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Rusty Skates, Bear Robes, & Hungry Ice Houses – Christmas 1873

As Christmas approached 150 years ago, foggy days and nights compelled the closure of steamboat travel to Haverstraw. The roads just outside Nyack consisted of deep, soft mud. Unlike the previous year when two feet of snow fell before Christmas, the warm weather in 1873 made ice skating perilous. Tragically, John Conklin drowned after breaking through the ice at Rockland Lake. The Knickerbocker Ice Company faced a challenge as workers couldn’t harvest ice, depleting their inventory stored in ice houses.

Village Festivities Amidst Challenges

Despite these setbacks, the village embraced the Christmas spirit. Nelson Puff’s Hat Store, offering bear robes, stirred excitement among locals.

Guns & Factory Work

On Christmas Eve, a village watchman, suspecting a break-in, fired two shots. Near the river, Nyack’s largest factory, Storm’s steam-powered cedar and tub factory, operated throughout the week. A. W. Tallman hosted a Christmas morning pigeon shoot. The Tallman family, owning a significant portion of Nyack, continued to influence the area.

View of the Storm Brothers factory in 1854 at the Nyack Brook at the foot of Hudson Avenue, now part of Memorial Park. It replaced an earlier grist mill using water power. After a fire, the factory became steam powered.

Shopping in New York City

With the opening of the railroad in 1872, Nyack experienced prosperity. During the bustling Christmas season, the Northern Railroad added two palace cars to the express train, known as the Flyer, that reached New York City in an hour. Villagers traveled to New York City for shopping, utilizing the Nyack Ferry or the steamboat Chrystenah. Macy’s, then located on Sixth Avenue at 14th, purchased large ads in the local paper.

Christmas Ad in the Rockland County Journal

A New Nyack

Despite the allure of the city, Nyack offered a wide variety of choices for Christmas shoppers. The increasing number of new buildings provided additional retail and entertainment options.

Onderdonk Block

The newly built four-story Onderdonk Block on Main Street housed eight shops, including Miss Mayo’s dress shop, Warren P. Smith’s sewing machine shop, Daniel’s meat market, M. E. Newman’s toy and stationery shop, and T. F. O’Dell’s grocery.

Onderdonk Block today hasn’t changed much in 150 years.

Nyack Opera House

The brand-new 600-seat Nyack Opera House on Depew Avenue presented a Christmas Day performance of “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There.” The play, written by Timothy Shay Arthur, a Newburgh-born author, became a voice in the temperance movement.

Opera House ad

For those traveling from out of town, the Opera House arranged special train service from the nearby Nyack train station to Sparkill with stops at Grand View and Piermont. Those interested in dining either before or after the play didn’t have to go far. The Oyster Saloon in the Franklin Hotel, attached to the Opera House, provided a full range of raw, fried, stewed, and baked oysters.

Photos of the Opera House are rare since the top floor burned down in 1909. This detail of a 1903 panorama of Nyack shows the second floor of the Opera House within the blue circle. Abutting it to the the left is the Franklin Hotel. Together they became known as the Nyack Opera House.. The location is Depew Avenue at Franklin. In the rear, the mansard-roofed Onderdonk Block can be seen. Photo courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Commercial Building

At the corner of South Broadway and Church Street, the new Commercial Building with its ornate four-story mansard roof housed retail shops, a bank, and insurance companies. The YMCA, located in the building, held an open house on New Year’s Day.

The Commercial Building at the corner of South Broadway and Church Street had four retail shops facing Broadway.

Sleigh & Carriage Makers

Before automobiles, sleighs were essential in winter. Nyack, known for its sleigh manufacturing, disappointed its three sleigh shops due to the warm Christmas of 1873.

Workers pose for a photo in front of the Wright Sleigh shop. Wright and Christie on LIberty Street shipped custom sleighs throughout the northeast. Photo courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Christmas Shops near Main and Broadway

Merritt and Ross, Nyack’s largest dry goods store, promised the largest selection of dry goods in the villages at special prices. Cranston’s Dry Goods, competing with Merritt and Ross, offered holiday goods at prices 25% below the previous year. Nearby, Michael Kennedy’s Broadway Boot and Shoe Store offered men’s boots made to order.

On Main Street, William Collins, a former Nyack postmaster, ran the village’s largest jewelry and watch store. W. J. Wilson’s store offered the widest selection of candies and toys. Adolph Susman’s cigar store on Main Street sold handmade 5 and 10 cent cigars (or $25 per thousand). Ernst & Brothers, purveyors of stoves and kitchenware, offered hall, room, and bracket lamps.

A postcard showinMain Street looking west from Broadway circa 1890. Most of the brick buildings appeared after 1873 but the buildings on the right and left at the corner are vintage 1873.

Burd Street Shops

Isaac Van Wagner’s photo studio offered portraits and miniature porcelains. Puff’s Hat shop on Burd Street advertised cold weather items, including bear robes suitable for sleigh and wagon rides. Moeller’s pharmacy, in addition to medicine, contained a glass-topped soda fountain with soda water, root beer, and mineral water on draft.

View up Burd Street from the ferry dock in the 1870s by Isaac Van Wagner.The Commercial Building is visible at the top of the street. Shops, barely visible on the upper right, were clustered near or on Broadway.

Magazine Subscriptions

Feeding the interest in reading, several city magazines advertised subscriptions for Harper’s, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Arthur’s Home, and Aldine’s magazines.

Church Festivities

Various churches celebrated the season with festivities. The Presbyterian Church (now Nyack Center) hosted a festivity on December 23. Grace Episcopal held its customary festival on Christmas night, featuring a decorated tree and caroling. On Christmas Day, the Baptist Church on North Broadway featured a large tree lit by wax candles. Members of Upper Nyack’s Stone Church exchanged books. The Reformed Church held a celebration with gifts, while the Methodist Church, then located on Piermont Avenue, held its festivities on the evening of New Year’s Day.

1905 view of six Nyack churches. The Methodist church in the upper right relocated to South Broadway from its 1873 location on Piermont AVenue. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Winter Didn’t Disappoint After All

Although it wasn’t a white Christmas in 1873, the New Year brought colder temperatures. By January 3, ice five inches thick formed at Rockland Lake. Excited kids tried out their new skates and sleds, and the sleigh bells of prancing horses filled the New Year’s air.

Two couples race their sleighs.

Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.


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