Author Archives: carljohnson

The Albany Brush Company

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Military Hair BrushesWe know that way back when, the Albany Penitentiary was supposed to be a model reformatory, one where prisoners were expected to be silent and work for their keep. In fact, From the time of its opening in 1846 on a plot of land behind what is now Hackett Middle School, the Penitentiary, a joint effort of the City and County of Albany, was intended to be self-sufficient. Partly, it drew in revenues from other counties, states and even the Federal government for the keep of their prisoners. Partly, it depended on the labor of its prisoners, who worked at making chair seats and shoes. Apparently, they also made brushes for an outfit called Albany Brush Company.

Like the other companies involved, Albany Brush Company was an independent concern that contracted with the penitentiary for labor to manufacture their products in the workshop on the Penitentiary grounds. (In fact, in 1858, with regard to shoe manufacture, there were complaints that “near one-half of the convicts then received were drunkards, who were sentenced for only ten days,” which made them useless to the manufacturers. It’s not clear when Albany Brush began using prison labor. It had been the Brinkerhoff and Armour Brush Company, and renamed Albany Brush when it was bought by John Ferris.

1893 Albany BrushThis ad from 1893 offers their glass and goblet cleaning brushes (an item that has pretty much disappeared from modern life), and cites their address as 400 Broadway, south of the Post Office. 1893 was the same year that the company’s shop at the penitentiary burned on January 9:

Fire was discovered last night in the packing house which adjoins the brush shop in the penitentiary. The flames spread to the brush shop, and that structure was soon a mass of flames. The packing house was completely gutted and the brush shop badly damaged. The brush plan is owned by the Albany Brush Company. Loss to building, $1,000; insured. The brush company estimates its loss between $10,000 and $12,000 on stock and machinery, which is covered by insurance.

The company started up again; in 1895 their telephone was listed as being at the penitentiary. Albany Brush Co. began at least as early as 1880, but the use of prison labor ended in 1899, which was noted as having reduced the earnings of the prison, with only a laundry contract remaining.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 11.31.17 PMThey seem to have run from at least 1880 until at least 1945 (we know because a wedding announcement that year said the bride worked there). John Ferris died in 1939 at the age of 87; he had retired in 1934. Like all good Albanians, he was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Union College Alumni in the Civil War

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We ran across an interesting tome by the title of “Union College Alumni in the Civil War,” and thought we might try to give a little rundown of the alumni of the little Schenectady college, founded in 1795, who had served both the Union and the Confederacy. How much work could that be?

As it turns out, if we tried to even gloss the information in Thomas Fearey’s 1915 book, we’d be at it all week. Union College alumni were all over the Civil War, not just recent graduates or those who finished their studies during or shortly after the term of the war, but even those who had graduated 40 and more years before. That seems remarkable, but of course the Civil War was singular in a number of ways. Has there been another war in which active members of Congress served?

Two members of the class of 1813 were represented in the Union effort. The classes of 1821 to 1829 contributed 10 men to the Union, and three to the Confederacy. The class of 1860 was the most highly represented, with 50 in the Union and 2 in the Confederate service. In all, 522 Union college alumni served the Union, and 46 served the confederacy.

In the Union Army, they included in their numbers four major generals, 10 brigadier generals, 40 colonels, 22 lieutenant colonels, 28 major, and 104 captains. In the lower ranks, there were 59 1st lieutenants, 27 2nd lieutenants, 7 sergeant majors, 20 non-commissioned officers, 71 privates, 7 paymasters, 43 chaplains, 27 surgeons and 30 assistant surgeons. Another 23 served various positions in the Navy and Marine Corps.

In the Confederate Army, Union was represented by three brigadier generals, four colonels, a lieutenant colonel, nine majors, 16 captains, 3 1st lieutenants, 2 surgeons, 2 chaplains, and a sergeant.

Sixty-one who served the Union, including a professor, were killed in battle or died in hospital; six in the confederacy suffered the same fate. Six alumni were awarded the Medal of Honor by congress for conspicuous valor in battle. They were Major General Daniel Butterfield, 1844; Chaplain Francis B. Hall, 1852; Brigadier General John F. Hartranft, 1853; Brigadier General Philip Sidney Post, 1855; Captain George Newman Bliss, 1860; Private Warren Gilman Sanborn, 1867.

