Author Archives: carljohnson

Time for a new bridge to Greenbush – or maybe not.

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The old Greenbush bridge in the foreground was replaced by the Dunn Memorial Bridge in 1933. But a new bridge was not a foregone conclusion.

The old Greenbush bridge in the foreground was replaced by the Dunn Memorial Bridge in 1933. But a new bridge was not a foregone conclusion.

Is anything ever simple around here? No, it is not. So, while it took years to get agreement to build the first bridge between Albany and Greenbush, the only bridge that carried automobiles across the river below Troy, you would think that when it came time to replace it, it would be relatively simple. It was not.

In August of 1927, the Albany Evening News reported on a plan to replace the Greenbush bridge with a new span, reporting that

Albany business and professional men are thoroughly aroused … to the insufficiency of the Greenbush bridge. Many visiting motorists, after once negotiating the structure enroute to Albany, have declared to hotel men they would rather skirt the city than again meet delays incident to crossing the only bridge entering Albany. Merchants declare trucking costs are higher and delay in deliveries across the river frequent, as the result of traffic jams and stoppage of traffic due to passing ships.
“The Greenbush bridge, designed to accommodate leisurely, horse drawn vehicles, resembles nothing much better than a cow path in the light of modern bridge engineering,” [Chamber of Commerce President Westcott] Burlingame said. “Actually the old Greenbush bridge appears to be shrinking As motor traffic increases and the old structure creaks and groans under the pounding of automobiles, trucks, buses and trolleys, all striving to squeeze through two narrow lanes, I really believe the sides contract. Every time I cross the bridge it seems the lane has become smaller and the curbs closer.”

James Gheen, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, pointed out the importance of the crossing:

“North of Peekskill there is no bridge spanning the Hudson river until you strike the Greenbush bridge at Albany. Motorists travel along the river for miles, headed for the bridge. And when they get there perhaps a boat is passing and the draw is open, delaying motor traffic. Or there is the usual congestion of vehicles at several periods in the day. The motorist tarries impatiently. Queer greeting to hold him off as long as possible, he thinks. He wants speedy access to this destination. The Greenbush bridge doesn’t permit that to the visitor from the country east of the Hudson river. The bridge is one of our gateways. I believe in building a new gateway across the Hudson. We need it.”

The News of December 2, 1927 reported that the plan to replace the old bridge with a new bridge was actually opposed by leaders from the other side of the river, in a hearing held by a special committee of the Albany Chamber of Commerce to probe the bridge situation and seek relief from traffic congestion on the bridge.

“A delegation of business men from Rensselaer led the fight to keep the present bridge and received unexpected support from a Castleton delegation, which expressed itself in favor of the present bridge, to be augmented, however, by a new high level bridge at Castleton.
Points made by the proponents of the present bridge are that the structure is still suitable for use and could be made efficient by raising it, using the upper deck as another traffic lane and installing a new bascule type draw.
The Castleton delegation pointed out that while the Greenbush bridge is really a necessity for communication between Albany and Rensselaer, natural advantages pointed to the Castleton site for a new high level bridge.”

A group of Rensselaer businessmen said the existing bridge could be repaired, that the approaches could be widened and ramps erected to provide a traffic lane on the upper part of the bridge (which originally was meant to carry a rail line that never materialized). The state engineer of bridges and crossings, Harvey Schermerhorn called that an impossibility that would cost more than building a new bridge.

Someone by the name of Captain Ulster Davis (perhaps a river captain?) believed that draw openings could be expedited and the old bridge used for years if a bascule lift draw were installed in place of the swing span. “He said he had seen lift draws that could operate in sixteen seconds.” A designer of the Holland Tunnel, Fred Williams, was in attendance, and made a snide response to a colleague, “We’d like to see one of those sixteen second lift draws, wouldn’t we, Davis? We tried to design some that would work that fast but never succeeded.” He proceeded to note that it would be impossible to build a new lift span into the existing bridge, and wouldn’t be able to allow traffic in the meantime. In fact, the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which replaced the Greenbush in 1933, would be a lift bridge.

