History of the Town of Schaghticoke

the results of research about the history of the town of Schaghticoke

Schaghticoke Point: 19th Century Boomtown

I have been working on the contents of what follows for several months. It has been hard to make the decision to publish, as I feel I will find more information. But I could work on it forever! I know I have shared information before on the industrial revolution in Schaghticoke, beginning about 1800, but I don’t feel I have emphasized it enough- and, as you will see, I have a lot more to say. To prepare for this I visited two great museums: the National Park at Lowell, Massachusetts,(www.nps.gov/lowe/) and Hanford Mills Museum at East Meredith, NY (www.hanfordmills.org). I wanted to really understand the operation of mills, from water to finished products, and both places let the visitor see that in action. I recommend both places to you. Hanford Mills is near Oneonta, very accessible to us. Lowell is filled with textile mills and the canals and machinery needed to operate them. Hanford Mills has a grist and saw mill plus several other wood working machines which operate off the same water wheel, or with a steam boiler.

Hanford Mills, East Meredith, NY

Hanford Mills, East Meredith, NY

In the past I have written about the industrial revolution in the town of Schaghticoke. Now I think it’s hard for us to imagine the gorge of the Hoosic River at the village of Schaghticoke filled with mills of various kinds, the village populated with mill workers, who lived, worked, and shopped in their village. I would like to return to that topic, to try to describe what the mills were like, and imagine the work of the citizens of the village. The Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy owns boxes and boxes of the papers of Richard Hart, whose home on Second Street the society occupies. Richard was a busy entrepreneur in the early 19th century, and one of his major projects was to purchase and operate the mills at Schaghticoke Point, now the village of Schaghticoke. His local partner was Amos Briggs, an immigrant to Schaghticoke from Rhode Island. In the future I plan to write much more about Amos, but for now I’ll stick to the mills. The Hart Papers cover a wide range of activities at the mills. I will draw on inventories made of several mills as Hart was planning to purchase them, leases of various mills, record books covering extensive repairs to a mill in 1824, and a census of area mills Hart made in 1831, as well as a great children’s book by David Macaulay called “Mill,” a book on water power by Louis C. Hunter, and material from the National Park at the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. While there were other kinds of mills at Schaghticoke Point- including a grist and saw mill at least- this article will focus on the new textile mills.
For centuries, yarn and cloth were made by hand, no matter the natural fiber: flax- linen, cotton, or wool. The fiber needed to be harvested, whether from plant or animal, cleaned and processed, spun into yarn, woven into cloth, then the cloth needed to be “finished” to be durable. There was often also a step to dye the yarn after the spinning or weaving as well. The wool fulling process involved beating and cleaning the cloth in water to make it denser, “teasing” it, originally with the seed pods of the teasel plant to raise the pile, and trimming off loose threads. The fulling was the first part of the process to be mechanized, and was done by water-powered mills as early as the middle ages. A fulling mill was one of the first at Schaghticoke, probably shortly after the first bridge was put across the river c. 1792.
The next steps of the cloth making process to be mechanized were the spinning and carding. Again, the power was provided by water. Carding, the combing of fibers to straighten them out, could be done more easily in bulk than spinning., and was mechanized by the mid-1700’s in England. Samuel Slater built the first spinning mill in the United States in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1793. This technology spread like wildfire through the Northeast, with inventors vying to get patents on new improvements. The goal was to be able to spin more fiber at once- have more and more spindles on one machine- to make the process faster. There were two types of spinning machines in use: The spinning mule used a two part process to spin fiber into thread or yarn: first the roving (the unspun fiber in loose ropes from the carding machine) was spun, then wound up on a pool. The throstle did the same process in one action- drawing out the roving, twisting it and winding it on a spool. A throstle is a song bird. The bird-like singing or humming of the machine at work gave it its name. The mills at Schaghticoke had both kinds of spinning devices, as well as carding machines.
The chance for profit in the new mechanization of the textile business led budding entrepreneurs to fan out from the East Coast, seeking out good sites for water power as the 19th century began. The over -100 foot drop in the Hoosic River at Schaghticoke was a magnet for these men. One of the earliest to build a textile mill here was Benjamin Joy, from Boston. Benjamin, born in 1757, was a merchant with many business interests and the first U.S. consul to Calcutta, nominated by President George Washington in 1794. While he probably visited Schaghticoke, his brother Charles was Benjamin’s agent, who ran the mills. Charles was in Schaghticoke by 1795, when he married Elizabeth Chase, who may have been the daughter of Daniel Chase, builder of the first bridge across the Hoosic in 1792. The couple lived here until about 1820. Charles was one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in 1803, and served as a trustee until 1820. Interestingly, in the 1820 census, Charles was not listed as employed in manufacturing, but rather as a farmer. One Joy Mill processed flax, another cotton, and the Rensselaer Cotton and Woolen Mill, with local owners, later the Farmers’ Manufacturing Company, dealt with both cotton and wool, as the name implies, from about the same time. I found an ad in the ‘Troy Post” for 1819 for “patent seine twine of a perfect lay…with all other kinds of twine..” at Samuel Conant & Company in Troy. The twine was made at the linen factory of Charles Joy at Schaghticoke Point, and “known to be of superior quality.”

The falls of the Hoosic attracted entrepreneurs like the Joys. The mills they built attracted workers and engineers, first to build the mills, then to design and use the machinery inside them. I have written before of Oliver Barrett, born in Hudson Falls in 1783, who filed a patent from Schaghticoke in 1811 for a machine for making cotton roving. Carding machines produced loose tubes of fiber called roving, which would then be spun, so Oliver was working on the carding process. To succeed, factories needed to use the latest equipment, making the textile process as efficient as possible. So from the earliest years of the Industrial Revolution, Schaghticoke was on the cutting edge.

The last part of the textile process to be mechanized was the weaving. For some years, the other parts would be done in the mill, with the yarn sent out to be woven in area homes, and the fabric returned to the mill for mechanical finishing such as fulling. Or if the whole process was done in the mill, the weaving would be on hand operated mills. A genealogy of the local Banker family reports on a man named James Verity, born on Long Island in 1786. He learned to weave in the traditional way, through apprenticeship with a Quaker weaver in Nine Partners, near Poughkeepsie, from age fourteen to 21. At that point, 1807, he came to Schaghticoke Point, where he wove in the cotton mill. After his 1812 marriage to Eunice Banker, he continued to weave, but at his home, on a farm south of Melrose.

spinning frame at Lowell

spinning frame at Lowell

The first power loom in the U.S. was built at Lowell, Massachusetts in 1813. Looms would be added to the mills as soon as possible, as this would vastly speed up the manufacture of cloth. An 1831 census of area mills reported that the Joy Linen Mill had “28 duck looms propelled by hand.” So in that case, though the weaving was still not mechanized, the weavers were centralized in the mill. This would certainly give the mill owner greater control of the finished fabric and of the worker. I think that various combinations of hand and power looms were used through the 1830’s.
mechanized loom at Lowell

mechanized loom at Lowell

Building a mill involved buying both land and water rights. In general, riparian (having to do with rivers) law gives landowners ownership of an adjacent stream or river if it is not navigable. If it is navigable, the river is public property. The Hoosic certainly was not navigable at Schaghticoke!
The 100 foot water fall at Schaghticoke had lots of potential, but no mill and water wheel combination could accommodate more than about a 20 foot fall, so it needed to be harnessed. We see how it is controlled by the dam to this day, though now the water is used to power a hydroelectric facility. At a time when construction was done by hand and horse, without concrete and steel, dams needed to be constructed, along with a raceway or flume, which delivered water to the water wheel and took it away, and probably a mill pond, for storage of water: all aiming to maintain a constant flow to the mill. The flume could be carved in a stone stream bed, like that of the Hoosic at Schaghticoke, built of stones, or even elevated and built of wood. The type of water wheel would have to be chosen, designed and built. There were a number of types: flutter, undershot, overshot, breast, and tub. All would have to have a container to operate in, either a pit excavated in the riverbank or a tub made of wood.
this mill was at Lowell, but the mills at Schaghticoke were probably similar

this mill was at Lowell, but the mills at Schaghticoke were probably similar

With a number of mills being built on the Hoosic at Schaghticoke, there was intense and careful negotiation over the design and placement of the dams, wheels, and flumes. The amount of water power was limited, and all would want and need their share. Riparian law mandated that the owner of the mill would have to return the same amount of water to the river as he took out to power his mill. Deeds included very specific provisions about rights-of-way, repair of dams, and amount of water ensured to each owner or tenant. Without water, the mill couldn’t operate.
I am sure you are thinking, “Wait, what about spring floods, summer droughts, and winter freezing?” Waterpower was variable and unreliable. Some of this could be controlled by the construction of mill ponds, where water could be contained, stockpiled, so to speak, and released in a controlled manner. But there would be times when the water was totally frozen, and times when it was just too high to be controlled. Dams and flumes were easily damaged and needed frequent repair. A careless owner could create problems for not only himself, but his neighbors, including nearby farmers whose land could be flooded.
Textile mill buildings would have to be built to accommodate all of the machinery. This resulted in long and narrow buildings of multiple stories. Various belts and gears would transfer the water power from the water wheel to the various machines. The power train was long and narrow. The mills needed to have many windows, allowing use of as much natural light as possible to illuminate the work spaces. Mills could be and were heated by wood stoves and lit by oil lamps, but cloth fibers are very flammable, and the owners did all they could to minimize the risk of fire.
By 1825 or so, the cloth making process ended up with these steps, with some variation depending on the kind of fiber:
1. The fiber needed to be cleaned. For wool, this would mean washing, for flax “retting” or soaking in water, and removal of the outer husk of the plant. Both wool and flax were produced locally. Cotton, of course, had to be imported from the South. It arrived in huge bales, weighing up to 500 pounds. The bales needed to be picked apart. This could be done manually, or by a picker machine. Often this process was done in a separate building as the cotton would be at its most flammable as wispy fibers.
2. The fibers were straightened through carding, by a machine, which would produce a light, fluffy, thin mat. This would go through a drawing frame to be given a slight twist, then to a speeder, which would turn it into roving. Roving is an unspun, fragile narrow rope.
3. The roving was spun on either a mule or throstle of a number of spinners, ending up on a spool. Some of the yarn was spun to be the warp, some the weft on a loom. The yarn might now have to be dressed with a starch before weaving.
4. Now the yarn would be woven into all kinds of cloth. In Schaghticoke, the flax was also twisted into ropes, from shoe laces on up. Yarn could also be dyed.
5. Finally, the cloth would be “finished.” This depended on the content. Wool would be fulled, and stretched on tenters (long wooden frames and the source of keeping someone on “tenterhooks”); cotton could be “sized,” or glazed. Fabric could also be dyed.

The mills employed men, women, and children. According to the website of the National Park at Lowell, Massachusetts, one man could run a picker, and one could run ten carding machines. One woman could run a dressing frame, one every two speeders, one a drawing frame, one per spinner, and one weaver for two looms. Children were often employed as doffers, who would remove the full spindles, ducking under and around the machines as they operated. There would be one manager for about thirty employees, and one machinist per fifty machines, to keep them in working order. The mills would be noisy, the air filled with fiber. Before the advent of ear plugs, longtime workers would certainly suffer from deafness. Some of the processing involved noxious chemicals like bleach and oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). In winter, the rooms would be cold, despite the use of stoves, and certainly smoky and smelly from the burning wood, and the oil lamps in use in the short winter days. Clothing and body parts could easily get caught in any of the machines.
During the 19th century, many mill workers lived in housing provided by their employers and shopped at least in part at stores they ran. This could be a mutually beneficial arrangement, as workers knew they would have a decent place to live and employers knew their workers could get to work easily and had some control over them when they were not at work. The owners didn’t want workers to come to work drunk, for example. New villages grew up around the mills, as men and women left farms to work at what they hoped would be better jobs. For women this was a first opportunity at employment outside the home. Children as young as six or seven worked at least part-time in the mill, but if the mills were running, the work day could be 12-16 hours for all, six days a week. Some owners did not employ young children, and others made sure they went to school as well as work. As the mills were often not operating in the winter, there would be time for school then.
Let’s turn to the real mills at Schaghticoke… Richard Hart of Troy did a census of mostly cotton mills in the Rensselaer/Washington County area in 1831. I think he was assessing possible competitors as he and Amos Briggs bought up all the mills in the gorge of the Hoosic River at Schaghticoke. Whatever the purpose, it gives us a rare and early snapshot of the industry at the time. The mill operators filled out the census forms themselves. There were two linen mills in the survey, both of them at Schaghticoke. The Joy Mill, built in 1809, produced 2500 bolts of sail duck, 15,000 pounds of shoe thread, and 40,000 yards of bagging each year. Sail duck would be used for the sails on ships, bagging would be made into linen bags, which were used for storing many, many commodities in pre-plastic days. To make this product, the mill used 50 cords of wood, 200 gallons of oil, 3000 pounds of potash for bleaching, 500 pounds of oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid), and 1500 pounds of “foreign bleaching salts.” Imagine the toxic pollution of the river from the latter items. The mill had 175 people living on the premises. This number would include workers and their families, as workers were housed on the property of the mill.

