Our Heritage

Our Heritage: Mechanicville

Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, City Historian

Tradition has it that four families settled on the South shore of Tenendeho Creek in 1764 in an area that came to be known as a "Borough of Halfmoon." The creek, which formed the dividing line between the VanSchaak and Schuyler land patents, drained Round Lake to the west and gave promise of being employed as a mill race.

Around 1800, small woolen and flour mills were established at the confluence of the Tenendeho and the Hudson River. An 1829 map lists two distinct settlements-"Mechanicville" and the "Borough'' - but it appears that the former name was commonly used by residents to designate their settlement which was located at the boundary between the towns of Stillwater and Halfmoon.   

For a time, local residents Jehu Hatfield and Joll Farnam made Mechanicville the center of the budding friction match industry, but their patent on these invaluable "loco focus" was easily broken by competitors and the match industry became established elsewhere. The community's name- designating a settlement of independent-craftsmen or "mechanics"- and "loco focus", have been forever linked with the Age of Jackson, for a reformist wing in the Democratic party was forced to conduct its meeting in 1835 in New York City by match-light when political opponents extinguished the gas lamps in their meeting place. Historians have ever since designated this working-class insurgency as "Locofocoism."

Mechanicville's place as an important interchange for commerce was established when the Champlain Canal reached the settlement in 1823, and it was solidified in 1835 when the Saratoga and Rensselaer Railway put track through the area. An English traveler that same year recorded his impressions of " a bustling, thriving place with a considerable population," while another traveler simultaneously described Mechanicville as "a flourishing little manufacturing village."

The village was formally incorporated in 1859 with a population of about 1000 and for the next two decades, it doubled in size as textile mills, sash and blind factories, and a linen thread company located in the area. Mechanicville's name briefly flashed before the nation in 1861 when one of its native sons, Elmer E. Ellsworth, became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. A friend of Lincoln and a law clerk in his office, the death of the heroic and romantic Ellsworth shocked the nation into the realization that the conflict between the North and the South gave promise of becoming a long and bloody war. After lying in state in the White House, Ellsworth's remains were buried in the local Hudson View Cemetery, the site of a large monument later erected in his honor by Civil War veterans.

Two events of great significance occurred in the last decades of the Nineteenth century and laid the basis of Mechanicville becoming a thriving industrial milltown. The Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Western Railway reached the community in 1878* and five years later, the Hudson River Water Power and Paper Company began construction of what was then the largest dam on the Hudson River. Rail connections and papermaking would become the basis of Mechanicville's growth and development for the better part of the next century. With railroad consolidation the order of the day, Mechanicville by 1900 was the site of extensive car repair shops and transfer yards for both the Boston and Maine and the Delaware and Hudson railroads. By World War I, the local yards had become one of the largest freight transfer yards in the United States. And, after the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company bought out the Duncan Paper Company in 1904,expansion of the industry locally proceeded apace until Mechanicville housed the largest book paper mill in the world. Along with textile mills, extensive brickyards, and sash and blind manufacturers in the area, Mechanicville became a thriving milltown of nearly 10,000 inhabitants by the 1920s.

Original settlers in the 1800s had been attracted to the community from New England states, but the burst of industry at the beginning of this century attracted large numbers of immigrants from Lithuania, Ireland, and Italy. This heterogeneous population still dominates the character of the community and has given it a close-knit, family-centered orientation even to this day.

By the end of the 1960s, the railroads were in a state of decline, local brickyards had succumbed to competition in other parts of the country, and the extensive Papermaking industry had ceased operations. What had once been a thriving milltown, which provided jobs locally, has now become a bedroom community for residents employed in Albany, Schenectady, and other area cities. However, although the population has declined to a little over 5000, Mechanicville residents maintain a strong sense of pride in their community and a unique quality of intimacy best captured by its annual Family Day Celebration every Fourth of July.