Friday, July 31, 2009

Bennington Battle Monument - Vermont


Tuesday’s post mentioned the Quakers of Adams, Massachusetts who fought in the Battle of Bennington in the Revolutionary War. Today we have a look at the Bennington Battle Monument, at 306 feet the tallest structure in Vermont.

This stone obelisk was built in the late 1880s. On this site the American colonists kept a store of weapons and food. British General John Burgoyne wanted to capture it for his own troops. The actual battle occurred in nearby Wallomsac in August, 1777.

American Brigadier General John Stark and his force of 2,000 men, mostly untrained, from Vermont, New Hampshire and Berkshire County, Mass. (including the aforementioned Quakers) defeated two detachments of Burgoyne’s army, foiling the British attempt to cut New England off from the other colonies. The afternoon of August 16th was when the battle began, and Stark is reputed, according to legend, to have said, “There are the Red Coats; they will be ours or tonight Molly Stark sleeps a widow.” Two hours later, the British retreated in disarray.

When a second unit of British soldiers appeared, Colonel Seth Warner and his Green Mountain Boys arrived in the nick of time and the British retreated once more.

Due mainly to his failure to achieve the supplies he wanted, Burgoyne was forced to surrender two months later his entire command of 8,000 men of British, Hessian, and Brunswick troops after the Battle of Saratoga. It was a turning point for the American Revolution.

Here in Bennington at the site of this monument, opened in 1891, the Battle of Bennington is marked every year on August 16th. If you’re in the Bennington, Vermont area, you might drop by for the celebration. You can take an elevator to the top of the monument and have a look yourself at the rolling woodland where a revolution was scored in blood, and down at the peaceful towns in Vermont and New York that grew up from lonely wilderness outposts.

For more information, have a look here on the Bennington Battle Monument.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quaker Meeting House - Adams, Mass.


A cool breeze, a brilliant blue morning sky, and hilltop Quaker meeting house in Adams in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts becomes at once a thing of sacred stillness, and a communion with the past.


It is vacant now, maintained by descendents of those first Quaker settlers who established this township once called East Hoosuck, but it is owned by the Adams Historical Society, and so the place of worship has become a place apart, the centerpiece of a colonial graveyard, and an artifact of town history.

This denomination of the Society of Friends moved here from the area around Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Smithfield, Rhode Island in the late 1760s. The meeting house dates from 1782.

At that time their beliefs, which varied from opposition to slavery, to war, and to the equality of men and women to a degree that was unknown among non-Quakers, as well as their silence services in which each person is allowed to be guided by his own “inner light” rather than a church or clergy to bring them closer to God, were cause for the Quakers to be persecuted. In the 1600s, they were hanged on Boston Common.

In this quiet and peaceful spot they were removed from that horror, but did not shut themselves off from the injustices of the world. They promoted the humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. They extended their friendship to the Indians, and to slaves. Massachusetts had abolished slavery in 1790, but it was still permitted in New York until 1826. Several runaway slaves from New York State found refuge here among the Quakers.

The Friends also engaged in another bitter aspect of society, and one which was for them especially agonizing. Despite their espoused opposition to war, some Quakers from this community fought in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Bennington in nearby Vermont. Below the meeting house, among a cluster of headstones, there is a memorial boulder on which a plaque is dedicated to those Friends, “laying aside their religious scruples took up arms in defense of their homes and liberties.”

The struggle of scruples for Quakers on this point was recently discussed in a review of “Friendly Persuasion” on my Another Old Movie Blog.

A total of 40 Quaker families lived and gathered for meeting here in 1819, and afterwards there was a decline in membership as more and more members of the community headed west as pioneers, even as their ancestors headed west from Rhode Island and eastern Mass. The last official Quaker meeting took place here in 1842.

The old Indian trail called the Pontoosuck Path is now Friend Street that leads up to the hill on which the Meeting House is perched. Look above the rooftop to the massive Mt. Greylock, and the observation tower that looks down, from the highest point in Massachusetts, that can just be seen. One remote world still silently observing another.

For more on the Adams Quaker Meeting House, have a look at this website.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Old Orchard Beach Pier - Maine



Like a world unto itself, a world on stilts, the Old Orchard Beach Pier has been around over 100 years, first opening to the public in 1898. It has been altered over time, requiring renovation after several storms or fires. A world on stilts can be precarious.

The heyday occurred during the mid-20th Century when the enormous Pier Casino Ballroom showed movies and big band concerts with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Xavier Cugat, and Benny Goodman. But the casino was torn down in 1970 after one too many storms weakened the pier, and the remainder was obliterated by the Blizzard of 1978. Remember that one?

