More than a third of the 149-mile Mohawk River lives in Montgomery County, traveling west to east through the 10 towns to create an historic route from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Appalachian Mountains, to the Great Lakes. It is the largest of the Hudson River tributaries and was the main waterway that allowed the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy to trade furs with Dutch settlers starting in the 16th century.
Dutch entrepreneurs began gathering trade goods in North America in 1615, claiming a swath of the East Coast that ran from English Virginia to French Canada as New Netherland. To avoid arduous overland trips, the Dutch relied on the Iroquois to paddle their canoes to a trading post north of Albany, where the Mohawk emptied into the Hudson. Crossing the other direction – from the Hudson to the Mohawk – meant navigating treacherous bends, rapids and falls – and the one at Cohoes had a 70-foot drop.
In the winter of 1634-35, an intrepid young Dutchman hired as the surgeon of Fort Orange (in present-day Albany) led a party of adventurers on foot through the icy wilderness to the heart of the Iroquois confederacy. It was one of the earliest visits by Europeans to Mohawk villages. Less than three decades later, Arent Van Curler led a party of disgruntled tenant farmers 20 miles further up the Mohawk to create a community that would become known as Schenectady (from a Mohawk word meaning “near the pines.”)
The massive change for Mohawk River communities and New York City came in the early 19th century, when the Erie Canal was constructed to marry the Hudson and Mohawk for shipping, effectively connecting the Atlantic to the Great Lakes.
The Erie Canal
The most important stretch of the 363-mile canal ran through Montgomery County, where lay the only break in the Appalachian Mountains north of Alabama. It became the most historically significant canal in the United States, allowing New York City to become the commercial center of the nation. Since then, the Erie Canal has been overshadowed by railroads and highways, and some communities have paved over their portion.
The entire New York State Canal System was placed of the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, but Montgomery County recognized the treasure that spliced its verdant valley far sooner. As early as the 1950s, local activists banded together to form the the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in the Towns of Glen and Florida. In 1966, a 3.5 mile stretch of the canal in the Towns of Glen and Florida and the ruins of an aqueduct over Schoharie Creek became the only section of the old Erie Canal to be declared a National Historic Landmark.
The Erie Canal remains today a resource for pleasure, recreation and education, operating for navigation from early May to late November.