Rockland County’s Biggest Natural Disaster
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
A total of 19 people died that “Dark Monday” of Jan. 8,1906, including four volunteer firemen, the local rabbi and members of several prominent local families.
The memorial program continued for several years after the disaster, but was eventually discontinued when memory of the event began fading as the decades passed and most of downtown Haverstraw was successfully re-built.
It was revived a few years ago by the Haverstraw Brick Museum, which has sponsored the event annually ever since, and has held it within the walls of their three-room museum on East Main Street, just two blocks from where the remains of the landslide can still be seen to this day, 107 years later.
Following tradition, the name of each deceased resident was read aloud, and a fire gong was rung once in memory followed by a moment of silence, and then the next name and the next strike of the bell.
The history of Haverstraw’s tragic landslide was recounted by several museum officials, including secretary Carol Anderson and trustees Bill Kelemen, John Parnell, Karen Wachsman and Michael Brophy.
Anderson and Kelemen read the actual first-hand eyewitness account of the tragedy as reported in the Jan. 13, 1906 edition of the Rockland County Times, then published in that river-front village a block west of the museum. A follow-up article the next week was read by Parnell, including the obituaries of Joseph Albert and Abram Dias, while Wachsman read the story of one of the heroes of the incident, Daniel Williams.
Haverstraw Village Historian Stephen Cobb related the history of brick-making and the landslide to the audience, most of whom appeared to be quite familiar with both subjects and nodded in agreement with his remarks, often chiming in with anecdotes of their own based on familiar history and long-time village gossip.
Haverstraw was once the brick-making capital of America, Cobb said, with dozens of brickyards lining the Hudson River from Dutchtown north to Grassy Point. Operating from the Civil War through the 1920’s, Haverstraw’s brickyards shipped out at least 350 million bricks a year, and are credited with the construction of nearly all of New York City during that period.
Bricks Require Clay
The production of so much brick required thousands of tons of clay, however, and this is what eventually proved problematic for the village. Haverstraw’s steep riverbanks were comprised almost entirely of an unusual and highly prized variety of blue clay, which is perfect for making the best and strongest bricks. The clay was capped by a layer of topsoil, created by millions of years of vegetation, and on top of that Indians and later white settlers created a small village that became Haverstraw.
When the clay was discovered mid-19th century, industrialists rushed to the village and began digging out the hillside facing the mighty Hudson River. As soon as the initial clay was removed, that portion of the riverfront was immediately redeveloped with miles of brick factories. Huge tunnels were then bored beneath downtown Haverstraw, deeper and deeper into the embankment, and closer and closer to the surface and the booming village business district perched on top.
Whatever warning signals may have been made at the time were generally ignored because of the huge prosperity brick making had brought to Haverstraw, with many small landowners suddenly becoming millionaires. Shipbuilding and terminals and docks for hundreds of sailing ships and barges also sprang up along the village shoreline, making Haverstraw the most prosperous community in Rockland and Orange Counties for nearly a century.
The end came suddenly for Haverstraw, however, following a bitter winter in 1906 with several heavy rainfalls and a couple of small snowstorms.
The cavernous tunnels beneath the village, combined with the softened ground above from the rain and snow, combined to so weaken the surface that in the middle of the night that Monday, it suddenly began collapsing.
With the ground and the buildings above it slowly sinking into a huge pit at river level below, all utilities went with it, including electricity, gas, water and sewage. The ruptured gas lines instantly erupted in flames. With many residences heated by coal or wood, and with those buildings toppling into the abyss, the combined flames from the stoves and the ruptured gas lines began to quickly devour dozens of buildings above. Soon the entire village was threatened, not just the area that was collapsing, which was about six square blocks in size.
Lighting at the time was provided by both gas and electricity, but both were gone in an instant when the big slide began, plunging the entire village into pitch darkness, and with snow still falling all evening and into the next morning.
Heedless of the danger involved, Cobb said village residents and volunteer firemen reacted instantly and began scouring the collapsing area for victims and people who could still be rescued.
It was actually a miracle that only 19 people died that night, Cobb explained, thanks almost entirely to the incredible response of fellow residents.
By the next day, the totality of the devastation became all too clear in Haverstraw. About six square blocks of the village had disappeared entirely into a huge hole, which soon began filling with a combination of rainwater and the seeping Hudson River only a few feet away.
The area was never reclaimed, and visitors today can see the enormous hole where a century ago homes and businesses stood on Jefferson, Clinton, Washington, Division, Rockland and Liberty Streets.
Bodies never found or recovered included those of Laurence and Ida Manion, a married couple, and fireman Albert.
Others among the deceased were Haskel Nelson, father of Benjamin; Wolf Provitch, David Eidenbaum, couple William and Alice Coyne, Mrs. Sarah Silverman and her son Abram Silverman, Mrs. Joseph Daly, Bartley McGovern, a clerk in the Ready Cash Store; Michael Barry, Edward Hefferman (also known as Heffern) and John McMurdy, an apprentice laborer to George C. Glassing who also headed a well-known band in Haverstraw for decades.
When it was over, six streets and 21 buildings had disappeared into the pit, along with the 19 victims, and Haverstraw would never be the same.
The name of each of the deceased was read by museum trustee Michael Brophy, while the bell tolled in their honor rung by Leonard Gordon and Joseph Cobb. Gordon is the son of museum director and founder Patricia Gordon, while Cobb is the 16-year-old son of historian Steve Cobb, who acted as master of ceremonies.
If there was a hero at the Haverstraw landslide, all agreed it would be the incredible volunteers with the S. W. Johnson Steam Fire Engine Company of nearby Garnerville, which is today 137 years old and one of the longest function volunteer fire departments in all of Rockland County.
Cobb and others described the utter devastation facing Haverstraw when the landslide occurred that night, and the inability of the villages four fire companies to respond. At least one was destroyed by the landslide itself, and the others all had horse drawn hand pumpers. With all water mains broken by the collapse, there was nothing those hand pumps could do, the speakers noted.
To this day Cobb says Haverstraw residents are eternally thankful to their Garnerville neighbors for coming to their rescue that fateful night.
Their first fire engine was a second-hand 1869 Button, Long said.
The Garners had mills at four locations, Long said, including one in nearby Dutchess County. The Garners created private fire protection companies, manned by paid employees, at all four locations, he explained, and all four were named S.W. Johnson Fire Engine Company, numbers1, 2, 3 and 4, after Garner’s brother-in-law, Samuel W. Johnson, who was also a partner in the many factories.
Garner died on July 20 of 1876 in a boating mishap on his Hudson River sloop the Mohawk. Following the death of his brother, the mills were all sold, and the private fire companies disbanded.
In all four cases, however, Long said the men immediately re-formed the fire brigades as volunteer fire companies, and incorporated them as New York State non-profit organizations. The four still exist, and continue to proudly carry their original name. In the case of Garnerville’s company, they also still have that original 1869 Button fire engine, proudly displayed in a lighted window in their new fire hall. Long said he believes it is the third oldest fire engine in Rockland County, beaten only by older hand pumpers in South Nyack and Rockland Lake.
Long also said Garnerville continues to have a close working relationship with Haverstraw to this day, and is eternally grateful it was able to provide so much help 107years ago, essentially saving what everyone today knows as downtown Haverstraw.
Cobb recounted that Haverstraw has a long and proud tradition of self-reliance and assisting each other in time of need.
The same spirit that was evident during the 1906 landslide was again visible following the Nov. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, two months ago when Hurricane Susan struck with ferocity in nearby Grassy Point, and in the aftermath of the school massacre at Newtown, Connecticut.
People just pitched in and did what they could, Cobb said. Following the landslide, people came to the scene and immediately took care of whoever needed help, providing food, blankets, clothing and even housing for those left homeless by the disaster. One couple that perished left several young children, including a 7-month-old, all of whom were taken in by neighbors.
Coming to honor both the rescuers and the victims were the descendants of several Haverstraw residents who were directly involved in the landslide 107 years ago. Harriet LoPresti of Stony Point, for example, is 92. She came with her younger sister to honor their grandfather, Harris Nelson (also known as Haskel) and his brother, their uncle, Benjamin Nelson. Both men died in the disaster, and each woman was given a red rose by Gordon as a memorial to their ancestors.
Sunday’s memorial program began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States led by high schooler Joseph Cobb.
His father Stephen then recognized honored guests at the event, including Rockland County Legislator Michael Grant, Haverstraw Town Supervisor and history buff Howard Phillips and Rockland County Historian Craig Long.
Following the ceremony people enjoyed refreshments provided by museum trustees, gazed in amazement at an automated display of the landslide, and ended up sitting in a large circle for the rest of the afternoon reminiscing about “the good old days” in Haverstraw.