”, which are business topics they believe are really important. For Quartz, that includes China, India, Technology, Media and a regular list of quirky stories that often offer insight into topics you don’t know are important until Quartz writes about them.

But besides being serious, funny, and well-written, Quartz has also drawn attention for its radical Web site design. Most Web sites use a hub-and-spoke design, with a cover page filled with links to individual stories. Not so with Quartz. Type “qz.com” into your browser, and you see the site’s top story, usually topped with a browser-wide photo. Scroll down the first story and you’ll find a second and a third, right on down through an occasional “sponsored” advertorial to the point, maybe 30 feet down, where the scroll ends and you know you have read everything Quartz has posted for today.

Yeah, they add stories throughout the day, but the point is, you start at the top story and read through everything new on the site until you come to the last story you remember reading from your last visit and then you know you’ve finished, read the entire site, and can move on. It’s a feeling much like the one you got from newspapers and magazines. When friends told you they’d read the paper this morning, you know they meant they had skimmed the entire paper from front page to last and at least glanced at all of the headlines.

You can’t do that with nytimes.com or wsj.com or Buzzfeed or Reddit or whatever is your info-source of choice. There is no way to determine when you have looked at everything new since the last time you visited or everything posted in the past 24 hours or whatever.

I loved the design, both for the feeling of completeness I got and also because Quartz was violating every rule of the tired, tired, TIRED look that most news sites have today.

So imagine my chagrin this week when I go to Quartz and discover that they have regressed back to the mid-1990s and added a home page.

Instead of one story at the top, you now get “The Brief”, a digest of the top 10 news stories of the moment. Below that is a great example of what happens when designers are allowed to build web sites without someone from editorial standing behind them with a baseball bat. It’s called “Top Stories on Quartz” and consists of browser-wide photos cropped at an unworldly 10:1 ratio, then darkened, with a headline overlaid. Does the person who “designed” this view the outside world through the slits in the walls of a maximum security prison? No camera takes photos in this ratio naturally and it is very hard to crop stock photos (which is what Quartz uses for most of its articles) to fit properly. So Quartz’s new “cover page” is 10 grafs of text followed by a dark blotchy scrolling mess.

Frankly, I’m disappointed. But I’m very interested in the results of the experiment.

I love the original design. I found that I almost always scrolled down all the way to the bottom of the page and in the process, I read stories that I would not have read if they had been on a traditional hub-and-spoke cover.

With the new design, I find that I skim the index, often see nothing of apparent interest–or, just as importantly, get enough information from the index that I feel no need to click to read the individual story–and move on to another site. That’s certainly not an improvement.

There is a workaround: I’ve quickly learned that if I click on the first story without reading the index I get the original design, with its 30-foot scroll, so maybe Quartz can have the best of both worlds–keeping those of us who like the old, very different approach to web design, while still attracting new readers who need their index.

But I wish Quartz would give us some data on how folks are using the design. Once readers come to an individual story through the new Index or from social media, they jump into the old, scrolling, design. Unlike most other sites, Quartz leaves the sides of the page bare, with no links to other stories or sections. So does scrolling work? How far do most readers scroll before leaving the site? Does the new index drive more traffic from click-throughs than previously scrolled down from the top of the old cover?

My two cents: I believe Quartz’ real problem is not its scrolling non-cover page, but rather that it has spent too little time and effort promoting qz.com and instead has focused too much on social media to promote individual stories. According to NiemanLabs (see article, here), 90% of Quartz’s readers are coming to the site from individual stories and only 10% come directly to the cover page. That sounds drastically wrong. Yeah, lots of folks are using mobile to access the web, but Quartz readers strike me as folks who read from their desktops, so that ratio seems way out of line.

The new design allows readers to skim the site rather than scroll through it, so it seems likely, to me, that fewer readers will click on the index than scrolled down previously. I hope Quartz will share their user data to let us know if that is true or false.

And given how little effort Quartz puts into moving readers from one story to related stories, once they come to the site, their new design seems a big step backward rather than forward. Coming from a site that has been so impressive both with the quality of its work and the boldness of its design, that is a huge disappointment.

I’m spending the day at our first OpenDataNJ conference here at Montclair State. Lots of local government officials, developers and journalists here to figure out what data should be public and what’s the best way to do it.

12:00 – Seth Wainer of the City of Newark talks about the practical headaches of publishing data. PDFs are a huge problem because they are not easy to convert to usable data. His suggestion – do what you can to get rid of the PDFs before they are created.

11:45 – Mike Magyar, a journalist with New Jersey Spotlight, points out that while we’re all talking about how to make government data more available, government officials have a bad habit of hiding it when it serves their purposes. He cites examples of some of his analysis of New Jersey property tax data and how the Christie administration has stopped publishing some data after he used it to show that the relative increases in property taxes between the Christie and Corzine administrations were not that different.

John Haas_OpenData

Dr. John Hasse of Rowan University.

11:30 – Dr. John Hasse, of Rowan University, talking about the value of GIS location data, and a project he is working on at Rowan. In New Jersey there are 565 municipalities, so you have 565 decision-making bodies and they often do not make smart decisions. New Jersey also has strong land use laws, so a lot of important decisions with a big impact on the economy and the environment are done at a very local level.

The goal of his project is to take local data and map it according to GIS. They have four themes posted so far, for all 565 towns in the state. The goal is to make the data modular so it can be used easily by other folks.

Their prime focus is environmental, so they’re looking at land use, watersheds and impervious surfaces, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat and urban growth.

Here’s a link to their site: http://njmap.rowan.edu/

10:45 – So far one obvious issue is that big cities have the resources to do it while smaller ones are way behind. One good suggestion – smaller towns should start by putting data online that they already have in usable form, such as business licenses or property tax assessments. One idea – In Philadelphia, a software company volunteered their time to build the first version of the city’s data web site in exchange for getting some visibility in local government.

11:00 – Matthew Clark, Director of Office of Records Management for Monmouth County, says one trick is to offload as much of the data entry as possible to the data submitter, i.e., the person who fills out the form. Public wins, because they can fill out applications online, from home. Town wins because they need less clerical help and the data can easily be put online.

This also makes it much easier and faster for government officials to know what is going on. For example, in Monmouth County, after Superstorm Sandy, it was a huge advantage for government officials to have real-time data of damage claims being filed to guide their response. After a flyover of the area, the damage did not appear to be that bad. But once managers began to see the claims, they realized that with a lot of the houses, the water had surged through the lower floor of the house and then receded, causing serious internal damage that was not visible externally.

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