Boats on the loose and the Livingston Ave. Bridge – Albany NY (January 25, 2019)

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Photo by Lori Van Buren – Albany Times Union
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Photo by Lori Van Buren – Albany Times Union
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Photo  by Lori Van  Buren  – Albany Times Union
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Photo by Lori Van Buren – Albany Times Union

Photos from  earlier today (mostly from Times Union newspaper – Lori Van Buren) of boats that broke loose from the Troy docks., due to weather conditions)  and ended up at the Livingston Ave. Railroad Bridge.

It was the first bridge built over the Hudson at Albany.

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The bridge was opened in 1866, after decades of wrangling. It was built by Titan of the Gilded Age Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who saw the future in transcontinental railways and divested himself of his shipping concerns to buy up railroads.

AND then.. he denied bridge access to several other RR lines, which denied them access to NYC, until they caved. All part of his plan to create a New York Central Railroad monopoly. Crafty devil. In a matter of days he controlled 40% of rail lines in the U.S.

5 years later the Maiden Lane RR bridge was built (demolished circa 1971 after train station moved Rensselaer).

(Passenger rail lines were in bankruptcy or on the brink across almost all the country by the late 1960s. AMTRAK, a quasi governmental organization, was created in the Nixon Administration to salvage what was left and keep passenger trains running.)

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Albany’s Amazing Gold Rush Piano and its Connection to the Donner Party

A recent post by Carl Johnson (part of the Friends of Albany History blogger community) in Hoxsie.org caught our attention. There was a nugget of a story about a piano made in Albany that sailed around Cape Horn and made its way to California in 1849. It was called the “Pioneer Piano” since it was one of the first pianos to come to California.

Yikes!! That’s interesting. We needed to know more about this piano made in Albany that traveled 6,000 miles around the tip of South America in 1849, and ended up some 40 years later on the California coast.

The trail starts with a reference to a newspaper account, “Her Pioneer Piano” from the 1884 “Santa Cruz Daily Surf” by Mrs. Frank Lewis. With some research we pieced together one of the most fascinating stories we’ve come across in a while.

First, let’s talk about the piano

francis_putnam_burns_(pianos_and_their_makers)Albany was a hub of piano manufacture dating back to the early 1800s and a magnet for young men who wanted to go into the business. The man who made the piano was Francis Putnam (known as F.P.) Burns, born in Galway in 1807. He was probably in his early 20s when he came to Albany to learn cabinet making and piano manufacture.

In 1833 Burns married Myra Cole, from Duanesburg, and went out on his own in 1835. Burns was said to be “…of an artistic temperament and an excellent mechanic …would never permit piecework in his shop, impressing his workmen with the idea that a piano is a work of art, requiring the most painstaking efforts, without regard to time consumed in its construction.” Within a decade his pianos were winning awards in NYC (1842) and Albany (1848).

F.P. appears to have been moderately successful in selling his excellent quality pianos (his pianos cost between $100 – $500) despite intense competition in Albany. Francis and Myra has 5 children, 4 of whom survived to adulthood. By 1860 Edward, his only son, joined the business. But the Civil War intervened. Edward enlisted and had a successful military career. Upon his return from the Army Edward went back to piano making. But when his father died in 1868, Edward closed the firm, married a young woman from Middleville in Herkimer Co. and went into her father’s leather tanning business. And so the F. P Burns piano co. came to an end.

Why and how did the piano get to California? (The plot thickens)

Gold was discovered in January, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill just east of Sacramento. Within 6 months men were flocking to the West. President Polk announced the momentous discovery to Congress in December, 1848. Gold fever spread throughout America and the entire world. Men from Albany were not immune and hundreds of men in the Albany area set out for California to make their fortunes.

Some went alone or in twos or threes, and started a trek westward across the country with a small grubstake, pickax and a bedroll. Others, with more means, formed companies to support major expeditions.

The Albany Mining Association was created by 100 men from Albany and its environs who bought “shares” for $300 to finance the venture and make their fortune. The Association purchased the ship “Nautilus” (for about $9,000) and retained Capt. Wilson as master. In late February, 1849 75 mostly young men from the Association set sail for San Francisco from the New York docks. (The total passenger complement was 93.) It was a major event reported in the NYC and Albany newspapers.

The ship was fitted and provisioned for a two year mining venture. (The prices of tools, etc., would be double, triple or quadruple in California than if purchased in Albany.) Significantly, for our story, items that would make their anticipated 4-5 month trip more pleasurable were loaded on the “Nautilus”; these included musical instruments for a ship’s band and a piano!

The story of the voyage is documented in journals kept by 2 members of the party – James L. Pangburn – from Schoharie (now in the San Francisco Maritime Museum) and Dudley E, Jones, from Clifton Park (University of Arkansas archives) They describe the hours of enjoyment derived from the piano. Its “delightful strains” eased the monotony of the journey down one side of South America, around Cape Horn and up the other, with a stop at Rio de Janiero. The “Nautilus” landed over 7 months later in San Francisco in late October, 1849.

Well, what happened to the piano in California?

1849 burnsThe “Nautilus” was sold, as well as other items that would not be used for the mining enterprise. The money would be put towards the purchase of provisions and other necessaries for the miners. (Capt. Wilson had Gold Fever and had agreed to to join members of the company.) James Reed bought the piano from Capt. Wilson, for $1000, for his daughter Patty in November, 1849. “It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody”. (Patty later became Mrs, Frank Lewis, the owner of the “Pioneer Piano”.)

The Donner Party Connection

downloadMrs. Lewis started out life in Illinois as Martha Jane “Patty” Reed, daughter of John Frazier Reed – one of the organizers of the Donner Party – “the infamous wagon train caught in the early winter of 1846-47”. Reed had a fiery temper and killed a man during an argument while on the trail. He was banished from the group in October, before the winter snows started to fall. The group he left behind, including his wife and 4 children, was trapped in what is now called Donner Pass, northwest of Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Mountains. Reed tried several times to reach his family and the others with whom they were stranded. Finally in February 1847, he and several other relief parties rescued the 47 survivors, including his wife and children.

The family recuperated and settled in San Jose. But Reed heard reports of gold and headed back to the Sierras. He found his fortune near Placerville, about 80 miles from the location where his family has been trapped in the winter of 1846-47. Reed hit pay dirt. He was said to have returned with many saddle bags bulging with gold. More than enough to pay for a piano for a daughter whom he had once abandoned to hellish circumstances.

The 1884 newspaper article describes the piano as “.. a square, rather plain in finish, unostentatious in appearance and made of rosewood. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidence yesterday afternoon when a (Daily) Surf representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs. Lewis kindly reproduced. So highly was this piano respected for its early associations that for the 5 years it was in San Jose it was omitted from the assessor’s roll, that official facetiously remarking that as old men are exempt from paying poll tax, why should not this instrument be free from taxation on account of its age and valuable services.”

(Based on research by Heather Morris, the F. P. Burns Albany piano was the 4th piano to arrive in California; 3 others were delivered to Spanish grandees in the early 1840s.)

After Mrs. Lewis’ death, the piano went to Sutter’s Fort Historic Park in 1946—to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of her family’s ordeal. Today, the piano is said to be the California State Archives warehouse in Sacramento.

Thanks to Heather Morris and her blog – http://www.hmcreativelady.com/“The beginnings of my search for the first piano to come to California” April 2014 and “The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed”, James D. Houston, Oakland Museum of Ca., https://www.museumca.org

Dr. Mary Walker, Recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and her time in Albany

I came across this picture, taken on State St. in 1911. It’s photo of Dr. Mary E. Walker.

I had one of those lightbulb moments. My Gram used to tell me about a nice old lady in Albany who wore men’s clothing. who often lived at the YWCA on Steuben St. Gram said her brothers and male cousins used to try to knock off her silk top hat with snowballs. And then her uncle would “thrash” them.

To be honest, I filed it under “whatever”. Just another Gram story (there were hundreds – oft repeated) and the reference to men’s clothing meant nothing to me. (I wore jeans.. so what?) Yadda Yadda Yadda. Now I wish I paid more attention.

Dr. Mary Walker is the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor. Her story is remarkable.

She was born in Oswego in 1832 into a family of devoted Christian non–sectarian “free thinkers”. By 1855 she’d earned a medical degree from Syracuse Medical College (only the second women in the U.S. to do so). She set up practice in Rome NY, but volunteered with the Union Army when the Civil War started.

Her initial petition to serve as a physician in the Army Medical Corps was rejected. Yet she waded in, tending the wounded with selfless devotion (and performing surgery when necessary). Finally in 1864 President Lincoln approved her petition, providing the male physicians agreed. Again, she didn’t wait for permission and traveled to the join the Army of the Cumberland. Walker was met with hostility. She compounded her sin of gender by her eccentric dress – she wore bloomers and treated Confederate civilians. Wild rumors circulated. She was a lesbian, she had a high ranking officer lover, she was a spy. In spring 1864 she was captured by Confederate troops and served as a POW for a number of months until released in a prisoner exchange.

In 1865 President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor (she was also awarded a military disability pension for injuries suffered). When a review of recipients was performed in 1917, her name, with about 900 others (including Buffalo Bill Cody), was deleted from the list, thought to have not sufficiently met the standard for the award. In 1977 President Carter’s Administration restored the Medal.

