Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Schenectady Progress Exposition of 1924

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Schenectady had a lot to be proud of in 1924. An intensive street lighting system had just been installed, the new Great Western Gateway Bridge was under construction, both the American Locomotive and General Electric Companies had expanded their works, Union College had built a new chapel, Erie Boulevard was being developed, the new Hotel Van Curler was set to open, the Community Chest had been established and the population of the city had passed the 100,000 mark. To celebrate these and other accomplishments, the Chamber of Commerce decided to hold an exposition to showcase Schenectady's progress in industry, education, mercantile, electricity and many other areas. The purpose of the exposition was “To inspire Schenectady with a perception of its growth in resources and ability and to prompt it to go forward to still further accomplishments in every field.

Rows of tents lined the streets of Erie Boulevard for the Schenectady Progress Exposition held from September 19-27, 1924. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
Local businesses, stores, civic organizations, manufacturers, schools, churches, hospitals, music, art and theater groups, and public health and service organizations were quick to jump on board to promise booths and activities for the exposition. The Women's Club of Schenectady was to oversee the exposition restaurant for special meals and “lunch at all times”. The food concession would benefit their organization and provide food service “consistent with the high quality of the exposition”. A parade would kick off the festivities and there would be fireworks, concerts, shows and competitions in addition to display booths by participants. Businesses advertised sales and special events to coincide with the exposition and the Schenectady Gazette followed the preparations with numerous articles. Requests for booth space far exceeded expectations and it was reported that thousands of people took part in decorating the booths and turning the exhibition tents into a "little city of interests and surprises". Cranes were used to bring in massive machinery to display in the large General Electric space.

View of Erie Boulevard during the Exposition. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
After a year of planning, the exposition opened to great fanfare on Friday night, September 19th, preceded by a huge parade. The Schenectady Gazette reported that the crowd lining State Street and Erie Boulevard was the largest to ever assemble in the city. State Street's new intensive ornamental street lighting system was turned on for the first time immediately prior to the start of the parade and two powerful search lights, mounted on top of GE's Building 31, swept Erie Boulevard. The parade kicked off at 7:30 from the Armory and proceeded down State street led and escorted by mounted police. Fireworks exploded above Erie Boulevard as the parade turned onto the street. Nearly 5000 people marched in the parade including 1600 members of the combined GE and ALCO Quarter Century Clubs. Led by parade organizers, three units of Schenectady's Militia marched in the first Division behind the 105th Regimental Band. Division two was comprised of Schenectady Police and Fire Department members. Boy Scouts marched in Division three followed by the Quarter Century Club members in Division four. Marching bands led each division.

The crowd was so large at the end of the parade that dignitaries had trouble getting through the gates of the exposition. When they finally got in, they proceeded through the mammoth 1400 foot-long exposition tent into the automobile tent where a speakers platform was set up. John F. Horman, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and William Dalton, the chairman of the Exposition Committee gave welcoming speeches followed by a lengthy speech by Schenectady Mayor William W. Campbell all which were broadcast by radio station WGY.

Photo of construction of the "million dollar Hotel Van Curler" and major point of pride for Schenectady mayor William W. Campbell. The hotel was constructed in 1924 and would be opened the following year in 1925. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
“The exposition is being held in celebration of an unprecedented era of growth and achievement that the city now finds itself”, the Mayor declared. He went on to expound on major areas of pride: Erie Boulevard development in which community enterprises took advantage of the abandoned canal to create the finest cross street in the city and the best lighted thoroughfare in the world; the new million dollar Hotel Van Curler which would open the following spring; the Union College Chapel, built with community contributions to honor the fallen of World War I; the American Locomotive Company which had completed the second of two new buildings; General Electric had also added new buildings to their works and purchased 260 acres on River Road to expand its operation; the creation of a community chest to handle welfare projects in a progressive fashion; widening and straightening of Washington Avenue to give the city a beautiful riverfront boulevard; and surpassing the 100,000 mark in population.

Due to the unprecedented crowd watching the parade, thousands of people had to be turned away from the exposition the first night. Every night for the following week, fireworks exploded over Erie Boulevard. Two concerts were held each day with many local bands and choral groups performing. Visitors enjoyed browsing the many booths and viewing the latest car models in the automotive tent. Several “style shows” were held with fashions from local department stores H.S. Barney Company, Carl Company and Wallace Company as well as smaller specialty shops. A dahlia show featuring rare varieties and creative arrangements was a highlight of week as well as a pet show, an amateur radio show and a perfect child health contest.

