Memories of The Highland Park Neighborhood – Part I
Curator’s Note: Dan Cragg, a former resident sent us a remarkable remembrance earlier in 2014. While Dan’s package of photos and stories got delayed for a few months inside a local post office, fortunately, we eventually received it earlier this summer. Within the first few minutes of reading the first pages, I realized, as you will, that Dan’s detailed memories of the time he spent in this neighborhood are shared treasures. So it is my pleasure and honor to present the first of three parts of Dan Cragg’s Memories of The Highland Park Neighborhood. In part I, Dan writes about Highland Hospital, his childhood activities in Highland Park and the Pinnacle Range. The photos in this first entry are all supplied by Dan. The post cards images are from the archives of the Virtual Scrapbook. Enjoy!
I left the Highland Park neighborhood in 1958 and have returned there only for brief intervals since but often enough that I have retained a sense of belonging. Each visit renews that bond. Members of my family have lived and died in Rochester for well over a century and now, as I enter three-quarters of a century, reminiscences of my boyhood in the old neighborhood flood back in brilliant color and make me feel young again. The Irish poet, Thomas Moore, said it well: “Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chain has bound me, fond memory brings the light of other days around me.” Submitted by Dan Cragg
The name “Highland” has been with me since I was born at Highland Hospital in 1939. Highland Park itself has been a source of recreation for my family for well over 90 years. One winter in the 1920s Grandma broke her back tobogganing down a slope along the ridge just to the south of the Lily Pond (not far from the Frederick Douglass monument). The cast they put on at Highland Hospital remained in grandmother’s attic until she died (at Highland) in 1965.
I was a patient at the Highland four times in my life. The first time was when I was born; then when I cut my leg in father’s vegetable garden (see the Smith Place); next to recover from strep throat, an infection I picked up playing with the stagnant water in the fish pond in grandmother’s back yard. The last time was when I was about 15. I was there for about a week with what was considered at first a kidney infection but turned out to be the passing of calcium from an old TB infection I got from my mother. They put me in a ward with grown men one of whom was dying from terminal cancer. He was kept sedated during the day but sometimes at night he’d wake up and begin screaming for someone to kill him until a nurse would come in and put him under again. He died alone, quietly, in a bed in a corner of our ward. I don’t think they even had hospices in those days where the terminally ill could pass out with dignity.
From the age of about six, when I went to live with my grandmother at 340 (then No. 340) Mt. Vernon Avenue (we lived on Avril Avenue before then and Oakland Street before that), the park was within easy walking distance and during my boyhood my friends and I spent many hours in all seasons enjoying ourselves up there. I don’t recall, except for school PE, ever using a public playground or ball field for recreation but Highland Park – the entire Pinnacle Range in fact – was playground enough.
As a teen we ranged farther afield, in the Genesee Gorge, for instance, climbing about under the Driving Park Avenue bridge, inside the Veterans Memorial Bridge, or the sewer system that disgorged live sewage into the river (ugh!) back in the ‘50s. But in our pre-teen years Highland Park provided safe and wholesome entertainment. In the winter there was sledding on “Eagle Hill,” in the deep valley just north of the reservoir, or in the summer a visit to the concession stand across from the Children’s Pavilion where ten cents could buy two hotdogs. I still recall with great pleasure finding a fifty-cent piece in the lawn at the old Warner Castle and the sumptuous feast Terry Foran and I had at the concession with the money. Today where the concession used to stand is a bare concrete slab and the pavilion is long gone, surreptitiously demolished in the dark of night to avoid public protest.
Speaking of fifty-cent pieces, I can remember finding them several times when I was a boy (I never swiped them out of grandmother’s change purse because they were too big not to be missed). In those days that was a lot of money for a 12-year-old (for grandmother too). One winter, walking down South Avenue, I spotted a fifty-cent coin in the ice. Those were the silver, Walking Liberty half dollars, the most beautiful coin I think our mint ever made. With that much money I was able to get a friend and myself into the Rexy for the Saturday matinee with money left over for popcorn and candy. Since I was tall for my age I always got an argument at movie theaters about what price I should pay to get in until I started taking my birth certificate with me. I remember how showing that document used to aggravate the ticket takers either because they hated to be proved wrong or had trouble calculating my age without the use of an adding machine.
