How Penn Central Ruined Everything, Railwise

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Those who remember Albany’s Union Station as a glorious destination in the ’50s and ’60s most likely benefit from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. A 1969 column in the Knickerbocker News acknowledged that “In its dying days, Albany’s Union Station was an odiferous and dingy cavern, but still, if you looked hard, you could see traces of the station’s earlier grandeur.” If you grew up later than the ’70s, you may not be able to understand just how dingy cities were back then – between coal ash, diesel fumes, and the horrendous exhaust that came out of each and every automobile, every structure was covered in soot. Likely the exterior of Union Station had never been cleaned, and by some accounts the same could be said of the inside.

Hoxsie hesitates to even bring this up because it excites passions even today, nearly 50 years after passenger railroads left Albany proper. But it’s worth looking at what caused Union Stations in Albany and Schenectady to be left behind, two “modern” new stations to be built in Rensselaer and Colonie, and the general collapse of passenger rail at about the same time.

For starters, understand that in the 1960s, passenger rail was deeply unprofitable, under assault from air travel, private automobiles, and truck freight on superhighways. The Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central had discussed merging as early as 1957, when things weren’t quite so dire. The Pennsylvania started focusing more on real estate deals than on railroading, resulting in the destruction of its landmark Penn Station in New York City. When merger talks began again, they were said to be more about creating more borrowing power for financing other ventures than about consolidating an efficient business. The merger was federally approved in 1965, but took until early 1968 before the US Supreme Court finally allowed it. The merger apparently was never well-planned; the condition that all existing workers continue in employment ensured no efficiency would be gained, and a struggling economy, growing inflation and bad management of the freight business alienated customers. By 1970, the company would be bankrupt, and its collapse would lead to the federal creation of Conrail and Amtrak.

As early as 1960, there were plans to run an interstate highway along the Hudson River around Albany. Planned routes varied, but they kept coming back to plans that would eliminate most of the rail along the river. This would be difficult to do so long as the main rail crossing was the Maiden Lane Bridge – the highway would have to go over or under the tracks that connected the bridge to Union Station, causing some definite planning difficulties and leading state transportation officials to favor a plan that would simply eliminate that bridge.

As we have noted before, the Rensselaer side of the river had a long history of passenger travel, though it could not really be said that it had anything approximating a station in 1968. Albany was home not only to the New York Central / Penn Central passenger line, but also to the Delaware and Hudson line that ran through Watervliet and Mechanicville to Montreal. With the loss of the Maiden Lane bridge, both railroads had the excuse and reason to get out of an outdated, expensive-to-maintain station facility at Albany; the Schenectady station would also be closed. But, if the Maiden Lane Bridge had to go, trains still had to be able to cross the river, meaning the Livingston Avenue Bridge, which had been locked open for a period of years, would be brought back into service. Being single track, this would become a choke point on the system, but at least trains could cross.

Colonie Station proposal 1967In 1967, the PSC approved a Penn Central proposal to replace the Albany and Schenectady rail palaces with “modern” new stations at Rensselaer, off East Street, and on Karner Road. Look at the accompanying drawing from 1967 and take a guess if that was ever built. Plans were submitted in February 1968 for a Colonie station, the Karner Road Depot, which would consist of a 30 by 50 foot building with a 960 foot platform, and a parking lot 100 by 250 feet. Rensselaer, originally designated as a passenger stop (way different from a station in railroad terms) would have a 65 by 170 foot building and a parking lot 230 by 350 feet. For the D&H, loss of the Maiden Lane bridge forced the Montreal line to bypass the Watervliet and Mechanicville stations, which at that time averaged two passengers per day, and go instead through Schenectady and up to Saratoga Springs. In September 1968, the PSC allowed the D&H to move across the river as well.

Maiden Lane Pedestrian bridge

It was a good thing they did . . . in the same newspaper that this was announced, there was a photograph of the dismantling of the pedestrian footbridge that was part of the Maiden Lane Bridge. The cutline read, “If grandmother’s house lies over the river you’ll have to use a new route – other than Maiden Lane Bridge from Albany to Rensselaer – to get there on foot. The 1880-vintage footbridge is being dismantled. But pedestrian facilities will be added to the new South Mall Arterial Bridge.” (That’s now the Dunn Memorial Bridge, and while it is possible to cross it on foot, to call the crossing in any way a facility is to stretch the point.)

The Rensselaer station opened sometime in 1968, a box next to a grocery store that served as the region’s rail station until 2002. That Knick News columnist who in early 1969 called Union Station “odiferous” also said that

“In contrast, the Penn Central’s new Albany-Rensselaer station in Rensselaer is – with all due respect to our neighboring city – a rude comedown and a ride to the new station is a dispiriting experience. Situated at the northern edge of Rensselaer, the station is reached after a bumpy ride over narrow streets. It looks more like a small-town depot for short-haul buses than a railroad station and is tucked away in a shallow ravine as if the Penn Central were ashamed at what it had done, as well it might be. Let us hope that the railroad’s new Albany-Schenectady regional station on Karner Road in Colonie has more class.”

