Tag Archives: Industrial History

Kathleen Hulser: Hurricane Sandy And The NYC Waterfront


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As New Yorkers still struggle without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it plunges us right into the heart of a discussion about the historic waterfront. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Vision for the 21st Century, proclaimed in 2002, the crumbling infrastructure along the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront that once served the port of New York should be harnessed for a variety of development schemes. Continue reading

Thomas Symons: A Noted Western Engineer


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In 1847, Thomas Symons operated a book bindery in the village of Keeseville, offering ledgers, journals, receipt books, and similar products. Rebinding of materials was much in demand in those days, a service that helped expand his clientele. While Thomas, Sr., was successful in building a business, his son, Thomas, Jr., would play an important role in building a nation.

Thomas William Symons, Jr., was a Keeseville native, born there in 1849. When he was a few years old, the family moved to Flint, Michigan, where several members remained for the rest of their lives. His younger twin brothers, John and Samuel, operated Symons Brothers & Company, the second largest wholesale firm in the state. They became two of Michigan’s most prominent men in social, political, and business circles.

Thomas chose a different route, completing school and applying to the US Military Academy at West Point. After acceptance, he proved to be no ordinary student, graduating at the top of the Class of 1874. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and served at Willett’s Point, about 50 miles south of West Point. After two years, he was ready for some field work, and his timing couldn’t have been better.

Symons was assigned to join the Wheeler Expedition under fellow West Point alumnus George Wheeler. The travels of explorers Lewis and Clark and Zeb Pike are better known, but the Wheeler Expedition is one of four that formed the nucleus of the US Geological Survey’s founding.

The engineers, Symons among them, not only explored, but recorded details of their findings. The land encompassing Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah was surveyed using triangulation, and more than 70 maps were created. Their studies on behalf of America’s government produced volumes on archaeology, astronomy, botany, geography, paleontology, and zoology. The possibilities of roads, railroads, agriculture, and settlement were addressed.

The experience Thomas gained during this work was invaluable. In 1878, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. In 1879, Symons was appointed Engineer Officer of the Department of the Columbia, and was promoted to captain in 1880. Similar to the work he had done under Wheeler, Thomas was now in charge of studying the area referred to as the “Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest,” focusing on the upper Columbia River and its tributaries.

Much of the land was wilderness, and the job was not without danger. The American government was notorious for breaking treaties with Indians, and groups of surveyors in the region were driven off by angry natives who said they had never sold the rights to their land.

Symons was a surveyor, but he was also an officer of the military. Leading a company of the 21st Infantry from Portland, Oregon, into Washington, he faced off against 150 armed warriors. The situation was potentially disastrous, but Thomas listened to the concerns of the Indians, learning their histories and beliefs. Bloodshed was avoided as Symons skillfully negotiated a truce, allowing him to survey from the Snake River north to the Canadian border, unimpeded.

Much of the upper Columbia study was conducted in a small boat carrying Symons, two soldiers, and several Indians. His report provided details of the region’s geology and history, a review so thorough that it was published as a congressional document. Combined with his earlier surveys of Oregon, it made Symons the government’s number one man in the Northwest.

Whether or not his superiors agreed with him, Symons addressed the Indians’ issues in prominent magazine articles, sympathizing with their plight. Few knew the situation better than Thomas, and he freely expressed his opinions.

Besides exploring and mapping the Northwest, he chose locations for new army outposts, built roads, and carried out military duties. He also became a prominent citizen of Spokane, purchasing land from the Northern Pacific Railroad and erecting the Symons Building, a brick structure containing commercial outlets and housing units. (A third rendition of the Symons Block remains today an important historical building in downtown Spokane.)

Thomas’ proven abilities led to a number of important assignments. In 1882, he was placed on the Mississippi River Commission, taking charge of improvements on the waterway. In 1883, the Secretary of State asked Symons to lead the US side of the joint boundary commission redefining the border with Mexico. Surveying, checking and replacing border markers, and other work was conducted while averaging 30 miles per day on rough ground in intense heat. For his efforts, Thomas received formal thanks from the State Department.

He was then sent to Washington, D.C., where he worked for six years on city projects, principally the water supply, sewage system, and pavements. He also developed complete plans for a memorial bridge (honoring Lincoln and Grant) connecting Washington to Arlington, Virginia. (A modified version was built many years later.)

Symons’ next assignment took him back to familiar territory, the Northwest. Based in Portland, he was given charge of developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. He did primary engineering work on canals, including one in Seattle that remains a principal feature of the city, and planned the tideland areas for Ballard, Seattle, and Tacoma harbors. Seattle’s present railroad lines and manufacturing district were included in planning for the famed harbor facilities.

On the Pacific coast, Thomas’ work on the world-renowned jetty works at the mouth of the Columbia River was featured in Scientific American magazine. He also provided the War Department with surveys and estimates for harbor construction at Everett, Washington.

Next week: Even bigger and better things, including historic work in New York State.

