Byway Origins

New York State Transportation Law Article 349-bb defines a “scenic byway” as a transportation route and adjacent area of particular scenic, historic, recreational, cultural or archeological characteristics which is managed to protect such characteristics and to encourage economic development through tourism and recreation. This is the story of the Mohawk Towpath Byway.

“Richard White-Smith proposed a byway as early as 1994, when I first started on the planning process for what became the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor,” says Karen Ingelke. White-Smith became a member of the MVHC Commission.

In May 1998 the New York State Department of Transportation called for proposals for new scenic byways. Richard identified and proposed the eastern end of MVH Corridor, specifically Schenectady to Cohoes and Waterford, as a good candidate. Karen Ingelke, the Commission’s Executive Director, suggested the “Mohawk Towpath Trail Scenic Byway” as the name, “Mohawk” to tie it with the River and the Native American influence and “Towpath” to tie in the Erie Canal and that portion of the history when draft animals provided the transportation power. Isabel Prescott, another member of the MVHCC at the time, recalls Richard White-Smith’s enthusiasm for a scenic Byway through the “…agricultural landscape linking the areas if innovation and industry at both ends.” Isabel adds that Karen Ingelke and Richard White-Smith were early advocates and the source of the vision of the Mohawk Towpath Byway.

The Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission obtained an FHWA Byway Grant to draft a corridor management plan for a byway.

Both Henrietta O’Grady and I sat on the Saratoga County Heritage Trails Committee. She represented the Town of Halfmoon and I represented the Town of Clifton Park. One of the key features of a county wide system of interlinked trails included heavily cycled Riverview Road and the Towpath Trail in the Vischer Ferry Preserve. These bicycle and pedestrian routes overlapped the proposed byway and it’s corridor. My curiosity was peeked by announcement of a public meeting to discuss the byway proposal at the Vischer Ferry Fire House on March 2, 1999. I recall that the major discussion revolved around standardization of signs: way-finding, interpretation, and recreational access signs associated with byway branding. Following the meeting I drafted and Henrietta O’Grady edited a letter of support. That letter firmly placed both Henny and I as members of the early advocacy committee.

“MVHC hosted a bus tour of the byway that included OPRHP folks, some MVHC commissioners, and interested parties along the proposed trail. There was great enthusiasm among the travelers to move forward on a corridor management plan for the byway. Barbara Henderson was the MVHCC staff person assigned to the byway project.  Isabel Prescott and Chris Callaghan were very involved during the planning period,” adds Karen Ingelke.

Barbara Henderson commuted all the way from Oswego to attend monthly advocacy committee meetings.  Her tenacity, attention to detail, and ability to inspire volunteers to contribute details, work together for a common goal, and share over political boundaries assured the project’s success.

By late 2001 Barbara had guided the advocacy committee to complete a Corridor Management Plan which was presented to the N Y S Department of Transportation.  The State Byway Advisory Committee, chaired by David H. Fasser accepted the plan and recommended that the Mohawk Towpath Byway become one of a network of New York State Scenic Byways.  Working with the area’s state legislative representatives, the advocacy committee assisted in preparing legislation, sponsored by Senator Hugh Farley and Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, which passed both houses of the State Legislature. The bill was signed into law by Governor George Pataki on July 22, 2003.

For her accomplishment Barbara Henderson was named “Mother of the Byway” by the newly constituted Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway Coalition, Inc.

Byway Humor

Life on the waterfront is tough.  One is exposed to all kinds of weather and life in the transportation industry is no more attractive today than it was a hundred years ago.  The romance of life on the canal is embellished by selective memory.

Tugboat Museum

Tugboat Frances Tericoma nudges the Pennsylvania Railroad Barge toward the guard gate above lock 6.  September 2008.

The Tugboat Frances Tericoma was tied up with its sister vessel historic Pennsylvania Railroad Barge at the Terminal Dock in Halfmoon during the summer of 2008.  Captain Steve Trueman had a vision of restoring the barge to a state that it could be a floating exhibit along the Mohawk Towpath Byway. It would be a living museum of the commerce and life on the Erie Canal from wartime (WW1) through the 1960’s.

The only sanitary facilities on the floating venue was a small, cramped head* on the tug which discharged to a holding tank below deck.  During operation as a tug even as late as the 1960s the holding tank… if there was one, was emptied legally in open water between ports-of-call.  The alternative in 2008 was a restroom in the nearby convenience store.  It became obvious after a month that the holding tank was too small for the vessel parked as a “permanent” display.  During an attempt to install a larger holding tank a spark from a welder’s torch ignited some methane and exploded the tank and contents over the below deck engine room.  No one was hurt, but the heroic effort to clean up the mess for the Byway’s mid July Board meeting as an unexpected quest of Captain Steve… a story for another day.

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* Picture an primitive version of the tourist class restroom on a commuter jet, but the small shaving mirror was hung in the galley behind the pilot house.

The Cohoes Crescent Road

- Kevin Franklin, Town of Colonie Historian

The 1842 Erie Canal is in the foreground with the towpath now the Cohoes Crescent Road between the canal and the Mohawk River. - photo from the Fonda Family Collection.

The 1842 Erie Canal is in the foreground with the towpath, now the Cohoes Crescent Road, between the canal and the Mohawk River. - photo from the Fonda Family Collection.

