Category Archives: Places of History

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie riders stop in at the Syracuse Canal Museum, which opens especially early © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 5: Syracuse to Rome, 50 Miles

Day 5 of our 8-day, 400 mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany offers a deep-dive into the history of the Erie Canal, an appreciation for the engineering marvel that it was, and how it changed American culture and society, as our 50-mile ride today brings us to a sequence of museums and historic sites.

We begin the day riding into downtown Syracuse from our campsite at Burnet Park, adjacent to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo (we are so close, some said they could hear the animals during the night). A highlight for the entire trip is visiting the Syracuse Eric Canal Museum, which has opened early, from 7 am, especially for us. It is not to be missed and I plan to spend a couple of hours here. (The museum also was open especially for us last evening, with shuttle bus transportation from our campsite, to accommodate our riders, but I chose to visit the zoo.)

Downtown Syracuse, revitalized. The Erie Canal used to run through the city © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The downtown of Syracuse has gone through an amazing renaissance.

Erie Canal at one time went through Syracuse but President Roosevelt wanted a “modern” canal built and largely replaced the original canal.

Today, in a magnificent plaza there is an impressive Jerry Rescue Monument to William “Jerry” Henry, a freemason taken into custody under Fugitive Slave Act, despite the fact that New York State abolished slavery in 1820.

Daniel Webster, who was secretary of state under President Millard Filmore, came to Syracuse in1851 and declared that Syracuse (which was a stop on the Underground Railroad) was “a laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason” and warning local abolitionists and abetting slaves that any violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, which called for returning those in flight into bondage, would be “treason, treason and nothing else.”

A few months later, on October 1, a mob stormed a downtown police station, knocked down the doors and freed Jerry, and put him on a carriage traveling toward Canada.

Syracuse Canal Museum 

All along our Cycle the Erie route – mostly following the 353-mile long Erie Canalway – we have visited small canal museums and historical societies which each tell a part of the Erie Canal epic drama. At Lockport, which is itself a living-history museum, on the first day of our ride, we saw the astonishing “Flight of Five” locks and its small museum. At Camillus, the half-way mark of our 400-mile ride from Buffalo to Albany, we visited Sims Store, a re-creation of a 19th century general store that would have served the boats traveling along the canal. Still to come (later today), the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum which offers a look at how the canal boats were built and we get to look inside a reconstruction; Canastota, which offers a delightful Canal Town Museum in a tiny house that was once a bakery. Further on, we will see the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, featuring sections of all three alignments of the Erie Canal and a fascinating historic exhibit in a house-turned-museum.

A painting at the Syracuse Canal Museum depicts Governor Dewitt Clinton bringing water from Lake Erie to New York City, in the ceremony known as the “Wedding of the Waters,” symbolizing how the Erie Canal linked New York City to the West © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But Syracuse is the “official” Erie Canal Museum – it offers the most expansive collection of artifacts, the most comprehensive history, starting the story well before Governor Dewitt Clinton pushed so obsessively for his Ditch. It offers the most sophisticated presentations, including lots of interactive exhibits and opportunities to engage. It is all the more remarkable because it is a maritime museum which is not on the water – indeed, the expanded canal was moved north of the city.

One of the unique features of the Canal Museum – indeed, the “most unique thing about Syracuse” – is the chance to visit the Weighlock Building, built in1850 – the only remaining weighlock building in America. You can walk aboard a replica passenger packet boat in the weighlock and get a real impression of how the Erie Canal transformed culture and society in America.

Getting a tour inside the packet boat in the Syracuse Canal Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And, as we ride into the downtown historic district, with some magnificent architectural jewels (like the Niagara-Mohawk building, an Art Deco palace that is simply breathtaking), what we appreciate most is how the Erie Canal was the “Mother of Cities” – as historian Ben Willis has said – and how Syracuse is one of her children.

A chart in the museum graphs the explosive growth in population of Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, and even small canaltowns like Lockport because of the Erie Canal, “It was the 8th Wonder of the World, the pathway to an empire, and a school of engineering.”

Indeed, in 1820, Syracuse was but a swampy settlement on Genesee Turnpike, its primary industry was salt production (a key reason that banks had already established themselves in Syracuse, before the canal). Because of the canal (“The Mother of Cities”) the population of Syracuse swelled 40-fold in just 10 years, from 250 in 1820, to 11,064 in 1830, and by 1920, a city of 171,717.

“German masons who came for the canal, stayed to build cobblestone houses, churches. The canal was a whole way of life.”

Before the Canal, it would take 6 to 8 weeks for a mule to carry less than a ton, versus 6 to8 days to transport up to 200 tons of freight on the canal. The cost dropped to one-tenth, $12 per ton and 60c for barrel of salt.

Each day, some 1,800 immigrants would come through Syracuse on the Erie Canal on their way to the west, paying 10c to travel from one town to the next.

“Land was free, you just had to get there, settle on it for a number of years. Often pioneers would work on the boat in exchange for transportation,” the notes read.

New York State financed the building of the Erie Canal (without any federal help) by selling $7.7 million in bonds; the state earned back revenue from fees on goods shipped and taxes on salt (because salt was brought out of salt springs that were owned by the state).

The success of Clinton’s Ditch was quickly apparent and in just 10 years (after paying off the $7.7 million), the Erie Canal had to be rebuilt and expanded to handle all the traffic.

Ben Willis explains some of the innovative engineering that went into building the Erie Canal to Cycle the Erie riders at the Syracuse canal Museum © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There were no real engineers when they began to build the canal. The initial designers were surveyors. “They knew how to do property lines but were not engineers.” The biggest problem was figuring out the elevations. But when they completed the canal, these self-taught engineers started the engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy.

One of the innovative methods devised was a stump puller to clear the trees – a contraption that looks like a military armament, but actually had giant wheels to move it and give leverage to pull out stumps. 

There is so much that is so engaging in the museum – even the staircases are made so you can see the elevations of the different locks along the entire canal, and the elevator is painted so you feel you are stepping into a lock, yourself.

Indeed, a key message you come away with from the Erie Canal Museum, is how the canal keeps reinventing itself, and with it, the society around it.

Peak use of the Erie Canal was 1951, but it was also a time when the canal was fetid with pollution – oil slicks and raw sewage. Then the Clean Water Act of 1972, prohibiting dumping and requiring municipalities to have treatment plants, changed the way shippers and factories could do business. (My suspicion is that environmental protection and worker protections, not free trade, is what led to the demise of American manufacturing.)

So, up until the 1980s, the canal was almost exclusively for commercial traffic and was too polluted, fetid and crowded for the recreational boater, or, in fact, residential buildings anywhere near the canal. That’s all changed. Now, the canal is predominantly used for recreational purposes, there are lovely housing developments along the canal. But a changing upstate economy is seeing a resurgence of manufacturing and more commercial shipping is coming to the canal.

There are many other uses of the Erie Canal other than shipping and transportation. The canal is the largest source of irrigation for upstate agriculture. People don’t think of New York as agricultural, but it rivals other states, producing a range of foodstuffs – orchards, vineyards, dairy operations. Riding along the canal trail, you see the white pipes of the irrigation system. The canal also provides for flood control for upstate New York. Many of the dams generate electricity.

Here, I appreciate the ecology of the Erie Canal – not just for the people whose towns, livelihoods and lives revolved around the canal, but how it impacted the environment.

Cycle the Erie riders pass the Niagara-Mohawk building, an Art Deco palace, in downtown Syracuse © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And you can see the social ecology as well – as the canal is cleaned up, there are new housing developments that are popping up alongside, as we saw at Rochester, Spencerport, Fairport, changing the economic base for these communities. (They are not intrusive, though – indeed, the entire Barge Canal was just placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of New York State’s Heritage Corridor). The small canaltowns are reinventing themselves – and the structures that had been factories and silos and such in places like Pittsford and Cohoes have been re-purposed for condos and offices, as well as to cater to new manufacturing ventures like manufacturing wind turbines.

“Everything reinvents itself – just like the Canal,” says Daniel Ward, who curated the exhibit. “When I was boy, there was no accommodation for pleasure craft, no tie ups. It was a barge canal. Now there is balance.

“Often the Erie Canal gets separated in people’s minds from the Port of New York, but New York City is the terminal port of the canal system. Our current work is trying to reconnect idea of New York City – we’re coming up to the bicentennial of the opening of the canal (2025), which was a celebration in New York Harbor.”

The museum has a marvelous animated display of Governor Dewitt Clinton sailing into New York City to spill water from Lake Erie into the Hudson River in a ceremony called, “The Wedding of the Waters” with simulated fireworks. (There were cannons set up all along the route and it took hours for the sound that started in Buffalo to make its way to New York City.)

He points to the Mount Vernon Museum, at 421 East 61st Street, which was a hotel that opened in the 1820s to accommodate visitors who wanted to travel on the Erie Canal on packet boats.

Before the Erie Canal, “New York City was an insignificant port city, dwarfed by Boston and Philadelphia, and became a great city, as a result of this engineering.”

What I come away with: It wasn’t that people were different in 1817 when construction of the Erie Canal began, that they had more guts, gumption, daring, pioneering spirit. If anything, what this journey back in time shows is that people are exactly the same – Governor DeWitt Clinton was mocked for the project, which was called “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Ditch”; President James Madison refused to give federal funding, questioning the role of the federal government.

Country scene outside on the Erie Canalway on our way to Rome © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Farmers didn’t want to give right of way,” Ward tells me, “they didn’t envision a global economy. It turned out to be great for them. They went from local subsistence economy to global. When the Erie Canal was built, it was the wave of future.”

So many morals to be drawn to today.

You can easily spend two to three hours at the Erie Canal Museum, which I happily do, even with 50 more miles to travel today.

(Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse, NY 13202, 315.471.0593, eriecanalmuseum.org.)

Chittenango to Canastota

My deep dive into the Erie Canal’s history continues on this day’s ride.

I am fairly amazed to find some of the cyclists still at the morning rest stop when I arrive at Chittenango Landing Boat Museum, which, through preservation, reproduction, construction, and interpretation of the Chittenango Landing industrial complex, instructs about the construction and repair of canal boats and the social history of the Erie Canal era. There are people in period dress and it looks like a historic village. Here, I get to poke inside a re-creation of a canalboat, and see where the mules would have been housed on the boat with the family. (7010 Lakeport Rd, Chittenango, NY 13037, 315-687-3801, clcbm.org/)

At the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum, we get to see how the canal boats were built and to look inside a reconstruction of one of the canal boats © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chittenango is also the birthplace of L. Frank Blum who wrote “Wizard of Oz” (his mother-in-law was the mother of the Women’s Rights movement, Melinda Gates), and I am told the village has a yellow-brick road.

Once again, I am determined not to miss the things that I missed on my first Cycle the Erie ride two years before. I ride up the main street looking for evidence of Frank Blum – I find the yellow brick sidewalk, but before I can get to the All Things Oz Museum, which has family photos, early posters from musicals and movies before the 1939 MGM film, collectibles, it starts to rain. (Open year-round or by appointment, 219 Genesee St., Chittenango, NY 13037, 315-687-7772, allthingsoz.org).

And rain. And rain.

Riding through Old Erie Canal New York State Park – rural, quaint, with wildlife, five aqueducts, and very flat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a drenching rain by the time I get to Canastota, where I remember there is a delightful Canal Town Museum which I visited on my first Cycle the Erie ride. Inside, I find other Erie Canal cyclists huddled together in the back, happily watching a video while they get warm.

Housed in a former bakery and residence dating from 1873, Canastota Canal Town Museum is a major surprise. From the outside, you wouldn’t think much at all of the tiny frame structure, but once inside, it’s like a Harry Potter experience – the rooms are chockablock full of fascinating artifacts and portraits that make the inside seem enormous. It is a surprisingly fine museum, which adds pieces of understanding to the historic puzzle of the Erie Canal and the rise of the United States. Here the focus is on people – including important people who contributed to building the canal, like Nathan Roberts (a Canastota native who devised the ingenious “Flight of Five” Locks in Lockport which we saw on our first day of the ride); there is a portrait of him by an important 19th century artist, Frederick R. Spencer, and portraits of others who owned the very existence of their town to the canal.

Motion picture cameras on view at Canastota Canal Town Museum; Canastota was home to early movie and projection film industry © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition to the ingenious engineering of Nathan Roberts’ lock system, I realize an amazing array of inventions came out of this tiny village:  it was the birthplace of the American Microscope Industry; early movie and projection film industry.

I spot a photo on the wall referring to a action-adventure-comedy, “The Great Race” (1965), and only in that moment realize the movie was based on an actual event: the 1908 automobile race from New York to Paris, by way of Albany, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Valdez Alaska, Japan, Vladivostok, Omsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and finally Paris. I learn that it was only made possible because of an innovation by Weed Chains of Canastota that enabled a car to drive across frozen Siberia. The 1908 Race was won by the American Thomas Flyer driven by George Schuster Sr. of Buffalo, NY. There is even a connection between Amelia Earhart and Canastota’s Airport opening in 1928. I am dazzled.

(Canastota Canal Town Museum, 122 Canal St., Canastota, NY 13032, 315-697-5002, www.canastota-canal.com)

Deer on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Of the 50 miles between Syracuse and Rome that we ride today, 36 miles are in the Old Erie Canal New York State Park – rural, quaint, with wildlife, five aqueducts, and very flat. This is where the Erie Canal building began, in the “Long Level”. And just outside of our destination for today’s ride, Fort Stanwix in the center of Rome, we come to the historic marker where the very first shovel to dig the canal went into the ground on July 4, 1817.

The Demeritt Family with their boys aged 4, 8, 11, from Malta NY. Sam Demeritt, age 8, was the youngest rider pedaling the 400 miles on his own pose in front of the historic marker where the first shovel to dig the Erie Canal went into the ground July 4, 1817, in Rome, NY © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mercifully, just as I ride into Rome, the rain stops, and I am able to set up my tent right outside Fort Stanwix, take a shower at the shower truck, change into dry clothes, and rush over to the Fort where they have arranged for guided tours (by costumed rangers) until 9 pm. I am literally the last one out of the Fort at closing. I walk a couple of blocks to a pizza shop for dinner (this is one of two nights that we are on our own for dinner). The National Park Rangers keep the Visitor Center open for us all night long, and I love to really linger over the exhibits.

Setting up our tents at Fort Stanwix, Rome © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov. 

Next: Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie riders bike on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 4, Waterloo/Seneca Falls to Syracuse, 39 Miles

Leaving our campsite at Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls for Day 4 of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour, I make a point this time of stopping into the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, keeping to my plan of doing everything I did not get to do on my first Erie Canalway ride two years before. I take care to cross the busy thoroughfare (this section of the ride is on roads rather than the non-motorized trail).

The Refuge is a breeding ground for bald eagles; unfortunately, perhaps because of the season, time of day, or that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, I don’t get to see any birds at all. But I still get to notch another one of the sites that I missed before, realizing that the time spent here is time lost to explore another point of interest. (3395 Rte 5 & 20 E, Seneca Falls, 315-568-5987, www.fws.gov/r5mnwr).

Cycling along the country roads outside of Seneca Falls © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the ride – on country roads – brings us through pastoral scenery.

Our rest stop – laid out with snacks, fresh fruit, water as well as our trusty bike mechanic – is at the brand new Port Byron Erie Canal Heritage Park (great bathrooms), where we get to visit the new historic displays before getting back on the Canalway.

Port Byron Erie Canal Heritage Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride into the quaint village of Jordan, distinctive for the lovely murals of historic scenes of the canal on a 19th century brick building. The Canalway – which was the original towpath – comes through though the Erie Canal was relocated when it was enlarged; the lock has been turned into a small park. Here, you can see what it means for a community to lose the canal. A historic marker notes: Opened 1819, abandoned, fall 1917. Aqueduct built 1841 when the canal was enlarged. Canal park built 1932.”

