Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Remembering the First Provisional Regiment: They Guarded New York City's Water Supply


According to blind poet John Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait." But the men of New York State's First Provisional Regiment did not merely stand and wait. During the tense years of 1917 and 1918 when American troops were fighting in Europe, they patrolled New York City's far-flung water supply system to guard against sabotage by German agents.

Chances are you've never heard of this unique military unit made up of selfless volunteers. Despite the hardships of extreme weather and temporary quarters, they performed yeoman service for a state and the nation. Their mission was to prevent damage to the vast chain of dams, gatehouses, tunnels and aqueducts bringing water to New York City--and they succeeded impressively.

Long before America entered World War I in 1917, the country had reason to worry about sabotage. When the guns of August boomed in Europe in 1914, this country quickly became a bustling arsenal, providing arms, munitions and food to the warring Allies. Most of this traffic passed through the docks lining both sides of the Hudson that made up the port of New York. The crowded city was an especially tempting target for saboteurs.

Black Tom Explodes
At 2:45 a.m. on the last Saturday night in July of 1916, the munitions-loading facility on the Jersey City waterfront at Communipaw erupted in flames. A loaded freight car and a barge moored against the mile-long pier burst into flames almost simultaneously. The barge rode low in the water; it was packed with 50 tons of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses.

The pier linking the mainland with tiny Black Tom Island disappeared in the ensuing blast, along with warehouses, locomotives, railroad cars, tugboats, moored barges and lighters loaded with ammunition--and the island itself. [For those who collect trivia, the site of the Black Tom explosion is at the southern end of what is now Liberty State Park.] The noise was described as "a rumbling of thunder." Artillery shells burst above the harbor in a fiery display, raining down on nearby Ellis Island and its immigration station.

The blast was so violent the shock could be felt as far away as Connecticut and Philadelphia. Panes of glass were shattered in thousands of homes. In lower Manhattan, hardly a window was left intact. Loss in broken windows in the skyscrapers of the financial district a;pne was more than a million dollars.

Because the blast occurred on a weekend, fatalities were surprisingly low: a railroad guard, a policeman and a child thrown from its crib in Jersey City. A fourth victim, whose body washed ashore six weeks later, was identified as the captain of the barge on which the first flames had been detected.

Total damage was estimated at $20 million. Claims were made before the Mixed Claims Commission. The Commission decided the Black Tom explosion was the work of German agents and $50 million in damages was to be paid by Germany. By then it was 1939, and Adolf Hitler was not about to settle such claims, being preoccupied with plans for world conquest.

Fear Begets Hysteria
After Black Tom and the subsequent complete destruction of a munitions plant at Kingsland, N.J., in January 1917, the country was swept by fear and a growing anti-German hysteria, the latter often reaching ridiculous extremes.

It became patriotic to use euphemisms. On restaurant menus, sauerkraut was Americanized to liberty cabbage. The ubiquitous hamburger was sold as a liberty sandwich. And frankfurters became hot dogs. During this period, too, German shepherd dogs were called Alsatians. Ironically, self-appointed linguistic reformers were apparently unaware that Alsatian was the name by which the breed was known to the Germans. By the time the United States entered the war, fourteen states had banned the teaching of German in schools--a blow from which the language never recovered.

Germany's insistence on its right of unrestricted warfare against unarmed ships bound for Europe only fanned the flames of suspicion and fear. The Black Tom and Kingsland explosions had left little doubt in the minds of authorities about Germany's intentions.

The Aqueduct Threatened
Recognizing the essential role of the port of New York and perceiving a potential threat to the city's aqueduct system, New York's Governor Charles S. Whitman issued orders to Maj. Gen. John F. O'Ryan in February of 1917. He was to deploy units of the 27th Infantry National Guard Division to patrol the Catskill and the New Croton aqueducts, completed in 1917, that brought water to the city from the Ashokan Reservoir, a hundred miles to the north. In the face of a howling blizzard, the National Guardsmen were dutifully strung out along the length of the aqueduct.

