Category Archives: History

Foto Friday

Reenactor at Stirling Castle, Scotland

Bronx 1934

I binged four seasons of Boardwalk Empire recently. It has all the usual gangster stuff I enjoy, but there’s also a profound sadness to the show. Tragedy lurks around every corner, and as you get involved with the characters, you feel their pain.

I liked it a lot, but as the body count mounted from season to season, a nagging thought began to gnaw at me: these crime dramas  rarely show the devastating effect that death can have on a family, sometimes lasting for generations.

I know this because murder touched my own family many years ago.

I never met my grandfather, because in 1934 he was shot in a Bronx pool hall. The two men accused in his murder, described by the NY Times as a “minor politician” and a “former pugilist” were acquitted at trial.

In the movies, that would be the end of the end of the story, but in real life, he left behind my grandmother and six children. My father was seven-years-old.

Those were tough years and losing the head of the household couldn’t have helped. It changed the trajectory of the family in ways we’ll never know.

The next time you watch a scene of carnage in some gangster shoot-em-up think how each minor figure is connected to so many other lives. It moves the plot in one direction, but shifts the world in another.

Somebody’s Been In Prison Too Long

A lot of us were fascinated by the escape from Dannemora, so the 150 page report on last year’s prison break is like a wonderful gift from Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott.

The report is crammed with minute details about the incident, and much of it is served up by none other than escapee David Sweat. Matt took his side of the tale to the grave.

It’s also contains some funny things, like the instructions Sweat gave Joyce Mitchell about meeting them after they emerged on the other side of the wall:

“I told her you can leave the car running, shut your headlights and stuff off, and you’ll get out of the car, act like you’re talking on the phone, because everybody knows you’re not allowed to drive and talk on the phone…”

Yes, everybody knows you’re not allowed to drive and talk on the phone.

Anyway, I give the report two thumbs up!

Lot’s of people say that the Dannemora escape would make a good movie, and perhaps it would, but I think it needs someone to root for. Maybe we could write in a third escapee, someone forced to go along against his will, a character convicted of something less contemptible than the murderous Matt and Sweat. How about an  art thief? Then he could turn the tables on the evil pair —  and in the end get the girl. We’d glam her up a bit, of course. Hey, it’s Hollywood.

Twitter 1891

Social media? It was around long before Twitter and Facebook. Granted it moved at a slower pace; columns like this in an 1891 issue of the Altamont Enterprise contained posts that are not so much different from what we see today:

fullersstation

A dozen or so local towns are covered in the “Vicinity Correspondence” section, and besides word of mouth, in its day this is how small bits of news were passed about. When you think about it, “This place is now without a shoemaker,” wouldn’t be a bad tweet.

Just like today, there were certainly people who thought all this information was useless. They’d probably shake their heads and say, “Christ! I don’t care whose farm Norman Miller is going to work on any more than I care what he ate for breakfast!” That may be, but I bet most people turned to page two and read that first. It’s interesting even 125 years later.

Salty

It was surprising to wake up and hear that a group of workers were trapped in a salt mine — especially since it was a salt mine near Ithaca. Actually, they were trapped on the elevator, but hey: salt mine!

Yes — New York is big in salt mining and has been since the 1700s. Originally it was the area around Onondaga Lake where salt was king. Syracuse was the Salt City and Salina is called Salina for a reason.

Back in the day, the Onondaga brine springs spit out salty water that was boiled down to crystals — but in other parts of Central and Western New York, salt production turned to mining. Today, these mines are deep and vast. The Cayuga Salt Mine near Ithaca goes down more than 2300 feet and covers 18,000 acres, spanning five miles from its origin in some spots

You might think that a bad day at work beats a good day in the salt mine. Yes, it’s just salt, but any work like that is hazardous. Nevertheless, I would love to get a tour of the salt mine, sketchy elevator and all. It would be amazing to go that far below the earth into these caves carved from salt. I imagine you could lick your lips and just taste it.

