Thursday, May 28, 2009

Old & New Industries in Little Falls, New York

Entering Little Falls from the west

This week we return to the Mohawk Valley, once the industrial heartland of the United States, and visit my hometown, Little Falls, New York. The village, still officially a city, has lost about half its population since the 1950s, and many of its manufacturing industries. But the longtime residents of Little Falls, as well newcomers, have a strong love for their picturesque community and have done much to promote its revival. In 2008 the city sought a $650,000 grant to continue the revitalization of its old mill district, according the Utica Observer Dispatch:

Little Falls also boasts its own daily newspaper, the Little Falls Evening Times and maintains a website that provides an overview of community life. Of special interest is the annual Canal Days festival, which attracts thousands of visitors each August.

Entering Little Falls from the west on Route 5, the first sign of local industry we encountered were buildings belonging to the Burrows Paper Corporation, founded in Little Falls by Charles and Andrew Burrows in 1913. Although Burrows has thrived in the global economy, the corporation is still an important presence in the community and now occupies a number of buildings that formerly housed other industries.

At the intersection of West Main and Furnace Streets, we stopped to take a look at the abandoned Gilbert Knitting Mill buildings across the railroad tracks. Long ago, workmen walked down Furnace Street and crossed under the tracks via the city’s pedestrian subway.
Abandoned Gilbert Mill, pedestrian subway on left

As early as 1831 there was a water-powered paper mill on this site. After a series of other mills came and went, the Gilbert company began with J.J. Gilbert as a principal owner in 1872. The Gilbert family were prominent in the city for many years and their mansion on a nearby hill is now an attractive bed and breakfast known as the Gansevoort House. Like many early industrialists, the Gilberts built their mansion in a spot that overlooked the source of their wealth.

We headed for Mill Street, the old industrial area along the Mohawk River. The settlement began here before the American Revolution due to the rapids in the river, which necessitated a cumbersome portage of the canoes and small boats of that era. During the Revolution, the Tories and their Iroquois allies waged a fierce guerrilla war against the patriots in the Mohawk Valley. In 1782 they attacked and burned the grist mill at "the little falls."

Remains of the 1795 Little Falls Canal

It was George Washington who first recommended the building of a canal around the rapids at Little Falls, and work was begun in 1793. Opened to traffic in 1795, the Western Inland Navigation Canal was the first true canal in the nation. The lock pictured here was a guard lock that prevented flood stage river water from rushing into the canal and helped control water levels when the canal was in use. In 1883 the state legislature declared the lock to be a heritage site to be forever preserved, but expansion of the railroad right-of-way and generations of neglect have taken their toll. The remaining limestone walls of the old canal can be found just beyond the parking lot beside Hansens Island. Although the ruins may not seem impressive, the New York State Museum has a very thorough description of this early canal, including a series of maps and images.

From the canal site we looked across to Hansens Island, famous as the place where Junket custard was made for many years. Christian Hansen founded his company in Denmark in 1874 and in 1890 bought the small island as the site for his American factory. Junket desserts are now a brand offered by Redco Foods, whose better known products include Red Rose and Salada tea. The island was recently the scene for a protracted dispute between Redco and the employee labor union, and feelings are evidently still bruised.
Hansen's Island and the Mohawk River rapids

Walking down Mill Street past the Hansens Island parking lot, we soon came to the renovated Power House, where hydroelectric power was generated. I can recall when the limestone dam was dynamited, reportedly for a tax advantage by Niagara Mohawk, thus putting to an end to the generation of power at this location. The Power House has been significantly remodeled by its current owners, who replaced one deteriorated stone wall with brick. I believe there was a plan to provide cultural events at the building, but there was no sign of any current activity. This may require an update when we learn more.

The Power House and broken dam

The Power House adjoins a set of ruined stone walls that may be the remains of the old Henry Cheeney Hammer Company. According to the 1911 Centennial history, the Cheeney company "does an extensive business in all kinds of high grade hammers, its product being sold all over the United States and in foreign countries."

Probable ruins of the Henry Cheeney Hammer Company

Only a little further east, across from what was once the Andrew Little Lumberyard, is another stone foundation, which has been partially excavated. This was the location, according to my father, of the “old stone mill,” built at some point early in the 19th century on the site of the wooden gristmill burned by Tory raiders in 1782.

Foundation of the old stone mill and site of 1782 massacre

A little farther west on Mill Street is an impressively renovated set of old stone mills, which now houses a variety of shops. The Little Falls Antique Center and the adjoining Shops at 25 West Mill Street are well worth a visit. For a fine dinner, I recommend Canalside Inn. And the adjacent Ann Street Lunch is always good for lighter meals.

