Eric Sloane & Chauncey Peak, Smithsonian, Alexander Hamilton, Amelia Earhart
Editor’s note: “God knows I tried” are the words artist and author Eric Sloane (birth name Everard Jean Hinrichs) chose for his own epitaph. That short sentence is a rule of thumb he lived by during the course of a quite amazing life with many, many, notable accomplishments. Painting a masterwork, his panoramic view atop Chauncey Peak is one of them.
The sweeping views that can be seen from the mountain top known as Chauncey Peak include the distinctive Hanging Hills of Meriden to the west, a patchwork of human development squares seen below with a minuscule white church steeple.
Artist, author, visionary Eric Sloane chose a bird’s-eye-view above the rocky peak to immortalize inside the (then) corporate headquarters of International Silver Company. From all the possible landmarks, vantage points and manmade accomplishments, Sloane apparently picked this one-of-a-kind natural formation above an ancient rift valley formed by volcanic forces millions of years ago – as his subject. Meriden, Connecticut, was then known around the globe as “The Silver City” – and Sloane included those three words in his painting.
Who cares? Let’s provide some context.
You might see more value in his work if you knew that Sloane is the same artist who was commissioned to do a six-story wall mural for the Smithsonian Institution (SI) National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. – to represent the “freedom and environment of flight” – a cloudscape with a lone plane as a visual tribute to aviation history and human pioneers. (For some eye-popping statistics for visitors – here’s the link to the SI newsdesk reports for so far in 2017 – National Air and Space Museum alone – 1.2 million.)
“Earth Flight Environment is artist Eric Sloane’s tribute to America’s spacious skies. Known for his remarkable renditions of clouds, Sloane captured the essence and variety of weather above the panoramic landscape of the American Southwest. It is Sloane’s largest and most well-known cloud painting.” – Smithsonian Institute
Or how about this – Amelia Earhart bought one of Sloane’s early paintings of “just sky” – a cloudscape displayed at Roosevelt Field – this was before he was a well-known artist. The price was “exorbitant” according to Sloane, who knew life, aviation, weather, sky. Earhart recognized “real” when she saw it.
And how about the home of some guy named Alexander Hamilton? Decades before anyone cared, Sloane (who had grown up in the neighborhood and had gone back for a visit), saw the roof of The Grange – neglected, deteriorating – scrunched in between other buildings.
So he went to ask questions, find out what this place was – and wrote a book to illustrate why people should care about the building and its importance to the United States of America. Because of his efforts and the actions sparked in others, fundraising happened, awareness was raised. Sloane is and was excellent at providing context for objects, and this was a big goal.
Hamilton’s beloved home was not lost, but saved. The Grange is now part of the National Park System – officially called the Hamilton Grange National Memorial. It stands.
Today that site draws throngs of visitors who have seen and love the Broadway sensation “Hamilton” – because Sloane met Mr. Daniels, asked questions, then acted on what he heard.
Sloane is the same man who saw the wonder and scope of Chauncey Peak and the valley ringed with ridges. The resulting image is what people from around the country would see as they walked into the headquarters of The International Silver Company.
The peak as a potential magnet to draw visitors will exist inside the building. In real life, the business of quarrying to one side of the peak goes on, providing an opportunity to look inside the stepped terrace guts of a mountain. Traprock is a valuable commodity for foundations, crushed rock for driveways. The family-owned quarry business employs many and is a taxpayer to a city which has seen the flight of manufacturers and factory-era enterprises over time. Technological innovations continue to change the economic landscape and the city’s grand list. Adapt or die applies to business as well as living things.
Time flowing is nothing new in this ancient rift valley with resistant rock mountains left behind by volcanic flows long ago. Once a tropical climate was the norm here, when the verdant landscape hosted prehistoric beasts which left imprints of lives written in the rocks. The geology of the region “speaks” to those who know how to listen – geological language of vugs and striations, glacial grooves, fossil tracks. Basalt columns, fissures filled with glittering crystals, quartz and sediments. Natural springs abound here, and were once treasured for sources of clear, cold living water.
