1 Building Little Falls

William H. Bartlett's "Village at Little Falls, Mohawk River"

Miranda Sherrock

William H. Bartlett, Village at Little Falls, Mohawk River, 1840, American Scenery, or Land, Lake, and River, Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature
Little Falls, NY, one of the many towns that sits on the Mohawk River, holds unique geological features, and an important piece of American Industrialization history. The print seen above captures Little Falls, New York during a time of national growth and prosperity. This chapter will take a closer look at this print and highlight the significance of each feature to understand better the rich natural and cultural history of Little Falls. We will discuss the artist, the regional geology, the Mohawk River, and modifications of the natural landscape. Exploring these topics through visual representations will foster a deep appreciation for Little Falls’ story of growth, and development during the era of American Industrialization.

The Artist

William Henry Bartlett is the man who sketched this scene of Little Falls, New York while exploring the East Coast of America. Starting as an artist of architecture Bartlett has a marvelous attention to detail in his works. By 1830 Bartlett took on the role of a journeyman, traveling many places to document the scenic landscapes he encountered[1]. His travels took him to places like Switzerland, Italy, Ireland, Canada and the United States. This Sketch, Village at Little Falls, Mohawk River, shows Little Falls as it was in 1837 and reveals the harmony between the town’s natural environment and the built environment. This print was published in American Scenery, or Land, Lake, and River, Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature[2] and was accompanied by Nethaniel Parker Willis’ picturesque description of the town:

“This thriving town sits above the north bank of the Mohawk, amid some of the most exquisite scenery of the world. The falls afford great facilities for manufactures of all kinds, the Erie canal and rail-road both pass through it, up the Valley of the Mohawk, making it altogether the busiest spot, and it is the loveliest on the great route westward.”
The Mohawk River brought Bartlett to Little Falls, New York. Following the waterway that carried many men through this same passage before him. Bartlett drew quite a few sketches of Little Falls capturing the unique natural and cultural heritage of the location. The time he took to observe, study, and draw Little Falls has created the opportunity for us to revisit what it was like during the American Industrialization on the Mohawk River.

The Geology

The geology of the area played a big role in shaping the landscape, and in creating the perfect place for a town to be built. Rocky rapids and a large, 40 foot drop, in the river’s height distinguishes Little Falls from other areas of the River; but the story of Little Falls goes back a long time, before any people inhabited the area. During the last ice age, around 13,000 years ago, massive glaciers covered North America and carved features in the landscape that can still be seen today[3]. When these glaciers began to melt, large amounts of water drained through the Mohawk River Valley. Much of the ground in the Mohawk Valley is made of relatively young sedimentary rock but Little Falls holds something different underneath. A geological survey of New York State[4] reveals a section of, much older, metamorphic rock that is on the surface only at Little Falls. Long ago this area was covered with sedimentary rock, just like the surrounding areas, but a shift in the basement rock caused the earth at Little Falls to rise above the rest. Melting glacial waters and debris wore down the raised sedimentary rock to reveal the strong metamorphic rock that was underneath[5].

Bartlett drew steep cliffs on either side of the rushing river to represent these stunning sharp rocks of the Little Falls gorge. Today, Moss Island sits in the Mohawk river and holds geological evidence of the glacial activity from long ago. Potholes that stand over 20 feet tall are the lasting indicators of the glacial waters and debris that carved through the strong metamorphic rock years ago[6]. In 1976 The National Park Service recognized Moss Island as a National Natural Landmark to acknowledge and preserve this pristine example of glacial potholes in the eastern United States[7]. To this day Moss Island attracts rock climbers and hikers to marvel at these wonderful potholes, which reveal the natural history that built the foundation for Little Falls.

 

Current view from what is thought to be Bartlett’s position when creating “Village at Little Falls”. The location was estimated by triangulation using the circled buildings. Note the artistic license of sideways compression in Bartlett’s print. Photo and comparison by Erik Stengler.

The River

What once was a path for flooding glacial waters has since been used as a convenient navigable passage for people. The rushing river in Bartlett’s print is the Mohawk; flowing through New York state it has been a valuable resource for traders and travelers throughout history. Before European settlers arrived the valley was home to the peoples of the Iroquois Nations. The eastern most group was the Mohawk Tribe for which the river got its name. Iroquois tribes navigated the river on boats of birch[8] and recognized the rocky rapids at Little Falls, New York as “Astenrogan” which means tumbling waters, or place of rocks[9]. European settlers recognized these rapids as the “Little Falls” distinguishing them from the “Big Falls”, further East, in Cohoes, New York[10]. This area of the river caught the attention of those who navigated here, becoming a geographic landmark that has been documented throughout the history of the area. The “Astenrogan” forced boaters to stop and carry their vessels around on foot. During the 18th Century the first group of Palatine settlers came to the Little Falls area to farm their own land. The first signs of permanent settlement in Little Falls included taverns, small storage buildings and a grist mill powered by the flowing water of the river. The rushing waters at Little Falls were treacherous, but the power of the river held opportunity for travel, trade, and industry if the power could be harnessed[11].

