A History of Its Industries, Railroads and Inventions



Riding the rails of local history with stellar
Rock City Falls author Timothy Starr

Ballston Spa Life - 4/19/09


What began as an ordinary walk in the woods behind Timothy Starr’s Rock City Falls home in 2005 ended up having an extraordinary impact on the life of the then Chief Financial Officer for an Albany-based not-for-profit.

In the space of just four years, Starr has become a stellar presence on the local literary scene. Indeed his first four Saratoga County titles have proven to be of interest to history buffs far beyond the area as they deal with subjects of national, and in some cases, global interest.

Although the Connecticut native who grew up in Hebron, NY and had resided in Milton Center since just before the turn-of-the-millennium, it wasn’t until he and wife Alison built a house just up the road that Starr made the fascinating discovery that would ultimately take his life’s journey on a different track.

“I had observed various historic buildings and a few ruins around town, but never thought much of them. However, this changed when I was walking in the woods behind my house one day and stumbled upon an old railroad bed. I knew that the Delaware & Hudson Railroad did not come this far west, so I wondered what railroad this was. I went to the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa and discovered it was actually the remains of an electric trolley railroad. More surprising than the fact that a trolley railroad was built in the wilderness of Milton was that its primary purpose was hauling freight cars for the various mills and factories that once crowded the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek. Further research revealed that these mills were part of an important industrial complex that shipped thousands of tons of goods around the world for more than a century. That’s when my interest in local history was really awakened,” explains Starr.

“These discoveries were so intriguing that I began to collect information about the trolley railroad and the industries it served from Brookside and the Ballston Spa Public Library. Because Brookside is home to the Saratoga County Historical Society it has large collections of historic items. At first I was primarily interested in their collection of several thousand photographs, but as time went on I also obtained copies of historical documents and took pages of notes from their extensive library. Executive Director Joy Houle suggested that I also contact a local historian named Maurice “Christopher” Morley, who had a great deal of first-hand knowledge of Ballston Spa’s history as well as a large photograph collection that he accumulated over the course of decades.”

Before long, Starr found that he had compiled several binders of information and a large collection of scanned pictures. Having previously written a novel based on his experiences growing up in Hebron (Washington County), the young MBA thought it might be fun to write a book about the trolley railroad. His initial plan was to print just a few copies for himself and local historical organizations.
Then something happened that astrologists might contend was written in the Starrs. “I noticed that other railroad books seemed to be very popular. I also realized that the following year (2007) was going to be Ballston Spa’s Bicentennial. I decided to print 200 copies and sell them at Brookside’s gift shop under the title Lost Railroads of the Kaydeross Valley. The book was so well received that I wrote a companion book titled Lost Industries of the Kaydeross Valley. Both were full color, limited editions. Since then, a standard, black and white version of the trolley book, titled The Ballston Terminal Railroad and Its Successors, has been printed.”

While researching his first two local history books, Starr noticed that several significant inventions had been developed in Milton. Even more interesting were inventions that came out of greater Saratoga County. He then resolved that this would be the topic his next two books. One (Invented in Ballston Spa) would focus on the village and vicinity; the second (Invented in Saratoga County) would cover the entire county.

“My first step was to research, obtain, and index over 1,500 patents from the US Patent Office that were filed in Saratoga County between the years 1830 and 1950. Those of Ballston Spa naturally focused on industrial innovations, such as improvements in axe making (for Isaiah Blood’s scythe and axe factories), tanning leather (for the Haight & Company tannery), and papermaking (for the dozen paper mills that lined the Kayaderosseras Creek). Therefore, the Ballston Spa book was organized by industry headings, such as Water Wheels, Refrigeration, Churns, Telegraphs, and Hard Edge Tools,” recalls Starr.

He notes that the Saratoga County book contains a wider variety of inventions, although many also pertain to industry. “Even before I moved to Saratoga County I had heard that the potato chip and the concept of Standard Time had been developed here, but had no idea that hundreds of other inventions had an impact around the world. Just a few include the auger drill bit, the revolving gun turret found on warships, improvements in fire engines, a refrigerated casket, the first copyrighted residence, the first striking matches, and roofing composition that is in use today,” he observes.

