Spent some quality time watching the hawks circle at High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ. (And no reality TV crews in sight.)
Ninety-nine years ago today, 146 young garment workers died when their New York City workplace went up in flames.
I was sixteen when I read labor historian Leon Stein’s account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – first published in 1962 but still essential today. Stein was writing at a time when many fire survivors were still alive, and he made excellent use of his interviews with them. To a kid who had picked up the book from idle curiosity, the survivors’ anguished memories were like a punch in the stomach — so many were my own age at the time. I suppose I led a charmed life; it took Stein’s book to shock me into realizing that being a teenager doesn’t confer immortality.
This wrenching video combines period images with audiotape of survivor interviews:
My mother’s cousin Alma, a thirteen-year-old Brooklyn girl when the fire occurred, recalled the horrifying newspaper accounts: “The doors opened in, not out. They pushed and pushed, but they couldn’t get out.” Not only that, the owners had a habit of locking the factory’s doors for fear of theft; the one fire escape was pitifully inadequate and quickly buckled under the strain of escaping workers; the firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows where workers desperately pleaded for help.
Despite the fact that the factory’s owners never faced serious consequences for the appalling state of their building, the fire proved to be a turning point in awareness of substandard conditions for factory workers. Small comfort to the families of the dead, but important nonetheless.
The Kheel Center at Cornell University maintains a breathtakingly detailed multimedia site about the Triangle fire, including a page with a list of victims and survivors. If you think you might be descended from a Triangle worker, this is definitely a place to investigate.
Today the building which housed the factory is known as the Brown Building of Science, owned by New York University. Two plaques commemorate the terrible tragedy that happened there. A federation of New York City preservationists, artists and labor activists called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is preparing to mark next year’s centenary. In addition to spearheading educational events about the fire, they hope to establish a permanent memorial to the victims.
As if historical preservationists haven’t got enough on their minds, they now have to contend with thieves ripping off commemorative bronze plaques from public places.
Officials in three New Jersey counties are puzzling over the disappearance of markers from parks and other public venues. The thieves went to a lot of trouble for something that isn’t exactly in the same league as a diamond necklace. According to the story, bronze recently was at a high of $2 a pound, so a 30-pound marker would fetch a grand total of $60 as a lump of metal.
Of course, markers are more than lumps of metal.
For one thing, they’re engraved with images and names, so (as the story notes), replacing that 30-pound marker costs more like $3,000, all told.
For another, they’re irreplaceable threads in the local fabric. The Revolutionary War marker mentioned in this story had been in place since the 1920s, making the marker itself a bit of local history.
Interestingly, some officials think the markers were stolen for their historical value, not for the metal. The thieves, they say, might have taken the plaques to auction.
I’m having a bit of trouble imagining the sort of person who would consider it OK to bid on, and own, a stolen marker. (And could it be mistaken for anything else? Please.)
What a sad thought.
For Treasure Chest Thursday, a postcard from my files of the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, circa 1885:
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Homes, set up to provide for the flow of aging and infirm Civil War veterans, were forerunners of today’s Veterans Administration. My great-great grandfather, Martin Haigney, lived in two of them, off and on, from about 1900 until he died in 1911. This is the one in Bath, N.Y., where he was a resident until shortly before his death.
I owe this particular treasure to Robert E. Yott, who has written From Soldiers’ Home to Medical Center, a history of the Bath facility. Mr. Yott’s book has a lot of details about the history of the home, a great help in visualizing what daily life might have been like for my great-great-grandpa and other veterans like him who lived there.
Ancestry.com has an index of records for these homes: U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 (subscription required, or you can do a 14-day trial membership).