Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Books and/on/by the Erie Canal (Part I): Cohoes

Swinging by Spindle City

Do you ever wonder: "what is that place about?" Let me explain. I grew up in the Hudson River Valley, among dozens, if not hundreds of towns, cities, hamlets, and single-person postal codes (well, not completely true, even if the locale of "Sundown" once had a population countable on
two hands). Many of them I've heard of, many I've visited. But still, there are so many places in this world, so many just in my own "valley," that I never had the chance to visit them all. And forget about getting to know these places intimately. Well, one of these locations, places, spots on the earth, was the town of Cohoes, near Albany. I know that I'd been to it peripherally, driven through or by it, stopped at a gas station there once in a forgotten timescape. But I had been interested in all thing "Erie" (and especially "Erie Canal") during my summer trip east. I'd read a history of the Erie Canal's construction called "Bond of Union," which I spoke of in an earlier blog (see: "Books in Airports"). And I wanted to contextualize my readings and studies by actually going to the physical places of history. That's how I like to work.

So it was an absolutely splendid surprise for me to discover that not only did the Erie Canal pass by, but "through" Cohoes (at least, historically it did). And there is much more of a story to tell about this. So let's get started.

When I drove through downtown Cohoes, I was quite surprised to find a secret little alley (actually street) of historical architectural artifacts. For one, there was this fine little park, with sign and fountain, detailing the Canal history. And before I get any further, the first image above, was the location of the Spindle City (or Cohoes) Historical Society. Someone might take umbrage at my saying "Cohoes Historical Society," because the name does refer to the city's fame of being a cotton-spinning capital of the Americas. Or, at least it once was. But in this square there is a lot of history. Just behind this delightful sign is the location of the former Erie Canal--I say former, because it was later re-routed slightly to the northeast. But the building you can see behind this "Canal Square" sign was once the Olan Mills (if I have that name correct), which apparently have nothing to do with the photographer of the same name. But now these mills have been converted to lofts and affordable housing. The Canal itself ran right between the present "Canal Square" and the mill, producing power to run the factory.

The mill I speak of can be seen in both these photos. Today, as you can see in the first image, is the mill now converted into housing. It is located behind the Spindle City Historical Society. The image below it is a greatly enhanced and enlarged image of the Erie Canal a century ago, when it passed right through downtown Cohoes. From this image it looked like a fine and regal thing, with nice walkways and bridges. But no more. It was rerouted to another location, filled in, and paved over. Now cars drive over the old history, buried and almost forgotten.

It may be surprising, as it was to me, that so many architectural wonders still stand in this old river and canal town. Among them is the famed Harmony Mills. Seen here in the next two photos, are the most regal structures in the town (or city) of Cohoes. The true marks of the old Spindle City: this is where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, readers! I pulled over as I was driving through town, partly because I was struck by the sheer size and magnitude of these structures, and partly because there was a curious little statue of a man in the nook of one of these buildings, and a man who appeared to be reading! Of course, I had to get a better look to see. It turns out, he isn't quite "reading," but he is holding the plans--I later discovered--of the mills themselves. The man is former owner and president of the mills, Thomas Garner, and the statue dates back to around 1852. In recent years, the building has been protected by the state preservation agencies and signs on the property advertise of coming condominium conversions. Surely, this would be a good thing for these old and venerable buildings. We'll just have to wait and see how the economy fairs.

Back in the more central part of town is the Cohoes Public Library. "Finally!" you say... "get back to the books!" So be it: but it is still important to tell the histories and stories of the locations where these many books can be found in society. The library was among the many fine surprises in this town. And one of the reasons is that the library is housed in an old Episcopal Church, which I must say, is rather beautiful inside.

Upon entering the library, there is what I consider my favorite (at times) part of the institution of public libraries in America: the book sale! Here, on old wooden shelves and cast upon by light glimmering through stained glass and lead windows, you can find the best buys of the day. I found a few great finds, but I went into the library itself, because I was intrigued by its design and appropriation as a post-church library.

And among the most startling discoveries was this--no it's not an elephant--mastodon! They have written "mastodont," which is a spelling I don't know. But perhaps they are right. I'm no judge of prehistory. I only deal in words, not bones. The term is from the Greek "breast" + "tooth" and is part of the Mammoth family.

As you can see from the description below, bones of one of these "mammoth" beasts were found in a sink hole near Cohoes more than a century and a half ago.

Among the many displays in this fine library, besides the woolen beast above, included a stuffed moose head (NOT found in a sink hole) and pieces of art, like oil paintings. The many nooks and crannies of this library were remarkable. I could not help but gaze aimlessly around the arches, fenestrations, and buttresses, all of which made me feel like I was in some quaint northern European church, and not some old industrial town in upstate New York.

Now after enjoying the likes of this local library and all of its delightful books, I found myself back on the streets of Cohoes. There were many quaint aspects to this town, which surprised me once again. For instance, this display window in a local drug store, which appeared more like some throwback apothecary.

Across the street from the apothecary/drug store was the famed Spindle City Historical Society. When I discovered that this old building (the first image on today's blog) was actually the historical society, I was thrilled. There was one problem: I couldn't figure out how to actually get in! I tried for a few minutes, only to discover the old door was ill-fitted to its frame, but was finally able to get it unstuck, and entered.

So in the next few photos you will see some of the finery of historical value. I was thoroughly impressed with the layout, design, and quantity of materials set out for one's perusal. This includes the giant, and I mean "giant" book in the next two images with the cut-out of an older man in coat tails standing oh, so charmingly before visitors.

Look at this thing! It's a book of rather great proportions and should not be played with carelessly. But it does tell some of the story of this town, its people, and their history.

On an adjoining wall, you will find a century-old map stuck and framed to the wall.

So too will you find replicas of molten iron and industrial displays portraying the life and work of local commerce back in the days of old. And yes, that molten lava-ish looking stuff is dripping carelessly onto the visitor's day book.

Now, if you ask me, this photograph seems to be more like an advertisement for some puritanical play on Victorian norms from the 1890s, than a display offering details on the life of women during the Industrial Revolution. But I thought that capturing another image of a book might mollify you readers. It was, no doubt, some long forgotten person's book, perhaps someone who milled around these parts back in the days of the now re-routed canal.

Of course, though, I must end with this fine specimen of bibliana. A relic, no doubt. And a relic of a Bible. This Bible was sitting on display in the corner of the museum. It was a tired looking thing, whose spine was nigh broken and its cover had come undone. But it sat there, like an old friend wanting to be remembered, for whatever it was that it had done, accomplished, helped out with in the world it once occupied so diligently. There are so many 19th century Bibles out there, most of which have little or no value. But they have the value of symbolizing an epoch of human progress, creativity, and adornment in the human soul. Even if this hefty, albeit broken, tome sits quietly on this antique table, quietly in an empty room with an old lady doing cross-word puzzles, quietly on a near-empty street with boarded up buildings, failing business, and barely a sign of anything promising in sight, it is still a symbol of a past: of families and communities sitting around lamp lights, singing and praying and living. Let's at least remember that.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy reading this blog. Very interesting.