Photo of the Hawk Street Viaduct circa 1895 from the Friends of Albany History

The Fight for The Viaduct (Part I)

Earlier, I covered the building of the Hawk Street Viaduct, ostensibly the world’s first cantilever arch bridge. This post covers the decade-long series of battles that preceded its construction, and raged from City Hall to the Capitol before falling on the Governor’s desk — twice. It’s a lengthy narrative, so I’ll pick it up in 1888, when a mass meeting has been called in Arbor Hill by the North Side Association.

It’s a Wednesday, in spring, in Albany. And it’s storming. Wind and rain is lashing Chancellor’s Hall (not that one, this one was on North Swan Street), yet more than 250 residents have arrived, many sopping wet. They’ve gathered to deliver remarks in support of a new bridge over Sheridan Hollow — broadsides against their opponents. Think political rally. The first to stand is William McHarg. His remarks, as reported in the Albany Evening Journal:

Arbor Hill ought to be styled the Ireland of Albany. It was not always a part of the city, but had been roped in, so to speak, to contribute its share to the city’s taxes without receiving any of the its benefits. The Hawk street viaduct was the only measure which the people and taxpayers of Arbor Hill had asked at the hands of the city, and it seemed as though the city was disinclined to permit them even this. […] What the people of the north side wanted was a safe and easy mode of communication with capitol hill and the centre of the city.

He is followed by many others, all frustrated by years of having their efforts stalled or derailed by a faction within the City Council.  With the aid of state lawmakers, they had even managed to put a bill on the Governor’s desk, and had thought this would leave the Council with no choice but to authorize the bridge project.  They were mistaken. Unbeknownst to them, the City counsel had injected a number of sly provisions that were likely to make the project unpalatable to the Council. It worked. Although the bill was made law in 1887, the Council made no move to authorize construction. 

Undaunted, the advocates submitted yet another bill, this time removing the City Council from the process altogether. It was this second bill that brings us to Chancellor’s Hall. One of those in attendance is Andrew Draper (perhaps better known for his efforts to create what is now the NYS Education Department). In front of that cheering and no doubt damp crowd, Draper said there is “no diversity of opinion among the residents of Arbor Hill as to the necessity which existed for construction of the viaduct. All want it and the only thing to be done is to put it through. And it will be put through! That section of the city has been discriminated against too long.”

Opposing them were a group of wealthy Albanians known as the Committee of Thirteen. With their financial and political clout, they had doggedly undermined the bridge project each time it came before the Council. This faction and their representatives opposed the 1888 bill on several grounds. They claimed the new bridge would be but a “mere scaffolding to be strained and racked by the winter storms” and that the new law wasn’t sufficiently transparent. These were mere icing, however, for their main concerns were fiscal: they thought the bridge would be too costly, would raise taxes, and that bonding for it would put the fiscal burden on future generations. In response, Arbor Hill resident and lawyer Maurice Crannell — who the press would later crown the ‘father of the bridge’ —  penned an eloquent and scathing rebuttal:

Why do you object to bonding the city to pay for this improvement, and are silent regarding the same manner of paying for improvements in other parts of the city. There is a great difference between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. […] Why not be honest and say: “We don’t want the bridge and are trying to throw all manner of impediments in the way of its construction.”

He even goes so far as to imply that their real reason for opposition is much darker, selfish, and hardly civic-minded: that since the bridge would primarily benefit the more working-class neighborhoods in the City’s north, and not the more rarefied blocks in the City’s center (where many of the Committee resided), that they simply didn’t want to be on the hook for a public work for which they would not benefit.

Despite the Committee’s staunch and persistent opposition, the bill was made law on June 11, 1888. In true 19th century fashion, the North Side Association ordered a salute of 100 blasts of the “baby waker” cannon and, according to the Albany Express:

Flags were thrown to the breeze, neighbors grasped each other’s hand, and happiness was complete on the north side. The small boys celebrated with fire crackers, while the larger brought out small sized cannons which shook the buildings with their reports. Bonfires were kindled on nearly every corner, houses were illuminated, Roman candles fired off and celebration was kept until a late hour.

Over the continuing protestations of the Committee, the bridge over Sheridan Hollow began the very next year.

Top photo of Hawk Street Viaduct circa 1895 with NYS Capitol at center. At right is the trio of institutions run by the Sisterhood of Holy Child Jesus (St. Agnes School, Child’s Hospital, and St. Margaret’s House for Babies). Via the Friends of Albany History.

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history, architecture, etymology

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