Grainy film reels of huddled masses yearning to be free stream past stills of steam engines and postcards reading “Greetings from the Queen City.”
“Crossing Waters,” a recently-released social political documentary, explores parallels between the nationalistic convictions of today’s extremists and America’s reaction to the arrival of immigrants in the 1800s and early 1900s. The arrival of predominantly Irish immigrants to Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley triggered a violent backlash, both locally and nationally, and this film sets out to scrutinize the uncanny similarities between nationalistic attitudes both then and today.
“Crossing Waters” will be previewed in a three-part event on Tuesday, March 1 at 5:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 203. This event will include a film screening as well as a question and answer panel discussion between independent filmmaker of “Crossing Waters,” Jane Watson, and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Vassar Harvey Flad, with a reception to follow.
Released in September 2015, “Crossing Waters” has since won an Award of Merit Special Mention at Women Filmmakers 2015 IndieFEST, a Silver Award at Spotlight Film Competition 2015 and is selected to show at the North Wales International Film Festival 2016, Chicago Irish Film Festival 2016 and Penn State Collegetown Film Festival 2016.
Vassar Research Librarian Gretchen Lieb helped with the “Crossing Waters” project. She explained that the immigrant crisis in Poughkeepsie mirrored the situation in New York City at the time.
“There was a lot of interplay between New York City and Poughkeepsie, so it’s kind of an interesting look at how the same things that were happening in New York City lived out in Poughkeepsie,” she said.
In an online preview of “Crossing Waters,” author John Kelly explained, “There was this general sense of panic that gripped the country.” The origin of this panic was widespread, but one facet of the nativist backlash sprung from a surprising source.” This source would go on to play an integral part in “Crossing Waters.”
Intrigued by the inventor Samuel Morse, known best for his contributions to the single-wire telegraph system, though little known for his propagation of nativist ideology throughout the Hudson Valley, Watson found inspiration for her documentary.
She said, “[Morse] is accredited as being a father of the nativist movement. It was Samuel Morse’s book and Samuel Morse’s actions that actually drove the country to violence. A lot of the stuff that he was saying sounds really similar to what the pundits are saying today. And that’s what got my interest—I thought, ‘Wow, this is almost word for word what you’re hearing everyday now.’”
Watson continued, “Morse is remembered now as a very different person than who he was at the time. And unfortunately for the citizens up here, he moved up here, he brought his celebrity with him and his money, and he exerted his influence on politics, on the media in the area, and the Irish people that came up here.”
This influence proved detrimental to Poughkeepsie immigrants. According to Watson, “The immigrants were the first people to really become the victims of all of his celebrity power. That’s what got me interested.”
The “Crossing Waters” online site summarized Morse’s role in the documentary, “The Irish residents of Poughkeepsie’s First Ward suffered grave misfortune when the country’s first nativist leader and celebrity, Samuel Morse, moved in to the community. Morse, now remembered as the inventor of the telegraph, polarized America and drove it to violence, much as the extremists and pundits are inciting machine gun toting vigilantes to patrol the Arizona and Texas borders today.”
However, the documentary’s focus has since expanded its focus. Watson explained, “The film evolved like many documentaries evolve, it’s not the film I started out to make.” Another aspect of the film, for example, expands upon the role that Vassar College played in the Hudson Valley’s divided political climate of the 1800s and early 1900s.
“Vassar’s really the progressive mind of the area. If not for Vassar, I don’t know what would have happened at the time,” said Watson. The beginning of “Crossing Waters” touches upon the role of the college’s suffragettes and their advocacy for recently-immigrated Irish women in the area.
Watson added, “The Vassar women teach the immigrant women [in Poughkeepsie]—and the same thing happens in New York City—how to go door to door, how to canvass, how to get other women involved, how to debate, how to make arguments…how to stand up for themselves. This is really empowering to the immigrant women. And that’s what gets the suffrage movement going, that coalition of women of different classes.”
Lieb explains that the role of Vassar suffragettes in “Crossing Waters” serves as a frame of reference for the heated political climate of the time. She says, “One of the things [Watson] looks at is suffrage and social reformers at Vassar as the context for what was happening at that point in the city of Poughkeepsie, which was this influx of immigrants, mostly from Ireland, and this nativist backlash against immigrants.”
Watson stressed, however, the importance of understanding these events within the context of today’s sentiments toward immigration in America–especially during this heated election cycle. “This persistent fear mongering has been going on forever,” she said. Watson continued, saying, “History repeats itself. My overarching message is that history is instructive—we tend to keep repeating the same arguments and complaints because we’re not aware of our history and what’s already gone on.”