Category Archives: State History

Front Line Nurse: A Tale of Sacrifice

As the Revolutionary War was drawing to an end, General George Washington wanted an award that recognized merit in the common soldier. So, he created the Badge of Military Merit _ the precursor to the Purple Heart _ while at his Newburgh headquarters in the Hudson Valley.

It was more than 150 years later when a New York resident and immigrant became the first woman to receive the Purple Heart for suffering wounds in wartime. And she was a nurse, a profession that has again finds itself at risk in the front lines during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

One night in August 1917 during World War I, a German aerial bomb exploded at a military field hospital in Belgium. It was about four miles behind trenches where hundreds of thousands of British, French, Belgian and German troops were fighting the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.

Metal shrapnel ripped through a tent at Casualty Clearing Station #61, where 36-year-old U.S. Army nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald was rising from her cot to start her shift caring for wounded Allied soldiers. Jagged shards struck her face, damaging her right eye so badly that it later had to removed by doctors.


Beatrice Mary MacDonald in 1905 after completing her nurses’ training.

Although serving in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, MacDonald was a native of Canada, where she grew up in a large family on Prince Edward Island. She had come to New York to get her nursing training in 1905 and chose to live there afterward to pursue her career. When war came, she volunteered for the American war effort. She was part of a unit organized by Presbyterian Hospital, now part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald in her military uniform after recovering from her wounds.

After a six-week recovery from her injury, Macdonald returned to duty serving in military hospitals in France and Belgium. “I’ve only started doing my bit,” she said, according to material from her wartime scrapbook, which is now in the collection of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

In her scrapbook, the young nurse described her training to deal with one of the horrors of the battlefield _ poison gas. That included “. . . entering chambers containing a certain amount of Phosgene and other gasses, in order that we should be able to recognize them in case of an attack, and to become adept in adjusting our gas masks in less than ten seconds.”

She kept photographs of the tent where gas casualties were treated, including a shot of one area that was set aside for “hopeless cases.”


A gassed soldier being treated as the military field hospital where Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald was stationed. (Photo Credit- Ann Fraser Brewer papers, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)

The area at the military hospital set aside for the “hopeless cases” of gas attacks. (Photo Credit- Ann Fraser Brewer papers, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)

After the war ended in 1918, MacDonald served with Allied forces in Germany until returning to the U.S. There, she resumed living in New York City to continue her profession, and later served as director of the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for 23 years until her retirement in 1956.

The war had been over for years when MacDonald received her Purple Heart in 1936, four years after the award has been reestablished under an order by President Herbert Hoover. The modern award was meant as a tribute to Washington’s original award, which he represented with a cloth or silk purple heart.

In authorizing the Purple Heart, the award was made retroactive to living World War I veterans like MacDonald, who was among thousands of male soldiers who subsequently applied for and received the award.

MacDonald received numerous awards in recognition of her bravery and is perhaps one of the most highly decorated women of World War I. Her commendation for the Distinguished Service Cross states:

“It is interesting to note that this cross is to be conferred upon a woman and a nurse. This war has, of course, taken the nurses, who are the ministers of mercy, up to the very front lines of battle, and because of the carrying of the war into the third dimension the airplane has, of course, made their task more perilous.”

MacDonald died in 1969, at age 88, in a nursing home in White Plains, Westchester County. MacDonald received a full military funeral at Long Island National Cemetery in Suffolk County.

MacDonald is one of many stories found at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, Orange County.  Opened in 2006, it is the first facility in the nation dedicated to the estimated 1.8 million recipients of the Purple Heart, which is awarded to American military personnel who have been wounded or killed by enemy action.

Currently, the facility is temporarily closed as it undergoes a $17 million expansion to add nearly 4,300 square feet of new and refurbished exhibit space, with an increased emphasis on stories of individual award recipients.

Other famous Purple Heart recipients include President John F. Kenney, and U.S. senators John McCain, Bob Dole, Tammy Duckworth and Daniel Inouye.

Although the Hall of Honor is now closed, the online database can be used to explore the stories of Purple Heart recipients like MacDonald and others. Purple Heart recipients or families of recipients can enroll in the database. Enrollment is voluntary and more information on that can be found here.

