The towpath bridge at Montezuma stretches across the sluggish waters of the Seneca River in the early morning hours of June 15, 1824. It has been in regular use since the previous season, allowing packets, freighters, and other Erie Canal boats to navigate the entire distance from Albany to Brockport, about twenty miles west of Rochester.
This slackwater crossing carried the Erie Canal west to the margins of the Cayuga marshes, where water levels were at the mercy of the river and the nearby Canandaigua Outlet. Traffic on the canal would be plagued by unusually low water later that year.
As the Canal Commissioners were to report, “[s]ome inconvenience was, however, experienced in crossing the Cayuga marshes . . . on the subsidence of these streams in the latter part of the season, the water in the canal was reduced below its proper height, and loaded boats frequently detained.”
A guard lock under construction on the west bank would help maintain the canal’s water level across the marsh. But problems at the slackwater crossing itself dogged engineers until it could be replaced by an aqueduct in 1856.
The freighter in the scene is a model of one of the early 19th-century canal boats recently discovered at the bottom of Seneca Lake. The bridge is based on a description published in an early canal commissioners’ report and an 1825 watercolor sketch by John Henry Hopkins. Its southwest-to-northeast alignment, and a date near summer solstice, allowed me to indulge in a long-wished-for opportunity to set a scene at sunrise.
Another river crossing will be the theme of the next scene, one set further west and, for the canal engineers, much more ambitious.
As James Geddes, Esq., found himself exploring the rivers of central New York in late 1808 on behalf of the state legislature, he believed he had come across a unique opportunity.
He already was familiar with the territory. A native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Geddes had settled near Onondaga Lake in 1793. He had been attracted by reports of brine springs in the area, and soon formed a company to manufacture salt. Eventually the community of Geddes grew up around the salt works, and he went on to become a lawyer, justice of the peace, and state assemblyman.
Along the way he had also taken up surveying, and proved to be so adept at this essential frontier skill that he was employed as an assistant to the state surveyor general, Simeon De Witt. So it was in 1808 he was selected to survey potential routes for a western canal.
But not necessarily an Erie canal. Even though the state legislature had directed De Witte to explore a direct route from the Hudson to Lake Erie, the resulting commission dismissed that as impractical. Instead, it allocated $600 for surveys of two other routes: From Oneida Lake to Oswego, and a shorter one to bypass Niagara Falls and connect lakes Erie and Ontario. Canals built along these routes would enable western navigation to the upper Great Lakes by way of Lake Ontario.
Almost as an afterthought, the commission instructed Geddes to explore an interior route west from Oneida Lake to Lake Erie. But the first two surveys, which had higher priority, consumed the entire summer and most of his budget.
Sustained by a $75 supplemental appropriation, Geddes finished a hurried inspection of an interior route — in the course of which he encountered the Oneida and Seneca rivers and, he believed, a rare opportunity. Here, he reported, there would be no need to dig a canal, because those streams could be improved and made navigable to canal traffic. As he wrote the following January in a report to the state legislature, they comprised an “extensive piece of inland navigation which nature has almost finished to our hand.”
Geddes’ observation, while correct, was far ahead of his time. Such large-scale engineering was well beyond the reach of the early 19th century. With one notable exception — Tonawanda Creek near Buffalo — no natural streams would be integrated into the original Erie Canal. The rest of the distance would be covered by a hand-dug channel.
He did get many things right, including this: An inland route to Lake Erie was practical and perhaps the best option. Any route through Lake Ontario risked diverting commercial traffic to Canadian ports, he wrote, and quoted “a correspondent” to add that “an inland canal would always be safe in the event of a war with Great Britain.”
As if to prove his point, in June 1812 the United States declared war against its estranged mother country. Western New York and its Great Lakes coastline, from Buffalo to Sackets Harbor, became a major theater of the conflict.
Plans for the great western canal were put on hold. But important lessons were learned. During the war, not only was commercial lake traffic disrupted, the American military found out just how difficult and expensive it was to transport arms, ammunition, and other supplies to western New York. Existing roads were woefully inadequate. Improved transportation — such as a canal — was needed.
East meets west
After the war, as politicians in Albany squabbled and plotted, a consensus began to emerge around the need for an inland route to Lake Erie. In 1816 new survey teams were sent out, led by men who now had a better idea of what they were up against.
