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What Lord Kelvin Saw in Schenectady

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LordKelvininSchenectadyhigherres.jpgYesterday we tried to identify the many, many scientific, engineering and industrial luminaries pictured in this photograph, taken at the Schenectady General Electric Works. So, what were they all up to?

In September of 1897, Lord and Lady Kelvin were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Trask "at their country seat on Union avenue, Saratoga," according to "Electricity, a Popular Electrical Journal." A reception was given at their home, the day after which a large party descended upon the General Electric Works at Schenectady for a tour.

The Iron Age reported that on Sept. 23, Lord Kelvin and the group were conducted through the works, starting at Building No. 9, where heavy machinery was constructed. "This building was crowded with dynamo parts in all stages of completion . . . This building contains some very large planers, and the largest boring mill ever built." They then toured the testing room. "Connected to this building and forming part of it is the machine shop and shipping department, a total length of 1330 feet, all under one roof, with electric traveling cranes running from end to end carrying the unfinished parts to their respective assembling points, and the finished machines finally to the shipping department end. They viewed electrical generators and railway generators destined for the NYC Fourth and Sixth Avenue lines and Boston's transit, and transformers headed to Niagara Falls.

In Building 15, they saw how armature coils were wound and no doubt some of the advances developed by Charles Proteus Steinmetz, looking at long distance transmission equipment. "An interesting experiment in high voltage currents was then made by C.P. Steinmetz. An arc was sprung between two metallic points, some 15 inches apart, with the current at a pressure of 180,000 to 200,000 volts, and drawn out to a length of about 5 feet, until it could no longer hold." This was the artificial lightning for which Steinmetz was well known." Electrical Engineer was a bit more effusive in its description, raising the pressure to 250,000 volts, explaining that at the first test, the brass points broke down, but "the second resulted in a splendid arc, which before it snapped away twisted and coiled till it could not have been less than 30 inches in length. Tests were also shown of breaking with new fuses and Thomson magnetic blowout currents of 750 h.p. and upward, with no more fuss than is made by an ordinary arc lamp when a hard bit of carbon sticks in its crop." And we all now how little fuss that is.

Then they viewed the railway motors, going to Building 23 to see the new surface contact system. "The overhead trolley wire is superseded by a series of small cast iron disks set in the pavement in parallel rows between the rails of the track, each disk convexed to about 1 inch above the surface, at distances of about 4 feet. The disk near to one rail is the positive disk, that near the other the negative disk. In this system only those disks immediately under the car are alive; all the others are without current. The current is brought to the positive disks by an automatic magnetic switch, which is set with a number of others in a manhole, instead of being buried in the street near its own disk. The car is provided with a small storage battery and with two long shoes suspended beneath it, touching always one or two disks."

"After witnessing the operation of this system, the party mounted the search light tower, whence a splendid bird's-eye view of the entire works was had. Descending this the party was grouped at the base and photographed."

After seeing how to start a streetcar, they saw a new way to stop them, with a demonstration of the electric brake on car No. 9 of the Schenectady Street Railway. "The moment the car is stopped and no current is flowing from the controller the motors become very powerful dynamos, which turn their current into the coil of that one of the disks which is attached to the motor. It then becomes a very powerful electromagnet with a strong power of attraction..."

Electrical Engineer gave a detailed description of what was shown to Lord Kelvin, saying that among the demonstrations, "none possessed more interest to the electrical railway engineer than the acceleration test made upon the experimental track which runs along the heel path of the Erie Canal for a distance of nearly two miles." The demonstration was on a car intended for use on elevated railways, which were required to deal with quick stops and quick starts. "Quick stopping is . . . well taken care of by both air and electric brakes, leaving rapid acceleration as the point needing attention. Realizing this, the General Electric Company has been experimenting for the past several months with the idea of determining at what rate of acceleration the passengers would be annoyed."

Asked to express an opinion on his visit, Lord Kelvin said: 'I am enjoying myself very much and learning enormously. There are no shops in the world like these; they are among the great wonders of America.'"

