Summer Archaeology Opportunities
Visit the Union Street archaeological dig
WHEN: Weather permitting, Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
WHERE: Look for the yellow sign at the end of the driveway at 12 Union St. If the sign is not there, the site is closed. If the sign is there, walk in through the gate at the end of the driveway.
IF YOU CAN’T GO: Photos of the project will be posted soon on Facebook.
Hands-on archaeology class for adults
WHEN: Thursdays and Fridays, July 10 to July 18, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
WHERE: Schenectady County Community College
INSTRUCTOR: Louise Basa
Students will explore all aspects of archaeology: planning, excavation, analysis, interpretation and reporting of results through class presentations and hands-on activities. Course options will include field trips and research at sites within the Stockade and the Capital District.
REGISTER: Visit SCCC's website or call 381-1315.
OTHER OPPORTUNITIES: For more information about how to participate in excavations and/or lab activities, contact Louise Basa at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified who perfomed an archaeological dig in 2008. It was performed by Don Rittner, who was the City of Schenectady's historian at the time.
SCHENECTADY — “Oh, look at the pattern on that. It’s a dish, but it doesn’t have much glaze on it,” mused Louise Basa as she fingered a thin, white ceramic shard, brushing away the earth that clung to it.
The small treasure, likely part of a decorative plate from the 1800s, is one of thousands of artifacts unearthed since an archaeological dig began last summer at 12 Union St. in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood.
Each pipe stem piece, oyster shell and bit of pottery that emerges has a story to tell about the Stockade’s history, but Basa and her colleagues are hoping to find something much larger buried there: stone walls.
The dig is overseen by Basa, an instructor for Schenectady County Community College’s Community Archaeology Program and a recent recipient of the Theodore Whitney Commendation, which recognizes lifetime dedication and service to archaeology in New York state.
The public is invited to observe her and her crew as they work at the Union Street site, or, with training, to take part in the effort.
The stone walls the group hopes to unearth would have always been subterranean — built in 1832 to hold the earth at bay on either side of a 10- to 12-foot-deep trench that, for a short time, served as a railroad cut for the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad.
The passenger line traveled through the Stockade, bringing tourists north to Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs.
Passengers sat in a string of what looked like stage coaches modified to ride the wooden rails. The coaches were horse-drawn from the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad intersection near the Erie Canal to the S&S engine house on the north side of the Washington Avenue Bridge. There, a small steam engine would replace the horses for the trip to Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs.
The railroad cut was dug through the Stockade to keep the track as level as possible. Horses and the steam engines of the time couldn’t haul their heavy loads up much of an incline, said Dan Bradt, project manager for the dig.
“That’s why you see many of your early railroads in America were on your river routes. They didn’t have to do a lot of digging,” he noted.
An undated, hand-drawn map from the Efner History Center and Research Library in Schenectady shows the railroad cut running from the Erie Canal — now Erie Boulevard — along what is now Railroad Street, north to State Street. It ran under State, Union and Front streets, emerging at street level not far from the intersection of Front Street and what is now Washington Avenue.
“You will notice that the houses at this location are set back on a curious angle from Washington Avenue, which is due to the railroad coming out along that angle,” said Bradt in a yet-to-be published article he wrote about the project.
Stockade residents weren’t pleased about the below-ground-level mass transit system.
“The neighbors were upset because they were cutting neighbors off from each other,” Bradt said. “There was a fence up to keep out the kids and the cattle and the chickens and everything so they wouldn’t fall down or anything,” he said.
Arched wooden bridges were built to span the trench where it intersected with roads.
The train trench fell out of use after about five years. There was talk of converting it into a branch of the Erie Canal, but that never happened. It was filled in during the late 1830s and over the years has all but been forgotten.
“There’s very few documents, for something that you would think today [would be] a major construction project in a town,” Basa said.
A 2008 dig conducted by Don Rittner, who was the City of Schenectady's historian at the time, off of Washington Avenue in the Stockade revealed the top of one of the railroad cut’s walls.
The second search for the railway’s route began when Paul Lefebvre, the owner of 12 Union St., got in touch with Basa after noticing two depressions in his backyard. The depressions appeared to be in line with the S&S Railroad’s route.
The archaeology group has dug a 24-foot-long trench at the site of one of the depressions. Following the old map of the Stockade from the Efner Library, they’ve dug to a depth of 50 inches where one wall is estimated to be, without success. Basa said they’re close, though. She can tell by a change in the soil.
“Only an archaeologist can admire it. It’s a stain in the ground. It’s a lighter color,” she explained.
Deeper digging can’t safely be done with hand tools, but the group is considering bringing in a small backhoe.
Eventually, the goal is to unearth enough points along the railway’s route to accurately map where the cut once was.
“I think it would be beneficial for people to know, because if you look in the papers, you’ll find that there have been various collapses over the years because of this. I think the latest may have been in the 1940s and ’50s,” Basa said, noting that no structure in the Stockade looks to be in immediate danger of collapse because of the now-buried railroad grade.
“Some of the trees a couple of properties over started collapsing, leaning in toward each other, so they had to be cut down. The soil gave way,” noted Bradt.
He pointed to other possible evidence of the track’s route at the 12 Union St. property: a depression in the driveway and cracks in the building’s foundation.
Basa said she would like to see all archaeological discoveries made in the Stockade consolidated so that residents can easily reference them.
“We want to share that with the community and actually have that as a part of the documentation for the historic district so that when they’re digging in their backyards they will know in advance whether or not there might be something of interest running through there,” she said.