New York's Capital Region in 50 Objects

New York's Capital Region in 50 Objects


Each region of the nation has its own distinctive history and identity. The New York’s Capital Region—consisting of Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and Saratoga Counties—is no different. But what best identifies the region? What events, objects, people, and ideas have contributed to its character and uniqueness?

To learn the answers, we presented these questions to the numerous museums, historical organizations, libraries, and residents of the Capital Region. The fifty objects that were ultimately selected present an exciting history of the Capital Region, including well-known favorites but also unexpected surprises. Some of the fifty objects characterize very broad topics like the textile industry and the Hudson River School of art, while others embody large populations of people who shaped the character of the region, such as the Dutch and the Iroquois. Many objects represent specific people or events, such as writer William Kennedy and the Battle of Saratoga. In some instances, the objects represent themselves, like the GE Monitor Top refrigerator and Albany’s beloved Nipper statue. A complementary image accompanies each of the fifty objects, providing context and additional information.

Overall, the fifty objects clearly demonstrate that this narrowly circumscribed part of New York State has played an astonishing role in shaping the history of the nation and, in several instances, the world beyond the confines of our national borders.

Erie Canal

The concept for a canal linking the Hudson River to the interior of the North American continent originated in the late eighteenth century. The opening of land in the trans-Appalachian west following the American Revolution created two needs: first, the need to survey and map western lands, and second, the need to build transportation infrastructure to bring western products to East Coast markets.

In 1825, after eight years of construction, the Erie Canal opened to great public acclaim. It was an engineering marvel that spanned New York State for 363 miles, stretching from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo.

To commemorate the opening celebration in 1825, a special medal and box were created, illustrated here. The medal, struck in either gold, silver, or white metal, displayed the official seal of the Erie Canal, which included the ancient Greek and Roman gods Pan and Neptune who represented the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean respectively. The small circular wooden boxes designed to house the medals were made by New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. According to a label pasted inside the boxes, the wood used in their construction was cut in the Great Lakes region and shipped to New York City in the first boat to traverse the canal, the Seneca Chief. Symbolically and materially, the two great waters of Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean were united.

At several times during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Erie Canal was enlarged to accommodate larger vessels. The Erie Barge Canal, the last expansion and the last effort to make the canal profitable, opened in 1915. Unfortunately, it could not compete with expanding railroads and the highway systems that began to be built in the 1930s. Today, the Erie Canal serves mainly pleasure boaters and tourists.

Erie Canal Commemorative Token in Wood Presentation Box

Box attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York City | 1825

Maker: Box attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York City

Credit: Gift of Albert B. Roberts

View of Little Falls, New York

William Rickerby Miller (1818-1893) | 1852

Medium: Watercolor on paper

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

Scroll down to view additional content