Friday, January 30, 2015

The Blizzard of 1888

A view of the lower State Street after the Blizzard of 1888. Merchant storefronts, including T. H. Reeves at 257 State Street and Myers the Jeweler at 271 State Street, are visible. Looking at the men standing in the lower left gives the viewer a sense of the height of the snow piles along the street. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Ann Eignor. 

March 11, 1888 saw the beginning of an unexpected late winter storm that over the next three days dumped nearly 48 inches of snow on the Schenectady area. High winds whipped the snow into drifts 10-15 feet high. That storm, which has come down to us as The Blizzard of 1888, is the standard by which all subsequent snowstorms are measured. Newspapers from 1927 until as recently as 2009 proclaimed that the 1888 blizzard still ranks as the Biggest Storm.

Those of us who recall the Blizzard of 1958 also remember how the “old-timers” of those days told us story after story assuring us that 1888 was worse. Even today. Wikipedia lists the Blizzard of 1888 as “one of the most severe recorded blizzards in the history of the United States of America.”

Another view of lower State Street following the Blizzard of 1888. Looking at the man standing at lower right gives the viewer a sense of the height of the snow piles along the street. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

At first, Schenectadians thought they were experiencing an early spring storm. It wasn’t until late on March 12 that the strength of the storm became obvious. Gales of wind whipped the snow into drifts - blocking sidewalks, streets, railroad tracks, and stranding many people in their homes. This, at a time when snow removal consisted primarily of men with shovels. By March 13, snow was so deep that businesses and industry came to a standstill. Deliveries of staples, such as milk and coal, were extremely limited. Railway travel from Schenectady to Albany required four engines on a single train on the March 12, and then came to a halt completely.

A small crowd gathers in front of shops on Ferry Street following the Blizzard of 1888. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

The Schenectady Locomotive Works (which would later become the American Locomotive Company) suspended business and the snow continued to fall. Even funerals were postponed. According to legend, the body of a man who died in Rotterdam was placed on an unheated back porch until the roads re-opened. On March 14, the snow subsided, some businesses re-opened, and life gradually returned to normal, leaving memories and stories to be passed on for generations.

Many believed that Schenectady bore the brunt of the storm; however, the entire Northeast was affected. Partly as a result of the blizzard, officials in New York City decided that utilities and mass transport needed to be underground, leading to the creation of the New York City subway system.

Fortunately for residents of the “Great Northeast,” the methods of forecasting weather and removing snow have both greatly improved since the famous Blizzard of 1888.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Civil Defense and Civil Disobedience: Operation Alert in Schenectady in 1960

Protesters assembled in Veterans Park (then Crescent Park) at 1:45 p.m. on May 3, 1960, and remained holdings signs through the take-cover drill, which was in effect all over Schenectady from 2:15-2:30 p.m. The protesters carried leaflets criticizing civil defense efforts and urged efforts toward peace and an end to the nuclear arms race. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

At 2:15 p.m. on May 3, 1960, in response to an alarm that rang all over the city, Schenectadians rushed to cover to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. In downtown Schenectady, cars vacated the streets and pedestrians moved indoors. In minutes, Schenectady's downtown transformed from bustling to ghostly still. Although the response was rapid, the threat was not real. This was a drill as part of the city's efforts for Operation Alert, a nationwide civil defense exercise.

Operation Alert originated in 1954, under the auspices of the United States Federal Civil Defense Agency. Operation Alert took place in over 100 cities across America. Citizens in the "target" areas were required to take cover for 15 minutes. The drills also provided an opportunity for civil defense officials, hospitals, schools, and police departments to test their response times, communication systems, and overall readiness to respond to an attack. The day following a drill, newspapers in "target" areas would often publish articles reporting on the fictitious attacks, including the numbers of bombs dropped, cities and towns hit, and casualties.

Congested traffic and scores of pedestrians throng State Street on the afternoon of May 3, 1960, moments before a take-cover drill was held. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady Police Department patrolman Harold McConvery stands at the nearly deserted intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street on May 3, 1960, overseeing the take-cover drill as part of Operation Alert. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady participated in several Operation Alerts, from the first exercise in 1954 until the last in 1961. However, the Operation Alert held in 1960 was significant in that appears to be the only year that a public demonstration was staged in the city to protest the civil defense exercise. Civil defense efforts in New York State were taken very seriously. Beginning in 1955, failure to take cover during an Operation Alert drill was punishable with a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail under New York State law.

The public was informed of the timing of the take cover drill -- the only portion of Operation Alert activity that demanded the cooperation of the entire public -- in the days before the exercises began. A notice in the Schenectady Gazette read, "public participation is mandatory, under federal orders." The take-cover signal, described as "giving a fluctuating or warbling tone," was to commence at 2:15 p.m. At that time, all vehicular traffic would be stopped and pedestrians were to take cover in the doorways of stores, offices, and public buildings. 150 street intersections were manned by police to enforce the take-cover drill. William Dunn, Schenectady postmaster and the county's acting civil defense director, coordinated the exercises.

