Troy’s history home to major American icons

During the War of 1812, Troy merchant “Uncle” Samuel Wilson sold meat to the feds. Neighbors joked that the “U.S.” on the barrels of salted pork stood for his nickname. Political cartoonists in the 1840s used him to represent America, drawing him as a gangly Yankee, a contrast to the portly English “John Bull.” Later, Lincoln’s top hat and beard were added to the image. But during the 1970’s urban renewal, Troy tore down the actual home of Uncle Sam.

In colonial times, pork was the dietary mainstay, as pigs could forage for food in the unbroken virgin forests. As land was cleared, grazing sheep produced both meat and wool. When the cotton gin made cotton the primary fabric, beef replaced mutton in our diet. Shepherds, part of folklore from Biblical times to Little Bo Peep, were replaced by the American cowboy.

In 1827, Hannah Lord Montague grew tired of hand-washing her husband’s shirts when only the collar was dirty. She made the collar separate, beginning Troy’s detachable collar and cuff industry, of national import. The largest collar company here marketed their “Arrow” collar through one of the first full-scale advertising campaigns. Ads featured the “Arrow Collar Man,” who became a national icon.

19th century victorians bundled themselves head-to-foot. Back then, urban streets were deep in horse manure, and horseflies (which bite) were a major problem. A collar, kept upright by the tie, protected the back of the neck. In the early 1900s, the shift to automobiles eliminated horses and horseflies. People could wear less clothing, including collarless t-shirts, and washing machines made laundry easy.

The waterways of our area helped spark the Industrial Revolution. The steep bluffs here powered numerous mills. The Hudson is really an estuary, a long inlet of the Atlantic Ocean with tides reaching Troy. Ships encountered minimal current sailing up-river. The Hudson-Mohawk Valley is one of the few gaps in the long Appalachian Range, allowing passage both north and west, with Troy at the crossroads. 

Henry Burden invented machinery that made one horseshoe per second, producing enough shoes for 12 million horses each year. (Typically, blacksmiths hammered on one horseshoe for minutes at a time.) This machinery became a vital strategic resource during the Civil War, when Confederate spies were captured near the plant in south Troy. Union soldiers were ordered to remove the shoes of horses left in battle, lest they fall into enemy hands.

Burden’s plant was powered by the world’s largest waterwheel, 60 feet tall. Among the many RPI students marveling at the so-called “Niagara of Water Wheels” was one George Ferris, who later designed the Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

On a per-capita basis, in 1840, Troy was the fourth richest American city. A manufacturing center equal to none (some 612 different manufacturers at its peak), it was the 19th century’s “Silicon Valley,” with innovation actively sought and encouraged. RPI’s role was pivotal as the country’s first degree-granting technological university. Up until then, all engineering was military—aiming cannons or building forts. RPI taught engineering for civilian purposes, hence “civil engineering.”