Albany’s Lost Riverside Park – Playgrounds and Flying Boats

In the late 1800s mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants poured into Albany’s South End. It was a densely packed area of tenements and stifling hot in the summer.
So in 1901 the Albany Common Council created Riverside Park along the Hudson. It was small, but centrally located, and could catch the breeze from the River.
4 riverside
There was a staffed playground with activities for the children, a hoop court, benches and a band shell for concerts in the evenings.
Within 10 years residential development exploded, as homes were built on Delaware Ave., New Scotland Ave., and Pine Hills. The people who moved into these areas now had access Washington Park and the newly constructed Beaver Park (now Lincoln Park). And so, by about the early 1920s, it fell into disuse.
In 1929 it became the Albany hub for Coastal Airways, and its office was located in the Park. Coastal Airways flew Sikorsky Seaplanes (aka, the “flying boat”) between Albany and NYC at Bowery Bay, and Montreal. The planes took off from Hudson River, and landed in the Hudson.
Sikorsky S-38 Hydroplane
By the mid-1930s Riverside Park was no more than a small grass patch, and it appears to have all but vanished by 1940.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany Zen – Washington Park Lake in the Moonlight

circa 1909
It’s been hot and steamy in Albany the last couple of days. Can you imagine what an oasis the Park must have been in days before electric fans and AC?
During the evenings in the summer there were frequent band concerts in what was, in the early 1900s, the middle of the city.
The Park closed at night, but I have it on good authority that didn’t deter young boys and men (and even a young woman or two) from sneaking a quick cooling dip in the 5 acre lake on a hot summer night.
And it was also an irresistible location for romantic trysts in the moonlight (per the same good authority) on those same nights. Couples might quietly slip away from the audience, and blend into the 89 acres of shrubbery and trees.
Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

The Madison Movie Theater

The Madison Theater in Pine Hills has been a fixture in the neighborhood for 90 years, since its opening in May, 1929. That opening was a gala event.

The theater debuted with “Desert Song”, a block buster from the Warner Co. , which built the new theater and would own it until 1975 (as well as the Strand on North Pearl and what is now the Landmark Theater on Delaware Ave.) “Desert Song” was the first “talkie” musical (music by Irving Berlin), was filmed in two-part Technicolor, and co-starred an impossibly young Myrna Loy.

This Madison wasn’t the first Madison movie theater in Pine Hills. The first opened c. 1914 on West Lawrence (about where the Price Chopper is today). By 1917 it became the Pine Hills Theatre, and closed by 1930.

Movie goers wanted luxury and comfortable seats and glitz- more than hard wood seats to watch silent films. They flocked to new movie palaces for more of a real “theater” experience. The new Madison quickly became a favorite. It was a “second run” theater. If you didn’t get a chance to see a movie at the flagship Strand downtown you could catch it at the Madison. It was and is more than a neighborhood theater. During the Depression, like most movie theaters, it provided an escape, and served the same in World War II.

The Saturday morning cartoon shows in the 1950s and 1960s are the stuff of legend, attracting hundreds of kids from all over the city. The Back to School programs (free pencil box.. Yay!) drew screaming hordes of children. The building was re-modeled a couple of times in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1970s it was one of only 3 movie theaters (the others were the Delaware and the Hellman on Washington Ave.) in Albany. There was increased competition from theaters in the suburbs, many near the shopping malls, in Colonie. And then came the era of multiplex cinemas, and the Madison struggled to re-invent itself, now faced with competition from the VCR and movie rentals. And yet it has held on, experimenting with live entertainment, and new owners have re-invented the movie experience.

Courtesy Ed Donnelly

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

From Pleasure Island to Mid-City: Albany’s Lost Amusement Parks

It all started in 1882 when the Albany-Troy (Al-Tro) Steamboat Company purchased part of an island in the Hudson River, north of Albany, to open a picnic grove. The populations in both cities were growing, densely packed around a central core. Factories belched black smoke and ash. In the summer it was hot and steamy. People left their tenement houses to sleep on the roof. They needed an escape.

Pleasure Island
Pleasure Island provided that escape. The area became an Island when it was separated from the shore by the Erie Canal, just above the Albany city line in North Albany. The “Troy Daily Times” called Pleasure Island a “beautiful and romantic spot”. It was lined with trees and a breeze drifted from the River. Steamers with orchestras left the docks in both cities for the short trip to the Island. It soon became the go-to spot of baseball games, sports field days and small boat races around the Island. There were improvements over the years – a refreshment stand, a small theater, a dance hall, and frequent fireworks displays. There were special concerts and balloon ascensions.

But by the late 1890s there was competition – from other parks created by transportation companies – the Day Line ran boats down to Kingston Point, site of a vast park with swimming and dancing, The Albany and Hudson Electric Railroad created Electric Park in Kinderhook and there was the Adirondack Amusement Park on Sacandaga Lake.

Lagoon Island/Dreamland
And so the owner of the Al-Tro Co. (and Pleasure Island) created the Lagoon Island park in 1897 in the same location. Larger structures were built, rides added, there were bike races, more concerts, more dancing, FREE vaudeville, and sliding chutes into the River

The park changed hands for one year in 1905 under the name Dreamland about a year. And then the park went through yet another makeover.

Al-Tro (“Fairyland on the Hudson”)
The cities had begun to expand into what had been country. People were buying “villas” in Pine Hills. In Albany Beaver Park had been created and was on its way to becoming Lincoln Park. Competition became fiercer. People were traveling more. With electric trolleys people could get everywhere faster and automobiles allowed people to get to lakes and other areas around the city they couldn’t reach before.

Enter entrepreneur Max Rosen with a dream and wads of cash. He purchased Lagoon Island and re-made it. Al-Tro Park opened in 1906. It had an almost 1,000 ft. boardwalk (take that Atlantic City), rides, a large theater, a miniature railroad, a pony track – all tricked out with thousands of electric lights. It was designed to rival Luna Park, the heart of Coney Island, which opened in 1903 and had already become the stuff of legend.

Unlike many other amusement parks and groves Al-Tro sold liquor and despite its own police force there were reports of pickpockets and “Thugs”. It sort of had a wee bit of a bad rep.

Maple Beach Park/Midway Beach
After the 1908 season Max sold Al-tro Park (he owned several other amusement parks across the country) and the site became Maple Beach Park by 1910. The new owners doubled the size, banned booze, and attractions were added; the Park was bigger and better -still packing in large crowds. Tragedy struck in 1913. Fire broke out and when it was over there was nothing left.

It was re-built by new owners under the name Midway Beach Park, albeit on a smaller scale, but with the “largest dance hall in New York State”, in time to open for part the 1914 season. It continued to thrive, even during World War I when the Park broke attendance records in 1918.

Mid -City Park
But there was competition across the way, on the Albany-Troy Rd. (Broadway) when the Mid-City Amusement Park was established in 1920. Mid-City had a huge roller coaster, carnival like games, pony rides, vaudeville acts, acrobats, a merry go round and other rides, roller skating. It wasn’t subject to the vagaries of the weather. There was even an ice skating rink. By 1922 Mid-Way Beach was gone, the land sold – it simply couldn’t compete. In 1926 Mid-City installed a huge swimming pool, the likes of which no one had seen around here. (The Lincoln Park Pool wouldn’t be built until 1930.)

World War II pretty much did in the Mid-city amusement park, but the pool stayed open until 1959 when the land was sold for a shopping center. (There were proceedings lodged against the owner by New York State for refusing admittance to African-Americans.)

(Thanks to Kevin Franklin, Colonie Town Historian, for helping me sort out who owned what when, and thanks to Jamie McDonald for many of the Mid-City Photos.)

Julie O’Connor

When Albany Was Crazy for Horse Racing: The Speedway – Hurstville – Island Park – Woodlawn Park

Albany was horse racing mad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the time of the Civil War racing became hugely popular (it was at the same time the Saratoga Racetrack was established) in the north and continued for decades.

The Speedway

There had always been racing at county and town fairs. But by the 1870s racing came into the city. Both Western and Washington Avenues, beginning about Quail St. and west were referred to as “The Speedway” for horse drawn sleigh racing on the weekends in the winter. (There was a Speedway Hotel on the corner of Manning Blvd., the Klondike Hotel on the corner of North Allen and the Western Turnpike, and Carrick’s Hotel was on the corner of Madison Ave and West Lawrence.) In the summer there were trotter and pacers.

