I recently had the great pleasure of attending the Society for Industrial Archaeology’s annual conference, held in Richmond, Virginia. The SIA is an interdisciplinary professional organization dedicated to the understanding and preservation of industrial history and artifacts.

While there, I gave a presentation about my recent research topic, the historic manufactured gas industry of Massachusetts, and its environmental legacy. The other conference presentations covered a very wide variety of topics, ranging from the restoration of a historic pumphouse and dancehall in Richmond, to mapping pre-Civil War copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where masses of nearly-pure ‘native copper’ weighing hundreds of tons could be found in rock fissures), to how exactly do you preserve and restore a Cold War era CIA spyplane to use as a monument, when some of the materials used in the plane’s construction remain top secret?

Tom Tar Wars
Just a little environmental consultant humor….

The SIA is a pleasantly diverse organization; I shared a seminar panel with Frederic Quivik, a professor of industrial history who frequently serves as an expert witness in environmental litigation. He spoke on legacy issues associated with contaminated mine tailings used as railroad ballast in Idaho Also on the panel was Simon Litten, a retired forensic chemist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who spoke about the origins and industrial uses of PCBs and some of their lesser-known cousins, such as polychlorinated naphthalenes (e.g. the old Halowax products).

The conference also included a number of fascinating tours, including: visits to Fort Monroe, the Newport News waterfront (including a view of the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), the archaeological center at Jamestown, and the Virginia Mariners Museum, where parts of the warship USS Monitor of Civil War “Monitor and the Merrimack” fame are being painstakingly restored through a fascinating chemical electrolysis process.

Just a note—alliteration aside, only Yankees still call the Confederate ironclad the Merrimac, even if we usually forget the ‘k’. South of the Mason Dixon line, she is always and forever the CSS Virginia.

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An interior view of one of the gun batteries at Fort Monroe


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An excavation showing part of the footings under an interior wall at Fort Monroe, where specially-made triangular bricks were used to tie two relieving arches together underground.


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The former USS Enterprise, now being dismantled. This photo was taken from over half a mile away, which is about as close as one can get and still fit all of the ship in a photo.


The former Richmond gas works, with one of the few remaining late-period gasholders in the US.


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For me, one of the highlights of these visits involved one of the humblest objects, a four-foot length of wrought iron chain that had been lost down a water well at Jamestown circa 1608, and which through one of those flukes of chemistry and history, landed in a stratum of anaerobic soil, where the lack of oxygen preserved the chain essentially unchanged until it was recovered in the early 21st century. There really is nothing like being able to hold a genuine 410+year old artifact in your hands.

If you are interested in topics such as industrial history and the history of science or technology, consider joining the SIA.

My name is Jhonatan Escobar and I joined O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates, Inc. (OTO) after obtaining my BS in Civil Engineering in 2017.  Working as a full time field engineer represents a lifetime milestone for me..  This achievement was greatly facilitated by Western New England University (WNEU) and the extracurricular activities that were available to me while working towards my BS in Civil Engineering.  The most rewarding activity was the 2015 Solar Decathlon Latin America and Caribbean.

The Solar Decathlon (https://www.solardecathlon.gov/) is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and has expanded to include worldwide competitions. The events involve college teams designing solar powered houses. The goal of the competition is to explore sustainable engineering and new technologies while keeping the importance of a well-designed and attractive house.  Each house is judged based on affordability, attractiveness, comfortability, and functionality.

In November 2015, I traveled with a small group of WNEU students and faculty to Cali, Colombia, where we teamed with students from the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá for the first Solar Decathlon Latin America and Caribbean   The concept behind our solar decathlon design was constructing the energy-efficient house from four recycled cargo shipping containers. The house was equipped with solar thermal collectors, a water reuse system, and phytoremediation for humidity control, temperature and CO2.

Solar house

Construction of our solar-powered house was delayed by a week due to complications with the border patrol in Colombia. The Solar Decathalon committee would not extend the construction deadline, so we had to work very quickly as soon as the containers arrived on site.   The team worked 18 to 20 hour shifts for one week straight to meet the completion deadline.  The house was completed on the last available date, and was opened for visitor and judge showings.  Our solar powered house was awarded first place in energy efficiency and third place in electrical energy balance.


