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Academic turned museum-director Tom Carroll is hoping that a greater awareness of its rich past will help Troy, New York — an industrial powerhouse of the last century that has fallen on hard times in this one — rise again in the next.

W. Conard Holton

IT’S A ROUGH DRIVE, dodging Troy, New York’s ubiquitous potholes while studying street names from America’s presidential past: Jackson, Van Buren (born nearby in Kinderhook), Harrison, Tyler, and, at last, Polk, president from 1845-1849. The address I’m looking for is Burden Iron Works Museum, foot of Polk, where Dr. P. Thomas “Tom” Carroll, Gr’82, waits in the doorway. Formerly an associate professor in the science and technology studies department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Carroll left his tenured position to become executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway — and chief custodian of Troy’s past as one of the 19th century’s major industrial centers. 
   The Burden Iron Works Museum sits solidly in a stretch of green grass, fronted by railroad tracks and backed by the new county jail, which is surrounded by razor wire. The Hudson River lies just beyond a line of trees. The museum’s cupola, crenelated brickwork, and brass-covered doors hint at the community’s one-time wealth. This administrative building — more accurately, half-restored shell of a building — is the only significant structure that remains of a manufacturing complex that stretched for more than a mile along the Hudson and that could turn out one million horseshoes a week. 
   The museum’s Victorian opulence is echoed in some parts of the city by lofty church spires and ornate building facades, now sadly worn. For more affluent commuters, Troy is a bedroom community of Albany, New York’s state capital. For the working class majority, Troy is a city divided into ethnic enclaves, struggling with the implications of a digital age and the availability of cheaper labor somewhere else. The motto of South Troy, where the museum is located, is “South Troy Against the World.” 
   It’s hard to imagine this city as the Silicon Valley of the 19th Century, but that’s exactly how Carroll sees it. “You have to realize how the people living here in the early 19th Century thought of themselves,” he says. “The Conestoga wagon was a cutting edge innovation. The small steam train that ran nearby was not a cute toy, but the mag-lev of 1831.”
   In Carroll’s eyes, the immigrants and entrepreneurs of Troy saw a new world coming, not unlike modern cyber-visionaries. However, their vision was based on the power of falling water, of water-based transportation, of iron, and later of steam and railroads. “The Erie Canal started here and helped them see the future, and they thought, ‘If you’re not on this, you’re a dead duck.’ They thought of themselves as way out in front of gentleman farmer-types like Washington and Jefferson who, though keen for improvements, thought those improvements would produce a whole continent blanketed with estates like improved versions of Mount Vernon and Monticello. The people here knew early on that the nation was headed toward an urban industrial civilization and a continental market economy. They acted accordingly when they made policy or invested money.” 
   Carroll has been drawn to this mix of technology and human behavior since his childhood as a “fourth-generation townie” in Princeton, New Jersey, where his family was active in county politics and he developed a commitment to the communities surrounding college campuses. As an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, he started out in engineering because “I was good in math, and it was my patriotic duty to beat the Russians by becoming a rocket scientist.” 
   Instead, he quickly bored of designing airplane struts. A chance encounter with a professor inspired in him an interest in history. “I had a revelation that the outcome of things is not random or preordained, and it made me rethink what causes human affairs to change.” Following his graduation in 1972, he returned east to Penn’s then-young program in the history and sociology of science, where he took his masters (1976) and doctoral (1982) degrees. 
   One of Carroll’s mentors was Dr. Thomas P. Hughes, now emeritus professor of history and sociology of science and author of American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (1870-1970). “In the early 1970s, when the department was defining itself and gathering momentum, Tom provided spirited leadership among the graduate students,” Hughes remembers. “Never aggressive, he was nevertheless determined in his quest to understand the history of science and technology — and equally determined that the graduate students join with the faculty in establishing a Penn style.” That style, Hughes says, involved doing the history of science, technology, and medicine in context, for which Penn was recognized in the field as having blazed a new path. 
   Dr. Lynn Lees, who now chairs the history department, recalls Carroll as provocative to teach and clearly pushing beyond conventional boundaries. “Tom had both a practical bent and a sense of the utility of what he was doing. He wanted to see results. He was also more fun to talk with because of his wide-ranging interests.” 
   Carroll says he chose Penn because it was moving in a new direction, combining cultural anthropology, science, technology, medicine, economics, and sociology. He remains close to the teachers and colleagues of those days, and with the small group of professional historians in the field. 
Under Carroll’s direction, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway participates with other regional historic sites in the country’s first urban cultural park, established in 1979. In addition to developing the museum and operating the city’s visitor center, the Gateway also works with several local communities on education, preservation, advocacy, and development programs.

