NY parks, historic sites recovering from Irene

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:22

    ALBANY — Ann Peconie was picking through mud-covered debris left by flood waters from the rain-swollen Mohawk River when she spotted the Victorian vase, wedged between a log and a display case inside the 18th-century manor-turned-museum she runs. "It was perfect," she said of the artifact found inside the Walter Elwood Museum at Amsterdam's Guy Park Manor, a pre-Revolutionary War structure that sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Irene flooding that also severely damaged many of the properties in the New York state's cash-strapped system of parks and historic sites. Total damage to the parks system from flooding caused by Irene in late August is about $15 million, but a final tab won't be known for weeks or possibly months, according to Dan Keefe, spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. "The priority was to clean up and get things open as quickly as possible," he said. As a safety precaution, the state closed 95 of its 213 parks and historic sites before Irene hit the New York City area the weekend of Aug. 27, with the hurricane's remnants continuing northward to batter much of eastern New York and New England with high winds and torrential rain. The storm closed dozens of state-run properties, from beaches on Long Island to hiking trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Other parks suffered damage when the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee caused flooding around Binghamton and other eastern areas on Sept. 8. Keefe said most of the closed parks have since reopened, except for those that normally close for the season after Labor Day. Hiking trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills have reopened, but some are in rough shape, Keefe said. "When people go hiking, they should be prepared. The conditions are not ideal," he said. Among the properties that remain closed is Guy Park Manor. The state-owned historic site on the Mohawk River's north bank in Amsterdam is operated by a local museum group headed by Peconie, its executive director. Flooding caused by Hurricane Irene sent the river over its banks in late August, inundating the first floor of the Georgian limestone building that housed more than 20,000 artifacts. Sections of the structure's 19th-century additions collapsed when rushing water gouged a moat on the property and swept away the part of the foundation, causing walls to collapse and exposing parts of the interior. Damage to the building's interior was extensive, and losses sustained to the museum's collection were still being tallied last weekend, when volunteers and parks employees salvaged artifacts, furniture and other items. Nicknamed "Amsterdam's attic," the Walter Elwood Museum's collection was moved just two years ago to Guy Park Manor, located within a few feet of the state canal system's Lock 11, which was also heavily damaged by the August flooding. Named for an early 20th century educator and collector in Amsterdam, the museum's collection tells the city's story from its days as a Mohawk Indian settlement up through its heyday as the carpet-making capital of the world. Although many items collected by Elwood were swept away by the flood, some of the most important artifacts have been found, including a Thomas Edison cylinder phonograph from around 1900, Peconie said. And other displays, including the Native American collection, remained safe on the building's second floor, she said. Still, the damage to the historic building, one of the oldest in an area known for its Colonial-era structures, was very disheartening to locals. "That building was standing there before the Erie Canal came through," Peconie said. "That building was standing there before the trains came through." The historic site remains closed to the public while crews continue repairing Guy Manor and the neighboring canal lock. Also still closed was the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, on the river's south bank in neighboring Fort Hunter. And although not a state-owned site, nearby Old Fort Johnson also suffered damage from Irene, with water flooding several feet high inside the stone structure's first floor. Both the Guy Park and Fort Johnson sites are linked historically. Fort Johnson, a national historic landmark, was built in 1749 by Sir William Johnson, a wealthy Mohawk Valley landowner and the British superintendent of Indian Affairs in pre-Revolutionary War years. Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam was built after the French and Indian War on property Johnson gave to his nephew and son-in-law, Guy Johnson, who succeeded his uncle as Britain's main liaison with American Indian tribes. When hostilities broke out between Britain and its American colonies in 1775, a year after William Johnson's death, Guy Johnson and other loyalists, along with many Mohawk Indian families, fled the valley and headed to Canada. Guy never returned, and his former home was used for a brief time as a headquarters by the Continental Army.