by Louis W. Baum, Jr.
When it comes right down to it, Little Falls is all about water.
The earliest explorers in America found it easiest to move along the waterways and rivers as did the Native Americans living here. In the 1600s and 1700s, the British colonies extended inward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains. The rivers there flowed down from the eastern slopes of the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. On the western side of these mountains, the streams and rivers ran down to the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers on their way to the Mississippi River and eventually out to the Gulf of Mexico. Crossing these mountains, which stretched 1,200 miles from Montreal to Georgia, was arduous, and crossing by a continuous water route was impossible except for one place.
That single place is the Mohawk River which cuts a narrow corridor between the Adirondack and Catskill mountains, both of which are a part of the Appalachian chain. Once through the Mohawk Valley via its river, explorers and travelers could continue into the interior of the country through the Great Lakes or other nearby waters routes. Little Falls is on the Mohawk River.
THE “FALL LINE”
Being on the river is only one part of the equation of why Little Falls is where it is. Author Simon Winchester in his interesting book “The Men Who United the States” opined that “There was a ragged line drawn on crude maps across this corner of the American colonies linking places where the behavior of rivers suddenly and dramatically changed. This phenomenon, now known to geographers whenever it may occur, is the appearance of what is known as the ‘Fall Line.’ When explorers reached the ‘Fall Line,’ it became a necessity for them to stop, to change their cargoes onto different and more suitable conveyances, to stay overnight, and to pick up guides or stores. To provide such services to them all, merchants gathered, and this coalescence of people, larger and larger with each traveling season, gradually became the makings of a town.”
Sound familiar? Little Falls is on a ‘Fall Line’ and this is where and why the community known as Little Falls was formed. The Mohawk River is, other than at the big falls at Cohoes, essentially placid and easy to navigate from the Hudson River until it reaches Little Falls 75 miles to the west. At this point, near where Lock 17 is today, the rapids begin and continue westward for one mile, one magnificent mile, through a series of small falls until it becomes smooth again near Hansen Island. In this magnificent mile, the Mohawk River drops 40 ½ feet making passage by boat impossible.
Being on the ‘Fall Line’ of the Mohawk River, Little Falls had all the potential makings of a thriving community. People were needed to move the boats around the mile-long rapids. These people needed houses, schools, mills, churches, taverns, and other trappings necessary in colonial America. This one-mile stretch of water and rapids arguably may have been one of the most important miles in the history of our country as hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people passed along this magnificent mile on their way west from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s.
THE COLONIAL ERA AND AN EARLY CANAL
The Burnetsfield Patent of 1725 opened the land on both sides of the river to Palatine German settlers starting at the “rapids at the little falls.” Each patentee had some land bordering on the river. Small farms dotted the area, and around that time Johan Jost Petrie built a gristmill at the falls, near the outlet of Furnace Creek, to grind wheat into flour. Water in action!
During the colonial era, boats and goods were moved around the Little Falls rapids by brute force by men, oxen, mules, and horses. Among the first to see the need to improve the situation – make things easier and faster – was General George Washington. In late July 1783, Washington and a group of officers made a tour of the Mohawk Valley and frontier posts. Legend has it that he looked over the carrying place at the little falls and remarked that a canal should be built around the rapids for military and commercial reasons. A survey was made in 1788 and on March 30, 1792, the Western Inland Lock and Navigation Company (WILNC) was incorporated with General Philip Schuyler as president.
This canal and one in Massachusetts were the first canals built in the United States. The 4,752- foot-long canal was three feet deep and contained five lifting locks and a guard lock with 2,550 feet having been blasted through solid rock. The canal was built on the north side of the river along what is now Mill Street and Elizabeth Street from the lower mill of Twin Rivers (formerly Burrows Paper Company) to an area near the entrance to the Industrial Park where remnants of the original guard lock can be seen. The finished cost was $100,000 with laborers earning six shillings per day with each man providing his own bedding, provisions, and liquor. They worked from sunup to sunset with one hour off for breakfast and dinner. The company provided a cook.
The first house in Little Falls was built in 1788; the “Yellow House” of John Porteous, near where Furnace Creek emptied into the Mohawk River (between Ideal Wood Products and the railroad tracks.) The dwelling served as a tavern, hotel, post office, store, and stagecoach stop. The garden, on the west side of Furnace Creek, stretched down towards the river. The first bridge across the Mohawk River was completed at Little Falls in 1790 probably at the site of the current South Ann Street bridge. The Octagon Church, a place for all to worship, was built in 1792, and by 1795 Little Falls consisted of twelve houses and a bark mill, smith shop, currier’s shop, joiner shop, cooper’s shop, gristmill, fulling mill, sawmill, all of which in some manner needed waterpower. These buildings represented the beginning of a growing community. Little Falls was incorporated as a village in 1811. During the War of 1812, as many as 300 boats a day passed through the WILNC at Little Falls.
