Category Archives: History

The Depot

Drive out Route 7 and you’ll come across the Rotterdam Corporate Park. It’s a sprawling complex of warehouses that are home to all sorts of businesses, and if big space is what you need, big space is what they’ve got.

It may not be an inspiring spot these days, but 75 years ago, it was bustling. Known then as the Schenectady General Depot, it was a key part of the massive war effort, a link in the supply chain that supported the most powerful army the world had ever seen.

Day and night, trains would arrive and disgorge the endless supplies of war, everything from trucks and tanks to the most mundane bits of equipment. Then, it would all be sorted and stuffed onto different trains that would speed their cargo to waiting ships at East Coast ports.

But after the war the trains started coming back from the ports with a more precious cargo: the remains of service members on their last trip home.

In 1946, the government gave families the option to have the their fallen loved ones returned to America, rather than remaining buried in the region where they died. Today we’re accustomed to war dead being shipped home; that was not always the case.

The Schenectady General Depot was one of 15 distribution points across America that handled this task. They would receive remains that arrived from either the Brooklyn Army Terminal or Oakland Army Terminal in specially built rail cars. From there, the deceased service members were sent to their final destination. Shorter trips were accomplished with custom built hearses; longer journeys saw the remains, in their flag draped caskets, loaded aboard trains.

On the last leg of the journey, each of the deceased was escorted by a member of the same branch in which they served. These escorts oversaw the final details of transportation and often met with families. When aboard passenger trains, the escorts carried two tickets — one for themselves and one the soldier, sailor or Marine in their charge.

In the years after the war, more that 170,000 servicemen and women came home this way. Schenectady served most of the Northeast, so it had to be a busy place. Many were local boys, like Edward Kalinowski of Hoosick Falls.

Today it’s just another industrial park, but with a little imagination you might conjure up an image of what it was like in World War II. So long ago, when we packed off the tools of war — and then a few years later when its tragic byproduct came rolling on home.

Read more here about the work of repatriating World War II dead.

View the complete records of Edward Kalinowski’s long journey home. This includes documents pertaining to the return of his personal effects, burial and disinterment, and paperwork related to his transit back to Schenectady.

A Visit by Erastus

It’s always interesting to see what people are throwing away, and a keen eye toward trash will sometimes yield treasure, large and small.

One day at WNYT, I hauled a bag full of crap down from my office (despite what you’ve heard, I really was the creative services director, not the janitor) and saw a bankers box labelled “archives” in the dumpster. Well, who would’t peek at that?

It was crammed with an assortment of old correspondence dating back to the 1950s — and a folder full of photos. If these are archives, I reasoned, they belong in my office, not the dumpster.

A lot of the papers dealt with the mundane matters of running a business, but among the photos were a few real gems, like the ones below. My favorite is this picture of good old Erastus Corning 2nd gamely peering into the WTRI camera for a PR shot.

And how about the look on this dogs face? Clearly, dogs have a lower tolerance for goofy photo ops than do politicians.

This photo is not quite so old. It’s from 1960 after they’d switched to the unfortunate call letters, WAST, for Albany-Schenectady-Troy. Add an “E” and you’ve got WASTE. The caption on the back identifies the woman as “Miss Nancy Doell, local Albany television actress.”

These pictures are from a time when television was still rather new and glamourous, but I think local TV still holds a certain fascination to people. I always enjoyed giving tours at channel 13 and seeing how much people loved looking behind the scenes. And the anchors and meteorologists? They’re the closest thing we have to celebrities. Well, I suppose in this town, politicians are also celebrities of a sort, just not always in a good way.

Foto Friday

Reenactor at Stirling Castle, Scotland

Bronx 1934

I binged four seasons of Boardwalk Empire recently. It has all the usual gangster stuff I enjoy, but there’s also a profound sadness to the show. Tragedy lurks around every corner, and as you get involved with the characters, you feel their pain.

I liked it a lot, but as the body count mounted from season to season, a nagging thought began to gnaw at me: these crime dramas  rarely show the devastating effect that death can have on a family, sometimes lasting for generations.

I know this because murder touched my own family many years ago.

I never met my grandfather, because in 1934 he was shot in a Bronx pool hall. The two men accused in his murder, described by the NY Times as a “minor politician” and a “former pugilist” were acquitted at trial.

In the movies, that would be the end of the end of the story, but in real life, he left behind my grandmother and six children. My father was seven-years-old.

Those were tough years and losing the head of the household couldn’t have helped. It changed the trajectory of the family in ways we’ll never know.

The next time you watch a scene of carnage in some gangster shoot-em-up think how each minor figure is connected to so many other lives. It moves the plot in one direction, but shifts the world in another.

Somebody’s Been In Prison Too Long

A lot of us were fascinated by the escape from Dannemora, so the 150 page report on last year’s prison break is like a wonderful gift from Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott.

