Monday, December 26, 2011

A Death at the Bear Mountain Bridge


Historical research is sometimes characterized disparagingly as rummaging around in the dustbin of history. But historical researchers are actually more like detectives, seeking evidence, uncovering clues, relying on hunches or educated guesses and sometimes solving mysteries.
While researching the building of the Bear Mountain Bridge for an article published recently in these pages, I stumbled on an account of what may have been its first suicide.
The story begins on April 6, 1930, an almost balmy Sunday that attracted throngs of winter-weary visitors to Bear Mountain Park. About 6:20 p.m., a roadster traveling across the bridge stopped in the middle of the span.
The driver sat for a moment arranging papers. Then, as a horrified young couple standing on the bridge watched, he exited the car, climbed the four-foot guardrail and jumped.
On the driver’s seat he left a driver’s license issued to Gifford Kellogg of 31Bayley Ave. in the Ludlow section of Yonkers, N.Y., a son of Royal S. Kellogg, secretary of the Newsprint Service Bureau of New York and chairman of the National Forestry Program Committee. With the license was an unsigned and unaddressed note that read:
“Put this story on the front page of The New York Times where my father will read it and come and get the car. Also telegraph Harry Beach of Lime Rock, Connecticut.”

The New York Times Story
The Times carried the story of the suicide the next morning under the headline, “Youth Dies in Leap Off Bear Mt. Bridge”--not on the front page but on page 22. According to the Times, folded in the suicide note was a year-old newspaper clipping reporting that Mrs. Royal S. Kellogg had won a prize for landscape gardening.
Yonkers neighbors reported that the elder Mr. Kellogg had two sons, one about 25 years old and a younger son of about 19, and that the present Mrs. Kellogg was their stepmother. Efforts to recover the body were hampered by the swift current in the river.
The Times also named the two persons who were standing on the foot walk of the bridge and witnessed the sequence of events, which they related to the police. They were identified as Joseph Dentofamti and Frances Massutti, both of Tarrytown.

The Peekskill Star Story
On its Monday front page, the Peekskill Evening Star also reported essentially the same story under the headline, “Youth Jumps From Bridge At Bear Mt.” Thanks to a later press deadline, the reporter was able to make a few additions and corrections.
The prize Mrs. Kellogg had won was for a landscape painting. And the jumper was confirmed to have been the Kellogg’s 19-year-old son. The Kelloggs had lived at the Yonkers address for seven years. The Evening Star story added the news that six years before, young Gifford Kellogg had found his mother in her room dying of a gunshot wound to the head.
“Mr. Kellogg remarried about three years ago,” according to the Peekskill Evening Star. It also reported that police from Bear Mountain Park and Peekskill had been called and took possession of the automobile.
The police were unsuccessful in notifying Mr. Kellogg of his son’s death.  “Mr. Kellogg spends much of his time in traveling in connection with his duties and could not be reached last night. Nor was Mrs. Kellogg at home when the police went to inform her of her step-son’s death.”
The fact that the suicide 81 years ago was witnessed by two Westchester residents was tantalizing. I wondered whether they--or any descendants--were still living.

Tracing the Names
The witnesses' names had an Italian ring to them, yet something about them did not seem right. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI), a useful tool for researchers, showed no record for anyone by the name of Dentofamti and only two entries for Massutti, one who had  registered for a Social Security account in Illinois and the other in Washington.
Reporters often gather details of a story by phoning the local police department. Could the spelling of the names have been mangled in this process? What if the “D” of Dentofamti was actually a “C” and the “m” was an “n”? That would yield the more usual Italian name of Centofanti.
And what if the “ss” of Massutti was actually “ff” and the “tt” was actually “cc,” to yield the more common Italian name of Maffucci? Another genealogical detective story was about to unfold.

