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Archive for the ‘Local Government’ 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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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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Exactly HOW are a Club House for Veterans and a Village Park twins? I’m glad you asked.  The opening of Memorial Park’s new Fishing and Observation Pier and an upcoming fundraiser for the C.R. & R.O. Blauvelt Post 310 of the American Legion prompted me to write about two long-term Nyack entities that are intrinsically linked.

Just after the ending of “The Great War” – known to us now as World War I – two groups of dedicated and grateful individuals in the Nyacks decided that recognition of the sacrifices of our young residents in past conflicts was needed, and that living veterans of those conflicts needed a place where they could find assistance, friendship and fellowship with fellow veterans at all times.

Consequently in 1919, the Tappan Zee Soldiers & Sailors Association, later re-named The Tappan Zee Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Association began work on building a suitable Memorial Park for Remembrance, while at the same time another group of Veterans petitioned the American Legion for a Post in Nyack to serve the needs of living veterans. What we now know as Memorial Park was graciously conveyed to the TZ Soldiers and Sailors by the DePew family who owned the property at the time.The DePews or rather, their descendants, had owned river-front property on the Hudson shore at the foot of the Nyack Brook since they purchased it back in 1732. Over the years the property had served a number of purposes having been covered with glass greenhouses for the winter flower and vegetable markets in New York City and then by a clothing factory known as “The Shoddy Mill” for the poor quality of its’ clothing. The Mill was still located on the property when the Deed was conveyed on July 26, 1920. The Mill was razed, and the Garden Club of Nyack planted Memorial Trees along the park’s bordering streets of Piermont and Depew.  Work would begin but took time, and as seems to happen frequently enough when major projects are constructed in Nyack, major changes were made to the models and designs of the Memorial even after the process had begun.

photo: JP Schutz

Plaque Memorializing Nyackers who died in WWI. photo: JP Schutz

Meanwhile, the new American Legion Post – #310 – named itself for two local brothers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in WWI – Charles R. and Raymond O. Blauvelt, becoming the Charles R. and Raymond O. Blauvelt American Legion Post 310.  At first meetings were held in the “Grand Army of the Republic Room” in Village Hall, but the room was not always available to them, and substitute rooms were difficult to find. By 1927, the need for a permanent home was obvious and several possibilities fell through at the last moment.

Finally, the Tappan Zee Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Association came to the rescue and on June 22, 1927, they granted to Post 310 the right to occupy and use the grounds south of the bridge culvert on Piermont Avenue for the sum of $1, in perpetuity, so long as the land and club house to be constructed were used for “Patriotic, Fraternal and Social Purposes”.  By 1929, the Post had moved into its’ new home and was even allowing other groups to use the facilities for events. The post’s records show that one of the first organizations that asked to use the facility for a social event was the Mazeppa Fire Company.

American Legion

The Charles R. and Raymond O. Blauvelt American Legion Post #310; photo by JP Schutz

Things prospered for the Charles R. and Raymond O. Blauvelt American Legion Post, but in a complete reversal of fortunes times were now less sunny for the Tappan Zee Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Association.  After numerous changes and alterations to the original concept, the final design choice for their Memorial Park was a rectangular upper park area tree-lined along the north and west border balanced by a Flagpole and the Memorial Stone Stairway in the south-east corner.  Unfortunately, once the Park was completed and dedicated, the TZSSA group seemed to lose direction and membership dropped significantly. 

The flagpole and memorial stairway were designed and executed by the architectural firm of Marshall and Henry Emery. Bronze Plaques honoring those who served in World War I, and another listing those who lost their lives in World War I, lined both sides of the Memorial Stairway. At that time the Stairway led from the developed upper section of the park to the undeveloped area at the foot of the Nyack Brook. The Emery brothers maintained offices in New York City (where they designed the Bowerie Mission) and in Nyack, and the two are significantly responsible for much of the look and feel of Nyack today.  Along with their work in Memorial Park, they are responsible for St. Ann’s Church on Jefferson, the original building of Nyack Hospital (and several additions) still visible on the Fifth Avenue side, the First Reformed Church on Broadway, the former St. Paul’s Methodist in South Nyack, and with the approval of Andrew Carnegie, the Nyack Library. After his brother’s passing, Henry completed the design of the Nyack YMCA on his own with another partner. further solidifying the “Emery Style” as Nyack’s own.  

When it became obvious that the Soldiers and Sailors Association could no longer maintain the Park properly, the group deeded the rights to the park to the Village of Nyack on January 29, 1935, again for the sum of $1. This conveyance was subject to the rights of American Legion Post 310 certifying and guaranteeing their occupation of their clubhouse in perpetuity so long as the Post continued to operate under the stipulations stated above, and further stated that Soldier’s and Sailors Memorial Park (its’ proper name) remain a Park intended for Recreation and as a Perpetual Memorial to those who served in WWI.