More than 20 years later, R.R. Bowker  made a casual mention of the event in the minutes of a meeting of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, of which Lord Kelvin was an honorary member,

"whom we elders saw more or less of, both in New York and at his English home. Scotchmen always have a little bit of dialect . . . and Lord Kelvin had this also, and he was absolutely simple and modest. I suppose, really, he carried about in his head more knowledge than any man of his time, perhaps any man of any time, because he had not only the practical equipment which is so marked in Edison, but he also had the highest degree of scientific and technical educated training. Nevertheless, he was the most modest of men. I remember going with him once from New York to Saratoga, where we stayed with Spencer Trask, and then went on to the works of the General Electric Company at Schenectady, in the early days of the electric railway development. While he was at Saratoga for a time, he went out on the place and was talking with one of the farm hands, and that farm hand then had the most wonderful appreciation for this interesting gentleman. What happened was that Lord Kelvin, who was always asking questions was letting this man talk, for he had the faculty of always exacting from any an whom he met some information, which he, who knew most of all, could still utilize.

"We went on to Schenectady, and I have a mental picture of going into that old trolley car which some of you may remember at Schenectady, and Kelvin insisted that the floor should be torn up, so that he could get down on his knees and watch the operation of the motor under the car.

"It certainly is an honor to this Association that it can count that great man on its list of honorary members."

 

A Meeting of the Minds in Schenectady

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LordKelvininSchenectadyhigherres.jpgThis picture of Schenectady's industrial past pops up from time to time, usually vaguely captioned as "Lord Kelvin visits the General Electric works." That Spencer Trask is in the picture is sometimes mentioned. (The New York Public Library has one decent source for the photograph.)  That the captions rarely identify the highly notable Charles Steinmetz or any of the other notables in the picture is odd. So, what's going on here?

Lord Kelvin was William Thomson, born in Belfast in 1824. He became one of the most noted scientists of his age, developing important mathematical analysis of electricity and thermodynamics and helping to develop modern physics, while also developing telegraphy. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on a transatlantic telegraph. He also found the correct value of absolute zero temperature, now named in his honor. He served as a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Science-wise, he was a huge deal. In the photograph, he is center in the light suit and hat. The lady is the Lady Kelvin, his wife.

Spencer Trask was a financier and venture capitalist who routinely backed inventors, particularly Thomas Edison. Trask served as president of the New York Edison Company (later known as Consolidated Edison) and chairman of the New York Times. Around these parts, he's a hero because his Saratoga Springs estate became the artist colony Yaddo, which wasn't created until a dozen years after his death in a train wreck at Croton. Trask here is to the left of Lord Kelvin in front, wearing the bowler and with a walking stick.

In September 1897, Lord Kelvin came to our area after having attended meetings of the British Association in Toronto. "The Iron Age" of October 7, 1897 reported on the visit to the Schenectady General Electric Company  on September 23; so did "The Western Electrician," which ran nearly the identical article. They reported that "Lord Kelvin, accompanied by Lady Kelvin, Count di Brazza-Savorgnan, Spencer Trask, Alanson Trask, R.R. Bowker and Professor Elihu Thomson, visited the works of the General Electric company on September 23d. He was met by Captain Eugene Griffin, Joseph P. Ord and E.W. Rice, Jr., the three vice-presidents of the company, and S. Dana Greene, manager of the lighting department. In addition there were present W.F. Merrill, vice-president and general manager of the Erie railroad, Dr. Louis Duncan, Dr. Cary T. Hutchinson, Frank J. Sprague, T.C. Martin, Chas. W. Price, H.G. Prout, C.T. Childs, J.J. Swan, W.J. Clark, W.B. Potter. A.H. Rohrer, C.P. Steinmetz and others."

Another article in The Electrical Engineer adds even more names from GE, including S.M. Hamill, Jr., J.R. Lovejoy, J. Conover, J. McGhie, F. Shepard, J. Kruesi and others, and sayd that Mr. H.r. Bacon of the Canal & Claiborne Railroad in New Orleans was also in the party.

For anyone familiar with the early history of electricity, that is nothing short than an assemblage of the gods. The story of what they saw is posted here; below are brief biographies of the luminaries on this factory tour.

Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (the article didn't get his name quite right) was an Italian-born explorer who, on behalf of his adopted France, led the colonization of Central Africa. The capital of the Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville, was named for him. In 1887, he had just been dismissed as governor-general of the French Congo. It's just possible he's pictured third from the right in a bowler, though that bears a resemblance to only one photo of de Brazza that we've seen; in others, he is quite the looker and it seems like he would stand out in this photo.  He appears to have been associated with Spencer Trask, who had an interest in the di Brazza Postal Device and Lock Company, which in a later year held a patent assignment from Detalmo di Brazza Savorgnan family in Rome. When an earthquake devastated Calabria in 1905, Spencer Trask served as a collector for funds raised to be sent to Countess Cora di Brazzà-Savorgnan, wife of Detalmo and relative of Pierre.

