The crossing

The Crossing
The five-man crew of the Oneida Lake Durham boat scrambles to lower the sails in the face of a storm approaching from the northwest. (Digital image copyright 2020 by Steve Boerner)

In her lively and informative introduction to the 1876 edition of The Pathfinder, Susan Fenimore Cooper describes (among many other things) her father’s ascent of the Mohawk Valley in 1808 en route to a naval posting in Oswego.

James Fenimore Cooper would have followed watercourses recently improved by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, taking advantage of locks and canals to bypass the Little Falls of the Mohawk River and to cross into Wood Creek. After pushing westward along this narrow channel for two days “they reached Oneida Lake, a broad sheet of dark-colored water . . . It was a day’s voyage, with the oars and poles, across the lake, against a head wind.”

Oneida Lake was an important crossroads for early travelers on New York’s inland waterways. Voyagers crossing it could head east to the Hudson Valley, west to the Finger Lakes, or north to Lake Ontario. It was small, just 21 miles long and 5 miles wide, and shallow. Even so it could appear daunting to boat crews accustomed to navigating along narrow streams.

Lake Oneida’s east-west alignment exposed it to the full fury of storms arriving from the north and northwest, and its normally placid surface could, in a matter of moments, be churned into a deadly maelstrom of four- to six-foot waves.

When that happened, the very features that made Durham boats so practical for river navigation – narrow beam, flat bottom, no keel, square rig – could quickly become liabilities. Hence most boats traveling east or west hugged the northern edge of the lake, where the heavily wooded lee shore offered some protection.

But the crew of the Durham boat discovered on the bottom of Oneida Lake, it seems, had set off on a different course.

Map of Oneida Lake
Oneida Lake shown in a detail from an 1824 map of New York state. The fledgling community of Syracuse lies to the southwest, and the line of the newly constructed Erie Canal bypasses the lake to the south. (David Rumsey Map Colllection)

Along with the remains of the boat, the underwater archeology team uncovered its cargo, more than five tons of silty dolostone rock.

Dolostone is also known as dolomite and, as you might recall, it forms the Mountain Ridge west of Lockport. It occurs in various forms in a broad swath across New York state, and there is an outcropping of silty dolostone just south of Oneida Lake.

Members of the team suggest that the crew loaded their boat with the dolostone and planned to transport it to the north shore. As they wrote in their paper, Durham Boat – Defining a Vernacular Watercraft Type: “Attempting to sail across the short dimension of the lake would explain why the boat sank in the middle of the lake, when staying closer to the shore would have been safer.”

“Wherever the destination,” they continue, “the crew made it to the center of the lake before the vessel sank. . . . If the vessel was sunk in a storm, it is unclear why the captain risked his life for the relatively worthless cargo found on the site. It may have been that the light load and increasing breeze led him to believe that he could beat the storm across the lake. Whatever the circumstances, it would seem that the captain misjudged Oneida Lake, his boat, his skills, or some combination of these factors.”

No mention of the boat has been found in contemporary sources, and none of the artifacts found on the site can be precisely dated. The boat could have been lost, the team writes, any time between 1803 and 1840.

To depict the last crossing of the Oneida Lake Durham boat, I’ve chosen a date in the middle, September 1821.

There is some educated guesswork in this scene: Not only the date and situation, but also the method the crew might have used in their effort to beat the storm. Instead of rigging the square and topsail, they may have opted to leave them stowed and row across the lake. And the boat has been given the usual Durham complement of five, a steersman and four crew, though perhaps there were fewer on board when it foundered.

Their fate is anyone’s guess. The watercraft, loaded with rocks, would have gone straight to the bottom, but pieces of it may have been left behind on the surface. (Mast, spars and possibly the walking boards are missing from the excavation site.) The shore would have been in sight; perhaps some members of the crew, clinging to bits of flotsam, made it to safety.

September 1821 also falls in the middle of the Erie Canal construction period. By then the canal in this section, which bypassed Oneida Lake to the south, had been finished. The temperamental lake’s role in western navigation – along with the Durham boat – would soon come to an end.

Up from the depths

Durham boat plan
Drawings by Ben Ford show excavated sections of the Durham boat discovered on the floor of Oneida Lake and reconstructed plans of the hull. (Shipwrecks of Upstate NY)

By 1803 the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had opened an unobstructed water route from Schenectady to Oneida Lake. Durham boats, because of their large cargo capacity, became the watercraft of choice for those who wanted to ship goods and raw materials between the interior and the eastern seaboard.

