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Recognizing Working Women

Courtesey of the Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark
Courtesey of the Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

The Riverspark State Heritage Area was one of the first heritage areas established in the nation. Having a theme is a feature of national parks and it is especially important for heritage areas because heritage areas  encompass entire complex settings.

Under the State System, Riverspark was designated to have the themes of industry and labor. Industry was an easy theme for Riverspark because its industrial history in its cities like Troy, Cohoes and Watervliet and villages like Green Island and Waterford preserved large 19th century industrial structures like the Harmony Mills in Cohoes, the Watervliet Arsenal and the Gurley Building in Troy. In addition, industrial archeologists have done an excellent job identifying and interpreting the 19th century industrial history of the area.

The challenge for Riverspark was to interpret the labor theme. The immigrants that made up the 19th century working class in the mines, mills and factories did not have the wealth to make an enduring  mark on the urban landscape.  In the 1970s the National Park Service did not have a labor theme study as it had for many significant natural, social and cultural highlights of America.  There was little guidance for labor sites.

Riverspark started to address the labor theme by studying its 19th century workers’ environment. The iron molders and laundresses in Troy stood out when it came to the emergence of trade unions because relatively good jobs for women were abundant. Often a wife married to an iron molder worked in the collar industry and immigrant family fortunes were shaped by both women and men.

Riverspark also reached out to current labor unions and attracted the interest of Paul Cole, Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Cole was passionate about educating students and others about the labor movement and its positive impact over the years. He passed a resolution at the annual AFL-CIO convention calling Riverspark “the Williamsburg of labor unions”.

In 1980 I went to Washington to lobby for Riverspark. With Paul Cole’s help we reached out to former Congressman Mike McNulty who had been Mayor of Green Island and a member of the Riverspark governing board and former Senator Moynihan who agreed with former Congressman Vento from Minnesota to sponsor legislation directing the National Park Service to do a labor theme study.

To make a long story short, the study legislation became law and park historian Harry Butowsky was designated to do the labor theme study. He was impressed with the labor history of Riverspark and his report recommended landmark designation for the Harmony Mills in Cohoes and the Kate Mullany House in Troy.

The Mullany House was home of the young woman who organized the first women’s labor union in the collar and cuff industry. She led its first strike during the Civil War Years. In part with proceeds from the strike she was able to have a home built on 8th Street in Troy.

Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and was doing a national treasures tour came to the Mullany House to dedicate it as a national landmark. Clinton gave an inspiring talk that impressed Republican women, Democratic men and children who were awed by seeing the First Lady on their street.

Thereafter, with support from Paul Cole, the Mullany House was designated an affiliated National Historic Site. It was not easy as a woman on the Secretary of Interior’s advisory committee did not want a “uneducated” woman like Kate to be honored. A Park Service planner in Boston did not want to honor a home on a poor street in Troy.

The good news is that the House is now an affiliated part of the more than 400 sites in the National Park System, but being affiliated means that the National Park System doesn’t pay for restoration or operation.

Paul has gotten state grants and did other fund raising.  He also started an American Labor Study Center web site in the House as a source of labor history.   Labor unions have contributed their skills to restoring the House. But Paul still needs additional funds through the Mullany web site to complete the restoration of the living quarters.

At the Troy House on May 19th Kate will be inducted in the International Labor Hall of Fame.  Paul is hoping to complete restoration of Kate’s living quarters by Labor Day of this year.  The House will then be open to the public and an important chapter to American history will be saved and available to all.