Friday, October 21, 2016

Schenectady's Fire of 1861

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone

The week of October 9-15, 2016 was Fire Prevention Week, an annual public education campaign since 1927, commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-9, 1871, one of the deadliest blazes in US history.  Like most other cities and towns, Schenectady has had its share of fires.  Perhaps the most well-known is the 1690 blaze set by the French and Hurons during the Schenectady Massacre, which consumed the frontier village.  The other major conflagration is the fire of 1819, which wiped out the business district on the Binnekill, destroyed many early Dutch buildings, and left 200 families without homes.  In 1861, the city was to experience the second significant fire of the nineteenth century. 

Broomcorn growing along the banks of the Mohawk with the Burr Bridge in the background
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
In the mid-1800s, Schenectady was growing.  Broom making was a major industry in Schenectady County, with Schenectady, Scotia and Glenville responsible for 1,000,000 brooms per year. These brooms were produced from broomcorn, a type of sorghum. The low-lying land and islands of the Mohawk River were fertile grounds for growing this crop.  Otis Smith was one of the first to grow broomcorn in the county.  He owned 125 acres, and a factory that by mid-century turned out 192,000 brooms and 180,000 whisk brooms (Cheetham, Peg. “Broom Trade Once Swept Schenectady into Spotlight.” Schenectady Union-Star, 22 Apr. 1955.) Unfortunately, on an August afternoon in 1861 that factory, located on the northwest corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley, was the source of a conflagration that eventually destroyed it.

How the fire started is not entirely clear.  A contemporaneous newspaper report describes how a worker at the broom factory may have been at fault: “He had been pitching the roof with a pail of tar.  In some way, perhaps in lighting his pipe, the pitch burst into a blaze and spread and ran down to a heap of dried broom stalks as inflammable as guncotton.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911.).   Claims by some that this occurred on the north end of the building were contradicted by others’ assertions that the fire started at the southwest corner of the building.  In any event, the First Dutch Reformed Church bell would have rung out the alarm, along with other church bells and locomotive whistles.

Once it began, the fire, assisted by a strong wind from the northwest, quickly spread from Otis Smith’s factory at the foot of Cucumber Alley to the corners of Church and Washington, and the western end of Front Street.  It spread along the western side of Washington to the Mohawk River in the north and extended south, and reached houses on the eastern corners of Front and Washington.  In an effort to beat back the fire, residents on the western side of Ferry Street were soaking their wooden roofs with pails of water.

Photo of an early "engine" in Crescent Park. Courtesy
of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Firefighting in the mid-nineteenth century was very different from that endeavor today.  After the fire of 1819, the city purchased a piece of equipment called a forcing pump, which has been described by Larry Hart in Volume 1 of Tales of Old Schenectady  as “…a tub on wheels (though called an engine) which was fitted with a fixed nozzle  and dragged to the scene of a fire like a feeble cannon.”  Hauling this cart over cobblestone streets could not have been an easy task for the volunteer firefighters; horses were not used until 1896 because part-time volunteer companies could not look after the animals.  Fighting the fire was a bit awkward, as the firefighters had to position the cart correctly in order to aim the hand-pumped stream of water at the flames.  The cart was filled with water from cisterns, located at key points in the city, and refilled as necessary.  By the 1830s, the city turned to suction pumpers, which replaced the need for bucket brigades in drawing water from the cisterns.  One model was the “Button” hand pumper, pulled by a large crew of men, who also had the exhausting job of operating the pump handles.  Individual residents still used leather pails to quench fires in their homes. 

One can imagine the pandemonium let loose by this catastrophic event.  In 1861 the firefighting service had a limited capacity to check the spread of fires.  Residents were very concerned, some even panicked, about the ultimate safety of their homes and possessions.  Many were dousing their houses with water. Some were conveying their property into the streets.  Adding to the chaotic scene was the cacophony of sound, made up of the shouting of firefighters and residents, the clacking of fire engine wheels and the licking of the flames devouring wood.  Completing the picture was the chilling sight of buildings ablaze, with the billowing clouds of smoke looming above.  Sadly, thieves took advantage of the disorder to ply their trade.

