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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 109: Schenectady — A Brief Social Study of an Industrial City.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1556-1565 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

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By Charles M. Ripley, E. E.

It is unnecessary to describe Schenectady as a place to work. The whole world uses Schenectady's electric lighting and power machinery, steam and electric locomotives and radio devices. Schenectady is also the home of WGY, one of the most popular radio broadcasting stations in the world.

But there are other things in life besides work, and this will describe Schenectady as a place in which to live.

First. — Location. Schenectady is 17 miles from Albany, on the main line of the New York Central, the Delaware and Hudson, and Boston and Maine railroads. We are about four hours distant from New York and six hours from Boston.

Schenectady is 15 miles from Albany and about the same distance from Troy by very direct highroads which are trunk line automobile routes. The Albany Turnpike is the connecting link between the Albany Post Road (from New York to Albany) and the Old Mohawk Turnpike, beginning at Schenectady and continuing westward the route of the New York-Buffalo Highway.

Located 40 miles to the northwest are the Adirondack Mountains; 40 miles northeast are the Green Mountains of Vermont; 40 miles south are the Catskill Mountains; and the heart of the beautiful Berkshires is 40 miles to the east. Are we not fortunate to be located, you might say, at the junction of four famous mountain ranges, which, with their hundreds of lakes, are the playground of the eastern portion of North America? Wordsworth, in describing one of the eastern mountain ranges, said:

"Ah! that such beauty, varying in the light
Of living nature, cannot be portrayed
By words, nor by the pencil's silent skill;
But is the property of him alone
Who hath beheld it, noted it with care,
And in his mind recorded it with love."

[Map of the Center of Schenectady]

And Schenectady lies exactly at the hub. The spokes in our imaginary wheel are the world famous roads of New York State — super-boulevards — on which even a Ford car can easily obtain a speed of 40 miles an hour. In about an hour one can get into any one of these mountain ranges, where thousands go fishing, hunting, snowshoeing and where other outdoor sports abound, winter and summer.

So much for the environment of Schenectady. There are also scores of advantages and achievements right inside the city. We are proud that among the 16,000 houses in our city, only 485, or three per cent. are not equipped with electric light. Ninety-nine per cent. of our citizens live in either one family or two family houses; so there are no tenements as in the larger cities. This gives practically everyone a front yard, a back yard and two side yards.

Another thing everybody appreciates is the water. Although the city is on the bank of the Mohawk River, nevertheless all the drinking water is pumped from deep Artesian wells. Hydraulic motor tank trucks flush the streets with water, and the garbage and ashes are collected without charge, the former being made away within a destructor plant.

Schenectady is one of the few cities in the Mohawk Valley which has a sewage disposal plant. Most of the contents of the city sewers is purified in the disposal plant, which is located near the garbage destructor, well outside the city. This helps to keep the river pure, not only benefiting the swimmers, but also those living down stream.

A City Health Center with ten nurses is well equipped to give medical advice, and the visiting nurses make regular inspections and teach hygienic living. A Baby Welfare section for years has been giving special attention to the kiddies.

The Tuberculosis Committee is a devoted and aggressive organization which has established itself in the confidence of all elements of the community.

The Ellis Hospital was recently enlarged and a nurses' school added. To make this possible, over $400,000 was raised by popular subscription in a whirlwind campaign lasting only one week, all elements cooperating. And what is the net result of all these facilities upon the health of our citizens?

Enviable Record

The death rate per thousand in Schenectady in 1922, according o the New York State Department of Health, was lower than in any other city of its size in New York State. Only four other cities of equal size in the United States have lower death rates: these being Akron, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; Fort Worth, Texas; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The exact figures are 10.0 deaths per thousand in Schenectady, 9.9 per thousand in Milwaukee, 9.9 in Fort Worth, 9.6 in Seattle, and 7.5 in Akron. The highest death rate was 17.8 per thousand in Memphis, Tennessee, The data in all other cities listed was higher.

On the subject of infant mortality for 1922, only 81 per thousand of Schenectady's babies died under one year of age; whereas 92 per thousand babies died in Baltimore, 92 in Boston, 96 in Pittsburgh and 187 in Delhi, India. The above statistics would show that Schenectady is a healthy place in which to live.

