Category Archives: local history

Faded art

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Troy Williams Street Alley faded signage DSC_0538.jpgOnce, every sign was a handpainted sign. For a while in the ’80s, I worked in an office next to one of the last of the old signpainters, a gentleman artist who could make a “Please turn off the lights” sign look lovely. Technology had already taken over by then, and with the advent of desktop publishing more and more signage became computer-based. I’m afraid that the grand old signs that used to grace the sides of city buildings, making life a little more colorful and interesting, are things of the past, slowly disappearing.

At least some of them are being documented, such as in my Flickr group Faded Signage. Take a look through if you love these old relics.

Swooning over science

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, theoretician of alt...

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My old hometown is chasing its tail like a puppy because it has been blessed by a Hollywood visitation. A soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture is being shot in Scotia and Schenectady, and people are understandably excited. (I tend to be more miffed than excited by these things, as the regular residents and commuters of a city are massively inconvenienced for weeks at a time so that Angelina Jolie’s stunt double can hang from one of our collapsing bridges, but I’m well on my way to codgerdom.) However, knowing that the movie will run for about two weeks, and a couple of years after that there’s a good chance no one will even remember who these actors are, I think it’s worth pointing out that for decades, Schenectady attracted real stars, the true geniuses who made our world what it is today, people who are actually deserving of recognition.

We could start with Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the genius who made alternating current what it is today. The one who developed General Electric’s research and development center. The one who suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and more ailments, escaped from German persecution for his socialist ideals, and became president of the Schenectady school board and city council. It was because of Steinmetz that dozens of other giants of physics and electricity came to visit him right in Schenectady. And they’re all recorded in the sign-in book from the research lab — originally located in Steinmetz’s barn.

Thomas Edison was one, of course. He didn’t visit Schenectady frequently and had opposed research outside of his Menlo Park labs (and his control), but by then the fate of General Electric was well out of the Wizard’s hands. So was Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner, creator of the most widely used model of the atom, and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron and isotopes, and inventor of the mass spectrometer. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph. Kunihiko Iwadare, founder of Nippon Electric Co., now known as NEC. Ivan Pavlov, best known for his dogs. Clifford C. Paterson, GE’s research director in the UK.  Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who also came from Steinmetz’s hometown of Breslau.

Now those are some names to swoon over.

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For reasons that mostly have to do with how much I love this 1862 advertisement, bits of local history will now be posted at Hoxsie! This blog will remain, but honestly, the cool stuff will probably be over at Hoxsie. Adjust your bookmarks accordingly.

Swimming is forbidden

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From the 1884 “Albany Hand-Book, A Stranger’s Guide and Residents’ Manual”:

“Swimming in the river near the shores or wharves, between 6 A.M. and 8 P.M., is forbidden by city ordinance. Still, if a man falls overboard, he better swim if he knows how, rather than break the law and go to the bottom. The fine is only $1.”

Letter from home

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Letter to George Westinghouse Schenectady postmark Smithsonian.jpg

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s blog has an interesting article on a little piece of correspondence from George Westinghouse, Sr., to George Westinghouse, Jr. at the close of the Civil War. George Sr. was then a manufacturer of agricultural implements in Schenectady, with a factory along the Erie Canal at Dock Street. George Jr. was an operating engineer in the United States Navy, about to end his term. He already had a patent for a rotary steam engine, which in this letter his father confirms has been accepted. Before long he would create the railroad airbrake, which would revolutionize railroad safety. After more work on railroad mechanics, he would turn his attention to electricity, and through an on-and-off-again relationship with Nikola Tesla would create our modern electrical world.
So it’s especially touching to read here, before all this happens, a simple letter from father to son, talking about family and health (always a topic in 19th century letters), and encouraging him to come home.

Crossing the Hudson (bridges edition)

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Hudson River (Livingston Avenue) bridge Harpers LOC.jpgThe Livingston Avenue Bridge, the graceful and anachronistic swing bridge that carries trains across the Hudson River at Albany and still swings open to let larger ships reach Troy, has been part of the landscape longer than anyone now alive. It is often cited as dating to the Civil War, which is, like many local legends, partly almost true.

The earliest bridge across the Hudson was completed in 1804, at Waterford, by Theodore Burr, who also built the first bridge across the Mohawk at Schenectady. Despite being a wooden bridge, it remained in service for more than 90 years. Waterford was, as its name indicates, a good place to cross the river, but the bridge was too far from the population centers of Albany and Troy to satisfy their needs, and soon there arose a call for a bridge across the Hudson at Albany. Legislation was introduced to provide for its construction in 1814, but the booming city of Troy objected vociferously,

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Shocked, shocked!

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…to find that gambling is going on in here! From Whish’s 1917 “Albany Guide Book”:

Athletic sports always have been in great favor in Albany, and the vogue follows the trend of the times. There are a number of associations of various kinds, ranging from athletic to yachting. If a visitor is more “sporty” than athletic, a quiet talk with his hotel clerk in all probability will furnish the necessary information as to the haunts of Fortune. The city is liberal but orderly.


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Ran across this ad for Flavorland in a Schenectady Gazette from 1977.
Flavorland was pretty much the same as Friendly’s, slightly upgraded
diner food and an extensive ice cream menu. It must have been a chain or
franchise; I remember the one at Mayfair (or was it the neighboring
Willowbrook) on Route 50 in Glenville, one of the earliest of the
suburban strip plazas. But there were locations on Altamont Avenue, I
think on Nott Street, and probably a couple of other places. Whether it
was just regional or national, I haven’t learned, and I don’t know when
it died out, though it seems as if several of the locations became
Friendly’s. Don’t know much more about it, but seeing that old logo (which was exactly how their sign looked) brought me back.

Dissected Maps

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Merriam and Moore dissected map  assembled Rumsey collection.jpg

Homer Merriam was a brother of the Merriam brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. Before joining his brothers in their little venture publishing a dictionary that you may have heard of, he was one of the earliest and most successful commercial printers in Troy. In the then-nearly new Cannon Building, his company put out a series of globes that are still collectible (if a tad out of date), and a wonderful series of boxed map puzzles. I wrote about this 1854 marvel over at All Over Albany, but I wanted to share this additional view of the Dissected Map of the United States and Canada.  (This image is from the David Rumsey Collection at Luna Commons.)