Landmarks: West of Schenectady, the land along the Mohawk is steeped in lore
Irwin Splittberger can’t get around the Glenville Hills like he used to, but he still has his memories.
“We’d walk all over the town of Glenville when I was a kid, and we could get to the high point on Hoffman Hill Road where the trees didn’t grow,” said Splittberger, an 88-year-old Rotterdam resident who grew up in Hoffmans. “You could see Schenectady to the east, you could look across the river at the Rotterdam Hills, and you could look west and see the Mohawk Mills’ sign blinking in Amsterdam seven miles away. It was quite a view.”
Splittberger’s vantage point may have been the same as that of Schenectady founder Arendt Van Curler, who, in 1642 after a trip out through the Mohawk Valley, returned to the Groote Flachte (Great Flat) near present-day Schenectady on his way back to Rensselaerwyck (Albany) and came across “the most beautiful land that eyes of man ever beheld.” It’s hard to say if Van Curler was on the north side of the Mohawk River in Glenville, perhaps in the area known as “Touareuna,” or on the Rotterdam side of the river at “Yantapuchaberg.”
The two names are familiar only to residents of the area and diehard history buffs. But for anyone heading west from Schenectady, the two slopes dominate the landscape. On the right, the Glenville Hills rise sharply up to 1,100 feet in the area of Hoffmans around seven miles west of the village of Scotia, and on the left their counterparts reach 1,300 feet high above the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction.
The area known as Hoffmans was settled in 1720 by Johannes Van Epps, whose descendents still live on the farm up on Touareuna Road. In 1790, Harmanus Vedder started ferry service there across the river to Pattersonville, and in 1835 he sold the operation to John Hoffman.
According to local historian Dave Cornelius, a descendent of both the Mohawk and Mahican, “Touareuna” was an Iroquois term originally referring to the high ground in Glenville and Rotterdam that formed the eastern geographical boundary of the Iroquois “Long House.” The Iroquois Confederacy consisted of the Mohawks, “keepers of the eastern door,” along with the Oneidas, Onondagas, Tuscaroras, Cayugas, and Senecas.
“To the Mohawks, ‘Touareuna’ meant ‘neighboring hills,’ and referred to both sides, and ‘Yantapuchaberg’ meant ‘John-ear-of-corn-hill,’ ” said Cornelius. “There were small groups of Mohawks living on both sides of the river in that area, and at Touareuna there was definitely a Mohawk village. It was probably somewhere around the Van Epps farm but we don’t know where exactly.”
Most roads connecting with either Route 5 in Glenville or Route 5s in Rotterdam head uphill, and nowhere is the incline so steep and passage so narrow as that of Touareuna Road in Glenville. Heading down from the top of Touareuna, the road is so steep and narrow that town officials close it during the winter months.
“They put up signs and red flags, but there’s always somebody who thinks they can go down the hill no matter what,” said 87-year-old Betty Hagan, who lives near the top of Touareuna where the land starts to level off to the north toward the small hamlet of West Glenville. “It’s very hilly, and not a lot has changed up here.”
During the winter months, Hagan and her few neighbors have to head north out to Swart Hill Road and then come back down through Wolf Hollow Road — only a slightly less- risky driving maneuver than using Touareuna — to reach Route 5.
According to Bruce Auspelmyer, who lives on Wolf Hollow Road, the path of Touareuna Road used to come down the ridge in a straight line all the way to Route 5 instead of taking a sharp left-hand turn as it does now to intersect with Wolf Hollow Road, just a couple of yards up the hill from Route 5.
“Before they turned Route 5 into a four-lane highway, Touareuna came right down by the creek and the cliffs onto Route 5,” said Auspelmyer, who has lived near the junction of Wolf Hollow and Touareuna roads for 61 years. “There was a famous parking area right there and people would always be pulling over to look at the view.”
The creek Auspelmyer is referring to is Chaughtanoonda, and the ledge and rock outcrop that parallels it is called Kinquariones. Throughout history, both names have been spelled in various ways, and both are as a result of Wolf Hollow, a fault in the earth’s surface approximately 1,000 feet deep and a mile long that was created half a billion years ago by the same plate shifting that formed the Appalachian Mountain range. The fault itself, often called Hoffmans Fault by geologists, extends from the Helderbergs in Albany County up into the southern Adirondacks.
