Sunday, March 27, 2011

Great Falls


The Great Falls of the Passaic! What heart does not beat fast at those words? The relentless power of a river of water plunging into the depth of the rocky gorge, and finding speedy relief in the still waters that run deep alongside the Silk City.

Helen and I went out there last Sunday and drenched ourselves in the spray while I snapped a few pics with my trusty digital SLR. It was a good day. The heavy rains some ten days earlier had brought the Passaic River above flood stage upstream. While water level had come down from its peak, we still witnessed the greatest flow we'd ever seen over the mighty cataract.

For those who have not had the opportunity, let me describe the scene. Photographs tend to be confusing because of the two sharp turns in the river. Flowing northeast from the Little Falls a few miles away, the river suddenly drops into a deep gorge that channels it around a sharp turn to the south, and then upon emerging it once again turns northeast. So there are two near-180 turns in the stream.

At no point can you get a simple head-on look at the falls. The classic view looks up the gorge, within which you see almost a side view of the falls. Standing on the high ground facing the falls, you see a river coming at you only to disappear into a spray, and you need to peer over the edge to see what happens to it.

But here, below, the best general view I have ever seen of the Great Falls. All you need to do is go up in an airplane. This was taken by Jack Boucher for the Historic American Buildings Survey, around 1971.

The photo is one of a set documenting the hydro-electric power station just left of center, which was built in 1914 and is still in use with new turbines installed in 1986.

The dam above it, near the bridge, was built in 1838 to maintain a flow of water to a system of raceways that turned water wheels at a host of mills. The start of those water channels can be seen at lower left, running alongside the road and then turning to the bottom of the image. The dam still serves to direct some of the river into the hydro station.

Paterson is a fine place for industrial archaeology. Inspired by the potential of the falls, Alexander Hamilton established the Society for the Establishment of Usefull Manufactures (called S U M) in 1791. The original system of raceways was designed by Pierre L'Enfant (soon to be the planner of Washington DC) and Peter Colt. The system was designated a National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark in 1977. For more details see The Great Falls Raceway and Power System (PDF).

Here's the classic view of the falls. Everyone takes this shot.

Those bridges! Two of them: look close. The arched bridge in front, built in 1888, has been part of the classic view for as long as anyone has been alive. Generations have walked over it for the thrill. The falls would not look right without the arched bridge. An old Paterson paper had an engraving of this view on the front page between the Gothic letters of its name, the Morning Call.

There used to be, just upstream, a little suspension bridge that carried nothing but a huge pipe across the gorge. Around 1985, the locations were swapped: the pipe was placed onto the 1888 footbridge, and a new footbridge was built where the pipe had been. The new footbridge is a little closer to the falls, and the big pipe no longer partially blocks the view.

Here's the other almost classic view.

The hydro plant kills any idea of this being a pastoral waterfall in the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand from this angle you can see more of the waterfall itself. Look how far back it goes!

The picnic tables in the foreground look nice, but you can't go there. That level is blocked off with warning signs. I don't know what happened. They haven't even removed the trash cans.

Here is the upper level of the Passaic River looking downstream at the falls. The viewpoint is near the left side of the aerial photograph.

In the foreground, water is rushing over the 1838 dam, some of it flowing to the right into the hydro plant. Ahead is the falls, but from here you get little clue to how far it drops. A few S U M brick buildings stand on the far shore.

The white-painted Hinchliffe Stadium (1932) behind them was home to the New York Black Yankees from 1934 to 1945 (except 1938). It was used for events and high school sports until 1997, when the city of Paterson could no longer afford to maintain it. Its future is uncertain. What a location!

Two bridges.

The spray was good, and the sun was behind us.

We went over the bridge. Helen walked fast. I stopped to look. 

I could not get this into any one photograph, but the rainbow in the spray formed an entire half circle down to somewhere under the bridge. And it was a double rainbow too.

I was getting pretty wet standing on the bridge.