For reasons partly administrative, partly political, the proposed canal was divided into western, middle, and eastern sections. Geddes led the survey team for the western section, starting at the headwaters of Tonawanda Creek and heading east. The team charting the middle section, led by Benjamin Wright, began at Rome and headed west. The surveys met at the Seneca River, the boundary between the two sections.
Boundary — and now a barrier. Instead of being a “piece of inland navigation” generously furnished by nature, the wide river was simply in the way.
Walking on water
There were two ways to cross a stream that obstructed the canal’s path.
The first, and most common, was to construct an aqueduct. These were sometimes referred to as “water bridges” and were built in much the same way as road bridges. Some were built completely of stone, such as the aqueducts at Little Falls and Rochester. More often the abutments and piers were built of stone but the trunk, or canal channel, was made of wood planks. The aqueduct at Crescent, New York, which crossed the Mohawk River, was built this way. Using wood was less expensive and it worked well enough.
The second method was called a slackwater crossing. A dam was built across the stream, creating a pool of still or “slack” water. A narrow, wooden towpath bridge would then be built across the pool so animal teams could tow the boats across. The Schoharie Creek crossing at Fort Hunter was made this way, and this is how engineers originally planned to cross the Genesee River at Rochester. Guard locks were usually built on either side of the crossing to maintain the water level in the canal itself.
To the early canal planners, the Seneca River must have seemed the perfect candidate for a slackwater crossing. In their 1817 annual report, in which the canal commissioners described the previous year’s surveys, they reported that “[a] bridge 10 chains long, across the Seneca river, is all that remains to connect this [the western] section with that which includes the route between this river and Rome.” The bridge they described was a towpath bridge.
Ten chains equals 660 feet, and the commissioners may have considered this distance too great to be crossed by an aqueduct. Or they feared the muddy bottom of the river was too soft to support one. Or, simply, the slow-moving, shallow waters of the Seneca may not have seemed like much of an obstacle.
So contractors drove pilings and built the towpath bridge. Two, in fact: one over the Seneca River and a second over the nearby Canandaigua Outlet. The projected length of 660 feet for the Seneca bridge turned out to be 1,440 feet. For some reason — perhaps because of the slow current, or because it might complicate plans to drain the adjacent marsh — a dam was never constructed downstream of the crossing.
It was, it seems, a compromise. And soon enough it became apparent that it might not have been such a good idea.
The Seneca was a temperamental river whose depth fluctuated several feet over the course of the year. It could flood the adjacent marshlands one month and become too shallow to navigate the next. Even when it was at its “normal” depth, a channel had to be dredged parallel to the towpath bridge to accommodate the 3½-foot draft of the canal boats. This channel constantly silted over and groundings became so common that a lighter — a scow onto which canal boats could offload part of their freight — was stationed at the crossing to keep traffic moving. The crossing became the Achille’s Heel of the canal.
The solution was to construct an aqueduct. The Richmond Aqueduct, at 894 feet one of the longest structures on the canal, in 1856 replaced the slackwater crossing and carried the newly enlarged Erie Canal across the Seneca. At last, canawlers would no longer be subject to the whims of the river.
Sixty-one years later the aqueduct itself would be dismantled to make way for the New York State Barge Canal enlargement. By the early 20th century steam power, dynamite, and reinforced concrete had made possible James Geddes’ early 19th-century dream. The Seneca River and its neighbors were tamed, deepened, and turned into navigable streams, becoming at last that “extensive piece of inland navigation which nature has almost finished to our hand.”
The origins of the lift pump, like those of many other indispensable inventions, are lost somewhere in the distant past.
The principle behind the pump’s operation — atmospheric pressure — was not discovered until the 17th century. But by then lift pumps had already been in use for generations. For miners and seamen, especially, they had long been an essential part of everyday life.
Some time ago I began working on a scene to show workers digging the Erie Canal through Cayuga Marsh. The scene needed to include the hand-powered pumps they used to get rid of the water that constantly seeped into the excavation. I made some preliminary inquiries and could not find a source that could tell me what those pumps looked like. (Maybe no one knows.) So I decided to dig deeper.
In part one, we combed through contractor receipts for clues. This part will show what I’ve learned from the broader technical record, as presented in contemporary documents.
