Author Archives: carljohnson

R.S.V.P. to V.R.S.P.; or, the Young Lady Didn’t Invite Him to Skate

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In 1870, the St. Lawrence Republican (of Ogdensburg) ran a story headed “R.S.V.P., or the Van Rensselaer Skating Park,” and promised that “The following ‘local story,’ taken from the Albany Evening Journal, is told in good enough style to make it interesting to the general reader.” Since we were already on the topic of the skating park, we thought we’d present it here.

R.S.V.P. – The Van Rensselaer Skating Park is not the thing of beauty and joy forever that it once was. Skating hereabouts is on a slippery road, and bids fair to be soon numbered among the lost arts. Before the final crash takes place, before the Van Rensselaer Skating Park melts entirely from memory, we wish to record here one fact in regard to it, one story depending upon it, which is too good, and too sadly true, to be lost.

There resided in Grafton, Rensselaer County, in this State, a few years ago, when the Van Rensselaer Skating Park was in its first glaring popularity, a young gentleman who meant well, but didn’t mean enough. He was a trifle crude, not to say green; he had not had those cosmopolitan experiences whose results are summed up in the terse compliment, “He’s traveled.”

The young archer, with the tormenting arrows, sighted him one day and sent a dart for his heart, which “went home” as unerringly as a Haymaker in a close match with “Mutual” friends.

So it happened that our young friend woke up one morning – as the sun was touching with fine gold the towers and battlements of Grafton – and found himself not “famous,” but famously in love. She was a little thing from Troy – a pretty young blonde, with such fair, fair golden hair; “it looks like woven lightning,” was the opinion he expressed in regard to it, through the medium of the postal service.

A letter from Grafton to Troy, from Troy to Grafton, was but a matter of twelve hours, and the little blonde and her Grafton lover sent the white missiles thick and fast.

Kind messages that fly from land to land,

Kind letters, that betray the heart’s deep history,

In which we feel the pressure of a hand,

One touch of fire, and all the rest is mystery.

He used to repeat those lines from Longfellow to her, and when she acknowledged to fancying them very much, and confessed to their being “so sweet,” he had them forthwith printed neatly with her monogram on ever so many quires of paper, and made it all a present to his love, with his love. The little blonde in response came out in one of her most charming blushes, accepted the paper, and said she made all the quires vocal, for his benefit. He bowed in bewildering delight, and leaving her that day, was linked sweetness of sorrow.

It was but two days afterwards that the young lady took a sheet of her nice new paper, and proceeded to indite thereon, in the Grafton interest. She wrote to know if James – which was the name of her lover – could come to Troy, on a particular evening; she would be pleased to have his company, etc. Now, it so happened, that this was an invitation to a stunning party the young lady was giving in honor of her eighteenth birthday, and, of course, she counted particularly on her lover’s presence. She had said nothing to him about it before sending the invitation, and the invitation itself she mde vague in order to take him by surprise. At the bottom of the carefully written mottoed monogramic and delicately scented sheet there was, standing in the left hand corner, the initial letters – R.S.V.P.

In due time the mail deposited this seductive chirographical lure at Grafton, and James received it and read it with delight – Come down to Troy and see her? Of course he would, and that with the greatest pleasure. In the midst of his happy thoughts, his eyes suddenly lighted on the letters in the corner. Blinded with his first delight, he had not noticed them – R.S.V.P.

That bothered him.

“P.S.” he was familiar with; indeed the little blonde’s notes and letters always introduced him to three or four of them. “N.B.,” he had learned to take notice of. “S.T. 1860 X.,”1A reference to a “tonic” called Drake’s Plantation Bitters he sharply surmised, told of some Bitter experiences. “C.O.D.,” he knew had its meaning – it was Expressly understood by him. “O.K.,” he appreciated as the exponents in letter, of contentment in spirit, and, better still, he had read “The Initials.”2A reference to both OK and Old Kinderhook But R.S.V.P. collared him, threw him down, and trampled him in the dust of darkness and ignorance. What could it all mean?

He thought, and he thought, and he thought.

Finally, his eye lit up, his features grew radiant, and the Grafton mind saw the light. The meaning of the initials was clear to him now – how stupid in him not to have seen it at once. R.S.V.P. meant, of course, V.R.S.P., (the young lady in the hurry of writing, and in the trepidation of the new paper, had got the letters in the wrong order,) and V.R.S.P. meant – Van Rensselaer Skating Park.

On the evening called for in the invitation, James, from Grafton, drove down to the Van Rensselaer Skating Park, the trysting place appointed by her inditing hand. It was a carnival night; Chinese lanterns, and fireworks, and music made the park gay, bewildering and all attractive.

