This website provides an introduction to the cultural and natural landscape of Wood Creek, Oneida County, New York - one of the premier heritage areas of North America.
The information presented here was derived from a research project at the New York State Museum - The Durham Project - undertaken from 1983 to 2000. This project attempted to document an era of inland navigation improvements and canals that predated the Erie Canal. This era began with the formation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792 and ended with the replacement of that company’s works by the Erie Canal in 1820.
Phil Lord, 9/2012
This project included field research all along the navigation between Albany and Oswego, with intensive field surveys along Wood Creek, where the greatest archeological survival of features from the pre-Erie era was found. An archive of over 1,200 document copies, including manuscript texts, historic maps, and early stereo air photographs, supported this study.
A goal of the project was to identify previously unknown or undocumented archeological sites and to integrate these into regional resource management plans and initiatives. The purpose of this website, adapted from slide shows presented to the public in the 1990s, is to promote the protection, public access and educational interpretation of these heritage resources.
This presentation will describe discrete areas and spaces along Wood Creek, which will be called “features”. These features may contain the following:
1) Surviving historic archeological sites,
2) Intact natural landmarks of historic importance,
3) Natural landscapes documented in the historic record.
During most of the 18th century, boats arriving at Fort Stanwix (Rome) were portaged to Wood Creek and then placed into the tiny channel of the creek below the dam of a mill pond. This pond was built by Dominick Lynch in the mid-18th century. Since the stream was so shallow boats often lay grounded in mud, the boatmen would ask the miller to release water from the pond to carry their boat down the stream channel to deeper water.
This important site is now embedded in an area of urban development along Erie Boulevard at the west end of the City of Rome. The location of the millpond and dam, at and north of Dominick Street, are still evident in the topography of the ground through which Wood Creek runs, and Wood Creek can still be seen passing under Erie Boulevard in a culvert. The stream bed was slightly realigned many years ago.
Due to the wet ground at the landing, a wharf was built along the stream bank so that boats could be conveniently reloaded and reboarded in preparation for the journey west, as shown on the mid-18th century map (rotated to match north). The batteaux waiting on the stream bank can be seen. This site is, as far as we can tell, now buried under fill for parking lots adjacent to industrial buildings at the edge of the wetland to the west.
Historically speaking, this is one of the most interesting and significant sites along the inland navigation passageway, since all the boats and travelers, soldiers and civilians alike, stopped here to load and unload boats passing east and west on the Great Oneida Carrying Place up until 1797, when the Rome Canal was completed.
Built in 1797 by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, presided over by General Philip Schuyler, New York’s first canal company, the Rome Canal connected the Upper Mohawk River to the east with the tiny channel of Wood Creek to the west, running right through what is today the City of Rome.
In 1817, when the Erie canal was built, it went along almost the same line through the City, and can today be followed as Erie Boulevard. But it followed a slightly flatter curve west of Fort Stanwix, leaving a small portion of the Rome Canal intact as a shallow arc north of the new canal.
Today an alleyway behind the Burger King lies on top of this curving line of the old canal.
The 1797 Rome Canal was only the second true canal built in New York State; the first being the Little Falls Canal, completed in 1795. This painting portrays a Canadian canal of later date passing a Durham boat; in every aspect identical to the canal at Rome.
One can stand at the end of this alleyway and imagine canal boats passing up and down the canal 200 years ago. These canal boats were Durham Boats, large river freighters seen in the painting at the right, done by an eyewitness on the Mohawk River in 1807. The scene here at the alleyway in Rome might have looked something like the one shown at left on the narrow canals of England, for the boat and lock dimensions are the same there today as in Rome in 1797.
In fact, Durham boats and English narrow boats probably have the same common English riverboat ancestor in the early 1700s.
Although just an alleyway, this spot in Rome allows one to recreate, in their imagination, what canal navigation would look like if the old 1797 Rome Canal had continued to evolve, the way the narrow canals have in England.
But our focus is Wood Creek, so we should look to the west, where boats first entered the creek below Lynch’s millpond (above, left).
