The Albany Country Club and UAlbany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Getting from here to there: Albany’s Great Western Turnpike


Chartered in 1799, the Great Western Turnpike Company was largely responsible for the development of Western Avenue (and Route 20 out to Cherry Valley). The road – crudely graded and planked – opened for public use in 1804. A series of tollgates provided access and generated income.


The first of these was built across the road near what are now Winthrop and Marion Avenues.



zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz19989321_1371531402895118_5955247247357377869_nPrivately-held toll roads surrounded Albany city and were big business, controlling land access from anywhere outside city limits. The first crack in their stranglehold on transportation came with the advent of railroads in the 1830’s. As rail travel grew, the profits of the toll highways began to shrink; stagecoach transportation was on its way out.

The Great Western Turnpike crumbled in sections, the westernmost portion becoming a public road in 1853. Ten years later, the tolls were lifted west of the fifteen-mile point. In 1871, six more miles were freed. All that remained after that was the nine-mile strip connecting Albany and Guilderland.


Over the next 25 years, most of the toll road companies in the area folded, and the city of Albany began an ambitious program of improving its existing roads and paving new ones.



The city, meanwhile, had grown steadily westward. Former farmlands west of Manning Boulevard were subdivided into building plots; new side streets popped up. Among the first was Nineteenth Street, now Winthrop Avenue.

Despite being ungraded, sandy, and nearly impassable, Nineteenth Street had one popular attribute: it was just west of the Great Western Turnpike’s Western Avenue tollgate. While farmers continued to pay tolls, casual travelers and pleasure seekers braved treacherous Nineteenth Street to circumvent the tollgate.

The Turnpike Company fought back in 1897 by piling a large barrier of lumber across Nineteenth Street at Western Avenue. This started a brief but nasty “Toll Gate War” with the City. Albany’s Common Council ordered the company to remove the obstruction. They did, but replaced it with a new, annex tollgate. The City gave them 48 hours to remove it, which they did not, so the new gate was promptly destroyed by order of the Street Commissioner.

The GWTC’s lawyer claimed its charter predated the existence of the Common Council (which it did), and that the destroyed annex gate was on their property (which it was). The City responded that the Company had no right to blockade a city street. The Company did not rebuilt its annex gate, but posted a toll collector at the intersection; most rode past him without paying, and there were no means of enforcing the toll.

Soon thereafter, the City cobbled together a resolution mandating unimpeded access to Western Avenue from Nineteenth Street, Brevator Street, Magazine Street, and all other side streets.

No longer so great, the Great Western Turnpike Company fell on hard times, its revenue vanishing, its equipment in ruins. In 1899 its stockholders met and ejected the entire board of directors.

By 1906, the City had had enough. The Common Council issued an ordinance authorizing the extension of Western Avenue to the city line, “making a part thereof, the highway now owned by the Great Western Turnpike Company.” The Commissioner of Public Works earmarked $4000 in compensation.

Balking at this deal, the Turnpike Company sold its remaining tract to Abel I. Culver, Vice President of the D&H Railroad and the United Traction Company, for $12,000. The property – nine miles long and 99 feet wide – was nominally a personal (non-business) purchase, but it was actually all about business. As soon as the shrewd businessman gained possession, he deeded the eastern two miles to the City of Albany, and the remaining seven miles to the county. In both cases, he gifted only 66 feet in width, keeping the remaining 33 feet for the future construction of a suburban trolley line. Culver was praised for his generosity, gifting the City something for which they were about to pay $4000, while establishing the right of way for what would become a highly profitable venture.

Tolls for the use of Western Avenue ceased at midnight on Saturday, April 21, 1906. The following day, the last tollgate of the Great Western Turnpike Company was razed.

Written by Al Quaglieri –  take a look at his Albany history blog – Doc Circe Died for Our Sins