Gleanings From The Corn Flats

Gleanings from the Corn Flats is a monthly column featured in the Daily Gazette, written by current or former residents about Niskayuna's history. We encourage any past or present town residents to contact Niskayuna town historian Denis Brennan at dbrennan@niskayuna.org regarding any information, resources or stories they might like to share.
Gleanings From The Corn Flats
Get to Know History Under Your Feet (1/2022)
street_mapBy Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

Like so many people in our town, and towns across the country, the pandemic upended nearly all my travel plans and I found myself increasingly taking a break from household isolation by walking the streets of my neighborhood.  During one such outing, I found myself strolling up Empire Drive and around a turn to come down Gala Place.  The street names reminded me that this development of homes had once been part of an apple orchard and stimulated thoughts about the history linked to the names of Niskayuna’s roadways.   

Since becoming Town Historian, several residents have asked me about the origins of  their own street name.  More often than not, I was unable to  provide an answer; however, that does not mean that street names in Niskayuna are simply mundane conveniences and devoid of reason, substance, or history, as well as being unique. 

In fact, as former Supervisor and devoted local historian Edwin Reilly wrote several years ago, the intersection at the heart of modern Niskayuna may be one-of-a-kind in the United States.  Balltown Road and Nott Street are each are named for a 19th century Protestant minister with the first name of Eliphalet.  What are the chances that another such intersection exists?

Many street names acknowledge Niskayuna’s agrarian past and recall the roadways that led to the farms and homesteads of that era, including, Consaul Road, Greens Farm Road, Pearse Road, Rosa Road, Stanford Avenue, Van Antwerp Road, Vrooman Avenue, Winne Road, and others.  More recently, prominent residents have been recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the town; these include Blatnick Way, Alice Wagner Way, Preisman Drive, Rowe Road, and Reilly Way.

Some of the most traveled roads simply tell us where we are going or where we have been, most obviously perhaps “Troy Schenectady Road” and “Lock 7 Road.”  But others are less obviously geographic if only because of demographic change, such as “Niskayuna Road” or “Rosendale Road” or “Aqueduct Road”; each of  which direct traffic to the three hamlets that made up the 19th century town of Niskayuna. 

As Niskayuna developed from an agricultural to a residential municipality in the 20th century, street names were increasingly provided by the residential developers themselves.  These names may seemingly have little connection to town history but that doesn’t mean that they did not have a story to tell.  For instance, sections of the town recall international attachments, such as to England (Buckingham, Westminster, Hereford, and Oxford), to Ireland (Shannon, County Clare, Galway, Killarney, and Killkenny), and to Spain (Almeria, Barcelona, and Valencia).  Surely there were reasons for these choices.

With more than 350 named streets and roads in the town, the single largest collection of names are personal names (Alexis, Benedict, Bobby, Deborah, Jason, Rosemary, Timothy, and the like).  Likely these are family, friends, or simply favorites of the developer meant to honor or remember someone special in their lives.  Finding the connection between the developer and such a personal choice for a street name is without doubt a difficult but not impossible task. I happen to live on one of the streets in this collection of names, Barton Place, and in researching the development known as Warner Estates, may have stumbled on the reason for the street’s name. 

Beginning in the 1930s, William M. Warner transformed his 15-acre Warner Garden Farm, off Lisha Kill Road and Troy Road, into Warner Estates, with more than 20 lots for homes.  Warner Road curves through the former farmland beginning and ending at Lisha Kill Road; Barton Place links the two wings of Warner  Road.  The first house on Warner was built in 1930 and the first house on Barton was built in 1935.  Intriguingly, William Warner’s great grandson, Barton, was born in June of 1934.  While I cannot know for certain that the child’s name and the street’s name are linked, it seems a reasonable conclusion. 

As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”  We travel with the past and our history every day, even when we simply walk the streets of Niskayuna.  What about the street where you live?  If you know or think you know the history of its name, please contact me.    
A Short History and Curious Stories of Avon Crest (10/2021)
avon_crestBy Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

Like so many people in our town, and towns across the country, the pandemic upended nearly all my travel plans and I found myself increasingly taking a break from household isolation by walking the streets of my neighborhood.  During one such outing, I found myself strolling up Empire Drive and around a turn to come down Gala Place.  The street names reminded me that this development of homes had once been part of an apple orchard and stimulated thoughts about the history linked to the names of Niskayuna’s roadways.   

Since becoming Town Historian, several residents have asked me about the origins of  their own street name.  More often than not, I was unable to  provide an answer; however, that does not mean that street names in Niskayuna are simply mundane conveniences and devoid of reason, substance, or history, as well as being unique. 

