Yes, you read that right, the city of Albany once had a boardwalk. It wasn’t some cheap, little boardwalk either. This was a large, impressive boardwalk that drew thousands of people a day from all across the area. At one point it was characterized as a smaller version of Coney Island. It boasted scores of attractions with over two dozen buildings. Today, you won’t find any signs of its existence. So what happened to it? How did something of this size and popularity just disappear and become one of Albany’s best kept secrets? While it didn’t just vanish without a trace, its story almost did.
Before we actually get into the glory days of Albany’s boardwalk, we need to go back to the beginning: the quiet arrival of a place named Pleasure Island. Sorry, Pinocchio fans, mutant donkey-boys need not apply. Pleasure Island sat on the west side of the Hudson River hugging the Albany-Menands city line. Despite its name, this wasn’t your traditional island. In fact it wasn’t even an island at all until 1823 when the Erie Canal cut through North Albany. The canal is what separated Pleasure Island from the rest of the city. Around 1880, give or take a year, the island received its name, and became a popular spot for picnics, baseball games, regatta races and even the occasional traveling circus. For the better part of 20 years Pleasure Island lived up to its name.
Around 1898, Pleasure Island would go through a name change. The destination would be renamed Lagoon Island. In 1901, a large coliseum was built. It housed a motorized bicycle race track and was built over the old baseball field. The entire building was made of wood, even the track. For its time, it was quite sizeable with every eight laps equaling one mile (or a .125 mile lap for all of you math nerds). The motorcycle coliseum sparked the beginning of what would become one of the great early 20th century amusement parks.
In November of 1906, Max Rosen, general manager of the Al-Tro Park Company completed negotiations with Lagoon Island, making it the property of Al-Tro Park. Max Rosen’s plan was to move his existing Al-Tro Park on Troy Road, better known today as Broadway, to a larger property in order to expand his growing empire. He dreamed of building one of the most “elaborate and pretentious” summer resorts in this part of the state. Rosen put his money where his mouth was too, throwing down $150,000 (roughly $4,000,000 in today’s money) to make his vision come to life. Everything would be new at Rosen’s park, except for the rides. The plan was to move those from his old park. Otherwise it seems, Max Rosen spared no expense.
On May 30, 1907, Memorial Day, the new Al-Tro Park along the Hudson opened to wild fanfare. It was bigger, better, and more attractive than anything that had ever sat on that island. Al-Tro Park was appropriately inaugurated by Banda Roma, a famous 40-piece Italian band, acrobats, bicyclists, comedians and a primate circus (Professor Wormwood’s to be precise). All that in just the opening week! It seems all Max Rosen needed for his park was a T-Rex and a merry band of Velociraptors.
The park itself featured a roller coaster named “Rocky Road to Dublin”, a carousel, circular swings, a miniature railroad, a large theater, dance halls, a roller skating rink, penny games and food vendors, just to name a few. All of these attractions were linked together by one common feature, yup, the boardwalk. The wooden structure was an impressive 900 feet long and a width of 40 feet. The rides and buildings flanked the boardwalk for its entire length.
Al-Tro Park wasn’t just a hit with the public, it was a giant hit. But getting to the park in those days was no easy feat. In 1907 a trip four miles north of Downtown Albany wasn’t exactly a car ride away. Some people chose the United Traction trolley to North Albany, but the vast majority took a steamboat. At the time the Albany-Troy Steamboat Company ran boats between Troy and Albany every 30 minutes with a stop at Al-Tro Park. It cost a dime (about $2.50 in today’s money) for a patron to ride to either city or a nickel to just the amusement park. Four main boats ran the line; William H. Frear, Julia Safford, General Joseph B. Carr and R.C. Reynolds, all named for famous Trojans. The R.C. Reynolds started its transfers just two weeks before the park opened on the old Lagoon Island.
In the spring of 1910, the park had another name change (and most likely a company change). Al-Tro Park and its general manager were out, Maple Beach Park and new manager, J.J. Carlin were in. The new ownership continued to run the amusement park just like the old ownership right down to its extravagant daily shows. They figured if it’s not broke why fix it? However that would all change in the summer of 1913.
On September 14, 1913 around 6:30 in the evening, a fire broke out in an ice cream booth. The blaze quickly swept to every building and amusement stand on the boardwalk. William Riley, the island’s caretaker discovered the fire, but sadly there was nothing he could do. Maple Beach Park was not equipped with any fire extinguishers. Riley and J.J. Carlin, both powerless, could do nothing but watch the entire park go up in flames. Both the Albany and Watervliet Fire Departments were called, but neither could reach the island due to structural issues with the bridge over the Erie Canal. The fire was so spectacular it could be seen for miles around. Thousands of people in the area gathered along the canal to watch the island in flames. When it was over, the roller coaster, pavilions and even the mighty boardwalk was reduced to ashes. Nothing could be saved. Even the steamboat dock was destroyed. The fire’s heat was so intense many of the island’s trees withered and fell to the ground. With an estimated $200,000 in damage and only $15,000 in insurance it seemed Maple Beach Park was dead by the match of a suspected arsonist.
The following day, J.J. Carlin vowed that he would rebuild Maple Beach Park and make it better than it was before. Carlin was right, Maple Beach would be rebuilt, just not by him. He ended up selling the park to a company in Buffalo in June 1914. Incredibly in just one month, new general manager, H.B. Rogers did the impossible and recreated the park to match its original glory, almost. Maple Beach Park was reopened in July, albeit on a smaller scale, but it still boasted one of the largest dance halls in the state. Sadly, the fire proved to be eternally deadly for the once great boardwalk. The new owners chose to regrade the land and leave the boardwalk on the drawing board. That meant the end to Albany’s famed boardwalk.
Over the years, the park would eventually be sold to the Albany-Troy Steamboat Co. By 1918, Maple Beach was breaking attendance records again. Things seemed to be going well for the island, but that would be short-lived. Transportation by steamboat was going the way of the dinosaur. Automobiles were the new thing. In March of 1922 the park was sold to James S. Montgomery, a New York attorney, for a measly $50,000. This was where our trail ended with Maple Beach Park. The steamboats would soon suffer the same fate as the park. A year and a half later, in October of 1923, they too were sold off in liquidation, effectively ending the Albany-Troy Steamboat Co.
Some years later in May of 1931, the old park would make the news again, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Thomas DiLella, Jr. who went missing was discovered washed up dead on the island, by a one-armed railroad flagman named George Crinan. DiLella and his friend, Thomas Connors, rented a canoe to go fishing in the Hudson River. The canoe capsized tossing both boys in the water. DiLella would save Connors’ life, but ultimately lost his own when he foolishly went back to save the boat. He was buried in St. Agnes Cemetery.
About 40-years later the entire island would meet its final demise. The Erie Canal would be filled in and a little road by the name of I-787 would be built on top of it, bringing a quiet end to Pleasure Island, and forever covering its mysterious existence.
Yes, Albany once had a boardwalk.
The steamboats were such a vital part in Al-Tro Park’s success we thought it would be doing a disservice by not explaining what happened to them after the Albany-Troy Steamboat Co. shut its doors. The following is from the 1959 history edition of the Troy Record.
Victor– Built in 1854 for use on Long Island Sound and in waters adjacent New York. Came to the Troy-Albany line about 1915 after being purchased for $5,000. Known as a “cranky” boat by her crew and hard to handle, the Victor was only in use for a short time when it was sold and left this vicinity.
William H. Frear– Built in 1898-99 and first operated between the two cities May 30, 1899. The boat inherited the engine and boilers of the earlier William M. Whitney of the Troy-Albany line. After the company discontinued business, the Frear, in September 1922 was taken to the Marvel Shipyard at Newburgh and tied up. The following spring it sank at it’s moorings and was not raised, gradually going to pieces.
Julia Safford– This boat was originally the Pilot when launched at Roundout in 1892. It was later lengthened and renamed. On Oct 15, 1920, the Safford was sold to the Florida Transportation Co. for $14,000 and was used on Biscayne Bay. In 1924, she was beached there and abandoned.
Gen. Joseph B. Carr– This boat along with the Safford, were the two smaller vessels of the line. Following liquidation of the company, the Carr was sold to southern interests and a few years later abandoned there.
R.C. Reynolds– Built on Noank, Conn., in 1896 as the John G. Carlisle and operated on the Fulton Ferry in New York. In the early 1900s she became the property of the Troy-Albany line. Following alterations, she began service May 15, 1907. When the line was discontinued the Reynolds became a ferry between Verplanks Point and Thompsons Cove. It was destroyed by fire at Kingston in 1924 and its captain was drowned.
G.V.S. Quackenbush– Built at New Baltimore in 1878. This boat was originally the J.G. Sanders. As the Quackenbush she sank off the Center Island August 1, 1919 after striking an obstruction on her up-river trip and became a total loss.