Sunday, December 6, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and Albany's Rail History

The following comment was left under my post regarding Union Station and it made me curious. After a bit of research, I posted a comment response to the question but I realized it would make for a good post of its own so here is the question followed by my slightly updated response:

WebRulation said... "Where was the rail station in Albany before Union Station? Where did Lincoln arrive in 1861 and where did his funeral train arrive in 1865? I have been searching to no avail..."

Until passenger rail service moved out of Albany in the late 60s, the station prior to Union Station still existed right beside it and offered further platforms. It was Union Depot and was officially located on Montgomery Street between Maiden Lane and Steuben Street (east of the current location of the Dormitory Authority building. That original Union Depot was built in 1872.

In 1861, Lincoln came from the west in route to Washington. He stopped in Albany at the New York Central's at-grade crossing over Broadway (just north of Livingston Ave. - still the current right-of-way but the viaduct was built in 1882.) William Kennedy reports in "O Albany!" that Lincoln had to wait half an hour to detrain because the twenty-fifth regiment was late. In 1865, Lincoln's coffin would have been going the other way - northbound - on the Hudson River Railroad and stopped in East Albany (Rensselaer) to unload the coffin. The Hudson rail crossing in existence at this time was still the Green Island Bridge to the north. The Hudson River Bridge at Albany (Livingston Ave. Bridge) was built in 1866. So, the coffin was unloaded and ferried across to Albany. The train would have continued north and crossed at Green Island, gone south to North Albany, while Lincoln's coffin would stop in the New York State Capitol building for viewing. It would reboard in Albany and the procession would have continued westward on the New York Central line up West Albany Hill (through Tivoli Hollow - current Amtrak/CSX alignment.)

It appears the Livingston Avenue passenger station was in operation up until about 1909 but I am not sure when it came into operation. I believe this station was located about where the tracks leading up along Montgomery Street north of Union Station met the east-west tracks west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge. At Lincoln's time, it would make sense for the Livingston Avenue passenger station to have been in existence in some form considering the aforementioned account of his getting off in the area of Livingston and Broadway. Livingston Avenue, at that time, was called Lumber Street as it lead to the head of the Erie Canal at the Albany Basin where Albany's lumber district began along the canal.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Corning Preserve's Amazing Lineage

The Albany Basin was constructed as the entrance for the original Erie Canal and completed and open to boat traffic in 1825. The basin was built by utilizing the natural harbor of the Hudson River at Albany by building two piers, each with bridges linking them to Quay Street along the mainland, at the foot of lower State Street and Columbia Street. The pier at the foot of State Street became the dock for the Albany Yacht Club and recreational and commercial boats parked within the basin. The northern part of the basin - north of Columbia Street bridge - was filled in for a rail yard. Not long after, the yard, northeast of Union Station, became so overburdened for more trackage and automobile parking that the remaining southern portion of the basin - south of Columbia Street - was filled in by the late 1940s. Commuter/tourist riverboat traffic was dwindling at this time, as well, which suited the extinction of this State Street pier as the home of the Albany Yacht Club. Most of the land-fill was turned into parking but the two piers were not entirely modified and remained in place while the newly filled in basin was brought out to the locations of the piers creating a new and contiguous riverfront in what used to be the middle of the Hudson River. The Maiden Lane Rail Bridge, built originally in 1871 and rebuilt in 1900, also remained in place as it continued to serve as the vital New York Central river crossing between Rensselaer and Albany leading to the rear of Union Station. The Maiden Lane Rail Bridge, when one studies old photos of it, was held up by stone supports, not unlike those that still exist supporting the neighboring and contemporary Livingston Avenue Rail Bridge just to the north. The Maiden Lane bridge simply crossed over a parking lot west of the old State Street pier instead of the water of the old basin. (The former Albany Yacht Club moved to the Rensselaer side of the river, south of the present Dunn Memorial Bridge where it still exists, due to not having a basin or adequate shoreline to service it any longer.) There appears to have been a stone support for the bridge at the pier where it met the Hudson's main channel. The bridge was fed on the east in Rensselaer through what would become the Junior-Senior High School baseball field and several feet to the south of the school's track. Time goes on and the school has now been demolished, as well, as of 2008 and remains vacant land pending construction of a huge undertaking to turn Rensselaer's otherwise undeveloped riverfront between Amtrak rail lines and the river into a modern marina and park area complete with office, retail, and residential - "mixed use."

