Monday, June 29, 2009

Days of Hope and Glory: When Croton Water Came to the City


On October 14, 1842, 167 years ago, New York City marked the completion of the Croton Aqueduct and the stream of cold, clear water it brought from the valley of the Croton River. The water's arrival touched off celebrations whose like had never been seen before. At a time when the purity of Croton's own water supply is in jeopardy from runoff contamination, it is appropriate that we remind ourselves of the benefits Croton's pure, sweet water brought to the way of life in Gotham.

Throughout the summer of 1842, Manhattan's citizens were brimming with anticipation as they eagerly awaited the long-heralded coming of Croton water. Over the years many proposals had been explored in the city's search for "a sufficient quantity of pure and wholesome water," including tapping the Bronx River, the Passaic River in New Jersey, or the Housatonic in Connecticut.

To replace an earthen dam that had been breached and destroyed in a storm, a dam had been erected in Westchester County to impound the Croton River. Some 270 feet across and 50 feet high, the Croton Dam, the first large masonry dam in this country, created a lake five miles long. To carry this water to the city, a now still-usable masonry aqueduct eight and a half feet high and seven and a half feet in width, snaked its way through a dozen towns and villages and across hundreds of acres of private land, tunneling through hills and spanning broad valleys with earthen embankments or classical arches.

Bridges carried it across deep ravines, streams or highways. Some, like the aqueduct bridge at Sing Sing with its span of 88 feet and height of 76 feet, were structures of striking architectural boldness. The entire system was one of the nineteenth century's engineering marvels. Proposed in 1833 and estimated at $5 million, its final cost was almost twice that amount.

Farther to the south, a 24-million-gallon reservoir was erected at the highest point of this part of Manhattan, now the site of the New York Public Library. Like a gigantic above-ground swimming pool, the magnificent Egyptian-style masonry structure stretched across two city blocks from 40th to 42nd Street. Its sloping walls rose 38 feet above street level. It would soon become a major attraction for residents and visitors. A railed flagstone promenade atop its massive walls made it possible for strollers to gaze into the serene depths of sparkling clear Croton water or to survey the vast panorama of the city lying to the south.

On June 8th, Chief Engineer John B. Jervis, several of his assistants and the five water commissioners began a final inspection by trudging for three days through thirty-three miles of the Croton Aqueduct from the Croton Dam to the Harlem River. Jervis, a brilliant self-taught engineer, had cut his teeth on canals: first on the Erie Canal--where he rose in eight years from axeman to surveyor to Resident Engineer--and then the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Next he built New York's first railroad, the Mohawk and Hudson, between Albany and Schenectady. The driving force in the construction of the Croton Dam and Croton, Jervis's only remaining monument today is the 41-mile-long aqueduct itself.

The Voyage of the Croton Maid
On June 20, a modest flow of water was started down the aqueduct. Only 18 inches deep, the stream was enough to launch a 16-foot flat-bottomed wooden skiff designed for this use and named the Croton Maid. Carrying four workers, the tiny vessel competed its journey and reached the Harlem River 22 hours later.

As artillery battery fired a 38-gun salute , the first Croton water began to flow into the receiving reservoir in the wild area that would become Central Park. New York Governor William H. Seward (who would later become Lincoln's Secretary of State), Mayor Robert H. Morris and other officials were on hand for the historic event.

After portaging the Croton Maid around the three-foot-diameter cast iron pipes that carried the aqueduct temporaryily under the Harlem River and across Manhattan Valley, on June 21st the four men in the little craft finally sailed out into the giant York Hill receiving reservoir located betewen 79th and 86th streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues to the cheers of some 20,000 enthusiastic spectators, cannon salutes and toasts of the "sweet, soft, clear water." A Water Commission report later added that this voyage "afforded indubitable evidence that a navigable river was flowing into the city for the use of its inhabitants."

George Templeton Strong, a young graduate of Columbia University who was to have a brilliant career as literary critic, music lover and lawyer, noted in his diary, "Croton Water is slowly flowing towards the city, which at last will stand a chance of being cleaned--if water can clean it."

Filling the Reservoirs
Few were present at sunrise on the Fourth of July when valves were opened and water flowed through three-foor iron pipes down Fifth Avenue and began to flow into the Murray Hill distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenu, as 45 cannon boomed. (The New York Public Library now occupies this site.) . Croton's water had arrived not a moment too soon. The huge cast-iron tank erected in 1829 at 13th Street and the Bowery, with a capacity of more than 305,000 gallons, the city's only reservoir and the source of the water on which it depended for fire protection, was bone dry. At Mayor Morris's request, Croton water was immediately piped to the downtown location.

George Templeton Strong told his diary: "There's nothing new in town, except the Croton Water, which is all full of tadpoles and animalculae, and which moreover flows through an aqueduct which I hear was used as a necessary by all the Hibernian vagabonds who worked upon it. I shall drink no Croton Water for some time to come. Jehiel Post has drunk some of it and is in dreadful apprehensions of breeding bullfrogs."

The festivities of June and July marking the arrival of Croton water were mere preludes to the huge celebration planned for Friday, October 14th. "Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water; fountains, aqueducts, hydrants and hose attract our attention," another tireless diarist, ex-Mayor Philip Hone, wrote, "and impede our progress through the streets. Water! Water! is the universal note which is sounded in every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses, even though they are out of spirits."

Charles King, president of Columbia College, hailed the Croton Dam and Aqueduct as "the crowning glory and surpassing achievement of the latter part of the half century," and indeed it was. The city had participated in the statewide celebration of the federal union and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, but it had outdone itself this time. The Croton Dam and Aqueduct were exclusively a municipal venture.

Invitations went out to President John Tyler, in Washington, and to the two living ex-Presidents, John Quincy Adams, then serving as a Congressman from Massachusetts, and Martin Van Buren, then living up the Hudson in Kinderhook, N.Y. All declined because of previous commitments. Writing from the Upper Manor House, 80-year-pld Pierre Van Cortlandt, former member of Congress and President of the Westchester County Bank in Peekskill, gratefully accepted the invitation "to celebrate the introduction of Croton Water."

A Celebration Unlike Any Other
The day began with the firing of one hundred cannon in a national salute at sunrise. Church bells were rung for an hour. At ten, the five-mile-long parade began. The Commercial Advertiser called it "the largest procession ever known in the city." Spectators jammed windows, balconies and sidewalks to watch and applaud. The seven-mile-long parade route took marchers north from the Battery up Broadway to Union Square and then turned south down the Bowery and East Broadway to City Hall Park. Spectacular fountains shooting geysers of Croton water 50 feet into the air had been erected at Union Square and at City Hall Park.

First came a military escort, followed by a dozen open carriages carrying top-hatted dignitaries and elected officials, followed by additional regiments of soldiers. Next came 97 companies of volunteer firemen in full regalia of fire helmets, red shirts and dark trousers. Some pulled highly polished hand pumpers; the smoke-bellowing, steam-driven pump engines were drawn by teams of powerful horses. Four thousand firefighters were in the line of march: three thousand from the city and the balance from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, Connecticut and Long Island.

Butchers on horseback made up another contingent, all in white aprons with their forearms covered with traditional checkered sleeve protectors. These were followed by 30 temperance societies, artisans and mechanics organizations, trade unions, civic societies, college faculties, ladies' auxiliaries, and bands of every description. No segment of society was overlooked.

The Cold Spring Temperance Benevolent Society marched under a banner showing "a gentleman tendering the pledge of total abstinence to a poor ragged inebriate." Its motto was, "Turn; drink of the pure fountain of life, come with us and be free." The presence of so many temperance organizations reflected the hope of reform-minded New Yorkers that public drunkenness would decline with the availability of water that did not have to be made palatable by the addition of alcohol.

About four-thirty the last marchers reached the park at City Hall, where the Mayor introduced the orator of the day, Samuel Stevens, President of the Board of Water Commissioners. "Only the Romans could compete with such a magnificent public work," Commissioner Stevens told the assembled throng. "But the works of Rome were built by slaves," he reminded them, while the Croton Aqueduct "was voted for and constructed by free men." Abolitionists in the audience cheered.

"The Croton Ode"
With the City Hall Park fountain as a backdrop, a choir of two hundred members of the New York Sacred Choral Society sang "The Croton Ode," with lyrics composed by George Pope Morris specifically for the occasion. Morris was a poet, journalist and writer of popular song lyrics. His most famous work was the 1837 sentimental ballad, "Woodman, Spare that Tree." The music for "The Croton Ode" was adapted by Sidney Pearson from Rossini's opera Armida and contained fourteen four-line stanzas; one stanza anticipated the conquest of the twin threats of epidemics and fires:

Water leaps as if delighted,
While her conquered foes retire!
Pale Contagion flies affrighted
With the baffled demon, Fire!

Another stanza pointed the way to temperance:

From her haunts of deep seclusion,
Let Intemp'rance greet her too,
And the heat of his delusion
Sprinkle with this mountain dew

The ceremonies closed with a cold buffet for invited guests in City Hall , with more speechmaking by the mayor and governor. Wines and spirits were conspicuously absent; the only beverages available for the frequent toasts were Croton water and lemonade.

Despite the hoopla and the celebrations that accompanied the arrival of Croton water in New York City in 1842, by 1844 the Croton water system had acquired only 6,000 paying customers and revenues of $100,000, while total cost had risen to $13 million. Croton water was everywhere--in fountains spouting geysers of water and in fire hydrants, but many property owners had not spent the money to intall the expensive pipe connections to the system. Most city residents still preferred to get their water from free street hydrants and the few wells that remained flowing with subsurface water in ancient springs below Manhattan.

With the completion of the High Bridge in 1848 and the resultant increase in water pressure, usage of Croton water began to rise. Begun in the 1850s, construction of an underground sewer system soon made interior bathrooms and water closets a fixture in city dwellings, and launched a new trade--that of the Croton water plumber. In 1857, an enterprising manufacturer named Joseph C. Gayetty produced and marketed the first packaged toilet papers in the United States. For ten cents, a customer got a package of ten sheets of manila hemp paper pre-moistened with an aloe solution. Gayetty's name was imprinted on each sheet.

Arrival of Croton water in Manhattan reputedly added another feature to life in the booming city. The omnipresent German cockroach (Blatella germanica) acquired a new name. City dwellers called it the "Croton bug," convinced that this pest could be introduced into dwellings through the pipes bringing Croton water.

Little did the 1842 celebrants know that by the turn of the century the city would have to build a new and larger Croton Aqueduct to relieve the threat of water shortages, and a new and higher Croton Dam backed by additional upstate reservoirs to increase water capacity. In its unending quest for water, the city would range even farther afield to the Catskills and beyond. For the moment, however, New York was content--and awash in water. It had found in the Croton watershed the "pure and wholesome water" that would make it the envy of other cities.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series about the building of the Old Croton Aqueduct. The complete series of published articles can be found at the following links:

Labels: , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Old Croton Aqueduct: An Engineering Marvel


Seen from the air, the Old Croton Aqueduct gives the impression that a giant mole had tunneled its way south from the Croton River to New York City, throwing up the slight bulge that is the telltale sign of the animal's passage through a lawn. Now a public right of way, the aqueduct was purchased by New York State from New York City's Bureau of Water Supply in 1968. Listed on both the New York State and the National Registers of Historic Places in 1974, most of it is open for walking and cycling.

This elongated but little-used state park extends all the way to the heart of New York City. In its northern reaches, it closely parallels the Hudson River. Comparatively straight and somewhat narrow as parks go, it sometimes follows city streets and highways; at other times it traverses meadows and wooded areas. It was built with a singleness of purpose: to carry water to a thirsty, disease-ridden, fire-threatened city more than a century and a half ago. In selecting its route, engineers were mindful that the water coursing through it would be impelled only by gravity. The total drop between Croton and Manhattan is 43.63 feet, or 13-1/4 inches per mile.

The aqueduct starts near the New Croton Dam, makes its way to Ossining, crossing Quaker Bridge Road twice. In Crotonville, it traverses the Indian Brook Culvert, which allows the stream of that name to pass under the aqueduct embankment. Before reaching Main Street in Ossining, it crosses the famous Double Arch Aqueduct Bridge. It runs parallel to Main Street and then across Nelson Park. It crosses Route 9 once again to Scarborough Road and back again before passing behind the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow.

The aqueduct brings walkers close to some of Westchester's architectural gems: In Tarrytown, financier Jay Gould's Gothic Revival mansion, Lyndhurst; in Irvington, Washington Irving's home, "Sunnyside," the Armour-Stiner domed octagonal house, and Nevis, the mansion built by Col. James A. Hamilton and named for the island in the West Indies where his father, Alexander Hamilton, was born; in Hastings-on-Hudson on Aqueduct Lane, the former studio of Russian-born French sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

More than a few hardy walkers have hiked the entire length of the Old Croton Aqueduct, 26 miles of which are within the present boundaries of Westchester County. Walking the aqueduct is one way to appreciate this engineering marvel of the nineteenth century. Although some of its features are concealed in the earth, many can be discerned by observant walkers.

Building the Aqueduct
Chief Engineer John B. Jervis organized the construction of the aqueduct into four 10-mile-long divisions, each under the supervision of a resident engineer, and 96 subdivisions. called "sections." Jervis's annual salary was $5,000; his assistant, Horatio Allen, earned $3,500 a year. Resident engineers made between $1,500 and $1,800. The pay of the Irish laborers who built the aqueduct ranged between 75 cents and a dollar a day.

The major portion of the aqueduct was constructed by the cut-and-fill method in which a trench was dug, the aqueduct was built, and the earth was backfilled over it. The decision to enclose the aqueduct completely with ramparts of earth was made to protect it from the weather and contamination by ground water.

The following are the specifications of the aqueduct, taken from an official report: "The foundation is stone, upon which is laid a bed of concrete, composed of broken granite and hydraulic cement; the side walls are of hammered stone, laid up with cement; the floor is composed of an inverted arch of hard brick, eight inches thick; the lining of the side walls and the upper roof arch are of the same thickness and materials, all laid with hydraulic lime mortar. No common mortar is permitted in the whole structure."

Hydraulic cement has the advantage that the more it is exposed to water, the harder it gets. Maximum interior dimensions were 8 feet 5-1/2 inches high and 7 feet 8 inches wide--larger than any aqueducts constructed previously in Europe.

The Old Croton Dam
Simultaneous with the construction of the aqueduct, work was begun in January of 1838 on a dam in the valley of the Croton River, a huge earthen embankment about 250 feet long and 65 feet high. It was 250 feet wide at the base, tapering upwards to 55 feet wide at the top. The narrow spillway portion of the dam over which a sheet of water flowed was the only part that was constructed of stone. In times of heavy rain, it was assumed that the outflowing water would measure no more than 4 to 6 feet deep.

After the first season of construction, 2,445 feet of aqueduct had been completed and 635 feet of tunnels had been dug. At the end of the second year, 11.2 miles of the aqueduct had been completed. By January of 1841, about 32 miles, or two-thirds of the aqueduct had been constructed. The Croton Dam was nearly finished, a massive masonry arch bridge had been built at Sing Sing (Ossining) and twelve tunnels with a total length of 4,406 feet had been dug.

Ventilators and Waste Weirs
Thirty-three cylindrical stone ventilator shafts were erected to keep the aqueduct at atmospheric pressure. In the northern part of the aqueduct these were located about a mile apart; some no longer stand. Eleven ventilators had access doors to allow for inspection of the aqueduct. Ventilator No. 8 can be seen near the Park School in Ossining.

To allow water to be drained from the aqueduct if the level rose above a certain height, six waste weirs with hand-controlled gates and waste outlets were constructed. These also provided ventilation and access. A waste weir can be seen just before Snowden Avenue at the northern end of the Double Arch Bridge in Ossining. Contracts were let for the construction of six residences for the keepers of the waste weirs. One of these, built in 1845, survives at Dobbs Ferry, along with its maintenance barn.

Inverted Siphons
As almost everyone knows, water in a U-shaped pipe will ascend to the same height on each side. Such a device is called an inverted siphon. To avoid having to use large embankments or viaduct bridges, an inverted siphon of cast iron pipes three feet in diameter crossed the deep Manhattan Valley at 125th Street in New York City. To increase the flow, the elevation at the exit was three feet lower than at the entrance.

Embankments and Culverts
To avoid crossing wide valleys on bridges or viaducts with the possibility of frost damage, large embankments were built. The aqueduct was buried at the top of these below the frost line. At the bottom, an arched culvert faced with cut stone allowed a stream or road (or both) to pass through. Buttresses and wing walls were built at each end of the culvert to lead water away; even streambeds were lined with stone. Parapet walls were constructed across the tops of culverts to hold back the earthen embankments above them.

In all, 114 culverts were constructed, ranging from spans of 1-1/2 feet to 25 feet, to permit streams or roads to pass through embankments. The total length of all culverts on the aqueduct was 7,959 feet.

Embankments may be viewed where the aqueduct crosses roads, such as Station Road in Irvington, Quarry Road in Hastings-on-Hudson and Nepperhan Avenue in Yonkers. A very large embankment some 1,900 feet in length carried the aqueduct across the broad Clendenning Valley in Manhattan between 95th and 102nd Streets. The latter proved to be such an impediment to crosstown traffic that it was removed in the 1870s and replaced by undergound piping.

Whenever a hill or a ridge lay in the path of the aqueduct, a tunnel was dug. Sixteen tunnels lie along the route of the aqueduct, varying in length from 160 to 1,263 feet, with a total length of 6,841 feet. When tunnels were drilled through solid rock, the roof was not lined. The walls and floor, however, were constructed in the same manner as the aqueduct. This identical profile provided the same flow characteristics throughout the length of the aqueduct as far as the Harlem River.

Tunnels on the aqueduct are located near Quaker Bridge in Croton-on-Hudson, just before the Double Arch Bridge in Ossining, under Cedar Street in Dobbs Ferry, and in Yonkers where the aqueduct turns east to cross into the Saw Mill River Valley.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dam
Friday, January 8, 1841, was a black day for the Croton aqueduct project. A thaw had set in earlier, melting the 18 inches of snow that blanketed the surrounding hills. A heavy rain had also fallen for two days. Behind the nearly finished dam, the water rose at the alarming rate of one foot an hour.

It soon became obvious that the dam's masonry spillway was entirely too small to handle such a volume of water. The reservoir began to pour over the earthen walls that linked the spillway to the north bank of the Croton River. Sensing impending disaster, Alfred Brayton, the young son of one of the dam contractors, heroically rode off to warn residents farther downstream. His errand of mercy was made more difficult because some of the bridges had already been carried away.

Eventually, the water reached a height of fifteen feet above the spillway. At 4:30 in the morning, the earthen embankment failed, unleashing a torrent of water, mud, rocks and debris consisting of uprooted trees, small buildings and the remains of Pines Bridge that had been literally lifted off its footings by the rising waters. Three lives, one at the dam and two at Bailey's wire mill, were lost in the tremendous deluge that washed out every bridge across the Croton River, three mills and five or six houses. The cost to the city for property damage was about $75,000. So much mud and debris was carried downstream, however, that the mouth of the Croton River, formerly navigable by schooners and sloops as far as Underhill's gristmill at Quaker Bridge, became silted up and shallow.

The Rebuilt Old Croton Dam
because the severity of the storm was unprecedented, John B. Jervis managed to retain his job. Loss of the dam was a bitter lesson, but he profited from it. The new dam was redesigned on a radically different plan and rebuilt for $60,000. Constructed this time entirely of stone, with a rubble core and cut granite facing, it had a height of 57 feet; the spillway to carry off the overflowing water stretched almost the full width of the dam.

Jervis was acutely conscious of the scouring power of swiftly rushing water now and designed the masonry face of the new dam so that any overflow would be carried over it safely. In cross-section it was a gentle S-shaped ogee curve that eased the water over the top of the dam and down its face, discharging it horizontally into a backwater pool created by a secondary rock-and-timber cribbed apron, thus slowing it down.

Completed in 1842, the rebuilt Old Croton Dam was the first large masonry dam constructed in the United States and became the model for municipal water system dams in the United States for many years. Its site is three miles to the north of the present Cornell Dam, or New Croton Dam. At periods of extremely low water, the outlines of the intact Old Croton Dam can be seen. Interestingly, the submerged Old Croton Dam and its gatehouse and sluiceway (at its southern end near where the original inlet to the Croton Aqueduct was located) are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an underwater archeological site.

Aqueduct Bridges
Several bridges were built to carry the aqueduct over existing streets and roads. The most impressive of these is the so-called Double Arch Bridge in Ossining. Spanning the Sing Sing Kill in a north-south direction, the original arch is 88 feet long and 76 feet high, yielding a structure of striking boldness.

In the 1860's, a second arch was added through the larger arch in an east-west direction to carry Broadway across the same watercourse. The twin arches present an arresting architectural composition that is one of the conversation pieces of the Old Croton Aqueduct.

Up until 1924, a massive aqueduct arch to the south of Scarborough spanned the Albany Post Road (Route 9) and gave the hamlet of Archville its name. It was removed by court order and replaced by an unobtrusive underground inverted siphon after the comparatively narrow opening of the arch that spanned the road became a traffic hazard. After an absence of 74 years, in 1998 a rustproof COR-TEN steel footbridge replaced the former arch. Stone embankments that connected to either side of the original arch can still be seen along Route 9 about a quarter-mile north of the intersection with Route 117. This is the only location along the entire length of the aqueduct where the original right-of-way has been modified.

How to get Croton water across the Harlem River became a political football. Some wanted a tunnel under the river, estimated to cost $636,738--but tunneling technology was in its infancy at the time, and the uncertainty of pursuing this option led to its rejection. This left a bridge as the only recourse, with the Water Commission, engineers and the public split between a low bridge and a high bridge. Speculators and lobbyists for area landowners wanted a truly imposing structure. Jervis favored a low bridge, which would have been simpler, faster, and cheaper to construct. The estimate for a high bridge was $836,623. A low bridge would have been cheaper than either of the other two crossings. When concerns were raised in the State Legislature that a low bridge would obstruct boat passage along the Harlem River to the Hudson River, a high bridge was ultimately chosen.

In June of 1839, after two years of haggling, the Water Commission agreed on a high bridge. The contract for the bridge was awarded to a consortium of contractors, Timothy Ferell, Samuel Roberts, Arnold Mason and George Law. Three of these were already contractors on other sections of the aqueduct.

Reminiscent of classical aqueducts, the bridge Javis designed, aided by James Renwick, Jr. (who would later design St. Patrick's Cathedral), was 1,450 feet long with 15 arches 100 feet above the river. Eight of its fifteen arches were anchored in the river itself, with the remaining seven standing on the land. The river arches were 80 feet ide and 150 feet thigh. The seven land arches were fifty feet wide; one was on the steep Manhattan shore and 6 were on the upward-sloping Westchester (now the borough of the Bronx) side of the river.

The river bottom proved to be a mix of mud, hard sand and boulders over the underlying bedrock. To support the graceful arches of the bridge, clusters of oak piles had to be driven into the river bed to support five of the eight piers. The Croton water was carried across the bridge in an inverted siphon of twin 48-inch pipes, covered for protection from the elements by five feet of earth. To increase pressure and flow, the exit on the Manhattan side was placed two feet lower than the entrance.

After its completion in 1848, the High Bridge and its picturesque arches quickly became a popular romantic subject for paintings by artists of the Hudson River School. Unfortunately, the bridge lost much of its classical look in the twentieth century when five of the arches resting on the river bed were removed and replaced by a soaring steel span that offered no impediment to busy ship traffic. The opening ceremonies for the new bridge were held on Oct. 27, 1928.

Today, the grand old aqueduct itself remains remarkably unchanged, a unique legacy somnolently waiting for a later generation to discover it and explore it. And the best way to do this is afoot. Readers interested in walking the aqueduct will find useful a large-format pamphlet entitled A Walker's Guide to the Old Croton Aqueduct, published by and obtainable from the N.Y. State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Taconic Region, Staatsburg, NY 12580 (914/889-4100). It is also available in most Westchester public libraries. A free trail map can be obtained by sending a stamped and self-addressed envelope to Old Croton Trailway State Park, 15 Walnut Street, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522 (914/693-5259).

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series of articles about the building of the Old Croton Aqueduct. The previously published articles in this series can be found at:

Labels: , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lo, the Poor Indian! Notes on Amerindian Origins


Today our American Indian population of more than 2.5 million is in sharp contrast to the population in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name. The entire North American continent was then the exclusive domain of Indians. By the early 1700s, Indian tribes in the lower Hudson Valley had sold their highly desirable lands to Dutch or English colonists, usually for a song. The Delaware Indian tribes of the region--Mahicans and Munsees--then scattered to the four winds, leaving only names on the land and a few members in isolated remnant groups.

Some Hudson Valley tribes found their way to Massachusetts, others to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. To find descendants of these tribes today, one would have to travel to Wisconsin or to Ontario in Canada, where small bands live on reservations. A similar extinction drama was played out in the Massachusetts Bay colony after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. Eventually, a whole section of American ethnography was pushed from their lands and settled on reservations in what were considered to be undesirable areas. In some cases, as in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), they were given lands that proved to be oil-bearing, making a few rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Indians owe their name to a monumental gaffe committed by Christopher Columbus five centuries ago. Thinking he had reached India, he called the people he encountered "los Indios." Eventually, it was recognized that not Asia but an unknown continent had been discovered. By then, the word "Indian" had entered the major languages of the world. To rectify Columbus's error and avoid the stereotypes that have sprung up, it is fashionable today to refer to Indians as "Native Americans." Although it may be politically incorrect to demur, the term Native American is as much a misnomer as was Indian. We are all descended from immigrants; Indians merely got here sooner than the rest of us.

The Land Bridge
Originating in Asia, ancestors of the so-called Native Americans are believed to have reached Alaska from Siberia by a land bridge exposed in shallow Bering Strait. Geologists refer to the area of far eastern Russia east of the Lena River and northwestern North America west of longitude 130 degrees as Beringia. A highly unlikely drop of only 120 feet in today's ocean level would create a land bridge again and reveal the link from one continent to another. The evidence seems clear they arrived in what is North America well before the last major glaciation and then made their way southwards, often hugging the shoreline along the still ice-covered part of the continent and depending on fish and shell fish for sustenance. Evidence of their passage along the ocean strand may exist under the Pacific. Titanic explorer Robert Ballard has indicated an interest in such a project.

Their migration was for the most basic of reasons: food. Once past the southern limit of glacial ice, these hunter-gatherers traveled inland in small bands, moving with the game that supplied them with meat and furs. Always seeking new regions where animals and plants were plentiful, they explored ever southward as the climate moderated. Taking whatever a bountiful nature offered, they made no effort to increase or propagate their food supply by domesticating animals or rising crops.

Eventually, wandering groups reached the southernmost tip of South America; recent excavations at the Monte Verde site in Chile have yielded radiocarbon dates of 12,500 years. This date is not universally accepted, however. Other sites in the Americas have been claimed to have earlier dates, and the jury is still out. Nevertheless, by traveling as little three miles a week, the distance between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego could have been covered in about 70 years. Along the way, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths as large as elephants, and other animals all fell victim to their primitive flint-tipped spears. Unlike later Indian hunters, who killed only as much as they needed for food, clothing and shelter, their Ice Age forbears killed wantonly. Ironically, by slaughtering their quarry in mass kills they hastened the extinction of the very animals upon which they depended.

Two such animals were the camel and the horse, once common on western plains. Soon after the end of the Ice Age and before their total extinction, these quadrupeds also used the Bering Strait land bridge for migration--but in the opposite direction. Spreading westward in Asia, the primitive wild horse of the steppes was domesticated. When Indians encountered mounted Spanish explorers in 1539, all memory of earlier horses had been lost, and they regarded the strange new animals with awe. Once introduced to the horse, however, the Plains Indians quickly adapted to an equine way of life.

Old vs. New Worlds
Rising sea levels cut of the Bering Strait land bridge and blocked the passage of Stone Age peoples sometime after 11,000 years ago That the Indians who occupied the New World were still living in the Stone Age when Columbus reached these shores has long interested scientists. What kept them from matching the growth of civilizations of the Old World? First and foremost, Indians remained nonliterate. Writing and reading, developed in the fertile Mesopotamian plain as an adjunct to trade and government, gave the Old World an initial leap forward. These skills led to logical thought, mathematics, science, medicine and invention. Useful arts followed: engineering, dam-building, irrigation, intensive agriculture, ceramics and metallurgy.

Reading and writing paralleled still another phenomenon--cities that sprang up abruptly in the Old World about six thousand years ago. Elaborate systems of piping and aqueducts supplied water and provided public baths and carried off wastes, accelerating the clustering of peoples. Agricultural cultures soon gave way to commercial and industrial civilizations. Cities became states and nations with stratified social and economic hierarchies. These record-keeping bureaucracies were regulated by a judiciary and a priesthood, and governed by a ruling minority.

In contrast, the Indian lifestyle of foraging, hunting, fishing and farming limited them to small groups of families and clans gathered in temporary camps and small villages. Their only political organizations were tribes and loose confederacies. Unlike the sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys and camels of the Old World, the animals available to the Indians--with the exception of the dog--did not lend themselves to domestication. In northern Europe, even reindeer and elk were tamed. Lacking domestic animals, Indians in the Western Hemisphere were largely doomed to continuing their nomadic lifestyle. Without draft animals and the plow, their attempts at raising crops were necessarily rudimentary. And without beasts of burden and wheels to provide transport, possessions other than the most portable tools and utensils quickly become impediments to wanderers.

The arrival of Europeans in the New World inevitably resulted in a clash of cultures. Columbus's first contacts were with the gentle and innocent Taino Indians on the island of San Salvador. "They should make good and intelligent servants," was his initial impression, conveyed in letters to his royal patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella. Although Columbus maintained he had seen "no better people" in the world, his admiration did not deter him from chaining and shipping hundreds of Taino men and women back to Spain. Rapacious Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English slavers who came later piously justified their actions on the grounds that Indians were "idolaters" and "heathens."

Grossly Underestimated
Estimates as recently as fifty years ago of the size of the Indian population north of the Rio Grande at the time of Columbus's first landfall placed it at between one million and a million and a half. Demographers now recognize these figures were grossly in error. The indigenous population at the end of the fifteenth century is believed to have been between twelve and fifteen million. In the three Americas, North, Central and South, the total Indian population is believed to have been an astonishing one hundred million.

Columbus brought alcohol, not uncommon baggage for conquerors. According to Herodotus, the ancient Greeks always introduced drink to the lands to they colonized. But Columbus also carried a more sinister cargo: a pandemic of the contagious diseases of the Old World. Lacking previous exposure, within a few generations the Indian population of the Americas was decimated. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, cholera, typhoid, and dysentery swept through whole tribes like wildfire on the prairie. By the time of the 1910 Census, only a scant 210,000 Indians could be found and counted in the United States.

There is small comfort in the knowledge that American Indians now number more than 2.5 million. What Scottish poet Robert Burns called "man's inhumanity to man" still "makes countless thousands mourn." The relentless genocide of North American Indians is now being repeated in the Brazilian rain forest. And for the same reasons: lust for gold and for land.

Despite their lack of civilization, the Indians' gentle use of the world around them was remarkably sophisticated and forward-looking. Land was an abstract commodity--much like air or fire or water--something there to be freely used by the group. Not understanding the concept of "title" or ownership of land by individuals, they were at a disadvantage in making treaties. Anyway, under pressure of immigration and westward expansion, whites abrogated such treaties almost as fast as they were made. Possessions and authority among Indians often passed through a female line of descent. In contrast to the Old World practice of hereditary rule, leadership of clans and tribes was based on ability or proficiency. Decisions bearing on tribal policy were reached by unanimous consent--not mere majority agreement--at public meetings attended both by men and women.

Some four hundred identifiable tribal cultures flourished north of the Rio Grande in the fifteenth century. We shall probably never know the number of different languages spoken in the Americas, most of them now lost. Scholars estimate these at around 2,200, many with regional variations. Language distribution gives clues to early migrations. For example, the tribes in the lower Hudson Valley all spoke an Algonquian language--but an Algonquian tongue was spoken as far west as Montana by the Blackfoot and by the Cree in subarctic Canada. Sioux was spoken in the Great Plains by the proud tribe of that name, but it was also the language in what is now Virginia and the Carolinas.

Indian Contributions
Indians made important contributions to the world's food supply: corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, squash, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, avocados, and dozens of other vegetables. Indian societies were well acquainted with plant medicines. Before 1492, 40 percent of the modern world's medicinal drugs were being used in America to treat illnesses. Among these remedies were coca (cocaine), curare (muscle relaxant), cinchona bark (quinine), cascara sagrada (laxative), datura (pain-reliever), and ephedra (relief from allergies and asthma).

Indians ritually identified themselves with the animals they hunted. Common to Indian life was shamanism, an animalistic religion of Asiatic origin in which mediation between the visible and the spirit world is made by shamans. Shamanist practices have been documented in cultures as diverse as Iron Age Ireland, pagan Scandinavia, classical Greece, and ice-bound Siberia. Sometimes described as "medicine men," the shamans' powers went beyond treating the sick. In the Americas, they ranged from soothsayers, magicians and hypnotists to trained priests who presided over formal rituals and entire cults. Interestingly, the growth of consciousness-raising New Age movements in the 1980s fostered new interest in shamanism.

Like the philosophers Montaigne and Rousseau, it is easy to sentimentalize Indians as "noble savages." Far from being idyllic, their existence was harsh. The average life span barely exceeded 35 years; infant mortality was high. Evidence from graves reveals that diseases like arthritis and tuberculosis were common, and tooth decay was a problem. Our modern world owes much to Indians, far beyond the woodcraft skills taught in summer camps and the foolish names applied to baseball and football teams. We are learning truths they knew instinctively in their reverence for nature: that the land and its resources are not only for our use but must be preserved for generations to come. In addition to the communality of land and possessions, belief in the freedom and dignity of the individual was common to many Indian societies. With diligence and a measure of good luck, we may yet learn the secret of the Indians' relationship with nature, and their basic sense of equality and respect for human rights.

Post scriptum. The title of this essay is taken from Alexander Pope's poetic
Essay on Man:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heav'n.

Labels: , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, June 01, 2009

'Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn'


Few books are so closely identified with a geographical region—Georgia and the Old South—as Gone with the Wind. Published in 1936, this 1,037-page tome was discovered by Macmillan editor Harold Latham on a swing through the South in search, of new writing talent. Its author, Margaret Mitchell, was a petite (4 feet 9-1/2 inches tall) native of Atlanta who had labored between 1926 and 1929 on her massive manuscript and then put it aside. So large was the Mitchell manuscript Latham had to buy another suitcase in which to carry it.

One of the most popular books of all time, the novel was priced at three dollars and sold more than a million copies in the first six months, a phenomenal feat considering that in 1936 the country was just emerging from the Great Depression. This Civil War-era masterpiece has been translated into twenty-seven languages. More than 30 million copies of have been sold worldwide in 38 countries. Approximately 250,000 copies are still sold each year.

Among the titles Mitchell had considered for her novel were Tomorrow Is Another Day, Tote the Weary Load, Milestones, Ba! Ba! Blacksheep, Not in Our Stars, and Bugles Sang True. She finally chose a phrase from a favorite Ernest Dowson poem, “Cynara”: “I have forgot much Cynara! Gone with the wind.” In Mitchell’s early drafts, the main character was named “Pansy O’Hara,” and the O’Hara plantation, later known as Tara, was called “Fountenoy Hall.”

Pirated galleys of the book turned up at some Hollywood studios, but Macmillan’s asking price was an exorbitant $100,000. Few studios expressed interest even after Macmillan reduced the figure to $60,000. Daryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox offered $35,000 for film rights to the book. One week after Gone with the Wind was published, MGM producer David 0. Selznick topped this with a bid of $50,000, the highest sum that had ever been paid for an author’s first novel.

Realizing later that he had grossly underpaid Mitchell, in 1942, Selznick paid her an additional $50,000 as a bonus. Selznick had already produced three big movies based on classic novels, Little Women, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Before becoming an independent producer, Selznick had worked at MGM, the company run by his wife’s father. The joke at MGM was “the son-in-law also rises,” a play on the title of the Hemingway novel.

The Screenwriters
Sidney Howard agreed to write the screenplay for a salary of $2,000 a week. To be free from studio interference, he insisted on writing it at his Berkshire farm in Massachusetts, 3,000 miles away from studio interference. His first draft would have made a movie more than five hours long. Howard reluctantly agreed to leave his Massachusetts farm and come to Hollywood to work on another draft with Selznick and George Cukor, the director assigned to the picture.

The second draft turned out to be 15 pages longer than the first. Sidney Howard received sole screen credit. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, a total of eleven other screenwriters (including Selznick) would work on the script. Tragically, Howard never saw the finished film. He died on his farm near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in August of 1939. One of his farm workers had left the heavy farm tractor in gear, and when Howard started it by cranking it, the machine lurched forward and crushed him against a barn wall.

The StarsThe four principals were billed on the film’s posters in this order: Clark Gable, followed by Leslie Howard (birth name: Leslie Howard Stainer), Olivia de Havilland and “Presenting Vivien Leigh.” Leigh’s billing was quickly changed to just below Gable’s when she won the Oscar for best actress. Three of the four top-billed actors died at relatively young ages: Leslie Howard at 50, Vivien Leigh at 53, and Clark Gable at 59. Olivia de Havilland remains alive at the age of 93. Ironically, her character is the only principal character that dies in the film. David Selznick died at 63. Accident-prone author Margaret Mitchell died at 49, struck by a car while crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

Leslie Howard was a passenger on KLM flight 777 from Lisbon to London on June 1, 1943. It was shot down by German fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay in the mistaken belief that Winston Churchill also was a passenger. Frustrated by ethnic typecasting, Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone with the Wind, left films for occasional roles on TV. At the age of 64, she earned a B.S. in political science from New York's City College in 1975. She died in 1995 from burns received when a kerosene heater in her cottage in Augusta, Georgia, malfunctioned and burst into flames . She suffered burns over 70% of her body, which she willed to medical science.

Of the many actresses screen-tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, only Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh were tested in color. One theory holds that producer David Selznick had already secretly signed Vivian Leigh for the role as early as February 1938. The nationwide “Search For Scarlett O’Hara,” during which thousands of dollars were spent “testing” aspiring actresses for the part, was actually a clever publicity stunt on Selznick’s part designed to maintain interest in a very expensive film for which he did not yet have the money to produce.

The only actors producer Selznick ever seriously considered for the role of Rhett Butler were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. Gable didn’t see himself in a period film, nor did he believe he could live up to the public’s anticipation of the character. Two years earlier, hopelessly miscast, Gable had played in a costume drama, Parnell, with Myrna Loy. The film was roundly panned by critics and avoided by the movie-going public. Gable later regretted accepting the role. Selznick persuaded him to sign on to Gone with the Wind by offering a $50,000 signing bonus that enabled him to divorce his second wife, Maria Franklin, and marry Carole Lombard.

Very few of the principal cast members were happy with the characters they were portraying. Leslie Howard privately felt that he was much too old to play Ashley Wilkes (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film and Howard had been born in 1893, making him 46)). He wore extra make-up and a hairpiece to make him appear younger, but complained that his costumes made him look like “a fairy doorman” at a hotel. Selznick was able to persuade him to take the part by offering him credit as producer of another film, Intermezzo: A Love Story, in which he would star with Ingrid Bergman. Rand Brooks, who played the role of Charles Hamilton and died early in the story, was actually a rough outdoorsman and didn’t like playing a wimpy character. Butterfly McQueen disliked the negative stereotype of her character.

Judy Garland was the leading contender for the role of Scarlett’s younger sister, Carreen, but was tied up with commitments to The Wizard of Oz, another film being directed by Victor Fleming. Her “Andy Hardy” series co-star, Ann Rutherford, was cast. Veteran actress Hattie McDaniel was cast as Mammy after other African-Americans including Louise Beavers, Etta McDaniel, Ruby Dandridge, and Hattie Noel were briefly considered for the part. McDaniel became the first African-American to be nominated for—and win—an Academy Award. The fact that McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in racially segregated Atlanta annoyed Clark Gable so much that he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she was invited.

The Directors
Production of the film started on January 26, 1939, with George Cukor as director. Gable’s and Cukor’s personalities were poles apart. Cukor was a fussy, intellectual type and vague in his instructions to actors. He was also openly gay with effeminate mannerisms and was also considered to be a “woman’s director.” Cukor’s slow, methodical style reminded Gable of John Stahl, director of the ill-fated Parnell.

Legend has it that Clark Gable complained about director George Cukor, but nothing in Selznick’s internal memos indicates or suggests that Clark Gable played any role in the dismissal of Cukor. Instead, they show Selznick’s mounting dissatisfaction with Cukor’s slow pace and the quality of his work. After two weeks of shooting, Cukor was already five days behind in the schedule, a delay blamed by David Selznick on Cukor’s perfectionism and fondness for retakes. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM was also unhappy with the rushes he had seen.

Selznick asked Gable, now an old hand in the movie business, for a suggestion. He recommended Victor Fleming, who had directed Gable in Red Dust and who was almost finished with The Wizard of Oz. To appease Cukor, MGM gave him another film to direct, The Women, with an all-female cast. On March 2 David Selznick restarted Gone with the Wind with Victor Fleming as director.

When Victor Fleming took over as director, he rejected the shooting script, telling Selznick, “David, your (expletive) script is no (expletive) good.” Selznick panicked and called novelist Ben Hecht, offering him $15,000 for a quick rewrite. Production was shut down for 17 days while Ben Hecht rewrote it. Hecht thought Sidney Howard’s original script was superb and used it as the basis for his rewrite, which was largely a scissors and paste-pot job. Hecht cut Sidney Howard’s screenplay to give more focus to the story of Scarlett and Rhett and to eliminate some of the historical pageantry.

Almost half of Cukor’s scenes were scrapped or later re-­shot. When Fleming received the revised script, he calculated that there were 650 separate scenes to be filmed. In order to complete the picture in time for a Christmas release, he would have to shoot three pages of script a day, each the equivalent of only two minutes of film time.

Although he had been dismissed from the production, George Cukor privately continued to coach both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Haviland on weekends at their request. One of the few scenes directed by Cukor to survive to the final cut of the film is the birth of Melanie’s baby. Cinematographer Lee Garmes was fired a month into production because his footage was deemed to be too dark. Ernest Haller and Technicolor Company cameraman Ray Rennahan replaced him.

First Facts and HonorsHalf a million feet of film were shot. This was edited down to 20,000 feet. There are more than 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras in the film. All seven of Hollywood’s then-existing Technicolor cameras were used to film the burning of the Atlanta railroad depot. Estimated production costs were an unprecedented $4.25 million. Up until that time, only Ben-Hur (1925) and Hell’s Angels (1930) had cost more. It was the longest and most expensive film ever made. It went on to earn the highest receipts and the most Academy awards.

The premiere in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, at the 2,500-seat Loew’s Grand theater had been planned for months—almost as long as the shooting of the film. The governor declared a state holiday. Programs were prepared showing the najor performers in the film, but the programs distributed at opening eliminated McDaniel’s photograph. The cast flew to Atlanta—that is, the white members of the cast. Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen and the other blacks in the cast remained in Hollywood. Their presence would have caused problems in racially segregated Atlanta. Clark Gable was upset at the exclusion of McDaniel and threatened to boycott the ceremonies until McDaniel persuaded him to participate.

The movie’s line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” was voted as the #1 movie quote (out of 100). by the American Film Institute. The word” frankly” does not appear in the book; a screenwriter added it. Contrary to popular belief, Gone with the Wind was not the first film to use the word “damn”. The expletive was used in numerous silent title cards and in several talkies, including Cavalcade in 1933 and Pygmalion in 1938.

Gone with the Wind was ranked #4 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the greatest films in 100 years of filmmaking. It was the first color film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It ranks third in the Academy Award most nominated films list with 13 nominations. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay (Sidney Howard), Best Art Interior Decoration (Lyle Wheeler), Best Film Editing, Best Color Cinematography, and a special award for William Cameron Menzies and the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award for David Selznick. It was the first film to credit a production designer, mainly to highlight the major contributions of William Cameron Menzies, who not only art-directed the film but also directed some of the second units.

The 1940 Academy Award ceremonies were held on Feb 29, 1940 at a banquet at the Coconut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel with Bob Hope as master of ceremonies, White cast members of Gone with the Wind sat together. Hattie McDaniel and a black companion sat at a separate table at the rear.

At nearly four hours in length, Gone with the Wind is the longest running movie to win the Academy’s Best Picture award. At a time when the average price of movie tickets in the U.S. was 23 cents, admission to Gone with the Wind was set at 75 cents at matinees and $1.10 at night. The film, had a long running time and an intermission of ten minutes so one complete show took four hours. Most theaters could only fit in three performances a day. Despite this handicap, in its first run, it sold 202 million tickets—an amazing figure considering that the population of the U.S. at that time was a little more than 130 million. And its total box office gross, adjusted for inflation, has soared to a stunning $1,329,453,600.

Labels: ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?