Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Waterway Gone Underground: Schenectady's Cowhorn Creek


Local youths gather to watch workers pipe Cowhorn Creek, southeast of the present-day intersection of State Street and Broadway, in this photograph circa 1896. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

When we speak of Schenectady County waterways, the first that spring to mind are the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. But there are also a number of streams that flow -- and sometimes trickle -- throughout Schenectady County. In the city itself, a number of creeks were piped during the period of Schenectady's industrialization and large-scale expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. This is the case with Schenectady's Cowhorn Creek, which flowed out of Iroquois Lake in Central Park, through downtown Schenectady, and into Mill Creek, before emptying into the Mohawk River.

In this 1698 map of Schenectady by Wolfgang Roemer, reprinted and annotated in Susan Staffa's Colonial Maps of Schenectady, shows Mill Creek/Cowhorn Creek flowing off of the Binnekill south of present-day State Street.

The earliest European settlers used the area's creeks to power mills. A 1698 map of the settlement at Schenectady shows a mill on the creek, very near a brewhouse constructed on the north side of the creek. As Schenectady expanded and its population grew, creeks that ran through the city became increasingly polluted by garbage and waste and presented a public health concern. Robert V. Wells, in his book Facing the "King of Terrors:" Death and Society in An American Community, 1750-1990, refers to the creeks that ran through the city as being "little better than open sewers" at the close of the nineteenth century. Initially, the city tried to make property owners along Cowhorn Creek responsible for keeping the creek clean, before taking responsibility for piping and covering Cowhorn Creek in 1896.

Cowhorn Creek comes to the surface inside scenic Vale Cemetery, as seen in this photograph by Paula Lemire in 2013. A portion of Cowhorn Creek was dammed to create a pond in the cemetery. Image obtained from http://gardenalley.net/vale.html.

Today, the Cowhorn Creek still flows, but it flows in pipes underground, beneath businesses on State Street. Cowhorn Creek does make an above-ground appearance in Vale Cemetery, where it enhances the beauty of this historic cemetery. Visit our Library or send an email to our Librarian to find other resources to explore the history of Schenectady County's waterways.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your information on Cowhorn Creek and Vale Cemetery. Growing up in Schenectady in the 40's and 50's much of my time was spent playing in Vale Cemetery either from the State Street south side, or the Eastern Avenue north side.In the 50's my family lived on White Street parallel to Eastern Avenue. My dad said a spring ran under our property perhaps running into Cowhorn Creek which, I think, was above ground for a bit at the foot of the Lomaseny Avenue Hill. In the 20's and on my dad and uncle can recall memories of playing in Vale Cemetery near the Prospect Hill neighborhood. They played hockey on the pond. Because of my Vale Cemetery experience, I have always loved cemeteries. I now live in the Buffalo area, and Forest Lawn Cemetery is a real treat!

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    1. Thanks for the comment and for sharing a bit of your childhood!

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