The second flax mill, Tibbits Briggs & Company, used 10,000 pounds of flax and 65,000 pounds of flax and hemp tow (tow is coarser outer part of flax, used to make cording and rope) per year, and made 65,000 yards of bagging, 25,000 pounds of shoe thread, and 10,000 yards of carpet warp per year. The warp would be set on a loom to weave carpets. It had fifty employees. Tibbits was the brother of Hart’s partner, Amos Briggs.
There were four cotton mills in Schaghticoke. The Joy Cotton Mill, built in 1812, had 750 spindles and throstles and 18 looms, and made 149,700 yards of cotton shirting each year. It used 40,500 pounds of cotton, 500 pounds of starch, 25 cords of wood, and 100 gallons of oil each year. Of course the cotton was all imported from the South. The mill employed six men, who made $4.50 per week, and 22 women, who made $1.60. Two or three of the employees were under 12. Sixty people lived on the premises, however.
The Ephraim Congdon Mill, built in 1820, had 432 throstles and 20 shirting looms, which used 40,000 pounds of cotton per year and made 125,000 yards of #18 yarn per year. It must have made shirting too, but that was not reported. The factory used 3000 pounds of flour for sizing the fabric each year. It employed eight men and twenty women, though 40 persons lived on the premises. An article in the “Troy Budget” in February 1834 reported the mill would be auctioned- presumably because it was bankrupt- the next month. The Star Manufacturing Company, managed by Amos Briggs, was built in 1818. It had 720 spindles and 16 looms. It used 32,000 pounds of cotton per year and made 10,000 yards of cloth, with a work force of ten males and 32 females. Sixty-five people lived on the premises. When modern residents speak of “the Star Hole” in the Hoosic River, they are referring to this mill, though I’m sure not one person knows any of its history.
The Farmers Manufacturing Company was leased by Richard Hart and Amos Briggs in 1821, and purchased by them the following year. They bought the water rights and the factory for $6,000. The brick factory had lots of cotton machinery: one picker, to the east of the partition on the first floor, six carding machines, one threader, one drawing frame, 32 power looms to the west of the partition, and two dressing machines. They also had use of 32 spinning frames, 4 mule frames, 4 stretcher frames, 8 drawing frames, 8 roping frames, and 12 winding heads, some of which was outdated machinery. They were located on the 3rd and 4th floors. There was machinery to operate a woolen mill as well, but they didn’t plan to use that. The property also included a brick store and four large and two small houses, plus room for gardens for the workers. Under the lease agreement, Amos would manage the day-to-day operations of the mill, and regulate the water, making sure to keep the grist mill well-supplied; Richard would purchase the cotton. He worked with a cotton broker in New York City, rather than buying the cotton directly from plantations in the South.

Richard P. Hart

Richard P. Hart

poster of cotton mill, from Lowell. The cotton was picked over on the first floor, ginned, and carded. It was spun on the second and third floors, and woven on the fourth floor. Note the waterwheel at the bottom center.

poster of cotton mill, from Lowell. The cotton was picked over on the first floor, ginned, and carded. It was spun on the second and third floors, and woven on the fourth floor. Note the waterwheel at the bottom center.

