Tuesday, December 4, 2018

West of Third and South of Allen

Since May, the redevelopment of the Kaz site has been a matter of intense public interest and scrutiny. Efforts by the Hudson Development Corporation (HDC) to redevelop the site have come to a halt, and the thinking about redevelopment has broadened to embrace everything west of Third Street and south of Allen Street.

At the HDC board meeting last Tuesday, architect and urban designer Matthew Frederick reiterated an earlier appeal that a formal urban design study be made of the area before proposals were sought from developers. He questioned the need to acquire the CSX parcel, indicating that the area should be an extension of the existing street grid and did not necessarily have to be accessed from South Front Street. He stressed that the plan should divide the site into multiple parcels, arguing that "more money will come to the city ultimately from multiple parcel ownership." Frederick has summarized and elaborated on his comments on his blog Hudson Urbanism: "Radically rethinking the Kaz development model."   

Walter Chatham, who chairs the Planning Board and was recently appointed to the HDC board, has been studying old maps of Hudson, such as the 1873 Beers Altas map and a 1923 aerial drawing of Hudson (details of both are shown below), with the thought of re-creating the street grid in this part of the city as it used to be.

Both the map and the aerial drawing show Second Street as a roadway extending south beyond Allen Street all the way to what in 1873 was edge of South Bay, Montgomery Street extending all the way to Front Street, and Deer Alley extending to Second Street. Today, a guardrail, installed in 2012 after a septuagenarian accidentally drove his car down the steep hill and crashed his car into the Kaz warehouse below, marks the terminus of South Second Street at Allen Street, Montgomery Street deadends after the equivalent of less than a block, and a barrier prevents cars from going any farther west on Deer Alley than just past 211 Allen Street. In each case, there are steep drop-offs at those points.

Reinstating the streets as they appear on old maps and images would accomplish the goal of integrating the Kaz site into the existing city by imposing the form of the city onto the site and by providing access to the site from other parts of the city. Before any action is taken though, effort should be made to determine if the streets ever actually existed as depicted in the old documents and, if they did, to learn why they don't exist in that way anymore.

In this engraving of 59 Allen Street, the Charles Alger House, which appeared on an 1858 map of Columbia County, it appears that the staircase leading down from Allen Street to Cross Street already existed, but there is no evidence of a roadway.

Of course, in 1858, this part of Hudson was still fairly undeveloped. Most of the houses in the 200 block of Allen Street were not built until after 1865, after the end of the Civil War. In 1851, the year the Alger house was built, it was suggested that the area, then known as Universal Hill, be made into a park or "pleasure ground." The person suggesting this use argued, "It has a fine view of the river, mountains, Mount Merino, &c. It could be converted into a beautiful place, second to none in the country." A description of Universal Hill found in a letter to the editor published in the Hudson Daily Register in October 1881 describes the state of Allen Street around the time the engraving of the Charles Alger House was made.
[Universal Hill] was a broad, beautiful green, fronting the bay, extending from the old church edifice on Third street, which was the only building upon it, nearly to Second street, Allen street, between these points was then little more than a rough road, known as Federal or Church street. . . .
It is not unreasonable to imagine that, as Hudson developed after the Civil War and more houses were built along Allen Street below Third, Montgomery Street was created running parallel to Allen with Deer Alley midway between, as they appear on the 1873 Beers Atlas map and fifty years later in the 1923 aerial drawing. But why don't these streets exist in the same way today?

The answer may be found in a series of articles written in 1988 by local historian Margaret Schram, author of Hudson's Merchants and Whalers: The Rise and Fall of a River Port, 1783-1850. The six-part series, which she called Columbia County's sleeping dragon, appeared in the summer and early fall in The Independent. The "sleeping dragon" (Schram apologized for the melodramatic title at the end of the first installment) refers to the continuing threat of landslides in Hudson and all of Columbia County posed by the geological hazard of Lake Albany clay, "deposited when the last glacier was melting and receding." The instability of Lake Albany clay, upon which the whole county is situated, is now understood to have been the cause of the Knickerbocker Cement Plant tragedy, which occurred in 1915, taking the lives of five workers. (The Knickerbocker plant was located where the ATM plant currently is.) Schram described the event in this way:
The night shift was preparing to leave and the day shift was just entering at 5:50 a.m. on the hot, sultry morning of August 2. Suddenly, the workers walking toward the power house felt the earth move. They saw the great pile of rock begin to sink and slide; they ran for their lives.
A tremendous noise followed--the rumble of earth moving and the crash of buildings collapsing. Clouds of dust, debris, smoke and steam darkened the area, which was filled with streaks of fire and the terrified screams of trapped men.
Under the pile of rock, the earth had suddenly dropped into what seemed like a giant pit. Almost four acres of land moved eastward toward [Claverack Creek], undermining all the buildings and carrying them along. The land dropped 25 to 35 feet, followed by a mass of loosened earth which buried everything.
Photo: Greenport Historical Society
Photo: Greenport Historical Society
In her articles, Schram also touched upon the City of Hudson and the effects being situated on Lake Albany clay has had on the geography of the city. She includes the detail below from the 1873 Beers Atlas map of the Second Ward with the following caption:
This 1873 map of the City of Hudson shows two brickyards at the north end of Third and Second Streets, just off Mill Street. The geography of this portion of Hudson has changed considerably since this map was drawn. Robinson Street is now the northernmost street on the block between Third and Second. Clay slides have eroded the rest.

The geography of the south side of Hudson has similarly changed since 1873, but Schram did not mention it beyond saying "parts of the City of Hudson's hillsides are slipping, just a foot or two a year." I recall hearing, a decade or so ago, about a landslide that occurred behind the 200 block of Allen Street in the 1930s, but so far I have been unable to locate any substantiating account of it. But whether the slopes in this part of the city became steeper as a consequence of a single dramatic event or a series of minor clay slides over time, there is certainly evidence that it happened.

Schram undertook to research and write her series of articles to raise public awareness of the problems Lake Albany clay can create. Most of the major disasters she described happened in the early 20th century, but she did document an erosion issue what appears to have continued in the thirty years since she wrote the series. She included the photograph below, taken in 1988, showing the parking lot next to the former Charles Williams School, at the end of North Third Street. The following caption accompanied the photo:
The parking lot at Hudson's former Charles Williams School, now home to the County Sheriff's Department and Health Department, has shrunk at least a car's length due to lake clay shifts, with more cracks appearing.

Today, there is nothing but brush beyond the guardrail seen in the 1988 photograph.

It may be that 21st-century technology can overcome geological challenges and reinstate South Second and Montgomery streets, but it would seem those challenges must first be thoroughly understood.

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