Uncovering the Past - One Bone at a Time (the Cohoes Mastodon)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What secrets lie in your past?  How much do you know about your family history?  What about the history of the home you live in?  The town you live in?   With the busy lives we seem to keep these days between jobs, families, kids school activities, social media, etc.....it seems that the common theme among most folk seems to be "Busy".  Everyone is talking about how busy they are, how stretched they are, how tired they are.  People today barely have time to notice the world they currently live in, much less the world that was before them.  It doesn't take a lot of digging to uncover some pretty interesting facts about my hometown of Cohoes.  In fact, I talked about some of them in my recent post about the Cohoes Falls.  Today I'm going to share another pretty cool historical story that kids especially will find interesting......the story of the Cohoes Mastodon!

As a child I found the Mastodon story pretty incredible.  Even as I recently researched it, the idea of remnants of the Ice Age in my little hometown seems like something out of a children's adventure book.   Yet.....it is true.  At one time right in the area of today's fancy Loft apartments and at the foot of the Cohoes Falls, prehistoric type creatures lived......and died.  Here's the tale of the Cohoes Mastodon.....
The first mastodon's appeared about l.6 million years ago.  "These huge mammals roamed this earth for over a million years but suddenly disappeared, perhaps because of the combined effect of the climate changes, or a series of prolonged winters which made it almost unbearable for the animals to reproduce and feed, or possibly a heat wave. One factor in their extinction was the Ice Age which spread a huge glacier, about two miles thick, over the New York State area. As a result, many of the dead animals were frozen under ice and preserved for thousands of years. Embedded in a clay-like sediment, their bones remained preserved and undecayed. In late September of 1866, when excavation for Mill No. 3 of the Harmony Mills [often known as the "Mastodon Mill"] was begun on the eastern side of Mohawk Street, the bones of a mastodon were found embedded in peat at the north end of the site in two potholes, circular bowl-shaped depressions in bedrock formed by the scouring and grinding action of falling water moving rounded rocks at the base of a waterfall. An accumulation of peat, muck, twigs, beaver-gnawed wood, limbs of trees embedded in rich loam, together with artificial fill, covered the bones to a depth of sixty feet. About a week later workman found molars and lower jaw near the bottom of the peat bed, on the rock plateau above the Mohawk River, near the Cohoes Falls. As they continued working, they unearthed the main part of the pothole in a bed of clay and sand. From then on different parts of the mastodon were discovered. By February of the following year, the big bone hunt was on, and amateur palenentologists found more remains, some sixty feet distant and all well above the level of the modern Mohawk. The bones of the mastodon were kept at the Harmony Mills office for a time where they were visited by many eminent scientists including Professor Marsh of Yale and Hall of Albany. The relics were then placed on exhibition in Troy, then at the county fair, and finally at Harmony Hall in Cohoes. There were many offers to buy the remains but the Harmony Company decided to present them to the state, and in 1867 the state legislature transferred the skeleton to state ownership. The skeleton was exhibited in the State Cabinet of Natural History in Albany, under the direction of State Geologist James Hall, and then later moved to the State Education building on Washington Avenue,
where it remained on display, along with a furry replica, until 1976 when the State Museum was relocated to the Empire State Plaza. The Cohoes Mastodon skeleton was dis-articulated and put into storage; after a furious bidding war, the furry replica found a new home in the Cohoes Library, where it remains. The mastodon exhibited in the State Museum consisted of two mounted skeletons and a life-size restoration of an American mastodon in front of huge mural of the southeastern Catskills, during the last stages of the glacial retreat. Following two decades in storage, the skeleton was painstakingly cleaned and re-articulated using modern techniques and has been on display near the Madison Avenue entrance to the New York State Museum in Albany since 1997."  (Taken from the City of Cohoes website)


I got my first glimpse of the mastodon as a young child when my grandmother took me to the State Museum in the 1960's.  This is how it looked then:
You can imagine that for a child, hearing that this huge mastodon once lived just blocks from your home was pretty impressive.    We recently took my 4 yr old granddaughter to the museum and even as an adult I found it pretty amazing.


"Honey, does this angle make my butt look big?"
When I learned about NY history back in the day, I'm sure I learned about the Indians and maybe even the mastodon, but as we move into adulthood and move towards more pressing matters like child-rearing, careers, etc...we (I) forget that the area we live in is rich in history.....not just our own NY history, but a lot of history that involves this country's freedom.  I wrote a little about that in my post about the Battle of Saratoga : http://gwfirecracker.blogspot.com/2014/09/autumn-1777-war-in-our-backyard.html.  Standing there, overlooking the beautiful countryside that encompasses the Saratoga National Park, it's hard to imagine that a war was once fought on that soil.  Except for the monuments, the placards and the canons, one would barely have any reason to believe that land was once the site of a war, any more than one would imagine a mastodon once walked the earth in the small city of Cohoes.
While I am certainly guilty of taking history for granted, as I age I am much more interested in the people who came before me as well as the stories that tell of the land I call home.  We need to remember that the towns we live in didn't always look like this.  Highways didn't always exist and dirt roads weren't always lined with shopping malls and fast food chains.  It's our job to make sure that the future generations understand this and inherit an interest in local history....history that is not necessarily taught in school.  You may not have a mastodon in your hometown's history, but I urge you to spend a little time finding out what unique stories lie in your town's story and share them with your children and grandchildren.  If my Elena is any indication, they'll think you're pretty cool (and maybe a little pre-historic too)! For more information about the mastodon, use the links below:
As always, thanks for letting me share, Life As I See It!

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