Originally, New York City had considered using civilian police to guard the New Croton aqueduct and its water supply, but found the task too daunting. The fear was that German agents would start a conflagration in New York City while other agents would blow up the dams and aqueduct carrying a half billion gallons of water to the city each day. After the entrance of America into the war on April 6, 1917, although the 27th Division had been federalized it continued to guard the city's water supply until August 10th.

The First Takes Charge
On that date, responsibility for protection of the aqueduct was turned over to a hastily assembled unit, the First Provisional Regiment of the New York Guard, a home guard force formed from the depots and reservists of the departed units. A Second Provisional Regiment was formed to guard the Erie Canal, an equally vital waterway for the movement of goods. Intended for emergency service only, the New York Guard included men who were too old for military service or had been rejected by one of the branches of the armed services.

Commanding the First Provisional Regiment was newly promoted Colonel John B. Rose, a wealthy brick manufacturer. He had been a state senator from Newburgh and member of the Senate military affairs committee. Rose made a lightning-quick tour of the aqueduct system and reported to Governor Whitman that with screening for open culverts, adequate lighting, telephones and vehicles, the work being done by some 3,700 National Guard troops could be performed by a minimum of 1,200 men.

Meet John B. Rose
Born in Haverstraw, N.Y., in 1875, John Bailey Rose was an honor graduate of the New York Military Academy at Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., and was graduated from Yale in 1897. In that year, he and his two brothers took over the Rose brickmaking empire at Roseton, north of Newburgh, upon the death of his father. He also served two terms in Albany as a state senator.

Headquarters of the First Provisional Regiment were established near the Pines Bridge over Croton Lake, the name applied to the body of water backed up by the Croton Dam. Col. Rose had noticed nearby a large, mansard-roofed hotel known as Pines Bridge Manor. Finding it available, he made arrangements to occupy it as the regiment's headquarters. A temporary tent camp for the headquarters staff was set up farther up the hill behind the hotel building.

The Pines Bridge headquarters was in the heart of historic country. On the shoulder of nearby imposing Crow Hill could still be seen vestiges of the redoubts that Washington's retreating army had thrown up after the battle of White Plains to protect their retreat to New Jersey. In 1780, Major John Andre had crossed the old Pines Bridge spanning the Croton River on his fateful last ride that ended at Tarrytown on the Albany Post Road. The Pines Bridge was also the objective of a bloody raid on May 14, 1781, by a hit-and-run British force under the command of Lt. Col. James De Lancey that ended disastrously for the outnumbered American troops guarding it. Almost sixty years later, the original Pines Bridge would be carried downstream in January of 1841 when the first Croton Dam gave way.

Col. Rose selected the hotel on Crow Hill for several reasons. It was remote and away from the distractions that a site closer to a large town would offer. Moreover, it was strategically located near the aqueduct and was linked to posts up and down the line by a network of roads.

Organization of the Unit
The First Provisional Regiment consisted initially of two battalions; the first, headquartered at Pines Bridge Manor, guarded the aqueduct on the east side of the Hudson. Guarding the aqueduct on the west side of the river was the second battalion, headquartered at the Tamney Hotel in New Paltz.

Members of the First Provisional Regiment were drawn from New York Guard units in upstate New York and from components from New York City. One unit was supplied by the Veteran Corps of Artillery--a hereditary society of descendants of veterans of the American Revolution or the War of 1812 who had served in the armed forces. The VCA unit was composed largely of prominent bankers, lawyers and business leaders listed in the Social Register. Their military experience was invaluable to the burgeoning regiment.

Officers of New York City's Police Department also helped the regiment formulate patrol practices and suggested that the regiment adopt the "8 hours on and 16 hours off" duty schedule of New York's Finest.

Outfitting a Regiment
The National Guard units shipping out to France had depleted much of the uniforms and equipment in New York armories. As a result, it was a motley lot that assembled at various points along the hundred-mile-long aqueduct system. Some units had nearly complete uniforms; others had military-issue felt hats and civilian clothes; a few wore uniforms but lacked hats or overseas caps and still sported the popular headgear of the day--derbies.

