Social History: Golden Era



"Part of High Falls"

Image from: N.P. Willis, "Trenton Falls, Picturesque and Descriptive," 1868




John Sherman was pastor of the Barneveld Unitarian Church, served as headmaster of the Barneveld School, and made significant contributions at each; his lasting legacy to the region was through his association with Trenton Falls. The future "Father of Trenton Falls," having stumbled his way through the dense wilderness to the falls of the Kuyahoora, could not foresee the consequences of his journey one fateful day in 1806. He was immediately overwhelmed by the rare beauty and awesome untamed fury that was Trenton Falls. In the few years that followed, Sherman's enthusiasm for the cascades led to the purchase of a portion of the western bank of West Canada Creek and the construction of a small cabin on the banks overlooking the gorge at the lower end of the chasm. He intended to use it as a temporary outpost for hosting visitors on day trips to the gorge, but the cottage soon became a residence for his family, and a lodge for the overnight accommodation of a few visitors. Ultimately, it became a focal point for the enjoyment of the splendor of the great amber river, and its launch into the eyes of the world and the annals of American geology and paleontology.

John Sherman's appreciation and admiration of Trenton Falls including its rocks, its fossils, and its wonderful natural scenery, laid the foundation for the development of Trenton Falls as a world-class geological locality and tourist destination by the mid 1800's. Beginning just after his death in 1828, and extending for 7 decades, John Sherman's daughter and son-in-law firmly established the wondrous Trenton Falls and her father's Rural Resort as a “must-see” attraction. It was known for its magnificent scenery, untamed waters, amazing geology, and spectacular fossils, and also for its elegance and opulence in culture and fine-living.

The following discussion highlights some of the developments in the history of the Trenton Falls Resort, and their impact on both social culture and American geology. The “Golden Era” refers to the period of maximum influence of Trenton Falls in both scientific and social circles. Historical details are adapted from discussions from several books including: Pitcher (1915), Thomas (1951), Yochelson, (1998), and Keesler (1999). >>Back to Top

Up-scaling of the Rural Resort

Although Trenton Falls had been first brought into public view by John Sherman through the construction of his Rural Resort and the publication of his grand description of Trenton Falls, the true notoriety of the falls came in the years after his death in 1828. Maria Sherman Moore, who had grown up here, shared her father's awe and appreciation of the beauty that was Trenton Falls, and upon his death carried on in his footsteps. Maria had married a well-to-do New Yorker who also had an instant appreciation for the Trenton Falls region. Together Maria and her husband Michael Moore fulfilled the dreams of her father and worked tirelessly to provide accommodations for the crowds of sightseers, artists, writers and reporters, politicians, paleontologists and geologists alike. >>Back to Top




Dawn of the “Golden Era”

The original Rural Retreat saw several major improvements during the 20-year period following Sherman 's death, and the ultimate development of Trenton Falls came in 1851, when Michael Moore first opened the Trenton Falls Hotel to take the place of the smaller resort. With the opening of the Black River and Utica Railroad in 1855, the accessibility of Trenton Falls to travelers through the Mohawk Valley was made all the more pleasurable and rapid. The scale and opulence of Moore's Hotel was unparalleled in the region and together with the natural beauty of Trenton Falls, it attracted many celebrities of the day. The defining event for Trenton Falls came in 1863 during the middle of the Civil War when Secretary of State and ex-Governor of New York, William H. Seward, chose Trenton


Image from Thomas, (1951)


Falls to host an important meeting of foreign diplomats. Due to the natural beauty, fine accomodations, and cultural refinement of the Trenton Falls Resort, Seward selected the site far from the battle-raged south. He knew it would showcase the development, both agriculturally and socially, of the United States during this time. Seward hoped that the tour of the northern states including New York and Trenton Falls would engender support for the north's efforts to end the war. Indeed, the presence of the many political dignitaries in central New York was a major event in the history of the region, but it was also a golden moment in the history of Trenton Falls. (Pitcher, 1915; Thomas, 1951) >>Back to Top

The end of the “Golden Era”

In the ensuing years the notoriety of Trenton Falls dwindled, although it maintained a steady stream of faithful visitors until the 1880's. It was supplanted ultimately by the extension of rail lines into the Adirondacks and the Thousand Islands. By 1888, the plethora of new hotels, resorts and lodges in these not-so-distant regions competed for vacationers, and resulted in a decrease in the number of visitors to the Trenton Falls Resort. Unfortunately, the rich history and scenic accolades of Trenton Falls was not enough to sustain the continued development of the Resort. In May of 1888 the dynamic, cultured Michael


Image from Thomas, (1951)









Left: Plaque Marking the Site of Moore's Hotel and the meeting place of Secretary of State William H. Seward


Moore passed away, leaving the resort in the hands of his son and wife. His son made efforts to continue the operation of the hotel by expanding access to the gorge, and establishing a direct line to the newly constructed Herkimer-Remsen railroad which opened in 1893. However, the hotel soon faded to a mere whisper of its former glory. After a lifetime of living at Trenton Falls, in 1899 Maria Sherman Moore closed the chapter on the “Golden Era” of Trenton Falls when she made the heartbreaking decision to sell the property to the Utica Electric Light and Power Company for the purpose of building a hydroelectric plant on the site. (Thomas, 1951) >>Back to Top


Image from Thomas, (1951)


The First Geological Surveys

John Sherman was active in the recruitment of early geologists and paleontologists for visits to the falls. Michael and Maria Moore continued to host influential scientists at the resort, including those working for the first official New York State Geological Survey. Beginning in the late 1830's, State Geologists Timothy Conrad and Lardner Vanuxem were assigned the tasks of investigating and reporting on the rocks of the central New York region. Already established as a unique geological locality by the famous Amos Eaton, often considered the “Father of North American Geology,” Trenton Falls was a prime locale for investigation and description. With the establishment of the Rural Resort at the gorge, Trenton Falls was an easily accessed field locality. Vanuxem and Conrad undoubtedly enjoyed their work due to the posh setting and comfort afforded at Trenton Falls. They presented the results of their surveys and began the process of describing, cataloguing, and otherwise communicating the geological record as exposed at Trenton Falls. These first reports described the general arrangement of strata and the taxonomy of the many fossils within the limestones.

After the publication of the survey reports in the 1840's, and a number of other natural history papers around the same time, many educated Americans and international naturalists became interested in the natural history of the world, and indeed of the Trenton locality. Given the immense numbers of fossil specimens, and the occurrence of unique species of trilobites, diverse echinoderms, and wide varieties of brachiopods the Trenton was soon recognized for its fossils. There was a newly-found appreciation for natural history artifacts in all levels of society during the mid to late 1800's, and numerous private collectors and visitors to the gorge found the exquisite fossils of Trenton Falls to be of great interest. With the notoriety of the Trenton Falls Resort, the publication of these widely circulated reports helped to further the interest in both the locality and in the fossils themselves. >>Back to Top

Fossil Quarrying, and Amateur Paleontologists and Geologists

Capitalizing on the numerous requests for fossil specimens and the large number of local farm quarries, Michael Moore encouraged local residents to collect, prepare, and sell fossil specimens to the visitors of the falls and the resort. Many local farmers had become aware of the occurrence of these petrefactions during earlier quarrying operations for building stones, and had become private collectors themselves. With the development of the Trenton Falls Resort and the unpreceented demand for “souvenirs” in the mid-1850's to 1860's, many local farmers supplemented their family income by quarrying fossils for resale at the Trenton Falls Resort and elsewhere.


Sherman-Moore Family Cemetary at Trenton Falls

Photo by: Tom Whitelely, 2004




Sherman Falls

Drawing by E.C. Taylor (From Vanuxem, 1842)










This fact was indeed true for the William Rust family. Beginning with his father Hiram, the Rust Family took advantage of the small quarries opened in the 1820's on their own farmstead located on the east side of West Canada Creek. William found himself to be an excellent fossil collector and became an expert on locating, extracting and identifying magnificent specimens. Although it is known that William Rust and his father sold many fossils to visitors at the resort, his own personal collections were unparalleled and often the envy of collectors and professionals alike (Yochelson, 1998). The establishment of William Rust as a noteworthy local geologist and amateur fossil collector kindled the fire of yet another legacy of the Trenton Falls region: the great Charles Doolittle Walcott. >>Back to Top

A legend is born

Charles Doolittle Walcott grew up in Utica, New York during the years immediately preceding the Civil War. At the age of 11 he was hired to assist with summer chores on the farm of William and Hiram Rust. Although he had previously been interested in fossils, Walcott's interest was set ablaze through his association with William Rust, amateur geologist and paleontologist. By the end of the ensuing decade, Walcott's own collections and knowledge of fossil specimens far surpassed that of many professional paleontologists of the time. By the time he was just 25 years old, Walcott had made some of the most important fossil discoveries of the time. His prodigious work on Trenton and Utica-age trilobites collected from the vicinity of Trenton Falls resulted in the publication and documentation of the presence and anatomy of trilobite appendages. It was immediately clear that Walcott's contributions from the Trenton fossils were only the start of his incredible and celebrated career with the United States Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution.>>Back to Top

The Indelible Legacy of Trenton Falls

Despite the sale of the Trenton Falls Resort and the end to the glorious days of the cascades, the legacy of John Sherman, Michael and Maria Moore, and the Trenton Falls Resort had already been cast, literally, in stone. The record of their many contributions lie not in the walls of their beautiful resort, nor in the minds of long-forgotten well-to-do's, but lie instead within the walls of the gorge itself. The indelible record of Earth's history as recorded in these rocks and interpreted by scores of natural historians was contingent upon the events of John Sherman's first trip to Trenton Falls in 1806. >>Back to Top


Rust Farmstead, Town of Russia

circa 1879

Image from: History of Herkimer County, 1879 (Yochelson, 1998)


Charles Doolittle Walcott

Age 1-2, circa 1851-1852

Image from Yochelson, 1998.


© 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College