Crossing Cayuga Marsh

Clinton's Ditch
The shape of the original prism is clearly visible in this well-preserved section of the original Erie Canal — Clinton’s Ditch — looking southeast from Armitage Road in Seneca County, New York. (Photo by Steve Boerner)

The view is nondescript, especially on this dreary midwinter day. The partly frozen waterway extends across the flat landscape as far as the eye can see. But the berms on either side still hold their shape. Two hundred years after it was constructed, the prism of this artificial channel is clearly visible.

This is one of few surviving sections of the original Erie Canal – Clinton’s Ditch. How it got here is a story of perseverance and grit.

Geddes Map
James Geddes’ 1817 survey map shows the proposed Erie Canal crossing “Part of the Great Cayuga Marsh” north of Mud Creek (later named the Canandaigua River, and now the Clyde River). The area appears to be uninhabited. (New York State Archives)

Two hundred years ago this area was known as the Great Cayuga Marsh, a notorious expanse of scattered forest, shallow pools, quicksand, and tall grass. The few roads that existed skirted its margins. Early settlers avoided it. They believed that the air itself was unhealthy and the cause of the deadly fever that seemed to strike out of nowhere each summer.

The marsh lay at the bottom of a large, shallow bowl with summits to the east and west. After the canal’s completion, boats arriving from either direction would lock down to this level, cross the Seneca River and the marsh, and then lock back up.

There was no way planners could avoid it, and they knew the crossing would not be easy.

1817 Commissioners Map
Detail from an 1817 map shows the proposed route of the canal (red line, center) from Palmyra to Syracuse. A vertical profile (top) shows locks and elevations. Aside from the final eastern descent to the Hudson River, not shown here, the Cayuga Marsh crossing was the lowest point on the line. (New York Public Library)

In their 1822 report to the state legislature, the canal commissioners wrote that they regarded this section “with much solicitude” and continued: “It cannot be drained at all; the excavation is from five, to nearly eight feet deep: and it was doubted, whether the earth had such a consistence . . . to keep its place in the banks, after the excavation should be effected. The whole level is, besides, subject to be overflowed by the waters of the Seneca river, and the Canandaigua outlet, to the depth of three of four feet, and is actually overflowed for a considerable part of every year.”

1862 Cayuga Marsh Map
Detail of an 1862 map drawn by David Vaughan depicts the eastern section of Cayuga Marsh after the completion of the Enlarged Erie Canal that also shows the line of the original Erie Canal. The hamlet of Montezuma is at upper right; May’s Point is at the lower left. (New York State Archives)

In the spring of 1821, the section was contracted out to Alfred Hovey and Abel Wethey Jr. of Montezuma. They in turn divided the work among several subcontractors. Everything was to be completed by mid-October. But work soon ground to a halt, plagued by a series of misfortunes described a few years later by a legislative committee:

“The contract was entered upon by Hovey & Wethey, in June or July, 1821 – they sub-contracted several miles of the marsh job, at various prices per cubic yard . . . In July these sub-contractors were driven off by floods, and the portions partly excavated were filled with water . . . When the marsh became in some measure dry again, an unprecedented sickness prevailed, which rendered it not only very expensive, but almost impossible to get men to work upon the marsh. Under all these embarrassments, the sub-contractors, without an exception, abandoned their jobs in the fall of 1821.”

Somehow Hovey and Wethey carried on and, with the arrival of winter and firmer ground, continued the work “with great energy.”

Erie Canal Profile
In the margin of his map, David Vaughan drew a profile of the original Erie Canal. The prism here was half again as wide as the standard — 60 feet instead of 40 — and up to six feet deep. Note the text describing “High Water 3 Ft Above Marshes.” (New York State Archives)

The first boat passed through on July 30, 1822. But quicksand, which oozed into the channel from the bottom up, and unpredictable water levels continued to cause problems. This section would remain the weakest link along the entire line until the 1850s, when the canal was finally elevated and widened, and an aqueduct was built to replace the water-level Seneca River crossing.

Missing from the contracts and official reports are the stories of the men who did the digging. We know that sickness – probably malaria – disabled many and discouraged others from taking work there, emptying the line of workers for weeks at a time. We don’t know how many – if any – died from the fever. But for those who stuck it out, we can only imagine what it must have been like to dig, knee- or waist-deep, in quicksand and muck through the winter of 1822 so the line could be opened the following summer.

Tracing the canal

The Great Cayuga Marsh was drained long ago. Today the area is mostly farmland. A few enclaves form the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and provide a home or way station for many species of migratory birds. The area is unique because it encompasses tangible remains of all three generations of the Erie Canal – the original Erie (“Clinton’s Ditch”), the Enlarged Erie, and the New York State Barge Canal – all within a few steps of each other.

Digital Elevation Map
Digital elevation data, rendered with Terragen, yields a three-dimensional map of the Earth’s surface without structures or vegetation. This top-down view roughly covers the same area shown in the 1862 map above, and reveals evidence of the original Erie and the Enlarged Erie canals. The Clyde and Seneca rivers, dredged and straightened, were incorporated into the New York State Barge Canal in 1918. (Rendering by Steve Boerner)

To reveal signs of early development, we can use digital elevation data from New York state and the United States Geological Survey. Three-dimensional renderings made with this data show the Earth’s surface stripped of all foliage, buildings, and bridges.

For example, this image includes the faint outline of the original Erie Canal (completed 1825), as well as the original Cayuga & Seneca Canal (completed 1828). Remains of the Enlarged Erie Canal (completed 1862) are more prominent, as are the environmental-scale alterations of the New York State Barge Canal (completed 1918), which reconfigured the courses of the Clyde and Seneca Rivers.

Elevation Map Detail
Enlarged detail from shows the juxtaposition of the three generations of Erie Canal engineering: The ghostly image of the original canal (filled in along this section) in the center, flanked by the Enlarged Erie Canal and the New York State Barge Canal. (Rendering by Steve Boerner)

The Cayuga Marsh crossing will be the subject of the next scene, and this real-world elevation data will be used to form the underlying terrain. As with previous scenes, digital landscaping will be employed to erase the marks of human development and to turn back the clock two hundred years.

The legend of Lars Larson

The Legend of Lars Larson
Lars Larson skates from Albany to Holley, New York, a distance of about 300 miles, on the frozen Erie Canal in late 1825. (Image copyright 2021 by Steve Boerner)

Of all the accounts of the early Erie Canal, this one holds a particular appeal. If you are an American of Norwegian descent, chances are you’re familiar with it. If not, read on. It’s a good story.

By the early 19th century first-hand accounts of life in the United States were beginning to reach ordinary people on the other side of the Atlantic. Stories of rich farmland ready for the taking and freedom to worship were hard to ignore.

Among those listening was a community of people in Stavanger, Norway, the core of which consisted of a small group of Quakers facing discrimination from their country’s Lutheran government. They dispatched an agent to America to investigate. When he returned with a favorable report and title to farmland bordering Lake Ontario in upstate New York, they pooled their resources, purchased a 54-foot sloop named Restoration, and made plans to emigrate.

A prominent member of the group, a ship’s carpenter named Lars Larson, and his wife, Martha, joined 50 other passengers and crew and set sail on July 4, 1825. After a harrowing 98-day voyage across the Atlantic – during which Martha gave birth, increasing the ship’s complement by one – the weary immigrants bravely sailed into New York harbor on October 9.

The occasion was noted by the New York Daily Advertiser in an item reprinted in newspapers across the Northeast:

A novel sight. — A vessel has arrived at this port, with emigrants, from Norway. The vessel is very small, measuring as we understand only about 360 Norwegian lasts, or forty-five American tons, and brought forty-six passengers, male and female, all bound to Ontario county, where an agent, who came over some time since, purchased a tract of land. The appearance of such a party of strangers, coming from so distant a country, and in a vessel apparently ill calculated for a voyage across the Atlantic, could not but excite an unusual degree of interest. They have had a voyage of fourteen weeks; and are all in good health and spirits.”

The warm welcome did not last. Within days the Restoration was seized and its captain jailed by the U. S. Customs Service. United States law restricted the number of passengers that could be carried by arriving vessels, and the tiny, dangerously overloaded sloop carried 21 passengers over the limit.

NY Evening Post
The New-York Evening Post noted the arrival of the “Danish” sloop Restoration on October 10, 1825. (New York State Historic Newspapers)

The Sloopers, as they were soon christened, had hoped to sell the Restoration upon arrival to pay expenses. Instead, their ship had been impounded and they were facing a fine of $3,150. But the local Quaker community rallied and financed the final leg of their journey, first by steamboat to Albany, then west on the newly completed Erie Canal.

According to tradition along the way they encountered the canal packet Seneca Chief, bearing Governor DeWitt Clinton, other dignitaries, and two casks of Erie Lake water en route to New York and the “wedding of the waters.” The westbound boat would have had the right of way, so the Seneca Chief dropped its towline and pulled aside, saluting the new immigrants as they passed.

After disembarking at Holley, the hardy Sloopers walked the final 10 miles north to their homesteads in the town of Kendall.

Larson and two others had remained behind to sort things out. They appeared before Judge William Peter van Ness of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on October 14 with a petition that was forwarded to President John Quincy Adams, who issued a full pardon on November 15.

Larson made his way to Albany, where he found the canal frozen solid. Undeterred, he purchased a pair of ice skates and skated the 300-mile distance along the canal to be reunited with his family.

So the story goes.

Norse-American centennial stamp
Stamp issued by the United States in 1925 celebrated the arrival of the “Norwegian Mayflower” 100 years earlier. (United States Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

Fact or fiction?

Some of the information for this post is drawn from a paper published in Norwegian-American Studies, the journal of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. In it the author, Richard L. Canuteson, wryly notes that over time some of the story’s retelling “has been based upon careful investigation, part of it on erroneous interpretation or translation, and part on family tradition — which by its very nature and the method by which it has been passed down from one generation to another may be less than accurate.”

While the arrival of the Restoration and ensuing court case are well documented, the account of Larson’s extraordinary trek along the iced-over canal at first appears to be a traditional embellishment. But hold on.

Long-distance skating, or tour skating, is popular today in Nordic countries. A cursory Internet query turns up the fact that casual tour skaters can skate up to 30 kilometers a day, while more experienced skaters can travel up to 100 kilometers — or more. Average speeds vary between 10 and 20 kilometers, roughly 6 to 12 miles, per hour.

At 6 miles per hour Larson could have completed the trip in 50 hours, or five grueling 10-hour days. He would have been hindered by obstacles: locks, stranded boats, uneven ice. But someone who had survived a 98-day Atlantic crossing may have looked at this as just one more thing to take in stride. Under the right conditions, he could have done it.

But what were the conditions?

On October 10, 1825, the same day it announced the arrival of the Restoration, the New-York Evening Post also published a small item about the weather. “We have experienced several days of unusually warm weather for the month of October,” it read. “Last Sunday the thermometer stood at 85.”

Recall, though, that this is upstate New York we’re discussing here. A few short weeks later the story was very different. On November 22 the Evening Post reported that “above Schenectady the canal was partially closed with ice. . . . But last evening the weather was greatly moderated, and we have hopes that canal navigation will be free a few days more.”

Troy Sentinel
Even though the canal would officially remain open until December 5, 1825, the Troy Sentinel reported on November 29 that ice had effectively ended the shipping season. (New York State Historic Newspapers)

On November 30 Canandaigua’s Ontario Repository wrote that the “Buffalo papers state that the Packet Boats between there and Rochester, have stopped running for this season. The cold weather we experienced a few days since, closed the canal in several places.”

According to state records, the canal that year was officially closed to navigation on December 5. But these newspaper items show that during the final weeks navigation was an on-again, off-again affair as traffic struggled against the encroaching ice. Packet lines, sensitive to any interruptions, would have halted service weeks earlier.

So by the time Larson reached Albany it’s likely that much of the canal was covered with ice “several inches thick.” Even if the canal wasn’t frozen end to end, he could have skated the iced-over sections while walking or finding other transportation in between. His long-distance ice-skating feat, the stuff of legend, may be based on fact.

Lars and Martha settled in Rochester, where he prospered as a boat builder alongside the new canal. Over the years their home in the city’s Third Ward (now the Corn Hill neighborhood) became a way station for thousands of Norwegian immigrants making their way west.

Sadly, Larson’s life ended unexpectedly by drowning in the canal that had carried him into America and on which he made his living. His body was recovered from a lock near Schenectady on November 13, 1845. He was 59 years old. To the end of her days Martha maintained that Lars had been murdered, pushed into the icy water in the course of a business deal gone bad. But nothing was ever proved.

Within a few years of their arrival most of the Norwegian families of Kendall, disappointed with the poor quality of the land, moved to a new community along the Fox River in Illinois. Today a handful of Norwegian surnames in the Kendall phone directory, the signposts along Norway Road, and a couple of historical markers are among the few reminders of the original Slooper settlement.