The Maiden Lane Bridge

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The Maiden Lane Bridge, from the AlbanyGroupArchive on Flickr.

As noted before, until what is now known as the Livingston Avenue Bridge opened in 1866, Albanians or Greenbushians who wanted to cross the river could either take a ferry or wait for winter. Then the railroad bridge near Livingston Avenue opened … and as long as it was the only bridge, it was just “the bridge.” It didn’t need a designation, such as the North Bridge, until another one was built and added some confusion. That was first just called the “new” bridge, then the South Bridge, and eventually the Maiden Lane Bridge. For nearly a century, this swing bridge was part of the Albany riverscape, but it appeared almost quietly and was taken away with hardly a notice.

In March 1869, the Albany Evening Times wrote about the coming addition:

“The new bridge will soon be commenced, and will be completed this year. When it is completed a new depot will be erected on the grounds bounded by Montgomery, Quackenbush, Water and Columbia streets. The new depot will also accommodate the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad, and probably the Delaware and Hudson’s Albany and Susquehanna Road. The bridge will be of iron, and will not only accommodate the railroads but also foot passengers [which the North Bridge did not]. It will cross the river between Maiden lane and Exchange street, and land between the Boston and Hudson River depots. It will cross Maiden lane at Quay street at a sufficient elevation to allow vehicles to pass beneath it. The old bridge, at the north end of the city, will also be raised at Broadway sufficient to allow vehicles to pass under it, and nothing but the passenger trains for the West and East will cross the surface of Broadway at that point. This change will be owing to the excellent management of W.H. Vanderbilt, Esq., and we feel assured it will be duly appreciated by our citizens.”

W.H., by the way, was William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt, the son of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the still only a vice president of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad (becoming President in 1877).

Later that same year, the Albany Evening Journal reported that the New York Central Railroad track had been extended from the Northern Railroad at Columbia street to Quay street, “a portion of the old freight houses on Quay street having been torn down for the purpose. The track has been laid along the dock on Quay street from Maiden lane to Columbia street, and it will also be laid from Columbia street to the elevator. The object of this extension is to enable the cars to receive cargoes of coal, iron, etc., directly from the boats. It will also be convenient in bringing materials for the new bridge.”

Early in 1870, the Evening Times reported that the contract for building the substructure of the new bridge had been awarded to Charles E. Newman of Hudson. “The new bridge will be shorter than the present one, and will terminate at the old depot in Maiden lane.” Later in the year, The Evening Times gave a thorough description, reprinted in the Sept. 22, 1870 Troy Daily Whig, of the “second great highway over the Hudson at Albany”:

“The bridge starts from a point at or near the west end of the old Hudson River Railroad passenger house in East Albany. It runs thence in a straight line 1012 feet until it strikes the Pier, at a point about 100 feet north of the State street bridge, thence it curves rather sharply to the north over the Basin, crossing Maiden lane and Quay street diagonally, and passing through the building on the northwest corner of Maiden lane and Quay street, runs into the old Central Railroad yard. The line then runs through what was the Central ticket office, intersecting the main track near the Delavan House.
Across the main channel of the river are four piers, with 185 feet span, and a swing or “draw-bridge,” 272 feet long and 185 feet from the Pier. There are seven spans of 70 feet each across the Basin, which makes the total length from end to end, including the approaches, 1550 feet. The bridge is to be 30 feet above low water mark. Across the main channel the bridge is perfectly level, but after leaving the Pier there is a fall of 2-1/2 feet to get into the yard.
The entire superstructure is to be of iron of the very best quality,. The bridge is to be double tracked and on each side will be a foot bridge six feet wide. The swing-bridge will be constructed in the most approved style, and will be operated by a small steam engine, to be located at the top of the bridge, over the turn-table.
At present two of the piers on the Greenbush side are nearly completed. Work has been commenced on all the others, and masonry on about half of them. There are now 150 men employed, and it is expected the bridge will be entirely completed and ready for use in about sixteen months, or the 1st of January, 1872. When this bridge is done, it is the intention to replace the superstructure of the old or ‘upper bridge’ with iron, which was the design when originally built. This bridge is to be used exclusively for passenger trains, and the old one for freight.
The President of the Bridge Company is Horace F. Clark, Esq., of N,.Y., the son-in-law of Commodore Vanderbilt; and the Vice President, Chester W. Chapin, of Springfield, Mass. The contractors who are doing the work, are for the sub-structure or mason work, Charles E. Newman of Hudson, N.Y., and for the super-structure or iron work, Kellogg, Clarke & Co., of Philadelphia.
The entire cost of the bridge will be $1,000,000, and when completed will rank as one of the wonders of the world.
We are under obligations to Chief Engineer Hilton for information furnished and courtesies extended.”

That last was a reference to Charles Hilton, chief engineer of the Hudson River Bridge Company, who had first surveyed for a bridge across the river fifteen years before in anticipation of creating “the last connecting link to an uninterrupted railroad communication from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” That initial effort was delayed by court actions. But construction finally made progress and, according to Arthur Weise, the first train crossed on Dec. 28, 1871. The Maiden Lane Bridge was open.

