THE COHOES MASTODON
The first mastodons (Mammut americanum) appeared about 1.6 million years ago, during the early Miocene period, and continued in various forms through the Pleistocene epoch (1,600,000 years ago to 10,000 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.
This event became the talk of the town and was quite vividly described in one issue of the Cohoes Cataract Newspaper: "Those who during the present generation, have trod the earth of Cohoes have never taken onto their wildest imaginings the strange things that were concealed beneath the surface. But the late excavations made by the Harmony Company have brought to light the fact that a huge mastodon once dwelt where our village now stands. Fifty feet below the surface the jaw of this monster has been found, and has created in our village such sensations, few events ever excited...Yet excavation has revealed other wonders, little less remarkable."
Notorious cynics, some newspapers published several discrediting accounts, such as the one which appeared in The Rutland Herald in April 1870, claiming the mastodon was nothing more than an old circus elephant. They recounted a story told by William Bradley of Ballston:
"In the fall of 1866, he was going from Schenectady to Troy, following the elephant, which in those days was taken from place to place in the night to escape observation and when near what is now Cohoes, but which then had only a house or two, he found that the elephant had fallen dead in the road. The Keeper had sawed off the tusks and was cutting the body into pieces that it might be drawn off the road. This was no small job, for the elephant was one of the largest ever exhibited in the country.
Mr. Bradley had a nice span of Canadian Ponies on his peddler's cart. He took them off and assisted by Aron Ackley drew the body off the road and dropped it into a bog hole some six or eight roads distant, the identical one, as Mister Bradley thinks in which this so called mastodon was found."
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 transfered 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 lated moved to the State Education building on Washindton 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 Mastodont skeleton was disarticulated 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 rearticulated using modern techniques and has been on display near the Madison Avenue entrance to the New York State Museum in Albany since 1997.
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. Currently the exibition is under going reconstruction. Some of the vital statistics of the Cohoes Mastodon, a young male, are:
|Spinal column, length...................||15 feet |
|Height at shoulder, skeleton........||8 ft. 4-3/4 in.|
|Height at shoulder, restoration ...||8 ft. 5-1/2 in.|
|Pelvis, width.................................||5 ft. 5 in.|
|Thighbone, length........................||4 ft.|
|Tusks, length................................||4ft.6 in.|
|Elevation of head.........................||8 ft. 11 in.|
|Weight.........................................||5 to 6 tons|