At the west end of the mile long Rome Canal was a lock, which allowed boats to pass out into the natural channel of Wood Creek. The creek entered the canal as a feeder just above the lock, in its natural alignment, but the rest of the old channel was left to wander south of the new canal, possibly used as a mill race.
Today this complex is nearly lost in the remains of the later Erie Canal and urban construction along Erie Boulevard.
This late 19th century map (above, left) reconstructs all the past waterways in this location and shows that once the Erie Canal was built, Wood Creek was realigned to enter that canal to the west of its original location. That alignment is still preserved today. It does not predate the 1820s, however.
In tracing the original and historic navigation channel of Wood Creek, it is of interest to note that it does not appear on modern maps. Such maps indicate “Wood Creek” to run directly west from the old landing site. In fact, this is the channel of the Erie Canal. The main flow of Wood Creek was diverted into the old abandoned Erie Canal years ago and ever since has appeared this way on maps.
In fact, historic Wood Creek runs through the empty space on the map south of the railroad.
The discovery of the components of the old Wood Creek navigation in this area was the result of several years of concentrated research and field survey in a sprawling wetland area in the southwestern part of the city (above).
The landmark by which features within this study area can be located on air photographs and modern maps is an abandoned double-Y intersection of the old railroad. This railroad alignment runs atop an elevated embankment some distance above the wetland.
The first feature of significance is the original Wood Creek channel downstream (west) of the landing (pre-1797) and the lower lock of the Rome Canal (post-1797). The subtle nature of this historic channel is seen in the field photo above, right. It is important to remember that the largest boats using this navigation needed less than two feet of water in a channel that could be as narrow as ten feet!
The area in which the search was made exhibits many old channels, some water-filled, as well as numerous ditches and drainage features of varied ages.
It was determined that this study area contained within it also the site of the fourth lock of a series built by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company between 1802 and 1803. It was clear this lock and its micro-canal, were cut across a meander loop of the original creek channel. Remote sensing analysis, primarily using historic maps and early stereo air photos (1938, 1948, 1949 and 1968), the evaluation of early manuscript correspondence from the construction sites in 1802 and 1803, followed up by field survey, produced in the end a mapping of the original Wood Creek navigation channel east of the railroad Y. (above in green).
The next task was to locate and document the remains of the actual lock structure, canal and associated artificial works inserted into the location in 1803.
The 1803 canal channel was fairly easy to confirm, since it exists as a straight, relatively deep (<3'), and water-filled cut across the loop of the old bed. Profiles of all the remnant channels were made, and while much of the water of Wood Creek had been diverted into the Erie Canal trough, the channel profiles in the wetland indicated an original depth of between 16 and 24 inches which would have supported boat traffic 200 years ago.
In the spring, the location of the canal is easily seen (above, center) by the early growth of wetland vegetation promoted by the sub-surface water in the canal.
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 embankment, which created deep waterfilled channels running along the sides of the embankment, had eradicated the lock site, since the old channel seemed to run directly into that excavation.
But closer, more critical examination of the field evidence revealed that in fact the original channel of Wood Creek was a more easterly one, which entered the canal a small distance short of the railroad excavation damage. Thus the 1803 junction of the old creek with the new (1803) canal and lock structure was still intact.
However, there was still doubt that any wooden remains of these structures could survive in a shallow wetland where water levels fluctuated seasonally.
We had specially constructed polished steel probes made for the purpose of searching for submerged timber remains in the wetland, and using these we found approximately one half of the estimated 100 foot long timber lock structure still in place about 3 feet beneath the water and muck in the canal cut channel. The western half had, apparently, been chopped through in the later 1800s when the railroad was built (above photo looking through the lock from east to west with railroad embankment in the background).
What we had found was the double-thickness flooring of the lock chamber. We knew this floor sat on foot thick beams, which ran on top of foot thick sills, which in turn were set on top of 8-10 foot long piles driven into the mud. Thus over 12 feet of timber is preserved beneath the ground here, so long as water levels remain high enough to maintain saturation and an oxygen-free environment.
