In the early 20th Century, the future of forests hung in the balance with an urban-rural political split in New York State

— Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress

An abandoned farm in Berne was part of a federal reclamation project in the depths of the Great Depression. The photo was taken in 1937.

For centuries, a great primeval forest stretched uninterrupted from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. But, after little more than three generations of European development, the landscape was completely transformed.

By the 1920s, much of upstate New York was bare. Open fields, some farmed, and others fallow, covered land once thick with oak, pine, hemlock, elm, and chestnut. The vast openness was broken only by meandering hedgerows and fences, hand stacked with the fieldstone that proved to be upstate New York’s most abundant and enduring crop.

Panoramic photos from the period capture a very different scene from what came before and from what is familiar to us today. The approaches to the village of Altamont provide a case in point.

Today, much of the land between Altamont and Guilderland Center is no longer actively farmed. In fact, several new developments are proposed along Route 146 which, if approved, would fundamentally alter the unique, “set apart” sense of place that has given historic definition and character to both Guilderland Center and Altamont.

But a generation ago, this area was largely open, providing inspiring views of the Helderberg escarpment, broken only by occasional orchards, barns, and woodlots on the ridges and along the banks of historic Black Creek.

In winter, great drifts of snow, building over the open fields, would spill across the roadways and mound to heights of 20 feet and more, making travel in or out of villages impossible for days on end. The orchards and the woods that remained were tended, presenting a more pleasing landscape for the passerby than the shrubby, indifferent growth that lines today’s roadway.

By the late 1920s, even these isolated woodlots were under threat. Commercial harvesting, drought, and especially a series of species-specific tree blights were doing a number on the remaining tree population, in Altamont and across upstate New York. 

Already gone were hundreds of millions of American chestnut trees, once the royalty of American forests. The American Elm was also under siege; both species were victims of infectious pathogens imported with overseas timber.


Hewitt calls for government help

The latest blight targeted the eastern white pine, historically the most important tree to New York’s Capital Region. The white pine was threatened by blister rust, yet another pathogen introduced by foreign lumber.

But, unlike the terminal fate of the elm and chestnut, the white pine could be saved. That’s because the blister rust did not travel from tree to tree, but rather through an intermediate host species: the gooseberry and currant bushes that frequently carpeted the forest floor beneath the white pines. Remove these bushes from beneath the pines and the noble tree could be saved.

But this involved a backbreaking effort on a massive scale. Every bush would have to be manually removed, branch and root. The removal would have to take place simultaneously on private woodlots and on state and public forests. Success would require more than what could be accomplished by individual farmers and landowners. It required collective action.

Although upstaters tended to be wary of big government, they nevertheless looked to Albany for help in saving their beloved pines. 

New York State government had grown immensely in scope and size throughout the 1920s. The Progressive movement, which saw government as the solution to most of society’s ills, had its major following in New York, particularly in Manhattan’s wealthy, intellectual enclaves.

The movement had found its political champion in Al Smith, a cigar-chomping product of New York’s tough streets and the rough politics of Tammany Hall, the clubhouse of Manhattan’s notorious Democratic organization.

First elected governor in 1918, Smith used machine-style politics, progressive-reform policies, and tax revenue from unprecedented, Wall Street-driven prosperity to fundamentally remake New York State government. During Smith’s eight years as governor, state spending increased a whopping 300 percent. For the first time since the Civil War, big government was a major — and expanding — presence in the lives of individual New Yorkers and their local communities.

Upstate landowners and conservationists needed help to save the white pine from extinction. Likewise, upstate farmers needed relief. They were suffering under a prolonged nationwide depression in farm prices, not to mention several years of drought and worn-out soils that could no longer produce enough to cover the property taxes on the land.

Rural New Yorkers had seen Governor Smith direct unprecedented initiatives and state resources to address factory and living conditions in the state’s cities. They had reason to believe that the state would help them as well.

In this environment, Senator Charles Hewitt, chairman of the State Senate Finance Committee, made a dramatic proposal: The state would create a $100 million fund to purchase worn-out farmlands for the purpose of reforestation. The amount was equal to roughly half of the total state budget at the time, but Hewitt reasoned that, with the price of rural land at an historic low, it was the opportune time for the state to buy and begin addressing the interconnected problems caused by deforestation.