The report is crammed with minute details about the incident, and much of it is served up by none other than escapee David Sweat. Matt took his side of the tale to the grave.

It’s also contains some funny things, like the instructions Sweat gave Joyce Mitchell about meeting them after they emerged on the other side of the wall:

“I told her you can leave the car running, shut your headlights and stuff off, and you’ll get out of the car, act like you’re talking on the phone, because everybody knows you’re not allowed to drive and talk on the phone…”

Yes, everybody knows you’re not allowed to drive and talk on the phone.

Anyway, I give the report two thumbs up!

Lot’s of people say that the Dannemora escape would make a good movie, and perhaps it would, but I think it needs someone to root for. Maybe we could write in a third escapee, someone forced to go along against his will, a character convicted of something less contemptible than the murderous Matt and Sweat. How about an  art thief? Then he could turn the tables on the evil pair —  and in the end get the girl. We’d glam her up a bit, of course. Hey, it’s Hollywood.

Twitter 1891

Social media? It was around long before Twitter and Facebook. Granted it moved at a slower pace; columns like this in an 1891 issue of the Altamont Enterprise contained posts that are not so much different from what we see today:

fullersstation

A dozen or so local towns are covered in the “Vicinity Correspondence” section, and besides word of mouth, in its day this is how small bits of news were passed about. When you think about it, “This place is now without a shoemaker,” wouldn’t be a bad tweet.

Just like today, there were certainly people who thought all this information was useless. They’d probably shake their heads and say, “Christ! I don’t care whose farm Norman Miller is going to work on any more than I care what he ate for breakfast!” That may be, but I bet most people turned to page two and read that first. It’s interesting even 125 years later.

Salty

It was surprising to wake up and hear that a group of workers were trapped in a salt mine — especially since it was a salt mine near Ithaca. Actually, they were trapped on the elevator, but hey: salt mine!

Yes — New York is big in salt mining and has been since the 1700s. Originally it was the area around Onondaga Lake where salt was king. Syracuse was the Salt City and Salina is called Salina for a reason.

Back in the day, the Onondaga brine springs spit out salty water that was boiled down to crystals — but in other parts of Central and Western New York, salt production turned to mining. Today, these mines are deep and vast. The Cayuga Salt Mine near Ithaca goes down more than 2300 feet and covers 18,000 acres, spanning five miles from its origin in some spots

You might think that a bad day at work beats a good day in the salt mine. Yes, it’s just salt, but any work like that is hazardous. Nevertheless, I would love to get a tour of the salt mine, sketchy elevator and all. It would be amazing to go that far below the earth into these caves carved from salt. I imagine you could lick your lips and just taste it.

Breaking the Ice

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the old days when the Hudson River iced over.

The river was once a major thoroughfare to Albany — indeed, the Thruway of its day — and even after trains became a thing, the river was still important for moving people and freight. But when the river was clogged with ice?

Before steam power, clearing ice must have been impossible — and even then, until the advent of massively powerful diesel engines, it couldn’t have been easy.

Fast forward to 2015.

Much is made of the crude oil shipments that come by rail to the Port of Albany, but few stories mention the final leg of the oil’s trek to refineries that begins with a barge ride down the Hudson. And it doesn’t stop for winter. In recent weeks, I’ve seen the Coast Guard icebreaker making its way up and down the river, clearing the way for commerce.

One thing about these ships plowing down the river: they’re loud. There’s no sound quite like their hulls cutting and crashing though the ice field, making their way by sheer force against nature’s best.  When it’s fire against ice, fire wins.

Diner

I like the drive south down River Road.

Glenmont, Selkirk, Coeymans, New Baltimore — keep going and you’ll go through Coxsackie and to Catskill. Route 144 gives way to Route 61 which leads to Route 385, but it’s all the same.

Roads like this were busier before the Thruway, and if you look closely you’ll see the remains of old gas stations and tourist cabins that dotted way — and places like the Bridge Diner.

It’s near two bridges in Coeymans, actually; the railroad bridge that carries freight across the river and the Thruway’s Castleton Bridge. The diner must have been a busy place when that Thruway bridge was being built in the late 1950s — ironic,  because it was the Thruway itself, not far behind the diner, which must have stolen a lot of the traffic away from Rt. 144.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

While the building looks vaguely like a railroad car, the only time it rolled anywhere was when it was shipped to its destination in four-foot segments and assembled on site. The diner was built by the Bixler Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio sometime between 1931 and 1937 when the firm went out of business. Back in the day, you could buy a pre-fab diner like this one on credit — and hope you got enough business to make your payment.

Bridge Diner Coeymans

I don’t know anything about how the Bridge Diner ended up as it is today. It’s too bad somebody couldn’t have put the building to use — or break it back down into four-foot sections and cart it off to where it could be live again, a place for a couple of fried eggs and some hash browns on a chilly morning.