As bright the lights shone o’er fair women and brave men, he looked anxiously for his little blonde. He saw a number of pretty girls from Troy, skating at their gracefulest, saw bevies of beauties from Albany gliding along, but not, not his “Heart’s Delight.” He went from one end of the park to the other, he made inquiries of the men who shoveled snow, he interviewed the park directors; but as his queries were rather indefinite, being worded, “Did you see anything of her?” he got no information, which was of the slightest service to him. But he wouldn’t give her up without a desperate struggle, and so wandered here and there, with searching eyes, until the lights were all put out, and the last of the gay company had dispersed. Then he went sadly home.

The next day, a young gentleman from Grafton called on a bright little blonde in Troy. She answered the bell herself, but remarked as she opened the door, remarked with flashing eyes, “I’m not at home sir,” and then shut the door quickly.

“Shut it with a jam

That sounded like a wooden d__n.”

She never made up with him. She says: That any young gentleman who wouldn’t so much as reply to a young lady’s polite invitation, when expressly requested to do so, but would, instead, go careering off to Albany on the very evening of her lovely party, was not worthy of her young heart’s devotion. He says: That he wishes he had begun little Pinney3Author of a popular French grammar earlier in life, but objects, all the same, Pinney or no Pinney to the horrible habit of introducing French into English composition.

He still lives in Grafton, is a subscriber to “Revue des Deux Mondes,” and is confident that, regarding himself from a [?] point of view, he will never again be found in a somniferous state. But alas! It is too late now. The little blonde was married last summer, to a dashing young officer, with much buttons. There was a tide, which, if taken at the flood, would have led him and her to the parson. He didn’t take it, but knocked his prospects high as Gilderoy’s kite4A common saying of the day, relating to the hanging of a Scottish robber on the rocks of a misinterpretation, which did strange injustice to the original intentions of a nice girl.

The Van Rensselaer Skating (and Curling) Park

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Stare at an old map long enough, and eventually you’ll be faced with a mystery you have to solve. We’ve stared at the Hopkins map of Albany from 1876 more than a sane person should admit, and every now and then a little detail jumped out at us, calling for attention. We ignored it any number of times, until finally it became clear we had to figure it out. What the heck was the Curling Park?

It’s on the map on the north side of the city, across the canal and railroad tracks from the lumber district, part of what was then still the Stephen Van Rensselaer estate before that area became industrial. But was curling a thing in Albany? It was, but the “park” was used for much more than that.

The earliest reference we’ve found to what was called the Van Rensselaer Skating Park (though it appears to have had no connection to the Patroon other than its location) was in 1861, with an advertisement in the Argus proclaiming that the park would commence its season December 1, 1861 and end March 1, 1862. But it had been open at least one year prior: “In opening the Park for the Season, the Directors solicit from the Public the same generous patronage extended to them last year, and pledge themselves to conduct in a manner calculated to give satisfaction to all.” Gentlemen’s season tickets were $4.00; ladies and children under 12 years, $2.00. “Subscribers will be allowed to introduce Ladies by paying 25 cents for each admission. On evenings designated for Carnivals, an extra charge will be made.”

Weather allowing, the park was to be open daily except Sundays from 9 AM to 10 PM. Of course, one wouldn’t want to go all the way up there to find out what the ice was like, but the 19th century had a system: “The condition of the ice may be known by a RED BALL hoisted upon the Staff at the foot of State street by day, and a COLORED LIGHT by night.” Stages left the Capitol and Exchange (the old Federal building at State and Broadway) every half hour from 1 to 8-1/2 PM. Trains on the “Northern Railroad” apparently also stopped there, with 5 departures each direction each day. Fare for either stage or train was five cents. Tickets were available at Newcomb’s at 524 Broadway, Lathrop’s at 57 State Street, or at the Park.

Van Rensselaer wasn’t the only skating and curling park. Another one called “The Orr Union Skating and Curling Park, known heretofore as Buttermilk Falls,” was also open in 1861. Family season tickets were only one dollar. We’re entirely unclear as to the location; the entrance was given as from Eagle street. “The above Park will be in charge of Relief Engine Co. No. XI, and a Special Officer appointed by the Mayor will be in attendance to keep order. There is a building erected for Refreshments, and a separate room for Ladies. The best of order will be kept. Open from 9 A.M. to 10 P.M.” Tickets were available at Fleming’s Segar Store, South Pearl and Beaver streets, and George Stevens’, corner of Bleecker Place and Eagle. (Paula Lemire was good enough to remind us that Buttermilk Falls was within what is now Lincoln Park, and so this skating park was likely somewhere around the bowl of the park.)

Van Rensselaer was still open in 1863, when the opening of the skating season was noted:

“The Van Rensselaer Skating Park was opened for the season yesterday [Dec. 7, 1863], to the great delight of innumerable young ladies and gentlemen. The sight of the welcome signal flag floating in the breeze caused no small degree of joy among those who could live on skates.”