Because of the far-seeing vision of industrialist and philanthropist Walter Hubbard – also the president of the Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Company – a tower of stone stands on the peak above an 1,800-acre park that is named for him – Castle Craig can be seen in Sloane’s painting. The land (now a park) was donated by Hubbard, but could have easily become a housing tract development with homes tightly packed in rows – or the hills quarried for building materials and leveled. Because of Hubbard, the woodland, greenspace, sheer cliffs and mountains remain.
Sometimes a choice is made that will ripple out to generations yet unborn who will never know who decided this place matters and that it will stand. Ask the people who visit The Smithsonian, or who make the trek to Alexander Hamilton’s home, The Grange. What does such a place do for the country and the community in which it stands?
Look at Sloane’s wall-size image. The former International Silver building is located on South Broad Street, Meriden, home now to many offices and businesses. (Note to visitors that you may need to request permission to get inside, security being what it is nowadays.) Stand awhile and think of the man who painted this view. Notice the stray paint bristles embedded in it, and his signature. Consider why he chose to downplay human monuments, human activity. Then – if you are fit and up to a challenge – hike up to see the Chauncey and the views. You will not ever forget the sheer beauty and views – unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Should Chauncey Peak be lost – whether the rocks go to quarrying operations or are loosened from their moorings and simply tumble down the steep slope eventually – this visual portrait captured by Eric Sloane will let generations know what this magnificent national treasure once stood here and what was theirs for the climbing.
Source: As for who “Chauncey” is and why the peak was named this, no credible source has been found by this writer. Yet. The name “Chauncey” appears frequently in relation to Durham’s town histories. Any contributions regarding the name are welcome.
For more about Eric Sloane, “a prolific member of the Hudson River School of painting, it is generally accepted that Eric Sloane was a artistic genius. Over his lifetime he wrote 38 or more books. It is estimated that he created nearly 15,000 paintings over his lifetime, mostly oil on masonite. He painted one almost every day, often before lunch, striving to do better than the day before.” – from Eric sloane.com biography page. To “meet” him, find and read his works, visit the places (open to the public) he loved. “While restoring a Connecticut farmhouse in the early 1950s, he began to identify with the Early American settlers. He first moved to the Lake Candlewood area, then to Merryall, CT near New Milford and in 1956 he moved to Warren, where he kept a home until 1985. It was at a Warren Library book sale that he is said to have discovered Noah Blake’s diary, an original account of New England farm life in 1805. With Sloane’s unique illustrations and commentary the diary became the framework for Sloane’s most successful book, Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805. In 1975 Sloane built a home in La Tierra near Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Las Nuves” (The Clouds). From these two comfortable residences, “Mr. Americana”, spent most of his later life preserving the practical architecture and stoic lives of the first European settlers, in oil paints and in writing.”
Sloane’s remains are buried in Kent at the Sloane Stanley Museum – where the public is welcome to view his collection of tools, works of art in themselves. Sloane considered early tools as innovations, beautifully designed and made. There is also a re-creation of his studio, small bookshop corner, the Noah Blake cabin, and newly-planted apple trees. (Sloane admired old apple trees, which frequently appear in his work.) The grounds include the furnace of iron makers once plentiful in the Northwest hills.
By the way, the epitaph Sloane picked (“God Knows I tried”) is chiseled into a large fieldstone boulder which serves as a memorial. He succeeded beyond most humans in achievement – capturing images and knowledge, inspiring others, preserving touchstones to human endeavors and innovation. (He is one of my heroes, though we never met except through reading and viewing his life’s work.)
The steep trail (link here to Meriden Land Trust PDF online) that leads up to the peak as well as the longer trek up the back side of the mountain is open to the public. (Those who fly – or can hitch a flight with a willing pilot – can see the view from above. It is spectacular.)