Navigating the Noses

Travelling on the Erie Canal
An Erie Canal packet boat passes the Noses in this view, published in the 1825 edition of “The Northern Traveller” by Theodore Dwight. The landscape is rendered accurately; however, the towpath should be on the opposite side of the canal. Henry Inman, the artist (designated “del” here, for “delineator”) was an early 19th-century portrait and landscape painter. Peter Maverick, the engraver (“sc” for “sculpsit”), is also remembered as one of the first lithographers in the United States. (Library of Congress)

The subject of the next Erie Canal scene will provide a welcome change of pace. Instead of the scarred and blasted landscape of the Deep Cut, we’ll go to a place where the canal engineers accommodated nature, where the canal’s gentle curves paralleled the Mohawk River as both made their way toward Albany and the Hudson River.

The place is known as The Noses, named for two cliffs that frame a narrow gap in the hills. The Mohawk flows between them as it crosses the Appalachian ridge, forming the only east-west water route that breaks through that mountain barrier over its entire extent from Maine to northern Alabama. It is the key geological feature that made the Erie Canal possible in the first place.

Plan of the river &c from Albany to Oswego in America
Anthony’s Nose is included as a distinctive landmark in this 1756 map of the Mohawk River. (William L. Clements Library/University of Michigan)

The Noses themselves are landmarks with references dating back to the colonial era. Back then, the larger cliff was known as “Anthony’s Nose.”

Anthony’s Nose, on the north side of the Mohawk, is today simply called “Big Nose.” Facing it across the way, on the south side, is Little Nose. The gap in between is an historic line of communication, and after the canal was built the railroad soon followed. Today, the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) takes the same route.

The Noses by Phil Scalia
A view of The Noses as they appear today, looking west. The New York State Thruway passes below. To its left, visible through the trees, is State Route 5S, which closely follows the path of the old Erie Canal. Today, the “canalized” Mohawk River carries Erie Canal boat traffic. (Photograph copyright Philip Scalia 2016)

A children’s book published in 1852, Marco Paul’s Voyages and Travels: Erie Canal, describes a trip through the gap by rail:

“For there is a place here called the Pass of the Mohawk. It is where the river flows through a narrow passage in the mountains, with extensive ledges of rock and lofty cliffs on either hand. As the train of cars advanced up this defile, Forester and Marco perceived that the mountainous ranges approached nearer and nearer, until the river, the turnpike, the railroad and the canal were crowded close together and Marco could look down upon them from the window of the car, running side by side, and hemmed in on either hand by precipices of ragged rocks.”

David Vaughan Map of the Noses
This map of Erie Canal at the Noses was drawn in 1851 by David Vaughan. It shows the original Erie Canal as well as proposed changes for the First Enlargement. The map is upside-down, with south pointing toward the top edge. (New York State Archives)
David Vaughan Map Detail West
A drawing from David Vaughan’s 1851 map matches the view captured by photographer Philip Scalia, above. Areas that today are wooded were clearcut for agriculture in the 19th century. (New York State Archives)

Historical references

There is a wealth of visual information about this area, dating from an 1811 survey map drawn by Benjamin Wright, who later became the Erie Canal’s chief engineer. We also have a spectacular map created by draftsman David Vaughan in 1851. Vaughan’s map is useful because it features detailed drawings – one of his hallmarks – that provide clues to the state of the landscape. Today the area is mostly covered with second-growth woods. But in the early 19th century much of it would have been cleared for farming.

Even more valuable are the so-called Holmes Hutchinson maps of the Original Erie. These were the result of a survey of New York’s canal system commissioned by the state legislature and carried out 1832–1843. The maps, beautifully executed in in ink, wash and charcoal, depict the canal line at a scale of two chains — 132 feet — to the inch. There are nearly 1,000 altogether, and high-resolution scans of all of them are available at the New York State Archives website.

Holmes Hutchinson Map
This Holmes Hutchinson 1833 survey map precisely locates the path of the original Erie Canal and the Mohawk River channel. This is the area that will be depicted in the foreground of our scene. As with other 19th-century survey maps, this one identifies the cliff south of the canal as Big Nose. (New York State Archives)

The map shown here locates the foreground of the scene, so it and its neighbors will be used to help reconstruct the area as it would have appeared in the early 19th century.

Several postcards, printed in the early 1900s, also survive. The original Erie Canal was long gone by then, superseded by the mid-19th-century First Enlargement. But they depict the Noses and Mohawk River before the final Barge Canal enlargement and the incursion of the New York State Thruway, both of which dramatically altered the topography of this historic corridor.

Moonlight View in the Mohawk Valley
An early 20th-century postcard presents a romantic, hand-tinted view of the Enlarged Erie Canal at The Noses. (“Moonlight View in the Mohawk Valley,” Madden Collection, The Canal Society of New York State.)

Making the cut

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

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

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

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

The result was a pre-industrial industrial landscape.

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

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

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

Digging up the dimensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing the surface

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

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

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

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

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

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