The Great Trolley Car Strike of 1895 in Greenpoint

Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 11.20.34 AMbrooklyn-city-trolley-bpl

It’s been well over 50 years since the last trolley ran through North Brooklyn, but the streetcar was once the major form of local  transportation and streetcars connected Greenpoint with places as far away as Gravesend.  The major depot for the streetcars was in Greenpoint where  trolleys were stored at a  large trolley shed at the end of Manhattan Avenue at Box Street.  The cars  were originally drawn by horses, and serviced areas of Brooklyn where the elevated railroads had yet to expand. By 1890, though,  the trolleys had been elctrified, which  allowed for speedier transit and, in the eyes of speculators, greater profits.

There were a few independently owned trolley companies. The largest was the Brooklyn City Railroad Company (BCRC) which  owned or leased 200 miles of track, from East New York to Court Street, and from Greenpoint to Fort Hamilton. In the early 1890s the stockholders of the BCRC began enacted a series of financial deals  to drive up stock prices and increase their own dividends (Sounds very current doesn’t it ? ) As part of the plan,  they leased their entire track system to the much smaller Brooklyn Heights Railroad Company (BHRC), which operated a single line along Montague Street. The BCRC stockholders then organized a new company in the state of Virginia, named the Long Island Traction Company, and proceeded to buy the BHRC. The company was not incorporated in New York, and therefore was not subject to the regulations and taxes enacted by the state of New York. This arrangement was described by the special committee appointed to investigate the trolley strike: “[the stockholders] had found a means of reaping  large and very exceptional profits, and at the same time avoiding and evading certain responsibilities to the laws of this State.” New York State at the time had fairly progressive labor laws that protected its workers.

Many of the trolley car workers lived near the end of the line here in Greenpoint. These workers had grievances with the trolley companies, believing  that they deserved better wages now that the trolley system had been electrified. They argued that the new cars required greater concentration, and that their work was subsequently more taxing, both mentally and physically. Workers also complained that companies instructed their conductors to ignore the city’s 10 mile per hour speed limit, endangering the lives of the motormen and the public. However the major conflict between labor and management was the 10-hour work day. New York State law stipulated that laborers could work no more than 10 hours in a 12 hour period. The trolleymen believed that the ten hours included meals and time spent waiting for their trolleys at the train depot. The companies, on the other hand, did not intend to pay workers for any time not spent actually running the trolleys.

The railroad companies clearly envisioned a profitable future, but the workers also believed that they should share in the profits. By 1895 America’s working class began to form  labor unions, and many trolleymen were represented by the Knights of Labor (KOL).The KOL was at one time the premier trade union organization in the United States. In 1886, their membership numbered 600,000, but by 1890 that number had dipped below 100,000.  Much of their decline has also been attributed to the famous Haymarket bombing, when anarchists (who were not affiliated with the Knights), set off bombs during a labor strike organized by the KOL in Chicago and killed a dozen people .Although they conducted a number of successful railroad strikes in the early 1880s, the organization was plagued by weak leadership and general mismanagement.  By 1895, the Knights had not successfully waged a major strike in years, and were generally disdained by business leaders due to the Haymarket incident, which  would prevent good-faith negotiations between the trolley workers and management.

The newly formed trolley company rejected the workers’ demands out-of-hand. The union relented on the pay raise, but would not budge on the issue of the ten hour day. On Sunday, January 13th, the Knights of Labor’s executive board voted to endorse a city-wide strike.On Monday morning 5,000 workers went on strike, paralyzing Brooklyn’s trolley system. Although the first day of the strike was  peaceful, the situation quickly deteriorated and violence began to occur when the trolley companies  began hiring scab workers from New Jersey, Philadelphia, and as far as Boston and Pittsburg, believing if they could replace the striking workers quickly enough, they would be able to get the trolley system up and running and break the strike.

Bringing in the scabs made the workers angry and determined to fight back. The workers vowed to stop every trolley still running in Brooklyn. They  cut the trolley wires, surrounded the cars, and often assaulted the new drivers. Strikers would utilize anything they could to block the path of the trolleys. A  builder claimed that a mob had descended upon his stores of brownstone and slate to barricade Fulton Street. Children joined in, tossing stones at conductors and cutting wires.

The police were unable and often unwilling to control the strike. Trolleys were occasionally manned by an officer or two, but they were no match for the mobs in the streets. During the height of the strike up to 4,000 workers would gather at the train depots. The police force numbered only 1,700  and many were openly  sympathetic to the strikers.

According to the special committee appointed to investigate the strike, the department also suffered was exceptionally poor leadership. The Police Superintendent “was incompetent to command the force because of his age, lack of memory and want of physical condition.” The Police Commissioner, who had been appointed by the mayor, was equally as incompetent.  Finally,  the pro-trolley company Mayor Schieren himself  failed to grasp the severity of the strike until it was too late. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle report from the 5th day of the strike illustrates this point well. At a public forum held on 5th Ave.  local business owners complained that they were losing a tremendous amount of money due to the strike. One  businessman asked the mayor, “Why are we doing nothing?” but the mayor replied, “Well, what can you suggest? We are making every effort to bring about a settlement, and if you have any suggestions we shall be glad to hear it.”

By January 19th, the sixth day of the strike, the Mayor finally took action and  decided to call in the National Guard to restore order. Although the militia eventually achieved its goal, which was to restore regular trolley service to the city, they actually stoked the violence that was gripping the city.

On the first day of the strike, a few thousand edgy  militiamen were deployed on the Brooklyn streets  to defend the train depots and protect the few trolleys still operating. The militia was  able to control  the strikers and their sympathizers without the use of force, though tensions remained high. For instance, on the first day the militiamen were stationed in the city, a large crowd had assembled in East New York. They spent the day cutting trolley wires, obstructing tracks, and even bribed a few of the new motormen to leave their posts and relinquish their cars to the mob. The police were once again unable to manage any semblance of order, and the militia had to be sent to the nearby train depot. The crowds  mocked the troops, calling them as “scabs” and “toy soldiers.” At some point, a man tried to snatch a rifle from one of the militiamen, and the colonel in charge, fearing for the safety of his men, gave the order to charge the crowd with their bayonets drawn.