When the Thruway Authority began the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955, the Village seized an opportunity to significantly expand the size of Memorial Park. By sinking a number of old barges in the shallows, and then filling and covering them with a fill of soil, gravel and rocks produced by the Bridge Construction, the lower level of the park was significantly expanded allowing the addition of ball fields, a playground, basketball hoops, parking, and eventually a Gazebo. The American Legion Post continued to expand its’ services to the Veteran’s community, welcoming each new group as sadly, “The Great War” was followed by WWII, then Korea, then Vietnam, then various police actions in the Balkans, the Caribbean and the horn of Africa, and eventually the Gulf War, and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The American Legion ensconced in their corner of the park became a haven for all our local Veterans.

Both Park and Post continue to thrive and grow today – Post 310 is one of the fasting growing posts in the region and is undergoing needed repairs and restoration including a new roof; and a new Fishing and Observation Pier – allowing a great view of the construction of the NEW Bridge was just dedicated this week in Memorial Park.

If you’d like to help the Charles R. and Raymond O. Blauvelt American Legion Post repair and replace their roof, a fundraiser is being held at LaFontana Restaurant on Veteran’s Day (November 11) at 6:30pm. Tickets are $45 and include Dinner and Wine with $10 going to the Post for their roof – and all of the donated portion of the evening will be matched by the Rand Community Fund. The evening will also feature a silent auction, gift baskets and more. So if you’d like to help us “Raise the Roof”, stop by the BH&G Rand Realty Office during business hours to purchase tickets or a journal ad, or why not just come to our booth at the Halloween Parade and get tickets from Barbara Carroll, Anthony DelRegno, Jamie Brannigan or ME! Thank you for helping us thank our Veterans!

New Park Pier

New Fishing and Observation Pier is now open. photo: JP Schutz

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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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Anyone living in the area of North Broadway, or having reason to be there, will have noticed the roadbed torn up as utility work goes on. In an ongoing project, Orange & Rockland Utilities has been laying new modern high-pressure gas main lines alongside the old cast-iron gas mains. That got me thinking about our Village’s infrastructure – gas, water, sewer and electric services – and their historic presence within the Village. Though I plan to tackle each of the various utilities and services, in keeping with the current underground project, I’ll start with Gas.

photo by J.P, Schutz

photo by J.P, Schutz

So, just how old are those cast-iron gas mains? OLD, and I don’t mean like fifty or sixty years, I mean old. Thank goodness those cast-iron pipes were built to last, because they sure have. If you can take a look down into the trench while the workers are there (ask permission – I did!) and take a trip back in history. Right now they are passing Fourth Avenue and Broadway, which is my own corner, and those cast iron pipes are among the oldest in the Village – AND among the oldest in the country. According to the internal records of what is now Orange & Rockland Utilities, gas service for forty-one homes and business and an astonishing three street lamps began in Nyack in 1852 under the auspices of O&R’s earliest ancestor company. This early gas company incorporated as “The Nyack and Warren Gas Company” in 1859 and the first Gas Works buildings and the first mains were constructed and laid in that year.

An article in the Rockland County Journal dated August 27, 1859 – during the construction process – stated that the lines would run up Main Street from near the Hudson to what is now Franklin in large six-inch mains, continuing up to what is now Midland Avenue in slightly smaller diameter mains; the large mains would run south on Piermont Avenue to the Nyack Female Institute (on what is now Mansfield Avenue in South Nyack); and up Broadway to the Baptist Church at Fifth Avenue. Additional auxiliary lines of two and three-inch diameter would extend onto the smaller cross streets like New Street, High Avenue and First through Fifth Avenues, with pipes being extended free of charge (to residents and merchants) from the street mains to the curb until the potential customer decided they wanted gas service and paid to install pipes in their home or business with their gas meter being provided to them as a courtesy.

My own corner of Fourth Avenue and Broadway was part of that original roll-out of cast-iron gas mains – which means those cast-iron pipes on my corner have been there for 155 years. That’s one hundred and fifty-five YEARS… before Lincoln was elected President. Now there are some more recent vintage lines running parallel to the original cast-iron mains, but according to the workers on the site it is those more recent vintage materials which are actually the ones being replaced leaving the new high-pressure high-tech lines in tandem with the still reliable old cast irons as their safety and back-up.

photo by J.P. Schutz

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

The laying of the original gas mains was completed by October of 1859, and by that time there were more business and residential customers, and the number of street lamps in Nyack was up to twenty-one. Interestingly, at the time most of the street lamps were owned privately by businesses or by groups of residents who wanted one for safety and convenience on the street outside their homes. Only THREE of those lamps in 1859 were owned by the Village, those being located at Broadway and First, and two between Broadway and New Street (and no, Village Hall wasn’t on that block yet, so that is NOT why!).

