The Grim Past of Van Rensselaer Park

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Located between the vacant St. Joseph’s Church and the Ten Broeck Mansion (identified on the 1876 map below as the property of Thomas W. Olcott), Van Rensselaer Park is a small and pretty wedge of urban greenspace.

Framed by Ten Broeck Street, Ten Broeck Place, Hall Place, and Second Street, it features a modern playground and an elegant 19th-century iron fence. Its history, however, goes back to the mid-18th century and the Patroons of Rensselaerwyck.

On October 31 1764, Stephen Van Rensselaer II deeded this parcel of land to the City of Albany specifically for the purpose of a cemetery. At the time, this area was known as “The Colonie,” though by 1808 it was annexed to the city proper.

Known variously over the years as the Colonie Burial Ground, the Arbor Hill Burial Ground, and the Van Rensselaer Burial Ground, the Patroon intended that the lot be used held by the city “on the condition that the same should not be applied to any private purpose or secular use, but should remain as a burial ground or cemetery for all persons in the manor of Rensselaerwyck.”

The Van Rensselaer Burial Ground is not to be confused with the private vault which was later built on the grounds of the Van Rensselaer Manor House for the interment of the Patroon’s own family and which was later torn down in favor of a large plot at the Albany Rural Cemetery.

As with the municipal State Street Burying Grounds at the western edge of the city, the little Arbor Hill Burial Ground eventually became an eyesore. The streets around it were filling up with elegant new houses. Construction and improvements to the surrounding streets altered the grade of the land around the old cemetery. Removal of the surrounding soil raised the burial grounds edges to an embankment of some fifteen feet. Bones and coffins were often exposed as sand was removed. Sometimes the remains tumbled into adjacent lots. The surrounding wooden fence was in ruins.

The well-to-do residents of Ten Broeck Triangle were not pleased to see gloomy old tombstones and exposed remains from their windows and stoops. Local property owners, including Joseph Hall (the namesake of Hall Place), advocated for its removal.

An 1844 report to the Common Council observed:

“The whole presents a neglected and ruinous aspect, which must be painful to the surviving friends of the dead, who are buried there, and a source of annoyance to a neighborhood daily becoming more populous, notwithstanding the obstacle to its growth which this burying ground presents…..would not be expedient to continue to use this ground for future interments. The public are becoming every day more convinced of the inconveniences and painful associations, as well as the unhealthiness of burying the dead in the midst of the habitations of the living, and it is to be hoped that the practice with us, as it is in very many cities, will be entirely discontinued. Apart from the other considerations, this ground, after all that may be done for its improvement, will still present an appearance of insecurity, which must deter most persons from allowing their friends to be buried in it. We are, however, bound to protect the remains of those who now lie there, and the question presents itself whether it is better to put the ground in as decent condition as possible, or to remove the remains to a proper place where they may remain undisturbed in future.”

One expensive proposed remedy was a new fence of varying heights to enclose the forlorn graveyard. Another proposal called for removing the old remains to a lot at the new Rural Cemetery and erecting a suitable monument over them.

“We propose then, in place of maintaining at a heavy expense to the city the present unsightly burying ground on Arbor Hill, that the remains of those buried there should be carefully removed to the new cemetery and then deposited in a vault over which a handsome monument shall be erected – on the monument the names of dead may be inscribed and it will thus stand as a perpetual memorial. Neither the growth of the city or any probable contingency will ever disturb the remains there deposited – survivors will no longer be shocked by seeing the bones of their relatives bleaching in the sun, but will feel a comfort and joy in seeing the place of their repose surrounded as it will be by the most appropriate associations, and their own pathway to the grave may be made more cheerful by the thought that the same resting place may at the appointed time receive their own remains, as well as those of their friends.”

In the end, neither plan was adopted. On October 1, 1849, Stephen Van Rensselaer III deeded the land to the city again. Now that the city held title to the land without the stipulation that it be used for burials, work began to clear the graves and transform the old boneyard into a small park (just two decades later, the State Street Burying Grounds would similarly be converted to Washington Park)

Relatives of the deceased at were given a chance to remove the bodies of their kin from the Arbor Hill Burial Grounds at their own expense; a few were indeed transferred to the Rural Cemetery. The rest would be disposed of by the city. According to a 1901 column in the Albany Evening Journal:

“A large underground vault was placed in the center of the plot and all bodies not claimed were put in the common vault and the spot covered. The bones, or what remains of them, are now reposing within the confines of the park.”

