Waxy Washington’s Unfatherly Wink

Museum Building site of Albany Trust State and Broadway circa mid 1800s
Long before Albany had the New York State Museum anchored to the southern end of the Empire State Plaza, the city had its own on the corner of State St. and Broadway. On September 18, 1809, the Museum was first advertised by its proprietor, Henry Trowbridge. While it was called a museum, it dealt more in the curiosities than the history and culture of the world around it. One such account from an 1868 edition of the Southport Chronicle (a newspaper based in Connecticut) published a humorous story of an event that took place in the Albany Museum on our nation’s 76th Independence Day.

A funny incident which happened at the old Albany Museum, in the good old times when the drama, wax figures and other curiosities were in vogue at that place, in thus related:
On the 4th of July, 1852, a patriotic addition to the show being desired, Charles Salisbury, a comical genius, notorious for his practical jokes, was chosen to represent George Washington, and, of course, was dressed in the traditional costume. The doors had just been open for the evening performance and visitors had commenced thronging the curiosity rooms, when a mischievous idea struck Mr. Salisbury, who, opening the door of one of the waxwork cases, unobserved, took a position among the figures and tried to look as immovable as possible. A queer countryman, his wife and daughter, a young miss of 18, were the first who entered. As the young lady approached Washington, he bestowed on her a most unfatherly wink.
“Good gracious, ma,” exclaimed she, “that figure of Washington winked at me.”
“Nonsense, child,” exclaimed ma, “you are so conceited you think everybody is in love with you.”
But at this moment she was almost speechless herself, for the venerable Washington has applied his fingers to his nose in a very suggestive manner.
“Oh, William!” she exclaimed, grasping her husband’s arm, “do look at that.”
“What is it?” asked William; “why I believe you women folks are crazy.”
At this moment Gen. Washington struck a belligerent attitude and uttered a terrific yell. In an instant the whole party tumbled down stairs, pellmell, and related the wonderful story, while Washington quietly slipped off to his dressing room, laughing in his sleeve at the joke he has practised.

The Albany Museum was closed three-years-later in 1855. Most of the items within, including the wax models, were sold and ended up as a floating museum on a Mississippi River riverboat. No word on whether the imposter George Washington made his way west or not.

The Address to One of America’s Biggest “What Ifs”

Blog - 34 Green Street Header

Finding something previously lost in Albany history really isn’t that rare when you think about it. With 400 years of European history stomping around these streets, there are bound to be little nuggets that fall through the cracks of those old granite setts. When one of those little morsels is a piece of one of Albany’s most popular and ironic tales, then you know you’re sailing in strange waters. The story I’m referring to is, of course, the tale of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth walking our familiar Albany downtown on the very same day.

As the story goes, Lincoln arrived in Albany on the afternoon of February 18, 1861, while John Wilkes Booth was preparing to return to the Gayety Theatre on Green Street. Six nights earlier, he accidentally injured himself with a prop dagger that was in his coat’s inner right pocket. It’s odd to think that while Booth was bleeding profusely on a small Albany stage, Abraham Lincoln was celebrating his 52nd birthday in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Gayety Theatre first opened two years earlier, in the spring of 1859. When we say the place was small, we’re not kidding. A packed house held 600 people and that was probably breaking every fire code in the book.

There’s always been one little caveat when it came to the Gayety. Where exactly was it located? Well, it’s complicated and we didn’t really know for sure – until now.

Why would finding the address of an old Green Street theatre be that hard? For starters, there was another theatre on Green Street named the old Green Street Theatre that ran for a number of years in the early 19th century before converting to a Baptist Church and again some years later in the mid-1850s. After the Green Street Theatre closed in the 1860s, it was later reopened and renamed the Gaiety Theatre at 61 Green Street. Yeah, same name, different spelling. Over a number of years, this has led to a bunch of misconceptions as to where the actual Gayety Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth performed, is located. To make matters worse, another stage called the New Gayety Theatre opened in the early-mid 20th century on that same street (and in a different location than the Gayety and Gaiety Theatres at 74 Green St). That’s a lot of Gai(y)ety for one narrow little street.