The Hurstville Track

But there was competition. The Hurstville race track (about where Mater Christi Church and school are today) was established in the mid-1860s. It was mostly a trotting track. Around it a picnic grove called “Pleasure Park” developed (the county fair was held at the location – then town of Bethlehem – in the 1870s.) The track was leased to the Island Park Association (a racing corporation) in the 1870s and early 1880s which improved the track and provided amenities; it ran mostly matinee races and weekend races in the summer. Racing continued until about 1900.

There was also a hotel close to the Park, on the corner of Krumkill Rd. and New Scotland Ave. It dated back to at least the 1840s, known then as the Log Tavern, then Tanner’s Hotel and later Hurst’s Hotel. It became a notorious “love nest” for politician’s trysts over the city line in the 1920s.

Island Park

But Island Park was the Big Daddy of all local race tracks. Island Park was established in the late 1860s in Menands (now part of Colonie – then the town of Watervliet) on Breaker Island (which puts it wee bit south Port Schuyler). The track was on the east side of the Champlain Canal and sandwiched between the Canal and the River. It had larger purses, better horses and could be reached by horsecars from Albany, but the meets were shorter – usually no more than 3-5 days in – perhaps 3-4 meets a year. Still it drew great horses – like “American Girl”, the most well-known trotter of the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Slowly the track improved. In the late 1870s a railroad bridge was installed – now horses could be shipped in from all over – they came from as far west as St. Louis and as far south as Kentucky.

In 1884 the Association came under the control of Erastus Corning, multi-millionaire local mogul and other very rich heavy hitters * who had a thing for racing – yes, but saw the corporation as a way to make money too. Or in track parlance.. an exacta.

Although pacers were raced it was primarily a trotting park. Island Park became part of the National Trotting Association and its meets became well- known as part of the national Grand Circuit for trotters. There were meets in the summer and fall with annual purses worth about $40,000. Two large hotels were built, Union Hotel and McDonald’s Hotel – the latter owned by the famed driver Alta McDonald. The stables could house as many as 300-400 horses. Island Park thrived. The Association made sure the new electric trolley ran to the track from all parts of the Capital District. Some of the best horses in the nation raced there, including “Major Delmar” said to be the fastest gelding alive in 1905. And then it all came to an end. We’re told that the racing stopped pretty much by 1909. The land was purchased by the D&H Railroad.

Woodlawn Park

But never fear – Albany men DO love their horse racing. So a group of local men formed the Albany Driving Association in the early 1900s, bought a tract of land about where Albany Academy is today from a man named Wood and called the race track Woodlawn. There was racing for about 10 years, until about 1914. But the Association discovered it could make big bucks selling the land off to people who wanted to buy lots and build houses in the area that now includes Academy Rd. (then Highland Ave.) and west to about Forest Ave. (Fun Albany fact – we were told the bleachers for the original Albany Academy football field were part of the Woodlawn Park grandstand.)

By 1916 World War I was looming and thanks to Henry Ford almost anyone could own an automobile and make it up to Saratoga for the races.

*One of the shareholders in the Island Park Association was John Holland. He owned a legendary den of iniquity (bookmaking, billiards and booze) – the White House Café on the corner of James Steuben. We were told that Holland owned lots near Manning Blvd. where he stabled and exercised his jumping horses.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

The Albany Country Club and UAlbany

UAlbany is one of the jewels in the State University of New York system of 64 educational institutions statewide. The system was the vision of Governor Nelson Rockefeller from the early 1960s. To create the University at Albany he started largely from scratch, and appropriated land from the Albany Country Club for what we know today as the Uptown Campus.

Indian Pond
The last vestige of the Country Club is Indian Pond in the southeast corner of the Campus. It’s a currently a pretty little body of water – but it’s had some rough times (at one point it was barely more than a puddle). In the early the late 1950s and early 1960s the neighborhood kids used it as a fishing hole (Were there fish? Who knows?) I’m told it was referred to as “Lake Inferior” (kids say the darndest things). My husband alleges he caught a whale with a stick, safety pin, string and bait from his baloney sandwich when he was about 8. Sometimes I call him Ahab.