There's the river coming toward us. You can see the dam up there, and the hydro plant is just visible through the spray under the bridges.

There's a big rock dividing the falls in two. It's easier to see in the rainbow pictures up above. The rock looks like it's going to go any moment but it's been there for hundreds of years. The Lenape called it the spirit of the falls.

Still getting wet!

We're at the outside of the hairpin bend. Suddenly the picture is clearer! There were ducks swimming around here but I almost missed them in the image. You can see part of one at the bottom edge, center.

Look at the tiny figures in the distance right under the arched bridge. They're getting the classic view.

Up above is Garret Mountain, the north end of a 14-mile ridge of basalt known variously as the First Mountain or Watchung Ridge, and locally as South Mountain near where I live. We went up there afterwards but I didn't take pictures. It's a county park. Great views of Paterson, and all the way to Manhattan.

Water! Rocks! Whooo!

The S U M hydro-electric plant seen from above. The end of the gorge is so straight it looks hand-cut but I don't think it's been "improved". This is the same type of rock as the Palisades, and their edge is pretty vertical too. On the other hand the cliff near the power station does look cut back, and notice the sloped concrete wall from the cliff top to the roof of the building. The smashed windows are surprising for a building very much in use. The white scale is mineral from the spray.

The old footbridge with the pipe on it, and the hydro station. The water emerges from the gorge and takes a sharp turn to the left.

Next time: Old pictures of the Great Falls. You'll see old timey stuff, and the pipe suspension bridge, and me looking horribly young.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Piercing Shrieks

Just how Martin Bierman, a cigarmaker, came to be crushed into atoms yesterday under the wheels of a Third-ave elevated railroad train may never positively be known. There are two stories of his terrible death. The first of these, told by the trainmen, is that he was helplessly drunk and fell on the rails. The second, put forth by his friends, none of whom was with him at the time, says that Bierman got into a quarrel with a gateman just as he was about to leave the train at Eighty-ninth-st, that he was brutally beaten, pushed off the car, and fell between the platform and the train. The ticket-chopper who was on duty when Bierman met his death mysteriously disappeared after the fatality, and could not be found.

December 14, 1891

Calling Mr Holmes!

But on further reading we learn that every person present said that the man was staggering drunk. The reporter just wanted to make it a good story. Well, I know how that is.

While checking facts for the Riding the El series in newspaper archives, I ran across some startling accounts of accidents. None of this vague "police activity" explanation that we get today. It was more like this:—

Piercing shrieks coming from the direction of the down-town platform of the Eighty-ninth-st station of the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, startled people who were on the street below at 8 o’clock yesterday morning. The next moment great splashes of blood spattered the pillar and fell upon the thin sheet of new-fallen snow which covered the pavement beneath.

December 31, 1886

What writing. What dramatic movement. There we are, walking along the street under the el on a cold morning, and then suddenly some disaster plays out above.

As he saw the first man fall to the track the ticket-chopper shrieked with terror, and ran toward the spot where he saw him disappear. The train had now come to a standstill. The engineer left his cab and hurried back to the first car. He looked down between the tracks and the edge of the platform, but could see nothing at first. He then secured a torch from the engine, and by its light the knot of spectators on the platform discovered the body of a man crushed against the iron girders under the platform. The man gave no sign of life, and it was decided that he was dead. He was so firmly wedged in between the track and girders that there was no apparent means of extricating him. The greatest excitement prevailed, and every one seemed at a loss what to do.

November 25, 1894

It says "first man" because his drunken friend had fallen too. They did of course manage to get both bodies out.

The man either fell or jumped in front of the train as it was entering the Twenty-third-st station. The platform was crowded with waiting passengers at the time, and a shriek of horror went up as the man’s body was crunched under the engine wheels. It presented a ghastly spectacle. The head was completely severed from the body, the heart and entrails were torn out, and the face was crushed in. To make the scene more horrible, a piece of the jawbone and one of the eyes fell into the street below.

