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
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,"
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
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.