Another article in the Rockland County Journal, written on June 16, 1860 discussed at length the new Nyack Gas Works and a tour the reporter was given of the facility. At the time, the gas for local customers was derived from coal. Coal was heated in the “retort house” until gas was released, leaving behind coke and ash. The gas was released into a “hydraolic main” (their spelling, not mine!) which directed it into a condenser where tar and ammonia were removed from the gas by utilizing the suspension properties of the water in the cooling tanks. Finally the gas reached the “purifying house” where passing through lime purifiers the remaining impurities consisting of carbonic acid and hydrogen sulfide were scrubbed from the gas. It was then piped to the twelve by thirty-six foot cylinder that stored all the gas the six hundred and twenty-four gas burners and twenty-one street lamps Nyack of 1860 required for a 24 hour period. The reporter for the Rockland County Journal was actually even more specific on the process – if you’d like to know more about the process, I highly recommend the article which can be found in the HRVH Historical Newspaper Archives available on-line.

According to Frank Green’s “The History of Rockland County” (published in 1886) upon their construction in 1859, the Nyack Gas Works were managed by Isaac W. Canfield and O&R states the owners at the time were Messrs. Haughwout & Company. The construction of the Gas Works and laying of the mains were supervised by the Treadwell Company, considered the national leader in such gas infrastructure at this early time. By 1872 many more local customers had been added, but mismanagement of the company had it on the verge of bankruptcy when the Hon. William Voorhis came to the rescue and purchased the Nyack Gas Works, becoming its’ President. Interestingly, it was in 1872 that Nyack business leaders sought to incorporate what are now Nyack, Upper Nyack, South Nyack and Central Nyack as one large Village only to have Upper Nyack back out and incorporate on its own, mainly due to objections on paying taxes on gas service that Upper Nyack did not yet at that point receive. (You can read more about how the various Nyacks came to exist in my August 2011 article “126 Years Ago Today: Upper Nyack’s Post Office and the Nyack’s ‘Break-up’.” http://bit.ly/1lKFaSr)

It is very interesting to note that the self-same Mr. Voorhis would charter the “Nyack Water Works Company” in early 1873, and become president of THAT utility supplier as well. I’ll discuss when I follow-up this post with a discussion of the Nyack Water Company.

The Nyack Gas Works re-incorporated as the “Nyack Gas and Light Fuel Company”, still under the auspices of Mr. Voorhis. In 1899, the company found itself with a local rival. A gentleman from Upper Nyack, one S.R. Bradley, invented a product called “Orangeburg Pipe” named after the location of the factory in which he produced the product – an industry staple in the Electrical Field until well into the 20th Century. His holdings in Orangeburg and Blauvelt needed power – both gas and new-fangled electric – and so he formed the “Rockland Light and Power Company” in 1899 becoming its president. Mr. Bradley would go on to purchase the Nyack Gas and Light Fuel Company in 1905, and merge it into Rockland Light and Power. Bradley’s “Orangeburg Pipe” (a fully recycled product a century ahead of its time) would become legendary and he is remembered by the names of the Bradley Industrial Park and Bradley Parkway, the road that runs over Clausland Mountain from Blauvelt to Nyack. (Mr. Bradley’s daughter, Augusta Chapman Bradley was a lifelong Upper Nyack resident and International Tennis Star with a 30 year professional career winning 60 major tournaments who helped found the National Tennis Association – a natural for the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame, her career is the earliest time-wise of all the honorees. Read about her in my September 2011 article “100 Years Ago This Month: Nyack’s National Tennis Tournament” http://bit.ly/1mcZP0a).

Nearby, the “Orange Utility Company” was founded in 1905, which was then acquired by Rockland Light and Power in 1924 creating the subsidiary “Orange and Rockland Electric Company”. Rockland Light and Power re-incorporated in 1926, and pioneered the delivery of clean natural gas in 1935. In 1958, Rockland Light and Power received permission from the Federal Public Service Commission to consolidate its subsidiary Orange and Rockland Electric. The fully merged company was renamed “Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc.” It would be purchased in 1999 by Consolidated Edison of New York City for $790 million dollars. According to the deal records of Lehman Brothers in the Harvard Business Library, after the acquisition analysts claimed this was a substantial and possibly illegal undervaluation of Orange and Rockland.

So there’s a snapshot of the history of gas service in Nyack – one of the earliest in the country and despite some bumps, still steadily serving the community that nurtured its’ birth.

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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.

1903nyackmainstreetflood

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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Nyack was in an uproar.  Residents reported their quality of life being severely affected by the latest lifestyle trends and changes in the business district.  Old respectable businesses were closing to be replaced by gathering places for the young and idle. Occupancy numbers in these dens of depravity frequently exceeded any safe number as more and more revelers flocked to Nyack.  Add to that the downtown streets made impassable by wheeled menaces in odd togs and footwear with little concern for those on foot or in respectable carriages and coaches, and the undercurrent of anxiety all of this brought to the local populace and Nyack had a “situation” on its hands.  Sound familiar?

Bars and Bicyclists, you might ask?

No. ROLLER SKATES… and Skating Rinks. Seriously.