It was amazing that there was not more bloodshed. A painter on his way home from work was bayoneted, but there was no further bloodshed. Word of the bayonetting soon spread, and a  crowd at the East New York depot swelled to 2,000 people. The same scene played out again, with the crowd arguing with the militia, and reports of someone attempting to disarm one of the militiamen. The troops charged again, this time bayonetting two more men, before the crowd finally dispersed. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the following day, “ The scenes in East New York after nightfall were more turbulent than ever known in the history of the city.”

For days violence ruled Greenpoint, one of the strongest areas of  worker rebellion. The small local police force was outnumbered and some policemen sided with the strikers.  On January 24th there was another  riot in Greenpoint as the company tried to take the cars along Manhattan Avenue. A huge crowd formed at the Box street depot and the police rushed the menacing crowd with clubs drawn a few times.  The windows  to the car were smashed with stones. A policeman on one of the cars was hit in the eye with a piece of coal. A burning barricade blocked the trolley tracks at Kent Street. Large crowds on Manhattan Avenue surrounded a subsequent car that tried to move southward and members of the crowd berated the scab motormen, while pulling their sleeves.

Fr. O’Hare of St. Anthony of Padua church in Greenpoint made himself a beloved local figure on that day by openly siding with the strikers, many of whom were his congregants.  He came out of his rectory on Manhattan Avenue and assisted the strikers. A number of motormen began to listen to the calls of the Greenpoint strikers and left their cars. When one man did not join the strikers he was offered a ten-dollar bill by O’Hare. The motorman took the money and joined the strikers. A yell arose from the crowd,”Three cheers for Fr. O’Hare”  and the priest continued on to the next trolley and got the motorman also to join the strike.

An Eagle reporter confronted O”Hare about his actions and the priest realized that he was on dangerous ground. he could have problems with his Bishop if he was seen to be supporting violence. O’Hare told the reporter  that he had given the motorman the money so that he could travel back to his family in Buffalo and did not support violence. Later O”Hare was named as one of the leaders of the violent mob in Greenpoint by the Eagle on the front page. It was not the kind of publicity the priest wanted, but it endeared him to the strikers and their hungry families.

One of the few voices from the establishment in support of the strikers was that of Fr. O’Hare.  The Mayor knew of his power in the largely Catholic community and wrote him a letter to ask him to use his influence to restore peace so that the Mayor did not need to call in troops to restore order in Greenpoint. Many of his parishioners were strikers and he pleaded with the mayor in a meeting to “Try to get the poor men back to work.” O”Hare continued,” These poor men have tried to do their best. Very often fellows are paid to commit breaches of the peace in the name of the strikers.” Fr. O’Hare also hoped that the Mayor would do all he could for the men and he reminded the Mayor that the men could neither pay their rent, nor pay for their groceries.

Brooklyn was effectively under martial law for the rest of the month  with citizens fearing the violence of both the militia and the mob. The militia had been marching through South Brooklyn from Atlantic Ave. to Hamilton Ave., making sure the trolleys were not being interfered with. Along the way, locals had been throwing bottles and pans at the troops. To protect themselves from projectiles the troops ordered residents to shudder their windows, and warning shots were fired at those who refused. A hapless worker fixing a roof named Thomas Carney was accidentally  shot and killed by the frightened militia.

The strikers eventually lost and had to return to work without winning any of their demands. The trolley companies continued to hire new motormen, including some former strikers, and were able to get their cars running on a normal schedule. The violence that marred the early days of the strike slowly abated and the militiamen stood down. The workers did get one small piece of satisfaction. The new Trolley company that was responsible for the strike and the violence went bankrupt.

Prohibition in North Brooklyn

Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 11.40.11 PM

It was easy to sympathize with Judge Harry Howard Dale’s frustration with enforcing prohibition in North Brooklyn.  It was April 1924 and prohibition of alcohol was supposed to be the law, but prohibition never took fi root in the Eastern District. The area was a hotbed of drinking and thousands of people were breaking the law and causing a backload of cases for the overwhelmed court system.

The victim of the good judge’s wrath was poor Thomas Solohoski, twenty years of age,  of Engert Street who was arrested for public intoxication. Judge Dale asked  Solohoski where he had had gotten that poisonous rum,  even if he knew, Solohoksi wasn’t telling. He told the judge he did not remember where he had been drinking.

The Judge could no longer contain his frustration. He responded to the accused.” Of course, you can’t remember. How could you when you drink that stuff they are selling?” Perhaps what irked the judge was that Solohoski was one of many people from the Eastern District who ended up in his court. The judge continued,” There are more speakeasies in the Eastern District, I feel, than any other place in the boro. You can get a drink in candy shops, in cigar stores, hat stores, bootblack parlors, hardware stores and finely appointed apartments.It wouldn’t take me long to get a line on them and if I got busy I would close up every one of these places and put those selling this poison in jail.”  The angry magistrate thundered,” If I had the time and could get together twenty-five red blooded men I would clean up the speak-easies in The Eastern District and Greenpoint in twenty four hours. Poor Solohoski was fined ten dollars.

Few Greenpointers would have supported the judge’s call to wipe out speak-easies. In a plebicite on ending Prohibition in the area 8,612 voted to end it, while only a hundred and two wanted prohibition to continue.

