By Ahren Von Schnell | Photos Supplied by the Clinton County Historical Museum
The Plattsburgh Y.M.C.A. has been strengthening bodies, minds, and community for nearly one hundred fifty years. This is altogether fitting for an offshoot of an international organization which had, as its original mandate, the mission of protecting and cultivating these virtues in the young men who were its raison d’etre.
In 1844, rapid social changes precipitated by the industrial revolution were sweeping through Britain, the United States, and Europe. As a decentralized, agrarian economy transitioned to one which was more centralized in urban areas, the tumult of mass migration of erstwhile farmers and cottiers into the cities ensued. With it, strains upon existing social-support systems increased, necessitating alternative means by which these men could have a safe harbor from the squalor and temptations of the industrial wastelands of London. Enter George Williams.
A farmer and department store proprietor, Williams saw firsthand the corrosive effect sudden culture shock had upon the spirits of men moving from a bucolic existence to an urban one. Displaced from their original communities, these men found themselves in a wholly new way of life which was frequently dangerous and isolating. Its impact upon their character could be like rust upon the iron they so often worked.
In response to this growing need, Williams founded the Young Men’s Christian Association in London, a new organization based upon the aspirations of providing a haven and fraternal fellowship to the laborers of the city. Unusually for its time, the new organization welcomed men of all social classes. Well-being through physical fitness was to be a goal which transcended the traditional barriers of 19th century British society.
Less than a decade after Williams founded the YMCA in London, a former sea captain by the name of Thomas Valentine Sullivan found inspiration in the model established years earlier by Williams. With that precedent as a guide, he successfully established a chapter of the YMCA in Boston in December 1851, marking the debut of an organization that would become a fixture of the American cultural landscape.
Its first decades saw the Y make a broad set of notable contributions to the new republic. These spanned the gamut from English classes for German immigrants, affordable lodging for men from rural areas seeking their fortune in the larger cities, the creation of structured exercise programs, and even the first known use of the word “body building.”
When the Y finally arrived in the Plattsburgh area in 1886, it was already an established American institution. This distinguished role continued within our community as it helped to drive the economic and industrial development of the nation by providing essential support services to the railroad industry during the great age of expansion that was the late 19th century.
The Plattsburgh chapter of the Y.M.C.A. began its life in the Delaware & Hudson railroad station, the iconic Queen Anne-style depot to be found at Bridge and Dock Streets in downtown Plattsburgh to this day. The morning edition of the Plattsburgh Republican reported on October 16th, 1886, a ceremony commemorating the opening of a reading room to provide printed material for the greater edification of railroad workers lodged at the Y. The festivities were attended by various local luminaries and featured performances by the City Band orchestra and the Plattsburgh Amphion Male Quartette.
Consistent with the paradigm established by Cornelius Vanderbilt when he bestowed $100,000 for the establishment of a Railroad Y.M.C.A in New York City, the commitment of the Plattsburgh Y.M.C.A. to the betterment of young men was anything but desultory.
Indeed, while the modern conception is of an institution dedicated exclusively to physical fitness, the Y of yesteryear saw the elevation of the mind to be of equal importance. As observed in the news of the day, “A man was stationed at each branch to attend to the wants, evening talks on practical topics were provided, talks on machinery, introduction and use of steam, improvements in different branches of railroading, talks of ancient cities and their sewer systems, acqueducts [sic], and other public works, and thus thought was stimulated, and books in the library bearing on topics discussed were eagerly sought after.”
Moreover, in a time during which workplace safety was often considered a luxury, the Plattsburgh Y.M.C.A was at the forefront of providing workers with the skills necessary to respond to the hazards of their occupations: “Local surgeons and physicians were invited in to give talks to the men on what to do in case of accidents, and in this kind, management lay the secret of the great success that had been attained,” noted the Plattsburgh Republican.
Such was the regard for the aspirations and work of the Y.M.CA., that Reverend Charles Reynolds lauded the Plattsburgh chapter as “the hope of the community.” Likewise, a local commentator remarked that “…every good citizen of the town must wish it may prove a complete success.”
And successful is what it ultimately proved to be, although not without hurdles. In 1902, after having relocated to a space above Tierney’s Variety Store, a fire in the building destroyed the premises. Despite the tragedy, and owing to the positive regard the Y had cultivated within the community, it was not long before support came in the form of a generous benefactor.
When Loyal Smith, a local industrialist, passed away, he bequeathed to the Y a sum of $35,000 for a new building and $100,000 for its continued operation. The new building, clad in a stately columned façade, remains the home of the Plattsburgh YMCA to this day, although its original architecture is now merely a memory of a bygone age. When the facility’s pool was installed in 1960, the enduring classical dignity of the original portico was exchanged for the more somber, geometrically functional architecture that characterizes many of Plattsburgh’s buildings currently. Yet, despite this distinctly modernist presentation, the legacy of the YMCA in Plattsburgh remains timeless, enduring.
It led the way in providing educational and literary opportunities to young men who otherwise would not have had them. It recognized the importance of workplace safety training and first aid at a time when these practices were not often provided by employers. And it anticipated the holistic approach to health we now value by its emphasis on a mind-body-spirit synergy as the foundation of wellness. And this emphasis remains with offerings in lifeguarding, CPR, adult wellness programs across the lifespan, and access to childcare, the contemporary incarnation of the YMCA remains a locus of the community.
Today, as it did over one hundred years ago, it provides critical services that better the quality of life for those who call the North Country home.
17 Oak Street
Plattsburgh, NY 12901