The bridge and its pedestrian walkway, which created an important connection for those traveling on foot or by bicycle, operated for nearly a century. But then came the collapse of passenger rail in the United States in general, and in Albany specifically. With the closure of Union Station in 1968, the Maiden Lane Bridge no longer served a particular purpose. Its tracks, and most of the tracks in that area, were a major impediment to the plan to build an interstate highway along the river, and so the bridge’s days were numbered, and the numbers weren’t high.

Was there an outcry over the scrapping of what was once considered a wonder of the world (at least by some in Albany)? Not much. In March 1969, A planning agency called the Hudson River Valley Commission criticized the lack of mass transportation planning in the Capital District at the same time it approved the demolition of the bridge. “Before formally reviewing any further Department of Transportation projects for this area, the commission will request a statement of how the projects relate to mass transportation planning for the Capital District.” In other words, we’ll let you eliminate any hope of Albany ever having passenger rail service again, but don’t let it happen again. A Troy Times Record article from November 26, 1969 noted that the bridge would be demolished within the next 10 days, as part of the contract of the Peter Kiewit Contracting Company’s work constructing portions of the Riverfront Arterial. Demolition was to be completed by the middle of January, 1970. The walkway had already been dismantled, back in September of 1968.

Maiden Lane Bridge Walkway Demolition

The dismantling of the Maiden Lane Bridge’s pedestrian walkway, Knickerbocker News, Sept. 11, 1968.

The Early Docks of Albany

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http://www.albanyinstitute.org/details/items/plan-of-the-city-of-albany-about-1770.html

After Robert Yates, a map of Albany including the details showing docks at Columbia Street (far right), Mark Lane (center), Hudson Street, and Hamilton Street.

Hoxsie can rarely be accused of linear thinking. Having covered the life of the Albany basin (which we did here, here and here.) (plus also here), let’s go back to its beginning. Howell’s 1876 “Bi-Centennial History of Albany” incorporates a paper by General S. V. Talcott, “a distinguished citizen, now venerable in years, who has held many posts of duty with advantage to his native city and State, and credit to himself.” His paper gave the story of the “Docks, Wharves, and Basin of Albany, with many historic events and reminiscences of olden times.”

Talcott’s reminiscences start by recalling a visit by Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm in 1749, who reported that the Hudson River at Albany was from twelve to twenty feet deep, but there then was no quay built for fear it would be swept away in the spring floods. Instead, “the vessels come pretty near the shore and receive their cargoes from two canoes lashed together.” As early as 1727, the Common Council had started discussing building wharves. By the time of the 1770 survey and map shown above, there were four docks used by cargo ships:

“… one above Columbia street, near where Foxenkill empties in the basin, called the Arsenal Wharf; one at the foot of Mark lane (Exchange street) in the shape of a T, called the Middle Wharf, which was enlarged and extended in 1774 to 90 feet in length and 32 feet in width; another at the foot of Hudson street, of the same shape, but somewhat smaller, called the City Hall Wharf; and one at Kilby lane (now Hamilton street), near where the steamboat landing now is, called Kilby’s Wharf, later known as Hodge’s Dock. All four extended to the channel of the river near its western bank. Division street, which came to the river between the last-named wharves, was then called Bone Alley. The original shore line, as represented on this map, was as far west as Dean street, then called Dock street. Subsequent filling brought out the water line to its present [1876] position on the east side of Quay street. At Quackenbush street the west bank of the river was about 380 feet east of Broadway; at Foxenkill about 200 feet; at Exchange street about 70 feet; at State street about 80 feet east of Dean; at Hudson street about 160 feet; and at Division street about 175 feet east of Broadway.”

The Columbia street dock would be the one furthest right in the 1770 map shown above (from the Albany Institute of History and Art), just above a squiggle that represents the Ruttenkill. The Middle Wharf was said to be at the foot of Mark Lane, which is now just a driveway between the Federal Building and the old Post Office, running from Broadway to the SUNY garage – but this map makes it look much more like it was at Maiden Lane. Another T-shaped dock is shown at the foot of Hudson Avenue, just south of State Street, and the final, southernmost dock is the one at Kilby Lane.

Talcott further says that land on the north side of Hudson street extended by filling into the river, almost 200 feet, and the Ruttenkill (“now known as Beaver street sewer,” had originally emptied into the basin at the northeast corner of Hudson and Quay streets, but was then diverted, crossed Hudson Street at a right angle and then emptied into the river 80 feet south of the street.

