Saturday, December 21, 2019

Fun in the Snow Long Ago

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone. 
The thick blanket of snow that recently fell in the region reminds us that the Schenectady area has always seen a good deal of the white stuff.  It is fascinating to look back at earlier days, when people were more inconvenienced by the inclement weather than we are today, yet managed to find ways to thoroughly enjoy themselves. There is no better guide to Schenectady’s past leisure activities than the late Larry Hart (1920-2004), noted local reporter and freelance writer whose long-running Daily Gazette columns paint a wonderful picture of long ago winters, often drawing on his own childhood memories.
Up until the early 20th century, the arrival of snow meant a change in the seasonal mode of transportation from wagons to sleighs.  Large horse-drawn cylindrical snow rollers, weighted with dried sand, compacted and smoothed snow in the street for travel by sleigh.  These vehicles varied in size, ranging from two-seaters to the large conveyances used for commercial purposes and pulled by draft horses. To warn people of their approach, sleighs were legally required to have sleigh bells, which were attached to a strap fastened loosely to the horses.
Pedestrians had to travel, sometimes long distances, while negotiating snowbanks on the sidewalks.  In the days before mechanized snow removal, people sometimes walked through tunnels dug into the huge mounds of snow; at other times they trudged along the tops of the heaped up snow piles, termed “walking the mountain.” Schools were not often closed, but when they were in pre-radio days, families were alerted by a predetermined number of GE whistles. Hart reflects on the frigid days of his own youth, in this 1985 Christmas Eve column:

It seemed that those winters of the early Thirties, when the Great Depression may have been at its worst, were about the coldest we had ever endured.  Consistent cold, that is, with some heavy snowfalls thrown in for good measure.  There were many reports of people being treated for frostbite at the GE or Alco infirmary, many of them women who had waited for buses or trolleys on cold mornings (which was before the ladies wised up and started to wear pants or snow suits in the raw winter).  Car radiators froze up, too, because drivers forgot to empty the water overnight or else used adulterated alcohol. 

Snow piles on State Street after the Blizzard of 1888
Schenectady County Historical Society

Ice skating was a popular pastime. Hart’s father recalled using skates attached to his shoes with a clamp that was tightened with a key. People skated on the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal, Iroquois Lake in Central Park and various other lakes and ponds. While snow on the river was generally swept away by the winter wind, making it smooth for skating, the canal had to undergo some preparation. As winter approached the canal was drained, leaving approximately two feet of water for freezing. Any fallen snow had to be cleared for skaters.

The most popular site on the canal—paved over in 1925—was just south of the State Street Bridge, an area referred to at the time as “Canal Park.” While gliding on the ice, people could enjoy refreshments, such as wieners, as well as hot and cold drinks.  On weekend evenings, skaters sailed along to the glow of Japanese lanterns mounted on poles, with an oompah band adding to the festivities.  Hart reminisces about skating on Iroquois Lake in Central Park, noting that he spent quite a bit of his time drinking hot chocolate in the casino.

Skating on the Erie Canal, looking toward the State Street Bridge
Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection
In the 1920s it was common for men to wear fedoras or caps while skating.
Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection

Children enjoyed games on the ice. Two that Hart mentions are statue and snap the whip.  In the first, one skater twirls another skater, who, after being released, falls in the snow and must remain absolutely still as a statue until everyone in the game is frozen.  Some played snap the whip, which involved a group of skaters, all holding hands, being whipped around by one person, or pivot, at the head of the line.  The object of the pivot was to dislodge those at the end of the chain, who were moving at a much greater velocity than those toward the center.

Ice skating races were frequently held in the 1930s and 1940s. One major contest was the North American Outdoor Speed Skating Championships, a three-day event beginning on January 31, 1941, and held in conjunction with the city’s Winter Carnival in Central Park.  Featuring sprints and long distance events, the highlight was the 5 mile race, with 20,000 onlookers watching Minneapolis native Ken Bartholemew come in first.

Before the advent of modern refrigeration in the 1930s, ice harvesting from the river and other bodies of water presented potential dangers for skaters, who sometimes drifted into areas of weak ice and fell into the freezing water, despite the many caution signs.  This danger was exacerbated for skaters, tobogganists, and others who used sails to increase their speed. Apparently, even Charles Steinmetz was fond of ice sailboating on the Binnekill.

Children years ago enjoyed sledding, as do young people today.  Hart names several hills popular in his father’s youth, including Balltown Hill heading to Craig; Hillhurst Park in Bellevue; Glengarry Hill in Carman; and Crane Street’s Engine Hill in Mont Pleasant.  His father sledded down Hamilton Hill on a wooden sled with metal runners.  When he had no access to a sled, he improvised with coal shovels, carboard boxes and even unstable baking tins.  The coal shovel provided quite a ride, as Hart relates in his December 24, 1985 column:

They were deep and wide, easy for a kid to sit upon, bow up his knees and grasp the handle forward.  A good kick would send the apparatus on the downgrade in a hurry.  It picked up speed and went even faster as the handle was tilted upward. Dad said the ride usually ended in the lot opposite Hamilton later to become the market square, but they could veer either right or left by leaning in that direction in case a big horse-drawn sleigh was coming along Broadway.

Larry Hart tried this makeshift sled as a kid and found it very fast but impossible to stop without toppling off in the snow.  He had his own second-hand Flexible Flyer and his brother had a Lightning Glider, which they prepared by rubbing the runners with a cut potato, and finishing up with some sealing wax.  He also recalls less than successful attempts at skiing down Glengarry Hill with the simple barrel stave skis he and his siblings received for Christmas.

When horse-drawn sleighs were still used for transportation in winter, a popular, although dangerous, form of entertainment enjoyed mainly by boys was to grab onto the runners of delivery vehicles, getting a free ride along the snow-packed streets.  Drivers were not always aware of their extra freight until four or more boys slowing down the vehicle caused them to yell at the culprits to unhitch themselves.

Long forgotten is the sport of bobsledding, called “bobbing,” an exciting diversion popular in the later years of the nineteenth century.  On any cold night sledders would compete, flying down “College Hill” in vehicles sometimes 30 feet in length carrying up to 1,000 pounds. The contests began at Nott Terrace and Union Street, and ended at the railroad tracks below what was then named Center Street (now Broadway).  Bales of hay were stacked just beyond the Yates Street finish line, in case of brake failure. 

Hart writes of the February 8, 1888 Schenectady Carnival, when 47 teams from different cities competed in the bobbing championships.  Squads with colorful names such as Snow Queen, The Big Six, and Hurricane first paraded down State Street in their splashy costumes, after which they participated in several preliminary runs in their large wooden vehicles, which must have been quite a sight, described by Hart in Schenectady’s Golden Era:

With a roar, the monster sleds hurtled down the ice runway and within a minute approached Center Street, at which point the brakeman would release the heavy chains suspended beneath the bob.  The chains, dropping under the iron runners, then threw off a mass of sparks as the bobs ground to a halt over the cobblestone pavement now devoid of ice” (236). 

Part of the”Snow Queen” team of 1888 in their unique costumes
(Preserved by team member Henry A. Kerste)
From Grems-Doolittle Library Bobsledding File
Teams did not compete head to head, but rather raced against the clock.  Bigger sleighs that could carry more weight were considered more competitive, since they had greater speed.  The early rounds in 1888 produced a tie between the Big Six and Snow Queen, which was broken when the Big Six won by lowering its time by four seconds.

Looking back at winters of the past reminds us that, while modern conveniences certainly make life more comfortable, they do not necessarily make it more enjoyable. 

Hart’s Daily Gazette (Schenectady) Columns: 1/22/81, 1/29/81, 11/17/81, 12/22/81, 1/19/82, 12/24/85, 1/5/88, 2/23/88, 1/5/98, 2/23/98, 12/31/01, 12/15/03, 1/5/04, 12/17/07, 12/24/07
Hart’s Niskayuna Journal Column: 2/18/88
Hart, Larry. Schenectady's Golden Era: (Between 1880-1930). Scotia, NY: Old Dorp Books, 1974.
Rosenthal, Susan N. Schenectady. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

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