In its most basic form, the lift pump (also called the piston pump, atmospheric pump, or suction pump) has just a few parts.
The body is called the box. It can be a cylinder or, literally, a box. The lower end is open (though it may be protected by a screen or cage) and extends below the water surface. Inside the box, a piston (a.k.a. the sucker or bucket), is attached to a rod (or spear) and handle (or brake). There are two valves, one at the bottom of the box near the intake, and another in the piston.
When the handle is pushed down, the piston valve opens to allow the water in the box to flow up past it. When the handle is pulled up, that valve closes, lifting the water above the piston, and the intake valve opens to admit more water into the box.
An extraordinary set of woodcuts published in Georgius Agricola’s 1556 treatise De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals) show a series of lift pumps of increasing complexity, some powered by hand, others by water wheels, all used to drain mines. In one (shown in the image to the left at the top of this post), a laborer operates a wooden pump while another cores logs for pump boxes and pipes. Scattered in the foreground are spears, pistons, grates, and all the other parts needed to build the pump.
Agricola’s pumps are functionally equivalent to the simple machine shown in the second image, above. That diagram was published in 1897, more than three centuries later. The hand-operated pump it depicts was used to drain excavations. Not much had changed.
It wasn’t for want of trying. More than a hundred patents for pumps were granted during the early 19th century. Some were featured in technical publications such as The Franklin Journal and American Mechanic’s Magazine, which may have summarized their collective significance in this review, published in 1836: “there is not in the description any thing that regards construction or arrangement which is worthy of particular notice, or that is in any respect superior to the pumps now in use.”
The diggers excavating the Erie Canal would have to solve the vexing problem of excess water by using simple machines built as they had been built for centuries — from wood, wrought iron, and leather.
The virtue of simplicity
There is little doubt that most of the pumps used along the Erie Canal were made of wood. The raw material was readily available, and there is good evidence that the machines were made and repaired by local craftsmen.
As Thomas Ewbank wrote in his 1849 opus, A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, Ancient and Modern: “The facility with which wooden pumps are made and repaired, the cheapness of their material, the little amount of friction from pistons working within them, and their general durability, have always rendered them more popular than others.”
Ewbank, an English immigrant who briefly served as commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, also described a simple piston used by pump builders in upstate New York. It was a “hollow cone or truncated cone of strong leather, the base being equal in diameter to that of the pump chamber or cylinder . . . When thrust down it collapses and permits the water to pass between it and the sides of the chamber, and when its motion is reversed, the weight of the liquid column above it, presses it out again.”
Picture an inverted parasol that closes and opens as the pump handle is lowered and raised.
The design, Ewbank wrote, “has long been known in some parts of the United States. We noticed it twenty years ago [that is, during the late 1820s] at New Rochelle, Westchester County, in [New York] and were informed by a pump maker here that they ‘always had it.’ It is not however universally known, for in 1831 a patent was taken out for it.”
That patent was awarded to Noble Phelps, of Turin, New York, on October 20, 1831. A review published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute noted that the improvement was a piston or “leather bucket in the form of the letter V . . .”
Other accounts emphasized the advantages of simple machines made from everyday materials.
In 1815 Englishman Olinthus Gregory in A Treatise of Mechanics — Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive described a pump that could be built by “a common carpenter.” The design (above, at left) used a cylindrical bellows made of leather or canvas instead of a piston. The main advantage was that a precise fit between the bellows and pump box was not required, so the box could be cylindrical or square. The lack of friction reduced wear and (in theory, at least) extended the useful life of the machine.
Gregory also described simple butterfly valves (above, right), fabricated from wood and leather, that would fit inside a square pump box.
Elsewhere, he goes into some detail how wood pistons should be lined with leather to create watertight seals with minimal friction — a passage that sheds some light on items found in Erie Canal contractor receipts (such as this one from January 13, 1819: “for Leather to Leather the Boxes for two pumps”).
The London Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1820 awarded a “large gold medal” to Jacob Perkins for devising a ship’s pump built of planks. “The object of the peculiar modification of this pump,” notes the Society’s Transactions, “is that of enabling sea-faring people to construct a pump while at sea from materials always to be found on board; viz. deal boards or planks, leather, nails, canvas, and tar.”
The plank construction eliminated the “necessity of boring the barrel, as in the usual pumps.”
Cored logs, of course, had been used as pumps since ancient times, as shown in Agricola’s woodcut. They also were used as water pipes, and references to them can be found in Erie Canal contractor receipts. (For example, in 1823 John M. Smith was paid $50.79 for, among other things, “5 Rods of new pump logs laid under Canal.”)
Two are better than one
Over the centuries, builders experimented with various combinations of pumps. Several woodcuts in Agricola’s book show machines made up of two, three or even more pump boxes, arranged side-by-side (see the first image at right, above) or one above the other, like a staircase.
The simplest arrangement combined two pumps with a single lever operated by two men. Bilge pumps on the 74-gun battleship U.S.S. North Carolina, launched in 1820, worked this way, according to Ewbank: “The levers are double, and shaped like those of fire-engines, staves of wood being slipped through the rings whenever the pumps are worked.”
In a letter to American Mechanic’s Magazine, May 21, 1825, a P. Vanryde mentions a double pump that he had “frequently seen working in Holland.” He helpfully included a sketch: “Thus two men can raise an immense quantity of water in a day, as there is a constant stream from one or the other.” The scale of Vanryde’s drawing is not shown, but similar illustrations indicate that the pump barrels were taller than man-height. The lever is operated by pulling on the ropes at either end.
(This may be a good place to insert a reminder that the first European settlers of the Hudson and lower Mohawk valleys were the Dutch, masters of hydraulic engineering who would have brought this technology with them.)
One of the most intriguing examples dates from more than 60 years earlier. In Whole Art of Husbandry; Or, the Way of Managing and Improving of Land, published in 1761, Englishman John Mortimer teaches readers how to mine marl deposits (marl, a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate, was widely used as a soil conditioner) and what to do when the pit became flooded with spring water.
“I shall propose one of the cheapest and best pumps that is for their use; which is to take four deals or other boards, which joint and nail together; and if some plates of iron be nailed over the edges of them, it will strengthen them much; these pumps may be made single, with a common pump-handle to them for one man to work them, or double for two men, as in the figure . . . One man may work one of these pumps that is twelve foot long, and twelve inches square, which will void a vast quantity of water in an hour, with a great deal of ease.”
Later authors copied Mortimer’s design, which may be evidence of its popularity — and also evidence that it worked.
Could this, or something similar, have been used on the Erie Canal?
The marl reference is an interesting coincidence. The crumbly, stony material was encountered by contractors in several locations along the canal line, where it was notoriously difficult to excavate.
But Mortimer’s pump also satisfies all the requirements for the kind of machine we’d expect to find on the New York frontier from 1817 through 1825: The simple plank design could have been built by any local carpenter or millwright, the finished pump could have been operated by one or two men, and (most important) it could “void a vast quantity of water . . . with ease.”
Something tells me we’re getting close.
If you or someone you know is familiar with 1820s construction technology, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Please leave a comment here or contact me via email at smb (at) steveboerner (dot) com. Thanks!
Work on the Cayuga Marsh scene had been going really well. The basic terrain was in place and ready for the next step – adding models of the workers and the machines they would have used.
But a brief passage in a primary source suddenly brought everything to a halt. It occurs in an 1824 legislative committee report on a financial scandal that was ending the career of Myron Holley, treasurer of the canal commission.
Alfred Hovey and Abel Wethy, the contractors responsible for the Cayuga Marsh canal section and the Rochester aqueduct, appeared to have been overcompensated by Holley for their work. Suspecting collusion, the committee scrutinized their accounts and visited both locations. The contractors were cleared of wrongdoing, but in its report the committee documented the difficulties they had encountered while constructing the canal through the marsh, where the excavation was often under water.
The report reads: “The great difficulties which had to be encountered in the prosecution of this work, was a subject of deep anxiety to the [canal] commissioners, as this section was a connecting link between finished portions of the canal on each side of it. . . . Hovey & Wethey went on with the work in the winter of 1822, and prosecuted it with great energy. In the prosecution of this work, both summer and winter, the contractors were compelled to keep pumps in operation, night and day, to enable them to go on with the work.”
That last sentence was the show stopper. I had no idea what kind of machines they were talking about.
The handful of other pump references in the canal commissioners’ reports are not helpful. Nowhere do they offer even the briefest description. Why should they? This was pedestrian technology. At the time, everyone knew what an early 19th-century excavation pump looked like and how it worked.
Until we didn’t. As with many other details of early Erie Canal history – especially those concerning the daily lives of working people – much of what we once knew about these poorly documented machines has, apparently, been lost.
What did the machines look like? What were they made of? How were they powered? By hand? Horse? Steam?
It’s an historical puzzle, and until it’s solved the Cayuga scene will have to be put on the shelf. That’s okay – there are plenty of other projects to work on.
Beyond that immediate concern, though, is something larger. The better we understand the technology of the day and the tools that were used, the more we will understand the day-to-day experience of the workers who built the canal.
Could the pumps have been steam-powered?
Let’s deal with this question right away.
The steam engine was undergoing rapid development in the early 19th century. The patent on James Watts’ steam engine expired in 1800, allowing competitors to borrow and improve upon his design. In the United States, Robert Fulton built the first commercially successful steamboat and began regular passenger service on the Hudson River in 1807. The Stourbridge Lion, imported from England, would become the first railroad locomotive in the United States in 1829.
In Triumph at the Falls: The Louisville and Portland Canal (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2007), authors Leland R. Johnson and Charles E. Parrish place the first use of steam power for canal construction in late 1827, when contractors on Kentucky’s Louisville and Portland Canal installed a steam pump to drain lock pit excavations.
A few years later, immense steam engines would drive pumps and machinery for construction of the Potomac Aqueduct in Washington, D.C.
But of course, that all came later. For the workers stuck in the middle of a marsh on the New York frontier in 1822, steam-powered pumps would remain at best a distant dream.
Following the money
Excess water bedeviled contractors and workers not only at Cayuga, but all along the canal line. Pumps – making and repairing them, using and transporting them – are frequently mentioned in receipts issued to contractors and subcontractors.
Engineer Marshall Lewis, who perhaps brought more practical experience to the field than any of his peers, having previously designed and built locks in Waterloo for the Seneca Lock Navigation Company, also built locks and aqueduct foundations for the Erie Canal. Perhaps because of the nature of this work, Lewis spent a lot of money on pumps.
For example one of his receipts, from December 1818, records a payment of $12.63 to Alvin Upham of Elbridge “for two Large pumps.” ($12.63 in 1818 would be roughly equivalent to $216 today.) Another, to Nathan Young of Jordan dated January 1819, lists an expense of $2 “for two hands to pump one Night.”
Removing unwanted water from excavations was always labor intensive, and the expense could be considerable.
The worst example might be the lower end of the Deep Cut near its junction with Tonawanda Creek, where work was constantly hampered by flooding. “Pumps, worked by horse power, were introduced on almost every section,” reported the canal commissioners in 1825.
This is confirmed by a December 1825 receipt from Principal Engineer Nathan Roberts to contractors Lane and Snyder that included “the expense of several horse pumps and of 163 days pumping estimated at $15 per day,” which would have come to $2,445, or about $56,715 today.
Earlier that year, in August, Francis B. Lane of Lane and Snyder would provide a receipt to Peter Cater for the amount of $3 for “2 days work at hawling [sic] pump Frame out of the canal.” This may have been a frame for one of the horse pumps, which (I’m guessing) would have been large, semipermanent chain-and-bucket installations.
I can find no other references to horse pumps in the commissioners’ reports or other state documents. But chances are they were used elsewhere when the expense was justified.
More interesting are the receipts that provide details on pump construction and repair.
Of particular interest is one issued by Lewis in January 1820 to Jedediah Richards for various items and services, including making patterns for culvert frames, a hammer pattern, three “pile Machienes,” making two pumps “at $7.00 per each,” and “for use of my pit saw.” Richards obviously worked with wood and may have been a sawmill operator – not an unusual occupation for frontier entrepreneurs. This strongly implies that the pumps were made of wood, perhaps from planks produced by his saw.
Richards is also a good example of a familiar early 19th-century archetype – the intrepid Yankee inventor. Between 1828 and 1832 he was awarded three patents: for a machine to punch iron and steel, a machine to manufacture window sashes, and for designs for an elevated railway and the “cars used thereon.” (An earlier 1810 patent, for a machine to manufacture excelsior, or wood wool, is credited to a Jedediah Richards 3rd, of Norfolk, Conn. – perhaps the same person.)
Further evidence that at least some of the pumps were made of wood is provided by a May 1827 receipt from contractor David Fitzgerald to Matthias Langdon for “making two box pumps.” Langdon would later be described by Jeptha Root Simmons in Frontiersmen of New York (Albany, 1882) as the “boss carpenter” of a crew that built a bridge in Fort Plain in 1828.
Blacksmiths provided many parts for pumps and repaired them, too.
A receipt from December 1818 from Lewis to James W. Redfield includes, among other items, “4 straps pumps . . . fix band for pump . . . 1 strap pump . . . 2 small bands for pump.” Local Onondaga County histories identify Redfield as one of the area’s early blacksmiths. What are “straps” and “bands”? I have some ideas which we’ll get into later.
An August 1823 receipt from contractor Caleb Hamill, who built a series of locks along the eastern end of the canal (and who figures prominently in Walter D. Edmond’s fictional narrative Erie Water), to blacksmith Nicholas F. Lighthall includes expenses for framing a pump box, “3 eye bolts for pump brakes,” and “repairing pump spears.”
In a piston pump, which is clearly being described here, the pump box is the chamber in which the piston works; a brake is the pump handle, and a spear is the rod that connects the handle to the piston.
A January 1819 receipt from Lewis to Casey McKay of Jordan includes “Leather to Leather the Boxes for two pumps” – perhaps the same pumps purchased earlier from Alvin Upham. About two weeks later another to Thomas Moseley mentions “Leathering pump boxes for the use of the Erie Canal at Jordan aqueduct.” Many other receipts refer to leather work.
Finally, an example that brings us full circle: a May 1825 receipt to Richardson and Beals for “items of extra work done by them in their subcontract on the Erie Canal through the Cayuga Marshes.” The items include “excavating pump pits below bottom in order to prepare for pumping.”
A few things seem to be coming into focus.
First, several kinds of water pumps of various shapes and sizes were likely used along the canal. Many seem to have been fabricated by local craftsmen along the line.
Second, aside from the large horse pumps on the Mountain Ridge and a single reference elsewhere to “screw pumps,” most appear to have been hand-powered piston lift pumps.
Third, some if not most pump boxes were made of wood, and fittings and moving parts were forged from iron. Pump boxes may have been lined with leather to provide a watertight seal, and pistons may have been made of leather.
Fourth, where it was important to completely drain the excavation, pump pits would be dug into the bed of the canal prism. Perhaps the pits were lined with stone or timber to reduce the amount of mud and debris that might clog the pump.
Finally, judging from the quantity of receipts for repair work, these machines regularly broke down and had to be fixed, maybe by the same hands that built them in the first place.
So what did they look like? We’ll explore that in part two.
A final note for those who stayed with me to the end. If you or someone you know is familiar with 1820s construction technology, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Leave a comment here, or contact me via email at smb (at) steveboerner (dot) com.
Today a few artificial pools are carefully managed to provide habitats for millions of migrating waterfowl. The surrounding area has been drained to create farmland and to accommodate New York state’s east-west transportation corridor. Railways, expressways, and tamed rivers now course through a landscape that, for millennia, had been regularly inundated by the outflow of Cayuga Lake.
The tentative camera position is just east of May’s Point, near the center of the former marsh. Unlike previous scenes I’d like to show as much of the surrounding landscape as possible, so the camera is placed 200 meters above ground level to give us a bird’s-eye view.
Almost all of these features will be removed. The Clyde River is moved south (to the right) to match its location in contemporary maps. In the distance, low hills leveled by later development are restored. The partly excavated bed of the canal now extends northeast toward the Seneca River and the hamlet of Montezuma.
New models are made to represent native vegetation including grasses, goldenrod, cattails, and blue flag.
Water surfaces and foliage are added to restore the landscape’s original appearance. The tentative date for the scene is spring, 1822. Water levels, already eight to 10 feet higher than today, would have been even higher this time of year, flooding pretty much everything including the partially completed canal.
It’s hard to imagine excavating anything under these conditions.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.