Saving the Palisades Documentary, shown at Weehawken Public Library, portrays women's role in preserving cliffs
by Jim Hague Reporter staff writer
Nov 15, 2002 | 2608 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
One day three years ago, filmmaker Frances J. Treanor was skimming the Hudson River in her sailboat when she looked up at the Palisades along the New Jersey waterfront.

"I was reading a pamphlet about the Palisades Interstate Park and one sentence jumped out at me," said Treanor, who has made documentaries about the environment, women's issues, and peace over the years. "It said that the Palisades [had been] blasted by quarry companies in order to use the rock to build streets, but that the New Jersey Federation of Woman's Clubs fought that and saved the Palisades. That was all I needed to know."

Treanor was instantly drawn to the story and needed to know more. So she headed out on a mission to learn as much as she could about the impact women had on saving the Palisades.

Sure enough, in 1895, the Palisades were being blasted with newly invented dynamite to produce rock that was being sold by the quarry companies to municipalities to build city streets.

"The quarry companies would then collect the rock and pulverize it," Treanor said. "But the blasting was noticed on both sides of the Hudson River and everyone was upset about it. They could hear the blasting and see the rocks falling."

Two women, Elizabeth Vermilye and Cecelia Gaines Holland, took up the crusade to stop the blasting and the destruction of the Palisades. Both women were members of the Woman's Club of Englewood and they waged an all-out campaign to put an end to the destruction.

"They sent out notices to every single Woman's Club in New Jersey," Treanor said. "Soon, the New Jersey Federation of Woman's Clubs decided to take on this issue. The women kept at it for five years."

In 1900, both Vermilye and Gaines Holland were appointed to a special commission by then New Jersey Gov.

Foster Voorhees to preserve the beauty of the Palisades. All of this took place before women had the right to vote. "The New Jersey Federation of Woman's Clubs decided that they could stop the destruction by buying out the quarry companies," Treanor said. "They got state money from both New York and New Jersey."

Eventually, the famed millionaire businessman John Pierpont Morgan, also known as simply J.P. Morgan, contributed the remaining amount of funding the women needed for their purposes.

"He donated the rest of the money needed to buy them out," said Treanor, who did years of research on the project. "It's a little-known story, but I couldn't resist telling it. I grew up in Teaneck and as a kid, I used to climb all over the rocks on the Palisades. Later, I went to college at the College of Mt. St. Vincent and then used to look out the windows all the time and see the Palisades."

Her love of the story and the area resulted in producing a documentary entitled "Saving the Palisades," which she will show at the Weehawken Free Public Library this Monday night at 7:30 p.m.

The viewing of the documentary, sponsored by The Woman's Club of North Hudson, is being held in conjunction with the New Jersey State Federation of Woman's Clubs' membership week, which is being held from Nov. 16 to Nov. 23.

Admission to the viewing is free, and everyone is invited to attend. Treanor will be on hand to discuss the film, as well as her sequel, "Preserving the Palisades: A National Treasure," which is currently in production.

In that film, Treanor will feature the efforts of J.D. Rockefeller, who bought all of the property north of the George Washington Bridge to insure that no development would occur in the area.

Treanor hopes to have both films aired on PBS in the near future. P.Q. Productions, based in Waldwick, is aiding Treanor with the efforts to produce the films. The funding has come from the New Jersey Historical Commission. Marie Alberian, who is co-president of the North Hudson Woman's Club along with Ruth Elsasser, is excited to have Treanor and her film come to the library.

"I think it should be very interesting," Alberian said. "I know that there are a lot of people who have an interest in the history of the Palisades. Many people don't have a concept on how the Palisades were preserved and the role that the New Jersey Federation of Woman's Clubs had. Our club wasn't in existence at the time [founded in 1919], but our club became very active in protecting the Palisades. We're the only community to have zoning that prohibits development 50 feet from the base of the cliffs. We have a concern for the preservation of the Palisades."

Alberian said that she has a letter from the North Hudson Woman's Club dating back to 1930 which requests the Hudson County Board of Freeholders to preserve the Palisades, because of the pending construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

"I think people would be interested to know that women were the instigators behind saving the Palisades," Alberian said. "It was a group of women volunteers that got things done. It's the same way now. We need women to volunteer their time. We can't do things on our own. Our club has done a lot of good things since 1919. Ruth and I put a lot of the emphasis on conservation, but there are other charitable works we are involved in."

Treanor said that through her copious research, utilizing the New Jersey Federation's archives at Douglass College on the campus of Rutgers University, she found that there is a monument, dedicated in 1929, on the Palisades in Alpine.

"It's the women's monument, honoring the work of the women who truly saved the Palisades," Treanor said. "It resembles a watch tower. It's really magnificent."

And it's a story that is seldom told, until her film, which should be a must for all seeking historical perspectives.
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