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Think Silicon Valley levels of inventiveness -- in an era when women still wore hoopskirts and railroads were the flashiest way to travel.

For instance:

*A young George Westinghouse Jr., fresh from service in the Civil War, tinkering on a workbench, comes up with not only a rotary engine and a device to put derailed cars back on railroad tracks, but the genesis of the air-brake system that would revolutionize American transportation.

*A savvy Thomas Edison, in his mid-40s, opens the sprawling headquarters of his General Electric company.

*The behemoth American Locomotive Company is born, which by 1872 would employ 800 men in a $1.25 million industry at constant work pumping out 75,000-pound railroad engines for track lines all over the United States, from the New York Central to the Pere Marquette.

"The machine shops are perfectly bewildering," wrote a confounded New York Times reporter on a tour of the cavernous locomotive plant that year. "Looking down their length, the various machines look like groves of trees, from which all the smaller branches have been cut, leaving only the trunks and lower limbs."

Elegant it may not have been, but one thing's for sure: Schenectady can lay claim with any city in the world that boasts of its status as a hotbed of invention, innovation and bustling hard work.

Here, Westinghouse hatched his groundbreaking air-brake patent.

Here, Edison built a home for General Electric.

And here, the locomotive and related industries that fed the nation's burgeoning railroad, illumination and transportation industries in the 19th century also shone.

Today, a trip to Schenectady is a way to revisit the industrial roots of New York State, and to celebrate the launching pad of many of the country's great ideas.

Silicon Valley?

Maybe not. But Schenectady is nothing to sneeze at.

>Growth spurt

In the late 19th century, this city was the place to be when it came to ideas. All that energy boosted the city's population from a modest 13,655 people in 1880 to 31,682 at the turn of the century.

The city of today, which is home to some 61,000 residents, still shows off the architectural bones of that strapping young burg, starting with the General Electric sign that visitors first see.

Erected in 1926, the GE sign is an Art Deco wonder, dominating the city's skyline. Totaling 1,399 light bulbs, it consists of the familiar looping logo of the GE company, under which the words "General Electric" are spelled out in retro block letters.

It's visible during the day, but whatever you do, come back to see it by night. If you like Fred Astaire-era stuff and are dorkily fascinated by old-school corporate advertising, this is your thrill of the year, guaranteed. (Sometimes they change the colors in the sign around, so watch for that.)

Standing near the gates of GE staring up at the giant sign, you are not far from a pair of buildings off of Erie Boulevard, one currently painted pink, the other red, where -- according to sources at the county historical society -- Edison in 1898 took over a building operated by the Westinghouse Illuminating Company.

That's the last remaining building at the site that Edison himself had anything to do with, local history experts said.

>The empty house

The Westinghouse family's legacy is all over the city of Schenectady.

Everyone knows that George Westinghouse Sr. -- that's the inventor's father -- brought his business, a threshing machine concern, to the community on the Mohawk River from the small hamlet of Central Bridge in the mid-1850s. George Jr., the inventor, was just a boy at the time.

Today, not much remains of the Westinghouse family's physical presence in the city. The home where the family lived most permanently, and where George Jr. grew up, at No. 16 State St., no longer exists. The site of the old threshing-machine factory on Rotterdam Avenue disappeared when that street was razed for other uses.

But, if you drive up Broadway, one of the city's main arteries, to the place where the street splits from Guilderland Avenue, you can still marvel over one of the air-brake inventor's thumbprints on the region.

At the intersection of the two streets, on the crest of a hill overlooking the city, you'll see the ornate Victorian structure that George Westinghouse Jr. built for his mother, Emeline Vedder Westinghouse, in the 1880s and early 1890s, after his father died. (It's now the Bond Funeral Home, so look for the sign.) Costing a small fortune at the time -- $22,500 -- the gingerbread-framed, many-windowed mansion was designed by Albany architects and was considered the height of style.

There was only one problem: Emeline Westinghouse didn't want to live there. She refused to leave the sociable bustle of downtown Schenectady for the fancy new home on the hilltop about a mile outside the center city, and so it was never technically occupied by any of the Westinghouses. (George Westinghouse Jr. and his wife, Marguerite, lived in Pittsburgh after 1867.)

Westinghouse good-naturedly wrote off the matter, saying, according to some sources, that the cost was but "two weeks' pay" to him.

In any event, the structure remains a lovingly kept-up example of turn-of-the-century folk Victorian architecture, and worth a snapshot or two.

>Where to dine

If you want to continue the "history of transportation and innovation" theme in your eating and drinking plans, head for Clinton's Ditch -- a local brew pub housed in an old building near Erie Boulevard, which used to be part of the canal system before it was paved over.

Clinton's Ditch opened in 2005, after a collaboration of residents and the City of Schenectady turned a run-down old tavern building into a polished, yet earthy and down-home, pub and grill.

Clinton's Ditch serves well-made versions of classic pub fare -- burgers, fries, pastas and salads -- and is considered a spot to eat well and reasonably by locals. (And of course there is plenty of beer.)

Afterward, a quick drive over the Mohawk takes you to the vicinity of Jumpin' Jack's Drive-In, a longtime Schenectady and Scotia favorite for picnic food and ice cream.

Hot dogs, sundaes, caramel corn -- this is the place for some all-American munching, and it can be packed, so be prepared to wait. You'll see why Jack's has been around for 59 years after you dig into some of its hot fudge or flavor-of-the-day ice cream.

After your feast, you'll want to walk around, and there's no better place to do that than Schenectady's historic "Stockade District."

Located in the old section of the city, the district -- so named, some say, because of the stockade enclosure that used to ring it -- is chockablock with rowhouses and single-family dwellings dating to the Victorian and federal periods, and before.

Though here and there a few homes remain "fixer-uppers," in the words of one smiling resident, for the most part the Stockade District presents a textbook lesson on styles and traditions in vernacular American architecture.

Walk down the streets and picture yourself living there; it's addictive.

This district is also home to the Schenectady County Historical Society museum and library, at 32 Washington Ave. If you have ancestors who lived in this part of the state, or want to browse vintage newspapers, or look at an antique dollhouse on display, this spot is worth a visit.

By the time you bid Schenectady goodbye -- full of good food and inspiring ideas about American history -- you'll already be planning your next visit.

>When you go:

It's easy to get there from Buffalo: Head east on the Thruway about 280 miles, until you come to the 890 exit to Schenectady, which is within commuting distance of nearby Albany. You'll see the General Electric plant towering in the distance off to your right -- but be careful not to take the turn that leads into the plant entrance.

Check visitors' information for the Schenectady County Historical Society museum and library, and see a lengthy timeline of the region's history, at www.schist.org.

Clinton's Ditch restaurant and tavern is at 112 South College St., just off of Erie Boulevard in the city. For menus and information: www.onefortheditch.com.

Jumpin' Jack's Drive-In information and the flavor of the day can be found at www.jumpinjacksdriveininc.com.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com