Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Most Destructive We Have Ever Witnessed": Schenectady's Great Fire of 1819

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Victoria Bohm. 

Throughout its 350-plus years of history, Schenectady has had its fair share of destructive fires. Like most cities grown from colonial times built for the most part of wood, the threat of fire was familiar and inevitable. The lack of building codes and standards and zoning laws only enhanced that threat.

The great fire of 1819 was a particularly destructive event in Schenectady’s history. Firefighting -- its techniques, equipment, and manpower -- was still fairly primitive. The wooden structures creating the crowded, unregulated urban sprawl were an architectural tinder box wanting only that first spark. On November 17, 1819, between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, that spark was ignited in Isaac Haight’s currying shop on Water Street. By the time the fire was finally out, most of the city between State Street and the Mohawk Bridge (itself barely saved) lay in ashes. It was one of the worst disasters since the Massacre of 1690.

Len Tantillo's painting Schenectady Harbor renders the city as it may have looked in 1814, just a few years before many of Schenectady's buildings were destroyed by fire. 

The winds were definitely a major factor in 1819; the fire quickly jumped to John Moyston’s home and store, on the opposite side of the street from Mr. Haight's currying shop, and went almost immediately out of control. From there, adjoining buildings were quickly engulfed in the flames. As the stiff south-easterly wind swept the fire along, many buildings in the city between State Street and the Mohawk River burned to the ground; the pitiful remains smoldered on for days.

Injury to the firefighters and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help those directly threatened and affected, their persons and their possessions, was severe. About 160 buildings, including homes, storefronts, offices, barns, and other outbuildings, were simply destroyed, along with most of the personal property in them. Trees, grain supplies, and other provisions were destroyed. An article in the Schenectady Cabinet following the fire estimated the damage at over $150,000.00 (over $2.7 million today). Water Street, State Street, Church Street, Union Street, Washington Street, and Front Street all suffered massive damage. Fortunately, not one life was lost in the blaze. Those left homeless had to look to friends, relatives, and charity for help. Union College students were among the largest group who came to the aid of those in need, in helping to protect homes from being burned and in assisting those suffering from the losses after the fire. The town of Glenville started a succession of regional aid actions to bring the basic necessities to the victims, especially those who escaped with only the clothes on their backs in frigid November weather. The region’s Shaker Communities also stepped up to offer aid and comfort, and David Tomlinson and Joseph C. Yates headed up a relief drive in Schenectady.

Certificate signed by Henry Yates, mayor of Schenectady, appointing Daniel Vedder, Bartholomew Schermerhorn, Nicholas Bradt, and John Pangburn as Relief Collectors in Rotterdam (then referred to as the Third Ward of Schenectady) immediately following the fire of 1819. The collections were intended to help those "who, by an awful visitation of Providence, have been suddenly deprived of their dwellings, and in many cases of their all -- and who are thus cast, without a shelter, without cloathing [sic] and without bread, upon the charity of those friends and neighbors whom the devouring element has spared." Image from the Historic Manuscripts Collection, LM 323, Grems-Doolittle Library.

Schenectady in 1819 had only two fire trucks which, given the scope of the fire coupled with the wind and weather, proved almost useless. There were neither the material resources nor the technology to battle such a fire. And, it was later discovered that the winds had blown bits of burning shingles and other materials as far away as Charlton, a distance of about nine miles! Attempting to save personal property, even with so many able bodies, including the students from Union College, also proved for the most part futile. The best solution found with spur-of-the-moment desperation, was to heave furniture and other items onto any available flat-bottom boat and float out into the middle of the Mohawk River and stay along the banks to which the fire did not reach. The smoldering aftermath revealed yet another sad fact; very few of the buildings destroyed were in any way insured.

These notes of thanks, from people whose homes were saved by the efforts of volunteers who battled the fire in Schenectady, appeared in the Schenectady Cabinet newspaper on November 24, 1819, a few days after the fire destroyed a number of homes in the city. Image from 1819 Fire clipping file.

Jonathan Pearson’s History of the Schenectady Patent cites the 1819 fire as a catalyst for bringing in a newer, more modern style of architecture as the city rebuilt itself, specifically the English style replacing the original Dutch style. In his 1902 book Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, author and historian Austin Yates claimed that no truly official documented historical record was ever made regarding the 1819 fire, and that most information about the fire came from eye-witness accounts jotted down before the witnesses died out. Yates then offered another re-telling of those extant descriptions collected through the years for articles and books.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Schenectady After Dark

The hustle and bustle of nightlife in Schenectady's downtown can be seen in this 1957 color picture postcard. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

As the city that lit and hauled the world, Schenectady showed off its lights -- streetlamps and neon -- for the world to see. These nighttime images of Schenectady's downtown from the turn of the last century to the 1950s capture the city at both its bustling and quiet moments.  

