The most concentrated episode of eighteenth century neck-cut construction in New York, and probably in all of the Northeast, was that undertaken by Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company on the twisting channel of Wood Creek, running west from the City of Rome to Oneida Lake. During the year of 1793, this company cut thirteen short canals across narrow necks of the stream, thereby shortening the length of travel between Fort Stanwix and Oneida Lake by seven and a half miles.

We would probably never have known the more mundane technical details of this astounding engineering feat of navigation improvement had it not been for the fortunate coincidence of the trip of French settlers Pharoux and Desjardins down the Wood Creek channel in October of 1793,55 on the way to Lake Ontario. Their observations have preserved for us a detailed picture of the various stages of this process of cutting short canals across the necks of meanders in upland streams.

Prerequisite Conditions

In order to effect so substantial a result in navigation improvement, the water course being modified must meet certain prerequisite field conditions. It should be narrow, relatively stable, with a twisting course that has produced, over the centuries, a number of sharply turned meanders, producing at their mouths narrow necks of land. These conditions not only inspire improvement, by the considerable impediments they impose on travelers in anything larger than a canoe, but they also permit such improvements by the narrowness of the necks and the elongated nature of the natural loops at these constrictures in the alignment.

Once sites for such short-cuts are selected, the process of completing these rechannelization efforts appears to consist of five basic stages, as recorded by Pharoux and Desjardins.

Stage One: Clearing the Natural Channel

In preparation for construction, and if for no other reason than to improve the existing waterway while waiting for the new one to be completed, the natural channel is cleared of trees and sunken logs. The degree to which trees were a perpetual problem on Wood Creek is hinted at by the French journal: "The Wood Creek derives its name from the quantity of wood with which it was encumbered. . . The beginning of our route was still difficult, on account of the very little depth of water, and the trees that had fallen in, the creek is so small, that the branches of the trees on the opposite banks unite over head. There are no clearings either on the right hand or the left." 56 Even seventeen years later, DeWitt Clinton noted in his private journal of a trip down Wood Creek: "The creek was almost the whole distance choked with logs..."57 That the contractors of the W. I. L. N. C. had been engaged in the clearing of these overhanging trees was observed by the Frenchmen: "They have cut many of the trees that overhung the stream, which has made it lighter and facilitated the navigation."58

It is important to realize that in such conditions, these overhanging trees did not present a nicely arched green bower that covered the stream the way roadside maples did for the nineteenth century traveler in the countryside. They instead lay directly across the channel just above the water, partially uprooted by storms or just the weakness of their roots in the banks. The branches, and sometime even the trunks themselves, effectively blocked passage by boat, even though they were not actually in the water. But other trees, which had fallen completely into the channel, provided an even more hazardous threat, because unseen they could rip the bottom planking of a batteau and destroy the cargo. Improvements in this regard were also observed: "Not far from thence, we met the men and oxen of the contractor, busy in removing from the creek some fallen trees."59

Stage Two: Clearing the Cut Area and Stockpiling the Logs

Once the alignment of the new cut was decided on, the forest, which in all cases had not felt the blow of an axe since the beginning of time, had to be cut away before excavation could commence. The logs were set aside to be used later in the construction. "Along the creek we saw piles of wood made by the workmen engaged on the repairs."60 This process alone must have been a prodigious effort, as these were trees of considerable stature.

One can only imagine the challange of working in an uninhabited wilderness, surrounded by low, swampy ground infested with mosquitoes, and only a boatload of hand tools at their disposal as weapons against the virgin timber. Yet here, cut off from any semblence of civilization or the advances of technology, these crews struggled on.

Stage Three: Excavating the Ditch Across the Neck

The actual excavation of the "canal" may not have been as substantial an operation as we might have assumed. First of all, these cuts were "narrow and very straight and without slope." 61 It is assumed that what is meant here is that the banks of the cuts were not sloped back as in a normal canal excavation, but were completely vertical. Such cuts would have been fairly unstable. This appears to be confirmed in statements made further along about fear of bank caving. The ditches created were not intended as the final product, but were merely guides for the redirected river, which would finish the job: "We are told that in high water, the river will soon make a channel here, and of itself finish the work. In the meantime, until nature, with all her powerful, and most active hand, shall finish the labor thus imperfectly begun by the Americans, we had great difficulty in passing these pretended canals, and not without fear that the banks might cave in and bury our bateau in an instant."62

