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For an activity that causes so much destruction to lives and property, one would think that innovations during wartime would be at a premium. But while many indeed find inspiration in troubled times it often lacks a receptive audience. Many in Germany could not see any purpose in building U-boats, and at the outbreak of the First World War they only had 29 ready for active service. U-boats did not have room to take prisoners and their crews were too small to spare any in manning captured ships. It would take a new perspective to bring them into production. Only after the doctrine of unrestricted warfare was accepted, in which enemy ships would be sunk along with their crews that U-Boats became an important tool in economic strangulation. Eventually Germany’s 360 U-boats would sink well over 1000 allied ships of 11 million tons, though 183 would be lost in the process.
U-boats were equipped with two periscopes, one for searching out enemy ships, the other with a more powerful lens but narrower field of vision for use in combat. Though the use of periscopes allowed the U-boat to remain safely underwater while carrying out an attack, looking straight out at misty sea level, which was rarely level at all made accurate vision very difficult. Hitting anything with a torpedo this way is as much a testament to luck as it is to skill. Even so there were those among the allies who thought they knew how to shift the odds even further. Naval ships were already being painted gray to blend in between the ocean and sky as much as possible. But a ship at sea cannot really be camouflaged as colors change along with the light throughout the day and when silhouetted against a blank horizon it is impossible to hide. But since ships were almost always moving targets U-boat commanders had to aim their torpedos at where they thought the ship would be when it reached it, not at the point where the ship was seen. This involved careful calculation of distance, heading, and speed based on the coincidence principal, and this is where Norman Wilkinson thought they could be deceived.
Norman Wilkinson was an illustrator and marine artist who by World War One was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy. Though submarine patrols and minesweeper duties took up most of his time, he used is knowledge of the arts to come up with an idea of painting ships with geometric patterns not to camouflage them but to confuse the the U-boat commanders. In August of 1917 the HMS Alsatian and the merchant ship SS Industry became the first two ships painted in this way. Soon a entire experimental section sprang up. The French who coined the term camouflage had set up the first such military department in 1915 largely made up of artists. Now British artists of all kinds were designing new patterns that were painted on model ships by women from London’s Royal Academy of Art. While some patterns were influenced by modern art movements such as Cubism that fractured a pictures visual plane, others worked with more practical notions such as creating the illusion of false bow-waves that would make it difficult to determine a vessels speed. These models would be viewed through actual periscopes to better gage their effectiveness. At first each ship was painted in a unique pattern but as time went on more standard designs were developed. This all became known as Dazzle Painting.
Rangefinders were often employed to calculate the distance to a ship when aiming large guns. The viewing image seen through this device would be split in two and when a control knob was turned and both haves came together the correct range would be calculated. The dazzle patterns made this form of triangulation very difficult for even when both sides were correctly matched for range it would look incorrect to the eye. As rangefinders were added to the periscopes of U-boats dazzle painting had the potential of gaining even more relevance.
There is a long history of camouflage in the United States most notably furthered by the concepts of the artist Abbott Handerson Thayer, the father of camouflage. He developed a theory of countershading (Thayer’s Law) by observing the lighter underbellies of animals that helped disperse shadows rendering them less solid in appearance. Thayer lobbied to have these principals adopted to uniforms and ships in 1898 during the Spanish American War, but peace was declared before anything practical was ever done. He continued to perfect and promote his theories, from which his disruptive patterns became known as Razzle Dazzel. His ideas received little attention from the War Department until German U-boats started sinking large numbers of ships. By 1918 Razzle Dazzle was officially approved and he and hundreds of other artists became integral part of the American Camouflage Corps. While many were inspired by Thayer’s theories, they too often suffered from a lack of practical application.
Everett Warner was an American Impressionist painter and noted member of the Old Lyme Art Colony in Connecticut. Wishing to contribute to the war effort he came to the aid of Thomas Edison during the summer of 1917 in his attempt to turn the USS Ockenfels into an invisible ship. This project was a complete failure. Warner had never truly believed a ship could be camouflaged as he was more inclined toward the ideas of Norman Wilkinson that promoted confusion. He soon developed his own Warner System in which a ships silhouette was broken by painted geometric patterns according to reversed perspective. He was given a Lieutenant’s commission in the U.S. Naval Reserves and assigned to the American Camouflage Section in Washington, DC. Here he teamed up with other artists such as marine painter Frederic Waugh who would design the disruptive pattern for the USS Leviathan.
Lieutenant Loydd A. Jones, an optical physiologist headed a camouflage division up in Rochester, New York, whose work was based more on science. Here a special viewing theater was built to use with the scaled painted models to better observe what the effect of disruptive patterns had on human sight. Once the optimized design was achieved they would be drawn up into detailed plans that could be used by dock officers who would oversee the actual painting of the ship.
