Q & A: Retired historian led effort to excavate Fort Orange site

How is Paul Huey’s retirement going? Well, it’s hard to tell, but he does seem to be enjoying himsel
A young Paul Huey takes notes during the excavation of the Fort Orange site in downtown Albany in November 1970.
A young Paul Huey takes notes during the excavation of the Fort Orange site in downtown Albany in November 1970.

How is Paul Huey’s retirement going? Well, it’s hard to tell, but he does seem to be enjoying himself.

A scientist/archaeologist with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for more than 40 years, Huey retired from the state in September 2010.

But he never stopped going to work. He’s been volunteering almost daily at his office on Peebles Island, doing just about everything he did during his long career.

Huey is still doing the work of a history-loving archaeologist, digging up the 17th and 18th century remains of Dutch society to give students of New Netherlands a better idea of how New York was initially settled. While he just returned from a two-week vacation in Russia, he is quickly getting back into his first love — New York Colonial history — and later this month will present a power-point program titled “The Excavations of Fort Orange,” at the New York State Library.

His talk is part of the Wednesday lecture series at the library, and will be held Sept. 26 at 12:15 p.m. in the Librarian’s Room.

It was Huey who spearheaded the movement to do a dig at the site of Fort Orange soon after he landed his state job, and he worked on the excavation from October of 1970 through March of 1971.

A Rochester native who moved to the village of Nassau in Rensselaer County as a young boy, he became fascinated with archaeology at an early age after trips to Fort Crailo in Rensselaer and Crown Point up on Lake Champlain. A graduate of Columbia High School, he continued his schooling at Hartwick College, the museum program at Cooperstown and eventually the University of Pennsylvania, where he got his doctorate in archaeology.

He began his professional career in 1969 at the State Historic Trust, the predecessor to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Huey lives just outside the city of Cohoes in the town of Colonie. His wife, Lois, is also an archaeologist and the author of several children’s books on Dutch Colonial history. Along with acting as a research assistant on his wife’s books, Huey teamed up with former University at Albany professor Thomas M. Barker to produce a book about the American Revolution in upstate New York, “The 1776-1777 Northern Campaigns of the American War for Independence and Their Sequel.”

Q: How did the excavation of Fort Orange come about?

A: I started working for the State Historic Trust in 1969, and I was the only full-time archaeologist that they hired. I knew about the old Fort Orange site and how it would be located right in the path of Interstate 787. I made the Department of Transportation and the State Education Department aware of the situation, and one day in October of 1970 I got a phone call from the DOT telling me they’d be willing to dig a test hole to see if I could get any indication of anything being left there from the 17th century. Well, I agreed to go down to the site and they had a backhoe there early the next morning and they dug out a section. At first we found nothing, but as the machine began to expand the area where it was digging, we began to find Dutch artifacts, a clay pipestem, a piece of German Westerwald stoneware. It was pretty exciting. Well, the next day we sent the machine away and started doing everything by hand.

Q: Who worked with you?

A: Joe McEvoy and Arthur Johnson did most of the excavating with me, but there were others and also some students from the Heldeberg Workshop came and volunteered. Joe had just gotten out of the Navy and had previous archaeology experience in the Midwest, and Arthur Johnson was a local person who also had a lot of experience in the field. There were a lot of people who wanted to volunteer and help, but most of them didn’t have any experience and you had to know what you were doing.

Q: What did all your work tell us about the Dutch in New York?

A: At the time there had been absolutely nothing found or excavated from the Dutch period. We knew very little about Dutch life here in Albany, and we didn’t know if it was a very crude way of life, a very humble frontier situation, or if they had a fine elegant way of life. What we learned was that the Dutch had pretty much successfully re-created their way of life here in Albany. They had established a piece of the Netherlands here in the New World.

Q: You only had about six months to do the work. Was that enough time?

A: We worked seven days a week from October of 1970 to March of 1971. We wanted to get as much information as we could, and we had to do that quickly so as not to delay construction of 787. The DOT engineers were very supportive of our work and seemed very interested. They rescheduled working on different sections of the highway to help us out, and they not only provided us shelter in the winter, they also piped in some natural gas to heat our shelter. We felt like we were totally satisfied when we were done, and we didn’t delay any of the building of the highway.

Q: Why did you initially get interested in archaeology?

A: My father worked as a research chemist in Rensselaer, and he used to take me to Fort Crailo when I was a kid. I think that got me interested in the Dutch history of the area. I would go to the Schuyler Mansion in Albany a lot, and then we had a trip to Crown Point with a bunch of students from school, and my teacher at Columbia, Louis Ismay, who later taught at UAlbany, really deserves a lot of credit for developing my interest in archaeology. I did excavating for two summers up at Crown Point, and I think I was probably about 14 when I decided that archaeology was a career that I wanted to pursue.

Q: What was the State Historic Trust?

A: It eventually became the Office for Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but when I was hired in 1969 it was called the State Historic Trust, and it was responsible for two preservation programs. The first one was for the state historic sites, about 35 or so of them across the whole state, and the second program was for historic sites that were not owned by the state, which meant they might have been on the National Register of Historic Places. The program recognized buildings and sites that were archaeologically significant that should be preserved, but many of them were privately owned. The idea was to protect them from any negative impact that might occur due to construction or other reasons.

Q: What other sites have you performed excavations at?

A: We found many other Dutch artifacts at the Schuyler Flats location, an area that had been under consideration for a mall and a restaurant. I considered it a threatened site, so I worked with the Heldeberg Workshop group and others to excavate the area. We found the cellar of the house that was built in 1643 by Arendt Van Curler, the founder of Schenectady, and a number of fine artifacts. Fortunately, the Town of Colonie got real interested in what we were doing and purchased the site to preserve it.

Q: What are you doing now to keep busy?

A: I have a big report on the archaeology at Fort Crailo that’s coming up, and I still go into Peebles Island nearly every day as a volunteer. It’s great that the state lets me continue to work on all the stuff I used to do. Now, I just don’t have to worry about all the administrative paperwork.

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