Capital Region

Bill Buell’s Electric City Archives: Five top historical summer destinations around the Capital Region

The Cohoes Falls in 2019
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The Cohoes Falls in 2019

Growing up in the Capital Region always offered a number of fascinating road trips, and my love for and fascination with these places, where history, geology and sometimes art all meet to create something wonderful, hasn’t waned in over half a century.

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For the purposes of discussion and to help anyone looking for an interesting destination less than an hour away from anywhere in the Tri-Cities (remember that nickname?), I’ve come up with my five favorite places in the area. It may not exactly be your list, but I’ll bet we’re pretty close.

Four of my five favorites combine important local history in a pleasant, sometimes stunning, natural setting, while the fifth is an architectural treasure with theatrical and historical elements.

In no particular order, here we go.

John Boyd Thacher State Park: I took two friends there once, two life-long Schenectadians who were young adults at the time but still had never been to the overlook at Thacher Park. They just sat there and looked out over the land for nearly an hour, in awe that there actually was such a view like this within the Capital Region.

So, the view, thanks to the Helderberg Escarpment created more than 100 million years ago, is enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there’s so much more. There’s the Indian Ladder Trail, which Native Americans and early settlers used to head west to the Schoharie Valley, and there’s also the Tory Caves, where loyalists during the American Revolution sought refuge from American rebels.

There’s also plenty of other trails, picnic tables, and a world-class visitor center that gives you the whole story. The land had been owned by John Boyd Thacher, a town of Ballston native, a Williams College grad, and a former mayor of Albany and New York State Senator. After he died in 1909, his wife, Emma Thacher Boyd donated the land to the state, and in 1914 it was turned into a park.

Cohoes Falls: East of the Mississippi, it is second only to Niagara in the amount of water pouring over its 300-meter wide ledge. Located in Cohoes and Waterford, the Mohawk River reaches the falls just before it empties into the Hudson River. While majestic and beautiful, it was mostly a nuisance to many, curtailing westward advancement before 19th century American ingenuity created the Erie Canal.

The falls is also the place, according to Indian legend, where the Great Peacemaker performed a feat of supernatural strength, going over the falls and surviving, to convince the Mohawk nation to become founders of the Iroquois Confederacy.

There is a small park located in the area that offers a great view of the falls. Forgetting for a second the Hudson River and the Mohawk, the Helderberg Escarpment and the Cohoes Falls are the two most significant, and certainly the most majestic, geological features in the area.

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Auriesville Shrine: I’m not really much of a church-going practitioner of religion, but every time I visit what is officially called the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs or the Shrine, or Our Lady of Martyrs, I think about becoming a Catholic. That’s the kind of effect the place has on me.

Located on Route 5S a couple miles west of Amsterdam, it offers a splendid view of the Mohawk Valley in as peaceful a setting as you’re going to find. There’s a visitor center, a small museum and one of the first circular churches in the U.S., built in 1930. It is referred to as the coliseum and can seat approximately 6,000 people, which at the time made it the largest venue in upstate New York.

The history includes the tale of Father Isaac Jogues and two other French missionaries, Rene Goupil and Jean de Lalande, who were all killed by Indians at the spot in the early 17th century. It is also the birthplace of the Catholic Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha.

And, if you’re a Bob Hope fan, check one of the 72 single doors that lead you into the coliseum. The comedian and his wife, Dolores, were evidently semi-regular visitors to the place in the 1950s and ‘60s. Their names, as two of the many benefactors of the place, are inscribed on one of those doors. Hint: If you’re looking at the building from the parking lot, it’s pretty much right in front of you.

Saratoga Battlefield: Officially the Saratoga National Historical Park, it is a must-see for history lovers, particularly those who have a deep interest in the Revolutionary War. It is arguably one of the most significant battles (yes, I know there were actually two battles, Sept. 19 and Oct. 7, 1777) in the history of the world when you remember it changed the course of the American Revolution and in so doing altered the course of world history.

While some construction and renovation work is being done this summer, don’t let that stop you from visiting the place. Whether you take the tour road or walk the Wilkinson Trail, you will learn fascinating history, see beautiful views and very possibly also spot a whitetail deer or two.

Proctors: This may seem like a strange choice, but it’s the place where I saw “Les Mis,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon,” “Newsies,” “The Lion King” and “The Producers,” among others. It is also a wonderful building and a glorious old vaudeville theater, built by F.F. Proctor right in downtown Schenectady in 1926.

And history oozes through its corridors. Every time I walk into the arcade, I can’t help but think about American institutions such as George Burns, Jack Benny and George M. Cohan all performing there nearly a century ago. It had some dark days in the 1970s, but it was saved by a wonderful group of concerned citizens led by Kay S. Rozendaal, and that makes us treasure it even more today.

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Categories: Life and Arts

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