A variety of boats plied the Mohawk during the first decades after the Revolution. Everything from bark canoes and dugouts, plank batteaux and scows, to the great river freighters of the opening years of the nineteenth century - the Durham boats.
All these vessels had the same capability - to navigate in extremely shallow water and, with the exception of the Durham boat, to be portable enough to circumvent the worst rapids and the land carriages that obstructed the Mohawk-Oneida transportation corridor.
Batteaux were the most common carriers throughout the eighteenth century, seeing duty as military transports during both the French and Indian War and the Revolution. They came in all sizes, but were generally kept small to facilitate portaging prior to the completion of Schuyler's canals and improvements in 1803.
After 1803, when boats could travel all the way to Oneida Lake without unloading or being portaged, the big Durham boats became the vehicle of choice. These boats were 60 feet long, eight feet wide and required only 24 inches of water to pass through fully loaded.31 They were run by men who pushed the boat forward with long poles, shod with iron points, walking along cleated boards that ran the length of the boat on each side. A steersman with a 20 foot long sweep, or steering oar, controlled the boat, and a set of sails was used whenever possible. These boats fit perfectly the lock chambers designed by General Schuyler, and, in fact, may be considered the first true canal boats in New York State.
But as the boats got bigger, even the improved waterways posed problems for safe navigation. It is not unexpected, therefore, that some of the most dramatic river boat accidents on record occurred in those closing years of the river navigation era just prior to the opening of the Erie Canal [c. 1825].
At the upper end of the island, [around 1820] some two miles west of Fort Plain, near the Palatine shore, a man at a setting pole32, on a Durham boat, lost his footing and fell into the river. The current there was quite strong, the man could not swim, the boat fell below him33and he was drowned. ...In 1823....Ezra Copeley ran a Durham boat on a rock in Ehle's rift, below the Fort Plain bridge. It was loaded with wheat in bulk, was stove34 and filled with water. The wheat was taken to Ehle's barn and dried, the boat was repaired, reloaded, and went on to its destination.35
But the most spectacular and interesting accident on the river befell the great Durham freighter "Butterfly" in the Spring of 1823:
One of the last accidents of the kind occurred while the canal was nearing completion to a Durham boat, one of the best of that class of river craft, called the Butterfly. It was descending the river, then swollen, laden with flour, potash and wheat in bulk, when it became unmanageable, swung round, and struck its broadside against a pier of the Canajoharie bridge, and broke near the centre. The contents of the boat literally filled the river for some distance, and three hands on the boat were drowned. The name of one was afterward ascertained to be John Clark. His body was recovered twelve miles below, and was buried on the river bank, in the present village of Fultonville. His bones having been dislodged by the spring freshet of 1845, they were taken up and buried in the village burying- ground. Nicholas Steller, who witnessed the disaster, says that the man steering the boat retained the long tiller (15 or 20 feet long), which was broken loose from the boat; and by its assistance he gained the north shore 80 rods below the bridge. Most of the flour on the boat was saved along the river. The owner of the craft, a Mr. Meyers, had its fragments taken to Schenectada and rebuilt, after which it entered the canal, and went into Cayuga Lake. While there engaged, his boat sunk laden with gypsum, and he was drowned.36 Thus ended the Butterfly and its owner.37
Meyers was running his boat out of the lower end of Cayuga Lake, making a routine shipment to Schenectady. It is likely he encountered a spring freshet38, given the estimated date of his journey.39 Boat runs during high water in the Spring had the advantage of depth on the rifts, running easily over bottoms that a few weeks later might be impassable. But the force of water and the unpredictable current, often hiding new gravel bars and eddies formed since the last season, posed a real danger.
The Canajoharie bridge that Meyers' boat broke against was a covered bridge built on three stone piers set in the river by noted bridge builder Theodore Burr in 1808. This predated the great covered bridge he built across the Mohawk at Schenectady by one year. The Canajoharie bridge replaced an earlier single span bridge, built in 1803, that had collapsed. To the captain of a 60 foot long Durham boat hurling along sideways in the Mohawk, the stone piers of these new-fangled covered bridges must have loomed horribly on the horizon.