The British Admiralty held a low opinion of Dazzle Painting belittling its effectiveness. They did however admit to its positive effect on the moral of ship crews who felt they had a better chance of survival on such painted vessels. It is difficult to determine if its negative rating was due to actual figures or based on unbending attitudes. It must be remembered that many of the same position and class had no trouble of marching tens of thousands to their deaths on the battlefields of Europe because they could not accept the notion that modern technology changed anything. All too often the role of technological innovations was simply discounted as a factor in defeats that were better attributed to lack of character and will. On top of this Dazzle painting became too closely associated with modern art, something that was not accepted by most and even considered the work of madmen. This attitude was also prevalent in the United States where Everett Warner almost abandoned this important work after successive attacks by newspapers who did not comprehend the seriousness of this activity considering him a fraud. But Werner held fast and so did the U.S. War Department, who thought this project a great success contradicting their counterparts in Britain. Ironically after the War ended Razzle Dazzle was adopted by commercial designers and began to be placed on everything from fabrics to vehicles, and this style became especially popular in England.
When the United States entered the Second World War it was quick to reestablish the use of Razzle Dazzle. Warner returned as a civilian aid in the design of new ships. But times had changed. The disruptive patterns now contained more simple geometries. Air power, which had played an insignificant role against shipping during the First World War was now a major factor in its destruction. While a pattern painted on a ship may make it more difficult for a submarine to hit, it made it easier to spot from the air. It was only toward the end of the War in the Pacific that Razzle Dazzle found much use. As Japanese air power was confined closer to home and many planes began to be hoarded for an expected mainland assault, it was Japanese submarines that became the greatest threat to shipping. But by the War&rsdquo;s end the development of sonar allowed subs to fix the exact range of a target making optical observation irrelevant and with it Razzle Dazzle died.
Picasso once recommended, though perhaps not so seriously, that the French Army should dress like harlequins to make their position more confusing to the enemy. While this suggestion may sound ridiculous it would have been far more effective than the bright red pants and caps worn by the Zouaves that made these French soldiers easy targets for the gray clad Germans. Blinding oneself to new realities in favor of traditional beliefs is still something were are plagued with in the face of war, and the brave and innocent both continue to pay for this with their lives. But it is good to remember this is not always the case, that sometimes those who see outside the box are recognized and their ides put to good use.
Naval Ships have long been one of the most popular subjects to found on postcards. Most ships from both World Wars and the years of peace surrounding them have been placed on cards and with them images of Dazzle ships. Most Dazzle ships however seem to be represented on real photo postcards. These ships were a spectacular sight when in port and became immensely popular among the public. It is a wonder that more cards were not produced of them though this is probably a direct result of military sensors fearful of providing information to the enemy. Many of these ships were said to be brightly painted, the most common colors being gray, green, and ultramarine. Despite this no known color postcard or color image of any kind is known to exist of a Dazzle Ship.
The Same Old Story
Some feel a sense of outrage when they see others with highly unconventional hairstyles; others just can’t seem to understand those who are different from themselves and shake their heads in disapproval. I have always found these attitudes strange for real change is far less common than one might think. The Mohawk hairstyle has been around for thirty years, not counting its use by Native Americans, yet those who sport it might as well just have stepped down from the moon as far as the general public is concerned. We too easily forget that every age was marked by those wishing to stand out from the crowd and this is part of who we are as humans. Old postcards often serve as a good reminder of that which we conveniently forget. They have a knack of capturing the little details of life thought unimportant by most other media at the time and they now stare us in the face of our misguided beliefs saying your wrong, this is the way we were, this is how we behaved and looked. It is only the particulars that tend to change over time, the story remains the same. This postcard was published about 1907 and the photograph was taken a hundred years later but these two women are not worlds apart and probably have more in common than many might think. There will always be those who do not believe in change that everything had been perfect until the last generation came along. And then there are those who mistakingly believe that there is something new about trying to look unique. It’s the same old story.
The image of Emma from Auckland, New Zealand was kindly provided courtesy of photographer Janice Dunn.
The Long Trail Through Bari
I am not normally a collector of continental size postcards but when I found one in particular I just had to have it. It reproduced a painting by Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer depicting an American machine gun section in action dating from World War Two. It didn’t say but this image was used on a poster for the 7th War Loan drive, which I knew for sure having a tattered original hanging in my home. This poster was unfolded from its musty resting place in an old battered suitcase that belonged to my father who had always claimed to be the soldier feeding the ammo belt into the Browning machine gun. Also in the suitcase were bundles of yellowed letters that my father had exchanged with his family while in the Service. One letter in particular stood out. It was a Christmas card mailed to Pfc. Bernard Petrulis from New York, only it had been returned marked Missing in Action.