William H. SewardFearey featured five alumni who “rendered distinguished services to their country during the civil war,” which included:

  • William H. Seward, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1820 – “He was United States Secretary of State through the war period. The evening that Lincoln was shot Seward was savagely attacked at his home, and his son, Frederick W. Seward, ΦBK, LL.D., of the Class of 1849, who was Assistant Secretary of State, was seriously hurt when trying to prevent the assassins entering his father’s room.
  • John Bigelow, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1835 – He was Consul General of the United States in Paris, and United States Minister to France during the war period. He rendered conspicuous services in preventing the recognition of the Confederate State.
  • Austin Blair, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1839 – He was War Governor of Michigan and an ardent supporter and helper of President Lincoln.
  • Preston King, LL.D., Class of 1827 – United States Senator from New York State.
  • Ira Harris, ΦBK, LL.D., Class of 1824 – United States Senator from New York State.

Only a single faculty member was featured in this listing, Elias Peissner, a native of Munich who served as a professor of German and Political Economy. “At the age of 35 he was mustered in as Lieut. Colonel 119th N.Y. Vols. To serve three years, August 9, 1862. Promoted to Colonel Sept. 1, 1862. Killed in action at Chancellorsville, Va., May 2, 1863. A Grand Army Post in Rochester, N.Y. is named for him.”

The two members of the class of 1813 were both in service of the United States Navy. Samuel Livingston Breese was a lieutenant in comment of the Crusader when the Civil War began; he was promoted to Lieut. Commander July 16, 1862, commanded the Quaker City of the South Atlantic blockading squadron in 1862-3 and the gunboat Ottawa in 1863-4. He remained in the service after the war. John J. Young was a captain in the Navy when the war began, and became a commodore on July 16, 1862.

Robert Toombs, Class of 1828, left the U.S. Senate and led the secession movement in Georgia after Lincoln’s election. “He was one of the Chief organizers of the Confederate Government, and was a prominent candidate for President. He was Secretary of State for a few months and then resigned to become Brigadier General C.S.A. in Lee’s Army. He fought with distinction at Manassas and Sharpsburg, but was too insubordinate to make a successful commander, so in 1864 he resigned and returned to Georgia. He disliked President Davis and opposed his policies. After the war he would not take the oath of allegiance so he was debarred from Congress.”

Edward Martindale, Class of 1836, served as a captain and then a lt. colonel with the 26th New Jersey Volunteers, then in 1864 served as a colonel with first the 83rd and then the 81st U.S. Colored Infantry.

Henry Wager Halleck, Class of 1837, had served as an officer in the U.S. Engineer Corps from 1839 to 1854. He became Secretary of State in California “and in 1861 offered his services to the Government and was made Major General U.S.A., Aug. 19, 1861. He was Commander in Chief of the Army from July 23, 1862 to March 9, 1864, and continued in the service after the War.” Fearey doesn’t mention that Halleck, who replaced McClellan, was known by the derogatory nickname of “Old Brains.”

James C. Duane, Class of 1844, went to West Point after graduating Union College, and went into the Engineers. He rose to the rank of Major and then became Brevet Lieut. Colonel and Brevet Colonel. “He commanded the Engineer Battalion in the siege of Yorktown, April 12 to May 4, 1862. He built the bridge over the Chickahominy, 2,000 feet long, August 12-14, 1862. He was Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, Sept. 8 to Nov. 5, 1862, during the Maryland Campaign. Chief Engineer of the Department of the South, Nov. 19, 1862, to June 13, 1863, in the attacks on Fort Mcllister, Ga., and in operations against Charleston, S.C., and again Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac from July 15, 1863 to June 8, 1865. Brevet Brigadier General U.S.A. from March 13, 1865, for gallant and Meritorious services during the siege of Petersburg and the defeat of Lee . . . He was one of the joint commission to supervise the construction of the Washington National Monument, Oct. 11, 1886-June 30, 1888.”

There is so much more. If you want the rest of the extensive history of those who served, you can find it at the Internet Archive.