The Richmond Aqueduct © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just up from Jordan, on a particularly scenic section of the trail that passes Memphis, locals greet us with ice pops; one of the ladies is responsible for creating a gorgeous garden right on the trail in memory of her son and tells us that she tenders it 6-8 hours a week.

A particularly scenic portion of the Erie Canalway that passes Memphis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to Camillus, where we are greeted with signs and cheers of “Half way!” as we cross the 200-mile mark, from where we started out in Buffalo. The rest stop has been set up for us here, and inside the Sims Store, they offer us refreshments, as well.

Crossing the halfway mark at Camillus! 200 miles from Buffalo, 200 more to go to Albany! © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Sims Store is a replica of the original canal store which would have been located two miles east. You enter the store where two years ago, a woman in period dress was there to show off the sort of stuff that would have been on sale to serve the boats. There is an excellent local history section, an Erie Canal Barge display, an 1800’s room, and a section describing the building of the canal including some of the tools used. There is also a wonderful wall-mural of a boat traveling over the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct on the second floor.

The Sims Store in Camillus is a replica of the original canal store © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The artifacts on display are very interesting. The docent shows a map of New York State which shows why the Erie Canal was the only route to the West: a relatively flat, open portion cutting through a break between the Adirondacks and the Appalachians.

The Sims Store is part of a 164-acre Camillus Erie Canal Park, a town park that preserves a seven mile stretch of the Erie Canal. It includes the impressive Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From the Sims Store you can take a boat ride on the old canal, which several of our cyclists are taking advantage of;  they operate dinner cruises as well, (www.eriecanalcamillus.com/museum.htm)

At this point, we ride along the trail (the original towpath), but this part of what would have been the canal is no longer part of the Erie Canal – what looks like a stream now is where the original canal would have been and the water what is naturally collected.

We come to Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, which is a stunning example of engineering. The aqueduct is a water-filled bridge that carried canal boats over rivers, streams or valleys. This 144 foot waterway enabled the first enlargement of the Erie Canal to be carried over Nine Mile Creek and is listed as the smallest of the larger aqueducts. Four stone arches made of fine Onondaga limestone quarried from Split Rock supported the towpath. Of the 32 original aqueducts on the First Enlargement, only about seven remain intact.

I try to rush to get to camp in time to also visit the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, which will close at 4:30 pm. (The organizers have also arranged for us to be able to visit the Syracuse Canal Museum this evening, with shuttle bus transportation into the downtown; I plan to visit the museum the next morning.)

It’s just about  3 pm when I arrive at our campsite in Burnet Park, alongside the Zoo. At the park, we can use the swimming pool and “indoor” campers can set themselves up on the hockey rink. Instantly, a whole tent city rises in front of the houses across the street from the park.

I promptly drop my things at the hockey rink, so I don’t lose time setting up the tent (also the forecast is for rain tonight). I walk directly to the zoo so I can see the animals before they are brought in at 4 pm. We also will be having a delightful barbecue dinner at the zoo this evening and a lecture in the visitor center auditorium.

Mother and baby elephant at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Yesterday’s ride to Seneca Falls was 62 miles over rolling country roads but I didn’t feel tired at all and was able to explore the attractions that evening, perhaps because of my excitement at being there. But even though today’s ride was a mere 39 miles, I am heat-exhausted. I drag myself around the zoo, spending more time sitting on a bench and looking into animal cages than I do walking around.

Seeing the Siberian tiger at the Gifford Zoo, just next door to where we camp in Syracuse; several Cycle the Erie riders said they could hear the animals at night © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Last time, I missed the excellent lecture that was held in the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s visitor center auditorium by a representative of the Syracuse Canal Museum about the Erie Canal’s engineering. This time I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.

Sam Clemence presents “Engineering the Erie Canal” this year, and his talk is all the more fascinating because we have been riding alongside the canal and can appreciate the scale, the geography, the lift system, the aqueducts that made the Erie Canal an engineering marvel. And this evening, we not only appreciate the brilliant engineering, but what the canal meant in terms of transforming the United States into an industrial and global power, how it changed the face of the country quite literally in terms of population – bringing the immigrants to build and man factories, the settlers and pioneers through the west, unifying the nation, bringing down the cost of goods and improving living standards, and creating jobs and commerce.

A mural depicting Nine Mile Aqueduct, at the Sims Store © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the idea for the Erie Canal goes back to George Washington and the French and Indian War. Thomas Jefferson, the guy responsible for such bold visionary enterprises as the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, said in 1809, “It is little short of madness to think of it this day – a splendid project and may be executed 100 years from today.” Just eight years later, because of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton’s determination (and state financing), the first shovel went into the ground.

Before the canal, it would take three weeks to travel from Albany to Buffalo on sparse roads, involving fjording rivers and surmounting the Cohoes Falls, and would have cost $100 a ton to transport wheat; $6 a barrel to transport salt.

But a wheat importer named, Jesse Hawley, sitting in debtor’s prison, 1808-9, wrote a letter to the Genesee Messenger newspaper, using the nom de plume of “Hercules” and proposed the idea of building the canal for $6 million. His letter caught the attention of DeWitt Clinton.

“The USA in 1800 was a new country, with an expanding frontier, diverse and abundant resources, and a  shortage of labor. The new nation had an experimental form of government. It manifested confidence, embraced technology, epitomized ‘Ingenious Yankees’ – self-sufficient, versatile.”

But when they started to build the Erie Canal, there were fewer than 10 engineers in the whole country; by 1816 there were 37; by 1850 there were 50.

The two who headed up the Erie Canal project, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes (a surveyor and lawyer) were really county judges. Clinton hired them in 1811 to survey the route. They first thought to build a route along the Mohawk River (there were no dams then), but that was considered an unreliable source of water. So they decided to build a lock canal, fed by 12 feeder streams. This required building 185 locks, 18 aqueducts over the 363 miles from Lake Erie to the Hudson River.

The biggest challenge was the Niagara Escarpment, which we saw at Lockport – where they had to surmount a 60-foot elevation.  “In those days [before steel], they could only hold back 12 feet of water [with wooden gates].”

Pastoral scenes on the Cycle the Erie ride © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But they knew that the canal would go through the Mohawk Valley – the gateway to West. It was the lowest canyon, the only place with a break in the Appalachian mountain range, from Maine to Alabama. It’s called “Little Nose” and “Big Nose” (and we are alert to seek it out on tomorrow’s ride.)

Construction began on July 4, 1817 in Rome, the very center of the state where the ground was flat. Clinton wanted to get as many people to see it and built out. And he realized that if building started, it would be easier to get more money, if necessary.

They looked to English canal building as well as Leonardo Da Vinci’s gate system, and imported Irish immigrants who were paid $8-12/month and a ration of rum (the pay was pretty good for the time), but three-fourths of the laborers were US citizens (mainly farmers).

In the first two years, they only built 15 miles. Clinton was excoriated. “That Federalist Son of a [expletive] taxes our dollars to build a Ditch.”

Built at a cost of $7,700,000 (equivalent to $159 billion in 2018 dollars), the canal opened Oct. 20, 1825 and was an immediate success, bringing down the cost of commerce and transportation to a fraction of what it was.

A mural on a building in Jordan tells the village’s Erie Canal history © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that at one time, more than 50,000 people depended on the Erie Canal for their livelihood.  A whole culture developed around canal life. For many, canal boats were floating houses, traveling from town to town: the father was the captain, the mother cooked for family and crew and children would serve as “hoggees,” leading the mules as they towed the boats. (At Chittenango Landing Boat Museum we see a model boat and how the mules lived onboard.) He tells us that one of the US presidents was a hoggee in his youth: James A. Garfield.

I can imagine how for those who traveled along the Canal in packet boats or passenger vessels, the Canal was an exciting place. Gambling and entertainment were frequent pastimes on the Canal and often, families would meet each year at the same locations to share stories and adventures.

Amazingly, by 1836, the very success of the original canal – which was a mere 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide (to permit east and west traffic), affording just 6 inches of draft below the boat –had not only paid back the original investment, but rendered it obsolete. An enlarged canal, 7-feet deep with locks 110 feet long and 18 feet wide, was built. That one, too, was replaced in 1905 with the New York State Barge Canal System; built for self-propelled vessels, it uses canalized rivers, lakes and land-cut sections with a minimum depth of 12 feet and electrically-powered locks 300-feet long, that still operate today.

The Erie Canal is called “The Mother of Cities” – a fact that is made eminently clear when I visit the Syracuse Canal Museum, which displays a graph showing the growth in population of cities like Syracuse before and after.

A heavy rainstorm is expected tonight, and I am happy to be doing my “indoor camping” in the hockey rink at Burnet Park, literally adjacent to the zoo. I hear from a few campers in the morning that they could hear the animals at night.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Syracuse’s Erie Canal Museum

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie, Day 3: Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

The “First Wave” statue, by Lloyd Lillie, in the lobby of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park visitor center puts you in the march toward the first Women’s Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls, July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finish our 62-mile ride on this third day of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour in Seneca Falls, renowned as the birthplace of Women’s Rights, where the organizers have arranged for the major sites, including the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, to stay open for us, and for a shuttle bus to take us from our campsite on the grounds of the Mynderse Academy into the downtown.   

My impression of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, operated by the National Park Service, has not changed from my first visit two years before: It is an absolute dud, especially when you consider the innovations in museums – especially compared to Fort Stanwix National Historic Site in Rome and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse (both of which we will see in coming days). What is more, the NPS rangers who run the site know how antiquated and uninspiring – even disrespectful to women and the struggle for equality – the exhibit is and revealed a frustration in their inability to improve it.

There are no new insights or inspiration to be gained. The exhibit doesn’t have a clear theme, point or focus: is it about how and why the Women’s Rights movement started here in Seneca Falls (the influence of the Oneida Indians, which allowed women to become chiefs, have property and retain custody of their children, on Melinda Gage, for example; the prevalence of Quaker women among the early women’s rights leaders who had roles in their church; and the number of factories, spurred by the Erie Canal, which in turn employed women who subsequently wanted equal pay and to control their earnings)? Is it about the leaders of the movement, the courage they needed and how they persevered?   What about exploring why it took 80 more years for women to get the vote, even after former slave men got their (theoretical) right to vote after the Civil War? Nor does it confront the controversies behind the continuing fight for women’s rights: why women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work, what is the “glass ceiling”. What role does the lack of affordable, accessible child care and healthcare play, and the mother-of-all controversies: why are women’s reproductive rights still so tenuous? And, oh yes, why are women still so underrepresented in elected office, including the highest office in the land, the Presidency?

What is glaringly obvious is that the exhibit reflects the 1980s Reagan perspective – more Phyllis Schafly than Gloria Steinem – a half-assed, slap in the face, disrespectful, condescending lip service to women’s rights and the ongoing struggle. If there is a theme, it is that women should be grateful for the opportunity to work in fields beyond teaching, secretarial and nursing – but nothing about pay equity or glass ceilings or sexual harassment. To Reagan (and now Trump), women’s rights are simply a way of supplying more workers and keeping wages low.

No discussion of how laws and the lack of anti-discrimination laws helped keep women down: How a woman could be raped, beaten, killed by her husband – was not much more than property (as were children) – and how a woman’s property became her husband’s. How women could be fired from jobs once married or pregnant or had children or reached a certain age or weight, or not hired at all merely because of gender. How insurance companies could charge women more (preexisting condition for being able to give birth). How landlords could refuse to rent to a woman without a husband’s signature; banks would not loan money for a home or business; how women couldn’t get a license to practice law. Sexual harassment”? The phrase was only invented in the 1970s, as the modern Woman’s Movement came into flower.

What did not having a vote mean for women in society? What happened when women were widowed or divorced? Why were there certain professions that women were steered into – like teaching, secretarial work, factories and nursing, positions which as a result tended to be woefully underpaid?

The spartan interior of Wesleyan Methodist Chapel where the women’s Rights Convention took place in July 1848, part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What was the role of the Church in suppressing women’s rights? That is, except for the Quakers who were the earliest advocates of women’s rights.  What was the influence of the Oneida Indians, which gave women property rights, custody of children and the ability to become a tribal chief, on the early feminists including Melinda Gage (the mother-in-law of Frank Blum who wrote Wizard of Oz).

Where is the discussion of the women who opposed suffrage, equal rights (ie. Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Shafly), even the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt initially was not a supporter of women’s suffrage (until happened), and the women today who oppose a woman’s right to choose (then and still today)?

Instead of “women’s rights”, (and this is pretty typical of women’s issues generally) the exhibit goes off track into the bigger topic of civil rights (Abolition, the Underground Railroad). This should be seen in the context of how women were the backbone of the movement to end slavery, but after the Civil War, fully expected to win the vote along with freedmen, but instead only black men got the right to vote (such as it was, before Jim Crow). Also, it gives a nod to Jacksonian Democracy but doesn’t answer the question how white men without property got to vote without the need for a Constitutional amendment, but women didn’t get the vote until the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

The exhibit is largely devoid of the heroic women (except for the sculpture) who fought for suffrage, and what the fight was like (locked up, force-fed).

There’s copy of Lily Ledbetter act signed by Obama in a case in the lobby, but no explanation or context.

There is a film in a lovely auditorium, “Dreams of Equality,” (delightfully cool and relaxing after biking 62 miles in the hot sun) which dramatizes the early internal debate over breaking out of the constrained role women were relegated to, is woefully and pathetically outdated – the historic elements aren’t bad but the pseudo “conversations” between girls and boys is frankly stupid and archaic.

But in the film, one of the main characters loses her husband in the Civil War and one woman says to the other, “If a woman had a say in making laws, there would be no wars,” to which the other woman replies, “If we had a say, who would listen?”

And in another bit of dialogue, the woman wonders, “Don’t women also have rights?” to which her brother responds, “What men most prize in a woman is affection.”

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a simple structure, was the setting for the first Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You also visit the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women’s Rights convention was held in 1848 and the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The structure’s history can be a metaphor for the ambivalence of American society to women’s rights: From 1843-1871 it was chapel, then an opera house/performing arts hall; then a roller skating rink, a movie theater (in 1910s), then a Ford dealership, and ironically enough, was a laundromat before facing a wrecking ball.

Women fought to save the building, and in 1982, during the Reagan Administration, it was turned into a national park.

(Womens’ Rights National Historical Park, 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315-568-0024, www.nps.gov/wori.)

To put faces to the women’s movement, I walk down the main street to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. It is still in a ground floor storefront in a former bank building, awaiting its move into the factory building that was the Seneca Knitting Mill across the canal. This is most appropriate because the mill was where a number of the early feminists came from (they had a taste of earning their own money and were fired when they asked for wages equal to men).

This massive factory, which dates from 1844, was owned by two men, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain, who were among the 32  who supported women’s right and signed the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the Women’s Rights Convention. That is saying something because out of the 300 people (40 of them men) who attended the convention in the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, only 32 people signed the Declaration. The Seneca Knitting Mills, which operated until 1999 (can you believe it!), manufactured heavy woolen socks for 150 years, and then went the way of 50,000 other factories in the US.

The plan is to turn the 170-year-old limestone building into the hall of fame, research center and museum celebrating women and their accomplishments, to be called the Center for Great Women.

The Seneca-Cayuga Canal brought factories, like the Seneca Knitting Mill, which employed women who questioned why they couldn’t keep their own money, igniting the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls. It will soon house the Center for Great Women © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I was in school, I could count on one hand the number of women who were presented as heroic figures – Madame Curie, Molly Pitcher (who I learn may have been fictional but still representative of women who took up the guns when their husbands were killed in the Revolutionary War), and the reporter, Nellie Bly.

I am thrilled to find Nellie Bly among the honorees. Her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864-1922, honored in 1998), and was a trail-blazing journalist considered to be the “best reporter in America” who pioneered investigative journalism (hence the pseudonym); Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, (1813-1876, honored 2002), who headed the committee that organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850, helped found the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and established Una, one of the first women’s rights newspapers; Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily (first published in 1849 in Seneca Falls) and whose penchant for wearing full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt (as a protest to the way women were expected to dress), gave birth to the term “bloomers”.

