from a slide-illustrated presentation derived from research while at
the NY State Museum between 1983 and 2000. Phil Lord)
Boats on the Mohawk River, c. 1800.
For many students of the early republic the singular significance of this inland waterway in the history of North America is all but lost.
For them the representative image of the pioneer, moving westward to occupy their wilderness homestead, is of a lonely man on horseback or a family piled into an ox cart or wagon with all their possessions; struggling along the muddy and rutted trails that sliced through the virgin forest.
Even official statements about the period reflect this sentiment (see below).
..... and then....................
The Erie Canal stands out in the minds of most people as the defining transportation event in the history of the United States. As we will see, it was preceded by decades of navigation improvements and canal engineering experimentation, and that era in turn was preceded by hundreds of years of inland navigation history.
Of course if one chose to travel by land in the late 18th century, the encounter with such "roads" as did exist was not pleasant.
In 1797 one traveler reported:
“The traveling in the Country in the spring and fall of the year is very unpleasant, as your horse is often from his knees to his body obliged to founder on through mud and mire, owing to the depth and richness of the soil, its uncultivated state and the want of proper roads.” J.A. Graham, Vermont, 1797
In the 1790s, and for the century preceding, the rural roadways of the Northeast were often a poor choice for travel, even on horseback.
The era of turnpikes and improved interior road networks did not begin in Upstate New York until the very end of the 18th century. So travelers avoided the miserable roads initially cut through the forest and instead used the Mohawk/Oneida navigation corridor to gain relatively easy access to the frontier.
In the late 18th century, the pioneer heading west elected to use an inland waterway network to breach the Appalachian Mountain barrier and gain access to the rich lands located on the fringes of the Great Lakes, much as his native predecessors had for centuries (above).
During this period, shallow-draught vessels traversed these waterways without difficulty, and the numerous portages were easily surmounted.
In an era when water-borne transport represented the only effective method of movement across the northeastern region of North America, the desire to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes through inland navigation remained a constant.
It was a priority during the colonial wars of the mid and late 18th century, when the efficiency of strike and counter strike depended on the swift movement of armies between these domains of political power and population. The players may have changed; French versus British, British versus American; and the motives may have shifted; trade and exchange, then attack and defense, then commerce and market; but the geography never did. The goal remained one of moving through the interior between the ocean and that cluster of vast inland seas that sat in the American heartland nearly half the way across the continent - The Great Lakes.
Two liquid avenues for this connection presented themselves, but only one was available to the Americans. With the St. Lawrence, perhaps in every way the superior passageway into the interior, always in the hands of the “enemy”, the Mohawk/Oneida corridor became by default the American highway to the west, and it is this waterway network which is my focus in this presentation.
Thanks to an accident of nature, a passage through the nearly continuous mountain ranges separating the Atlantic from the interior existed in what was to be New York State. West of Albany a linked network of natural rivers, streams and lakes provided a nearly level water route across the entire 150 miles separating the Great Lakes from the Hudson/Atlantic navigation.
We can best comprehend the quality of the Mohawk/Oneida navigation by tracing the journey westward as it would have occurred in the years just after the Revolution.
In that time, a pioneer migrating west, newly arrived in Albany and hungry for land, a merchant anxious to ship merchandise to the expanding western settlements, or a military commander supplying essential provisions to the garrisons along our western frontier, faced an inadequate and severely restricted transportation network.
Direct access to the upper Hudson River was rarely a problem. Ocean going vessels arriving in Manhattan harbor could often continue right on up the river, which was a tidal estuary to several miles above the port at Albany. Or cargo and passengers could transfer into smaller river sloops to execute the 150 mile journey up river.
Only a few miles further north, one could enter the mouth of the Mohawk River, a waterway that reached deep into the western interior. But navigation into this river was blocked almost immediately by the Great Cohoes Falls. So monumental was this obstruction that not even a canoe portage had been established here during the 18th century.
Instead, anyone interested in going west had to disembark at the wharf in Albany and hire a wagon for overland transport across 16 miles of sandy pine barrens to Schenectady, the actual foot of the Mohawk River navigation.
This land route, established in the 1600s as “The King’s Highway”, provided an effective alternative for the impossible direct water passage, which was not available until the opening of the Erie Canal many decades later. Much of the Kings Highway survives as "Kings Road" east of Schenectady, and a portion exists much as it must have then looked in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve (above, left).
