Category Archives: Albany

The End of the Albany Basin

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This shows the remains of the Albany basin at the time the Albany Yacht Club was in operation. The northern portion of the basin had been filled in and used for the railroads. In this view, the basin opening to the old Erie and Champlain canals can still be seen, just beyond the Livingston Avenue Bridge at the top of the photo. That area is now completely filled in and forms the Corning Preserve Boat Launch parking lot. The old Day Line shed can be seen at the lower right on the waterfront. This is a Fairchild aerial survey of the Albany waterfront, from the Albany Public Library Pruyn Collection, shown at the AlbanyGroupArchive Flickr site.

Somewhere around 1949, the Albany Yacht Club buildings were sold for use as a Naval Reserve Center, and the club started its move across the river to Rensselaer, with a temporary stop in the old Day Line facilities. In 1954, the old basin would finally be filled in as work began on the riverfront arterial highway – I-787. On Nov. 9, 1954, workers started “with the preliminary task of tearing down the old Hudson River Day Line shed, an Albany landmark since the late 19th Century. Between now and next November, when the job is scheduled for completion, the contractor will fill in the old Albany Yacht Club basin for a 1,000-car municipal parking lot and build a ¾ mile stretch of four-lane concrete roadway from a point near the old Day Line landing north to the Livingston Ave. railroad bridge.”

As with all things Albany, the inconvenience for parking was a concern:

“The demolition and construction work will be a source of woe for scores of riverfront parkers, who will have to find somewhere else to leave their cars. Some of the cars that had been left near the Day Line shed today had to be moved by police for safety when the wreckers attacked the ancient ironwork with acetylene torches.”

The construction would involve razing buildings and building a stone dike in the river to straighten the shoreline from “the Quay st. bulge at Steamboat Sq. to the old Yacht Club pier, now occupied by the U.S. Navy as a Naval Reserve training center. The section between the present shoreline and the dike will be filled with stone and graded for parking space. At the same time the contractor will extend three city sewers, whose outfalls will have to be moved toward the middle of the river before grading for the roadway can begin.”

Those included the Columbia St. sewer, “which carries much of Albany’s rainstorm runoff from the downtown section,” and the Quackenbush sewer, near the north end of the project.

From the AlbanyGroupArchive on Flickr: the final filling-in of the Albany basin behind the old Albany Yacht Club buildings. The bridges are the Maiden Lane railroad bridge and the State Street pier bridge. Circa 1954-55. (Gerber collection. Contributed by Nancy Gallagher.)

Former Yacht Club Site on the Wterfront

One of the state inspectors who documented properties being demolished. From the Flickr AlbanyGroupArchive, contributed by Ann Pfau, believed to be about 1964. The Maiden Lane bridge is still standing in the picture.

All these pictures are thanks to the great work done by the AlbanyGroupArchive on Flickr.

The Albany Yacht Club

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The Maiden Lane railroad bridge, the State Street bridge, and the Albany Yacht Club . This is all now gone and filled in, covered by Jennings Landing, Quay Street and I-787.

In writing about the rise and fall (or fill) of the Albany Basin, a major part of Albany’s waterfront history that is now buried under a tangle of roads and the Corning Preserve, we were a bit stymied in figuring out the role and location of the Albany Yacht Club, the surviving buildings of which were the prominent features of the old pier for decades. In fact, some of those buildings survived until the construction of the “Hudson River Way” amphitheater in what is now called Jennings Landing.

The Albany Yacht Club was originally organized in 1873 in the paint shop of Ira Porter at 12 James Street, and took rooms in a five-story building at the State street bridge, but got pushed out after a few years when “a big salt concern took possession.” That drove them across the river, for what would not be the last time.