March 21, 1897

We needed to know that.

In another incident a man was crushed by a locomotive but still alive, and some passengers ran off to get a priest. Here is the way the transit system handled things a hundred fourteen years ago:—

For an instant all was excitement. Then the horror of the scene drove many passengers away. The priest jumped quickly to the tracks and hurried to the side of the dying man. Father Cooney performed the rite of Extreme Unction. Many who stood around with uncovered heads wept; the crowds on the elevated station stood silent, and from the nearby houses people looked from every window. But even as the priest knelt beside the dying man the trains rushed past in either direction, for those of the uptown track had been switched so that they took the middle track and went around the delayed train.

April 3, 1897

Many of the accidents involved passengers who were not drunk or suicidal. They were instead victims of the gates. The elevated cars did not have side doors. Instead the car body had only end doors that led to open platforms protected only by iron railings and gates. A trainman was assigned between each pair of cars to open and close the gates by hand. The gates pivoted 90 degrees inward.

Today, there is a very clear and strict protocol that all doors must be closed before a train will start up. In so many accident reports, we hear of gates being closed after the train starts to move, of panicked gatemen pushing passengers back to get the gates closed quickly, and even of impatient passengers trying to jump over closed gates. Passengers left outside closed gates usually fell between the cars or to the street. Sometimes the gatemen would re-open the gate while the train was moving between stations to try to get the clinger into the platform, but it appears that that rarely was successful.

The National Police Gazette, quite a sensationalist paper, called it the premature closing of the gates, but evidence usually points to delayed closing, even in this very paragraph:—

The premature closing of the gates of the elevated railway cars is a fruitful source of peril to the public. Passengers frequently have them slammed just as they set foot on the slowly moving train and are carried out over the street, sometimes a block or more, before the train men condescend to stop swearing at them long enough to open the gate. One of the latest victims was a young lady who boarded a Sixth avenue train up-town just as it got in motion. The gateman slammed the wicket on her and she had made a trip of nearly an eighth of a mile before she was released. Several times she was on the point of falling, but fortunately for her her skirts had become fastened in the gate and she could not be released till they were set free.

August 6, 1881

That needs interpretation, but I don't think the train would have reached another station in only an eighth of a mile. I think the trainman opened the gates between stations and pulled her in. The caught skirts would have kept her foot from slipping off the car platform.

The picture above was supposed to illustrate this story but it does not show the skirts caught in the gate in the foreground, probably so that we'd see a nice line from her slim waist down the front of her leg.

It could have been worse:—

A dark mulatto was at this time sweeping the platform. He seized the man’s arm, exclaiming, "Taint no use, boss, you’s too late." "God damn you," cried he, "let me go," and he flung the negro aside and rushed to the edge of the platform. The negro asserts that he was intoxicated. The gates on the cars were closed. He got between them and clung to the railing on each side of him. Then suddenly he went down and the next instant he was under the wheels and instantly killed. His body was horribly mangled and was carried half a block before the train could be stopped. His head was split in two longitudinally, and one part fell to the street while the body remained under the wheels. The breast and abdomen were cut open and the heart and liver thrown to the sidewalk at the feet of passers-by.

October 26, 1878

Again, a little Too Much Information. And I'm sorry for the "negro dialect", but the man did try to stop the drunk.

The unwillingness of passengers to wait for the next train is amazing. Not so much the drunks, but the others. Elevated trains ran very frequently in the nineteenth century. Third Avenue, the busiest line, had off peak service every 2 minutes, and in rush hours an incredible less than 60 seconds between trains. No wonder they had to start away after a brief station stop and let the trainmen fend for themselves getting the gates closed.

