Category Archives: Schenectady

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.

 

Plane Boys

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Speaking of Schenectady staples, that faded WGY Coin and Stamp sign was on the side of an old building, now gone, that we best remember as housing Plane Boys. A source of auto parts ad accessories, they also provided automotive service. Anti-freeze, dri-gas, snow tires, and Delco batteries. And sporting goods. Oh, yeah, and bicycles. It was the dream location for certain bicycle-obsessed teenage boys in the 1970s. We never actually bought a bicycle there, and it’s certain that the occasional set of tires, toe clips and handlebar tape we picked up from there wasn’t what kept them in business, but going in there and dreaming of those 10-speeds was always magical. They had a Campagnolo set, for crying out loud . . . they had to be serious.

Plane Boys Grand Opening 2 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

Plane Boys Grand Opening 1963

From the grand opening of the new location in 1963

 

The company started in 1945. For many years they were at 111 State Street, at the corner of State and Church in a building that still stands but has never returned to continuous prosperity. They expanded to other locations on upper State Street and 900 Central Avenue in Albany. In 1963, they opened a modern location at 123 State Street, where owners Hy, Lou and Joe Plaine “decided the store’s customer needs could better be served with larger facilities . . . The new store is completely air-conditioned and its variety of wares consists of auto accessories, tires, auto seat covers, storage batteries and auto parts including mufflers, spark plugs, floor mats and other parts.”

But most important: “Also sold by the Plane Boys, operating under the corporate title of Plane Realty Co., Inc., are sporting goods and toys, new discount record department, new muffler shop, television and small appliances, houseware and hardware, and toiletries. New feature at the store is a snack bar for the convenience of customers.” They opened the new store Nov. 21, 1963. (A day later, the nation would be shocked by assassination and probably thinking very little of sporting goods.)

We’re not sure when they left this modern location. Eventually the family business would morph into skis and bicycles, and in recent years has been growing again with multiple locations under various names in the Capital District, including Albany’s Broadway Bicycle Co.

Plane Boys 1967

1967 Ad for Plane Boys

Plane Boys 1973

1973 Ad for Plane Boys

Ran-Zee Sign

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Ran-Zee Sign LogoAnother old picture from a stray wander around Schenectady, already 10 years ago. On an old concrete wall underneath the railroad tracks, along the parking lot at Broadway and Liberty, the remnants of some old painted signs were tucked under a tangle of vines, and the only bit that could be made out was the sign-painter’s mark, the logo of Ran-Zee Signs. Unfortunately, we’ve never found much about this company.

An obituary from 2004 says that Michael DeMartino was the owner and operator of Ran-Zee Signs on Albany Street from 1959-1997. A graduate of Nott Terrace High School, he attended Republic School of Sign Painting in New York City, and was employed for several years at ALCO where he used his skill applying gold leaf lettering to the locomotive engines. He was also a free lance artist.

We don’t know where else his mark may be found around Schenectady or the surrounding cities . . . I’m hoping there are still plenty of his little marks to be found. If you want to see this one, though, we’d recommend searching for it in the winter, because this was the state of the vines in 2011:

Street View Broadway and Ferry

WGY Coin & Stamp

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WGY Coin & Stamp Co.We recently ran across this picture we took 10 years ago of a fading sign for parking for the WGY Coin & Stamp Company of Schenectady. This was affixed to the side of the building at the corner of State and South Ferry, now gone. WGY Coin and Stamp was long a fixture at 120 State Street, and later at 142, though as nothing more than the most amateur of schoolboy philatelists, we rarely ventured inside. Unlike the grocery stores that licensed the name, we don’t find an indication of any particular relationship between the numismatic dealer and its namesake radio station. While we have found at least two gentlemen associated with it who have passed on in recent years, we found little on the business or its ownership. In a 1970 edition of the Gazette, it was listed as one of Schenectady’s businesses that had been around for under five years, putting its genesis somewhere after 1965.

WGY Coin Co. Ad

Fishing Is Dangerous!

