Concrete and the Pacific Northwest–I haven’t seen much of either in steampunk, so let’s take a look at both at the same time. Just for fun. Concrete isn’t something we normally associate with steampunk. It kind of gets lost in all the brass and  . . . collars. But it became quite important in the later half of that era.


The Kaleden Hotel: 1910

Lots of other things were going on in the steam era. Yes, Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is interesting to read about and we all can’t get enough of things made of gears that don’t really need to be made of gears; however, while Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson was doing his thing in Europe, his compatriots were also doing stuff way the heck out here in British Columbia. A few of them decided to build a bunch of orchards in the Okanagan Valley, and those who didn’t feel like making the trip invested in some of these communities. One such place was Kaleden.

Unlike a lot of the small towns around where I grew up, this wasn’t a staging point for miners and railway workers. It was a project undertaken by English bourgeois to irrigate the area and produce a lot of fruit. Elites back home funded much of the operation, which was mostly a success—it’s still a beautiful, dignified little place consisting mostly of orchards and, more recently, vineyards. It has remained bourgeois for most of the last 100 years.

The above photo is of the ill-fated Kaleden Hotel. No, it didn’t burn down. There are no ghosts or tragic stories. The skeleton you see there is a dramatic example of how ambition and lack of expertise turned a nice hotel into an abandoned shell.

The reason I mention this is that in an age where pioneer buildings were built of wood, someone decided to build a hotel out of concrete. Now, there was hardly anything around at the time as far as industry goes. I have no idea how or where they got their aggregate and what the logistics of that were. More on that later. But back to the story—the project fell on some financial trouble, and in that case the guy did what we all do when we need some cash: tear out the floors and sell it all! Right . . . .

When things got better, the guy wasn’t allowed to put it back together. Thankfully there must have been an engineer around—it was deemed unsafe because they hadn’t even reinforced the concrete.

Apparently the concrete was poured by hand. That means carrying it up a ladder and dumping it into the forms. That’s what the few historical accounts say—I’m not sure why nobody would have thought to use a rope and pulley, but I digress.

“But its concrete, how interesting is that?” you ask.

Concrete has been around forever, but actually wasn’t used very much between the ancient Romans’ time and the 1800s. The thing that revived it was the invention of Portland Cement (no relation to Portland Oregon or Maine), which made concrete a whole lot more consistent. To use concrete you need the right kind of rocks and the right mix of sizes of these rocks, and they need to be in a certain condition for it to work with the cement paste. Those gravel pits everyone doesn’t want in their back yard and writes letters to the editor about? Well, they’re actually very important to building a city and having them closer probably cuts down on pollution from trucking it around everywhere, but that’s another post entirely. The point is that the people who built this hotel had hardly anything available. There are tons of wood structures around from the same era, so I’m not sure why the builder chose to use concrete in this case. This is mostly conjecture, but to me the hotel was a ballsy move—a deviation, perhaps, from the overly practical “pioneer” temperament. Or is that kind of bravado a trait of pioneers? I’m not sure.

So while in mainstream steampunk land we have man portrayed as having such mastery over technology that he creates mechanically grotesque indulgences, here we have a case of that same bourgeois confidence falling flat in the face of ineptitude, the environment, circumstances, or some combination thereof.

Here’s a closer photo of the concrete. I chose this one because it shows just how random the aggregate in this concrete is. The big, long, flat, sharp rock is an example of everything you don’t want in concrete. Perhaps the reason they didn’t use rebar was because the size of this aggregate wouldn’t be able to pass around it and the concrete would separate. More likely is that they just used whatever they could find in the area. Also from the look of the rock, it’s dachite or something equally as unsuited for concrete use. When you look at geological maps of the area, most of the minerals they’d find are potentially bad.

In small towns that’s how concrete was done, though. And based on accounts I’ve heard personally from old guys around here, they still knew what worked and what didn’t, though in a broad sense. Of course now we know that mixing it in terms of “x-bags of cement with y-shovels-full of gravel” still isn’t good enough, but they made it work for house foundations and so on.

To the left you can see more of the same evidence of random rocks thrown into this concrete, and the pop-outs resulting from that choice.

Some might be disappointed that there isn’t some big dramatic fire behind this concrete skeleton, but to me the story of technical failure and financial blundering offers a lot more to think about. I guess readers don’t always see the underpinnings of a story, but for myself, and I imagine a lot of steam/dieselpunk writers, often the coolest stories full of action and drama stem from studying everyday situations like the one I’ve been writing about. And sometimes that starts with something as mundane as thinking about building materials, or electricity, or how a city is designed.

Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is a fun character to play with—the aim of this post and my dieselpunk leanings isn’t at all an attack per se on those types of characters. But what I love about dieselpunk, and writing about “new world”—ish settings as opposed to opulent old empires is that Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson’s sense of entitlement and theoretical knowledge mean less when you change the rules of society. Industrial and entrepreneurial skills rule dieselpunk. Entitlement gets you nowhere—assuming that throwing money or status at a construction project will hemorrhage that old English money in an instant. Now, I don’t have a clue about what the person’s attitude was when they tried to build this thing, but it’s something that happens even today and is mitigated by the fact that we aren’t in the middle of the woods with no expertise or proper materials available.

The main point is that . . . well, sometimes things that aren’t interesting actually are. And that steampunk ought to exploit gold-rush type settings a bit more.

(Okay, so I have been doing blog posts straight from MS Word and it’s pretty neat . . . only apparently sometimes the formatting gets messed up in the process. Derrrrr.)