Well, one could hope.

On June 27, 1969, on the eve of the opening of the Colonie station, the Schenectady Gazette ran an editorial lamenting but understanding the march of time.

“When you look at the crumbling station you are reminded of the days when freight trains and passenger trains were coming and going night and day through Schenectady … It is understandable that Penn Central wanted to close the Schenectady depot, for, like most railroad stations built half a century or more ago, it is a large mausoleum which no doubt impressed everybody when it was constructed but which is thoroughly impractical for this day and age, costing a mint of money to heat and to keep in satisfactory repair (which is why there are not many people who want to buy it to make use of it as it stands).”

The Schenectady station would close at midnight the next night.

Colonie Station Knick News 1-31-69When the Karner Road station opened on Sunday, June 29, 1969, it was described as being equipped with a waiting room that measured 56 feet by 30 feet, capable of seating 48 people. The parking lot was paved (!), protected by guard rails, and would hold 50 cars. All five east and west trains would stop there. If you’re trying to figure out just where it was located (and we’re told the building is still there), the directions were to proceed to New Karner Road via Routes 5 and 20, turn west onto New Karner Road, follow that to Albany Street, take a left onto Albany Street and travel two blocks where the station is located on the left. There would be no café, but vending machines were promised.

A 1969 overview of the fate of Empire Service (which still exists, though not with the frequency it enjoyed half a century ago) in the Times-Union noted that

“The populace took to the super-highways in their super cars and to the airlines in the super airplanes. They abandoned the railroads. They abandoned the trains going in and out of Union Station. In Albany, a super-highway under construction for the state’s super-quarters known as the South Mall had to go over a portion of the railroad tracks. The state bought the area, including Union Station, for $5 million. The station would be of no use to the railroad with part of its tracks gone, and it was closed. The fate of the fine old building is yet to be decided. It is now in the process of being transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Office of General Services, custodian of surplus state property.”

This was at a time when there were state hearings at the Public Service Commission, which then regulated railroads, into the standards of service provided by Penn Central. The PSC had sued the railroad for failing to adequately maintain its passenger locomotives; union engineers brought charges of neglect and deterioration. Albany wasn’t the only place that was concerned, at a time when it had lost its train station, and the promised new one in Colonie hadn’t yet opened; New York City considered the Empire Service, with its connection to the seat of government and beyond, as critical.

Soon came the interesting revelation that of the two “modern” stations – assuming “modern” means nondescript huts with plastic seats in the waiting area – Penn Central had paid only for one, the one ins Rensselaer. The Karner Road station, which ran to $150,000 in 1969 money, was paid for by the State Department of Transportation, apparently very quietly. A Penn Central attorney confirmed that the facility was built by the state (but owned and operated by the railroad), and said the railroad “was not about to design a ‘Taj Mahal’ when the state was footing the bill.” Nor when Penn was footing the bill, it’d be fair to say.

When a “temporary” station reopened in Schenectady, pretty much at the site of the old Union Station, the Colonie station was closed, Sept. 9, 1979. It appears to still survive as a construction storage shed.

Thanks to several folks who have made helpful suggestions on improvements to this article. The earlier version used Penn Central to refer to both the pre- and post-merger railroad, but in fact it was the Pennsylvania Railroad prior to the merger. There are other examples.

The Volunteer Life Saving Corps

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1876 Map with Bath, East Albany, GreenbushIn river towns, people would occasionally fall into the river and drown. So it only makes sense that in 1902, the newly consolidated city of Rensselaer proposed to have three life-saving stations along the riverfront, as outlined in the Albany Evening Journal of July 15:

Rensselaer is soon to have three life saving stations. One will be at the old Bath ferry slip, one at the Albany Yacht Club quarters near the baseball grounds and one at the ferry landing at the foot of Second avenue. They will all be under control of the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps of the department of New York.

Captain J.J. Greekstone, of the main office, was in Rensselaer to-day and had a conference with Mayor Lansing about the matter, and the mayor entered into the spirit at once, for he thinks it a good thing.

The captain wishes to establish five members of the crew at each station and any boy over 16 can become a member. At the station, when established, will be life buoys, life lines and later life boats. The mayor, this morning, gave Captain Greekstone a room in Republic headquarters, where he will be from 7:30 to 9 o’clock this evening to enlist all those who wish to join. In establishing of the station at the points above named is done because it is where there is most danger. The upper Bath dock is a landing place for ferry boats and where excursions leave from. This can also be said of the dock at the foot of Second avenue, while the station at the Albany Yacht Club is near the baseball grounds where many bathe and are getting on and off the boats when a game is on.