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Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” from 1919 gives us an unsurprisingly romantic view of the Schenectady General Electric works at that time. In addition to providing us with Charles Steinmetz’s private shorthand method, its appendix section (titled “Fragments”) gave a little recitation of industrial accident facts to show that life at GE was pretty safe, especially in comparison to some occupations.

“A man who fishes for a living is really in a very dangerous occupation, as on the average three men out of 1,000 lose their lives at this work every year. Comparing this with the figures of the General Electric fatalities . . . it is seen that in round umbers that it is 30 times more dangerous to fish for a living than to work in the General Electric shops, surrounded by high pressure steam, high voltage electricity, with tons of steel and cast iron being swung over your head by the electric cranes, and with tens of thousands of tons of freight moved daily on the two railway systems within the works.”

industrial-accidents-1919Using figures from 1913, Ripley showed that pretty much every industry of the time had a significantly higher rate of fatal accidents than the GE Schenectady works did. At a time when the works employed nearly 21,000 people, it suffered only two fatalities in 1916 (a rate of 0.099 per 1000). Only the line of “general” manufacturing even approached GE’s rate, at 0.25 per thousand. Only the overall rate for “all other occupied females” fared better than GE, at 0.075 per thousand.

“Who would ever imagine that men engaged in agricultural pursuits, the farmers, should suffer from a high rate of ‘industrial accident?’” Hoxsie has met a lot of farmers and even today, their fingers often don’t add up to 10, so this is no surprise.

It’s a little hard to make a comparison to the present day, as what is included in these categories may have changed over time. What then fell under draymen and teamsters would almost certainly be truck drivers and freight loaders today, with a whole different set of threats. It’s certainly safer today to be a street railway employee, though the opportunities have also decreased. But for even a rough comparison, the building and construction trade saw 1875 deaths in 1913. In 2014, the private construction industry saw an uptick in fatalities, to a total of 899 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). If you lump together mining and quarrying in 1913, there were 3560 fatalities. A century and a year later, fatal injuries in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries rose to 183. BLS now lumps farming, fishing and forestry together, with 253 deaths (77 of those in logging) in 2014; in 1913, that number was probably more like 5,447.

Since those are absolute numbers, not rates, it helps to have a little bit of perspective. In 1913, the US population was about 97.23 million. In 2014, it was about 318.9 million – 3.28 times greater.

So for everyone who says, “We didn’t used to have all this safety stuff, and we were fine” – no, you weren’t. You died in droves. Unless, of course, you worked at the Schenectady works.

How Dr. Steinmetz Writes

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steinmetz-introductionCharles Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” is a 1919 love letter to the Schenectady General Electric works, printed by the Gazette Press, and with an introduction by none other than Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, the electrical wizard. In an afterword section titled “Fragments,” Ripley presented a short explanation of “How Dr. Steinmetz Writes,” detailing his self-created shorthand.

“Dr. Steinmetz, one of the greatest authorities on matters electrical, and an author of many volumes useful to the scientific world, possesses no ‘neck in the bottle,’ when it comes to jotting down the results of his researches in his wonderful laboratory at Schenectady. All of his writing is done in shorthand; that is, this shorthand is the medium between his mind and the typewriter and printing press.”

He goes on to quote Steinmetz as saying:

“With this shorthand I can write as fast as I can think. The only other way in which I could put down my thoughts as fast as I could think, would be to dictate to a phonograph but I have not always a phonograph with me. I learned this shorthand while I was in high school in Europe, and while in college took all of my notes in shorthand. All of these notes I have preserved and had bound, and I can read them as well after thirty-five years as I could after thirty-five minutes.”

Here please allow Hoxsie to admit that his own handwriting is often indecipherable after 35 seconds.

Ripley said that Steinmetz’s system, evolved as the best adapted for writing on electrical subjects, was based on the Arends stenography system taught in Europe, under which words were written phonetically, such that “height” would be written as h, long i, t.

steinmetz-shorthand“With a view of affording every reader some knowledge of Dr. Steinmetz’ system, a reproduction is given of the alphabet, written out by the famous electrical wizard himself. A second illustration is given [shown above] which shows the start and finish of Dr. Steinmetz’ introduction at the beginning of this book and how it looked when written originally by him in his shorthand. The space required for the shorthand is but approximately one-third of the introduction when typed with double spaced lines.”

