And he shall be deemed the ferry-man

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We’ve been talking lately about the bridges, but they weren’t always there. A city by the river, in the days before bridges, very much relied on ferries for transportation. From the earliest days, Greenbush was an important adjunct to what became Albany, and the vast farmlands beyond Greenbush relied on ferries to access the important trading town. Ferry service between Albany and Greenbush was regulated under the laws of Albany, as published in 1800, which ordained that “every person who shall obtain a lease of the said ferry and be in the actual enjoyment thereof, shall be deemed the ferry-man.” Brilliant. The ferry-man was required to provide a bond to the city worth double the rent to be paid on the ferry, ferry house, and lot.

And be it further Ordained, That from and after the passing of this Law, the rates of ferriage across the Hudson’s river, between the limits of the city of Albany and Green-Bush, shall be as follows : that is to say,
1. For every person from the first day of November till the first day of May, two pence; and the remainder of the year one penny : Provided, that a sucking child and every other article not herein after rated, which a person holds and supports under his or her arms, shall be exempted from the payment of ferriage.
2. For every man and horse, or ox or cow, six pence.
3. For every hog, calf, sheep or lamb, one penny.
4. For every wagon and two horses or oxen, together with its loading, if the same remains in the wagon, and does not exceed, if of grain twenty bushels, and if of boards the number of forty, and if of plank the number of twenty-five, one shilling; and for every bushel more one penny, and for every board more a half penny, and for every plank more one penny.
5. For every team, cart or wagon with four horses or oxen, with or without its loading, two shillings; and for every additional ox or horse, six pence.
6. For every coach, coachee, chariot or phaeton, two shillings.
7. For every chair, chaise or sulkey and horse, one shilling.
8. For every chest or trunk, four pence.
9. For every full barrel, three pence.
10. For every pail of butter, one penny.
11. For every firkin or tub of butter, two pence.
12. For every bushel of grain, one penny.
13. For every hundred weight of unwrought metal, three pence; and in that proportion for a greater or less quantity.
14. For every hundred weight of beaver or other skins, four pence; and in like proportion for a greater or less quantity.
15. For every saddle if not on a horse, one penny.
16. For every dozen pair of boots or shoes, one penny; and in like proportion for a greater or less quantity.
17. For the stage carriage playing between the city of Albany and the city of New-York, and all other public stages, their drivers, horses, passengers and baggage, two shillings and six pence.

For all ferriage from one hour after sunset until day break, except for the New York stage carriage, rates were allowed to be doubled. The stage was to be given preference to “every other person, carriages or articles whatever, immediately upon their arrival at the said ferry, whether by night or by day; and that if the ferry-man shall neglect or refuse to convey the same across the said ferry without delay, he shall forfeit the sum of twenty shillings for every such neglect or refusal.”

The ferry-man was required to keep at least two boats and scows in good order and repair, to be constantly employed and worked, “wind and weather permitting, by able bodied men, at least, in the boats and scows from day-break to one hour after sun-set, in such manner as that one of the said two boats and scows, so employed as aforesaid, may as nearly as may be, constantly depart rom the two opposite shores of the river at the same time.” There was a five dollar fine for failing to run the boats and scows thusly; there was also a five dollar fine if he should be found to overcharge. No other boats or canoes were permitted to convey for hire or reward any person, carriage, horse, or other article across the river anywhere between the north and south boundaries of Albany. There was also a posting requirement:

And be it further Ordained, That the ferryman shall paste up on a board in some place on the east side of the road, and to the eastward of and opposite the ferry-house, a printed copy of this law, and shall from time to time, during the term for which he shall hold the said ferry, and during the times hereby limited for ferrying as aforesaid, keep the said copy fixed up as aforesaid.

 

 

The Albany-Greenbush Tunnel

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"There isn’t one automobile blocked on the bridge as the draw swings. That’s because all the vehicles are passing rapidly under the river. Above is a cross section view of one of the tunnel approaches. You spiral down to reach tunnel level and spiral upward to reach street level."