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.

State Street gleams in this image taken around the turn of the century. The numerous flags and banners visible in the photograph suggest the image was taken around Memorial Day or Independence Day. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This 1954 view shows Jay Street looking toward the intersection with State Street. This section of Jay Street is now a pedestrian area. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The darkened street highlights the Carl Company window display on State Street in this photograph taken during the 1920s. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

This 1909 view of lower State Street was taken to show the newly-installed G-I Flame Arc Lamps made by the General Electric Company. Image from Grems-Doolittle Photograph Collection. 

In this photo of the newly-completed City Hall building on Jay Street in 1931, the moon, clock, and streetlights compete to shine brightest. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rear Views of Schenectady Buildings

The garden and rear of 17 Front Street in Schenectady can be seen in this undated photograph. Notice the two people in the garden to the left of the path. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Photographs of buildings in our holdings usually show the fronts of houses and businesses. The images shared here are unusual in that they show the sides of buildings not usually seen from the street, along with a few back gardens. Enjoy these "peeks beyond the streets" of places in Schenectady.

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.

This image of the rear of the Boston Store at 411 State Street was taken on January 9, 1906, in the aftermath of a fire in the building. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This photograph of the rear of 32 Washington Avenue in Schenectady was taken when the building housed the G.E. Women's Club. Today, the building is the home of the Schenectady County Historical Society, and exhibit space, a lobby, and a library have been built on to the back of the building. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

House foundations, porches, fences, and clotheslines can be seen in this undated photograph of the backs of properties on Summit Avenue in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

View of the gardens and rear of the YWCA building at 44 Washington Avenue, circa 1931. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The snowy backyards and back sides of the houses at 21, 19, and 17 Barrett Street, as seen in December 1956. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Image of the rear of the home at 56 Washington Avenue as it appeared in 1890. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Summer Fun in Schenectady's History

Swimming revelers play at "Tempting Father Neptune" in the Mohawk River in this photo circa 1910. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Summer is here! Celebrate the season with these photographs of summertimes of yesteryear in Schenectady. They are best enjoyed with an ice-cold glass of lemonade, a slice of watermelon, and a breeze coming through a window screen.

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.

Schenectadians congregate in Blesser's Grove, a park which once existed at Albany Street, near where Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School now stands. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Children swim in Schenectady's Central Park in this photo taken during the 1920s. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

This 1899 photo depicts golfers on the Mohawk Club golf course. Incidentally, the man putting is Willis T. Hanson, Jr., who would later author the book History of Schenectady During the Revolution. His father, Willis T. Hanson, Sr., best known as the promoter of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, stands at right. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Enjoying a picnic lunch along the banks of the Mohawk River, ca. 1905. Notice the boat pulled up to the bank at left. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Swimmers frolic at the Grout Park pool in Schenectady in this July 1941 photograph. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Spectators watch as two children have a footrace in Central Park in 1909 during a picnic outing. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Swimmers pose in caps and suits in front of the Mohawk Swimming School building in Glenotia Park, ca. 1915. The Mohawk Swimming School operated out of Glenotia Park from 1912 to about 1928. The park was located on the island off the Scotia shore alongside the Glen Sanders Mansion. The 10-acre park began to be developed in 1907 and also included a picnic area, baseball diamond, and a pavilion for dances. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Crowds gather in Crescent Park (now Veterans Park) for a celebration following a July 4th parade on State Street in 1880. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

A family enjoys a picnic meal during a car camping trip in July of 1927. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Children play in the old fountain in Crescent Park (now Veterans Park) in Schenectady in 1946. Image from Larry Hart Collection.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Life of Union College President Eliphalet Nott

Image of Eliphalet Nott in his later life. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Victoria Bohm. 

Eliphalet Nott was born 241 years ago today, on June 25, 1773. He died on the 29th of January, 1866. Between those dates, he was a teacher, a preacher, an inventor, a businessman, and the president of Union College for sixty-two years.

Eliphalet Nott was one of nine children. His family, by the time of his birth, was poor. Much younger than the other son, Samuel, Eliphalet during his earliest years was home-schooled by his mother while living on the family farm in Ashford, Connecticut. Both Samuel and Eliphalet, coming from a clerical family brought down by difficult circumstances -- including a devastating home fire and a robbery of most of the family’s money -- did well for themselves. They both worked hard to get an education, took teaching positions, and eventually became preachers.

