There was a time when Albany was very much a river town (and, for a brief century, a canal town). But just what the waterfront looked like in those days, where the passenger ships and cargo ships docked, is a subject of frequent discussion among some local history buffs because, at this remove, it is terrifically hard to lay out with any certainty. At some risk, we’ll turn to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” a sloppy and sometimes self-contradictory amalgam of other sources, to try to piece it together.
Howell says that as early as 1822, perhaps earlier, there was discussion of creating a basin where the Erie Canal met the Hudson River, a place now best approximated by where an historic marker for the Albany Basin rests, just north of where Quay Street swings around into Colonie Street in the neighborhood of the Corning Preserve boat launch. At the time, there were on average from 80 to 200 sloops and schooners at the docks “in front of the city” every day. The Canal Commissioners, under direction from the Assembly, reported in early 1823 that a basin could be built for about $100,000 and would be “extremely beneficial to the trade of Albany.” They noted their general reluctance to make basins along the canals, “believing that mercantile capital and enterprise would find sufficient inducements and interests to furnish these local accommodations to trade,” and that to spend public money would not be just. They proposed to construct a sloop lock at the southern end of the basin, which meant that the state would receive tolls for entering the basin. Later that year, the Legislature authorized construction of the Albany Basin, appointing a large number of commissioners who were authorized to raise subscriptions “to construct a mole or pier within the bounds of the City of Albany, opposite the docks fronting the harbor, so as to comprise a basin extending from the arsenal dock to a point opposite Hodges’ Dock, in the line of Hamilton street, with a sloop lock at the Hamilton street end, to be completed within two years.” There would be wharfage charges, half of which would go to the Pier Company, the rest to the State, and the pier would be divided into lots to be sold at public auction.
The sloop lock was built quickly, with its first water passing through in Sept. 1823. “An eel three feet in length came through the gate and was hailed as the first passenger; it was caught, and the skin preserved in the Museum of the Lyceum of Natural History.”
The Albany Pier was completed May 27, 1825, enclosing a basin capable of harboring 1,000 canal boats and 50 larger vessels. The pier was divided into 123 lots, 121 of which were sold at auction July 17, 1825, fetching $188,510. (Two were withheld and used as opening to the river). The pier was 4,323 feet long, 85 feet broad, and unbroken from the canal to Hamilton street, containing 8-1/4 acres of land. The basin contained 32 acres.
To get to the pier, draw bridges were constructed at the foot of Columbia and State streets.
The sloop lock didn’t last long. In the first instance, it was poorly constructed – or rather the basin itself was, as when the lock was first closed, the basin did not fill up. The bulkhead at the southern end of the basin became a point of contention, as the basin silted up quickly. In 1835, the Legislature directed the bulkhead be partly removed, the sloop lock be taken away, and that there be a bridge built from the abutment at Hamilton street to the pier, and to dredge out the silt.
The opening of the pier caused “great dissatisfaction” to the owners of the dock and property on Quay street, who no longer enjoyed free access to the river, lost significant dockage. Quay Street was no longer the river’s edge.
Then in 1836 the Legislature authorized the City of Albany to make an opening in the pier between the Columbia and State street bridges of 60 feet in width. In 1841, the opening was widened yet again to not less than 126 feet; in 1849, it was widened yet again to meet the increasing need for commerce and the ever-larger vessels sailing the river. Each stage of this work, though directed by the Legislature, was charged to those who owned the pier lots, except the actual excavation of the basin, which had been paid by Albany, which didn’t get paid for its outlay until 1849. At that same time the Canal Commissioners were ordered to pay a lump sum to the owners, instead of a portion of the tolls.
“At this time, and until the War of the Rebellion, the property on the pier was very valuable. The portion above the Columbia street bridge was covered with lumber and staves, piled very high for want of room, while below the bridge, on both sides of the cut to its southern extremity were large and commodiously built warehouses, occupied by the leading shipping merchants of the city and the proprietors of the large tow-boat lines. The Swiftsure and Albany and Canal lines each had offices below the State street bridge, and their barges occupied berths on both the inside and outside of the pier.
“Hart & Hoyt, in order to facilitate the transportation of the merchandise they received, erected on a raft or float in the basin, a large wooden structure, familiarly called the ‘Ark,’ which took up much room and was a great annoyance to the other shippers, beside being an eye-sore and great obstruction to the free navigation of the basin. It became so much of a nuisance that the Common Council ordered them to remove it…”
Time, and/or the railroads, took their toll on this business. In 1873, the Dock Association adjourned sine die, with active business on the pier and Quay street having “about come to a standstill; buildings which had formerly rented for seven or eight hundred dollars per annum, would scarcely command three or four hundred, and many remained unoccupied. Storage of produce brought down by canal-boats too late in the fall to ship for New York or Eastern or Southern ports by vessels, was a large item of profit which was cut off by the transportation afforded by the completion of the Central and Hudson River and the Boston and Albany Railroads. The merchants who did a heavy business on the pier or Quay street, either retired from business or removed to Broadway, where they escaped the annual freshets in the river, and obtained more comfortable quarters.
Writing in 1876, Howell noted “Since 1873, the basin has been filling up with silt from the river and sewage from the fifteen city sewers that empty their foul contents into it; and it has become one of the greatest nuisances in the county. It is hoped that it will ether be dredged out by the State authorities or filled up, as it has passed its days of usefulness.”