Capital - Mohawk Region 2:
The Geography of the Pathway
Welcome to the second part of the geographic journey through the Capital-Mohawk
Region! You have been already be introduced to the Capital District
of Albany, Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga. The trip
continues up the corridor leading westward, the Mohawk River Valley.
As rivers go, it is not particularly impressive. It will never
be confused with the Mississippi, or for that matter, even with the Hudson,
its parent stream. The Mohawk, however, does something that no other American river does; it provides a low-elevation route through the
uplands toward the Great Lakes Basin. A look at any relief map of the Eastern
United States (see the Human Geography section), shows the Mohawk Valley as a thin ribbon of green between the
Adirondacks (to the north) and the Appalachian Plateau (to the south). It
is along this route that the Erie Canal was built. During the 19th century,
many small industrial cities were also built, owing their existence to hydropower
from the river's many small waterfalls and rapids. The rural countryside
in the uplands south of the valley (along Rte. 20) are also tied economically
and culturally to the Mohawk. Our little trip will investigate them both.
WHAT YOU SHOULD SEE:
1. Your trip through Capital Land ended
in Schenectady. Cross the Mohawk River, and immediately pick up
NY Route 5 in Scotia. Travel west with the Mohawk River on your
left. Get a physical sense of the valley. It is deeper and wider than should
be expected for a river of this stature. Much of the erosion in this valley
took place at the end of the Ice Age. As the glaciers receded, meltwater
poured down this valley. The power of this "super-Mohawk" changed the character
of the valley forever.
will pass through or near several Mohawk Valley villages and small cities:
Amsterdam, Johnstown, Gloversville. They
were at one time the center of a booming industrial center, the home to
carpet and clothing factories. Now most of these industries are gone, and
the downtown districts show the economic strain.
QUESTION: Take a short
survey of the factories in Amsterdam. How many are vacant? For those
in operation, do they have new uses? If so, what kinds of businesses survive
A quick aside about Johnstown, which is about ten miles north
of the Valley. It was first settled by Sir William Johnson, the British
"ambassador" to the Mohawk people. His well-preserved home is a state historic
site, and worth a visit.
2. Cross the Mohawk River on Route 30.
Take Route 5S to Fort Hunter. The Mohawk River is now "canalized." Rapids are dammed, and locks go around them. However, the original Erie
Canal was in a ditch that paralleled the river. Few remnants of the original
canal remain, but here in Fort Hunter is Schoharie
Crossing Park. Here you will see what is left of the original
Clinton's Ditch, and part of the great Schoharie Aqueduct that took the
canal over north-flowing Schoharie Creek, one of the Mohawk's most important
tributaries. There is a visitor center with some interesting displays.
Note that the creek was originally dammed so the canal boats could
cross at river level. Why was the aqueduct constructed at a later date?
Allow yourself time to walk around to see some of the outdoor exhibits.
3. Get back on Route 5S going westward (upstream, if you prefer).
Shortly, you will arrive in Auriesville, the home of an unexpected
tourist attraction, the National Shrine of the
North American Martyrs. This site commemorates the Jesuits
priests who were killed by the Mohawks in the 17th century. This is also
the birthplace of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who was converted to Catholicism
despite opposition from her own people. There is a strong movement in the
Church to have her canonized, and that is currently pending. (There is a another
shrine for Tekakwitha across the river in Fonda).
Remember that this site is considered
sacred ground, so as you stroll around the shrine be respectful of those
who are here to worship.
of conflict is reoccurring in the Mohawk Valley. What was the cultural
clash between the Mohawk people and the French Jesuits that led to their
4. Resume your westward trek, with the Mohawk on your right. Soon
you will pass through one of the narrowest points in the valley, "The
This fault block of ancient rock would have been a major obtacle
to travel had the river not cut a path through it. Note that there are
cliffs on both sides of the river (Big Nose and Little Nose) and that all
highways and the railroad hug the river at this point.
Soon you will enter the small city of Canajoharie
, "The Place
of the Boiling Pot." A small stream that flows through town has carved
out potholes where the water churns, which is the derivation of the name.
As you drive (and hopefully walk) around the town, notice how the
construction must fit the physical geography. Downtown is in the flats,
as is the Beech Nut complex along the river itself. Much of the residential
areas and built along the escarpment.
5. Your next stop should be in Little Falls
, around 12 miles
west of Canajoharie. Just before you cross the Mohawk to enter Little Falls,
there is a canal park on the left side of the bridge. Drive up the roadway
and park. You are at the site where the Erie Canal concept was born. At
this barrier on the Mohawk River, at the end of the 18th century, some small
locks were built by the Western Inland Navigation Company. This greatly
improved boat travel on the river, but it wasn't until Clinton's Ditch
was built twenty-five years later, that commerce really boomed.
Today, the canal goes through two major locks near Little Falls.
You can visit Lock 17
here, and if
you are lucky, a boat will pass through the lock while you are there.
It is an impressive site. (The photo at the right shows the lock both
full and empty).
