Please join us in welcoming our newest contributor here at New York History, Peter Slocum. Slocum is a former journalist and public health advocate who now serves the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm as a volunteer docent, writer and programs chair. Prior to retiring full-time in the Adirondacks in 2011, Slocum worked in and around state government for more than 35 years. Read more
Public History and Debate of Public Issues
How important is “public history?”
The essay on public history in the newly published second edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History, provides some fresh insights. The Encyclopedia, edited by Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen, a long-time leader in the field, and Amy H. Wilson, an independent museum consultant and former director of the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira, is a rich source of fresh insights on all aspects of local history. Read more
Contribute To A History of NYC in 100 Objects
A Checker taxicab, a conductor’s (OK, not just any conductor but Leonard Bernstein) baton, the blue-and-white Greek coffee cups and the elevator safety brake. A subway token and a mastodon tusk. Inspired by the British Museum’s ”A History of the World in 100 Objects,” The New York Times recruited historians and curators to identify objects that embody the narrative of New York City. Now they’re expanding that list into a book and need your help!
The museum’s ”History of the World” was limited to objects in its own collection. We have no limitations, except that when we asked readers for their suggestions, we probably should have defined “objects” more specifically. Readers suggested a number of people (former Mayor Edward I. Koch, among others) and some things like Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, Kennedy Airport, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building and the Unisphere, which wouldn’t fit in a museum.
Readers recommended the subway token (substituted for a NYC MetroCard), Bella Abzug’s hat, and a hearty helping of food, from pizza slices (triangular and square)- egg creams (made with Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup)- pastrami sandwiches- Mello-Rolls and other ice cream treats- seltzer bottles- Ebinger’s blackout cake- the cream-cheese sandwiches at Chock Full o’Nuts- plantains- cheesecake from Junior’s and Lindy’s- Charlotte russes- a pickle barrel- and hot dogs from Nathan’s and from carts under the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow Sabrett umbrellas.
Only a few symbols summon the city more immediately than the ”I love NY” logo, designed by Milton Glaser in 1977 for a state campaign to spur tourism, but does that qualify as an object? Also, we are looking for quirky, other-than-obvious objects that don’t just evoke New York, but that also could be used to tell the story of the city: A lottery wheel from the Civil War draft, a crack vial from the 1980s, the 1-inch-by-3 inch Delaney card, the visual attendance record invented by a Bronx teacher that, the reader wrote, ”held the power of life and death over a student” and Con Edison’s orange-and-white chimneys placed over manholes to allow steam to escape without scalding passers-by or obscuring visibility.
Any suggestions would be very welcome. Send them to Sam Roberts at The New York Times ([email protected]).
Books: What Would Mark Twains Tale Of Today Be?
Samuel Clemens, known to most as the popular author and humorist Mark Twain, was also an astute observer of American politics-he just believed that the stark truth about corruption in government would go down more smoothly with a dose of humor. Robed in a white suit, white cravat, and white shoes, crowned with unruly white hair and smoking an ever-present cigar, Mark Twain became one of America’s first global celebrities.
Over 100 years later, Twain’s insightful commentary retains an uncanny relevance to the challenges facing contemporary America. His views are as fresh and provocative as those of any contemporary cable TV “talking head,” Sunday morning roundtable debater, political blogger, or radio talk show host. Read more
1960: The Campaign that Forged Three Presidents
Join the Schenectady County historical Society and award winning author David Pietrusza just days after the election of 2012 to discuss the campaign for President in 1960. It was the election that would ultimately give America “Camelot” and its tragic aftermath, a momentous contest when three giants who each would have a chance to shape the nation battled to win the presidency. Read more
Thomas William Symons: Father of Barge Canals
The first 20 years of Keeseville’s Thomas William Symons’ work as an engineer were incredibly successful. A list of his achievements reads like a career review, but he was just getting started. After a second stint in the Northwest, he returned to the east in 1895, charged with planning and designing the river and harbor works at Buffalo. He was named engineer of the 10th Lighthouse District, which included Lakes Erie and Ontario, encompassing all the waterways and lighthouses from Detroit, Michigan, to Ogdensburg, New York.
