Elkanah Watson and the paving of State Street

Dutch_Rowhouses_Albany_1789.jpg

Albany - Pre Watson

By Carl Johnson

Elkanah Watson was a forward thinker. When he came to Albany from Massachusetts as a trader back in 1789 he had some big plans for making his adopted city a better place to live.

But Elkanah Watson learned very quickly that in Albany, no good deed goes unpunished.

Elkanah Watson.jpgAmong Elkanah Watson's first impressions of Albany were:

"No street was paved, no lamps, no library; not a public house of any decency; and water-spouts, projecting from the eaves of the houses, deluged unwary night travelers sunk in mud and darkness."

According to Howell's Bi-Centennial History of the County of Albany, State Street was then "not only without pavements and ungraded, but in many places broken, and some parts even precipitous, while the slightest rain upon its clayey soil rendered traveling most unpleasant and difficult."

In spite of the conditions, Watson settled in Albany and quickly became a prominent businessman. An early advocate of canals, he accompanied General Philip Schuyler on an expedition west of Schenectady that led to the creation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, an early attempt at canal-building that set the stage for the Erie Canal. Watson was clearly interested in making civic improvements in his new city, but the old Dutch of Albany, who still spoke their ancestral language in the years of the revolution, were no fans of civic improvements. They also didn't care for outsiders.

Watson and some other city fathers felt Albany would be much improved if its main street were passable in wet weather, and arranged for it to be paved with cut granite stones. This raised the street above the sidewalk (then either dirt or board), and led to stormwater running off into the cellars of homes along the street.

If Watson was expecting appreciation for the grand new street, he must have been disappointed:

"Just after State street had been paved at a heavy expense, I sauntered into it immediately succeeding a heavy thunderstorm, and whilst regretting the disturbance in the sidewalk, and to observe the cellars filled with water, I heard two women, in the act of clearing their invaded premises from the accumulation of mud and water, cry out, 'Here comes that infernal paving Yankee!' They approached me in a menacing attitude, broomsticks erect. Prudence dictated a retreat to avoid being broomsticked by the infuriated Amazons, although I did not run as some of my friends insisted, but walked off at a quick pace."

Howell reported that in subsequent years, provincial minds came to appreciate Watson's drive to improve the city. And Watson remained a huge fan of Albany's potential: "It appears to my mind that Albany is one of the most favorable positions in America for the future enjoyment of a vast internal commerce."

Comments

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and taking the trip back in time down State St. in Albany. I wonder what ol' Elkanah would think of downtown Albany these days.

Flooded basements still a timely topic, particularly in the SUNY admin building on Broadway.

This article makes me want to run out and name something Elkanah.

@B -- I nearly named my daughter Araminta for a similar reason.

I love these posts. Thanks guys!

@B -- I nearly named my daughter Araminta for a similar reason.

Say Something!

We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.

The Scoop

Ever wish you had a smart, savvy friend with the inside line on what's happening around the Capital Region? You know, the kind of stuff that makes your life just a little bit better? Yeah, we do, too. That's why we created All Over Albany. Find out more.

Recently on All Over Albany

AOA7 drawing: Fort Orange General Store, The Cheese Traveler, Saratoga Sweets Candy Co.

The last prize of the week includes: + A $25 gift certificate to the Fort Orange General Store in Albany. + A $15 gift certificate... (more)

A good spot to get General Tso's Chicken?

Sean emails: General Tso's Chicken is a huuuuuge guilty pleasure of mine. It was a staple of my college diet. Trouble is, since moving out... (more)

The recent evolution of Troy, as charted by the New York Times

Like some sort of multi-year tidal cycle on the Hudson River, the attention of the New York Times briefly shifts upriver to focus on the... (more)

Pretty Much the Best Comedy Show: Giulia Rozzi

The Pretty Much the Best Comedy Show series at Proctors is bringing Giuli Rozzi to town on Saturday for a standup show. Rozzi has appeared... (more)

Morning Blend

Troy City Council President Rodney Wiltshire officially announced his bid for Mayor on Wednesday. At his announcement, Wilshire promised to create jobs, capitalize on he... (more)

Recent Comments

Tulips from Spring, the swimming holes from Summer, the foliage from Fall, and a first snow from Winter!

Thank you

...has 12 comments, most recently from Burnt My Fingers

A good spot to get General Tso's Chicken?

...has 25 comments, most recently from Burnt My Fingers

AOA7 drawing: Fort Orange General Store, The Cheese Traveler, Saratoga Sweets Candy Co.

...has 14 comments, most recently from Adam

AOA7 drawing: Nine Pin Cider + Albany Distilling

...has 121 comments, most recently from Megan m

West Wind Acres

...has 5 comments, most recently from jellen