Walking Through Hudson County History

Summer finally got here to New Jersey, even if we had our doubts that it ever would, back there in the dark days of February and March. What better way to celebrate than by getting your walking shoes on and exploring a bit of the past through a series of Hudson County history tours?

If you’re in the area, take a look at the topics below. All tours cost $10, and reservations are required. (Be advised that all tours also require walking over a variety of distances. If you have any questions, contact the tour leader.) For more information, see the Hoboken Museum’s tour page.

May 30: Lafayette History Tour (presenter: Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy) –Drs. Jenny Furlong and Rebecca Shapiro, historians, explore Jersey City’s oldest neighborhood, including historic residences and such prominent landmarks as the American Type Foundry and St. Mary’s Greek Byzantine Rites Church.

June 6: A Walking Tour of Bayview-New York Cemetery (presenter: Hudson County Genealogical & Historical Society) — Historian Dennis Doran of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy leads a walk through a cemetery where many notable politicians and entrepreneurs from Jersey City’s past are buried.

June 7: A Walk Along the Harsimus Branch Embankment on Sixth Street (presenter: Embankment Preservation Coalition) – The coalition will explore this imposing remnant of the Pennsylvania Railroad in downtown Jersey City, which they are working to transform into a nature habitat and public park as a segment of the East Coast Greenway.

June 14: The Stevens Family Legacy (presenter: Bob Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum) – Gain insight into the impact left in Hudson County by the prominent (and civic-minded) Stevens clan, including a visit to Hoboken Cemetery on Tonnelle Avenue, where many family members are buried.

June 20: “On The Waterfront” Bus Tour (presenter: Hoboken Historical Museum) – Cinema buffs will enjoy this excursion led by film industry expert Lenny Luizzi, which highlights Hoboken locations from the classic film starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint.




New Jersey Newsiness

A tale of two Saturday events: The drum beats ever louder for the Global Family Reunion on Saturday, June 6 at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows. The sheer volume of activities and speakers is daunting, but so is the awesomeness potential.

You could pose for the world’s biggest family photo or do a family-themed scavenger hunt — or match brawn with an arm-wrestling machine!  Not to mention the presentations by genealogical heavy-hitters like Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Finding Your Roots) Maureen Taylor (the Photo Detective) and CeCe Moore (Your Genetic Genealogist).

How-so-ever …

I would be derelict in my duty if I failed to point out the Genealogical Society of New Jersey is holding its spring program on the Very Same Day, June 6th,  from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. No scavenger hunts, but:

  • James Amemasor and Doug Oxenhorn will be presenting Doing Research at The New Jersey Historical Society.
  • Christopher Zarr will be presenting NJ and the National Archives at New York City.
  • Melissa A. Johnson will be presenting Researching Your Newark Ancestors.
  • Catherine Stearns Medich will be presenting So What is New at the New Jersey State Archives.
  • Andy McCarthy will be presenting New Jersey Collections at NYPL.
  • Joseph R. Klett will be presenting Colonial New Jersey Research.

It is undeniable: If New Jersey research smarts are what you’re after, head to Newark. Here’s the program brochure. Note that free parking will be provided.

I know you really wanted to check out the arm-wrestling machine. But it is all about sharpening the skillz, is it not?

Plus: free parking! In Newark! I mean, come on!


Meanwhile, in May … Thank goodness not everybody is scheduling things for the first Saturday in June. Here are two more New Jersey events to consider:

May 2: The Montclair Historical Society is presenting its Restoration Fair at its headquarters, the historic Crane House, 108 Orange Road. Check out free workshops on repairing vintage roofs and researching your house’s history. Also, the society will be holding its annual herb sale, so you can get started on the heirloom garden, too.

May 9: Mark the calendar for the Spirit of the Jerseys history fair: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine, at the  Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Manalapan. Wander the historic battlefield and check out exhibits from historical sites and societies from all over the state. A list of exhibitors is here.


SCGS Jamboree: Parting Glances

On my last morning in California, I was walking around Altadena in the company of my sister-in-law and her adorable little terrier mix Jack, admiring the flora and getting it all wrong. She and Jack were being lovely and patient about it.


“No, actually that’s lantana,” my sister-in-law said. (Well, it did look like this variety of cosmos, a little bit. And a few yards later, someone was actually growing some. So there.)

“Ooooh, what’s that? It looks like wisteria.”


“No, that’s jacaranda.”


At least I knew a boat when I saw one.


Funny thing about Southern California, though: For all the hard-to-identify plants and ruthlessly speedy drivers, it has a way of making you feel at home very quickly. As my oldest kid said once on a previous visit, staring up at the starry night sky over the mountains: “I think I see what this California thing is all about.”

As I mentioned, I had never been to the Southern California Genealogical Society’s remarkable Jamboree before this year. Yet it felt like I’d been there a dozen times before — everyone running around organizing things was just so nice. I will admit that I winced upon being issued a “First Timer” ribbon for my conference badge — what is this, Pledge Week? — but nobody made me do pushups or carry their backpacks or anything like that. They just kept things running smoothly and, despite what must have been a fiendish amount of work, smiled and laughed more than any East Coaster ignorant of local plant life had a right to expect.

So, despite my newbie status, I could relax and wander the exhibit hall …


… and parachute in on any number of interesting presentations. Beyond the extremely worthwhile talks on methodology and sources, Jamboree offered some interesting glimpses of genealogy-related products and services. (Conferences in general are a relatively painless way to sample these, I must say.) A recurring theme in lectures and casual conversation was linking up genealogy to a generation raised on Twitter and Tumblr. I found some generalizations on this topic to be, well, generalizations. For instance, there seems to be a well-entrenched idea floating around out there that kids don’t read and write anymore, whereas to judge from my daughters’ experiences with Tumblr and online fiction-writing forums, the new age is giving them opportunities to express themselves in this department that I would have killed for, back in the day.