The Country Club
But back to the Country Club. The Club was formed in the late 1880s, first incorporated in 1890 and became a membership corporation in the 1894. It was one of the first 30 country clubs in the nation. (Remember, at the turn of the 20th century Albany was a city of enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.) The first clubhouse was a re-modeled old tavern, set in the middle of about 100 acres, and accessed with difficulty via a bramble-filled trail from Washington Ave.

Tally Ho
Hard to believe, but one of the primary activities of the newly-formed Club was fox-hunting. Yes.. red jackets, pounding hooves and packs of howling hounds. (Oscar Wilde described fox hunting as “The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”.)*

According to the Club’s website, some members wanted a new location. “.(in) 1897… the Club purchased the 18 acre Knowles farm property off the Western Turnpike (Western Ave.) called “Wellhurst”, directly south of the original tavern location. After the move $26,000 was expended on the renovation of the house, adjacent buildings and the grounds. A piazza was added around the house and a dam built across the stream that traversed the property, in order to make a lake that provided swimming, boating and skating. Tennis courts were installed and gradually improved”.

Golfing began in 1897 with a 9 hole course. “Early participants were ridiculed as “British Cranks”.” But soon golf became a thing, the Pine Hills Trolley line was extended westward to the Club, and it thrived. In 1902 Albany’s pre-eminent architect, Marcus Reynolds (the D&H Building, the fire house on Delaware Ave, etc.) expanded and remodeled the clubhouse in a very, very proper English Tudor style. Additional property was acquired and a regulation 18 hole golf course established. Over the years there were significant improvements. In the late 1920s a swimming pool was built.

And so for decades the Club was site of society luncheons, dances and glittering balls, archery, bridge, tennis and golf tournaments. (As I scroll through old newspapers, my favorite event is an open air production in the early 1900s of Shakespeare’s play “As You Like it”, by the Coburn Players, a touring company owned by the inimitable actor Charles Coburn who dominated films as a character actor in the 1940s.)

Life was Good – Until It Wasn’t
In 1960 Governor Rockefeller announced he was taking the Country Club land for the new University campus. All hell broke loose among the well-heeled 500 members of the club, including Mayor Corning. A year later the action to take the land by eminent domain was underway; now the price had to be established. The State’s initial and second offers were rejected. Litigation reached the Court of Claims where the Club demanded $5.3 million. The Club’s final ask was reduced to just over $4 million. That court action was still under way when the Club was ordered the club to vacate the premises by Jan. 12, 1962.

And that’s why the Albany Country Club moved to Voorheesville where it remains today.

*By the mid-1880s through the mid-1890s fox hunting was all the rage among the wealthy in America, even in the North, including Albany. Local newspapers of the time mention fox hunting across the area around Whitehall Rd. Well-dressed society women had their riding habits custom made.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Seeing the Elephant – Old Bet in Early 1800s Albany

It’s Albany in 1814 and an elephant comes to town!

You’ve never seen a picture of an elephant.. you may only have read a description of an elephant, but probably not. You may never even have heard of an elephant!.

But there’s a picture of an elephant in the “Albany Argus”! WOW!

She looks nothing like anything you’ve ever seen before. .And if you can spare the money (25 cents and ½ price for kids), you can see her.

The elephant was called “Old Bet”. Bet is said to have been the 2nd African elephant brought to America*. Legend has it that a Mr. Bailey paid $1,000 for her in New York City around 1808. Bailey was a farmer from Westchester County and there is speculation whether he bought Bet for use on the farm. But soon he realized the money he could make by touring the Northeast with Bet.

