Sunday, August 15, 2010

Walking and Remembering Tour: The Erie Canal in Cohoes and the Ghosts of Child Laborers

On a lovely Friday evening in August, the Spindle City Historical Society sponsored a walking tour of the ruins of the Erie Canal in Cohoes.  Our knowledgeable guide took us down pathways hidden to me when I was a child. The paths were there in the 1950s and 1960s but I never saw them and never realized their significance.  Of course in the 1960s,  the main basins and many other areas of the canal were just cesspools filled with algae and discarded appliances.  Today Cohoes has cleaned up and filled in the channel downtown, excavated around the Harmony Mills and erected signs to help us remember. Walk and remember, walk and remember....that is all that exists today...a walk and a remembrance of those before us whether they were French Canadians, Irish, Polish, Eastern Europeans.

Our guide explained how, when the original canal was widened and rerouted, the original beds became the "power canals" to run the looms inside the textile mills. Inside the mills, mainly children, teens, and young women worked the looms. Cohoes was full of young children enumerated on census records and working in the mills.  If you were from Cohoes, there is a good chance at least one of your ancestors was a child laborer in the textile mills.  Even after the heyday of the Harmony Mills, child laborers continued to work in the garment factories.  My mother left grammar school when she was 12 years old during "The Great Depression" to sew collars on shirts.  She never completed the 8th grade and was always over compensating for that fact in her life.

If you are ever interested in learning more about the children working in the textile factories, you can read Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop.  This book is intended for young readers, but adults will relish it if they are interested in the history of child labor in textile manufacturing.  Also, for readers with Cohoes-Hoosick Falls-Pownal, VT connections, there is Joe Manning's search for the heroine in the book's cover photo, detailed in six chapters on Mr Manning's website, starting at Search for Addie

There are many Ghosts of Cohoes and they are mainly children.

Our guide to the ruins of the Erie Canal with the towpath and filled in canal behind her.

Another area of the original canal in the vicinity of Lock #16, now filled and mowed.

The canal along Harmony Street

Soon the tour becomes a capsule history lesson about the Erie canal, the textile mills, and how this small landscape fueled the Industrial Revolution, the economic growth of a small nation, and the westward expansion of the United States....

The original Harmony Mill built in 1837 by Peter Harmon

Another view of the original Harmony Mill

Remains of Lock #16

Interior of Lock #17


These individuals standing inside the basin help to understand the size of the Lock #17.

A section of Lock #18 which is directly across from the new Cohoes Falls Overlook Park

At the end of the evening walk we could check out the new Cohoes Falls Park and enjoy the views
A view of Cataract Street

The Spindle City Historic Society has pamphlets for self guided walking tours of the Erie Canal in Cohoes and the Harmony Mills Historic District available in their museum downstairs in the Cohoes Music Hall on Remsen Street.  It is worth checking out the exhibits if you are fortunate enough to visit when they are open.

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