All posts by New York State Parks

To Boldly Go…

About four times each year, State Parks adds a variety of properties to the State Register of Historic Places, a step towards later being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as important pieces of America’s broad cultural heritage.

But while the vast majority of these listings are buildings, like factories, churches, homes, libraries or schools, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, Parks’ historic researchers like me working on the register listings get to take on the story of something truly out of this world.

Science fiction fans worldwide recognize the name “Enterprise” as the name of the starship in iconic 1960s television series Star Trek. A decade after the show went off the air, those fans helped see to it that America’s first prototype of a reusable orbiting spacecraft would also carry that name. In 2013 I was honored to document that historical connection as part of support for the listing the NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise on the state and national historic registers as culturally and technologically significant.

It was 45 years ago this September when the Space Shuttle Enterprise rolled out of its assembly building at Rockwell International Space Division’s facility in Palmdale, California. Waiting outside were a crowd of VIPs that included six cast members of the Star Trek crew, and series creator Gene Roddenberry.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the crew of Star Trek’s fictional Enterprise attended the roll-out of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Rockwell International Space Division’s facility in Palmdale, California. Show (left to right) are Dr. James D. Fletcher, NASA Administrator; DeForest Kelley (Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy); George Takei (Ensign Hikaru Zulu); James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Communications Officer Hyota Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (Science Officer Spock); Star Trek creator and producer Gene Roddenberry; unidentified NASA representative; and Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov).
The model of the Starship Enterprise used during shooting of the Star Trek television series is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit – National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center by Dane A. Penland)

NASA had initially suggested naming the prototype Constitution and even wanted to unveil the spacecraft on September 17 – Constitution Day. But as NASA’s plans became publicly known, thousands of fans of Star Trek – which had gone off the air several years earlier in 1969 – began a write-in campaign to the White House urging President Gerald Ford to name the orbiter Enterprise in honor of the fictional starship.

“I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise,” said Gerald Ford, noting that he had served in the Pacific during World War II aboard a U.S. Navy ship that serviced an aircraft carrier of that name. The Star Trek write-in campaign apparently influenced President Ford and the show’s fans are generally credited as being the driving force behind the shuttle’s name change.

While called Enterprise, the prototype NASA orbiter was formally known as Orbiter Vehicle-101 or OV-101, and represented the culmination of years of research, design, and experimentation. Planning for the Space Shuttle Program had begun in 1968, ten months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The intent was to develop a reusable and affordable vehicle that could travel to and from space routinely, easily, and affordably. 

Unlike typical aviation advancement, the space shuttle was a major technological leap forward. While airplanes tend to slowly evolve over time through constant adjustments based on testing and performance, the systems and design of the shuttle was unprecedented. Space flight capabilities went from disposable rockets and capsules to a reusable cargo space plane in only twenty years; there was no transitional design. As a prototype, Enterprise was largely responsible for making sure these new technologies and concepts worked properly to ensure the safety of the astronauts who would fly aboard the other vehicles.

Two events likely led to the decision to use a rocket/space plane system for the shuttle: the advent of thermal insulation tiles by Lockheed, which made it affordable and convenient to insulate an airplane-like design, and the order by Congress that the next space vehicle meet not only the requirements of NASA but also the U.S. Air Force. One of the biggest requirements of the Air Force was the ability to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California so that classified missions could be completed quickly and efficiently. After testing it was determined that the sweeping, triangular-shaped delta wing design would be more stable and would allow for the necessary maneuverability at high speeds that a conventional wing design wouldn’t allow.

Enterprise, the first and only full-scale prototype orbiter vehicle of the space shuttle fleet,was first used during the Approach and Landing Tests, one of the earliest missions of the Space Shuttle Program. The Approach and Landing Tests program saw Enterprise fly in Earth’s atmosphere, doing so thirteen times, five of which saw it separate from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to fly and land unaided. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is a modified Boeing 747 that is used to transport space shuttle orbiter vehicles in a piggyback-like configuration.

In February 1977, the Space Shuttle Enterprise rides atop a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft as part of approach and landing tests at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
The NASA mission patch for the Approach and Landing Test.
Space Shuttle Enterprise just after releasing from the Boeing 747 carrier aircraft to start a five minute, 28 second unpowered test flight above the Dryden Flight Research Center.

Enterprise was also of paramount importance in planning and preparation at shuttle facilities in Florida and California. In the early days of the Space Shuttle Program, Enterprise was the only completed orbiter vehicle and was therefore the only vehicle capable of ensuring that the facilities were prepared and ready for the first launch. The fit checks, vibration tests, atmospheric flights and landings, and various other development tasks performed on Enterprise enabled Columbia to launch successfully into space during STS-1 on April 12, 1981.

Enterprise was used later in the investigations and procedural revisions following the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents. Following the Challenger accident in 1986, Enterprise aided in crew escape tests. Following the Columbia accident in 2003, one of Enterprise’s wing edges and a landing gear door were borrowed for tests related to foam chunks striking an orbiter during launch. Although the loss of two space shuttle orbiters was a devastating loss, Enterprise helped the program return to flight and continue its mission.

In February 1985, the Space Shuttle Enterprise is in launch position d during verification tests at the Vandenburg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex in California.

In 1983, Enterprise began its role as an ambassador and educational tool. Enterprise was first ferried to Paris, France for the Paris Air Show. The international tour continued on with stops in England, Germany, Italy, and Canada. This tour represents the only time an orbiter has travelled internationally. Upon returning home Enterprise was showcased at the World’s Fair in New Orleans, Louisiana. On November 18, 1985 Enterprise became the property of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

In June 1987 Enterprise was used for testing landing barriers. The landing barrier is essentially a large net stretched across the runway that helps the orbiter reduce speed when landing. The tests were successful, and the landing barriers were installed at three Transoceanic Abort Landing sites (Moron and Zaragota, both in Spain, and Banjul, Gambia). Although retired, Enterprise continued to aid NASA throughout the 1990s and 2000s to test new systems and technology.

Enterprise was put on public display by the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. from 2004 to 2012 before being transferred to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan, where it remains on display.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise makes it final flight on April 27, 2012, atop a NASA 747 carrier aircraft on its way to John F. Kennedy Airport for shipment by barge to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, located at the bottom center of the photo.

Accomplishments of Enterprise and the Space Shuttle Program

The Space Shuttle Program is responsible for releasing some of the most significant orbiting telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The shuttles also released many groundbreaking probes and space craft including:  the Galileo probe, which explored Jupiter; the Magellan probe, which helped map Venus; and the Ulysses probe, which conducted the first systematic survey of the environment of the Sun.

The biggest achievement of the program was the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The main purpose of the ISS is to serve as an orbiting laboratory. The station has advanced science and technology in areas ranging from biology and medicine to astronomy and physics. Hundreds of experiments have been conducted in orbit aboard the shuttle and the ISS. Some of them are long term and more publicized, such as the effects of microgravity on the human body. Astronaut John Glenn, who first traveled to space during the Mercury Program in 1962, returned to space in 1998 at the age of 77 as part of an experiment to better understand the effects of microgravity on the elderly. Other experiments are much smaller in scope, such as determining if fish can swim upright and observing seed growth in microgravity.

Leroy Chiao, NASA astronaut on STS-65 (1994), STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000), as well as commander and science officer on International Space Station Expedition 10 (2004-2005), stated that “[The] shuttle, to me, represents a triumph and remains to this day a technological marvel. We learned so much from the program, not only in the advancement of science and international relations, but also from what works and what doesn’t on a reusable vehicle. The lessons learned from shuttle will make future US spacecraft more reliable, safer, and cost effective.”

The space shuttle program was also the first American space program to reflect NASA’s adoption of diverse hiring practices. In the late 1970s NASA became more progressive regarding its astronaut selection process. Test pilots and military personnel were no longer the only recruitment avenue for astronauts. The agency began focusing on scientists and engineers as well as women and minority groups. The space shuttle program provided a platform for NASA’s shift in culture and allowing space to become accessible for everyone in a way that hadn’t previously existed. The first American woman (Sally Ride, 1983), first African American (Guion Bluford, 1983), and first African American woman (Mae Jemison, 1992) flew in space aboard the space shuttle. In addition, many non-US citizens have flow aboard the shuttle, representing a diverse group of people and a high level of cooperation. NASA brought diversity, equity, and inclusion to space exploration via the space shuttle.

“[The space shuttle] will be remembered for being the vehicle that enabled us to get the International Space Station successfully assembled on orbit, but it depends on what your favorite thing is. If you’re a scientist or an astronomer, it will always be remembered as the vehicle that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope, then flew four successful servicing missions capped off by one of the most spectacular flights in the history of the shuttle program, STS-125, when we did five back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back space walks and carried out every objective of that flight when no one thought we would be able to finish everything.

