A Fascination with Disaster in Ulster County
Ulster County Railroad Disasters
Read some history books and you’ll notice they tend to focus on triumphs, jumping from one signal event to the next, illuminating reconciliation following the Civil War rather than wartime casualties; or development of the railroads rather than their relentless bankruptcies. Every triumph has its side dark and although not often emphasized such details occasionally still see the light of day. The caliginous side of industrialization is part of this forgotten story, was in its time well documented in newspapers, magazines and photographs, then repressed and since in the main ignored. It turns out that in war we expect and honor casualties, in peace casualties are simply the price of progress and we forget them soon enough.
Today almost everything is regulated. If you want to sell milk it has to be tested. If you want to introduce a drug it will be years before approval is granted. If you design a car figure three to five years for certification. Nothing it seems is easy today but it once was. In the later 19th into the early 20th century you needed only capital and ideas. Manufacturer’s claims were as strong as the paper they were written on and buyers and customers the guinea pigs to confirm or disprove them. Along the way some few became bacon.
The development of steamboats and railroads are a case in point. Their speed, comfort and majesty have come down to us as talisman of the emerging industrial era but they also crashed, burned and blew up. We know this because their destructions, in the era before photography, were chronicled in print media and occasionally books. One of the famous early disaster editions was S. A. Howland’s 1840 “Steamboat disasters and railroad accidents in the United States” … later amended in 1846 to include further accounts of recent shipwrecks, fires at sea and other mayhem. Photography would add enticing detail but wait a half-century before becoming the norm.
In the intervening decades Currier & Ives would sell prints of the great disasters, recording the human price paid as industry and commerce bounded on, at every step a good twenty years ahead of safety regulations. Enterprise, it turned out, developed quickly while law evolved slowly. “Get it done and see what happens. The techniques and equipment may be untested but we’ll know soon enough.” Come the turn of the 20th century, inexpensive photography and higher speed film made it possible to record the outcomes of an economy that favored lax standards in an era of progress at any cost. In 1906 in Upton Lewis’s account of food packing, The Jungle, brought conflicts in the meatpacking field into view. At the local level these conflicts played themselves out in other ways. Safety issues, long ignored, in places like Rondout and in Ulster County became visible.
In 1992 I bought a copy of Howland’s Disasters to read, never expecting that a national subject could become a local collection. The book itself mentioned next to nothing about the Hudson Valley but the idea took hold that such events had occurred everywhere with depressing regularity. Ten years ago I began to notice random appearances of Ulster County and nearby disasters that are the basis for this article.
A Fascination with Disaster in Ulster County
Ulster County boat and fire disasters
Rondout and its Environs: Picture Imperfect
No doubt a hundred years ago a few trains and trollies everyday made it to their destinations in the Hudson Valley. Every train travelling up from Maybrook to Kingston on the Wallkill Valley Railroad didn’t fall off the track. Neither did the bridges collapse nor the buildings along the line go up in smoke. At Kingston-Rondout a few of the trollies must have come to a complete stop short of disaster but you won’t know it from the photographic postcards that come down to us as a record of life in Ulster County in the 1902-1915 period. From these images life is one long unfolding disaster.
At the turn of the 20th century the industrial revolution was sixty years underway with advances in speed and productivity far outpacing advances in safety. In that era if one worked on the railroad or on a boat, boarded a train or a trolley one did so with the explicit [or implicit] understanding that such modern advances carried risks. Caveat emptor.
Why do we have these images?
In the Hudson Valley and elsewhere train accidents and fires, although relatively uncommon, were predictable and train, trolley crashes and fires particularly photogenic. This apparently led an enterprising Ulster County photographer or two to be prepared for the inevitable next gruesome occurrence, then race to the scenes of mayhem, take photographs and quickly print them as postcards. On postcards? Using images of peril in this way seems a gristly thing to do. How must the postman have felt? “What do you have for me today?” Such Ulster County cards must have once been somewhat common because they come up on eBay from time to time. They may also have been particularly local phenomena, an unlucky confluence of disaster and photographer that nearby larger towns Poughkeepsie and Newburgh somehow missed or avoided. It may have been a matter of personal taste.
In any case fires were particularly photogenic. Factories, storefronts, even entire blocks disappeared into the fiery maw. So too did the New Paltz Normal School in 1906 and the carpet mill at Rifton twenty years later. Descriptions of the fire fighting equipment deployed suggest the local fire departments and rescue teams had more spirit than armaments. Fire was a necessary ingredient in life but an ever-risky element. It seems likely fire departments, while undermanned, were often busy.
Sometimes the line between railroad and fires crossed as they did in Rondout in 1904 when a nearby freight depot set tight between railroad tracks and the Rondout Creek went up in smoke. So too did boats and ships moored nearby. Before the tools for firefighting were perfected and widely disseminated everything that could burn did.
Fortunately, while accidents in and around Rondout were common, fatal accidents were not. The equipment used in Ulster County a hundred years ago, be it railcars and locomotives or fire fighting wagons and later trucks, were probably consistently a step behind the cities. This equipment was safe enough but probably not as safe as it could be. The first locomotive on the Wallkill Valley Railroad was purchased used in the late 1860’s. Thirty years later many of the local trollies were also purchased second hand. You made due with what you could afford, took the discount and took your chances. No doubt the risks were understood and precautions taken.
A Fascination with Disaster in Ulster County
Tall images of Hudson Valley disasters
Now let’s view postcard images from the era.
From a glance one could surmise that Ulster County lurched from decade to decade like a drunk constantly working to free itself of disaster. The truth is probably simpler. Accidents and fires were opportunities and local photographers captured them on film, the images probably worth good money. That makes Rondout both a lucky and unlucky place.
That they come down to us today while the vast majority of bucolic images go unnoticed is probably nothing more than that a burning house is more compelling than a smiling family, unless of course it’s your family.
Every town had the potential for photogenic events but the number of photographers interested and or able to take the pictures and then market them seems much less. In the Hudson Valley there were many towns of note but so few photographic postcard images extant as to suggest fewer shots were taken elsewhere. For whatever reason Rondout, the Rondout Creek riverfront of what is Kingston today became an epicenter of such shots, probably because there were many disasters and several photographers nearby. Whatever the reasons the frailty of life in Rondout and nearby places is graphically preserved.
Late in the 19th century the happy confluence of constant disasters, a breathless public, traveling photographers, faster film, and changing postal regulations brought the photograph postcard into its golden era. The result was a twenty-year run of photographic images running the gamut from American Gothic-like family scenes all the way to up in smoke and out-like-a-light. The memorable examples are the disasters.
Fast forward. Today on television we see the latest generation of these photographers, their subjects - the disasters-du-jour be they drunk driving, equipment malfunctions, divorce, public arguments and spats and of course crashes and wrecks. Are people at automotive events there to see the race or the accidents? Today’s wreck-du-jour videographers and the channels and websites they supply show a starlet under-siege, a terrible accident, and the gone-to seed mug shot of a once famous and now declining star – altogether in five minute segments sandwiched between ads for Viagra and Tide. Perhaps these Ulster County photo postcards are simply an early manifestation of the same human impulse to see other people’s misfortunes.
Click here to read to read Howland’s Railroad Accidents in the United States to which is appended Accounts of Recent Shipwrecks, Fires at Sea, Thrilling Incidents, etc. The full text is in Google Books.