Photos: Thomas Williams Symons, engineer; Modern version of the Symons Block in Spokane, Washington.
Lawrence Gooley has authored 11 books and more than 100 articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 24 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

CFP: Sugar and Beyond Conference Planned


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The John Carter Brown Library seeks proposals for a conference entitled “Sugar and Beyond,” to be held on October 25-26, 2013, and in conjunction with the Library’s Fall 2013 exhibition on sugar in the early modern period, especially its bibliographical and visual legacies. The centrality of sugar to the development of the Atlantic world is now well known.

Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labor, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury commodity into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Sugar and Beyond” seeks to evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as to move beyond it by considering related or alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus aims to serve as an occasion where new directions in the study of sugar can be assessed.

At the same time, the connection of sugar to such broader topics as the plantation system, slavery and abolition, consumption and production, food, commodity exchange, natural history, and ecology has pointed the way to related but distinct areas of inquiry. Although sugar was one of the most profitable crops of the tropical Americas, it was not the only plant being cultivated.

Furthermore, although the plantation system dominated the lives of African and other enslaved peoples, they focused much of their efforts at resistance around the search for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. The organizers thus welcome scholars from all disciplines and national traditions interested in exploring both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.

Topics that papers might consider include but are not limited to the following:

–The development of sugar in comparative context
–The rise of sugar and new conceptions of aesthetics, taste, and cultural refinement
–Atlantic cultures of consumption
–Coffee, cacao, and other non-sugar crops and commodities
–Natural history and related genres of colonial description and promotion
–Imperial botany and scientific programs of agricultural expansion and experimentation
–Alternative ecologies to the sugar plantation
–Plant transfer and cultivation by indigenous and African agents
–Provision grounds and informal marketing
–Economies of subsistence, survival, and resistance
–Reimagining the Caribbean archive beyond sugar: new texts and methodological approaches

In order to be considered for the program, send a paper proposal of 500 words and CV to jcbsugarandbeyond@gmail.com. The deadline for submitting proposals is December 15, 2012.

The conference organizers include Christopher P. Iannini (Rutgers), Julie Chun Kim (Fordham), K. Dian Kriz (Brown).

Photo: Havemeyers & Elder’s, later Domino, sugar refinery in New York City in the 1880s. Photo courtesy wgpa.org.

Longshore Soldiers: Life in a WWII Port Battalion


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The Schenectady County Historical Society will host a book talk and signing entitled “Longshore Soldiers: Life in a WWII Port Battalion” by Andrew Brozyna on Saturday, October 13, 2012, at 2 pm.

Brozyna will discuss the World War Two experiences of Schenectady native Cortland Hopkins and other area GIs who served with him – from welding tanks at ALCO, to storming the beach in Normandy, to braving V-bombs in Antwerp.

Brozyna’s book, Longshore Soldiers, chronicles the wartime experiences of port battalion veterans, part of the US Army’s Transportation Corps, responsible for ensuring military were delivered to the front line. Longshore Soldiers offers a compelling narrative, packed with first-hand accounts and personal histories, of an overlooked aspect of World War Two. The author examines how these veterans kept the Allied armies moving as they marched into the Reich.

Brozyna works in book publishing and is the grandson of Cortland Hopkins, a veteran of the 519th Port Battalion.

The cost is $5.00; Free for SCHS Members. For more information, contact Melissa Tacke, Librarian / Archivist at the Schenectady County Historical Society, by phone at 518-374-0263, option 3, or by email at librarian@schist.org. The Schenectady County Historical Society (SCHS), located at 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY, is wheelchair accessible, with off-street parking behind the building and overflow parking next door at the YWCA.

The Railroad Wars of New York State


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New York’s railroads were born of the cutthroat conflict of rate wars, bloody strikes and political graft. The railroad wars began as soon as the first line was chartered between Albany and Schenectady when supporters of the Erie Canal tried to block the new technology that would render their waterway obsolete.

After the first primitive railroads overcame that hurdle, they began battling with one another in a series of rate wars to gain market share. Attracted by the success of the rails, the most powerful and cunning capitalists in the country—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Daniel Drew and other robber barons—joined the fray. Continue reading

Peter Feinman: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (2012)


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Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, in the fair village of North Tarrytown (later to be renamed Sleepy Hollow), there was a beacon of light in the river that ran two ways.

Located a quarter mile from the shore of village on the river, this lighthouse had been built in 1882-1883 by strong and sturdy men back in the day when strong and sturdy men built and made things along the Hudson River and before it became a valley of ruins with a book of a similar name. Continue reading

18th Century Artificers’ Encampment at Saratoga Battlefield


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From 10 AM to 4 PM on Saturday and Sunday, July 14 – 15, 2012, learn “how it’s made” 18th century style at a special Artificers’ Weekend at Saratoga National Historical Park, located between Routes 4 and 32 in Stillwater, NY.