For those who don’t know, Bath (more accurately, Bath-on-Hudson) was on what is now the north end of Rensselaer, and the Albany Yacht Club in those days was also on the Rensselaer side. However grand this life saving plan, it’s not entirely clear that it happened.

There were at various times various levels of life saving crews up in this reach of the Hudson. The 1894 annual report of the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps, New York department, listed a Schodack Landing division covering Coxsackie and New Baltimore, and said that several lives had been saved that year. Of the Albany division, under Commodore Garret T. Benson, it was said only that he would have “many boat crews organized for early spring work in 1895.” The Upper Hudson River division, covering from Troy to Mechanicville and including Cohoes, would have 15 crews under Commodore N.L. Weatherbee.

Captain Fred CollinsThe 1909 annual report, while touting the Corps’ great achievements in New York City, lamented the lack of State support (which was only $40 in 1909, down from $5000 in 1894), and noted that it relied on subscriptions. $5 to $10 year would make you a subscribing member; $10 to $25 made for an associate member. $25 to $50 earned the designation of honorary member, while more than $100 a year as classified as a patron. “A renewed effort to obtain a State appropriation for the work in New York State during 1910 wlll be made, and we have every confidence of success.” At that time, the Albany division was in the charge of Captain Fred Collins, and it was noted that “The Corps work in this city has progressed and the membership increased through the constant efforts of Captain Fred Collins. He and his crew gave a very credible life-saving exhibition in Schenectady during the season, which resulted in much good.” That doesn’t sound like they were necessarily doing a lot of life saving, and the annual report listed only one rescue that was under consideration for an award in the area: in Troy, Arthur R. Tyler rescued John Conners. Upstate, only six lives were listed as saved, compared to 268 in New York City.

 

 

Long Distance, Get Me Schenectady

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The Edison Hotel, State and Wall Streets. From the Schenectady County Historical Society.

The Edison Hotel, State and Wall Streets. You could make a phone call there! From the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Yesterday we listed a number of public places, businesses, and private citizens in 1895 Albany who had telephones on the American Telephone & Telegraph long distance service. Even though the national directory of such subscribers only ran to about 480 pages, Albany was well-represented, as one of the larger cities in the country (about 189,000 people) and also one of the most commercially important, and there were simply too many subscribers, easily more than 600, to begin to list them all.

In Schenectady, however, that was not the case. Once (in 1800) tied with Albany for population,  the not-yet-Electric City was growing quickly in the 1890s but was still probably about in the mid-20,000s range in 1895 (Albany was over 50,000), and its prosperity wasn’t yet to the point where the demand for telephones connected to the long distance system was high. In fact, including some suburban stations, there were only about 61 customers of the system in Schenectady.

There were four public telephone stations, listed as H. DeKeiter in the Myers Block (probably the hotel, now the site of the Wedgeway Building), Wm. Sauter (pharmacist) and A. Stock on State Street, and the Hotel Edison, also on State. The General Electric Company had one telephone listed (one!), whereas the Schenectady Railway Company had three (office, barn, and station). The Westinghouse Agricultural Works on Dock Street had service, as did the Empire State Knitting Co. on Brandywine. The Daily Gazette had a telephone, as did Ellis Hospital, but it doesn’t appear that City Hall did. Howe & Co., manufacturer of whiffletrees, had long distance phone service, as did the Schenectady Bank, the Schenectady Brewing Co., and the Schwartzchild & Sulzberger Beef Company. Frank H. Dettbarn, who was listed in the Blue Book for Albany, Troy and Schenectady, and at some point was the county coroner, had two telephones: one at his residence at 149 Nott Terrace and one at 31 South Centre (now Broadway).

Other than the Schenectady County Jail and perhaps, in a sense, the Schenectady County Superintendent of the Poor, only two of the businesses with telephones in Schenectady in 1895 are still businesses with telephones in Schenectady in 2016: The then one-year-old Daily Gazette (which has since changed its name to Schenectady and then changed it back), and the General Electric Company, which probably has more than one telephone these days.

With Lips As Close As Possible To The Mouthpiece: Albany Telephones, 1895

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Telephone service dates to the 1870s, with the National Bell Telephone Company being formed in 1879, and a long-distance operation by the name of American Telephone and Telegraph formed in 1885. Even as late as 1895, telephone service was rare enough that AT&T was able to publish a national telephone directory, listing all the customers on its system who were connected to the long distance system by “metallic-circuit lines;” it ran about 470 pages. Granted, there were many other small telephone companies, but these were the customers who had reason and means to be connected to the rest of the world.

The directory, in its general information section, said:

For the convenience of persons not subscribers to local exchanges, telephones have been located at the various telephone offices and toll stations established at all points connected with this system. Messages can be sent collect if satisfactory to the receiver.

Customers desiring to communicate with persons not connected directly with this system can arrange to have appointments made by the Central Office.

