As the passages that finally follow demonstrate, much is known (or at least there is much in print) about "public houses" in nineteenth century Albany. Our unique contribution will be the story of hospitality in the years before 1800.
By the end of the War for Independence, a number of inns/taverns had dotted the road leading from Albany to Schenectady. By 1790, those establishments as far as the "Five Mile Inn" of William Mc Kown were enumerated on the Albany census.
We are finding that narratives describing the first and subsequent public establishments in Albany are scarce until the:
The Nineteenth Century
"In Albany there were many taverns and hotels. From early Dutch days, there was a settlement here, first known as Fort Orange. In colonial and later times, eight turnpikes passed through. One, the Catskill Turnpike, ran from Otsego Lake to the Susquehanna River, where a boat crossed to Wattle's Ferry on the opposite side. This name has long since been abandoned. An old military road ran from Lake George south to the Hudson River; Albany was, as mentioned, one terminus of the old Boston and Albany turnpike, so there were many travelers passing through the town.
In 1819, Benjamin Silliman, in his travels, describes crossing the Hudson six miles above Albany to Troy, on a ferryboat propelled by two horses, harnessed facing in opposite directions. The horses stood on the flat surface of a large, horizontal, solid-looking wheel, working it like a treadmill. This wheel was attached to two vertical wheels like paddles, which moved the boat. The invention of a man named Langdon, this must have been thought a marvelous successor to the old had-propelled dugouts or rowboat.
In his Stage Coach Traveling 46 Years Ago, Thurlow Weed (1870), tells how passengers in these stages frequently walked, or used rails to help extricate the coach from bad places along the road. Stage drivers of those days, he says, "were as peculiar, quaint and racy as those represented by the senior and junior Weller, in 'Pickwick Papers.'" Passengers also helped to pass the time by telling stories. The turnpike from Albany to Schenectady was opened in 1802, but a local line had then been in operation for nine years.
In 1809 there were two hundred and sixty-five taverns in Albany alone, but an early historian remarks that in 1803 there was only one tavern better than "such as no gentleman of the present day would put his foot in." This was the Tontine Coffee House on State Street, built in 1750 near the first house, which had been built by Mr. Gregory in 1650. One of his family kept the Tontine, which had no bar, liquor being sold only with meals. "All travelers of consequence, all foreigners of distinction," put up at the Tontine. John Lambert, an English traveler in 1807, writes of it: " We had excellent accommodation at Gregory's, which is equal to many of our hotels in London. At the better sort of American taverns or hotels, very excellent dinners are provided, between two and three o'clock. They breakfast at 8 o'clock upon rump steak, fish, eggs, and a variety of cakes, with tea or coffee. The last meal is at 7 in the evening, and consists of as substantial fare as the breakfast, with the addition of cold fowl, ham, etc." He gives the rates as from $1.50 to $2 a day. "Brandy, Hollands and spirits" were free, other liquors extra. He declares that "Americans live in a much more luxurious manner than we do, but their meals, I think, are composed of too great a variety, and of too many things to be conducive to health. Formerly, pies, puddings and cider used to grace the breakfast table, but they are now discarded from the gentler houses, and are found only in the small taverns and farm houses in the country."
In 1806, Gregory built and ran the Eagle Tavern, so it is possible that it was at this, not the Tontine, where Lambert stayed. This later house, as shown in an old print, was a square, three-storied house, with a two-storied ell. It was burned in 1848.
The Staats House (1667) formed part of the Lewis Tavern, at which the English traveler, Maude, stayed in 1800. The building was removed when Pearl Street was widened.
Not one of the following hotels existing about a hundred years ago, and mentioned by John J. Hill in his reminiscences covering 1825 to 1855, is standing now, although a few are within the memory of old residents: on State Street, the American House, Bement's, Franklin, Western; on South Market Street - not the present Market Street - the Columbia, National, Fort Orange, Exchange; on North Market the City Hotel, Temperance, and Mansion - the latter formerly an Albany merchant's residence - and the Lafayette House. Nor do the "country taverns on the hill," the 5th Ward, Northern, and Congress Hall, remain. There is apparently not one old tavern surviving in the city of Albany.
An old road known as the Albany and New Scotland was in use at an early day, and along this were many taverns. Some of these were: one of the six houses at Becker's Corners, six miles south of Albany; Elishana Janes' Tavern at South Bethlehem; Hagadorn, the first settler in what is now Hurstville, kept a tavern in his log cabin; at Berne (not given this name until 1825), Henry Engle opened in 1817 his Corporation Inn, which had been Eli Whipple's residence: and three years later, Elnathan Stafford was keeping a tavern at East Berne, or Werner's Mills, and buying his liquors in Philadelphia. At South Berne, in 1822, Alexander McKinley, a wagon-maker, opened a tavern, keeping a trained bear, a moose, and life-sized figures of noted criminals to attract customers.
Sources: Lengthy quoted passage taken from Elise Lathrop, Early American Taverns and Inns first published New York, 1926. Available online in a number of forms. A next step would be to link the references by Maude, Silliman, and Hill to the travellers.
tentatively posted: 10/05/03; some revision 5/2/12