Category Archives: Albany

Exists there a more unterrified democrat than a Steam Engine?

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Samuel Bulkley Ruggles

Samuel B. Ruggles, NYS Assemblyman and Canal Commissioner

19th century prose can be tough to get through, and exhortative speeches even more so. But sometimes if you can wade through the effusiveness you can find (perhaps to your dismay) that some things today are very much the same as they were 160 years ago. As an example, we present this impassioned plea of former Assemblyman and Canal Commissioner Samuel B. Ruggles, arguing for the establishment of an institution of higher education in Albany in 1852.

As there never yet was a War that did not end in Peace at last, so the Internal Improvement struggle in this State has found its end, and Peace prevails. In the language of a distinguished personage on another occasion, “the era of good feeling has arrived.” Anti-improvement men have disappeared and cease to exist. We are all improvement men – all determined and desirous, however differing as to the mode or degree, to do all we lawfully can for the physical, and, as I trust it will be found, for the intellectual improvement of the State.

People would put up with a lot in their speechifying back then. They had no DVRs to get home to, no phones to fiddle with. This was it for the evening’s entertainment. He went on:

For, what was the theory in regard to public works? Was it not that they would lessen not only natural but commercial and social inequalities; that they would place the poor by the side of the rich – inferior districts by the side of the superior; the agricultural by the side of the trading communities; and, so far as Nature’s laws would permit, would equalize the condition of all?

Then he compared education to a steam engine. As one does.

The steam engine, concentrating within itself the strength of hundreds of animals and thousands of men, furnishes a single power by which we traverse earth and ocean. It does more. It breaks down and obliterates, not only commercial, but social distinctions; for, does it not place in the same vessel, and seat side by side in the same vehicle, the high and the low – the lofty and the humble – the lender and the borrower – Dives and Lazarus? Does there, can there, exist in nature or art, a truer, an honester, a more unterrified democrat, than a Steam Engine? From the moment Steam entered the world, aristocracy was doomed, and the final enfranchisement of society from artificial distinctions, absolutely and most effectually secured. And what is the whole magnificent series and chain of railways, spreading throughout our land and binding every part in harmony and union, but one vast democratic machine for equalizing the condition of the people?

Which was true as far as it went. Unfortunately, old Ruggles didn’t foresee the gasoline engine, which would get the aristocracy back into their own carriages well away from those pesky borrowers, and consign the low to public transit while the high curse its very existence. But we digress.

But here, just at this very point, we suddenly encounter a school of political philosophers, not very numerous – for God be praised, the race is nearly extinct – whose great delight it is to proclaim aloud that “the world is governed too much” and that government has no right to do more than “protect every man in his life, liberty and property, AND THERE TO STOP.” They, therefore, hold broadly and boldly, not only that it is not wise, but that it is not lawful for a State to educate its people – that it has no right to found public schools, build public works, endow public charities, guard the public health, or in fact to exercise any one of the beneficent functions, which have so much exalted the character and promoted the happiness of our people –but that all these objects, no matter how large or how important – no matter what amount of concentrated means or power they may require – may be safely left to the liberality of individuals.

Oh, well, thank goodness that breed of philosopher is extinct. Ruggles points out that if only to protect property ample and extended education would be necessary. He called that whole doctrine mischievous, cruel and destructive, “the diseased offspring of feeble heads and cankered hearts.” No less true today.

Why could we, the people of this great State of New-York … merely to gratify a dreary and barren political abstraction, depopulate our ten thousand school houses, and all our seats of learning, – turn out into the field and forest our eight hundred thousand children – empty into the streets all our orphans, all our aged, all our helpless – cast forth into outer darkness all our sick, all our insane, and fill our whole land with lamentation and wailing? Would we, could we, in the face of all our swelling commerce, dry up all our noble channels of intercourse, tear up all our railways, root out all our aqueducts, and throw down all the monuments of energy and perseverance, which have made our favored commonwealth the admiration of the civilized world? If it were for a moment possible that a State like ours … could consent to be thus vilely mutilated, thus shorn of all its manhood and all its creative energy – that cold blooded theorists could thus be permitted, like unclean birds, to pick off all its flesh and features, leaving only the naked skeleton of a State behind, – better were it blotted out forever ….

