A City Born of the Water
The friendly, scenic city of Little Falls is a vibrant cultural gem that sparkles among the whitewater rapids of the Mohawk River. Indeed, Little Falls owes its very existence to the waters of the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. The rugged gorge in which Little Falls is snuggled was carved nearly 13,000 years ago by an enormous waterfall draining the Glacial Lake Iroquois at the end of the last ice age. The earliest European settlers in Little Falls, who arrived in the early eighteenth century, were attracted by the need to portage river boats and their cargos around the rapids of the Mohawk River, which descends 40 feet in the vicinity of Little Falls. After the Revolutionary War, as the new nation sought to develop a waterway to bring the agricultural bounty of Western New York and Ohio to the cities of the Eastern seaboard, Little Falls became home to a number of important locks on the series of canals, to include the Erie Canal, that tamed the mighty Mohawk River. Today, the visitor to Little Falls can explore the ruins of the oldest extant lock in the United States (1795), as well as the tallest operating lock on the modern NYS Canal System (Lock 17).
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the waters of the Mohawk River continued to give life to the economy of Little Falls, by powering the textile mills that sprang up along its banks during the Industrial Revolution. Thousands upon thousands of immigrants arrived to work in the mills, and gave Little Falls a unique character as a culturally and ethnically diverse place. The mill workers, 70% of whom were women, played a major role in the development of the US labor movement when they went on strike in 1912, organized by the socialist nurse Helen Schloss, who ironically had been brought to the city by social progressives among the mill owners seeking to better the health of their workers. The strike lasted for three months, and drew the attention of the nation with lurid newspaper stories of policemen on horseback battling strikers throughout the city, and of trainloads of prominent IWW organizers, anarchists and Schenectady Socialists arriving to support the workers. Although the strikers eventually prevailed after the State of New York stepped in to mediate, within years the beginning of an exodus of mills to North Carolina and other southern states rendered the victory a pyrrhic one.
Today, nearly all of the mills are gone, leaving the population of Little Falls but a third of what it was at the heyday, and the canal serves pleasure boats more often than cargo vessels. But the economy and culture of Little Falls are still tied closely to the waters of the Mohawk River. Several industrial facilities, such as Burrows Paper and Redco Foods, still harness the Mohawk River. The Little Falls Marina and Rotary Park serve as a gathering place for the community, and as a convenient mooring place for boaters seeking amenities as well as access to arts, culture, dining, and fun civic festivals throughout the season. Canal Place and Benton's Landing are the epicenter of a bustling arts district that features a regional art center, galleries, shops, and some of the finest antiquing in Upstate New York. Main Street in Little Falls offers modern shopping opportunities, and is the gateway to the sprawling Little Falls National Historic District, which encompasses nearly 350 historically significant buildings that preserve the heritage of the vibrant way of life that the Mohawk River and Erie Canal made possible in this scenic small city.