Author Archives: carljohnson

The story of Barney’s

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Howland Swain Barney was born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, March 23, 1822, to Dr. Zadoc and Eliza Swain Barney. (The Swains were among the original nine families of Nantucket.) His parents moved to Minaville, Montgomery County when he was five. He was schooled there and in 1836 came to Schenectady to work in the dry goods business of Sidney B. Potter. In 1848 he became a partner with John Ohlen & Company; in 1855 he bought an interest in Barringer and Company, buying out his partners in 1858 and establishing the company as H.S. Barney Company.

Cuyler Reynolds, writing in his “Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs,” gushes:

“He was a good judge of men and chose his subordinates with rare judgment, rarely making a mistake in his choice of men for certain positions. He rose from the bottom to the topmost rounds of the ladder and each round was gained by active and earnest effort. He was courteous and dignified in manner, somewhat after the style of the olden school. His benevolences were many and were bestowed without ostentation. His acquaintance was very large and he was sincerely honored. His other interests were large.”

The second building to house his store was built in 1872, and expanded again some time later, with substantial changes to its fa├žade. It still stands today. In 1888, its assorted offerings included “full lines of staple and fancy dry goods, hosiery, silks, satins, plushes, blankets, ruchings, napkins, edgings, yarns, antique laces, ladies’ and gents’ furnishing goods, and all kinds of novelties in dress goods, carpets, oil cloths, lace Madras and chenille curtains, shades, etc., and everything appertaining to a first-class carpet room.” Imagine what constituted an “antique lace” in 1888. “The firm make a specialty of fashionable cloak and dress making. All cloaks, dresses and suits are produced after the latest Paris fashions . . . Fifty experienced and efficient assistants and salesladies, etc. are employed, and the trade of the house extends throughout all sections of Schenectady and the adjoining cities.”

Barney also served as a director of Mohawk National Bank, and was active in Republican politics but did not stand for office. He died in 1904.

The store continued for decades, even as Schenectady changed. Slowly the main commercial block moved east of the Erie Canal, to the blocks of State Street above Broadway (once Centre Street). Barney’s former neighbors Kresge’s and Carl Company moved up the street, joined by The Wallace Company, W.T. Grant, and Woolworth’s, leaving Barney’s as the only large department store west of the canal. It survived until 1973, when the spread of malls and suburbanization killed off most of Schenectady’s downtown department stores. Only the Carl Company and Woolworth’s (which wasn’t strictly a Woolworth’s, at least originally) survived, both making it into the 1990s. Barney’s had a very respectable 115-year run.

Barney's 2007

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

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A remnant of Barney’s

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Barneys sidewalk 2

It’s been more than 40 years since Howland S. Barney’s department store closed. Somehow, however, its sidewalk inset still survives. Sometimes our cities are richer for a little benign neglect, for surely someday soon this artifact will be lost.

The store that had everything

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Someday soon I’ve got to write about H.S. Barney Co., once Schenectady’s premiere department store. It catered to what was called the carriage trade, the higher end customers. It sold furniture, furs, and everything in between. (Its building still stands.) And apparently it even sold airplane rides, as evidenced by this ad unearthed by the Schenectady County Historical Association, in an article on what was one of the area’s pioneering airfields, Eastholm Field. Imagine: in 1919, you could walk into Barney’s, or the Hotel Mohawk, or even Tilley’s (at this time, I have no idea what Tilley’s was), and book yourself a trip to see Schenectady from the air! (Or, apparently, just call Vrooman’s Hardware Store.)

The steam ferry comes to Albany

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Until the early 19th century, the only way to cross the Hudson at Albany was by batteau, rope ferry or the newly invented horse ferry. But as Howell notes in his “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” “In 1827 the subject of procuring a steamboat for the South Ferry began to be agitated.” The horse-ferry lobby didn’t take this sitting down, but steam interests won (and, after all, the Hudson was where the steam boat was made famous) and in 1828 the Chancellor Lansing began running between the Albany and Greenbush shores, apparently putting the horse ferryman “One-Armed Bradt” out of a job. (It’s possible that steam boats required two arms to operate, at least at first.).