Although he did not drink himself, there was no greater enemy of prohibition than Alderman Peter J. McGuinness. No American lawmaker ever fought harder against the Eighteenth Amendment. Pete made more attempts to find a legal way around prohibition than any other American legislator. “America does not want to be a dry country,” he told his fellow aldermen. “New York will never be arid. Let us keep the parched desert in the torrid countries and permit New York and her sister states to be peopled by real humans.” No epidemic of flu could strike the city without McGuinness putting forward a resolution petitioning Congress to “so amend the Prohibition Law as to allow the sale of spirit liquors for the benefit of the sick. “It’s a criminal shame” McGuinness said, “to allow whiskey to lie idle while people are lying at death’s door who could be saved by it.”  McGuinness  even organized local  parades against prohibition complete with his marching band called “ Jimmy Walker’s Beer Parade. “

The Eagle also reported that speakeasies were breaking up marriages. Justice Mitchell May decided that John George of Jackson Street was entitled to separate from his wife without alimony in May of 1929. According to testimony at the hearing,   his wife Nellie had been a perfectly wonderful spouse until she developed a taste for Greenpoint cocktails. George testified that he had begged his wife to quite drinking booze from local speakeasies, but that she was so fond of drinking that even the parish priest could not make her desist.

In a 1926 article the Daily Eagle reported that Chester Mills, The New York State Prohibition director, stated  there were more than 15,000 speak-easies in the city and that the Federal Government in no way could close them all. By the early nineteen-thirties it was clear that prohibition would not work and it was stopped in 1933 by Constitutional Amendment.

Did a Bushwick Man First Reach the North Pole?

Screen shot 2015-01-27 at 2.22.08 PM

On September 7, 1909, readers of the New York Times awakened to a stunning front-page headline: “Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years.” The North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations had suffered and died for 300 years.

However, a Bushwick man Fredrick A. Cook claimed that he had beaten Peary to the pole.  A week earlier, the New York Herald had printed its own front-page headline: “The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook.”  Cook, a Brooklyn explorer who had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.

Anyone who read the two headlines would know that the North Pole could be “discovered” only once. The question then was: Who had done it? In  textbooks, Peary was long anointed the discoverer of the North Pole—until 1988, when a re-examination of his records commissioned by the National Geographic Society, a major sponsor of his expeditions, concluded that Peary’s evidence never proved his claim and suggested that he knew he might have fallen short. Cook’s claim, meanwhile, has come to rest in a sort of polar twilight, neither proved nor disproved, although his descriptions of the Arctic region—made public before Peary’s—were verified by later explorers. Today, more than a century after  Peary’s claimed arrival, the bigger question isn’t so much who as how: How did Peary’s claim to the North Pole trump Cook’s?

In 1909, the journalist Lincoln Steffens hailed the battle over Peary’s and Cook’s competing claims as the story of the century. “Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole,” he wrote. “And whatever they found there, those explorers, they have left there a story as great as a continent.”

They started out as friends and shipmates. Cook had graduated from New York University Medical School in 1890; just before he received his exam results, his wife and baby died in childbirth. Emotionally shattered, the 25-year-old doctor sought escape in articles and books on exploration, and the next year he read that Peary, a civil engineer with a U.S. Navy commission, was seeking volunteers, including a physician, for an expedition to Greenland. “It was as if a door to a prison cell had opened,” Cook would later write. “I felt the first indomitable, commanding call of the Northland.” After Cook joined Peary’s 1891 Greenland expedition, Peary shattered his leg in a shipboard accident; Cook set Peary’s two broken bones. Peary would credit the doctor’s “unruffled patience and coolness in an emergency” in his book Northward Over the Great Ice.

Differences between the two men  surfaces after their first trip to Greenland. In 1893, Cook backed out of another Arctic journey because of a contract prohibiting any expedition member from publishing articles about the trip before Peary published his account of it. Cook wanted to publish the results of an ethnological study of Arctic natives, but Peary said it would set “a bad precedent.” They went their separate ways—until 1901, when Peary was believed to be lost in the Arctic and his family and supporters turned to Cook for help. Cook sailed north on a rescue ship, found Peary and treated him for ailments ranging from scurvy to heart problems.

Cook also traveled on his own to the Antarctic and made two attempts to scale Alaska’s Mount McKinley, claiming to be the first to succeed in 1906. Peary, for his part, made another attempt to reach the North Pole in 1905-06, his sixth Arctic expedition. By then, he had come to think of the pole as his birthright.

Cook also had his heart set on becoming the first man to reach the north pole. He organized an expedition   to the pole departed Gloucester, Massachusetts, in July 1907 on a schooner to northern Greenland. There, at Annoatok, a native settlement 700 miles from the pole, he established a base camp and wintered over. He left for the pole in February 1908 with a party of nine natives and 11 light sledges pulled by 103 dogs, planning to follow an untried but promising route described by Otto Sverdrup, the leader of an 1898-1902 Norwegian mapping party.

According to Cook’s travelogue,” My Attainment of the Pole, ”  his party followed the musk ox feeding grounds that Sverdrup had observed, through Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands to Cape Stallworthy at the edge of the frozen Arctic Sea. The men had the advantage of eating fresh meat and conserving their stores of pemmican (a greasy mixture of fat and protein that was a staple for Arctic explorers) made of beef, ox tenderloin and walrus. As the party pushed northward, members of Cook’s support team turned back as planned, leaving him with two native hunters, Etukishook and Ahwelah. In 24 days Cook’s party went 360 miles—a daily average of 15 miles. Cook was the first to describe a frozen polar sea in continuous motion and, at 88 degrees north, an enormous, “flat-topped” ice island, higher and thicker than sea ice.

For days, Cook wrote, he and his companions struggled through a violent wind that made every breath painful. At noon on April 21, 1908, he used his custom-made French sextant to determine that they were “at a spot which was as near as possible” to the pole. At the time, speculation about what was at the pole ranged from an open sea to a lost civilization. Cook wrote that he and his men stayed there for two days, during which the doctor reported taking more observations with his sextant to confirm their position. Before leaving, he said, he deposited a note in a brass tube, which he buried in a crevasse.

The trip back almost killed him.