The expansion project will incorporate integrated audio-visual and media presentations, as well as museum-quality casework for each area with interpretive graphics, locally controlled lighting, touch-screen interactive monitors, and multiple large-format graphic displays. Once completed, the Hall will feature new exhibits that tell stories about joining the service, the day of the incident, field treatment and evacuation, the changing nature of warfare, the consequences of war, road to recovery and the ultimate sacrifice. The expanded exhibits will include more personal stories, interactive displays, and artifacts that highlight the experiences of featured Purple Heart recipients.

Currently, the online Roll of Honor database represents Purple Heart recipients from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines.


Cover Photo- U.S. Army Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald in the ruins of a French town. All photographs from NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


COMMON MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE PURPLE HEART

George Washington created the Purple Heart: FALSE

General Washington created the award called Badge of Military Merit in 1782. It was a heart shaped piece of cloth or silk. It was to be awarded for a “singularly meritorious act”. It all but disappeared after the American Revolution. It was never referred to as the “Purple Heart” in Washington’s time. That language was used in General Order #3, establishing the Purple Heart award in 1932.

All casualties receive the Purple Heart: FALSE

Only those casualties resulting from enemy action are eligible for the Purple Heart. “Non-hostile” injuries or deaths (e.g. disease or accidents)  are not eligible. The injury must require medical attention, be treated by a medical professional and documented. Numerous instances have occurred where the award was not made due to clerical errors, confusion after a battle or lack of proper documentation.

If you are wounded you automatically get a Purple Heart: FALSE

If the wounding was caused by the enemy, required professional medical attention and was documented, then the individual is eligible and should receive the award. However, there is a “paperwork process” that must be completed. Also, from 1932-1942 the majority of recipients had to apply for their awards as they were WWI (and earlier wars) wounded veterans, and therefore no longer in the military.

General Douglas MacArthur received the 1st Purple Heart: FALSE

While General MacArthur did sign General Order number 3 creating the modern Purple Heart on 22 February 1932, he did not apply for his Purple Heart until July 1932. By that time many WWI wounded veterans had applied for and received their awards (including the 136 veterans at the Temple Hill Ceremony held on the Grounds of what is now the Hall of Honor, 28 May 1932). General MacArthur’s medal however, was numbered “1”

The Government has a list of all Purple Heart recipients: FALSE

There is no list of Purple Heart recipients maintained by the Federal Government. The information is found on the record of the individual, or in copies of General Orders. This information has never been extracted to generate a list of all recipients.

Those wounded or killed in all wars are eligible for the Purple Heart: FALSE

When the award was created in 1932, it was open to any living veteran who felt that he or she was qualified. This resulted in a small number of recipients from the American Civil War and Spanish-American War. However, current regulations limit the award to those killed or wounded after 5 April 1917.

You have to be in combat to receive a Purple Heart: FALSE

The term “enemy action” has a much wider application than traditional combat. Changes in the regulations now recognize: injury or death while a prisoner of war; certain instances of friendly fire; as well as considering international and specific types of domestic terrorist acts.

Lt. Annie G. Fox was the first women to be awarded the Purple Heart: FALSE

Lt. Fox was the first known woman to receive a Purple Heart during World War II. For many years it was believed that she was the first female recipient. However (as you now know), Beatrice Mary MacDonald, an Army Nurse during World War I was wounded on 17 Aug. 17, 1917, when German planes bombed her hospital. The resulting wound caused her to lose her right eye. As with all other WWI veterans, she had to apply for her Purple Heart (Remember there was no Purple Heart prior to 1932). She was officially awarded her Purple Heart Jan. 4, 1936.

The first 136 Purple Hearts were awarded May 28, 1932 at Temple Hill, now the site for the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor: FALSE

Purple Hearts had been awarded prior to May 28, 1932. We know of one Civil War veteran who received his in April 1932. One of the Temple Hill day recipients also received his in late April and was formally awarded the medal at the Temple Hill Day ceremony.


