Roller Skating Rinks of 19th Century Albany

We have a real love-hate relationship with George Rogers Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” from 1886. On the one hand, it’s a treasure trove of incredible information that is organized in ways the esteemed Joel Munsell couldn’t achieve. On the other hand, it’s mostly plagiarized, often self-contradictory, and almost completely unedited. But: treasure trove!

Looking for something else, as ever, came across this little nugget on Albany’s early roller skating rinks:

The popular amusement of roller skating secured a foothold in Albany soon after Boston had adopted and indorsed it. Like all other modes of amusement in their nature harmless, it has its excesses and its abuses.

The first place opened in Albany for this diversion was at No. 69 North Pearl street, in the Old Post Office Building. The hall, ready for the public just before Christmas, 1880, was well patronized during the winter. It was closed the 1st of May following. In the fall of 1881, the Old Tabernacle Baptist Church, on North Pearl street, was converted into a skating rink by a stock company of young men of Albany. It was fairly patronized, but from some cause it did not realize the expectations of its proprietors, and the enterprise was abandoned the next spring.

Catholic Union Building c 1900 Howard st and eagle st Demolished for the South Mall Albany ny
Tenth Regiment Armory at Howard and Eagle Streets; briefly a roller rink.

During the winter of 1883 and 1884, Albany seems to have had two roller-skating rinks, one in the Public Market Building, Hudson avenue, and one in the old Tenth Regiment Armory, Van Vechten Hall.

The fifth enterprise of the kind was undertaken in 1884, by Hickey, Downing & Curley, and resulted in the spacious and very creditable rink running on Lark street, Captain Young, Superintendent. The building is 85 by 185 feet on the ground, with a floor 65 by 165 feet, and is provided with 700 pairs of skates, and lighted by electricity. It is the largest audience room in the city, and has been used for concerts and large public gatherings.

The sixth and last roller skating rink was opened in the old Methodist Church in the fall of 1884, by Mr. Munson. Mr. Rice, Manager. It had a successful winter, but the building was enlarged and fitted for laundry purposes in 1885.

As follow-through was not Howell’s strong point, the excesses and abuses are not described.

An 1884 article on the opening of the Capital City Roller Skating Rink on Lark Street gave a sense of the preparations that were being made in order to get it ready. It was such an anticipated affair that extra trolleys were added to handle the expected crowds:

In order that the Capital City Roller skating rink on Lark street might be opened this evening, a large gang of men worked all night laying the floor. The skating surface when finished will be 165 by 60 feet. The floor was being planed this morning. Manager Hickey was present and flying about from one part of the building to the other. The steam-pipes are in and will be in use this evening. The electric lights in the centre will light the floor from one end to the other. The building has four wide exits and will hold 600 skaters, and 1,200 spectators, the latter occupying a triple row of seats at the sides. The cloak rooms will be in charge of lady attendants. Capt. David W. Young will efficiently fill the position of superintendent. He has been connected with skating rinks in this and other cities. Five skate-boys have been engaged. All the rink employees will wear a navy-blue uniform, with brass buttons and navy cap. Supt. Young has about 450 pairs of skates for use to-night. They are the Union hardware make, being hard wood with nickel trimmings. The prospect is good for a very large attendance at the opening. Extra cars will run on the State street and Clinton avenue lines. Sullivan’s band will give a concert from 7:30 to 8 P.M., after which skating will begin and continue till 10:30. The regular admission rates will be charged. To-morrow afternoon fancy skaters will be present, and give exhibitions of what may be accomplished by practice on the rollers. The rink will probably be open hereafter morning, afternoon and evening. Sullivan’s orchestra will be present every evening, and play the printed programs.

The only David W. Young that we find in the 1885 directory is listed as a janitor at School 22. There’s no mention of a roller rink, even though it seems it lasted at least through 1886.  In 1910 it was announced in “American Architect and Architecture” that W.J. Obenaus had prepared plans to rebuild the roller skating rink on Lark Street. Its exact location is not made clear.

In case you were thinking of full-shoe roller skates like we know now, think again: these were more like the child’s roller skates many of us grew up with, the kind that strapped on to whatever shoes you were wearing, and likely looked something like this:

Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating
Roller Skate from National Museum of Roller Skating

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