Nott earned his M.A. degree in 1794 from Rhode Island College (now known as Brown University), and served as the principal instructor of Plainfield Academy in Plainfield, Connecticut. Under his brother Samuel’s coaching and the guidance of the Reverend Joel Benedict, a pastor in Plainfield, Eliphalet earned his license to preach in the Congregational Church of Connecticut on June 26, 1796. The friendship with Reverend Benedict brought another bonus; on July 4, 1796, Eliphalet Nott married Benedict’s daughter Sarah.

Shortly after his marriage, Nott left New England for central New York, becoming pastor of the Presbyterian church at Cherry Valley and serving as principal of Cherry Valley Academy. His new wife joined him, and it was there that the first of the couple’s four children was born. It was also during this part of his life that Nott met John Blair Smith, then President of Union College. Smith recommended Nott to the elders of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany. The Notts moved to Albany in 1799, and Nott was formally ordained into the Presbyterian Ministry. By1800, he had become a Trustee at Union College, and by 1801 he was named co-chaplain to the State Legislature.

1804 would be a watershed year for Eliphalet Nott, though not a completely happy one. His wife Sarah died less than a year after the birth of their fourth child, shortly before Nott was elected President of Union College. He decided to accept the Trustees’ invitation to become Union College’s fourth President and was officially elected on August 24, 1804.  Also that year, Nott made himself nationally known by delivering a fiery sermon on the subject of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Not only did Nott accuse Burr of being a murderer, he branded Hamilton as equally guilty, along with any others who allowed the barbarous and bloody custom of dueling to exist.

One of the first things President Nott did for Union College was to relieve its grave financial situation by convincing the State Legislature to allow four lotteries for up to $80,000, starting in 1805. Also, during the first years of his presidency, Nott was able to institute a policy dear to his heart since his teaching career began: the abolition of the customary tradition of harsh corporal punishment and intimidation. Nott’s “moral motives” policy stressed targeted discipline, directed and administered for the most part by him, dealing directly with the “culprit,” done quickly and quietly. Not without a fair amount of opposition, Nott also allowed students who had been expelled from other school to enroll in Union College.

Image of Joseph Ramée's 1813 plans for the Union College Campus. Image from Union College website:

Eliphalet Nott soon married a second time, in 1807. His second wife was Gertrude Peebles, with whom he had a son, Howard Nott. Nott followed through with another of his college-related projects. He purchased 250 acres of land on the edge of Schenectady for Union College and hired French architect Joseph Ramée to design a new campus. As with most construction projects, costs rose well above estimations, so a lottery was held. Unfortunately, the War of 1812 ruined the lottery and Nott ended up borrowing from financier William James. He would borrow again in 1826.

Nott’s third wife, married soon after Gertrude’s death around 1840, was Urania Sheldon (1806-1886), a Troy native and graduate of the Emma Willard School. She was a well-educated woman well able to fill the role of the Union College President’s wife. Urania Nott became in all but officially-granted title Nott’s secretary and public relations agent.

Urania Sheldon Nott. Image from Nott family surname file. 

If Nott might be described as “creative” in his financial dealings, all of the dealings, disagreements, investigations, suits, and various uproars in the ranks of the Trustees never toppled his presidency. Still, in January of 1854, Nott and his third wife Urania were compelled by stern legal advice to set up the Nott Trust Fund giving over half a million dollars directly and unequivocally to Union College. This action estranged two of his sons, who were angry that their father’s fiscal behavior deprived them of an inheritance.

Image of the Nott Stove. This drawing appeared in the Century Illustrated magazine in 1871. Image obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Being president of Union College, surviving all manner of financial controversies, publishing scholastic and moral texts, and teaching various classes in the curricula he was attempting to restructure with plans to make Union College into Union University with a graduate program, did not prevent Eliplalet Nott from being an inventor as well. Nott’s efforts to invent a safer coal/wood burning stove earned him about thirty patents. “Nott Stoves” were famous enough to be mentioned by name in books by such authors as James Fenimore Cooper. In 1827, using sons Benjamin and Howard as managers, Nott set up H. Nott and Company in Albany, often referred to as “the Union Furnace.” By 1831, the company had moved to New York City, though the family lost control in the financial panic of 1836. Undaunted, Nott licensed out his patents to other companies and by the mid 1840’s did business with nationally and abroad, thus continuing to earn money from his patents.

Students pose in front of the structure now known as the Nott Memorial building, around 1880. Construction of the 16-sided building began in 1858; it was completed in 1879. The building was officially named for Eliphalet Nott in 1904. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

In 1859, Nott had the first in a series of strokes, rendering him medically incompetent to be Union College President. However, because the Board was so divided over the issue of having Vice President L.P. Hickok succeed him, he remained in office for another six years until his death at the age of 92. The Nott Memorial on the Union College Campus, the unique campus building most immediately identified with the college, was named in his honor. The names of Nott Street and Nott Terrace close to the campus also serve as a testament to a man who touched the community in Schenectady for over 60 years.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Schenectady Boat Club

Postcard of Schenectady Boat Club clubhouse on the Scotia side of the Mohawk River, opposite present-day Riverside Park, ca. 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection.