A way west
“One of the reasons the Mohawk Valley is so impressive is because it formed one of the glacial meltwater outlets at the end of the last Ice Age,” said Union College geology professor Kurt Hollacher. “While the rocks themselves are from the Ordovician Age, about 440 [million] to 450 million years ago, the last Ice Age was only about 25,000 years ago. The glaciers had previously extended down to New York, Long Island and into Pennsylvania, and as they gradually retreated north at one point the Mohawk suddenly became one of the major channels for that meltwater to escape to the Atlantic Ocean. You end up with a fairly steep valley, with highlands on both sides and the Mohawk River Valley in between, nearly all the way out to the Syracuse area.”
As the creation of the Erie Canal in the 1820s indicates, the break between Touareuna and Yantapuchaberg was easily the best route west for travelers. The Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee was an option for some, but for any 19th century American living between the Canadian border and Georgia, the decision to head west through the Mohawk Valley was an easy one.
“You might think that’s overstating it a bit,” said Hollacher, “but I would say that’s right.”
Skis and motorcycles
Both Touareuna and Yantapuchaberg offered opportunities for skiers, and throughout the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s the Schenectady Winter Sports Club had, at certain times, lifts operating and trails to traverse on both sides of the river. However, the building of the New York State Thruway in 1954 on the Rotterdam side, and the widening of Route 5 from a two-lane highway into a four-lane road a few years later in Glenville sharply curtailed those activities.
Back in the 1940s, there were also motorcycle races held near Hoffmans Hill Road where Splittberger’s grandfather, John Splittberger, nicknamed Spitzie, started a garage back in 1927.
“Our house was right there down on Route 5 next to the garage,” said Splittberger, “and the back of the garage was just 20 feet away from the railroad track. I can remember the first motorcycle my dad bought in 1940, and then they started a motorcycle riding club and we had races up the hill. Nobody ever got hurt. They weren’t going fast enough.”
The Splittbergers’ garage began focusing on servicing motorcycles in 1940, and in 1946 the family opened a new store, Spitzie’s Motorcycle Center, in Scotia. In 1957, Spitzie’s moved to 1970 Central Ave. in Colonie, where it continues to be one of the Capital Region’s largest dealers of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Along with its history of skiers, motorcyclists and Indian wars — the Mohawks and the Mahicans fought a battle in 1669 in Wolf Hollow — Touareuna has also served as a temporary home to U.S. military troops.
“There was an encampment of World War I soldiers up in that area, and there’s some interesting newspaper accounts of how cold and miserable it was,” said Gary Bernhardt, who grew up just west of Scotia and now lives on the other side of the river in the town of Florida. “When I was a youth, we’d go tramping through the Glenville Hills and we’d be gone all day. You never had to worry about anything. There weren’t many dwellings up there, and there still aren’t, but it was a different time. Back then, there were no restrictions. People didn’t get mad at you for walking on their property.”
Bernhardt, a past president of the Van Epps-Hartley Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association, learned much of the history about the Glenville Hills by reading the books of Percy Van Epps. Along with being a farmer who lived up on Touareuna, Van Epps was appointed the first town of Glenville historian in 1926 and the first Schenectady County historian in 1929.
“I used to hike up past the Van Epps farm all the time, and I’m very familiar with all of his work,” said Bernhardt. “He did a wonderful job of documenting everything about the place, and I think he’s the reason that today we still recognize names like Touareuna and Kinquariones.”
For some, Touareuna refers to most of the Glenville Hills, and to others the term relates only to the high ground just west of Wolf Hollow and along Touareuna Road. The road also happens to be the border between Schenectady and Montgomery counties, and was generally known as the original western boundary of the Schenectady Patent, the royal land grant in 1664 that created the township.
In his 1642 letter to his uncle Kiliaen Van Renssealer in which he mentions “the beautiful land,” Van Curler gives the indication that on the way west from Albany he crossed the Mohawk River near the Great Flat to avoid a Mohawk village. It is likely that it was on the return trip, according to Cornelius, that Van Curler actually took notice of the view.
“It’s hard to say exactly where he was, but it probably was on the return trip, and he probably was up on Touareuna,” said Cornelius. “So, if he’s on the north side because he’s skirting the Indians, he’s probably up in the Glenville Hills and notices the view on his way back. And, on the north side you had to go up through Wolf Hollow because Kinquariones was the spur of Touareuna that originally came all the way down to the river, until they started blasting away at it to make room for the railroads and the highways. You couldn’t get through there, so you had to go up the mountain.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.