A ferry was established near the foot of Kilby’s lane (Hamilton street), “probably before 1767,” as Guysbert Marcelis was granted rights to maintain a ferry that year. In April 1783, the stones of Kilby’s dock were appropriated to complete the City Hall Dock and “the next Northern Dock,” but later that year the appropriation was reconsidered, and Talcott doesn’t tell us what happened to the docks. While Kilby’s dock was in operation, Talcott says there was a landing place for bateaux and small boats “not far from the dwelling of the late Judge Jacob L. Lansing, on the corner of Broadway and Quackenbush streets.” It was at this landing that he says that, just before the Battle of Saratoga, residents of the Colonie had a small fleet of bateaux and were ready to flee:

“While engaged in loading their boats as rapidly as possible, a single horseman was seen approaching from the north, gesticulating and furiously whipping his horse as he drew near. Men, women and children rushed out to hear what news he brought from the armies, expecting of course that the enemy was close behind him. He shouted as he came up and passed along: ‘Bergine is taken! Bergine is taken!!’ So astounded and incredulous were the people as they followed him to the City Hall, on the corner of Broadway and Hudson streets, that they cried: ‘Gy liegen! Gy liegen!!’ (You lie! You lie!!) great was their relief and gladness when the news was confirmed by the dispatch brought by the messenger and read by the Mayor to the assembled crowd. The switch which the messenger had used to urge his horse along, he threw away as he passed the corner of North Lansing street and Broadway. It was picked up by Mrs. Teunis G. Visscher, a daughter of Mr. Christopher Lansing, and planted in front of her father’s house, where she resided at that time. The switch grew to be a sturdy elm, long remembered and pointed out as a monument to commemorate the end of the revolution. It passed from youth to manhood and to old age, lost its beauty and strength, and at last yielded up the remnant of its life to the demands of progress, and was removed to make room for the railroad viaduct across Broadway.”

The title to the riverfront was originally vested in the Mayor and Commonalty of the city, leased to private owners, but was later transferred to purchasers. A dock association formed in 1794, which Talcott took as evidence that, in 1794, there was a dock. The association initially included the proprietors of the dock between the center of Maiden Lane and the north side of State Street. “This was probably the first regular dock, extending from street to street, that was constructed, and the Association was probably formed on its completion.” In 1796, the association was expanded to include “proprietors of the quay south of Bone lane [Division street] and north of Kilby lane [Hamilton street]….”

The Dock Association continued through 1873, with Abraham Bloodgood serving as the first “wharfinger” in 1794, followed by Abraham Eights (1795-1819), Edward Brown (1820-41), John L. Hyatt (1841-70); William Eaton (1870-71) and F.A. Shepard (1871-73).

 

New Look for Albany’s Riverfront

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Men at Work

MEN AT WORK – Trucks carrying earth to fill in the old yacht basin have worn themselves a clear road from the mainland to the Albany Yacht Club island, as seen in this view from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad building. In foreground are the Maiden Lane railroad bridge and part of the Yacht Club Bridge soon to be torn down.

One last look at the old Albany waterfront. On July 3, 1955, the Times-Union touted a new look for the riverfront, with an article sub-headlined “Highway Job Alters Area.”

“The shoreline of the city has been drastically streamlined in the Maiden Lane region, and you almost wouldn’t recognize the spot that used to be one of old Albany’s favorite Sunday afternoon strolls.
Any day now, the wreckers’ crowbars will go to work on the trim and graceful masonry bridge that spans the perhaps 250 feet from the shore to the old Albany Yacht Club building, and another familiar city landmark will vanish.
Already the scene looks unfamiliar to the oldtimer. The Hudson River still slaps at the bottom steps of the landing stage in the inlet, but no pleasure craft bob leisurely in the once-crowded backwater.
Most of the inlet has been filled in, and a good broad jumper could probably leap across the comparative trickle of water that still remains.”

The work was the beginning of the riverfront arterial, two lanes of concrete each 24 feet wide, separated by a grassy center mall, expected to relieve congestion on Broadway and North Pearl St. Once complete the only landmark remaining on the riverfront would be the former Albany Yacht Club building, then in use as a Naval Reserve center. The Naval Reserve would be there for another year, while waiting for a new center at Washington and North Main to open.

“As for the Albany Yacht Club itself, its members are not looking backward to any great extent. The old spot saw many happy times, and there’s a possibility the Club may request one of the stones from the old bridge as a souvenir to be displayed at its new locations.”

Steamboat Square

STEAMBOAT SQUARE – The old ticket office and waiting room of the Albany Night Boat, in the right background, seem strangely incongruous in their high and dry setting, with the obvious signs of construction work for the new arterial highway littering the foreground.

The Yacht Club Bridge

ONE WILL REMAIN – The old Yacht Club bridge, at right, will soon be demolished to make way for the new arterial highway, which will pass under the Maiden Lane railroad bridge. In this view from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad building, clearance appears limited, but the fill in the inlet is now 10 feet higher than it will be when the highway is surfaced

A Human Body Turned to Stone

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A Human Body Turned to Stone 1893Albany has a history of digging up bodies and moving them around (as any old city does). Sometimes, that resulted in some surprises. In 1893, a transfer from one cemetery to another resulted in finding “A Human Body Turned to Stone,” although stone isn’t quite as good as another description. Albany had a Soap Lady.

“Cases of putrefaction of human bodies are so rare that when one is accidentally brought to light it becomes a matter of curiosity and interest. Such a case has just been discovered in this city.”

Mrs. Charles Hagen (nee Miss Crinnen, no first name given) had been a resident of Albany but died in Newark, New Jersey in February 1892. Her body was brought to Albany for burial in St. Mary’s cemetery, then far out Washington Avenue, roughly where the high school and Army Reserve Center are today. According to the Albany Morning Express (May 12, 1893), “Of late many bodies buried in St. Mary’s cemetery have been taken up by relatives and reburied in St. Agnes’ cemetery. Among those was that of Mrs. Hagen, whose family is well known in this city.” Also buried in the plot was her husband’s father, buried in 1864 or 1865. In digging them out,

“On reaching the top of the rough box they were surprised at finding it in a far better state of preservation than they could have expected after it had been buried more than a year. The box, which to the workmen appeared unusually heavy, was hoisted from the grave. The rough box was not in the least decayed, and looked no worse than it might if it had been merely exposed to the rain and sun for a week or two. The relatives were notified of the peculiar fact of the preservation of the box, and they became anxious to see the body. They consulted with Superintendent Gibbons, of St. Mary’s cemetery, and had the covers of the rough box and casket unscrewed. What they saw surprised them not a little. There had been scarcely any change in the appearance of the body. The f ace looked almost as it did when the casket was first consigned to earth. An examination of the body revealed the reason for its remarkable preservation. It was as hard as stone to the touch; in fact it was what is commonly called “petrified,” although it is claimed that the process of true petrifaction never takes place in human bodies, but that the tissues are transformed into a substance that is called adipocere, which is about the consistency of hardened putty.”

This is a thing. A rare thing, but a thing nevertheless. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia prominently features “The Soap Lady,” a woman whose body was exhumed in Philadelphia in 1875; a fatty substance, adipocere, encases her remains. “Adipocere formation is not common, but it may form in alkaline, warm, airless environments, such as the one in which the Soap Lady was buried.” The Soap Lady is now believed to have died in her late 20s; Mrs. Hagen was only 24 when she died. Her body, along with her father-in-law’s, were reburied in St. Agnes Cemetery. “A number of persons who had heard of the case gathered at St. Agnes’ cemetery on Sunday in hope of seeing the body, but were disappointed.”

According to the Troy Irish Genealogy Society webpage on St. Mary’s, disinterments from St. Mary’s began around 1875 and weren’t complete until 1917. After that, the land was known as St. Mary’s Park, used as a temporary housing site following World War II, and eventually became the site of Albany High School.

Unfortunately, we can’t reconcile Mrs. Hagen’s birth and death dates with any of the currently recorded reinterments from St. Mary’s or the current interments at St. Agnes, so the particulars of her life, including her first name, escape us.

The End of the Albany Basin

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This shows the remains of the Albany basin at the time the Albany Yacht Club was in operation. The northern portion of the basin had been filled in and used for the railroads. In this view, the basin opening to the old Erie and Champlain canals can still be seen, just beyond the Livingston Avenue Bridge at the top of the photo. That area is now completely filled in and forms the Corning Preserve Boat Launch parking lot. The old Day Line shed can be seen at the lower right on the waterfront. This is a Fairchild aerial survey of the Albany waterfront, from the Albany Public Library Pruyn Collection, shown at the AlbanyGroupArchive Flickr site.

Somewhere around 1949, the Albany Yacht Club buildings were sold for use as a Naval Reserve Center, and the club started its move across the river to Rensselaer, with a temporary stop in the old Day Line facilities. In 1954, the old basin would finally be filled in as work began on the riverfront arterial highway – I-787. On Nov. 9, 1954, workers started “with the preliminary task of tearing down the old Hudson River Day Line shed, an Albany landmark since the late 19th Century. Between now and next November, when the job is scheduled for completion, the contractor will fill in the old Albany Yacht Club basin for a 1,000-car municipal parking lot and build a ¾ mile stretch of four-lane concrete roadway from a point near the old Day Line landing north to the Livingston Ave. railroad bridge.”

As with all things Albany, the inconvenience for parking was a concern:

“The demolition and construction work will be a source of woe for scores of riverfront parkers, who will have to find somewhere else to leave their cars. Some of the cars that had been left near the Day Line shed today had to be moved by police for safety when the wreckers attacked the ancient ironwork with acetylene torches.”

The construction would involve razing buildings and building a stone dike in the river to straighten the shoreline from “the Quay st. bulge at Steamboat Sq. to the old Yacht Club pier, now occupied by the U.S. Navy as a Naval Reserve training center. The section between the present shoreline and the dike will be filled with stone and graded for parking space. At the same time the contractor will extend three city sewers, whose outfalls will have to be moved toward the middle of the river before grading for the roadway can begin.”

Those included the Columbia St. sewer, “which carries much of Albany’s rainstorm runoff from the downtown section,” and the Quackenbush sewer, near the north end of the project.

From the AlbanyGroupArchive on Flickr: the final filling-in of the Albany basin behind the old Albany Yacht Club buildings. The bridges are the Maiden Lane railroad bridge and the State Street pier bridge. Circa 1954-55. (Gerber collection. Contributed by Nancy Gallagher.)

Former Yacht Club Site on the Wterfront

One of the state inspectors who documented properties being demolished. From the Flickr AlbanyGroupArchive, contributed by Ann Pfau, believed to be about 1964. The Maiden Lane bridge is still standing in the picture.

All these pictures are thanks to the great work done by the AlbanyGroupArchive on Flickr.

The Albany Yacht Club

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The Maiden Lane railroad bridge, the State Street bridge, and the Albany Yacht Club . This is all now gone and filled in, covered by Jennings Landing, Quay Street and I-787.

In writing about the rise and fall (or fill) of the Albany Basin, a major part of Albany’s waterfront history that is now buried under a tangle of roads and the Corning Preserve, we were a bit stymied in figuring out the role and location of the Albany Yacht Club, the surviving buildings of which were the prominent features of the old pier for decades. In fact, some of those buildings survived until the construction of the “Hudson River Way” amphitheater in what is now called Jennings Landing.

The Albany Yacht Club was originally organized in 1873 in the paint shop of Ira Porter at 12 James Street, and took rooms in a five-story building at the State street bridge, but got pushed out after a few years when “a big salt concern took possession.” That drove them across the river, for what would not be the last time.

In December 1903, the Albany Yacht Club, already well-established for nearly 25 years but having met at various locations including canal boats, had moved from a location on the eastern shore and held its first meeting in its new home on the pier, in a building that had belonged to Cornell Towing (Cornell Steamboat Co.). “Improvements to the building are progressing and it is expected that a new maple floor will be laid before the next meeting.” The Yacht Club, now 60 members strong, had used this building before. The Albany Evening Journal reported:

“That history repeats itself was never better exemplified than in the case of the Albany Yacht Club, that sterling organization which has helped to keep alive the interest in boating for the past decade and which at the end of nearly a quarter of a century finds itself ready to take possession of the building in which the first years of its infancy were passed … A few days since a committee appointed for the purpose closed negotiations with the Cornell Towing Line and the five story building at the western terminus of the State street bridge, owned by the company, has been transferred to the Albany Yacht Club …

The new home of the Yacht Club is directly opposite its old quarters, it being the intention of the cub to retain its old house for storage purposes. The new building will be entirely renovated between now and spring, the members being enthusiastic and looking forward to the time when they can throw open their new home for public inspection. The five floors are large and roomy, but it has been decided that the second floor will be the reception room of the club. This will be fitted up in handsome style … A gymnasium, a large card room for euchre parties and a hall for entertainments and smokers will be among the improvements and every inducement will be offered to swell the membership. The outside of the structure will not be touched until late in the spring, after the Hudson has learned to behave itself.”

Yacht club postcard 1930s 10969737414_461b3f793b_o

The Albany Yacht Club built around 1912.

In just under eight years, the old building would be inadequate. The September 12, 1911 Albany Evening Journal reported that the last meeting of the club in its present building was held the night before, “and the work of tearing down the building, which had been one of the old warehouses on the pier will begin at once. The club has arranged to secure temporary headquarters pending the completion of its new club house, at 415 Broadway. The new house will be located just south of the present building, and last night it was announced that the foundation has been completed and paid for and that a bond issue of $20,000 to secure the balance of the fund of $30,000 needed to pay for the new building had been floated as a mortgage bond issue with the Albany Trust company as trustee. Nearly all of this issue has been subscribed. John Dyer, jr. who has the contract for the State street pier improvement, will construct the new house.”

Many years later, in 1947, the Albany Yacht Club held a mortgage burning ceremony to celebrate being free of debt, though it was then reported that the cost of the clubhouse had been $35,000, with a mortgage of $25,000. Their time at that location, though, was limited.

In March 1948, the Knickerbocker News reported that the Yacht Club had been proposed as a Naval Reserve training center. “If a training center is located here, [Lt.] Commander Doody said, it is hoped it would be opened this summer and that it would be equipped for training the approximately 600 members of Battalion 313 and other Naval Reservists in the Capital District. This would include, he said, installation of gun mounts, radar and technical equipment and engineering equipment.” At the time, the Navy was using an LST (landing ship – tank) anchored at the food of Madison Avenue as its training locus. None of this seemed to discomfit the Yacht Club, as director John E. Scopes said they had for some time been considering moving to another site on the Albany waterfront. The sale of the club building (the land still belonged to the City of Albany) went through somewhere around 1949, and the club moved to a former warehouse on Quay Street. The exact location is not made clear, though it was listed in the street directory as between the Recreation Pier and the Naval Reserve Center. Those, a Thomas Dolan, and two vacant buildings were the only things listed on Quay Street in 1951.

In 1953, the club bought land on the Rensselaer side of the Hudson, south of the Dunn Memorial Bridge. “The area includes four plot of ground and is between Columbia St. and Second Ave., Rensselaer.” At the time, the club also maintained anchorage in Coeymans, which they said would continue. They hoped to be able to move into a new home by the end of the 1953 boating season, but that didn’t work out, as it was later reported they hoped the building would be complete by fall of 1954. While the newspaper focused on the building’s second floor veranda and extensive use of picture windows, it was not quite as grand as once they had enjoyed.

Thanks to the Albany…The Way It Was Facebook group for its Flickr photo archives.

