Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Albany Ale: How Albany Was Won...and Lost

Oof. Food poisoning. It's a long story, and suffice it to say, I've been laid up on the couch for the last two days.

My convalescence, however has allowed me the opportunity to kill time in one of my most favorite ways. No, not beer drinking—especially not in my current state. But rather, watching classic western movies of the 1950s and 60s. I've been a fan of westerns since I was a kid. From The Wild Bunch and Rio Bravo to Winchester '73 and High Noon—and don't even get me started on the spaghetti westerns.

In any case, I watched a true classic on Sunday—MGM's 1962 How The West Was Won. If you haven't seen it, do. It's a star-studded epic, filmed in all the glory of its biblical predecessor Ben Hur and Twentieth Century Fox's Egyptian saga, Cleopatra. The film is pretty amazing and needed four directors to complete it—not the least of which was the genre's master, John Ford. As far as the cast goes, it hosted just a few unknown Hollywood players—Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds and John Wayne to name a few. It has everything you'd want in a western—raging rivers, gambler and gunslingers, a Civil War battle, showgirls, runaway covered wagons, Indian attacks, buffalo stampedes and cavalry charges—oh, and a train robbery. It's one gigantic, big, wonderful, double-screen-panavisionary-technicolor spectacle.

And it got Albany totally wrong.

The movie starts, as the narrator Spencer Tracey, notes, "Five generations ago, a mere 125 years back…" A little math puts that at around 1837—but let's round it up to 1840 for the sake of argument. Tracey continues:

…The trapper's road was the trail of a wolf or the bend of a canyon, but for whole families, chaffing to follow the sun, there had to be broader ways. There were no roads into the wilderness only rivers and they followed in the wrong direction—north or south, or else they stopped at the Allegheny's. Until one day a new river took source in the mind of a man named DeWitt Clinton. He conceived of a river that would go west, and in a way Americans have of enacting out their dreams. It came to be. The Erie Canal left the Hudson above Albany and carried clear across to the Great Lakes. People who yearned for virgin land and a new life now had a highway to take them, and they moved along."

The narration sets up the introduction of Carrol Baker's character, Eve Prescott, who is about to travel with her family along the Canal, towards Illinois. Unfortunately, Henry Hathaway—this segment of the movie's director—misses the mark on depicting the Albany waterfront in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Hathaway makes the queue point for those heading west look like a dusty, Midwestern cow-town (and don't get me started on the mention of "Lager" on the tavern sign). Look below:

I get that Hathaway gets a little artistic license, but this got me thinking about what Albany was like at that time.

In truth, Albany would have been far more industrial, more in line with the wharfs of New York and Philadelphia. The city's waterfront—or what would become known as the Albany Basin—and the entrance to the canal would have been a commercial core, with business and manufacturing lining the riverfront. The river itself would have been crowded with schooners and skiffs and packet, steam and canal boats. When the nearly mile long Albany Basin pier was built in 1825, it had moorings for 1,000 canal and 50 steamboats, not to mention the innumerable docks and slips built for private businesses near the entrance to the canal. Below is a panoramic view of the city, drawn by French engineer and geographer Jacques-Gérard Milbert, and published in 1829—a decade prior to the setting of the movie.

At this point, you're probably noticing that this post isn't going to have much to do with beer—and you're right, it doesn't. It does, however, have a lot to do with the main, historic reasons Albany became such a successful brewing hub.

By 1840, Albany was 226 years old as a settlement, and 142 years old as a charted city—making it the sixth oldest, and longest continuously charted city in the U.S. During much of the Revolutionary War, most of the newly formed United States was embroiled in the conflict with the British. However, the routing of British forces in upstate New York, after their defeat at Saratoga in 1777—30 mile north of Albany—afforded Albany and the upper Hudson Valley relative peace for the rest of the war, and the area slowly began to see its population rise. At the war's end in 1783, Albany's population was between 2,000 and 2,500. In 1790 it was just over 3,000 people. By 1810, it had become 10th largest city in the United States—with over 10,000 residents and would stay in the top ten until 1860. As of 1840, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy triangle was the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country—with almost 60,000 people. Although Albany never rivaled New York, Boston or Philadelphia in size, it was quite a bit bigger than most of the cities and towns in the U.S. at that time.

Albany was a pretty good size city, but size wasn't everything. Like any good real estate agent will tell you it's all about location, location, location. Albany has its foundation in trade and shipping. The Dutch settled the area as a fur trading post, and the areas natural waterways—the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers—gave settlers access south to the Atlantic and west into the interior of the state. When the British Governor of New York, Thomas Dongan, chartered the city of Albany, thereby incorporating it and separating it from Rensselearwijck in 1686, he also included the provisions that the city have exclusive rights to trade with the native population and established the newly formed city as the sole market town in the entire of upstate New York. Fur trappers could make their way deep into the wilderness of New York via the Mohawk, trap beaver and other animals, and then send their pelts south to New York from the market center at Albany.