My father was in the 18th Infantry, part of the Big Red One and served in the North African Campaign. After fighting against the French Foreign Legion at St. Cloud, just outside of Oran, Algeria, his unit took part in the battle for Tunisia. As they trudged eastward down the river plain leading to Tunis they came to a 900 foot tall hill called Long Stop that dominated the landscape. The Germans entrenched on top impeded any further Allied advancement. First to go in were the British Coldstream Guards driving the defenders off the lower muddy ridge on the 22nd of December 1942. My father’s unit followed taking up the front line position mistakenly believing they were in control of the entire hill. Early on Christmas Eve the Germans launched a counterattack with elements from the 10th Panzer Division. Suffering high casualties the Americans fell back but my father’s heavy weapons section remained behind to help cover the retreat. His shells did little but bounce off of the new German Tigers and as his position was overrun he was bayoneted in the neck. As it turned out he was one of the lucky ones for many of his friends were literally blown to pieces as the German tanks fired point blank into the trenches.
First taken to Tunis, and then Palermo, my father was eventually transferred to Campo 59 in Servigliano, Italy. Campo 59 had been built in 1914 to hold 10,000 Austrian and Turkish prisoners during the First World War. Its high brick walls topped with shards of broken glass now held about half as many British and Americans with some Poles and French as well. It was here that my family finally caught up with him and weekly correspondence began anew through the use of special stationary and postal cards made just for prisoners of war. These items were rationed like everything else in camp with prisoners only allowed to mail one letter per week. All correspondence was censored by both sides so content tended toward the nondescript, and of course my father did not mention important news like his plan to escape.
On September 8th, 1943 news arrived at camp that Italy had surrendered and my father along with an American paratrooper and handful of British soldiers decided that in all the confusion it was a good time to make use of the tunnel they had been digging. But as they headed north toward Switzerland they found their planned route too well guarded by newly arriving German troops and were forced to turn back south along the Adriatic. After spending a night in a haystack the British contingent was soon recaptured when they made themselves conspicuous by brewing up some Red Cross tea. My father and the paratrooper having spent a more uncomfortable evening burrowed into the cliffside above the beach remained undiscovered and free to continue their journey. Most Italians had long given up on the War and the peasant farmers he crossed paths with aided his escape by providing food and directions despite the high risk to themselves. On the 14th of September there was a general escape at Servigliano when 3,000 prisoners rushed out of the undermanned camp upon hearing the Germans were about to take it over. It may seem as if my father had tunneled out for nothing but it put him far ahead of the massive manhunt that was about to begin. Most of the later escapees were quickly recaptured and sent off to more secure camps in Germany. But Italy’s leaving the War had also made the front lines a bit more porous and after 70 days of wandering behind enemy lines and many very close calls my father ran into a patrol from the British 8th Army.
Taken back to British Headquarters at Bari, my father was housed in a warehouse overlooking the harbor. Bari was a large port bustling with activity as it had suffered little war damage thus far. It served not only the primary supply base for Montgomery’s 8th Army but Doolittle’s newly created U.S. 15th Air Force only 75 miles away near Foggia. The Liberty Ship John Harvey was just in from Baltimore having arrived on the 26th of November. Its Captain and Security Officer were desperate to unload their cargo and head back to the States but the harbor was already crammed with other supply ships and he could do little but wait his turn. The next day my father received orders to proceed without delay to Casablanca from where he would be shipped back to the United States. A terrific thunderstorm broke out as his plane was crossing the Apennines; it shook until he thought it would break apart. He could barely contain his joy when he felt the landing gear finally touch down safely on the runway. When he mentioned that this airfield looked no different from the one he just came from he was told it was the same one; his plane could not get over the mountains in the storm.
Quartered back at the warehouse once more my father could now see 30 ships crowding the harbor. This fact was not overlooked on the afternoon of December 2nd by a German reconnaissance plane that the allies had not even bothered shooting at, considering it more of a nuisance than a threat. With the Luftwaffe in Italy nearly destroyed and with overwhelming Allied fighter strength, an attack this far south was unthinkable. Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen of Luftfotte 2 thought otherwise and decided Bari’s crowded port was too great an opportunity to pass up. With his resources stretched thin he could only scrape together 105 Junker 88’s from fields in Italy and Yugoslavia, which he placed under the command of Lieutenant Gustave Teuber and hoped they would be enough.
The Junkers flew in low over the Adriatic just as evening fell, and then turned sharply to the west dropping duppol (metal foil) to confuse Allied radar. They did not realize it was not needed as the radar system in Bari had broken down days ago and no one was in a rush to fix it. The pilots had been briefed that the harbor was being lit at night so that badly needed supplies could be unloaded but none of them took this foolishness seriously. Teuber’s planes were racing in at 200 mph barely 50 yards above the waves when they began preparing to drop their parachute flares. The first flares fell at 7:35 that evening but they were hardly needed for there was indeed no blackout, the entire harbor was brightly illuminated from end to end.
