A Walk Through Time
Did you know that the inventor of the Coleman Lantern was born in Chatham, and that’s who Coleman St. in the village is named after? Or that the village used to be called Chatham Four Corners before it stole the Chatham name away from what is now Old Chatham? Or that a Chatham resident once blew up his own building to stop a huge fire from spreading down Main Street? These are just some of the fascinating tidbits our fourth graders learned on an hour-and-a-half walking tour around Chatham with village historian Gail Wolczanski.
The tour included stops at historic sites and buildings along Woodbridge Avenue, Church Street, Hudson Avenue, Park Row, Main Street, and Kinderhook Street. At each stop Wolczanski shared stories about the people and places of long ago, and provided old photographs so the students could compare what the area once looked like to how it looks today. Some places, like the clock tower building on Main Street, still appear much like they did years ago, while others, such as St. Patrick’s Church on Church St., have disappeared altogether.
Many of the sites they visited hearkened back to the golden age of rail, where students learned how trains helped put Chatham on the map. In their heyday, several major rail lines converged on the village, bringing goods, livestock, and important folks like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Teddy Roosevelt to town. “At one time, eighty trains a day passed through Chatham,” Ms. Wolczanski told the students as they visited places that were once busy rail yards, animal corrals, and switch towers - now long gone. With the trains came jobs and prosperity for the people of the village, as evidenced by the bustling downtown, much of which still stands, that sprang up around the train depots.
Along the tour, she pointed out other clues to Chatham’s past; a mile maker for the old Union Turnpike; a stone block on Kinderhook Street once used as a carriage step; a grave stone of an Irish immigrant; two oaks from a battlefield near Metz - a gift from the French to commemorate the men from Chatham who helped liberate Normandy.
With local history being an important part of the fourth grade curriculum, MED assistant principal Mike Burns arranged for these walking tours as a way for students to connect with their history-rich community and get a little outdoor exercise to boot. He approached Ms. Wolczanski about her leading the tours, of which she was more than happy to lend her time and expertise too.
Along with being the Chatham Village historian, Ms. Wolczanski is the president of the Chatham Village Historical Society and the author of Around the Village of Chatham, an Images of America history book which is available in the school library.