Imagine the Mohawk River flowing with more force than Niagara Falls. Around 22,000 years ago, that’s exactly how it was. During the last ice age, the Laurentide Glacier began to melt, forming a large lake atop the glacier. As the glacier receded north, it opened access to the Mohawk River, which for thousands of years had been buried beneath the two-mile thick block of ice. Suddenly, all that lake water had somewhere to go.
The deluge of water that was released was so great that it carved an entirely new riverbed. It was so great in fact, that geologists gave the river a new name; the Iromohawk. Water rushed down the valley, carving away the cliffs of Clifton Park, the gorge at Cohoes, and the channel at Rexford. The river also curved back onto itself, creating the bend around Schenectady that the Mohawk follows today.
Eventually, the glacier receded enough, the St. Lawrence River opened, and the tremendous pressure of the Iromohawk abated. The Mohawk River settled into its new banks, ready to greet the settlers making their way across the Atlantic to colonize the Mohawk River valley.
Commodification of the Mohawk River began as soon as the region’s first colonists – hailing from the Netherlands – arrived in the area. One of the most precious resources to come from the Mohawk River were fashionable beaver pelts. Near present-day Albany, the Dutch West India Trading Company set up Fort Orange and the village of Beverwyck. This exclusive trading post sent pelts from the Mohawk Valley back to the Netherlands, earning astonishing profits.
By 1639, the Dutch West India Trading Company opened the fur trade to individuals. In 1657, at the highest point of the fur trade, traders shipped as many as 40,000 pelts (many trapped in the Mohawk Valley) to the Netherlands. But New Netherland Governor Peter Stuyvesant was wary of foreign colonies neighboring New Netherland. He knew that whoever controlled the Mohawk River frontier held a key avenue to the lucrative fur trade, and the best way to control the Mohawk River was to find farmers willing to settle the scarcely populated area.
Fortunately, the man for the job was at hand. In 1661, Arent Van Curler was managing the vast manorial land holdings of his cousin, Kilaen van Rensselaer. Van Curler wrote to Governor Stuyvesant that he knew of several families ready “to take possession of and till the Great Flat” (present-day Schenectady). It was exactly what Stuyvesant wanted to hear. Later that year, Van Curler and three Mohawk chiefs signed documents establishing the village of Schenectady between Beverwyck (present-day Albany) and nearby Mohawk villages.
Although the government in Beverwyck hoped that Schenectady would focus on agriculture, many founders participated in the fur trade. Their location on the Mohawk River – closer to the Native Americans who brought in the pelts – made them ideally situated as brokers for the fur trade.
Unfortunately for those Schenectady citizens interested in the fur trade, only three years after their community’s founding, the British seized control of New Netherland and renamed it New York (and Beverwyck to Albany). The British banned the fur trade for anyone outside of Albany. However, Schenectady’s residents frequently participated in black market trading.
With the rise of boat traffic on the Mohawk River, and increased colonization in the valley, the river’s flow saw its first man-made change. Like most of the waterways in New York, the Mohawk River was rich with fish during this time. And, as is the case with most human endeavors, Mohawk River fishermen sought ways to make the task at hand easier.
One of the more unique systems of food gathering seen on the Mohawk were fishing weirs. When eels and other fish migrated, local Iroquois set special traps. Made of stones, these “V” formations rested in shallow parts of the river. The builders left a small opening at the point of the “V” where they attached a basket, capturing the eels as they swam through.
In 1792, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company began exploring improvements to the Mohawk River. Seeing these weirs, the group noted that the water within the “V” was much deeper compared to the water running outside of it. Deeper water, they realized, would make it easier for boats to navigate through the shallows of the Mohawk. As part of their improvements, the Company began building wing dams; essentially weirs without the fish baskets. These dams were the major first step in humans changing the course of the river.
Even with weirs, navigating the shallows of the Mohawk River during this time period was difficult. In addition to shallows, sandbars and rapids meant that a regular boat would easily get stuck.
In response, early boat builders devised a boat of special construction, bespoke to the Mohawk River and its rough conditions. By the early 1700s, these boats, called bateaux, filled Schenectady’s waters.
Bateaux, with pointed ends and flat bottoms, could navigate through the Mohawk River’s treacherous obstacles. Bateaux crews sailed, rowed, or poled the boats over the water. Bateaux’ unique design allowed them to pass high over rapids and to float through shallow water.
As time and technology progressed, the size of the bateaux gradually got larger. Many of the first bateaux seen in the area fit a crew of three, but soon longer boats with crews of four or five began to appear, carrying up to one ton of cargo. Think of these as the 18-wheeler of the Mohawk River, carrying rum west and furs back east.
Schenectady became a hub for the construction of these bateaux and other boats. The area behind today’s Stockade neighborhood bustled with the sounds of a booming boatyard. Here, again, the Mohawk River worked to the community’s advantage, making it the perfect location for a freshwater seaport.
By the early 1800s, fewer and fewer bateaux plied the waters of the Mohawk. More frequently, Durham boats – similar to bateau but much longer – carried cargo up and down the river. Eventually, two factors led to the decline of Schenectady’s boatbuilding empire. First, a major fire in 1819 destroyed the Stockade’s commercial wharf district. Second, the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 eliminated the need for Mohawk River boats.
Schenectady County’s residents were not fans of the Erie Canal. At least, not at first. Schenectadians worried that the new man-made waterway would divert traffic away from the Mohawk, thereby creating unfavorable economic conditions for Schenectady. Though initially traffic was diverted from Schenectady’s harbor (causing the end of the boatbuilding industry), eventually Schenectady came to prosper from the Erie Canal.
Commerce exploded on the modern waterway and new industries arose. For example, in 1829, farmers shipped 3,000 bushels of wheat down the Erie Canal. By 1835 farmers were shipping over half a million bushels of wheat. Within fifteen years, New York City became the busiest port in America, and New York secured its position as the cornerstone of the nation’s economy, with Schenectady playing a vital part in transportation.
Although the original Erie Canal ran parallel to and separate from the Mohawk River, in the years since its construction, the Erie Canal has merged with the waters of the Mohawk River. Explained simply, the original Erie Canal was built too small from the beginning. As a result, the Erie Canal was enlarged, rerouted, or completely reconfigured at various points in times. Finally, in the early 1900s, engineers decided to abandon the man-made Erie Canal completely, and “canalize” the Mohawk River. When work was completed in 1918, the Mohawk River had been transformed into a uniform channel, with dams and locks combining to create a river canal with easy navigation for vessels of all sizes, now known as the barge canal.
Today, when you look at the Mohawk, you see both river and canal. It is still the same water of fishing weirs, bateaux, and fur traders. It is also the heir to the Erie Canal – the great waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the farm valleys of the Midwest. The Mohawk today is pastoral in its gentle, rolling beauty and yet frightening in its potential for flood damage. We continue to study the river, to control it, and to thrive from its bounty. Our relationship to the Mohawk is like its waters –enduring and always changing.
This article was written by Jenna Peterson Riley and Mary Zawacki, and first appeared in Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 62. Become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org.
Photos, from above: painting of Mohawk River; and Erie Canal at Rotterdam Junction courtesy SCHS Archives.