I won't be around today but everyone else can feel free to discuss fishing, canals, or whatever strikes your fancy in the comments...
My great-grandfather Michael has always been a mysterious figure to our family. He died in 1915, shortly before my grandfather turned six, so details about him were scarce. Since I started my genealogy research in early 2012, I’ve learned a lot about him thanks to a whole pile of documents and a few people with better knowledge. Because I’ve always been drawn to the water, I’ve been particular interested to learn more about Michael’s life as a boatman.
Michael was born on January 18, 1874, in Ballyvaghan (or Ballyvaughan), County Clare, Ireland, a small fishing village on Galway Bay now well-known on the tourist trail. Just to the west lies the eerie landscape known as The Burren, with the Cliffs of Moher at its western end. Ten miles north, across the bay, is Galway City. Michael’s parents were John and Ann (good luck researching that family…). He was the fourth child, and third son, in the family, and had two younger siblings, a sister born a year later and a brother nearly nine years younger.
The R477 along Galway Bay west of Ballyvaghan. My great-grandfather grew up fishing these waters.
Ballyvaghan is famous for this sign. The Irish government ordered it taken down but relented in the face of popular outcry.
Fishing was the family business. Starting at the age of about 13, Michael went out on the turbulent bay with his father and brother Thomas in a traditional currach
. By this time the oldest brother, John, spent his days on a Galway hooker (it’s a boat
– what were you thinking?). The Clare coast has abundant bass, mackerel, pollock, and oysters.
A traditional Galway Hooker on Galway Bay
But the Ballyvaghan fishing industry was in decline in the late 1880s. After Michael’s mother died in 1889, when he was 15, and his little sister Maggie died in 1890, John decided to take his family to America. They (John and his five children, aged 7 to 26) arrived in Boston in September 1891, making 17-year-old Michael and his father John the last of my direct ancestors to emigrate from Ireland to the United States.
The family settled in Albany, New York, where they already had many relatives – they might have taken the Boston & Albany Railroad, which runs right past my current home, to get there. The capital of New York State and home to a large Irish population, Albany at that time was also the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal and a major transportation center. Michael’s family settled in a neighborhood known as the North End, a stone’s throw from where the canal met the Hudson River. In fact, they lived on Centre Street, literally across the street from Lock No. 1 at the Albany Canal Basin, perhaps seeking some easier waters than Galway Bay in their new nation.
An 1857 map shows how Albany would have looked to my great-grandfather when he arrived 35 years later. The red arrow shows his house, right near the small basin then at the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal. A larger basin was just south (left), next to downtown Albany. Neither survives; Albany's riverfront today is an interstate. The blue arrow to the right shows the canal, now filled in and paved over, running parallel to the Hudson River with the smaller canals of the Lumber District in between.
This neighborhood was the original home of the Phelans of Albany author William Kennedy’s novels Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed; Kennedy’s troubled ballplayer Franny Phelan was between Michael and his younger brother William in age, and grew up on Colonie Street, two blocks from their home. The novels mention Lock No. 1, which ceased to exist (though it was excavated in 2002
by two Union College professors).
Lock Number 1 on the old Erie Canal, just across the street from my great-grandfather's front door, as it would have looked in his day.
in 2002 Professors Andrew Wolfe and Denis Foley of Union College worked with local artist Len Tantillo to unearth the long-buried and forgotten canal lock.
In those days the Erie Canal (which, as we shall see, was re-routed clear out of Albany in the early 1900s) jutted west of the Hudson for only a block or two before turning northward for a number of miles. The small area just across the canal basin from Michael’s new home was known as the Albany Lumber District. A miniature industrial Venice, the Lumber District was a mile and a half long, with over 30 short slip canals pointing east toward the nearby Hudson. It had a near-monopoly in the northeastern United States for numerous kinds of wood, notably white pine, and small fortunes were made in the Albany lumber business.
The Albany Lumber District in the 1870s. It looked much the same when my great-grandfather worked here in the 1890s, but by 1910 was practically gone.
Despite an extensive system of fire hoses and hydrants, fear of conflagration led the lumber barons to resist allowing any kind of locomotive into the Lumber District. As a result, the canal boats had a regular supply of customers. Michael and his brothers, quickly learning their way around the boats that plied the canal, obtained work as lumber boatmen. Michael traveled the canal, heading west to other ports in New York State, and then later worked on barges and tugboats steaming down the Hudson to New York City.
My great-grandfather's boat was more of the barge variety, but I still like to think this is him sailing up the Hudson
Michael appears to have remained employed throughout the Depression that began in 1893, but he had to: his father John (who had remarried in Albany) died in 1895 and Michael and his brother William lived with John’s sister Mary (who was nearly 70) after their father passed away. But just as the fishing industry in Ballyvaghan was on hard times in the late 1880s, by 1900 the lumber and canal boat industries (and indeed the canal itself) were on the way out in Albany.
The Beverwyck Brewery, which was owned after the 1870s by the Irishmen Quinn and Nolan but retained its Dutch name, was about a block from my great-grandfather's house in Albany. I bet he had a few.
The Erie Canal at this point was in poor repair and had not been updated in three decades. Bills to improve the canal went nowhere at the New York State Capitol, a ten-minute walk from Michael’s home, despite then-Governor Teddy Roosevelt’s 1899 exhortation that “the present canal must be enlarged.” Legislators argued that there was little point in funding canal improvements, as water shipping was being supplanted by railroads.
The legislature’s inaction at the turn of the 20th century is one of many “but-for” historical events I’ve encountered since I started learning more about my family’s history: if the canal in Albany had been improved more quickly, I probably would not exist. As it turned out, in 1901 Michael’s stepmother Mary died, and the next year he and his brother William left Albany. They moved to Brooklyn, where they went to work on boats operating from the short but extremely busy Gowanus Canal. In 1905 he married my great-grandmother Catherine, who lived near the Gowanus with her family, and the rest is history. Michael became a tugboat captain, and he and his wife had two children in their first four years of marriage, the second being my grandfather.
The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn in 1905, the year my great-grandparents married within blocks of it. My great-grandfather captained a barge that traveled from the Gowanus to upstate New York on the Hudson River and to Philadelphia via New Jersey's Delaware and Raritan Canal.
The Gowanus in our day. It spent many years as one of the nation's most polluted places.
During these years Michael’s old neighborhood in Albany was not faring as well. In 1903, the year after Michael left for Brooklyn, the state legislature finally authorized modernization of the canal, merging the Erie and other canals across the state into the New York State Barge Canal. Ironically, however, the Barge Canal plan adopted by the state legislature would harm the state capital, Albany, the most.
By the time the modernized canal was completed in 1918, Albany had been frozen out of altogether. Engineering improvements had rendered obsolete the original reason for routing the canal through Albany instead of along the Mohawk River to its north: the inability to surmount the Cohoes Falls at Waterford, ten miles north of Albany where the Mohawk meets the Hudson. In the new Barge Canal scheme, an ambitious series of five locks known as the “Waterford Flight,” perhaps the steepest flight of locks in the world, lifts boats 169 feet over a mile and a half, rendering the detour south to Albany unnecessary.
The previously insurmountable falls on the Mohawk River at Cohoes led to the Erie Canal's eastern terminus being at Albany for nearly a century.
One of the the Waterford locks. This flight of locks, five of them over less than two miles, made it possible for the Erie Canal to run parallel to the Mohawk River all the way from its junction with the Hudson. Albany no longer was needed for the Erie Canal. For me it's a bittersweet achievement.
