Finishing touches

Excavation of the Deep Cut
Final rendering of the excavation of the Deep Cut, June 15, 1824.

The Deep Cut Excavation scene has finally reached the final step: fixing mistakes, correcting small problems, and fine-tuning a few small details.

Foliage
An assortment of native plants that would have been around to recolonize the grubbed landscape: annual daisy fleabane (left), ragweed, and pilewort.

By summer 1824 work had been ongoing for several seasons, and in upstate New York it doesn’t take long for Mother Nature to start reclaiming lost territory. So a few species of foliage – hardy pioneers like ragweed and daisy fleabane – have been added to the grubbed surface on either side of the cut.

Excavation of the Deep Cut
Observers at the time noted that a single man could pull the jib of Orange Dibble’s horse-powered crane into position.

A narrow ditch, excavated by workers to drain away excess water, has been added to the floor of the cut. Dust clouds have been inserted and the position of the sun finalized at 9:50 a.m., June 15, 1824, just out of the upper left corner of the frame.

Excavation of the Deep Cut
By the summer of 1824, work along this section of the Deep Cut was reaching its maximum depth of 31 feet. Excavation was constantly delayed by water, which seeped into the cut from the surface and springs, and workers chiseled a ditch to redirect it. Meanwhile the surface of the towpath was leveled and a wooden sill was added to prevent the canal boats’ tow ropes from getting snagged.

That will have to do it for now. In researching the scene I’ve been struck by how little we know about day-to-day work on the Deep Cut. The evidence is fragmentary and incomplete – bundles of invoices, a handful of eyewitness descriptions (some written years later), a single lithograph drawn “from life.”

Excavation of the Deep Cut
The contractor and engineer inspect the progress of the work.

Tantalizing clues to other details occur here and there, including references to horse-powered water pumps in contractor receipts and the canal commissioners’ reports, and the patent record for Darius Comstock’s excavator. But the clues aren’t enough to go on, so those details had to be omitted. This landscape is just a partial reflection, accurate but with a few missing pieces. The actual scene no doubt would have been a little busier and more chaotic.

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