THE ERIE CANAL
"They Have Built the Longest Canal in the World, in the Least Time. With the Least Experience,
for the Least Money, and to the Greatest Public Benefit."
--Speaker at Canal
Opening in 1825-
When the Erie Canal was officially opened in late October of 1825, its 363 mile route from Albany to Buffalo (with eighty-three locks) not only made it the longest in the world, but it was generally regarded as its eighth wonder. "Clinton's Ditch" made accessible the fertile interior of the nation and the great inland lakes of America were linked to all the seas of the world.
All of the New York towns and villages that were fortunate enough to be located along the canal shared in the growth and prosperity that resulted. Schenectady was no exception. Many of its residents were employed as lock tenders, towpath walkers who constantly patrolled the canal watching for the first signs of a leak or break, and repair and maintenance crews. There were also a number of townsmen who did not work directly on the canal but whose canal side shops and services took care of those that traveled or worked on it.
Today, when it is possible to travel thousands of miles by air in a few hours, the idea of riding on a canal packet boat at four miles an hour seems very antiquated; except, perhaps, to the residents of the towns that live along its right of way. For them the lingering tradition of canal lore is kept alive by the seasonal activity of the Barge Canal System of our century.
Schenectady is truly one of a kind. Its past history shows that its name was spelled 79 different ways until the present one was adopted in the early 1800s. It is unique in that there is not another place in the world so named.
The name Schenectady is believed to have been derived from one of two Iroquoian phrases: Scag-nac-ta-de, meaning "Beyond the pine plains" (to Albany), or S'quan-hac-ta-de, meaning "Beside the open door" (to the Mohawk Valley). The Mohawk Indians called the present city cite Schonowe "Big Flats."
In 1661, Arent Van Curler, with a small group of Dutchmen, emigrated from Albany to the Groote Vlachte (the Dutch phrase for "big flats") and made a formal application to the governor for permission to purchase the land from the Indians. In 1684 Governor Dongan issued the original patent for Schenectady. The area was chartered as a city on March 26, 1798.
On the late wintry night of February 8. 1690, about 200 French and Indians from Montreal swept into the unguarded Schenectady stockade and burned the houses and killed more than 60 of the inhabitants before heading back north with 30 prisoners and provisions. Those who escaped with their lives returned to rebuild the settlement with the help of the Mohawks.
From its founding in 1661 until mid-18th century, Schenectady's economy revolved around the city's location as the "Gateway to the West." Located at the center of main trails and navigable waterways, Schenectady developed into a major transportation hub. The importance of the city in the transportation network of the era was further enhanced in 1825 when the Erie Canal was opened.
In the 1850s, Schenectady Locomotive (which merged in 1901 with another locomotive firm to become the American Locomotive Company) began manufacturing railroad locomotives here. The event signaled the rise of Schenectady from a mercantile to an industrial economy.
Schenectady's rise to a major industrial center began in the late 19th century following the establishment, by Thomas A. Edison, of the Edison Machine Works in Schenectady. This manufacturing plant soon developed, after a merger with another company, into the present day General Electric Company. These two industries won Schenectady the title of the "The city that lights and hauls the world." After the Locomotive Company closed in 1968, GE's broadening services changed that to "The city that lights and powers the world." Much of the research that has brought about industrial progress in the city has taken place at Union College.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Schenectady had many ethnic groups, each with its own community and churches within the city, so Schenectady has become a city of integrated nationalities, each contributing Old World charm and traits which benefit the whole.
At the present moment there is, perhaps, no greater need that Schenectady has than a sense of permanence of citizenship such as that which seems to have marked the fifteen pioneers who sought to make their permanent homes here, and whom neither flood nor famine nor massacre could frighten away.
The Stockade is a residential district of several hundred homes in the Downtown area of Schenectady that stands on the site of the original Dutch settlement. Although the original homes were all destroyed by the French and Indian attack in 1690 and many of the replacements were demolished by a catastrophic fire in 1819, more than a dozen homes there predate the Revolution, and scores of homes have stood since the early 1800s.
Because of this and because buildings in the area continued well into the 19th century, the Stockade harbors an interesting blend of architectural styles. Moreover, all of the houses function as private homes and thus exhibit signs of life, individuality and sense of purpose often missing in monuments or areas designated as historic sites.
Union College was founded in 1795. The sedate, park-like campus is set in the middle of residential downtown Schenectady, reminding its citizens of its pioneering history. Union College was the second institution founded in New York, and was the birthplace of college fraternities.
Several leading American statesmen studied here, such as President Chester A. Arthur, New York Governor and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Robert Toombs, Confederate Secretary of State. Today the school is a private liberal arts college, with three affiliated schools in Albany. The university uniting these schools with Union College was formed in 1873.
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