The articles and records make little or no mention of what became of the old headstones. They might have been stacked inside the vault, recycled for paving and other purposes, or simply discarded.

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Originally posted  by Paula Lemire to http://albanynyhistory.blogspot.com/

The Schuylers, Guy Beattie, and Albany’s Forgotten Park

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This was the mansion at The Flatts , after the Dutch “DeVlackte,” later called Schuyler Flats and Schuyler Farm. It was situated on the west bank of the Hudson in what is now Menands (then West Troy), opposite Breaker Island (formerly two islands called Culyer and Hillhouse). For a century, from about 1711-1806, the main public road from Albany to Saratoga ran between the mansion and the river.

The Flatts was (were?)  owned and occupied by the Schuyler family for 250 years.

Because its history is so complex, and the Schuyler family history so confusing (how many of them were named Peter and Philip?!), I’ve broken it down into a chronology. Info gleaned from many sources. Please excuse the lack of annotation, I didn’t set out to write a term paper.

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Arent Van Curler

1630 – Arent Van Curler, a cousin of the first Patroon Van Rensselaer, arrives with the first colonists of the manor,  and is soon after made superintendent. He marries in 1643, and after a brief honeymoon in Holland, returns to work the farm.  He establishes the Flatts as the heart of the area’s fur trade.

1660 – Richard Van Rensselaer, a son of the Patroon, occupies the property.

1666 – He builds the main house.

1668 -The house’s roof caves in.

1670-  Richard VanRensselaer returns to Holland. The Flatts is sold to Col. Philip Pieterse Schuyler. Schuyler repairs the old house and cellar, and builds an additional structure to the north. This begins a long Schuyler lineage in the area.

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Col. Pieter Schuyler

1683 – Upon the elder Schuyler’s death, his son, Col. Pieter Schuyler (later the first mayor of Albany), inherits The Flatts.

1690 – General Fitz John Winthrop  sends the first detachment of his army from Albany for the invasion of Canada to the Flatts. The Flats become a staging ground for troops engaged in the French and Indian War, and many of their officers find entertainment. Here the gallant Lord Howe spends the night, and eating his breakfast on the march under Abercrombie to attack Ticonderoga. Here, the the barns are turned into hospitals for the defeated forces of Abercrombie.

1695 – Pieter leases it to his son Philip.

1711 – Col. Peter Schuyler, now married to Maria Van Rensselaer, the sister of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, moves to The Flatts.

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1720 – Philip Schuyler marries Margarita Schuyler, his cousin, whose father had for a number of years been the mayor of the City of Albany. Margarita is known during the latter part of her life as “Madame Schuyler.”

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Philip Schuyler

1724 – Upon the death of Col. Peter Schuyler, his eldest son Philip P. Schuyler becomes the owner of the Flats and the mansion.

1752- A serious fire nearly demolishes the mansion, which is then rebuilt by British soldiers.

1758 – Col. Philip Schuyler dies, survived by his kindhearted widow, by now known as  “Madame Schuyler” or “Aunt Schuyler.” The property is willed to her until her death when it is supposed to be passed on to her nephew, Peter Schuyler.

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“Madame/Aunt Schuyler”

Aunt Schuyler’s home becomes the place of gathering both men and supplies because it’s at the head of deep navigation of the Hudson and is convenient for those coming from New England either by way of Bennington or Kinderhook.

During this period, a large (100′ x 60′) barn that had been used for troop lodging and staging is torn down.

1771 – Peter Schuyler dies, his will naming his grandson, Stephen Schuyler, as eventual heir to The Flatts.

1774 – At The Flatts, Major  Peter Schuyler forms his plans for the Revolutionary War invasion of Canada.

1782 – With the passing of Margarita “Madame” Schuyler, The Flatts becomes the property of Stephen Schuyler, who has lived here since the 1740’s.

