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New York's Oldest Canal

No state, other than New York, has the theme of canal navigation so broadly embedded in its history. And the origins of this historic tradition are deeply buried in time - traceable to a single tiny site in the Upper Mohawk River Valley, and a day in the year 1730!

This is the story of the discovery of that tiny site - the symbolic beginnings of the Canal Age in New York State. It is a detective story; of deciphering dozens of fragile antique maps, many of them preserved in museums and libraries in England; of finding clues in some of the earliest aerial photographs made of the Mohawk Valley; of field expeditions into streams, marshes and abandoned fields along the route of the modern canal.

You are invited to come along on the search for this 270 year old canal, to examine the dozens of original documents and the reports of evidence from the field, and draw your own conculsions. Here you can follow, step by step, how State Museum researchers re-discovered this long lost historic canal.


The natural streams and lakes of the Mohawk/Oneida waterway served as an inland corridor for European exploration and military expansion for a century before becoming a vital transportation link for the new Nation between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes.

During this time there was little effort, nor need, to undertake major improvements in this network of waterways; foremost among them being the great Mohawk River. The age of canals and the era of artificial channel development was not to begin until a decade after the end of the American Revolution

Yet half a century earlier, in 1730, a small cut was excavated across a narrow neck of land in a meander of the Mohawk near the present City of Utica. This was the first artificial channel for navigation created in what would become New York State and it symbolizes the beginning of the Canal Age.

This report details the discovery of this historic site and provides research resources for those interested in the history of the Mohawk River valley.


TABLE OF CONTENTS


INTRODUCTION

Throughout the eighteenth century the Mohawk River was part of a navigation corridor across what was to become New York State, and no doubt for Native inhabitants for thousands of years before. By this corridor one could traverse, in small boats, the mountain barrier separating the Atlantic coastal waters from the Great Lakes. Departing Albany on the Upper Hudson, one traveled by land to Schenectady and there entered the Mohawk, sailing up that river to Fort Stanwix (Rome). There the Great Carrying Place, a land road of about one mile, brought one to the shallows of Wood Creek west of the city. One then navigated down Wood Creek to Oneida Lake, then through the Oneida River and Oswego River to Fort Ontario (Oswego) on Lake Ontario.

Details of this network of interconnected waterways crossing the region that would later become New York State were captured on a number of eighteenth century British maps.

The route of the Erie Canal, built in 1825. This canal ran alongside the rivers and lakes that had served for navigation during the preceding century. Map courtesy of the New York State Library.

Early in the nineteenth century water travel to the Great Lakes was permanently opened to large boats by the completion of the Erie Canal, which provided a direct route from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, by-passing the twisting and shallow waters of the Mohawk and closing an era of natural river navigation in New York forever. The opening of the Grand Canal in 1825 represents, for most people, the beginning of New York's canal era.

But the age of artificial waterways really began decades before, when the works of Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (1792-1820) were constructed.

The 1798 German Flatts Canal as shown on an 1811 map of the Mohawk Valley. Map courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum.

Bypassing rapids and obstructions in the Mohawk by the construction of several short canals, complete with dams and locks, and improving navigation on Wood Creek by clearing and realigning the channel and installing several locks, these works may be regarded either as the terminal phase of river navigation or the true beginning of the canal era in New York.

Evidence has now come to light, however, that over a half century earlier, in 1730, the Mohawk River was the site of a modest, but nonetheless significant, "canal" project - the earliest artificial waterway in New York State and one of the earliest in North America.


Adapted from: Lord, Philip L. Jr., "The Neck on Mohawcks River - New York's First Canal", The Canal Society of New York State, 1993.


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