Searching the Death Index
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) shows 229 Maffucci entries (47 of them originally issued in N.Y.) and 282 Centofanti entries (58 originally issued in N.Y.)--including one for Frances M. Centofanti who died in Venice, Fla., on May 25, 2003, at the age of 92.
A search of the local Gannett Journal News obituary archive revealed Frances M. Centofanti’s detailed obituary. It contained a wealth of information, including the fact that her husband, Joseph (Josie) Centofanti had predeceased her.
They had been married in North Tarrytown on May 19, 1930--little more than a month after witnessing the tragic suicide. She was to be buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. A call to the cemetery confirmed that she is buried alongside her husband who died in 1954.
According to the obituary, she was born on October 14, 1910, to Frank and Flavia Maffucci on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Mrs. Centofanti lived in the Tarrytowns until 1996, and subsequently lived with her son and daughter-in-law in Vienna, Va., moving with them to Florida in 1998.
A single mother who never remarried after her husband’s death, she worked as a bookkeeper for a company in Tarrytown until she retired. She was also predeceased by her brothers Thomas and Dominick, and sisters Mary and Rose, and survived by her son, Joseph J. Centofanti, of Venice, Fla., a retired Air Force colonel, daughter-in-law Faith, three grandchildren, one great-grandson and two nieces.
Internet research gave me the address and phone number of her son, the retired Air Force colonel. I telephoned Col. Centofanti, who had never seen the newspaper pieces. It turned out that the youth’s suicide had indeed been a subject of family conversation and reminiscence in later years. We had a long and pleasant conversation about the lower Hudson Valley.

Closing the Circle
Finding information about Royal S. Kellogg was more difficult, although he was a prolific author of books on paper making and forestry. In 1963, Mr. Kellogg was given the honorary title of “Fellow of the Forest” by the Forest Historical Society in Durham, N.C.
A search of the Society’s site revealed that it owns an unpublished manuscript titled The Dawn of Private Forestry in America, by Carl Alwin Schenck, a pioneer American forester. Royal S. Kellogg appears in a photograph in this manuscript with famous naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton. The caption to the photo revealed Mr. Kellogg’s birth year as 1874.  
The SSDI shows four persons named Royal Kellogg. One of the four seemed like the one I was seeking. He was born on Oct. 19, 1874, and registered for Social Security in New York. He died in Florida in February of 1965 at the age of 90.
But where in Florida? Social Security records did not show this information. I eventually found a letter written by him to Time magazine and published in the issue of Feb. 2, 1962, three years before his death. In it, he gave his address as Palmetto, Florida. The circle was closed.
Rummaging in the dustbin of history? I call it tying up loose ends and setting the historical record straight.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Experience in Song and Story


It may come as a surprise, but there are actually three Christmases. The first, treated previously, reviewed the religious celebration of Christmas as it was adapted to the needs of America in the 19th century.
The second, described here, concerns the cultural celebration of the Christmas season in art, music, books and films.
The third is the shameful consumerism that pervades the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Santa Claus
St. Nicholas was a real person about whom we know very little. He has become the most beloved nonbiblical saint in the history of the Christian religion. Noted for his generosity, he was the bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey) in the fourth century. There is no real connection between St. Nicholas and Christmas. He died on December 6, and that date became his feast day in the Church.
It was Washington Irving, the first internationally known American author, who gave us a word-picture of St. Nicholas. Irving described him in his 1809 comic Knickerbocker’s History of New York as wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a clay pipe and a huge pair of Flemish “trunk-hose.” He also flew over trees in a horse-drawn wagon and slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. Without Washington Irving there would be no Santa Claus.
Another development in the creation of the image of Santa Claus came with the poem popularly called "The Night before Christmas" attributed to Clement Clark Moore and first published anonymously in the Troy, N.Y. Sentinel in 1823. Accounts vary about the circumstances of this publication. One claim was that someone copied the poem from Moore’s album and submitted it unsigned to the newspaper, after which it was widely reprinted.
However, the family of Revolutionary War veteran Henry Livingston, Jr., maintains that he wrote the poem. Moore never claimed authorship until nine years after Livingston’s death in 1828 (in an 1837 anthology of poems by various authors). Descendants and scholars on both sides still argue about its authorship.
Cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Nast next put his stamp on the image of Santa Claus. Nast had invented the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey as political party symbols. He added other details to the Santa mythology, including his North Pole toy-making workshop with elves as his assistants, letters from children, massive ledgers to record children’s names and the practice of leaving snacks for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Greeting Cards
The first true commercial Christmas card did not make its appearance until 1843. Designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole, it was printed in London and hand colored by an artist named Mason. The Horsley-Cole card is considered a forerunner of modern Christmas cards in that it leaves little room for personalization by the sender. It anticipates a new commercial awareness of the commercialization of Christmas and the need to recognize a wider circle of friends and family members.
            R.H. Pease, engraver, lithographer and variety store proprietor in Albany, N.Y., distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s, but the practice of exchanging cards did not immediately catch on in the U.S. The few cards sent usually were imported from England.
American indifference to cards was eventually overcome by Louis Prang, a German-born immigrant. The 24-year-old Prang left Germany after the 1848 revolution and established himself in Boston, setting up a lithographic business with Julius Mayer in 1856.
Prang introduced his Christmas greeting cards in 1875using well-known American painters and illustrators to produce original works of art for his cards. Prang cards were such a hit he could not keep up with the demand. He increased his work force and was soon selling more than five million cards annually.
Prang's cards sparked intense competition from British and German manufacturers. By the 1890s, German greeting cards dominated the trade, and Louis Prang withdrew from the greeting card business. Between 1900 and 1910, most of the major American greeting card companies were established. The modern American greeting card was born in the studios of Rust Craft, Hallmark, Gibson and Norcross.

