Category Archives: Albany

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 in 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. Also noted: the New York Central wanted out of Albany nearly 10 years earlier. More on that here.

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.



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.

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.

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

The Freshet This Time

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Munsell’s “Annals of Albany,” in the Notes from the Newspapers section, includes a description of the devastating spring flood of 1833, one of many notable floods in Albany’s history:

May 16. A freshet which began two days previous was not at its greatest height and produced much loss and damage. South Market street was impassable below Hamilton street, and carts and yawls plied their amphibious vocations at the rate of 6d a passenger. The vegetation on the island was wholly destroyed. Besides the damage to property, which was serious beyond recollection, there was also loss of life.

The island at the south part of the city consisting of about 160 acres, was at this time occupied by 11 families, deriving their support from the vegetables raised thereon. The recent flood entirely destroyed the crops, and they sustained a loss of nearly $6000. They were equally unfortunate in the previous year when owing to the prevalence of cholera, they were unable to dispose of the products of their gardens.

Cuyler Reynolds, in his “Albany Chronicles,” describes the 1833 flood as the “Greatest freshet of years: lower Broadway navigated by scows to State st. Damage to 11 farms on Van Rensselaer Is.” Reynolds wrote that the freshet, which began May 14, didn’t subside until May 17.

Van Rensselaer Island 1874South Market street was what we now know as Broadway, which extended to the southern border of the city at what has variously been known as Castle Island, Martin Gerritse’s Island, Patroon’s Island, Van Rensselaer Island (separate from the other one on the Greenbush side of the river) and Westerlo Island. The island was separated from the city by the flow of the Normanskill. This map from 1874 shows the island separated by Island Creek, but clearly occupied at the time, running from South First to South Fifth street, with extensions of Franklin, Green and Church streets running to the south. At that time, 40 years after the flood Munsell spoke of, there were two iron works (Olcott and Jagger) and a machine company (Eagle M&R).

Jagger Iron Company was headed by Ira Jagger, formed in 1870 as The Corning Iron Company and casting its first iron in 1871, according to Howell’s 1886 “Bi-Centennial History of Albany.” It was a large works employing 140 to 150 men in its heyday, but closed in 1883. The Olcott works was probably what became the Albany City Iron Company, owned by A. Van Vechten, J. Howard King, and Dudley Olcott, which was built in 1873 and employed 160. It, too, was closed when Howell was writing. We don’t find anything about the Eagle M&R Machine Co.

Today the outflow of the Normanskill flows only south, not north, and this former island has been filled in entirely to connect with the mainland, on which the Port of Albany now sits. Before it became the port, it served for a while as Quentin Roosevelt Field, an important early airport.

Freshets were more than a minor problem in the days before the Sacandaga Reservoir was created to tame the Hudson River. In the early days, they were noted often, and of course in 1618 the original Fort Nassau built on Castle Island was wrecked by a freshet and abandoned by the Dutch. Fort Orange was nearly swept away in 1647 “by a freshet of unusual proportions, broadening and deepening the river so that a school of whales (it is said) swam up the Hudson as far as Lansingburgh, one of which becoming stranded on an island opposite that place, gives it the name of Walvish Eylant or Whale Island (a small island in the Hudson River above Troy which disappeared on construction of the state dam).”

In 1818, the water stood over two feet deep in the Eagle Tavern on the southeast corner of South Market (Broadway) and Hamilton, “the ferry carried half way to Pearl street and sailing vessels floated over the dock, one family carried in its house across the river to Bath.” Just the year before the 1833 flood, another freshet, “the most extensive in years,” carried away several buildings on the pier and the basin bridges. In 1851, a freshet in February carried away 200 feet of “the Government embankment extending to the island opposite North Albany from mainland.” In 1854, the pier was submerged by what was marked as the seventh freshet of the spring in April. In 1861, a freshet carried away three bridges leading to the pier, also in February. In 1900, February flooding was called the greatest in 43 years, 20 feet above normal level, “causing great suffering in southern section of city.” On Easter 1906, a day of rain created a four foot freshet in the river, “so that steamboat Morse takes on passengers at Gansevoort street.” It wasn’t until 1930 that the river was tamed and these damaging floods were brought under control.

