– corner of Cucumber Alley and Washington Ave. –
“The name, of course, comes from the wild cucumbers that used to grow along there. They were cucumbers gone wild–or rather, never tamed–and that’s all there is to it. . . .
“Heavy wagons smashed over them, year after year, and portly, waddling merchants swished at them with their canes, to and from their offices. But the cucumbers grew on–and definitely placed the street.”
“As for Cucumber Alley, the story that comes down to us from pre-Revolutionary days is that the main thoroughfare from Washington Avenue (then Lion Street) down to the docks and boat construction buildings on the riverfront was a lane that was profuse with wild cucumber vines. It was said that no matter how heavy the wagon or pedestrian traffic, the vines continue to grow. Hence, the lane was called Cucumber Alley.”
“Forwards driving in had their hearts warmed by a profusion of cucumber blossoms covering a north-side stone fence.” [Efner Center (AC 6421)]
[Note: The word “profusion” is used again and again by Schenectady’s historians, journalists, educators and citizens when describing the quantity of wild cucumber plants growing on the ally. Perhaps the only available copy of a thesaurus in town was washed away along with Ann Street. Depending on your attitude toward the plant, you might decide to bless the wealth, bounty or extravagance of wild cucumbers along the lane; muse over the plethora, surplus or abundance of vines and lobes; or curse it all as a glut or excess.]
. . .
To better understand why the blossoms might have been a most welcome sight, see “A Close-up View of the ‘Wild Cucumber’” by Canadian Brian Johnston, in Microscopy-UK‘s Midscape Magazine (October 2006), which is a striking and instructive article about the wild cucumber, with an array of beautiful photographs. In case you are wondering about the plant’s formal name, Johnston notes that: The genus name Echinocystis is derived from the Greek words echinos, meaning “hedgehog” and kustis meaning “bladder”. These terms refer to the shape of the fruit. It is in the order lobata because of its tentacles and lobes.
Some wags have suggested that the plant might have also been popular on Cucumber Alley at the Van Slyck Inn, Schenectady’s first tavern, due to the purported hallucinogenic properties of wild cucumbers. That might be a topic to explore further in a Walkabout reenactment, Stockade Association Meet-n-Greet at the Van Dyck, or Historic Society seminar.
Incidentally, speaking of chemically-induced states, a plant that is sometimes called “wild cucumber” or “manroot” is found in California, and has been confused at times with the plant that grows at Cucumber Alley, but is a different species [Marah macrocarpus]. To make fish easier to catch, some native American clans mixed a substance made from that plant’s tubers into ponds to stun the fish with a poison named saponin. (learn more here and there.) That trick probably would not work in a flowing river or creek, even if the California wild cucumber did grow here.
But, the phrase “Cucumber Alley” is rather catchy, and there’s a race horse in Britain with that name; and a coral reef diving site off of Australia that is called Cucumber Alley, due to the sea cucumbers that live there. Award-winning local indie film-maker Michael J. Feurstein calls his studio Cucumber Alley Lighting. And, there’s also a color palette called Cucumber Alley (for no reason discernible to my eye).
Despite an earnest search, I have found no indication of any sort that the name of the little road had ever been designated or changed to “Front Street continued” by the City or its official or unofficial cartographers; and the term appeared in none of the City’s most comprehensive and reliable directories. Except for the writing of Austin A. Yates, I have encountered only two other mentions of “Front St. continued”:
- A 1911 Gazette article on “The Great Fire in August, 1861” (December 20, 1911, page 12), states: “Bounding out of the brush which the great column of flame was gathering in its red arms, the horrified roofer was running up Cucumber alley, as Front street continued was then called, crying fire with all his might.” There is no attribution in the article to its author, but the style of prose and references to “the writer” as a young lad in the neighborhood suggests that Judge Yates himself may have penned the piece, or that Yates’ assertions were the basis for the claim. (Compare this excerpt from the 1911 article with Yates’ description of the 1861 fire, at page 187-188 of his 1902 history of Schenectady County.)
A notice warning against dumping on vacant lots, which ran from late July into August of 1865 (forty years before Judge Yates claimed that the name “Cucumber Alley” had been “recently” changed to Front street continued) in the classified ad section of the Schenectady Evening Star reads:
Notice by John McEncror, Jr.
