Maiden Lane is an Albany street one could easily overlook. But it is one of the oldest streets in the city. Yet, its origins and the source of its name are shrouded in mystery.
The oldest map of Beverwijck, the stockaded community that grew up adjacent to Fort Orange in the early 1650’s, is usually dated to 1670, although one source dates it as early as 1659. The map shows only two named streets, Joncaer Straet, which is today’s State Street, and Rom Straet, the forerunner of Maiden Lane.
Rom Straet had its origins, apparently, as a bear track, the most direct route from the heights of today’s Capitol Hill to the Hudson River. Another early map, from 1698, shows a small stream running down the center of Rom Street. The foot of Rom Street was the location of the earliest ferry to Greenbush. Rom Street also terminated at the so-called Western or Schenectady Gate of the palisade surrounding Beverwijck, later Albany. A trading post was also located at the head of the street, adjacent to the palisade. As such, it served as an important ‘short cut’ for traders and Indians alike seeking to do business with each other.
The origin of the name ‘Rom’ for this street is unclear. While usually understood to denote rum, a liquor popular in the Indian trade, and plentiful enough during the Dutch tenure, this was not in fact the Dutch word for rum. It may, however, have been a corruption of the Dutch word, which was ‘rum,’ just as in English. Still, while rum was indeed sold to the Indians who came to Beverwijck to trade, the sale of alcohol to the Indians was totally illegal until the late 1670’s, and it seems unlikely the town fathers would have dignified that trade by naming a street after it.
It has also been suggested that ‘Rom’ might be a corruption of the Dutch word ‘rong,’ meaning ‘rung,’ as in the rungs of a ladder. The steep slope of this narrow thoroughfare could have suggested a ladder to the early settlers. Still another suggestion is that it is a corruption of the Dutch word ‘rond’ or ‘round,’ which in Holland, was occasionally the name given to streets which bypassed a more significant street. In any event, it is not at all clear how Rom Straet received its name, though it seems to have received its name from the town’s very earliest days.
With its capture by the English in 1664, many of the streets of Albany began to receive new names. Yet, as late as 1716, the Common Council still referred to the street as Rom Street, when it authorized repairs on it. The first reference to Maiden Lane appears to be in the Common Council minutes from 1725, when it is mentioned in conjunction with the ferry slip at its foot. By this time, Maiden Lane was largely “a service street providing access to the backyards of prominent homes on State, Market, and Pearl streets, containing sheds, stables, and some modest residential buildings.”1
The origins of the name ‘Maiden Lane’ are also somewhat mysterious. One possibility is that it was simply a name adopted from a street name in New Amsterdam/ New York. Maiden Lane was the name given in 1712 to a street just beyond the palisade surrounding New York. During Dutch rule, it was a path frequented by washerwomen, known then as T’Maagde Paatje (‘the Maiden’s path’). Thus Maiden Lane was just an English translation of an existing Dutch street name. Not necessarily distinct from this theory, is that the name was based on a well-known street in London. The still-existing Maiden Lane in London was originally known as ‘Mayde Lane,’ supposedly named for a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that stood in the middle of it. The street dates back to at least 1467. By 1735, it had been renamed Maiden Lane. So perhaps a homesick Londoner gave the narrow Albany street its name. Or just a homesick New Yorker.
Maiden Lane continued to thrive in its role as a short cut to the top of State Street Hill. Hotels were located on it, always advertising their location on the ‘shortest route to the depots.’ It also became a thriving commercial area, taking advantage of the significant foot traffic, especially between Broadway and North Pearl Street. It would also become the namesake for the Maiden Lane Bridge, which carried rail traffic to the new Union Station on Broadway.
Today, Maiden Lane is a shadow of its former self. The portion from Eagle Street to Lodge Street has been renamed Corning Place. One can no longer walk uninterruptedly to the waterfront – the Ten Eyck Plaza blocks its path between Lodge and Pearl Streets; the 787 arterial blocks it progress past Water Street, although a foot bridge ‘extends’ the path to the Jennings Landing. But the now truncated street is a tangible reminder of the very earliest days of our ancient city’s founding.
1 From the Colonial Albany Project website: http://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov//albany/streets.html