A City Born of Water

The friendly, scenic city of Little Falls is a vibrant cultural gem that sparkles among the whitewater rapids of the Mohawk River. Indeed, Little Falls owes its very existence to the waters of the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. The rugged gorge in which Little Falls is snuggled was carved nearly 13,000 years ago by an enormous waterfall draining the Glacial Lake Iroquois at the end of the last ice age. The earliest European settlers in Little Falls, who arrived in the early eighteenth century, were attracted by the need to portage riverboats and their cargos around the rapids of the Mohawk River, which descends 40 feet in the vicinity of Little Falls. After the Revolutionary War, as the new nation sought to develop a waterway to bring the agricultural bounty of Western New York and Ohio to the cities of the Eastern seaboard, Little Falls became home to a number of important locks on the series of canals, to include the Erie Canal, that tamed the mighty Mohawk River. Today, the visitor to Little Falls can explore the ruins of the oldest extant lock in the United States (1795), as well as the tallest operating lock on the modern NYS Canal System (Lock 17).

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the waters of the Mohawk River continued to give life to the economy of Little Falls, by powering the textile mills that sprang up along its banks during the Industrial Revolution. Thousands upon thousands of immigrants arrived to work in the mills and gave Little Falls a unique character as a culturally and ethnically diverse place. The mill workers, 70% of whom were women, played a major role in the development of the US labor movement when they went on strike in 1912, organized by the socialist nurse Helen Schloss, who ironically had been brought to the city by social progressives among the mill owners seeking to better the health of their workers. The strike lasted for three months and drew the attention of the nation with lurid newspaper stories of policemen on horseback battling strikers throughout the city, and of trainloads of prominent IWW organizers, anarchists and Schenectady Socialists arriving to support the workers. Although the strikers eventually prevailed after the State of New York stepped in to mediate, within years the beginning of an exodus of mills to North Carolina and other southern states rendered the victory a pyrrhic one.

Today, nearly all of the mills are gone, leaving the population of Little Falls but a third of what it was at the heyday, and the canal serves pleasure boats more often than cargo vessels. But the economy and culture of Little Falls are still tied closely to the waters of the Mohawk River. Several industrial facilities, such as Twin Rivers Paper Company and Redco Foods, still harness the Mohawk River. The Little Falls Marina and Rotary Park serve as a gathering place for the community and as a convenient mooring place for boaters seeking amenities as well as access to arts, culture, dining, and fun civic festivals throughout the season. Canal Place and Benton’s Landing are the epicenters of a bustling arts district that features a regional art center, galleries, shops, and some of the finest antiques in Upstate New York. Main Street in Little Falls offers modern shopping opportunities and is the gateway to the sprawling Little Falls National Historic District, which encompasses nearly 350 historically significant buildings that preserve the heritage of the vibrant way of life that the Mohawk River and Erie Canal made possible in this scenic small city.

Historical Sketch of Little Falls

The land now comprising Little Falls was originally settled under two patents. The Burnetsfield Patent granted in 1725 to Johan Joost Petri, was an English confirmation of a grant from the Indians in 1722 for property north of the River. In 1752, Johan Joost Hercheimer obtained a patent for the lands south of the river and It was under these two well-known landowners that local history began. About 1785 John Porteus acquired land north of the river which – along with the two important Burnetsfield lots covering what is now the most intensely developed area of the City – came into the hands of Alexander Ellice in I801. His policy was to sell nothing, monopolize the water power of the falls, and allow only those enterprises which would contribute to his profits and monopoly.

Before the Revolution, there was little permanent settlement at the falls. However, growth was rapid after the Revolution and in 1800 the Rev. Caleb Alexander, an itinerant preacher, wrote . . . “On the northern bank are seven locks and a canal for the conveyance of boats. Here is a village of forty houses, several merchant stores, mechanical shops and a new meeting house of octagonal construction. The people are primarily English, and they seldom have preaching”.

The Village of Little Falls officially came into being when a charter was granted in 1811. However, the Ellice hold was so strong that little was done under this charter. If he opposed rights guaranteed by the charter, he had only to dispossess the objector, as all property in the village belonged to him. In 1821, the Erie Canal was built through Little Falls on the south side of the river and an aqueduct was built over the river to utilize the old inland Navigation Canal as a boat basin. By 1831, a group of residents succeeded in releasing Little Fails from the stagnating influence at the Ellices, and the passage of the second charter by the legislature paved the way for an efficient municipal government.

