All in the details

J. W. Hill View of Lock No. 43
Watercolor by J. W. Hill looks east along the canal at Lock No. 43 in Little Falls. Profile Rock, a distinctive landmark for canal travelers, appears near the center of the frame. (Courtesy of the Union College Special Collection)

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.

Among other things, his watercolors depict packet boats and scows, the Little Falls aqueduct and, in the painting shown here, one of the five locks that lifted the canal around the rapids at Little Falls.

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.

Little Falls Aqueduct
The model of the aqueduct (bottom) is based on several sources, including this 1825 sketch by John Hopkins Sr. (upper left). The model’s bridge railing (upper right) matches his drawing. (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, upper left; Steve Boerner, renderings).

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.

Little Falls building
This large Greek-revival building appears in John Hopkins Jr.’s 1825 sketch (upper left), John W. Hill’s 1831 painting (lower left), and James Eights’ 1824 engraving (not shown). Also note the aqueduct railing detail in HIll’s painting. (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, upper left; The New York Public Library, lower left; Steve Boerner, right)

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.

Towpath Bridge
Model of the towpath bridge (bottom) is based on representations in J. W. Hill’s 1831 watercolor (upper left) and James Eights’ 1825 engraving. Also note the Greek Revival building just right of the bridge in Eights’ image. (The New York Public Library, upper left; Library of Congress, upper right; Steve Boerner, bottom)

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.

Little Falls bridges
Detail of an 1830-31 survey map shows the Mohawk River road bridge next to the aqueduct, and the smaller, east-west towpath bridge directly south of the aqueduct. (New York State Archives)

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 bridge detail
The two wooden arches that appear behind the aqueduct in James Eights’ engraving may be the superstructure of the Little Falls road bridge. (Library of Congress)

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.

Durhams, freighters, scows, and packets

Canal Boat Alexander
A classic Erie Canal freighter named the Alexander appears in this tintype, made around 1860. At left the mule team waits patiently on the towpath, while on the boat the owner, family, and crew pose, dressed in their Sunday best and looking for all the world as though they own the canal as well. The hand-tinted image is reversed because no negative was used in the tintype process; the metal plate itself was exposed to light in the camera. (Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum)

“Before me the stupendous prospect charms the eye. Forty feet from bank to bank the canal spreads. Its depth of four feet can support the mightiest bottom afloat. The hand-built towpath is three hundred and sixty-five miles long. As for the traffic, surely not all the argosies of Greece could equal this spectacle. There are lineboats, packet boats, ballheads, Durhams, gala boats, counter-sterns, toothpick scows, dugouts, arks, flats and periaugers, and always the slow rafts, all transporting such cargoes as were never before conceived of.”—Samuel Hopkins Adams, Canal Bride

From the very beginning, as soon as individual sections were finished and opened, the Erie Canal became jammed with all sorts of vessels. Many were barely seaworthy, rough rafts poled along by owners eager to cash in on the novelty and ease of this new mode of conveyance. Because the canal was built at taxpayer expense, it belonged to every citizen. Anyone who could pony up the toll could use it. And they did.

View on the Canal
An open, square-ended scow hauling stone passes a fancy passenger packet in this detail from “View on the Erie Canal,” painted by John William Hill in 1829. (The New York Public Library)

As with many things concerning the early Erie Canal, details of the boats first used on it are now obscure. Mostly we are left with vague, second-hand accounts that don’t go into much detail.

These report that early freighters were small, 60 or 70 feet long, 7 feet in the beam, and could haul about 30 tons of cargo. By 1830 boats reached their maximum size, 75 feet long, about 14 feet in the beam, and could carry up to 75 tons.

The first set of dimensions are similar to those of a Durham boat, which suggests that some of those Mohawk River watercraft were being diverted to the canal to help fill a sudden demand for boats. Contemporary newspaper reports confirm this.