This established the relationship that would exist between Briggs and Hart for the next 20 years. In 1825 Amos Briggs, the hands-on manager of the mill, modernized and rebuilt the cotton mill of the Farmers Company. Richard Hart, the money man, bought a new speeder and drawing frame, and there was lots of repair of the dam and flume, with new gates installed, plus removal of the old and construction of a new tub wheel. Some of this involved digging in the rock of the river bed. The factory itself was replastered, a new brick chimney built, a bell added, the garret (attic) windows rebuilt and painted. Over a couple of months, seventy different men were employed for from a couple of days to several weeks in the renovations. Part of their wages was a tot of rum or whiskey each day. The bell would mark the beginning and end of the work day.
By the time of the 1831 census, the Farmers Factory was much bigger than its rivals. It had 2,976 spindles, mules and throstles, with 981 looms. It made 750,000 yards of cloth per year from 172,818 pounds of cotton. It used 5000 pounds of starch, 35 barrels of flour, 85 cords of wood, 1000 bushels of coal and 650 gallons of oil per year. The factory employed twenty men at $7 per week, 35 boys at $1.50 per week, fifty women at $2.50 per week, 55 girls at $1.37 per week, and twenty children at 87.5 cents per week. The children got to go to school for three months per year. I don’t know the definition of “boy” and “girl” versus “children”. As late as 1870 children as young as six worked in the mills. Five hundred people lived in mill housing on the premises.
The 1831 census included another cotton mill. Giles Slocum & Company had just been built in 1831. It had 1000 spindles, mules, and throstles and forty looms. It made 250,000 yards of cotton per year and employed fourteen males and forty females, none under twelve years of age. I assumed it was in the gorge of the Hoosic as well, but finally discovered it was on the Schaghticoke side of the Hoosic at Valley Falls. The 1856 and 1858 Rensselaer County maps show it on the north side of the river, just upstream from the bridge.
This all adds up to about 400 men, women and children working in the mills, with over 800 people living in worker housing of these mills in the area of the village of Schaghticoke Point in 1830, where there had been no village twenty years earlier. (The population of the village was 600 in 2010, by the way.) This certainly changes the way I think of the village as I drive through it today, when there’s barely a place to work, and certainly no factory at all. Was this mill census accurate?
Let’s look at the 1820, 1830 and 1840 federal censuses. Unfortunately the 1830 census lists only the names of heads of households, plus numbers of males and females of various ages in each family, plus separate columns for free blacks of various ages and one column for aliens, with no detail about occupations at all. There were 3024 people in the whole town of Schaghticoke, living in 454 families. The village is not separated out, but there are just a few of the 34 pages of the census which include almost all of the 151 aliens in town, about 2% of the population. I think we may assume that the aliens mostly lived in the village, where they worked in the mills. There were 18 families composed totally of non-native people, where there had been only one in 1820. This means that most of the mill workers were natives of the U.S. We don’t know how many had come to Schaghticoke from other states, drawn by the mills, though a number certainly had. The ones I have examined came from New England. But there had been an influx of aliens too, mostly from Great Britain and Ireland.
But is it reasonable to think that of a townwide population of about 3000, about 400 people worked in the mills and 800 lived in mill housing? That’s 13% of the population as workers and 27% in the housing. In the 1820 census 600 of the 2500 residents had been farmers, or about ¼, 153 had been in manufacturing, or 16%. In both cases, this includes just the actual farmers or manufacturers, not their families. We know that the mills were built between 1820 and 1830, so it’s reasonable to think that the number of mill workers would have grown a lot. The overall population increase of the whole town from 1820 to 1830 was 8%, from 2522 to 3024 people. The 1840 census does indicate that over 425 people in town worked in manufacturing and trades. It does include women and children. So while the mill census may be somewhat exaggerated, it is not impossible.
Even if the mill census does inflate the numbers somewhat, the fact was that there was a new village at Schaghticoke, which had grown up in about twenty years. The residents would need the necessities of life available close by, with transportation so limited. Unlike the farmers, they weren’t growing most of their own food. Along with the rapid growth of mills, there must have been a real boom in the construction industry, plus need for stores of all kinds, medical care, schools, transportation, and churches. There must have been a tremendous air of excitement in the town.

Turning to another part of the 1831 census, where did the raw material for the mills come from? It’s hard for me to imagine the logistics of importing 300,000 pounds of cotton to Schaghticoke in a year, in the era before railroads. Cotton was packed into bales that weighed 500 pounds and measured about 56 x 48 x 30”. Presumably they came up the Hudson River by boat, probably to Troy, then by horse and wagon to town.

cotton bale

cotton bale

Flour was also needed for sizing the cotton. I know that there was a grist mill along with the cotton mills on the Hoosic, plus another grist mill on the Tomhannock Creek at Schaghticoke Hill. Did local farmers produce enough wheat to be ground into the flour needed for these mills to finish the cotton, plus the flour needed for domestic consumption? I don’t know.
The two linen mills required raw flax. I know that some flax was grown locally, especially in Pittstown. Was it enough for the linen mills? I know that some flax was imported from Ireland in the 1840’s, along with what was grown locally, but I don’t know about 1830. And of course the woolen mill needed raw wool. Farmers did raise sheep locally, as they do now, but I don’t know if they were able to provide all the wool needed for local mills.
By about 1840 Amos Briggs of Schaghticoke and Richard Hart of Troy owned all of the mills in the gorge of the Hoosic River, an early monopoly. It was quite a conglomerate- with cotton, linen, and woolen mills, plus a grist mill, a farm ( located on Verbeck Avenue, where West Wind Farm is today), a mill store, and mill housing, plus a number of other lots in the village, which were rented for stores and housing. In the future I will look at these two men in more detail. It’s clear there is much more to learn about these mills and the village.
Hart Papers and probate files at the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy
Sylvester’s “History of Rensselaer County”, 1880
U.S. and NYS Census for Schaghticoke: 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1855, 1860
Spafford’s “Gazetteer of NYS”, 1813 and 1824
MacCauley, David, “Mill”, 1983.
Trips to National Park at Lowell, Mass., and Hanford Mills Museum, East Meredith, NY
http://www.fultonhistory.com- newspaper articles


One response to “Schaghticoke Point: 19th Century Boomtown

  1. Dave October 23, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Great and informative story! Thanks! I have ancestors from both Schaghticoke and Lowell so this was fun to read.

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