Blog - Gayety Theatre Excerpt, Players of a Century- A Record of the Albany Stage Page 305

Through the process of elimination and the power of the 21st century internet, the location of the Gayety Theatre has been found. How did we get there? In the 1880 book “Players of a Century: A Record of the Albany Stage,” it states the Gayety Theatre sat on “the east side of Green Street, two or three doors south of Beaver.” Excellent start. The hunt was immediately chopped down to one side of one block: Green Street’s even numbered buildings between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1876 City Atlas

Now that the exact block is known, it’s time to dig up the Albany City Atlas of 1876. This atlas goes in depth on where each numbered lot sits. Between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue are the addresses that range from 26 – 44 Green St.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1866 City Directory copy

Next up – combing through the 1866 Albany City Directory and searching each individual address. No hits came up for 26, 28 or 30 Green St. A little firework goes off for 32. It states it’s a carpeting and upholstering business. Interesting. Prior to opening as a theatre, the building was, in fact, a carpet store. Let’s dog-ear it and keep looking. 34 Green Street is next on the list and a search turns up it was the home of the American Theatre, which also served as a saloon. Could it be? The name was gone but the service is there. A man named Samuel Fitzpatrick was the proprietor. No further searches were found stating an American Theatre ever existed on Green Street. The trail went cold for the building, but Samuel Fitzpatrick opened a whole other method of hunting. According to an 1862 edition of the “Albany Morning Express,” Fitzpatrick was a proprietor of the Gayety Music Hall (home of the “late Gayety Theatre.”)

Blog - 34 Green Street 1862 Morning Express

Fitzpatrick is now tied to the former Gayety Theatre (we have no address) and an American Theatre (we do have an address). More searches would show Samuel Fitzpatrick was tied to the Gayety Music Hall all the way through 1864, when one article from the “New York Clipper” stated the Gayety Music Hall was being “thoroughly renovated, painted and upholstered,” and hoped to reopen in August of that year.

Blog - 34 Green Street 1865 City Directory

It must have reopened at some point, at least for a little while, because according to the 1865 Albany City Directory, Sam Fitzpatrick worked for the Gayety Theatre on 34 Green Street. There you have it, the long lost spot of the Gayety is 34 Green Street (currently slated to become a portion of the Tower on the Hudson.)

Blog - 34 Green Street Current Map

Its exact location has no fanfare and is merely a parking lot and parking garage. This chunk of blacktop and brick is the site where our American history could have been completely altered. This is the site where John Wilkes Booth’s blade could have gone an inch deeper into his right armpit, causing him to completely bleed out and die on that little Albany stage on Lincoln’s birthday. Instead, it’s nothing more than a tragic side note in local theatre lore. Had that happened, Abraham Lincoln would have never been assassinated, he could have completed his second term and ridden off into the sunset. James Garfield would have become the first U.S. president to be murdered and labeled the country’s martyr. You can go on and on with all of the “what ifs.” We’ll never know because that blade landed where it did. But what we do know now is where it all happened. 34 Green Street, the site of one of America’s largest “what ifs.”

Blog - 34 Green Street Current Photos

Plan for the Capital City; What Might Have Been

In June of 2014, All Over Albany, expanded upon a tweet we had about a defunct plan for the city of Albany that was unveiled in 1963. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Empire State Plaza’s cornerstone ceremony, the New York State Museum recently put a large scale model of the city on display in their main lobby. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the same one devised from the Albany: Plan for the Capital City commission report. Below is the map of the commission’s grand plan of Albany by 1980.Albany Plan for the Capital City Map

With a quick glance you’ll notice much of downtown Albany along with the Arbor Hill and Center Square neighborhoods would be razed in place of 1960s era buildings. Most of this plan was never realized, and fifty years later it appears that the city dodged a deadly bullet. While the Empire State Plaza gutted 98 acres of neighborhood in the downtown area, it looks like child’s play compared to what was proposed.

Below is a series of pictures of the scaled model of the city’s plan. The gray colored buildings are already in the Albany landscape while the white ones would’ve been new construction. That’s a lot of white. A few things didn’t translate from the plan to the model due to constantly changing ideas. For instance, in the map the South Swan Building is no where to be found but in its place is a series of curved apartment buildings. Speaking of housing, Sheridan Hollow is completely devoid of any housing and is replaced with what appears to be a park.

