When one speaks of Port Jervis these days it is usually described as Orange County's smallest city with a population of about 9,000 that retains its quiet, unassuming charm and ways. However, Port Jervis in many ways, is only a ghostly image of the city it was from about 1880 to 1925. During that time the village blossomed as a canal, railroad and industrial center, so much so that it became a city in 1907. It was a town that considered itself modern, and took great pride in its affairs and vied with Newburgh and Middletown to be Orange County's leading urban area.
When one looks at much of the city's current architecture and its recreational, educational, cultural and economic institutions, most of their foundations can be traced back to the Victorian and Gilded Age. The legacy of the period locally, also reflects the national scene as well. America in this period was becoming more industrialized, urbanized, educated, cultured and technologically advanced. Historians have defined the beginning of this period as about 1870, just as America was emerging from the Civil War and its conclusion to about 1910.
The genteel Victorian Age came to end in the 1920s when noted American author Willa Cather wrote "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." To her, the whole legacy of Western civilization stood on the far side of World War I, and that from that point forward, a period of spiritual impoverishment had settled in. With the conclusion of World War I, the origins of the agrarian depression began that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The beginnings of the depression, were a turning point for American railroads. Port Jervis, along with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other American towns, villages and cities began a long economic slide with the slow contraction and decline of the railroads. Some never recovered from that wrenching experience.
Port Jervis is a different city from what it was 100 years ago. Many times people say they would like to have lived in another time because things were better. And, indeed, in many ways things were better in the bustling era of the late 19th and early 20th century. As the reader reviews these pages he will note with interest the number of times that Port Jervis is described as a leader in the developments of the period in Orange County.
This booklet essentially focuses on a 45 year period in Port Jervis's history that lasted from about 1880 until 1925, a time that has been described in its various segments as the Victorian Age, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. Because so many of the trends of the 1880-1915 period found their conclusion in the early 1920s that period is included in this booklet as well. While the material contained herein does not constitute a definitive study of the period, it is the goal of this publication to illustrate the highlights of a period when things seemed simpler, yet grander and to remember an era historians would argue are the city's most significant.
Former Executive Director
Minisink Valley Historical Society
One of the most enduring legacies of the Victorian age in Port Jervis is its interesting collection of architecture. Local building assessor Nelson Hammond has estimated 75% of the city's current inventory of buildings date from the last 25 years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. There is an amazing array of architectural styles demonstrating that the bustling village did its utmost to keep up with the times and the early years of this century were especially good ones for residential and commercial construction.
One contemporary brochure noted "architectural excellence of the city's public buildings compared favorably with larger cities." Another brochure describing the area states "There were scores of beautiful private homes where good taste in architecture has been combined with pleasing landscape effects."
There were numerous examples of what have become collectively called Victorian styles and include Gothic Revival, Italianate, Stick, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Shingle, Folk Victorian and Colonial Revival styles. It is interesting to note many of the larger homes of Port Jervis were designed by architects from New York City since Port Jervis was only a short train trip away from the city. The Classical Revival, Craftsman and Tudor styles were popular during the early years of this century.
One of the most widely used styles was Gothic Revival, popularized by Newburgh, N.Y. designer Andrew Jackson Downing. The style was very popular throughout Orange County and offered resident a distinctive alternative to earlier classical styles. The Gothic style was known for its gables that were sharply pitched and decorated with verge boards and finials. Another popular residential and business building style was the Italianate featuring bracketing along the cornice, large bay windows, double doors and, in the case of the Samuel Farnum House on Ulster Place, a tower. The Second Empire design was another popular residential and commercial style.
As one drives along East Main, Ball, Fowler, Hammond, and Franklin streets and Ferguson and Sullivan avenues, there is a vast array of buildings that represent the high styles of the period. Not only wealthy people constructed these fine homes but many were built by middle class residents. Many retain their impressive porch supports, gingerbread, bracketing, roof crestings, corner brackets, wrap-around porches, shutters and beautiful interior moldings with large sitting rooms and fireplaces.
Most of the churches in Port Jervis were built during this period and reflect the design of architects more well known in New York City circles. The Gothic Revival Style was especially popular. The community was deeply devoted to its religious heritage and the architecture reflects the commitment of various faiths to having the finest of facilities. The growth of church membership was amazing during this time. In 1893 there were seven churches and by 1912 there were 13.
Most of the commercial buildings which line Front and Pike streets, and Jersey Avenue were built during this time using the latest of designs like pre-molded sheet steel cornices, elaborate cast iron entranceways and beautifully carved window molds.
The finest buildings constructed in the city include the Elks Building (1908), Port Jervis Free Library (1903), the United States Post Office (1914), the Farnum or Masonic Building (1882) the YMCA building (1912) and most of the community's banks. The Hotel Minisink (1924) and the Rutan Building located downtown (1927) were representative of the commercial boom that occurred during the 1920s.
Most of the period's significant residential buildings have been covered over or altered in ways that hide their former beauty. Most of the homes and commercial buildings constructed during the last years of the 19th century and early years of this century were embellished extravagantly. As late as the 1940s, most buildings retained their gingerbread and decorative ornaments.
However, in what has always been a uniquely American tradition of progress, many buildings were covered with asbestos and asphalt siding to make them look more "modern" in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, if one looks through the Port Jervis Urban Renewal photograph files, much of the city's most impressive architecture was still standing until the 1960s. It was during this time a misguided Federal policy destroyed many of America's downtowns in the hope of creating vibrant, modern business districts. In this city, more than 50 buildings were torn down in the 1970s, most of them, the most beautiful and impressive structures of the Victorian age.
In fairness to local and national leaders of the time, the promise of Urban Renewal for many towns, like Port Jervis, was great. They tried to revitalize a town that had endured the economic calamity of the departure of the railroads and saw great benefit in having "substandard and blighting influences" removed, and modern buildings constructed in their place to increase the city's tax base. The collapse of a large building on Pike Street in 1971 caused concern regarding the safety of older buildings.
