Life is not a disaster movie. This is generally a good thing. But one important way in which real life falls short is its lack of a boffo end scene. Real life is full of messy loose ends and aftermaths that won’t quit.
The rest of the country may have moved on from Hurricane Sandy, but Sandy hasn’t moved on from the Northeast, as evidenced by this item by Mark Di Ionno of the Star-Ledger on the Keyport (NJ) Steamboat Dock Museum. The museum collection was a unique take on the area’s history as a steamboat hub, moving Jersey produce and timber to consumers in New York City. Read how the museum volunteers performed a sad triage as the storm approached, “putting red dots on the things we knew we had to move,” as a longtime coordinator said.
Volunteers managed to save a lot — maps and deeds and photographs; examples of glass that reflected the local bottlemaking industry. But they just couldn’t move everything in time, and Sandy’s raging storm surge gutted what was left. “Heartbeaking,” says one of the museum’s founders.
Slowly, volunteers are salvaging what they can, and thinking about a new home for the Steamboat Dock Museum. Here’s wishing them well as they do what local history buffs around the country do best — reclaiming a unique heritage for future generations.
I’m working on a history of my house, mostly for my own selfish pleasure but also to practice my skills in this particular research area. When I spot any vintage news items involving my street, I naturally go on alert. Not long ago I was searching local newspaper microfilms for an obituary when I stumbled upon a terribly sad story from 1938 that took place across the street from where I now live. (Preliminary poking around in censuses and directories indicates that some relatives of the people mentioned in the news item may still be living, hence the brackets.)
Child Found Drowned in Goldfish Pool Here / Mother Transfers From Ship and Returns to Montclair
An 18-month-old baby [...] was drowned on Saturday when she fell into a goldfish pool at the rear of [a] home on [...] Place. Deputy County Medical Examiner Olcott said the death was accidental and caused by drowning.
The article went on to say that the toddler was staying with her aunt at a house neighboring the yard with the goldfish pool. Sadly, the scenario in the story could still be written today: The child went out of sight only for a few minutes, but somehow managed to circumvent a high fence around the pool. The toddler’s mother was on a ship en route to South America, but was intercepted off Cape Hatteras and transferred to a liner headed back north, so that she arrived back in New Jersey the following day.
It was strange and sad to read about such a tragedy on a street I know so well — a street that continues to be a favorite of families with young children. I can tell you that there’s no trace remaining of the goldfish pond mentioned in the story, but it was still oddly disturbing to read about something like that happening on our pleasant little street, even though it was so long ago.
Now I’m wondering what news items might be out there about my own property. I suppose that’s a hidden hazard of doing house history reports — not all the stories are going to be colorful and heartwarming. And I guess I’ll be mentioning this possibility up front in doing this sort of research for someone else.
Writing family history would be a heck of a lot easier if our forebears just thought a bit more of themselves. Those of us related to prominent individuals are lucky: The big cheeses of the world tend to leave more traces. They’re more likely to have thought their lives were worth recording for posterity. The little cheeses, not so much.
True, once in a while a non-royal, non-presidential family comes along that’s addicted to writing letters or keeping diaries, like the Paston family in 15th-century England.
But you don’t find Paston types growing on just any family tree.
And once in a while something comes along that is so big, and so universal, it sparks a correspondingly big and universal desire to bear witness. (Think of the Civil War era!)
Still, in between monumental military conflicts and the March 1887 coal invoice are all sorts of events that don’t rate a separate chapter in the history books. Nonetheless, they leave you wishing you could picture the part played by your long-ago relatives. File them under notable but not epochal, I suppose.
I’d love to know what my Capital District forebears were up to during these happenings, for example:
• The unrest at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. an outgrowth of the infamous 1863 draft riots in New York City.
• The great Troy fire of 1862.
• The Hudson River floods of 1913.
• And I wonder what they thought of Kate Mullaney, who organized the Troy laundresses into a force demanding better working conditions for the women and girls in the collar factories.
What history do you wish you could recover from your family tree?
Recently, the New York Times ran this vivid collection of memories of the black YMCA in Evanston (IL). It prompts an interesting set of adjectives: touching, bittersweet, shaming.
Touching, because of the affectionate nostalgia that shone in every recollection. Bittersweet, since the world of these memories is gone forever. Shame at the segregation that made a separate Y necessary for Evanston’s black citizens.
Evanston was not alone in this. The black citizens of my hometown of Montclair, N.J., also had to create their own YMCA. By the time I moved to town a decade ago, the segregation was gone but the building remained, a branch of the main YMCA a mile north. It housed programs for toddlers and preschoolers and was called the “Little Y.” (A few years ago, it was demolished to make way for a new elementary school.)
A lot of the folks who took their kids there for Mommy and Me swimming were ignorant of the history. I remember the reaction that greeted me when I gave a factual answer to someone who wondered aloud about how the building came to be. First there was a look of shock. Then – “Are you sure? That seems really unlikely.”
Yet many, many towns have old segregation fault lines. Some are rather close to the surface, and in places where we think they aren’t supposed to be in the first place. (Relevant point: New Jersey schools were integrated by law in 1947, a lot later than I had supposed.)
It’s good that people are looking at these old buildings and institutions and asking about what they were and how they came to be. The Times story, as well as the stories told about my hometown Y, teach us that out of an insane situation came a heritage of achievement and treasured memories. I’m glad the history isn’t getting lost, even while I hope the circumstances that created it never happen again.