Category Archives: Albany

Yellow Fever and Thanksgiving

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Portrait of John Jay

Portrait of John Jay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New York State’s first Thanksgiving proclamation came about, not  in remembrance of the Pilgrims, but in relief over the passing of an epidemic of yellow fever. And it was controversial even then.

John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States (among many other things), but he gave up that seat when elected Governor of New York (in absentia; he was in Britain at the time) in 1795. That autumn, yellow fever broke out in New York City. Now known to be a viral infection spread by mosquitoes, it was then little understood, but known to be contagious and carried by commerce. Tar was burned in the streets, in belief it would purify. Governor Jay proclaimed that vessels from the West Indies must be held at Governor’s Island until they were certified free of the disease. The Governor of Pennsylvania forbid “all intercourse” between Philadelphia and New York for a month. Although previous epidemics were far worse in terms of death, this one led significant segments of the population to leave the city, in a general sense of panic. Rotting fruits, carcasses and even cotton were pulled from stores and burned in the belief they could spread the disease.

Once cold set in, the fever abated (as we now know, because the mosquitoes become dormant). Governor Jay issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, a day for “his fellow citizens throughout the State to unite in public thanksgiving to that Being through whose Providence the ravages of the yellow fever had been stayed.” (As Chief Justice, Jay had presided over only four cases; none of them had to do with separation of church and state.) This was met with strident criticism by stalwarts of the Democratic party, who saw it as typical Federalist expansion of executive powers. William Jay’s “The Life of John Jay” explains that in New England, such days of thanksgiving had long been customary and were provided for in law; but in New York, such days had never been appointed by civil authority, and the law and the new constitution (which John Jay drafted) made no such provision.

Jay anticipated the objections in his proclamation:

“Whether the governor of this State is vested with authority to appoint a day for this purpose, and to require and enjoin the observance of it, is a question which, circumstanced as it is, I consider as being more proper for the Legislature than for me to decide. But as the people of the State have constituted me their chief magistrate, and being perfectly convinced that national prosperity depends, and ought to depend, on national gratitude and obedience to the Supreme Ruler of all nations, I think it proper to recommend, and I therefore do earnestly recommend to the clergy and others of my fellow-citizens throughout this State to set apart Thursday, the 26th November, instant, for the purposes aforesaid, and to observe it accordingly.”

One objection by John Sloss Hobart asked, “Do my glasses magnify too much when I fancy I see the cloven foot of monarchy in this business?” His argument? That if the clergy could not “intermeddle with the political concerns of the community; the door is for ever barred against them,” then there should be no civil interference with their authority. “It may happen that our civil governor may recommend a thanksgiving to be celebrated on the same day which our spiritual governors had set apart for fasting.”

A day of national thanksgiving was first proclaimed by President George Washington in 1789. He did so again in 1795, the same year as Jay. New York started making annual proclamations of a day of thanksgiving in 1817.

So whatever you’re thankful for today, you can at least be thankful that you don’t have yellow fever.

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Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

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One of the defining parts of the Albany skyline for decades was dedicated on this day, Nov. 21, in 1852. Patrick C. Keely was the architect for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, for which the cornerstone was laid July 4, 1848. Now somewhat overshadowed by the gargantuan architecture of the Empire State Plaza, the Cathedral dominated its surroundings for more than a hundred years. In many panoramic photographs, it is a notable point of reference among a sea of two- and three-story rowhouses.

The Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company.

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The Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company, 1898. Telegraphs and stocks might make some sense together . . . after all, the early stock tickers were essentially telegraph devices. That this company also dealt in grain and provisions seems a bit odd. Just a few years after this, in 1903, the company would be involved in a case before the State Court of Appeals that makes the nature of its business no clearer, and involves the kinds of exchanges that must make judges just want to beat the witnesses:

Q: Where was 47 James Street at that time?
A: You are asking me something I don’t know much about.
Q: Are there two companies?
A: Yes, the Municipal Telegraph and Stock Company is our company.
Q: What is the other?
A: The Municipal Telegraph Company.