A Cabin in the Woods, and a Little Family History

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Raquette Falls TrailAfter years of good intentions but poor execution, of being somewhat nearby but never quite in the right area, I finally made it to the land of my ancestors last week. It’s a little tucked-away corner of the north central Adirondacks, far from any roads in the 1860s and not terribly close to any now. But at that time, the earliest tourists traveled by water routes from one end of the Adirondacks to the other, following routes set out by Seneca Ray Stoddard, Rev. Murray and other early advocates of wilderness adventure in upstate New York. (Remember that Verplanck Colvin wasn’t engaged to make a map of the region until 1872.) And as they paddled (or were paddled) down the Raquette River and came to the carries around the upper and lower Raquette Falls, their boats and gear were carried around the falls on an oxcart driven by my great great great grandfather, Philander Johnson, and they were fed pancakes and something that was acknowledged as trout when in season by my great great great grandmother, “Mother” Johnson.

It’s not entirely clear when they arrived there, though it’s likely it was any time between 1860 and 1865. It’s not entirely clear why they left Newcomb, where they had been tenant farming for a few years, and where their son William remained for a period of time. It’s not at all clear why they and the related families that they moved around with for a couple of decades didn’t move south even just a few dozen miles to a part of the world with shorter winters and soil that could grow something. Together, Johnsons, Pecks, Grahams and some others moved from northern Vermont to Crown Point, then into inland Essex County, making a stop in Newcomb before heading into deep wilderness to seek their fortune where there was none likely to be found.

I’m not quite sure when logging started in that particular neck of the woods, whether it had begun when they got there or whether they were entirely reliant on the little bit of tourism that was starting to build. It seems unlikely they could have made a go of it without a nearby lumber camp to serve, and it seems reasonable they may have gone there to feed the lumberjacks and found a profitable niche providing food and lodging to the big city swells.

Today, the closest paved road (well-packed dirt, anyway) is Coreys Road, which takes you to the head of the Raquette Falls trail (marked as the horse trail). It’s about 4.2 miles of pretty easy hiking (though with an amount of up and down) to reach the clearing where Mother Johnson’s stood. Today, there are two structures there – a nice modernish cabin built in 1975, occupied in the season by a ranger with the Department of Environmental Conservation, and an old, hand-hewn barn that could date back to Mother Johnson’s time. If not, at the very least it is known to have been there in 1890, so not long after.

We hiked in on a day with perfect overcast weather that later brightened up. When we got to the clearing, we met the ranger on the site, Gary Valentine, who has been there a dozen years and knew nearly as much about Mother Johnson as I did . . . which is really no surprise as none of this information has come down from family stories. It was only recently that I became certain that Mother (whose name was Lucy Kimball Johnson) was in fact William Johnson’s mother. Mr. Valentine gave us the grand tour of the new cabin on the site, and let us inspect the barn, marveling at the pinned construction with hand-hewn beams, speculating that it certainly could have been put up by Philander. In fact, he thought it likely, since the first thing new settlers had to build was a barn, not a house, as they would have to care for their livestock in order to survive. We can’t be certain, but it certainly makes sense.

We also talked about whether Mother Johnson was buried at Raquette Falls or somewhere else. The author Christine Jerome, in An Adirondack Passage, held that Mother Johnson had asked to be buried at Long Lake. That’s certainly possible, as it was the closest thing to a town nearby, but it’s also questionable as neither she nor any of the other Johnsons lived there. Her daughter Sylvia lived down the river at Hiawatha Lodge; son William had lived in Long Lake once, but had lived much longer at Coreys, and was by the time of her death likely near Westport, back east by Lake Champlain. There is a headstone at Long Lake that originally said “Old Mrs. Johnson,” then was turned upside down and re-inscribed “Mother Johnson.” But an article on her granddaughter Jennie Morehouse, in 1938, said that both Lucy and Philander were buried at the falls, as was Sylvia’s husband, Clark Farmer. In any event, there is no sign of any graves near the falls. There is a grave in the clearing where her lodge stood, but that is that of George Morgan, for whom a later Raquette Falls Lodge was built.