The program promised to improve water and sanitary sewer systems, public buildings and the environment. And, indeed, projects like a new city hall and fire house complex, and improvements to the business district were completed. The main promise of Urban Renewal, that being the renewal of the downtown, however was never totally achieved, and cities like Port Jervis, with the admitted benefit of hindsight by the author, now have places where some new buildings constructed were not compatible with the rest of the town causing a crazy quilt effect and destroying much what had been historically significant. Port Jervis was not alone in Orange County, as Newburgh was also involved in the Urban Renewal programs. Much of its East Side was demolished during this period. As a result of the public clamor that arose across the nation, historic preservation organizations and preservation-minded individuals began to began to get involved with saving the architectural legacy of their communities when the program fell out of favor later in the decade.
The city's landscape, which only a century before had been dotted with large farms and undeveloped tracts of land, became the site of a small urban center as the 19th century ended. Strategically located along the route of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, it served as a major port for the canal and a division center for the Erie Railroad Company. Streets were generally tree-lined; photographs of late 19th century Port Jervis show it was crowned with a collection of old and newly planted trees, surrounded by special frames to protect them from buckboards rubbing against them.
From old photographs of the city it is obvious residents were avid gardeners. Many homes had gardens in their front yards or flowers planted in containers on the porches or window sills. Lawns neatly clipped lawns and obvious source of great pride.
Perhaps the best representation of this community pride was the creation of the Laurel Grove Cemetery, opened on July 15, 1856 under the leadership of Dr. John Conkling, first president and founder. Located on East Main Street, the cemetery represented of what was happening across America in terms of park and landscape design in the mid-19th century. Cemeteries were being designed not only as a final resting place but also to honor and remember loved ones and give citizens a recreational experience as well. The dedication speech by the Reverend Seward declared the design of Laurel Grove "instructs in the disposition of our departed to consult propriety, beauty and utility". The speakers at the dedication program also said that it was one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Orange County.
The cemetery plan was the creation of New York City architect Howard Daniels who was assisted by B. F. Hattaway. Their design is still readily apparent though the cemetery has fallen on hard times because of lack of funding, vandalism and neglect. It is however, typical of cemeteries of the period that were created by noted designers such as Calvert Vaux, who designed Hillside Cemetery in Middletown, N.Y. in 1867. A set of rules for visitors severely restricted dogs, horses and peoples from doing any damage to the grounds.
The winding roads of Laurel Grove were, and still are, lined with hemlocks, pines and laurels and what was described in a contemporary account as having a "loveliness of scenery." This cemetery offers a stark contrast to the neatly laid out plots at the 18th century Mahackameck Cemetery that was a simple and final resting place for members of the Mahackameck Church, then a small church in the middle of a vast wilderness and is located just several blocks away.
The impressive monuments and mausoleums at Laurel Grove testify to the fact the cemetery was the final resting place for many prominent citizens and in total some 15,000 people. A poem, written by Peter Wells and entitled the Silent City describes the 35 acre cemetery. Today, the cemetery is only a ghost of what it once was: headstones are tipped over, mighty trees have fallen and some of the original vistas have been altered by construction of new homes nearby and the Interstate Route 84 bridge.
At the very tip of the cemetery is Carpenter's Point, location of the old Carpenter ferry, and also the final resting place for the Carpenter family. The Tri-State monument which marks the boundaries of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania is located on the tip of land where the Neversink and Delaware meet. In addition, there is also a boundary monument erected in 1882 that marks the final settlement of the New Jersey and New York border dispute that raged during the early years of the 18th century.
The Catholic cemetery, several blocks away was also created during the same time, using some of the same principles as Laurel Grove although on a less grand scale.
The city's first and arguably its most important park was enhanced greatly during this period. Orange Square, located at the corners of Broome and Pike Streets, was donated by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company to the city in the early decades of the 19th century. It was named to honor the county, and was located in the center of the bustling canal village, though the center of town would ultimately move to the area of Jersey Avenue and Front Street.
The square was designed with a series of paths emanating from a central circle where a fountain was located, a pattern retained in the current design. An impressive, multi-tiered fountain, located in the center of the park, was later moved to a location near Sussex Street.
At the center of Orange Square today is a monument dedicated on July 5, 1886 in the presence of some 10,000 people to the veterans of the Civil War. It was donated by Diana Farnum who left $8,000 for its construction in her will. Her two sons provided an additional $2,000. A parade that had 850 participants and was 3 miles long and marched to the square for the dedication ceremony and the local newspaper called it the "greatest day that Port Jervis ever had."
The monument is 45 feet high and 14 feet square at ground level. At the base of the monument are four representations of the branches of services at the time, the Infantry, Calvary, Artillery and Navy. The soldier at its top is 7 feet tall and weighs 1 1/2 tons. The entire monument stands on a bed of bluestone and masonry that is 10 feet deep. The architect was E.F. Carr of the firm of Frederick and Field, and when dedicated it was considered to be one of the finest and largest monuments in southeastern New York. Contemporary accounts describe it as the one of the most beautiful and finely finished states the firm ever designed.
At the base of this newly erected monument, noted author Stephen Crane interviewed members of the famed 124th New York Regiment, known as the Orange Blossoms, and from those interviews formed the basis of his acclaimed novel the Red Badge of Courage was created. In 1974, a major restoration was undertaken to repair and clean the monument after it was exposed to railroad soot and the perils of the environment for almost a century.
It was also during this period the largest park in the city was developed, the Elks-Charles Brox Memorial Park, located on what was then called the Twin Mountain tract, or Point Peter and Mount William. As early as 1911, local citizens became concerned with the future of the property that overlooked the city and had a wonderful vista then that time that the owner, Almira St. John Mills died, and the property was going to be disposed of by her estate. Citizens turned down a proposal to buy it, by a vote of 191-123, but immediately after the Port Jervis Lodge No. 645 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks began discussions to purchase the property. In 1914, the Elks, seeing the possibilities of the development of the area as a public park raised the necessary funds to purchase the tract under the leadership of the Rev. William J. Donohue, then pastor of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart. The property was named Elks Park.
In the years that followed, Skyline Drive, a four-mile road that ran along the crest of the two mountains, was built and other improvements to the park were made. In 1932, Saral Belle Thorne made a substantial donation in memory of her brother-in-law, Charles Brox, and the property was conveyed from the Elks to the city and became known as the Elks-Brox Memorial Park.
Another of the city's most important parks, the Samuel Farnum property was donated in December 1936 and included the Farnum's Victorian era homestead and many of the original plantings, now known as the Farnum House at Ulster Place.
Since the Victorian period, most of the city's parks have been acquired through property acquisitions or by the accident of property lines or roads having been changed. None however have the beauty of Orange Square with its towering monument looking to the west or serve as such a focal point of interest as the Elks-Brox Park with its panoramic vistas of the Minisink Valley.
"Queen of the Shawangunks"
It was during this period the entire nation began to yearn for open spaces that were fast disappearing as the west was being settled and noted Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner lamented about the closing of the nation's last frontiers. It was during this time for example that the National Parks and Forests were being created by Congress and the Catskill and Adirondack Preserves were being created in New York State and legislation was passed to keep them forever wild. Port Jervis has long associated itself with the Catskills and Shawangunks. During this period its proximity to the Catskill Mountains and forested wild areas just beyond the city was cause for great self promotion. In one brochure, it was called the "Scenic Queen of the Shawangunk Range."
Railroad brochures, local business promotional materials and newspaper clippings regularly described the scenic beauty and wonderful health effects nearby wilderness areas provided. The beauty of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers were raved about and boarding houses dotted the countryside, only a short buggy ride from the Port Jervis Erie Depot and the main Erie line. Hunting and fishing areas were boasted about as well as the region's 200 lakes and ponds, a number that seems to exaggerate the actual count but is typical of literature of the period.
Estimates in the 1920s said there were 200,000 visitors coming to the region annually.
A golf club stood on the banks of the Neversink River just outside of Port Jervis, and was designed by the noted golf course designer Tillinghast. Canoeing, a popular sport today, was also growing in popularity. It was also during this period that the last of the large rafts of logs went down the Delaware.
McCaffrey's Beach was located along the Neversink River, a privately operated recreational area, where many spent summers swimming and utilizing the rides. Known earlier as the Neversink Bathing Beach there was picnic grounds, auto camping and dancing facilities. A large pavilion along with 200 bath houses served as the most popular recreation facility in the area according to one account.
There have been schoolhouses in the valley since the earliest times and for the most part they were one-room schools serving a mostly rural population. However, with the growth of Port Jervis in the 19th century, and the growing concern about the development of education by the state, the community created the Union Free School District No. 1 in 1862.
The school system flourished during this period, and was held in great esteem. It was considered to be one of the finest and most progressive in the region. A 1922 brochure states local schools were among the first on the accredited list compiled at Cornell University. Aside from the regular educational facilities there were also night classes and continuing education programs.
The dramatic rise in the school population, which reflected population trends in the community at large is also interesting to note. In 1866, there were 1,816 children enrolled in the school district. By 1888, there were 2,900 with 34 full-time teachers and an annual budget of $30,905.
Part of the community's pride in its schools is reflected in the tremendous construction programs of the era, which also coincides with the national trends. As the 19th century was closing, Port Jervis undertook a major effort to upgrade its educational facilities.The original Church Street School at Hammond and Church Streets was built in 1867 and used until the magnificent brick Church Street School was erected in 1899. A school in Germantown was also built during this time, though it would be torn down in 1907 when West End School was built several blocks away. The Mountain House school, used in the 1870s, had initially been used as a hotel. In use until 1924, it had a capacity for 1,000 students.
A high school was constructed on Sullivan Avenue and opened in 1889, though it was destroyed by fire in 1918. The Sullivan Avenue School was then built on the location and a new high school was opened in 1924 on East Main Street, at the site of the former Glennette homestead of Sam Fowler, at the cost of $400,000. Riverside School, constructed in the area known as the "Bully's Acre", was opened in 1890. Another school was built in 1911 at the corner of West Main and Hudson streets, though it was never used because of poor workmanship and was demolished in 1919. Two other schools were constructed on East Main Street and in the West End in 1912, both of which are now gone. In 1915, St. Mary's Parochial School was opened on Ball Street, the first parochial school in the city.
The handsome brick Church Street School was demolished in 1989, the Mountain House School was demolished in 1929.
One of the most important local legacies of the Gilded Age is the Carnegie Library that still stands at 138 Pike Street. There has been a library in Port Jervis since about 1835, when state legislation allowed for the creation of school district libraries. Efforts to enhance the library began in 1848 along with the creation of the Port Jervis Literary Association in 1865, whose main purpose was to provide for a public library and reading room.
As a result of this longstanding interest in a public library, Port Jervis became home to a Carnegie Library, perhaps the only one ever built in Orange County. Now known as the Port Jervis Free Library, it was organized in August 1892, the first in New York State under the Free Library Law of 1892. Up until 1903 then the library was located on the second floor of the Farnum Building on lower Pike Street. By 1893, the library had outgrown its space and in 1899, efforts were begun by prominent businessmen to construct a library building in the village. However, early on, it became apparent it would be too expensive to erect such a building with local funds.
After a long and dedicated effort these men convinced steel industry magnate Andrew Carnegie to donate money towards its construction. With a substantial contribution of land made by local businessman Peter Farnum, and finally a contribution of $30,000 by Carnegie, the building of a library became possible. In February 1901 local residents were, according to the local newspapers, "electrified" by the announcement of Carnegie and Farnun's donation.