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Although Charles Dickens included Christmas incidents in his Pickwick Papers and Sketches by Boz, nothing he wrote compared to the success of his 1843 A Christmas Carol. Dickens made two trips to the United States. On his second trip, a three-month tour in 1867, he presented dramatic readings of his classic Christmas story. In Boston, 10,000 tickets were sold weeks before his appearance, people stood in the cold all night long and in New York to buy tickets.
Dickens’s enduring novella extolled the virtues of brotherhood, kindness and generosity at Christmas, but it also reveals an illuminating picture of Christmas in England, where it was a common practice for businesses and shops to remain open on Christmas Day.

Christmas Music
Music heard at Christmas time can be divided into three categories: The first includes traditional hymns, many composed in medieval times. A second group includes Christmas carols. Among the popular carol favorites are such standbys as "Joy to the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and "Silent Night."
Three days before Christmas in 1952 playwright George S. Kaufman learned a bitter lesson from an injudicious comment about a Christmas carol. He opened the panel show “This is Show Business" by suggesting, "Let's make this one program on which nobody sings 'Silent Night.'" The CBS switchboard quickly lit up with hundreds of calls protesting his “irreligious remark.” The sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, fired Kaufman.
The third kind of Christmas music developed more recently includes songs by popular artists that usually focus on the cultural aspects of Christmas. In the latter category, two songs stand out: “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Irving Berlin was an established composer of hits, 23 of which were included in 20th Century-Fox’s 1938 hit Alexander's Ragtime band. In 1942 Paramount decided to do a similar film. Because Berlin had written many songs about holidays, he came up with the idea for Holiday Inn, a movie featuring the song and dance team of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin, a Russian-born Jew, composed the ubiquitous "White Christmas" especially for this film.
Capturing the images of an idealized, snowy Christmas, the song became popular with servicemen during World War II and on the home front. Bing Crosby would sing "White Christmas" again in the 1946 movie Blue Skies and a third time in the 1954 film White Christmas. His original recording of the song for Decca sold more than 31 million copies. Sales of "White Christmas" in its many versions totaled more than 125 million copies.
The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” appeared initially as a poem, two and a half million copies of which were given away in 1939 by retailer Montgomery Ward. In 1946 the company printed it and distributed it again; this time the total was three and a half-million copies.
Montgomery Ward then generously reverted the rights to the author of the poem, Robert May. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the story into a song. Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and other singers declined to record it, but singing cowboy Gene Autry saw its possibilities. The rest, as saying has it, is history. It sold two million records in 1949 alone.
Other well-remembered Christmas songs include Crosby's poignant "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a wartime promise by a lonely G.I. to the folks back home, "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), introduced by Mel Tormé but popularized by Nat King Cole, and "Home for the Holidays" ("Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays") a Perry Como favorite toward the end of the Korean War..
Sung by Judy Garland, the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" figures prominently in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis. In his film The Victors, director Carl Foreman used Frank Sinatra’s version of the song as background music to a gripping scene in which Sgt. Eli Wallach’s infantry squad is plucked from combat to witness the execution of an American deserter.

