Classic Tales of Old Dorp: ‘Waiting for something to happen’

Larry Hart writes about 1880s Schenectady, poised for big changes thanks to advancements in industry

Categories: Life & Arts

The Daily Gazette is reprinting excerpts of the late Larry Hart’s long-running column, “Tales of Old Dorp.” Today, Hart travels back in time to the Schenectady of the mid-1880s, a time when people waiting for “something to happen” were rewarded. This column originally was published April 15, 1986.

There are occasions when we grow envious of the way people lived in the times of which we are researching and writing.

It has to be long enough ago to be drastically and dramatically different from today — which means no autos or fast traffic, plenty of horses and wagons or sleighs, the canal through the city, most of the residential areas below the terrace, plenty of open space and fruit orchards beyond that upper hill.

We are thinking now of about 100 years ago, when folks got excited over things like hot air balloon ascensions, the medicine shows, circuses and the wonderment over talk that electricity could replace gas or oil for cooking and light.

From what we have read in documents or heard years ago from people who have long since passed into history, life here in Schenectady in 1885 — just shortly after the country had about recovered from the effects of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln — seemed to be “waiting for something to happen.” There were most of the same shops, saloons, restaurants, liveries, hotels and other sights and services still around since long before the war, and even parents said things hadn’t changed much except maybe the kids were sassier.

Simpler times

Many people today would think it downright boring to have lived back then. No real entertainment, except an occasional stage production at the Centre Street Opera House or Union Hall when a traveling troupe came to town, or in the early summer when a circus or Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show came in for two performances up at the fairgrounds atop the summit, or the weekend music concerts given at Crescent Park by the Citizens Corps Band or Mozart Band.

There was also sitting out on the stoop in the early evening, maybe going for a chartered boat ride down the canal to Rexford and back, taking a family stroll down lower State Street and getting a cherry phosphate at druggist August Schumacher’s soda fountain and . . . well, there were all those things and many others to pass the time. If they were dull, those we talked to never thought so.

It was about a hundred years ago when Schenectady was on the brink of a drastic departure from the mode of living. Perhaps Old Dorp indeed had “been waiting for something to happen” and now the time had come. We can only wonder what the people of that day thought when the whole area was hit by an industrial, building, population and transportation explosion which seemingly changed everything overnight. What about the folks who were in the twilight of their years and had known only the slow-moving pace of a canal town? The younger set could take it in stride and be amazed, but not shocked.

Probably the main reason for this remarkable development was the decision of inventor-scientist Thomas A. Edison in mid-1886 to move his electrical machine works upstate to Schenectady, which of course opened the floodgates to prospective employees and their families, who came here in droves from, as it seemed, everywhere in the world.

Population explosion

By 1900, when the city’s population had skyrocketed to nearly 32,000 from the paltry 14,000 in 1886, everybody was excited over the mass construction of homes in areas beyond the old city limits — up in Goose Hill, State Street above the terrace, the GE Realty Plot just above Union’s campus, the Edison Park housing plot off Broadway hill, farther up the hill in a place named Bellevue . . . people wondered at such activity.

By now, the electrical trolleys of the Schenectady Railway Co. had come of age and its lines spread out like a gigantic spider web all through the city, then far beyond to nearby cities. People now could live far from the factories and, for a few coins, still get to and from work in a few minutes — even go to Troy, Albany, Amsterdam, Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs on a moment’s notice. Who would have thought this possible in 1885?

Besides the trolley wires overhead, there were now the wires of the telephones, telegraph and electricity. Yes, there were now electric street lights on the main byways, brightening the way for the few honking, backfiring or chugging vehicles called automobiles. Many people at first put up with them, thinking nothing would replace the horse for reliability in at least local freight or the trolley car for their personal transportation.

It just went on and on. Who even in 1900 could believe that the city’s wondrous population would be dwarfed in another decade, when the official census of 1910 placed it at 72,826! By 1910, the fringes of Schenectady were growing ever outward and State Street east of the railroad tracks (which had recently been raised throughout the city) was beginning to look more and more like the business district of lower State below the canal.

Business booming

General Electric was growing faster than its ability to keep up with production, so that hiring and plant expansion were on a sharp upswing. At the other end of town, American Locomotive was not doing badly either as engine orders were the best in years.

Who could blame the folks who were young and active in this particular era in Schenectady’s history to think they must be living in the most remarkable period of growth and achievement that anyone might imagine possible.

And they could well have been right.

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