I recently came across a batch of old photos that provide a window into the year my grandparents moved from the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side to a remote, rural corner of Staten Island.
The photos belong to my cousin Nicole Andrews-Baratta. Technically, Nicole is my first cousin once removed – the daughter of my cousin Beverly Lembo who was the daughter of my aunt Mary Kowal Lembo. Aunt Mary was the second of seven children; my father Anton was the first.
My grandparents Alex Kowal and Katarzyna Bosakowska met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and were married there in October 1916. Alex was a Ukrainian immigrant from the small village of Kharucha Vel’ka in what was then the Russian Empire. Katarzyna was Polish, one of at least 20 cousins and siblings who emigrated from Zalozce, a town of 10,000 in the far northeast corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a borderland region where Poles and Ukrainians lived in close proximity.
I know from family stories that my grandparents did not like living among the Eastern European immigrants in Manhattan. They were not used to the hustle and bustle of city life. And even though they probably spoke little English themselves in those days, they wanted their children to assimilate as English-speaking Americans.
Alex and Katarzyna lived in Manhattan for the first two years of their marriage. My father Anton was born there in September 1917. From his birth certificate, we know that the family lived in a tenement at 13 Essex Street, where some of my grandmother’s relatives also lived.
I don’t know exactly when the family made the big move. It was probably in early 1919, since we know Mary was born on Staten Island in August of that year. They decided to resettle in a remote corner of Staten Island once called Kreischerville, now known as Charleston. At the time, Staten Island had 117,000 residents, a quarter of its current population.
In earlier posts reconstructing my grandfather’s immigration story, I discovered that he set his sights on Kreischerville before he ever set foot in America. From the record of his March 1913 border crossing at Newport, Vermont – in the company of three friends named Lucas, Condrat and Wassily – we see that the four men were all planning to meet up with a man named “Nestor Greshevitz” in Kreischerville, N.Y. With some further sleuthing, I figured out that their friend Nestor (whose name was actually Grushewsky) emigrated six months ahead of the others. He found his way to Kreischerville, named for the Kreischer Brick Works where Nestor presumably found employment.
In the 1920 census, we see that the Kowal family – Alex, Katarzyna, Anton and Mary – was renting a house at 4668 Arthur Kill Road, also known as Fresh Kill Road. (The house number was actually 4658.) Lucas lived in the house next door, 4664 Arthur Kill Road, with his wife Tekla (Tessie) Prehodka and their three year old son Henry. A man named Conrad Conlinsky lived in that house too. Conrad would later live as a boarder at my grandparents house at 29 Storer Avenue and I strongly suspect that it’s the same Conrad from the immigration record. Finally just down the road, at 75 Kreischer Street, lived Nestor with his wife Carrie and their children Alex (age 8) and Olga (5). (Fun fact: the house on Kreischer Street is now an official New York City landmark. It is one of a row of four workers’ houses built by the Kreischer Brick Works.)
When you look on Google Maps, the two houses on Arthur Kill Road are no longer there. They were located directly across the street from the entrance to the Tides at Charleston, a gated community for people 55 and older.
But a 1917 map of Staten Island I found online shows where the two houses once stood. They were located on the property of Charles H. Beckman, a German immigrant, who lived at the corner of Arthur Kill Road and Allentown Lane (now Veterans Road). You can see the two houses in the northwest corner of the property, on the east side of Fresh Kills (now Arthur Kill) road. The smaller structure with a square footprint was no. 4658. The larger rectangular structure, just to the south, was no. 4664.
From an unlikely source, I was able to corroborate that Beckman was the owner of the two rented houses. Via Google, I found him in a bound volume of congressional documents, listed as one of the many claimants awarded damages for the “Gillespie Plant Explosion.”
Some further digging revealed how on October 4, 1918, in the last month of World War I, a catastrophic accident at the T.A. Gillespie munitions plant across the river in Sayreville, N. J. set off three terrifying days of explosions. The blasts were felt as far away as Manhattan, where the subways and bridges were closed as a precaution. Shells and rockets also flew out from the plant in all directions.