You look at other satellites that it deployed: Magellan, Ulysses. You look at the space laboratory that was flown on it, or the space habitation module. The people that it took to space. We now see, when you look at an astronaut crew, it’s usually a rainbow of people—all races, all genders, all nationalities…There are countless things that the space shuttle will mean, just depending on who you are and where you sit.”

– Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, 2011

Like its fictional namesake, the shuttle Enterprise was the first step of a bold journey further into outer space. It performed a 36-year mission (seven times longer than that of the Star Trek Enterprise) that set the stage for the shuttles Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavor and their crews to undertake unprecedented scientific and technological missions in orbit. The pioneering vessel truly has a place in the nation’s history, and State Parks was proud to have gotten it listed to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Live Long and Prosper!

One of the many letters received by State Parks to support the historic register listing of the Space Shuttle Enterprise was submitted by NASA astronaut Fred Haise, who had been in command of the shuttle on three of its approach and landing test flights. Haise was also a crew member aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission in 1970.
The Starship Enterprise as seen in the opening credits of the original Star Trek television series. (Photo credit – Paramount/CBS)

All photos credited to NASA unless otherwise noted.

Post by Daniel A. Bagrow, Historic Preservation Program Analyst, State Parks Historic Preservation Office

Kinderhook Home A Revolutionary War Story of War, Loss, and Exile

On Route 9, just south of the village of Kinderhook in Columbia County, a sign proudly proclaims it as the birthplace and home of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. President. Next to that is a purple-and-gold sign for the local Elks lodge.

Right across the street sits an unassuming two-story red brick house with dormer windows. While locals know it as the Tory House, there isn’t a sign. But this house has its own story to tell about early New York, one of a family among many thousands that picked the losing side in the Revolutionary War and ended up years later losing that home to the victors in a practice that was to be banned in the U.S. Constitution.

That family was named van Alstyne, one of the many families with Dutch roots that settled in the region during the 18th century to farm. The family had three sons _ Abraham, the oldest; Peter, the middle son; and John, the youngest. By the time that the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Peter had built his family the red brick house in Kinderhook on land that he and his brothers had inherited as teenagers two decades earlier when their father died.

Earlier this summer, that house – still used as a residence more than two centuries later – was named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places because of the story of Peter Sander van Alstyne and his family. The narrative of this post is based on research for that nomination submitted on behalf of State Parks by the late Ruth Piwonka, a former member of the Historic Preservation Division at State Parks, and a later Parks consultant and historian for Kinderhook.

Peter Sander Van Alstyne was 32 years old in 1775, already a successful farmer, married and with a young family. A local judge appointed by the Colonial government, he found himself caught up in the conflict the following year when a group of town members come to his home to forcefully tell him that his office, resting on royal authority, no longer had authority to settle disputes over debts. That same year, the beleaguered judge was chosen to be a member of the Albany Committee on Correspondence, a kind of shadow authority created by patriot supporters. But as a supporter of British authority (known as Tory, or a Loyalist), van Alstyne was not to last long on the committee, and he and more than a dozen other suspected Loyalists in that body were soon ordered arrested and imprisoned in 1776.

Many New Yorkers felt as van Alstyne did about their loyalty to England. Some studies estimate that about half of the state’s 200,000 residents held Loyalist sentiments, giving New York the highest percentage of Loyalists among the 13 colonies. Like van Alstyne, many New Yorkers took up arms to oppose what they saw as an an “unnatural” rebellion against the legitimate government.

Van Alstyne was released from jail in early 1777, but after being forced by threats to leave his home, he headed north to join British forces in Canada, and by summer was marching with British General John Burgoyne’s army from Lake Champlain in a bid to capture Albany as part of a strategic plan to split the rebellious colonies in two. His Kinderhook home was being used as a staging point for Loyalists and military supplies in the event that Albany fell.

But that moment was not to come, and van Alstyne was there when Burgoyne’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga that September, a battle that marked a turning point in the American Revolution and convinced the French to support the rebels.

Surrender of General Burgoyne, painted by John Turnbull, 1822. Showing Burgoyne presenting his sword to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, this painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol. Peter Sander van Alstyne took part in this battle – on the losing side. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)

By 1778, van Alstyne had gone to New York City and Long Island, which were under British control, to command sailors who fought in small boats called bateaux. His armed opposition to the Revolution by this point had put his life at risk. Continental troops stationed near his Kinderhook home were trying to catch him, and had captured some of his associates, some of whom were put to death as traitors. By October 1779, van Alstyne had been formally indicted as an “enemy of the state” by New York authorities under what was called the Forfeiture Act. As the war neared an end, New York officials in early 1783 ordered him stripped of his lands, his livestock, and his home, where his brother John’s family was living.

