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Liquid Highways: Rivers, Lakes and Streams

Map of New York in 1778 – Fort Ticonderoga

Long before any footpath or rutted wagon road was extended into the wilderness of the Upper Hudson, nature had already carved a system of natural highways. Two great watersheds: the Hudson River and Lake Champlain, and the network of creeks and rivers that feed them, were guiding the migrations of fish, fowl and other wildlife when the first human stepped into the landscape.

Hudson River

The Hudson River—so broad and majestic that early Europeans explorers believed it might be the route to the Far East, helped to define the way North America was populated, beginning when Native Americans first settled this fertile valley thousands of years ago. Muhheakunnuk—great waters constantly in motion, was the name given to the river by the Native people who populated its banks in the seventeenth century. Henry Hudson, who explored and claimed the river for the Dutch in 1609, called it the River of Mountains.

The Upper Hudson flows for 162 miles from its source, Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks, to tidewater at Troy. The “lonely pool, shivering in the breezes of the mountains” was only discovered as the source of the mighty Hudson by surveyor Verplanck Colvin in 1872. From Troy to New York City, the Hudson River is a 153-mile estuary, subject to tidal flow. Shad, herring, bass and salmon once ran up the Hudson and its tributaries north of Troy, before a series of dams built to control the river blocked the way

Even before the dams were built, rapids prevented unimpeded boat travel at the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson River near Waterford and Cohoes. Farther north, falls at Fort Miller, Crocker’s Reef and Baker’s Falls, where the river drops 80 feet over the course of a mile, create further impediments. These falls, while unnavigable, were essential to the flourishing eighteenth- and nineteenth- century industries that derived their power from them.

Portages around the falls were called “carrying places.” Native Americans established portages at Fort Miller (the little carrying place) and Fort Edward (the great carrying place). A long portage could be made from the Hudson River to navigable tributaries of Wood Creek and on into Lake Champlain. The Champlain Canal later followed the route of this portage, completing the connection of the Hudson with Lake Champlain by water. It was then that industry, powered by the rivers and falls, could ship its products: wood, textiles, stone, ore, and paper, to markets in Montreal, New York City and beyond.

Lake Champlain

The Lake Champlain basin was defined with help from the glaciers and ancestral waterbodies: the Iapetus Ocean, Lake Vermont and the Champlain Sea. The final retreat of the Laurentide glacier some 12,000 years ago allowed water from the St. Lawrence estuary to flow into the Champlain Basin, forming the salty Champlain Sea. Once relieved of the weight of the glacier, the land rebounded and rose, cutting the supply of seawater. Rainwater and steady drainage from the surrounding uplands gradually turned the lake from salt to freshwater. Around 9,000 years ago, Lake Champlain was formed.

The 133-mile-long freshwater lake drains from South Bay and the headwaters at Wood Creek north to the Richelieu River in Quebec, and on into the St. Lawrence River. The South Bay and southern end of the lake are river-like, and lined with “drowned lands”: marshes that support an array of wildlife, including ducks, frogs, salamanders and the northern pike, which spawns in the protection of the marsh waters.

Wood Creek

Wood Creek drains the northern end of Washington County into Lake Champlain at Whitehall. The earliest attempts at cutting a canal across the traditional portage route between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River were made at Wood Creek. The creek was partially dredged and “canalized” to accommodate boat traffic in the early nineteenth century. Later, the Champlain Canal paralleled Wood Creek’s route to the lake.

Batten Kill

From its headwaters in Vermont, the 50-mile-long Batten Kill winds its way west through some of the most fertile farmland in Washington County, New York, before emptying into the Hudson River upstream from Schuylerville. Sometimes it is called the Battenkill River—“kill” is an early Dutch word for a small waterway. The narrow, shallow river is revered by fly-fishing enthusiasts—brown trout and brook trout are favorite catches.

Fish Creek (Fish Kill)

On the southern edge of Schuylerville, Fish Creek empties into the Hudson River, not far south of the Batten Kill’s mouth on the opposite shore of the Hudson. Nathaniel Sylvester, writing about Saratoga County during the late 1800s, referred to the intersection of the Batten Kill and Fish Kill with the Hudson at Schuylerville as a “wilderness four corners.” Native Americans relied on these waterways for transportation, making this confluence a major intersection for travel in the cardinal directions. With a portage around the falls, Native Americans could paddle Fish Creek to its source at Saratoga Lake, another important East-West route in the extensive network of navigable waterways in the region.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Philip Schuyler’s successful plantation relied on the rich natural resources available at the wilderness four corners. Fish Creek powered flaxseed oil and later linen mills, part of Schuyler’s rural empire. Victory Mills, southwest of Schuylerville, boomed with textile and paper mills during the nineteenth century.

Hoosic River

The Hoosic flows from Massachusetts and Vermont through the broad, fertile farmland of Rensselaer and Washington counties in New York, before emptying into the Hudson at Schaghticoke, opposite Stillwater. The fish-rich Hoosic and its tributaries were once lined with Mohican and Abenaki encampments. The salmon that migrated up the Hoosic to the Owl Kill in Cambridge were an important protein source in the Native diet. Some of the richest early Native American archaeological sites in the area have been documented on the terraces above the Hoosic River.

By the early nineteenth century, the falls along the Hoosic’s route powered mills that brought prosperity to the towns growing up around them, especially Hoosick Falls and Schaghticoke.