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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 83: Mohawk River Bridges

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1222-1230 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 Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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1793-1913 — First bridges in the Mohawk Valley — Little Falls, 1790 — Utica, 1792 and 1797 — East Canada and West Canada Creek (Herkimer), 1793 — Herkimer, 1798 — Schoharie River at Fort Hunter, 1798 — Canajoharie, 1803 — Fort Plain (Sand Hill), 1806 — Schenectady, 1808 — Caughnawaga (Fonda), 1811 — Amsterdam, 1823 — Yosts, 1825 — Fonda-Fultonville, 1837 — Tribes Hill — Fort Hunter, 1852 — St. Johnsville, 1852.

This is the third chapter on Mohawk Valley transportation. The two prior ones were on river and turnpike traffic. Those to follow relate to Erie Canal, railroads and Barge Canal and Atwood's aeroplane flight.

The increase of population in Tryon, now Montgomery County, following the Revolutionary war, and the increase in traffic along the Mohawk necessitated improvements in river navigation and in the highways, as has been noted in preceding chapters. Great numbers of new settlers were journeying through the valley to points in the Middle West, aside from those who were coming into the Mohawk Valley and into western and northern New York to permanently locate. The fords and ferries on the Mohawk and its contributary creeks had been the only and difficult means of crossing these streams, during the eighteenth century which was the period of first settlement and development, The greatly increased traffic necessitated the construction of bridges and the building of these was one of the marked features of the life along the Mohawk at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

A list of the important Mohawk River bridges and the dates of their construction follows:

Little Falls, 1790; Utica, First and Second streets, 1792, West Canada Creek, Herkimer, 1793; East (Canada) Creek, 1793; Schoharie at Fort Hunter, 1798; Utica, Genesee street, 1797; Herkimer, 1798; Schoharie Creek at Mill Point, 1800; Canajoharie, 1803; Fort Plain (Sand Hill), 1806; Schenectady, 1808; Fonda (Caughnawaga), 1811; Amsterdam, 1823; Yosts, 1825 (carried away by ice shortly after); Fonda-Fultonville, 1837; Fort Hunter, 1852; St. Johnsville, 1852.

[Photo: [Mohawk] River Suspension Bridge, 1808]

These cross-overs were all wooden structures and these picturesque bridges have all been replaced by those of modern iron construction. The last of the old-timers to go was that at St. Johnsville, and many of them had formerly been undermined and carried away by ice during the Mohawk spring freshets. Each had its toll-keeper and the quaint list of tolls, in well-painted characters, which stood at the west side of the East Creek bridge, was long of interest to later day travelers. An exception to the above is the Tribes Hill-Fort Hunter bridge of 1852, one of the first steel and iron suspension bridges, and standing today.

The first important structure spanning a stream within the present limits of Montgomery and Fulton counties was the bridge at East (Canada) Creek. In April, 1790, the State Legislature voted "one hundred 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 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", also over West Canada Creek.

The first bridge across the Mohawk was the one at Little Falls, built prior to 1790. The second was near the river ford at Old Fort Schuyler, now Utica. It stood between First and Second streets, and was built in 1792. A bridge across the river at the foot of Genesee street, in Utica, was built in 1797.

In 1798 a bridge was built across the Mohawk at Herkimer,

In 1798 a very important bridge was built on the south shore turnpike over the Schoharie Creek at Fort Hunter. The improvement of the Mohawk (north shore) turnpike from Schenectady to Utica, about 1800, necessitated the erection of other structures across streams, which had formerly been forded by travelers.

The first bridge across the Mohawk was the one at Little Falls noted by Rev. John Taylor in his diary of his valley tour of 1802. This was sixteen rods long, and it is mentioned in a former chapter of this work on Mohawk River traffic. It was built on or before 1790, as maps of the time show. The river is narrow at this point, which probably influenced its construction at so early a day.

The first bridge over the Mohawk River in the middle Mohawk Valley seems to have been the one erected at Canajoharie in 1803, by Theodore Burr of Jefferson County. This was popularly called a bow bridge and consisted of a single arch 330 feet long. It fell in 1807 with a crash that was heard for miles. In 1808 a second bridge was built, which was carried away in the spring freshet of 1822. David I. Zielley, a Palatine farmer, built a third bridge, which "went out" with the ice in 1833, and Simms says "its destruction was a most splendid sight from Canajoharie, as the writer well remembers". A new bridge was built by August, 1833, which remained in use in part up to recent years. The Canajoharie bridge was rebuilt in 1913.

