FOCUS ON HISTORY: Chalmers on Amsterdam’s South Side


David W. Chalmers and partners were the last industrialists to start a major knitting mill in Amsterdam. 

Chalmers, John Blood, John Barnes and Howard Hanson founded Chalmers Knitting Company in 1901 in a factory building on Washington Street north of the Mohawk River. 

An Amsterdam knitting expert, Martin J. Shaughnessey, had discovered a way to knit fabric and leave tiny holes to allow air to reach the body of the wearer. Shaughnessy worked for Chalmers and they called the breathable fabric Porosknit. 

Chalmers advertised in a spectacular way for a decade with a large lighted sign high above New York’s Times Square, touting Porosknit underwear and other products. Historian Hugh Donlon wrote that Amsterdamians who visited the big city “gawked” at the huge sign. 

In 1912 Chalmers and partners moved knitting operations to a four story brick building they constructed on the south side of the Mohawk River in Amsterdam. 

Turner Construction of Amsterdam built a seven-story concrete addition to the Chalmers factory in 1916. Many of the employees were Italian-Americans who walked to the mill from their South Side homes.

It was not easy work. “How many times we used to come home from work and cry because it was a bad day,” said Elizabeth Sardonia in an interview with The Daily Gazette. “But you went to work the next day just the same, and punched that clock.”

Turner Construction built a mansion on Guy Park Avenue for David Chalmers and his wife Emsie. A friend of Thomas Edison, Chalmers had electric lamps at his home and a third floor ballroom. The mansion is still in private hands and at last report was for sale.

The South Side knitting mill was sold in 1945 to Lester Martin of New York City who continued to manufacture underwear under the Chalmers name. In 1946, Martin’s controller Joel Kaplan began making trips to Amsterdam from his native New York City to inventory the Chalmers operation. 

David Chalmers died in 1950 at his Guy Park Avenue home. In 1955, Kaplan moved to Amsterdam to oversee the Chalmers plant, which at one time during Martin’s ownership employed 650 people.

Martin died in 1959 and the Chalmers mill closed that year. Textile operations continued, however, at the former Chalmers building, purchased by Edward Stern in 1962. Stern had a knitting operation on the fourth floor. 

Kaplan headed a new company named Montco that occupied the third floor, manufacturing women’s sportswear. Montco had a second factory in Johnstown.

Stern closed his Amsterdam operation in 1978 and Montco closed in 1980 as textile manufacturing moved overseas. 

Kaplan said that Montco production supervisor Beatrice Fredericks and 30 other women started their own company in the Chalmers building in 1980. They produced clothing there until about 1985. 

Kaplan was active in numerous non-profits, in particular the Amsterdam Free Library. He died in 2015.

In the early 2000s, Long Island developer Uri Kaufman proposed creation of a luxury apartment complex using the Chalmers building. Kaufman has created apartment complexes from former mill buildings in Cohoes. 

The Chalmers building was placed on the National Historic Register in 2010. But there was opposition to Kaufman’s plan on the Amsterdam Common Council. 

The Gazette reported, “That plan fell apart amid the housing market collapse, trouble with the title to the property and a general desire by many to have the eyesore gone and the site available for redevelopment.”

The Chalmers building was torn down over several months, starting in late 2011 and finishing in 2012.

The Chalmers site is now adjacent to the entrance to Amsterdam’s popular pedestrian bridge, the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook. 


Categories: Opinion, Opinion

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