Peter Feinman: Irene and New York State History


By on

This past July, a group of educators toured the historic Mohawk Valley. The group consisted of teachers from the region, particularly the Utica school district, people from historical societies, and cultural heritage tourists. The program was described as an “immersion experience”into the history of the Mohawk Valley. Little did we know that the metaphorical image soon would become a literal one.

The program began in Schenectady, the traditional gateway into the region. As part of the experience we walked the historic Schenectady Stockade, a Dutch settlement area that has witnessed so much history over the centuries and which continues to exist as a living community today. Since the walk was in the rain, perhaps we should have regarded it as an omen. As it was, we all looked up in amazement at the lines on the buildings marking the high point of flood levels in the past. The participants took pictures of these historic lines which they could show in their classrooms of what once had happened. Little did we know.

Later during the week, we visited Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site. There we heard from Tricia Shaw, the New York State curator who helped organize the program as part of the Mohawk Valley Consortium, how dangerous it had been to cross Schoharie Creek when the Erie Canal was first built. Downstream near where the Schoharie enters the Mohawk, we saw the ruins of an aqueduct constructed so canal boats would not have to fight the Schoharie current to get to the other side. Upstream, looming high above the Crossing, we saw a bridge carrying I-90 traffic. That was the new bridge; the old one had collapsed in 1987 following a record rainfall that led to flooding which eroded its foundation. Now there was a new bridge so there was nothing to worry about. Little did we know. The Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site is now closed according to the website but the bridge still stands.

In Amsterdam, we meet with Ann Peconie, the executive director of the Walter Elwood Museum located at Guy Park Manor, a Revolutionary home, along the bank of the Mohawk River. We saw the artifacts from the time when Amsterdam was a major manufacturer of carpets where Ann’s own family had worked. We saw the posters, newspapers and photographs from the time when Eastern Europeans were Hispanics and they were the immigrants who labored there. We heard the carved mahogany Victor phonograph, from the time before we were born, a prized artifact of “Amsterdam’s attic” as the museum is known locally. We ate dinner in the gazebo on the grounds of the museum. Little did we know. The gazebo is no more, washed down river. The phonograph has vanished. Even part of the building has been washed away. And the director cries for what has been lost as a community mourns for its lost past.

Nearby is the Old Stone Fort of Sir William Johnson, a now obscure figure who once stood at the confluence of Iroquois, Dutch, and English life in the Mohawk Valley. We crammed into portions of the structure angling for the best photo in the light to document the life in the Valley centuries ago. It was a hot day and space was limited so we were grateful to be able to rest under trees at tables which we had moved into the shade. Little did we know. An email from Old Fort Johnson about the situation there after Irene includes the following:

“HELP OLD FORT JOHNSON RECOVER
FROM HURRICANE IRENE’S FLOODS !!!

WE DO NOT HAVE ELECTRICITY OR WATER
WE DO HAVE PORTA JOHNS

VOLUNTEER RECORDER/PHOTOGRAPHER: If you cannot lift nor clean, each shift needs a recorder to photograph and document all items that are being disposed of.”

Ironically, October is Archive Month in New York State. How to exhibit after a disaster is likely to be a big topic of discussion.

Photo: Normally high and dry, Putmans Store (and the adjacent Enlarged Erie Lock 28) at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site filled with water on August 29, 2011. Photo by Howard Ohlhous, Courtesy National Park Service.

 

2 thoughts on “Peter Feinman: Irene and New York State History

  1. Editorial Staff

    The following comment was forwarded by e-mail:

    As a resident of Schoharie County (my home was out of harms way) I can’t thank you enough [for this post]. I’ve been networking with the New York City independent PreK-12 schools to encourage them to labor for their upstate neighbors through some sort
    of a service project. I’ve forwarded your [post] on to Cathy Cramer from Interschool. She is looking for a specific not for profit group through which to organize.

    With appreciation, Lois

    Lois Bailey
    Associate Director for Evaluation & Accreditation
    NYSAIS – http://www.nysais.org

    Reply
  2. Cathy Mason

    I appreciated Peter Feinman’s sensitive comment on the devastation so many historic sites suffered from Hurricane Irene. I would only take issue with his saying William Johnson was an “obscure figure.” That he is less known than Revolutionary figures such as Washington and Lafayette and Founders such as Jefferson and Franklin may have something to do with the old adage, “The victor writes the history.” Although Johnson died shortly before the Revolution started, he and his sons were on the wrong side, the ultimately losing British side. But in his time Johnson was every bit as remarkable a leader as George Washington was in his. In the mid-18th century when the northeast region and Canada were the strategic keys to the continent, and when Britain and France were contending for control during the Seven Years’ War, Johnson’s stronghold in the Mohawk Valley was a prominent key to the interior. Also, Johnson’s powerful influence among the Mohawks and other Iroquois nations was crucial for military success in the region. Since the Seven Years’ War and its high cost led to the British taxation policies that sparked the Revolution, and since Johnson’s sons in their war on rebels in the Valley contributed to one of the bloodiest fronts of the war, anyone interested in the birth of our nation must take Johnson into account. A fascinating figure, Johnson continues to inspire books and research, including Irishman Fintan O’Toole’s “White Savage.” The white savage was Johnson himself, who took up native life ways when it suited him, in part because they resonated with some of the wilder aspects of the Irish culture he grew up with. In 2009, the Western Frontier Symposium held in the Mohawk Valley was devoted to studies of Johnson and his world. Dozens of scholars read papers to an appreciative audience of some hundreds of history lovers.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>