Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Day of the Flags

Celebrating several historic occasions in 1830

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

James Stuart doesn’t mention any local New York events in September or October of 1830. As October entered into it’s second week the traveler and his wife moved back to the Van Boskerck's rooming house in Hoboken - where they would stay until returning to the United Kingdom the following April. It would be a relatively quiet half year, with few excursions or diversions. With one exception.

Back in July, about the time Stuart was visiting Dr. Hosack in Hyde Park, France’s middle class had revolted against their Bourbon king Charles X and forced him off the throne. This would obviously be looked on with great favor by Andrew Jackson’s America, even though the monarchy continued with another head beneath the crown. Celebrations were called for. New York’s would be an extravaganza.

Former U. S. president James Monroe had just moved here to Manhattan after the death of his wife at the beginning of October. Presidential pensions being non-existent when he left office five years earlier, he’d been driven by relative poverty to reside with his daughter Maria and son-in-law Samuel Gouverneur, currently the city’s postmaster. Preparations for the celebration were begun at Tammany Hall early in November with Monroe heading up the arrangements. The city’s federal collector of customs Samuel Swartwout was appointed grand marshal and postmaster Gouverneur was chosen to make the main oration. Former mayor Hone was put in charge of the arrangements committee. November 25th, being the 47th anniversary of the British evacuation of New York, was intentionally chosen for the affair. With only a few weeks remaining most of the male population of the city became very busy. This being a good many decades before beauty queens and majorettes the women probably stayed home and did the sewing.

Neither Stuart nor Hone mentions the starting point but, since they marched up Broadway to the future site of Washington Square, it’s to be assumed they began at the Battery, for its symbolic connotation. The proceedings had to be postponed for one day due to sloppy November weather. Stuart was probably in place - he doesn’t mention just where - early that Friday morning. Among the well-known personages he would see in the procession was John Van Arsdale, the artilleryman who’d shinnied up the flagpole down at the Battery 47 years ago, hauled down the British flag. He supposedly nailed the Stars and Stripes in it’s place and even greased the pole afterwards to make sure the banner remained in place. (Some accounts say the British had been the pole greasers; some accounts also have Saratoga County military veteran Anthony Glenn actually being the one to raise the new flag). It’s likely both men’s shinnying days were long past, but the two old-timers were among the stars of the day. Others included Alexander Whaley, one of the “Indians” who heaved the tea into Boston harbor, Enoch Cosby, James Fenimore Cooper’s model for the title character of his novel “The Spy”, and David Williams, a member of the party that had captured Major Andre after Arnold’s betrayal of West Point.

Samuel Swartwout’s twenty-one aides, each mounted on a prancing steed and wearing a uniform decorated with French-tricolor cockades and plumes, corralled the various groups and headed them off, up Broadway. Join them, next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Networking Session

James Struart's Last 1830 mini-excursion out of New York City

© 2006 David Minor/Eagles Byte

You are James Stuart. Eight years ago and an ocean away you killed a man named Boswell in a duel. Legally exonerated, you decided it was still best to travel outside of Scotland for a time. Now, in the summer of 1830, on the western end of Long Island, New York, a young man comes to you. Says his name is John Boswell. You must have a few very uneasy moments. What has this Boswell come for?

As it turns out ... a character reference. James Stuart quickly learns that John Boswell is the son of an acquaintance, a farm overseer from Fifeshire, the same province as the victim of that long ago duel but apparently not closely allied with that branch of the family. The subject of the duel apparently never arises. Young Boswell, a ship-carpenter, had arrived here in the New World with his wife and two children several weeks earlier and had been unable to find work but, according to Stuart, “no one would receive him into his ship-building yard, in which there is much valuable property, without attestations of his character for honesty and sobriety. ... Knowing nothing previously of this young man but what I have mentioned, it was impossible for me to comply with his request, but I gave him a letter to a gentleman in the neighbourhood of New York, who might, I thought, be of use to him, stating exactly what I knew of him.”

It will be several months before this connection yields results. “He was beginning to wish himself well home again when an offer of work was made to him. I happened to be in New York on the very day when this occurred, and remember well the pleasure which beamed in his eyes when he told me of the offer, and asked me what wages he should propose. My advice to him was to leave that matter to his master, after he had been at work for a week, and showed what he could do.” This advice proves sound and young Boswell is later able to report back to Stuart that, “He had earned on the preceding day almost as much as he could earn at the same business in Scotland in a week; and he hoped in less than twenty years to make a fortune, and return to Scotland.”

