Our story begins with the birth of the land where Petersburgh now is situated. The "Taconic Orogeny" or the creation of the Taconic Mountain Range began some 450 million years ago at a time when the first fish began to appear in the seas and land plants and animals were still millions of years in the future.
Over the millennia these once massive mountains slowly eroded. Then about ten thousand years ago the last ice age smoothed them off to their current contours and produced the stream and river system we know today.
Sometime around 3,000 B.C. the first primitive people entered what is now the Little Hoosick Valley. While no major or permanent Indian settlements have been documented in this area we do know that the path of the Hoosick River provided a major highway for these early people between the Atlantic Coast and the interior regions of what is now New York State.
In 1631 Kiliaen van Rensselaer received title to a vast spread of land which included most of what is today Rensselaer County. For many years afterwards this land remained wild and vacant. The earliest European settlers in Petersburgh appear to have arrived sometime during the 1730's. A petition in 1764 to the Governor of New York from several of these pioneers reveals that at that time they had been on their land for over 30 years.
These colonists were certainly of Dutch stock. As early as the late 1600's Dutch trappers and later farmers had been pushing up the Hoosick River Valley. By 1740 a thriving settlement, commonly known as "Dutch Hoosic", had been established at the juncture of the Hoosick and Little Hoosick Rivers (now North Petersburgh). The rich bottomlands that had been created by these two rivers were turned into productive farms. Indeed we have indications that much of this land was treeless at the time the settlers arrived and was thus only waiting for cultivation.
Nevertheless, times were hard. Continuous wars with the French and the Indians resulted in much destruction and bloodshed. On several occasions the primitive farms along the Hoosick and Little Hoosick were burned out and their inhabitants killed or dragged off as slaves to Canada. In 1747 the entire settlement of Dutch Hoosick was sacked and burned by French troops. Then in 1754 the rebuilt settlement was once again put to the torch by marauding Indians.
Finally, with the end of the last French & Indian War in 1763, life returned to normal, and by 1767 the area around Dutch Hoosick was once again filled with farmsteads. Some settlers had ventured up the Little Hoosick, including one "Pietrus Simmon" the farm master of the Patroon van Rensselaer. He established a farm on "... both sides of the Cleyne Hosick Creek" near where the Berlin Cemetery is now located.
At about this time a few settlers from New England began to push into the valley. By the time of the American Revolution this area, while still thinly populated, was nevertheless very agitated by the events of the day. Many of the original Dutch inhabitants retained their loyalty to the British Crown while the New Englanders seemed more disposed towards the rebellion. Families like the "Defoes" left to serve the King, never to return. Only the corruption of their name "Dayfoot" is left to mark their contribution to the settlement of the Little Hoosic.
As the Revolution was winding down the van Rensselaers decided to make a concerted effort to attract settlers to their lands. Since the coastal regions of Rhode Island and Connecticut were overpopulated and teeming with unemployed young men recently discharged from service in the Continental Army, the van Rensselaers sent out glowing advertisements to induce these people to settle in the Little Hoosic Valley.
The advertisements worked! Before long a flood of people with names like Hewitt, Church, Moon, Allen, Weaver, Lewis and Maxon came rushing in. They procured their leases and began to clear and work the land. However, it was not easy going for these young New Englanders. The first few winters were hard and they found themselves relying for help from the already established Dutch settlers.
Indeed, the van Rensselaer's farm master, ‘Pietrus' or Peter Simmon was so helpful that when in 1791 the northern part of Stephentown was broken off to form a new town, it was named after him.
On March 18, 1791 the New York State Legislature passed an act that as of April 4 of that year "... a distinct and separate town by the name of Petersburgh..." would be established. The original town boundaries included not only the present Petersburgh, but also much of what is today Berlin and Grafton. Indeed it is somewhat ironic that the man after whom Petersburgh was named actually lived in what is today the Town of Berlin.
The early years of the 19th Century saw Petersburgh grow into a boom town. Agriculture provided the major means of support for the town's growing population, and the Little Hoosick and its many tributaries provided an abundant source of cheap energy.
The hamlets of Petersburgh Four Corners (North Petersburgh), Rensselaer's Mills (South Petersburgh) and Stillman Village all developed around the many mills and manufacturies that were established to process the bountiful production of farm and forest.
It was at this time that Petersburgh had its largest population: almost 3,000 people. However, parts of the Town were broken off in 1806 & 1807 to form the Towns of Berlin & Grafton. In 1813 a terrible epidemic swept through the Little Hoosick Valley killing hundreds. Then in 1816 a strange quirk of nature produced the "year of no summer". It snowed throughout most of May, and on July 4th the Little Hoosic was frozen over! Since no crops could be planted, much less harvested, there was widespread starvation.
As early as 1812 Petersburgh had a public library and ten school houses. In 1820 the population of the Town numbered 2,248 souls. Among them were: 485 farmers, 92 mechanics, 3 merchants, 1 foreigner, 12 free blacks and 4 slaves. Taxable property in the Town amounted to $280,409. There were 12,675 acres of improved land, 2,172 cattle, 532 horses, and 5,591 sheep. 42,211 yards of cloth were produced. There were 2 grist mills, 5 saw mills, 3 fulling mills, 3 carding machines, 1 distillery and 1 ashery.
Men from Petersburgh served in both the War of 1812 & the Mexican War. Perhaps the best known veteran of the former was Aaron Worthington who kept an inn at South Petersburgh and also was one of the builders of the Petersburgh Baptist Church.
During the Civil War many of Petersburgh's young men saw service. The majority appear to have served in Company ‘A' of the 125th Regiment, New York Volunteers. The letters of one of them, Charles Sweet, survive and give us a graphic description of life in the Army of the Potomic.
Like towns all over the north, Petersburgh sacrificed its share to preserve the Union. Over thirty men from our little valley never saw the hills of home again.
During the 1860's the Harlem Railroad pushed an extension down the valley and with it brought the hope of new prosperity. However, in reality the advance of industry and transportation did just the opposite. The census figures tell the tale. Between 1880 and 1910 the population of Petersburgh dropped from 1,781 to 1,238! The small enterprises that were scattered about the countryside just could not compete with the large scale operations centered in Troy and Albany.
Nevertheless, a number of businesses continued to thrive in Petersburgh, including several shirt factories, a comb manufacturer and even a book publisher.
Indeed photographs of the Petersburgh area taken between 1880 and 1920 show a truly idyllic setting. The buildings and houses are clean and simple. The surrounding countryside is clear and well tended, and perhaps most telling of all, the faces of the people seem to gleam in way not usually seen in period photos.
In 1911 a fire which destroyed Horace Wells' mill in South Petersburgh also took with it the Lower Bridge.
The Town Fathers decided a modern structure was needed, and after reviewing various designs, accepted a bid from the Cole-Mortman Company for a concrete arch bridge. When completed, this bridge was the longest concrete span in Rensselaer County.
The town was so pleased with it that they had bridges of similar design built to replace the Upper Bridge and the one over Coon Brook. The new Upper Bridge, however, was replaced only a decade later by the present structure because of the routing of the new Taconic Trail.
This project, which was begun in 1926, probably did more to alter the nature and appearance of South Petersburgh than anything else during the 20th century. Buildings were torn down and road beds moved. On the other hand, the project provided jobs for local people and when completed, the Taconic Trail made it easier for Petersburgh farmers to sell their produce in Williamstown, where because it was a college town, it was said they could get better prices than down in Troy.
By the middle years of the 20th Century the population had dropped below 1,000 souls, and Petersburgh was just a quiet, country town. Yet Petersburgh continued to be unique. At the end of World War II, the town chose to honor its veterans with something more practical than a statue or stone monument, and so over the next eight years the residents volunteered their efforts to build the Veterans' Memorial Hall.
In the late 1950's New York State decided to widen Route 22. As a result, the old Litcher Tavern (a.k.a. the Eldred House) in North Petersburgh, which was built in 1766, was slated for demolition. Town Board member Paul Green led a desperate fight to save the building, but to no avail. The bulldozers went to work, and one of the last vestiges of Petersburgh's colonial history had disappeared.
On April 1, 1976 the Town Hall (formerly the old District No. 4 School House) burned to the ground. Along with it went the Fire House and the library.
Both buildings were replaced in 1978. Then in 1981, one of the finest architectural landmarks in the County, the Petersburgh Baptist Church, also went up in flames. Fortunately it too has been rebuilt, albeit on a more modest scale.
In 1991 as Petersburgh celebrated its two hundredth birthday, the town faced many challenges, but it also had much to look forward to. While some of its oldest structures had disappeared, and the forest had reclaimed many a pasture and field, the independent, hardworking and neighborly character of Petersburgh's citizens remained unchanged.
Perhaps once again we can take a hint from the population figures. By some happy coincidence the 1990 census counted 1,461 people in town, exactly the same number as was recorded a century earlier in the 1890 census.
- Peter Schaaphok - Author/Historian (Copyrights Town of Petersburgh)