Madison and So. Swan – Oh how Albany has changed.

1. Madison Ave. Second Reformed Church, built 1881- destroyed by fire 1931, Prior to that, vacant land, when Madison Ave. was known as Lydius St.

One of the oldest artifacts in Albany, a weather vane that dates back to 1656 on the First Dutch Church, survived the fire and is now atop First Church on N. Pearl St.

2. The first Central Market (Price Chopper) supermarket in the city of Albany. Built 1941. Demolished c 1963 for Empire State Plaza

3. Empire State Plaza 1970 Agency Building #1

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The New Capital Repertory Theater

The Capital Repertory Theatre has moved to a new location on North Pearl St. north of Clinton. The building started out as a National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) bakery in the early 1900s, manufacturing its first product Uneeda biscuits.

Nabisco Bakery Company = early 1900s

The biscuits were a huge hit. It was a time when people were very concerned about safe foods, adulteration and spoilage. Uneeda biscuits were packaged in a version of waxed paper (think Saltines). This made them a step above the grocery store cracker barrel and protected from damp. The bakery was on Pearl for decades until it moved in the late 1950s to Fuller Rd. and Railroad Ave. where it located its last Albany operation… Millbrook bread.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany – There’s Nothing Permanent Except Change; a Cemetery, a Playground, a Barracks Village and a High School

Cities change; sometimes the change is slow and sometimes rapid.. but they change. They reflect the people who live in them and their changing needs. We think that no other place in Albany demonstrates this type of change as well as one block on Washington Ave. between Partridge St. and North Main Ave.

.The Cemetery

In the early 1800s this area was probably farmland, several miles away from the populated area of the city. But in the late mid-1840s it became a Roman Catholic Cemetery. At that time it was bounded by Washington Ave., Erie St., Lancaster St., and North Main Ave.



The original purchaser was probably St. Mary’s Parish because it’s usually known as Sr. Mary’s Cemetery today, but by the late 1860s and 1870s it was known also known as Cathedral Cemetery and St. Joseph’s Cemetery as well. Although there was a small Roman Catholic lot in the State Street Burial Ground (it would later become Washington Park) dating back to about 1800, as a huge influx of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants poured into Albany it became inadequate. St. Mary’s become the primary Catholic cemetery in the city. In the 1860s, about 20 years after Albany Rural Cemetery (ARC) was founded, the Catholic Diocese created St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, but burials in St. Mary’s Cemetery continued. But the city was expanding at an explosive pace. The population grew rapidly after the Civil War, and the invention of first the electric trolley, and then the automobile made it possible for residential development to expand west from downtown.

By 1910 or so land was at a premium and city officials were working to remove the few private cemeteries in city. A newspaper notice from 1914 says the disinterment of at least 8,000 bodies will be begin in the next week; but that appears to have been delayed. A 1916 article says disinterment is imminent and refers to 2,000 bodies. We may never know number of removals.

The Park

The City of Albany purchased the cemetery land (about 8 acres) around 1920 , and then subsequently property on Lancaster St. (that at the time ran between Partridge St. and North Main Ave, parallel to Washington Ave).


There were lots of idea about what it should be, including a miniature golf course (all the rage at the time). But it was decided it should be a park – St. Mary’s Park and playground; it opened around 1925. In the mid-1930s the park was expanded, and the Erie St. boundary disappeared – extending area to Partridge St. And it so remained a park for about 2 decades.

In 1945 part of the property was transferred to New York State. Prior to World War II the State Teacher’s College had plans to expand its facilities, and construct a gymnasium and other buildings. But those plans were de-railed by the War, and would be de-railed again after the War.

The Barracks Village

Before World War II there was a severe housing shortage in Albany. Post-War the shortage became a full-fledged crisis. Men came back from the War had shared bedrooms as boys; they now had wives and children and nowhere to go. Several generations of families were crammed into small houses and apartments. It was that way across the country. Yet building takes time, so New York State decided it needed to construct temporary housing for veterans across the state.

In Albany it selected the St. Mary’s Park land owned by both the State and city. Old military barracks were trucked in from the western part of the state and converted to housing. A street grid was laid out:, water, sewer, gas and electric lines were run, and concrete sidewalks poured. There was even a village post office and a small playground The village was designed to accommodate 250 families in apartments and 150 single men who would be living in dormitories -attending school on the GI Bill. Newspaper articles of the time report there were 700 applicants.


The first 22 families moved into their new homes in October, 1946.And everything was wonderful until it wasn’t.

The little veteran’s village was meant to be temporary, but NYS authorizing legislation was extended twice. By 1952 it was still occupied, although the buildings were deteriorating and several had to be evacuated. NYS offered it to the City – the city declined because it was building Albany’s first housing project in North Albany. Things got messy; the remaining families were evicted, and in 1954 all traces of the village was razed.

St. Mary’s Park and Playground Again

By 1956 St. Mary’s Park was turned into a playground again. This time it was much expanded, with a large wading pool (it was concrete and knee scrapes were legendary), the addition of tennis courts and a baseball diamond. Off to one corner on North Main Ave. the Naval Reserve Center was built about the same year.

The High School

In 1966 Albany decided to build a new high school in St. Mary’s Park. The area to be used was identified as 27 acres. The existing high schools, Albany High on Western Ave. and Philip Schuyler in the South End, were old, deteriorating, out-of-date and over-crowded. Additionally, they were concerns raised by the NAACP about the lack of facilities and programs (compared to Albany High) in Schuyler High School which had a majority Black student body.

But this is Albany and things sometimes move like molasses in January. Finally the first pilings for the new high school for sunk, but they had rusted out by 1970 (O Albany).

