LOOKING AT ALBANY THROUGH THE LENS OF GEOLOGY

Helen S. Edelman The Knickerbocker News
Section: SCIENCE & HEALTH,  Page: 1B

Date: Wednesday, July 30, 1986

As a child growing up in West Albany, Paul Weinman had to "go through sand dunes backwards in a car with a strong reverse to get to Six Mile Waterworks to go swimming," he recalled.


"The Pine Hills area of Albany was all sand dunes, just like Cape Cod," Weinman, now 46, said. "Once, the pine trees there were 150 feet tall and were considered the 'queen's timber.' They were saved for ships' masts." Further downtown, Holland Avenue used to be a pond, and the fishing industry flourished in that area until changing demographics forced officials to use the space for housing. The ponds were filled in to make way for residential neighborhoods, Weinman said.


Weinman today lives near the State Campus in an area that, in his youth, he remembered, once held "grape arbors, pig farms and blueberry hills."


At 7 p.m. on Aug. 5, he will lecture on geology's impact on the city past and present. The event at Albany High School is sponsored by the Historic Albany Foundation. Reservations, which are required, may be made by calling 463-0622.


Weinman, director of education at the New York State Museum, has been teaching courses in geology for two decades to "make people more aware of their environment and its relationship to science, politics, the arts and everyday existence," he said. "I look at things eclectically. Nothing stands by itself. Everything has a context."


To illustrate, Weinman used a familiar item to make a universal point.


"Take pizza," he said. "The white in mozzarella cheese comes from a mineral once mined in the Adirondacks called 'ilmenite.' But it's cheaper to buy imported ilmenite from South Africa, so the mines here are closed. By spending the extra money we could make an impact on our relations with South Africa, making a statement to not support its politics by not buying its exports."


Many of Weinman's observations deal with events and their long-term implications. He recounted the origins of the area, its glacial lake of 15,000 years ago and the consequent clay surface - the burial ground for mastadons, musk oxen and 12-foot-long beaver - as a prelude to his desciption of the building of the 99-acre Empire State Plaza on a solid-rock foundation that lay beneath 100 feet of ancient clay.


"It took years to drive in the pilings," Weinman said. "Everything had to be dug out and filled in."


According to Weinman, when the Capitol was constructed on the clay surface, there wasn't enough technical knowledge to lay the kind of bedrock foundation the Plaza has.


"As a result, that building is actually slipping," Weinman said with a laugh. "Twenty years ago, the back porch had to be reconnected."


The Hudson River is the major factor that determined Albany's location, Weinman said, a situation he termed "a matter of convenience."


When Henry Hudson came upriver in 1609, he found a sunken valley only 3 feet above tide level - a spot that seemed like a good place "for a trading post," Weinman said. "The French had attempted to put a fort up before that in 1588 on Hudson River islands between Albany and Rensselaer but the spring flooding wiped out the settlement."


The long, skinny city of Albany took on its configuration "when it was a trade route. And the Dutch kept the tract," Weinman said. "Geology determined who owned what territory."


Although settlers originally lived on the riverbanks, the society became more agrarian, expanding toward the Pastures area.


"The Dutch came to trade, but the English came to settle and farm," Weinman said. "With trolleys, people began to move out to the gentrified pine plains, and that's how the city grew. The streets followed the paths through the sand dunes."


When the English took over in the late 17th century, the waterways were called on for their utility, this time to power grist and saw mills, Weinman said.


"Actually, Albany, with all its rivers, would have become the great shipping metropolis for the north and west but for the railroads, which offered alternative transportation," Weinman said. "In fact, four piano companies opened in Albany anticipating the trade."


Besides making it accessible to trade and transportation by boat, Albany's plethora of waterways made it "very settleable because people need water to drink and for sewers," Weinman said.


"South to north," Weinman said, the five rivers flowing through the city are "the Normanskill at the edge of the city near Delmar; the Beaverkill, near Delaware and Swan; the Ruttenkill, at Lark and Lancaster; the Vossenkill, north of Elk Street, and the Vyfdekill, now Patroon Creek at Tivoli Park." Some of those waterways exist today only as part of an underground system contained by huge pipes running into treatment plants.


"Most people don't know about the river that ran right through the west end of Lincoln Park," Weinman said. "You can stand and look down 50 feet through a grating there in the park and see a waterfall."


"All of Lincoln Park was once a deep gorge populated by Irish immigrants as a separate town called Martinsdale," he continued. "But the people dumped garbage into the river and the area became infected with cholera and diphtheria. Dirt was brought in by wheelbarrows to fill in the gorge to save everyone from dying off."


People used to gravitate to areas around accessible water "and throw in their refuse," Weinman said. "Finally it would get so rotten the people boarded it over and filled it with dirt, creating an underground sewage pit. Eventually, Albany really stank. They practically had to bury it."


The geology that defines the city continue to affect people's lives, said Weinman, noting the resurgence of interest in the Hudson River signaled by the popularity of tour boats, the 2- year-old Empire State Regatta and the Corning Preserve.


"The Hudson River," Weinman said, "was once a major source of sturgeon - fishermen pulled 8-foot-long ones out of it and they were called 'Albany beef.' It was a tremendously popular swimming and boating area and a draw for tourism, as well as industry. We used to play baseball on the ice, skate - the Hudson River was a centerpiece of family life."


"It's not farfetched, with the efforts to clean up, that the river will do it again - promote family activity and recreation," Weinman said. "Geology is related to everything in the past, the state of the present, and hopes for the future."