The library was designed by W. S. Ackerman of the New York City architectural firm of Ackerman and Ross and was built by local contractor Lorenzo Wood. The cornerstone was laid in 1902 and opening ceremonies took place in 1903. The firm had also designed Carnegie libraries for Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Ga; San Diego, Calif; East Orange, N.J.; and Utica, N.Y.
It was dedicated during the height of one of America's greatest and most famous philanthropies, that ultimately amounted to $40 million. It is one of 1,679 libraries given to 1,412 towns and cities across America. Today it is one of only a few hundred that survive and are still used for their original purpose or some other municipal function. Carnegie, known as the "Patron Saint of Libraries" supposedly said that "The Library building is built to last." And, indeed it has.
The library may have been the first in Orange County to have a separate children's reading room and it was annually a leader in the state in acquiring new books, ranking in the top 30%. It was the first library in the state to establish a permanent maintenance fund, a condition for the Carnegie donation, and by 1903 there were 14,000 books in the collection, with 1,000 books being added per annum. A contemporary library report concludes the "volumes of the best thought of the brightest minds of the world, ever ready to talk to us in the best of language" were available for loan.
The Minisink Valley Historical Society, Orange County's second oldest historical Society, and one of the oldest in New York State was begun in February 1889. It is ironic that it was founded by many of the same business leaders who were part of the economic boom that was occurring but were also the first to see the changing economic landscape was also destroying many of the region's historic buildings and sites. The Society quickly became a forum for historical lectures and presentations and acquired one of the region's most venerated historic sites, the Battle of Minisink property at Minisink Ford, N.Y., which was being encroached upon by a quarrying operation. From 1910 forward, yearly celebrations were conducted by the Society at the site until 1955 when it was turned over to Sullivan County.
One of the Society's earliest leaders, Peter E. Gumaer was the author of what may have been Orange County's earliest work of local history, entitled The History of Deerpark. The project was the result of author Washington Irving's visit to the area on a canal boat in 1841. During a short stop that took him to the top of Point Peter overlooking the city, Russel Lord, then chief engineer of the canal company, was asked to provide some details regarding local history for the propose of Irving using them in a historical work. For whatever reason, Irving never used the material, but Gumaer ultimately had it published in 1893, and much of his research was the basis for the work compiled by Ruttenber and Clark in the comprehensive 1881 History of Orange County.
Another enduring legacy of the Gilded Age were the many volunteer organizations that addressed a host of social issues and also preserved fraternal or ethnic ties. Many of those organizations still exist, as one can see by this partial listing: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society (1923), Catholic Daughters of America (1909), Salvation Army (1902), Kiwanis Club (1923), Knights of Columbus (1900), Port Jervis Republican Club (1907), Port Jervis Democratic Committee (1928) Port Jervis Chapter of the American Red Cross (1917), N. Taft Chapter #446 Eastern Star (1909), Musicians Protective Union Local No. 667 (1903), Port Jervis Elks, Rotary (1920), the local Boy Scout organization (1919), the local Girl Scout organization (1921), Y.M.C.A (1882), Orange Chapter No. 33, Order of the Eastern Star (1872) and Port Jervis Lodge #328 F & AM (1853). In 1885, for example, there were some 40 social, fraternal and union organizations in existence in Port Jervis that one could participate in.
The Deerpark Club, located across the street from Orange Square provided much of the community's social life. In addition, the Young Man's Christian Association, or YMCA played an active role with its large building and many programs. The organization's building served as a temporary home for many railroaders with 26 boarding rooms, and more than 500 citizens were members.
Perhaps the most noted late 19th century American author, Stephen Crane (1871-1900) lived a considerable part of his short life in Port Jervis during this time. He has been called one of America's finest writers, a brilliant storyteller and a wanderer with no permanent residence. His father, the Rev. Jonathan Townley Crane, was the minister at the Drew Methodist Church on Sussex Street from 1878-1880. After a somewhat nomadic life during which time he went to college and lived in New York City and New Jersey, he regularly returned to Port Jervis and stayed at his brother William's house at 19 East Main Street. There he created some of his finest works, including the Red Badge of Courage.
He also wrote what later became known as the Sullivan County Sketches, a collection of stories about his forays into the Sullivan County countryside, and in particular, his experiences at the Hartwood Club, which was founded by his brother William, and in which he held a share. An avid fisherman, hunter, horseman and outdoorsman, his sketches are written about local characters and sites which in some cases are still readily identifiable. After a lengthy stay at Twin Lakes Camp in Twin Lakes, Pennsylvania, with a group of friends he published a broadside news sheet describing the event of his stay that may have been printed at the local newspaper in Port Jervis.
There is also speculation his "Whilholmville Stories" and The Monster are about Port Jervis and describe the foibles of small town living. His progress as a writer was followed by locals and in 1895 an article appeared in the local newspaper entitled "Stephen Crane's Talent Recognized by the Reviews and Newspapers of the United States." His books were available at the local library and he regularly wrote for the local newspaper.
He ultimately moved to England, in part because of his controversial lifestyle, aspects of which are still talked about by long time residents, and died of tuberculosis in Germany in 1900.
Zane Grey, the author of many western novels was also a frequent visitor to the area and lived in Lackawaxen, Pa. He was an avid fisherman of the Delaware River. It is said he was fishing with Ford Motor Company executive Harold Dalrymple when the idea was born to create Flo-Jean Restaurant, which became a reality in 1929 and is still in operation, located in the Toll House that was used to collect tolls for the Barrett Bridge across the Delaware in Port Jervis.
The community was an especially cultured one at this time boasting a music conservatory, an opera house, and a moving picture and vaudeville theatre. The New Theatre was at 32 Sussex St. and the Palace Theatre was as at 69 Fowler St. The New Theatre would later move to its location at 129-135 Pike Street. The Port Jervis Opera House was located on Pike Street where the Hunt Building is now located. Three halls were available for theatrical performances
Concerts and performances were regularly given at Orange Square by a number of musical organizations in existence at the time. The Erie Band, sponsored by the railroad company, was a much sought after form of entertainment. Lectures on all kinds of issues were given regularly and advertisements appeared frequently in the newspapers soliciting attendants.
One contemporary brochure says "the culture and art of refined leisure, and broad intelligent acquaintance with the world are not wanting; graduates of leading universities and throughly trained professional men maintain the intellectual tone and the progress of wealth and elegance adds those touches and amenities of splendid luxury which gives zest and life to so many social movements." Crossroads of the Region
Port Jervis has since time immemorial served as a central point in the region's transportation network. From earliest times, when the Old Mine Road, America's first 100-mile road was used by Dutch settlers, Port Jervis has been a transportation nexus. With the opening of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in the late 1820s, the village, named in honor of canal engineer John B. Jervis in 1826, began its meteoric rise as an economic center. The canal company laid out the original plan for the city, whose center was near present-day Canal and East Main Streets and the site of the canal's basins. As a result, the city developed as a major stop on the Delaware and Hudson Canal. (For more information on the canal and its history, see the bibliography at the end of this booklet.)
The canal was constructed to ship anthracite coal from the Moosic Mountains in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania to the metropolitan New York city area and New England. After a run of 70 successful years it fell victim to the railroads. But during the first half of the company's history, it dominated the region and its economy. Many of the villages most important businessmen got their start working on the canal, supplying the canal company with items or shipping locally produced items on the canal.
The canal's impact on the local economy would begin to be eclipsed with the arrival of the first Erie train in December 1847. Much has been written about the railroads and the legacy they have given to Port Jervis. (For more information on the railroad and its history, see the bibliography at the end of this booklet.)
However, a basic understanding of some statistics are required to realize the economic impact of the railroad on Port Jervis during the last quarter of the 19th century. The decade of the 1880s saw the opening of some 93,000 miles of railroad across the country, the greatest expansion ever to take place in the annals of railroading. The impact on thousands of towns across America was enormous and the nation enjoyed a tremendous period of prosperity because of economic expansion that it allowed. All along the lines new towns sprouted up and local economies flourished where just a few decades before nothing had existed.
The main line trains of the Erie stopped in Port Jervis and it served as a division center between Jersey City, N.J. and Susquehanna, Pa. In 1922, 20 passenger trains passed through the city each day and six trains reached New York City before 10:30 a.m. A brochure describes it as "the place where through trains changed their engines". Freight trains hauled anthracite coal into metropolitan regions.
By one 1922 estimate, at least 2,500 employees of the railroad company lived in the Port Jervis area and worked in the railroad shops and this was at a time when the decline in the railroading was already becoming apparent to leaders in the community. Port Jervis was also a hotbed of union activity as it was the meeting place of the Delaware and New York divisions. The unions started here were among the earliest formed across the entire system. It was said the payroll was over $125,000 per month in the first years of the 20th century.
By the mid-1920s, other manufacturing facilities were beginning to have an impact on the local economy, and the railroad's importance was beginning to decline. As larger engines were built and more modern equipment introduced, fewer and fewer workers were required. Some thought the day would come when the railroad would be dwarfed by other industries.
It is amazing and perhaps disheartening that only one building still survives in this old railroad town and that is the Port Jervis Erie Depot. There have been three railroad depots in Port Jervis since the first trains came to the area in the late 1840s. The first station was a wooden frame structure at the bottom of Pike Street. The second station, constructed of brick and stone, was built at 13-19 Jersey Avenue and opened on July 8, 1889. Its existence was short-lived, however, when it burned to the ground on December 26, 1890, along with the division's offices in an adjacent building.
The current, larger, station was built on the same site. Work commenced in June 1891, and was overseen by the contracting firm of Gratton and Jennings of Buffalo, New York probably designed by an architect used by the Erie. The station was opened for passenger and freight service on February 2, 1892. At the time of construction, the station was considered, by contemporary newspaper accounts, a credit to the Erie Railroad Company and a "decided ornament to Port Jervis."
The two-story brick building is a mixture of the popular architecture of the period. One architectural historian described it as Second Empire Style with Japanese influence. Another historian characterized it as an example of the Romanesque Revival Style, popular in large metropolitan areas in the late 19th century. In addition, there are elements of the Queen Anne Style which was utilized widely in the Port Jervis area. Contemporary newspapers called it Gothic.
Some sources described the interior of the building as "lacking a striking effect, though excellence in workmanship was obvious." The building was finished in Georgia pine, trimmed in cherry, and had hand-carved ornaments in the waiting room. On the first floor, there was a general waiting room, a smoking room, a ladies' waiting room, a ticket office and closets. The offices of the dispatcher, operator and division superintendent were located on the second floor.
The depot was heated with steam supplied from the Erie roundhouse and electrically lighted. The steam heating and plumbing systems were installed by the local firm of Swinton and Van Etten. Lamps, under the awnings of the roof around the outside of both the REA and PJED, provided illumination for passengers. Construction costs for the entire building were $30,000.
Construction and landscaping plans were drawn up in the Erie Company's Jersey City office and included seven separate lawns intersected by an 18-inch thick driveway and several walks. The sod for the lawns was cut from the flats between West End and the Acre sections of Port Jervis. Four hitching posts were installed in front of the depot near the main entrance.
In March 1912, major renovations were begun on the depot restaurant, undertaken by Murphy and Son of Chicago who had restaurant privileges along the entire Erie line from New York City to Chicago. This work was in keeping with the Erie Company's general remodeling at the time. The Railway Express Administration building next door was constructed at this time, along with the western wing of the depot, now known as the baggage room.
The building fell into disrepair in the 1970s after it was closed by the Erie Lackawanna and there was even some discussion for demolishing it. After a seven year long effort by the Minisink Valley Historical Society, the Depot Preservation Society and the Port Jervis Development Corporation, the depot is once again open and will hopefully serve again as the nerve center of the central business district and as a reminder of the importance of the railroad industry.
During the early years of the 19th century the business of Port Jervis was essentially carried on by foot or horse and buggy. The use of bicycles became popular and there were several shops that catered to that segment of the population. There were several liveries located in town that transported passengers or rented horses. In 1870, a stage coach service was instituted that would remain until the opening of the Port Jervis Electric Street Railway on January 15, 1898.
Port Jervis used a street car system until 1924, one of only a handful of communities in Orange County to have one. While it never achieved great popularity, up and coming cities of the period boasted of having systems like it. By 1895, some 850 lines were in business around the country, operating on some 10,000 miles of track.
The line traveled along the city's most heavily used streets and connected the far-flung areas. While never particularly successful financially, the system was typical of urban lines. It was doomed however to a fate that was similar to the railroad's, as people came to depend on automobiles and trucks to travel and to ship materials.
The first automobiles came to Port Jervis in 1900 and were sold by Peter Rutan at the Rutan Buick Company, which would open a modern facility on Front Street in 1927 in a building that still stands. Cars were raised to the second floor and exhibited to viewers below behind large plate glass windows. According to advertisements, Rutan's was the oldest Buick dealership in the Eastern States. The first automobile purchased in Port Jervis was owned by Mary Peck and the second, a Studebaker electric car, was bought by Dr. Henry B. Swartwout.
Automobiles caught on quickly and as a result the street car fell out of favor, being slower and less convenient.
By the mid 1920s, several state roads were being completed that would forever change the area. A train trip in 1923 from New York City to Port Jervis took about two hours and 15 minutes, but brochures pointed out that soon an auto, with all its attendant conveniences would be able to make the trip in three hours.
The canal and railroad provided the initial backbone for the area's economy after the last quarter of 19th century, Port Jervis began to build upon its base as a transportation center. An entire book could be written about the hundreds of industries and retail establishments created and in existence during this time. Major industries included glass houses with names like Mayer, Brox-Ryall, Pountney and Gillinder, which would become the most widely known of all of them and is still in business. There were five silk factories, some of which operated well into this century, five bottling works, six bakeries, two cigar factories, a silver plate factory, a saw factory, a tannery, a brewery, glove factories, shirt and clothing and shoe factories. There were two daily newspapers, the Port Jervis Daily Union and the Evening Gazette and one weekly, the New York Farmer.
Aside from the glass created by Gillinder Brothers, the most noted product created locally were stoves, manufactured by the Malven and Gordon Company and the Swinton Stove Company. Exports of thousands of these Swinton Quick Time Stoves went around the world and throughout the nation. One story says one went to missionary who was stationed in India.
When Port Jervis became a city in 1907 there were 82 industrial establishments large and small. To finance these operations several national banks and six savings and loan associations were in operation, many of which are still in existence by way of successor companies. Port Jervis has the distinction of having the oldest continually operating savings and loan association in the state of New York. Formed in 1869, the Port Jervis Building and Loan Association operated until recent times and was absorbed into the Intercounty Savings and Loan on Broome Street.
The downtown area had many retail establishments that catered to one's every need. Clothing shops, restaurants, hardwares stores, jewelry outlets lined Pike and Front streets and Jersey Avenue. Hotels, common, in railroad towns were numerous, and two of the most important were the Delaware House on Pike Street and the Union House on East Main Street.
It was during this period much of the city's infrastructure was constructed, some of which is still in use today. During the nation's centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, a dynamo was constructed and operated by Charles Brush that captured the nation's imagination. Within three years Thomas Edison would perfect the carbon filament incandescent lamp and by the early 1880s, companies across America were producing electrical equipment. Port Jervis was the leader in Orange County in harnessing electricity and on January 21, 1887, the Holden saw facility was lit with electricity in a special demonstration. The next night, electric lights were illuminated on Front Street for the first time. Locals made many comments about the fact they had beaten out Middletown and Goshen in the rush towards electrification and the local newspaper reported that "better things are looked for from Port Jervis than to follow the backward examples of towns that are hostile to 19th century ideas."
In fact, Port Jervis was already using a limited arc street lighting system put in place in 1882, preceding the Newburgh Electric Arc Lighting Company by two years. Newburgh, however, was home to the first incandescent plant. In all of the United States at this time, there were only 38 central power stations.
The original local electric plant was constructed on Jersey Avenue, near the Delaware River. In 1916, a new plant was constructed where Thompson and Water streets and River Road are now.
Prior to that the city was lit by gas, though the gas company in its effort to economize used smaller amounts necessary to provide the intense light of the new lights. A total of 25 gas lights had been here since 1863, when the village became the second in Orange County to have such modern devices, even though they flickered and created smoke. However, the competition for the future lighting of the city was decided in March 1887 when the Schuler Electric Light Company won the contract. The electric and trolley systems were merged into a company called the Port Jervis Electric Light and Power Company. By 1902 daily consumption of gas was 35,000 cubic feet and there were 125 arc lights in use along with 2,700 incandescent lamps.
The first telephone was used in the village in 1878 however it was not until 1898 that the Port Jervis Telephone Company was organized. During its first year in existence, 420 subscribers paid for the privilege of being able to talk to their neighbors rather than visit with them in person.
In the early years of the village's existence there was no large scale system for the disposal of sanitary waste. However, with the rapid concentration of a growing population, a sewage system was authorized in 1891 by the village. Prior to that, cesspools, outhouses and the direct dumping of wastes into the Delaware were utilized. It was probably because of this haphazard way of dealing with waste that city fathers were forced to obtain a safe source of drinking water much earlier on.
The city's present-day water system has its roots with the creation of the Port Jervis Water Works Company of 1869 and its purchase of Reservoir No. 1 which held 64 million gallons of water. Another was added in 1886, and yet another in 1900, creating a total capacity of 620 million gallons of water, all gravity fed to facilities in the city. Consumption in 1902 was about one million gallons of water a day. Ultimately this privately-held company was purchased by the city in 1929 and is now part of the city's Department of Public Works.
The city's streets also were upgraded during this period. When the streets are being worked on to this day, one can see yellow bricks that were used to cover the mud and shale of an earlier time of Pike, Front and Fowler streets. As years passed more of the city's streets were paved, which alleviated a common complaint found in letters to the editor of the newspapers, that dust created by the horse and buggies that constantly plied the streets.
With its rapid expansion, efforts were made to connect Port Jervis with Matamoras and Tri-States. Port Jervis was originally connected to Pennsylvania by ferry until a large wooden bridge was built at the present day location of Skydyne. Destroyed in 1870, it was replaced with a wire rope suspension bridge in 1872 located downstream, where the present bridge is. This bridge, demolished in the March 15, 1875 ice gorge, replaced another structure that utilized the remaining suspension cables and incorporated the same design. It was destroyed in October 1903. A two-span iron girder bridge was then constructed in its place and remained in use until the bridge now in use was erected in 1939. Until 1922, tolls were paid to cross the bridge.
The Neversink River was spanned in 1868 by a suspension bridge which was destroyed in 1904. Another bridge was constructed and served until 1929 when the current structure was built.
Most of the city's fire companies were formed in the years before the Victorian age as village fathers recognized the need for adequate fire protection. Only the Tri-States Hose Company came into being during this time, in 1890. Some of the other companies date back to 1857. (For more information on the fire department and its history, the bibliography at the end of the booklet.) The fire alarm system in use today has its roots to this period, installed in 1929.
In response to the regular number of injuries that occurred among men who worked on the railroad and in local industries, several medical facilities were opened in the village during this time. Dr. J.H. Hunt opened the first hospital in the city, a 25 bed medical care center called the Hunt Memorial Hospital at Ball and Sussex Streets, in 1889. Dr. W. L. Cuddeback and Dr. Henry B. Swartwout took the hospital over in 1892 and its name was changed to the Port Jervis Hospital in 1895 when a professional corporation took title to the building. An 1896 hospital report states that a total of 1,012 patients were treated during the previous year. Ownership was transferred in 1915 to the Sisters of St. Francis, and they in turn constructed a new hospital called St. Francis Hospital on East Main street which opened in 1924.
The Deerpark Sanitarium was opened in 1899 and in 1902 was moved to Prospect Street where it was in business until about the 1920s. The Woman's Hospital at 29 Hammond St. was opened in 1890 and operated for some time after that.
As the early years of the 19th century passed, the population in the hamlet of Port Jervis steadily grew until, in 1853, it was incorporated as a village, completely surrounded by the Town of Deerpark. At the time of its incorporation it had 2,585 residents and its growth in the next two decades was impressive. By 1870 the population stood at 6,377 and in 1880 had risen to 8,678. The growth leveled off in the next decade, remaining at about 9,000 in 1890, and continuing to reflect the economic depression of 1893-94.
From that point forward, the city's population fluctuated, in part because of the railroad's changing fortunes and economic opportunities that were beginning to emerge elsewhere. At the turn of the century the census reported 10,450 people living in Port Jervis, but that was reduced to 9,895 in a 1905 census. In 1907 the population rose to 10,035 and in 1925 the city reached it highest level of population, 10,507. From that point forward, the population has gradually declined, to 10,348 in 1930; 9,719 in 1940; 9,348 in 1950; and, in 1990, stood at 9,060. (The numbers cited are from a number of sources and cannot be independently confirmed. Some sources suggest for example the population may have reached 11,000 people in 1886, but that number may include Deerpark. Another source suggested the population may have even reached 14,000.)
The progressive population growth in the late 1800s culminated in the granting of a charter creating the city of Port Jervis on July 26, 1907. It became New York states 46th city and culminated a long effort by local leaders to have it so proclaimed. The bill was signed by Governor Charles Evans Hughes who later served as Secretary of State to President Warren Harding and was eventually named Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Dr. Henry B. Swartwout, a direct descendant of one of the area's pioneer families, became the first mayor and the city hall was located on Sussex Street, across from the Post Office.
The new "city" became, according to one brochure, synonymous with growth and development, as opposed to when it had been a "village" which suggested apathy and stagnation.
Old city directories reflect how the changing of the guard took place during this time. For the first 130 years after the earliest Dutch settlers arrived, most residents were western European in origin and for the most part and descendants of those settlers. With the arrival of the canal a new influx of people moved to the area, many from upstate New York and New York City. With the
construction of Erie railroad, the Irish arrived in large numbers and with the creation of new industries like the glass houses, stove manufacturers and silk mills, came Germans, Italians, Poles and Ukrainians.
The names of the prominent people appear regularly in listing of boards of directors for banks, social organizations and churches. It is striking how a relatively few leaders were able to so impact the community. It should also be noted that they were especially generous with their donations in a period when there was no income tax and no need for tax deductions.
However, "gilded" the age was, Port Jervis was not without its share of problems during this time. The city reflected the nation at large in its racial and nationalistic feelings. On June 2, 1892, Robert Lewis was lynched before a crowd that some say may have numbered several thousand on East Main Street in front of the Baptist Church. News of this black man's tragic death, punishment for a rape he may not have committed spread throughout the nation, and for several days news regarding the lynching captivated the nation's interest. The case was left "resolved" when a special jury was convened and no one could be charged with a crime.
The Lewis lynching, one of only three ever in Orange County, was an extremely rare occurrence for a northern state. The incident once again reared its ugly head in an article entitled "The Day of the Lynching" that appeared in the magazine "Saga" in April 1955 in which the whole event was graphically described. Even to this day, the incident is spoken about in hushed tones.
The Klu Klux Klan, with its slogans of racial hate, religious bigotry and strong nationalism also had a substantial following in the Tri-State area and crosses were burned at the top of Point Peter to the horror of many. Regularly scheduled parades of Klan members were conducted along the same route as firemen's parades of the period.
Being a railroad town created any number of social problems. For example, there was a large "red light" district in the central business area along Jersey Avenue that served the transient railroad population. There were also many transients who passed through the city on a regular basis, and often, hobos could be found sleeping on porch stoops or in alleys.
There are also stories of railroaders with two sets of families, one in Port Jervis, where they worked three days a week and another in Susquehanna, Pa., where they worked another three days. These double lives were not discovered until retirement when railroaders were forced to make a choice of which family to live with.
Even with all the industries and railroads located in the city, people in the 1890s witnessed economic turmoil when a major depression swept the nation, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1930s. Wide swings in the population statistics suggest that the economic calamities that regularly afflicted the industries had a great impact on the community during the time before large scale federal intervention provided a safety net.
Prohibition, which was formalized in 1919, created a large black market in Port Jervis, and many of its citizens were involved in making their own alcoholic beverages. An entire underground brewing industry grew up during this period and small fortunes were made by those with the desire to risk the penalty of law. For those caught, long-time residents can still remember federal agents dumping barrels of "sweel" down the Pike Street hill and its smell permeating the air for blocks.
The Spanish-American War and World War I hit Port Jervis particularly hard as young boys went off to fight two wars far from home. A book of newspaper clippings at the Minisink Valley Historical Society records the deaths of local boys during the Great War and recalls the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks.
Consider that the elimination of pollution and the rampant destruction of the nation's natural resources were not compelling issues as they are today. Raw sewerage was dumped directly into the Delaware River, as were byproducts of other local industries. Large dumps containing industrial wastes still can be found along the Delaware River and in some cases may still be toxic. The effects of strip mining of bluestone over thousands of acres is still with us, particularly in Pike and Sullivan counties. Clear cutting of large tracts of land were common photographs of outlying areas show many bald mountain tops.
Massive air pollution created by steam engines and shops provided a constant source of problems for homemakers and homeowners. Coal soot and ash found its way into many an unsuspecting housewife's clean laundry hung out to dry when a freight train passed through. A large fire in the coal pockets in 1905 burned hundreds of tons of coal and created large clouds of smoke. Houses generally were painted in darker colors, especially those nearer railroad facilities,
because of the large amounts of dust and grime created by the railroad industry. And, who knows how many people died as a result of being exposed to the various pollutants that the railroad used. Bouts with small pox, diphtheria and cholera also hit residents with regularity.
Many of the city's wealthier resident had summer homes because the sweltering heat created by the railroads created unbearable living conditions at times. Their regular homes were generally located above the ridge line that is now East and West Main Streets.
Being a river town has always been a double edged sword and that became especially apparent when ice gorges or floods inundated the city and caused thousands of dollars and loss of human life. In 1875 an ice gorge destroyed the bridge connecting Port Jervis and Matamoras and did
thousands of dollars of damage to the western end of Port Jervis. That occurrence repeated itself three years in a row when in 1902, 1903 and 1904, the lower sections of the bustling village were inundated with water. Another flash flood hit the Kingston Avenue section of town in 1922 when
water spilled over the reservoir dams that were already over capacity.
The "Blizzard of 1888" completely shut the city down and temporarily stopped railroad operations. In 1893, the Drew Methodist Church was destroyed by what some described as a tornado and a storm in 1894 destroyed the steeple of the Deerpark Reformed Church.
When reading the local newspaper today some people may wonder if things were not better in the past, however, letters to the editor in the late 1800s were commonly complaining about issues like sanitation, taxes and social problems - questions that continue to vex us to this day.
Some scholars have suggested that Stephen Crane's novel describing small town life entitled The Monster may have been written about Port Jervis, and may have been his reflections on small town attitudes.
In spite of these social and environmental problems, the closing years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries, were generally good times for Orange County's smallest city. The town still offers reminders in its parks, public library or historical society, of a grander day, when Port Jervis was a wealthy city that took great pride in itself and created an enduring legacy of architecture, education and social institutions that remain with us. About the author...
Peter Osborne is the Executive Director of the Minisink Valley Historical Society and the City Historian for Port Jervis. He has written frequently about items of a local and regional historical nature and his interests in the Victorian and Gilded age comes from his professional research into our nation's transportation, architectural and educational history. ADDITIONAL SOURCES ON THE VICTORIAN ERA...
The author gratefully acknowledges the following sources of information which provided material for this booklet.
"Port Jervis: From Canal Village to 46th City in New York State" by Dan Dwyer, Port Jervis New York Diamond Jubilee Booklet, 1907-1982, published by the Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission, 1982
"The Diamond Jubilee Edition" by Janis McCann, published by the Tri-State Gazette in 1982
"Where the Rivers Meet", published by the Port Jervis Golden Jubilee Corporation, 1957
"The Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission Salutes Samuel Barnard Farnum - 1989", published by the Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission "The Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission Salutes the Port Jervis Trolleys - 1990" published by the Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission "The Chief's Call" by Orrie Hitt
Delaware and Hudson Canal "Canal Days 1983", published by the Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission The Delaware and Hudson Canalway by Dorothry Sanderson Coal Boats to Tidewater by Manville Wakefield
Railroad "Minisink County - Where the Rivers Meet - 1979", published by the Port Jervis Heritage Commission "The Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission Salutes the Port Jervis the Erie Depot - 1984", published by the Port Jervis Area Heritage Commission The Archives of the Minisink Valley Historical Society, 138 Pike Street, Port Jervis, New York