Gilded Age Ice Skater Carved Early Path

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, formerly the Gilded Age estate of the very wealthy and socially-prominent Ruth Livingston Mills and her husband, financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, sits along the eastern bank of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Commanding a view of the river and the Catskill Mountains, the estate’s Beaux-Arts mansion was once the scene of elegant house parties each autumn weekend for the glitterati of American society. The home is still filled with the original furnishings, art and décor chosen by Ruth and Ogden Mills after its redesign by prominent architect, Stanford White, circa 1895, from a 25-room home built by Ruth’s great-grandfather into the 79-room house we see today. 

Touring the home, one is struck by its opulence but also by its regal formality: Ruth’s bedroom, with its hand-carved bed on a platform, surmounted by a lavish baldachin (a kind of ceremonial canopy), and surrounded by walls of raspberry silk brocade, seems well-suited for a queen of society. 

Ruth Mills’ bedroom at the Staatsburgh Mansion.
A formal portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills painted in 1909 by artist François Flameng. Learn more about this portrait in this January 2018 post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Among her peers, Ruth was known for her acumen as a hostess, her exclusivity (reportedly opining that there were only 20 wealthy families in New York worth knowing), and her imperious poise.  As one of her contemporaries said:

“[Ruth Mills] would invite [guests] to her house…greet them with a limp hand, languidly extended, and a far-away expression, and then apparently forget their existence.  They were chilled but impressed.”

While it might be difficult to image, this reserved, aloof woman also had an athletic side uncommon for most women of that time. She helped build the popularity of the sport of figure skating as an early prominent practitioner and benefactor. And she also had a hand in the opening of one of the earliest indoor refrigerated ice rinks in North America.

My research into her history revealed some parallels with my own life. I have been a competitive figure skater for more than 20 years, and am a U.S. Figure Skating Gold Medalist after passing tests in four disciplines including freestyle and ice dancing. Now, I coach young skaters at a rink in nearby Saugerties.

For me, like it might have been for Ruth Mills, skating is athletic and artistic, allowing one expression through music and dancing.

Ruth Mills’ skating was widely recognized during her time. An 1893 New York Herald article praised her as an accomplished and graceful ice skater.  According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls. That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was starting to become very popular in the United States. By that time, men and women were skating together on the same ponds (one of the few athletic activities where both genders were involved together), and even the press was supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits.

Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and where their participation with men was widely accepted.  Skating became so popular in the mid-19th century that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 on the pond in New York City’s Central Park on Christmas Day in 1860.

Newspapers of the day took note of Ruth Mills, with one reporter writing in the 1890s: “Mrs. Ogden Mills is quite too graceful and proficient.  As if by common assent, the others stop a moment to watch her do the double Philadelphia grapevine, about the most difficult gyration on ice known to the expert.” By this point, Ruth Mills would have been about 40 years old.

A portion of an account from the New York Herald on Jan. 6, 1895 on Ruth Mills’ skating technique.

Watchers of skating today might not recognize this move, but the double Philadelphia grapevine was seen as one of the most complex techniques of its time. As described in a contemporary magazine: “The double grapevine is the same as the single, except that a loop is introduced at the beginning and also at the end of the figure. It is executed, as in the single grapevine, by passing the right foot in front of the left foot with the chain step; but instead of making a half revolution, as in the single, the body is swung completely around by the means of two turns on the right foot and an inside loop on the left.”

Maria Reynolds demonstrates the double Philadelphia grapevine skating technique.
Illustration of the double grapevine technique from a skating instruction book of the period.

While newspapers of this time made a habit of fawning praise over wealthy and powerful members of New York society, it is clear that Ruth was an accomplished skater. To the modern skater, the fact that Ruth could maneuver gracefully on ice, in the corset and multiple layers of clothing covering her from neck to foot, which Gilded Age women were required to wear, makes her ability even more impressive.

Given Ruth Mills’ self-composed demeanor, I find it hard to imagine her falling on the ice in front of people. But she must have started skating very early in life and put in much practice to become as skilled and confident as she was. Some of that early practice likely must have been on the rough ice of the frozen Hudson River at Staatsburgh when she was growing up.

We know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s family skating in 1916.  The cove area near the estate’s powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.

Agnes and Bill Blair, children of the caretaker of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, skate on the Hudson River circa 1916.

While Staatsburgh was the primary residence of Ruth and Ogden Mills in the autumn, like many of their social set, the couple traveled with the seasons. New York City was where the elites dwelled in the winter months, as it was the season of the opera, and of lavish balls given in assorted Fifth Avenue mansions.

Whether dancing or ice skating, the elites of New York always preferred to pursue their leisure apart from the common folk, and in 1896, many of the wealthiest families, including Ruth and Ogden Mills, contributed to the construction of one of the earliest indoor ice rinks built in New York City, the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

Skaters at St. Nicholas Rink in 1901. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they had only 15 to 20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.

The St. Nicholas Skating Rink also was one of the earliest indoor ice rinks made of mechanically frozen ice in North America. The arena also was the site of the first game between women’s ice hockey teams in the United States, when in 1917 the St. Nicholas team defeated Boston 1–0.

An illustration in a 1900 issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine shows fashionable women playing ice hockey at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. (Photo Credit- Hockeygods.com)

Building this rink was an investment of $300,000 (more than $9 million today) contributed principally by elite patrons like the Mills. Located on West 66th street, the rink was less than four blocks from the couple’s mansion, and contemporary newspapers accounts stated that Ruth Mills skated there nearly every morning.

Shortly after the rink opening, an article in The New York Times noted that Mrs. Mills was to host an “ice tea.”  Not the popular beverage, this exclusive social event included both skating on the rink and tables to consume tea and light refreshments.

An item in the April 5, 1896 edition of the New York Times announcing Ruth Mills’ “ice tea” event at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

So here, Ruth Mills got to combine her interests in both luxurious entertaining and skating. Sadly, the St. Nicholas Rink was demolished in the 1980s after a long history of hosting skating and boxing matches.

If you would like to know more about this family, and the Gilded Age lifestyle they led and the mansion in which they lived it, make a trip to Staatsburgh State Historic Site the Taconic Region.

Nearly 200 acres of the historic Mills estate is within the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park, which is open every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset, with no fee for park entry.  It includes the Dinsmore Golf Course, one of America’s oldest golf courses, as well as trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.

Guided tours and special programs are offered at the Mills mansion year-round; for programs information and hours of operation, call (845) 889-8851, or visit our website.

The 79-room Mills Mansion, which is located on the 120-acre Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Dutchess County. (Photo Credit- Andrew Halpern)

Cover Photo: The St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Maria Reynolds, Ph.D., Historic Site Assistant / Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Reynolds has given lectures at Staatsburgh on “Gilded Age Tea & Talk” program series, presented each winter.  Now in its sixth season, this program series offers guests the chance to enjoy the site’s custom tea blend, created by Harney & Sons, along with scones, clotted cream, tea sandwiches and sweets, served in the mansion’s opulent formal dining room while listening to talks on various aspects of Gilded Age history. 

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

State Parks Take Star Turn For Oscars Week

The Oscars were years away when a young Syracuse native came to icy gorges and waterfalls outside Ithaca in the Finger Lakes as a silent movie star in 1917.

In a film entitled “The Great White Trail,” 20-year-old actress Doris Kenyon played the role of married woman falsely accused of infidelity fleeing to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life.

Poster for “The Great White Trail,” which was produced by Ithaca-based Wharton Releasing Corp. (Photo Credit- Wharton Film Museum)

Ithaca-based producers (and brothers) Leopold and Theodore Wharton thought that the area’s rugged winter beauty, highlighted by the frozen 115-foot Lucifer Falls, could stand in for Alaska. A few years later in 1920, this dramatic setting in Tompkins County became the 1,256-acre Robert H. Treman State Park. The first Oscars awards for the burgeoning motion picture industry, now firmly anchored in Los Angeles, finally arrived in 1929.

Ithaca played a critical role in the history of the silent movie industry when the Wharton brothers ran their studio in what is now the city’s Stewart Park from 1914 to 1919, making more than two dozen movies. There were stunts and antics, including when the brothers bought a trolley car from the city to film careening off a bridge, and the time when dozens of skunks from a local farm were rented for a scene, only to escape, spray the actors and crew, and shut down production.

Shooting in their studios and on location in the dramatic gorges around the area, the Whartons brought famous movie stars of that era to Ithaca, making it the unofficial capital of the silent film industry, as reflected in these early newspaper clippings from the Wharton Studio Museum.