Both the aforementioned Lathrop and the Erastus Corning Co. sold a variety of skates. Lathrop claimed the largest assortment in the city, “among which are The Skowhegan Skate, The Norwich Clipper, The Blondin Skate, The Philadelphia Club Skate, The New York City Club Skate, and Dutton’s Shell Groove Skate.” Corning advertised skates and sleigh bells together; perhaps they were used together.

In 1866, live music was added: “The managers of the Van Rensselaer Skating Park begin to-day a new style of entertainment. Schreiber’s band will furnish music to the skaters this afternoon from three to six o’clock at no extra charge to season ticket holders, while the public generally are admitted at the moderate price of 25 cents. This novelty should prove a success, and we hope that it may do so.”

The Van Rensselaer Skating Club put the park up for sale in the summer of 1867: “Proposals will be received by the Van Rensselaer Skating Club for the sale of all the property belonging to the said Club, and located upon the Park Grounds, north of the Van Rensselaer Mansion, consisting of Buildings, Fence, Iron Pipe (about 800 feet), Ice Planes, Snow Plows, Torches, Colored Lanterns, Liberty Pole, Flag, &c.” They were offering either all or any portion of the property, or to sell it “with a view of continuing the use of the Park for Skating purposes.” While we found several notices of the sale, we don’t find if the Park was actually sold; we just know that it continued on.

Before we even get to a mention of curling proper, we find an odd mention of a baseball game to be played at the curling park – on skates. On February 9, 1865, the Argus wrote: “It is expected that the return match of base ball on skates, between the Nationals of this city, and the Washington Club of Troy, will be played on the Van Rensselaer Skating Park this afternoon.” Perhaps this was an exhibition or a novelty, but we found another game that was played similarly on Feb. 12, 1868: “The match game of base ball played on the Van Rensselaer Skating Park yesterday afternoon between the Knickerbockers and Nationals of this city, resulted in favor of the latter club by a score of 58 to 10; but four innings being played.”

Dec. 12, 1868 is the first time we find mention of a formal curling club, but again it’s clear they had been around in previous years:

“The Albany Curling Club have commenced operations for the season, their first game being played Thursday, on their rink, adjoining Van Rensselaer Skating Park. They enjoyed the game very much, and will be at it every afternoon when the ice is in order. Curling is peculiarly a Scotch game; but as Scotchmen are to be found all over the globe, it is not to be wondered at that they should introduce their favorite game in countries such as this, where ice suited to the game is so easily obtained.”

There followed a detailed description of how curling works. Interesting that it said the curling rink was adjoining the skating park; perhaps they had once been one and the same. When the skating season opened that December, the Albany Morning Express said that heavy snow had caused a delay in opening the rink. “Lively times at the park may then be expected, as there is no other place for skating in this vicinity.”

In 1872, The Troy Daily Whig noted that the International Curling Club would be hosted by the Albany Curling Club. “This Club will meet at the Albany Board of Trade Rooms at 5 o’clock this evening [June 11, 1872]. The delegates from abroad will be entertained by the Albany Club at the Delevan House. To-morrow, at noon, the quoit prize will be contended for on the Albany Curling Club grounds.” The article also referred to a Grand National Curling Club.

That’s about the last mention of the skating park that we’ve found. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Van Rensselaers moved out of the manor house about 1875, as the area industrialized. We’d love to know if there was a connection.

In modern terms, the curling park was located across the canal (Erie Boulevard) and the railroad tracks from what is now Huck Finn’s warehouse. Google Maps has it as occupied by a company called Baker Commodities, a rendering and grease removal service. We’re sure they have no idea their recycling operations were once the site of one of old Albany’s great pleasure centers.


Let’s Look at the Record

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As Al Smith Used to Say

Art by Al Williamson

This panel is from a comic book called “Cliff Merritt Sets the Record Straight,” a production of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen from 1965 extolling the safety benefits the BRT brought to both workers and society. The fictional Cliff was being honored by the BRT for his years of service, and in conversation with a know-it-all teen whose father said the railroadmen were all feather-bedders. We were surprised to find Cliff quoting Al Smith: “Well, as Al Smith used to say: ‘Let’s look at the record!'” But it turns out, that is something that Al Smith would say.

Al Smith was from New York City, not the Capital District, but he was first elected to the Assembly in 1904 and served through 1915, serving as both Majority and Minority leader at different times. He was elected Governor in 1918, lost re-election in 1920 (two-year terms back then), then won again in 1922, 1924, and 1926. So, he spent some time in Albany. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1924 and didn’t get it, but succeeded in 1928, only to be defeated by Herbert Hoover. He tried for the nomination again in 1932, but ended up deferring to another New York Governor, Franklin Roosevelt. He is, of course, most remembered in Albany today not for his substantial reforms to the civil service system, which still echo through state service today, but for the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building that sits across from the Capitol.