After the War Walker became involved in a variety of social and political reforms including temperance, women’s suffrage and dress reform. In her early days she wore trousers underneath shortish skirts. Later she settled on a traditional Prince Albert coat, necktie and trousers. She was arrested for her “costume” on several occasions as she traveled across the country lecturing and fund raising for her causes.*

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It was the issue of women’s rights that consumed most of her attention in later years. Consequently, she spent much time in Washington D.C. lobbying Congress and attempting to sway the New York State Legislature. In the decade or so leading up to the first NYS referendum on a woman’s right to vote in 1915 (which was defeated) she was a constant fixture in Albany. Sadly it seems that her eccentricities deflected from her lobbying efforts.

(Dr. Walker suffered an injury in 1915 and retired to her home in Oswego where she died in 1917. )

As I dimly recall from Gram stories the uncle who would “thrash” the boys for taunting Dr. Walker was a prominent figure in Albany Civil War veterans’ organizations. Thinking back, it seems he expressed no special warmth for Dr. Walker, but did demand the young men of Albany treat her with deference and respect for the role she’d played in the War.

*In 1982 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20 cent stamp that featured a curiously feminine “very girly” image of Dr. Walker. She probably would not have approved.

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Albany Cakes for Christmas? So Many Kinds -So Little Time

‘Tis the season for baking and what better than an Albany Cake? But which Albany Cake? The pudding? The cookies? Or an actual cake?

From the early 1800s to the early 1900s Albany Cake was a thing. Well, actually, many things. English cookbooks equate Albany cakes to “Dutch Pudding” in 1810. In the 1840s-1860s it appears Albany Cake was really a large soft cookie.. more like tea cakes. We found Albany newspaper ads for bakeries in 1841 – Albany Cakes are sold alongside “Lafayette Jumbles” – jam filled small sponge cakes and “Jackson Snaps” – crisp, thin lemon cookies, Plum Pudding and Dutch New Year’s Cake – caraway seed cookies.

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As we looked through old books and newspapers from the 19th and early 20th century for Albany Cake we found at least a dozen different recipes for pudding, cookies and cakes.

Here are four – from 1810 to 1922

“Dutch Pudding, or Albany Cake”
Mix 2 lbs. or less of good flour with a lb. of butter melted in ½ pint of milk. Add to this 6 eggs, separately well beaten, ½ lb. of fine sifted sugar, 1 lb. of cleaned currants and a few chopped almonds, or a little candied orange peel, chopped fine. Put into it 4 spoonfuls of yeast. Cover it up for an hour or two, and bake for an hour in a wide flattish dish. When cold it eats well as cake (“New London Cookery”, Esther Copley, London 1810)

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Albany Cake
1 ½ lbs. of flour, ½ lb. of powdered sugar, ½ lb. butter, ½ pint black molasses, ¼ pint sweet milk, ½ teacup brandy, ½ yeast cake, cinnamon, cloves, ½ lb. of raisins, ½ lb. currants. This cake demands rather a long baking in a moderate oven. If iced it will keep for weeks. (“Harper’s Bazaar” 1905)

Albany Cakes
1 lb. sugar, ½ lb. butter and lard mixed, 1 egg, ½ pint sour cream. ½ tsp. soda and 1 ¼ lb. flour. Let stand in ice box overnight. In the morning roll in long pieces and twist around to form a cookie. Sprinkle top with granulated sugar. (“The All-American Cookbook”, 1922)

Luckily, a young food blogger recently converted an 1840 recipe (from a Canadian author) for Albany Cake to a contemporary form so you can try it out for the Holidays – icing and sprinkles would be very festive. (The Canadian author lived just west of Buffalo in Ontario.)

Julia Baird – Cloud 9 Cookery – Albany Cake

How Albany’s Celery King Transformed the Victorian Thanksgiving Table

It’s time to take a look back in time to an Albany Thanksgiving table in the 1860s. Most of the foods would be familiar – turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, biscuits and, importantly- celery!! Yes – it wasn’t a Thanksgiving without celery. Really.

Why celery? It’s was a fussy, difficult to cultivate vegetable. As a result it was an expensive treat. (A food blogger – Hannah Arndt Anderson calls it the “Avocado Toast” of the Victorian Age.) And because it was such a luxury, it was displayed proudly on the Thanksgiving dinner table in a glass vase, stalk end down, leaves up. The wealthy always had intricately carved crystal vases (the really rich had sterling silver celery vases), but by the 1850s pressed glass started to be manufactured and celery vases for the masses were within the reach of the middle class. Cooks cleaned and scraped raw stalks, and then put them in cold water in the vases. The celery was a symbol of prestige and confirmed a family’s status as the celery vase was passed around the table. Etiquette books of the time identify where the celery should be placed in a table-setting.

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Enter Albany’s Theophilus Roessle

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Roessle was born 1811 in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1825. He came to Albany penniless. He said he was offered a place to say by the father of match girl he met on the street. The next morning he borrowed a shovel from the old man, found work and was paid a meager sum. But he was off and running towards making his fortune.

Back in Germany his father was a market gardener. Roessle worked at odd jobs for about 5 years and finally leased property near the Western Turnpike from his employer, Dr. Wendell, and started a market garden. Over time he learned landscaping and saved every penny.

Roessle began to buy land along the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike (now Central Avenue between the city line and Wolf Road) and continued farming. His cash crop was celery, which had been a notoriously finicky item to grow. But grow it did for Roessle. By 1840 he was selling a thousand bunches a day, mostly to restaurants in Albany and Saratoga, but as far south as the Fulton Market in NYC. He began with 7 acres and soon had over 100, devoted almost exclusively to celery.

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(This area would later become the hamlet of Roessleville. As his wealth increased, Theophilus Roessle built a large, elegant Italianate mansion, the entrance road flanked by stone lions, near present-day Elmhurst Ave. The Mansion is long since gone.)

Roessle then embarks on a new career. Around 1850 he buys the Delavan House hotel in Albany on Broadway, near the train station. (Having spent much time selling produce to the hotel he thought he could make a better profit than the current owner, Edward Delavan.)* Roessle’s celery became legendary far and wide across the country as travelers passed through Albany and stayed at the Delavan. It becomes the premier hotel in the city. (The Roessle family sold the Delavan in the early 1890s and it was, sadly, destroyed in a horrible fire in 1894. The destruction of the hotel paved the way for the construction of Union Station.)

Meanwhile Roessle knew so much about celery, he literally writes the book, “How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery” in 1860. Farmers everywhere started to grow celery using the Roessle method. But Roessle kept growing celery (there’s an ad in an Albany paper in 1876 in which he advertises 200,000 bunches for sale).

Roessle also continues the hotel business, acquiring and substantially improving and enlarging the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George, and later taking over the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C., known as one of the most opulent and exclusive hotels in the District.

Roessle’s hotels were huge successes, which is a good thing, since by now everyone in the country was growing celery and it was no longer the “thing” it had once been. Celery had now become accessible to the masses.. it’s a huge deal. There’s a celery frenzy. All sorts of celery recipes make their way into cookbooks of the late 1800s. (I was raised by grandmother who fed us stewed and creamed celery in the 1950s – a particular unappealing holdover from the late 1890s when anything was fair game for inclusion in a white sauce.)

Celery vases were relegated to back cupboards and celery stalks took their rightful place on “relish dishes” with pickles and green olives (which became the newest thing, shipped from California) on Thanksgiving tables by the early 1900s. (According to food historians, the next – and only appearance- of the upright celery stalk is in the Bloody Mary cocktail in the 1950s.)

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Theophilus Roessle died in 1890, He’s buried in the South Ridge of Albany Rural Cemetery; a massive granite shaft marks his grave. (Paula Lemire, the Cemetery Historian, says she’s actually seen celery, rather than flowers, left at his gravesite.)

*Roessle was far more than just the celery king and hotel mogul. There are strong indications he was an active, albeit somewhat silent supporter of the anti-slavery movement in Albany. He had a close relationship with Edward Delavan, the previous owner of the hotel and a wealthy abolitionist. Stephen Myers, the head of the Underground Railroad in Albany worked at the Delavan. If you look through old city directories, many of the Black men involved in the city’s anti-slavery movement worked in some capacity at the Delavan. Additionally, there was a very close relationship between Roessle and Adam Blake, son of slave, who first owned the Congress Hotel (where the Capitol is located today) and who then owned the Kenmore Hotel on N. Pearl. When Blake died the flag on the Delavan House was flown at half staff.

Julie O’Connor (thanks to Paula Lemire for her help)

The Douw Building: A Collateral Demolition

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The Douw Building was at 36 State Street, on the corner of Broadway. Built 1842, it once housed the mercantile establishment of Voickert Peter Douw. The Douw family history dates back to the days of the early Patroons. The site of the Douw building was in the family’s possession since the early days of Albany. They were descendants of the Van Rensselaers.

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In 1946, the building was sold to Honigsbaum’s, ending more than 200 years of ownership by Douw family. Occupants at time of sale included the Cordelia Shop, the Interstate Bus Terminal, the Post Office Cafeteria and the Dixson Shoe Rebuilders.

Whatever Honigsbaum’s plans were for the Douw Building, they were never realized.