Elihu Thomson was an electrical inventor and founder of the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, and as much as General Electric has preferred to trace its legacy to Thomas Edison, the truth is that it was Thomson's company that really formed the basis for the modern corporate behemoth. Its merger with Edison General Electric formed the new General Electric Company in 1892. He is likely to be the gent to Steinmetz's immediate left, next to Lady Kelvin in the front row.

Alanson Trask was Spencer Trask's son, only perhaps two years old at this time; he would die by the age of five. All four of the Trask children died in infancy or childhood. He does not appear to be in this photograph.

Richard Rogers Bowker was the editor of Publisher's Weekly and Harper's Magazine, and the first president of the New York Library Club. In 1896, the year before this picture was taken, he became manager of The New York Times, thus his association with Trask. I suspect he is two heads to the right of Trask, from our viewpoint.

Edwin Wilbur Rice, Jr. was considered one of the fathers of GE (along with Elihu Thomson and Charles Coffin). He was a student of Elihu Thomson when Elihu taught in Philadelphia, and joined him in the electrical industry, growing the Lynn, Massachusetts factory of Thomson-Houston into an industrial powerhouse with 4000 employees.  At the time of this picture, he was GE's vice president of manufacturing and engineering, and is slightly honored in Schenectady through the naming of Rice Road. Eventually Rice became President of General Electric. Rice is the fellow in the round-rimmed glasses and light-colored hat just behind Lady Kelvin's right shoulder.

"Captain" Eugene Griffin would later be General Eugene Griffin, who at the time of his death in 1907 was first vice-president and manager of the sales department at GE. An 1875 West Point graduate, he entered the Engineering Corps, rising to captain. In 1889, according to "Electrical West," he resigned the army to take up electrical engineering work, joining Thomson Houston. After the consolidation, he became first vice president of GE, and became president of the Thomson Houston International Electric Company. On the outbreak of war with Spain, shortly after this photograph was taken, he organized and commanded the First Regiment United States Volunteer Engineers during the Spanish-American war and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. His is the sole clean-shaven face, immediately to Lady Kelvin's left. 

Joseph Pacificus Ord, another of the GE vice presidents. He came from an auditor's position with the West Shore Railroad, and was selected to serve as comptroller of Edison General Electric in 1890. The "General Electric Review" said that Ord "was not a trained accountant, nor did he make any pretensions to skill in finance; but this experience in the auditing department and a natural talent for the construction of forms and office routine, together with the ability to say 'No' and to stick to it . . . enabled him to render important service...." Though he left GE in 1902, he remained a director of the corporation until his death in 1913. (interestingly for the time, when he died at the age of 60 years, he left behind a daughter, his only offspring, aged 5.)

Samuel Dana Greene, general manager of the lighting department of General Electric, was also a military man. He was the son of Commander Samuel Dana Greene, second in command of the Monitor when it fought the Merrimac (most would say the Virginia). S.D. junior graduated top of his class from the Naval Academy in 1883, but only served until 1888, when he left for the allure of electricity, became chief engineer of Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company and then became associated with Thomas Edison. He also went off to war in 1891, then became commanding officer of the New York Naval Militia and joined Governor Theodore Roosevelt's staff. Tragically, he and his wife died just a couple of years after this, on Jan. 8, 1900, when they were out skating on the Mohawk River near Freeman's Bridge after dark, fell into a cut in the ice and drowned in the river. The funeral at St. George's in the Stockade was reported as the largest ever held in Schenectady; Gov. Roosevelt and his military staff attended, along with 200 officials of GE and men who served under him during the Spanish-American War. I don't find a picture of this S.D. Greene, but if he looked like his father, he could easily be mistaken for the gent immediately to Steinmetz's right, but he could also be the fellow on the very far right of the group.

William Fessenden Merrill was a civil engineer and railroad man who had served with railroads all over the Midwest. He was the general manager of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad out west before coming back east to serve as second vice president of the Erie Railroad, which he was when this picture was taken.  He may have been here because the party saw a demonstration of a new brake for electric railways. I had thought he was the fellow farthest to the left, with the bowler and umbrella, but now I think it more likely that's Frank Sprague.