All persons are hereby forbid throwing or dumping any dirt of any kind whatever on the vacant lots corner of Washington street and Front street continued, next to the river, under penalty of being prosecuted according to law. John McEncror, Jr.
Mr. McEncror may have merely been trying to better-describe the location of an unnamed lane that had no helpful street sign, when he refers to “Front street continued”. Therefore, I do not know whether Judge Yates’ “Front St. continued” claim had any basis beyond his wishful thinking, or was perhaps the purposeful attempt of a few property owners on the block to change the name by coining and repeating a new designation of their own invention in the hope that it would eventually catch on and take root.
** Ed. Note: As with any other point made or missing in this piece, I hope that any reader who can enlighten us further on the topic will do so, in a Comment to this posting, or by reaching me directly. I will gladly make appropriate corrections or additions.
Early History: At least two historians have indicated that the short thoroughfare running west from what is now Washington Avenue at Front Street to the Mohawk River has been called Cucumber Alley since at least the time of the Revolutionary War. See Larry Hart, in his Tales of Old Dorp “Names and Places” column for the Schenectady Gazette (August 2 1977; included in the collage immediately below this paragraph), and Jeanette G. Neisuler, in The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 (Schenectady Board of Education, City School District, 1964). It appears that Schenectady’s first tavern and inn was operated prior to 1670 at the corner of Washington Avenue (then Lion Street) and Cucumber Alley, by Jacques Cornelisse Van Slyck, whose father was Dutch and mother was a Mohawk Indian. See Schenectady, ancient and modern (Volume 1; 1914), by Joel Henry Monroe (Publisher, W.F. Humphrey, 1914). In his 1883 description of Schenectady’s Freeholders, Jonathan Pearson describes Van Slyck and his property:
“At one time he had a house lot in the village probably on the west corner of Washington street and Cucumber Alley, having a front on the former street of about 166 feet and extending back to the Binnè kil. The alley on the north side — 16 feet wide wood measure, — was the passage to the Binnè kil which was crossed by a scow to his farm on the Great island”. [see A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times, at 189, by Jonathan Pearson, A. M. and others, edited by J. W. MacMurray (J. Munsell’s Sons, Printers, 1883)].
-excerpts from Larry Hart columns about Cucumber Alley – all rights reserved by the Gazette */
In addition to A.A. Yates, many others have described how busy the heavily rutted lane had always been, as the main conduit for goods brought to the village’s warehouses, wharfs, and boat-building facilities from Handaleer Street, the “Street of Traders,” now known as Washington Avenue. Larry Hart filled in more of its history in his August 2, 1977 Tales of Old Dorp column:
“As a historical sidelight, it was on the west corner of that alley where Otis Smith had a broom making factory — and here it was that Catholicism in Schenectady reportedly got its start in the early 1830s before St. John’s Church was organized, and also where the disastrous fire of 1861 started and destroyed many buildings in the Stockade before it was over.”
Above: Ordinances designating the name of the thoroughfare known historically as Cucumber Alley – [L] first official designation, “Front Lane” (1799); [center] Ordinance 7460 (1933), changing name from Cucumber Alley to “West Front Street”; [R] Ordinance 77-41 (1977), “restoring” the name “Cucumber Alley”. [The 1933 and 1977 images are from official documents; the image for the 1799 resolution was simulated by the Editor.] – Click on image for a larger, legible version –
“That the lane leading between the lots of the heirs of Cornelius Ad. Van Slyck and John Glen shall hereafter be known and distinguished by the name of Front Lane.”
Sanborn Insurance Maps, 1889, 1900, 1914-1929 .
Although maps as early as the 1698 Romer map (which hangs on the wall of the library of the Schenectady County Historical Society) indicated a short, narrow road or lane at the location of Cucumber Alley, the lane is not identified with a name on any 18th or 19th Century city atlases or insurance maps that I have been able to locate. The very first published compilation of maps of the City of Schenectady that shows any name for the lane we call Cucumber Alley was apparently the 1900 Sanborn Insurance Map, which called it “W. Front St.” I could find no event that explains the decision by Sanborn’s mapmakers to give the alley a name, much less that particular name.