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WNE team photo

This experience was very rewarding and I suggest civil engineering students look into finding an opportunity to compete in a Solar Decathlon, or another field related competition.  Having to work the long shifts due to a situation that was out of the team’s control taught me the importance of being able to adjust to situations quickly.  I also gained experience in working as part of a teams, and learned a lot about sustainable design.  I look forward to applying these skills as I work with the geotechnical and environmental teams here at OTO.

Students from Western New England University are now competing in the Solar Decathlon China, and the next Solar Decathlon Latin America will be in 2019.



New England Trail: Hike 50 Challenge

As an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, I often head to the breathtaking White Mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont’s Green Mountains, and the Adirondacks of New York for weekend trips.  My goal for 2018, was to find and explore local trails that I could visit on weeknights after work. I know of popular hiking areas around the Holyoke Range but those tend to be crowded, and I am craving something new. Then I learned about the New England Trail, or NET.

The NET is one of eleven National Scenic Trails in America.  It  extends 215 miles from Long Island Sound in Connecticut north through Massachusetts to the New Hampshire border. Prior to the NET being granted federal designation as a National Scenic Trail in 2009, a 114-mile portion was known as the historic Metacomet Modnadnock (M&M Trail), and another 50-mile section was known as the Mattabesett Trail.  At that time, these trails were over a half-century old and needed maintenance and care. With continued expansions of residential subdivisions and other development pressures, the trails were constantly being relocated and options for these relocations were decreasing.

New England Trail
Map of the New England Trail from the NET website. https://newenglandtrail.org/get-on-the-trail/map/itineraries

The National Trails System Act was developed following a speech given by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 on the “Conservation and Preservation of Natural Beauty.” This act allowed for the creation and protection of American trails that celebrate outdoor adventure. The federal establishment of the NET in 2009 accomplished the National Trails System Act’s primary goal of protection for long-term trail viability.

In the past few years at OTO, I’ve participated in multiple conservation land acquisitions in western Massachusetts. For these projects, I review natural resource and endangered species files, assess environmental contaminants along proposed hiking and biking trails, and engage in discussions with MassDEP about planned recreational and conservation land use. I love what I do, and these projects hold a special place in my heart because I always enjoy my time on trails whether it be skiing, snowshoeing, backpacking, or just walking with my dog.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act. In celebration of this anniversary, I decided to participate in Appalachian Mountain Club’s NET Hike 50 Challenge, in which participants hike 50 miles of the NET throughout the next year. I’m already 24 miles into this challenge, and it has taken me to beautiful forests, riverside trails, waterfalls, caves, and quiet mountain tops. To my surprise, some of the prettiest trails I have discovered so far are located just out of earshot of main roads that I frequently travel. This motivates me to keep going.  I can’t help but wonder what other hidden gems I will find along my way.


If you are interested in the Hike 50 Challenge but you aren’t sure if hiking all 50 miles is for you, that’s okay. There are many options that count towards your 50.  Point-earning activities are listed at the NET website. These include joining guided hikes or scheduled events, volunteering, monetary donations, staying overnight in a shelter or cabin, bringing a friend to the trail, and so many more!   (Although I do plan to hike all 50, I am gaining extra credit by sharing this blog on social media).

Adventure awaits!

The Winter of 2015

For those of you from out of the New England area, you just can’t imagine how sick and tired we locals are of winter this year! My almost 89 year old dad told me this was without a doubt the snowiest, coldest winter of his life. And for once the worst of the weather has occurred along the coast, particularly in Boston. More typically Boston enjoys a temperate climate, with western and northern New England getting the brunt of winter’s snow and cold, but not this year.

In Boston and surrounding communities snow piles on street corners that are seven+ feet high are commonplace. Driving on smaller streets can be like driving through a snow tunnel. Here are a few typical scenes.

a lot of shovelingThis guy has a lot of shoveling to do – those mounds on the side of the road are buried cars!


where is my carHe’s just hoping to find his car.  Good luck!

fenway under snowEven famed Fenway Park is covered in snow. Pitching practice canceled.