Albany was well-represented with phone service in 1895. Of the couple of hundred customers connected to the long distance system, the vast majority were businesses – law offices, railroads, paints and hardware, and everything else. There were some residences, but they were dwarfed by the businesses. The Capitol was well-wired; Governor had three phones, one in the Executive Mansion, one in his Private Office, and one at his stable on Congress Street (now Spring Street). Among the private customers were pretty much every historic business we would know from that period of Albany history: Beverwyck Brewing, Billy Barnes (both at his residence and at the Evening Journal), Hilton Bridge Construction Company, Hudson Valley Paper Company, F.C. Huyck Felt Mills, Grange Sard, Weed-Parsons Printing. It goes on and on. Spencer Trask & Company had a special terminal for long distance service only. Thomas Willard, Chief of Police, had a phone at his residence at 69 South Ferry St.

The public stations, where anyone could go to make a long distance call, were at these locations:

Lane, J.M. – Bath (now Rensselaer) – J.M. Lane was an undertaker.

Keeler’s Hotel – Broadway & Maiden

Consolidated Transfer Co.– Delavan House

Blanchard, M.L. – Delmar – Marcus L. Blanchard was a Bethlehem politician.

Belknap, J.C. – Greenbush – Belknap was a grocer.

Sloan’s Hotel – Guilderland

West End Pharmacy – Madison av & Ontario

Millerick, J.S. – North Albany

O’Sullivan, M. – North Albany

Kenmore – North Pearl

Daly, T.J. – 71 North Pearl

Stevens, J.P., Hotel – Slingerlands

Union Depot

Capitol – Wash. Av. Ent.

Bennett House – West Albany

So, if you went to one of the public stations, you might have wanted some advice on how to work this newfangled gadget:

A careful observance of the following will aid materially in securing good service:

To call Central Office, give the bell crank one sharp turn; then take the hand telephone from the hook; place it firmly against the ear and listen for the operator, who should answer, “What number?” Give the operator the location and number of the station desired. For example: “NEW YORK: Cortlandt 1520;” “CHICAGO: Main 52.” The operator will then repeat back your order, and may, to avoid errors and to expedite the service, ask for further information in relation to the station called for.

In talking, speak directly into the transmitter, with lips as close as possible to the mouthpiece. When you are through talking, return the hand telephone to the hook; give the bell crank one sharp turn, to notify the operator that you have completed your conversation.

Answer your calls promptly. It is impossible to give quick service unless this is done . . .

Customers will confer a favor by reporting, in writing, any lack of courtesy, overcharge or unsatisfactory service, to Edward J. Hall, General Manager, No. 18 Cortlandt Street, New York.

The Albany Brush Company

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Military Hair BrushesWe know that way back when, the Albany Penitentiary was supposed to be a model reformatory, one where prisoners were expected to be silent and work for their keep. In fact, From the time of its opening in 1846 on a plot of land behind what is now Hackett Middle School, the Penitentiary, a joint effort of the City and County of Albany, was intended to be self-sufficient. Partly, it drew in revenues from other counties, states and even the Federal government for the keep of their prisoners. Partly, it depended on the labor of its prisoners, who worked at making chair seats and shoes. Apparently, they also made brushes for an outfit called Albany Brush Company.

Like the other companies involved, Albany Brush Company was an independent concern that contracted with the penitentiary for labor to manufacture their products in the workshop on the Penitentiary grounds. (In fact, in 1858, with regard to shoe manufacture, there were complaints that “near one-half of the convicts then received were drunkards, who were sentenced for only ten days,” which made them useless to the manufacturers. It’s not clear when Albany Brush began using prison labor. It had been the Brinkerhoff and Armour Brush Company, and renamed Albany Brush when it was bought by John Ferris.

1893 Albany BrushThis ad from 1893 offers their glass and goblet cleaning brushes (an item that has pretty much disappeared from modern life), and cites their address as 400 Broadway, south of the Post Office. 1893 was the same year that the company’s shop at the penitentiary burned on January 9:

Fire was discovered last night in the packing house which adjoins the brush shop in the penitentiary. The flames spread to the brush shop, and that structure was soon a mass of flames. The packing house was completely gutted and the brush shop badly damaged. The brush plan is owned by the Albany Brush Company. Loss to building, $1,000; insured. The brush company estimates its loss between $10,000 and $12,000 on stock and machinery, which is covered by insurance.

The company started up again; in 1895 their telephone was listed as being at the penitentiary. Albany Brush Co. began at least as early as 1880, but the use of prison labor ended in 1899, which was noted as having reduced the earnings of the prison, with only a laundry contract remaining.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 11.31.17 PMThey seem to have run from at least 1880 until at least 1945 (we know because a wedding announcement that year said the bride worked there). John Ferris died in 1939 at the age of 87; he had retired in 1934. Like all good Albanians, he was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Union College Alumni in the Civil War

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We ran across an interesting tome by the title of “Union College Alumni in the Civil War,” and thought we might try to give a little rundown of the alumni of the little Schenectady college, founded in 1795, who had served both the Union and the Confederacy. How much work could that be?

