The Great Portage - Rome, May 17th, 1993


The high point of our programming for 1993, and an event that had been in planning for over a year, was the recreation of an authentic batteau portage across the Oneida Carrying Place. The land on which Rome stands today separated the head of Mohawk River navigation, on the east side of the Carry, from the head of Wood Creek navigation on the west. It was the divide between the eastward flowing waterways and the westward flowing waterways - the latter carrying batteaux down to Oneida Lake, the Oneida River, and the Great Lakes beyond at Oswego.

Two hundred years ago, at each carrying place along the inland navigation (Little Falls, Rome and Fulton), oxen were kept standing by to drag boats across the portage on specially built wagons, made from two sets of heavy wagon wheels attached to a long log tongue that exactly fit the length of the batteaux.

Click on any image to enlarge
Engraving showing early portage This early engraving shows the type of portaging that batteaux underwent throughout the 18th century, especially at Rome on the Great Oneida Carry.

No one had attempted a portage of batteaux at Rome in nearly 200 years, but documents in the State Museum's Durham Project archives contained numerous accounts of exactly how it was done.

Thanks to the interest, skill and initiative of Michael Milewski, the blacksmith at the Erie Canal Village Museum, west of Rome, the 1993 W.I.L.N.C. Bicentennial gave everyone - public and crew alike - a demonstration of an authentic batteau portage.

The agon for the batteau portage The batteau "truck" built according to 18th century accounts was made to fit the length of the batteau with a long log tongue.
Sliding the truck under the boat At the landing, the truck is slid down into the water. Ramps like this were made at the portage points in the 18th century for this purpose.
Positioning the boat With the truck submerged, "Discovery" is maneuvered into position above the contact braces on the truck. Once in position it was lashed in place.
Dragging the boat and truck out of the river With surprising ease, the whole assembly - batteau and portage cart - was drawn up the ramp onto dry land, using only manpower.
Experimental history at work Undertaking experimental history recreations like this helps confirm documentary references, and often, as in this case, sheds new light on a process that was not always recorded in any detail.
Securing the boat to the truck A few last minute adjustments are made before hitching up the team of oxen to the batteau, now sailing on dry land.
Anson enjoys the ride Batteau "Discovery" builder, John Anson, enjoys a cruise on his boat in a view that brings to mind why they called them "Prairie Schooners" 100 years later in the west.
Moving the boat overland Moving briskly along under oxen power, "Discovery" rolls over the modern equivalent of the two mile portage road that connected the Mohawk River with Wood Creek in the 1790s.
Passing through the City of Rome Heading down Erie Boulevard, the portage unit was a real traffic stopper, literally and figuratively.
The old Wood Creek landing site The entourage paused at the old landing site on Wood Creek, now suffering from urban blight. Here a model batteau was released where hundreds of boats first entered the westward flowing waters centuries ago.

 


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