In the city of Schenectady’s long history, the 15 eventful years before and after the turn of the 20th century have no parallel. Those three decades, you could say, were electric.
Well, times in the “Electric City” have changed, and, according to Golub Corp. Executive Board President Neil Golub, Schenectady needs a new nickname.
During an hour-long presentation before the City Council last week, Golub suggested that Schenectady Metro better represents current-day Schenectady and its accomplishments of the past three decades.
Those who closely monitor and document the city’s history, however, say not so fast. For them and others, the 30 years between 1885 and 1915, when “Electric City” first entered our vernacular, remain paramount to Schenectady’s story.
As is the case with “The City That Lights and Hauls the World” and “Old Dorp,” “Electric City” has withstood the test of time because it works so well. Looking at the history of the city tells us why.
Back in 1885, night life took on new meaning when the street lights along the city’s main thoroughfare were electrified. Then the following year, Thomas Edison moved a branch of his electrical works company to Schenectady, bringing more light to the small community some still called Old Dorp, owing to its Dutch origin.
In 1891, an innovative and electrified – there’s that word again – trolley car system was the envy of industrial cities all over the U.S., and within the next decade, two huge mergers created the General Electric Company and the American Locomotive Company, resulting in a new moniker boasting Schenectady was “The City That Lights and Hauls the World.”
As the city charged enthusiastically into the 20th century, its leaders were eliminating dangerous railroad-grade crossings from the downtown area, making life a little safer for its ever-burgeoning population. And many of Schenectady’s newest citizens were immigrants, looking for work at GE and ALCO, and it was largely their vote that put in place a Socialist administration that created Central Park and five new school buildings.
It was during this period that Schenectady was dubbed “The Electric City,” and while we can’t say who was responsible for the nickname or when exactly they came up with it, most people who enjoy looking at the past think the terminology is most appropriate.
“I don’t know how soon after 1900 Schenectady got its obvious nickname, ‘Electric City,’ but that one is the definite winner,” said George Wise, who worked in the communications department at GE Global Research for 26 years, authored a 1985 book, “Willis R. Whitney, General Electric and the Origins of U.S. Industrial Research,” and more recently did an online book, “Edison’s Decision,” for the Schenectady County Historical Society. “’Lights and Hauls the World” is a bit clunky, and Old Dorp is just a way of disguising the not-very-informative, ‘old village.’”
While “Electric City” has lasted for more than a century, it has also served as a name to various businesses, sports teams and other groups since it first came to be connected with Schenectady. As for Loudonville’s John Loz, who wrote a series of blogs back in 2009 for GlobalSpec on the history of streetcar electrification in Schenectady, the “Electric City” tag fits perfectly.
“It’s a great nickname on many, many levels,” said Loz. “I love writing and I was gaining some knowledge of engineering things while I was working at GlobalSpec, and what GE did in 1891 with the trolley system changed lives. People were able to move out and get away from the city.”
Before GE actually purchased the Schenectady Railway Company in 1896, it created what Loz refers to as a “dedicated trolley loop,” one of the first in the country, at the Erie Boulevard entrance to the plant.
“Rush-hour traffic became a real problem in Schenectady,” said Loz. “It was imperative that GE move its first-shift workers out as quickly as possible so that the second-shift workers could enter the shop. They developed something extremely complex so that extra trolley cars could be fed into the main line of cars without interrupting the regular traffic flow. This electrification transformed the city in a myriad of ways, so the term ‘Electric City’ certainly is appropriate.”
Schenectady’s other two monikers also have plenty of historical weight behind them.
As for “The City That Lights and Hauls the World,” city historian Chris Leonard says the phrase first came into use as Schenectady’s population, fueled by workers at GE and ALCO, approached the 100,000 mark. Ralph Record, a reporter for the Gazette in 1910, may have originally come up with the phrase, according to accounts by former city/county historian Larry Hart, but Leonard can’t confirm that.
“Larry Hart believed it was coined by Ralph Record, who was a reporter for the Schenectady Gazette and the Knickerbocker Press in Albany,” he said. “But while there is no definitive person to credit for the phrase, there are a number of references to its origin,” said Leonard, who was appointed city historian by Mayor Gary B. McCarthy in May of 2018. “The earliest known image is from a 1910 postcard produced by Augustus Crouse, who was a GE employee at the time. It is a wonderful slogan that harkens back to the rich history of Schenectady, though sadly, ALCO no longer exists and GE retired its light bulb division in 2020.”
While “Electric City” and “The City That Lights and Hauls the World” have remained synonymous with Schenectady for more than a century, “Old Dorp,” although not as popular as the other two, has been around even longer. The name does pop up every now and then in old 19th century newspapers, and in 1974 when Hart, also a Gazette reporter and photographer, began writing a history column for the paper, he called it “Old Dorp.”
“I have found a few references to Dorp and Old Dorp from the 1840s and 1850s,” said Marietta Carr, librarian/archivist at the historical society’s Grems-Doolittle Library. “There’s an article, ‘Olden Times,’ from the Reflector and Schenectady Democrat that talks about Schenectady being known as ‘Dorp,’ and in our collection we also have an issue of the 1867 newspaper, ‘The Dorpian.’”
According to Carr, dorp is a Dutch word meaning rural village, and before Edison came to town, Schenectady, a city of 14,000, certainly met that criteria.
“But as the population grew,” said Carr, “the nickname of ‘Old Dorp’ was used to invoke Schenectady’s early history and identity. Over time, the name became associated with the area’s history more broadly.”
Which made it the perfect title for Hart’s column celebrating Schenectady’s history.
“People have asked me, ‘what did your father mean with that title,’” said Hart’s son Alan, a former sportswriter for the Albany Times Union and also the author of books about his father and the history of Scotia. “I was never quite sure what to say, but I think he just used it because it was a Dutch expression that meant a community of people, a village. It fit Schenectady, just like the nickname ‘Electric City’ does. It’s lasted so long because it means something to people. I don’t think he would like to see that change.”
Bill Buell is a part-time reporter for The Daily Gazette and also serves as the Schenectady County historian.