Dr. Louis Duncan was another naval man who graduated the Academy in 1880 but who went to Johns Hopkins University to do graduate study in physics and electricity, where the "Electrical Review and Western Electrician" says he determined the unit of electrical resistance. (It was not the only time that the ohm, as it is known, was determined; it doesn't have an absolute value.) A professor at Johns Hopkins, Duncan helped form a battalion of engineers in the Spanish-American War, and was ranked a major. He was president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers when this picture was made, and was involved in pretty much every other scientific institute of the age. He was known as an electrical traction expert and was the consulting engineer in the electrification of the transit systems in New York City, but also worked on telephone systems. He could be the slightly blurry chap second from the left.

Dr. Cary Talcott Hutchinson would also, in 1901, serve as a consulting engineer along with Dr. Duncan in the electrification of NYC's rapid transit. He also went to Johns Hopkins, then formed the firm of Sprague, Duncan and Hutchinson; he was connected with Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company and the Edison GE at Schenectady, and was at one point vice president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. The sole picture I can find of him doesn't give much to go on in picking him out of this crowd.

Frank J. Sprague was another Annapolis graduate, class of 1878, who dabbled in electricity, inventing a new type of dynamo while still in the service (a dynamo is a DC generator). He came to the attention of Edison and was lured to Menlo Park and is legendary for having brought some actual method (mathematics, for example) to the madness that the Wizard there favored. He left Edison to form the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, which created an important non-sparking railway motor and regenerative braking, and vastly improved streetcars and, later, elevators. It appears he may be the gent farthest to the left, but I am far from certain.

Thomas Commerford Martin was also an electrical engineer whose father worked with Lord Kelvin, and TC spent time laying submarine telegraph cables. When he came to the United States in 1877, he became associated with Thomas Edison, but soon morphed into a role something like being the first evangelist of electricity: it was Martin, as a writer and editor, who fanned the flames of publicity that made men like Edison and Tesla media superstars of their day. He was editor of Electrical World from 1883 to 1909, and a founding member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. I believe he is the gent standing directly behind Steinmetz.

Charles W. Price was an editor and publisher from Chicago who published Electrical Review, a rival of Martin's Electrical World, though he took that position in 1891, so it is possible he was among this group in another capacity.

Col. Henry Goslee Prout was the editor of the Railroad Gazette for 16 years, until 1903, and so likely was on this visit in that capacity.  He was a Civil War veteran who became a civil engineer, put himself through college by working on railroad surveys and then War Department surveys of the west. According to Railway Age, he entered the ervice of the Khédive of Egypt as a major of engineers, rising to colonel, performing geodetic and topographical engineering, studies for a hospital and military prison, repairs of fortifications, and more. On his return to America he became a switch engineer, and became editor of the Railroad Gazette in 1887. Best guess for him in this picture: fourth from the right in the light hat.

C.T. Childs is noted in several early electrical journals, and wrote a book called "How and Why of Electricity." More than that I haven't found.  

J.J. Swan at this time also appears to be a bit of an enigma, but appears to have held several positions with GE; In 1922 he was noted as presenting at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the topic of standardization of graphics.

W.J. Clark was the manager of the traction department of GE, and may have previously worked for Sprague. His job appears to have been to get GE's motors into Sprague's railways.

W.B. Potter was another traction man at GE, serving as chief engineer of the railway and traction department.

A.H. Rohrer would at some point become superintendent of the electrical works at Schenectady GE.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the dwarf fourth from the left, was one of the most brilliant minds in electrical history, an important figure in Schenectady politics and education, the developer of GE's approach to research and professional development, and generally an inspiration. If you don't know about him, you should.

FortyMiles2.pngAmong the greatest songs of Gustave Kerker (No. 14 on the Honor Roll of Popular Songwriters, according to Billboard magazine, back in 1949) was a tune he wrote, with lyrics by Hugh Morton, for an 1896 show called "In Gay New York" that was featured at the Casino Theater in New York City. Even in 1949, Billboard noted that Kerker was one of Tin Pan Alley's forgotten men. Among the songs in that show was the inexplicably titled "It's Forty Miles from Schenectady to Troy" (preserved for us by the New York Public Library).

