When the Erie Canal was originally constructed, it didn’t use any of the existing rivers – natural waterways didn’t work well with the need for predictable water levels and mule paths for hauling barges. But the layout of the canal required crossing rivers, and so there were aqueducts. One of them was at a place that is still known as Aqueduct, commemorated by this marker.
This billhead is from what was then one of Schenectady’s most prominent businesses, G.G. Maxon & Son. They owned a large grain elevator right up against the Erie Canal, and dealt in flour, grain, meal, feed, produce, lime, cement and more. The elevator was right up against the canal at the corner of Pine and Jefferson streets, pretty much where the Grossman’s Bargain Outlet on Erie Boulevard is today. In fact, I have often wondered if part of the building on that site was part of the original Maxon complex. (The naming of Maxon Road, which is now an eastern continuation of Erie Boulevard, might lead one to mistakenly believe the Maxon elevator was further east than it was. Larry Hart wrote that the road was so-named because it connected to Maxon’s “country” estate, well outside the city at where Van Vranken meets Anthony Street today.) Maxon also had a flour and seed store on Wall Street next to the old train station, in a building known as the Maxon Block. In addition to bulk goods, Maxon started the Schenectady Insurance Company, housed in the Maxon Block, and he served as president of the Mohawk National Bank.
George G. Maxon was born in 1818, and died in 1886. His once-fine home at 404 Union Street, not far from the grain elevator, later became Physicians’ Hospital, then Mercy Hospital, and later was home of the Spencer Business Institute. It still stands.
This billhead from 1873, part of The Biggert Collection, depicts the elevator with a canal boat docked alongside.
My grandfather once, for a very short time, ran a drive-in restaurant on Aqueduct Road outside of Schenectady. it was right about where the bike path crosses Aqueduct Road, where there is now an auto parts business. His landlord (Ken Williams?) didn’t know how to spell my grandfather’s last name (he wasn’t the only one, though the spelling hints that perhaps he couldn’t pronounce it, either), but maybe it was okay because $65 a month, even in 1957, doesn’t seem like a lot of rent for a commercial property. On the other hand, Aqueduct Road was hardly a highway at the time, and even today doesn’t seem like the kind of place where you would plop down a drive-in restaurant and expect it to do any kind of trade. It didn’t.
If you don’t know, Aqueduct was named Aqueduct because it was once home to, what else, the Rexford Aqueduct. The Aqueduct carried the Erie Canal across the Mohawk River, from Rexford on the Saratoga County side. Remnants of the old structure still remain alongside the current Route 146 bridge.
Once, it might have been the most important transportation intersection in the United States: the spot where the Erie Canal opened into the Hudson River. Here, barges carrying grain and hundreds of other products from the Great Lakes region had to be lifted from mule-drawn packet boats the plied the canal and moved onto sailing ships and steam vessels that would carry the goods down to New York harbor. And imported goods that had arrived in New York, or any of its many manufactures of the time, had to be manually loaded onto canal boats for their journey west. In the days before the railroads, and even for decades after rail reached over the Appalachians, the water level route was the commercial lifeblood of our nation.
And we still remember it today, with preserved pieces of the original canal scattered here and there throughout the Capital District, noted by the blue-and-yellow markers. But this particular spot, once the busiest harbor in the state outside of New York City, is now a riverside park with no hint of its industrial past. Now part of the Corning Preserve, the site has a bike path, a boat launch and lots of parking, but only a lonely historical marker gives any indication of its former importance. You have to follow the filled-in canal quite a way up the aptly named Erie Boulevard before you can find the first trace of old canal infrastructure, unmarked and forgotten, a little bit of lock wall right in front of the Huck Finn’s Warehouse.