On Sept. 8, 1783, only five days after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, van Alstyne and his family, along with many other displaced Loyalists from Columbia, Rockland, Orange, Ulster, Westchester, and Dutchess counties, as well as some of the troops from Major Robert Rogers, of the famed Rogers’ Rangers backcountry unit, set sail for British-controlled Canada, according to a 1901 account published by Columbia University.

Settling on the northern shore of Lake Ontario near Quinte Bay, van Alstyne received a government land grant of 1,200 acres and became a prominent member of the community, being appointed a judge and later winning election to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. He died in 1800, at age 57.

The former Kinderhook resident was among thousands of New York Loyalists, perhaps as many as 35,000 people, who left the state during and after the Revolutionary War for refuge in British dominions including Canada, according to the 1901 Columbia University account. That came from a total state population of about 200,000, so the forced migration represented about one in every six New Yorkers.

The 1901 account from Columbia University estimated that during the war, there were “at least 15,000 New York Loyalists serving in the Brish army and navy, and at least 8,500 Loyalist militia, making a total in that state of 23,500 Loyalist troops. This was more than any other colony furnished, and perhaps as many as were raised by all others combined.”

The legacy of these Loyalists who left New York can be found in the historic structures along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. Said State Parks historic researcher William Krattinger, “I focus quite a bit on the built and architectural environment and have seen examples of Dutch-framed barns and houses erected in Ontario, undoubtedly erected by builders from the Hudson, Mohawk and Schoharie valleys who were banished to the north after the Revolution. These New Yorkers brought their material culture with them.”

This 1786 painting by James Peachy, a British military surveyor, shows American Loyalists camped out on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River at Johnstown (across from present-day Ogdensburg) during the summer of 1784 as part of their relocation into new lands in Canada. (Photo Credit – American Revolution Institute – Society of the Cincinnati)

Two years after van Alstyne’s death, New York State officials passed a law in 1802 to renew its still incomplete efforts to confiscate a list of Loyalist properties – a list that included van Alstyne’s Kinderhook home. Offering a bonus to anyone who pointed out forfeited property that had still not been seized, the law described those who had forfeited that property for opposing the Revolution as “attainted.” This concept originates from English criminal law, in which those condemned for a serious capital crime against the state lost not only their life, but also their property, the ability to bequeath property to their descendants, and any hereditary titles.

New York’s bid to seize and sell off remaining Loyalist property two decades after the end of the war came even though the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, specifically prohibits “bills of attainder” passed by legislatures to condemn those deemed state enemies and seize their property.

Here the trail of what happened to van Alstyne’s red brick house grows cold. A clear title to prove who owned the home after van Alstyne lost ownership appears in the public record only starting in the 1850s, although records of forfeiture and sale for other Loyalist properties in Columbia County do exist.

The fate of this home represents just one family’s part of the larger story of how the end of the Revolutionary War meant exile and loss for thousands of New Yorkers who had sided with England, and how the fallout of that time continued for years until the Revolution could truly considered to be ended.


Cover Shot _ Peter Sander Van Alstyne house, Kinderhook. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Parks

Resources

Learn more about the Loyalist experience in New York State, using these sources:

A New York Public Library blog post on the 1802 list of Loyalist property to be confiscated in New York State.

A 1901 study into Loyalism in New York State by Alexander Clarence Flick, published by Columbia University Press.

An account by the National Library of Scotland into the lives of two New York Loyalists.

A NYS Parks Blog post about Hudson Valley Loyalist Frederick Philipse III, one of the richest men in Colonial New York whose home is now Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, Westchester County.

Getting to Know the Natural Heritage Trust

Did you know that New York State’s public lands and waters have had a charitable partner for more than 50 years? The Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) was established in 1968 as a non-profit, public benefit corporation with the mission to support parks, outdoor recreation, historic preservation and land and water conservation throughout state lands.

During this time, the NHT has worked with its agency partners — New York State Parks, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Department of State (DOS) to raise funds, secure grants and support programs in benefit of the state’s environmental, outdoor, and historic resources

New York has a long and cherished history of private support for parks and public lands. Starting more than a century ago, large land donations and philanthropy formed the very beginnings of the New York State Park system. During Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s administration, the state established the Natural Heritage Trust to provide the organizational structure for park philanthropy.

In the decades that followed, countless examples of generosity at all levels — from small individual donations to a favorite park or trail, to large foundation grants for construction projects — have supported parks and nature centers, conserved significant historic and cultural sites, and protected natural resources in state lands across New York. 

