Two hundred years ago, a pioneer migrating west, newly arrived in Albany and hungry for land, an Albany merchant anxious to ship merchandize 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 system.
A portion of a map of the navigation route from Albany to the Great Lakes - drawn by Thomas Kitchin in 1772.
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With passage into the Mohawk blocked by the Great Cohoes Falls, one first had to hire a wagon in Albany for overland transport across 16 miles of Pine Bush to Schenectady, on the Mohawk River. Here at the old harbor one would buy or hire a small batteau1 - the pick-up truck of the 18th century - to navigate up 58 miles of the Mohawk to the portage2 at Little Falls. This passage would require the boatmen to force their batteau over 57 rapids or "rifts," some of them with only inches of water. At Little Falls teamsters were paid to cart the cargo, and the boat, a mile overland to the top of the falls. Here the craft would be relaunched and loaded to traverse the upper Mohawk to Fort Stanwix at Rome, some 38 miles and 22 rapids further west.
At Stanwix the Mohawk turned 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, narrow enough here to jump across. Unable to move, boatmen would go upstream to negotiate with the miller, who had impounded the waters of Wood Creek in a pond. A release of water from his dam would, with luck, carry the batteau the 5 miles down to the junction of Canada Creek. From here in good season one could navigate the remaining 18 miles to Oneida Lake, following a log-choked, shallow creek at times so twisting one could pole a boat a mile by water to advance only 30 feet by land. Once in Oneida Lake small boats could travel by water to Seneca Lake or to the Great Lakes via Oswego with only moderate difficulty.
This tortuous route was the only highway west of any consequence 200 years ago and it was the improvement of this water route from Schenectady to Oneida Lake that was the mission of Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792.
Just over a decade later, in 1803, one could depart Schenectady harbor in a Durham Boat, twice the size of a batteau and able to carry seven times the cargo - the 18-wheeler of the river boat era. Too large and heavy to lift out of the water for portaging, these craft depended on a continuous and relatively deep3 channel to navigate successfully.
The voyager leaving the harbor at Schenectady in 1803, a part of which still survives, more easily passed the 57 rapids of the lower Mohawk, some having been deepened by Schuyler's company with plowed out channels or long V-shaped rock dams. The portage at Little Falls was replaced in 1795 by a mile long canal, equipped with 5 wooden locks4 rebuilt with stone in 1803. Remains of one of these locks can still be seen, and a search is underway for the canal, now buried under the city.
A short distance westward, near Herkimer, two rapids that had become troublesome for these larger boats were bypassed in 1798 by a mile long canal, much of which can still be traced. The guard lock5 of this canal, discovered in 1986, is the oldest intact canal lock in New York.
A map drawn in 1803 showing the short canal built by Schuyler's company at German Flatts in 1798.
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At Rome a canal was built in 1797 to bypass the 2 mile portage at Fort Stanwix, and excavations here in the Fall of 1991 revealed parts of one of the brick locks and boat basin from this canal. Here, also, a search for remains beneath city streets is planned.
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. Remains of two of these, the oldest timber locks in New York and among the oldest in North America, were discovered underwater in a swamp and along Wood Creek west of Rome in 1991.
Passing down the twisting channel of Wood Creek, a Durham boat would take advantage of 13 short canals cut across necks6 of land in 1793, which shortened the passage to Oneida Lake by six miles. The undisturbed sites of the nine of these that survived Barge Canal construction 70 years ago have been discovered and represent some of the oldest artificial waterways in North America.
These archeological sites are tangible proof of the dramatic and unprecedented accomplishments of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. Just eleven years after it was chartered, and fifteen years before construction of the Erie Canal was 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 unimpeded, and did so at a time when engineering was still experimental. Had these improvements, which included our first canals, not been in place by 1803, our history as a state and nation might have played very differently.7