Sept. 3, Cohoes, N.Y.
Today is Becky’s birthday. Happy birthday, Becky, happy birthday Becky Girl. I love you.
Last night I left Saugerties, N.Y., after squandering most of Tuesday learning precious little about Gilded Age paper magnate W.R. Sheffield and Clovelea, the now-forlorn architectural paean he built in honor of his own vanity.
In 1882, he built his castle on the banks of Esopus Creek just south of Saugerties village. How long did he live there? I don’t know. Did he derive much satisfaction from 11,000 square feet of Gilded Age lustre? Hard to say. More about him later.
Speaking of Gilded Age industrial barons, Cohoes’ Harmony Mills was the largest cotton-mill complex in the world when it opened in 1872. The town retains a gritty industrial feel 142 years later.
I traveled circuitous path to Cohoes. Last night I worked out at the Planet Fitness in Loudonville, then endured a fitful night’s slept in the parking lot while work crews jackhammered away at the shared edifice of the Price Chopper supermaket, Planet Fitness and neighboring strip-mall stores.
Eventually I made it to Waterford, N.Y., in a desperate effort to develop a bit of intimacy with the Erie Canal. As I wrapped up a pleasant conversation with Dick Powell and Peter Kuebel at the modest offices of the Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Company, I halfheartedly asked if there was anything else around here I should see.
Powell asked if I’d seen Cohoes Falls. Never heard of it, I said.
I was less-than inspired by the suggestion. In my experience, there’s Niagara and then there’s other waterfalls, most of which fall somewhat short of spectacular. Nonetheless, in deference to Powell, and having nothing else to do, I nodded my head thoughtfully and said I’d check it out.
I steered the Behemoth onto N.Y. 32, which crosses over the Old Champlain Canal and the Erie Canal on its way out of town. Five minutes later I was in Cohoes, which, to put it nicely, appears to the ignorant visitor as a typically troubled American small town.
Signs along Mohawk Street promise Cohoes is “A Community That Cares.” This made me suspicious. The town’s website advises “no visit to Cohoes is complete without taking in a view of Cohoes Falls.” The cynic wonders why the hell one would visit Cohoes were it not for the falls.
Powell also advised me to look for the vestigial cross-section of an old Erie Canal lock that can be viewed from the left-hand corner of the parking lot across from Falls View Park. I didn’t even see the parking lot.
Turns out I’d pulled up short and parked on School Street. A sprawling hydroelectric plant loomed to my left. To my right sat tidy rows of red-brick apartment buildings which a century ago were part of Harmony Mills’ mammoth operation. Gazing to my right, I noted the Confederate flag flying from the second-floor window of 2 Cataract Street.
I stepped out onto the sidewalk, screwed my head around to the left and was flat stunned, The Mohawk River roared with primal ferocity as it poured over the cataract and tumbled downward on majestic, 100-foot plunge. I was a little embarrassed and more than a little impressed.
After my eyes and ears adjusted to its power and beauty, I began to see Cohoes Falls as perhaps the most incongruous natural wonder I’ve seen.
Imagine a national park encircled by miles and miles of barbed wire and teeming with unchecked flora, most of which appear to be unsightly weeds. The net effect is a trifle off-putting. Of course all the fencing and menacing barbs are in place to protect Brookfield Power’s hydroelectric facility from the terrorists.
Goddamn, why do they hate us so much?
Once I figured out my navigational error, I strolled up Mohawk Street and made my way to Falls View Park. It’s a nice little park, featuring an edifying array of interpretive markers and a sturdy metal stairway which descends to the riverbed. If it hasn’t rained too much recently and the water level is not too perilous, you may walk out along the riverbed. Alas, riverbed access closes daily at 5 p.m., and
it was nearly sunset.
I dutifully walked the stairs as far down as they led, scanned the historical literature and then retraced my steps. I got back in the camper and returned to Waterford. I parked along Washington Avenue in a lot adjacent to Lock No. 3 on the Erie Canal. The gate was open, and I tentatively walked across the one-lane bridge leading to the lock.
What the fuck? I thought. Where was the security here?
Since 9/11, we have me made such a fetish of security in this country. Riding the ferry to the Statue of Liberty last week, I was surprised to hear a recorded voice inform passengers that Lady Liberty is a symbol of our “freedom, opportunity, security and future.”
Security. Were Jefferson alive today, I am sure he’d say we’re all endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and persistent security.
This is just to say I found it surprising to find the locks along the Erie Canal wide-open for public scrutiny. There were no no-trespassing signs. No locked gates.
As I circumnavigated the top of the lock, I waited fearfully for a heavily armed and well-armored security trooper to bolt from the lockmaster’s shack and order me to get on my knees.
Thankfully, he never appeared. I strolled the sidewalk and gazed with admiration into the lock’s cavernous bowels. Pretty cool, I thought. All in all, a more uplifting experience than Cohoes Falls.
Tomorrow I’d be down inside that massive concrete chamber, riding the watery elevator up with Capt. Powell and his guests.