But there are clues that the Durham may have been introduced even earlier.

Historian Philip Lord Jr., in The Navigators: A Journal of Passage on the Inland Waterways of New York (1793), quotes a 1793 letter sent to Philip Schuyler, president of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, recommending a contractor named John Richardson for work on Wood Creek. The letter mentions that Richardson “has lately constructed a boat of thirteen tons burden on a plan which has never before been adopted in this State, and he has been so successful that we have no doubt but his improvement will prove extensively useful. He has brought this boat from the upper end of Cayuga Lake with a freight of six tons without the least inconvenience.”

While sailing his unusual vessel from Cayuga Lake to Wood Creek, Richardson would have crossed Oneida Lake, a key crossroads of the improved navigation system. For the next 50 years, generations of Durham boats would have followed across this shallow but often hazardous body of water. Inevitably, some would have been lost.

Sure enough, one was discovered in 2011 by Timothy Caza, who returned with a team in 2015 to do a partial excavation and document the site. You can read Caza’s account here.

Durham boat hull
The Durham boat hull is reconstructed as a 3D model in Blender, guided by Ben Ford’s drawings.

An academic paper (Durham Boat – Defining a Vernacular Watercraft Type) coauthored by Caza, Ben Ford, an anthropologist who advised the team and took part in the excavation, and other members of the team, documents the excavation in detail, including measurements of the boat, the materials from which it was constructed, and artifacts found on the site.

Because of their work, we no longer have to depend on vague second-hand descriptions and guesswork. We can digitally recreate this specific boat, which we know voyaged upon the inland waters of New York very early in the country’s history.

Durham boat quad view
Quad view of the completed Durham boat hull and mast.

The model is built in Blender, a free, open-source 3D modeling and animation software package that I’m trying for the first time. So far the experience has been very positive – the application is powerful, the documentation is fairly complete, and there is a base of devoted users online very willing to help. Blender may become my main modeling application going forward.

Durham boat mast
Peter Maverick’s 1810 engraving is used as a reference for the height and structure of the mast and spars.

If you compare the drawings of this boat to historical re-creations of Delaware River Durham boats, you will notice a few differences. This should come as no surprise. Besides regional variations, individual builders probably had their own ideas of how a Durham should be constructed. Add to that the availability of raw materials and various skill levels of the builders, and it would be surprising if they were all the same.

However, they were all built along the same basic plan: about 60 feet long, 8-10 feet wide, lightweight, flat bottom, no true keel, pointed fore and aft. Many Durhams included a removable mast and could be rigged when the wind was favorable. Usually they were propelled by men using set poles in shallow water, and oars in deeper water.

Durham boat sails
A wind simulation puffs out the square sail, topsail and pennant in Marvelous Designer.

This design meant they were most at home in shallow, swift streams, and their maneuverability and speed earned the admiration of the men who worked on them.

Wilson Lugar, who owned and operated a Durham on the Delaware River in the mid-19th century, was quoted by J. A. Anderson in Navigation of the Upper Delaware, published in 1913:

“The Durham boat was the most beautiful modeled boat I ever saw. Her lines were perfect and beautiful. Her movement through the water was so easy, with such a clean run aft, that she left the water almost as calm as she found it. . . . They could outsail any boat I ever saw sail, with a fair wind.”

Durham boat shading
Surface textures and colors are added in Substance Painter.

I am taking a few liberties. No mast or spars were found with the wreck, but it did include a step and brace for a removable mast. So a mast, spars, and rigging are added based on the engraving from Christian Schultz’s 1810 Travels on an Inland Voyage. In the same vein, I’ve added a gunwale (a thin strip of wood to protect the top edge of the hull) an inner gunwale (or inwale), and thole pins for bracing the oars. But those are the extent of my additions.

The model will be placed on the Mohawk River in the background of the scene set at The Noses. But after all this work I’ve decided take a brief detour and make another scene where it can play a more prominent role.

Into the west

Cohoes Falls
Cohoes Falls, on the Mohawk River above its junction with the Hudson, as depicted in an early engraving. The 90-foot cataract remained a serious impediment to western navigation until it was finally bypassed by the Erie Canal in 1825. (Library of Congress)

Before the Erie Canal, there was the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.

A private corporation formed to improve the waterways of central New York, the company was chartered by the state in 1792 to open routes from the Hudson River to points west.

