Keator's Rift

In the 1790s, the Mohawk River, which was the only dependable transportation route west, was obstructed by 91 rapids or "rifts." Many of these were gravelly shallows formed of the debris that washed into the river every spring from the numerous intersecting creeks on either side.

A typical rift on the Mohawk
This map, drawn in 1803, reveals one of the many rifts or shoals in the Mohawk River, the intersecting stream that produced it, and the boat channel designed to get around it.
Click image to enlarge

One such, called Brandywine Rift, was located immediately downstream from the mouth of Canajoharie Creek. But the most feared rapid in the region, if not in the entire Mohawk Valley, was Keator's Rift at Sprakers. Here, thousands of years ago, an island had formed of rock, gravel, and sand discharged into the river from Flat Creek on the south shore.

The first accurate description of this rapid was recorded by General Philip Schuyler and the W.I.L.N.C. survey team sent westward by batteau in August of 1792 to examine the Mohawk River from Schenectady to Fort Stanwix [Rome]. The survey report details the upriver run from Caughnawaga [Fonda]: "On nine miles, in perfectly good water, current gentle, to the rapid commonly called Kettar's Rapid, great velocity of water, sufficiently deep, obstructed by large rocks, the rapid extends about one quarter of a mile." 8

In recounting this era of river navigation a half century later, Jeptha Simms underscored the status this rapid had in the minds of boatmen of the period:

The trade with the Indians along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence was carried on by the aid of boats propelled from Schenectada up the Mohawk at great personal labor, in consequence of their being several rifts or rapids in the stream. The first obstruction of the kind was met with six miles above Schenectada, and was called Six Flats' rift; proceeding west came in course similar obstructions known as Fort Hunter rift; Caughnawaga rift; Keator's rift, at Spraker's, the greatest on the river, having a fall of ten feet; Brandywine rift, at Canajoharie, short but rapid; Ehle's rift near Fort Plain; Kneiskern's rift, a small rapid near the upper Indian castle, a little above the river dam; and the Little falls, so named as compared with the Cahoes on the same stream near its mouth. 9

Keator's Rift was encountered by boatmen travelling west from Schenectady soon after passing "The Noses," that majestic, rocky passage through which all traffic along the Mohawk must pass, from prehistoric dugout canoe to modern boats on the Canal; from eighteenth century ox-cart to the tandem trailers running the Thruway. It was this gap, in an otherwise continuous Appalachin mountain barrier to inland water travel, that made the Mohawk Valley the favored route for westward transport anywhere south of the St. Lawrence, and a transportation corridor of national significance.10

Keator's Rift in 1889
This view, drawn by Rufus Grider in October of 1889, shows the island at Keator's Rift at the left and, at "2" in the drawing, the channel mouth where Schuyler built a wing dam in the 1790s.
Click image to enlarge

The remnants of Keator's Rift, with the ancient island still intact, lie directly between the modern Canal and the Thruway, bridging 200 years of interstate transportation history. This island, barely 100 feet from the westbound lane of the Thruway but still invisible to the motorist speeding by, was already a place of great history by the 1790s. It had been used as a portage place by Sir John Johnson during his raid on the Mohawk Valley in October, 1780. After camping overnight near Little Nose, the Tory, Indian and British force marched to Sprakers and crossed the river at Keator's Rift by driving wagons into the rapid to make a causeway for the troops to cross.11

The rift itself, which lay north of the island, has long since been tamed by the dredging of the main channel for the Barge Canal. Boaters today, easily passing through on a 14 foot deep channel, would scarcely believe the strenuous labors expended in this place 200 years ago.

The clumsy bateau, which had for half a century usurped the place of the Indian's bark canoe, soon gave place to the Durham boat.. It was found more difficult to force large than small craft over the rapids. Several boats usually went in company, that the united strength of many men might aid in the labor before them. Those boats were often half a day in proceeding only a few rods, and not infrequently were they, after remaining nearly stationary on a rapid for an hour, compelled to drop below the rift and get a new start. Twenty hands, at times, were insufficient to propel a single boat over Keator's rift. Black slaves, owned by settlers in the neighborhood of rapids, both male and female, were often seen assisting at the ropes on shore, when loaded boats were ascending the river. 12

That batteaux had less trouble than the larger Durham boats is borne out by one account in 1794: "At half past nine [at night] arrived at Spraker's Ferry beyond the rapids of Anthony's Nose [Keator's Rift], which we passed very easily, considering that it was dark. Our men united in passing up one batteau after another."13

Although the force of water running through a rift often produced the greatest difficulty and danger, it was frequently the shallowness of the water that provided the greatest obstacle to navigation. In a river where rifts were often less than 20 inches deep and occasionally only a foot, boats too heavily loaded would be constantly running aground, particularly late in the summer when the river ran low, and had to be lightened to pass over. The easiest method at Keator's Rift, as confirmed by this 1810 account, was to discharge all the passengers onto the river road below the rapid, to meet them again at the top by Spraker's Tavern: "We commenced our journey at 5 o'clock, and in order to facilitate the passage of our batteaux over Kater's Rapid, which extends a mile from this place, and which is among the worst in the river, we walked to the head of it."14

This rift was one singled out in 1803 for improvement by Schuyler's canal company, and a map of the area made at that time appears to suggest a short canal dug along the north bank of the river, by- passing the rapid entirely. There is no evidence such a canal was ever built, although a similar canal had been dug in 1798 at German Flatts [Fort Herkimer] to pass by Wolf Rift and Knock 'em Stiff Rift.

But it is evident that one of the wing dams constructed by Schuyler's canal company to raise the water on several Mohawk rifts was installed in the lesser channel behind the island at Keators Rift to divert what water might pass by into the main channel. This narrow channel, labelled "Dry in low water" on the map, still exists immediately north of the westbound lane of the Thruway and is to this day dry in the late summer.

Keator's Rift
This 1803 view of Keator's Rift shows a wing dam blocking the back channel and the island that still exists there today.
Click image to enlarge

In addition to the shallowness of the water and the treachery of the current, one of the greatest threats to boat, crew, and cargo were the rocks and boulders, some half hidden from view, that frequently dotted the channel. Although the river accidents that sometimes occurred to boatmen seldom resulted in loss of life, Keator's Rift claimed more than its share. A three-handed batteau struck a rock in the rift, capsized, and "a negro was drowned." 15 And one of the most severe accidents on the Mohawk during this period occurred in 1796, here on Keator's Rift, to another three-handed batteau working its way upriver from Schenectady:

[We]..came on to what is called Caty's rift16... At this unfortunate place commenced my ill fortune. I at first hired only two bateaumen, but previous to my leaving Schenectady I hired a third, hoping by this I had put it out of the power of any accident to happen. The boat, being manned by three professed bateaumen and one good hand (though not a boatman), ascended this rift to within a boat's length of being over17, when she took a shear18 and fell back, and soon acquired such velocity that the resistance of the boatmen became quite inadequate to stopping her.

The consequence was, she fell crosswise of the current, and when she had descended the rapids about half way she brought up broadside upon a rock (which lays in the middle of the stream), and sunk almost instantly about four or five inches under. In this situation she lay about two hours before I could procure assistance to get her unloaded; the delay of getting to her, together with the difficulty of coming at her cargo, made us three hours before we could relieve the boat, during which time we expected to see her go to pieces, which would undoubtedly have happened had she not been a new boat, and well built.

It was particularly unfortunate that it was on board this boat that I had almost all my dry goods19, which got most thoroughly wet. Upon getting the boat off I found she had two of her knees20 broke, and one of her planks split, and leaky in several places. I immediately had one-half the cargo reloaded, and set forward up the rapid, at the head of which lives Mr. Spraker. Here I unloaded, and sent the boat back for the residue. Upon her arrival I set about opening the goods, all of which were soaking wet. The casks I had the goods in would have turned water for a short time, but the length of time the boat was under gave an opportunity for all the casks to fill21. The three boxes of tea were all soaked through. The difficulty of getting this article dry was heightened by the very showery weather we had Tuesday and Wednesday; but by paying the greatest attention we were enabled to get it all dry by Wednesday evening. The goods I had all dried and repacked; the boat I had taken out of the water and repaired; almost everything was now ready for setting out in the morning.22

Schematic of 18th century batteau.
A drawing of a 1758 military batteau based on archeological remains raised from Lake George and showing the "knees" used in construction.
Drawing by Kevin Crisman, Courtesy Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Click image to enlarge

Rediscovered by State Museum archeologists in 1982 as part of an environmental impact study for a canal dredging project23, the site of Keator's Rift, lying on state land between the Canal and the Thruway, is now protected and preserved as a visible landmark of this historic era. Appropriately, public access to the site is best accomplished from the river [canal], as it would have been 200 years ago.


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