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The Inland Navigation Surveys of 1792
Published by the NYS Museum, 1992
Two Hundred Year Old Reports
Reveal History of Local Rivers
The historians at the New York State Museum are responsible for collecting and interpreting information about New York's past, often conducting field surveys themselves of historic locations. Now a pair of field survey reports written over 200 years ago is revealing never before seen clues about the historic conditions of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, long before their modification by the state canal system.
A facsimile edition of these rare reports was published by the Museum in 1992, on the bicentennial date of their original printing. Historians at the State Museum have been examining the details contained in the reports as a way of once again seeing these waterways in their wild state.
Today, as part of the State's canal system, these rivers are dammed and dredged to maintain their deep and placid channels, giving no hint of their untamed past. But 200 years ago these were shallow and turbulent waterways; obstructed by gravel bars, boulders, driftwood, and waterfalls.
The 1792 reports detail the observations of two expeditions, undertaken by the State's first canal companies; private companies that attempted the improvement of inland navigation a quarter century before the Erie Canal was even begun. The survey of the Mohawk was undertaken by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. It departed from the harbor at Schenectady on the 21st of August, 1792. The survey of the Upper Hudson, by the Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company, left Albany on September 21st, just a few days after the Mohawk survey had returned. Gen. Philip Schuyler of Albany was the president of both companies and, in spite of his age, accompanied each expedition.
The survey teams traveled by batteaux, which were small, flat-bottomed boats used for military and commercial transportation along the waterways of New York throughout the 18th century. They took soundings, made measurements, and recorded details about the rivers that cannot be found in any other contemporary source.
Although the maps that once accompanied these reports no longer exist, precise distances between features are given in the margins. Coupled with references the surveyors made to 18th century landmarks re-discovered by Museum researchers, this has allowed reconstruction of the locations of the various rapids, rifts, and riverside homesteads and taverns.
This discovery has contributed greatly to a project begun five years ago by State Museum historian Philip Lord, who has located and recorded every possible rapid and river site of this period on a 30 foot long map of the inland waterways from Albany to Oswego. An archive of over 1,600 documents, full of interpretive information about these sites, supports this mapping effort.
The purpose of this study is to shed light on a poorly understood and barely researched era in our transportation history, when boat travel between Schenectady and Oswego was the only link between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. The experimental canals and navigation improvements that General Schuyler and his private canal companies tried along this route represent substantial contributions to American engineering, and helped pave the way for the Erie Canal 25 years later.
Although used for decades by traders, military commanders, and settlers, who often criticized their inadequacies, these rivers had never been scientifically surveyed and the details of their navigation channels never recorded, prior to 1792.
Along the Mohawk route there were nearly 100 rapids, falls, or portages that frustrated boat travel. Many of these were the so-called "rifts" or shallow places where the river was only a foot or so deep, tumbling over gravel and rock. Interestingly, one of the shallowest places was just outside the harbor at Schenectady. Where one would expect the deepest water, instead one encountered "there a rapid, over which the water runs one and an half feet deep, the bottom small stones and gravel..." This was followed in the next ten miles with seven more rifts, most with no more water, and one with even less.
In spite of the shallows, most fully loaded batteaux of the period could be floated or dragged over most of these obstacles. But as the demand for goods increased, and the flow of agricultural produce from new settlements forming in the West streamed down to Schenectady, larger boats were needed and the limited depth of the channel became a problem.
Although less detailed, and less precise, than the Mohawk survey, the survey of the Upper Hudson also reveals historic secrets about the navigation route, which remained a frustration until the later canal era. Here, as in the Mohawk, many rapids obstructed the passage, with water often less than knee deep.
In this northern route, the Hudson was followed north from Albany, over rapids and shallows, to Fort Edward. At that point, a four mile wide swamp was encountered. It was recorded in 1792 that "even in this dry season, the ground is so soft, that unless the foot is placed on tufts of grass which grow in the swamp, a man sinks halfleg deep in mud and water."
This swamp separated the Upper Hudson, which then ran from the west, instead of the north, from tiny Wood Creek, which ran northward toward Lake Champlain. Today replaced with the broad channel of the Champlain Canal, which has connected Fort Edward with the southern tip of Lake Champlain at Whitehall since the 1830s, the muddy, twisting channel of Wood Creek, served virtually the same function as its namesake in Oneida County, on the western route, which connected the Upper Mohawk River at Rome with Oneida Lake.
In these streams, narrow necks of land formed by the sharp meanders of the streams forced the canal companies to contemplate cutting short "mini-canals" across some of them. In the west, 13 such canals were made in 1793, shortening the trip by six miles, while in the north, only a couple were completed.
In both Wood Creeks, fallen timber remained a problem for batteaux, even when there was sufficient water for navigation. Whether hanging low over the water, or sunken just below the surface, these trees, which fell into the streams from the forested banks, required the constant efforts of boatmen, laboring in waist deep water with saws and axes, to keep the channels clear.
In fact, when Schuyler's batteau attempted to navigate the northern Wood Creek from Fort Edward to Skenesborough [Whitehall], about two miles south of his destination "a large pile of Timber in the Creek prevented the passage of the Boat." They had to go on by foot to examine the 15 foot waterfall at Whitehall that had to be circumvented to enter the lake. To the west, near Rome, Schuyler found the navigation of that Wood Creek "greatly impeded by timber in the creek, as well as by many short turns."
In using the common terms of that time for places and landmarks on the river, the authors of these field reports often captured and preserved fleeting bits of local history, including the names given the various rifts by boatmen and the identification of some of the settlers and tavern keepers along the way. The surveys, therefore, are a source of some very early place name and settlement data that otherwise would have drifted out of our collective memory.
As an example of the preservation of fragments of history in the routine entries of these mundane reports, consider a rapid located a few miles east of Little Falls described as "Haycocks, where the navigation is sometimes dangerous, occassioned by about one hundred rocks." Apparently the appearance of all these boulders sticking up out of the water reminded the early boatmen of a field of small hay piles, or "cocks". Within a few years, and down to this day, this place became known as the "Rocky Rift", losing, perhaps, some of its original personality.
By reprinting these two 1792 reports, the last copies known to exist, State Museum historians have provided everyone a rare opportunity to step back to the very earliest days of the new canal age, when the first tentative steps toward an improved and revolutionized navigation system were about to be taken, changing forever the cultural landscape of New York. Priced at just $3.00, this little 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inch facsimile edition is one of the best bargains in local history publications around. Its 50 pages contain much more unrivaled historical content than its small size might suggest, and all of it taken directly from first-hand, eyewitness observation.
Here is a rare chance to look at these rivers in their natural state, which, by contrast with what they have necessarily become in the modern age, becomes even more dramatic. These historic reports, some of the earliest detailed waterways surveys in the United States, have preserved an image of the geography of this inland corridor across New York as it was over two centuries ago.
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