Hewitt was from Cayuga County. He knew too well that more than 5 million acres of worn-out farmlands had been abandoned throughout upstate New York. The abandoned lands comprised an area greater than the entire states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined.

Hewitt also knew that timber resources were perilously low: The state’s great virgin timber tracts were largely depleted and, in the booming urban prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, New Yorkers were consuming five times more timber than was planted each year.

Hewitt’s proposal included the ability of the state and local governments to scientifically harvest timber from the reforested areas once mature. In time, revenue from timber harvests would recoup the initial outlay for the costs of the land purchases.

The Hewitt reforestation proposal received widespread support. The State Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Grange as well as building and contracting groups all voiced support for the proposal.


Smith says no

But Governor Al Smith said no. Four different times, Hewitt introduced a version of his reforestation measure and each time Governor Smith, the most progressive governor in New York’s history, blocked the effort.

Smith claimed that the state could not afford an upstate reforestation program. But critics pointed out that the measure would self-finance over time. Others noted that Smith had no hesitation in spending when it came to programs that benefited his urban constituency. 

Smith, who was dubbed “the hero of the cities” had always prioritized attention and resources on downstate and urban concerns. He joked that when he first came to Albany as an assemblyman he was assigned to the Banking and the Forest Committees. What made it funny, he said, was that he had never been in a bank and had never seen a forest.

Al Smith’s world was Manhattan’s lower east side, then one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on Earth. As governor, he surrounded himself with a small, intimate circle of advisors who were also from Manhattan, including Robert Moses and Mrs. Belle Moskowitz.

Moses and Moskowitz wielded extraordinary influence over Smith and with it unprecedented power throughout the various departments and agencies of the state. That said, Moses and Moskowitz had little familiarity with and even less interest in matters affecting upstate New York. Their focus instead was on urban issues, and progressive urban-centered programs for the benefit of urban voters, administered by the city political machines that had brought them to power.

Governor Smith’s specific criticisms of the Hewitt reforestation proposal is telling. He called reforestation “a doubtful experiment” that would “at best ... produce nothing for 20 or 40 years.”  Smith complained that reforestation “provides nothing for present recreational purposes.”

In other words, if state money were to be spent on land and trees, it had to be land and trees that were relevant and useful to voters here, and now.

Smith’s position revealed his priorities and also revealed a growing rift among progressives, a divide between those who believed in preserving or reclaiming green spaces for the purpose of conservation and those who sought to “improve” such space to make it more relevant and accessible to the greatest number of people.


“Tree farmer” FDR and “squire” Thacher

For decades, the setting aside and management of large-scale parks, preserves, and other green areas had been the province of conservationists, often extremely wealthy, public-minded individuals who maintained a long-standing, often family-based connection to the land they wished to protect.

Large tracts across the state were kept or made green by prominent men such as William P. Letchworth, who preserved the iconic gorge of the Genesee River that bears his name and Thomas C. Luther, who, through reclamation, had created one of the largest private forests in the world in southern Saratoga County.

Among the most prominent conservationists in the state was Franklin D. Roosevelt of Hyde Park. Roosevelt was the distant cousin of President Teddy Roosevelt, considered the Father of American Conservation.

After running as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1920, Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. Now, with his friend Al Smith in the Governor’s Mansion at Albany, Roosevelt focused on his recovery at his family’s Hyde Park estate where he supervised some 800 acres of farm and forest, listing his occupation throughout the decade simply as “tree farmer.”

For Franklin Roosevelt, preserving trees and green space were worthy ends in and of themselves. But he also saw conservation as a means to preserve and celebrate country living in New York State as a necessary counterbalance to the rapid, unchecked development that had transformed the urban and rural landscape.

Like Thomas Jefferson and the 18th Century founders of his beloved Democratic Party, Roosevelt consistently supported public policies that would encourage people to move away from cities and toward a healthier and more uplifting rural life. Possessed of a “deep spiritual bond with his Hudson Valley ancestors,” Roosevelt saw the rapid pace of development as a threat to the material and spiritual culture of the unique region and he worked, throughout his career, to preserve the land and the culture that he valued so much.

Roosevelt’s instinct for land preservation was shared by other old-money, country-squire Democrats throughout the region, most notably Albany’s John Boyd Thacher. Thacher was a wealthy independent scholar who served as Albany’s mayor and state senator.

