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.”
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.
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.
“. . . 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The water gap at the Noses has been a vital communications corridor for millennia. Carved long ago by the post-glacial Iromohawk River as it drained Lake Iroquois, an enormous meltwater reservoir formed by the retreating ice sheet, the gap was viewed as the work of Providence by early proponents of the Erie Canal. Besides providing a natural pathway for the canal, it eventually accommodated railroads, highways, and the New York State Thruway.
As a result the valley has been heavily altered. Aside from the Thruway, which was built in the 1950s, construction in the early 1900s rechanneled and deepened the Mohawk to carry Barge Canal traffic.
Our challenge will be to visualize how the valley would have appeared to early canal travelers – to turn back the clock two centuries.
From the ground up
Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Digital elevation data of the area is freely available from the New York State Geographic Information Systems website. The data, gathered by satellites that precisely map the height of the earth’s surface, can be imported into Terragen and rendered as a three-dimensional scene. The resolution is fine enough to allow us to position the camera at ground level.
But even so, details of the cliffs and ground are indistinct. And modern artifacts, like the Thruway embankments, will have to go.
In Terragen, the vertical displacements of the valley floor are edited to remove those artifacts. Then, using Holmes Hutchinson’s 1833 survey maps as a guide, the bed, berm, and towpath of the canal are added, as well as a narrow road hugging the base of the cliff. The Mohawk channel is returned to its rightful place.
High-frequency details in the cliffs and ground surface are also restored.
Next, topsoil, road, towpath and cliffs are shaded. Water surfaces are placed for the river and canal. Native ground foliage and tree species are created – grass, sedges, cattails, white pine, cedar, cottonwood, hickory, and others – and distributed throughout the scene. Some towering cumulus clouds add a little drama.
Aside from the inevitable tweaks and refinements, the terrain is finished. The next steps will be to create models of an Erie Canal packet boat, Durham boats to sail on the river, and crews and passengers.
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.
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.