A baseball game was underway on Brown’s Island one hot summer day in August 1922. The sharp crack of a pop fly followed by cheering echoed from the island which split the West Canada Creek just south of the village of Newport. Villagers and fans of the visiting team were on their way to see the game, crossing the suspension bridge that connected the island to the mainland. The queasy off-pitch sound of a suspension cable snapping must have struck terror in those crossing the bridge at the time. Once the cable snapped, the bridge gave way under their feet and they plunged into the turbulent waters of the West Canada Creek. Those crossing were unceremoniously tossed into the creek and dozens of men, women and children were left stranded on Brown’s Island.
|A view from the mainland of people are gathered in Brown’s Island near Newport, NY, for one of the many community events that took place on the island between the 1920s and the 1960s. Source: The Newport History Center|
The bridge to Brown’s Island was never known for its sturdiness and it was a source of amusement for local daredevils and teenagers. “The young guys thought it was a lot of fun to rock the bridge back and forth, like a carnival ride,” said Joyce Murphy, 88, who volunteers at the Newport History Center.
|Joyce Murphy, 88, who volunteers that the Newport History Center, stands next to the bridge to Brown’s Island as a young adult. Source: The Newport History Center|
Although the score of the baseball game and the visiting team’s name have been lost to the ages, the quick thinking and bravery of those stranded on the island has been remembered.Murphy’s cousin, Elnora Fralick Hartman, was on the island when the bridge collapsed, and is one of the sources of the Herkimer Telegram and Foss’s account. “The ladies stranded on the island were transported by gallant men who locked arms together to make a seat for their passengers as they waded the creek, knee deep in places, and deposited them carefully onto the shore,” according to the Telegram. “Can’t you just hear the squealing young ladies being carried by the young unattached men?” a footnote said.
Mildred Smith Autenrith was also on the island that fateful day. Autenrith, who lived to the age of 102, was the matriarch of her family. Her daughter, Betsy Newman, is a part time organist and choir director for the First Baptist Church of Newport. Newman recalled her mother as a person who would keep her cool in a precarious situation such as being stranded on the island. She described her mother as a petite woman, around five feet tall, who had black hair, and was very pretty. Autenrith worked for the family business, W.E. Autenrith Sons, which is a funeral home located in a pale yellow house on Main Street in Newport.
Autenrith was probably attending the game that day to "chew the fat" and socialize with her friends and neighbors rather than for baseball. Newman said that Autenrith wasn’t much of a sports fan, but was involved in many community activities, which included playing the piano for dances held at the pavilion on Brown’s Island.
After the collapse, the bridge was soon rebuilt in the same suspension style. Brown’s Island Memorial Park was officially dedicated on July 4, 1923, in memory of Guy Bateman, Theodore Morey, and Daniel Toomey, residents of Newport who died on the battlefields of Europe in World War I.
|A program from the day that Memorial Park on Brown’s Island was dedicated to three of Newport’s residents who lost their lives in WWI. Source: The Newport History Center|
|Valley league baseball team members from Frankfort, Newport and Ilion gather for a photo. Newport’s manager, in the back row and fifth from the right, was a tavern owner in Newport. Source: The Newport History Center.|
The island is named after Eseck Browne, who lived during the nineteenth century and was an early settler in Newport. The small country village, located about 20 miles from Utica, is nestled in the Kuyahoora Valley, which runs more or less parallel to the Mohawk River Valley. “He used to put his [live] stock on the island, but then one year there was a flood and he lost them,” Murphy said. When asked about the correct spelling of the island’s name, Murphy said “To tell the truth, nobody was very fussy about it.”
As the island became abandoned, the planks that made up the bridge's roadbed were eventually removed, which only further emboldened daredevils and country boys who crossed using only the lines, like tightrope walkers. Because of concerns of serious injury, the suspension cables were removed in the 1960s. “Memorial Park on Browne Island now lies quietly in the West Canada Creek as an untouched wildlife sanctuary where the cry of ‘play ball!’ is only a happy memory echoing from the past,” Foss wrote.
|The ruins of the bridge to Brown’s Island can still be seen from Route 28, across from the Newport Fire Department. Photo by Kyle Riecker|
This story, written by Kyle Riecker, originally appeared in the Utica College Tangerine