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The Harbor

The harbor in Schenectady.
Figure 6: The harbor at Schenectady as drawn by Rufus Grider in 1897 from eyewitness accounts and field observations. Click image for full display.76K

By 1792, the old harbor in Schenectady already had a significant place in the history of inland navigation. Site of the construction and staging of hundreds of batteaux attached to military expeditions during both the French and Indian War [1755-1761] and Revolution [1775-1781], this harbor was also the terminal for all commercial transport westward during the 18th century.

Prevented from shipping by water directly west from the Hudson River above Albany by the Great Cohoes Falls, forwarders16 and merchants, as well as military commanders, were forced to go overland to Schenectady, the first population center of consequence on the Mohawk River. Here they found an ideal harbor on the Binnekill, a branch of the Mohawk River that detached itself a couple miles upriver to the west, and, after running easterly, turned abruptly northward alongside the old Stockade section of the city before reentering the Mohawk. This northward stretch, protected from the ice and current of the main channel, presented a relatively safe slack-water17 harbor.

Shipping facilities were present here since the first boats ventured westward, and boatbuilding followed as a natural consequence, with boatyards spread along the river bank from the Binnekill to Front Street [now Riverside Park]. But not until the efforts of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company opened up the Mohawk/Oneida route to the larger batteaux and Durham boats in 1797 did the port at Schenectady undergo significant growth.

Soon after, large warehouses were raised along the margins of the Binnekill, often operated by firms who owned comparable warehouses at the other end of the navigation, be it Utica, Rome or Oswego.

The demand for passenger service increased as well, as settlement expanded to the west. Larger boats, which depended on the continuous channel created by Schuyler's company, now entered the system. Their increased carrying capacity required larger warehousing facilities and stimulated the wagon transport between the ports at Schenectady and Albany.

Docks or wharves18 as such were not built along the low terrace that flanked the Binnekill below the plateau on which the city stood. Instead a quay 19 or bulkhead appears to have been maintained along the waterfront which allowed boats to "nose in" and tie up to posts and from that position to be loaded and unloaded. Access was provided at either end by ramps or streets that connected to the city above. Similar ramps allowed completed batteaux, built along the Mohawk, to be slipped down into the water. No doubt Schuyler's 1792 batteau first entered the river in this same manner.

Several rope ferries crossed the Binnekill, at the south end of the harbor near the present-day Western Gateway Bridge, and the Mohawk, near the site of the old 19th century Burr Bridge at the end of Washington Street. Built in 1809, this bridge provided access to the old Mohawk Turnpike which, after 1800, began to compete with the river navigation in both efficiency and cost.

The death of the old Binnekill Harbor was signalled by the disastrous fire of 1819, which destroyed much of the waterfront and its associated warehouses. But it was not until the completion of the Erie Canal through the more southerly part of the city in 1823 that activity in the old harbor essentially came to an end.

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