Calvacade of America: Defiance of Nature

WAMU, 88.5 FM, is the local public radio station in Washington, D.C., the one that carries the news, talk and cultural programming familiar across the country (“Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” etc.). Sunday evenings bring the best show of the week, “The Big Broadcast,” four hours of Old Time Radio (OTR for short). Hosted by local radio legend Ed Walker, the program features regular broadcasts of the classics, “Dragnet” and “Gunsmoke,” and a changing schedule of comedy, drama, documentary and variety programs. Always something entertaining.

Anyway, a long set-up to a plug for a show on last weekend (schedule and streaming audio here), “Calvacade of America,” the episode from December 18, 1935. “Calvacade of America” was a weekly half-hour “prestige” program sponsored by DuPont, bringing dramatizations from American history and literature interspersed with orchestral performances. (This OTR fan’s site has a summary of the program.)

This particular episode was entitled, “Defiance of Nature,” telling the story of the construction of the Erie Canal and the Hudson River Tunnel. The scene-setting narration:

“Where primitive man feared the power of nature, civilized man utilizes that same power to his advantage through engineering. In our own country, more than any other, nature has been harnessed to improve our living conditions. And this evening, we pay tribute to our American engineer. It is the year 1810, as our story opens. The scene is a farm in western New York ….”

The program uses the familiar device of an enthusiastic boy urging his family on to interest in the project, in this case the Erie Canal. Flash forward to the 4th of July, 1817, groundbreaking near Rome, N.Y. Governor DeWitt Clinton is there, and the great American engineer, Canvas White. (How many prime-time network shows celebrate engineers, these days?) And we’re there for the 1825 canal opening.

The segment on the Hudson River tunnel construction takes the same instructional and celebratory approach, including the narration, “It is the 12th day of November, 1927, and the tunnel is ready to be opened — a great shining white highway, ingeniously lighted, miraculously ventilated, connecting New York and New Jersey beneath the waters of the mighty Hudson.” And engineers are honored, including Clifford Holland, who died before completion of the tunnel that bears his name. Then, the music rises, and narration…

What heights will these builders reach? No longer does nature stand in the way of man’s progress. We fling bridges across rivers and harbors, bore tunnels through mountains, harness wild streams, divide continents and seize the very lightning from the sky. Our engineers take their places among the leaders of the world as they march onward in the calvacade of America.

The program concludes with a tribute to dynamite and high explosives and their use in construction and mining, advanced through the work of DuPont’s chemists. “Better things through better living, through chemistry!” Which does sound familiar.

All in all, a nice glimpse back to a time when America viewed man’s mastery of the world and the work of engineers as unalloyed achievements. Great engineering feats are still celebrated, to be sure — just take a look at this recent Washington Post story about the local interchange, the “Mixing Bowl” — but there was a confidence in the 1935’s popular expressions that today seems quaint…and missed.

The Big Broadcast only keeps the latest show archived for a week, but this website, FreeOTRShows, has streaming audio of public domain shows, including episodes of “Calvacade of America.” To listen to “Defiance of Nature,” please click here.

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