Reading between the lines, Williams’s presence must have indicated at least some consideration of a tunnel option. Either that or he ran around the country opining about tunnels. “I haven’t much to say today. This isn’t tunnel day. But I do want to say that although a tunnel is always feasible where a river crossing is wanted, it is not always the best thing. Whether a tunnel would serve the best purpose in this case, I can’t say now.” Good thing it wasn’t tunnel day.

“No figures of probable cost for revamping the bridge were presented by those who hope to convince the bridge committee that the Greenbush structure could easily be made adequate. No traffic figures were presented by those aspiring for a new bridge to convince the committee that the Greenbush bridge is a back number, a nuisance to highway traffic and a menace to navigation.”

Eventually, the decision to build a new bridge would be made, but again, there would be controversy. We’ll get into that anon.

From Hearses to Ambulances: Albany Motor Renting Corp.

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1920 Albany Directory Funerals by Automobile

In case you were wondering when funerals by automobile became possible in the “Capitol” District – it would appear that the answer is 1920, which is when the Albany Motor Renting Corporation was formed (president: Spero Loscaris) and this ad appeared in the Albany City Directory. Its 56 South Ferry Street location, where they also sold Socony gasoline, is now merely a parking lot; 46 State Street is an older, not terribly noticeable building that currently houses Cook’s Cafe.  They apparently succeeded a company named Allen & Arnink Auto Renting Company. Presumably, hearses weren’t all they rented, as they also show up in county records as having provided auto service for the Board of Elections in 1920, and even in Albany, the dead voters don’t require transportation.

albany motor garage - hearses and limousines 1920s lancaster st albany nyThe company also later owned a large garage that still stands on Lancaster Street, and rented hearses, limousines, and regular old cars. In 1953, the company branched out considerably, focusing less on the dead and more on the not-quite dead by getting into the ambulance business:

Ambulance service calls from the Albany Police Department will be handled by Albany Motor Renting Corporation from its garage at 166-168 Lancaster St., on a per-call basis, Mayor Corning said today.

The firm which rents hearses and drive-yourself cars asked the city for the opportunity to provide the service, and informed the Mayor, after a meeting of its directors yesterday that one ambulance would be ready for service tomorrow. A second ambulance will be added soon, the Mayor said he was informed.

Two-way police radios will be used in the ambulances. The service is strictly a private one, the Mayor said. The city pays for emergency calls at the rate of $15 a call. Welfare case calls are paid by the Albany County Welfare Department. There is no contract between the city and Albany Motor Renting Corporation.

In 1969 they were still renting out of the Lancaster Street garage. As late as 1973, Rensselaer contracted with the company to provide ambulance service.

Geology is Destiny

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General John Burgoyne, by Joshua Reynolds (Frick Museum)

Our views of history are, to be certain, shaped by our perspectives. Whatever background we come from, whatever origin stories we tell about ourselves and our families inform our understanding of the events the past. And to an extent, even our training and careers can inform what we learn, and create interesting perspectives to share.

The Geological History of New York State (New York State Museum Bulletin 168, 1913) presents an interestingly extreme example of this: a geologist’s view of the battles of Saratoga. This was written by a Rudolf Ruedemann, who noted that anyone who studies the region with an interest in history and geology could not fail to be impressed by the close relationship between the two:

Burgoyne had two routes to reach the Hudson river and thereby Albany, his objective point: namely, first, the deep depression extending from Whitehall to Fort Edward and caused largely by the downfaulting of the Ordovicic rocks at the eastern base of the Adirondacks and, second, the fault basin of Lake George. He selected the former and entered the swamp region of Wood creek, following this creek with its immature swampy drainage up toward the Hudson. Here it was extremely easy to impede his progress by cutting trees and throwing them across the road, an opportunity of which the Americans made the fullest use. Burgoyne wasted months of valuable time and his best energy and provisions in these swamps of glacial origin. When he finally reached the Hudson he followed it on the east side until he found the place where at Thomson the river falls over a ridge of harder Normanskill shale below which a bridge could be easily built. After crossing he was again forced to the river bank by the only road available, while deep ravines cut into the thick clays of Lake Albany made excellent opportunity for a defensive position for the American army. Such a position was selected at Bemis Heights.

