Thursday, April 18, 2019

Some Old Adirondack Laws Were Nothing To Sneeze At

For a long time now, my youngest son has operated a research laboratory in Singapore. Moving there from America was quite the culture shock, but he was clearly impressed with how clean everything was, a result of many laws that we in the US would consider overbearing. He remains very respectful of the culture there and wouldn’t joke about some of their laws, including one reinforced by signs in and near elevators: No Urinating in Lifts. For me, it instantly begs the question: was this common enough to merit a statute?

But before we scoff at the rules in other countries, consider a few of our own from right here in the Adirondacks. A foray into my vault of odd items culled from the pages of old regional newspapers yields a few similar gems.

This first one was merely a case of lawmakers not keeping pace with technology. In 1900, when horses were increasingly sharing the roads of New York with cars, this law remained on the books: “Any person who drives or leads along a public highway a wild and dangerous animal, or a vehicle or engine propelled by steam … a person of mature age shall precede such animal, vehicle, or engine by at least one-eighth of a mile, carrying a red light if in the night time, or a red flag if in the day time….” The intent was to warn the public of what was coming down the road, and not doing so was a misdemeanor, “punishable by a fine of not more than $500, a term of not more than one year’s imprisonment, or both.”

Like Singapore in modern times, Tupper Lake in 1906 (according to the Potsdam Courier) outlawed spitting on “any sidewalk or in any street, or upon any doorstep, bulkhead, or stairway adjacent to the sidewalk, or in any public place or places, or in any public stage, railroad car, ferry boat, or other public conveyance within the village, under a penalty of five dollars for each offense. The offense is also made disorderly conduct, and any person violating the ordinance is made a disorderly person.”

Four years later, as was written in the Watertown Daily Times, the city’s board of health said there should be “a section of the charter or an ordinance prohibiting spitting on the sidewalks,” because in places, they were being used by loiterers as “large cuspidors.” The city clerk noted that such an ordinance was already in place, so the police department was asked to begin enforcing the law.

In 1918, the Adirondack Record reported on a Saranac Lake ordinance said to be “the first of its kind in the United States,” making anyone who coughed or sneezed without covering their nose and mouth subject to a $10 fine. While Tupper Lake and Watertown were concerned about cleanliness (tobacco spit) and healthfulness, Saranac Lake’s law specifically targeted health, noting that colds, flu, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and other diseases were spread through the discharge of germs into the open air.

The last law here, from 1957 (in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican), addressed my current locale. The air force had launched a large base on Plattsburgh’s southern outskirts, and Commander George Von Arb was apparently covering all his bases (pun intended) by precluding any interference with the flight line. He formally requested that the Schuyler Falls Town Board adopt a law preventing the construction of any buildings over 150 feet in height.

Schuyler Falls, at some points less than two miles from the airport runway, was and is mostly rural. The tallest structures were farm silos of perhaps two to three stories in height. How ridiculous did the request sound? It’s doubtful that, back in the 1950s, there were any buildings approaching 15 stories tall between the Albany region and Montreal. Acceding to the commander’s suggestion would have required creating a zoning and appeals board, so the proposal was tabled — but it was a polite way of saying, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Said the town supervisor, “I am of the opinion that there isn’t much chance of anyone building any skyscrapers around the air base.”

Photos: Sign in Singapore (image NOT provided by my son); headlines from the Watertown Daily Times (1910) and Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1957).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Walt Linck says:

    My father used to chuckle about an ordinance passed by the village of Northville in the years following soon after the Sacandaga Reservoir was created, which outlawed the heaping of dead fish in residents’ front yards. He said the fishing for Northern Pike was so good that many local people caught way more than they would consume; they’d end up just making piles of them out front, so that the whole village just reeked of them.

  2. Marc Wanner says:

    Between 1926, when it was built, and 1977, when it was torn down, Saranac Lake’s Alpine Hotel was said to be the tallest building between Albany and Montreal.

  3. Lawrence Gooley says:

    Thanks for the input Mark. It looks like maybe the Alpine was tied for tallest during that time. Malone’s Flanagan Hotel was also 7 stories, and it predated the Alpine’s construction by 12 years. Also, in 1974, before the Alpine was torn down, Beekman Towers, 11 stories tall, began renting apartments to folks in Plattsburgh.

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