The Freshet This Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wilson, Globemaker

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

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

Wilson 13 Inch Globe Manufactured in Albany

A Wilson Globe, made in Albany in 1828, from

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

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

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

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

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


Dog Days of August, 1944

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

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

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

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

Farnham’s Red Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The redecorated restaurant will hold 80 customers.

Cigarettes from a machine: swanky.

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

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

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

Today’s Hottest Hits – At Hudson Valley Asbestos

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Hudson Valley Asbestos Corp 1941We’ll admit we were confused when, searching for something else, we found this business brief from the Knickerbocker News in 1941 announcing that four area appliance distributors were switching the lines they sold. Initially, our confusion was over Albany Garage dropping the DuMont TV line. This was confusing because Albany Garage was a parking garage. But it was also an auto sales center, appeared to have some recreational facilities, and sold appliances.

But what really caught our eye was the name of the company that was relinquishing Motorola in order to get hold of the DuMont line: Hudson Valley Asbestos Corporation.

Hudson Valley Asbestos was, by all other accounts, just what it sounded like: an asbestos insulation contracting business, founded in Albany in 1922 by Marshall Pursel. But at some point, it also got into the appliance business, and, as so often was the case in those days, that also meant that they got into the record business.

An ad from the Times-Union in 1932 says:

The Hudson Valley Asbestos Corporation, 170 Central Avenue has been efficiently serving the the public for some nine years, specializing in heat and cold insulation for the home and factory, automotive products, electric refrigeration, radio for the home and automobile. One is sure to find outstanding values and willing service.

Hudson Valley Asbestos 1957They’re listed as one of Albany’s record distributors in Billboard magazine in 1948, and, as shown here, were still selling televisions in 1957, though by this time they’d gotten back on the Motorola wagon. (And who wouldn’t? They had a wireless remote control timer and an exclusive on-off push button!) That R.H. Pursel is shown demonstrating the new Motorola removes any question of whether the mention of Hudson Valley Asbestos in the appliance trade is just a series of unfortunate typos – Robert was Marshall’s son. In 1965, they were selling Emersons at their showroom at 10 Railroad Avenue. They also sold sewing machines.

Later on, in 1974, Hudson Valley Asbestos would become entangled in an anti-trust case against Tougher Heating and Plumbing and E.W. Tompkins. By then Hudson Valley had branched into other unspecified areas, but were still engaged in some form of insulation contracting, which is what they were fighting over. Asbestos restrictions were just starting to come into play at that time. We can’t put a closing date on the operations of Hudson Valley Asbestos, though in 1970 their Railroad Avenue location was given over to a corrugated container manufacturer, so perhaps the retail operations were done by then.

Having even dared to mentioned asbestos, Hoxsie expects to hear from some spambot lawyers.

No Journey to the Center of the Earth

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Mocha dick 1870 UK reprint.jpgFrom Munsell’s “Annals of Albany,” under Notes from the Newspapers we find this brief item from 1828:

Oct. 7. Reynolds, who advocated the theory of the interior of the earth being hollow, delivered a lecture at the Atheneum, on the utility of a voyage into the interior of the globe by an entrance at the north pole.

This would have been Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a newspaper editor, explorer and author who adhered to the thoughts of John Cleves Symmes, Jr., that the earth is hollow. They lectured together for some time, and eventually Reynolds went on lecturing on his own. Unfortunately, we’re not certain of the location of the Atheneum, which was a literary society but clearly also a meeting space used by a number of organizations. Unfortunately for those of us who love a good folly, by the time Cook or Peary or somebody got to the North Pole around 1909, the theory had long fallen out of favor and no one tried to drill an entrance.

Reynolds had another Albany connection, almost as tenuous as his likely single night of lecturing. In 1839, in The Knickerbocker, he published an account of a white sperm whale who bedeviled a generation of whalers for thirty years before succumbing to one of them (sez Wikipedia). “Mocha Dick survived many skirmishes (by some accounts at least 100) with whalers before he was eventually killed. He was large and powerful, capable of wrecking small craft with his flukes.” Reynolds’s tale was titled “Mocha Dick: Or, the White Whale of the Pacific.” In 1851, former Albany resident and Lansingburgh teacher Herman Melville published “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” A famously white whale.

Don’t Leave Your Car Doors Unlocked

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10,000 Autos Stolen in 1921Ahh, for the simpler times, back when we could all leave our doors unlocked and never had to fear crime. Turns out that was just fine, as long as it wasn’t your car doors you were leaving unlocked, because the early days of automobiling saw a surprising amount of theft.

An article from “Motordom” in 1921 says that 10,000 automobiles were stolen in New York State cities in 1921, a 42 percent jump over the previous year. Albany, by no means the leading city, had 234 vehicles stolen (of which 177 were recovered). That year, there were 582,000 passenger cars in the state, so just about 2% were being stolen.

The most recent statistics we found showed that in 2006, 241 cars were stolen in Albany.

A Boal of Grog for Thomas Sager

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A boal of grog for Sager from Munsell's Annals City DocumentsWe confess: we don’t really know what this is about. In Joel Munsell’s “Annals of Albany, Vol. 6,” among the many scattered “city documents,” we find this item titled “A Corporation Bill For Punch.”

“On the 3d of Sept. 1782, Hugh Denniston, who kept a noted tavern in Green street, furnished certain persons for the benefit of the city, with the following articles:

9 Boals of Punch£1160
1 Mug of Beer009
1 Boal of Grog for Sager020

The Mayor was requested to pay the bill out of the corporation money. The following is a facsimile of the signature of the person who drank the two shilling boal of grog.”

Why Thomas Sager was called out for drinking a two-shilling “boal” of grog, we can’t begin to imagine. Who drank the nine-pence mug of beer? We are not told.

Died Long Ago, Yet Liveth

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Died Long Ago - A Giffen AlbanyFrom the Schenectady Cabinet in 1855, this odd little advertisement that we suspect was meant to turn a particular phrase but which lost something in a spelling error: “Died Long Ago, Yet Liveth!” In reference to the dyeing and scouring establishment of Mr. A. Giffen at Albany’s old City Mill on Water Street, we have to assumed it was meant that he “dyed” long ago, and then we could all appreciate the pun instead of being somewhat weirded out.

“Mr. Giffen promises that no pains or expense shall be spared in shis endeavors to please, both in regard to colors and finish. Gent’s Coats, Pants and Vests dyed, scoured and pressed in a manner equal to new goods. Ladies’ Silk, Satin, Velvet, Merino, M deLaine and Bombazine dresses, dyed in every variety of shade.” And so on. A few years after this, in 1861, A. Giffen would still be in business, at 80 Beaver Street.

Lest you think he was the only dyer (or scourer) in Albany, please let us inform you of the miracle of steam scouring, and of the former editor of the Scientific American who came to Albany to die. We mean, dye.


William Bolles Has Something for Country Merchants

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W.F. Bolles ad Schdy Cabinet 1855While we’re stuck in 1855, let’s take a look at this ad from the Schenectady Cabinet for the shop of William F. Bolles.

“Country merchants will find at 81 State-street, a large assortment of Paper Hangings, School Books, and Letter and Cap Paper, at New-York prices.”

We can only presume that by advertising to country merchants, Bolles was at least re-selling, if not actually wholesaling, the stock of items he was offering, presumably to general stores that dotted the region. Paper hangings are wallpaper; “cap paper” probably refers to foolscap (so named for its original watermark), or perhaps flat cap or legal cap. All were varieties of coarse paper.

His shop was at 81 State Street, but his residence, at least in 1860 (when he was listed as supplying books and stationery), was at 77 State Street; not clear whether that could have been the same or just an immediately adjacent building. Later, in 1864, he was boarding at 10 Liberty Street. Bolles was born March 23, 1819, in Connecticut. He was the son of a printer in Hartford.