Among his remarkable projects was “a very exposed, elaborate lighthouse and fog signal” on Lake Erie, near Toledo. Grandest of all, however, was one of Thomas Symons’ signature accomplishments: planning and constructing the world’s longest breakwater (over four miles long). Built along the shores of Buffalo, it was a project that earned him considerable attention. Further improvements he brought to the city enhanced his reputation there.
Another major project talked about for years came to the forefront in the late 1890s—the possibility of a ship canal spanning New York State. The 54th Congress in 1897 commissioned a report, but the results disappointed the powerful committee chairman when Symons’ detailed analysis named a barge canal, not a ship canal, as the best option.
In 1898, New York’s new governor, Teddy Roosevelt, assigned Thomas to personally investigate and report on the state’s waterways, with emphasis on the feasibility of a barge canal to ensure it was the correct option. A concern on the federal level was national security, which was better served by Symons’ plan to run the canal across the state rather than through the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, up Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson to New York City.
Thomas’ route across New York kept the structure entirely with America’s borders. (This and many other projects were requested by the War Department, which explains the security factor.) His additional work for Roosevelt reached the same conclusion, and after extended arguments in Congress, $100 million was appropriated for canal improvements. The decision was affirmation of Thomas’ judgment and the great respect in Congress for his engineering capabilities.
In 1902, the senate noted “the conspicuous services of Major Thomas W. Symons regarding the canal problems in New York,” and that he had “aided materially in its solution.” A senate resolution cited “his able, broad-minded, and public-spirited labors on behalf of the state.”
During the canal discussions, his life had taken an unusual turn. Teddy Roosevelt had won the presidency in 1902, and in early 1903, the decision was made to replace his top military aide. Keeseville’s Thomas Symons was going to the White House.
It was sad news for Buffalo, Thomas’ home for the past eight years. At a sendoff banquet, the praise for him was effusive. Among the acknowledgments was that his work in Buffalo’s harbor had brought millions of dollars of investments and widespread employment to the city. From a business and social perspective, one speaker professed the community’s “unbounded love, affection, and admiration.” The comments were followed by an extended ovation.
For a man of Symons’ stature, some of the new duties in Washington seemed a bit out of place. Officially, he was the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds of the District of Columbia, a position for which he was obviously well suited. (And, the job was accompanied by a pay raise to the level of Colonel of Engineers.)
However, Thomas was also the president’s number one military aide, making him the Master of Ceremonies for all White House functions. Every appearance by Teddy Roosevelt was planned, coordinated, and executed by Symons, his close personal friend. Depending on whom the guests were, Thomas selected the decor, music, food, and entertainment.
He became the public face of all White House events. In reception lines, it was his duty to be at the president’s side. No matter what their stature, he greeted each guest as the line progressed, and in turn introduced each guest to Roosevelt. Everyone had to go through Roosevelt’s right-hand man before meeting the president (though he actually stood to the president’s left).
He also played a vital diplomatic role by mingling with the guests, ensuring all were seated and handled according to their importance, and allowing the President and First Lady to feel as secure as if they had planned each event themselves.
He was also the paymaster general of the White House, seeing to it that all funds appropriated for expenses were spent properly. The media regularly noted that in Teddy Roosevelt’s home, Symons was the most conspicuous person except for the president himself.
With so many responsibilities, the job of top aide to the president seemed impossibly busy, which is why Roosevelt expanded the staff from one to nine aides, all of them placed under the charge of Symons, who could then delegate much of his authority.
The only sense of controversy to arise during Thomas’ career was related to the development of New York’s barge canal, and it had nothing to do with him personally. He was the designer of the proposed system, and many felt it was critical that he stay involved in the project. But the new duties in Washington kept him very busy. Because Congress approved additional engineering employees to work under Symons, some felt it was wrong to allow Thomas to spend some of his time working on the canal project, away from his regular job.