Cook, like other Arctic explorers of the day, had assumed that anyone returning from the pole would drift eastward with the polar ice. However, he would be the first to report a westerly drift—after he and his party were carried 100 miles west of their planned route, far from supplies they had cached on land. In many places the ice cracked, creating sections of open water. Without the collapsible boat they had brought along, Cook wrote, they would have been cut off any number of times. When winter’s onslaught made travel impossible, the three men hunkered down for four months in a cave on Devon Island, south of Ellesmere Island. After they ran out of ammunition, they hunted with spears. In February 1909, the weather and ice improved enough to allow them to walk across frozen Smith Sound back to Annoatok, where they arrived—emaciated and arrayed in rags of fur—in April 1909, some 14 months after they had set out for the pole.

At Annoatok, Cook met Harry Whitney, an American sportsman on a  hunting trip, who told him that many people believed Cook had  died. Whitney also told him that Peary had departed from a camp just south of Annoatok on his own North Pole expedition eight months earlier, in August 1908. On that journey Peary claimed he reached the pole and planted an American flag there.

while Peary was heading for the pole, Cook was recovering  at Annoatok. Befriending Whitney, Cook  told him about his trip,  but asked him to  say nothing until Cook could make his own announcement. With no scheduled ship traffic so far north, Cook planned to sledge 700 miles south to the Danish trading post of Upernavik, catch a ship to Copenhagen and another to New York City. He had no illusions about the difficulties involved—the sledge trip would involve climbing mountains and glaciers and crossing sections of open water when the ice was in motion—but he declined Whitney’s offer of passage on a chartered vessel due at summer’s end to take the sportsman home to New York. Cook thought his route would be faster.

Etukishook and Ahwelah had returned to their village just south of Annoatok, so Cook enlisted two other natives to accompany him. The day before they were to leave, one of the two got sick, which meant that Cook would have to leave a sledge behind. Whitney suggested that he also leave behind anything not essential for his trip, promising to deliver the abandoned possessions to Cook in New York and Cook agreed.

It was not until early August that a ship bound for Copenhagen, the Hans Egede, docked in Upernavik. For the three weeks it took to cross the North Atlantic, Cook entertained passengers and crew alike with spellbinding accounts of his expedition. The ship’s captain, who understood the news value of Cook’s claim, suggested he get word of it out. So on September 1, 1909, the Hans Egede made an unscheduled stop at Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. At the town’s telegraph station, Cook wired the New York Herald, which had covered explorers and their exploits since Stanley encountered Livingstone in Africa 30 years earlier. “Reached North Pole April 21, 1908,” Cook began. He explained that he would leave an exclusive 2,000-word story for the newspaper with the Danish consul at Lerwick. The next day, the Herald ran Cook’s story under its “Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook” headline.

In addition to meteorological data and ethnological collections, Cook boxed up his expedition records, except for his diary, and his instruments, including his sextant, compass, barometer and thermometer. He wouldn’t be needing them because he would be following the coastline south. Leaving three trunk-size boxes with Whitney, Cook left Annoatok the third week of April 1909 and arrived a month later at Upernavik, where he told Danish officals of his conquest of the pole.

In Copenhagen, Cook was received by King Frederick. In gratitude for the Danes’ hospitality, Cook promised  the king that he would send his polar records to  the University of Copenhagen. “I offer my observations to science,” he said.

While Cook was steaming for Copenhagen, Whitney waited in vain for his chartered vessel to arrive. Not until August would another ship stop in northern Greenland: the Roosevelt, built for Peary by his sponsors and named after Theodore Roosevelt. On board, Peary was returning from his own polar expedition, although up to that point he had told no one—not even the ship’s crew—that he had reached the North Pole. Nor did he seem to be in any hurry to do so; the Roosevelt had been making a leisurely journey, stopping to hunt walrus in Smith Sound.

In Annoatok, Peary’s men heard from natives that Cook and two natives had made it to the pole the previous year. Peary immediately inquired of  Whitney, who said he knew only Cook had returned  from a trip to the Far North. Peary then ordered Cook’s two companions, Etukishook and Ahwelah, brought  for questioning. Arctic natives of the day had no knowledge of latitude and longitude; they testified about the number of days they had  traveled. In a later interview with a reporter, Whitney, who unlike Peary was fluent in the natives’ dialect, would say the two told him they had been confused by the white men’s questions and did not understand the papers on which they were instructed to make marks.

Whitney accepted Peary’s offer to leave Greenland on the Roosevelt. Whitney later told the New York Herald that a line of natives toted his possessions aboard under Peary’s watchful gaze.

“Have you anything belonging to Dr. Cook?” Whitney told the newspaper Peary asked him.

Whitney answered that he had Cook’s instruments and his records from his journey.

“Well, I don’t want any of them aboard this ship,” Peary replied, according to Whitney.

Believing that he had no choice, Whitney secreted Cook’s possessions among some large rocks near the shoreline. The Roosevelt then sailed south with Whitney aboard.

On August 26, the vessel reached Cape York, in northwest Greenland, where a note from the skipper of an American whaler awaited Peary. It said that Cook was en route to Copenhagen to announce that his discovery of the North Pole on April 21, 1908. Native rumor was one thing; this was infuriating. Peary vented his rage to anyone who would listen, promising to tell the world a story that would puncture Cook’s bubble. Peary ordered his ship to  make full speed for the nearest wireless station—1,500 miles away, at Indian Harbour, Labrador where Peary had an urgent announcement to make. On September 5, 1909, the Roosevelt dropped anchor at Indian Harbour. The next morning Peary wired the New York Times with the message “Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole,”  Peary had sold the rights to his polar story for $4,000, subject to reimbursement if he did not achieve his goal, so he had a reason to debunk Cook’s story.

Arriving in Nova Scotia on September 21, Peary boarded  a train to Maine. En route, he met with Thomas Hubbard and Herbert Bridgman, officers of the Peary Arctic Club, a group of wealthy businessmen who financed Peary’s expeditions in exchange for having his discoveries named for them on maps. The three men began to shape a strategy to undermine Cook’s claim to the pole.