Two of the entrants in the Perfect Child Health Contest held at the Schenectady Progress Exposition. Courtesy of
The “Perfect Child Health Contest” was promoted in the Schenectady Gazette during the week of the exposition. Photos of some of the children who were entered in the contest were featured each day. The contest was advertised not as a beauty or popularity contest but a contest to find the city's healthiest child. More than 230 children participated and were examined by a committee headed by Dr. John Collins, Commissioner of Health. This group was narrowed to 45 who were reexamined by a committee consisting of five medical doctors, one eye specialist, one dentist, two nurses and two artists. That group was narrowed to 9 children from whom the top three winners were chosen. Major consideration in the contest was given to “physical form and physique”. Elizabeth Draisey was judged to be Schenectady's most perfect child with Jeanne Bonnar coming in second and Thomas Corrigan, the only boy to make it into the final round, earning third place.  All three children were four years old.

Many other awards were given at the conclusion of the exposition. Prizes were awarded in several categories of the Dahlia exhibition, a black and white pony won the first-place medal in the pet contest, an award of $5.00 in gold was given to the best homemade radio set and medals were awarded in a typewriting contest. Booth displays were also judged in various categories. General Electric removed itself from consideration due to their displays being "an exposition in itself and the greatest display ever put on by the company". Among the winners were the Mica Insulating Company, Ellis Hospital, the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, Jay Jewelry Company, White Studios, Photo-Lab, the Maqua Company and Standard Oil Company. Special mention was given to the Boy Scout, Girl Scout and public school booths.  Individual booths also had raffles for prizes.  Over 50,000 people registered to win ten tons of coal in the booth sponsored by the Association of Coal Retailers.  James Beverley of Marshall Ave. was the lucky winner.

Installing the lights for the "best lighted street in the world." Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
In addition to the Chamber of Commerce committee, two well-known men were instrumental in the overall success of the exposition.  World renowned General Electric lighting engineer, Walter D'Arcy Ryan, planned the lighting design which included much of the ornamental street lighting that became a permanent installation on Erie Boulevard and State Street as well as the floodlights that swept over Erie Boulevard during the week of the exposition. His lighting design for Erie Boulevard made it the best lighted street in the world, a distinction it held for many years.  William A. Hart, was the director of the event.  He had directed numerous expositions throughout the country and proclaimed Schenectady's was the best event of its kind he ever had the privilege of conducting. Hart also directed a successful campaign the year before to fund the building of the new Hotel Van Curler.

Although this photo was taken a bit later in 1947, it gives a good idea of what Erie Boulevard might have looked like at night during the Exposition. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
In the week following the close of the exposition, the tents, booths and displays were dismantled and removed. The streets were swept clean, nails were picked up by hand and the streets washed by fire hose at the expense of the exposition committee. Due to the success of the exposition, civic groups were refunded expenses they incurred for their booths and $100 was donated to both the police and fire department pension funds in thanks for "the excellent protection provided". When the accounting was completed it was announced there were over 76,000 paid admissions in addition to almost two thousand people entering with free passes. The Chamber of Commerce was pleased with their $10,000 profit after expenses which they planned to use to promote Schenectady in the future. In an editorial, the Gazette noted "From the standpoint of the city, the exposition has done more than any one thing in Schenectady's history to 'sell' the city to its own people. It has shown them in compact form what Schenectady is, and has actually resulted in arousing civic pride."  Schenectady has hosted other expositions, trade shows and Metrofairs over the years but none could match the Progress Exposition of 1924.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Battle of Beukendaal

Translated to English from Dutch, Beukendaal means Beech Dale and that area around Sacandaga and Spring Road in Glenville was known for the number of Beech trees growing. The area is notable for being the only battle of King George's War to occur in the Mohawk Valley, the Battle of Beukendaal in 1748. The Battle of Beukendaal is often referred to as the Beukendaal Massacre (I mistakenly referred to it as a massacre in the last post), but this gives the wrong image of what actually happened at Beukendaal. It was more of a failed Schenectady militia campaign than a massacre.