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In 1961 it was again sold, this time to the adjacent Hampton Hotel. Occupants at that time included the Interstate Plaza Bus Terminal, Mike’s Food Market, the Interstate Luncheonette Restaurant, the White Eagle Bakery, and the Corner News. The Hampton said they planned on remodeling the building and using it as part of the hotel; this never came to be.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900’s, George Douglas Miller built an eight-story structure on part of his wife’s property on Beaver Street in the midst of the Hampton Hotel complex. The unique thing about Miller’s building, or folly, is that it never was occupied and was supposedly built to spite the Hampton Hotel. Thus its name, “Spite Building.”

Bob Stronach, Staff Writer for the Times-Union, picks up the story, from this article of August 12, 1969:

“The Beaver Street building of the hotel complex had a beautiful roof garden with a magnificent view of the Hudson River Valley. But Miller erected his building alongside it, hoping the hotel would buy his structure as an annex. When the hotel owners refused to purchase the addition. Miller raised his roof so it blocked the roof garden view.

“Still unbeaten, the Hampton owners added a story to the roof garden, and once again there was a delightful view. But then, the undaunted Miller again raised his roof and shut out the view. At this point, the hotel owners quit and the Beaver Street property was never used again – except as a cote for the Plaza pigeons.

“Since then, “Miller’s Folly” has become a fire hazard, with a caved-in roof and broken windows. Mayor Corning said the structure now belongs to Albany County and is being demolished to eliminate the fire hazard. What will be done with the land it stands on is not yet known, he added.

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“State Broadway Corp of 38 State Street, purchased the Hampton Hotel last January and signed a lease with the Albany Housing Authority to renovate the complex and operate it as a public housing facility for senior citizens. The hotel units are expected to be converted into about 100 one-bedroom apartments.

““The important thing,” spokesman for State Broadway said, “is that the mayor, Mr. Bender (housing authority director), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the State Broadway Corp. have worked diligently toward alleviating the housing shortage for the elderly and all the above have every confidence that these efforts will be fruitful.”

“State Broadway Corp. also owns “The Douw Building” at State and Broadway, which had belonged to Miller’s wife. The corporation is tearing it down.

“Demolition teams removing “Miller’s Folly” said the bottom half of the narrow building was “solidly built” but the upper half was unfinished inside and quite unsafe.”

Miller never got as far as installing steps in his building; progress to the top was only obtained by a series of connecting ladders.

No reason was ever given for the demolition of the Douw Building. However, we can probably assume that because the Hampton had failed to renovate or use the structure, when it became property of the Albany Housing Authority, it simply became a white elephant, too costly to renovate.

Becker the Wrecker razed Douw Building in the fall of 1969. It was one of Albany’s oldest surviving structures.

By Al Quaglieri from hisAlbany blog, https://alcue.wordpress.com/author/alcue/

 

 

Miller’s Nook-Albany Rural Cemetery –

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Prior to the acquisition of the land by the Albany Cemetery Association between 1841 and 1844, a portion of the grounds in and around the south ravine was occupied by several buildings, most notably a mill and a small schoolhouse.

According to Charles Heisler, a past Superintendent of the Cemetery who compiled an extremely detailed handwritten record of all the land purchases that comprise the present Cemetery site, about half of the original acres purchased by the Albany Cemetery Association had been owned by John Hillhouse, a West Point graduate and the engineer who did some of the earliest survey work on the site.

Hillhouse had inherited his portion of the site from his father, Thomas, and John attended the little school on the south bank of what became Consecration Lake. This land is described as “the South Ridge from about Section 104 east to the Chapel and from the southern boundary north to Moordanaer’s Kill, the stream between the South and Middle Ridges.” He also left behind a detailed account of what existed on this land prior to the laying out of the Cemetery:

“The brook (called by the old Dutch inhabitants of the valley ‘Moordenaer’s kill,’ from a tradition of a murder committed near the bridge that crossed its mouth at the time the road between Albany and Troy ran along the river bank), originally hugged the base of the hills bounding the dell on its northerly side. The school-house stood directly on its bank on the south side, at the base of the most prominent of these hills, whose top was crowned with a lofty pine. The mill was further up the stream, on the same side with the school-house, just at the point where it emerged from the ravine and entered the open dell. A bridge now occupies its site. It was called the “old oil mill,” and was originally built by my father for the purpose of preparing oil-cake for the fattening of cattle. The house was for the miller’s use. There were two dams on the creek above for the supply of water for the mill, one at the bend just beyond the high bridge, the other on the site of the present dam at the outlet of the lake above. From the former the water was conveyed in an open plank race carried along the slope of the hill, and discharged through a long, high trough upon the over-shot wheel. The mill and dwelling were erected about 1816. How long they served their original purpose I am not able to say exactly, but probably some five or six years….

