The Red Cross tradition

By Mary McTamaney

March is Red Cross Month and has been by presidential proclamation since 1943. President Franklin Roosevelt first dedicated March to “the splendid aims and activities of the Red Cross” during the height of World War II to bring more support to the organization’s war effort. It was fitting for us that a Hudson Valley president focused permanent national attention on this emergency relief organization since our valley was so active a generation before (when F.D.R. was a young man here) in Red Cross activities for World War I.

The First World War prompted the formation of the local Red Cross in Newburgh. In response to the needs of our troops departing for the fighting in France and the needs of their families here left without their support, a group of Newburgh citizens met the last day of February 1917 in City Hall and organized a permanent branch of the American Red Cross. Mr. Graham Witschief, a vice-resident of the Highland National Bank, convened the group and urged his interested steering committee to contact all clergy and all factory managers and heads of benevolent societies in the first membership drive. At their first announced meeting three weeks later in the Columbus Trust Company over 40 people attended. The Newburgh Red Cross grew rapidly from there. Honorable Benjamin B. Odell Jr. was elected chairman. The first committees formed were Soldier’s Relief and Home Service and dozens of new members signed up to help. Rapidly, over the summer of 1917, seven other committees formed. They established emergency preparedness plans, trained nurses’ aides for local and military hospitals, made surgical dressings to send overseas, and began a knitting and sewing circle to create socks, washcloths, gloves, scarves, hats and all the other items in short supply but so essential to keep our troops warm and well. So busy were the people sewing that, at their fundraising dance at the Palatine Hotel, every woman there was reported by the press to have had knitting needles going between dances.

Such extensive activity required space to gather supplies and pack materials. Benefactors donated workrooms around the city, beginning with office space at 44 Grand Street. Subsequent headquarters were a large building known as “The Marquette” at 73 Grand Street loaned by Mrs. Amos Holden and the former offices of the Newburgh Journal newspaper at Smith and Third Streets. By the end of 1917, the Newburgh Red Cross numbered 4,193 members and a Junior Red Cross started in the schools had almost 6,200 children enrolled. During May 1918 alone, 98,000 surgical dressings were shipped overseas. Chapter workers cared for soldiers assigned locally to guard the aqueduct, many of whom became ill with influenza during the season they were here. Those soldiers had to be housed in tents on the lawn of St. Luke’s Hospital and the Newburgh Red Cross ministered to their needs, including letter writing and contacting their families.

After World War I, the local Red Cross gave much attention to the returning veterans at Castle Point Hospital, which is listed in their 1920’s minutes as Chelsea Hospital. At the same time, they aided Orange County flood victims and began a strong program of teaching first aid, water safety and life saving, nutrition and home nursing. In the great depression, Newburgh’s Red Cross started the Newburgh Community Fund to help those on the growing unemployment lines. This grew to be the Community Chest many of us remember as an annual campaign.

Just as volunteerism carried us through World War I, Red Cross workers mobilized for the next World War in 1941 with all the previous service activities and more such as blood drives and a motor pool. Newburgh mustered a Women’s Volunteer Motor Corps who would use and drive private vehicles for any emergency. Temporary Red Cross hood blankets were sewn so that these cars and trucks could be recognized as auxiliary ambulances and given the right-of-way. South Street School (now Fogarty Apartments) became the Red Cross headquarters in 1942 and worked fanned out across the city. A canteen for soldiers temporarily stationed at Stewart Field was especially appreciated when it was established inside the YMCA. Air raid drills were common during the Second World War and Red Cross casualty stations were manned during every blackout. The “grey ladies” were established and continued long after the war. These women in grey Red Cross uniforms helped in the hospitals bringing magazines, flowers and conversation to patients as well as manning the official sub-station for postal mail delivery to all patients.

Another generation has passed and we are in the midst of another war. In between, national emergencies have called upon the Red Cross to help our local citizens in harm’s way. During the weeks after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, donations of goods, services and money flowed in to the Orange County Red Cross on Main Street in Goshen, NY. As I visited last week to look over the scrapbooks of Newburgh Red Cross history, I heard volunteers answering phones and directing aid to people homeless from fires and abandoned by family. The work continues and awareness should too.

The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the March 5, 2008 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.

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