Category Archives: Albany

World Changers: Joseph Henry

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Joseph HenryI suppose that Albany residents could be forgiven for not knowing that the man who figured out how to create an electromagnet, by winding wire around a magnet and running a current through it, figured this all out in Albany. I guess it could have escaped our attention that the man who created this invention (capable of lifting 3500 pounds — it was no toy) did so while teaching snotty-nosed schoolboys at the Albany Academy, in the building that still stands in Academy Park across from the Capitol and City Hall. And since we’re generally fuzzy on the principles of electricity, the fact that he also discovered electrical induction, and created the first telegraphic signal, and created some of the first elements of electric motors, can easily get lumped into a single sentiment: “He did a lot of electric stuff.” And since it had nothing to do with electricity, it would be easy to forget that he also developed meteorology into a science and drew up the first thing we’d recognize as a weather map. But when that same person from Albany also became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, an institution that anyone who has made it through the third grade knows and understands, then the thought that almost no one in Albany knows who Joseph Henry was is absolutely maddening.

Joseph Henry was born in Albany to Scottish immigrants William and Ann Henry in 1797. When his father died, Joseph was sent to live with his grandmother in Galway, New York. He went to school there and was apprenticed to a watchmaker and silversmith. In 1819, at 22 years of age, he was granted free admission to the Albany Academy, intending to go into medicine and supporting himself through teaching and tutoring. He became an assistant surveyor on a state road project and turned his mind toward engineering. He continued his studies and quickly became a teacher as well as a student, and in 1826 was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the Academy.

Birthplace of Modern Electricity marker

Birthplace of Modern Electricity marker (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Henry went on to teach at Princeton. In addition to inventing more and more of the essential components of modern electricity, he studied sunspots, and acoustics, and any number of other things. Alexander Graham Bell sought his advice in developing the telephone. After he died, John Phillip Sousa wrote “The Transit of Venus March” to commemorate the unveiling of a memorial statue. That statue in front of the original Smithsonian building? It’s not Smithson — it’s Joseph Henry.

Oh, yeah, did I mention he was from Albany?

Another local blogger has a nice little summary with some things that I missed. Joseph Henry did not spend a lot of time chilling out, it would seem.

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World-changers: Prologue

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President Arthur's Grave

President Arthur’s Grave (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Last week Marc McGuire at the Times-Union posted an article titled “Our Rich and Famous,” which included a poll for voting on the biggest “celebrity” to come from the Capital District. While the very word “celebrity” steers my mind toward vapid denizens of the entertainment world, his initial list didn’t completely miss people of actual importance from our area. He included Learned Hand, Charles Steinmetz, and Chester Arthur, along with a bunch of sports figures and TV & movie stars. But even a quick stroll through the Albany Rural Cemetery will turn up Albany residents who were more important to our nation’s and culture’s history than the woman who played a maid on “The Brady Bunch,” so for the next few days Hoxsie will be looking at important figures from Albany, Schenectady and Troy who made their mark on the world.

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World-Changers: Herman Melville

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Herman MelvilleHe may have written one of the most famous novels in history (if a novel much more talked about than read, at this moment). Okay, Herman Melville was born in New York City, but after a series of business reverses, his father brought the family to Albany and entered the fur trade just in time for the War of 1812 to put the final kibosh on the business of beaver exports. The family lived on what is now Clinton Square, across from where the Palace Theater now stands. Not long afterward, his father died, leaving the family penniless, even though Herman’s mother was a Gansevoort. Herman attended the Albany Academy for two brief periods, and in between he sought work on the Erie Canal but ended up as a hand on a ship to Liverpool. After finishing at the Academy, he became a schoolteacher and the family moved to Lansingburgh, where he also began to write seriously. In 1841 he left for Massachusetts, and signed aboard a Pacific sailing vessel; it was this trip, during which he lived among the Typee natives of the Marquesas Islands, that formed the basis for his first novel, Typee, which was a great success. Typee, Omoo and others are all but forgotten now, lost in the shadow of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale.

Photo of Herman Melville

Photo of Herman Melville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unappreciated in its day, Moby-Dick grew to be recognized as one of the greatest novels, and a uniquely American novel, coming at a time when home-grown literature was still often considered inferior to works from overseas.

Albany and Lansingburgh couldn’t hold Melville, though he did spend a number of the early years of his marriage in nearby Pittsfield before ending up his life in New York City

Way back when, All Over Albany had a great feature on a man whose entire library is made up of Moby-Dick.

