Friday, July 3, 2020

Our Towne Bethlehem July 2020: Of Railroads and White Elephants

While working on “Rivers, Roads and Rails” (an exhibit for the Bethlehem Historical Association’s Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum) I’ve been delving into the history of the West Shore Railroad and keep coming across the story of the Commodore’s White Elephant.

I have questions. Like who is this Commodore? And why do we use the phrase “white elephant” anyway? And is there a Bethlehem connection in there somewhere?

Here’s the story:

The Commodore is Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), shipping magnet, railroad tycoon, wily businessman, self-made billionaire. Husband of Sophia for 55years, and then Frank for 8. Father of 12 (including William, who met cute with his future wife Maria Louisa Kissam near her home in Bethlehem in 1841). The Commodore made his initial millions with water transportation. By the 1840s, his fleet of steamships served routes in the waterways around and between New York City, Long Island, and Albany, including areas of New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. During the gold rush of 1849, he expanded his steamship service to San Francisco.

In the 1860s, sensing that the future of transportation was on land, he began buying up controlling interests in existing railroads like the Long Island Railroad, the New York and Harlen Railroad, and the Hudson River Railroad, eventually merging his holdings into the New York Central. It’s said that he made $25 million in the first five years of his railroad ventures.

Of note for our story is the Hudson River Railroad. In the early 1860s, the Hudson River Railroad did not have a bridge connection to Albany from its terminal across the river in Rensselaer. In 1864, the Commodore and investor Daniel Drew conceived the Saratoga and Hudson River Railroad, a 27-mile line that bypassed Albany. Westbound passengers and freight disembarked at the City of Hudson and then crossed the river via ferry and barge to arrive at Athens where they connected with the new line. The line connected with the New York Central near Schenectady passing through South Bethlehem and Feura Bush.

In 1867, the Saratoga and Hudson was leased by the New York Central and merged into their system as the Athens Branch. The busy junction at Athens met a spectacular end in June 1876 when it was destroyed by a huge fire. The steamboat John Taylor, the barge Hercules, the canal boat Stephen Van Warren, the entire depot with its sheds and office buildings, hundreds of cars in the yard, and all the freight (sugar, corn, oats, tobacco) in these various stages of transport, went up in flames.

Not too long after the fire, the Athens Branch became known as a white elephant because it had outlived its usefulness, plus it was never very profitable. It didn’t help that a RR bridge across the Hudson at Albany was opened in 1866. In 1881, the line was purchased by the New York, West Shore and Buffalo, and the section from Coxsackie to Schenectady became part of the mainline. The part between Coxsackie and Athens limped along for a few years before the rails were completely removed in 1888.

The Commodore’s white elephant was really only a white elephant for a short time. Then it passed into legend. Several secondary sources say Vanderbilt long regretted the investment and said it was “the most foolish thing of my life.”

And what exactly is a white elephant? says it is a “possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to its owner” and that the phrase was first recorded in the early 1850s. The story is said to go back to Siam (modern day Thailand) where a literal white elephant was a highly prized, sacred animal. Let me just quote – they tell it so well:

“The term “white elephant” denotes any burdensome, expensive and useless possession that is much more trouble than it is worth. White or very pale elephants were so highly prized that when one was discovered, it immediately became the possession of the King. White elephants, however, were practically useless. As they were deemed to be sacred, they weren’t allowed to be worked and required special, expensive food and housing – making them particularly pricey pachyderms.

So the cunning kings of Siam, as the story goes, used to give white elephants away to anyone who displeased them or had fallen out of favour so that they would be forced to spend a fortune keeping the precious animals. The unfortunate recipient of a white elephant would be unable to get rid of it so the upkeep could ruin them financially.”

There you have it, the white elephant line that used to run through Bethlehem. The section in Bethlehem merged with the West Shore and provided passenger and freight service in the hamlet of South Bethlehem until about 1959.


Flashes and Dashes

CORRECTION: In June’s article, Cemetery Walks and Veterans Stories, I mistakenly referred to the Piers as a Gold Star Family. That is incorrect. Gold Star families are those who have had a family member die in service to our country. All of the Pier children survived their service.

If you haven’t heard already, the Bethlehem Public Library is collecting your stories about the current pandemic. Please visit their website for more info:

The Bethlehem Historical Association hopes to open their museum as soon as it is safe to do so.  Visit their website for details:    

And finally, visit my blog for the Kissam-Vanderbilt meet cute story: 



Both of the above pictures are the South Bethlehem station during the West Shore Railroad era. I was unable to determine whether there was a station here on the White Elephant line.  (Town of Bethlehem)

The Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, in an image taken by Mathew Brady sometime between 1844 and 1860. (Library of Congress)

Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt (

This print humorously portrays the fight over New York railroads between Vanderbilt (on the left) and James Fisk.  The story of Vanderbilt’s railroad wheeling and dealing has been extremely simplified for this article.  (Library of Congress)

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Bear and a Fire House

It has been a while since I had an entry in the ongoing saga of things that just show up on my desk.  I was back in Town Hall yesterday for the first time in a long time, and was greeted by a pile of fun items. Here are my favorites.

