Monday, December 24, 2007

The Quest for the Headwaters of the Tawasentha

Cartier, Cabot, Hudson, Frobisher, Franklin - over the centuries, countless explorers have sought the fabled Northwest Passage.

Think of von Humboldt, spending months of hardship exploring the mysterious Orinoco, and finding the channel that connects it to the mighty Amazon.

The White Nile, the Blue Nile - some of the greatest explorers in the history of the world have competed for the prize of finding the Source of the Nile - Richard Burton, Henry Stanley, Dr. David Livingstone.

Hudson in the Halfmoon, Sir John Franklin with the Erebus and Terror - so it was with us in our MPV minivan as we sent out in search of the headwaters of the Normanskill, and the fabled secret passage to the Schoharie and the lost Mohawk castle at Icanderoga.

The Tawasentha is a minor river that flows from the heights above the Schoharie down to the Hudson, joining it just below the Dutch trading post of Beverwyck (today's Albany). Today, I live ten miles west of Albany, on the ridge about a half-mile above the stream - now called the Normanskill. But how far west could one canoe up the Normanskill?

'Google Maps' to the rescue!

A couple of miles to my west, you can trace the Normanskill crossing to the north side of US 20, and it meanders another ten miles or so up to Duanesburg - where it runs past my Aunt Dorothy's back yard - and wraps around the west side of the hilltop town of Duanesburg, recrossing Rt. 20. But then what?

A look at the maps shows that the surveyors of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad found this course nearly a century-and-a-half ago: the Normanskill runs through the lost town of "Del-an-son", and peters out on the flat heights a mile or two west of Delanson. But just yards to the west of the swamps that mark the source of the Tawasentha, a stream starts running west, which then precipitously drops into the Schoharie, directly across from the town of Esperance. From there, it's a smooth paddle down to the old Mohawk village of Icanderoga at Fort Hunter. All traces of the native village and colonial Fort were obliterated in the 1820s by the construction of the Erie Canal.

But a road trip showed that it's feasible: rather than come down the Mohawk - and negotiate the 80-foot Cohoes Falls, and the Mahican village at Peebles Island - it is possible to climb up out of the Schorarie Valley at Esperance and find the Normanskill well to the west of Delanson - scarcely three miles of rapids and portage, leading to 20-some miles of mostly gentle canoeing downstream. The uphill climb must be real work - the Divide here is benchmarked at 836 feet, and the Schoharie at Esperance only about three miles to the west is at about 550 feet - but the Normanskill seems made for canoeing.

Here's the divide:

(From here, the D&H RR veers off to the SW, heading for the Susquehanna; the stream for the Schoharie swings off to the NW; and the swamp to the east turns into the Normanskill, a stream that meanders down through Delanson, Duanesburg, through Longfellow's Vale of Tawasentha in Guilderland, on across the town of Bethlehem, finally entering the Hudson at today's Port of Albany.)

So the Mohawks had three routes to reach the Dutch trading post: down the Mohawk River and portaging around the Cohoes falls (which, btw, is a major shrine in the history of the Iroquois Confederacy); or down the Mohawk River to Schenctady, and then 15 miles by foot down the Mohawk Trail across the pine bush(that would become the King's Highway) to State Street in Beverwyck; or, down the Normanskill, arriving just to the south of Fort Orange.

PS: a close study of the topography shows that my ancestral home was at the top of another 'continental divide': a mile to my north was the drainage into Schenectady's Binnekill; a mile or so to my NE was the source of the Lishakill; two miles to my south, you're in the Normanskill catchment; 4? miles to the SE, you enter the drainage of the Patroon Creek, which passes on the north side of Albany.

(Athens Junction, the crossroads of the world.)


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