“There isn’t one automobile blocked on the bridge as the draw swings. That’s because all the vehicles are passing rapidly under the river. Above is a cross section view of one of the tunnel approaches. You spiral down to reach tunnel level and spiral upward to reach street level.”

Yesterday, in talking about plans to replace the old Greenbush Bridge, we noted the somewhat odd comments of Holland Tunnel designer Fred Williams, who had come to Albany to talk about how you should always think about a tunnel, but lamented that “This isn’t tunnel day.” Well, that wasn’t as random as it sounded – turns out, a tunnel had been seriously considered earlier that same year.

Yep. On Feb. 14, 1928, the Albany Evening News unveiled the first description of a proposed tunnel under the Hudson River between Albany and Rensselaer, proudly announcing “Albany – Rensselaer Project Will Introduce Maj. Hewes’ Spiral Staircase Approach – Nassau Architect to Show Drawings Thursday at Public Discussion of Plan in City Hall.”

The project provides for circular approaches, an engineering concept that may have profound effect on future tunnel construction. Traffic goes into and out of the tunnel by means of a spiral “staircase,” an expedient heretofore unthought of and which resulted from special study of landscape conditions prevailing here and in Rensselaer.
The idea originated with Major James E. Hewes, an engineer and former executive of the Eastern New York Utilities company. He is a member of the Albany-Rensselaer bridge committee, created to determine whether a new structure is needed between the two cities and what form that project should take.

There would be a public discussion of the plan at City Hall, with Nassau architect Herman Kobbe, who was associated with Hewes, to display “a series of water color and pen and ink pictures of the project.” It was confidently expressed that the total project, including land, dredging, the tunnel and ventilating systems would not exceed $5 million.

Location–The Albany terminal would be a few hundred feet north of the Greenbush bridge and would be situated in Riverside park extending from the river to Broadway. In Rensselaer the terminal would be directly in front of the Huyck mills with exit and entrances to Broadway.
These proposed terminals would serve not only to shelter the ramp approaches dipping into the earth but could be utilized for office, manufacturing or state and municipal requirements, according to Major Hewes. Because of the substantial foundations necessary for the ramps, a building of almost any height could be erected over them. The buildings would have an area of 300×300 feet each, providing 90,000 square feet of space to the floor. Major Hewes believes that each building could be made to provide an annual rental return of $200,000.
The Approaches–Entrance and exit of the terminal would be at street level. In order to forestall the danger of high water, with terminals built at the river brink, the street at that point would be elevated a few feet. This would make the top of the ramp at least four feet above the height of the highest water ever recorded here.
The ramps would be thirty-four feet wide of reinforced concrete construction. Two types of ramp construction are named. One provides for a ramp within a ramp. This would permit unobstructed passage for traffic descending to the tunnel, while traffic bound upward would travel the second ramp.
The other type of ramp provides for two distinct approaches, side by side. One for ascending, and the other for descending traffic.

Listen, we’re living in the 21st century. Ramps aren’t entirely a rarity. But in 1928? Not terribly common. They needed explanation.

An automobile entering the Albany terminal at street level would begin the descent to the tube at once. On the downward trip the motorist would make two complete circles before reaching the tunnel level. He would descend a total of 76.8 feet and would actually travel 1,920 feet over a four per cent grade, a trifle less sharp than the grade of the State street hill between James street and Pearl street.
The Tunnel–The tube itself would be 860 feet long. It might contain two roadways, one superimposed above the other with a four foot fill between. The idea here would be to divide east and west bound traffic, or to make both levels two way, and limit trucks and heavy vehicles to one level only. Another plan would provide but one roadway, resting on the bottom of the tunnel.

The article noted that the tunnel would be flat, not sloping like the recently completed Holland Tunnel; the tube would be 50 feet in diameter, steel reinforced concrete built near the site and then lowered into the river onto a dredged bed and joined, then covered so that it would have four feet of stone above it as protection against a boat sinking and coming to rest on top of the tube. Major Hewes was confident the whole thing could be put in place in less than two years, and that at no time would the work interfere with navigation. Maybe so. We never found out.

