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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 82: Mohawk Valley Highways

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1209-1221 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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1614-1925 — Mohawk Valley transportation — Indian trails — Horse and cart roads, highways (1700-1800) — Turnpikes and Mohawk Turnpike (1800-1840) — Seneca Road — Great Western Turnpike — County roads (1840-1885) — Bicycle routes (1885-1900) — Automobile roads (1900-1925)

This chapter, dealing with the Mohawk Valley highways, is the second one describing transportation in the Mohawk Valley. The first, published just before this one, covered traffic on the Mohawk River. Others follow treating of bridges, the Erie Canal, railroads and the Barge Canal. The highways are the most important and basic element in the matter of transportation, and their history and the life on the Mohawk thoroughfares are therefore of prime interest to all the valley inhabitants.

The early highways and rude roads of our valley generally followed the Indian trails. These trails were good, though only two or three feet wide and "in many places, the savages kept the woods clear from underbrush by burning over large tracts." All streams had to be forded, except where the few ferries were, and these fords often determined the location of roads. Trees were felled across narrow streams to make footbridges and the colonial governments frequently ordered these made. "When new paths were cut through the forests, the settlers 'blazed' the trees, that is they chopped a piece of bark off tree after tree, standing on the side of the way. Thus the 'blazes' stood out clear and white in the dark shadows of the forests, like welcome guide-posts, showing the traveler his way."

The Indian trails covered eastern New York and connected the various Iroquois villages with each other or led to hunting and fishing grounds (like the Otsquago and Garoga trails) or into or towards these grounds and the countries of the enemies of the Mohawks and their brother tribes — such as the trail which ran from Canada to the Sacandaga and through Johnstown, Stone Arabia and Palatine to the ford at the mouth of the Garoga, there connecting with the Otsquago trail. The explorers, soldiers, traders and "wood-runners" used these Indian trails and the first white settlers utilized them as roads as a matter of course, because, like the buffalo trails of the great West, they connected the most important points and watercourses and lakes by the shortest and easiest routes. These Western buffalo trails were also Indian trails and are now trunk line railroads. So the trails naturally became the first valley highways and most of the more important of these today are the Indian trails, enlarged, improved, straightened and graded.

Over the old Indian valley trails or on the river came the first Dutch explorers and traders with their Iroquois guides and helpers and the early French explorers and priests with their Algonquin aids and guides. Following them came the Dutch, German and British settlers, carrying their goods on their backs, on pack horses or in ox carts or horse carts — many of their fellow pioneers toiling painfully up against the current of the river in flatboats to their new homes in the Mohawk wilderness. Still later with the settlement and clearing of farms, these hardy men widened and cleared the trails and blazed new ones over which they transported farm and forest produce in their rude wooden sleds and carts. Probably the first valley cart road was the one between Albany and Schenectady after the settlement of Schenectady in 1661 originally called the "Albany Path".

Prior to 1800, and even later, these farm carts and wooden sleds were made on the farm. Just as all food and raw materials (such as hemp, flax, wool, etc.) were grown by the husbandman on his own lands, so was everything he and his family used made there. This necessitated an endless round of toil on the farm, from sunrise until after sunset all the year round excepting part of Sundays, but it made the farmer self-supporting, self-sufficient and independent of the world outside his own personal domain. Each farm was a kingdom unto itself. Every homestead had its carpenter's room or bench, just as it had its soap kettle, cheese room and smoke house (and occasional ice house), and all tools, implements, vehicles and rude farm machinery were made on the farm by the farmer himself. The nearest blacksmith shop supplied the necessary iron work.

Later the valley trails, or the cart roads they were turned into, were used by the American and British troops and their baggage trains during the Revolution. Following their gradual improvement and the great immigration and traffic following the war for independence came the turnpikes, coincident with the building of bridges. Probably by 1800 the majority of our Mohawk Valley highway system had been constructed, but it had for its basis the old Indian trails of the Mohawks. None of these improvements such as highways and bridges came of themselves but were the result of the strenuous work of the early valley men.

[Photo: Ehle Farm, Between Fort Plain and Canajoharie.]

[Photo: Spraker Homestead, 1795.]

