Little Falls was one of the most picturesque locations on the original Erie Canal, and its iconic aqueduct and dramatic Mohawk River gorge became favorite subjects for artists.
One of those artists was the young John William Hill, who had emigrated from England with his parents in 1819. Early on he worked in his father’s New York City shop, mastering the process of aquatint engraving. Between 1829 and 1831 he traveled across the state, painting watercolors to be used as studies for a portfolio of engravings of canal scenes. The portfolio was never published, but the surviving paintings — executed when he was about 20 years old — provide some of our most detailed views of the early canal.
Hill created his landscapes using the techniques of a miniaturist, building them with layer upon layer of tiny stipples. His precise brush captured details not found in other contemporary images.
In the painting several passengers, including a woman with a small child, watch from the cabin roof of their packet boat while it is being locked. A tandem-rigged team of horses exits the left side of the frame on the towpath behind the boat, indicating that the packet is heading west. The boat is being lifted by the rising water level in the lock.
Near the bow of the packet, a male passenger appears to be describing the operation of the lock gates to his female companion. (Apparently, mansplaining was a thing even in 1831.) To the right is a rarely shown detail — the bypass flume, a ditch that diverted excess water around the lock. A rock-filled wooden crib near the flume’s outlet breaks the fall of the water as it reenters the canal.
In the background, the stony face of Profile Rock — a feature that survives to this day — mutely takes in the scene.
Several details from this painting, including the bypass flume and crib, are examples of the things that can be gleaned from contemporary paintings, sketches, and engravings. Along with other details, they will make their way into the Little Falls digital landscape.
As mentioned before, the aqueduct at Little Falls was constructed in eight short weeks in late 1822 by contractor Ara Broadwell, who was paid $45,532.50 that year for this and various other projects near Little Falls. The wrought-iron railing was installed in 1824 at a cost of $1,552.60. The distinctive spiral design is documented in a sketch by John Hopkins Sr. and in J. W. Hill’s painting of the aqueduct, and appears in at least one photograph taken later in the century.
The village of Little Falls began to grow quickly after the canal opened. Comparisons of James Eights’ 1824 engraving, John Hopkins Jr.’s 1825 watercolor, and J. W. Hill’s 1831 watercolor show how quickly new buildings were going up on the south bank of the river. I’m planning to include a handful representing the buildings shown in Hopkins’ sketch. One building in particular seems to appear in all three images — a large, Greek Revival-style structure, possibly a public building like a tavern or hotel.
The feeder channel carried across the Mohawk River by the aqueduct cuts across the towpath before it joins the Erie Canal. A bridge was needed, primarily for the animal teams that towed the boats, but also (judging from the stairs shown in J. W. Hill’s watercolor) for pedestrians. The bridge was constructed in 1822 by contractor John J. Walrath, who was paid $671.54 for building it along with two waste weirs. It won’t be a prominent feature in the digital scene, but it will nice to include it.
Speaking of bridges, historical accounts dating back to at least 1792 mention a road bridge across the Mohawk River at Little Falls. The bridge — or a successor — is shown on the Holmes Hutchinson 1830–1831 survey map. It almost certainly was built of wood. But I haven’t been able to find a contemporary image that shows what it looked like.
James Eights’ 1824 engraving offers a tantalizing clue. If you look closely, you can see two wooden arches rising behind the aqueduct — right where the bridge would be. Perhaps these are part of the bridge’s superstructure.
Because of the camera angle, any model of the bridge would be obstructed by the aqueduct in the digital scene. (As it is in Eights’ engraving.) The plan for now is to omit it entirely. But we’ll see.
“What a tremendous, awe-inspiring scene! Nature has moulded her works, here, on a grand scale, — and soon we shall see, as we may even now, that Art has caught the inspiration of the scene, and well seconded her efforts, in giving to it a sublime effect, and a finish truly admirable.” — Horatio Gates Spafford, A Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveller, 1824
Horatio Spafford wasn’t the only traveler thrilled by the dramatic scenery at Little Falls. This stretch along the Mohawk River, barely a mile long, was the highlight of the trip along the Erie Canal for many packet passengers.
But things have changed a lot since then. The Mohawk has been walled in and its course altered by two hundred years of development. Hills and islands have been reshaped and removed to make way for railroads, highways, and a modernized canal.
The cliffs that once lined the narrow gorge may be the most conspicuous casualties of all this progress. Those on the north side, including a famous landmark named Profile Rock, were half buried when the channel was raised for the New York State Barge Canal in the early 20th century. Those to the south were cut away, first to make room for the double locks of the Enlarged Erie in the mid-19th century, and later for the even wider channel of the Barge Canal.
The idyllic landscape sketched by John Henry Hopkins is long gone.
To recreate the historical landscape, we’ll pretty much have to start from scratch.
The Mohawk River valley narrows dramatically as it cuts through the glaciated, hilly terrain at Little Falls. The 40-foot drop in elevation at the rapids represents a significant step along the river’s long descent to tidewater at the Hudson.
Digital elevation data, downloaded from the New York State Geographic Information Systems Clearinghouse and rendered in Terragen, shows how the valley has been extensively altered over the years. The camera position shown here will give us a view similar to the one sketched by Hopkins in 1825.
As with previous scenes, we will use the modern elevation data as a starting point, and modify it to recreate the historical landscape. But this time few features can be retained. Only the hills to the west of our position have survived relatively unscathed. We will keep those and remove everything else, including the Mohawk River gorge. The resulting basic landscape is perfectly flat, a digital blank slate except for the distant hills.
The rocky ledge depicted by Hopkins and Eight has a very distinct structure. After attempting to model it in Terragen and other applications, I decided to create it in ZBrush, a 3D application that allows you to sculpt digital objects as if they were made of clay. The sculpting process is labor intensive, but fortunately we need need only a small section.
The flattened digital landscape is then reshaped to add the rocky channel of the Mohawk River. The land surface is terraced and “excavated” to provide homes for the two locks. The sculpted cliff is placed in the scene, and channels for the bypass flumes, which diverted excess water around the locks, are added between the cliff and locks.
Hopkins, whose sketches are generally very accurate, for some reason ignored the bypass flumes. This allowed him to place the cliff near the canal, probably closer than it should have been. He also simplified the scene by omitting a second lock, which should appear in the distance. For the sake of historically accuracy, I’m including the flume and second lock.
The landscape begins to look better with the addition of water, foliage, the aqueduct, and locks. There is much yet to be done: More structures, such as buildings and fences, need to be added. Plus boats, of course, along with crews and passengers, teams and drivers, and tenders to operate the locks.
The early proponents of the Erie Canal were a remarkable group. Jesse Hawley, Elkanah Watson, and Gouverneur Morris showed great imagination — and risked being labeled as madmen — when in the early 19th century they individually proposed constructing an artificial river from the Hudson to the Great Lakes.
Hawley — a grain merchant with no advanced education — accurately predicted the canal’s route and final cost in a series of essays written while serving time in a Canandaigua jail for bankruptcy.
But these men were not engineers, and one detail they initially could not grasp was how, exactly, the canal would surmount the 568-foot difference in elevation between tidewater and Lake Erie. The general consensus was that the canal would be constructed as an inclined plane that gradually descended as it made its way, west to east, across the state.
The heavily glaciated terrain of New York state presented a serious obstacle to this plan. The canal would have to cross several rivers and valleys, including the wide, flat bowl of Cayuga Marsh. Enormous embankments would be needed to maintain a consistent slope across all of these elevations, and the mere thought of constructing these eventually made it clear that the whole idea was, well, crazy.
A more practical solution was the miter gate lock, invented in the late 15th century by Leonardo da Vinci.
A canal lock is basically a long chamber, large enough to accommodate a ship, boat, or barge, with a watertight gate on each end. After a vessel enters the chamber the gate behind it is closed and the water level inside is raised or lowered as needed. Then the other gate is opened to allow the vessel to continue on the new level.