It turns out that “Let’s look at the record” was a phrase commonly attributed to Al Smith. The Mount Vernon Daily Argus wrote in 1934: “Al Smith, campaigner par excellence and coiner without peer of the salty phrase, never invented a more ringing challenge than his famous ‘Let’s look at the record!'” Not only that, there are countless examples quoting him just the way that Cliff Merritt did. It even appears in a 1957 ad for the Bowery Savings Bank: “Let’s look at the record, as Al Smith used to say.” Smith had been dead for 13 years at that point.

For the record, so far, we haven’t found a direct quote of Al Smith saying “Let’s look at the record.” Any internet searches to try to find Al Smith actually saying “Let’s look at the record” are necessarily drowned in a sea of others quoting him as saying it. We find references to it as late as 1970, and then it seems like either the phrase, or the memory of Al Smith, disappeared.

Curious Accident

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Curious AccidentA singular accident happened on the Hudson River Railroad on Friday evening. The Express train which left this city on the above evening for New York, had not proceeded more than three or four miles below Greenbush, before the Engineer discovered that one of the immense driving wheels of the engine was gone. The train was stopped, and a search made for the missing wheel, but it could not be found, and the supposition is that the engine had gone over a mile with only one driving wheel. A new engine was furnished, and the train resumed its way to New York.

–Troy Daily Times, Dec. 5, 1858

Victor Rickard is Fashion Forward

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Carl Company Express We recently mentioned Schenectady’s aviation pioneer Victor A. Rickard, who not only managed the airport but gave flying demonstrations and lessons all over the area. But we missed that he was also involved in a fashion first, combining promotion for the nascent Schenectady Airport at Thomas Corners in Glenville with an air express shipment for the Carl Company department store. The Gazette reported on it on June 14, 1927:

Within three hours after exclusive summer fashions had been completed by leading New York designers they were on display in Schenectady late yesterday afternoon.

In this manner the Carl Company gave a tremendous impetus to the country-wide campaign to demonstrate the feasibility of commercial air transportation and play its part in the opening of the financial drive for the adequate equipment of the municipal airport at Thomas’ Corners.

The plane which made the trip was the Carl Company “Special Air Express” and the pilot was Victor A. Rickard, the local veteran birdman. Pilot Rickard was accompanied on the trip by F.E. Baldwin of the Gazette reportorial staff.

The “special” made its departure from Schenectady early yesterday and arrived at Fokker field on the outskirts of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., less than two hours later. Here the plane was held in readiness until the merchandise was speedily dispatched from New York to the airdrome. Leaving the designers shortly after 1 o’clock, the merchandise was placed aboard the plane shortly before 2 o’clock. Then with a roar of the propeller, a brief taxi over the Fokker field runways, the plane leaped away on its journey northward.

Notwithstanding that the trip up the Hudson was against a strong head wind the plane nosed into Port Schenectady shortly after 4 o’clock. The merchandise was immediately loaded into an automobile truck and taken to the Carl store. Within a half hour after the arrival here the fashions were on display in one of Carl Company’s windows. This s believed to be a precedent in regard to the speedy shipment of merchandise and its consequential display in northern New York. It also marked the initial air express shipment of merchandise to arrive at the local port.

Lest you think that the miracle of one-day delivery is something cooked up, consider that window dressing wasn’t the only thing that Rickard brought north that day.

“As the result of yesterday’s trip of the Carl Company air express there are two Schenectadians who will attest to the advantages of commercial aviation. William W. Patten, 1178 Glenwood boulevard, had placed with the Carl Company an order for a special golf ball. He wanted them in a hurry, and he obtained them in a hurry. They were in his hands in less than 11 minutes after the plane arrived at the Schenectady airport.

Yesterday morning Mrs. W.L. Fodder of 72 Union street placed with the Carl Company an order for hosiery of a special color. Special orders were telephoned to the manufacturers in New York and the goods were rushed to the Carl airplane at the Fokker field. As in the case of Mr. Patten, the hosiery was delivered to Mrs. Fodder in a similarly short time after the special express ship arrived.”

While they were at Fokker field, Rickard and Baldwin got to view the Fokker airplane manufacturing plant, including an army bomber then under construction that would carry six machine guns, four tons of bombs, and four passengers, at a cost of $125,000. (That’s about $1.76 million in today’s dollars (the new B-21 bomber is expected to cost $606 million, each).

