Category Archives: Troy

River travel before steam: wind, white-ash breeze, and kedging

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In “The History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer County,” Arthur Weise described river travel before the age of steam. In periods of calm winds, the tides of the river could be, a little bit, the traveller’s friend, but then sometimes they had to resort to kedging:


“Anyone taking passage in a sloop or schooner sailing to New York, or from that city to Troy, at this early day, generally expected, if the wind was favorable, to make the voyage in two days at the furthest, but should the wind be variable and continue to blow in the opposite direction to that in which he was going, the journey was often lengthened to several weeks. When there was a head-wind and the tide against the vessel, the sloop would be compelled to lay to. If there was a period of calm weather, she went with the tide six hours and then anchored six hours. Sailing with ‘a white-ash breeze’ was a burlesque phrase to express that the men employed on the vessel were rowing with long white-ash oars, or ‘sweeps,’ as they were called. These sweeps were about 20 feet in length, and when used in connection with the drift of the tide, about 14 miles a day could be made by a sloop in calm weather. Oftentimes the large anchor of the sloop was let go, and a boat sent ahead to a bar, with a line and a small anchor called a kedge. The kedge being dropped on the bar, the large anchor was taken up and the sloop by means of the line attached was towed forward. The operation of moving a vessel in this way was called kedging. It was a very tiresome and slow process, slower, in fact, than the movement of a canal boat. A sloop generally had accommodations for conveying from 10 to 15 passengers, having as high as 14 or 16 berths in a cabin.”

At those kinds of speeds, it’s a wonder everyone in the 18th century wasn’t suffering from sloop-lag.

The Photography Stylings of Zeph Magill

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zephmagillcabinetcard.jpgA couple of weeks back we ran across the photograph of Hugh McCusker, dealer in carpets, who did his carpet-dealing from River Street in Troy. We said at the time we didn’t know much about the photographer, Zeph Magill, other than that he worked out of the Keenan Building. There was also a milliner in the building by the name of Thomas Magill, around about 1886, so it’s possible Zeph was one of the Magill boys.

But I did find another photo by Magill on the site “Who Were They? Lost and Forgotten Photos From the Past.” It’s a shame the name of this lass has been lost.

Magill also took a fairly famous photo, at least if you’re a local history buff, of General Grant’s steel coffin. Annoyingly, it’s one of a very small number of photos that the Library of Congress only makes available as a thumbnail, but other versions do exist.

A number of other cabinet photos by Magill can be found through the miracle of the internet.

Troy’s Earliest Merchants

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According to Arthur James Weise, in his “The History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer County,” the first merchants of Troy came to the riverside town almost before it was even a town. At that time, Lansingburgh was actually where it was at. In 1786, the present site of Troy was known as Ferry Hook and was occupied by the three farms of Jacob I., Jacob D., and Matthias Van der Heyden, who looked north and saw Abraham Lansing prospering by attracting New England immigrants onto building lots. The Van der Heydens decided to do the same, and it wasn’t long before these new settlers needed a place to buy things. Possibly the first was opened by Benjamin Thurber, whose advertisement in the June 4, 1787 Northern Centinel and Lansingburgh Advertiser shows the kind of wide-ranging inventory and liberal payment policies that were required in those pioneering times; in fact he says far less of what he has to offer than of what he is willing to take in payment:

Benjamin Thurber Hereby acquaints the Public that he continues to sort his New Cash Store, at the sign of the Bunch of Grapes at the Fork of Hoosack Road, near Mr. Jacob Vanderheyden’s with East, West-Indian and European goods of all kinds. For which he will receive, in lieu of Cash, black Salts, Shipping Furs, Wheat, Corn, Rye, Butter, Cheese, Flax and Flax Seed, Tallow, Hogs’ lard, Gammons, Pork, Bees-Wax and old Pewter. He also continues to receive ashes, as usual, to supply his newly erected Pot and Pearl Ash factory and will pearl black Salts in the best manner on Equitable Terms; and also will give the highest Price for black salts.

N.B. – A number of New French Muskets for sale at the above store.

Shortly after him came Benjamin Covell, who set up shop on the west side of River Street, between Ferry and Division streets. He wrote to his brother about the conditions he found:

Ferry Hook, Nov. 16, 1786. – I arrived here the 2d. This country is the best for business I ever saw. I will go into my store the 18th of November; hired it for six months for £12 lawful money. Done more business in one day than in one week in Providence. The night of the 15th, after sundown, took in twenty dollars. Got my goods first from Albany, but in the spring will go to New York. I am one mile from Benjamin Thurber’s down the river. They are all well. I board to Stephen Ashley’s, the same man that I hire of. He appears to be a clever man, and keeps a large tavern, which is a great advantage to me.

