History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume I, Page 382.
The Canajoharie Bridges.-The first bridge over the Mohawk was erected at Canajoharie by Theodore Burr, in 1803.* This Burr is said to have hailed from Burr's Mills, in Jefferson county. This was called by the multitude a bow-bridge, and consisted of a single arch 330 feet long. He commenced the Canajoharie bridge while a foundation was being secured for the one at Trenton. This bridge was found to be too steep in its approach from the abutments, and an inclined stretch was added from each abutment resting upon the arch pretty well up, to overcome the difficulty ; that upon the south shore being some 60 feet long. While this bridge was in the course of erection, said the late Chester L. Simms, the following incident transpired upon it: The arch was across the chasm, and some of the plank were laid, when a workman went on the top of it to bore a hole with an auger. When he attempted to draw the anger the handle came off, and, losing his balance, he fell from that height backwards, and turning a somersault or two struck in the deepest water, came upon his hands and knees at the bottom of the river, rose to the surface, and swam ashore with the auger handle still in his hand. Nothing daunted, within two hours he was again at work upon the top of the arch. Not long after this event, several men crossed the river one evening to go to a spree, and, while returning, one of them fell through a hole near the south abutment into shoal water, and was hurt so as to be laid up for three months.
This bridge had been in use but a short time, when a drove of cattle, passing over it, huddled together upon one side, causing it to settle sensibly on that side. The bridge becoming more insecure, in 1805 Burr sent his brother Arnold to repair
* So said Matthew McCabe, In September, 1859. McCabe was 77 years old at our interview; was a native of Baltimore, and was at work on a bridge Burr was building over the Delaware, at Trenton, N. J., also in 1803. This bridge was about 1,000 feet in length, consisted of three arches with a roadway under them, and was three years in building, at a cost of $370,000. To get a good foundation for piers the water was drawn by the use of coffer-dams, and they dug from 22 to 28 feet below the bed of the river. The tide at every flood filled the dams, and they had to work with 300 or 400 hands day and night. This bridge was still standing 20 years ago-and probably is to-day-with Its original timber. The bridge was covered with cedar and cypress shingles, joined in a shaving machine, and were 28 inches long and half an inch thick at the butt. Contractor Burr also erected a bridge over the Susquenanna, at Harrisburgh, Pa.
the arch, and Mr. McCabe, also at work for the contractor, was sent to assist him. In coming up from Schenectada, McCabe chanced to make the journey in company with Gen. Hull, who, with his family, was on his way to Michigan as its Governor. The bridge could not be rendered safe, and, in 1807, it fell with a crash that was heard several miles distant. The timber was mostly saved, and the next season (1808) Theodore Burr sent his brother Abram Burr to build the second Canajoharie bridge -which was a covered one-setting it on three stone piers. McCabe assisted in the construction of this bridge, as did also Benoni Danks, of Jefferson county.
In the spring of 1822, the second Burr bridge was swept away, and David I. Zielley, a prominent citizen farmer of Palatine, took the contract to erect another. He employed as Boss builder, a Mr. Prentice from Kinderhook. Prentice was a good carpenter, but unused to raising such a structure ; and when the frame was ready-after several ineffectual attempts to raise it-he called the skill of McCabe in requisition, and his experience soon enabled him to rig the gearing so as to put the timber in its place.
A Close Shave.-While this bridge was constructing, the following incident occurred upon it: Henry I. Failing was at work on the bridge, when, as a man above him was driving a pin with a broad axe, it flew from the handle. As it did so, its user shouted : "Look out below!" Failing looked up to discover the cause of alarm, just as the axe cut part of the brim from his bat, shaving his hair and just drawing blood from his scalp. This was a narrow escape from death.
A Perilous Position.-The Zielley bridge was carried away by the ice in the spring freshet of 1833, and its destruction in the day time was a most splendid sight from Canajoharie, as the writer well remembers. After the bridge was removed, and before the deluge subsided, the following incident transpired, which we also witnessed, George G. Johnson and George Caldwell, both of whom resided at Palatine Bridge, and were doing business in Canajoharie, started in a skiff to go home from the latter place. The water covered the flats from the Palatine hillside to the canal. They were both strong, muscular men; but Johnson, as the most experienced, took the oars. The boat ride was watched with no little interest from Canajoharie, as now and then a cake of floating ice was in the channel. The boat struck up the river, and came upon its bank 15 or 20 rods above the bridge, at which time the river bank was there skirted by a row of large trees, mostly elms.
Passing under one of those trees, the limbs of which brushed the heads of the boatmen, Caldwell, sitting in the stern, was observed to catch hold of the branches over head ; and retaining his grasp, from some motive, the boat at once passed from under him, and he sank to his arms in the water. The people on the Canajoharie shore who witnessed his dilemma-too far away to render any assistance-became much excited, looking upon the young navigator as already lost. But Johnson acting coolly, with a word of cheer for his companion, put the boat about with no little skill, and drew him into it, where he was contented to remain until the skiff struck the Palatine shore at a little distance above the bridge abutment, and Caldwell hastened to his home at the inn of Joshua Read, when with dry clothes on, he felt himself safer than when up to his armpits in the Mohawk. Long have those companions in peril battled with life since; but they have now both crossed that unseen river, whose opposite shore is not far distant from all of the human family, who are anxiously looking for a safe landing upon it.
John Stafford, who died in 1878, at the age of 80, assured the writer that he came to Palatine Bridge to reside March 5,1816. When the Zielley bridge went off in 1833, Stafford, who had worked with Prentice upon it, took the contract for building another: and so successfully did he prosecute the work, that in August it was passable for teams. That is the bridge of today. The southern shore was then filled in, extending the abutment some 60 feet toward the river. Walrath and Hiram Allen, two carpenters, were on the plate using mallets or commanders, when the latter caught and Walrath fell off into five feet water, and came out commander in hand unharmed: but nothing could induce him to go upon the frame again. We don't remember any other incident worthy of mention connected with the construction of the bridge, but we do remember the sad fate of Miss Anna Mary, an interesting daughter of Henry Edwards of Canajoharie, who lost her life from it November 1867. She was returning home from Palatine Bridge in the evening, and hearing a runaway horse enter the bridge behind her, she sprang to the door on the westerly side, opening over the middle pier. Whether she leaned against the door and thus pushed it open, or whether for greater security she attempted to step out upon the pier is unknown; but true it is in the darkness she fell off into the water, was carried into the eddy below the pier and was drowned.
Copyright © 1998, -- 2003. Berry Enterprises. All rights reserved. All items on the site are copyrighted. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.