Schenectady County is having a birthday today — its 200th — and the community is invited.
The Schenectady County Bicentennial Commission will hold a “Bicentennial Gala Celebration” from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia. The event includes dinner, dancing and entertainment. There is a cost.
The gala marks the start of a yearlong series of events to commemorate the creation of Schenectady County on March 7, 1809, by the New York state Legislature, said Wendy Voelker, county events coordinator.
At least one event is scheduled per month, and the celebration will include new and existing activities. A full listing of events is listed on the commission’s Web site, schenectady2009.com, and a in special booklet inside today’s editions of The Daily Gazette.
The celebration will focus on all the communities in Schenectady County, even though some were created prior to and after the county’s formation, like Princetown, incorporated in 1798, and Rotterdam, incorporated in 1820.
“The events will be a celebration of all the communities, and all the communities have their own celebrations, which will become part of the bicentennial celebration. It is an all-inclusive celebration,” Voelker said. “We are not excluding the time before 1809.”
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Kathryn Weller, of the Schenectady County Historical Society, said the birth of Schenectady County occurred because local officials were tired of the watchful eyes and controlling hands of Albany County. For centuries, Albany County was the premiere county in upstate New York, a sprawling territory of 544 square miles.
Over the years, it lost territory as different counties were carved from it. Schenectady was the last to be created from former Albany County territory.
“Schenectady was always connected to Albany, but it was not a happy relationship,” Weller said.
Schenectady began to sever the relationship at the beginning of the 19th century, but the reasons for the separation are unknown, Weller said. “The actual minutes of first county records have not survived, but we know politicians in Schenectady, like Christopher and Joseph Yates, wanted to break off, to give the county more power,” she said.
ORIGIN OF NAME
When formed, the county adopted the name of the city, then the most populous community, a common practice, Weller said. According to historic records, the name Schenectady is spelled 79 different ways in the early documents. Many sources, however, agree that Schenectady is a corruption of the American Indian name Schau-naugh-ta-da, meaning “across the pine plains.”
Schenectady County Historian Don Rittner said travelers had to cross vast stretches of pines to reach Schenectady.
The early form of county government consisted of supervisors from the municipalities. They met to handle items of mutual interest, primarily relating to construction of infrastructure between their municipalities. Over time, the county assumed more responsibilities, including the support and care of the poor. It operated an alms house, a hospital and a tuberculosis sanitarium.
Today, the county is the largest form of government in Schenectady, with approximately 1,200 employees and a budget of $283 million. More than half the budget goes toward social services. Its form of government is a single chamber Legislature consisting of elected representatives from the city and towns.
Today’s gala will include a display of papers Thomas Edison signed in 1886 to establish the Edison Machine Works in Schenectady, the forerunner of General Electric.
Rittner said Edison came to Schenectady looking for a place to set up shop for his new business and also to escape problems he was having with unionized labor. He selected Schenectady because, at the time, it was a hub of transportation and invention. Westinghouse was already established in the city, making farm machinery. The Erie Canal ran through the city and the county was the nexus of major railroad lines in the state.
In fact, Edison was eyeing two new buildings in the area. They were, in essence, “shovel-ready” incubator sites, Rittner said. But Edison almost did not take the buildings because the owner’s price was too high. A group of community leaders stepped up at the last minute to make up the difference in rent with their own money, keeping Edison here.
ERA OF PROGRESS
“This was the beginning of Schenectady becoming a powerhouse of invention and industry for the next 100 years,” Rittner said.
GE, in an advertisement it purchased for Schenectady County’s 150th anniversary, said this event “marked the beginning of a new era of progress in partnership with the community. For it was at that time that many of the far-sighted citizens of Schenectady joined together to persuade Edison to locate here.”
During the following century, the word “Schenectady” was synonymous with innovation, Rittner said. “Schenectady is the second smallest county in the state — Manhattan being the smallest — but it has had one of the biggest impacts on the world,” he said.
Some of the world’s brightest minds at the time worked — and still work — in Schenectady, including Katharine Burr Blodgett, said Voelker. GE hired Blodgett in the late 1920s. She was its first female scientist, and she worked with Irving Langmuir, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.
Charles Steinmetz, a mathematical and engineering genius, also worked for GE. He perfected the use of alternating current, creating the electric power industry in the United States.
Voelker said Steinmetz started GE research in a barn in his backyard. Today GE Global Research in Niskayuna employs some 1,900 involved in cutting-edge research.
From light bulbs to radar, Schenectady County can confidently “point to the world and say it had something to do with this or that. Schenectady is one of the smartest places to be,” Rittner said. To this list, Voelker would add the invention of radio and television.
In addition to GE and Westinghouse, Schenectady was home to the American Locomotive Corp., or Alco. Alco came into existence in 1901, the amalgamation of several different railroad companies. During its existence, it produced more than 75,000 locomotives.
For a time, Alco’s and GE’s fortunes were Schenectady’s, as were their reversals. Westinghouse left the city in the 1920s.
During World War II, Schenectady boomed. Employment at GE and Alco topped more than 48,000. The quality of life in the county was good. Downtown boomed with shops and nightlife and the county’s population expanded.
Alco and GE early on formed a partnership, and together they created the diesel engine, Rittner said. During World War II, Alco built tank destroyers and other battle vehicles. GE built bazookas, ball turrets and Navy engines.
Rittner said some historians say Schenectady won the world with its products. And the phrase, “Schenectady lights and hauls the world,” was a tribute to their industrial output and creative energies, he said.
The county saw bad times in the 1960s and 1970s, marked by strikes and layoffs and loss of population. Employment today at GE’s Erie Boulevard facility is 3,000. Alco closed in 1969.
After World War II, the character of Schenectady County began to change, Rittner said. The growth of suburbs after the war drew people and business away from the city, starting a long climb downward, Rittner said. This was a radical change for the city, as for centuries it had been the focus of the county.
The city was formed in the late 1600s as the most distant outpost of European civilization in America. “It was one of the principal population centers in the 17th century, along with Albany and Manhattan,” he said.
Schenectady later became the gateway to the West with the creation of the Erie Canal and as a hub for railroads.
Weller said Schenectady always was a center of communications and travel. “Part of the reason it was so successful in the fur trade was that it was a great stopping point for navigation on the river. The river west of Schenectady was unnavigable,” she said.
Said Rittner: “If you wanted to go anywhere in the United States, you came to Schenectady.”