Labor Day gives us a great opportunity to think about the historical memory of class in the Adirondacks.
For modern Adirondack workers Labor Day is little more than the season ending three-day weekend that signals the start of the annual southern migration of tourist everywhereis.
Our short memory (and outright neglect) of the struggles and sacrafice of working people here in the Adirondacks means that Labor Day picnics and parades are largely a thing of the past. One of the most common ways Adirondackers forget is through our obsession with “big man history” – our tendencacy to think of the rich and powerful leading us to greater and grander futures.
Here’s how one local historian recently write about travel guides issued by the New York Central Railroad:
Let’s travel back in time, to the wonderful world of railroading in the Adirondacks during the Gilded Age, with the help of New York Central & Hudson River Railroad travel guides. Many of these guides can be found in the Adirondack Museum’s library. They transport us to a time when this great experiment we call the Adirondack Park was brand new. So was the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railway.
Ahhh… let’s travel back in time to the wonderful world of railroading. Wonderful?
Sure, life was wonderful for the railroad barons and their minions, and for those who could save enough money for a visit to the Adirondacks by train in the 19th century, and for William Seward Webb – he was rich.
Although this historian (and too many others) give him the sobriquet “Doctor,” Webb barely practiced medicine. His real strengths came to the fore when he married the daughter of railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt (who was claiming at the time to being the world’s richest man).
Vanderbilt installed Webb as President of the Wagner Palace Car Company and Webb served as Vanderbilt’s front man as President of the Rutland Railroad (whose board of directors included millionaires such as Chauncy Depew, J. P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, William K. and Frederick W. Vanderbilt).
Suffice it to say William Seward (named after the NY Governor who kept his father out of Sing Sing Prison) was in charge of building the Adirondack and St Lawrence (later known as the Mohawk and Malone Railroad, and the Adirondack Division of the New York Central).
Note we said “was in charge of building” – that’s a little bit different than our unnamed historian’s characterization: “Dr. William Seward Webb, president of the Wagner Palace Car Company, finished building his Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railway northward from Herkimer and southward from Malone.” Even though Webb had very little to do with actually “building” anything except his own wealth, he comes down to us as the Gilded Age hero of “his” Adirondack Railroad.
Here is another story from the March 29, 1892 Boston Globe about the building of the A. & St. L. RR:
This city [Utica, NY] resembled Washington during war times hundreds of penniless and destitute Negroes are camped out tonight in the temporary places of shelter given them, and the citizens of Utica are consulting as to the best means of returning them to their homes.
All night, the Globe reported, “runaway slaves” had been coming into town. At least one hundred and fifty of them, mostly deep-south black hand laborers from Tennessee and the Carolinas, but some white immigrants as well, had fled, on foot, 100 miles or more from the crude (and cruel) work camps of the Adirondack and St. Lawrence north of the Bog River.
They wore “the thinnest of covering to protect them from the chill winter blasts” and arrived skinny, hungry, tired, and scared – several of their number had been reported killed by company thugs blocking the way south.
When they finally reached Utica (and several other surrounding towns), the town fathers quickly decided to immediately send these workers, men who actually did build the NY Central’s Adirondack Division, back home at public expense.
There is plenty of celebratory W. Seward Webb history on the web, but on Labor Day the Adirondack Almanack asks you to join us in celebrating the unmentioned, ignored and forgotten working men and women of the Adirondacks who didn’t find the Gilded Age as wonderful as some historians do today.
And For Your Viewing Pleasure: New York Central Railroad: A History in Advertising 1940-1956 (CD-ROM)