In the 1790s, the Mohawk River, which was the only dependable transportation route west,
was obstructed by 91 rapids or "rifts." Many of these were gravelly shallows formed of the debris that
washed into the river every spring from the numerous intersecting creeks on either side.
This map, drawn in 1803,
reveals one of the many rifts or shoals in the Mohawk River, the intersecting stream
that produced it, and the boat channel
designed to get around it.
Click image to enlarge
One such, called Brandywine Rift, was located immediately downstream from the mouth of
Canajoharie Creek. But the most feared rapid in the region, if not in the entire Mohawk Valley, was
Keator's Rift at Sprakers. Here, thousands of years ago, an island had formed of rock, gravel, and sand
discharged into the river from Flat Creek on the south shore.
The first accurate description of this rapid was recorded by General Philip Schuyler and the
W.I.L.N.C. survey team sent westward by batteau in August of 1792 to examine the Mohawk River
from Schenectady to Fort Stanwix [Rome]. The survey report details the upriver run from
Caughnawaga [Fonda]: "On nine miles, in perfectly good water, current gentle, to the rapid
commonly called Kettar's Rapid, great velocity of water, sufficiently deep, obstructed by large
rocks, the rapid extends about one quarter of a mile."
In recounting this era of river navigation a half century later, Jeptha Simms underscored the
status this rapid had in the minds of boatmen of the period:
The trade with the Indians along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence was
carried on by the aid of boats propelled from Schenectada up the Mohawk at great
personal labor, in consequence of their being several rifts or rapids in the stream.
The first obstruction of the kind was met with six miles above Schenectada, and
was called Six Flats' rift; proceeding west came in course similar obstructions
known as Fort Hunter rift; Caughnawaga rift; Keator's rift, at Spraker's, the
greatest on the river, having a fall of ten feet; Brandywine rift, at Canajoharie,
short but rapid; Ehle's rift near Fort Plain; Kneiskern's rift, a small rapid near the
upper Indian castle, a little above the river dam; and the Little falls, so named as
compared with the Cahoes on the same stream near its mouth.
Keator's Rift was encountered by boatmen travelling west from Schenectady soon after passing
"The Noses," that majestic, rocky passage through which all traffic along the Mohawk must pass, from
prehistoric dugout canoe to modern boats on the Canal; from eighteenth century ox-cart to the tandem
trailers running the Thruway. It was this gap, in an otherwise continuous Appalachin mountain barrier
to inland water travel, that made the Mohawk Valley the favored route for westward transport
anywhere south of the St. Lawrence, and a transportation corridor of
This view, drawn by Rufus Grider in October of 1889, shows the island
at Keator's Rift at the left and, at "2"
in the drawing, the
channel mouth where Schuyler built a wing dam in the 1790s.
Click image to enlarge
The remnants of Keator's Rift, with the ancient island still intact, lie directly between the
modern Canal and the Thruway, bridging 200 years of interstate transportation history. This island,
barely 100 feet from the westbound lane of the Thruway but still invisible to the motorist speeding by,
was already a place of great history by the 1790s. It had been used as a portage place by Sir John
Johnson during his raid on the Mohawk Valley in October, 1780. After camping overnight near Little
Nose, the Tory, Indian and British force marched to Sprakers and crossed the river at Keator's Rift by
driving wagons into the rapid to make a causeway for the troops to cross.11
The rift itself, which lay north of the island, has long since been tamed by the dredging of the
main channel for the Barge Canal. Boaters today, easily passing through on a 14 foot deep channel,
would scarcely believe the strenuous labors expended in this place 200 years ago.
The clumsy bateau, which had for half a century usurped the place of the
Indian's bark canoe, soon gave place to the Durham boat.. It was found more
difficult to force large than small craft over the rapids. Several boats usually went
in company, that the united strength of many men might aid in the labor before
them. Those boats were often half a day in proceeding only a few rods, and not
infrequently were they, after remaining nearly stationary on a rapid for an hour,
compelled to drop below the rift and get a new start. Twenty hands, at times, were
insufficient to propel a single boat over Keator's rift. Black slaves, owned by settlers
in the neighborhood of rapids, both male and female, were often seen assisting at
the ropes on shore, when loaded boats were ascending the river.
That batteaux had less trouble than the larger Durham boats is borne out by one account in
1794: "At half past nine [at night] arrived at Spraker's Ferry beyond the rapids of Anthony's Nose
[Keator's Rift], which we passed very easily, considering that it was dark. Our men united in
passing up one batteau after another."13
Although the force of water running through a rift often produced the greatest difficulty and
danger, it was frequently the shallowness of the water that provided the greatest obstacle to navigation.