Time for a new bridge to Greenbush – or maybe not.

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The old Greenbush bridge in the foreground was replaced by the Dunn Memorial Bridge in 1933. But a new bridge was not a foregone conclusion.

The old Greenbush bridge in the foreground was replaced by the Dunn Memorial Bridge in 1933. But a new bridge was not a foregone conclusion.

Is anything ever simple around here? No, it is not. So, while it took years to get agreement to build the first bridge between Albany and Greenbush, the only bridge that carried automobiles across the river below Troy, you would think that when it came time to replace it, it would be relatively simple. It was not.

In August of 1927, the Albany Evening News reported on a plan to replace the Greenbush bridge with a new span, reporting that

Albany business and professional men are thoroughly aroused … to the insufficiency of the Greenbush bridge. Many visiting motorists, after once negotiating the structure enroute to Albany, have declared to hotel men they would rather skirt the city than again meet delays incident to crossing the only bridge entering Albany. Merchants declare trucking costs are higher and delay in deliveries across the river frequent, as the result of traffic jams and stoppage of traffic due to passing ships.
“The Greenbush bridge, designed to accommodate leisurely, horse drawn vehicles, resembles nothing much better than a cow path in the light of modern bridge engineering,” [Chamber of Commerce President Westcott] Burlingame said. “Actually the old Greenbush bridge appears to be shrinking As motor traffic increases and the old structure creaks and groans under the pounding of automobiles, trucks, buses and trolleys, all striving to squeeze through two narrow lanes, I really believe the sides contract. Every time I cross the bridge it seems the lane has become smaller and the curbs closer.”

James Gheen, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, pointed out the importance of the crossing:

“North of Peekskill there is no bridge spanning the Hudson river until you strike the Greenbush bridge at Albany. Motorists travel along the river for miles, headed for the bridge. And when they get there perhaps a boat is passing and the draw is open, delaying motor traffic. Or there is the usual congestion of vehicles at several periods in the day. The motorist tarries impatiently. Queer greeting to hold him off as long as possible, he thinks. He wants speedy access to this destination. The Greenbush bridge doesn’t permit that to the visitor from the country east of the Hudson river. The bridge is one of our gateways. I believe in building a new gateway across the Hudson. We need it.”

The News of December 2, 1927 reported that the plan to replace the old bridge with a new bridge was actually opposed by leaders from the other side of the river, in a hearing held by a special committee of the Albany Chamber of Commerce to probe the bridge situation and seek relief from traffic congestion on the bridge.

“A delegation of business men from Rensselaer led the fight to keep the present bridge and received unexpected support from a Castleton delegation, which expressed itself in favor of the present bridge, to be augmented, however, by a new high level bridge at Castleton.
Points made by the proponents of the present bridge are that the structure is still suitable for use and could be made efficient by raising it, using the upper deck as another traffic lane and installing a new bascule type draw.
The Castleton delegation pointed out that while the Greenbush bridge is really a necessity for communication between Albany and Rensselaer, natural advantages pointed to the Castleton site for a new high level bridge.”

A group of Rensselaer businessmen said the existing bridge could be repaired, that the approaches could be widened and ramps erected to provide a traffic lane on the upper part of the bridge (which originally was meant to carry a rail line that never materialized). The state engineer of bridges and crossings, Harvey Schermerhorn called that an impossibility that would cost more than building a new bridge.

Someone by the name of Captain Ulster Davis (perhaps a river captain?) believed that draw openings could be expedited and the old bridge used for years if a bascule lift draw were installed in place of the swing span. “He said he had seen lift draws that could operate in sixteen seconds.” A designer of the Holland Tunnel, Fred Williams, was in attendance, and made a snide response to a colleague, “We’d like to see one of those sixteen second lift draws, wouldn’t we, Davis? We tried to design some that would work that fast but never succeeded.” He proceeded to note that it would be impossible to build a new lift span into the existing bridge, and wouldn’t be able to allow traffic in the meantime. In fact, the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which replaced the Greenbush in 1933, would be a lift bridge.

