AMSTERDAM — An effort is underway in Amsterdam to incorporate the city's rich manufacturing heritage — embodied in abandoned yet grand industrial ruins — into the region's network of historic trails along the Mohawk River and Erie Canal.
The centerpiece of the effort is a plan to incorporate the Mohasco Powerhouse, a 102-year-old abandoned power-generating facility, into a currently informal historical walking path known as the North Chuctanunda Creek Trail.
The powerhouse is one of about a dozen points of interest that dot the 4-mile trail running from Riverfront Park to Shuttleworth Park. City officials hope to formalize the trail, with help from a pair of grants totaling $16,000, and incorporate the powerhouse as one of the main attractions.
The overarching goal is to eventually link the creek trail to the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook bridge and Erie Canalway Trail.
One of the trail's key features is that it passes through the powerhouse, which provided coal-fired steam to the carpet mills that formed the backbone of Amsterdam’s industrial heritage.
The powerhouse these days is an intriguing ruin. While the 200-foot smokestack was removed in 2006 because of instability, the solidly built three-story structure is still an imposing presence straddling the North Chuctanunda Creek in a small vale adjacent to Forest Avenue.
The trail traverses a footbridge over the creek that was built into the powerhouse, which today is owned by the city’s Industrial Development Agency.
Last week, city officials, along with members of the Preservation League of New York State, announced an $8,900 grant awarded by the league to study the powerhouse and bridge with the aim of making it safe to officially incorporate into the historic walking trail.
“I think anytime you have a piece of history such as this, it’s our obligation, if we can take a step back in time, to restore and relive what actually happened here,” Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa said at the powerhouse Thursday morning. “This is such a big part of what Amsterdam was in its heyday.”
According to city historian Robert von Hasseln, the powerhouse used water from the North Chuctanunda Creek to produce coal-fired steam that was piped to at least three carpet mills in the city. Coal, delivered via a system of rail tracks stitched throughout Amsterdam’s former industrial quarter, was fed into boilers at the powerhouse that provided low and high pressure steam to the various buildings.
The high-pressure steam was used to operate machinery while the low-pressure steam provided heat. Some of the steam was diverted to turbines on the upper level of the powerhouse that produced electricity.
At the height of its economic prowess, Amsterdam’s carpet mill industry employed one in six city residents. Two of the biggest companies, Mohawk Carpet Mills and Alexander Smith and Sons Inc., merged in 1956 to form Mohasco, which at the time was the biggest carpet manufacturer in the world and was named to the first-ever Fortune 500 list.
The city has retained Albany-based Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture and Preservation LLP to study the Mohasco Powerhouse and its bridge. Their report, due in late September, will provide a forecast of what’s needed at the site in order to provide safety and officially include the powerhouse in a city-sanctioned historic trail.
“One of the major things is safety,” Daniel Wilson of Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson said. “There is a whole art and science to preserving ... ruins for public access. The reality is probably a good portion of [the powerhouse] is going to have to stay as is, and that’s in some ways some of the charm of it.”
Wilson said his company, with help from an engineering firm, is examining the structural integrity of the bridge and building and the components that will need to be shored up or reinforced for safe public access.
“This building is built really well, and the bridge is built really well, so structurally we’re in really good shape,” said Wilson. “But we do have to do things and make sure that the public safety is protected, that there’s high-enough guard rails and ways that [the public] can see the inside of the powerhouse without getting access to it.”
While complete restoration and preservation of the powerhouse is not currently being discussed, city leaders hope to preserve and make safe a portion of the building that can be toured and discussed by those who walk the trail.
To that end, the city also secured a $7,000 grant from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor to create signage at 7 to 9 points of interest along the creek trail. Some of the roughly dozen points of interest, such as City Hall and Green Hill Cemetery, already have signage, but city officials plan on installing signage at the powerhouse and other sites to form a cohesive narrative of Amsterdam’s industrial past.
A creek trail steering committee formed 18 months ago is currently gathering historical information and photographs that will eventually inform the signs. The committee also plans on clearing brush and improving the grading on parts of the trail, as well as improving safety at trail junctures that intersect with city streets.
Amsterdam’s assistant director of recreation, Danielle Whelly, who is a member of the steering committee, said there are also plans to pursue additional grants for improving the creek trail and to install picnic tables and benches along the route.
Whelly said initial work on sprucing up the trail and installing the signage should be completed by late-fall of this year.
Preservation League of NYS President Jay DiLorenzo said the organization is glad to fund the study as part of an overall goal of connecting the region’s other trails and celebrating local industrial heritage.
“We like this project because the North Chuctanunda Creek trail will connect to the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook bridge and Erie Canalway Trail,” said DiLorenzo. “It’s a great way for people to connect back to the river and to the water and the industrial history of Amsterdam and the region.”
Editor’s Note: A story published Thursday about the Mohasco Powerhouse grant said the building dates back to 1903. Amsterdam city historian Robert Van Hasseln, who provided the initial 1903 date, said later that the powerhouse was actually built in 1914.