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Great American Railroad Journeys

In GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD JOURNEYS, host Michael Portillo (Great Continental Railway Journeys) crosses the Atlantic for an epic trip down the East Coast of the United States.


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Manhattan: Grand Central to World Trade Center
Michael Portillo crosses the Atlantic to ride the railroads of America with a new traveling companion. Armed with the 1879 edition of Appleton's General Guide to the United States, Portillo begins his American adventure on Manhattan Island. Starting at New York's Grand Central Terminal, he boards the Manhattan subway system -- the busiest rail transit system in the U.S. He learns about Manhattan's iconic skyscrapers then heads to the Financial District, where, over a lobster Newberg, he finds out how the dodgy political dealings of the era's most prominent industrialists earned them the nickname "Robber Barons." In an urban oasis, Portillo learns how a swampy wasteland was turned into one of the largest and finest parks in the world: Central Park. A celebrity welcome from the resting actors of Broadway awaits him at Ellen's Stardust Diner. In the Lower East Side, Portillo is drawn into a scrap with one of the neighborhood's infamous historic gangs and he visits the grim tenements where thousands of immigrants lived and worked. He then heads by ferry to Ellis Island, the gateway to America for many millions seeking a new life in the new world. He finishes this leg of his journey with a tour of the gleaming new transport hub under construction close to the site of Ground Zero. 

 

Brooklyn to Montauk
From Manhattan, Michael Portillo follows his Appleton's General Guide east to Long Island. Beginning in Brooklyn, he hears the moving story behind the construction of the world's first steel suspension bridge high above the East River. Below ground, he investigates the arrival of New York City's first subway and the dangers faced by the men who built it: the "sandhogs." At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Portillo discovers the dry dock where warships were built to defend American trade against the British and tastes the modern day moonshine now produced there. He follows in the footsteps of thousands of early 20th-century holiday makers to what was once America's playground, Coney Island. Continuing on the Long Island Railroad to Queens, Portillo investigates the site of an ambitious engineering project that will transform New York City's rail network. A model town built by an Irish immigrant who became one of the richest men in America is Portillo's next stop before he heads to the island's Gold Coast. There Michael relives the fun of the roaring '20s at Oheka Castle, a vast private residence once home to a rail tycoon before becoming a weekend retreat for New York City's garbage men. In East Hampton, Portillo discovers Home Sweet Home before ending his journey at the Montauk lighthouse on Long Island's easternmost tip. 

 

New York City to Albany
Michael Portillo follows America's iconic Hudson River north through New York state. Beginning at New York City's Penn Station, Michael rides Amtrak. He hears from Amtrak's police chief how railroad policing began to tackle the nation's most notorious train robbers, among them Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Upriver at Tarrytown, Portillo is spooked by a famous American ghost story, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. On the east bank of the Hudson he stops at Garrison, where he hears about the greatest turncoat in American history and the many generals trained at West Point, the United States Military Academy. In Poughkeepsie, Portillo visits Vassar college. Vassar counts Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Meryl Streep among its former students. He discovers the tumultuous history of the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge and follows the train line to the Catskill Mountains, where he bravely admires the scenery from an altogether different type of line: a zip wire. Back on safe ground he learns how the magnificent landscape inspired artists of the Hudson River School. Arriving in New York's state capital, Albany, he samples a drop of Albany Ale before rubbing shoulders with the State Senator. 

 

Schenectady to Niagara Falls
Continuing his American journey heading west through New York state, Michael Portillo experiences a "light bulb" moment in Schenectady, when he discovers how Thomas Edison's General Electric Company also leads the way in modern rail technology. In Utica, he investigates Lock 20 of 57 along the Erie Canal – 325 miles of waterway which connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Coast via the Hudson River. A yellow brick road beckons Michael to Chittenango, where a Kansas farm girl introduces him to a lion, and a tin man. On a hillside near Palmyra, Portillo finds out about a farm boy, Joseph Smith, and his Book of Mormon, from one of the 15 million believers who follow his religion today. Further west in Rochester, Portillo discovers a famous 19th-century name still trading today: George Eastman, who launched mass market photography with his Eastman Kodak company. Reaching Buffalo, he lunches on the city's famous Buffalo wings and discovers it was once the center of the world's grain trade. Touring Silo City, Portillo learns about the invention which propelled the port of Buffalo into its dominant position – the grain elevator – and how the railroads sealed the deal. Finally, Portillo braves the awesome power and drenching spray of Niagara Falls in the "Maid of the Mist" to share what artists, daredevils and millions of tourists have billed as one of the most spectacular experiences on the planet.