Painting of the 1861 fire that consumed the Dutch Reformed Church. Courtesy of the
Schenectady History Museum  .
In the path of destruction stood the Old Dutch Reformed Church.  This brick building, which had a cupola and bell tower encasing a two-ton bell, was constructed in 1814.  Among its treasured contents were a very large brass chandelier and an organ.  While people were occupied with the danger to their own homes and businesses, the edifice caught fire.  Unfortunately, the engines were located near the river, which put them too far away from the church to save it.  However, people did their best to salvage whatever they could on the inside, including the pulpit, books, carpets, and a chandelier; the organ was not saved.  Ironically, in 1861 the church’s 3,200 pound bell had been in use for only 13 years.  It replaced the famously sonorous 1732 bell, which cracked in 1848 and was melted down into miniature bells for the congregants.  A local reporter dramatically described the destruction of the steeple and the bell on that afternoon in August of 1861:

In an interesting side note, the pastor was reputedly far from distressed by the collapse of the building. On the contrary, the destruction “…was viewed with unconcealed joy by the pastor, who had been struggling and fighting for a new church for years.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911, p. 12.). 

“With steady rapidity the work of destruction circled the steeple, till it tottered and fell with a tremendous crash, and spread over the roof till it thundered down.  The bell, weighing 3,200 lbs., was eaten away from its supports, and fell, crashing through floors, partitions, and masonry, making more noise in its last moments than it ever made in its life, killed, like a faithful sentinel, by the very enemy whose approach it had heralded.”
(“The Fire of Tuesday.”
 Evening Star and Times [Schenectady, NY], 9 Aug. 1861, p. 1.)

Although the five volunteer fire companies were making heroic efforts to stem the tide of the flames, it became clear that they needed aid from other locales. In the absence of the mayor, the city’s recorder telegraphed Albany, Troy and Amsterdam for help.  All responded, arriving as the fire was dwindling.  Extraordinarily powerful at the time was Troy’s steam pumper, the Hugh Rankin.  Although situated in Governor’s Lane north of Front Street, it pumped water all the way to Washington Avenue through 15,000 feet of hose. It was reported that the powerful stream destroyed the walls of the building it was targeting.  In spite of these efforts, the wind-swept fire did spread to areas farther away.  Embers landed on rooftops as far afield as the area around the junction of State Street and Nott Terrace/Veeder Avenue.  A building on Nott Terrace was set ablaze, as well as one at 117 South Center Street, near the corner of Franklin Street.

Members of the Protection  Hose Company No. 1.
 located on State Street near South Ferry. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The cost of the fire was $120,000, which is equivalent to over $3,000,000 today.  Although no one died, there was substantial property damage. The Smith factory and warehouse were destroyed, along with ancillary buildings, equipment, and products. The Old Dutch Church was destroyed.  Severe damage was done to the western portion of Washington Avenue, particularly heading north to the river; only one building remained standing between the Otis broom shop and the Scotia Bridge at the end of Washington Avenue.  Additional damage was done to two houses on Washington Avenue south of Front Street.  The eastern corners of Front Street and Washington Avenue were also involved in the blaze, as was Church Street.  Destruction was limited by the concerted efforts of residents, who doused buildings with water and, in some cases, knocked down blazing structures to halt the spread of the flames.

Photo  showing Cucumber Alley and the Whitmyre Broom Factory.
The Dutch Reformed Church can also be seen in the background.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The fire brought changes.  The Otis property was purchased by Charles L. Whitmyre, who later built the Whitmyre and Co. Broom Factory on the site.  A new stone church was built in 1862, positioned farther away from the front of the street.  Sadly, it was the victim of the fire of February 1, 1948 and was once again rebuilt.  The fire department replaced hand pumpers with three steam pumpers between 1864 and 1869.  These too were replaced in 1872, as the introduction of fire hydrants, as part of a municipal water system, made them obsolete. Toward the end of the century, hand-drawn hose carts gave way to horse power. 

The 1861 fire was certainly not the last in the city. With the continual evolution of firefighting techniques and more sophisticated equipment, we will never again witness a conflagration like those of earlier times.

