General Schuyler and the Summer of 1793
"We encamped at night, for the first time, at what is called the Oak Orchard, from its being a high point of land on which are a few oaks. Oaks are not to be seen in general in this part of the country."5
"...at 6 in the evening encamped at a place called the Oak Orchard, 18 miles by water from Fort Stanwix - here is a high spot on which are a few Oak Trees...."6
But although to travelers passing down Wood Creek in their batteaux in the Spring of 1793 "Oak Orchard" remained what it had been for centuries, a hill of oaks, by the Fall of that same year it had been witness to the impact of the first of a series of dramatic changes that would alter the channel of Wood Creek here and the situation of Oak Orchard forever.
The journal of two French land speculators passing down Wood Creek on October 12th, 1793 records: "At eight miles beyond is another cutting worked in the same way, which shortens the creek three quarters of a mile. A little before reaching it there occurs on the left side, a place called the White Oak Orchard."7 The "cutting" observed by these Frenchmen was one of 13 executed that summer by contractors of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company [1792-1820] - New York's first canal company. These short artificial waterways - "canals" - were dug through narrow necks of land, created by some of the sharper meanders of the wandering creek, to improve navigation for small batteaux. These were part of a series of improvements to be undertaken by this private company between Schenectady and Oneida Lake during 25 years preceding the building of the Erie Canal.
These tiny "canals" are some of the earliest artificial waterways in North America. They were created by first cutting off the standing timber along the line of the new "canal," - timber that had never felt the axe. These logs were stockpiled nearby, while the massive roots of the virgin forest were grubbed up and narrow ditches approximately ten feet deep were excavated across the necks of land. Nothing but hand tools and oxen were used in this construction, employed by a work crew transported on a large batteau and probably living in primitive camps in the forest at each site.
Once the ditch had been cut, just wide enough to allow a boat to pass through, the logs put aside earlier were used to block off the old channel of Wood Creek, forcing the water to begin to flow through the new canals. As soon as a heavy rain or a spring freshet struck the area, the waters of Wood Creek would rush through the ditch, eroding it to the full width of the rest of the Creek. From that day onward, Wood Creek would flow in a new alignment, which it has continued to follow at Oak Orchard to this day.
The sum total improvement rendered by these early canals on Wood Creek was to shorten the navigation between Rome and Sylvan Beach [on Oneida Lake] by six miles!
Archeological research has determined that the loop of the creek cut off 200 years ago by this "second cutting" in fact lies immediately alongside the hill identified as Oak Orchard. The entire dry bed of the pre-1793 Wood Creek channel can be clearly seen from the west edge of the site. In fact this switch-back loop of the stream around the hill may have made it attractive as a holding area for boats and a disembarkation point for passengers.
Field studies have demonstrated that for the most part Wood Creek has not moved laterally to any significant extent in the last 200 years. But it has down-cut dramatically in some areas. One of the sites where this phenomenon is best observed is here at Oak Orchard.
When one visits the site, one can easily see that the pre-1793 batteau channel to the west of the hill is only a few feet below the surrounding land surface. But the current channel of the stream, representing its history since the summer of 1793, is deeply incised into the ground, dozens of feet lower than it was 200 years ago. In part this rapid down-cutting is a result of the deforestation that occurred over most of this region in the middle to late 1800s, where harvesting of timber and clearing of forest lands for cultivation removed the retentive qualities of the virgin forest. Rainwater tended to run off more rapidly, causing periods of erosion and drought, where previously there had been a gentle, continuous release of water into the Creek through the spongy forest floor.