My father was abruptly wakened by the sound of antiaircraft guns opening fire from all around the harbor. Moments later bombs crashed through the dockside warehouses and into the old town. Despite good visibility the first German bombs had overshot their targets. Few of the remaining bombs would. My father had once shot down a German fighter plane that was strafing linemen working high up on telegraph poles with a hand held machine gun that he pulled out of a truck; but now he was unarmed and decided to stay put even with the steady chorus of exploding bombs nearby. The cry of battle stations had barely rang out when the Joseph Wheeler received a direct hit and began to roll over to her port side in flames. The John L. Motley with a cargo of high octane gas was next to take a direct hit and would eventually explode. A bomb went down the smokestack of the Samuel Tilden igniting its cargo of gasoline and munitions. The tanker Devon Coast was hit and spewed its burning fuel across a harbor full of sailors attempting to swim for safety. The explosion of the John L. Motley punctuated the raucous sound of battle, pounding the warehouse roof with heavy debris and piercing it with red hot metal shards. It was time to go. As my father ran out he could see the carnage now taking place around the harbor as tracer bullets filled the sky with their zigzags. Antiaircraft guns were firing wildly hitting the tops of their own ships. In all the confusion the spotlights on the harbor were not turned off until the air raid was half over. But now with ships filled with volatile cargos alight and a giant flaming oil slick atop the water, the harbor was as bright as day.
Within a half hour all but two of the German bombers that had been downed disappeared into the night. There would be no pursuit. After the first bombs fell there had been tremendous panic in the city’s streets, especially with the lack of shelters in the old part of town. Many had taken refuge in the medieval Norman castle overlooking the harbor, but as the All Clear siren cried out many flocked to the water’s edge to view the hellish landscape illuminated by massive flames. A number of ships around the John Harvey were either ablaze or sinking but they themselves had received no direct hits. Its crew however was desperately fighting a fire engulfing the ship’s stern. After a week in port they had still not unloaded their cargo as they could get no priority on a shipment that did not officially exist, 100 tons of bombs containing poison gas. Suddenly the ship completely disappeared in a tremendous explosion and the freighter Testbank that was unfortunately tied up alongside completely disintegrated with her. The explosion tore the waterfront spectators apart along with the building facades behind them and sent a tidal wave streaming up over the breakwater. A whirlwind of broken glass and shutters swirled through the streets as the blast tore out nearly every window in the city. Two Thousand shells were hurled over a thousand feet into the air and as they detonated in a colorful display they sent a deadly poisonous mixture raining down over harbor and city.
My father noticed something strange in the air amidst the waves of acrid battle smoke; it was the smell of garlic. Soon a mob came fleeing past him. Mothers were clutching small children and others were dropping in the streets unable to get up. My father suddenly found it difficult to see and breath. Not only was the Captain and crew of the John Harvey lost but the Security Officer and chemical warfare unit who were the only ones that could have given some insight into treating the many wounded that would soon be flooding into the Hospital. Since the secret cargo was not listed on any manifest no one realized the consequences of what had just happened. Whether these bombs contained mustard gas or lewisite still remains unclear but in any case its effects proved to be more effective than would normally be expected. Many pulled out from the flaming harbor were misdiagnosed and treated for exposure to cold by rapping their wet bodies in blankets. They were allowed to sit for hours in clothing soaked with oil and poison until their skin began to blister and ulcerate. Men who had seemed only mildly injured began to die the next day.
A chemical warfare expert, Lt. Col. Stewart F. Alexander was called in from Army Headquarters in Algiers to investigate the unusual casualties. He immediately suspected that the Germans had dropped mustard gas, but when he found bomb fragments containing American serial numbers designated for gas shells he figured it out despite the immediate denials by port authorities. For many his insight came too late beyond the point of treatment. Of the thousand allied casualties 628 were known to have been burnt by gas of which 84 died but there may have been more as the cause of injury was not recorded for all casualties . There were at least another thousand civilian casualties that were denied treatment in military hospitals nor were they ever informed of the cause of their mysterious injuries. Many who now live in Bari still remain unaware of those who died here from poison gas even though its carcinogenic effects have continued to kill for years afterward.
Explosions in Bari’s harbor continued to rock the Junkers even when miles back at sea. They had left 17 Allied ships sitting on the bottom of the harbor and another 7 severely damaged. Facilities at the port were so badly destroyed that no cargo could be unloaded for three weeks. It has been suggested that the repulse of Mark Clark’s 5th Army offensive was partially to blame on the lack of supplies that did not arrive at Bari as much as on the weather that its failure was officially attributed to. The 15th Air Force was left non-operational for two months. It was the worst such disaster since the attack on Pearl Harbor but few would ever hear of it. Too many now knew the facts to keep it totally quiet though they tried. Churchill ordered that all injuries resulting from poison gas be purged from military records. Only cursory information of the air raid was given to the press but gas was never mentioned. My father suffering from only mild exposure to the poison was again ordered to report to Casablanca and told in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut.
