In the middle 1800s, communicants of the Catholic Church in Hoosick Falls arrived each Fourth of July in Cambridge by train for a picnic. Where Cambridge Central School is today was a great stand of virgin pines, the last remnant of the forest of such giants which at one time dominated the Cambridge Valley. Grove St. took its name from the fact that when that lane was opened, it led into the heart of Cambridge Grove.
For many years these magnificent specimens defied the woodsman's axe because the owner made more money renting the grounds for picnics.
But finally, the lure of instant money overcame the last owner’s sense of obligation to the community. He cut the magnificent pines and sold them for ships masts. Somewhere in the community archives is an image of the last of these giants sprawled across multiple rail cars, ready for shipment to the coast.
The grove was known to each succeeding generation by the current owner's name. The owner in 1865, the year of our story, was Baker; hence, the Hoosick Falls congregation had come via the new Eagle Bridge and Rutland Railroad to picnic in Baker's Grove.
NO IRISH NEEDED
It was just at the close of the Civil War. Racial tensions ran high in the Northern states, just as they did in the South. One of the great waves of immigration which helped the North field armies superior in number was the Irish. They fought for the Union, but were largely unloved by the Anglos.
They were largely Catholic, which provided further basis for the discrimination the Irish faced, as the Anglos, especially in the Cambridge Valley, were almost exclusively Protestant. It is of course ironic that today many of the leading families of the community are of this same Irish Catholic stock.
It was following the July Fourth picnic, 1865, that an event transpired in Cambridge to cement those prejudices for several succeeding generations. The account appeared in the Old Washington County Post, then edited by a flamboyant anglophile named Rufus King Crocker. During the recent war, Crocker had joined the new Republican party and had done as much as any other person in the Cambridge community to fill the local quotas with volunteer soldiers.
However, immediately prior to the war he had been a leading "Know Nothing" of the American Party, which opposed the integration of Blacks into society and the immigration of Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.
Obviously, Crocker had championed a united nation for other than racial reasons. What he appeared never to accept was the vital contribution of Irish and German immigrants to the Union’s ultimate success. We couldn’t have done it without them. This account then should be considered as coming from a source decidedly less than objective!
In his July 7th edition of the WCP, Editor Crocker reported "One of the most brutal and inhuman conflicts ever to take place in our usually quiet village". It had, he wrote, occurred in broad daylight "before 500 witnesses who did nothing to prevent it".
It seems that about 6:30 on the evening of July 4th, 1865, following a day-long picnic at Baker's Grove, the communicants of the Hoosick Falls Catholic Church made their way to the depot in the middle of the Village, their object being to catch the "down" train that evening and return to their homes.
It would have been an easy trek in 1865, as there was little development at that time between the Grove and Main Street. Where Avenues A and B are today was the northern edge of the grove and a farm owned by John Putnam, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero, Israel Putnam. There were no Seed House grounds, no Union School and no Library. There was, instead, a vast millpond, which powered Blakeley’s Mill, just east of South Union St. With much sewage from West Main dumping into it, as well as the offal dumped from two tanneries and several slaughterhouses, summer heat turned the pond into a miasma of stench and rot.
Cambridge was soon to become an incorporated village. But in 1865, it was actually four distinct communities, each separated by the topography of the region. Stephenson’s Corners, later to be named Coila, was a thriving little community on a main-traveled road. It had its own professionals, its separate Presbyterian Church, its own post office and one room school. At the intersection of Union and Main Streets was Cambridge Corners. It sat upon a substantial knoll --- later greatly reduced --- that forced heavy, team-drawn commerce to turn south down the valley at the intersection at the Cambridge Washington Academy. For the same reason, considerable traffic on the Great Northern Turnpike would veer off on the shun-pikes and pass down a section of what would become Park St. That intersection, of Park and Main, was known as North White Creek. It featured yet another Presbyterian Church, an ancient brick hotel (where Cumberland Farms was in 2006) known at the time as The Irving House. Across the street was Porter’s Tavern, even older and the seat of much fomentation during the years just prior to the American Revolution. The only building remaining from this period is what was in 2006 Alexander’s Hardware; although at the time of the story, it was a clothing and mercantile enterprise. There was some development on the north side of Main St., but little at the time on the south side. The building by the tracks recently housing an Agway business was there. Martin and John Hubbard ran a lumberyard there. The block west of the lumberyard, on both sides of Main St., had a cluster of businesses.
Farther east beyond the Park and Main intersection was Dorr’s Corners, named for a family that provided a doctor for a couple of generations; although the last of the Dorr doctors fell from local favor, thanks to a charge of grave-robbing, which was substantiated to the satisfaction of the law in those times.
Between Dorr’s Corners and North White Creek were clustered a loosely constructed mix of private and commercial buildings, many of which had been recently destroyed in a fire, reputedly sparked by a blacksmith’s forge. The entire block burned off because the community had nothing in the way of fire apparatus, other than the obligatory “bucket brigade”. Salem, on the other hand, had already acquired a handsome hand pumper, which they were more than willing to load on a flatcar and haul by rail to Cambridge to show off. But by the time it arrived, there was nothing left to save.
North White Creek and Cambridge Corners were separated by a swamp that extended well north of Blakeley’s Mill Pond. It was sometimes possible to travel by wagon from one community to the other without bogging down, but only in times of near drought.
It took far-seeing community business leaders --- primarily Martin Hubbard, Jerome B. Rice and John S. Smart --- to see the wisdom in building the two communities together. They began the long, costly process by filling the swamp (much of it earth taken to reduce the knoll at Cambridge Corners) and building on the fill.
So after a day of picnicking in the Grove, a party of Irish Catholics from St. Mary’s Parish, Hoosick Falls, hiked up the tracks to the recently constructed depot, where they would take the down train home.
But somehow they were drawn further west of the depot to Cambridge Corners. It is not likely that they were drawn there by Fenton’s Tavern, where years later the Union House would rise. Irish were decidedly unwelcome at this hangout of such lofty citizens as the Fentons, the Chases, the Longs of the Checkered House community, and others of their horsey set.
Across North Park was an oyster house. No Irish welcome there, either.
But having indulged beyond the veil of propriety and being in extreme high spirits, perhaps they sought to pass the intervening hour before the train arrived by fetching up at one of the numerous basement saloons which scarred the Main Street of that day; and which were heavily dependent upon Irish and Italian laborers to purchase and consume their home-made rot-gut.
In 1865, Cambridge Corners was a substantial hamlet. Storehouses clustered around the intersection. A few yards west of hill (where the West End Market is today) was a huge steam mill, recently completed by a couple of the Village's leading capitalists. Across the brook west of the mill was a large carriage manufactory. Across the street by the brook, the hardware store was likely closed, but Nick Jenkins might have been working late in his harness shop. Perhaps he heard the ruckus and was one of those who stepped out on the boardwalk to observe the drunken Irishmen (and Irishwoman) "…become engaged in a conflict of words".However, words were soon followed by blows. Perhaps egged on by the crowd that poured out of the adjacent saloons and tavern, a general fight ensued.