Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lock Nuts

     Let's start with a riddle:

     Q. - Where can you find a summit in a valley?
     A. -  Between Lock 8 and Lock 9 of the Champlain Canal.

     Perhaps a little explanation is in order. First, what about the 'valley'? The canal is located in the Hudson/Champlain lowlands. To the northwest are the Adirondack Mountains. To the east are the Taconics. These lowlands are one small strand in a long rope called the Great Valley. It's a tectonic feature that undulates for thousands of miles along the eastern margin of the North American continent. 

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     The result of plate collisions, it is mostly floored with relatively soft, easily eroded sedimentary rocks. This in turn makes it the path of least resistance for water. In our part of the Valley, the Hudson River flows south to the Atlantic and Lake Champlain fills a basin that eventually drains north and east thru the St. Lawrence.
     But what's with the 'summit'. To understand this you have to put yourself in the boat shoes of a captain trying to cruise between the two waterways. The Hudson River below Troy is tidal, essentially at sea level. Lake Champlain has a mean surface elevation of 96.8'. That's almost 100 feet higher. 

Lock 9 looking south

     How to get from one to the other? A canal with locks should do the trick. And that's just what boaters have used for nearly 200 years. Stand at the south end of Lock 9 and you are looking at the 'summit' level of the Champlain Canal as it climbs up from the Hudson and over the watershed divide before descending to the level of Lake Champlain north of Whitehall. The pool of water between Locks 8 and 9 has an elevation of ap. 140'. For boats, this is the summit. It's all downhill from here. 

Google Earth screen shot with the canal splitting the image and Lock 9 below center 

     Lock 9 is located in the Town of Kingsbury, west central Washington County. There is an access road between the railroad tracks and the Rt. 149 bridge over the canal. This area is called Smiths Basin and much like yours truly, it ain't what it used to be. The area gets its name from Ezekiel Smith, a businessman who operated a store and hotel here after the canal opened in 1822. On page 433 of Johnson's History of Washington County, New York there are portraits of Smith and his rather dour looking Mrs. above a lithograph of his home, store and outbuildings. Take note of the house because if you visit Smiths Basin you'll be surprised to see that it's still there. A little the worse for wear but still standing and easily recognizable. 



     Unfortunately the same can not be said for a beautiful little train station that used to stand between the Smith house and the tracks. It was demolished in the '60's. Also nearby is a two-grade school house that was shuttered when the winds of consolidation blew thru - also in the '60's. Look around Smiths Basin today and it's hard to imagine a time when this was a bustling hub of commerce and shipping with 150 residents.

Even the sign could use a little help

     Look for a waterfall on the opposite side of the canal from where the access road begins. This is Big Creek, which drains much of the neighboring Town of Hartford. There's a small parking lot used by people who fish here. Notice the attractive two tone paint of the Rt. 149 bridge. In November, 2016 a group of construction workers fell from scaffolding into the canal while painting the bridge.  Tragically, one of them drowned.

     It's about a half mile drive in to the lock. The grounds are attractive and well-maintained. There is a long boardwalk for docking and fishing as well as several picnic tables. By following a catwalk across the canal you can access the east side. This is actually an island formed by the canal and Wood Creek. Walk around and you'll see several spillways, all part of the engineering that turned a small natural waterway into a route large craft can navigate. On the north end of the island you can see a level bed leading to abutments on either side of Wood Creek. This used to be a railroad spur that served a quarry/lime kiln industry about a half mile to the east.

     Take particular note of the trees on the island. They look like Black Walnuts to me. I'm familiar with Butternuts and field guides show only small differences between the two related species. In fact, one of the trees here does look more 'butternutty'. I'ld love verification from someone with more botanical acumen than myself. 

     Black walnuts are highly prized for their wood and you don't see many of them anymore. Hopefully their location in the canal park will keep these trees protected. I'm sure the local squirrels would concur. 

     In addition to the nut trees you'll see rows of Northern White Cedar, groves of Black Locust, huge Cottonwoods and at least one Catalpa along with a mix of other common hardwoods. While the underlying bedrock is shale, I have a hunch that the nearby proximity of limestone and the history of a lime industry with associated dust and spillage could make this an interesting place for botanizing. I hope to return next spring/summer.