It turns out there were dozens and dozens of women, going back to Colonial times, who did really important things. The women who are honored here are not necessarily honored as feminists, but for their accomplishments.

“Women’s stories are not told,” the organization notes. “Less than 10% of the content of history books references women. Students cannot name 20 famous American women through history, excluding sports figures, celebrities and First Ladies. Only 20% of news article are about women. A society that values women values all of its members. By telling the stories of great American women through exhibits and educational resources, the Hall will make a future where all members of society are valued a reality.” (Indeed, the New York Times, during this year’s Women’s History Month, began publishing obituaries of women who were overlooked in their own time.)

The bank building on Fall Street where the Women’s Hall of Fame is currently located in Seneca Falls could easily be the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan from Frank Capra’s film classic, ”A Wonderful Life.” There are many connections between Seneca Falls and the mythical Bedford Falls © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1969, the Women’s Hall of Fame actually predates the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (one could say it even was at the very cusp of the Women’s Movement which really emerged in the 1970s). And when you contemplate the timeline of the biographies, you get a better understanding of the historical context of the Women’s Rights Movement.

Looking around: Abigail Adams, what a pistol she must have been!  She had such a strong influence on her husband but clearly was frustrated in the lack of opportunities women had to utilize their potential. (“Remember the ladies” in forming the new government,” she admonishes her husband, John Adams, in 1776).

Secagewea, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman. Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Rachel Carson. Frances Perkins (Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Sullivan, Rosa Parks.

Of course, there are the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony (there is a Susan B Anthony bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua), but I also discover women identified as being early feminists (most you never heard of), and you realize that the struggle goes way, way back.

As you go through the timeline, the women honorees in the National Women’s Hall of Fame are less about struggle and more about achievement in a plethora of professions and activities. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For example, Anne Hutchinson who lived 1591-1643 (honored 1994), was the first woman in the new world to be a religious leader and for it, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (there is a parkway in the Bronx named for her); Sarah Grimke, who lived 1792-1873 (honored 1998), who published papers championing abolition and women’s rights, and with her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, 1805 – 1879 (honored 1998), were southerners, born in South Carolina, who became the first female speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society; Fanny Wright, 1795-1852 (honored 1994), the first American woman to speak out against slavery and for the equality of women; Mary Lyon, 1797-1849 (honored 1993), who founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, the first college for women, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women nationwide; and Maria Mitchell, 1818 – 1889 (honored 1994), an astronomer who discovered a new comet in 1847 and the first woman named to membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Walking around (you can also peruse the website to find these biographies) I am introduced to all sorts of women I had not known, that fill me with pride: women on the front lines of science, civil rights, labor rights, education, human rights.

Mary “Mother” Harris Jones, 1830-1930 (honored 1984), a labor organizer and agitator who worked on behalf of the United Mine Workers and other groups; Sarah Winnemucca, c1844-1891 (honored 1994), Native American leader who dedicated her life to returning land taken by the government back to the tribes, especially the land of her own Paiute Tribe; Susette LaFlesche, 1854-1903 (honored 1994), a member of the Omaha Tribe and a tireless campaigner for native American rights; Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (honored 1998), suffragist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” a lecturer on religious subjects, a playwright, an organizer of a women’s peace movement and advocate for women’s equality in public and private life; and Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887 (honored 2009), famous for authoring the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and an important forerunner of the Zionist movement.

There is the famous flyer Amelia Earhart but also Bessie Coleman, an aviatrix of  the1920s, who was the first African American woman to have pilot’s license (at a time when women, let alone a black woman, were not allowed to have a license; Coleman went to Europe to get her license, what does that tell you?).

I so appreciate the diversity of the women represented, especially in the 20th century, when women do have more educational and professional opportunities: astronaut Sally Ride; tennis player Billie Jean King who broke through for women’s athletics; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor. Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug, Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball, Dorothea Lange, Lilly Ledbetter, Margaret Sanger.

(Go to the website to see the most recent inductees as well as search all).

Susan B. Anthony beside the bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua, and the Women’s Hall of Fame © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We commiserate over the life-size portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was already in the Hall of Fame as First Lady and New York Senator, the first woman to be a presidential candidate of a major political party, but should have been the first woman President.

It is remarkable to look at the faces and read the short biographies of women who have made such important contributions, going back to colonial times.

(National Women’s Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315- 568-8060, www.womenofthehall.org)

WomanMade Products shop on Fall Street, Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Across the street, I stop in at the shop, WomenMade Products (how can you not?).

I have time to wander around. I try to get to the “Wonderful Life Museum,” but it is closed. It offers a brochure for a self-guided walking tour. Seneca Falls is supposed to have been the model for Bedford Falls in the James Stewart classic movie, though it is hard to recognize today. (See: “Seneca Falls History and Connections,” www.wonderfullifemuseum.com/seneca-falls-history-and-connections.)

I wander over to the canalside park just in time, 7 pm, to enjoy an old-fashioned band concert by the Seneca Falls Community Band (33rd season!); there is a stand selling the absolutely best ice cream in the world. Perfect.

Seneca Falls evokes images of Bedford Falls, the fictional town in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There is even an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our campsite tonight is on the grounds of the gorgeous Mynderse Academy, which even has a flat-screen TV where a few of us gather around to watch the All Star Baseball Game.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Half-way Mark of 400-mile Biketour

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’


A remarkable near 90-degree turn on the concrete bridge out of Medina on the Erie Canalway. A new form of mortar had to be devised to build this part of the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 Miles 

Immediately upon leaving Medina on Day 2 of Parks & Trails NY’s 19th annual 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour, which transverses New York State from Buffalo to Albany, we reach one of the highlights of the Erie Canalway: you ride over a concrete embankment that goes over a waterfall which turns at a hard angle. You marvel at the construction as much as the view – the quaint Industrial-era town on one side, the dramatic forest and falls on the other. I stop at one of the many historic markers that are along the trail to learn about the special mortar they had to devise to accomplish this engineering feat.

Riding out of Medina on Day 2 of the Cycle the Erie 8-day, 400-mile biketour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just a little further is another remarkable feature of the Erie Canalway, the multi-use trail built mainly upon the original towpath that makes biking so pleasant: the culvert. We leave our bikes on the trail and climb down an embankment to where this tunnel has been cut under the canal. Here you can really appreciate just how shallow the Erie Canal is  – really just a bathtub. This is the only place on the 353-mile long canal where a road is built under the canal – and is quite a dramatic scene.

The culvert just outside of Medina is the only place where cars travel under the Erie Canal; it shows just how shallow the canal is © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walking through the culvert under the Erie Canal, just outside of Medina © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

This is also one of the more scenic parts of the trail, at least to an urban Downstater like me: here we see sprawling farmland. I later learn that the Erie Canal does not just play a role in transportation (now more recreational than commercial), but in irrigation and flood control.

Some of New York State’s prettiest pastoral scenery is on this stretch of the Erie Canalway. The Erie Canal doesn’t just provide a water transportation artery, but serves the purpose of irrigation and flood control © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We come into Albion, one of the charming canaltowns we travel through, so rich in history, where you see in the stunning architecture, and the opulence  that the canal and the Industrial Revolution created – civic buildings, churches, banks.

Because I had been here before, I knew to ride a short distance up Main Street from the canal where there are churches and a Town Hall on four corners.

One of the churches, Pullman Memorial, has drop-dead magnificent Tiffany stained glass windows. I meet Bill Lattin, a church volunteer, and here is one time that my tardiness in leaving our campsite is rewarded: he wasn’t informed (as usual) that the 750 Cycle the Erie riders (a record) were coming through this morning, so no one was at the church to open it up for visits, but as he was coming in to town, he saw us and opened the church just in time for my visit.

Bill Lattin gives Cycle the Erie riders a tour of Pullman Memorial Church in Albion, which is decorated with Tiffany windows and gilded organ pipes © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

George M. Pullman (1831-1897), who made his fortune manufacturing the luxurious railroad sleeper cars, was born in Albion. He had long before moved away but remained close to people in his hometown and one of his friends, Charles A. Danolds, in 1890, convinced him to donate $67,000 to build the church.

Shanties were set up to house the stonecutters who managed to complete the building in less than a year’s time and the church was dedicated January 1895. Pullman’s daughter bequeathed $5,000 to maintain the exquisite stainless glass window of Jesus which was created in the Tiffany Studios in New York (look closely to see the Tiffany signature etched in a corner) – an early example of Art Nouveau. There is also a 1,248-pipe organ with pipes of gold leaf decorated by Tiffany Studios. Lattin tells me that there are only 30 people left in the congregation (Albion has a population of 5,000). (10 East Park St., Albion, NY `14411, 585-589-7181, PullmanMemorial.org).

The Tiffany stained glass windows at Pullman Memorial Church in Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

At Mile 21, we come to a small town of Holley, settled in 1812 and established on the original Erie Canal. Originally, this was an enormous and complicated loop that was straightened out when the canal, already hugely successful in its first several years, was expanded, putting the town a few blocks from the repositioned canal. The restored railroad depot (circa 1907) is now a museum. Holley was the center of a community of Italian immigrants who were brought over to work in Medina’s sandstone quarry (the sign says, “affectionately called, Podunk”).

As we ride into Brockport, where one of the State University of New York campuses is located as well as a prison, we are greeted with water, lemonade, and free stamped postcards. Brockport has a charming Main Street. Brockport, it turns out, was where Cyrus McCormick contracted a factory to manufacture his reapers (there is a marker near the dock), seeing that the reapers could be shipped on the canal to the Midwest where he was getting orders from the large farms.

Farm workers in the fields © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We ride passed Adams Basin and Spencerport (recommended for our lunch stop), where a unique lift bridge carries Main Street over the canal.

The part of the ride that goes into Rochester is some of the toughest – a series of up-and-down hills and dales, twists and turns, but from the perches we can see how the canal was sheer-cut into high rock faces.

The Erie Canal crosses with the Genessee River at Rochester © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We ride over a bridge from which we can have a dramatic view of where the Erie Canal crosses the Oswego River. (I’ve done this by canalboat, a floating RV, which you can rent through Mid-Lakes Navigation, Skaneateles. So much fun to go through the canal locks, under the lift bridges, tying up where whimsy takes you. 800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com, midlakesnav.com.)

Our rest stop is here at Rochester (mile 45.8) is at a beautiful park along the Genesee Valley Waterway Center, where the organizers have arranged for us to go swimming, canoeing and kayaking, as well as for escorted bike rides to High Falls – a phenomenal sight – in downtown Rochester. REI has sponsored the stop, as well as bike repair.

Rochester, one of the cities birthed by the Erie Canal. Parks & Trails NY arranges for the Cycle the Erie riders to take an optional ride downtown © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal, known as “The Mother of Cities,” turned tiny Rochesterville into an American “boom town” and today, is the third largest city in New York State, the brochure says. The canal first went through the center of the city, across an 800-foot aqueduct over the Genesee River – a major engineering achievement at the time. A second, sturdier version, built in 1842 to replace the original aqueduct, can be seen at the base of the Broad Street ridge. Eventually, as Rochester was built up and the canal interfered with traffic, the canal was rerouted to bypass the city.

But as we leave Rochester, we see how the Erie Canal is still the “mother of communities” – along much of the trail, we see new housing developments that come right up to the Canalway.

A few of the 750 Cycle the Erie riders on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We now ride along the Great Embankment, yet another engineering marvel. At the evening lecture, we had learned that they actually had to move a creek and flood a town in order to straighten out the canal, but this required engineering that had not yet been invented.

“You can get a lot done when you don’t have to file environmental impact statements. They moved the canal, redirected the creek, to create the Great Embankment.”

They put in floors of concrete and the re-done canal opened in May, 1912. But just a few months later,, in September, there was a break at Bushnell’s Basin and it collapsed.

They managed to keep navigation flowing by creating 70-foot high stilts to support a wooden trough while they rebuilt the Great Embankment from the bottom up (quite literally a concrete bathtub). There is a photo from May 1918 of the men standing in it when it reopened.

New housing development along the Erie Canalway, at Spencerport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

This day’s route has us riding through a sequence of charming canaltowns – Spencerport, Brockport, Pittsford (one of my favorites), and finally, our destination for the night, Fairport (my favorite) – which are experiencing the most marvelous renaissance because of the repurposed Erie Canal: no longer a polluted cesspool of stinky commercial boats, foul water and even fouler boatmen, but pastoral scenes of non-intrusive recreational boats. Indeed, there are charming residential communities – among them, at Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsford and Fairport – that are sprouting up right along the canal. Some like in Rochester are a planned community of single-homes built around a recreation center, and others, like in Spencerport and Fairport, are townhomes that seem ideal for empty-nesters (or people escaping summer heat in Florida).

Pittsford and Fairport are the best examples of this renaissance. In Pittsford (where I tied up one summer in the canalboat to overnight), you can see what was a grain silo repurposed as an office tower, and other structures turned into charming restaurants and boutiques.

The lift bridges are themselves an attraction – Fairport’s lift bridge, which celebrated its centennial in 2014 is a particular attraction because it has no right angles.

The unusual lift bridge across the Erie Canal in Fairport has no right angles © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our campsite tonight is at the Minerva DeLand School in Fairport, and they have arranged for shuttle buses to take us back into Fairport to enjoy the lovely restaurants and shops. But I don’t want to miss the talk by Andy Beers, director of the Empire State Trail about the Erie CanalwayTrail and New York State’s plans to build a new Empire State Trail – for a total of 750 miles of dedicated biking and walking trails. The plan is to complete the Erie Canalway from Buffalo to Albany (long the goal of Parks & Trails NY and this annual Cycle the Erie ride), and also to link and build new trails that will extend from the tip of New York City (the Hudson River trail) north to the Canadian border, making the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in the nation.

Day 3: Fairport to Waterloo/Seneca Falls, 62 Miles

This is my second time doing the Cycle the Erie ride, and I am attuned to the things I did not get to do the first time. So, leaving Fairport to start Day 3’s ride, I am alert to stopping off the trail (crossing over the canal) to visit Macedon, where you follow a nature trail to the end and come to a point where you can see where all three canals – the original 1825 canal, the expanded canal, and the Modern Barge canal – converge together.

At the end of the nature trail in Macedon, you can see where three incarnation so f the Erie Canal come together © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our rest stop is in Palmyra, a 19th century village which predates the Erie Canal (that’s why it isn’t called Palmyraport), which has 200 buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion (you can visit his farmhouse). I take time to ride through Palmyra, which I had visited more extensively on a prior trip, by Mid Lakes Navigation canalboat (like an RV on the water) to enjoy its architecture. (www.palmyrany.com, 315-597-4849).

Palmyra has 200 historic buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and was where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

There is an unexpected treat at Newark, where the community has set up a welcome table for us at the canal park. You walk down to the canalside walkway (excellent rest facilities) and there are the most magnificent murals painted on the base of the bridge that tell the story of life for canalers on the Erie Canal with reflections on the Civil War era, some of which can only be fully appreciated if you come by boat.

Section of one of the murals that decorate the base of a bridge in Newark. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Peppermint Museum 

On my first Cycle the Erie ride, because I was in a hurry to get ahead of the rain (it didn’t work), I missed the Peppermint Museum in Lyons, where a clever food scientist (not sure that is what he was known as), H.G. Hotchkiss, revolutionized the use of peppermint oil, so I was intent to visit this time. Once again, this is a tiny site that you might miss except if you were looking for it, and it proves fascinating in ways you never expected.

Warehouse at the Hotchkiss Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal is what brought Hiram Hotchkiss to Lyons in 1841. Indeed, there was an oversupply of peppermint oil, an herb that was grown extensively in fields around Lyons. But because of the Erie Canal, Hotchkiss had the idea to export the peppermint oil to Europe. Europe already had its own peppermint oil and his product was at first met with skepticism. But Hotchkiss perfected the process and his product won medals. The long success of H.G. Hotchkiss Company in peppermint and other essential oils made Lyons, New York, the Peppermint Capital of the world for many years. Indeed, at one time, Hotchkiss was responsible for half the annual production of peppermint oil in the United States. Canallers would say they could tell when they were approaching the village by the smell.

H.G. Hotchkiss’ laboratory, in Lyons. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Until Hotchkiss, peppermint oil was used for medicinal purposes and to make tea. But Hotchkiss expanded its use – Beech-Nut (which has a factory in Canajoharie, another town where we will stay) first started using peppermint in candy and gum.

Hotchkiss, who was brilliant at branding and packaging in gorgeous blue glass bottles manufactured at the Clyde Glassworks (another town we visit) became a millionaire. He had a 42-room home a few blocks up the hill, which a couple from New York City purchased.

We get to visit Hotchkiss’ laboratory and warehouse; the parlor offers an exhibit honoring suffragettes. Indeed, we learn that Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall (1840-1913),one of Hotchkiss’ seven daughters, was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss (1914-2010),was the company’s fourth president (1963-1984), and one of the first women to become president of a company. This is most fitting because we will wind up this day in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of Women’s Rights.

Suffrage Tea Party: Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss was one of the first women to head a company © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Gradually, though, Lyons farmers started planting apples and switched to dairy production; and the peppermint factory closed in 1990. The town just about forgot about its peppermint past and locals didn’t know what the building was until the Lyons Heritage Society reopened it as a museum.

(The Peppermint Museum, an absolute jewel, is open by appointment only; you can arrange a tour by calling Patty Alena at the Lyons Heritage Society, 315-946-4596; 95 Water Street, Lyons, NY 14489,  www.lyonsheritagesociety.com).

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

I ride up to the Lyons town square and get some feel of the community before continuing on the trail.

Amish Farmers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We have our afternoon rest stop in Clyde  (the townspeople have gone all out on the Village Green with music and ice cream for us) and then go off the Canalway trail onto country roads through Amish Country (who knew there was an Amish country in New York State?), some of the prettiest farmland anywhere. On my last visit, it started pouring immediately as we left  Clyde, and I was unable to capture these exquisite scenes that evoke Currier & Ives, in photos. This time, I am lucky because it is sunny and some of the farmers are out. I pass the barn where last time we took shelter from lightening.

Cycling the country roads toward Seneca Falls © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our 51-mile ride ends Day 3 of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour at another stunning school campus, Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls.

Because I want to have as much time as possible in Seneca Falls, where the Women’s Rights National Park and other sites are staying open until 8 pm for us, I drop my things in the school gymnasium for “indoor camping,” (the school even has a TV where we get to watch the All-Stars baseball game at night) and rush out to the school bus which is shuttling us into town. Tonight is one of the two during our eight-day trip where we are on our own for dinner, but I occupy my time touring the attractions dedicated to Women’s Suffrage (New York State is making a big deal of the centennial of the 19th Amendment that is coming in 2020) and exploring Seneca Falls.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next:  Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia

National Museum of American Jewish History, located within Philadelphia’s Independence Park historic district, is the only museum of its kind in the nation that tells the whole expansive story of Jews in America going back to colonial times up to the present © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation, through, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded – everything from the off-hand comment by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly that the Civil War could have been averted if only there were compromise (he should go to the National Constitution Center), to the quixotic amazement of a US Treasury official pining on his research into what’s this thing, “The American Dream,” before adopting the biggest redistribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, to the right-wing meme that America is a (white) “Christian Nation.”

Philadelphia is like hopping from time-capsule to time-capsule because you go from one authentic site where events happened, where the Founders and builders of this nation actually stood, to another. Come, time-travel with me. And the best way to appreciate it – and be wonderfully surprised at ever twist and turn– is to walk. That’s how you come upon things you never considered – the historic markers which point out where Wanamaker’s Department Store was, the Ricketts Circus, the American Philosophical Society (founded by Ben Franklin). I see an Art Deco “Automat” sign; the stunning Art Deco architecture of a building, gorgeous giant murals that pop up out of no where. I practically fall over what closer inspection tells me is the very townhouse whereThomas Jefferson stayed when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (called “Declaration House”), a short walk from Independence Hall.

Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is why it is so terrific that my hotel, the Sonesta Downtown Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square is so well located (1800 Market St. Philadelphia 19103, 215-561-7500).

It’s the afternoon when I arrive at the Sonesta Hotel on Market Street (a parking garage is adjacent) and after checking in, I have just enough time to explore one attraction on my list.

I am headed to the Betsy Ross House, walking down Market Street, literally through Philadelphia’s magnificent City Hall. Walking, you get to see the markers which discuss the history of this site and how the city was planned out. You also can stand on a podium and have a photo taken of yourself as a monument.

As I walk passed the lawn that is just opposite Independence Hall, I spot a huge banner proclaiming the George Washington’s famous words, “Happily the Government of the United States Gives to Bigotry no Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance,” and a statue, in commemoration of the nation’s centennial, “ dedicated to “Religious Liberty. Dedicated to the People of the United States by the Order B’nai B’Rith and Israelites of America.” Then I see a small banner advertising the National Museum of American Jewish History and realize I am standing in front of it. Who knew there was such a thing?

“To Bigotry No Sanction. To Persecution No Assistance” reads the banner on the National Museum of American Jewish History; the statue outside proclaiming Religious Liberty commemorates the nation’s centennial © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In point of fact, the museum has only been in this building in a prime location in the historic district since 2010; previously, the original collection which formed the basis of this grand museum was housed in Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution,” is the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia, and the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States. It dates back to 1740 when Thomas Penn granted land to Nathan Levy for a burial plot for his son. The current incarnation of the synagogue, a modern building, is only about a block away from the Museum, tucked behind (appropriately enough), the Bible Society Building which is directly across the street from the National American Jewish History museum, and across the street, as it happens, from the National Constitution Center. It all fits together and is most appropriate for my visit to Philadelphia this weekend timed for a family Bat Mitzvah.

I have a little less than two hours before the museum closes, and you need a minimum of 2 ½ (good news: the ticket is good for a two-day visit).

The National Museum of American Jews was a revelation to me – beginning with why it is “National”: it is the only museum of its kind in the nation. That’s why.

I have seen parts of the story in other venues – notably Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (www.tourosynagogue.org), the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida; Ellis Island and the Jewish Museum in New York City– but none presented such a comprehensive unfolding of the epic Jewish experience in America that dates back nearly as far as the Puritans in Plymouth (though Jews first settled in the New World since Columbus).

Its exhibits and galleries, the artifacts and commentary brilliantly presented to express complex concepts – the sweep of history, in effect – but taken down to very personal levels of a person, with a face, a name and a genealogy.

It comes down to legitimacy – much as the museums which speak to the Jewish people’s history in Israel – and the illegitimate notion of the United States founded as a Christian nation (See New York Times, Jan. 6, 2018: The Museum of the Bible Is a Safe Space for Christian Nationalists.)

Non-Christians were part of this country’s founding and the Founders, who were humanists, globalists and men of the Enlightenment – among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin – were not only tolerant of other religions but open-minded about philosophies. But what is painfully clear are the strains of anti-Semitism and racism that have persisted throughout American history despite George Washington’s assurances to the Touro congregation (“To Bigotry No Sanction,”), despite the Bill of Rights and the Naturalization Act of 1790 which bar the establishment of religion, an issue as relevant as today’s headlines.

There are four floors which wrap around a huge atrium, each floor devoted to a different era and theme. The displays, including multi-media , interactive stations, and artifacts, are well presented to convey complex, even nuanced concepts, intertwining real people with places, historical events and cultural movements. In some instances, it is the sheer numbers that impress.

Foundations of Freedom: 1654 – 1880

I start on the top floor, “Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880”. Do most Americans realize that Jews were already settled in the New World colonies from 1654? A giant map shows the trade routes that coincided with Jewish migration, especially after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, which drove many into the Caribbean islands. (How many people realize that the first white settlement were of Marrano Jews in Jamaica?) Then, when the Spanish took over, a group fled Barbados where they had lived since the 1620s, to Newport, Rhode Island in 1658.

Family Tree of the first Jewish families in America includes the Sulzberger family who owns the New York Times © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

You gaze at a family tree of the first Jewish families, most of Portuguese background.

Asher Levy came to North America in 1654; look down his family tree and you come to Arthur Sulzburger (1881-1964), whose family publishes the New York Times.

By the 1600s, a small group of Jews settled around Charleston, SC; a 1669 constitution, written by John Locke, granted “Jews, heathens and other dissenters” the freedom to worship.

Throughout the displays, there is a kind of running count which puts into perspective Jews in America:

“European laws excluded Jews from most trades except finance and commerce, so they settled in port cities. In 1700, there were 250 Jews among the population of 250,000 white settlers in colonial America; zero synagogues. The population grew slowly, from a mere 250 out of a population of 250,000 to 2500 out of a population of 3.9 million by the end of the 1700s.

In Savannah in 1733, there were 42 Jews – the largest single Jewish group to arrive in colonies up to that time. Among them, was a Jewish doctor who arrived during an epidemic and began caring for ill and dying.

Jews arrived in Philadelphia in the 1730s; by 1760, there were close to 100 Jews.

We learn that Jewish Americans were split (like the colonists) over whether to side with the Patriots or the Loyalists in the American Revolution, based on livelihood, families and aspirations, but “most Jews stood for independence.”

New York’s Jews collaborated with British Loyalists; Jews who sided with Patriots escaped to Philadelphia.

The US Constitution made American Jews citizens in 1790, but some states had laws lasting well into the 19th century  barring Jews from holding public office (despite the Bill of Rights’ first amendment which prohibits the establishment of religion).

“To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” George Washington wrote in 1790 to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, founded by Portuguese Jews in 1763 who fled their settlements in the  Caribbean when it appeared the Inquisition would be imported there from Spain and Portugal.

Of the 3.9 million population in the fledgling nation, 2,500 were Jews; 9 of 13 states required public officials to be Christian even though the 1790 Naturalization Act contained no religious requirement.

A theme that runs through is of what it means to perpetually be a minority in America.

Innovation & Expansion

A section themed “Innovation & Expansion”  is part of the timeline of Jews in America usually ignored entirely, but Jews were very much a part of the Westward expansion and the march to the Industrial Revolution.

From 1820-1870, the United States doubled in physical size, the population quadrupled and the Industrial Revolution transformed society.

For Europeans, America beckoned as a land of opportunity; millions of immigrants crossed to be the laborers that built the factories, railroads, roads, including 200,000 Jews, attracted by promise of economic and political freedom.

The population of Jews during this period mushroomed, from 2500 to 250,000.

Here we see the photos and effects of families, personifying the experience.

There is a large map spread out on the floor where you can play a video that shows the expansion; and a whole room where you see, city by city, how Jews populated them, and particular highlights.

In New York City, in 1823, for example, the first Jewish periodical, “The Jew” began publishing. During the 1800s, New York City became a center of political, economic and cultural life of American Jews. By 1840, a majority of American Jews lived in the city; the population grew to 60,000 by 1860.

Baltimore saw its total population increase from 120,000 to 320,000 during the mid-1800s, with its Jewish population increasing from 100 to over 10,000 by mid-1860s.

Jewish Americans settled first in port cities but spread out across America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other cities: Cincinnati, where Hebrew Union College opened in 1875;

Trinidad Colorado was where the B’nai B’rith was founded in 1843, modeled after the Masons, Odd Fellows and other fraternal organizations.

With each display, there are specific people who are associated and here, we learn of the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West: Pioneering female Jewish revivalist” (she gave up preaching when she married).

The Civil War was as traumatic for Jewish Americans as it was for the rest of the country.

The Menken brothers of Cincinnati were among 7000 Jewish Americans who fought for the Union; 3000 Jewish Americans fought for the Confederacy © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just as Jewish colonists were divided over the issue of joining the Revolution or remaining loyal, there were also splits over supporting Union or the Confederacy, largely based on where they were living and their livelihood. In the section themed, “Union & Disunion,” the Civil War era, it notes, “Jews never unified on issue of secession or slavery: 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War: 7000 for Union, 3000 for Confederacy. Which side depended largely on where they lived as well as their livelihood.

3rd floor — Dreams of Freedom: 1880 – 1945

You can easily spend two hours just on the fourth floor alone, but I see how limited my time is and go down to the third floor: themed “Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945”, chronicling the migration of millions of immigrants who came to the United States beginning in the late 19th century who profoundly reshaped the American Jewish community and the nation as a whole.

The first section of this floor considers immigration and integration: getting to America, making a home, the reception immigrant Jews received, and learning to negotiate American society. The second section takes up life after Congress legislated the end of free and open immigration in 1924. Through the lenses of the fine and performing arts, political activism, and religious expression, it explores how Jews defined what it meant to be an American Jew during an insecure period of American, and world, history. The final section of Dreams of Freedom delves into how American Jews experienced World War II.

It addresses the strain of anti-Semitism that has existed throughout American history, going back to colonial times – in Newport (when Lopez was refused American citizenship and had to get it in the Massachusetts colony), and New Amsterdam, when Peter Stuyvesant wanted to throw Jews out but the Hudson Bay Company insisted Jews be given rights, even despite George Washington’s pronouncement and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Anti-Semitism, especially in the US State Department, was a reason that the United States turned a blind eye to the rise of Hitler, fascism and the Holocaust © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

So even though the Constitution provided for religious freedom, states denied Jews the right to hold political office; even after World War II, Jews were denied access to housing, hotels, country clubs, college and jobs.

And as the Roaring Twenties was followed by the Great Depression, a virulent strain of anti-Semitism re-emerged leading up to World War II, when many in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and the majority of Americans content to let Hitler and Nazi Germany begin its murderous campaign against European Jews. “No War for Me” characterized mood of Americans not to lift a finger to help Jews during the Holocaust. (Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state, pushed for strict immigration controls that blocked Jewish refugees from escaping the Nazis.)

Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945 – Today

The Museum’s second floor begins in the immediate postwar period with stories of migration, from war torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union. Within the United States, as well, Likewise, between 1945 and 1965, there was a huge migration: about a third of all American Jews left large urban centers and established themselves in new suburban communities like Long Island. For Jews and non-Jews alike, a suburban home became a sign of success, prestige, and security-a “Shangri-La” for the middle class.

A typical 1950s Jewish American suburban home, where “The Goldbergs” is playing on the TV © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After World War II, American Jews felt comfortable with their identity and Jewish communities thrived in the new suburban communities of the 1950s into the 1960s – 60% of Jewish families belonged to synagogue, twice the percentage as 30 years before. Community synagogues were a locus for Jewish life and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs became legendary affairs; Jewish kids went to Jewish summer camps and families vacationed in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills. You walk through a mock-up of a 1950s suburban house, such as you might have found in Levittown, Long Island, where a black-and-white TV is airing an episode of a Jewish American sit-com, “The Goldbergs.”

The Marx Brothers were among the Jewish Americans who enjoyed mainstream popularity; Groucho Marx had a home in Great Neck, Long Island, one of the communities that proved welcoming to Jewish entertainers from Broadway © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here you see how Jewish American culture went mainstream. The museum incorporates multi-media – videos, sound tracks – there is a small theater where you watch performances by Jewish entertainers going back to early films, theater and television (Fannie Brice, Marx Brothers, George Burns, Three Stooges, Eddie Cantor, Bud Abbott, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson); a series of changing images of major figures like Simon & Garfunkle, Carole King.

American Jews felt comfortable enough in American society to emerge as  activists who championed civil rights, women’s rights and social and political justice, including Gloria Steinem and Bela Abzug.

Activist for women’s rights and cultural icon, Gloria Steinem © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame

The first floor houses an Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame honors 18 Jewish Americans – some well known, others less so, and the choices, challenges and opportunities they encountered on their path to remarkable achievement. Through the lives of real people—some well known, others less so—the gallery, utilizing a combination of multimedia, original artifacts and interactive experiences, weaves compelling stories from the past and present with the larger themes of the Museum.

The first 18 individuals featured in the Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame are: Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Sandy Koufax, Esteé Lauder, Emma Lazarus, Isaac Leeser, Golda Meir, Jonas Salk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson,  Rose Schneiderman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Henrietta Szold, and Isaac Mayer Wise. Recent inductees include Gertrude B. Elion and Julius Rosenwald.

Sit in a small theater and watch Jewish entertainers of national renown including Eddie Cantor, who built his dream house in Great Neck, Long Island until he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also special exhibits: the upcoming one is Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, which celebrates the centennial birthday of one of the 20th century’s most influential cultural figures, who personified classical music and produced a rich repertoire of original compositions for orchestra and the theater. “Audiences may be familiar with many of Bernstein’s works, notably West Side Story, but not necessarily how he grappled with his own religious, political, and sexual identity, or how he responded to the political and social crises of his day. Visitors will find an individual who expressed the restlessness, anxiety, fear, and hope of an American Jew living through World War II and the Holocaust, Vietnam, and turbulent social change – what Bernstein referred to as his ‘search for a solution to the 20th‐century crisis of faith’.” The exhibition will feature one‐of‐a‐kind historic artifacts, all brought to life through immersive film, sound installations, and interactive media. (On view March 16 – September 2, 2018.)

Free public hour-long Highlights tours are usually offered daily at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm. (Availability is subject to change, so check at the Admissions Desk on the day of your visit for confirmed times.) Space is limited; interested visitors should request tour badges from Admissions to reserve a spot, which are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

More than 30,000 artifacts form the basis of the core exhibition. You can browse selected objects on its site as well as search the Museum’s online collections database, and its Pinterest page.

You need at least 2 ½ hours but the ticket is good for two consecutive days.

National Museum of American Jewish History; 101 South Independence Mall East; Philadelphia, PA; 19106-2517; (215) 923-3811; www.nmajh.org

Mikveh Israel

I am chased out of the museum at closing (they are setting up for a wedding), and am intrigued to visit Mikveh Israel synagogue a short walk away. It is Friday evening and the synagogue, which is Sephardic, is getting ready for Sabbath services.

Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution,” the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia and the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States, dates back to 1740 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mikveh Israel traces its beginning to 1740, when Thomas Penn granted land to Nathan Levy for a burial ground for Levy’s infant son. There, Levy established a cemetery for the Jewish community. Mikveh Israel’s first house of worship was completed in 1782 with financial assistance from Benjamin Franklin, among others. The synagogue has moved several times before returning to its original neighborhood in 1976, the Bicentennial.

Mikveh Israel follows the Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardic) ritual, introduced by Reverend Gershom Mendez Seixas, who, in 1780, came to serve as Hazzan (Congregational Leader). This relatively modern building, not far from its original 1782 redbrick structure on Cherry Street, is its fifth since the synagogue’s founding. (Limited hours to visit. 44 N. 4th St. Philadelphia PA 19106, 215-922-5446, www.mikvehisrael.org/.)

The Jewish cemetery on 8th and Spruce Streets, part of Independence National Historical Park, includes the grave of Rebecca Gratz, who is believed to be the inspiration for the character Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s  “Ivanhoe,” and memorials to Haym Salomon, who helped finance the American Revolution.

(Read more: http://www.visitphilly.com/history/philadelphia/mikveh-israel-congregation-and-cemetery/)

Just outside Mikveh Israel, there is a monument of Uriah Phillip Levy, born in Philadelphia in 1792, a 5th generation American (his great-great grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, arrived in America in 1733 and was a founder of the city of Savannah, Georgia). Levy left for sea when he was 10 years old, returning to Philadelphia for his Bar Mitzvah. He joined the US Navy in 1812, serving with distinction in the War of 1812. During his 50-year career in the Navy, he was court marshaled 6 times and killed a man in a duel – all related to anti-Semitism. He became the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy. During the Civil War, he helped repeal the practice of flogging sailors.

Uriah Phillip Levy, 5th generation American born in 1792, was the first Jewish Commodore of the Navy; an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he bought Monticello and saved it from ruin © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and purchased Monticello in 1834 – at that point, Jefferson’s mansion home was in a terrible state of disrepair. Levy restored and renovated the structure, and opened it for public viewing. but local people were incensed that such a structure was owned by a Jew, they tried to have the property taken away. A World War II destroyer was named in his honor, the USS Levy, as well as the Jewish chapel at Norfolk Naval Base; he is buried at Beth Olam cemetery in Queens (Emma Lazarus is as well).

(Our exploration into Revolutionary War America continues with the Museum of the American Revolution, Ben Franklin Museum, Betsy Ross House and National Constitution Center.)

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Enchanting Candlelight Evening at Old Bethpage Village Restoration is Like Stepping into a Christmas Card

Santa Claus looks relaxed and casual in the parlor of the Layton Home at Old Bethpage Village Restoration during the Candlelight Evening, having finished his rounds delivering presents to children around the world © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fire light. That is the common denominator – seeing life in the orange-red glow of candlelight, a fireplace, a bonfire. One of my favorite holiday events is the Old Bethpage Village Restoration Candlelight Evening, and even the bitter cold could not keep me away.

I arrive in time for the candlelight procession into the village, to the gazebo where an 1840s brass band is playing, despite the bone-chilling cold.

The brass band entertains despite bitter cold, at the Gazebo in Old Bethpage Village Restoration © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most wonderful thing about the candlelight evenings at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, is yes, the sense of stepping back into time, into an idyllic peacefulness such as finding yourself in a Christmas card. But what I love best are the serendipitous moments when you engage the reenactors in conversation- the questions that arise just because you are immersed in that experience.

Performing traditional music on period instruments at the one-room schoolhouse from Manhasset © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the District No. 6 School House, which dates from c. 1845 in Manhasset, there is traditional fiddle music, played on a period instrument, a 150-year old violin that had been made in Prague, that has no chin rest or frets. We learn about the Manhasset School house – children attended the one-room school house six days a week. Music would have been widespread but there were no real professional musicians in Long Island. The school house would have been the venue for music, entertainment, and various gatherings in the evening. He tells me that all of Nassau County used to be part of Queens County, until the residents wanted to separate from New York City. He performs one of the most popular of his repertoire,“The Dancing Man,” to which his wife maneuvers a fascinating puppet-like toy to dance along.

Music was so important to the people of the mid-19th century, the period which Old Bethpage reconstructs. When you think about it, people could only appreciate music live, in the moment.

Max Rowland plays his concertina at the Hewlett House © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Hewlett House – a grand home high on the hill, which was built by the founder for which the town of Hewlett is named – Max L. Rowland regals on a banjo, reconstructed to its period, and a concertina and because I ask, he talks about the instruments . He says that in the mid-1800s, the concertina was the most popular instrument around – because it was relatively inexpensive (costing less than a violin), and compact, easy to carry and capable of such rich sound and complexity.  It was extremely popular with sailors, who could tuck it away in their gear. Rowland can testify to it: this particular concertina has crossed the sea three times with Rowland, who lives on a boat.

There is also popcorn being made in the kitchen fireplace.

Preparing popcorn in the Hewlett House by the fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the beautiful Manetto Hill Church, 1857, a Methodist church that originally was located in Plainview, there is singing and storytelling – the origin of holly (representing male), ivy (representing female), so the two entwined are a symbol of marriage; mistletoe and poinsettias.

The Noon Inn, which dates from 1850 and was owned John H. Noon, innkeeper, in East Meadow, is where you can get hot mulled cider and cookies, and climb the stairs to hear a string ensemble.

Broom-making at the Luyster Store, where you can buy the broom you watch being made © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Luyster Store, which dates from c. 1840 and was built by John B. Luyster, a storekeeper in East Norwich, you see the rare craft of broom making (and can purchase the brooms that are made here). The fellow works on a machine from 1840, and you can see how much physical effort goes into it. He explains that a home would have had 2 brooms per room, or 18 per household; an ordinary broom might have cost 24 cents – but that was equivalent to half-day’s wages, or about $50 today (so his price of $20 is a bargain). This also was an enterprise that farmers would do to make extra money, and they would raise the special wheat (called “corn”) for that purpose. An interesting artifact here is the massive safe.

The Layton Store was the Walmart of its day © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Layton House is also the General Store dates from c. 1866 and was built by John M. Layton, a storekeeper. It had originally stood in East Norwich. He was fabulously wealthy as you can see by the large rooms and tall ceilings. Here, in the parlor, I meet Santa Claus who seems relaxed after his trip around the world; later, when I come back, there is a choral group. In the next room is the Layton General Store – the Walmart of its day – where you can purchase candy.

Singing holiday songs in the Layton parlor © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Benjamin House, dating from 1829, was built for William Benjamin, a minister and farmer in Northville, where there is a bass and violin playing holiday melodies that would have been popular at the time – like Deck the Halls, which was a Welsh melody dating back to the 1600s. We discuss Christmas traditions of the time (gift-giving wasn’t yet a tradition, but Queen Victoria had popularized table-top Christmas trees as a loving gesture to Prince Albert).

Demonstrating how to spin yarn at the Conklin House © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I stop into the Conklin House last – this house dates from 1853 and was build by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman in the village of Branch. It is small and I am surprised to see spinning being done in front of the fireplace where there is a roaring fire (so picturesque). She is so patient in explaining how it is done – how common it would have been for a farm woman to have spent some time in the evening spinning, but there were professional spinners (men) and spinsters (women) – spinning, was in fact, one of the ways a woman could have earned money. By the mid-1800s, though, people were importing finished textiles.

The Huntington Militia reenact Christmas in 1775 in the Schenck House © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I usually save the Schenck House for last because each year, because it is here that I come upon the most unexpected encounters and find it the most illuminating. Instead of interpreting the holiday traditions of the mid 1800s, the Huntington Militia re-create a Colonial Christmas in the 17th century. The Schenck House dates from 1765, owned by a Dutch farmer. Here, our presenters speak in the style of the time, and celebrate Christmas of 1775.

I am swept into its history. I am transfixed talking with “Ambrose Everyman,” a fellow from 1775, an American of English descent really troubled by North Hempstead’s succession from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of rebellion against the King and Crown. His loyalties are clear. He raises the question over how the colonists are made so dissatisfied with the King – and questions the veracity of the crimes and accusations designed to foment rebellion. He notes that since the first Continental Congress, the Massachusetts faction of the Patriots have banned women from going to the tavern, banned theatrical entertainment – in effect, installed the Puritan societal structure on the colonies.

And because of the “attack against one of the colonies is an attack against us all,” he questions whether the attacks in Lexington and Concord, portrayed as a British massacre, really happened that way.  “How do we really know?” he tells me (the original “fake news”?).  Mr. Everyman was upset with the upstarts in Massachusetts who caused so much trouble, who dared to pretend to be Indians and toss tea into the sea. He called them cowards for hiding behind their disguise. He said he knew war – had fought in the French and Indian War – but was too old to fight again. If there was a break with England, he says,, his business of building and repairing houses, would be destroyed.

The Town of North Hempstead had recently split from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of whether to support “The Cause” or stay loyal to Mother England. North Hempstead, which had a substantial Dutch population, wanted to break with England, while Hempstead, which was populated mainly by English colonists, wanted to stay.

But, he says, he cannot express his feelings: the local Committee is strictly enforcing its ban on English tea and though it had no force of law, someone who broke faith would be shamed in the Gazetteer as “an Enemy of American Liberty,” would no longer get business, and ultimately be forced out of the community. So he keeps his views to himself. Taxes? What difference does it make to pay taxes to England or taxes to the Congress, he said. And doesn’t England deserve to get repayment for the expense of fighting for the colonies. How would those who would break from England confront the greatest army on earth? Would they get aid from foreign powers like France, when France would want to take over the colonies for itself?

He gives me the sense of what a difficult dilemma this was – the prospect of confronting the most powerful nation the world had never known, the superpower of its time – and how while there had never been consensus (New York patriots fled to Philadelphia), the forcefulness with which the revolutionaries pressed their cause, the violence, a literal civil war within communities.

“Ambrose Everyman” describes how the Schencks would celebrate Christmas with Dutch traditions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He goes on to show the group of Candlelight visitors that has gathered how the owner of the House, Martin Schenck, would have celebrated St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), when the children put out wooden shoes, filled with a carrot to draw the horse that St. Nicholas rides through the sky on, and leaves them treats – an orange that would have been an expensive treat having been imported from Jamaica, and  skates for the young girl, a pull-toy for the baby.

Members of the Huntington Militia fire the Christmas guns © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here at the Schenck House, the Huntington Militia – a group of reenactors – are dressed in the style of the militia of this Revolutionary War era. This year they fire Christmas guns – demonstrating the painstaking task of loading their muskets.

The Barn, decked out with holiday lights © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then, at The Barn on the fairgrounds, there are a model train show, contra dancing, a brass ensemble and a delightful performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” – a condensation of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

A performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” during the Old Bethpage Village Restoration Candlelight Evenings © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, the Old Bethpage Candlelight Evenings are only five nights, Dec. 26-30, 5-9:30 pm. Old Bethpage Village Restoration, 1303 Round Swamp Road (Exit 48 of the Long Island Expressway), 516-572-8401; Adults/$10, children 5-12/$7 (under 5 are free); and $7 for seniors and volunteer firefighters.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Fall Getaway in the Great Northern Catskills: Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana

Frederick Edwin Church orchestrated visitors’ arrival to Olana so you would look up © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (#1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail), you see this grand mansion perched on the hillside, poking out from the trees. It is just a short ride off Rte 9G on eastern shore of the Hudson River to get to the long drive up to the mansion and farm, Olana, built by the Hudson River School artist Frederick Edwin Church.

View of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Spanning 250 acres, Olana is one of the most intact artist-created landscapes in America, and “the most intact artist residence of its age in the world,” our guide explains. In fact, it is the artist’s last major work. Church designed, even decorated, every aspect of the house and landscape – digging out a 10-acre lake, planting some 50,000 trees. And today, virtually all the furnishings (95% we are told) are original to the house, even in the same places as when the Church family occupied the house, up until the 1960s.

Literally saved from a wrecking ball, the Olana State Historic Site is now one of New York’s premier historical attractions (HRSAT Site #2), drawing 20,000 visitors a year. You can only visit the house on a guided tour and they only take up to 12 per tour, so tours frequently sell out by 1 pm (advance reservations are recommended).

As I approach Olana, a sign on the road introduces me to a new word, and a new concept – “viewshed.” The word intentionally evokes “watershed” – a protected resource area. Here, Olana, chosen and designed by the artist Church for the views, successfully established a “viewshed” maintaining that this is a national cultural resource worthy of protection and preservation.

The notion of preservation versus progress is the very essence of Church and his Olana, taking up the key theme from Thomas Cole, his teacher and mentor.

The protected “viewshed” from Frederick Church’s Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church’s background is very different from Cole’s. While Cole, renowned as the father of the Hudson River School art movement, America’s first, was an immigrant from England, Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1826 to a well-to-do family (his father, Joseph Church, owned several businesses including a silversmith and became a director of Aetna Life Insurance Company). Whereas Cole had little art training, Church’s father arranged for him to study with Cole for two years, 1844-46, when Church was 18 years old. Church then went to New York City to set up a studio. He became the youngest Associate of the American Academy of Design, in 1850, and within a few years, became one of the most successful artists of his generation – a veritable rock star.

Portrait of Frederick Edwin Church hangs in Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

And whereas Cole, the immigrant, was enthralled by the wildness of the American landscape, Church fell under the spell of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who encouraged artists to travel the world. Church traveled to the Middle East, South America, Europe (one of his children was born in Rome), Labrador and Greenland. He brought these images and ideas back to the Hudson River Valley where he would build Olana, and his worldliness and world-view filled his canvases.

Ultimately, Olana became his canvas.