Ithaca stockbroker F.W. Stewart was cast as the villain in The Great White Trail. Afterward, bitten by the acting bug, he became a professional actor and director in the early film industry. (Photo Credit- Wharton Film Museum)

“The Wharton brothers and Ithaca were pioneers in this emerging art form. Some very unique history happened here,” said Diana Riesman, executive director and co-founder of the museum.

One of the Whartons’ silent film stars, Irene Castle, lived in Ithaca after marrying local resident Robert E. Treman, the son of Robert H. Treman, a prominent upstate political and financial leader who later donated the land used for The Great White Trail that became the state park now bearing his name.

Many of the Wharton’s film reels were destroyed in 1929 when the highly-flammable nitrate film caught fire in their lawyer’s garage in Ithaca. However, the original Wharton studio building still exists in the park, and is used by the city public works department for maintenance.

In the years since the freewheeling Wharton brothers, the variety of landscapes found in State Parks have shared the spotlight many times in a wide range of films, television programs and other productions, from the well-known and prestigious to the obscure and unsung.

Some are little nuggets of film history. Did you know, for example, that iconic comedian Henny Youngman’s final film appearance came in 1995 at the former state Kings Park Psychiatric Center in what is now part of Nissequogue River State Park in Suffolk County?

The former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, closed since 1996. Trespassing is forbidden. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

In the little-remembered “Eyes Beyond Seeing,” which was the story of a mental patient with religious delusions, the then 89-year-old “King of the One-Liners” played a brief cameo role as another patient who thinks he is … Henny Youngman. He must have cracked himself up. <rimshot>

Niagara Falls State Park has one of the most dramatic backdrops available anywhere, within numerous films using the thundering cataracts, including the 1953 film “Niagara.” This film noir thriller helped establish the sensuous image of 27-year-old actress Marilyn Monroe, who received top billing for the first time in her budding career.

Poster for “Niagara,” starring Marilyn Monroe, whose image is incorporated into the waterfalls. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

In recent years, other films at the falls have included the comedy “Tammy” in 2014 with Melissa McCarthy, part of which was filmed at the always-torrential “Hurricane Deck” at the Cave of the Winds. The park also was featured in “Henry’s Crime” in 2010 with Keanu Reeves, whose falsely-accused-of-a-crime Buffalo toll taker has a romantic interlude at the falls.

Melissa McCarthy at Niagara Falls.
Keanu Reeves during shooting at Niagara Falls State Park.

Surf and sun always make for a good movie, with Jones Beach State Park and other shoreline parks in Long Island long popular as shooting sites. In 1949, middle-aged actor and future President Ronald Reagan filmed a romantic comedy at Jones Beach, aptly titled “The Girl From Jones Beach.”

“The Girl From Jones Beach” post, featuring future President Ronald Reagan, as well as Virginia Mayo and Eddie Bracken. (Photo Credit-Wikipedia Commons)

Other films of more recent vintage that have shot at this iconic oceanside park have included “Men in Black 3 (2012), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2” (2016), and “Mildred Pierce” (2011).

The 2004 romantic film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” filmed in part at Camp Hero State Park on Long Island at Montauk Point, had one of the characters uttering the phrase “Meet me at Montauk,” which can still be found on t-shirts and promotional items for the area.

The lighthouse at Montauk Point State Park.
This scene on a frozen river with Kate Winslet and Jim Carey from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was shot in Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park about 40 miles north of New York City in Westchester County.

If skyline is what a filmmaker needs, the Big Apple has that in spades. Numerous films have been shot at State Parks in the city, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2012 at Bayswater Point State Park), the senior citizen heist comedy  “Going in Style” (2017 at East River State Park), and “Still Alice,” a 2014 film in which Julianne Moore plays a woman coping with an Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis that was shot in Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park.

The 2015 short film “The Bench,” is set at a bench in Gantry Plaza State Park, with its spectacular views of the midtown Manhattan, where a suicidal man has a conversation with a passerby that changes his life.

This dramatic cityscape park has been used in many feature, foreign and student films, including the 2016 Ricky Gervais comedy “Special Correspondents,” the 2019 comedy “Holiday Rush” about a DJ dealing with losing his job, and “Here Today,” a 2019 May-September comedy with Billy Crystal.

Some thirty miles north of the city, the former estate of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller – now the Rockefeller State Park Preserve – has been used for many films and television shows, most recently the 2019 gangster epic “The Irishman” by director Martin Scorsese, who shot from the 13 Bridges Trail to film driving scenes on Route 117 below.

The office at the preserve stood in for the police station in the 2001 prankster cop comedy “Super Troopers.” A scene where a police car goes screeching into reverse down a highway was filmed on Route 117 in the park.

Scene from opening of comedy film Super Troopers, shot on Route 117 inside Rockefeller State Park Preserve.

Further up the Hudson Valley, the great lawn for the estate at the Staatsburgh State Historic Site along the banks of the river was used as a backdrop for the 2019 superhero movie “Avengers Endgame.”

The digitally-enhanced great lawn at Staatsburgh in “Avengers Endgame.”

In the Capital Region, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” (2009), a story of how the Woodstock music festival of 1969 came about, was filmed at Cherry Plain State Park in the rugged eastern hills of Rensselaer County. And parts of the 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer” were shot in Saratoga Spa State Park.

Out in western New York, the base-jumping scene in “Get Him to The Greek” (2010) was filmed in the spectacular gorge setting of Letchworth State Park, often called the “Grand Canyon of The East.”

The base-jumping scene at Letchworth State Park from “Get Him to The Greek.” (Photo credit- Parks & Trails New York)

And sometimes, an even more primeval look is what’s called for. That’s what producers of the low-budget 1983 caveman comedy film “Luggage of the Gods!” found in the rocky trails and mountains at Harriman State Park. Filming centered around the Claudius Smith Den, a rock shelter dating back to Native American times and used during the Revolutionary War by a notorious gang of Tories.

Finally, something altogether darker might be needed, and State Parks has places for that, too. The grounds of Glimmerglass State Park and the nearby 50-room, 18th century estate at Hyde Hall State Historic Site were the setting for a short horror film “A Nightmare Awakes.” The film tells a story of Mary Shelley, the young author of the book Frankenstein, as she begins to experience vivid hallucinations.

So, State Parks can offer aspiring filmmakers a setting for every story. Such films are part of the state’s efforts to attract such activity through the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development, which has drawn productions that have contributed billions of dollars to the state’s economy.

And should you ever wish to see The Great White Trail, the silent film set at Robert H. Treman State Park, or another classic silent film, check the event page for the Wharton Studio Museum or Taughhannock Falls State Park . The film has been shown during summers at the park in recent years and is still drawing an audience. A silent movie screening is planned there for summer 2020.


Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks.


Learn more about the silent film era in Ithaca in the Finger Lakes at the Wharton Studio Museum.

Cornell University Press is releasing a book in April on the history of Wharton films in Ithaca entitled Silent Serial Sensations by Barbara Tepa Lupack.

The Wharton Studio Museum is part of the newly-created Finger Lakes Film Trail, which also includes the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, and the Case Research Laboratory in Auburn. The sites host film events, lectures, and screenings.

State Parkland Expansion Touches Colonial, Native American History

Before State Parks could purchase 131 acres of Saratoga County forest to add to Moreau Lake State Park in 2018, staffers first had to find out about all past owners of that land – back to the beginning of written records.

As anyone who has ever purchased a home knows, information on past ownership is addressed in a process called a title search. Property records uncovered in such searches are normally covered by a special kind of insurance meant to protect the buyer of a property against claims over disputed ownership that might arise after the sale.

However, since New York State cannot purchase title insurance on land, it had to ensure that there were absolutely no hidden claims lurking from the past in the potential Moreau purchase. For State Parks, the only way to do that was to follow property records as far back as possible.

This historical detective work stretched back more than three centuries, to a controversial royal land grant during New York’s colonial period that covered Native American lands in what is now much of Saratoga County, as well as parts of Montgomery, Schenectady and Fulton counties.

Called the Kayaderosseras Patent, this land transfer was issued in 1708 by a Royal Governor of some ill repute named Lord Cornbury, who under dubious circumstances bestowed up to 800,000 acres north of the Mohawk River and west of the Hudson River.

