Author Archives: John Conway

John Conway

About John Conway

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and teaches a class on Sullivan County history at SUNY-Sullivan.

Sullivan County: The Corpse In The Grey Suit


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sagenew_edited[1]Saturday, July 31, 1937 dawned sunny and warm in Sullivan County, a nearly perfect summer day. A light breeze stirred the cooling waters of Swan Lake as dozens of vacationers rowed about in the bright morning sunshine. Two of those vacationers, convinced that it was their lucky day, rowed enthusiastically over to a strange shape they saw bobbing on the surface of the lake. What they discovered instead was grisly and gruesome. It was the body of a man, all trussed up and tied to a rock and a slot machine frame. Continue reading

Sullivan County: Doctors Say ‘Go to the Mountains!’


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adWhile Sullivan County was not officially formed until 1809, the region’s history as a popular healing environment dates back considerably before that.

From the earliest visits of the Lenape, who constructed their sweat lodges among the willow trees on the banks of the Delaware to the tuberculosis sufferers who searched for a cure in the cool mountain climate, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the area because of its clean air and pure water.

From about 1890 to 1915, the county enjoyed a prosperous period of tourism—today called the Silver Age— based almost entirely on those concepts of fresh air and pure water. In fact, for decades the Ontario & Western Railway’s promotional campaign for the area was based on the slogan, “Doctors Say ‘Go to the Mountains!’” This was often followed by the trident reminder ‘pure air, pure water, pure milk.” Continue reading

Sailor Jack Allen: World Taveler, Philosopher, Killer


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Sailor Jack AllenIt was in October of 1887 that itinerant laborer Abel John Allen was arrested for the brutal murder of Ursula Ulrich in Jeffersonville, NY.  Nine months later he became the last man ever hanged in Sullivan County.

His murder of the widow Ulrich notwithstanding, the man known as Sailor Jack was a complicated fellow who packed a lot of living into his 34 years. He spent his time in the Sullivan County jail – awaiting first his trial and then his execution – writing about forgiveness, redemption, and having a “right heart.” Those writings reveal a world traveler, an astute observer of the passing parade, a philosopher. Continue reading

Cornelius Hardenbergh: Sullivan County’s First Hanging


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AHstone house[1]On the afternoon of July 14, 1842, Sheriff Felix Kelly fastened a noose around the neck of Cornelius Hardenbergh, and a few seconds later Hardenbergh, a member of what had once been the region’s most prominent family, entered the history books as the first man ever hanged in Sullivan County.

Hardenbergh’s execution was the first of five in the county over the years– four have taken place during the month of July– and the events leading up to his hanging make fascinating reading.

Hardenbergh had been convicted of murdering Anthony Hasbrouck, his relative by marriage, and one of the county’s wealthiest and most powerful men. The case remains, more than 170 years later, among the strangest in county history.  Continue reading

Grossinger’s: A History Lesson In Economic Development


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grosslongbrookIn the wake of the recent decision by Foxwoods Catskills Resort not to submit an application for a destination casino in Liberty — some in Sullivan County are wringing their hands. There are many comments being circulated along the lines of, “the last one out turn off the lights…”

Notwithstanding the fact that there are still two viable casino projects in the works for Sullivan County, perhaps it is a good time for a history lesson for all of those who are beginning to feel a bit desperate about the area’s future prospects. And since the Foxwoods proposal that will not be submitted to the State Gaming Commission involved the Grossinger’s property, once home to what was arguably the most famous resort in the world, perhaps it is appropriate that the history lesson begins there. Continue reading

The Liberty Highway: Buffalo to New York


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LibertyHighway1928The automobile has long been part of life in Sullivan County.

As far back as 1898, for example, there was a booklet entitled “Road Maps of Sullivan County: Showing the Good Roads.” Of these roads, it was said that “many of the Sullivan County roads are turnpikes, maintained by a chartered company. They are made of shale rock, and are hard and springy.” Continue reading

Roebling’s Wire Rope Modernized The D & H Canal


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John A. RoeblingJohn Augustus Roebling celebrated two milestones in June of 1849, his 43rd birthday and the beginning of construction of the Neversink Aqueduct on the Delaware & Hudson Canal. It was the third of the four aqueducts he would design and build for the canal company, and followed the completion of the Delaware and Lackawaxen Aqueducts the previous year.

Roebling (his given name was actually Johann August) was born in Muhlhausen, in Prussia, on June 12, 1806, the youngest son of Christoph Polycarpa Roebling and Fredericke Dorothea Mueller Roebling. He grew up in a world of private tutors, learned the music of Bach and the poetry of Goethe, and according to some sources, built a model of a suspension bridge when he was nine years old that bore a striking resemblance to what would be his most famous work, the Brooklyn Bridge. He gained admission to the prestigious engineering program at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, where he studied languages and philosophy as well as architecture, bridge construction and hydraulics. He graduated in 1826, and went to work for the state, as was the requirement at that time, serving three years building roads in Westphalia. Continue reading

The Architectural Legacy of George Ross Mackenzie


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BurnBraeoldFew places in Sullivan County have a more interesting history than the hamlet of Glen Spey in Lumberland, NY.  And fewer places still, possess the architectural treasures that grace that area.

So much so, in fact, that architect Robert Dadras has dubbed the area “Sullivan County’s Newport,” referring, of course, to the Rhode Island resort city where so many of the millionaires of America’s Gilded Age built their remarkable summer “cottages.”

That, more than anything else, is why Glen Spey is included as part of “The Magical History Tour,” this year’s Architectural/Historical Bus Tour, scheduled for June 7. Continue reading

Heritage Tourism And Sullivan County


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FortMarketFaire13There seems to be a great movement underway in recent years—the European Union is a good example—to make all places the same or at least more like each other.  This global homogenization, for want of a better term, has threatened national identities and it has also created new challenges for those areas whose economies have been dependent upon heritage tourism.

Heritage tourism is defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past,” but it is only viable if different places have different stories to tell.  Eliminating differences makes that a real challenge. Continue reading

The Magical History Tour: Revolution to Revolution


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The Museum at Bethel Woods- Exhibit View (1)Architect Robert Dadras is quick to admit that when he helped conceive the idea of an Architectural-Historical Bus Tour back in 1996, he wasn’t at all sure it would catch on.

“There were comments like, where will you ever find architecture in Sullivan County?” he recalls.

The fact that cities from Miami, Florida and Greensboro, North Carolina to Chicago, Illinois and Toronto, Canada had successfully used similarly constructed tours to boost tourism and economic development did not make it any easier to sell the idea locally, Dadras concedes, at the same time relishing the fact that this year’s tour will be his nineteenth. Continue reading

Shad: The Founding Fish Returns


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Lenapeshad[1]There was a time when Lenape fishermen – or women, since they did much of the fishing in that culture— would use nets woven from branches, saplings or wild hemp to catch huge numbers of shad in the Delaware River.  Much of their catch would be preserved by a unique smoking process that would keep them edible through the winter.  The Lenape designated March as the month of the shad and celebrated with a festival that often lasted six weeks or more.

The early European settlers learned the importance of shad from the Natives and quickly picked up the technique of smoking them to provide food for the harsh winters when game was scarce.  Some historians, including William E. Meehan writing in Fish, Fishing and Fisheries of Pennsylvania in 1893, have noted that virtually every Colonial era homestead in a broad area bordering the Delaware River “had its half-barrel of salted shad sitting in the kitchen with some choice pieces of smoked shad hanging by the kitchen chimney.” Continue reading