Category Archives: Park History

Training the Doughboys

Looking over the playing fields at Fort Niagara State Park, it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago those fields were used for a different purpose: training young New Yorkers headed off to the ‘Great War.’

In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, ending 2-1/2 years of neutrality.  This was not an easy decision for President Wilson, but many factors influenced his decision. There was unrest in Russia and German U-boats were indiscriminately sinking US merchant ships. In addition, it was discovered that Germany had secretly offered to help Mexico recover land lost during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) if Mexico would ally with Germany and declare war on the United States (Mexico did not take up this offer). With all this in mind, Wilson declared war on Germany.

When war was declared, the United States was not ready. The Army was small, with under 100,000 professionally trained soldiers, many of whom had never been on the battlefield.  Sixteen nations had armies larger than the United States.  With the declaration, the Army needed both enlisted men and officers to help defend United States’ interests and allies France, Belgium, and Great Britain.

As the United States inched towards war, Army officials were looking for places to train officers through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).  One of the places that was chosen to train officers was Fort Niagara, an army training post at the mouth of the Niagara River in Youngstown, New York.  When Wilson declared war, Fort Niagara was training troops headed to Panama or to minor conflicts along the Mexican border.

001-Postcards (2)
ROTC trainees, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

The Army planned two ROTC trainings at Fort Niagara in 1917, one from May through August, and the second from August through November.  Each session would train men on field sanitation and hygiene, care of arms and equipment, drilling, military courtesies, and the realities of trench warfare.  The chief training officer was Colonel John W. Heavey.

Because housing for the trainees was in short supply, the camp quartermaster hired day laborers to build nine 20’ x 300’ barracks and four mess halls during the month of April. The buildings were completed before the first class of ROTC trainees arrived.  Telephone and electrical systems were also installed throughout the training facilities in April.

001-Postcards (3)
The ‘Long’ and ‘Short’ spar in autumn 1917, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

The first officer class consisted of 2,500 young men from Pennsylvania, including some from wealthy Philadelphia families.  Local newspapers noted that a few of the officer candidates “know more about the different brands of face powder than they do about gunpowder.”

Nora 3.2
Nora Bayes singing to the ROTC trainees

The second class consisted primarily of New Yorkers, many of which were from Buffalo. These “typical Americans, clean-cut, upstanding fellows, the kind that make fighters” were lucky enough to have a concert by Nora Bayes (Eleanora Sara Goldberg) just after their training started.  Ms. Bayes was a popular actress, singer, and comedian of the time who co-wrote Shine on, Harvest Moon with her husband Jack Norworth.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bayes’ concert was a brief reprieve from the daily 16-hour training.  Each day the trainees had inspections, signal practice, mapmaking, long marches, mock battles and marksmanship, and trench construction.  The trenches were dug on the Fort Niagara Beach.  Military ceremonies marked the end of the training, with the ‘graduates’ learning which regiment they were assigned in the American Expeditionary Forces. American Expeditionary Forces troops were also known as ‘doughboys.’

Advance Guard
Advance Guard, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

After the second ROTC training, the fort became training grounds for 1,772 Polish-American soldiers who were part of the Polish Blue Army.  They trained at Fort Niagara from December 1917 through February 1918 before joining the Western Front.

After the war, Fort Niagara served as the home of the US Army 28th Infantry Regiment until the regiment was relocated to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1940.

Blog adapted from:  Emerson, Robert, Clean Cut, Upstanding Fellows: Fort Niagara’s ROTC Training Camps, 1917 March 2017 Fortress Niagara, p 5 – 15.

Sources

Wikipedia United States in World War I

Katonah Record, July 27, 1917

The Honeoye Falls Times, July 26, 1917

Buffalo Evening News, September 25, 1917

Special thanks to the staff at Old Fort Niagara for their assistance with this post.

Early New York Ironworks

The Copake Iron Works was established in 1845 along the Bash Bish Brook near the Massachusetts border by Lemuel Pomeroy (1788-1849).  Pomeroy  was a prosperous businessman from Pittsfield, MA. After operating an iron furnace in nearby Ancram, NY for the Livingston family, and being involved with the New York and Albany Railroad he started the Copake Iron Works. In 1853 he encouraged the New York and Harlem Railroad to expand the rail line to the ironworks and growing hamlet of Copake Falls Ironworks.   Remarkably, the Ironmasters house and some worker housing from this early period are intact today.

Scanned Document
Copake Iron Works, 1888, State Parks image

In 1861, John Beckley of Cannan, CT purchased the Iron Works.  He sold it one year later to Frederick Miles (1815-1896) of Salisbury, CT. Miles elevated the operation to new heights and the Copake Iron Works developed a reputation for producing high quality iron products such as railroad wheels and axles. Miles also replaced the first furnace with the one that is still on site today and being stabilized by the Friends of Taconic State Park. Miles, who served in Congress with future Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley, entrusted the day-to-day operations to his son William A. Miles.  Thanks to William, and with the good fortune of what is still standing at the property, the Copake Iron Works constitutes the largest group of iron-making remnants in the larger tri-state “Iron Heritage” area. In 2016, the Copake Iron Works was designated a Hudson River Valley National Heritage area by the National Parks Service.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Copake Iron Works Museum showcases iron-making artifacts, and some 25 interpretative signs throughout the beautiful natural setting illustrate iron-making operations in great detail.  Friends of Taconic State Park (Friends) supports the activities of the Taconic State Park – Copake Falls Area, with an emphasis on the preservation of the historic Copake Iron Works. The Friends group staff the museum every weekend in season and takes visitors into the blast furnace.

Parking is plentiful for cars and buses and there are also picnic facilities at the museum.  Stop on over for a visit.

Post by Jim Mackin, Friends of Taconic State Park

Hudson Valley’s Ice Harvesting Heritage

Rockland Lake, a 256-acre spring-fed lake at the foot of Hook Mountain, is today one of the most popular state parks in the Hudson Valley.  Its two golf courses, pool, tennis courts, hiking trails, and ball fields attract legions of people in the summer months, who come to fish, picnic and play in this park along the Hudson River.  And while few people know that the lake once (still might?) claimed to be the home of the world’s largest snapping turtle, there is a growing number of people who proudly point to Rockland Lake’s massive stone ruins along its eastern shore as laying claim to global fame on a distinctly different level, one that is very, very cool.

In 1806, up in Boston, a young and enterprising man named Frederick Tudor cut chunks of ice out of his family’s pond, loaded it onto a boat, and set sail for Martinique, convinced that the world would soon have an insatiable desire for ice in their drinks.  He was a man ahead of his time, and after many false starts, bankruptcies, and even debtor’s prison, his idea finally caught on, and the demand for ice to cool drinks and preserve food spread around the globe.  Rockland Lake, because of its clean spring fed water and proximity to the Hudson River, New York City, and international shipping lanes, soon became the undisputed leader in this new and sustainable industry, and the Knickerbocker Ice Company was formed in 1831 to meet that demand.  What began as a single warehouse to store the ice blocks neatly cut into 20” x 40” rectangles soon became three massive structures capable of containing over 100,000 tons of ice.

ice-harvest-rockland-lake-new-york-historical-society-_flickr
Andrew Fisher Bunner (1841-1897), Cutting Ice, Rockland Lake, N.Y., New York Historical Society, accessed from flickr

A railway was built to convey the ice over Hook Mountain, and included a gravity-fed incline took the cars down the steep face of the mountain to a massive pier, where ice barges on the river were filled and shipped to the city. New York’s “Meat Packing District” was located on the Lower West Side to take advantage of the ice shipped down the Hudson on these barges to cool the meat.  Soon, the ice from Rockland Lake became so famous around the world that imitators sprung up, and even a lake in Sweden was renamed Rockland Lake so that its owners could claim that they sold “Rockland Lake” ice.  It’s hard to imagine that blocks of ice were shipped from a rural New York lake to exotic destinations like Australia and Asia, but for many people and businesses no other ice was as clear and clean as Rockland Lake Ice.

The ice at Rockland Lake was so famous that, in 1900 Thomas Edison Films documented the entire process of harvesting the ice at Rockland Lake, from the horses drawing the ice plows to the workers loading it onto the barges. Watching that film, it is hard to imagine that today the same site is far from the industrial zone depicted in the grainy black and white film.

By the early 20th Century, however, technology had caught up with demand, and artificial ice began to displace naturally harvested ice for most purposes, and while natural ice harvesting continued (and continues today) to be a sustainable source for cooling elsewhere, the harvests stopped at Rockland Lake in 1924.  In 1926, while demolishing the facilities to make way for what eventually became summer cabins and hotels, a fire broke out in one of the buildings whose huge double-sided walls were packed with tons of sawdust to keep the ice cool.  When the smoldering fires were finally extinguished (anecdotally, some said that they burned for over a year), all that was left of the houses were the massive stone walls at the base of Hook Mountain.  Eventually, in the 1950s, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission began buying up private parcels, and in 1965 Rockland Lake State Park welcomed its first guests.  The ruins of the ice house remained, lost but not forgotten.

In 1988, park manager Jack Driver and his wife Barbara led tours of the ruins to those curious about their history and Barbara led volunteers in the successful effort to have the ruins designated as an official Clarkstown Historic Site.  While they managed some success, the Drivers moved to another park assignment away from Rockland Lake, and no proper dedication had ever taken place.  Twenty years later, after jogging past the ruins countless times on the lake’s three-mile paved path, Rockland resident Timothy Englert inquired about the walls, which now contained a tangle of black locust and other trees.  John Burley and Mike Krish, park managers, handed Mr. Englert a manila folder, inside of which was a trove of information regarding the history of the lake’s icy past, as well as official-looking documents attesting to its historic status.  The forgotten folder also contained a faded black and white panoramic photograph of the ice harvesters standing atop the frozen lake, a photo that evoked the pride of place and industry that employed thousands of people during a period of great growth.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mr. Englert realized that no dedication had ever taken place. He enlisted the help of Robert Patalano, a fellow Clarkstown resident and professional ice sculptor, who sculpted an 18’ ice replica of the original Knickerbocker Ice house, while Mr. Englert took one of the rot-resistant locust logs and created the Knickerbocker Bench to commemorate the site with something a bit more durable than ice.  On a bitter cold weekend in January of 2007, the Driver family returned to Rockland Lake as the guests of honor at the Knickerbocker Ice Festival, which grew from a few hundred people that first year to over 25,000 people two short years later.  The festival included massive ice sculptures and historic tours.  That first sculpture lasted five weeks before it melted away.

Today, the legacy of ice at Rockland Lake lives on in historic markers placed throughout the ice house ruins at the park.  Rockland Lake isn’t the only State Park where ice was once harvested.  Both Bear Mountain and Schodack Island once also had ice houses of their own.  And while the ice festival is no longer an annual event, the spirit of the ice lives on in the Knickerbocker benches found along the park’s trails, and in the pride of Rocklanders, who can walk into the ruins of Ice House #3 on a hot summer day and imagine themselves surrounded by 100,000 tons of ice.

Post by Timothy Englert, Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, Inc.

John Burroughs: A Naturalist for the Ages

Upon his death in 1921, the New York Times devoted an entire page to John Burroughs.  The New York State Senate adjourned, and the Daily Times of Los Angeles reported that a resolution passed in Burroughs’ honor by the California State Assembly – it read in part, “whereas press dispatches today announce the death of John Burroughs, foremost naturalist of the United States, be it resolved that in his death the nation has sustained the loss of one who as scientist, citizen and man, occupied a deservedly high place in the regard of all people…”

When I was in my teens, I stumbled upon one of John Burroughs’ 27 books in a local library.  His writing was simple yet elegant and wonderfully descriptive of the natural world.  I was hooked.

Every walk in the woods is a religious rite, every bath in a stream is a saving ordination.

Who was this man of such great fame 100 years ago but who today is almost forgotten?

John Burroughs was first and foremost a farmer who developed an intimate, deep-rooted connection with the land.  Born in 1837, Burroughs dropped out of school after the sixth grade.  He spent 17 years working on his family’s farm and read every single book from his small local library.  His father was a strict Baptist, but Burroughs resisted organized religion.

jb-looking-at-a-bird

I never went to Sunday school and was not often seen inside the church.  My Sunday’s were spent roaming in the woods or fields… following the streams and swimming in the pools. 

 

He briefly attended the Cooperstown Seminary, but formal schooling was not for him.

I can learn more about a cat by it jumping on my lap than by dissecting it in a laboratory.

 At age 20, Burroughs married Ursula North, and like most of his family and acquaintances, she did not support his intense interest in writing.  Undaunted, Burroughs began to write seriously for the Saturday Press and the New York Leader. By age 23, he was regularly publishing essays in the Atlantic Monthly and would continue to do so for the rest of his career.