Ownership of that land was a disputed tale riddled by claims of fraud and missing records, with Native Americans saying that the Colonial patent holders grossly overstated what originally was intended to be a very modest land sale. And the entire affair took six decades to untangle…

Based on a shadowy alleged sale agreement dated several years earlier from native Mohawk tribal leaders, Cornbury awarded this massive tract of land to 13 prominent Colonial citizens of the time _ all in exchange for official fees, of course. The group included such well-connected players as the colony’s Attorney General, several prominent Albany residents, and some Manhattan businessman of Dutch ancestry, with one of them named Joris Hooglandt.

The land patent in colonial New York was an important unit of settlement, along with the large manors of the Hudson Valley—preeminent among them the Van Rensselaer Manor, or Rensselaerwyck, which covered much of present-day Albany and Rensselear counties, as well as parts of Columbia and Greene counties, and Livingston Manor further to the south in Columbia and Dutchess counties. These areas were governed by powerful and wealthy patroons who enjoyed sweeping authority over land usage.

Prior to the American Revolution, land patents were issued by the English Crown or colonial authorities to individuals or groups as a means of encouraging settlement of the sparsely populated frontier.  To those who were granted patents fell the responsibility of surveying, subdividing and conveying parcels to new settlers, which were offered either as freehold land or otherwise as land occupied under lease agreement, as was the case of the quasi-feudal manor system.

The Kayaderosseras episode can be seen as an early example of the dispossession of Native American lands that was to occur repeatedly throughout American history in the years that followed it. Here in the 21st century, the story of this land can be updated to reflect a more nuanced point of view on past decisions and actions that might not now be seen as just or exemplary.



The shadowy origins of this patent were described in an 1878 history of Saratoga County by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester:

“By far the largest and most important land-grant made in colonial times, any part of which lay within the bounds of Saratoga County, was the patent founded on the old Indian hunting-ground of Kay-ad-ros-se-ra. This large tract includes the greater part of Saratoga County, and runs also on the north into Warren county, and on the west into Montgomery and Fulton.

Kay-ad-ros-se-ra, “the country of the lake of the crooked stream,” as has already been seen in these pages, was the favorite hunting-ground of the Mohawk branch of the Iroquois or Five Nations of central New York. The Indian deed was obtained of the Mohawk chief in the year 1703, but the patent was not granted till the year 1708, and the Indians did not ratify the purchase till the year 1768. This patent was, therefore, disputed ground for more than sixty years.

According to the online description by the New York State Museum, the alleged size of the Kayaderosseras patent later was reduced by Colonial officials, but still was claimed to encompass more than 250,000 acres.

However, these supposed new owners took no action on their land patent for decades, with property interests changing hands during the years before steps to conduct land surveys finally started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s, which settled that the British, and not the French, would control North America. By that time, due to subsequent sales, deaths and inheritances, interests in the land patent had spread out to among some 130 colonists.

Sylvester’s story continues:

“At length, in 1763, the French and Indian war being over, the patentees of Kayadrossera began to look, with longing eyes, after their lands. In the year 1764, some one of them began to issue permits to settlers to enter upon and occupy portions of the patent.

In pursuance of these permits, several families moved upon the patent in the vicinity of Saratoga lake, at the mouth of the Kayadrossera river.

In the fall of that year the Mohawks, upon their hunting excursion, fell upon these settlers and drove them away.

Learning from the settlers that they claimed it by purchase, the Mohawks became alarmed, as they said they had never heard of such purchase.

The Mohawks at once appealed to Sir William Johnson, and were surprised to learn that the whole of their favorite hunting-ground had been deeded away by their fathers more than two generations before.

It is telling who the Mohawks turned to as their advocate. Johnson, whose home in Johnstown, Montgomery County, is now a state historic site, was the largest single landowner and most influential individual in the colonial Mohawk Valley. His success and fairness in dealing with the Mohawks, as part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, greatly influenced England’s victory over France for control of North America.

For his service, the British Crown bestowed upon Johnson the title of Baronet, and appointed him Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a position to which he devoted himself and held throughout his life.