It was remarkable to sit beside the falls and think of how long people had been coming to that place in the midst of the wilderness, how the early Adirondack guides (including Lucy’s son William and then grandsons Charles and George) would have beached their boats above the upper falls and then hiked in to hail Philander with his ox cart, who would have carried the vessels around the falls while the “sports” enjoyed a meal and often slept over for the night. Likely those guides had to bring some of the supplies the Johnsons needed, such as milled flour, but it would appear that “Uncle” kept the guests in something like trout and “mountain lamb.” Even that early, there were hunting and fishing seasons to maintain the populations up. If, in fact, logging was already underway in that area, deer may have been hard to come by whether in season or not. Perhaps they had ice, but probably not. It was a hard, remote life.

Think of what it took to even build a cabin in those woods. The land had to be cleared – at the time Seneca Ray Stoddard took the photo above, it looks like logging may have already occurred as the standing timber is intermittent. If the Johnsons arrived with the logging operations, then a logging crew may have made their lives much easier. If not, “Uncle” had a lot of work to do, along with whoever else from the families may have gone there with them. Once the timber was felled, it had to be shaped into beams using an adze – evidence of that handiwork remains in the old barn on the site.

Mother Johnson's at Raquette Falls.

An enhanced version of a stereograph of Mother Johnson’s at Raquette Falls, taken by famous Adirondack photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard.

This photograph of Mother Johnson’s, held by the New York Public Library, is undated. A guess of the 1870s can’t be too far wrong, as the house is complete and fairly spacious, with what appears to be a fairly lavish extension to the left of what was likely the original cabin on the right.

The construction itself tells a story of progress even in the woods. Besides the barn, which can’t be seen in this view, it seems likely that the first structure built would have been what is now the lower story of the cabin, on the right. It appears to be of squared log construction, and may originally have had a peaked roof but not one as high as the one in this picture. To the left is a little windowed structure with a stovepipe sticking out . . . this could have been a separate smokehouse (possibly a sugaring shack, but given the forest it seems less likely). That structure was sided with rough boards, meaning there was at least a planing mill somewhere near. By the time the spacious second story was added to the original cabin, better wood was available, as it is sided with dimensional boards and the windows are handsomely trimmed. It’s impossible to say whether the windows were assembled nearby from glass imported from elsewhere in the state, or if the sashes were brought in as finished pieces, but those are double-hung touches of civilization, in contrast with the multi-paned fixed window at the end of what we’ll call the smokehouse.

Hand-hewn beam inside the barn at Raquette Falls. This dates to at least 1890.

Hand-hewn beam inside the barn at Raquette Falls. This dates to at least 1890.

As business expanded, and more and more swells from the city needed a place to stay on their passage up the river, the Johnsons must have decided to simply add on to their cabin. When the upper story wasn’t enough, they must have added on that extension to the left, which likely had spacious common space down below and a bunkroom up above. Someone had the wherewithal to make some pretty nice-looking wooden shingles, and it appears that another stove was in use in that part of the house.

The stovepipe shows that at some point the oxen carried a stove in to the cabin . . . but from where? The first railroad into any part of the Adirondacks, built by Durant, only reached North Creek in 1871, a long, long way from Raquette Falls. The Fulton Chain railway, famous as one of the most popular routes, wasn’t completed until 1892. Saranac Lake, down the Raquette River to the north, was reached by the Delaware and Hudson in 1887, and the New York Central in 1892. So clearly, someone hauled that stove the hard way, a long way. The windows appear to be glass, which raises the question of where the glass came from, and whether the windows were crafted somewhere locally with glass from one of New York’s far-off cities, or if they were brought in as completed sashes. The logistics are daunting today, and seem impossible in the 1870s. But there they were.

Standing under the little shingled roof next to the center post is the ample frame of a woman who must be Mother Johnson. To the left, her right, are two men or boys in the shadows. They could be guides, they could be hired hands. Immediately next to Mother Johnson could be a dog. To the right, there are three men. Any of these could be Philander, or they could just be other Adirondack guides or the swells they catered to.

On the way out, we were treated to a ride down the river, an unexpected bonus that made me desperate to get back there with my own boats and paddle the beautiful, slow winding path of the Raquette below the falls. Our guide explained how it had been perfect for logging operations – in the early days, nearly all timber was moved by river, and some rivers were friendlier to it (and the loggers) than others. Today, it is a slow, lovely bit of water with sandy banks surrounded by grassy plains. There are several inviting campsites and lean-tos that are beckoning for a future visit.


