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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.

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.

Today the National September 11 Memorial Museum was opened in a moving and solemn ceremony attended by current and past Presidents, Governors, Mayors and many other notables. President Obama addressed those assembled for just nine minutes, and more than half of those nine minutes were devoted to speaking about and remembering a remarkable young man – “The Man in the Red Bandana” – a young man who saved so many others that day, but lost his own life returning for yet more people to save. 

That young man, was Welles Remy Crowther – a Nyack High School graduate and Nyack Volunteer Fireman who was beginning his career in Finance.  It was touching and bittersweet for the president to spend so much time on this astonishing young man from Nyack, but an even more affecting moment was to come. Allison Crowther, our fellow Nyacker, and a colleague of mine in local Real Estate spoke AFTER the President’s moving account of her son’s heroism.  She managed to remain calm, poised and focused on the words she came to say… and as I listened to Allison, I realized as perhaps never before, how close to the tree that apple fell. 

This woman, who with her husband established a charitable trust in her son’s name, did not turn to darkness in her grief.  Just as her son did, she epitomizes the words of the prayer of St. Francis – “where there is darkness, let me bring light – where there is injury, pardon – where there is hatred, love…”  A remarkable family all around, and a true case of “like mother, like son”.  I felt this was a good time to repost one of my blogs about Wells Remy Crowther which I had written back in 2011 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  My fear then had been that this courageous young man might be forgotten… how glad I am to have been proved wrong…

 

Repost:  10 Years Ago Today: 9/11/2001 Nyack’s 9-11 Hero – originally posted 9/11/11

I’ve been planning a post about a certain young man for almost a year – half out of the concern that perhaps he’d be forgotten in the crush of politicization of the event; conflict over the museum and memorial; bickering between New York and New Jersey over who should be “invited”; the inevitable conspiracy theories and an undercurrent of still simmering anger and unresolved grief. I was wrong.  Mercifully  he has NOT been forgotten in the chaos of this anniversary. People have remembered to celebrate and tell the story of this remarkable young man.  The mysterious and miraculous “Man in the Red Bandana”, a Nyacker who on 9/11/2001 lived – and died – according to what he believed and what he had been taught by his family, his church and his schools growing up among us. Welles Remy Crowther, NHS Class of 1995. He did us all proud.

The Honor Student from Nyack High and volunteer member of the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. in Upper Nyack graduated from Boston College in 1999. He was working at Sandler O’Neill & Partners as an Equities Trader. From his lofty office on the 104th Floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower it seemed that the world was literally and figuratively at the feet of this polite, dedicated, brilliant young man.  Then that dream exploded on the wings of hijacked planes and a religion hijacked by fanatical extremist devotees.  Wells Remy Crowther would counter those acts of crushing hate with acts of towering love. 

This athletic young man would have easily made it out, and could have. At 9:12 AM he would call his mother in Upper Nyack from his cellphone to say he was okay. His mother would never hear his voice again. For Wells Crowther (who had already somehow miraculously made it down to the 78th floor skylobby from the 104th) could not see the pain and fear and confusion in the Skylobby’s burning ruins and not ACT.  He led people to the only remaining usable stairwell to the lower floors and carried a facially burned woman down all the way to the 61st… and then he went back up for more people, and brought them down, then back up again… On March 19, 2002 Wells Remy Crowther was finally recovered in the company of several FDNY and EMS members – the group had been heading back UP with a ‘jaws of life’ device when the South Tower followed its’ sister in a slow cascade of doomed hopes and broken dreams. At least 18 people are known to owe their lives directly to the selfless acts committed by a man in a red bandanna. On December 15, 2006, through a Special Commendation by the NYC Fire Commissioner Welles Remy Crowther was made an honorary member of the FDNY.  This was the first time in history that the department had done that posthumously. The Crowther family was presented with a framed certificate of appointment which included a department badge and a red bandanna.

