In the opening years of the nineteenth century, before the Erie Canal made the majestic, if frustrating, Mohawk River superfluous to transportation and commerce, the hubs of inland shipping were located at Schenectady and Utica.
Schenectady was the port through which all the upland produce of the expanding western settlements passed on its way to Albany, New York City, and even Europe. From this same harbor, the merchandize that had to be imported into the Mohawk Valley was dispatched upriver. Utica, at the other end of the corridor, was not, however, the farthest point upriver that large boats could comfortably navigate. They could continue on to Rome, some 14 miles to the northwest, with little difficulty. But Utica was the point where the newly completed Seneca Turnpike, a major improvement in land transport completed in 1800,40 left the Mohawk and struck out directly for the Finger Lakes region and the Genesee country that had been beckoning so many pioneers in the late 1790s. By leaving the river at Utica [Old Fort Schuyler] and transferring to wagon or stage, the traveler or shipper by-passed miles of troublesome waterways, including the upper Mohawk, the portage at Rome [before 1797] or the Rome canal with its tolls [after 1797], the shallow, twisting channel of Wood Creek, the dangers and weather delays of Oneida Lake, and the long upstream pull on the Seneca River.
Looking today at the rural, picturesque atmosphere of Canajoharie, particularly as compared to the huge, bustling City of Utica, it is hard to imagine that 200 years ago Canajoharie, or more correctly Kane's Store at Canajoharie, was the center for all inland shipping and commerce in the entire Mohawk Valley, rivalled only by Schenectady itself:
The nearest market for the sale of wheat and potashes in considerable quantities, was at the store of James and Archibald Kane, at Canajoharie, who then kept the best assortment of European and West India goods, to be found west of Schenectady. Kane's store was celebrated throughout a large extent of country, and was resorted to by persons who had produce to sell, or who desired to make considerable purchases, and they transacted a very extensive business in both purchasing and selling.41
The extent to which the commerce of Kane's Store was unsurpassed in the region is recorded in the tax assessment rolls for the Town of Canajoharie. In 1799, James and Archibald Kane had real estate in the value of $3,300 and personal estate worth $15,132, while most others in the region had real estate valued only in the hundreds of dollars and personal estate worth under $100! The total personal property listed for the entire Town was only $71,980. In 1801, the Kanes paid taxes of $52.68 while most paid under $10, and in 1803, even in decline, the Kane property was still valued at almost $15,000.42
Initially the Kane brothers established their store, or more correctly their "storehouse," in a pre- existing stone building in the Canajoharie settlement itself:
The Kane Brothers, seven in number, came to Canajoharie ... about 1790, and at first established themselves in trade in the old stone dwelling of Philip Van Alstine... The new firm was known as John Kane & Brothers... They were a family of smart young men, and when they located there was no store of any note in the valley westward of them, so that for a time much of the trade of the Herkimer43 settlements centered here.44
Not far from 1790, the Kane brothers came to Canajoharie and established themselves in the mercantile business, opening their first store in the old Van Alstine stone dwelling, still standing on the east side of the creek. This dwelling was erected about the middle of the last century.45
Presumably boats coming and going between Canajoharie and Schenectady moored at a landing in the mouth of Canajoharie Creek [near the present canal terminal park], and wagons carted goods to and from the landing and the store. Canajoharie stood at the north end of the portage trail that had connected the Mohawk with the Susquehanna at Lake Otsego, probably since prehistoric times. This was the route followed by the batteau fleet launched at Schenectady in 1779 as one wing of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign against the Six Nations.46 Perhaps the viability of this landing for later commercial purposes suggested itself then.
Shortly after they arrived, perhaps around 1793, the Kane brothers undertook a rather extraordinary move; one not only of great benefit to the efficiency of their operation, but also making the Kane's Store site exceptional in an era already remarkable for the experimental use of canals for navigation.
About a mile east of Canajoharie, where the ancient Mohawk River floodplain was broad and laced with abandoned prehistoric channels, the Kanes selected a previously unoccupied site for their new store and dwelling. One might question why they would relocate away from the heart of an existing settlement and so far removed from an already established river boat landing in the mouth of Canajoharie Creek. But the Kane brothers had discovered, in the woods east of the Village, a unique set of circumstances, unparalleled in the region.
At the edge of the valley floor, on a low hill safe above the floodplain and up against the rocky escarpment that defines the south side of the valley, they found not only a good site for their dwelling but also a good source of building stone. Below this site, north of the old river road, was a broad, elevated river terrace on which they could safely build their warehouses. And coming toward that site, across the lowest level of the valley floodplain, was an old channel of the river that they observed was frequently filled up with water.47 In a bit of inspired private engineering, unique in the valley except for the works of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, the Kanes then dug a short canal from this old channel directly to their warehouse. Commercial boats could now dock alongside their store to load and unload. This site, even though a mile away from the old landing in Canajoharie, and set back hundreds of yards from the main channel of the Mohawk, had become the most effective shipping facility west of Schenectady.