And so it goes.

An exuberance of rodents!

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Beaver lunch

Beaver lunch (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Again, Joel Munsell writing in 1876, this time of the creek known as the Rutten kill (as we’d spell kill today), which ran freely through what is now downtown Albany:

“Going back again a hundred years before the times mentioned as having tried men’s souls, we find ourselves in the neighborhood of the Dutch church. The portion of Handelaer street below State was not yet known as Court street, nor the upper portion as Market street [and therefore, none of it was yet Broadway, as it all is today]. Between State and Beaver was what was called the Great bridge, over the Rutten kil. The Rutten kil had its origin in copious springs on the upper side of Lark street, and as if out of the pond that once stood there, I perceive has arisen the spire of an imposing church edifice. Timbers of great length were sometimes ordered by the common council to span this creek in making repairs to the bridge. It was undoubtedly then a formidable stream, which had been populous with beaver and stocked with fish; no merely a sewer, with an exuberance of rodents!”

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Green(e) Street

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It’s a shame that one of Albany’s oldest streets, Green Street, is barely known today. Other than the LaSerre restaurant, it is primarily a street of parking lots. It wasn’t always so. In fact, it was on Green Street, in the home of Gov. John Tayler, that Alexander Hamilton uttered words that gave rise to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

Joel Munsell gave Green Street a thorough going-over in 1876:

John Tayler

John Tayler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“As I am now speaking of matters pertaining to the present century, I may, with propriety, mention that Gov. John Tayler lived on the corner of Green street, and that after his death his house was removed and a portion of the lot taken to widen that street, about 1832. Gov. Tayler died in 1829, aged nearly 87. He had filled a large space in the political history of the state, and was the first president of the State Bank, where his portrait may now be seen.

“Green street was early spoken of as the Vodden markt, that is, the Rag market, and later as Cheapside. It was finally named Greene street, in compliment to Gen. Greene of the revolution, and raising a point in orthography it should on that account be written with a final ‘e’. Some of you will remember when it was a narrow street, merely enough to allow the passage of a single vehicle; and the city then being thronged with stage coaches — for at that period travelers were taken to every point of the compass by stage, and there being then three famous taverns, before they came to be called hotels, and Bement’s recess there also — it was often so blocked that passage could be made but one way, and that was usually to the south.

“There was the old Stone tavern, kept by James Colvin, and on the corner of Beaver was Dunn’s coffee house, while on the upper corner of Green and Beaver was the City tavern, kept by Peter Germond, and previously by Hugh Denniston, known in colonial times as the King’s Arms. The ancient sign of this house bore the effigy of King George, and one of the early outbursts of patriotism in the revolution spent its fury in wresting that obnoxious emblem of royalty from its hangings, and it was burnt in State street.

“The mansion of Gov. Tayler, on the lower corner of State and Greene streets, is still dimly remembered, a broad two story house with a hipped roof, the front door divided in the centre into an upper and a lower door, like most of the old doors, the stoop provided with a bench on each side of the door, where he often sat in pensive contemplation after the manner of early times.

“On the opposite corner of Green street, is still standing the store of the renowned William James, the merchant prince of the time, but less imposing in appearance now than when surrounded by one and a half story gable enders, and when five-story edifices were unknown. Mr. James died in 1832. His conspicuous position among the merchants of Albany, and his almost unparalleled prosperity in those days of lesser things, can hardly be appreciated by the younger portion of merchants.”

