The best description of winter sports in Albany in the late 1700s comes from “Memoirs of American Lady” by Scotswoman Anne MacVicar Grant. She came to live in North America with her soldier father when she was a young girl. She ended up residing much of the time with Madame Margarita Schuyler (Philip Schuyler was one of her many nephews) on the southeast corner of State and Pearl in the 1760s.
Ice skating and driving horse drawn sleighs* across the Hudson were typical diversions. But in her book she describes sledding down State St. hill as a particular Albany amusement (we assume driven by the topography of the city).
We imagine her peering out the window of her home with Mrs. Schuyler as young men “flew” down the hill.
“In winter, the river (the Hudson), frozen to a great depth, formed the principal road through the country, and was the scene of all those amusements of skating, and sledge races, common to the north of Europe. They used, in great parties, to visit their friends at a distance, and having an excellent and hardy breed of horses, flew from place to place, over the snow and ice, in these sledges, with incredible rapidity, stopping a little while at every house they came to, and always well received, whether acquainted with the owners or not. The night never impeded these travellers, for the atmosphere was so pure and serene, and the snow so reflected the moon and star-light, that the nights exceeded the days in beauty.
In town, all the boys were extravagantly fond of a diversion that to us would appear a very odd and childish one. The great street of the town (today we know it as State St., in the midst of which, stood all the churches and public buildings, sloped down from the hill on which the fort stood, towards the river: between the buildings was an unpaved carriage-road, the footpath, beside the houses, being the only part of the street which was paved. In winter, this sloping descent, continued for more than a quarter of a mile, acquiring firmness from the frost, and became extremely slippery.
Every boy and youth in town, from eight to eighteen, had a little, low sledge, made with a rope like a bridle to the front, by which it could be dragged after one by the hand. On this, one or two, at most, could sit—and this sloping descent, being made as smooth as a looking-glass, by sliders, sledges, &c., perhaps a hundred at once set out in succession from the top of this street, each seated in his little sledge, with the rope in his hand, which drawn to the right or left, served to guide him. He pushed it off with a little stick, as one would launch a boat; and then, with the most astonishing velocity, the little machine glided past, and was at the lower end of the street in an instant. What could be so peculiarly delightful in this rapid and smooth descent, I could never discover—though in a more retired place, and on a smaller scale, I have tried the amusement: but to a young Albanian, sleighing, as he called it, was one of the first joys of life, though attended with the drawback of walking to the top.
An unskillful Phaeton (sledder) was sure to fall. The conveyance was so low, that a fall was attended with little danger, yet with much disgrace, for an universal laugh from all sides, assailed the fallen charioteer. This laugh was from a very full chorus, for the constant and rapid succession of this procession, where everyone had a brother, lover, or kinsman, brought all the young people in town to the porticos, where they used to sit, wrapped in furs, till ten or eleven at night, engrossed by this delectable spectacle.
What magical attraction it could possibly have, I never could find out; but I have known an Albanian, after residing some years in Britain, and becoming a polished, fine gentleman, join the sport, and slide down with the rest. Perhaps, after all our laborious refinements in amusement, being easily pleased is one of the great secrets of happiness, as far as it is attainable in this “frail and feverish being.”
*James Fenimore Cooper describes a particularly fraught and sort of terrifying horse drawn sleigh ride over the Hudson in his novel “Satanstoe” ‘, set in the late 1750s, in which he drew heavily on descriptions of Albany from Mrs. Grant’s “Memoirs”.