Monday, October 15, 2007

Is it a “first”?

Day 1 of the expedition. photo by Nereo Zane

Many of our team members have been asked whether this was the first gondola on the Hudson. Both friends and members of the press wanted to know if it was a “first”, if it’s “one for the record books”. While it would be great if this were the case, our friend Joe Deverell of Cross Lake, NY actually met us there in Albany, having rowed there through the lock system. While Joe can not only claim to have been there before us, he also completed an impressive expedition of his own. In our research though, we’ve discovered that there were gondolas on these historic waters as early as 1907. According to the book “Images of America Croton-on-Hudson” by the Croton-on-Hudson Historical Society: “The Nikko Inn and the Playhouse at Deep Hole, above the Croton River Gorge…”(pictured in the book)”…Clifford Harmon hoped to attract a colony of actors, writers, musicians and artists for his community. These two architectural treasures provided a suitable gathering place for them. The Nikko Inn was decorated as a Japanese teahouse, and it was managed by “Admiral” Moto. It attracted stars such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. On special occasions, local costumed gondoliers rowed celebrities up the Croton River in gondolas.”
I recently had a great conversation with Joyce Finnerty – Village Historian of Croton-on-Hudson. Joyce confirmed the presence of the gondolas and graciously allowed me to quote the book.

The presence of gondolas on the Croton River comes as no surprise to me. Gondolas have been in North America since the late 1700’s. Their earliest presences are traced to the New York area. While these gondolas were on the Croton River, it feeds into the Hudson and is quite small; it is highly probable that the gondolas mentioned in the “Images of America” book were initially rowed or towed up the river. We can say with near certainty that one or more of the “Nikko Inn gondolas” ventured on to the waters of the Hudson a time or two. Over the years I’ve researched gondolas outside of Venice and am continually surprised by two things: the number of gondolas that have operated in the US and the interesting places they’ve been found. The funny thing is that there’s always someone out there claiming to be the “first”.
The gondola is a timeless masterpiece of marine architecture. Anyone who has seen one in Venice in all of its glory has thought about how terrific it would be to bring one or two to their hometown. So while there are many gondola operations outside Venice that were inspired by other operations, there are just as many that began with the “original thought” inspired by the city of Venice herself, and so it has been for a very long time.
Here in Southern California, we experienced a “gondola renaissance” of sorts in the early 80’s, with several gondola operators claiming to be the first, when all the while there was a gondola floating in Newport Harbor that had been imported by the Curci family in the ‘60’s. The Curci’s knew they weren’t the first, but many of their passengers may not have been aware that another gondola, owned by Venetian John Scarpa, had come to Newport in 1907. Scarpa’s gondola was only one example; gondolas showed up in Venice, California in 1906 and the Naples area of Long Beach in 1910.
Similar histories can be told along the Easter Seaboard, Great Lakes and even the Mississippi Delta.
Transplanted Venetian gondolier John Scarpa on his gondola in Newport Beach, California, circa 1908.

While it would have been fun to be the first gondoliers on the Hudson, our team is proud instead to have installed a new chapter in an already great tradition.
This expedition was not designed to set a record, but rather to give recognition to our modern day heroes – the brave men who gave their lives on September 11th of 2001. While everyone else was running from the Twin Towers, they were running toward them.

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