by Steve Lackmann
Most of us who travel under the High Street bridge today rarely think about how this concrete structure came to be. Today the Mohawk Hudson bikeway winds its way over the bridge and through Cohoes on the former right-of-way of the old Troy and Schenectady Railroad (1843). This railroad was subsequently absorbed into the huge New York Central and Hudson River Railroad and, in its last days of operation, was run by the Delaware and Hudson Railway until it was abandoned in the early 1980s.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the area around High Street looked vastly different from the way it looks today. The rail yard of the New York Central railroad was bustling with freight activity to and from the growing city and its mills as well as with passenger traffic. Many passengers went to work in Troy or Schenectady. In Schenectady many Cohoesiers found employment at the American Locomotive Company as well as the recently founded Edison Works of the new General Electric Company. Coal was also an important commodity and there were at that time 3 bustling coal yards located in the immediate vicinity of the rail yard.
The warehouse of George House occupied the present-day park at the lower end of Younglove Avenue. Charles North's warehouse occupied the northwest corner of the rail yard (and still stands today). A small freight house and even smaller passenger depot occupied the center of the yard. At the east end of the yard was the yawning ravine that would ultimately be filled in and become the lower end of Garner Street.
What was vastly different from today was the High Street railroad crossing. The crossing was entirely at grade. Not only was the crossing at grade, but there were four actual crossings. Traffic coming west on High Street had to cross the main railroad line. Once across this track, a decision had to be made to continue westward on either Younglove Avenue or McElwain Avenue. If one was heading up McElwain, another crossing had to be navigated over two siding tracks to get to the bottom of the street. If you were going to Younglove Avenue, you had to not only cross the same two siding tracks, but you had to cross another spur track for House's warehouse. Pedestrians or horse and wagon teams often had to navigate through rows of stationary railroad cars (Picture #1) as well as face the possibility of a steep incline from the tracks, down High Street, to the bridge over the Erie Canal. As one can imagine, there were many accidents. One such accident occurred on May 4, 1902 and further reinforced the cry from residents that something must be done to eliminate these dangerous crossings.
On the morning of May 4, 1902, George Murray was driving his team and a wagon of dirt east on Younglove Avenue toward the New York Central Railroad crossing. He was a laborer assigned to take the dirt from the grading of new streets on the 'hill' to the ravine that was being filled for the Garner Street extension. Unbeknownst to Murray was another wagon at the crossing. This team was on the railroad tracks hidden from Murray's view by boxcars waiting to be loaded with finished goods from the Harmony Mills. As Murray's team began to cross the tracks, he saw the other team, but it was too late! Murray swerved to avoid the other team, but in so doing, his horses became partially unhitched from the wagon. The horses began to gallop down High Street toward the Canal. Murray saw the impending disaster and guided his horses into Bartel's newsroom on High Street. One of the horses received numerous cuts when he broke through the plate glass window. Murray was fortunate to escape with only a cut on his left hand. Other accidents at the High Street rail crossings had been documented in the Cohoes Republican during the 1890s. As a result, many local residents clamored for change. One such meeting took place at City Hall during the summer of 1899. Participants in this hearing decried the dangerously steep incline of High Street to the Erie Canal. They also were fearful of crossing the numerous tracks with no visibility between parked boxcars and coal cars. Seeing an oncoming train was difficult at best and not seeing one could be deadly. Pressure for changes began to build on the Cohoes City Council and on the New York Central Railroad. City officials said the railroad was responsible for any changes in the 'interest of public safety'. The railroad countered that the "..railroad was there first. If any changes were desired, the City was responsible."
Several public hearings were held during the early summer of 1900. Cohoes city attorney Walter Wertime met on several occasions with attorney Trowbridge of the New York Central Railroad regarding potential changes to High Street. The only thing reported by the Republican was that "..several contingencies still had to be worked out.
" The Republican again reported on July 17, 1900 that Martin Murray of Albany will begin the Garner Street extension project. However, the paper went on to state that "..amicable arrangements have been made with the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. However, a contract had yet to be signed." In fact, the railroad was still balking at the timing of the project. The railroad said that they would not start work since they had to build 118 bridges, 12 grade crossings, and several depots. If the High Street project was to start now, it would cause trouble for the railroad with these other projects. Another problem arose with the railroad stating that, if the current plans held, they would have to build a new depot, a new freight house, as well as realign numerous siding tracks in the freight yard. The New York Central thought they were being forced to shoulder an unfair portion of the project costs.Another two years of haggling back and forth dragged on. After several additional public meetings and several hearings before the New York State railroad commissioners in Albany, a settlement was finally reached. On May 2, 1902 the Cohoes Republican announced a tentative agreement had been reached "..between the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the Harmony Company, and the City of Cohoes." City attorney Walter Wertime arrived from New York City with the report that a "..contract for the new crossing would be ready for signing within a few days."Nothing else is noted in the Republican until June 5th. On that day the paper reported that "..the Republican is happy to report that after a fight of nearly 10 years for filling the ravine and the improvements of High Street that the end is in sight. Mr. House will remove his storehouse to the north corner of High Street and the new Garner Street extension (the corner of the present day Primeau's Automotive). Work will be completed by September 1, 1902."
There would be an exchange of land from the railroad to the city for the location of a new park at the site of the former House's warehouse (the present park at the foot of Younglove Avenue). Land would be given by the Harmony Company to the railroad for an extension of their freight tracks and the site of a new and enlarged freight house (present day site of the Convenient Food Mart). The City would realign High Street and the railroad would provide the manpower for the excavation for the bridge. The bridge would be made of steel, not wood.
There was apparently still some discussion over the construction of a new passenger depot. The Republican reported that the Cohoes Businessman's Association petitioned the railroad to build the new depot of stone and brick, not wood. They apparently complained directly to the railroad, which then quickly sent a representative to meet with the group. After the meeting, it was announced that the new depot would indeed be made of brick and stone and would, in the words of the Republican reporter, ".. be a credit to the city and the railroad, entirely befitting the importance of the railroad in Cohoes." After almost ten years of discussion the project would finally be completed. The total cost of the project was estimated to be approximately $75,000, with the railroad contributing about 20% of the total cost, the Harmony Company about 33%, and the city of Cohoes the remainder. It was seen as a tremendous improvement for both the city and its inhabitants. No longer would people be exposed to the danger of moving railcars and the hazards of a steep hill.It's hard to imagine today the problems pedestrians and vehicles faced at High Street a little over 100 years ago. The passenger station, the freight house, rail yard, and the railroad itself are long gone, replaced by a bicycle path. Few traces of the New York Central Railroad remain to remind us of this time when Cohoes was rapidly growing and this area was bustling with activity. The only hint of when this all happened is a weathered date inscription cast into the concrete bridge abutment opposite Primeau's.
The next time you go under the High Street bridge, remember the history associated with this structure and the struggle Cohoes citizens had to bring this change about.
Many thanks go to Walt Lipka for providing a great deal of leads in the researching of this article. Thanks also go to Ernie Mann of the Rensselaer City School District for his artwork copying the old topographical maps of the High Street area. Without their help and encouragement this article wouldnÕt have been possible.
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