The broom factory at Cucumber and Washington would see another
blaze in the 1870s. After it became the WhitmyreBroom Factory.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

The First/Dutch Reformed Church would also see another
destructive fire in 1948. Courtesy of the
 Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
For more information on the fires of 1819 and 1861, see Robert A. Petito Jr.'s excellent article “The Fires of Schenectady,” in the May-June 2011 issue of Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter


1 and 2. “Broom Trade Once Swept Schenectady into Spotlight.” Schenectady Union-Star, 22 Apr. 1955.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Schenectady Beer Squad

Policeman Karl Peters manning the traffic signal
at the intersection of State and Centre Street
c. 1924. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle
Library Photo Collection.
The year was 1933 and the age of prohibition was over. Rum runners no longer had to run, people could bathe again as bathtubs no longer had to be used for making gin, and you no longer had to pay off your local pharmacist for a whiskey prescription. Bars and saloons began springing up across Schenectady, but some were still more used to the unregulated speakeasies of the ‘20s and early ‘30s and they didn’t always follow the new laws and regulations set up by the New York State Liquor Authority and Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.  By 1936,  the Schenectady Police Department started getting cracking down on these unlicensed bars, as well as other violators of Alcohol and Beverage Control Laws. That solution was to assign patrolmen Joseph Madden, Karl Peters, and Charles Cole to the newly formed beer squad.

The beer squad had the task of cleaning up grills and taverns that didn’t comply with regulations controlling the sale of liquor. Liquor dealers were not caught completely unaware as a two week educational process was enacted by the squad. Madden, Peters, Cole, and even Police Chief William Funston surveyed the city and warned tavern owners that those who did not obey the regulations would be harshly punished. One of the first victims of the beer squad was Thomas Burns a bartender at the Hotel St. Clair on North Broadway. Burns was charged with selling liquor on primary day and his bail was set at a whopping (for the time, at least) $500. This law forbidding selling liquor on primary and election day is thankfully now defunct (as we could all probably use a drink on election day), but it was meant to combat the tradition of trading votes for booze. This tradition goes back to George Washington who won campaigns by “swilling the planters with bumbo” which was a type of rum.
Advertisement of the Hotel St. Clair. They probably needed a new bartender
after Mr. Burns was busted by the beer squad.
By July of 1936 there was talk about increasing the size of the beer squad. This talk did not come from the Police Bureau, but from the Schenectady Wine, Beer and Liquor Dealer’s Association. They held a conference with Police Chief Funston, not to chastise or criticize the beer squad, but to call for more men to oversee the over 110 alcohol selling establishments in Schenectady. The association was also concerned that taverns outside of city limits weren’t being held accountable the same way those in Schenectady were. The biggest complaint was that taverns outside of the city were allowed to stay open later. Schenectady County also had a beer squad of three patrolmen who Sheriff Thomas Walsh said “make a careful checkup of all places selling alcoholic beverages.” By the end of 1936, the beer squad made 7 arrests and 5 convictions for violation of alcohol and beverage control laws, bringing in $1,025 out of a total $11,952 for the whole police bureau in 1936.

Patrol car from 1941. The beer squad was a plainclothes department, so there
would be no patrol car or uniform to tip off wary bartenders. Courtesy of the Larry
Hart Photograph Collection.
The beer squad worked closely with the special service squad to clean up the streets of Schenectady.  The special service squad was created in 1927 to investigate disorderly and gambling houses, many of which were probably operated out of the bars that the Beer Squad investigated.  Newspaper reports from the 30s and 40s show Karl Peters and Joseph Madden assisting in the arrests of those being charged with prostitution, operating a disorderly house, and running dice and numbers games. Schenectady was especially notorious for illegal bookie joints according to a Times Union article by Marv Cermak. Cermak writes about a Schenectady institution called the Bellevue Athletic Club that was a front for a bookmaker. The Bellevue Athletic Club may have started out as a legitimate sports club, but by the late 1950s it was known for Schenectady gambling kingpin James “Dietz” DiDonato and William “Wild Bill” Anderson, DiDonato’s “lieutenant.”
"Dietz" and "Wild Bill" (sporting sesqui beard). It was suspected that DiDonato
had ties to the mafia. When asked if it was true he stated that his Schenectady operation
was a "small town affair" referring to possible mafia connection in Utica he said
"I've only been in Utica once in my life. All the racketeers I ever knew were right here."
Photo is courtesy of
It appears that the Beer Squad was merged with the Special Service Squad at some point during the early 1940s as a newspaper report lists former beer squaders Joseph Madden and Karl Peters as working in the special service squad. Newspaper reports of Schenectady’s beer squad start to decrease around 1938 and 1939. By the mid-1950s other types of beer squads start to pop up like the Ballantine Beer Squad, the Schaefer Beer Squad and the Schlitz Beer Squad, all bowling and softball teams.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chester Arthur and the Birther Scandal of 1881