Reading between the lines, Williams’s presence must have indicated at least some consideration of a tunnel option. Either that or he ran around the country opining about tunnels. “I haven’t much to say today. This isn’t tunnel day. But I do want to say that although a tunnel is always feasible where a river crossing is wanted, it is not always the best thing. Whether a tunnel would serve the best purpose in this case, I can’t say now.” Good thing it wasn’t tunnel day.

“No figures of probable cost for revamping the bridge were presented by those who hope to convince the bridge committee that the Greenbush structure could easily be made adequate. No traffic figures were presented by those aspiring for a new bridge to convince the committee that the Greenbush bridge is a back number, a nuisance to highway traffic and a menace to navigation.”

Eventually, the decision to build a new bridge would be made, but again, there would be controversy. We’ll get into that anon.

From Hearses to Ambulances: Albany Motor Renting Corp.

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1920 Albany Directory Funerals by Automobile

In case you were wondering when funerals by automobile became possible in the “Capitol” District – it would appear that the answer is 1920, which is when the Albany Motor Renting Corporation was formed (president: Spero Loscaris) and this ad appeared in the Albany City Directory. Its 56 South Ferry Street location, where they also sold Socony gasoline, is now merely a parking lot; 46 State Street is an older, not terribly noticeable building that currently houses Cook’s Cafe.  They apparently succeeded a company named Allen & Arnink Auto Renting Company. Presumably, hearses weren’t all they rented, as they also show up in county records as having provided auto service for the Board of Elections in 1920, and even in Albany, the dead voters don’t require transportation.

albany motor garage - hearses and limousines 1920s lancaster st albany nyThe company also later owned a large garage that still stands on Lancaster Street, and rented hearses, limousines, and regular old cars. In 1953, the company branched out considerably, focusing less on the dead and more on the not-quite dead by getting into the ambulance business:

Ambulance service calls from the Albany Police Department will be handled by Albany Motor Renting Corporation from its garage at 166-168 Lancaster St., on a per-call basis, Mayor Corning said today.

The firm which rents hearses and drive-yourself cars asked the city for the opportunity to provide the service, and informed the Mayor, after a meeting of its directors yesterday that one ambulance would be ready for service tomorrow. A second ambulance will be added soon, the Mayor said he was informed.

Two-way police radios will be used in the ambulances. The service is strictly a private one, the Mayor said. The city pays for emergency calls at the rate of $15 a call. Welfare case calls are paid by the Albany County Welfare Department. There is no contract between the city and Albany Motor Renting Corporation.

In 1969 they were still renting out of the Lancaster Street garage. As late as 1973, Rensselaer contracted with the company to provide ambulance service.

Geology is Destiny

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General John Burgoyne, by Joshua Reynolds (Frick Museum)

Our views of history are, to be certain, shaped by our perspectives. Whatever background we come from, whatever origin stories we tell about ourselves and our families inform our understanding of the events the past. And to an extent, even our training and careers can inform what we learn, and create interesting perspectives to share.

The Geological History of New York State (New York State Museum Bulletin 168, 1913) presents an interestingly extreme example of this: a geologist’s view of the battles of Saratoga. This was written by a Rudolf Ruedemann, who noted that anyone who studies the region with an interest in history and geology could not fail to be impressed by the close relationship between the two:

Burgoyne had two routes to reach the Hudson river and thereby Albany, his objective point: namely, first, the deep depression extending from Whitehall to Fort Edward and caused largely by the downfaulting of the Ordovicic rocks at the eastern base of the Adirondacks and, second, the fault basin of Lake George. He selected the former and entered the swamp region of Wood creek, following this creek with its immature swampy drainage up toward the Hudson. Here it was extremely easy to impede his progress by cutting trees and throwing them across the road, an opportunity of which the Americans made the fullest use. Burgoyne wasted months of valuable time and his best energy and provisions in these swamps of glacial origin. When he finally reached the Hudson he followed it on the east side until he found the place where at Thomson the river falls over a ridge of harder Normanskill shale below which a bridge could be easily built. After crossing he was again forced to the river bank by the only road available, while deep ravines cut into the thick clays of Lake Albany made excellent opportunity for a defensive position for the American army. Such a position was selected at Bemis Heights.

