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Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

Yesterdays’ derailment in New Windsor of a CRX freight train carrying sulfuric acid – along the very tracks that run through Blauvelt, West Nyack, Valley Cottage, Congers, Haverstraw and Stony Point inspired me to renew and refresh this post about a frightening and deadly chemical explosion that happened right here in downtown Nyack – directly across the street from an occupied school building. The lower Hudson Valley dodged a bullet yesterday – had the tanks ruptured, or had that train been one of the many that daily cross our county carrying explosive shale oil in antiquated tank cars the results would have been unimaginable.

The balance between successful industry and public safety seems to exist on a fulcrum – tipping first to the one then to the other but generally resulting in a middle ground of “generally safe, generally profitable”.  However, when one or the other side goes too far, and like a playground bully jumps off the see-saw the result is a crash to the ground for the other party. So if safety measures go extreme, profits crash – but when safety is ignored for financial gain, PEOPLE DIE.

 Among the most foolhardy suggestions of our newly elected “slash-and-burn” politicians are the elimination of government-run product safety and consumer protection agencies. Really, haven’t we learned our lesson that industries allowed to operate without any public oversight tend to start sacrificing public safety in pursuit of more profit?  There are countless examples some of these “reformers” should bear in mind: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the R.M.S. Titanic, the Union Carbide Plant Explosion in Bhopal, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and the BP Gulf oil rig explosion are some of the worst disasters that resulted from the drive for profit superseding safety concerns and common sense.  Closer to home, the brick industry in Haverstraw became so greedy that in 1906 they undermined the village itself, causing a landslide that took 5 streets, 2 avenues and 21 buildings with it, killing 19 residents.

photo: Hudson River Valley Heritage Archives

The American Aniline Products plant was located on Cedar Hill Avenue – the picture above shows what it was like prior to the morning of January 30, 1919.  It was just after 9:00 and the 400 plus students of the Liberty Street School across the street from the factory had already begun class.  (It’s hard to imagine the response of today’s parents if there was a factory manufacturing toxic chemicals literally across the street from their kids’ school!)  Overheating chemicals in the drying room of the factory’s first floor ignited and exploded the walls of the ground floor outward, another blast would rip a hole that tore through the upper floors and roof.  The hundred employees on-site fled for their lives as the explosion rocked all of Orangetown and plate-glass windows shattered all over Nyack.  All of the windows of the school facing the factory were blown into the school, covering the students with broken glass.  Amazingly, the force of the blast was so strong that the size of the glass shards were minute and miraculously only one student was seriously injured by the glass.  The 400 students evacuated to Hudson and School Street and joined what appeared to be the rest of the population of Nyack in watching the conflagration. 

photo: Nyack Library Parkhurst Collection

This was perhaps the greatest day for the Nyack Volunteer Fire Department.  Due to their heroic efforts, the ensuing conflagration was confined to the factory, one home and one garage.  Three of the factory’s employees lost their lives that day, with 15 others seriously injured.  What is not known is how many of the residents and workers (not to mention the firemen) would have their health affected by breathing the extremely toxic fumes of the burning aniline dye. See, in 1919, either no one knew – or possibly no one cared – that breathing aniline fumes was toxic and likely to cause cancers, particularly bladder cancers later in life.  (Having a father who suffered from asbestosis, contracted well AFTER the construction industry was well aware of the dangers, suggests that the second scenario though horrifying is indeed possible).  The factory owners would eventually be fined the sum of $2500 for their negligence, after the President of the company and the Superintendent of the factory pled guilty of  violating state labor laws and village ordinances in the storing of explosive chemicals – yet they violated those laws and regulations KNOWING there was a school across the street. 

photo: Hudson River Valley Heritage Archives

Though the families of those who perished or were injured might disagree, Nyack learned its lesson with a miraculously low loss of life.  Had the vector of the explosion been slightly different, the outcome could have been far, far worse.  So while our rhetoric-spouting politicians yammer and bleat about cutting government spending and government interference limiting “business possibilities” they might want to concentrate on the real waste, and not checks and balances put into place to keep our industries’ need to satisfy their shareholders from slipping into disregard for public safety and human lives. I wish more of our elected officials of all persuasions spent a little more time studying history and a little less time studying the polls, remembering that they were elected to do public service, not elected to get re-elected.

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This one from July 2013 bears re-posting. To the residents of Colonial Nyack, the Revolutionary War wasn’t some far away conflict, but part of their everyday lives. The first naval battle of the War and the first international salute to the new Country both took place right here in the Tappan Zee. See the struggle for freedom through THEIR eyes, and perhaps cherish “the great experiment” we call the United States a bit more. No human endeavor is ever perfect, and our Nation itself was born of compromise, for without it we would never have existed. We must still strive as our Nyack ancestors did to always make it better, to improve, to grow, and to continue striving in our national quest for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

I started this post having just returned home from watching the skies over Memorial Park light up with glorious fireworks celebrating America’s Independence Day; which as usual thrilled and excited the huge crowds who came to the village to watch.  That got me wondering how many people watching with me realized that in a way they were watching a re-enactment of similar events that occurred over two hundred years ago in the same location, events that with one special exception, brought dread and pain rather than joy and celebration…

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When people think of “The Revolution” and Rockland County’s place in it, if they are aware of any connection most would think of Stony Point and Tappan.  Stony Point was the location of the Battle of Stony Point, and Tappan of course hosted Washington’s Headquarters and the famous trial and execution of Major John Andre (the British Officer who was the other important figure in Benedict Arnold’s thwarted plan to give over the plans to West Point).  Both locations are proud of the roles they played in the American War for Independence – and rightly so – however the rest of the county did not just sit idly by and twiddle their thumbs or hum “Yankee Doodle” while history was made nearby.  The Nyacks for instance were attacked by the Redcoats several times – not by land, but from the British War Vessels in our own Tappan Zee – the bombs bursting in air would come from the guns of warships firing on the homes, farms and businesses of the Hudson Shoreline.  In fact, the very first Naval Battle of the Revolution would take place right off our shores in our own Tappan Zee.  Later, the first ever acknowledgement of the United States of America as a Sovereign Nation would come as a seventeen-gun salute to General Washington from the guns of the British Warship fired with honor in the very same location just off our shore.

How Nyack and the Riverfront became a wartime target…

A bit of background would probably help in understanding how Nyack and what would become the other River villages wound up on the receiving end of Musketshot and Cannonballs.  When Nieuw Netherland was handed over to the British by the Dutch without a shot fired in 1664, bloodshed was prevented by some shrewd bargaining on both sides.  The British very much wanted the finest deep water port on the North American continent, and control of Hudson’s River beyond which all acknowledged would be the key to opening the continent’s interior.  Nieuw Amsterdam and Pavonia (today’s lower Manhattan and Jersey City/Hoboken) were already a very busy FREE port with goods leaving the New World and heading to many European, Caribbean and African ports without the hinderance of the English King’s royal tariffs and restrictions of the New England ports to the north or the Virginia port to the south.  Nieuw Netherland’s polyglot population, not just Dutch, but Walloon, Prussian, French Huguenot, Free West Africans and Caribs, Jewish Refugees, Irish, Moorish, and yes, Englishmen and women fleeing New England’s puritan regime made the young city and the Valley of the Hudson to the north the finest mercantile trading post and port on the continent.  The Duke of York wanted our port and our river, but he also wanted to keep it profitable and running just the way it had been – only now paying taxes to the British Crown rather than as a state of the Dutch Republic.  A student of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” the Duke did not want to mess with a system – no matter how quirky – that worked and showed a profit.  Peter Stuyvesant, discovering his city and the other communities of Nieuw Netherland beyond under the guns of a number of English Warships while he had nothing but his trading fleet in port meant there could simply be a massacre or there could be a deal.