Over the last 40 years of his life, from 1860-1899, he designed and fashioned Olana into a three-dimensional work of art that includes the magnificent Persian-inspired home with its various collections, set within a 250-acre landscape, meticulously designed for iconic views of the Hudson River Valley.

Virtually all we see at Olana belonged to the Church family and wherever possible, is positioned where it would have been © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is most remarkable about Olana is that the home and grounds never left the family – the furnishings, the art, even the books, are all Church’s possessions, and we see them laid out in the deliberate living canvas that Church intended.

After Church died, in 1899, his son, Louis, occupied the house, and when Louis’ widow died, in 1964, the house and estate were saved from being sold off by virtue of a public-private collaboration between New York State Parks and a private nonprofit, Olana Partnership (similar to the collaboration between the Central Park Conservancy and New York City’s parks department). Olana opened to the public as a museum in 1966.

This is most fitting, since Church served as commissioner of Central Park (he was a distant cousin of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead). He also was a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Church was responsible for locating Cleopatra’s needle, the obelisk, behind the museum.)

And Church, who achieved national and international prominence with his seven-foot wide painting, “Niagara” (1857), was credited with creating the Niagara Reserve – New York’s first state park and one of the first in the nation, a precursor to the national parks movement.

The Olana grounds include five miles of carriage trails, managed by New York State Parks, and are open to the public at no charge.

Artist painting the view that Frederick Church created at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Olana Partnership has worked to restore Olana as well as the landscape. The physical landscape, in Church’s planning and today, is as much art as the landscape painting on canvas. As you walk the trails, the images are framed – markers here as along the other sites of the Hudson River School Art Trail, compare the scene today to paintings. And since my last visit, the view from the mansion to the Hudson River and Catskills beyond has been opened up.

Indeed, as I arrive at Olana, there a group of artists, in the area on a week-long workshop, are painting the scene.

Church’s Worldly View

While Thomas Cole was an immigrant from England who glorified America’s landscapes in a way that had not been done before, Frederic Edwin Church was one its most traveled among the Hudson River School artists, and he brought these images and this worldliness into his canvases.

Frederick Church’s Olana offers an astonishing collection of art. You can only tour the house with a guide © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church finished his two-year study with Cole in1846 but Cole died soon after, in 1848. Church seems to have always maintained a connection with Cole – returning to the Hudson Valley to build his home close to Cole’s Cedar Grove, traveling with Cole’s biographer to Labrador. He found ways to help the Cole family – helping sell Cole’s paintings (he owned several himself, some of which are on view at Olana) and hired Cole’s son Theodore as Olana’s farm manager.

When Church was in his 20s, he became enamored with the renowned naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who encouraged artists to travel and paint equatorial South America. In 1853, Church made the first of two expeditions following in Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia; the second, in 1857, to Ecuador.

“Sunset, Jamaica.” Frederick Church traveled to exotic locales for his subjects. © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The paintings he produced from these trips made him one of the best known and most successful painters of his generation.

The New York exhibition of his ten-foot canvas, The Heart of the Andes, in 1859, “was the most popular display of a single artwork in the Civil War era, attracting 12,000 people who paid admission in three weeks to its New York premiere alone, then traveling to Britain and seven other American cities on a tour lasting two years.”

The painting sold for $10,000 to collector William Blodget, at the time, the highest price ever paid for an American painting,” says Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock. We get to see Church’s final study for “Heart of the Andes”.

Frederick Church’s study for “The Heart of the Andes” on view at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church set out again to travel to exotic places and intrigued by literature of Arctic exploration, in 1859, he hired a boat to take him to the north Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland to sketch icebergs, joined by Louis Legrand Noble Thomas Cole’s biographer. At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, Church exhibited Icebergs: The North, another grand canvas, which also was a blockbuster hit.

With his career on the rise in 1860, Church’s married Isabel Carnes and came back to the Hudson River Valley, where he had studied painting with Thomas Cole, and bought a farm overlooking the Hudson River on the opposite shore from Cole’s house.

Touring Olana: ‘Thou Art Welcome”

You walk in through the threshold to Olana under an inscription in Arabic, “Thou Art Welcome.”

Most remarkable: all the land and the contents of the grand home are intact, because they had always been within the Church family, and everything you see was meticulous conceived and planned by Church.

That’s what makes the experience of being here all the more profound – there is an immediate connection to the man and creative process of this great artist, who until now, I had only appreciated through his canvases on view in art museums.

Frederick Church used Persian architectural influences to create Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Olana is every inch Church’s creation. Church traveled the world (he is a worldly person in his reading and outlook) and went to Mideast, and when came back, wanted to create a “fantasy”. He actually never went to Persia but thought the Persian style could be fanciful. But he didn’t just fabricate the designs out of his imagination, he studied Persian art and architecture. He never visited the Alhambra, but bought photos in order to incorporate the Moorish design elements. He experimented with colors and patterns.

“The desire to build attacks a man like a fever,” Church wrote.

He built the house in two years (for about $90,000, or about $2.5 million today, fairly reasonable), and spent the next four years meticulously decorating it.

Architectural detail of Frederick Church’s Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church experimented with different designs; he mixed the colors; he based his patterns on a book of Persian architecture; the stencil designs on the door – in gold and silver paint – have a shimmering effect. The gilded patterns we see on the grand doors – Les Arts Aribe – are from original stencils.

“He meticulously arranged every room, choosing exotic items for their emotional effect, each room a composition. It took him four years to complete decoration.”

I ask whether Church produced much art during this time, and the guide explains that by 1876, when Church was 50 years old, landscape painting had fallen out of fashion and his career was on the wane, Church came down with crippling rheumatism. Home and family became more important and Olana became his primary canvas.

The exotic décor Frederick Church used at Olana; he spent two years building his mansion and four years decorating it © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most important to Church were the views. He oriented the house and the windows southwest to best capture the view.

“Our home will be a curiosity in architecture, but the view from every window will be fabulous,” Church said.

The paintings we see that decorate the rooms are Church’s own collections – his own paintings as well as painters he admired, including Thomas Cole.

There is also Church’s painting of “Petra,” 1868, with its unusual perspective (even for Church) – a vertical image of the temple, carved into rock cliff , as you come to it through a rock cleft, like a photograph.

The unusual perspective Frederick Church used in his painting of El Khasne Petra; the painting hangs in the family room, furnished much as it was when the family lived at Olana © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The last time I visited, I was able to see Church’s library, and what he was interested in, what informed him (almost like reading a journal, it is so telling about values, perspective, world-view, what informed him). He was interested in natural science, novels, religion (Presbyterian), “Women of the Arabs”, “Popular History of the Mexican People” “Natural Law & Spiritual World.” He owned a copy of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” He was friends with Mark Twain, who also lived in Hartford, where Church was born.

In 1888, at 61 years old, Church devoted himself to expanding house and building a new studio within the house. He closed the New York City studio he had rented for 30 years.

Today, his studio seems just as he left it, with various items of folk art and pre-Colombian artifacts Church collected on his travels.

Frederick Edwin Church’s studio is much as he left it © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the wall, “Christian on the Border of the Shadow of Death,” a dark, early painting, reminiscent of Cole. Here in the house, we can see the transition of his style, from largely emulating Cole to developing his own style and perspective.

“Church was a smart marketer of his art – people paid a fee to see just one painting. Lithographs of his work were successful,” says Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock. “When Church studied with Cole, he painted in Cole’s style, incorporating Christian message, but Church realizes it is not commercial -not saleable- so he instead shows God in beautiful sunsets.”

We go up back stairs that would have been used by the servants – to the second floor family rooms, which were opened to the public in 2009.

Most impressive here are the tiles and the fireplace, produced by Ali Mohammed Isfahan which Church acquired in New York City (they know because they have the receipts).

The Olana dining room, set up for the Church family, has a gallery of art that Church collected on his travels © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the dining room, set for a family meal, the walls are an art gallery – none of which are Church’s, but are the pieces he collected on his travels through Europe, artists he wanted to showcase and support.

There are also portraits of Church, his father, Joseph, who became a director of the Aetna Life Insurance Company and Church’s wife – all painted by other artists since Church never painted portraits. In my mind, it suggests the humility of the man.

Preserving Olana

After Church died, his art (along with the Hudson River School) fell out of favor.

In 1964 after Church’s daughter-in-law died, the fate of Olana was thrown into question. Then David Huntington, an art historian, got interested and reignited popularity in Church’s work.

Huntington organized a preservation group to buy Olana and got the heirs to agree to give the group two years to come up with the funds, $450,000, to buy Olana.

“The house was going to be dismantled – the items had already been tagged for auction at Sotheby’s,” Mark Prezorsky, landscape curator, says. “The Hudson School was out of style. You could buy a Cole at a garage sale.”

Olana barely escaped a date with the wrecking ball and now has one of New York State’s top attractions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the 1960s was not a good time for Victorian architecture – it was a time for sweeping away the “old” for the new, a period of anti-establishment frenzy. Cole’s home, Cedar Grove, for example, was put up for auction – all the possessions were sold off – and might have been knocked down altogether to make way for the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

The Catskill Mountain House which dated from 1824 and figured in many of the Hudson River School paintings, he pointedly notes was burned down in 1963.

But Huntington, the art historian, “was able to see what Olana was.”

The preservation group got the heirs to agree to a two-year “stay of execution” so that they could raise the $430,000 purchase price – they made the deadline with 10 cents to spare. But now that they owned the house, the problem was affording to maintain it.

Each season, Olana hosts exhibits; this year’s exhibit was “OVERLOOK” a groundbreaking installation by Artist Teresita Fernández with 55 works including “Penetrable” by Jesus Rafael Soto. © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

New York State in astonishing short order had Olana declared a state historic site – the resolution went through three readings in the Assembly and Senate in a single day and Governor Nelson Rockefeller flew by helicopter to Olana for the bill signing. The site is now owned and operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Olana is one of first anywhere to have a preserved “viewshed” (Monticello is another) – arguing the need to preserve the view helped defeat a plan to build a nuclear power plant on the Hudson.

“The farm is big part or Olana,” Prezorsky, the landscape curator, says. “The way we experience it is how move through it –the views open up….. He composed his home as artistic masterpiece in midst of nature. This is one of the few farms where art and farming intersect.”

View from Frederick Church’s studio © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Church had a 10-acre lake hand-dug as part of the design “before machinery; he sold off “muck” for profit.” Church, he says, was a very practical man; he wanted the farm to be a sustainable enterprise. He planted some 50,000 trees.

Thanks largely to the preservation of Olana and the Thomas Cole House, the Hudson River School regained its place in American history and culture. Olana awakened a sense of pride in scenery and conservation.

Olana resuscitated an appreciation for Church’s art. In 1979, Frederick Church’s “The Icebergs”, discovered in a home for boys in Manchester, England, broke the record for an American painting, selling at auction for $2.5 million.

Olana offers house tours from April  through October (closed Mondays), and on weekends November through March. Reservations are highly recommended; there is a car fee on weekends and holidays, and a fee for the house tour. Plan your visit and see a schedule of special events, at olana.org.

Olana State Historic Site, 5720 Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534, 518-828-0135, olana.org.

The Hudson River School Art Trail, a project of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, has 8 trail sites; during the course of my three-day getaway, I get to experience six of them. Get maps and directions for all the sites on the Hudson River School Art Trail site, www.hudsonriverschool.org.

A great place to stay: The Fairlawn Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast, 7872 Main Street (Hwy 23A), Hunter, NY 12442, 518-263-5025www.fairlawninn.com.

Further help planning a visit is available from Greene County Tourism, 700 Rte 23B, Leeds, NY 12451, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223, www.greatnortherncatskills.com and its fall hub http://www.greatnortherncatskills.com/catskills-fall-foliage

See also:

Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Thomas Cole National Historic Site is Site #1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail

3-Day Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Fairlawn Inn is Superb Hub for Exploring the Hudson River Valley

 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

3-Day Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Fairlawn Inn is Superb Hub for Exploring the Hudson River Valley

The historic Fairlawn Inn, Hunter, NY, looks out to the Catskill State Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School art movement, sailed up the Hudson River to the Catskills and was smitten by the landscape, by the natural world, by the respite from the bustle of New York City. And so convenient to reach, even then, coming by the new steamships which was the “thing to do”. He railed against the influx of “progress” even then, and the ravage of the axe that was already decimating the lush forest. It is remarkable that we have Cole and his student, Frederick Edwin Church who built his magnificent Olana on a hilltop with a view over this magnificent Hudson Valley, to thank for its preservation. The Catskills are magnificent any time of the year, but in fall, there is an explosion of color. And like an explosion, it is fleeting.

Less than three hours drive to Hunter, NY, from Long Island, is the Fairlawn Inn, a magnificent bed-and-breakfast inn with an incredible story to tell. It will be my hub to explore the Hudson River School Art Trail that offers some of my favorite hikes in the world. They trace the footsteps of the artists and you can see the very same scenes they painted.

On my way to the inn, I have already visited two of the sites on the trail – relished the view from Kaaterskill Clove, marveling how it still looks much as it did in Thomas Cole’s “The Clove, Catskills” (1827), and Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849) -even the tree just turning red for fall foliage seems the same as the scene in the painting – which you see from the parking lot for the hike up Kaaterskill Falls, then continuing on to take this stunning hike to the heights of the double falls. They are along Route 23A, the scenic byway you take from the Thruway to get to Fairlawn Inn, in Hunter, less than a dozen miles further.

View of Kaaterskill Clove with the Hudson River School Art Trail marker that lets you compare the scene today with the Cole and Durand paintings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During my all-too brief three-day getaway to the Catskills/Hudson River Valley, I spend two days hiking trails associated with the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Catskills State Park, just beginning to show their fall colors and imagining how the artists walked these trails before me, and one day re-discovering two historic jewels: Olana, Frederick Edwin Church’s exquisite mansion home and estate that has become one of New York State’s most visited historic houses (for good reason), and the Thomas Cole House Museum, devoted to the artist known as the “Father of the Hudson River School” which has been restored since my last visit with new ways of experiencing the museum that really give you a sense of the man.

The Fairlawn Inn is ideally situated, and so charming and comfortable, you immediately feel whatever city stress or physical exhaustion dissipate as soon as you cross the threshold – all of this the artistry and craftsmanship of the gracious host, Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, who has anticipated everything to make his guests feel absolutely at home – even providing refrigerated drinks, ready snacks and fruit, a coffee maker and a refrigerator for guests to help themselves.

It is about 5:30 pm when I arrive at the Inn, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon. Set beside Hunter Mountain (the entrance to the popular ski resort is less than a half-mile away) and with views of the Catskill State Park from its wrap-around porch, the bed-and-breakfast inn is in a Victorian jewel originally built in 1840 and expanded in 1904 as the summer home of a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and real estate developer, Harry Fischel.

The charming dining room at the Fairlawn Inn where a made-to-order breakfast is served © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, with 40 years in the fast-food industry, bought the bed-and-breakfast in 2002, and remodeled, redecorated, refitted, and refurnished with stunning antiques and period pieces and other amenities, exposed the gorgeous oak and maple floors and woodwork (hemlock, which was typical of the area because it was a byproduct of the tanning process the area was known for), created the stunning landscaping, added a patio, fire pit and waterfall, all with an eco-friendly eye.

Chuck claims to have the only historic home in North America that has earned a 4-key rating (on a 5-key scale) from Green Key Global, a Canada-based eco-tourism organization and was named Good Earthkeeper for 2013 and #1 Inn in New York for 2010 by New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association.

Indeed, it is quite remarkable for a 113-year old house to get that distinction– Chuck has used composting, solar tubes that bring in natural light to otherwise dark hallways,low-flow shower (yet still wonderful pressure); LED lighting throughout; the outdoor lanterns are solar-powered (from Ikea, no less; he has a plan to use them for Christmas lights).

One of the parlors at the Fairlawn Inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking around the inn, there are wonderful sitting areas outfitted with books, a parlor with a bar with snacks and a refrigerator with drinks as well as coffee maker to help yourself; a pool table in another parlor; a living-room area; outside a gorgeous, lushly landscaped patio with waterfall, solar-powered lanterns, a fire-pit.

