In 1999, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the White House Millennium Council set up the Millennium Project, known as My History Is America’s History. It aimed to provide a place online for the collection of personal narratives that others could read and reflect upon. Although the project was abandoned within a few years, its intention was clear: to show the American public that local history matters.
New Baltimore’s Town Historian, Clesson S. Bush, must think so too. His unambiguously local history book, Episodes from a Hudson River Town: New Baltimore, New York, succeeds in portraying the nature and character of townspeople in New York State. In his introduction, Bush admits that New Baltimore does not have a claim to fame, and that no famous people dwelled there. Yet, its history deserves to be preserved precisely to remember the daily lives of the common people, and to document the impact that state, national, and international events had on a small river community.
Bush’s attention for the lives of common people can be explained by his academic background in public administration and urban studies, which shines through in this abundantly researched and well-written book about the people of New Baltimore throughout the centuries. Bush never loses himself in heavy scholarly details.
In ten chapters, he illustrates many episodes in the history of New Baltimore, from the time of the Paleo-Indians, the Mohicans, and the European settlers to the twentieth century, with its two World Wars and the opening of the New York State Thruway. A picture arises of what could be perceived as any small town on the Hudson. Yet, the distinctive character of New Baltimore is evident. From the Broncks and the Vanderzees to the Shermans and the Houghtalings, the lives of many local characters who made the town unique are highlighted in the book.
The birth of New Baltimore was a direct consequence of the state-enacted splitting up of the Town of Coxsackie in April 1811. That division came on the heels of changes in landownership after the American Revolution, when New Englanders discovered the tax advantages in New York State. Not only did they buy up land and establish themselves in the area around Albany, they also organized local governments, thus undoing the supremacy of the original landowners.
In the introduction, the author notes that the original board minutes are still not accessible. This may be the reason that the origin of New Baltimore’s name remains unclear. However, there seems to have been “a marked visual similarity between the terrain of early Baltimore, Maryland, and the little New York river hamlet.”
Chapter 6, “Life on the River,” stands out as it describes probably the most important era for New Baltimore. From the early nineteenth century through the 1860s, new industries were needed to replace the agriculture New Baltimore had been dependent on until then. Several plans for a canal failed, the shipbuilding industry came and went, and so did the ice industry. New Baltimore’s story of the ice houses is reminiscent of the chapter on Rockland Lake in Lost Towns of the Hudson Valley by Wesley and Barbara Gottlock (2009).
Of course, New Baltimore deserves more than one chapter in a book. Its history, as shown in Episodes from a Hudson River Town, is not that of a lost town. It is an account of how a small river town has survived to this day through several periods of economic adversity. The book shows how and why the town continues to exist. Today, New Baltimore is best known by travelers going north along the New York State Thruway as the last travel plaza before Albany.
The Hudson River Valley has seen profound changes between 1609and today, and Clesson Bush’s Episodes from a Hudson River Town: New Baltimore, New Yorkis a strong contribution to the growing collection of local histories. His book allows the reader to understand how the inhabitants of this small town worked hard and utilized the economic and social factors that were beyond the town’s control to build an enduring community.
-- Robert A. Naborn, University of Pennsylvania