Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Railroad Beginnings in Schenectady

The Dewitt Clinton. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

How great a role does transportation play in our lives? Think back for a moment to the times when our forebears had to walk to get from place to place – imagine how their individual lives and communities changed when they added horses or camels to the way they could move about – and then wheels and wagons – and various kinds of water borne craft – canoes – bateaux – and canals – and then railroads – and automobiles and airplanes – each change in transportation affected the lives of individuals and reorganized the way entire communities provided their livelihoods. Imagine the network of transportation we are a part of when we stand in one the aisles of the Price Chopper shopping for the articles that meet our desires and needs.

George Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866)

One of the great changes which occurred now a little less than two hundred years ago was the invention of the steam locomotive and, directly on its heels, the creation of the network of railroads. An event of singular importance in this change occurred here in Schenectady, prompted by a person who was, at the beginning of the 19th century, a member of this community. George W. Featherstonhaugh, an Englishman, living in Duanesburgh, the husband of Sara Duane, whom he had met while rescuing her and her mother, the widow of James Duane, Maria Livingston Duane, as they careened down a street in Philadelphia in a stage coach whose team of horses had “run away.” George married Sara on November 6, 1808 at Saint George’s Church in Schenectady. They went on to live in a home on a lake in Duanesburg, a lake which today bears George’s name, Featherstonhaugh Lake. George W. Featherstonhaugh was a person who possessed many gifts and used them well for the benefit of the community of which he was a part. One of his gifts was the vision to see and grasp the importance of steam locomotives and to begin, in 1812, campaigning for the construction of railroads. Apparently, there were many people who did not agree with his view of the possibilities of steam locomotion and it took a while for him through written and oral communication to gain acceptance of the idea.

Finally, on March 27, 1826, the New York State legislature granted a charter for the Mohawk-Hudson railroad, a railway proposed connecting Albany to Schenectady. The Directors of this railway were George W. Featherstonhaugh and the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. A stipulation included in the charter was that construction of the railroad would have to begin within six years after the date the charter was granted. On July 29, 1830, Van Rensselaer ceremoniously broke ground to begin the erection of the Mohawk-Hudson railroad. In the meantime, George W. Featherstonhaugh, about whose talents there was never any doubt, but whose luck did not match his talents, lost two of his children, his home in Duanesburg, which burned down, and his wife, who died while they were living in New York City. The Mohawk-Hudson Railroad, the product of Featherstonhaugh’s imagination was completed under the direction of John Jarvis, another extraordinarily talented person, by July 25, 1831.

After a series of test runs, a locomotive called the Dewitt Clinton established a regular railroad service between Albany and Schenectady before the end of September, 1831. Despite the fact that the legislature had granted the charter which made the railroad possible, there was, on the part of many members of the legislature, resistance to the railroad because it became quickly apparent that it was bound to be a very effective competitor with the state-owned Erie Canal.

Schenectady's first railroad station, constructed in 1831. The station was located opposite the intersection of Crane Street and Third Avenue. This photograph of the building in disrepair was likely taken soon before the building was torn down in 1921. Photograph from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Nevertheless, the speed of railroad travel, so much greater that other forms of transportation at the time, led in the decade of 1830 to 1840 to a rapid expansion of railroads. Saratoga-Schenectady, Utica-Schenectady, and Troy-Schenectady were quickly added to the Mohawk-Hudson. By 1843 Schenectady was the “hub” of railroad travel in New York State! The impact of railroad travel was evident in the fact that on July 7, 1853, the New York Central Railroad was formed – in 22 years New York City had been linked by rail to the Great Lakes and railroads were being built everywhere in the United States! In the spring of 1926 a celebration was held commemorating the 100th anniversary of railroad travel and several people from Schenectady, including descendants of George W. Featherstonhaugh and the Mayor of Schenectady, were honored by being seated at the head table.

Site of the city's first railroad station today.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Taormina.

Take a ride (or a walk!) up Crane Street – up the hill once known as “Engine Hill.” As you travel upward, on your left, opposite the junction of Crane Street and Third Avenue, you will see a building marked “Fastenal Company.” On the building there is a plaque marking the place where the first railroad station in Schenectady once stood – and where – in 1831 – the state’s most prominent citizens gathered to celebrate the completion of the Mohawk-Hudson Railroad and to begin the railroad system which ultimately linked the eastern and western and northern and southern extremities of the entire continent.

Historic marker commemorating the Crane Street railroad station.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Taormina.

The dramatic impact of the change in which Schenectady played such a significant role is hardly as evident to us today in 2012 as it must have been when these changes began taking place nearly two hundred years ago, but, perhaps, for those of us who revel in history, the recollection of these events can still provide memories which are a source of interest and pleasure.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Liberty Flag in Schenectady

Photograph of Liberty flag. From collection of Schenectady County Historical Society.
This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

Well over 200 years ago the Liberty Flag you see pictured above gained the attention of people living in this locality. The symbol of the “Sons of Liberty”, the flag was duplicated many times by American colonists from Georgia to Massachusetts expressing their disagreement with the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the King and Parliament of Great Britain.