Walk over the lockgate and explore Moss
, which lies between the artificial waterway and the
river itself. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes on, since the
rocks might be slippery. On the river side of the island are some very
interesting rock formations. They were carved by the flood waters of
the melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. They give testimony to
the erosive power of that proto-Mohawk River. Here at Little Falls, there
once was a divide between the east-flowing Mohawk and a second river
flowing towards Oswego. The meltwaters cut through that divide, so the
Mohawk now extends beyond Rome. The result was some tricky waterfalls
on the river but no divide.
QUESTION: Do you think that 19th century technology
could have created a canal that would have gone over such a divide? How
did this Ice Age event change the fortunes of the Mohawk Valley and the
rest of the state, too?
6. I suggest that you go into Little Falls village and then pick
up NY Route 5, going west. Now the river as on your left. This will lead
you to Herkimer. If you'd like a side trip at this point, take Rte.
28 North around eight miles to the Herkimer Diamond
Mines. Crystals collected in the pockets in the
rock formations here, creating the "diamonds." They are actually clear
quartz crystals. For an admission fee you can prospect for the diamonds,
or you can just buy a souvenir in the gift shop.
Around another ten miles from Herkimer you enter the largest city
in the upper Mohawk Valley, Utica. The settlement began because
the river could be forded here. The building of the canal spurred industry
here, especially woolen mills. Those "glory days" are gone, and Utica,
like many Upstate cities, struggles to bring more employment opportunities
for its citizens. Today, Utica is probably best known for the F.X. Matt Brewery, featuring Saranac Beer.
Our senior readers might also remember the classic Utica Club ads, featuring
Fritz and Dooley. (The brewery is open for tours and tastings).
7. For geographic purposes, a more extensive visit to nearby Rome is a must. Take Route 49 West out of Utica. The city sits on the portage between
the Mohawk-Hudson watershed, and the Oneida-Lake Ontario watershed. In the
days of the beaver trade, Europeans and Native Americans portaged here on
their way westward. Of course, control of this stategic place was crucial
in colonial times. The British built Fort Stanwix
here, and it was a proud stronghold for the American rebels during the Revolution.
In 1777 it withstood a seige by Barry St. Leger and his Iroquois allies.
If it had fallen, Burgoyne would probably have been successful in
his attempt to conquer New York State. (Instead he surrendered at Saratoga,
which you know, if you visiting the previous section of this website).
The fort (now a national monument) sits in the middle of Rome, and
is easy to find. It was reconstructed as part of the Bicentenniel celebration
in 1976. As you can see in the picture on the left, costumed interpreters
make your visit both informative and enjoyable. They are locked in 1777,
so don't waste your time asking them any modern questions. Play along!
After leaving the fort, continue a little fartherwestward on Rte.
46/49 and visit the Erie Canal Village.
This is the "old Erie" canal; in fact, it is the
starting point. It was near here on July 4, 1817 that construction began.
(Why here? The middle section between here and Syracuse is the easiest
to dig. There were no locks to construct). Your admission to this recreated
village includes a packet boat ride (see photo on the right), pulled
by horses, and a walk through the 19th century buildings. This is probably
one of the best resources about the Erie Canal available to the public.
It is a site that must be visited!
QUESTION: The modern "Barge Canal" has a route
to the north of here, from Rome to Oneida Lake, and then it takes the Seneca
River westward into the Finger Lakes Region. Why do you think this "old"
route was abandoned?
THE ROUTE BACK TO ALBANY...
You can jump on the New York State Thruway and return to the Capital
Distict at this point. Or you continue west into Central New York, or go north out of
Rome to the Adirondacks and the Seaway Regions. For those going eastward,
it is highly recommended that you take a more southerly route, following
mostly US Route 20. This will take you out of the Mohawk Valley into the
highlands that gradually merge with the Catskills to the southeast. It is
not only a scenic route, but an historic one. In the early 19th century,
this was the Great Western Turnpike that predated the Erie Canal. Some of
the oldest Upstate communities can be found here, especially in north-south
8. You can get to Rte. 20 by taking NY Rte. 46 south. This will take
you through Oneida, home to the famous community founded by John
Humphrey Noyes in 1848. This experiment in group living evidentually fell
apart, but their handicraft remains with silverware made by Oneida, Ltd.
You can still visit the Mansion House,
where Noyes' descendants still live. Nearby is the small Oneida Nation reservation,
one of the six nations that comprises the Haudenosaunee confederacy. Most
people recognize this landmark by the Turning Stone
Casino, which is one of the top tourist attractions in the state.
Route 46 eventually reaches US Rte. 20 just outside the small Madison County
village of Bouckville.
|Side Trip! Instead of driving south on
Rte. 46 all the way to Bouckville, take a short but historic side trip
to the little hamlet of Peterboro, home of the great abolitionist
and philanthropist, Gerrit Smith. When
you get to the village of Munnsville, turn right on to Williams Road,
which turns into Peterboro Rd., leading right into the village green.
Despite its isolation, Gerrit Smith hosted some of the leading reformers
and revolutionaries of his time here: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman,
and John Brown, just to name a few.