This tale of a bear in Delmar from 1946.

And what appear to be architect renderings of the South Bethlehem Fire Department building - really Selkirk Fire Company #3 - from 1956.   Do you know which design they chose?

 Thank you Mr. Purcell for brightening my day!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Greetings from Selkirk?

I just love these Greetings From postcards!

What with the Covid and all, I've been on eBay a little more and came across this gem to add to the collection.  Enjoy debating whether it is really Selkirk or not.   

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Finding Maps on Line

Don't you just love old maps?  I just finished a fun Zoom presentation about Bethlehem and Albany's changing boundary lines and everyone wanted to know where to find the old maps. So below is just a bunch of links with comments.  If you know of other sources, please let me know!

1851 map from New York Public Library

The David Rumsey Map Collection is super cool.  Type "Albany County, New York" in the search box for some great results including the 1829 and 1840 Burr atlas, and 1891 Beers atlas (which I have learned is actually an atlas of the Hudson River, so the Bethlehem maps don't go nearly as far inland as I would like.)

The Library of Congress has lots and lots of wonderful digital resources.  Including the 1854 Gould map of Albany County. Search under Albany County for the best results.  It is a lot to wade through, but sometimes the item is under a hamlet name (like Slingerlands or Cedar Hill) and not the town wide name of Bethlehem.  The use of Albany County is consistent. 

Ask me how much I have fallen in love with the New York Public Library?  Their digital collections are remarkable.  Just the maps alone! On the main page search on Albany County, New York and you will get fabulous stuff including the 1866 Beers map of Bethlehem. 

The 1767 Map of Rensselaerswyck is available at the  NY Public Library link above but I like the version over here at RPI library.

USGS maps are available in a couple of spots.  You can go to their main site and play around with the map function here 

If you want a quick hop to the Albany Quadrangle maps from 1893, 1927 and 1950 - hop over here:

And don't forget the map warper I talked about in this post: 

And you can find all of Albany County's tax maps online too at 

Phew! Is that enough maps for you??? 

NO it is not - I forgot the link to this one!

This is page 18 of  Albany 2030 The City of Albany Comprehensive Plan Appendix E: Albany 2030 Data Book    You might be able to find it somewhere else, but this is where I found it.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Our Towne Bethlehem June 2020: Cemetery Walks and Veteran Stories

As I am writing this, the Covid virus is turning our lives upside down in ways both profound and trivial. On a grand scale, my planned cemetery walks, now cancelled, are pretty insignificant.  I can communicate the information in different ways, and you can take a stroll in the quiet beauty of these places without me and a large group of people tagging along. I am also missing the Memorial Day Parade – a more significant cancelation in my mind.  Parades have been bringing the Bethlehem community together for a century or more while honoring those who lost their lives in service to our country.

Getting ready for the Delmar parade circa 1918.

The men and women of our town have been heeding the call to serve since before there even was a town of Bethlehem.  Those cemetery tours I am missing so much highlighted veterans from the Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, the Spanish American War and all the conflicts of the 20th Century.  Here are some of the veteran stories I would have shared if we were walking together.

Let me introduce you to the Slingerland cousins, John and William.*

John H. Slingerland (1844-1914) is buried at the Slingerland Family Burial Vault.  He and his cousin William Slingerland were veterans of the Civil War having served with the New York’s 177th Infantry. Both enlisted in October of 1862 when they were 18 years old. While assigned to different companies, both marched to the Albany train station on December 15 to begin their journey to New Orleans. Headquartered at Bonnet Carre, the 177th took part in skirmishes at McGill’s Ferry, and Pontchatoula, and saw action at the siege of Port Henry. The 177th, including the cousins, mustered out of service at Albany on September 10, 1863.

John, the son of William H. and Elizabeth Slingerland, worked with his father as a civil engineer. He married Alice Preston about 1873 and they had four children, William, Edward, Bessie and Florence. In the late 1880s he and his family moved to New York City where he was a masonry inspector. After her husband’s death, Alice and daughter Florence moved back to Slingerlands.

William Slingerland (1844-1928) was the son of John I. and Sally Slingerland. He and his wife Ellen Van Wie had seven children and lived their entire lives in Slingerlands. For many years he was an Express Manager with American Express Company.

Now, please meet Captain David Burhans. 

