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Rotterdam establishing forever-wild park in honor of Vincent Schaefer

Thursday, March 13, 2014
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Photographer: Erin O'Neill

— The area just west of Schenectady’s Bellevue neighborhood was a vast natural playground for a young Vincent Schaefer.

The man who would one day achieve fame as a scientist and naturalist took frequent forays through the nearly untamed woods that once extended from the city’s border beyond Rotterdam Junction to the west. As a boy, Schaefer was given free reign to wander about the mature forest and babbling brooks that existed there during the early 20th century.

Though some of this land has fallen prey to development, other parts remain nearly pristine. This includes roughly 37 acres of sloped terrain that has been owned by the town for decades.

“This is where he and his brothers and sisters used to wander when they were teenagers and kids,” said his son, Jim Schaefer.

Rotterdam is now honoring the memory of Schaefer— the General Electric Co. scientist who invented cloud-seeding and color television tubes — by establishing a forever-wild park in his honor. Don Rittner, the former Schenectady County historian who published an autobiography on Schaefer last year, successfully spearheaded an effort to have the town designate the parcel last year and is planning to map the new preserve this spring.

Though there are no plans to carve trails through the land, there are plenty of existing wildlife trails to navigate. The land, however, isn’t an easy hike because much of it is on a hillside.

Schaefer’s preserve is also basically landlocked by railroad tracks and utility right-of-ways, which is one of the reasons it remains pristine. Located west of Rice Road and north of a National Grid power substation off Schermerhorn Road, the property is about 1,700 feet west of the Old Maids Woods — a preserve established by the city of Schenectady during the 1970s — and about 2,000 feet east of the sprawling Plotterkill Nature Preserve.

The designation is a fitting tribute for Schaefer, his son said, considering that it was an area he cherished in his life, which was one dedicated to conservation. He said his father would frequently take long hikes into the woods from his family’s home in Bellevue roughly three miles away.

Even later in life, Schaefer used to hike the woods. He settled in a home on Schermerhorn Road just a short distance from where National Grid’s access road leads up toward the preserve now bearing his name.

An avid outdoorsman, Schaefer was instrumental in helping to establish many preserves and trails across the state. His vision lead to the creation of the Long Path, which extends from the George Washington Bridge in New York City to the top of Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks. He founded the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club and the Schenectady Wintersports Club.

Schaefer’s scientific acclaim is equally lengthy. At GE’s Research Laboratory, Schaefer formed a two-decade collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning Irving Langmuir that led to him earning 18 patents and three honorary doctoral degrees — despite having quit high school at the age of 16.

Schaefer went on to work for Project Cirrus, a top-secret laboratory directed by the U.S. Air Force and Navy, later leaving GE to become director of research at the Munitalp Foundation. In 1960, he was named director of research at University at Albany’s fledgling Atmosphere Sciences Research Center.

“He was a great guy,” said Rittner, a personal friend of Schaefer’s whose book “Serendipity in Science: Twenty Years at Langmuir University” was published in May. “I wanted to honor his memory in some way.”

 
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