Then last year Starr stumbled upon a rare booklet titled Leading Industrial Pursuits of Ballston and Vicinity that had been published in 1874 by newspaper reporter John S. Bulkeley.

“It was such a unique and well-written first-hand account of the industries that operated along the Kayaderosseras Creek that I decided to re-publish it and another of Bulkeley’s works about Glens Falls into one book,” he says, adding that the process of collecting and compiling the above-mentioned books was “a relaxing diversion from my full-time job as an accountant, and has turned into a hobby when I’m not working or spending time with my 15-month-old daughter Morgan.”

Now working as the finance director for the American Red Cross Northeast New York region, Starr recently decided to try to do something with the large collection of photographic scans of Ballston Spa and greater Milton that he has accumulated over the past few years. “The people and organizations that obtained them from are always open to the idea of publishing them in books that keep the history of this area alive,” he notes.

“Several books have been published recently that feature photographs of the Village of Ballston Spa, most notably Ballston Spa: The Way We Were, The Way We Are (Peckhaven Publishing, 2007) and Ballston Spa: Legacies Unlimited (Peckhaven Publishing, 2009) as well as the popular Streetscapes Through Time, which was written by Paul and Marilyn Pastore in conjunction with the village’s Bicentennial of 2007. However, I realized that I had dozens of pictures from the northern part of Milton, particularly of Rock City Falls, West Milton, and Bloodville, that have never been published. A few have made it into my own books, but not in a comprehensive way,” says Starr.

As fate would have it, a representative from Arcadia Publishing contacted Starr in early 2008 about the possibility of submitting a book for their Images of America series that would focus on the Town of Milton.

“They have already released books on Malta, Wilton, Ballston Lake, Saratoga, and Stillwater. Until now I have preferred the freedom of self-publishing, but the thought of a book about this area that would reach a worldwide market was tempting. I am currently in the process of accumulating 200 publisher-quality photograph scans for the proposed book. If I succeed in finding the specified number of pictures that will meet their requirements, the book will be released in the summer of 2010. The possibility of self-publishing this book is also an option that I have not ruled out. Either version of the book will consist almost exclusively of historical pictures dated from 1880 to 1950, and will be organized with the following chapter headings: Tourism, The Kayaderosseras, Ballston Spa, Bloodville, Rock City Falls, Around Town.”

Either way, the forthcoming title will benefit future educational programs at Brookside, where Starr currently serves as treasurer on the Board of Directors. “Early on in my research, I realized that the museum was a rare and valuable entity. It is housed in one of the oldest and most historic buildings in Saratoga County and has a unique collection of pictures, books, and objects. When the opportunity arose to join the Board of Directors, I was more than happy to help in the effort to preserve Brookside’s collections and promote its programs.”

Starr’s generosity to Brookside with the proceeds of the Town of Milton book will be possible, he explains, because earlier titles involved an average outlay of several thousand dollars to research and print. “Because Arcadia Publishing pays almost all of the costs of arranging, printing, and marketing the book, I would be able to pass along all of the royalties to Brookside to support its educational programs. The amount of money donated would depend upon the number of books sold.”

The Rock City Falls writer also hopes his collection of local history books will draw attention to 87-year-old Village History Consultant Morley, whom Starr describes as “one of the most knowledgeable individuals of local history around. He has been invaluable in either answering questions about Ballston Spa’s history or pointing me in the right direction. People who have purchased my books have likely noticed that his photograph collection has been prominently featured. Because Mr. Morley has spent his entire life in the village (with the exception of his service in the US Marines during World War Two), he is often able to give first-hand accounts of events that have occurred throughout much of the 1900s.”

Future books will contain contributions from other local residents as well. Patricia Streifert, for instance, generously allowed Starr to scan her large postcard collection that she accumulated over most of her life while the Pastores have graciously offered to share images from their collection that relate to other areas of Milton.

Asked what his next title after the book about the Town of Milton will be -- and when can readers expect to see it in print, Starr responds: “One of my favorite personalities to come out of my research is George West, the so-called Paper Bag King. Although his name is well-known in this area, his life seems to have become almost mythical. For example, it is often quoted that he invented the paper bag, or that he produced 90 percent of the paper bags in the world. While neither is true, his real accomplishments made him famous around the country and earned him great wealth. He arrived in this country from England as a young man almost penniless and proceeded to build a paper mill empire that was unprecedented for a one-man operation. He was also elected to the New York State Assembly and the US House of Representatives for multiple terms.”

It fascinates Starr that several reminders of West’s influence can still be seen around the Town of Milton. “The Mansion Inn on Route 29 once served as his primary residence before he moved to Ballston Spa. His first mill, called the Empire, is still nearly intact across the street. A small stone waiting station that was situated near the Ballston Terminal Railroad tracks still sits nearby. In Ballston Spa the former Union paper mill with the name “Geo West 1879” etched in the towers is today used by various businesses. His once-famous mechanized bag factory still stands just up the hill on Prospect Street.”

Not surprisingly, it has been in the back of the prolific author’s mind for several years to write a biography about George West, but it wasn’t until he found out about the existence of one of West’s descendents living in this area that he finally decided to begin the project.
“A Saratoga resident named Douglass “Tim” Mabee (who also happens to be Marylou Whitney’s son-in-law) is a direct descendent of West’s daughter Florence and her husband Douglass Williams Mabee. He has spent years compiling a comprehensive family tree that now contains hundreds of names. The George West biography is scheduled to be released in early 2010 and will contain hundreds of facts about his life that have never been published.”

Starr also plans to update and expand upon the books that have already been published (another benefit of self-publishing). For example, he is working on a second edition to Lost Industries of the Kaydeross Valley to be printed later this year that will contain about 10 more manufacturers and a dozen more photographs.

Regarding Invented in Ballston Spa, Starr notes that most people probably aren’t aware that a water wheel ranked among the best in the nation was invented and manufactured here. “Ballston Spa was also home to the inventor of the first automated knitting machine. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the village was home to a wide variety of industry such as hard edge tools, textiles, and paper products. Their success encouraged people to develop and patent innovations that supported these industries.”
Indeed, points out Starr, in his 1907 Centennial address, Village President Irving Wiswall stated that “the telegraph instrument in universal use today and which supplanted the original Morse machines was the invention of our townsman, Samuel F. Day. The first machine for combining paper with cloth was the invention of one of the proprietors of the Glen Paper Collar Company. The first household clothes-wringers were made in West Milton and sold in Ballston Spa.”

The first part of Invented in Ballston Spa focuses on the industry-related patents of the village. The second part contains about three dozen more inventions that may or may not have related to industry. These are listed chronologically, and contain a summary of each invention and the graphic that accompanied the patent application.

“Many were related to farming and railroading, both important to the village in those days, but many others were for appliances, entertainment, health, and utilities,” explains the author, emphasizing that local historians will find a number of well-known names sprinkled throughout the book. Included are Dr. Leverett Moore, who practiced medicine for 40 years, tannery manager Matthew Vassar, foundry owner William Namack, prominent attorney Seth Whalen, school administrator Hiram Bulkeley and his newspaper reporter son John Bulkeley, and the man who helped George West create the first designs for his square-bottomed paper bags, Martin V. B. White. John Reynolds, the maternal grandfather of “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney and owner of a foundry on Ford Street, also patented several inventions during his long residency in the village.

According to Starr, some inventions outlined in the book “must be seen to be believed.” In this category is a home remedy for treating bunions that was patented by Charles Heaton of the Allen & Heaton emery factory. Others described by the author are as follows: “Avid hunter Frederick Streever of the Streever Lumber Company invented an improved dog muzzle. Ivy Howell, one of the few female inventors, patented a directional sign for restrooms. Ernest Peterson invented a keyboard for accordions. Theodore Lipshuts invented a scarecrow that worked by randomly discharging a firearm.”

Sounds like Starr isn’t the only local resident who made an unforgettable discovery because he literally got sidetracked one day and let his inquisitive imagination steer him in a direction he never figured on when he opted for a career as an accountant.

All of Timothy Starr’s books are available at the Brookside Museum, which receives a portion of the proceeds of every book sold. For those who live outside of Ballston Spa, the titles are also available at Borders Books in downtown Saratoga Springs. Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to visit www. HistoryOfSaratoga.com.


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