A tragedy for the Turner family


Categories: News

The raging Mohawk River claimed the life of the patriarch of a family that would go on to create a construction company that built many important structures in Amsterdam and elsewhere.

Michael Turner was an Irish immigrant living in the town of Day in Saratoga County.  When his wife Bridget died in 1872, Turner moved his family to Amsterdam, where they likely had relatives.  Turner remarried and continued to work as a mason and builder. 

Part of the existing bridge over the Mohawk River from Amsterdam to what was then Port Jackson was destroyed by a spring ice floe in 1876.  Turner was the night watchman at a temporary ferry across the river.

Around midnight on April 24 two attorneys who worked in Amsterdam hired Turner to row them across the river to Port Jackson, where the lawyers lived.  Their small skiff overturned and all three drowned.

The bridge installed later that year lasted until 1913 when it too was washed away by the raging river.  A temporary replacement met the same fate on the same date the following year, leading local citizens to call that date, March 27, “bridge day.”

A new bridge was opened in 1916 and that lasted until the early 1970s when the current highway bridge over the river was built as part of massive urban renewal. 

New York state recently announced $10.6 million in infrastructure work on bridges in Amsterdam with some of that money earmarked for the highway bridge over the Mohawk. 

Amsterdam also has a pedestrian bridge over the river, the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook, opened in 2016.


Michael’s son, John J. Turner, found work in the building trades.  When Amsterdam incorporated as a city in 1885, he was elected to the board of alderman as a Democrat. 

Turner partnered with others building structures in the Amsterdam area and even helped build the state prison in Dannemora in northern New York.  In business for himself after 1902, he erected the trolley car power station in Tribes Hill and a number of buildings for General Electric in Schenectady and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

John Turner and Sons went into business as a construction company around 1906. All three sons of John and Maria Egan Turner were educated in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

Renovation of Amsterdam’s Sanford mansion, now the City Hall on Church Street, was said to be Turner’s proudest achievement.  Although he worked on the mansions of others, Turner lived in a modest brick home at 53 Union St.  He died in 1924 at age 71. 

His eldest son and then company president John P. Turner died three years later of a heart attack at age 45.  John P. Turner had supervised completion of the power station opposite Cranesville, now Cranesville Block, and was especially proud of building the then-new St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam.

Richard E. Turner, who was deaf, then headed the firm until his death in 1940 at age 56.  He was owner of the Amsterdam Rugmakers baseball team and an accomplished photographer. 

Richard and his brother Thomas A. Turner are credited with building Lynch school, the Century Club, a residential development called Hollywood and several Amsterdam mansions.  The firm had a construction yard off Edward Street on Amsterdam’s Reid Hill.

Turner Construction went into decline in the 1940s. Thomas A. Turner remained active in civic affairs until his death in 1953 at age 65.

Four great-grandchildren of John J. Turner – Richard, John, Bob, and Eric Gilston — collaborated on a segment on Turner Construction that was part of WMHT-TV’s “Our Town Amsterdam” documentary in 2010.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].

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