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Postcard Week: Wellington Hotel

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Wellington Hotel postcardSeriously? Hoxsie has never featured the Wellington Hotel? Allow me to correct that with this kinda amazing postcard of Albany’s only “garage-in” hotel. Not sure exactly when it was published, though it seems to be pre-1927, since the building on the corner of State and South Pearl is the predecessor to the lovely National Savings Bank Building. And post-1911, since that’s when the 17-room Wellington expanded to more than 400 rooms. From its emphasis on its parking garage space, I’d put it somewhere in the ’20s. At that point the hotel was really two buildings, across Howard Street from each other. If redevelopment plans ever move forward, the facade at least will be retained; much of the rest of the building has already been demolished, along with its neighbors. Perhaps most surprisingly, the parking garage shown in this illustration still stands.

Postcard Week: New York State Capitol

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Capitol building, Albany postcardSurely you didn’t think we were going to get through all these old Albany postcards without a view of the State Capitol. As is commonly the case, there’s no indication of when this postcard was published, but it was mailed in 1909. The landscaping on this side of Washington Avenue is looking pretty rough, leading me to wonder if this was taken while the new State Education Building was under construction, which started in 1908. There were businesses and residences on the street before that, so I wouldn’t have expected the scrubby look.

This postcard was sent to Mrs. E.E. Reynolds of Hillside Farm, North Rochester, Massachusetts.

Dear Emma:

Helen and I as you will see are in Albany. We expect to start for home Thursday at 7-50 [?] at night and will arrive home Saturday morning at 2-20 a.m.

With love,

Postcard Week(s): Albany Waterfront

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Albany waterfront postcardPostcard Week has been held over by popular demand! It could turn into Postcard Month, or even Postcard Summer. (Just to be clear, by “popular demand,” I mean “the absolutely minimal amount of free time I have right now.”)

This undated postcard, printed for the Hudson River Day Line (one of their vessels can be seen to the left), shows the Albany waterfront. It’s at least post-1915, since the beautiful Marcus Reynolds-designed Delaware and Hudson headquarters is fully in the picture. The tall building along the breakwater is the Albany Yacht Club in somewhat grander times. The Maiden Lane Bridge, which carried trains across to Union Station, is just barely visible on the right edge.

Postcard Week: Albany City Hall

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Albany City Hall postcardA closer view of Albany’s beautiful City Hall, designed by famed architect H.H. Richardson, who also designed part of the new Capitol and a State Street home for stove magnate Grange Sard. City Hall opened in 1883.

This postcard was sent in 1916 to Miss Helen H. Hallan (?) of Wappingers Falls, whom we can presume wasn’t quite yet capable of reading it:

Dear Helen:

I hope you will say Da Da by the time I come home.



Postcard Week: Pierce Hall, Albany

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Pierce Hall, Girls' Dormitory. N.Y. State College for Teachers, Albany, N.Y.This undated postcard depicts Pierce Hall, “Girls’ Dormitory, N.Y. State College for Teachers, Albany, N.Y.” The obverse describes Albany but says not a thing about Pierce Hall, which opened in 1935 as a women’s residence hall and still stands today as part of the SUNY Albany downtown campus. SUNY Albany itself grew out of what was variously called the State Normal School or the State College for Teachers. This lovely structure is named for Anna E. Pierce, an 1884 graduate of the Normal School and the college’s first Dean of Women.

Sometimes I wonder how different Albany would be if Stanford University were located here, as it was intended to be, or if SUNY Albany had developed around its downtown campus instead of on an isolated parcel on the far end of town.

Postcard Week: City Hall, State Hall, Public High School

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City Hall, State Hall, High School postcard“View from the Steps of the State Capitol, showing City Hall, State Hall and Public High School, Albany, N.Y.”

This postcard, mailed in 1909, gives a view that isn’t too much changed a little more than a century later. City Hall is still the same. “State Hall” is now home of the State Court of Appeals, but was originally opened in 1840-42 as offices to relieve the crowding in the old Capitol building. The Court moved in 1916-17. And just visible to its left is the grand old Albany High School.

Noticeably missing from this postcard view is the statue of Philip Schuyler in front of City Hall.It wasn’t put up until around 1925.

Sender Bryant didn’t have much to say to Charlie Etts of Far Rockaway. Just “Greeting. Albany.”