Two Ways To Get Into the Newspaper

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Times Union Altar Tomb 1921From the classified pages of the Times-Union in 1921, a pair of what seem (to our modern sensibilities, anyway) shockingly brusque headings for the paid listings for marriages and deaths: Altar and Tomb.

In journalism school, they used to tell us that most people would only be mentioned in the newspaper when they got married or died. I forget what lesson we were supposed to take from that.

Update: We were later reminded by internet friends that the T-U actually had a third category: Cradle. We just happened upon a cradle-free day.

The Fate of the Albany Basin

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So, what befell the Albany Basin after the Dock Association dissolved in 1873? Business along the wharf continued, but declined. Its state as a nuisance was well documented in 1889. In 1892, both the Senate and the Assembly considered legislation to fill the Albany basin. “The upper portion of the basin had been abandoned, and in summer the stench which rose from it was almost unbearable. It had been commented on by people going north in the Delaware and Hudson trains . . . [The Albany] delegation had concurred concerning the advisability of closing the larger basin from the outlet of the upper basin to the Columbia street bridge, and straightening the inner line of the lower basin from Columbia street to Hudson avenue.” But there were still opponents, as the Chamber of Commerce was concerned that if the basin were closed, “there would be no harbor here and no boats would winter here, since they could not do so without damage. This was unfortunate at this time when a movement was on foot to deepen the Hudson river.” William Barnes, Jr., appointed by the Chamber to oppose the bill, proposed a commission to take another year to study the matter.

In addition, the boat operators believed the whole thing was a theft by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. There was a proposed amendment to the constitution of the state that would donate, “absolutely free,” the Albany basin (containing an area of over 23 acres of state canal lands now walled up behind the constitution of the state) for a grand site for a union depot and freight terminus and for the sole use and benefit of the New York Central and Hudson River railroad, the West Shore railroad and the Delaware and Hudson canal railroad monopolies.”

Well, they weren’t wrong. Marcus T. Hun declared that the upper basin was useless to anybody and a source of malaria, and that leaving the lower part was fully adequate to meet the needs of the boats, and that the basin had not been filled with boats for years. He also said the station of the New York Central in Albany “was a disgrace to any city. He did not object to encouraging the roads to come here and build what they chose.” Mayor Daniel Manning was said to support the bill, but the city made no comments on what it wanted. Legislation wasn’t passed until 1895.

It didn’t happen right away though. In 1899, the basin was still a cesspool, and the “Central-Hudson” railroad was again working toward getting the rights to fill in the basin and to get an intercepting sewer built. Again, the plan was to built a sewer that would pass under land that would be created by filling in the basin “north of a point 100 feet south of Columbia street.”

Those who still held rights to wharfage on the western side of the basin were made responsible for dredging any parts that were not to be filled in . . . a strong incentive to agree to filling. “A line drawn southerly from the end of the pier of lock No. 1, along the present westerly boundary of the basin to the north line of Livingston avenue, and thence in a straight line to the intersection of the southerly line of Hudson avenue with the easterly line of Quay street, is established as the bulkhead line. No dock or pier shall be erected or filling in done easterly of said bulkhead line, except between the northeasterly line of Colonie street, southeast to the pier line hereinafter established, and a line drawn parallel to and one hundred feet distant southerly from the south line to Columbia street.”

1909 Baedeker map showing the filled northern section of the Albany BasinIt’s not entirely clear when the actual filling took place, but a 1909 Baedeker map shows the northern portion of the basin filled in, while there was still a basin at the entrance to the canal.

That still left the southern part of the basin. In 1906, another bill was passed and signed conveying the state’s title to land under water of the basin to the city of Albany. The city was then authorized to establish new bulkhead lines within the boundaries of the basin, and was allowed to grant to any owner of land or wharfage rights on the west side the “privilege” of filling in with solid filling that portion of the basin between the present bulkhead line and the new one and grant wharfage rights.

This being Albany, of course, any attempt at fixing a problem was bound to be seen as political opportunism. In 1911 the McCabe Commission, which we’ll have to do some studying up on, looked into Senate counsel James W. Osborne’s assertion that the filling of the basin was part of a long-term scheme to give land to the railroads, apparently discounting the issues of sewerage that were well-documented and the fact that the city didn’t own the basin until it was granted that title by the State as part of the whole deal that would fill the basin, build a sewer, and help build freight rail access.

A 1944 Times-Union article by Edgar S. Van Olinda looked back on waterfront improvements:

“In 1910, the Common Council, the D. and H. Railroad and the steamship lines began a waterfront improvement. The Albany Basin bridge was erected, new dock walls erected, the old buildings along what is now the Plaza [now the D&H Headquarters/SUNY Central Administration] torn down and work begun to make the site one of the most attractive in the city.

“The Albany Day Line ticket office, designed by the late Walter Van Guysling, was moved from Hamilton street to Division, in Broadway, and the land thereabouts made into a park, in which are many interesting markers, telling the stranger in Albany some of the history of the city in tabloid form.”

We’re still unclear, honestly, on when the remains of the basin were given over to the Albany Yacht Club, and other structures along the wharf were demolished. Still trying to sort that out.

The Albany Basin: Liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence

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One of our favorite local fantasies is the fantasy that Albany once had a blissful, beautiful waterfront where Victorian ladies in hoop skirts carrying parasols enjoyed leisurely Sunday strolls with their dapper beaus. Urchins rolled hoops on their day off from working in the factories and scrambled down the banks with string and bent pins to pull Albany beef from the teeming river. Beautiful, environmentally friendly sloops delivered the goods of the Caribbean to neat, orderly docks. And this was all ruined when a highway was put in, cutting the city off from its bluewater paradise.

We noted yesterday that the bustling Albany Basin, the constructed waterfront that extended from the opening of the Erie Canal down to about Hamilton Street was, from the start, a bit of a mess. It was built quickly, intended to function as a lock that didn’t really hold water, then was cut in several places, and started filling up pretty much immediately. One reason might have been all the sewers that emptied into it. In its roughly 50 years, it was never noted for its riverfront beauty. As its use declined, its managing organization essentially abandoned it in place and left its owners to their own devices. That didn’t help.

In 1889, the state engineer and surveyor’s report noted that dredging had been carried on in the basin, but “the sewerage of Albany is again filling it up with material of a very unwholesome character. Only a radical treatment will result in a permanent improvement. The sewerage of the city of Albany should by some means be carried to a point below the basin.” Basic sewage treatment wasn’t an option yet; relocation was the only reasonable option. The report suggested that “an intercepting sewer should be constructed, and it probably would be desirable for a portion of the length of the basin to build a wall with the intercepting sewer between it and the present dock. This space could be filled in, thus making available land for commercial purposes.”

So that was the end of it, right? No, of course not. In 1885, the Committee on Drainage, Sewerage and Topography (and if anyone wants to revive that, sign me the heck up for it), made a report to the State Board of Health in response to a petition from a large number of prominent citizens that set forth that the Albany basin was in a condition dangerous to the lives and health of the people. The basin, recall, was actually the property of the State and considered part of the Erie Canal. They found that

“This preliminary investigation proved that the basin was in a condition liable to injure the health of all brought within its influence, and that this influence was exerted in two important directions. . . The principal sewers of Albany were found to be emptying into the basin, and the organic material brought down in them had so filled it, that at low tide large sewage flats were exposed, while the whole water surface was found to be bubbling with the bases of putrefaction liberated from the bottom at low and half tide. Beside the evil effects which must result from the exposure to the heat of the sun of large masses of sewage, and of a large extent of polluted water, it was found that this polluted water probably reached the point of intake of the city’s supply from the river.”

Concerned, they tested whether or not the highly pungent and polluted waters of the basin reached the city’s drinking water intake. Surprise! They did.

The report’s description of the state of the basin at that time is useful:

“The dock front of Albany is a curve concave toward the city. Across the chord of this arc is built a pier about four thousand feet long and from one hundred and fifty to four hundred and fifty feet wide, containing some thirty acres. Into the northern end of this basin opens the Erie canal. The pier has in it three openings: one at the northern end; one opposite Maiden lane, through which ferry boats enter; and one at the southern end. This basin was intended as a harbor for canal boats, and it was expected to maintain in it seven feet of water at low tide. The basin has, however, become filled with mineral and organic matter from two sources, so that now at low tide from five to six acres of the bottom are laid bare and the remainder of the basin has become so shallow that it is not navigable at low water except where, by constant dredging, sufficient depth is maintained. It has been filled at the northern end and along the pier largely by silt brought down by the Hudson river in tie of flood … The second cause of the filling of the basin is the fact that fifteen sewers of the city of Albany empty into it. These fifteen sewers drain seven hundred and fifty acres of the most thickly populated part of Albany, carrying off the waste of some thirty-two thousand people … The examinations of the deposits show that over a large part of the basin the bottom is a mass of black decomposing organic mater, filled with a writhing mass of worms and microscopic organisms. So great is the amount and so rapid is the rate of decomposition in this mass that as the tide falls and the pressure is removed, the gases of decomposition rise to the surface of the water, which bubbles and breaks constantly, throwing into the air both the bases and the organism s, which probably rise with the gases of putrefaction. The Albany basin has, in fact become a gigantic cesspool nearly filled with rotting filth … There can be no question that the maintaining of a gigantic cesspool, thirty acres in extent on the principal water front of the city of Albany, is contaminating the air of that part of the city and needlessly endangering the lives and health of all who are brought within its influence.”

It’s hard to understand why they didn’t write a musical about its splendor, really. We could go on, but we post this stuff early and there’s a chance you’re eating breakfast. The rest of the details are just endlessly worse. Maybe tomorrow we’ll talk about the Martinville sewers.

 

 

The Albany Basin

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Albany Basin 1879

Bird’s Eye View of the Albany Basin in 1879, when it was already in decline. Madison Avenue is at farthest left, then the Maiden Lane Bridge. On the far right, the locks into the Canal.

There was a time when Albany was very much a river town (and, for a brief century, a canal town). But just what the waterfront looked like in those days, where the passenger ships and cargo ships docked, is a subject of frequent discussion among some local history buffs because, at this remove, it is terrifically hard to lay out with any certainty. At some risk, we’ll turn to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” a sloppy and sometimes self-contradictory amalgam of other sources, to try to piece it together.

