Friday, September 17, 2010

Following an Unknown Stream Through Time

The hallway is the part of the building I see the most of, so I wanted to look at something more than just plain walls. Some time ago, I had started picking up old postcards of the area and had them framed in clusters. Every now and then I still look to see if I can find anything different and I just came across one of a place I hadn't heard of before: the Vale of Avoca, Newburgh, N.Y. I bought the postcard, and as soon as I got home, I started looking for where this place was.

The first reference I found dated back to 1883, in a publication named  The Newburgh Centennial.The passage that applied to this picturesque place was an account about an attempt that was made to capture George Washington along "the river to the south for some distance, for right in front of the headquarters the bank was a hundred feet high, and went sheer down to the water. This, with little variation, continued for a mile, or almost down to Lafayette's headquarters. Half way down the Quassaiek creek bursts from a gorge into the Hudson. This chasm ran back into the interior nearly a mile before it sunk away so that it could be spanned by a bridge. As it approached the river the south bank swept off in a wide semi-circle but again crowded against the creek, just before it plunged into the Hudson. The semi circle enclosed a beautiful little valley, known afterward as the "Vale of Avoca.""

In 1891, John J Nutt briefly described the stream in Newburgh; Her Institutions, Industries and Leading Citizens: "Southward from Newburgh extend several other broad highways which split into feeders every few miles. One of these, after passing through a manufacturing district, crosses Quassaick Creek at its mouth. This creek is the southern boundary of the city, and has a dozen mills and factories on its banks from Orange Lake to the river. Near its mouth it flows through a deep valley called the Vale of Avoca. From a small glen a mile west of the river the chasm widens and deepens as you follow the course of the stream. The south bank sweeps off into a semi-circle, but again crowds against the creek just before its union with the Hudson. The banks on either side are over a hundred feet high and precipitous. To one passing the mouth of the stream in a boat the sides of the chasm once presented a gloomy pass, just wide enough for the water. Now railroad tracks run along its sides and cross the creek; but even these changes cannot wholly deface its olden charms."

Any references to this part of the creek seemed to disappear for the next hundred or so years, until George Lankevich explains why, in River of dreams: the Hudson Valley in Historic Postcards. A portion of this 2006 publication tells us how the entire Hudson was in crisis, and uses the Vale of Avoca as an example to demonstrate this."One typical tale of decay of the Quassaick Creek in Newburgh, a stream called the "Vale of Avoca" in the 1830s and so lovely that it drew visitors from abroad to the town. By 1842 the creek also hosted grist and woolen mills, plaster and candle makers, rug and furniture factories, a brickyard, a foundry and a carriage maker; by 1850 it was an open sewer." He then goes on to mention current conservation efforts for the Hudson being undertaken in the 21st Century, although any present day references are in regard to the Quassaick Creek.

In 2007, Marcy Denker (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY; Faculty of Landscape Architecture) came up with a proposal titled Deep History Wide Connections: Creating a Vision For a Small Urban Park To Spark a Broad New Conception Of a Hudson River Estuary. The general idea was to turn the former industrial site along the Quassaick Creek into a neighborhood park. She also uses the Vale of Avoca as a way to demonstrate "(t)he history of the appreciation and abuse of this part of the waterway creates a key piece in framing the interpretation and reassessment of the proposed park. For example, Irish immigrants called it the Vale of Avoca because it reminded them of a beautiful valley in Ireland. But readers of The Riverkeepers by Robert Kennedy Jr. may recall that as late at the 1980’s the Quassaick was a soup of industrial chemicals so volatile you could set it on fire."

This all being only a small part of the Hudson River Estuary, and the numerous programs relating to it, I'm not sure where this all stands, but I see positive things happening. A couple of examples would be the Volunteer River Herring Monitoring Program, where the Quassaick Creek was one of eight streams that would monitor river herring, which play an important role in the Hudson River ecosystem, and  the Barrier Mitigation in the Hudson River Project, where the Quassaick Creek Dam was one of two dams in focus, and remnants of the dam were to be removed to restore natural riverine function and flow for the benefit of river herring and American eel.

Now this seems a somewhat lengthy way to answer "Where is this place?", but this stream has managed to simultaneously lead me through history, and lead me to positive efforts being undertaken today. I may still not know where the exact location of the stream, or even if it still exists today, but through a simple postcard, I was able to travel back through a beautiful period in time and see how it is all leading up to the great future awaiting our area.

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