The idea was not to build a single canal from the Hudson to Lake Erie, or even to Lake Ontario. At the time, that would have been considered little short of madness. Instead, short canals would divert existing rivers around waterfalls and link them with other rivers and creeks, making them navigable to large boats.

The Mohawk River would be opened by removing boulders and building wing dams to eliminate its numerous rifts, or shallow rapids. Wood Creek, the timber-choked, serpentine link to Oneida Lake, would be cleared, straightened, and connected to the Mohawk. Further work on the Oswego, Seneca, and Onondaga (now Oneida) rivers would extend navigation to Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes.

It was an ambitious plan. Legislators, recognizing this, granted the corporation a 15-year time frame to accomplish it.

Map of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers
This map, published in Christian Schultz’s 1810 “Travelers on an Inland Voyage,” depicts the water routes improved by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. Though it failed to open a navigable route to Lake Ontario (upper left), the company opened the Seneca River and other rivers further west (not shown) to large-boat navigation into the Finger Lakes region of central New York. (University of Pittsburgh Library System via Internet Archive)

But the planner’s reach far exceeded their – and their young country’s – grasp. The vast scale of the project, with work sites scattered across thousands of square miles of wilderness, combined with primitive technology and poor management, doomed it from the start.

The planners’ lack of practical experience didn’t help.

Elkanah Watson, an early and vocal canal proponent and one of the directors of the corporation, made no secret of this a few years later when he described “borrowing” ideas from a similar project on the Potomac River:

“Indeed we were so extremely deficient in a knowledge of the science of constructing locks and canals, that we found it expedient to send a committee of respectable mechanics, to examine the imperfect works then constructing on the Potowmac, for the purpose of gaining information,—we had no other resource but from books.”

Old lock at Little Falls
A lock constructed by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in Little Falls, as it appeared in 1911. (New York State Archives)

The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company operated until 1820, when it was purchased by the state and absorbed into the Erie Canal. Financially, it had barely survived and is considered by many to be a failure. Two of its primary objectives – opening the Oswego River to Lake Ontario and bypassing Cohoes Falls near Albany – were never seriously addressed.

Even so, much had been accomplished. In 1818, Watson wrote from Seneca Falls:

“In 1791, I came in a batteau from Schenectady to this place. . . . At that period they could only transport from one and a half, to two tons, in a flat boat, at an expense of from seventy-five to one hundred dollars a ton, from Schenectady to this place.

“By the completion of the works along the Mohawk River, Wood creek, and down Onondaga and up Seneca Rivers, in 1796, boats of a different construction, carrying from fifteen to sixteen tons, were introduced, and the price of transportation was reduced to about thirty-two dollars per ton, from Schenectady to the Seneca falls, and half that sum on returned cargoes.”

Later planners of the Erie Canal learned three important lessons from the failure of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. First, the economic benefit of constructing a water route from the eastern seaboard to the interior could potentially far outweigh the cost. Second, the idea of digging an artificial channel across New York state – crazy as that seemed – was the only way this could be accomplished. Finally, the scale of such a project exceeded the capacity of private enterprise and meant it would have to be organized by the state.

Durham boat plan
This drawing of a Delaware River Durham boat, made by John Alexander Anderson and published in “Navigation on the Upper Delaware” in 1913, was based on the recollections of Wilson Lugar, who owned and operated a Durham boat in the 1860s. (Library of Congress)

The elusive Durham

The “boats of a different construction” that Watson mentioned were almost certainly Durham boats. These narrow craft, about 60 feet long and pointed on both ends, had been used since the early 18th century to haul grain and iron ore on the Delaware River. Fully loaded, a Durham boat could carry from 15 to 20 tons of cargo, and its shallow draft and flat bottom made it perfect for navigation on swift-flowing rivers.

Famously, Durham boats were used by George Washington to ferry his troops across the Delaware on their way to Trenton, and victory, in 1776.

By the late 18th century, Durham boats were plying the Susquehanna and Mohawk rivers in Pennsylvania and New York, the St. Lawrence River in Canada, and even the Fox River in modern-day Wisconsin.

Despite regional variations, the boats all shared the same basic design. In deep water they could be powered by oars or sails – though the lack of a keel made that last bit tricky. In shallow water they were driven forward by men who walked the length of the boat – two or three on each side – while bracing themselves against long, iron-tipped poles set into the riverbed.

In 1888, historians in Wisconsin interviewed Alexis Clermont, who had been born in 1808 and, in his early 20s, joined the crew of a Durham boat:

“There were generally seven men of us – six poles and a steersman; sometimes there was a cook, but the usual custom was to have a cook for a fleet of three boats. Traders were in the habit of running such a fleet; for when we came to rapids, the three crews together made up a crew big enough to take the boats and their lading through with ease. Each boat had a captain who was steersman. Durham boats were from sixty to seventy feet long, and carried from twelve to sixteen tons.”

Similar accounts are scattered throughout the historical record. We know that the boats often set out in fleets of 25 or more; in all probability, thousands of Durham boats were in service at any one time, hauling raw materials like potash, grain, and iron ore downstream, and finished goods back into the interior. For good reason, the Durham boat has been called the semi-tractor trailer of early America.

But the commencement of the canal era, and later the arrival of the railroad, quickly made the Durham boat obsolete. This once-ubiquitous watercraft was gone by the Civil War, without leaving a trace.

Durham boat on the Mohawk River
A Durham boat (right) navigates the narrow passage through a Mohawk River wing dam in this 1810 view, published in “Travels on an Inland Voyage” by Christian Schultz. A bateau powered by a crew using set poles follows. (New York State Library)

For a while, though, Mohawk River Durham boats and Erie Canal boats would have co-existed, with Durham boats carrying on as before on the river while newfangled packets, freighters and line boats crowded into the new canal. This would have been particularly true in 1825, the date of the scene I’m working on, when the canal was not yet open to through traffic. So I’d really like to include a Durham boat or two on the river.

But what did they look like? How were they built? We are left with a few fragmentary descriptions and a couple of contemporary images. The best, created by New York engraver Peter Maverick and reproduced in Christian Schultz’s “Travels on an Inland Voyage,” shows a crew, waist-deep in the Mohawk River, struggling to guide their boat through the narrow opening of a wing dam.

That 1810 engraving might have been our last eyewitness view of a Mohawk River Durham boat.

If not for the fact that one was discovered on the floor of Oneida Lake two centuries later.

But that will have to wait for the next post.

Restoring a lost valley

The Noses DEM
This high-altitude, oblique rendering of area around the Noses was created in Terragen with digital elevation data available from New York state. The view faces southeast and shows the course of the Mohawk River, the New York State Thruway (I-90), and the location of the ground-level camera that will capture our scene.

The water gap at the Noses has been a vital communications corridor for millennia. Carved long ago by the post-glacial Iromohawk River as it drained Lake Iroquois, an enormous meltwater reservoir formed by the retreating ice sheet, the gap was viewed as the work of Providence by early proponents of the Erie Canal. Besides providing a natural pathway for the canal, it eventually accommodated railroads, highways, and the New York State Thruway.

As a result the valley has been heavily altered. Aside from the Thruway, which was built in the 1950s, construction in the early 1900s rechanneled and deepened the Mohawk to carry Barge Canal traffic.

Our challenge will be to visualize how the valley would have appeared to early canal travelers – to turn back the clock two centuries.

Basic terrain
This is the view through the ground-level camera, facing roughly east. The road embankments for I-90 (left) and Route 5S (right) are clearly visible.

From the ground up

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Digital elevation data of the area is freely available from the New York State Geographic Information Systems website. The data, gathered by satellites that precisely map the height of the earth’s surface, can be imported into Terragen and rendered as a three-dimensional scene. The resolution is fine enough to allow us to position the camera at ground level.

But even so, details of the cliffs and ground are indistinct. And modern artifacts, like the Thruway embankments, will have to go.

Modified terrain
In Terragen, the terrain is edited to remove the road embankments and to add the berms and bed for the Erie Canal. The Mohawk River has been returned to its pre-20th century location.

In Terragen, the vertical displacements of the valley floor are edited to remove those artifacts. Then, using Holmes Hutchinson’s 1833 survey maps as a guide, the bed, berm, and towpath of the canal are added, as well as a narrow road hugging the base of the cliff. The Mohawk channel is returned to its rightful place.

High-frequency details in the cliffs and ground surface are also restored.

Terrain with foliage
The ground and cliffs are shaded, and foliage and water surfaces are added, to complete the terrain.

Next, topsoil, road, towpath and cliffs are shaded. Water surfaces are placed for the river and canal. Native ground foliage and tree species are created – grass, sedges, cattails, white pine, cedar, cottonwood, hickory, and others – and distributed throughout the scene. Some towering cumulus clouds add a little drama.

Aside from the inevitable tweaks and refinements, the terrain is finished. The next steps will be to create models of an Erie Canal packet boat, Durham boats to sail on the river, and crews and passengers.

Navigating the Noses

Travelling on the Erie Canal
An Erie Canal packet boat passes the Noses in this view, published in the 1825 edition of “The Northern Traveller” by Theodore Dwight. The landscape is rendered accurately; however, the towpath should be on the opposite side of the canal. Henry Inman, the artist (designated “del” here, for “delineator”) was an early 19th-century portrait and landscape painter. Peter Maverick, the engraver (“sc” for “sculpsit”), is also remembered as one of the first lithographers in the United States. (Library of Congress)

The subject of the next Erie Canal scene will provide a welcome change of pace. Instead of the scarred and blasted landscape of the Deep Cut, we’ll go to a place where the canal engineers accommodated nature, where the canal’s gentle curves paralleled the Mohawk River as both made their way toward Albany and the Hudson River.

The place is known as The Noses, named for two cliffs that frame a narrow gap in the hills. The Mohawk flows between them as it crosses the Appalachian ridge, forming the only east-west water route that breaks through that mountain barrier over its entire extent from Maine to northern Alabama. It is the key geological feature that made the Erie Canal possible in the first place.

Plan of the river &c from Albany to Oswego in America
Anthony’s Nose is included as a distinctive landmark in this 1756 map of the Mohawk River. (William L. Clements Library/University of Michigan)

The Noses themselves are landmarks with references dating back to the colonial era. Back then, the larger cliff was known as “Anthony’s Nose.”

Anthony’s Nose, on the north side of the Mohawk, is today simply called “Big Nose.” Facing it across the way, on the south side, is Little Nose. The gap in between is an historic line of communication, and after the canal was built the railroad soon followed. Today, the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) takes the same route.

The Noses by Phil Scalia
A view of The Noses as they appear today, looking west. The New York State Thruway passes below. To its left, visible through the trees, is State Route 5S, which closely follows the path of the old Erie Canal. Today, the “canalized” Mohawk River carries Erie Canal boat traffic. (Photograph copyright Philip Scalia 2016)

A children’s book published in 1852, Marco Paul’s Voyages and Travels: Erie Canal, describes a trip through the gap by rail:

“For there is a place here called the Pass of the Mohawk. It is where the river flows through a narrow passage in the mountains, with extensive ledges of rock and lofty cliffs on either hand. As the train of cars advanced up this defile, Forester and Marco perceived that the mountainous ranges approached nearer and nearer, until the river, the turnpike, the railroad and the canal were crowded close together and Marco could look down upon them from the window of the car, running side by side, and hemmed in on either hand by precipices of ragged rocks.”

David Vaughan Map of the Noses
This map of Erie Canal at the Noses was drawn in 1851 by David Vaughan. It shows the original Erie Canal as well as proposed changes for the First Enlargement. The map is upside-down, with south pointing toward the top edge. (New York State Archives)
David Vaughan Map Detail West
A drawing from David Vaughan’s 1851 map matches the view captured by photographer Philip Scalia, above. Areas that today are wooded were clearcut for agriculture in the 19th century. (New York State Archives)

Historical references

There is a wealth of visual information about this area, dating from an 1811 survey map drawn by Benjamin Wright, who later became the Erie Canal’s chief engineer. We also have a spectacular map created by draftsman David Vaughan in 1851. Vaughan’s map is useful because it features detailed drawings – one of his hallmarks – that provide clues to the state of the landscape. Today the area is mostly covered with second-growth woods. But in the early 19th century much of it would have been cleared for farming.

Even more valuable are the so-called Holmes Hutchinson maps of the Original Erie. These were the result of a survey of New York’s canal system commissioned by the state legislature and carried out 1832–1843. The maps, beautifully executed in in ink, wash and charcoal, depict the canal line at a scale of two chains — 132 feet — to the inch. There are nearly 1,000 altogether, and high-resolution scans of all of them are available at the New York State Archives website.

Holmes Hutchinson Map
This Holmes Hutchinson 1833 survey map precisely locates the path of the original Erie Canal and the Mohawk River channel. This is the area that will be depicted in the foreground of our scene. As with other 19th-century survey maps, this one identifies the cliff south of the canal as Big Nose. (New York State Archives)

The map shown here locates the foreground of the scene, so it and its neighbors will be used to help reconstruct the area as it would have appeared in the early 19th century.

Several postcards, printed in the early 1900s, also survive. The original Erie Canal was long gone by then, superseded by the mid-19th-century First Enlargement. But they depict the Noses and Mohawk River before the final Barge Canal enlargement and the incursion of the New York State Thruway, both of which dramatically altered the topography of this historic corridor.

Moonlight View in the Mohawk Valley
An early 20th-century postcard presents a romantic, hand-tinted view of the Enlarged Erie Canal at The Noses. (“Moonlight View in the Mohawk Valley,” Madden Collection, The Canal Society of New York State.)

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.

The contractor and the engineer

Contractor and Chief Engineer
The final two figures to be placed in the Deep Cut scene represent Darius Comstock, contractor (left), and Nathan Roberts, the engineer in charge of this section of the Erie Canal.

The Deep Cut scene has been populated with laborers drilling, chipping, and hauling rocks. Only two figures remain to be added. Both will represent real people.

In 1822 the four original Mountain Ridge contracts were subdivided into six contracts. The contract for Section 3, which commenced one mile south of the locks, was awarded to a local landowner named Darius Comstock.

The Comstocks, a family of Quakers from Massachusetts, had recently settled in Farmington, southeast of Rochester. Like many other newly arrived Yankees, several members of the family were restless to move further west.

An opportunity presented itself as land went on sale in the Holland Land Purchase west of the Genesee River. Nathan and Zeno Comstock purchased parcels in a sparsely settled area near Eighteen Mile Creek. This was a stroke of good fortune, for that very spot – which surveyors would soon designate as the place where the Erie Canal would ascend the Mountain Ridge – would become the village of Lockport.

Other members of the Comstock family joined them, including Darius, who, once canal construction began, would submit his bid for Section 3.

Palmyra Herald
A notice placed by Darius Comstock in the Sept. 18, 1822 issue of the Palmyra Herald and Canal Advertiser advertises places for 150 to 200 laborers for his section of the Deep Cut. Canal contractors routinely advertised more positions than were available to in an effort to suppress wages. (New York Historic Newspapers)

Besides being a pioneer, a savvy land speculator, a pillar of the community, and abolitionist, Darius Comstock was also, apparently, an inventor. A list published by the government in 1840 records a patent issued to him in March, 1825, for an “excavator.” What it looked like, and how it operated, will probably remain a mystery. Any records filed at the United States Patent Office would have been destroyed in the December 1836 fire (along with the records for Orange Dibble’s crane and many other early American inventions).

Digest of Patents
A list of patents published in 1840 includes a reference to an “excavator” patented by Darius Comstock in 1825. (Google Books)

Whether Darius Comstock made use of his patent is not known. His section of the Deep Cut had been completed the year before. By 1825, even before the Erie Canal was finished, his attention was diverted further west, yet again. Soon he would relocate to help establish a new Quaker community in Adrian, Michigan.

Nathan Roberts, who in 1822 was put in charge of the canal between Lockport and Buffalo, had no formal training in engineering. In this regard he was no different than any of the other Erie Canal engineers. Every one of them learned their profession on the job.

Roberts had started his career as an itinerant mathematics teacher on the New York frontier. In Whitestown, where he taught school, he no doubt was very familiar with water navigation on the nearby Mohawk River. One of his students was Canvass White, who also would become an Erie Canal engineer.

Hired by Benjamin Wright to take part in the initial 1816 canal survey, Roberts’ gift for mathematics would continue to open doors. He quickly rose in the ranks of the fledgling engineering corps and is best remembered as the designer of Lockport’s iconic “Flight of Five” staircase locks.

Later, as a graduate of the “Erie Canal School of Engineering,” Roberts would take charge of other civil engineering projects, including a new railroad bridge over the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry.

Troy Sentinel
Several advertisements for “Fashionable Hats,” including those made by Eli L. Dibble, graced the pages of the Troy Sentinel in 1825. (New York Historic Newspapers)

Designing the characters

Apparently there are no surviving images – paintings or silhouettes – of Darius Comstock, so I was free to make my own interpretation of how he may have looked. We do have a painting of Nathan Roberts, done some 20 years after the canal was built.

The clothing they might have worn is open to conjecture. For the purposes of the illustration, I’m assuming that, as successful men, they would have dressed the part. Though as a devout Quaker, Comstock would have worn clothing that was somewhat more plain.

But not homespun. Despite its location on the New York frontier, Lockport now was connected to eastern markets by the canal, which was navigable from the foot of the locks all the way to New York City. Items that previously would have been considered luxuries – including fine fabrics – were arriving daily.

The Tailor's Master-Piece
Two plates from The Taylor’s Master-Piece, published in 1840, show how to measure and cut a man’s coat. (Library of Congress via Internet Archive)

As for Roberts, well, as principal engineer he probably wore the three-piece suit of the day – pantaloons, waistcoat, and frock coat. And a top hat, of course, which in the early 19th century was considered de rigueur.

Fortunately, several 19th-century tailor’s guides – from The Taylor’s Complete Guide to The Tailor’s Friendly Instructor – have been digitized are are available online. The patterns they include are not like today’s patterns; they are really measuring guides. But (after some study and more than a little head-scratching) they can be picked apart and adapted.

Marvelous Designer
Clothes make the man: Historical clothing patterns adapted from 19th-century tailoring manuals are adapted and fit to a character in Marvelous Designer.

Using Marvelous Designer, a CAD-based software application, the patterns can be cut out, stitched together, and fit to the human character models. The program then handles the clothing simulation, taking gravity and fabric characteristics into account. The clothed characters are then moved into Terragen and shaded.

I’ve been using Marvelous Designer for a while now – all of the laborer’s clothing in the scene are variations of the same simple work shirt and trouser patterns – but these more upscale outfits were a challenge. It’s given me a much greater appreciation for anyone who works in the garment industry, especially designers, dressmakers and tailors. It’s a good thing my rough efforts are strictly digital.

Paddy on the canal

Canal worker
Test rendering of a canal worker model, in period clothing, for the Deep Cut scene.

One of the most enduring myths about the Erie Canal is that it was built by Irish immigrants. In fact, the majority of its 363 miles were contracted out to and dug by native New Yorkers. In their 1819 report, the canal commissioners had proudly reported that “three-fourths of all the labourers” working on the canal “were born among us.”

But there are many reasons why the tale of Irish workers has been so persistent.

To begin with, by the commissioners’ own account fully one-fourth of the laborers working on the canal during the first full year of construction were immigrants. While that group would have included people of many nationalities, most probably came from Ireland. As work progressed that number grew until Irish workers predominated along certain sections of the canal.

Those sections were among the worst places to work along the line. They included the Cayuga Marsh, the Great Embankment, and the Deep Cut. Native-born Americans, it seems, were more than willing to leave the dirtiest, most dangerous work to the latest arrivals.

Worker with pickaxe
A canal worker wields a pickaxe in another test rendering.

Predominantly young, male and single, the Irish brought from the old country entrenched notions about masculine behavior, a strange religion, and a stranger language. They soon earned a reputation for fighting, which “native” Americans attributed to the bottle, because the Irish had a reputation for that as well.

By all accounts, they were a rough bunch.

But antebellum American society already was violent, especially along the frontier. Americans of all classes, to put it mildly, drank like fish.

But the stereotypes became excuses to keep the newcomers in their place. In Lockport they were relegated to drafty, squalid shacks along the excavation and in “Lowertown,” while established citizens maintained a prosperous, middle-class existence in the “Upper Village.”

Paddy Upon the Canal
Sheet music for “Paddy Upon the Canal,” published in 1843. (Library of Congress) You can listen to a recording here.

The Irish workers’ reputation for violence and drink may well have been exaggerated. We will never know for certain, because the workers themselves and their families, for the most part, were illiterate and left behind no records.

But when all was said and done, the Irish and other immigrant workers completed the tough, miserable task of excavating the Deep Cut. They dug, and drilled, and died — in explosions, from falling rocks, from disease. Over four long years they chipped and blasted their way through the Mountain Ridge, overcoming that final obstacle to open the canal from Buffalo to New York City.

Take five
A worker takes a breather, leaning on a shovel modeled on one displayed at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York.

Populating the scene

In his book, Stairway to Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America, historian Patrick McGreevy uses surviving expense vouchers to estimate the crew sizes for several contractors working in the Deep Cut. He calculates an average crew size of 94 men, yielding a total workforce of 2,068 for the 22 contracts that were active through July 1824.

This is a larger figure than the 1,500 men mentioned in Colden’s Memoir. Regardless, the size of the workforce was unprecedented in this country.

Mannequin poses
A simple mannequin model made it easy to try out different poses.

Because the excavation on the Mountain Ridge had been going so slowly, New York in 1822 assumed direct supervision of all of the contracts there, turning the contractors into middle managers paid by the state. More workers were recruited and others shifted to the summit from other sections of the canal to achieve this remarkable concentration of labor.

McGreevy’s estimate gives us a good idea of the number of workers that will be needed for the Deep Cut scene. It depicts a single contract, so we’ll need about 100 human models.

Placing the mannequins
The posed mannequins were placed in a simplified version of the scene.

Of course, we don’t need 100 unique models to accomplish this. Duplicates can represent groups of workers, especially in the distance. To figure out the number of models that would be needed, I put together a simple mannequin model and used it to quickly make a series of poses, eventually winnowing the number down to about 20.

The selected mannequins were placed in the scene. This eliminated a lot of guesswork and helped to create a list of figures needed, their poses, and locations. After that it just became a matter of setting up a pipeline to produce the actual human models. This post includes a test renderings of a few that have been completed, and more are on the way.

The Deep Cut: Finishing the terrain

Deep Cut terrain
Work in progress: The horse and driver models provide a sense of scale for the completed Deep Cut terrain in this Terragen rendering. Many more human figures will be added to the scene.

This is just a quick update, a pause to take stock before starting final work on the Deep Cut scene.

The terrain itself is complete, aside from a few minor adjustments and tweaks. The horse and driver models have been placed and provide a sense of scale. Other models will be added over the next few weeks — a few workers to man the cranes, and many more on the floor of the cut. Plus a contractor and perhaps a chief engineer.

I keep thinking of that description of the excavation in Cadwallader Colden’s Memoir, which reads in part:

“Each of these cranes formed a heap of rocks, . . . and when in full operation for three miles in length, and the work progressing under the hands of fifteen hundred men, under a continual cloud of smoke, and almost incessant explosion of rocks, produced a novel and interesting scene.”

When all is done — and there remains much to do — I hope that the finished picture will convey the same sense of scale and wonder.

A boy and his horse

Horse and Crane Assembly
A test rendering in Terragen shows the completed models of the crane, horse, and 10-year-old boy, shaded and posed. The complete assembly is ready to be placed in the main Deep Cut scene.

Child labor was a fact of life in early 19th-century America, on the New York frontier as well as in the textile mills that were springing up back east in New England.

Because the Deep Cut scene depicts a turning point in this country’s labor history – the excavation marked the first time industrial methods and organization were applied on such a massive scale – it seemed important to represent the younger workers who would have been present.

I’ve considered including a “jigger boss,” a young boy who doled out whiskey rations to workers several times a day. But I haven’t been able to track down how the whiskey was distributed. (Keg or pail? Not sure.)

In the meantime I decided to include a young driver for the horse harnessed to one of Orange Dibble’s cranes. In a way, the driver can serve as a prototype for the “hoggees” who would soon lead horse and mule teams along the towpath of the completed canal.

Horse Driver Model
An existing mesh was adapted to create a model of a 10-year-old boy to drive the horse.

The base mesh for a 10-year-old child, completed for an earlier project, was already in hand. So it was just a matter of adapting it — modifying the face and adding some early 19th-century clothing. (Shoes? I’m betting that he wouldn’t have owned any.)

Horse and Harness Model
Rigged horse model in the Maya workspace, with the harness (blue) and singletree (red) assemblies in place.

The horse, too, was adapted from an existing mesh. It was made slightly heavier, to represent a local farm draft horse being pressed into service, and the head and face were refined and improved. I’m learning as I go here, so the rig was replaced and improved as well. Finally, a draft harness was added with a singletree that will be hitched to the capstan on the crane.

It turns out that this part of Dibble’s design was nothing new. Horses have powered capstan-driven machinery for centuries. Horse capstans were also known as horse mills or horse gins. They were used to turn rotary mills in Greece as early as 300 B.C.E. Throughout the 19th century, horse whims and, later, horse treadmills powered farm machinery, moved buildings, and even propelled paddle-wheel boats.

Horse Driver Shading
The shaded horse driver model in the Substance Painter workspace. His hair and suspenders will be added later.

The models are shaded in Substance Painter which, along with the rest of the Substance software suite, has become a new part of my workflow. In most respects (but not all) Painter’s tools are much superior to the painting toolset in Mudbox. Everything is nondestructive and simple to modify, and it’s very easy to create custom materials that can be applied to different meshes. It’s a nice upgrade.

Horse Model Shading
The horse – now a dapple gray – and harness are also shaded in Substance Painter.

Once they are shaded the three models – crane, driver, and horse – are posed and assembled into a single file. That assembly, shown at the top of this post, can then be saved out and imported into the main Terragen scene.