Howell says that as early as 1822, perhaps earlier, there was discussion of creating a basin where the Erie Canal met the Hudson River, a place now best approximated by where an historic marker for the Albany Basin rests, just north of where Quay Street swings around into Colonie Street in the neighborhood of the Corning Preserve boat launch. At the time, there were on average from 80 to 200 sloops and schooners at the docks “in front of the city” every day. The Canal Commissioners, under direction from the Assembly, reported in early 1823 that a basin could be built for about $100,000 and would be “extremely beneficial to the trade of Albany.” They noted their general reluctance to make basins along the canals, “believing that mercantile capital and enterprise would find sufficient inducements and interests to furnish these local accommodations to trade,” and that to spend public money would not be just. They proposed to construct a sloop lock at the southern end of the basin, which meant that the state would receive tolls for entering the basin. Later that year, the Legislature authorized construction of the Albany Basin, appointing a large number of commissioners who were authorized to raise subscriptions “to construct a mole or pier within the bounds of the City of Albany, opposite the docks fronting the harbor, so as to comprise a basin extending from the arsenal dock to a point opposite Hodges’ Dock, in the line of Hamilton street, with a sloop lock at the Hamilton street end, to be completed within two years.” There would be wharfage charges, half of which would go to the Pier Company, the rest to the State, and the pier would be divided into lots to be sold at public auction.

The sloop lock was built quickly, with its first water passing through in Sept. 1823. “An eel three feet in length came through the gate and was hailed as the first passenger; it was caught, and the skin preserved in the Museum of the Lyceum of Natural History.”

The Albany Pier was completed May 27, 1825, enclosing a basin capable of harboring 1,000 canal boats and 50 larger vessels. The pier was divided into 123 lots, 121 of which were sold at auction July 17, 1825, fetching $188,510. (Two were withheld and used as opening to the river). Thje pier was 4,323 feet long, 85 feet broad, and unbroken from the canal to Hamilton street, containing 8-1/4 acres of land. The basin contained 32 acres.

To get to the pier, draw bridges were constructed at the foot of Columbia and State streets.

The sloop lock didn’t last long. In the first instance, it was poorly constructed – or rather the basin itself was, as when the lock was first closed, the basin did not fill up. The bulkhead at the southern end of the basin became a point of contention, as the basin silted up quickly. In 1835, the Legislature directed the bulkhead be partly removed, the sloop lock be taken away, and that there be a bridge built from the abutment at Hamilton street to the pier, and to dredge out the silt.

The opening of the pier caused “great dissatisfaction” to the owners of the dock and property on Quay street, who no longer enjoyed free access to the river, lost significant dockage. Quay Street was no longer the river’s edge.

Then in 1836 the Legislature authorized the City of Albany to make an opening in the pier between the Columbia and State street bridges of 60 feet in width. In 1841, the opening was widened yet again to not les than 126 feet; in 1849, it was widened yet again to meet the increasing need for commerce and the ever-larger vessels sailing the river. Each stage of this work, though directed by the Legislature, was charged to those who owned the pier lots, except the actual excavation of the basin, which had been paid by Albany, which didn’t get paid for its outlay until 1849. At that same time the Canal Commissioners were ordered to pay a lump sum to the owners, instead of a portion of the tolls.

“At this time, and until the War of the Rebellion, the property on the pier was very valuable. The portion above the Columbia street bridge was covered with lumber and staves, piled very high for want of room, while below the bridge, on both sides of the cut to its southern extremity were large and commodiously built warehouses, occupied by the leading shipping merchants of the city and the proprietors of the large tow-boat lines. The Swiftsure and Albany and Canal lines each had offices below the State street bridge, and their barges occupied berths on both the inside and outside of the pier.

“Hart & Hoyt, in order to facilitate the transportation of the merchandise they received, erected on a raft or float in the basin, a large wooden structure, familiarly called the ‘Ark,’ which took up much room and was a great annoyance to the other shippers, beside being an eye-sore and great obstruction to the free navigation of the basin. It became so much of a nuisance that the Common Council ordered them to remove it…”

Time, and/or the railroads, took their toll on this business. In 1873, the Dock Association adjourned sine die, with active business on the pier and Quay street having “about come to a standstill; buildings which had formerly rented for seven or eight hundred dollars per annum, would scarcely command three or four hundred, and many remained unoccupied. Storage of produce brought down by canal-boats too late in the fall to ship for New York or Eastern or Southern ports by vessels, was a large item of profit which was cut off by the transportation afforded by the completion of the Central and Hudson River and the Boston and Albany Railroads. The merchants who did a heavy business on the pier or Quay street, either retired from business or removed to Broadway, where they escaped the annual freshets in the river, and obtained more comfortable quarters.

Writing in 1876, Howell noted “Since 1873, the basin has been filling up with silt from the river and sewage from the fifteen city sewers that empty their foul contents into it; and it has become one of the greatest nuisances in the county. It is hoped that it will ether be dredged out by the State authorities or filled up, as it has passed its days of usefulness.”