Kingston divided: When the GOP used anti-immigrant rhetoric to redraw the county map

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People decry the state of modern politics, but its child’s play compared to when the Republican-controlled Ulster County board of supervisors remade, for the sake of anti-immigrant sentiment, the county’s largest municipality.

After the supervisors were through, the sprawling Town of Kingston, a Democratic burg of what Republicans and the press at the time branded “drunken, thieving Irish scoundrels” who ruled from bluestone quarries, was decimated to create the town of Ulster in 1879.

Robert Donaldson of Rhinebeck, a self-described “amateur historian,” said he decided to research the myths and legends surrounding the formation of the county’s “youngest town.”

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“A lot of had to do with all the negative comments, the anti-Irish sentiment, the allegations and embellishments of local newspapers,” Donaldson, himself of Irish descent, said at a recent lecture at the Starr Library.

A former history and law teacher at Rhinebeck High School and Dutchess Community College, Donaldson, 58, said he became interested in his family genealogy after retiring in 1990. Initial research indicated that his great-grandfather, William Donaldson, lived in the town when the reapportionment took place. Over the next 15 years Donaldson perused newspapers, town hall records and libraries to produce “Chronicles of Ulster, Volumes I and II.” Including index and table of contents, it runs to almost 900 pages.

“It’s not for casual reading, but really for historians who want a chronological, detailed account,” Donaldson said. The self-published tome is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Donaldson used newspaper microfilm, principally the Republican Kingston Daily Freeman and the Democratic weekly Argus but a sprinkling of The New York Times, too, as his primary sources of information. His book reproduces hundreds of pages of verbatim newspaper accounts of the time, most of it railing against Irish Democrats and election fraud in the Town of Kingston. The irony is most of the tons of Town of Kingston bluestone for shipment to New York City rolled down Broadway past the Freeman’s front door on the docks of Rondout.

Donaldson traces Irish immigration to America from the Great Famine of the late 1840s, to service in the Civil War to the establishment of the bluestone industry in Stony Hollow and Jockey Hill in the Sawkill area of Kingston.

The 1877 election for county Surrogate’s Court judge between Republican Peter Cantine of Saugerties and Democrat Alton B. Parker of Kingston (the 1904 Democratic presidential candidate) apparently set in motion the events that culminated with the dissection of the Town of Kingston two years later. That and the arrival of a new publisher at the Freeman, one Charles Marseilles, a staunch Republican bent on rooting out (Democratic) corruption and political chicanery. Parker defeated Cantine by 143 votes in the Town of Kingston, enough for him to carry the county. Cantine chose not to dispute the election, despite allegations of fraud. Marseilles sold the paper to Thomas Cornell in 1880.

Donaldson said he found Freeman reporting during those two critical years biased, uninformed and sloppy. “They seemed to act on hearsay information. Rarely did they publish interviews with the main subjects,” he said. The Democrat-leaning Argus was not much better. “All you could know came from the newspapers. They were embellished and they were oftentimes false,” Donaldson said.

Parker’s chief rival in those days was Civil-War hero general George Sharpe of Kingston, county Republican chairman and a member of the state Assembly. Sharpe also beat the drum of election fraud in the Town of Kingston. As Donaldson pointed out, Kingston wasn’t much different than other towns in Ulster or elsewhere in an age of widespread political corruption.

Abject poverty in the town was a factor. Stone workers were paid about a dollar a day for grueling labor under harsh conditions. The mines closed down in winter leaving men with no work, their families starving. Under law at that time, taxes were levied on landowners to feed and shelter what were called “paupers.”

Democrats controlled the board of supervisors 21-4 in the 1877 elections. Republicans took 14 seats in the March 1879 elections, Democrats five and a taxpayer party three.

Republicans moved swiftly to render the outcome in the Town of Kingston null. In August of that year the board of supervisors charged fraud in the distribution of monies to the poor. The Freeman wrote of widespread election fraud. On Nov. 28, 1879, supervisors voted to establish the new Town of Ulster under which the northwest section of Kingston was ceded to the Town of Woodstock.

In March of 1880, the state assembly, under the leadership of speaker George Sharpe, and the consent of the state senate, ratified the board of supervisors’ action. Kingston, left with but a few square miles of mined-out rubble around Jockey Hill and Stony Hollow, rapidly declined. Newly-formed Ulster, with its rich farmland, creek and river frontage and its proximity to the growing City of Kingston, thrived

As Donaldson detailed, the Town of Kingston, which had 755 voting males in the 1875 mid-census, had only 105 by 1888, a reduction of more than 85 percent. The town declined in population from 4507 in 1875 (which included all of what would be Ulster) to 524 in 1900, 323 in 1915. The 2010 census recorded 889 residents.

Donaldson asked his audience what was accomplished by this historic exercise in political power. The answers, he said, are lost in the mists of time. In hindsight, left alone, the original Town of Kingston, minus the bluestone industry, probably would have developed in similar fashion as the new Town of Ulster.

Current Ulster town supervisor Jim Quigley says he has no intention of attempting to reverse history. Despite incentives from the state to foster municipal mergers, Ulster, with 12,000 residents and a billion-dollar tax base, will not move to acquire tiny Kingston. “Being so small, they are challenged in a lot of ways, but we try to help out. Our highway departments work together on projects and their town clerk is down here all the time,” he said.

Quigley, a Republican, said if he were to design the map today he’d “certainly recommend different physical configurations.”

“Ulster is too spread out,” he said. “It takes 20 minutes to get from one side to the other through [the City of] Kingston, and in some places you have to go through the towns of Hurley, Rosendale and Woodstock.” Merging with the Town of Kingston would do nothing to change that.

Among the things Quigley says he admires about tiny Kingston is its new town hall. “It’s a lot better than the one we have,” he said.

Kingston town supervisor Paul Landi speaks to his “wonderful little town” and its “great people who band together in times of trouble.” Kingston has no intention of merging with Ulster. “Things run just fine the way they are,” Landi said.

Town clerk Dennis Weiss said Kingston currently operates on an annual budget of $583,983, the third lowest in the county, behind Hardenburgh (238 people) and Denning (551). The town board raised Landi’s salary to $13,000 this year to place him on parity with the town justices. He voted against it. “You can’t be in this for the money. It’s more about the love of the town,” he said.

Landi, a former Town of Ulster resident, has lived in Kingston for about 20 years. He’s been supervisor for seven years. Despite its 19th-century roots, these days the town is solidly Republican.

Donaldson, who made extensive use of town historical records, donated his book to the town. “I learned a lot about the old town from that book,” Landi said.

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