As it turns out, if we tried to even gloss the information in Thomas Fearey’s 1915 book, we’d be at it all week. Union College alumni were all over the Civil War, not just recent graduates or those who finished their studies during or shortly after the term of the war, but even those who had graduated 40 and more years before. That seems remarkable, but of course the Civil War was singular in a number of ways. Has there been another war in which active members of Congress served?

Two members of the class of 1813 were represented in the Union effort. The classes of 1821 to 1829 contributed 10 men to the Union, and three to the Confederacy. The class of 1860 was the most highly represented, with 50 in the Union and 2 in the Confederate service. In all, 522 Union college alumni served the Union, and 46 served the confederacy.

In the Union Army, they included in their numbers four major generals, 10 brigadier generals, 40 colonels, 22 lieutenant colonels, 28 major, and 104 captains. In the lower ranks, there were 59 1st lieutenants, 27 2nd lieutenants, 7 sergeant majors, 20 non-commissioned officers, 71 privates, 7 paymasters, 43 chaplains, 27 surgeons and 30 assistant surgeons. Another 23 served various positions in the Navy and Marine Corps.

In the Confederate Army, Union was represented by three brigadier generals, four colonels, a lieutenant colonel, nine majors, 16 captains, 3 1st lieutenants, 2 surgeons, 2 chaplains, and a sergeant.

Sixty-one who served the Union, including a professor, were killed in battle or died in hospital; six in the confederacy suffered the same fate. Six alumni were awarded the Medal of Honor by congress for conspicuous valor in battle. They were Major General Daniel Butterfield, 1844; Chaplain Francis B. Hall, 1852; Brigadier General John F. Hartranft, 1853; Brigadier General Philip Sidney Post, 1855; Captain George Newman Bliss, 1860; Private Warren Gilman Sanborn, 1867.

William H. SewardFearey featured five alumni who “rendered distinguished services to their country during the civil war,” which included:

  • William H. Seward, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1820 – “He was United States Secretary of State through the war period. The evening that Lincoln was shot Seward was savagely attacked at his home, and his son, Frederick W. Seward, ΦBK, LL.D., of the Class of 1849, who was Assistant Secretary of State, was seriously hurt when trying to prevent the assassins entering his father’s room.
  • John Bigelow, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1835 – He was Consul General of the United States in Paris, and United States Minister to France during the war period. He rendered conspicuous services in preventing the recognition of the Confederate State.
  • Austin Blair, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1839 – He was War Governor of Michigan and an ardent supporter and helper of President Lincoln.
  • Preston King, LL.D., Class of 1827 – United States Senator from New York State.
  • Ira Harris, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1824 – United States Senator from New York State.

Only a single faculty member was featured in this listing, Elias Peissner, a native of Munich who served as a professor of German and Political Economy. “At the age of 35 he was mustered in as Lieut. Colonel 119th N.Y. Vols. To serve three years, August 9, 1862. Promoted to Colonel Sept. 1, 1862. Killed in action at Chancellorsville, Va., May 2, 1863. A Grand Army Post in Rochester, N.Y. is named for him.”

The two members of the class of 1813 were both in service of the United States Navy. Samuel Livingston Breese was a lieutenant in comment of the Crusader when the Civil War began; he was promoted to Lieut. Commander July 16, 1862, commanded the Quaker City of the South Atlantic blockading squadron in 1862-3 and the gunboat Ottawa in 1863-4. He remained in the service after the war. John J. Young was a captain in the Navy when the war began, and became a commodore on July 16, 1862.

Robert Toombs, Class of 1828, left the U.S. Senate and led the secession movement in Georgia after Lincoln’s election. “He was one of the Chief organizers of the Confederate Government, and was a prominent candidate for President. He was Secretary of State for a few months and then resigned to become Brigadier General C.S.A. in Lee’s Army. He fought with distinction at Manassas and Sharpsburg, but was too insubordinate to make a successful commander, so in 1864 he resigned and returned to Georgia. He disliked President Davis and opposed his policies. After the war he would not take the oath of allegiance so he was debarred from Congress.”

Edward Martindale, Class of 1836, served as a captain and then a lt. colonel with the 26th New Jersey Volunteers, then in 1864 served as a colonel with first the 83rd and then the 81st U.S. Colored Infantry.

Henry Wager Halleck, Class of 1837, had served as an officer in the U.S. Engineer Corps from 1839 to 1854. He became Secretary of State in California “and in 1861 offered his services to the Government and was made Major General U.S.A., Aug. 19, 1861. He was Commander in Chief of the Army from July 23, 1862 to March 9, 1864, and continued in the service after the War.” Fearey doesn’t mention that Halleck, who replaced McClellan, was known by the derogatory nickname of “Old Brains.”

James C. Duane, Class of 1844, went to West Point after graduating Union College, and went into the Engineers. He rose to the rank of Major and then became Brevet Lieut. Colonel and Brevet Colonel. “He commanded the Engineer Battalion in the siege of Yorktown, April 12 to May 4, 1862. He built the bridge over the Chickahominy, 2,000 feet long, August 12-14, 1862. He was Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, Sept. 8 to Nov. 5, 1862, during the Maryland Campaign. Chief Engineer of the Department of the South, Nov. 19, 1862, to June 13, 1863, in the attacks on Fort Mcllister, Ga., and in operations against Charleston, S.C., and again Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac from July 15, 1863 to June 8, 1865. Brevet Brigadier General U.S.A. from March 13, 1865, for gallant and Meritorious services during the siege of Petersburg and the defeat of Lee . . . He was one of the joint commission to supervise the construction of the Washington National Monument, Oct. 11, 1886-June 30, 1888.”

There is so much more. If you want the rest of the extensive history of those who served, you can find it at the Internet Archive.

A Cabin in the Woods, and a Little Family History

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Raquette Falls TrailAfter years of good intentions but poor execution, of being somewhat nearby but never quite in the right area, I finally made it to the land of my ancestors last week. It’s a little tucked-away corner of the north central Adirondacks, far from any roads in the 1860s and not terribly close to any now. But at that time, the earliest tourists traveled by water routes from one end of the Adirondacks to the other, following routes set out by Seneca Ray Stoddard, Rev. Murray and other early advocates of wilderness adventure in upstate New York. (Remember that Verplanck Colvin wasn’t engaged to make a map of the region until 1872.) And as they paddled (or were paddled) down the Raquette River and came to the carries around the upper and lower Raquette Falls, their boats and gear were carried around the falls on an oxcart driven by my great great great grandfather, Philander Johnson, and they were fed pancakes and something that was acknowledged as trout when in season by my great great great grandmother, “Mother” Johnson.

It’s not entirely clear when they arrived there, though it’s likely it was any time between 1860 and 1865. It’s not entirely clear why they left Newcomb, where they had been tenant farming for a few years, and where their son William remained for a period of time. It’s not at all clear why they and the related families that they moved around with for a couple of decades didn’t move south even just a few dozen miles to a part of the world with shorter winters and soil that could grow something. Together, Johnsons, Pecks, Grahams and some others moved from northern Vermont to Crown Point, then into inland Essex County, making a stop in Newcomb before heading into deep wilderness to seek their fortune where there was none likely to be found.

I’m not quite sure when logging started in that particular neck of the woods, whether it had begun when they got there or whether they were entirely reliant on the little bit of tourism that was starting to build. It seems unlikely they could have made a go of it without a nearby lumber camp to serve, and it seems reasonable they may have gone there to feed the lumberjacks and found a profitable niche providing food and lodging to the big city swells.

Today, the closest paved road (well-packed dirt, anyway) is Coreys Road, which takes you to the head of the Raquette Falls trail (marked as the horse trail). It’s about 4.2 miles of pretty easy hiking (though with an amount of up and down) to reach the clearing where Mother Johnson’s stood. Today, there are two structures there – a nice modernish cabin built in 1975, occupied in the season by a ranger with the Department of Environmental Conservation, and an old, hand-hewn barn that could date back to Mother Johnson’s time. If not, at the very least it is known to have been there in 1890, so not long after.

We hiked in on a day with perfect overcast weather that later brightened up. When we got to the clearing, we met the ranger on the site, Gary Valentine, who has been there a dozen years and knew nearly as much about Mother Johnson as I did . . . which is really no surprise as none of this information has come down from family stories. It was only recently that I became certain that Mother (whose name was Lucy Kimball Johnson) was in fact William Johnson’s mother. Mr. Valentine gave us the grand tour of the new cabin on the site, and let us inspect the barn, marveling at the pinned construction with hand-hewn beams, speculating that it certainly could have been put up by Philander. In fact, he thought it likely, since the first thing new settlers had to build was a barn, not a house, as they would have to care for their livestock in order to survive. We can’t be certain, but it certainly makes sense.

We also talked about whether Mother Johnson was buried at Raquette Falls or somewhere else. The author Christine Jerome, in An Adirondack Passage, held that Mother Johnson had asked to be buried at Long Lake. That’s certainly possible, as it was the closest thing to a town nearby, but it’s also questionable as neither she nor any of the other Johnsons lived there. Her daughter Sylvia lived down the river at Hiawatha Lodge; son William had lived in Long Lake once, but had lived much longer at Coreys, and was by the time of her death likely near Westport, back east by Lake Champlain. There is a headstone at Long Lake that originally said “Old Mrs. Johnson,” then was turned upside down and re-inscribed “Mother Johnson.” But an article on her granddaughter Jennie Morehouse, in 1938, said that both Lucy and Philander were buried at the falls, as was Sylvia’s husband, Clark Farmer. In any event, there is no sign of any graves near the falls. There is a grave in the clearing where her lodge stood, but that is that of George Morgan, for whom a later Raquette Falls Lodge was built.