In December 1903, the Albany Yacht Club, already well-established for nearly 25 years but having met at various locations including canal boats, had moved from a location on the eastern shore and held its first meeting in its new home on the pier, in a building that had belonged to Cornell Towing (Cornell Steamboat Co.). “Improvements to the building are progressing and it is expected that a new maple floor will be laid before the next meeting.” The Yacht Club, now 60 members strong, had used this building before. The Albany Evening Journal reported:

“That history repeats itself was never better exemplified than in the case of the Albany Yacht Club, that sterling organization which has helped to keep alive the interest in boating for the past decade and which at the end of nearly a quarter of a century finds itself ready to take possession of the building in which the first years of its infancy were passed … A few days since a committee appointed for the purpose closed negotiations with the Cornell Towing Line and the five story building at the western terminus of the State street bridge, owned by the company, has been transferred to the Albany Yacht Club …

The new home of the Yacht Club is directly opposite its old quarters, it being the intention of the cub to retain its old house for storage purposes. The new building will be entirely renovated between now and spring, the members being enthusiastic and looking forward to the time when they can throw open their new home for public inspection. The five floors are large and roomy, but it has been decided that the second floor will be the reception room of the club. This will be fitted up in handsome style … A gymnasium, a large card room for euchre parties and a hall for entertainments and smokers will be among the improvements and every inducement will be offered to swell the membership. The outside of the structure will not be touched until late in the spring, after the Hudson has learned to behave itself.”

Yacht club postcard 1930s 10969737414_461b3f793b_o

The Albany Yacht Club built around 1912.

In just under eight years, the old building would be inadequate. The September 12, 1911 Albany Evening Journal reported that the last meeting of the club in its present building was held the night before, “and the work of tearing down the building, which had been one of the old warehouses on the pier will begin at once. The club has arranged to secure temporary headquarters pending the completion of its new club house, at 415 Broadway. The new house will be located just south of the present building, and last night it was announced that the foundation has been completed and paid for and that a bond issue of $20,000 to secure the balance of the fund of $30,000 needed to pay for the new building had been floated as a mortgage bond issue with the Albany Trust company as trustee. Nearly all of this issue has been subscribed. John Dyer, jr. who has the contract for the State street pier improvement, will construct the new house.”

Many years later, in 1947, the Albany Yacht Club held a mortgage burning ceremony to celebrate being free of debt, though it was then reported that the cost of the clubhouse had been $35,000, with a mortgage of $25,000. Their time at that location, though, was limited.

In March 1948, the Knickerbocker News reported that the Yacht Club had been proposed as a Naval Reserve training center. “If a training center is located here, [Lt.] Commander Doody said, it is hoped it would be opened this summer and that it would be equipped for training the approximately 600 members of Battalion 313 and other Naval Reservists in the Capital District. This would include, he said, installation of gun mounts, radar and technical equipment and engineering equipment.” At the time, the Navy was using an LST (landing ship – tank) anchored at the food of Madison Avenue as its training locus. None of this seemed to discomfit the Yacht Club, as director John E. Scopes said they had for some time been considering moving to another site on the Albany waterfront. The sale of the club building (the land still belonged to the City of Albany) went through somewhere around 1949, and the club moved to a former warehouse on Quay Street. The exact location is not made clear, though it was listed in the street directory as between the Recreation Pier and the Naval Reserve Center. Those, a Thomas Dolan, and two vacant buildings were the only things listed on Quay Street in 1951.

In 1953, the club bought land on the Rensselaer side of the Hudson, south of the Dunn Memorial Bridge. “The area includes four plot of ground and is between Columbia St. and Second Ave., Rensselaer.” At the time, the club also maintained anchorage in Coeymans, which they said would continue. They hoped to be able to move into a new home by the end of the 1953 boating season, but that didn’t work out, as it was later reported they hoped the building would be complete by fall of 1954. While the newspaper focused on the building’s second floor veranda and extensive use of picture windows, it was not quite as grand as once they had enjoyed.

Thanks to the Albany…The Way It Was Facebook group for its Flickr photo archives.

Two Ways To Get Into the Newspaper

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Times Union Altar Tomb 1921From the classified pages of the Times-Union in 1921, a pair of what seem (to our modern sensibilities, anyway) shockingly brusque headings for the paid listings for marriages and deaths: Altar and Tomb.

In journalism school, they used to tell us that most people would only be mentioned in the newspaper when they got married or died. I forget what lesson we were supposed to take from that.

Update: We were later reminded by internet friends that the T-U actually had a third category: Cradle. We just happened upon a cradle-free day.

The Fate of the Albany Basin

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So, what befell the Albany Basin after the Dock Association dissolved in 1873? Business along the wharf continued, but declined. Its state as a nuisance was well documented in 1889. In 1892, both the Senate and the Assembly considered legislation to fill the Albany basin. “The upper portion of the basin had been abandoned, and in summer the stench which rose from it was almost unbearable. It had been commented on by people going north in the Delaware and Hudson trains . . . [The Albany] delegation had concurred concerning the advisability of closing the larger basin from the outlet of the upper basin to the Columbia street bridge, and straightening the inner line of the lower basin from Columbia street to Hudson avenue.” But there were still opponents, as the Chamber of Commerce was concerned that if the basin were closed, “there would be no harbor here and no boats would winter here, since they could not do so without damage. This was unfortunate at this time when a movement was on foot to deepen the Hudson river.” William Barnes, Jr., appointed by the Chamber to oppose the bill, proposed a commission to take another year to study the matter.

In addition, the boat operators believed the whole thing was a theft by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. There was a proposed amendment to the constitution of the state that would donate, “absolutely free,” the Albany basin (containing an area of over 23 acres of state canal lands now walled up behind the constitution of the state) for a grand site for a union depot and freight terminus and for the sole use and benefit of the New York Central and Hudson River railroad, the West Shore railroad and the Delaware and Hudson canal railroad monopolies.”

Well, they weren’t wrong. Marcus T. Hun declared that the upper basin was useless to anybody and a source of malaria, and that leaving the lower part was fully adequate to meet the needs of the boats, and that the basin had not been filled with boats for years. He also said the station of the New York Central in Albany “was a disgrace to any city. He did not object to encouraging the roads to come here and build what they chose.” Mayor Daniel Manning was said to support the bill, but the city made no comments on what it wanted. Legislation wasn’t passed until 1895.

It didn’t happen right away though. In 1899, the basin was still a cesspool, and the “Central-Hudson” railroad was again working toward getting the rights to fill in the basin and to get an intercepting sewer built. Again, the plan was to built a sewer that would pass under land that would be created by filling in the basin “north of a point 100 feet south of Columbia street.”

Those who still held rights to wharfage on the western side of the basin were made responsible for dredging any parts that were not to be filled in . . . a strong incentive to agree to filling. “A line drawn southerly from the end of the pier of lock No. 1, along the present westerly boundary of the basin to the north line of Livingston avenue, and thence in a straight line to the intersection of the southerly line of Hudson avenue with the easterly line of Quay street, is established as the bulkhead line. No dock or pier shall be erected or filling in done easterly of said bulkhead line, except between the northeasterly line of Colonie street, southeast to the pier line hereinafter established, and a line drawn parallel to and one hundred feet distant southerly from the south line to Columbia street.”

1909 Baedeker map showing the filled northern section of the Albany BasinIt’s not entirely clear when the actual filling took place, but a 1909 Baedeker map shows the northern portion of the basin filled in, while there was still a basin at the entrance to the canal.

That still left the southern part of the basin. In 1906, another bill was passed and signed conveying the state’s title to land under water of the basin to the city of Albany. The city was then authorized to establish new bulkhead lines within the boundaries of the basin, and was allowed to grant to any owner of land or wharfage rights on the west side the “privilege” of filling in with solid filling that portion of the basin between the present bulkhead line and the new one and grant wharfage rights.

This being Albany, of course, any attempt at fixing a problem was bound to be seen as political opportunism. In 1911 the McCabe Commission, which we’ll have to do some studying up on, looked into Senate counsel James W. Osborne’s assertion that the filling of the basin was part of a long-term scheme to give land to the railroads, apparently discounting the issues of sewerage that were well-documented and the fact that the city didn’t own the basin until it was granted that title by the State as part of the whole deal that would fill the basin, build a sewer, and help build freight rail access.