The second middle Mohawk Valley bridge to be completed and used across the Mohawk was that built at the lower end of "the Island" (or Abeel's or Lipe's Island, from the names of the farmers who successively owned it), which lies in the Mohawk at the northern limits of Fort Plain. This structure consisted of two bridges with several rods of roadway of the island intervening between them — the shorter one on the western shore and the longer one on the eastern side of the island. The Mohawk here runs north and south and the main channel was on the east side of the island. The Fort Plain exit was near the store of James Oothout, the early Fort Plain tradesman, which fact influenced its popular name.

This was officially called the "Montgomery bridge," but came to be called in the neighborhood, "Oothout's bridge". The commissioners for its erection were James Beardsley of East Creek, Cpl. Charles Newkirk and Col. Peter Wagner of Palatine Church, for the east side, and Messrs. Oothout, Gansevoort, Dygert, Arndt and Keller for the west side. Beardsley, himself a millwright, was its contractor, and Philip Washburn, who had worked under Burr, who built the Canajoharie bridge, was boss carpenter under Beardsley. These twin bridges, like many such early structures, were of wood, not covered, and rested upon wooden piers or supports. The toll house was upon the Fort Plain side of the river. The timber for the "north bridge" (as generally called) came mostly from the Wagner farm, while that for the "south" bridge came from Snellsbush. Although the river runs north and south from Palatine Church to Canajoharie, the river sides are generally called north and south sides, as in the rest of the valley, where the course of the Mohawk is generally east and west. After the Canajoharie bridge fell in 1807, it was the only bridge across the Mohawk in the present county until the new one at Canajoharie was built. James Beardsley of East Creek was one of the Fort Plain bridge commissioners, because at that date (1806 and until 1817) Montgomery County ran west to Fall Hill.

Simms says that the completion of Fort Plain bridge

"was celebrated with no little pomp on the 4th of July, 1806, and took place on the north [east] bank of the river not far from the bridge. Gen. Peter C. Fox, in full uniform and mounted upon a splendid gray horse, was grand marshal on the occasion, and had at his command a company of artillery with a cannon, and Capt, Peter Young's well-mounted cavalry. The latter company is said to have trotted across the bridge to test its strength, and a severe one that would naturally be. Besides several yoke of oxen were driven over it to obtain a still further proof of its completeness, while a cannon blazed away at one end of it. Some one delivered an oration on this occasion. A dinner was served at the public house of the elder George Wagner to the multitude, who looked upon the completion of this enterprise as a marked event — and, indeed, such it was, for the services of ferrymen who had pulled at the rope for years, a little below, were now at an end and the delay and danger of crossing by ferriage was obviated.

"Methinks I can now see the table on which this dinner was served, groaning under the burden of good eatables; its head adorned with a good sized pig roasted whole — a sight yet common fifty years ago, but now seldom seen at the festive board. This Wagner place is the present [1882] homestead [now burned] of the old innkeeper's grandson, Chauncey Wagner. This remarkable bridge celebration was kept up three successive days, the parties dancing each night at the Wagner tavern, where Washburn and his hands boarded.

"When this bridge was erected, nearly all there was of Fort Plain — which took its name from the [former] military post nearby — was in the vicinity of this bridge. True, Isaac Paris had a few years before been trading at the now Bleecker residence in the present village, and Casper Lipe had another store for a time near the creek bridge; but besides the' Oothout store, Conrad Gansevoort had one quarter mile below at Abeel's; while on the hill near the meeting house, Robert McFarlan was then trading — besides there were several mechanics within the same distance, all of whom are said to have done a prosperous business. * * * The ice took off the northern or principal structure of the Island bridge in April, 1825, after it had served the public for nineteen years."