When they reached Bar Harbor, Maine, Hubbard had a statement for the press on Peary’s behalf: “Concerning Dr. Cook…let him submit his records and data to some competent authority, and let that authority draw its own conclusions from the notes and records….What proof Commander Peary has that Dr. Cook was not at the pole may be submitted later.”

The same day that Peary arrived in Nova Scotia, September 21, Cook arrived  in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he and a brother, William, once ran a milk depot on Bedford Avenue. An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets for a parade that took him to the Bushwick Club, housed in an elegant Queen Anne building, and he shook hands with 5,000 well-wishers. Bushwick was Cook’s neighborhood. He lived in a turreted mansion that still stands on the corner of Willoughby and Bushwick Avenues, and was the former home of one of the brewery barons for which the neighborhood was famous during the late 19th century. He issued a statement that began, “I have come from the Pole.”

The next day he met some 40 reporters for interviews  at the Waldorf-Astoria. Asked if he objected to showing his polar diary, Cook “showed freely” a notebook of 176 pages, each filled with “fifty or sixty lines of penciled writing in the most minute characters,” according to accounts in two Philadelphia papers, the Evening Bulletin and the Public Ledger. Asked how he fixed his position at the pole, Cook said by measuring the sun’s altitude in the sky. Would he produce his sextant? Cook said his instruments and records were en route to New York and that arrangements had been made for experts to verify their accuracy.

Four days later, he received a wire from Harry Whitney. “Peary would allow nothing belonging to you on board,” Cook would later write that he was seized by “heartsickness” as he realized the implications of Whitney’s message. Still, he kept giving interviews about his trek, providing details on his final dash to the pole and his year-long struggle to survive the return journey. Peary had told an Associated Press reporter in Battle Harbour that he would wait for Cook to “issue a complete authorized version of his journey” before making his own details public. Peary’s strategy of withholding information gave him the advantage of seeing what Cook had by way of polar descriptions before offering his own.

Peary’s wealthy backers proved the difference. They had invested in his journey and wanted a return on their investment. One of them was the publisher of the New York Globe. They began to attack Cook’s credibility. Soon, Peary released a transcript of the interrogation of Etukishook and Ahwelah aboard the Roosevelt. The men were quoted as saying they and Cook had traveled only a few days north on the ice cap, and a map on which they were said to have marked their route was offered as evidence.

Also in October, the National Geographic Society—which had long supported Peary’s work and put up $1,000 for the latest polar expedition—appointed a three-man committee to examine his data. One member was a friend of Peary’s; another was head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, to which Peary had been officially assigned for his final expedition, and the third had been quoted in the New York Times as “a skeptic on the question of the discovery of the Pole by Cook.”

On the afternoon of November 1, the three men met  Peary and examined some records from his journey; that evening, they looked at—but according to Peary’s own account did not carefully examine—the explorer’s instruments in a trunk in the poorly lit baggage room of a train station in Washington, D.C. Two days later, the committee announced that Peary had indeed reached the North Pole. Newspapers supported Peary’s claim and Cook did not help his cause when he left for a yearlong exile in Europe, during which he wrote his book about the expedition, ” My Attainment of the Pole.” Though he never returned to the Arctic, Whitney did, reaching northern Greenland in 1910. Reports conflict on how thoroughly he searched for Cook’s instruments and records, but in any case he never recovered them. Nor has anyone else in the years since.

Cook went into the oil business and was convicted of mail fraud. He ended up in prison, further discrediting his account. Cook died at 75 in 1940, in relative ignominy; it is little wonder that his memoir is titled “Hell Is a Cold Place.”

Other later  explorer, arriving by air and by sea,  confirmed Cook’s original descriptions of the polar sea, ice islands and the westward drift of the polar ice. But the question remains: How did Cook get so much right if he never got to the North Pole in 1908?

The Most Terrifying Fire in Greenpoint History

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 6.34.40 PMScreen shot 2015-01-26 at 6.40.14 PM

September 13, 1919 was one of the most terrifying days for the residents of Greenpoint. On that September day a huge fire threatened to engulf the entire neighborhood in flames. The fire at the Sone and Fleming oil Works on Kingsland Avenue was one of the largest and most dangerous fires in Brooklyn history. It led to millions of dollars in damage and the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Many Greenpointers feared being burned to death.

Fires were common at the works, but the fire was not supposed to happen. The firm was well aware of the capacity for such a fire and they had installed a special pump that doused oil fires by creating steam. However, the explosion that started the fire was so strong that the  pump system  failed and the yard with a hundred huge oil and Naptha tanks lay defenseless.

The fire started at one-forty in the  afternoon when tank #36 with fifty-five thousand gallons of gasoline exploded. Five minutes later the flames had spread to three other tanks. A fire alarm was sounded as were a second, third and fourth, but the fire was so huge and dangerous that a borough wide alarm went out. Soon  four hundred  seventy-five fire fighters were battling the flames along with nine fireboats. However, because the fire had so much flammable liquid it posed especial danger.  The fire soon engulfed the company’s four-story office building on the site.The heat from the flames was intense and the fire was so loud that fire fighters had to use hand signals to communicate.

Soon the flames were so dangerous that  civilians had to be evacuated. Seven hundred girls who worked for a local dye factory were sent out of their place of employment to safety. Hundreds of tenement dwellers in the area around Kingsland and Norman Avenue also had to be evacuated. Many of them were Italian and Polish and their limited ability to communicate in English only added to their fear. In the rush to escape the flames children were trampled and one young Polish boy was seriously injured when he was trampled.

By about four-thirty the situation looked hopeless. There were a hundred tanks on the site and they all seemed in danger of blowing up. Soon the fire had jumped the creek. It burned a candle factory in Long Island City and soon the flames engulfed the Standard Oil works in Long Island CIty. The flames ignited the bridge that connected Long Island CIty and Greenpoint.   All availabe fire fighters in the city eventually had to be called and all the available equipment that could be sent to Greenpoint  was dispatched there. The fire was so huge that it could be seen twenty miles away on Long Island

The firemen were most afraid that the flames would ignite two tanks of highly flammable naphtha. FIremen worked feverishly to keep the tanks from catching fire. Then suddenly,  the wind veered and headed directly for the naphtha tanks. Someone yelled,” Oh my God there go the naphtha tanks.” The firemen fearing being burned alive and ran as fast as they could.

