MOHAWK - Discovering the Valley of the Crystals Copyright 2003

Chapter 10 - The Canals

Inland Canals, Locks . . . and Eel Dams
The route was well-established by 1700. It started where the Hudson River was too shallow for ships (Albany), ran overland to the Mohawk River at Schenectady, continued westward to the Great Carry (Rome) where craft and cargo were carried to Wood Creek and floated to Oneida Lake, Oneida River, Oswego River and Lake Ontario.

The crew pulls a Durham Boat through a modified eel weir on the Mohawk River.

    Indian dugouts and canoes were the watercraft of choice for hundreds of years, but as more and more Europeans traveled the route---carrying more and more cargo---the double-ended flat-bottomed bateau became more popular. It could be rowed, poled, or if the winds were right, sailed. Most importantly it was a shallow-water craft that was light enough to be hauled over rapids and around such obstacles as the Little Falls.
Despite their limited capacity, hundreds of bateau carried furs, produce, trade goods and passengers between Schenectady and Lake Ontario. It was also used extensively by the military during the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War.These military campaigns highlighted the need for "adjustments" on the Mohawk River to accommodate bigger boats.
    In the 1700s the Durham Boat was the freight boat of choice on many East Coast rivers. (Durham Boats were commandeered by George Washington to carry his army across the Delaware River to surprise the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776.)

Little Falls was a major obstacle to navigation.

      The typical Durham was 60 feet long, 8 feet wide and carried 24,000 pounds of cargo and a crew of five. Like the bateau it could be rowed, poled and sailed. Unlike the bateau it required deeper water, wider turns and no carries.


A kiosk near the remains of the old guard lock explains the history of the 1795 Little Falls Canal.

    Hence the formation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792. Headed by General, Philip Schuyler, this private company ushered in a new era of navigation on the Mohawk River. Initial excavation and construction improved navigation for bateau the length of the river, and set the stage for the introduction of Durham Boats. By 1793 enough capital had been raised to make the adjustments needed to float riverboats over the riffs and rapids, and to eliminate the major twists and turns on the infamous Wood Creek.
    Sediments, including rock, cobble, gravel and sand, poured into the Mohawk River from tributary streams during highwater periods, creating bars near the mouths of streams, and riffs and rapids further downstream. While many of these deposits served as river crossings, they were obstacles to navigation. The WILNC adjusted these obstacles by removing rocks, cutting deeper channels . . . and building modified eel weir dams.
    For hundreds of years, the Indians living near the rivers of northeastern America, relied on stone wing dams to direct migrating fish, especially eels, to their fish nets or baskets. This downstream V structure also raised the water level in the middle of the V, especially near the apex where a gap was provided for fish to pass through. By altering the size of the dam and the width of the gap, this ancient eel weir structure provided passage over riffs and rapids.
    (Several years ago while canoe-fishing the Delaware River, Bob McNitt and I followed a downstream V in the middle of the river---usually the safest path---and discovered an eel weir dam that was still in use. Fortunately, we dodged the "basket" at the point of the V.)
    Although Wood Creek is only a mile from the Mohawk River, it's in a completely different watershed. It flows south to Rome and west towards Oneida Lake. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years it was the water route connection between the Mohawk Valley and Lake Ontario. Its countless twists and turns through swamp and wetland forest---with fallen trees at practically every turn---were the scourge of travelers.

When the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company built the Rome Canal to bypss the Great Carry it created the missing link in the water-route between the Mohawk Valley and Lake Ontario.
(Benjamin Wright 1803 map)

     In 1793 the WILNC cleared trees, logs and other debris from the creek, and cut 13 short canals across the necks of loops to shorten and straighten the water route between Rome and Oneida Lake.
    A major obstacle on the Mohawk River was the mile-long series of rapids and falls at Little Falls. Durham Boats were too big to cart around the falls, so in 1795 the WILNC built a mile-long canal with five wooden lift locks, one guard lock and a dam . . . on the north side of the river. The wooden locks didn't last long and were subsequently rebuilt with stone. (Remnants of the stone guard lock are still visible today near the entrance to the business park at the east end of the village.)
    In 1797 the Great Carry at Rome was bypassed with a 1.7-mile canal that featured two brick locks, a feeder canal and two dams. This canal provided the long-awaited water route from the Mohawk River to Wood Creek.
    Although Durham Boats could negotiate most of the rapids between Little Falls and Rome, there were two rapids downstream from the mouth of West Canada Creek that were especially troublesome, sometimes downright dangerous. In 1798 The WILNC cut a 1.1-mile canal to bypass the rapids, and built a lift lock at the lower end and a guard lock at the upper end. (Remnants of this German Flatts Canal and the stone lift lock were discovered on Lock 18 Island in the 1980s.)
    By 1798 the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had adjusted the Mohawk River to accommodate Durham Boats and of course make life easier for bateau-men as well. The 60-foot Durham Boats were not carried to the Mohawk from other rivers. Most of them were made in Schenectady where a thriving boat building industry developed as a direct result of WILNC work on the river. Indeed, by the 1800s the big boats on the river were called Schenectady Boats.
    Despite previous efforts to make Wood Creek more navigable, these Schenectady Boats had great difficulty getting through the shallow waters of Wood Creek, especially during low water periods. To alleviate this problem, the WILNC built four wooden lift locks, plus dams and sluices between Rome and the mouth of Canada Creek. (Although these wooden locks were built in 1803, their remnants were discovered under the muck and mire of Wood Creek swamp in the 1990s.)
    The Wood Creek locks were one of the last construction projects undertaken by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. Although the company survived---with government help---until 1820, its waning years were devoted to trying to maintain the "adjustments" made in the first 10 years.
    Despite its eventual demise---due to lack of funds---there is no doubt that the WILNC ushered in a new era of navigation in the Mohawk Valley, and it's innovative adjustments to the river and Wood Creek paved the way for the creation of the Erie Canal.

   Much of what is known about this period of Mohawk Valley history was discovered by Philip Lord, Jr.,  recently retired Director of Operations for the New York State Museum. For 20 years he devoted a third of his official time to the Durham Project. This field work and scholarly research have been the source of information for numerous brochures, pamphlets, kiosks, historical markers, webpages and more recently a fascinating book on the subject. The Navigators, A Journal of Passage on the Inland Waterways of New York (1793) by Philip Lord, Jr. was published by the New York State Museum this year (2003). It can be ordered from the museum book store.

(Durham Boat illustration courtesy of  New York State Museum.)

See also:  Little Falls - No Man's Land
                 Lock 18 (Plantation) Island

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