As seen in the above collage of Sanborn maps, the 1889 Sanborn Map has no name given for the lane. And, while the 1900 Map calls it W. Front St., the subsequent 1914 Map, which was updated through 1929, again leaves the lane unnamed. The 1914-1929 version appears to be the last Sanborn Map published before the Common Council acted in 1933 to impose the name West Front Street.
The first mention of Cucumber Alley that I have found in any official Schenectady report is its mention in the Journal of the Common Council of the City of Schenectady, From April 1895 to April 1896. Unlike the names of other roads, Cucumber Alley’s was placed within quotation marks, suggesting they were identifying the lane by its colloquial name rather than any official designation. Thus, the resolution grants the power to fulfill a “petition for paving with sheet asphalt, roadway of Front street and ‘Cucumber Alley’ at Washington avenue from street to building.”
Similarly suggestive of the informal status of the name, an April 17, 1917 Gazette article put quotation marks around the words “Cucumber Alley”, when reporting on remarks given at a Troy dinner by Schenectady’s Fire Chief, when he described the great 1861 fire, which he noted had started at a broom factory located on Cucumber Alley.
A 1910 Bureau of Engineering report in the Proceedings of the Common Council (see image on the right) gives an inventory of paved roadways in Schenectady. It appears to be the first time a City department uses that name in an official report. The Report lists Cucumber Alley without quotation marks, noting that the paved alley is 15.7 feet wide at Washington Ave. and 19.2 feet at the river. There is no mention of or reference to any of the other names sometimes attributed to the alley (West Front Street, Front Lane, or Front Street continued/extended). The Cucumber Alley designation also appeared on the Bureau of Engineering’s 1927 map of the City, apparently the first City map to use the term (click on image at head of this point). Ironically, however, the Engineering Department’s currently used and displayed City Street Map, which was last revised in 1991, still calls the lane “West Front Street” (map detail), even though Ordinance 77-41 officially restored the name Cucumber Alley in 1977. Marlette’s Directories for 1896, 1900, 1902 and 1904 do not include any listing for the ancient thoroughfare (not Cucumber Alley, nor West Front Street, or any similar name), despite the fact that such nearby minor roads as Cottage Row and Governor Lane are listed. . . . The Manning Directories for 1914 and 1915 list West Front Street, with no mention of Cucumber Alley, but incorrectly describe its location as being “from 18 Washington av. to River, west side, off Laura av.” (emphasis added) There was no Laura Avenue in the vicinity of Cucumber Alley in 1914 or any other year. The same street directory lists Laura Avenue as being “o.c. [outside city], from Guilderland av. east.” In addition, West Front Street is apparently the only street in the entire Directory whose listing does not include a set of letter and number map coordinates [e.g., the list shows Wendall Avenue’s location on the publication’s city map as “I-15”]. There does not seem to have been a Manning Directory published for Schenectady in 1916. It was a surprise to discover, therefore, that the 1917 – 1924 editions of the Manning Directories list both West Front Street and Cucumber Alley (see above image from 1917), without any cross-references or map location coordinates, and with the location described differently and inaccurately in each listing. West Front Street has the same erroneous mention of Laura Av. in its description as did Manning’s 1914 and 1915 editions (discussed in the point above). Cucumber Alley is, on the other hand, said to run “from Washington av. west to Mohawk av.” Cucumber Alley, of course, terminates at the Mohawk River, not Mohawk Avenue. Schenectady’s Mohawk Avenue is considerably east of Cucumber Alley, at the far end of Front St. Scotia’s Mohawk Av. is northeast of Cucumber Alley, on the other side of the River. The 1925-1933 editions of the Manning Directory list only West Front Street. [see collage of excerpts] The 1925 and 1926 editions correctly locate the alley “from 18 Washington av. to River”. (emphasis added) However, they again fail to include map coordinates. By the 1930 and 1933 editions, however, West Front Street is instead said to run from “16 Washington av to Mohawk River” rather than 18. The alley is in fact located between 16 and 18 Washington Avenue, with 16 being on its north side and 18 on its south side. Happily, as the collage at the head of this point shows, by 1930, Manning finally gives the alley a pair of map coordinates: H-10.
