The Cohoes Mastodon Park

alternate history Cohoes Mastodon Park

A vintage postcard for the park. / image: Matt Malette/Albany Archives

It's Other Timelines week on AOA, in which we'll be looking at alternate histories of this place, about big and small things that did or did not happen.

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the official formation of the Cohoes National Wildlife Refuge -- or, as most people here call it, the Cohoes Mastodon Park.

So we thought it'd be interesting to talk with Laura Claverack, manager of the refuge, about the history of the park, charismatic megafauna, and what the future holds for the park's population of mastodons.

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Cohoes Mastodon Park is, obviously, unique. So do we end up with it?

Well, there are two answers to that question, one biological and the other political.

The biology is a fascinating story that we haven't totally unraveled, yet. There were once mastodons across a huge portion of North American, especially through the Midwest in the US. But, the research indicates that they largely disappeared about 11,000 years ago.

In fact, these animals were completely unknown to Europeans until the 1600s. The earliest encounter that we have between Europeans and mastodons is some French trappers who came across a mastodon near what's now Lake Champlain in 1667. The letters are pretty great -- I don't remember exactly what they said, but the trappers just about lost their minds when they saw the animal. They then went on a long question to hunt one down, which they eventually did about a year later. The hide was very highly prized. They proceeded to kill as many as 50 others over the next few years until sightings of the animals tailed off, and for a while it was thought they had been completely wiped out.

Of course, the Native Americans knew about them long before the Europeans. And there are many stories of the mastodons from the various nations. They had hunted the mastodons, too. But their cultures also had great respect for the animals.

We're not totally sure why a pocket of mastodons managed to persist in this part of the world. The best guess right now is that it was a combination of factors. Hunting pressure from humans was, for whatever reason, not as intense here. The rugged Adirondacks provided cover for the mastodons. And there's a unique climate here that allow some of their favorite foods -- a type of spruce, specifically -- to thrive.

I'm not really one to believe in miracles, per se. But let's just say the persistence of mastodons was extraordinarily unlikely.

So they disappear -- or, at least, people thought they disappeared. So how did we end up with mammoths...

Mastodons.

Er, right, mastodons. Sorry.

It's OK. Common mistake, common slip of the tongue. It's just that mastodons and mammoths are totally different animals. They're separated by millions of years of evolution. In fact, mammoths are more closely related to modern elephants than they were to mastodons.

"[M]astodons and mammoths are totally different animals. They're separated by millions of years of evolution. In fact, mammoths are more closely related to modern elephants than they were to mastodons."

Right, of course. OK, then how did we end up with mastodons today?

Well, this is were the politics eventually comes in. It's the mid 1800s and there hadn't been a confirmed mastodon sighting in, like 100 years or something. There were plenty of stories of people seeing them, but no one had captured or killed one. Then in 1847 some loggers in the Adirondacks come across a herd of five mastodons -- three females and two babies. And eventually it was determined there were approximately 27 mastodons still living in the area -- a few groups of females and young, and two or three bands of males. It was a huge, front-page story. It really captured the nation's imagination.

By the latter part of the 1800s, the mastodons had become a tourist draw as people started to head toward the Adirondacks for vacation. That, combined with logging in the area, started to put pressure on the tiny population of mastodons. There were some ugly incidents. Two mastodons were seriously injured in a conflict with loggers and eventually put down. And in one incident, a child was killed when a group of people got too close. I mean, these are 7-foot-tall, 7-ton animals with tusks. They can be very dangerous.

So leaders of the early conservation movement realized that something needed to be done. And in 1899, then-Governor Teddy Roosevelt moved to set up a state park near where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers converge -- that's where the name Mastodon Point State Park comes from.

The thinking, at the time, was that setting up a refuge for the animals in that spot would keep them away from logging activity and they could also serve as a tourist attraction. People could come see the falls, see the mastodons, it would be a whole trip. It's probably not the choice we'd make today, but things were different then.

"Teddy really loved the mastodons and visited them frequently during his short time as governor. There's even an apocryphal story about him trying to ride one."

Teddy really loved the mastodons and visited them frequently during his short time as governor. There's even an apocryphal story about him trying to ride one.

When he later became president, Roosevelt made the park a National Wildlife Refuge in 1907.

A century later, it's kind of amazing that mastodons have become.... I don't know... sort of commonplace?

Yeah, I think we totally take them for granted now. But it's like anything, attention kind of ebbs and flows.

In the early 60s there was a huge uproar because the state wanted to run a section of the Northway through the western part of the park. A lot of people thought this was a perfectly practical thing to do -- people had different attitudes about this stuff back then. But other people were appalled.

Are you familiar with the term "charismatic megafauna"? Yeah, well, these guys can be seriously charismatic. And it didn't hurt that one of the local TV stations had a Matty the Mastodon kids show back then. You get a whole bunch of kids wearing their mastodon tusks from Matty's Birthday Herd at the Capitol and it's a great photo op.

"Are you familiar with the term "charismatic megafauna"? Yeah, well, these guys can be seriously charismatic. And it didn't hurt that one of the local TV stations had a Matty the Mastodon kids show back then. You get a whole bunch of kids wearing their mastodon tusks from Matty's Birthday Herd at the Capitol and it's a great photo op."

So the route of the Northway was shifted west because of that.

But, yeah, since then it's just kind of become a regular thing.

So, how are things going now? What's the future look like?

I'd say we feel good about the current state of things, but concerned about the longterm outlook.

The refuge's mastodon population is now up to 364. That's obviously not a lot -- in fact, for an entire species -- it's perilously low. But mastodons don't reproduce quickly. So, the goal has always been to slowly and steadily grow the population.

One of our current challenges is figuring out the best way to provide ample habitat for the mastodons while also providing the occasional opportunity for people to see them. Despite their size and strength, mastodons are actually very shy around humans, preferring to stay away from spots where they know people tend to be. We don't know if that's something inherent about mastodons, or it's something the animals have learned -- almost like it's part of mastodon culture. Maybe that fear of humans is why this particular group of mastodons was able to survive. I think right now we try to err on the side of limiting access to the animals. A stressed mastodon is an unhealthy mastodon.

Longer term, we've got an eye on climate change. Obviously, the summers getting hotter isn't good for them, with all that hair. But it's also affecting the plants they like to eat. There's some early research that the species of spruce and shrubs they rely on are slowly receding to higher elevations. It's not a problem just yet, but the future is uncertain.

That said, these mastodons have made it this far against all odds. I wouldn't bet against them.

This interview has been completely made up.
____

More from Other Timelines
+ What would Albany be like today if the Empire State Plaza had not been built?
+ Other Timelines drawing: What's a local "what if" question that you'd love to know the answer to?
+ Six huge institutions that set up here... almost
+ The Portal
+ A brief history of the Capital Region's much-admired light rail system
+ 4th of July
+ Pivotal moments in our personal histories
+ The Chair

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If there is a vote for best other timeline story, this one gets my vote right away!

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