The Celtic cross gravestone of Cora Elizabeth Price in the Oakwood Cemetery.
The Celtic cross gravestone of Cora Elizabeth Price in the Oakwood Cemetery. (Photo by Christopher Huffaker)

TROY, N.Y. -- "By a majority of voices, it was confirmed, that in future, it should be called and known by the name of Troy. From its present state, and the more pleasing prospect of its popularity, arising from the natural advantages on the Mercantile Line, it may not be too sanguine to expect, at no very distant period, to see Troy, as famous for her Trade and Navigation as many of our first towns."

So wrote the "Freeholders of the place lately known by Vander-Heyden's" in an advertisement in Lansingburgh and Albany papers, on Jan. 5, 1789. The Yankee residents ditched the town's Dutch founder's name to join Syracuse and Ithaca in taking a classical name.

Eventually, Kurt Vonnegut would name a recurring setting Illium, N.Y., for the Roman name for Troy. Knowing that Troy, combined with Schenectady's General Electric factory, inspired that setting, I set out to explore the city.

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At Troy's Burden Iron Works Museum at 1 East Industrial Parkway, operated by Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway, I learned that the freeholders' claim that Troy would be famous for trade and navigation bore out. Troy was blessed with both powerful falling water to power mills and wide, flat water, the Hudson river, to transport goods.

Add to its natural water its easy access to high quality iron in Northwest Connecticut and the Adirondacks and the Champlain, Erie, and Delaware and Hudson canals extending its access to both markets and resources, and Troy was a true industrial powerhouse, said Michael Barrett, Executive Director of Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway.


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By 1840, Troy was the fourth wealthiest city per capita in America.

Trojan industry was fueled by iron and steel. The city would become the home of the first American Bessemer converter, the invention that made the mass-production of steel possible. It also produced precision instrumentation, including used in the Apollo program. At the Iron Works, Barrett has examples of them.

Barrett knows his Trojan history, and the museum has a wide variety of specimens, including the bell mold used to make the replacement Liberty Bell and the first American rototiller. Burden Iron Works became rich by inventing an automated horseshoe maker just in time for the Civil War, and you can see some of the horseshoes too.

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Along with its industry, Troy also has a legacy of women's education and liberation. The city invented detachable shirt collars, and 19-year-old Irish immigrant Kate Mullany founded the collar-makers union, the first all-female union in America.

I visited Russell Sage College at 1st and Ferry streets downtown. In 1821, Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary, the first academic school in America to offer classes in math and science. Among alumni are New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A plaque at Russel Sage commerorates women's suffrage.

In 1916, Emma Willard School gave birth to Russell Sage College, an all-female undergraduate school, which now includes the Bush Memorial Center, a deconsecrated church built in 1835. It is a beautiful neoclassical building of the Doric order, with a remarkable dome roof and three Tiffany stained glass windows.

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Across the street from Russell Sage is the Venetian palazzo-style Public Library, and down the street is Washington Square, one of two private squares in New York State and prime real estate at the height of Troy's wealth. Washington square boasted Russell Sage and Peter Burden.

One of the most visible heritages of Troy's former wealth is its collection of Tiffany windows.

"Troy is said to have more Tiffany glass per square mile than any other city in the world," Barrett said.

Some can be found in the Earl Chapel and Crematorium, the largest structure of the Oakwood Cemetary, stretching some 15 blocks east of Oakwood Avenue, north of downtown, where I started my day in Troy. The Chapel is a 1880s Romanesque building with five Tiffany windows.

Elsewhere in the huge, rural cemetery, there are beautiful structures including the Gothic Warren Chapel, several Greek revival mausolea and the Palladian Kemp Mausoleum. Also present are several impressive Celtic crosses, like the gravestone of Cora Elizabeth Price. All recall Troy's great wealth.

One great stop is the statue of Robert Ross standing on a hillside about 200 yards from his tomb. Ross was a Republican poll-watcher killed by Democratic party operatives in 1880.

Less ornate is the tomb of Samuel "Uncle Sam" Wilson. During the War of 1812, the legend goes, Wilson, a butcher and meatpacker, supplied the military with supplies. Soldiers took to reading the "U.S." on barrels as "Uncle Sam." Downtown are a number of Uncle Sam statues.

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I then headed downtown for lunch. Famous Lunch's tiny hotdogs have been around for most of a century. If you pay attention, you'll hear the regulars order "Six With" to get half a dozen with Zippy sauce, a chili-like sauce.

Troy has significant Irish and Italian heritage, so you could try an Irish pub or head to Little Italy for pizza. For dinner later I went to Red Front Restaurant, a classic pizza place.

There are also hip new restaurants downtown, like the Lucas Confectionary & Wine Bar, a winebar in a former candy store, and some ancient local favorites. By then it was time to head home, but I now know how much Troy has to offer. I've lived half an hour away for years, and I've never done more there than get gas. I'll definitely be back.