It was remarkable to sit beside the falls and think of how long people had been coming to that place in the midst of the wilderness, how the early Adirondack guides (including Lucy’s son William and then grandsons Charles and George) would have beached their boats above the upper falls and then hiked in to hail Philander with his ox cart, who would have carried the vessels around the falls while the “sports” enjoyed a meal and often slept over for the night. Likely those guides had to bring some of the supplies the Johnsons needed, such as milled flour, but it would appear that “Uncle” kept the guests in something like trout and “mountain lamb.” Even that early, there were hunting and fishing seasons to maintain the populations up. If, in fact, logging was already underway in that area, deer may have been hard to come by whether in season or not. Perhaps they had ice, but probably not. It was a hard, remote life.

Think of what it took to even build a cabin in those woods. The land had to be cleared – at the time Seneca Ray Stoddard took the photo above, it looks like logging may have already occurred as the standing timber is intermittent. If the Johnsons arrived with the logging operations, then a logging crew may have made their lives much easier. If not, “Uncle” had a lot of work to do, along with whoever else from the families may have gone there with them. Once the timber was felled, it had to be shaped into beams using an adze – evidence of that handiwork remains in the old barn on the site.

Mother Johnson's at Raquette Falls.

An enhanced version of a stereograph of Mother Johnson’s at Raquette Falls, taken by famous Adirondack photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard.

This photograph of Mother Johnson’s, held by the New York Public Library, is undated. A guess of the 1870s can’t be too far wrong, as the house is complete and fairly spacious, with what appears to be a fairly lavish extension to the left of what was likely the original cabin on the right.

The construction itself tells a story of progress even in the woods. Besides the barn, which can’t be seen in this view, it seems likely that the first structure built would have been what is now the lower story of the cabin, on the right. It appears to be of squared log construction, and may originally have had a peaked roof but not one as high as the one in this picture. To the left is a little windowed structure with a stovepipe sticking out . . . this could have been a separate smokehouse (possibly a sugaring shack, but given the forest it seems less likely). That structure was sided with rough boards, meaning there was at least a planing mill somewhere near. By the time the spacious second story was added to the original cabin, better wood was available, as it is sided with dimensional boards and the windows are handsomely trimmed. It’s impossible to say whether the windows were assembled nearby from glass imported from elsewhere in the state, or if the sashes were brought in as finished pieces, but those are double-hung touches of civilization, in contrast with the multi-paned fixed window at the end of what we’ll call the smokehouse.

Hand-hewn beam inside the barn at Raquette Falls. This dates to at least 1890.

Hand-hewn beam inside the barn at Raquette Falls. This dates to at least 1890.

As business expanded, and more and more swells from the city needed a place to stay on their passage up the river, the Johnsons must have decided to simply add on to their cabin. When the upper story wasn’t enough, they must have added on that extension to the left, which likely had spacious common space down below and a bunkroom up above. Someone had the wherewithal to make some pretty nice-looking wooden shingles, and it appears that another stove was in use in that part of the house.

The stovepipe shows that at some point the oxen carried a stove in to the cabin . . . but from where? The first railroad into any part of the Adirondacks, built by Durant, only reached North Creek in 1871, a long, long way from Raquette Falls. The Fulton Chain railway, famous as one of the most popular routes, wasn’t completed until 1892. Saranac Lake, down the Raquette River to the north, was reached by the Delaware and Hudson in 1887, and the New York Central in 1892. So clearly, someone hauled that stove the hard way, a long way. The windows appear to be glass, which raises the question of where the glass came from, and whether the windows were crafted somewhere locally with glass from one of New York’s far-off cities, or if they were brought in as completed sashes. The logistics are daunting today, and seem impossible in the 1870s. But there they were.

Standing under the little shingled roof next to the center post is the ample frame of a woman who must be Mother Johnson. To the left, her right, are two men or boys in the shadows. They could be guides, they could be hired hands. Immediately next to Mother Johnson could be a dog. To the right, there are three men. Any of these could be Philander, or they could just be other Adirondack guides or the swells they catered to.

On the way out, we were treated to a ride down the river, an unexpected bonus that made me desperate to get back there with my own boats and paddle the beautiful, slow winding path of the Raquette below the falls. Our guide explained how it had been perfect for logging operations – in the early days, nearly all timber was moved by river, and some rivers were friendlier to it (and the loggers) than others. Today, it is a slow, lovely bit of water with sandy banks surrounded by grassy plains. There are several inviting campsites and lean-tos that are beckoning for a future visit.

 

Not Quite Man’s Best Friend

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Dogs, Albany Hand-Book 1884In the Albany Hand-Book of 1884, which contained an alphabetic listing of topics of interest to both residents and strangers, we find this remnant of an earlier time, when an Albany ordinance prohibited all dogs from going at large in June, July, August and September unless properly muzzled, out of the belief that rabies or distemper were more prevalent in that time. “Unmuzzled dogs so running at large may be killed by anybody. The police make a practice of poisoning a great many every year.” Of course, it’s really only during our lifetime that actually being responsible for your own dog and having to keep it on a leash or in your own yard has become a societal norm. When we were growing up, dogs just wandered wherever they pleased.

Vacation

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Hoxsie’s on vacation. Will be back next week refreshed and full of . . . . well, no, we’ll probably still be randomly throwing up posts about whatever catches our fancy the night before, with minimal research and plenty of typos.

In the meantime, click the archive link on the right and find something you haven’t seen before!

Roller Skating Rinks of 19th Century Albany

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We have a real love-hate relationship with George Rogers Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” from 1886. On the one hand, it’s a treasure trove of incredible information that is organized in ways the esteemed Joel Munsell couldn’t achieve. On the other hand, it’s mostly plagiarized, often self-contradictory, and almost completely unedited. But: treasure trove!

Looking for something else, as ever, came across this little nugget on Albany’s early roller skating rinks:

The popular amusement of roller skating secured a foothold in Albany soon after Boston had adopted and indorsed it. Like all other modes of amusement in their nature harmless, it has its excesses and its abuses.

The first place opened in Albany for this diversion was at No. 69 North Pearl street, in the Old Post Office Building. The hall, ready for the public just before Christmas, 1880, was well patronized during the winter. It was closed the 1st of May following. In the fall of 1881, the Old Tabernacle Baptist Church, on North Pearl street, was converted into a skating rink by a stock company of young men of Albany. It was fairly patronized, but from some cause it did not realize the expectations of its proprietors, and the enterprise was abandoned the next spring.

Catholic Union Building c 1900 Howard st and eagle st Demolished for the South Mall Albany ny

Tenth Regiment Armory at Howard and Eagle Streets; briefly a roller rink.

During the winter of 1883 and 1884, Albany seems to have had two roller-skating rinks, one in the Public Market Building, Hudson avenue, and one in the old Tenth Regiment Armory, Van Vechten Hall.

The fifth enterprise of the kind was undertaken in 1884, by Hickey, Downing & Curley, and resulted in the spacious and very creditable rink running on Lark street, Captain Young, Superintendent. The building is 85 by 185 feet on the ground, with a floor 65 by 165 feet, and is provided with 700 pairs of skates, and lighted by electricity. It is the largest audience room in the city, and has been used for concerts and large public gatherings.

The sixth and last roller skating rink was opened in the old Methodist Church in the fall of 1884, by Mr. Munson. Mr. Rice, Manager. It had a successful winter, but the building was enlarged and fitted for laundry purposes in 1885.

As follow-through was not Howell’s strong point, the excesses and abuses are not described.

An 1884 article on the opening of the Capital City Roller Skating Rink on Lark Street gave a sense of the preparations that were being made in order to get it ready. It was such an anticipated affair that extra trolleys were added to handle the expected crowds:

In order that the Capital City Roller skating rink on Lark street might be opened this evening, a large gang of men worked all night laying the floor. The skating surface when finished will be 165 by 60 feet. The floor was being planed this morning. Manager Hickey was present and flying about from one part of the building to the other. The steam-pipes are in and will be in use this evening. The electric lights in the centre will light the floor from one end to the other. The building has four wide exits and will hold 600 skaters, and 1,200 spectators, the latter occupying a triple row of seats at the sides. The cloak rooms will be in charge of lady attendants. Capt. David W. Young will efficiently fill the position of superintendent. He has been connected with skating rinks in this and other cities. Five skate-boys have been engaged. All the rink employees will wear a navy-blue uniform, with brass buttons and navy cap. Supt. Young has about 450 pairs of skates for use to-night. They are the Union hardware make, being hard wood with nickel trimmings. The prospect is good for a very large attendance at the opening. Extra cars will run on the State street and Clinton avenue lines. Sullivan’s band will give a concert from 7:30 to 8 P.M., after which skating will begin and continue till 10:30. The regular admission rates will be charged. To-morrow afternoon fancy skaters will be present, and give exhibitions of what may be accomplished by practice on the rollers. The rink will probably be open hereafter morning, afternoon and evening. Sullivan’s orchestra will be present every evening, and play the printed programs.

The only David W. Young that we find in the 1885 directory is listed as a janitor at School 22. There’s no mention of a roller rink, even though it seems it lasted at least through 1886.  In 1910 it was announced in “American Architect and Architecture” that W.J. Obenaus had prepared plans to rebuild the roller skating rink on Lark Street. Its exact location is not made clear.

In case you were thinking of full-shoe roller skates like we know now, think again: these were more like the child’s roller skates many of us grew up with, the kind that strapped on to whatever shoes you were wearing, and likely looked something like this:

Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating

Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating