Durham Boats and Wooden Locks
As boats got larger - 60 feet long and carrying 12 tons instead of the 30 foot batteaux able to carry only a ton and a half - the shallowness of Wood Creek became even more of an obstacle than it had been.
One account, recorded in September of 1797 - just days before the opening of the new Rome Canal - underscores this problem: "At last got up to Oak Orchard... when the men being much fatigued, and the sun almost down, concluded to rest for this night. Here we found several boats which had come down. The crews gave us very discouraging accounts of the scarcity of water above... Slept at Oak Orchard."8
During the coming years, Durham boats trying to get up the creek from Oneida Lake to the new canal at Rome, and through that to the Mohawk, continually ran aground in the dry season. They often had to make several trips partially loaded to get their cargo to Rome.
By 1800 it became clear that some additional improvements would be needed to render Wood Creek navigable for these larger boats. In February of 1801 a solution was proposed to the WILNC by the Company surveyor, Benjamin Wright. He suggested building a dam and sluice at Oak Orchard and another between Oak Orchard and Canada Creek to the east. Not a true lock, these constructions were built of timber and consisted of a dam with a spillway or passage over which boats could be passed with water impounded above the dam. Several such structures had been successfully used during the French and Indian War to pass military batteaux down Wood Creek, but none had been built this far downstream.
The rift at Oak Orchard was evidently the first obstacle to eastward navigation encountered by the big boats coming up toward Rome. In June of 1802, General Schuyler, at that time supervising construction of one of the wooden locks in the upper section of Wood Creek nearer to Rome, surveyed the situation below Canada Creek toward Oneida Lake. He concluded that once improvements were made in the rivers to the west of Oneida Lake, "...there will be a compleat navigation from Oak Orchard to about a mile up the Seneca River beyond Three River Point."9
Schuyler was so certain of the need for a lock here, that he staked out the site: "Went to the Oak orchard. A most eligible seat for a lock. Laid out about 6 feet to dig." He also surveyed the site for a second lock lower down: "Laid out the lock seat between this and the lake, also very eligible. About 4 feet to dig... those locks all that are requisite below Canada Creek."11
The next month Schuyler determined his course of action and began arrangements for construction: "A lock will in the ensuing years be constructed at the Oak Orchard and as the timber can be obtained with more facility in the winter then any other season, it will be requisite to open a road from the Oak Orchard to the pine plain, on the north side of Wood Creek..."12
It is believed this road is the same woods road which can still be traced running north from Oak Orchard, north of the Creek, to Teelins Pond on Route 49. This is an area confirmed by foresters as being the probable site of a stand of pitch pine selected by Schuyler and first located by Wright during his field surveys in 1802.
By mid-July the Board of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had authorized Schuyler "...to make such improvements in Wood Creek at or near the Oak Orchard, as may be necessary to more perfectly Improve the Navigation..."13
It appeared that the fifth of the intended six wooden locks to be built in Wood Creek would soon be under construction at Oak Orchard.