The New York Times described the scene on nearby Staten Island:
The shock and flash of light with each of the great explosions were distinct for many miles. From Tottenville, S.I., six miles from the explosion, the brightness equaled that of daylight. The ground shook so that it was felt in all parts of Staten Island.
The explosions blew out windows and caused structural damage for miles around. The federal government agreed to provide compensation and Charles Beckman filed claims for three houses on Arthur Kill Road (nos. 4658, 4664 and 4670). For his residence (no. 4670), he was awarded $53.37 to compensate for structural damage. For the two rental properties soon to be occupied by the Kowal and Orol families, he received another $51.07 to replace broken windows and carpentry.
My grandparents moved in a few months later. From a small handful of photos, we see several shots of two houses set close together. I’m pretty confident these are the two rented houses on Beckman’s property. I was able to put photos in a rough time sequence, thanks to markings on the backs of the photos placing them on distinct rolls of film and other clues (including the apparent ages of Anton and Mary). I can also make some educated guesses about the identities of some of the other people in the photos.
The photos are printed on flimsy paper, mostly with a matte finish. Some have faded, most have yellowed and many have tears and other signs of rough treatment. Through the scanning and image editing process, I was able to improve the contrast and bring out details.
The first group of four photos appear to have been taken in the spring or early summer of 1919. They all bear the marking C 13 on the back. The photos are were taken in front of two houses – almost certainly 4658 and 4664 Arthur Kill Road. The photos were probably taken in the back yard, which places the Kowals’ house to the right and the larger Orols’ house to the left.
The first image below shows Alex with my father, then about 18-20 months old, sitting unhappily on his knee. They are surrounded by four women and two children. In the image immediately below it, the same two children also appear again with my father. They appear to be a boy and a girl. I know from the census that the Grushewskys had a son Alex and daughter Olga who would have been 7 and 4 respectively. Is this them?
Another photo from the C 13 set is of two men and a woman. It’s not clear who they are. Could Lucas Orol or Conrad Condlinsky or Nestor Grushewsky be depicted? A fourth photo depicts an unknown, well dressed family of five.
Another photo, without markings on the back, also appears to be taken in the spring of 1919. It shows Alex standing in front of the house at 4658 Arthur Kill, holding my father. Alex is wearing a fancy shirt in the photo. Could this have been Easter?
A photo, marked A 8 on the back, must have been taken in the summer of 1919. It shows my pregnant grandmother Katarzyna standing in a field of flowers with Alex and my father (busy looking down at a flower). The two children who posed with my father in the photo above are here again in the same outfits, with a woman who is probably their mother. (She was one of the women in the group photo above.) Was this Nestor Grushewsky’s wife Veronica?
There is also a set of photos taken against a backdrop of snow. The photos are pretty faded but there appears to be a lot of snow. A bit of research revealed that a major blizzard hit New York in February 1920, bringing 17.5 inches of accumulation. So I’m pretty certain that’s when these photos were taken. The one below shows my grandmother standing in the back yard holding Mary (then five months old) with Anton (nearly two and half years old) standing beside. In the background is a wooden structure with clothes hanging. It corresponds to a structure visible on the map of the Beckman property, situated behind the house at no. 4658.
Finally, there are two photos of my father with another boy of similar age and the boy’s mother. The first is taken against a backdrop of snow, so it probably also dates to February 1920. The other photo shows two boys in matching sailor suits in front of a third house. It was probably taken in the spring of 1920. The number on the door clearly says 4670 – the Beckmans’ house. My father is standing to the left. Another boy is sitting in a chair. Standing behind, we see the same woman from the earlier photo.
I have two theories about who the mother and son are. It could conceivably be Katarzyna’s younger sister Honorata, who married a man named Michael Romaniszyn (later changed to Romanish). Census records show that Honorata had a son named William who was born in 1917, the same year as my father. Or (even more likely) it could be next door neighbor Tekla (Tessie) Orol with her son Henry, who was born in 1916.