Here to return to
AT THE HEAD OF NAVIGATION
ON THE west bank of the Hudson, one hundred and forty-five miles from New York, stands Albany. The population of both shores is dense for a dozen miles above, and Troy, Cohoes, and other cities form a close succession with little that is genuinely rural between. The buildings most in evidence along Albany’s waterside are dingy old warehouses. These may be seriously lacking considered from a business standpoint, but they have the human look and interest that only age can confer. They have passed through trials and tribulations, and experience is written in their battered, time-worn walls and uncouth, out-of-date architecture. As you go back from the river the land soon begins to rise in a long vigorous slope, and at the top of the hill, where was the fort of the Colonial town from the earliest times, is now the great marble state capitol. The building presides not only over the city, but the entire neighboring valley. Its size, its situation, and the dignity of its architecture unite to make it very impressive. But to fully realize its immensity one has to see it from the other side of the river. When its foundations were begun in 1869 it was expected to cost four million dollars. The building was ready for the legislature to meet in it ten years later, but many more years were required to complete it, and the total cost was twenty-one millions.
The first settlers of Albany chose this particular point on the river for their trading post because here started the great trail of the aborigines which crossed to the Mohawk River at Schenectady, and then followed the valley of that stream westward to the lake country. Other important trails or canoe routes to the southwestward and the north and east also began here. It was a central point on the Indian highways, just as it is now on the civilized transportation routes.
In 1614 a stockaded trading house was erected on the island just below the present city. Nine years later a few families from across the sea established themselves at the foot of the clay hill on which the capitol now lifts it masses of sculptured granite, and built rude huts and a little log fort. At the end of the century the place consisted of about one hundred houses surrounded by a stockade pierced to the north and south by a narrow gateway. It was much resorted to by Indians and by the scarcely less savage French hunters, who ended each transaction by a grand spree. Its favorable position and the amicable relations maintained by the manorial lords with the Iroquois made it, until after the Revolution, one of the most important places in North America. One of its claims to distinction is the fact that it existed for over a century without a single lawyer.
Albany was included in the Van Rensselaer manor, and the patroon was a veritable feudal chieftain regarded with reverence by all the country. At one period there were on the domain several thousand tenants, and their gatherings were similar to those of the old Scottish clans. When a lord of the manor died, his tenants swarmed to the manor-house to do honor at the funeral. If it was announced that the patroon was coming to New York by land, crowds would turn out on the day he was expected, to see him drive through Broadway with his coach and four as though he were a prince royal. The great Van Rensselaer manor-house, built in 1765, was long considered the most palatial dwelling in the New World, and was noted for the princely character of its entertainment.
At the time of the Revolution Albany was still a stockaded town. During the war it was constantly a depot of supplies, and an outpost often threatened, but never reached by British expeditions from the lower river and from Canada and the Indian country. It was made the capital of the state in 1797, but its growth in population was not rapid until after the advent of the steamboat and the completion of the Erie Canal.
A most entertaining description of colonial Albany is found in Mrs. Grant’s “Memoirs of an American Lady,” from whose lively pages I quote freely in what follows. She writes of a time about a score of years preceding the Revolution.
“The city stretched along the banks of the Hudson. One very wide and long street lay parallel to the river, the intermediate space between it and the shore being occupied by gardens. A small but steep hill rose above the center of the town, on which stood a fort, intended (but very ill adapted) for the defence of the place and the neighboring country. From this hill another street was built, sloping pretty rapidly down till it joined the one that ran along the river. This street was still wider than the other, the middle being occupied by public edifices.
“The town, in proportion to its population, occupied a great space of ground. This city, in short, was a kind of semi-rural establishment. Every house had its garden, well and a little green behind. Before every door a tree was planted, rendered interesting by being coeval with some beloved member of the family. Many of the trees were of a prodigious size and extraordinary beauty, but without regularity, everyone planting the kind that best pleased him, or which he thought would afford the most agreeable shade to the open portico at his door, which was surrounded by seats and ascended by a few steps. It was in these that each domestic group was seated in summer evenings to enjoy the balmy twilight or the serenely clear moonlight. Each family had a cow, fed in a common pasture at the end of the town. In the evening the herd returned all together, of their own accord, with their tinkling bells hung at their necks, along the wide and grassy street, to their wonted sheltering trees, to be milked at their master’s doors.
“Nothing could be more pleasing than to see thus, at one view, all the inhabitants of a town, which contained not one very rich or very poor, very knowing or very ignorant, very rude or very polished individual — to see all these children of Nature enjoying in easy indolence or social intercourse,
‘The cool, the fragrant, and the dusky hour’
These primitive beings were dispersed in porches, grouped according to similarity of years and inclinations. At one door were young matrons; at another, the elders of the people; at a third, the youths and maidens, gaily chatting or singing together; while the children played round the trees or waited by the cows for the chief ingredient of their frugal supper, which they generally ate sitting on the steps in the open air.