The more things change the more they stay the same. If Villagers aren’t complaining about Bars and Bicyclists, its Skating Rinks and Roller Skaters.  In the fall of 1884, roller skating fever hit this country and while rinks began popping up all over, Nyack was to have a good number of them populating the downtown area. First the Village Board was approached by an investor wanting to use Voorhis Hall – where Turiello’s Pizza is now on the corner of Broadway and Main – as a rink, but just a week or two before he opened, another entrepreneur opened HIS rink at the Nyack Opera House – that structure was on the corner of DePew and South Franklin until demolished by the “urban renewal” project of the 1960s that deprived the Village of half its’ downtown and its train stations.

Rear of Nyack Opera House, photo from Nyack Library Collection

As if two skating rinks downtown were not adequate enough for the platoons of skaters invading the village, arriving nightly by train and omnibus, a third emerged that fall of 1884 called “The Casino” located further north on Franklin Street.  By all accounts, “The Casino” was pretty darn large as it regularly recorded 700 – that’s right SEVEN HUNDRED skaters on many nights, and they were open seven nights a week.  The success of the first three ventures led to a fourth and fifth rink in the works when the New York Times wrote a feature article on “Skatertown” on December 22nd of that year with follow-up stories for several weeks afterwards.  Though the skating craze seemed to travel the length of the Hudson Valley and its industrial towns, cities and villages in no other place did it catch on quite so quickly and with so many rinks – let alone the sheer number of skaters coming to the village and partying late into the evening, frequently traumatizing those out on the sidewalks as they whizzed by intent on moving from one venue to the next.  One of the NY Times articles ends with the statement “People here are becoming alarmed, and every time a stranger alights from an incoming train, someone asks with a shudder: ‘Is that another skating rink man?’.”

Live music accompanied the skating in each venue on most evenings, giving Nyack a reputation for a good place for employment among professional musicians – a reputation that would last through the Edwardian Age and Jazz Age to follow and continued up into the 1980s, and which may be seeing a resurgence today, giving a positive side to what many perceive to be a negative late night problem in Nyack’s currently expanding cadre of drinking establishments.  Since there have been times when Nyack had even MORE bars, saloons and pubs than we do today – and one of those times was during the skating boom, perhaps our ‘ancestors’ here in Nyack had an even tougher time than we do today. While todays residents may complain about the cyclists and the bars, well, at least the cyclists aren’t drinking while cycling which was NOT true for many of those with wheels on their heels back in Nyack’s part of the Gilded Age!

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April 14-15 seem to be very bad days in History. We can start with the most obvious – April 15 is Income Tax Day in the United States, certainly no one’s favorite day! Additionally, the first shots on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War were fired on these days in 1861; in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, and died on April 15; and in 1912 on a calm moonless night on the North Atlantic’s Grand Banks, a titan met its’ destiny and a golden, corrupt era came to and end. In remembrance of the 104th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, I re-post my story of Nyack’s own Titanic survivor… 

We were standing in front of a strange miniature lighthouse located in the middle of lower Manhattan. The year was 1968 and I was 6 years old and still ship-infatuated from having visited my great-aunt the prior Fall aboard the  RMS Queen Mary as she was docked in New York harbor on its’ last round-the-world sailing. My Grampy, sensing the fascination I had for that huge ship, and the piers and everything associated with the port area took me down to Schermerhorn Row’s cobblestone streets, where the South Street Seaport Museum was beginning to grow. Standing in the middle of the street was this small lighthouse, and it was dedicated to the memory of a particular ship and her passengers and crew that never made it to New York Harbor.

 That was the first time my Grampy told me the story. It was April of 1912 and he was looking forward to his 12th birthday in June, when one rainy evening he accompanied his father and several of his older siblings down to what is now the Chelsea Piers to see a ship dock.  Down the gangway came hundreds of ragged looking people, many with blank glassy-eyed faces or eyes downcast and shuffling slowly. They were immediately surrounded by a howling mob of cameras and men and women with pads and pencils and badges that read “PRESS”.  For these were not your average arrivals to the First and Second Class docks of the Cunard Line; no, this docked ship was the RMS Carpathia, and these bedraggled souls the mere 700 who survived their date with destiny on the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic. Of course, that made these bedraggled souls those listed as “SAVED” from the wreck of the RMS Titanic in what would be the media world’s first “real time” disaster, thanks to the wireless wonder invented by Marconi.  In the weeks to come my Grampy and his brothers would return to see the silent lifeboats tied up at the White Star Line pier, their pathetic empty shells the only part of the grand ship that would ever reach the safety of New York Harbor.  His story of watching the pitiful parade of survivors attacked by a rabid media, and the empty lifeboats that bespoke such a tragic story struck a chord in me, young as I was, that has remained as clear today as it was over 40 years ago.  And, just like I did forty-four years ago, you can still see the little lighthouse that stands silently telling its’ story where Fulton Street enters the Seaport’s Schermerhorn Row, ironically almost in the shadow of another tower built-in remembrance of another more recent tragedy, that rises above the pit of my own generation’s doomed hopes. 