Back in July, a month or so before the revival meeting in Flushing, Stuart made one final trip away from lower New York. You might recall that last year, while on an excursion to West Point, he met a Dr. David Hosack, the physician and botanist who had attended Alexander Hamilton when the former U. S. Treasrury Secretary had been killed by Aaron Burr in 1804. Hosack had invited Stuart to visit him sometime at his home on the mid-Hudson River. Now, Stuart decides to take him up on his offer.

He doesn’t give details of the actiual trip upriver to Hyde Park, presumably by steamboat, or any details of what the two men discussed during the visit, but he was obviously impressed by the naturalist’s estate, “... elegant, and well-furnished.” He will not give us a detailed description, but cannot resist mentioning, in passing, “his eating or drawing-rooms, his excellent library, his billiard room, or his conservatory, of his porter's lodges, his temples, his bridges, his garden, and the other et ceteras of this truly delightful domain ...” A domain a Vanderbilt would be proud to own, and one day would. Obviously more than just a country fishing shack.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Name from the Past

A late summer encounter in 1830 revives memories for James Stuart

© 2006 David Minor/Eagles Byte

When James Stuart decided he and his wife might enjoy taking refuge from the summer’s heat at the Long Island home of a Mr. Anderson, he had a New York friend inquire if the family would mind taking in boarders for a month or so. The couple “ . . . were good enough to agree to receive us, provided we could conform to the hours of their meals, which were six A. M. for breakfast, twelve for dinner, and seven for tea and supper. We never hesitated about this, knowing how much one's comfort depends in sultry weather on airy rooms and airy situation.”

The move was made and our travelers were soon enjoying the breezes at Hell Gate as they relaxed in the large, breezy rooms shaded by overhanging trees, and strolled about among the six-foot tall hydrangeas in the cool, dewy early morning hours. “There is nowhere, even upon the Thames, in the same space of ground, a greater number of country houses or villas. Mr Anderson's house is in the highest situation, above and close to the whirlpool, and the views from it are at all times fine, and, while the shipping are dancing through Hellgate, frequently very amusing.” Life was good.

As they did last year while staying in New Rochelle, the Stuarts spent most sabbaths attending neighborhood services of various denominations. He tells us, “There is a perfectly good understanding among the different classes of religious persons in this country. No superiority is claimed, or allowed by one over another.” If this truly was the case we’ve come a long way in the past 176 years. Wrong direction but, oh, well!

Other times were spent visiting neighboring farms for tea parties, complete with many tempting examples of the pastry arts, in keeping with the Dutch backgrounds of most households - waffles, crullers, doughnuts, sweet cakes, gingerbread - not to mention sliced ham and a wide variety of local fruit preserves. The sideboards were well supplied with decanters of various potables, the food accompanied by pipes and cigars. Draughts and backgammon were favorite amusements. Life was good, and not too often sticky, thanks to counter-intuitive cool breaths from Hell Gate.

One day near the end of August Stuart took a short trip to Flushing for another camp meeting much like last year’s, with the exception that this was attended primarily by blacks. He shared the steamboat Linnæus with close to 450 other attendees - all careful to distribute themselves evenly on the upper deck so as to keep the craft balanced - and spent most of the day at the services, along with 3,000 to 4,000 worshipers, himself leaving after the afternoon observances.

It was around now that he was approached by a fellow Scot, recently arrived in North America. Stuart must have turned a bit pale when he first heard the man’s name - John Boswell. If you remember Stuart’s own reason for leaving Scotland in the first place, you’ll understand. For it was back in 1822, eight years earlier, when Stuart had placed a 0.68-in ball from a Tatham and Egg pistol into the collarbone of Sir Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck. Sir Alexander, son of the late biographer James Boswll, had died the following afternoon. Why was John Boswell hunting up Stuart now? Next time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Stuarts Return

Our Snowbirds Return to Manhattan in June of 1830

On June 1, 1830. James Stuart and his wife returned to New Jersey after spending nearly five months touring the South. They’d come up from Philadelphia by steamboat, in the company of Connecticut senators Samuel Augustus Foot and Peleg Sprague. Also aboard was former newspaper publisher Mordecai Noah, who we first encountered five years ago as he proceeded across the state in the Erie Canal boat The Ark, along with an appropriate complement of animals. He’d become publisher of the New York Enquirer the following year. If politics was discussed on this trip Stuart would have heard a very lively conversation, as both congressmen were members of the Anti-Jackson Party and Noah had been an early supporter of the President. Stuart makes no mention of any talking, just notes, “There was as usual an excellent dinner in the steam-boat, and I observed, what would appear very strange in Britain, not a drop of wine was used by any of those gentlemen.” They seem to have stayed mellow without it.