If you haven’t had a chance to get down to the New York State Museum to see it, it’s definitely worth the trip. You could easily spend 20 minutes on this model alone deciphering what survived and what could have been. It’s also enormous. The pictures don’t do justice to the size of the model. The exhibit is on display through January 17, 2016 at the New York State Museum.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 01Notice some of Center Square and most of the Lincoln Park neighborhoods have been wiped out with apartment buildings.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 02Running between the VA Hospital and Hackett Middle School was the proposed Washington Park Arterial. That never materialized either.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 03
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 04Much of downtown Albany was wiped clean. A slew of hotels and office buildings would’ve popped up all along Broadway and State Street. This is also how the Dunn Memorial Bridge would have looked if it was completed to its original potential.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 05A view of downtown from North Albany

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 06This was the proposed Convention Center on lower Hudson Ave, around the spot of the Van Ostrande-Ratliff House. Albany’s oldest building would have gone down with the ship.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 07Here’s Sheridan Hollow, completely lacking any residential, but the Hawk Street Viaduct survives, and even has a new companion; “The New Eagle Street Viaduct.” In the foreground are footbridges to the Creative Arts Center and marina.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 08The Riverfront Interstate, or as we know it now, I-787. Named for being in front of the river, AKA why everyone hates it.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 09The view of Albany from the area around the Patroon Island Bridge. Even the planners knew they couldn’t get rid of that monstrosity of a cold storage building. It still stands, along with the Livingston Ave Bridge.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 10
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 11
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 12Notice the D&H Plaza? It’s been chopped in half and Hudson Ave would’ve extended right to the D&H Administration Building.

Albany Scale Model circa 1963 13
Albany Scale Model circa 1963 14

Armistice Day in Albany

The following is a lengthy excerpt from the 1919 book, “Albany’s Part in the World War,” by Harry Cohen describes how Albanians found out about the end of World War I and how they celebrated. On a personal note, while originally reading the author’s yarns, it was difficult not to imagine his voice being similar to Chevy Chase’s character, Andy Farmer, from the film “Funny Farm.” Soothing, yet with a hint of restrained craziness. While much of Cohen’s description sounds a bit embellished, the pictures certainly back up much of his story. November 11, 1918 certainly looked to be a raucous, jubilant day in Albany history.

Armistice Day, State Street between Pearl and Broadway.  Courtesy: Albany Public Library History Collection

Armistice Day, State Street between Pearl and Broadway.
Courtesy: Albany Public Library History Collection

A seething, leaping fire of joy, consuming alike all ages and both sexes, burst forth in Albany, burning away the fetters of doubt, sorrow and sacrifice that held it in check for 19 months.

Conditions never before experienced gripped Albany as news of the Kaiser’s surrender spread with lightning speed. Mercantile and industrial activities stopped for the day; street car and trolley service was demoralized for nearly twenty-four hours, every business agency in the community except the railroads, telephone service and newspapers, were crippled too seriously to even make a pretense of normal activity.

Even the Albany post office “close up shop” for the day. No deliveries were made and Postmaster William A. Murray gave out orders early in the morning that the inside work should be handled with the least possible number of men.

The day was in every way the greatest in the history of the community. Locomotive and shop whistles screeched out the news to the thunderous accompaniment of bells and the undertone of torpedoes, clappers, cow bells, rattling metal cans and horns. Parades organized and spontaneous, marched through the streets, while crowd records were shattered everywhere.

Notwithstanding the fact that thousands of men, women and children took part in the demonstrations in Albany. the entire day passed without disorder.

The few bulletins announcing that the armistice had been signed kindled a flame which swept through the city, lightening the hearts of its thousands with a warmth of thanksgiving that has not yet grown cold. The first tongues of the flame to reach the city came in the crackling sparks of the telegraph at 2:55 o’clock in the morning.

A panorama of the city would have revealed, at 4 o’clock, a vast stretch of buildings, dimly illuminated in the hazy lights of a thousand twinkling bonfires, and sparkling and glowing far into the distance with a myriad of flashing lights, as the news spread to the sleeping thousands, waking them to the glorious day.

The sun rose clear and bright, looking down on the wildest, noisiest, most joyous and most historic day in the history of Albany and the world.

One style of Liberty Loan poster from Albany, NY

One style of Liberty Loan poster from Albany, NY

Demonstrations Begin
Shortly after 3 o’clock the din of a score of locomotive whistles sounded from the Rensselaer railroad yards, A few seconds later the tremendous scream of hundreds of locomotive and shop whistles rent the air, as the West Albany yards and shops joined the chorus. Again church and other bells leaped into brazen, crashing accompaniment.

A bonfire leaped into a crimson glow and, rising higher, threw huge shadows along the Ten Eyck Building and far up State and Pearl streets. The blended paean of triumph from bells, whistles, voices and every noise-producing agency, continued with a rising note of delirious joy.

Crowds Collect
In miraculously short time, beginning with a few running figures, scores of men and women began to pour into the streets, then hundreds – and then thousands lent their voices and beings to the common feeling. Figures clad in humble garb, and figures clad in fur coats, danced arm in arm around the bonfires and shouted, screamed.

Up Central avenue, Washington avenue, Madison avenue – in almost every street, avenue and lane in the city, there sounded the short, staccato bark of torpedoes, the impudent blast of horns and the ever-increasing roar from human throats. Homes, factories, shops, railroad yards, and hotels speeded forth their thousands into the streets, the whole leaping, running, shouting mob heading with a common impulse for State street and Pearl street.

The crowd, pouring like a huge waterfall into a main stream of business, presented the most variegated gathering ever assembled in Albany. Old couples, their eyes dim with tears, plodded along in the crush, solicitous only for the safety of the sacred flags they carried, children running half dressed and with eyes staring, skirted the crowds in the street, dashing along; men and women of all classes, creeds and color were migled in the throngs that swept irresistibly along the streets.

Albany Mayor James R. Watt (1918-1921), the last Republican mayor elected in the city of Albany

Albany Mayor James R. Watt (1918-1921), the last Republican mayor elected in the city of Albany

Crews Abandoned Trolley Cars
At 4 o’clock in the morning, there were more than 20,000 men, women and children united in a laughing, crying, shouting, delirious crush near State and Pearl streets. Automobiles crowded to the running boards, darted through the street, miraculously escaping pedestrians. A few trolley cars, in the early morning, clanged along, vainly tempting to make up time lost. At 7 o’clock there was not a trolley car in operation, the crews having joined the throngs.

A beautiful, Indian summer day, which ordinarily would have drowned along in peaceful content, was transformed into one of great tumult.

At 7 o’clock, 50,000 persons were in the streets, and at 8 o’clock the down town district was a sight without parallel. It seemed that every man, woman and child in Albany was taking part in the demonstration, assisted by thousands of vistors.

Sight Without Parallel
As far as the eye could reach, great crowds filled the streets. A sea of flags, bunting, everything bearing the National Colors, met the eye on all sides. A score of spontaneous parades were twisting, dodging and plowing their way through all the down-town thoroughfares.

The greatest carnival could not excel the demonstration. The crowds surged aimlessly at great speed, brushing aside policemen and order within realization. A storm of confetti, paper torn into bits, yards of streamers, waste and cards, fluttered like a deluge of vividly-colored snow upon the throng from the windows and roofs of buildings.

The West Albany shops of the New York Central, the Delaware & Hudson Shops, every industrial plant, and almost every store, shop and business house, with the exception of hotels and restaurants, drug stores and cafes, were closed tight throughout the day. A few made half-hearted attempts to open, but the sweep of the celebration, which knew not eating hours, business or social or commercial appointments, was not to be gainsaid. Employees simply would not report for work, or if they did, would not work.

Armistice Day, State Street between Eagle and Pearl Streets

Armistice Day, State Street between Eagle and Pearl Streets

Din Increases
Like tiny midgets, boys ran wildly about, dragging tin cans and bells attached to ropes. The crowds tooted horns, rang bells, whistled, buzzed clappers, shouted – anything to drown the student rasp of countless automobile sirens.

Far down South Pearl street there was a greater tumult, and looking down the thoroughfare some saw the glint of the early sun flashed on bayonets. A closer look revealed the khaki garb of soldiers, as they swung along to the crashing march of a band. This was the first organized attempt at a parade. At noon the greatest procession of triumph ever formed in Albany, though disorganized, assembled at State and Eagle streets.

Arranged by Mayor Watt, this demonstration for victory swung into a semblance of a parade shortly before 1 o’clock. There were more than 25,000 marchers, Colonel Charles E. Walsh, marshal, declared. Impressive it was, though lacking in the perfect order and trimness of the usual procession.

City officials and Chamber of Commerce men with the Tenth Battalion of the New York State Guard, led the procession. Following came the Elks, the Training Detachment of Soldiers at the State College for Teachers, Boy Scouts, Red Cross units, units of the Albany Defense Corps, workers of the West Albany and the Delaware and Hudson railroad shops, the Ludlum Steel Plant, girl employees from scores of stores, the A. P. W. Paper Company and many industrial plants.

Impulsive Enthusiasm
The huge column passed through lanes of humanity so densely packed, movement was almost impossible. Down State street to Broadway they went, up Broadway to Clinton avenue, to Pearl street to Hudson avenue, through cheering thousands to the Plaza, where they disbanded. It was a procession born of common impulse and lead the enthusiasm of such a gathering.

Three hours were required for the parade to pass a given point. Fluttering flags and making noise with every conceivable device, the marchers swung proudly along to the lilt of music by seven bands and drum corps. Through streets an inch deep with paper and debris of every sort, they trudged, none faltering with the effort. Their arrival at each crowded point was accompanied by a roar that could be heard for a score of blocks.

The greatest crowd ever assembled in the Plaza filled every square foot when the column swung into the square. The assembled thousands were unable to extricate themselves from the crowd tangle for more than an hour.

Armistice Day Parade Route

Large and Small Demonstrations
Mayor James R. Watt, President Edmund N. Huyck and Charles M. Winchester, of the Chamber of Commerce, with Colonel Walsh and a staff of the New York Guard, promoted and conducted the procession of victory. After the disbanding of the parade the main column broke into scores of small parades and continued the spectacle until hours later.

In the smaller demonstrations were trucks of the Montgomery Coal Company, carrying the effigies of the Kaiser, John Bull, Liberty and Uncle Sam; wagons of the American Railway Express system, crowded to the roofs with cheering men; telephone operators riding on a truck from which a figure representing the Kaiser was hung; four men carrying a coffin representative of the Kaiser as a corpse. The workers of the North Albany shops were out in hundreds, taking a prominent part in the celebrations day and night.

Night brought a greater pandemonium than the day. Lights flashed in every sign and home window, gay crowds of thousands surged and wound through every street in the down-town section. Restaurants, theatres and every place of entertainment were crowded with gay revelers, and restaurants and cabarets were crowded until late in the morning.

The celebration attained its greatest intensity in the down-town section, but in every part of the city there were smaller demonstrations. Red fire glowed in all of the principal streets and hundreds of persons gathered at the corners in different parts of the city. Brightly colored electric lights were festooned on the porches of many homes in the western residential sections, and service flags, Liberty Loan and other war posters were displayed. Pictures of Wilson, Foch, Pershing, Diaz and Haig were displayed all over the city.

Very much in evidence, too, were burlesque imitations of ex-Kaiser Bill, trundled along in baby carriages, hung from poles and burned in bonfires. The Kaiser was much battered up throughout the city, being hung, burned, shot, dragged and assaulted in effigy at least a thousand times.

Nearly every theater crowd saw some sort of demonstration. In the Grand Theater war films and the news weekly, showing soldiers, were greeted with wild enthusiasm. In Harmanus Bleecker Hall, the Empire and in the other theaters and movie houses similar scenes were enacted.

Churches Join in Observance
The churches conducted services of thanksgiving. The more notable of these services were conducted in the Cathedral of All Saints and in St. Peter’s Church, where patriotic music and prayer took place. In almost every Catholic church services of thanksgiving were conducted.

Who was the Hotel DeWitt Clinton’s First Guest?

The corner of State and Eagle St, before and after the construction of the DeWitt Clinton

The corner of State and Eagle St, before and after the construction of the DeWitt Clinton

The corner of Eagle and State Street has always held a place in Albany’s history. It was the home of Albany’s 37th mayor, John Townsend, one of the city’s finest mayors, until his death in 1854. President Abraham Lincoln dined there in February of 1861 while it served as the home of New York Governor Edwin Morgan*. In 1926, Morgan’s old home, now a drugstore would be knocked down. Just a year later, the Hotel DeWitt Clinton rose from the ashes and has become an anchor  of Albany’s unique skyline ever since. The city’s anticipation grew as each brick was laid and its opening neared. Meanwhile, questions and speculation of just who would be honored as the first guests to stay in the fledgling hotel swirled around the city.
John Townsend Abe Lincoln Edwin Morgan

