Apparently, this lovely, graceful building, formerly the Odd Fellows Hall on State Street in Schenectady, just a few steps from Proctor’s Theater, needs to come down. Not for structural reasons, but because a company wants a new building (and business downtown is a good thing), and they couldn’t work with this one. Is there any chance that what replaces it will ever be so lovely? No.
Image via Wikipedia
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.
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.
Our 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.)
I noticed that this old sign for the Thruway, probably going back to the ’60s when I-890 was built a couple of miles away, was still surviving at the corner of Nott St. and Maxon Rd., even during the construction of the new Golub building, but I thought for certain it would disappear when the construction was complete. It had stood watch there, oddly far from any easy access to the Thruway and not really on a major access way, since the time when there was a Wetson’s hamburgers across the street, since the Big N existed. I thought for sure the redevelopment of the block, more than 30 years after the Big N went out of business, would finally mean that this sign’s time had come. But someone must have decided it belonged there still, even without any directional arrow, for they went to the effort of cutting off the top of the pole but leaving the rest for the sign’s perch.
The site has changed dramatically since Google Street View last visited, but two opposing views of this corner offer an interesting pair of perspectives:
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 . . .
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.
Saturday was just an incredibly beautiful day, and I had been determined that on the first sunny day I was going to get over to Schenectady (The City That Used to Light and Haul the World) and wander around the Stockade getting pictures of all the historical markers that are scattered all over. These markers were put up by the State Education Department (apparently mostly in 1932) and are as much a part of the landscape as the buildings themselves. Brief, descriptive, sometimes fallacious, but they put the modern world into a context and say that history happened here. I love them beyond reason. Rebekah wanted to join me on this little photographic expedition, so we had a delightful afternoon wandering around the Stockade together while she learned to use the old camera. We had some great conversations about old buildings, floods, the ghost of the dog on the stoop of Arthur’s, and everything else. Got some great pictures, too, which I’m still uploading — click the picture for the markers, the others will be sprinkled around them in my photostream. Then we had a late afternoon snack in the café that has taken over the old Arthur’s Market, where some form of grocery store had operated since 1795. Now it’s a beautiful sort of espresso and panini place with a killer triple chocolate brownie, though I must say the service would have to come up a few levels to reach indifferent. It still seems to be something of the neighborhood gathering place that Arthur’s was, something very rare in our local cities.
Also got in a short bike ride on Saturday, just enough to say I’d been out. A friend told me last fall that the rollers would make my stroke smooth as glass, and he was right — I could really feel the difference out on the road. On the rollers, every hitch, every inefficiency is felt and challenges your balance, so you try to get rid of them, and it really pays off in efficiency on the road. I rode into some housing developments in North Greenbush that I didn’t even know existed — zero-lot-line condos and apartments as far as the eye could see. Quite unlovely. Remind me not to go back.