EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — A windmill, complete with sails, sits atop a scrubby hill. A geyser shoots up high into the blurry, wooded hillside. Snow surrounds a lumpy, sod hut, family members standing at the open door. A locomotive lies half buried on its side in the snow next to the tracks. A treeless city lies in front of distant snow-capped mountains. A lighthouse rises from the middle of a frozen river. All in shades and shadows of brown: beige, ecru, ocher, siena and umber.
This photo album of my paternal grandparents records their wedding trip across the United States in 1907. The photos are sepia, three inches by five, and are all glued quite effectively into this small, leather-bound booklet. No chance of slipping a photo from its rigid position to see if anyone annotated the vista. Now, alas, there is no one left to ask.
I flip back and forth studying the pictures. Some are quite faded; others are very sharp. Most are of washed-out scenery with only the giant conifer trees or tilted electric poles in focus. A few show elaborately-costumed women and men staring out at the camera, occasionally smiling. No, I should not say costumed! They were elegantly dressed in the fashions of the day.
Traveling in style
Who can imagine traveling with enormous plumed hats, full-length coats, three-piece suits and long dresses? Who packed and unpacked and repacked the trunks, for these outfits wouldn't fit into ordinary suitcases. The people look so spiffy. Who did the washing and ironing?
How long does a train trip in 1907 take to cross the country and back? Two months? Six months? More? My grandfather, so I've been told, traveled back and forth across the country for his company, American Seating, selling plush seats to theaters, one of the first signs of culture in growing towns and cities. Perhaps he combined work with pleasure and convinced his bride to go along on this grand adventure.
My grandmother, nee Margaret Killian, and my grandfather, Christopher McKeever are recognizable. Strains of their genes appear among my eight siblings and their children. Grandparents were at a premium. My mother was orphaned when she was about 9. Grandfather Chris died before I was born. Dinah, as Margaret came to be known, passed on when I was about 10, when I was more interested in catching baby robins than listening to a cranky lady recall her adventures. A trip to San Francisco and back in 1907! Oh, what I missed!
So I pore over the photos with a magnifying glass and immediately realize that this must be the second of two albums, the first no longer in existence. For the first photo in this book is the windmill at the foot of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco beneath which our son, Dylan, married Emily in 2000. Two photos in this sequence show a lake with hundreds of coots visible. Maybe the interest in ornithology is genetic.
In another, I read "Palm Avenue." Not remembering any Palm Avenue especially one so parklike with tall palms, gardens with statuary and a curved, columned walkway in San Francisco, I Google the street name. Plenty of houses on Palm Ave. for sale near Geary Boulevard. I add "1907" to the search and come up with postcards of a grand park on a cliff that are nearly identical to my sepia photos — except without Dinah.
Using the computer, I'm able to identify photos of the Sutro Heights Parapet and Observatory (long since gone). I recognize the tower of the Ferry Building which in this photo is the tallest building in the city. The waterfront is filled with steamships. Not much of the city is visible in the background. Nor did my grandparents take photos of the rubble left over from the quake.
The trip then continues east from San Francisco though mountains and forests, mesas and prairies. The few cities photographed from the train are treeless and I find no clues as to what cities they may be. Another set has my grandparents in a car on a paved street complete with sidewalks. A nearby building built in the classical style has "Pvblic Library" etched into its front, but alas, no geographic name.
Then come the snow photos — the derailed train lying on its side like a beached whale, the sod hut with a large scrawny dog silhouetted near the fencing, the wood planked shack with a woman standing in the dirt yard in the foreground, her laundry blowing in the icy breeze.
Looking closely at the last photo, I discover this is the lighthouse one sees as one approaches Hudson on Amtrak. I've never seen, as in Dinah's pics, iceboats zipping back and forth across the frozen river nearby. The icebreaker needed for the oil tankers puts paid to that.
Traveling to survive
What a trip this must have been! What would their parents, immigrants all, have thought about such an adventure? Michael McKeever came over from Ireland during the famine in 1847; Patrick Killian, also from Ireland, came over a little before the Civil War and became a Zouave fighting for the union.
So as we sit down with friends and relatives today, be sure to ask about the past. Most of us are descended from immigrants seeking relief from not just poverty and famine, but from oppression and repression. How wonderful that we all were able to come to this country!
Now is not the time to shut the door on those immigrants who need asylum. Be thankful for all we have and for all we are able to give to others. Happy Thanksgiving to all!