Faster and faster: News spread in churches and taverns, then through papers and telegraph, by phone and by films

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Meadowdale Station, once located next to the tracks on Meadowdale Road, was one of the Delaware & Hudson’s smaller depots. Notice the telegraph poles in the background. The National Telegraph Company had run lines between Albany and Binghamton along the railroad route.

Victory at Yorktown; ratification of the Constitution; George Washington’s death; the British invasion of Washington, D.C.; election of Andrew Jackson; outbreak of the Civil War; assassination of Lincoln — when and how did 18th- and 19th-century Guilderland residents learn of these events?

Even though Albany was just a few miles away, Guilderland’s 18th-Century residents were quite isolated. As anti-British agitation increased during the 1770s, there were discussions pro and con after church services and at local taverns.

A few Guilderland men were likely members of the secret Committees of Correspondence, headquartered in both Albany and Schenectady. Minutes of the Schenectady Committee mention “information having been given to the Board …” meant either in letter form or orally. Eventually some of this would have orally filtered down to the public.

An additional way of learning information was the broadsheet, a printed single sheet that could be posted or circulated, and this is known to have been used to spread the contents of the Declaration of Independence quickly in 1776. It is on record that the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to an Albany crowd from the steps of the old Stadt Huys on July 19 and within days news could have reached most people in the area.

Although the Albany Gazette, the city’s earliest newspaper, was briefly published from 1771 to 1776, after 1782 there was always one Albany newspaper or another, usually circulating beyond its original purchaser. Newspapers were frequently left on tavern tables by travelers or local subscribers well into the 19th Century and occasionally out-of-the-area papers would show up.

Discussion and debates over national issues, as between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over whether the proposed 1789 Constitution should be ratified, were very heated. As political parties emerged, newspapers were partisan sources of what was going on in government and also included bits of foreign news.

In an era when we can actually view an event as it happens, a look back at the Oct. 4, 1814 Albany Register is instructive as it shows early 19th-Century Guilderland residents learned of news well after the fact. With the War of 1812 still ongoing, reports of British threats and actions at Sackets Harbor and Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh were described in letters sent to Albany, taking only a week to appear in print.

In the Sept. 30 Albany Register, there was the reprint of song stanzas which began with “O, say can you see by the dawn’s early light ….,” composed by a “gentleman” as he watched the Sept. 13 to 14 British shelling of Fort McHenry.

Foreign news of that era revolved around Napoleon. The description of his “dethronement” and exile to Elba after his defeat in April eventually appeared in the June 14th Register.

Whether or not the Register reached any readers in Guilderland isn’t known, but it could have been left on a Western Turnpike tavern table by a traveler or purchased by a Guilderland resident who had journeyed into Albany.

Attendance at church was not only spiritual, but an opportunity for the exchange of both personal and local news or to discuss issues affecting the state or nation. Records of the Helderberg Reformed Church indicate that, in 1795, the sum of 5 pounds, 7 shillings was collected for prisoners of the Algerians “to Redeem and Ransom the unhappy sufferers from America in Bondage now in Algeria.”

They had obviously become aware of the problems caused by the Barbary pirates raiding American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean, a foreign policy problem that plagued our early presidents.

Roads and the post office

Communications in the early republic improved with the road-building boom following the Revolutionary War years. Beginning in 1799, the construction of the Great Western Turnpike running through Guilderland to connect Albany and Cherry Valley brought a constant flow of travelers who shared all sorts of news and opinions in the many taverns lining the road.

Local men also frequented these taverns where politics was a popular and often contentious subject of conversation and debate. Numerous taverns were located along the Schoharie Road as well.

During Washington’s administration, the creation of the Post Office led to the establishment of post offices, located first in densely populated areas, then gradually out into the rural areas of the nation. 

Guilderland’s first post office, although established in Hamilton, was named Guilderland in 1815. It was followed by West Guilderland in 1829 at Severson’s Tavern, Guilderland Center in 1831, and Dunnsville in 1833.

In order for news and information to circulate in the fledgling democracy, Washington’s administration deliberately set low postal rates for publications with the result that newspapers flourished, providing the chief source of state, national, and foreign news for 19th-Century Americans.

In 1833, there were several local men who subscribed to the following titles: Lutheran Observer, Albany Weekly Journal, Albany Gazette, Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, Christian Advocate and Journal, Methodist Weekly, New York Baptist Register, Mothers’ Monthly Journal, Albany Argus, New York Weekly Messenger, and Philadelphia Courier — all delivered to the West Guilderland Severson’s Tavern Post Office.

Records of deliveries at Guilderland, Guilderland Center, and Dunnsville at this period no longer exist, but surely people in those areas received publications as well and much of this print passed from hand to hand or ended up on tavern tables instead of being discarded by the original recipients. Reports of events in the outside world circulated slowly, but eventually did reach into this rural area.