THE ERIE CANAL
Skip ahead a quarter of a century. The 325-mile-long Erie Canal, widely known as “Clinton’s Ditch,” arguably the most important canal in the history of the country, was opened on October 26, 1825, after many years of construction mostly on the backs of newly arrived immigrants from Ireland. Four locks had been built for the canal at Little Falls, which was now on the south side of the river, to accommodate the 40 ½ foot drop in the river along the “magnificent mile.” A flotilla of boats carrying Governor Clinton, his entourage, and water from Lake Erie which was to be “wed” with the Atlantic Ocean at New York City, passed through Little Falls on October 31st. The city celebrated with a grand celebration with a parade and a large banquet. Little Falls was now a canal town. Lining the banks of both the canal and river were homes, boarding houses, taverns, businesses, mills, small factories, and even houses of ill repute.
Increased travel on the new Erie Canal marked the appearance of floating museums, floating bookstores, floating lottery offices, and floating dry goods stores. Pirates were even chased from Canajoharie to Little Falls. About 50 boats passed through the village each day – flour from the west and passengers and merchandise from the east. It took about 28 hours to travel by packet boat on the Erie Canal from Schenectady, through Little Falls, to Utica. The first village census in 1833 listed 1602 inhabitants of whom 85 were listed as “colored.” There were only two streets in Little Falls, and the land north of Garden Street was pasture, and that east of Second Street was a drear wilderness thickly covered with white cedar and undergrowth.
Asiatic Cholera extended over the country in 1832, with one case reported in Little Falls. A local ordinance was passed requiring that no boatman or other person shall land or set ashore from the Erie Canal without the permission of the village president and the village physician. The village continued to grow with the canal and water the driving force.
THE FIGHT OVER WATER RIGHTS
In 1773, Alexander Ellice of Scotland purchased Lots 12 and 13 of the Burnetsfield Patent and essentially controlled all the water rights along the rapids at Little Falls. He would only lease, not sell, riverfront property, and then only to selected friends. This practice made Ellice a rich man, but severely hindered the growth of the area. By 1833 efforts were successful by local lawyer Arphaxed Loomis in breaking the Ellice stranglehold on the water rights along the one-mile-long rapids, and the village was poised for significant growth. Water rights were auctioned off and eager entrepreneurs were looking forward to harnessing the waterpower to run their factories. The rapidly falling water turned water wheels which turned shafts and belts to power the many new factories that sprang up along the Mohawk River.
Also, in 1833, the first bank in Herkimer County, the current home of the Little Falls Historical Society, was established in the village, a testimony to the vision of the village becoming an important manufacturing center. By 1842, Little Falls had grown to 3,000 people, 40 stores, 5 hotels, 5 churches, and a large number of factories of all types. The all-important water for both transportation and power was again the driving force for future growth.
KNITTING MILLS AND IMMIGRANTS
Knitting mills, clothing, and shoe factories, and allied industries began locating in Little Falls around the time of the Civil War taking advantage of the abundant waterpower. During this time period, Little Falls was the “Cheese Center of the Nation” and millions of pounds of cheese were shipped from the village, much of it by water along the canal. The price for cheese for the entire country was established in Little Falls each week using a system developed by Xerxes Willard. As 1900 approached, powerhouses were being built along the river to generate electricity to power the local factories.
The canal, now known as the Barge Canal, was enlarged, and in 1916 the huge Lock 17 was built. This single lock replaced the four locks in the old canal, and at that time was the largest single-lift (40 ½ feet) in the world. Little Falls was once again on the map.
In the latter part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries, immigrants from central and southern Europe flocked to Little Falls to man the new knitting mills with cheap labor. Italians, Slovaks, Poles, Slovenians, Ukrainians, and others came – many of them were our ancestors. Most of them lived within one hundred yards from the river or the canal in the poorest sections of the city. In 1920, during this industrial boom, Little Falls had a peak population of over 13,000.
THE END STORY
Today most of the factories are gone as well as most of the people. The population has dropped from a peak of 13,200 to somewhat under 5,000. The knitting mills, dress shops, and shoe factories moved out of the “Rust Belt” to the southern states where labor was much cheaper. Bicycles, once made in Little Falls by the hundreds of thousands, are now made in Japan, Korea, or China. Commercial shipping on the canal dropped from nearly 5 million tons per year to 10,000 tons per year as a result of the opening of the much larger St. Lawrence River Seaway and the new interstate highway system (New York State Thruway) for long distant trucking. The river is no longer important today for developing power for local use. There has also been the advent of solar power and wind power right here in our backyard.
However, water is still important to us today in Little Falls, but for different reasons. Tourism is one of these reasons and we, as a community, do all we can to make Little Falls a “destination” for tourists. Think Canal Place and all the unique shops, restaurants, antique stores, inns, art centers, a brewery, and other such businesses that have sprung up to capture bikers, boaters, tourists, and other visitors to our historic community. Think of our beautiful Rotary Park Marina acclaimed by many boaters as the best on the canal system. And think of the Cheese Festival with 6,000 visitors, the Canal Days Celebration, the Garlic Festival in Canal Place, and Christmas in Little Falls, all annual festivals.
The Little Falls Historical Society has a slogan – “Little Falls, Where History Lives.” Even today, water and our “Magnificent Mile” along the Mohawk River makes this saying a truism.
Louis Baum is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society