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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.