My grandfather is somewhere among the crowd awaiting the Titanic Surviors on the Carpathia. Photo from the New York Times archives.

She was born Margaret Welles Barron in New York in 1865 and received Bachelor AND Master of Law Degrees from New York University (in the 1800s!) and taught Law, but had never practiced as an attorney. She married Frederic J. Swift, who in 1891 authored  “Honest Lawyers and Capable Juries” (he was a fiction novelist?), who died in Nyack in 1907 leaving her a widow.

In 1912 she was in Europe with New York friends Marion and Fred Kenyon and Dr. Alice Leader.  They booked their First Class return passage on the Maiden Voyage of the White Star Line’s new RMS Titanic, sister ship to 1911’s astonishingly opulent RMS Olympic.  They boarded in Southampton on April 10th, 1912.  Margaret would share First Class cabin D17 with her physician friend, while the Kenyon’s were just down the corridor in D21.

Late in the evening on April 14th, as most know, RMS Titanic had its’ date with destiny in the form of a late season iceberg. Ripping a narrow gash along 6 watertight compartments, the ship would have fared better in a head-on collision with the berg. As it was the seemingly glancing blow doomed the great liner. Margaret Swift, Dr Alice Leader and the Kenyon’s were at Boat 8 on the Port Side.  Unfortunately, this was the side under the control of Second Officer Lightoller who interpreted Captain Smith’s orders of “Women and Children First” to mean “No Men Ever” and launched boats half empty rather than allow male passengers or male crew to board them unless they were the crew assigned to the boat.  Mr. Kenyon was turned away and he and his wife suffered a painful goodbye while Margaret and Alice watched horrified. Also seated with them was 61 year old Ida Strauss of Department Store fame, who got back OUT of the lifeboat when told her 67 year old husband Isadore could not join her. Famously quoting the Book of Ruth (“Wherever you die so shall I die too…”) she would not be parted from her dearest love and they returned to their cabin and their fate together.  Major Archibald Butt, advisor to presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft assisted a number of ladies gallantly into the boat, making sure they were seated comfortably and telling them to remember him to Washington before stepping aside and walking away – it was only recently revealed that he turned away to spend the end with the man who accompanied him on the voyage, his long term partner of many years.  Boat 8 was the first launched from the port side at 1:00 AM exactly on April 15.  Aboard were just 25 people – 40 less than it was designed to hold – 22 First Class women and 3 crewmen assigned to the boat. Despite being incredibly underloaded, the Second Officer turned many of the women’s husbands or brothers away to their doom.  Captain Smith personally ordered Lifeboat 8 to row for the steamer they saw on the horizon – presumed to be the S.S. Californian only 5 miles distant but not answering their wireless or responding to the distress rockets.  The women rowed for a good period of time and so were the boat furthest away when the Carpathia steamed into the neighborhood after her all-engines over-capacity run through the darkness to  aid the stricken liner at around 4:30 AM.  When the women watched the Titanic go down just after 2:20 AM the crewman in charge wanted to turn around and try to rescue some of the men.  Only our plucky New Yorkers and Noel Leslie (who was the Countess of Rothes) voted to turn around and try to assist those in the water. The other 18 women insisted they would be swamped and continued rowing away.  The Countess would remain at the tiller of the boat all night from 1AM to 7:30AM when they finally reached the Carpathia having had to turn around at 4:30 AM.  The Countess of Rothes would come to be considered one of the heroes of the evening, though she was eclipsed of course by American millionaire Molly Brown in boat 6 – who despite the incredible insult done to her in Cameron’s movie version – wound up taking control of the boat from a crewman who had obviously come unglued by it all, though by the time she wrested control it was too late to assist as she had wished.

After the tragedy, Margaret Welles Smith would return to New York and Nyack – and a staggering number of accomplishments.  She became one-time president-general of the Colonial Daughters of the Seventeenth Century and a member of the Thursday Class of Nyack and Sorosis, a women’s club in New York. She had been prominent also in the State Federation of Women’s Clubs.  She would pass away in Nyack in May of 1948, aged 86.  Oddly, the New York Times did not mention her Titanic experience in her obituary.

A fervent suffragette, she served at one time as a Village Trustee in Grand View. Margaret Welles Swift was a member of the Women’s Republican
Club of Nyack, and the Women’s National Republican Club in New York.  In 1920 she was chairman of the New York State Women’s Wood Committee, trying to obtain the Republican nomination for President for Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood. She was an important campaigner for Herbert Hoover in 1932.

She founded and was former president of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State and the Garden Club of Nyack. In 1940 she received a silver medal from the state group.  She was president from 1933 to 1936 of the National Council of State Garden Clubs, and editor of the council’s bulletin.  Interestingly the Nyack Garden Club is using the Titanic Centennial as a theme this year – I wonder if they realize they were founded by a Titanic survivor?

Those of my readers who know me personally or have seen me perform, know that “I have this intense, if somewhat morbid, fascination with the Titanic disaster” and will continue to remark that “I knew all the facts and figures about it before Leonardo DiCaprio was even born.” Yes, it is the introduction to a musical parody routine that has gotten me nominated for several awards, however it also happens to be true. I have a great interest in all things related to the Ocean Liners of the 20th Century and though I prefer the ships that DIDN’T sink, naturally so much information is out there about the ill-fated RMS Titanic that inevitably my fascination would be drawn to it. What continues to amaze is that I am still discovering new details and stories, and the story of Nyack’s own Titanic Survivor is one of those recent “Eureka!” moments.

Many of the details on Nyack’s Titanic survivor Margaret Welles Swift were found through the incredibly informative Encyclopedia Titanica which has an incredibly fascinating website that draws from the Titanic Society; the major news services of both New York and London; White Star Line and Cunard Line records; International Maritime Records; the Library of Congress and the Congressional Record and many other sources. You can find them here: http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/  Also helpful was titanicresearch.com and the New York Times archives and Nyack Library archives. Coincidentally, I learned that there is a Kindle E-Book single written specifically about Lifeboat 8, which I plan to download and read now that I know it exists: “Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic” (Kindle Single) by Elizabeth Kaye.

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I thought I’d return to discussing some of the previous “incarnations” of some of our most recognizable Nyack area buildings.

THE VANILLA FACTORY:  This quirky building on the corner of Piermont Avenue and Main Street is the oldest brick commercial building in the village, having been constructed in 1836. It originated as Ross’s General Store on the main floor with various manufacturing businesses occupying the upper floors. For many years all of the space above was a shoe factory (Nyack was for a time known as “Shoe Town”). A hoist still present in the building was installed during the tenancy of a furniture moving and storage company. In 1924, Seeley & Company began manufacturing of extracts and flavorings here, and the pleasant aromas would lead to the building being known forever after as “The Vanilla Factory”. One of the most interesting incarnations was from the early 1970s to the 1990s – “The Elizabeth Seeger School” an alternative High School founded by 5 breakaway teachers from the Dalton School in NYC. Currently the building houses offices and residential space, but the old hoist and other mercantile details can still be seen around this fascinating building that has changed so little on the outside!

photo by J.P. Schutz
CASCADIAN BOTTLING COMPANY: Ever been driving or cycling on River Road in Grandview and wonder what in the world that long low Grecian Temple was on the west side of the road approaching the bridge? That building and the large mostly unseen warehouse behind it were for years Grandview’s only industry.

photo courtesy of Rich Ellis

 
The first business there was the Onderdonk Stone Quarry, where brownstone for New York City’s luxury brownstones were mined going back to the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. There had been a hat factory there in the 1800s that failed in the Depression of 1893. The old building was raised and the property purchased by none other than D.W. Griffith, my grandmother’s old boss, and one of the most important director/producers of the silent age. Think “Birth of a Nation”… yeah, THAT D.W. Griffith.  The city’s water was not in the best shape at the time there being a switchover from the old aqueducts to the new water tunnels, so spring water was bottled here and shipped from Nyack down to NYC under the name of Crandel Spring Water. Griffiths would bring his friends including the Gish Sisters up to Grandview for both relaxation and shooting of scenes in his films. My grandmother, Irene Lane Dunn, was Miss Lillian Gish’s stand-in for scene set-ups and also did what few “stunts” would be called on for Gish’s character; she would also play small or medium roles in the films as well. (I would later meet Lillian Gish several times when I would sing Christmas Parties at Helen Hayes MacArthur’s house, and she would always refer to me as “Little Irene’s Grandson”.) My Nana fondly remembered shooting several films in Grandview and Piermont and South Nyack and found them a nice change from Fort Lee and Brooklyn which were where the studios were mostly housed at the time. (If anyone is interested, the last film my Nana appeared in was “Bathing Beauties of 1922” – not kidding!) My grandmother would never leave New York and continued on the stage here, but Griffiths and the Gishes and the Studios all moved west, and the bottling company was sold in 1920 to become the Cascadian Products Company bottling carbonated water and later sodas.  From around 1930 to the mid-1960s their premier product would be ‘Cliquot Club Soda’. By 1960, the plant and spring were purchased by the Raso family and the name changed to Spring Water Beverage Company; and in 1968 another name change and a return to just bottling spring water, under the name Canaday Eagle Spring Water.  Operations ceased in 1975. The front building was converted to a unique residence and the rear warehouse in to a recording studio. Those remain the uses to this day, although one can still see the fountain on the lawn and a number of other remnants of the bottling and spring water days. The property consisting of house, recording studio and warehouse, spring, waterfall is currently listed for sale with Rich Ellis of Ellis Southeby’s Realty.
photo by J.P. Schutz
 

COUCH COURT: The building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Depew has been many things in past years, including the Orangetown Town Hall and the location where the New York State Supreme Court met several times when needing to do “downstate” business.