Colonel Barré, c. 1765,
by Douglas Hamilton.
Image found online.
The “Sons of Liberty” became a focal point of American resistance to British rule early in 1765 when the British government instituted the Stamp Act. This part of American history began when Isaac BarrĂ©, a veteran of the French and Indian War and, at this time, a member of Parliament protested against the passage of this act, referring to the colonists whom he had gotten to know as a result of his service in the war as “Sons of Liberty” and pointed out to his audience:
"They planted by your care! No, your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated, inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable, and among others to the cruelties of a savage foe and actuated by principles of true English liberties, they met all hardships with pleasure compared with those they suffered in their own country from the hands of those who should be their friends."

When the language used by Barre made its way to America, it resulted almost immediately in the creation of a host of “semi-secret societies of colonial resistance” to what an overwhelming number of people felt was unfair taxation.

One of the “semi-secret societies” which literally sprang into existence was the Albany Sons of Liberty responding with alacrity to an invitation from the Sons of Liberty in New York City. Albany’s newly created chapter immediately extended an invitation to Schenectady and Schenectady, so we are informed by two notable local historians, John Warren Joyce and William Efner, simply ignored the invitation!
The protest on the part of the Sons of Liberty was so great that the British repealed the Stamp Act, replacing it, as historians tell us, with a host of other forms of equally objectionable taxation whose ultimate effect was the American Revolution and American Independence.

In the meantime, the Liberty Flag did not make its appearance in Schenectady until January 26, 1771, when, so we are informed in a letter written by John Sanders and John Baptist Van Eps to Sir William Johnson, “The inhabitants and freeholders have also put up a Liberty pole well bound with iron bars, twenty foot above the ground in about the center of our town and spiked it with a great many iron nails with the flag at the top.”  The location of this pole was at Ferry Street at the approximate junction of what is now Ferry Street and Liberty Street, near the tavern of a “Major Snell”.  The letter in addressing thanks to Sir William also refers to “this weighty dispute of our unlucky town”. We should notice as well that the reference to people putting up the flag is to “inhabitants and freeholders”.  In a publication called “Pathways of Time,” in a chapter written by William Efner, we learn that it was customary to refer to the more recently arrived English speakers as “inhabitants” and to the earlier and original Dutch settlers as “descendants”. In Efner’s discourse we learn about “the bitter struggle between the descendants of the original Dutch pioneers and the Yankee and 'English' newcomers for control of the common lands”, an argument which apparently went on for over 100 years, from 1684 until its settlement in 1798. The point as part of this discussion is that the people raising the “Liberty Flag” on their newly erected “Liberty Pole” in 1771 were protesting not taxation without representation, but rather the insistence of the “Descendants” that the “Inhabitants” did not have the right to property within the bounds of the Schenectady Patent! That was the “weighty dispute of our unlucky town” referred to by Sanders and Van Eps.

A second “Liberty Pole” was erected in Schenectady on January 12, 1774 near the southwest corner of Church and what was to become Union Street. On this occasion, the flag raising stimulated a gathering of fifty men whose names are listed for us, in their own handwriting, in the records about this event at the Schenectady County Historical Society. There was some suggestion made at the time this event occurred that local authorities were going to charge the participants with “rioting”, but there were no acts of violence and no damage was done, so the charge was never carried out against the participants.

Nicholas Veeder of Glenville poses with the Liberty flag.
Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
Now as we look back at the flag we recognize it, apparently, as the same one in the possession of Nicholas Veeder, Schenectady’s longest lived veteran of the Revolutionary. In the photograph posted here, we see him seated in front of his hone in Glenville, in uniform, beneath the Liberty Flag which was then in his possession. Veeder, who lived until he was 101 years old, was supposed to have carried this flag at the Battle of Saratoga. We know for sure that he did carry it for years afterward in the Fourth of July parades in Schenectady of which he, after his friends have given him his annual bath, was a regular participant. When Veeder made his way to his ultimate reward, the flag came into the possession of the Sanders family who kept it for twenty years, making a gift of it, at last, to the Historical Society where it rests today.

Besides the flag to remind us of the glories of the past, we have one other constant reminder which I learned of recently. Liberty Street came into existence in 1802, running from west to east and beginning at Ferry Street, at that time, and was given its name to commemorate the Liberty Pole which once stood where it began.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Research in the Library: Identifying a Diary's Writer

Sadie Levi's diary entries for August 20-25, 1886.
The entries on these pages mention socializing, working at the family's store, and a trip to the "electric light works."
Last month, the Library received a diary that was found in a barn in Cherry Valley, New York. The donor of the diary contacted us after finding several references to Schenectady in the diary. The diarist's name was not indicated, and most people are referred to in the diary only by first names. The challenge we faced was to identify the writer of the diary.