Symons even agreed to forego the higher pay he received from the White House position in order to help with the canal. There was considerable resistance, but Roosevelt himself stepped forward, telling Congress that as governor, he had hired Thomas Symons to closely examine New York’s waterways. Thus, there was no man better suited for overseeing the $100 million expenditure.
The legislators relented, and by authority of a special act of Congress, Symons was allowed to work on the creation of New York’s barge canal system. After Roosevelt’s first term, Thomas left the White House and focused his efforts on the canal work.
In 1908, when the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps was retiring, Symons, by then a full colonel, was among the top candidates for the job. His strongest advocate was President Roosevelt, but after 37 years of service, Thomas submitted his name to the retirement list.
He remained active in the work on New York’s canals, which he monitored closely, and despite suggestions of excessive costs, the project came in well below the original estimates. He also served on the Pennsylvania Canal Commission and continued working and advising on other engineering projects.
His role in the building of America is undeniable, from New York to Washington State- the border with Mexico- the Mississippi River- Washington, D.C.- and so many other places. The world’s longest breakwater (at Buffalo) and New York’s barge canal system stand out as his major career accomplishments. And Roosevelt’s first administration took him to the highest echelons of world power for four years. He shared the p
resident’s gratitude and friendship.
Thomas Symons, trusted aide, the man Teddy Roosevelt called the “Father of Barge Canals,” died in 1920 at the age of 71. In 1943, a Liberty ship built in Portland, Oregon was named the SS Thomas W. Symons in his honor.
Photos: Colonel Thomas Williams Symons, civil engineer- a portion of the breakwater in Buffalo harbor.
Lawrence Gooley has authored 11 books and more than 100 articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 24 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
Lincoln Scholar to Speak at NYS Museum
Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will present a lecture during the evening of Nov. 9 as part of an event highlighting a two-day exhibition of Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at the New York State Museum.
Holzer will speak at 8 p.m. in the Clark Auditorium about “Lincoln and Liberty: Re-assessing the Preliminary Proclamation in the Age of Spielberg.” Author of the new book “Emancipating Lincoln,” Holzer will explore the ever-changing reputation of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from controversial and revolutionary order, to talismanic trophy, to maligned and misunderstood fraud — and back again to icon. The talk will come at the moment of the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” which explores Lincoln’s concurrent roles as politician, peacemaker, and liberator. Read more
Manumission Document Tells Story Emancipation in NY
The Jay Heritage Center (JHC) has announce the gift of an original manumission document for its African American History collection. The word “manumission” means to emancipate or free from bondage.
Manumission documents like this one issued by a New York slaveholder are rare. In this instance, the signatory freeing a slave known only by the name of “Lewis,” is identified as Richard Hatfield, Jr. Hatfield was the son of a leading lawyer, Richard Hatfield, Sr. (1750 -1813) a delegate to the NY State Convention that ratified the constitution. It is recorded that he inherited land (and presumably slaves) that stretched “from the Scarsdale or “Indian Line of Marked Trees” to, or almost to, the then Road to Rye Neck, (now Old Mamaroneck Road, Gedney Way and Mamaroneck Avenue). His property would have passed to his son, Richard Hatfield, Jr. who was an attorney as well.
Instruments like this one were often recorded in the Libers of Conveyances in the Recorder’s Office of the City of New York, usually at the request of the freed slave as an added protection. Another signature on the paper that merits interest is that of Richard Riker (1773-1842) who served as NY Recorder, prior to and after John Jay’s eldest son, Peter Augustus Jay.
But unlike Jay and Jay’s fellow members of the NY Manumission Society who actively fought to end slave trafficking, Riker is rumored to have been complicit in the kidnapping of freed blacks for purposes of selling them back into slavery. This document helps vividly narrate a chapter in African American history when freedom was not only hard won but also uncertain to last- even elected officials could not be trusted to abide by legal writs.
The document was donated by Carol Ubosi nee Smith of the Purdy, Bell and Potter families who have resided in Westchester County since the 1700s. It was found in the 1980s by Ms. Ubosi’s mother, May Potter Smith, amongst several nineteenth century items in the attic of their family home in Harrison. Although this important story was carefully preserved in a family bible, it is still not known how “Lewis” was connected to the Purdy/Bell family of Harrison. A search for further information and context is ongoing.
Last fall, after contacting JHC president Suzanne Clary for research help about the historic African Cemetery in Rye where her ancestors are buried, Ubosi expressed her interest in making the gift to JHC where it could be made available to area schools and scholars. Ubosi grew up in Mamaroneck and New Rochelle and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. She attended Central State University in Ohio and has taught in White Plains and Silver Spring. She is presently working on a book about the genealogy of her family with Alesia McFadden, a historian of African American History. As an educator, Ubosi hopes this manumission document will shed some light on the rich history of African-Americans living in Westchester and inspire others to explore and share their own family heritage
The Jay Heritage Center is equally delighted that this primary source will be shared with the many middle school history classes who regularly come through its doors to learn about African American History in New York and Westchester. “When students ask us, ‘What does manumission mean?’ says Clary, “this remarkable document will tangibly show them one man’s transition from servitude to freedom almost 200 years ago. The mere fact of its existence demonstrates how precious this paper was to its owner and his descendants. For those families who will see it firsthand at our site it will prompt the necessary questions that are central to an ongoing discussion about the evolution of social justice in our country.” The Jay Heritage Center has been a member site of the African American Heritage Trail since 2004- John Jay and his family played active roles in abolishing slavery in New York.
New Book: The Impeachment of Governor Sulzer
In The Impeachment of Governor Sulzer (SUNY Press, 2012), Matthew L. Lifflander brings to life the dramatic story of a forgotten incident in New York State political history. When William Sulzer was elected to the office of governor of New York State in November 1912, it represented the culmination of a long and successful career in politics.
The son of a German immigrant father and a Scotch-Irish American mother, Sulzer (1863–1941) rose through the powerful Tammany Hall machine to become the youngest man ever to serve as speaker of the New York State Assembly. In 1894, he was elected to Congress, where he served with distinction for eighteen years, rising to chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. When he became governor, it was with the support of the Tammany Hall machine, and everyone expected that he would duly perform his duties under the direction of Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy. Read more
Four Freedoms Park, NY States Newest, Opens
The newest New York state park, located on Roosevelt Island in the East River New York City, has opened. Four Freedoms Park, which is New York’s 214th state park, is tribute to the life and work of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former governor of New York State who as President led our nation out of the Great Depression and guided America during World War II. The Park opened to the public on October 24.
The four-acre park is the last design of the iconic American architect Louis I. Kahn – the only design by Kahn in New York City. The park features a granite plaza at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, tree-lined paths and a bronze bust of Roosevelt by acclaimed portrait sculptor Jo Davidson.
The name of the park refers to a speech delivered by President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941, in which he described his vision for a world founded on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
The Park has been decades in the making. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay announced the project in 1973, appointing Kahn as its architect- Kahn died unexpectedly shortly after completing the Park’s plans and the City of New York’s financial troubles dampened momentum for the project. More than 30 years later, former Ambassador to the United Nations William vanden Heuvel and the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy spearheaded a philanthropic effort to revive the park, enabling construction to begin in 2010.
The Park will offer a free interactive digital educational resource that visitors will be able to access on any mobile device. It will provide a multi-media narrative critical to understanding President Roosevelt’s significance, and was designed with the encouragement of the National Endowment for the Humanities with the help of historians and FDR scholars. For more information visit: http://www.fdrfourfreedomspark.org/
With the addition of Four Freedoms, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation operates 179 state parks and 35 historic sites. Four Freedoms will be the first new State Park in New York City since East River State Park opened in Brooklyn in 2007 and the first new State Park in the state since the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park opened outside of Poughkeepsie in 2009. Park maintenance, programming and security will be provided cooperatively by State Parks, Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, and the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.