For more details on this record breaking winter weather check this link: http://www.wunderground.com/news/new-england-boston-record-snow-tracker

Believe it or not, in comparing recorded annual snow falls this year is still in second place behind 1995-1996 (July 1, 1995 to June 30, 1996).  However, there is only a 5.5 inch difference left and we still have most of another month of winter to go!

With all the writing I do about serious environmental and regulatory issues, this seemed like a good time to switch focus and write instead about the more enjoyable side of the environment.  So today’s topic is three of my very favorite Massachusetts places: Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield; Laughing Brook in Hampden; and 40 Steps in Nahant.  Each of these is a gem, but they are very different from each other.

Bartholomew’s Cobble – This 329 acre property, owned by the Trustees of the Reservations, is tucked into the southwestern corner of Massachusetts with Connecticut just to the south and New York state to the west.  We visit most falls during foliage season starting off at the small headquarters building, walking down the forest trail by the Housatonic River and finally heading up a steep trail to the top of the 1,000 foot elevation Hurlburt’s Hill for the spectacular view north into the Berkshires.

The property is named for the heavily weathered marble and quartzite boulders found along the trail paralleling the river.  The erosion of these boulders has caused the soil in the area to be atypically alkaline (most New England soils are acidic to neutral), as a result the area supports a large and rare assortment of wild plants, particularly ferns.  The variety of ecological niches present and the interesting history of the property make it a great day trip destination.

One warning: the mosquitoes can detract from a visit if they are out in force; that and the great foliage are why we opt for a visit in the fall after the first frost.

Laughing BrookLaughing Brook is a Mass Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary that is classic central New England hardwood forest land.   The 353 acre property includes a pond, Laughing Brook and wetland areas in addition to the upland forest.    At one time the sanctuary included a beautiful educational center, but it was sadly lost to a fire.

There is a 4-mile trail system in the sanctuary, which connects to other trails that meander through the Hampden Hills for quite a distance, and that goes by interesting stone outcrops and on top of an excellent example of an esker. 

Laughing Brook lacks dramatic views, but it is a great spot for a family trip and for introducing children to the joys of walking in the woods.  It is also a super spot for cross country skiing when the snow is right.

40 Steps – As painful as driving the Lynnway can be (its an urban traffic artery running north of Boston), I am thankful that it does limit the number of vehicles that make it to Nahant.  However, if you enjoy environmental settings like the rocky coast of Maine, then it may be worth fighting the Lynnway traffic to make a half-day trip to 40 Steps Beach on Nahant.

If you look at a map of Boston Harbor the furthest north land mass is likely to be Logan Airport or possibly Winthrop, a city located on an island just north of the airport.  However if you go further north up the coast, just past the City of Lynn, you will see the small town of Nahant located on two small islands.  The islands (known as little and big Nahant) are connected to the mainland by a causeway; 40 Steps is the name of a sand and stone covered beach on the eastern side of big Nahant.  There is no legal parking nearby and to get to the beach you need to walk down a set of winding stairs.  At one time there were about 40 rickety wooden steps leading down to the beach, and that’s where the name came from.

As difficult as it is to get there, 40 Steps (scroll down to the 4th photo on the linked web page) is a very special spot.  It is not really a good beach for kids; it’s an adult beach.  Not that there is anything untoward going-on (at least not when I have been there), but it’s a meditative setting for reading a book, watching the waves crashing on the rocks and just relaxing.  Not a lot for kids to do except to ask when it will be time to leave.

If you visit any of these special places I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

On February 7, 1978 I was sitting comfortably on the lanai in Honolulu Hawaii’s charming Manoa Valley.  The morning edition of the Honolulu Star Bulletin was on my lap and every story above the fold was about the giant snow-storm that had completely paralyzed the northeastern United States; a storm that would be known ever-after as the “Blizzard of ’78”.  This was long before the current fetish for giving a name to every weather system more serious than a light drizzle.

Despite having spent most of my life in New England, this once in a century snow-storm had struck while I was living in the tropics.  If you are not from the northeast you should understand that surviving severe snow storms is an unofficial badge of honor among the natives.  Being a New Englander and missing the Blizzard of ’78 (by being in Hawaii no less!) was akin to dereliction of duty.  Your right to call yourself a New Englander could be revoked for less than that.  Another year went by and I returned to the northeast; I overcame the shame and humiliation of missing the big snow storm.

Where Were You During the Big Storm?

Fast-forward 34 years.  Two weeks ago we were making final preparations for a vacation trip to Saint Croix (in the US Virgin Islands).  Weather reports began to appear about a snow-storm that might begin on Thursday February 7th.  We were supposed leave early on Wednesday the 6th, so the night before leaving we asked a neighbor if he would clear the driveway if more than a few inches of snow fell; he said he’d take care of it.  On the way to Bradley Airport to catch our plane, we heard forecasts calling for as much as 6-10 inches of accumulation. Not long after landing in Saint Croix, the forecasts were beginning to describe a potentially historic snowfall.

As the second great nor’easter of my lifetime bore down on coastal New England, all I could do was shift my eyes from the swaying palm trees on the beach in Saint Croix to the iPhone in my hand to check the New England snow accumulation update from home.  Our neighbor texted to let us know that 30 inches had fallen (and had been removed) from the driveway; he included a photo.  So not only did I miss the Blizzard of ’78, but also I missed storm Nemo (don’t you think “the Blizzard of 2013” would have been a catchier name?).  What was the probability of me missing both of these monster storms?

Silver in the Suitcase

Nate Silver is an author who writes on the topics of prediction, forecasting and probability.  During the last presidential election reading his FiveThirtyEight blog (in the New York Times) was on my daily must-do list.  Silver is an entertaining writer, but his real talent is in squeezing mountains of data to come up with clear intelligent explanations of the data’s meaning; he is particularly effective at interpreting and explaining political polling results. His analyses are so compelling because his treatment of data is completely exhaustive.

Some time before the November election I purchased a copy of Silver’s new book “The Signal and the Noise – Why so Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don’t”.  It and one other half-started book came with me to Saint Croix; sadly the other book remains unfinished, but after picking it up I could not put The Signal and the Noise down.   DISCLAIMER: the prose is not brilliant and the overall flow of the book is a little disjointed, IMHO.  However, Silver’s management of and statistical insights into data sets are remarkable.

Risk Assessment = Risk Prediction

Silver’s work is interesting to me in part because in Massachusetts we have a “risk-based” waste site cleanup program.  This means that cleanups are designed to reduce health and environmental risks to a level determined to be generally acceptable.  This determination of acceptability is based upon a prediction of the risk posed by a waste site; these predictions are also known as “site specific risk assessments” or, in Massachusetts, “site specific risk characterizations”.

As Silver points out many times in The Signal and the Noise, to have value the accuracy of a prediction needs to be tested against future events; does the prediction forecast future events with reasonable accuracy?  If so, then it had value, if not, then the prediction had little or possibly even negative value.   Negative value can occur when people take unnecessary, possibly dangerous and/or costly countermeasures in response to a prediction.

By the time I finished the book I had to wonder what would Silver have to say about the probability of me being in the tropics for both the Blizzard of ’78 and storm Nemo?  Most likely he’d say my sample size was too small for predictive purposes. My hope is that he’d add that I should continue going to the tropics from time to time while simultaneously tracking big snow storm occurrences.  You have to have a lot of data for this type of work.

On a recent trip to the Berkshires my husband and I had the pleasure of staying at Blantyre.  A “Relais et Chateaux” and Forbes 5 Star property located in the charming Berkshire town of Lenox, MA.  While discussing options for afternoon sight seeing, Blantyre’s wine director, Christelle Cotar, invited us to tour the cellar of Blantyre.  Based on the wine list, which reads like a history book and is similar in size, we knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

The cellar, which was voted one of Boston’s Best by Destination Cellars (a distribution and travel company based in Virginia,) consisted of a whopping 17,000 bottles that Cotar and head sommelier, Luc Chevalier, grew from a mere 4,000 bottles in 2004.  The over 2,500 selections were housed in five pristine climate controlled cellars.

