From canal to boulevard

This is your periodic reminder that for about a century, the Erie Canal cut right through the middle of Schenectady. And when it stopped being a functional canal – when the new Barge Canal rerouted traffic to a dammed version of the Mohawk River, beginning around 1918 – Schenectady and other cities were left with either a mess or opportunity (or both), depending on how they looked at it.

Path of Erie Canal through Schenectady
Path of Erie Canal through Schenectady

Prior to the opening of the eastern section of the canal in 1823, Schenectady’s business section was concentrated along State Street west of what would be Erie Boulevard. Once department stores and theaters started to be a thing, they were all located in that little area. The several bridges that crossed the canal were primarily for the residents who lived east of the canal, and through-travelers. The business brought by the canal contributed to a boom in Schenectady’s growth, and businesses developed along the banks of the canal. In the early years of the 20th century, with the canal’s business and attractiveness in serious decline, and heavy industry developing near it in the form of American Locomotive Company and General Electric, many of the better businesses moved further uptown, into the area we think of as the core of downtown Schenectady today. Once it was clear the canal through the city would be abandoned in favor of the river route, thoughts of the old canal bed’s future use started to be bandied about, and Schenectady saw the opportunity to convert the old ditch into a “wide cross-town thoroughfare.”

Erie and Dock from State street bridge
Erie canal and Dock Street (later part of Erie Boulevard) from State street bridge

At the beginning of 1913, the State was discussing legislation for the disposal of the old canal bed, recognizing that there were significant stretches of canal that would no longer pass through the middle of cities like Cohoes, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester, along with several villages. Being New York, nothing is ever simple, and there needed to be legislation allowing the state to convey the lands, and it required that in return the state receive “full valuation.”

In 1918, it was reported that Schenectady and the State had concluded more than two years of negotiations over those lands, with the State setting a flat net price of $248,791. The State had been asking $453,000 based on its appraisal, but accepted the lower figure, and had to acknowledge that there had been encroachments on the canal lands, including a significant encroachment by the New York Central Railroad. Reducing the value by $84,700 to account for the encroachments, Schenectady was able to obtain the lands for an actual cost of $164,091, and the state was relieved of the obligation to deal with those encroachments – the city would “take title to all the canal property within the city limits and to deal later itself with corporations desiring to purchase parts of it as well as with the cases of encroachments.” Both ALCO and GE were in the market for canal property, so the real cost to the city may have been even less. It was reported that encroachments were sold to the encroachers for exactly what the city paid to the State for those lands.

Schenectady’s Mayor Charles A. Simon was a prime mover in the effort to convert the canal lands into a wide boulevard, for which he was both lauded and decried. An advertisement for his re-election in August of 1919 said that “Throwing mud at a mayoralty candidate does not help to get good men for mayors of Schenectady.” The ad pointed out that under Simon, the canal bed had been procured for a much lower cost than had been asked by the state, that it had been acquired without a bond issue, that it was filled “in a way that saved the city over $100,000,” and that by that time, all bridges crossing the canal (at State, Church, Liberty, Union, Green, Jefferson, and Nott) had been removed and their locations filled, making continuous crossings at grade. Doing it without a bond was significant but probably the only course of action – a later ad said that “skillful financing” enabled the city to pay for lands at a time when it was difficult to float municipal bonds because of war restrictions. The creative filling wasn’t especially creative – the canal was primarily filled with the ashes then commonly collected by the city from the thousands of coal furnaces and stoves that heated the city. (If you want to envision how much coal ash there used to be, one study we’re familiar with estimated that 40% of New York City is built on coal ash).

Still, it took a while to get things fully filled in and a plan for Erie Boulevard to form. It was 1923 before Schenectady passed an ordinance that would improve Erie Boulevard, including sidewalks, from Washington Avenue (gotta remember that Washington, previously Rotterdam, used to meet Erie Boulevard in something other than a tangle of highway ramps) to Nott Street and beyond, where it was already envisioned that Maxon Road, connected to the Boulevard, would provide the gateway to the city from Saratoga (by way of Freeman’s Bridge). But once things got underway, they got underway in a big way, as the city partnered with GE to show what lighting up pretty pavement could be like.

Erie Blvd 1925?
Erie Blvd, possibly 1925, shortly after its grand opening

Try to imagine having a parade for the opening of a new street today. Try to imagine celebrating street lighting. Now, try to imagine turning that into a week-long “Progress Exposition” with hundreds of vendors in a temporary village, two band concerts, WGY radio concerts, amateur radio shows, dahlia shows, and fireworks every night. That was the Progress Exposition of 1924, created to celebrate the opening of Erie Boulevard.

The Progress Exposition celebrated not only the completion of the Boulevard, but also the lighting of the boulevard and State Street, with special credit given to Walter D’Arcy Ryan as “the world’s greatest illuminating engineer.” Nearly 5,000 people marched in the parade that opened the event on Sept. 19, 1924 – 1600 of them members of the GE and ALCO Quarter Century Clubs. So many people attended the parade that many were turned away from the exposition that night.

The Progress Exposition of Sept. 1924 (from the Grems-Doolittle Library)

“The new Erie Boulevard of Schenectady approaching the General Electric Company which will probably be the future real business section of the city has the reputation of being the best lighted street in the world, made possible by an ordinance of the common council providing for a uniform lighting system as developed and approved by the joint committees of the local chapter of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the City Planning Commission. Schenectady is the first city in the world of 100,000 population to install high intensive lighting units, and the fifth to adopt such a system.

“The plan as originally adopted provided for a standardized system in which four uniform and specially designed poles of the ‘white way’ type would in time succeed all of the types then in use in the city. The first type, consisting of ornamental poles 20 feet high, with two arc lamps encased in unique rippled ornamental globes of attractive design, reared upon a cross-arm, were to be used on Erie boulevard, State street and Washington avenue. Types No. 2 and 3, while both 15 feet in height, will differ in the amount of illumination, due to the fact that type 2 will consist of a powerful arc lamp, while type 3 will be of the incandescent type.”

“The new Erie boulevard which has been especially transformed by the improved lighting system is hardly recognizable by the older residents of the city. In the early days this boulevard section was a body of water which formed a part of the old Erie canal . . . When the filling in of the old canal bed was started several years ago, agitation was begun to make this Schenectady’s finest cross-town boulevard and to this end the common council soon after appropriated the money for this work which was started early in 1923 and completed this spring. The name of Erie boulevard was chosen as being the most appropriate to retain the historical association connected with its origins.”

The Schenectady County Historical Society’s Grems-Doolittle Library has a detailed article on the exposition itself. We’ll just note that the Utica Observer-Dispatch wrote a glowing article, with pictures, showing what Schenectady had managed to do with its former canal lands, quietly criticizing Utica for failing to achieve similar results.

On Oct. 3, the Gazette headline reported “Last Traces of Exposition Gone; Street Washed – Men Also Put to Work to Gather Up All Nails in the Boulevard.”

“The last traces of the Schenectady progress exposition were removed from Erie boulevard last night, when the street was washed clean with a firehose. The night before the street was swept as clean as possible at the expense of the exposition management, street cleaners working past midnight removing paper and other debris before it had opportunity to dry and blow about the streets. Extra men were also kept at work on the boulevard yesterday by the exposition committee gathering stray nails off of the street. Any nails overlooked by the men should have been washed into the gutter last night.”

The Schenectady Chamber of Commerce, which put on the event, reported a $10,000 profit on the event, which they used partly to refund the exhibition costs for a number of civic organizations and then put the rest to a special fund for promoting, developing and advertising Schenectady.”

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