Not Quite Man’s Best Friend

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Dogs, Albany Hand-Book 1884In the Albany Hand-Book of 1884, which contained an alphabetic listing of topics of interest to both residents and strangers, we find this remnant of an earlier time, when an Albany ordinance prohibited all dogs from going at large in June, July, August and September unless properly muzzled, out of the belief that rabies or distemper were more prevalent in that time. “Unmuzzled dogs so running at large may be killed by anybody. The police make a practice of poisoning a great many every year.” Of course, it’s really only during our lifetime that actually being responsible for your own dog and having to keep it on a leash or in your own yard has become a societal norm. When we were growing up, dogs just wandered wherever they pleased.


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Hoxsie’s on vacation. Will be back next week refreshed and full of . . . . well, no, we’ll probably still be randomly throwing up posts about whatever catches our fancy the night before, with minimal research and plenty of typos.

In the meantime, click the archive link on the right and find something you haven’t seen before!

Roller Skating Rinks of 19th Century Albany

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We have a real love-hate relationship with George Rogers Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” from 1886. On the one hand, it’s a treasure trove of incredible information that is organized in ways the esteemed Joel Munsell couldn’t achieve. On the other hand, it’s mostly plagiarized, often self-contradictory, and almost completely unedited. But: treasure trove!

Looking for something else, as ever, came across this little nugget on Albany’s early roller skating rinks:

The popular amusement of roller skating secured a foothold in Albany soon after Boston had adopted and indorsed it. Like all other modes of amusement in their nature harmless, it has its excesses and its abuses.

The first place opened in Albany for this diversion was at No. 69 North Pearl street, in the Old Post Office Building. The hall, ready for the public just before Christmas, 1880, was well patronized during the winter. It was closed the 1st of May following. In the fall of 1881, the Old Tabernacle Baptist Church, on North Pearl street, was converted into a skating rink by a stock company of young men of Albany. It was fairly patronized, but from some cause it did not realize the expectations of its proprietors, and the enterprise was abandoned the next spring.

Catholic Union Building c 1900 Howard st and eagle st Demolished for the South Mall Albany ny

Tenth Regiment Armory at Howard and Eagle Streets; briefly a roller rink.

During the winter of 1883 and 1884, Albany seems to have had two roller-skating rinks, one in the Public Market Building, Hudson avenue, and one in the old Tenth Regiment Armory, Van Vechten Hall.

The fifth enterprise of the kind was undertaken in 1884, by Hickey, Downing & Curley, and resulted in the spacious and very creditable rink running on Lark street, Captain Young, Superintendent. The building is 85 by 185 feet on the ground, with a floor 65 by 165 feet, and is provided with 700 pairs of skates, and lighted by electricity. It is the largest audience room in the city, and has been used for concerts and large public gatherings.

The sixth and last roller skating rink was opened in the old Methodist Church in the fall of 1884, by Mr. Munson. Mr. Rice, Manager. It had a successful winter, but the building was enlarged and fitted for laundry purposes in 1885.

As follow-through was not Howell’s strong point, the excesses and abuses are not described.

An 1884 article on the opening of the Capital City Roller Skating Rink on Lark Street gave a sense of the preparations that were being made in order to get it ready. It was such an anticipated affair that extra trolleys were added to handle the expected crowds:

In order that the Capital City Roller skating rink on Lark street might be opened this evening, a large gang of men worked all night laying the floor. The skating surface when finished will be 165 by 60 feet. The floor was being planed this morning. Manager Hickey was present and flying about from one part of the building to the other. The steam-pipes are in and will be in use this evening. The electric lights in the centre will light the floor from one end to the other. The building has four wide exits and will hold 600 skaters, and 1,200 spectators, the latter occupying a triple row of seats at the sides. The cloak rooms will be in charge of lady attendants. Capt. David W. Young will efficiently fill the position of superintendent. He has been connected with skating rinks in this and other cities. Five skate-boys have been engaged. All the rink employees will wear a navy-blue uniform, with brass buttons and navy cap. Supt. Young has about 450 pairs of skates for use to-night. They are the Union hardware make, being hard wood with nickel trimmings. The prospect is good for a very large attendance at the opening. Extra cars will run on the State street and Clinton avenue lines. Sullivan’s band will give a concert from 7:30 to 8 P.M., after which skating will begin and continue till 10:30. The regular admission rates will be charged. To-morrow afternoon fancy skaters will be present, and give exhibitions of what may be accomplished by practice on the rollers. The rink will probably be open hereafter morning, afternoon and evening. Sullivan’s orchestra will be present every evening, and play the printed programs.

The only David W. Young that we find in the 1885 directory is listed as a janitor at School 22. There’s no mention of a roller rink, even though it seems it lasted at least through 1886.  In 1910 it was announced in “American Architect and Architecture” that W.J. Obenaus had prepared plans to rebuild the roller skating rink on Lark Street. Its exact location is not made clear.

In case you were thinking of full-shoe roller skates like we know now, think again: these were more like the child’s roller skates many of us grew up with, the kind that strapped on to whatever shoes you were wearing, and likely looked something like this:

Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating

Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating

The Freshet This Time

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Munsell’s “Annals of Albany,” in the Notes from the Newspapers section, includes a description of the devastating spring flood of 1833, one of many notable floods in Albany’s history:

May 16. A freshet which began two days previous was not at its greatest height and produced much loss and damage. South Market street was impassable below Hamilton street, and carts and yawls plied their amphibious vocations at the rate of 6d a passenger. The vegetation on the island was wholly destroyed. Besides the damage to property, which was serious beyond recollection, there was also loss of life.

The island at the south part of the city consisting of about 160 acres, was at this time occupied by 11 families, deriving their support from the vegetables raised thereon. The recent flood entirely destroyed the crops, and they sustained a loss of nearly $6000. They were equally unfortunate in the previous year when owing to the prevalence of cholera, they were unable to dispose of the products of their gardens.

Cuyler Reynolds, in his “Albany Chronicles,” describes the 1833 flood as the “Greatest freshet of years: lower Broadway navigated by scows to State st. Damage to 11 farms on Van Rensselaer Is.” Reynolds wrote that the freshet, which began May 14, didn’t subside until May 17.

Van Rensselaer Island 1874South Market street was what we now know as Broadway, which extended to the southern border of the city at what has variously been known as Castle Island, Martin Gerritse’s Island, Patroon’s Island, Van Rensselaer Island (separate from the other one on the Greenbush side of the river) and Westerlo Island. The island was separated from the city by the flow of the Normanskill. This map from 1874 shows the island separated by Island Creek, but clearly occupied at the time, running from South First to South Fifth street, with extensions of Franklin, Green and Church streets running to the south. At that time, 40 years after the flood Munsell spoke of, there were two iron works (Olcott and Jagger) and a machine company (Eagle M&R).

Jagger Iron Company was headed by Ira Jagger, formed in 1870 as The Corning Iron Company and casting its first iron in 1871, according to Howell’s 1886 “Bi-Centennial History of Albany.” It was a large works employing 140 to 150 men in its heyday, but closed in 1883. The Olcott works was probably what became the Albany City Iron Company, owned by A. Van Vechten, J. Howard King, and Dudley Olcott, which was built in 1873 and employed 160. It, too, was closed when Howell was writing. We don’t find anything about the Eagle M&R Machine Co.

Today the outflow of the Normanskill flows only south, not north, and this former island has been filled in entirely to connect with the mainland, on which the Port of Albany now sits. Before it became the port, it served for a while as Quentin Roosevelt Field, an important early airport.

Freshets were more than a minor problem in the days before the Sacandaga Reservoir was created to tame the Hudson River. In the early days, they were noted often, and of course in 1618 the original Fort Nassau built on Castle Island was wrecked by a freshet and abandoned by the Dutch. Fort Orange was nearly swept away in 1647 “by a freshet of unusual proportions, broadening and deepening the river so that a school of whales (it is said) swam up the Hudson as far as Lansingburgh, one of which becoming stranded on an island opposite that place, gives it the name of Walvish Eylant or Whale Island (a small island in the Hudson River above Troy which disappeared on construction of the state dam).”