Canalside Inn on left, Stone Mills of Little Falls shops on right

Turning right on South Ann Street, we came to the Mohawk River bridge and took a look at the ruins of the Erie Canal Aqueduct, which was opened in 1822 and collapsed only a few years ago.

The Erie Canal Aqueduct, present and past

Crossing the bridge brought us to Moss Island, and a walk along the canal to its highest lift lock, Lock 17, is a very enjoyable experience. Moss Island is home to many “potholes” created by the tremendous rush of water that came through this gorge at the end of the last ice age. With the outlet to the St Lawrence River still blocked by glaciers, all of the waters of the Great Lakes once poured through this narrow valley. We looked across to the south side of the river and the rocky cliffs of Lovers Leap where, according to legend, doomed Mohawk lovers embraced the fate of Romeo & Juliet.

All that remains on Moss Island of the Adirondack Woolen Company, where my grandmother worked long ago, is a single brick storage building, now used by Burrows Paper Corporation.

Old Adirondack Woolen Co. shed on Moss Island

Lovers Leap from Moss Island

Across a rusted and long-closed bridge we glimpsed the Cherry Burrell Buildings and headed in that direction, thinking that this once-dynamic manufacturing firm was still in operation. Alas, Cherry Burrell, long a mainstay of the town’s prosperity, no longer has a presence here. The company survives elsewhere as Waukesha Cherry Burrell, a subsidiary of the multinational, SPX Corporation.

Empty Cherry-Burrell buildings on Mill Street

The Burrell Office Building on Main Street

Overlook Mansion, present and past

D. H. Burrell, the founder of the dairy equipment manufacturing company that bore his name, was a major contributor to the prosperity of Little Falls. He financed the Burrell Office Building in a time when elevators were still a novelty, and he also donated to the building of the YMCA and a new city hall in 1916. The Burrell mansion, Overlook, still looms over the town, but in a sad state of abandonment and ruin.

We never leave town without visiting the Little Falls Historical Society Museum at 319 North Ann Street, where the history of this picturesque and productive little city is carefully maintained by a staff of dedicated volunteers. Those interested in the history of Little Falls could find no better place to begin their inquiries.

The museum offers for sale a number of works on the town's history, including Unique Place, Diverse People; The Social and Political History of Little Falls by Richard Buckley (2008), not to mention my own historical novel of the American Revolution in this area, Neither Rebel Nor Tory; Hanyost Schuyler & the Siege of Fort Stanwix. The Cooney scrapbook collection contains newspaper articles from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s, and a wealth of genealogical material, primary sources and maps, are available for reference.

For those interested in doing their research via the internet, the volunteers at the Three Rivers website have posted a huge collection of public domain books on the history of the Mohawk, Hudson and Schoharie Valleys, including my father Edward Cooney's 1961 history of Little Falls.

The Mohawk Valley near Little Falls in the 1870s
from "Picturesque America"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Philmont and its High Falls

On a beautiful morning in May we set out for High Falls Conservation Area, which is owned and managed by the Columbia Land Conservancy. We drove east from state route 9-h on SR 23, then took 217 into the old mill town of Philmont. Access to the area is from Roxbury Road near the Claverack Town garage. The village, once known as Factory Hill, was home to a flourishing knitting industry, powered by water power from the 150 foot High Falls.

Thanks to the Conservancy, there are three well-maintained trails. We took the Green Trail up a slight incline for about twenty minutes to reach an observation point opposite the Falls.

The High Falls from the Green Trail

We then followed the Blue Trail down to Agawamuck Creek, which is said to offer good opportunities trout and bass. We threw the line in a few times and saw many minnows but no larger fish. Along the creek we saw some trash, evidently thrown down from the hill on the village side, the most interesting of which was a circa 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.

Agawamuck Creek

Relic of the 1960s

The blue trail ends in a jumble of rocks, over which it is necessary to climb in order to reach a truly magical place at the base of the Falls. Enclosed by high cliffs of shale is a round pool about a hundred feet in diameter. The pool looked inviting, but considering the slipperiness of the rocks, we resisted the temptation to jump in.

The High Falls from Below

The Pool Below the Falls

The red trail has its own appeal, following a highland ridge through patches of ferns and woodland flowers. Coming back down the Blue Trail, we saw stone fences, evidence that farmers once struggled to wrest a living from this rocky soil. Doubtless, the unrewarding nature of agriculture in this region made factory work desirable when the first mills were built in Philmont.