The Centennial Exhibition Awards Capital District Manufactures

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Centennial ExhibitionLast week we mentioned that Edgar Smith’s dry air refrigerator, a product of Albany manufacture, was featured at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, what was essentially the first world’s fair held in the United States and a celebration of the tremendous progress, particularly industrial and agricultural progress, the young country had made in the course of its first century, and the extremely promising future that events seemed to portend. Thousands of items of manufacture were presented at the Exhibition; of those, hundreds were singled out for awards by an international jury – the awards were given in categories like “Clothing, Furs, India-Rubber Goods, Etc.” and “Agricultural Machines, Implements of Agriculture, etc.” Smith’s refrigerator (“Will keep ice Twenty Days, and fresh meat Two Weeks”) was a long way from the only item featured at the Centennial Exhibition.

The firms below were all recognized with awards – after their names are the things they were awarded for; in some cases, Burr’s “Memorial of the International Exhibition” gave us some idea of what else they had shown.

Albany was represented by:

Newton and Co.: fire brick linings for stoves, ranges, and heaters. They were on Rathbone Street, and here’s their great letterhead from 1863.

Mrs. Treadwell and Co.: seal skins (though the reference to Mrs. Treadwell is confusing; the company was well-known as George C. and then George H. Treadwell).

Graves, Bull and Co: shoe lasts and patterns.

Thomas Feary [sic: Fearey] and Son: shoes. We’ve spoken of Thomas Fearey, makers of the Hatch flexible shoe, before.

Smith Refrigerator Co.: dry air refrigerator, “containing fruits and meats that have been long kept.”

Jason Gould [sic: Goold] and Co.: sleighs. The Goold family was renowned for making the Albany sleigh, the very model of Santa’s sleigh, and after the horseless carriage took over, they got into auto bodies and existed until 1951. they showed sleighs, carriages, and coaches on runners, seven in all worth $8000.

Henry Q. Hawley, gas heating and cooking furnaces and water motors. We couldn’t find anything about Hawley, until we found a “Memorial of the International Exhibition” that said that Hawley was a Philadelphia agent for the actual company,  Henry A. Haskell. The engine was “a motor that costs $40, to run sewing machines, &c., by the supply through the pipes of city water works.” The gas apparatus, ascribed to Hawley, was a furnace for heating and cooking by gas. “Cost, two cents an hour. Burns without flame and does not poison the air.”

P.K. Dederick and Co.: perpetual baling press. Dederick’s company was the Albany Agricultural and Machine Works, a massive factory in Tivoli Hollow. Three sizes of the baling press were shown: hand, horse, and steam. “The largest will press twenty tons of hay per day, requiring to operate six horse power. In a building located east of Agricultural Hall is a large display of farm wagons, portable steam engines. All the machines are well built.”

Wheeler, Millick and Co.: horse hay rake and straw preserving rye thresher. Also given as Wheeler & Melick Co., New York State Agricultural Works. They were established in 1830 (according to the Memorial), employed 125 men and had capital of $186,000. They exhibited “threshing machines, one-dog power, double and single horse powers, a rye thresher that leaves the straw straight for binding, tread and lever powers, a combined thresher and cleaner, thresher and shaker, and forms. The entire display has been sold to the Japanese Government.”

William A. Wood Co.: reaping machine.

Charles Fasoldt: astronomical tower clock. He exhibited “very handsome and accurate astronomical and tower clocks.”

E.D. [Erastus Dow] Palmer: sculpture. To say the least.

Regents of the University of N.Y.: Full set of reports and documents (in the category of Education and Science).

Dudley Olcott: Native English Setter Dog (who received a special award – he was a good dog, Brent).

Mrs. C. Hewitt Pfordt: embroidery. We’ll speak more of her soon.

Troy was represented by:

The Albany and Rensselaer Iron and Steel Company was demonstrating its Bessemer steel and wrought iron rails, bars, forgings, axles, spikes, nails and horseshoes. This was the company of Amasa J. Parker. They also showed “a fine array of rails, twisted to show their quality.”

