Rensselaer County played a key role in early America and in the history of the region. Upstate New York was home to the Mahicans and Iroquois when Dutch explorer Hendrik Hudson first sailed north in 1609, from what the British would later name New York City. Seeking a route to the Orient, he traveled up the Hudson River (then called the River of the Mountains) and instead found what is today known as the Rensselaer Gateway.
In 1629, pearl and diamond merchant Kiliaen Van Rensselaer purchased from the Mahicans a tract of land measuring 24 miles by 23 miles—today's Rensselaer County. The rolling farmland and picturesque riverfront would become home to more than three centuries of agricultural settlements, growing townships and booming industry and trade. With ample water access to the large markets of New York and Philadelphia, as well as other trading cities to the west, the area grew and developed as a major center of trade. The region is home to Fort Crailo, the home of the Van Rensselaer family, and is now a registered historic site in the city of Rensselaer.
The region played a key role in the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Bennington, for example, did not occur in Bennington, but in Walloomsac, in the Town of Hoosick, New York. The Continental Trail, the major route between New York City and Montreal, traversed Van Schaick Island in Cohoes. In fact, the Van Schaick Mansion served as headquarters for the Continental Army's Northern Department in 1777. The mansion housed Generals George Washington, Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold as they prepared for the decisive Battle of Saratoga. Fort Crailo, the home of the Van Rensselaer family and now a registered historic site in the city of Rensselaer, was used to house colonial troops as early as 1694. It sheltered militia troops in 1775 and 1776 as well.
During the War of 1812, a local military meat-supplier named Samuel Wilson stamped his packages "U.S." before shipping them off to American soldiers. The soldiers called the food, "Uncle Sam's" and the nickname has become part of U.S. history.
Throughout most of the 1800's, the Rensselaer Gateway remained at the center of America's emergence. The Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, and the Erie and Champlain Canals made this area the ideal location for the "birthplace" of the Industrial Revolution. Powered by abundant water, the region was a premiere location for the growing iron and textile industries. In addition, busy trade routes to Vermont, Massachusetts, Lake George and Lake Champlain enhanced the area's economic opportunity to become an industrial center.
During the Civil War, Scottish immigrant Henry Burden's innovative horseshoe-making machines kept the Union Army's mounts with reliable shoes. Neighbors Erastus Corning, John Griswold and John Winslow supplied major components of the U.S.S. Monitor, and later built the New World's first Bessemer steel plant. The Rensselaer Gateway's four bell foundries produced almost all of the nation's important bells, including the replacement for the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Along the Hudson River in Troy, another type of textile manufacturing began in the 1820's, the making of detachable shirt collars and cuffs. By the end of the century, Troy was the "collar and cuff capital of the world." At its height, approximately 15,000 people were employed in Troy collar shops. To this day, Troy is still known as the "Collar City."
During its industrial heyday, Troy's growth included an affinity for fine Victorian architecture. Captains of industry spared little expense in creating architectural gems along the city's streets. Beautiful buildings and engineering innovations can still be enjoyed today, thanks to restoration and preservation efforts of individuals and businesses.
» For more information on the rich history of Rensselaer County, please visit the Rensselaer County Historical Society at www.rchsonline.org