California’s 8th Governor and long-time Senator Leland Stanford, namesake of Stanford University and one-time president of the Central Pacific Railroad, has a unique connection to New York State’s Capital District.
Leland was born in Watervliet in 1824, the son of Josiah Stanford and Elizabeth Phillips. Among his seven siblings were New York Senator Charles Stanford (1819-1885) and Australian spiritualist Thomas Welton Stanford (1832-1918). The elder Stanford was a wealthy farmer in the eastern Mohawk Valley before moving to the Lisha Kill in Albany County where Leland was born.
In about 1836 the family moved to the village of Roessleville in what is now the town of Colonie (the hamlet was located on what is now Central Avenue, between 1-87 and 1-90). Leland Sandford had attended the common school until the family’s move, but for the next several years was tutored at home. After attending the Clinton Liberal Institute in Oneida County, he began studying law at Cazenovia Seminary in Madison County, NY, in 1841.
While he was away at Seminary, Leland’s father and brother Charles established themselves in a new hotel, the Bull’s Head, about a mile north of the Albany city line, on what was then the main road between that city and Troy. Originally a track used by Indigenous people, later military expeditions left Albany for the north along its route. In 1813 the Watervliet Arsenal was established nearby, taking advantage of the central location and transportation access.
In 1828 the “Albany Road” became part of the newly organized Watervliet Turnpike. A favorite place to race horses, the road was known far and wide for its fast men, and faster mounts. Among the heroes of the turf found there in the 1830s was Gil Crane, jockey for legendary horse owner (and steamboat innovator) John C. Stevens. Crane had ridden some of the greatest horses in American history until that point, including the undefeated thoroughbred American Eclipse and the favorite local mare Black Maria. Crane was also a noted mixologist. In the 1840s, 50s and early-60s Gil Crane’s was a center of sporting life in the Capital District.
Taking advantage of the growing popularity of Albany Road among horsemen, the Stanfords opened their Bull’s Head on June 1, 1842. “The whole establishment has been got up with a view to accommodate those who deal in cattle, horses, &c, as well as those who wish to find a comfortable place of resort from the bustle of the cities,” they announced. “Connected with the house are five hundred acres of land, three hundred of which are intended for pasturing.”
The hotel name was a common one, used by a multitude of similar establishments. Perhaps the most notable of these was the center of the cattle (and later horse) market at a tavern by the same name in the city of New York. It began at the Bull’s Head on the Bowery and later moved uptown, where it took up two full blocks, at what was in the 1830s the largely rural area bordered by Lexington and Third Avenues, and by Twenty-third and Twenty-fifth streets. The cattle yards there had a capacity of fifteen hundred head, plus pens for dealers in pigs, sheep, and horses. Third Avenue was another important place in the development of trotting in America.
It’s said the term “watering down stock” is derived from this market, which was at one time owned by steamboat operator and stock manipulator Daniel Drew, who began his career as a cattle drover. (He allegedly denied his cattle water on the road only to allow them to gorge themselves just before their sale). Formally the Bull’s Head had been owned by Henry Astor, “King of the Butchers” and brother of John Jacob Astor.
In the nineteenth century the Albany cattle market was considered a rival of Buffalo and Chicago. Early in the century it was located along Washington Avenue in Albany, and then afterward centered at the Bull’s Head, which had the added benefit of being on the Erie Canal, Hudson River, and the railroad line north from Albany. By about 1860 the railroads had taken command of the freighting business and the market was moved to West Albany (near where the Tobin’s First Prize factory stood for many years).
In September of 1842, the first autumn of its operation, the Stanford’s Bull’s Head in Watervliet got a considerable boost when it was chosen as the location for the Cattle Show and Fair of the New York State Agricultural Society, billed as the State Fair.
“From the quality and number of the stock entered down to 4 o’clock, yesterday, the great variety of farming implements, the products of the dairy, the farm, the workshop, &c. &c. then on the ground—and by no means all had arrived yesterday — it promises to be one of the greatest affairs of the kind that has been witnessed in this state,” the Albany Argus declared. “That the public so regard it may be inferred from the fact that [the Albany Road] in both directions from the Bull’s head, was alive with vehicles of all descriptions, with pedestrians and horsemen during the day, going to and from the scene”
Among the “objects of interest” to be found at the Bull’s Head was a drove of 24 buffalo from Missouri, a Syracuse ox weighing 4,000 pounds and a hog weighing 1,400. Among the visitors to the fair, and presumably the Stanford’s, was then New York Lt. Governor Luther Bradish, along with War of 1812 General James Tallmadge (whose father had led the militia in the capture of John Burgoyne after the Battle of Saratoga). The biggest hubbub at the fair was provided by the arrival of former President Martin Van Buren, although the horsemen and sporting fellows were buzzing over the news of the death of Thomas McCoy in a bare-knuckle boxing match down the Hudson.
The Stanford’s Bull’s Head in Watervliet quickly drew the ire of local moralist. “At the famous Bull’s Head, on [the Albany Road], as every body knows, there is a regular built race course; and almost every week a race or trotting match comes off on this course, indirect violation of our laws,” the Troy Daily Whig opined in a January 1845 article entitled “Horse Riding and Furious Driving.” “Here may be seen, on race days, gambling apparatus of various kinds, all in operation, and the young men of our cities and villages are here trained up in this blackleg school, for every thing that is abominable.”
That year Leland Sanford returned to Albany and entered the law office of Wheaton, Doolittle and Hadley. A few years later he was admitted to the bar and left with other settlers for Wisconsin and in 1852 he followed his brothers to the gold fields of California. He was elected Governor in 1861 and founded the Pacific Union Express Company, which later merged with Wells Fargo. He also interested himself in railroads, being president of the Southern Pacific when the transcontinental spike was driven in 1869. He secured his robber baron reputation as leader of a steamship line to Japan and China.
Leland Sandford continued carried his family interest in horsemanship to notably new levels. He founded the Palo Alto Stock Farm, where he raised Standardbred horses. Several of his trotters, sired by Electioneer (a son of Hambletonian 10) won names for themselves on California tracks. Sanford’s interest in racing is best remembered however, for his commissioning of a motion study of a horses gait by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The study proved, once and for all, that all four feet of a horse sometimes left the ground at the same time. An animation was created with the images as the proto-film Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878).
The Palo Alto Stock Farm was later donated to help found Stanford University.
Illustrations, from above: Leland Stanford portrait by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 1881 (courtesy Stanford Museum); Commodore John Cox Stevens’ Black Maria with Bill Patrick, May 1834 by Edward Trote (1808-1874) (Private Collection); a painting of the Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery in Manhattan ca. 1783; the Bull’s Head hotel on the Albany Road in ca. 1900 courtesy Dignum Family; and Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,” 1878.