Protesters are ordered to disperse and take cover by an unidentified Schenectady police officer. The demonstrators could have been fined and/or jailed for failure to take cover during a civil defense drill under New York State law. Local police chose not to arrest the protesters. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

During the take-cover drill, approximately 25 people, 20 of whom were Union College students, stood in Veterans Park at the intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street. Some carried signs that read "Civil Defense is Futile" and "Remember There Will Be No Survivors." They protesters carried leaflets that criticized the futility of civil defense measures, citing the ability of one medium-sized hydrogen bomb blast in the area to decimate the entire Capital Region. "The air raid drill creates a psychological expectation for atomic war, " the leaflet read, "and by preparing for war it destroys the movement for peace."

Front cover of a Schenectady County civil defense brochure. The brochure focused on evacuation in case of a nuclear attack. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection.

In an article written after 1960's Operation Alert was over, drill coordinator William Dunn was quoted as saying "I recognize and sympathize with the right of any United States citizen to hold an opinion and express that opinion. I was encouraged, however, to note the size of the demonstration." "We tolerated the demonstration," Police Captain Frank Barrett was quoted as saying in the Schenectady Gazette. Barrett explained that the decision was made not to arrest the protesters as doing so would "build up the protest and make 'martyrs' of the demonstrators."

On May 6, an editorial appeared in the Schenectady Gazette criticizing the Union College students who had participated in the protest. "We wonder if [the students] would be happy to see everyone else use the same tactic to register disagreement with other things the government is doing or not doing," the editorial read. "Isn't it obvious that the result would be chaos and anarchy?" The writer closed the editorial by saying, "numerous Americans are dissatisfied or in doubt about the wisdom of the government's nuclear or civil defense policies, but most of them refrain from taking the unnecessary path of defiance to express themselves."

The intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street, usually busy in the afternoon, is nearly empty after the take-cover alarm was sounded at 2:15 p.m. Note the pedestrians taking cover in the doorways of local businesses, as if shielding themselves from a brief rain shower. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

A letter to the editor was soon published in response. The writer, identified only as F.G.L. of Scotia, responded to the editorial's argument that a handful of local college students were the only local people opposed to Operation Alert. "Several mothers of children in grade school were concerned about their children being frightened by being herded into hallways and told to cover their eyes," F.G.L. wrote. "I think it is unscrupulous and immoral to involve little children in power politics. I would expect this to happen in Russia or China, but it doesn't have to happen here. How can we act morally superior unless we are?"

Local high school students also had the opportunity to weigh in on Operation Alert in 1960. A guest article in the Schenectady Gazette by Niskayuna High School student Vickie Mindel asked if the protesters were representative of the majority of young people in the area. Taking on a survey of local high school students, Mindel noted that "the majority of young people questioned felt that in case of attack everyone in this area would be killed. They expressed the futility of standing before lockers or sitting at desks." A junior at Linton High School said of Operation Alert, "It's a bunch of nonsense, because we would die anyway. Sitting at desks won't help."

The same day as the small protest in Schenectady, a number of other protests were held in cities and on college campuses around the country. In New York City, a protest in City Hall Park drew hundreds of people, including celebrities such as Norman Mailer. The following year, as Operation Alert was held again in the spring of 1961, protests proliferated in cities, towns, and college campuses nationwide (seemingly not in Schenectady, however, where newspapers did not report protest of any kind). The New York City protest grew to over 2,000 people. 1961 turned out to be the last year for Operation Alert. In 1962, it was permanently canceled.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew

Portion of exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, on display at the Mabee Farm Historic Site through March 13, 2015. 

From the moment beer first entered New York in 1609 aboard Henry Hudson's Halve Maen, it has shaped our history, our laws, our culture, and changed many lives. The exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew explores the impact beer has had in the area, from the early Dutch settlers and winding through history to the two Schenectady County microbreweries of today.

In this 1670 land agreement, the oldest original document in the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library, the Mohawks gave a tract of land to the Dutch settlers in exchange for sewant, beer, and gunpowder. Image from Historic Manuscripts Collection (LM 384).  

Beer was instrumental in the local community from the earliest days of European settlement. In fact, beer helped to purchase much of the land now in Schenectady County. In 1670, the Mohawk gave a sizable tract of land to the Dutch in exchange for beer and other trade goods. As to who was the first brewer in Schenectady, there is no clear answer. The most likely candidate would be a miller. They often took a portion, normally 1/10th, of the grain as payment and converting the grain to beer was a common practice. A 1698 map of Schenectady shows a brew house as one a few labeled buildings. The first documented brew house in Schenectady is from 1706, owned by Johannes Sanderse Glen, although he was likely not the first. Breweries became so prolific along Union Street that prior to the Revolutionary War, parts of Union Street were known as “Brewer’s Street.”