Most of the gates were already closed but the woman saw that the gate of the second car was still open and she ran for it. The train was already moving and the conductor was closing the gate at the same moment. It shut with a crash as the woman placed her foot on the platform of the car. The passengers who were hurrying into the station saw the woman stagger for an instant. Then she appeared to be caught by the train which carried her along with it, crushing her against the platform. A cry of horror went up from the passengers who witnessed the accident but were unable to lend any aid. As the train cleared the platform the woman disappeared and was drawn beneath the car. In another instant the train had come to a dead stop, but the body of the woman had been dragged ten feet and was seen to be wedged in a crouched position between the forward trucks of the second car. She had uttered a single cry as the train caught her, but when the brakeman climbed down under the car after the train stopped she was already dead. A frosted cake that she carried in her arms had been broken and the crumbs were sprinkled in the street below.

January 11, 1888

That last sentence! Cut to street point of view: cake crumbs spiralling through the air ; a lump of frosting hits the pavement.

Saving the best for last. They just don't write news stories like this any more. I salute the nameless reporter who came up with this closer.

He was accompanied by a friend and a little girl seven years old. The two men had passed through the gate when the child, who was following them, dropped a package of candy which she carried in her hand. She stooped to pick up the candy, the train started, the father made an effort to grasp his child and to draw her upon the car, but she either misunderstood him or was unable to gain the platform, and she fell between the cars. At the sight the father fell backward into the arms of his friend and uttered a shriek which could be heard through the cars. Not until the train had moved out of the station a block and a half was it stopped and run slowly back. The child had fallen between the second and third cars, and her body lay upon the track opposite the gateman’s box. The wheels had crushed the skull transversely, and the body was cut in two longitudinally. The candy, which had been the cause of the accident, lay scattered in a pool of brains.

March 26, 1882


Sunday, March 13, 2011



I grew up in an all-white neighborhood.

It was not Wasp Town though. More than half the neighbors were Jewish, and the rest were Irish and Italian Catholics. They were the first generation to escape the city and come to the fresh air of the burbs. My father was no exception: Brooklyn boy, first generation to finish high school, and civil service. My mother was a grocer's daughter from northern Westchester, so all right, she wasn't really a city girl, but she lived in Brooklyn for the first few years of their marriage.

My mother explained to me once that there was a temple a few blocks away, and that the Jews lived around our street because they liked to be able to walk there. That's how she put it. They liked to. Another time she mentioned a family who believed they should not even flick a light switch on the Sabbath, but they could ask her to come turn on a light they had forgotten to leave on.

I didn't think much about it. Whatever. When you're a kid, plenty of things adults do are inexplicable.

Jeffrey the kid next door was my best friend until he moved away. Alan the boy a few houses down was my other best friend. Susie the girl directly behind was OK too.

I attended the parish school, St Catharine's. None of those kids went of course, but I made other school friends, and once I was good at riding a bike I could go see some of them too. They were not far away. I had a nice little world going.

Based on my experience I formed the idea that most people were either Catholic or Jewish. We learned in school that there were also Protestants, but I wasn't sure I had ever met one. I don't know at what age the light dawned, but I still remember my astonishment that I had figured this wrong.

I had to travel to learn a few more things.

One summer that I would guess was 1960, our family went to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. It was a longer trip then than it would be now, because the Interstates were not all there yet. We had to use US 40 through Delaware and Maryland. We did have the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. We passed through downtown Washington DC on concrete-paved roads in the summer heat. I don't remember seeing Richmond, but looking at maps, I don't see how we would have avoided it.

We stayed at a motor hotel near Williamsburg, from which we could take a GM "old look" bus a short way to the historic district. Of course I remember the bus. It would stand in a shady place for us to board. There were pigeons on the pavement and when the bus started up we were concerned it would crush them, but of course they all moved safely out of reach.

The old Capitol, Bruton Parish Church, the green, re-enactors dressed in colonial clothing, kids posing for photos in the stocks, yeah yeah. Not what I want to tell you about.

At the motel pool, there were some people with dark skin. I knew they existed, and here they were. There was no shortage of them in New Jersey, but I wouldn't have seen them where I lived. Those fabulous fifties.

I was fascinated that the skin on their palms was not the same even shade of brown as the rest of their skin. Who would guess that without seeing it? What a sheltered life I had.

In Chuck Berry's autobiography Autobiography he recalled that when he was a kid someone down the street had ordered a new washing machine from Sears. His friends called to him to come see the strange looking man who was doing the delivery and installation. It was a white man. They had never seen one, living their lives within their St Louis neighborhood. I laughed when I read that because I had lived the same thing in reverse.

I want to give my parents credit for not teaching us racism. They were pretty conservative, but I don't remember any slurs against ethnic groups or races. They did believe in stereotypes. My father commented to little me once that a place we were going to was a Jewish store. That was a compliment. His stereotype was that Jews knew how to run stores. The merchandise would be good quality and we'd get good service, so he wanted to go there. It's a thin line from stereotype to prejudice. But there is a line.

Near Williamsburg is another historical site called Jamestown. Jamestown was the first long-term English settlement in the new world, from 1607, and it was populated for about a hundred years until the people moved inland to what would become Williamsburg. For its 350th anniversary, the National Park Service constructed visitor facilities at the site of the colonial landing, and Virginia constructed a state historical park on an adjacent site that had been the colonial capital. The Jamestown Festival in 1957 attracted many visitors including the Queen of England. We would arrive only a few years later.

At Jamestown Festival Park we looked at reconstructions of 17th century houses and replicas of the three ships that came from England. The ships were so small— that's what everyone says, and it's true. Then we had to use the facilities. And there I saw something I still cannot believe I saw.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, in a state park, provided for its citizens and guests not two but four restrooms:



Colored Men.

Colored Women.

I had never seen the last two phrases before. I tried to guess the meaning and could not. Everybody is a color. I was "flesh" color in Crayola crayons. What did this mean, "colored"? I asked my mother.

She said something like, "it's what they do here". She did not defend it, and the tone of her voice made it sound like she felt like it was something out of her control that she wished was not there. "It's what they do here."

Williamsburg must have been a little ahead of the curve in Virginia. Maybe it was the Northern foundation money behind it. From the pool to this the same day. Just a needless insult, done for no reason but to put people down, and a fair amount of extra expense, to put up the walls to form two extra rooms.

Oh, outside the building were two water fountains. The one with the cooler, and then the pipe running five feet off from it to the other one, mounted a foot lower and under a sign that read "colored".

I was older before I understood what I had seen and what it meant.

But I know I saw it. In my lifetime. I am testifying. It was real. Not some story people tell you, not a dystopian fantasy in a movie. I saw it with my own eyes. It was real. I won't try to sell you anything about racism being dead, but at least we don't do this to people any more.

All of the Jamestown Festival site was renewed years ago. Now called Jamestown Settlement, it has all new buildings, and even the three ships were replaced by more accurate replicas. You can't see any trace there of what I saw. I hope some other site has preserved a wall of four doors like that one. So we don't forget.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Riding the El - 13 - 110th St


I see that I wrote back in Riding the El -2, when I was still working my way through the 1938 photographs:
You know, the view everyone took was at 110th St, the 'suicide curve', where the el ran high above the street. But not this guy.
I was wrong. By May 1940, he couldn't resist.

At 110th St, the elevated railway crossed from Columbus Ave (the continuation of Ninth Ave) to Eighth Ave.  Street level drops about 60 feet from 105th and Columbus to 110th and Eighth, and to minimize the grade at track level, the elevated railway ran very high around the double curve and gradually downhill over Eighth Ave, reaching a normal height by 125th St. The high curve and the elaborate ironwork under it captured imaginations as soon as it was built.

Above is an aerial photograph of 1924, from New York City Map, showing that both of the curves were built cutting over private property. Farther downtown, the el stayed over streets and made some tight turns, but this far north, in the 1870s, land was still cheap, and the elevated railway company spent a few dollars. The result was that trains could take the curves at speed, adding to passengers' delight.

