From the earliest days of North American civilization, the Mohawk River Valley was a crucial trade route between the Atlantic Ocean and the North America’s interior via the Great Lakes. Montgomery County held the key to that path because the only natural gap in the Appalachian Mountains – known as “The Noses” – lay in Canajoharie.
As early as 1768, various canals were proposed to make the passage to the west easier and safer for trade products and settlers. In 1808, New York’s legislature funded a survey for a canal that would follow the Mohawk and connect to Lake Erie. On July 4, 1817, Governor Dewitt Clinton broke ground for the construction of what was sarcastically referred to as “Clinton’s Big Ditch.”
When it was completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. Eighteen aqueducts carried the canal over ravines and rivers, through 83 locks with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, floating boats carrying up to 30 tons of freight. A 10-foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for the horses and/or mules which pulled the boats.
Not only people, but ideas and passions flowed along this 40-foot wide man-made stream. The canal spurred industrialization and immigration in the Mohawk Valley and opened the Midwest to settlement and trade.
The New York Central Railroad also followed a course through the Mohawk Valley, making it a prime location for new industries in the United States. Some historians maintain that the valley’s influence on migration, transportation, industrialization and commerce made it possible for New York City to become a world power and made New York “The Empire State.”
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Amsterdam was the Rug City – second only to Philadelphia in the production of carpets. It also had factories that used the broom corn that grew on the islands and flats of the Mohawk River in Fort Johnson, Fort Hunter, Fultonville and Amsterdam to make brooms.
Arkell and Smith in Canajoharie produced the first bag for sugar and flour made of paper, rather than cotton or other fibers. There were also factories for shoes, shirts, cooking oil, paper, iron, clothes wringers, soap, springs, coffins, socks, wagon hubs, underwear and buttons.
In 1865, the population of Amsterdam was 5,135. By 1920, it was 33,524. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a destination for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, drawn by the chance for work in the factories. Today, travelers from far and wide cruise the smooth waters of the Erie Canal, enjoying the activities of the river while reliving more than 450 years of American history in sights and scenes along the way.