"The vigor of manhood which has guided the club's activities during eight years of unfailing success is unabating and as succeeding years find new faces in its executive councils and wearing its insignia in athletic events, the same daring and unconquered spirit of their predecessors is dominant."
         -- The Periscope v. 1, n. 1 (December 1915)

As spring turns to summer, more and more boats can be seen traveling along the Mohawk River near our library in Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood. In a salute to the spirit of the season, we are featuring some images related to the Schenectady Boat Club.

These images from The Periscope showcase events at the Schenectady Boat Club's annual regatta. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

The Schenectady Boat Club was first established after a general interest meeting in 1907. The group originally met in the old city pumping station in present-day Riverside Park, on the Schenectady side of the river. They soon raised $15,000 to purchase and and build a clubhouse. By 1909, the Boat Club had erected its clubhouse on the Scotia side of the Mohawk, located just a few hundred feet east of the bridge that ran from the foot of Washington Avenue in Schenectady to Scotia. The spacious two-story clubhouse included offices, a meeting room, lounge and pool room, showers, restrooms, and lockers on the first floor, while the second floor was a large ballroom used for dinners and dances. Fireplaces, a victrola and piano, and places to play cards provided a convivial atmosphere. The club's grounds also included a dock and a boat storage shed. Within a few years tennis courts and a rifle range were added to the grounds.

Officers of the Schenectady Boat Club in 1920. Front row, left to right: Noel E. Bensinger (Treasurer), Winfield D. Bearse (Vice President), Walden D. Brough (President), Floyd T. Smith (Secretary), Donald K. Frost (Captain). Back row, left to right: John W. Randall, Guy M. Jones, J. Wiggins Collamer, Stuart J. Knight, Charles A. Simon, Eugene Johnson. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

The cover of the constitution and by-laws of the Schenectady Boat Club. The cover features an image of the club's official flag. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Although the primary purpose of the Schenectady Boat Club was devoted to boat recreation -- including motorboating, canoeing and canoe sailing, river cruising, inter-club competitions and their annual regattas -- the club offered plenty of other social, athletic, and recreational opportunities, including suppers, lectures, smokers, dances, ski trips, automobile cruises, and card tournaments. Members of the club organized their own tennis and bowling leagues, went swimming and ice-skating, and opted to create a golf course on their property in 1922. With the addition of the golf course, membership increased from 300 to 500, and the focus switched from boating to a general country club. In accordance, the Schenectady Boat Club changed its name to Schenectady Country Club in January 1925.

This fanciful vision of the Schenectady Boat Club's future on the Mohawk River is depicted in a cartoon that appeared in The Periscope, the newsletter of the Boat Club, in 1916. The Grems-Doolittle library holds a run of The Periscope from the inaugural issue in December 1915 through the February 1926 issue. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

In 1978, only the foundation of the old Schenectady Boat Club clubhouse was still in existence. The building was razed after a fire in 1941. Harold N. Hyde, a former member of the Schenectady Boat Club, lays his hands on the remains of the foundation. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

From Erie Canal to Erie Boulevard

A serene view of the canal era in Schenectady. This drawing appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in December 1873, as part of a piece on "The Waterways of New York." 

The area now occupied by Erie Boulevard in Schenectady is just one of the places in the city that, in looking back, the changes wrought by time are very apparent. We've selected a few trios of photographs that showcase the transformation of the Erie Canal from a nineteenth century waterway, to a drained canal under construction into a road, to the busy Erie Boulevard of the mid-20th century. Enjoy these images that show the changes to transportation, commerce, and community life in Schenectady. 

Erie Canal looking north from State Street toward the Liberty Street bridge, ca. 1900. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
In this photo, you can see the drained canal -- from State Street to the Liberty Street bridge -- partially filled in in preparation for the construction of Erie Boulevard. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
The bustling corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street, ca. 1950, looking north toward Liberty Street. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

This image, ca. 1896, shows the Erie Canal looking south from State Street. The road that ran alongside the canal was referred to as Dock Street. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
The drained Erie Canal as it began to be filled in, looking south from State Street. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
Erie Boulevard in 1937, looking south from State Street. The General Electric plant is clearly visible in the distance, and the cars of shoppers are parked in front of local businesses. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This undated photograph shows the Erie Canal below State Street, looking north toward the State Street bridge.  Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
The drained Erie Canal, just south of the State Street bridge, as it was being filled in. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 
This 1950s image shows Erie Boulevard south of State Street, looking north toward State Street. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.