On the other side of the river towers Willard mountain, an erosion remnant due to the hardness of the grits and cherts of Normanskill age that compose the syncline. From this bold mountain every movement of the British army could be easily seen by the patriot Willard and signaled to General Gates.

After his defeat, Burgoyne retreated leisurely and sullenly up the river. Hessian officers advised him to leave his cannon and baggage behind and save the army by a forced retreat by way of Lake George, but the obstinate though brave general decided to return by the crossing at Thomson, allowing by his slow and undecided action the Americans to overtake him and, in using the peculiarly favorable topography of the locality, which is due to its remarkable geology, to prepare a trap for him. The most important feature of this topography is that just above the Thomson crossing a volcanic rock, known as the Northumberland volcanic plug, juts out prominently toward the river, so that it has complete command of the crossing and at the same time prevents an army from passing under it at the west bank of the river. This important strategic point was occupied by Colonel Stark. It, and Fellows’s batteries which could be advantageously placed on the bluffs of Albany clay on the opposite bank of the river, were, with Morgan’s sharpshooters in the woods to the west of the army, the principal means of forcing Burgoyne to surrender. Thus we see that the peculiar combination of a ford over a shale ridge, a volcanic rock close by and bluffs of clay aided greatly in bringing about the decisive victory of Saratoga.

A Home for the Faculty Cows

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Albany’s Lancaster School

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Albany's Lancaster School on Eagle Street

Recently we wrote about Schenectady’s Lancaster School, which pretty much controlled the shape of what would be thought of as public education in that city in the early 19th century. Schenectady wasn’t the only area city that signed on to the Lancasterian fad, which applied some definite ideas about how students were to be taught and used those who had already been taught to instruct their juniors, an efficiency that allowed them to employ a minimal amount of teaching staff while instructing large numbers. In fact, Albany had a Lancaster School several years earlier.

According to the 1829 report of the Trustees of the Albany Lancaster School Society, the Albany Lancaster School was first established by the corporation of the city of Albany in October 1811, with an annual appropriation of $400. The directors of the school were incorporated by legislation in 1812, and a provision of the common school act that was passed that year assigned state school money appropriated to the city directly to the trustees of the Lancaster School, “with a view to ‘the education of such poor children belonging to the city, as shall be, in the opinion of the trustees, entitled to gratuitous education.’ In addition to the general Lancaster school, a part of the above fund was appropriated in 1820, for the support of a school ‘for the education of poor children of colour.’”

The report also said that trustees of the Albany Academy would admit a certain number of pupils from the Lancaster School to gratuitous instruction in the higher branches of education, “as a reward of superior merit.”

Horatio Gates Spafford (the father of a somewhat more famous Horatio Gates Spafford) put out “The American Magazine, A Monthly Miscellany,” in which he provided a summary of the Lancaster School in his April 1816 edition.

The Albany Lancaster-School, has been in operation about five years. It has been taught, hitherto, in a room of 40 feet by 28, yet so fitted up, as to receive 200 scholars;–and it has never had less than that number. Since its commencement, 1100 have enjoyed the benefits of the Institution. Here have been taught Spelling, Reading, Writing, Ciphering, Geography, English Grammar, composition and Elocution, in the style of the best Academies of Europe. When the Teacher, Mr. W.A. Tweed Dale, arrived in this country, he was introduced to the Hon. De Witt Clinton, who having become acquainted with his character and abilities, wrote to Gen. S. Van Rensselaer; in consequence of which he was invited to Albany by the Corporation of this city, and engaged by them for six months. This led to the formation and incorporation of the Lancaster-School-Society; with a permanent appropriation of that proportion of the Common School-fund, which belongs to the City of Albany. The Corporation of the City also, appropriated $500 annually, beside a donation of 800 to defray the expense of fitting up the School-Room, &c.; resolving at the same time, to build a suitable School-House. And when we consider the large numbers that have been taught on this plan, at a comparatively small expense, and also the tendency of the system to form virtuous citizens, by training up the youth in habits of order and method; by habituating them to the discharge of relative and social duties; and in short, by introducing them in the business of real life; who can attempt to calculate the importance of this Institution to our City.

