The city of Troy was founded more than 200 years ago on the banks of the Hudson River. Its history encompasses the Industrial Revolution, during which the city became a major producer of detachable collars, textiles, iron, and steel. The result of this activity is the presence today of numerous historic manufacturing sites as well as opulent nineteenth-century architecture. Historic preservation here has helped revitalize the city by providing fascinating areas to explore. The heritage of this industrial region has been maintained by the Rensselaer County Historical Society (RCHS ), Oakwood Cemetery, Burden Iron Works, and the RiverSpark Visitor Center.
Established in 1927, the Rensselaer County Historical Society is a non-profit educational organization that strives to “enrich the present and advocate for the future by bringing the region’s past to life … In pursuit of this mission, RCHS collects, preserves, studies, interprets and makes accessible a broad variety of objects and documents, and conducts educational programs to inspire public enthusiasm for the past.” The museum is located in two adjacent nineteenth-century townhouses—the historic and architecturally significant Hart-Cluett House and the Carr Building.
RCHS programs include exhibitions about Troy’s history that can be viewed in person or online. The museum has an extensive collection that includes furniture encompassing all major nineteenth-century styles, painting and sculpture, decorative arts (including major holdings of glassware, ceramics, and silver), costumes and textiles from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, household items, locally manufactured stoneware and iron- Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record ware, and artifacts relating to Troy’s contributions to American military history. (The RCHS also manages and administers the largest local library archives and research center in Rensselaer County; it is comprised of more than 30,000 items spanning three centuries.)
The museum’s “Resourceful People Orientation Gallery” provides visitors and members with highlights from the permanent collection and offers an interactive tour of the county via computer. It also provides an orientation to the museum and RCHS . Guided tours of the Federal-style Hart-Cluett House give visitors a glimpse of how wealthy New Yorkers lived in the early nineteenth century.
That was when Troy’s rich history began. The accumulation of wealth from local industry was used to build lavish mansions, magnificent churches, and grand public buildings. One of the grandest was the white marble townhouse that New York merchant and banker William Howard constructed for his only child, Betsey, and her husband, Richard P. Hart, an entrepreneur and president of the Troy Savings Bank. The Hart-Cluett House’s architecture and decor represent the finest in nineteenth-century design and craftsmanship.
The house’s second and third owners, George B. Cluett and his nephew, Albert E. Cluett, were involved in the business of manufacturing collars and shirts—and are a prime reason Troy earned the nickname “The Collar City.” At its height, Cluett, Peabody & Co. employed 3,000 workers in its factories and as pieceworkers in homes throughout the city. Like the Harts before them, the Cluetts contributed to many philanthropic ventures in Troy. Recognizing the house’s historic importance, Albert Cluett and his wife, Caroline Cluett, donated it to the RCHS in 1952.
Oakwood Cemetery, one of America’s largest rural cemeteries, overlooks 100 miles of the Hudson Valley as well as downtown Troy. From the 1600s to the early 1800s, burials in American cities were usually in church yards or city burial grounds. As cities grew in size, these burying grounds became inadequate. Doctor Jacob Bigelow of Harvard University advocated the creation of suburban “rural” cemeteries. (A prime factor in the location of these cemeteries was the escalating price of inner-city real estate, which pushed less profitable uses to the municipalities’ outskirts.) To make up for their distance from downtowns, rural cemeteries often were filled with natural or manmade ponds, trees, and shrubs.” Mount Auburn, established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, was America’s first rural cemetery.
Mount Auburn’s appeal was in “the romantic tradition, fitting in the gentle, informal contours of nature in a woodland setting.” It inspired the creation of similar cemeteries in cities all over the United States, particularly on the East Coast. In 1848, Oakwood Cemetery was established. It emulated Mount Auburn’s model of “resurrection-in-nature,” incorporating winding roads, ponds, waterfalls, statuary, and forests. It is a prime example of what a rural cemetery was meant to represent:
A beautiful retreat for citizens, to walk quietly in peaceful, natural surroundings while meditating on the deceased or caring for their family plots while picnicking. These rural cemeteries were the precursors and models for the large public parks … They were social meeting grounds, even serving as showcases for marriage-eligible daughters. Cities that created cemeteries as green spaces with heavy picturesque planting found that tens of thousands of visitors arrived to walk among the graves. (Troy Cemetery Association)
Since its inception, Oakwood Cemetery has become the final resting place for many prominent Americans, including Samuel Wilson, a prosperous meatpacker whose nickname—“Uncle Sam”—was transferred to the venerable figure personifying the United States government during the War of 1812, when Troy was an important center for assembling munitions and food for the army. In 1961, Samuel Wilson was formally recognized by Congress as the progenitor of the “Uncle Sam” icon, which has represented America around the world.
Another notable historic site in Troy is the Burden Iron Works, which once was home to the Burden Water Wheel—sixty-two feet in diameter and twenty-two feet in breadth. Water to turn it came from a small stream, the Wynantskill. Its inventor was Henry Burden, an engineer whose horseshoe-making machine was a wonder of technology. Burden immigrated to the United States in 1819 from Scotland. In 1822, he began working in Troy’s iron industry as the superintendent of the Troy Iron and Nail factory. Burden’s innovative ideas helped make the factory extremely profitable. He soon took over the factory and renamed the business H. Burden and Sons.
Although the water wheel no longer stands, Burden and Sons’ office building now houses the Burden Iron Works Museum, which delves into Troy’s industrial history. It contains objects manufactured in the city throughout the nineteenth century, when its “factories produced parts of the U.S.S. Monitor, the replacement for the Liberty Bell, and some of the world’s most innovative products, including stoves, mass-produced horseshoes and railroad spikes, detachable shirt collars, fire hydrants and surveying equipment.” (www.hudsonrivervalley.com)
The Burden Iron Works museum is operated by the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, which also maintains downtown Troy’s Riverspark Visitor Center. The center offers a great introduction to Troy and its rich industrial heritage. It also offers a self-guided walking tour that enables visitors to admire the city’s large collection of Tiffany windows illustrating religious, historic, and pastoral themes. Among the ten sites on the tour are St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, and the Hart Memorial Library.
The Rensselaer County Historical Society is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, February to December 23. Admission is: $5 adults, $4 seniors, and $3 youth (12-18 yrs.). Children under 12 are free. Members always receive free admission, as do students with ID. RCHS can be contacted by phone at 518-272-7232, or visited online at www.rchsonline.org. Oakwood Cemetery’s Avenue Gate is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Additional history and virtual tours are available at www.oakwoodcemetery.org. The Burden Iron Works Museum is open by appointment only; www.hudsonmohawkgateway.org. Dates and hours of operation at the Troy’s Riverspark Visitor Center vary throughout the year; call (518) 270-8667 or visit www.troyvisitorcenter.org for more information.