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Rediscovering Troy

Academic turned museum-director Tom Carroll is hoping that a greater awareness of its rich past will help Troy, New York -- an industrial powerhouse of the last century that has fallen on hard times in this one -- rise again in the next.

W. Conard Holton

IT'S A ROUGH DRIVE, dodging Troy, New York's ubiquitous potholes while studying street names from America's presidential past: Jackson, Van Buren (born nearby in Kinderhook), Harrison, Tyler, and, at last, Polk, president from 1845-1849. The address I'm looking for is Burden Iron Works Museum, foot of Polk, where Dr. P. Thomas "Tom" Carroll, Gr'82, waits in the doorway. Formerly an associate professor in the science and technology studies department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Carroll left his tenured position to become executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway -- and chief custodian of Troy's past as one of the 19th century's major industrial centers.
   The Burden Iron Works Museum sits solidly in a stretch of green grass, fronted by railroad tracks and backed by the new county jail, which is surrounded by razor wire. The Hudson River lies just beyond a line of trees. The museum's cupola, crenelated brickwork, and brass-covered doors hint at the community's one-time wealth. This administrative building -- more accurately, half-restored shell of a building -- is the only significant structure that remains of a manufacturing complex that stretched for more than a mile along the Hudson and that could turn out one million horseshoes a week.
   The museum's Victorian opulence is echoed in some parts of the city by lofty church spires and ornate building facades, now sadly worn. For more affluent commuters, Troy is a bedroom community of Albany, New York's state capital. For the working class majority, Troy is a city divided into ethnic enclaves, struggling with the implications of a digital age and the availability of cheaper labor somewhere else. The motto of South Troy, where the museum is located, is "South Troy Against the World."
   It's hard to imagine this city as the Silicon Valley of the 19th Century, but that's exactly how Carroll sees it. "You have to realize how the people living here in the early 19th Century thought of themselves," he says. "The Conestoga wagon was a cutting edge innovation. The small steam train that ran nearby was not a cute toy, but the mag-lev of 1831."
   In Carroll's eyes, the immigrants and entrepreneurs of Troy saw a new world coming, not unlike modern cyber-visionaries. However, their vision was based on the power of falling water, of water-based transportation, of iron, and later of steam and railroads. "The Erie Canal started here and helped them see the future, and they thought, 'If you're not on this, you're a dead duck.' They thought of themselves as way out in front of gentleman farmer-types like Washington and Jefferson who, though keen for improvements, thought those improvements would produce a whole continent blanketed with estates like improved versions of Mount Vernon and Monticello. The people here knew early on that the nation was headed toward an urban industrial civilization and a continental market economy. They acted accordingly when they made policy or invested money."
   Carroll has been drawn to this mix of technology and human behavior since his childhood as a "fourth-generation townie" in Princeton, New Jersey, where his family was active in county politics and he developed a commitment to the communities surrounding college campuses. As an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, he started out in engineering because "I was good in math, and it was my patriotic duty to beat the Russians by becoming a rocket scientist."
   Instead, he quickly bored of designing airplane struts. A chance encounter with a professor inspired in him an interest in history. "I had a revelation that the outcome of things is not random or preordained, and it made me rethink what causes human affairs to change." Following his graduation in 1972, he returned east to Penn's then-young program in the history and sociology of science, where he took his masters (1976) and doctoral (1982) degrees.
   One of Carroll's mentors was Dr. Thomas P. Hughes, now emeritus professor of history and sociology of science and author of American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (1870-1970). "In the early 1970s, when the department was defining itself and gathering momentum, Tom provided spirited leadership among the graduate students," Hughes remembers. "Never aggressive, he was nevertheless determined in his quest to understand the history of science and technology -- and equally determined that the graduate students join with the faculty in establishing a Penn style." That style, Hughes says, involved doing the history of science, technology, and medicine in context, for which Penn was recognized in the field as having blazed a new path.
   Dr. Lynn Lees, who now chairs the history department, recalls Carroll as provocative to teach and clearly pushing beyond conventional boundaries. "Tom had both a practical bent and a sense of the utility of what he was doing. He wanted to see results. He was also more fun to talk with because of his wide-ranging interests."
   Carroll says he chose Penn because it was moving in a new direction, combining cultural anthropology, science, technology, medicine, economics, and sociology. He remains close to the teachers and colleagues of those days, and with the small group of professional historians in the field.
Under Carroll's direction, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway participates with other regional historic sites in the country's first urban cultural park, established in 1979. In addition to developing the museum and operating the city's visitor center, the Gateway also works with several local communities on education, preservation, advocacy, and development programs.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/1/98