The Former Life of Libraries
Church - Mastodon - Library
Steve Lackmann, Cohoes City Historian
In 1831, what would become the City of Cohoes was merely a tiny hamlet of 150 people at the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers in upstate New York. The major physical feature of Cohoes was the ‘great cataract of the Mohawk’… better known as the Cohoes Falls. These falls, along with easy water transportation and the abundant waterpower, paved the way for the beginnings of a strong textile industry.
The city owes its real beginnings to a manufacturing corporation called the Cohoes Company. This company also sponsored the establishment of the Episcopal Church in Cohoes. After several church buildings erected by the Episcopalians, as well as several financial crises, St. John’s erected the present library building in 1896.
The present library was home to the St. John’s parish until the early 1970s. Declining church membership, as well as escalating costs for building upkeep and maintenance, led to the building of a new, smaller church. When the parish moved, the City of Cohoes purchased the property for use as a Human Resources Center as well as the home of an expanded Cohoes Public Library.
Up until that time, the Cohoes Public Library had several homes. The earliest library was located in City Hall, but later moved to the Johnston Mansion, whose occupants once headed the Harmony Mills, the largest textile mill in the city. The mansion was ultimately sold to a private individual, and the library had to find a new home.
The library thrived and expanded its collection and services in the following years. However, the building still remained a church, and it was determined that it would need substantial rehabilitation and modernization to bring it up to date to serve the people of Cohoes.
Under the administration of Mayor Ronald Canestrari, who would later go on to be a member of the New York State Assembly, the library received grants and funding to modernize the building’s mechanical and electrical systems to better accommodate the needs of the community. Work was completed in 1986 and, the library moved into the space we know today.
Shortly after the renovations, the library became home to several artifacts important to Cohoesiers. The first was ‘Marty the Mastodon.’ In 1866, workmen laying the foundation for the Harmony Mills uncovered the skeletal remains of a mastodon, a prehistoric mammoth that inhabited upper New York State during the last ice age. The bones of the mastodon were sent to the New York State Museum, and a model of the mastodon was built using the skeletal remains as basis for how the animal looked. After years of display in the museum, the library declared the model surplus. Once Cohoesiers realized the mastodon would be removed, they petitioned the museum to have the model relocated to the library. They were successful and ‘Marty’ has been at home in the library ever since!
In 1988, the library was the recipient of a rare 1880s grandfather hall clock made by the E. Howard Company in Boston, Massachusetts. The clock had resided in the Johnston Mansion, but the Mansion had been sold, and the clock that had once stood proudly in the grand entrance hall was donated to the library. It has been keeping time in the library ever since.