Shortly after noon on Friday, August 26, 1927, a man carrying no luggage and wearing a three-piece suit walked through the ornate doors of the Hotel DeWitt Clinton. At the front desk he opened the pristine guest book and on its blank pages he registered his name: Governor Alfred E. Smith. The popular New York Governor and United States Presidential candidate became the first guest in the Hotel DeWitt Clinton. That historic scene itself makes for a great story; the man that vied to be the leader of the free world would be first in the glorious new hotel across the street from the Capitol building where he had been governor for five and a half years. Yes, it makes for a great story, only there was one problem. Al Smith never stayed the night at the new hotel. He only signed the guest book.

Smith would make the Hotel DeWitt Clinton his Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1928

Smith would later make the Hotel DeWitt Clinton his Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1928

Later in the afternoon of that same day, 73 years to the day of Mayor Townsend’s death, the first paying guests would arrive at the hotel hoping that they would have the privilege of being the actual “first guest.” Among them were Mr. and Mrs. L. W. Cooper of Orange, NJ; The Benson Family who already lived in the city of Albany; Mrs. D. N. M. Pickett of New York City; Dr. Hans Schmidt who was visiting from Holland; and possibly the most interesting name in the group, Patrick McCabe. McCabe, the former Albany County Democratic leader was instrumental in the impeachment of his nemesis, Governor William Sulzer, while serving as the Clerk of the New York State Senate in 1913. The group was only permitted to use the rooms on the first two floors of the hotel, as the rest of the floors were still under construction.

McCabe as New York State Senate Clerk in 1913

McCabe as New York State Senate Clerk in 1913

So the question is, who among the group would be forever known as the first guest to stay in the Hotel DeWitt Clinton? Turns out that it wasn’t anyone who signed the guest book that day. Two floors above them, in a room on the unfinished fourth floor, slept a kitten fondly named, DeWitt Clinton, Jr. Shortly after Governor Al Smith left the hotel, the black and white cat wandered up to the front doors. Edward Hardy, a bell-boy for the hotel was given the job of waiting on their furry guest. DeWitt enjoyed breakfasting in bed, and sleeping the day away curled up on a fine down pillow.
DeWitt Clinton Jr article headline

Three nights later, the fourth floor was finished, and DeWitt Clinton, Jr. had to give up his room for paying guests. He was moved to a blanket-lined basket under the clerk’s desk in the lobby. Being used to a queen sized bed by now, this new arrangement for the pampered, little cat just wouldn’t do. DeWitt Clinton, Jr. left as mysteriously as he arrived. The Hotel DeWitt Clinton’s manager, Sherman Hill, said it best, “I’m afraid he may have gone to another hotel.” It’s possible that little DeWitt took up residence at the Wellington Hotel down the street where feral cats had been living for years after the hotel was boarded up.

In the end, the very first guest in one of Albany’s famous hotels was not the governor, or a democratic boss, a doctor, or even a housewife. It was a cat. A cat who was affectionately named after three meaningful things to Albany; one of New York’s finest governors, a steam locomotive**, and a young hotel on the historic corner of Eagle and State Street.
DeWitt Clintons Hotel Governor Steam Engine A

(*) The current Executive Mansion did not become the governor’s official residence until 1877. Prior to that, New York Governors would live in a home of their choosing.
(**) A six-foot model of the DeWitt Clinton steam locomotive was in the lobby of the hotel for its official opening in 1928.

Albany’s Lost Boardwalk

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.Pleasure Island Map Location

 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.

Pleasure Island newspaper ad circa 1882

Pleasure Island newspaper ad circa 1882

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.

"Rocky Road to Dublin" with inset of Max Rosen Courtesy: Town of Colonie

“Rocky Road to Dublin” with inset of Max Rosen
Courtesy: Town of Colonie

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.

Al-Tro Park Opening Day Newspaper Ad circa: 1907

Al-Tro Park Opening Day Newspaper Ad circa: 1907

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.

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

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 circa 1909

Al-Tro Park circa 1909

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.

The R.C. Reynolds (left) and the Julia Safford in an undated photo

The R.C. Reynolds (left) and the Julia Safford in an undated photo

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.

Al-Tro Park circa 1909

Al-Tro Park circa 1909
Courtesy: Town of Colonie

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.

Thomas DiLella, Sr. paying George Crinan a reward for finding his son's body circa 1931

Thomas DiLella, Sr. paying George Crinan a reward for finding his son’s body circa 1931

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.

The Time President Taylor Almost Came to Albany, but Died Instead

On May 18, 1850, the president of the New York State Agricultural Society, Ezra P. Prentice wrote a letter to Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States. Prentice wanted President Taylor to visit the New York State Fair that was being held the first week of September in Albany on Troy Road (now Broadway in North Albany). The president always took a liking to agriculture and regretted not being able to make the New York State Fair the year prior in Syracuse.

Prentice Letter to Zachary Taylor 5-18-1850
First, a little background. Ezra P. Prentice arrived in Albany at the age of 29 in 1826. In just two years he had become a successful fur trader with Williams, Packer & Co. Eventually Dennison Williams left the company and you guessed it, it was renamed Packer, Prentice & Co. In 1840 the company was presumably bought out and Prentice received a small fortune and retired at the age of 43. Prentice would then hold a whole host of titles; president of the Albany-Susquehanna Railroad, trustee of the Albany Female Academy, trustee of the Dudley Observatory, president of the Albany Commercial Bank and of course president of the New York State Agricultural Society in 1850. He died in his home on Kenwood Road at Mount Hope on July 10, 1876 after a long illness. He’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Ezra P. Prentice circa 1870
Mount Hope still exists. It sits south of Cherry Hill and I-787 and just north of the Normans Kill. To the west it’s flanked by Southern Boulevard and to the east, South Pearl Street. A housing redevelopment in this area bears the name, “Ezra Prentice Homes” in his honor.

Mount Hope Map
A little over a month goes by without word from President Taylor. Prentice decides to write him again, this time offering up his home as a place for the president to stay during his visit. Ezra Prentice was indeed a squeaky wheel.

Zachary TaylorFast forward a week later to July 4, 1850. Zachary Taylor is at the Washington Monument to witness dust from Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s* tomb being placed inside the unfinished monument. He then stayed at the service and listened to numerous speakers for an additional two hours in the hot sun. He returned home to the White House at 4:00 pm, and instead of eating dinner he drank water, chilled milk and ate a bowl of cherries. Taylor then had what was described as, “an uncomfortable night.”

Washington Memorial circa 9-1850The following day, President Taylor decided to write Ezra “Squeaky Wheel” Prentice back about his attendance to the New York State Fair. Obviously, Taylor wouldn’t know if he could actually attend the fair until closer to September but he did hope to make it. However, he wouldn’t be spending the night with Prentice. He would be placing his head on Governor Hamilton Fish’s pillows instead. The letter was then placed in the mail and started its slow trip north to Albany.

Zachary Taylor Letter toEzra Prentice 7-5-1850President Taylor’s condition started to worsen by the end of that day. During the evening, army surgeon, Dr. Alexander Wotherspoon was called to check on Taylor. Wotherspoon diagnosed the president with cholera morbus, prescribed some opium and calomel and went on his merry way. The President of the United States was dead four days later.**

A day later, on July 10, word hit Albany that President Taylor had died. Ezra Prentice mourned. The city mourned. This wouldn’t be the end of Zachary Taylor for “Squeaky Wheel” Prentice though. The letter was still on its way from Washington, DC. Ezra Prentice received it shortly after learning of the president’s death. Prentice had just received the last letter President Taylor ever wrote, effectively making it a letter from “beyond the grave.” We can only imagine what Ezra Prentice’s face looked like when he opened it up to see the “Z. Taylor” signature staring right back at him!

Zachary Taylor signature Ray StantzWhere is the letter now? Has it been lost to history or is it still kept as a token in the Prentice Family line? For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere, who knows the truth. Perhaps that someone is reading. Perhaps it’s you. If you have any information on this letter, write to us. You need not give your name.

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* Thaddeus Kosciuszko should be a familiar name with almost every Capital Region commuter. The Twin Bridges on I-87 were named in his honor.
**Sidenote: Albany native and father of modern electricity, Joseph Henry, rode in Zachary Taylor’s funeral procession on July 13 as an officer of the Smithsonian Institute.