The main cause of the King George's war had to do with events that occurred in Europe, the War of Jenkin's Ear and the War of the Austrian Succession. The conflicts of the War would eventually spread to the colonies in the form of territorial disputes between the British and their Indian allies and the French and their Indian allies. It was the third of four French and Indian Wars and took place mainly in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Nova Scotia.
The British siege of the French fortress at Louisburg in Nova Scotia was one of the hallmarks of King George's War. British forces captured the fort in 1745 after a six week siege. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
A precursor to the Battle of Beukendaal came dangerously close to Schenectady. On November 16, 1745 the settlement of Saratoga was raided by the French and their Indian allies. Over 100 inhabitants were either killed or captured during this attack. This attack caused many of the settlements north of Albany to be abandoned. The attack on Saratoga worried many in New York and a draft of 200 men were sent to Albany and Schenectady from the militias of Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Westchester, Queens, and Suffolk.

Another scare came to Schenectady in 1746 when two slaves were captured by a party of French Indians.  A party of men from Albany and Schenectady pursued the raiding party and came upon the house of Simon Groot. The raiding party had set fire to Groot's house, taken a prisoner, murdered and scalped a boy, and shot a man who was attempting to escape. The militia was unable to further track the raiding party. The raid on Groot's house and the increasing amounts of violence in the area was likely a cause of Abraham Glen requesting permission to raise a company of 100 volunteers for the defense of Schenectady and the frontier. There wouldn't be any battles near Schenectady until July 18, 1748 when three Schenectady men were attacked by French Indians in Glenville. This would spark the events of the Battle of Beukendaal.

Much of what we know about the Battle of Beukendaal comes from a letter to William Johnson from Albert Van Slyck who who fought in the battle, but there have been several other accounts. Van Slyck wrote that a group of men gathered to raise the frame for a barn by the Mohawk River in Scotia on July 18, 1748. Three of the men, Captain Daniel Toll, Dirk Van Vorst, and Toll's slave, Rykert departed to gather some horses that wandered off. Shortly afterward, the others raising the barn heard gunshots and Albert's brother, Adrian, sent his slave to Schenectady to warn the residents there and to try to gather men.
The DeGraaf Barn that Toll, Van Vorst and Rykert were working on was eventually raised after the Battle of Beukendaal. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
A group of Connecticut Militia members were stationed at Schenectady and upon getting the news, immediately crossed the river. Others in Schenectady joined making the total around 60-70 to the 100 French and Indians who made the attack. Unfortunately, the Schenectadians were too unorganized and gathered in four small groups who attacked at separate times. The first group reached the Kleykuil, a clay pit lying between Sacandaga and Spring Roads, and found Daniel Toll propped against a tree waving to the group. As they approached Toll, they supposedly found him lifeless with a crow tethered to his arm (this story has been unverified and doesn't show up in Albert Van Slyck's letter). This group was then ambushed and fired upon from the nearby woods. The second group met up with the first and retreated to the nearby DeGraaf house to stage their defense.

Corn growing at the site of the Beukendaal Battle in 1997. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The men in the DeGraaf House pried of the clapboards and fired on their enemies from the house. The attackers allegedly tried to set the house on fire a few times, but nothing succeeded in driving them from their defense. The third group eventually arrived, took a good look at the situation, and decided that battle wasn't for them so they turned around and retreated.  Those in the DeGraaf house managed to hold off the attack until the fourth group joined and drove off their attackers.

Photo of the DeGraaf house where the Schenectady Militia defended themselves against the French Indian attackers. The house was demolished in 1915. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Twelve Schenectadians were killed along with seven Connecticut soldiers, including their commander Lieutenant John Darling. Thirteen others were captured and taken to Canada. Dirk Van Vorst had managed to escape captivity and joined up with the third group (Van Vorst's reluctance at being recaptured, or killed after escaping the first time may have played a role in the third group's unwillingness to join the battle.) With the battle over, the bodies of the dead were brought back to Schenectady and placed in Abraham Mabee's barn which was located at present day 10 and 12 North Church Street. The number of French and Indian casualties were never confirmed, but are thought to be minimal.

In 1929, the Schenectady Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed this monument to those who were killed during the Beukendaal Battle. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection
It's tough to visualize now, but Schenectady County was once on the frontier. Attacks like the Battle of Beukendaal highlight the danger that settlers were constantly in and how difficult it was to protect residents in the area.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hardin's Crossing: What's in a Place Name

Finding the origin of place names can be a tricky business sometimes. In Schenectady County, the origin of some place names are more apparent than others. Glenville, Duanesburg, and Princetown were named after prominent people who lived there, namely Alexander Lindsay Glen, James Duane, and John Prince. Scotia and Rotterdam were named after places. Scotia, after the home country of Alexander Lindsay Glen, and Rotterdam after the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Schenectady and Niskayuna are both forms of place names given to them by Native Americans in the area. Schenectady means "beyond the pines" or "over the pine plains" and Niskayuna means "extensive corn flats."

Checking out some of the hamlets in the area and we have Alplaus. Alplaus derived from the Dutch Aal Plaats which means place of the eels. Carman in Rotterdam was originally named Athens Junction after the junction of the New York Central and a railroad from Athens, NY. It was eventually renamed after Will Carman who opened a general store at the crossing. This all leads to a research question that I received recently. What was Hardin's Crossing, and where was it located? Was it a ferry or railroad crossing? Who was this enigmatic Hardin who had a crossing named after him? Some of these questions were easier to answer than others.

This map shows the lands of Hardin as well as the Fitchburg and New York Central railroads that crossed Sacandaga Road. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Map Collection.
Specifics about Hardin's Crossing were difficult to come by. I quickly came to find out that it wasn't listed on any modern maps and articles that I found would refer to Hardin's Crossing, but often had no background as to why it was called that. We are lucky to have former Don Keefer's research files on Glenville and Scotia. Keefer was the Glenville town historian as well as the Schenectady County historian for a while and his research is very valuable when researching anything about Glenville.

Photos of the DeGraff House on what is now Sacandaga Road. The DeGraff House marked
the site of the Beukendaal Massacre where 20 men from Schenectady were killed and 13 were
captured by French and Indian attackers after a viscous battle.
Keefer's research binder on the Beukendaal Massacre had a few article on Hardin's Crossing. It turns
out that in 1915 both the schoolhouse and the area of Hardin's Crossing were changed to Beukendaal to commemorate the Beukendaal Massacre. The charge to change the name was led by none other than the Schenectady County Historical Society, little did they know that they would cause a bit of confusion to their librarian 102 years down the road. So that article solved the "where" of Hardin's Crossing which was very close to the site of the Beukendaal Massacre near Sacandaga Road.

I then went to our map files to see if there were any maps that might show the site so I could learn what the crossing part of Hardin's Crossing referred to. An undated map of the 10th School District of Glenville shows two railroads that cross Sacandaga Road, the Fitchburg and the New York Central Railroad. This map gave me some more definitive proof that an Hardin (unknown first name) owned property in the area and I also found out that the crossing was a railroad crossing.

This page from the  U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880 shows the wealth of Sidney Hardin (outlined in yellow). He owned 200 acres of land and the cash value of his farm was $8,000 which would put it at over $200,000 today. This made him one of the more wealthy landowners in the area. A separate census page puts his personal estate at $2,166. Courtesy of
The "who" was a bit more difficult to find out, I knew it was a Hardin, but finding out which one was tricky as none of the articles mentioned which Hardin the crossing was named after. The Hardins lived in Schenectady since the mid-1700s, but there weren't a ton of Hardins in the area. The Hardin family file in our library had a page from Cuyler Reynolds' Hudson and Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs which gave a short history of the Hardin family and listed many of the Schenectady County Hardins. It turns out that there were two Hardins that had farms in Glenville, Sidney and Jonathan Tripp Hardin. The 1866 Beer's Atlas lists many of the property owners in Glenville and sure enough J. & S. Hardin were both shown on the map right near the crossing of Sacandaga Road and the New York Central Railroad. Jonathan Tripp Hardin would go on to live in Schenectady, but Sidney stayed in Glenville.