Smith's palacial home burned down in the 1930's, but his land office
is still standing, and open for visitation by appointment. In the Smithfield Community Center, the citizens
of Peterboro, along with Colgate University and SUNY Morrisville, are creating
the National Abolition Hall of Fame,
with the first nominations due in October 2005.
QUESTION: Do you think Peterboro is a good
choice for this abolitionist shrine? What
did this small town's location have to do with its role in this
very radical movement of the 19th century?
Pictured at right: Portrait of Gerrit Smith and the
Smithfield Community Center, the future home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame. It was the site of the first meeting of NY Anti-Slavery
Society in 1835 when it was a Presbyterian Church. (Photo compliments of
Dot Willsey of NAHOF).
9. As you drive eastward on US Route 20, the landscape should be
quick different than your trip through the Mohawk Valley, just twenty miles
to the north. You in the uplands, a land greatly modified by glacial erosion,
resembling in many ways the Finger
Lakes Region to the west. North-south trending valleys were deepened
and widened into troughs by the moving ice sheets. Villages like Morrisville sit in such troughs. You will travel into and out of many
such troughs of varying sizes. A few miles past Richfield Springs is
Route 80. Turn right, heading south. The road takes you along historic
Otsego Lake, "Glimmerglass" of James Fenimore Cooper
fame. It is a lake similar in origin to the Finger Lakes, but it drains southward
into the Susquehanna watershed, instead of north into the Great Lakes. At
the south end of the lake is the most famous village in the state, Cooperstown,
home to three great museums: Fenimore House Museum,
Farmers Museum, and
the National Baseball Hall of Fame (photo
of the "Sandlot Boy" is at the top of the page). All three museums are
worth visiting. The Fenimore House specializes in folk art; the Farmers Museum
reenacts life in rural New York during the Homespun Era; and, of course, the
National Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the history of our "national pastime."
It depends on your personal tastes where you devote your time. Definitely
you should walk the village streets, observing the types of businesses you
find there as well as the other tourists. You should also visit Doubleday Field, where the first organized
game of baseball reportly was played. It is named after Abner Doubleday,
the Civil War general who is often refuted to the be the sport's inventor.
QUESTION: Is Cooperstown deserving of this
distinction as the home of baseball?
Or perhaps, since the Hall of Fame is now an old American institution, is
that question moot?
10. Leave Cooperstown on Susquehanna Avenue, which leads you eventually
to Route 166. Go north following yet another trough to Cherry Valley,
a very attractive village, made famous by a terrible "massacre" during the
French and Indian War. (This testifies to the long history of this region).
This road will take you back to US Rte. 20. Turn right (east). You will
pass through Sharon Springs, once the home to some prosperous spas.
This is a region with some very interesting geology, because a few miles
later, you will see signs for some underground tourist attractions:
Howes Caverns and Secret Caverns. Most visitors choose the
former, since it has more spectacular cave formations and a boat ride too,
but Secret Caverns has its own folksy charm. In fact, the art work on display
is reminescent of Haight-Asbury in 1967. The tours are more casual as well.
The subterreanean limestone formations are found all over this plateau.
It is the limesone that actually holds the plateau "up".
11. Follow Caverns Road eastward to Central Bridge. You are now
in the valley of Schoharie Creek (the same stream that the aqueduct
crosses in Fort Hunter). This stream is "underfit." It is not large
enough to have eroded this valley alone. Of course, the culprit as always
is glacial erosion during the ice age. This makes the valley a trough.
Take Route 30A south through the village. A few miles later this
road ends at Route 30. Turn right and drive south to the village of Schoharie.
Look for the signs leading the Old Stone Fort.
This garrison protected the settlers during the American Revolution. In
1780 the British and their Mohawk allies attacked the Schoharie Valley. They
burned down many farms, but the fort held.
QUESTION: What was the attraction of this valley
during such turbulent times? Why would settlers come here despite being
almost unprotected on the frontier?
Go back into downtown Schoharie and turn right on to Route 443. This
will take you out of the Schoharie Valley. At the hamlet of East Byrne,
turn left onto Route 157. The road meanders its way through the uplands.
Around ten miles later you arrive in John Boyd Thatcher
State Park, which boats one of the more dramatic vistas in Upstate
Thatcher Park sits on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment,
which runs along the southern edge of the Mohawk Valley. Supported by resistant
limestone, the plateau sits like a sentintel above the Capital District.
Park your car in one of the lots. You get a nice view just from the edge
of the cliff, but to experience the landscape more completely, take the Indian Ladder Geologic Trail, which snakes
its way down the escarpment. Not only are you following in the footsteps
of the Native Americans who once lived here, but you are also walking through
layers of fossiliferous rocks. The trilobites and brachipods in these rocks
testify to its marine origin. Around 450 million years ago, this was the
bottom of an ancient ocean.
FINAL QUESTION: As you take Route 157 back
toward Albany, think about the geography of this important region in New
York State. How did both the Mohawk Valley and the Route 20 corridor serve
as a pathway west in the early days of our nation?
Now that you have completed your tour of the Capital-Mohawk
Region, plan a visit of these regions: Adirondacks,
Central New York, or the Hudson Valley.
Click on the links below: