Category Archives: Schenectady

Organizing Schenectady’s Restaurants, 1922

Published by:

What our organizers are doingHoxsie was perusing some back numbers of “The Mixer & Server,” the official journal of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes [sic] International Alliance and the Bartenders International League of America (as one does) and came across this September 26, 1922 report by A. Martel, International Organizer, under the banner of “What Our Organizers Are Doing.” What Organizer Martel was doing was visiting a number of Schenectady establishments. We thought this was particularly interesting as it has several mentions of the Nicholaus Hotel (spelled variously), later just the Nicholaus German Restaurant, whose landmark building at the corner of Erie and State is now in danger of destruction because of the demolition of its neighbors.

His report is a nice little tour of the Schenectady eating establishments of 1922:

Dear Sir and Brother – The following is my report for the month of September:

August 28, as per instructions, I proceeded to Schenectady; met Secretary Geo. Harper of Local 470, with whom I took up the local situation.

August 29, visited the Mohawk Hotel; found one waiter, a former member of Local 471 of Albany; got his reinstatement. Visited the Nicholaus Hotel and talked to the chef, who is a former member of Local 470. Met the proprietor of the Italian Gardens Restaurant, a new place soon to open up.

August 30, visited the Mohawk Golf Club, where I found a Boston cook, a former member of Local 34; he will go to Italy this month so he don’t care to reinstate; the bartender and a kitchen helper promised to join. Again visited the Mohawk Hotel and had a talk with the chef. There are three cooks here, all former members of Local 470; their talk was not encouraging. Visited the Seneca, Hygienic and New Electric Lunches, also the Standard.

August 31, visited the Little Electric, Plaza, Italian Gardens, Nickolaus Hotel, Pelops and Mohawk.

September 1, in company with Secretary Harper, we made the rounds. I soon found out what the trouble was here and decided to use another method, although there was nothing encouraging in sight I was determined to give the town a good trial. The Greek restaurants are in the majority here and that makes it doubly hard.

I visited the Greek clubs daily and there found box, waiter and counter men, also the cooks, playing cards together. In time I got pretty well acquainted and kept hammering at them. They are working seven days per week and twelve hours per day; they admit this is too much but don’t think we could change anything by them joining the union. In the meantime I kept after the Mohawk Hotel cooks, who proved to be a hard bunch to deal with. The others says: [sic] “Get them at the Mohawk first,” etc.

Visited the Sirker Restaurant; the boss is chef; they employ seven girls, pay them $7 per week for ten hours a day and they scrub the dining room floor. One of our girls is there and she promised to join as soon as they get out. Had a talk with the proprietor of the Seneca Lunch; I think we will be able to organize his place if we can supply him with the right kind of help.

September 12, visited the Little Electric Lunch; got the reinstatement of one counter man and the application of the night counter man; the chef also filled out his application but has not paid up for it yet.

September 13, went to Albany and visited all the cooks I could reach (to pay their dues), also looked for a competent chef for the Italian Gardens here.

September 14, had an interview with the Rev. P. Frick of the Methodist Episcopal Church; one of the organizations of his church was eating at the Pelops, and he promised to ask them to remain away. Also had a talk with the Greek priest, but nothing came from it, as it was plain that he was siding with the bosses who feed him.

September 16, the chef of the Mohawk Hotel left, so I took his place; got the reinstatements of the two cooks and an application of a bus boy.

September 18, the chef returned with better wages; got his application also – this makes the Mohawk solid again.

September 19, met the chef and second cook of the Hygienic; got their applications.

September 20, to Albany, after the cooks again; got a chef for the Italian Gardens; he was working at the Hampton, so I got him out and he joined Local 470 here.

September 21, met the second cook of the General Electric Company, who promised to reinstate. Visited several other places; got one application at the Seneca.

September 22, got the application of the chef of the Nickolaus Hotel, and when the second cook joints this house will be complete. Visited Sirker’s again; two new girls here.

Mohawk Hotel The Mohawk Hotel was on Broadway south of State, just about opposite Smith Street.



Charles Sirker was a Belgian who had come to the United States during World War I, and ran a restaurant at 155 Barrett Street. (We know this because Sirker was involved in an interesting little case of international divorce law.) That building is gone.

Pelops was located at 438 State Street, two doors from Proctor’s. Searches will turn up a postcard of the white tablecloth interior, and a matchbook.

It’d be our guess that the Seneca was the Seneca Hotel, still a landmark on Jay Street across from City Hall.

The Mohawk Golf Club was, and is, out on Union Street.

The Hygienic Lunch was located at 436 State Street, and later at 412 State Street, “near street railway waiting station.” One of its original proprietors was Theodore Anagnost, who became Theodore Agnew. His son Spiro would later become Vice President of the United States. But it would appear that Agnew was long gone from the Electric City when Martel made his visit.

Albany’s Hampton Hotel, of course, was the landmark at the foot of State Street at Broadway; the building still stands.

Of the Little Electric Lunch (such a promising name) or the Italian Gardens, we find nothing.

And the Nicholaus Hotel actually predated the currently building, which goes back to 1901 and may just survive.

The Ornamental Hair Store

Published by:

Ornamental HairHey, Schenectady! Need ornamental hair? You’re in luck. In 1840, John Xavier opened a new ornamental hair store at 92 State Street, three doors west of the post office. Everlasting curls, plain and curled frizetts, puffs, everlasting and curled ringlets . . . he had it all, kept constantly on hand or supplied at the shortest notice.

John Xavier was born in 1821 in Portugal, so when he opened this store he was merely 19. By 1870, he was listed as owning a “Fancy Store” (at 128 State Street in 1884), possessing $20,000 in real estate and a $15,000 personal estate.

A Home for the Faculty Cows

Published by:

Again, the Encyclopedia of Union College History provides a view of a time unimaginably long gone: when cows grazed on the campus pasture. Before the current West College was built in 1953, the campus was open to the west, and the lands west of the wall were called the Pasture.

Professors long had the right to keep a cow in the Pasture, a benefit which has received attention proportionate only to its quaintness. The disadvantages of owning a cow, especially in a Schenectady winter, and especially for the dignified, were manifold; most faculty members must have found it simpler to buy the dairy products they needed. Only professors Nott, Lewis, Jackson and Pearson availed themselves of the grazing privilege in 1852; Pearson gave it up by 1854 and Lewis by 1857.

There were times when no cows grazed in the Pasture, but most of the “large number of cattle” an 1865 visitor saw there must have belonged to townspeople who had paid a grazing fee; twenty years later, all the cattle fell into this category.

The cows’ various owners had to expect them to be the targets of nocturnal raids by students, who milked them, painted them with zebra-stripes, and sometimes led them into classrooms or even second-floor dormitory rooms . . .

The departure of the last faculty cow was probably ensured in June 1907 when the Board of Trustees’ Instruction Committee authorized the president to “offer to Professor Landreth an increase of $250 in his annual salary with the understanding that Professor Landreth’s cow shall disappear from the college campus.”

There was, however, at least one more instance when the Pasture was a pasture. At the suggestion of Marian Osgood Fox, wife of the college president, trustees bought five Shropshire sheep, which turned into eighteen sheep. “When not harried by dogs or teased by students, the animals picturesquely cropped the grass; they wintered on a farm in Rexford.”

The Pasture was once considerably larger, but Union College periodically sold off lots. Alumni tried to convince the city to lease the land for a park around 1900, but were not successful. The college sold off 44 lots fronting Park Place in 1901, and the city bought the lot on which it built its library (now Webster House).

During World War II, American Locomotive Co. leased the Pasture and used it for employee parking, and even parked tanks on the south end.

The Union College Burial Ground

Published by:

Memento mori, baby!So here’s an interesting side note that we uncovered while digging through the highly useful Encyclopedia of Union College, dated 2003 and apparently written by Wayne Somers. Apparently, if you’re a faculty member at Union College, you’re entitled to a free burial plot in the College cemetery in Vale Cemetery.

“About half way between Union and State streets, on Nott Terrace, the entrance road to Vale leads eastward up the hill. The first road to the left crosses a bridge between two ponds in the woods. On the left is a fenced area with signs identifying the grounds of Union College. The actual burial grounds are on a secluded terrace, surrounded by woods on three sides, and overlooking a small pond on the other. Toward the back of the plot lie the graves of Eliphalet Nott and his third wife, Urania . . . Other faculty members and their families and a few alumni and administrators have continued to be buried in the plot down to the present. With a total of about 192 burials (and a few additional markers) through the year 2000, the plot is getting full, but perhaps a quarter of the spots are still available.”

The Encyclopedia reports that although the college cemetery was not formally established until September 1863, “the need for College burial grounds had been under discussion for several years.” Because, obviously, you can’t just let the dead faculty members pile up.

Union College freshmen: No top hats or canes for you

Published by:

We’d be remiss if we left The Encyclopedia of Union College without sharing this delightful entry:

Canes. Although little is known of the protocol of cane-carrying at any period, it was long fashionable for able-bodied college students to own these appendages; at Union, canes remained in vogue until at least 1924.

Jonathan Pearson (who had a cane in 1829, before coming to Union) records in his diary instances of students striking each other with canes in 1834 and in 1859, which suggests that they were carried on other than strictly formal occasions. By at least 1863, and probably much earlier, it was customary for classes to order identical canes. Seniors owned canes of malacca, an Asian palm, in the 1860s, and in 1897 the freshmen bought congo wood canes with their class year in silver on the handle.

From at least 1868, freshmen were forbidden to wear top hats and carry canes before their third term. From 1878 until 1933 (see Hazing and Class Fights), the outcome of the cane rush was supposed to determine when freshmen would be allowed to start carrying canes, though this had become purely a symbolic issue long before the fights were given up.

A junior class order for canes in 1924 is the last report of this custom . . . a more practical substitute, class blazers, is mentioned for the first time in 1931.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention that at least one college has revived the tradition of canes, though they have the good sense to not give them out until graduation.

The Life of Eliphalet Nott

Published by:

Eliphalet Nott, 1820

Eliphalet Nott, 1820

It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t still have a Union College had it not been for the efforts of its longest-tenured president, Eliphalet Nott. He was born in 1773 on a farm in Ashford, Connecticut, one of nine children. “There was no neighbor’s house nearer than half a mile, and he was thus much shut out from the society of boys his own age. The school-house of the neighboring settlement was five miles distant,” according to Cornelius Van Santvoord’s memoir of Nott. Taught to read and memorize by his mother, he later lived with and worked in the home of his much older brother Samuel, who was a Congregational minister who favored whippings as discipline and served as a school teacher, having graduated from Yale. Eliphalet studied under his brother and became a teacher himself and before he was 20 was appointed principal of the Plainfield Academy. Preferring his mother’s gentler ways to his brothers, he determined to “substitute moral motives in the place of the rod,” running very much against the current of the time. He also became a preacher in the Congregational Church, married the daughter of the Rev. Joel Benedict, and set out as a missionary, traveling through Albany on his way to Oswego, then coming partway back to the Cherry Valley, where he settled and brought his wife to live in 1796.

His wife, Sarah, became sickly after the birth of their first son in December 1797, and she went to Ballston Springs (Spa) in the summer of 1798 to take the waters, remaining there several months. Eliphalet, traveling to a meeting the Albany Presbytery was holding in Washington County, chanced to stay over at an inn at Union and Ferry streets in Schenectady, and attended a religious meeting conducted by Rev. John Blair Smith, president of Union College, right across the street from the inn. They met, each most impressed with the other, and this led to Smith’s recommendation that Nott take charge of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany at Pearl and Beaver streets, which took place in October 1798. He would also become co-chaplain of the State Legislature. He also, through his friendship with Smith, became a trustee of Union College. He became nationally famous for a sermon he gave on the death of Alexander Hamilton, which became the manifesto of the anti-dueling movement.

As mentioned before, Union had gotten off to a rocky start, with insufficient funds and insufficient students. It relied heavily on State funding and would require even more. With the departure of its third president in only nine years, Union’s trustees asked Nott, who had been trying to create free common schools in Albany, to head the institution. His wife had just died, he had four children to care for, and, as the Encyclopedia of Union College History writes, “he appears to have developed doubts that the ministry was an adequate base for effecting the changes he believed necessary to realize in America the achievement of its divine mission, the one he had made the subject of an inspiring series of sermons.”

Taking the presidency, Nott used his connections to lobby for a lottery that would benefit the college (yes, lotteries and education go way, way back). It was in cutting this deal that a number of State officials first swelled the ranks of the trustees of Union, but he gained approval in 1805 for four lotteries totaling $80,000, nearly half of which was stipulated for buildings. The Encyclopedia says:

“By the end of the decade Nott was certain enough of the success of the lottery to proceed with his plans for a college to match or outdo those well established along the Atlantic coast – Harvard, Yale, Rhode Island (Brown), Queens (Rutgers) and Princeton. Using his own slender assets and the large ones of his second wife, the widow Gertrude Peebles Tibbits whom he had married in 1807, Nott bought more than 250 acres of land on the outskirts of the city, and had a foundation laid for North College. Then in 1812-13 he took advantage of the temporary presence in the area of the distinguished French architect Joseph Ramée, and engaged him to draw plans for an entire college campus on Nistiquona Hill.”

Biting off even more, Nott asked the Legislature in 1814 to approve $274,000 to benefit Hamilton College, New York City’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Asbury African Church, and Union College (which would get $200,000 of that sum). Nott lived in Albany and lobbied full-time to make this happen. He was successful, although ultimately the lottery wasn’t, and in the end Nott borrowed money from financier William James and got Union into some extensive “side deals, speculation in a variety of uncertain ventures, secret agreements, siphoning of receipts into private pockets, tortuous bookkeeping and none at all, law suits, a case in chancery court, and in the end investigation by a hostile legislative committee which besmeared the president with charges of self-dealing and the trustees with equally serious charges of dereliction of duty.” Eventually, all were exonerated, and Nott continued as president of Union College, serving for 61 years until his death in 1866.

He also served as president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in its early years (under other names), from 1829-1845, while simultaneously heading up Union. According to RPI, he “visited the school at least every third week and was compensated with one dollar per visit plus all graduation fees.” It appears not to have been a terribly taxing post at the time, but under his leadership Rensselaer became the first civilian school to graduate civil engineers (in 1835). Union offered a degree in civil engineering after Nott resigned from Rensselaer in 1845. Nott’s memoir, interestingly, mentions this not at all.

In addition to being a man of religion, Nott was a man of science. He worked at inventing, focusing primarily on boilers, but he also famously invented the first stove that could use anthracite coal, which was a big deal at the time. It is said that the acquired 30 patents, but the Nott Stove, which was built by his son’s company H. Nott and Co., was by far the most successful. Nott was also an ardent temperance advocate throughout his life.

In 1859, aged 86, Eliphalet Nott suffered a severe paralytic stroke, but he worked at recovering from that, and proved well enough that he was able to travel to Philadelphia to spend time with his son. He returned to Schenectady in 1860 and continued his duties at the college. He did well, but in 1864 began to decline, and he lingered on until January 29, 1866.



