Harvey G. Eastman: College founder, mayor and assemblyman who cured ‘the sickly city’ and got the railroad bridge built

Cities and towns everywhere memorialize their prominent dead citizens by naming streets and parks and whole neighborhoods after them. So it was with the city of Poughkeepsie, where a small section of the city has been known as “Eastman Park” since its creation in the mid-19th century. Citizens of the day must have wondered who would ever forget the name of the great educator, politician and visionary Harvey G. Eastman?

Eastman was an entrepreneurial prodigy. He was 25 years old when he established The Eastman Business College in 1859, a good two years before an English-born brewer named Matthew Vassar launched the college Poughkeepsie has become synonymous with since.

But for a time, Eastman’s business college was the better-known of the two institutions. It was unique for two reasons: it eschewed the theoretical for the practical, favoring an unusual-for-its-time hands-on education for budding businessmen and, eventually, women. Additionally, for many of its early years, despite enrollments of up to 1,600 students, it had no campus of its own.

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Eastman managed his college without investing in a campus, a decision that probably failed to secure for him a firmer place in the city’s history. He preferred instead to rent or lease five downtown buildings. The only known building ever associated with the college was eventually built on Washington Street but razed in 1941, ten years after the college itself closed for business.

And while Vassar students ambled through the shady groves of academe, pondering the great questions of existence, Eastman students were…learning how to type. And spell. And do something called “business arithmetic.” But however rudimentary the school’s curriculum appears to us today, there was no denying the success some of its students could later claim. Among its alumni were retailer S. S. Kresge, electronics pioneer Mark C. Honeywell, pharmaceutical colossus Mahlon Kline as well as a clutch of senators, congressmen and governors, most of whose names now festoon various streets and parks and neighborhoods in their hometowns.

Education wasn’t Eastman’s only interest or his only success. Before his arrival there, shortly before the Civil War, Poughkeepsie was a booming city of 20,000. But as it continued to grow, its reliance on individual wells and cisterns for its water and sewage needs culminated in a chronic problem: groundwater contamination that resulted in epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox and diphtheria. Hundreds died. One newspaper account described the city as “A fine place to live, with fine schools and churches and railroad accommodations, well governed but oh, how sickly.” Hence the city’s odiferous nickname “The Sickly City.”

Efforts at remediation were stifled by the war. After Eastman ran for and won the mayoralty in 1871, it fell to him to find a cure for the city.

Eastman wasted no time. His well-known gifts for promotion and persuasion culminated within a year with the establishment of the first successful “slow sand filtration” water plant in America. It was inarguably an even more impressive accomplishment than his college. The design criteria became the model for cities across the country. The number of lives saved through the slow sand filtration method is inestimable.

Eastman was by now a wealthy man. But he wasn’t done bringing innovation to his adopted city. His fortune allowed him to pursue another great project, a visionary “urban community” of townhouses.

The 1872 project that became known as “Eastman’s Folly” involved a series of clustered, five-story townhouses built on the border of the still-existent park he’d developed next to his mansion on Montgomery Street. The park was a great success, the Central Park of Poughkeepsie. It featured fountains, a concert area, skating rink, flower garden and even a small zoo. It cost Eastman $200,000 to complete, more than $3 million in today’s money.

The second phase of his vision, the townhouses, were another story. Priced at $17,000 each, or roughly $340,000 in today’s money, they were very up-to-date and could be customized with the highest-quality interior finishes. But Eastman was able to build only 10 of the 24 townhouses he originally envisioned. The project proved so expensive, Eastman finally had to throw in the towel.

The park today has been eaten away by new development and time, while the 10 surviving townhouses were added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Though it nearly drove him into penury, Eastman continued to work toward the establishment of another of his dreams: as a member of the New York State Assembly, he lobbied long and hard for funding to build what was later to become the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, a project that was also derided at the time as an impossible undertaking.

We know it today as the wildly successful Walkway Over the Hudson.

But before he could see this last project come to fruition, Eastman was taken ill with a common scourge of the day: tuberculosis. He traveled to Denver, where the city’s fresh mountain air, a presumptive “cure,” had created a boon in sanitoria. Eastman died in Denver in 1878 at the age of 45. He’s buried at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, buried like the memory of the college that no one remembers, mere miles from the site of the historic “folly” that has survived him and the “impossible” bridge of his restless dreams.

No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died.

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