"I'm going on the stage," said the pale-faced youth,
"I'm going on the stage, and I'll be another Booth."
"Before you go," said the second old man,
"You want to get the thickest pair of boots that you can
For it's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy
You want to keep "tab" on that, my boy;
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk
To the gay Rialto in New York."

Chorus:
It's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy
you want to keep tab on that, my boy,
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk to the gay Rialto of New York.

"The art of the stage is a very high art"
Said the youth as he placed his hand upon his heart
The old man said, with tears in his eyes,
"You'll find it isn't higher than the railroad ties!
For it's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy,
You want to keep "tab" on that, my boy,
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk to the gay Rialto in New York."

Chorus:
It's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy
you want to keep tab on that, my boy,
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk to the gay Rialto of New York.

"The actor-man is a being most rare,"
The pale-faced youth then proceeded to declare.
The old man said, "Undoubtedly he's sweet,
But he ought to be born with an extra pair of feet,
For it's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy,
You want to keep "tab" on that, my boy,
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk to the gay Rialto in New York."

Chorus:
It's forty miles from Schenectady to Troy
You want to keep tab on that, my boy,
And when you reach Troy
It's a darned long walk to the gay Rialto of New York.

Of course, it isn't 40 miles from Schenectady to Troy, even if you walk it, and The Schenectady and Troy Railroad begn running in 1841, making fairly short work of the 21 miles between the Electric City and the Collar City (though at that time Schenectady was still stronger in the broom department, and Troy was pumping iron).

The Great Western Gateway Exposition

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Greatwesterngatewaybridge.pngThe grand opening of the Great Western Gateway Bridge, a decade in the planning, was a very big deal indeed. The bridge itself opened in December of 1925, but of course December in Schenectady is not a propitious time for celebrating, so it was some months before the great Gateway Exposition took place.

In June of 1926, there was a 9-day celebration with 50 major events, "and every day will see plenty of activity from morning until late at night," the Schenectady Gazette wrote. "The event is without doubt the biggest civic demonstration ever undertaken in Schenectady and gives promise of being a celebration that in magnitude will surpass anything ever staged by a city of this size in the Eastern part of the United States.

"Parades, conventions, commencement exercises, dedication of the bridge and historical tablets, athletic events of all descriptions, fraternal and patriotic ceremonies, band concerts, special church services, an Indian demonstration, together with a huge display of fireworks and special illumination will be some of the outstanding features of the great celebration."

There was a "mammoth" industrial and transportation exhibition on Erie Boulevard, representing business and commercial interests in Schenectady together with civic, service and fraternal organizations. The General Electric exhibit alone covered 8,800 square feet of "things made and things doing." To accommodate the industrial exhibit was a tent more than a quarter mile long on the north side of Erie Boulevard (72,000 square feet of canvas). The Gateway parade featured thousands of marchers. Athletic events include a lacrosse game between Union College and St. Regis Indians, a cricket match between Schenectady and Staten Island, and a soccer match between "the famous Cosmopolitans and Clan MacRae of Schenectady."

The Schenectada (yes, that's how they spelled it) Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution would be going on a plaque spree, placing a tablet on the approach to the Great Western Gateway and a marker at the Mabie house.

There would be band concerts, expositions of broadcasting by WGY, singing by the Cambrian Male Chorus, the Turnverein Society and a police trio, as well as a Charleston contest and the Van Curler orchestra.

Schenectady in 1926 wasn't just celebrating a bridge. They were celebrating their explosion into an industrial powerhouse and their dreams of developing into a world-class city. Already, some of the most prominent scientists and industrialists in the world came to visit Edison's works, and finally the city had a new hotel, the Hotel Van Curler,  which Mayor Alexander T. Blessing wrote "is a pride to the city; Erie boulevard and Washington avenue have been changed from eyesores to two of the best boulevards in the country, a plaza will soon beautify the lower part of State street and the dyke part will be part of the waterfront. This is not all for plans have been completed for a new Y.M.C.A. and the relocation of the River road in this same section of the city. This represents the confidence which the people of the city have in its future."

 

"Successful Methods," a civil engineering magazine from around about a century ago, took the time in November 1920 to detail how work on the Great Western Gateway Bridge was progressing:


constructingcrib.png

A FOUR CONTRACT JOB

Work on Great Western Gateway at Schenectady, N.Y., is Divided Into Four Units

Work is well under way on the job of building the reinforced concrete abutments and approaches at the Schenectady and Scotia ends of the Great Western Gateway in New York State. The bridge which will carry the main State highway between the East and West over the Mohawk River and Barge Canal channel, is shown in the engineer's drawing at the bottom of this and the opposite pages.

