While heavy rains have brought destruction to many parts of the Capital Region, they have also magnified one of the area’s most beautiful spectacles. Often overlooked because of its big brother to the west, Cohoes Falls, New York’s Niagara of the east, combines not only natural wonder but also historical significance, making it a unique landmark of American history.
Records of the Falls trace back to the Mohawk Natives, who named the site “Ga-ha-oose,” Place of the Falling Canoe. According to Iroquois legend, it is the site where Deganawida, the Great Peacemaker, convinced the Mohawks to form the Iroquois Confederacy.
When the Great Peacemaker visited the Mohawks to encourage peace among the warring tribes of New York, they rejected his ideas. In order to display his spiritual power, he climbed a tree high above the Falls and commanded them to chop it down. He fell 100 feet into the swirling water and disappeared. The next morning they found the Great Peacemaker sitting before a campfire. Moved by his feat, the Mohawks became the founding tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy.
Years later, an American named Canvass White recognized a different kind of power in the Falls. An engineer who had worked on the Erie Canal, White assembled a group of local businessmen who formed a company with the intent of damming the Falls and using it as a power supply. Although the first dam was destroyed by an ice flow, they persevered for eight years, constructing a 1500-foot long dam and a series of ten canals at three different levels.
The engineering feat spurred an industrial revolution that made the city of Cohoes one of the most prominent textile producers in the country. The first Harmony Mills, constructed in 1837, employed one out of every four Cohoes residents and produced 1.5 million yards of cloth a year. Additional mills were built over the following decades, and by 1866, the city boasted the largest cotton mill in the country at 1156-feet long and five stories high.
During the excavation process of that building, workers unearthed the bones of an 11,000 year-old mastodon. The remains were found in two potholes that had been worn into the bedrock during the last ice age. The reconstructed skeleton, 8 feet tall and 15 feet long, stands on display at the NY State Museum.
In addition to its engineering and archeological history, Cohoes Falls holds a place in pop culture lore. In April 1899, daredevil Bobby Leach crawled inside a steel barrel and plunged over the Falls. His stunt not only gained much publicity but also prepared him for his plunge over Niagara Falls 12 years later.
Today, Cohoes Falls stands an impressive 75 feet high and 1000 feet wide and handles a capacity of 90,000 cubic feet of water. Falls View Park on North Mohawk Street provides a magnificent view of the historic waterfall. A 190-foot pedestrian bridge guides visitors into an amphitheater with an unobstructed view of the Falls. Interpretive signs scattered about the picnic area give historical and environmental information about the Mohawk River.
Not only can visitors view the Falls from above, but they can obtain a closer look via a staircase and pathway that allow access to the riverbed. During safe conditions, visitors may walk down into the valley and stand on the rocks within a hundred yards of the raging waterfall. A fishing platform is also accessible on the lower level.
While riverbed access is only open on weekends from 11am to 3pm, the viewing platform is open daily from 7am to dusk through November 1st. Visit the natural wonder of Cohoes Falls today, and don’t forget a camera.