Spafford noted that Mr, W.A. Tweed Dale had come from the original school of Joseph Lancaster in England, and that he had added improvements of his own and others, “too numerous to be mentioned in this place.” He focused on the physical layout of the schoolrooms, which were an important feature of the Lancaster system.

The elevation of the desks, places every scholar in the most distinct and conspicuous point of view for the Teacher; while his Desk, placed so as to present nearly an equal space in front, and on each hand, affords the greatest facility in his communication with the whole school. The entrance for the boys, being at one end of the building, and that for the girls, at the opposite end, two schools, entirely distinct and separate may be taught in the same room. The apartments under the desks, will be of the greatest utility for this purpose, both before and between the hours of instruction. In these, those who come from a distance, may remain and recreate themselves, without injuring the furniture of the School-room; and neither sex will be seen or heard by the other. During School hours, these rooms may be used for recitation, and a portion of each as a ward-robe.

We shall only mention one improvement in the mode of teaching: this is Silent Dictation. Instead of having the words spelled aloud to each class, to be written on slate; they are pointed out by a Monitor, on a printed alphabet, in written letters. This is done without interrupting any classes that may have been called out to read, or cipher aloud, and without being interrupted by them. These may profitably join in concert, however, when the words that have been written on slate are spelled aloud. Thus all the school may spell the same word, at the same time: This is done after the word has been pronounced, syllabically, without repeating the syllables, but merely by calling the letters distinctly, and pausing a little between the syllables; – a method at once pleasing and instructive. Mr. Dale, the Teacher of this School, is probably as well qualified for his Task as any other, in any similar school in America ….”

Noting that the building had been designed by Albany’s most important architect of the era, Philip Hooker, Gates gave us a thorough description of the building that would later be the first home of the Albany Medical College:

The Lancaster School House, now erecting in the city of Albany, is situated on the west side of Eagle Street, a little south of the Capitol. It is a neat, plain brick Edifice, 100 feet in length, and fifty feet in width, with a small wing at each end for stair cases.

The first floor will contain a vestibule, hall, and stair case, and a room for the Trustees; in the centre and on one side, a room of 47 by 35 feet, for public meetings – and on the other, convenient apartments for the Teacher’s residence.

The second floor is the school room, 97 feet in length, 47 feet in width, and 21 feet in height. It includes the two upper tier of windows. The Teacher’s desk is placed in the centre, against the front wall, and elevated about 2 feet from the floor. The desks and seats for the scholars are ranged on each side, parallel with the end walls; – each rising one foot above the other, as in a church gallery: each stage 3 1-2 feet, gives room for a desk, seat, and narrow aisle between the seat and the next desk.

Opposite the Teacher’s desk, against the rear wall, a stage is elevated on pillars, with steps to ascend to the same, which is also fitted up with desks and seats, for such scholars as the Teacher shall think proper to honor with a seat there, as a reward for their assiduity ,and to excite emulation. There are rooms of 47 by 17 feet, at each end, under the aforesaid gallery, besides four lumber rooms under the front part of the gallery.

The annexed plate [the illustration above] is a Geometrical Elevation of the front, drawn to a scale of 20 feet to an inch. In this representation the front wall, to the right, from the water-table to the cornice, is supposed to be removed, in order to exhibit a view of the interior structure, with the elevation of the desks, seats, &c. in the School Room.

Schenectady’s Lancaster School lasted until about 1850 or so, when free public schools were established in the State. If Albany’s continued on, it had to have been at another location, as this building became the first home of Albany Medical College in 1839.

The Lancaster School System in Schenectady

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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.”