     The canal season is winding down. It is drained and closed to boating during the winter. But people can visit the park year-round. As I was leaving, a family had just arrived. The dad was organizing bait, tackle and poles. Two 'born ready' young boys couldn't wait for the action to begin. One was swinging his line with treble hooked lure in big arcs. I gave him a wide berth. The other boy kept opening the truck door causing the horn alarm to go off. Their mom, sensible woman that she was, sheltered in the front seat, with phone to ear. 
     Walking by the harried dad, I remarked, "Looks like those fish are in big trouble." He just shook his head with a rueful chuckle. All I could think of was the old Harry Chapin song 'Cats in the Cradle'. I hope these boys grow up just like their devoted dad. I hope they bring their own kids (and grandpa) fishing on the canal someday. 


     Easy was the operative word. A relaxed, easy bike ride. That's what we wanted. Holly had already gone for a long run earlier in the day. She was feeling a little worked. And I have been spending more time with tractor seats than bike saddles. Not in the best of shape. Still, it was a rare sunny afternoon that we both had free so I tried to come up with a hill-less route. That's not easy in Washington County but the Tour de Smiths Basin comes close.

     From the Lock 9 access road we pedaled across the tracks, past the Smith house and onto Towpath Road. It's gravel but firm enough for road bike tires. There is still a little water in the old 1822 canal ditch but it's inexorably filling in. We rolled along at a pace just a little faster than that of the mules who used to pull canal boats along here.

Along the towpath

     A left onto New Swamp Road took us up and over the modern canal, past some beef cows and a haunted house. This is the Great  Kingsbury Swamp where an 1801 'circle  hunt' finished off the last pack of wolves that had been preying upon farmer's livestock. It's low, flat and wet here but there have been attempts to drain it and you can see deep ditches. We stopped at the Wood Creek crossing and considered the paddling possibilities. It looks doable. Native Americans used it. Maybe we'll follow in their tracks next summer.

Wood Creek

     After several abrupt right-left-right turns the road rises a little to an intersection with Rt. 196. This is a much busier highway but it's just a short ways east to the Adamsville four corners where we turned left onto Co. 43. This is a scenic road with views of the Adirondacks to the west and a few glimpses of the Taconic hills to the east. It's a rolling route thru farm country with nothing steep or challenging. Just right. 
      Eventually the road curves around a large dairy farm and a wooded hill rises on the right. The hill is a big chunk of limestone thrust up onto younger shale rock. You soon pass the narrow notch of an access road cut thru the shale into a limestone quarry. This hill provided the stone that fueled five kilns and a large industry from 1882 to 1925. Just before Co. 43 crosses Big Creek and intersects Rt. 149 you can see a bank of eroding lime and charcoal. Just a small reminder of the bustling activity that once took place here.

     It's a short ways back across the canal to the access road. The loop can be done in a leisurely hour or so. We encored our ride with a stroll beneath the nut trees of Lock 9, grateful for a little November sunshine and some beautiful countryside to explore.

There's an association for that...

     Want to know more about growing nut trees? Try this site.       

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Born Again

     "Mammas don't let your babies grow up to be archeologists..."

     OK, maybe that's not quite how the lyrics go in the old Ed Bruce song that became a hit for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. But after reading Archeology in the Adirondacks - The Last Frontier, it seems like good advice. In his latest book, David R. Starbuck details excavating a privy; "Inside the privy house it was hot, there were cobwebs everywhere, my lungs were filling with fine powder - probably a mix of lime and decomposed excrement..." Then there's the story of the exhumation of Jane McCrea, done while being heckled by irate protesters (and of returning two years later to do it again). Another charming anecdote involves archeology in a hog house where "we found hundreds of bone fragments from pigs. There bones had been burned as part of the fuel when pig heads were rendered in the cauldron atop the stove..." Or how about 'garbology' (use your imagination), just one more reason to steer your wee little ones away from the profession. I could go on and on but you get the picture. Archeology isn't quite as glamorous as the Indiana Jones flicks would lead you to believe.

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     David Starbuck is probably the best-known archeologist in the local area. Indeed, he may be the only archeologist many people know. Lots of folks have volunteered on his digs at Rogers Island in Fort Edward and at Fort William Henry in Lake George. He's written over a dozen books on his finds and the latest volume could be seen as a synthesis of his experiences and insights over a long career.

