Category Archives: Albany

Albany, Home of Bobsledding

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Just in time for the Olympics, this post is. Or it will be if I backdate it.

Last run

The folks at All Over Albany dug up an amazing test of the knowledge of eighth-graders in Albany in 1882. Not least amazing, besides the assumption that schoolchildren should know how to divide opium to the smallest scruple, was this instruction: “Write an exercise of 15 lines on the pass time of bobsledding.”

Several years ago, it was asserted that scenic Albany, New York, and not scenic St. Moritz, Switzerland, was the original home of the bobsleigh. Writing on the debate back in 2002, the Times Union’s Tim Farkas said a report from Albany City Historian Virginia Bowers listed the year of origin as 1885. This test would make it clear it was on the minds of Albanians at least three years earlier than that. The story goes that the earliest bob sleds were adapted from their use as lumber sleds, where two short (“bobbed”) sleds were linked together and hitched to teams of horses that could carry enormous loads of lumber.
It certainly makes sense –

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The Hawk Street Viaduct

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Hawk Street viaduct postcardA few weeks back Paula at Albany Daily Photo wrote about the Hawk Street Viaduct, which prompted me to dig up an old postcard I’d put in the files, waiting for a reason to figure out just what the Hawk Street Viaduct was, because I’d never heard of it other than this postcard. For 82 years, this marvel of engineering loomed over Sheridan Hollow, connecting Arbor Hill to Capitol Hill, and then it disappeared with hardly a trace. Thanks to the holdings of the Library of Congress and the incredibly valuable Historic American Engineering Record, I’ve found some much more detailed views of the Viaduct, and some of its story.

Read more about this “monument of another age . . . “

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Palace Marquee

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Palace theater marquee

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

When they designed the new Palace Theater marquee, they didn’t fool around. In fact, they went back to the source, the old Palace Theater marquee. It was run by various companies through the years, including Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) and Fabian, but the marquee remained the same for a long time.

That 1951 picture accompanied a Life Magazine article on how the movie industry was battling “T-V” by showing things such as live boxing matches. The cutline was “Crowds gather early for telecast at Fabian Palace Theater in Albany, N.Y., which seated 3,000 and turned away 3,000.” The battle between media was intense in those early days, as movies saw a precipitous drop in attendance as television spread throughout the land. “Last week NBC was at work on a plan to make its own movies from television shows and to release them in movie houses.” God help us, nothing has changed. But in the case of the marquee, that’s a good thing. (Because when it was changed, it looked like this.)

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So where was celluloid invented?

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First Plastic Marker DSC_6413

For years I’ve meant to get a picture of this marker, located next to a defunct Friendly’s restaurant not far from our old Albany neighborhood, where Southern Boulevard meets Delaware Avenue. The shopping plaza and the Friendly’s were brand new then, back in 1990, and I even had some vague memories of the big brick factory building that had been on the site just a couple of years before. home to the Albany Hyatt Billiard Ball Co. The marker proudly proclaims one of the least-known historic facts about Albany – that it was here that the first practical plastic, celluloid, was invented and developed into commercial products.

First Plastic
Celluloid – Invented 1868
by John Wesley Hyatt
First Use – Billiard Balls
Albany Billiard Ball Co.
The Plastics Pioneers Assoc.

While it has the appearance of an official Education Department historic marker, this was most likely a privately placed marker, perhaps installed when there was some controversy over the possible redevelopment of the site in the mid-’80s. Thanks to this marker, I’ve always been proud to know the location of the development of celluloid. Except, of course, that it’s wrong.

While the final version of the Albany Hyatt Billiard Ball Company manufactured at this distant location, in the late 1800s this was farmland, part of the town of Bethlehem and served by the Normansville post office. The closest thing to industry was a paper mill on the Normanskill. And the location of the factory isn’t the only cloudy part of this story.

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Corruption at the Capitol, 1910-style

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Lewis Hine Schdy newsies 1910 halfton
Tne New International Year Book, “A Compendium of the World’s Progress for the Year 1910,” provides a neat little summary of the complicated dealings of Senator Allds, highlighted yesterday when I wondered about the headlines being displayed by Lewis Wickes Hine’s Schenectady Newsies of 1910. The Allds scandal had it all: bribery, bridge and sugar beet interests, thousands stuffed into envelopes, uncovering of additional corruption, and guilty legislators who had the good grace to die before all this came to light. So, from precisely a century ago, the New International Year Book’s summary of the Trial of Senator Allds:

The death of Senator John Raines in 1909 made it necessary to choose a new leader of the Republican majority in the Senate. This leader, according to custom, is made president pro tempore of the body. In January the Republican caucus selected Senator Jotham P. Allds from Chenango county in the middle of the State. A small group of Republican Senators refused to act with the caucus on the ground of personal objection to Mr. Allds. The caucus selection was, however, duly chosen and installed. Shortly afterwards, a highly sensational statement appeared in the New York Evening Post charging Senator Allds with having received bribes, the statement being based upon accusations made by another Senator, Mr. Conger. The latter was connected with bridge companies . . .

