First in trickles, then in droves, the Dutch (obviously), Germans and Irish first, then the Italians, Poles and many others, came to Kingston. Different people from different places with different cultures and religions settled in ethnic enclaves with their own churches and schools. Bitterly resisted by nativists who had arrived centuries previous, by sheer force of numbers and dint of will immigrants to Kingston came to dominate the city, its politics, commerce and education.
Former city alderman Tom Hoffay talked about a century of immigration (roughly between 1825 to 1920) in the 22nd edition of the Kingston Buried Treasures lecture series at the Senate House in Kingston May 16.
In 1820, the last census before the initial wave of immigrants, what later became the City of Kingston had a population of about 3,000 souls, about equally divided between the villages of Kingston and Rondout. Over the next 40 years, that population increased to about 16,000, about two-thirds of it in Rondout.
“There were ships and trains arriving every day from the port of New York,” Hoffay said. Railroads constructed after the Civil War carried immigrants to the interior and points west, north and south.
As Hoffay described it, life in 1820 in Kingston’s rebuilt stockade was “settled, secure and predictable.” There was one church, the Old Dutch on Main Street. “You knew everybody and probably were related to everybody,” said Hoffay. “The governor had lived here. The village had enormous political power.”
Then came the immigrants. The first wave worked on the construction of the D&H Canal, which opened for a 60-year run in 1828. Others became engaged in constructing Rondout’s tenement-style buildings housing the flood of immigrants and their growing families. Bars and brothels abounded. So did Protestant churches. The first Catholic Church in Kingston, St. Mary’s on Broadway, opened in 1835. St. Joseph’s in uptown Kingston was founded in 1868.
The second wave of immigrants was driven by political unrest, if not revolution, on the European continent and by the Irish famine in the 1840s. A Celtic cross, erected by the Hibernian Society a few years ago on the lawn of St. Mary’s, commemorates “the great hunger,” listing the names of local Irish families who settled here. The German immigration also included Jews from Germany and Poland, fleeing to America for religious freedom like the earliest Dutch settlers of Kingston. The city’s first synagogue, Temple Emanuel, traces its history to the Rondout of that era.
The formation of German and Italian states in the latter part of the 19th century led to another wave of immigration, as did unrest in the Polish provinces.
Hoffay told his audience that wars, which often unite people of different backgrounds in common cause, were great levelers. Young immigrant males, many with military experience from the European conflicts of the 1840s, rose to leadership positions during the Civil War. Those who survived came home to assume similar positions in the community.
“By 1900, immigrants had transformed Kingston,” Hoffay said.
The life of O’Reilly
Central Broadway landowner and businessman John O’Reilly was one immigrant who prospered in post-Civil-War Kingston. O’Reilly, who immigrated in 1860, at one time owned the land on which was situated the present Kingston City Hall, Kingston High School, the Carnegie Library and the American Legion, “the very core of the city,” Hoffay said.
At the time, the census recorded 19 houses of worship in Kingston and Rondout.
The African-American population peaked at about 10 percent in 1820 (including Sojourner Truth) when slavery was still legal in New York State. While there was an influx of Southern immigrants after World War II, many local African-American families can trace their roots to the Civil War or even the Colonial era.
The anti-immigrant nativist movement in the 1850s, as represented by the Know Nothing Party, was active in Kingston, at one time holding a majority on the village board. Bias lingered in the forms of tension, hatred and vilification, Hoffay said. But a transformation took place after the American entry in World War I in 1917, Hoffay said.
“You see it on the plaque erected in front of City Hall just after the war,” Hoffay said, displaying a photo of the celebration. “It’s still there. Read the names. Those are the sons and daughters of immigrants.”
While marriage between nationalities was unusual in the early years, these days Kingston is a melting pot from many places. A recent wave of Hispanic immigrants has added a different element to the city collage.
The remnants of the immigrant era, social organizations like the Polish White Eagle Society, St. Mary’s Benevolent Society, Germania Hall and the Knights of Columbus, endure but are generally in decline, something Hoffay finds unfortunate, given the rich heritage these organizations represent. Of late, a rejuvenated Irish-Hibernian Society has been busy creating a cultural center on Abeel Street, high on a hill overlooking the Rondout Creek where the ancestors of many of its members arrived here many generations ago. The recently restored Reher Bakery on lower Broadway, envisioned as a cultural center for Jewish and other immigrants’ history, gives visitors a view of life downtown in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Next: The early stockade and its settlers will be the subject of a lecture by Ted Dietz on Friday, June 20 at 5:30 at the Senate House Museum off Fair Street. There is no charge for admission, and the public is invited.