Capt. David Burhans
Captain David Burhans

David Burhans was born in Bethlehem in 1840, the son of Rachel and David.  Before the war, he was a mail agent with the Troy to New York route. In the late summer of 1862, he worked in town to recruit a company of soldiers for the 43rd New York Infantry.  Before the company set off, the ladies of Bethlehem presented Burhans with a sword, sash and belt. Company H was one of five that joined the regiment after the battle of Antietam.  Thereafter, the 43rd continued to see heavy action including battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Burhans was in the thick of it.   It was during the terrible chaos at Spottslvania that Burhans lost his life.  He is said to have been last seen cheering on his troops after having captured two rebel flags. One tribute to him concludes “He was a young man of unblemished reputation, and highly respected by all who knew him, for his many virtues.” The extended Burhans family continued to live in and around Bethlehem and you might recognize Delmar street named Burhans Place.
The Pier family plot at Bethlehem Cemetery

And finally, the Pier family, many of whom are interred at Bethlehem Cemetery.  Edwin and Dora Pier raised ten children, seven boys and three girls, in Slingerlands.  Five of their sons, Ira, Charles, J. Edwin, Clarence and Ellsworth, all served with the Army during World War I. 

In a newspaper article, Dora Pier shared stories and letters about her sons. She wrote to Clarence, who was serving with the Fifth Balloon Detachment, that his brother Charles had a perfect record and his other brother Edwin was called out only once, for not saluting properly.  Clarence wittily replied that he had gotten bawled out “because I was not shaved; my shoes not shined; my leggings not on, all my buttons not buttoned; for not standing still at attention; for having my stomach stuck out too far; for not having my chest out far enough, and about 400 other things.” All five brothers served time oversees, with only Edwin being severely wounded while serving in France. They all were honorably discharged.

The Pier family truly demonstrated a deep commitment to serving our country. Oldest son Egbert Pier served in the U.S. Marines for twelve years as a recruiting officer. Youngest son Perry Pier served in during World War II.   The family purchased Liberty bonds and participated in Red Cross activities on the home front in Slingerlands.

These are just a few of the family stories I would have shared if we were able to take a cemetery walk together.  I invite you visit Bethlehem’s Veterans Memorial Park on Delaware Avenue or have a ramble through one of Bethlehem’s historic cemeteries and remember those who have served.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story I mistakenly referred to the Piers as a Gold Star Family.  This is incorrect.  Gold Star families are those who have had a family member die in service to our county.  All of the Pier children survived their service.  

Flashes and Dashes

Do you remember artist Edward Buyck?  He and his wife Mary Willard Vine lived on McCormack Road in Slingerlands. Bob Mulligan is doing some research for an article and would like to hear from you, or call 518-439-3802.  

Interested in some recreational driving during safe-distancing times? Visit the Bethlehem Historical Association’s website,, for a Drive It Yourself tour.  It is a bit dated, but still fun.

Work has begun on rebuilding the stonework of the Slingerland Family Burial Vault.  Please visit the website for progress reports and to donate.


* You might recognize John and William's story from a previous blog post - just trying to reach  a wider audience!  

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Edward P. Buyck - request for info

Unfinished self portrait of Edwin P. Buyck (1888-1960)  (Albany Institute)

A friend of mine is doing some research about Slingerlands artist Edward P. Buyck.  I hadn't really heard of Buyck before. Come to find out he was known for his portrait work (he painted FDR from life) and his horse portraits (like the famous Man O' War.) He was married to Mary Willard Vine who was herself known for her work as the NY State director of the WPA arts program. They lived at 400 McCormack Road in a fancy house called Highfield Hall.

Buyck created this poster about 1918 (Albany Institute) 
But what really captured my attention is this painting of Mary. What is that in the background? 

A painting of Mary Willard Vine Buyck (1888-1973) by her husband
Edward P. Buyck (Albany Institute)
Is that a person riding a frog?  What is it? I want to know!   It is so silly next to this elegantly composed woman.

One article I found said the couple's home was full of antiques and Buyck used many of them in his work. I am guessing this whimsical frog was just one many such items.

The article closed with Buycks's personal code:

Art is teaching the world the idea of life.  The man who believes that money is the thing is cheating himself.

Any way - Bob Mulligan would like you to give him a shout if you have any memories or stories about the Buycks.  Email or call 518-439-3802. Thanks!


Friday, May 15, 2020

Elmwood Cemetery Tour

I was scheduled to give a tour of Elmwood Cemetery.  As you can guess given the current Covid situation, it has been cancelled. But that doesn't mean I can't share some favorite stories about the people buried there. So here goes...