The Mohawk River Valley became known as the Great Passage West, connecting the eastern shore to the Western Region of the continent[12]. The convenient route was a great resource of trade and expansion in the early years of America. Just like America itself, as a newly established country, Little Falls was only beginning to expand and industrialize, and the first industries had their ups and downs. The original grist mill, the first to harness the power of the Mohawk River at Little Falls, was attacked and burnt down in 1782[13]. Eventually, the grist mill was rebuilt, many industries thrived, and Little Falls was well on its way to becoming a booming industrial town.

The Infrastructure

A whole decade before Bartlett’s illustration of Little Falls, the Erie Canal was completed. This system of locks was built to make an easily navigable route through the natural valley and to expand the manufacturing and trade potential of the nation. As seen in Bartlett’s illustration the Erie Canal ran along the south bank of the river and was bordered by a towpath; mules and men would pull boats along the canal to access the locks[14]. Not seen in the illustration is the series of 4 locks that raised and lowered boats to compensate for the 40 foot drop in the river elevation at Little Falls[15]. Following the flow of natural rivers and streams, the Erie canal was a catalyst for the boom of industry that Nathanial Parker Willis described in his annotation to Bartlett’s drawing[16]. The ability to easily move goods along the canal system opened possibilities for manufacturing, business, and global markets in river towns along the Mohawk. Many mills and factories were built on the riverbanks to take advantage of the natural energy source of the river and the accessible trade route of the Erie Canal, which increased the need for laborers. European immigrants arrived in America and worked in the factories; these people made up a large percentage of Little Falls’ population during this era[17]. Little Falls banks filled with many successful industries including wool, leather, shoes, and bicycles. For a time Little Falls was exporting cheese to England and called the cheese capital of the nation[18].

Increased population, business and activity in Little Falls made for other necessary modifications of the waterway; each making the town more accessible. In 1841, the year Bartlett’s print was published, the Erie Canal was expanded to accommodate increased traffic and larger boats. Not long after a navigable aqueduct was built bridging the river to a boat basin above its north bank[19]. The aqueduct has since been washed away by the rushing river; a great example of the Mohawk River’s natural fury constantly testing manmade infrastructure. In the early 1900’s the need for a larger canal, to accommodate increasingly larger vessels, was apparent. In some locations the Erie Canal was enlarged to become part of the Barge Canal; at Little Falls the original canal footprint was deserted and the Mohawk River was expanded to become part of the Barge Canal. Lock 17, at an impressive 40.5 feet high, has replaced the original lock series at Little Falls and is functional to this day[20]. Visible remnants of the Erie Canal and aqueduct still stand as a reminder of the River’s persistent strength, and man’s sequential engineering feats to tame the waters of the Mohawk River.

Conclusion

Little Falls, New York holds a piece of American History that tells a story of nature and man coming together to achieve great things. William Henry Bartlett and other traveling artists have played an important role in this part of the nation’s early history. Artistic representations, like this sketch of Little Falls, provide an opportunity to reflect and interpret that past. The natural landscape, the physical location, and the infrastructure that Bartlett captured are all instrumental building blocks of the town of Little Falls and the American story.


  1. Alexander M. Ross, “Bartlett, William Henry,” University of Toronto, 1985. http://www.b iographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=3768
  2. Nathaniel Parker Willis, American scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature (Vol 2). (London: George Virtue, 1840), 40.
  3. Geoffrey Childs & Gary Thomann, A Climbing Guide to Moss Island, Little Falls, NY (Single Track Publishing, 2012), 3.
  4. James F Davis, Geologic Map of New York. (New York State Museum and Science Service, 1970).
  5. Y. W. Isachsen, Geology of New York: A Simplified Account. (Albany: The New York State Department of Education, 2000), Chapter 13.
  6. David Krutz, “Evolution of Little Falls Waterways,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/
  7. National Parks Service, National Natural Landmarks. U.S. Department of the Interior. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nnlandmarks/state.htm?State=NY
  8. W. Mayer, The History of Transportation in The Mohawk Valley. (Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 1915), 218.
  9. Edward Cooney, “Little Falls, Chartered 1811.” Three Rivers HMS, 2003. http://threerivershms.com/lf.htm
  10. Edward Cooney, “Little Falls, Chartered 1811.” Three Rivers HMS, 2003. http://threerivershms.com/lf.htm
  11. David Krutz, “Evolution of Little Falls Waterways,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/
  12. W. Mayer, The History of Transportation in The Mohawk Valley. (Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 1915), 218.
  13. Edward Cooney, “Little Falls, Chartered 1811.” Three Rivers HMS, 2003. http://threerivershms.com/lf.htm
  14. Patricia Stock, “Along The Towpath,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/#toggle-id-2
  15. David Krutz, “Evolution of Little Falls Waterways,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/
  16. Nathaniel Parker Willis, American scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature (Vol 2). (London: George Virtue, 1840), 40.
  17. Edward Cooney, “Little Falls, Chartered 1811.” Three Rivers HMS, 2003. http://threerivershms.com/lf.htm
  18. W.W. Hughes, “History of the Mohawk Valley.” Schenectady History Digital Archive, 2018 http://www.schenectadyhistory.org/resources/mvgw/history/125.html
  19. David Krutz, “Evolution of Little Falls Waterways,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/
  20. David Krutz, “Evolution of Little Falls Waterways,” Little Falls Historical Society Museum, 2017 https://littlefallshistoricalsociety.org/museum-exhibit/little-falls-waterways/

License

Share This Book