3.org/1999/xhtml">Wood Creek

The Neck on Wood Creek

The British map of 1775 that showed the Neck on the Mohawk records another neck on Wood Creek far to the west.

The same 1757 map (above, click on map for more details) that first showed us "the Neck digged through in 1730" on the Mohawk River, also portrayed a continuation of the water route westward to Oswego, including the carry across land at Fort Williams (Rome) that brought one into the westward running, if shallow, waters of Wood Creek, and eventually through that creek to Oneida Lake. It is on Wood Creek, about 3/4ths of the distance west to Oneida Lake, that we see a horseshoe-like northward trending loop in the stream, drawn almost identically to the neck on the Mohawk, except that the arms of the former are clearly left unconnected. This feature is labeled "the Neck in the Wood Creek."

A 1756 map portrays the Wood Creek neck as an open meander.

A 1759 map portrays the Wood Creek neck as a narrow, but still open, meander.

The 1756 map (above, left) which showed the neck on the Mohawk labeled "the Neck Diged through in 1730" also reveals this loop on Wood Creek in about the same location and also drawn open at the neck, but with no accompanying label to identify it, as does the 1759 map (above, right).

In trying to empathize with the reasoning of eighteenth century travelers in this water system and to decipher what would motivate them to consider a constriction in the river worthy of artificial improvement, we are indeed fortunate to have this second "Neck" to investigate. Not only was it left open, and thus still exhibited all of the negative characteristics apparently associated with a "Neck" on navigable waters, but it remained so during a period when late eighteenth century travelers on these rivers were creating accounts and diaries of their observations. It is through several of these accounts that we gain an intimate understanding of "the Neck in the Wood Creek," and thereby, by extrapolation, "the Neck" on the Mohawk River as well.

A British map drawn in 1768 and showing the locations of both river necks.

But first, there are three additional historic maps that shed some light on this feature west of Fort Williams. The first (above), drawn in 1768,33 appears to show the major neck on the Mohawk, and a lesser one on Wood Creek. Although both are shown in the correct position, neither are identified.

A map from 1758 that omits the neck on the Mohawk River, while showing the one on Wood Creek.

The second (right), drawn in 1758,34 is as interesting for what it doesn't show as for what it does. The neck on Wood Creek appears in classic form, although not labeled, yet the neck on the Mohawk is nowhere to be seen. Possibly this map intends only to portray, as we said earlier, the features of significance to the traveler. The open neck on Wood Creek was important; the dug-through neck on the Mohawk, being functionally the same as a straight-line river channel, was not.

A detailed map of the Neck on Wood Creek, drawn in 1758.

A third map (right), drawn in the same year,35 provides a most informative image of the neck on Wood Creek. It shows a very large and pronounced open meander of the creek with a narrow neck, drawn along an otherwise gently curving course of Wood Creek, and situated about 4 miles east of Oneida Lake (on this map north is drawn downward, so east is to the left). In reality, Wood Creek was characterized by a violently convoluted course (above) in which many such meanders existed. Again we see the map maker exaggerating features that were important to the traveler and ignoring others of equal size that were not.


But why was "the Neck in the Wood Creek" so extraordinarily important to eighteenth century boatmen? We quickly gain insight into this when we begin to read travelers accounts of passage on Wood Creek in the late eighteenth century.

The first of these eyewitness accounts was recorded by Elkanah Watson, who in 1791 traveled westward from Schenectady to examine the waters of the Mohawk corridor for possibilities of improved navigation in the future. His encounter with Wood Creek in early September undoubtedly echoed those of innumerable travelers previous, tempered with the optimistic demeanor of a progressive mind, looking forward to an age of water travel that would open up the western lands to trade and emigration.

He makes these observations, on first entering the shallow, twisting course of the upper Wood Creek drainage:

It is a mere brook at this place, which a man can easily jump across . . . we progressed with infinite difficulty. In many places the windings are so sudden, and so short, that while the bow of the boat was ploughing in the bank on one side, her stern was rubbing hard against the opposite shore. In some places our men were obliged to drag the boats by main strength; and in others, the boughs and limbs were so closely interwoven, and so low, as to arch the creek completely over, and oblige all hands to lie flat. These obstacles, together with sunken logs and trees, rendered our progress extremely difficult, - often almost impracticable. . . . From a superficial view of this important creek, it appears to me the great difficulties may be surmounted: - First, by cutting away all the bushes and trees on its banks. Second, by cutting across the necks, and removing all sunken logs and trees. . .36

Two days later, after navigating the convoluted course of the creek down to Oneida Lake, he states:

The innumerable crooks and turns in Wood creek, carried us to every point of the compass. We counted one hundred and eighty-eight distinct points of land, from Canada Creek, on both sides. At a place called the Neck, four miles from Oneida lake, we measured seven paces across [3 feet x 7 = 21 feet], and our boat had to go a mile round to meet us on the opposite side.37

Here we see the first inkling of the key to the boatman's frustration traveling these narrow waterways. A strip of land only twenty one feet wide had forced them to go a mile out of their way on the main channel. This frustration was evident also in an account of the journey of Judge Vanderkemp of Albany to Oneida Lake via Wood Creek in 1792:

. . . we proceeded to a place called "Oak Orchard" (close by lots 11 and 12 Wood Creek Reservation, south side of Wood Creek in town of Verona). Ere long we arrived at a singular neck of land, about a mile in length, and so small that by standing, we discovered the water at the opposite side. This was a tedious circumnavigation indeed. We might have passed it in a few seconds if a passage had been cut through.38

By the following year just such a passage had been cut through by the initial efforts of Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, formed in 1792 to improve westward navigation. One of their first projects was the clearing of debris from the channel of Wood Creek, and the cutting of short canals across the necks of a number of the meanders, as recommended by Elkanah Watson a few years earlier. By fortunate coincidence, two French settlers, making passage to the Black River country via the Mohawk and Wood Creek corridor, observed this construction under way, and confirmed both the location and dimensions of "the Neck" here. On October 12, 1793, they note in their journal: ". . . A tenth cut which is very short, saves a quarter of a mile, and an eleventh cut, which is in a vegetable mold upon sand, is not over five toises long [6.3945 feet x 5 = 31.9725 feet] , yet it saves a mile and a quarter."39 Clearly this "eleventh cut" eliminated the infamous "Neck in the Wood Creek" as a navigation obstacle forever.

One can see here that it was not the size of the meander that prompted frustration, but the ridiculousness of the detour. Being prevented from a quicker course by so insignificant a bank of land was apparently more than the early traveler could bear, even though a bit further up or down the river even more outrageous loops of the river would take one thousands of feet off course. But these other loops were not so insolent as to come right back to within a few feet of their starting point and even to taunt the traveler by being visible ahead to someone standing up in the boat.

So it would seem that within the perception of early navigators, meander C fits perfectly the model of a neck needing to be cut. Unlike either A or B it presented a bit of land that was probably only a few yards across, easily cut, and saving a detour of a modest, but nonetheless significant, 500 yards.