Before the phone, before radio, before TV, before the Internet, before texting, people communicated by and got their news from the telegraph. To send and receive telegrams every city had a fleet of telegraph boys. By the late 1800s they mostly road bicycles, but walked in more crowded downtown areas. These uniformed young men ages 10 to 18 worked outdoors with no supervision and union benefits.
Albany’s telegraph boys, numbering about 30, went on strike in 1903 and 1915. Said one of the boys, “Dey want to pay us $14 per month (about $350 in today’s dollars) and den sneak 3 Sundays from us. We want 2 cents a message and 3 cents a call. We can make more on commission than regular a salary.”
In the later strike the boys were incensed that thousands of messages were delivered to the NYS Legislature in bulk, depriving them og their 2 cents a message. An 1886 an Albany Argus article extolling the necessity of telegraph boys posited, “In the process of time we may arrive at some invention which will entirely obviate all need of any intermediary to distribute telegraphic messages as they arrive. Telegraph wires may be laid on every house, like water and gas. Or as we have hinted, telephones may come into general popularity. Or a patent double-barrelled automatic and mechanical telegraph boy may be discovered in the dim and distant future, which will bring our messages around to out separate doors with lightening like rapidity and unfailing regularity. There would be no fear of mechanical boys playing chuck-fathing* in the gutter. These developments may, we repeat, may be reserved for posterity to gloat over. At present, however, we can not do without the human, the much too human, telegraph boy. He indisputably holds the field.”
Hard to imagine that in its long almost 400 year history Albany has had only 4 city hall buildings.
First Stadt Huys
We don’t know the exact date the first city hall was erected, but it was probably during the time when the city was still Beverwyck and part of the Dutch colony before 1664. It was at the corner of Court St. (Broadway and Hudson). It was known as the Stadt Huys (or Haus). It was a substantial, but small building with several large rooms on a first floor and a jail in the basement. (Sadly there are no images.) Technically it wasn’t a city hall until the Royal Governor made Albany the first chartered city in the U.S. in that very building in 1686.
Second Stadt Huys
In 1741 the city fathers thought it was time for new digs and a new building was constructed on the same location, surrounded by greenery and trees. It was much larger 3 story building of brick, but simple and plain. It had a steep roof and a belfrey. It too had a jail. It was on the steps of this building that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the city in July, 1776 and where Ben Franklin first proposed the Albany Plan of Union – a confederation of the British colonies in 1754, 20 years before the Continental Congress was formed.
Eagle St. City Hall
By the early 1800s, after the Revolutionary War, the city was expanding. The old Stadt House had seen better days. It was the home of the Albany Common Council, the local and NYS courts, AND the NYS Legislature after Albany became the capital. It was time for a new city hall (and a state capitol building). These were both constructed around the new public square at State and Eagle Streets. The new city hall was erected in 1829,
Enter renowned architect and Albany government official Philip Hooker. He designed both the new Capitol in the back of the public square and Albany’s City Hall on Eagle St. and Maiden Lane, across the street from the Capitol and the square. It was a large neo-classical building with pillars and a dome. There are no interior photos, but it was probably a simple yet dramatic style, with federal decoration and large elegant rooms (based on those few Hooker buildings that survive today).
The building also doubled as the Federal Courthouse. It was in this building in 1873 that Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a Grand Jury composed solely of men for voting in a federal Congressional election in Rochester in 1872. Alas, the Hooker City Hall was destroyed by fire in 1880.
Current City Hall
The current City Hall open in 1883. It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, one the most well-known architects of the day. His style is known as “Richardson Romanesque”. His building exteriors are solid and large, and make a statement, although the interiors are surprising open and light. (He also collaborated on the design of the existing NYS Capitol Building). Attached to City Hall by a bridge was the jail on Maiden Lane. (By 1883 the city jail on the corner of Howard and Eagle Streets had become Albany Hospital.) It appears the jail was demolished in the early 1900s.
The carillon was added in 1927 through subscriptions of the citizens of the city. It’s housed in a tiny room, up a set of rickety winding steps.
Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices and postal roads. Ben Franklin was one of the geniuses behind creation of the U.S. Post Office (USPO), and served as the Post Master General during the Revolutionary War. The Post Office was seen as a critical element to bind the separate colonies together, facilitate interstate commerce and form as “more perfect Union”.
By the time Washington became president there were 75 post offices in America. Many of the major highways we know today were maintained as “Post Roads”. U.S. Route 9 from Albany to NYC was known as the “Albany Post Road”. Mail from major cities was usually delivered to Albany twice a week by contracted Post Riders by the late 1700s. In more remote areas mail was sent with whomever was making the next trip to the city. A farmer could leave a letter at the local tavern in the hope that someone would be going to Albany in the near future. In cities like Albany the PO might be located in a city hall, at that time on Broadway near State St. in the heart of the small city. Or the city’s Postmaster might have been a prominent grocer or inn keeper. We simply don’t know. That’s where the mail was left when it came from Boston, NYC, Hartford, Saratoga, Bennington, etc. And that’s where recipients had to go to retrieve their mail.
William Winne – the Penny Postman
Enter the “Penny Postman”. In Albany it was William Winne. Mr. Winne was the city’s penny postman, and a well known figure on Albany streets for about 4 decades. You could enter into an agreement with Mr. Winne, and he would pick up and deliver your mail for for a couple of cents a letter. Someone m gu, created a silhouette of Mr. Winne that became synonymous with the Penny Postman for centuries.
As the city grew more contract postal carriers went into business.
The Exchange Building
And then came Albany’s population explosion following the opening of the Erie Canal. A more “official” PO located in the newly built Exchange Building on the corner of State St. and Broadway was opened. By now there were PO boxes. And if you didn’t use the services of a paid postman you could find your name on a list published in a newspaper that told you there was mail to be picked up. (The newspaper listings were divided between male and female names.. which I never understood.) And so the PO remained with some improvements.
Postage stamps were first issued in 1847, but until 1856 other methods of payment were legal. And mail from other cities arrived by train and boat to downtown. By the 1840s the use of the telegraph expanded people’s ability to communicate, but as the country grew government funded mail delivery was still critical.
The Civil War was the catalyst for major changes. Millions of men went to war, and boys sent letters home to Mom and Mom sent letters and cookies and hams to their sons. Mail volume grew exponentially. So there were major improvements. In Albany the most important was the creation of a paid postal carrier service. Initially there were 5 Albany “post men”. All Civil War vets. This was before the age of the civil service merit system, so these jobs were patronage positions. (My grandmother’s Uncle Charlie had served bravely at Gettysburg – so he got one of the jobs.)
By 1880 the Albany PO moved into the new Federal Building which took the place of the old Exchange Building. (Today it houses admin offices of SUNY Central.)
As the country expanded west settlers in far flung settlements sometimes had to travel for days to collect mail at the “County Seat”. For a brief time the legendary Pony Express filled the gap, traveling where there were no railroads. And private companies like Wells Fargo and American Express used railroads and stage coaches to ship the mail and packages, began in the 1840s and 1850s. It’s worth noting that men from Albany, including one former postmaster were involved in the founding of these companies. In Albany County small spur railroads delivered the mail into villages like Slingerlands and Voorheeseville that had their own tiny post offices.
Rural Free Delivery
In 1896 a new service of the USPO changed America. Rural free delivery was enacted by Congress. It ensured those who lived in rural areas would get their mail delivered to their homes without schlepping into the closest village. (Over half of the US population still lived outside cities at the time.)
And so when it came to selection of a site for the new Union Station by the New York Central Railroad it had to be next to Post Office. If you look carefully at old photos and postcards you can see the mail wagons on RR mail platforms and chutes from the PO from above with large bags of mail.
The next innovation in 1913 changed America again- Parcel Post. For years private carriers had charged exorbitant fees to deliver packages. With the advent of the new service new markets opened to city merchants. Whitney’s and Myer’s Department stores on North Pearl could reach homemakers in Preston Hollow and Coeymans. Even women in the city could see an ad in the newspaper, and write a letter or make a phone call to order a new blouse or a table cloth. And it could be delivered within a day or so. Business boomed. (Mr. Sears, who by now had bought out Mr. Roebuck, made a fortune with his catalog – Amazon 1.0.)