In 1834, the railroad was extended from Schenectady to Utica and with it came a telegraph relay station. By this time, Little Falls had become a strategic point in the transportation system of upstate New York. It was served by the Erie Canal and was the location of the highest lift lock on the canal. The new railroad passed through Little Falls and the village was still an important stagecoach stop. These factors, coupled with the availability of ready water power, were significant in establishing the village as an industrial center.

Little Falls has been a dairy farming and industrial center from its beginning. The terminal facilities of the river made it a marketing place for the dairy products of the region. Dairy-farming was responsible for one of the City’s largest industries — Cherry-Burrell Corporation (now Feldmeir Equipment, Inc.), manufacturer of dairy equipment. During the second half of the 19th century, Little Falls served as the home of the most important interior cheese market in the USA and garnered a reputation as the “Cheese Capital of the World”, owing in large part to the tireless promotional efforts of a local journalist and dairy spokesman Xerxes Willard. Additionally, grist mills, paper mills, sawmills, flour mills, a woolen mill, a plaster mill, a carding mill, a distillery, and several breweries all sprang up along the banks of the Mohawk River.

Little Falls became a city in 1885 as the population and economic activity continued to increase. The new Barge Canal, completed in 1916, included the construction of Lock 17, which replaced the four locks of the old canal. At the time, “The Big Lock” was the highest lift lock in the world, and one of the great engineering works of the many created during the new Barge Canal construction. Over one mile of solid rock had to be removed from the route of the old canal bed to facilitate construction of the Barge Canal in Little Falls. Today, Lock 17 remains the highest lock in the New York State Canal System and one of the highest in the world.

With the advent of textile mills, Little Falls boomed as cotton, woolen and knitting mills were built along the River. Machinery and tool plants were necessary in conjunction with the knitting mills so that the H. P. Snyder Machine Works, Stafford and Holt, Howard Lyke Machine Works and Reddy’s Sons Foundry and Machine Shop became important. The paper industry has been important in Little Falls during the past century with the making of toilet tissue, and building papers.

In conclusion, the founding and growth of Little Falls have been due to the water resources of the falls in the Mohawk River; the site characteristics which channel all land and water transportation through a narrow corridor adjacent to the River; and the natural resources of the countryside for agricultural production.

Little Falls Vision Statement

Little Falls, New York combines the charms of a small town with the conveniences of a much larger city. We are a remarkably well-preserved canal-side small city located at the very geographic center of New York State, and for two hundred years our community has served as the setting for historically important and progressive innovations in numerous manufacturing, marketing, and technological enterprises. Even today Little Falls shines as a vibrant, friendly and innovative community that seeks to leverage its rich traditions, its diverse cultural heritage, and its high levels of civic engagement to emerge as the cultural and commercial center of the rural Mohawk Valley. We intend to establish Little Falls as the preferred destination for Mohawk Valley individuals and families that seek quality homes and better schools in safe neighborhoods, with convenient access to high-quality shopping, dining, entertainment, and cultural enrichment. We further intend to position Little Falls as the preferred destination for innovators and entrepreneurs that seek to establish or expand in a distinctively low-cost and business-friendly environment with access to excellent transportation networks, with convenient adjacency to the increasingly competitive markets of the Utica-Rome and Albany MSAs, and with an outstanding and motivated regional workforce.

A boat registered in Marshall Texas heads into the lock Sunday.

The City of Little Falls Environment

The City of Little Falls’ most dominant natural features are the Mohawk River/ Erie Canal and the high cliffs which rise above the river channel. These cliffs, known as the Fall Hill Ridge, create a beautiful landscape and urban setting for the City. The Mohawk River and Erie Canal divide the City into northern and southern sections. The larger, northern section rises from the river at a 10 percent slope for approximately one-half mile. This area includes the City’s commercial center and a large portion of the population. Development stops where the slope becomes a steep escarpment which rises to over 1,000 feet above sea level and almost 700 feet above the river. The ridge is the highest elevation along the Mohawk River/Erie Canal.

The area south of the Canal/River includes a very narrow strip of development, barely 500 feet in width, known as the “South Side”. A steep cliff known as the Rollaway (so-called because lumbermen cutting timber once rolled their logs off the cliff to the river below) rises 400 feet above the river along the south side of the river. Flatlands above the Rollaway are now farmed. Thus, the City is situated in a “bowl” with steep cliffs overlooking and confining its development.