The impact of philanthropy is found throughout New York’s State Parks. Places such as the Emma Treadwell Nature Center and the Park Center at Thacher State Park; the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park; Harriman State Park, and the Rockefeller State Park Preserve would not have been possible without significant support from the families who bear their names. Philanthropy also built and cares for Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park; the Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park, the Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gateways along the Empire State Trail in Western New York.

The free loaner Bike Library at Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn is supported in part by the Natural Heritage Trust.
A gateway at Buffalo Harbor State Park supported by a donation to the Trust by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

The Trust also raises funds to expand access to outdoor recreation through programs like Connect Kids to Parks, Ladders to the Outdoors, Learn-to-Swim, the Bike Library at Shirley Chisholm State Park; youth camping opportunities at DEC’s overnight summer camps and sports programs at Riverbank State Park. Our support boosts large events like the Memorial Day Air Show and annual fireworks display at Jones Beach State Park.

The NHT also works in partnership with Friends groups and other non-profits.  It is currently the fundraising partner to The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park. To date, over $3 million has been raised for the construction of this innovative, fully privately funded sensory trail for families of visitors with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities..


For many New Yorkers, parks are cherished places where families spend valuable time together. Gifts to the NHT are often made in memory and in honor of friends and loved ones for whom a park, trail or place in nature had particular significance. From memorial benches and tribute tiles to estate planning, the NHT is honored to provide this opportunity of remembrance for so many. To learn more about this type of giving to the NHT, visit www.naturalheritagetrust.org. All donations to the NHT are fully tax-deductible.

Careful financial stewardship guides the NHT’s mission, resulting in a robust organization prepared to expand the impact of private philanthropy and strategic partnerships throughout New York State.  The NHT currently holds just over $59 million in total assets, including more than $32 million for permanent endowments.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, it managed over $18 million in program and activity revenues, donations, grants, and corporate sponsorships, while expending approximately $12.4 million in support of a wide variety of exemplary projects like those described above.

Individual donations made up nearly a third of donations to the Trust last year, with the rest coming from foundations, corporations and Friends groups.

The investment policies of the Trust also reflect its responsible stewardship and the environmental and social values inherent in its mission. In early 2021, the NHT’s Board of Directors approved the incorporation of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria into the Trust’s investment decisions to encourage sustainable business practices and ethical behavior of companies.

Parks are a vital part of New York’s social fabric. They connect communities and offer both respite and relaxation, and adventure and exploration. New Yorkers are proud of their parks and the NHT is honored to be entrusted with the thousands of donations New Yorkers make every year to support them.

The NHT is eager to connect with supporters. It recently launched a new website and Facebook page. Learn more about supporting the parks, historic site and outdoor programs you love by visiting the NHT on its website, connecting on Facebook or signing  up for its e-newsletter.


Post by Sally Drake, Executive Director of the Natural Heritage Trust

Read the 2021 Annual Report of the Natural Heritage Trust by clicking below.

Training Protects Threatened Rattlesnakes

Twenty-five years ago, as a young Fish and Wildlife Technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I was recruited for an unusual field outing on State parkland in the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York: a first of its kind, hands-on training to become a certified nuisance rattlesnake responder.  

As a responder, I would be on a short list of people willing to safely and legally relocate timber rattlesnakes that had wandered into compromising situations on private property – a win-win for both the homeowner and snake.  No such system was in place in the Hudson Valley and, without it, many homeowners took matters into their own hands, often with a shovel or shotgun.

Randy Stechert, a long-time herpetologist and regional rattlesnake expert who has worked through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, led our small group to a remote rocky clearing in search of Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. The largest of New York State’s three venomous snake species (the others being the northern copperhead and massasauga rattlesnake), the timber rattlesnake was in trouble, owing to centuries of habitat loss and direct persecution, including a bounty system lasting into the 1970s.

These depredations were so effective the State declared the species Threatened in 1983, a designation requiring conservation measures to keep it from slipping to Endangered status or worse. Currently under New York State Environmental Conservation Law, it is illegal to capture, kill or possess any native snake at any time without a permit, including rattlesnakes.

The mission of that long-ago outing was to familiarize our ragtag group of would-be responders with this species in the flesh. Randy would show us a wild rattlesnake and how to safely handle it, while imparting his wisdom about all things rattlesnake in his booming baritone voice.

And boy did he deliver.