Henry Burden (though it was typed as Burgden) and Sons were awarded for wrought iron bars and horse and mule shoes, and for its horseshoe machine model. We’ve written about Henry Burden quite a bit.

The Henry J. Seymour Chair Co.: chairs.

E. Waters: Paper cans for kerosene oil, and of course paper boats. The “Memorial” said “The firm has been established about nine years, and employs 15 men. Their exhibit consists of one six-oared coxwain gig, forty-six feet six inches long, twenty-five inches wide, and weighs 195 pounds. Value, $350. One four-oared shell, thirty-eight feet long by sixteen inches wide, weighs 78 pounds. Value, $260. Double shell, thirty-four feet long and fourteen inches wide, weighs 39, and is worth $160. One single shell, twenty-eight feet long by twelve inches beam, weighs 30 pounds. Value, $115. Also, a single scull, twenty-six feet long by eleven and a quarter inches beam, weighs 20-1/4 pounds. One Adirondack gig. All the boats are made of paper and furnished with the latest improvements. In all the races in the United States this year, the winning boats were made by this firm. They also exhibit kerosene oil cans and camp stools made of paper. Also, a water-tight joint, in which the tongue is made of prepared paper, and fits into a groove, where it swells when touched by water.”

Harrison and Kellogg: castings of malleable iron and coach wrenches. They also showed gearing and screw-wrenches.

Ludlow Valve Manufacturing Co.: sliding stop valves and fire hydrants. Ludlow had a lovely letterhead. They showed a large water valve of 36 inches, and a full set of small brass valves.

Empire Portable Forge Co.: portable forge.

Albert L. Betts: wire machine. He was showing ready-made wire fencing.

W. and L.E. Gurley: transits, levels, compasses, etc. Not sure why we’ve never written about Gurley before – they may be the only area business that exhibited at the Centennial Exposition that is still in existence. They showed “Civil Engineers’ and Surveyors’ instruments exhibited in a neat room in the aisle. Value of exhibit $15,000. Hands employed, 114. Capital used, $350,000.”

Swett, Quimby and Perry: graphic parlor stove and Empire heating range.

Fuller, Warren and Co.: stoves, furnaces, ranges, etc. One of the area’s major stove manufacturers, Fuller, Warren lasted until 1951. They also had operations in Chicago, Cleveland and New York at the time of the Exposition. “The building containing this exhibit is located on Fountain avenue, west of Machinery Hall. It has the sides of glass, thus affording light sufficient to minutely examine the concrete. The decorations are chaste and elaborate, and make one of the most attractive edifices on the grounds. In the interior are shown their theaters, ranges, cooking and parlor stoves of every description. Upon many of these the most prominent parts have been nickel plated. Several of the stoves were kept running during the entire exhibition, so that they might be easily understood by visitors. To make and continue this display the firm have been to an enormous expense, though the praise elicited from all, and the favor with which they have been received have partially reimbursed them.”

West Troy, now known as Watervliet, was represented by:

James Roy and Co.: shawls. They showed “Woolen cloths and shawls in profusion, and very elegant.”

J.M. Jones and Co.: street car for two horses. It was described in the Memorial as a “Handsomely finished street car.”

Schenectady, not yet really an industrial town, had only one representative awarded in the exhibition: G. Westinghaus [sic] and Co., showing their horse and steam powered threshing machines. George Westinghouse definitely left his mark on Schenectady and was very well regarded in the agricultural implement world. His son became just a little more famous.

Cohoes was represented by:

William Harrabin: anti-friction top rollers. The Memorial listed him as “Wm. T. Horrobin,” and said he was a maker of top rollers and other appliances for cotton factories, pipe cutting and threading machines, transverse wheel card grinder, miniature knitting machines, and Snow’s standard water-wheel governor. They had been 16 years in business and employed 150 hands, with capital of $200,000.

Star Knitting Co.: underwear. Star was one of about 17 mills running in Cohoes at the time.

Campbell and Clute: upright rotary knitting machine.