Then again, maybe that idea is floating around out there, too. I heard Tammy Hepps (above) of Treelines demonstrate a system of sharing family stories and pictures that seemed to be pulling in a lot of what I’ve noticed in the way my kids read and write and share online — visual interest and flexibility in how much and what you write being biggies. I have not yet actually tried Treelines myself, but I’m going to give it a whirl and report back.

Back on the learning and development front, I found Dr. James Ryan’s lectures on Irish sources very valuable. Saturday, he talked about land records in illuminating detail; Sunday, he frequently had us in stitches during his talk on “Strange And Unusual Sources for Irish Family History” (trust me, it can get strange, strange, strange). And Paula Stuart-Warren’s Sunday session on developing step-by-step research plans included hands-on, audience-participation examples that proved to me, once again, that I must never assume I am incapable of being surprised on the genealogy front. Also, it gave me lots to do on the flight back East as I scribbled notes for all the tweaks I am now making on what I once thought were comprehensive research plans.

Thanks for the memories, SCGS, and congratulations on your 50th-anniversary year. Hopefully I won’t be a stranger anymore. And I promise to take a better picture of the Hollywood sign next time. Honest.


Flipping Over Genealogy (At NGS 2012, Of Course)

Dear friends, I’m at the National Genealogical Society’s 2012 Family History Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. There is much wonderful information and insight to study and ponder here — overwhelming, really.

In fact, it’s almost as overwhelming as my hotel wireless connection is underwhelming, leaving everything I load image-challenged. Mr. Archaeologist assures me that back home, my images are just lovely,  so I’m going to take it on faith that the photos on this post are showing up. Sort of like the courtiers in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I guess.

From Day One: Here are some contrasting views. First, the Big Exhibit Hall with all the genealogy bells and whistles:

And next: Guess what! The genealogists are sharing space with the gymnasts! That’s the Men’s Junior Olympic Nationals going on across the hall.

It was fascinating watching the twists and turns and somersaults for a few minutes, before returning to the mental gymnastics in the conference seminar rooms. The lectures have been lively, humorous and thought-provoking. My only gripe is that I want to go to all of them, and I cannot figure out how to clone myself. Many lectures will eventually be available on CD-ROM via a link on the NGS conference page, which is a comfort.

As ever when I attend an event like this, at day’s end I am tempted to bang my head on my hotel-room desk with all the fresh realizations of things I coulda/woulda/shoulda done in my research. But only momentarily. The dominant chord is always excitement. Yesterday’s shoulda-dones are just that … done. The future, on the other hand, is looking good, what with all these bright new shiny genealogy ideas to play with.

Events: Irish Family History at Drew University

I’m looking forward to April 16. You’re probably saying, “Who isn’t?” But not only is April 16 the day after Tax Day, it’s also the day for this:

Emigrants and Exiles, An Irish Family History Symposium

It’s taking place practically in my own backyard, at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Check out the speakers and topics. Excellent stuff!

* Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, “Right Annie, Wrong Annie”

* Professor Christine Kinealy, “The Famine is only part of the Story. Why your ancestors came to America”

* Dr Anne Rodda, CG, “Immigrant Imprints: American and Irish records that tell the story”

* Claire Keenan Agthe, “Offbeat records for New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia”

* Judy Campbell, “Family History Search Catches a Tammany Tiger”

* Alan Delozier, “Family History from a Religious Perspective”

* Julie Sakellariadis, “Imagining the Past: Using Historical Resources to Find Stories from the Past”

* Dr Thomas Callahan Jr., “Looking For Katie: The McCormack Family in America”

The link takes you to the website of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, which is co-sponsoring the event with Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. You can download a .pdf file of the conference brochure and registration form, if you are in the area and might like to attend.

Circus Fire: The Day the Clowns Cried

Years ago someone at a family party mentioned that my great-aunt Anna Haigney had nursed burn victims from “that big fire up in Hartford — you know, the one at the circus.” I didn’t really know, which shows how the passage of time can dull the notoriety even of the most awful events.

More than 6,000 people (some estimates say as many as 8,700) had thronged the big top set up by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Hartford, Conn. on July 6, 1944. How the fire started remains a controversy. Early on, a carelessly discarded cigarette was the theory. In 1950, an Ohio man claimed to be the circus arsonist. He later recanted, and his confession is further clouded by his history of mental illness and officials’ inability to determine with certainty whether he was in Connecticut at the time.

Once the fire started, it spread with terrifying speed due to the construction of the tent — canvas coated with paraffin for waterproofing purposes, a common method at the time but a recipe for an inferno. Two of the regular exits were blocked by chutes that had been brought out for transporting the large felines who had just finished performing when the fire broke out. (They escaped with minor burns.) Many circusgoers were trampled and/or burned to death.

The official death toll is 167. With so many men away fighting overseas, this was largely an audience of women and children, and onlookers never forgot the horror of seeing so many young victims. A news photo of the eminent circus performer Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket by the smoldering ruins led to the disaster being known as “the day the clowns cried.”

Author Stewart O’Nan interviewed many survivors and witnesses for his 2001 account The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy. It’s a must-read starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the fire.

One of the young circusgoers that day grew up to become the comic actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly. Here is a 1997 interview in which he explains how the memories of the fire affected him for the rest of his life:

Other links of interest:

Connecticut State Library Research Guide: Hartford Circus Fire

Wikipedia entry: Hartford Circus Fire

The Hartford Circus Fire — July 6, 1944 (including an extensive collection of survivor accounts)