By Bill Buell
The irony of a new casino going up on an area of land that used to be known as the “Poor Pasture” hasn’t been lost on local history buffs.
Rotterdam native Tom Morgan knew all about the railroad history connected to the site where The Rivers Casino & Resort is scheduled to open on Feb. 8. What came as a surprise when he started researching the location was that, long before the American Locomotive Co. dominated that part of the city’s landscape, the area was pretty much devoid of any development. The reason was a 17th century Dutchman named Hans Jansen Eenkluys.
“The property could have been developed into many diverse residential or commercial ventures, but that didn’t happen,” said Morgan, who runs his own IT business. “The truth is that the availability of this land for the Mohawk Harbor project is scarcely owed to any locomotive concern, but largely to a single man, his ties to Schenectady’s early Dutch history and his gift to the poor.”
Who was Hans Jansen Eenkluys? According to Morgan, he may have been in the Albany area as early as the 1630s. And in Susan Staffa’s book, “Schenectady Genesis,” the author refers to him as a “generous contributor to the Albany church,” before retiring to Schenectady.
Staffa also wrote that Eenkluys “granted about 36 acres of pastureland to the town’s poorer residents, on condition that the church care for him in his old age and pay the expenses at his funeral. From the time of his death in 1683 well into the first half of the 19th century, the land from Eenkluys’ gift was used by Schenectady residents who didn’t have the acreage needed to feed their farm animals.
“For many decades, the pasture gate opened at a fixed date in June, allowing the poor residents to graze their cattle, pigs and other farm animals,” said Morgan. “I believe the church also rented portions of the land to local farmers to raise money to pay for upkeep of the land.”
Schenectady attorney John Gearing, who is writing “Schenectady Genesis II,” a follow-up to Staffa’s work, said the Eenkluys’ story is an interesting one.
“Unmarried and without children or family to help him in his dotage, he makes an agreement with the church — donating the land to the church for the benefit of the poor,” said Gearing. “In return, the church will feed, house and clothe him for the rest of his life.
One subsequent document I’ve seen strongly suggests that the church also rented the land to farmers as a means to generate income, which would presumably be used to relieve the poor.”
The initial “poor pasture” began near what is now Mohawk Street just to the west of the casino and extended to Hans Groot Kill to the east, according to Morgan. The pasture became even bigger when Harmanus Van Slyck sold 16 acres of his adjoining land on the eastern side of Groot Kill to the church in 1806.
“The Dutch Reformed Church respected Eenkluys’ wishes, keeping his pasture available to the poor for nearly 190 years,” said Morgan. “It was finally sold at auction in 1863 to the New York Central Railroad for about $11,000, and it remained a pasture until 1901, when the American Locomotive Co. started its development there.”
The Schenectady Locomotive Works, the forerunner to ALCO, had kept its manufacturing plant on the south side of the Erie Canal from its inception in 1848 until it merged with seven other smaller companies to create ALCO in 1901. ALCO closed its Schenectady operations in 1969, and since that time most of the land between the Mohawk River and Maxon Road sat dormant before construction on the casino began last year.
Morgan uncovered another interesting piece of Schenectady history linking the “Carman Sand Pit” not too far from where he lives in Rotterdam to the casino site.
“In 1903, they started sending gondola cars with 90,000 pounds capacity full of sand down to the ALCO site to level the land between the canal and the river,” said Morgan. “I grew up in Carman up by High Bridge Road and there was a big sand pit there. l love researching obscure history, the stories that most historians rarely look at.”
Morgan and Gearing also noticed another ironic twist to the opening of the casino. Day one, Feb. 8, will be the 327th anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre.
“My advice to gamblers,” joked Gearing, “is to quit while you’re ahead.”