photo by Barbara Gill Porta

Built in 1854 for A.J. Storms of the Storms Tub and Pail Company, it would then pass into the hands of Captain Edwin Stillwell of the Nyack Ferry until 1882. In 1885 it was purchased by the Couch Family and gained its current name.  Dr. Louis Couch would use the building to house his Homeopathic Practice and his family, including his ground breaking daughter, Natalie. I’ve mentioned the formidable Ms. Couch in a number of prior postings – she was a suffragette and great proponent of women’s rights and she was in charge of the ambulance crew that were first on the scene of the Analine Dye Factory explosion.  Natalie Couch Williams was born in Nyack and graduated Wellsley College in 1907 and continued onto Fordham Law School where she graduated first in the class and became Rockland County’s first woman attorney. In Nyack, she organized the first women’s Republican Club in New York State immediately following passage of women’s suffrage in 1920. While maintaining a law office in Nyack, she would also go on to become Journal Clerk to the New York Assembly (another ‘first woman” achievement for her) and be legal secretary to NYS Supreme Court Justice Arthur S. Tompkins. She was nominated by the Republican Party and ran for the State Assembly as early as 1934 (and was defeated by another woman, Democrat Caroline O’Day who had the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the first woman vs. woman US election).  She was married to State Senator Lawrence G. Williams.

In her 66 years, she would become the first woman elected President of the Rockland County Bar Association, the first woman to be Vice-Chair of the Rockland County Republican Committee, and the Police Justice for Grandview-on-Hudson. She was considered a key member of the election committees of Governor Thomas E. Dewey and the failed Presidential bid of Wendell Wilkie. She was hosting a “Citizens for Eisenhower” rally in Nanuet when she was stricken with a fatal heart attack in 1956. In a story about her death, The New York Times would call her “New York State Republican Leader”.  Her law offices at Couch Court would become from 1942 to 1951 the Town Hall for all of Orangetown, and the Supreme Court of New York met there several times. During the time that she was the only female lawyer in Rockland, she had two male lawyers as employees of her practice. 

After her death, Couch Court would house a Medical Supply outlet and other healthcare related businesses. Later renovated and refurbished, the gracious building now serves as home to my own office – Better Homes & Gardens Rand Realty of Nyack; along with the real estate investment company Rock-n-Real Estate; K.A. Consulting; internet designers Center Line Design; and a residential unit on the top floor.

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

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Well, it’s October again, and time for some more local ghost stories – this one is perhaps among the saddest of them all, a whole village that became a wraith of its former existence. The recent fast-tracking of the new Tappan Zee Bridge has brought back fears – well-founded – of homeowners forced to move because of state and federal projects. In Nyack, we mostly discuss the bi-section and gutting of the Village of South Nyack but South Nyack amazingly survived that amputation, other communities in the same time period did not do nearly so well. Not only did the New York State Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge project cut a wide swath across the middle portion of the county, but the state conservation movement decided, in the name of “open space” to condemn and forcibly move a good number of Rockland’s villages and hamlets. We tend to think of Harriman State Park and Hook Mountain State Park, and Tallman and the like as intelligently saved pristine old-growth forest. They are not.  Most of the area now in our State Parks was taken from Rockland residents whose families had lived there for centuries. At the bottom of Lake Welch resides the former village of Sandyfield, settled in 1760, condemned in 1928 with the last residents REMOVED from their homes in 1939. Or how about Doodletown? Settled by French Huguenots in 1762, their descendents would be the last to leave more than 200 years later when the state used the power of eminent domain  to seize their homes, church, school, business district and two cemeteries. The remains of the late 1790’s village of Johnsontown – still occupied when Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks were created, lies beneath Lake Sebego and Lake Kanawauke.  The hamlet founded in 1724 by the Conklin family on Pine Meadow Lake was bulldozed in the 1960s for a series of 35 camps for urban children that have yet to be built in 2011. Sterlington was also wiped from the maps, St. John’s in the Wilderness no longer has a village around it and caters to a congregation of memories and regrets. In all cases, despite some propaganda from the state, the residents did NOT want to go, and were certainly not compensated properly for loss of property.

Wasn’t this supposed to be about Rockland Lake and the Nyack area?

Yes, it was – I was just filling in a bit about the approximately 13 villages and hamlets Rockland surrendered to the State.  One of the most egregious cases was that of Rockland Lake.  John Slaughter settled the area on the Hudson below Rockland Lake in 1711 (the piers and docking area were called “Slaughter’s Landing”).  Harvesting of ice for storage purposes and meal enhancement at restaurants began commercially in the USA in 1805 and demand skyrocketed as “modern” convenience and the middle class both expanded to become part of the everyday life of the young USA.  The Knickerbocker Ice Company incorporated at Rockland Lake in 1831 (changing the name officially from Quaspeck Lake). Rockland Lake was known to have had the cleanest and purest ice in the area. The stored ice was placed on inclined railroad cars, transported down the mountainside, placed on barges on the Hudson River, and shipped to New York City. So much ice was shipped that Rockland Lake became known as the “Icehouse of New York City”. The nearby Knickerbocker Fire House was established 1862. The Knickerbocker Ice Company closed in 1924 as commercial refrigeration and freezers took the place of Ice Harvesting.

photo: J.P. Schutz

 
Wikipedia would have us believe that Rockland Lake Village as it was then called, died by 1926 when it claims that while demolishing one of the old ice houses, the residents themselves caused a fire that “destroyed the majority of the Village of Rockland Lake” effectively ending its’ existence.  Really? In reality, less than a dozen buildings caught fire in a village of well over a thousand people.  Though the glory days of fast clipper ships and later crack steamers carrying Rockland Lake Ice literally all over the world had ended, Rockland Lake Village survived the change. There was still work in the trap rock quarries and also in the hospitality industry.
 