At that time a growing, lively little village was on the present site of Fort Plain and had entirely usurped in importance the old Sand Hill section. Consequently the next bridge was built at the present river bridge site and was opened for carriages January 1, 1829. This was a substantial covered bridge, like many similar structures in the valley at that day. The bridge stock of the Island Bridge Company had not been a profitable investment and stock in the new bridge company was not greatly sought after. This bridge went out in the spring "high water" of 1842 and lodged on Ver Planck's (now Nellis) island and on the Gros flats. A new bridge was built in the summer of 1842 and lasted until the spring of 1887, when the ice broke down the abutments, during the spring flood, and carried the bridge away. The present iron structure which replaced it is said to be the longest single span iron bridge of its type in Central New York.

A free bridge across the Mohawk at Fort Plain was projected in 1857, and work on an iron bridge, to stand just north of the present one, was begun in the same summer. Before the masonry was completed the work was stopped by an injunction, which delayed its completion until the summer of 1858, when the bridge was opened absolutely free to the public, and the covered bridge company thereby ceased taking toll. Litigation over the two bridges between the two companies finally resulted in the free bridge people obtaining possession of the old bridge at a serious loss to the stockholders interested in the latter. The iron bridge was finally disposed of and the proceeds used to raise and put into condition the covered bridge, which continued to be free to the public.

Says Simms: "The Fort Plain free bridge movement had a direct tendency to make nearly all the other bridges on the river free bridges; the time having arrived when the enterprise of the country demanded the measure. In 1859 an act was passed to erect a free bridge at Canajoharie or compel the sale of the old one — to be made free — which result followed."

* * * * *

Of the famous Schenectady bridge of 1808, Yates has the following in his "History of Schenectady County":

"The old Mohawk bridge was built by the Mohawk and Hudson Turnpike Co. It was begun in 1806 and completed in 1809. The architect was Theodore, cousin of that gay and rascally Lothario, Vice President Aaron Burr. Theodore Burr was reputed to be the greatest bridge architect in America. David Hearsay was the builder. He was a mason by trade, living by the bridge at the present residence of Ex-Judge Yates and, with his eyes upon the work day and night, a magnificent job he made of it. When finished it was unsurpassed in beauty and solidity by any structure in America. It was erected on three massive piers whose greater size readily distinguished them from the others put in in 1835 — an architectural blunder. It was really the first approach ever made to a suspension bridge. It was nine hundred feet in length in three lofty and magnificent spans, each of three hundred feet, made of two inch timbers of Norway pine. These spans were shingled to keep them from the weather. They were of enormous size, four feet thick by three broad. Had the great architect lived, this, his masterpiece, would be standing today. But it began to sag, the uprights rotted and on the dissolution of the M. & H. Turnpike Co., it was sold to capitalists whose misplaced economy neglected that watchful repairing so necessary to a wooden structure of this size, so that the uprights and interior timbers rotted. Meanwhile it had apparently sagged; four more piers were built under it, destroying plan and principle of structure so that the old bridge became a succession of hills and valleys. It had been covered over with a barn-like unpainted covering of rough hemlock boards, which, becoming weather-beaten from the total absence of paint, made it in its old days a ghostly, ghastly tunnel over the river-it could only be described as spooky. Menagerie elephants sometimes would not cross, and on one occasion in the early sixties, the whole town watched with delight while the elephants who refused to cross, sported with glee in the warm current on a hot summer day and had to be driven across by the steel hooks of the keepers.

"Meanwhile, David Hearsay living beside it, was the bridge keeper and guarded the creation of Burr's genius and his own handiwork with a heathen veneration. With him, for half a century, was old Christopher Beekman, better known as 'Uncle Stoeffel', the friend and father of the Delta Phis of Old Union — after them the pater-familias to every under-graduate. Uncle Stoeffel knew many great men in their youth and many of the renowned of the land came to see him at commencement time. He was a quaint old German with laughable lapses of English, with a remarkably well educated cat as his inseparable companion. He was an ideal toll-taker. The cavernous old structure, as might well be imagined, was invested and infested at night by all the dissolute and disreputable vagabonds of both sexes in the city. He lived in the ramshackle old toll-house on the spot where the present structure stands, kept it scrupulously clean, slept with an eye and an ear always open. The ruffian whoever and however desperate he was, who persistently refused his toll or used a threatening word or movement, went down like a stricken ox under the hickory club always within reach. A strange old character, simple as a child, an old confiding Dutch baby, loving the boys, upon whom the ingrates were always playing tricks. And they owed him much and owed it often. When the wayward under-graduate emerged from a 'skate' with swelled head and leaden stomach and a copperas palate and could not get relief, he would stagger down to the old toll house for the cure that Uncle Stoeffel knew how and was ready to give any time of the day or night. Uncle was a devout Methodist according to his lights. He would stand the victim of the youthful ebullition in the center of the floor clad in the 'altogether' and give him a tremendous bath on the clean boards, stuffing him with sour condiments of his own concoction, accompanied by religious admonition throughout, a strange mixture of piety and pickles, of pails of water, the Pentateuch and the Psalms of David.

