A bridge collapse, ball game and bravery remembered


Kyle Riecker, Layout Editor

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 cheers 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 into those crossing the bridge at the time. Once the cable snapped, the bridge gave way under their feet and plunged into the turbulent West Canada.

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 Herkimer Telegram published an article on the collapse in 1929:  “More people were on the bridge approaching the island when a suspension cable gave way. Those on the bridge were thrown into the creek, which was strewn with rocks. Fortunately there were no broken bones or serious injuries, although several were taken to the hospital emergency rooms.”

A similar account was later published in Margery Foss’s A Glimpse in Passing, Newport NY, 1791-1991.

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

A native of Newport, Murphy recalls crossing the bridge with her bicycle and attending picnics and baseball games on the island.

The waters of the West Canada can be perilous.  The currents of the creek can be strong and potentially deadly, depending on the rainfall.  And so, the attendees as well as the baseball teams were in quite a pickle that day on Brown’s Island.

Although the score of the baseball game and the visiting team’s name has 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 recalls her mother as a person who would keep her cool in a precarious situation such as being stranded.  She described her mother as a petite woman around 5 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 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

Many more baseball games were played at Memorial Park.  The Newport High School, now abandoned, used the park as their home field for school baseball games and practices.

“The high school didn’t have a good sports field location, so they used the island as their field,” said Murphy. “It’s an odd location but we thought nothing of it.”

Since school was in recess in August, it’s likely that the game in 1922 was between Newport and another area league team. Newport’s team used Brown’s Island as their home field.

The league teams held fierce rivalries and were notoriously rough and rowdy.

Valley league baseball team members from Frankfort, Newport and Ilion gather for a photo. Newport’s manager, in the back row and fifth to the right, was a tavern owner in Newport. Source: The Newport History Center.

Located at the southern tip of the island, Memorial Park’s baseball field had a reputation for easy home runs due to its proximity to the creek. After all – who is going to try to catch a hard hit into a watery outfield?  — Surely the Newport League team used that as a home field advantage.

The island is named after Eseck Browne, who lived in the 19th century and was an early settler of 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. Due to the concern 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

Now, only the concrete foundations and rusted iron scaffold remain, partially concealed by the underbrush of the creek side. The ruins of the bridge can still be seen, across from the Newport Fire Department on Route 28.

But Murphy warns today’s generation of daredevils and history seekers to stay off the island. “It’s overgrown with poison ivy, so don’t go over there.”