Here are both episodes of Travel Thru History featuring Upstate New York. This week they aired “Buffalo/Niagara” and last week they aired “Albany/Saratoga” (I’m featured at the State Capitol segment starting at 14:30).
Back in March I had the opportunity to work with Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s Heritage Tourism Committee, where I drafted the first-ever guide solely dedicated to heritage sites in the city. Two weeks ago, the first edition was released. I may be biased, but their results look quite impressive.
I created the original layout, wrote almost all of the text, and introduced a number of other additions (QR codes, site hours in grid form, et cetera). After April, the Committee made their necessary revisions and brought in graphic artists to bring the project to life. You can download the entire booklet as a PDF here.
It was a challenge to organize 400 years of history succinctly, let alone provide directions to all the disparate sites. One of my suggestions was to map out not only the sites a tourist would visit but the great architecture they would see along the way. The back of the guide provides a way to find the city’s many buildings and sites on the National Register of Historic Places:
I even tried my hand at defining themes for the featured sites; an extra layer of info for visitors who are tight on time and have particular interests in mind. I hope Albany revisits and revises these themes as develops its heritage tourism strategy in future editions. Special thanks goes to all the people I worked with listed below.
Happy Halloween. . . . This story has been retold around Akron, New York, a village in the town of Newstead, over the last two centuries. Even the official website for Erie County has a variant of it online. The definitive tale is by Arthur C. Parker, who recounted it in The Life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois. It was published by the Buffalo Historical Society in 1919; any more recent publication appears to derive from that source.
A professional historian and folklorist, Arthur was Ely’s great nephew and a Seneca Indian. He made the story part of the biography “for it was gossiped about the Parker fireside in the years of the early  ’30’s, and its dramatic incidents happened but a little way from their own doorstep. It is of importance, too, to those who live today, for it explains the ghosts that hover about the haunted corners.”
The below version of The Legend of Murder Creek was part of their 4th Grade local history curriculum at Akron Central School in the 1980s. I do not know who wrote it or if any other copies exist today, but it is definitely a direct adaptation of Parker’s book–even reusing the final sentence.
Murder Creek was originally known to the Indians as See-un-gut (roar of distant waters). This legend tells how the name was changed.
In the spring of 1820, a white man, named John Dolph came from Mohawk country near Utica and built his log cabin close to the See-un-gut. The creek attracted many settlers in those days because it was necessary to be near water as a source of power to operate mills. It was also important for the settler’s personal needs.
John Dolph and Peter Van Deventer had planned to build a sawmill on the Creek. One evening in October, John and his wife were discussing plans when they heard a shriek from the woods. John opened the door and saw an Indian girl running towards him breathlessly yelling, “Save me. Please save me!” John let her in his cabin and closed the door on a man on the outside yelling “Let me in!”
The Dolphs hid the girl and allowed the man in.
“My name is Sanders,” said the man, “and that girl is a prisoner, whom I am to take to authorities in Canada. Her father, a chief, placed her in my hands, because she wishes to marry a bad Indian.”
He looked around the cabin to see if he could find her. He couldn’t, and flew into a rage muttering, “She shall not escape, I will find her yet!” He then left the ca[b]in and hid himself in the woods.
Mr. and Mrs. Dolph then listened to the story of Ah-weh-hah’s (Wild Rose’s) life.
My home is near Spirit Lake, under the cliff about a mile below the Tonawanda Falls. My mother has been dead several years and my father, a chief of the Senecas, has just been murdered by Sanders. For more than a year, this dreadful man has been staying around Spirit Lake begging me to marry him. I love Toh-yon-oe (Gray Wolf) and will become his wife very soon. Sanders told me that rather than see me the wife of a Seneca, he would murder me and all who stood in his way.
My father and I were going to the Cattaraugus nation to avoid trouble. Gray Wolf was going to meet us there. We started out on foot, taking the old trail, leading to Te-os-ah-wah, a place called Buffalo by your people. When we reached the See-un-gut my father sat down to rest. Sanders came up behind us and said he was sorry for his past conduct. He wished me happiness in my life with Gray Wolf. The man spoke so nicely, he tricked us. When I turned to look eastward, I heard a blow strike and then a groan. Quickly I turned to see my father laying dead on the ground with Sanders standing over him with a club in his hands.