Once at the old harbor in the Binnekill, a slack-water sprout of the powerful Mohawk that ran alongside the western edge of the old Schenectady Stockade, one would buy or hire a small batteau (below) to continue the journey.
These batteaux were the pick-up trucks of the 18th century - thirty feet long and carrying a ton and a half.
Boatmen would leave the harbor to navigate up 58 miles of the river to the portage at Little Falls.
This passage would require them to force their batteau over 57 rapids or "rifts".
These rifts were formed by the outwash of numerous intersecting streams, which unloaded their contents of gravel and debris each year with the spring freshets driven by meltwater and rains. From a detailed river survey made in 1792, we know that many of them were less then knee deep in a channel where a six foot depth of water was considered the norm. (Note: Since the Mohawk River has been dredged for use in the Barge Canal, these rifts have long since disappeared. So images of similar conditions used here were taken at West Canada Creek; an intersecting stream.)
At Little Falls the river flowed down through a steep bedrock gorge, as picturesque as it was frustrating to the navigators. Within that gorge, blasted through by the glacier eons before, lay a rapid of just over a mile in length with a fall of water in excess of forty feet.
The channel was strewn with huge boulders, rendering any sort of navigation fruitless. Thus a portage had to be made, and throughout the 18th century, save for the final few years, this portage, a mill, a house, and a trading post were all that existed at Little Falls, which derived its name from being a lesser version of the Great Falls at Cohoes.
In the latter half of the 18th century, when batteaux passed on the river instead of canoes, teamsters were paid to cart the cargo, and the boat, overland to the top of the falls, where the craft would be relaunched and reloaded to traverse the upper Mohawk to Fort Stanwix at Rome.
The journey took the boatmen some 38 miles and 22 rapids further west. Interestingly, the upper Mohawk, above Little Falls, was generally less obstructed than the lower.
This in part was due to the narrowness of the channel, and the tendency, therefore, to have the river flush itself clear of the debris.
Lower down, where the channel was very broad and the water slow and shallow, this debris accumulated to form the many rifts and shoals.
It is important to note that navigation in this system was not so much frustrated by the violent rush of water normally associated with the term “rapids”, but rather by the shallowness of the channel, where in the most placid of situations, the mere lack of depth could ground a loaded boat repeatedly. With water depths on the average rift at 18 inches or less, the crews of grounded boats often went over the side and, walking on the gravelly bottom, pushed and dragged their overloaded vessels up through this series of maddening obstructions.
At Fort Stanwix [now the City of Rome] the Mohawk flowed from the north and could no longer serve a westward course.
Here boat and baggage would again be lifted from the river and dragged across a two mile portage to be deposited into the almost waterless channel of Wood Creek, a tiny stream running west from Rome, and narrow enough at the landing to jump across. (Note: Here, as at Little Falls, special carts were designed with elongated frames to fit the 30 foot long batteaux.)
This landing at the west end of the old Oneida Carrying Place (lower left corner above) stood in the shadow of the long abandoned French and Indian War fort Newport. In concert with Stanwix (upper right corner above) and its predecessor at the east end of the portage, Fort Williams, these military establishments guarded the carrying place first established by the British and witness to the passing and re-passing of hundreds of military batteaux during the French, British and American expeditions of the 18th century. (This mid-18th century map has been drawn with north pointing lower right.)
This was a critical junction of the eastward flowing waters of the Mohawk River with the westward flowing waters of Wood Creek, Oneida Lake and beyond. The situation here, for navigation, was never easy. Often the water was so low late in the year that only the empty boat would be launched at the landing, while the cargo and passengers were trucked on west several miles further to deeper water downstream.
Unable to float their craft away from the landing, empty or full, boatmen would walk a short way upstream to negotiate with a miller, who had, at a very early date, impounded the waters of Wood Creek in a pond.
(Note: The inset map is turned to show north at the top and shows not only this dam on Wood Creek below the pond, but a wooden wharf built alongside the stream to facilitate loading and unloading the boats at the landing.)
(Note: The stream photo above is actually of Wood Creek, but miles downstream from the landing, showing how narrow and shallow it really was.)
A release of water from this dam would, with luck, carry the batteau five miles further down to the junction of Canada Creek. Here two houses had been established, often available for travelers as a "public house" or tavern, since in low water passengers had to wait here for their empty boats to catch up from Rome.
From here, in an average season, one could navigate down Wood Creek the remaining 18 miles to Oneida Lake.