But the Old Orchard Beach Pier rose from the beach again and stepped up on its stilts, and re-opened to the public in 1980. It’s still here, a world unto itself.

For more information on the Old Orchard Beach Pier, have a look at this website.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abigail Adams Statue - Quincy, Mass.


This formidable, resolute woman with her hand gently placed on the young scholar’s shoulder is Abigail Adams. The boy with the book is her son, John Quincy Adams. We know Abigail chiefly as wife of one President and mother of another.

The statue gives us a hint as to what else she was: teacher, and also student. As was common in the 18th Century, women, even women from respected families as Abigail was, were denied a formal education. But those with means, and a supportive family, could teach themselves, and Abigail was a voracious reader, who displayed her keen intelligence in the many letters she wrote to her husband John Adams and other family and friends.

Abigail did not take education lightly, nor did she use it lightly. Along with educating her own children, she taught other children, including the incident she recorded in a letter to her husband, John Adams, in 1791, when she described trying to help a young black servant boy who asked for her help to get an education. She enrolled him in a local evening school, but several people objected to his admission to the school. Abigail responded he was "a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? . . . I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write."

She also believed in equal education for boys and girls. In a letter from March 1776, she urged her husband to "remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation."

Her husband acknowledged she was better at running the farm than he was.

Here in this statue she places her hand on the shoulder of the future. Her magnificent imprint remains with us.

The statue, which stands next to the United First Parish Church where Abigail and John Adams, and their son John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa, are buried, was dedicated in 1997. It was sculpted by Lloyd Lillie, who also did the Katherine Lee Bates statue of Falmouth, Mass., discussed in this previous post.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hold That Thought

New England Travels is on hiatus this week. (See aftermath of the Virtual Cocktail Party at Another Old Movie Blog.)

See you next week with more travels.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brant Point Lighthouse - Nantucket, Mass.


Here is Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket, America’s second oldest lighthouse after Boston Light. The structure pictured here, built in 1900, was the ninth lighthouse in this location since the 1700s. Lots of storms out that way destroyed the earlier lighthouses. A few fires, too.

When the first lighthouse was built, the town was called Sherburne, and a young whaling industry made the remote town a busy place. Brant Point was chosen for a lighthouse to mark the point all vessels would pass to enter the inner harbor.

In September 1781, Loyalist privateers entered Nantucket Harbor for other reasons, and American forces from Cape Cod arrived to set up cannons at Brant Point. They fired on the enemy ships and forced them out of the harbor.

The sixth lighthouse to stand here, built by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1788, was ceded to the federal government in 1795, when the town changed its name from Sherburne to Nantucket. This light went dark for the War of 1812.

By the 1820s, whaling was a huge industry here, and new lighthouse was built in 1825. This lighthouse still stands, west of the present Brant Point Light, part of U.S. Coast Guard Station Brant Point.

The current Brant Point Light was built 596 feet east of the previous one in 1901. It was automated in 1965. In 1983, the Brant Point Station was renovated by the Coast Guard. Brant Point Light's occulting red light is 26 feet above sea level, one of the lowest of New England's lights. You will see it as your ferry rounds the point to enter the harbor.

As noted in this previous post, the Brant Point Lighthouse was used as a model for the Mystic Seaport Lighthouse.

For more information on the Brant Point Lighthouse, have a look at this website, and this one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hartford Circus Fire


The above photo shows a park-like setting in the background, and a hopscotch game painted on the blacktop surface in the foreground. This is the site of the Hartford Circus Fire. The background is a memorial to that tragedy. The hopscotch marking is part of a present-day school grounds where children play, who thankfully have no personal knowledge of that gruesome event. But they undoubtedly heard about it.

On July 6, 1944, some 65 years ago yesterday, a terrible thing happened. That it happened in a moment’s notice, and without any warning, is part of the tragedy. That it happened to mostly children enjoying a day at the circus is heartbreaking. Today we mark the infamous Hartford Circus Fire.

It was hot in Hartford, Connecticut that day. World War II was still grinding on, though D-Day had occurred a month before and it was hoped that the tide had turned. On this hot, lazy summer day (Lazy for kids. The grownups in nearby war plants like Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Standard, Sikorsky were still slaves to the mantra of Production.) Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, what had been an annual event in Hartford for generations.

The month before, The Greatest Show on Earth played in Waterbury, and New Haven, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Then up to Worcester and Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Then Manchester, New Hampshire. Then Portland, Maine. Then down to Providence, Rhode Island. Next stop was Hartford.

The circus train arrived, and they set up the enormous Big Top on an empty lot in the north of town. Possibly as many as 8,700 people came to the circus that day (exact figures are still not known).