I fled into the forest with him close behind yelling he would kill me too. Here I am. You know the rest.
The Dolphs located Gray Wolf and informed him of the tragedy. He came to his sweetheart and together they journeyed to her father’s grave where John had buried him. They chanted the death song, as a last token of their affection. A grave fire was lighted and the sacred tobacco incense rose to life the burden of their prayer to the Maker of All.
Suddenly Sanders appeared from behind a tree. He and Gray Wolf struggled with knife and tomahawk until Sanders fell from losing too much blood. He was dead. Gray Wolf tried to speak to Wild Rose but instead staggered forward and fell. They had both died at her father’s graveside.
Mr. Dolph heard her cry. He found her on her knees sobbing the death chant. John then buried both bodies and comforted Wild Rose.
She often went to visit the graves of her father and sweetheart to chant her grief. One day the Dolphs missed her, they went out to the graveyard and found her lying upon the grave of Gray Wolf, dead of a broken heart. Beside the graves of her father and sweetheart she was buried.
As the legend goes ——- if you stroll along Murder Creek at midnight, you may hear the voices of the two lovers as they wander over the new dust on the ancient trail. Death united them in a bond the years have not broken.
David Cunningham Lithgow was born in Sheffield, England on 12 November 1868 but immigrated to the United States from Glasgow, Scotland as a young man, finally settling in the Capitol region in 1890. Some of his art depicts scenes of the Adirondacks, where he once had a cabin. Some family members believe he lived for a time on an Iroquois reservation and sketched many of its residents. Starting with odd jobs—draftsman for the Gilbert Car Works, drop painter at the Strand Theatre in Albany and Proctor’s in Troy—Lithgow became a nationally recognized artist. Some of his works include civic auditoriums in Cleveland, Ohio and Long Beach, California, and the courthouse in Elizabethtown. Lithgow lived at Hudson Avenue on Green Island until his death on 26 May 1958 at age 89.
Lithgow’s sculptures can be found throughout Albany, including the Spanish-American War Monument at Townsend Park and the St. Andrew’s Monument at Albany Rural Cemetery. Some of his other murals can still be found in financial institutions such as the Fleet Bank at State and Pearl Street, the State Bank of Albany, and the Cohoes Savings Bank. His most well-known murals, however, are probably the Iroquois paintings in the State Education Building.
The Smith Lobby Ceiling Mural is attributed to Lithgow, but in the center panel, four small faces are painted next to three names: William Andrew Mackay, Louis J. Borgo, and Charles B. Falls. Mackay and Borgo also painted the ceiling of the State Office Building in Buffalo, and Falls was a professional illustrator. Interestingly, Falls developed propaganda posters during World War I, including some of the earliest uses of the “Devil Dog” by the Marines, while Mackay helped design camouflage for ships. This center section features four modes of transportation and commerce: trucking, flight, shipping, and locomotives.
The surrounding eight panels altogether depict the visages of thirty-two famous New Yorkers, from political leaders to explorers, scientists, engineers, inventors, artists, authors, and entrepreneurs. (Many of these faces in the Smith Building can also be found carved in the Great Western Staircase just across the street at the New York State Capitol.)
From 1933 to 1946, Lithgow worked on a series of fourteen murals at the Milne School in what is now the second floor of the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University of Albany. It is no surprise that the themes he explored in those later murals—the Mohawk people, Albany as a trading port, and Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage—reflect a long painting career accentuated by his projects on Capitol Hill. Those paintings are currently being restored. In fact, one of the University murals is of Capitol Hill itself, complete with an image of the Smith Building.
Edwin W. Becker was born on 10 December 1912 in Brooklyn. He moved to the Albany area in the 1930s, eventually living on Nathaniel Boulevard in the suburb of Delmar, and enlisted in the Signal Corps during World War II. An employee of the New York State Department of Civil Service, he was an agency artist for four decades. The Civil Service Mural he completed in 1962 was located where he worked: the Harriman State Office Building Campus just outside the city. In 2006, when Civil Service workers relocated into the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building across from the State Capitol, they brought the mural with them. It has been on display in the Department’s reception room ever since.
The Civil Service Mural highlights New York’s movement from a “spoils system” of patronage to the modern merit system of today. Users of patronage—DeWitt Clinton, Martin Van Buren, and Thurlow Weed, for example—are shown next to important reformers such as Dorman B. Eaton, Elihu Root, Theodore Roosevelt, and Grover Cleveland. In the left background, one can see the Hudson River, Henry Hudson’s ship the Half Moon, Robert Fulton’s steamship the Clermont, and packet boats on the Erie Canal. On the right, different Civil Service occupations are represented by various figures in occupational garb.
The most shocking feature of the mural reenacts a presidential assassination. Slightly left of center, the disgruntled patronage job seeker Charles Guiteau puts a bullet into James A. Garfield. The figures of several other men seem to watch as the shooting takes place, looking interested but unwilling to stop it. As listed by name at the end of this article, those men were politicians infamous for their use of patronage in political machines and opposing reforms. Though Vice President Chester A. Arthur had his own shady personal history with the spoils system, he made civil service reform the highlight of his short presidency. When he signed the Pendleton Act in 1882, it created a federal Civil Service Commission. New York was quick to make its own reforms, even instituting them directly into the State Constitution of 1894. President Arthur is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.
Along with three other Delmar artists, Edwin Becker was part of a group called “The Village Four.” They held local art showings and contests in the 1950s and 1960s. The Albany Institute of History and Art exhibited some of his works as well, where he taught art classes in his spare time. Becker also painted murals for the mastodon display at the New York State Museum as seen in this black and white image from a 1957 issue of the Knickerbocker News. His 1960 mural depicting the history of Schenectady can still be seen in the First Niagara Bank on State Street in that city. Becker died on 6 February 1989 at the age of 76.
Back in 2009 I worked with filmmaker Diedie Weng on this documentary as part of Squeaky Wheel’s Channels program. Through this film, Diedie aimed to promote a conversation about low income communities’ efforts and struggles in revitalizing neglected historic Buffalo neighborhoods. It’s hard to believe the project began five years ago. Her efforts to film all those locations and edit all those interviews was an immense task, compounded by her living situation at the time. A Chinese national, she was living primarily in Toronto at the time, traveling between all three countries frequently.
Granted, my work mostly involved driving her to locations, procuring the right equipment, and other off-camera details. but it was still an eye-opening experience. Since Diedie was not from the city she had a fresh take on every place and person she saw. Probably a thousand people watched the film at the premiere night or online soon after. Later I took the film to presentations at libraries, classrooms, and community centers, and distributed dvds by request. At least five hundred more people watched the films through those “screenings.”
I think the film has held up remarkably well. There is nothing so unique about the problems being faced in Buffalo five years ago that cannot be understood by any city in America today. The recent Congress for the New Urbanism conference in the city tangibly articulated this. And issues in many of the places presented still persist: the bar being refurbished near the Central Terminal closed quickly, for example, and there is no new community museum in the Fruit Belt. The Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, where the premiere and reception took place, will show its last movie tonight and close its doors.
One location where we did a lot of filming has shown an amazing transformation: the German Roman Catholic Orphan Home on Dodge Street. Below is a photo from BuffaloAH.com showing what the outside looked like.
Now I can admit that we swung around the back and entered through some loose boards. This photo from FixBuffalo shows the inside:
A smashed piano lay in pieces in the chapel, exposed in the darkness by holes in the roof. Down the hall, the floors were either covered in damaged tile or incredibly soft. I distinctly remember Diedie so concentrated on her camera that she did not realize the floor had given way right in front of her. Had I not warned her she would have fallen twelve feet right into the basement.
None of that footage made it into the film. Thankfully, the chapel and the adjoining building (seen above) is now part of St. Martin Village, a private redevelopment that uses part of the original campus as new housing. Click here to see a panoramic view on Google Maps. It’s not a perfect example of preservation but a sea change from what existed there half a decade prior.