Union College

Published by:

West College (Stone College)

West College (Stone College), believed to have been designed by Philip Hooker.

Since we were recently talking about the earliest schools in Schenectady, we should focus on the institution of higher education that grew out of those early efforts, Union College. It was founded in 1795 as an outgrowth (always anticipated) of the Schenectady Academy, which had started 10 years before. Originally, the college conducted classes on the upper floor of the Academy’s building on the north corner of Union and Ferry streets. The first trustees had prominent Schenectady names like Ten Broeck, Yates, Vrooman, Glen, and Romeyn, along with others; when the charter was amended in 1806, state officials were added as trustees, including the Chancellor, justices of the Supreme Court, the Secretary of State, Comptroller, Treasurer, Attorney-General and Surveyor-General. Later, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor were also named as trustees.

George Rogers Howell and John Munsell, in their 1886 History of the County of Schenectady, wrote that:

The name “Union College” was given as expressing the intention of uniting all religious sects in a common interest for the common good, by offering equal advantages to all, with preference to none. It is believed that this is the first college in the United States not confessedly denominational in its character.

It was originally organized October 19, 1795, with the election of Rev. John Blair Smith of Philadelphia as president; John Taylor, A.M., professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (today we call it science); and Rev. Andrew Yates, professor of Latin and Greek. First degrees were conferred upon three young men in May, 1797, in the old Reformed Dutch Church. Smith was followed by Rev. Jonathan Edwards (son of that Rev. Jonathan Edwards. Edwards began the effort to build a new stone building facing south at the northwest corner of the intersection of Union Street and what is now Erie Blvd. (This according to the Encyclopedia of Union College History). The building was unnamed but known as Stone College, later West College, and it was then on the eastern edge of the city (it picked up the “west” appellation once Union moved to its current location). It is thought the building was designed by Albany’s Philip Hooker, and that it was inspired by Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Lack of money slowed construction. The trustees sold the Schenectady Academy building to raise money for the new one (but continued to hold classes there), and received assistance from the State. Edwards died in 1801 and was succeeded by Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, a Baptist from Providence, R.I., who left in 1804. The building was still unfinished.

Then came the Rev. Eliphalet Nott, whose impact on the Schenectady of his day certainly warrants discussion on its own. He came to a college whose future was far from assured. As the History says, Dr. Nott found the college wanting both means and students. Its proposed endowment was undersubscribed; sums of money came from the State, but a considerable amount of State assistance was in the form of land, including 10 lots of 550 acres each “in the military tract” [presumably the tract in the northern counties of the state, then still quite unsettled] for the support of the president and professors, and the sale of garrison lands near Lake George. The new building started by Dr. Edwards in 1798 (Stone College) was just being finished, and there was considerable debt. So the trustees did the logical thing and started planning for a much larger college, far out of the city. That actually wasn’t unwise, as the building was overcrowded by 1806. That may because the three-and-a-half story building contained classrooms, dining hall, a chapel, a central room, student dormitory rooms and a residence for the president, in addition to housing the Schenectady grammar school.

On Dec. 15, 1812, the city bought Stone College in exchange for 3000 acres of common lands in Schenectady County. It’s not clear if those included the land that the college soon built on, but much of it was sold off (and some city residents were highly critical of the exchange).
Union moved to its current campus in 1814. In 1831, it bought West College back from Schenectady, which had been using it for city and county offices, courthouse, and jail. The College pressed it back into service as classroom and dormitory space.

So, how did Union College end up where it ended up? According to the Encyclopedia, the trustees appointed Nott, Joseph C. Yates, James Duane and Abraham Oathout as a committee to seek a site for the college on “high lands bordering on the second ward of the city.” They were unsuccessful in getting a donation, and the college lacked the funds, so it was just fortunate that Eliphalet Nott happened to come into some money by way of marriage. His second wife, Gertrude Tibbits, was the widow of Troy merchant Benjamin Tibbits, a woman of means who apparently felt no compunctions about sharing those means with her new husband and the college. They assembled about 300 acres by 1812, at a reported cost of $13,692.96. North and South Colleges were built by 1814, and that took care of Union’s needs forever. Well, not quite.

In 1831, it bought West College back from Schenectady, which had been using it for city and county offices, courthouse, and jail. The College pressed it back into service as classroom and dormitory space.

For the next twenty-three years, Union was divided. Eventually, if not at once, freshmen and sophomores lived and attended classes in the old building, a peculiar choice on Nott’s part, given that the routing of the Erie Canal directly in front of Stone College in 1825 had made the city – from which Nott was much concerned to protect his charges – a seamier place.

New construction in the mid-1850s would allow the college to be consolidated once again and to once again sell West College to the city of Schenectady, which made it into the Union School, the first true public school in the city. The old building was finally torn down in 1890, replaced by the Union Street School, which only lasted into the 1940s. The site is now a parking lot with an historical marker noting the location of West College.

West College

The Lancaster School System in Schenectady

Published by:

After the establishment of the Schenectady Academy, there came another type of public school, known as a Lancaster School. George Rogers Howell, again in his History of the County of Schenectady, N.Y. from 1662 to 1886, gives some of the background of Lancaster schools, which were developed in England by Joseph Lancaster, and relied heavily on the “monitor” system, by which students that have learned material are then tasked with passing it on to another pupil:

The seats and tables were arranged in the center of the school-room, leaving a passage clear around the outside; on the walls hung stiff cards or pasteboards containing the lessons, so that the class, standing in a semicircle, could learn to read and spell from the same card. The tables were divided into partitions, or shallow boxes, filled with sand, and occupying the spaces in front of each scholar. The child was taught the letters and how to make them by drawing them in the sand with a stick, cut sharp at one end and flat at the other, so that light and heavy lines could be made without having to retrace them. The sand was smoothed over with a rule of exactly the same width as the partition, and the lines to rule the sand were made by little pegs in the ruler, on the other side, which was used after the sand had been smoothed. After learning to trace the letters in the sand, the scholars were given slates and pencils, afterward pens and ink. Monitors from the higher classes were assigned classes to teach, being changed frequently, so that teaching might not occupy too much of their time to the detriment of their own studies.

Lancaster wrote Improvements in Education in 1803 and came to the United States to lecture on his ideas, beginning a model school in Philadelphia in 1818 to train teachers who would implement his system. For a while, Lancasterian schools were all the rage, and Schenectady was ahead of the curve, with an act to incorporate the Schenectady Lancaster School Society having passed in November 1816. The act provided, according to Howell, that the school could be established in the “compact parts of the first and second wards of the city,” and that thirteen trustees were to be appointed to receive moneys due to common schools; in other words, there was public funding, which came from the superintendent of common schools, resulting from real and personal estate taxes. The Lancaster School received an equal share as any other common school districts that would be organized.

The trustees were initially named in the act and then were to be elected annually by the citizens. Those first trustees, perhaps not surprisingly, were like a who’s who of Schenectady names: Maus Schermerhorn, Henry Yates Jr., Jacob Van Vechten, Hooper Cumming, Isaac Riggs, Elisha Taylor, Eliphalet Nott, James Bailey, David Boyd, Abraham S. Groot, Charles Kane and James C. Duane. Duane was made president, and the board had to sort out the cost of building a school-house. In December 1817, a committee reported that they had “obtained for the benefit of the Lancaster School Society, from the corporation of this city, seventy acres of land on the hill opposite Jacob Lyons’,” situated on the northeast side of the Albany and Schenectady turnpike, meaning somewhere on State Street. They expected to receive from taxes on the two inner wards of the city $213.72, and just about the same amount from the State, and they had $90 in hand for about $500 total. They apparently expected to receive sufficient additional tuition, because the board resolved to set the teacher’s salary at $750 yearly, “provided enough money was received to make that amount; if not, then the salary was to be all above the current expenses of the year.” Nicholas Van Vranken was selected as the school’s first teacher. The school-house was reported as complete on July 24, 1818, at a total cost of $809.95, and tuition was set at one dollar a quarter, paid in advance. (Prior to that, the school met briefly in a building later occupied by the Union School Primary Department on Union Street.)

Van Vranken presented his first Teacher’s Report to the Board in March, 1820. He reported:

The whole number of scholars admitted into the school since the 1st March, 1819, is 267. The school is divided into 8 reading classes; from the first to the second of these there have been 27 promotions; to the third, 28; to the fourth, 26; to the fifth, 44; to the sixth, 31; to the seventh, 39; and to the eighth, 36. . . . When it is taken into consideration that none are permitted to write on paper but those who write a fair and handsome hand on the slate, and that 154 out of 267 have done this, the excellence of the place . . . must stand unquestioned.

In 1824, tuition was reduced to twenty-five cents, and the teacher’s salary reduced to $500. At the same time it was resolved that “poor scholars, not exceeding forty, be admitted into the school gratuitously.”

In 1833, Van Vranken stepped down from teaching after 15 years, to be replaced by Ezekiel Sexton, who was very soon replaced by James Slater. Shortly thereafter, it was resolved to sell the school-house to Dr. Nott for $225, and that a lot on College street would be purchased from Gov. Yates to build a new school-house, which after some complications was first occupied in July of 1834.

On April 1, 1836, the city undertook the issue of education for the African American population. It was resolved “that this corporation feel themselves obliged to appropriate, for the purposes of the education of the colored children of this city, such proportion of the public money as may hereafter be collected on the enumeration of such children.” In June 1837, $25 was set aside to pay for a teacher in the “African Lancaster School Society.”

Soon, more schools would be necessary, and the Lancaster School Society wanted to maintain control. The Board, in 1839, adopted a resolution:

Whereas, Doubts have been expressed whether any other mode of instruction than what is called the ‘Lancaster System,’ can be used in the schools of this Society; Resolved, that this Board request our members of Assembly and the Senate . . . to procure a law to remove such doubts, and leave this Board the power of causing all the branches of education taught in any of the common schools of this State to be taught in the schools of this Society, and in any approved mode that this Society may deem expedient to adopt.

At the same time James Slater saw his salary increase but was assigned to employ at his own expense a female teacher for the female department. State money was used to pay for a school district library, and the Board appropriated $200 to establish a school or schools in the first ward and $300 for schools in the third or fourth wards or both. The Board proposed to continue using some parts of the Lancaster system “(such as the mode of teaching the names and mode of forming figures and letters) in the first or primary school, and in the other schools in the wards for beginners, but to depend upon instruction from the teachers personally so soon as the scholar has made progress beyond the first elements of literature.” William Cockran and a Miss Stiles were engaged as teachers for the Lancaster School, Martin C. Hall for the Ferry Street School, and Harvey Moore for the Liberty Street School; the latter two opened May 4, 1840.

In 1840, $1396.88 was received, of which $279.37 was paid for books, $48 to the African School, and the balance of $1069.51 for wages of teachers, who also received the tuition fees of about $450. There were 360 children in the schools run by the Lancaster Society board, out of about 1,065 children within the districts.

In 1846, the “gradual introduction of uniform text-books” was recommended. These included: Webster’s Spelling Book, Hazen’s Speller and Definer, Sanders’ First, Second and Third Reader, Hale’s History of the United States, Porter’s Rhetorical Reader, New Testament, Smith’s Grammar, Mitchell’s Geography, First and Second, Crittenden’s Arithmetic, Parley’s History, Davies’ Algebra, Olmstead’s Philosophy, Marsh’s Bookkeeping (Single Entry), Crittenden’s Bookkeeping (Double Entry). Music was also added to the curriculum, and in the next few years additional, and more advanced, texts were added.

The Lancaster system continued to prevail in Schenectady, but the State Legislature passed an act in 1849 establishing free public schools in New York State, and the Board reorganized into the Schenectady Free School System in 1854. The first free school was established in the West College building of Union College, and was called the Union School.

The West College building had passed back and forth between the City and Union College until its final establishment as the Union School. It had an addition that accommodated the Lancaster School, as well. The Encyclopedia of Union College History has this to say:

“About 1816, soon after the City bought Stone [West] College, a Lancasterian school – a precursor of the public school system – was built in the rear. A brick building, one full storey with a second storey under a steep roof, it stood between Stone College and Long College on North College Street. The school sold it to Eliphalet Nott in 1834 and erected a new wooden building on the west side of North College Street. In 1840 the library was moved from North College [on the current campus] and installed in a room in West College that was used for trustee meetings, while the Museum was moved to the brick building, thereafter called Geological Hall.

In 1854, over the objections of Mayor Mordecai Myers, who resigned in protest, the City again purchased West College, this time for $6,000. The structure became Schenectady’s first public school, called the Union School. Razed in 1890, it was replaced with a red brick building called The Union Street School, which was in turn razed in the 1940s. The site is now partially occupied by the parking lot of the Van Dyck restaurant.”


Schenectady’s first school

Published by:

The Schenectady Academy, Union and Ferry streets

The Schenectady Academy, Union and Ferry streets

Our discussion of just where George Westinghouse went to school in Schenectady made us curious about the history of the Electric City’s early schools. Happily, George Rogers Howell was also curious and gave us some of the story in his “History of the County of Schenectady, from 1662 to 1886.” There were, as in all cities at the time, numerous independent teachers running what could loosely be called schools, but not organized and community supported institutions. The first attention to an organized school system in Schenectady dated back to the Revolution, but it was the coming of Dominie Dirck Romeyn as minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1784 that served as the inspiration of the Schenectady Academy in the following year. That Academy eventually grew into Union College, in a sense, and the early history of education in Schenectady saw the college and the academy tightly tied until the middle of the 19th century.

Through [Romeyn’s] influence the church was induced to erect a commodious building, the citizens agreeing to give it their patronage and furnish it with a library. The church contemplated constructing a house of two stories, with two rooms on each story, upon the lot of ground upon which the old guard-house now stands, at the junction of Church and State streets. Three rooms were to be assigned for the use of the school and academy. On account of the great cost of the Academy-house to the church, it was ‘resolved, that said church shall receive four shillings from every scholar taught in said house, and if said academy or Illustre School shall become changed into a college, then the presidents of such college, as well as the rector of said school, shall be a member of the Dutch Church and minister of this church; and the said four shillings for each scholar shall be bestowed upon such poor scholars as the church shall name.’

In 1785 it was determined to build the Academy instead at the north corner of Union and Ferry streets. A committee of citizens and the church consistory worked toward its completion; Howell writes that their names were cut into an oval stone which was, at the time of his writing, in the Union College Museum (and it would be great to know if the college still possesses it).

The Academy flourished from the start, enrolling 100 students within a year and continuing at that level for a decade, until Union’s founding in 1795. At that time, the College began conducting classes on the upper floor, and the grammar school continued on the lower floor. The growth and overcrowding led to the plans for a new building to be built on the edge of the city. The new West College was occupied in 1804, at the corner of Union and College streets. It may have been designed by Philip Hooker, who may have based it on the College of New Jersey’s (Princeton’s) Nassau Hall.