David Starbuck digs deeper - web image

     He makes it clear that this is not meant to be a comprehensive or scholarly tome on the archeology of the Adirondacks. What it is, is a smorgasbord taste of discoveries and ongoing work in such diverse fields as Native Americans, forts and battlefields, industrial ruins and rural farmscapes.

     The only Washington County references are of Rogers Island in Fort Edward and Jane McCrea's grave in Hudson Falls. But his sentiments about the Starbuck family farm in Chestertown (Warren County) certainly apply to many rural property owners in Washington County, "...retaining a sense of place and preserving memory are the ultimate measures of success in the preservation field. What is at stake is the very heart and soul of a family farm, both its past and its future."

A family farm - a memory worth preserving

     The author concludes his book with 'What does the future hold?' where he opines on untapped possibilities for archeology in the North Country. It got me thinking about places in Washington County that might be rewarding to explore. How about the site of the Vita Spring bottling plant in rural Fort Edward or the area around the Hogtown blast furnace? Maybe there are artifacts from Philip Embury's life at the corner of Eagleville Road and Rt. 313 where he built a small cabin and there is a family cemetery. And the old marble mill on the Battenkill at Rexleigh has a long history that could make it an interesting and productive site. Come to think of it, Mammas do let your babies grow up to be archeologists - we're going to need more of them. 

The Rexleigh Marble Mill on the Battenkill - Web image

     The archeology bug must have bitten me twice because as soon as I put down Starbuck's book, I picked up Shays' Settlement in Vermont - A Story of Revolt and Archaeology by Stephen D. Butz.
( Confused? Apparently the word can be correctly spelled with 'eo' or 'aeo'. I simply adopted each book's usage.) I've posted about the Shays' project before but now seems a good time for an update.

     In 2013 Butz became intrigued by the possibility that the leader of the 1787 Shays Rebellion had sought refuge on Egg Mountain, which is located in Vermont but accessed from Salem on the New York side of the border. Butz's curiosity lead to ongoing investigations, an archaeological field school, many public presentations, a web site and his book.

Students at the archaeological field school - image from their web site

     Shays Settlement in Vermont was published in 2017 and is an informative mix of text, photos, illustrations and maps. The author alternates chapters of historical research with chapters of archaeological findings. I was struck by how written records in tandem with material artifacts paint a more complete picture of the past than either individually. Butz's skills as a historian, archaeologist and writer are impressive. I highly recommend his book.

Teacher and student - image from Butz's website

     Recently the land where Shays' Settlement is located has been purchased by The Conservation Fund. They are continuing to support Butz's work as did the previous landowner. Hopefully there will be public access at some point in the future - an exciting prospect for history buffs and the Village of Salem, which would be the gateway to the site. 

Triple play...

     While reading the two books I learned of a Mills on the Kill exhibit at the Salem Courthouse. Judy Flagg had help from Sally Brillion in pulling together information, photos and artifacts that document past and present industry along the Battenkill. Elizabeth Cockey contributed artwork that nicely complements the historical material.

     About a dozen sites are mentioned with some hosting several industries over the years. The H&V plants at Center Falls and Clarks Mills are still operating as are several hydroelectric facilities. Almost all the sites are private but many can be viewed from roads, bridges or a canoe on the river. Buildings, foundations, dams and equipment are the archeological clues to past economies and lifestyles. There was a time when most of what you needed was made by your neighbors, right in your community. Now it's made in China and sold in a Dollar General chainstore.

Once an East Greenwich mill, now someones home by the water

Foundations and machinery of the old Eagleville Woolen Mill - photo from a real estate offering

     While the exhibit has closed at the Salem Courthouse, there is another chance to catch it at The Georgi in Shushan on the weekend of November 10 & 11.

     I use high-tech skid steers in a post and beam barn that was built by craftsmen in 1887. That's over 130 years ago. I mow and bale with modern John Deere tractors equipped with power shifts, computers and air conditioning. But from the cabs I can look down into hedgerows at old, rusty machines left by those who worked this same ground with horses and oxen. We are simply the current occupants of any given place. There will be other people here in the future and there has been people here for thousands of years into the past. Archeology finds what they have left behind, tells a little of their story. In a small way it allows them to be born again. 

Dig this...

    * Info on Rogers Island Visitor Center/SUNY Adirondack archaeological field school here.

     * Link to NYS Archaeological Association with two local chapters here. 

     * Check out Shays' Settlement Project here.

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