Charles W. Carl, head of the Carl Company, said that he was convinced that commercial aviation in regard to the delivery of express merchandise was entirely feasible and “bound to play a prominent part in department store business.” He said that ordinary speedy delivery was 15-16 hours from New York.

General Electric had moving picture photographers on hand to capture the plane as it landed, along with its unloading. “These pictures will be shown at Proctor’s Theater within a few days, the date to be announced tomorrow.”

The Remarkable Darkness of Sept. 6, 1881

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The remarkable darkness of Tuesday morning, September 6th, 1881, was phenomenal. A heavy yellowish mist obscured objects a hundred feet distant from persons out of doors, and dimmed to a pale-blue brilliancy the burning gas-lights within doors. The children in some of the public schools were dismissed and the operatives in a number of factories discontinued work. The darkness continued until about eleven o’clock when the sun began to dissipate the murky vapor, which had dispread over the state of New York and parts of the adjacent states.

The above was noted in Weise’s “Troy’s One Hundred Years, 1789-1889.” We don’t find much other mention of it locally, but this was the effect of what is known as The Thumb Fire (or the Huron Fire, or the Great Forest Fire of 1881). It was a massive fire in upper Michigan that burned more than a million acres in a single day, killing at least 282 people and sending ash across the northeast. In Boston, they called it “Yellow Tuesday.” The New York Evening Express wrote:

“The sunrise at Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks, on Tuesday, was accompanied by a remarkable phenomenon, a kind of green fog covering everything and producing most weird and singular effects. The leaves of the forest had a green, such as one sees only in paintings, with a great preponderance of yellow ray; the grass seemed artificially colored, the animals had a sea-green color, the mountains disappeared, and in their place were wreaths of green vapor; the clouds were yellowish green; the sun appeared a ball of golden fire through the mist, and all nature seemed to have a strange and mysterious hue.”


The Marshall Sanitarium

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Marshalls Factory and Sanitarium

From the Sanborn, Davenport map of Troy, 1873, the Marshall complexes at the top of Poestenkill Falls.

Again, poking around an old Sampson, Davenport map of Troy, say 1873 (they didn’t change much from year to year, and as we noted yesterday, sometimes included buildings that were never built). Again, finding something we had never known about before. This time what caught our eye was a pair of complexes near Mount Ida. At the top of Poestenkill Falls is a complex marked as “Marshalls Factories.” Across the Poestenkill, another complex, marked as “Marshalls Infirmary and Lunatic Asylum.”

Benjamin Marshall was born in England, and came to Troy from New York Mills (near Utica). In Troy he established textile mills on the south side of Congress Street near what was then known as Mount Ida Falls. The mills were the Ida Mills, established in 1826. He also established the Hudson River Print Works, and later purchased cotton mills in Middlebury, VT and North Adams, MA. The WPA Guide to New York: The Empire State, by the Federal Writers’ Project, claims that Marshall’s Troy plans were the first in the state to control the complete production of cotton textiles, from raw cotton to the finished product. “Ten years later the Marshall plants were reported to be turning out the finest shirtings and prints in the country.”

Marshall was also noted for creating a series of tunnels drilled through rock that took full advantage of the hydropower available from the Poestenkill. He was the first president of the Schenectady and Troy Railroad (1841), was president and board member of the Troy Female Seminary (Emma Willard) and the Commercial Savings Bank, and very highly regarded in the community. An article from the Troy Record in 1964 says that “When his only son, John S., became mentally ill in 1847, he refused to send him to an insane asylum, which in those days had notorious reputations. He founded in 1848 the Marshall Infirmary and started a small building for about a dozen patients. The building on his own 17-acre estate on Linden Avenue was completed two years later. In 1851 it was incorporated with a board of 27 governors and with Mr. Marshall as its first president. The hospital was used for medical and surgical cases, but emphasis was on mental patients.”

According to Weise (“Troy’s One Hundred Years, 1789-1889”), Marshall,

“desiring to provide feeble-minded and diseased people with such care and comforts as might be needed by them, founded, in 1850, the infirmary, on Linden Avenue, near Pawling Avenue. The grounds, and the three-story brick building erected there that year, were then valued at $35,000. On June 20th, 1851, the institution was incorporated by the name of the Marshall Infirmary in the city of Troy. The administration of its affairs was intrusted to twenty-seven persons annually elected governors of the institution. Every person contributing ten dollars to it and annually paying three dollars to its support is a member of the corporation; and every person contributing one hundred dollars and annually paying thereafter five dollars to the corporation besides being a member of it may recommend one sick person to be cared for at the infirmary, without charge, for six weeks in each year of his contribution; and every person contributing one thousand dollars becomes not only a life member, but is privileged to recommend one sick person to be cared for without charge for fifty-two weeks in each year; and every person annually paying ten dollars may recommend one sick person to the care of the institution without charge for four weeks in each year.”