Geneva Palladium 1823
Boatbuilders began constructing vessels designed for the Erie Canal even before it was completely open. This item, reprinted from Niles Weekly Register in the Feb. 26, 1823 edition of the Geneva Palladium, describes how Durham boats were being replaced by those “built specially for the canal.” (New York Historic Newspapers)

At the time boatbuilding was a traditional occupation in which the master builders did not work from blueprints but from experience and memory. That sort of industry does not turn on a dime. It may be that existing boatyards continued to turn out boats modeled on the Durham long after the first sections of the canal were opened.

New boatyards eager to cash in soon sprang up, particularly in new canal boomtowns such as Utica, Rochester, and Buffalo. They would have built boats designed for maximum profit, as large as the canal’s 15-by-90-foot lock chambers would allow. I suspect that 14-by-75-foot boats would have been common well before 1830.

The canal commissioners allude to this in their 1825 report. “Two boats cannot pass each other upon any of the aqueducts,” they wrote, “and the canals being but 40 feet wide on the surface, and 28 at the bottom, and the boats 14 feet wide, only two can pass each other on the canal . . .”

Target No. 16
Drawing by Tim Caza depicts the wreck of one of the canal boats discovered in 2019 on the floor of Seneca Lake. (Seneca Lake Archaeological & Bathymetric Survey)

Finger Lakes time capsule

Fortunately for us, working Erie Canal boats have been preserved at the bottom of a lake in central New York.

Seneca Lake, one of New York’s Finger Lakes, in 1828 was connected to the Erie Canal by the Cayuga and Seneca Canal. In 1834 a second lateral canal connected Watkins Glen, at the lake’s southern tip, to the Chemung River at Elmira. Canal boats, pulled by horse or mule teams along the laterals, were towed by steamships across the lake. The boats mostly carried Pennsylvania coal, but the Elmira, Corning, and Buffalo Line also advertised a weekly passenger run from Elmira to Buffalo.

View of freighter model in Blender
A model of an Erie Canal freighter based on the one discovered in Seneca Lake, in Blender. The graceful shape of the freighter’s hull becomes apparent in these orthogonal and perspective views. (Model by Steve Boerner)

Canal boats would be towed across the lake until 1878, when the Chemung Canal was abandoned. Not all of them made it. Seneca Lake, very deep and subject to sudden squalls, would claim a few.

An underwater survey using side-scan and multibeam sonar would begin to find them in 2018 and 2019. The Seneca Lake Archaeological & Bathymetric Survey was led by researchers from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum with the support of New York state and several private organizations, and included members of the team that had discovered an early 19th-century Durham boat in Oneida Lake.

Erie Canal Freighter
Freighter model, shaded and rendered in Terragen, includes a horse bridge stowed on top of the forward cabin, the “bow stable” where the boat’s off-duty team of horses or mules were sheltered. (Model by Steve Boerner)

Promising targets were visited and photographed by an underwater, remotely operated vehicle. The result is a catalog of 19th-century canal vessels, from scows and freighters to, incredibly, what looks to be a passenger packet. (You can support one of the survey sponsors, the Finger Lakes Boating Museum, by purchasing a printed copy of the survey report from their online shop.) Allowing for the fact that all of the wrecks are encrusted with invasive quagga mussels, many are in remarkable condition.

Several of the wrecks have been identified as original Erie Canal-era boats. In the late 19th century the average lifespan of a canal boat was 10 years. If this held true earlier in the century, then some of these boats, which date from the mid-1830s, may have been built in the 1820s.

Erie Canal Scow
Model of an original Erie Cana-era scow, based on one of the wrecks discovered in Seneca Lake. (Model by Steve Boerner)

One of the wrecks was a scow, a open, square-ended design that was outlawed in the 1840s because of the damage its sharp corners caused to canal structures and other boats. But the hulls of the other original Erie-era wrecks have more graceful lines.

Packet Boat
Model based on Target 7, a wreck that appears to be an original Erie Canal-era packet boat.

These shapes seem to differ from what would come later. The boxy lakers of the late 19th century and industrial steel barges of the 20th were, above all, utilitarian. But these were boats. It’s almost as if their builders, faced with the new challenge of crafting vessels for the placid waters of the Erie Canal, still had the unpredictable Mohawk River very much in mind.

Boat test rendering
A scene put together to test some of the new boat models includes the packet (left), freighter (right, rear), and an existing model of a Mohawk River Durham boat (right, front) for comparison. (Rendering by Steve Boerner)

The expanded fleet of models will eventually find its way into new scenes as they are created. Next up will be adding some less-conventional vessels, like the log rafts (which were actually very common) used to transport timber to market, a line boat, and maybe even a periauger.

Without a doubt, the early canal years featured a more diverse and colorful array of watercraft than we can imagine today. For the wide-eyed Yorkers along the canal route, astounded by the sight of boats floating one after another through the landscape, it really must have been quite a spectacle.

Finishing the Noses

Navigating the Noses
Passengers on the eastbound packet Stephen van Rensselaer take in the early-morning scenery along the Mohawk River in September 1825.

The Mohawk River scene set at the Noses is finally finished. Besides the packet boat passengers, it now includes the tandem rig of three horses and driver. Two Durham boats navigate along the river in the background.

The scene is set at 8:55 a.m. September 15, 1825. The canal will officially open within a few weeks, but already a collaboration of three packet lines provides passenger service between Schenectady and Lockport. Boats running in both directions depart Utica every evening. If my math is right the eastbound boat should be in the vicinity of the Noses by the following morning.

In those days the Mohawk Valley was considered to be one of the most scenic areas of the country. Harriet Martineau, the English sociologist, feminist, and writer who passed through twice in the 1830s – once by packet and once by rail – perhaps described it best in her book Society in America:

“The aspect of the valley was really beautiful last June. It must have made the Mohawk Indians heart-sore to part with it in its former quiet state; but now there is more beauty, as well as more life. There are farms, in every stage of advancement, with all the stir of life about them; and the still, green graveyard belonging to each, showing its white palings and tombstones on the hill-side, near at hand. Sometimes a small space in the orchard is railed in for this purpose. In a shallow reach of the river there was a line of cows wading through, to bury themselves in the luxuriant pasture of the islands in the midst of the Mohawk. In a deeper part, the chain ferry-boat slowly conveyed its passengers across. The soil of the valley is remarkably rich, and the trees and verdure unusually fine. The hanging oak-woods on the ridge were beautiful; and the knolls, tilled or untilled; and the little waterfalls trickling or leaping down, to join the rushing river. Little knots of houses were clustered about the locks and bridges of the canal; and here and there a village, with its white church conspicuous, spread away into the middle of the narrow valley. The green and white canal boats might be seen stealing along under the opposite ridge, or issuing from behind a clump of elms or birches, or gliding along a graceful aqueduct, with the diminished figures of the walking passengers seen moving along the bank. On the other hand, the rail-road skirted the base of the ridge, and the shanties of the Irish labourers, roofed with turf, and the smoke issuing from a barrel at one corner, were so grouped as to look picturesque, however little comfortable. In some of the narrowest passes of the valley, the high road, the rail-road, the canal, and the river, are all brought close together, and look as if they were trying which could escape first into a larger space.”

Taking the packet

A tandem team of three horses tows a passenger packet in this detail from “View on the Erie Canal” by John William Hill. The 1829 painting is one of the finer early depictions of the canal. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection of American Historical Prints, New York Public Library)

In 1820 a new kind of watercraft appeared on completed sections of the Erie Canal.

Named after the packet ships that sailed the North Atlantic between Europe and the eastern seaboard, the new Erie Canal passenger boats were towed by two or three horses at a brisk clip of 4 to 6 miles per hour. Even before the canal was finished, packet lines springing up along completed sections boasted of making the trip between Schenectady and Utica in 24 hours, and from Utica to Rochester in two days. A far cry, indeed, from the days or weeks previously required when traveling by stage over wretched roads.

Travelers had never experienced anything quite like it: The quiet, smooth experience of floating across the landscape was completely new.

Packet Boat Engraving
Woodcut of a packet boat, published in “One Hundred Years’ Progress of the United States,” 1871. (Internet Archive)

In Erie Water West, Ronald E. Shaw quotes a Rochester pioneer about to take his first journey by packet: “Commending my soul to God, and asking his defense from danger, I stepped on board the canal boat, and was soon flying towards Utica.”