Most carried personal articles in a small bundle or a paper bag. None had blankets or cots. When tents finally arrived, they turned out to be tall, round, conical behemoths dating from the Spanish-American War. Because sledgehammers were unavailable, the men used rocks to pound in the tent pegs in erecting them before they could get an uneasy first night's sleep.

The first folding canvas cots to arrive were white and new and looked inviting. When opened, however, they measured only five feet in length, more suited for a boys' summer camp than a military garrison. Not only were they too short for their occupants' man-sized frames, they were also too flimsy to withstand the weight of the men, and soon collapsed. They were quickly replaced with cots whose manufacturer's name is still fondly remembered in the regiment's history: that name was Gold Medal.

Eventually, the enlisted men of the regiment received standard-issue uniforms. Nevertheless, shoes, hats, leggings, shirts and ponchos were always scarce. In the first winter, some troops were issued blue cape-type overcoats that looked so outmoded the troops called them "Valley Forgers." When eventually clad in standard-issue khaki, however, aside from their unit insignia, soldiers of the regiment were indistinguishable from the millions of other soldiers serving in the armed forces.

Understandably, troops on guard duty did not rate the latest weapons. Most of the men were issued the Krag-Jorgensen rifle dating from the Spanish-American War. Some units were supplied with the even older "trap door" Springfield, originally produced in 1866. Later, the regiment was supplied with more modern so-called Russian Remingtons (a version of the Mosin-Nagant rifle made by Remington under contract to the Tsar) or the U.S. Army's Springfield '03 rifle.

Guard Duties
From the start, Colonel Rose had perceived his unit's assignment as a military operation and not simply a tour of field duty. Driven by a sergeant in Rose's own bright yellow touring car, he visited camps and posts the length of the aqueduct, stressing to officers and men the importance of the task that lay ahead.

Rose underscored the significance of the various components of the system: the vulnerable culverts over which the aqueduct had to pass above ground, the siphons that carried the aqueduct over barriers, and the tunnels, gatehouses and dams.

It would be a daunting task. The regiment divided the aqueduct system into five divisions, three on the more densely populated east side of the Hudson and two on the far side. Maximum strength of the regiment reached almost 1,600 men, but the average number of men available for duty was closer to 1,300. In the 19 months of the regiment's existence some 8,000 officers and men passed through its ranks. One cause of the comparatively high turnover was enlistment by regiment members in the Army and Navy as physical standards for those services were lowered. Serving in the regiment did not exempt members from the draft, so it could not have been a haven for slackers.

Crucial to the success of the regiment's efforts were the local ambulance units up and down the line of the aqueduct, largely staffed by women. Patrol duties were made easier, too, by the presence of guard dogs, especially useful on duty at night. Anywhere from 250 to 300 dogs were patrolling the line of the aqueduct at any one time. Many breeds were employed, but the breed most closely associated with the regiment was the scrappy Airedale, whose tough coat could withstand all kinds of weather.

Morale Matters
For any unit faced with the monotony of endless guard duty morale is important. Encouraged by Col. Rose, the first issue of a regimental weekly newspaper had appeared after little more than a month--even before a name had been chosen for it. The first issue bore the name The ????. After a regiment-wide contest to select a name, the paper was appropriately dubbed The Watchdog. A total of 37 issues were produced.

During Col. Rose's absence because of illness, publication of this newspaper of surprising journalistic merit was ended in May 1918 by order of the New York Guard's commanding general. The reason given was that the paper was occupying too much time of the officers on its staff.

Also important to the regiment's morale was its tireless chaplain, Capt. Charles W. Baldwin, rector of St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church on the old Albany Post Road (Route 9) in Scarborough, a small hamlet on the Hudson below Ossining. Through his efforts, the YMCA and Red Cross became active in arranging social activities for the the regiment. He also helped to organize the Aqueduct Citizen's Committee made up of prominent local citizens who arranged for games, movies, cigarettes and shower baths to be made available to the men.

The Flu Strikes
As the war in Europe ground to a close, Capt. Baldwin was instrumental in getting the use of the former Holbrook Military Academy's buildings and grounds on the heights above Ossining for the regiment. Although the First Provisional Regiment had successfully protected the aqueduct system from enemy saboteurs, one stealthy foe could not be kept at bay: influenza. The 1918 flu pandemic swept quickly around the world, felling the young and healthy, and claiming an estimated 40 million victims worldwide. In fact, more American soldiers on active duty were killed by the flu than died in World War One.

The First Provisional Regiment was hard hit by the relentless disease. A brick building adjoining Newburgh Hospital was set up as Field Hospital No. 1. Similarly, the academic building at the former Holbrook Military Academy in Ossining became Field Hospital No. 2. Of the 40 members who died during the unit's existence, 32 (80%) died of pneumonia following an attack of influenza. Only eight died of other causes, including accidents and gunshot wounds.

First to die from this unusually swift-acting disease was 18-year-old Pvt. John D. Greene of Elmira, N.Y., on October 5, 1918. Last to die from it was popular 67-year-old Sgt. Lemuel Landphier, on March 8, 1919. Especially tragic was the death of Pvt. Howell Roberts, who had enlisted in the New York Guard on November 12, 1918, and died seven weeks later, one month short of his 17th birthday. The large number of the regiment’s victims who died in the last three months of 1918 attests to the virulence of the disease.

The armistice went into effect in Europe on November 11, 1918. Demobilization of the regiment began the following month, and was completed by February 1, 1919. Regimental officers held a farewell dinner in Ossining toward the end of March.

To commemorate the service and the sacrifices of the regiment, a huge rough stone was selected on Bonticou Crag along the aqueduct route through the Catskills. It traveled by flat car of the Grand Trunk Railway to Weehawken, thence across the Hudson by railroad car ferry and up to Tarrytown on Hudson Division of the old New York Central. The Tarrytown firm of Dinkel & Jewell volunteered to move the stone to Sleepy Hollow Cenetery in North Tarrytown and a plot donated by William Rockefeller. (In 1996, the village of North Tarrytown voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow.) Standing there today, the imposing stone and its bronze plaque pay silent tribute to the forgotten guardians of the aqueduct.

Only 44 years old, Col. Rose returned to his brickyards at Roseton in 1919 to discover that his brickmaking empire was foundering. It collapsed in bankruptcy that year, with liabilities of more than a million dollars.

His inattention to the business in the years he had been guarding the aqueduct system undoubtedly contributed to its insolvency. But an even more basic cause was the overall decline in the molded brick industry. Between 1906, when 131 brickyards were producing bricks, and 1919, when the number was down to only 66, the brick output in the Hudson Valley declined by 50 percent in 13 short years,

John B. Rose left the Newburgh area and returned to his birthplace, Haverstraw. He died at the home of a friend in New York City in comparative obscurity on March 4, 1949, one month short of his 74th birthday. His tireless efforts to protect the aqueduct system three decades earlier were barely remembered in his obituary.

With new missions that fit its role in the 21st century, the New York Guard continues to serve, and its army, and naval components offer support for state and federal agencies in emergency situations. Its members carry no weapons and receive no remuneration. The organization is independent of the New York Army National Guard.

Continuing a tradition begun in 1919, the New York Guard conducts a ceremony each year on the first Sunday in May at the memorial monument in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, keeping ever green the memory of those who died while serving with the First Provisional Regiment. This year's ceremony will be held on Sunday, May 2nd, at 11 a.m. The public is invited to attend this ceremony and pay to their respects to those who made the supreme sactifice.

