The spring of 2006, I spent a semester living in the capital city of New York state as an intern in the State Assembly. In my spare time, I explored this small but historic city for its alleys, ruins and other forgotten urban structures. It should come as no surprise that Albany has its share of hidden waterways concealed by nearly four centuries of development.
Washington Park Lake in the city’s center has a long serpentine shape. I had a feeling that it could be a remnant of a much longer stream that predates the city.
From a northern outpost to the center of New York
The location of Albany is no accident. It was built at a point on the Hudson River where the great stream has its first cataract, nearly 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. It was at Albany that Henry Hudson’s ship turned around in 1609 after recognizing that the passage across North America lay elsewhere. In 1614, Fort Nassau was completed followed by Fort Orange in 1624. The settlement around this second fort was named Beverwyck- Beaver Town after the animal whose lucrative fur brought the Dutch to the region. On the southern side of the fort, Beaver Creek also noted the presence of this industrious mammal.
Three Colonial Kills
As with New Amsterdam, Beverwyck’s early streets had familiar names: State (originally Joncker) Street, Pearl Street, Maiden Lane, Beaver Street, Pine Street and Broadway.
The three hidden streams of early Albany are Rutten Kill, Maiden Lane, and Vossen (Fox) Kill. The latter is on the far right on the map above. The ravine formed by this stream is today known as Sheridan Hollow, which includes Sheridan Street and traces of the colonial “Publick Street” that followed Fox Kill. Its remnants are marked on maps as Road Street.
Fox Kill is an English bastardization of local early Dutch settler Andries de Vos, which was became Fox. Historically a slum district, it is currently being redeveloped with help from Habitat For Humanity. In the plan below, the firm 3tarchitects preserves the green space on the streamed and daylights portions of it as a rain garden or bioswale.
As with Manhattan’s Maiden Lane, the one in Albany also had a brook running down its middle. On the colonial map above, Maiden Lane is on the right of Joncker Straet, while Rutten Kill is on its left. Its course corresponds to today’s Norton and Beaver streets, at the time a deep ravine on the south side of the settlement.
Originating uphill near Lark Street, it descended towards the Hudson River. Between 1844 and 1847, Rutten Kill was filled, flattening a gap in the city’s topography. In the 1960s, the former ravine was partially redeveloped for Empire State Plaza and the South Mall Arterial.
Rutten Kill on old maps
In this 1794 Simeon DeWitt map, State Street is still known as Lion Street but that would change after the city assumed its role as the state capital. The red stream on the right is Rutten Kill, flowing into the city’s historic waterfront, while another marked stream is Beaver Creek. By now, the French and Mohicans are on longer a threat to Albany, the defensive wall is gone and it has begun expanding uphill in a grid pattern while its downtown’s streets retain their colonial period routes.
On the 1832 Evert Van Alen map above, the future site of Empire State Plaza is marked by a red polygon. The circle on its north later became the State Capitol. Lark Street is highlighted on the far right. Note that Rutten Kill’s course is now a bit shorter.
By 1866, Rutten Kill is gone and attention shifts to Beaver Creek on the city’s southern side. The green polygon marks what would become Washington Park, designed by the same architect duo responsible for New York’s Central Park. Closer to the Hudson River, the Pastures neighborhood had buried a section of Beaver Creek.
The final map that depicts Beaver Creek is from 1891. The site of Empire State Plaza is marked with an X. A working class Italian-American neighborhood, it was razed in the 1960s to make way for the plaza in a manner and design akin to Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Both institutions are modernist, enormous, and built on what once were vibrant neighborhoods. The maps above come from the collection at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
To its west is Washington Park, where a branch of Beaver Creek is transformed into a lake. To the south of the park, the creek’s southern branch flows through a grid of planned streets that would eventually consume the stream.
In Washington Park
Above is a view of Washington Park Lake looking downstream into the park. It’s a very Olmstedian scene, a constructed landscape that appears natural. The lake includes a wrought iron footbridge, amphitheater and fountains.
The head of the lake is near the intersection of South Lake Avenue and Elberon Place. The former is named for the lake while the latter is a block-long road that goes diagonal to the grid, marking the creek’s buried course. The neighborhood here is Pine Hills, lovingly nicknamed the student ghetto for its transient population representing University of Albany and College of St. Rose.
Prior to becoming a park, the green space above (pictured in 1891) was a narrow parade ground bound by Willets and Knox streets. To its east was a public cemetery where the poor, Protestants, Catholics, blacks and whites were neatly segregated by plots. Between 1869 and 1891, the park assumed its current borders. At its northwest corner, the mansions of Englewood Place and Thurlow Terrace avoided condemnation and have since become part of the park’s historic district.
Albany Postcard Project
To see Albany as it was a century ago, one good source is the Albany Postcard Project, a community based initiative launched by the Albany Archives. The collection includes images of Washington Park in its early years. Each postcards is dated, titled, and compared to its present-day scene, which would make a researcher proud.
In addition, the online Albany Group Archive also offers a wealth of historical photos, maps and documents.
Buckingham Lake Park
On the city’s southeastern edge is Buckingham Lake Park, a smaller version of Washington Park but with a similar design of winding trails in a forest setting. The surrounding streets do not have landscapes and are lined with generous lawns. Buckingham Lake is a remnant of the southern branch of Beaver Creek.
Albany’s other hidden streams
Continuing east, the homes thin out, vegetation thickens and the hills become steeper. Flowing through this topography is Krum Kill, which has its start at Indian Pond within the spacious SUNY-University at Albany campus. Krum Kill drains into Normans Kill, which flows along the city’s southern border towards the Hudson River.
On the city’s northern side, Patroon Creek forms a natural boundary. This stream originates in the nearby town of Colonie. This stream flows beneath the massive interchange where I-87 and I-90 meet, is dammed at Rensselaer Lake, and flows I-90 eastward to the Hudson River. Along the way, the creek beneath Tivoli Park, which has its own decorative pond. The pond isn’t what it used to be and there are plans to restore it, along with its tributary brooks within the park, and daylighting the covered section of Patroon Creek.
If I had to live here
As a public employee, I wouldn’t mind trading in my City job for a State job and moving 150 miles upstate. The city has historic architecture, unfinished highways, pine forest, modernist university campus, beaux arts train station-turned-bank, State Capitol, the gigantic Empire State Plaza, and much more. Among the things no longer in operation but very much missed was a unique storefront on my block, Babushka Deli, an outpost of Eastern Europe up in Albany.
If Babushka comes back, that’s one more reason for me to return to Albany.
In the news: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declares his city’s namesake river as “Chicago’s next great recreational park.”