What makes the Rensselaer Plateau unique, what reminds you of the Adirondacks, what makes it feel wild, what makes it feel old and well lived in? The answers to these questions bring us a richer understanding of the landscape we hike, ride through, swim in or live on.
Native American Residents
The Mohican was the Native American tribe occupying the Rensselaer Plateau when European immigrants first arrived. The Mohicans lived most of the year along the Hudson River with its rich sources of food. But Mohican territory extended from Dutchess County to Lake Champlain and from the Housatonic River to present Schenectady. Stone cairns, platforms and enclosures found on the plateau are thought by some authorities to have been built by Mohicans. They used this large territory for hunting, moving northeast toward Vermont to hunt moose in the winter. “Owning” would be the wrong word to describe their relationship to the plateau: “a Mohican speaker expressed the common native feeling about land when he explained that the Indians regarded land as a gift from the Great Spirit to their ancestors” .
Mohicans hunted a land where the headwaters of seven different creeks create deep ravines and gorges such as the gorge along Plank Road. Here the Poesten Kill drops 92 feet forming the Barberville Falls, one of the unique treasures of the plateau, that can still be seen from the Nature Conservancy Preserve. These rocky ravines in deep shade are still home to many species of mosses, liverworts and lichens. Most of the soil on the Plateau is poor derived from the weathering of shale, sandstone and slate. However, small areas on the plateau having limestone or dolomite develop a rich soil resulting in rare wildflowers such as the blue cohosh. Kettle holes and tannic ponds, the result of glacial melting, developed spongy peat along their shorelines, the results of thousands of years of plant growth and decay. Now they provide a unique habitat for unusual plants such as cranberries, pitcher plants and sundews. Many of these woods in which the Indians hunted centuries ago contain the same forest types today. The Mohicans faced continued competition with other native nations and their land was increasingly taken for homesteads by the Dutch and English. After the Revolution the Mohicans left this area for western New York and then Wisconsin.
Henry Hudson & Early European Settlements
In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River to Troy. Going ashore he described the land along the Hudson River as “the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.” Not so the plateau, however; settling on the plateau was no easy feat! An 1890 Berlin resident speaking of his grandfather’s family experience recalled, “This howling wilderness was a poor market to look for stores for subsistence. Bears and deer and other game roamed in the forest. The brooks were alive with trout, but no time to take them” . Early immigrants of the 1700’s many of them Dutch, German and New England Yankees were subject to the Dutch “patroon” system wherein they were leased land parcels and owed yearly rent to the Dutch patroon, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. Not until 1839 did farmers making only a subsistence living conspire to bring an end to the feudal system of annual rents. Dr. Boughton, a resident of Alps on the southwestern edge of the plateau, helped lead this “rent war” movement, which ended the patroon system. Farmers were finally able to own the land they may have worked for a century.
1861 Map of Rensselaer County
Local Historical Societies
Other Historical Reads
1795 Petition to Stephen Van Rensselaer - a plan to round up and kill wolves on the Plateau (April 17, 1872, Troy Daily Times)
Early Life & Work on the Plateau
The first road on the plateau, the Albany Road of 1753, crossed from Deerfield, MA to Greenbush, NY. But it wasn’t until peace returned after the Revolutionary War ended that the towns of the plateau were established, between 1791 and 1812. Some of the oldest homes on the plateau built in 1780’s by settlers from New England, can still be seen on the Owen Road in Grafton. Despite poor soil, small family farms persisted, providing farm products for cheese factories, tanneries, and breweries. The forest provided lumber for mills.
The farmers collected ferns and club mosses, gathered bark from cherry trees for medicinal use and from hemlock for tanning. The plateau had many fast flowing streams and on almost every stream a mill was using water power in this fast growing area. Many of the lakes and ponds of the plateau were changed dramatically by dams built at the turn of the century to provide reliable flowing water to the mills and industries of Troy. You can almost hear the rumble of bygone wagons at the mill site at the end of Mill Pond Trail in the Capital District Wildlife Management Area (CDWMA).
(One on the Plateau in Stephentown)
Early logging on the Plateau (Courtesy of Grafton Historical Society)
Plateau Mill (Courtesy of Stephentown Historical Society)
The dam that formed the millpond remains; an old cellar hole and wolf tree mark the clearing where roads converged on the mill. Small factories appeared in every town on the plateau. Grafton had a shirt factory, folding chair factory, and a Prussian blue dye factory located on Blue Factory Hill Road, all in the 1800’s.Settlers found little prime farmland on the plateau and a growing season shorter by 20 days than at lower elevations, but the shallow glacial till soil did support forest and that became an economic boon to the subsistence farmer. In the mid 1800’s immigrant Germans were recruited by the Glass Factory of Sand Lake to produce charcoal for the furnaces. Two families started the settlement in West Berlin in the 1830’s. Leaving their home in Bavaria, selling their possessions, land and home; they sought freedom to practice their religion and peace. They brought land on the plateau for low cost woodlots to make charcoal and developed a close knit community to preserve their culture, religion and language. This community prospered for 70 years with school and churches maintaining these German traditions. Only when the charcoal business declined and young members of the community had to seek work in Berlin did the isolated culture change with the last Annual “Deutsch Picnic” held in 1945.
In the woods throughout the plateau you can still discern the remains of charcoal pits, large fairly open circles 20-30’ in diameter with raised edges where charcoal can still be found within inches of the surface. Several nice examples can be found in the CDWMA near Cherry Plain State Park. This industry was mainly responsible for the removal of at least 70% of the trees on the plateau by the 1890’s.
Troy was one of the industrial capitals of the world in the 1800’s and charcoal from the plateau fueled its iron foundries. Thirty cords of wood were needed for a charcoal burn. Wood was cut and stacked in a circle to form a kiln which was covered with dirt, limiting air so the wood would burn slowly. The burn was tended day and night for days until the charcoal was formed. It was then sent by wagon to Sand Lake and into Troy.
Tibbitts State Forest holds the remnants of another historic industry, lime making. Limestone quarried on the plateau near Grafton was burned in a kiln to form lime for use in manufacturing many industrial products such as paper, glass, bleach, whitewash, as well as in agriculture and tanning. Remains of an old kiln can still be seen in the State Forest. Ice cutting of local ponds also supplemented a farmer’s income until refrigerators eliminated this as a source of income. With the building of the Erie Canal and the opening of the west, and with the deforestation of the Plateau, many folks left for more fertile western soils or employment in town.
Charcoal Mound (Courtesy of Stephentown Historical Society)
Deforested landscape looking toward Grafton (Taken by James E. West)
Changes Wrought by the Great Depression
The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought further change to the plateau towns; businesses closed as the industrial east gave way to the west. In the 1930’s, coal replaced charcoal and subsistence farming alone could no longer feed families. With roads impassable in the snows of winter and the mud of spring, agriculture declined as workers sought higher paying jobs in Troy and Albany. Now a growing middle class in the county had money to support recreational pursuits.
With many lakes and much open space, the plateau now had cabins and hotels for tourism. Visitors spent time in hotels and camping, bathing and fishing in the fresh air and scenic environment. The Troy Record even sponsored a Fresh Air Camp for urban children in Grafton. Many lakeside communities were developed at this time with seasonal cottages for the wealthy to recreate in a cooler, greener place in the summer.
The working forest, environmentally and economically made a significant recovery during the 20th century under the stewardship of the Cowee and other lumber companies, and with little residential or road development on the plateau. Forest fires were a concern during the early 1900’s, prompting the building of the Dickinson Hill fire tower in Grafton and the Seventh Hill fire tower in Stephentown. The Dickinson Hill fire tower was erected in 1924 and later manned by the first woman observer, Helen Ellett. The tower has been refurbished by the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park and provides hikers with a spectacular 360-degree view including Mt. Marcy and the High Peaks, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Berkshires and Taconics of Massachusetts, the Catskills in southern New York and the Helderberg Escarpment near Albany.
The plateau landscape now holds this history of farms and mills in the many stone walls which once separated fields, cellar holes, dug wells, old lilac trees and sluice ways and mill ponds. Granville Hicks, political progressive from Grafton, celebrated the small plateau community in his book Small Town.
Camping on Shaver Pond (Taken by James E. West)
Camping on Shaver Pond (Taken by James E. West)
Post World War II
After World War II, farms on the plateau were abandoned when young men sought more money and shorter working days in industries along the Hudson River. Abandoned fields now returned to forests; only a few fields of high bush blueberries, previously an important cash crop, remained.
These changing needs continued to bring change to the forests of the plateau. Upgraded roads and interstate highways made the dream of a suburban home a reality for many families. Workers in Albany and Troy now made the daily commute to some communities on the plateau. Despite these changes most of the forests are unbroken by roads and homes, providing the fifth largest forested area in NYS. Most of these large forested tracks remain in private ownership.
In 2008 Cowee Forest Products, one of the largest landowners on the Plateau for a century, sold its land to the Forest Land Group, which maintains the conservation of this land through lumber production. Grafton Lakes and Cherry Plain State Parks, the Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center and state forests bring the public to the plateau for hiking, swimming, biking and boating. However, these activities have not yet brought back jobs which were lost when small industries left. Small plateau communities are limited in employment, services and tax revenue.
As this county faces the future, will decisions of land use be able to maintain the special environmental features that make the plateau unique while maintaining viable communities that have been home to many for generations?
 Dunn, Shirley The Mohicans and Their Land 1609-1730, Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, NY, 1994.
 Weise, AJ History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer County JM Francis and Tucker, Troy, NY, 1880
Bilven, Rachel and others, A Resourceful People: A Pictorial History of Rensselaer County, New York, The Donning Company, Norfolk Virginia 1987.
Broderick, Warren Images of America Grafton, Berlin, and Petersburgh, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2006
Poestenkill Historical Society, The Dutch Settlement Church, Poestenkill, New York, 1981.
Pictures by James E. West from the collection at the New York State Library Archives.