I love to see Chuck’s clever innovations – how he made a wine rack out of crown moldings and planter hooks; a fire pit out of a coal bin; how he turns “shabby chic” into beautiful pieces of furniture.

Each of the guest rooms at the Fairlawn Inn bnb has its own theme and decoration © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are 5 rooms upstairs of the main house, each one differently configured and scrumptiously decorated, several with fireplaces. The Glenwood Room has a two-person Jacuzzi and a fireplace. Several rooms are “outside”, along a lovely porch with charming sitting areas, in that extension to the home that originally housed the Jewish scholars and served as an ice house. My room, the Spring Valley, was originally a mikvah (a ritual bath for a bride).

The rooms are each uniquely themed and decorated in period furniture (several have clawfoot bathtubs), but with modern amenities (private bathroom in each, free Wifi) and eco-friendly features like solar-tubes which bring in natural light. Several have gas-operated fireplaces; at least one has a two-person Jacuzzi bath.

The Fairlawn Inn, a Gold Eco-Rated Lodging and 2015 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner. is gorgeous, comfortable, wonderfully situated, excellent amenities, but the best asset is Chuck, himself, who is more than a gracious host.

Bed-and-breakfast inns really reflect the character of their structure and the personality of the innkeeper. The Fairlawn Inn is an expression of Chuck’s phenomenal sense of hospitality and his prodigious artistic talents – the interior design and decorative arts, antiquing, painting, landscaping, and culinary arts. He loves to cook.

Fairlawn Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko preparing breakfast © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many bed-and-breakfast hosts love to show off their breakfast creations but Chuck goes beyond: he offers his guests a selection of four different made-to-order omelettes (I enjoy his feta cheese, spinach, kale and arugula omelette) plus a special item like pancakes (selection of fillings), fresh fruit and muffins (pumpkin spice), freshly brewed coffee, served in a gorgeous dining room (just the right size – not too big, not too small), with glorious sunlight flooding in from the windows.

Before we leave the table, he comes out with a bottle of water and snacks to take on our hikes.

Everything is so caring, so thoughtfully arranged, so meticulous – there is even a night light in bathroom and hooks. Little things that matter. There is a remote control for the fireplace which Chuck has decorated himself with antique tiles.

Wicker lounge chairs on the Fairlawn Inn porch make for a comfortable place to relax © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The porch has a delightful sitting area of wicker lounge chairs – even a blanket nearby – as well as tables if you should want to eat al fresco.

I am truly intrigued by Fischel’s story which Chuck relates as he gives me a tour of the inn and ask who built the house and why it is so enormous, with a huge two-story extension. Chuck explains that Fischel would house Jewish students in the summer; my room, Spring Valley, actually was a mikvah (a room used for a ritual bath for a bride).

The Spring Valley room at the Fairlawn Inn was used as a mikvah by the original owner, Harry Fischel, who built the Victorian home in 1904 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chuck points to a thick biography of Fischel, written by his son-in-law, Rabbi Harry S. Goldstein. Fischel, I learn, was born in 1865 in a small, isolated  town of Meretz, Lithuania, to poor but pious parents (his father was a cabinet maker). Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) became an architect and a builder by the age of 19. At 20, he emigrated to America virtually penniless (“he had 60 cents in his pocket” Chuck tells me) and earned his first million in real estate at a young age (he pioneered building tenements in the Lower East Side on irregular-shaped lots, becoming the first successful Jewish developer on the Lower East Side). But even when he was earning just $10 a week, so his biography reads, he sent money home to help support his parents. “Fischel was one of the leading pioneers in the growth of American Judaism, in general, and in American Jewish Orthodoxy, in particular, particularly in the dynamic precedent-setting first half of the 20th Century,” the Wikipedia biography notes.

The Hunter Synagogue which Harry Fischel built across the street from his home, in 1914 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chuck notes that Fischel laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University, built a high school for Jewish girls, and personally prevailed on President Taft to install a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911, so that Orthodox Jewish immigrants could have the opportunity to eat kosher food during a probation period (so they could be strong enough to pass the test to avoid deportation).

He also built the first modern Jewish theater in 1904 (exclusively for Yiddish productions).He was first Treasurer of the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War in 1914, a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Distribution Committee in 1914; organizer of the Palestine Building Loan Association in 1921; built the home, office, yeshiva and synagogue for the Chief Rabbi of Palestine Abraham Isaac Kook at his own expense in 1923; established the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research in 1931 (which, after the creation of the country of Israel, trained, for many years, a large percentage of the judges who presided over the religious courts in the country); and established the Harry Fischel Foundation on January 4, 1932 (later renamed the Harry & Jane Fischel Foundation). He laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University.

Harry Fischel’s summer home, now the Fairlawn Inn, and the Hunter Synagogue directly opposite, both built by Fischel more than a century ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fischel also built the first synagogue in Hunter, but it burnt down in 1914, so he built a new one across the street from his home – a charming Victorian from 1914 that is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still operating.

Fischel died in 1948, just before Israel became a nation.

The Fischel house remained in the family until 1993, when a couple bought what had become a decrepit structure and devoted 3 ½ years to restore and renovate it into a bed-and-breakfast, which opened in 1996.

Fischel’s great grandson, Aaron Reichel, has visited the inn twice, Chuck tells me.

It is interesting to see some of the relics of the past: built 1904 when electricity was considered “transitional” (they didn’t know if electricity would last), there are light fixtures that were made to accommodate both electricity and gas; fixtures pointed down (for electric) and up (for gas). Electricity was delivered but made gas on-site – capturing methane released from coal, but sometimes blew up.

The hemlock wood paneling that is so stunning especially in the dining room was actually a by-product of the tanning process that was the major industry in Tannersville and Prattsville.

The outdoor patio which Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko created is part of the lush landscaping at the Fairlawn Inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Fairlawn Inn is perfect for corporate retreat (with all the outdoor activities- from skiing to mountain biking that are so great for team-building); special interest groups, multi-generational getaways, destination wedding with expansive lawns for a tent (Chuck loves to cook and has accommodated weddings with up to 150 guests).

The inn is ideal for a hub-and-spoke itinerary for exploring and enjoying the amazing array of historic, heritage, cultural and outdoor attractions and Chuck offers lists of attractions walking distance and a short drive that fill out a three-day getaway but can also easily fill a longer itinerary. He also can put you on the path for antiquing, and the Hudson Valley Wine & Craft Beverage trail (TravelHudsonValley.com)

(And Chuck can steer you to every one, providing comprehensive lists, brochures, maps, print-outs, and his personal guidance and tips.)

Plenty of space: the architecture of the Fairlawn Inn, the summer home of Harry Fischel, was unusual because he used it to house students and today makes a great venue for corporate retreats, special interest groups, and family gatherings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hiking is a huge activity and for my second day at the inn, I go to the North-South Lake Campground from which there are many trails as well as a fantastic lake (people are actually swimming with the record high temperature for a fall day), and set out for one of my favorite hikes that takes me to more of the Hudson River School artists’ favorite spots: North-South Lake (site #6 on the Hudson River School Art Trail), Artist’s Rock and Sunset Rock (site #7 on the HRSAT); another trail goes to where the Catskill Mountain House stood (trail site #8).

Pre-Revolutionary chair, made in Philadelphia, may well have been used by George Washington; it is flanked by chairs that had been owned by Elizabeth Abell, who introduced Mary Todd to Abraham Lincoln © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For my third day, Chuck gives me a tour of the Hunter Antique Mall, housed in what used to be the Masonic Lodge, which he also owns, which offers a literal treasure trove of fabulous finds, with fascinating documentation and excellent pricing. He points out a pre-Revolutionary chair made in Philadelphia that easily could have accommodated George Washington, and a pair of chairs signed on the bottom for Elizabeth Abell, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who introduced Mary Todd to him. (It turns out that chuck is an absolute expert on antiquing, and can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices). He offers his patrons clever ideas: like turning a stack of vintage luggage into a sidetable that also affords cramped apartment-dwellers storage; and how you can make a bird feeder out of gorgeous blue-and-white China cup and saucer; and decorates otherwise bland furniture with a waxy-press-on craft.

Fairlawn Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko shows how he might make a bird feeder out of blue-and-white china cup and saucer © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I then go on to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill (#1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail, www.thomascole.org) with a sensational guided tour as well as featured exhibit in the New Studio (this year’s exhibit is “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills”); the house usually closes at the end of October but this year has an extended season of November weekends; and then on to Olana State Historic Site (#2 on the HRSAT), in Hudson NY, which closes for the season on Oct. 28 (www.olana.org).

I prefer hiking to experience fall foliage, but those who prefer driving will find several scenic byways: Greene County’s two National Scenic Byways include a 21-mile route that descends from high country peaks to Durham Valley farmland.; along the way, you will find views that stretch across the Hudson River Valley to summits in four neighboring New England states. Then take an excursion along Mountain Clove, a byway that meanders through ravines, historic districts, and waterfalls. In fact, one of the best foliage views in New York State, Chuck notes, is just 2 miles from the Fairlawn Inn door, at the intersection of Rte 214 and 23A – which looks toward Bear Creek and some half-dozen mountains that form layers.

The intersection of Rte 214 and 23A, just two miles from the Fairlawn Inn, looking toward Bear Creek is ranked as one of the best foliage views in New York State © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

An Arts-Meets-Nature Driving/Exploration Route: The Kaaterskill Clove Experience provides a new self-guided discovery tour through the history of American art, and the primeval landscape that inspired it. Tailored, easy-to-follow itineraries provide a roadmap for families, adventure seekers and leisure travelers to experience the Kaaterskill Clove at your own pace, while enjoying everything that Greene County has to offer, from farm stands to charming cafes.

Other attractions include:

Sky Walkway over the Hudson River alongside the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

Antiquing (Tannersville and Catskill are the main villages, but Chuck can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices).

You can follow the Hudson Valley Wine and Craft Beverage trail (travelHudsonValley.com)

Bike (or walk) the 2.7-mile long Huckleberry Trail that follows the old Huckleberry Railroad track and is mostly under trees.

There is mountain biking and golf at Windham Mountain (another wonderful ski mountain just 8 miles up 23A).

Close by in Coxsackie is The Bronck House (in the same family for 400 years) and the quaint town of Hudson with its galleries, antiques, boutiques and restaurants, which is operated by the Greene County Historical Society (http://www.gchistory.org/).

The Fairlawn Inn is within 90 minutes of major attractions including Hyde Park (Franklin Roosevelt’s home and library), the Walk Over the Hudson, Hyde Park (FDR),Walk Over Hudson, Huguenot Village in New Paltz (a national historic site with costumed interpreters, www.huguenotstreet.org), Howe Caverns and Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame). And it’s just 2 ½ hours from “the universe” of New York City.

The village of Hunter is accessible from Amtrak to Hudson, MTA to Poughkeepsie, where you can find Enterprise and other rental car agencies, car service and Uber.

The Fairlawn Inn, 7872 Main Street (Hwy 23A), Hunter, NY 12442, 518-263-5025, www.fairlawninn.com. (Children must be 10 or older.)

Really helpful sites to plan your getaway include www.greatnortherncatskills.com and its fall hub www.greatnortherncatskills.com/catskills-fall-foliage offered by the Greene County Tourism, 700 Rte 23B, Leeds, NY 12451, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

The jaw-dropping grand Mansion on Fifth, in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood, home to Carnegie, Frick and other celebrated industrialists and bankers, now a boutique hotel where you get to feel as if you were transported back to the Gilded Age © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

I return to Pittsburgh when I come back to do my second Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage, a fantastic rail-trail that stretches across Western Pennsylvania, from Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh, this time a longer trip, 150 miles, that finishes on the Montour Trail (see stories).

I had been dazzled by Pittsburgh on my first visit a year ago, and the same is true this time. It is no wonder that this city, built on steel and coal, rejuvenated, revitalized, has been named one of America’s most liveable cities. What is best about it is how it retained the best of old and new.

This time, as luck would have it, I choose a historic hotel, Mansions on Fifth, that is in the Shadyside neighborhood, a short walk away from the Carnegie Museums and the Cathedral of Learning, so that my all-too-brief time in this glorious city is spent immersed in the city’s leading cultural attractions that I had not been able to visit a year ago.

Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood is the sort of place that when you pull up, your jaw drops. And for the brief time that you are here, you feel what it must have been like to be part of Pittsburgh’s upper-crust, the society of industrial titans. You know how historic places being “living history” places because of people? That’s what you feel like when you stay and inhabit these rooms, continuing the life and spirit of these structures that seem to have a life of their own and stories to tell. People come and go, after all, but these structures remain, albeit in the care of stewards who take on the responsibility. (Whenever I travel, I first check out Historic Hotels of America’s site, historichotels.org, to see if there is a member property because the experience is always extraordinary; for my last visit, I stayed at the Omni William Penn Hotel, an iconic property right downtown. Mansions on Fifth used to be an HHA member, prior to being acquired in 2016 by Priory Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh’s premier owner, operator and developer of independent hotels and event spaces. Among its other holdings, Priory Hospitality Group owns and operates the Priory Hotel and Grand Hall at the Priory on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.)

Indeed, Mansions on Fifth puts you right back into Pittsburgh’s history and its story:

“The late 1890’s and early 1900’s were in many ways Pittsburgh’s golden age, measured by prosperity and economic might, if not by a clean environment. Pittsburgh was a financial and industrial powerhouse as well as a center of river and rail transportation. In 1900, Pittsburgh produced more than half of the crucible steel in the nation, and by 1910, it was the eighth most populous city in the country.

“It was also a time where giants of the business world traversed Shadyside’s Fifth Avenue – ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – on a daily basis. Names such as Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse and Heinz were among the leading citizens of the day.”

This 20,000 sq. ft. mansion was built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick for himself, his wife Mary and their 10 children.

The main house of Mansions on Fifth, built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

McCook was most famous for having represented Frick, but he was highly accomplished in his own right, the notes show.”A groundbreaker in modern day corporate law, McCook studied law at Columbia University following his graduation from Yale in 1873. He was also a pioneering athlete, serving as captain of Yale’s first football team and playing in the first intercollegiate football game in the nation. Later in life, he served as president and director of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and was a partner in the law firm McCook & Jarrett. He died in 1923 at the age of 72.”

Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, which was also home to many of the city’s leading industrialists, innovators and bankers of the city, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era.

Here among the leafy green trees on a hilltop, it is easy to imagine how clean and cool the air in comparison to the choking atmosphere of the steel mills that shrouded the city below.

The Amberson House, built for McCook’s daughter, Bessie McCook Reed, next door to the main mansion. She lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. It is now part of the Mansions on Fifth historic hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As his mansion was being built, McCook’s daughter Bessie became engaged, so he contracted to build a more modest (but still spacious at 8,000 square feet) home adjacent to his own. The smaller mansion (now the Mansions on Fifth Hotel’s Amberson House) was completed first, and the main house (now called the Fifth Avenue House), was finished in 1906.

The two mansions were designed in the Elizabethan Revivalist and Tudor styles by the architectural firm Carpenter & Crocker, of Pittsburgh’s East End. Many of the firm’s other projects, which range from Florida to Washington state, exist today, including the iconic Trinity Cathedral Parish House in downtown Pittsburgh. The contractor on the McCook estate was Thomas Reilly, who also built the massive and magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral just down Fifth Avenue from the estate. Reilly also worked with Carpenter & Crocker on the Parish House at Trinity Cathedral.

“McCook and his designers and builders spared no expense, using some of the finest craftsmen of the era, including master ironworker Cyril Colnik (fixtures and decorative items), Rudy Brothers Art Glass (leaded and stained glass installations), and Rookwood Ceramic Tile (for the decorative tile around the fireplaces in the houses). The stunning carved wood in the Grand Hall of the Fifth Avenue House was produced by Woolaeger Manufacturing of Milwaukee. The total cost of the project was $300,000 in 1906 ($7.6 million in today’s dollars).

