On the Hudson River along upstate New York’s eastern border, within the natural boundaries of river and mountains, lies the rough rectangle of Rensselaer County. It is bisected by the Poesten Kill,* a powerful stream that scours its way from the mountains to the sea level flats of the Hudson River at Troy.
The Poesten Kill splits the county across the middle into two pieces of roughly equal size, north and south. From its source at about 1,600 feet in the Taconic Mountains, to the village which bears its name, it’s a smaller steam tumbling over forested rocks and ledges, and forming pools and small waterfalls. At the village of Poestenkill it begins to meander across a 10-mile wide plateau of farmlands before falling abruptly through a series of steep gorges at Troy to settle into the Hudson.
The true source of the Poesten Kill are the springs and small streams that feed Dyken Pond, 20 miles east of the Hudson. The pond is located near the corner of the towns of Poestenkill, Grafton, and Berlin, some seven miles from the where New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts come together. As late as the turn of the 20th century it was still known as “dyking pond.”
Dyken Pond’s current stone and masonry dam stands 20 feet high and is 375 feet long. This modern dyke enlarged the pond to the size of a small lake (about 181 acres) when it was built in 1902. Manning Paper Company built the dam to regulate stream flow that powered the mills and machinery along the Poesten Kill to Troy and then donated the pond and some surrounding acres to Rensselaer County in 1973.
Dyken Pond is now home to Rensselaer County’s Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center. The year-round nature interpretative center features exhibits and displays on wildlife and natural resources and many miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The pond is accessible for fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
From Dyken Pond the Poesten Kill gathers strength as comes off the mountains. It tumbles south through the eastern end of the Town of Berlin and then turns west through the hamlet of East Poestenkill.
Winding its way through the eastern part of the Town of Poestenkill, it picks up water from a dozen smaller streams to create the rush that makes the 92 foot drop at Barbersville Falls and brings the kill to the broad swath of the Rensselaer Plateau. Here the first substantial village along its course, Poestenkill, was established near some naturally occurring sulphur springs. Still some seven miles from the Hudson, the kill leaves the village of Poestenkill and turns north-northwest where it’s joined by the waters of Newfoundland Creek and the Quacken Kill as it winds its way through small rolling hills that were once mostly farmed.
As Troy was growing, a dam was built to the east of the city on the Quacken Kill, the Poesten Kill’s largest tributary. It diverted water into the city’s water system from four ponds located in Grafton: Long, Second, Mill, and Shaver ponds. Dams built on the ponds controlled the flow of water down the Quacken Kill to the Eagle Mills diverting dam when it was taken by a cast-iron main to the Brunswick Reservoir. In 1938 another sixteen-inch main was installed from the diverting dam and along Pinewoods Avenue to connect with the city system. The diverting dam reduced the flow of water in the Quacken and Poesten kills, and may have hastened the abandonment of some of the mills along both.
Mills established along the streams in these villages sent their goods, mostly lumber, grain, wool, cotton, and iron products, to the markets at Troy and beyond. In the 1870s Poestenkill Village was home to saw and grist mills, a cotton batten factory, a flax mill, and a shirt factory.
At the same time mills along the Quacken Kill produced twine and carpet warp, paper, brush handles and blocks, cotton batten and carded and fulled wool, cashmere, flannel, and yarn. At Eagle Mills there were saw and grist mills, two iron foundries producing hoes and other farm tools, and nearby, three shirt factories.
Near the Brunswick-Poestenkill town line the Poesten Kill turns north again to its second substantial village, Eagle Mills (formerly Millville), where it turns west again against steep canyons. It settles down into a the fairly straight course where Sweet Milk Creek enters from the north on it way to the Country Club of Troy.
The club was established in 1927 nestled into a large bend in the kill. It’s the only private golf club in Rensselaer County and includes a clubhouse that overlooks the Poesten Kill designed by New York City architect Pliny Rogers. The course itself was designed by the first American golfer to win the British Amateur Championship Walter J. Travis.
