200-year-old map among items shown at Albany open house
ALBANY In 1810, $6,000 was a lot of money, but as far as Meredith Cherven-Holland is concerned, John Randall Jr. earned every penny.
The map Randall produced for the city of Albany on Sept. 10, 1810, “A Map of the Post Road Between the Cities of Albany and New York,” was among the many historical artifacts on exhibit Thursday morning at an open house held at the Albany County Hall of Records on Tivoli Street.
There was also the Dongan Charter of July 22, 1686 — the royal document that made Albany a city — as well as numerous other English and Dutch documents from the Colonial period. They were all part of a one-hour tour given by Albany County Clerk Thomas G. Clingan at Thursday’s open house celebrating Albany County’s 330th anniversary.
But it was Randall’s work that was the real showstopper.
“We have accounts of the common council meeting, and they paid him $6,000 to produce this map that laid out the route from Manhattan to Albany,” said Cherven-Holland. “After the Albany to Boston post road, it’s the second-earliest highway in America, and there is so much detail; every church, tavern and business is documented along the way. It’s an amazing piece of work.”
The map is about a yard wide and 23 feet long, and was uncovered by Cherven-Holland soon after she started working for the Hall of Records in 2008.
“I started looking at our collections and realized we didn’t really have an item-level list of each and every map,” remembered Cherven-Holland. “It had been in the city engineer’s office all rolled up, and when we unrolled it, we were just amazed and intrigued by it. It was in such amazing condition, I said we’re going to have to look further into this.”
Her research gave Cherven-Holland a much clearer picture of Randall, an Albany native who produced the map at age 20 without any formal schooling.
“He did an amazing amount of surveying, and he is the guy who laid the grid for the streets of Manhattan,” said Cherven-Holland. “He contributed greatly to the field of surveying by inventing special instruments, and he also worked on the Erie Canal and was a close friend of Simeon De Witt, the first surveyor general of the state of New York. He became eccentric, especially when he got older, and always seemed to be involved in some kind of controversy. But he is a fascinating figure.”
Randall, whose name is spelled various ways, is the subject of a 2013 book, “The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor,” by Columbia University professor Marguerite Holloway.
“It’s one of the blessings about working in a place like this,” Clingan said of Randall’s map. “Occasionally, you open up a box or a folder and you come across something that hasn’t been seen in a long time, and it’s something you have to share with other people.”
The map was only on display for Thursday’s open house, but the Hall of Records does try to accommodate anyone wishing to see one of their special items.
“We have a digital reproduction that someone took by standing over the map, taking pictures, and then stitched them all together,” said Cherven-Holland. “But if someone really wanted to see it, they could make an appointment, and we could unroll it and have it ready. We try to minimize handling it, but we do want people to come in and see things here. That’s why we’re here.”
According to Deputy County Clerk Patricia Bryce, who oversees the Tivoli Street facility, the public is more than welcome.
“We’re open every day [Monday through Friday] from 8:30 to 4:30, and you don’t need an appointment,” said Bryce. “You have to be patient; sometimes things take a while, and we don’t like to take too much stuff out of the vault at once. But a lot of people come in here looking for family genealogy or something about property and we’re able to help them. We get between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors a year.”
The Albany County Hall of Records has been around for 31 years, and has been on Tivoli Street since 2001.
“It’s a very interesting program because it’s the last surviving joint program between the city and the county,” said Clingan. “It’s been around as an entity since 1982, and this is the third different building it’s been housed in. When you’re in the business of collecting information, you often outgrow the size of your building.”