It is no coincidence that Schenectady County is steeped in history which was vital to the funding and industrial growth of New York State. It has been a county since 1809, chartered from a western portion of Albany County and strategically located in the cradle of five mountain ranges – namely, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Helderbergs, the Green Mountains and the Berkshires. The easternmost settlement of the Mohawk Valley, Schenectady is known as the “Gateway to the West.”
The City of Schenectady , settled by the Dutch in 1661 and incorporated in 1798, was a frontier bastion and as such bore the brunt of Indian warfare. It was attacked and burned by the French and Indians in 1690, and many of its inhabitants massacred. The downtown Stockade Area, which formed the perimeter of the early settlement, is today a historic district and its 18th century homes a tourist attraction and source of pride to the community.
The Eric Canal sliced through the county from north to south, the city’s wide Erie Boulevard making its course in that era of state history. Schenectady for years was indeed a canal town, but this was not its sole claim to early commercial activity.
The first locomotive, the DeWitt Clinton, traveled from Schenectady to Albany in 1831 and soon after the railroad was an integral part of Old Dorp. In 1848, the American Locomotive Company began building steam locomotives, converting to diesel engines nearly a century later. Thomas A. Edison, the famed inventor, founded his electrical machine works in Schenectady in 1866 – a few years later to become the internationally renowned General Electric Company with its main plant in Schenectady. Little wonder that, soon after the turn of the 20th century, Schenectady became known as “The City that Lights and Hauls the World.”
Scientists flocked to GE’s Schenectady plant to join its research laboratory and through the years many of them have become world famous for their discoveries and contributions to science: Charles P. Steinmetz, the “electrical wizard”; Irving Langmuir, Nobel Prize winner; Willis R. Whitney, founder of the research lab; William D. Coolige, inventor of thee X-ray tube; and E.F.W. Alexanderson, television pioneer, to name a few.
There is much of which Schenectady can be proud – its many churches, schools, parks, libraries, airport and diversion of industrial and commercial facets – but perhaps its greatest attribute is its amalgamation of several nationalities, which, typical of America, has given the community a singleness of purpose without prejudices. That purpose is to keep abreast of modern technology without losing its heritage as a pioneer settlement in New York State history.
Hotel Van Curler, the city’s largest hotel, closed in 1968, but was sold to Schenectady County and shortly after became Schenectady County Community College, which has been enjoying annual increases in enrollment, requiring additions to the original structure. Schenectady County boasts both the Community College and renowned Union College, founded in 1795.
In 1977, the Arts Center and Theater of Schenectady was organized and incorporated with the express purpose of acquiring and operating the downtown Proctor’s theater that opened in 1926. The city of Schenectady hence took ownership of the ornate but deteriorating theater which had previously been slated for demolition. It is now listen on the National Register of Historic Places. Those attending a performance at Proctor’s for the first time generally agree with actor Hal Holbrook’s statement “You couldn’t replace this at any price.”
Schenectady may have a way to go before it returns to a busy, thriving downtown it once was, but those who have lived here all their lives feel certain it can and will be done. The community here finds strength in the growing intellectual, cultural and educational centers of today and hopes for a bright tomorrow.