Escapees from prison camps were not yet sent back to the front lines at this time. My father was labeled a War Hero and traveled the Country behind his machine gun once more putting on combat displays for the public as part of Here’s Your Infantry. Americans were tiring of the War and financial support for it was waning. Admittance to these shows was the price of a War Bond and their purchase played a crucial role in raising badly needed revenue to continue the fight. In 1945 The Treasury Department published a poster to accompany the tour, which contained the same image as the one that I found on the continental postcard.
During the War it seemed that everyone was interested in writing my father’s story but he was strictly limited to what he could say. The little that ended up printed in newspapers was more a product of the War Department’s spin than anything resembling the truth. Afterwards it was old news, no one cared. Between normal wartime secrecy and the potential embarrassment over this disaster, many truths behind this story remain a mystery to this day. After 65 years we are hardly any closer to knowing the true circumstances that brought this shipment of poison gas to Bari and are left to guess. Most accounts that acknowledge the shipment say it was brought in as a precautionary measure in case the Germans decided to use gas on us. But deterrents are not normally kept secret if they are to deter. Recently released letters written by Winston Churchill reveled he was encouraging the use of poison gas in Italy to break the stalemate there but this does little more than just add to our speculations. We tend to remember only those parts of history that do us justice, at least those of us who can forget.
The Pest House
The Blackwell family that had inherited that large island situated in the East River between New York and Queens had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to sell it. Its rocky nature made it unsuitable for profitable farming so few found interest in it. The exception was Governor Philip Hone who thought the abundance of rock on the island (gray gneiss) could be quarried for a prison to be built on site. In 1828 the cornerstone for the Penitentiary was laid and the first inmate was incarcerated by 1832. Blackwell’s Island was on its way to becoming the new home of all those that mainstream society did not want to live with.
The convicts interred on the island proved a handy labor source for quarrying the stone needed for additional building projects. The Prison was followed in 1841 by a Lunatic Asylum designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. A Hospital for venereal disease opened in 1848. What would be the first of the many almshouses to hold the City’s homeless and indigent was constructed in 1850. That same year a workhouse was also constructed for those convicted of prostitution and drunken behavior. Charity Hospital (renamed City Hospital) opened in 1856 along with the Smallpox Hospital that came to be called the Pest House. This Island was considered to be far more isolated than the wooden shacks on the East River near Bellevue where these contagious victims had previously been quarantined. Smallpox was so feared that if afflicted no amount of wealth or social status prevented exile to this place among the charity cases, though it might provided for a room with a view on an upper floor. Because it was difficult to find nurses to work this this facility as at the asylum they were often staffed by prison inmates. The Smallpox Hospital was designed in the same gothic style as the Penitentiary as they both shared the same self taught architect, James Renwick, Jr. who was also responsible for Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral back on the City’s streets. The City and State seemed to spare little expense in their choice of hiring notable architects to erect attractive structures that were in actuality little more than human rat traps. Seen from a distance across the River one might have imagined that lives were lived here in pleasant idyll, which was anything but the truth.
The Pest House closed in the 1880’s when a more isolated hospital for contagions was built on North Brother Island. Because of its past history in treating smallpox contractors feared to rehabilitate the old hospital, but by 1902 the building reopened with the help of volunteers as the New York School of Nursing. To provide much needed space a north wing designed by York & Sawyer was added in 1904 and a south wing in 1905 by Renwick, Aspinwall & Owin. Both additions stayed true to the original carrying over its gothic design and details. In 1921 Blackwell’s was renamed Welfare Island in recognition of the services provided there. Though new facilities continued to be built, most of the island’s structures were growing old and were slowly abandoned. The Pest House closed in the 1950’s and fell into ruin. Thieves seeking its valuable cooper ran off with many of the building’s fixtures speeding its decay.
During the 1960’s New York became obsessed with urban renewal and the future of Welfare Island became the center of a debate between those who wanted to develop it for housing and those who wanted it made into a public park. In the meantime the area around the Pest House, which once commanded grand views right at the water’s edge, was surrounded by eight acres of landfill added to the Island’s southern tip. In 1968 the Delacorte Fountain was installed here spewing East River water 250 feet into the air. After Manhattan residents who often caught its polluted spray complained, the water was chlorinated but this only ended up killing nearby trees. The fountain was eventually shut down as the Island’s fate was sealed and construction began on its first residential units. The landfill was suggested as an alternative location to Central Park for the new Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after they won the bid for the Nubian Temple of Dendur. The sandstone structure would have been re-erected there under a giant glass box to protect it from our smoggy air but this proposal went nowhere. By 1973 when the Island was renamed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt the landfill was designated as the site for a vast monument honoring him despite the fact he never wanted such a thing. But when the City began to face a fiscal crisis and the architect for memorial, Louis Kahn died, the project was shelved. While some still hope that a monument to Roosevelt will be built there, arguments over the landfill’s future have left it a muddy field and its protective seawall in disrepair.