First, we went through the daily entries in the diary to pick out clues. The diary charts the activities of a young woman in her late teens or early twenties; she often writes about visiting with friends and family, shopping, taking care of younger siblings, and going out with a suitor. We gathered that she was a daughter of a merchant -- the diary includes frequent references to the family's store. The diary also frequently mentions Jewish holidays and religious services.

From the context of the diary, we understood that the diary writer lived with her parents, along with a few younger siblings. She also mentions several other family members who could have been older siblings not living at home or cousins. Phrases in the diary such as "Ma and I went to Barney's to get Laura a dress" or "I was home all afternoon with Ruth as she has a sore throat" helped us to identify names of siblings who likely lived with her at home at the time. We were able to identify a younger brother, Sidney. An entry on January 7, 1886 lists that day as his birthday.

Knowing that Congregation Gates of Heaven was the only Jewish congregation in Schenectady until the late 1880s, we thought that it might be possible that the family stayed with the congregation and might be buried in the Gates of Heaven cemetery. We acted on this hunch and checked through the Gates of Heaven cemetery records in our collection in search of any Sidney buried there with the birthdate of January 7. We found a Sidney Levi with a matching birthdate -- now we had a last name!

After we had a possible surname, a search of census records, family files, obituaries, city directories, cemetery records, and wills yielded much more contextual information and built information about the diary's author and her family tree. We believe the diary was written by Sarah "Sadie" Levi (1865-1939), daughter of Jonathan Levi, a prosperous wholesale grocer and a prominent member of the community in Schenectady. Jonathan Levi arrived in Schenectady in 1848 and headed one of the city’s oldest Jewish families. He and his wife Eliza (Susholz) had eleven children: Fannie, Esther, Susan, Pauline, Sophie, Sadie, Minnie, Ruth, Albert, Laura, and Sidney. These names matched names mentioned in the diary, as did the name of Sadie's boyfriend, Ed, who she often mentions as visiting "after the store closed" -- Sadie went on to marry Edward Cohen, a partner in her father’s business.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eastholm Aviation Field

Schenectadians flocked to Eastholm Aviation Field in 1919 to experience flight with local aviator Philip D. Lucas.
Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
 One of our members recently donated some snapshots of the Eastholm Aviation Field near the intersection of Consaul Road and Balltown Road in what was, at that time, Niskayuna. Two of the photographs were recognizable as images that Edward Haury had shared with Larry Hart, who had published two of the photos in his "Tales of Old Dorp" newspaper column in the Schenectady Gazette.

The airfield was first used in early August 1919 and was established for the Aerial Activities Corporation, a business chartered in July 1919, which located its primary office in Schenectady. Lt. Philip D. Lucas, a World War I veteran and a pilot, gave exhibitions and carried passengers under the auspices of the company. After picking up his Curtiss plane from Mineola, New York, Lucas began the season in late July flying from "the Schermerhorn field on the river road." A week later, a newspaper article annouced the construction of the airfield near Balltown Road and Consaul Road on land owned by the Eastholm Realty Company. On August 11, 1919, the city's common council passed an ordinance authorizing an expenditure of $50 yearly to lease the airfield. General Electric offered to equip the field with lighting without cost to the city.

During the course of Lucas' two-month flying season in Schenectady in 1919, he took over 500 trips in the air. Many Schenectadians went along with him to experience flight for the first time, including many prominent citizens, among them Mayor Charles Simon and Fire Chief Yates. Women were especially encouraged to try flying; Lucas held special "ladies' days" at Eastholm Aviation Field and in a September 10, 1919 article in the Schenectady Gazette, he "expressed admiration of the pluckiness of the many women who had flown with him in Schenectady . . . when the flights end the flyers of the fair sex are the most enthusiastic of his passengers." Although his operations were based in Schenectady, Lucas also traveled to other cities in New England and central New York to demonstrate flying to the public.

Advertisement for flying with Philip D. Lucas at Eastholm Aviation Field from September 13, 1919 Schenectady Gazette.
Newspaper image retrieved via
In addition to Lucas' flights, Eastholm Aviation Field also hosted an "aviation parade" as a recruiting drive for the U.S. Army Air Service in August. In October, vaudeville entertainer and aviator Hope Eden flew her personal airplane over Schenectady several times before landing at the field.

Scene at Eastholm Aviation Field. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

We have not found any indication of the airfield's use after its initial 1919 season. Philip D. Lucas is listed as an employee of the General Electric company in the 1920 city directory. Within the next few years, Lucas moved to the Watertown area, where he married Frances Fagan. He went on to serve as an engineer for Bethlehem Steel in Chile, then entered the Air Force during World War II, retiring from military service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, Lucas relocated to Washington, D.C., where he was connected with the Civil Aeronautics Department and served at the National Airport. He died in 1971 in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the age of 78. The area that made up the Eastholm Aviation Field was developed in the 1920s, and is now part of the Woodlawn neighborhood in the city of Schenectady.