After a new start, a multi-million dollar cost over-run, and charges of corruption and graft among contractors and politicians the new Albany High School opened in January, 1974, amid rumors it was haunted.

The Haunted High School ?

Well, Albany High IS built on an old cemetery. And almost every time something new was built on the site remains from the old cemetery were found. During the first transformation to a playground newspapers reported that remains of 2 individuals were found; at least one body was found when the Barracks Village was built; another when the site returned to a playground in the 1950s, and in 1972 during high school construction workers found the remains of two individuals from the cemetery. Who knows what lies beneath?

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Harlem Hellfighters – the Black Heroes of World War I

Most everyone has heard of the Harlem Hellfighters. It was the all-Black regiment that fought with great courage and distinction in World War I.  It was the regiment in which Sgt. Henry Johnson fought, and for his bravery he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President of Obama in 2015.

In late August, 2021 the entire Hellfighters regiment received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can bestow. The Medal dates back to 1776 when it was first awarded to General George Washington. There have been less than 200 recipients in 250 years.  

You probably know that Sgt. Johnson was living in Albany when he enlisted in the Hellfighters.   But you may not know  that there were at least  44 other men from Albany who enlisted in the Hellfighters as well, and fought bravely alongside of him.  They have been overlooked for about a century and it’s time to give them their due, and tell you about them.

Who were the Harlem Hellfighters?  

The Hellfighters was a segregated, all-volunteer regiment mustered in World War I.  (The U. S. Army wouldn’t be de-segregated for another 41 years, in 1948 after World War II, by President Truman.) The regiment started out as the 15th NY National Guard (known as the 15th Infantry) and subsequently became part of the U.S. Army as the 369th Infantry.

The men who served came from across New York State and even outside of the State. But the bulk of enlistees were from Manhattan – and most of those from Harlem, which is how the refiment got part of its name.

 The men called themselves the “Black Rattlers”.  The French called them “Hommes de Bronze” – Men of Bronze.   But it was the German name that stuck, “HollenKampfers” – Hellfighters  – because they fought like demons from Hell.

Company C – The Men from Albany

So far we’ve identified 45 men from Albany who enlisted in the 15th. We’re confident there are more, but we can’t confirm their military records.  Almost half of the men enlisted on the same date – May 15, 1917. We think it’s a safe assumption they went to enlist as a group – both in Albany and New York City.  This was 5 weeks after President Wilson declared war on April 9, 1917, and 4 days before a universal draft was enacted. The rest of the initial Albany contingent enlisted later that month and in June (Sgt. Henry Johnson enlisted on June 5, 1917) and July. This group became the nucleus of Company C (a/k/a Albany Company) of the 15th.

In July, 1917 the initial enlistees from Albany reported to training camp in Peekskill.  We presume most of the men, even given disparities in age (18  to39), knew one another.   There were overlapping groups – the men who lived in Arbor Hill, including a small group of boys who had all attended School 6 on Second St. together, and a group railroad porters. Some of the men had also been members of a very popular Black baseball team the Hudson Giants.

At Peekskill they met the commander of the 15th – a white lawyer from New York City, Colonel William Hayward.  Later that summer they were sent to Camp Whitman near Poughkeepsie. During that time the Unit was federalized and became part of the U. S. Army. They were then sent to training camps in the South.  The men met with increasing levels of racial discrimination and harassment by civilians and white troops the farther into the South they went.  This culminated in the physical assault by white troops of one of the soldiers of the 15th.  . Both white and Black soldiers rushed to his defense.

Hayward was a strong advocate for his men. He imposed strict discipline and implored them to ignore racial taunts and insults. Confrontations among white soldiers and civilians, and other Black units had resulted in deaths in the past, but after the attack he ensured his men were sent back to New York.   

Over There

Hayward concluded it would be best to ship the 15th to Europe as soon as possible. He discussed the need for this with General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), who reluctantly agreed. After several attempts they sailed from New York City, reaching France in late December, 1917; they were among the first American troops to reach Europe.

In their first months in France the men of the 15th weren’t assigned to combat; they performed general labor duties.  The deployment of Black troops was a problem for Pershing. His nickname was “Black Jack” because he had previously commanded an all Black unit.  But history gives him mixed reviews about his feelings regarding Black soldiers’.  While he appears to have strong affection for their loyalty and valor, in his memoirs he indicated they lacked certain abilities.  In 1931 Pershing wrote:

“It is well known that the time and attention that must be devoted to training colored troops to raise their level of efficiency to the average was considerably greater than white regiments.”

Colonel Hayward urged Pershing to let his men fight. But it was clear there were large numbers of white troops who would not willingly go into combat alongside Black troops.  Black and white regiments had fought in the same line of battle in the last days of the Civil War.  And they fought together up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.  But Jim Crow in the South had spread to the North by 1917. Black and white troops side by side in the trench warfare of World War I wouldn’t work .  

The French were desperate for whatever help the Americans could provide, but Pershing was loathe to place U.S. troops under other Allied command.   Finally, Pershing relented, and permitted the 15th to fight under French officers, rather than just serve merely in a support role.   As Colonel Hayward put it: “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

At about the same time in March, 1917 that the 15th received its final, formal federal designation as the 369th infantry  it was sent to fight under French command. Race was rarely an issue for the French Army.  White soldiers and Black troops form the French Colonial territories in North and West Africa had long fought together.  

