His father, Randall Sandal Street, was a general in the New York Militia and served in the War of 1812. A practicing lawyer, Randall Street was also active in politics; he was a two-term district attorney and a Democratic congressman from 1819 until 1821. His wife, Cornelia, was the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran, Andrew Billings.
Young Alfred attended the Duchess County Academy until 1825 when his family relocated to the Sullivan County, NY, town of Monticello. Around this time, Street began to write poetry. Two of his poems, “A Winter Scene” and “A Day in March” were printed in the Evening Post when he was in his mid-teens.
After completing his formal schooling, he studied law in his father’s office and was admitted to the bar. He practiced law in Monticello for several years. Like many young attorneys of his era, he was attracted to Albany, the political center of New York State. He moved to New York’s capital in 1839 and set up a small law office. Two years later, Alfred Street married Elizabeth Weed. The couple had one son.
In Albany, Alfred Street continued to write. In 1843-1844 he edited the publication Northern Light. Some of his most popular works included “The Burning of Schenectady” (1842), an account of the infamous 1690 massacre and the monumental historical epic, “Frontenac, or the Atotarho of the Iroquois, a Metrical Romance” (1849), which contained some seven thousand lines. He published Drawings and Tintings (1844), Fugitive Poems (1846), sixteen poems he contributed to John A. Howe’s Forest Pictures in the Adirondacks (1864), and a two-volume collection of his works in 1866.
He also published two memoirs, Woods and Waters (1860) and The Indian Pass (1869) both were effusive accounts of expeditions into the Adirondacks in Essex County, New York and near Saranac and Raquette Lakes.
From 1848 until 1862, Street served as State Librarian. During this period, Street authored two books for the New York State law library where he worked, The Council of Revision of the State of New York, documenting the history of the council (1859), and A Digest of Taxation in the United States (1863).
Street was also appointed New York State Poet and wrote works for many important dedication services and public events. Street was a quiet, modest man of simple habits. He was short, bespectacled and mild-featured. He was also described as reclusive but his correspondents included such notable men as Horace Greeley.
While modern critics would probably be put off by his effusiveness and sentimentality, Edgar Allan Poe praised Street’s detailed, enthusiastic poetry for its descriptiveness. Some works were published in England and Benjamin Disraeli commented on the poet’s “originality and poetic fire.” A prominent British journal noted that, “with all his faults, his poems cannot be read without pleasure.” Some of his works were praised by critics and several were subsequently translated into German.
Though he resided in Albany for the remainder of his life, Alfred Street found much inspiration from nature, especially the scenic memories of his youth in Sullivan County. His fondness for the “Kaats kill” and Hudson Valley regions is vividly illustrated in such poems as “The Callicoon in Autumn,” “The Willowemoc in Summer,” “The Falls of Mongaup,” “Sunset on Shawangunk Mountain,” and by these lines:
Far to the North, the Delaware Flows,
By forest bank, by summit bare,
It bends in rippling song;
Receiving in each eddying nook
The waters of a vassal brook,
It sweeps more deep and strong;
Round yon green island it divides,
And by this quiet woodland glides.
—– “The Minisink”
Alfred Billings Street died on June 2nd, 1881. He was buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery. Forty years earlier he had written a poem for Albany Rural’s dedication ceremony. Now the forgotten poet lies in an unmarked grave in a quiet valley once known as Green Leaf Forest. His own words describe his resting-place and provided a suitable eulogy for him:
Not to the air should then be
given the dead,
Not to the flame,
nor yet the cold ocean’s bed,
But to the earth —
the earth from whence it rose,
There should the frame be left
to its repose.
There our great mother guards
her holy trust,
Spreads her green mantle
o’er the sleeping dust;
There glows the sunshine —
there the branches wave,
And the birds yield song,
flowers fragrance round the grave.
— The Albany Rural Cemetery
This article was edited from one donated by Paula Anne Sharkey Lemire.
Illustration: Alfred Billings Street engraving by Welch & Walter.