On the other side of the river towers Willard mountain, an erosion remnant due to the hardness of the grits and cherts of Normanskill age that compose the syncline. From this bold mountain every movement of the British army could be easily seen by the patriot Willard and signaled to General Gates.

After his defeat, Burgoyne retreated leisurely and sullenly up the river. Hessian officers advised him to leave his cannon and baggage behind and save the army by a forced retreat by way of Lake George, but the obstinate though brave general decided to return by the crossing at Thomson, allowing by his slow and undecided action the Americans to overtake him and, in using the peculiarly favorable topography of the locality, which is due to its remarkable geology, to prepare a trap for him. The most important feature of this topography is that just above the Thomson crossing a volcanic rock, known as the Northumberland volcanic plug, juts out prominently toward the river, so that it has complete command of the crossing and at the same time prevents an army from passing under it at the west bank of the river. This important strategic point was occupied by Colonel Stark. It, and Fellows’s batteries which could be advantageously placed on the bluffs of Albany clay on the opposite bank of the river, were, with Morgan’s sharpshooters in the woods to the west of the army, the principal means of forcing Burgoyne to surrender. Thus we see that the peculiar combination of a ford over a shale ridge, a volcanic rock close by and bluffs of clay aided greatly in bringing about the decisive victory of Saratoga.

A Home for the Faculty Cows

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Again, the Encyclopedia of Union College History provides a view of a time unimaginably long gone: when cows grazed on the campus pasture. Before the current West College was built in 1953, the campus was open to the west, and the lands west of the wall were called the Pasture.

Professors long had the right to keep a cow in the Pasture, a benefit which has received attention proportionate only to its quaintness. The disadvantages of owning a cow, especially in a Schenectady winter, and especially for the dignified, were manifold; most faculty members must have found it simpler to buy the dairy products they needed. Only professors Nott, Lewis, Jackson and Pearson availed themselves of the grazing privilege in 1852; Pearson gave it up by 1854 and Lewis by 1857.

There were times when no cows grazed in the Pasture, but most of the “large number of cattle” an 1865 visitor saw there must have belonged to townspeople who had paid a grazing fee; twenty years later, all the cattle fell into this category.

The cows’ various owners had to expect them to be the targets of nocturnal raids by students, who milked them, painted them with zebra-stripes, and sometimes led them into classrooms or even second-floor dormitory rooms . . .

The departure of the last faculty cow was probably ensured in June 1907 when the Board of Trustees’ Instruction Committee authorized the president to “offer to Professor Landreth an increase of $250 in his annual salary with the understanding that Professor Landreth’s cow shall disappear from the college campus.”

There was, however, at least one more instance when the Pasture was a pasture. At the suggestion of Marian Osgood Fox, wife of the college president, trustees bought five Shropshire sheep, which turned into eighteen sheep. “When not harried by dogs or teased by students, the animals picturesquely cropped the grass; they wintered on a farm in Rexford.”

The Pasture was once considerably larger, but Union College periodically sold off lots. Alumni tried to convince the city to lease the land for a park around 1900, but were not successful. The college sold off 44 lots fronting Park Place in 1901, and the city bought the lot on which it built its library (now Webster House).

During World War II, American Locomotive Co. leased the Pasture and used it for employee parking, and even parked tanks on the south end.

The Union College Burial Ground

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Memento mori, baby!So here’s an interesting side note that we uncovered while digging through the highly useful Encyclopedia of Union College, dated 2003 and apparently written by Wayne Somers. Apparently, if you’re a faculty member at Union College, you’re entitled to a free burial plot in the College cemetery in Vale Cemetery.

“About half way between Union and State streets, on Nott Terrace, the entrance road to Vale leads eastward up the hill. The first road to the left crosses a bridge between two ponds in the woods. On the left is a fenced area with signs identifying the grounds of Union College. The actual burial grounds are on a secluded terrace, surrounded by woods on three sides, and overlooking a small pond on the other. Toward the back of the plot lie the graves of Eliphalet Nott and his third wife, Urania . . . Other faculty members and their families and a few alumni and administrators have continued to be buried in the plot down to the present. With a total of about 192 burials (and a few additional markers) through the year 2000, the plot is getting full, but perhaps a quarter of the spots are still available.”

The Encyclopedia reports that although the college cemetery was not formally established until September 1863, “the need for College burial grounds had been under discussion for several years.” Because, obviously, you can’t just let the dead faculty members pile up.

Union College freshmen: No top hats or canes for you

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We’d be remiss if we left The Encyclopedia of Union College without sharing this delightful entry:

Canes. Although little is known of the protocol of cane-carrying at any period, it was long fashionable for able-bodied college students to own these appendages; at Union, canes remained in vogue until at least 1924.

Jonathan Pearson (who had a cane in 1829, before coming to Union) records in his diary instances of students striking each other with canes in 1834 and in 1859, which suggests that they were carried on other than strictly formal occasions. By at least 1863, and probably much earlier, it was customary for classes to order identical canes. Seniors owned canes of malacca, an Asian palm, in the 1860s, and in 1897 the freshmen bought congo wood canes with their class year in silver on the handle.

From at least 1868, freshmen were forbidden to wear top hats and carry canes before their third term. From 1878 until 1933 (see Hazing and Class Fights), the outcome of the cane rush was supposed to determine when freshmen would be allowed to start carrying canes, though this had become purely a symbolic issue long before the fights were given up.

A junior class order for canes in 1924 is the last report of this custom . . . a more practical substitute, class blazers, is mentioned for the first time in 1931.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention that at least one college has revived the tradition of canes, though they have the good sense to not give them out until graduation.

The Life of Eliphalet Nott

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Eliphalet Nott, 1820

Eliphalet Nott, 1820

It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t still have a Union College had it not been for the efforts of its longest-tenured president, Eliphalet Nott. He was born in 1773 on a farm in Ashford, Connecticut, one of nine children. “There was no neighbor’s house nearer than half a mile, and he was thus much shut out from the society of boys his own age. The school-house of the neighboring settlement was five miles distant,” according to Cornelius Van Santvoord’s memoir of Nott. Taught to read and memorize by his mother, he later lived with and worked in the home of his much older brother Samuel, who was a Congregational minister who favored whippings as discipline and served as a school teacher, having graduated from Yale. Eliphalet studied under his brother and became a teacher himself and before he was 20 was appointed principal of the Plainfield Academy. Preferring his mother’s gentler ways to his brothers, he determined to “substitute moral motives in the place of the rod,” running very much against the current of the time. He also became a preacher in the Congregational Church, married the daughter of the Rev. Joel Benedict, and set out as a missionary, traveling through Albany on his way to Oswego, then coming partway back to the Cherry Valley, where he settled and brought his wife to live in 1796.

His wife, Sarah, became sickly after the birth of their first son in December 1797, and she went to Ballston Springs (Spa) in the summer of 1798 to take the waters, remaining there several months. Eliphalet, traveling to a meeting the Albany Presbytery was holding in Washington County, chanced to stay over at an inn at Union and Ferry streets in Schenectady, and attended a religious meeting conducted by Rev. John Blair Smith, president of Union College, right across the street from the inn. They met, each most impressed with the other, and this led to Smith’s recommendation that Nott take charge of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany at Pearl and Beaver streets, which took place in October 1798. He would also become co-chaplain of the State Legislature. He also, through his friendship with Smith, became a trustee of Union College. He became nationally famous for a sermon he gave on the death of Alexander Hamilton, which became the manifesto of the anti-dueling movement.

