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Posts Tagged ‘Nyack Politics’

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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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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It sure is political season, isn’t it? Seems you can’t turn around without bumping into some reference to this year’s local and state elections and – enough already! – NEXT year’s presidential election. Since everyone is talking about this week’s mayoral debate at the Nyack Center, while serendipitously Nyack Library chose the following as its local history picture of the month, I’ve decided to discuss a very famous man’s political speech not 100 feet from where the candidates debated on Wednesday.

photo: Nyack Library History Collection

The photo shows the Doersch Brothers Grocery, which was located just steps away from the current Nyack Center in the building that would come to be known as the Broadway Theater, then the Tappan Zee Playhouse.  Currently the closed Chef’s Market occupies the spot – a spot that began as a warehouse and closed, became a Grocery and closed, then a movie theater that closed for 27 years, then a live theater that closed, then rebuilt as a Grocery… that closed.  One of the topics in the mayor’s debate was the economy and the state of downtown businesses, and on September 1, 1868, Horace Greeley stopped by to make a political speech discussing very similar issues and 1500 people filled what would become the Tappan Zee Playhouse while another 300 had to be turned away. Greeley opposed monopolies and the vast accumulation of wealth by real estate developers who bamboozled the public with schemes that seemed to promise wonderful things for everyone but at heart were nothing more than ways to line the developers’ pockets. His own paper The New York Tribune, opened up the closed doors of congress and the railroad barons and openly opposed government subsidies for the already profitable railroad barons and real estate speculators, along with the vast wealth being acquired by a very few while jobs were lost all across the country. His speech would discuss his insistence that the federal and state governments should be instituting high protective tariffs and sponsoring internal improvements and infrastructure support for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than creating laws and regulations that benefited a tiny few.

Sound familiar?

Horace Greeley was a fascinating, quirky and sometimes self-contradicting figure – no wonder all of Nyack turned out to see him, he must have fit in perfectly! And by the way, he never said: “Go West Young Man”… that’s a never uttered paraphrase ranking right up there with “Play It Again Sam” and “Beam Me Up Scotty”.  Born in New Hampshire, he moved to New York City in 1831 and by 1834 was involved with the publishing of The New Yorker joining his name to political reforms along with such luminaries as William Seward (who’d become Lincoln’s Secretary of State and purchased Alaska for the USA).

He established his daily New York Tribune and its’ weekly national version The Tribune in 1841.  He was a great supporter of workers rights and his own business reflected that: excellent work conditions and hours, a profit-sharing plan, organization of his workers and cooperative groupings. His paper garnered great respect for its higher tone, lack of sensationalism, cultural additions like book reviews and straightforward reporting. It also gained him a large following to whom he could present his views and causes.  He espoused Women’s Rights and suffrage and opposed Slavery – though he bemoaned both the political machinations and the sometimes violent behavior of some Abolitionists.  He supported the Temperance movement to a point. He opposed the Mexican War feeling that it only benefited the slave owners of the south.  He was appointed to fill a Congressional vacancy in 1848 but only served 3 months as he continually reported on what REALLY went on behind closed doors in Washington and his editorials strongly condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act (effectively opening the possibility of additional slave states in the northern prairie territories – resulting in rioting, death and political upheaval in “Bleeding Kansas”) would prove to put a gulf between Greeley and his former friend Seward. Greeley’s support of a gentleman named Abraham Lincoln over the Republican Party’s chosen frontrunner – William Seward – served to clinch Lincoln’s nomination and Seward’s everlasting hatred.

Though he supported Lincoln, Greeley was not one to let things rest when he perceived what he believed was injustice or political posturing. He was tough in Lincoln and initially argued that we were better off without the South and should let them secede. He did eventually come to Lincoln’s way of thinking regarding preserving the Union as a whole, but stridently criticized Lincoln for not freeing the slaves immediately. He was not one to wait for change to come, he demanded it now, and did everything he could to become part of the change himself. Perhaps that passion was what brought so many people (a very large crowd for Rockland County in the 1860s) out to listen to him speak.

