Its ravines unfilled, streams uncovered, and hills unflattened, Albany in 1882 was still hugely defined by its topography. Most neighborhoods remained isolated from one another, each developing their own characteristics and customs. This somewhat florid article from a newspaper of the day attempted to describe each of the thirteen districts. It was rather difficult to manually transcribe from the online scan, and although I’ve made educated guesses about a few words, here and there remain a few mysteries.
By a Sentimental Reporter of The Times
The Albany Times
May 15, 1882
North Albany, Tivoli Hollow, Arbor Hill, Lumber District, Canal Basin, Capitol Hill, West Albany, Cathedral Hill, West End, Martinville, the Swamp, Groesbeckville, Kenwood, etc.
Albany may be compared by the general and impartial observer to a field, such as is occasionally met with, that is full of hollows and hillocks, and presents all sorts of soils to the cultivator, clay and sand and gravel, as well as rich loam. There are portions of the city as diverse from each other in situation and in occupation, as to be to all practical purposes distinct and separate towns.
Colloquially, the city is divided into sections, caused by the original conformation of the surface. An English cyclopaedia describes Albany as “built upon several hills separated by deep ravines, which however disappear some distance from the city and present a level table land.” Perhaps it was the unevenness of the surface that moved the old American gazetteer to describe the town as having so many buildings and so many inhabitants standing with their gable ends toward the street. To its steep streets and uneven pavements the city is said to have owed the prosperity of its boot and shoe trade, and visitors pretend to notice an unusual number of lame and uneven gaited people. Certain it is that our citizens are always known in Washington by their high step, and that they soon tire of the monotonous flatness of the federal capital. To offset what would otherwise appear to be every general indication of the unevenness of this town, it is said that an ancient Helderberger once complained of its flatness, and that a man from Lynchburg looked with contempt upon State street when it was pointed out as pretty steep. These topographical districts, as commonly referred to, number no less than thirteen, as follows: North Albany, Tivoli Hollow, Arbor Hill, Lumber District, Canal Basin, Capital Hill, West Albany, Cathedral Hill, Paigeville or West End, Martinville or Mackerelville, the Swamp, Groesbeckville or Germany, and Kenwood. Within the postoffice limits are Greenbush, East Albany and Bath, while West Albany is without, as much as Buffalo or Boston. These districts have their separate characteristics and inhabitants. The lumber district, however, cannot be said to possess the latter, its workingmen living mostly at North Albany, and only boarding in the district. Its endless piles of boards, forming probably the largest lumber mart in the world; its mile and over of canal slips in which boats are uploading their yellow cargoes, present an appearance from Observatory hill not unlike the trim wooden villages which the Bavarians whittle out of bass wood. This Observatory hill will before long form another section of this composite city. It cannot be said to do so at present as it is only occupied by the Dudley observatory and its attendant buildings. If Scott’s Fitz James ever stood upon this commanding height parcelling out the wild landscape to meet his view of improvement, when he said
“On this bold brow a princely tower;
In the soft vale a lady’s bower;
On yonder meadow far away,
The turrets of a cloister gray,”
he referred first undoubtedly to a college of learning in connection with the observatory, and next of course to St. Agnes school, and lastly, to the convent at Kenwood. The words were prophetic if put in the right place.
Below the Observatory is Tivoli hollow. The once beautiful Patroon’s creek comes down here, with the Central railway and Littlefield’s foundery encroaching upon its bed at the south, and Dedrick’s agricultural works and some founderies at the north. A few little country houses by the roadside look as though they had not altogether recovered from astonishment at the ruthless advance of the city. Arbor hill is the great north district of the city, separated from the southerly portion by the deep hollow occupied by Canal street, and which bars communication between the two districts from Swan street to Lark. Standing on Elk street at the head of Dove street (if it may be called a head where the street merely stops in mid-air and ashes) a curious view is presented. A large town lies below, but apparently inaccessible. Large trees, even the tall Lombardy poplars, fail to raise their tops anywhere near the level of the higher town where an enterprising builder has raised some structures against the steep bank, but the roof is yet below the spectator. They are six or seven stories on the north, and four upon the east. The corner line is three or four degrees within the perpendicular, whether from original intent or the settling of the bank does not appear. Cards of “To Let” still invite inhabitants to these airy quarters, whose greatest inducement would seem to be the convenience of emptying ashes from the upper windows. This may, however, be prevented, as it interferes with the pasturage of the cows below. Above this large building are some lighter ones, also inhabited, and the ruins of one that has [??] or been pulled down. Still east of this is the picturesque St. Agnes school, on the site of what once was the Townsend furnace.
Capitol hill is the backbone of Albany. Upon it rest the three acres of granite forming the capitol, and also the principal public buildings of the city, as well as many fine old residences.
The canal basin has a population mostly transient, and, to put it mildly, somewhat rude. The groceries are all ship-stores, and everything has a semi-nautical appearance. Here can be heard the richest stories and the wickedest oaths, and here can be seen the most picturesque, though perhaps not the most elegant habitations and habitants. From the basin it is two miles to West Albany. There are the expansive shops of the N.Y.C. & H.R.R., covering many acres and employing regiments of workmen, and the stock yards, which are only exceeded in this country by those of Chicago and Buffalo in importance. About 150 cars of cattle are received here per day, with a total in the year of over 2,500,000 head.
Cathedral hill is the third great hill upon which the city is spread out, and takes its name from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and imposing edifice of red sandstone, completed in 1852. Its principal thoroughfare is Madison Avenue, the ancient Lydius street, so named to preserve the name of the domiciles of the Dutch colonial period. This pleasant avenue goes past the little gem of a park, with its pleasing lake; and at a point about two miles from the river is Paigeville, or Burt’s Farm. This is a level district, principally devoted to market gardens and esteemed by the inhabitants the sanitarium of the city. It is separated from West Albany by a tract of cultivated country.
Martinsville is a sunken town, east of Swan street breweries. Here the children of the ancient burghers used sometimes to ramble about the beautiful Buttermilk falls and [?] gather ferns and mosses. Now there is a hollow like a crater, occupied by an open sewer and a straggling town of wooden houses, with streets running at sixes and sevens and a saloon upon every corner.
The “swamp” is a region of struggling poverty. Although not containing the worst districts of the city, it requires careful police and sanitary supervision. Old residents tell how old Hudson once invaded this part of the city as far as Pearl street, and then cruelly froze up in their kitchens and dining rooms. In this portion of the town are many stove founderies and factories employing thousands of hands. The city mission does an excellent work in providing wholesome food at cost, and a free reading room. Groesbeckville was once a suburban adjunct at the south, but is now absorbed in the city proper. Here settle many of the German immigrants.
Kenwood is still suburban, but has lost its charms. The building of the railroad and the dykes has formed marshes between the road and the river which must cause malaria more or less severe to those not fully acclimated. On a higher and more healthful ground, in a handsome park, is the convent of the Sacred Heart, whose steeple used to show so picturesquely from the river before the city came in sight. There are some pleasant places here, but it does not seem to be a favorite spot as a place of residence. Those who have enjoyed the mosquitos in summer and the snow-blocked street in winter have been heard to speak in terms not complimentary of attempting to live “just out of the city.”
A well equipped and excellently managed horse railroad unites most of these sections in one, but not completely, for it is difficult for the up-town residents to reach their neighbors north or south. Albany is not only a city of wide streets and little parks, but also a city of magnificent distances. Its various and widely differing parts, however, make one homogenous whole – the most beautiful and picturesque city upon the Hudson river, if not in the whole state of New York. Here sits Manufactures, the smoke of their furnaces ascending to the sky. There at the canal mouth, and in the lumber piles, sit Trade and Commerce. The spires and towers of the churches show a worshipping people and the grandeur of the public buildings indicates a wealthy and prosperous one. Upon the highest and central point, like an imperial diadem, is set the new capitol.