Monday, November 10, 2008

Old family photo: The Day The Great War Ended

I treasure this photograph. New Rochelle, New York.
The end of the First World War.

The photo was taken on November 11, 1918 by my Uncle Jim, who was the eldest brother of the three patriotic children posing in this shot. They were my Uncle Marshall, Uncle Richard, and my mother, Margaret, age three.

Their older cousin named Hewitt had been killed in battle in France, and the family had mourned the loss deeply. Just months before the armistice was signed my mother had surprised a church full of people when, as the first strains of some hymn were played on the piano, she stood up from her seat and belted out the first line of the favorite war song "Over There" written by George M. Cohan while on the train between New Rochelle and New York, the same train my grandfather rode daily. (Listen to three versions of the song here).

For the rest of her life my mother remembered and told the story of how the huge whistle in New Rochelle blew all day in celebration. She would point out the two tower-like structures in the right background of the picture, identifying the area where the whistle was situated and always commenting on the loudness. Now I wish I'd asked more questions: which one: the silo thingy or the skinny tower? - where was the photo taken: your yard? a town area with special significance to the event? As with many of the stories she relayed, some of them numerous times, I am amazed at some of the details I remember while being dismayed at other details I don't remember or never sought.

I was surprised to find a map of New Rochelle drawn in 1918, the same year this photo was taken. You can see this detailed map (click on the map to enlarge it) here.

I am hoping that some reader(s) who know New Rochelle might be able to tell where the shot was taken, perhaps by identifying the structures in the background. It's a long shot, but if you have ideas please comment at the end of this post. Some of my speculations on the site include:

  • Likely, it is the New Rochelle fire whistle, mentioned in a New York Times article as the sound that shocked a New Rochelle widow to death in 1905. According to the article, the fire station was the Union Engine Company and the woman lived at 231 Union Avenue nearby.
  • Could the location be Echo Bay, where Snuff Creek Mill was said to have been used as a stop for the underground railroad? The area eventually became the home of the New Rochelle Coal and Lumber Company. It was in operation for decades and definitely at the time the photo was taken. A New York Times archive piece written on August 18, 1896, reports the sale of the area to New Rochelle Coal and Lumber Company: "The Canty Block, at the corner of Huguenot Street and what is known as the Mechanic Street Extension, southeast of the New-York, New-Haven and Hartford Railway Station, was sold to-day, in foreclosure proceedings, by Arthur L. Clark, for $3,310, to the New-Rochelle Coal and Lumber Company," and an article about reorganizations in Time on August 26, 1935, mentions the company noting, "A small corporation with an excellent pre-Depression earnings record is New Rochelle Coal & Lumber Co. of New Rochelle, N. Y."
  • Might the camera have captured the children at Fort Slocum on David's Island, or even possibly at the Knights of Columbus Hall in New Rochelle? A timeline at this website about New Rochelle mentions both: 1917 -A local woman and activist, Haganoush Kazanjian, mobilizes the city's Red Cross chapter to handle Army volunteers who jam the city to get to Fort Slocum to enlist during World War I. Approximately 5,000 are housed and fed by New Rochelleans, many at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Centre Avenue. When the men left the city, each contributed ten cents to leave a memorial of thanks to the people of New Rochelle. Fort Slocum was to be demolished in 2008. I found a blog that focused on Fort Slocum's demise, in which the blog author wrote, "From information we received, ALL of the buildings on Davids Island will be torn down by the end of this year. The city council in New Rochelle has voted not to spend any money on preserving any of the buildings still standing." A newspaper article mentions "...the rusting water tower that is the tallest structure on the island and a visual landmark that can be seen from the shore." Is it possible that the structure in the old photo was a water tower?

The photographer and the people in the photo are all dead now. They are gone but some of their memories are not, because I remember. And now I've told you the story behind this photo, or what I know about it, thereby ensuring that, at least for now, their memories and their lives live on. They mattered. As did their cousin Hewitt who gave his life on some horrid battlefield in France. As did all the fallen and the veterans in that war and all the wars since.

It was 90 years ago, the War to End All Wars. A portion of First World describes the end:

The First World War spanned four years and involved many nation states.

This section lists the events of the year 1918, the final year of the war. This year saw the German military high command attempt one final large-scale offensive on the Western Front. A near success, Operation Michael's ultimate failure led to an increasingly sweeping series of successes by the Allies from the summer of 1918.

By the autumn the German Army was no longer able to continue fighting. With revolution imminent, Germany's political leadership petitioned for an armistice. It took effect at 11am on 11 November - the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The war was over, and with its end many of the European dynasties fell.

The following year President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. In the History of Veterans Day the change of name from Armistice to Veterans Day is explained:

An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday - - a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day." Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in its place the word "Veterans." With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Later that same year, on October 8th, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first "Veterans Day Proclamation" . . .


vikas said...

this was a geart photo.which shows what a war is?it show how we show commitement to each other during war.actully it is a motivational photo.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

I was in a supermarket at the weekend and was shocked at how few people stopped for the two minute silence. I don't always remember when i'm on my own, because i remember them in my own way, but in a public place when there's supposed to be a moment of unity...very sad...

Anyway, there was a documentary on at the weekend with Michael Palin and he was talking about the last day of the First World War. The people in charge signed the declaration of peace at 5am - but decided that the ceasefire wouldn't be until 11am.

Although death in war is always, ultimately, futile one has to stop and think about the 1000s of people who died needlessly in those six hours when they could have been at peace. The last casualty of the war was actually at 11:30am (or near enough) - a German who was shot by troops who hadn't been issued with the ceasefire...

I think that's the story that has touched me the most over the weekend - to the extent that i'm considering researching it further.

Peace and love xx

Wayfaring Wanderer said...

That map is a neat find to go with the photo.....I hope someone can tell you where it was's a great photo!

Mortart said...

I have a young cousin who now lives in New Rochelle. But I've never been there, so I cannot help on identifications.
Thanks very much for visiting my blog, which has resulted in my becoming a reader of your very interesting site.

Buddha said...

I didn’t like history too much. Too many dates and names I did not care for, to remember. But this is great. This is how history should be taught. The history of the people and their lives. This is something I can feel and relate to.

Lydia said...

Welcome and thank you for visiting my blog. Your comments about the photo were special.

I just heard this year about the two minute silence observation in a report on National Public Radio. It impressed me that this is done, and how sad to read your comments that it isn't practiced by everyone as that moment of unity you mentioned.
The information from the Palin documentary is new to me, and shocking, and very tragic. It's important that we remember them well...

Wayfaring Wanderer,
I know, what are the odds that the only map was one from that year? Does your office close for Veterans Day?

That's interesting and somewhat ironic that you have a relative living in New Rochelle.
I would encourage everyone who reads these comments to visit mortart's blog. What a remarkable journalist and writer you are, Mort.

Your comments made my day. "This is how history should be taught. The history of the people and their lives." I agree! I think this is why I love the Ken Burns documentaries so very much. Cut/paste
I also think that the oral Living History Projects all around the country will bring history alive for students if just used in the schools.

Jennifer said...

This is a great photograph and it is wonderful that you know much of the story (so much better than just finding the photo and wondering: where? why? who?). And yes, you carry these memories and pass them on, keeping them alive.

I was just thinking today about my mother's adoptive father, who would have been about six at the end of the Great War, and later was an older soldier (not sure if he ever left stateside) during World War II. We had a bugle of his from his time in the service. I wonder where that ended up? I wish I knew more about his experiences.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for sharing the story. I agree with a previous comment - that is how history should be taught. It makes it meaningful for the person learning it.

It is a great photo.

Lydia said...

Glad you liked the photo.
Yes, don't you wish you knew more about his experiences. And wouldn't it be great to have the bugle? I wondered about my uncle's bugle in the photo. He's the only in that family that was musically talented and some of my happiest memories are of him playing his mandolin in the restaurant he later built.

Thanks much for appreciating the photo and the story. This was so meaningful to share that I've decided to feature more old family photos, along with backstories, from time to time.

Citizen of Earth said...

I know it's been a while

You have, as usual, been busy posting while I have been pre occupied by other things

But I am here
And I am reading
Catching up

Armistice day also happens to be Kurt Vonnegut’s Birthday and as I am pressed for time
I will lean on Kurt to speak for me on the subject

“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day.

When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another.

I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute.
They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God.

So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day.

Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder.
Armistice Day I will keep.

I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred?
Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance

And all music is.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions 1973

Lydia said...

Yes, it's been a long while and I missed you. I hope all is well in your life.
I was amazed that the day is also Vonnegut's birthday, that you KNEW that, and that you incorporated his meaningful statement into your comments. Incredible. Thank you.

MIchael Cavanaugh said...

I am the historian of Ft Slocum NY. I am intimately familiar with all the buildings there, including the WWI era. I can say, definitely 1.) neither structure in the photo is the Slocum water tower (in any case the one to which the article, quoted, referred, dates to 1929; and was just pulled down in 2008); 2.) there were never any such structures as these on Ft Slocum. BTW the 1917 Thanhouser film Man Without a Country does feature some footage toward the end of Ft Slocum in 1917. It has just become available on DVD. For more info on Slocum, see my website, Great photo, good luck with it!

Lydia said...

Michael- Thank you so much for leaving your detailed, authoratative comments about Ft. Slocum. It's terrific having some of my questions answered. And so good to know about the film. My husband and I must see the DVD.
I will be by your website to learn more. Again, I so appreciate your time and attention here.



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