The City’s third major natural feature, in addition to the Mohawk River and steep cliffs, is Moss Island, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by New York State. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark due to its unique geological characteristics and natural resources. Moss Island contains one of the best and the largest collections of “potholes” in the United States. Potholes are unique geological abrasions formed by an ancient waterfall that flowed when the ancestral Mohawk River drained the Great Lakes. The island also contains important numbers of moss and fern species and plants not common to this region of New York State, a hydroelectric power plant, and Lock 17.

Moss Island is actually the eastern portion of a single, man-made island between the Mohawk River and Erie Canal created when the Erie Canal was reconstructed and enlarged in 1916. Fill from the canal construction served to connect Moss, Seeley, and Loomis Islands and created, in effect, one island. The total island is approximately 30 acres. Moss Island comprises the eastern portion and is approximately 18 acres, while Loomis Island comprises the western portion and is approximately 10 acres. The “islands” are connected by a narrow strip of land (formerly Seeley Island) of approximately two acres. The dividing line between Moss and Loomis Island is the South Ann Street Bridge and Benton’s Landing transient dock area.

Land Use Patterns

The City of Little Falls contains a total landmass of 3.977 square miles, or 2,445 acres, of which 482 acres are active or vacant agricultural land. The Mohawk River, and the City’s topography and overall rugged character, have significantly influenced its development. Virtually the entire City has a hillside location, and all major transportation routes run east-west through the narrow river valley corridor. The Mohawk River, Erie Canal, CSX rail lines, and NYS Route 5 are all crowded into a corridor only several hundred yards wide. Industrial areas, including the Mill and Elizabeth Street areas and the Riverside Industrial Park, share the narrow corridor of relatively flat land along the Mohawk River/Erie Canal.

To the immediate north of the river corridor is the Central Business District (CBD), which includes a major portion of the City’s commercial uses, multi-family houses, most public buildings, and many churches. Extending from the CBD are the East End, West End, West Monroe, and Monroe Street residential areas. These areas house most of the City’s population in one and two-family homes situated on small lots. This area is also the site of the sprawling Little Falls National Historic District, which includes 347 buildings dating from the mid-19th to the early 20th century.

The Little Falls CBD includes approximately 50 acres of commercial, mixed-use and public buildings and resources that border the waterfront. The CBD is linked to the waterfront via NYS Route 167 as well as by a deteriorated underpass walkway that extends under the mainline of the CSX railroad tracks.

The spine of the CBD is Main Street, which extends in an east-west direction. From Albany Street to the connection with the Route 5 arterial west of the CBD, Main Street is a one-way street with traffic flow from east to west. Albany Street, which generally parallels Main Street, carries traffic through the CBD west to east. The Route 5 arterial functions as a CBD bypass.

The north side of Main Street within the CBD is comprised of mainly two and three-story structures that generally include commercial uses on the first floor and housing units on the upper floors. Many of these structures are in a deteriorated state. Much of this deterioration, however, is camouflaged by a sidewalk canopy structure and exterior facades constructed in the early 1980s using Local Public Works funds from the Economic Development Administration. The canopy has been renovated but will need ongoing maintenance in the future. Conversely, the canopy and the existing facades might be removed, but this would incur extensive (and expensive) repairs and renewal of the exteriors and facades of the buildings under the canopy.

The areas between Main Street and Albany Street in the CBD are previous Urban Renewal Areas. The dominant land use in this area is Shopper’s Square, the City’s first Urban Renewal project. This development houses various retail commercial uses, including the City’s only food supermarket and a pharmacy. This project was originally constructed in 1965 and then extensively redeveloped in 2013-2014.

To the west of Shopper’s Square is a six-block area that was redeveloped as Downtown Renewal Project II, which was completed in 1974. This project resulted in the construction of a commercial building to serve as the headquarters of a local bank (now it is occupied only as a branch of a major regional bank), a motel, and several commercial and smaller office buildings that have remained in excellent condition.

The Little Falls CBD also includes the Rockton Plaza senior citizen high rise; the Snyder Apartment building and several other large multi-family residential buildings; City Hall; the Post Office; and a number of churches.

The North Side area includes the “upland” portion of the City, which is sparsely populated and separated from the City by the Fall Hill Ridge. To the south of the Mohawk River and Erie Canal is the South Side neighborhood, which includes approximately 200 residential structures intermixed with commercial and industrial uses. Wedged between the north and south side areas of the City are the City’s older industrial areas, Canal Place and the Riverside Industrial Park.

The Riverside Industrial Park extends along the north shore of the Erie Canal/Mohawk River channel just west of the tip of Loomis Island, where the two channels merge and includes modern, one-story industrial buildings that are set back from the shoreline. Buildings are screened from the water by heavy vegetation in most locations. At the extreme western end of the Industrial Park is the Mohawk River Park, which includes the City’s boat launch, floating docks, and a small picnic area.