The Children’s Pavilion was always a stop on our visits to the park. On the top floor, on a clear day, you could see all the way south to Bristol Hills (or we imagined we could). I know how that historic landmark’s demolition upset many people but the park that replaced it is nevertheless an attractive spot. But there’s no comparison to the attraction that place held for us back in the 1950s and that can never be reproduced.
On the north side of the park, overlooking the city, is a long, steep ridge the result of Ellwanger & Barry’s sand and gravel excavations that went on there during the late-nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. By my day that area was heavily forested. Our section of the ridge ended at Highland Hospital on the west and S. Goodman Street on the east and was bordered on the north by Gregory Hill Road. There were no houses at the west end of Gregory Hill where the street ended at the Smith property. We used to play on both sides of the road but on the south side we dug trenches and dugouts as if preparing for war. We even dug tunnels back into the ridge beneath the Jamison estate sometimes going back 20 or 30 feet into the hillside. We realized how dangerous that was in that loose glacial soil so I came up with the brilliant idea to drag a garden hose with me back into those excavations so in case of cave-in I’d have a source of air back to the surface. Or so I thought. If my grandchildren ever tried anything like that today I’d probably have apoplexy.
That section of Gregory Hill Road between the steep ridge and the houses on Rockingham Street was often the scene of mock battles we boys fought with each other using chestnuts when in season, dry clods of earth that exploded spectacularly on impact, and sometimes BB guns. My father told me he and his friends played the same games in their day. But one night back in the 1930s, they burned a cross on the ridge that could be seen all over that part of town and next morning the papers wondered if the Klan had come to Rochester.
Of course my friends and I had our own form of deviltry: making bombs and setting them off. First we tried making gunpowder from charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, but we could never get the right combination or grind the material finely enough to get a fast burn. All we got was a pile of stuff that’d burn fiercely but slowly, producing thick white clouds of acrid smoke. Once I accidently set off a dish of that stuff in grandmother’s cellar. The resulting cloud of smoke filled the house and nearly suffocated me. Fortunately, everyone was away at the time so I was able to air the place out thoroughly and no one was the wiser although grandmother did wrinkle her nose at the faint odor of sulfur that lingered in the basement. Perhaps in a way Satan really had visited us that day.
Since we ccouldn’t produce good gunpowder, we turned to calcium carbide that mixed with water produces highly inflammable acetylene gas. If that is mixed in the right proportion with water in a tight space the gas builds up enough pressure to burst the container especially if it’s made of ordinary glass. The resulting explosion produced a satisfying BOOM!, complete with glass shards. Calcium carbide crystals were available at the local hardware store and sold to us without question. Finely granulated crystals intended for use in carbide cannons could be obtained through mail order catalogs. That stuff turned to gaseous form so quickly it reacted like real gunpowder in a closed space but its volatility made it too hard to use (and dangerous!) so we switched at last to real gunpowder extracted from shotgun and rifle shells. We made fuses by packing the grains into straws and sticking them into our homemade charges which never went more that PFFFTTTT!, because we had no way to confine the explosion sufficiently to cause a real blast. And when the fuses would sputter out, as they often did, we were afraid to get close enough to investigate lest a lingering spark ignite the charge in our hands.
And then, of course, there were fireworks, ready-made mayhem despite the fact that the ones we liked most were illegal in New York even then. I don’t mean sparklers and the harmless variety. Cherry bombs were the most fun. We found they would burn under water and delighted to set off “depth charges” in grandmother’s fish pond. They also had the desirable effect of blowing up bottles and even tin cans.
Fortunately, our pyrotechnical skills were only rudimentary and the fad eventually wore off permitting us to grow up with all our fingers and body parts intact.