Regular airmail in Albany began in the mid 1920s, and flying of mail at night in 1930 after the new airport was built in Colonie. And so we had the framework of the USPO we know today.
Albany’s Art Deco Post Office
The last major change in Albany was the building of a new federal building on Broadway in the early 1930s. (Today it houses the Foley Courthouse.) The Post Office was on the first floor. It was an Art Deco marvel. It was housed in a huge space -all marble, glass and brass with beautiful ceiling murals. It almost felt like you were in a church or a great museum.
Albany was removed from the regular Dayline route in 1947.
The last jewel in the crown was the “Alexander Hamilton” which became part of the New York Circle Line fleet, touring NYC harbor and traveling north part way up the Hudson, until a fire in the 1970s.
Robert Fulton successfully sailed his first steamboat “The North River Steamboat” (A/K/A “The Clermont”) in 1807.
By 1812 his North River Company (a/k/a the Hudson River) was operating 3 ships with regular schedules between New York and Albany. Competition developed and by 1822 the Hudson River Line was created.
We estimate that by 1850 there were at least 8 lines or individual ships you could use to book a trip to New York City.
After the Civil War came the golden age of Hudson River steamships. Two dominate lines emerged – the Hudson River and the People’s Line. Ships turned into floating palaces, with multiple restaurants, entertainment, promenade decks, attentive service.
The legendary ships in the period between 1870 and early 1900 were the “Daniel Drew”, “Dean Richmond”, “Hendrick Hudson”, “The Adirondack”, “The Berkshire”, “The Peter Stuyvesant”, “The DeWitt Clinton” and “The New York”. The People’s Night Line grew in popularity into the early 1930s.
The iconic ticket office of the Day Line was built in the early 1900s on Broadway. Mr. Elmendorf, the ticket master, was a legendary figure in downtown for decades.
The Hudson Navigation Co. invested in major docking and sheds in Steamboat Square (an area for passenger boat landings from the early 1800s) in 1918.
But ultimately the proliferation of the automobile, better roads, and improvements in railroads and better amenities killed the Hudson River steamship lines.
The Strand was a classic, old school gorgeous and elegant movie house on North Pearl and Monroe Streets, close to the First Reformed Church. It started off in the era of the silent movies, and would have an orchestra and/or an organ to provide the background music, performances and sing-a-longs for the audience. It was built by and owned by Warner Bros. for decades (along with two other movie theaters in the city – the Madison in Pine Hills and the Delaware on Delaware Ave (now the Spectrum).
The Strand was the first theater in the City to show Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”, the first widely successful “Talkie. Once it made the transition it had a couple of of renovations and to Talkies, and endured for another four decades until its demolition in 1970. The Strand was one of two first run movie theatres in the city showing the block busters of the day. It also served as a venue for a variety of live events over the years- from beauty contests to cooking shows.
For many decades the first African American teacher in the Albany School District was thought to be Harriet Lewis Van Vranken who began teaching in 1915, and who subsequently became the first African American social worker in the city. However, new information has come to light and we’ve found that Helena R. Goines started teaching in the district two decades earlier in 1895. We couldn’t have corroborated what we found without the help of School District staff; Alicia Abdul – Librarian, Albany High School and Paula Tibbitts, Assistant to the Superintendent.
In the late part of the 19th century African American women began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. Some doors opened and others were pushed open. Increasingly their voices were heard, and they entered fields previously denied to them; education, law, medicine, and science. They began to organize and mobilize to create institutions to serve their communities, including day nurseries, old age homes, and hospitals. Helena Goines would become part of this group.
Helena was born in 1868, likely in New York City (because her father, John Butler, is listed in NYS Civil War registration records in the City in 1863.) John was probably from the Mohawk Valley (Schoharie or Oneida County), and her mother Eliza Goines Butler from Pennsylvania. It’s quite possible John and Elizabeth met in Philadelphia where she lived and he had family. The family first appears in Albany in the City Directory and the 1875 Census living at 352 Hamilton St. between Dove St. and Lark St. – John Butler, Eliza Butler, Jim Butler and Nellie (Helena) Butler. When Helena began school, she would have attended an integrated school – probably District School 16 at 201 Hudson Ave. below Swan St. It was the same school building which her brother Jim, five years older, had attended, but until Fall, 1873 when Albany integrated its schools, it had been the Wilberforce School, a segregated school for African American children.
Within a couple of years, the family moved to the 100 block of Third St. in Arbor Hill and the children attended attend District School 22 just around the block on Second St. When Helena was about 11 her father died. Mrs. Butler and the children moved to Elm St. between Dove St. and Swan St. Around the time of their father’s death there appears to be have been a major family break. Jim and Helena started using their mother’s maiden name, Goines, as their surname – which they would retain for the rest of their lives. At the time of his death John Butler appears to have been living apart of from his family. (Further evidence of the break is John Butler ‘s burial in Albany Rural Cemetery, while Mrs. Butler, Helena and Jim are interred elsewhere.)
Albany High School
In 1883 Helena passed the admission test for Albany High School, then located on the corner of Eagle St. and Steuben St. (The County Courthouse is there today.) Only a decade before Arabella Chapman, older sister of Helena’s best friend Harriet, was the first African American child admitted to the High School in 1873 when Albany schools were integrated. Helena graduated in 1887 from the English Division from the High School (we think she may have only been the third African American to graduate in that first decade.) She then pursued a yearlong course at the High School and was awarded a Graduate Teaching Certificate in 1888. (Again this may have been a first.) Her accomplishment was so significant woman it was reported in the New York Age a newspaper that focused on African American life and accomplishments across the country.)
Teaching in Delaware
In 1889 Helena became a teacher in a “colored” school in the Wilmington, Delaware segregated school district, where she remained for at least 4 years. (Wilmington seems to be an odd choice, but, based on some old census data, quite possibly some of her mother’s family may have lived in Wilmington.)
Return to Albany
In 1895 Helena returned to Albany, becoming part of the corps of substitute teachers for the school district. In 1896 she was appointed to a permanent position in School 14 at 70 Trinity Place. The following year she appears in District records as a teacher in School 12 on the corner of Washington Ave. and Robin St. Helena remained at School 12 for about a year.
In Fall, 1898 she took a position in Jamaica, Queens at a much enhanced the salary. Jamaica was still a segregated school district. It wasn’t until late 1900 when Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that prohibited children of any race from being excluded from any school in New York State.
Her brother and mother soon joined her in Queens. Helena continued to teach in Queens schools in Jamaica and Flushing for another 25 years or so.
Newspaper accounts of the time document Helena’s activities among a group of African American women who were creating new social and political institutions for the Black community in New York City and the country, including the wives of W.E. B, Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, and Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, wife of the immensely influential reverend of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan. These women were the supporters of the first “Colored” YWCA in New York City, and the Utopia Neighborhood Club that supported the development of what is today’s Urban League. They were the women who were members of the National Association of Colored Women, a driving force behind the activism of African American women across the U.S. at the local level. Many were supporters of the African American contingent of the Equal Suffrage Party in New York City that worked to secure the vote for women.
Helena passed away in Queens in 1944. She’s buried in Ballston Spa Cemetery, along with her brother Jim who died in 1906 and her mother who passed away in 1922.
Note: There is compelling evidence that Helena was also Native American. Her mother’s death certificate lists her race as Native American. When Helena died there was a single heir, Jennie Brock in Philadelphia. Jennie identified as Native American in the 1940 census. It appears that the surnames Goins/Goines is closely associated with the Native American population in Philadelphia dating back to the early 1800s.
Julie O’Connor M.L.S
(Special thanks to Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Library who found the original newspaper article that indicated Helena received a teaching certificate.)
The Empire Theatre on State St., above South Pearl St. in the early part of the 20th century.
It was the biggest and most popular burlesque and vaudeville (but mostly burlesque) theater in Albany, from about 1900 to the early 1920s.
And it was one of the two theaters where you could see Yiddish Theatre. (The other was Harmanus Bleecker Hall – Albany Public Library is in that location today.) Albany had one of the largest Jewish populations in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some estimates put it between 15% – 20% of the total population of the city.
By 1900 this large immigrant population came from eastern Europe (Poland, Rumania, Czechlosovakia) and Russia. But the immigrants shared a common cultural language – Yiddish. Large Yiddish theatre and opera companies came up to Albany from New York City at least once a month.
The early 20th century burlesque shows included beautiful girls, scantily clad, but mostly, like vaudeville, they were broad farce. (Not strippers.) You could still laugh at the slapstick and admire the beauty and dancing even if your ability to speak English was limited. And if you spoke English, so much the better.
The Empire hosted huge stars. Before Fannie Brice became a Ziegfield Girl she came to Albany in “The College Girls” And this is where she met and married her first husband, Frank White, an Albany barber.
Another favorite was Mollie Williams, one of the most enterprising of all the stars of burlesque. She was one of few Jewish stars of burlesque. By 1912, when she was in her early 30s, she owned her own company, and produced her own shows, touring all of the Northeastern U.S. Even the women in the audience seemed to love her.
(After the Empire closed Mollie starred at the Capitol Theatre on Chapel St. In 1924 she became an American sweetheart. She included a skit in her act that championed raises for US. Post Office workers. They got the raise and when Mollie came to town they hosted parties in her honor. Mollie’s other dubious claim to fame – a very young vaudevillian, Milton Berle lost his virginity to her.)
The School was established circa 1890 as the Eastern New York School for Certified Nurses. Its founder was Dr. William Stillman, a graduate of Albany Medical College. At that time there was no other nursing school in the city; Albany Hospital’s nursing school didn’t open until 1897.
The role of nurses came to the forefront in the Civil War. But for a number of reasons it still wasn’t consider a totally respectable position for a woman in the late Victorian Gilded Age (unlike being a school teacher). But times changed, as they do, and progress marched on.
By 1901 the New York State Nurses Association was founded, the first state nurses association.
The National School was not-for-profit, and trained women in all aspects of nursing, including public health. By the second decade of the 20th century the importance, and value of school nurses and nurses in county and city health departments and “well-baby” clinics was firmly entrenched.
It was also a school open to all women. Reports from the early 1900s tell us that in 1905 at least 3 African American women were graduates.
The Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 drove home the importance of nurses, as did the thousands of nurses who volunteered in Europe during World War II. Women of all ages flocked to the front. Albany Hospital established and staffed a hospital for recuperating soldiers in Portsmouth, England.
By the 1920 the World War had not only proven that it was acceptable for “nice” girls work, but they got the job done.
In the mid 1920s the School was located at in a brownstone at 285-287 Lark St. Each 6 month course was packed with young women, who learned all aspects of nursing according to standardized scientific principles. The curriculum included didactic and clinical components.
Roof garden restaurants began to be a thing in the 1880s. They were a way of beating summer heat, and creating small oasis in a crowded city.
The roof garden atop the Hampton Hotel on State St. just above Broadway was constructed in the early 1900s.
There was music and dancing at the Hampton Hotel roof garden. You would have a spectacular view, Hudson River breezes, and there is a description of hundreds of tiny electric lights at night that made it seem like a fairyland.
It was designed to attract the middle and upper classes of Albany, and well-heeled hotel guests.
But I can imagine a young clerk or factory worker saving up to take his girl, maybe she was a store clerk, for a special night. She would be dressed in her best- maybe he gave her a small flower corsage. It might have been a romantic, magical night. A once in a life time experience, never to be forgotten.
The Washington Park Refectory was the place in the Park where you could get light refreshments. Delicate sandwiches, ice cream, ices, lemonade and soda in the Summer, and cocoa, coffee, tea and pastries in the Winter.
It was built to look like a Swiss chalet, using the “stick motif” style of the original Lake House, east of Englewood Place. It was said that as you sat on the broad piazza (veranda) there was an unobstructed view, looking the Great Meadow, to Willett St.
The Refectory was in use until about the late 1930s, but had begun to deteriorate. During World War II it was closed, since much of the Park was given over to Victory Gardens.
It was demolished in the 1950s. By then a small snack bar had been added to the Lake House.