The Dutch arrived by proxy in 1609, with the voyage of Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name. They built a fort at the tip of Manhattan in 1614, and another fort at the site of Albany in 1624, the farthest point that ships could reach. They were keenly interested in the fur trade, especially beaver. They also sent colonists to farm. Headed by Arendt van Curler, a group of Dutch farmers from Albany bought land to the west from the natives in 1661. On the south bank of the Mohawk River, they built a square village of four blocks surrounded by a log palisade.
“Schenectady” is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines,” referring to miles of flat, sandy pine forest. There are many early spellings of the name, which strikes some people as comic. It was a standing joke in vaudeville to say that a character was from Schenectady.
The place had a strategic cachet, probably recognized by the Mohawks and then by the Dutch. It was a natural crossing point for land and water travel. A ferry was established, and in 1808 a bridge designed by Theodore Burr. An engineering marvel, the Burr Bridge was constructed of wood trusses on stone piers and covered with wood siding. At 900 feet, it was the longest such bridge in the world at the time. The wood structure was replaced by steel in 1874. That in turn was replaced by a modern highway span, but the stone piers remain.
Schenectady far outgrew its origin. The little square village became The Stockade, an enclave of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses. A fire in 1819 destroyed much of it, including a commercial waterfront to the west, on a channel of the river called the Binne Kill. The Stockade became the state’s first designated historic district in 1962. Now restored, with cobblestone streets, it hosts walking tours and an annual outdoor art show.
English warships took control of the New Netherland colony in 1664, and the English crown renamed it New York. But the Dutch people, their language, and their landholdings persisted. Dutch names are still common in the area, and the First Reformed Church holds pride of place. Built of gray stone in a massive Romanesque style, shaded by trees, it broods in the middle of The Stockade. Soon after my family moved to Schenectady in 1966, my older sister was married there, and we joined the church in a kind of quid pro quo.
From the start, the Dutch brought African slaves to the area, and Dutch men took native wives. During King William’s War (1688-1697) which also goes by other names, French soldiers from Canada and their Algonquin allies attacked Schenectady. This fact was proclaimed in a lovely cast-iron sign, the first thing you saw on entering the city from the north:
Settled by Van Curler 1661
Burned by French and Indians, February 8, 1690
The attackers killed 62 people and took 27 captive, both numbers including Africans. Marking the same event, a New York State historical sign in The Stockade notes the following:
Ride of Symon Schermerhoorn
On night of Feb. 8, 1690, although wounded
he rode 20 miles to Albany warning settlers.
According to the Schermerhorn Genealogy and Family Chronicles by Richard Schermerhorn, Jr., published in 1914, Simon (1658-1696) and his brothers Jacob and Cornelius were masters of ships plying the Hudson between Albany and New York as early as 1684. The shipping business prospered, and the family became wealthy. Simon moved to New York in 1691. “The tale of his famous ride . . . at the time of the Schenectady Massacre has been repeated to many generations of Schermerhorns.” The similarity of the story to Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 is striking. The story does not say why Schermerhorn escaped instead of staying to fight. It does say that he was shot in the leg, rode through bitter cold, and arrived in Albany at five o’clock in the morning, “more dead than alive.”
Schenectady continued to figure in conflicts. The French and Indians attacked again in 1748. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, an important victory for the Americans, was fought not far to the north in 1777. General George Washington visited at least three times, including a sleepover in 1782.
After the Revolutionary War, inhabitants at last broke the power of the Dutch landowners and achieved representative government. Schenectady acquired a city charter in 1798. Around this time, in 1785, the Schenectady Academy was started, to be refounded as Union College in 1795. The college moved in 1814 to a campus planned by the French landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. A model for other American colleges, including the University of Virginia founded in 1819, Union College has the first comprehensively planned campus in the United States. From the Union College website: “We are a small, residential, independent liberal arts college committed to integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering in new and exciting ways.”
Union’s centerpiece is Nott Memorial Hall, named for the first president, Eliphalet Nott. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, built of stone, and completed in 1879 in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, the building has sixteen sides and a polychrome dome raised on a clearstory drum. Paved with colorful encaustic tile, the interior is ringed by cast-iron balconies. Formerly the campus library, the Nott Memorial is used for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah there. It appears as a backdrop in the 1973 film The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.
In the 1790s, Schenectady shows up in an literary context, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Born as Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin was a French-English aristocrat. As a girl, she lived at the court of Versailles. She and her husband fled France during the Terror. They reached Boston and then New York, where other French exiles gathered, including the Marquis de Talleyrand and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would later write La Physiologie du goût. In 1794, with young children in tow, Monsieur and Madame de la Tour du Pin sailed up the Hudson to Albany.
As we did not wish to stay in Albany itself, General Schuyler undertook to find a nearby farm for us to buy. . . . The property was four miles from Albany, on the line of the road which it was planned to build from Albany to Schenectady, a town which was then expanding rapidly.
By her own account, Madame de la Tour du Pin became a capable farm wife. “My butter was much in demand.” She adopted the dress of the local women, cooked and cleaned, and bought two African slaves.
One day, towards the end of September, I was out in the yard, chopper in hand, busy cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was about to roast on the spit for our dinner. . . . Suddenly from behind me, a deep voice remarked in French, “Never was a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.” Turning quickly round, I saw M. de Talleyrand and M. de Beaumetz. They had learned our whereabouts from General Schuyler.
The de la Tour du Pins stayed for two years, until the political situation in France allowed them to return. While they lived in their rustic log cabin, “a pretty cart laden with fine vegetables often passed our house. It belonged to the Quaker Shakers, who had a settlement six or seven miles from us.” The cart driver invited them to visit, and they did.
The settlement was Niskayuna, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) from Manchester, England. Niskayuna, also called Watervliet in historical accounts, was the first Shaker village, started in 1776 and formally organized in 1787. Niskayuna grew to about 350 members at its greatest extent, and it dissolved in 1938. Much of the farmland was redeveloped as the Albany County Airport. The village is now a historic site open to the public.
The Shakers and their mystical, celibate lifestyle were seldom talked about in the 1960s, an era more concerned with the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the new sexual freedom, and drugs. The Shakers are known today through their design of tools, objects, furniture, and buildings; for innovations in seeds, farming and food distribution; and for the equal status of women in their communities. Two of the best books on Shaker society are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation (1875) by Charles Nordhoff, and The People Called Shakers (1953) by Edward Deming Andrews. More recent studies, including one by Priscilla Brewer, have examined Shaker beliefs, how their communities evolved, and reasons for their decline.
At Niskayuna, nine buildings of the central cluster are preserved, as well as an orchard, a herb garden, a pond, and the cemetery where Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders are buried. It is a peaceful, rural place. In its heyday, according to the self-guided walking tour pamphlet:
The Watervliet community operated as a mini-industrial center where woodenware and chairs were mass-produced and agricultural products manufactured for sale to the outside world. They were among the first to standardize production and make use of quality controls. . . . Shakers invented a vacuum sealed tin can and canned hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables.
The meeting house built in 1848 resembles a gymnasium, with a sprung wood floor for the communal dances which were the Shaker form of worship. The dances grew out of the original “shaking” in religious ecstasy. Gestures were symbolic—hands were extended with the palms up, for example, to receive divine gifts. Since Sunday worship was open to the public, it became a performance for which the congregation rehearsed. The meeting house contains bleachers for spectators, as well as high interior windows for Shaker elders in an upstairs room to keep an eye on things. Shakers were noted for their healthy lifestyle and longevity. A secondary benefit of the dances may have been exercise, a forerunner of yoga and movement classes today.
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a decisive event for Schenectady. The canal connected Lake Erie in the west along the Mohawk valley to the Hudson River, a navigable route from the Midwest to the seaport of New York, which quickly outgrew all other ports on the east coast. In the 1830s, railroads were built on the same route, among the earliest in the United States. Industry sprang up in a string of upstate cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy. Iron manufacturing was an early pursuit. Schenectady and Troy became known for cast-iron stoves, and during the Civil War for production of artillery.
As in New England, water power led to establishment of mills on the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. The Harmony Mills are a group of red-brick buildings in Cohoes near Schenectady, similar to the complexes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The site is open to the public. Begun in the 1830s and extensively rebuilt in the 1860s, the Harmony Mills are documented in black-and-white photographs, measured drawings and text in A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey by Robert M. Vogel, published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution.
The Harmony Mills took a great interest in the well-being and surroundings of its employees. The company built tenements for its workers. . . . The Mastodon Mill is an unusually elaborate example of Victorian textile mill construction. The two principal blocks, north and south, built several years apart, are similar and coaxial. Each is of five stories including the usable mansard attic.
Railroad industries thrived in Schenectady in the late nineteenth century. They consolidated in 1901 as the American Locomotive Company. In 1887, Thomas Edison, based in New Jersey, moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. Soon after, in 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters for his General Electric Company. ALCO and GE, as they were called, developed huge industrial plants. Each was a complex of buildings and streets surrounded by a fence with gates, a city within the city. Other manufacturing included carriages, brooms, and a patent medicine called Dr. Carter’s Pink Pills for Pale People. But Schenectady styled itself “the electric city” and “the city that lights and hauls the world.”
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland, as well as African Americans from the South, came to work in the factories and in construction. The city reached a peak population of 96,000 in 1930. Industry was marked by innovation. Schenectady acquired the second commercial radio station in the United States, WGY. In 1928 in Schenectady, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcast. Politics were progressive. George R. Lunn was elected mayor in 1911 as a Socialist, and again in 1915 as a Democrat.
Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923), a mathematician and electrical inventor employed by General Electric, was a notable figure in Schenectady at this time. He was born in Wroclaw, Silesia, in what is now Poland, to a German Jewish family, with congenital dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. From boyhood, he excelled in school. As an adult, he was about four feet tall, crooked, with a beard. Photographs often show him with a cigar. He came to the United States in 1889. Steinmetz helped to develop alternating electric current and electromagnetic motors, and he amassed over 200 patents. To provide engineers for the new field, he started the electrical engineering department at Union College. He also served as president of the city’s Board of Education and president of the City Council.
With other scientists, inventors, and executives, Steinmetz built a house for himself in the General Electric Realty Plot, a 75-acre tract that became one of America’s earliest planned communities in 1899. Adjacent to the Union College campus, the Realty Plot features grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Queen Anne, and Spanish Colonial. Among the wealth of details is a copper dragon perched on the roof ridge of 1226 Wendell Avenue. A modified California Bungalow at 1155 Avon Road was the first all-electric house, demonstrated in 1903. The Brown School was built in 1905 for Realty Plot children and run by Helen Brown. The First Unitarian Society, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, was built in 1961. Groot’s Creek Ravine runs through the middle of the tract, privately owned and maintained as a natural area and bird sanctuary.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Schenectady produced a historian. Larry Hart (1920-2004) was born in Schenectady, attended city public schools, and graduated from Union College. From 1945 to 1960, he worked as a photographer and reporter for the Schenectady Union-Star, and from 1960 to 1980, he did the same for the Schenectady Gazette. He wrote a weekly column called “Tales of Old Dorp” for the Gazette, “dorp” being a Dutch word for a small town.
Hart compiled three books from his newspaper column: Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1880-1930 (1974); Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume I: The Formative Years (1975); and Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume II: The Changing Scene (1977). Self-published and abundantly illustrated, the books show colorful characters, local businesses, natural disasters, building demolitions, and vanished landmarks. In his preface to Volume II, Hart says:
The anecdotes selected for these volumes of Tales of Old Schenectady do not follow any chronological timetable. Instead, they are told at random in non-textbook fashion for the enjoyment of those who prefer to take their history in easy doses.
As in other upstate cities, in 1925 the Erie Canal was filled in to become Erie Boulevard. A landmark at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street was Nicholaus German Restaurant, remodeled in 1901 with a turret and cornice to recall the Old World of its owners, Louis and Sophie Nicholaus. At first, it was a men’s saloon with a red mahogany bar and brass rail, with hotel rooms above. The restaurant expanded under later generations. Hart devotes several pages to Nicholaus, including the talking parrot Loppa, a scarlet macaw from Guatemala who entertained patrons in the bar from 1907 until his death in 1936. At that time, he was stuffed and added to the décor. The restaurant closed in 1975, but the ornate building still stands.
