- Crossroads and Capital -
From its earliest days, the Iroquois and other native peoples often came to the site of Albany to trade and to confer with settlers and officials. In 1754, Native Americans joined with delegates from the American colonies as the Albany Congress considered plans for cooperative ventures. Later, Albany was the crossroads of American liberty and the capital of the Empire State. With its central location and a legacy of hospitable inns, halls, and hotels, Albany has been a popular meeting place for more than 300 years.
Albany also is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Founded in 1624 as a trading post called Fort Orange, the resulting settlement was renamed Albany when New Netherland became New York in 1664. The first Europeans came from the distinctive Dutch provinces but also represented diverse German, Scandinavian, British, French, and African cultural backgrounds.
As the fur trade with Native hunters gave way to more complex commercial, production, and service enterprises involving a growing settler population, Albany emerged as the hub of a burgeoning agricultural region. Located at a natural transportation interchange, opportunity at Albany attracted newcomers from Europe and the other American colonies. From the Albany social core, settlers populated the Hudson-Mohawk region for the next hundred years. In 1686, Albany's permanence and centrality were validated in the granting of its city charter. While a century of warfare (1689-1783) retarded settlement across the northern frontier, Albany prospered by solidifying its position as a business and shipping center and as a safe haven. During the 1770s, Albany patriots led the crusade for American liberties in upstate New York - contributing leadership and energy to the American cause while the city served as a supply and medical center for Revolutionary armies.
After the war, the city expanded beyond its colonial stockade as many newcomers made Albany an American boomtown - transforming it into a center of enterprise, investment, service, and learning. An improved Albany waterfront called "the Basin" filled with river craft discharging pioneers on their way west and loading collected farm and forest products. Following the first steamboat run to Albany in 1807, transportation innovations brought large cargoes through the Albany crossroads. The opening of the Champlain and Erie canals in the 1820s and subsequent railroad lines linked Albany with New York, Montreal, Boston, and Buffalo. During the nineteenth century, Albany was one of America's leading exporters of lumber, grain, and livestock. To serve this new transportation center, the New York Central Rail Road established its headquarters and service center here in 1853 - opening huge West Albany repair shops and cattle yards which provided jobs for hundreds of residents over the next century. The first turnpikes radiating from Albany have evolved into a network of highways and interstates that have enhanced the city's original crossroads function as the New York State Thruway and the Adirondack Northway today are major American thoroughfares. With the emergence of the surrounding cities of Troy, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Cohoes as manufacturing and industrial centers, Albany's development was concentrated and fueled by its other enduring purposes -- finance, politics, and the business of government.
The New York State Legislature first met here in 1780 and Albany became the state capital in 1797. Federalist, anti-Masonic, progressive, and Democratic political ideologies all had formative periods in this city. Three American presidents and numerous congressmen, jurists, and diplomats launched their careers on Albany's Capitol Hill. From its beginning, Albany has hosted regional legislative, judicial, and registry functions, served as corporate headquarters, and a service center - all of which attracted talented professionals, entrepreneurs, and civil servants - providing jobs for many new and traditional city people. The expansion of the scope of state government during the twentieth century, especially under Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (1959-73), has made Albany the second-largest governmental center in the country.
Fueled by continuing immigration, during the nineteenth century Albany was among the fastest growing cities in the United States. New residential areas in Arbor Hill, North Albany, and the South End accommodated new families from New England, Ireland, Germany, and Great Britain. These newcomers found work in the city's production and service industries - further intensifying Albany's hallmark diversity. By 1860, the city's population reached 62,367 - with nearly half being foreign born. During the early twentieth century another major wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settled into older residential neighborhoods recently vacated by the Irish and Germans who moved uptown to Delaware Avenue, the West End, and the Pine Hills. Many new stores and shops, churches, and other familiar institutions served these new people. Albany's small municipal boundaries were altered several times to accommodate new residents who sought to maintain cultural identities by living together in ethnic towns within the larger city.
Albany reached its peak of almost 140,000 people just after World War II. Like most American cities, its population has declined since then as returning servicemen and other traditional city people moved to the new suburbs of Colonie, Guilderland, and Delmar but still commuted to work in the city. Subsequent urban decay and construction of suburban shopping malls were fatal to Albany's once-thriving businesses. Between 1950 and 1980, Albany's historically narrow tax base (almost three-fourths of the city's real estate is tax exempt) was eroded further by flight to the suburbs. But the expansion of the State University of New York and opening of the Empire State Plaza has breathed new life into the old city with the need for quality urban housing to accommodate a growing work force connected to State government and its operations. During the 1980s, revitalization programs restored many deteriorated buildings and new office and residential construction continues to replace lost structures - giving the city today vitality unknown here for many decades.
Stable at a hundred thousand residents, Albany today is the focal point of a five-county region of distinctive cities, sprawling suburbs, and peaceful hamlets that encompass more than a half-million people. The Capital Region of New York State is the home of the University at Albany (1844), one of four major centers of the State University of New York, as well as of Union College (1795), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1824), Siena College (1936), the College of St. Rose (1920), and a number of more specialized educational institutions. The Albany Institute of History and Art (1791) and the Cultural Education Center are the oldest and most impressive of the many public and private historical and cultural institutions located in the greater Hudson Mohawk region.
This essay originally was published in the conference program for the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History which met in Albany in May 1997.
first posted: 2000; slightly modified 6/20/11