Breaking the Ice

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the old days when the Hudson River iced over.

The river was once a major thoroughfare to Albany — indeed, the Thruway of its day — and even after trains became a thing, the river was still important for moving people and freight. But when the river was clogged with ice?

Before steam power, clearing ice must have been impossible — and even then, until the advent of massively powerful diesel engines, it couldn’t have been easy.

Fast forward to 2015.

Much is made of the crude oil shipments that come by rail to the Port of Albany, but few stories mention the final leg of the oil’s trek to refineries that begins with a barge ride down the Hudson. And it doesn’t stop for winter. In recent weeks, I’ve seen the Coast Guard icebreaker making its way up and down the river, clearing the way for commerce.

One thing about these ships plowing down the river: they’re loud. There’s no sound quite like their hulls cutting and crashing though the ice field, making their way by sheer force against nature’s best.  When it’s fire against ice, fire wins.

Diner

I like the drive south down River Road.

Glenmont, Selkirk, Coeymans, New Baltimore — keep going and you’ll go through Coxsackie and to Catskill. Route 144 gives way to Route 61 which leads to Route 385, but it’s all the same.

Roads like this were busier before the Thruway, and if you look closely you’ll see the remains of old gas stations and tourist cabins that dotted way — and places like the Bridge Diner.

It’s near two bridges in Coeymans, actually; the railroad bridge that carries freight across the river and the Thruway’s Castleton Bridge. The diner must have been a busy place when that Thruway bridge was being built in the late 1950s — ironic,  because it was the Thruway itself, not far behind the diner, which must have stolen a lot of the traffic away from Rt. 144.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

While the building looks vaguely like a railroad car, the only time it rolled anywhere was when it was shipped to its destination in four-foot segments and assembled on site. The diner was built by the Bixler Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio sometime between 1931 and 1937 when the firm went out of business. Back in the day, you could buy a pre-fab diner like this one on credit — and hope you got enough business to make your payment.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

I don’t know anything about how the Bridge Diner ended up as it is today. It’s too bad somebody couldn’t have put the building to use — or break it back down into four-foot sections and cart it off to where it could be live again, a place for a couple of fried eggs and some hash browns on a chilly morning.

Ice Ice Baby

It’s perfectly natural to sit at work and complain. Oh, why is my computer so slow, what’s up with this email, are those edits to my work really necessary, why are we doing this?

That’s when you’re lucky there isn’t an old-time Hudson River iceman standing behind you, because surely he’d smack you in the back of the head and tell you to shut the hell up. Those people knew a thing or two about hard work, spending their days sawing away at the river ice and stacking it in warehouses.

There was a time when the shores of the Hudson were crowded with ice harvesting operations; you can see evidence of the ice trade up and down the river — including just off Rt. 9J south of Stuyvesant.

What you’ll find there is the ruins of the R&W Scott Ice Company: the shell of the building that housed the steam engine that powered conveyor belts and an elevator — and you can trace the foundation of a massive six-story structure where the ice was stored. Here are some photos: Continue reading

The First Family

It’s inevitable that today I remember my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, who used to hand out shiny new Kennedy half dollars to her best students. I was not one of her best students and never got one. But before I go call a shrink, let me tell you that I was obsessed with JFK when I was a kid.

I have no recollection of his assassination, but in the basement I would pore over the copies of Life magazine and Newsday that my father stashed away, remembrances of that terrible time in 1963.

But my favorite thing was The First Family. My friend, Chuck Reamer, had a copy of the comedy record his older brother left behind. We’d sit in his room muching on Fritos, listening to Vaughn Meader and company spoof Camelot.

In the same way I learned about classical music from Looney Tunes cartoons, The First Family gave me perspective on the Kennedy years.

Meader’s career skyrocketed on the back of his JFK impersonation. After Dallas, Lenny Bruce quipped, “Man, poor Vaughn Meader.”

You can find the whole album on this person’s YouTube page.