Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Before the E-Z Pass

© 2007 David Minor / Eagles Byte

At one time, back in the early days of steamboats on the Hudson River, there was this joke making the rounds. Seems a frightened farmer, looking down over the edge of the Palisades, was asked what he’d seen that scared him. His reply was that he wasn’t sure, but believed it was “. . . the Devil on his way to Albany, on a sawmill!”

Now, on August 11th, 1830, it was English traveler John Fowler, on the “sawmill” named Albany. Passing the Palisades he describes how they rise, “almost perpendicularly from the shore, and form, for several miles in extent, a solid wall of rock, diversified only by an occasional fishing hut on the beach, at their base . . .” He also notices a few wooden slides coming down from the top, used for shooting down firewood from above for the fishing camps. The Albany continues steaming northward.

Fowler was not the first diarist/author to make this journey in 1830. Slightly over two months previously, 24-year-old William R. Gorgas had arrived in Manhattan from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, along with two companions, Christian H. Bauman and John Fahnestock, preparing to set out on a jaunt similar to Fowler’s. They would roughly precede Fowler all the way to Buffalo, then move on south of Lake Erie to return home by way of Ohio. Since the two itineraries will cover much of the same territory, we may be able to see many of the sights along the way through two slightly different perspectives.

The Pennsylvania party would travel aboard the North America steamboat, as had James Stuart two years earlier. They had started north out of New York back on June 17th. Gorgas mentions the various towns and sights in passing, not going into too much detail until West Point. So we’ll get back to Fowler, as his vessel enters the Tappan Zee (‘Zee’ is Dutch for ‘Sea’, a bit of an exaggeration for this wide spot in the river) just below Tarrytown. In our own time you’ll see the bridge of the same name, becoming a bit ragged around the edges.

This year Tarrytown, on the east shore, and Nyack, on the west, are both stereotypes of the sleepy river village. Although a Presbyterian church has just been formed in Nyack, with services being held in private homes. It’ll be another six years before they have a church building of their own. The other bit of excitement here is the completion this year of the Nyack Turnpike, which connects the river village with Suffern, a few miles off to the northwest, where another turnpike will head north and provide an inland route up to Albany, much like today’s New York State Thruway.

Shortly north of that, you may remember, lies Sing Sing prison. Fowler, as did Stuart, takes enough interest in the place to find out a few facts about the ‘joint’. Last year, when Stuart passed through, construction was still incomplete, prisoners even then laboring to finish their place of confinement. Now the job has been finished. Fowler describes the four-story, 50 by 500 foot building, containing 800 ‘dormitories’. Marble wings at each end of the building (angled out to the river to form an enclosed yard) contain workshops, a chapel, a kitchen and a hospital. The entire structure has reportedly cost $200,000. Last year the prison held 600 convicts. Which, in case you’re wondering, initially divides out to $333 per prisoner. But that’s a one-time expense.

No comments: