Op-ed column: Walks around Schenectady evoke mythic legends
In May 1960 our parents informed us that immediately following the last day of school, we would be taking a road trip from our home in Springfield, Mass., to Niagara Falls.
The anticipation of visiting a place that we had seen only on postcards was exciting enough, but we were also told to get hold of a road map at the gas station around the corner, trace our route with a red marker, then look up anything we could about the cities and towns we would be stopping at along the way.
When I noticed that part of our journey would be taking us through the Mohawk Valley, I found one of those now-vintage junior encyclopedias in the local library and stumbled upon Samuel Sexton’s action-packed painting of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre.
“Schenectady.” The otherworldly sound of it, so different than the stern New England tones of “Plymouth” or “Salem,” was enough to make me dream of resolute Mohawk warriors furiously paddling their canoes and Dutch farmers smoking their long clay pipes while clomping about in wooden shoes.
Earlier that year I had been allowed to stay up to watch “Drums Along the Mohawk” on “Saturday Night at the Movies,” so I naturally expected to encounter Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda as they struggled to survive on their remote Mohawk Valley farm during the American Revolution.
But my first glimpse of the Electric City proved to be something of a disappointment. As I peered into downtown Schenectady from the back of our green and white 1957 Ford Fairlane, I only saw an identical though smaller version of busy downtown Springfield. No Mohawks, no Dutchmen — at least as far as I could tell — and worst of all, no dramatic massacre.
When I began living and working in Schenectady 20 years later, I learned about the city’s rich history by visiting the Schenectady County Historical Society, checking out local historical markers, and reading the works of John Sanders, Joel Monroe, Willis Hanson and Larry Hart. I discovered that though Schenectady had experienced the same ups and downs as other cities, it also enjoyed a unique blend of history, myth, legend and folklore all rolled alchemically into one.
Yet I didn’t really get a feel for the city until I began to take long walks in and around it. Henry David Thoreau, best known for his classic “Walden,” once suggested that daily walking should not be solely for exercise but a “sort of crusade,” “the enterprise and adventure of the day.” With that in mind, I began to explore on foot the ancient and modern streets, alleyways and trails of Schenectady.
Schenectady’s aboriginal, industrial and political history is well documented but there is something about its atmosphere that easily lends itself to the mythic imagination. Ascending Fehr Avenue from State Street is akin to climbing the forbidden heights of Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods.
On one of those many pre-dawn odysseys, I took a detour down a gated trail off of Fehr [Avenue] and came upon what looked to me like a sacred grove where I expected to see Jason himself fighting off the serpent guarding the Golden Fleece.
Returning to the main road, I turned to the left into Central Park proper and spied Schenectady’s modern-day Gryphon, the Great Blue Heron, standing motionless and vigilant, watching over his pond. He didn’t sport the lion’s head and eagle’s wings of his legendary predecessor, but he still appeared majestic and powerful. He may well have been waiting for the “Lady of the Lake,” whom I hoped would surface from the pond long enough to offer Excalibur to some 21st century King Arthur.
Upon approaching Central Park’s Monument Hill, one is immediately struck by the large statue of the Spanish-American War veteran overlooking Iroquois Lake. He has been at his post since May 30, 1921, when he was placed there by the local veterans of that conflict and the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors, but I have come to perceive him as Kronos, one of the immortal Titans and father of Zeus, and now cast in bronze by Hephaestus, Greek god of artisans.
Just behind him is the Rose Garden, Schenectady’s Shangri-la. There I thought I saw Ronald Coleman testing fate itself by trying to persuade Jane Wyatt to leave the security of her immortal paradise and return with him to the so-called “real” world.
During one late winter walk from the end of Washington Avenue and along the Mohawk to Riverside Park, I recklessly attempted to satisfy a childhood desire to ride on an Arctic ice floe.
Despite the always-sensible warnings of my other half, I chose one of the thousands of white monoliths that had jammed the river closest to the bank under the early spring sun and took a step; of course, the slushy slab of ice immediately sank, saturating my sneaker and sock. When I looked up, there was the old philosopher Heraclitus leaning on the old French cannon and shaking with laughter. “No man ever steps into the same river twice,” he roared, pointing a gnarled finger in my direction. It’s a thought I’ve kept in mind during the spring thaw ever since.
Not long ago, I visited the Schenectady County Historical Society and stood for some time before that famous painting of the massacre I had first seen in our local library so long ago. I found myself dreaming once again of Schenectady as I had imagined it would be when I was 8 years old and suddenly felt that I had somehow found my way home. That dream, tempered by the passage of time, remains with me even now, more than a half-century on.
Neil Yetwin lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.