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Kane's Store

The main river road of the 1790s on which the Kanes located is today a narrow lane south of Route 5S. Along its north margin the old Erie Canal, the West Shore Railroad (now abandoned), and modern Route 5S all sliced their rights-of-way through the Kane's Store complex.

Kane's store drawn by Rufus Grider
"Looking east near CANAJOHARIE N.Y. view of the Round Top, Erie Canal & W.S.R.R.. The Round top was built in 1793 by KANE Bros. It was the Warehouse & had a stone tower or shaft on the N. front two stories in height with a rounded roof. Their store was on the N. They bought Furs, Grain, Flour & Produce. Here the Indians & Trappers brought Peltries [from] as far west as Buffalo. Here FLAT & DURHAM BOATS could, when the Mohawk was high, land their freight near the store, a channel or canal ran thro. the flat from the river which can still be seen, and is shown in this picture by a line & a group of Willows. At this time Canajoharie contained only a few houses. Dr. Geo. F. Fox now resident at Cobleskill age 94, born 1792, remembers when three or four houses existed." Rufus Grider, Nov. 3, 1886.

From left to right, the Mohawk Valley floodplain with the line of the canal dug by the Kanes, the tow-path of the Old Erie Canal [now Route 5S], the Old Erie Canal, the West Shore Railroad Tracks [now abandoned and dismantled], the rolling roadway from Canajoharie to Sprakers [the main road in the 1790s, but now just a narrow lane], and the remains of old Round Top. Anthony's Nose is seen in the distance [center].
Click image to enlarge - 60KB

That remnants of the Kanes' canal and their dwelling were still visible at the turn of the century led to the rediscovery of this previously unknown site in 1989.48 Using the works of Rufus Grider, a Canajoharie art teacher who, in the 1890s, captured scenes of historic significance throughout the Mohawk Valley in dozens of detailed drawings49, it was possible to relocate the exact position from which the artist sketched 100 years earlier. It was then possible to discover the archeological remnants of the sites he drew, already a century old when he saw them.

Archibald and James Kane, brothers, established themselves in the mercantile business on the Mohawk about the year 1795 locating between the Rosebooms and the present village of Canajoharie, where one of their buildings, having an arched roof, is still to be seen. The Kanes were, for a time, the heaviest dealers west of Albany.50

...Ere long they erected a stone dwelling with an arched roof, one mile east of Canajoharie village, where had been established "Martin Van Alstine's Ferry..." At this place James and Archibald Kane continued to trade until about the year 1805. It is believed no firm in the valley ever before became so widely known. In 1799 their purchases of potash and wheat amounted to $120,000.51

The Kane dwelling, which came to be called the "round top," having a modern hip52 in the roof, is still [1878] standing. Its roof, when erected, was covered with sheet lead. It is to be hoped that this relic may be suffered to remain. A little canal which lead from the Kane store to the river is still visible, though nearly filled up and lined with willows.53

The Kane Firm was known was John Kane & Brothers. At the end of a year or two, they erected not far from Van Alstine's ferry, a stone dwelling with an arched roof covered with lead, and near it a store and several small ware-houses. The house, or the most of it, is still standing, although the roof has lost its lead and taken on a hip. They continued to trade in this place until about 1805 or 1806, and became celebrated through the entire Mohawk Valley, as the heaviest dealers in it. Much of their business between Canajoharie and Schenectady, was done in river boats, for the accommodation of which they cut a canal across the flats to the river.54

More detailed information on the canal.


Construction of the Thruway in the 1950s filled in and built over the old river channel through which the Kanes brought their boats in the 1790s, but pre-construction maps for that highway clearly show its location. The suspected site of their warehouses still exists on a fragment of the old river terrace north of Route 5S, now preserved on state lands and protected for future archeological study. South of Route 5S, and cut into the side of the escarpment along the old river road, stands the ruin of old Round Top, the stone dwelling house that distinguished itself with a hipped roof sheathed in lead.

Kane's Store by Rufus Grider Kane's Store by Rufus Grider
This pair of watercolors by Rufus Grider shows the Kane's store as it might have originally looked (left), and as it looked at the time he saw it (right).
Click image to enlarge

It also was distinguished as perhaps one of the first "casinos" in the valley, complete with all the flavor of the "Old West":

The "Round Top" came to be a favorite place to resort for card playing for the elite of this part of the valley at that time, and its night scenes of dissipation were of constant occurrence. Although rivals of the Kanes in trade, Roseboom and his partner were often inmates of the Kane dwelling on the occasions referred to. Petty quarrels at the gaming table were usually amicably adjusted, but one originating here would not down...55

In April of 1801, one of these card games erupted into an argument over a gambling debt. As the snow fell, a duel with pistols was fought in a pine grove just west of the house between Archibald Kane and his neighbor, Roseboom. Kane, who had previously lost his left hand to some unspecified accident, was shot through the right hand. But that did not prevent the combatants from returning to Round Top to resume their game of cards.56

Around 1800, as the centers of settlement shifted westward, the canals of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company opened up the Mohawk to the big Durham boats, and the newly completed turnpikes made Utica the hub for western transportation. Merchants that had begun establishing themselves there in the closing years of the 1790s started to compete successfully with the Kanes at Canajoharie. Intercepting produce coming down from the west to the Mohawk, these Utica merchants could reduce the distance to market just as newly established railheads diverted the cattle trade in that other "Old West" beyond the Mississippi a hundred years later. Happy not to have to draw their goods all the way to Canajoharie, farmers and rural producers quickly adopted Utica as the market center for shipment to Schenectady. The Utica merchants also began to run their own boatloads of imported merchandise up from Schenectady and to sell at cut rate prices, undermining the Kanes' monopoly on the valley trade. Thus in the early years of the 1800s, the Kanes shifted the bulk of their operations to Utica as the firm of Kane and Van Rensselaer. With another brother, John Kane, located strategically in New York City, the network of import and export held onto its share of the market until a monetary crisis after the War of 1812 caused the collapse of John Kane's firm in New York and with it the businesses in Canajoharie and Utica.

Kane's ruins
One of the Education Department lantern slides showing a man examining the ruins of Kane's Store, c.1911.
Click image to enlarge

But for a decade, 200 years ago, the quiet solitude east of Canajoharie was transformed into one of the foremost commercial centers in the Northeast. Now all that is left of this once great enterprize is a forgotten ruin along the old road to Sprakers. Rarely has so much history, and so much of it unique, been embodied in so small and seemingly insignificant a foundation hole. Had it not been for the dedication of Canajoharie teacher Rufus Grider to the visual recording of local history a century ago, this site might never have been discovered. Now, through the cooperative efforts of local historians and the landowner, this site will be protected and preserved for generations to come.

For more on the discovery process

 

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