Oddly, after the Civil War, Greeley supported amnesty for Confederate Officers and angered many Northern supporters by posting bail for Jefferson Davis!  He did continue his support for universal suffrage for all races and for women, and the rights of workers. He was not an avid expansionist, but rather recommended an orderly westward movement. What he really said was “The best business you can go into you will find on your father’s farm or in his workshop. If you have no family or friends to aid you, and no prospect open to you there, turn your face to the great West and there build up your home and fortune.”  He was frequently misquoted in his lifetime too, and once quipped, “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers; what I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.”

He was a man of diverse and sometimes odd interests that ranged from literacy to election reform to spiritualism to phrenology – and really, advocating Women’s Rights in the mid-1800s? He was never seen in public without his full-length duster coat and his bright shiny umbrella even on the hottest and sunniest of days.  And yet, even after his public gaffe with ol’ Jeff Davis, he remained immensely popular. In 1872 he would become the Presidential Candidate for BOTH the Democratic Party and the then existent Liberal-Republican Party. In his acceptance speech of the Liberal-Republican nomination, he said “The masses of our countrymen, North and South, are eager to clasp hands across the bloody chasm which has so long divided them.” But a Greeley Presidency was not to be – he lost steam and all interest in the subject when his wife tragically died, and he foundered without her, dying of a broken heart and loneliness just a few weeks after the election to which he paid such little attention. He had garnered 44% of the popular vote and his electoral college votes were posthumously assigned to three candidates of minority parties.

Horace Greeley was a real American Character, and one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received was from someone who called me ‘Horace Greeley, Jr.’ intending it as an insult.  For Horace Greeley firmly believed that the USA’s best times were ahead, and that only by joining together – North and South, Male and Female, Worker and Employer, Democrat and Republican, White, Black, Native or any other ethnicity – would we find our best destiny and fulfill the dreams of our Founding Fathers.   I’d like to think that those were precisely the reasons that on that day in September of 1868 so much of Nyack turned out to listen to a political speech.

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Ever wonder why there’s a Nyack, Upper Nyack, South Nyack? Not to mention a Central Nyack and a West Nyack?

It can be confusing even to those of us who’ve lived here all of our lives. In a broad sense, we tend to think of “Nyack” as encompassing most of the above mentioned locations – along with Grandview-on-Hudson, Upper Grandview and parts of Valley Cottage and Blauvelt! To obfuscate matters further: the zip code “10960” encompasses the villages of Nyack, Upper Nyack, South Nyack and Grandview-on-Hudson along with the hamlets of Central Nyack and Upper Grandview and a tiny part of Blauvelt; Upper Nyack, Central Nyack and West Nyack are in Clarkstown Township while Nyack, South Nyack and the two Grandviews are in Orangetown Township – with the exception of a small corner of Nyack Village which somehow wound up in Clarkstown; and then Grandview-on-Hudson and Blauvelt are located in the South Orangetown School District, West Nyack and part of Central Nyack in the Clarkstown School District, while the rest of Central Nyack, Nyack, South Nyack and Upper Nyack and Valley Cottage are in the Nyack School District. Shall I get into which locations are served by Nyack Water and which by United Water? The number of cross-jurisdictions can be mind-boggling at times!  Many events led to the breaking up of what in the days of New Netherland were the Nyack Patent and the Vreisendael Patent into the villages and hamlets we currently know – and one of the defining moments of those divisions came in August of 1885 with the opening of the Upper Nyack Post Office.

Edward Hopper's Famous Painting

In 1870 the Legislature passed a general act for the incorporation of villages, and by 1872 local Nyack businessmen had devised a plan to incorporate the Nyack area into a large village that would include all of the present day villages of Nyack, South Nyack and Upper Nyack along with most of Upper Grandview and the Clausland Mountain section of Blauvelt.  By pulling in these outlying areas, the downtown could be improved and enhanced using the tax dollars of the property owners of the outlying areas (many of the residents of the downtown area were tenants and therefore did not pay property taxes).  Garrett Sarvent of Upper Nyack (whom I suspect is a descendent of Phillip Sarvent, the Revolutionary War hero buried in the old Palmer cemetery) got wind of these intentions, and upon gaining real proof that this was indeed the plan of the downtown business owners and planned a “counter-offensive”.  In what amounted to almost complete secrecy for a political manuever, the residents of Nyack north of the line between Clarkstown and Orangetown (near Sixth Avenue) plotted out their own village and incorporated as Upper Nyack in September of 1872, just 25 days before the original incorporation plans that included it in a future Nyack village came to fruition. So, when Nyack officially incorporated October 23, 1872, it was without its northern reaches.

To be fair, the residents of Upper Nyack had a point at the time. For instance, gas street lights and home gaslight service was available downtown starting in 1859 – but not in Upper Nyack (or anywhere else outside of downtown for that matter) and the taxes of the landowners in the outlying areas were paying for those amenities for non-property taxpayers while not getting those amenities themselves.  During the rest of the 1870s, the residents south of downtown were facing the problems the residents north of downtown had elected to flee prior to incorporation.  Finding all of their taxes going only to improve areas they did not live in, a movement to end incorporation was held, and on February 7, 1878 the original incorporated Village of Nyack ceased to exist.  On May 25 of that year, the Village of South Nyack came into existence followed by a newly restructured Village of Nyack on February 27, 1883 consisting of just the downtown area and its’ associated residential section on the hillside above.

The opening of the Upper Nyack Post Office in August of 1885 firmly established Upper Nyack’s presence as an entity in and of itself.  The streets of Upper Nyack had been “macadamized” (we’d say “paved”) and street lamps installed along Broadway. The lower taxes in Upper Nyack caught the attention of some businesses and first Post Master George C. Stevens could look out from the porch of the Post Office and see the offices of the Pacific Mail Company and the Main Offices of the Union Steamboat Company.  Just down Castle Heights Avenue was the Van Houten Boatyard (later Petersens) and Upper Nyack settled in for a period of quiet prosperity.

photo: J.P. Schutz

 
What started out as a good idea back then – when both Upper Nyack and South Nyack had business areas that helped pay for some of their individualized services may today by some be considered a liability. By the 20th Century, Upper Nyack had a thriving waterfront area that built, serviced, drydocked and docked boats, sloops, riverboats and ships along with a number of small business scattered mostly along the main north-south corridors of Broadway, Midland and Highland Avenues (Route 9W).  South Nyack had by mid-century its’ own downtown with shops, restaurants, taverns, churches, cemeteries and even a house or two of ill-repute!  The Nyack and Northern Railroad had a station in downtown South Nyack, along what is now the bike and jogging trail (a poor substitution, that).  Both villages had commercial tax payers as well as residential.  Unfortunately, the decline of the ice industry and the shipping industry would doom Upper Nyack’s shoreline businesses and a move toward “residential only” meant all of the old multiuse business/residential properties scattered around the Village were no more as soon as they sold to a new owner – even the original Post Office.
 
If Upper Nyack’s businesses succumbed to “old age”, South Nyack’s loss was more like losing a loved one to a sudden accident.  The New York State Thruway obliterated most of what was the business district of South Nyack when it and the Tappan Zee Bridge were constructed, severing the Village in two and leaving it without many opportunities for rateables and tax paying business.  What had been a tax benefit in the late nineteenth century may no longer be so in the early twenty-first.  With taxes rocketing up all over the country, but particularly here, the redundancy of village services that co-exist with or supersede township services add an additional burden on what are now primarily residential areas with no businesses to help share the tax burden.  Still, I have the feeling that sentiment (and an unbelievably labyrinthine incorporational dissolving process) will keep our villages unique and separate for the foreseeable future. 
 
So, that’s part of the story of how we got all of these crisscrossing jurisdictions – more to come in the future! 

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