Walkabout: Harmony Mills, a Troy-ish Story

Harmony Mills, SSpellen 1

The first time my friend and I visited Troy, it was to see a property that I had found online. We had never been here before, and knew nothing about the city or the area. When we got to the property, we could see that it was within blocks of the Hudson River, and that there was a large 19th century brick factory building near the river, right in front of our river view. It was one of several large 19th century former garment factories that lined River Street between Downtown and North Central, where we were. These factories were the remnants of Troy’s once-bustling garment trade, a powerful and huge industry that helped make Troy one of the most prosperous cities in the United States. The building was now empty, with broken and boarded up windows, and looked rather forlorn.

Our real estate agent was quick to tell us that the factory had been purchased by the same developer who had purchased and rehabbed a complex called Harmony Mills, just across the river in Cohoes. He planned on doing here what he had done in Cohoes, transforming the factory into luxury loft apartments. Buying the building we were interested in would become a doubly valuable proposition, being that it was so close to this upscale condo-in-the-making. We did know about Harmony Mills, didn’t we? We mumbled something about having heard of it, and the day went on. We ended up with another property, and the developer still hasn’t made loft apartments out of his Troy factory. But that’s another story.

I’ve always been curious as to what Harmony Mills was all about, and after being here for almost two years, one weekend about a month ago, I decided to look for it. I’d been to Cohoes (the accent is on the second syllable) a few times, so I knew where Harmony Mills was not, as I had never passed it on my trips there. I knew it was on the river, so there’s where I would start. I also knew that the mill was on the Mohawk River, not the Hudson, and that it was near the historic Cohoes Falls. The Mohawk and the Hudson came together right below the mill somewhere, so I was just going to drive around until I found it. How can you miss a waterfall?

Sometimes it’s better to go exploring with a wealth of information read beforehand or a guidebook. Other times there is nothing like coming up on something you didn’t expect to be there, and being blown away. I followed the Mohawk and was totally blown away. But a little back story and short history is needed here.

If you cross over the river to Cohoes from Troy at 112th Street, you cross a long Art Deco bridge over the Hudson River. Then you traverse the width of Van Schaick Island, which sits in the middle of the Hudson. After the island is another bridge, this one crossing the Mohawk, there’s another much smaller island, this one only a couple of blocks wide, another bridge over the Mohawk again, and then you are in Cohoes.

The histories of the two cities are intertwined. The riverbanks of both cities allowed for the building of large textile and garment factories, and while Troy was known for detachable collars and cuffs, and the shirt business, Cohoes was known for its mills that produced millions of yards of cotton goods and fabrics. Troy is the “Collar City”, and Cohoes is the “Spindle City.” And did they ever know how to spin.

The Hudson is a relatively calm river, but its cousin, the Mohawk, goes berserk right above Cohoes, resulting in the Cohoes Falls, produced by millions of gallons of upstate water spilling down a 70 foot drop. The Mohawk people who lived here centuries ago discovered the falls and called them Ga-ho’n’-yoos which was translated, most appropriately, “Place of the Falling Canoe.” In Iroquois oral history, this was the place the Great Peacemaker convinced the Mohawk Nation to lead the great Iroquois Confederacy. The Mohawks lived in this area for centuries until the Dutch showed up in the early 1630s.

In 1632, merchant Killiaen Van Rensselaer, set himself up as a “patroon,” a Dutch feudal-style overlord, and claimed much of what is Rensselaer and Albany counties as his own, creating the manor of Rensselaerwyck. That included the entire area that makes up most of Cohoes and Troy. He leased out his land to farmers and settlers, and over the next century or so, the land slowly was settled, starting with Van Schaick Island, which was beyond the falls, and much easier terrain to farm and build on.

You can’t talk about the history of this area without talking about the rivers. They formed the history of Troy, Cohoes, Albany and other cities and towns in the Capital District and made great industries possible. Water power and transportation, these were key. European and later, American entrepreneurs recognized that the Cohoes Falls could be harnessed for power. Water power had been used in Dutch mills for centuries, and as technology improved over time, water power could run machines to power industry. But first came the Erie Canal.

The Erie and Champlain canals were begun in 1817. The Champlain Canal was completed in 1823 and the Erie Canal in 1825. They join in southern Cohoes and then open up onto the Hudson River. This enabled goods and people to travel from New England, the Great Lakes, Canada and the Western United States to New York City, the Eastern Seaboard and the world beyond. This canal system is one of the most important developments in the history of the United States. I wrote about it here and here.

There was no way anyone was going to make the falls viable for barge traffic, so they cut the canal around the falls, bypassing the cataract entirely. The Cohoes Company was founded to develop the power capability of the falls. They began building dams above the falls, the first one in 1831. That one was destroyed by ice, so they had to build another one a year later. Two canals were diverted from the river to power the industry that was already starting to grow. The company would soon end up controlling all of the power of the Mohawk River from half a mile above the river to a mile below.

Like Troy, Menands and West Troy, (now Watervliet) the iron industry took root here, and for a while, in the early 19th century, the town’s foundries were humming. The Simmons Ax Company and the Cohoes Foundry were active and successful iron businesses. But textiles would define the city, beginning with the first cotton mill, the only one in Albany County, which opened in 1817. It was called the Cohoes Manufacturing Company. They burned down in 1829, and did not reopen.

In 1832, Egbert Egberts, Timothy and Joshua Bailey opened a knitting mill. Egberts & Bailey was the first mill in Cohoes to utilize the water power provided by the Cohoes Company. They perfected the water powered knitting machine, giving rise to a new industry in the United States. Cohoes would become a major city in the production of cotton and woolen knit goods, especially stockings and long underwear, into the 20th century. Then, in 1836, Peter Harmony established the Harmony Manufacturing Company.

Ok, mighty waterfalls, dams, power plants, factories and mills – got it. Knowing all of that does not prepare you for what’s coming when you drive or walk up North Mohawk Street towards Harmony Mills and the Cohoes Falls. On my first trip, before I read any of the history I just told you, I’m looking forward to seeing some nice factory buildings. I really like industrial architecture, and have long harbored fantasies of living in a loft, so I’m ready.

As I approach the Mills, the street starts to go steeply uphill. The first building I see on the left is a large and magnificent Second Empire factory building. It’s four stories, with a handsome tower at the front, both building and tower capped with slate mansard roofs. The factory building is a classic 19th century style, with lots of windows. It’s been converted into housing, and looks great. A sign on it says “Mill 4.” Ok, I said to myself, nice. One of the nicest factory buildings I’ve seen anywhere, certainly nicer than anything in Brooklyn. Three more of these would certainly be great. Uh, yeah.

Coming over the rise of the hill, I see it on the right, overlooking the Mohawk. And I keep seeing it. It stretches for blocks. And it’s gorgeous. It’s Harmony Mill Number Three, the main mill of the Harmony Mills complex and the biggest and most beautiful factory building I’ve ever seen in my life. I later find out that it’s 1,185 feet long and 70-76 feet wide, and five stories tall. It’s the centerpiece of a mill complex that included four mills, office and powerhouse and picking buildings across the street, a dam and gatehouse by the falls, as well as blocks and blocks of workers’ housing and community buildings. When it was completed in 1872, it was the largest textile mill in the United States, and perhaps the world.

I didn’t know that that day, I just knew the building stretched for blocks, with a tower in the middle with the same Second Empire styling as Mill 4. Four towers! After you finally get past the mill and the other buildings across the street, there are several blocks of great looking Greek Revival worker’s housing. At the end of it, the great Cohoes Falls themselves. They had peaked after days of rain, and tons of gallons of water thundered down the precipice and into the gorge below. Islands in the river were flooded, trees peeking out of the water. The falls, the second tallest waterfalls in the state, after Niagara, were tremendous. Harmony Mills was tremendous. How could I have missed this for almost two years? GMAP

Next time – the history of Harmony Mills. It’s full of firsts, biggest, mosts, and a tale of workers, management and industry. It’s also about engineering and technology, and the preservation and protection of our precious history and the buildings and systems that made it all possible. It could very easily have all been lost.

(Photo: S.Spellen)

Cohoes Falls, Cohoes, NY Photo: S.Spellen

Cohoes Falls, Cohoes, N.Y. Photo: S.Spellen

Cohoes Falls. Photo: S.Spellen

Cohoes Falls. Photo: S.Spellen

Mill 4. Harmony Mills, Cohoes. Photo: S.Spellen

Mill 4. Harmony Mills, Cohoes. Photo: S.Spellen

Harmony Mill No. 3, Cohoes, NY. Photo: S.Spellen

Harmony Mill No. 3, Cohoes, NY. Photo: S.Spellen

Harmony Mills from across the Mohawk River. 1969. Library of Congress

Harmony Mills from across the Mohawk River. 1969. Library of Congress

5 Comment

  • mrsmingott

    Troy is a visual feast of Victorian architecture–worth a day trip.

  • Looking forward to reading more about this.

  • I love this series of articles. I grew up in Cohoes, moved to Brooklyn after college where I lived for about 13 years, and recently moved back to Cohoes. I grew up on the Van Schaick island, and recently bought a house there as well. After reading part one, I have two geographical notes for you – the smaller island you refer to is called Simmons Island, and both it & the Van Schaick island are both part of Cohoes.

  • I grew up in Albany and remember when the old run down mills were an eyesore of Cohoes. After a dozen years out of the area, I am back and a resident living in Mill 3! Each apartment has soaring 16-18′ ceilings held up by their cast Iron columns and the original wood flooring from nearly 150 years ago. Every day I walk across the floors and see the marks where machinery used to be and am awed by the history that has walked in this space. The huge turbine of mill 1 was left in place and kept exposed by the builders of the lofts. It is an amazing historical and architectural feature on the property. I hope that the writer took the opportunity to stop in to the leasing office to have a tour and climb the winding stairways that thousands of workers traversed a hundred years ago.