Company C near their French training facility

After training under the French the 15th went into combat May, 1918. They wore American uniforms, but used French helmets and carried French rifles. On May 15, 1918 Sgt. Henry Johnson, while on sentry duty, displayed his courage. He and Pvt. Needham Roberts were attacked by German soldiers. Though wounded, they refused to surrender, fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Johnson killed multiple Germans and suffered 21 wounds.

The 15th went on to fight at Belleau Woods in June 1918.  Jim Reese Europe, the Hellfighters’ famous bandleader Europe, who brought jazz to France, was injured in a German mustard gas attack outside the village of Maffrecourt where the Hellfighters’ had trained. They continued to aggressively fight their way across France.  Casualties started mounting in Company C.  In July Privates Charles Jackson, William Randall and George Simmons were wounded; in August Private Cornelius Banks.

At one point when a French General wanted the men to retreat Colonel Hayward told him they would not, “They move forward or they die”, he said.   Hayward called them “the Black Tigers”.  A captured German colonel is alleged to have said, “They are devils” “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”

The Hellfighters pursued he Germans methodically, advancing from trench to trench, where they rested at night. Cpl. Robert DeGroff, on his return to Albany, told the Knickerbocker Press a story about the Germans and the 15th:   “.. the Germans tried to capture one of the Negro troops to keep him as a “souvenir”. The German officers tried to take one of the men and send him to the Kaiser, he said. Every night for four months they made attempts by coming to the trenches and speaking in English, hoping to deceive the men into believing them Englishmen”.

The Bravery of the Hellfighters and Company C

In the Helfighters’ last major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne in September, 1918 Company C was said to have taken  “hideous and continuous casualties”. At least eight men were wounded,  many of them severely: Sgt. Alfred  Adams and Privates Robert Green, Robert DeGroff, Merritt Molson, Wlbur Putnam, Clarence Sickles and  William Vedder. It was during this push that the Hellfighters captured the key German position in the French town of Sechault.  In October Privates Robert Blackwell, Albert Johnson and George Walker were wounded.

Cpl. Robert Degroff described the last push:


“On our left were French, Moroccan and Algerian troops..  A fierce rain, followed by thunder overtook us.  It rained all night. The ground was soaked and made our advance difficult. However, we held out and managed to take five hills from the enemy. We flanked them and the best they could do was retreat to their inside lines.   Our chance came, the day of the great American drive, when 750,000 of our soldiers marched forward in a solid mass to drive the enemy from their trenches,  and found me in the Champagne sector our division facing a great enemy  barrage.

September 28, the day of the great drive, we received orders to advance. As we went over the top hundreds of German airplanes hovered over our heads throwing great bombs which wrought havoc in our lines. It was on this day we suffered our greatest casualties. Despite the fierce enemy machine gun fire, we continued to advance; our lines remining unbroken. We struck  the enemy fierce blows on their left flank. “

At that point Cpl. DeGroff was hit in the back and neck by machine gunfire.  The next thing he knew, he was waking up  in an army hospital.

The 15th was the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine.  By the end of the war the Hellfighters  had spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. At War’s end the 15th had suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other American regiment.

Awards

For its valor and courage, the Hellfighters was presented with the Croix de Guerre by a grateful French government.   The citation read:

“Under the command of Colonel Hayward, who though injured, insisted on leading his regiment into battle, of Lieutenant Colonel Pickering, admirable cool and brave, of Major Cobb (killed), of Major Spencer (grievously wounded), of Major Little, a true leader of man, the 369th R. I. U.S., engaging in an offensive for the first time in the drive of September 1918, stormed powerful enemy positions, energetically defended,  after heavy fighting in the town of Sechault, captured prisoners and brought back six cannon and a great number of machine guns,”

We know of three men from Company C who received individual awards of the French Croix de Guerre – Sgt. Henry Johnson, Sgt. Alfred Adams and Sgt. Arthur Tucker, and possibly a fourth, Sgt. Merritt Molson.  (171 men in the Hellfighters received individual medals from the French.)

Back Home

The soldiers who had enlisted in late Spring, 1917 were quickly demobilized. The regiment returned to the United States in early December.  It was first to  come home; the Hellfighters were part of large parade on February 17, 1919 on Fifth Ave.  in New York City, and then up Lenox Ave. through Harlem, among cheering crowds.

And then they returned to their homes. While there was a period of brief celebrity, their accomplishments in the War seemed to matter little in Albany.  The men from the 15th attended a large dinner for all returning veterans, and in March, 1919 there was a special dinner in honor of Sgt. Henry Johnson., at which Colonel Hayward spoke.

Most of the men returned to their previous jobs if they were lucky.  A couple of men appear to have been provided jobs in the State Capitol as porters or messengers by Gov. Al Smith.   

Some, like Henry Johnson, had been so severely wounded they were unable to work at the physical labor jobs they had before the War, so they were left to drift. The story of his bravery and courage had been used by the U.S. government to attract Black men to enlist and to sell War Bonds. Yet he was unable to find steady employment in the city that had lauded him as a hero.  Unlike many others his military record does not indicate he was wounded in action, and it appears he didn’t receive a veteran’s disability pension. Johnson contracted tuberculosis and slowly succumbed to alcoholism.  He traveled the country, and gave several speeches.  In one which raised a furor in newspapers across the country he railed against the racism of the U.S. military and the country in general.  He died virtually penniless in 1929 at age 32. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Veteran’s Organizations -Separate But Equal?

Veterans received a lump sum payment of $80 upon separation from service. There were no general pensions for World War I veterans, only meager disability pensions even for those for who whom there were records, and system for computing and disbursing pensions inadequate. Efforts by the federal government to facilitate  private sector employment for returning  veterans were not successful (especially for Black veterans),  nor were vocational training programs.  

And so veteran’s organizations were formed to advocate on behalf of the men who served.  But even they were segregated. There was the Admiral Coughlan Post 25 of the VFW in Albany, established in the early 1900s for the local men who had served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. There were several Black members (including one man who went on to serve in Company C 16 years later – Sgt. Albert Johnson.)  But that was a time before Jim Crow racism had spread from the South to the North.  

We will never know exactly what happened, but a March 16, 1919 article in the Albany Argus indicated that 17 Black men who served in the Hellfighters were admitted to the Coughlan Post. But there was a proviso  – as soon as they found 25  Black men they were  to establish their own  VFW post.  Later that year the Albany Hellfighters established their own VFW post – the Lorillard Spencer VFW Post 119. It was named after Major Spencer  who had been  in charge of the 3rd Battalion of the 15th, (in which Company C served),  and was said to have had a special affinity with the “colored troops” as he fought alongside them.  He too was severely wounded by machine gun fire in the September, 1918 Meuse offensive. The first known address of the Spencer VFW Post is 641 Broadway in 1921. Sgt. Albert Johnson, who had once been a member of the Coughlan Post was the first Commander of the Spencer Post.

Early Spencer Post Members

There were other Black men from Albany who served in World War I – some we believe fought overseas, but others who probably never saw combat and remained in the U.S (Approximately 400,000 Black men served in World War I.). They started their own American Legion Post, the Walter Dixon Post 966, which some of the members of the Hellfighters joined as well. Private Walter Dixon was a young man from Albany who enlisted in the 15th; ; he died in training camp in Peekskill in July, 1917.  (In 1944 in the midst of World War II the Dixon Post changed its name to the Henry Johnson Post.) The first Commander of the Dixon Post was James H. Harder.

Who Were the Albany Men in Company C?

This is a list of the some of the men from Albany who served with the 369th (most served in Company C – “Albany Company”) gleaned from military and census records, and old newspapers. We believe there are more we have been unable to find.

The Sergeants of Company C including Sgt. Alfred Adams, Sgt. Albert Johnson and Sgt. George McNamara from Albany

Sgt.  Alfred (Maurice) Adams – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill;); lived 83 Orange St at time of enlistment. Enlisted 6/15/17 in New York City – age 20.  Severely wounded in France. August, 1918.  Awarded Croix de Guerre. After the War he employed as Red Cap porter at Union Station for over 30 years, and lived most of his life on North Lake Ave.

Sgt. Albertus (Bert) Anderson – born Camden SC; lived 23 Spruce St. Employed as coachman in 1915.  Enlisted 5/22/17 New York City – age 30.   After the War worked in a scrap metal business.

Pvt.  Leroy Baker – born in Rensselaer, NY. Lived in Albany as child. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 18.  Killed from “accidental wounds” June 29, 1918 in France.

Pvt. Cornelius Banks – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill); lived 59 Third St. Enlisted 9/21/17 – age 19.  Severely wounded in France August, 1918. Banks was a founding member of the Spencer VFW Post. Immediately after War he was living at 66 Third St. and working as a porter.  At one point he worked for New York State after War, He lived in Arbor Hill and Sheridan Hollow most of his life. In his later years he worked in construction.

Frank Bembry – born Canton NC; lived 49 Spencer St. Enlisted 7/15/19 – age 32.  Deserted 11/17 in New York State.

Pvt. Robert Blackwell – born Easton, MD; lived 167 Third St.  He was a married railroad porter at time of enlistment. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 25.  Wounded in France October, 1918. Early member of Spencer VFW post.

Pvt. Harold Caesar – born Rensselaer, NY; lived 146 Sheridan Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.    He was active for many years in the Spencer VFW Post, and a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council formed in 1929.   Employed as a chauffeur and mechanic after the War.

Sgt.  Walter Cobbs – born Danville, VA; lived 207 Railroad Ave., Catskill (Mother and rest of family lived in Albany.) Enlisted 4/18/18 – age 22.  Brother of Pvt. William Hellicous.   Early member of the Spencer VFW Post. Truck driver before and after War.

Pvt. Henry Cole – born Albany; lived on Third St.  Enlisted in NYC on 5/15/17 – age 36. Married.   Employed as cook at the Hospital for the Incurables before and after the War. Brother-in-law of Pvt.  James Harder, first Commander of the Dixon American Legion Post.

Bertham Davis (rank unknown) – born Albany; lived 223 Myrtle Ave.  Enlisted age 23.  Married with one child.  When he returned he continued his employment as an elevator operator.  Active in the Spencer VFW Post in early days,

Cpl. Robert DeGroff – born Pittsfield, MA; lived 64 Irving St.  Enlisted on 5/17/17- age 27. Married. Wounded September, 1918. Returned to his job as a porter at the NYS Capitol and appears to have subsequently become a construction worker in Albany. He was an early member of the Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. John Dixon – born in Wilmington,  DE.  Pvt. Dixon enlisted in the 15th in June, 1916 when he was 38. He was only man we found to enlist before President Wilson’s Declaration of War.  At the time of enlistment he lived in New York City.  He was initially in Company F, then transferred to Company C, and moved to Albany after his discharge.

Pvt.  Julius Dixon – born Ballston Springs, NY; lived 22 Bleecker St. in Albany Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 19. 

Pvt. Walter Dixon – born Albany; lived 168 Third St. Enlisted 7/25/17 – age 18.  Died October, 1918 of wounds received in action in spring, 1918.

Cpl. William Myers Freeman – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill, lived 199 Third St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 21. (Great Great Grandson of Stephen Myers, supervising agent of the Albany Underground Railroad.) Founding member of Spencer VFW Post, and Commander in the 1930s.

Pvt. Robert Green – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 664 Broadway.  Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 18. We know little about him except that before the War he played  first base for the very popular Tri-City Hudson Giants Black baseball team.  He was wounded in France September, 1918. Immediately after the War he was working as a chauffeur.  He was a founding member of Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. William Hellicous – born Catskill NY; lived with family at 17 Second St. Enlisted 5/15/17- age 22. Brother of Sgt. Walter Cobbs.  Died in training camp September, 1917.

Pvt. Charles Jackson – born in Great Barrington, MA; lived 23 Monroe St. Enlisted 5/19/17 – age 29.  Severely wounded in action July , 1918 and severely wounded again October, 1918.  He was a railroad porter before and after the War.  Founding member of Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. George Jackson – born Kinderhook, NY; lived 173 ½ Third St. with family.  Teamster prior to enlistment.  Enlisted 4/30/17 – age 26.  Cousin of James Harder, first Commander of the Walter Dixon Post, and lived with Harder family for decades.

Sgt. William Jackson – born Montgomery, AL. Enlisted in NYC 5/15/17 – age 25.  Served in Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters.  Moved to Albany after the War. Member of the Spencer Post.

Sgt. Albert Johnson – born Lynchburg Va.; lived 183 First St. Married with 1 child a time of enlistment.  Driver for a trucking Co.  Enlisted 5/17/17- age 37.  Wounded in France October, 1918. Awarded the Croix de Guerre.  Johnson’s initial military service was in the Philippine Insurrection in 1900 in which he served on the U.S. Navy Gunboat “Helena”. Immediately after the War he is was appointed as a messenger at the Capitol by Governor Al Smith; he served in that position for decades. He was the first Commander of the Spencer VFW Post.

Sgt. Henry Johnson – born Winston- Salem, NC; lived 35 Monroe St (draft registration card lists his address as 53 Spencer St.). His employment is listed on his registration card as a laborer at the Albany Coal and Wood Co. Enlisted 6/5/17 – age 23.  ((The registration card also shows he “made his mark” and it was witnessed, which indicates he was probably illiterate – not an uncommon circumstance for men raised in the South where education of Black children was not a priority.)  Awarded Croix de Guerre with the Gold Palm (one of the first Americans to receive the Croix); awarded Medal of Honor posthumously 2015.

  • Pvt. James Johnson – born Albany; lived 312 Orange St.  Enlisted 3/29/18 – age 27.  (Tried to enlist in 5/17, but rejected for failure to meet physical requirements.) After the War he became a bank messenger/porter for the First Trust Bank and worked there for several decades.  He was active in the Spencer VFW post for many years.
  • Pvt. Charles Jones – born Elmira, NY; lived 55 Monroe St.  Porter NY Central Railroad at time of enlistment.   Enlisted 6/18/17 – age 26.  Railroad porter after War. (Probably brother of Pvt. Louis Jones.)
  • Pvt. Louis Jones – born in Elmira, NY; lived 166 Third St. (next to Pvt. Walter Hallicous). Enlisted 5/15/17- age 25. Railroad porter before and after War.  (Brother-in-law of Pvt. Charles Jackson; probably brother of Pvt. Charles Jones.) Appears to have left Albany in 1920s.
  • Pvt. Robert Lodge – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill.  Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 20. We think he was the great nephew of John Lodge, who served in the 20th NY “colored troop” regiment in the Civil War.   Early member of Spencer VFW Post.  Died 1920.
  • Sgt. George McNamara – born Ballston Spa, NY; raised by grandparents in Albany. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 35. At time of enlistment, he was a widower living on Dove St.  working in a livery stable.  He was active in the early days of the Spencer VFW post. After the War he was porter at the Capitol, living on Market St.
  • Cpl. Foster Molson – born Binghamton NY; lived 49 North Swan St. with family. Enlisted 9/9/18 – age 33   Before the War he was the captain of the very popular Tri-City Black baseball team  the Hudson Giants.  Brother of Sgt. Merritt Molson. Moved to Queens, NY by mid-1920s.
  • Sgt. Merritt Molson – born Binghamton; lived  49 North Swan with family.   Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 18. Wounded September, 1918. Brother of Cpl. Foster Molson. He was star track and field athlete at Albany High School and right fielder for the popular Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants.  Enlisted in senior year.  Returned to high school after War.   Active in the early days of the Spencer VFW Post. Graduated Howard University School of Dentistry in 1923 and established a practice in Queens, NY. (Said to have been awarded by Croix de Guerre in History of the Negro in the Great World War, W. Allison Sweeney, 1919.)
  • Pvt. George Morgan – born Cobleskill, NY. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City –age 39.  Active in the early days of Spencer VFW Post. Resided 643 Broadway (a boarding house close to Union Station) and worked as a railroad porter in 1920 after the War. Pvt. Clarence Sickles lived in same boarding house.
  • Pvt.  Wilbur Putnam – born Albany; lived 175 Church St.  Enlisted 8/16/17 – age 21.  Severely wounded in France September, 1918. In 1920 he was living with his family on Dongan Ave. working as a construction laborer.  Boarding with the family was Pvt.  Edward Taylor.
  • Pvt. William Randall – born Virginia; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City– age 29.  Severely wounded in France July, 1918. In 1925 he was working as a porter at Union Station.
  • Pvt. Augustus (Aubry) Reddick – enlisted from Haverstraw NY, 5/15/17 – age 28.  Served in the Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters.  Moved to Albany after War and was an early member of the Spencer Post.
  • Pvt. Clarence Sickles – born Albany; grew up next to Pvt. William Freeman on Third St.  At time of enlistment lived 89 Orange St.  Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 33.  Initially in Company F; subsequently transferred to Company C. Severely wounded September, 1918.  In the 1920 census he is married and living in  same boarding house at 643 Broadway as Pvt. George Morgan, working as porter at Union Station.
  • Pvt.  George Simmons – born Saratoga Springs, NY.  Enlisted in NYC  8/17 – age 31.  Wounded July, 1918, Moved to Albany after War.  (Probably brother of Pvt. William Simmons.)
  • Pvt.  William Simmons – born Saratoga Springs.  Enlisted Albany 9/17 – age 23. (Probably brother of Pvt. George Simmons.) We believe he returned to Saratoga Springs after the War.
  • Pvt. Arthur E. Smith – born Chatham, NY; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 30.  1920 census lists him as a teamster for a coal company.
  • Cpl. Edward Taylor – born Hartford, NY; lived 175 Church St. (same address as Pvt. Wilbur Putnam) Enlisted 9/17/17 – age 24. He may have been part of the famed James Reese Europe jazz band of the 369th that took France by storm and created a world wide phenomenon.
  • Pvt. Lynwood Taylor – born Ashland, Va.; lived in Harlem. Enlisted 6/17. Honorably discharged 7/17 due to physical disability.  Moved to Albany after discharge, and in the 1920s was a member of the Walter Dixon Legion Post.
  • Cpl. William Thomas – born Augusta, Ga.; lived 119 Third St. Employed as an elevator operator. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.   
  • Sgt. Arthur L. Tucker – born Albany NY; lived 5 Chapel St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.  Before the War he was short stop for the very popular  Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. Awarded Croix de Guerre.  In the 1920 census he’s living with his parents on Chapel St. and working as an elevator operator at Whitney’s Dept. Store on N. Pearl St. (Also living in the home was William Brent an elderly Black man who served in the Civil War in a “colored” regiment.) By 1930 he had married, had 4 children, and  was living on Third St. and still working at Whitney’s. Tucker was founding member of the Spencer VFW Post for years, and served as Commander several times. He became very active in the county VFW. In later years he was  a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council and the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Arbor Hill.
  • Pvt. William Vedder – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St.  Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 28.  Severely wounded September 29, 1918.   Vedder appears to have lived in Albany after the War for a while, but then returned to Schoharie.  
  • Pvt. Harrison Vroman (Vrooman) – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St. with Pvt. Vedder.  Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 20.  Vroman returned to Albany after the War, making his home in Arbor Hill. Before the War Vrooman played center field for very popular  tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. It’s quite probable his grandfather was Thomas Vroman, from Schoharie County who served with the 26th NY “colored” regiment.
  • Pvt. John Wallace – born Selma, Al.  Enlisted  in Albany 5/15/17- age 39.
  • Pvt. George Russell Walker – born Catskill NY; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 240 Livingston Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17– age 18.  Severely wounded October, 1918. He was active in Spencer VFW Post for many years.  

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

More in our Recurring Series: The Bicentennial Tablets; Where Are They Now? First Presbyterian Church

Tablet No. 9 – First Presbyterian Church

As we’re tracking the histories associated with the tablets that were installed in 1886 to commemorate the bicentennial of Albany’s charter as a city, we’ve been lucky so far in that nearly all of the tablets we’ve written about have survived. The first lost tablet marked the site of the first Lutheran Church. Now the second one that has been lost is the one marking the site of the first Presbyterian church. And given the tremendous changes in topography in this particular part of Albany, it’s a little difficult to show exactly where it was. But we’ll try.

Inscription on Tablet

Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in the wall of building north-east corner of Grand and Hudson streets. Inscribed thereon :
“Site of the First Presbyterian Church — Built 1763 — Removed 1796.”

Of course the north-east corner of Grand and Hudson Ave. doesn’t exist anymore, it’s buried somewhere under what is now the Times-Union Center. And to the best of my knowledge this tablet doesn’t exist anymore either. “The Argus” in 1914 noted that this was one of three tablets that had “been refastened with slot-headed screws, instead of having the heads filed flat as originally, and in one case at least the screws are becoming loosened.” The paper also noted that “there is a possibility of the city taking the block bounded by Hudson Avenue, Grand, Beaver and William streets for an addition to the public market, in which case something would have to be done with tablet No. 9, marking the site of the First Presbyterian church.” In the end, that building was unaffected by the market, which was built across the street.

The Neighborhood

It is really hard to relate where things used to be when they have changed so very, very substantially. All of the  tablets so far have been on buildings that continue to exist, or at least in places we could point to with some ease. But here we’re talking about entire city blocks that are gone, on streets that we barely recognize in the modern landscape. So, we’ve done the best we can to relate where the first three buildings of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany were located. The first location is squarely underneath the Times-Union Center (not to worry: the Presbyterians came late enough there were no burials around their church that we are aware of). The second is under the plaza corner of the Omni Tower. The third is buried directly below the exit roads from the Empire State Plaza and the East Parking Garage.

The First Presbyterian Church

A history of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany, written by Rev. J. McClusky Blayney in 1877 unhelpfully says, “The exact date and circumstances of the organization of the Presbyterian Church in this city, I have not been able to ascertain.” We aren’t a professional historian, but to Mr. Blayney, author of the history of the First Presbyterian Church, we must say: you had one job.

Blayney said that he had seen notices of the date of organization of the church as 1763, and that he thought it a mistake related to the deed of October 1763, when the City provided a deed for a lot on which to build a church. Blayney believed the congregation dated to at least a year earlier, in 1762, and he noted that in 1760 there was at least Presbyterian preaching being done here. The Albany church was associated with the Dutchess County Presbytery in late 1762 or 1763. In 1775 it was transferred to the Presbytery of New York; a Presbytery of Albany was established in 1790. The first pastor of this church was Rev. William Hanna. But the Bicentennial Committee, anyway, was satisfied with a date of 1763 for the church building, and that appears to be the best we’re going to do.

The First Church Building: Hudson and Grand

The first building stood with Hudson street to its south, Grand to its west, Beaver to the north, and William to the east. Blayney writes that “This ground was then known as ‘the gallows hill,’ and is described as being ‘very steep.’” (Several Albany locations have been called gallows hill at various times.)

“The first church building was erected on this lot during the year 1764. A stairway winding around the hill, and very difficult of ascent during the winter season, was the only means of approach to the church. The house was built of wood, and is described as being ‘of a respectable size, though not of a very elegant appearance.’ It was covered with a flat roof and surmounted with a tower and spire, the tower containing a bell. it was painted red, and stood fronting the east.” Unfortunately, we have found no image of this first church. This description is as much as we know of it.

That description would place the very first Presbyterian church building just about at the southeast box office entrance of the Times-Union Center. The driveway into the parking lot from the current Market Street is essentially William Street. The marker was placed on a building at the northeast corner of Grand and Hudson, so just a little bit west along the Times-Union Center’s current structure from that entrance. The building that stood there (97 Hudson, or 16 Grand, depending on which way one was facing) was used for many years by Chuckrow’s Poultry – possibly as early as 1900, and at least until 1972. So it appears the building even survived the Empire State Plaza and expressway construction.

A look at photographs of Chuckrow’s doesn’t reveal the location of the tablet – given how many windows were in the facade at street level, it’s likely that renovations to the building could have displaced the tablet at any time. The building likely survived into the ’70s; a 1980s photograph shows the corner building gone, but the remaining strip on Grand still intact, so the block likely survived until the construction of the Times-Union Center.

The Second Church Building: South Pearl and Beaver

Owing to the growth in the congregation, the trustees of the church appointed a committee in 1792 to purchase “a lot on the plains” for a new church – presumably they had had enough of the stairs. The lot was on the northeast corner of South Pearl and Beaver streets, and a construction contract was let in March 1795. They struggled to raise the needed money, and borrowed against the future sale of pews. The church was completed and first occupied Nov. 2, 1796; “the steeple was not finished for nearly twelve years afterwards.”

Given the timing, we suspected that this second church could have been the work of Albany’s preeminent architect of the day, Philip Hooker, but according to “A Neat Modern Stile: Philip Hooker and His Contemporaries,” this design was by Elisha Putnam. The steeple that wasn’t finished for nearly twelve years, however, was credited to Philip Hooker, in 1808.

That building was enlarged and remodeled in 1831. It remained the Presbyterian Church until 1850, when the congregation moved to another new church, this time at Philip and Hudson, just a block away from the church’s first location. The old (second) building became home to the Congregational Society for at least a few years.

The site of the second First Presbyterian church then became known as the Beaver Block (at least as early as 1869), and was used for businesses but also still hosted services, of the First Universalist Society. It seems likely the brick church was either torn down (“A Neat Modern Stile” reports it was razed circa 1890) or somehow incorporated into a much larger structure, because the Beaver Block, which housed many businesses and seems to have served as a union hall, was eventually a large structure spanning from Howard to Beaver.

Blayney sheds little light on the conversion, writing: “It then [1850] passed into the possession of the Congregational Society of this city, and was improved by them, till within a few years; when they removed to their new church on Eagle street. It was then sold, and has since been used for business purposes, and is now known as Beaver Block, on South Pearl street.” But try as we may, we do not find when the Beaver Block was finally demolished.

The Third Church Building: Philip and Hudson

The third structure to house the First Presbyterian Church was a substantial structure located at Philip and Hudson, opening in March 1850, although it wasn’t considered completed (with the construction of a lecture room) until 1857.

First Methodist Church

It was at this building that Susan B. Anthony found her woman’s suffragist groove in 1852.   In that year she came to Albany as an elected delegate, along with several other women, to a state temperance convention.  She rose to speak and was told that women were there merely to observe, not to speak.  Sje and other women walked out.  She went found her BFF Lydia Mott who lived in Albany; Mott suggested she hold her own temperance meeting, just for women, and arranged for that meeting to be held at the First Presbyterian Church.  As they say, “the rest is history”.

The front tower of the church was found to be dangerously settling in 1870, resulting in it being reconstructed and significant interior repairs made. In 1884, the Presbyterians moved again, to the much tonier neighborhood Washington Park and the church that still stands at the corner of State and Willett, and this church became the First Methodist Church; it was finally demolished around 1963-64 to make way for the South Mall, or the Empire State Plaza.

By Carl Johnson from his blog Hoxsie.org

Albany Municipal Golf Course

Albany Municipal Golf Course (a/k/a Capital Hills Golf Course) opened in 1931. It was created from 265 acres of farm land purchased by City of Albany circa 1930. Most of land was bought from the Walley Family in the Town of Bethlehem who operated a farm on the New Scotland Plank Rd. From the late 1700s until the early 1970s.The Golf Course wasn’t within the Albany city limits until 1967 when Albany annexed that part of Bethlehem around New Scotland Ave., from Whitehall Rd. down to the Normanskill Creek, in 1967.

Julie O’Connor

A portion of the Walley Farm for sale – about at the intersection of Whitehall and New Scotland Roads
The Walley Farm continued into the early 1970s
Albany Municipal Golf Course
Albany Municipal Golf Course
Albany Municipal Golf Course 1931
Municipal Golf Course c. 1931
Municipal Golf Course C . 1931
Municipal Golf Couse C. 1931
Municipal Golf Course C. 1931

More in the series – The Bicentennial Tablets from 1886 – where are they now?Bicentennial Tablet No. 8 – St. Mary’s Church

Continuing with the eighth in our series covering the tablets that were placed around the city of Albany (and a little beyond) in honor of the bicentennial of the city’s charter, in 1886. This one commemorated the first Catholic church in the city, which came pretty late in the city’s development.

Tablet No. 8—Old St. Mary’s Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in wall of present edifice of that name on Pine Street.

Inscription: “Site of Old St. Mary’s Built A. D. 1797. The First Catholic Parish Church in Albany and second in the State. The entrance directly under this Tablet. A Second Building on this Same Spot, Facing on Chapel Street, was the Original Cathedral of this Diocese.”

Martin Joseph Becker’s A History of Catholic Life in the Diocese of Albany, 1609-1864 notes that the first Catholic Mass in New York was Nov. 14, 1655, at Indian Hill, two miles south of what is now Manlius, at what became a mission to the Iroquois. But in the Hudson Valley, Catholics were few — with the notable exception of Thomas Dongan, Catholic governor of New York from 1683-1688, in the time when James II, who had converted to Catholicism, ruled England.

Then, under William and Mary, tolerance of Catholics was no longer official policy, and “Jesuits, priests and popish missionaries” were outlawed in 1700. That situation continued in the colonies until the Revolution, so the only noted Catholics were random immigrants in the Mohawk Valley, and the Iroquois at Akwesasne. After the revolution, New York’s constitution of 1777 allowed all religions, and the ban on priests was eventually lifted in 1784.

In 1796, the Albany Gazette noted the success of a subscription for “erecting a Roman Catholic chapel in this city. It bespeaks the tolerant and liberal disposition of the country, to find out citizens of every persuasion emulous in assisting their Roman Catholic brethren with the means of building here a temple to the God of heaven, in which they can worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. The corporation [city] unanimously resolved to present them with a piece of ground for the site of their church.”

The cornerstone was laid by merchant Thomas Berry Sept. 13, 1797 at a site on what was then called Barrack St, now Chapel St.

Munsell, in his Annals of Albany Vol. 4, includes an article from the Albany Gazette of Sept. 10, 1798, proclaiming, “It is with the most heartfelt satisfaction that we can inform our brethren of the Roman Catholic faith, that their church in this city is so near completed as to be under roof, glazed and floored (fire proof). That it is a neat building, and will be an ornament to the city, and a lasting blessing to all who are members in communion of that church.” ”There were a number of indications that the building, which was built of brick and “fifty feet square,” was completed without being finished, precisely. In Feb. 1807″.

“Notice was given that a sermon would be preached in the Roman Catholic church, on Sunday morning, Feb. 22, by the Rev. Mr. Hurley, for the purpose of raising a collection to assist in finishing the inside of said church.”

It was this first church that was visited by the Marquis De Lafayette on his visits to Albany during his later tour of the United States; it has been repeatedly asserted that he heard mass in the church (from Rev. John Lewis Savage) in June 1825.

It wasn’t terribly long before that church was insufficient for its purpose, and it was replaced with a new church on the same site. The cornerstone for the second St. Mary’s, designed by Philip Hooker, was laid Oct. 13, 1829, and the church opened for services on August 29, 1830. Also constructed of brick, it reportedly cost $31,000. (During construction, the congregation held services in the Lancaster School, the Philip Hooker-designed building on Eagle Street, which would later be the first home of the Albany Medical College.)

In 1847, St. Mary’s became the Cathedral parish for the new Albany Diocese, but only for a short time, as the cornerstone of the Cathedral on Eagle Street was laid July 2, 1848, and the building dedicated Nov. 21, 1852.

The current St. Mary’s Church

Despite that and the development of other Catholic churches, it was decided that a new St. Mary’s was needed, and a cornerstone for a new church was laid August 11, 1867, and the new church dedicated March 14, 1869. (This one faced Lodge Street, instead of Chapel.)

A major, four-year renovation was completed in 1894, overhauling the interior and adding the tower with its iconic “Angel of Judgment” statue. At this time St. Mary’s became the first church building in Albany to have electric lights; they were very proud of having eight different circuits that allowed them to light any section of the church individually.

The third St. Mary’s still stands today. Since then, we presume additional lighting has been installed. Coming late as they did, the Catholics did not have a chance to fill downtown Albany with burials (unlike some other churches). They did have a section at the State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park), and in 1867 established their own cemetery, St. Agnes in Menands.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog,  Hoxsie.org

The Telegraph Boys of Albany

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.”

* similar to pitch penny

Al Quaglieri

Albany’s City Halls

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.

City Hall and jail from Maiden Lane

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Postal Service

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.

William Winne

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.

Exchange Building on right

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.

Civil War

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.)

Federal Building

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.)

Federal Building on corner of State St. and Broadway

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.)

Rural Free delivery in West Albany

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.

Mail bags on platform at Union Station

Parcel Post

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.)

Governor Sulzer’s wife accepts Parcel Post package
Mail order dept. Albany Hardware and Iron, State St.

Airmail

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.

Interior of old Post Office, now the Foley Court House

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor