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.