And then BB guns. We shot up everything that cocouldn’tove, including our toys and even ourselves when we made good targets. I shudder to think about these things today – and climbing around inside the Veterans Memorial Bridge as a teenager — and wonder how any of us managed to emerge in one piece from such a childhood.
Meigs Street terminated in a small, wooded cul-de-sac at its south end, just after crossing over Gregory Hill Road. A path continued on from there into Highland Park. Today there are houses back in there but in my day it was a warren of excavated or partially excavated hillocks completely overgrown with bushes and trees, a wonderful place to hide, play war games, and dig tunnels. Once, when Bill Corlette and I were excavating a dugout in a hillock, the whole thing collapsed coming very close to trapping Bill inside before he scrambled out at the very last instant. That ended our excavations before someone was actually trapped in a cave in. That area abutted on the Jamison property at 428 Mt. Vernon Avenue. Today if you sit in the dining room there you can look out over that side of the estate, still heavily wooded. The scene has a striking, almost breathtaking resemblance to the Maxfield Parrish paintings that decorate the walls.
I never bothered attending the annual Lilac Festival at least I don’t recall ever visiting the park just to see the lilacs when they were in bloom. I still remember watching the crowds walking up Mt. Vernon Avenue past grandmother’s place to get to the lilac beds and wondering why anyone would come so far just to see a bunch of flowers. But grandmother looked forward to the season because she could earn extra money by letting the flower lovers park on her lawn for the day. The thing I do remember about the lilac beds is that in the winter you could sled all the way from the reservoir almost down onto Elmwood Avenue without hitting any of the bushes.
The Lily Pond just across South Avenue from the Highland Hospital was another attraction for us neighborhood children. It drew big crowds in the winter when the water was iced over and skating permitted. I never skated but I caught plenty of frogs there in the summers. The water there never seemed very deep and the bottom was muddy and strewn with broken glass some of which we boys put there vying with each other to break floating bottles with stones. And there was the dreaded “Lily Pond Monster,” probably a big carp that sometimes would break the surface as it fed in the shallows.
And there was that old Spanish American War cannon mounted on a huge pedestal at the corner of Reservoir and South Avenue. Many’s the time we hung from the muzzle of its barrel before dropping to the ground. It was called the Dewey Trophy Cannon. I have a postcard photo of it before me dated October 4, 1910. It was a lot whiter then than I remember it as a boy, before it took on its rich, brown patina. The nearby Lamberton Conservatory was never an attraction to us boys then but that was before it was extensively renovated. But what I miss most about that site when I see it again today is the red sandstone horse trough that sat right on South Avenue, a handsome reminder of the days before the internal combustion engine made slaves of us.
The Pinnacle Range
While Mt. Hope Cemetery, Pinnacle Hill, and Cobb’s Hill are technically not within the boundaries of the Highland Park Neighborhood, they nevertheless played a prominent role in the lives of we who grew up there.
As children my friends and I wandered all over the range. Of course Mt. Hope is where all my ancestors are buried but in my youth the cemetery was a fascinating place to roam. From an early age I knew where Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Nathaniel Rochester were buried. I won’t be buried there. The family plot is full now. My mother is at Mt. Hope but on the far side of the cemetery from the Craggs and both my father and uncle are interred elsewhere. I’ll rest with my wife, in Virginia.
Pinnacle Hill was also a cemetery although abandoned when I was a boy. The last time I was up there it was as wild and overgrown as it was in my childhood although even in my day the occasional tombstone could still be seen poking out of the undergrowth. Once, when the embankment on the corner of Field and S. Clinton streets collapsed in the spring thaw, human bones were exposed. I fully expect more remains to be uncovered if Pinnacle Hill is ever given to developers.
The reservoir on Cobb’s Hill was always a destination and we frequently got there by scrambling up the slope on the Culver Road side of the reservoir. Standing up there recently and looking down that slope I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could scale that height or be bold enough even to consider it. One of the great lessons of life is that eventually you learn you are mortal and stop taking such chances.