After the Ice, Rockland Lake became known as a resort area for folks from New York City and the rest of the metropolitan area. I owe my own residency in Rockland County to that time period. My grandparents, lifelong New York City residents, maintained a summer and weekend bungalow cottage at Rockland Lake from pre-WWII until they were forced to leave it in the 1960s. My grandma and my mom and uncle would spend most of the summer weeks up here while my grampy joined them on weekends. At the end of the summer, my grandma would return to her manager position at Lord & Taylor and they’d come for weekends whenever possible except for the coldest weeks of January and February.  My Mom learned to drive here and took her drivers test in Nyack. The family would attend church at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Rockland Lake on Sundays, bringing 4 welcome musical voices to the congregation. They saw movies in Nyack, had sodas at Woolworth’s, got prescriptions at Koblins and shoes at Glynns. And fell in love with the area – when my Mom and my Uncle married, each brought their family here to the area around Rockland Lake. In the early 1950s when they were looking, they realized that Nyack and even Rockland Lake were too much for their newlywed finances, taking my Mom and Dad just next door in Blauvelt, and my Uncle and Aunt to the edge of the area in West Nyack.  My grandparents would continue to come weekends and summers to their Rockland Lake bungalow and considered Rockland County their second home.  Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s the area of Rockland Lake Village still had many thriving vacation cottage and bungalow communities, local shops, a number of restaurants, cafes and lunch counters, tradespeople’s businesses, along with Gethsemane cemetery, the Rockland Lake Post Office, and the church, along with over a thousand year-round residents and several thousand seasonal residents.  By 1965, it was almost all gone. The beautiful mission church St. Michael’s established in 1901, would be demolished by the state in 1963 – 6 years before any serious park service work was done in its area.  The post office closed its doors in 1965, effectively ending Rockland Lake’s existence as a “place”.
The firehouse still bravely struggles on, even to this day, and a few homes remain.  As for the rest, taking a walk from the Firehouse over the ridge and down to the Hudson along what was the main road of the old village brought me to a ghost town where I found ruins, lots of ruins: of houses, of the old inclined railway, of the shipping piers, and even of the grand hotel that used to be right on the Hudson shore.

photo: JP Schutz

I found myself very sad, and oddly, a bit angry. Why destroy a living, breathing village, or 13 of them in the case of Rockland County’s full total? Greenspace is a wonderful thing, but at such a price? And sadly, so much of what had been inhabited is almost unreachable anyway – it’s never been utilized or even properly cleaned and returned to wilderness. It was just taken away. Some will say for the benefit of all, and they may very well be correct – on the great ledger of society, it may be that Rockland County’s loss of the Mountain Hamlets for Harriman State Park, the heart of the Village of South Nyack for the Thruway and the Bridge, and the Village of Rockland Lake for Rockland Lake State Park is a “net gain”.  But I must submit that the gain does not come without sorrow or bitterness… after all these years, my mother has NEVER returned to the spot that was the source of so much of her early happiness – despite having lived just a few miles away in the ensuing 45 years. (She has promised she will come – with me – so I can give a more first hand tale from one of the old “summer people”).  Before the park, Rockland Lake was a beautiful lake that was frequently used by “city people” and other non-residents who would come and rent here, or buy here, and shop the local stores and businesses during their summer stay. Now, busloads are shipped in from the city to use a man-made pool and then head back to the city just hours later without ever becoming involved in the local communities or adding to their economies while utilizing their resources – resources that were taken AWAY from the locals. Is this progress? Was this what was intended? Again, in light of the beauty that is Harriman State Park, the peace of Rockland Lake State Park, and the needed interstate and river crossing we have now – perhaps it has been for the best common good.  But Rockland has given and given and given for the common good and too infrequently receives back.  The mountain villages and Rockland Lake Village are no more… I hope that those in charge take serious consideration of just how much this area has sacrificed to the common good before they plunge into the sadly necessary need to rebuild the Bridge. Before anymore homes, dreams, communities, memories and history get trampled in the mad rush of expediency and “for the common good” may those in power take some time to consider treading as lightly as is humanly possible in a place that has already sacrificed so much of itself. Karma is supposed to come around, isn’t it? Hey Albany, are you listening?

photo: JP Schutz

 

photo: JP Schutz

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