For reasons lost to history, the North Ferry ran a couple of decades behind the times. Sited where the current Corning Preserve boat launch is and running directly across the river to Bath-on-Hudson, this ferry didn’t even get a rope-scow until about 1800, and the horse-boat didn’t come until 1831 (perhaps having been displaced by the steam ferry down at the South Ferry). The steam ferry didn’t hit the north until 1841, and according to Howell, this was a much more lightly used ferry.

There was a third ferry as well, which ran from Maiden Lane (where the Hudson River Way pedestrian bridge is). It was established in 1842 by the Boston and Albany Railroad, and ferried railroad cars across the river. By then, the ferry interests were already well into a pitched battle against the creation of a bridge across the Hudson, but they were pushing against progress. The opening of the Livingston Avenue Bridge in 1866 was the beginning of the end for the ferry business. The opening of the first Greenbush Bridge in 1882, at the South Ferry site, was the end of the end.

One river to cross

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Almost every day of my life, I cross the Hudson River, sometimes several times, sometimes at several points. If I’m feeling devil-may-care, I may throw in a crossing of the Mohawk just for kicks. And if I’m up around Peebles Island, I’m sometimes unsure just what river I’m crossing. Living where we are, we are highly dependent on bridges. But for the first couple hundred years of settlement in these parts, there were no bridges, only ferries.

According to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany” etc., the exclusive rights of ferriage across the Hudson between the original four wards of Albany and the opposite shore of Greenbush were granted to Albany by the Dongan Charter of 1686, and that right was later incorporated into the city charter. The “right of ferry” gave the City of Albany the exclusive rights to establishing, licensing and regulating all ferries on each side of the Hudson River between Albany and Greenbush.

The first ferry across the Hudson at Albany was established in 1642, and may have been the first in the United States. On the Albany side, it was just north of the Beverkill, just about where the Dutch Apple and the USS Slater dock today, and crossed directly to Greenbush on the opposite side of the river. The first ferry boat was described as a “rude scow, propelled by hand by means of poles. This was used for the transportation of teams and wagons, while a simple boat or a batteau was employed in carrying passengers. The first ferry-master was Hendrick Albertsen, who built the first ferry house on the Albany side. When he died around 1648, he was succeeded by Jacob Janse Stall. It does not appear that in the early days Albany received any portion of the fares, nor does it appear to have regulated fares until much later. In 1754, the City began the custom of auctioning off the rights to run the ferry, and set the fares:

  • For every person, if single 3 coppers
  • For every person, if more than one 2 coppers
  • For every head of cattle 9 coppers
  • For every hundredweight of beaver or skins, 4 coppers

But even by then the beaver trade was diminished, and a new schedule of ferry rates issued in 1786 focused on livestock, furniture, and barrels of rum, sugar and molasses.

Rope ferries were the only kind used at this point (which came to be the South Ferry) until 1817. The boat used was “an ordinary scow, guided by means of a rope stretched across the river, to which the scow was attached by a rope and pulley, the boat being propelled by hand. About this time what was known as the horse ferry-boat came into use at the South Ferry. This kind of boat was peculiar to America, and of most singular construction. A platform covered a wide, flat boat. Underneath the platform was a large, horizontal, solid wheel, which extended to the side of the boat.” Two horses were harnessed on what was essentially a horse treadmill. This craft, devised by a Mr. Langdon of Whitehall, New York, originally used two horses, but larger craft later used as many as twelve at Albany’s South Ferry.

More on ferries tomorrow.

New Year’s Eve: no pernicious discharges allowed

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New Year's Eve.pngA gentle and timely reminder from your friends at Hoxsie: Chapter 81 of the Laws of 1785 was passed to restrict your New Year’s Eve celebration options:







“Whereas great dangers have arisen, and mischief been done, by the pernicious practice of firing guns, pistols, rockets, squibs, and other fire works on the eve of the last day of December, and the first and second days of January; for prevention whereof for the future . . . .” Therefore it was enacted by the State of New York “that if any person or persons whomsoever, shall fire or discharge any gun, pistol, rocket, squib or other firework, within a quarter of a mile of any building, on the said eve, or days beforementioned, every such person so offending . . . shall for every such offence forfeit the sum of forty shillings with costs of suit, to be levied by distress and sale of the offenders goods and chattles . . . . “

In other words, fire a gun between Dec. 31 and Jan. 2, have one credible witness rat you out, and the man can sell your stuff to raise the fine, in the neighborhood of $200 in 21st century money.

Also, there was something about a “moiety.”

Danker, the Maiden Lane Florist

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Not many businesses from the 1905 Albany Directory are still around. Danker Florist has been around since 1898. Amazingly, they outlived Maiden Lane, once one of Albany’s most important commercial streets, the gateway to the docks and a hive of commerce for all kinds of goods that came by boat. Now only a short strip of Maiden Lane survives between Pearl and Broadway, best known for being a hive of sandwich shops. The rest of its path was pretty much lost until the pedestrian walkway over I-787 was built. Why that’s not called the Maiden Lane Bridge (instead of “Hudson River Way,” which no one calls it) I’ll never know.

In fact, in a typical act of orneriness, I’m calling it the Maiden Lane Bridge from now on.

Why does every waterfront community have a Maiden Lane? I’d like to know.

Earl & Wilson

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Earl & Wilson Building

From Arthur Weise’s “The City of Troy and Its Vicinity,” 1886, comes this description of a long-forgotten factory that once employed thousands, the Earl & Wilson Company:

“The senior member of this widely-known firm, William S. Earl, in 1848, entered the linen-collar and shirt-bosom manufactury of Jefferson Gardner, at No. 16 King Street, to acquire a knowledge of the business. In 1850, he began making similar goods at No. 51 North Third Street, and, in 1851, as a ‘manufacturer and wholesale dealer in ready-made linen,’ moved to No. 11 King Street. In 1856, he and Edwin D. Blanchard formed a partnership under the name of Earl & Blanchard, linen manufacturers, and occupied a part of the Manufacturers’ Bank Building, at the corner of River and King Streets. On the death of Edwin D. Blanchard, in 1859, the business was discontinued. In 1867, the firm of Earl & Wilson was formed, having its manufactory at No. 5 Union Street; Washington Wilson being the second member of the firm. Gardner Earl, son of William S. Earl, was admitted a partner in 1873, and Arthur R. Wilson, a brother of Washington Wilson, in 1881.

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One of these things is not like the other.

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Thomas Samuel Vail house.jpg

I’m always delighted when I find that some great old building that’s in the Historic American Buildings Survey still exists on our city streets, so when I ran across this lovely edifice, listed as the Thomas Samuel Vail house at 46 First Street in Troy, I was pleased to learn that it not only exists, but serves a dignified role as the residence of the President of the Sage Colleges. The house was originally built by George Vail, an early merchant and industrialist in Troy who had his hands in banking, steamboats and railroads. He built this house at the corner of First and Congress streets in 1818, and it survived the great Troy fire of 1820. At some point it must have passed to Thomas Samuel Vail (the relationship is not clear).

So knowing that it’s still there, I did what I always do and went to Google Street View to check it out. At first I thought, well, it sure looked darker and dingier in the old days. And, I realized, brownstonier. And then I realized that the entire facade is, in fact, different. I’m not sure when the brick was added, or when the lintels were painted, but it gives a strikingly different appearance today than in George Vail’s time.

The ironwork, happily, appears to be original (or at least dates to the undated photo). There’s a picture of the lovely curved interior staircase at the Library of Congress.

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