A special guest will be Mr. Byron M. Harrington, nephew of Pvt. Merville Harrington, who died in Field Hospital No. 2 in Ossining on Feb. 19, 1919, at 18 years of age. Ironically, Pvt. Harrington was one of the First Provisional Regiment volunteers who worked on bringing the Memorial Boulder from Bonticou Crag to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Members of the 14th and 56th brigades of the New York Guard will be in attendance at the ceremony. Music will be supplied by the 89th New York Guard Band. In traditional uniforms, Veteran Corps of Artillery members will provide the color guard.

Although the First Provisional Regiment faced no enemy fire, its unsung heroes undertook a thankless task with grit and determination. Their contributions to the war effort were considerable, yet they received few plaudits when the war was over. They also served, but these unsung heroes did so much more than merely stand and wait. We inscribe their names with pride.
* * *

The First Provisional Regiment's Roll of Honored Dead

Sgt. Owen L. Adamy, Johnson City, N.Y., 12 October 1918
Sgt. Frank Avery, Vestal Center, N.Y., 6 December 1918
Pvt. Frank Baker, Corning, N.Y., 29 November 1918
Pvt. Carl Baley, Hornell, N.Y., 16 October 1918
Pvt. John L. Barton, Endicott, N.Y., 7 October 1918
Pvt. Chester Bennett, Swains, N.Y., 16 October 1918
Pvt. James Burke, New York, N.Y., 11 March 1918
Pvt. Halsey Conway, Corning, N.Y., 26 November 1918
Pvt. Frank De Costa, New York, N.Y., 3 December 1918
Sgt. Bienvenido Fajardo, New York, N.Y., 9 September 1918
Pvt. Leslie C. Fuller, Groton, N.Y., 2 December 1918
Sgt. Charles Garland, Binghamton, N.Y., 4 December 1918
Pvt. Raymond Gee, Trumansburg, N.Y., 30 November 1918
Pvt. John D. Greene, Elmira, N.Y., 5 October 1918
Pvt. Leslie Hallenack, Herkimer, N.Y., 3 December 1918
Pvt. Samuel Hallett, Clark Mills, N.Y., 13 October 1918
Pvt. Merville Harrington, Smithville, N.Y., 28 February 1919
Pvt. Fred Higgins, Groton, N.Y., 29 November 1918
Pvt. Percy J. Howell, N. Lansing, N.Y., 27 November 1918
Pvt. Aloysius Kelly, New York, N.Y., 9 March 1918
Sgt. Lemuel Landphier, Rhinebeck, N.Y., 8 March 1919
Sgt. Leroy W. Livett, Ozone Park, N.Y., 22 November 1918
Pvt. John Lynch, New York, N.Y., 3 December 1918
Cpl. Clarence B. Miller, Johnson City, N.Y., 10 October 1918
Pvt. Clayton Neville, Pine Plains, N.Y., 11 January 1919
Pvt. Malcolm A. Northrip, Milton, N.Y., 31 October 1918
Pvt. George Nourse, Trumansburg, N.Y., 26 November 1918
Sgt. Charles T. Peebles, Binghamton, N.Y., 8 October 1918
Cpl. Antonio Pernice, New York, N.Y., 15 October 1918
Pvt. Frank Poole, Friendship, N.Y., 1 December 1918
Lt. Gomer J. Pritchard, Factoryville, Pa., 14 December 1918
Pvt. Harry Reynolds, Pine Plains, N.Y., 26 October 1918
Pvt. Howell Roberts, Warren Center, Pa., 28 December 1918
Pvt. Arthur Rourke, Brooklyn N.Y., 5 October 1918
Cook Martin Ryan, Brooklyn, N.Y., 16 May 1918
Pvt. Henry Lee Stephens, Canisteo, N.Y., 24 November 1918
Pvt. Thomas A. Stokes, New York, N.Y., 2 January 1919
Pvt. George Albert Tate, Canisteo, N.Y., 26 November 1918
Pvt. James Waldron, Endicott, N.Y., 15 October 1918
Pvt. Earl Weir, Birdsall, N.Y., 6 December 1918

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