We know from newspaper accounts that Bet generally spent at least part of the winter in Albany from 1813 to 1815. During her Albany stays Bet and Bailey (or his partners.. because by now he was a mogul, and had sold shares in Bet) lived at Wetmore’s Inn at the corner of Beaver and Green Streets.**

Imagine the how the neighborhood children felt about Bet. Cats, dogs, chickens are ok pets, but an elephant almost in your backyard? Totally cool. We can imagine the kids wanting to brush Bet and feed her hay and straw.. and potatoes (supposedly Bet had a thing for potatoes). And begging to climb up on her. We’re guessing Bet and Bailey made lots of friends during their winters in Albany. And a lot of money, since by now Albany was a growing.. a northeast hub .. only New York and Boston were larger. Who wouldn’t pass through Albany without looking at the elephant?

2And then spring would come and Bailey would set out on tour with Bet. (Legend has it they traveled at night, so no one would get a free peek.) But in 1816 Bet met a sad end. While she was traveling in Maine, Bet was shot and killed by a farmer (said to have been outraged that Bailey was charging money to see the Bet.) There’s a marker in Alfred, ME where Bet was killed.***

Bailey carried on with other business ventures, but he must have missed Old Bet a lot. In 1825 he opened The Elephant Hotel, with a huge statue of Old Bet. Today she’s still there and the hotel is now the town hall of Somers, NY (east of Peekskill).

*The first elephant in America was brought from India by a Salem Mass sea captain named Crowninshield in the mid-1790s. He sold it, and then for a while the trail of the elephant grows cold, until it appears in NYC in 1796. After that it appears to have traveled throughout the Northeast (perhaps Albany, we don’t know). We do know that President George Washington saw the Crowninshield elephant in Philadelphia the same year.

** At about the same time Old Bet was in Albany you could also see the “Royal Tiger of Asia” and an African ape at the corner of State and Pearl. If you waited until 8pm you could see the tiger fed 10 lbs. of meat. (Bailey is said to have been ½ owner of the tiger.)


*** There are several legends about the location where Bet met her demise.. but since the town in Maine went to the trouble of placing a marker in honor of Bet, we’re going with that one.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Before There Was “American Idol” there was Albany’s “Teenage Barn”

1.1Tommy Sternfeld was an Albany native who danced in vaudeville and Broadway shows. A local dance instructor in 1946, Sternfeld auditioned 3,000 boys and girls for a show called ‘Here’s To Youth.” It was staged at the Strand theatre to raise money to send underprivileged children to camp. The show had a cast of over 300.

A year later, Mr. Sternfeld created a radio show using some of this same talent. It was called “Backyard Follies,” held every Saturday morning at the Strand and broadcast over WABY. It was joined briefly by a subsequent half-hour quiz show called “Whata-Ya-Know,” also starring children and held at the Strand movie theatre on North Pearl.


“Backyard Follies” ended up winning a Billboard Award for children’s programming. The next year the show moved to Schenectady and WGY. “Backyard Follies” ran for a total of two years.


As more affordable models of sets became available to the public, television exploded into the American consciousness in 1949. Sternfeld seized the opportunity, and sold WRGB two different local TV talent shows based on his “Backyard Follies” finds. Recycling the name of a 1939-1940 radio show, Sternfeld herded the younger performers into a half-hour Saturday afternoon “Juvenile Jamboree.” At the same time, the older teens were to be featured in an evening broadcast, called ‘Teen Age Barn.”

“Teen Age Barn” debuted on April 4, 1949, when there were only 17,000 television sets in the area. While “Juvenile Jamboree” vanished quietly in 1953, “Teen Age Barn” became a big success, moving into a prime time Friday night time slot (1954 also saw a short-lived “Tommy Sternfeld Show”). By 1959, “Teen Age Barn” was the oldest locally-produced variety show in the nation.


The show even took to the road via Channel 6’s mobile truck; one Friday in 1960, the “Teenage Barn “show was broadcast live from inside the new Albany Savings Bank at Western and West Lawrence (now a Citizen’s Bank).

2.2Troupes of “Teen Age Barn” alumni were formed to perform live shows at local auditoriums as far flung as Kingston, Plattsburgh and Pittsfield, and fairs, in support of community service organizations like the Kiwanis. In 1962 the program was expanded from 30 minutes to a full hour. The show was renamed “The Barn” in 1963.

Kids with talent from all over the Capital District and beyond clamored to perform on the show. In 1961, there was a contest called “Search for the Stars” and over 200 kids entered. A friend of ours was selected; she was 11 and played “Lady of Spain” on the organ. Our organ player continued on the show until it was cancelled about 5 years later.


As far as we can tell the most famous alumnae from “Teenage Barn” are Steve Katz, who became a guitarist with the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” rock band, and Arlene Fontana, a singer from Amsterdam, who appeared on national variety shows, some Broadway musical road shows, cut a couple of singles, and performed in a Las Vegas club act. And there was Ronnie Tober.

9Ronnie was originally from Holland; his family moved to Albany shortly after the end of World War II. After multiple appearances on “Teenage Barn” he was a fan favorite. Tober, still in his teens, played local clubs, won a national contest and toured with a national band (he even appeared in an episode of “Route 66”). Ultimately Tober returned to Holland where, in his early twenties, he became a super star.*

Come 1966, in a major programming realignment, WRGB announced plans to drop “Teen Age Barn.” Sternfeld held out hopes WRGB would change its mind about the cancellation, adding, “I’d like to see the show continue. Our only chance is if we can get our audience to react.” No reaction was forthcoming, and after 17 years the Barn doors closed for good on January 29, 1966.

There were so many episodes of “Teen Age Barn” that almost every local with a teaspoon of talent appeared on the show, and most everyone who didn’t was either related to or knew someone who did. It was “must see TV” for a while. Sometimes it was performed before a live audience (taped and played later) – Girl Scout and Boy Scout Troops, a Sunday School group. It was a “wholesome” show.

Some kids went on to careers in entertainment or teaching. “Teen Age Barn” performers opened a number of dance studios that lasted decades and taught generations of students. Some packed up their tap shoes and batons. Others continued with a career in entertainment. Our “Lady of Spain” organ player friend started playing professionally when she was 14, and continues to this day as a member of several local bands, and as an officer in the Albany local of the Musician’s Union.

For many “Teen Age Barn” was the highlight of their life. Obituaries of locals are peppered with mentions of “Teen Age Barn” appearances.

7Tommy Sternfeld used the cachet of his TV experience to reinvigorate his dance instruction studio. He augmented his income by selling houses for Picotte Realty. He died in 1974 at the age of 65. The Sternfeld Dance Studio, passed on to his students, still exists in Hudson, NY.

Tom Sternfeld is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery  in Section 123, Lot 366.


• On 27 December 2003, during his 40th year in show business, Tober was made a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Tober’s name is also inscribed on the Wall of Fame at the Zuiderkerk (“southern church”) in Amsterdam. Ronnie is in his 70’s today and is still much beloved in his native Holland.

From Al Quaglieri’s blog “Doc Circe Died for Sins’ . Take a look at his blog if you want to learn more about Tommy Sternfeld (he and Bob Fosse teamed up and put on troop shows in the South Pacific in World War II) or Ronnie Tober.

Hurst’s Free Museum – Albany NY


We thought we’d tell you about our favorite, but little known, Albany museum of the past.

The Hurst Free Museum was open on lower Elm St. for several years in the early 1870s. James Hurst was born in England in 1810; the family subsequently immigrated to Canada. By 1849 he had moved to Utica and opened a taxidermy shop.

1.2In 1850 or so he was induced to come to Albany to become the NYS Taxidermist at the State Hall (the earliest NYS museum) on State and Lodge St., which had strong emphasis of natural history Hurst had incredible skill – not just in taxidermy, but in creating dioramas and exhibits that portrayed wildlife in their native habitat.

As more people flocked to urban areas knowledge of how wild creatures lived in their natural settings was being lost. So Hurst’s exhibits were a teaching tool. Hurst’s dioramas were exhibited at the World’s Fair in New York City between 1853 and 1854 which drew over 1 million visitors. (The Fair was America’s answer to London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851.)



Taxidermy was Hurst’s love and he had hundreds of personal specimens. The museum was free, but he sold his hand tinted stereoscopic view cards to visitors, as well as to schools around the country. Hurst had a whimsical and satiric side too, and we’ve included photos of some of those cards.







Hurst’s work was so important it’s part of the collection of the Library of Congress.

(9-11 Elm St. still stand, just above Grand St.)


Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor