Category Archives: local history

Get Directions

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Scarboroughs 1916 tour book troy trip (couse).png

Not quite as good as the old-school “street view,” but early automotive guides provided scenic touring descriptions, with turn-by-turn directions, for those adventurous early motorists. 61.2 miles sounds like a day-long adventure in an open-topped flivver from 1916, when this route was published in the Scarborough’s guide. With some variations, this is still a route I might bicycle today, though I’m betting that as bad as the pavement is here in the 21st century, it’s got to be more even than it was back then.

I especially like the stars denoting danger. I don’t know what made the railroads and trolleys so cross, but it would be best to avoid them.

Three channels and nothing’s on

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Screen shot 2010-11-14 at 4.20.09 PM.pngOur elders had the hardships of the Great Depression and the Second World War, and they weren’t shy about telling us how soft we had it. My generation had civil unrest (race riots, Vietnam protests, the Generation Gap), the Cold War, and only three television channels. And while it’s hard to scare kids going through today’s Depression with stories of Kent State and the Watts riots, I’m not shy about telling how hard life was with only three television channels. (Yes, you could say there were four, if you counted what was still called “educational televsion,” and if you could stand in just the right spot, holding onto the UHF antenna in just the perfect way to would bring in what looked like a signal, if you squinted just right.) Why, in my day . . .
This schedule from October 12, 1966, shows the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area channels. Channel 6 was WRGB in Schenectady, the NBC affiliate since television and networks were invented. Channel 10 was WTEN in Albany, the CBS affiliate. Channel 13 was WAST (Albany Schenectady Troy) in Menands, the ABC affiliate and the channel with the worst signal when I was growing up. Except for Channel 17, WMHT, on the UHF band, which required special pliers to adjust the tuning knob and a contortionist to get the antenna into the right arrangement. (Channel 2 here is a Utica station; Channel 3 came from Burlington. Neither one could be picked up in our area but the Schenectady Gazette, source of this listing, was widely distributed.)

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Google Street View, 1907 edition

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Google Street View is a great idea, especially for traveling through towns you’ve never been to before. You can see every intersection in advance, giving you great visual cues.
It was a great idea a century ago, too. In 1907, Photo-Auto Maps were published, with enjoyable rides laid out for the new pasttime of motoring, turn-by-turn directions, and photographs of major intersections and landmarks. At that time, roads were rarely paved and more rarely marked in any way. Even city streets were usually indicated only with signs tacked to the sides of buildings at the corners. There were no stop signs or red lights, no railroad crossing gates, no numbered routes, no real way to know where you were going. And so guides like the Photo-Auto Maps were indispensable.

Roads being what they are, many of these routes have changed over time, but some of the routes are surprisingly traceable. I thought it would be interesting to see what these early Street Views look like today. In the cities, some of the buildings are still the same. in other places, the streets are unrecognizable.

Photo-Auto Maps are found at the David Rumsey Map Collection,
The routes were traced and Google Street Views collected by Carl Johnson,

Click on the image below for Street View, then and now.

Livingston Avenue Bridge

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I have never photographed anything as much as I have photographed the Livingston Avenue Bridge. It may be its proximity — I’m parked near it all the time, either waiting by the river or getting ready for a bike ride or a paddle. It may be its elegance and age — the piers are believed to go back to the Civil War, and the graceful superstructure, which swings open on a gigantic gear to allow tall ships up the Hudson River, dates back to 1901. Or it may be that it is the last structure along the river that goes back to the canal era — other than some crumbling bulkheads and rotting piers that emerge at low tide, there is little to connect us to the time when the river was a vital part of Albany life. Far from being a relic, the Livingston Avenue Bridge is still a vital link, carrying freight and passenger rail across the Hudson, and it still swings open several times a day in the season when big vessels such as the Troy-based cruise boat Captain JP pass through.

For a few years there have been rumors of a replacement, which strikes me right in the heart, thinking we could lose this landmark that has been part of the local waterfront for more than a century. And now it appears that that process is picking up a little steam, with an announcement today that the federal government has set aside $2 million for a preliminary study of a replacement. It will probably be 10 years or more before anything is done, knowing how these things go, but someday this ancient steel workhorse will be gone, and with it a major piece of Albany history.

That being said, I’m not opposed to progress, and I’ll admit that whispers that a pedestrian crossing might be included are enough to make me wish the replacement would come even sooner. Currently the only way to cross the river at Albany is the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which is an unlovely, long hike with a steep climb on either end. It starts from a park in Rensselaer but dumps you ignobly onto an ugly stretch of access road on the Albany side, blocks from the Corning Preserve. It doesn’t attract a lot of casual walkers or cyclists, and it is perpetually covered with broken glass, presumably thrown from cars going by on the bridge. So for a lovely walkway, much closer to the river, connecting the Corning Preserve to Rensselaer, yes, I’m afraid I’d sell out my beloved bridge in a minute. But I’d still miss it.

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Time will come today

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Time to insure

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

After reading Daniel Walker Howe’s brilliant history of the transformation of the U.S. in the early 1800s, What Hath God Wrought, and then researching a brief story on the establishment of Albany Time, I realized that our approach to time has become standardized, perfect, and wrong. Reading Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time only reinforces my wonder that we have transformed time from the local true time to something that is delivered from a distant location and that is nearly always wrong.

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Ironically, our highly synchronized clocks, now tied in to official timeservers by high-speed internet connections, are almost never right.

It’s commonly thought that in olden days, time was set by solar noon, the point at which the sun is highest in the sky. Not really true, because it was understood early on that the earth actually rotates 361 degrees each day in relation to the sun, making the solar day a very inaccurate time reference (not to mention the difficulty of measuring the position of a disk that takes up such a large space in the sky and blinds you as you stare at it — leading to the stereotype of the squinty-eyed sailor). Instead, astronomers adopted sidereal time, measuring the earth’s rotation against the night sky, setting a day according to a normal 360-degree rotation. As the use of accurate clocks and watches spread widely in the 19th century, it was common for local jewelers and clockmakers to keep the correct time: local sidereal time. These merchants often were, or were assisted by, amateur astronomers, armed with star charts from Europe and the established reference of the Greenwich observatory, who would frequently set local time with a fair degree of accuracy. So here in Albany, the local watchmaker on Pearl Street was where you went to find out what time it was. And if you took the train to Syracuse, you might step off the train and go across the street to another jeweler to check the time, because it is about 9 minutes earlier in Syracuse than in Albany. That’s how time really works: it’s tied to your longitude, and even a small distance on the planet can make a significant difference in what time it is.

Came the telegraph, railroads and professional astronomers, and the case was made that for the sake of safety, to prevent rail collisions in the days before electric track signaling, trains should all run on the same time. In 1883, the railroads adopted the Standard Time system, breaking the U.S. into four time zones. (Standard time wasn’t established by federal law until 1918.) Most major cities, highly dependent on the railroads for the flow of commerce, adjusted their official time to railroad standard time. Suddenly, when it was noon in Boston, it was noon in Detroit – a convenience, but a patent falsehood, as these two cities are 47 minutes apart. But standard time was universally adopted, and became more and more important to commerce as communications sped up and the world got smaller.

In the early days of personal computers and the web, one of the exciting things was that you could suddenly get highly accurate time through your computer — much easier than placing the call to the local time and temperature line and then walking around the house to set your clocks, guessing how long it had been since you got the time as you moved from room to room. It used to require a program; now it’s built right in to the computer, the phone, the cable box, the Playstation. There’s perfect standard time all over my house – and it even adjusts to the lie we tell ourselves, daylight savings time, to enjoy longer summer evenings. We’ve transformed from having highly accurate time in the 19th century to being completely wrong in the 21st.

So we still commonly think that noon is the point when the sun is highest in the sky (which it is, if you’re talking about solar noon) — but solar noon here in Albany, during daylight savings time, is at 1:04:10 PM. Solar noon in Detroit is at 1:41:31 PM. But if I’m on a phone call with someone in Detroit, at noon today, we’ll both get on the phone at the same time and the sun won’t be near its highest point in the sky. Our time is highly accurate and completely wrong.


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Boating down the Hudson, 1938

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For those of us who never got to experience the glory days of the Hudson River Day Line (or the Night Line), here’s how it looked back in 1938. The scenery is virtually unchanged, though a couple of bridges have been added along the way. 10 years later, the original Hudson River Day Line would be out of business. The name and the ships were sold and used for shorter excursion trips, mostly further downriver.