By ten O’Clock thousands of people crowded the streets.  There was terror amongst many Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents. The flames were so intense that the area was lit up as if it had been day.  Eventually the fire burned itself out, but many fire fighters were burned and a huge swath of industrial Greenpoint and Long Island City was a a smoking ruin.

Jack Dempsey the Non-Pareil, Great North Brooklyn fighter

Jack-Dempsey1

Most fight fans know the name of Jack Dempsey, but few know that the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926 actually took his name from an earlier  Greenpoint middleweight world champion boxer named Jack Dempsey, who was later  called non-pareil to differentiate the two boxers.  The Non-Pareil was one of the first great scientific boxers and is still considered one of the greatest who ever fought.

Jack Dempsey was born near the Curragh in County Kildare Ireland on December 15, 1862, and his parents brought him to New York.  Little is known of his early career in those tough, bare-knuckle day. He was born with the surname of kelly, but his father died and he took the name of his stepfather Dempsey.  In a Brooklyn Daily Eagle Old TImers column one Greenpointer remembered that Demspey’s mother raised dairy cows in Greenpoint and young Jack sold their milk. Later, he would get a job in a Williamsburg barrel factory where he became good friends with another Irish born boxing champion, Jack McCauliffe. They were often each other’s corner men and Dempsey taught the undefeated McCauliffe much about boxing.

Dempsey started fighting as a lightweight and eventually won the first  Middleweight Championship of the World even though he never weighed more than a welterweight during his entire career. He often defeated far heavier boxers.

Dempsey was not the typical pugilist. He was handsome, well-spoken and mannerly. Dempsey also  was personable and made friends easily. On most occasions, after trouncing an opponent in the ring, he was calm and rather indifferent towards the praise being heaped upon him. A man of sterling honesty and gentlemanly bearing in that raw pioneer period, when good qualities were at a premium, could not fail to elicit a grudging word of praise even from those who sampled the dead accuracy of his flashing hands.

Perhaps his greatest weakness as a fighter was his inclination to consume too much alcohol and to underestimate his opposition. The result was that sometimes he did not train well. However, his great skills usually overcame these problems.

Physically, Jack was slender, muscular, quick and agile. He had fast hands and a stiff right hand punch. He was crafty and elusive and utilized feints accompanied by a sharp, accurate left jab . Dempsey was a  boxer who  brought polished boxing skill … and an appreciation of the finer points of ringmanship to the modern ring.  He was a master of strategy who opened a new chapter in ring-craft with his powerful arms and restless, slender legs. Fight after fight, his opponents were battered, bruised, and cut up while he scarcely had any marks at all.One hundred and fifty-eight pounds of strength, strategy, grace and chivalry speedily won him the flattering title of “The Non pareil” of the ring. His uncanny skill and unquestionable pluck could only be really appreciated when this grey-eyed wizard with the light brown, wavy hair was pitted against some fierce cave man battling with desperate ferocity. Boxing historian  Nat Fleischer  tells the story of a private fight Jack had with a six-footer who was much larger and heavier than Jack. Fleischer says Jack was “…cat quick” and danced around the man “…poking him every once in a while with that wonderful left” until he wore him out.

The good looking young Irishman easily became an idol of the boxing public.He was hailed as champion even before he met and defeated George Fulljames and officially became one. Dempsey fought the Toronto boy on July 30, 1884, at Far Rockway, just outside New York, and the Canadian went down and out in the 22nd round. The Champions during an unbroken series of victories, handed a sleeping draught to La Blanche at Larchmont, Long Island, on March 4th, 1886. La Blanche who was later to prove the Nemesis of his conqueror, was four years Dempsey’s senior and a great fighter. He took the quietus in the 13th round.
The battling Irishman took part in many unique contests, but strangest of all was his encounter with Johnny Regan on December 13th, 1887. This meeting was the climax of much ill-advised bitterness between the backers of both camps. The ring was the dock of an old barge in Long Island Sound, and the test was a fight to a finish with the bare knuckles. Truly it was a battle of primitive man but it is well to remember that the “kid glove” era of boxing was merely at its birth. The rounds were not yet set to time and a “knock down” replaced the gong. Knuckles flashed for a solid hour. Fourteen rounds had been fought under London Prize Ring rules when the barge, which had been securely moored to two stakes, was partly submerged by the tide. The strange “ring” was cut loose and towed out into the Sound. Both the principals were about to resume when a squall struck the “ring” and a heavy snow shower covered the slippery deck. A truce was called and the party went ashore. Someone suddenly remembered an old boat house about 20 miles away and a heavy trudge through the driving snow brought the small body to more cheerful surroundings. An obliging landlord, some hot drinks, and the men were soon trading punches with the onlookers sitting on the bar and shouting advice between drinks. Another sixteen rounds and almost an hour of furious fighting were marked when word came that two policemen were down the road. Disdaining heavier clothing the fighters plunged into the woods and their followers found a clearing amid the snow. Here Dempsey and Regan fought to a finish. In the 45th round the referee cried “Time,” but Regan was unable to continue. It was the end of over four hours of heavy punching with almost anything allowed except biting and kicking. No doubt some our present-day champions would look rather sheepishly at the prospect of a four-hour “mix-up” with a twenty mile walk for a “breather.”

Dempsey  was unbeaten until 1889 – when he lost for the first time on an “illegal” punch – a backhand (or elbow) delivered by LaBlanche while fighting at close quarters. Dempsey was winning the fight when  LaBlanche turned his back to the champion.  suddenly,  A whirlwind right connected with Dempsey’s chin and the pivot punch had landed. The Nonpareil sagged at the knees and dropped. He was out. The crowd gasped as the referee reluctantly awarded the laurels to the victor. La Blanche won the championship but lost his reputation. Since that fateful August night the pivot-punch has never again been tolerated in the ring. Dempsey challenged Lablanche to a rematch, but Lablanche never wanted to fight a rematch.