A 1944 Times-Union article by Edgar S. Van Olinda looked back on waterfront improvements:

“In 1910, the Common Council, the D. and H. Railroad and the steamship lines began a waterfront improvement. The Albany Basin bridge was erected, new dock walls erected, the old buildings along what is now the Plaza [now the D&H Headquarters/SUNY Central Administration] torn down and work begun to make the site one of the most attractive in the city.

“The Albany Day Line ticket office, designed by the late Walter Van Guysling, was moved from Hamilton street to Division, in Broadway, and the land thereabouts made into a park, in which are many interesting markers, telling the stranger in Albany some of the history of the city in tabloid form.”

We’re still unclear, honestly, on when the remains of the basin were given over to the Albany Yacht Club, and other structures along the wharf were demolished. Still trying to sort that out.

The Albany Basin: Liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence

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One of our favorite local fantasies is the fantasy that Albany once had a blissful, beautiful waterfront where Victorian ladies in hoop skirts carrying parasols enjoyed leisurely Sunday strolls with their dapper beaus. Urchins rolled hoops on their day off from working in the factories and scrambled down the banks with string and bent pins to pull Albany beef from the teeming river. Beautiful, environmentally friendly sloops delivered the goods of the Caribbean to neat, orderly docks. And this was all ruined when a highway was put in, cutting the city off from its bluewater paradise.

We noted yesterday that the bustling Albany Basin, the constructed waterfront that extended from the opening of the Erie Canal down to about Hamilton Street was, from the start, a bit of a mess. It was built quickly, intended to function as a lock that didn’t really hold water, then was cut in several places, and started filling up pretty much immediately. One reason might have been all the sewers that emptied into it. In its roughly 50 years, it was never noted for its riverfront beauty. As its use declined, its managing organization essentially abandoned it in place and left its owners to their own devices. That didn’t help.

In 1889, the state engineer and surveyor’s report noted that dredging had been carried on in the basin, but “the sewerage of Albany is again filling it up with material of a very unwholesome character. Only a radical treatment will result in a permanent improvement. The sewerage of the city of Albany should by some means be carried to a point below the basin.” Basic sewage treatment wasn’t an option yet; relocation was the only reasonable option. The report suggested that “an intercepting sewer should be constructed, and it probably would be desirable for a portion of the length of the basin to build a wall with the intercepting sewer between it and the present dock. This space could be filled in, thus making available land for commercial purposes.”

So that was the end of it, right? No, of course not. In 1885, the Committee on Drainage, Sewerage and Topography (and if anyone wants to revive that, sign me the heck up for it), made a report to the State Board of Health in response to a petition from a large number of prominent citizens that set forth that the Albany basin was in a condition dangerous to the lives and health of the people. The basin, recall, was actually the property of the State and considered part of the Erie Canal. They found that

“This preliminary investigation proved that the basin was in a condition liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence, and that this influence was exerted in two important directions. . . The principal sewers of Albany were found to be emptying into the basin, and the organic material brought down in them had so filled it, that at low tide large sewage flats were exposed, while the whole water surface was found to be bubbling with the bases of putrefaction liberated from the bottom at low and half tide. Beside the evil effects which must result from the exposure to the heat of the sun of large masses of sewage, and of a large extent of polluted water, it was found that this polluted water probably reached the point of intake of the city’s supply from the river.”

Concerned, they tested whether or not the highly pungent and polluted waters of the basin reached the city’s drinking water intake. Surprise! They did.