 

Rail and telegraph

Beginning in 1831, railroad building speeded up communication, both in carrying newspapers from cities and providing faster mail delivery. Not that these changes occurred quickly, especially for outlying rural areas.

It took until 1863 for the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad, later Delaware & Hudson, to connect Knowersville (no longer West Guilderland) to Albany. Two years later, passing through Guilderland Center and Fullers, was the Saratoga and Hudson, later becoming part of the New York Central’s West Shore Railroad.

Along with rail lines came telegraph lines. Originally demonstrated successfully in 1844, within two years a telegraph line connected Albany and New York City.

Usually running alongside railroad roadbeds and tracks, the wire was connected to depots. Each one of Guilderland’s four depots eventually had its own telegrapher, allowing important national news to spread quickly.

The word of Abraham Lincoln’s death would have been known within a day or two by anyone living near Knowersville depot if the telegraph line there had been already established by 1865.

Foreign news arrived by ship weeks after the event until 1867 when a permanent trans-Atlantic cable was laid and cut the time to telegraph news between the United States and Europe to hours. In 1901, over half of the Albany Argus’ front page was given over to detailed news of Queen Victoria’s death one day after her passing.

 

Newspapers

After the mid-19th-Century, most Guilderland newspaper readers either subscribed to the Albany Evening Journal or the Albany Argus. The two major Albany dailies were unashamedly partisan, the Journal being definitely in the Whig/Republican camp while The Argus was firmly Democratic.

Newspapers offered subscriptions for  biweekly or weekly editions, probably more convenient and reasonably priced than the daily paper. Nine dollars brought an annual weekly subscription to the Albany Evening Journal, while The Argus was six dollars.

With the passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act by Congress in 1896, mail began to be delivered directly to rural farms, although it took until 1902 for all of Guilderland to have rural mail delivery. With this, it made subscribing to an Albany weekly or biweekly or possibly daily newspaper practical.

Locally, in 1877, Rev. N. Klock founded a short-lived four-page newspaper called the Golden Era, which he published until he left the area in 1882. An 1880 copy included area news that kept readers of the paper in touch with the doings of their neighbors. Whether from bankruptcy or just the desire to move on, Mr. Klock left town and the newspaper died.

Within two years, David Crowe established a new four-page weekly newspaper to be called The Knowersville Enterprise. The editor ran a column in the second issue entitled “A Spicy Little Paper,” where he claimed to want to make The Enterprise “a readable journal” that would cover “the doings and happenings in all the surrounding towns and world.”

Coverage was to include “who has left town and who has arrived, who preaches, who teaches, who raises the best crops, who keeps the finest stock, who has bought a farm and who has sold it, who has begun life and who has left it ….” His plan was to have this information supplied by local people in the area to be covered.

His publishing venture occurred at the right place at the right time! News immediately began to be submitted from as far away as Gallupville and, to the editor’s delight, the subscription list so far had “exceeded our most sanguine expectations.”

True to its mission, news in the first few issues included such items as, “The little daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Pangburn is seriously ill with diphtheria.” Sadly, the following week the announcement appeared that 11-year-old Maggie Pangburn had died.

“Charles Shoudy raised 623 bushels of oats from 33 bushels sown without using any fertilizer, who can beat it?” “Foss Coon’s dog was killed by being run over by the Saratoga Limited express … his loss is to be regretted.”

For the next several decades, these personal tidbits were the major selling point of The Enterprise not only for Guilderland, but also the Hilltowns and New Scotland and even points beyond. It was the Facebook of that day!

 

Phones, movies, and radio

Just as the invention of the telegraph speeded news, the technology breakthrough of the telephone improved communications. Its first appearance in Knowersville was in 1886 with the building of the resort hotel the Kushaqua.

Wealthy Albanians demanding access to a telephone resulted in a line being strung out from Albany to the Kushaqua and to the two hotels. Newspaper reporting became more up-to-the-minute once journalists had access to phones.

A second technology breakthrough appeared in Guilderland when the Ladies Aid Society of St. John’s Church sponsored an October 1897 showing of the first movie seen in town. There was no plot, only a series of brief scenes, but for the first time average citizens could see an actual event or important person.

One of the scenes viewed that day was of President William McKinley taking the oath of office. For a brief moment, the onlookers were made to feel as if they were there, even though this was six months after the actual event.

The development of newsreels later, in the 1920s, would allow citizens to have a more personal impression of events and people in the news.

Once radio became part of daily life in the 20th Century, Americans really could begin to hear news of national and foreign events within a very short time.

While it took weeks for the news of George Washington’s death to circulate, a very few days for everyone to hear of Lincoln’s assassination, FDR’s sudden death in 1945 was broadcast nationwide within minutes of the information being released.

Breaking news had become part of American life.