There was an early paint mill here were workers mined shale from the ledges of the Poesten Kill and loaded them into scows. They were floated to a nearby mill and ground to produce red paint.
The ruins of the mill’s dam were still visible in the 1930s, but today the kill continues to flow towards Ida Lake. Once a popular ice skating location, this former mill pond was also the location of an early bleach works. To much consternation, the lake was drained in 2019.
After passing under the bridge at Pawling Avenue (one of the oldest across the kill), the Poesten Kill plunges over the High Falls and cuts an enormous gorge through the southeast side of Mount Ida, the source of numerous destructive landslides in the past. At the base of Mount Ida the Poesten Kill once meandered its way to the Hudson River, but today settles into an a straight course confined with walls of stone, brick and concrete into a power canal that gives Canal Street its name.
The mouth of the Poesten Kill once formed islands, large and small, spiral shoals, and long, thin, sand bars, that came and went with the changes in the Hudson River. Before it was channeled and the land around it raised, tidal flats once lined the banks of the Poesten Kill, some flooding annually, to provide rich soil for the summertime crops the people living along the river planted.
The Poesten Kill is only one of more than a dozen streams that flow into the Hudson between Papscanee Island (previously spelled Papsickene, now a peninsula nature preserve) and where the Hoosac River meets the Hudson.
There are five major natural waterfalls on the Poesten Kill. They include Poesten Kill High Falls (Mount Ida Falls) in Troy, Barberville Falls in Poestenkill, and three falls in the Town of Brunswick: the falls at Eagle Mills, Fred’s Falls in Cropseyville, and Buttermilk Falls.
Hydro plants have been proposed over the years at Barberville Falls as well, most recently in 1992 when a local landowner Tom Hohman proposed a small plant. Local opposition delayed the project but eventually a small sluice from the top of the falls was constructed to drive a generator at the bottom, which now supplies power to a home and sawmill.
The force of the water in the Poesten Kill helped drive the early development of Troy, once one of America’s most important 19th century industrial cities. The Poesten Kill’s waters were harnessed for the American industrial revolution that built the golden age of American industry, trade, and commerce. Its banks also stood witness to industrial abandonment and urban decline.
The Poesten Kill has been home to American Indians who hunted, gathered, fished and farmed along its shores, frontier Dutch farmers and traders, and colonial tradesmen, merchants, millers, and lumbermen, and 19th century iron, steel, textile, and paper workers. Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Italian, immigrants and others have lived along its length.
Although frequently hidden now behind modern development, the Poesten Kill’s geologic wonders are impressive. It cavernous gorges and spectacular falls have served as inspiration to generations artist and nature lovers. Atop Mount Ida is Prospect Park nineteenth century geologist once celebrated the Logan Fault, a thrust of older Cambrian rock that lies on top of newer Ordovician and runs from Canada to Alabama. It’s now called the Emmons Thrust after Ebenezer Emmons, who graduated in the first class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
Culturally, the Poesten Kill might seem to be just one of the many westward-flowing streams that drain Rensselaer County, a county dominated by waterways that divide rolling hills. On close examination however, the Poesten Kill holds a special place. At its mouth at the Hudson was one of the first truly European frontier settlements beyond the walls of Fort Orange (what is now Albany).
An earlier outlying farm built across from Fort Orange by 1632 on the south side of Mill Creek at de Laetsburgh, later known as t’greynen bosch (Greenbush, the pine woods) is now within the Rensselaer city limits. A ferry was established there and later colonial soldiers were often mustered under the protective eye of the fort across the river. The ferry continued to be controlled by the Van Rensselaer family until the nineteenth century providing easy and regular transportation between the Greenbush and Albany.
It was initially hoped that Greenbush would be the primary town for both sides of the Hudson, but the political reality of competing stake holders (notably the Dutch West India Company and the Patroon Kiliaen van Rensselaer) made this impossible. One of the defining factors was the preference of private settlers preferring citizenship at Beverwijck outside the gates of Fort Orange to the indentured servitude of the Patroon’s feudal lands.
So it was that Greenbush was settled before the Poesten Kill, but it could hardly be described as frontier; Rensselaer was once known as East Albany. On the west side flooding and terrain restricted development of farms and the Normanskill was insufficient as a source of power.
Four miles north of Fort Orange on the Hudson’s west side the Patroon established a farm once called de Vlackte (the Flatts, home of the Patroon’s agent Arent van Curler), later known as West Troy and today Watervliet. The farm was considerably closer to the fort than those on the Poesten Kill and much more connected to life there.
To the north of the Poesten Kill, early settlement was constrained where the Mohawk River meets the Hudson by enormous cliffs and the falls of Cohoes, which made river travel impossible. The Piscawan Kill lay to the north, but at its mouth was Mohican community so it was settled only later by Europeans. The Piscawan Kill provided plenty of room for Dutch bouweries (farms) and served most of the city’s water needs until about 1900, but it was not nearly powerful enough for major industry.
Farther north the Hoosac River held a substantial place in Native American and colonial history, but was settled by Europeans much later than the Poesten Kill, and faded in prominence during the industrial revolution. The Wynants Kill, closer to the Poesten Kill, was settled at about the same time. Its short and ragged drop made it suitable for water power, but not for farms and homes. Unlike its neighbor to the north, where the Wynants Kill enters the Hudson, there is only a small flood plain, not wide enough for substantial settlement. The banks of the Wynants Kill found prominence during the industrial revolution, but faded thereafter and never served as an urban neighborhood as the lower Poesten Kill has.
So along the Poesten Kill was a frontier outpost that seemingly had it all: ample forests; a large flat farmable flood plain, and a powerful source of water power. From the mouth of the Poesten Kill, Manhattan Island, the Atlantic seaboard, Lake Champlain, Montreal, the St. Lawrence River, the Mohawk River, the Great Lakes, the Hoosac River and New England were all within reach – even in prehistoric times.
The markets at Albany, New York, and later Troy, are crucial to understanding the development along the Poesten Kill. Troy, settled at the mouth of the Poesten Kill, held a unique physical location that fostered the growth of 19th century industry along the kill. It’s at the head of Hudson River navigation, the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal and the southern end of the Champlain Canal. It was also an important center of the very early Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, and later the Rensselaer & Saratoga Railroad.
For many years Troy rivaled Pittsburgh in iron and steel production. The Poesten Kill was home to one of the first paper factories in New York. What really made life along the Poesten Kill so unique, however, was the diversity of products made there. Unlike other eastern urban areas, the Poesten Kill was home to producers of agriculture and forest products along with feed, flour, paper, plaster, paint, textiles, iron and steel products like stoves, valves, and wire – a substantial variety of consumer goods used along the kill and in the world beyond.
* I’ve used the older spelling of Poesten Kill, so that we might not forget its long history, and besides, calling the waterway Poestenkill Creek is like calling it Poesten Creek Creek. Because of its size and power the Poesten Kill hardly warrants the inferior appellation creek – the Dutch word kill just seems right.
This essay was drawn from John Warren’s The Poesten Kill: Waterfalls to Waterworks (History Press, 2009) copies of the book are available here.
Illustrations, from above: Mills along the lower Poestenkill Gorge at the foot of Cypress Street in Troy, including the Griswold Wire Works, Tompkins Brothers machine works, and above Manning Paper, which occupied earlier Marshall textile mill buildings (courtesy Troy Public Library); ca. 1890 map showing the headwaters of the Poestenkill; Painting of a swamp on the Poestenkill signed by Beauregard (courtesy Warren Broderick); ca. 1876 maps of Poestenkill Village and Millville (now Eagle Mills); maps of Ida Lake and Poestenkill Gorge (1869) and the Poestenkill through Troy (1881); postcard view of the Great Falls of the Poestenkill; Len Tantillo’s painting “Home Front” which depicts a scene similar to that at the mouth of the Poestenkill during the period of earliest European settlement.