Ruggles was on to something. But what was he on about?

Not being in any sense a man of science myself, and knowing little else than my duty to hold it in the highest respect, it is with unaffected diffidence that I venture to speak on such a subject and in the presence of men like those around me … The question, then, for an intelligent community like ours, willing, at least, to benefit its material condition is this – Shall science, so exalting and yet so useful – so sublime, yet so humble, be monopolized by the learned few who chance to be the first to seize it, or shall it belong to all the people and be distributed in the largest and most liberal measure among all alike? We think they can give but one answer. We think they will claim, as they may lawfully claim, the same inherent, primary, fundamental right to knowledge, which they claim to liberty itself; and will take due care that nothing shall stand in the way of their acquiring this, their greatest treasure.

Ruggles was speaking (we needn’t add, passionately) on behalf of the creation of the University of Albany. This was in 1852. This proposed university was also described as the National University (more on that here). The State Normal School had been established in 1844, but its focus was on the preparation of teachers; it was not an institution of general knowledge as such. Ruggles and others were arguing for something much broader in scope. Unfortunately, the University of Albany came to naught. Albany had another chance when Leland Stanford, born in Watervliet, married to a well-to-do Lathrop, was seeking to create an institution of higher learning in honor of his deceased son. If stories are to be believed, a little touch of greed on the part of the Rural Cemetery Association scotched that deal. It wouldn’t be until 1962 that the NYS College for Teachers, successor to the Normal School, would be transformed into the State University of New York at Albany.

It’s sad that today, the types of voices Ruggles thought to soon be extinct are actually predominant.

Albany from the Riverfront, 1911

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Albany Riverfront at foot of State Street Jan 1 1911

The NYS Archives dates this incredible photo of the Albany riverfront to 1911. The view is from the Albany Yacht Club pier, looking across the footbridge that crossed the basin to the very foot of State Street.

Very notable are the ends of the buildings advertising three of Albany’s local beers, making that important first impression for those arriving by river and seeking refreshment. To the south, above the Hinckel sign, we can also see a painted sign for the Empire Burlesque and Vaudeville, which was up on State Street. There’s also a sign for the Mansion Hotel, $5 per week, $1 a day. J Stephens and Sons Fruit

The building below was the home of J. Stephens & Sons, Wholesale Fruits, “Albany’s Modern Fruit House.”

Stoneman and sons

In the block between State and Hudson, we can see the businesses of Quay Street, back when there were businesses on Quay Street. For that matter, back when people knew Quay Street; today’s it just part of the highway ramp system. We can see a business by the name of Murray’s, Stoneman & Sons ship’s chandlers, and an advertisement for T. Sonnenfeld & Sons, processors of hides, skins, wool, tallow, &c.

We can also see signs for the Hampton Hotel (“fireproof”) and for once-huge grocery suppliers Bacon & Stickney. We can see trolleys turning at State and Broadway. And we can see this dude:

Dude and anchor

It wouldn’t be too long before a whole lot of this changed – many of the buildings in the center would be taken to build Marcus T. Reynolds’s resplendent headquarters of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad beginning in 1912.

For those who can’t quite place this in relation to modern times, State Street took a bit of a bend at Broadway and continued along to the river alongside the federal building. A bridge connected it to the wharf. There was another bridge further north.
Wharfs 1876

The State Education Building Under Construction

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State Education Building construction 1-1-1912

State Education Building under construction, Jan. 1, 1912

From the NYS Archives, a rare view of the iconic State Education Building under construction. The Archives dates this as Jan. 1, 1912, but a number of other photos in the archive carry January 1 dates, so I think it’s a default date rather than an actual one. But if this was taken in 1912, it would still mean the entire colonnade was constructed in the last months before the dedication of the building in October of that year. It’s also notable that there are still buildings, including the old antiques shop, on the east side of Hawk Street, which today is Lafayette Park. That row of buildings stood until about 1928.