In 1933, Schenectady acquired a new City Hall, a neoclassical confection like a huge wedding cake, designed by McKim, Mead and White. But from the Great Depression onward, the city declined. ALCO shrank to a shadow of itself, and the plant closed in 1969. General Electric steadily reduced its manufacturing. After World War II, retail business moved to the suburbs, especially the triangular area between Schenectady, Albany and Troy.
In 1946, the federal government established the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, with General Electric as its operator. KAPL was located in Niskayuna, several miles away from the main GE plant, and adjacent to GE’s Research and Development Center. The two research centers provided a host of well-paid jobs for a highly educated, international work force.
Niskayuna in turn became an affluent suburb. In the 1950s, the town reorganized its school system. In 1957, it completed a new high school, staffed with newly hired department chairs and teachers. Rapid growth required an addition, and in 1967 the building doubled in size. From a report titled Niskayuna Schools at 50, “the school population rose from 1,530 students in 1968 to 1,870 students in 1974.” A vocational-technical program offered job training. As a college preparatory school, Niskayuna ranked high at state and national levels. It placed bright students in a fast track, with senior year courses at the college level for advanced placement credit. In the 1960s, elective courses included computer programming and Russian language.
When my father took an executive job at General Electric headquarters in 1966, he bought a new house in a new subdivision that lay in the Niskayuna district. My brothers and I attended Niskayuna High School.
I took my studies seriously, earned high grades, and was president of the Honor Society. Bookish and awkward, I practiced each fall with the soccer team, though the coach rarely let me take the field in a game. Small for my age, I played one of Medea’s children in a school drama club production of the play by Euripides. I played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. Thanks to a program set up by the music department, I took clarinet lessons from Augustin Duques of the Juilliard School. He and a brass colleague drove up once a week from New York City. I joined the Junior Etude Club, a city-wide group that met monthly to perform. A 1968 photograph in the Gazette shows four new members seated on the grass, with me holding a guitar. I never played guitar, so the photographer must have staged us.
In the 1960s, the downtown district was dreary, centered on a seven-block stretch of State Street, but it still had most of its buildings. They included banks, a New York Central Railroad station in the Beaux Arts style, and the dour Schenectady County Office Building at the top of a hill. The Carl Company was a multi-floor department store where my mother worked briefly. Hermie’s Music Store sold sheet music, instruments, and musical supplies. I often went there to buy clarinet reeds. Proctor’s Theater, built in 1926 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater, with an interior arcade, was a cultural landmark. There I saw the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The behemoth Hotel Van Curler, Georgian Revival in style and built of red brick in 1925, went bankrupt in 1968. It was renovated as Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York system.
Schenectady had a YMCA on State Street. On rainy summer days, the Schenectady Inner City Ministry day camp met in the gymnasium. I was a counsellor. On sunny days, we boarded school buses and drove to a camp in the woods west of the city. About equal numbers of poor black and white children got their first dose of nature. As counsellors, we were encouraged to get involved with the children, so I visited the slum where many of them lived. The neighborhood called Hamilton Hill, just south of downtown, was my first dose of urban poverty.
General Electric moved any lingering executive jobs from Schenectady to its corporate headquarters in Darien, Connecticut in 1980. Some manufacturing remained, notably of large turbines used to generate electricity. My father transferred to a GE plant in Virginia. My younger brother Edward graduated from Union College, while my older brother Pete moved from tool-and-die machine work at the main GE plant to making custom experimental apparatus at GE’s Research and Development Center. Schenectady as a whole continued to decline until the end of the century.
At that point, the state government in Albany realized that it could develop office space in Schenectady more easily than in the capital. State Street filled gaps from demolition with new office buildings. Schenectady gained population in the 2010 census, up to 66,000. When I visited then, after an absence of thirty years, State Street looked revitalized, with newly planted trees. Hermie’s was still in business, and Proctor’s Theater had been freshened up.
Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.” Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am from Schenectady.