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.