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.
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."
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.
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 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"