Hitting The Bricks (Part I)

“Brick wall” is one of the more painful clichés of family research. And there are days I think that I should become a mason.

My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney has long irritated me by his refusal to be found in the 1900 census. Or in the 1900 anything, despite my diligent efforts. Talk about ingratitude.

I’ve found all his other census appearances from 1860 to 1930. I’ve journeyed to his birthplace, pored over vital records, and photographed his tombstone from a variety of angles, good, bad and ugly.

Until recently, city directories were my one clue into where Joseph might have gone around 1900. The directories document that Joseph and his parents lived in West Troy, NY (later called Watervliet) in Albany County for just over 40 years, starting in at least 1858, when Joseph’s father Martin first appeared in the listings.

In 1899, the family scattered from West Troy. Martin “removed to Albia,” a neighborhood in the city of Troy, just across the Hudson River in Rensselaer County. His second son, William, “removed to New York City.”

As for oldest son Joseph, he just disappeared from the West Troy/Watervliet directories in 1899 without any comment. Typical.

Congress Street Bridge, Troy NY

The Congress Street Bridge connecting Troy and West Troy (Watervliet), NY. From “Troy in Vintage Postcards,” edited by Brian and Becky Nielsen (Arcadia Publishing, 2001).

Unable to find out what happened to Joseph specifically, I explored the general question of what had happened in the Troy area that prompted my ancestors to pull up stakes as the century turned. The sad answer: an extended period of industrial decline. In the mid-19th-century, Troy was booming, a magnet for ironworks and other heavy industry. But after the Civil War, the area took a big hit in the depression of the 1870s. And it didn’t help that iron and steel manufacturing was shifting westward to Pittsburgh. Bad news for Troy. It’s not hard to surmise that my relatives decided they’d be better off elsewhere.

I knew Joseph ended up in Brooklyn eventually. He was there from 1910 onward, the censuses say. And the West Troy/Watervliet city directory entries strongly suggest that like his brother William, Joseph left Albany County around 1899. So I went back to my Ancestry.com grindstone, and the [expletive deleted] 1900 census. I worked it over in inventive, smarty-pants search-term combinations of his wife’s and children’s names and dates, crossing my eyes over various manglings of the Haigney surname. Nada.

One day after a search session, I caught myself haranguing Joseph (out loud) for being an uncooperative [expletive] jerk. It was time for a break.

Sometimes you just have to let it rest for a bit. And on the bright side, even if I still didn’t know what happened to Joseph in 1900, I had learned valuable information about the times in which he lived.

It pays to embrace the larger context. For one thing, it distracts you when the smaller context is giving you fits. And most important, it brings the census and city directory entries to a more vivid life.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s mystery remained just that. Then one day, I dared to revisit the black hole of 1900 because of a webinar I took on a whim. The result was quite a surprise. I’ll save it for Part Two.

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