Amelia Earhart in Albany

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Earhart in AlbanyWhile we’re talking aviation and Albany:

In 1935, Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous people in the world, a pioneer in aviation and women’s causes. She was well-known even before her 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic, but that act propelled her into the stratosphere, so to speak. She wrote a book, went on exhaustive lecture tours, endorsed consumer products like luggage and cigarettes, and promoted a line of clothes sold by Macy’s and inspired by her own sensibilities. So wherever she went, it was a big deal. And at the end of 1935, she came to Albany.

We’ve found a dozen or more articles announcing her impending visit, which was to be sponsored by the City Club of Albany and would take place in the Philip Livingston Junior High School on December 19, 1935. The club publicized the heck out of this.

“The entire membership of the City club is lined up back of the activities committee in their efforts to make the visit of Amelia Earhart at Albany on Thursday, December 19, one of the outstanding events in this city. ‘Adventures of the Skyways’ is the topic Miss Earhart has chosen for her talk … Hailed everywhere as a speaker of exceptional freshness and charm, Miss Earhart will, in her talk, share with her audience the experiences and thrills of the preparation, the hours in the air and the aftermath of her record-breaking flights. In spite of the many honors that have been heaped upon Miss Earhart due to her distinguished air service, she still retains a naturalness and modesty that endears her to her public.”

The article then goes on to name 39 women working on the event (most of them as ushers) in four groups. It wasn’t the only time every committee member would be named, either. Mayor John Boyd Thacher would be on hand to greet Miss Earhart, and Dr. Paul Hemke, head of the department of aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was invited to sit on the platform. The Exchange Club’s aeronautical committee, “which sponsors the building and study of airplanes among boys ranging from 15 to 20 years of age,” would be on hand to present her with a model of the plan in which she flew the Atlantic, and would have a display of other model planes at the school.

On the day of the event, the Times-Union printed an article headlined “Earhart Would End Wars By Making Women Go,” saying that in the afternoon Earhart talked equal rights and equal responsibilities for women, especially in warfare, a “thesis with which she shocked a national congress of Daughters of the American Revolution months ago.” She argued that putting women in uniform would “take all the fun out of war,” and that militaristic women should be psychoanalyzed. It appears that this was just lunchtime conversation with a reporter wherever she was prior to her speaking engagement that evening.

“There was nothing of the traditional suffragist mein about this young woman whose pacifist convictions are as well known as her airway exploits. Often described as ‘boyish,’ there is nothing of the ‘mannish’ about her. Her manner is quiet, friendly, earnest, or amused, by turns, wholly feminine and gentle … Earhart’s major interest is women. She wants to know why women are not news photographers, why they do not invade every field monopolized by men.”

Just a few days before that, the Times-Union had run an article headlined “Girls of Today Intent on Jobs, Says Earhart.” She was then acting as a consultant lecturer at Purdue University, and said “Ninety-two per cent of the Purdue girls who came to me while I was lecturing there wished to occupy themselves gainfully. This shows a tremendous advance, in that, that women are interested industrially, economically. And I don’t think it means that the material, the domestic instinct is erased in their attitude. The home is still predominant, but modern appliances – the machine age, have corrected things so that women have more leisure to adapt themselves to an outside sphere.” She said the girls at Purdue had inquired about every field from radio to running a hotel. “‘There were some,’ she says, ‘who were interested in becoming hostesses on planes.'” By the way, this is the only article that also mentioned that Earhart would speak in Schenectady on Dec. 20, twice – once in the afternoon for children, and in the evening for the general public.

In her Albany speech, Earhart disclaimed any scientific contribution to flying, in spite of her intense interest in science, and said the lure of flying is the lure of beauty. “Her response to the beauty of scattered clouds, billowing mountainous clouds, endless expanses of black water with starlit highlights, thousands of brilliant white stars blazing in the blue-black of a midnight sky – this has been her dominant experience during her trail-blazing flights that have arrested a world.” The newspaper said she sketched the highlights of her career, and tried to clear the record on a famous communication she made on her then-recent trans-Pacific flight from Honolulu to Oakland, CA, where it was reported that she had said “I am getting tired.” “‘I had been flying for some time over fog, creamy white and piled high, like the beaten whites of eggs,’ she said. ‘What I actually said was: “I am getting tired of this fog.” The land stations missed the last words, because I spoke carelessly.'”