Attention was next drawn to the site of the dam, which would have served to divert water from the old channel into the new canal. We knew from letters written by the contractor that this dam was to be set at the head of a shallow called “Mile Riff”. There was no evidence of rifts or shoals in the stream today, its bottom and banks being mostly clay and silt. By recreating a lost 1802 map from the original survey book found in the State Library, we found the location of “Mile Riff”. This is a place where the creek broke through a gravel knoll, distributing debris downstream to form the shoal area.
Examination of the bottom near the east end of the canal (above, top, right) revealed an area just to the north of that junction where the creek was very shallow (c. 1 foot). It became abruptly deeper (about 2.5 feet) at the north end of the suspected "Mile Riff" site. And probing in the south section of the shallow revealed the intact remains of the wooden dam structure. Measured depths to timber contact became gradually less as we moved north to south, indicating the sloping face of the old dam (typical 18th century design, above, right).
Of great interest is the fact that the field contractor in 1802 proposed to apply a form of erosion control along the old bed of the creek above the lock that he had seen used in England, and described it in some detail.
It consisted of brush mats, cris-crossed with saplings, and held against the creek banks and bottom with long stakes of split oak. These stakes had holes drilled through near the top and pins were put through the holes to secure the brush. The stakes were then driven down into the mud. Archeological remains of identical structures have been excavated in England, but this is the first known US application of this type of erosion control, still used today on some rivers in the US. (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.)
Historic letters from the field indicated that a section of the old stream channel immediately downstream from Lock 4 was to be deepened in 1803 to prevent silting, and such a straightened channel appeared on early air photos (above, left of railroad embankment).
Field survey confirmed the existence of the channelized segment of the Wood Creek navigation running across the ancient floodplain of the stream. At some distance to the west, the meandering of the old stream channel could be seen again.
While this feature seems to be little more than a ditch (looking across it, above), of the same type often dug by farmers to drain soggy fields, there is no doubt this is part of the improved Wood Creek navigation. A profile of it shows that it is about 23 feet wide and at its center it is over two feet deep, which is sufficient to float the largest boats that used this navigation 200 years ago (requiring a maximum of two feet and width of only 10 feet).
In the spring, this excavated channel can be clearly seen in the field (above), running west from the elevated railroad embankment (above, right). Most of this improved channel was overrun by construction of the railroad embankment.
(Note: most of the air photos used in this research were from the 1938 and 1948-9 stereo series, which revealed the best evidence in a relatively treeless environment.)
West from the end of this improved natural channel is a segment of the unimproved natural channel. This was slightly easier to trace because the surrounding floodplain had fewer extraneous channels within it. However, one can see the “ghosts” of prehistoric stream alignments for Wood Creek just to the north of the one we mapped.
Although this archeological remnant of the historic Wood Creek navigation channel seems 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, and all their famous Generals, 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.
The sum of this research has revealed a complex of historic waterways, from the original 18th century Wood Creek boat channel, to the improved channel in the early 1800s, to various early drainage ditches designed to drain off stagnant waters from the Erie Canal.
And the fact that this historic complex of features exists in virtual obscurity, in an area where modern maps show nothing at all, cannot be overlooked.
Downstream a short distance is the site of Fort Bull, and later on the same site, Fort Wood Creek. This fort was established to guard the waterway and the end of the low water portage from the Mohawk, when boats could not be sent loaded down the stream from the landing near Lynch’s pond. Empty boats were navigated down to the fort landing while people and cargo went overland. Thus this was a strategic location on the route.
This fort was attacked and destroyed by the French in 1756 and immediately rebuilt, and now is an adjunct site at the rear of the Erie Canal Village Museum.
The waterway configuration here is deceptive, for Wood Creek again has been diverted into a modern alignment. A ditch has been dug to carry the stream more or less due west, where originally it made a long loop northward to run up against the site of the fort (see 1899 map, and look carefully at the 1938 air photo).
In fact it was this proximity to the fort that was a feature of this section of the stream, for a pond was formed here to facilitate the landing of boats on a “beach” right at the front of the fort itself. The map above, right, was drawn with south at the top, so things appear reversed.
The photo above shows the fort remains, which are still perfectly preserved along the old Wood Creek channel, during the initial construction of the Erie Canal Village Museum.