TROY ITSELF is surely a contender for a “Heart of the Industrial Revolution in America Award.” With industries lining the Hudson River, in 1840 Troy was the fourth wealthiest community in the country on a per capita basis. It was the home of the detachable shirt collar, which was the fashion and laundry rage for 100 years following its invention by Hannah Lord Montague in the 1820s. Local butcher Sam Wilson was transformed into America’s Uncle Sam, of enduring recruiting poster fame, during the War of 1812. Prosperity peaked soon after the Civil War, but factories continued to produce textiles, scientific instruments, and cooking stoves well into the 20th century. In an ironic modern validation of the city’s past, when movie studios seek authentic 19th century backdrops for films such as The Age of Innocence, they film in Troy. 
   The Burden Iron Works Museum is emblematic of the city. The manufacturing complex of which it is the last remnant originated in 1813 as the Troy Iron and Nail Factory and took advantage of the water plunging from the uplands to join the Hudson for power. Henry Burden, a recently emigrated Scotsman, became superintendent in 1822, and by 1848 had accumulated enough stock to become sole owner. He was a remarkable entrepreneur who is credited with inventing the first machine for making wrought iron and another machine able to churn out horseshoes at the rate of one per second. A 60-foot diameter, overshot water wheel — the most powerful ever made, and probably the model for the world’s first Ferris wheel in 1893 — powered the Upper Works, while the larger Lower Works along the Hudson was powered by steam. 
   A decade after Henry’s death in 1871, work began on a new office building. Eventually, innovations did not keep pace with the rise of modern manufacturing methods and the coming of the automobile. The Upper Works was closed at the turn of the century. The Republic Steel Corporation of Cleveland purchased the Lower Works and operated a steel blast-furnace until pollution regulations forced it to close in 1972. Two years later, Republic Steel sold the two-acre site of the office building, by then ransacked, to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway for $10. Most of the mile-long factory complex adjoining it was demolished. 
   Volunteers have spent many hours bringing the museum building back to life. The ceiling of the large interior vault still needs repair, but gives a sense of lightness to the space below. The central floor, which once housed numerous cubicles, is bare except for the exhibits of photographs, illustrations, and memorabilia such as a machine for making surveyor instruments and an iron panel from the Monitor, the Union’s iron-clad ship that battled the Confederacy’s Merrimac in the Civil War. (A neighboring iron works was the source of the Yankee iron.) The spacious executive offices in the wings retain an atmosphere of seclusion and power. And the paymaster’s office, where 2,000 workers once lined up for their weekly wages, sits separately in the front. The building’s architect was Philadelphia-born Robert H. Robertson, and the construction cost was $41,000, or roughly $1 million today. 
When Carroll gave up his tenured professorship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he stepped away from a 17-year career at a school that had established the first science and technology studies department in the world. The nation’s first engineering school, Rensselaer recently had begun focusing more on practical engineering studies. A few colleagues hinted that he was betraying his teacher’s calling, not to mention foolishly walking away from a guaranteed lifetime salary. But Carroll says the overwhelming response has been excited support. 
   “Yes, there is concern for the long-term financial viability of this move. The Gateway isn’t exactly well-endowed. But my wife [Nancy Engel Carroll, CW’74] has a good job, we don’t have any children, and our house is paid off. In any event, we won’t starve,” he says, with a smile. 
   At the Gateway, Carroll has a staff of one full-time person, who runs the city visitor center; a part-time marketing coordinator; and a handful of regular volunteers, with more available on call. He also has support from prominent families in the city, a few sympathetic politicians in the state capital eight miles downriver, and some national contacts that may help in financial or other ways. 
   “The people here don’t need to be convinced that this area has historic significance. But they need to be convinced that Troy doesn’t have to succumb to Rust Belt maladies,” says Carroll. “Like humans worldwide, they will have to think through their relationship with technology in order to create a prosperous future. A good evaluation of the past will help.”

HIS BASIC POINT, which he drives home at every opportunity, is that awareness of past success makes it possible to succeed again: If you think through what attributes made Troy triumphant in the 19th century — a transportation hub, enlightened schools, a skilled workforce, an entrepreneurial ethic — then you can try to foster those conditions again, especially if you have a confidence based on past experience. 
   Troy’s mayor, Mark Pattison, has no illusions about a rapid resurrection of the city. Like many in the region, his roots run back generations, with a father in Congress and a mother who has long been active in the Gateway and, in fact, introduced Pattison to Carroll. “He’s got energy and vision, and a clear view of how rich the history is here,” Pattison says. “History is very inspiring, and it’s a legitimate launching point. But it’s going to take a lot of things to happen.” His pillars for rejuvenation are technology, like the software companies locating in the city; downtown living, like the artist’s lofts in vacant buildings; and tourism, to which the Gateway is a growing contributor. 
   One of the greatest benefits to come from Carroll’s work will be self-awareness, Pattison thinks. “Locals often don’t even see the Burden Iron Works.” They should, he adds, since many of the older residents drew paychecks at that building. Maybe their children — many of whom, although they’ve moved to the suburbs, return each Sunday to worship at their family church — will learn to see it. 
   It is this resonant sense of community and potential that attracts Carroll and makes the venture worth the risk, he says. His long-range goal is to “make the Gateway into the very best regional industrial history institute in the United States so it can contribute to sustainable, broad-based prosperity for the region. I want to finish off the Burden Iron Works Museum to use as a base for education programs, as a community center, and as a lure for tourists. And I’d love to sponsor a scholarship for young researchers. I could go on, but you get the idea.” 

W. Conard Holton, C’72, is a science and technology writer who lives just outside Troy, New York.

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