The Albany Lumber District, its activity dwindling over the years, first allowed locomotive trains in 1906. In 1908, as if to prove their fears had been founded all along, a fire destroyed much of the district and Albany ceased to be a major lumber distribution center. In the 1920s, the new Barge Canal having opened in Waterford in 1918, the final indignity came. The Lumber District’s slip canals and the original Erie Canal and basin in Albany were filled in, and the canal bed turned into present-day “Erie Boulevard,” a dreary street in a neighborhood that’s never really recovered.
The hideous "Erie Boulevard" runs along the former canal route, but ends abruptly at the Albany-Menands border because Menands wanted no part of another major industrial thoroughfare.
This is what's left of my great-grandfather's bustling neighborhood
This historic marker along the Hudson is the only indication the Erie Canal, which made New York "The Empire State," every flowed through Albany's North End
Other than a couple of historic markers (and despite a plan ten years ago to build another canal and marina on the site), there’s not a hint the Erie Canal once began here. Not a hint that this was once the site of the famed public works project – scorned as a boondoggle when Governor DeWitt first proposed it a century earlier – that made New York the Empire State and New York City a world capital. Michael’s old street, full of brick tenement buildings in the 1890s, has one hulking industrial warehouse and a slew of vacant lots. The local Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s on Arbor Hill, closed in the 1990s and the building is owned by the Historic Albany Foundation, which is hoping to restore it and find a permanent use for it.
My great-great-grandfather, Michael's father John, was buried from St. Joseph's Church in Albany. The church saw its last mass in 1995 and was owned by the city for a while before it was transferred to the Historic Albany Foundation, which has been raising money to restore it since 2003.
You’d think, under these circumstances, that Michael never looked back, but it’s not true. While living in Brooklyn, Michael teamed up with his brother Thomas and some friends to promote amateur boxing matches in the Albany area. He thus spent a lot of time in Albany, and in nearby cities like Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs, New York; and Pittsfield and North Adams, Massachusetts. He missed the city he’d called home for a decade.
My great-grandfather Michael on the left and his son, my grandfather James, on the right. I see a lot of resemblance in the ears, eyes, eyebrows, etc.
My great-grandmother Catherine a few years before she married Michael
In 1910, when my grandfather was a year old, he even persuaded his wife to try living in Watervliet, just north of Albany. Perhaps Michael wanted to leave Brooklyn because the Gowanus Canal, later a Superfund site, already was oozing with pollution by 1910. But the Watervliet experiment lasted only about two months; she missed her large family in Brooklyn and was terrified of the squirrels and raccoons that got into the attic of their house upstate. Back to Brooklyn they went, and Michael’s grandson and namesake, my uncle Michael, still lives there today.
Thus it was in Brooklyn that the original Michael died, of pneumonia, on March 1, 1915. He was only 41 years old. Five months earlier Michael’s third child, named William after his brother (who returned to the Albany area), had died of the same disease at only 7 months. His widow, my great-grandmother, moved with her children to her sister’s nearby home. Also living there were her parents (who soon after died themselves), and a large assortment of brothers, brothers-in-law, nieces, and nephews.
My grandfather was born, and my great-grandfather died, in this Brooklyn house
The family persevered, but Michael’s memory remained. Each summer his widow took her children upstate, retracing a honeymoon cruise she’d taken with her husband that was one of her most cherished memories. Michael, she said, spent half his life on boats but never tired of being on the water. All his life, my grandfather loved the beautiful Hudson River his father had worked along. (I love it too – the first day trip my wife and I ever took together was to one of those Hudson River towns my grandfather loved, Cold Spring.)
Michael's (and my) beloved Hudson River, at Cold Spring, New York
Later, Michael’s two surviving children would each have one son. They each named that son Michael. My cousin Michael, an avid boater his whole adult life, traveled the Erie Canal by boat in 2012. He had no idea his grandfather (whom he never knew) had done it so many times so many years earlier. But he’s the one who had the only pictures of Michael I’ve ever seen, including the one posted above. So I gave him the history and he let me scan the photos. Then we went out on the boat. I think Michael, our ancestor, would be pleased.