Of interest here is the waterway complex of dam and pond, which was built to help military batteaux into the lower portion of Wood Creek during the campaigns of the French and Indian War. The dam was no doubt built of timber crib-work standing between earthen abutments that tied its ends to the opposite banks. The pond, long since drained, remains as a wetland. But the outline of that pond, and the earthen remains of the abutments of the dam, still can be clearly seen at the site. (The historic map has been rotated to match the air photo, with north at the top.)
Below (west of) Fort Bull the Wood Creek channel runs through more elevated lands and so is more defined. One can still walk alongside the stream and experience what so many people did during the period before the Erie Canal, when this same channel passed hundreds of civilian and military batteaux as well as the later Durham boats.
Here is encountered the site of the third (chronologically) of the four wooden locks built on the stream in 1802 and 1803. This one had been overrun, unfortunately, by the original Erie Canal and the enlarged Erie Canal in the 1820s and 40s, so that remains of it appear to have been lost.
The original Erie Canal (1817) crossed Wood Creek here at right angles, forcing an elbow in the alignment that avoided completely the 1802 lock and dam complex (above, left). However the later enlargement (above, right) ran over the stream in a more straight alignment on a longer culvert, and appears to have destroyed the site entirely. The height of embankments here cause the base of fill to be quite broad. It is possible that archeological remains are preserved under this fill, but the historic nature of the Erie Canal itself would prevent removal for excavation.
The site is, however, easily accessible via the Erie Canal walking trail that runs along the tow path of the old canal, and thus provides a good interpretive overlook for the earlier Wood Creek lock site.
Coincidentally, one of the original four sluices, built in the French and Indian War period, also existed on this spot. The topographic features that favored lock construction (narrow channel between high banks) may also have favored this early dam construction as well. This 1750s site was possibly destroyed during construction of the 1802 lock, but certainly later by the Erie Canal.
While the logs of this dam rotted away centuries ago, the physical evidence of why the location was selected for a mid-18th century dam - narrow and high-sided passage - remain. Natural sites that played a part in history are just as significant as man-made landscape modifications.
Below the site of Lock #3 is found a very picturesque and historically intact segment of Wood Creek. Here one can really get a dramatic impression of how small, congested and seemingly impassable this stream was, and yet come to understand that it fully functioned as a navigation route even for the largest Durham boats. These boats, although 60 feet long, were only 8 feet wide and drew about 2 feet of water when fully loaded. This channel is about 22 feet wide and in the center is a section about 12 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
The perpetual problem with Wood Creek was, of course, the trees that continually fell into it and had to be annually cut out of the channel. This was because the banks of the stream were never cleared and trees grew right up to water's edge.
Immediately west of this section, 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.” Most of this part of Wood Creek is in its original condition as it was when navigated 200 years ago. While only a natural landscape, this level of historical integrity and association with both the actions of figures of historic signifiance, and their accounts, recommends this as as much an "historic archeological site" as any man-made construction that has survived over 200 years.
The site of Lock #2 in Wood Creek is one of the most significant from both an historic/environmental and an archeological perspective.
The lock was built into a cut made across of neck of land inside a sharp meander of the stream. The entire site exists in its original environmental condition on private land a short distance from the highway (note 18th century road on 1803 map above).
The canal cut, into which the lock was built, was dug through the edge of a fairly high knoll, 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.
Probing between downed trees through ice and mud in the early spring of 1991 revealed that the entire structure of the lock floor and underpinnings still was preserved under about three feet of water and mud inside the cut. Over this area of about 100 feet in length, consistent and solid timber contacts were encountered by the probe at 36 inches, whereas outside this area there was no contact to a depth in excess of six feet.
Research confirms that nothing has changed here since 1802, and this sunken lock structure is, therefore, the oldest wooden lock in existence in New York, and perhaps in North America.
In some ways the most interesting of the series is Lock #1, which was started in 1802 under the direct field supervision of General Philip Schuyler, President of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. He stayed at the junction of Wood Creek and Canada Creek during the summer of 1802 and kept a diary and notes on the progress of this, the first built of the four new locks in Wood Creek.
The site (i.e., physical environment) of this lock is intact but more ambiguous than Lock #2. It appears to be built on the same model, however, of a dam in the old channel and a lock in a new cut or mini-canal.