And what else makes a city a good place for a man and his family to live in? The spirit of the people in a social way. Ours is a democratic citizenship — we all mind our own business — are independent and self-supporting, since practically every house has a bread winner, and we have no idle rich.

[Map of Schenectady County, Showing Townships]

[Map of Schenectady County, Showing Improved Highways]


Now let us take the schools. All the pupils in the grade schools receive free text books. Special rooms on the roof of some of the schools were built for anemic children, and during the winter last year, 23,214 lunches were provided free by the city to the children in these classes. This does not include summer schools.

In this city of approximately 100,000, the grade school enrollment last year was 16,500 — a very high attendance. Enrollment in the Schenectady High School was 21 1/2 per cent. of the enrollment in the grade schools — a remarkable record for high school attendance.

Almost 50 per cent. of the students who enter grade school later enter High School, whereas the average for the whole United States shows that only 14 per cent. of those who enter grade school ever get as far as the high school.

You will conclude from this that not only are the schools appreciated by our citizens but also that Schenectady is not afflicted with the curse of child labor. In the big Electric Company, only 1.8 per cent of all employees are less than High School graduating age. This figure includes both office and shop employees.


And is Schenectady a safe place in which to live? The Department of Public Safety (which includes the Police Department) is exceptionally well organized.

In the big Electric Works, which employs nearly 20,000 people, very careful records are kept of accidents. Figures averaged for six years show that only one-eighth of one man per thousand lost his life in a fatal accident in the big factory. Government statistics show that four men out of every thousand lose their lives in metal mining each year, that three and a half men per thousand lose their lives in coal mining every year, and that three men per thousand, strange to say, lose their lives every year in fishing and fisheries. So it would appear that it is 25 times more dangerous to fish than to work in the big electric factory in Schenectady.

The average loss by fire in this electric works for the past ten years has been only $39 per fire. The Schenectady Fire Department is completely motorized — not a single horse-drawn vehicle remaining.


And what else has been done to help the kiddies — to make them safe, happy and healthy?

Schenectady has 37 playgrounds for the children, equipped with sand, shoot-the-chutes, rings and other equipment to develop their health and keep them off the streets. And is their time all spent in play? Indeed not-for in the playgrounds in the summer, 23 skilled instructors conduct free open-air classes, where they teach dressmaking, cooking, millinery and basketry. The raffia is furnished free for the basketry classes, and baseballs and bats and tennis rackets are provided for those who wish to play the more grown-up games, all without charge.


Besides these 37 playgrounds, open winter and summer, there are seven parks comprising 232 acres. Every summer there are free movies and band concerts in the parks. It has been found that free ice cream for the children is cheaper than fireworks on the 4th of July.

A stadium and artificial lake were built by the Unemployment Committee in one of the parks four years ago — paid for partly by voluntary contributions and partly by bond issue. All the work was done by the unemployed. The building contractors, hardware dealers and other business men donated the necessary materials and tools, so that all the money appropriated and donated went to the payroll to help relieve the unemployment situation.

Summer Sports

Two artificial lakes have been constructed in different parks, which, in addition to the Mohawk River, give ample opportunity for the health giving sport and exercise in swimming. The lake water is analyzed every Friday by Dr. Warren B. Stone, the City Bacteriologist, and to keep it pure a million and a quarter gallons of fresh city drinking water is pumped in every night between 10 p. m. and 6 a. m. The swimming in Iroquois Lake in Central Park is supervised by the Bureau of Parks which furnishes four city-paid instructors, all being Red Cross Life Saving experts. They devote their entire time in the summer teaching young folks swimming and life saving.

The Red Cross maintains a patrol along the river manned by Red Cross Life Saving experts.

The 33 shower baths installed in the parks with hot and cold water are much patronized by visitors, especially those using the 31 municipal tennis courts.

Winter Sports

Indoors at the swimming pools in different public schools, city-paid instructors who are members of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps, teach boys and girls to swim. Members of this same corps conduct weekly meetings in the pool of one of the city schools at which instruction in life saving methods are given.

The park lakes and the river freeze over in the winter and ice carnivals are conducted with skating races, skiing contests, etc., where fancy skaters of world-wide reputation perform before audiences as large as 12,000 people.

One of the reasons why so much public recreation has been carried on is that the Director of Public Recreation and the Superintendent of Parks and Playgrounds are two positions filled by the same individual. This prevents the division of responsibility, and the handicapping of recreation by departmental red tape.

[Photo: The Masonic Temple of St. George's Lodge]

[Photo: The Old Schenectady Covered Bridge]

Automobile Traffic

The city planners found that in two years the number of pleasure cars in Schenectady had increased 78 per cent. There were almost 17,000 auto licenses sold in 1923 and our allotment was 19,525 in 1924.

Schenectady has more automobiles than Russia, Norway, Poland, Austria, Holland, Chile, Portugal or Czecho-slovakia.

Schenectady has nearly twice as many automobiles as Japan, China, Porto Rico or Roumania; and nearly three times as many autos as Egypt, Ceylon, Indo-China or Venezuela, and nearly five times as many as Greece, Hungary, Turkey, or Morocco; and eight times as many as Syria, Panama, Jugo-Slovakia, Columbia or Siam.

There are 93 countries, nations or kingdoms in the world that haven't as many autos as Schenectady. In fact, we even have more automobiles than telephone subscribers — possibly more than telephone instruments.

The 19,000 automobilists in 1924 are looking forward to the completion of the beautiful new Erie boulevard. This is now being constructed as a new cross-town thoroughfare on the land formerly occupied by the old Erie Canal — in former days an unsightly stream as well as an obstruction to city traffic.

The new concrete Great Western Gateway is nearing completion and will be our third vehicular bridge over the Mohawk.

And, on the river bank, close to the bridge head, the new million dollar VanCurler Hotel will soon be finished. The guests will command a superb view up the Mohawk Valley, with its 1300 foot grassy slopes, so characteristic of the hills of upstate New York.

City Improvements

A City Planning Commission has been appointed by the mayor and already Mr. Harland Bartholomew — an expert — has been engaged. New and wider streets are an important feature in the attractive and orderly development of a city; and our progressive elements are working with the Commission and the expert, to provide these new and better streets, as well as to connect up our various parks with a boulevard system.

Union College

The Schenectady youth who seeks a higher education may take advantage of the excellent facilities afforded by Union College for training along collegiate lines. The accessibility of the college to all parts of the city enables the student of limited means to live at home while engaged in his studies. For the ambitious young man desiring to continue his education, but who must be occupied during the day, night classes are held at the college. The popularity of these classes is evidenced by the large enrollment each year.


The Schenectady clergymen address the largest congregations the world has known, for each Sunday a complete church service is broadcast from a different Schenectady church by the General Electric Company's Radio Broadcasting Station, WGY. Not only is the sermon sent out by wireless, but also the choir and organ music, responsive reading, prayer and congregational singing. In addition, an afternoon vesper service is broadcast at 4:30 o'clock. Thus those in the country and in the city can obtain spiritual guidance; and for those sick at home or in hospitals, or otherwise unable to attend divine worship, the sad hours are quickly turned to minutes by bringing the church to their very bedside.


We are glad to have had this opportunity of taking you on this inspection trip to our city, and we hope you will personally visit us. Automobilists are granted free camping privileges in the parks, with undreamed of facilities. On your vacation, or at any other time motor over to Schenectady and see the city that lights and hauls the world and furnishes it with radio. Here live the men that put the fire in amplifier.

Camp in the city tents in our parks, play tennis on some of the tennis courts which are provided, take a shower bath with hot or cold water or a swim in the lake — and your little boy and girl should learn to swim with the safe and speedy Schenectady stroke.

Replacing the bed of the old Erie Canal in Schenectady is Erie Boulevard, regarded in our city as one of its most notable public improvements of recent years. It is wide and roomy and was recently the scene of a large industrial exposition which was attended by thousands of visitors from outside the city.

The following were the leading manufacturing and industrial enterprises of Schenectady in 1925, employing a total of from 25,000 to 30,000 employes: Dynamos, motors, electrical equipment, mattresses, lumber products, medical products, locomotives, plumbing supplies, radio parts, city directories, maps, paper boxes, printing, cigars, insulations, building stone, novelties, collars, cuffs, shirts, baseballs, fire works, soft drinks, monuments, tile flooring, pulleys and gasoline engines, bread, varnish, building blocks, cement blocks, awnings, aprons, book bindery, wall plaster, brooms and brushes, porcelain insulators, ice cream, knit gloves, furniture, manufacturing and assembling of girders and beams, silk underwear, bricks, automobile accessories, electric signs.

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