In 1818, the water stood over two feet deep in the Eagle Tavern on the southeast corner of South Market (Broadway) and Hamilton, “the ferry carried half way to Pearl street and sailing vessels floated over the dock, one family carried in its house across the river to Bath.” Just the year before the 1833 flood, another freshet, “the most extensive in years,” carried away several buildings on the pier and the basin bridges. In 1851, a freshet in February carried away 200 feet of “the Government embankment extending to the island opposite North Albany from mainland.” In 1854, the pier was submerged by what was marked as the seventh freshet of the spring in April. In 1861, a freshet carried away three bridges leading to the pier, also in February. In 1900, February flooding was called the greatest in 43 years, 20 feet above normal level, “causing great suffering in southern section of city.” On Easter 1906, a day of rain created a four foot freshet in the river, “so that steamboat Morse takes on passengers at Gansevoort street.” It wasn’t until 1930 that the river was tamed and these damaging floods were brought under control.

After posting, we were reminded by Paul Nance that this frequent flooding was the reason the commercial district moved up off Broadway to Pearl Street. He also noted that the cholera outbreak of 1832 was pretty substantial, with 1,147 people afflicted and 422 dying; anyone who could get out of the city that summer did.

Albany, Home of Nearly the First Globe Manufactory in the Country

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James Wilson, Globemaker

Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany” says that the Wilson boys of Albany, John and Samuel, were the sons of the first globe manufacturer in the U.S. That would have been James Wilson, born in Londonderry, N.H., and died in Bradford, Vt. According to Howell, around 1820 sons John and Samuel established a globe manufactory in Albany, “the first of the kind in this country.” It clearly wasn’t. Then Howell plagiarizes Munsell, who had listed the death of John (March 18, 1833) in his “Notes from the Newspapers” section in the Annals: “It was claimed for them that they were the best globe-makers, not only in America, but in the world. So much did they improve the art of globe-making as to elicit the admission of English manufacturers, that their globes were geographically and mechanically superior to their own. John Wilson died in 1833, and his brother Samuel near that date. After their death the business was discontinued in Albany.” John was only 39 when he died.

The whole story of how the business came to be in Albany, and who was involved in it, becomes confused.  An article on the Library of Congress blog repeats stories told elsewhere of how farmer’s son James Wilson became inspired to construct globes after a visit to Dartmouth College in 1796, teaching himself geography and cartography from an encyclopedia. It also says that he sought training in copperplate engraving from the famous Amos Doolittle. This article then says that Wilson opened his first globe factory “in the 1810s” in Albany. “With the assistance of his sons John, Samuel, and, later, David, J. Wilson & Sons began producing globes on a commercial scale.” Curious, then, that Munsell and Howell make no mention of James, just of the sons, as having been in Albany.

Wilson 13 Inch Globe Manufactured in Albany

A Wilson Globe, made in Albany in 1828, from

The Library of Congress, in a separate 1997 article, again connects James Wilson to Albany, marking the acquisition of a pair of 13-inch globes, one terrestrial and one celestial, which it said were manufactured by James Wilson, “America’s first commercially successful globe maker.” The article says the terrestrial globe’s title is “A New American Terrestrial Globe on which the Principal Places of the Known World Are Accurately Laid Down, with the Traced Attempts of Captain Cook to Discover a Southern Continent, by James Wilson, 1811, with Additions to 1819, Albany New York.” So, was James himself in Albany, or were his sons just there making globes in the family name?

The Vermonter: The State Magazine in 1903 gave a detailed biography of James Wilson, “The First American Globe-Builder,” which describes the shop made of rough boards in which he built his first globe in Bradford, VT, in 1796. By 1810, his globes were commanding $50 per pair (terrestrial and celestial). “The small unpainted blacksmith shop had become a globe factory which was throwing off its products as far as Amherst [!] and paralyzing the heart of the English globe trade in America.” His works reached Boston just a few years later.

“The demand for globes became too great for the capacity of his Bradford shop and he formed a co-partnership with his son, John Wilson, of Albany, New York, March 10, 1818. By the terms of the contract James Wilson was to furnish the material and receive one-half of the profits, while John Wilson was to manage the business and receive the remainder of the profits. In the factory at 110 Washington street [sic], J. Wilson & Son made globes of three, nine, and thirteen inches of diameter. Their market price ranged from five dollars to fifty-five dollars per pair. They were mounted on mahogany pedestal stands and were furnished with compasses.”

110 Washington Avenue is also a little confusing. The numbering may have changed, but it has been the same since at least 1876, when the Hopkins map showed it as the location of what is now the Fort Orange Club. Hopkins marked it as the land of E.H. Bender, although that name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Fort Orange Club’s timeline, which says the building was built in 1810 as the private residence of Samuel Hill. So, perhaps the numbering changed and the Wilson globe manufactory was elsewhere.

Assuming it’s accurate that the business was discontinued in 1833, it would be some years before the area became famous for globes again, but for a time the H.B. Nims Company of Troy, successor to Merriam, Moore & Company, made some very well-respected and still collectible globes, the Franklin globes, in the Cannon Building in Troy.


Dog Days of August, 1944

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90 Mercury Plagued All But 4 August Days1944: The world was at war. Air conditioning was a rare feature in Albany homes and businesses. Factory work was still commonplace. And in August, the temperature reached 90 degrees in Albany on 27 days of a 31 day month.

“You may have thought that every one of the 31 days was a scorcher, but you’re wrong. Four days were not. Through a mysterious and fortuitous combination of circumstances known only to Weatherman Ernest J. Christie, four days failed to make touchdowns. They didn’t register 90 degrees or over. But 27 did. Especially during the first 17 days of August, when 11 days hit 90 degrees or higher, and the whacky mercury boiled up right past the 1896 line, at which time nine sizzlers made hot news . . .

Between August 4 and August 15, five scorching days spent their time outvying each other. On August 12 the reading of 99 degrees was the highest since July 9, 1936. (Consoling note: It was then 103 degrees!)”

The story notes that there was one record low of 44 degrees after the middle of the month, leading to a mean temperature of 72.2 degrees, 3.2 above normal, the warmest in five years.

Farnham’s Red Lion

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Farnham's Red LionMany of us of a certain age remember a restaurant on Lark Street that went by the name of Farnham’s Larkin, popular with legislators of an even more certain age. Well, before Farnham’s Larkin, there was Farnham’s Red Lion.

An article in the August 26, 1959 Knickerbocker News, headlined “English Pub Ideas Put to Use in Albany,” told the story:

A six-month pub crawl around England gave Mrs. Gladys Burroughs of Albany, not a thick head, but some ideas.

Those ideas will be on view this weekend when the restaurant at 79 Chapel St. [corner of Maiden Lane, now buried under the Hilton Hotel and courtyard complex] which she bought recently, reopens after decoration under the name, Farnham’s Red Lion.

Mrs. Burroughs and two architects, Francis Wood and Robert F. Winne, both design teachers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, set out to reproduce as much as they could of the atmosphere of an English pub.

Then there’s some banter about how Woods also admitted to visiting a pub or two, and how fortunate it is that it’s not really in England where it could only be open at lunchtime and in the evening until 11 p.m.

Oaken booths, old English prints, valuable English china, Pickwickian murals and prime meat will join with modern air-conditioning, cocktails and cigarets [sic] from a machine to give the best of both worlds, hopes Mrs. Burroughs . . . A room at the back, to be known as the Wedgewood Room, has not yet been completed. It will be used for parties and banquets.

The redecorated restaurant will hold 80 customers.

Cigarettes from a machine: swanky.

(You youngsters may not know that actually swanky joints had something called cigarette girls. They walked around nightclubs and higher end restaurants, often in some form of skimpy attire, hawking cigarettes from a tray that hung from a strap around their necks. You could look it up.)

There are many mentions of the restaurant in the newspapers in its inaugural year, but not a lot after that. It was being picketed by Local 471 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union in 1963, at the same time as an action against the Schine-Ten Eyck Hotel across the street., which noted that the Red Lion was under new management, which wanted to put off contract discussions while they performed renovations. After that, we find nary a mention.

After initially posting this, we were reminded that the “Albany…The Way It Was” Facebook group has photos of the old Farnham Hotel (from which the Farnham part of the name came) in its archives:
Farnham's hotel and restaurant chapel and broadway 1920sfarnham's hotel chapel maiden 1939