In fact, as former Supervisor and devoted local historian Edwin Reilly wrote several years ago, the intersection at the heart of modern Niskayuna may be one-of-a-kind in the United States.  Balltown Road and Nott Street are each are named for a 19th century Protestant minister with the first name of Eliphalet.  What are the chances that another such intersection exists?

Many street names acknowledge Niskayuna’s agrarian past and recall the roadways that led to the farms and homesteads of that era, including, Consaul Road, Greens Farm Road, Pearse Road, Rosa Road, Stanford Avenue, Van Antwerp Road, Vrooman Avenue, Winne Road, and others.  More recently, prominent residents have been recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the town; these include Blatnick Way, Alice Wagner Way, Preisman Drive, Rowe Road, and Reilly Way.

Some of the most traveled roads simply tell us where we are going or where we have been, most obviously perhaps “Troy Schenectady Road” and “Lock 7 Road.”  But others are less obviously geographic if only because of demographic change, such as “Niskayuna Road” or “Rosendale Road” or “Aqueduct Road”; each of  which direct traffic to the three hamlets that made up the 19th century town of Niskayuna. 

As Niskayuna developed from an agricultural to a residential municipality in the 20th century, street names were increasingly provided by the residential developers themselves.  These names may seemingly have little connection to town history but that doesn’t mean that they did not have a story to tell.  For instance, sections of the town recall international attachments, such as to England (Buckingham, Westminster, Hereford, and Oxford), to Ireland (Shannon, County Clare, Galway, Killarney, and Killkenny), and to Spain (Almeria, Barcelona, and Valencia).  Surely there were reasons for these choices.

With more than 350 named streets and roads in the town, the single largest collection of names are personal names (Alexis, Benedict, Bobby, Deborah, Jason, Rosemary, Timothy, and the like).  Likely these are family, friends, or simply favorites of the developer meant to honor or remember someone special in their lives.  Finding the connection between the developer and such a personal choice for a street name is without doubt a difficult but not impossible task. I happen to live on one of the streets in this collection of names, Barton Place, and in researching the development known as Warner Estates, may have stumbled on the reason for the street’s name. 

Beginning in the 1930s, William M. Warner transformed his 15-acre Warner Garden Farm, off Lisha Kill Road and Troy Road, into Warner Estates, with more than 20 lots for homes.  Warner Road curves through the former farmland beginning and ending at Lisha Kill Road; Barton Place links the two wings of Warner  Road.  The first house on Warner was built in 1930 and the first house on Barton was built in 1935.  Intriguingly, William Warner’s great grandson, Barton, was born in June of 1934.  While I cannot know for certain that the child’s name and the street’s name are linked, it seems a reasonable conclusion. 

As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”  We travel with the past and our history every day, even when we simply walk the streets of Niskayuna.  What about the street where you live?  If you know or think you know the history of its name, please contact me.
The Other Rosendale School (7/2016)
rosendale_schoolBy Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

As most Niskayuna residents are aware, the white structure on Rosendale Road with the “Niskayuna Grange No. 1542” sign above the front door was once Rosendale School #1.  Less well known was another school on Rosendale Road, Niskayuna School #4, near the intersection where Rosendale Road crosses the Troy Schenectady Road and becomes Vly Road.  

Early in its history Niskayuna residents clearly valued education.  In the mid-eighteenth century, with the formation of the Dutch Reformed Church, a “gabat house” (or house of prayer) was used for religious services on Sunday and as a schoolhouse during the week. 

Furthermore, in the aftermath of Independence, local schools in villages and towns, like Niskayuna, espoused a revolutionary ideology that advocated the necessity of “civic literacy.” For leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, Americans required an education that equipped citizens with the skills needed to oversee their own private and public affairs.  Unlike monarchy or aristocracy, a republic required civic virtue and civic participation, enabled by widespread basic education in order to survive.  

For Jefferson and Rush, common school education had to be provided for all children, (actually, all “free” children – enslaved people’s children were another matter) without cost to their parents.  This notion challenged the typical European and Colonial belief that responsible parents were accountable for their own children’s education by their own means, or by family, or by church.  For them, “Free” public education was indistinguishable from school for paupers - only be available to the truly deserving poor, not for all. 

The Common School Movement in the United States which dominated education into the early 20th century is generally dated from the appointment of Horace Mann as secretary to the Massachusetts board of education in 1837.   Niskayuna was among those that anticipated the movement by several decades.  By 1819 there were four common school districts within the town’s borders. 

Each of Niskayuna’s four common schools had their own Trustees, teachers, school buildings, and funding systems.  We do not know much about the early locations of these schools or the school buildings themselves, although each was likely a log building until the mid-nineteenth century, when the New York State legislature passed the Free School Act.  This allowed individual districts to fund schools by levying real estate taxes.  As a result, across the state and in Niskayuna, crude log structures were replaced by more substantial and more adequate structures. 

