Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

Book cover of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, 2015.

The grand ocean liner RMS Lusitania.

Author Erik Larson.
Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania shows once again that he is a master of narrative non-fiction. Even though we know the tragic fate of the Lusitania before the book begins, it’s still a page-turner. Larson has worked a similar spell in several other books, including the huge best-sellers The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. (I reviewed In the Garden of Beasts last year here.) The passenger liner RMS Lusitania was one of the most advanced ships of the early 20th century, allowing passengers to cross the Atlantic in sumptuous luxury and at very fast speeds. The Lusitania was launched in 1906, and it provided excellent service until it was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, and nearly 1,200 people lost their lives. World opinion was outraged at Germany for targeting a civilian ship during wartime. 

Larson takes us inside the Lusitania on its final voyage across the Atlantic, as it headed from New York City to its appointment with destiny. Larson also uses the captain’s log from U-20 to reconstruct its mission to destroy as much Allied shipping as possible. We get a vivid sense of what life was like on these two very different ships. Larson combines the storytelling ability of a novelist with the historian’s ability to craft a readable tale from many different sources. 

Like many great disasters, luck and chance played significant roles in the fateful meeting between the Lusitania and U-20. The morning of May 7th had been very foggy, and if the fog would have held for another hour, the Lusitania and U-20 would have passed each other totally unaware of the other’s presence. The Cunard Line, who owned the Lusitania, was trying to conserve coal, so the Lusitania was only using three of its four boiler rooms. This decreased the top speed the ship could reach, and added a day to the voyage. Had the Lusitania been traveling at top speed the entire voyage, she would have reached Liverpool before U-20 reached the southern coast of Ireland. The captain of U-20, Walther Schwieger, had already sunk several ships on his mission, and by the afternoon of May 7th he had turned the submarine around and was heading home. But he happened to see the Lusitania through his periscope and the big ship suddenly turned to give him a perfect angle to fire at it. Schwieger had miscalculated the speed of the Lusitania, as he thought it was traveling at 22 knots, but it was really moving at 18 knots. But Schwieger’s miscalculation meant that the torpedo struck the Lusitania at the perfect spot to produce maximum damage. That the torpedo found its target at all was remarkable, as 60% of German torpedoes failed for one reason or another. The Lusitania quickly listed 15 degrees to starboard, making it impossible to launch any of the lifeboats on the port side. Just 6 of the Lusitania’s 22 lifeboats were launched successfully. Just 18 minutes after the torpedo struck the ship, the Lusitania had slid beneath the ocean’s surface. Even under the most ideal conditions, there was no way nearly 2,000 people could have evacuated the ship that quickly. The poor souls on the Titanic at least had 2 ½ hours. 

Dead Wake is a fascinating look at one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th century, and if you’re a fan of Erik Larson’s terrific writing, you need to read it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, by Michael P. Malone (1996)

Book cover of James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, by Michael P. Malone, 1996.

James J. Hill, with pen in hand, ready to go back to work as soon as the photographer is done. When asked what the secret of his success was, Hill said, "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work."
James J. Hill, “the Empire Builder,” was one of the leading businessmen of America’s Gilded Age. Hill gained wealth and fame from building the Great Northern Railway into an extremely successful transcontinental railroad. By the time he died in 1916 he had amassed a fortune worth $63 million. Yet for all of Hill’s renown, there are very few biographies of him. An official biography by Joseph G. Pyle appeared in two volumes in 1916 and 1917, but it wasn’t until 1976, sixty years after Hill’s death, that Albro Martin wrote what’s considered the definitive biography of Hill, James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. Michael P. Malone’s excellent 1996 biography of Hill, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, fills a needed gap as a concise look at Hill’s life and career. Part of the University of Oklahoma’s Western Biographies series, Malone’s book is an excellent biography, it’s well-written, engaging, and it gives the reader a good sense of Hill’s personality.