The report’s description of the state of the basin at that time is useful:

“The dock front of Albany is a curve concave toward the city. Across the chord of this arc is built a pier about four thousand feet long and from one hundred and fifty to four hundred and fifty feet wide, containing some thirty acres. Into the northern end of this basin opens the Erie canal. The pier has in it three openings: one at the northern end; one opposite Maiden lane, through which ferry boats enter; and one at the southern end. This basin was intended as a harbor for canal boats, and it was expected to maintain in it seven feet of water at low tide. The basin has, however, become filled with mineral and organic matter from two sources, so that now at low tide from five to six acres of the bottom are laid bare and the remainder of the basin has become so shallow that it is not navigable at low water except where, by constant dredging, sufficient depth is maintained. It has been filled at the northern end and along the pier largely by silt brought down by the Hudson river in tie of flood … The second cause of the filling of the basin is the fact that fifteen sewers of the city of Albany empty into it. These fifteen sewers drain seven hundred and fifty acres of the most thickly populated part of Albany, carrying off the waste of some thirty-two thousand people … The examinations of the deposits show that over a large part of the basin the bottom is a mass of black decomposing organic mater, filled with a writhing mass of worms and microscopic organisms. So great is the amount and so rapid is the rate of decomposition in this mass that as the tide falls and the pressure is removed, the gases of decomposition rise to the surface of the water, which bubbles and breaks constantly, throwing into the air both the bases and the organism s, which probably rise with the gases of putrefaction. The Albany basin has, in fact become a gigantic cesspool nearly filled with rotting filth … There can be no question that the maintaining of a gigantic cesspool, thirty acres in extent on the principal water front of the city of Albany, is contaminating the air of that part of the city and needlessly endangering the lives and health of all who are brought within its influence.”

It’s hard to understand why they didn’t write a musical about its splendor, really. We could go on, but we post this stuff early and there’s a chance you’re eating breakfast. The rest of the details are just endlessly worse. Maybe tomorrow we’ll talk about the Martinville sewers.

 

 

The Albany Basin

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Albany Basin 1879

Bird’s Eye View of the Albany Basin in 1879, when it was already in decline. Madison Avenue is at farthest left, then the Maiden Lane Bridge. On the far right, the locks into the Canal.

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). Thje 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 les 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.”

James Wilson’s Nursery

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Even before he developed the Wilson’s Albany strawberry that transformed the entire strawberry industry, James Wilson, nurseryman of Albany, was a very successful horticulturalist. His work figures prominently in the report of the Committee on Flowers at the Fair of the New York State Agricultural Society, which was held at Auburn in September 1846. According to the Committee, Wilson showed 132 varieties of flowers at the fair, including 26 varieties of new and rare dahlias, 20 quilled German asters. 14 verbenas, seven phloxes, fuschias and others, including “an exquisitely arranged bouquet composed of thirty-six different varieties of choice and rare flowers, and also a beautifully arranged floral design composed of more than one hundred rare Dahlias, choice roses, Gladioluses, German Asters, Amaranths, Geraniums, Heliotropes, &c. &c.”

For his efforts, he won awards for best floral ornament, best 25 varieties of dahlias, most beautiful bouquet, and best 12 varieties of roses.

Location of James Wilson's NurseryAccording to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” Wilson was gardener for the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. He established his greenhouses with small fruits and trees in 1835, “on what was then a waste place in this city, at the corner of South Knox and Morris streets. His grounds were about three acres, on a sloping hill-side; this was carefully cultivated and planted with nursery stock and flowering shrubs.” That land was essentially cater-corner from the Albany Penitentiary. He had previously been in business with Judge Buel, with whom he established the Albany Nursery under the firm of Buel and Wilson, according to an 1844 description that said there were three large green-houses containing thousands of exotic species.

After his death in 1855, his widow and son continued the business until 1866, when it was passed on to John Sprague, then Frederick J. Welch, and, around 1870, Thomas Davidson, whose name appears on the map pictured.

James Wilson was born in Scotland and died in Albany on June 27, 1855, from pleurisy at the age of 60 years, 4 months and 17 days, according to his burial card from Albany Rural Cemetery. Or, he was born in Scotland (Quigley) on Aug. 15, 1771 and died Nov. 9 1855. It would appear that two James Wilsons from Scotland died and were buried in Albany Rural that year.

By the way, Louis Menand (for whom Menands is named) was at the fair that year too, showing two “very beautiful bouquets arranged with exquisite taste and skill, and composed of 31 varieties of choice flowers.”