Canal Place, which in recent years has emerged as the City’s arts and culture district, includes the area bounded by the CSX rail line and the Erie Canal to the north and south, respectively, and by the limits of the City’s older industrial area to the east and Hansen Island and Lock Street to the west. Since 1987, over $1 million in public and private funds have been invested along South Ann Street in the Canal Place area, which features several renovated historic row buildings which now serve as restaurants, small shops, and an art center, several renovated mill buildings which currently serve as groups shops for antique dealers and a specialty bed and breakfast, and a renovated Art Deco-style train station repurposed as a bar and restaurant.

The “South Side” is an isolated neighborhood of residential and non-residential uses tucked between the Erie Canal and Mohawk River channel and a steep cliff. This neighborhood area provides housing for approximately 350 persons and is home to several heavy commercial/industrial-type operations. The most dominant entity on the South Side is a lumber yard; wood storage sheds and other operations buildings are intermixed with generally well-maintained residential uses along Southern Avenue. Other South Side land uses include a tool and machine manufacturing operation, and three large abandoned oil tanks and several small buildings formerly used by a fuel company. The South Side is also the location of the Canal Terminal Building and associated pedestrian and boater access improvements, which now establish the City as one of eight major canal harbor centers serving recreational boaters.

Loomis and Moss Islands are important local recreational and cultural assets. Moss Island, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by New York State, is extensively used by rock climbers, studied by geologists and geology students, enjoyed by naturalists and others. Loomis Island has considerable development potential because of its strategic location at the heart of the Little Falls waterfront area. Moss and Loomis islands are connected at the area now known as Benton’s Landing, which includes a small park with historical markers, waterfront walking paths, several recently redeveloped residential properties, and a short-term boat dock facility along the canal bulkhead. The improvement and expansion of Benton’s Landing was a key component of the City’s Canal Corridor Initiative.

Surface Water Resources

The Erie Canal and Mohawk River divide Little Falls into northern and southern sections as the two waterways flow completely through the City. In the western section, the Erie and the Mohawk are coterminous. In the eastern section, the Erie Canal follows a land-cut route to the south while the free-flowing Mohawk River closely parallels the Canal to the north. The two watercourses are separated by Moss and Loomis Islands.

The Erie Canal is the backbone of the New York State Canal System, which also includes the Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca Canals. The entire Canal System totals 524 miles, and the Erie Canal encompasses 340 miles of that total. From its tidewater level at Troy, the Erie Canal rises through a series of locks to an elevation of 565 feet above sea level at the Niagara River. With a height of 40 feet, Lock 17 in Little Falls is the highest lift lock on the NYS Canal System. The Erie Canal was constructed largely for commercial boating and shipping via cargo barges, but this use has declined substantially over the years. The Canal System is now used almost entirely by recreational boaters.

The Mohawk River is the largest tributary of the Hudson River and drains an area of 3,400 square miles. The Mohawk River flows over 148 miles from its headwaters near the Delta Reservoir in northern Oneida County to its confluence with the Hudson River at Cohoes. The River contains numerous rapids and was not navigable in certain stretches (including Little Falls) until the Erie Canal was constructed.

Floodplains and Wetlands

The combined Canal and Mohawk River floodplain extends along the entire waterfront. The 100-year flood boundary includes a large portion of the Riverside Industrial Park; the area along Southern Avenue; and portions of the Canal Place area, including a very small portion of the industrial area east of South Ann Street.

Although several large wetland areas extend along the Mohawk River/ Erie Canal to the east of Little Falls, there are no wetland areas within the City of Little Falls.

Soils

Most of the developed areas of the City of Little Falls are located on the floor of the Mohawk River Valley. Rock formations are generally shale and limestone near the surface and limestone and dolomite in the underlying rock mantle. Glacial and riverine soil deposits cover these stone formations. Soil types found in this area of the Mohawk Valley include the following: alluvial soils (river floodplain deposits), Howard-Phelps association soils (water-sorted glacial deposits), and alluvial Hamlin-Teel association soils (river floodplain deposits). On the heights overlooking the City to the North and the South, the majority of the soils are of the Mohawk-Mannheim association, deep well-drained to somewhat poorly drained, medium-textured soils formed in glacial till from alkaline shale. Additionally, there are patchy areas of more acidic soils of the Lansing-Hornell-Manlius association.

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