Two hundred years ago, between the years of 1792 and 1820, The Western Inland Lock Navigation
Company was commissioned to improve inland navigation along the Mohawk-Oneida transportation
corridor that connected the Hudson River
at Albany with the Great Lakes at Oswego, on Lake Ontario.
The first undertaking of this company was a batteau survey of the upper Mohawk River in August of 1792.
The report issued by the WILNC after the Mohawk survey detailed the obstacles to batteau navigation that frustrated
westward transport, revealing a channel obstructed by dozens of "rifts" or rocky shallows. These rifts, often less
than two feet deep, prevented larger boats from navigating the Mohawk and restricted the operations of even the
smaller batteaux during the dry season.
To compensate for this shortage of water, the WILNC built a series of navigational "wing dams" - V-shaped lines
of rocks extending across the shallow rifts, each with a small gap at the apex of the dam. Water running over the
rift was raised behind these wing dams and was funneled into the gap, through which boats navigating the river
could pass. By this means, a rift with only a few inches of water could be elevated to a depth sufficient to open
the Mohawk to larger craft and to extend the shipping season through the seasonal dry periods in the closing years
of the eighteenth century.
The Native American Connection
This apparently revolutionary engineering mechanism, used with reasonable success by the WILNC right up until
the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s, was in fact based on a technology exceedingly ancient - the eel weirs
and fish traps of the Native American inhabitants of New York. For untold centuries, Native "engineers" had
constructed virtually identical rock V-dams across the rifts on the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Oswego
and Delaware rivers. In the apex of each weir was fixed a woven basket and into this basket the migrating eels
and other fish were diverted by the arms of the dams and were trapped. Periodically the Native American fishermen
ventured out to the traps, in canoes or even by merely walking out on the shallow rift, and harvested the live catch.
These V-dam constructions were still in place on the Mohawk when the WILNC was building its own navigational
wing dams. The eel weirs were by then often maintained by non-Native inhabitants along the rivers, but accounts
from the 1790s suggest Native fishermen still maintained such weirs on the more westerly waterways, such as the
Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca rivers. Navigational wing dams and fishing weirs suffered a tenuous coexistence in the
closing days of the eighteenth century and disputes often arose between the batteaumen and the fishermen. The former
considered the weirs an unjustified obstruction to the free navigation of the inland waterways, while the latter
considered the often vandalous behavior of the boatmen, a threat to their livelihood.
Rock V-dams virtually identical to those built in the late eighteenth century are still used annually to
capture the migrating eels in the Delaware River along the southern border of New York, and provide an opportunity
to still experience this originally Native American technology in operation.
Thus two centuries ago, at a time when civil engineering was still in its infancy in America, the native
engineering of the first Americans provided New York's first canal company with the mechanism to surmount one
of the more persistent obstacles to national westward transport in post revolutionary New York
This adaptive re-application in the late eighteenth century of Native American structural designs of great
antiquity provides an interesting component of the story of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the
development of American transportation technology in the waterways of New York State.