Thursday, July 25, 2013

Behind the Scenes at Ellis Hospital

Bottles are sterilized and filled with baby formula in Ellis Hospital's formula room, 1955. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

When we think of people who work in hospitals, many of us think of the doctors, nurses, and other medical support staff that we see when we are in a hospital as a patient or visitor. When we see historic photographs of hospitals, the images that we see also tend to show us the doctors and nurses that operated on patients, tended to them, and made them well. But in addition to the medical personnel that are integral to the operation of hospitals, many people also work behind the scenes to keep the hospital running smoothly -- people who clean floors, prepare meals, do laundry, wash dishes, collect garbage, answer telephones, tend to the hospital grounds, type, sew uniforms, repair machinery, receive deliveries . . . the list goes on and on. From a recently-received collection of historical photographs and documents from Ellis Hospital, here are just a few images of people at work behind the scenes at Ellis Hospital, from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s.

Ellis Hospital employee Ronald Staler operates a forklift in the hospital's stockroom. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection.  

Two workers, E. Reali and J. Pella, fold sheets in the Ellis Hospital laundry, ca. 1955. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

At work in an office at Ellis Hospital in 1977. Left to right: Ellen Mulyca, clerk typist; Russell Dunn, manager of patient and family services; Betty Lou Mikenas, secretary. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

Dishwashers at work in the food service section of Ellis Hospital, ca. 1955. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection.  

At work in the sewing room at Ellis Hospital in 1956. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

In this 1980 photograph, maintenance supervisor Domenic Adams waters plants he is growing to be planted on the Ellis Hospital grounds. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

Telephone operators at work at the switchboard, ca. 1950s. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

Pressing uniforms in the Ellis Hospital laundry, ca. 1950s. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

Harry Hallam (left) and Lugene Kettner, employees from the maintenance department at Ellis Hospital, at work in 1975. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection. 

Food service workers prepare meals to be delivered to patients, ca. 1960s. Photograph from Ellis Hospital Collection.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Schenectady's Horse-Drawn Trolleys, 1887-1891

Schenectady Street Railway Company horsecar on Washington Avenue in Schenectady. This photo is said to have been taken on the last day of horsecar service, July 2, 1891. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

During this week in the year 1887, the Schenectady Street Railway Company first began offering trolley services to the public. The company started its service with 30 horses, 5 trolley cars, and 4 sleighs. The single track route for the trolley line ran about 2 miles, from the Schenectady side of the Scotia bridge at the foot of Washington Avenue, up State Street, and ending at the company's stables, car barn, and office at Brandywine Avenue and State Street. The trolley service opened on July 16, 1887, and began with a dedication at Crescent Park. The inaugural trolley was painted a bright red and yellow, and was pulled by a pair of white horses. Fourth ward alderman J. Ezra McCue was said to be the first man to board the trolley in Schenectady and pay the 5-cent fare, ushering in the era of trolley transportation that would continue in Schenectady through the mid-1940s.

A horse-drawn trolley travels along State Street, ca. 1890. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The trolleys were an improvement over the stagecoach -- horses could haul more people more easily over rails than they could over cobblestone or rutted roads. Like in any new venture, unforeseen problems did crop up. One initial problem was that the horses were not used to pulling a trolley car; some pulled the cars off of the track and onto the cobblestone streets. This was quickly resolved as both horses and drivers became accustomed to the vehicles. Another concern was how to manage crossing the railroad tracks on State Street; the tracks had not yet been elevated and were at street level. The city government first ordered that the trolley stop at the tracks, all passengers exit and cross the tracks on foot, then board a second trolley waiting on the other side. Public protest soon quashed this measure, and the wave of the flagman then allowed streetcars to cross.

A lone horse works hard to pull a trolley car along in this early photo. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection. 

Horsecars came late to Schenectady, having been used in other American cities since the 1830s. By the mid-1880s, there were over 400 trolley companies in operation nationwide. By the time horse-drawn streetcar service came to Schenectady, the Edison Machine Works (later the General Electric Company) had already been established, and the city was standing on the threshold of its rapid development as the "Electric City." Larry Hart, in a 1960 Schenectady Union-Star column, noted that "the horsecar was doomed to early replacement here by an offspring of the wonder of the age -- electricity." After only four short years, the route was electrified and electric trolley service began on July 2, 1891. Being at least twice as fast as the horse-drawn trolleys, the electric trolley helped the city to expand in the coming years. By 1927, the Schenectady Railway Company operated 140 miles of track, employed over 500 people, owned over 200 cars -- certainly a far cry from the streetcar's beginnings in Schenectady 40 years before.