A Mastodon Unearthed

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Old Albany NY Cohoes mastodon 1920s NYS Museum

In 1866, the Harmony Company of Cohoes set about building its Mill No. 3, a new cotton factory on the east side of Mohawk Street across from their first building. While the foundation was being excavated, the skeleton of a mastodon was discovered, “an event which awakened great interest here, and caused Cohoes to be for some time quite prominently before the public,” as Arthur Masten put it in his 1877 The History of Cohoes, New York….

At the north end of the building it was found that the layer of rock was thin and rested upon a large bed of peat, with a view to the removal of this, a small section was excavated to a depth of about sixty feet, and in so doing numerous relics of earlier ages were exhumed. The first discoveries, made in the middle of September [1866], were decayed stumps and limbs of trees which lay imbedded in the rich loam; a week later, near the bottom of the bed, the jaw-bone of the mastodon was unearthed.

Masten then quoted from the Sept. 29 issue of the wonderfully named Cohoes Cataract, the long-gone newspaper of the Spindle City:

Assuredly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy! Those who, during the present generation, have trod the earth of Cohoes have never taken into their wildest imaginings the strange things that were concealed beneath the surface. But the late excavations made by the Harmony Co., have brought to light the fact that a huge mastodon once dwelt where our village now stands, in an age that has been followed by the mightiest convulsions and upheavals. Fifty feet below the surface the jaw of this monster has been found, and has created in our village such a sensation as few events ever excited … The jaw is somewhat decayed and flaky but the teeth are in excellent preservation; the length of each jaw bone is thirty-two inches; the breadth across the jaw at the broadest point twenty inches and the extreme depth about twelve inches. On one side is a single tooth four inches in length and two and a half in width, and on the other two teeth one of which is six and a half inches long, the other four, and each uniform in width and shape with its neighbor opposite. The holes or cavities for the dental nerves are from an inch to an inch and a half in diameter….

More was found over the weeks: the skull, tusk, leg-bones, ribs and “enough other bones of the animal to make the skeleton nearly complete were found, most of them in a pot-hole distant some sixty feet from the one in which the jaw bone was buried,” Masten wrote.

The bones were kept for some time at the office of the Harmony Mills, where they were visited by hundreds of persons, among whom were Profs. [O.C.] Marsh of Yale college, [James] Hall of Albany and a number of other scientific men. They were also placed on exhibition in Troy, at the county fair and in Harmony Hall … Several offers were received by the Harmony Co. from public institutions for the purchase of the remains, and it was thought at one time that they would be sold and the proceeds given to the Union Sunday School. It was finally decided, however, to present them to the state. The legislature voted an appropriation of $2,000 for completing the search for the bones, and mounting the skeleton, and passed a joint resolution tendering thanks to Mr. Wild and the Harmony Co. for their generosity. In the following year the skeleton was placed in position in the State Cabinet of Natural History, at Albany.

The Cohoes Mastodon was first displayed at the State Museum and Geological Hall in 1867. It moved with the museum to the State Education Building in 1915, but when the museum moved once again to the Cultural Education Center at the Empire State Plaza in 1976, the mastodon was removed from public view. It made a triumphant return to the entry hall of the “new” museum in 1998, but it was soon found conditions there weren’t optimal for 11,000-year-old bones, and it was put into a back hall of the museum where it is displayed today. There’s a great time-lapse video of the mastodon being assembled on the State Museum’s mastodon page.

The Erie Canal in Albany and Watervliet, 1834

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1834 Erie Canal Survey Albany lock copy

From the NYS Archives, a detailed survey of the Erie Canal from 1834. These are beautiful maps of ink, wash and charcoal. Click on them to see them in simple but glorious detail. This first one shows the beginning of the Erie Canal, and with the alignment of Lawrence Street we can see now that the lock was almost precisely at the southern end of today’s boat launch. (The historical marker for the canal is significantly closer to the Livingston Avenue Bridge; that and some other diagrams from the time could lead one to think the lock was nearer to Colonie Street. Clearly it wasn’t.) At this point, the canal had been open 11 years, but there is no sign of what would become the lumber district. There are only a few buildings in this part of the city at all, though a number are lined right up against the basin. Up at the corner of Lawrence and North Market (which wasn’t Broadway yet) is the State Arsenal that was built in 1799 and converted to School No. 13 in 1859. The lands above are all part of the Van Rensselaer estate.

Detail of Lock Basin

There is some beautiful detail here, including the positioning of the lock, the location of the weigh lock, and the angle out of the basin into the canal itself. Later the weighlock would be moved up and parallel to the entry to the canal, as shown in this map of the Lumber District.

1834 Erie Canal Watervliet

Further up the canal, the map gets a little confused, at least in terms of what it is mapping. It calls this stretch of Watervliet (the name of the town we now know as Colonie) by the name of “Washington. Formerly Gibbonsville.” But Phillip Schuyler named this area Washington in 1793; it was after it was purchased by James Gibbons that it became known as Gibbonsville. It was Gibbons who sold 12 acres of land to the United States for what was first known as the Arsenal at Gibbonsville. (Also confusingly, the left side of the map is properly read as the top of the right side.) All of this, of course, is now Watervliet the city (not Watervliet the town, which doesn’t exist anymore).

1834 Erie Canal West Troy Green Island

Still more northward, West Troy and Green Island. All the street names have changed. Union Street was just about where Watervliet’s 23rd Street is today and, interestingly, the basin there had a connection to the river. Later that pier in the river ran under the Congress Street Bridge (which connected to Genesee Street) and formed what was called the Lower Basin; above that was the State Basin, which was part of the south branch of the Mohawk River.


A neighborhood gone: The Brewery, 1951

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Schaefer Brewery 06-12-1951

We were originally going to just skip over this aerial of the Schaefer Brewery from 1951 (from the New York State Archives) because Hoxsie is a temperance site and others are far more interested in Albany’s brewing history. But then we zoomed in and, holy cats! is there a lot here. Dead center of the shot, sandwiched between North Ferry on the left and North Lawrence on the right, just a block east of Broadway is the mammoth complex that was once Quinn & Nolan’s Beverwyck Brewery, now better remembered for the short time it spent as the Schaefer Brewery. (It was Beverwyck from 1878 to 1950, and Schaefer for a scant 22 years after that. Seems unjust to remember it as Schaefer.)

Most of the brewery is gone today; a few of the more modern buildings in this shot, beyond the railroad tracks, still stand. But more than that, nearly everything else in this picture is also gone. Incredible.

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Boating down the Hudson, 1938

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For those of us who never got to experience the glory days of the Hudson River Day Line (or the Night Line), here’s how it looked back in 1938. The scenery is virtually unchanged, though a couple of bridges have been added along the way. 10 years later, the original Hudson River Day Line would be out of business. The name and the ships were sold and used for shorter excursion trips, mostly further downriver.

If you want a better sense of the sounds of the great ships that used to ply these waters, the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley has a great collection of sounds from Hudson River steam ships. And where is the Alexander Hamilton, the hero of this watery road movie, today? Resting in several feet of water in New Jersey.

(Yes, this entry was previously featured on our somewhat-of-a-predecessor site,

Albany Law Journal, 1876

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A few notes of interest from the Albany Law Journal, 1876 :





You could still carelessly place a bust on a balcony without fear of legal repercussions.







Apparently traveling on Sunday was still a no-no. But if so, why then did the trains run? I’m confused.