I will never forget the robust, nearly all-black rattlesnake plucked from a huckleberry patch and deposited on the open bedrock just feet in front of me. Most memorable was how easily we could stand beside this now agitated wild animal with little concern about its intentions. It was in a clearly defensive posture, coiled and ready to repel any further attacks from this presumably malevolent band of primates.

A black morph timber rattlesnake. Colors range from nearly jet black, to browns, to sulfur yellow. (Photo credit – DEC/William Hofman)
A yellow morph timber rattlesnake.

In the ensuing decades, and after handling dozens of rattlesnakes in my research and as a nuisance responder, I’ve come to understand them as pacifists at heart.  Despite their considerable weaponry – two hypodermic needle-like fangs and potent venom – they really just want to be left alone.  In fact, their first response to human presence is to remain motionless, and hope their camouflage shields them from detection.  If detected and a retreat is available, such as a rock crevice, they will typically make a rapid exit to safety.  But if they feel exposed, vulnerable, and without a means for escape, they quickly switch gears in an attempt to intimidate their aggressor.  A cornered rattlesnake coils, inflates to look more girthy, and rapidly vibrates its namesake rattle to audibly back up the message. This menacing version is our popular notion of a rattlesnake but, ironically, is merely a response to the perceived threat posed by us. 

The snake’s rattle is made from rings of keratin – the same hardened protein our fingernails and hair are made of. A new rattle segment is formed every time a snake sheds its skin. When the snake rapidly shakes its tail, the rings vibrate and produce a rattling or buzzing noise used by the snake as a warning to keep away. (Photo credit – New Hampshire Fish and Game Department/Brendan Clifford.)
Hear a rattlesnake rattle…

Since that indelible first encounter with a wild rattlesnake on State Park land, I have become increasingly entwined with this charismatic species. I’ve rescued them from homeowner’s yards, conducted field surveys for their winter dens, and ultimately took a very deep dive into unraveling the timber rattlesnake’s mating system and reproductive ecology as a graduate student.   

Still managed by the DEC, the nuisance rattlesnake response program includes most members of that original group recruited in the mid-1990s.  While Randy Stechert continues to host trainings (now done with captive snakes, rather than wild ) in recent years, he has passed the torch to another generation of trainers, including myself here at State Parks. 

Where I work at  Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park , natural resource staff, backcountry rangers and our own zookeepers have been trained using our captive rattlesnakes under this program, expanding Parks’ in-house capacity to respond to nuisance situations at all our locations. 

Other conservation measures have been installed as well in recent years.  For example, all park development projects are “screened” by location to assess their potential for rattlesnake impacts. When possible, projects sited within snake habitat are scheduled for November to March, when the snakes are less likely to be active and in harm’s way.  When this can’t be done, the contractor is required to develop a rattlesnake response plan and have an onsite snake monitor to head off conflicts. In some cases, when habitat loss or direct impacts are considered unacceptable, the project is relocated, reconfigured, or even denied.

The timber rattlesnake has been a survivor, persisting in the rocky uplands of the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier and eastern Adirondacks for at least the last six thousand years. Our past concerted efforts to eliminate it from the landscape were unsuccessful, and good thing. As more species disappear and the fabric of nature unravels, thread by thread, the value of having formidable, wild creatures about us only increases.

State parklands are a critical refuge for this imperiled snake in New York and can remain this way with a little foresight, planning, and, frankly, empathy, on our part.  If we can successfully accommodate the long-term survival of the timber rattlesnake, it will bode well for biodiversity overall.

Timber rattlesnakes reach the northern limit of their range in New York and New England.(Photo credit – NYS DEC)
A researcher marked this snake’s rattle with red paint to aid future identification.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake?


If you are on State parkland or elsewhere in the wild, observe the snake from a safe distance (at least six feet), and take a moment to enjoy this majestic animal. If you snap a picture with your cell phone and want to share it with others over social media, it is best to do this without disclosing exact location information. You can either share a screenshot or make sure location services are disabled on your phone. This will keep the location secret from snake poachers attempting to mine online location data. After briefly observing the snake, back away and make a detour around its location to continue your hike.

In a nuisance situation where the snake’s presence is problematic, such as in or near a dwelling or public space, a certified relocation expert can be obtained by calling 911 or the DEC. Please remember: Do not attempt to disturb or capture the snake yourself.  Seeking expert assistance in this instance is one way to help New York preserve its biodiversity.


Cover shot – A yellow morph timber rattlesnake blends into the forest floor. All pictures NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Ed McGowan, PhD, Director of Science and Trailside Museums & Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park

Resources


New York Natural Heritage Program guide to the timber rattlesnake.