Inn sign for Jacob Mabee's Inn, which was once located at the Mabee Farm Historic Site. Taverns and inns were a place for people to gather together, in addition to getting a drink. From the collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

Early taverns and inns like the one found at the Mabee Farm were immensely important in pre- and post-Revolutionary America. They were a place where people gathered to argue politics, conduct business, eat a warm meal, exchange the news of the day, find safe refuge while traveling, or simply enjoy a cool, refreshing drink with family or friends. Because these venues were so popular, brewers traveled between these business and brewed large batches of two hundred gallons or more at a time. Innkeepers then kept these in storage and served small quantities to their patrons.

Brewing supplies on display in exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew.

As Schenectady grew through the 19th century, beer continued to be an integral part of daily life. The 19th Century saw the rise of the neighborhood brewery in the Capital Region. The names of names of many area brewers in this era are known, thanks to newspapers, city directories, and other sources; however, there is little detail about or their beer. We do know from Daniel Shumay's book Utica Beer that Schenectady beer was "rated as the best around," and sold for the then-hefty sum of $5.00 per barrel.

Beer bottles made for local and regional bottlers, on display in the exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew.

You can learn more about the role of beer and brewing in Schenectady County's past at the exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, now on display through February 7, 2015, at the Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction. A peek at the exhibit and some of the artifacts, documents, and images on display are included here. For more information about the exhibit, please contact our Educator/Assistant Curator Jenna Peterson or call 518-887-5073.

Another view of a portion of the exhibit in exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, on display at the Mabee Farm Historic Site through March 13, 2015. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Mont Pleasant's Main Street": A Look Back at Crane Street

Postcard of Crane Street, ca. 1915. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

In a long letter of reminiscences about the Mont Pleasant neighborhood in Schenectady to Schenectady Gazette reporter Larry Hart, S.S. Stern wrote that Crane Street "always has been Mont Pleasant's main street." Stern listed a number of businesses that populated Crane Street in the 1920s and 1930s, from Hank Fligel's drugstore at the corner of Crane Street and Main Street, to Harry Checheck's department store at Crane Street and Fifth Street, to the Van Dyke Coffee Shop on Crane Street between Fourth Street and Main Street.

The neighborhood was first populated around the turn of the century. Italian and, especially, Polish immigrants flocked to the neighborhood, which was more spacious than other city wards. By 1910, more foreign-born Polish people resided in Mont Pleasant (the Ninth Ward of the city) than in any of the city's other wards. Hungarian and Czech families also moved to the neighborhood during the early 20th century.

The Mont Pleasant neighborhood lies roughly between the CSX railroad line to the west; to the east by Interstate 890; the Rotterdam town line serves as the neighborhood's southern boundary; Broadway serves as its northern boundary. Crane Street runs through the neighborhood, from Broadway to the Rotterdam town line.

Shared here are a number of historic photographs of Crane Street. Interested in learning more about the history of Schenectady through photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.

The intersection of Crane Street and Van Velsen Street around the turn of the 20th century. "Stop paying rent," a billboard proclaims. "Own your own home -- Buy a building lot." Home construction in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood accelerated around 1900. An Evening Star article from 1899 noted that "the sound of saw and hammer [could be] heard on all sides of the hill suburb." Image from Larry Hart Collection.    

The intersection of Crane Street and Chrisler Avenue, looking south, ca. 1915. From the neighborhood's earliest days, this has been one of Crane Street's major commercial intersections. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Mont Pleasant neighborhood residents crowd outside the Empire Market at 1012 Crane Street for the business' grand opening on April 5, 1950. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The Crane Street railroad overpass bridge in 1957. The J.C. Dearstine Lumber Company, on nearby Catalyn Street, is visible in the background. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The intersection of Crane Street and Chrisler Avenue, looking north on Crane Street, in 1965. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Schenectady's City Seal

Reverse image of Schenectady city seal. Image from Seal of Schenectady clipping file, collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.  

Marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, proclamations, resolutions, and bonds are just a few of the many documents that have been embossed with official seals. Cities and towns use seals to show that a document has been authorized or authored by a government entity.

Schenectady's official seal was adopted on January 3, 1801. Here are some fun facts about the city seal, as we celebrate its 214th birthday:
  • The sheaf of wheat in Schenectady's seal is taken from the coat of arms of the Joseph C. Yates family. Yates was the city's first mayor and the eighth governor of New York State. The city had used Yates' family crest as its unofficial seal from the years 1798-1801, before an official city seal was adopted. 
  • William Corlett was the man commissioned to have a proper official seal engraved, which was to incorporate a sheaf of wheat. Perhaps thinking that two was better than one, Corlett added a second sheaf to the design before sending it to an engraver. Upon receipt of the engraving, the city fathers rejected Corlett's image and had a seal remade with only one sheaf of wheat. 
  • In Schenectady's City Hall, all of the doorknobs and the backs of chairs, and many of the doorways are finished with the city seal.