Plantation Island and the German Flatts Canal of 1798


The canal in 1803The German Flatts Canal stands today as one of the most exciting and promising of the archeological remains of this era of inland navigation experimentation. Unlike the Little Falls Canal (1795) and the Rome Canal (1797), both situated in high impact urban areas where visible remains have essentially been eradicated from the landscape, the German Flatts Canal, being the only one of the three in a rural environment, exhibits more visible and intact canal prism than any other of the works of the Company. [Large version of this image is 55 KB.]

To understand what has survived, and why, it is necessary to trace what happened to the 1798 German Flatts Canal once it was completed. It operated sucessfully until about 1820, when the construction of the Erie Canal, approaching from the west, required the west end of the WILNC canal property.

The construction of the Erie Canal over the 1798 canalUnlike the German Flatts Canal, which was part of a system that used the natural Mohawk as part of its passageway, the Erie Canal was built entirely on dry land - it ran alongside, but never within, the river. Approaching from the west, on the south side of the old Mohawk channel, the Erie Canal overran part of the extreme western end of the old canal, followed it for a few hundred yards, then cut southward, leaving the eastern half of it untouched. The maps commissioned in the 1830s to record the original Erie Canal alignment ("Clinton's Ditch") clearly show how the new construction spared more than 50% of the old canal and its associated property.

(See a photomosaic of the 1834 original Erie Canal map showing the old German Flatts Canal of 1798, labelled "Herkimer Canal" [Large scale version - 63 KB] [Small scale version - 18 KB].)

Plantation Island after the Barge Canal was cutThen, in the early 20th century, the Barge Canal was constructed through the area. Although this canal used parts of the Mohawk River, like its 1798 predecessor, it ran on a straight alignment outside the river in this particular location, roughly following the Erie channel. But it cut off the northward bend in the 1820s canal and left it as a crescent-shapped depression immediately adjacent to the new canal. It was this construction that foreced the relocation of the Mohawk River to the west and away from Wolf Rift and created what has come to be known as "Plantation Island".

East of the remains of the Erie Canal prism and locks (see the section on "Plantation Island and the Erie Canal" for details about these later archeological remains) continuous earthworks from the 1790s are still seen, defining a canal that was to be 24 feet wide on the bottom, 32 feet at the top and 2 1/2 feet deep. An unusual component of this canal is the raising in 1798 of a substantial guard bank along the river side of the canal east of its mid-point, to prevent the powerful spring surges of water, ice and driftwood on the Mohawk from entering the canal from the north.

The canal trough in 1982During the State Museum's surveys, starting in 1982 and running well into the 1990s, all of Plantation Island, the Erie Canal remains, and the entire archeological remains of the 1798 structure were mapped and the guard lock was partially excavated to confirm its survival. Portions of that map are included in this presentation, along with field photos that help give an impression of the present condition of the surviving canal features.

Field image with profile of old canal superimposed. (Image size = 59 KB.)

The surviving canal trough consists of a long section of the mainline alignment, and the eastern dog-leg that attached that canal to the river at the lift lock. (Another dog leg at the western end attached the canal to the river via the guard lock.) For the most part, this section of canal has remained undisturbed since it was abandoned around the year 1820. It has stood on public lands and thus has been protected from development and vandalism.

camera iconThe State Museum map of this section and representative field photos of the surviving canal trough.

Having examined and mapped the surviving 1798 canal trough, including an intact segment of the eastern dogleg, attention was turned to the stone lift lock which had been erected at the eastern terminus of the canal.


German Flatts Canal Start
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