The History of Athens, New York



Canisikek, purchased from Makicanni Indians in 1665 by three men, was sold through time and eventually became three settlements: Loonenburg (1685), Esperanza (1794), Athens (1800). The area became a town in 1815. Thus a beginning: 1703, the first religion, Lutheranism; 1725, the first school taught by a Lutheran minister; 1727, the Lutheran Church Glebe, which still continues 273 years later; 1750, a tannery on Market Street, now gone; 1778 Conraad Flaack, the first ferry boat, later sold to others who improved both the boats and service; the last ferry run was in 1947, the ferries being made obsolete by the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. 1800 saw the start of the brick yards, five in all. There was one on Third Street (sun dried brick), plus Whiteman's on Union Street, and Riders, Gladfelter, and Mayones in the Upper Village, the last closing in the 1940s. The Athens Pottery was started by N. Clark in 1800. After changing hands, it closed its doors 100 years later. 1803 saw the first post office in Loonenburg, changing its name to Athens in 1805. The first village law, in 1805, called for the prevention of fires and the forming of the first fire company by subscription.
Boat Building in Athens

Lets start by asking the famous seven questions and see the "WHO...WHAT...WHEN...WHERE...WHICH...HOW...and WHY" as we consider boat building.
The earliest time of boat building was with the Native-Americans, or as the European traders first called them the Indians, The earliest known habitation in Athens is according to the latest archaeology done during the time of the Iroquois Pipeline Project. The oldest artifact was a type of "fluted" spear point. People who made fluted points began arriving in the area about 11,000 or 12,000 years ago. Of all the sites only one contained evidence of Paleo-lndian habitation. The point was found at a site near the Hudson River in Athens, New York and they are very rare. So, it stands to reason that these ancestors would be the first boat builders in the Athens area. WHEN did they start to build their boats? WHAT did they use to cross or travel on the river? Most likely it was a log, raft, a hollow log and eventually the earliest canoe. As we change from the time of Cansiskek and the Mahicaninek River, we find explorers and Henry Hudson with the Half Moon. We do know that the people of the river towns, as they settled, did build boats of their own. They built what they knew, whether it was a skiff, a round bottom boat, duck boat or a canoe like the Indians used.

In 1778 is the first big change with Conrad Flaack starting a business, a ferry to help people cross the river. He used one canoe as a boat for passengers and two boats with a platform across for carriages, the passengers sat in the stem holding horse reins while the horses swam along behind the boats. In 1806, Timothy Bunker took over the Ferry, 1816 saw the first nine-horse ferry and then Athens having three ferries, until 1824. At this time they replaced the vessels with six horse team ferries and were operated until the 1830s. The horse boat was then replaced by a steam propelled ferry, but the boat was unsatisfactory, and replaced again by a horse powered ferry. The John T. Waterman came next a steam sidewheel boat, built in Athens, served from 1858-1869. The George H. Powers, built in Athens, served from 1869-1921. The Hudson-Athens ferry, a steel-hulled boat, with a diesel engine served from 1921-1938. The Pelican came next and was later named the "City of Hopewell." Its first run started on December 1938 and ran until 1947.

Between the years of 1791 and 1806, came the building of the sloop in its simplest form of one mast carrying a main sail, jib sail and top sail built in the likeness of the Dutch "Sloep." The "Victory" was built in Athens 1814 and was a keel vessel. Ira Cooper of Athens owned and sailed various sloops, among others the "Dutchess," "Utica," "Holbrook," and the "Reindeer." Syvester Nicholas was one of the most active business men running in connection with his brick and lime industries a fleet of sloops, barges, and steamboats. In 1832 I find the first mention of Ice Boats. It seems that most all of the men built their own and made their own changes in its design. In 1833 the largest sloop on the river was the "Utica" of Athens, with a 220-ton capacity. In 1848 was the beginning of the Athens Shipyard,founded by I.Coffin and others, then purchased by William H. Morton, C.Hadden, and Emery Edwards. Later Hadden and Edwards sold to Enos Edwards. A partnership of Morton and Edwards was then formed and the following are some boats built by them: 1854 "John Birbeck," sidewheeler; 1860 "Thomas McManus," steam screw; 1861 "J.C. Doughty," steam screw; 1863 "Silas 0. Pierce," sidewheeler tow boat; 1863 "Berkshire," owned by George H. Power; 1865 "City of Richmond," side wheeler; 1869 "George H.Powers," side wheeler engine taken from the "J.T. Waterman," Athens-Hudson Feny.