Chester A. Arthur as a young lawyer.
Courtesy of the National Portrait
Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The early 1880s were a turbulent time for American politics. In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes declined to seek re-election leaving the task to James Garfield who took office on March 4th, 1881. Five months later, Garfield would be shot by assassin Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered until September 19th when his health took a turn for the worst and he passed away. This left the presidency open to Garfield's vice-president, Chester Arthur. One year with three presidents. Surprisingly, this had happened once before in 1841 with a similar situation when Martin Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died shortly after his inauguration and vice-president John Tyler took office. As a former supporter and benefactor of the spoils system, Chester Arthur did not instill the most confidence in people. His bad political reputation aside, one other thing caught the eye of his critics, Chester's birthplace.

Although Chester Arthur lived in Schenectady, he wasn't born there. His father, William Arthur was an Irish immigrant, Baptist minister, and a teacher who often traveled from his home in Fairfield, Vermont over the border to Canada to teach and preach. Malvina Arthur, Chester's mother, also had family in Canada who she stayed with often. This, combined with the fact that his family frequently moved created problems for Chester during his nomination for vice-presidency.

Chester lived at this house on the corner of Liberty and Yates
while attending Union. Later on, the building would
become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Photo Collection
By 1832, the Arthurs left Fairfield and eventually made their way over to Schenectady, New York. The family lived on the corner of Liberty and Yates Street in a house that would eventually become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Chester enrolled at Union College in 1845 and remained there until his graduation in 1848. Arthur's first foray into politics came during his teenage years. Chester firmly supported the Whig Party and even threw a few punches for them when he got into a brawl with students who supported James K. Polk. In addition to his schoolyard political melees, young Chet also helped throw the Union school bell into the Erie Canal as a prank.

After his education at Union, Chester Arthur moved around New York and Vermont where he taught and studied the law at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa. Chester moved to New York City to work at the law office of Erastus D. Culver who was an abolitionist lawyer and friend of the Arthur family. After being admitted to the bar, Arthur joined the firm which became Culver, Parker, and Arthur where he worked on several anti-slavery cases. One of the most notable was the case of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who was denied a seat on a trolley because she was black. Winning this case resulted in the desegregation of New York City streetcar lines.

The Chester A. Arthur statue at Union College.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
During the Civil War, Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general in the New York State militia's quartermaster department where he excelled at the position and was promoted to quartermaster general. After the Civil War is when Arthur really began getting involved in politics. Arthur became good friends with Utica's Roscoe Conkling who assisted Arthur in getting lucrative positions. Arthur would be appointed to the Collector's position at the Customs House at the Port of New York where he made over $50,000 a year, which was more than the President and more than enough to fund Arthur's growing pants collection.

While Arthur had many friends in Washington, President Rutherford B. Hayes was not one of them. Hayes pledged to reform the spoils system that directly benefited Arthur, Conkling, and the like. Arthur was able to survive in the political arena by campaigning for politicians who would turn a blind eye to Hayes' attempted reforms and appoint Conkling's men.

Campaign poster for the Garfield and Arthur ticket. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1880,  Hayes had declined to enter the presidential race which left the Republican ticket open. James Garfield was the popular choice for the Republican nominee and Levi P. Morton was his first choice for VP. Morton consulted with Roscoe Conkling who convinced him to decline the position. Garfield's supporters then went to Arthur who accepted against Conkling's wishes. After Garfield's assassination by Charles Guiteau, Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States where he exceeded both parties expectations by reforming Civil Service.