The dimensions of these "pretended canals" can be estimated from clues sprinkled in the French journal and other accounts. First of all, we know they were considerably narrower than the natural Wood Creek channel itself, because it was anticipated that the creek would widen the cut at some future time. Christian Schultz, passing this same stream in 1810 records that "Wood Creek is a narrow, crooked and sluggish stream . . . and about twelve yards wide. . ."63 Elkanah Watson in 1791 states: "This creek, in its present state, may be considered a natural canal, from ten to twenty feet wide. . . The accession of Canada creek, more than doubles the size of Wood creek."64 As the neck cuts were all downstream of Canada Creek, we may assume a channel width of 20-40 feet. If the natural channel was only 36 feet wide, these short-cuts would probably have been less than 20 feet in width. They may have been considerably narrower, given the difficulty of passing through them cited by the Frenchmen in their batteau and their expressed concern at being buried by bank caving. Since a batteau would require only about 8 feet of passage to freely navigate, and could get through on as few as 5 (they describe their boat as being ". . . fifteen feet long by four wide in the middle, and both ends were pointed."65), we can see the possibility of little more than a ditch dug at each of these locations. Given the fact that the finished profile of the true canals dug by Schuyler's company later in the 1790s was only 25 feet wide and three feet deep, we can assume these cuts were very modest indeed.

The depth of the Wood Creek cuts can only be accurately estimated from a single entry by the French settlers who indicated at one point a cut was "three feet deep in the solid ground and two feet in the sand beneath."66 Of course a batteau, even fully loaded, would only require two feet of water to freely navigate, and often got by with considerably less. But in at least some instances here depths of over twice that may have been excavated. Dewitt Clinton in his 1810 journal states: "In digging the canals in Wood Creek, pine-trees have been found twelve feet deep."67

Under normal conditions, the cut would have to be equal to the height of the land above the water level in the stream,* plus an additional 3 feet. Such a formula was applied to the Mohawk in 1792 when General Schuyler stated: ". . .the surface of the ground here is eight feet eight inches above the level of the water in the river . . . and, as three feet ought to be given for the depth of the water in the Canal, the depth to be dug at this point will be nearly twelve feet. . ."68

But two elements were different in Wood Creek. First, the cut was not expected to be of the dimensions of a finished canal when it was completed, since the cutting action of the stream would erode the man-made ditch into its final configuration. So one could expect the depth of cut to be merely enough to allow the stream to enter the ditch, perhaps less than a foot below the water level. And one must also remember that the natural channel of the stream was to be blocked off by a log dam, not only forcing the water into the new cut, but also raising the level until it did so. While the observations of Pharoux and Desjardins suggest that the newly finished cuts of the contractor did allow for enough water to just barely float their batteau (perhaps only a foot or so), it would have been technically possible to accomplish the canalization merely by scratching a shallow ditch across the land at the neck. The rising waters of the dammed stream would eventually locate this ditch and run through it. Forced by these artificial means to carry the full load of Wood Creek, the ditch would in short order evolve into a new channel equal in depth to the normal level of the stream. *[Note - Vanderkemp could see over the neck by standing in his boat. This means the height of land above water was no more than 6-7 feet.]

Stage Four: Damming the Old Channel

Once the new cut was in place, the stream had to be forced into it, for unless the stream began using this channel, it would soon silt up again and be lost to navigation. The method of redirecting the stream was quite simple and utilized the raw materials already on hand from the clearing of the cut area. "Along the creek we saw piles of wood made by the workmen engaged on the repairs. They cut large trunks into pieces eight or ten feet long, and float them, to the places where deep water is to be maintained at the entrance of Oneida Lake. They take the rest to the bends of the creek which are to be closed when the cuttings for straightening the channel have been made."69 Using the cut logs to block off the natural course of the river forced the water to seek out the new channel. At first this merely watered the cut and formed what Pharoux and Desjardins called "these pretended canals." But at a later stage, the erosive power of the stream would deepen these cuts into a more impressive form. Apparently two successive cuts observed by the Frenchmen exhibited the two stages of this damming and redirection process. At the "fifth cutting" through which they were navigating, they noted that "The ancient bed of the creek is filled in with wood,"70 indicating the damming of the natural channel had been completed. But the "sixth cutting," which "is not yet filled with water,"71 they could only look at, the damming of the natural channel having not yet been completed. This suggests that perhaps the cuts were not as deep as the natural water surface of Wood Creek and were only watered by the elevation of the stream behind dams blocking the old channel.

Stage Five: Natural Forces Take Over

Once the ditch was finished and the damming of the natural channel was in place, the construction phase of the project was essentially done. The new cuts would be watered by the full flow of the stream, but, as noted in the journal, this would not necessarily provide an adequate channel due to the narrowness of the artificial cut. In addition, once the stream entered the ditch, it began a process of undercutting the banks caused by being restricted to an unnaturally narrow bed. This caused the soils at the margins of the new cut to become dislodged and to fall into the narrow channel, which in turn loosened the trees that were left close by the cut. In one completed channel, Pharoux and Desjardins note that "its bed is already encumbered by the trees and sand that have tumbled in; but all this, they say, will go off in high water."72

The completion of the channelization in Wood Creek depended on the impact of flood stage water. Until that event, the effects of the stream would be minimal, producing a flow, but an insufficient force to clean out the debris that would gradually clog the new channel as it began to evolve from a manmade ditch to a natural river. Such major natural excavation would usually have to wait for a spring freshet - the massive runoff created by the spring melt. But even before this, observable changes in the cuts could be seen. The French journal records that the eighth cut, "which has been finished six months, is already much enlarged by the stream."73And the thirteenth cut presumably made about the same time, "is already greatly enlarged by nature."74 These two cuts would have been made in April of 1793, seemingly too late for the benefits of the spring freshets, yet in existence long enough to have lost their original artificial profile. This underscores the difficulty noted in our discussion of meander Area B of trying to locate archeological evidence of such artificial excavations in the remnant soil profiles.


As impressive as the result of this navigation improvement project was, shortening the trip between Oneida Lake and Rome by seven and a half miles, we can begin to see that the actual scope of construction may not have been so grand as first envisioned, looking back two centuries from a modern canal perspective. Perhaps it would not have been so great an undertaking as to have required governmental involvement or the use of significant financial resources. Yet would not the clearing of miles of natural channel, the cutting of acres of virgin forest, the completion of thirteen excavations across necks of land, and the hauling and emplacement of tons of materials for as many as 26 timber dams, have required some extraordinary equipment?

Apparently not! Pharoux and Desjardins are as puzzled by this as we are, when they look back on the operations of the Navigation Company contractor: "If this contractor would use a windlass, or only a cable and pulleys fastened to the trees along the bank, he would do thrice the amount of work in half the time; but no mechanical appliances were used, and everything was done by sheer force of men and animals. They appeared not even to know the use of a ladder, much less of a crane, or of the simplest labor saving power."75


We can probably be sure that the technology used to cut "the Neck" on the Mohawk was at least as primitive as that used here on Wood Creek sixty-three years later. The equipment probably included little else than a batteau, axes, and shovels; the type of equipment commonly at hand to anyone already navigating the Mohawk in the early eighteenth century. While the excavation itself may have taken a few men a few days to complete, it would not have been beyond the means of any trader on the river, and would not have seemingly required either the permission of the Provincial Government nor their reimbursement.

But in addition to suggesting the potentially very modest scope for so dramatic an early construction project as "the Neck," the model for early eighteenth century artificial channel construction we have derived from the events on Wood Creek underscores the difficulty facing anyone attempting to locate the site of one in the field.

The size of the meander to be by-passed was not the determining factor, rather the proximity of the arms of the meander to each other and the resultant narrowness of the neck. Thus the site of an early eighteenth century artificial navigation cut was always the location of an impending natural neck cut-off. The cut in effect anticipated in its location the natural phenomena already at work in the channel, and the resultant form of the new artificial waterway at the site could not be differentiated, either horizontally or vertically, from one produced by natural causes. Not unless the cutting phase of the channelization was accompanied by a filling, or damming, operation, as it was on Wood Creek in 1793, could one expect to see residual archeological evidence of the construction project itself. This evidence might sometimes include the preserved remains of sunken logs used in the damming, perhaps bearing axe or saw marks, lying in silt at the neck of the ox-bows. But it would certainly always include the geomorphological results of an abrupt, rather than gradual, evolution from an open and attached cut-off meander to a silted and detached ox-bow.

It is almost certain that the cut-off at "the Neck" on the Mohawk in 1730 was little more than a ditching, without any damming of the old channel. The shape of the meander, the narrowness of the neck, and the fact that geologically it was probably about to cut itself through here naturally, made it easy to redirect the river without the damming of the old channel. That is probably why the feature is always shown on the old maps as being open and connected to the river. Had the 1730 "engineers" blocked the meander loop with logs, the river would have quickly established a levee against these log dams, cutting off the meander and hastening the formation of an ox-bow behind them. This is not evident, and in fact is contradicted by all the contemporary mapping of the feature, as well as the circa 1790 Whitestown map.

Just as this period of late eighteenth century river navigation improvement was transitional between the use of natural rivers and the use of artificial canals, so the technologies applied here were transitional as well. When the Erie Canal was constructed during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the dimensions of the finished waterway were decided upon and then those dimensions were completely excavated into the earth before the first drops of water entered the system. But on Wood Creek in the late eighteenth century there was no attempt to create through excavation the final cross section of the waterway intended for use. Rather the excavations merely guided or directed the natural forces of the existing watercourse. It was the action of the waterway itself which completed the excavation, and the dimensions of the natural waterway which were the intended specifications of the new "canal. "