Howell was a bit of a plagiarist and not much of an editor, so his timelines could be confusing; he would lift materials from separate sources and not bother to integrate them. So it is with that warning that we repeat what Howell said, which he lifted from Pearson: in 1793, the Dutch Church “made the building over to the trustees of the academy; and on September 24, 1796, it was made over to the trustees of Union College, to be sold and the money put into a more commodious building. The proceeds of this sale were finally merged in the building fund of the present Union School edifice.”

The academy building was of brick, two stories in height, about 50 x 30 feet on the ground, and cost about $3,000. It was used by Union College until 1804. This school was opened in 1793 under the care of Col. John Taylor, of New Jersey. This school appears to have been conducted with much ability, and being well sustained by the community in which it was planted, became the germ of the college.
An academic school, in connection with Union College, was established by President Nott immediately after his election in 1804. The teachers of this school were appointed by him, and the principal was recognized by the laws of the college as a member of the faculty. This academic school became popular and extensively useful for many years.
On the 7th of April, 1818, an act was passed authorizing the revival and reorganization of the Schenectady Academy, which was done by the election of a Board of Trustees on the 1st day of April, 1819. The academic department of Union College was merged into this school . . . The academy continued until the reorganization of the schools of the city in 1854.


That other George Westinghouse of Schenectady

Published by:

George Westinghouse at an early age in 1884.

George Westinghouse at an early age in 1884.

It’s possible that the name of  Westinghouse would be a dimly remembered one, one of the legions of upstate New York manufacturers who rose and fell in the industrial boom that accompanied the Erie Canal. George Westinghouse Sr. started as a simple farmer who showed flourishes of mechanical genius and built an agricultural implements business in Schenectady on land that would later be swallowed up by an even greater industrial giant, General Electric. We covered all that yesterday. But that George Westinghouse had a son named George, and that son turned his own mechanical brilliance into a business that rivaled his hometown giant. In the end, he didn’t build it in his hometown, but in the western boomtown of Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, George Westinghouse Jr. was very much a product of what wasn’t yet the Electric City.

He was born Oct. 6, 1846, when his family was still living in Central Bridge, far enough out of the mainstream that it became a problem when his father decided to expand the business; for that, they needed to move closer to where metal could be worked, in Schenectady, so the family moved there in 1856. Leupp (in his George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements) wrote that young George,

though he waked up more after the removal to Schenectady, did not expand mentally in the direction his father had hoped. He was sent to school, but took only a languid interest in his studies, though he profited somewhat by his more enlivening companionship. Of this, however, he could not reap the fullest advantage, as his father was able to see little virtue in play, regarding it simply as a form of idleness, and preferring that George should come into the shop every day after school hours and learn how tools were used by skilled hands … To stand at the elbow of a mature man for an hour and watch the plying of saw and plane, the boring of holes, and the driving of screws was a dreary occupation for him. When for a change he was shifted over to the neighborhood of his brother John, and looked on at the latter’s handling of the metal parts, he felt more at liberty to criticize, and before five minutes had elapsed the two lads would be in a heated controversy, in which the temper of each would occasionally break bounds. If, on the other hand, he was taken away from all the rest of the workers and set at a bench by himself, with a pattern before him and the material and tools at hand for making a duplicate of it, his attention would soon wander from his fixed task and he would become immersed in some mechanism of his own contriving – a little engine, or a miniature water wheel with fanciful connections, or what not.

Leupp tells further tales of George’s youth, in the style of biographies of the time, and it’s impossible to tell whether they bear any resemblance to events that actually happened. He says that George became a great tinkerer, and that he attended school at the corner of Union and College streets, which I believe would have been the first free school in Schenectady, the former West College building of Union College, which the city acquired and opened in 1852 (though it is possible it refers to the Delavan building, at the same intersection). “A few of his schoolfellows of this period are still living in Schenectady,” Leupp wrote in 1919 , “and remember George as a rather inept pupil. It was not that his mind was dull; but the books he was required to study failed as a rule to stir his imagination, and he had only an indifferent gift of self-expression … This puzzled most of his teachers, because his logical faculties, when applied to something which had captured his fancy, struck them as considerably above the average. He was also keen as to everything mathematical, and in free-hand drawing he excelled all competitors with circles that were round, and lines that were straight, and angles that measured the required number of degrees.”

The Civil War came and George, “though only fourteen years of age, was smitten with the prevalent martial fever.” His brothers Albert and John enlisted, and Leupp writes that George attempted to leave town by train to enlist as well, but was caught by his father. (Other sources say he enlisted in the New York National Guard and served until his parents convinced him to return home. But the war continued, and in 1863 he joined Company M, 16th NY Cavalry and rose to corporal. In December 1864 he resigned from the Army to join the Navy (or perhaps was transferred, following the death of brother Albert in battle), and was Acting Third Assistant Engineer on the USS Muscoota until the end of the war. As we’ve mentioned before, the Smithsonian has a webpage featuring one of the letters from George Sr. to his son, written toward the close of the war in 1865, two months after Lee’s surrender.

Schenectady, June 11th 1865
My Dear Son
Your letters of 23 & 25th last was rec’d on Thursday last, both were verry welcome letters. We had one from John on Monday dated at Havanna 29th, he is well. I am pleased to hear that you have sent in your resignation, as I think it will be much better for you to be home. I hope you will continue to retain good health as that is the greatest blessing that can attend any one. John has not said any thing about resigning so I do not know whether he will or not. If he don’t they will discharge him unless he shall get some strong recommend to remain. If he wanted to follow the business it would be better for him to remain in the Gov’t service than to go in the Merchant service.
We are having some demand for our machines and keep to work about as usual. I have hopes that we shall come out better at the end of this year than we have for the past two years but we can’t tell yet.
Jay and [Brant?] has gone to Port Jervis and will be back tomorrow or next day. Your mother is feeling rather better than when I last wrote.
Write often as we always like to hear from you.
I wrote to you when I last wrote that your patent was ordered to issue when the balance of the Gov’t fee was paid: $20.
Yours Truly
G. Westinghouse

The patent referred to (No. 50,759) was for a rotary steam engine, which was granted Oct. 31, 1865. “Be it known that I, George Westinghouse, Jr., of the city and county of Schenectady, and State of New York, have invented a new and useful improvement in Rotary Engines.” It would not be his last. Wikipedia lists 31 significant patents (actually, 32, but the first is his father’s, for a grain winnower), and there were many, many more.

Prout’s A Life of George Westinghouse says that on returning from the war, not yet nineteen years old, George entered Union College in the scientific department as a sophomore, but only lasted for a single term. “His father was able and willing to send him through college, but George preferred active work.” He went back to his father’s shop. Somehow he became interested in railroads, and here, too, the stories of why are probably apocryphal, all having to do with some chance meeting or the witnessing of a crash. The likely reality is that Westinghouse liked to solve problems, and the rapidly growing railroad industry had a local presence (in the Schenectady Locomotive Works) and no shortage of problems. While still working in Schenectady, George was issued patents for a car re-placing (re-railing) device and for railroad frogs (the crossing point of two rails). He is said to have witnessed a collision on the Schenectady to Troy line in which the engineers saw the impending tragedy, but were unable to stop in time because brakes had to be applied manually from the top of each car, leading him to devise a compressed air braking system that allowed the engineer to brake cars simultaneously. That development, in 1869, sealed his future.

He met his future wife on a train, appropriately enough, while traveling home from New Jersey where some of his devices were to be manufactured. He became smitten with Miss Marguerite Erskine Walker of Roxbury, New York. After two visits to Kingston, where she had relatives, and three to Roxbury (if Leupp is to be believed), they were engaged to be married in 1867. (All the sources say they made their first home in Pittsburgh, but they also say that he was still in Schenectady in 1869, so the timeline isn’t clear; it appears George departed for Pittsburgh shortly after the marriage, and called for his young bride shortly thereafter.)

It’s natural to wonder why Westinghouse didn’t set up shop in his hometown, where there were railroad companies and, not too far away, steel-making. He was traveling to some major cities to sell his frogs and car-replacer, and to tout the possibilities of his air brakes, and this certainly put him in touch with key figures in Pniladelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Some of the answer may be in a falling-out he is said to have had with his business partners, who when business was falling off demanded that he buy them out, which he was not in a position to do, or to simply let them have his patent, which he refused to do. This, again according to Leupp, pushed him to consider a deal with a steel-making plant in Pittsburgh, Anderson and Cook, that could make his car-replacement apparatus much more cheaply than it could be made in the Capital District, and which was willing to cast the equipment at their own expense and hire George on to sell them. (Whether his former partners considered the matter thus settled, we haven’t learned.) He departed for Pittsburgh, bringing his bride along in the autumn of 1868, and there built a tremendous industry. While his parents and family remained in Schenectady the rest of their days, George’s business was built in the steel city. It wasn’t long before he delved into the electrical world, where the Westinghouse companies made a name developing (in part from patents of Tesla) alternating current transmission and motors, ultimately winning the War of the Currents.

There is a lot of detail about Westinghouse’s life after that air brake patent in the various biographies, and a lot of it may be just as fanciful as we suspect Leupp’s and Prout’s accounts were. (Leupp’s was far from the worst of the biographies we found; Levine’s 1962 “Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse” reports pages of conversation as fact without the slightest attribution.) All this filler and questionable events (for instance, one account says that the family left Central Bridge after a series of fires, something not mentioned in the more contemporary biographies) are likely the result of Westinghouse’s reticence to speak publicly, give interviews, or do anything other than work and invent. While quite a few of the lies about Edison’s life came straight from his own mouth because he loved regaling reporters, and while Tesla had some of the leading technology writers of the day not only following him around but advising him, Westinghouse seems to have kept the press at a distance. He never wrote or dictated an autobiography. So in the end, we know very little about his life in Schenectady.

His birthplace in Central Bridge still stands (so apparently wasn’t consumed by fire) and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Of the family home on State Street, there of course has been no trace for decades. A home that George built for his mother, originally intended as something of a country home because it was so far out of the city at the time, still stands, although legend has it that she rarely if ever went there. Today it is the venerable Bond Funeral Home.

We’ve barely touched on the importance of George Jr.’s accomplishments – the air brake alone was transformative. There’s a good summary of all that he did at this site.