Construction machinery along the Northway with the Wolf Kemp Cemetery in the background. Jim Franco / Spotlight Newspapers
COLONIE — In a town where old and new often fiercely clash, the new $31 million upgrade to the Northway, and the cemetery dating to at least the early 1800s, will peacefully co-exist.
The fact a major transportation project could have threatened the cemetery has a touch of irony, too. One of the families buried just west of the southbound lane and just north of Exit 2 are the Kemps. One of the Kemp’s is John Wolf Kemp. Wolf is his mother’s name, according to town Historian Kevin Franklin, and most historians agree Wolf Road, a major thoroughfare and commercial hub, got its name from that lineage.
The small plot — owned by the ever expanding Albany International Airport — has remained largely undisturbed for centuries, but too often progress doesn’t seem to care. In this case, though, a modicum of respect was granted, and history got a reprieve.
“The cemetery will remain in its existing the location and be outside of the project scope just to the south of the new ramps,” said Bryan Viggian, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
Franklin said years ago a Boy Scout took on the cemetery as part of a project to qualify as an Eagle Scout. He installed white, wooden fence and, for a time, an American flag waved proudly to travelers whizzing by at 65 mph-plus.
But, the fence fell into disrepair and is no longer there, In its place is a undignified, red, plastic barrier with a sign that reads “Protected Site Keep Out.” And the cemetery, with a stately tree standing guard over the aged, crooked headstones, looks more out of place now with heavy construction activity going on around it than ever before.
“There are about two dozen family cemeteries scattered throughout the town but this is the most visible and the one I get the most calls on,” Franklin said. “It would be nice to
get in there and get a fence around it and maybe straighten the gravestones and clean it out a little. But access to the site can be difficult because of restrictions by the airport.”
The cemetery represents a significant piece of Colonie history.
Buried at the site are 11 members of the Kemp family, four Socks family members and two Reeds. That is according to a one-time unofficial town historian Arthur Johnson, who for decades did painstaking research on the cemetery and other aspects of Colonie’s past.
Decades of Northeast weather has taken its toll on the headstones, and the few still whole — and still standing — are all but impossible to read at a glance. When Johnson took on the project in the mid 1970s, the gravestones were broken and scattered about the site so he, with much time and effort according to news accounts, gathered them up and pieced them together the best he could.
John Wolf Kemp’s stone was the most regal, and while it is broken, the material shows the least amount of wear which led Johnson to the conclusion it must have been replaced after his death in January 1811. Furthering that theory, is the nub of a sandstone marker right next to it.
John Wolf Kemp, or Johannes Wulf Kampff as he was born in 1773, would have been 37 or 38 at the time of his death. Buried alongside him are his wife Elizabeth and several children (see the rest of Johnson’s notes in our online photo gallery.)
At the time, before Colonie was known as Colonie, the Kemps were tenant farmers and built what was known as the John Wolf Kemp House on 4.7 acres of land at what became 216 Wolf Road. There were two structures on the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places — the Federal Style farmhouse and the associated 19th century “summer kitchen,” according to an archival summary by Panamerican Consultants, a company commissioned by Turf Hotels to do an inventory and analysis of the site.
The original two and a half story brick house was built in about 1805, and different additions were constructed up to as late as 1937. In 2003, Turf Hotels purchased the land, demolished all the buildings the land is now home to a Homewood Suites by Hilton. The cemetery is across all six lanes of the Northway and just south of the hotel.
In all, before the property was demolished, “the John Wolf Kemp House remains largely intact and continues to convey its significance as an important vernacular interpretation of turn-of-the-eighteenth-century Federal architecture in the town of Colonie, New York,” according to Panamerican.
The Kemp farm was built on the original “patroonship” of Rensselaerwyck, established by Amsterdam merchant Kiliaen Van Rensselaer during the first half of the 17th
The patroonship consisted of some one million acres of farmland on both sides of the Hudson River and was occupied by tenant farmers. John Wolf Kemp, who emigrated from Germany to Schoharie, established his Colonie farm in the 1790s under Stephen Van Rensselaer III, according to Panamerican research, who was later known as the “last patroon” before the anti-rent wars of the 1840s.
John Wolf Kemp married Elizabeth, and they had three sons and two daughters. In 1841, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, sold 80 acres of farmland to Michael Kemp, John Wolf Kemp’s grandson, for $3,200.
“This most likely included the original Kemp homestead, of which the Kemp family now became sole owners for the first time,” according to Panamerican research provided by Franklin. “According to subsequent deeds, the property remained in the hands of Michael Kemp and his wife Sarah (Sally) until his death in 1846. While ownership of the property then passed to their son Michael, Sally retained her dower right in the estate until it was sold out of the family in 1860.”
The 80 acres grew as the property passed through different hands for a following few decades until it was acquired, through purchases and intermingled family inheritance, by the Leatso family in 1913. At the time, there was 105 acres of farmland anchored by the John Wolf Kemp homestead, where the family lived.
The Leatsos ran a thriving farm through the first half of the 20th century — trucking the homegrown vegetables to buyers — but construction of the Northway in 1966 split the land and had a profoundly negative impact on the business. The Northway also contributed to changing the character of Wolf Road “from a sleepy two-lane street running past dozens of farms to a booming commercial strip,” according to Panamerican research.
When farming the land and trucking vegetables became too difficult, the Leatsos started a nursery business on Wolf Road, Leatso’s Flowers and Greenhouses, and was one of the last successful agricultural-based businesses on Wolf Road until 1998. By that time, the 105-acre flourishing farm had been reduced to six acres.
Currently, crews are going full steam ahead on the first phases of the road and there is some massive equipment moving massive amounts of earth and boring huge holes likely down to bedrock to support the new “flyover,” or ramp leading from the Northway southbound to the airport.
The $31 million project will reconfigure Exit 4 by creating a flyover for Northbound traffic. The new ramp will travel over the Northway, loop behind and to the west of the Desmond Hotel and come to a T-intersection with Albany Shaker Road. For southbound traffic, a new ramp will be
constructed behind the Desmond hotel and connect to a flyover ramp that will lead to a new intersection.
Plans also call for a new, direct on-ramp from Route 155 at Exit 5 for southbound traffic eliminating the need for the existing frontage ramp and northbound, the on-ramp adjacent to the Times Union building will be extended to Exit 5 leading to Route 155.
An estimated 40,000 vehicle a day use Exit 4 at the Northway and an estimated 102,000 vehicle travel over Albany Shaker Road at that location daily.
The project is not only designed to make getting in and out of the airport easier and quicker but, in theory, will alleviate traffic on the more minor roads surrounding it.
Click on a photo below to view a slideshow of the rest.