Albany Medical Center from the air, 1951

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Albany Medical Center June 12 1951From the New York State Archives, another brilliant aerial view of Albany, this one focusing on the Albany Medical Center, June 12, 1951. Unlike some of the other aerials we’ve looked at this week, this one doesn’t look so terribly different in the present day. Of course, Albany Med has sprawled, and the foreground on this side of New Scotland Avenue has completely, and recently, changed. The land just beyond the hospital on the left, which was once home to the Bender Hygienic Laboratory and the second iteration of the Dudley Observatory, is now the home of the Capital District Psychiatric Center. But the neighborhoods beyond are largely unchanged today.


Albany Medical Center 2015

This is the Google Earth view today.

Bender Laboratory

This was the Bender Hygienic Laboratory, about which Hoxsie keeps intending to write more. The laboratory was formed in 1895, the building completed by Albany architects Fuller & Wheeler in 1896. It served a role as an important public health laboratory for decades, and was the center of significant research.

Building behind AMC

Directly behind the medical center – anyone know what this building was?

Greenhouse and farm across from AMC

And across the street, on the northeastern corner of New Scotland and Holland: greenhouses and farming. This mystery was solved with disappointing speed – these were city greenhouses to provide plants for Washington Park and beyond. Makes sense, given that this land was actually originally held by Washington Park. More photos of the city greenhouses on the Albany…The Way It Was Flickr site.

Familiar territory: Albany from the air, 1948

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Another view from the sky, courtesy of the New York State Archives’ Fairchild Aerial Surveys collection. Thanks to the presence of a number of notable landmarks, an awful lot of this view from June 2, 1948, looks just like Albany today. And a lot of it does not.

Albany - The Capitol and beyond

Yeah, so that looks familiar. Front and center, the Alfred E. Smith Building, from this angle all but obscuring the State Capitol. To the left of that, the majestic State Education Building, which from nearly all angles obsures (intentionally) the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints to its left. Just to the right and beyond the Capitol is the New York Telephone Building (here revealed to have an interesting jog in its structure, now obscured by its own annex). Beyond that, if you zoom in you can see the sign of the DeWitt Clinton Hotel, and the old Mobilgas sign just beyond that; but those are gone. On down the way, next to the river, the Delaware and Hudson Railroad headquarters (now SUNY headquarters); that’s still there. Go ahead, click on the picture and zoom in … it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Dunn Memorial Bridge

For starters, there’s the Dunn Memorial Bridge. The real one. The one that opened in 1933, replacing the previous Greenbush Bridge, and was blown up in 1971 to make way for a soulless replacement that was meant to be part of an expressway that never happened.

Maiden Lane and Roundhouse

To the north, another bridge that is gone: the Maiden Lane Bridge, which carried rail traffic between East Albany (later Rensselaer) and Albany. It opened in 1871, five years after the first bridge (which now needed a name, and became the Upper Bridge, and later, the Livingston Avenue Bridge). As far as we can figure out, the bridge was torn down about five minutes after the last passenger train left Union Station in 1968. To its right on the other side of the river, the Rensselaer Roundhouse, completed for the New York Central in 1903. Ernie Mann’s book says the roundhouse was demolished in 1955. (If you wanted to reconstruct it, pretty detailed plans are available here. Get cracking.) The site later became the home of the Rensselaer High School, and is once again awaiting redevelopment.

Union Station and Riverfront

Just north of that, Union Station and the associated train sheds. The station, happily survives, but all of that track and shed area came down for the development of I-787 and Water Street, which is a long highway ramp that pretends to be a city street in that stretch. Directly north (left) of Union Station are buildings that were probably torn down around the time the rail lines were, and the lot sat empty for many years until the DEC building was built there, opening in 2001. Directly in front of the station are buildings that used to be the heart of rail commerce, but at some point they came down and the rubble-strewn lot was redeveloped into Tricentennial Park.

One Commerce Plaza site

Yeah, these buildings across Swan Street from the State Education Building aren’t there anymore. They were replaced by One Commerce Plaza.

Empire State Plaza site

And, of course, all this is now the Empire State Plaza.