Focus on History: A place to park in downtown Amsterdam

When people shopped in downtown Amsterdam years ago and parking spaces were hard to find, a prime de

When people shopped in downtown Amsterdam years ago and parking spaces were hard to find, a prime destination was the lot behind the East Main Street stores on Federal Street, between Church and Chuctanunda streets.

The proprietor was Harrison Wilson. Wilson’s story is one of many featured in a booklet called “Heart of Amsterdam,” prepared for the recent Amsterdam Spring Fling and offered for sale by the Historic Amsterdam League.

Wilson kept watch on the cars from inside a small shed. As “Heart of Amsterdam” reported, “He’d brush the snow off your car, and back it out if necessary.”

Wilson, an African American, was born in Falmouth, Ky., and came to Amsterdam about 1910. He worked as a plasterer on construction projects, although racial discrimination kept him out of the plasterers’ union. Wilson later became a highly regarded maintenance man for builder and landlord Thomas McGibbon in Amsterdam.

Wilson played a heroic role in saving people from a major fire in a downtown Amsterdam building owned by McGibbon. On April 6, 1943, a blaze destroyed the McGibbon Block at 72-76 E. Main St., at the time on the north side of the street between Church and Liberty streets.

The fire started after second-floor bowling alleys collapsed, trapping two pin girls, Norma Hopkins and Irene Lewis. Wilson was working in the bowling alley, and he and an unidentified man safely extricated the two girls. Wilson also helped other bowling alley pin setters evacuate the building.

The bowling alleys fell into the first floor Empire Super Market a half-hour before the market’s 6 p.m. closing time. Meat manager Albert Smith, hit on the shoulder by a falling timber, sustained the most severe injury. The falling debris apparently released flammable gas that ignited through short circuits in the electric system.

It was very windy, and the fire spread quickly. Help was summoned by Mayor Arthur Carter from other municipalities. Firefighters had to quickly douse fires that broke out on the roofs of nearby buildings, even a fire on the roof of St. Stanislaus Church on Reid Hill.

Owner McGibbon collapsed at his Guy Park Avenue home when told of the fire, the second in two years at that business block. He died later that year. He left the parking lot on Federal Street to Wilson, and the lot became Wilson’s main occupation.

Wilson and his wife, Marguerite, raised eight children. The family lived at various locations through the years, including Cedar and Pine streets. Three of their sons — Harrison Jr., Willis and Albert — played basketball for Amsterdam High School and in college. The children pursued successful careers in health care, industry and education. Marguerite died in 1960 and Harrison, a trustee of the city’s A.M.E. Zion Church, died at age 94 in 1981.

According to the “Heart of Amsterdam” booklet, an Amsterdam-area man was important in baseball history. Nicholas Young, born in 1840, once lived at Old Fort Johnson and attended Amsterdam Academy, then on Main Street.

Working in Washington in 1871, Young helped organize baseball’s first professional league. When the National League, baseball’s first major league, was formed in 1876, Young was named secretary and treasurer, later serving as president until 1902.

A final tidbit from “Heart of Amsterdam” — the second-floor Common Council meeting room in City Hall formerly was the bedroom of carpet magnate John Sanford. The Sanfords donated their Church Street mansion for use as the city hall in 1932. The bedroom featured a bathroom that once had a nine-foot-long mahogany bathtub imported from England. The bath also may have had the first shower in Amsterdam.

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