Merville E. Harrington

Last week’s article ended with a quote taken from a poem by Rudyard Kipling: “Lest we forget.”  It was written at first to remember what the British empire once was before its downfall; Kipling was one of its strongest advocates. But the three-word quote became known as a remembrance for persons who have died serving their countries. In 1915, Kipling’s only son, John, died serving in the Irish Guards. In 1919, Merville Harrington, son of Grace and Byron Harrington, died serving in the New York State Guards.

Merville’s nephew, Byron Merville Harrington, compiled twenty-nine letters that Merville wrote home while in the Guards. They are now in the Moore Memorial Library, available to anyone curious about life in the U.S. in the decade before the 1920s. He was stationed in Stone Ridge, High Falls, Peeksill, with short stays in New Paltz, Tarrytown and Ossining.

Merville was the eldest child, born on January 6, 1901 and the family lived on a farm on the road that used to connect Route 41 with Route 206. He had two brothers-Glenn and Burr- and one sister, Ethel. His father died when he was eleven-years old. The family moved into Greene and lived on Green Street for a while.  Later, his mother moved to Driscall Avenue and had a boarding house.  It was difficult to make ends meet and they all contributed to the household, although the children were young and Glenn had health problems as well. His mother and sister worked at the Sherwood Hotel and Burr had a milk route.

When Merville was seventeen, his mother gave consent for him to enlist as a soldier in the New York Guard for a period of three years. The approval of enlistment to Platoon Co. G 4th Inf. in Greene was given June 22, 1918.

In September, there is an article in the Chenango American with these headlines:

Three Disappointed Youths Return from Binghamton

The article states that there was a call for volunteers for guard duty on the Catskill Aqueduct.  Four were wanted so Leo Baxter, Donald Brown, Merville Harrington and Ivan Winchell were quick to respond. So many Binghamton boys had volunteered that it was decided to draw lots and Merville Harrington was successful. Three disappointed but patriotic boys returned to Greene.

            The Catskill System is one of the three water systems that supply New York City. The Croton System is the oldest and smallest; the Delaware System is the newest and largest. The systems cover a  2,000 square mile watershed in upstate New York, one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the U.S.  I’m sure many of you have driven around one of the nineteen reservoirs that supply the water for New York City and have thought about the importance of protecting the systems and their vulnerability to a terrorist attack. (After September 11, 2001, the spillway road on the Ashokan Reservoir was closed permanently).  It was the same in 1918 and the New York State Guard was sent to protect the Catskill Aqueduct. The Delaware System had not been built yet.

            In 1910, the Catskill System was begun. The Ashokan Reservoir was constructed and  the ninety-two-mile Catskill Aqueduct was built to carry the water to New York City. In some areas they blasted through rock and constructed tunnels lined with concrete 15 feet in diameter 70 feet down in the rock strata. It then went under the Hudson River and into the Kensico Reservoir and into Manhattan.

            On September 4, 1918, Merville left home and wrote that he arrived safely at the camp at Stone Ridge, NY in the evening. He saw some fine scenery and some good high mountains in the Catskills. In short time, he was transferred to Shaft #5 in High Falls. Five of them lived in a small brick building built right over the pipe line “guarding delicate machinery, which acts as a pumping station in case anything goes wrong on the pipe line above this point.” He had guard duty from four to midnight and the weather had turned cold.

            He was proud of what he was doing and had some good times. He took French lessons because there was a chance he’d be sent “over there.” There were barn dances and he met some girls he liked (one was “really swell”) who taught him how to square dance. He was well liked by others and mentioned making others laugh. He told of playing poker with an ante of one penny and winning a dollar. He wasn’t sure if his mother would approve.

            He was homesick and wrote of missing his friends, his family and their little farm. He sent almost all of his money home to help his mother and siblings. He asked his grandmother to send a sponge cake. “It seems just as though if I had a piece of Grandma’s cake I’d be all right.” Once in a while, he’d ask for a dollar so he could have a photo taken or some new puttees (the leggings in the photo). He signed his letters “To the ones I love” or “Your loving soldier boy”. He is intelligent, articulate, concerned about his family, affectionate – sterling qualities in a seventeen-year-old boy. He had a P.S. on one letter that said, “I’m going to wear an armor when I come home so that there won’t be any danger of my getting squeezed to death.” His youthfulness shines through every letter.

But Merville was never well. Less than a month after leaving Greene, he wrote his mother that he had been sick and unable to do duty. Several times he mentioned being sick or getting very cold standing guard. His back bothered him; he had a bad cold and cough. In January he had a severe headache for several days.

There were references to the flu. As early as October 12, he wrote that “fellows are dying off to beat heck”. There were 2000 cases in Kingston. The three Quick girls who lived across the way had “that disease.” There were “piles of deaths out this way from it.” He got a shot in the arm for influenza.  “Eight deaths on upper end of the (pipe) line.” In December he was asked to give a dollar for a monument to the boys who died on the line.

Most of the men had been discharged by December 22, 1918, but Merville and others were to move a 30-ton stone from Bonticou Crag in the Mohonk Preserve located in the Shawangunk Ridge to a flat bed train car in New Paltz, a distance of four miles. From there it would be taken to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown. This is to be the monument for all who had lost their lives guarding the Catskill Aqueduct. It was a daunting and frustrating task with much pushing, pulling and the use of mules.

During this time, Merville turned eighteen on January 6, 1919. A very telling sentence was in this letter home, “Well at last I’ve begun my 18th year and I feel as though it was my 19th”.

Once the rock got to Tarrytown, Merville was on guard in the freight yards over block and tackles and other things that they used on the rock. Then he guarded the gear in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the cemetery named by Washington Irving who wrote about the headless horseman. Merville wrote, “Can you imagine it down there all alone all night. Gosh….It won’t be long now before I’ll be home.”

His last letter home was on February 20th.  He was happy that he could bring home an Airedale puppy that his mother said he could keep. He seemed very upbeat describing humorously how his mules had run away and smashed up things. The next correspondence was a telegram that stated that Merville was critically ill. He died on February 28th, 1919, one week from his last letter, the cause of death being epidemic influenza complicated with pneumonia and pleurisy.

How ironic that his name is one of the very last names on the stone that he helped haul from Bonticou Crag and guarded in the cemetery. There is no mention that the majority of the forty men listed on that stone died of influenza and perhaps that’s not important in this case. As it states on the stone they “made the supreme sacrifice for their state guarding the water supply system of the city of New York". 

Rudyard Kipling was on a committee after World War I to choose a general epitaph for the gravestones of the war dead. He selected “Their Name Liveth Forever More” found on Stones of Remembrance on the Western Front. I submit that Merville Harrington’s closing words of his letters, “Your Loving Soldier Boy”, is equally as poignant and memorable and will live forever.