Monday, July 16, 2012

The Last Days of a Unique Fishing Community on the Hudson

View from the village toward Amtrak and the Hudson

At some point in the 1800s – no one seems to know when – a unique fishing community sprang up along the river in Hudson, NY.  And as of today, that unique community will exist no more. It will go the way of other communities of free spirits in this region, like the fiercely independent Taghanic Basketmakers who were driven out of the hills above Lake Taghanic  90 years ago.
Entrance to Furgary is next to Hudson's waste treatment plant

Known as the Furgary Boat Club – and no one seems to known the origin of the word – generations of local people have made use of the collection of shacks between the town’s waste treatment plant and the Hudson River.  For years, city officials have talked about evicting the Furgary squatters but now that threat has finally become a reality.

Contemplating the end of an era

Two days before the eviction, I visited the site and talked with a melancholy  group of Furgary folk.  Most, if not all, had memories of the place going back to childhood and none could really understand why the City of Hudson was taking away land they had long regarded as their own.  But the problem is that the land was never their own in any legal sense. Joe Gallo, the president of their official group, the North Dock Tin Boat Association, told WGXC that there were never any deeds for the shacks nor any legal means of transfer.  Informal arrangements and mutual trust among members were what held the little community together. And according to a Register-Star article, no one ever lived there full-time. (I found no real evidence, one way or the other, on this claim.)
Longtime Furgarians

When I visited, the community residents were friendly enough but I was told by other local people that the Furgarians had long regarded the area as their private property and had posted plenty of No Trespassing signs prior to their recent troubles with the City.  Apparently, membership was usually limited to people whose families had lived in Hudson for generations. However,  one man who had moved to Hudson only a decade ago told me that he was friendly with the villagers and was considered a welcome guest  by them whenever he dropped by. But in no sense did the fishermen ever consider it public land, although in fact the several acres of shoreline and wetland do belong to the City of Hudson.

Wetlands stretch north from the Furgary shacks

The long-simmering dispute over ownership of the fishing village was brought to a head three years ago:
“In August of 2009, while performing a deed search, the Columbia Land Conservancy discovered the land, and the adjacent waste water treatment plant property, belonged to the state, which promptly traded it for property under the river owned by the city. Now that Hudson knows they own the land officials see development potential for the riverfront property.”
"Main Street"

Although Hudson’s current mayor, William Hallenbeck, said in a Common Council meeting on July 9 that he wished he could find a way to save the Furgary camp, the fisher folk with whom I spoke doubted his sincerity.  Their leader Joe Gallo, said that former mayor Rick Scalera was so adamant to destroy the community that he would be driving the first bulldozer. According to Gallo, the City has failed to recognize the services provided gratis by the Furgarians, for which the City would now have to pay:

“For a century and a half, we have been stewards of this part of the Hudson River. We have not only worked the river for shad and other fish, we’ve also managed the habitats and public hunting grounds of the foreshore, North Bay and Middle Ground Flats. We’ve safeguarded this area for the many children and pets who are drawn to it. And we’ve done it for free.”


Whether the destruction of this community will be cost-effective for the City of Hudson remains to be seen but it is clear that, as Gallo says, the City has shown “No regard for the cultural aspect.” This kind of American community outside the usual restrictions of laws and deeds was once common, but now  is extremely rare. As one fisherman-hunter-trapper told me, “Since Katrina, there’s nothing like us this side of the Mississippi.”  Surely, a wiser as well as more economically sound course might be to preserve the unique community but open it to a wider public.  Issues of liability cited by City officials could certainly be handled much the same as for other city parks.

Moving Day
No one with whom I spoke has any real idea of what will follow the destruction of the Furgary community. A strong possibility is that the Columbia Land Conservancy, whose researcher discovered the title discrepancy that set this whole crisis in motion, may seek to extend its adjacent natural area north of the city.  The organization’s Summer 2012 newsletter includes an article entitled “A Transformational Plan for Hudson’s Waterfront.”

Although no mention is made of the Furgary site, the accompanying map illustrates a plan “to connect the heart of Hudson to the Greenport Conservation Area and beyond.”  And a non-profit like the CLC certainly has a number of donors and supporters with deep pockets who could well have an influence on local officials.  There are also rumors of condo development, but considering that the site is right next to the city Waste Treatment Plant, that seems highly unlikely.

The CLC's Greenport Conservation Area adjoins Furgary site

I suspect that the most likely impetus behind the community’s destruction is the drive by a well-funded non-profit (i.e. the Columbia Land Conservancy) to keep expanding protected areas in the county. While such a motive is, in general, to be applauded, in this case it may well be that the “green” values of some of the county’s more influential residents are prevailing over the age-old traditions of a small group of local people. 

Update July 19, 2012

We visited the Furgary site a few days after the Hudson PD’s SWAT team launched its 3 a.m. assault against what  amounted to “three grumpy old men. ” The little cove was quiet and deserted, except for a few hungry cats. Police had strung netting loosely around the property and tacked up a few unofficial No Trespassing signs, but clearly no one was attempting to reoccupy the site – which raised the question of why Hudson authorities felt the need for such overwhelming force to back up its eviction orders.

The Register-Star reported that the Hudson Police Department felt the need for a SWAT team because of reports that people on the site were armed and planning to reist the eviction. No word on where such rumors originated. Mayor Hallenbeck also tried to justify the SWAT option in an interview with WGXC radio.  A well-informed older gentleman who joined me while I was looking over the now closed little village blamed the overreaction on the excessive dumping of military equipment into America's police forces by the feds after 9-11. 

Update Nov. 3, 2016
Over four years have passed and the Furgary settlement remains boarded up, in some cases falling into ruin. Makes you wonder what the rush was in closing down this unique Hudson River fishing camp.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Shermans Amusement Park at Caroga Lake, Then and Now

Shermans, 1929

We recently paid a visit to Shermans Amusement Park on West Caroga Lake. Although the resort has been open only sporadically for many years, the buildings are in surprisingly good repair. Local fishermen told us that the park has been closed for about five years but that the last owner, George Abdella, did make substantial investments to bring it back from a previous state of near-abandonment. (For those interested, the hundred acre site and 1400 foot shorefront are being offered for $2 million by Weichart Realty)

On a date at Shermans, 1931

Mary, Betty & Kay ready to go dancing at Shermans, 1926

However, we were there not to search for real estate bargains but to pursue memories of that bygone age when the first inexpensive automobiles brought throngs of summer visitors to the Caroga region, when a host of summer camps sprang up, and the music of Sherman’s carousel drifted across the lake. 
A champion swimmer at Shermans, 1929
Our first stop at Shermans was the snack bar. Nothing to eat, of course,  but we did see rolls of 15 cent tickets for the various rides and attractions.   Back in the 1950s, a series of tame monkeys held court on this spot, dashing up and down a pole and catching all the popcorn that could be tossed in their direction. (Mr. Sherman's platinum-haired daughter presided as the Popcorn Lady at this location.)

We then took a look at the old dance hall, which dates back to the 1920s, and saw that the dance floor is still ready for a foxtrot or two.  Back in those years, couples paid a dime a dance and passed through a turnstile to the dance floor. (Wallflowers could save money.)  

From the dance hall, we passed to the Ferris Wheel, which was closely examined by a young man in our company. He wondered where people sat.

Next stop was the bumper car pavilion, where gleeful youngsters once slammed into each other amid a shower of sparks.

 And then on to the carousel where the horses look ready to ride. These are the original horses, we were told, and they were carefully refurbished by the most recent owner.

Just to the west, Canada Lake and Pine Lake were also the scene of many summer frolics of long ago, and Groshans Park on Pine Lake offered some of the same features as Shermans: rides, picnic areas, a beach and a dance hall.

The Allen Inn at Canada Lake, 1935

Ready for boating on Canada Lake, c. 1925

Groshans Park at Pine Lake, 1925 (postcard)

Before leaving the Caroga region, we stopped for a picnic and swim at the state park on East Caroga Lake.  The park is much the same as it was decades ago, according to the oldest member of our band.
Picnic at East Caroga Lake, 1929

and more recently