The Beers 1866 map of Niskayuna shows the four “Common Schools” within the town limits, Craig, Van Antwerp, Rosedale #1, and Rosendale #4.  Each were likely improved structures or became improved soon afterward.  Three of those  structures are still extant – only Rosendale #4’s building is no longer visible. 

In 1856 John P. Miller and his wife, Eliza, deeded, for $1.00, a parcel of land on “the public road running from Niskayuna to the Troy Turnpike” to “Aaron Philips and Harmon V. Strong, Trustees of Joint District No. 4 Niskayuna & Watervliet”;  this school served both communities.   The town of Colonie, which borders Niskayuna on the east today, was not separated from Watervliet until 1895.

It is unclear what kind of schoolhouse structure was on the property in 1856.  However, we do know that in 1884 the Shakers deeded an additional quarter- acre of land to the school trustees for $40.00, which enlarged the school plot.  In addition, funds were raised to build a new schoolhouse, which is the building shown in the attached image, probably dated around 1910.

The picture shows 38 students and three adult women.  Three of the students are identified on the back of the photo: Tom Duck, 5th on left in rear; Rosa Knack, on right with large hat with bow; and, Rachel Warner, front with white coat and dark cuffs.   They all can be found on the 1915 New York State Census and recorded as living on Rosendale Road, Troy Road, and Lisha Kill Road, respectively. 

By 1915, the 1884 building had become insufficient for current needs.  $12,000 in funding was approved for a new building and the red brick building that still stands at 3512 Rosendale Road was constructed.  It was busy and often crowded school building.  It remained Niskayuna School District #4 until 1953 when Niskayuna voters approved consolidation and the Niskayuna Central School District was established. 

In 1956, students were moved to the new Birchwood School.  Although the District #4 building would be used at times to relieve overcrowding in the ensuing years, Niskayuna’s other Rosendale School has faded from town residents’ memory – but should not be completely forgotten.
Rescuing Charles Nalle and Remembering Juneteenth (6/2016)
charles_nalle_plaqueBy Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

Later in June the annual celebration of Juneteenth takes place.  Juneteenth remembers the day in 1865 when news of the defeat of the Confederacy reached Galveston, Texas; a final community of enslaved African men and women learned that emancipation for every slave in all of the states of the former Confederacy was complete.   The struggle to emancipate all slaves in the U.S. began decades before the Civil War and often involved dangerous actions by the enslaved themselves to become a runaway and secure their own liberty.  Often these actions were supported with the assistance of the men and women who were “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.    

The Underground Railroad used by escaped slaves had a variety of routes across the northern states; one of those routes came north from New York City to Albany, west through or near Niskayuna to Schenectady, to Syracuse, on to Rochester, and then finally north to Canada.  There is no record of Niskayuna “conductors” on the Railroad and no record of how many may have traveled through the town, but we do know that in the late Spring of 1860, Niskayuna played a minor but not insignificant role in the emancipation of an escaped slave named Charles Nalle.   

Nalle was born into slavery in 1821 in Stevensburg, Virginia.  He escaped in 1858 after discovering that several slaves, including himself, were to be auctioned and sold further south to settle debts of his “owner,” Blucher Hansbrough, who was, according to some accounts, Nalle’s half-brother.  Nalle chose to runaway and, with the help of the Underground Railroad, made his way to Troy, New York where he found work and thought he was safe. 

However, despite living in the “free” state of New York, Nalle’s freedom was not assured.  The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required law enforcement officials in every state to arrest suspected escaped slaves and return them to their Southern plantations.  Furthermore, any person who was guilty of providing aid, food, or shelter to an escaped slave was subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in prison.  In other words, the people of the “free” states were expected to help maintain the “peculiar institution” of the “slave” states.

Under the pretense of helping Nalle, Horatio Averill of Sand Lake, discovered Nalle’s secret and contacted Hansbrough in Virginia, who took immediate action to reclaim his “property.”  Hansbrough hired a slave catcher, Jack Wale, and provided him with all the necessary legal documentation, in keeping with the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law, to establish his claim.  Wale traveled to Troy and presented the documents to the local U.S. Marshall responsible for enforcement of the law.  On April 27, 1860, Nalle was apprehended, handcuffed, taken to court, and his return to Virginia swiftly ordered.

Almost immediately word spread about Nalle’s arrest and imminent removal; a large crowd of his friends and anti-slavery advocates assembled at the courthouse to express vehement opposition.  Among those in the crowd was the nation’s most renowned Railroad “conductor,” Harriet Tubman, who happened to be in Troy visiting her cousins.  She immediately became a part of the effort.  Tubman infiltrated the court room where Nalle was being held and at her signal, the assembled mob charged and, after considerable fighting, “rescued” Nalle. 

He was taken to a Hudson River dock and ferried across the river to West Troy (now Watervliet) where Nalle was re-captured by the Albany County sheriff.  The Troy throng also crossed the Hudson and after another battle, Nalle was “rescued” a second time and spirited along Shaker Road and later concealed in the woods of Niskayuna before being taken to Schenectady and then on to Amsterdam.    

Nalle’s rescuers expected him to continue following the Underground Railroad to reach freedom in Canada, but Nalle was determined to remain in the region.  Over the next month, his allies in Troy raised $650.00 to purchase his freedom and on May 25, 1860 Nalle finally returned to Troy as a free man. 

A plaque at State and 1st Streets in Troy commemorates the site of Charles Nalle’s  “rescue.”  The black and white citizens of Troy who fought together to rescue him were also responsible for his emancipation a month later.   His concealment in Niskayuna was a small contribution to both efforts but certainly worthy of acknowledgement.  Often substantive change materializes only when people unite and act to right what is wrong. 

The enslaved of Galveston would wait five more years to celebrate their emancipation on Juneteenth 1865.  Their celebration then and the celebration every Juneteenth recalls the culmination of the long years of battle for emancipation.  It is a celebration that deserves national-wide recognition.
The  Electrical Museum that Never Was (11/2019)
By Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

“If you build it, they will come.”

That was the implied promise made in a 1963 Niskayuna Bulletin article titled “Museum to Put Niskayuna on the National Map.” Upon completion, it was expected to draw “a million visitors a year from all over the nation.”

A state charter had been granted for a non-profit organization to build the American Museum of Electricity on 140 acres adjacent to Lock 7.  It was expected to cost $15,000,000.

The museum campus included: a Radio Planetarium, which would give attendees the “full illusion of space travel” including live communication with astronauts; a state-of-the-art educational television studio; a collection of historical exhibits, including one “devoted to electrical power and communication”; exhibits devoted to “the fields of transportation and defense”; as well as an Electrical Hall of Fame.

Furthermore, cable cars would carry visitors across the Mohawk River to experience a fully operational “1920’s-vintage electric power station”; Railroad tracks, from the old Troy-Schenectady line – which were yet to be removed – would have been used to display early electric railway equipment; and, finally, visitors could tour an obsolete World War II submarine docked in the nearby marina.

Niskayuna was perceived as an ideal location for the museum not only because it was home to the GE Research Lab and Knolls Atomic Power Lab, but also in light of the famous people in electrical history linked to the area, including: Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, George Westinghouse, and Joseph Henry.

Easy access to the Northway and the Thruway made the area readily “accessible to 87 million people within a radius of 500 miles.”

As fantastic as in sounds, this project was not promotional pie-in-the-sky.  The museum was initially proposed as a wing of the Schenectady Museum in 1959.  GE physicists, John C. Fisher, and Milan D. Fiske and GE managers, J. Herbert Holloman and Thomas O. Paine were “the brains” behind the Niskayuna proposal.   

Governor Nelson Rockefeller was a Trustee and the board included a long list of industrial, business, and academic leaders.  

Editorials in the Schenectady Gazette and in the Albany Times Union in March 1963 voiced strong support; the former labeled it a “Splendid Project” and the latter proclaimed it a “new wonder.”

The museum, of course, was never built; however, it was not for lack of effort.  Initial plans for funding the museum called for raising $200,000 from businesses and individuals in the Capital District to purchase the land, hire a director, and establish temporary housing for the museum’s foundation. This was accomplished by December 1963. 

In 1966, efforts to raise the estimated $15,000,000 needed for construction were ongoing; the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors voted to officially approve the museum’s application for a multi-million-dollar federal grant.

Schenectady City Historian, Chris Leonard, has documented many of the artifacts acquired for display, including material from the 1964 World’s Fair, as well as locomotives built by both GE and ALCO. 

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, by 1970 the project collapsed, primarily because three of the four principal organizers were transferred from the area; their careers took them far from Niskayuna.

Did Niskayuna “dodge a bullet” or was it a “lost opportunity”?  Not an easy question to answer.  By 1963 Niskayuna had transformed beyond its 19th Century rural agricultural roots to become a 20th Century suburban residential community.  Another transition to a tourist destination would have had enduring and likely permanent consequences. 

History can only tell us what was, not what might have been. Nevertheless, it cannot stifle our imagination.
Stanford Heights (12/2019)