"I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." - Chester A. Arthur to a temperance reformer.

Back to the birther controversy! Republican bosses reportedly wanted proof of Arthur's birthplace before he was sworn in, which he either could or would not produce. The Democrats caught wind of this and hired a lawyer and political opponent of Arthur named Arthur Hinman to investigate Chester's birth. At first, Hinman accused Chester of being born in Ireland and immigrating when he was 14 years old. This was proven to be untrue and easily disproven. Hinman wasn't done with Arthur yet, though

He dug a little more into this created controversy and found Arthur family acquaintances who claimed that Chester was born in Canada. While hearsay from some friends doesn't seem like the best evidence, it was good enough for Hinman who wrote a short book called How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States. Neither of Hinman's claims gained traction in the public eye, nor did they seem to affect the Garfield/Arthur ticket. Chester Arthur always insisted that he was born in Fairfield, Vermont.  As may be expected, Vermonters claim Chester A. Arthur as the first president from Vermont, while some Canadians think Chester was the first Canadian president. A 2009 article in the Boston Globe looked into this controversy and found no record of Chester Arthur's exact birthplace so we may never know exactly where Arthur was born.

Friday, August 26, 2016

New York Heritage Collection Highlight: Schenectady, NY Street Scenes

Our newest collection on New York Heritage is Schenectady Street Scenes which was funded by a grant from the Capital District Library Council. This collection is pretty self-explanatory in that it has photos of the offices, factories, residences, trains, and other buildings all along Schenectady's streets. These photos give a glimpse of Schenectady throughout the years and you can really get a sense of how the city changed over time. This post will highlight just a fraction of the photos in this collection. You can view all of the photos in this collection by following this link to our New York Heritage page. A special thanks goes out to library volunteer Angela Matyi. Angela did a great job scanning the photos and entering all the data into New York Heritage for this collection.

A hunter in the Bowery woods near Summit and Paige ca. 1890. These woods were a favorite spot for hunters, picnickers, walkers, and those who just wanted a nice view of the city.
How could I mention the view of Schenectady from the Bowery woods without actually showing the view? In this photo of Schenectady from Summit Avenue you can see the construction of the United Methodist Church close to the middle and the old Schenectady Armory on the right as well as smoke from the city's various industrial pursuits in the background.

Look close in the first photo and you can make out a familiar building. Finding out when and where this photo was taken is a bit tricky as neither Johnson Street, nor Terrace Place exist anymore and its is a bit more developed than it was in this photo. This area was redeveloped in the 1950s so we think the date of the photo is somewhere between the opening of City Hall in 1931 and the 1950s. We were able to figure out that it was taken close to where the Bechtel Plant currently is. This portion of the 1900 Sanborn map shows the intersection of Johnson and Terrace, as well was some of the buildings that were in the area.

Also in this collection are photos of storm damage around Schenectady. The first photo shows huge chunks of ice from a major ice storm in 1914. The second shows a battered silo on Maxon Road.
The raising of Schenectady's railroads was a great boon for public safety. These two photos show the before and after of the raising of the rails. In the early 1900s, pedestrian deaths and injuries caused by trains were steadily increasing and by 1907 the city decided to do something about it. State Street was one of the most dangerous and as seen in the first photo from the 1900s, very busy. Adding trains to the mix made the street dangerous and often congested. The second photo shows the opening of the rail bridge on State Street. Now pedestrians could freely cross State Street, all they had to worry about were trolleys, horses, and the ever increasing amount of cars on the roads.