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry

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Wilson's Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Once upon a time, nearly every strawberry in the United States was an Albany strawberry. First cultivated by James Wilson at his nursery, “situated at the head of Lydius-street, within three-quarters of a mile of the City Hall,” his strawberry became the dominant breed for decades.

For details, we turn to Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s “The Strawberry in North America: History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding.” Fletcher tells us that before Wilson came along, commercial strawberries were an insignificant industry, occupying less than 1500 acres; Wilson popularized the strawberry for the home garden and for an agricultural industry that grew to 150,000 acres, beginning with his sowing seed of three popular garden varieties in 1851. “The seeds were the result of natural pollination; no hand crossing was done.” At a meeting of the Albany and Rensselaer Horticultural Society in Albany on June 22, 1853, Wilson exhibited a new seedling strawberry, but it did not receive much attention until the next year.

“The following summer James Wilson showed a number of potted plants of his seedling, each laden with fruit. There was no lack of appreciation then. In the words of a current publication, ‘Such was the size and number of the berries upon each plant that people were astonished, curiosity was excited, and public attention was aroused to an examination of the claims of this new strawberry.’ It was then named Wilson’s Albany.” Wilson died in 1855, leaving the nursery to his son John, who saw the rise of the Wilson’s Albany. “By 1861 it had largely superseded all other sorts for market purposes, although the Hovey and Large Early Scarlet persisted for some years, the former near Boston, the latter in western New York, where it vied with Wilson as late as 1864. The Wilson completely dominated the markets of the United States and Canada from 1860 to 1880.” It was estimated that in 1872, the Wilson comprised more than 90 percent of the strawberries in cultivation. Strawberry Fever swept the country between 1858 and 1870, Fletcher says.

“Strawberries commonly sold for thirty to forty cents a quart, and profits of $1000 an acre were not unusual. In 1861 Joseph Harris, editor, editor of the Genesee Farmer, visited Bloomington, Illinois, and found Wilson strawberries selling at fifteen cents a quart, and corn at eight cents a bushel. People who had never before grown strawberries, or any other kind of fruit – merchants, grain and stock farmers, professional men – rushed into the strawberry business.”

Charles Hovey, the Boston area grower, did not take this affront to his former dominance lying down. In 1860, he declared that Wilson’s Albany was “one of the sourest, most dirty colored, and most disagreeable flavored of all recently introduced sorts – an excellent sort to make vinegar of. Besides, it is sot, watery, unfit for carriage, has a very large calyx, and is hollow at the core.” If that weren’t enough, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society called it unfit for general cultivation.

“Boston never ceased to look upon the Wilson with a jaundiced eye. When her sons journeyed southward in 1861, and were forced by dire hunger to partake of the despised fruit, one of the survivors declared, ‘The Wilson strawberry killed more Boston men during the war than Confederate bullets.’”

The complaints weren’t without merit. It was so popular partly for its dependability – it produced large crops without much care. It was firm, and could be shipped easily under the “trying conditions of transportation and marketing that prevailed then.” It did not require professional gardening to grow, and was easy for anyone to cultivate. But it was not sweet. In fact, it was sour. Henry Ward Beecher said “It has every quality of excellent except in the matter of eating.” Nevertheless, the Wilson dominated as a commercial variety for 20 years. Other varieties, including the Crescent and the Sharpless, joined it in commercial dominance, and those three varieties were nearly every strawberry commercially grown for some period of time. Eventually, they were overshadowed by other breeds, and Wilson’s Albany became a memory.

Albany, the booming bustling bee-hive!

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The November 1916 issue of “The Elevator Constructor,” the official organ of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (part of the American Federation of Labor), featured correspondence from Charles Nicholson of Albany’s Local No. 35. Brother Nicholson could barely contain his excitement at all the goings on in Albany and beyond – lots of elevator-driven goings on.