After 1783 it was found necessary to improve transportation facilities in the Mohawk Valley to accommodate its population and the tide of emigration pouring through it to the west. Roads were improved, bridges constructed and taverns built or remodeled from farmhouses on the lines of travel. New towns and counties were also formed, as told in prior chapters.

In April, 1790, the State Legislature voted "100 pounds for the purpose of erecting a bridge across the East Canada Creek, not exceeding three miles from the mouth thereof, upon the road from the Mohawk River to the Royal Grant." In 1793 commissioners were appointed by the Legislature with directions to build "a bridge over the East Canada Creek, nearly opposite Canajoharie Castle, on the public road leading from Tribes Hill to the Little Falls."

About 1790 stages made weekly trips in the valley and daily trips after the completion of the Mohawk turnpike. The completion of the Schoharie bridge at Fort Hunter and the construction of the Great Western turnpike from Albany westward marked the year 1798. This route connected with the Mohawk at Canajoharie by stages which ran from Roof's Tavern, where the Hotel Wagner stands.

The most important of all the valley roads are north and south shore turnpikes which traverse the shores of the Mohawk for a distance of nearly 100 miles between Schenectady and Rome.

Prior to 1800 the south shore road seems to have been the more important, but since that time the north shore or Mohawk turnpike has been the major one. Over the Mohawk turnpike vast quantities of crops, raw material and merchandise were transported in the half century comprised in the latter years of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. It has figured as a Mohawk Indian trail (until 1700), cart and horse path (1700-1750), wagon and stage road (1750-1836), freight wagon turnpike (1800-1840), bicycle and automobile touring route (1890-1913), and has a future, among other things, as a freight and passenger motor car line. It is paralleled (1925) throughout by the New York Central Railroad and by trolley lines from Rome to Cohoes, with the exception of a gap between Little Falls and Fonda, which doubtless will be connected ere long. The Mohawk turnpike shares with the Mohawk River and the early Erie Canal the glory of having been one of the valley travel routes by way of which hundreds of thousands of the ancestors of the present day Westerners made their way to new homes, prior to the building of the railroads and even for a number of years thereafter.

The building of bridges over the East and West Canada Creeks in 1793 made the north shore road the favorite valley route, and the next forward step was the improvement of this Mohawk turnpike from Schenectady to Utica. The charter for its construction was granted April 4, 1800.

Seth Wetmore, Levi Norton, Ozias Bronson, Hewitt Hills and three others were the first board of directors. This road was also called the Albany turnpike.

The Mohawk turnpike connected at Schenectady with the Mohawk and Hudson turnpike to Albany, the two forming a continuous trade route over 100 miles in length from Albany and the Hudson Valley to Rome and thence to the Great Lakes and western New York and the Great West.

The Mohawk and Hudson turnpike (chartered in 1797) from Albany to Schenectady was a fine macadamized road lined with poplars. The Mohawk turnpike (chartered 1800) was of broken stone, sixty feet wide, with a center raised eighteen inches above the sides. There were twelve toll gates on this pike, four of them being located in western Montgomery County.

  1. Schenectady.
  2. Cranesville.
  3. Caughnawaga (now Fonda).
  4. Schenck's Hollow (near the north side Nose, now the Montgomery County Home).
  5. Junction of Wagner's Hollow road in Palatine (a short distance east).
  6. Garoga Creek (short distance east).
  7. St. Johnsville (lower end).
  8. East Creek bridge (west end).
  9. Fink's Ferry (at Fall Hill).
  10. West Canada Creek (Herkimer).
  11. Sterling (six miles east of Utica).
  12. Utica (formerly Old Fort Schuyler).

In 1811 a fast line ran, day and night, from Albany to Buffalo, in three days. The horses were trotted almost continuously and were changed every nine to twelve miles. Four coaches were sent east and four coaches west by this line daily.

"The charter of the Utica and Schenectady Railroad company, granted in 1833, required it, before beginning transportation, to purchase the rights of the Mohawk Turnpike Co. and to assume the responsibilities of the latter. One of these responsibilities was that of keeping the turnpike in repair. It was provided however that the railroad company might abandon the turnpike, giving notice to the commissioners of highways, and after such notice it should be kept in order in the same manner as other highways. The railroad company for a time took toll on the turnpike and kept it in repair, but subsequently removed the gates and became responsible for the maintenance of only a part of the old highway."