It is important to note that Sylvester was writing as a resident of the mid-19th century, a time when the U.S. was fighting a series of violent wars against the Native Americans of the Great Plains. His viewpoint was likely informed by the predominant viewpoint that Native lands had to be taken, by force if necessary, for the United States to grow.

As Sylvester returns to the saga where the Mohawks turned to Johnson for help with the alleged decades-old sale of their lands:

Sir William took up the matter warmly in favor of the Mohawks, and made every effort in his power to have the patent set aside.

In the first place, Sir William wrote to Lieutenant-Governor Colden, stating the case as he understood it, and urging relief. That very autumn, Sir William introduced a bill into the Colonial Assembly to vacate the patent on the ground of fraud.

These measures failing, in the year 1765 Sir William appealed to the council in person in behalf of his dusky brethren, but the members of the council put him off with, among other things, the plea that to vacate the patent in council would be disrespectful to the council who granted it. By this time the controversy had been taken up warmly by all the tribes of the confederacy of the Six Nations, and Sir William in their behalf petitioned to have the patent vacated on the ground of fraud by act of Parliament.

At length the proprietors themselves became alarmed for the safety of their patent, and offered to compromise with the Indians by paying them a certain sum of money to satisfy their claim. The Mohawks thought the sum offered too small, and the effort failed.

Thus the matter went on till the year 1768, when the proprietors of Kayadrossera gave to the governor, Sir Henry Moore, full power to settle with the Indians. In pursuance of this authority, Sir Henry proceeded to the Mohawk country in the early summer of 1768, and called a council of the Indians to deliberate upon the matter. But it was found that the proprietors had no copy of the Indian deed to produce in evidence on the occasion, and that, as no survey had ever been made, no proper understanding of the subject could be arrived at, and the council was dissolved.

Upon his return to New York, the governor ordered a survey of the patent to be made. The outlines of this great patent were accordingly given by the surveyor-general, and, the boundaries being ascertained, a compromise was arrived at. The proprietors relinquished a large tract on the northwestern quarter of what they had claimed to be their land, and fixed the northern and western boundaries as they now run. They likewise paid the Indians the sum of five thousand dollars in full of all their claims and the Mohawks thereupon ratified the patent and forever relinquished their claims to their old favorite hunting-ground.”

Ultimately, with Johnson’s intervention, the once-gigantic Kayaderosseras land grant was reduced to about 23,000 acres as part of a compromise that eventually concluded the sale in 1768, according to State Museum records.

And this brings our story full circle at last…

The new portion of Moreau Lake State Park so recently added was among the patent lands awarded in 1708 to Joris Hooglandt, the Dutch merchant who lived in Colonial Manhattan. He died in 1712, and there is no record that he ever saw or did anything with the disputed land that he allegedly owned.

In 1723, his children sold their claim to the widow of Hooghlandt’s brother. And in 1770, with the dispute finally settled, descendants of that family ended up with two of the original 13 patent shares, making it the largest single largest land distribution that could be traced back to an original party.

Over the years, this land was sold many times privately before finally becoming part of Moreau Lake State Park in 2018.

This new parcel at Moreau Lake State Park encompasses multiple summits, including portions of the Palmertown Range, and affords dramatic views of the Hudson Valley and southern Adirondack Mountains. The park was 700 acres when established in 1968, and has since grown to about 6,100 acres.

And this land, like all land, has a story to tell, which in this instance may help state residents further examine and appreciate some lesser-known aspects of our shared history.


Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer; Travis Bowman, Senior Curator, Bureau of Historic Sites, and William Krattinger, Parks Survey Project Director.


Cover Photo: Historical maker on the Kayaderosseras Patent in Ballston Lake, Saratoga County. (Courtesy of Saratoga County Historian and William G. Pomeroy Foundation)

Sources:

New York State Museum link of the Kayaderosseras Patent.

History of Saratoga County, New York (1878), by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester

Read a Daily Gazette account of an 1812 copy of the Kayaderosseras Patent map being restored and put on display at the Saratoga County Clerk’s Office in the village of Ballston Spa, which was first settled in 1771, the year after the disputed land patent was resolved..

Follow this link to an 1866 map of Saratoga County, showing the outlines of the patent, maintained by Clark University.

War On the Middleline: The Founding of a Community in the Kayaderosseras, By James E. Richmond