Less than ten years later, another revolution in transportation took place in Albany with the chartering of the first railroad in New York State. In 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad inaugurated service between Albany and Schenectady, sixteen miles to the west, and within the next twenty years, railroads radiated in all directions from the city in the same way that turnpikes had around 1800. The railroad in some ways eclipsed the Erie Canal in importance because it was able to operate during all seasons, but the canal remained an important element in Albany’s development as well.
As Albany was developing as a transportation crossroads, it was also developing as an industrial center. Industries such as breweries, iron foundries, stove manufactories, and concerns related to shipping and railroading provided employment for the city’s growing population.
At the same time, some residents of Albany became interested in the anti-slavery movement that was sweeping the nation. (Slavery had been abolished in 1827 in the state of New York.) The city assumed a cosmopolitan air at this time, with people of all races travelling through either by canal, steamboat, railroad or road, and it quickly became an important stop on the Underground Railroad that stretched from the American South to Upstate New York and Canada. The most important figures in Albany in this movement were African-Americans Stephen and Harriet Myers, who were active from at least 1830 up to the time of the Civil War. This couple and their colleagues assisted hundreds of freedom-seekers in this period and the Albany “station” was said to be one of the best-run in the region, according to their contemporaries from outside the area. The building where they lived and operated the local Vigilance Committee is an individually-listed site on the National Register of Historic Places recognized with national significance.
Albany’s citizens fought in the Civil War, including a unit of Zouaves, and several regiments.
As a major city, and one that had a diverse population from its earliest European settlement period, Albany received a significant number of immigrants throughout the nineteenth century. The ethnic background of the immigrants generally corresponded to national trends, with Irish and German families arriving shortly before the Civil War, followed by German and Russian Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans and many other smaller groups in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond.
After the end of the Civil War, the state of New York decided that its small Capitol building was not adequate to the governmental needs of the state and was not fitting for what had become the largest state in the union. Beginning in 1867 and ending in 1899, a new Capitol was constructed in Albany, with four architects, including Henry Hobson Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz, and grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Architecturally unique, the present-day Capitol was also the place where three of the four New York State Governors who became presidents of the United States served the people of the state: Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.
As the twentieth century opened, Albany continued to remain a major United States city although its relative size diminished as cities in the Mid-West and West grew in size and importance. The city continued to be the home of various immigrant groups and its industries continued to provide employment for its growing population. Recognizing the continued importance of water transportation to the economic health of the state, New York State rebuilt its canal system in the opening years of the twentieth century with the new Barge Canal system, replacing many parts of the Erie and adjacent canals that relied on horse- and mule-driven boats. The city established the first municipal airport in the United States in 1927 and greatly expanded its Hudson River Port at the same time.
The Great Depression took its toll on residents of Albany, but it was also the place where Franklin Roosevelt experimented with state-funded relief efforts as state governor between 1928 and 1932, ideas that his administration further developed and refined on a national scale after he became president in 1932. The city also supplied soldiers and industrial products to the national effort following the outbreak of World War II in 1941.
The post-war period in Albany was one of significant changes to the city’s industrial base, its population, and its physical development. The city reached its highest population of nearly 135,000 people in the 1950 census, but its population and industries declined in the period following that. After the war, a large African-American migration from the South increased the black population of Albany and other northern cities, but the city’s population in general declined over the years to fewer than 100,000 today.
The most significant physical change in the city came in 1962 with the announcement by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of the construction of the (now) Empire State Plaza adjacent to the State Capitol, which cleared 98 acres of buildings and streets for a new complex of state offices and assembly spaces, as well as a new state library and museum.
After completion of the project in 1978 and a new interest in urban living on the part of young people and “empty-nesters,” the neighborhoods surrounding the Plaza were rehabilitated in large part with the assistance of federal Community Development Block Grant funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the same time, the national historic preservation movement took root in Albany with the incorporation of Historic Albany Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to the preservation of the built environment in Albany.