"Between David Hearsay, a calm dignified gentleman, and the peppery German, there was always a bickering warfare, though no doubt their friendship born of close comradeship of fifty years was deep and sincere. Hearsay was a rigid Episcopalian, Stoeffel a decided dissenter. Hearsay abhorred tobacco, Uncle puffed his tobacco pipe all day. The two old men were nearly of an age, and that age was about eighty. Hearsay was continually warning Stoeffel that his excessive smoking would bring him to an early grave, Stoeffel's answer was only a more vigorous puff.

"Hearsay died leaving a decent competence for his widow. Uncle went where he never should have gone — to the poorhouse. Long after Hearsay's death, he met an old resident and greeted him. 'So Hearsay saice de smoke would dry me ub? Vere is Hearsay now, taging doll some vere else? My bibe and I is here.'

"Heim Stoeffel, let us hope that when long ago St. Peter met you at the gate, he recognized his earthly fellow craftsman and in paternal spirit swung wide open the pearly portal without a creak in its jeweled hinges."

* * * * *

The Schenectady Mohawk River wooden suspension bridge was covered about 1820. In 1874 the Remington Ilion Bridge Works built the iron highway bridge here. This was a toll bridge up to March 11, 1920, when it became free. The toll franchise brought in $25,000 annually to the town of Glenville. In the old turnpike days here was the first Mohawk turnpike toll gate, going west.

In 1916 initial steps were taken by the state toward the construction of the new highway bridge over the Mohawk at Schenectady. It is of concrete, handsome in detail and mass, nearly a mile in length and costing about $2,000,000. See Chapter 111, "The Great Western Gateway Bridge," and Chapter 112, "Traffic Over the Great Western Gateway Bridge."

In 1825, it has been previously noted, a bridge across the Mohawk was erected between Yosts, at the western end of the town of Mohawk and Randall, in the eastern end of the town of Root. This was shortly after swept away by ice.

In 1837 the first bridge connecting the villages of Fonda and Fultonville was erected. A new bridge across the Mohawk between the two villages was completed in 1923. The former one had been badly damaged by a Barge Canal craft striking a bridge pier.

In 1852 a bridge was built across the Mohawk at St. Johnsville, on the site of the present structure, thus completing the three bridges which span the river in western Montgomery County. This was one of the last covered bridges standing along the Mohawk River. It has been replaced by an iron structure.

In 1852 the suspension bridge at Tribes Hill-Fort Hunter was built, one of the first iron and steel suspension bridges erected in the state. This old bridge is a famous Mohawk Valley landmark, as it stands close to the Tribes Hill station of the New York Central Railroad and the old Mohawk turnpike.

A feature of bridge building on the Mohawk are today (1925) the bridges erected by the state in connection with the Barge Canal locks. These may be utilized by the towns, on which they abut, constructing proper approaches. The only one of these bridges now in use is that at Rotterdam, which carries a large amount of traffic between the south shore and the Mohawk turnpike.

It is difficult today to realize the importance of the erection of the first bridges to the valley people. It meant greater trade and intercourse among themselves and with the outside world and the construction of an important bridge was invariably followed by an increased population center at one or both ends of the structure.

Communities like Fort Plain, Canajoharie, St. Johnsville, Amsterdam, Fonda and Fultonville, which have been deprived of bridges, realize the importance of such viaducts of traffic and transportation and the necessity for the permanence of their construction and efficiency of their upkeep. Good roads and good bridges go together as prime essentials for civilized agricultural regions.

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