Peter Pasternak discovered the Binnekill while kayaking.
The small inlet was once a major waterway, where goods such as fur and rum were traded and shipped and people traveling west embarked on their journeys.
A painting by Capital Region artist Len Tantillo, titled “Schenectady Harbor, 1814,” shows the wharves, warehouses and boat-building facilities that grew up around the Binnekill, making it a forerunner to the Erie Canal.
Today the Binnekill is mostly forgotten – a hidden, somewhat anonymous shadow of its former self.
The stream runs behind Washington Avenue in Schenectady’s Stockade Neighborhood and empties into the Mohawk River. It’s bordered by private property, accessible mainly by boat.
Pasternak, who lives in the Stockade, has been cleaning up around the Binnekill off and on for the past two years, clearing brush and fallen trees and bagging the garbage that lands in the tiny tributary.
Homeowners have given him access to the Binnekill, and he spends a lot of time down there, photographing birds and animals, looking at the sky with a telescope and working to make the Binnekill a cleaner place.
The Binnekill is an oasis and refuge for Pasternak – one he wants to raise awareness of, and protect from degradation.
When Pasternak, 52, and I visited the Binnekill last week, he was distressed by how much trash – plastic bags, bottles, clothing and other random bits of debris – had accumulated over the winter.
“I want to save the Binnekill,” he told me. “This is one of the most peaceful places I know around here, and I know my city. When the traffic calms down, you can hear the water trickling. The herons come out at night. You’re not in the city at that point. You’ve been transported someplace else.”
The area Pasternak is focused on sits below the Western Gateway Bridge.
Two large pipes empty into it, bringing water from Cowhorn Creek, which flows underground through Schenectady, beneath businesses on State Street, before merging with Mill Creek and flowing into the Binnekill.
“Anything that comes down here ends up in the Mohawk,” Pasternak said. “Water is water. Eventually it affects everybody.”
Most people don’t know enough about the Binnekill to worry about its contamination or advocate for its preservation.
Unfortunately, this neglect has consequences.
While Pasternak is mostly concerned with the pollution he can see, the garbage and waste that washes up on shore or on the sediment exposed when water is low, the stream is almost certainly impaired in other, less visible but harmful ways.
Indeed, testing of the Cowhorn in Vale Cemetery in 2019 found that the water is unacceptably high in E. Coli, a fecal bacteria.
“It’s a polluted stream,” said John McKeeby, executive director of the Schoharie River Center, the non-profit organization that tested Cowhorn Creek with local students. “We don’t let kids or students go in it – there are a lot of things in there that are not good. One year we were testing it and we noticed that when the water came in contact with skin, it caused itching.”
This dirty water eventually makes its way into the Binnekill and Mohawk, raising troubling questions about the overall quality of local waterways and the public health hazard they might pose to those who come in contact with them.
John Garver, the Union College geology professor who organizes the annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium, told me that the creeks that feed into the Binnekill were once “de facto sewage systems” for Schenectady, and though they no longer serve that purpose, it’s very likely sewage still seeps in from leaking or illegally-connected sewer mains in the city.
“The Binnekill is out of sight and it’s out of mind,” Garver said. “It’s something we should be looking at – something we should be testing.”
Garver is right.
The Binnekill played a critical role in making Schenectady the city it is today, and protecting it ought to be a priority.
“The Schenectady story really starts with the Binnekill,” said Michael Diana, education and programs manager at the Schenectady County Historical Society. “It starts with trade between (Native Americans) and early 17th century Dutch traders.”
At one time, the Binnekill was much bigger – a large portion of it flowed through what is now the SUNY Schenectady County Community College parking lot.
“It was fairly slow, fairly calm, fairly wide,” city historian Chris Leonard said. “In Colonial Schenectady there was a lot of boat building that took place there – it was so calm.”
When Pasternak began cleaning up around the Binnekill, it was like “a jungle,” he said, but his efforts have revealed the area’s quiet, mysterious beauty.
His work has exposed old stone foundations, walkways and railroad ties, and he’s seen egrets, herons, snapping turtles, deer and other birds and animals down there. Despite the pollution, the area is teeming with life.
Pasternak’s enthusiasm for the Binnekill is contagious.
Now that I’ve seen it, I want to see it preserved for future generations, too.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.