The deal between the Duke and the Dutchman was called the “Articles of Capitulation” and transferred the ownership of the colony to England – under the written and signed treaty that allowed the colony – now separated into New York and New Jersey – to keep their freedom of religion (unlike New England), their system of courts (innocent until proven guilty, not the opposite as in the other colonies – as well as the public defender which did exist in English jurisprudence), allowance of women to own property (two of the major colonies that were part of Nieuw Netherland had been founded by women), manumission of slaves (slaves – black, indian or white – could not be kept in that condition for life, and could work their way to freeman status in just a few years, earn money while doing so, and could own property afterwards) and their continued status as a free port dealing directly with both London and Amsterdam as well as the rest of the Atlantic world.  That meant that the two middle colonies wound up with a host of freedoms the other 11 did not have or would not have until significantly later.  Oddly, that left New York colonists a bit ambivalent when it came to independence from the Crown – the Crown, frankly had for almost 100 years left them to their own devices demanding only their taxes.  While New England chafed under more and more crippling taxes and infringement of civil rights, life was better and easier here. It was only when King George III and Parliament started chipping away at the Articles that the residents of Nyack and Tappan and the rest of Orangetown felt that perhaps something was amiss and they needed to take action.

Take action they did – as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog – the locals met at Jost Mabie’s Tavern (now the ’76 House Restaurant) and drafted the Orangetown Resolutions – ON JULY 4,1774. Two years to the day before the Declaration of Independence would be signed in Philadelphia! In it they addressed the King and Parliament stating: “We cannot see the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties upon us, and the Act for shutting up the port of Boston, without declaring our abhorrence of measures so unconstitutional and big with destruction… That we are in duty bound to use every just and lawful measure, to obtain a repeal of Acts, not only destructive to us, but which of course must distress thousands in the mother country… That it is our unanimous opinion, that the stopping all exportation and importation to and from Great Britain and the West Indies, would be the most effectual method to obtain a speedy repeal.” This was not a call for separation from England, but a reminder to her government that their recent behavior had been abusive and disruptive to the colonies.  Unfortunately, George and his Parliament did not care for criticism very much, and declared the document treasonous and the residents of Orangetown rebellious and inciting of sedition. THAT response would push most of the population of what would become Rockland County into the Patriots camp, though a few notable citizens such as ferry mistress Molly Sneden remained Tory throughout the coming conflict.

Once the hostilities began, the British realized that New York and the Hudson Valley were critical to their efforts to break the rebellion and re-exert their rule in the lower 13 colonies.  By holding the Hudson, the British commanders felt they would have effectively driven a wedge between New England and the Southern colonies, had they been completely successful with the strategy we might still be singing “God Save the Queen” instead of the “Star Spangled Banner”.  On August 3, 1776 the American Galleys Whiting, Lady Washington, Crown and Spitfire engaged the British ships Phoenix, Roebuck and Tartar in the Tappan Zee in the first naval skirmish of the Revolution. The Patriots succeeded in keeping the Redcoats from heading further up the Hudson, and they were assisted by the local Shore Patrol on land with shots fired from the gun emplacements in Piermont (then known as Tappan Slote), Nyack and Upper Nyack. Retaliation came in the form of cannon-shot targeting shore side residences – the Haring Estate (now called the Onderdonk House in Piermont), the Cornelison home (a large colonial home where Salisbury Point Co-ops now stand) and the Hazzard Home near Hook Mountain took damage, but the enemy ships could not proceed further north.

October 15, 1776, Captain A. Hawkes Hay commanding repulsed an attack by the British on Nyack.  By the fall of 1776, the British were not only in control of the City of New York, they had also gained control of Harlem, Bloomingdale and the other communities on Upper Manhattan and Fort Lee on the Jersey side.  The Patriots firmly controlled the Hudson above West Point, but there was a struggle to keep the lower Hudson from coming under British control. Hay reported that the ships attempting to land at Nyack were prevented by the men under his command, including the use of the Swivel Gun emplacement in Upper Nyack.  Severe damage was done to the house and barn of Philip Sarvent and though only a few men were injured in this encounter (no deaths) there were several other attacks on the area in 1777 and 1780.  Hay’s own home would be targeted by the British from the River and destroyed in one of these raids, Major John Smith’s house in Upper Nyack destroyed in another.  Land incursions came as well – and not only soldiers were injured or died.  Horrified Patriots discovered the body of Mrs. Garret Myers on her farm near Rockland Lake left to rot with her face smashed in from attempting to protect herself and her farm from British soldiers intent on food and perhaps something else, as a young and attractive woman named Mrs. Snyder was raped and left for dead on her nearby farm by the Hook.

Salisbury Manor, home of the Cornelisons (hence, Cornelison Avenue) because of its exposed location continue to attract enemy fire from the Hudson, and it seems holes from musket balls were still present in the door frames up until the Manor Home was raised in the 1950s to build the Salisbury Co-ops.  A Tory neighbor, reportedly jealous of the lovely home, would betray Michael Cornelison Sr and his wife to the British for their efforts to assist the Patriots, imprisoning them in New York City – Mrs Cornelison was allowed to return to Nyack 6 months later, her husband would remain in custody for 3 additional months. Oddly, the same quisling neighbor did not alert the Redcoats to the presence of Michael Cornelison Jr, even though he spotted the young man hiding in the house’s vast rafters during the raid. It appears young Michael was a Mason as was the tattler, and I suppose Masons just don’t DO that to each other… not that it did the young man much good, as he had to suffer through the local British Commander using his home as a headquarters for several months! All that’s left of that historic home now are some of the sandstone blocks of the walls used as stairs leading to Salisbury Point’s pool.