In a river where rifts were often less than 20 inches deep and occasionally only a foot, boats too heavily
loaded would be constantly running aground, particularly late in the summer when the river ran low,
and had to be lightened to pass over. The easiest method at Keator's Rift, as confirmed by this 1810
account, was to discharge all the passengers onto the river road below the rapid, to meet them again at
the top by Spraker's Tavern: "We commenced our journey at 5 o'clock, and in order to facilitate the
passage of our batteaux over Kater's Rapid, which extends a mile from this place, and which is
among the worst in the river, we walked to the head of it."14
This rift was one singled out in 1803 for improvement by Schuyler's canal company, and a map
of the area made at that time appears to suggest a short canal dug along the north bank of the river, by-
passing the rapid entirely. There is no evidence such a canal was ever built, although a similar canal had
been dug in 1798 at German Flatts [Fort Herkimer] to pass by Wolf Rift and Knock 'em Stiff Rift.
But it is evident that one of the wing dams constructed by Schuyler's canal company to raise
the water on several Mohawk rifts was installed in the lesser channel behind the island at Keators Rift
to divert what water might pass by into the main channel. This narrow channel, labelled "Dry in low
water" on the map, still exists immediately north of the westbound lane of the Thruway and is to this
day dry in the late summer.
This 1803 view of Keator's Rift
shows a wing dam blocking the back channel and the island that
still exists there today.
Click image to enlarge
In addition to the shallowness of the water and the treachery of the current, one of the greatest
threats to boat, crew, and cargo were the rocks and boulders, some half hidden from view, that
frequently dotted the channel. Although the river accidents that sometimes occurred to boatmen
seldom resulted in loss of life, Keator's Rift claimed more than its share. A three-handed batteau struck
a rock in the rift, capsized, and "a negro was drowned."
15 And one of the most severe accidents on
the Mohawk during this period occurred in 1796, here on Keator's Rift, to another three-handed
batteau working its way upriver from Schenectady:
[We]..came on to what is called Caty's rift16... At this unfortunate place
commenced my ill fortune. I at first hired only two bateaumen, but previous to my
leaving Schenectady I hired a third, hoping by this I had put it out of the power of
any accident to happen. The boat, being manned by three professed bateaumen and
one good hand (though not a boatman), ascended this rift to within a boat's length
of being over17,
when she took a shear18
and fell back, and soon acquired such
velocity that the resistance of the boatmen became quite inadequate to stopping her.
The consequence was, she fell crosswise of the current, and when she had
descended the rapids about half way she brought up broadside upon a rock (which
lays in the middle of the stream), and sunk almost instantly about four or five
inches under. In this situation she lay about two hours before I could procure
assistance to get her unloaded; the delay of getting to her, together with the
difficulty of coming at her cargo, made us three hours before we could relieve the
boat, during which time we expected to see her go to pieces, which would
undoubtedly have happened had she not been a new boat, and well built.
particularly unfortunate that it was on board this boat that I had almost all my
goods19, which got most thoroughly wet. Upon getting the boat off I found she had
two of her knees20 broke, and one of her planks split, and leaky in several places. I
immediately had one-half the cargo reloaded, and set forward up the rapid, at the
head of which lives Mr. Spraker. Here I unloaded, and sent the boat back for the
residue. Upon her arrival I set about opening the goods, all of which were soaking
wet. The casks I had the goods in would have turned water for a short time, but the
length of time the boat was under gave an opportunity for all the casks to fill21. The
three boxes of tea were all soaked through. The difficulty of getting this article dry
was heightened by the very showery weather we had Tuesday and Wednesday; but
by paying the greatest attention we were enabled to get it all dry by Wednesday
evening. The goods I had all dried and repacked; the boat I had taken out of the
water and repaired; almost everything was now ready for setting out in the
A drawing of a 1758 military batteau based on archeological remains raised from Lake George and
showing the "knees" used in construction.
Drawing by Kevin Crisman, Courtesy Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Click image to enlarge
Rediscovered by State Museum archeologists in 1982 as part of an environmental impact study
for a canal dredging project23, the site of Keator's Rift, lying on state land between the Canal and the
Thruway, is now protected and preserved as a visible landmark of this historic era. Appropriately,
public access to the site is best accomplished from the river [canal], as it would have been 200 years