CONTENT="NYS Museum Technology Center"> Native American Engineering Used by New York's First Canal Company
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Native American Engineering Used by New York's First Canal Company



This webpage is a project developed for New York History Month - 1998

Background

Travelers often had to drag their batteaux over the shallows of the inland

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.

At the end of the 18th century, large 'Durham Boats' began to appear on the rivers.

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

Captured on this 1803 map is a complex of wing dams built in the Mohawk to help boats pass.

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. As seen in 1803, this Mohawk River eel weir is avoided by the batteau channel.

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. This eel weir on the Delaware River resembles those used on the Mohawk 200 years

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.

Summary  As seen in this modern eel weir, the water at the gap is much deeper than elsewhere on the rift

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. An 1807 eyewitness image of the Mohawk shows a Durham boat passing through a wing dam.



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Office of Cultural Education | New York State Education Department
Information: 518-474-5877 | Contact Us | Image Requests | Terms of Use
Join us on Facebook See us on YouTube See us on Flickr