During its heyday, packet travel became commonplace and the Erie Canal a thoroughfare not only for local inhabitants but also for thousands of immigrants making their way to Buffalo and on to the upper Midwest. But the packet era did not last long. By the 1850s, once the railroads began to carry most long-distance passenger traffic, it was over.

Packet Boat Advertisement
Notices from competing packet boat lines run side by side in the Dec. 3, 1823 edition of the Wayne County Sentinel. (NYS Historic Newspapers)

Near the end, a humorous magazine sketch by Harriet Beecher Stowe noted just how prosaic packet travel had become:

“. . . in a canal boat there is no power, no mystery, no danger; one cannot blow up, one cannot be drowned, unless by some special effort: one sees clearly all there is in the case – a horse, a rope, and a muddy strip of water – and that is all.”

Even so, two hundred years later romantic images of packet boats linger in our collective memory and often come to mind when the Erie Canal is mentioned.

Packet Boat Waybill
Waybill for the William C. Bouck, dated Oct. 21, 1823, lists 12 passengers and total receipts of $60.67. (Oneida County Historical Society)

Building our packet

There are no photographs of early packet boats, of course, nor anything resembling construction plans. We do have many woodcuts and engravings of varying quality and detail, as well as first-person accounts by packet passengers. Most accounts dwell on the experience of packet boat travel and the variety of the passing landscape. But they don’t say much about the packets themselves, perhaps because the boats were so ubiquitous that the writers felt no need to describe them. An exception is a detailed account written by “A Traveller” and published in The Freeman’s Journal of Cooperstown in August 1821:

“There are two packet-boats, the Montezuma and Oneida Chief, owned by the Erie Canal Navigation Company (incorporated). These boats are 77 feet in length and 13 in width; are each navigated by 7 hands, viz. a captain, 2 helmsmen, 1 bowsman, a steward, a cabin-boy, and cook . . . The forward cabin is used for lodging, and is handsomely finished off with 12 births [sic], each having a good bed or mattress, and every suitable accommodation. Next, and in the centre, is a dining cabin, 18 feet by 13, where 25 passengers can conveniently be seated at table; and on the sides of this cabin are settees; to that, with these and mattresses, good lodgings for up to 30 passengers can be had. More than this number cannot be well accommodated in their boats. Next to this cabin is a gangway and bar, which are rented to the steward at $250 for the season; at which bar, passengers are furnished with as good refreshments as can be had on board our steam boats, and at as cheap a rate. Next, and back of this, is a kitchen, with all the cooking apparatus, and lodgings for the crew.”

Packet Boat Quad View
Quad view of the packet boat model in Blender.

Our traveler doesn’t mention the driver, who would have ridden the last horse in the two- or three-horse tandem team that provided the motive power for the packet. Perhaps he wasn’t counted as a member of the crew, as drivers and teams were switched every few miles along the route.

My packet boat model will represent the Stephen van Rensselaer, which was operated by the Utica & Schenectady Packet Boat Company on a daily schedule between the two cities. (In Utica, passengers could catch an Erie Canal Navigation Company packet headed for Rochester.) For the dimensions and design I’m relying on packet boat plans drawn by Robert E. Hager, an amateur historian and extraordinary draftsman whose drawings are preserved at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. Our packet is 70 feet in length and 14 wide.

Packet Boat Shading
Packet boat surface colors and textures are added in Substance Painter.

Contemporary sources often describe packet boats as brightly painted without being very specific. Woodcuts and engravings are no help, naturally, but John William Hill’s watercolor View of the Erie Canal gives us some subtle hints, as do some everyday early 19th-century artifacts. Many early packets were given patriotic names (or like ours, named after one of the canal commissioners), so I’ve chosen a combination of red, white, and blue for the Stephen van Rensselaer.

Packet Test Rendering
The finished packet model is placed in the scene for a test rendering.

As a test the new model is placed in the scene and rendered, along with two versions of the Durham boat model on the distant Mohawk River. Still much work to do here: passengers, a steersman, the team of horses and driver, and other details need to be added. But the picture is starting to come together.