“Black Salts,” by the way, refers to a form of potash, which hardly defines anything to the modern reader. Potash is made by burning wood to ashes in a pot, and was used in the manufacture of soap, glass and fertilizer. A “gammon” is the lower end of a side of bacon.

Fulton Street, somewhen

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Fulton Street Looking East.jpgAnother great local postcard from the Boston Public Library, from a past date known only to those who are skilled in car-bonnet-dating. This is from Third Street, looking east up Fulton Street. On the left, you can see a cigar store, the Fanny Farmer store, and a store called Weinberg’s. The lovely buildings in the left foreground are no longer there, replaced by the Uncle Sam Garage. On the right, Frear’s Troy Cash Bazaar. Mid-background is the building housing the NIte Owl News at the corner of Fourth. Up the hill, beyond the approach, depending on when the postcard image was taken: Troy Hospital, or, after 1922, Catholic Central High School. After 1952, it became RPI’s West Hall.

Frear’s Bazaar . . . and bizarre

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Frears_trade_cardpoem.jpgAt least to me, this trade card for Frear’s “Again Enlarged and Improved Troy Cash Bazaar” seems a bit, well, bizarre. The card, printed by T. Newcomb of New York City and perhaps used by other merchants as well, features a dandy (or is he a fop?) contemplating a sunflower, and the odd bit of verse:

“A Japanese young man,

A blue-and-white young man,

Francesca di Rimini, miminy, priminy,

Je-ne-sais-quoi young man.”

Turns out that’s from an 1899 Gilbert and Sullivan work called “Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride: A Comic Opera in Two Acts.” Even reading it in context, I have no idea what it means.

What does it have to do with Frear’s? Perhaps it was so well known then that it was just considered quotable.


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Julius Saul trade card.jpgWhile we’re on the subject of the trade cards of Troy merchants in the 19th century (yes, that is the subject we were on), here’s another one from the Boston Public Library collection on Flickr. This one is from Julius Saul, the clothier of Troy whom we’ve profiled before. It’s safe to assume that this imprintable card featuring the likeness of President James A. Garfield, apparently the sitting president at the time, could have been one of a series of presidential cards (“collect ’em all!”). Or perhaps Mr. Saul just thought his customers needed reminding of who the president was. It was a simpler time.

Saul didn’t limit himself to Troy; he also had a store at 51-53 North Pearl Street in Albany, as a commenter was good enough to inform me.

A cabinet card photograph from Troy

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hughmccusker.jpgSo yesterday we said we didn’t know much about Hugh McCusker, dealer in carpets, oil cloths and more. But we did run across this cabinet card photo that captures the Troy merchant and his impressive beard. The photograph was taken by Zeph Magill, a photographer who worked in the Keenan Building at Third and Broadway late in the 19th century. I don’t have an easy way to date either McCusker or Magill, but a guess of 1880s or 1890s wouldn’t be far wrong.

Hugh McCusker’s Popular Dry Goods and Carpet Store

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Hugh McCusker Troy.jpgMcCusker front side.jpgHugh McCusker was a dealer in carpets and oil cloths late in the 19th century, with a store at 261 River Street in Troy. His trade cards are still around, as you can see here, but beyond a couple of directory listings, I haven’t learned much about Hugh McCusker. The front of this card was, of course, stock illustration from the card company, so it’s likely retailers all over the country used the same illustration, on which a printer could insert the particular business’s particulars. The illustration’s relevance to the business was not, apparently, a consideration.

The Hendrick Hudson Hotel

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the Hendrick Hudson Hotel.jpgTroy’s Hendrick Hudson Hotel building dates back to 1926, and has been such a central part of the Collar City’s life ever since that I’ll forgive it for the hollandization of English explorer Henry Hudson’s first name. (Yes, he sailed on a Dutch ship for a Dutch company. His name was still Henry.)

With more than 160 rooms, and the shops and restaurants that always attended a high-end downtown hotel, it was a key location in Trojan public life, and attracted the likes of Richard Nixon and JFK. And it had an attractive corner in the new lobby!

The Troy Post Office

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Post Office Troy.jpgLast week we saw what a village post office is supposed to look like. Here we have Troy’s fine example of what a city post office is supposed to look like. It was built in the mid-1930s as a Depression-era construction project and, like other post offices of that era, has the good taste to include murals of local significance. Painter Waldo Peirce contributed “Rip Van Winkle” and “Legends of the Hudson,” meaning we can say with some certainty that Troy has the only post office in America with art depicting the Headless Horseman.