“At one end of the town, as I observed before, was a common pasture. At the other end was a fertile plain along the river, three miles in length, and near a mile broad. This was divided into lots. There every inhabitant raised Indian corn sufficient for the food of two or three slaves (the greatest number that each family ever possessed) and for his horses, pigs and poultry. Above the town, a long stretch to the westward was occupied by sandy hills, on which grew bilberries of uncommon size and flavor, in prodigious quantities. Beyond, rise heights of a poor, hungry soil, thinly covered with stunted pines or dwarf oak. Yet in this comparatively barren tract there were several wild and picturesque spots, where small brooks running in deep and rich bottoms, nourished on their banks every vegetable beauty. There some of the most industrious settlers had cleared the luxuriant wood from these charming glens, and built neat cottages for their slaves surrounded with little gardens and orchards. The cottages were occupied in summer by some of the negroes, who cultivated the grounds about them, and served as a place of joyful liberty to the children of the family on holidays.
“The children of the town were all divided into companies, from five or six years of age, till they became marriageable. Every company contained as many boys as girls. A boy or girl of each company, who were older, cleverer, or had some other preeminence above the rest, were called the heads of the company, and as such were obeyed by the others. The children of different ages in the same family, belonged to different companies. Each company, at a certain time of the year, went in a body to the hill to gather berries. It was a sort of annual festival. Every company had a uniform for this purpose; that is to say, very pretty light baskets made by the Indians, with lids and handles, and were adorned with various colors. One company would never allow the least degree of taste to the other in this instance, and was sure to vent its whole stock of spleen in decrying the rival baskets. Nor would they ever admit that the rival company gathered near so much fruit as they did.
“The girls, from the example of their mothers rather than any compulsion, very early became notably industrious, being constantly employed in knitting stockings, and making clothes for the family and slaves. This was the more necessary as all articles of clothing were extremely dear.
“The children returned the fondness of their parents with such tender affection that they rarely wounded their feelings by neglect or rude answers. Yet the boys were often wilful and giddy, the girls being sooner tamed and domesticated. These youths were apt, whenever they could carry a gun (which they did at a very early period) to follow some favorite negro to the woods, and while he was employed in felling trees, to range the whole day in search of game, to the neglect of all intellectual improvement.
“Occasionally eight or ten of one company, or related to each other, young men and maidens, would set out together in a canoe on a kind of rural excursion. Yet so fixed were their habits of industry that they never failed to carry their workbaskets with them. They steered a devious course of four, five or perhaps more miles, till they arrived at some of the beautiful islands with which this fine river abounded, or at some sequestered spot on its banks, where delicious wild fruits, or conveniences for fishing afforded some attraction. They generally arrived by nine or ten o’clock, having set out in the cool and early hour of sunrise. A basket with tea, sugar and the other usual provisions for breakfast, a little rum and fruit for making weak punch, and now and then some pastry, were the sole provisions; for the great affair was to depend on the exertions of the boys in procuring fish, wild ducks, etc., for their dinner. With their axes they cleared so much superfluous shrubbery as left a semi-circular opening, above which they bent and twined the boughs so as to form a pleasant bower, while the girls gathered dry branches, which one of the youths set on fire with gunpowder, and the breakfast occupied an hour or two. The young men then set out to fish, or perhaps to shoot birds, and the maidens sat down to their work, singing and conversing with ease and gayety.
“After the sultry hours had been thus employed, the boys brought their tribute from the river or the wood, and a rural meal was prepared by their fair companions, among whom were generally their sisters and the chosen of their hearts. After dinner they all went to gather wild strawberries, or whatever other fruit was in season; for it was accounted a reproach to come home empty handed. When weary of this amusement, they either drank tea in their bower, or returning landed at some friend’s on the way, to partake of that refreshment.
“In winter the river, frozen to a great depth, formed the principal road through the country, and was the scene of skating and sledge races.
The great street of the town, as has been mentioned, sloped down from the hill on which the fort stood, toward the river. Between the buildings was an unpaved carriage road. Every boy and youth in town, from eight to eighteen had a little low sledge with a rope by which one could drag it by hand. On this one or two at most could sit; and the sloping road being made as smooth as glass by sliders’ sledges, etc., perhaps a hundred at once set out in succession from the top of the street, each seated on his little sledge, with the rope in his hand. He pushed it off with a little stick, as one would launch a boat, and then with the most astonishing velocity the little machine glided past. What could be so peculiarly delightful in this rapid descent, I could never discover — yet in a more retired place, and on a smaller scale, I have tried the amusement — but to a young Albanian, sleighing, as he called it, was one of the first joys of life, though attended with the necessity of dragging his sledge to the top of the declivity every time he renewed his flight. In managing this little machine some dexterity was necessary. An unskilful phæton was sure to fall. The vehicle was so low, that a fall was attended with little danger, yet with much disgrace; for a universal laugh from all sides assailed the fallen charioteer. This laugh was from a very full chorus; for the constant succession of the train, where everyone had a brother, lover or kinsman, brought all the young people in town to the porticos, where they used to sit wrapped in furs till ten or eleven at night, engrossed by the delectable spectacle.