Marshall died in December, 1858; or, as the Troy Board of Supervisors put it, “The sad intelligence is received that Benjamin Marshall is no more.” The Board resolved that they had “heard with feelings of profound regret of the death of their esteemed fellow-citizen, Benj. Marshall, Esq., in whom the public have lost an enterprising man of business, the poor and needy a friend and benefactor, and society one of its brightest ornaments.” Modern readers may be confused by applause for helping the poor and needy, but it was a thing that was done back then. His funeral at Second Street Presbyterian was attended by hundreds; he was buried in a family vault at Oakwood Cemetery. He bequeathed further money to the Infirmary. His son John had recently died; the will disposed his share of the estate to Marshall’s nephews, and provided further support for the infirmary. Once the nephews were gone, “the manufacturing establishments are to be converted into money, to be divided in the same proportion as the income was directed to be divided.” The trust fund for the infirmary benefited from the Marshall Estate leasing the mills to other manufacturers.

During the Civil War, a third wing was added to the infirmary, with Rensselaer County now providing tax support. In 1900, it was named “Marshall Sanitarium.” When it closed in December, 1964, it was a 66-bed facility that had provided 116 years of service, but the explanation for the closing was that it was “duplicating state facilities.” The clinical records were transferred to Samaritan Hospital, according to an ad constituting Samaritan’s 1964 annual report (published April 28, 1965).

The newspapers of the day are filled with tragic reports of the mentally ill trying to harm themselves and being taken to Marshall; one Vermont paper reported that a local woman was going to the sanitarium for a few months as if it were a vacation – unusual in a time when there was so much stigma attached to mental illness.

It was reported in 1966, in an article on the expansion of education, that Russell Sage College had “purchased the bulk of the old Marshall Sanitarium property because of the certainty – still being borne out – that future development of the college would be inevitable.” Russell Sage purchased a 17-1/2 acre site for $32,500. But in 1973, the 30-acre former site of the Sanitarium was being advertised for sale, “ideal for garden apartments or condominiums.” Whether it happened then or later we can’t determine, but today there appears to be no evidence of the old Sanitarium. One street has been removed, and the area where the sanitarium buildings stood appears to be a wooded area today, surrounded by housing.

The College That Never Was

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St. Peter's College Troy from Sampson map 1877

Imagine our surprise when we were looking at an old map of Troy (as we do) and suddenly saw something there we’d never seen before, and had never even heard of: St. Peter’s College. And it turns out there was a reason we hadn’t heard of it – it just didn’t last long. In fact, it never opened. In fact, it was completely destroyed in a landslide.

The college was the brainchild of Father Peter Havermans, something of a force of nature in the Catholic community of Troy, and the Christian Brothers who ran St. Joseph’s Academy, as they had outgrown their building’s capacity and wanted to offer higher branches of study. (At this time, the distinction between high school and college education wasn’t always so crystal clear.) Father Havermans bought land from a Mr. Heartt and Judge Mann, “situated on the hill, under the site of the grounds surrounding Mr. Vail’s beautiful residence,” at the far east end of Washington Avenue, below Mount Ida. Below Mount Ida turns out to have been a poor choice.

The cornerstone for the new college was laid September 19, 1858. There was a formal procession several blocks in length, with religious societies and schoolchildren, orphans from the asylums, and Doering’s Cornet Band. “The corner stone was brought upon the ground about half-past four o’clock, and arranged in its position under a derrick at the central angle of the walls, by fourteen men. It bears engraved upon its front the name of the College, the date of the ceremony accompanying its disposition on the walls, and appropriate symbols. It contains the names of those who have contributed to the erection of the building, together with the usual documents, such as a copy of each daily newspaper, the name of the reigning Pope, the name of the President of the United States, the Governor of New York, the Mayor of the city, the number of patients in the Hospital, the number of orphans, &c.”

The building went under construction, 200 feet in length and five stories high, with two towers. Two stories had been completed by March 17, 1859. At eight o’clock in the evening, Mount Ida slid downhill. The Troy Daily Whig reported:

“A man who lives near by, and was a witness to the catastrophe, says that the earth slid down with very little noise till it reached the rear wall of the college. Here its progress was stopped for a moment, till, gathering new strength, it burst the barrier, and, with a sound like distant thunder, filled the building in a moment, demolishing beams, link-walls and partitions, and covering the entire central part of the edifice. The front wall was also crushed in, but it sufficed to stay the progress of the avalanche.

“A large crowd soon assembled at the scene, and many of them risked their lives in vain attempts to explore the ruins and discover the extent of the disaster. People could be seen in the bright moonlight standing upon projecting masses of earth, directly under overhanging bluffs. Although the particulars of the calamity cannot be accurately ascertained till to-day, it is feared that St. Peter’s College can never be rebuilt in the same locality. The centre of the building is buried up to the depth of several feet.”