Once back in the New York area again Mr. and Mrs. Stuart settled in once more at the Van Boskerck’s boarding house at Hoboken. By now they’d become quite at home here and in Manhattan, Stuart knowing just where to find life’s necessities. “. . . at any wine-merchants, Madeira and Sherry may be procured of good quality. Port and claret are not so easily to be had, but port is to be got good and cheap from Mr Tobias, in Broad Street, and claret good and cheap from Mr Duface, No. 50, Gold Street.”

As June turned to July Hoboken became uncomfortable, with temperatures reaching into the low nineties every day. The weekly deaths listed in the newspapers began doubling. Probably most of us, at some time or other during our childhoods were told that drinking very cold water when we were overheated, could make us very ill - perhaps even kill us. It’s a belief that goes way back. As long ago as 1803 another European visitor, Captain Frederick Marryat, reported, “It is very dangerous to drink iced water, and many have died from yielding to the temptation.” He related that the best remedy in such a case was to pour brandy down the person’s throat. Now, 27 years later, James Stuart concurs, stating, “I was surprised to observe the very considerable number of deaths at this period from the use of cold water, and found, on inquiry, that those deaths were owing to taking cold water without any mixture of spirits.”. Needless to say, the theory is not embraced by the forces of temperance. Two years in the future it will all seem sadly academic.

But right now in July 1830 the Stuarts began looking for cooler lodgings in the area. After making a few inquiries he learns of a Mr. and Mrs. Anderson who own a large farmhouse in northwestern Queens (today’s Astoria neighborhood) at Hell Gate, the channel where the East River meets Long Island Sound. Until the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers tames the waters in 1876 a number of vessels will be sunk by the treacherous currents and rapids. All that tumbling water, however, does put a lot of spray in the air, mixing it with flowing breezes off the Sound, reducing the air temperature. It sounds like a tempting spot to our travelers. A possible problem is the fact that the Andersons are not running a boarding house. According to Stuart this may be academic. “ ... it is not reckoned at all impertinent here to apply at once to know whether the family will take boarders.” Turns out he was right. The Stuarts prepared to move.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

1923 Fire Leads to Founding of Gates-Chili Fire Dept.

By John Robortella

Nearly 85 years after a house claimed the lives of two Gates (N.Y.) children, the Gates-Chili Fire Department now has the details of that 1923 tragedy that led to its founding.

"We always knew that our fire department was organized following the deaths of children in a fire," said William A. Gillette, chairman of the Gates Fire District board of commissioners. "But we never knew the details or had names, an address, or the date. Having this information now shows us exactly what motivated the residents of Gates (a western suburb of the City of Rochester) to form the fire department. It is an important part of our history and for the first time since 1923, we have the full story."

John Robortella of Canandaigua, N.Y., the former editor of the Gates-Chili News and a member of the Gates Historical Society, located news coverage of the fire in the records of the Rochester Public Library and the Rochester Museum & Science Center.

"The story of the house fire was first related to us by the late Charles Russell in a 1977 interview on the 50th anniversary of the fire department," said Mr. Robortella. "In 1923, he was a boy living in the Beechwood tract of homes off Lee Road. He remembered the fire and the loss of the children's lives, and told us that this was the event that prompted the citizens to establish a town fire department. We published the interview as part of the coverage of the fire department's anniversary, and again in 2002 in the 75th anniversary history. At the time of the interview, Mr. Russell was the only person then living with first-hand knowledge of the fire, but unfortunately he could not recall every detail.

"The fire marked a turning point in the settlement and growth of the town," Mr Robortella said. "This was the tragedy that brought the rural Gates community together to form an association that would provide protection for everyone in the town, and in a portion of Chili, as well. The deaths of two children caused the people to realize that they had to provide their own fire protection, especially since the town was beginning it transition from farmland to housing tracts."

There were no emergency services in Gates in the 1920's. The only piece of fire equipment nearby was  a horse-drawn chemical hose truck, No. 21, stored at St. Mary's Hospital farm on Fisher Road. Charles J. Diringer, the farm superintendent, had purchased it from the Rochester Fire Department on Genesee Street and stored it in the barn.

"Houses were going up in the Beechwood Gardens tract in Gates for a dollar down, a dollar a week," said Mr. Russell in his 1977 interview. "People were putting up shacks."

According to a news report in The Rochester Herald the day after the fire, Mrs. Maurice Balmer was at her home on Evelyn Street on the afternoon of Monday, November 19, 1923, with her children: three-year-old Maurice Jr., two-year-old Howard, and nine-month-old Lee. Maurice Sr. was at work at the American Woodworking Machinery Company. The homes in the settlement were described as three- and four-bedroom structures with no basements and beaverboard interiors.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Mrs. Balmer lit a fire in the presumably wood-burning kitchen stove to start supper, and then left the children alone in the house while she went to visit her sister, Mrs. Bruce White, who lived nearby.

Not only after 3 p.m., a neighbor, Edward Doud, saw smoke coming from the Balmer home and came to investigate. As he neared the house, flames shot up through the roof. He tried to get in but was turned back by the fire.

"He rushed to the home of Mrs. White and informed Mrs. Balmer of the blaze," the Herald reported in its November 20, 1923, issue.

"My God," she shrieked, "and my children are in it."

Another neighbor, Dorothy Viesenbach, heard the cries of "fire" and came from home, about an eighth of a mile away, with an extinguisher.

A group of neighbors had assembled in front of the burning house and several of the men used the extinguisher to fight back the flames from a window. That enabled one of them, J. F. Sharkey, with a wet towel covering his head, to climb into the house and reach two-year-old Howard. He managed to pull the boy out the window to safety.

"He was driven back by the flames, while trying to reach the other children" the Herald reported.

Little could be done to put out the fire, which destroyed the home. At 4:30 that afternoon, the remains of Maurice Jr. and Lee were discovered and removed from the debris.

Neighbors called Monroe County Sheriff Franklin W. Judson (a Gates resident) to the scene, along with the county coroner and Ezra Kauffman, a special investigator. The sheriff assigned Deputy Edward P. Fosmire, who was primarily assigned to patrol in Spencerport, N.Y., and Deputy Edward Rice to the case. The officials determined that an overheated stove was the cause of the fire.

Albert R. Stone, Rochester's well-known newspaper photographer of the day, arrived with his camera to take pictures of the house, which by the time he arrived had been completely destroyed. One of his photos was printed in the Herald's article.

When Mr. Balmer arrived home from work, he newspaper reported, that, "both he and his wife were prostrated by the tragedy."

"Fire apparatus from the city went to the scene but was helpless," the news report continues. "The house was a charred and burning ruin when they arrived. With the neighbors, who had formed a bucket brigade, they helped pump and carry water to cool the ruins and enable willing hands to drag the little bodies from the embers of their former home"

After the fire, Mr. Russell, Elbert Finch, and seven other men met in a shed on Long Pond Road near Trolley Boulevard to make plans for a local fire department. (Mr. Russell became president of the Gates-Chili Fire Department in 1939; Mr. Finch was elected supervisor of the town of Gates in 1948).

Four years went by before the group held an official meeting in M. A. White's garage on Beahan Road on February 15, 1927, where they formed the Gates Protective Association. Thereafter, progress was swift.

A week later, on February 22, 1927, the volunteers reconvened and met with two men from the Rosecroft Club, a civic organization. Mr. Diringer joined them and proposed that a siren be installed on the St. Mary's farm barn to summon the volunteers when an emergency was reported. The group agreed to begin spreading the word that a fire department was being formed. A committee was appointed to gather petition signatures of townspeople in support.

A third meeting was called on March 3, 1927, at which 26 men paid dues to join. The committee turned in a petition with 112 signatures in favor of the Gates Protective Association.

The first officers were elected at the fourth meeting, on April 6, 1927, held at the Common School District No. 1 schoolhouse, located at what is now 2355 Chili Avenue, the location of present-day Station No. 1 and Gates Fire District headquarters. They were: Max Voit, president; Harry Miller, vice president; L. A. Christopher, secretary; Fred Schwartz, treasurer; Charles J. Diringer, chief; C. N. Turner, deputy chief; and Seth Ford, captain.

The horse-drawn cart was the only equipment available for use. Members answered calls on horseback, bicycle, or on foot. A bell was installed at the top of the windmill at St. Mary's Farm. Emergency calls were directed into the farmhouse, where the nuns answered the phone and rang the bell to summon Mr. Diringer from the field with his team of horses. He changed the harness and hooked the team onto the chemical cart. The sisters stood by to answer calls from the volunteers and tell them the location of the alarm.

The fire department's first motorized truck was delivered in January 1928 at a cost of $2,400. The body from the horse-drawn apparatus was transferred to the truck chassis. The truck was housed in a shed attached to the side of Seth Ford's grocery store at 2349 Chili Avenue, just east of the schoolhouse, near the corner of present-day Chili Avenue and Fisher Road.

On February 6, 1931, the voters of Common School District No. 1 voted 50 to 5 to sell the schoolhouse to the fire association for $2,000. The school was relocated across Chili Avenue to the site of present-day Washington Irving Elementary School. Volunteers remodeled the old schoolhouse into a double truck room, meeting hall, and caretaker's quarters.