“Our old city is a booming, bustling bee-hive Tearing down and building up, tearing up and relaying is the slogan now in the building line and street repairing, and men, from a street laborer to a mechanic, are at a premium. Why, brother, if you haven’t been in the old town within the last five years you won’t know her. She is getting dressed up as a young bride …

Now for a little chat about the brothers here, and the proper thing to do is to start with our honorable president. Brother J. Scott. You have seen him in the picture of our delegates. It is that long, lanky, good-looking fellow towering over the others. He just loves to sink a plunger and pull it out again. He is installing a plunger dumb waiter in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady, for the Otis Company …

Brother Geo. Reynolds is installing two traction machines in the Gas Company’s new building for the Otis Company …

Brother [A.H.] Anderson has just started a job for the Otis Company in the Ten Eyck Hotel Annex, which will be a fifteen-story building. The installation consists of four electric passenger, two electric dumb waiter and two sidewalk lifts …

Brother Nolf has just installed a push-button machine in the post office in Troy for the Otis Company, and is now installing another in the State National Bank in Albany. He just loves push-button machines …

Brother Muller is finishing the installation of an electric freight elevator in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady. This job was started by Brother Boehme, who has since gone back to the big city. We send our good wishes to Brother Boehme …

Now, listen, all you brothers who know Brother Pete McCool. Pete has taken unto himself a better half. He fell in love with an Albany girl, and that settled Pete. We wish the brother and his wife all happiness and good luck in the years to come.”

In an earlier edition that year, the April issue, Brother Nicholson had told of installations of a traction machine in the General Electric Works in Schenectady, a passenger and a freight elevator for the A.B. See Company in a new eight-story apartment building (location not given), four elevators in the county court building.

By the way, Local No. 35 met at German Hall, 46 Beaver Street, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.

 

“One Thing I Know, They Won’t Find Arsenic”

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hendrickson-maria-van-deusen-18331853As rough and tumble as Albany could be in the early to mid 19th century, some of the most notable crimes occurred out in the suburbs. One was the shocking poisoning of a young wife, Maria Van Dusen Hendrickson, by her philandering young husband, John Hendrickson, Jr. It was one of the earlier cases of forensic pathology used to prove a murder case in the United States.

In January, 1851, John Hendrickson Jr. married Maria Van Dusen, daughter of former county clerk Lawrence Van Dusen, “a most respectable citizen, and a man of unquestioned integrity;” he was said to have considerable wealth. Maria was 17, “well educated, accomplished, amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate.” Hendrickson pursued Maria although her parents opposed marriage “on the ground that Hendrickson’s character was bad, his conduct rowdyish, and that he had led a life of idleness, and was not, therefore, a fit companion for their daughter.” They married anyway, and lived with the Van Dusens in Clarksville while occasionally visiting Hendrickson’s father, who lived four miles away in Bethlehem.

That very summer, Hendrickson committed a “gross assault upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville.” After a side trip to Schoharie County, where he made a promise of marriage that Maria found out about, he took off for Corning, NY (for reasons not revealed) and stayed there for about three months, until the end of 1851. While he was away, Maria gave birth. Shortly after his return, the six-week-old child was found dead in the bed “in a very singular manner, Hendrickson occupying the middle, the wife the back, and the child the front part of the bed.” More than that is not explained.

“After the return of the prisoner from Corning, he communicated to his wife a loathsome disease, which he had contracted during his absence, and which was the original and only cause of the illness under which his wife ever labored, a disease of the womb, which, as a matter of course, was a source of not only great bodily affliction, but also of intense mortification and shame to her sensitive mind.”

On discovery of this, Hendrickson was cast out of the house in January 1852 and moved to his father’s, but the couple continued to visit each other from time to time. Maria’s health improved (the precise disease she contracted is not explained). In January 1853, Hendrickson convinced Maria to visit his father’s house two or three times, and then she went back there in February to stay for a period of time. She was expected to return to her mother’s house on March 6, a Sunday, but for some reason she did not. That evening she went to church with the Hendrickson family and, after reading from the bible and a religious paper, retired to bed with her husband about 10 o’clock, in an attic bedroom they had only slept in for two or three nights – prior to that, they had slept in the same downstairs room as the two sisters of Hendrickson.

How the alarm was raised was not quite explained, but somewhere around 2 in the morning, Hendrickson was “halloing” and his sisters went up the stairs to find Maria non-responsive, but they were not of the belief that she was dead. None of the family thought to ask him what had happened.  In his address to the jury, the district attorney, Andrew J. Colvin, said,

“Return we now to the deceased. We shall find the family engaged in using means for her revival, but to no effect. Neighbors were sent for, but not physician, although she was not supposed by them to be dead for a considerable time after they found her. And, gentlemen, it will be told you that there was no physician residing within three miles, and that for that reason they did not send for any . . . The prisoner follows the body, as of course he must, or instant accusation would have been the consequence, and a coroner and able physician and surgeon from the city follow in his wake on the same day; for, gentlemen, suspicious circumstances attend the event of her death, and the whole community is moved by the apprehension that a dark and shocking murder has been perpetrated.”

Hendrickson apparently immediately embarked on a campaign of appearing as suspicious as possible. Actually, the campaign had started at least a week before. Hendrickson had been wandering around Albany, visiting pharmacies asking for prussic acid. “On Tuesday or Wednesday of the week preceding the death of his wife, the prisoner is found asking for prussic acid at Dr. Springsteed’s. On Saturday he is seen going into another drug store, and some time during the same week, a person answering exactly to the general appearance, and dressed in a costume corresponding exactly with the ordinary apparel of the prisoner, buys of Mr. Burroughs, the druggist, an ounce of the tincture of aconite, the very kind of poison with which, it is charged in the indictment, the prisoner poisoned his wife.”

Tincture of aconite was known for its potency and it difficulty of detection. So, while being held, and while a post mortem is being conducted, Hendrickson asked someone what the physicians and coroner were doing and what they had found. He was told they were taking out her stomach, and that it was not known that they had found anything. To that he responded, “One thing I know, they won’t find arsenic.” Well, yes, that’s an innocent statement. Then he asked, “Suppose they put poison into her stomach yesterday, can it be known or ascertained?”

There is more, so much more, to show that Hendrickson was an all-around horrible human being, and that he may have tried to poison her once before. He claimed he got the venereal disease from a “fall on the railroad” while in Corning. He was caught passing a note to a prostitute. After his child’s death, he was courting a woman he had previously been engaged to. He gambled and stole and fought with his wife. A week after the death of his wife, he was “seen in the county jail dancing negro breakdowns and other hilarious dances with all the vehemence in his power, and subsequently doing the same on the Sabbath as well as on week days.”

The DA introduced evidence that she died by tincture of aconite, which created some particular effects revealed by autopsy, and which was found in her body. (You may know aconite as monkshood or wolf’s bane.) The post mortem was conducted by the esteemed Dr. Swinburne. With a preponderance of evidence of the terrible character of the suspect and his own semi-incriminating behavior, the jury did not delay in finding Hendrickson guilty, guilty, guilty.

In pronouncing sentence upon Hendrickson, Judge Richard P. Marvin showed tremendous prescience:

“…I desire to impress, not only upon you, but upon all, the fact, that as science advances – as it unfolds to the student the great storehouse of knowledge, and lets man penetrate into the very arcana of nature – that as it advances, step by step, it enables its votaries to detect the most subtle poisons, and to trace the very footsteps of crime. Chemists are enabled now, through the wonderful developments of science – and science detects your crime – to detect almost all poisons, whether vegetable or metallic, to trace out cases of poisoning, (no matter what may be the character of the poison administered), with almost unerring certainty. And it is as dangerous to attempt murder with the most subtle vegetable poison, and as certain to be detected, as if the murder were committed with the dirk or the stiletto. Your case may have its moral effect upon community in this view of it. Community should understand that the crime of murder cannot be committed in this day of light, in any manner or by any means, without leaving the evidence of guilt; and this evidence always points out, unerringly, to the guilty individual.”

The judge pronounced that on August 26th, 1853, Hendrickson was to be hung by the neck until he was dead. He was the first prisoner hanged in the new Maiden Lane jail.