Even after the use of horses was discontinued for trolley service, the Schenectady Railway Company continued to use horses for its bright red tower wagon, an apparatus used to work on breaks on overhead trolley wires, repair gas lights above streets, and hang banners. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Calling All Boys from 11 to 15!": Schenectady's Soap Box Derby

Competitors in Schenectady's Soap Box Derby in the late 1940s on Fehr Avenue near Central Park. Winners of the local Soap Box Derby then went on the compete at the All-American Soap Box Derby at Derby headquarters in Akron, Ohio. Photo from Larry Hart Collection. 

"All boys of Schenectady and its immediate vicinity who like excitement, adventure, racing - front and center," read the opening sentence of a Schenectady Gazette article encouraging local boys to sign up for Schenectady's first-ever Soap Box Derby in 1937. Sign up they did; the late 1930s, late 1940s, and early 1950s saw scores of local boys compete annually.

13-year-old Richard Vandercar constructs his soap box racer in the basement of his Elbert Street home in this June 25, 1946 Schenectady Gazette photo. Image obtained via

America's first official Soap Box Derby was held only three years before the first Derby in Schenectady. The idea for the national Derby had come from reporter Myron Scott of Dayton, Ohio, who conceived of a competition after he saw some boys racing in homemade vehicles in 1933. Chevrolet soon stepped up as corporate sponsor for the event, and the first All-American Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton in 1934. The national race moved to Akron, Ohio, the following year and has remained there ever since. The competition was open to boys from ages 11-15. Boys had to make their racer without adult assistance, and their racer had to be equipped with steering wheels and brakes. Local youths used discarded scraps, wooden crates, and other found materials to construct their cars.  The winners of local races in approximately 120 American cities would travel on to Akron to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Racers line up as spectators gather on Fehr Avenue. 87 boys competed in this 1947 race. Photo from Larry Hart Collection. 

The first Soap Box Derby in Schenectady was held on July 24, 1937, on Fehr Avenue off of State Street. The Derby was preceded by a parade of the entrants and Derby officials. In total, 175 local boys entered the race, which was sponsored an promoted by the Schenectady Gazette and local Chevrolet dealerships. Boys competed in two classes - one class for 11- and 12-year-olds and one class for 13-to-15-year-olds. The winner, 15-year-old Waldron Stemm of Scotia, was sent to represent Schenectady in the national competition and earned a gold medal, a trophy, and additional prizes from local businesses. Additionally, prizes were awarded for the best designed car,the best upholstered car, the best designed set of brakes, and the first boy to construct his racer. Each entrant was given a regulation steel racing helmet, and a number of local businesses and organizations, such as the Apex Store, Barney's, Carl Company, Reinhard's Cycle Shop, Goldstock's, White Studios, and the YMCA offered prizes. Schenectady's civic leaders called the Derby a resounding success. "Despite the fact that Saturday's derby was the first of that nature ever conducted in this section," wrote the Schenectady Gazette, "many fine miniature cars were constructed. Next year the youngsters will be familiar enough with the derby idea to iron out many of the construction wrinkles with the result that competition should be on a much higher plane." Soap Box Derbies continued in Schenectady through 1940. The competition was suspended from 1941 through 1945 (the national competition was also halted for the years 1942-1945); it was resumed in 1946.

