I have had an unexpectedly difficult time getting this post right, but today found a place to start. It’s a physical place, up on the hill here in Cohoes, and I have been looking for it for a while because it is a sort of portal into time.
But first some general background.
A northern mill town
Today, this modern picture of the village of Cohoes bears some resemblance to how it must have looked in the 19th century (if one overlooks the colorful aluminum siding, electric wires and automobiles, of course). There is the steeple of, I believe, the old Methodist church on Remsen Street to the right (newly refurbished this summer!), while the square and sturdy Catholic church steeple is off in the distance. On the left, a big building left over from the old mill days hides all but the highest pinnacle of City Hall and its American flag.
There are a lot of these former mill towns and villages scattered throughout the Northeast, and the lucky ones have been able to preserve something of their past while making it pay for itself with tourist dollars.
Cohoes is something special, though. With their location at the junction of two major rivers (the Mohawk and the Hudson), businessmen here could harness a lot of hydropower. They used it for something big: textile mills.
Cotton fabric is something we don’t even think about today, but our ancestors had to work their way from the leather clothing described in Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” set in what is now central New York State, through the homespun garments of flax and sheep’s wool that newly minted Americans wore with pride after the revolution to show their independence from the old country, to commercially produced textiles that began appearing as knitting mills were built and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin around the turn of the 19th century.
It’s all so old-timey – until you come across a solid reminder of just how important this was to people back then.
The inscription on this memorial sign placed in 1929 is lengthy, but gives the gist of the thing: “FIRST POWER MILL for the MANUFACTURE OF KNIT FABRICS – Erected in 1843, by Egberts & Bailey Inventors of the power knitting machine in 1832. Hand operated knitting machines were invented by Rev William Lee of England in 1589 and were condemned by Queen Elizabeth and the British Parliament. Constant attempts to apply power to these machines failed until the ingenuity of Cohoes inventors solved the problem. From this mill the knitting industry spread worldwide.”
The Civil War connection
King Cotton ruled the South once upon a time. It was harvested mostly by slaves. I got a vivid reminder of that a few years ago, when I was talking with a cab driver and his friend (who were black) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
As I was from the north, it amazed me to see cotton growing on a stem and the fields in the hot summer weather looking like snow had fallen. The two men very politely but firmly cut off my “gee whizzes” with one comment: “You didn’t have to go out and pick it all day.”
No. No, I didn’t.
Up in the North, the mills that turned bales of cotton from the South into the new and very profitable commercial fabric – mills that in Cohoes ran on water power from two rivers and the Erie Canal – could make the few men that owned them as rich, say, as Smith Coffee Daniell, II, a planter in Mississippi who between 1859 and 1861 built Windsor, the largest house of its day, on his 2,600-plus-acre plantation. (Note: Link is to PDF file.)
Here in Cohoes, 19th century businessmen and investors built a complex, called Harmony Mills, so vast that it will require its own post. Cohoes became a company town, and the powers that were saw to it that the Erie Canal ran right by the mill, bringing in raw materials and taking out to market the finished product. A few canals ran into parts of Cohoes, too, and that brings me to my discovery today.
Lock 14 of the old Erie Canal in Cohoes
I first saw this image on a sign in the little park in the Harmony Mill Historic District this past summer. The image is from a turn-of-the-20th-century postcard.
It took a little while, but I finally placed this general location in modern Cohoes. The canal is gone, covered with a road and buildings, including a bowling alley, as this stitched image from late August shows relatively clearly:
It doesn’t look right, does it? Of course not, as it wasn’t taken from the original point of view.
It also looks so humdrum and plain today. Where is the past? Where are the echoes of Cohoes’ past glory here, dating back to the intensely emotional and deadly times during America’s Civil War?
Portal in time
I can’t answer those questions.
We constantly walk over the same ground others used in the past, and we don’t know it at all the way they did, for we are different from them.
Sometimes it’s important to look for the past, though, especially in this case, because it’s the anniversary of the Civil War we are talking about. Reenactors will never appear here, but the Cohoes mill machinery and people that made the fabric out of Southern cotton in the 19th century might also have been knitting the fabric of our nation back then – it was that fundamental and important. And that fabric was violently torn, ripped almost completely in two.
Then, after the war, when cotton from a devastated South was presumably very cheap, the Harmony Mills of Cohoes reached a point of development in which a bale of cotton would enter the building at end, while finished textile would exit the building from the other end. Cohoes profited from the war’s final result. How should we feel about that today?
Another unanswerable question.
Today, in the rain, while I was walking down that hill on a mundane errand, something clicked. I had seen something of the old setting that had appealed to the postcard artist – the shape of the hill in the background, the fence along the side of the canal/road, and other subtle hints.
After much maneuvering around and waiting for traffic to pass, as the exact point is a bit out in the modern road now, I found the exact point where that artist had once stood. Just briefly today, I experienced a connection between past and present, a sense of unity between this area as it was during the Civil War and the way it is today.
And that is part of what anniversaries are about…lest we lose our sense of place in the fabric of time.
Categories: American Civil War