Nature, Pleasure & Mayhem: 19th-Century Steamboat Excursions

31403469_1936626596355997_6508483143558695428_nTuesday, May 22nd at 7:30 at the Fort Lee Historic Park

On Tuesday evening, May 22, the Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey will offer its visitors a unique chance to catch a glimpse of nineteenth-century style “Nature, Pleasure & Mayhem,” as historian Marika Plater presents an illustrated talk on the steamboat excursions that became popular with working-class New Yorkers at the end of that century. Her talk, which is free and open to all, with no reservations needed, will begin at 7:30 PM at the spacious auditorium of the Visitor Center at the park’s Fort Lee Historic Park facility.

Using images and narrative, Plater will explain how on summer days in the late nineteenth century, steamboats decked out in banners plied the waters of the Hudson River, with men and women twirling in their Sunday best as they danced on the decks. Most of the passengers on these journeys were working-class residents of New York City who, having saved their pennies for a rare day off, would embark with members of their churches, unions, sports clubs, and ethnic associations on chartered steamboats and barges. The vessels carried them outside the city to dock at riverside groves. At these now-forgotten places, the passengers ate and drank, explored the forest, swam in the river, relaxed on the beach, played sports, and enjoyed a temporary escape from the difficulties of their daily lives. Called “excursions,” these trips exposed these urbanites to sights and smells that were very different from the crowded neighborhoods where they lived and worked. (Yet excursion fun also carried risks: As Plater will show, excursionists sometimes came into conflict with law enforcement…)

Plater is a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers University whose work has focused on what working-class New Yorkers did outdoors for fun during the nineteenth century. In the course of her work, Plater has analyzed steamboat excursion groves, downtown public parks, beer gardens, and pleasure gardens, using these locations as windows into the lives of marginalized urbanites — as well as the businesses that evolved to profit from their recreational desires, and the forces of development and industrialization that re-shaped environments in the metropolitan area.

For the May 22 program, Plater will share what her research has shown about several popular excursion destinations that were located within what is now the Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey, a twelve-mile stretch of the Hudson riverfront that was preserved by the creation of an Interstate Commission at the start of the twentieth century.

Eric Nelsen, a historical interpreter at the park, first met Plater about a year ago, when she approached the Commission in the course of her research. “This aspect of the history of the area has always been intriguing to me,” Nelsen noted, “as it shows some of the same spaces being used as a park before they became ‘the park’ that we know today.” Yet Plater’s research has plumbed this topic in far more detail — her Master’s thesis was also on the topic — than Nelsen’s own exploration had taken him. When he learned that she had put together an illustrated talk based on her research, he was enthusiastic about having her present it at the park. “I’m really excited about all that Marika has been learning about this part of nineteenth century life,” he said. “I think people are in for a real treat as they get to see how she brings a forgotten part of American history to life.”

Fort Lee Historic Park is located off Hudson Terrace just south of the George Washington Bridge (note that though metered parking is in effect during daytime hours at the Historic Park, there will be no need to pay for parking for this special evening program). Visitors who wish to come early at 7 PM, can join Nelsen for a short walk and talk to the Historic Park’s overlook of the George Washington Bridge (weather permitting). For more information, please call 201-768-1360 ext. 108.

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