No one was injured, owing to the timing – St. Patrick’s Day was a holiday. Had it happened during a workday, it could have killed any number of the 100 workmen who were engaged in the construction. “It is conjectured that if the college and its terrace had not been constructed, unrestrained by this barrier, the earth would have reached the tenement-houses [across the street], and, perhaps, even destroyed the hospital.” The loss was estimated at $27,000, the land was considered unsuitable, and the effort to build the college never recovered.

So the college was never even completed. Yet, it has a strange persistence on the Sampson, Davenport maps of West Troy and Troy, still depicted in editions from 1873-1878, causing us wonder what other buildings that were never even built are shown on these old maps.

Schenectady’s Premier Aviator, Victor Rickard

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Victor Rickard in center

From Daily Gazette 1920s: From left are Harold Bowen, Johnnie Luke, John Clark, Victor Rickard, Slim Emerson, unidentified and Phil Lucas. The Gazette credited this to the White Studios

Sometimes we run across a name from local history and have to wonder how it’s possible that the person in question isn’t better known. And then we get vexed by trying to know them better, at the remove of a century or so. Such is the case of Victor Rickard.

While Albany had an airfield starting in 1909 (Quentin Roosevelt Field, on Westerlo Island land now occupied by the Port of Albany), Schenectady didn’t get into the air transport game until 1927, when there was a wave of airport building across the country and the tri-motor airplane brought the promise of safer routine travel. In April of 1927, $100,000 in stock was offered to purchase land and develop the airport at Thomas Corners; by July, it was enough of an airport that Charles Lindbergh visited. Other famous flyers like A.F. Hegenberger (first trans-Pacific flight to Hawaii) and Bert Acosta (“the bad boy of the air”) visited that year. It all happened pretty fast. And in every article one can find about the airport, one finds mention of local flyer Victor A. Rickard. In fact, he flew the first plane to land at the airport, June 1, 1927 (coming from a small runway off Route 5 near Amsterdam)

Aero Digest wrote in 1927: “Schenectady Airport is gradually taking the shape of a high-grade port. It is situated on the main highway north, with direct entrance from same, and but three miles from the heart of Schenectady’s business section. It covers 195 acres of land located above the lowland fog area of that particular vicinity and excellent soil, with good natural drainage . . . A flying school and a taxi service has been operated on the port since July by a local aviator, Victor Rickard.”

Originally from Middleburgh or East Cobleskill in Schoharie County, Victor Arthur Rickard attended Aviation Mechanics School at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois in 1920. The earliest local mention we find of him is actually from the New York Times, but datelined Schenectady, from June 24, 1923, with the headline: “Cheats Death Twice in Plane and River.” The cheater was not Rickard, but his parachuting passenger, John D. Smith of Chicago:

Smith attempted to descend by parachute from an airplane piloted at 2,000 feet by Victor Rickard, who directs a flying field near this city. The parachute, failing to open, caught in the landing gear of the plane, leaving Smith hanging some 15 feet below. His attempts to climb to the cock pit were futile and Rickard signaled that he would drop him in the Mohawk River. The aviator planed to a few feet above the water and Smith jumped. He could not swim, however, and sank, but was pulled ashore by L.W. Geweke, patron of a swimming school near by.

The next mention we find of him is in the Salem (Washington County) Press in 1925, in notes from Greenwich:

“Victor Rickard with his mechanic flew into town Friday morning with a new standard bi-plane and after circling about over the village alighted on the flat west of Elm avenue and announced that he was a teacher in a Schenectady aviation school and was ready to take up passengers on twelve-minute trips. Andrew Sallans was the first to venture and his enthusiasm was certainly good advertising, for the plane was busy the greater share of the time it remained here.”

Rickard lived on the Amsterdam Road in Glenville in 1925 (possibly near Barhydt Rd.). He was 23, a “commercial flyer,” and listed as a “friend” living in the home of Darwin Mott; with him was his wife, Elmira (“wife of friend”), who was 18. It appears they were married that year.  In 1930, they were renting (at $55 a month) at 11 North Ten Broeck Street in Scotia, a building that still stands as the “TenBroeck Apartments”; he was listed as “Aviator Schdy Airport.”

At first, Rickard flew from what we think was probably later known as Gay Valley Airport on the Amsterdam Road. A 1927 article in the Schenectady Gazette said that Rickard was “one of the best-known ‘birdmen’ in this section of the country. He has ben in the ‘flying game’ for 12 years and for the last six years has been engaged in commercial aviation. Pilot Rickard is accredited with close to 2,000 hours in the air.” He started flying out of the Thomas Corners airport in August of 1927, with a new Waco three-passenger cruiser plane, which was almost the first airplane ever stolen from a municipal airport in October, 1927 – someone fueled the plane, cut the ground ropes and removed the wheel blocks and motor cover. “A wing and the fuselage were damaged when someone stepped through them during the fueling process. This apparently blocked the flight plans.” He was soon named superintendent of the airport.

In 1928, he was noted for flying his “big Stinson cabin plane” from Glens Falls to Boston in less than two hours, “eliminating a train journey of 12 hours for Miss Anna Tarrant of the former city,” who needed medical treatment.

That was also the year that Victor Rickard and Christy Mathewson (son of that Christy Mathewson, a student engineer at General Electric’s research laboratory and a student flier) decided to mix the brave new world of flying with the brave new world of radio and produce what we hope were the first radio flying lessons.

“Schenectady’s airport is going on the air. Tomorrow night at 8 o’clock WGY will broadcast the first of a series of flying lessons from the airport with the airport surroundings, including the roar of the Waco, for realism. Seated in a comfortable chair, with a walking stick, umbrella or broom, the listener by following instructions closely may gain the rudiments of flying. The flying lessons are prepared in the form of playlets, running about a half hour … With Mathewson in the opening lessons will be Victor Rickard, manager of the airport and head of the Inter-Cities Transport Service, Philip Lucas, chief pilot and instructor, and William Luke, superintendent of the flying course in which 50 men are now enrolled … WGY engineers have made a temporary studio of the great flying field as it was considered necessary to get the actual plane motor sounds in establishing contact, taking off, throttling down, etc. A Ford motor also enters the radio picture by way of contrast … Frank Oliver, director of the WGY Players, has been engaged in directing the aviation players in their parts. The lessons will be continued for several weeks, offering practically an entire course for those interested. Thus Schenectady, one of the first cities in the country to have a fully equipped and modern airport, will have an important part in promoting air consciousness wherever WGY and sister short wave transmitters 2XAF and 2XAD are heard. Messers Rickard, Lucas and Luke, who have capered in the air, will send their voices by the same medium, at a much faster pace than they will ever fly, to remote corners of the world.”

Later on, in 1930, he flew with Lindbergh during one of Lindy’s visits, testing out a new compass. Rickard was noted in many local papers all over the state, offering lessons, and showing up with air circuses. In 1931, he headed a squadron of planes that would “swoop low over the city Memorial day morning to drop flowers upon paraders in the annual tribute paid by veterans and citizens to America’s war dead. Again, at the ceremonies in Crescent park and at Vale Cemetery the pilots will scatter petals down upon the graves bearing the bronze markers and small flags that betoken a military connection.” We last note him in 1935, when he joined F.H. Taylor Airways in Watertown as chief pilot. By the time he filled out a draft card in 1942, he was 40 years old and living in Mount Lebanon, PA. And that’s the last we know.

The Mohawk Overall Company

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Saw this old postcard posted on the “Schenectady History – Photos and Discussions” Facebook group the other day, and it set us to wondering why we had never heard of the Mohawk Overall Company. It turns out it wasn’t around very long.

The Mohawk Overall Company opened up in Schenectady in 1909, with a new plant on Dock Street (on land purchased from General Electric) and plans to employ 700 people. It advertised as far away as Utica, at least, looking for

“Experienced Stitchers on Power Machines in our model, new fireproof overall factory. Union factory. Good wages. 48 hours a week. Steady employment. Experienced stitchers will have their fare paid to Schenectady.”

The company was even advertising for salesmen in Chicago. But it started under a cloud – its principals were previously with the Hooker, Corser and Mitchell Company of Brattleboro, Vermont, then the largest manufacturers of overalls in the world. James Hooker, William Corser and possibly other of its officers departed with private information of the company, its client list, and a large number of its employees to set up in Schenectady. Eventually the Vermont company sued Mohawk (which had changed its name to Mohawk Clothing Company), and the case was noted in a number of newspapers. Mohawk lost and was ordered to discharge all salesmen, superintendents and leading employees of the company and to prevent them from doing business with 2000 customers of the Vermont company. The company went into receivership and was dismantled in 1915.

Its property, consisting of land and a three-story sandstone brick building on Dock street, along with machinery and equipment, was foreclosed and auctioned off for $34,000 in 1915 (it was estimated to be worth $70,000). Shortly thereafter, General Electric purchased the building for about $35,000. Originally talked about for use as a laboratory for the lighting department, GE said it intended to use the building in connection with the manufacture of war munitions. Whether that actually happened, we haven’t determined.

The building still stands today, home of the Visiting Nurse Service of Northeastern New York.