Speaking of trolleys (and streets that don't exist anymore), this great photo from around 1915 shows a mix of trolleys, cars, and pedestrians on Villa Road. Villa Road was the portion of  current day Broadway that ran from Weaver Street to the top of Bellevue Hill.
Connected to the last photo is this peaceful scene on Bellevue Hill from the late 1800s. From dirt roads to cars andelectric trolleys, these two photos really shows how Schenectady progressed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Elizabeth V. Glen, The "Little Woman"

This post was written by library volunteer, Gail Denisoff

Much is known about Henry Glen, the great-great grandson of Alexander Lindsay Glen, the first settler of Scotia.  Henry was born in Schenectady in 1739 and served the public in many capacities.  He was a successful trader, along with his brother John, and a member of the first Committee of Safety for Schenectady.  During the Revolutionary War he served as Deputy Quartermaster, in charge of all supplies for the region.  He was a representative of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Provisional Congress, Commissioner of Indian Affairs and a member of the 3rd, 4th and 6th Congresses of the United States from  1793-1802.  He also served as a judge and a member of the State Assembly in 1810.  Despite a successful career as a trader and many government positions, Henry Glen became impoverished after the Revolutionary War and spent most of the remainder of his life unsuccessfully trying to obtain payments he felt he was owed by the federal government for his war duties. 
Not as much is known about his wife, Elizabeth Visscher.  She was born in Schenectady, the daughter of Johannes Visscher and his wife Catharine Van Slyck, part of the large extended Visscher family of Dutch heritage.  She was baptized on October 9th 1743. 
Elizabeth (sometimes spelled Elesebat) married Henry Glen at the Schenectady Dutch Reformed Church on December 9th, 1762.  Between 1763 and 1785 she gave birth to seven children.  At least one child died in infancy.  Due to his many duties, Henry was away from home during much of their marriage.  According to records, Henry was a slave holder until at least 1802 so Elizabeth most certainly had help tending to the children, house and property.
What we can ascertain of Elizabeth’s life and personality comes from the one letter she wrote to her husband that is part of the collection of Henry Glen letters held in the Grems Doolittle Library. She was obviously well educated, with a quick wit and astute understanding of politics.  In the letter, written on Christmas Day 1800, she gently chides Henry for forgetting about “the little woman”, as she calls herself, and sarcastically gives him some political advice.  In reading her comments it seems that nothing much has changed in the way politics works!  (Spelling and punctuation are as they appear in the original letter)

Last page letter from Elizabeth to Henry, December 25, 1800.
From the Glen Family Letters Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
                                                                  December 25th 1800
I am very happy my good friend.  You have at last concluded to write to me.  I heard amidst the multitude of new acquaintainces the little woman had been forgot but from the melancholy tenor of your letter you are not engaged in so large a circle as I had imagined.  I fear most gallant Judge you are in a bad way.  Polliticks day and night will never agree with you.  For Heaven’s sake then take the first opportunity of laying your case before the House.  I once heard you make or second a motion very ably before the Honorable body.  Try to again, something in the following manner I would recommend.  …as I am so much interested I cannot refrain from intruding my ideas upon this momentous occasion.  Suppose then my good Judge you rise give a stout hem, and begin with , -
Thursday 1801
I must for a few moments claim the attention of his Honorable body, in behalf of one of its most distinguished Members (never mind puffing yourself a little they all do it) who from change of air, diet, and want of proper associates, feels himself enervated to such a degree as to be perfectly inadequate to either public or private business.  I do therefore recommend, as a preservation for the whole body politick, that we immediately adjourn, to meet in Phila on the 15th of Jan’y in the year 1801.  I fix this early removal Gentlemen, as I have but a short time to remain with you; having devoted my best days to my Country’s service I shall soon withdraw myself from the noise and tumult of a publick life and in a peaceful domestic retirement pass the last hours of this scene of mortality.
If you find freedom, you can in your own expressive language tell the Honorable Gentlemen how much ground you have gone over, taking care to conduct them over only the clean paths you have trod, as some of them might perhaps offend the delicacy of the pure body of your address.  A speech so consonant with the general feelings and wishes of the House will doubtless be received with universal applause, and the business will be done with all legislative dispatch that is to say, your motion will be seconded, referd to a general committee, turned over to a special one, reported upon in about a year; the report amended and referrd back to the same committee, who not agreeing on the proposed amendment, are discharged, a new committee is appointed who after a proper time report something quite foreign to the subject which gives rise to new debates.  If you live to be a good old age you may probably hear of its being laid upon the table which may be considered as a tolerable state of forwardness.  In the mean time ask leave of absence and visit your friends in Philadelphia who most ardently desire to see you.
All your friends and acquaintainces are well.  Miss Peters getting better.  We had a large party to supper last night .  we fairly saw the new year introduced wished each other the compliment of the season (as I now do you) and broke up in very good time. 
Dear, dear Judge what shall we all be about the first day of the new Century.  It makes me creep to think about it.  Some of us may not be in in a chilly condition neither. 
I have made this letter so long you will never wish for another as long as you live from the
Little Woman
Because of Henry’s financial situation and many debts, he was forced to sell the house where they lived for many years on the south corner of Union Street and Washington Avenue as well as most of their furnishings in 1802.  They moved to a house on Front Street that was partially owned by Elizabeth, left in her father’s will.  Elizabeth died on May 17th, 1809.  In a letter to Henry dated May 21st 1809, their son, Cornelius, writes of Elizabeth’s death “By the will of the Lord (which must be obeyed) you have been deprived of an affectionate Wife & I of a dear & Loving Mother.  Words can scarcely express my feelings.  I feel down hearted & am very sorry.  Oh what shall I say what can I do.  She is no more.  May She be received into the Society above then to enjoy eternal happiness.  Oh She was near & dear to me a Loving & Affectionate Mother.” 
Henry’s brother, Cornelius, died the following year, leaving him a trust that eased his financial difficulties substantially before his death on January 6th, 1814.                   

Friday, July 29, 2016

Lewi Tonks: Physics with a Side of Social Justice

It’s funny how the answer to a research request can pop up long after a patron requests it.  Back in January a patron contacted me to see if we had any information on GE physicist Dr. Lewi Tonks regarding his work with the Schenectady Human Rights Commission and his creation of a revolving bail fund. I checked our (usually trusty) family files and while we had a file for Tonko, there was nothing listed under Tonks. I scoured our website for any mention of him, nothing turned up. I checked our catalog, books on GE, and newspaper clippings files, still nothing. I found a few news articles online and a bit about his work while at GE, but not much regarding his social justice work in Schenectady.

Yesterday, I decided to open up the 1970 Schenectady Board of Representatives Proceedings. I don’t even really remember what I was looking up, but the first page I opened it to was a report on the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission on Human Rights was created in 1965 to foster mutual respect and understanding among all racial, religious, and nationality groups in the community. One of the Commissions main duties was (and is) to receive complaints of alleged discrimination and to bring these complaints to the State Commission for Human Rights for further examination.

What caught my interest on the page were the words Discrimination in Housing written in bold at the bottom of page 436. The report describes a black woman who brought a case to the Human Rights Commission claiming that she met with an agent of an absentee landlord who showed her a house.  The next day a white woman asked about the house and the agent stated that the neighborhood had an “anti-black attitude” and said “When they move in we are liable to have riots.” This event happened two years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex. The case made its way to the State Division of Human Rights and the owners of the property were fined $200 (about $1,200 today) and restrictions were placed on the landlord to assure that they would comply with the act in the future. I flipped through a few pages to see who gave this part of the report and it was none other than Lewi Tonks.

Tonks was a physicist who, before working at GE, helped develop a supersonic submarine detection for the U.S. Navy. He joined GE in 1923 where he researched thermionic emission, ferromagnetic, thermodynamics of surface films, and other projects that I had to look up on Wikipedia in order to understand what they are. In 1946 he started working with the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory which was operated by GE for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the time. At KAPL, he served as the manager of physics and also worked on the reactor for the nuclear submarine the Sea Wolf. In 1955, Tonks also worked on designing the first fusion device.  So, He was obviously working on some amazing projects in the scientific community, but he was also heavily involved with social issues in Schenectady.

Lewi Tonks hard at work in room 401. He would stay in room 401 until 1938 when he moved up to room 505.
After retiring from GE, he started volunteering for the Commission on Human Rights where he volunteered at least five days a week. In the 1970 report to the County Board of Supervisors, Tonks requests assistance from the Board, specifically in the form of increasing the salary for a potential executive director to assist the sole full-time staff member Anne Donnelly. Donnelly’s main duties were coordinating the activities of the Commission and the various committees of the Commission, writing reports and minutes, attending meetings relevant to the Commission, attending legislative hearings and workshops, among other things. So, she had a bit of a full plate working for the Commission. Tonks takes a bit of a dig at the Board saying “We are paying very careful attention to the caliber of individual whom we would ask to take this responsible role. We are hampered in this search by the low salary level established by the Board of Representatives.” In 1969, the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights compared the budgets and staff of the Schenectady Commission to others cities of similar size in New York. Niagara Falls had a slightly higher population than Schenectady in 1969, but the budget for their Commission on Human Rights was $38,000 compared to Schenectady’s meager $6,520. So the increase of that Tonks called for was a drop in the bucket compared to cities of similar sizes.

"He frightened and angered those who obstruct justice, and he exposed those who still give lip service to justice and peace. And because hope is so necessary to us all, I shall see in every tiny hard-fought victory for human rights and dignity, and off-spring of his spirit and vision. And I shall be grateful to Lewi, and glad." - Friend of Lewi Tonks, Peter Crawford

Dr. Tonks saw the budget increase and hiring of an executive director for the commission in 1971. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack on June 30, 1971. In addition to his work on the Commission on Human Rights, Tonks was also involved with the committee of clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam. His legacy lived on in the Lewi Tonks Revolving Bail Fund which was created by his family. The bail fund provided bail for people who could not afford it. In the 1971 annual report of the Commission, Anne Donnely stated that Lewi “died knowing that a director was being hired and that the job to be done was actually beginning. I am glad that Lewi Tonks chose to work with me – not only for what I learned from him but because our friendship deepened and added greatly to my life.”

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tracing the History of Your House Can Be Fun…Especially When Your House Is a PokéStop

It’s no secret that the staff at SCHS is hooked on the Pokémon Go craze (see this Daily Gazette article, this piece on Channel 6, and this article on For me, the game touches on a nostalgic nerve as I played Pokémon when I was younger. It then combines that nostalgia with another of my favorite things, history. Many of the pokéstops in the area are places of historical significance and if you have ever walked around the Stockade you would know that many of the buildings have markers stating their historical significance. We’re hoping that by having these landmarks, buildings, and other historic sites as pokéstops, people will start asking questions about the interesting and sometimes weird history of Schenectady. SCHS has been hosting impromptu pokéstop walking tours of the Stockade to try and bring history to the forefront of the game and explain the background behind some of the more prominent pokéstops and gyms in the neighborhood.

When walking around the Stockade on my lunch break I try to take a look many of the historic markers on the houses around the neighborhood. One potential positive of the game is that it could get people to think about their neighborhood in a new light. Judging by the popularity of our tour and similar ones in other historical areas, there are people playing the game who are interested in learning about local history.

One that I just never really seemed to notice was on the corner of Front St. and Washington Ave. which also happens to be the closest pokéstop to 32 Washington (well, besides 32 Washington itself). It wasn’t until our pokéstop tour that I noticed that this house has a marker that states that it was the home of blacksmith Aaron Dickinson. But that’s not all! It also has quite a political history being the home of Schenectady mayor J. Teller Schoolcraft and John Prince, the merchant and Assemblyman of Albany County who Princetown was named after.  

Whether your house is a pokéstop or not, tracing the history of your house can be interesting as you piece together the lives of people who lived in your house before you. It can also give you more of a connection to your neighborhood as you learn more about the people who lived there in the past and what the neighborhood looked like. The changing styles of architecture in your area also tell the story of how your neighborhood changed over the years. You also never know what sort of information you will turn up during your search. You may not find all the answers to the questions you’re looking for, but starting your house history can be very rewarding.

The Schenectady County Historical Society will be hosting a house history workshop on August 13th from 2pm to 4pm to help you get started with your house history research. After the workshop, you’ll be able to use the historical society’s library to use some of the resources that you learned about in the workshop. This workshop is free for members of the historical society and $5.00 for non-members.