It seems strange to most natives of the greater New York State that tourists only seem to flock to New York City when so much else is still on offer. A fine example is the state capital, Albany. With a history stretching back to the founding fathers of the United States, Albany has a rich heritage and a cultural heart that is ripe for discovering. So I took advice from Billy Joel and took a trip on ‘the Hudson River Line’ all the way to Albany.
I had no idea that Albany is famed for inventing the billiard ball and, rather less sportingly, for creating perforated toilet paper; but these are just two fascinating facts about this delightful American city. Another is that the wheels of history were set in motion when John Wilkes Booth first laid eyes on President Abraham Lincoln at Albany’s Gaiety Theatre. Years later Booth would assassinate Lincoln in another theatre in another city.
If you stroll the clean wide boulevards you find yourself humming Yankee Doodle Dandy, it’s not as outrageous as you might think. It was written here by George M. Cohan, although the history of the song goes back many more generations. My humming was not a patch on James Cagney in the movie but still brought a smile to my British face. The city is the oldest continuous settlement in the original 13 colonies. It is also the nation’s oldest chartered city and known as the ‘Cradle of the Union’ because of its glorious history. But its present sees it as the hub of government for the Empire State and as a city of outstanding historic charm, of economic and artistic and cultural contrasts. The site where the city now stands was ‘discovered’ in 1609 by Dutch explorer Henry Hudson and his crew of the Half Moon who stumbled upon an settlement while searching unsuccessfully for the passage to the bountiful riches of China. Instead they found the riches of this new land. The Mohawks and the Mohican Indians had long established the Albany area as a trade route, and settlers soon followed suit. By 1615, the site was a permanent trading post drawing Dutch fur traders.
First known as Fort Nassau, later Fort Orange, and then the village of Beverwyck, the Dutch city gave way to the English in 1664 when the settlement was rechristened to honour its first British overlord, the Duke of York and Albany. Visitors today are sometimes curious to find that many of the Dutch customs and traditions are still cherished and celebrated with the colourful Tulip Festival flowering each May.
Albany is located at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohican Rivers. Its strategic position quickly saw the city become a cornerstone for the Northeast’s economy. By the 1800’s with the completion of the Erie Canal to the west and the Champlain Canal to the north, industry and money found its way into Albany. Ships brought trade from across the globe and Albany grew rich on the transhipment to the canal and increasing rail transport. Not surprisingly, Albany became a focal point of America’s industrial revolution. So much of the city’s history is founded on industrial and social progress with America’s first commercial railroad and steamboat routes also focused on the city.
The beating heartbeat of the city was centred on iron foundries, textile and paper mills as well as the meat packing industry. Today, Albany continues to be a vital seaport with millions of tons of cargoes from across the world passing through the Port of Albany and the adjacent petroleum terminals. But it was as a centre of politics and social change that Albany achieved the most. It grew into a strong centre of government both for New York State and for the United States as a whole. It was no accident that in 1754 Benjamin Franklin chose the city as the venue for the presentation of his Albany Plan. The plan served as a prototype for the Federal form of Government adopted 35 years later. By the dawn of the 19th Century, Albany had also become the capital of New York State. The city continues to draw would-be leaders and provided the springboard for the presidencies of Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Van Buren and Franklin D. Roosevelt whilst Presidential hopefuls Samuel J. Tilden, Charles Evan Hughes, Alfred E. Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson A. Rockefeller also found their political foundation in the capital of the Empire State.
There has also been tragedy. Albany is today a peaceful city, but in 1827 Albany was gripped by the murderous exploits of local handyman Jesse Strang. He had fallen in love with Elsie Whipple and shot her husband. Convicted of murder, Jesse Strange would go down in history as being the last man hanged in Albany at a public execution. In 1848 six hundred homes were razed to the ground after a fire swept through the Mansion Hill district. The cause of the blaze was found to be a woman’s bonnet which caught alight when left in a barn.
Albany can also claim to have a creative heart to match its political will. Famous sons include Moby Dick novelist Herman Melville, who lived in a pink house just off North Pearl Street and Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Kennedy. Kennedy’s romance with Albany in fiction and nonfiction has focused national attention on the city. Throughout the late 20th Century culture replaced industry as the driving force in Albany. This transformed the once dirty and aging city into a convention and tourist Mecca. Every day thousands of people visit the Empire State Plaza, a 98 acre, 11 building complex which includes a 44-story state office building, four 23-story state agency buildings, a performing arts centre endearingly nicknamed ‘The Egg’, a cultural education centre and a quarter mile long concourse of restaurants, banks and boutiques. Built between 1965 and 1978, it cost a staggering $1.7 billion to build with 900,000 cubic yards of concrete and 132,000 tons of steel. For art lovers, the concourse and surface levels house one of the state’s finest collections of sculpture and paintings from the best known contemporary artists. For history and architecture buffs, there are reminders of Albany’s past on just about every corner of the city and museums and tours galore.
Whilst New York can blind and beguile tourists with staggering skyscrapers, bright lights and busy streets and seemingly endless parades of shops, Albany is much more refined, sedate and, dare I say it, classier. Like comparing a Ferrari against a Rolls Royce, each city is a great destination in its own right, but Albany is definitely more substance and less flash.