I first spotted the Pest House while on the Eastside promenade across the River in Manhattan and I immediately knew I had to go there. Though impetuousness it was quite some time until I finally made it over to Roosevelt Island. I arrived by tram to a place that looked very new, where young saplings had just been planted and apartments, parks, and roads were all under construction. A tall metal fence topped with razor wire separated the Island into two vastly different worlds. Once over the barrier I found a land suspended in time where everything was still and overgrown. The front door to the old City Hospital was missing though its windows were sealed with cinder blocks. Despite this invitation I did not wander in more than a few feet as I was greeted by total blackness. Next I came across the Strecker Laboratory, built in 1892 for the study of pathology. I had heard stories of curiosity seekers retrieving bottles of pickled fetuses from the cellar. I could walk right in where a wall had collapsed but since it looked as if it were picked pretty clean I thought I’d move on as the floor was sliding into the basement. Nearby amidst the tall weeds was the oddest sight of all, a modern subway entrance. Despite its promise the gate to it was locked. Beyond it piles of rubble topped with fading ragweed surrounded the Pest House. Under a dark stormy sky with windows missing from its vine covered walls and its mansard roof all but gone I thought I stepped into a gothic horror story. Most of the upper floors had caved in on themselves making the lower level an obstacle course of twisted debris. Moving any of it to make for a better passage brought on the risk of having much more of it rain down on my head. As I moved about cautiously the City had all but disappeared. I had entered a realm in which the tasks and sights of everyday life no longer existed.
Almost nine years would pass before I returned to the Pest House and it was quite a different sight. The debris and weeds had all been removed and it sat naked in an open sea of mud. City Hospital had caught fire in the intervening years and its charred remains removed. I was startled to see the Strecker Lab; it was unrecognizable in its new incarnation as a MTA power substation. Renwick’s Hospital had been designated a landmark back in 1975 but little had been done to stabilize it except for the placing of heavy wooden beams on its outer walls to prop up the sagging bays that were most in danger of falling. A more recent visit to the Island’s south side required no fence climbing though the Pest House itself was now fenced off. This time I was content to view it from afar. Birds fluttered about its shell and those perched high on the rafters of this makeshift sanctuary eyed me carefully. Its ghostly yet stately presence remained but its more sanitized setting left much to be desired for an artist in search of a soul filled landscape.
On the 26th of December 2007 a portion of the Pest House’s northern facade collapsed. The obvious lack of care the City gave to this landmark building necessitates all to question if there ever was any real commitment to save it. There always seem to be some real estate deal in the works that finds historical landmarking nothing more than a nuisance. But when it becomes too difficult for a City to even maintain a ruin one has to wonder what it can do with competence. Even with recent commitments to stabilize the structure I am sure that a battle can be expected to rage between developers, the local Historical Society, and those controlling the City’s budget. If this historic structure is somehow renovated something will still be lost as much has been lost already. This City does not understand the power inherent in ruins. In a world where the tax base and concession fees reign supreme can anyone be expected to understand?
Because of my personal history with the Island I was happy when I found my first postcard of the Pest House, reincarnated as the Nurses Home. At the time I thought it a rare find but over the years I discovered that many of Roosevelt Island’s long gone institutions can be found pictured on postcards. Though not in plentiful supply some important publishers as the Rotograph Company made cards of its major structures. The Albertype Company also produced a notable set of black & white postcards on the Island’s buildings for Otto Schmidt & Son. Most view-cards from other publishers tend to only show the island at a distance though some postcards of the Queensborough Bridge, which passes over the Island, can reveal details of nearby buildings.
A Simple Message
One might think that reading the messages found on the backs of old postcards would yield great insights into times past. While some messages are of clear historical importance, the vast majority tell us that people were pretty much the same as they are now. The weather has been very cold. The scenery is beautiful, Your Aunt is still sick. I will be arriving tomorrow on the noon train. I miss you. Why don’t you write?
But sometimes even an ordinary message can reveal more than was intended. We think of old postcards as hovering around a hundred years of age but too often we forget that the people who mailed them when the cards were new may have had a much longer historical perspective. On this unsigned card from August of 1908 there was just a simple message but one that made me think more about the hand who wrote it than the image. The back read, The falls along the Columbia Gorge are wonderful. I have been along there - or by there both by the car and horseback. Went all the way up in 1862, partially by small boat and partially by land.
