What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

The Long, Violent 1962 Storm That Inspired the Environmental Movement

100 MPH Winds Killed Millions of Trees in the Pacific Northwest, Changing Its Forests Forever

by John Dodge
June 6, 2019

The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was the largest, most violent windstorm in the recorded history of the West Coast. Starting on October 12, it swept from Northern California to southern British Columbia over the course of 24 hours, with winds gusting over 100 miles per hour. It killed dozens, injured hundreds more, and damaged or destroyed some 53,000 homes in western Oregon and western Washington.

Fifty years after the storm ripped through the Pacific Northwest, meteorologists still marvel at …

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The 1950s Were Not a Golden Age for Detroit’s Autoworkers

The Industry’s Booms and Busts Brought Instability That Kept Workers From Getting Ahead

by Daniel J. Clark
May 9, 2019

In the popular as well as the political imagination, the 1950s were a golden age for American industrial workers, especially for the hundreds of thousands who toiled in Detroit’s auto factories. The story holds that lucrative contracts negotiated by the United Automobile Workers resulted in rising wages and improved benefits like pensions and health care. A blue-collar elite emerged: primarily white male, industrial wage earners who stepped up into America’s middle class and bought homes in the suburbs, eagerly purchased …

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How the U.S. Designed Overseas Cemeteries to Win the Cold War

From France to the Philippines, Stunning Landscapes of Infinite Graves Displayed American Sacrifice and Power

by Kate Clarke Lemay
February 14, 2019

Americans commemorate our fallen soldiers differently than other countries do. You can see the difference most clearly overseas. While innumerable war cemeteries in Europe and the Philippines account for the dead from all participating nations of World War I and World War II, only the American war cemeteries feature highly designed landscapes and major works of art and architecture.

The decision to build these monuments and place them in park-like cemeteries reflects the Cold War of the 1950s as much as …

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After a Century of Neglect, Americans Are Learning How to Live in the Mojave Again

More People Are Setting Down Roots in a Desert Once Reserved for Mining Towns and Lonely Highways

by Fred Landau and Lawrence Walker
February 7, 2019

At first, there was no road at all, just a series of springs where the water table breached the earth’s crust.

At the end of the last Ice Age (about 15,000 years ago), there had been many interconnected lakes, rivers, and springs here in the Mojave Desert. Since then, these extensive waterways have mostly dried up, leaving just two intermittent rivers (the Mojave and the Amargosa) and one permanent river (the Colorado). Yet the desert, where the average rainfall is less …

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The Postcards That Captured America’s Love for the Open Road

From Mid-Century Until Today, “Greetings From” Postcards Have Combined a ‘Fantastical View’ of the Country With Car Culture Obsession

By Anne Peck-Davis and Diane Lapis
November 20, 2018

The most prolific producer of the iconic 20th-century American travel postcard was a German-born printer, a man named Curt Teich, who immigrated to America in 1895. In 1931, Teich’s printing company introduced brightly colored, linen-textured postcards that remain familiar today—the sort that trumpeted “Greetings from Oshkosh, Wisconsin!” “Greetings from Rawlins, Wyoming!” or “Greetings from Butte, Montana!”

Like so many industrious strivers who came to the United States at the close of the 19th century, Teich pursued his postcard business as a …

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When Baltimore Medical Students Were Free to Rob the City’s Graves

In 19th-Century Maryland, Stealing Corpses Wasn't a Crime. And a Half-Dozen Medical Schools Needed Cadavers.

By Antero Pietila
October 25, 2018

Railroads changed everything. The formation in 1828 of the nation’s first common carrier, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, revolutionized transportation, altered people’s sense of time and place, and knitted America together into a nation.

Among the many unforeseen consequences of this transformation was this peculiar note: Body snatchers digging up graves could quickly ship corpses to medical schools needing dissection material. The story of how grave robbing flourished in Baltimore for more than 70 years reveals both the dysfunctional underside of …

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The Washingtonians Who Fought to Keep Their City as the Nation’s Capital

Rivalries Over Its Political Symbolism, and Damage From the War of 1812, Nearly Destroyed the City

By Adam Costanzo
October 15, 2018

As the national capital, Washington, D.C. always has carried special meaning—representing both the federal government and the United States as a whole. No matter how Americans might feel about the state of the nation at any given time, they typically respect and revere the city—visiting on vacations and school trips by the millions each year.

Many might be surprised to learn, therefore, that at one particularly precarious point in the city’s history during the War of 1812, Congress seriously debated …

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How Chicago Lifted Itself Out of the Swamp and Became a Modern Metropolis

By Building Canals, Laying Sewers, and Jacking Up Buildings, the Windy City Spurred Its Miraculous Growth

By Joshua Salzmann
October 11, 2018

In 1833, Chicago was a wilderness outpost of just 350 residents, clumped around a small military fort on soggy land where the Chicago River trickled into Lake Michigan. The site was known to local natives as Chigagou, or the “wild garlic place.” By the end of the century, this desolate swamp had been transformed into a modern metropolis of 1.7 million, known the world over for its dense web of railroads, cruelly efficient slaughterhouses, fiery blast furnaces, and soaring skyscrapers.

Chicago’s …

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How Crop Circles Saved the Great Plains

In the 1940s, Farmer Frank Zybach Invented Center Pivot Irrigation and Brought the Dust Bowl Back to Life

By Joe Anderson
September 10, 2018

If you live in the Great Plains, sooner or later you’ll get a question about those “crop circles” that can be observed from airplane windows during flights over the region. The answer is contained in the question: Put simply, they are circles of cropland.

The circular pattern, however, is different from the regular patchwork many people imagine traditional farm fields to be. The shape is the result of the center pivot irrigation, a development of the post-World War II era …

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The South Carolina Monument That Symbolizes Clashing Memories of Slavery

In Charleston, Blacks and Whites Have Viewed the Bronze Likeness of Racist Ideologue John C. Calhoun From Radically Different Angles

By Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle
September 6, 2018

In the center of Charleston, South Carolina, in a verdant green space that plays host to farmers markets, festivals, and sunbathing undergraduates, stands a monument of John C. Calhoun, the antebellum South Carolina statesman who famously called Southern slavery “a positive good.” His bronze likeness rises over 100 feet in the air, squaring off against its symbolic rivals, including the copper-shingled steeple of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where a white supremacist brutally gunned down nine African-American parishioners in 2015.

In one sense, …

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