To do so required following a log-choked, shallow stream at times so twisting one could pole a boat a mile by water to advance only 30 feet by land. This stream passed through a wilderness that was essentially uninhabited, even into the early 19th century, where the trees along the banks (above, actual Wood Creek) provided a claustrophobic tunnel effect for most of the journey and where the mosquitoes were legendary.
Then it was out onto Oneida Lake, across that 20 mile lake, usually by night, rowing along the north shore, to avoid the often dangerous prevailing winds (blue arrow), then out into the Oneida River. Having poled batteaux for days on waterways barely waist deep, hired boatmen often panicked at the furious breakers of Oneida Lake (above). If they did not quit outright, they would camp on the ruins of the old British "Royal Blockhouse" until the winds died down, often waiting for days.
Once into the Oneida River, boats passed easily down to what was called "Three Rivers" (below), which was actually "three" in name only. Here the Oneida river entering the Seneca River formed the Oswego River, which ran into Lake Ontario.
From Three Rivers the pilots of small boats could elect to travel up the Seneca River to the salt springs at Onondaga Lake or on up to Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake, and points west. Or they could chose, as most did, to go down the Oneida and Oswego rivers to Oswego and the Great Lakes. As they progressed west of Oneida Lake boatmen met with only moderate additional difficulty.
One point still to be dealt with, for those passing down to Oswego and Lake Ontario, was the so-called “Falls of the Onondaga”, or the “Oswego falls”, which was at what is now Fulton in the Oswego River.
Here a bedrock ledge ran completely across the river, except for a very narrow gap near the center. Boatmen sometimes unloaded their craft and ran them down empty, and at other times both boats and cargo were portaged around the obstacle, which never was much improved until the canal age some 40 years later.
Once past the falls, boats rushed down the Oswego River through a series of rapids that propelled them into the harbor in the mouth of the river just below the towering walls of Fort Ontario, in what is now Oswego.
They had arrived....at Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes region.
This tortuous route was the only highway west of any consequence in the late-eighteenth century, and it was this transport corridor that presented itself to President Washington, who personally inspected the route after the war, as the only viable connection for the emerging nation between the head of Atlantic shipping and the Great Lakes.
The improvement of this international water route from Schenectady to Oswego remained a goal of the federal government, both in terms a military defense and developing commerce and settlement.
But the work of seeing this vision into effect became the mission of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, a private company created by the New York State Legislature in 1792, presided over by retired Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler (above, right), and based largely in Albany, New York. Funding was provided by stock sales - one of the country's first - starting in May of 1792 (seal of original stock certificate, above, left).
This company employed what was then still experimental engineering to create an integrated system of natural waterways, improved natural waterways, and new artificial waterways, - New York State’s first canals – in the closing years of the 18th century and during the first decade of the nineteenth century.
This period of transition, between natural water navigation and the completely detached and artificial canal navigation to be created in the 1820s can be seen to pivot around the year 1800. There was a qualitative difference in inland navigation infrastructure along this route before and after this date.
This image created by an eyewitness traveling the Mohawk River in 1807.The effect of this decade of navigation improvements and canal building, 1792-1803, can best be understood by repeating the boat voyage we just undertook between Schenectady and Oswego, but this time as it would have occurred in the year 1804, at the end of the construction phase of the company, and just before the Embargo.
After making the prerequisite dusty trip through the sand dunes and ridges of the Albany Pine Bush, this time in a stage coach rather than the rough wagons of a decade before, one arrived at a very different embarkation point at Schenectady harbor. The retrospective images above, done from historical research in the late 19th century, shows Schenectady Harbor as it looked then, and as it would have looked when it was an international port - the gateway to the West.
The painting above, by artist Len Tantillo, recreates the harbor as it looked in this time. This waterfront survives archeologically along the edge of the historic Schenectady Stockade (below), although the Binnekill itself suffers from having been first dredged to widen it, and later being cut off by highway constuction (seen below during a low water period).
As part of a WILNC Bicentennial program at Schenectady, in 1992, we anchored a large city-wide waterfront living history program on the State Museum's replica batteau, and recreated a tiny bit of what the harbor here was once like (below).
People thought Schenectady would become one of America's great cities. All commerce funneled through here, with the produce of the western frontier coming down the Mohawk, then down the Hudson to Europe. And all European and coastal manufactured goods came to Schenectady via the Hudson, and could then be dispersed westward to the settlements along the Mohawk navigation.
As shown above, the St. Lawrence and Mississippi regions shipped out via those waterways, both under British control. And the Ohio and Susquehanna regions shipped out via those waterways, to ocean ports other than New York.
But the only American highway to the Great Lakes was the Hudson/Mohawk system, placing Schenectady at the hub of a vast international transport system.
Having arrived at this harbor, the traveler could head west in a Durham Boat - at 60 feet long they were twice the size of a batteau and able to carry 7 times the cargo. If the common batteau was the pick-up truck of the 18th century, the Durham boat was the 18-wheeler of the river boat era.
An 18th century woodcut of a Durham Boat (above, top) and plans derived from historical data.These boats were poled by a crew of five or six men, using 18 foot long iron tipped poles with wooden shoulder buttons and walking or clawing their way along cleated boards that ran the full length of the hold on ether side of the boat. Steering was accomplished by a 23 foot long sweep which served to pivot the flat-bottomed boat into alignment; more of an oar than a rudder.
It was the ideal large capacity river boat for this navigation, and perfectly suited, perhaps by design, for the canals and locks built along the way by Schuyler’s company.
Too large and heavy to lift out of the water for portaging, these craft depended on a continuous and relatively deep channel to navigate successfully. Whereas the little 3-handed batteau could move its ton and a half of cargo in less than 16 inches of water, and could move itself empty on little more than a heavy mist, the Durham boat, with its 10 to 12 tons of cargo, needed two feet of clear channel depth when loaded. But even at the great length of sixty feet, it could pass empty over a rift on only five inches of water!
The voyager leaving the harbor at Schenectady in 1804 more easily passed the 57 rapids of the lower Mohawk because some of them had been deepened by the WILNC in the late 1790s with plowed out channels, using oxen and special plows, or long V-shaped rock dams. These dams were modeled by General Schuyler after the fish traps used first by native Americans and later by white settlers to capture migrating eels and other fishes. Constructed on the shallows of rifts with rocks gathered from the rift itself, these great Vs gathered the water into the apex as it ran downstream, forcing fish into the baskets attached in the gap.
(The map above is of the Mohawk River in 1803, showing the navigation channel as a dotted line avoiding an "eel ware" probably built, at that time, by Anglo settlers along the river. The photograph is of a modern eel weir on the Delaware River, taken in 1990, where these stone fish weirs are still used.)
Even though these primitive fish traps leaked profusely, it was noted that the water was deeper within the V than outside (above, right), and Schuyler had several of these dams built in the Mohawk to provide a deepened water passage over the rifts. The most notable of these was near Amsterdam near the mouth of the Schoharie Creek (above, left - 1803). Here the paired V-dams, the deflecting wing dam at the upstream end, and the retaining wall built parallel to the bank represents a structure that can be seen as a static prototype of the true canal locks to come later.
Fifty eight miles upstream the portage at Little Falls was replaced by the mile long “Little Falls Canal”. Begun in 1793 and completed in 1795, the canal was equipped with 5 locks, and is the first true canal created in New York and among the oldest in North America. This structure allowed boats to pass the falls without unloading or portaging, reducing the delay from days to only hours.
The engineering employed was that of millwrights and carpenters, for although blasting powder was used to cut the channel through the bedrock of the Little Falls gorge, no hydraulic cement nor adequate building stone was to be had, and so within the rock cuts locks of wood, caulked with oakum and tar like an inside-out ship’s hull, were created.
These wood locks eventually leaked and rotted, and so all had to be rebuilt with recently discovered stone and newly developed mortar in 1803. Most of the guard lock survived intact into the 20th century, as seen on this old postcard (above), and although set aside as a "heritage site" in 1883, little of the original lock can be seen today, as seen in the photograph taken more recently (above, right). (For more on this feature go to a page on just this canal at http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/research_collections/research/history/littlefalls/)
The completion of this canal opened up the entire Mohawk River to continuous navigation, and this permitted boats to evolve from the small, portable batteaux, which could be portaged around the falls, to the larger Durham boats. With the arrival of larger, heavier boats, a channel that was adequate in depth for batteaux began again to present pressures against navigation.
So it was that a short distance westward from Little Falls, near Herkimer, two previously ignored rifts that had now become troublesome for these larger boats, were bypassed in 1798 by the mile-long "German Flatts Canal". A dam across the Mohawk at the upstream end of the canal channeled water through the canal to a lift lock at the downstream end.
