America 18/70

Niagara Nuggets – more great ‘finds’

We all know Niagara Falls is one of the global tourist honey pots and it is grossly overcrowded and highly commercialised.

My own special ‘honey pot’

But keep the faith, just start exploring and it gets really interesting! First up, photos from Paul’s helicopter trip help make sense of the geography and location of the falls at the border between USA and Canada.

You can get away from the crowds by rambling through the islands between the falls.

The tip of Goat Island where the Niagara river splits. Bear left for USA, turn right for Canada.

Paul also took an aerial shot of our hotel. So what, you might think?

Giacomo Hotel

This is a very pleasant, rather trendy boutique hotel but it was not our visit that made it famous! It was another Marilyn who came here in 1953 and who was mobbed as she descended these stairs to the hotel lobby.

26 year old Marilyn Monroe arrived on June 2nd 1953 to begin filming of the movie, “Niagara”.  But you will not find this scene in the movie. Marilyn was here to visit a dentist  for some emergency treatment and the news sped round the town!

Another hotel with a very different story…

Cataract House Hotel, Niagara

Once again we had connected up with the Underground Rail Road history. The story of the hotel features in a fantastic exhibition at Niagara Falls railway station. The penny dropped for me at last – Canada was the freedom goal.

from Heritage Center display

‘The permanent exhibition at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, One More River to Cross, features the rich stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls, the crucial role of its location and geography, and the action of its residents – particularly its African American residents.’

These last photos  give just a flavour of the desperate events that took place at Niagara Falls – a World tourist hot spot…

America 18/70

Rochester-Info boards Come to Life!

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!

The view from our favourite brew-house

George Eastman, Kodak founder, ploughed money into the town and this is just one of the benefits.Rochester

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.

George Eastman’s House

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.

Au Revoir, Rochester!
America 18/70

Rochester and the 3 R’s

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.

Frederick Douglass in Rochester
Underground Rail Road sites, Child’s Basin, Rochester
An easily missed vignette of race history

The building today –

Reynolds Arcade, Rochester

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were contemporaries in Rochester and abolitionist meetings were held in her now beautifully preserved house.

Home of Susan B. Anthony

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!

ps, Rochester is also the home of the Kodak empire


America 18/70

The Erie Canal, New York State

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.

Erie Canal
Lake Erie meets the Atlantic

And the actual bucket stands in the New York State Museum in Albany!

Erie Canal

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. 

Here is just one!

America 18/70

Hidden Figures

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!

Underground Railroad
Can you recognise the Inspector Morse location?
America 18/70

Another Saturday Night…

Albany did not get much better during ‘Happy Hour.’

Now, where have you seen this before?
Automat, 1927 by Edward Hopper

Things got a whole lot brighter when we visited the New York State Museum. One of the first things we saw was this Automat!

A bit more information below –

America 18/70


Albany is the capital of the state of New York. It is rich in the typical set pieces of American power, commerce and transportation.

New York State Capitol


University Administrative Centre, formerly Delaware & Hudson Railroad Company Building!
Albany’s former banking glory

Then we wandered down a whole street full of banks!

Coffers into Coffee!
Fancy a sandwich?


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.

Bustling Albany
America 18/70

Thomas Cole – Artist or Eco-Warrior?

The solemn beauty of the Catskills inspired America’s first great landscape artists.

The view of the Catskills from the verandah of Thomas Cole’s house

Thomas Cole made his first trip to Catskill in 1825. The resulting paintings created a sensation and launched the Hudson River School of Art.

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House 1844

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.

From an tourist Information board, Catskill Mountains

Fellow artists did not all agree with his warnings and the Catskills became a popular tourist destination, particularly The Mountain House Hotel.

Mountain House Tourist Information Board

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!

America 18/70

The Catskill Mountains

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.

Can’t you just smell their woodsmoke in this idyllic scene?

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.

A walk in the ‘Blue Forest’

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.”

The repurposed railroad looked great fun.

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.

No comment!
America 18/70

Poughkeepsie – Intimation of Themes to Come!

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.

Hudson Bridge Walkway

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!