The Athens Shipyard was then sold to Magee and Van Loan. Some boats built by them are: 1873 "Walter Betts," tug; 1878 "A.F. Beach," sidewheeler ferry ran Catskill to Greendale; 1882 "Kaaterskill," largest boat built in Athens; and the "Isabella."

Mr. Van Loan sold his part of the business to Magee. Some boats built during that time are: 1887 "Herman Livingston"; 1890 "H.S. Nichols"; 1890 "C.H. Evans"; 1892 "Bessie"; 1893 "C.P. Raymond," built for Dalzell Towing Line; 1895 "Richard Morton"; 1899 "John Nichols."

The next owner was William 0. Ford, who acquired the shipyard after the death of Peter McGee. Before purchasing the yard Mr. Ford built a tug, "Henry Stanwood," on Stewarts dock in 1898 for Cornell Towing Line. Among those built at the shipyard were: 1900 "George K. Kirkham," "Regina," 24 tons (named for Fords youngest daughter); 1900 "William Coleman," 69 tons (name changes "Companion" to "Thomas M. Murray"); 1901 "Joseph P. Ford"; 1901 "Allison Briggs" (name changes to "Ethel Boles" to "Penrose" to "Stella"); 1901 "Commerce," 122 tons (name changed to "Betty Kennedy"; 1902 "Lillian"; 1902 "Primrose."

From 1903 until 1908 the Athens Shipyard remained idle. Purchased in 1908, the new owner then appeared. Richard Lenahan of Kingston with his eldest son Michael modernized the Yard including the buildings, and installed new equipment throughout the plant. The blacksmith and machine shops and the mill shed were powered with electrically operated band and circular saws, planners, drill presses, cut-off and rip saws and drills, as well as pneumatic hammers, riveters, shears, and caulking machines. Several large and powerful derricks were also added and a new boiler house contained the boiler and engine that operated a head saw having a capacity of 10,000 feet of lumber a day, and it operated the large marine railway. Under the new name of Athens Drydock the investment prospered building modem diesel tugs, covered barges, ice and brick barges, deck scows, and canal boats. Nearly a quarter of a century of ship building had passed when Richard Lenahan died in 1932 and the yard passed on to his son, Max, who ran the shipyard until 1945, when Grumman, Inc. took it over and made aluminum canoes.

There were other shipyards in Athens, to name a few: Howlands, Aliens Shipyard, The Lifeboat and Davit Company, which built lifeboats here during World War II. A great many women worked there during the war. They also built cruisers after WWII. They launched the first cruiser in 1947. In the upper village was L.B. Harrison Shipyard located on the Hudson River just north of Murderers Creek at Brick Row. Harrison made large reinforced concrete barges. Two of the barges were named "Lake Seneca" and "Lake Champlain" launched in 1919. At one time in the upper village there were Red Cross boats built. I was told one is buried near the site where it was last tied up, more research must be done on this.

Athens was a famous name in "Steamboat Days." They built some of the most beautiful and advanced Hudson River Steamboats at the site of the Athens Marine Railway, just to the south edge of our village, which spanned at least 79 years of continued use, if not for longer.

We would be remiss if we did not write of two of Athens most famous boats. Built here, the "Berkshire" and the "Kaaterskill" deserve special mention.

"Berkshire" was built in 1863 by Morton & Edmonds of Athens. She was owned by George H. Powers. She was feet long, had a beam of feet, and a depth of 10 feet. Her engines were built by James Cunningham and had formerly been in the famous Peoples Line steamer "South America." On June 8, 1864, one of the most heart rending disasters occurred to the "Berkshire." She left Hudson in early evening for New York City. As she rounded Krum Elbow (about 2 miles from Hyde Park) a fire was discovered in her crank pit. The cause of the blaze was never determined but it is thought that an interested spectator, who was watching the great crank revolve, accidentally dropped a lighted cigar in some waste cotton in the pit. Flames roared up through the engine shaft setting fire to the deck cargo of baled hay. This cut communications to either end of the boat. There were 130 passengers on the boat most of whom had embarked at Hudson and Catskill. Of these, 40 were either burned to death or drowned. (Special note: There was another "Berkshire" built at Athens. A colossal steel boat went to World War II from Athens in 1941)

The "Kaaterskill" was built by Van Loan & Magee in 1882. She was the largest boat constructed in Athens. Being 281 feet in length, while she was on the ways, travelers on what is now Route 385 had to pass under her bow. Her beam was 38 feet and her depth 10 feet. She had 108 staterooms and 73 cabin berths besides the rooms and berths for officers and crew. Her engine was built by W.A. Fletcher Co., the firm that designed most of the engines in latter day steamboats on the Hudson River and elsewhere. The "Kaaterskill" was a medium-sized boat compared to the larger giants but she was never surpassed for grace, comfort and popularity.

Last but not least let us not forget the most famous boat wreck, made famous by Currier & Ives. Although she was not built in Athens, she met her end off Athens shore. The "Swallow," built in New York City began to run the New York to Albany route in the Spring of 1836. Noted for racing other boats, particularly the "Rochester," a race between the two boats was responsible for the "Swallows" destruction on April 7, 1845.

Crowded with more than 300 passengers, the "Swallow" left Albany for NYC at 6:00 P.M. in a heavy gale and snow squalls along with the "Rochester" and the "Empress." These boats were considered the epitome of elegance, comfort, speed, and safety. They were the forerunners of the great "Palace Steamers" that were to follow. After passing Four Mile Point Light and upon nearing the Village of Athens, 26 miles below Albany, the Second Pilot, who was at the wheel, became confused as the vessel entered Athens west channel. The "Swallow" struck rocky Droopers Island at a 30-degree angle, breaking its back. The stern settled, the boiler furnaces flooded immediately, sheets of smoke, steam, and flames shot upward. Only the hurricane deck remained above the water. A few people escaped to the bow and dropped to the rocks below. The river was dotted with people splashing and swimming, unable to see the shore a few rods in the distance. People from Athens hurried out in small boats to rescue many. The "Empress" and the "Rochester," came up skillfully maneuvering, managed to save 134 passengers.

Loss of life was estimated at 40, although being exact was impossible as no passenger records were kept. The "Swallows" engine ended up in a Troy, NY steel mill and the rest of the wreck was dismantled by Ira Buckman and hauled to Valatie where he built the "Swallow House." This house is still standing and still lived in today along with the wonderful spiral staircase from the boat.

Droopers Island no longer exists as an entire island. It was blasted from the river 30 years after the "Swallow" sunk. Had the "Swallow" struck 50 feet in either direction, she would have plowed harmlessly into mud flats. Over the years many hundreds of boats were built in Athens, some information has slipped through our fingers. Who built the large river clipper ships with their many sails and yards of rope rigging? We do know that the rope walk followed Third Street and out over the Leeds-Athens Road, known as the "Rope Walk." Some ropes as small as 1/4 inchthick and they made some as thick as a mans thigh for use on our vessels.

Information on this research has been from village minutes, newspapers, historian's files, and oral histories from the History Keeper, Betty Jean Poole, Village Historian, this 2nd day of June in the year 2001.