Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Passing as Black: A Pioneer of American Alpine Climbing


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There was an interesting review of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. The book is about Clarance King, first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), American alpine climbing pioneer and author who passed as black, married a former slave, and lived two lives from his home base in New York City.

Passing Strange meticulously — sometimes too meticulously; the book can be plodding — recounts the unlikely convergence of two lives: King was born in 1842 in Newport, R.I., to parents of longstanding American stock, and Ada Copeland was born a slave in Georgia, months before Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. Copeland, like most slaves, is woefully underdocumented; we know that she somehow became literate, migrated to New York in the 1880s and found a job in domestic service. King, by contrast, is all but overdocumented; after schooling, he went west as a surveyor, summing up 10 years of work in two books, including the 815-page “Systematic Geology,” which told, one historian said, “a story only a trifle less dramatic than Genesis.”

The pair met sometime around 1888, somewhere in bustling New York. By telling Copeland he was “James Todd,” a Pullman porter from Baltimore, King implied his race; a white man could not hold such a job. They married that year (though without obtaining a civil license), settling in Brooklyn and then, as Copeland had five children, Flushing, Queens. All the while King maintained residential club addresses in Manhattan, where colleagues knew him as an elusive man about town. Living a double life is costly, and King’s Western explorations never quite delivered returns, so the Todds were always broke.

King was among the first to climb some of the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada range in the late 1860s and early 1870s and wrote Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, which includes accounts of his adventures and hardships there.

According to The Literature of Mountain Climbing in America (1918):

The beginnings of mountaineering in America have to be looked for mainly in early histories and narratives of travel, though the first ascent in the Canadian Rockies is chronicled in the supplement to a botanical magazine. The first magazine article upon American mountains seems to be Jeremy Belknap‘s account of the White Mountains, printed in the American Magazine in Philadelphia in February, 1788. The first book was Joel T. Headley’s The Adirondack, published in 1849. The Alpine Journal of England, the earliest of such magazines, had a short account of a climb in Central America in its first volume, 1864, and in the third volume, 1867, there was an account of an ascent of Mt. Hood. The first book devoted to alpine climbing in America was Clarence King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.

As an aside, among the men who were associated with Clarence King was his good friend, artist John Henry Hill. Hill accompanied King on two expeditions west (1866 and 1870) as a staff artist but his New York claim to fame is his work on the Adirondacks which he first visited in the 1860s. He camped and sketched throughout the Adirondacks, and from 1870 to 1874, lived in a cabin he dubbed “Artist’s Retreat” that he built on Phantom Island near Bolton’s Landing, Lake George. During one winter, Hill’s brother, a civil engineer, visited and the two men set out on the ice to survey the narrows and make one of the first accurate maps of the islands which Hill than made into an etching “surrounding it with an artistic border representing objects of interest in the locality.” On June 6, 1893 Phantom Island was leased by the Forest Commission to prominent Glens Falls Republican Jerome Lapham.

His journal and much of his work is held by the Adirondack Museum, and additional works can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New-York Historical Society, and the Columbus Museum of Art.

LIFE Magazine Picture Archive Hosted at Google


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Google and LIFE Magazine have teamed up to present the magazines photo archive online. Strangely, a search for New York turned up nothing; a search for New York History turns up hundreds of photos, including the shot of men paving a street in Brooklyn in 1890 by George B. Brainerd which was not found in the search results for Brooklyn.

Those problems aside, the archive does include iconic images taken by famous photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange. The project is similar to “The Commons” launched by Flickr which now includes photos from the Library of Congress. LIFE has said that as many as 97 percent of the photographs have never been seen by the public before.

Beacons To Commemorate British Departure


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The Hudson Valley Press Online is reporting on plans to mark the 225th anniversary of the evacuation of British troops on November 25, 2008 by lighting a series of five local beacons that “replicate the original signal locations used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.” The plan is a project of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, Scenic Hudson, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Palisades Parks Conservancy, and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission:

These vital systems summoned the militia in both New York and in neighboring New Jersey and warned residents of the approaching British Redcoats. The types of beacons varied from tar barrels on top of poles, to pyramids, to wooden towers filled with dried grass or hay that could be ignited. The beacons enabled quick and effective communication with troops throughout the lower Hudson River Valley.

Instead of lighting fires, Palisades, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, and Scenic Hudson will create a symbolic Xenon light display that will light up Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area from Bear Mountain State Park to Beacon. This project is also part of the larger interstate effort with national heritage area partners in New Jersey, the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area. Six additional Beacons will be lit in New Jersey. The total project area will stretch from Princeton, NJ to Beacon, NY.

The five locations will include:

Bear Mountain State Park, Bear Mountain, NY
Storm King Mountain State Park, Cornwall, NY
Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, Newburgh, NY
Scenic Hudson’s Mount Beacon, Beacon, NY
Scenic Hudson’s Spy Rock (Snake Hill), New Windsor, NY

While we’re at it, here is a story about Saturday’s relighting of the lamp on top of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. It has been for 87 years and commemorates those who died in the British Prison ships in New York Harbor during the American Revolution.

Expanded Brooklyn Children’s Museum Reopens


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The Brooklyn Children’s Museum reopened Saturday after a year-long closure for an expansion and redesign. According to the New York Times:

The museum doubled the size of its city-owned building — with $48 million in city money and $32 million raised by the museum — to 102,000 square feet. As Robin Pogrebin reported in The Times in February, the project struggled through financial hardships. The museum itself lacked a strong physical identity, because most of its space has been underground since a 1977 design by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates created two lower levels. The greatly enlarged museum now hopes to improve its annual visitor total to 400,000 by 2010, from about 250,000 before the museum closed last September for the final stage of the renovation.

A pioneer in education, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum was the first museum created expressly for children when it was founded in 1899. Its success has sparked the creation of 300 children’s museums around the world. It is the only children’s museum in New York City, and one of few in the country, to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. The Museum encourages children to develop an understanding of and respect for themselves, others and the world around them by exploring cultures, the arts, science, and the environment.

The just-completed expansion features eco-friendly design in hopes of attaining LEED certification – it’s said to be the first “green” museum in New York City. In keeping with the Museum’s commitment to preserve and protect the world’s natural resources, it uses environmentally advanced, sustainable, renewable and/or recyclable materials and systems in the building’s design and construction.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum is one of the few children’s museums in the world with a permanent collection, including nearly 30,000 cultural objects and natural-history specimens. The cultural collection contains both ancient and present-day objects, including musical instruments, sculpture, masks, body adornments, and dolls, as well as everyday household and personal items. The natural-history collection contains rocks, minerals, and fossils, as well as mounted birds, mammals, insects, and skeletons (highlights include the complete skeleton of an Asian elephant, dinosaur footprints, and a whale rib).

For years, much of the collection has been inaccessible to the public simply because of space limitations. Now, an expanded collection study area allows the Museum to display more of the collection and to offer more hands-on activities—so children learn by touching as well as by looking.