SCHENECTADY – Dealing with statues these days can be a risky business, but in George Westinghouse Jr., Brian Merriam thinks he has pretty safe subject matter.
Merriam, chairman of the George Westinghouse Statuary Committee, has been a key figure in the creation of the Thomas Edison/Charles Steinmetz and William Seward/Harriet Tubman statues put up in downtown Schenectady in the last decade. Now he’s leading the charge to pay homage to another bright light in Schenectady’s past, Westinghouse, who while being born in Central Bridge out in Schoharie County, spent many of his formative years in Schenectady.
The inventor of the air brake back in 1869, Westinghouse and his work, as well as his interest in the well-being of his many employees, will be honored on his 176th birthday, Oct. 6, with a special celebration at the corner of Erie Boulevard and South Ferry Street. The party starts at 5 p.m.
The statue, being done by Penn Yann artist Dexter Benedict, isn’t ready to be unveiled yet, but the celebration will go on.
“All of us in Schenectady owe our success in some measure to those who went before us and the decisions they made, and guys like Edison, Steinmetz and George Westinghouse played a big role in that,” said Merriam. “It’s easy to bash things like GE these days, but the men who built that company also helped build the schools, churches, synagogues, and the rotary clubs that made this city what it was. It’s important to remember our roots. We were the ‘city that lights and hauls the world,’ and Westinghouse’s family business played a big part in that.”
While Westinghouse headed to Pittsburgh and became one of the most successful industrialists over the second half of the 19th century, his father, George Sr., and the Westinghouse Farm Machinery company remained in Schenectady and for a time was the city’s second-leading employer. And while George Jr. was a regular visitor to Schenectady the rest of his life, many of his siblings remained in Schenectady and were long-time members of the First Reformed Church in the Stockade.
“He’s important for me because he worked with with father, went to fight in the Civil War, and then returned home to Schenectady and went back to work with his father,” said Merriam. “He could have said, ‘I’m going to shake the dust of this town and go out in the world,’ but he came back here, went to a local university, Union College, and I think that’s pretty rare. That commitment he had to Schenectady and his family is notable.”
While he did eventually head to Pittsburgh and made a fortune with his scientific and entrepreneurial mind, Westinghouse also never forgot average citizens, particularly his workers.
“If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied,” Westinghouse was reported to have said.
Samuel Gompers, a union leader who helped create the American Federation of Labor, sized up Westinghouse this way.
“If all treated their employees with the same consideration that he does, the American Federation of Labor would have to go out of existence.”
Merriam, who said the statue should be on display at the corner, across Ferry Street from the Steinmetz/Edison statue, by the spring. Next week, however, when they commemorate his 176th birthday, there may be a special guest in attendance. George Westinghouse Jr., portrayed by Merriam, will make an appearance.
“I’ve been growing out my beard ever since we made this decision, and we thought it was better than to just have a ridiculous cardboard cutout of the man,” said Merriam. “I’ve been reading as much as I can about the man, and he really was a great humanitarian. I’d vote for him for president. Even people who didn’t agree with him on something liked his disposition.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Westinghouse, should check out the shelves of the Grems-Dootlittle Library at the Schenectady County Historical Society. Former city archivist Francis Poulin put together a series of notebooks loaded with Westinghouse information back in the 1970s that have proved invaluable for later researchers.
Walkabout is back
The Schenectady Stockade Walkabout, one of the highlights of the year for history and house lovers, is back. This year’s event will be held this coming Saturday, Sept. 24. It runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Along with the seven private homes on the tour schedule this year, visitors will be able to see the marvelous interior of the Stockade’s three historic churches, The First Reformed, St. George’s Episcopal and First Presbyterian.
The First Reformed, located at the northeast corner of Union and North Church streets, is the oldest congregation in the city, dating back to 1680, while the building itself was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter in 1863.
St. George’s building on North Ferry Street dates back to the 1770s and was built on funds mostly supplied by Sir William Johnson, the chief Indian agent for the British before the American Revolution, while the First Presbyterian Church came along in 1809. All three buildings are a treat for the eyes, and my favorite architectural element among them may be the white balcony which winds all the way around its oval interior.
That should be enough to intrigue just about anyone, from a professional architect to a casual historian, but there’s so much more. The Schenectady County Historical Society will be open throughout the day, while also on the tour are the Stockade Inn, the Brouwer House (owned by the SCHS), the Schenectady Civic Playhouse and the YWCA.
And then there are the houses. The Governor Yates House at 17 Front St. has new owners willing to share what they have with the public, and I’m sure I’ll be one of many taking advantage of that opportunity. It was once owned by Joseph Yates, the only Schenectadian to become governor of New York.
Another must-see is the home of Robert Woods at 32 Front St. near Arthur’s Market. Renovated substantially in 1816 by John W. Teller, the house was reputedly occupied by Philip Schuyler as well as Christopher Yates back in the 18th century.
Walkabout chair Sylvie Briber and Bruce Holden will also be offering musical entertainment, “Broadway Baby,” at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 if purchased in advance, and $10 for students. They can be purchased at the historical society, Felthousen’s Florist, Kulak’s Nursery and The Open Door Bookstore. For more information contact the society at (518) 374-0263, ext. 5, or visit the web site at www.historicstockade.org.
Tennis (history) anyone?
Monday’s Schenectady City School District’s Athletic Hall of Fame Dinner at the Event Center at Rivers Casino & Resort should be quite an affair.
Five tennis players from the Nott Terrace teams between 1949 and 1954 will be on hand to receive some recognition for their contributions to a 79-match win streak under Terracians head coach Sam Thompson. Stu Stearns, Lou Gwinner, Stan Majerowski and Jack Boyajian are just a few of the players that were a part of that streak, and the team will be honored tonight with a legacy tribute for their accomplishment.
I want to take the time here to recognize the guys who snapped that streak on May, 10, 1955. City rival Mont Pleasant, coached by John Gregory, got the job done by posting a 5-2 victory over Terrace at the Grout Park tennis courts.
All five singles players for MP posted victories that day. The lineup included Dave Dwyer at No. 1, Don Flynn at No. 2, Bruce Lawton at No. 3, John Renwick at No. 4 and Swen Roosild at No. 5.
While that must have been a sad day for Nott Terrace tennis fans, they enjoyed another successful run in the 1960s, then as Linton High School.
With Alex LaRocco at the helm in 1966, the Blue Devils posted a 15-1 record and earned their sixth Sectional title. Jim Cirincione, Larry Paul and George Lorang were among the players on that team.
In the 1962 and ‘63 season, Linton also put together a 37-match win streak before Albany Academy finally ended the Blue Devils’ winning ways.