Read a recent scientific study on how rattlesnakes use their rattles to make a snake sound closer than it actually is.

Read about a DEC and multi-agency investigation between 2006 and 2009 into the illegal wildlife trade in rattlesnakes, other reptiles and amphibians.

Learn more about the timber rattlesnake in this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog…


Respect for Rattlers

Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head … Continue reading Respect for Rattlers

Propelling History At New York State Parks

At this summer’s grand opening for the revamped Pier 76 in Manhattan, most visitors likely noticed a massive ship propeller on display near the entrance. At 18 feet in diameter and weighing more than 30 tons, it is certainly hard to miss.

State Parks oversaw the propeller’s installation from the nearby Intrepid museum as part of its $31 million construction and renovation project to remake Pier 76 into the newest public recreational and cultural space in the city’s Hudson River Park. But another part of State Parks’ mission is preserving and documenting history, such as this massive nautical object and the story behind it.

Workers lower the massive propeller into place at Pier 76.

It is a story of a bygone era of luxury transatlantic travel aboard the SS United States, a liner launched during the Korean War whose passengers included such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and a former king of England, as well as four U.S. Presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton, who crossed the ocean as a college student on his way to Oxford University in England. After iconic animator and filmmaker Walt Disney traveled to Europe aboard, he used it as the setting for one of his family-friendly comedy movies of the 1960s. The ship featured prominently in the advertising of the 1950s and 1960s as an epitome of style and casual elegance.

The bronze-manganese propeller at Pier 76 was one of four that allowed the SS United States – a ship longer and heavier than the ill-fated RMS Titanic – to have blazing speed. Able to go faster in reverse than the RMS Titanic could go forward, the “Big U” set a speed record for passenger liners using only two-thirds of its power on its July 1952 maiden voyage from New York City to Europe. That record still stands today, decades after jet aircraft became the preferred way for people to cross the ocean.

The SS United States set a speed record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1952 that still stands. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)
The SS United States shown in her homeport of New York City harbor in the 1950s.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the SS United States being launched and christened, with 2022 as the 70th anniversary of that record-setting maiden voyage. After its brief but illustrious 17-year career, the ship was permanently withdrawn from service in 1969, the victim of changing travel habits, increasing fuel costs, and loss of government support. Since then, numerous attempts to repurpose the vessel have fallen through.

Now docked in Philadelphia while a national not-for-profit group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to preserve it, the SS United States is one of the world’s last surviving examples of ocean-going luxury.

When the ship was completed, it cost approximately $78 million, with about two-thirds of that cost covered by the U.S. Navy, which wanted to create the world’s fastest ship for military use. That was equivalent to about $800 million today, enough to cover the expense of two modern Boeing 777 passenger jetliners. At the time, many details of the vessel’s construction were a military secret, since the Navy wanted a liner that could be converted quickly into a troop ship in the event of war. The SS United States was capable of carrying up to 14,000 troops, 1,444 crew, and a 400-bed hospital for 10,000 miles without refueling.

In addition to speed and military adaptability, the liner also had modern, distinctly American stylings setting it apart from the more traditional luxury vessels of earlier days. Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs of Gibbs & Cox (designer of 5,400 World War II vessels, including the famed “Liberty Ships”) and constructed in Newport News, Va., the ship was marketed as a vacation in itself. Advertising campaigns during the 1960s emphasized that ocean voyages, even for business, could be a pleasure – you would arrive faster on an airplane, but you would arrive happier on an ocean liner!

An advertising poster touts the speed of the SS United States, and its sister ship, the SS America.

To further emphasize this vision, designers Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart worked for three years with a dozen assistants to design the interior decoration of the ship’s public spaces and hundreds of passenger staterooms. Discarding the stuffy old-world style previously found on American ships, the SS United States had a contemporary look that emphasized simplicity over the palatial, and restrained elegance over glitz. The ship’s modern interiors were soothingly homelike.

Gibbs also was concerned with fire risks and mandated that no flammable materials could be used in the ship including construction materials and interior décor. Aluminum was used extensively in the structure, making the ship lighter (and thus faster) while also fireproof. The only wood found in the ship was the kitchen’s butcher blocks and the mahogany Steinway pianos.

Marckwald and Urquhart’s decorating included several commissioned works of American-themed art for public spaces from Hildreth Meière, Louis Ross, Peter Ostuni, Charles Lin Tissot, William King, Charles Gilbert, Raymond Wendell, Nathaniel Choate, Austin M. Purves Jr., and Gwen Lux. Marckwald humorously noted of the interior : “One thing we don’t do on a ship is use color that is at all yellowish green—you know, anything that will remind a traveler of the condition of his stomach.”