A sketch found in the Schuyler Papers on the back of a letter written in 1803 (above) seems to be of this very site and fits the field configuration.
The dual channel shows up best in the earliest air photographs, and also in the field. While evidence suggests the artificial cut channel was the more northerly, the stream has presently reclaimed the original channel and left this canal cut relatively dry. The amount of stone and gravel in the site area made probing for remains essentially impossible, and the degree of erosion evident suggests the lock remains may have been scoured away. (The site has not been inspected since the damaging storms of 2011, so the extent to which it has suffered is, at this time, unknown.)
Just narrowly missed by the reconstruction of the Route 49 bridge, which is only a few feet from the downstream end of the lock complex, this site nonetheless preserves the 1802 topography and environmental setting. It probably also preserves archeological remains as well, although the lack of standing water over the lock site may have reduced its subsurface preservation. Initial attempts to locate it by probing in the 1990s failed.
The entrance of Canada Creek from the north into the Wood Creek channel increased its capacity by a considerable amount. It was here that even in the dry season boats could be reloaded and progress westward with relative ease. Because of its location at the west end of the dry weather portage road eastward into Rome, this spot was always a stopping place, and a small British fort - Fort Rickey - was placed opposite the junction in the 1750s.
Later, during the 1790s and into the early 1800s, taverns were located at the junction. Armstrong’s to the west, was initially a farmhouse, which entertained travelers, while Ranny’s, to the east, was apparently a public house from the start. Later a man named Gilbert took over the Ranny’s tavern and developed the area, with a sawmill and store (warehouse).
A painting (above) discovered by the project a few years ago in Rhode Island shows the Gilbert complex as it looked in 1815. The viewpoint is looking eastward from the west end of the bridge over Canada Creek, with the bridge over Wood Creek in foreground, right. (The road may have been closer to Wood Creek in that period.)
General Schuyler may have stayed in one of these buildings in 1802 as he supervised the construction of Lock #1. The small building in the foreground may be the storehouse of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company mentioned in some accounts.
This area is today largely undeveloped agricultural land. Yet in its day, 200 years ago, it was the hub of the transportation system connecting the lands west to the gateway to the Mohawk Valley to the east. It remains an area of potentially important archeological research, some of which has already been completed.
The 1815 painting of the place discovered a while ago reveals yet another hidden detail of this series of wooden locks on Wood Creek. In letters from General Schuyler and his contractors, we know the locks were built with a framed superstructure that locked together overhead, as shown above, left, for a similar lock built later in the Crooked Lake Canal.
But of most note is the extraordinary fact that the locks were roofed over, like New England covered bridges, and were painted. A detail of the 1815 painting of the Canada Creek junction (above) reveals that what may have at first been mistaken in the background for a large rock or barn, is in fact the roof of Lock #1! (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)
The first layer of historic sites in Wood Creek are those built during the French and Indian War, including forts and navigation “sluices”. Here at Canada Creek we have both in the same place; Fort Rickey on the knoll to the south and the site of the navigation dam ("sluice") in the creek opposite.
Until recently a replica of the fort was in place on its original site, as part of the Fort Rickey Game Farm establishment. The knoll on which the original fort stood is still clearly visible within the game farm property.
Some distance downstream from Fort Rickey, through an area where the Wood Creek channel is perfectly preserved as it was 200 years ago, we come to the first of 13 mini-canals; cuts made across necks of land by the WILNC for navigation purposes in the summer of 1793.
The first of these is also the most classic in form and in some ways the best preserved. It shows up on historic maps, and on early air photographs, as an egg-shaped, north-trending loop of the stream, cut off at its neck.
In addition to the shallowness of water, Wood Creek presented another obstacle to navigation - a twisting and narrow channel. This meant not only delay, for the water route was many times longer than the land route, if a land route had existed, but also meant that driftwood and sand collected in the crooks and the work of navigating was made greater.
General Schuyler contracted with a man from Cayuga to make 13 cuts across the worst meanders. Only one map, drawn in 1796 (above), three years after they were finished, shows all 13 completed.
