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
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
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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