The principle of the canal lock had been known for some time, and various types of gates had been used with varying degrees of success. Da Vinci’s innovation was simple but brilliant. The inside frames of his lock gates were mitered so that, when closed, the gates formed a V with the point facing the upper water level. The pressure of the water against the V forced the gates together, ensuring a tight seal.
Da Vinci’s design subsequently was used throughout Europe and for canals in the United States, including the Erie Canal. It is still used on canals today.
By the time work began on the Erie Canal, American engineers had already mastered the basics of lock construction, by trial and error, on earlier projects such as the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts and the canals of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. Both wood and stone had been used as building materials. Over the years the many problems encountered with wooden locks convinced the Erie engineers that all of their locks should be built of stone, despite the higher initial cost.
In all, 83 locks with an average lift of eight feet would be built to lift the canal from tidewater at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. The difference in elevation was 568 feet. But the descent at Cayuga, and a smaller one near Syracuse, increased the total rise and fall to 692 feet.
The standard lock chamber size on the first Erie Canal was 15 by 90 feet, which could accommodate vessels 78½ feet long by 14½ feet wide. Most locks had a vertical lift of eight feet (or less), though some had lifts of 9 or 10 feet and, in the case of the famous flight at Lockport, 12 feet.
In a few locations, such as Lockport, the lock chambers were excavated out of solid rock. In others they were anchored directly on underlying bedrock. But in most places the bedrock was too deep and out of reach. There, hundreds of piles would be driven. On top of those a timber raft or mat would be laid and reinforced with planking. On top of this the stonemasons would construct the walls of the lock chamber.
The process of building a lock was outlined in an 1826 proposal submitted by contractor David Fitzgerald to the canal commission:
“I propose to construct the Lock which is required on the Eastern section of the Erie Canal near Waggoner[’]s for the consideration of nine hundred dollars a foot lift, of the finding all materials . . . to the excavating the pit, piling and preparing a solid foundation, quarrying cutting and laying the masonry and completing the wood and Iron work and embanking puddling [and securing] the Lock. . . . The Lock to be fully completed in the month of September. . . . Lock 8 foot lift”
Lock chamber walls were constructed of dressed stone, often quarried locally. For mortar, the masons initially used quicklime but soon adopted a new, much superior hydraulic cement developed by canal engineer Canvass White.
The stonemasons were craftsmen and they built things to last. But time and subsequent development have taken their toll. The remains of several 19th-century Erie Canal locks survive across New York state, but nearly all date from the First Enlargement, 1834–1862, or later. Surviving locks from the original canal are rare, so we have few direct references that can be used to help us create an accurate digital model of an original Erie Canal lock.
Fortunately, there are good, surviving examples of locks from other canals of the same period and a few contemporary drawings that we can turn to.
Two other canals in particular can provide the information we need.
Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal began in 1828, a little over two years after the opening of the Erie Canal. It originally was planned to extend from Washington, D.C., to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. But in 1850, after years of delays, labor unrest, and cost overruns, construction ground to a halt at Cumberland, Maryland.
Despite the fact that it was never truly completed, the C&O proved to be an efficient way to move coal from the Allegheny Mountains to the East Coast, and it remained in operation until 1924.
The C&O canal prism and locks were built to dimensions similar to those of the Erie Canal. But unlike the Erie Canal, the C&O was never enlarged. Many of its original structures remain in good condition and have been carefully documented by the National Park Service. Photographs, plans, and reports created by the service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) are kept at the Library of Congress, and most are available online.
Much the same is true for the Ohio and Erie Canal, constructed from 1825 to 1832 to connect Lake Erie at Cleveland to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. Although most of the Ohio and Erie has not survived, sections of it have been preserved and documented by the park service.
My digital lock model is based primarily on a plan and elevation drawing found among the papers of Erie Canal engineer John B. Jervis and preserved at the Jervis Public Library in Rome, New York. (Another drawing from this collection served as the basis of a digital model of the Little Falls Aqueduct.) The drawings show a lock of 10-foot lift, but it is easily adapted to fit the more usual 8-foot lift.
The model includes many details that will be hidden — below ground level or under water — when it is placed in a scene. These include the counterforts, buttresses that helped support the stone chamber walls; miter sills, which supported the lock gates when they were closed; and the gates’ butterfly valves, which were opened and closed by turning iron handles referred to as “keys.”
Once the model is finished, surface detail and color are added in Substance Painter. Two copies of this model will be placed in the Little Falls scene to represent original Erie Canal locks 44 and 45.
The village of Little Falls was once one of the most famous locations along the original Erie Canal. Early lithographs, engravings, and paintings show packet boats traversing the wild, romantic landscape as the canal skirts boulder-strewn rapids and rocky cliffs.
But today the original Erie depicted in the lithographs is long gone. The canal enlargement of the mid-19th century and construction of the New York State Barge Canal in the early 20th blasted or drowned many of the cliffs and rocky islands that had long distinguished this section of the Mohawk River.
It is hard to imagine how this place once looked, and easy to forget why it played such an important role in our early history.
The Little Carrying Place
The Little Falls were so named because they were the lesser of two major obstructions to navigation on the Mohawk River. Cohoes Falls, directly above Albany, was a more significant barrier. The Little Falls in turn were not even a waterfall so much as a bottleneck. This was a place where the valley narrowed dramatically and the river swirled around large boulders along a series of shallow rapids. The rapids extended three-quarters of a mile and dropped about 40 feet.
This was enough to force early navigators to beach their bateaus on the riverbank and drag them, along with their cargo, to the other end of the rapids. The section became known as the Little Carrying Place, and later, as the settlement of Little Falls took shape, businesses sprang up to provide room, board and other amenities to weary boatmen working their way up- and downriver. Eventually portage companies were formed which, for a fee, carted goods and boats on large wagons.
Building a bypass around the rapids became a top priority for the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, chartered in 1792 to improve river navigation along the Mohawk. Construction of a short canal with five narrow locks soon commenced, employing “nearly three hundred laborers, besides a competent number of artificers,” according to a company report. Despite chronic financial problems, the difficulty of excavating through solid rock, and a lack of engineering experience on the part of the company’s officers, by November 1795 the canal around the Little Falls was completed “as to allow the passage of boats.” The village now had its own canal basin and waterfront.
Unfortunately – from the point of view of local residents and merchants – twenty years later surveyors would locate the new Erie Canal on the opposite side of the Mohawk, threatening to leave Little Falls high and dry.
The solution was to build an aqueduct to connect the new canal on the south bank to the old one on the north, and like all good solutions it included something for everyone. Little Falls would be connected to the new canal, making its waterfront accessible to freighters and passenger packets. In turn, the old canal would become a water source — a feeder — for the new canal. And, incidentally, boats on the Mohawk could now come and go as they pleased between the river and the new canal.
‘This splendid work’
The new aqueduct would be one of many built along the Erie Canal. The Genesee River Aqueduct at Rochester would be the longest, at 802 feet. Others, built on the lower Mohawk, may have been more impressive feats of engineering. But none could match the aqueduct at Little Falls. The graceful, arched design, juxtaposed against the wild Mohawk River gorge, would be seen as vivid evidence of the victory of art over nature.
The aqueduct was constructed in 1822 by Ara Broadwell of Utica, a mason and contractor who had been building locks, culverts, and aqueducts along the canal since early 1818. The cost of the work, which took only about eight weeks to complete, is not itemized in the 1823 state comptroller’s report, but the report does specify $45,532.50 paid the previous year to Broadwell for stonework on the aqueduct and seven locks above the Falls.
The aqueduct’s opening was noted in the Oct. 22, 1822 edition of the Utica Gazette in an item widely reprinted in other New York state newspapers:
“The aqueduct across the Mohawk river at Little Falls was finished last week and filled with water. This is a structure of considerable magnitude, built entirely of stone, and in point of solidity and beauty, probably not exceeded by any work of the kind in the United States.”
In their 1823 report, the canal commissioners fill in a few important details:
“The aqueduct is a handsome structure of hewn lime stone, consisting of three arches, with abutments and piers resting on a foundation of solid rock; the centre arch of seventy feet chord spans the river; the other two are of fifty feet each . . . . The whole work supports two parapet walls, four feet broad, four and a half feet in height, and measuring two hundred and fourteen feet in length, and having a water way between them of sixteen feet.”
The opening ceremony did not go quite as planned. A perhaps unintentionally droll account published a few days later in the Little Falls People’s Friend is worth quoting in full:
“Thursday, the 17th inst. having been named as the day when the first boat would pass over this splendid work, an immense concourse of people were assembled to view the operation. By about 3 o’clock P. M. our streets were rendered almost impassable by the crowd; the anxiety to see all that was going on was really surprising. At length the water was admitted from the old Canal and poured rapidly across to the new. All eyes were now directed to behold the first glimpse of the anticipated Packet-boat, and ‘expectation fairly stood on tip-toe.’ At this moment, a skiff entered from the Basin, and in this little barque, Capt. Robert Gillespie, of German Flatts, William, son of the late Wm. Alexander, and James Dowling, obtained the honor of being the first navigators of the Little Falls Aqueduct. But unfortunately, an accident soon after happened to the banks at the junction of the Aqueduct and the Erie canal; and it was found also, that the former, from the mortar’s not having had time to dry, emptied the water through the arches. These circumstances prevented the packet from passing that day, and greatly disappointed the spectators. But the deficiency will soon be supplied, and visitors may shortly be gratified with the wished for sight every day.”
Recreating the aqueduct
The new aqueduct instantly became one of the iconic symbols of the new canal and a popular subject for contemporary artists. We have many good images that can be used as references. One of the finest, painted by John William Hill when he was 18 or 19 years old, is included at the top of this post.
Another good source is a set of watercolor sketches by John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopalian bishop who kept a journal of his travels in November 1825. While his entries regarding the Erie Canal are remarkably concise (“Wednesday, Nov. 9. Still on board the boat proceeding to Utica. Arrived as far as Montezuma by night fall.”), the sketches he created while passing the long hours on deck offer detailed views of the canal only days after it opened. (We will meet Hopkins again in later posts.)
But we will start with an unsigned, undated plan and elevation of an aqueduct found among the papers of John B. Jervis in Rome, New York.
John Jervis is a prime example of the self-made man. He began his career as an axman on an early Erie Canal survey party and, largely self-taught, quickly rose through the ranks of the canal’s surveying and engineering corps. In a career that eventually spanned nearly 50 years, he became America’s preeminent civil engineer — a designer of canals, railroads and, most famously, the Croton Aqueduct in New York City.
The title of the drawing is simply “Aqueduct,” and even though someone has pencilled in the words “Little Falls of Mohawk” underneath, it is possible that it represents a generic aqueduct design. In fact it closely resembles stone aqueducts found on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and elsewhere. But the dimensions vary only slightly from those provided by the canal commissioners, and the elevation drawing perfectly matches the east face of the aqueduct shown in Hill’s watercolor.
The Jervis drawing, Hopkins sketch, and Hill painting all indicate that the aqueduct did not have a towpath. This was a surprise at first. But the old canal that it was connected to was not a towpath canal, and the aqueduct’s primary purpose was to serve as a feeder. So this makes sense when you think about it.
These sources provide most of the information needed to start working on a digital model of the aqueduct, which will be the centerpiece of a new scene to be set at Little Falls in 1823.
The passing years have not been kind to the Little Falls Aqueduct. Photographs show it in use — or at least watered — through the 19th century. But eventually the old Western Inland Lock Navigation Company canal was filled in to make way for development, depriving the aqueduct of its purpose. Maintenance stopped and, before the turn of the 20th century, it began to crumble. The central arch of this beautiful structure somehow defied the elements more or less intact until the 1990s, when most of it was washed away. Only a remnant, part of the northern pier of this arch, survives today.