If you want a better sense of the sounds of the great ships that used to ply these waters, the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley has a great collection of sounds from Hudson River steam ships. And where is the Alexander Hamilton, the hero of this watery road movie, today? Resting in several feet of water in New Jersey.

(This entry was later also posted on our sister site,

Albany Time

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(This article originally appeared at All Over Albany)

the first dudley observatory

The first Dudley Observatory, in north Albany.

In our global civilization, we’re accustomed to dealing with time zones and standard definitions — Greenwich Time, Eastern Time, Daylight Savings Time.

If one plan from before the Civil War had succeeded, the Northeast might have been on Albany Time.

It started in 1851, with the founding of the Dudley Observatory.

How it started

The Dudley Observatory was formed in an effort to create a world class astronomical observatory in the capital city. The observatory had a local board of trustees and a nationally recognized panel of scientific advisers, including Dr. Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Jr., the first American to receive a PhD in astronomy.

A precision clock was essential for any observatory at the time, and plans called for a “normal clock,” to be built to the greatest precision possible at the time. Erastus Corning (great-grandfather of the famous mayor), who had recently merged 10 railroads into the New York Central Railroad, donated $1,000 toward the clock, which quickly came to be known as the “Corning clock.”

Creating the Corning clock

Dr. Gould commissioned a well-regarded maker of chronometers, Moritz Krille of Altona, near Hamburg in Germany, to build the Corning clock.

“The whole is to be air-tight, and a compensation for barometric changes introduced . . . As the clock is to be sheltered as much as possible from changes of temperature, and no loud sound will be necessary for the beat, great delicacy seems attainable. . . . ”

Time and the railroads

As necessary as this was for astronomy, Dr. Gould also had plans for the clock that were very down to earth: he wanted to sell accurate time to the railroads.

As Harper’s New Monthly Magazine noted in 1856, “An exact knowledge of time is also of vital importance to the conductors of all railroad trains. A small error in a conductor’s watch has repeatedly been the occasion of the collision of railroad trains, and the consequent destruction of human life.”

This had led, in Europe, to the establishment of Greenwich time, where the observatory at Greenwich would send out signals by means of dropping a ball from a mast and sending out an electrical signal to the local telegraph system. But while there was a form of standard time in Great Britain, US railroads still relied on highly inaccurate local time.

With the Corning clock on order, in early1856 Dr. Gould wrote the directors of the New York Central Railroad Company, stating the advantages of absolute accuracy of time for railroad operations, outlining how telegraphy was used to give time in Britain, and offering to furnish the railroad with accurate time for the price of $1500 a year. The railroad immediately accepted the offer. Similar offers were made to the Hudson River Railroad and the Western Railroad. “Should the time of any other place, such as Springfield, Worcester or Boston, be preferred to Albany time, it can be given with equal correctness and facility.”

Selling time

But railroads weren’t the only target markets for Albany Time coming from the Corning clock; Dr. Gould also proposed that Utica, Rochester and Buffalo “be told that the Observatory is ready to regulate their large church clocks or small chamber time pieces, to their own local time.”

Even the Big Apple was included: “it would be our pride and pleasure, from and after the day of the Inauguration of the Dudley Observatory, to give accurate time to your city, within the fraction of a second, by the dropping of a time ball.” He also noted that “New York City is so nearly on the meridian of Albany that it ought to use Albany time just as all England uses Greenwich time.” The observatory proposed to make a significant portion of its revenues by dropping “time balls” all over the state. Albany Time would be the New World’s version of Greenwich Time.

Time out

But the inauguration of the Dudley Observatory was, on many levels, a disappointment. Necessary equipment, including the Corning clock, did not arrive in time. In fact, the building was incomplete and the inauguration ceremonies were held under a tent. Once equipment did arrive, some of it sat in boxes for more than a year. This was a sign of things to come.

Albany Time never happened.

The clock and the time scheme were among many things that did not get done under the leadership of Dr. Gould, leading to a huge falling out between the trustees and their scientific advisers in 1858. The trustees were shocked to learn that this plan of selling standard time would require the laying of a new dedicated telegraph wire, an astronomical expense, in advance of any revenues. As the Dudley trustees put it in a scathing report of their breakup with Dr. Gould, “No ‘time ball’ fell in the great commercial emporium. No bond of ever acting sympathy linked together the clocks of Rochester, Buffalo, Troy and Albany. No railroad station exhibited . . . any evidence that the trains . . . were deriving their time from the Dudley Observatory.”

For this and numerous other reasons. Dr. Gould was shown the door, quite literally; having spent as little time in Albany as possible during the organization of the observatory, he now had to be escorted from the observatory by police acting under a judge’s order.

A year and a half after its commissioning, The Corning clock remained unfinished, Erastus Corning kept his $1000, and a less ambitious timepiece ultimately took its place. A time ball was established on the Capitol in 1860, though it was not connected to the clock. For a short time that same year, a signal was sent from the Dudley to a time ball in New York City as well. But it was too late for Albany Time.

Significant research at the Dudley Observatory didn’t resume until 1876, but it lives on as the oldest independent astronomical research organization in the United States (it’s now in Schenectady). And, despite the example set by Britain and Dr. Gould’s forward-thinking proposal, standard time didn’t come to North America until 1883.


For a history of timekeeping, see Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-century timekeeping in America.

photo courtesy of the Dudley Observatory

Caskets and couches

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Undertaker and Furniture.png

Things that you don’t see anymore: a combined undertaker and furniture dealer. Well, of course, making cabinets and making caskets are pretty much the same thing, and it wasn’t uncommon for craftsmen in the 19th century to expand their markets in this way. Still, I’ve seen plenty of furniture makers who also dealt in caskets, but I haven’t before seen one who advertised himself as a full-service undertaker.  This is from the 1859 Wallace’s directory of Albany.

If the numbering is the same, 274 South Pearl Street is now the home of the Giffen Memorial School.

I do recall a store in downtown Schenectady that used to sell pianos and waterbeds. In the ’70s, that seemed to make sense.

Getting to the Collar City

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Circumstances — a combination of wife’s employment and elder daughter’s education — are leading us to spend a significant amount of time running north to Troy. Surprisingly, this is just not practical by bus. Even though we live 15 minutes south of the Collar City, all buses require us to cross the river to Albany, change buses at least once, and then travel up and across the river again, a trip that cannot take less than an hour by bus and sometimes takes longer. Our other options? Cross the river (twice), using I-787, or go the slow way up Route 4 on our side of the river. It’s only about a 25-minute bike ride, by the way, but not really safe or practical for a teenager; too many high-speed interactions and then the maze of city streets in South Troy.

In 1850, the bicycle, bus and automobile hadn’t been invented, yet there were still three options for getting from Albany to Troy:  stage, steamboat, and railroad. (Not to mention getting on your own horse). Hell yes, I’d pay 12-1/2 cents for a steamboat ride up the Hudson.

Travel between Albany and Troy, 1850 (Munsell).png

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Demolition of the original Dunn Memorial Bridge

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A friend asked me if I could figure out exactly when the original Dunn Memorial Bridge (dedicated August 19, 1933, replacing the old Greenbush Bridge) was demolished. Once its replacement, the current bridge connected to I-787 and the vestiges of the South Mall Expressway, was in place, the process of demolishing the “old” lift bridge began. (I put old in quotes because, 37 years old at its replacement, it was newer than the current Dunn, which is now 41 years old.)

Dunn Bridge demo Sarasota Herald-Tribune May 12 1971.png

Turned out to be harder to track down than I had hoped. Google’s news
archives do have a substantial collection of the Schenectady Gazette,
but the Albany Times-Union and the Troy Record and all the defunct
evening papers are not available. However, there must have been a slow
news day in Sarasota, Florida on May 12, 1971, or maybe the editor just
liked pictures of bridges being blown up, because the front page of the
Sarasota Herald-Tribune featured these AP news photos of the demolition
of the Dunn.

The approaches had been demolished in February 1971. The remaining towers were demolished in June, not without incident – two men planting demolition charges on the towers fell 50 feet into the Hudson but survived.

The new bridge was not fully connected until 1974, when the ramp from the Empire State Plaza to the Dunn and I-787 was opened.

Is there a site specializing in Capital District highways and bridges? Of course there is.

Have I previously written about the Dunn’s namesake, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Parker F. Dunn? Of course I have.

(Thanks to Gary for the inspiration.)

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