February 10, 2008
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Published by Arcadia Publishing
Yorktown is not a glamorous place. It does not have great natural wonders, popular amusements, or sites of great historical importance. Relatively it is not even a very old town having sprung up as a commuter community from the railroads that pushed northward from New York City. One might easily wonder why anyone would even bother to produce a book on this place. But Yorktown, like the thousands of other such towns across America is the place where we buy our groceries, fill up the tank of our car, watch our children grow, live our lives. There are many things close to home that can bring us as much joy as those we find on exotic vacations, that is if we open our eyes to them. This book is a reminder of life’s small pleasures, the things that we should keep ourselves more closely attuned to for they are apt to disappear before we know it.
While Arcadia Publishing has produced many books on small towns it must be noted that this volume is part of their Postcard History Series, and indeed nearly every illustration in this book comes from a postcard. This is significant because for the most part postcards represent images that were important to a community as a whole, not just one person as a photograph can be. They may be biased representations but ones that give us insight into what people once thought important rather than just being an impersonal slice of life. The cards found in this book seem to range widely in significance from an image of a farmer’s Holstein Bull to the large public bridges built over the Croton Reservoir, yet they were all deemed equally important at that time to be placed on a postcard.
The book begins at a logical point highlighting the railroad that turned this once rural farming community into a town. It is followed by chapters on the countryside in which hotels and bungalows sprang up to provide rest and recreation for city dwellers among the areas many lakes. It also covers places that relate to the local economy from the downtown stores to the area’s agricultural heritage. It goes on to cover Yorktown’s notable private homes, historic churches, and municipal buildings. There is even a section on the bridging of the Croton Reservoir that so strongly impacted the area’s geography. While most of the images seem to predate the First World War they are not restrained to any one period to give us a full history up to the present time. Postmark dates are often referred to, which is a nice touch. A map is also included showing the Town’s older structures overprinted on a more modern map. Though the scale makes it difficult to read it remains a valuable addition to those closely involved with the Town’s history.
But perhaps the most interesting illustrations are those that depict the quiet streets and roads of the area that create a deep sense of character. This is very much a book of place where the landscape is not the setting for a story but the leading player in it. Many images taken from the small villages within the town such as Mohegan Lake, Shrub Oak, and Amawalk all contribute to this feeling. Despite the rural nature of this township it is surprising how much has changed over the years. After awhile I was happy to find a picture of a building that hadn’t burnt down or a farm that wasn’t turned into an apartment complex.
It is obvious that a great deal of effort was put into labeling each postcard for much insightful information is attached to each. That alone makes this book a valuable resource for anyone interested in Yorktown or even Westchester County’s history. While the various subjects that comprise each chapter combined with the exacting captions of each picture add up to a good summary of the area’s history, it is unfortunate that there is no narrative outside of the small introduction to tie all this information into a more clearly understandable story. A small history of postcards is also included but it is too brief to provide a clear perspective on the book’s illustrations. Those truly interested in the area’s history can easily overlook these flaws. The visual information that was gathered to make this book possible paints a rich history of Yorktown. History was once relegated to the story of Kings, now it’s about all of us.
Yorktown sells for $19.99 and should be available at area bookstores and online. It can also be purchased through Arcadia Publishing:
The Lights of Nauset
A number of lighthouses can be found stretched along the Cape Cod shore but few have seen as many changes as those that stood on the Nauset Bluffs above the Atlantic at Eastham. While there are many modern photochromes of this light to be found older images can be difficult to come by. In fact it has been the recent acquisition of a long sought after postcard that inspired this piece. Sometimes an unusual card may inspire a further inquiry into the subject, but this rare find could have been easily overlooked had the lights history been unknown to me.
Despite the placement of a single powerful beacon atop the great highlands at Truro and another pair of lights situated down at Chatham bluffs many ships continued to be wrecked on the dark shores of Eastham that lay between them. The hidden shoals off the Cape consumed over 1000 ships on this stretch of beach alone as it sat on the busy route between New York and Boston. Local residents petitioned the Boston Marine Society for help in their effort to gain some relief, and after a year of lobbying the U.S. Congress approved funding for a new lighthouse to be built halfway between the two stations already standing. It was believed at this time that this station needed to be distinguished from those at Truro and Chatham, which led to the construction of three 15 foot tall brick towers placed 150 feet apart at Nauset Beach in 1838. Though referred to as beach lights they actually stood 70 feet above it and only 30 feet from the bluff’s edge. The contract to build these lights was won by Winslow Lewis who bid almost half of the alloted budget. Though completed in only 38 days his low price ensured shoddy workmanship and the lack of proper materials used in its construction. No foundations were laid, which proved to be a major problem as the elements wore away at the sandy soil. In only fifty years it was evident that they would not last much longer.
In 1892 the Three Sisters of Nauset, as the lights came to be known, were replaced with three new wooden towers, each 22 feet in height. They were built further inland and being made of wood they could easily be moved further back when erosion threatened. They were badly needed for it wasn’t long before the old deteriorating brick towers tumbled over the bluff and onto the beach. I have never seen postcards of the brick lights for they are rather early, but I have seen photographs of their brick remains exposed in the shifting sands of the beach, which makes depictions of them on cards a possibility. A number of different postcards of the wooden Three Sisters were made though they are not common finds today.
The need to have three lights burning expensive oil had been seriously questioned ever since the 1840’s; it was the only station ever built this way. By 1911 when erosion was once again threatening the lights it was finally decided that this time only one beacon would be kept in service. with the north. The middle tower of the Three Sisters was moved inland and attached to the light keepers house and fitted with a new revolving flashing Fresnel lens. The abandoned south and north towers, now only 8 feet from the edge of the bluff were sold off a year later at the hefty price of $3.50 to Helen R. Cummings and removed from the heights. In 1920 the iron lantern rooms that caped them were discarded while the wooden structures were added to the Cummings’ beach cottage known renamed The Towers down on Cable Road. While there seems to be as many postcards depicting this single wooden tower attached to the keepers house as there are of the Three Sisters, cards of this private cottage are quite a rare find.
As other twin light stations began to be dismantled it was decided that the 48 foot tall north tower down at Chatham would be of better use if placed atop the Nauset bluffs. In 1923 the remaining wooden tower was carefully rolled down the road to the parking lot on the beach. This tower was sold to Albert Hall who also added it to his beach cottage that became known as The Beacon. But years later it was detached and turned into a hamburger stand. I have seen photographs of this cottage but never a postcard though there is always a possibility they may exist.
When I had hiked out to see Nauset light back in 1992 I was rather disappointed. Only the top of the lantern room was visible as it rose above the tall pines that had grown in around it. The light keeper’s house was close to the public road but it had been sold off to be used as a private residence when the light was automated in 1955; and it was now partially obscured by a high ugly fence. As I continued up the road I was confronted by a barrier blocking my passage. Making my way around it I soon discovered its purpose as the road ahead dropped off a precipice. The Perfect Storm that hit a year earlier had taken almost 30 feet off the bluff. I could see the days for this light were numbered. The Coast Guard was well aware of this too for they made plans to shut down the light by 1993.
Unable to shoot any images of the lighthouse to my satisfaction I later purchased my very first chrome postcard depicting it as it once stood in a open field. I had long assumed that all cards of the new Nauset Beach light were in formats that appealed little to me, either linens or chromes. When I eventually came across some attractive views dating back to the 1920’s I was pleasantly surprised. The tower was all white back then before the top was painted its distinctive bright red in the 1940’s to make it more useful as a day beacon. Oddly it is the cards from this period that seem to be the rarest of all.
Postcards as well as old photographs often give us unexpected insights into history. While records were kept on many lighthouses they were in no way complete. Every once in awhile an image will appear that will depict a lighthouse in a structural condition or coloration that had previously been unknown. While the top of the Nauset tower is now painted red from its original white, a linen card exists depicting the tower with a black top. Unfortunately postcards were often highly retouched and it is difficult to know if a brief moment of the light’s history has been captured here or it is an example of artistic license.
While tourists have flocked to Cape Cod since the latter part of the 19th century they remained close to those hotels that sprang up near rail or steamer routes. Only after the State Highways were built and the National Seashore established did Nauset light become easily assessable. From then on many modern chromes depicting the light have been made and the Nauset Beach Light has become a well known symbol of the Cape. Its image has found its way onto all sorts of commercial products and tourist trinkets not to mention the Massachusetts State license plate. This notoriety left many unhappy about leaving this lighthouse to the fate of the elements. From this grew the Nauset Light Preservation Society that obtained a lease for the lighthouse and they began a long fundraising campaign to help save it from impending destruction. Over two snowy November days in 1996 the 90 ton tower was moved back 336 feet with the help of the International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo. The tiny red pole that was placed 43 feet from the bluff’s edge to mark where the tower had once stood was only 3 feet away by 2003. Before the light keepers house toppled into the ocean it was donated to the National Park Service and reunited with the light tower in 1998.
The Park Service had purchased two of the old wooden towers back in 1963 and acquired the remaining tower in 1975. Although practically in ruins they were faithfully restored and put on public display in a wooded section of the National Seashore in 1989. The Nauset beacon was relit in 1997 as a private guide to navigation. It and its future incarnations will probably inspire many additional postcards ’till Cape Cod sinks into the Sea.