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