After posting, we were reminded by Paul Nance that this frequent flooding was the reason the commercial district moved up off Broadway to Pearl Street. He also noted that the cholera outbreak of 1832 was pretty substantial, with 1,147 people afflicted and 422 dying; anyone who could get out of the city that summer did.

Albany, Home of Nearly the First Globe Manufactory in the Country

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James Wilson, Globemaker

Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany” says that the Wilson boys of Albany, John and Samuel, were the sons of the first globe manufacturer in the U.S. That would have been James Wilson, born in Londonderry, N.H., and died in Bradford, Vt. According to Howell, around 1820 sons John and Samuel established a globe manufactory in Albany, “the first of the kind in this country.” It clearly wasn’t. Then Howell plagiarizes Munsell, who had listed the death of John (March 18, 1833) in his “Notes from the Newspapers” section in the Annals: “It was claimed for them that they were the best globe-makers, not only in America, but in the world. So much did they improve the art of globe-making as to elicit the admission of English manufacturers, that their globes were geographically and mechanically superior to their own. John Wilson died in 1833, and his brother Samuel near that date. After their death the business was discontinued in Albany.” John was only 39 when he died.

The whole story of how the business came to be in Albany, and who was involved in it, becomes confused.  An article on the Library of Congress blog repeats stories told elsewhere of how farmer’s son James Wilson became inspired to construct globes after a visit to Dartmouth College in 1796, teaching himself geography and cartography from an encyclopedia. It also says that he sought training in copperplate engraving from the famous Amos Doolittle. This article then says that Wilson opened his first globe factory “in the 1810s” in Albany. “With the assistance of his sons John, Samuel, and, later, David, J. Wilson & Sons began producing globes on a commercial scale.” Curious, then, that Munsell and Howell make no mention of James, just of the sons, as having been in Albany.

Wilson 13 Inch Globe Manufactured in Albany

A Wilson Globe, made in Albany in 1828, from

The Library of Congress, in a separate 1997 article, again connects James Wilson to Albany, marking the acquisition of a pair of 13-inch globes, one terrestrial and one celestial, which it said were manufactured by James Wilson, “America’s first commercially successful globe maker.” The article says the terrestrial globe’s title is “A New American Terrestrial Globe on which the Principal Places of the Known World Are Accurately Laid Down, with the Traced Attempts of Captain Cook to Discover a Southern Continent, by James Wilson, 1811, with Additions to 1819, Albany New York.” So, was James himself in Albany, or were his sons just there making globes in the family name?

The Vermonter: The State Magazine in 1903 gave a detailed biography of James Wilson, “The First American Globe-Builder,” which describes the shop made of rough boards in which he built his first globe in Bradford, VT, in 1796. By 1810, his globes were commanding $50 per pair (terrestrial and celestial). “The small unpainted blacksmith shop had become a globe factory which was throwing off its products as far as Amherst [!] and paralyzing the heart of the English globe trade in America.” His works reached Boston just a few years later.

“The demand for globes became too great for the capacity of his Bradford shop and he formed a co-partnership with his son, John Wilson, of Albany, New York, March 10, 1818. By the terms of the contract James Wilson was to furnish the material and receive one-half of the profits, while John Wilson was to manage the business and receive the remainder of the profits. In the factory at 110 Washington street [sic], J. Wilson & Son made globes of three, nine, and thirteen inches of diameter. Their market price ranged from five dollars to fifty-five dollars per pair. They were mounted on mahogany pedestal stands and were furnished with compasses.”