With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, traffic on the Mohawk turnpike began to diminish, as the freight wagons could not compete with the canal boats during the summer months. Probably they had a considerable use for a number of years, on the north turnpike in winter and on other Mohawk Valley roads, to the north and south, all the year round. The stages continued to largely carry the valley passenger traffic, sharing it with the Erie Canal packets in the summer months until after the building of the Utica & Schenectady Railroad in 1836. This railroad, like any other railroad, was and is merely a highway with an iron bed carrying, by mechanical motive power, greatly enlarged editions of the turnpike stages and freight wagons. Stages continued in use on other Mohawk Valley roads until recent years. Motor busses now take their place.

The Legislature in 1802 authorized the opening of certain roads in the state, and in pursuance of this act, the highway called the State road, leading from Johnstown in a northwestern direction to the Black River country, was opened. It was subsequently much used while that part of the country was being settled by emigrants from the East.

The improvement of the road leading from Schenectady to Utica along the south side of the Mohawk was deemed expedient, and commissioners were appointed in 1806 to direct the work, their instructions being to straighten the existing road and open it to a width of fifty feet. The towns through which it passed were required to repair and maintain it if their population was not too small.

[Photo: Baggs Hotel, Utica, 1813.]

The following from Simms's "Frontiersmen of New York" gives a good picture of the Mohawk turnpike and life thereon during the early nineteenth century:

"While the Mohawk was literally filled with boats of different kinds — for nearly every family living upon its banks had some kind of one — and Schenectady was a live town for receiving and dispatching freight on and off them — large wagons were used in competition with them in the transportation of merchandise and produce to and from western New York. The produce — wheat, whiskey and potash — came to Albany, from whence merchandise was returned. These wagons, covered with canvas, and drawn by three to eight horses, were seen in numbers on the western and Mohawk turnpikes. The leaders usually had a little bell fastened upon the headstall. Mr. Alonzo Crosby, long superintendent of the eastern part of the western turnpike, counted up to 50 or more taverns between Albany and Cherry Valley, in the distance of 52 miles. Palatine Church, a hamlet at that time of some importance on the Mohawk turnpike, was 61 miles from Albany, the inns in that distance also averaging one to every mile. Indeed, innkeepers were neighbors on those roads for a hundred miles to the westward of Albany. At this period tavern keeping was a lucrative business, especially for the houses prepared with inclosed sheds and good stabling.

"The horses before these wagons, which, at times, had a hundred or more bushels of wheat on, never traveled out of a walk. At the period of their use, brakes were unknown in descending hills, but a heavy iron shoe was used on the six-inch tire, which could be thrown from the wheel at the foot of a hill by a spring managed by the foot of the driver. The teamsters usually went on foot, whip in hand, and their constant travel had worn a good foot-path along each side of the road, near the fence, a hundred miles from Albany. The horses were seldom stabled nights, but had an oilcloth covering and were fed from a box or trough carried along and attached to the pole, which could not fall to the ground. The rear of the wagon was ornamented with a tar bucket and a water pail. The wagons were painted blue or slate color, and the covering remained white. A small box was secured upon one side or end of the wagon, containing a hammer, wrench, currycomb, etc. Those wagons paid no toll as they filled the ruts made by farm wagons. Some of the teams were driven by a single line on the forward nigh horse, and occasionally a postillion was seen on the nigh wheel horse; but those large Pennsylvania horses were so well trained as to be dexterously managed with a long leathern whip. When it was heavy traveling, those monster wagons progressed but a few miles in a day, sometimes being two weeks in going from Albany to Geneva, Canandaigua or Rochester. Freight or merchandise west was, at first, one dollar a hundred from Albany to Utica. Although there were so many taverns on the road, still so numerous were the teams that, at times, one of a party in company was mounted and sent forward before night to secure accommodations with a good wagon-yard inclosure.

"From two to ten of these large wagons were sometimes seen in company, some of them carrying from three to four tons. The horses were usually fat. Some carried a jackscrew for raising an axle to take off a wheel; but this was seldom done, as a hole for pouring in tar or grease was made for the purpose. In ascending hills, the wagon was blocked at intervals with a stone, carried by the teamster behind it. After those mammoth wagons were supplanted by the Erie Canal, several of them might have been seen about the old Loucks tavern, [in Albany] as also at Paul Clark's inn in the southwest part of Albany, where some of them rotted down.

"On the Mohawk turnpike, as remembered by Andrew A. Fink, George Wagner and others, were the following inn-keepers from Herkimer (80 miles from Albany) descending the valley. They may not be named in the order in which they stood: John Rasback, John Potter, Heacock; across West Canada creek, Nathaniel Etheridge, Upham, James Artcher, a teamster married one of his daughters. This inn had a peculiar sign. On one side was painted a gentleman richly clad and elegantly mounted on horseback with this motto, 'I am going to law.' On the reverse side was a very dilapidated man on a horse, the very picture of poverty, saying, 'I have been to law.' [Continuing the list] John McCombs, Warner Dygert; at Little Falls, John Sheldon, Carr, Harris, Major Morgan; below the Falls, A. A. Fink. From Fink's to East Creek is five miles, and in that distance were 13 dwellings, 12 of which were taverns occupied as follows: Bauder; William Smith, his sign had on it an Indian chief; John Petrie, Henry Shults, James Van Valkenburgh, Lawrence Timmerman, John Wagner, Owens, Nathan Christie, Esq., David Richtmyer, Frederick Getman, James and Luther Pardee; below East Creek, John Stauring, Van Dresser, James Billington, John Bancker, Michael U. Bauder, Yates, Jacob Failing, a favorite place for large wagons; Zimmerman, Joseph Klock, Christian Klock, Daniel C. Nellis, John C. Nellis, Brown, Gen. Peter C. Fox, at Palatine Church; George Fox, John C. Lipe, George Wagner, Charles Walrath, Harris, Weaver, Richard Bortle, Nicholas Gros, Samuel Fenner, an old sea captain who spun his skipper's yarns to customers; Jacob Hees, who also had a boat and lumber landing at Palatine Bridge; Josiah Shepard, a stage house; Weatherby, Jost Spraker, John DeWandelaer, now Schenck's place [Montgomery County Farm] near the Nose; Frederick Dockstader, kept many large wagons; Connelly, Fred Dockstader, 2d, who had a run of double teams; Gen. Henry Fonda at now village of Fonda; Giles Fonda, Pride, Hardenburgh, Conyne, Lepper; in Tribes Hill, Kline, Putman, Wilson; Guy Park, a favorable place for large wagons, kept at one time by McGerk; Col. William Shuler at Amsterdam; below were Crane of Cranesville, Lewis Groat, Swart and others on this part of the route not remembered. At Schenectady are recalled, Tucker, Jacob Wagner, Shields, while the names of two others are forgotten, — one of them had a house in Frog Alley, which was burned by the slaking of lime. Between Schenectady and Albany were, Havely, Brooks, Vielie. The Half-way house was a stage house and kept by Leavitt Kingsbury, which became noted for its delicious coffee.

"In the period of wagon transport when hay was $20 a ton, innkeepers had one dollar a span for keeping horses over night: and when hay was $10 a ton they had 50 cents a span, or one shilling a pound for hay. In spring and fall it was a common sight to see ten or fifteen horses drawing a single wagon from its fastness in the mud. The first load of hemp from the west, said Fink, was a five horse load from Wadsworth's flats in the Genesee valley.

"Some of the teamsters were at different times on both (the Mohawk and the western) turnpikes. Freight from Albany to Buffalo was at first $5 per hundred weight, but competition at one time brought it down to $1.25. The teamsters on these turnpikes were as jovial and accommodating a set of men, as ever engaged in any vocation, seldom having any feuds. or lasting dif. ficulties. Said Mr. Fink, in 1805-6 when Oneida and adjoining counties were receiving many of their pioneer settlers, New England people came prospecting on horseback, with well-filled saddlebags and portmanteaus, and he often had 30 or 40 in a single night to entertain at his house below Little Falls."

This was the day of the stage coach also and the Mohawk turnpike presented a spectacle of life and bustle as it shared with the Mohawk River the traffic of the valley. This was particularly so during the years from 1800 to the building of the Erie Canal in 1825.

