Plantation Island and the German Flatts Canal of 1798


Laminated rock beds near Little FallsIt is interesting, and archeologically significant, that Weston intended to build the dam and locks of stone, to be drawn from Little Falls. He cites laminated rock in parallel beds with variable thickness, which is similar to the limestone inter-bedded with friable shales seen in the rock cuts on the Thruway near Little Falls [the Dolgeville member of the Trenton group]. One could with ease quarry this stone, and, due to the layers of varying thickness, obtain a quantity of flat, strong building material easily laid up in level courses with a minimum of trim.

By this time the wooden locks at Little Falls had been in operation for three years and perhaps already showing signs of deterioration. The brick locks at Rome had just been completed (1797) and perhaps it was this recent success that prompted Weston to change his mind and suggest in June of that year that the locks at German Flatts be made out of brick also.

Contractors cutting timberBy mid-October, 1797, work was already well under way at German Flatts. Thirty laborers were busy cutting the canal, with the expectation of completing it that season, with the exception of the lock pits at either end. It was then it became clear that Weston's original idea of using stone was the only option:

"As no clay can be found here, proper for bricks, Mr. Weston has concluded to build the Lock & Guard Lock with stone."

In preparation for this construction in the next season (1798) the contractor would employ oxen and horses to "bring them onto the ground by sledges during the winter - our own people will also burn the lime & the teams will draw that also -."

By February of 1798, after the exertions of the first construction season at German Flatts, and before commencement of the final work, The Company issued its status report of all its undertakings, including this one:

"At the German Flats a canal has been commenced for the purpose of avoiding two bad rapids, known commonly by the names of Wolf's and Orendorff's rifts; the cutting is nearly completed, and the whole will be so far advanced as to admit the passage of boats in a few months. At the west end a guard lock will be placed, similar in form, and for the same purpose as that at the Little Falls, before described." [The Little Falls canal is described as "commencing in a natural basin, whose position secures the guard lock, which is placed at the extremity of the canal, from any injuries which might be apprehended to arise from ice or driftwood in times of freshets." The German Flatts guard lock is situated similarly.] "At the east end the boats will pass through another lock of twelve feet fall into very good water which continues to the canal at the Falls, a distance of nearly five miles. Above the guard lock, and at the head of Wolf rift, a dam will be thrown across the Mohawk, so as to raise the water thereof three feet..."


By mid-March, all the building materials were on-site for the completion of the locks. "The Stone for both locks are all delivered on the ground - the last kiln of lime is now fired & will soon be ready for carting or sleighing as the case may be. The men have commenced digging the canal, that is the pieces that were laid out last fall by Mr. Weston. These pieces will soon be finished...." No further reference is made to a dam "built with stone." The lack of remnants shown on early canal maps or evident in the field archeologically suggests this dam was timber construction in the end.

The canal in 1811But here a new wrinkle was introduced, one which may have persisted even through the Erie Canal era. The cutting of this canal, as did the Erie to some extent, and most recently the Barge Canal, created an island out of a broad area of rich Mohawk Valley floodplain. This potentially rich agricultural land no doubt was a point of interest for the inland landowners in the Fort Herkimer environs, and access to the valley floor north of this newly created canal was apparently a hotly debated issue. Just prior to the completion of the canal trough in March 1798, the contractor was quick to point out: "It will be necessary that the bridges across the canal should be put up immediately. I shall engage the carpenters to do this work before Mr. Weston arrives. It will be very necessary that this work be not delayed, as it will render the owners of the land altogether unmanageable."

Less than two weeks later, a rather radical plan was proposed to the Company as a solution both to the landowner problem and the high cost of providing the required number of bridges: "As the expense of bridges across the Canal will be extensive... it would be much for the interest of the Company if all the land [from the] outside of the towing path on the south of the canal and the river was purchased from the proprietors as in that case one bridge would suffice for the accomodation of the person who might rent or purchase the land between the river and the canal..."

A week later, at their mid-April meeting in 1798, the WILNC Board requested that an estimate be obtained from Weston for the completion of the works at German Flatts. Is this evidence that the Company was getting "cold feet" and beginning to doubt the project?

But work continued, and by the end of April Weston reported thirty men employed in sinking the "Guard Lockpit" which would be ready for piling in about a week. By early June, Weston reported satisfactory progress, but did point out "the late incessant rains have much impeded our operations."

On October 9th of 1798, nearing the close of the construction season, Weston reported the final phases of the creation of the German Flatts Canal:

"The works at this place being far advanced towards completion... The masonry of the locks was finished on Saturday last, and the carpenters are now employed in hanging the gates, if the weather should be fine. I hope to open the canal for the passage of boats the latter end of this or early in the next month. I was sanguine in the expectation of finishing the dam across the Mohawk this week, but I am afraid the present rain will interrupt us in our work. Nearly five sixths of the dam is completed, and the river running over it, the rise of water has effectually amended the navigation from Fort Herkimer to the Canada Creek branch of the Mohawk, which you must remember was nearly as bad as Wolf rift."

Apparently problems with the adjacent landowners persisted, as Weston urged: "the sooner these arbitrators appear on the ground the better..." Even months after the opening of the canal, the suggestion of local animosity is found in a letter of recommendation from the WILNC Treasurer to the President, Philip Schuyler, recommending a Mr. Fox "who is a principal proprietor of the ground through which our canal is cut at the German Flatts..." to be appointed a "lock keeper". Apparently Weston had "appointed a Mr. John Livingston a Scotch man to take charge of the locks at the G. Flatts. Perhaps it would be well to have Mr. Fox as lockkeeper - it would probably be the means of reconciling the Germans to our interest."


A 1790s canal sceneOnce in operation, the German Flatts Canal served functionally and economically as an adjunct of the much older Little Falls Canal to the east. In fact more than one traveler mistook the two as one continuous artificial waterway. When the question of establishing tolls on the new canal came up early in 1799, the Company decided to increase the tolls collected at Little Falls by 50% "in consequence of the great improvement made in the river by the canal and Locks at the German Flatts."

Once completed, the German Flatts Canal, and particularly the area around the guard lock (west end, near Erie Canal Lock 41), became a focal point for commerce and development. The proximity of the guard lock to the hamlet of Fort Herkimer, already a minor focus of settlement and a favored stopping point for river boat traffic, and the easy access to the lock from the river road (now Route 5S) made the site an attractive one. As early as March 1799 the Company was discussing "how far it may be to the advantage of the company to build a stone mill at German Flatts, the size it would be proper to build such a mill its costs and probable rent it would procure."

An 1834 map of the WILNC property (west end) Undoubtedly there was a lock keeper's house at the guard lock and perhaps one at the lift lock as well. The earliest Erie Canal maps (1834) show several buildings near Lock 41 (old Lock 6), at least one of which appears oriented to the old 1798 Guard Lock alignment. Herkimer County histories suggest that Fort Herkimer became an important trade center briefly during the turn of the 18th to 19th century, largely due to the store established at the guard lock of the German Flatts Canal. This brief fluorescence dimmed, however, with the completion of the Mohawk Turnpike (c. 1800), which diverted the majority of commercial traffic to the north side of the river and competed, apparently with some success, with the navigation system created by the WILNC.

By late 1802, it became evident that the two other locked canals built by the WILNC on the Mohawk were in desperate need of repair. The timbers of the Little Falls Canal were rotting away and the mortar of the brick locks at Rome was crumbling. But at that same moment, Schuyler reported: "The two locks at the German Flatts are both in perfect good order." The successful building and operation of New York's first stone locks at German Flatts became a standard both of design and, apparently, productivity. In the summer of 1803, when the work to replace the Rome and Little Falls locks with ones of stone was underway, stone cutters who "worked at the locks at German flats" were being sought at a premium, and the rate of production of the masons who "built the Locks at the German Flatts" was being held up as the standard by which to gauge the productivity of the workers at the newest stone locks. Apparently this standard was far from reachable as in August of 1803 the Company Secretary complained one stone lock at Little Falls would cost as much as both the locks at German Flatts, which were completed in only 824 mason/days and 869 laborer/days together.


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