Archeological remains of this canal survive on "Plantation Island", just east of the City of Herkimer. The "island" was created when the 20th century Barge Canal was cut through the area and the Mohawk River channel was realigned west to avoid it. In the 19th century the Erie Canal in its several evolutions, ran over the west end of the 1798 canal.
But the eastern 3/4s of the old canal still exists, untouched, as seen in the air photo above. The entire "island" is State land protected by two agencies.
This was the first of Schuyler’s canals to use stone masonry in its locks, and archeological remains of one of the locks (above, left), much of the canal bed (above, right), and sections of the massive earthen deflection walls protecting the canal from the river in floodstage still remain. (For an in-depth look at this archeological site, see my archived Museum webpage.
And further to the west at Rome, the head of Mohawk navigation, the “Rome Canal” was built in 1797 to bypass the two mile portage at Fort Stanwix. Here a brickyard was established and the locks at the east and west end of this canal were built of oversize native bricks, many of which survive in archeological sites today. The canal itself survives beneath a curving alleyway next to the Burger King in Rome, (above, left).
Because this canal crossed the summit lands that separated the eastward flowing Mohawk from the westward flowing Wood Creek and waters beyond, a feeder (above, right) had to be built to refill the canal as the opening and closing of the locks drained away the water.
When the later Erie Canal was constructed through the area, now Erie Blvd., it followed a flatter trajectory, thus preserving the line of the old canal that today is in part followed by the modern street patterns.
Although just an alleyway, this spot in Rome allows one to recreate, in their imagination - enhanced here by a bit of digital magic - what canal navigation would look like if the old 1797 Rome Canal had continued to evolve, the way the 18th century narrow canals have in England. In this British image, superimposed on the old canal alignment, the English narrow boats are the same dimensions as Durham boats were and the locks of brick shown here are nearly identical to those built in Rome in 1797, although no locks existed in this section of the canal.
After passage through the Rome Canal, a Durham boat could smoothly enter Wood Creek where four timber locks, built in 1802 and 1803, raised the normally shallow stream into a series of navigable pools. With the advent of larger boats, the shallows of the upper end of Wood Creek, above its junction with Canada Creek, had represented an almost impossible passage.
Even the lower section of Wood Creek now represented major problems for the heavily laden Durham boats coming east out of Oneida Lake, often with cargos of salt from Onondaga Lake [now Syracuse]. In this period many accounts exist of boats being forced to unload 2/3s of their cargo at the lower end of the stream and then undertaking three arduous journeys up to the Rome Canal in order to pass their cargoes successfully into the Mohawk navigation.
The most easterly of the four wooden locks was investigated in some detail, for it stood, along with attached and nearly extinct 18th century waterways, in a nearly inaccessible marshland within a stone’s throw of the developed areas of the City of Rome.
Here, as in all these four lock sites, a loop of the stream was cut through with a mini-canal and in that cut was placed the wooden lock structure, the old channel being closed at its upstream end with a timber dam.
Over the course of two years of intermittent research, combining documentary sources, remote sensing resources, and field survey, I was in the end able to sort out the historic channels - (natural in green; artificial in red) - from the myriad ditches, meander ghosts, and modern constructions evident in that extensive wetland. There were no contractor's construction records as such, so letters to and from Gen. Schuyler had to be relied on for primary data.
At first the search for the wooden lock remains at the west end of the canal cut were not expected to reveal anything. It appeared that the deep cuts made for construction of the elevated railroad Y-embankment, which created water-filled channels running along the sides of the embankment, had eradicated the lock site, since the old canal channel seemed to run directly into that excavation.
But probing to three feet beneath the standing pools of water revealed nearly half of the 100 foot long wooden lock chamber floor still intact - sealed and preserved in the muck of the swampland.
Just west of the rail embankment (right edge in above air photo) field survey confirmed the survival of the channelized segment of the natural Wood Creek navigation mentioned in letters from 1803. This had been straightened and deepened to remove silt accumulating below the canal after construction. At some distance to the west, the meandering of the old stream channel could be seen again.
While this shallow "ditch" (above, left) may seem an impossible candidate for a 1790s canal, remember that the largest boats to use this system were only 8 feet wide and drew less than two feet of water. This "ditch" contained water that was over 20 feet wide, and at its center the depth was, even in this dry season, a solid two feet, over a width in excess of 12 feet.
In an attempt to also limit the erosion of the old stream channel above the lock, which was becoming an issue, one of the contractors proposed to use a technique he had seen used, as he put it, “on the rapid rivers in England”. This consisted of woven brush mats pinned into the bottom and banks of the stream with long stakes through the tops of which were drilled holes to receive short pegs that helped to hold the mats in place when the stakes were driven.
This was a technique without precedent in America when it was applied here in 1803. But of course it was not without precedent in England, where the techniques had been applied for centuries, as these archeological remains from a 17th century British site attest to (below).
One can see the pattern of woven brush and driven stakes, one of the complete stakes intact, and the heads of several others - each stake having holes for the receipt of short pegs, one of which was also recovered. These artifacts match precisely the techniques described for the brush-piling in Wood Creek.
Continuity for the technique is found in these 20th century photographs - the upper left from England, the lower right from the US. But as far as we know, this shallow, nearly forgotten section of the old Wood Creek channel, the exact location shown above, hidden in the midst of this sprawling marshland, represents the first American application of this form of engineering. (For a full treatment of this engineering site, read "Brush Piling: Eighteenth Century English Engineering in an American Wilderness", Philip Lord & Chris Salisbury, AIA: Industrial Archaeology Review (published in the UK), Vol. XIX, 1997, pp. 49-60.)
Although these archeological remnants of the historic Wood Creek navigation channel seem insignificant as a heritage site, one should recall that in few places can you stand beside so tiny a feature and realize that every historic person you have read about that traveled by boat west or east before the Erie Canal was built, passed right past the toes of your boots - from early native inhabitants, to explorers and traders, to the military expeditions of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, to the Loyalist refugees, the settlers and merchants of the new nation, the military supply boats of the War of 1812, and the final waves of migrants in the years just before the Erie Canal.
And the fact that this historic complex of features - including the natural boat channel of Wood Creek used since prehistoric times, the complete canal channel built in 1803, the submerged remains of the wooden dam closing old Wood Creek, the area of old channel brush-piled with experimental techniques, the wooden lock built to pass boats back and forth from canal to stream, the channelized segment of Wood Creek.....all these preserved complex and fascinating artifacts of a forgotten past ... that all this exists in virtual obscurity, in an area where modern maps show nothing at all, cannot be overlooked.
The next lock westward of this series was built into a cut made across of neck of land inside a sharp meander of the stream. The entire site (see map below) exists in its original environmental condition on private land a short distance from the highway.
The canal cut, into which the lock was built, was dug through the edge of a fairly high knoll (above, top center), and thus is most dramatic in terms of its micro-topography. One can stand on the bank of Wood Creek as it flows north and practically see the creek at the other side as it flows south.
We know from the manuscripts that in this location the micro-canal was only 17 feet longer than the lock structure itself, and probing here in the 1990s (above) confirmed that the entire 100 foot lock chamber floor - indicated in the sketch above by the black contact points that uniformly struck at 3 feet below surface water - is preserved. This is the oldest surviving unmodified lock structure in New York State.
While no plans or drawings of this small-scale wooden lock exist, the one below is almost a duplicate and shows what the structure would have looked like in place.
The fourth wooden lock, in going east to west, was actually Lock No. 1 in terms of construction, started in 1802. But the area has undergone extreme erosion and no remains, except a hint of the double channel, could be found.
But the site of this fourth wooden lock provides even more dramatic evidence than we might have expected. After passing through this final lock on the westward passage, boats came to the wood Creek/Canada Creek junction, where the addition of water created a more workable depth to the navigation.
Documentary evidence found in an obscure art inventory revealed several watercolor paintings done in 1815 mentioning "Wood Creek" in their descriptions. Although late in the WILNC era, this date was still before the Erie Canal was begun, and so might have captured some interesting details from the earlier period.
After nearly two years of intense searching, the watercolor of the complex of taverns at the junction of Wood Creek and Canada Creek (above), thought to be lost, was found in a private collection in Providence, Rhode Island (in fact just left in a diningroom bureau drawer). It shows the area as it looked in 1815, looking to the east. It shows the structures that by then had grown up around the Canada Creek junction, catalyzed by the fact that during low water, passengers and cargo went forward by road to this spot to wait for their empty boats to come down from Rome.
But the true value of this image is an almost invisible detail in the background (yellow circle) - a detail one might easily dismiss as a large rock or a nondescript barn.
In fact, this obscure detail in an equally obscure watercolor confirms a unique characteristic of the wooden locks Schuyler built in Wood Creek. Each lock had a super-structure of uprights and cross-ties overhead that gave the lock stability, as shown in this later timber lock (above) on the Crooked Lake Canal. And to increase the life of these timber structures, Schuyler had them roofed over and painted, much like a 19th century New England covered bridge.
It is the roofed structure of the westernmost lock in the series that was captured in the background of the 1815 watercolor - proof that these extraordinary constructions actually existed. (For a full treatment of these locks, read "The Covered Locks of Wood Creek", Philip Lord, IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2002, pp. 5-15)
Of course when we speak of a system of canals AND navigations, we must consider the unmodified natural channel as being just as much an archeological site as the lock pits and dams built by the hand of men.
Immediately west, and close to the modern highway, is a place to glimpse the character of the original navigation, where travelers in the summer of 1793 remarked: “The creek is so small that the branches of the trees on the opposite banks unite overhead.” This part of Wood Creek is in its original condition, exactly as it was when navigated 200 years ago. (Note: all field photos used are of the actual locations, unless otherwise noted.)
But this part of the lower part of the stream was not entirely without its artificial works. Passing down the twisting channel of Wood Creek, a Durham boat in 1804 would take advantage of 13 short canals cut across necks of land a decade earlier, in 1793 (see maps above).
These tiny cuts are some of the oldest artificial waterways in North America. The first works completed by the new canal company, they were executed in a trackless wilderness using hand tools and oxen transported by boats to the sites. These cuts shortened the 30 mile passage to Oneida Lake by six miles!
The method of creation of these mini-canals, captured in a 1793 French traveler's journal, was simple in concept, yet extraordinarily difficult in practice.
Where a particularly sharp or inconvenient loop of the creek existed, workers would first clear cut the virgin forest along a line that traversed the neck. These logs would be stock-piled for later use. Then the massive stumps of the trees would be grubbed up and a narrow ditch perhaps ten feet deep and not much more wide would be excavated across the neck along the cleared land. Once completed, the upstream end of the old channel would be dammed with the logs cut from the clearing, and when the next freshet or heavy rains came, the water, forced into the ditch, would rapidly erode it to the general dimensions of the rest of the stream and the navigation channel would be thus realigned.
It is perhaps of interest that where the old ox-bows of the original channel still can be found (above), forceably abandoned by the stream during the summer of 1793, they are often less than 3 feet deep, whereas the modern channel of Wood Creek is often 10 or fifteen feet deep in the same location, revealing the erosional impact of deforestation during the 19th century.
But even with this improvement, and with the cutting down of much of the marginal forest that had prevented towing paths to be created along the banks of the stream, passage was obstructed by sunken logs and overhanging trees – the same conditions that had plagued this stream since the early 1700s and why it was called “Wood Creek” in the first place. (The field photo above, left, was actually taken several miles below the point where boats entered the stream at Rome.)
There were also sand bars that built up along the way, often grounding boats that were not lightly laden. But when you consider when and where this massive undertaking was executed, before any professional engineers existed in the country and in a wilderness accessible only by boat, it must be seen as extraordinary!
The geological/historical value of these 1793 cut-offs lies in the fact that one can trace the route of Wood Creek as it was in the spring of 1793, and then compare this with its path in the fall of 1793, and see how it evolves from then to the present. Intensive study of historic maps and aerial photographs revealed that the alignment of the stream has remained constant, perhaps due to it's dense clay banks. And it was this lack of stone that also allowed boats as large as the 60 foot long Durham boats to use the stream as a "canal", even though rarely wider than 30 feet and shallow enough to walk in. In fact some accounts mention Durham boat crews hiring a local farmer and his oxen to walk up the creek towing the boats in low water, as no cleared land on the banks permitted towing otherwise.
The WILNC never exercised its option to undertake improvements west of Wood Creek, partly due to lack of resources, but also because the natural waterways to the west presented a relatively manageable navigation.
So one proceeded on to Oswego from here much as one had done for generations before. And although the Company conintued until bought out in 1820 for the construction of the Erie Canal, it apparently initiated no new projects after 1804 - the year General Schuyler died.
We can say that it was in 1804, over 200 years ago, when the three short canals at Little Falls, Rome and German Flatts, and the several associated improvements in the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, had all been completed, that was the watershed of this revolutionary enterprise. These improvements to the inland waterways, stand as evidence of the dramatic and unprecedented accomplishments of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.
Just twelve years after it was chartered, and thirteen years before construction of the Erie Canal was even begun, this company had converted an obstructed and interrupted navigation good only for small, portable batteaux, into a continuous, deepwater channel through which large Durham boats could pass relatively unimpeded, and did so at a time when American canal engineering was still experimental.
Had these improvements, which included our first canals, not been in place by 1804, our history as a State and Nation might have played out very differently. Because of the capacity of this new inland waterway, settlement of the western territories was accelerated, with the promise of easy shipment of farm produce to market downriver and the return of merchandise upriver to the frontier.
During the Embargo and related prohibitions against trade through New York Harbor in 1806, 1807, and 1809, this inland waterway provided a "back door" for farmers and merchants in the American interior to Canadian ports and the international shipments coming and going on the St. Lawrence.
And during the strife that would erupt into the War of 1812, military supplies were more effectively shipped to the Great Lakes fleets and frontier garrisons in the Durham boats which now passed along this network of waterways than they could ever have been in the tiny batteaux of the previous century, or over the still primitive roadways and natural waterways of northwestern New York.
During the first 20 years of the nineteenth century, as new turnpikes were built and land transport became more reliable, river traffic across New York began to decline. By these improved land routes travelers could continue on west across the tops of the Finger Lakes and into the fabled Genesee Country, some 100 or more miles west of Utica, and nearly 50 miles west of the harbor at Oswego.
The establishment of strategic forwarding terminals, such as the City of Utica at the head of the Seneca Turnpike (above), completed in 1800, provided easier access to the western territories with a greatly truncated navigation.
While in the 1790s one reached the lands lying along the southwestern edge of Lake Ontario by going up the Mohawk to Rome, then down Wood Creek to Oneida Lake, then out the Oneida River to the Seneca River, upriver to Genessee Country (blue line on map above), in the early 1800s one could leave the boat at Utica, and take to the more direct land route by horse, wagon or stage coach (red line on map above).
To accommodate this new pattern of travel, an express passenger boat service using converted Durham freight boats was established between Schenectady and Utica after the War of 1812. Travelers could now take a relatively quick two-day voyage upriver to the landing at Utica, which was the eastern terminus of the Genesee Turnpike.
Travelers and merchants disembarking at Utica could now have access to the western frontier without suffering the obstructions of the upper Mohawk River, the delay and expense of passing the Rome Canal, the extreme difficulty of the twisted channel of Wood Creek, not to mention the gigantic mosquitoes, and all the perils of the river rapids, the frustrations of low water and the lack of riverside hospitality along the Oneida and Oswego Rivers.
So long as the team placed one foot in front of the other, the traveler could be certain of a safe and timely arrival at any point along these new and improved highways.
This loss of competitiveness of the waterways with the land route in the early 1800s led many Mohawk Valley boatmen to seek work for themselves and their Durham boats in the forwarding trade on the St. Lawrence, as shown in the watercolor above, top, running the rapids that separated the lake schooner transport of the Great Lakes from the ship transport on the lower St. Lawrence below Montreal. And Durham boats began to emerge in Canada in this period on several other rivers, such as the Rideau navigation.
And as evidenced by the above painting of Utica in 1823, when the Erie Canal was only partially built, Durham boats (in the foreground, left) continued to haul goods alongside the towpaths of the more "civilized" waterways.
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 sealed the fate of the inland waterways and ushered in a “new” era of artificial waterways - the Canal Age. New boats and new techniques of navigation transformed New York State transportation.
However, the roots of this age are to be found in the time when Durham boats and batteaux passed along an integrated network of improved natural rivers, streams and lakes, linked together by New York State’s very first canals over two hundred years ago.
The engineering which underpinned the canal age of the second quarter of the 19th century did not rise abruptly without precedent. It emerged organically during this earlier quarter century of transition, when pragmatic experimentation in a semi wilderness helped to "de-bug" the systems of canals and navigations.
When we consider the national and international events of the decades just before the birth of the Erie Canal, as they played across the geography of the American Northeast, we need to be aware of the Mohawk/Oneida navigation, the chronology of its evolution as a corridor of international transport, and the role of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in that evolution.
Note: In this presentation I use "batteau" and "batteaux" instead of the more commonly used "bateau" and "bateaus". This spelling is taken from the primary manuscripts of the period, which more often used that spelling.
Contact for this webpage is: Phil Lord