The move of commuter rail out of Union Station and Albany to the other side of the river to Rensselaer in 1967/1968 (and subsequent storytale fate Union Station - see my prior blog about the station) and contemporaneous consolidation of the New York Central into Penn Central (soon to fail and be replaced by Amtrak) led to the replacement of Albany's riverfront tracks and adjacent parking lots along with removal of the Maiden Lane Bridge. Most accounts, including "Trackside in the Albany, N.Y. Gateway 1949-1974 with Gerrit Bruins and Jim Odell" by Leo Kilian, which provides stunning photography and accounts of the old railways, imply there are no vestiges of the old Maiden Lane Bridge. Honestly, no vestige of the former trackage through Albany is evident, either, as the current CSX line in-between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-787 is a realignment/rebuild of those lines. The bridge, as it appears in several aerial photographs, including an excellent photo on the lower right-hand side of page 15 of "Albany Revisited," by Don Rittner, crossed over the State Street pier south of an old building at the north end of the pier (old ticket office?) and north of the main multi-story recreational building constructed for the Albany Yacht Club. When I-787 ("riverfront route") was proposed and, unfortunately, built (unfortunately, at least, in the terms of elevated with gratuitous ramps and frontage roads,) it replaced mostly the area once covered with tracks but the area to the east (last incarnation as filled-in basin/parking lot) was left with no comprehensive plan for development and was half-heartedly turned into a "preserve" or riverfront park and later was dedicated to Mayor Erastus Corning II and renamed in his honor. (Dedicating unfinished and half-assed projects such as this to the former mayor was only-fitting. The park included two now-sunken parcels of land with feeders to the Hudson River enabling their use as tidal ponds and a strip of land separating the ponds from the river with a path through it which was constructed over the exact last route of Quay Street which previously serviced the parking lots and connected on the south to Maiden Lane and on the north to Livingston Avenue. This is an educated guess based on an aerial from 1974 on the USGS site which shows the riverfront being reconstructed but including a very clear and wide Quay Street, instead of a path, as it last appeared in other photographs and no tidal ponds but an otherwise vacant stretch of land that could be mistaken for Corning Preserve of 2001. Also constructed and finished around this time was Empire State Plaza which needed its own pumping station and that resulted in the allocation of the extreme southern end of the preserve to an architecturally-interesting pumping station and riverfront dock for tug boats. Otherwise, there remained no vestige of the area's previous incarnations other than its geographic location. Before I became an amateur photographer, I ventured to the area to investigate the shoreline (which is made up of very interesting combinations of slate, brick, stone, plant, wood, etc.) in the area of the newer Riverfront Park amphitheater (which one could argue threatened even further to cover-up any remaining vestige of the past.) Just above the pumping station and dock is a portion of the shoreline underneath a tree which contains a stone support standing, most likely a bit lower than its one-time full height, in the exact location the Maiden Lane Bridge appears to have crossed and it resembles the supports in old photos and the ones supporting the current Livingston Avenue Bridge. The above photograph shows that stone support as I photographed it almost four years ago, not knowing what I would come to believe it is.

Of note, though I did not live here before the Riverfront Park amphitheater and Hudson Riverway pedestrian bridge were built by 2002, it appears a lone-standing remnant of the buildings along the pier was still extant until that time just north of this stone support and at the likely northern extent of the old pier and, upon examination of 2001 aerials in Google Earth, it appears to have resembled the building mentioned earlier just north of the old bridge in old photos. If anyone remembers there being an old structure in Corning Preserve along the riverfront in the present location of the amphitheater (about in the location of the southern of two protruding bulkheads/lookout areas-also newly constructed and appearing in the above photo to the right of the support,) I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

McKownville Reservoir

As I sit waiting for the Yanks to begin tonight, despite the rain (hopefully,) I'm thinking about our old favorite flooding spot around here: Western Avenue @ Stuyvesant Plaza. A branch of the Krum Kill flows under Western at this point, the water table is high, and the stormwater and drainage system is very old and not efficient enough to reduce flooding up to modern standards. If you've been by the area in the last few weeks you probably have noticed the construction work going on at the entrance to Stuyvesant Plaza, behind Fridays, at the old McKownville Reservoir location.

The reservoir is being reconstructed to enhance its ability to control water flow out to the Krum Kill via the branch running under Western. This first phase of the project at that location will reduce flooding of Western Ave. west of Fuller Rd. and east of Schoolhouse Rd. The second phase of the project is of particular interest to me and I can't wait for the results. The natural area around the old McKownville Reservoir will be turned into a pocket park with a trail around the reservoir, complete with benches, designed to be similar to the popular Buckingham Lake Park in Albany.

The living history of the area will hopefully be enhanced by this project. William McKown built a tavern at the site of the Burger King opposite Fuller Road in 1790 anticipating the completion of the Great Western Turnpike and reaped the benefits of the future Route 20 corridor. McKown, whose family's plot of land became most of "McKownville," became Guilderland Town Supervisor from 1813 to 1824 and he built the reservoir which has sat behind Stuyvesant Plaza as an under-utilized relic of the area's former water supply system, particularly since the plaza was built in 1959 and Crossgates was originally completed in 1984. The branch flows westward under the Northway terminus and Thruway behind the McKownville Methodist Church to Crossgates where it eventually disappears under parking lots.

How many people fly by on Western during good traffic flow and never know the pond is there? Perphaps if you turn your head to the right when leaving Stuyvesant to Western you've seen it. Maybe when you're stuck in rush hour traffic backed up from the Schoolhouse Rd. light on your way to the Northway entrance or further into Guilderland you've noticed it on your right. Regardless, it's a unique reminder that the area between Crossgates and Stuyvesant, including the current Thruway and Northway terminus rights-of-way, used to be wetlands. The McKownville residents will certainly benefit from this pocket park and so will the summertime shoppers at Stuyvesant who've grabbed a latte from Starbucks and need a place to sit by some water and trees before heading back onto the web of concrete and asphalt to go home. Give kudos to Ken Runion, Guilderland Town Supervisor, for overseeing the implementation of this project.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Union Station

The Times Union website is reporting that Bank of America will consolidate its Albany offices to the State Street building and move out of Kiernan Plaza (formerly, Union Station) early next year. Every time I think of the building I wish the inside were accessible to the general public in some context consistent with downtown Albany's recent attempts at drawing people in instead of forcing them out. Mayor Jennings was quoted in the article: "My feeling is that it should be a part of our downtown rebirth...It's a beautiful building, inside and out." Also, "It's an opportunity for us to make it part of the city...It was kind of closed up." It is a good sign to hear the mayor apparently has such a sentiment and it would be wonderful if a plan could actually be developed and financed within the next century to ensure the building's life continues and becomes even more relevant.

The few photos I've seen of the interior of the building show that it is architecturally stunning, refined, and continues to reap the benefits of its renovation in 1986. Times change and so does the methodology that goes along with dealing with cities' aging infrastructures. In 1968, when Union Station closed as a transportation hub in favor of Amtrak's new rail station across the Hudson in Rensselaer, the building lay vacant and subject to the demise so much of Albany suffered during the same period: eviction, vacancy, demolition, and, in many cases, vacant lots for years before rehabilitation. Thankfully, this building never reached demolition as people began to wise up to the values of reusing such architectural gems. Norstar bought the property after years of vacancy, vandalism, and general lack of maintenance which made Union Station an eyesore. The building was renovated and rechristened as Peter Kiernan Plaza as Norstar bank moved in for its headquarters. Norstar became Fleet Bank and Bank of America has been there for a few years. As bank headquarters go, I guess security is a reasonably important thing. A couple years ago, on a weekend excursion downtown with my camera, my fiance and I wondered if one could simply walk in and possibly see the lobby or some part of the interior of the building from the entrance in back, by the parking garage, in the old area where passengers boarded the trains to New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. Two guards rather rudely made us leave and looked at us as if we were from outer space for wanting to go inside the building.

This would be a tremendous opportunity for Union Station, a wonderful relic of Broadway's past in Albany, to show off all of what it was built to show off. Reuse as "mixed use" (retail, convention, residential, etc.,) as Mayor Jennings suggested is a great idea, but any idea which would boast the building being a public asset and not another sign of holed-up elite (government or corporate) would further the tradition this building and Norstar began in the early eighties when they went against the grain by simply saving the building. Some quarter of a century later, it is time to show our maturation as a city by giving this building back to its rightful owners, the citizens of Albany, and show it off to those coming through Albany to visit, as they did for so many years when their trains arrived and departed from Union Station.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chester Arthur, President

Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first United States President, is buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery and is being honored today by the military in a ceremony reserved for deceased presidents on their birthdays. The Albany Rural Cemetery is in Menands, just north of the city line. Make your way to his grave site and the cemetery in general sometime and note the names of local history-makers.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Wedding Venues

We began looking at wedding venues with our wedding planner, Taia, and we visited three sites over two days: Pruyn House in Colonie, and the Appel Inn as well as the Altamont Manor House in Altamont. All three are terrific sites and should be at the top of any local person's list for any type of event. The views are awesome from the Altamont Manor House in the Helderbergs looking towards Albany and points further, by the way. We definitely have our eyes set on one of the sites at this point but nothing is set in stone.

Saturday night we took a stroll down Schoolhouse Rd. in Guilderland to Vaughn Rd. and back to Woodlake. It seems more kids are riding their bikes without helmets these days than back before there began the push for helmet/bicycle safety when i was a kid. It's amazing how neglectful parents are.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Evening Drive

We just took a summer evening drive through the Buckingham Lake neighborhood down New Scotland Ave. to downtown Albany. We walked around on the South Mall and enjoyed the view before driving up N. Pearl into Menands and then took the highways back home. After raining all day and flooding throughout the region over the last few days, it was not surprising to see people take advantage of a beautiful evening. People were walking down the new sidewalks on Schoolhouse Rd. in Guilderland and there was a younger family singing in their small yard on N. Pearl in North Albany. A beautiful pink sky led the way westbound on I-90 back home. It amazes me sometimes that people leave Albany after work and risk their lives to get the hell out as quickly as possible because it was pretty enjoyable being out there tonight.