Cotar was particularly proud of her half-bottle and rehoboam selections.  She explained how the half bottles allow diners more flexibility. For example, a couple could have Sancerre with the scallops, Cabernet with beef and Sauternes with dessert.  The rehoboam bottles, she pointed out, hold the equivalent of six bottles.  She went on to explain the uncorking and presentation of the rehoboam.  First, Cotar decants to allow the wine to breath; next she washes the rehoboam bottle; and then returns the decanted wine to the now clean rehoboam bottle.  The wine is served from the rehoboam.   She beamed when she told us that with this method there is no sediment and guests are thrilled with the display.

I admit, my knowledge of wine is very limited and it was only recently that I began to enjoy it.  While you might think this tour would be wasted on someone like me; I assure you it was not.  The tour was a crash course in wine collecting that explained the smiles I see when diners are presented with a selection, the thoughtful looks they give when tasting and the satisfaction when the selection is approved.  The experience is similar to that of a gardener who plants a seed, nurtures the plants for a long period and then basks in the joy of the harvest.  This tour will forever mark the time and place my wine collecting interest began.

A more detailed description of Blantyre’s wine cellar can be found in Connecticut’s Cottages and Gardens article entitled The Cellar of Blantyre.


What’s your idea of a great vacation destination?  Exploring the Mayan ruins?  Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands?  Or perhaps doing a bit of skiing in Vale, Colorado?  Consider visiting an engineering marvel, a hotel that is built anew each year.  Yes, you read that right.  This hotel is demolished and reconstructed year after year so it’s never the same place twice.  I’m talking about Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden.

Not only is Ice Hotel an engineering marvel it is completely recycled each year.  Blocks of frozen river ice from Lake Torne are cut and stored in an icehouse for the upcoming season.  Each year the hotel is built on the riverbank and in the spring the ice melts, returning to the river.

Construction starts in November and is completed two months later and is completely dependant on the weather temperatures.  Metal forms fitted with skis are re-used each year to create the rooms with in the hotel.  With the aid of snow machines, the forms are covered with a layer of what the engineers call ‘snice’.  Snice is the perfect building consistency of snow and ice.  When the snice layer reaches the proper thickness, it will have the strength of concrete. The forms will be pulled out revealing this season’s rooms.  In 2004 Ice Hotel covered an area the size of two football fields, the lobby was 15’ high by 18’ wide and included a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Ice artists from around the world decorate the guest rooms and suites making each one unique.  The ice artists have the challenge of calculating exactly how much ice they will need to create all the furniture for each room because once the room is complete no more ice can be added.  Everything – beds, tables, desks, and chairs even artwork, chandeliers, columns and the bar glassware is made of ice.  Fully wired with fiber optic and diode lighting the hotel glows with a cool blue green light.

Upon completion the hotel will have a full lobby, bar, theater, more than 60 guest rooms, several guest suites and at least one luxury suite.  The entire hotel is a work of art and during the day all rooms, including the guest rooms and suits are open for all to tour and enjoy.   Late in the afternoon the hotel closes to the public and guests staying the night have access to their rooms.  Guests will sleep on beds covered in reindeer skins in sleeping bags.  More than 100 guests come to the hotel to be married each year!

Words cannot describe the beauty of this extreme engineering marvel.  Imagine arriving by dog sled, touring an amazing international art exhibit, dinner, drinks and a show and capping off the evening with a peaceful sleep in solitude.

Welcome to 2007 Ice Hotel – Photo courtesy of Mia Huntley
Friendly concierge welcomes guests to the hotel – Photo courtesy of Mia Huntley
Ice crystal chandelier against a fiber optic back lit wall – Photo courtesy of Mia HuntleyFor more information check out these sites:

For more information check out these sites: