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.

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.

Tools of the trade

Rendering in a test environment to check shading of the new tool models, including a wheelbarrow, crowbar, sledgehammer, shovel, drill, pickax, and two 25-pound kegs of Du Pont blasting powder.

The workers who excavated the Erie Canal used primitive tools: picks, shovels, and bars – long crowbars used to pry loose layers of rock. A laborer from the Middle Ages or even ancient Rome would not have felt much out of place in the Deep Cut in 1824.

They would have noticed one change, however, which was the use of black powder to blast through the solid rock. Black powder had been used for mining since the early 17th century. However, blasting – or “blowing,” as it was commonly called then – was haphazard and extremely dangerous despite nearly two hundred years of practical experience.

Powder keg
Unshaded 25-pound powder keg model.

Many Erie Canal contractor receipts preserved in the New York State Archives include entries for powder, which would have been purchased from nearby wholesalers in 12 ½ or 25-pound kegs. “To 9 cages [kegs] of Powder for blasting out Lock bottomes on Erie Canal at four dollars and fifty cents per Cag,” reads one dated May 22, 1824, while another enumerates “116 Kegs Powder of Hubbard and Parsons at $4.50 pr k.” Along with labor and whiskey, it seems, powder was one of the contractor’s most significant expenses.

The powder used at Lockport was manufactured by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont at his gunpowder mill near Wilmington, Delaware, and was formulated specifically for blasting rocks.

Unshaded sledgehammer model.

Black powder was used because the excavation of the Deep Cut preceded the invention of dynamite. It also preceded (by many decades) the invention of pneumatic power drills. Instead, a forged steel drill was held in place by one man while another pounded it with a sledgehammer, rotating it a quarter turn between each blow. If this sounds tedious, it was – as well as dangerous for the fellow holding the drill, who risked getting his arm smashed if the hammer missed its mark. Probably not an uncommon occurrence given the amount of whiskey the workers would have consumed in any given day.

Legend has it that workers were stymied by the hard rock of the Deep Cut, which blunted their drills, until a local blacksmith named Botsford stepped forward with an improved process for forging hardened steel. His drills, which featured a diamond-shaped tip, enabled the work to go forward.

I haven’t been able to confirm this account. It appears in newspaper columns and several popular histories, but none cites a source. Botsford, who never seems to possess a first name, is variously described as being from Niagara Falls, Buffalo, or Lockport. But he is mentioned in none of the primary documents that I’ve checked, and there are no patents attributed to him. So either the story’s details have been lost to history or, at some point, it was simply made up.

Unshaded drill model.

Or maybe not. The Erie Canal Discovery Center in Lockport has a Botsford drill in its collection. Its provenance has never been documented, but it fits the historical description. Even if it isn’t actually from the period, it most likely is similar to the drills that would have been used. The drill model I’ve made is based on it.

The drills would have been used to create holes about two feet deep in which a quantity of powder would have been placed and fused. The process was carried out by “blowers” – often inexperienced and untrained workers. As part of the masculine culture of the canal workforce, these men took pride in exposing themselves to danger and (it’s worth noting again) consumed large quantities of whiskey on the job. It was an unfortunate combination, and the result was entirely predictable.

Many years later “Aunt Edna” Smith, one of the original inhabitants of Lockport, recorded her memories in the “Recollections of an Early Settler,” which was published in five parts in the Lockport Daily Union. In one installment she described the process of blowing rock:

“Many accidents occurred from the carelessness of the man in the use of powder, such as staying too near the blast at the time of the explosion, &c. If the fuse went out or burned slowly, they would rush back recklessly, to see what was the matter, often blowing them to revive the dying fire. Many a poor fellow was blown into fragments in this way. On some days the list of killed and wounded would be almost like that of a battle field.”

And the hazard wasn’t confined to workers:

“The blasting of the rocks for the foundation of the Locks, and the canal above, was a constant source of danger and annoyance to the inhabitants.

“Stones several inches in diameter were daily thrown over into Main street. When the warning cry of “Look Out!” was sounded for a blast, every one within range flew to a place of shelter. The small stones would rattle down like hail, and were anything but pleasant, particularly when one was caught with uncovered head. One stone weighing eighteen pounds was thrown over our house, and buried itself in the front yard.”

As historian Patrick McGreevy points out in Stairway to Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America, “Mrs. Smith’s home was more than seven hundred feet east of the Deep Cut.”

Unshaded shovel model.

The shovel model for the scene is based on a shovel on display at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. The museum’s example dates from the 1830s and is clearly a frontier artifact, with a composite blade made from hardwood and forged iron. It’s not easy to imagine someone laboring 12 to 14 hours a day, excavating hard soil and broken rock, with this primitive tool.

Unshaded wheelbarrow model.

Workers at the Deep Cut and elsewhere on the canal would have hauled excavated rock and soil with the Brainard wheelbarrow, a revolutionary new design patented in 1819. The wheelbarrow, which used curved planks of wood for the tray, was significant enough to warrant a mention in the canal commissioners’ 1820 annual report: “Mr. Jeremiah Brainard of Rome, has invented a wheel barrow, which, without being more expensive than those in common use, is acknowledged by all who have seen it to be greatly superior to them. Its advantages consist in its being lighter, more durable, and much easier to unload.”

My wheelbarrow model is based on a surviving example from the 1830s on display at the Erie Canal Park museum in Camillus, New York.

Wheelbarrow Ad
A newspaper ad for Jeremiah Brainard’s new wheelbarrow included testimonials from two canal commissioners, the canal’s principal engineer, and a contractor. The wheelbarrow was priced “from five to six dollars.” The ad appeared in the February 2, 1820 issue of the Palmyra Register. (NYS Historic Newspapers)

Making the cut

Enlarged Deep Cut
A Whipple iron arch bridge crosses the Deep Cut west of Lockport some time in the late 19th or very early 20th century. The rock walls and towpath surface are plainly visible. Photographs like this give us a good idea of what the original Deep Cut might have looked like. (Niagara County Historical Society)

The Deep Cut was a man-made artifact that sliced across the landscape of western New York. At the time, many people saw it as a work of “art” that improved Nature for the benefit of all.

But even though Nature was “improved,” it wasn’t completely overcome. The waterlogged terrain that constantly threatened to flood the work, the dense forest, and most of all the layer upon layer of tough dolomite resisted the incursion and made life miserable for the engineers and workers struggling to execute the great work.

Little was spared in the effort. Great quantities of black powder and whiskey – and an untold number of lives – were consumed as the cut inched forward.

The result was a pre-industrial industrial landscape.

Orsamus Turner, an early settler and newspaper editor, recalled the scene in his Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York:

“The dense forest between Lockport and Tonawanda creek looked as if a hurricane had passed through it, leaving a narrow belt of fallen timber, excavated stone and earth . . . The blasting of rocks was going on briskly, on that part of the canal located upon the village site; rocks were flying in all directions . . . and huge piles of stone lay upon both banks of the canal . . .”

This would have been 1822 as work was just beginning. The blasting and huge piles of stone would extend along the entire length of the cut as work continued through 1825.

Digging up the dimensions

As I began to put together the landscape for this scene, my first question was pretty basic: What were the dimensions of the cut?

Surviving records from the original construction period are sparse. We have the annual reports of the canal commissioners, letters from them and the supervising engineers, some early surveys, and some contracts and receipts. To the best of my knowledge there are no engineering plans as we understand them today.

This was art, after all, created by artisans. In the pre-industrial era masons and carpenters drew upon their visual imaginations and years of experience and not much else. Locks, dams, weirs, and so forth were built from memory or perhaps by referring to sketches that were quickly discarded. It was an effective way to work, and the structures that remain attest to the care and pride they took in it.

This soon changed. The industrial era – introduced to some extent by the canal itself – required bureaucracies, trained engineers, and armies of surveyors, clerks and draftsmen. As planning for the first canal enlargement began, they got to work.

Deep Cut Profile
Survey profile of the Deep Cut, 83 chains (slightly more than one mile) west of Lockport. The drawing was made around 1839 to estimate additional excavation work for the First Enlargement of the canal. A yellow highlight is added to show the dimensions of the original 1825 canal. (Author photo from the New York State Archives)

The New York State Archives in Albany has several volumes of contracts and estimates, one of which was completed in the late 1830s for enlargement work along the Deep Cut. I’m grateful for the help provided by the archivists who tracked this down.

The volume contains hundreds of precise cross sections used to calculate the exact amount of soil and rock to be removed for the enlargement. To make them, surveyors measured the prism at intervals of 66 feet (one chain) all the way from Lockport to Tonawanda Creek.

The measurements confirm the maximum depth of the original profile, about 32 feet, mentioned in the canal commissioners’ annual reports. They also include the channel width and the size of the ledge for the towpath. The channel is narrow, about 31 feet, just wide enough to allow two canal boats to pass. The towpath is 10–12 feet wide, just wide enough to allow two teams of mules or horses to pass.

Apparently, the original engineers did not want to blast a single unnecessary cubic yard of rock.

Constructing the surface

The depth of the cut, the vertical walls, and the number of lateral (sideways) displacements make this a difficult landscape to model. After a couple of false starts I used an approach suggested by Ulco Glimmerveen on the Terragen user forum. This approach uses a few large primitive shapes – three cubes and a plane – to set up the basic surface, along with the rock pile shapes described in an earlier post.

Deep Cut Structure
The underlying structure of the Terragen scene is made from primitive shapes and the rock piles created earlier.

The rock walls required more experimentation. Excavated dolomite resembles shale but has thicker layers. Later historical photos (like the one included at the top of this post) were a big help here. (Photos of the original excavation, of course, are nonexistent – photography hadn’t been invented yet.)

Deep Cut Rendering
Terragen rendering of the Deep Cut scene shows the finished rock piles and surfaces.

The rock wall was the biggest challenge, and was finished first. The floor of the cut and towpath, both partly flooded, came next, and layers of rubble were scattered pretty much everywhere. A few variations of the Dibble crane were included as placeholders (more will be added later). Thick, turbulent clouds convey an ominous mood (and help scatter the light into the shadows). A plume of dense smoke from blasting can be seen in the distance.

Despite some natural relief provided by the edges of the forest on either side, the picture so far has a dark, gritty look that seems appropriate.