Two whales that ascended the river and were stranded during exceptionally high water in the Hudson in 1647 died there. In 1654 flooding all but destroyed the West India Company’s garden below Fort Orange and in 1666 Jeremias van Rensselaer reported that “fully forty houses and barns have been carried away, among which our house in which we lived, the barn and the brewery, the new as well as the old are lost also, so that hardly any traces can be found of where they have stood.”
The earliest recorded flood along the Poesten Kill was caused by the heavy rains in 1814 which swept away the tannery and bath and boarding houses in Poestenkill Village and changed the course of that kill, moving it from one side of the village to the other.
Undoubtedly that experience reminded settlers in Rensselaer County that life along the kills that flowed through the county had the potential for both profit and disaster. Spring runoff annually flooded low lying fields, and the threat of ice dams building up during the thaw and diverting the path of these kills was ever present. Aside from flooding, drought could also affect the operation of the mills.
The forces of nature had always periodically affected the settlers along the kills in this way, but the damage to the homes, mills and crops from floods were the most significant events, as the kills were large enough to threaten life and property.
Major flooding occurred along the Poesten Kill, or on the Hudson at the mouth of the kill in 1852, 1857 (highest flood ever recorded at Albany, almost 22 feet), 1869, 1871, 1874 (when a portion of the Congress Street bridge in Troy fell in), 1890, 1891, 1913 (which did great damage along the Poesten Kill in Troy), 1914, 1918, 1922, 1927, 1936, 1938 (which damaged the mills on the lower Poesten Kill), 1948, 1949, 1955, and 1977.
About 2 am on September 18, 1890, the dam at the outlet of Bonesteel Pond in East Poestenkill gave way “and water rushed down through the narrow valley, tearing up trees and carrying away everything standing in its course.” According to the New York Times, six bridges were destroyed along with three sawmills, and the barns and shed of George Cottrell.
At the hamlet of Barberville, John Randall’s shoe hop was demolished and the water spread out along the flats there saving the rest of the village from destruction. At the village of Poestenkill the streets were flooded and Wheeler’s shoe shop was washed from its foundation. In Troy the water “rose alarmingly” but did not flood its banks. Bonesteel Pond was completely drained of its water.
John Randall rebuilt his shoe shop at Barberville but less then a year later it was washed away again, this time in a much more destructive storm. It began the day before when a heavy rain swelled the both the Poesten and Wynants kills. Already the locals were worried and the next day when news of large storm was received, “several men immediately mounted horses and proceeded to the farm houses on the banks of the creek and gave the alarm.”
By 7 pm, the water had risen considerably and carried away several bridges and sluices including the iron bridge near Hammond Herrington’s in East Poestenkill. “Mr. Herrington’s large flats are entirely submerged,” the New York Times reported the next day, “completely destroying a large crop of potatoes and almost ruining the flats. A barn occupied by Porter Herrington, who lives in the house, was carried away. The roads are all gullied or washed out so as to be almost impassable, especially on the hills.”
Below Barberville one of the families who received a warning of the coming flood was Nelson Barringer who immediately drove his cows from the barn to high ground. The family soon followed, wading through the high water to reach safety. Others were not so lucky though, and four people were swept away when flood waters destroyed the village bridge on which they were standing.
Garret Ives had just been standing on the bridge with his wife Alice, but had gone back to the house on some chore leaving her behind to watch the high water. At that moment the bridge was washed away and Alice, along with William McChesney, William Castler, and Robert Morrison were swept into the raging torrent. Alice, and Morrison were pulled from the creek alive but McChesney was drowned in the incident.
According to the August 28, 1891 Troy Times story that related the events, “Castler was taken down the Poestenkill about a mile and the next morning was found at the top of a tree where he had passed the night.” As bad as it was on the Poesten Kill, those along the Wynants Kill fared worse. Dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed.
The town of Sand Lake was described as a disaster area. In Averill Park the mill of A.J. Smart was damaged and the dam on the mill pond washed out adding to the swell of water in the Wynants Kill headed for West Sand Lake where the tenements of the McLaren mill and two grist mills were washed away along with the bridges. As it reached the village of Wynantskill, the water demolished the barn and shop of Solomon Fesser and sent the lumber mill and a large stock of lumber owned by John F. Hayner downstream. All along the Wynants Kill farms and residences were destroyed all the way to Albia where the dam there held losing only a few timbers.
A new bridge at the Wynatskill Knitting Company’s lower mill was washed away and the mill flooded with several feet of water. Near the Smart’s paper mill the kill flooded again and created a large lake and a new channel so that the water ran on both side of the mill – a portion of the mill was washed away and a wooden bridge below the mill also gave way and with it 7,000 bales of paper store in a warehouse nearby. There was considerable damage to Burden Iron Works and the Albany Iron and Steel Company and the old Troy & Greenbush Railroad tracks were washed away. Similar floods hit Petersburg and Berlin, with additional loss of life.
The following day the Albany Morning Express reported that “the heavy storm yesterday converted the small mountain streams that feed the chain of Rensselaer lakes into raging torrents… Yesterday afternoon it was impossible to get much beyond Averill Park on account of the floods.”
A look at the bridge on Farm-to-Market Road in Poestenkill Village shows the constant struggle of those along the Poesten Kill to keep the roads across the kill open. The bridge was destroyed in the flooding of 1891 rebuilt as a iron truss bridge.
During the flood of 1922 one end of the bridge fell from its pier and it was again replaced, this time with a steel girder bridge. The 1922 bridge was destroyed again when the main center pier gave way during one of the most destructive flooding events along the Poesten Kill occurred during the Great New England Hurricane in October 1938.
The storm hit Long Island (where it got another popular name, the Long Island Express) as a category three on September 21 and killed nearly 700 people, damaging or destroying over 57,000 homes, knocking down a quarter million telephone poles and caused property losses estimated at $5 billion in today’s dollars. Along the railroad line from Troy to Mechanicville the storm damaged or destroyed five bridges and damaged the tracks at 50 places.
The water in the Hudson crested at more than 17 feet, but the most serious damage was done along the lower Poesten Kill where many of the mills that remained along the north side were damaged beyond repair. The flooding of 1938 finished what was left of the mills on the lower Poesten Kill – what nature had supplied, it had also taken away.
This essay was drawn from John Warren’s The Poesten Kill: Waterfalls to Waterworks (History Press, 2009) copies of the book are available here.
Photos, from above courtesy Poestenkill Historical Society unless otherwise stated: The remains of the destroyed bridge in Poestenkill Village, probably during the flood of 1922. This bridge was also damaged in the flooding of 1891 and 1938; the Poesten Kill about to flood its banks in Barberville at a spot that flooded twice in two years (1890 and 1891) damaging John Randall’s shoe shop both times; two photos of flooding of the Poesten Kill in Postenkill Village; a temporary bridge was constructed during the replacement of the bridge in the Poestenkill Village in the 20th century; the bridge at Barberville on the Poestenkill knocked from it piers during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938; mills along the lower Poestenkill (courtesy Troy Public Library).