A detail of that map (above) shows the first of the 13 in place at a location that today is next to Route 49. This cut is the most typical of the 13 in many ways and the most accessible.
These mini-canals, some of the oldest artificial waterways in North America, were created with hand tools at work camps in the wilderness, accessible only by boat.
The process (see above schematic) was first to cut the trees off the proposed route of the cut and stockpile the logs, Next the roots were dug up and a ditch ten feet deep was dug across the neck. This ditch filled with water and could be carefully navigated at that point. Then the logs were used to build dams in the old channel of Wood Creek, closing off its water supply and forcing it through the cut. When the next heavy rains or spring freshets came, they carved out the primitive ditch to the full size of the natural channel, and the stream was thus realigned, forming the “canal”.
This dramatic and unprecedented project reduced the journey by six miles. The level of preservation is seen in an example above further downstream (not Cut #1).
The lands along Wood Creek were so low and poor that few camping places existed, and boat travelers usually tried to get all the way through from one end to the other in one day. A height of ground downstream from Cut #1 became the only spot of any significance used for camping along the route from Canada Creek to the edge of Oneida Lake.
During the French and Indian War, and later in the Revolution, military expeditions traveling in fleets of batteaux stopped at a place called “Oak Orchard” - a sandy hill next to the stream that was covered with a grove of oak trees. At this place there was also a spring - one of the only fresh water sources on the entire journey.
This place is mentioned in many accounts of the period as a landmark, but it could never be found. It appeared on no maps and location data was vague. Detective work finally located the spot, which later became a burying ground that also had been lost to memory. The spot is today restored as an historic burying ground, with public access and maintenance managed by the Town of Verona. The tiny spring mentioned in accounts still exists.
“Oak Orchard” is also adjacent to Cut #2 of the 13 1793 Wood Creek cuts, perfectly preserved. The early map above shows the stream channel as it ran before it was cut in 1793.
But one of the most interesting stories connected to this spot came about because it also was selected by General Schuyler as the site of a wooden lock that was never built.
So sure was he that a lock would be built here, to overcome the rift that existed there, that in 1802 he had a house constructed for the lock tender. The house was built but the lock never was.
During the building of the house, in a foundation trench, the body of a baby in a cradle was dug up. It was the daughter of a French couple who had moved to the farmsite in 1796 or 97 and whose infant had died, the first non-Indian child born in Oneida County. Lacking a coffin, they buried her in her cradle, to be found again in 1802. She was promptly reburied. This “Legend of Celeste” has long been recorded in the histories of Oneida County.
The aerial view above shows the rift in Wood Creek, the present farm on the same site where “Celeste” was born, and the sandy hill of “Oak Orchard” between that house and the creek, where remains of the lock tender's house stood in 1802.
A bit downstream is Cut #3 in the series. This feature is barely visible on modern maps (above, left) among the numerous meander scars and ditches of the area.
It is much more evident, however, on old aerial photographs, above, and in the field. Cut #2 is to the right and #3 to the left.
(The aerial color photo used to illustrate Cut #1 is actually of this cut.)
Both Cut #2 and #3 exist in areas where they have remained relatively intact sine 1793, when they were no longer part of the active Wood Creek. By studying the channels within the abandoned meanders of the creek (pre-1793), where the bottom of the streambed is only a couple feet below the floodplain, one can understand the geology of the valley, since the modern stream (from 1793 to present) is often more than 15 feet below the floodplain today.
Evidence suggests that up to 1793, when forests were intact across the region, runoff was slow and erosion was minimal. Since then, with deforestation, the rapid runoff has cut the channel of Wood Creek deeply into the earth.
Cut #4 is also clearly evident, with a stream entering it from the south. This stream has continued to cut down the western half of the old meander, creating a more defined ox-bow than found in other cut sites.
It is important to understand that while these 13 mini-canals began as mere ditches, a few feet wide and ten feet deep, they have evolved through time as the rest of the creek evolved, so that the “canals” today cannot be differentiated from any other part of the main stream channel (above).
A short distance downstream from Cut #4 the creek is overrun by the construction of the Barge Canal, built in the early 20th century. In this section was Cut #5. One sharp and elongated meander that would seem to be a good candidate for cutting exists here, but is also shown on the 1796 map just east of the actual cut.
The problem was that in the space west of that meander, maps showed no evidence of a cut-off loop of the stream.
Remote sensing imagery did, however, confirm a very shallow meander in this location, somewhat attenuated by plowing, and therefore missed in topographic mapping. Analysis proved that this is in fact Cut #5 and it remains preserved in the landscape just short of the Barge Canal feeder ditch taken off the creek.
The next segment of Wood Creek has been overrun by Barge Canal construction, including diversion ditches and dredging spoils lagoons that have all but eliminated evidence of the old channel alignment. This alignment does continue to be mapped, however, and some remnants are still observable within the construction impact zone.
It is in this zone that two additional 1793 cuts existed prior to Barge Canal construction. Evidence for these is found on a pre-Barge Canal mapping of the stream done in 1899 as well as numerous detailed barge canal construction plans.
Unfortunately, little if any visible evidence of these sites exists today.
Although preliminary maps for the Barge Canal show the proposed route going right through Cut #8, the final route missed it by the narrowest margin.
Impacts to the location exist from ditching and spoils lagoon construction, but the loop of the original stream can still be confirmed from early air photos. (Note: the black and white air photos are from stereo pairs dating to 1938 and 1948-49.)
A more ambiguous situation is found at Cut #9, where some migration of the Wood Creek alignment after 1793 seems to have clouded details of the site. Note that location of these cuts is determined by matching up the entire section of Wood Creek alignment near the cut, with its particular twists and turns, with "modern" air photos. Even when meanders are rendered somewhat abstractly, as above, the stability of the creek channel leaves no doubt about where a mapped feature existed.
Originally thought to be in another location, the site of Cut #10 is one of the smallest, yet most dramatic of the series. Piles of dirt excavated in 1793 to create the cut can still be seen on the margins of the old channel here and it remains one of the most instructive of the sites, from an engineering archeology standpoint.
It is just downstream from this cut that one of the better preserved sections of creek channel can be found. Due to its proximity here to the road, the creek can be viewed without difficulty, and the meandering patterns of the channel can be clearly seen.
Although a completely unmodified natural landscape, the fact that the stream exists here as it did when the historic passages were made by the thousands of players in American history, who moved by boat between Lake Ontario and Albany and vice versa, this becomes as much a significant heritage site as a ruin or reconstructed fort. To be able to stand and view, or take a canoe or kayak into these waters, is to re-experience history where it happened, and to touch the past.
The site of Cuts #11 and #12 remains the most enigmatic of the series. From the description of an eyewitness in 1793, when the cuts were under construction, Cut #11 “…is very short” and “…shortens a fourth of a mile” while Cut #12 “…is not over five toises long [c. 30 feet], yet it saves a mile and a quarter…”
The configuration of the cutting and old channel in this location is shown on the 1796 map, and is confirmed to be accurate by modern DOT mapping and the 1899 survey. But it does not seem to fit the verbal description of 1793, and a more detailed contemporaneous map has yet to be found to resolve the ambiguity.
But one thing is clear. Cut #12 eliminated the well known “Neck on Wood Creek”, a northward trending loop of the stream that was one of the few meanders actually shown on British military maps of the 18th century.
Much of the original configuration of Wood Creek in this area is obscured by ground disturbance associated with the construction of the Barge Canal in the early 20th century.
What does remain in place, and is even navigable from the Barge Canal by small boat, is the historic cut itself that in 1793 eliminated the greatest inconvenience on the creek - “The Neck on Wood Creek”.
Cut #13, the last of the 1793 series, appears to have been completely destroyed by the construction of the Barge Canal.
Further down the Wood Creek navigation, below the 13 cuts and approaching the junction with Fish Creek, is found a combination natural/cultural landmark mentioned in traveler’s journals of the period - Dean’s Landing.
James Dean was an interpreter for negotiations with the Indians of the region, primarily the Oneidas, during the 18th century. He was the first white man to penetrate the Wood Creek wilderness for permanent settlement, in the summer of 1783. This was at the end of the Revolutionary War and ten years before the first improvements to the navigation. For his service, the Oneidas gave Dean a small tract along the north side of Wood Creek, where he proposed, with a brass founder and silversmith named Phelps, to set up trade with the Oneidas and other western Indians.
In 1784 they apparently completed two log buildings - a house and metal working shop which also contained a forge. There is some evidence at the site that a mill race to power the forge was begun along the stream which ran into Wood Creek from the north, because a small twisting brook running south toward the site has what looks like the beginnings of a mill-race cut straight through the loops of the stream.
In the spring of 1785 - only the next year - the place was completely flooded. A similar flood delayed the opening of the Barge Canal in the early 1990s. Dean and his family had to take a canoe to the second floor of the forge to live until the water receded. They abandoned the property immediately, but the clearing they had made was called thereafter “Dean’s Landing”.
The mouth of the small stream that they built on forms here a natural landing place for batteaux. Even in the 1990s, a well defined bank on the intersecting stream looked like an superb place to dock a boat and climb on shore. Landing here may have provided a shortcut overland to Fish Creek to the northwest.
It is also a landmark repeatedly mentioned in reference to Wood Creek in documents of the period. For example, in 1792 one traveler describes navigation on the creek as follows: “...we discovered a clearing, extended towards Fish Creek... known by the name of Capt. Phillips' and Dean's improvements."
Fish Creek was much larger than Wood Creek and was navigable northward for several miles. Yet it connected to nowhere of commercial or military significance, so that navigation only had local importance.
There was a short canal cut made in lower Fish Creek in 1809 to facilitate local navigation (above, right), but it is not known whether this was among the efforts of the WILNC or not. Since it is not mentioned in WILNC correspondence, it is believed to have been a local initiative.
The actual historic junction of the two streams is now absorbed into the Barge Canal (above, left).
Below the Fish Creek junction, Wood Creek is deep, wide and easily navigated.
On the last loop before entering Oneida Lake, there stood a British blockhouse from the French and Indian War. This little wooden fort - called the “Royal Blockhouse” - burned in 1767. But the clearing and burned ruins remained the only camping place on this heavily forested section of Wood Creek until 1796, when the Jacksons established a tavern nearby.
Travelers would often wait at the Royal Blockhouse site until the rough waters of the lake calmed, usually in the evening, and then they would row across the lake to the western end in darkness.
In 1796 Mr. and Mrs. Jackson built a house near the mouth of Wood Creek, and by its location it became a popular stopping place for boatmen and travelers. In about 1806, the man died, and his widow ran the tavern until around 1812, when she remarried and moved away.
This building was the embryo from which the present village of Sylvan Beach sprang up years later. It is now the terminus of the Barge Canal cut section running west from Rome.
The mouth of Wood Creek at Jackson’s Tavern became an increasingly important boat landing, especially after 1800 when the big Durham boats began hauling heavy cargoes of wheat and salt eastward out of the Ononadaga Lake and Seneca River region. But the shallow creek frustrated boatmen, who often had to make several trips up to Rome with partial loads to get their cargo to the Mohawk River.
Sometimes they just gave up and left the their freight in the woods. George Scriba states in 1804: “In August of 1803 there were not less than 500 barrels flour & salt at Jackson’s landing, which were left there by boatmen unable to proceed with their cargoes up Wood Creek.”
Boatmen coming west and used to shallow water navigation often feared the open and deep waters of Oneida Lake. Entry into the lake was partially blocked by a sand bar at the mouth of Wood Creek, and the east end of the lake is still characterized by sand bars and sandy beaches, resulting from driving winds out of the west.
Once in Oneida Lake, navigators found easier going in the westward flowing waters of the Oneida and Oswego Rivers, with a few notable exceptions.
For an overview of the entire navigation, from Albany to Oswego, and the works of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, including New York's first canals in the 1790s, go to http://www.living-in-the-past.com/waterways.html
For a detailed look at a journey along this inland waterway network in 1793, including observations of the first improvements to Wood Creek, read "The Navigators: A Journal of Passage on the Inland Waterways of New York - 1793" (P. Lord, 2003) available online at State Museum Publications
Contact for this webpage is:
Contact for this webpage is: Phil Lord