The fun was somewhat ruined in 1903 when a station was added in the middle of the curve. You can see it in the image above. Local trains now had to slow to make the new stop.

Above is a mosaic of pages from the J W Bromley's Desk Atlas of Manhattan, 1916. It shows that access to the station was by way of a brick building on the north side of the street. Most of the building was Manhattan Railway Substation 4, but along the street was a five-story brick tower with four elevators that carried passengers to station high above.

The tower was still there into the 1980s. I remember seeing it. Did I take a picture? No. The brick had patches on the street side near the top, where it once opened to the elevated station. It's gone now, along with the small buildings to its east at the circle, replaced by a large residential building.

What you can still see are the three apartment houses on the east side of Columbus Ave with curved walls, and the "one story stores" that were once under the tracks.

139-2. 110th St station looking northeast.

There's the top of the tower with its tiled roof. You can see how sharp the curve was. And see the tops of the buildings on Eighth Ave? They're six stories.

139-2 detail.

No ads for Mulsified here, but we've got Ruppert beer, Dr Lyon's powder with no pumice and some amount of safety, and Del Monte canned pineapples. And a man carrying a brown paper package tied up with string— the way they used to do it before someone invented shopping bags.

139-1. 110th St station looking northeast, below track level.


This must be the view from the cross-under between the elevator tower, left, and the uptown platform. I find the slim cylindrical iron columns and the horizontal lattice bracing a little unsettling, and I'm only looking at the picture. I know this stood for 61 years under the stresses of moving trains. It still doesn't look strong enough, does it?

139-1 detail.

A closer look at the iron. The Phoenix column, mainstay of the Sixth and Second Ave Els, was made of four parts bolted together.

Madame Alice, cleaner and dyer, has her sign projecting past the column. Next door they have pies.

139-1 detail.

I underexposed a second scan of this negative to bring out that bright area on the right. There are some great cars in the street and in the gas station on the northeast corner. But mainly, check out that truck for Jacob Ruppert's Beer with the open bench seat!

Above is a picture from about 1905, looking west on Cathedral Parkway (110th St). This gives you a good look at the station and the combined elevator tower and electrical substation. The buildings are beautifully designed— notice the arched doorway of the substation— but were almost immediately hidden behind cheap billboards and, later, one-story commercial buildings.

It looks as if the elevator had two stops near the top, one for the mezzanine crossing under the tracks for the uptown side, and then a higher one at the level of the downtown platform.

The entrance was originally an open pavilion with arches. The side would eventually be obscured by stores.

This image was made by the Detroit Publishing Company. Their archives can be seen at the Library of Congress web site.

Here's the Eighth Ave curve in the nineteenth century, looking east from 110th St. The station and buildings were years in the future. 110th St had not yet been widened yet either. If the construction in the foreground is for its transformation into Cathedral Parkway, the year is 1894.

West side engines ran with boilers north. Trains ran engine first, but the engines were not turned at the terminals, so the engine on the downtown train in the background is leading with its coal bunker. Notice the height of the apartment buildings on Eighth Ave.

(Photo print from my collection)

139-6. Posted notice.

I don't know where our photographer came across this ancient notice with its references to bad coins and ticket collection. The Manhattan Railway Company owned the elevated railways up to the end in 1940, but they had been leased to and operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company since 1903. This sign was at least 37 years out of date.


I'm sorry to say that's the end. I've gone through all the negatives.

I found a Sixth Ave picture that I somehow missed posting, so let's go out with that. It's 1938, and we're running uptown, just out of the curve from Third St into Sixth Ave, approaching Eighth St station. On our right buildings have been cleared for a construction site for the Sixth Ave Subway. The World of Tomorrow is on its way.

82-6. Sixth Ave looking north from Waverly Place.