At age 26, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who was a great influence on him as a writer.  He then moved to Washington D.C. where he met another writing mentor, Walt Whitman, who ultimately became a close friend.  By age 48, Burroughs was a full-time writer and farmer gleaning much of his inspiration for his essays from the natural world that surrounded him.  This is what set him apart from other writers of his time(?).

John Burroughs is credited with inventing the nature essay, a truly American form of creative writing, and he did so in a way that spoke to the masses.  His writings soon became standard in popular magazines, as well as in many schools across the nation where his descriptions of nature enthralled students and piqued their interest in the out-of-doors.

The student and lover of nature has this advantage over people who gad up and down the world, seeking some novelty or excitement; he has only to stay at home and see the procession pass.  The great globe swings around to him like a revolving showcase.

By his late sixties, John Burroughs was a household name across the nation.  He had befriended John Muir and traveled with him as the naturalist on the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899.  Industrialists of the age, including Edison, Firestone and Ford, sought out John Burroughs as the guest naturalist on camping expeditions.  President Roosevelt, a big fan of Burroughs’ essays, steamed up the Hudson River in his presidential yacht to visit the famous writer at his small writing cabin that Burroughs had named “Slabsides.”

The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price.  All that I have ever had or will have can be yours by reaching forth your hand and taking it.

It is impossible to know what influence Burroughs’ work and friendship had on all of these important figures in American history.  What we do know is the extent to which they sought him out, and undoubtedly he helped form their impressions of the natural world and man’s relationship to it.

Our civilization is terribly expensive to all of its natural resources.  One hundred years of modern life doubtless exhausts its stores more than a millennium of the life of antiquity.

John Burroughs died at age 84 on a train heading for home from California.  He was laid to rest in his home town of Roxbury, New York, adjacent to what he referred to as “boyhood rock”, the giant rock he played on as a child.  The property and gravesite are proudly maintained by New York State Parks.  His summer get-away home in his later years, “Woodchuck Lodge”, stands adjacent to his gravesite and is maintained by “Woodchuck Lodge Inc.”  His writing cabin “Slabsides” in West Park, New York, is maintained by the John Burroughs Association.

John Burroughs’ nature writing remains relevant today for several reasons, but perhaps most importantly, because it focuses on nature close at hand, right outside our door.  Wherever we are, there too is nature with all its mystery and wonder.

Young people (and old) are getting outside less, suffering from what Richard Louv described in his book “Last Child in the Woods” as nature deficit disorder.  All of us at State Parks play a critical role in reversing this trend.  We are providing more and more opportunities for young people to get outside to learn about nature and have fun while enjoying the great outdoors!

I suspect John Burroughs would approve.

I am not always in sympathy with nature study as pursued in schools… such study is too cold, too mechanical and likely to rub the bloom off of nature.  It lacks soul and emotion, it misses the accessories of the open air and its exhilarations.

Post by Tom Alworth, State Parks

boyhood-rock-and-gravesite
Boyhood Rock and Gravesite, photo by Tom Alworth

Featured image John Burroughs and grandchild courtesy of New York State Archives

Happy Second Birthday Nature Times!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In this second year of Nature Times we have gotten to know snapping turtles, carnivorous plants, black squirrels, and Sammi, Trailside Museums’ 36 year old bald eagle.  We’ve learned how trails are mapped, how a flock of sheep and goats have become one of State Parks’ 21st century mowing crews, and ways to explore State Parks on foot, in kayaks, on snowmobiles, and on frozen lakes. The stories have featured all kinds of work that State Parks staff and volunteers do throughout the year to help preserve and protect some of New York’s unique and exceptional places. These range from protecting sand dunes on Lake Ontario and old-growth forest at Allegany, to creating native grasslands at Ganondagan State Historic Site, and monitoring invasive species infestations and removing invasive species both on land and water.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We mark this second birthday with 61 new followers and over 24,000 page hits!  And we thank the 32 staff, interns, and partner organizations who have shared their passion for State Parks through the blogs that they have written. We also want to recognize our partnership with the New York Natural Heritage Program who helped in initiating this feature and continues to provide support.

We look forward to continuing our celebration of State Parks in the months to come in Nature Times.  Hope to see you soon at one of our Parks or Historic Sites!