Rochester is a great city-full of interest and surprises. Incorporated in 1834, it was the Erie Canal, the abundant water power and railway linkages that made it one of the early boom towns of the “West.”
There are 3 waterfalls on the Genesee river which powered the grist mill in 1789 that started the settlement.
The industrialists developed the town big time.
Their legacy exists in the renovated lofts, creative work spaces and trendy eateries that were everywhere. We loved staying in a city that had a Niagara-like water fall bang in the middle of town!
George Eastman, Kodak founder, ploughed money into the town and this is just one of the benefits.
We loved the elegant tree lined streets, much favoured by the industrialists who made their fortunes in flour milling, clothing, shoes, photographic and optical instruments.
The museums, libraries and archives are to die for. And so are the wonderful staff! We met Gabriel Pellegrino, Librarian, who was a mine of information.
Race, Rights and Revivalism! These were just some of the historic social movements that used Rochester as a base from which to question the status quo. Our Swedish pioneer trail became submerged by the rich offer. Frederick Douglass lived and published here.
The building today –
Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were contemporaries in Rochester and abolitionist meetings were held in her now beautifully preserved house.
Her life and activism is brilliantly portrayed in this property. I sensed she understood Suffragist campaign PR and marketing as this tiny artefact shows:
Her work deserves a blog all of its own so I will leave you with this link and a bit of fun below!
Pre-holiday research had alerted us to the existence of the Erie Canal. But what we did not realise was its significance to the development of America! First some hard data:
North America’s most successful and influential public works project.
Built between 1817 and 1825, it was the first all water link between the Atlantic Seaboard and Great Lakes.
Canal packet boat passengers traveled from Albany to Buffalo in 5 days, rather than 14 by stagecoach.
An engineering marvel at a time when America had no qualified engineers.
But they sure knew how to party when it was completed!
On October 26 1825, Governor Clinton and his party boarded the packet boat Seneca Chief , with two wooden barrels of Lake Erie water, to begin the journey from Buffalo to New York City. Eight days later, Clinton ceremoniously emptied the water into the Atlantic Ocean to marry the waters as a symbol of the importance of this canal.
And the actual bucket stands in the New York State Museum in Albany!
Now for the ‘soft’ stuff. The Erie Canal became the route to opportunity and prosperity in the American interior. New York City became the nation’s busiest port and most populous city and immigrants knew they could find work in the many new cities sprouting along the canal.
But the Erie Canal carried more than goods and people.The general prosperity and the cosmopolitan nature of the Canal corridor created a climate where social innovation could flourish.It was a conduit for ideas. Several of the 19th century’s most influential social reform movements started or flourished along the canal system.
Just before leaving Albany we struck gold in finding the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence – a significant location in the history of the Anti-slavery and Underground Railroad period. We were given a personal tour of the house by Paul Stewart, co-founder with his wife Mary-Liz of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, Inc. We exchanged contact details with Paul Stewart so that we could keep in touch with their inspirational work in public history. Imagine our joy when we received an email in the Autumn saying that they were in Oxford for an Inspector Morse pilgrimage and could we meet up!
Albany is the capital of the state of New York. It is rich in the typical set pieces of American power, commerce and transportation.
Then we wandered down a whole street full of banks!
Despite all this grandeur, Albany just felt empty. Its downtown decline has been attributed to urban sprawl and party politics. It seems to have a love-hate relationship with the power bases in New York city. Governor Norman Rockefeller tried to re-invigorate the city with a typical, monumental Plaza – it worked in New York didn’t it? Well, take a look at Saturday afternoon in downtown Albany.
The solemn beauty of the Catskills inspired America’s first great landscape artists.
Thomas Cole made his first trip to Catskill in 1825. The resulting paintings created a sensation and launched the Hudson River School of Art.
Cole believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation and he sought to warn America not to do to nature what industrial England had done. He warned about the perils that unchecked industry posed to the natural world. Born in Bolton, Cole knew all about the polluted and overcrowded world of factories belching smoke. To Cole, the greed that precipitated the American land grab heralded environmental ruin.
Fellow artists did not all agree with his warnings and the Catskills became a popular tourist destination, particularly The Mountain House Hotel.
As a keen fan of psycho-geography, I just had to follow in their footsteps! Spot the lady in pink, standing on the precipice of the former site of the Mountain House Hotel!
From Poughkeepsie, unsure of its identity, we continued up the Hudson to the Catskill Mountains – a region resonant with many identities.
The Native Americans that were there in 1609 when Henry Hudson arrived were robbed in 100 years of their homeland, their religion and their river.
Their world was overrun by explorers, trappers, settlers, missionaries, militia and travellers. The lush timbered land was grabbed by the likes of speculators, Johannes Hardenbergh and Robert Livingstone. Forty ‘Livingstone’ mansions still stand along the banks of the Hudson.
Our base in the Catskills was a log cabin near the hamlet of Phoenicia.
Although lying deep in the forested foothills, the shabby-chic, little town of Phoenicia had played its part in America’s economic development – and the desecration of natural resources that seemed to go hand in hand. We discovered the Bluestone history quite by accident taking a walk in the forest where the terrain was unusual to say the least.
An information board states: “In the mid-19th-century the streets of America’s growing cities needed good solid paving materials. To meet this need, enterprising local residents began about 1852 to quarry the region’s single most abundant mineral resource; a high quality, unusually hard sandstone, known locally as Bluestone. In New York City, Bluestone quickly became the building material of choice for sidewalks and curbs, as well as decoratively for use in window and door sills. The arrival of the railroad in 1870 provided a viable means of getting the stone to market, and commercial quarrying in the Phoenicia area began in earnest.”
For a period of about 30 years, Phoenicia was a centre of the bluestone trade. Stonecutters came from Europe bringing their expertise and adapting old world techniques to the challenges they encountered. This helped explain why this isolated hamlet has a beautiful Catholic stone church – many of the quarry workers came from Italy.
Another important economic activity for Phoenicia was the Tanbark industry. In the mid-1700s the first non-native settlers to the region were farmers from the Hudson Valley. The settlements were small and dependent on subsistence farming. The first major industry to develop was the harvesting of hemlock trees. At that time hemlock was the predominant species. It wasn’t the wood from these trees but rather their bark that was commercially valuable. In the early 1800s it was discovered that hemlock bark with its high concentration of tannic acid was an effective tanning agent. Tanneries were established throughout the region to facilitate the trade. The Delaware Plank Road was opened in 1851, built entirely of hemlock planking milled from the barked trees. The local forests soon felt the effect of the tan bark rush. Hemlock stands were cleared, bark stripped, and the wood left to rot. Bob Steuding, in his book, The Heart of the Catskills, estimates that in its 20-year history, the Pratt Tannery alone used 100,000 cords of hemlock bark from an estimated 400,000 trees.
The train going north from Grand Central Station runs through the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ landscape of the Hudson Riverway to Poughkeepsie. The town appears somewhat unprepossessing, given its proximity to West Point Academy and Vassar College. Nonetheless, it revealed the first glimpse of the themes and artefacts which would underpin our entire journey to Minnesota. We saw the relics and remnants of a grand industrial era repurposed for the modern tourist eco-industry. At 212 feet above the Hudson River, we took the 1.28-mile linear park Walkway sited on the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge.
The next theme was climate change. Weather warning messages, bulletins and ‘surprises’ became an everyday event.
The third holiday theme that began to seep into our consciousness was water – or rather the role rivers played as arteries of American development.
The people followed water, like veins across the landscape, to build new lives, businesses and communities. These natural highways knitted together the American nation as it developed. In early days, the entire journey from New York to Minnesota was by water and we were able to journey by rail and road because modern transportation had adopted the routes!
An important part of Paul’s pre-travel planning was the location of speciality American Diners. The one in Poughkeepsie did not disappoint!
There is only one place to go to really get the full works on New York’s immigrant history. The Tenement Museum portrays the lives of real people who once lived in the block at 97 Orchard Street.
Visitors take guided tours of the building to see the restored apartments and businesses of past residents. I chose the ‘Hard Times’ tour to discover how a German-Jewish family survived the panic of 1873 and how the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Entering the dark and dingy ‘dumbbell’ hallway was an experience I will never forget. Our guide developed each life story using documents and texts whilst we stood experiencing the authentic atmosphere of a tenement apartment. Amazing!
Later I chose one of the ‘Walk the Neighbourhood’ tours called Outside the Home. The tour included the Jarmulowsky Bank, a former Loews Theatre and the Daily Forward Building – all very significant in the social history of the community.
For great interior shots of this once famous Loews theatre on Canal St, visit Uncle Google!
If this has whetted your appetite, here is the web site for the Tenement Museum. The About Us page tells the story of its founding in 1980s – by two inspired women who were way ahead of the curve in discerning the importance of ‘history from below!’ And just to reiterate that point, I was advised by my New Yorker friend, Lisa, to book my tours months ahead as they get sold out!
Ps Have a look at the shop! I could not resist my very own ‘fire escape’ pendant.
Finally after all this urban angst, it is time to reconnect with the Swedish pioneers, navigating their way up the Hudson river…