At the time Nyack, though small, was the headquarters of the Whaling Fleet – all rugged ships and men who favored the Patriots and vigorously defended the Nyacks from attempted landing after attempted landing by the British. Between the Whaling Fleet, the very successful and accurate shore patrol and swivel guns, and a certain resident sea-captain named Henry Palmer (of the Old Palmer Burial Ground Palmers) the British fleet went from annoyance to absolute loathing of Nyack and fired at will at any visible structure whenever possible.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

Captain Palmer owned a large vessel carrying goods for one of the largest mercantile firms in New York City prior to the outbreak of hostilities.  He was offered great monetary compensation for serving the King’s forces, but he adamantly refused – in fact, on his next sailings he transported two cargos of ammunition, arms and supplies “acquired” by the  Sons of Liberty from British supply depots in the city which he brought to the camp of the Continental Army. His activities made his family unsafe in Manhattan and he moved them to Broadway in Upper Nyack, near Old Mountain Road. From there he continued to harry the British and was responsible for repulsing attempted landings numerous times – with consistent fatal results for the British and naught but wounds for the Nyackers. In early July 1777 he and the Shore Guard fended off two boats killing 3 men; in late July they returned, both to attempt a landing and to destroy a sloop moored between the Palmer home and the Sarvent home. Palmer, Sarvent and the Shore Guard prevented three attempts at landing with the toll for the British this time at 9 men.   Later that year, the Upper Nyack swivel gun emplacement, close by his property, enabled the Nyackers to later capture two landing boats and send their crews over to Tappan as prisoners of war.  A warship becalmed off Nyack’s shore unable to reach land and floating with the tide saw the loss of 36 men to Palmer’s crew of fatally expert gunners.  The result of his actions was a constant barrage of enemy fire anytime a ship reached this far up the river. By 1781, Nyack’s defenders had in addition to the Shore Patrol and gun emplacements, six whaleboats and forty-two men led by Captain Palmer, Nyack’s own Bane of the British.  Major John L. Smith, Captain Aury Smith, and Corporal Philip Sarvent, three of our Revolutionary War heroes may be found resting beneath their headstones in the Old Palmer Burial Ground on Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack. 

The British finally surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1782, though due to distance, travel time and red tape the Peace Treaty would not be fully signed until the next year. In May of 1783, General Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton in Tappan to confer on the final evacuation of British Troops from New York – they would then ride back to the riverfront to Onderdonk House on May 7th.  At that time Onderdonk House was owned by John Haring, who was our own representative at the Continental Congress. Onderdonk House, too, had taken an extreme beating from British guns during the war (looking at it today, in the process of some kind of restoration – we hope – it might look like it did at its worst).  Carlton and Washington were feted and feasted at Onderdonk House, and then the H.M.S. Perseverance fired its seventeen gun salute to honor Washington and to acknowledge, for the first time, our new sovereign nation – these United States of America.  That’s right folks, it happened… right here.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

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I’ve just come from a remarkable event. This evening at Nyack Library, a documentary film by Director Tina Traster made its debut before a packed room of enthusiastic history buffs, both professional and casual. The film is appropriately and succinctly titled “THIS HOUSE MATTERS”.

An important film for preservationists everywhere, it features Nyack’s own John Green House, and the John Green House Preservation Coalition extensively, while also highlighting other Rockland County historic structures recently lost to the wrecking ball, others in peril of destruction, and those fortunate enough – like the Green House – to have found a respite from oblivion.  

Traster’s engaging and instructive film was prompted among other things by the loss of a Historical Treasure. See, you might not know that  the historically significant “Lent House” in Orangeburg – built in 1752 -was completely demolished last year on the weekend of Easter with almost no fanfare. The home was built by a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions (discussed in its own post on this blog). Though some minor and ultimately ineffective attempts were made to save the structure, nothing materialized and the financially cash-strapped owner (with some mild regret) allowed the beautiful Dutch Sandstone Colonial to be bulldozed. 

As a Realtor, I understand better than most the rights of property ownership and the amount of an individuals financial wealth that is tied up in any property owned. I could not blame the owner though it pains me to say so. As a Historian, this was a Crime Against History, and truly, I cried when I came upon the ruins of the structure unexpectedly last Spring. Full disclosure, as Village Historian I do appear in the film both in interviews, and some candid discussions.  The loss of the Lent House spurred local preservationists to action to prevent this from happening to other important structures. One of them was Nyack’s own John Green House – contrary to popular belief not the oldest house in the village, but the second oldest – it is however the oldest stone structure currently standing in the Village of Nyack, but the home of a man extremely important to the history of Nyack, Rockland County and for that matter, the entire Hudson Valley.

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The John Green House, circa 1900. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

SO WHO WAS THIS JOHN GREEN?

John Green was an merchant, entrepreneur, speculator and developer in Nyack in the early 1800s. He arrived in Nyack shortly after the turn of the 19th Century from New York City where a fire had cost him his business and all of his belongings. He began work here as a common laborer and eventually saved enough to open the area’s first lumber yard. By 1812 he had amassed enough to become one of the original founders of The First Methodist-Episcopal Church of Nyack. Built in 1812-1813 of the same Dutch Sandstone the John Green House would use in its construction, we now know it as the Old Stone Church, Upper Nyack’s oldest structure. 

Using similar materials – reddish brown sandstone from the quarries in Nyack and Grandview, Green built his own three story home on lower Main Street, completing it in 1819. This was one of the last, if not the last, Gambrel-roofed Dutch Sandstone homes built in Rockland County in a style that was very specific to one place in the world, the lower Hudson Valley Communities in what are now Rockland and Bergen Counties.  This particular style are large solid homes, with brown rough cut sandstone walls as much as 27 inches thick, and with a Gambrel for a roof (that’s a roof, much like a barns that is shallow peaked at the top and on each side takes an abrupt sharper downward slant halfway between the peak of the roof and the roof line. Further distinguishing OUR Dutch Sandstone Colonials was the “flare” at the edges of the roof where today you would find rain gutters. This brilliant innovation was significantly better than what we currently use in shunting water away from a house’s foundation.

As he continued to prosper, Green saw a bright future for Rockland County and Nyack. Already, wind-driven sloops were bringing our contributions to the growing metropolis of New York – stone from Nyack’s quarries, ice from Rockland Lake, iron from the Ramapo mountains and Suffern, and what produce grew in our rocky, hilly county.  Green foresaw a need to get the products to New York City faster, and became the major sponsor of the Nyack Turnpike in the 1820s, a turnpike road that would connect Nyack to Suffern directly and cut hours off the trip.  Green also began to build a seaport for Nyack, and he began the first steam ferry and cargo runs from Nyack to New York City. He and his partners began construction of ‘The Orange’ (originally ‘The Nyack’) in 1826, not even 20 years from when the world’s first successful steamboat – Fulton’s ‘Cleremont’ first docked in Nyack. By 1828 ‘The Orange’ – or as some nicknamed the ungainly looking craft ‘The Pot Cheese’ was dutifully steaming back and forth to New York City daily carrying both freight and passengers. This only spurred more commerce, more boat and ship building for Nyack, our burgeoning textile industry and more. Green is truly one of the architects of the prosperity and development of Rockland County. 

John Green House 1984

The John Green House, circa 1984. Photo: Nyack Library Local History Collection

BUT WHY SAVE A WRECK?

Trust me when I say that as a Historian I saw the significance of John Green in Nyack and the County’s history, but as a Realtor – and a realist – I was not convinced the structure could be saved or if so, the cost could be justified.  I actually rented an apartment in the house to a young lady getting government assistance in 2004, it being the only apartment in the Village her stipend could pay for. The house was in tough shape THEN. It was purchased shortly after with intentions of renovation on the new owner’s part, only to be met face on with the housing crash. The owner could not renovate and put the house on the market. I believe I may have been one of the last Realtors to show the home before it was foreclosed upon. By that time, deterioration had accelerated significantly and a portion of the north east wall was beginning to collapse into the structure, and we dared not climb the almost non-existent stairs to the third floor. Shortly thereafter, the home was condemned and labeled dangerous.   

This is the picture I had in my head when some local historians and preservationists approached me as Nyack Historian and asked me to support the project. I was very reluctant to do so, because I feared the structure was too damaged to repair, or at least that such repair would be so prohibitively expensive that Nyack would wind up with another unfortunate circumstance like the old Helen Hayes Theater, which was land-marked, but could never raise enough funds to be repaired and so symbolically if not literally collapsed around itself and was lost, along with all the monies dumped into owning it and allegedly restoring the theater. 

However, the folks who would become The John Green Preservation Coalition were not pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but a determined group set out to do things correctly. Structural and engineering reports, work estimates, funding needs, timetables, possible usage outlines – all were presented professionally and efficiently, and slowly but surely my mind changed, and now I became convinced that the strengthening and restoring of the property WAS possible and not at an astronomical cost. I was thrilled that this looked like a project that would save something historically significant and actually work.

Wonderful things began to happen. The Coalition was able to acquire the foreclosed property after Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney and one of the group’s leaders, completed a complicated negotiation with Ocwen Loan Servicing, an Atlanta-based mortgage company. The result was that the bank GIFTED the house to the organization. This is unprecedented. Though very rarely banks will gift a foreclosed property, those gifted properties are always to municipalities, and generally for the purposes of creating additional affordable housing. Gifting a historically significant structure to a group of preservationist just had never been done before. I will however, lay heavy bets other groups around the country will be watching us closely and will attempt similar negotiations on other significant properties that have defaulted.  Not a single Nyack tax dollar was used or will be used on this project. The home is owned by the Non-Profit Coalition, not by the Village of Nyack.

Other wonderful things included support from local politicians like State Senator David Carlucci, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, Mayor Jen White and many others who it seems also found the destruction of the 1752 Lent House a wake-up call for our historic communities. Local businesses have contributed time, labor, materials, or in the case of my own company’s ‘Rand Community Fund’ made needed financial donations to the restoration. And with some melancholy, the destruction of the Lent House in a way will help preserve the John Green House. The Coalition was permitted to glean the original reddish brown sandstone blocks from the Lent House to rebuild the collapsing area of the north east wall of the John Green House. It’s almost like as it died, the Lent House gave an organ donation to save the Green House.

All this has come to pass on nothing more than the dedication and determination of this extraordinary group of historians, history buffs and history nerds who said with one voice “enough is enough, let’s do this”.  Folks like Upper Nyack Village Historian Winn Perry and local contractor Ken Sharp can be seen at the house doing backbreaking labor, volunteering their time (and probably blood, sweat and tears) to keeping this House alive and present in the Nyack Community. The day the official ceremony of donation was held in front of the John Green House, I was present (as you can see in the picture below) and the mood was astonishing… such a feeling of triumph, of hope, of accomplishment glowed off these folks that it was absolutely contagious. 

John Green House gifted to Preservationists

Gifting Ceremony, Summer 2015. Photo: Ken Sharp collection.

The John Green House is a success (knock wood) in the world of local history and preservation, a success that appears to come too infrequently recently. Tina Traster’s excellent documentary beautifully documents the lost, the saved, and those still in peril.  Look for its next screening near you, and don’t hesitate – make sure you see this call to action that reminds us that Nyack and all of Rockland are really special places indeed.

If you want to get involved with the restoration, or if you want to contribute, contact: THE JOHN GREEN PRESERVATION COALITION:  http://www.johngreencoalition.org/contact/ or http://www.johngreencoalition.org/donatesupport/ 

To watch the trailer and find out more about the film “THIS HOUSE MATTERS” by Tina Traster, go to: http://www.thishousematters.com/

 

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A series of coincidental events led me to write about a traumatic event that happened in Nyack and wound up with far-reaching consequences for the entire nation and its police departments. We’ve just learned that not unexpectedly, a Grand Jury did not indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner, following on the heels of the refusal of another Grand Jury in Missouri to indict Darren Wilson (now a former Police Officer) in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Mixed in with this is the news that Judith Clark, one of the perpetrators of the Brinks Robbery and Shooting in Nanuet and Nyack in 1981, is seeking clemency on her conviction – like her fellow convicted and now released member of the Weather Underground, Kathy Boudin.

What does a crime from 30 years ago have to do with current events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island? Much, actually. You see, when Ms. Clark and Ms. Boudin and their group finished their shopping trip to Nyack and the Nanuet Mall on October 20, 1981 they left in their wake two dead Nyack Police Officers and one dead Brinks Guard. And, sadly, the reason that African-American Police Officer Waverly Brown and Irish-American Police Officer Edward O’Grady were dead was because Kathy Boudin emerged from the get-away van with her hands up, begging the Officers to put down their guns because she was unarmed, knowing full well when they did her comrades would ambush the officers from the van, firing round after round into the two soon-to-be dead officers along with Officer Artie Keenan who was badly injured. They continued firing into Officer Brown’s body after he was down and as a final farewell ran over the body of Officer O’Grady.

Police Procedure changed Nationwide that day. Officers O’Grady and Brown died because they had compassion that day, a horrible state of affairs that has resulted in the laws and rules we have today. These grant to Police Officers a broad scope of reaction to what they perceive to be life-threatening situations – which sometimes turns out not to be as threatening as the split second “blink reaction” may have led them to believe. When the Officer is correct, they’re doing their jobs; when the decision is incorrect or less sure, tragedy can occur.  But it is interesting to remember that this breadth of protection and trust under the law came about because of events right here in Nyack, and oddly, BECAUSE someone whom the police BELIEVED put her hands up and said “Don’t Shoot”.  And it is also typically Nyack in that both the Weather Underground and the Nyack Police groups were each composed of a racial mix…

We all also need to remember that it is the LAW that determines whether a person can be either indicted, or if so convicted on a charge of murder. There are people who feel that Wilson murdered Brown and Pantaleo murdered Garner. There are people who feel that Boudin and Clark murdered Brown and O’Grady and Brinks guard Peter Page. And to add one more law vs. ethics controversy, there are people who feel that George Zimmerman murdered Treyvon Martin. And in each of these cases, it appears there are just as many people who feel that Wilson, Pantaleo, Boudin, Clark and Zimmerman did NOT commit murder in any of the cases.  And the law agrees with them, no matter how wrong or unfair a situation may appear.  Whether or not that is a good thing, and the value of the laws in question are what should be addressed.

The law, because of what happened in Nyack, allows for the Police to respond to situations they feel are life-threatening with deadly force and so without evidence of any premeditated intent both Panteleo and Wilson could not be indicted. Despite knowing what their comrades intended, Boudin and Clark did not pull the triggers, and so by law, could not be charged with murder, only accessory to. And due to Florida’s ambiguously worded “Stand Your Ground” laws, Zimmerman could not be convicted of murder.

Whether or not our individual opinions and ethics feel that any or all of these cases are murder or any or all are not, does not matter legally. I have my own opinions on each, but whether I agreed with the law or not, I knew that each of these decisions would likely (and should likely) turn out the way they did because of the laws that applied to each. If American Citizens feel that the LAWS need to be changed or adjusted or modified (or in the case of Florida State Law, clarified) then THAT is what WE THE PEOPLE must address. We can’t apply laws variably with public sentiment on a particular case determining whether we pay attention to the law or not. In each case, we should examine the laws determining what is murder and what is accessory, laws on police procedure and training, and stand your ground laws and if needed adjust them or change them or if it is determined to be the best we can do and the way to cause least harm, leave them be.  THIS is what we should be doing if we feel there is injustice – not taking it out on the accused who is determined by law to be innocent of the charge involved, but examining the laws themselves to see if any improvement or refinement is needed.

For those not familiar with the Brinks Robbery of October 1981, I am reprinting a post of my that describes it – some from my own perspective, as I was present that day, oddly its not just Nyack History, it is also part of my personal history. This was my post of October 20, 2010…

Scarier than any ghost story were the events of October 20, 1981 – the day true terror came to town in the guise of a group of radical revolutionaries from several domestic extremist groups. In Autumn 1981, I was a sophomore at Fordham University in the city and living down there during the week to return home on weekends. On that day, when the Weather Underground and their buddy groups opted to hold up a Brink’s Armored Truck at the Nanuet Mall and leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake, I had taken the 9A bus up from the city after classes to practice a solo with George Bryant for that Sunday’s mass.  We practiced in St. Ann’s Church and finished by late afternoon.  I went out onto Jefferson Street to wait for my mother who was going to pick me up, take me home for dinner and then I’d walk and catch the bus back to the city that night or early in the morning.  Despite it being a lovely autumn day, I started to notice that (1) no one else seemed to be around ANYWHERE nearby; and (2) there were lots of sirens in the distance.  A Nyack Police cruiser turned onto Jefferson and I’ll never forget hearing “John, get inside the rectory NOW and STAY THERE!” Needless to say, I followed instructions, not having a clue what was going on.

Inside the Rectory, the priests and staff were trying to figure out the same thing. Remember, this was before the internet, before cell phones.  We eventually pieced together that just before 4:00 there had been an armed bank robbery and people were shot.  The chaos continued outside, sometimes nearer, sometimes further, but it was a long time before things would calm down.  My mother never did get to me that afternoon, as all the roads were closed and she returned home – after being frantic about each other for a bit, we connected over the rectory’s phone.

At 3:55 pm that day, a group of armed men and women stormed Brink’s guards Peter Page and Joe Trombino as they carried bags of money from the Nanuet Mall to their armored vehicle – they fired shotguns, M16s and various other weapons at the men.  Page was hit multiple times, Trombino managed to get off one shot before hitting the pavement for good.  With $1.6 million dollars the attackers fled in several different cars and a rented U-Haul van and headed east on Route 59 intending to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge and escape.  The van was blockaded at the Thruway Entrance in Central Nyack by the McDonalds.  Kathy Boudin (paroled in 2003!) pleaded with the police to put their weapons down – that there was no need, when the guns were lowered at Ms. Boudin’s request, her six companions (in body armor) jumped out of the back of the van and opened fire.  Nyack Police officers Waverly Brown, Edward O’Grady and Artie Keenan were struck and down.  Officer Brian Lennon, uninjured, was trapped in his cruiser by the weight of a fellow officer’s body.  After firing several rounds point-blank into downed Officer Brown and running over downed Sgt. O’Grady and crashing the truck into Lennon and the Police Cruiser, the attackers took off on foot and several carjacked a motorist in an attempt to escape.

One of the cars sped right through St. Ann’s neighborhood (the reason I was sent inside so forcefully) and crashed when they could not make the abrupt turn onto Broadway. South Nyack Police Chief Alan Cosley held them at gunpoint (alone!) until assistance arrived.  Others were caught on foot all over the area.

When the madness cleared, Nyack Police Officer Waverly Brown and Guard Peter Paige were dead at each scene.  Sergeant Edward O’Grady died later at Nyack Hospital – Officer Keenan healed from his wounds.  Ironically,  Guard Joe Trombino recovered from his severe wounds only to be caught in the September 11 attacks in 2001 and be killed by another group of extremists while at the World Trade Center.  Kathy Boudin who tricked the officers to death, but admittedly did not shoot, used her father’s influence to get a shorter more lenient sentence (the rest got 3 consecutive 25-Life terms) and was released at her third parole hearing in 2003, supposedly remorseful and rehabilitated, having worked with HIV and AIDS patients in prison. Many of us who lived here at the time are extremely bitter about this turn of events, and feel that justice would have been served had she continued her HIV/AIDS work in prison with the rest of her companions.  She HAS since published in the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s journal Fellowship, at least lending SOME verisimilitude to the possibility that she is indeed remorseful for her past.

The Thruway Entrance in Central Nyack now shelters a memorial to the slain officers, and a historical marker has been placed at the spot.  The Nyack Post Office was officially renamed in honor of Sgt. O’Grady, Officer Brown and Brink’s Guard Paige in May 2004.  A ceremony will be held today honoring the slain and keeping their memory alive.

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So, the Sochi Games are up and running and athletes all over the world are sliding, flying, spiraling, slaloming and sweeping their way into the history books… does Nyack have a connection?

One of my favorite things to research is any connection Nyack or the surrounding area has with famous events, people or things – particularly if the aforementioned famous items also happen to coincide with other interests of mine.  I was thrilled when I found that Nyack had a Titanic survivor; let alone the World War I spy ring that connected Nyack to some of the most famous (and infamous) ocean liners of all time; or Marilyn Monroe’s visit – and I think by now most of my readers know that I just love the fact that Nyack was home to a small herd of elephants for decades!

So, I hoped to find some connection between our home and my favorite quadrennial sporting event, the Winter Olympics…

I must admit, that I scored neither a Gold nor a Silver in my search, but I do think I grabbed a Bronze.  I have yet to find a link between Nyack and Sochi – and considering the human rights atmosphere over there, that is just fine with me. However, there ARE some cool facts I can send sliding down the ice…

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

1. THE 1932 WINTER OLYMPICS WERE ALMOST HELD HERE.  Not kidding. Just like today, the IOC seriously considered several possible locations for the ’32 Winter Games which eventually wound up in Lake Placid, New York. Those locations included famous world locations like Oslo, Montreal, Denver and Bear Mountain. Yep, Bear Mountain, Rockland County, New York just up 9W.  See, at the time, Bear Mountain was the premier Ski Jumping site in the entire United States and with the world-famous (at the time) Bear Mountain Lodge, our own state park was almost given the nod for the Games, but lost in the final round to our upstate neighbors.  That Ski Jump would continue to be used (especially by the cadets at West Point) up until 1990 when it was finally retired.  As a consolation prize, Bear Mountain would wind up being the Spring Training location for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World War II years.  And for a closer tie to Nyack, the then ultra-hip Bear Mountain Inn was managed by the father of our former mayor, Terri Hekker.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

2. THE NBC OLYMPIC BROADCAST SET WAS DESIGNED HERE.
Black Walnut, a design company from Valley Cottage is responsible for the spectacular NBC broadcast sets.  Though one of the largest jobs they’ve ever done, they are not new to this kind of work.  They describe themselves as “fabricators of scenic environments for television, exhibits, live events and theatre” – and they do a superb job, made evident by their Emmy Award winning status.  Along with NBC’s Sochi studios, they’ve also designed and fabricated other NBC News sets here in New York, along with sets for Major League Baseball, Fox Sports, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Rock Center, The Weather Channel, and even our local Channel 12 News Studios.  Check out their work at their website http://blackwalnut.tv.

3. A US WOMEN’S CHAMPION IN SKELETON IS FROM HERE.
Katie Koczynski of Upper Nyack competed in three World Cup Championships for the United States in 3 years, 2003, 2004, and 2005 – with a Fourth Place finish at the Calgary World Cup in 2003, a very high placement for an American Slider. Though she did not compete in Turino in 2006, she did bring worldwide attention to the American Team and to our women sliders particularly.  All while maintaining a 3.8 GPA at Columbia University, remaining on the Dean’s List and graduating Cum Laude in Sociology in 2006.  At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her then boyfriend Bill Demong – a Gold Medal winner in the 10 km large hill Nordic Combined, and a Silver Medal in the 4×5 km team Nordic Combined in Vancouver proposed to her in front of his teammates and coaches.  Bill Demong is in Sochi trying to do a repeat, and his now wife Katie is rooting him on…

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

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I started this post having just returned home from watching the skies over Memorial Park light up with glorious fireworks celebrating America’s Independence Day; which as usual thrilled and excited the huge crowds who came to the village to watch.  That got me wondering how many people watching with me realized that in a way they were watching a re-enactment of similar events that occurred over two hundred years ago in the same location, events that with one special exception, brought dread and pain rather than joy and celebration…

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When people think of “The Revolution” and Rockland County’s place in it, if they are aware of any connection most would think of Stony Point and Tappan.  Stony Point was the location of the Battle of Stony Point, and Tappan of course hosted Washington’s Headquarters and the famous trial and execution of Major John Andre (the British Officer who was the other important figure in Benedict Arnold’s thwarted plan to give over the plans to West Point).  Both locations are proud of the roles they played in the American War for Independence – and rightly so – however the rest of the county did not just sit idly by and twiddle their thumbs or hum “Yankee Doodle” while history was made nearby.  The Nyacks for instance were attacked by the Redcoats several times – not by land, but from the British War Vessels in our own Tappan Zee – the bombs bursting in air would come from the guns of warships firing on the homes, farms and businesses of the Hudson Shoreline.  In fact, the very first Naval Battle of the Revolution would take place right off our shores in our own Tappan Zee.  Later, the first ever acknowledgement of the United States of America as a Sovereign Nation would come as a seventeen-gun salute to General Washington from the guns of the British Warship fired with honor in the very same location just off our shore.

How Nyack and the Riverfront became a wartime target…

A bit of background would probably help in understanding how Nyack and what would become the other River villages wound up on the receiving end of Musketshot and Cannonballs.  When Nieuw Netherland was handed over to the British by the Dutch without a shot fired in 1664, bloodshed was prevented by some shrewd bargaining on both sides.  The British very much wanted the finest deep water port on the North American continent, and control of Hudson’s River beyond which all acknowledged would be the key to opening the continent’s interior.  Nieuw Amsterdam and Pavonia (today’s lower Manhattan and Jersey City/Hoboken) were already a very busy FREE port with goods leaving the New World and heading to many European, Caribbean and African ports without the hinderance of the English King’s royal tariffs and restrictions of the New England ports to the north or the Virginia port to the south.  Nieuw Netherland’s polyglot population, not just Dutch, but Walloon, Prussian, French Huguenot, Free West Africans and Caribs, Jewish Refugees, Irish, Moorish, and yes, Englishmen and women fleeing New England’s puritan regime made the young city and the Valley of the Hudson to the north the finest mercantile trading post and port on the continent.  The Duke of York wanted our port and our river, but he also wanted to keep it profitable and running just the way it had been – only now paying taxes to the British Crown rather than as a state of the Dutch Republic.  A student of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” the Duke did not want to mess with a system – no matter how quirky – that worked and showed a profit.  Peter Stuyvesant, discovering his city and the other communities of Nieuw Netherland beyond under the guns of a number of English Warships while he had nothing but his trading fleet in port meant there could simply be a massacre or there could be a deal.

The deal between the Duke and the Dutchman was called the “Articles of Capitulation” and transferred the ownership of the colony to England – under the written and signed treaty that allowed the colony – now separated into New York and New Jersey – to keep their freedom of religion (unlike New England), their system of courts (innocent until proven guilty, not the opposite as in the other colonies – as well as the public defender which did exist in English jurisprudence), allowance of women to own property (two of the major colonies that were part of Nieuw Netherland had been founded by women), manumission of slaves (slaves – black, indian or white – could not be kept in that condition for life, and could work their way to freeman status in just a few years, earn money while doing so, and could own property afterwards) and their continued status as a free port dealing directly with both London and Amsterdam as well as the rest of the Atlantic world.  That meant that the two middle colonies wound up with a host of freedoms the other 11 did not have or would not have until significantly later.  Oddly, that left New York colonists a bit ambivalent when it came to independence from the Crown – the Crown, frankly had for almost 100 years left them to their own devices demanding only their taxes.  While New England chafed under more and more crippling taxes and infringement of civil rights, life was better and easier here. It was only when King George III and Parliament started chipping away at the Articles that the residents of Nyack and Tappan and the rest of Orangetown felt that perhaps something was amiss and they needed to take action.

Take action they did – as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog – the locals met at Jost Mabie’s Tavern (now the ’76 House Restaurant) and drafted the Orangetown Resolutions – ON JULY 4,1774. Two years to the day before the Declaration of Independence would be signed in Philadelphia! In it they addressed the King and Parliament stating: “We cannot see the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties upon us, and the Act for shutting up the port of Boston, without declaring our abhorrence of measures so unconstitutional and big with destruction… That we are in duty bound to use every just and lawful measure, to obtain a repeal of Acts, not only destructive to us, but which of course must distress thousands in the mother country… That it is our unanimous opinion, that the stopping all exportation and importation to and from Great Britain and the West Indies, would be the most effectual method to obtain a speedy repeal.” This was not a call for separation from England, but a reminder to her government that their recent behavior had been abusive and disruptive to the colonies.  Unfortunately, George and his Parliament did not care for criticism very much, and declared the document treasonous and the residents of Orangetown rebellious and inciting of sedition. THAT response would push most of the population of what would become Rockland County into the Patriots camp, though a few notable citizens such as ferry mistress Molly Sneden remained Tory throughout the coming conflict.

Once the hostilities began, the British realized that New York and the Hudson Valley were critical to their efforts to break the rebellion and re-exert their rule in the lower 13 colonies.  By holding the Hudson, the British commanders felt they would have effectively driven a wedge between New England and the Southern colonies, had they been completely successful with the strategy we might still be singing “God Save the Queen” instead of the “Star Spangled Banner”.  On August 3, 1776 the American Galleys Whiting, Lady Washington, Crown and Spitfire engaged the British ships Phoenix, Roebuck and Tartar in the Tappan Zee in the first naval skirmish of the Revolution. The Patriots succeeded in keeping the Redcoats from heading further up the Hudson, and they were assisted by the local Shore Patrol on land with shots fired from the gun emplacements in Piermont (then known as Tappan Slote), Nyack and Upper Nyack. Retaliation came in the form of cannon-shot targeting shore side residences – the Haring Estate (now called the Onderdonk House in Piermont), the Cornelison home (a large colonial home where Salisbury Point Co-ops now stand) and the Hazzard Home near Hook Mountain took damage, but the enemy ships could not proceed further north.

October 15, 1776, Captain A. Hawkes Hay commanding repulsed an attack by the British on Nyack.  By the fall of 1776, the British were not only in control of the City of New York, they had also gained control of Harlem, Bloomingdale and the other communities on Upper Manhattan and Fort Lee on the Jersey side.  The Patriots firmly controlled the Hudson above West Point, but there was a struggle to keep the lower Hudson from coming under British control. Hay reported that the ships attempting to land at Nyack were prevented by the men under his command, including the use of the Swivel Gun emplacement in Upper Nyack.  Severe damage was done to the house and barn of Philip Sarvent and though only a few men were injured in this encounter (no deaths) there were several other attacks on the area in 1777 and 1780.  Hay’s own home would be targeted by the British from the River and destroyed in one of these raids, Major John Smith’s house in Upper Nyack destroyed in another.  Land incursions came as well – and not only soldiers were injured or died.  Horrified Patriots discovered the body of Mrs. Garret Myers on her farm near Rockland Lake left to rot with her face smashed in from attempting to protect herself and her farm from British soldiers intent on food and perhaps something else, as a young and attractive woman named Mrs. Snyder was raped and left for dead on her nearby farm by the Hook.

Salisbury Manor, home of the Cornelisons (hence, Cornelison Avenue) because of its exposed location continue to attract enemy fire from the Hudson, and it seems holes from musket balls were still present in the door frames up until the Manor Home was raised in the 1950s to build the Salisbury Co-ops.  A Tory neighbor, reportedly jealous of the lovely home, would betray Michael Cornelison Sr and his wife to the British for their efforts to assist the Patriots, imprisoning them in New York City – Mrs Cornelison was allowed to return to Nyack 6 months later, her husband would remain in custody for 3 additional months. Oddly, the same quisling neighbor did not alert the Redcoats to the presence of Michael Cornelison Jr, even though he spotted the young man hiding in the house’s vast rafters during the raid. It appears young Michael was a Mason as was the tattler, and I suppose Masons just don’t DO that to each other… not that it did the young man much good, as he had to suffer through the local British Commander using his home as a headquarters for several months! All that’s left of that historic home now are some of the sandstone blocks of the walls used as stairs leading to Salisbury Point’s pool.

At the time Nyack, though small, was the headquarters of the Whaling Fleet – all rugged ships and men who favored the Patriots and vigorously defended the Nyacks from attempted landing after attempted landing by the British. Between the Whaling Fleet, the very successful and accurate shore patrol and swivel guns, and a certain resident sea-captain named Henry Palmer (of the Old Palmer Burial Ground Palmers) the British fleet went from annoyance to absolute loathing of Nyack and fired at will at any visible structure whenever possible.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

Captain Palmer owned a large vessel carrying goods for one of the largest mercantile firms in New York City prior to the outbreak of hostilities.  He was offered great monetary compensation for serving the King’s forces, but he adamantly refused – in fact, on his next sailings he transported two cargos of ammunition, arms and supplies “acquired” by the  Sons of Liberty from British supply depots in the city which he brought to the camp of the Continental Army. His activities made his family unsafe in Manhattan and he moved them to Broadway in Upper Nyack, near Old Mountain Road. From there he continued to harry the British and was responsible for repulsing attempted landings numerous times – with consistent fatal results for the British and naught but wounds for the Nyackers. In early July 1777 he and the Shore Guard fended off two boats killing 3 men; in late July they returned, both to attempt a landing and to destroy a sloop moored between the Palmer home and the Sarvent home. Palmer, Sarvent and the Shore Guard prevented three attempts at landing with the toll for the British this time at 9 men.   Later that year, the Upper Nyack swivel gun emplacement, close by his property, enabled the Nyackers to later capture two landing boats and send their crews over to Tappan as prisoners of war.  A warship becalmed off Nyack’s shore unable to reach land and floating with the tide saw the loss of 36 men to Palmer’s crew of fatally expert gunners.  The result of his actions was a constant barrage of enemy fire anytime a ship reached this far up the river. By 1781, Nyack’s defenders had in addition to the Shore Patrol and gun emplacements, six whaleboats and forty-two men led by Captain Palmer, Nyack’s own Bane of the British.  Major John L. Smith, Captain Aury Smith, and Corporal Philip Sarvent, three of our Revolutionary War heroes may be found resting beneath their headstones in the Old Palmer Burial Ground on Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack. 

The British finally surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1782, though due to distance, travel time and red tape the Peace Treaty would not be fully signed until the next year. In May of 1783, General Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton in Tappan to confer on the final evacuation of British Troops from New York – they would then ride back to the riverfront to Onderdonk House on May 7th.  At that time Onderdonk House was owned by John Haring, who was our own representative at the Continental Congress. Onderdonk House, too, had taken an extreme beating from British guns during the war (looking at it today, in the process of some kind of restoration – we hope – it might look like it did at its worst).  Carlton and Washington were feted and feasted at Onderdonk House, and then the H.M.S. Perseverance fired its seventeen gun salute to honor Washington and to acknowledge, for the first time, our new sovereign nation – these United States of America.  That’s right folks, it happened… right here.

photo by J.P.Schutz

photo by J.P.Schutz

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So this week it happened again, torrents of water came rushing down Nyack’s East/West Streets and Avenues gathering speed and strength as several inches of rain overwhelmed storm sewers, picking up sidewalks and pavement while filling basements and even first floors from Franklin Street to the River.  It may seem to some residents that downtown has been flooding several times a year just in recent years; however the downtown area has had issues with flooding for over a century.  The frequency of the flooding does seem to be on the rise, but it is likely that Nyack’s original water issues are being exacerbated by three additional stressors: Blocked Culverts, Loss of Tree Cover due to development Upslope, and worldwide climatic change.

              Mayor Jen Laird-White has been actively seeking abatement solutions to our flooding issues since well before this last storm, and in fact, requested that I write about the history of flooding in Nyack the very day she swore me in as Village Historian.  So far, real solutions come with large price tags in the $15 million or more range. Of the three additional factors mentioned above, obviously Nyack can only actively work on the first and regulate the second, the third can only be addressed by higher levels of government (if at all).  Nonetheless, we have inherited an issue that is long-standing and these additional stressors are only showing up the problems in our water management.

              The culprit is a culvert. Though that is actually an oversimplification, it really does get to the crux of the matter.  There is a running body of water known as the Nyack Brook that runs from the hills of Central Nyack right down through Nyack’s downtown and out into the Hudson near Memorial Park.  Its course is basically parallel to Main Street but you can only SEE it in a few select locations, as it has been covered over and confined to culverts since the late 1800s.  It runs north of Main Street from the area near the northbound Thruway entrance near High Avenue past the new Walgreens and the Catherine Street Firehouse.  For several blocks it runs between Main Street and Catherine Street, and you can see it above ground and cross it with a footbridge by the Tappan Zee Florist at 176 Main Street.  From there it once again dives beneath ground and runs under a number of buildings while heading for Franklin Street. When I was a teenager in the early 1980’s I had several friends who worked at the Coven Café (now Café Barcel) who delighted in pulling up a trap door in the floor of the restaurant to show me the Nyack Brook flowing by between the two segments of the building’s basement!  Originally, the Brook meandered south around Bridge Street where there was, no big surprise, a bridge spanning it. If you look at some of the older published maps of Nyack (like the one at Village Hall) you’ll see that bridge at Main and Bridge Street.  In the early 1900s someone decided that it would be a good idea to divert the brook before it got that far east and created a series of tunnels that turned it at Franklin Street.  That would be planning mistake number one.  One of Nyack’s first major flooding incidents occurred in 1903 just after this was done, no surprise there in hindsight.

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1903 Downtown Flood – from the Nyack Library Archives

Those temporary tunnels were replaced with concrete by the WPA during the Urban Renewal project of the 1960s that razed the business buildings on the east side of Franklin and the south side of Main Street to replace them with a parking lot, the Cinema East theater (now the defunct Riverspace) and the Nyack Plaza housing community. The brook flows beneath Main and Franklin, below the M&T Bank and the parking lot and pops up again briefly just west of Nyack Plaza south of DePew.  It goes to ground again beneath parts of Nyack Plaza and surfaces for a while in the gorge that lies south of Hudson Street and west of Broadway. You can see the brook and the charming tree filled area around it by looking out the back window of the Strawberry Place. From there it goes below Broadway to emerge from under the east side of Piermont Avenue and then flows along the side of Memorial Park and into the Hudson.  The brook is hemmed tightly in some sections and any kind of blockage by expected debris like broken branches; and unexpected like lumber, cinder blocks and unbelievably, shopping carts! There are many local business people who feel that the really severe flooding downtown experienced in 2011 was exacerbated by construction materials and the like that were blocking the culverts.  It has yet to be determined if those objects added significantly or not to the damage; although the timing of the storm brought the floodwaters just when the downtown curbs and sidewalks were being replaced meaning there was very little to funnel or channel water that wound up above ground and flowing down the surface of Main Street.

              The Nyack Brook may also have a special place in history – it may have been one of the “signposts” on the Underground Railroad, as the home of Nyack’s station keepers, Cynthia Hesdra and her husband, was located on the Brook near what is now the corner of Highland Avenue (9W) and Main Street (see my article about Cynthia Hesdra and the Underground Railroad on my At Home In Nyack blog: http://bit.ly/Z5CRMX ).  If this is true, it is a shame that there are so few places where we can actually see with our own eyes a geological feature that was part of such a dangerous and needful endeavor.  In addition to powering several mill wheels over the centuries, the Nyack Brook had for many, many years collected in a pond created by the Lydecker family for their ice business near where the Best Western motel now stands.  There are still Nyack residents who recall happy winter afternoons on what was for so long called “the skating pond”, an annual wintertime joy for many residents.  That pond and another no longer existent smaller pond just east of the main pond were outfitted with floodgates by the Nyack Water Company in 1891.  According to Jim Leiner, our local expert on Nyack’s residents, Tobias Justrich who lived between the two ponds was the volunteer who raised and lowered the gates during storms to prevent the flooding further down the hill – Jim states that when Tobias passed away around 1930 no one took over the job and much more flooding occurred downtown as a result – planning mistake number two.  A July storm in 1948 raised the brook by 9 feet in one afternoon! The construction of the Thruway in the 1950s filled in the Skating Pond, which became planning mistake number three.

1930s flooding from the Nyack Library Archives

1930s flooding from the Nyack Library Archives

Village History shows an uptick in downtown flooding during the 30’s after the floodgates were no longer operated, and more so after the construction of the Thruway.  Without the skating pond, there was nowhere for water to collect along the slope from 9W to the river with one exception – the level area in the center of downtown between Franklin Street and Broadway, where there was already an issue due to the forced migration of the stream into the tunnels that turned it prematurely south.  Note that all the water that collected in this last storm was in that section, the same being true for the flooding event in 2011 that filled the Riverspace Theater with water up to the stage and above the seats.

              Nyack’s location on the tidal section of the Hudson River can be a crap game when it comes to an East Coast Hurricane – even if a storm is only labeled a “Tropical Storm” rather than a “Hurricane” when it reaches us, if it strikes during high tide, the results can be devastating – Superstorm Sandy was just the latest of the named storms that have caused us issues – 1954 brought two storms within a month of each other, Hurricanes Edna and Hazel brought severe flooding to downtown and destroyed several riverfront businesses.  Hurricane Donna in 1960, Agnes in 1972, T.S. David in 1979, Gloria in 1985 and T.S. Floyd in 1999 all brought their special form of misery, flooding downtown and eliminating marinas, docks, and other riverfront businesses.  And of course, in a reflection of 1954, the year 2011 brought us two major events – the flash flood in June followed by Hurricane Irene later in the summer, culminating with Sandy last year. 

              The frequency does appear to be increasing (other smaller events have happened throughout the 2000s – one in 2007 being most significant).  Locally there’s not much we can do regarding the increased strength of storm events as our climate changes, they are not in our control.  However increased vigilance would likely help in keeping the culverts of the brook as clear as possible and in assessing the effect of development in the area in regards to water drainage issues.  When Oak Hill Cemetery clear cut a large swath of its property along Highland Avenue (9W) a few years ago, there were no longer trees to catch runoff and as a result Nyack Hospital now has flooding issues it did not have before and more runoff heads downhill to downtown.  Housing developments above 9W in South Nyack/Upper Grandview and just below 9W in Upper Nyack clear-cut their trees as well with the result of increased flooding in the neighborhoods below them.  These were likely unexpected consequences that no one doing the development considered, and in the future, we must make sure that any similar development is done in a more sustainable manner without full clear-cutting. 

              In the end, there is some flooding we simply can’t avoid – we are a River Village on a very large tidal fjord, and our one tributary stream to the Hudson is by necessity culverted.  Diligence and intelligent planning will aid in lessening the blows of flash flooding, but can never eliminate them completely.

 

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