The word “hero” is sadly overused these days.  Pampered overpaid athletes simply doing their job are not heroes.  Politicians mouthing platitudes  and slogans of every variety are not heroes. Even those who survive an act of horrifying evil, or lose someone to it, are not heroes but victims of an assault on humanity. People who put their lives on the line everyday fighting fires, crimes and dire illnesses – or fighting in service of their country – are heroes. And people who go back upstairs over and over in a conflagration of staggering proportions, knowing full well that the edifice’s twin has already collapsed, and who are not even “official” rescue workers on the scene? Well to me, that’s the definition of a superhero, or perhaps, a saint. In the spirit of “No greater love than this…” , young Mr. Crowther laid down his life – not even for friends – but for perfect strangers. Strangers he believed were his brothers and sisters in the human condition. When I reach my last day on Earth, I hope that I can face it the way Wells Remy Crowther did – with courage, honor and love.

photo: Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust

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.

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…

P1010026

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

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.

 

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!

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.

I’ve been on hiatus since Christmas while attending to my wedding and my honeymoon. Having just returned from our celebratory Cruise, I can get back to regular posting…

The Great Blizzard of 1888 – Nyack’s A-drift

This year’s “Winter That Never Was” is the – pardon the pun – polar opposite of 1888, which brought the worst winter snow disaster the United States had ever seen.  Beginning on March 11 and stretching through March 14, this monster storm would dump 50 inches of snow on Connecticut and Massachusetts and 40 inches on New York and New Jersey, with sustained winds of 45 miles an hour. Entire homes were literally drifted over; a drift in Gravesend, Brooklyn was measured at 52 feet high.  Railroad lines were blocked taking days to clear; telegraph and telephony lines snapped or exploded isolating the metropolises of Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC for days. Electrical lines dropped all over New York City adding electrocution deaths to deaths from exposure and building collapse.  Over 400 people would lose their lives on land – more than 200 in New York City alone – and 100 more lives would be lost at sea in coastal vessels sunk from wave battering or by the enormous weight of ice that formed on superstructures.  This storm would prompt New York City to bury its electrical lines and its train stations and push harder for a subway.

In Nyack, snow accumulations were less than in Brooklyn though well into the two foot range,  while drifts engulfed entire houses and blocked streets and docks.  Nyack was isolated from the rest of the Metropolitan Area  with both ferry service stopped and trains unable to get through the drift.  Daily commuters who had left Nyack on the train that morning were unable to return for days (Fancy that, train service right from Nyack… hey Albany!! ).

The archives of the Erie Railroad show a report from Harry Lewis Sarvent engineman from Nyack and at that time foreman of the Nyack Engine Yard.  (Sarvent is a descendent of Phillip Sarvent, mentioned in several of my blog posts as a hero of the British Attack on Nyack and is a possible candidate for the identity of the legendary ghost in the Old Palmer cemetery – see October 2010 posts). Harry Sarvent reports to his superiors that: “On March 12th, 1888, the time of the blizzard, I was called to ‘fire’ locomotive engine 327 for engineer Benjamin Scribner at 4:30 a.m., Monday, and left Nyack about 7:30 a.m. We got back to Nyack the following Thursday afternoon.”  This for what was normally a one-hour or less return trip.

Many Nyackers and other Rockland Residents were trapped at various workplaces – several Macy’s Saleswomen from Nyack were permitted to sleep in the store for the duration, in – where else – the mattress department.  Nyack’s pioneering woman physician Dr. Virginia Davies (yep, Dr. Davies Farm on 9W in Congers was hers) was in March of 1888 in the middle of her four-year stint as Head of the New York Infant Asylum and had arrived in the city quite early that day.  Like so many others she became trapped at her workplace, fortunately for the infants and children there, for after over two full days of her snowy imprisonment she led a party who TUNNELED through 18 foots drifts to get milk since there had been no supplies that entire time. This act of heroism was braver than you might first think – the majority of deaths from the blizzard were those who had attempted to bludgeon their way or tunnel their way through enormous drifts – and women pedestrians had a significantly higher rate of mortality because their heavy petticoats dragged them down, and frequently prevented their desperate attempts to extricate themselves from their snowy entombment.  An odd quirk of history shows that as a direct result, petticoats became far less massive and calf-length skirts made their first appearance in modern fashion.

Nyackers and City Folks had all adapted to “modern conveniences” such as electricity, gas stoves, telephones and easy access to fresh milk, groceries, heating fuel, transportation and newspapers. The papers published at least two additions a day back then, and people read them as avidly as we watch the news twice or more times a day in 2012.  At first, just as would be likely today, people griped about not having anything to read, or being able to go to the theater, or not having their lights or telephone work. That was “at first”. As the isolation stretched to days and no supplies could get anywhere on the East Coast, lack of food and heat switched from frustrating to fatal.  Urbanite and Villager alike were used to picking up fresh food daily (home refrigeration not being widespread) and having the coal man deliver regularly. Trapped in their homes and offices and shops and tenements and hotels, millions in the New York metro area were threatened with death from exposure or from hunger.

Many were forced to improvise, and that improvisation would result in one of the Nyack areas longest lived legends.  On the border of Blauvelt and Nyack, near Buttermilk Falls a family on Greenbush Road living in one of the old Dutch Sandstone Colonials was literally trapped in their home by drifts as high as the roofline.  The quickly ran out of firewood and could not get out their doors to get more – so they began to burn anything in the house that they could – newspapers, artwork, beds, tables, chairs, and finally only one thing was left.  The family patriarch had passed away at an advanced age just prior to the blizzard and his coffin was in the parlour waiting for a now postponed funeral. With no other options, the family was forced to do the unthinkable — burn the old man’s coffin, and keep granddad’s body in deep freeze just outside the door.  Apparently, the old man (or his shade) was not amused. By all accounts, no one has ever been able to satisfactorily heat that parlour since; and it remains chill even in the hottest dog days of August.

photo: Henry Insley, Nyack Library Historical Collection

  

photo: Nyack Library Historical Collection

It’s after midnight, and one hour into December 24, 2011. For me, Christmas Eve has begun and I’ll be singing my heart out at two concerts and two masses later today at St. Ann’s on Jefferson, culminating in Midnight Mass 23 hours from now. Other local friends have been steeped in Latkes and Apple Sauce (even a bit of Sour Cream now and then – which is sacrilege I know, but some just don’t know what’s right and proper!) while lighting candles and spinning dredles for a few evenings now. A Pagan friend seriously lucked out this year as her annual sprint below the solstice moon with ‘nothin’ but the radio on’ had to have been relatively balmy this year compared to last, and I’m sure the Yule Log is now merrily crackling in her hearth. All over the village and the companion areas, old traditions are celebrated and new ones born… because it’s Nyack, and so we somehow manage to be over-the-top traditional and cutting-edgy all at the same time!  Though our individual traditions can occasionally bruise the toes of another’s traditions, for the most part they co-exist side-by-side relatively well and even find new and innovative ways to celebrate together or even combined… and always in our own unique, and frankly, quirky ways.

I’ve tried to explain to friends and colleagues who’ve never been here, that even in the worst of times, Nyack at Christmastide through the Nights of Chanukah and the Festivities of the Yule and the Principle Seeking of Kwanzaa still has a *suspicion*, a little frosting as it were, of pure unadulterated magic. All through the Season we light our homes and even the sky on New Year’s Eve with joy, with fellowship and with fun. Give Nyackers yet another reason to celebrate through the dark days and they’ll take it. Which is why you’ll find Haitians celebrating Sint Niklaus Day and Irishmen munching Latkes while a Russian Jewish lady puts ornaments on her friends’ Christmas Tree and an Italian Teen hangs with his bros at the Nyack Center listening to the Principals and a Catholic Nun joins her friend at a Sacred Oak.  Cause it’s Nyack. And we truly LIKE to share some of our fun with our neighbors who celebrate something else… and because we’ve never EVER done things the way any other place does. And that’s why only Nyack could have had these folks pictured below come by to help us celebrate the Winter Holydays for so many years… who knows, maybe some future December, Santa’s sleigh will once again be drawn by Elephants in the Snow…

Photo from the Bernard Collection, Hudson River Valley Heritage

Mom, Juno and Babe out for a frolic in the snow!

photo from Bernard Collection; Hudson River Valley Heritage

Back home for some Cocoa… by the gallon!
 
And so to all of you – in my tradition – a Very Merry, Very Nyack Christmas! May you have a Bright and Blessed Season no matter what you celebrate! Hold close to your friends and your family and remember THEY are the true gifts of the season… cherish them and it, and may all your holidays be Nyack-y! 
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