As mentioned before, Union had gotten off to a rocky start, with insufficient funds and insufficient students. It relied heavily on State funding and would require even more. With the departure of its third president in only nine years, Union’s trustees asked Nott, who had been trying to create free common schools in Albany, to head the institution. His wife had just died, he had four children to care for, and, as the Encyclopedia of Union College History writes, “he appears to have developed doubts that the ministry was an adequate base for effecting the changes he believed necessary to realize in America the achievement of its divine mission, the one he had made the subject of an inspiring series of sermons.”

Taking the presidency, Nott used his connections to lobby for a lottery that would benefit the college (yes, lotteries and education go way, way back). It was in cutting this deal that a number of State officials first swelled the ranks of the trustees of Union, but he gained approval in 1805 for four lotteries totaling $80,000, nearly half of which was stipulated for buildings. The Encyclopedia says:

“By the end of the decade Nott was certain enough of the success of the lottery to proceed with his plans for a college to match or outdo those well established along the Atlantic coast – Harvard, Yale, Rhode Island (Brown), Queens (Rutgers) and Princeton. Using his own slender assets and the large ones of his second wife, the widow Gertrude Peebles Tibbits whom he had married in 1807, Nott bought more than 250 acres of land on the outskirts of the city, and had a foundation laid for North College. Then in 1812-13 he took advantage of the temporary presence in the area of the distinguished French architect Joseph Ramée, and engaged him to draw plans for an entire college campus on Nistiquona Hill.”

Biting off even more, Nott asked the Legislature in 1814 to approve $274,000 to benefit Hamilton College, New York City’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Asbury African Church, and Union College (which would get $200,000 of that sum). Nott lived in Albany and lobbied full-time to make this happen. He was successful, although ultimately the lottery wasn’t, and in the end Nott borrowed money from financier William James and got Union into some extensive “side deals, speculation in a variety of uncertain ventures, secret agreements, siphoning of receipts into private pockets, tortuous bookkeeping and none at all, law suits, a case in chancery court, and in the end investigation by a hostile legislative committee which besmeared the president with charges of self-dealing and the trustees with equally serious charges of dereliction of duty.” Eventually, all were exonerated, and Nott continued as president of Union College, serving for 61 years until his death in 1866.

He also served as president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in its early years (under other names), from 1829-1845, while simultaneously heading up Union. According to RPI, he “visited the school at least every third week and was compensated with one dollar per visit plus all graduation fees.” It appears not to have been a terribly taxing post at the time, but under his leadership Rensselaer became the first civilian school to graduate civil engineers (in 1835). Union offered a degree in civil engineering after Nott resigned from Rensselaer in 1845. Nott’s memoir, interestingly, mentions this not at all.

In addition to being a man of religion, Nott was a man of science. He worked at inventing, focusing primarily on boilers, but he also famously invented the first stove that could use anthracite coal, which was a big deal at the time. It is said that the acquired 30 patents, but the Nott Stove, which was built by his son’s company H. Nott and Co., was by far the most successful. Nott was also an ardent temperance advocate throughout his life.

In 1859, aged 86, Eliphalet Nott suffered a severe paralytic stroke, but he worked at recovering from that, and proved well enough that he was able to travel to Philadelphia to spend time with his son. He returned to Schenectady in 1860 and continued his duties at the college. He did well, but in 1864 began to decline, and he lingered on until January 29, 1866.

 

 

Union College

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West College (Stone College)

West College (Stone College), believed to have been designed by Philip Hooker.

Since we were recently talking about the earliest schools in Schenectady, we should focus on the institution of higher education that grew out of those early efforts, Union College. It was founded in 1795 as an outgrowth (always anticipated) of the Schenectady Academy, which had started 10 years before. Originally, the college conducted classes on the upper floor of the Academy’s building on the north corner of Union and Ferry streets. The first trustees had prominent Schenectady names like Ten Broeck, Yates, Vrooman, Glen, and Romeyn, along with others; when the charter was amended in 1806, state officials were added as trustees, including the Chancellor, justices of the Supreme Court, the Secretary of State, Comptroller, Treasurer, Attorney-General and Surveyor-General. Later, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor were also named as trustees.

George Rogers Howell and John Munsell, in their 1886 History of the County of Schenectady, wrote that:

The name “Union College” was given as expressing the intention of uniting all religious sects in a common interest for the common good, by offering equal advantages to all, with preference to none. It is believed that this is the first college in the United States not confessedly denominational in its character.

It was originally organized October 19, 1795, with the election of Rev. John Blair Smith of Philadelphia as president; John Taylor, A.M., professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (today we call it science); and Rev. Andrew Yates, professor of Latin and Greek. First degrees were conferred upon three young men in May, 1797, in the old Reformed Dutch Church. Smith was followed by Rev. Jonathan Edwards (son of that Rev. Jonathan Edwards. Edwards began the effort to build a new stone building facing south at the northwest corner of the intersection of Union Street and what is now Erie Blvd. (This according to the Encyclopedia of Union College History). The building was unnamed but known as Stone College, later West College, and it was then on the eastern edge of the city (it picked up the “west” appellation once Union moved to its current location). It is thought the building was designed by Albany’s Philip Hooker, and that it was inspired by Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Lack of money slowed construction. The trustees sold the Schenectady Academy building to raise money for the new one (but continued to hold classes there), and received assistance from the State. Edwards died in 1801 and was succeeded by Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, a Baptist from Providence, R.I., who left in 1804. The building was still unfinished.

Then came the Rev. Eliphalet Nott, whose impact on the Schenectady of his day certainly warrants discussion on its own. He came to a college whose future was far from assured. As the History says, Dr. Nott found the college wanting both means and students. Its proposed endowment was undersubscribed; sums of money came from the State, but a considerable amount of State assistance was in the form of land, including 10 lots of 550 acres each “in the military tract” [presumably the tract in the northern counties of the state, then still quite unsettled] for the support of the president and professors, and the sale of garrison lands near Lake George. The new building started by Dr. Edwards in 1798 (Stone College) was just being finished, and there was considerable debt. So the trustees did the logical thing and started planning for a much larger college, far out of the city. That actually wasn’t unwise, as the building was overcrowded by 1806. That may because the three-and-a-half story building contained classrooms, dining hall, a chapel, a central room, student dormitory rooms and a residence for the president, in addition to housing the Schenectady grammar school.

On Dec. 15, 1812, the city bought Stone College in exchange for 3000 acres of common lands in Schenectady County. It’s not clear if those included the land that the college soon built on, but much of it was sold off (and some city residents were highly critical of the exchange).
Union moved to its current campus in 1814. In 1831, it bought West College back from Schenectady, which had been using it for city and county offices, courthouse, and jail. The College pressed it back into service as classroom and dormitory space.

So, how did Union College end up where it ended up? According to the Encyclopedia, the trustees appointed Nott, Joseph C. Yates, James Duane and Abraham Oathout as a committee to seek a site for the college on “high lands bordering on the second ward of the city.” They were unsuccessful in getting a donation, and the college lacked the funds, so it was just fortunate that Eliphalet Nott happened to come into some money by way of marriage. His second wife, Gertrude Tibbits, was the widow of Troy merchant Benjamin Tibbits, a woman of means who apparently felt no compunctions about sharing those means with her new husband and the college. They assembled about 300 acres by 1812, at a reported cost of $13,692.96. North and South Colleges were built by 1814, and that took care of Union’s needs forever. Well, not quite.

In 1831, it bought West College back from Schenectady, which had been using it for city and county offices, courthouse, and jail. The College pressed it back into service as classroom and dormitory space.

For the next twenty-three years, Union was divided. Eventually, if not at once, freshmen and sophomores lived and attended classes in the old building, a peculiar choice on Nott’s part, given that the routing of the Erie Canal directly in front of Stone College in 1825 had made the city – from which Nott was much concerned to protect his charges – a seamier place.

New construction in the mid-1850s would allow the college to be consolidated once again and to once again sell West College to the city of Schenectady, which made it into the Union School, the first true public school in the city. The old building was finally torn down in 1890, replaced by the Union Street School, which only lasted into the 1940s. The site is now a parking lot with an historical marker noting the location of West College.

West College