Light streams in to a wood-paneled lobby from stained glass windows on the staircase of the Mansion on Fifth to one of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After McCook died in, 1923, the family continued to live in the main mansion through the 1930’s. But the Great Depression took its toll and the family was unable to keep current with their property taxes. Seized for sheriff’s sale by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department, the mansion was purchased in 1949 by Emil Bonavita, Sr. and his wife Margaret for $28,000. The Bonavitas moved into the mansion with their two children, Emil, Jr. and Charles.

As a way to pay for upkeep for the massive building, the Bonavitas rented out rooms on the upper floors to students at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Students were thoroughly screened, and many of those attracted to the historic property were studying at CMU’s prominent arts and theater schools. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette architecture writer Patricia Lowry, tenants included Albert Brooks, Andy Warhol, Shirley Jones and George Peppard. Margaret, who acted as a house mother to the many students who resided at the home over the years, resided in the McCook mansion until her much mourned death in 2003.

Bessie McCook Reed, for whom the Amberson House was built in 1905, lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. Three years later, Emil Bonavita, Jr. and his wife Marie acquired the Amberson House and moved in to raise their family of four children. Emil and Marie also assisted in the boarding operations at the larger Fifth Avenue House.

In 2004, the Fifth Avenue House, the main mansion, sustained a horrific fire which caused extensive damage to the upper floors. The building became uninhabitable, and its tenure as a home for students ended. Emil and Marie looked to sell the damaged mansion to a purchaser who would restore it.

Pittsburgh preservationists, husband and wife Mary Del Brady and Richard Pearson, acquired both houses of the former McCook estate from the Bonavitas for $1.5 million. Their idea was to redevelop the property into a boutique hotel and event center. Restoration and repair work, which was extensive given the fire damage, began in January 2010. The Fifth Avenue House, the primary mansion, was completed in early 2011 and opened to the public in March of that year with 13 guest rooms and suites, the grand hall event space, a library, the Oak Room pub, and two private dining rooms. The adjacent Amberson House, with 9 guest rooms and suites, opened in November 2012. Total cost of the project exceeded $8,000,000.

The properties were recognized as an historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.

New Era for Mansions on Fifth

In late September 2016, Pittsburgh-based boutique hotel owner/operator Priory Hospitality Group acquired the operating assets of the Mansions on Fifth Hotel and assumed operations of the Shadyside property. Owned and operated by the Graf family since 1986, the Priory Hospitality Group’s properties include the award winning Priory Hotel (a Tripadvisor Hall of Fame member), Grand Hall at the Priory event facility (Best Wedding Venue – City Paper 2016; Best of the Knot 2006-2016; Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant 2012 & 13), and Priory Fine Pastries commercial and retail bakery (Runner Up – Pittsburgh Magazine Best Bakery 2012 & 13).

Priory Hospitality Group invested considerably to upgrade the properties and amenities.

The Mansions on Fifth today offers 22 elegant guest rooms (each one different; you feel more like a family guest than an out-of-towner) in the two distinct historic buildings – the main 20,000 sq. ft. Fifth Avenue House and the adjacent 8,000 sq. ft. Amberson House. The Fifth Avenue House also has the hotel’s reception desk, dining room, Oak Room pub, chapel, library and wine cellar.

The Front Desk is staffed 24 hours a day to provide help with directions, restaurant recommendations, check in, , while butlers are available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day to assist.

My room is in the Amberson House, which for your all-too-brief stay makes you feel like you are really at home in a mansion. The Amberson House offers its own cozy and comfortable first floor common areas in addition to guest rooms. It would be perfect for a family or group to take over (indeed, during my stay, there is a large wedding party.)

One of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace at Mansions on Fifth, a Gilded Age mansion converted to a boutique hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can appreciate the renovations: each of the elegant guest rooms and suites features a spacious bathroom with glass and ceramic shower enclosures, Gilchrist and Soames organic bath and shower amenities, and soft, thick towels woven with bamboo fibers.

Some guest rooms and suites also feature fireplaces and jetted tubs. The spacious Presidential Suite has two separate bedrooms and baths and nearly 1,000 square feet of living space.

My room at Amberson House makes you feel more like a weekend guest of the McCook family rather than an out-of-towner © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition, the Mansions on Fifth Hotel offers a wide variety of amenities and services, including:  complimentary continental breakfast (with a more hearty ala carte breakfast available at an additional cost); complimentary newly upgraded Wireless Internet service; complimentary on premise parking (not a small matter in Pittsburgh); guest computer with WiFi access and printer; Fitness Center and The Oak Room pub, open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, featuring craft cocktails, fine wines, and a variety of microbrew beers.

The Oak Room pub also is the venue for a variety of weekly events, from wine flights, to whiskey tastings, to live music.

Mansions on Fifth is a delightful venue for weddings (there is one that had just finished when I arrive), family reunions and special events. You can basically take over the two mansion homes.

(I am also intrigued to visit the Priory Group’s historic, 42-room boutique hotel that was once a Benedictine monastery, built in 1888, meticulously restored to modern standards and featuring all the amenities of a large downtown property with the intimacy of a small European hotel, located in Deutschtown on the North Shore, a near walk to the Andy Warhol Museum and downtown Pittsburgh. The Priory Group spent $2.7 million to upgrade the property, adding a new, larger front desk and a cozy pub — the Monks’ Bar – in the original building, a Fitness Center and Business Center, as well as state of the art meeting space in a new wing.)

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

Next:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

Costumed docent sends school kids off on a scavenger hunt at the Fort Pitt Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Costumed docent sends school kids off on a scavenger hunt at the Fort Pitt Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I have come to Pittsburgh to join the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn three-day, 120-mile bike tour on the Great Allegheny Passage. I only have one full day in the city, so I set out on a walking tour aimed at focusing on what is uniquely Pittsburgh’s heritage. In the first part of the series, I experienced the Monongahela Incline, Mount Washington, Grandview Avenue, and the Duquesne Incline. I continue my walking tour at Point State Park.)

Biking around Point State Park © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking around Point State Park © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What a jewel Pittsburgh’s Point State Park is, literally at the confluence of three rivers:  the Monongahela River at one side and where the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers meet on the other. Its location made it critical to control over this territory and later, the industrial and economic development of the nation.

The Point offers beautiful park land as well as some of Pittsburgh’s most significant heritage sites.

You first come upon the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, built in 1764, the oldest building in Pittsburgh and the only remaining structure from colonial times. Inside this small, dark space, it gives you a glimpse of western Pennsylvania’s role during the French & Indian War and the American Revolution (admission is free).

What proves to be the highlight of my visit to Pittsburgh is the Fort Pitt Museum (the newest member of the Senator John Heinz History Center, in association with the Smithsonian Institution), a modern, two-story, 12,000 square foot museum built on the site of Fort Pitt.

“From 1754 to today, Fort Pitt has shaped the course of American and world history as the birthplace of Pittsburgh.

Fort Pitt Blockhouse, built in 1764, is the oldest building in Pittsburgh and the only remaining structure from colonial times © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fort Pitt Blockhouse, built in 1764, is the oldest building in Pittsburgh and the only remaining structure from colonial times © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The presentations are absolutely thrilling in conveying how at a critical point in the settlement of the New World, this point was the epicenter of world-changing events.

The museum tells the story of Western Pennsylvania’s pivotal role during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and as the birthplace of Pittsburgh (William Pitt never actually visited). It offers extremely well crafted interactive exhibits, life-like historical figures, rare artifacts that let you come away with a new appreciation for the strategic role the region played.

Known as The Point, this was once one of the most strategic areas in North America, controlling access to Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and much of interior of North America; it was the intersection of cultural exchange with native people, and a departure point for settlers moving west.

I appreciated the balance in the presentations between points of view – the colonists (actually split between the British and the French) and the Indian tribes. There is a sensational video that presents the different perspectives (the Indians still come up short) – the different perspectives that the British and French brought, and the Indians whose culture did not acknowledge that a person could own land, but by this point, the Indian tribes had already had already become dependent economically on imported European goods.

British and French clashed for control of the New World colonies constantly from 1689-1748:  The French, most interested in trade, saw the Ohio River as a way to connect Canada and Louisiana and leverage their relations with Indians. The British, determined to control territory, also realized the strategic importance of this artery, “the Keystone of the Frontier.”

This becomes clear in a superbly produced video, “Whose Land?”: “The French couldn’t stand the British and the British wouldn’t rest until they owned [the territory].” Native Americans, were fully aware that they could not allow the Europeans to control the land, but they were caught in the middle – by this point, Indians were dependent upon trading for manufactured goods.

“The Indians negotiated with weight and authority. They had a powerful confederacy

Iroquois – Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida. They had sophisticated government, freedom, a rich culture, complex trading relations. Agriculture was central but they did not have private ownership. They took a cue from nature. They enjoyed trade – and were heavily dependent on some European goods, and even took up the European religion, but kept their own ways.”

“God created all people but different,” an Indian chief said in 1742.

With French dominion on one side of the river and English on the other, where does the Indian claim lie?

Indians became dependent upon European traders © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Indians became dependent upon European traders © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

George Washington, a 21-year old major in 1753 with experience as a surveyor, was given a mission to explore to Fort LeBoeuf and recommended the site for Fort Prince George.

Washington “had no diplomatic experience, and couldn’t speak French yet he was selected to bring message to French. He was selected because of his close connection with Ohio corporations and other Virginian land speculators in land. He knew ‘the West’.”

In 1754, Fort Duquesne (which was renamed Fort Pitt when the British took over), was the largest French military installation in Ohio, and evicted the Virginians.

William Pitt, for which the fort is named, never came to the colonies. The city originally was called “Pittsboro”. The Fort – perhaps because it was so foreboding, was attacked only once, during Pontiac’s War of 1763.

Its location made Pittsburgh a boom town. The Ohio River carried 18,000 settlers through in 1788. The population of Pittsburgh, just 150 in 1780, grew to 4,800 by 1810, making it the third largest in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia and Lancaster.

Its economy developed from coal mining, glass making, and boat building, fueling the nation’s industrial and physical expansion. The city was incorporated in 1816.

Illustration of Indians on what is now Mount Washington, with Fort Pitt below.
Illustration of Indians on what is now Mount Washington, with Fort Pitt below.

When I visit the museum, there are a number of school groups coming through. The school kids are sent out in teams on a scavenger hunt by a docent in period dress. What surprises the kids the most? That the Indians were not as primitive as they expected, she tells me. Indeed, many are pictured wearing European-style clothes and served in the military. By this point, the Indians were part of the world economy – the Indians traded their furs for items from as far away as China; the European traders were like Walmart to them. For the first time, I understand why the Indians did not kick the Europeans out when it was clear they were setting up outposts.

As I explore the exhibits, I learn of what may have been the first incidence of germ warfare: in 1763, an Indian trader, on orders from Ft. Pitt, is alleged to have given Indians two blankets and a handkerchief from the fort’s smallpox hospital.

I am most excited when I am introduced to an idea or a topic that I knew nothing about before, , that makes you really think.

‘Captured by Indians’ 

That experience happened at the Fort Pitt Museum, which happened to be presenting a fascinating exhibit, “Captured by Indians,” about European (white) colonists who were kidnapped by Indian tribes. The exhibit did not disguise the brutality, but most fascinating is that the individuals (who often were young when they were taken captive), particularly women, once they survived the arduous journey and a literal gauntlet (to weed out the weak), were adopted into the tribe, treated as equals, and generally had a better life than the colonial settlements they came from, especially if they were indentured servants or slaves or women, to the extent that when they had the chance to be “freed” and be returned to their community – such as in a hostage exchange – they would refuse and even escape back to the tribe.

The presentation, the artifacts and the connection to people living today, descendants of those people, was utterly fascinating.

“During the turbulent decades of the mid-18th century, thousands of European and African settlers were captured by American Indians whose dwindling numbers forced them to adopt non-Indians in an effort to survive. The subsequent experience of captivity and adoption forever altered both the captives and their captors as identities shifted, allegiances were tested, and once-rigid lines between cultures became forever blurred.”

The exhibit draws upon documentary evidence gleaned from 18th and early 19th century primary sources, dozens of rare artifacts, and a wide array of imagery, to examine the practice of captivity from its prehistoric roots to its impact on modern American Indians and other ethnicities.

The exhibit notes that the many of the wave of European settlers who came in the 18th century  sold their freedom to come as indentured servants. Most who came were poor. The borderlands were already bitterly contested by rival Europeans and native tribes. These settlers were viewed by colonial legislators as buffers against the Indians.

The captives taken in brutal raids, massacres and abductions were mainly of young who were physically fit and could assimilate and women who would be married off and bear children. They would size people up in a raid, and decide who to take.

The exhibit tells the story through the experiences of real-life captives, and in stunning displays including three life-like vignettes that portray John Brickell, a local boy captured just a few miles from Fort Pitt at age 10; Massy Harbison, who heroically saved the life of her child after escaping from her captors; and the Kincade family, who were reunited on the Bouquet Expedition in 1764.

‘Captured by Indians’: A life-like vignette portrays the capture of 10-year old John Brickell, taken just a few miles from Fort Pitt © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
‘Captured by Indians’: A life-like vignette portrays the capture of 10-year old John Brickell, taken just a few miles from Fort Pitt © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exhibit, which does an outstanding view of making this rarely discussed history, makes it personal, presenting biographies and stories, draws upon artifacts borrowed from descendants of the captives, which make it all the more real and present:

There are personal artifacts on display that make this rarely discussed history all the more real:

  • A bullet-ridden 18th century door from a cabin near Ligonier, Pa., that was attacked by Indians during the American Revolution;
  • A Logan war club which was left at the site of a brutal Indian raid in southwest Virginia in 1774 which belonged to John Smith
  • A rare prisoner cord, used to bind captives taken during raids on frontier settlements;
  • An American Indian horn spoon given to Catharine Bard by her Delaware captors in 1758 (the owner who provided it to the exhibit is in her 90s)
  • An original pencil sketch of Mary Jemison, who was captured during the French & Indian War and lived out the rest of her days among her adoptive people; and
  • The hat and waistcoat of Jacob Miller, a frontier settler who was killed during a raid on Miller’s Blockhouse in Washington County in 1782.

I am amazed to learn that many of the captives preferred Indian society: Colonial society could be brutal, especially for those at the bottom (like slaves and indentured servants and poor), women were property of husband. But in native society, they had equality. “Many adopted captives lived and died among chosen people.”

At the end is a large wall of photos of people today who trace their origins to these captives.

“While many captives were returned to the society of their birth after months or years among the Indians, many others lived out the remainder of their lives with their adoptive people. Today, the descendants of captives represent a wonderfully diverse cross section of American society. In many cases they are alive today because of crucial decisions made in an instant, two centuries ago. They represent the living legacy of captivity, reminding us not only of our connection to the past, but also to the future.”

The exhibit engendered controversy when it first opened, but was so well appreciated, they extended viewing to October 2016.

Fort Pitt Museum tells the story of Western Pennsylvania’s pivotal role during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and as the birthplace of Pittsburgh © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fort Pitt Museum tells the story of Western Pennsylvania’s pivotal role during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and as the birthplace of Pittsburgh © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The school children now are gathered around a massive, detailed model of early Pittsburgh and the docent urges them to spot the tiny, anachronistic motorcycle (to make you more observant).

In summer, the museum offers living history programs and reenactments –with staff dressed in period costumes, firing off cannons, playing fife and drum, doing carpentry.

Fort Pitt Museum (open daily, 10 am – 5 pm, $5/adults, $4/seniors/ $3 students and children 4-17), 101 Commonwealth Place, Pittsburgh, PA, 15222, 412-281-9285, www.heinzhistorycenter.org/fort-pitt/ 

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.com, www.visitpittsburgh.com. 

Next: Pittsburgh Walking Tour Continues to National Aviary, Andy Warhol Museum

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

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