How I Took the Williamsburg Bridge to Austin – PA That Is


Back in the late 1900’s, when I had this weird thing called “disposable income”, I used to occasionally buy old pictures and postcards from a popular auction website.  I always searched for the ones that had to do with places I’ve lived or had been to over and over again. One such place was Continental Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Also known as Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, it is the first and last stop on the M and J line between Brooklyn  &  Manhattan, depending on which way you’re going. Twice a day, every day for like fifteen years I took the M from Metropolitan Ave to Delancey/Essex and transferred to the F uptown. Every once in awhile, I’d mix it up a bit and take the bus to the R at the Queens Center mall, but for the most part I was an M train gal.

Anyways, as I was saying, I came upon this here postcard of Williamsburg Plaza and thought it was totally cool. The best part was that it had been written on, making it less expensive. Personally, I like postcards better when they’ve got messages on them but if you’re a collector, you want them pristine and unused – boring, I say. I like the history and the “life” that was added to the pictures when someone picked up this card in the store and thought it was special enough to send to someone they knew. They picked up a pen or a pencil and added their thoughts and feelings to this piece of paper putting a tiny bit of themselves into it. Then it travelled, maybe across the county, or maybe just down the block, and it was looked at and read by a bunch of other people before it got to its final destination. It was read by the addressee and has lived, in this case, for 100 years.

If you’ve ever been to Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, you’ll notice that it hasn’t changed very much – a wonderfully, refreshing feeling for us native NYers who are having our city ripped away from us by a bunch of greedy interlopers. Unfortunately, the names and addresses of the folks who sent and received this piece of mail are not written on it. I was so hoping to find out who they were and where they came from, but alas, that shall remain a mystery. It seems it was probably placed in an envelope and mailed to parts unknown. I guess that whoever (or whomever? don’t know, don’t care) sent it liked the picture so much that he didn’t want it to get scarred on its journey. There were, however, some interesting notes on it.

Our sender told his friend that he passes this place every day, twice a day, on the “elevated road” and that it’s called the Jewish Passover. I wonder if he chuckled as he wrote that? Well, it seems that the Williamsburg Bridge was dubbed this almost as soon as it opened. Construction began in 1896 and was finished in 1903. I found a reference to it being called the Jewish Passover as early as 1906. Poor Jews escaped the slavery of the factories and  tenements of the Lower East Side over the East River into the Promised Land of Brooklyn.  They still live there today, among the expensive loft apartments and the projects, in the shadow of the now dim Domino Sugar sign. If you are ever on the train and you need a seat, just hang out near the Hasidic Jews – it’s almost guaranteed that they’re getting off at Marcy Ave. or Hewes.

The author of  our postcard continues and asks if his friend knew anyone in the Austin disaster. Wow – this went to Texas maybe? Why no, it actually went to Pennsylvania, I am supposing, or to someone who was from there. So what was this disaster? Let’s check the internet…

On September 30th, 1911 a dam broke in Pennsylvania and 78 people died. Built in 1909 and 50 feet high, the dam was owned by the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company. The company decided they needed to cut construction costs and so the damn wasn’t constructed as well as it should have been. Some structural issues were addressed in January of 1910, but again, they did a cheap, half-assed job, which resulted in its failure.  According to Explore PA History website  “the water picked up debris and stacks of pulp wood, estimated to be as much as 700,000 cords, from the Bayless lumber yard. These logs became deadly weapons as the water hit the town of Austin. After the waters raged through Austin, they hit the nearby town of Costello.” Unfortunately, despite donations and help pouring in from all over the country, the town of Austin never fully recovered from this tragedy and half of its population left by 1920. I checked the 1910 census and it shows 2,941 people living there – aside from native Pennsylvanians,  it was full of German, Swedish and Austrian immigrants who had all come to this blue-collar town, working as respectable, blue-collar folk, trying to provide the American dream to their families.  In 1920 though, the population was down to 1,556. By 1930 it lost 400 more people and according to the 2000 census was down to 623 and City-Data.com will tell you that it’s about 615. A town that may have become  a thriving, wonderful city had its life cut short by laziness and  greed.

So that’s how, for a couple of bucks, I travelled across the Williamsburg Bridge to a town in Northern PA I had never even heard of. Although it’s a sad story, it reminds me of how quickly things can change and about how small the world really is. I’m glad I learned about the Jewish Passover and a little town over 300 miles away. I hope the six or seven other people who read my blog learn a couple of new things too.

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3 Responses to How I Took the Williamsburg Bridge to Austin – PA That Is

  1. Beth says:

    Bacon Freak is now my new favorite website and I know several friends who’ll love it and who all swear by comedian Jeff Gaffigan’s statement that “bacon is the fairy dust of food”. I definitely see presents in the future for the friend who loves her chocolate bacon bars – maybe the “Bacon is a Vegetable” t-shirt.

    I have a few co-workers that always head out to Canton for the Canton Trade Days. I think one of the gals here at work is originally from Canton, but I could be completely making that up – I seem to remember trying to run away from her in the hallway around the time she was oversharing about her family.

    North Carolina, eh? I’ve heard it’s really beautiful there and if you’re headed to the South, you could do worse. Just remember to be extra patient – Southerners and Texans take a long while to work those sentences out of their mouths (I’m guilty of that – blame my environment) – those words will eventually come, but you may want to bring a book while you wait, you’re going to be there awhile. I look forward to those stories!

    I’m in the same boat readship-wise. I joke that I have 10 regular readers – all brow beaten family members and friends who are too afraid to just tell me “no, I ummm didn’t read that post.”

  2. Beth says:

    One of the things I love about your blog is I always learn something interesting and new. Whether its the failed Austin dam, family murderesses or staring at some bacon covered in chocolate, it’s always a fun read. An aside, my chocolate loving friend (who is a hipster cupcake loving fiend – we try to forgive her) keeps trying to push some gourmet chocolate bacon chocolate bars she loves. Thankfully, she forgets to bring them by everytime she picks a few up from the store. Whew. Also, your Yiddish words piece was timely – I had been mulling over writing about Christmas gifts and the best word in human speech “tchotchke” (not that I’m saying I get a load of chintzy baubles for Christmas, nosiree – ok, maybe) – ultimately, I decided against it just to avoid my in-laws having another reason to hiss in my direction.

    Anyway, I really do enjoy reading your blog and learning all sorts of new things. 🙂

    • wagnerowicz says:

      thank you so much – you and the like 8 other people like it, I think. my mom is the only one who ever comments, but i guess she has to. I’m hoping to move down to NC soon where I suppose I will be looked at as an evil menace just like we look at the hipsters up here – none of them are from NY, and they don’t wear socks and they smell. I suspect your friend doesn’t smell. I’ve heard those chocolate bacon bars are good though, you should get her something from here http://www.baconfreak.com/, it would be pretty funny. My aunt lives in Canton, btw. She used to raise goats and make soap with their milk.

      PS – its’ fun to make your in-laws hiss at you. I’ve been doing it for years.

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