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About ehbowen

  • Birthday 06/02/1963

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    Houston, TX
  • Interests
    Railroads, working steam, industrial archaeology, hotels, ships, aircraft, technology, video, theology.

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  1. While unusual it's far from being unique. Reference this map (which is a few years out of date). What the dispatcher was doing was ordering your train to back up on the "passenger main" where the Amtrak station is to west of Chaney Junction, where the freight main line (which, incidentally, is the one with the graffiti-covered bridge over I-45 and I-10 north of downtown) diverges. Once on the freight main, it's a direct shot to Tower 26 and thence to Belt Junction which is where the ex-MoPac line to Beaumont and New Orleans (main line #4 on the map) leaves the terminal area. Why do they do that? Can't say. It could be that there was heavy freight train traffic at and around Tower 26 blocking the spur lines, or perhaps track work was in progress. While the directional running I mentioned above is standard operating procedure now that can change at the drop of a hat; if major track work is underway on either main track to Beaumont all traffic in both directions will likely be diverted to the other one.
  2. Hmm. Thinking about it, if I was building a hotel room I'd want to give it a window, and aside from the public space windows for the lobby and concourses the only windows I see (in the original building...gates 13-19 were a later addition) are on the ramp side of where the Pan American desk is, as you can see in this publicity shot from 1980 which I just unearthed after 40+ years in the filing cabinet. (Hmm. I've only had that filing cabinet since the '90s!): As you can see, at the time the apron area between (old) concourses A & B was still being used for parking, and a flight school (Fletcher Aviation, later moved to the South Ramp) was in operation at the end of Concourse A. Other little tidbits of trivia from an Intrepid Amateur Industrial Archaeologist: The Dobbs House restaurant in the circular area was also, during the '50s-'60s, the airline catering kitchen. (It may have been supplanted in the later years before the move to IAH.) The kitchen was on the ground level, the dining area was on the ticketing level, and on the mezzanine level was the "Cloud Room" with a scenic balcony walkway which you can see on the photo above. Stairs led up from the cloud room to the actual airport roof, and in fact there were also stairs which you can just barely make out from the ticketing lobby to the roofs of the gate concourses. I'm old enough to remember going up on those roofs to watch my Dad's flight arrive; there were even boxes where you could put in headphones and drop in a nickel to hear the radio chatter. Thank you ever so much, TSA.... The Cloud Room was served by a dumbwaiter which connected it and the dining room with the kitchen. This dumbwaiter was out of service when I started exploring in the late '70s and was never returned to operation. The restaurant was in fact closed until after the terminal fully reopened in the late 1980s; when it did reopen the hot food was carried up to the ticket lobby level in a small passenger elevator which was installed in the ticket lobby adjacent to Concourse B. The Cloud Room was never again used as a restaurant to the best of my knowledge but it did continue to serve as an executive board room until the present Southwest Airlines concourse was constructed in the 2000s. Concourses A and B had underground service tunnels which ran the length of each concourse, with a transverse tunnel which connected them. It could get mighty dark and drippy in there. Concourse C, which was added later, did not have this feature. The Customs & Immigration area which was built in the 1960s and which served for a brief time as Braniff's gate in the early 1970s is the one-story rectangular addition just west of the main terminal building in the photo above. The two (wheelchair? Naah, no one was handicapped in the 1950s...) ramps from the parking area to the ticket level are just barely visible in the photo above; the small bridge which connects them to the ticket lobby casts that black shadow in the center. You can see that the east ramp has been cut for a sump pump or similar, but the west ramp was still intact. More later....
  3. There were several areas which I didn't have access to during my short time there; one of them was the basement of (the original) Building 12 which was being used as a stock room for supplies. I do have a photo in that list of the Milby Avenue domestic water pumps which was on the bottom level of (IIRC) building 17. My responsibility during my time there was steam and utilities but I'm afraid I just wasn't there long enough to learn all of the ins and outs. So I wasn't aware of your sump pumps. Sorry.
  4. In the 1968 map the stairway down to baggage claim was located behind the Continental ticket counter. The other stairway opposite Fleetway Air Taxi would have led down there as well. Bag claim itself was located under the Eastern and Trans Texas gates on the 1968 map. The street level exit from baggage claim was just behind the dark taxi with the white roof which looks like a Dodge Polara, second from left. The grated openings to the right of it in the photo are for the boiler/chiller/mechanical room. To the right of that looks to be airport/airline offices. Subsequent to the printing of that map (IAH was already well under construction) a customs/immigration wing opened to the right (west) of the concourse to gates 1-6; it was briefly used by Braniff International as they tried to compete against Southwest to Dallas after the terminal reopened in the early 1970s. They quickly gave up and moved back to IAH. This photo does not show what used to be a matched pair of ramps leading from the parking area up to the ticketing level, with a bridge over the lower roadway. One of the ramps had been cut for some mechanical installation (probably a sump pump) by the mid/late 1970s but the other was intact until construction began on the garage and new bag claim in the 1980s. One feature that not many Houstonians know about Hobby Airport is that when it opened it had twelve actual hotel rooms which I believe were located on that lower level...there weren't many other places to stay if you had an overnight connection in 1954! (The old Houston Municipal terminal which is now the Museum had two of them, and they were still intact although badly decayed when I worked at Hobby from 1997-99.) Shortly thereafter, though, airport hotels opened up on Telephone Road and across Airport Boulevard and the City chose not to give them competition. I heard that at least one of the hotel rooms was intact (as an office, with a private toilet and bathtub!) while I was working there, but I never got a chance to see it.
  5. The baggage claim area is NOT from 1950. Believe me; I remember the 1954 baggage claim area! It was completely redone in the '90s; the bag carts behind the scenes now use a path which used to be the ground level access road when the terminal was new! The 1954 bag claim (which was extended, but not changed, about 1980) had no belts or conveyors. There was just a line of roll-up doors behind an upper and a lower shelf. The tug would pull the carts in, the driver would roll up the doors, and then stack the bags wherever he could find an open space on the shelves. Mob scene ensued...
  6. I agree, but then sometimes you run into a situation such as we had at the George R. Brown (Convention Center) in 2004. The City had it booked for the Super Bowl, a hard deadline if there ever was one, in the midst of an ongoing expansion project. After seeing the contractors at work I opined, "You're just trying to get this (the HVAC controls) to run well enough long enough to get a signature on the dotted line, then take the money and run." They agreed. For what it's worth, after that signature had been affixed and the project supposedly completed, we were finding VAV boxes which had been signed off as 'commissioned' but still had the shipping blocks in place on the internal fans for months afterwards. The City had been too cheap to pay us, or someone else, to babysit them to ensure that the job was done right. "There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over...."
  7. I'm hoping to attract what might be considered 'explained ghost stories' in this thread. Here's a good one I heard from a contractor a few years back. You need to understand that when a building has been around for many decades, original plans can become unreadable or simply lost...as one who has worked in a number of old buildings, and works in one now, I can attest to that. Even in new buildings, prints may not reflect reality...the original prints show the architect's vision, but what the engineers and contractors finally shape into reality can be somewhat different. Contractors are supposed to prepare and deliver 'as built' plans which show what is actually there...but, by that time in a building project cycle, the work is substantially completed and unless a significant carrot/stick is dangled the 'as-builts' tend to get shortchanged as they represent a pure added cost to the contractor. It seems that, if you ventured into the basement of downtown's old Gulf Building at the midnight hour, one would hear a creepy noise and strange vibration coming from somewhere. That it was there no one could deny, but where it came from or what it was no one could explain. This happened once a week, at midnight, regular as clockwork. The building tenants were all upstairs, well away from the area, and only the night crew was there to hear the unexplained noises. This went on for years. Decades. And then, one day, some upgrades were being planned in the building's electrical system. New conduit had to be run, and it needed to go through an area which wasn't on any of the current prints. There was no access, no doors or hatches, into this area; the only thing to do was to cut into a wall and see what was behind it. (Geraldo Rivera, are you listening?) They cut into the wall and found...an old electrical room, abandoned some time in the mid-1940s. And there, in this electrical room, was an emergency generator. No longer in use, but it had never been disconnected from electricity and it was powered by natural gas which had never been shut off. And it was on...a once-a-week exercise timer! Every week, at the midnight hour, that timer had been faithfully starting and exercising that generator. It had been running, in that walled-off abandoned electrical room, with no upkeep and no maintenance, for more than forty years! The story ends there, but I'd really like to hear what became of that generator.... So, does anyone else have a tale to tell?
  8. What Killed the Old Ben Milam? Nota bene: This is all speculation. I never had access to any finances, but I did speak with some of the employees during my 'industrial archaeology' expeditions. Basically, though, it was the same thing which killed the Rice Hotel a few years earlier: The Houston Fire Code. The Ben Milam, as built, had ONE fire exit stairwell. And it wouldn't have met today's codes as Joseph Finger designed the service elevator, in a common shaft with the two guest elevators, to open up into the stairwell. (The service elevator outer doors on each floor, by the way, were wire-reinforced glass; you could look right into the shaft...fascinating for a junior industrial archaeologist!) The service elevator, best I could tell, was no longer in use in the 1979-80 time frame and was permanently parked in the basement; housekeeping used the guest elevators. In case of fire, the primary means of exit were exterior fire escapes which had become a flashing red 'no-no' by the late 1970s. There were, apparently, plans to work around this. As the service elevator was out of service its doors could have been bricked up or, for some additional investment, it could perhaps have been 'turned around' to open on the opposite side of the shaft. There were plans to build a second, code-approved, exit stairwell in the opposite (southeast) corner of the tower. This would have required sacrificing one guest room on each floor, but the adjoining guest room could be enlarged. The Ben Milam, as a 1926-vintage design (the heyday of the railroad traveling salesman), had quite a number of one-bed rooms...and when I say 'one-bed room', I mean a room which was physically so small that it could not accommodate a second bed. These tiny rooms were not an asset in the early 1980s. During those final months one could see flyers up touting the "Trade Center PLAZA Hotel - Coming Soon!" but the Ben Milam never operated under that name. Luke 14:28 springs to mind. For whatever the reason, management threw in the towel. The cafeteria, as noted above, soldiered on for a while longer but when even that closed the building slowly degraded into oblivion. Demolition was a final mercy.
  9. The Ben Milam's Swimming Pool... Reference: Arch-ive.org's Ben Milam Page The referenced page has an article, estimated as ca. 1957-58, on the grand opening of the new "rooftop swimming pool" of the Ben Milam. The pool was actually a part of a two-story addition that filled up the southwest (assuming a project north up Main Street) corner of the block. The photographs in the article show it as being an open air pool with a raised kiddie pool/waterfall and sun deck behind it. When I got to know the hotel in the 1980 time frame the pool area had been enclosed, the waterfall had been covered over with a deck and a "Universal Gym" multi-station exercise machine (forerunner of Nautilus, et. al.) set up on it. The sun deck area was also enclosed and was used as a kind of event space. Presumably (I'm speculating) this work was done under YWCA ownership and the enclosed area was intended to be a gymnasium. I remember it as being large enough for a basketball court although any evidence of that use had been covered over (parquet floors) or removed. Access to the pool area was, as best I recall, only through the locker rooms which had been built in former guest room space on the third floor. There must have been another access for events or at least as a fire exit but I don't remember details of that. And, unfortunately, I didn't have a good camera in those days. Advertising further down the referenced page touts the Ben Milam as being "the only downtown hotel with swimming pool and sun terrace." That may have been true as far as the sun terrace goes, but probably some here are familiar with the story of the Rice Hotel's 'lost' Natatorium. (It must be on this site somewhere, but I haven't found it yet...any help?) As I heard the story, though, the Rice was built with a basement swimming pool modeled on an ancient Roman bath and named the 'Natatorium.' During the Depression years it was closed and then in the ensuing war years reopening the pool was not a high priority. Following the War the pressure was on to renovate the Rice and bring it up to date, and rather than tackle the long-neglected swimming pool the renovators simply paneled over the doors leading to it and it was forgotten. Decades later as the Rice was being redeveloped into the Rice Lofts, the architects wondered over what might be in the 'missing' space in the basement. They cut into the walls and...lo and behold, the basement Natatorium, still as it was left during the Depression. It's now a feature of the redeveloped building. Other items on the referenced page which might be of interest: Photo 'milam007' is of the "mileage chart" which showed the driving mileage to various cities and the major highways which led to them (all pre-Interstate, of course). This was on the outside wall under the portico which connected the hotel with its garage, next to what was likely a valet parking office. The hotel also had a belt 'manlift', abandoned in place before I found it, to carry parking attendants to the upper levels of the garage. (For What It's Worth, the Hyatt Regency downtown was built in 1972 with the same sort of manlift to its basement valet parking but that was scrapped, reportedly following an injury. Some remnants of it are still visible.)
  10. Air-Conditioning the Ben Milam... Undoubtedly one of the Ben Milam's strongest selling points in its early years was that it was the very first hotel in Houston to be completely air-conditioned in all public spaces and guest rooms. Unfortunately, though, that would eventually become a bit of a boat anchor as, to the best I can tell (and I'm in the commercial HVAC business by profession), the system was never updated. I never got into the Ben Milam's chiller room or air handler, but I strongly suspect it was similar to those in the Cotton Exchange building (1926[?] - now Harris County Annex 44) and the Niels Esperson Building, both of which I've seen. What I do remember clearly is that the air distribution was through exposed (and ugly) sheet metal ducts which ran through the corridors into the original transom windows of each room. If there was any duct insulation it was internal; you can get away with uninsulated ducts through a conditioned space if the dew point of the conditioned air is lower than the temperature of the exposed sheet metal but it's a very near thing; sweating and/or drips are likely. As far as I could tell, going from memory, there was no individual room temperature control except perhaps for a damper which the occupant could open or close. Quite likely (I'm speculating here) there were one or two pneumatic thermostats on each guest floor but the zone temperature control had to be primitive. The couple of times that I was on the guest floors, though, I don't remember being at all uncomfortable so that probably wasn't a major issue. What was a major issue was the claustrophobia. The Ben Milam's guest floors were built with low ceilings to begin with and the addition of the ductwork brought them down to the point where for basketball players it would have been "Ducka You Head, Lowla Bridgeda..." to quote a Looney Tunes cartoon. While it didn't drive away the bargain-hunting 'residence' clientele, I can see where it would put off someone looking for something fresh and in a holiday spirit.
  11. All About The (Working!) Old Ben Milam... I'm wanting to start a series of posts in this thread for those who have memories/photos of the Ben Milam/YWCA/Old Ben Milam during its years as a working hostelry. For me, those years were 1979-82 when I was in or just graduating high school and had time for some 'industrial archaeology'. My primary interests were (are) railroads, but as the Ben Milam was just across the street from the Union Station building I spent a significant amount of time there. In those days Union Station, although half a decade since the departure of its last scheduled Amtrak train, was still a bustling hub of railroad activity as the Houston Belt & Terminal had its offices there and Missouri Pacific had its regional HQ on the fourth floor. There was also a corner of the second floor which was leased to the Houston Society of Model Engineers who had constructed a jaw-dropping model railroad layout which they called the "Texas, Crawford & Prairie RR". Across Texas Avenue from the hotel was the Houston World Trade Center, which was a hub of consulate offices and other international activities. A couple of blocks down the street was the Greyhound bus terminal. These all provided a modest revenue stream to the hotel's 'Y-W Cafeteria', which was a relic of the years when the building was owned and operated by the Houston YWCA. The Y-W had a good reputation and I ate there several times; it was open from breakfast into the early dinner hours. After the Greyhound station restaurant closed it was really the only decent place to eat within easy walking distance and it remained open as a cafeteria for at least a year after the hotel itself closed as a hotel. In those years the Old Ben Milam was what we euphemistically term a 'residence' hotel. Low rates (IIRC, about $24/night for single nights with discounts available for week- or month-long terms) which drew in seniors and working poor who might otherwise find themselves on the streets. In one of the photo archives up-thread the roving photographers found a door labeled "Restaurant; Open 7 AM, Close 7 PM, Saturdays & Sundays only." This was towards the rear of the second floor addition which held the swimming pool and was opened in the 1980 time frame after the Greyhound restaurant closed. The Y-W Cafeteria was only open Monday through Friday and the residents were complaining that there was no suitable place to eat on weekends, so the hotel opened this tiny (~8 tables) eatery which could be staffed with one cook and one waiter to provide a weekend alternative to starvation. I ate there once or twice, the menu was mostly burgers and sandwiches and the like but it would keep you going until Monday. More coming later for those who are interested....
  12. On The Other Hand, since capacity is constrained by the single-track railroads, there's a lot of traffic from Houston east, and as Amtrak has no scheduled station stops between Houston and Beaumont the UP dispatchers normally make Amtrak use 'directional running'. As a legacy of the megamergers Union Pacific has two parallel single-track routes between Houston and Beaumont: The ex-Southern Pacific line through Crosby and Liberty and the ex-Missouri Pacific line which runs north of it through Huffman and Hardin. Normally, these days, eastbound trains take the ex-MoPac line and westbounders take the traditional Sunset Route. To get to the eastbound track from the downtown Amtrak station the train has to get on the former Missouri Pacific route which originally ran through Conroe and Trinity to Palestine (former route of the Houston section of the MoPac Texas Eagle). Problem is there is no direct flyover or crossover from point A to point B. So what the eastbound train has to do is to follow the Sunset Route until it's past Tower 26, then back up on the diverging track south past Lyons Avenue which puts it on the old MoPac line, and finally proceed northbound on the ex-MoPac main until it diverges east for Beaumont just past 610. This dance takes a little time and, needless to say, throws a monkey wrench into freight movements through the area (and the feeling is mutual). But I suppose it's simpler and cheaper than double-tracking the Sunset Route or, heaven forbid, building a spur route or crossover intended primarily for passenger traffic....
  13. The thing is UP has a major fuel rack (for their freights) just east of San Antonio, the Sunset has to fill up somewhere between New Orleans and California, and it's a heckuva lot cheaper for Amtrak to purchase fuel from UP than it is to have a tank truck meet the train (or $$ build their own fuel facility $$) at the San Antonio station. Or the Houston station; by the way, sometimes during hurricanes or similar Amtrak will turn the Sunset in Houston and when that happens often they'll have a tank truck drive onto the platform and top up the locomotives as part of the turnaround.
  14. I've got an idea for a thread to be named, "This thread is all about the Old Ben Milam". I wanted to go into my memories from the early '80s when it was in its final years as a working hotel, and some of the facts and photos which I've found online and elsewhere from its earlier days. Question is, there's already an existing thread on the Ben Milam in "Historic Houston" mainly concerned with the never-realized plans for redevelopment and eventual demolition. I'm wanting to go back to (hopefully) happier memories. Should I go ahead and start the new thread, or simply add it to the existing one?
  15. Okay. I've been sitting on this until the statute of limitations expired (I hope!)... I was brought in as a temporary worker to keep the plant producing for another 6 weeks beyond the publicized shutdown date (the permanent employees had found permanent jobs elsewhere and were not inclined to leave them). I was not supposed to take pictures. But, on my last day at the plant, I was being paid just to be there for eight hours, and I had my cell phone. I got to thinking that it was quite possible that no kind of photo survey had ever been taken of this facility, and I knew it was historically important to Houston and the East End. So I went to town. This photography was not planned, I just went through as much of the facility as I could snapping everything which seemed interesting. And they are cell phone quality pictures at best, taken with a BlackBerry PRIV. But if you want to view them, for this the balance of Thanksgiving week 2022, you may. The link follows, the password is 'LastDrop'. Expires 2022-11-28: https://voyager.ehbowen.net:5001/mo/sharing/9TewHd5ln I made annotations to most of the photos with what I knew about the area or equipment. You are welcome to view, but downloading is disabled. I know some folks will save screen shots, but...well, remember the copyright laws. If you have some real use for some of the photos, message me and let's talk.
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