After Walt Disney traveled aboard the SS United States, he was so impressed that he decide to use the ship – its exterior colors were patriotically red, white and blue – as a setting for his 1962 comedy film “Bon Voyage!” about an American family’s European vacation.

This publicity still for Bon Voyage! shows stars Jane Wyman, Fred MacMurray, and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran throwing paper streamers over the railings as the SS United States set sail. (Photo Courtesy of SS United States Conservancy)

What gave the vessel its speed was a propulsion system of eight boilers and four 1,000-psi steam turbines that provided more than 240,000 horsepower (more than four times that of the RMS Titanic) to four independent propellers, two with four blades and two with five blades. These designs reduced both cavitation – the formation of partial vacuums in a liquid by a swiftly moving solid body such as a propeller – and resulting ship-wide vibration.

Despite the enormous fuel consumption, the ship could carry enough fuel and supplies to travel non-stop up to 10,000 miles at a cruising speed of 34 knots and a top speed of 38.32 knots (about 44 miles per hour). This incredible combination of weight, power, and speed allowed the ship to make its 1952 maiden crossing at an average of 34.51 knots (or nearly 40 miles an hour).

This earned the Big U the Blue Riband – an unofficial accolade given to the fastest transatlantic passenger liner.

A worker checking one of the four-bladed propellers of the SS United States prior to its 1951 launch. (Photo Credit – Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Pioneering marine engineer Elaine Kaplan was responsible for overseeing the design of the ship’s unique propeller configurations. She began working at Gibbs & Cox during the early 1940s while attending Hunter College in New York City and pursuing a mathematics degree. Kaplan’s efforts were noted by the firm’s chief marine engineer Walter Bachman as well as William Francis and Frederic Gibbs.  As a result of her intelligence and meticulous work, she was ultimately assigned to design the propulsion system for the SS United States.

Another aspect of the design that aided performance was the underside of the hull, especially the bow, which used an unusual bulbous shape instead of the traditional knife-edge. This improved high-speed performance and reduced water resistance and friction. For many years, this and other below-water details were classified information, and no public drawings or photos below the waterline were available. Display models of this sleek and modernistic liner showed a flat bottom and no details!

Intensely proud of his vision, Gibbs said of his ship: “You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

Despite all this, the SS United States was retired from active service in 1969 due to increasing pressure from affordable trans-Atlantic airline flights, increased operating and fuel costs, and the U.S. government’s decision to end its operating subsidies after determining the vessel would never be used as a troop ship. By 1980 the vessel was considered obsolete for military use and subsequently sold off to a successive series of private entities.

In 1999, the ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The preservation group SS United States Conservancy, headed by Gibbs’ granddaughter Susan, purchased the ship in 2011 and has been raising funds and promoting redevelopment plans to save it from being dismantled. Now striped of much of its interiors and its trademark funnels faded, the vessel is currently berthed in Philadelphia, Pa., where it has been since 1996. It is not currently open for public tours.

“We appreciate New York State providing such a prominent location for one of the ship’s iconic propellers. It is awe-inspiring to see this sculptural component of the ship on proud display back in her homeport of New York,” said Susan Gibbs, President of the SS United States Conservancy.

“For the past decade the Conservancy has kept the SS United States safely afloat,” she said. “Although “America’s Flagship” remains endangered, this iconic symbol has enormous potential to once again welcome and inspire millions of visitors as a thriving mixed-use destination and dynamic museum on the waterfront. We are working every day, along with our partners and supporters from across the country and around the world, to save the United States.”

Two other SS United States propellers also are displayed in New York State. One is at the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in The Bronx, and the other is at the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point, in Nassau County on the North Shore of Long Island. An additional propeller on public display is located at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.

A historic postcard of the SS United States.
The propeller against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Pier 76 served as a freighter terminal for New York City-based United States Lines, owners of the SS United States. The company vacated the pier in the 1970s.

Cover shot – SS United States propeller on display at Pier 76. Images from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Daniel Bagrow, historic preservation program analyst NYS Parks, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.

RESOURCES

Watch this video of the SS United States by Bright Sun Films.

A look at the ship’s role in the Disney film BonVoyage!

SS United States Conservancy Facebook Page

SS United States Conservancy Conservancy web page

Learn about the SS United States Conservancy’s plans to redevelop the ship

Technical details about the SS United States’ propellers