First, pop over here for some lovely pictures and a good overview of  the cemetery's history. Did you notice the weird website name? Formally, the cemetery is Bethlehem Rural Cemetery. That's what its incorporation records and official documents say. Informally, it is known as Elmwood Cemetery. That's what you'll find on the entrance gates. The name Elmwood helps distinguish it from Bethlehem Cemetery over in Delmar.

One family I return to again and again during the walk is the Niver family.  I've written* about Garret Niver, aka Garret Van Allen, whose memorial reads "Killed in the Custer massacre on the Little Big Horn in Dakota,  June 25, 1876, Ages 30 years, 4 months, 25 days."  And also about his brother, Conrad Niver, aka John Eddy, who went west to seek his fortune. He returned to Bethlehem with a new name and without his right arm which he lost to an amputation due to being shot by a desperado in Cheyenne, Colorado.  Other Bethlehem Nivers include  David Niver (a Revolutionary War veteran who was present at the surrender of Gen. Burgoyne at the battle of Saratoga, October 25, 1777), Charles D. Niver (town supervisor from 1910 to 1923) and David M. and Charles A. (both town clerks - David M. 1856-58, Charles A in 1884.)

This is the only mausoleum at Elmwood. 

A favorite spot is Veeder circle.  The circle has a central monument with individual plots laid out around it like wedges of a pie.  That center monument has several Veeder names inscribed including Margaret Niver Veeder (1820-1886) wife of Christian Veeder (he was born in 1814, but I wasn't able to determine when he died - it is not on the marker - as of the 1900 census he was still alive.) On the tour we talk about the distinctive marker for their children who died very young, John, Johnny, Kitty, Harry and Maria.** We also talk about the story of Edith Veeder (about 1839-1889) who as a small child suffered severe burns and was not thought to survive.  But she did, living the rest of her life with her family.  One census identified her as a dressmaker.

Veeder Circle

Coeymans News Herald, October 16, 1889
Edith Veeder's marker is on the left. 
The distinctive monument to her five siblings is on the right.

Another interesting monument is the one for David S. Russell.  I only noticed it because it has a kind of a weird double urn on top and a lot of writing on it.  Much of the writing is now illegible. But what is there is intriguing. He died August 2, 1859 in his 26th year, 6 months and 2 days a "Fearful railroad casualty"  You see why I had to find out more?

The front of David Russell's monument.

The back.

Below is a newspaper clipping about the story. The whole thing is three columns of very small type. Basically, the bridge collapsed when the train was just about across.  The engineer "hit the gas" causing the locomotive to jump forward breaking the coupling with the rest of the train.  The tender and passenger cars all went down with the bridge.

Albany Morning Express, August 4, 1859

The eye catching monument for the Irwins has a marble figure on top.  This mourning woman is the only sculptural figure in the cemetery (except for a whole bunch of draped urns and eternal flames).  I couldn't find out why the Irwins have one. But their personal history is kind of fun.  W. Hartwell Irwin, 1875-1956, was an elevator man, first with Otis and in 1921 he opened Irwin Elevator Company. A newspaper tribute published when he was 73 and still working said he was the oldest elevator man in Albany.  Irwin was quoted as saying he would rather "wear out than rust out." Olive Eiseman Irwin, 1886-1968 was an instrumental part of the establishment of Irwin Elevator, serving as treasurer and secretary of the company until her husband Hartwell's death in 1956.  She then managed the company until it was sold in 1959.

A clip from the long Albany Times Union, March 4, 1948 article.  It mentions that he
 "takes personal charge and climbs the shafts himself with the agility of a man half his age." 

This is just four of the families I talk about.  Other folks on the tour include: the Baker family, owners of Grand View Farm; the Welches, famous Hudson River light keepers; the Wilkies,  regular farmers with a very prominent monument; the Selkirks, hamlet namesakes; the Dickson's whose son Peter served in the Civil War; the Heaths of Heath's Shady Lawn Dairy; and the Beckers, the most famous being Albertus who has a school named after him.

Phew - this cemetery tour is a lot of  walking and talking - but at this point - I feel like these folks are my family too and I so enjoy sharing their stories.***


*Shameless plug, read more about John Eddy/Conrad Niver in my book Bethlehem People and Places.  The article is called "Two Niver Sons and the Wild West." The book is available here  BuyMyBook or at I Love Books in Delmar.

** We often talk about how many children didn't make it out of infancy, and how if one did make it past toddler-hood, one was just about as likely to make it to old age as today. Just about anyway.

*** I scheduled dates for cemetery tours way back in January.  Who knows if they will happen.  Check back with me or the Bethlehem Parks and Recreation Department.
May 15 and September 26: Elmwood
June 27 and October 3: Bethlehem

**** All color photos were taken by me on Thursday afternoon May 14 about 4 pm, a lovely and peaceful  afternoon for photos.