About 1829, the mill, having been leased to some parties for the manufacture of printers’ ink, the school, with its fixtures and dunce-block, was removed to the new school building, which my father built and which is still standing on the south side of the Cemetery avenue. The manufacture of ink not proving a success, the work was abandoned and the school-house became thereafter the home of one of the farm laborers, while the mill was given up to the bats and flying squirrels, and suffered to go to decay. In this state they continued until 1846, when, in the purchase made by Gov. Wm. L. Marcy and Thomas W. Olcott for the Albany Rural Cemetery, they became the property and passed into the possession of that most worthy association and fell before the tide of improvement.”

Nothing, of course, survives of the “old oil mill.” The last traces of it appear on the first published map of the Cemetery in 1845. Just to the north of Consecration Lake, a curved open space is identified as “Miller’s Nook” (now the area of the Spaulding and Springsteen family plots in Section 62, Lots 97 and 98) and the site of the present stone bridge is called “Mill Side Bridge.” By 1858, however, when “Churchill’s Guide Through The Albany Rural Cemetery” was published, these names had disappeared completely from the new map.

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1880s view of the area of the “old oil mill.” The stone bridge is just behind the large tree to the left of the fountain. The “Miller’s Nook” is on the right just behind the man on the shore of Consecration Lake.
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The waterfall on the Moordanaer’s Kill.
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The Hillhouse family plot in Section 4, Lot 1. The large monument on the left is reportedly the first granite one erected in the Cemetery.

From Albany Rural Cemetery- Beyond the Graves

A Brief History of Albany’s New Scotland Avenue and How it Grew

At the beginning of the 1800s there was nothing on the New Scotland Plank Rd. but farmland, woods and fields. The first buildings we know are an inn, the Log Tavern* at the corner of Krumkill Rd.-a stopping point for the farmers going to and from the city, and a couple of farmhouses. The Plank Rd. was a toll road with several tollgates – one just beyond Ontario St. and another near what’s now the Golf Course.

3In 1826 the Almshouse (poor house) was established in the area that today is bounded by New Scotland Ave., Holland Ave., Hackett Blvd. and Academy Rd. (Back then the other 3 streets didn’t exist.) The next building to be constructed, in the 1840s, was the Penitentiary. (The VA Hospital is there now; built in the late 1940s, after the Penitentiary was razed in the 1930s.)

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In the 1870s William Hurst established Pleasure Park, a popular and successful horse race trotting track and picnic area near Whitehall Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (He later went on to own the Log Tavern.)

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2But Albany was growing – moving west, out Lydius St. (now Madison Ave.). In the early 1860s the area around the intersection of Madison and New Scotland started to see development, and a little stub of New Scotland Rd. from Madison to Myrtle Ave. was known briefly (for about 15 years) as Lexington Ave. In 1871 Washington Park opened and the area became fashionable. By the 1880s the Park trustees decided build a house for the Park’s Superintendent, as well as an array of greenhouses, on what is now the corner of Holland Ave. and New Scotland.

zzzzYet development west of Myrtle Ave. was slow. In 1893 the Dudley Observatory ** moved from Arbor Hill to New Scotland and South Lake Ave. In the late 1890s Albany Hospital was bursting at the seams in its downtown location at Eagle and Howard Streets, and moved to New Scotland Ave. About a decade later the Albany Orphan Asylum moved to what is now the corner of Academy Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (from Robin St. and Western Ave.). Today the buildings house the Sage College of Albany. It was originally known as the Junior College of Albany when it first opened in 1959.)***

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5.1But within the decade residential and commercial growth exploded. Much of the land near the intersections of South Lake Ave. and Academy Rd. **** was owned by the Albany Driving Association, a private club that had a track for trotter horse races to the west of Academy Rd. The members decided to sell their vast tract of land (between New Scotland and what is now Hackett Blvd. and Forest Ave.) and established the Woodlawn Park development.

7Steadily residential growth pushed west. Yet there was no trolley service. The first bus service started about1914 – the “terminal” was at the intersection of South Allen St. and New Scotland. But this was a “suburban” area deliberately designed to accommodate the automobile as the primary means of transportation.

 

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5By 1920 the Troop B Armory was constructed next to the Orphan Asylum. (Today it’s part of the Sage College Campus.) In 1921 Memorial Grove (the corner of South Lake and New Scotland) was created to honor the men who died in World War I.

 

7.1And that’s how New Scotland Ave. grew. By the mid-1920s there was a fire house, a public school, and Catholic Church. By the early 1930s St. Peter’s Hospital re-located to its current spot, from North Albany. The Depression initially halted residential development, but by the late 1930s the area beyond Manning Blvd. became a highly desirable location. It was zoned residential and the municipal golf course had been built just outside the city limits in 1931. Well-off families flocked to developments with enticing names -Golden Acres, Heldervale and Buckingham Gardens. Albany annexed land in Slingerlands several times and the city border pushed close to Whitehall Rd.

1930s New Scotland Ave

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University Heights

20In the early 1930s Holland Ave. was created. ( It was once the route for the Mohawk- Hudson Railroad, chugging from the Point at Madison and Western Avenues. to downtown.) The Almshouse was demolished, making way for the Law School to move from State St,. the Pharmacy College from Eagle St. and a NYS Health Dept. Laboratory was built across from the Hospital. University Heights was almost complete. Then Christian Brothers Academy moved uptown from Howard St. and the Fort Orange American Legion Post ** was built next to Memorial Grove.

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1940s and 1950s

33The next spurt of development began after World War II. There was a severe post-war housing crisis in Albany – the last farm within the city limits was sold in 1947 for the Weiss Rd. apartments. Hundreds of houses were constructed in the area surrounding New Scotland Ave. west of Manning to accommodate growing families with baby boomers. Two churches, St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic (now Mater Christi) and Bethany Reformed, were built in the 1950s and Temple Israel re-located to New Scotland in 1953. Maria College opened in 1965.

1,1After the annexation of Karlsfeld and Hurstville in 1967 New Scotland Ave. was complete and extended to the Normanskill.

 

 

 

 

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1960s and 1970s

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2000s

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*The Log Tavern morphed into the Hurst Hotel, and became a favorite romantic rendezvous and “love nest”, especially for politicians’. It was destroyed by fire on election night, 1929. (Oh the irony.)

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** The Dudley Observatory and Bender Laboratory (behind the Obeservatory) and the Legion post were demolished in 1970 to build the Capital District Psych Center and the attached parking garage.

***In the 1959 Russell Sage College purchased some of the buildings of what was then known as the Albany Home for Children and established the Junior College of Albany. In 2001 the College began offering 4 year degrees at the site, as the Sage College of Albany.

**** Academy Rd. was initially known as Highland Ave. – the name changed in the 1930s when Boy’s Academy moved from downtown.

Frederick Douglass on the Albany of 1847

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The remarkable and legendary Abolitionist was a frequent visitor to Albany. In 1845 he placed his oldest daughter, Rosetta, with 2 Quaker sisters, Abigail and Lydia Mott, who lived on Maiden Lane near Broadway; she lived quite comfortably for about 5 years under their care and tutelage. (They were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights activist and abolitionist; they too were politically active and were conductors in Albany’s Underground Railroad.)

In 1847 Douglass wrote a description of Albany to a friend. (In 1845 he had become world famous after publication of his memoir about his life as a slave and flight to freedom in 1838.)

By way of background: at the time he wrote the letter Albany was the 10th largest city in the U.S., with a population of about 50,000. In the period between 1820 and 1850 the population of Albany exploded. Between 1820 and 1830, it doubled, due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Between 1830 and 1850 the population doubled again.

There were signs of growing pains all over the City that was bursting at the seams in 1847.

The staid Old Dutch village has been overrun by businessman and politicians. Its geography worked for and against it. The Canal had been the catalyst for a manufacturing hub in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The last slaves in New York State had been freed 20 years before; Albany has been the largest slave holding county in the State for at least 100 years previous. There were many free persons of color struggling to get a foothold in the middle class, while simultaneously advancing the cause of Abolition elsewhere in the country and providing a path to freedom in Canada for those poor souls in slave states. Immigrant populations (mostly German and Jewish) had begun pouring into country through the harbors of New York and Boston. Many made their way to Albany, as a gateway to the vast lands of the west; some stayed here. Like any Boomtown, It became a mecca for hucksters, grifters and speculators.

In the fall of 1847 Douglass had traveled to Albany (and Troy) for a series of meetings and speeches. And while Douglass found a few things here to praise — it’s fair to say he came away rather unimpressed by the city of Albany, which at the time was a key center for politics and transportation.

From a letter Douglass wrote to the abolitionist Sydney Gay in October of that year after leaving the city:

“Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.”

Douglass touches on the history of slavery in Albany and the city’s apparent inertia in the face of reform.

“Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.”

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city; and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson, and sought a refuge from Albany man-hunters, in the old Bay State. The beautiful Hudson as then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause — but to very little purpose. many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here, but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it; all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.

Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.

Excerpted in part from a February 2, 2016 post in All Over Albany.com

How the Van Rensselaer Manor Vanished from Albany

Most of you know that the “Patroon” originally owned the vast area around Albany called Rensselaerwyck. (Basically, Patroon means “land owner” in Dutch.) The first Patroon was Killian Van Rensselaer, a pearl and diamond merchant, who acquired the land from the Dutch West India Co. (DWIC) in 1630. Think of the DWIC as a group of venture capitalists and speculators.. betting on the New World, using a traditional form of Dutch land ownership for revenue generation and capital formation.

Rensselaerwyck was one of several patroonships in the New Netherlands, but the only one that proved successful*. The original grant that encompassed land on both sides of the River was soon expanded by acquisition of additional lands from the Indians. In exchange for the land the Patroon had to establish a functioning colony (over which he had almost total power). (Much like IDA grants today, the Patroon got a tax break for the first decade.) Rensselaerwyck was a feudal manor and the Patroon was literally Lord of the Manor, except for Albany, which was at the time Fort Orange, a wholly owned subsidiary of the DWIC.

1.4There’s no evidence that the first Patroon ever visited his fiefdom. Business was conducted in his name by agents, from a large house and cluster of buildings north of the Fort on Broadway, near the Patroon Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. In 1666 the compound was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt by Jeremias Van Rensselaer. (Jeremias was the third son of Killian and the first Patroon to establish permanent residence in Rensselaerwyck.)

 

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2According to Steve Belinski (the “Colonial Albany Social History Project”) the new building was constructed in the “Country Style” with the entrance on the long side and attached outbuildings. (Think a Patroon “compound” and the seat of government for the Manor.) A century later in 1765 a new and grand Manor House would be built on the same grounds by Stephen Van Rensselaer II, the Patroon and 3rd Lord of the Manor for his new wife, Catherine Livingston, daughter of Philip Livingston (signer of the Declaration of Independence). It was a large Georgian Mansion – one of the grandest homes in the country at the time – nestled amid a forest setting and lush, well-tended gardens. It was a thriving, mostly self-sufficient plantation, including slaves.

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14There were changes made to this Manor House around 1820 and again in the early 1840’s the existing structure underwent major renovation by architect Richard Upjohn (he designed the existing St. Peter’s Church on State St.), preserving the Georgian features of the original Manor House. It was still a gracious baronial manse – but it would be the home of the Last Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV.

 

14.1The days of the Patroon were coming to an end. The Anti-Rent Wars had already started in the late 1830s. The Patroon’s thousands of tenants were protesting what was still a feudal system of land ownership in which the Patroon held all the cards. The Wars would continue until 1846** when the NYS Constitution was amended to abolish the Patroon system and Van Rensselaer would start selling off his property – in Albany and across the Manor. ***

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20The Last Patroon died in 1868. By then the Manor House was hemmed in by the Erie Canal and the railroads on the east and the growing city and its factories on the west. By the 1870s the great Manor House was abandoned. There were attempts by the family to have the structure declared a New York State landmark of sorts. There were efforts made by some citizens to move the building to Washington Park. These failed.

 

 

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Finally, in the early 1890s Albany’s great architect, Marcus Reynolds (Banker’s Trust, the D&H Building and the Delaware Ave. fire house) and young Van Rensselaer cousin, convinced the family to agree to have the Manor disassembled. He transported the exteriors and the Manor House was “re-built” as the Sigma Phi fraternity house (Van Rensselaer Hall) at Williams College. (Reynolds was an 1890 graduate of Williams.) The interiors were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and are currently on display in Gallery 752 in the American Wing.

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Van Rensselaer Hall survived until 1973 when it was demolished for a new Williams College library.

The last evidence of the Patroons in Albany survived into the 20th century on Broadway near Tivoli St. Alas, circa 1918 the Patroon’s Office (where the Patroon’s agents conducted business for almost 200 years) was demolished to accommodate the expansion of the International Harvester franchise.

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Today there’s no trace the Patroons were ever here, except for an historical marker on Clinton Ave. that identifies it as the former Patroon St., the original dividing line between the Patroon’s land and Albany. There’s no historic marker … nothing, nada, zip, zilch ….at 950 Broadway, near Manor St., the address of the Manor House. (This was one of the pet peeves of the late Warren Roberts, History Prof. at U Albany and author of the great book, “A Place in History; Albany in the Age of Revolution 1775-1825”. )

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And that’s how the Van Rensselaer Manor House vanished.

* A 10th G Grandfather, Cornelius Melyn, was the Patroon of Staten Island. It didn’t work out. There were wars with several Indian tribes, and battles with the DWIC and the successive Director Generals of the colony, including Peter Stuyvesant, over the dictatorial nature of the DWIC. He was a cranky rebel and a thorn in the side. Great Grandpa Corny ended up in the English New Haven Colony, took an oath of loyalty to the Crown and relinquished his right to the Patroonship of Staten Island. The last vestige of Corny is a mural in the Staten Island Borough Hall.

**The Anti-Rent Wars are fictionalized in the novel, “Dragonwyck” by Anya Seton (1944) and in a movie of the same name (1946) with Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and Walter Huston. Vincent Price is the perfect arrogant Dutch Patroon villain.. “You must pay the rent.”

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*** A GG grandfather purchased land in the 200 block of Livingston Ave. (then Lumber St.) in 1850 as part of the Patroon’s property sell-off.