Disasters in Mahwah History
Presented by John W. Bristow, February 25, 1999, to the Mahwah Historical Society.
“Disaster” from the Latin dis + astrum, meaning, in the old astrological sense, Ill-Starred … any happening that causes great harm or damage, serious or sudden misfortune, calamity. Disaster implies great or sudden misfortune that results in loss of life, property, etc. or that is ruinous to an undertaking; calamity suggests a grave misfortune that brings deep distress or sorrow to an individual or to the people at large; catastrophe is specifically applied to a disastrous end or outcome; cataclysm suggests a great upheaval, especially a political or social one, that causes sudden and violent change with attending distress, suffering, etc.”
A mishap is not very serious; a misfortune is due to bad luck; an accident is with loss of limb or property, a calamity causes (great personal or public) suffering.
This program is supposed to be about disasters in Mahwah History. There are a number of difficulties in producing such a program. This first involves the definition of “disaster.”
So, perhaps, the program should be about mishaps, calamities or misfortunes in Mahwah history. Unfortunately there are simply too many of these to catalogue. There have been hundreds of fires and accidents in Mahwah history to attempt to make some sort of a series of meaningful generalizations about them. Then there is the problem of the time necessary to assess all of these things for a single program. Hundreds of hours of research would be necessary. I have decided not to do much original research for this. I turned to the several thousand note cards which I had collected in the course of writing my local history column for five years in the Home and Store News. Even that took many days, even if I did reduce the materials down to about 250 cards. Another problem is the fact that there is little that the casual researcher can depend on before the availability of local newspapers. I know that there are letters and documents in public and private collections which might mention fires and storms more than 100 years ago, but there was no time for that. I decided to confine myself to the period after 1888. Why 1888?. That is the year of what can really be identified as a disaster which became legendary, the famous Blizzard of ’88. 1888 was the year after my grandmother was married. She never tired of reminding up youngsters that no storm would even equal it. So I will start with it, with a few brief mentions of events reported in the papers before that year.
Hail storms are something that many remember from times past. A violent hailstorm passed over Mahwah in 1871, with stones the size of walnuts being gathered here in large quantities. An even worse one took place on the Fourth of July, 1874, at about 4:00 pm. John Y. Dater reported that over 400 panes of glass had been broken in his buildings. The entire peach crop was ruined and many trees were stripped of their leaves. People caught outdoors in the storm suffered painful injuries. Was it a disaster? There certainly was property damage, but no one died. Probably not a disaster.
There were severe injuries to individuals in accidents. A brakeman was badly hurt when he fell off an Erie train in 1874. J. Valentine was laid up for several days when he tried to load a box of strawberries from his wagon onto a freight car. The train started up suddenly and the heavy crate fell on him. A personal mishap, but not a disaster. The next year there was a derailment near the depot in Mahwah. A broken rail and what were called “some rotten freight cars” caused the accident. The coroner and the undertaker arrived on the scene quickly but, as the correspondent of the Bergen County Democrat wrote, “there was no business for them as no one was killed.”
Two situations involving what we might call driver error were also reported in the paper. In August 1874 a delivery man for the Ramsey post office fell asleep when making a delivery in Darlington. When he woke up he found that the horse had taken him out of his way. He was so mad that he kicked the horse. The horse kicked back, slipped his harness and left the mail deliverer stranded. In 1860 Judge David Christie was summoned before the Elders of the Ramapo Reformed Church, presided over by Pastor William Demarest. He was accused of what we call today DWI. The Judge insisted that he was sober as a judge should be, but John Winter, G. Hopper Van Horn and Garet Van Riper, who were with him on the occasion, testified against him and he was declared guilty. Fortunately it was not New York City in 1999. His horse and wagon were not confiscated. He was “affectionately exhorted henceforth to refrain from the practice.”
Blizzards and Snow
What about the Blizzard of 1888? Was it such a big deal? Yes. “Not within the history of the present generation has Bergen County been visited with such a storm as we have experienced this week”, began the leading article on the storm in the Bergen County Democrat. The winter of 1888 had been a remarkably mild one. A rain storm began in Sunday March but it quickly turned to snow, accompanied by strong winds and low temperatures, all the classic conditions for a blizzard. By the morning of the twelfth, two to ten feet of snow had fallen. Drifts piled up on the main street in Hackensack. The Bergen County Bank had a drift fifteen feet high and twenty feet wide covering its main entrance. Many people had to dig tunnels to get out of their homes. One train got through on Monday morning, but no other trains moved until Wednesday. All telephone and telegraph wire were down, so that news of how extensive the storm was did not reach other parts of the county for several days. Milk rose in price to $1 per gallon in New York City, and coal was $40 a ton.
A commuter train from Ridgewood on Monday morning got only as far as Paterson. About fifty passengers tried to return home on foot. Gales almost blew them off the Passaic River bridge. They suffered terribly. A young Suffern boy, Cass Baker, took the train to go to school in Nyack on Monday morning. The train did not arrive. He had to remain on the train until Friday evening. There were a number of personal tragedies reported in the area. Dagbart Hughes of New City, a man of about 70 walked to a neighbor’s on Monday. On the way back he was overcome by the cold and was later found frozen to death against a fence. In Viola, back of Suffern, Mrs. W. H Alderich was about to give birth. Her husband went to fetch the doctor on foot, about half a mile from the Alderich home. After six hours he and doctor were able to get back to the home only to find that they were too late. Her time had come. She was dead, the baby lived.
All week long, crews attempted to reopen the roads and the train tracks. One fatal attempt took place on Wednesday. A Susquehanna train of two engines and two cars attempted to break through a big snow bank near Hiram Walsh’s brickyard. The train attempted to smack through the drift, but the head engine was thrown off the track and into the ditch, overturning. A young man, C. Elmer Demarest, who was riding in the cab was thrown under the engine and killed instantly. Eventually about 10,000 men were employed clearing the Erie tracks alone. Many roads remained impassable for many days. In one respect the account in the Bergen County Democrat proved to be inaccurate. They ended their article by remarking that “within a week. the great snow storm will be a thing of the past.” They implied that it would soon be forgotten, since people concentrate on the future, not the past. Was the Blizzard of 1888 a disaster? Yes. About 400 people perished in the storm, according to the World Almanac, although we know nothing about its effects in Mahwah, since there is no mention of this community in accounts of the storm.
The storm was not soon forgotten, however. Mahwah was completely closed down for 72 hours during a storm in February of 1899. It was said that the temperature had fallen lower that it had during the blizzard of ’88. A major storm in January, 1905 “almost completely closed down the Township”, according to the Ramsey Journal. The big rotary plow was sent down from Susquehanna, but it failed to keep the tracks open. “This almost equals the blizzard of 1888,” commented the reporter. A heavy storm on the same day as the famous blizzard hit the area on March 12, 1912. It reminded many people of the earlier storm, but the snow quickly turned to rain and fears subsided. Another storm, accompanied by 80 mph winds, closed the schools, interrupted trains and the trolley line, and tore down most electric and telephone lines. Since Rockland Electric could not install new poles, temporary ones were propped up with stones so that service could be restored. The storm was said to have caused more damage locally than the great blizzard since we had no wires then.
On December 13, 1915 a snow storm deposited drifts up to six feet in depth. Train and trolley service ceased. It was not cold enough to classify as a blizzard, however. In March of that same winter a storm created drifts 4 to 5′ deep. The snow was so heavy that when men from the Havemeyer Farm tried to plow Valley Road, the plow kept overturning. A 1934 blizzard set in on February 19th, Roads were impassable, taxi service was suspended and the trains were hours late. Ramsey High School was closed for a week. (You can never get a student to admit that closing schools could be classified as a disaster!) But when Mr. Donnelly, the teacher at the Mountain School struggled over to his building he found three of his charges waiting patiently for him to open up.