But why did Albany end up where it did? And how did that location affect trade and shipping out of Albany for the next 400 years? Well, it's all because of Henry Hudson.

Robert Juet traveled with Hudson on the explorer's third trip to the new world, and a portion of the sailor's journal were published in Johannes De Laet's History of the New World. Between September 19th to the 23rd, 1609, Hudson explored the upper portion of the river that would be named for him. De Laet noted in his book that according to Juet, Hudson explored the river "to nearly 43° of north latitude, where it became so narrow and of so little depth that he found it necessary to return." 43° North latitude is about thirty miles north of Albany. Wide is good. It makes maneuvering a large vessel considerably easier, but too wide can be a problem as well. The river at Albany was perfect, just over 1,000 feet between the west and east banks. The water near Albany and Troy was anywhere between 12 and 40 feet deep, but further north it shallowed to an unnavigable seven feet. When the Dutch returned to the area in 1614 they knew not to venture further up the river, instead settling near modern day Albany—first at Fort Nassau, and then relocating ten years later to Fort Orange.

Not only is the river a good width and depth near Albany, there's another phenomenon that Hudson may have noticed. It flows in both directions, north and south. What Hudson probably didn't know was that the Hudson River, is actually the Hudson Tidal Estuary which flows through the Hudson Fjord. The whole kit and caboodle was formed during the last North American glaciation.

Surprised you with that one, huh?

The Hudson is a partially enclosed coastal waterway, with a number of rivers and tributaries flowing into. It's also brackish—that is, a mixture of salt and fresh water. All that makes it an estuary, rather than a river. Because its an estuary and therefore technically a coastal body, it's affected by the tides. So when it's high tide, the river flows north, and at low tide it ebbs seaward. The tidal effect can be seen, and more importantly felt four times (two high, and two low tides) a day as far north as Troy—150 miles from the mouth of the Hudson. That means masted ships sailing up or down the Hudson didn't necessarily need wind for propulsion when traveling along the river—if of course, they were traveling at the right time of day. It also meant that steam powered craft didn't need to expend as much fuel under those same conditions. A passenger on board Robert Fulton's steamboat The North River*—on its 1807 inaugural run from New York to Albany and back again—noted the tides in a letter to the English press

"The next morning we left Albany with several passengers on the return to New York, the tide in favour, but a head-wind. We left Albany at twenty-five minutes past nine A.M. and arrived at Claremont in nine hours precisely, which gave us five miles an hour. The current, on returning, was stronger than when going up."

Coincidentally, 1807 was also when the Erie Canal was first proposed.

Speaking of the Canal, it's no coincidence that it ended up starting in Albany, either. The valleys formed by the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers form the only cut-through in the Appalachian Chain north of Alabama, making essentially, an unobstructed corridor from the port of New York to the Ohio Valley. Cutting the canal from Albany inland to Schenectady gave access to the waterway without causing congestion on the Hudson and at the mouth of the Mohawk. Canal boat could enter the canal through the Albany Basin and travel north, parallel to Hudson—through West Troy (which gave access to Troy on the east bank of the Hudson), eventually arcing, at Cohoes, along the curve of Mohawk towards Schenectady to follow the natural cut made by the tributary's valley. At Schenectady, the canal snaked along its big brother to Rome, New York, before continuing west on its own. In 1823, the Champlain Canal opened, connecting Lake Champlain, the Champlain Valley and Montreal to the Hudson River.

Long story short, Albany was front and center in a perfect storm for shipping and trade by 1830. Albany controlled the flow of goods and products east and west, north and south, for the entire Northeast. It was a fully established, large city with an infrastructure to support industry. It had access to a easily navigable, large coastal river, and boasted a large inland seaport. And the Canal? Well the Canal changed everything, didn't it? Access to the Adirondack forests and mountains jump started the area's lumber and iron industries, clay deposits along the Hudson blossomed into a huge brick-making industry—bricks that became renowned for there durability and were shipped across the country via the canal. Let's not forget the beer. Grain from the Ohio Valley and western New York—along with hops—could be brought to Albany along the Canal in about a week. Within a month, ale made from those raw ingredients could be on board steamboats heading to the Port of New York, to be shipped across the globe.

While the Canal was a blessing, it was also a curse. It was the first gateway to the west. While it brought goods and products to the city, it took people away. Villages in the west became cities in the west, and those cities became competitors—Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and San Francisco. As efficient as the canal was, innovation and demand was faster. As the western cities grew, a new form of transpiration exploded—the railroad. On May 10, 1869—a mere 44 years after the opening of Erie canal—the first Transcontinental Railroad connected San Francisco to the east coast rail lines at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Travel from Albany to Buffalo on the canal took a week to ten days. By rail, travelers and goods could make California—six times further in nearly half the time. Albany would never recover.

But such is history. 

*The North River steamboat is often erroneously referred to as The Clermont.

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