TROY ITSELF is surely a contender for a "Heart of the Industrial Revolution in America Award." With industries lining the Hudson River, in 1840 Troy was the fourth wealthiest community in the country on a per capita basis. It was the home of the detachable shirt collar, which was the fashion and laundry rage for 100 years following its invention by Hannah Lord Montague in the 1820s. Local butcher Sam Wilson was transformed into America's Uncle Sam, of enduring recruiting poster fame, during the War of 1812. Prosperity peaked soon after the Civil War, but factories continued to produce textiles, scientific instruments, and cooking stoves well into the 20th century. In an ironic modern validation of the city's past, when movie studios seek authentic 19th century backdrops for films such as The Age of Innocence, they film in Troy.
The Burden Iron Works Museum is emblematic of the city. The manufacturing complex of which it is the last remnant originated in 1813 as the Troy Iron and Nail Factory and took advantage of the water plunging from the uplands to join the Hudson for power. Henry Burden, a recently emigrated Scotsman, became superintendent in 1822, and by 1848 had accumulated enough stock to become sole owner. He was a remarkable entrepreneur who is credited with inventing the first machine for making wrought iron and another machine able to churn out horseshoes at the rate of one per second. A 60-foot diameter, overshot water wheel -- the most powerful ever made, and probably the model for the world's first Ferris wheel in 1893 -- powered the Upper Works, while the larger Lower Works along the Hudson was powered by steam.
A decade after Henry's death in 1871, work began on a new office building. Eventually, innovations did not keep pace with the rise of modern manufacturing methods and the coming of the automobile. The Upper Works was closed at the turn of the century. The Republic Steel Corporation of Cleveland purchased the Lower Works and operated a steel blast-furnace until pollution regulations forced it to close in 1972. Two years later, Republic Steel sold the two-acre site of the office building, by then ransacked, to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway for $10. Most of the mile-long factory complex adjoining it was demolished.
Volunteers have spent many hours bringing the museum building back to life. The ceiling of the large interior vault still needs repair, but gives a sense of lightness to the space below. The central floor, which once housed numerous cubicles, is bare except for the exhibits of photographs, illustrations, and memorabilia such as a machine for making surveyor instruments and an iron panel from the Monitor, the Union's iron-clad ship that battled the Confederacy's Merrimac in the Civil War. (A neighboring iron works was the source of the Yankee iron.) The spacious executive offices in the wings retain an atmosphere of seclusion and power. And the paymaster's office, where 2,000 workers once lined up for their weekly wages, sits separately in the front. The building's architect was Philadelphia-born Robert H. Robertson, and the construction cost was $41,000, or roughly $1 million today.
When Carroll gave up his tenured professorship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he stepped away from a 17-year career at a school that had established the first science and technology studies department in the world. The nation's first engineering school, Rensselaer recently had begun focusing more on practical engineering studies. A few colleagues hinted that he was betraying his teacher's calling, not to mention foolishly walking away from a guaranteed lifetime salary. But Carroll says the overwhelming response has been excited support.
"Yes, there is concern for the long-term financial viability of this move. The Gateway isn't exactly well-endowed. But my wife [Nancy Engel Carroll, CW'74] has a good job, we don't have any children, and our house is paid off. In any event, we won't starve," he says, with a smile.
At the Gateway, Carroll has a staff of one full-time person, who runs the city visitor center; a part-time marketing coordinator; and a handful of regular volunteers, with more available on call. He also has support from prominent families in the city, a few sympathetic politicians in the state capital eight miles downriver, and some national contacts that may help in financial or other ways.
"The people here don't need to be convinced that this area has historic significance. But they need to be convinced that Troy doesn't have to succumb to Rust Belt maladies," says Carroll. "Like humans worldwide, they will have to think through their relationship with technology in order to create a prosperous future. A good evaluation of the past will help."
June Contents |
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/1/98