By February of 1940 most of the people who remembered the Blizzard of 1888 were dead, but some brought up the subject when the worst snow storm in years hit the area. Hundreds of cars, trucks and buses were stranded on the highway, 150 of them between Saddle River and the Ramsey traffic circle. Every inch of space in Secor’s farm stand was filled with people stranded for the night. Ten people reached Pellington’s and nearly 200 occupied the Saddle Inn, where the Steak and Ale is located today. A bus which had taken over two hours to get from New York to one-half a mile from the Inn finally stalled and the passengers walked to the Inn. The food lasted until midnight, but the coffee lasted until the end. Many remained at the Inn for fifteen hours. When Dr. Liddy was summoned to assist with the birth of a sixth child for Mrs. Richard West near the top of the Houvenkopf, he and Police Chief Smith left their cars on the highway and walked a mile up the mountain road in hip-deep snow in time to assist in the birth of a healthy girl.
One of the deepest snow falls here came during the winter of 1945-6. Over thirty inches of snow fell in 24 hours. Many driveways were not shoveled out until spring. Another blizzard hit in 1967. Governor Hughes declared February 8th a bank holiday to ease the strain on traffic. Since few motorists ventured out, there were few accidents. The Police were asked to use their patrol cars as taxis and were especially urged to assist women found walking alone. None of these storms can have exceeded the impact of the famous blizzard of 1888. In recent years almost every winter seems to have produced a snow fall of more than a foot at one time or another. The last seems to have been in 1994 when a combination of snow, sleet and then more snow on January 17 closed many roads in the area, including Route 17. Spring Street leading up to Franklin Turnpike was impassable. Plans had been made for five years to realign the road. Ramsey decided to begin the suggested changes in the spring. (Slides on snow and ice storms.)
Of course there were other types of storms to contend with. A July, 1921 hail storm pelted Mahwah and Greenwood Lake but spared Suffern and Ramsey. 3″ stones were found in Mahwah and as large as 6″ in Greenwood Lake. Gardens and crops were ruined, holes were punched in the tops of cars (many of them had canvas tops in those days) and even the roofs of houses. Over 1,000 panes of glass were broken in Paterson’s greenhouse just north of Ramsey. Housewives gathered up the hailstones and used them to replenish their ice boxes and freeze their ice cream.
Wind storms frequently blew trees down and blocked roads. In 1902 Thomas Kenan was carrying a load of hay to the Havemeyer’s Morningside Farm when a blast of wind blew the whole load and its wagon over. His leg was broken and he had to be sent to the Hospital in Paterson on the 4:45 train. The Good Samaritan Hospital was not founded until the next year. A 1928 wind storm, which blew the flagstaff off the Fardale School was said to have been nearly classified in some of the New York City papers as a tornado. No genuine tornado has ever touched down here as far as I know.
Lightning storms also did much damage. The Litchult barn in Masonicus burned in September of 1893, killing 3 horses, two cows and all of his farming tools. He was crippled with rheumatism and could do nothing to save the structure. A lightning bolt hit David Quackenbush’s house in May, 1918, destroying his chimney, tearing through his first floor and out a drain pipe. When lightning struck Gouverneur Price’s house during a 1916 storm it hit the cupola, stripped away all the wire in the chicken coop, killed all the perched chickens inside and eventually grounded itself in a lot nearby.
There were three days of severe thunderstorms in June of 1911. A falling tree knocked out electric power to Ramsey. Lightning struck Elias Mann’s house. He and his wife had retired for the night. The bolt jumped from a pipe in his bedroom to him as he lay in bed. He was unconscious for two hours but recovered. The Ramsey fire company responded to quell a fire near H. A. Winter’s house. When they found that it was not in Ramsey, they turned back. The barn burned to the ground killing a calf. Finally, during a lightning storm in 1924 brilliant flashes of light were observed along Wyckoff Avenue. A tree had fallen hitting the power line into Wyckoff and sending off showers of sparks. No one was seriously hurt but parts of Ramsey and Mahwah were blacked out, as well as Wyckoff. Were these incidents disasters?. No, personal calamities surely, but not disasters.
Floods and Hurricanes
I am tempted to combine two categories of natural disturbances together, since they are sometimes combined: hurricanes and floods. My knowledge of the history of flooding in Mahwah is incomplete. Civil Defense director Howard Avery wrote a History of Floods in Mahwah, but I have been unable to find my copy. The Township archives do not have a copy either. I did find some notes which Avery used in writing his history, with emphasis on the seventy-year period between 1903 and 1973
MAJOR FLOODS IN MAHWAH HISTORY
|October 9, 1903: 266.3 feet above sea level (highest ever). Maximum water flow: 12,400 cubic feet per second.|
|April 25, 1910: (foot bridge to American Brake Shoe under water).|
|March 12, 1936: 264.03. Maximum water flow: 7,780 cubic feet per second.|
|December 5, 1938: (Ramapo floods Suffern Sewage Plant, Route 17 at Ramapo partially blocked by rock slides)|
|July 23, 1945: (Route 202 closed by the New York border)|
|August 19, 1955: 264.02. Maximum water flow: 8,580 cubic feet per second.|
|October 16, 1955: 264.45. Maximum water flow: 10,900 cubic feet per second.|
|February 28, 1958: (Extensive flooding especially in the Saddle River Brook).|
|May 30, 1968: 264.87 (Masonicus Brook floods into Alexandra Court)|
|August 28, 1971 (Hurricaine Doris): 262.88 (8″ of rain in 24 hours)|
|November 8, 1972 (Hurricaine Agnes): 260.8|
|February 3, 1973: 261.2|
|July 14, 1975: 261.2|
|November 1977: (Route 202 closed by New York border)|
Let us look at a few hurricane and flood slides. You must be really tired of hearing me talk.
The 1903 flood, the greatest in the history of the Ramapo Valley, began with a soft rain on October 8th. It continued for thirty hours. A series of dams broke, starting with that at Cranberry Lake near Arden and continuing through Ramapo and Hillburn. All the bridges on the NY side of the line were swept away, except the railroad bridge over the Ramapo at Ramapo. In Mahwah all bridges, except the Cleveland Bridge were destroyed. The entire valley was inundated. The tracks of the Erie were washed away, and it was weeks before full rail service was restored. The hamlet of Ramapo was badly damaged and roads were blocked everywhere. The Rockland Electric generating plant in Hillburn was largely destroyed. The Ramapo Ajax plant in Hillburn and the new Brake Shoe factory in Mahwah were flooded. Dead animals strewed the fields. A dead horse was found hanging from a tree at the Havemeyer estate. News of the flood damage did not reach New York quickly because all telegraph and telephone wires were down. There is no way to estimate the amount of damage that was done. Of course, the great expert on this flood is Ramapo Historian Craig Long, whose article on the flood appeared in the summer 1983 issue of South of the Mountain the journal of the Rockland County Historical Society.
As Civil Defense director, Howard Avery carefully recorded many events in Mahwah. Here are a few slides which he took of the 1968 flood, mostly along the Masonicus Brook. The flood scenes are contrasted with normal views of the same areas. The flooded houses are along Alexandra Court and Devine Drive, off Ramapo Avenue. The last two are of the Glen Grey Road, and a few days later of the Deerhaven access road.
Not every problem in our town can be blamed on nature. A constant problem has been fire. The papers are filled with small house fires which sometimes caused minor damage, but often led to near or total destruction of a home, a personal tragedy, but not necessarily a community disaster. In the early days there was no fire department to assist homeowners when fire broke out. In 1896 a 150 year old house burned on Stag Hill. There was nothing which could be done to save it.
The most spectacular fire before the advent of fire protection broke out on August 29, 1899 in the servant’s wing of the old Miller Mansion. The fire extinguisher had mysteriously been removed to a nearby orchard. The 3″ fire hose had kinks in it and burst. By the time another hose was obtained, the lead pipes in the basement had melted. Some damaged furniture was saved but otherwise the house was a complete wreck. Yet it was not until 1914 that the Mahwah Fire Department was organized. The inn was rebuilt on Olney Road, just north of where Howard MacPherson lives, then the home of Elmer J. Snow.
On May 28, 1927 a fire broke out, perhaps set when some rubbish was burned in one of the fireplaces and the wooden shingles caught fire. The fire Department responded quickly, but high winds made fighting the blaze difficult. Ramsey and Suffern departments responded but there was a shortage of water. Finally with the help of the Suffern company a hose was run from Lake Oweno but it was impossible to stop. Again and again the fire spread to the roof of the Snow house next door. Only determined efforts saved that house. At the end only the chimney of the Inn remained. The Assistant Chief, interviewed at the scene of the fire, insisted that what the town needed was fire hydrants. That would have saved the Inn.
At a post-fire meeting new rules for crowd control were formulated. Crowds had interfered with the work of the firemen and had driven their cars over the fire hose, cutting off the water. Chief Scherer appointed five policemen to provide security at future fires. Later that year a committee met with Township officials to press for a modern fire alarm system to replace the old bell. Weeds had grown up around the bell and it could not be heard very far away. On Christmas eve of the same year Joe Bink’s barn caught fire. Since Fire Chief Scherer was out delivering Christmas turkeys, there was no one to sound the alarm. Finally Mrs. Scherer called Fred Eggers who had his daughter ring the alarm bell. Few heard it and the barn was a complete loss.
A direct result of this fire was the organization of Fire Company #2 the next month. In 1929 three-quarters of the Fire Department threatened to resign unless they were provided with a Fire House. They were storing their fire truck in a barn and had to clean up after a fire in the open air, often in freezing weather. The result was the erection of the Fire House on Miller Road. Another fire on Stag Hill in 1962 destroyed a home and left two families homeless. There had been a Stag Hill Fire Company organized a few weeks earlier, but they had no equipment. Under the leadership of Mayor Morris Ruddick the Township decided immediately after the fire to construct a fire house and buy a fire truck for the Stag Hill Community. One of the families was given $1,000 by the Brake Shoe factory where the father worked to secure a new home. The man of the other family was offered a job by Brake Shoe (Mayor Ruddick was Superintendent of the Brake Shoe plant in Mahwah.)
Arson was suspected in the burning of some barns at the Havemeyer Farm early in the century, and four separate arson fires destroyed the Winter House in the 1960s. It finally had to be demolished.
Brush and woods fires were also a problem, since Mahwah had so much mountain and woods land. A serious fire in the woods near Cragmere was put out by neighbors with wet brooms. One of these was the poet Joyce Kilmer. Another such fire in 1936, similarly fought by the “wet broom brigade” attracted five little girls who asked if they could help. They went home for brooms and joined the fire line. A serious woods fire took place in 1964. About 500 acres belonging to Fred Wehren caught fire and threatened not only his home but Deerhaven as well. At the height of the fire over 1,000 volunteer, including scouts, students from the Immaculate Conception Seminary and local firemen fought the blaze. It was believed to have been caused by a hunter getting a jump on the deer season. Another notable fire took place in 1958 at the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant. Much praise was directed at the company’s professional crew, and the five volunteer fire companies from neighboring communities, for the skillful way they handled the blaze. The Chief Fire Inspection officer at the plant was a former New York City fireman. He had, as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, headed a fire fighting unit during World War II.
The railroad was the source of many accidents through the years. Some were tragedies such as when John Dean was struck by the Tuxedo Express as he was measuring the fence between the freight and the passenger track at the Mahwah Depot in 1900. In 1903 a leg was found on the tracks near the Depot. The rest of the mangled body was found nearby. The victim was a moulder at the Brake Shoe and had gone out to the tracks to look for coal during the national coal strike. He was 32 years old and left a wife and two children. In 1909 the body of an Arden man was found along the tracks in Mahwah. He had apparently been riding the rods and had fallen off. No inquest was considered necessary. The spectacular crash of two trolley cars between Ridgewood and Glen Rock with three fatalities, took place in 1911, but that was outside of Mahwah, as was the very serious train wreck at Sterlington, between Hillburn and Sloatsberg in 1958, with five dead and forty injured.
Two well known Mahwah residents were injured in separate accidents near the Suffern station. The Poet Joyce Kilmer and the Librarian of the Mahwah Free Public Library, Miss Helen North. She had gone to Suffern to the dentist and was going to catch the train back to Mahwah. She waited for the freight train to pass before crossing the tracks and failed to see the Chicago Express coming around the bend. She was killed instantly. This headline was one of several occasioned by the tragedy. This is the accident report filled out by the Suffern policeman who investigated the accident. It was provided to me by Craig Long.
Mahwah had its own train wrecks, but they were not fatal ones. One in 1905 just north of the Depot was caused by a broken axle. Twenty coal cars went off the tracks. No one was hurt. In 1931, 300 feet south of the station, a broken wheel on an eastbound freight caused the car to jump the track and sideswipe the milk train going west. (Remember all those cans of cream delivered through the years to the Sheffield Farms?) All four tracks on the Erie were blocked. The engine overturned and the crew were lucky to be able to crawl out alive. Passengers were shunted around the crash site for hours. Although several train personnel on both trains were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, no one was killed. The publicity for this program promised you information about the great train wreck of 1970. So here it is.
The final possible disaster is the automobile accident. Mr. Crocker was supposed to have had Mahwah’s first car, around 1900. And the young Henry O. Havemeyer terrorized local horses with his 45 horsepower machine in 1902. Perhaps he was the cause of the Township Board passing an ordinance, in 1902, that the maximum speed of cars here was 8 miles per hour. They even threatened to stretch a chain across Franklin Turnpike to dissuade speeders. Franklin Turnpike was the main road to the Catskills and to Albany on the west side of the Hudson for many years. It was the scene of numerous accidents.
In 1916 nine cars were involved in an accident. A large touring car had swerved to avoid some pedestrians and smashed a car going in the opposite direction. Other cars crashed into the original two. No arrests were made but summonses were issued to the offending car. In 1920 a New York City man was killed on the Turnpike when he tried to pull out of a long line of cars and pass the others only to run head on into a car going the opposite direction. The County Traffic Office suggested the widening of the Turnpike to 80 feet, with a center strip in 1924. They called it the most dangerous road in Bergen County. Since the road measures only about 30 feet wide near my house, this suggestion was never carried out. Route 202 was the scene of several accidents as well, but the main scene of accidents was the new Route 2, later Route 17.
The idea of building a new highway was broached in 1929. It was to lead from Hasbrouck Heights to the State Line near Hillburn. The first thing to be built was a by-pass around Hackensack. It was expected to cost about $3,000,000. Work began soon after, and in November 1936 the final section between Saddle River in Hohokus and the traffic circle at Franklin Turnpike in Ramsey was opened. It soon became a death trap. The straight section between the bridge over the Erie in Ramsey and the Ramapo River became known as butcher boulevard. I will show you some photos taken for the Ramsey Journal in the 1950s. The original photographs were given to our society by Tom Dater when he dispersed the photo archives of the Ramsey Journal. I have not had an opportunity to mount them properly, but Dick Greene has kindly identified most of the models and some of the locations where the pictures were taken. I will show them without comment.
So were there disasters in Mahwah History? Not many, really. There were storms and floods and accidents, some fatal, but probably only one situation deserves the name “disaster”: Butcher Boulevard. In the early 1950s, the highway was three lanes wide, with no center strip. The middle lane was the passing lane for cars going in both directions. Accident after accident made it the most fatal stretch of highway in the entire state, until, in 1955 steps were made to widen the highway, construct overpasses at Ramapo Avenue and other places, close the openings of the center strip and reduce the speed limit to 35. In recent years it has been widened to six lanes with a barrier which cars cannot cross between. Perhaps the bulk of the traffic which might still be building on Route 17 is now being drawn off onto Route 287, so that Mahwah’s only true disaster has been tamed. Some of you may be disappointed. You expected more pain and community suffering. Cheer up, all of us live near the Ramapo Fault. Someday the big quake may take place here, not along the San Andreas Fault in California!
This manuscript forms part of the John W. Bristow Papers at the Mahwah Museum.