In 1932, the Gates Protective Association was reorganized under the membership corporation laws of New York State as the Gates-Chili Fire Department Inc.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Book Review

New Society of the Genesee member and Crooked Lake Review contributor, Bill Kauffman, has a new book out, Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet, The Life of Luther Martin.

Martin was a member of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 who fought for a federation of sovereign states instead of a strong national government. With all of his formidable knowlege and eloquence, he argued against the centralized state set up by the new constitution.Such a government provides a channel for the power hungry, he said. Government should be as close to the individual citizen as possible. Republics could thrive only in small territories.

Because Kauffman has done so much research, he does not need to novelize his story to make us believe we are hearing what really happened at the Convention. It was convened, not to write a new constitution, but to repair the Articles of Confederation, then was hijacked by those who wanted a strong central government. Even the name federalist was taken away from the states' righters, and they were forced to become the anti-federalists.

The reader leaves the book with a more open mind about history, less likely to swallow the conventional wisdom that winners are always right, and the only ones deserving of the admiration of posterity, or that great thinkers are always consistent.

It was not a miracle at the Constitutional Convention; it was a group of politicians fighting over their differing viewspoints. Some won; some lost. We can decide for ourselves who was right and who was wrong, but Kauffman makes sure that, this time, history does not bury the dissenters.

Kauffman tells a good story. He names names. He lets us in on the personal hatreds and conflicts that fueled the debates. But all Kauffman's research and finding of documents barely shows. As usual, he makes all his erudition and wit seem easy.

The book is published by ISI, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, PO Box 4431, Wilmington, DE 19807-0431.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

British Invasion

Alarums and excursions; in 1830 our English cousins show how ‘tis done

He was three years away from founding an acting dynasty in 1830, but on May 31 the 34-year-old English-born classical actor appeared in lower Manhattan playing Iago to the Othello of Thomas Cooper, a fellow Brit. Diarist Philip Hone was not particularly impressed with Junius Brutus Booth. Speaking of Booth’s performance, he noted, “It was respectable, but wanted spirit, raciness, and point; but I do not wonder at it, for Cooper is a perfect wet blanket resting upon all around, flat, stale, and unprofitable.” Cooper must have been quite accomplished at lameness if he could manage to make his mercurial, eccentric and often downright strange co-star seem spiritless.

Booth kept quite busy touring during the twenties and thirties and may have only played the one night here in Manhattan but, according to historian Charles Haswell he was back in the beginning of September, playing at the Bowery Theater, rebuilt since its fiery destruction last year. No further mention is made of Cooper, but a new competitor (British, of course) was making his way out from the wings at this time. Charles John Kean. Haswell reports the 19-year-old was appearing at the Park Theatre in Richard III. The specific role isn’t mentioned. But that autumn both actors lost the spotlight to an even younger newcomer.

W. C. Fields could have warned them, if he’d been born 100 years earlier. Joseph Burke had been born to a physician and his wife, in Galway, Ireland, in 1817. As the child of a well-to-do doctor he must have been exposed to life’s finer things right from the beginning. As he reached his first birthday he was able to sing back any song he heard. By the time he was two-and-a-half it was reported, "ladies were afraid to play in his presence, as in case they touched any false note, he immediately exclaimed, ‘You have no taste!'" It was shortly after this that young Joe began showing an interest in the violin. Which, of course, stage parents always having been with us, was immediately indulged. Imagine their joy when he not only learned to play the instrument but began reciting dramatic monologues as well. Mom and Dad weren’t going to hide this light under a bushel.

In 1824 the seven-year-old prodigy debuted in Dublin’s Theatre Royale, in a play called Tom Thumb and returned shortly afterwards in the title role in Hamlet. Now in 1830, as he makes his American debut October 22, at Manhattan’s Park Theatre, he’s a seasoned pro and takes the city by storm. James Stuart, having returned to Hoboken, mentions seeing him several times. Haswell reports, “Besides the parts he played on his first night at the Park, he led the orchestra in an overture and sang a comic song.” But it’s on former mayor Philip Hone that Burke makes the greatest impression. He’s gone to see a performance expecting to be disappointed, but comes away a devotee. Soon he’s bringing the twelve-year-old performer home to play with his own son.

Joseph Burke’s successful career carried him on through his late teens, then it became the old story of the child star growing up and the novelty wearing off. He returned to his old love, the violin, and began a second career, touring the United States, introducing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to America, giving Winston Churchill’s mother piano lessons, and appearing with (and being smitten by) Jenny Lind. In the early eighties he rusticated (retired to a farm) in Alexander, New York, where he died in 1902.

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte