The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

New CLUI Northeast Office

In the Heart of the Industrial Pastoral Upstate NY

566The new CLUI Northeast Office in Troy, NY. CLUI photo

THE CENTER HAS PURCHASED A building in Troy, New York, to serve as the office for research and projects in the Northeastern United States. Renovations are underway, including the installation of public exhibits in the first floor storefront space.

Near the State Capital at Albany, Troy is geographically in the middle of the cluster of states designated by the CLUI as the Northeast Interpretive District (New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania). It is at the confluence of the Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal, and the Hudson River, a historic crossroads of the engineered landscape, where raw materials from the historic hinterlands met the unobstructed water highway of the Hudson that led to the population centers of the coast.

Aided by this location, Troy developed into the center of the country’s iron industry in the mid 1800s, cranking out stoves, horseshoes, and, ironically, the railroad spikes that enabled a new form of transportation to replace the canal systemthe railwaywhich later rendered Troy’s strategic location on the river and canals obsolete. Similarly, Troy ushered in the steel age by having the first Bessemer process steel mill in the nation, the first economically viable method for converting iron into the more versatile steel, and a process that was adopted with greater zeal by the famous industrialists who established the new industry in their home state of Pennsylvania, putting an end to Troy’s primacy in metal production. And so it went with other industries, including textiles, which went south, and detachable shirt collars, which went out of fashion, until the city which had grown quite large, found itself without a central industry.

The post-industrial, post-Victorian decline was met by nearly all the towns of the northeast which were centered on industries that used the rivers flowing out of the hills to power their mills, as Troy’s did. Some cities crumbled, some were reinvented, and most just made do somehow and slowly changed. But there are few cities which seem to have missed as much of the 20th century as Troy. Downtown looks like a Dickens novel, and has been used as a location for period films (including Scorcese’s 1993 adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, Age of Innocence). The major exception is the row of riverside storefronts, at the heart of downtown, torn down in the 1970s to build the parking garages and offices for the new, modern, and anomalous City Hall. Urban renewal that was soon regretted.

Other agents keep the area positioned within the 19th and 21st centuries. One of these is the Rensselaer Polytechnic University, which looms above the city, looking in places like an old sanitarium. The school is famous for producing some of the great engineers of the industrial age, the bridgebuilders, ferris wheel makers, and surveyors that built 19th century America. Across the Hudson from Troy, the Watervliet Arsenal is “America's oldest and newest manufacturing arsenal,” according to their official literature. The arsenal was established to support the war of 1812 (though it was officially founded in 1813), and since that time it has been the primary builder of cannons and other large bore guns for the Army. The barrels for the Abrams tank are still made there. Up river at the Cohoes Falls, once second only to Niagara Falls for attracting tourists to its romantic cascades, so many canals tapped water away from the falls to power the now abandoned mills of Cohoes that the flow practically stopped. Today, the river is still used to produce electricity, and depending on demand, the flow of the falls fluctuates between something and nothing.

Troy is also where the meat packer Sam Wilson was from, who packed barrels of meat for the Army during the war of 1812, and who eventually became known as Uncle Sam, familiar to us mostly as a WWII recruitment program image. In 1961, the 87th Congress of the United States adopted the following Resolution: “Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America's National symbol of Uncle Sam.” Uncle Sam is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in North Troy, a large rural cemetery noted for its ornate romanesque crematorium.

Ruins of the industries cover the hills and valleys of the region, and their legacy continues to have an impact today. Some say that most of inhabited New York State would probably be a superfund site, if people dared to look. This is the exciting new environment that the Center now finds itself in.