 

Philadelphia to Gettysburg
Michael Portillo embarks on a new railroad journey following his 1879 Appleton's Guidebook from the City of Brotherly Love south to the first permanent English colonial settlement in North America: Jamestown. He feasts on a gargantuan Philly Cheesesteak, then looks to work off the calories with a run past the city's famous landmarks, in homage to one of Philadelphia's most famous sons, Rocky Balboa. In the cradle of American independence, Portillo discovers how, in 1776, liberty was proclaimed throughout the land, yet millions remained enslaved. Alone in a cell, Portillo reflects on the 19th century "Pennsylvania System" of incarceration at the Eastern State Penitentiary before heading to the gambling resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

Later, Portillo hitches a ride with the Amish in a horse-drawn buggy through rich Pennsylvania countryside. In "Traintown USA," he joins the crew of the Strasburg Railroad. After oiling the magnificent engine, he rides on the footplate of the vintage steam locomotive. Next stop is the "sweetest place on earth," where Michael learns about the world's largest chocolate factory (Hershey) and the town that bears its name. His last stop on this leg is Gettysburg, the most famous battlefield of the American Civil War, where, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made his momentous speech.

 

Wilmington to Fort McHenry
Armed with his Appleton's Guide, Michael Portillo reaches a milestone on his American journey: the boundary between the northern and southern states, known as the Mason-Dixon line. He discovers the origins of what became for black Americans the border between slavery and freedom, in an 18th century English dispute over land. 

On the heritage Wilmington and Western Railroad, Portillo meets Phoebe Snow, a fictional character created to reassure passengers that clean burning coal wouldn't make their clothes dirty. He uncovers the explosive history of gunpowder production in Delaware then takes a boat trip up the Susquehanna River following the route taken by one of the first English settlers, John Smith. In Baltimore, home of the first railroad in the United States, Portillo discovers how the earliest American steam engine owed much to pioneering British technology and how an historic telegraph message was received. He investigates race relations, taking a drive downtown with a former drug dealer, now a teacher. On the city's beautiful east coast, Portillo discovers the impressive star-shaped Fort McHenry and learns how the Star Spangled Banner national anthem was born. Medics at the city's Johns Hopkins Hospital, show Portillo how their institution has grown from its 19th- century foundation by a railroad magnate into a world-leading center for healthcare. And at the city's Lexington Market, Portillo learns what gives a Maryland crab cake the edge. 

 

Washington to Mount Vernon
Michael Portillo arrives in the nation's capital, Washington DC, center of political power in the world's most powerful country. He discovers how it was built from scratch after a political compromise between north and south. 

At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Portillo meets the man responsible for engraving the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on the current five-dollar bill and gets his hands on more money than he has ever held in his life. In the offices of The Washington Post, Michael learns how at the time of his guidebook, the newspaper commissioned a march which won a place in the hearts of Americans. He also learns how, more recently, Washington Post journalists toppled a President. Portillo sees the site where, in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and at the vast Lincoln Memorial, seeks to understand his legacy. He soaks up some old school jazz where jazz king, Duke Ellington, began his career and grabs a bite at the diner chosen by President Obama for a snack before his inauguration. At the United States Naval Observatory he discovers the railroad origins of the time zones in operation across the U.S. 

Heading south to Alexandria, Va., Portillo explores a former slave market and hears how African Americans were once bought and sold. He ends this leg in Mount Vernon, the Palladian home of the nation's first president, George Washington, where he gets into some difficulty at an archaeological dig. 

 

Manassas to Jamestown
Steered by his 1879 Appleton's General Guide to the United States, Michael Portillo arrives in Manassas, Va., scene of two crucial battles during the American Civil War. In Fredericksburg, he tries his hand at bottling bourbon corn whiskey and learns how it became the nation's spirit. In Richmond, a plate of ham and eggs with southern grits sets Portillo up for a tour of the Virginia state Capitol building, where he learns about the terrible dilemma faced by one of its most famous sons, General Robert E. Lee. Charmed by the English heritage of this former colony Portillo puts on his dancing shoes and heads for a Cotillion ball, where it seems manners are the name of the game. The choir of the First Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va., is in fine voice as Portillo discovers how coded messages were once delivered in church to slaves who hoped to escape via the Underground Railroad. He later ploughs his own furrow in a field in Colonial Williamsburg, where he learns from costumed re-enactors what life was like for both master and slave. In Norfolk, home to the United States Atlantic fleet, Portillo is invited on board the USS Wisconsin. He finally reaches the end of this American journey in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, where he finds out about the early settlers' grim struggle for survival.