He and his wife, the former Emma Treadwell, maintained a bucolic summer estate above Altamont. Referred to by locals as “The White House,” Thacher’s estate was situated at the junction of three steep gorges pierced by dramatic waterfalls that tumbled over the escarpment to the village below.

In time, Thacher began buying up additional land along the cliff face to the south. His purchases included the dramatic Indian Ladder section, which was a popular day-trip destination, then accessed from the Altamont-Voorheesville Road.

Albany developers had plans to erect a large tourist hotel at the edge of the Indian Ladder cliff. Thacher’s purchase prevented the development.

After his death, Thacher’s widow donated the lands to the state to be preserved under the management of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, a nonprofit group of patrician trustees who exercised responsibility for preserving some of America’s most treasured natural and historic sites.

The society maintained the Indian Ladder site as a preserve, with low-impact access available to the public consistent with the preservation ethos laid down by the donors.

The preservationist values of patrician county squires like John Boyd Thacher and Franklin Roosevelt were not values shared by Al Smith and Robert Moses. Smith, the son of Irish immigrants, and Moses, the son of Jewish immigrants, had little interest and less time for the patricians’ attachment to the lands and forests of rural New York.

They dismissed Roosevelt’s vision of romantic country living as “old fashioned claptrap,” served up by publishers and others in the Colonial-revival industry desperately trying to hold onto a way of life that was quickly being eclipsed by new Americans and modern progress.

With Smith and Moses in charge, it was clear that the state of New York was not about to spend time or resources reclaiming upstate land or preserving forests and trees for the benefit of future voters in a largely Republican area.


Parks for urbanites

Instead, what interested Smith and particularly Moses, was a program that would deliver urban voters immediate benefits in terms of access to open space and recreation. This didn’t involve preserving lands distant from the city; it meant developing great new parks easily reachable by the urban masses through newly constructed motor parkways.

Overnight, the state’s old network of natural park preserves was remade through a massive development scheme into a “modern” program where nature was “improved” with bath houses, olympic-sized swimming pools, huge parking lots, bandstands, and pitch-and-putt golf courses.

With Governor Smith’s blessing, Moses was ruthless in putting these plans for the new State Parks Program into practice. He used condemnation and appropriation to seize the choicest lands from their long-time wealthy owners.

He wrenched control of existing parks and preserves from the patrician, conservationist trustees who had donated or managed them, replacing trusteeships with a new, statewide management structure with himself at the top.

No longer would the state place primary emphasis on preservation or conservation; the name of the game under Smith and Moses was delivering the greatest active impact to the greatest number of voters. This meant mammoth park-development projects in and around the cities.

The most famous examples of Moses’s approach are Jones Beach and the other large state parks he developed on Long Island, linking each with a web of parkways leading directly in and out of the five boroughs of New York City.

But in time Moses applied his distinctive brand to other state holdings including John Boyd Thacher Park on the outskirts of Altamont. After gaining operating control of Thacher Park from Albany Judge Ellis Staley — who had been primary trustee under the framework of the Thacher’s gift — Moses proceeded to “develop” Thacher to serve the needs of the Capital Region’s urban population.

A new modern roadway was constructed up the escarpment to provide easy motor access from downtown Albany. The same new road made for an easy commute to and from the country retreat of Abany’s Democratic leader, Dan O’Connell, a close political ally of Governor Smith.

Extensive picnic, playground, and overnight tent and trailer camping areas were developed. An automobile overlook with a snack bar was constructed. Even a small zoo was added, with Governor Smith donating elk from his personal menagerie at the Governor’s Mansion and O’Connell chipping in several goats.

Some years later, after Moses had completed all his work on Long Island, he placed an enormous, poured concrete swimming pool in the heart of Thacher Park, which drew tens of thousands of patrons by bus from Albany, Troy, and Schenectady.


FDR, Moses clash

The Smith-Moses parks program divided the state into regional park commissions operating under an overarching statewide council, which was placed under Moses’s direction and control. One of the new regional commissions — The Taconic Park Commission — was chaired by none other than Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt had become Governor Smith’s de facto ambassador to the upstate rural districts that were so foreign to Smith. Looking to re-enter public life, Roosevelt initially relished the opportunity to use the Taconic Park Commission to further his interest in preserving and celebrating the unique history and culture of the mid-Hudson region.

Almost from the outset Roosevelt and Moses clashed. Shortly after becoming chairman, Roosevelt moved to hire his trusted aid Louis Howe as commission secretary. Moses blocked the appointment, cruelly informing the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt that if he “wanted a valet, he’d have to pay for it himself.”

Relations between the two went from bad to worse. Roosevelt had personally laid out a route for a new parkway that would highlight the beauty of Dutchess County’s farmlands while connecting to a planned new tri-state park on the border with Massachusetts and Connecticut. Focused exclusively on his downstate projects, Moses denied funding for both the new park and Roosevelt’s proposed Taconic Parkway.

In 1927, Roosevelt took his complaints directly to Governor Smith, telling him that Moses’s refusal to fund upstate parks in favor of his downstate projects put Roosevelt in “an absurd and humiliating position.” Roosevelt threatened to resign and take his complaints public.

Governor Smith managed to talk Roosevelt out of resigning, but the substance of Roosevelt’s complaints had no impact. Moses’s massive downstate projects continued full steam ahead while upstate Roosevelt’s plans for the Taconic region remained on the back burner, unfunded and ignored.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold. While Roosevelt’s complaints to Smith fell on deaf ears, he would soon get the chance to extract some measure of revenge against Robert Moses. That opportunity came the next year when Al Smith became the Democratic nominee for president, the first Catholic to run on a national ticket. 

Concerned about holding the upstate Protestant vote, Smith sought to balance the statewide ticket by slotting a prominent upstate Democrat to run for governor. For some time, Smith’s presumed successor was his lieutenant governor, Edwin Corning, the wealthy grandson of the founder of the New York Central Railroad and a leading member of both Albany’s Episcopal gentry and its Democratic machine.  

However, Corning had a significant drinking problem. His alcoholism contributed to a series of health problems, including a stroke suffered on the eve of the state Democratic convention. This ruled Corning out as a candidate for governor and, at age 44, Corning retired completely from public life. Within a few years, Corning had both legs amputated and was dead by the age of 50.


FDR for governor

As Election Day neared, Smith was still without a successor candidate for governor so he turned to his other upstate option: Franklin Roosevelt.

Smith’s advisors, especially Moskowitz and Moses, were opposed. To them, Roosevelt was a lightweight who shared none of their passion for the so-called “New America” agenda centered on big cities.

But Smith stuck with his choice, arguing that Roosevelt’s health was such that he would likely be dead within a year, leaving control of the state in the hands of Smith’s handpicked lieutenant-governor candidate, Herbert Lehman of Manhattan.

In the meantime, Smith reasoned that perhaps enough dim upstaters might think they were voting for one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Republican cousins so as to pull the ticket to victory.

The ploy worked, in part. Though Smith lost the state and the presidency to Republican Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt managed to defeat his downstate Republican opponent by less than .05 percent.

Franklin Roosevelt, upstate tree farmer, was now in control of the massive resources and power that his predecessor Al Smith had concentrated in Albany. Al Smith thought that Roosevelt would not survive the term or, if he did, he would likely be highly dependent on the experience and expertise of Smith and his downstate team of advisors. He was wrong on both counts.

In one of his first actions as governor, Roosevelt thanked Moskowitz for her service and dismissed her. Moses was harder to dislodge: The parks legislation that he had written ensured that his term as chairman of the State Parks Council would outlast Smith’s term as governor.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt promptly fired Moses from his dual role as secretary of state from which he had been operating essentially as Al Smith’s deputy governor. The political wheel had turned.

The cities may have previously provided Al Smith with his power, but it was upstate that had provided the margin of victory for Governor Roosevelt. It would be rural issues and long-neglected rural needs that would garner the most attention from the new governor.

Free now to chart his own course, with a booming economy and the immense resources of the world’s greatest city and nation’s largest and wealthiest state at his disposal, Franklin Roosevelt turned the public’s attention to an issue near and dear to his heart: He would be, as he had been, a planter of trees.  

Editor’s note: Jeff Perlee represents Altamont, Guilderland Center, and part of the Hilltowns in the Albany County Legislature.

This essay is the second in a three-part series. The first described how, as primeval forest was cleared for farmland, wildlife left with the trees and pathogens and lumbering also took their toll. The final essay will complete the story of the largest land reclamation and reforestation project in history and its impact on Altamont and the Helderberg region. 



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