The equipment for this job consists of a pile driver and derrick for placing the pedestal piles, an excavating machine, used in digging the trench for the reinforced concrete approach walls, two concrete mixers and a variety of other items, including a cofferdam. This is just the beginning of work that will ultimately involve the use of many additional items of equipment and will call upon contractors for some thoroughly modern methods and some big work.

testingoneofthepiles.pngThe structure, which has been planned and designed by State Engineer Frank M. Williams of New York, is to be built of reinforced concrete and, aside from the fact that it will serve as the roadway over which most of the automobile traffic between the East and West is to pass, it will have the distinction of being one of the nation's most beautiful parkways.

The Great Western Gateway derives its name from the fact that Schenectady is located at the point in New York where there is a natural break in the great Appalachian Mountain chain extending along our eastern coast. It was through this gape or gateway that the early settlers made their way westward and it was this same breach that made the construction of the Erie Canal a possibility.

The new structure will extend from the intersection of State Street and Washington Avenue, Schenectady, to the approximate center of Mohawk Avenue in the village of Scotia thereby leading directly to the State road to Buffalo. The bridge will be 4,436 feet in length and the Schenectady approach will be provided with a raised safety zone which will serve as a regulator of traffic. A 40 ft. roadway will span the new Barge Canal Terminal Basin, Van Slyke Island, Barge Canal, Hog Island and Mohawk River. This road will end in a circular traffic center.

Under the plans decided upon by Mr. Williams the structure will represent an expenditure of approximately $2,000,000 of which amount the City of Schenectady has contributed $100,000 and the village of Scotia $50,000. The structure is to be erected by the contract method but differs from others in that, instead of being let in a single contract, the work has been split up into four parts. Each part will cover a different phase of the work and the four units are to be awarded at different times, the intention being to so coordinate the work that as one contract nears completion the other can get under way.

The first contract covers only the construction of the approaches and abutments at each end of the structure. The second contract calls for the construction of 23 reinforced concrete piers. Provision is made in this, however, for the construction of piers 1 to 4 and 19 to 20 inclusive by December 31, 1920 and the completion of all the piers by December 31, 1921. Under this plan the piers at the east and west ends of the structure will be completed first, thereby enabling the contractor who obtains the third contract, calling for the erection of the reinforced concrete arches and superstructure, to start work at both ends of the bridge early next spring. In the meantime the fourth and last contract which calls for the paving and lighting work will have been advertised, so that as the third contract progresses the work of paving the roadway can be undertaken.

This plan, it is confidently expected will see the structure well under way next summer and early in 1922 the bridge will be opened to traffic. A feature of the bridge is the 212 foot span over the Barge Canal channel.

The important part which the Great Western Gateway is to take in the development of automobile and commercial traffic in the State of New York may be judged by the fact that the old toll bridge now spanning the Mohawk River at this point, collects toll from an average of 1,000 automobiles daily while numerical count shows that 22,000 people cross the bridge every 24 hours.


Ultimately, of course, the bridge didn't open until nearly four years later than scheduled, at the very end of 1925 (and that lateness could be the explanation for a December celebration).

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greatwesterngatewayplans.pngAll week we've been recounting the hearing of 1915 that laid the groundwork for the Great Western Gateway Bridge between Schenectady and Scotia . It didn't actually open until 1925 (just barely -- it was in December). But the plans for the bridge were approved long, long before, back in September of 1916, according to the Albany Evening Journal.


Great Western Gateway Plans Are Approved

They Are Those Submitted by John A. Bensel, With but Slight Modifications - Legislature to Act Now

William Barclay Parsons, representing State Engineer Frank M. Williams, and R.S. Buck representing the city of Schenectady, have approved in the main the plans prepared and submitted by John A. Bensel, former state engineer, for the Great Western Gateway bridge over the Mohawk river and Erie canal at Schenectady.

The plan calls for an ornate concrete structure nearly a mile in length from the foot of State street, Schenectady, to Mohawk avenue, Scotia, to replace the iron structure that crosses the river from Washington avenue, Schenectady, to Scotia. State Engineer Williams considers the report of the engineers as final and believes that the coming Legislature will appropriate the sum necessary to carry out the state's part in the great undertaking. His department, he says, will shortly begin altering the present bridge to meet barge canal requirements pending the building of the contemplated new structure.

The report of the engineers, Parsons and Buck, is addressed to Superintendent W.W. Wotherspoon of the state department of public works which has on hand $500,000 for construction of the new Schenectady-Scotia bridge, State Engineer Williams, Mayor George R. Lunn and President John E. Gillette of Scotia village.

The engineers' report goes into the details of construction and cost and concludes as follows:

"To sum up, we are in agreement on the essential features of the bridge project, in that (1) it will not cause adverse flood conditions; (2) it is practicable to secure reliable foundations without excessive costs, and (3) the type of bridge proposed is in conformity with good, modern practice, economical and well adapted to the purpose. We differ only as to certain details of construction, not essentially affecting the general proposition, and as to the probable cost which is largely dependent upon more or less indeterminate conditions."


So, what took another nine years? Hard to say.

John Anderson Bensel wasn't just anybody, by the way. In addition to serving as State Engineer from 1911-1914, he had been president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1910, and before that the president of the New York City Board of Water Supply. He served as a major commanding the 125th battalion of engineers for the Army during World War I (which may be part of the answer to "what took another nine years"). His New Jersey mansion is now part of Morristown National Historic Park, so he's got that going on.

The Bridge that Preceded It

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Tripp-003 Mohawk River Bridge.jpgIn its 1915 report, the Great Western Gateway Commission gave a little bit of history of the various bridges that had connected Schenectady to Scotia across the Mohawk River. Despite having been settled in 1661, the first permanent bridge to be built didn't come about until 1808. It was authorized in 1800 in the formation of the Mohawk and Schenectady Bridge and Turnpike Company, which was to build a bridge across the Mohawk at Schenectady and a turnpike from Schenectady to Little Falls. It built from the foot of Washington Avenue in Schenectady to the end of the dike in Scotia, now known as Schonowe Avenue. The bridge footings are still there.

The bridge carried the following tolls:

  • Twenty sheep or hogs, 8 cents.
  • Twenty cattle, horses or mules, 18 cents.
  • Each horse and rider or led horse, 5 cents.
  • Each horse sulky, chair or chaise, 12½ cents.
  • Each one-horse cart, 6 cents.
  • Each chariot, coach, coaches or phaeton, 25 cents.
  • Each wagon or other four-wheel carriage drawn by two horses, mules or oxen, 12½ cents, and 3 for each additional animal.
  • Each cart drawn by two oxen, 6 cents, and each additional horse or ox, 2 cents.
  • For each sleigh or sled drawn by two animals, 6 cents.
  • No toll to be charged persons going to or coming from church, or his common business or his farm, or to and from any mill, nor from any persons passing in a sleigh or sled between January 1 and March 1 of each year.

So we've learned that 19th-century EZ-Pass was complicated.

That was the wooden-cable Theodore Burr bridge, opened in 1808, dumped cows into the river in 1857, and was replaced by an iron structure on the original piers in 1874. The structure was updated with steel in 1886 and allowed to carry trolleys.

Entering Scotia NY.jpgAt the 1915 hearing on the need to build the Great Western Gateway Bridge between Schenectady and Scotia (and beyond), the Honorable Fred W. Cameron, Chairman of the Saratoga Reservation Commission (various commissions were forerunners of the State Parks system) came down to Schenectady to argue for the need for the bridge. First, he gave the history of how the State came to procure the springs of Saratoga:

The water had disappeared because of the fact that the gas had been taken out and sold for soda water fountains, to be put in these copper tubes and carried away at a great revenue to those who sold the gas, but at a great loss to Saratoga and the State of New York, because when the gas was taken out of the springs the water failed to flow and there was no Saratoga water five years ago flowing out of the ground at Saratoga, nor could any come out there by means of pumps, unless you went down very, very deep. The State passed a law forbidding the taking of gas and condemning the property - buying it in - until now the State owns about three hundred acres of ground, with over one hundred and forty springs. As soon as that gas was allowed to remain in the earth it began to bubble up in the water until now there is one hundred thousand gallons of water every day running out of the springs at Saratoga....

Then he got on to the topic, almost.

You know, Mr. Chairman, that people of late are traveling almost entirely by automobiles. More people come to Saratoga by automobile than ever did by train . . . Now, if people are going to travel by automobiles hereafter, as they are at present, it seems to me that it is good business to provide roads that are best adapted for that purpose . . . Every one who is driving an automobile, and most people who try to get out of the way of automobiles, know that an automobile is a vehicle usually driven at quite a high speed, that has a tremendous weight behind it, and a momentum that is very often underestimated, and that can make sharp turns around the corners, that it becomes an instrument of danger, not only to the occupants of the machine, but to the people who are driving or walking on the streets. If there is any worse place for driving an automobile than is presented by the road after you leave State street to go into Scotia [meaning Washington Avenue] I don't know where it is. (Applause)

Then he really wound up the argument for the route at the end of State Street, the most expensive option by quite a bit, but the one that separated auto travel from the streetcar routes, although it was expected that streetcars to Scotia would be abandoned:

I don't care anything about that cost for this reason, Mr. Chairman: I have driven in an automobile; I have driven along roads across a railway track; I have been across tracks where a short time before, because of lack of the expense of a few dollars in either having that track raised or depressed, there has been at that very same place an accident in which three of my best friends were killed, and I have thought what would be the cost. Why should the cost enter into the consideration when the life of the citizen is at stake? If you are going to invite me to drive my car along your streets and I go into a pitfall, or you do not provide for my safety, and tell me that it was because it cost too much, I tell you you come very near being a criminal. You have got no right to invite me into a place and then injure me, and you ought not to, and the State ought not to have a place that is not safe when one is acting in a reasonably careful manner, and I believe it is not safe to run automobiles down these streets, to cross around these curves going into Scotia. You have got to cross the street car tracks twice. The streets are not wide enough and they ought not to be so. Now, do not consider the cost when it comes to a question of life and death.

Western Gateway Bridge.jpgAs Schenectady grew into an industrial powerhouse and State Street grew into a thriving commercial district, and as automobiles began to become an important form of transportation, it became clear that the old bridge across the Mohawk, an iron trestle affair that carried trolleys across between Washington Avenue and the end of the dike (Schonowe Avenue in Scotia), was no longer going to cut it. And so plans began to build a grand new replacement, christened "The Great Western Gateway Bridge." There was a state commission, there were hearings, there were reports. And when it was all being tied up into a nice neat bow, there was some speechifying.

The Great Western Gateway Commission held a hearing at the Schenectady High School on Dec. 1, 1915, gathering support for any of the five or six options that were then before the Commission. Dr. Richmond of Union College said there were only two worthy of serious consideration: one from the end of Union Street to the Sanders Residence (you know it as the Glen-Sanders Mansion, which at the time was not completely obscured by a massive banquet facility), and the other from the end of State Street to Mohawk Avenue. (That second route seems like a straight shot to us now, but it really wasn't until the current bridge was built around 1974, when the Mohawk Avenue approach was realigned, the Binnekill filled in and the inconvenient westward bend of State Street considerably softened by a much less perceptible curve in the bridge ramp.)

"I think you will find very cogent arguments for the route from the foot of State street to the foot of Mohawk avenue, Scotia. That is the only adequate answer to this demand. Farsighted managers of railways and subways, layers out of the great highways, are willing to go to almost any expense to take out the curves. We must remember that a bridge is not like a summer bonnet . . . which is as a flower of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast away. Any bridge which we build in these enlightened times should stand at least two or three hundred years . . . Huge indeed has been the waste in this State and in all of our cities because we had constantly to undo the mistakes of the past and do them over again."

Sadly, anyone who remembers the beautiful, graceful Western Gateway Bridge that was built after this hearing most likely knows two things about it. First, they didn't take out the curve. Far from it; it had a spectacular curve that cars sailed off of with alarming regularity, so that in latter days the concrete wall was held up with steel cables and still cars challenged it. Second, it didn't last two or three hundred years. In fact, it didn't quite make 50.

Oh, there will be more speechifying in the days to come.

Lurie's: No More Stamps for 1925

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LuriesadsSchenectadyGazette1-3-1925.pngLurie's was a little remembered Schenectady department store at the corner of State and Ferry, which would have put it right in the vicinity of Barney's. (It's possible it was related to the M. Lurie Company of Amsterdam, and it's possible it wasn't.) They sold all kinds of clothing and fabrics, and gave away their own trading stamps. At least, until 1925. On January 3, they put the public on notice -- they would redeem all Lurie stamps, but there would be no more stamps for 1925.

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