The Terrible Mohawk — River of Death

January 6, 2009

    It is, without a doubt, one of the most awesome and terrifying rivers in the world.  Thousands of lives have been lost in its churning, violent waters.  The U.S. Dept. of Interior officially classifies it as “unnavigable.”  And despite its location in central New York State, it is as mysterious as if it were located in Darkest Africa, for most New Yorkers have never seen the longest part of it.  It is the Mohawk River.

    From its benign origins in Lewis County, the Mohawk River starts out as a peaceful and very ordinary river.  Flowing south to the town of Rome, it then turns east to Utica, after which it parallels the New York State Thruway.  But approximately 30 miles east of Utica, the river changes suddenly.  It becomes very turbulent, and from there until it empties into the Hudson River, it is over 60 miles of rampaging Death, and scientists have never been able to explain why.  It is as if the river has simply gone mad!

    The Indians of the region have an explanation, however — one based on their legends.  Thousands of years ago, good spirits and evil spirits fought for control of the land.  The good spirits pushed the evil spirits into what was then a small river and bound them in it with a magic spell.  The evil spirits turned the river into a seething torrent in their frantic efforts to get out.  The Indians call the river Kah-ne-sa-ta-ke, or “river of evil spirits.”  They don’t even try to fish it, for there are simply no fish.

    In 1821, an expedition led by Robert Hood attempted to navigate the Mohawk River, despite dire warnings from the Indians.  The entire expedition was torn to pieces by the freakish currents and sharp rocks and plunged to their deaths over the 160-foot cataract near what is now Amsterdam.

    On both banks the river is fenced off to keep people well away, but suicidal people have gotten past it anyway to throw themselves to instant death.  So, too, have daredevils who have attempted to float down the river in their “unsinkable” vessels of imaginative designs — pontoon rafts, tubes, bubble craft, and so on.  All have perished.

    Ten miles past Amsterdam’s “Cataract of Death,” the Mohawk passes through a canyon at a place known as the “Roaring Rapids,” where the sound is amplified into a deafening roar by the shape of the canyon walls.  It then flows north of Schenectady, gouging the earth like a knife, following a jagged path until it finally spills into the Hudson River opposite the town of Troy on the east bank.  Here it forms a vortex known as the Waterford Maelstrom, the fiercest whirlpool in any river on earth.  Boats must pass as far to the east bank of the Hudson as possible in order to avoid it.  Any careless boater who is sucked into it has little hope of survival.

    In the 1930’s, Army engineers studied the possibility of harnessing the Mohawk’s savage power to produce electricity, but the idea was abandoned as too dangerous.  There are no bridges over the violent portion of the Mohawk either, because there is no safe way to build them.

    The Mohawk River is a freak of nature and must be accepted as such.  What would happen if the spell that bound the evil spirits were broken, allowing them to escape?  Would the Mohawk River become peaceful again?  Or would all of central New York State become a Land of Horror?

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.    E-mail:


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