[Photo: Old Mohawk Turnpike Toll Bridge.]

The earliest authentic town record of Palatine, now in existence, is that of a meeting of the commissioners of excise, held May 3, 1803, for the purpose of granting licenses to innkeepers, The number thus licensed will give an idea of the teaming and travel through the Palatine district, before the days of railroads or canals or even the completion of the Mohawk turnpike. The commissioners of excise were Jacob Ecker, Henry Beekman and Peter C. Fox, who swore to an oath, before Justice of the Peace John Zielley, that "we will not on any account or pretense whatever, grant any license to any person within the said town of Palatine, for the purpose of keeping an inn or tavern, except when it shall appear to us to be absolutely necessary for the benefit of travelers." Jost Spraker, Henry Cook, Andrew J. Dillenbeck, John F. Empie, Peter W. Nellis and forty-seven others (fifty-one in all) were granted licenses. The sum paid by each was from $5 to $6.50, according to location, amounting in the aggregate for that year to $258.50.

[Photo: Excise License for the Tavern of George Waggoner.]

The Mohawk turnpike was the scene of much military activity during the years of 1812, 1813 and 1814, caused by the movement of New York troops going to defense of the frontier (in the second war with Great Britain) and their return at the close of hostilities. It shared this military traffic with the Mohawk River.

After the railroad trains on the Utica & Schenectady road (forerunner of the New York Central), started running up and down the valley, the Mohawk turnpike ceased to be a line of bustling activity and important traffic route, being used only for local and farm wagon freightage. On the valley roads about 1880 appeared riders on the high bicycle, and a few years later the serviceable "safety" came into use and a veritable "bicycle craze" was inaugurated which lasted until about 1900, after which time the cheap and useful "wheel" took its rightful place as a means of transport. After 1895 appeared the "bicycle's son" — the automobile, and the future of our highways lies solely in their use as automobile freight and passenger roads.

With the appearance of the bicycle and automobile came the trolley car, whose lines parallel the valley roads in many places and which will undoubtedly form a traffic system, together with the railroads, the Barge Canal and good highways that will give well-nigh perfect transportation facilities to the Mohawk Valley. Today we see many regular lines of motor busses carrying passengers and motor trucks carrying freight running between different points in the Mohawk Valley.

Today the Mohawk turnpike is the most heavily traveled touring and traffic motor route in America, forming the central link of the great New York to Buffalo highway (433 miles), comprising the Albany Post road (149 miles) and the Storm King west Hudson shore, routes converging at Albany, the old Mohawk turnpike (80 miles), Schenectady to Utica, and the Seneca road (204 miles), from Utica to Buffalo.

The present and future of the old Mohawk turnpike, the Seneca road and the Great Western turnpike are considered in Chapter 101 of this work.

Genesee street, Utica, was originally the Indian trail to the Seneca country, later known as the Genesee road and improved as the Seneca road in 1800, by which name this beginning of the road to Buffalo is known today. The trail from Old Fort Schuyler and the Mohawk River passed over present Park Avenue and met the Genesee trail at present Oneida Square. The development of the Genesee or Seneca road was greatly stimulated by the building of bridges over the Mohawk at Old Fort Schuyler (Utica) in 1792 and 1797. Utica soon became the "Crossroads of New York", as it is today.

Genesee Street, Utica, is the Mohawk River Crossroads of a trail which runs from the St. Lawrence River to Utica and thence by forks south to Chesapeake Bay and west to Buffalo.

At Duanesburg, Schenectady County, the Schoharie route from Schenectady crosses the Great Western turnpike (running from Albany to Syracuse) about fifteen miles south of the old Mohawk turnpike.

This old Indian trail was so named and improved in 1800. It carried much of the traffic from Albany in the great days of emigration to the West. The Great Western turnpike runs west from Albany through Sharon Springs, Cherry Valley, Richfield Springs, West Winfield, Bouckville, Cazenovia, Manlius and Fayetteville to Syracuse.

For a clear and comprehensive description of old turnpike days, travel and vehicles, the reader is advised to consult Alice Morse Earle's "Home Life in Colonial Days".

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