Meeting the “Reel” Ghosts
By Carol Hoernlein, P.E.
- First published November 2001.
“Meeting the ‘Reel’ Ghosts” by Carol Hoernlein, P.E. was first published in the November-December 2001 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
This story is from a talk presented at the October 17, 2001, premier of A New Deal for the Palisades, a half-hour video produced by the staff of the Kearney House. The video features restored 16-millimeter film footage shot in the NJ Section by park workers in the 1930s and early1940s, accompanied by narrative from park documents of the day and a “live” theater-organ score.
Carol Hoernlein first worked in the Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey in the 1980s with the Youth Conservation Corps. She went on to work for the park in various capacities, from boat steward to accounting clerk, and finally as an assistant civil engineer. Carol is now a professional civil engineer in the private sector, but remained involved as a volunteer in the production of the New Deal video, and served as a narrator for the finished project.
A NEW DEAL FOR THE PALISADES
Rarely seen film footage, coupled with commentary in the actual words of the day, offers a glimpse of what life was like for ordinary Americans during the nation’s two major crises of the mid-twentieth century: the Great Depression and America’s entry into World War II.
Almost all of the images shown are from photographs and restored 16-mm film footage shot by workers in the NJ Section of the Palisades Interstate Park during the Depression and early War years.
“1929: The Unknown Palisades” A brief history of the preservation of the Palisades and the origin and development of the Interstate Park.
“The Great Depression” As the economy worsens after the 1929 crash, attendance at the park soars, with tens of thousands seeking respite from the crisis at the park’s beaches, picnic groves, campgrounds, and marinas.
“The New Deal” Cameras capture some of the work and accomplishments of two of the earliest of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration.
“Toward Recovery … and World War” Rare color footage highlights the tale of an improving national economy — even as it plays upon an ever more volatile world stage. The social effects of the World War cause many of the park’s facilities to close … as the industrial component of the war effort exacts a terrible toll upon the Hudson River.
“The Watchful Lifeguard…” Immediately after the closing credits, “bonus” footage showcases a pre-CPR lifesaving demonstration.
All of the text for the narration was taken from annual reports and other Park Commission documents written during the same period that the images were first filmed.
The musical score was arranged and performed by professional theater organist Jeff Barker. Jeff used a Kimball three-manual, twelve-rank theater pipe organ, built in 1926 and originally installed in the Baghdad Theatre, Portland, Oregon. This organ is still in use today.
Editor: Bobby Puzino
This project was assisted by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of Cultural Affairs in the Department of State.
I love this story. It is part of my family history, and a part of many of yours, too. Our grandparents and great-grandparents remember this park, even if many people living in this area are not yet familiar with this treasure called the Palisades.
This story fascinates me on many levels. One that affects me deeply is knowing that women had such an influence on saving the Palisades. Think about that a moment. When the women’s clubs helped save the Palisades, they still had another twenty years to go before they would even have the right to vote. I stand here as a civil engineer knowing that it was women like these who changed the world so much that in my lifetime, my gender hasn’t even slowed me down. They were remarkable. But it was a joint effort. I like to say that women saved the Palisades, but it was men who built the park. They did so with cheerful hard work. Backbreaking effort and sweat. As a former Youth Conservation Corps member on the Palisades in 1981, nearly half a century later, I had a glimpse into just what it was like to be one of those hard working boys you’re about to see. We owe them such gratitude for their labors. What is amazing is that we can today show you their story. It will answer so many questions you might have about who built what and when. Many areas of this park remind one of a J. R. R. Tolkien story. You see stone stairways cut into the side of this mountain we call the Palisades, and they look ancient, as if they were hewn ages ago. After seeing this footage, you will know how it really all happened.
The narration is special because it is from the same time period as the images. You will hear from the voices of that time, not our twenty-twenty hindsight. They do not know what is about to come next. In fact, many of the children you will see, playing and splashing about, are the very same young men and women we sent off to fight and serve in World War II ten years later. Many did not come back. This was their innocence.
Before we found much of this footage, we had started a modest effort to uncover and reprint some of the most interesting photos located in our darkroom. I was fascinated to find 70-year-old five-by-seven-inch negatives in such beautiful shape that we could zoom in so close to pictures of the kiddie pool that we could see expressions on the faces of these children. With the help of volunteer Paul Merino, we began darkroom work to bring some of these photos back to light. Several were turned into postcards — my favorite of course is the one I found of the two men with the truck working on construction of the Henry Hudson Drive in 1934. My sister, also trained as a civil engineer, was with me when we made the first modern print of that gem. The darkroom and archiving work is now continued with two gifted young men with wonderful photography skills. They are carefully preserving our history for us, and should be thanked for their help — Chad Hill and Tony Taranto.
In the course of cleaning the darkroom to make our work easier, reels of film turned up. To our surprise, some even in color. Needless to say, if I was impressed by just the ability to zoom in on a child’s smiling face, imagine my delight in actually now being able to see that child splashing around in the Hudson in real time. It was the difference between hearing a ghost story and being confronted with an actual ghost. I still am delighted every time I see this footage. It makes it all so real to me. I can even imagine I see my grandfather in some of these images — he would look like a young man of twenty. He is ninety now. I hope you are all as delighted as I am that we found these images and are able to show them to you today.