The crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up from the depths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the west

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elusive Durham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that will have to wait for the next post.