Originally, Cohoes Crescent Road may have been a foot path beside the south bank of the Mohawk River between the Hudson River and points west and used for centuries by Native Americans. The Native Americans knew places where the river was shallow and safe enough most times of the year to cross sides by fording through only a couple feet of water. Eventually early Europeans settled along both banks of the Mohawk River above the Cohoes Falls and used these same fording points as well.

Canal and towpath between Cohoes and Crescent

After the enlarged Erie Canal was completed in 1842 it was discovered that three mules could pull two barges more efficiently than two mules pulling one barge. Here the practice was documented on this stretch of the Erie Canal. From the Charles Holle Collection.

When the original Erie Canal was completed in 1825, a series of sixteen locks were needed between the Erie Canal basin at Albany and the canal aqueduct spanning the Mohawk River at Crescent in order to rise above the height and natural barrier of the Cohoes Falls. Known as the “Terrible Sixteen’s” as it took an entire day for a boat to pass through them all. Once above the falls, the Erie Canal wound its way along the southern bank of the Mohawk to the Crescent aqueduct where it crossed into what is now Saratoga County slightly east of where State Rt. 9 crosses today. The canal here was formed and protected by an earthen berm separating and protecting the canal bed from the waters and winter ice of the adjoining Mohawk River.

Towpath becomes Cohoes Crescent Road

Early travelers used the Erie Canal Towpath to travel between Cohoes and Crescent.
From the Charles Holle Collection.

This berm doubled as the towpath between the lock at the top of the falls to the aqueduct structure at Crescent which also supported a wagon bridge connecting both sides of the Mohawk. Being slightly longer than two miles in length, the berm eventually became known as the Cohoes Crescent Road. Early stages used this route to travel between Cohoes and points north in Saratoga County.

The Erie Canal here was abandoned by the State of New York with the construction of the new, New York State Barge Canal System of the early 20th Century. Large concrete dams were built here at Crescent raising the level of the river and obliterating the old river fords. The new Barge Canal locks at Waterford replaced the series of locks at Cohoes. The Mohawk River itself was now used by motorized canal boats. The road was eventually abandoned to the Town of Colonie. It became part of the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway in 2003.

Round Table

The Mohawk Towpath Byway participated in a very productive Tourism Roundtable Summit hosted by the Cohoes Local Development Corporation and the City of Cohoes on Friday, January 23 at the newly refurbished Cohoes Visitor Center. Cohoes Tourism RoundtableThis group shot was to memorialize the occasion and provide an opportunity for Mark Castiglione of the Hudson River Valley Greenway to present a check to the City to help with the revitalization of the Cohoes Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center now has a large open area in the center for meetings such as this. There are plans for additional movable exhibits that will stimulate local history and heritage curiosity.

Hydroelectric Power Plant

Vischer Ferry Power Plant

View of the Vischer Ferry Hydro Power plant before the 1987 expansion.

 

Under Chapter 532, Laws of 1922, the Superintendent of Public Works was authorized to develop the potential water power at the new Barge Canal dams located at Crescent and Vischer Ferry.  All Contract work at both plants was completed in 1925.

The equipment at each plant included two 2800 Kw, 0.8 power factor, 3 phase, 60 cycle, 2300 volt, 90 rpm vertical generators, each directly connected with and powered by a 4,000 horse power, reaction-type, Francis turbine.  The generators were furnished by General Electric.

NYPA logo
Both power plants were officially conveyed to the Power Authority of the State of New York on 13 March 1984 by the New York State Department of Transportation.

In 1987 the Power Authority added 6,000 kilowatts of capacity to each plant, more than doubling their capacity.  The additional electricity replaced about 3,200,000 gallons of oil annually.  The vertical turbines were purchased from Voith Hydro of York, Pennsylvania.  Both the Crescent and Vischer Ferry dams and powerhouses were rehabilitated at this time.


Stop 6 SignThis is one of several stops at key features along the Mohawk Towpath Byway.  Use your smart phone or electronic devise to learn more about the Byway.
Self Guided Tour Stops

Self Guided Tour Stops

Greetings

Holiday GreetingsHappy Holidays to the Volunteers that make the Mohawk Towpath Byway what it is today and to all of those who live, work and play within the Byway corridor.

May we all have a prosperous, exciting and rewarding New Year!

We will be celebrating our tenth year as one of America’s Byways® in 2015. Join in our festivities starting with a Family Moonlight Ski on the evening of January 1, 2015. If snow conditions do not permit we will try again on January 29, 2015.

Byway Economic Benefits

A report by one of our sister byways has found that Travelers visiting the International Selkirk Loop spend nearly $5 million in their region.  This is a 280 mile byway that loops through the Selkirk Mountains of northeast Washington, northern Idaho and southeast British Columbia.

We have the tools to make a similar study of the economic impact of the Mohawk Towpath Byway in our area.  This would make an excellent project for a student of economics.  We are accumulating data and have been for several years.  What we do know is that over the last dozen years the Byway has captured over a million dollars in federal transportation enhancement and byways grants.  We also know from similar studies that every dollar spent on our self guided cell phone based tour* of significant features on the Byway has a ten fold economic return for our communities.

If you know of a group or academic who would be interested in studying the economic impacts please let me know.  Such study would be helpful in guiding future projects, marketing, and programs.


* Press 518-649-9990 on your smart phone to sample the tour.