Joseph Insull Whittlesey had a personal connection to the graves he visited during a tour of Vale Cemetery on Sunday.
The 86-year-old Glenville resident stopped to point out the gravestone of his grandfather Joseph Insull, who was born in London. He initially moved to Canada to try to grow wheat but eventually went to work for his brother, Samuel Insull, who along with Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Company and what later became General Electric. Insull helped design the electrical grid for the city of Chicago.
Whittlesey ending up working for General Electric himself.
“Electrical work was in the blood,” he said with a smile.
Whittlesey was one of 40 people who toured the graves Sunday.
Tour guide Paul Tracy, who lives near the cemetery on Maple Avenue, said he has been traipsing about the graves his entire life.
“This is like my backyard. I’ve gotten to know them. They got to know me,” he said.
During a 21⁄2-hour tour, he pointed out the gravestones of such prominent people as inventor Charles Steinmetz, former Speaker of the Assembly Oswald D. Heck and others.
The cemetery was founded in 1857 as a 30-acre site and now has expanded to encompass 300 acres and the more than 30,000 people are interred there.
Other famous names are George Westinghouse, who invented air brakes for trains and pioneered alternating current, and John Ellis, a Scotsman who settled in Schenectady and founded what would become American Locomotive. The Ellis family marker is the tallest in the cemetery and faces the old ALCO plant.
Other graves included Carrol “Pink” Gardner, who was a former professional wrestler and a longtime Schenectady County clerk.
Tracy also pointed out the graves of such lesser-known people such as Jared Jackson, who served in the Civil War in what was known then as the “U.S. Colored Troops” 20th Regiment. He worked at the Elmira Prison as a guard for Confederate prisoners. Another African-American, Moses Viney, was an escaped slave who became the chauffeur for Eliphalet Nott, who served as president of Union College for more than 60 years.
Tracy said Nott looked after Viney and even sent him to Canada so he could avoid being returned to his owner in the south. Later, he paid $250 to secure his freedom. Viney later owned and operated a livery stable and donated his land to the Salvation Army before his death.
There is also a section of the cemetery where the indigent were buried.
“You walk by row by row, you see unknown, unknown. These were all somebody,” Tracy said.
“This is fascinating,” said Tom Haberbush of Schenectady.
Mary Jane Beaulieu of Schenectady said she is not a native of the city said it was interesting to learn the history behind some of the names seen on streets in the city.
“I didn’t know the story behind a lot of these people,” she said.
Sunday’s event was the third in a series of tours. All cost $5 per person with children under age 12 and start at 2 p.m. at the Caretaker’s House at 907 State St. On Aug. 3, Schenectady Museum Archivist Chris Hunter will give a tour of the burial sites of the giants of Schenectady’s industry. Sue McLane will dress in Victorian clothing and give a tour describing the rural cemetery movement in America and the mourning customs of the Victorian Era on Sept. 7. Schenectady City and County Historian Don Rittner leads a tour on Oct. 5 describing Schenectady’s settling by the Dutch and ending with the inventors and industrials who developed the city.
For more information, call 346-0423.
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