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Schenectady newsies, Albany corruption: 1910

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Lewis Hine Schdy newsies 1910.jpg
It’s Schenectady’s turn. Apparently during his documentation of child labor in 1910, Lewis Wickes Hine visited the Electric City, too. Unfortunately, if he recorded the names of the boys he photographed, their names have been lost. These proud newsies, none of whom looks much older than 10, are hawking the Daily Union and the Evening Star. The Daily Union began in 1894; the Evening Star began in 1886. They would merge in 1911, not long after this picture was taken, as the Union-Star. The Union-Star, published evenings in a building on Clinton Street just behind the Schenectady Savings Bank, survived until 1969, when it moved out of town to Albany, merged with the Knickerbocker News and given a short lease on life.

I’m not sure of the location; it could be a lot of places, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s Jay Street. The upper story is taken up by an optical shop (perhaps an optometrist), offering lens grinding, “eyes tested” and “glasses fitted”. They’re also selling automobile goggles, still a necessity in the open top days. The lower story is a barber shop and shoe shine at which all shines were 5 cents. The news of the day included details on the loss of the French steamliner General Chanzy, which exploded off Minorca February 9, 1910, just over one hundred years ago, with a loss of 200 lives.

The headline on the Daily Union, “General Legislative Investigation,” gives both comfort and despair that nothing ever changes. This likely relates to investigations into the strange case of Senators Allds and Conger, who briefly occupied headlines across the state in early 1910. To judge from articles in the Times, Sen. Jotham P. Allds of Norwich had accepted a bribe from Senator Benn Conger of $1000 to kill a bill some nine years earlier, when he had been an Assemblyman. Apparently this emerged when Conger, notable as the president of the Corona Typewriter Company and holder of stock in a bridge company that would have been affected by the bill, was called upon to give his reasons for refusing to support now-Senator Allds for the position of President pro tempore of the Senate in 1910. Sen. Conger expressed the opinion that “that little business between ‘Jo’ and me was merely a flea bite compared to some of the things they pulled off in Albany in those days.” The New York Times would report that Speaker James W. Wadsworth, Jr., said, “The earnest hope was expressed by all that the Senate should so conduct the pending investigation as to free it from any suspicion of attempting to apply whitewash or of being influenced in the slightest degree by political pressure.” See? They don’t even have to change the copy from a century ago. Allds was found highly guilty and resigned to avoid expulsion. Conger resigned as well, so the politicians of the brave new century either had a little more class or some sense of shame once caught in their misdoings. The 21st century has little use, apparently, for such antiquated notions.
I’ll have more newsies soon, and Alco boys, too.

If you want more on Senator Allds, it’s here.

Albany Newsies, 1910

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This photo by celebrated photographer Lewis Wickes Hine shows a group of newsies selling evenings in saloons and stores. It was taken in an alley in back of the City Jail at 10 P.M. Left to right: Dominick Mardilo, 28 1/2 Fulton Street; Roderick Towle, 44 Sheridan Ave.; William Towle, brother, 44 Sheridan Ave.; Louis Strasburg, 40 Mulberry Street; Max Erlich, 101 Dallius Street.

Lewis Wickes Hine was a sociology professor who used photography as a tool for reform; this picture and many others that preserve bits of Capital District and national history were taken for the National Child Labor Committee; Hine’s work was some of the earliest documentary photography. His work helped bring about child labor laws but, more importantly to me, he preserved images of people and places that would otherwise never have been documented.

Four daily newspapers are captured here – the Evening Journal, the Times-Union, the Evening Sun, and the Evening Telegram. Although Albany probably had at least seven daily newspapers then, I think the Sun and the Telegram may have come upriver from New York City. If there’s an afternoon newspaper alive today, I’m unaware of it; Albany’s last, the Knickerbocker News-Union Star, died in 1988. Officially, it merged into the Times-Union, which had long since switched to morning production.  Lincoln’s image is prominent because it was his birthday, then celebrated on his actual birthday, February 12, because the mattress sales interests hadn’t yet gotten hold of Congress and merged Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays into a single day of weak remembrance.

There’s more . . . .

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