1808 – Philip P. Schuyler dies and is buried in the family plot.

1820 – The death of Stephen Schuyler leaves the property to Peter S. Schuyler , husband of Catherine Cuyler.

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Peter S. Schuyler leaves it to Stephen R. Schuyler. I’m not certain Stephen Schuyler lives in the mansion. In fact, this 1839 newspaper ad offers the place for lease. Not sure if there were takers.

(Year?) Stephen R. Schuyler leaves it to Richard Philip Schuyler.

1898 – Richard P. Schuyler dies. His widow, the former Susan Drake, remains in the house twelve more years.

1910 – Drake vacates The Flatts, ending the Schuyler era. She rents the place to Guy Beattie, a farmer who had been working the land for a while. Over the years, various parcels of the estate have been leased to farmers and loggers.

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Guy and Mary Ann Killough Beattie, with their granddaughters Rosamund Patricia Beattie and Linda Beattie. 1945.

1910-1948 The land is leased for farming and carnivals (Beattie’s Field”).

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Guy Beattie oversees circus setup. Photo from Brian Abbott’s website.

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The Flatts, 1942. Photo from Brian Abbott website

1948 – The Beatties sell the contents of their home and retire to Florida. Rivenberg opens the mansion as Sunny Crest Nursing Home.

1949 – Carnival operator James E. Strates buys Beattie’s 30-acre farm for $60,000. Schuyler Flats become the area’s home for the Strates Shows.

1957 – The State Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America, and Albany County Historical Society team up to recognize the historic site with a plaque. It’s affixed to the house, now painted white. Present at the unveiling are Susan Schuyler Cornthwait, 11, daughter of Mr & Mrs Schuyler Cornthwait, Hyde Park, Vermont, and Catherine Rhodes, 11, daughter of the Rev. James R. Rhodes and Mrs Rhodes of Slingerlands, both descendants of Richard P. Schuyler, last of the direct family line to occupy the house. The historical societies express hope that James E. Strates, who owns the property, might donate the house to the state. They neglect to ask him, though, and when interviewed, Strates admits no one even told him about the plaque.

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Plaque on the mansion, 1957. Photo from Brian Abbott website.

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In The End... All You Really Have Is Memories

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1967 -When Cohen Construction fails to deliver its part of the deal, Murray-Simon sues. Development plans go on hold, and the land is put up for auction.

1968- William A. Wells of Buffalo purchases the 50-acre plot for $600,000, the only bidder at a public auction for the land. He expresses a desire to build an office complex, apartment houses and commercial buildings.

1968 – In drawing up plans for the I-787/NY-378 interchange, the Department of Transportation makes accommodations to avoid the historic Schuyler site. It opens in 1970.

1970 – Colonie Town Board hearings proposes rezoning from business E to commercial-multiple housing. The potential developer wants to integrate apartment housing and a shopping center. Archeological surveys conducted on a proposed sewer line result in a more thorough excavation of the Schuyler House by Paul Huey, historical archaeologist for the Office of Historical Preservation. His discoveries cause a flurry of local media attention, and Colonie’s Town Historian, Jean Olten, lobbies for its purchase.

1975 – The Town of Colonie buys 2.5 acres to preserve for an historic park.

1990 – Albany County transfers an additional nine acres.

1992 – The National Park Service designates the site a National Historic Landmark.

1992-2002  -Spearheaded by Paul Russell, Conservation Officer with the Town of Colonie, the idea for a park moves from a concept to reality, The Open Space Institute funds acquisition of another twenty-odd acres.  The Town and the Hudson River Greenway contribute additional funds.

2002 -Schuyler Flatts Cultural Park opens. The plaque, rescued from the 1962 fire, is rededicated.

2016 – The remains of 14  unidentified Schuyler slaves found  on Flatts land were re-interred in St. Agnes Cemetery.

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Website for the park:
http://www.colonie.org/historian/historical/schuyler.htm

A descendant of Guy Beattie created a webpage about his great-grandfather’s tenure at The Flatts. It includes some wonderful photos.
http://brianabbott.net/projects/family-photos/then-and-now-photos/schuyler-flatts

The New Netherland Institute has a wonderful, multi-page article on excavations at The Flatts:

http://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/history-and-heritage/digital-exhibitions/arent-van-curler-and-the-flatts/the-story/rediscovering-the-flatts/

There’s a nicely detailed article about the Schuyler burial ground at The Flatts here:

https://albanychurchgrounds.wordpress.com/the-schuyler-flatts-burial-ground/

Trivia:

  • The channel that formed Breaker Island was filled in by the construction of exit 7 of Interstate 787 with NY Route 378. The Hudson River remains on its east bank, with various creeks, ponds, small lakes, and marshes on the west side.
  • The Schuyler house was the prototype of the Vancour Mansion in Paulding’s “The Dutchman’s Fireside.”
  • Some think the arsenal was built at Watervliet because Troy was an important iron-producing city, but it’s quite possible that location was chosen because of Schuyler Flatts’ history as a strategically-situated arsenal.

Mrs. Anne Grant wrote a book about Madame Schuyler, called “Memoirs of an American Lady.”
In this passage she describes the interior of the mansion:

“It was a large brick house of two, or rather three stories (for there were excellent attics), besides a sunk story, finished with exactest neatness. The lower floor had two spacious rooms, with large, light closets; on the first there were three rooms, and in the upper one four. Through the middle of the house was a wide passage, with opposite front and back doors, which in summer admitted a stream of air peculiarly grateful to the languid senses. It was furnished with chairs and pictures like a summer parlor. Here the family usually sat in hot weather, when there were no ceremonious strangers.

“ One room, I should have said, in the greater house only, was opened for the reception of company; all the rest were bedchambers for their accommodation, while the domestic friends of the family occupied neat little bedrooms in the attics or the winter-house. This house contained no drawing-room — that was an unheard-of luxury; the winter rooms had carpets; the lobby had oilcloth painted in lozenges, to imitate blue and white marble. The best bedroom was hung with family portraits, some of which were admirably executed; and in the eating-room, which, by the by, was rarely used for that purpose, were some Scriptural paintings.

“ The house fronted the river, on the brink of which, under shades of elm and sycamore, ran the great road toward Saratoga, Stillwater, and the northern lakes; a little simple avenue of morella cherry trees, enclosed with a white rail, led to the road and river, not three hundred yards distant.”

[Note: All corrections are welcome. I am not a historian, just a curious researcher. Most of this information was completely new to me, so forgive me any lapses or errors.]

From Al Quaglieri’s blog Doc Circe Died for Our Sins

How Penn Central Ruined Everything, Railwise (or why we don’t have a railroad station in Albany)

8Those who remember Albany’s Union Station as a glorious destination in the ’50s and ’60s most likely benefit from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. A 1969 column in the Knickerbocker News acknowledged that “In its dying days, Albany’s Union Station was an odiferous and dingy cavern, but still, if you looked hard, you could see traces of the station’s earlier grandeur.” If you grew up later than the ’70s, you may not be able to understand just how dingy cities were back then – between coal ash, diesel fumes, and the horrendous exhaust that came out of each and every automobile, every structure was covered in soot. Likely the exterior of Union Station had never been cleaned, and by some accounts the same could be said of the inside.

We hesitate to even bring this up because it excites passions even today, nearly 50 years after passenger railroads left Albany proper. But it’s worth looking at what caused Union Stations in Albany and Schenectady to be left behind, two “modern” new stations to be built in Rensselaer and Colonie, and the general collapse of passenger rail at about the same time.

For starters, understand that in the 1960s, passenger rail was deeply unprofitable, under assault from air travel, private automobiles, and truck freight on superhighways. The Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central had discussed merging as early as 1957, when things weren’t quite so dire. The Pennsylvania started focusing more on real estate deals than on railroading, resulting in the destruction of its landmark Penn Station in New York City. When merger talks began again, they were said to be more about creating more borrowing power for financing other ventures than about consolidating an efficient business. The merger was federally approved in 1965, but took until early 1968 before the US Supreme Court finally allowed it. The merger apparently was never well-planned; the condition that all existing workers continue in employment ensured no efficiency would be gained, and a struggling economy, growing inflation and bad management of the freight business alienated customers. By 1970, the company would be bankrupt, and its collapse would lead to the federal creation of Conrail and Amtrak.

13As early as 1950, there were plans to run an interstate highway along the Hudson River around Albany. Planned routes varied, but they kept coming back to plans that would eliminate most of the rail along the river. This would be difficult to do so long as the main rail crossing was the Maiden Lane Bridge – the highway would have to go over or under the tracks that connected the bridge to Union Station, causing some definite planning difficulties and leading state transportation officials to favor a plan that would simply eliminate that bridge.

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As we have noted before, the Rensselaer side of the river had a long history of passenger travel, though it could not really be said that it had anything approximating a station in 1968. Albany was home not only to the New York Central / Penn Central passenger line, but also to the Delaware and Hudson line that ran through Watervliet and Mechanicville to Montreal. With the loss of the Maiden Lane bridge, both railroads had the excuse and reason to get out of an outdated, expensive-to-maintain station facility at Albany; the Schenectady station would also be closed. But, if the Maiden Lane Bridge had to go, trains still had to be able to cross the river, meaning the Livingston Avenue Bridge, which had been locked open for a period of years, would be brought back into service. Being single track, this would become a choke point on the system, but at least trains could cross.

14In 1967, the PSC approved a Penn Central proposal to replace the Albany and Schenectady rail palaces with “modern” new stations at Rensselaer, off East Street, and on Karner Road. Look at the accompanying drawing from 1967 and take a guess if that was ever built. Plans were submitted in February 1968 for a Colonie station, the Karner Road Depot, which would consist of a 30 by 50 foot building with a 960 foot platform, and a parking lot 100 by 250 feet. Rensselaer, originally designated as a passenger stop (way different from a station in railroad terms) would have a 65 by 170 foot building and a parking lot 230 by 350 feet. For the D&H, loss of the Maiden Lane bridge forced the Montreal line to bypass the Watervliet and Mechanicville stations, which at that time averaged two passengers per day, and go instead through Schenectady and up to Saratoga Springs. In September 1968, the PSC allowed the D&H to move across the river as well.

It was a good thing they did . . . in the same newspaper that this was announced, there was a photograph of the dismantling of the pedestrian footbridge that was part of the Maiden Lane Bridge. The cutline read, “If grandmother’s house lies over the river you’ll have to use a new route – other than Maiden Lane Bridge from Albany to Rensselaer – to get there on foot. The 1880-vintage footbridge is being dismantled. But pedestrian facilities will be added to the new South Mall Arterial Bridge.” (That’s now the Dunn Memorial Bridge, and while it is possible to cross it on foot, to call the crossing in any way a facility is to stretch the point.)

The Rensselaer station opened sometime in 1968, a box next to a grocery store that served as the region’s rail station until 2002. That Knick News columnist who in early 1969 called Union Station “odiferous” also said that

“In contrast, the Penn Central’s new Albany-Rensselaer station in Rensselaer is – with all due respect to our neighboring city – a rude comedown and a ride to the new station is a dispiriting experience. Situated at the northern edge of Rensselaer, the station is reached after a bumpy ride over narrow streets. It looks more like a small-town depot for short-haul buses than a railroad station and is tucked away in a shallow ravine as if the Penn Central were ashamed at what it had done, as well it might be. Let us hope that the railroad’s new Albany-Schenectady regional station on Karner Road in Colonie has more class.”

Well, one could hope.

On June 27, 1969, on the eve of the opening of the Colonie station, the Schenectady Gazette ran an editorial lamenting but understanding the march of time.

“When you look at the crumbling station you are reminded of the days when freight trains and passenger trains were coming and going night and day through Schenectady … It is understandable that Penn Central wanted to close the Schenectady depot, for, like most railroad stations built half a century or more ago, it is a large mausoleum which no doubt impressed everybody when it was constructed but which is thoroughly impractical for this day and age, costing a mint of money to heat and to keep in satisfactory repair (which is why there are not many people who want to buy it to make use of it as it stands).”

Visit the Carl Johnson at his Hoxsie.org blog for more fascinating stories of Albany.

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