They all looked up from their wooden bleacher benches to the high-wire act performed by the famous Flying Wallendas. At this moment, this unspeakable, unwarned moment in time, a fire broke out on a side wall of the big top. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of white gasoline and paraffin, and so of course was extremely flammable. In minutes, the entire big top was a holocaust, and flaming drops of liquid fire from the roof rained down on the panicked audience. The Wallendas scrambled down on ropes. The audience rushed for exits, some slashed holes in the side wall of the tent with pocketknives. People were trampled, and others burned to death. Some were burned to death heroically saving others.

As soon as the flames were detected, even before most of the audience was aware something was wrong, the circus band broke into John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The bandleader, Merle Evans, may have been one of the first to notice the flames. The band continued to play as the fire spread, and played for as long as they could. Some horrified patrons might have wondered why a celebratory song was played during such a terrible tragedy. They would learn later that in the circus world, at least in the US, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is called “The Disaster March.” In the circus it is played only during emergencies, as a signal to circus staff to all come and help. In the circus, it is never played for any other reason.

The circus staff all did come to help, the animal trainers and the acrobats rushed to drag people to safety. A famous photograph was taken of the clown Emmett Kelly, dressed in his clown’s outfit with full makeup, hurrying with a bucket of water. Possibly because of this photo the Hartford Circus Fire is sometimes referred to as “The Day the Clowns Cried.”


The massive, flaming tent collapsed on top of those still trapped inside.

Hartford was haunted for a long time over this tragedy, where 168 people died (this figure is a best guess due to circumstances), and some 487 others injured. With not enough ambulances, store delivery trucks were used to dispatch the injured to hospitals, and the dead to makeshift morgues. Many businesses and individual citizens pitched in to help. The famous department store, G. Fox, discussed in this previous post, donated sheets to the overburdened Municipal Hospital, where burn victims were lining the hallways.

Even those lucky ones who escaped without injury, were left with horrific memories of the event and suffered from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many could not endure being in crowds after that, or going to the circus. Even hearing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” under happier circumstances would send some people into panic attacks. The actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was a boy when he attended the circus that day, could never attend plays or films as part of an audience after that, the emotional stress of the tragedy was that powerful.

There was no official determination of the cause of the blaze, though speculation about arson was investigated for years. Likewise, another mystery about the identity of some of the remaining unclaimed bodies lingered for decades. One particular child, unnamed except for her morgue number and called “Little Miss 1565” was thought to have been at last identified a few years ago, but afterward further evidence showed this late identification might have been an error. The police detectives responsible for, and inevitably, unable to identify these unclaimed bodies, marked their graves with flowers on the anniversary of the fire for decades.

There is a memorial to the victims of the Hartford Circus Fire standing at the exact spot where the big top stood in 1944. The photos accompanying this piece are of that memorial. It was dedicated in 2005, and is located behind the Wish School. A circular plaque lists all the names of the victims. It is placed exactly where the center ring stood under the big top. It is surrounded by a brick walk with the names of memorialized loved ones. The walk which leads to this spot is dotted with information plaques which dramatically depict the timeline of the events. Surrounding this expansive area is a perimeter marked by young dogwood trees. Connect the dots of these trees, and you have the exact outline of the big top.

It is an eerie, and paradoxically, healing memorial.

Here is a link to “The Stars and Stripes Forever” from the Library of Congress collection. It is, by Act of Congress, our National March. Listen to it, and this time put away thoughts of happy Independence Day parades where you might have heard this tune. Think instead of what it must have been like to hear it played in desperation under the burning big top. You may get some inkling of the panic.

For more information on the Hartford Circus Fire, have a look at this book by author Stewart O’Nan, “The Circus Fire” (Doubleday, NY, 2000). It is an excellent and dramatic narrative of the events, I believe the best book written on this tragedy.

Also, have a look at a couple of articles, interesting in their comparison. One is from Time Magazine only the week following the tragedy, and the other is from the New York Times marking the 50th anniversary. Time heals, or at least lends perspective where it cannot heal.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Nathan Hale Statue - Hartford, CT


It’s a heroic pose, but what is most arresting about statues of Nathan Hale is the appearance of his extreme youth. He was 21 years old when he was hanged as an American spy by the British in September of 1776.

We mark tomorrow’s annual celebration of Independence Day here in the US with a look at this statue which stands in front of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It was designed by Enoch Woods Smith, commissioned by James J. Goodwin, who gifted it to the museum in 1892. We took at look at Nathan Hale’s homestead in Coventry, Connecticut back in October.

For more on the life of this extraordinary, and very young, Revolutionary War hero, have a look at this website.