At no time did the Marlette or Manning directories give a listing solely for Cucumber Alley. The inclusion of Cucumber Alley by Manning from 1917 to 1924 may have been related to the City Engineering Bureau’s decision to label the roadway Cucumber Alley in its listing of paved roads. Although Manning clearly needed to choose between the two names when indicating the road, or else to somehow cross-reference the listings, I have neither found nor discerned the reason for the publisher’s decision to drop the name Cucumber Alley and refer solely to West Front Street.
“Cucumber alley is not listed in the city directory nor on city maps in general. Practically the only place it can be found chronicled is on the detailed maps in the city engineer’s office.”
Given the merely unofficial status of the name Cucumber Alley, despite its longstanding adoption and usage by the citizens of Schenectady, it is inexplicable that the Common Council was willing to be stampeded in 1933 into banishing the name for the flimsiest of reasons, ignoring a public outcry against the change. Here is the tale of the petition for change and the silent submission by the majority party on the Council.
Remarkably, Mr. Birch explained at the public hearing on the matter that he sought the change because he was not able to rent his property due to its having the Cucumber Alley street address and “obnoxious” street sign. Here is the Petition, with the names of the signatories (which I have derived from the signatures, with lots of assistance at the Historical Society library); I have added their addresses, after consulting the street listings in Manning’s 1933 Directory:
To the Common Council of the City of Schenectady.
We, the undersigned property owners and residents of Cucumber Alley, and adjoining streets, hereby petition your Honorable Body to change the name of said Cucumber Alley to West Front Street.
Respectfully submitted, (Sign in ink.)
John J. Birch [owner, 4 Cucumber Alley, res. 26 Washington Ave.]
John H. Clements, Sr. [18 Washington Ave.]
Robert L. Smith [38 Washington Ave.]
Charles W. Cady [17 Washington Ave.]
Charles P. [C. Patton] Hayes [17 Washington Ave.]
Mrs. G.[Goldie W.] Velett [15 Washington Ave.; prop. Test Men’s Diner]
Lawrence E. Barringer [20 Washington Ave.][Ed. note: best guess]
Anna L. Teller [40 Washington Ave.]
William L. R. Emmet [48 Washington Ave.]
Jasper E. Anderson [17 Washington Ave.]
Everett Smith [50 Washington Ave.]
Alexander F. Macdonald [58 Washington Ave.]
Allan H. Jackson [27 Washington Ave.]
William Velett [15 Washington Ave.]
Mrs. [William C.] Vrooman [9 Washington Ave.]
Henning Nielsen [16 Washington Ave. (1)]
– three Gazette articles from May 1933 concerning the change of name to West Front St. All rights reserved by the Gazette. */ Click on the image for a larger, legible version –
A week before the Common Council voted on the proposed name change, a Schenectady Gazette article (“Posts Defense for Cucumber Alley Name,” Gazette, May 9, 1933) noted that:
Residents of the first ward and of other parts of the city who are opposed to changing the colorful name of Cucumber alley, even for something perhaps a bit more dignified, will find a champion for their cause in the Democratic minority leader of the common council, Anthony Rinaldi. . . .
A week later, a Gazette article described the Common Council’s actions at its May 16, 1933 meeting. (“. . . Change Name of Cucumber Alley: To Be Known as West Front Street”, May 17, 1933). The Gazette says “It was a strictly party issue, Democrats voting against the change.” Mr. Birch was the only person who spoke at the public hearing on the proposal. According to the Gazette, Birch inquired (as if the answer were self-evident to every right-thinking person), “How would you like to have your mail addressed to Cucumber Alley?”. In addition:
He declared that his principal motive for asking the change was due to the difficulty of renting his property. The present tenants –the third in two generations–have threatened to move out, he said, unless the name of the street is changed or the obnoxious street sign removed.
When he tried to show the house to possible tenants, Mr. Birch said, they turned away immediately when they learned the name of the street. The street was once named West Front street, Mr. Birch said.
“I don’t see anything the matter with the name of Cucumber Alley,” Minority Leader Rinaldi said in opposition. “I’ve lived on Front street all my life and I think that the name has been in existence ever since the Indians lived there. I can’t agree that the name of the street is detrimental to renting property.”
Rinaldi charged that Alderman William Herman, father of the measure, was sponsoring the change to make up for his lack of advancing progressive legislation in the past.
According to the record of the Vote that night, “In voting against the resolution Alderman Rinaldi said he believed there was a great deal of sentiment among old residents of the city to keep the name Cucumber Alley.” (And see “Posts Defense for Cucumber Alley Name,” above.) Nevertheless, with a 9-5 party-line vote, Ordinance 7460 — “An Ordinance changing the name of Cucumber Alley to West Front Street” — was passed on May 16, 1933.
There clearly was no valid or sufficient public-policy reason given or suggested for abandoning the name of Cucumber Alley and changing it to West Front Street, even if short-term landlord hardship could somehow be deemed a justification for abandoning history and tradition. It is questionable that Mr. Birch’s claim had any factual validity. According to the Manning Directory for 1930, #4 Cucumber Alley had tenants for each of its two units that year; and one of those tenants (Minnie O’Brien) was still there in March 1933, just prior to Birch’s Petition, when the 1933 Manning Directory was published. (See Manning’s Schenectady and Scotia Directory 1930, and 1933, respectively; Manning began listing each residence and its occupants in its street directory in 1930, rather than merely listing street names and location.) Birch’s claim seems preposterous that tenants who had already moved into his property knowing it was on Cucumber Alley and having seen the street sign on the corner threatened to move out if the name wasn’t changed.
- Occupancy while called Cucumber Alley: 1930 – both units occupied; 1933 – one unit vacant
- Occupancy after changed to West Front Street: 1935 – both units occupied; 1936 – one unit vacant; 1940 – one unit vacant; 1956 – both units occupied
Fluctuations in the overall economy, the rental market for Stockade residences, or the Birch family’s efforts searching for or pleasing tenants surely are the main forces in the vacancy rate on Cucumber Alley.
The only explanation for passage of Ordinance 7460 is one that is irksome in any century: a prominent citizen asks for special treatment and receives it, despite the abandonment of historic values, a lack of common sense, and citizen opposition to the proposal. It is especially incongruous that John J. Birch, a man who was later to be a major Stockade historian and president of the County Historical Society, would make such a request based solely on his pecuniary interests. Historian Birch also claimed that the lane had previously been named West Front Street, making the change sound like it had a historical basis, but I could find no proof that any department of the City, much less the Council, had ever called Cucumber Alley by that name prior to 1932, and I found no reference of any sort to West Front Street prior to the 1900 Sanborn Insurance Map.
Dr. Birch’s love of the Stockade neighborhood can be seen in a number of his publications, such as his book “The Markers Speak” (1962). A piece he did circa 1968 in the Gazette, called “74 Years of ‘Memories’ in the Stockade,” is filled with affectionate anecdotes telling of boyhood antics and neighborhood customs and eccentrics. His Gazette Memories piece begins:
Dr. Birch also tells of the making of skis from the staves of tall wooden barrels. And he says, “We would ski down West Front Street as it sloped to the river. There were three broom factories down there at the time.” I’d like to think that even Dr. Birch would have found that sentence much more magical if he had correctly stated “We would ski down Cucumber Alley as it sloped to the river.”
It was reassuring for me to learn that the local and statewide press did a lot of smirking over the Common Council’s doing away with the name Cucumber Alley.
* “But I’ll be a cow’s eyetooth if they ever change Cucumber alley to West Front street. I’ll sue the city for snobbery, or sump’n.”
* “I don’t suppose it means anything to you young gents. It means a lot to the rest of us, though. It was good enough for 150 years, by golly”
* “Cucumber alley has background. It’s got so much background that if I had the money I’d start an art colony there.”
* “All right. Let ’em change it. Let’em change it–and I’ll join a taxpayers’ association and insist that the common council change the name of Governor’s lane to Hotchacha boulevard.”
“Cucumber Alley, one of Schenectady’s historic thoroughfares, officially is no more–abolished by Common Council decree–but to local antiquarians West Front Street, its new moniker, will always remain Cucumber Alley.”
As the Albany Evening News predicted, Cucumber Alley was not a name that could be easily erased. For example, despite the 1933 name-change, a 1942 wartime notice looking for volunteer air raid wardens for Schenectady’s precinct One, lists all of the streets included in the district, and uses the name “Cucumber alley” rather than West Front Street (Schenectady Gazette, “Job of the Week,” April 20, 1942). As shown above, a Ward Map made by the City Department of Engineering in 1942 also labelled the road Cucumber Alley.
Resolution — Stockade Association of Schenectady, New York, Inc.
Whereas, the Common Council of the City of Schenectady in May. 1933 changed the name of Cucumber Alley to West Front Street
And Whereas, a stated purpose and intent of Schenectady Historic District Ordinance #14221 is to safeguard the heritage of the City of Schenectady by preserving that district in the City popularly known as the Stockade Area,
And Whereas, the Stockade Historic District has been designated in the National Register of Historic Places under Federal Public law #89-665 calling for expanded historic places to encourage districts, sites, buildings and structures significant in American history and science and culture
And Whereas, the short roadway leading down to the river from Washington Avenue got its name many generations before because of the fact that wild cucumbers once grew there in profusion, now therefore be it
Resolved that the Council of the City of Schenectady amend its Ordinances to strike the name of West Front Street and reinstate the name of Cucumber Alley.
Adopted: Unanimously; Approved 28 March 1977
Former mayor, longtime Stockade resident, and then-Council Member Karen Johnson sponsored the resolution, and the City’s Planning Commission endorsed the proposal, which was unanimously passed by the Council on May 23, 1977, as Ordinance 77-41, “An Ordinance restoring the street name of Cucumber Alley in the Historic District.”
In addition, the Ordinance itself may have been drafted by someone unsure whether to refer to West or East Front Street: The actual name given to the lane in 1933 is not mentioned in Ordinance 77-41, which merely states that Ordinance 7460 is repealed. Furthermore, the restoration of the name to Cucumber Alley is mentioned only in the title of Ordinance 77-41, the body of which has only two sections: 1) repealing Ord. 7460, and 2) making the new ordinance immediately effective. Given the intent of its proponents, I have no problem as a lawyer asserting that the lane is now “officially” designated to be Cucumber Alley. On its face, however, Ordinance 77-41 simply repeals/strikes the name West Front Street, leaving the status of the name Cucumber Alley in the uncertain and unofficial limbo described at length above. Perhaps, on the other hand, the savvy drafter of the Ordinance knew of the historical uncertainties and ironies, and wanted to preserve them as part of the Stockade and Cucumber Alley heritage.
Historian Hart aptly put the reversion in perspective in a February 23, 1982 Tales of Old Dorp column in the Gazette:
“In recent years, there was quite a flap over the renaming of that small lane to West Front Street. It has since reverted back to Cucumber Alley, the purists and the Stockade Association having won their point in City Council that old, revered names should be left alone.”
It had, of course, been 44 years since the West Front St. affront to the alley, which was brought about by prominent Stockade neighbors who should have been ashamed of themselves, and who gave little thought to the impact on mail carriers.
.. reminder: see “celebrating Cucumber Alley” for more photos and info.
Ongoing (Re)Search: Thanks to the hardy folks who read this essay through to its end. As I stated above, I hope readers with corrections or amplification on the points made in this essay, or with any interesting additional information about the history of the names given to Cucumber Alley will leave a comment or contact me directly. I will do follow-up inserts here as I receive or uncover relevant facts or anecdotes.
I would very much appreciate, for example, photographs of any Cucumber Alley signs that existed prior to the temporary wooden one shown above in the 1977 Gazette photo — such as the “obnoxious” one John Birch wanted removed in 1933. And, I am eager to see what the West Front Street sign looked like that the Gazette said was taken down on June 14, 1977. My searching at the Historical Society Library, the Central public library, and the City Archives has failed to uncover pictures of such signs.
. . .
Brian Johnston allowed me to use his beautiful photos of wild cucumber plants from Miscscape Magazine to illustrate this essay, and his generosity and skill are much appreciated. Tom Tryniski of FultonHistory.com also deserves thanks for his amazing compilation of historical New York newspapers. A major portion of all newspaper content that I found for this piece came from the comprehensive and (rather addictive) FultonHistory.com website.