Colonial Heritage Weekend to look back on Schenectady’s 362 years

This painting by Sally Lewis, circa 1890, is an image of the Schenectady Fire of 1861 that heavily damaged the First Reformed Church. (photo provided)

This painting by Sally Lewis, circa 1890, is an image of the Schenectady Fire of 1861 that heavily damaged the First Reformed Church. (photo provided)

SCHENECTADY – City Historian Chris Leonard says he’ll never be done researching Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood. Not now, not soon and probably not ever.

“The Stockade is a fascinating area for researchers, and there is still plenty of scholarship yet to come,” said Leonard, who was appointed city historian by Schenectady Mayor Gary B. McCarthy in 2018. “We haven’t figured out all there is to know, and as a historian I’ll always be out there looking. I love hearing stories about the Stockade, and I very much enjoy re-telling them.”

Leonard will be doing plenty of that this weekend when the Colonial Heritage Weekend takes place at various venues around the Stockade Neighborhood Saturday and Sunday. He will take center stage Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Schenectady County Historical Society with a presentation titled, “Schenectady Aflame,” focusing primarily on three devastating fires in the city during the 19th century. Schenectady, however, has 362 years of history to look back on, and while touching upon all of them in one weekend is impossible, the Colonial Heritage Festival is going to try its best.

“It’s just a great opportunity for people, for families, to wander around the Stockade, read the historic markers and learn more about Schenectady’s history,” said Laura Lee, archivist for the First Reformed Church in the Stockade. “Most of the Stockade area around Front and Ferry Streets will be lit up, and there will be luminaries around our church, St. George’s and First Presbyterian. It will be great fun for parents to bring their kids, learn a little history and see the neighborhood all lit up.”

Following Leonard’s presentation at the historical society, visitors to the Stockade will be invited for a “Historic District Walk Through” where a variety of stories of old Schenectady will be told. Those festivities will begin at 4 p.m. at the corner of North Church and Front Street, as well as at the Circle Park where within is the statue of Lawrence, a Mohawk Indian who helped the settlers following the 1690 Schenectady Massacre. Lee will read a poem about the exploits of Symon Schermerhorn, who jumped on a horse during the Massacre and rode to Albany to warn settlers there of the attack. Joe Doolittle and other storytellers and guides will also be in the area to perform their re-telling of Schenectady history, including the story of “The Ballad of Schenectady,” a song about the Schenectady Massacre written just a few months after the event in 1690. A “Tavern Party” with a potluck supper will open to all beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Stockade Inn, The only cost for the entire day is Leonard’s presentation, which is $8 for non-members of the historical society.

On Sunday, the focus shifts to the First Reformed Church where Schenectady’s oldest congregation will commemorate some history that is less than a century old. On Feb. 3, 1943, Poling was one of four U.S. Army chaplains who tragically drowned after the troop transport they were on, the USS Dorchester, sank after being hit by German submarines.

There were more than 900 men on board the ship and nearly 700 were killed, including the Four Chaplains who refused to climb on board a lifeboat and also gave up their life jackets so that others would live. A Columbus, Ohio native, Poling came to the First Reformed in 1936 and was there until he joined the Army as a chaplain in 1941. He was only 32 when he was killed.

The regular church service at 10 a.m. Sunday will recognize the 80th anniversary of Poling’s death, and at 11:15 a.m. the congregation’s First Forum will also commemorate the event in the Poling Chapel.

“Clark Poling was genuinely positive, smiling,” said Doolittle, who will lead the First Forum. “He bonded with people. You might say he was a holy magnet. Her certainly bonded with his chaplain buddies, and he was present. He could be with people without being intrusive, and if he was with you, you were glad he was there. Being a chaplain is a ministry of presence.”

The regular Jazz Vespers program on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. will also honor the Four Chaplains. Poling was the 23rd senior minister in the long history of First Reformed which can date its founding back to 1680. Within that long history, both the church and Schenectady have had to deal with a series of devastating fires, and Leonard will take a close look at three different fire-related incidents in the 19th century.

“The 1819 fire destroyed a lot of warehouses along the Binnekill and Washington Avenue, and removing those destroyed warehouses actually allows for the construction of some very attractive homes,” said Leonard. “Then there’s the 1861 fire that starts in Cucumber Alley and culminates in the burning of the edifice of the First Reformed.”

After a relative fire-free two decades, disaster struck again.

“There were a large series of fires that occurred from 1883 to 1886, and they were all arson related,” said Leonard. “It really rocked the city. It kept the citizens of Schenectady in fear for quite a while. The fires of 1819 and 1861, and the arson fires in the 1880s all played a major role in reshaping the city throughout that century.”

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

Leave a Reply