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Thomas Farrell, the Man Who Built the World

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Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we spotlight those departed whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here is a look at the life of Major General Thomas Farrell, who died at 75 in 1967.

After Thomas Farrell died, it’s hard to believe that the world didn’t just give up and stop building things. Because while he was alive, Farrell, an Army general, seemed to help build everything. Throughout his life, he was one of those eerily competent guys whose name topped the go-to lists of military and civilian leaders alike for projects involving something (literally) as small as an atom or as large as Manhattan. 

1. Step One: Build the Panama Canal.

Farrell grew up a farm boy, but after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became an engineer. (Notable alumni of Rensselaer: George W.G. Ferris, of the wheel; Theodore Judah, driving force behind the Transcontinental Railroad; Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge; George Low, who managed Apollo 11; Ted Hoff, father of the microprocessor—are you seeing a pattern here?) After graduation, he set off to Panama, where he helped build the Panama Canal. 

2. He fought in a war or two.

After three years of working on the Panama Canal, Farrell had a pretty good idea of how to manage really large projects involving a lot of people. While there, he worked alongside the Army Corps of Engineers, which completed the canal. That experience is possibly the reason he joined the Army Reserve when he returned to the United States. Soon after, he led an engineering company in World War I. That was only his first war. He later served in World War II, and returned to active duty during the Korean War to help lead the Defense Production Administration, which directed materials production and manufacturing for the new Department of Defense.

3. He was a hero.

The second-highest decoration bestowed by the Army is the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was first established during World War I to recognize “extraordinary heroism,” which must have been “so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the [recipient] apart from his comrades.” Thomas Farrell was an engineer—he built things for the Army like roads and bridges. In 1918, then-Major Farrell’s construction battalion in World War I was temporarily repurposed as infantry to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. When he was ordered to secure a certain hill, Farrell “led his battalion to the attack, seized and held this vital point despite the fact that he was attacked by greatly superior numbers on three sides and nearly surrounded by strong enemy forces who showed extraordinary determination to regain this highly important position. He held the hill until reinforcements could reach him after darkness” the following day. As his citation for the Distinguished Service Medal continued, “His fearless leadership, utter disregard for his own safety, and complete devotion to duty raised the morale of his battalion to a high pitch and inspired them to acts of great endeavor.”

4. He built a few things in New York, too.

Most people would be content with a biography like that, and set life on cruise control for a while. Not Thomas Farrell. After the war, he taught at West Point before returning to reserve status in the Army. The governor of New York appointed him state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways. (If he was good enough for Panama, he was good enough for the Empire State.) He later led construction and engineering for the state Department of Public Works. Among the little hobby projects in his portfolio? LaGuardia Airport.

5. You’re probably familiar with his work in World War II.

In February 1941, it was looking like the United States might get soon get involved in World War II, and Farrell returned to active duty. He was made executive officer to Major General Leslie Groves at the office of the Quartermaster General, beginning a partnership that would change the world. At the time, the Quartermaster Corps was a disaster of an organization, unable to stick to a budget, timeline, or project. (Among the chaotic, disorganized projects that Groves and Farrell had to set right was construction of the Pentagon.) This was a particularly bad time for incompetence—Hitler was on the move. Groves and Farrell restructured the entirety of the Quartermaster Corps, and, while I don’t want to spoil the ending, the United States managed to build an effective infrastructure to handle the war to come. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. 

(“What’s a quartermaster?” you ask. Good question! The Quartermaster Corps is a logistics branch of the Army that concerns itself with supplies, supply lines, food, and fuel. Remember Q from the James Bond movies? Q was short for quartermaster. When Farrell returned to active duty in 1941, the Quartermaster Corps was also responsible for construction projects.)

6. The biggest engineering project of the war? Yeah, Farrell was there.

The construction of the Ledo Road was the largest engineering project of World War II. It involved building a massive supply line from Ledo, India, to Kūnmíng, China. (We were in India and China in World War II? Yeah buddy!) The goal was to supply the Chinese before Japan could conquer it. The Japanese cut off the previous supply line, the Burma Road. The possibility of actually building the Ledo Road, which led through Pangsau Pass, a steep and curvy avenue that required the removal of 100,000 cubic feet per mile, was theoretical at best. Oh, and monsoons were a regular problem during the road’s construction. Eleven hundred Americans died over the course of the project.

As leader of the theater’s Construction Division, Thomas Farrell managed all of the work in India. One of his most important tasks was building a permanent bridge across the Irrawaddy River, something that had never before been achieved. The rising and falling of the river’s waterline and those aforementioned monsoons had previously made such a project impossible. So naturally Colonel Farrell made it happen. The resulting bridge was two lanes and 1627 feet long. Eight hundred fifty-three feet of the bridge was engineered as a floating pontoon structure to handle the variable water level. 

7. To keep the world safe, “we must arm to the teeth with the winning weapon.”

Major General Groves, leader of the most important, most secret project of the war, was offered “any officer in the Army, no matter who he is or what duty he is on” to be his second-in-command. His first choice was Thomas Farrell. As Farrell recalled, Groves “had too much top secret information wrapped up in his skull,” and the secretary of war “used to have nightmares dreaming what would happen if Groves were knocked off—one way or another—so I stepped in to share Groves’s secrets.” 

The big secret? The Manhattan Project. When Farrell was brought on to the project, he was given a 36-hour crash course in nuclear physics. But it was only after holding an actual piece of plutonium that he understood the project underway. To his surprise, the plutonium was warm in his hands. “It wasn't a cold piece of metal, but it was really a piece of metal that seemed to be working inside. Then maybe for the first time I began to believe some of the fantastic tales the scientists had told about this nuclear power.” As he recalled, “The odds were four to one against our developing a bomb that could actually be dropped during World War II. Even if we did ... not a living soul knew what an atomic bomb would do.” There was a real worry among scientists that the Bomb might spark an uncontrolled chain reaction and accidentally destroy the world. (Edward Teller was charged with studying the problem.) This led to some grim humor on the eve of the first test when Enrico Fermi took bets as to whether the Bomb would ignite the planet’s atmosphere. 

On the morning of the test, recalled Farrell, “The scene inside the shelter was dramatic beyond words ... Everyone in that room knew the awful potentialities of the thing that they thought was about to happen. The scientists felt that their figuring must be right and that the bomb had to go off but there was in everyone's mind a strong measure of doubt ... We were reaching into the unknown and we did not know what might come of it.”

8. “Words are inadequate.”

Wrote Farrell of the big moment: “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growing roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast. 

"The tension in the room let up and all started congratulating each other. Everyone sensed ‘This is it!’ No matter what might happen now all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists' dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.

"The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized."

Said Farrell after the test, “The war is over.”

9. "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell."

After the project proved a success, Farrell was installed on the targeting committee. Their guidelines from General Groves were to choose a target that would “most aversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war.” The target “should be military in nature,” containing a major headquarters or a manufacturing center of weapons and supplies. On the morning of the bombing, Farrell scrawled on the front of Fat Man, "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell." 

10. After the war, Farrell was appointed chairman of the New York City Housing Authority.

You’re probably thinking Thomas Farrell had done enough by this point. You’re probably right, though Farrell disagreed. After the war, the mayor of New York appointed him chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. Farrell’s work as state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways, and later his leadership at the state Department of Public Works, wasn’t forgotten. Said the mayor at the time, “General Farrell’s appointment foreshadows a speed-up of the Authority’s work and closer relations with the city and the state.” 

11. He wasn’t out of the atom business just yet.

In 1951, Farrell was placed on military leave from the New York City Housing Authority, and assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission. There, he oversaw all work concerning the acquisition of uranium, the operation of processing plants, and construction of new facilities. But his atomic responsibilities didn’t end there. He later joined the planning commission of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The fair was a “carnival of technological utopianism.” Among its exhibits: “Atomsville, U.S.A.” 

He died on April 11, 1967 at age 75.

Previously on Retrobituaries: Theodore Maiman, inventor of the laser. See all retrobituaries here.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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