After the storm: Fighting for a slice of local history

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.

Straphanger history, GIF-style

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a lot of ancestral ties to Brooklyn. With this comes a long and honorable heritage of subway ridership.

And my oh, my, subway geeks will LOVE this animated map depicting the evolution of the New York City subway system.

It’s a terrific reminder of how something so synonymous with NYC was not always a part of city life.

(via Atrios)

The Stories Your Street Could Tell …

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.

The Unrecorded Past

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?

Links, 10.4.10

One of the perks of blogging is that one can just skip the introduction if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. In fact, it is probably better to shut up if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. Let the links speak!

Emerald Isle stuff: The National Library of Ireland has made several collections of vintage photos available online. Not sure how long they’ve been up, but they’re very interesting. Images date from the mid-19th century. (h/t to Bob Ryan of the NY-IRISH listserv) … Also, they write letters to the editor over there. Especially when they’re disgruntled at the service at the Irish Records Office. This one is a masterpiece of factual detail and polite contempt.

Wasteful or prescient?: There is criticism in Norfolk, Va. about hiring a cemetery records keeper for $42K annually when the city’s finances are strapped, as are many municipal finances nationwide. The city says the current system of index cards is falling behind. Critics say the records are in good shape due to the current efforts by a mix of city staff and volunteers. One can only hope the record keeping doesn’t fall by the wayside, however it ends up getting done.

Brick wall basics: I always like Martin Rigby’s columns in the Liverpool Echo. This time out he offers a clearly written primer on  attacking brick-wall problems. I wonder how often all the really obvious stuff has been tried before a brick wall is declared? I think I’ll use this article to make a checklist for myself.

Blog bits:

— Kimberly Powell tackles tombstone translations (and gives me a chance to alliterate away, while she’s at it).

— Sassy Jane blogs about the anatomy of a mistake. This sort of ‘fess-up is always incredibly helpful to read.

— Chris Staats uses a nifty construction analogy to sort out his arguments about Internet research, pro and con.

— At GeneaBloggers, a call for genealogy blog participation in Blog Action Day 2010: Water, with some intriguing prompts to get you going. Also via GeneaBloggers, we are reminded that the academic journal site SAGE Journals is offering free access until October 15 — a good chance to gather background on whatever esoteric question is on your mind.

I’m off to buy a pumpkin for the squirrels to attack. Hope you enjoy the week.

Fault lines

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.

‘Sent West': An American orphan story

While studying a 19th-century record book of children from the orphanage in my old New Jersey neighborhood, I noticed that a number of them ended up a long way from the Garden State.

Every so often a group of names appeared with repeated notations in the “where sent” column:

To Columbus, Missouri.

With J.P. Brace to Columbus, Missouri.

To Warrensburg, Missouri.

In one case, six children all carried the same notation:

Sent West With Children’s Aid Society.

Anyone familiar with studies of foundlings in 19th-century America would look twice at that.

Founded in  New York City by Charles Loring Brace in 1853, the Children’s Aid Society promoted a radically different vision of child welfare from what prevailed before. Brace rejected the almshouse/workhouse model of warehousing the poor. Instead, he believed programs should nurture children and encourage self-sufficiency. He championed free kindergartens, job training, reading rooms, supervised lodging houses for boys — and the Orphan Trains.

Orphans recently arrived in the West. Image in collection of National Orphan Train Complex, Concordia, Kansas.

The basic plan, begun in 1853, was to relocate impoverished urban children to farm families in rural areas. New England and rural New York State were early destinations. After the Civil War, the emphasis shifted westward. Between 1865-74 nearly 1,000 children per year were sent to Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan and other Midwestern states.

Missouri and Kansas are the two states specifically mentioned in the ledger for the Children’s Home in my neighborhood, and several other entries say only “West.”

In a few entries, a “J.P. Brace” is listed as accompanying the children westward. This strengthens the possibility of the home’s link with the Orphan Trains. James P. Brace was Charles’ brother, and one of the most prominent of the “Western Agents” who shepherded Orphan Train children to the West. When James died in 1881 of a fever contracted in Missouri during one of his Orphan Train trips, the New York Times eulogized him: “The thousands of boys who journeyed with him from the great Metropolis, where sin and temptation abound, to the West, where through his influence, bright and happy homes awaited them, will ever remember him with thankful hearts.”

Not everyone agreed with that, even during the Brace brothers’ lifetimes. Some modern scholars contend that the Orphan Train movement often equated poverty with bad parenting, pressuring the poor to surrender children to the trains to “give them a real chance,” rather than emphasizing ways of keeping families together. Some children were abused and exploited. (There were also success stories. Two Orphan Train boys, John Brady and Andrew Burke, eventually became governors of Alaska and North Dakota, respectively.)

The ledger I studied contained both kinds of orphanage stories — those that ended with a parent finding their feet and reuniting the family, and those that ended with a child being surrendered to adoption and, perhaps, a journey west. Although the Children’s Home worked closely with the Orphan Train movement, it didn’t seem to rely on its philosophy totally.

When I was a child, the big Victorian was a place where we played hide-and seek and rode our bicycles. I never would have imagined it as a staging point for the frontier. But that, apparently, is what it was for some of the children who came there long ago.

Further reading: The National Orphan Train Complex website includes wonderful illustrations and educational materials. The Children’s Aid Society’s official site contains an overview of Brace and his career. Finally, here is a detailed look at the orphans and how they ended up on the trains.


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