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Staats House

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Joel Munsell in his “Men And Things in Albany Two Centuries Ago” (1876) described the now-long-gone historic house at the corner of South Pearl and State:

“What is now South Pearl street was only a narrow irregular lane leading to the Lutheran church and its burial ground adjoining on the south, bounded by the open Rutten kil, and all below, beyond the stockades, was called the plain. A gate swung across this lane at State street, and the house that stood on the lower corner is represented to have been elaborately finished compared with most of the houses of the time, being wainscotted and ornamented with tiles and carvings . . . Before Pearl street was opened to its present width, the corner house, removed for that purpose, was long known as Lewis’s tavern. In one of these twin houses Madame Schuyler, the American Lady of Mrs. Grant, resided, during the time her house at the Flats was being rebuilt, and in one of them Gen. Philip Schuyler of the revolution is said to have been born. The committee of safety held its sessions here also. The street was for many years known as Washington street.

“The house now remaining on that corner is regarded as the oldest edifice in the city. There formerly ran across the front of these two houses, under the eaves, in iron letters, the words Anno Domini; and below, over the first story, the figures, also in iron, 1667. When the upper house was taken away, the word ANNO was left on the house still standing, and remains there now conspicuously; and I well remember when the figures were there also; but the owner, who was proud of them for a time, conceived the notion that the great age of his house tended to depreciate its value, and removed them.”

On the site today? There wasn’t that much glass in the colony in 1695.

Albany, 1695

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One last map because it’s too great to resist. From Joel Munsell’s “Men and Things in Albany Two Centuries Ago,” this magnificent diagram depicts Albany in 1695. The original was made by Rev. John Miller, chaplain of the English grenadiers. At the top of the map (which is the westernmost point – maps of Albany have long defied the customary north-at-the-top orientation) is Fort Frederick, at the top of what is now State Street, below the modern Capitol. The circles marked ’10’ are stockades, made from broad logs generally 13′ high; ‘7’ marks the blockhouses and ’11’ marks the “City gates 6 in all.”

The streets are familiar to anyone who knows downtown Albany. Pearl Street’s name is unchanged; Jonkers is now State, and Handlers, the mercantile center, became Broadway. Gone from the center of the intersection is the original Dutch church; Akum Norder gives a delightful account of how it was replaced on the same spot without disrupting services.

By 1695 there was a Lutheran Church (number ‘3’), somewhat tucked away from the main street. Its burial place was right beside it, whereas the Dutch burial ground was at the edge of the city.

The “Stadhuis, or City Hall,” was down at the end of Handlers Street, along what is now the Plaza in front of the SUNY Administration Building.

Down at the river’s edge, Number 9, a “Great gun to clear a gulley.” Presumably this gun had a command of the river.

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The Lumber District, then and now

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Lumber district 1895 and 2012Another view of Albany’s Lumber District, once one of the busiest in the world, to show what was there in 1895 and what is there today. At the time, the combination of Erie Canal and rail access made this an extremely important lumber handling center, and of course many other industries were settled in this little area as well. Today, some of the streets are the same, but all evidence of the canal and all its wharfs is gone, as is Patroon Lower Island, no longer an island and only remembered because the bridge that carries I-90 above it is called the Patroon Island Bridge. Click to see it larger.

 

Albany’s Lumber District, 1857

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Lumber district map
Lots of Albany streets look pretty much look the same as they have for centuries. Not the Lumber District. A time traveling lumber worker from 1857, when this map was made, would be amazed to find the streets, canals, quays, and warehouses all gone, with hardly a sign remaining of their ever having been there. The Albany Basin, seen in the lower left, is completely filled in. The Canal Basin, as well. Other than a historic marker, there’s no evidence that the most important water highway in our country’s history, the Erie Canal, was ever even there. Coming from a time when thousands were employed here, he’d be stunned to find the streets streets with names he’d recognize to be largely empty. There are still freight trains running up what is marked as the “Canada Rail Road.” Montgomery Street is broken up and stubbed; Quay Street (closest to the river on the left) remains primarily as a highway access road, and the rest of it is underneath Interstate 787. The waterfront, from the boat launch to the east of Ferry Street downriver to the Corning Preserve, is now recreational, rather than the booming, working waterfront it was back then.

Another set of views is here.