“The young men now and then spent a convivial evening together, where, either to lessen the expense of the supper, or from the love of what they styled frolic, they never failed to steal a roasting pig or a fat turkey for this festive occasion. Swine and turkeys were reared in great numbers by all the town inhabitants. They had an appropriate place for them at the lower end of the garden where they locked them up. It is observable that these animals were the only things locked up about the house, for nothing else ran the least risk of being stolen. The dexterity of the theft consisted in climbing over very high walls, watching to steal in when the negroes went to feed the horse or cow, or making a clandestine entrance at some window or aperture. Break-mg doors was quite out of rule, and rarely ever resorted to. These exploits were always performed in the darkest nights. If the owner heard a noise in his stables, he usually ran down with a cudgel, and laid it without mercy on any culprit he could overtake. This was either dexterously avoided or patiently borne. To plunder a man and afterward offer him personal injury was accounted scandalous.
“Marriage was followed by two dreadful privations: a married man could not fly down the street on a little sledge; nor join a party of pig stealers, without outraging decorum. If any of their confederates married very young and were in circumstances to begin housekeeping, they were sure of an early visit of this nature from their old companions. It was thought a great act of gallantry to overtake and chastise the robbers. I recollect an instance of one young married man who had not long attained to that dignity. His turkeys screamed violently one night, he ran down, overtook the aggressors, but finding they were his old associates, he could not resist the force of habit, joined the rest, and shared his own turkey at the tavern.
“There were two inns in the town, the masters of which were ‘honorable men;’ yet these pigs and turkeys were always received and dressed without questioning whence they came. In one instance a young party had in this manner provided a pig, and ordered it to be roasted at the King’s Arms. Another party attacked the same place whence this booty was taken, but found it already rifled. This party was headed by an idle, mischievous young man, who, well guessing how the stolen roasting pig was disposed of, he ordered his friends to adjourn to the rival tavern, and went himself to the King’s Arms. Inquiring in the kitchen, where a pig was roasting, he soon arrived at certainty. Then taking an opportunity when there was no one in the kitchen, he cut the string by which the pig was suspended, laid it in the dripping-pan, and through the quiet and dark streets of that sober city, carried it safely to the other tavern, where, after finishing the roasting, he and his companions prepared to regale themselves.
“Meantime the pig was missed at the King’s Arms; and it was immediately concluded who was the author of the trick. A new strategem was devised to outwit this stealer of the stolen. An adventurous youth of the despoiled party laid down a parcel of shavings opposite the other tavern, and setting them in a blaze, cried ‘Fire!’
“Everyone rushed out of the house just as supper had been served. The dexterous purveyor who had occasioned the disturbance crept in, snatched up the dish with the pig in it, went out again by the back door, and feasted his companions with the recovered spoils.”
The country above Albany is threaded with canals — the most graceful and serene of highways, always going around the hills and skirting the slopes in gentle curves, never boisterous by reason of floods or wind, and maintaining themselves just brimming full whether the weather is wet or dry. On one side is the towpath where the draught creatures toil along, several of them hitched tandem. A long rope trails behind attached to the blunt-nosed craft that moves slowly forward in the middle of the channel, scarcely causing a ripple.
The old men with whom I talked along the course of the canals, did not take a very cheerful view of business on these waterways. They said it was dropping off every year, and the appearance of the canal boats seemed to support the assertion. Their battered dilapidation made it evident that they not only fared hardly but were neglected, and that this sort of navigation was on the decline.
The chief outlet of the Erie Canal into the Hudson is opposite Troy. Here is a series of locks, and the boats go up and down this flight of water stairs with surprising ease and celerity. Troy, on the other bank, lines the waterside with great mills, behind which the city rises to a high, tree-embowered hill where several spires thrust through the foliage.
A few miles farther north the Hudson receives the waters of its chief tributary, the Mohawk. On the southern bank of the latter stream is the busy manufacturing town of Cohoes, and at the outskirts of the village the river comes tumbling over some high ragged ledges. The roar of the water dashing itself into foam in its tumultuous fall thrills all the region. From the summit of the lofty canyon wall below the fall the view of the water’s white leap and of the tree-fringed river coming from the green country beyond is superb.
The falls on the Mohawk near its junction with the Hudson