Already faced with the kinds of rumors about her personal life that are nowadays considered news, she addressed that she had taken on the flight because she was bored with her husband, publisher George Palmer Putnam, saying that without him, there could be no flights, and that she was reassured by the sound of his voice on the other end of the radio

“A determined but very feminine feminist, Miss Earhart is eager for the acceptance of aviation by women – and their participation in aviation. ‘Women should try to get outside their platitudinous sphere,’ she said.”

Not A Good Time To Be Named “Union Station”

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Schenectady Union Station Demolition 1971

From a photograph by John Papp held by the Schenectady Public Library, the demolition of Schenectady’s Union Station in 1971.

While there was a great hue and cry over the loss of Albany’s Union Station, the demise and demolition of Schenectady’s Union Station, happening at the same time for the same reasons, seems to have been met with more of a sense of resignation.

On the eve of the old station’s closure, on Friday, June 27, 1969, The Schenectady Gazette published an editorial simply titled “The Depot.”

“A significant event in the history of American railroading will take place at midnight Saturday. The Schenectady railroad station will close . . . It’s especially noteworthy because one of the first railroads in America (in this area we like to say it was the first) was constructed between Albany and Schenectady. The Schenectady depot bears the initials, “N.Y.C. & H.R.R.R.” for New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. When you look at the crumbling station you are reminded of the days when freight trains and passenger trains were coming and going night and day through Schenectady . . .

It is understandable that Penn Central wanted to close the Schenectady depot, for, like most railroad stations built half a century or more ago, it is a large mausoleum which no doubt impressed everybody when it was constructed but which is thoroughly impractical for this day and age, costing a mint of money to heat and to keep in satisfactory repair (which is thy there are not many people who want to buy it to make use of it as it stands).

With only a few customers, an old railroad station is like a gourd with a few seeds rattling around in it. The new station in Colonie is bitterly resented by some people, partly because it’s “out in the country” and because, as traditional railroad stations go, it’s very small. Yet, sad to say, it is probably large enough for the number of customers the railroad will have at least in the near future.”

On the same day, the paper reported that the real estate division of the Penn Central was negotiating for the sale of the station, “in keeping with the promise made to city officials two years ago at a Public Service Commission hearing.” It appeared that their big idea was to “convert the building into an opera house.” In March of that year, it had been reported that the Schenectady Light Opera Company had been negotiating for purchase of the 1908 facility, at an undisclosed price. From the Amsterdam Daily Democrat and Recorder:

“According to Light Opera Co. officials, the railroad station has great potential for development into a community theater seating about 500. An estimated cost of the necessary renovations has been set at $183,000. If the property is acquired a fund-raising campaign will be launched to pay for the building and renovations. According to Don Bush, chairman of the group’s committee to obtain a permanent home, ‘this is the best opportunity to come along in the 15 years of the group.’ The opera company is presently limited to two shows each year. With their own building, four or five shows each year would be permissible.”

Well, that didn’t happen, which may be one reason Schenectady Light Opera Company is still around today.

Whatever other talks were had about the future of Union Station came to nothing, and it was soon decided that it would be demolished. A February 13, 1971 article by the Gazette’s Larry Hart detailed its impending demolition.

“When it was opened to the public 63 years ago this month, given a community welcome with a formal dance held in the great hall, everyone was impressed with the grandeur of the interior – the great vaulted ceiling, curved mahogany benches, gleaming marble facing on all walls and the long line of ticket windows. This was Schenectady’s third station (not counting the western terminal on upper Crane Street, built for the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad about 1835) and was built and finished in 1908 in coordination with raised tracks throughout the city.”

Schenectady Union Station 1971With the demolition of the station, parts of the railroad bridges over State and Liberty Streets, and most of the buildings on Wall Street, all that would be left would be an 180-car public parking lot. Other than a little bit that was turned into the “new” Schenectady Station in 1979, the bulk of the space remains a parking lot.

