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The Canal Company

The German Flatts Canal of 1798, as mapped in 1803.
Figure 4: The German Flatts Canal, completed in 1798 to by-pass two rapids in the Mohawk, as shown on this 1803 map.

Two hundred years ago inland travel was difficult at best. A pioneer migrating west, newly arrived in Albany and hungry for land; an Albany merchant anxious to ship merchandize to the expanding western settlements; or a military commander supplying essential provisions to the garrisons along our western frontier, all faced an inadequate and severely restricted transportation network.

One first had to hire a wagon in Albany for overland transport across 16 miles of Pine Bush to Schenectady, on the Mohawk River. Here at the old harbor one would buy or hire a small batteau - the pick-up truck of the 18th century - to navigate up 58 miles of the Mohawk to the portage at Little Falls. This passage would require the boatmen to force their batteau over 57 rapids or "rifts," some only inches deep.

At Little Falls teamsters were paid to cart the cargo, and the boat, a mile overland to the top of the falls, where the craft would be relaunched and loaded to traverse the upper Mohawk to Fort Stanwix at Rome, some 38 miles and 22 rapids further west.

At Stanwix the Mohawk turned north and could no longer serve a westward course. Here boat and baggage would again be lifted from the river and dragged across a two mile portage to be deposited into the almost waterless channel of Wood Creek. This tiny stream ran west from Rome, narrow enough in places to jump across. Unable to move, boatmen would go upstream to negotiate with the miller who had impounded the waters of Wood Creek in a pond. A release of water from his dam would, with luck, carry the batteau the 5 miles down to the junction of Canada Creek. From here in good season one could navigate the remaining 18 miles to Oneida Lake, following a log-choked, shallow creek at times so twisting one could pole a boat a mile by water to advance 30 feet by land. Once in Oneida Lake small boats could travel by water to Seneca Lake or to the Great Lakes via Oswego with only moderate difficulty.

This tortuous route was the only highway west of any consequence 200 years ago. It was the improvement of this water route from Schenectady to Oneida Lake that was the mission of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792.

Thanks to these improvements, by 1803 one could depart the Schenectady harbor in a Durham boat,11 twice the size of a batteau and able to carry 7 times the cargo - the 18-wheeler of the river boat era. Too large and heavy to lift out of the water for portaging, these craft depended on a continuous and relatively deep channel to navigate successfully.

The Little Falls Canal, 1795.
Figure 5: The Little Falls Canal, completed in 1795 to by-pass the falls, as mapped in 1803.

The voyager in 1803 more easily passed the 57 rapids of the lower Mohawk, some having been deepened by Schuyler's company with plowed out channels or long V-shaped rock dams. The portage at Little Falls was replaced in 1795 by a mile long canal, equipped with 5 wooden locks.12 These were rebuilt with stone in 1803.

A short distance westward, near Herkimer, two rapids which were troublesome for these larger boats were bypassed in 1798 by a mile long canal equipped with two stone locks.

At Rome a 1.7 mile canal with brick locks was built in 1797, and rebuilt with stone in 1803, to bypass the 2 mile portage at Fort Stanwix.

After passage through the Rome canal, a Durham boat could smoothly enter Wood Creek where four timber13 locks built in 1802 and 1803 raised the normally shallow stream into a series of navigable pools.

Passing down the twisting channel of Wood Creek, a Durham boat would take advantage of 13 short canals cut across necks14 of land in 1793, which shortened the passage to Oneida Lake by 6 miles. Here also the constant chore of clearing fallen timber out of the channel occupied the company's contractors.

By 1803, just eleven years after it was chartered, and fifteen years before construction of the Erie Canal was begun, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had converted an obstructed and interrupted navigation good only for small, portable batteaux, into a continuous, deepwater15 channel through which large Durham boats could pass unimpeded, and did so at a time when engineering was still experimental. Had these improvements, which included our first canals, not been in place, our history as a State and Nation might have played very differently.

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