The champion racing yacht Marietta set sail from Pier A in lower Manhattan on the chilly late morning of September 22, 1897. Mrs. Edith Gifford was aboard along with fellow members of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs (NJSFWC) and their male allies from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS). This was not a pleasure cruise for the civically-minded passengers: They were hoping to get an up-close view of the destruction of the Palisades.
For the previous several years, quarrymen had been using dynamite to blast the ancient, towering cliffs along the west side of the lower Hudson River that stretch for about 20 miles between New Jersey and New York State. The companies were harvesting the outcroppings of trap rock to use in the construction of streets, piers, and skyscrapers in New York City, and there was no law or government entity in place to stop them. An article in the New York Sun described the teeth-rattling explosions experienced on both sides of the river: “The little village of Fort Lee shook as though an earthquake had visited it, and stranger in the place who were unaware that the blasting was going on in the vicinity were firmly convinced that some such convulsion of nature had occurred.”
These convulsions, however, were very much man-made. On the deck of the Marietta, the assembled watched a blast at the Carpenter Brothers’ quarry, an outfit that would soon announce plans to harvest 2,500,000 cubic yards of rock and destroy the promontory known as Indian Head in the process. A self-taught expert in forestry from New Jersey, Mrs. Gifford reminded the assembled how precious a resource the Palisades were, with parts of its woodlands still untouched from the days of Henry Hudson. “That is a very remarkable thing to find a primeval forest near the heart of a great metropolis,” she said. Another passenger, a Miss Mary Proctor of New York, told a newspaper, “We can get paving stones anywhere, but there is nothing in the world just like the Palisades.”
It’s a sentiment many modern residents of the New York metropolitan area would agree with, and they have the benefit of knowing the end of this story. The Palisades Interstate Park would open in 1909, preserving some iconic natural areas for generations to come. That the park exists at all is due in large part to the work of women in groups like the NJSFWC, which lobbied, educated, and galvanized public opinion with events like that fall yacht trip.
At a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote, environmental activism offered an acceptable form of civic engagement, allowing them to subtly thwart social norms and shape the world around them. As summer crowds prepare to the enjoy the natural splendor of places like Palisades Park and Bear Mountain, we wanted to take a look back at some of these forgotten women who made an indelible impact on the landscape. Some of them are featured in the current New-York Historical exhibition Hudson Rising, which examines the fight to save the Palisades among other key moments in the history of the Hudson River.
One of those women was Edith Gifford, who was married to the State Forester of New Jersey at the time, Dr. John Gifford. The couple shared a passion for trees: Dr. Gifford was the founding editor of New Jersey Forester, which ultimately became American Forestry, the official journal of the U.S. Forest Service. For Edith Gifford, saving the Palisades was primarily about saving its forests, an idea which was very much in vogue at the time. George Perkins Marsh‘s bestselling 1864 book Man and Nature—the Silent Spring of its day—focused public attention on the disastrous consequences of clear-cutting and deforestation, including land erosion and ruined water supplies.
Established in 1894, the NJSFWC took an interest in forestry from the beginning, and Gifford worked to bring those issues to the forefront. A newspaper report described her this way: “Mrs. Gifford is a New Jersey woman who makes a special study of forestry for the NJSFWC when not engaged in household duties. She can tell you all about the management of European forests…and pathetic tales of wanton destruction of beautiful forests in this country.” In 1896, she was appointed chair of a new Committee on Forestry and Protection of the Palisades at the organization.
The NJSFWC initially became involved after a proposal to create a military reservation in the Palisades failed in 1895. The women weren’t necessarily in support of this, but they did support public acquisition of the privately-owned land that quarry operators were ravaging. When most groups were ready to give up, the NJSFWC revived the issue in government circles and in the press. Club members Elizabeth Vermilye and Cecilia Gaines (later Holland) lobbied New Jersey Governor Foster Voorhees, insisting on a new committee to investigate creating a public park. Vermilye and Gaines found powerful partners in the ASHPS across the river, whose president, Andrew Haswell Green, had been instrumental in the creation of Central Park. In an 1897 speech, NJWFWC member Mrs. Katherine Sauzade laid out their mission in stark terms: “We cannot escape the disgrace, nor the just censure of the civilized world if we permit, by further neglect, the continued defacement of these grand cliffs.”
While science-minded foresters focused on reports and surveys, Mrs. Gifford devoted herself to education and inspiration. At a NJSFWC meeting in 1896, Mrs. Gifford showcased a traveling forestry library and exhibition consisting of an oak bookcase, encased in “a traveling dress of white duck.” Among the highlights: contrasting images of “pristine” forests and those ravaged by lumber dealers; depictions of trees in art and leaf charts by naturalist Graceanna Lewis; maps of New Jersey’s forests and their connection to the state’s geology; portraits of notable trees; and examples of erosion caused by deforestation in France and other European countries.
Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, attended the meeting and wrote a rave review in his journal, Garden and Forest. For him, the traveling library wasn’t just an educational tool—it was a savvy way to spark public sentiment and encourage the “cultivation of a sympathetic love of trees,” he wrote. And it ought to be replicated: “The suggestion that every library and schoolroom should have something of this kind…was felt by all who saw it.” Mrs. Gifford’s library circulated in women’s clubs across the state, with clubs applying for the privilege of hosting that oak bookcase in its dress of white duck.
Women from the NJSFWC continued to lobby Governor Voorhees, while men from the ASHPS found support with New York’s Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Their efforts eventually paid off with the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) in 1900, an official body that began buying or receiving tracks of land to save the Palisades from quarry operators. (Financier J.P. Morgan, for one, donated over $125,000 to close the Carpenter Brothers’ quarry.)
Yet for all of their contributions, women were essentially erased from the story of this early environmental triumph. They were excluded from the Palisades commission itself on the basis of their gender, and in 1912, they were also excluded from the American Forestry Association—an organization that Mrs. Gifford had once been a part of. Right now, piecing together her contributions to the creation of Palisades Park is a bit like reassembling one of the cliffs from mere rock fragments. After extensive searches, New-York Historical couldn’t find any photos of her or records of her work at the NJSFWC, even though she chaired a key committee. It was even difficult to find her full name, since she was often referred to as “Mrs. John Gifford.”
If Edith Gifford and other women from groups like the NJSFWC lost their place in history though, they won the greater struggle to secure the Palisades “beyond the reach of devastation,” as then-governor of New York, Charles Evans Hughes, said in a speech at the Park’s opening ceremony in 1909. Once an exploited landscape, the Palisades had been reclaimed and reborn as a place of recreation, environmental education, and nature appreciation. As Hughes asked, “Of what avail material benefits, were it not for the opportunities to cultivate the love of the beautiful?”
Visit Hudson Rising at New-York Historical between now and Aug. 4.
Written by Jeanne Haffner, associate curator of Hudson Rising, and Kerrie Mitchell, content editor