How Penn Central Ruined Everything, Railwise

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Those who remember Albany’s Union Station as a glorious destination in the ’50s and ’60s most likely benefit from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. A 1969 column in the Knickerbocker News acknowledged that “In its dying days, Albany’s Union Station was an odiferous and dingy cavern, but still, if you looked hard, you could see traces of the station’s earlier grandeur.” If you grew up later than the ’70s, you may not be able to understand just how dingy cities were back then – between coal ash, diesel fumes, and the horrendous exhaust that came out of each and every automobile, every structure was covered in soot. Likely the exterior of Union Station had never been cleaned, and by some accounts the same could be said of the inside.

Hoxsie hesitates to even bring this up because it excites passions even today, nearly 50 years after passenger railroads left Albany proper. But it’s worth looking at what caused Union Stations in Albany and Schenectady to be left behind, two “modern” new stations to be built in Rensselaer and Colonie, and the general collapse of passenger rail at about the same time.

For starters, understand that in the 1960s, passenger rail was deeply unprofitable, under assault from air travel, private automobiles, and truck freight on superhighways. The Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central had discussed merging as early as 1957, when things weren’t quite so dire. The Pennsylvania started focusing more on real estate deals than on railroading, resulting in the destruction of its landmark Penn Station in New York City. When merger talks began again, they were said to be more about creating more borrowing power for financing other ventures than about consolidating an efficient business. The merger was federally approved in 1965, but took until early 1968 before the US Supreme Court finally allowed it. The merger apparently was never well-planned; the condition that all existing workers continue in employment ensured no efficiency would be gained, and a struggling economy, growing inflation and bad management of the freight business alienated customers. By 1970, the company would be bankrupt, and its collapse would lead to the federal creation of Conrail and Amtrak.

As early as 1960, there were plans to run an interstate highway along the Hudson River around Albany. Planned routes varied, but they kept coming back to plans that would eliminate most of the rail along the river. This would be difficult to do so long as the main rail crossing was the Maiden Lane Bridge – the highway would have to go over or under the tracks that connected the bridge to Union Station, causing some definite planning difficulties and leading state transportation officials to favor a plan that would simply eliminate that bridge.

As we have noted before, the Rensselaer side of the river had a long history of passenger travel, though it could not really be said that it had anything approximating a station in 1968. Albany was home not only to the New York Central / Penn Central passenger line, but also to the Delaware and Hudson line that ran through Watervliet and Mechanicville to Montreal. With the loss of the Maiden Lane bridge, both railroads had the excuse and reason to get out of an outdated, expensive-to-maintain station facility at Albany; the Schenectady station would also be closed. But, if the Maiden Lane Bridge had to go, trains still had to be able to cross the river, meaning the Livingston Avenue Bridge, which had been locked open for a period of years, would be brought back into service. Being single track, this would become a choke point on the system, but at least trains could cross.

Colonie Station proposal 1967In 1967, the PSC approved a Penn Central proposal to replace the Albany and Schenectady rail palaces with “modern” new stations at Rensselaer, off East Street, and on Karner Road. Look at the accompanying drawing from 1967 and take a guess if that was ever built. Plans were submitted in February 1968 for a Colonie station, the Karner Road Depot, which would consist of a 30 by 50 foot building with a 960 foot platform, and a parking lot 100 by 250 feet. Rensselaer, originally designated as a passenger stop (way different from a station in railroad terms) would have a 65 by 170 foot building and a parking lot 230 by 350 feet. For the D&H, loss of the Maiden Lane bridge forced the Montreal line to bypass the Watervliet and Mechanicville stations, which at that time averaged two passengers per day, and go instead through Schenectady and up to Saratoga Springs. In September 1968, the PSC allowed the D&H to move across the river as well.

Maiden Lane Pedestrian bridge

It was a good thing they did . . . in the same newspaper that this was announced, there was a photograph of the dismantling of the pedestrian footbridge that was part of the Maiden Lane Bridge. The cutline read, “If grandmother’s house lies over the river you’ll have to use a new route – other than Maiden Lane Bridge from Albany to Rensselaer – to get there on foot. The 1880-vintage footbridge is being dismantled. But pedestrian facilities will be added to the new South Mall Arterial Bridge.” (That’s now the Dunn Memorial Bridge, and while it is possible to cross it on foot, to call the crossing in any way a facility is to stretch the point.)

The Rensselaer station opened sometime in 1968, a box next to a grocery store that served as the region’s rail station until 2002. That Knick News columnist who in early 1969 called Union Station “odiferous” also said that

“In contrast, the Penn Central’s new Albany-Rensselaer station in Rensselaer is – with all due respect to our neighboring city – a rude comedown and a ride to the new station is a dispiriting experience. Situated at the northern edge of Rensselaer, the station is reached after a bumpy ride over narrow streets. It looks more like a small-town depot for short-haul buses than a railroad station and is tucked away in a shallow ravine as if the Penn Central were ashamed at what it had done, as well it might be. Let us hope that the railroad’s new Albany-Schenectady regional station on Karner Road in Colonie has more class.”

Well, one could hope.

On June 27, 1969, on the eve of the opening of the Colonie station, the Schenectady Gazette ran an editorial lamenting but understanding the march of time.

“When you look at the crumbling station you are reminded of the days when freight trains and passenger trains were coming and going night and day through Schenectady … It is understandable that Penn Central wanted to close the Schenectady depot, for, like most railroad stations built half a century or more ago, it is a large mausoleum which no doubt impressed everybody when it was constructed but which is thoroughly impractical for this day and age, costing a mint of money to heat and to keep in satisfactory repair (which is why there are not many people who want to buy it to make use of it as it stands).”

The Schenectady station would close at midnight the next night.

Colonie Station Knick News 1-31-69When the Karner Road station opened on Sunday, June 29, 1969, it was described as being equipped with a waiting room that measured 56 feet by 30 feet, capable of seating 48 people. The parking lot was paved (!), protected by guard rails, and would hold 50 cars. All five east and west trains would stop there. If you’re trying to figure out just where it was located (and we’re told the building is still there), the directions were to proceed to New Karner Road via Routes 5 and 20, turn west onto New Karner Road, follow that to Albany Street, take a left onto Albany Street and travel two blocks where the station is located on the left. There would be no café, but vending machines were promised.

A 1969 overview of the fate of Empire Service (which still exists, though not with the frequency it enjoyed half a century ago) in the Times-Union noted that

“The populace took to the super-highways in their super cars and to the airlines in the super airplanes. They abandoned the railroads. They abandoned the trains going in and out of Union Station. In Albany, a super-highway under construction for the state’s super-quarters known as the South Mall had to go over a portion of the railroad tracks. The state bought the area, including Union Station, for $5 million. The station would be of no use to the railroad with part of its tracks gone, and it was closed. The fate of the fine old building is yet to be decided. It is now in the process of being transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Office of General Services, custodian of surplus state property.”

This was at a time when there were state hearings at the Public Service Commission, which then regulated railroads, into the standards of service provided by Penn Central. The PSC had sued the railroad for failing to adequately maintain its passenger locomotives; union engineers brought charges of neglect and deterioration. Albany wasn’t the only place that was concerned, at a time when it had lost its train station, and the promised new one in Colonie hadn’t yet opened; New York City considered the Empire Service, with its connection to the seat of government and beyond, as critical.

Soon came the interesting revelation that of the two “modern” stations – assuming “modern” means nondescript huts with plastic seats in the waiting area – Penn Central had paid only for one, the one in Rensselaer. The Karner Road station, which ran to $150,000 in 1969 money, was paid for by the State Department of Transportation, apparently very quietly. A Penn Central attorney confirmed that the facility was built by the state (but owned and operated by the railroad), and said the railroad “was not about to design a ‘Taj Mahal’ when the state was footing the bill.” Nor when Penn was footing the bill, it’d be fair to say.

When a “temporary” station reopened in Schenectady, pretty much at the site of the old Union Station, the Colonie station was closed, Sept. 9, 1979. It appears to still survive as a construction storage shed.

Thanks to several folks who have made helpful suggestions on improvements to this article. The earlier version used Penn Central to refer to both the pre- and post-merger railroad, but in fact it was the Pennsylvania Railroad prior to the merger. There are other examples. Also noted: the New York Central wanted out of Albany nearly 10 years earlier. More on that here.