Community Activism in Philmont

The town is quite an active place, with many people on the street even on a weekday. Residents are currently united in a fight to keep Pinehaven, a public nursing and rehabilitation facility, from moving to Kinderhook about fifteen miles away. In an era when care of the aged and disabled has become one of the few reliable industries, opposition to the move is evident in a forest of signs on almost every lawn and shop window. The history of this institution, which began as a tuberculosis sanitarium, is an interesting one and well documented by local citizens. Some of the land on which it stands was purchased from George Harder, a descendant of the family that owned and ran the village’s largest employer for a century.

Last Remaining Building from High Rock Mills

The only remaining building from the High Rock Mill of the Harder family, according to Peter Stotts’ Looking for Work, is a small two story structure on Rock Street, now home to a daycare center. Originally the site for an earlier mill, built in 1845, the Harders acquired the property in 1868 and ran it until 1963. The mill reached its height in 1913, when it employed 870, a larger number than any other employer in the county.

Aken Mill Building, Now Home to Vita Nova Woodworking

We then strolled a couple blocks to Canal Street, where one of the few remaining structures from the Aken Knitting Mill is still in use by Vita Nova Woodworking. Peter Stott reports that the Aken Mill, built around 1878, employed 250 persons, mostly women, in finishing the knit goods made in the company’s other mill on Main Street. The High Rock Company later bought the mill and used it for storage until was demolished in the 1940s.

Summit Knitting Mill

The Courtyard of the Summit Knitting Mill

Fortunately, the Summit Knitting Mill, the grandest of the old factories, is still standing and in good repair. Evidently the present owners are preparing it for new uses, and after some further research we will report on their progress and plans. There is a courtyard at the back of the mill, along the creek, which could be a very attractive outdoor space for a restaurant. The walls of the courtyard, probably part of a older mill structure, are composed of piled shale, which seems quite unusual, given the friable nature of that kind of stone. Even so, the walls appear quite sturdy.

The Summit Mill is built at the top of the High Falls and just below the dam which creates the very scenic Summit Lake in the village’s center. According to Peter Stott, this was the site for the village’s first textile mill in 1796 when George Philip dammed the creek and built a fulling mill.

Summit Lake

We resolved to return soon to this beautiful village and get to know the lively people who still call it home. Perhaps in a time when our nation is struggling to overcome dependence on fossil fuels, the power of the High Falls will once again be a source of prosperity on the Agawamuck Creek.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Following the Albany & Hudson route from Electric Park to Albany

The Electric Park Depot a century ago

A hundred years ago Electric Park was a popular weekend destination for working people from Albany and throughout Columbia County, although one marred by tragedies on the electric railway that carried them to this amusement park.

Remains of Albany & Hudson Bridge over Valatie Creek

The route of the railway north from the site of the old Electric Park is clear but can only be followed a short way on foot. We took route 203 north, which parallels the line, and inspected the remains of the railway bridge over Valatie Creek, which is on Little Lake Road

North Chatham Depot in 2009

In North Chatham, we saw the reconstruction work on the depot, and continued on 203 to Nassau, where the line passes the Stewarts shop.

Railway route passes Stewarts shop in Nassau.

From Nassau, we followed county route 7 toward the next stop on the line, East Schodack.

Nassau Lake on county road 7

The railway passed close by Nassau Lake, a beautiful little body of water surrounded by private homes and camps.

ATV on railway route in East Schodack

In East Schodack we found a long stretch of the old route in regular use by walkers and ATV riders. Biking along this route, we met a convoy of seven ATVs. We also found the largest rock cut on the line.

Rock cut by Albany & Hudson in East Schodack

To reach the next stop, East Greenbush, the rail route crossed the present location of Interstate 90 just east of Exit 10, Miller Road. The fatal accident of 1901 was reported to have occurred near a bluff in East Greenbush, and the only place meeting that description near here is just about where the line crosses the Interstate. Perhaps someday a marker will be erected to remember the tragedy, which is described in detail on an earlier entry on Upstate Earth.

Railway route through Capital Corporate
Campus in East Greenbush

On the other side of I-90, the route crosses the modern Capital Corporate Campus and then runs parallel, and just to the north, of combined route 9 /20 through the busy shopping area of East Greenbush.

Rail route passes W.F. Bruen Hose Company

The route intersects such streets as Elliot Road and Greenwood Avenue and then follows Southern Avenue (perhaps named for the Albany & Southern line?) past the W.F. Bruen Firehouse
Railway route past K-Mart

The route then crosses 9/20 and heads between the K-Mart and the closed OTB, after which point it was difficult to follow.

We picked up the route again a mile or so to the west where it crosses the intersection of Aiken Avenue and Red Mill Road in Rensselaer and from that point downhill to intersect with the railroad line.

Albany & Hudson probably joined other rail lines near this trestle

We conjectured that the Albany & Hudson connected with the railway line near the present trestle on Aiken Avenue near South Street, and from that point followed on its own electric track into downtown Albany. The Albany & Hudson owned the rail bridge from Rensselaer and Albany and evidently sold access to other rail lines.

An Albany & Hudson electric car near
New York Central station in Albany

Old photos are courtesy of Don Ross.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Following the old electric railway from the Valatie depot to Hudson

Valatie Depot in winter

In Valatie the Albany & Hudson third rail electric line switched to overhead wires, probably due to the crowded nature of this factory village during the thirty years the railway was in operation (1899-1929) The present day power line marking the route of the Albany & Hudson indicates that the tracks went from the depot across the parking lot of Valatie Medical Arts and down a right-of-way between River St. and state route 9. Passing through posted land, the line emerges at Trolley Lane behind the Lutheran church.

Trolley Lane

line then crosses Route 9 just to the north of the Stewarts shop on an easily traversed trail onto Railroad Avenue and past the private home that was once the Kinderhook depot.

Kinderhook depot, now a private home

The line then proceeds past Samascott Orchards and the Little League field and out of the village.

Route passing Samascott Orchards

Having read in Edward Collier’s History of Kinderhook (1914) that there was an old African-American graveyard in the vicinity, we did a little exploring near the route. Pausing to view the Vanderpoel house, now owned by the Columbia County Historical Society, we recalled Collier’s words:

“While the Vanderpoel place was owned by the somewhat erratic John Rogers, he set apart a portion of his land for the free burial of our colored people. It was thus used until every available inch was taken up; in some cases, it is stated, with coffin piled upon coffin. It was then, as it now long has been, closed against additional burials."

The Vanderpoel mansion, where an
African burial ground reportedly exists

We looked across the empty field, recently the scene of a well-attended Easter Egg Hunt, and thought about the unmarked graves of so many people who worked to build this county, and were saddened to find no reminder of their lives. Doubtless, the simple markers were of wood and have long since vanished, although it seems that in 1914 the site was still recognized as a cemetery.

Gravestones near the Rothermel Avenue
Little League field in Kinderhook

Near the Little League field on Rothermel Avenue, we found a very neat quadrangle of gravestones. So neatly arranged, in fact, that it was obvious that they were moved here from another location. One stone bears the single name “Sylvestes,” which strongly suggests that he was born as a slave.

According to the website Slavery in the North New York had the largest slave population of any colony north of Maryland. Slavery in New York State, where it was gradually abolished beginning in 1799, was the most widespread here in the Hudson Valley, where huge estates rivaled Southern plantations in their reliance on slavery. Our textile industries also, as detailed elsewhere on Upstate Earth, relied on cotton produced by slave labor in the South.

Many burial grounds for slaves and free African Americans have been obliterated and hidden by later development, but that practice is no longer acceptable in America, and certainly not in Columbia county. The most well-known discovery of such a forgotten burial ground occurred in Lower Manhattan in 1991. During excavation for a new federal office building, workers discovered the skeletons of over 400 men, women and children. Construction was halted and researchers revealed that during the 17th and 18th centuries, free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6 acre burial ground outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam. Over the decades, the unmarked cemetery was covered over by development and landfill. The African Burial Ground site is now part of the National Park Service.

There is much work to do if we are to provide a similar recognition to the memory of free and enslaved African Americans in our own county, but fortunately the land where Collier says the cemetery is located is free of any later building and is already owned by Historical Society.

Update - June 15, 2009

A group of young archeologists from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst is currently doing some very careful excavations on the Vanderpoel property, under the auspices of the county historical society. Thus far, they have uncovered some interesting small artifacts from the early 19th century and evidence of early foundations and roadways. In the area near the house there are no signs of a burial ground.

U. Mass archeologists at work on Vanderpoel
grounds, June 15, 2009

The most probable location for the lost burial ground, in my view, is a forested quadrangle on the northwest corner of the Vanderpoel property. The area presents an anomaly among the yards and gardens characteristic of the block, due perhaps to a respect accorded to the small parcel of land by earlier property-owners of the neighborhood. The land evidently belongs now to the historical society.

Possible gravesite in the old African burial ground?

Resuming our journey south, we found access to the railway's path blocked by private land past Eichybush Road, and followed Route 9 southf rom Kinderhook to where the line crosses back over the state road just north of county route 26.

The route south from Sunnyside Road

The line then goes across Sunnyside Road to Stuyvesant Falls, where the Albany & Hudson generated its own electrical power. The power plant built by the railway company in 1899 is once again a busy scene as a team from Albany Engineering readies the plant to produce hydroelectric power after being closed for many years. In a February conversation with Jim Besha, president of Albany Engineering, I was told that the preparation work could take from a year to two years.

Views of the 1899 Albany & Hudson power plant in 2009

The power plant is the largest remaining structure from the Albany & Hudson line and it is gratifying to know that it will soon be providing carbon-free hydroelectric power just as it did a hundred years ago.

Since the power line runs largely through private lands in this area, we were not able to locate the exact route from Stuyvesant Falls to Rossman, or Chittenden Falls, where a tragic collision occurred in 1902, and we were not sure if the rails followed the east or west bank of Kinderhook Creek. Further exploration will be on the agenda.

Remains of the 1925 bridge over Kinderhook Creek at Stockport.

We followed county route 26 south but did not pick up clear signs of the old railway until we went through Stockport. Here a new bridge was built for the railway in 1925, as clearly marked on the remaining abutment. Only a year earlier the company had again reorganized, this time as the Eastern New York Utilities Corporation. Evidently, the new company’s owners were optimistic enough to make a large investment in the future of public transport. Within four years, however, the company had failed, and thirty years of interurban rail service in the county was at an end.

National Grid right-of-way marking the old
Albany & Hudson route through Stottville.

In Stottville, the railway’s route is clear, emerging on county route 20 just west of Church Street and once again crossing into private lands. Taking 20 back to 9, we passed a site to the east where Widewaters Group, Inc. is constructing a giant shopping mall. Hopefully, that company’s optimism is not as misplaced as that of Eastern New York Utilities back in 1924.

Construction site for Widewaters Mall in Greenport.
The Albany & Hudson line ran through this property.

We rediscovered the railway’s route in the now busy shopping section of Greenport, just outside of Hudson. Emerging from the fields behind the Staples store, the line crosses 9 at the Taco Bell, goes south of the Walmart, and along a grassy path beside a trailer court to emerge on Joslen Boulevard at the Town of Greenport Park. Here, the railway evidently ran alongside the road down a fairly steep grade toward Hudson.

Albany & Hudson route passes behind location
of Taco Bell on Route 9 in Greenport.

We passed Hudson High School and the Firemans Home and Museum, following the line as it turns onto Harry Howard Avenue until it reaches the bend at Lucille Drive. At this point we ran into a Hudson police officer investigating an abandoned car found on the old train line.

The Albany & Hudson went down this pathway near
Lucille Drive and Harry Howard Boulevard in Hudson

From this point the line follows a trail downhill to Mill Street and ends at the ruins of the great Hudson River (later the Swansdown) Knitting Mill at Front and Dock Streets.

The Hudson River Knitting Mill, built in 1885 and
served by the Albany & Hudson, is now abandoned.

Much of this section within the city of Hudson must have been the original Hudson Street Railway, one of the three lines that merged to form the Albany & Hudson in 1899. Doubtless, the trolleys carried workers for many years to such large employers as the Hudson River Knitting Mill.

The mill now stands as one of the most impressive of the local ruins we have visited. A faded sign advertises the space for rental as “minishops” but that dream must date back to before the collapse of the structure’s roof. The entire area is now fenced off as unsafe.

According to Peter Stott’s Looking for Work, the Hudson River Knitting Mill, built in 1884-1885, was the largest of the city’s knitting mills for much of the last quarter of the 19th century. The Swansdown Knitting Company expanded the mill in 1902 , 1906 and 1923, and was successful for much of the 20th century. After the last knitting firm left in 1965, the structure was used for storage before being eventually abandoned.

The Amtrak Station at Hudson

The Albany & Hudson also advertised a connection to the New York Central line, and almost certainly the streetcars connected with the New York Central depot, now in good repair as a busy Amtrak station. The Amtrak station at Hudson, originally built by the New York Central in 1874, is the oldest continuously operating railroad station in the state.

New York City can be reached in two hours, which makes Hudson a popular second home location and contributes to the city's many restaurants, galleries and antique shops. A few hardy commuters even make daily trips to New York from the old station.