Nancy Adams presents the first-prize trophy to 1946 Schenectady Soap Box Derby winner Paul Supley. All participants in the race received a racing helmet and a Schenectady Gazette Soap Box Derby t-shirt. Photo from August 5, 1946 Schenectady Gazette; image obtained via

When the competition resumed in 1946, it came back with a bang. WRGB televised the races, which were also featured on local radio. 1946 was also the only year that the competition was held on Gerling Street, between Lenox Road and Golf Avenue, rather than on Fehr Avenue. Advertisements in the Schenectady Gazette featured sponsorships of specific racers by local businesses -- in 1948, the Town Tavern endorsed "JoJo" Niedhammer, while the Sealtest General Ice Cream Corp. championed Robert Bayer and Richard Kelly and the Sears store on Erie Boulevard expressed confidence that either Sid Della Ratta or Albert Madonna would take home the gold. The Derby continued in Schenectady through 1951; the next year, the location of the regional contest was moved to Albany before shutting down in 1954. The Albany Soap Box Derby was resumed in the early 1960s and continued until the early 1970s. The Soap Box Derby also had a brief revival in Schenectady, holding races at Mohawk Mall for a few years before returning to the Fehr Avenue site in 1976. 1976 was the last year of the Soap Box Derby in Schenectady; the race that year was also won by a girl, 12-year-old Christine DuBrey of Schenectady. Girls were allowed to compete at the national level beginning in 1971. Today, the region's races now occur under the auspices of the Capital District Soap Box Derby, with annual races being held on Madison Avenue in Albany.

Spectators look on as racers prepare to compete in the 1947 Schenectady Soap Box Derby. Photo from Larry Hart Collection.  

This advertisement for the 1940 Schenectady Soap Box Derby appeared in the Schenectady Gazette on June 18, 1940. Image obtained via

Friday, July 5, 2013

Celebrate the Erie Canal in July

This postcard image of Dock Street along the Erie Canal in Schenectady, ca. 1910, illustrates the canal as a site of commerce and industry, as well as pleasure. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard collection. 

On July 4, 1817, construction began on the original Erie Canal at Rome, New York. The construction of the canal was an extraordinary feat of engineering as well as state-sponsored economic development, and it had a great impact on trade, transportation, and the development of cities and rural communities that ran along its route from Albany to Buffalo. The Grems-Doolittle Library has recently compiled a guide to sources about the Erie Canal in our Library that includes books, photographs, oral histories, original documents, and other materials. The research guide can be found by clicking this link. Come in and visit us to find out more! We've also included a few Erie Canal-related tidbits below for you to enjoy.

Erie Canal enthusiasts might also want to check out a new exhibit at our Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction, in the Nilsen Dutch Barn. The exhibit, The Erie Impact: Changing Agriculture in the Mohawk River Valley, highlights the changes that occurred on farms along the Mohawk after the construction of the canal. The Mabees and their neighbors shifted from cash crops like corn and wheat to specialized products like dairy, orchard fruits, and vegetables. This is a chance to see some of the wonderful agricultural and cooking tools found in the Mabee Farm collection.

The history of the Erie Canal also comes alive on July 20, 2013 at the Mabee Farm Historic Site with a program "After Erie: The Impact of the Erie Canal on Mohawk Valley Agriculture." This family-friendly event will feature hands-on activities and exhibits highlighting the changes the Mabee Farm and its neighbors along the Mohawk River underwent because of the construction of the Erie Canal. Focusing in on broomcorn, hops, the orchard, and the vegetable garden, visitors will have the chance to see if they have the skills to be an 18th Century farmer, brewer, broom maker, or cook.

If you have any questions about this upcoming event or the exhibit, please contact our Assistant Curator / Educator, Jenna Peterson, at or by phone at 518-887-5073, ext. 104.

Ice-skaters enjoy the frozen Erie Canal in Schenectady, just south of State Street, circa 1910.  Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Erie Canal weigh master's bill dated June 20, 1879. It was issued by Thomas Riley, weigh master at the West Troy weigh lock, for the boat John W. Hall of Whitehall. At that time, boats on the canal were weighed and a toll charged according to their weight. From Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection. 

Picture postcard of the Erie Canal through Rotterdam. From Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

The enlargement of the Erie Canal was necessary to accommodate canal traffic, but not everyone was happy with the process. This note from the Mabee Family Papers (M-LM-43) estimates damage to the property of Simon and Sarah Mabee in Rotterdam Junction due to the enlargement of the canal at $150.00. The damage to the property is identified as damage due to riding over the soil and the destruction of fences. 

Travelers on board the Kittie West, an excursion boat that transported passengers between Schenectady, Rexford, and Vischer Ferry. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library.