On Spetember 6, 1892 three North Brooklyn fighters all named Jack took part in a boxing carnival, Dempsey, McCauliffe and Jack Skelly, a lightweight. Dempsey was defeated by Bob Fitzsimmons after sixty victories in the ring. Fitzsimmons is one of the greatest fighters ever in his weight class.

The fight, “looked upon as one of the greatest ever made” according to the St. Paul Globe, drew sports from every corner of the country. Fitzsimmons entered the ring first, weighing in at between 151 and 155 lbs. Some reports have him weighing in at 155 lbs. and being required to work off a single pound to make the then middleweight limit of 154 lbs, but the most widely reported figure is 151 lbs. Dempsey was only slightly smaller on paper weighing in at 147½ lbs , but a size difference was almost universally remarked upon.

The first round was the only competitive round of the fight. They swapped punches but Fitzsimmons immediately began to crowd Dempsey, using his superior physicality to corner the smaller man and land before darting out and rushing once more. Dempsey feinted and clinched three times in quick succession as Fitz led. Dempsey “returned with heavy body blows”, but Fitzsimmons was unaffected.

By the end of the second Dempsey was showing signs of distress and in the third he was dropped for the first time, hurt by a left uppercut, then smashed to the canvas by a right hand, a punch that may also have broken Dempsey’s nose. A key blow for Fitzsimmons, he would land the left uppercut over and again throughout the fight. By the sixth, Dempsey was in desperate trouble and forced to trade with his rangier opponent but was repeatedly hurt by Fitz’s punches. “Jack constantly clinched to save himself…hot fighting followed. Jack seemed groggy at the end of the round.”

“After receiving a right and left Dempsey fell against the ropes in a sitting posture, his hands hanging helplessly at his sides. Fitz declined to hit him in that position. After standing, Dempsey hit to the body, but his punches had no effect…Dempsey [was] barely able to keep his feet.” it ended in the thirteenth round.  His friend Skelly suffered an even worse beating in the ring and witnesses said it was brutal to watch Skelly have his dace disfigured in the ring. Only McCauliffe of the three Brooklyn Jacks emerged victorious.

Dempsey’s life would be cut short by tuberculosis. He died in 1895 aged thirty-three. he died in Portland, Oregon in poverty. His grave was unmarked.  Some say that a poem written on his grave is the greatest elegy ever written for a boxer.

Far out in the wilds of Oregon
On a lonely mountain side
Where Columbia’s mighty waters
Fell down to the ocean’s tide,
Where the giant fir and cedar
Are imaged in the wave
O’ergrown with weeds and lichens,
I found Jack Dempsey’s grave

I found no marble monolith
No broken shaft or stone
To tell of the great triumphs
This vanished hero won;
No rose, no shamrock I could find,
No mortals here to tell,
How sleeps in this forsaken spot
The immortal Nonpareil

A wind rock-strewn canyon road,
That mortals seldom tread,
Leads up this lonely mountain
To the bivouac of the dead.
And the western sun was sinking
In the Pacific’s golden waves
And solemn pines kept watching
O’er poor Jack Dempsey’s grave

Forgotten by ten thousand throats
That thundered his acclaim;
Forgotten by his friends and foes
Who cheered his very name
Oblivion wraps his faded form
But ages hence shall save
The memory of that Irish lad
That sleeps in Dempsey’s grave

Oh! Fame, why sleeps thy favoured son
In wilds, woods and weeds?
And shall he ever thus sleep on
Interred his valiant deeds?
‘Tis strange New York should thus forget
Its “Bravest of the Brave”
And in the wilds of Oregon
Unmarked, leave Dempsey’s grave
Val O’Grady

The History of the Greenpoint Ferry

The New York Waterways Ferry from India Street is the second Greenpoint Ferry. The original Greenpoint Ferry went to Tenth Street and Twenty-third Street in Manhattan from the foot of Greenpoint Avenue. The ferry closed in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression.

The first ferry was started by a Greenpoint carpenter, Alpheus Rollins,  in about eighteen forty when there were only about a dozen houses in the entire area. Rollins wanted to make a little extra money so he built a rowboat and charged three cents to be rowed to tenth street in Manhattan. His business was so good that he soon built four larger catboats to ferry passengers across the East River. Greenpoint was still quite verdant then and many Manhattanites came to the area for picnics. Soon Rollins had so many passengers that he had to hire a steamboat to bring the people across.

One of Rollins’ passengers was Neziah Bliss who always insisted paying double fare. Eventually, Bliss got the legal right to run the ferry and he soon sold it off to a man Sheppard Knapp. In 1852 Archbishop Hughes had a ferryboat called “Martha” built so that Manhattanites could travel by ferrry first, to Greenpoint and then to nearby Calvary cemetery in Queens.

A steam ferry running between Greenpoint Avenue & 10th Street, N.Y.C., was established
on May 7,1853, KNAPP. The first boat was a tub like affair, about 75′
long with a amall cabin on the flush deck. This was an old boat which had formerly
plied between New York & Dutchess Junction on the Hudson River, her name was Kate.
A regular slip could not be secured on the New York side until 18 months later, but it finally was and the Greenpoint Ferry service thrived for years. In 1921 the City of New York took over the ferry thanks in large part to the non-stop badgering of Alderman Pete McGuinness who so often berated Mayor Hylan that Hyland told him that the city would take over the ferry if Pete would only keep quite. McGuinness did and the city began to run the ferry.

McGuinness became the great champion of the ferry. Perhaps as a result of the motorcar and the East River bridges the ferry became unprofitable.  As Alderman, one of his top priorities was preserving the money losing Greenpoint Ferry, which he kept running for thirteen years despite being a prime target for budget cuts. For more than seventy-five years the ferry service provided Greenpoint with its only direct communication with Manhattan, but because many people worked locally, the ferry’s ridership declined to a point that no longer justified its cost. Nevertheless, McGuinness was determined to keep it running and every year he appeared before the Board of Estimate, successfully appealing for its continuance in outlandish fashion.

Once, addressing himself to Jimmy Walker, who as mayor presided over   the City Board of Estimates meetings and cast three of the Board’s eight votes, he concluded a long speech by saying, “Please don’t take away the old ferry, Mr. Mayor. It would be like separating an old couple that has been together for years to divorce Manhattan and Greenpoint. There would be tears of sorrow In the eyes of the old ferryboats as there would be tears in the eyes of the people of Greenpoint if them splendid old boats were put to rot in some dry dock or sold at public auction. Tell me, Mr. Mayor, now tell me, that you will love them old ferryboats in December as you did in May.” Referring to a cheesy song Walker himself had composed “Will you love me in December as you did in May?” “I do love them, Peter, and I love you Walker said. The ferries kept running that year.

The next year McGuinness invented the fiction that the boats were valuable relics; claiming they were used as Union troop transports on the Mississippi in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, he said, “Would turn over in the sod” if the ferries were discontinued. Another year he said that the ferries would be the only means of escape from Greenpoint, in the main a community of frame buildings, in the event of fire. “Listen, pal,” he told Mayor John P. O’Brien, who replaced Walker. “I f somebody set fire to Greenpoint and them old boats weren’t there, we’d all be roasted alive.” Again, Pete’s blarney saved the ferries, but in 1933 at the height of the depression not even Pete’s charm could not save the ferries whose service was terminated. The melancholy event was noted in the Weekly Star:

THE OLD FERRY

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down

For fifty years it’s flown

And many a heart in Greenpoint

Will raise a heartfelt moan.

Upon her decks on many a morn

The crowds have rushed to work,

To reach Manhattan’s dingy isle

In fog or rain or murk.

Her pilot oft has gripped the wheel

To breast the river’s tide,

While Pete McGuinness, glad, looked on

It was his greatest pride.

On many a summer’s evening

It took the kids in tow,

The little ones of Greenpoint

Who had no place else to go.

O better that her aged hulk

Should ne’er be seen again

Brave Peter fought to save it

But all alas in vain.

Dry-dock her somewhere down the stream

And strip her to the keel.

You can’t imagine anyhow

How sad the people feel.

McGuinness spoke at the final sailing of the ferry. He made a speech and quoted Walt Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry.” For eighty years there would be no ferry service to Manhattan, but the ferry returned and now plays a vital role in Greenpoint’s transportation.

The Stench from Newtown Creek in the 1870’s and 1880’s

During the Civil War Newtown Creek was what it had always been – a waterway perfect for swimming or for boating. The creek teemed with striped bass and other fish. Clams and oysters covered the banks of the creek. Regattas and rowing races  were popular attractions for Greenpointers.

However, in the years after the Civil War heavy industry including oil refining and fertilizer production entered the area and made the area around the creek one of the most industrialized places in America. Greenpoint quickly grew into one of the most industrialized areas in the United States  and it had more oil refining than any place on planet earth. Just a few years after the end of the Civil War  the waterway had changed from pristine creek  into one of the most polluted places on earth.   The creek was lined with Oil refineries and fertilizer plants that were united by a common by-product of oil refining Sludge acid. Refineries produced hundreds of gallons of the toxin daily and when they could not handle disposing of it, they simply dumped it in the Creek. Rapidly the fish and other wildlife in the creek died.

The sludge acid that was left over from refining oil was also  an essential ingredient in the production of fertilizer and Newtown Creek became a center of the fertilizer industry.  There was a major problem with this sludge oil that was an essential ingredient in the production of fertilizer. It stank to high heaven and frequently the  winds that blew from the East carried the stenches of Newtown Creek across to the residences of the affluent in Murray Hill in  Manhattan.

The New York Times began to report with increasing regularity on the stenches wafting over the east river throughout the eighteen-seventies and into the eighteen-eighties. The TImes reported in a May 5th 1878 report about the stench emanating from the creek. It noted how the sludge acid mixed with decaying fish,flesh and all sorts of offal. The refuse from the plants was dumped into Newtown Creek whence it readily found its way into the East River, covering the water thickly with a greasy poisonous substance. When the Enoch Coe Fertilizer Company was prosecuted for its production of noxious odors no one in the court room was brave enough to remove the stopper from a bottle of its sludge acid.  The TImes also noted that the district was the worst smelling district in the world The TImes reported on the Long Island Railroad’s journey to Hunter’s point with obvious disgust. A reporter stated, The waters of Newtown Creek run through a region that gives out more disgusting smells per square inch than any other portion of the world can furnish in a square mile. ” The report also stated” There is not a man, woman or child who travels the Long Island Railroad who will not testify to the horrible nature of the smells, which assail the passengers during their needless journey along Newtown Creek.”

A special Committee of the New York State Health Department did a fact-finding mission along the creek and reported that the creek was so full of oil and refuse that the water almost has the consistency of tart. The first of many noxious odors greeting the committee was the stench from manure boats, which discharged their holds for the area’s fertilizer plants.  When visiting one of the plants that mixed water with sludge acid the odor was so strong that Assemblyman Brooks who was along with the delegation commented that the power of the smell was as if ” A knife had pierced him after taking one whiff.  The committee had the power to recommend the closing of any plant that polluted the creek with sludge or allowed offensive smells to escape, but Standard Oil was a powerful force in Albany and knew whom to pay so that the firm could continue polluting the stream for years to come. If the smell was noxious in Manhattan one can only imagine how much stronger the stench was in Greenpoint. It is not surprising tha  the eighteen-seventies witnessed  many rich families moving out of Greenpoint. Smells from industry and water purification would be a reality of Greenpoint living for another century.