James J. Hill was born in Canada in 1838. The child of Irish immigrants, Hill had only an 8th grade education, but an unstoppable work ethic. Hill came to Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1856, and he quickly became a successful shipping entrepreneur. Hill didn’t enter the world of railroads until 1878, but his background in transportation helped him immeasurably. He understood transportation systems in a way that few other railroad tycoons did. As Malone writes, “…his knowledge of the railroad, in even the most minute detail, quickly became a matter of legend. For example, while standing on a Dakota rail siding one day, he spotted an engine numbered 94. From that recognition, Hill astounded the engineer by walking up and addressing him by name-Roberts-and noting that the engine had just been in for repairs.” (Malone, p.80) Malone shows readers why Hill was so successful, as he writes, “His genius lay precisely in his ability to master detail while fashioning broad vision and strategy.” (Malone, p.80)  

Malone does a very good job of discussing the many different parts of Hill’s railroad empire. Even if you’re not a business scholar, Malone makes it easy to follow the various investments and business interests of James J. Hill. Hill was certainly not perfect, but there’s much to admire about him. He was a very smart man who worked extremely hard in making the Great Northern Railway the best railroad it could possibly be. Hill was a difficult person to get along with, but I think most people who are truly driven to greatness are difficult people. 

If you’re looking to learn more about Minnesota’s “Empire Builder,” or if you’re interested in railroads during the late 19th and early 20th century, Michael P. Malone’s James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest is an excellent read.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill-Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder James J. Hill by Biloine W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack (2010)

Book cover of The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill, by Biloine Young and Eileen McCormack, 2010. The cover shows Louis with his father, James J. Hill. The photo was taken in 1905 and was James's favorite photo of the two of them.

Being the son of famed Minnesota railroad builder James J. Hill must have been something of a burden for Louis W. Hill. It was Louis’ fate to follow in the footsteps of the man nicknamed “the Empire Builder,” as his father chose Louis to succeed him when he retired as the head of the Great Northern Railway. Louis had large shoes to fill, but he was a talented businessman in his own right who successfully expanded the reach of the Great Northern Railway. Louis W. Hill gets his due in a 2010 biography, The Dutiful Son: Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder, written by Biloine (Billie) W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack. Young wrote the book, while McCormack handled the research. McCormack spent many years working with the Hill Family papers at the James J. Hill Reference Library in Saint Paul, and her expertise shows throughout the book.

The Dutiful Son is an excellent look at Louis Hill’s life and career. Young presents us with an overview of his business career, and she also sheds light on his personal life. Hill was one of the main forces behind the creation of Glacier National Park in Montana, and The Dutiful Son highlights his behind the scenes role. The book also focuses on Louis Hill’s leading role in reviving the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in 1916 and 1917.

The Dutiful Son also gives the reader lots of detail on the bitter disputes between Louis and his 8 siblings after their parents both died without wills. From the evidence presented in The Dutiful Son, it seems clear that both James J. and Mary Hill were more than comfortable giving Louis much more than a 1/9th share of their considerable estates. According to Louis, he had a conversation with his father shortly before his death about his wishes for his vast fortune. James J. made it clear that he intended to leave a great deal of it to Louis, saying, “You helped me make it; you helped me take care of it. {The others} had nothing to do with putting it together and they won’t have anything to do with keeping it together.” (The Dutiful Son, p.203) This made for some awkward feelings, and Louis’s siblings ended up suing him, disputing that their mother had really intended to give Louis the 5,000 acre farm at North Oaks. Incredibly, the siblings who sued Louis also wanted to rescind charitable donations that their mother had made in 1919, two years before her death, by claiming that she was of unsound mind when she donated the money. Those gifts were made to many Catholic institutions of higher learning, as well as Catholic charities like the Christian Brothers, and the Little Sisters of the Poor. (The Dutiful Son, p.257) Personally, I think that asking charities for money back is about the greediest thing I’ve ever heard of, especially when those asking for the money back were already set for life thanks to their father. 

Despite all the family squabbling, Louis Hill comes off very well in the book. Like his father, he combined pragmatism and idealism to skillfully work on projects that were important to him. Both James J. Hill and Louis Hill were excellent with detail work, but also had the big picture vision to imagine projects like Glacier National Park and the Great Northern Railway.

Like his father, Louis Hill was very engaged with many different Saint Paul charities. Louis did a lot for the city, and the book highlights his charitable giving, which was often done without people knowing who the benefactor was. Louis named his charitable foundation the Lexington Foundation so people wouldn’t know that one of Saint Paul’s leading citizens was behind it. Louis Hill led a very interesting life, and The Dutiful Son is an excellent read.