110 Washington Avenue is also a little confusing. The numbering may have changed, but it has been the same since at least 1876, when the Hopkins map showed it as the location of what is now the Fort Orange Club. Hopkins marked it as the land of E.H. Bender, although that name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Fort Orange Club’s timeline, which says the building was built in 1810 as the private residence of Samuel Hill. So, perhaps the numbering changed and the Wilson globe manufactory was elsewhere.

Assuming it’s accurate that the business was discontinued in 1833, it would be some years before the area became famous for globes again, but for a time the H.B. Nims Company of Troy, successor to Merriam, Moore & Company, made some very well-respected and still collectible globes, the Franklin globes, in the Cannon Building in Troy.


Dog Days of August, 1944

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90 Mercury Plagued All But 4 August Days1944: The world was at war. Air conditioning was a rare feature in Albany homes and businesses. Factory work was still commonplace. And in August, the temperature reached 90 degrees in Albany on 27 days of a 31 day month.

“You may have thought that every one of the 31 days was a scorcher, but you’re wrong. Four days were not. Through a mysterious and fortuitous combination of circumstances known only to Weatherman Ernest J. Christie, four days failed to make touchdowns. They didn’t register 90 degrees or over. But 27 did. Especially during the first 17 days of August, when 11 days hit 90 degrees or higher, and the whacky mercury boiled up right past the 1896 line, at which time nine sizzlers made hot news . . .

Between August 4 and August 15, five scorching days spent their time outvying each other. On August 12 the reading of 99 degrees was the highest since July 9, 1936. (Consoling note: It was then 103 degrees!)”

The story notes that there was one record low of 44 degrees after the middle of the month, leading to a mean temperature of 72.2 degrees, 3.2 above normal, the warmest in five years.

Farnham’s Red Lion

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Farnham's Red LionMany of us of a certain age remember a restaurant on Lark Street that went by the name of Farnham’s Larkin, popular with legislators of an even more certain age. Well, before Farnham’s Larkin, there was Farnham’s Red Lion.

An article in the August 26, 1959 Knickerbocker News, headlined “English Pub Ideas Put to Use in Albany,” told the story:

A six-month pub crawl around England gave Mrs. Gladys Burroughs of Albany, not a thick head, but some ideas.

Those ideas will be on view this weekend when the restaurant at 79 Chapel St. [corner of Maiden Lane, now buried under the Hilton Hotel and courtyard complex] which she bought recently, reopens after decoration under the name, Farnham’s Red Lion.

Mrs. Burroughs and two architects, Francis Wood and Robert F. Winne, both design teachers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, set out to reproduce as much as they could of the atmosphere of an English pub.

Then there’s some banter about how Woods also admitted to visiting a pub or two, and how fortunate it is that it’s not really in England where it could only be open at lunchtime and in the evening until 11 p.m.

Oaken booths, old English prints, valuable English china, Pickwickian murals and prime meat will join with modern air-conditioning, cocktails and cigarets [sic] from a machine to give the best of both worlds, hopes Mrs. Burroughs . . . A room at the back, to be known as the Wedgewood Room, has not yet been completed. It will be used for parties and banquets.

The redecorated restaurant will hold 80 customers.

Cigarettes from a machine: swanky.

(You youngsters may not know that actually swanky joints had something called cigarette girls. They walked around nightclubs and higher end restaurants, often in some form of skimpy attire, hawking cigarettes from a tray that hung from a strap around their necks. You could look it up.)

There are many mentions of the restaurant in the newspapers in its inaugural year, but not a lot after that. It was being picketed by Local 471 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union in 1963, at the same time as an action against the Schine-Ten Eyck Hotel across the street., which noted that the Red Lion was under new management, which wanted to put off contract discussions while they performed renovations. After that, we find nary a mention.

After initially posting this, we were reminded that the “Albany…The Way It Was” Facebook group has photos of the old Farnham Hotel (from which the Farnham part of the name came) in its archives:
Farnham's hotel and restaurant chapel and broadway 1920sfarnham's hotel chapel maiden 1939