Sidney died in 1880 at the young age of 54. In a 1965 Raw Materials of History column from the Schenectady Gazette, Neil Reynolds states that even though the Hardin's Crossing was changed to Beukendaal, "the name Hardin's Crossing still persists." So Sidney Hardin's memory lasted a while after he died. Not being a native to Schenectady County, I wonder if anyone Glenville natives still call this area of Sacandaga Road Hardin's Crossing.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

22 Blocks in Schenectady

Over the past year, there has been a lot of new research on Albany's "neighborhood that dissapeared." The 98 acre area that was torn down in the early 1960s and replaced by the Empire State Plaza. In a recent blog post (, I learned that Schenectady had it's own lost neighborhood during an urban renewal project in the 1940s and 50s, the 22-block urban renewal project. This project was named for the 22 blocks around City Hall that would potentially be redeveloped to create more off-street parking, new street arrangements, and areas for business and residential use. The reasons for redeveloping this area were similar to the reasons for redeveloping the Empire State Plaza. The area was seen as a slum with tenement housing that wasn't bringing the city enough tax revenue. According to Christopher Patrick Spencer's thesis Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, the project evolved over time. The city initially wished to get more tax revenue from downtown, but as time went on the project changed to adhere to state and federal grant programs that required the area to be used for business and restricted use on residential projects. 

The 1948 Comprehensive City Plan included maps of the suggested redevelopment
and existing development of the 22-block. The suggested redevelopment plan
shows a neighborhood that includes 3 story row apartments, an expanded
business district, and a plan for garden apartments. In order to get federal and state funding
the city decided to go with a plan that did not include any residential use in the neighborhood.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.
An article in the May 24, 1946 issue of the Schenectady Gazette refers to a New York State survey on the needs of current residents of the 22-block area. They were looking at what sort of rent residents were paying, which businesses were located in the area, housing and family conditions. The survey was an attempt to see what sort of needs residents would want in a new housing development, but residents in this area did not want to be relocated or for their houses to be destroyed. In a meeting on February 26, 1947, residents of the fourth ward of Schenectady accused the city of lowering the assessed value of property in the 22-block. One resident stated that "We're not interested in the Town of Tomorrow--we're interested in this 22-block, our homes are in it. Our livelihood is in it." Director of traffic and city planning, Arthur Blessing, defended the 22-block plan saying that the plan was necessary in order to centralize Schenectady's business district and relieve traffic congestion.
Photo of the what used to be Johnson St. and Terrace Pl. in the 22-block area in 1956.
City Hall can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection

Some of the buildings set to be razed in the ten-year urban renewal plan.
From the January 14, 1947 issue of the Schenectady Gazette.
Courtesy of
By 1947, the plan for housing development in the 22-block was scrapped and Mayor Ten Eyck stated that "as soon as conditions permit, the substandard tenements and buildings in the 22-block area will be razed. The land will be sold to private industry with the covenant that the land may not be used for residential purposes." This land was to be left undeveloped for new businesses and industries to build and create taxable revenue for the city. It wasn't documented where all the residents of 22-block ended up, but some of them were relocated to Yates Village and other Municipal Housing Authority projects around the city, some of which was over two miles from their homes in downtown Schenectady.
Construction of Yates Village in 1949 where some of the 22-block residents
would end up relocating to. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.

Demolition of a house on Terrace Place in the 22-block in 1957.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection. 

Early Rendition of the Union Station Plaza included in the 22-Block Urban Renewal Plan.
From the January 14, 1947 issue of the Schenectady Gazette. Courtesy of
Early renditions of the 22-block project (shown above included a plaza with a monument, green space, and tunnels underneath for traffic. The rendition bears a resemblance to the Empire State Plaza with City Hall on one side of the plaza, and a new train station on the other. Construction of the plaza never came to fruition and the land remained undeveloped for years. Only one developer came forward with a plan to develop the area in 1959, Lewis Empire-Plaza inc. They promised to put 10 million dollars into the development which included shopping areas, offices, and parking lots. Unfortunately, the company defaulted on its taxes and the City of Schenectady repossessed the land in 1963. There has been some development in the 22-block area since the initial razing of buildings and houses, but nothing like the initial renderings and hopes of those involved with the project. An article in the March 6, 1963 by Art Isabel stated, "Just about everything that could go wrong with an urban renewal and urban development project did in Schenectady."

There is a lot more to this story that can't be covered in a single blog post. For more information check out Christopher Patrick Spencer's thesis which you can find on the Schenectady Digital History Archive.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas in Schenectady

This post features a few festive photos from our collection showing Christmas over the years.

A svelte Santa was chosen for the 1970 Christmas Parade.

Santa stopped trimming his beard for the 1985 Christmas Parade

One of the floats in the 1986 parade. 

Going back a bit further to the 1949 parade which featured this large
inflatable train.

Christ Church on State Street all decked out for Christmas in 1896.
What better way to spend your Christmas than hanging
out in Vale Cemetery. 

The Salvation Army collecting toys to give out on Christmas. 

Surrounded by toys at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Holding lanterns by the Stockade's Christmas tree.

A very Stockade Christmas at the junction of Green, Front and Ferry.

Young carolers in Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood.

Friday, December 16, 2016

From Saloons to Soft Drinks in Schenectady

While researching The Union Inn for a recent Daily Gazette story ( I noticed that there were many (over 100) businesses listed under the soft drink section of the 1921 Schenectady City Directory business listings. "Schenectady sure loved soft drinks" I thought to myself, not immediately realizing the implication of the term soft drink in prohibition era Schenectady. I continued my research into 1919 where there were 110 saloons and cafes in the 1919 directory, and it all fell into place.
Anheuser-Busch released soda and
malt syrup to try and profit off of
prohibition. Grape Bouquet was
released in 1922.

When prohibition put the kibosh on alcohol sales, brewers, distillers, and saloons needed alternate products if they wanted to survive. Some of the largest breweries around today were the ones that found creative solutions to the prohibition problem. Coors started a ceramics business that surprisingly makes more money than the brewing side of the company. Yuengling made ice cream until about 1985, and then started back up again last year. Others large brewers made barley or malt syrup, low alcohol near-beer, and of course, soft drinks. It was the same story with brewers in the Capital Region many began making sodas, malt vinegar and syrup, and some breweries went into the bottling business.

One of the saloons turned soft drink shop was Schreck's Hall on 1118 Albany Street.
Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
With many of their main suppliers turning to soft drink production, saloons would soon follow suit and sell those products. Many of the saloon owners in 1919 Schenectady City Directory are the same selling soft drinks in the 1921 directory. Some of them were probably legitimately just selling soda such as the Schenectady Coca-Cola Bottling Company on Foster Avenue. Others, were definitely selling hard drink in addition to their soft drinks. These soft drink establishments were scattered throughout the city although the streets around lower Broadway seemed to have the most.

Schenectady City Directory advertisements for the
New York and Orange Crush Bottling Works as well as
the Saratoga Natural Carbonic Co. 
A letter to the editor in the February 18, 1925 issue of the Schenectady Gazette takes aim at these soft drink places, "If one has the inclination and the price he or she can easily obtain whiskey, alcohol, wine or beer. And this is prohibition Shades of-- somebody: "Soft drink places!" Oh yea. Please pass the salt." The writer goes on to say that "If Captain Funston or the police want to check crime, it might be well for them to look after places where crime is hatched and bred."Another letter to the editor by A Thirsty Schenectadian laments the quality of good soft drinks to be had in Schenectady, saying that he wouldn't miss alcohol or beer as much if there were better soft drinks to be had. He complains that he has gone to soda shops up and down Schenectady but has yet to "find a drink that doesn't need a cold glass of beer to destroy the awful taste." He goes on to compliment the soda shops of Richmond, Virginia where you could find a "10 ounce drink made from fresh fruit with an appetizing taste for 9 cents" where in Schenectady you get warm lime phosphate in a 5 ounce glass for 6 cents."

Soft drink shops on State Street were also popular places to quench your thirst. 
The building next to the Lorraine Block building with the "Stoll Famous Lager"
sign was the Oak Cafe. Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.

This photo of State Street shows O'Connor's Tavern on the left which was previously The Holland Inn.
Courtesy of the photograph collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
By 1924, both Albany's Mayor William Hackett and Schenectady's Mayor Campbell were on to the "soft drink" game in their city's. Hackett had recently enacted a measure to close up the "undesirable saloons and so-called soft drink" places throughout the city and Campbell met with him on February 2nd to discuss the ordinance. I haven't been able to find evidence of a soft drink ordinance in Schenectady but similar ones were passed in other towns and cities in the area.

Over time, Schenectady's love of "soft drink" establishments had dwindled. The creation of the special service squad of the Schenectady Police Department helped put many these businesses. Created in 1927, they conducted 600 investigations into disorderly houses, gambling houses, and disorderly places in that year.  The end of prohibition further reduced the number of soft drink shops and only 8 of these soft drink shops were listed in the 1935 city directory

Friday, December 2, 2016

Harry Houdini in Schenectady

When I think of Harry Houdini the first thing that comes to mind are his wild escape acts, mind bending illusions, and amazing feats of physical strength and stamina. A lesser known aspect of Houdini's life was that in the 1920s, he began to focus on debunking spiritualists and psychics. His training in sleight of hand and audience manipulation gave him a keen sense on how to expose frauds, although it didn't hurt that Houdini and his wife would use similar spiritualist tricks when they were strapped for cash.

Advertisement for Houdini's 3 Shows in 1. Courtesy of
the blog Wild About Houdini.
His most famous run-in with a spiritualist occurred during a séance with his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Lady Jean Conan Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle's wife. The Doyle's were touring the United States to lecture about Spiritualism. Lady Doyle claimed to be a medium and wanted to conduct a séance to contact Houdini's mother. Houdini's wife, Bess, had previously warned him that Jean had been asking questions about his mother, but Houdini agreed to the séance anyway. During the séance, Jean appeared to fall into a deep trance and began to transcribe what Houdini's mother was transmitting from beyond the grave. Houdini immediately found problems with the sance. He was born in Budapest to a mother who did not speak English and a father who was a rabbi. The first thing that Lady Doyle drew when she went into a trance was a cross and then she proceeded to write everything down in English.

After the séance, Arthur told the press that Houdini had been converted to the religion of Spiritualism. A bit miffed at the untrue accusation, Houdini publicly stated that the séance made him even more skeptical of spiritualism. This exchange put a heavy strain on their friendship and Houdini decided to put on his own anti-spiritualism tour. This tour eventually evolved into Houdini's "3 shows in 1" tour that he would bring to Schenectady in mid-October, 1926. During his three day stay in Schenectady, he gave a lecture on anti-spiritualism at Union College, performed his magic act at the Van Curler Opera House, exposed a Spiritualist that he believed to be a fraud, and gave an address on WGY.
Photo of Harry Houdini from the October 13, 1926
issue of the Schenectady Gazette.Courtesy of

Houdini injured his ankle just days before in Albany while performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell at the Capitol Theater. The injury almost caused him to cancel the rest of his tour, but the Van Curler took out an ad ensuring that Houdini "will positively appear" at the theater. There was a clause in his contract stating that if Houdini was to cancel any show due to illness or injury, he would have to pay the theater $1,000 per day. The blog Wild About Houdini states that Houdini wrote an urgent letter to his manager from the dressing room of the Van Curler Hotel where he threatened to cancel the tour if his manager did not remove the clause.

"I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. [...] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully."  -Houdini's letter to his manager, written from the dressing room of Schenectady's Van Curler Hotel.

The injury caused Houdini to switch up his act a bit and he couldn't not perform his best trick, presumably the Water Torture Cell, but ever the crowd-pleaser, he replaced it with five others. An article from the October 15, 1926 issue of the Schenectady Gazette stated that Houdini performed hundreds of tricks during his act and that while his magic show clever, the best part of the show was his performance exposing spiritualists and mediums. Houdini put on a fake séance and invited several audience members to join him on stage, revealed how spiritualists used their charms and interviewed a woman who had went to several mediums in Schenectady. According to the mediums, she had many deceased husbands and children in heaven. The audience got a kick out of the reveal that she had never been married and had no children. You can find the Schenectady Gazette's review of Houdini's show here at

Houdini's stay in Schenectady was lively despite the injury that almost caused him to cancel the whole tour. The injury that he received in Albany is believed to be a direct cause of Houdini's death although there is debate as to whether he was suffering from acute appendicitis and did not realize the symptoms. Houdini would die just 16 days after his last performance in Schenectady due to complications from appendicitis.

Houdini on WGY radio on October 14, 1926. Courtesy MiSci -
Museum of Innovation and Science 
Thanks to the blog Wild About Harry and Don Rittner's article on Albany's role in Houdini's death.

-Mike Maloney