What’s an artificer? Eighteenth century artificers were professional tradesmen working with armies to provide or repair supplies needed by the troops. Blacksmiths made and repaired iron and steel implements. Tailors sewed uniforms for soldiers. Woodworkers built or fixed wooden items like boxes, benches, or tool handles. Tinsmiths made or fixed canteens, cups, bowls, or lanterns.

If you’d like to see how common items were manufactured in early America, well before the age of industrialization, this free weekend event is a perfect opportunity.

For more information about this or other events, call the Visitor Center at 518-664-9821 ext. 1777 or check our website at www.nps.gov/sara or our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saratoganhp

Cheval Glass: A Study of Form and Attribution


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Need a reason to go back to Boscobel? In addition to Shakespeare, GAC Sculptures, the Farmers’ Market and a variety of other special events on its calendar this year, Boscobel is presenting a uniquely, specialized house tour this summer with focus on its virtual showcase of furniture from renowned New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. House tours through September 10 will conclude in the gallery with a limited-time exhibition curated by Judith A. Pavelock.

On display will be Boscobel’s own cheval glass – a “looking glass” which has reflected images as far back as 1820 — as well as a similar piece on loan from the Columbia County Historical Society and other related objects hand-picked from Boscobel’s collection to be showcased for an up-close and intimate inspection. Mirrors have a universal appeal, and this exhibition offers the chance to see an extraordinary piece of furniture – considered a chic, newfangled item in the 1800s – standing separately and spotlighted for all to enjoy. Continue reading

Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood


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What was it like to grow up as the son of a Kodak engineer during the company’s glory days? William Merrill Decker presents a vivid portrait of life in the Rochester suburbs where residents eagerly conformed to period expectations: two kids, two cars, a move from a snug middle-class neighborhood to a spacious upper-middle-class subdivision.

In Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood (2012, Syracuse University Press), Decker recollects the blithe and troubled scenes of America’s postwar prosperity and evokes a bygone era. Continue reading

Coleman Collectors to Light-Up Lake George


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It’s probably safe to say most everyone who has ventured into Adirondack woods or waters in the last 50 years has at some time used a Coleman product.

The company once sold Skiroule snowmobiles, Hobie Cat sailboats, and even its on pop-up trailers, but most recreationists are familiar with some of the smaller Coleman products: coolers, canoes and other small boats, sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, and the ubiquitous camp stoves and Coleman lanterns.

The company was  founded in 1900 by William Coffin Coleman, known as  “W. C.”, and a  former school school principal working as a typewriter salesman who founded the company while earning money for law school.  Coleman’s obsession with a lantern that burned a bright white light is matched by legions of Coleman collectors, who pour over the company’s American made designs (Coleman was born in Columbia County, NY and moved to the mid-west) and trade stories and knowledge.

The International Coleman Collectors Club will hold it’s 20th Anniversary Convention at the Fort William Henry Convention Center in Lake George on June 28th and 30th [link]. The event, the first convention to be held in the Northeast, will feature collectors from throughout the United States and Canada and as far away as Germany, Denmark, and The Philippines.  Thirty-eight tables filled with Coleman products from the early 1900s onward, some for sale, and a seminars on lantern restoration, how mantles are made, and the Coleman Model 202 Professional lantern, a nickle-plated beauty made from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. A highlight of the event will be two outdoor Coleman “light-ups”.

Steve and Robin Miller of Queensbury are serving as hosts of the gathering. “I thought this would be a perfect place to hold a camping equipment show, right here in Lake George,” Steve Miller told me.  “We thought that this would be a great place for the collectors from around the world, as it is very beautiful here and there is so much to do,” he said,  “Lake George also has the only Coleman outlet store in the northeast, just a few miles up the road from the convention center.”

The Millers have been collecting Coleman gear for about 25 years and have about 200 Coleman lanterns, stoves, gas irons, and more, but they are quick to point out that there will be even more knowledgeable “Coleman people” at the convention, including several who have worked at the Coleman company in Wichita, KS over the years.

The event will be open to the public on Saturday only, from 9 am to 1 pm, but it’s not too late to register for the convention (pdf).

Two “light-ups” will be held. The first in the Fort William Henry parking lot on Thursday at 8:30 pm, and the second on Friday night at the Georgian Resort’s beach, beginning about 7-8:00 pm (bring your lanterns!).

Photos: Above, Steve and Robin Miller, Coleman Collectors; Below, part of the Millers’ large Coleman lantern collection.

New York Heritage Weekend, May 19 and 20th


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Organizations throughout the state will celebrate New York history during this year’s New York Heritage Weekend on May 19th & 20th. Now in its 3rd year, the weekend will offer special programs, discounted or free admission to sites and events that celebrate national, state or local heritage.

Guided hikes, local history festivals, historic garden events, open historic houses, and events that explore all kinds of New York culture and history are on tap. Last year Heritage Weekend hosted 166 Heritage Weekend events with 143 federal, state, and private organizations. For a full searchable listing of events, and maps see www.heritageweekend.org .

Not only does this Heritage Weekend celebrate New York’s rich history, but it also boosts local economies. According to recent studies, tourism generates 81 billion dollars and sustains over 670,000 jobs in New York. According to a recent study recent commissioned by the U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Marketing Council and the U.S. Department of Commerce, 78% of US domestic travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities.

“Heritage Weekend opens the door to so many of New York’s great historic and cultural treasures,” said Beth Sciumeca, Executive Director of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. “Once that door is open, people will find that there is a lifetime of places to experience throughout the state.”

New York Heritage Weekend 2012 is funded in part by The Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and sponsored by I Love NY, National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and participating event partners.

Modern New York: Recent NYC Economic History


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The economic history of New York is filled with high-stakes drama. In Modern New York: The Life and Economics of a City (2012, Palgrave Macmillan), journalist, economist and political commentator Greg David (who edited the regional Crain’s New York Business for more than 20 years and is now director of the business and economics reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY), tells the story of the city’s financial highs and lows since the 1960s.

David fairly conservative approach looks at how Wall Street came to dominate the economy in the years following a decade of economic decline. He argues that New York City’s great recession is not happening now, and it didn’t happen after 9-11. “The Great Recession That Wasn’t”, is David’s term for the current American economic disaster.

“By comparison, the city’s great recession had occurred between 1969 and 1977, when a stock market crash devastated Wall Street and the city’s manufacturing sector collapsed and it’s competitiveness waned as the city hiked its tax burden,” David writes. “Some 650,000 jobs disappeared over those years, and the population fell by almost 1 million people, two little-discussed factors that were as important as budget chicanery in created the Fiscal Crisis that almost sent the city into bankruptcy.”

This understanding of New York’s post-war period rests in part on the neo-liberal interpretation of New York City’s recent history. It goes something like this: the anti-business policies (regulation, and higher taxes) of liberal machine politicians like John Lindsay (Mayor from 1966 to 1973) and Abe Beame (Mayor from 1974 to 1977) led to the loss of manufacturing and then the flight of New Yorkers from a desperate, crime-ridden and “grimy” Gotham. Only the pro-development policies of Ed Koch and the great victory of Rudolph Giuliani, reformist street cleaner and crime fighter, kept New York City from becoming another Detroit.

That’s more or less the story told here in chapters like “Structural Not Cyclical”, and “Making New York Safe For Commerce”. David chastises leaders for failing to recognize long term manufacturing declines, and points to unions, burdensome taxes, and restrictive zoning as the major culprit. Perhaps due to the author’s limiting regional scope and focus on the perspective of the business community, significant American trends such as baby-boom suburbanization, container shipped goods from low wage workers in Asia and elsewhere, and media-based perceptions about crime and quality of life issues are set on the back burner.

For example, a wider perspective in Modern New York would include worker struggles to retain the wages and benefits that made living in the city attractive. New York City’s economic decline coincided directly with unprecedented attacks on the city’s workers. Witness, for example, the 1966 transit strike during which Lindsey refused to negotiate and mocked workers to the press. Or the seven-month teacher strike in 1968 that was the result of the firing of teachers opposed to Lindsey’s contract negotiation plan to divide their union. These strikes were followed by actions on Broadway, and the sanitation strike in the fall of 1968. In 1971 the city’s AFSCME workforce walked off the job. One might argue that workers simply had no interest in living in the city’s difficult employment environment. Whatever the cause of the city’s working class losses, Modern New York could have offered a deeper, more multidimensional understanding of the city’s recent economic history.

In David’s interpretation, after 9-11 the finance industry and tourism stepped in to help save the day, at least temporarily. In a chapter entitled “Three Sectors To The Rescue”, the author suggests that film and television production, higher education, and the technology sectors are the future of New York, leaving the contrary reader to wonder how the city can survive without its working class.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.

History of Technology in Western New York Exhibit


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The University at Buffalo Libraries has announced a new exhibit, “History of Technology in Western New York” at the 2nd Floor, Oscar A. Silverman Library, Capen Hall, University at Buffalo North Campus. Researched and written by Nancy Schiller, Engineering Librarian, and produced by Rose Orcutt, Architecture & Planning Librarian, “History of Technology in Western New York” offers a glimpse into Western New York’s rich industrial heritage.

The exhibit pays homage to Buffalo’s iconic grain elevators, to Pierce-Arrow and its sleek automobiles and even sleeker advertising, to the region’s contributions to early aviation, and to the massive steelmills in Lackawanna, and the men and women who labored in them.

Photographs, text and images featured in the exhibit recallan era when 50 percent of Buffalo’s population was engaged in industrial endeavors of one sort or another, and factories, grainelevators, blast furnaces and steel refineries dotted the local landscape.

Inspiration for the exhibit came from a recent UB Honors Seminar taught by Professor John Van Benschoten, Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering. The course explored the role of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Western New York in our nation’s history, and provided students with an opportunity to consider the history of Western New York and its future through anunderstanding of technology, and the benefits and costs that come with it.

The exhibit is open during regular library hours and runs through May 31, 2012.

Photo: Great Northern Grain Elevator (2007), courtesy forgottenbuffalo.com

New Carnegie Exhibit at Museum of American Finance


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On Tuesday, April 10, the Museum of American Finance will open “Andrew Carnegie: Forging Philanthropy,” an exhibit on Carnegie’s life and work, with a spotlight on his love of Scotland, his business life and his philanthropic activities. The exhibit will be unveiled at an event presented in conjunction with the American-Scottish Foundation in celebration of Scotland-Tartan Week in New York City.

The exhibit will feature objects and documents from the Museum’s collection, as well as from the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum and the Carnegie Corporation of New York Archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Highlights include George Soros’s Carnegie Medal for philanthropy, a $100,000 US Steel gold bond certificate issued to Carnegie for part of the sale of Carnegie Steel to JP Morgan, and the two-sided American/Scottish flag that flew at Carnegie’s Scotland estate, Skibo Castle, in the 19th century.

A “Life & Legacy of Andrew Carnegie” panel discussion which begins at 6 pm, will be followed by a reception (at 7 pm). Participants in the panel discussion include Carnegie experts Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York (Introduction); Peter Krass, award-winning author of Carnegie (Moderator); Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor, Bard College; Martyn Evans, Chief Executive, Carnegie UK Trust; and Anthony Marx, President, New York Public Library.

The Museum of American Finance, 48 Wall Street (corner of William Street), NYC. Tickets cost $45 and include a one-year membership in the Museum of American Finance. For information and reservations, contact Tempris Small at 212-908-4110 or tsmall@moaf.org.

“Andrew Carnegie: Forging Philanthropy” will be on view through October 2012.

Women’s Rights NHP Showing ‘Top Secret Rosies’


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Women’s Rights National Historical Park will show the documentary film Top Secret Rosies this Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, at 12:00 noon.

Top Secret Rosies documents the lives of the female mathematicians who designed ballistics tables and programmed computers for the United States Army during World War II. This film is 60 minutes long.

The film is being shown as part of Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s first Winter Film Festival. The park exists to commemorate and preserve the events of the First Women’s Rights Convention that was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. “We are proud to be part of the National Park system, and we invite everyone to join us in celebrating our shared history and culture through film,” said Superintendent Tammy Duchesne.

The park is also showing the film as part of its celebration of Women’s History Month in March. “We are inspired by the courage of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and countless other women and men who struggled for equal rights in this country,” said Duchesne. “Their stories continue to resonate with people across the globe.”

Top Secret Rosies is approximately 60 minutes long and intended for a general audience. All Winter Film Festival movies will be shown at 12:00 noon on Fridays and Saturdays, November through April, in the Guntzel Theater, located at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor Center at 136 Fall Street in downtown Seneca Falls. Because film lengths vary, visitors are encouraged to call if they are interested in a particular showing. All park programs are free and open to the public. For more information, please visit call 315.568.0024.

You can also follow the park’s social media sites for Facebook and Twitter to learn more about their upcoming events and programs.

Tour Troy’s Mt. Ida Cemetery, Poestenkill Gorge


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Rensselaer County Historian Kathryn Sheehan will lead a tour of Mt. Ida Cemetery, which features some of the oldest headstones in the city of Troy, and the Poestenkill Gorge, a favorite destination for picnickers, photographers, and nature enthusiasts for centuries.

The waters of the Poestenkill collect in Dyken Pond, then make a dash for the Hudson River below. The Mt. Ida falls drop roughly 85′ into a gorge of crumbly black shale, make a right angle turn, dropping a further 75′ into a massive pool. This source of water power fueled several industries along the Poestenkill’s banks in the 19th century.

Hidden History – Mt. Ida Cemetery and the Poestenkill Gorge will be held on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm. The cost is $15 per person and $12 for RCHS members.

The Rensselaer County Historical Society and Museum (RCHS) is a not-for-profit educational organization established in 1927 to connect local history and heritage with contemporary life. RCHS is located at 57 Second Street, Troy NY 12180.

Photo: Mills along the lower Poestenkill Gorge at the foot of Cypress Street including the Griswold Wire Works, Tompkins Brothers machine works, and above Manning Paper, which occupied earlier Marshall textile mill buildings. Courtesy Troy Public Library.

Lawrence Gooley: History and Rising Gas Prices


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On a gas pump near Plattsburgh a few days ago, the price for Regular Grade was just under $4.00 per gallon. As a follow-up, check this out: “The American Petroleum Institute’s weekly report says that despite a sharp increase in crude oil output … there have been extensive gasoline price advances.” And, regarding local prices, “… there has been a long agitation against what northern New York motorists have considered discrimination against the North Country.

“The committee appointed last Tuesday by the New York Development Association will investigate the reason for the difference in the price of gasoline in northern New York as compared with prices charged in Utica and Syracuse.” Here’s why you shouldn’t be encouraged by those quotes: though they sound current, they’re taken from the 1920s.

History can be fun, entertaining, and educational, but it can also provide guidelines to the future. And that’s where society tends to fail so often, a fault alluded to in the old proverb suggesting that those forgetting the past are doomed to repeat it. This price-of-gas situation has happened often in the past, and here we go again. Same problems, same rhetoric, same lack of results.

Average Americans have been sold the big lie over and over, and we keep coming back for more. If you recall: the fuel crises from now back through the 1980s; gas rationing in the 1970s (remember odd-and-even days, long lines at the pumps, and limited purchases?); and other similar periods, then tell me if this sounds familiar: “FTC hearings will be held on the unexplained rising price of gasoline, in compliance with a senate resolution.”

That quote is from 1916, and the price increase wasn’t “unexplained.” It was gouging by the oil companies during World War I. It was okay to screw the public, but not the feds. Within a year of when the US finally joined the war, Federal Fuel Administrator H. A. Garfield announced he was studying plans “to fix the price of gasoline for domestic customers, as well as for the government and Allies, at a lower figure than the present market price.”

In the years immediately following the war, gas prices doubled, and for good reason: the sales of cars skyrocket in the 1920s, and what better way for oil companies to take advantage than raise the price of fuel for those millions of new vehicles?

Of course, the same arguments you hear today were applied then: it’s not greed, it’s capitalism, and thus the market’s natural response to supply and demand forces. Greater demand supposedly drove prices higher, and the poor oil companies were “forced” to reap historic profits. Why, oh why, does that sound so familiar?

It continues nearly a century later … just look at Exxon and Chevron’s recent quarterly statements. Fighting back against these behemoths hasn’t been successful. The rising prices of the early 1920s prompted another federal investigation led by Senator LaFollette, who said, “Unless there is government intervention, the price of gasoline will be pushed beyond the reach of the ordinary automobile owner.” Again, of course, the findings were ignored.

There may be a good reason why nothing concrete resulted from all of the investigations. In 1919, Oregon became the first state to institute a gasoline tax intended to provide funding for the repair and maintenance of roadways. It looked like a great system, and the idea spread across the country. Governments soon corrupted the process, simply taxing gasoline as a revenue source.

It’s almost impossible to believe, but New York was one of the last two states to follow suit. (Here’s one thing to be proud of, though—New York has managed to regroup and pass every state in the tax category). In 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt signed a large farm-aid legislative package that included the Hewitt-Pratt bill, a clause that led him to threaten a veto.

Hewitt-Pratt contained this order: “Moneys paid into the state treasury pursuant to this subdivision [the gas tax] shall be appropriated and used for the maintenance and repair of the improved roads of the state, under the direction of the superintendent of public works.”

Well, sort of. The state imposed a two-cent gas tax, returning a percentage of the take to the individual counties based on road mileage, but depositing the remainder in the state treasury.

Raising the price of gas posed a concern in the 1930s, but not to worry. State Tax Commissioner Thomas Lynch said that there was “no assurance that the public would pay two cents more for gas.” Since it was taxed at the source (the distributors), Lynch said the oil companies would probably just absorb the cost. (A fine example of naiveté on its grandest scale.)

As for that new money in the treasury? In no time at all, politicians were appropriating gas-tax funds for a variety of non-road-related uses. Once the feeding frenzy began, it was all over. Requests to raise the gas tax soon became routine. After all, it was a state income bonanza.

Even a county as small as Clinton paid $293,000 in 1932, of which only $96,000 came back for highway use. By 1934, the gas tax itself amounted to 24 percent of the price. In 1934, the state took in $85 million from the gas tax, $50 million of which was diverted for non-highway use. (That very same issue arose recently with the loss of the Lake Champlain Bridge.)

It probably comes as no surprise that, in 1929, the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the states to treat gasoline as a public utility. Natural gas and electricity were somehow necessary, but gas was deemed a commodity that we could do with or without. And so Standard Oil (the father of virtually every major oil company) won the right to regulate itself.

Today’s ExxonMobil was formerly known as Standard Oil, and for them, it was business as usual—move into an area, depress prices by lowering its own price, put the competition out of business, and then raise prices at their whim. Walmart has been accused of employing the same tactics.

What were the results of the gas-price problems in the 1990s? The 1970s? The 1920s? All the same. Oil companies flourished, while consumers, victimized by high prices, explored electric cars, ethanol fuel, and sometimes just did without. The huge ethanol movement of a few years ago was hardly different from 1997 and 1927, mostly serving as a boon for farmers.

So, as prices rise and you begin to see articles and editorials complaining about the oil companies, and about the inexplicably higher cost of gas in the North Country, it may be a story, but it’s not news. There’s nothing new about it at all.

Photos: Future gas prices; 1929 advertisement for ethanol.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Forum: 1979 Hudson Valley Nuclear Decision


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In 1979, a nuclear power plant was nearly built on the Hudson River in plain view of Olana State Historic Site. The Olana Partnership is presenting a panel discussion on Saturday, February 25, about this little-known incident in Hudson Valley history.

For the first time ever, three key players in this debate will unite and recount this game-changing episode, and how each played an important role. The panelists, Carl Petrich, J. Winthrop Aldrich, and Richard Benas, will discuss the unprecedented and nationally significant approach of considering the visual impact of a nuclear power plant in a region. Dorothy Heyl, a member of Olana’s Landscape/Viewshed Committee, will moderate.

In 1977, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Power Authority of the State of New York held hearings on siting a nuclear power plant just south of Catskill in Cementon. The cooling tower, at a height of 450 feet, would have been visible for many miles. Thirty-five stories tall, it would have been 250 feet in diameter at its highest point and discharged a prominent plume. On some days, the plume would have obscured views of the Catskill Mountains from many locations, including Olana.

In the late 1970s, Carl Petrich, one of the panelists, worked as a landscape architect on the research staff of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Through an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Oak Ridge produced an Environmental Impact Statement for this project. Petrich immersed himself in Hudson River School history and the designed landscape of Frederic Church’s Olana. His conclusion—that the viewshed from Olana was of national importance and warranted protection—changed history. The resulting Environmental Impact Statement caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff to recommended denial of a construction license for the proposed nuclear power plant. This was the first and only time that such a recommendation had been made on any grounds—let alone environmental or aesthetic.

J. Winthrop Aldrich, a Hudson Valley resident and long-time public servant, worked with counsel for local groups opposing the siting of the plant in Cementon. He was a proponent of assuring that the impact of the project on historic and scenic resources would be formally weighed in the decision making.

Richard Benas, then at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, testified in hearings on the proposed plant. Based on this experience, Benas later developed visual impact guidelines which are now used to insure compliance with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, SEQRA.

Testimony at the hearings on the significance of the Olana Viewshed included some by David Huntington, who had earlier led the successful preservation effort that saved Olana in 1967. More than 30 years ago, Huntington testified, “Olana is a monument and site whose significance will be increasingly appreciated by the American people.”

The three panelists, Petrich, Aldrich and Benas, will share their memories of a crucial, but mostly forgotten chapter in the preservation of a national historic landmark and its spectacular viewshed. “It’s surprising how few people know about this episode in this region,” noted Mark Prezorski, Landscape Curator for The Olana Partnership. “In some ways, it’s similar to the Storm King Mountain preservation effort, with far reaching effects.”

“This discussion, while it addresses the prospect of a nuclear power plant, is not about nuclear energy,” commented Sara Griffen, President of The Olana Partnership. “It is the story of how the importance of the Olana Viewshed factored into the siting of a plant, and how this mattered on a national and regional level.”

“Olana is famous for its breath-taking panoramic views that draw thousands of visitors to this magnificent historic site every year,” said Kimberly Flook, Site Manager of Olana Historic Site. “It was Frederic Church’s vision that actively shaped his landscape to frame the Hudson Valley’s unique natural beauty.”

The panel discussion will begin at 3:00 PM on Saturday, February 25 in Hudson, NY, at Stair Galleries (549 Warren Street). A suggested donation of $10 can be paid at the door, and admission is free for all members of The Olana Partnership. A reception will follow. More information is available online at olana.org or by phoning The Olana Partnership at 518.828.1872. RSVPs appreciated.

Photo: View from Olana with Superimposed Simulated Nuclear Cooling Towers (detail), 1979, photograph #4363-77, Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy.

Wind Power Has A Long History in America


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Scores of gigantic wind turbines in the Adirondacks’ northeastern and southwestern foothills are a startling site amidst historically bucolic scenery. The landscape appears “citified,” with structures nearly 40 stories high where the largest buildings rarely top 3 stories. It is a dramatic change, and a far cry from simpler days when family farms were prevalent. Few realize that in those “simpler days” of dairy farms, windmills were actually quite common across the region.

Of course, the windmills once dotting the North Country’s landscape were nothing like today’s behemoths, which stand nearly 400 feet high from the ground to the tip of a skyward-pointing blade. And, the windmills of old weren’t always efficient machines.

Wind technology took a tremendous leap forward in the 1850s thanks to Daniel Halladay, a Connecticut machinist. Halladay’s windmill not only pumped water, but automatically turned to face into the wind as it changed directions. Almost as important, he devised a way to control the speed of the blades (windmills are prone to destruction from within when operating at high rpm levels). Halladay established the US Wind Engine & Pump Company, setting up shop in Illinois. From the start, the business flourished.

Though his sales were focused on the country’s expansion westward, New York State was also experiencing dramatic growth, particularly in the remote northern Adirondack foothills, where pioneers faced a harsh climate and difficult living conditions. Halladay’s invention eventually helped turn some of those weather negatives into positives by taking advantage of wind patterns across upper New York State.

In 1874, the railroad was expanding north from Whitehall towards Plattsburgh. Since steam engines require water, the line generally followed the shore of Lake Champlain. Tanks were constructed along the route where the rails approached the lakeshore. Steam pumps or windmills were used to fill the feeder tanks, which had a capacity of 33,000 gallons each.

As settlers moved north on both sides of the Adirondacks, windmill technology crept northward with them. Farming was necessary for survival, and the enormous workload was eased by mechanical devices like windmills. The description of one man’s operation about 18 miles south of Lowville was typical of the times: “… a beautiful farm of 280 acres, milks 35 cows, and is a model farm. House, barns, windmill pump, all systematically arranged.”

In situations like that, windmills often filled tanks placed on the upper floor of a barn. The water was then gravity-fed to the livestock below and piped to other locations as needed. The machine was also used to grind various grains. Early models were mounted on wooden frames, but many fell victim to the very power they were trying to harness, toppling before raging windstorms. Eventually, steel frames supported most windmills.

Wind power wasn’t just for individual homes and farms. In July 1879, H. H. Babcock & Sons of Watertown was hired to install a windmill at 1000 Islands State Park. Water was drawn from the St. Lawrence River to large tanks near the dining hall, and from there was conducted to the various cottages by galvanized iron pipe.

And at Hermon, a contract for $6,595 was signed with Daniel Halladay’s company to install a new waterworks system. Included were a wooden tank of 50,000-gallon capacity, a windmill with a wheel diameter of 20 feet, and more than a mile of piping. The frost-proof tank was 24 feet in diameter, 16 feet high, and 3 inches thick. It sat on a trestle 20 feet high, while the windmill stood on a trestle 80 feet high.

Many hotels, including the Whitney House in Norwood and the Turin House in Turin, used windmills to power their water systems. At Chazy, windmills pumped water from the quarries; at Port Henry, they filled water tanks for the trains; and at Saranac Lake, they fed the water supply of the Adirondack Sanitarium.

In 1889, George Baltz of Watertown handled the Halladay display at the Jefferson County Fair, demonstrating that windmills furnished cheaper power than steam engines and could run a feed mill, a circular saw for cutting wood, or pump water.

Though Halladay’s products were widely known, he did have competitors. Some added their own modifications, and some were “copycats.” And they weren’t all products from afar. In 1882, an advertisement touted a windmill “warranted to take care of itself in high winds, equal to the best western mills, and is sold for half the money. It is manufactured at Potsdam.” It featured a self-regulator, and appeared to be based on Halladay’s own successful model.

In the late 1890s, most of the windmills in the Ticonderoga and Lake George area were products of the Perkins Windmill Company, which had already installed more than 50 units across the lake in Vermont. Though windmills in the Midwest were primarily for irrigation, most of those in the North Country supplied water to homes, businesses, and farm animals.

Wind power did face competition from other sources. Gasoline engines became more and more common, offering a reliable alternative. However, they were expensive, noisy, and costly to run. An operator had to be present to start and stop a gas engine, while windmills employed a system of floats to start and stop filling the tanks automatically. A once-a-week oiling was the only required maintenance. The biggest problem at the time was that gas engines ran when you wanted them to, but windmills depended on the weather.

The giant turbines we see in northern New York today are not a new idea. In a peek at the future, Charles Brush of Cleveland, Ohio demonstrated in 1888 the first use of a large windmill to generate electricity. As early as 1895, observers noted that windmills were “destined to be much used for storing electricity. We predict an immense future for the windmill industry.”

In 1910, a farm in America’s Midwest employed windmills to charge a bank of batteries. Wind power provided electricity to light the farm and operate the equipment. When the wind didn’t blow, the farm ran on battery power for a few days.

By 1925, wind turbines had been used to run refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and power tools. And in 1926, the NYS Fair urged farmers to purchase windmills, using a 12-foot-high model to show the benefits they might enjoy. It was an enticing glimpse at the potential of electricity. Ironically, the popularity of windmills soon became their undoing.

Though they were a wonderful source of cheap power, the main problem was intermittent operation. When the wind didn’t blow, the tools didn’t go. Battery storage systems were only good for brief periods, and people wanted power WHEN they wanted it. Soon, another overriding factor arose—the growing need for huge amounts of electricity.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, constantly flowing electricity was the goal, relegating wind power to the background of the energy battle. It was still used, and advancements were pursued, but success was limited. One notable effort was the huge Smith-Putnam windmill installed atop Grandpa’s Knob near Castleton and Rutland, Vermont, in 1941.

Though less than half the size of today’s models, it was still large, featuring a 16-ton, 175-foot steel rotor that turned at 28 RPM. Occasional use ended abruptly in 1945 when metal fatigue caused the blade to snap, hurling a huge section 1000 feet down the mountain.

In the North Country, windmills have returned after a long hiatus. They stand ten times taller than their predecessors (in 2012, the new ones will be 492 feet high), and now pump electricity instead of water. Where potato, hop, and dairy farms once dominated, the wind farms of today stand above all others.

Photos: Above, windmills 400 feet tall at Churubusco (and another under construction in the foreground). Middle Right: Typical use of windmill to fill railroad water tanks. Middle Left: Halladay windmills were offered by George Baltz of Watertown. Below, advertisement for Halladay’s company.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.