Niskayuna

GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS: Niskayuna’s railroad station and 19th Century America

The old Niskayuna Train Station is a familiar site to users of the Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway. (Denis Brennan)

The old Niskayuna Train Station is a familiar site to users of the Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway. (Denis Brennan)

CORN FLATS –  If there was one structure that could be judged an icon for the Town of Niskayuna, the 19th century railroad station at Lions Park would certainly qualify.

It is the centerpiece for the most-visited site on Niskayuna’s portion of the bike path and remains a valuable structure built during of an important era for Niskayuna as well as American history.

The station was constructed and placed in service in 1843 as part of the Troy & Schenectady Railroad. The T&S was chartered in 1836 and completed laying nearly 21 miles of track by 1842. The Niskayuna station was one of two rural railroad stations along the line. The other was at Aqueduct but, it is no longer standing. The City of Troy borrowed $600,000 for construction of the T&S, which became the only steam railroad line owned by a municipality.

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In the early 1880s, the station underwent considerable renovation. The rectangular building was given a large gabled roof with overhanging eaves, which provided protection for passengers or freight waiting on the platform. The building’s walls are brick, which may have been made at the nearby brick yard. As a model of late 19th century construction and an extant example of rural railroad stations from that period, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

For the town, this railroad station was an integral part of the bustling Hamlet of Niskayuna, which was essentially the town center during much of the 19th century. In addition to a hotel, post office, two general stores, a brick yard, a common school and a cluster of homes, the hamlet was home to the Dutch Reformed Church, which itself was the cultural and social center of the town of Niskayuna. In addition to passenger service, the station was the locus for delivery of mail and movement of farm produce, coal, and Shaker crafts as well as some manufactured goods.

However, as iconic as the station might be as an aspect of Niskayuna history, it is additionally valuable as representative of the regional and national history of the era. It represented the vital connection of local regions and towns across the country to the economic growth of the nation in the 19th century.

Canals, especially the Erie Canal, and later railroads were important innovations that spurred swifter movement of agricultural produce over great distances to national and international markets. As a result, the United States experienced extraordinary territorial as well as economic expansion.

By 1848, US territory had reached the Pacific; a much-enlarged United States became an agricultural giant – aided by and benefitted significantly from a transportation revolution, driven first by thousands of canal miles dug and soon afterward by more thousands of miles of railroad tracks laid. Niskayuna’s contribution to the nation’s growth may have been small, but it mirrored the contributions made by many small and large regions across the country.

The Troy & Schenectady RR and the Niskayuna station were also participants in the regional economic contest that pitted Troy against Albany in competition for access to commercial traffic from western New York State in general and Schenectady in particular. The prize in this contest was the passenger and commercial traffic which reached the Hudson River to board or be loaded on ships bound for New York City. Both Troy and Albany sought to “divert [western] trade to their own warehouses and wharves.”

Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and its dramatic success only exacerbated a contest that historians date to the founding of Troy in 1787. Prior to its completion, Schenectady was the western terminus for Mohawk River traffic; before and after completion, competing turnpikes (Albany Schenectady and Troy Schenectady) were used to bypass the Cohoes Falls and carry commerce overland to their respective Hudson River terminals.

Furthermore, since the canal’s route around the Cohoes Falls was exceedingly slow, Schenectady effectively remained the canal’s western terminus for speedy passenger and commercial movement. Within a decade of the Erie’s opening, railroad construction joined turnpikes as another weapon in the two city’s efforts for commercial domination.

In 1831, the first chartered railroad in New York, the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, began service between Albany and Schenectady. Its success spurred development of other upstate railroad lines and in 1842 Troy challenged the success of the M&H by creating the Troy & Schenectady Railroad. Niskayuna and its railroad station contributed to and benefitted from the commercial competition between the two upstate cities.

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In the early 20th century, the T&S competed with trolleys and eventually buses on the Troy Schenectady Road for passenger traffic and also experienced economic decline during the Great Depression. Passenger service ended in 1933, while limited freight service continued until 1964.

The old railroad bed is now, of course, part of the Hudson Mohawk Bike Trail. However, the Niskayuna Railroad Station stands as a reminder of not only an imagined simpler time and life in upstate New York, but also as a reminder of an understanding of the complex link between local, regional, and national history.

To submit information to the Niskayuna Historical Committee, email Niskayuna Town Historian Denis Brennan at [email protected].

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