Christmas Movies
Everyone seems to have their own favorites, ranging from musicals to comedies. Christmas movies have been made during the entire history of cinema; three movies stand out: It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on
34th Street (1947), and A Christmas Story (1983).
It's a Wonderful Life was a disappointment at the box office when first released. Frequent playing by television stations over the years developed a wide, devoted audience, making it the classic American Christmas movie. This touching story tells how a man (Jimmy Stewart) who regards himself as a failure and is contemplating suicide is saved by family, friends and an inept, bumbling angel. Lionel Barrymore played a hard-hearted Scrooge-like banker.
.Miracle on 34th Street includes a character, Kris Kringle (played by veteran actor Edmund Gwenn), who actually thinks he is Santa Claus. At one point, he reveals the true spirit of Christmas, saying, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day--it’s a frame of mind.” Praised for its balance of whimsy and emotion, this movie, a joyously moving tale about goodness, faith and the human need for fantasy, won three Academy Awards. It also highlights a child’s desire for a family and a home; the child was played by eight-year-old Natalie Wood.
. A Christmas Story is a hilarious family comedy about a boy, Ralphie Parker, obsessed with getting an air rifle Christmas--an Original Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model with a Shock-Proof High Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial set in the stock. The delightful story was written by Jean Shepherd, longtime late-night monologist and storyteller on WOR radio.
Other films are seen less frequently at Christmas time but all have their fans. These include Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), a TV opera by Gian Carlo Menotti; The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Cary Grant as a dapper celestial visitor; A Christmas Carol (1938) in a Hollywood version as bright and cheerful as a Christmas card; Christmas in Connecticut (1945), with an improbable scenario in which Barbara Stanwyck, a high-powered magazine editor, entertains a wounded sailor in rural Connecticut; Come to the Stable (1949), in which two French nuns travel to Pennsylvania to build a charity hospital; and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), based on the popular children's book by Dr. Seuss..
It is interesting to note that the books, cards, music and films described here were all commodities produced for the Christmas season. Such examples of the popular culture reflect Christmas in a society growing more multicultural every day. With few of its former references to religious doctrine, Christmas has become a virtual winter festival in which consumerism has triumphed, and shopping and gift-giving are central to the Christmas experience.

Labels: , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas in America: A Brief History


Christmas is almost upon us, bringing its customary observances. Millions of Americans will eagerly decorate trees, sing carols, shop for gifts, impatiently wait for the arrival of Santa Claus, and spend long hours in hot kitchens preparing festive meals. Some may even dash through snow-covered fields to the homes of relatives.
Few will pause to reflect on the holiday’s history in our unusual culture of ethnic pluralism. Even fewer will assess its meaning for Christians and non-Christians. Or its role as the most important national holiday in a society that values religious freedom and separation of church and state.
In America today, the Christmas season begins on the day after Thanksgiving and continues well past New Year’s Day. Christmas also brings with it the traditional complaints by editorial writers bemoaning the materialism of the Christmas season.
Unhappiness with the way the holiday is observed is nothing new. Today's peaceable celebration of Christmas is a far cry from the turbulent, dissent-driven attitudes of the first settlers of this continent. Instead of observing the holiday, Pilgrims under Governor William Bradford ignored Christmas and spent the first Christmas building houses.
The Pilgrims’ more numerous and historically more significant Puritan neighbors in Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were even stricter and more strait-laced. They saw Christmas as nothing more than a pagan festival adapted to Christian purposes, and would have nothing to do with it.
Their attitudes were understandable. In ancient Rome, celebrations of the winter solstice were riotous festivals of gambling, the exchange of gifts, feasting and drinking. Social roles were reversed, and masters served slaves. Called Saturnalia, these pagan solar and agricultural observances honored the planet Saturn.
In England, Christmas celebrations retained the air of carnival. Churchgoers attended in masks and sang bawdy songs, even rolling dice at the altar. A "Lord of Misrule" was selected. This concept survives in Philadelphia, where participants in the annual mummer's parade select a Lord of Misrule.
Authority was mocked by such "dangerous practices" as mumming and caroling. Mumming usually involved cross-dressing. Caroling was a “disgrace” because it was "generally done in the midst of Rioting, Chambering and Wantonness."  (“Chambering was a euphemism for sexual intercourse.)
An unhappy 16th-century Bishop Hugh Latimer summarized the season, saying, "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides."
According to Stephen Nissenbaum, emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, at Christmastime the rich were expected to offer charity to their poorer neighbors. For most of the year, the poor owed money, goods or labor, not to mention deference, to the rich. But when the tables were turned at Christmas, the poor--mostly gangs of young men and boys--claimed the right to enter the houses of the well-to-do and receive gifts of food, drink and money.
In a custom called "wassailing," roving bands of young men circulated through neighborhoods singing songs in exchange for gifts. In America, a nation of immigrants largely from the British Isles, these practices continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, causing much unhappiness among the middle and upper classes.

Dating the Holiday
Religious scholars point out that no biblical or historical basis exists for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. Although the Gospel according to St. Luke describes how shepherds were living with their flocks, the weather in Judea in late December was simply too cold for such outdoor living.
Not until the fourth century did the Church officially decree that Christmas should be observed on December 25. The date was not chosen for religious reasons, but because it was close to the winter solstice--an event celebrated in many cultures long before the coming of Christianity.
When the Church set the date of Christmas Day, it took a calculated gamble, knowing that holdover boisterous pagan festivities around the time of the winter solstice were deeply ingrained in popular culture.
Many cultures marked the dark days when daylight is the shortest with ceremonies involving light and greenery. One example is Chanukah, "the feast of lights." Other examples are the Yule log, candles, holly, mistletoe, even the Christmas tree--pagan traditions all that have no connection to the birth of Jesus.
 In Europe during the three centuries between 1500 and 1800, Christmas was a time to let off steam and gorge oneself. In northern agricultural societies, December marked a critical point in the yearly cycle of farming. By then the tasks of gathering in the harvest and preparing for the bitter cold of winter had been completed.
For rural dwellers, the period marked the beginning of a season of inactivity and leisure when plenty of newly made beer and wine was available. Abundant supplies of meat from freshly slaughtered animals had to be eaten or be salted and preserved. It was truly a time for celebration and excess.

The Christmas Tree
To create the modern domestically-centered holiday, 19th-century America adopted new ways of celebrating Christmas borrowed from other traditions. The tree that now graces American homes has a long history.
Ancient Romans trimmed their houses with evergreens to symbolize fertility and regeneration. Eventually, Christians appropriated evergreens for their Christmas celebrations and invented stories explaining the origins of the custom to excise any taint of paganism.
By the first decade of the 19th century, German Protestants took the tree as an emblem of their faith, and the practice spread quickly throughout Europe. German immigrants brought the custom of Christmas trees with them to the United States. The trees quickly became objects of fascination for Americans. During the 1830s, evergreens began to appear in homes. Christmas trees next showed up in churches and the marketplace.
To women fell the task of transforming this ancient pagan fertility symbol into an icon of domesticity. In the home, a place was found for it, usually in the front parlor. Early Christmas trees in homes were squat evergreens, no more than two or three feet tall, set on a table top.

Christmas Ornaments
Inevitably, the use of taller trees invited more ambitious trimming with strings of beads, gilt paper stars or shields and lace bags of candies.
Early Christians had shunned wax candles because of their use in pagan ceremonies, but by the mid-19th century concerns about paganism and the ever-present danger of fire did not prevent Americans from dressing their Christmas trees with candles.
In 1880, F.W. Woolworth bought from a Philadelphia importer his entire stock of German Christmas tree ornaments made of colored glass. Placed on a counter in his store in Lancaster, Pa., an area with a large Germanic population, they were gone in two days.
 "I woke up," he said later about his discovery of their sales potential.
Woolworth began making trips to Germany to buy directly from ornament makers. The manufacture of Christmas tree ornaments was a genuine cottage industry in the small towns of Thuringia. His initial order was for more than 200,000 ornaments.
The craze for fragile glass ornaments had begun, and Woolworth was on his way to making his fortune. But the introduction of the Christmas tree into the holiday was only one aspect of the conversion of Christmas into a home festival.

Much of the charm of the Christmas tree was in the small gifts that could be tied to its branches with colored string or spread beneath it. Early Christians had refrained from gift-giving because the practice was associated with the Roman Saturnalia.
The custom was revived during the 16th century. Women in England often received expensive pins or gloves--sometimes accompanied by gifts of money. This gave rise to the terms "pin money" and "glove money."  Soon gift-giving extended beyond the home. By the middle of the 17th century, even members of the clergy were accepting gifts at New Year’s.
      By the 19th century, gift-giving in America had become prevalent. Service workers began to remind employers or patrons that a tip was expected. For example, newspaper carriers presented subscribers with a short poem unsubtly signaling their desire for a gift. These expectations have continued to this day.

Commercializing Christmas
Public unhappiness with the growing accent on commercialism during the Christmas period reached a new peak in 2011 with the attempts made by retailers to steal a march on competitors by opening as early as 10 p.m. of Thanksgiving Day, encroaching on the holiday itself.
Popularly called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving is supposedly the point at which retailers will be "in the black” and begin to turn a profit for the year. Violent tussles and bodily mayhem over items of merchandise have become frequent occurrences, discouraging many would-be shoppers.
Humorist Russell Baker echoed the frustrations of many in his 1976 article in The New York Times with a caustic assessment based on unhappy encounters with the commercial side of Christmas: "Christmas nowadays persists like an onset of shingles. You spend a month getting ready for it and two weeks getting over it. If Scrooge had started dreaming on November 25 and spent the next four weeks being subjected to desperate sales clerks and electronically amplified ‘Jingle Bells,’ he would probably have stopped at the Cratchets’ on that fateful evening only long enough to smash tiny Tim's little crutch."

Labels: ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Bridge Nobody Wanted


The Bear Mountain Bridge officially opened 87 years ago--on Nov. 27, 1924, to be exact--and wrought great changes in travel patterns over a wide area. Until that date, the only way a motorist or trucker could cross the formidable barrier of the Hudson River anywhere south of Albany was on a ferry.
But ferry service was woefully inadequate. Ferries were agonizingly slow. They took time to load and unload. And they were subject to frequent delays. When ice choked the river in winter, ferry service ground to a halt
Long waits at ferry slips were common on weekends and holidays. "Even the hotels in the river towns cannot take care of the stranded ones when there is a glut of traffic. People have been known to sleep out in their cars all night," The New York Times reported.
Early in February of 1922, the Legislature at Albany passed and Governor Nathan Lewis signed a bill chartering a private corporation to construct a toll bridge across the Hudson River "near the village of Peekskill."
. Incorporated with a capitalization of $5 million and headed by E. Roland Harriman, the newly formed Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company had three years to build the bridge and its access road on land owned by the state, and 30 years to operate it before it would become the property of the state. During that period, New York reserved the right to buy the bridge.

Opposition Surfaces

From the start, the 1922 bridge proposal faced hostility. Veterans of successful battles for the preservation of the Palisades and the Highlands were loud in their condemnation of the proposed design. Writing in the influential magazine The Outlook, Lawrence F. Abbott scorned the bridge. "With all due respect, it looks, in its wonderful setting of mountains and river, like a piece of tin frumpery.”
The influential New York Times entered the fray with an editorial titled, "An Infliction of Ugliness on the Hudson." It denounced the bridge company for proposing "a bridge so wholly out of accord with the scenery around it and indicative of the desire on the part of the builders to make it as cheaply as they can."
The anonymous editorial writer went on: "Ugly bridges, indeed, have been built in ancient and modern times, but they are so few that apparently it is easier to make them beautiful than ugly and that to attain ugliness no small amount of ingenuity and determination must be misapplied."
The New York Times editorial concluded: "There is no excuse at all, consequently, for what is about to happen near one of the most admirable manifestation of natural beauty in the vicinity of this city, and in this part of the country, for that matter--the erection of a bridge across the Hudson that will be an offense to the eye as long as it stands."

Construction Begins
Despite the widespread howls of disapproval from environmentalists, construction of the Bear Mountain Bridge began on March 24, 1923. Built by the firm of Terry and Trench, with Wilson Fitch Smith as chief engineer, it opened on November 27, 1924, only 20 months and four days later.
Completing the 2.5-mile access road to the bridge required excavating and moving 21,000 cubic yards of soil and rock, and the construction of 11,000 cubic yards of masonry retaining wall.
To add to the complexity of the road building, the New York Central Railroad tracks lay directly below a mile-long section of the highway. Safety of the rail line imposed extraordinary precautions.
The Carey Construction Company built the road in the surprising time of seven months. To this day, the road offers breathtaking vistas and sheer drops of 400 feet.
John A. Roebling’s Sons Company of Trenton, N.J., manufactured the cables for the bridge in place at the site. The two main cables are each 18 inches in diameter, made up of 7,252 individual wires in 37 strands.
The Roebling Company was the most experienced bridge builder in the nation, having produced cables for the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge and other bridges, including the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges in New York City.

A World Record
Spinning the bridge support cables took a record-breaking 13 weeks. With the addition of bridge girders and a concrete deck, 1,632-foot Bear Mountain Bridge became the longest suspension bridge in the world, exceeding by 32 feet New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge, which had held the record for 21 years. The total length of the bridge between abutments is 2,257 feet. Its height above mean high water 153 feet.
      It would hold that record only for two years before being surpassed in 1926 by the Benjamin Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River linking Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.
Although the Bear Mountain Bridge’s history is replete with engineering details, we know comparatively little about its designer, Howard C. Baird. He designed another bridge in Westchester in 1931: the graceful 750-foot steel arch bridge that now carries the northbound Taconic State Parkway across the Croton Reservoir.
Built by the Mount Vernon Bridge Company for the Westchester County Park Commission, Baird’s bridge employs an ingenious three-hinged design. By 1970, increased use of the Taconic required the construction of an adjoining bridge—an unexciting traditional deck-truss design that carries southbound traffic.

Opening Day
The first informal automobile crossing of the Bear Mountain Bridge, on September 10, 1924, was by M. Belknap, the engineer in charge of construction whose first name has been lost to history. Former New York Governor Benjamin Odell symbolically drove the last rivet on October 9, 1924.
Official opening ceremonies took place on November 26th. Led by the band from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, four hundred automobiles assembled in Peekskill and drove slowly along the highway that had been blasted into the steep sides of Manitou Mountain and Anthony's Nose, and then across the bridge.
At the western end, a bronze tablet was unveiled by Mary A. Harriman, generous donor of much of Harriman State Park. It acknowledged the efforts of "all who with thought, labor and loyalty have contributed to the construction of this bridge and highway."
The following day, Thanksgiving Day, the Bear Mountain Bridge was formally opened to a public that could only have been dismayed at the comparatively high tolls. Some 5,000 automobiles crossed the bridge on that first day.
Fares wee collected at the western end of the bridge and at a toll house on the access road. Passenger cars and drivers paid 80 cents. Cars with wheelbases longer than 100 inches were charged one dollar. Each additional passenger cost ten cents. Pedestrians paid ten cents to walk across.
These rates, the result of unrealistic monopoly pricing, were high in comparison with ferry rates—and remained high even during the years of the Great Depression.
Once the novelty wore off, however, bridge traffic declined. From opening day in 1924 to 1940, the Bear Mountain Bridge lost money in thirteen of its sixteen years of operation.

New York State Takes Over
In a February 1940 letter to Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Robert Moses, then Chairman of the State Council of Parks, pointed out the importance of the Bear Mountain Bridge: "It is unnecessary to emphasize the interest of the State Park Council in this bridge, which is one of the main approaches to Bear Mountain Park and to the entire Palisades Interstate Park system.”
In April of 1940, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the purchase of the Bear Mountain Bridge for "not more than $2,300,000." The actual purchase price was $2,275,000. The New York State Bridge Authority took over the bridge at midnight on September 25, 1940.
The first change made by the new owner was the immediate reduction of motor vehicle tolls to a flat 50 cents regardless of the number of occupants. This was later reduced to 35 cents in 1942 and 25 cents in 1945. In 1970, the Bridge Authority doubled tolls and imposed them only in the eastbound direction. The toll today is one dollar.
Over the years, the starkly beautiful Bear Mountain Bridge, like the Eiffel Tower, has gained grudging acceptance from former critics. In its striking mountainous setting, it has become a favorite of artists and photographers for its understated yet elegant design, its totally appropriate scale and extraordinary integration into its dramatic location.

Labels: ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

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