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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 81: Mohawk River Navigation.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1197-1208 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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1609-1825 — Traffic and travel on the Mohawk River — Canoes, dugouts, skiffs, batteaux — Carries at Little Falls and Wood Creek — 1792, Inland Lock Navigation Company — 1795, Canals and locks at Little Falls, German Flats and Rome — Schenectady and durham boats and river packets — 1821-1825, Mohawk part of Erie Canal system — 1825, Erie Canal supersedes River as Valley waterway.

This is the first chapter of this work dealing with transportation and commerce along the Mohawk, either by land or water. This chapter, concerning Mohawk River traffic from 1609 to 1825, is to be followed by others treating of bridges, turnpikes, Erie Canal, railroads, Barge Canal, etc., making in all seven or eight sketches on this subject. Even Atwood's aeroplane journey over the course of the Mohawk might fittingly be included in this chronicle of three centuries of traffic and travel through the Valley.

Agriculture, manufacturing and transportation are said to form a triangle comprising the general business life of every country or region. The following opens up the interesting subject the transportation side of the triangle in the Mohawk valley during three centuries.

The first settlers of New York in the Hudson valley adopted water transportation as the forests were generally impassable, except over the Indian trails. Travel by water or on foot were the first methods used in the Mohawk valley. The history of transportation along the Mohawk may be epitomized in the following methods of freight and passenger carriage: Man carriage, canoe, dugout, skiff, batteaux, raft, skates, snowshoes, saddle-horse, pack-horse, oxcart, sled, chaise, coach, sulky, wagon, covered big (Conestoga) wagon, stage coach, large river boat, buggy, canal boat, canal packet boat, railroad coach, railroad freight car, steam tug, horse car, steam launch, steam yacht, bicycle, electric trolley car, automobile, motor bus, motor truck, motor cycle, motor boat, motor tug, aeroplane, canal barge.

Mohawk River traffic may be briefly summarized as follows: The Mohawk Indians, living on the river shores and frequently changing their habitations from the south to the north side and back again, used bark canoes and dugouts to traverse the river. These were doubtless also used by the first white explorers and traders. After Schenectady was settled, in the lower Mohawk valley in 1661, probably the flatbottomed "scow skiff," propelled by oars, made its appearance. From this was evolved the larger flat or flatboat or batteau, propelled by oars, poles and sails, which appeared on the Mohawk about 1725. They were generally built in Schenectady, which quickly developed into a thriving and busy Mohawk River port and boat-building center. These boats were in use by traders, settlers and soldiers to carry goods, farm produce and war material until after the Revolution. They carried from one to two tons, their size being determined by the fact that they had to make two land carries on the river trip.

Elkanah Watson made a tour through the Mohawk Valley in 1788, which made him greatly interested in Mohawk River navigation and its improvement. His journey of that year is given in his journal, parts of which appear in Chapter 77. Watson interested General Philip Schuyler in organizing a company to develop our Valley waterway. The Inland Lock Navigation Co. was formed in 1792 and the building of locks and canals, at Little Falls, German Flats and Rome in 1795 made larger boats possible. The Durham and Schenectady boats of ten tons burden, appeared, poles, oars and sails being the propelling forces employed by the Mohawk sailors of 1725-1825. The smaller batteaux also continued in use. From 1795 to 1825 the river was a lively line of traffic, even passenger packets being in use. From 1821-1825 the Mohawk was utilized as a part of the Erie Canal system and when the canal had been dug from Rome to Little Falls, the canal-boats entered the river at the latter place and continued their journey to Schenectady on the Mohawk. Later when the canal was finished from Rome to Sprakers boats left the canal near the Noses and continued on by the river to their destination at Schenectady. In 1826 Erie navigation began and the Mohawk ceased to be used as a trade route. Many of the river boatmen and some of their craft, however, continued their work on the new canal, which eclipsed the river until these latter days of the Barge Canal.

From the days of the Mohawk canoes and dugouts and those of the first Indian traders, the river was the artery of trade between the east and the far west. From Albany to Schenectady was a portage and also around the Cohoes Falls. From these points the boats called batteaux or flatboats soon came into use by the white settlers and traders. The river was followed to Little Falls where there was another carry by land around the rapids, although these were sometimes shot by venturesome boatmen on the down trip when the river was swollen. At Wood Creek was a third carry from the Mohawk. Canals were completed at Little Falls and Wood Creek in 1795.

[Photo: Wood Creek, Rome]

[Photo: Old Lock, Little Falls, N. Y.]

Before this at Little Falls sleds and wagons were used to carry the batteaux around the portage. These batteaux were flatbottomed scows of sufficient dimensions to carry several tons and were propelled by setting poles which were kept for sale at convenient points along the river. With back to the prow the batteaux men thrust the poles to the river's bed and, bearing hard upon them and walking aft, laboriously pushed the boat against the current. A sort of harmony of movement was secured by the captains by the cries, "Bowsmen up!" and "Second men up!" Steering was done with a tiller oar. Such was the mode of transporting merchandise and Indian commodities to and from the west for nearly two centuries; and such, too, the method of transporting munitions of war during the Revolution. Much of the material used in building defenses and forts was brought up this way and convoying batteaux flotilla containing war supplies was frequently part of the duties of the militia and regulars located here and in surrounding districts. Revolutionary captains in the batteaux service were in 1832 made entitled to the same pensions as captains in the Continental army.

Small batteaux, known in those times as three-handed and four-handed boats, were in early use on the Mohawk. They were so called because three or four men were required to propel and care for them. Passing the carry at Little Falls in early days, the boats proceeded to Fort Stanwix where the carry was made to Wood Creek, whence they floated into and through Oneida Lake and the Oswego River to Oswego where they entered Lake Ontario. From Oswego to Niagara, then a place of much importance, merchandise was transported in the same boats or aboard sloops. This was the water route to the west until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.

The earliest boatmen were troubled by the Indians who took toll for the navigation of the river and who were particularly threatening and rapacious at the Wood Creek carry. The rifts in the river offered a serious menace to this form of transportation and wrecks and drownings were not infrequent. On the down trip the flood times were welcomed as overcoming this trouble and this must have been a favorite time for making the journey east. On the up trip over the rifts the polemen were assisted by men on shore with ropes. Rude sails were also used during favoring winds and sails, oars and poles were the three methods of propelling the white man's boats on the Mohawk for two centuries.

It was not until 1800 that the turnpikes were improved sufficiently to compete with the Mohawk in matters of transportation, and the river, at the Revolutionary period, was the main artery of traffic and remained so for some time. Schenectady then was a lively river port and important town to the Mohawk valley people.

The first rift or rapids, above Schenectady, was met with, at a distance of six miles, and was called Six Flats Rift. Proceeding west in order came Fort Hunter rift, Caughnawaga rift at Fultonville, Keator's rift at Sprakers, the greatest in the river, having a fall of ten feet in a few rods; Brandywine rift at Canajoharie, short but rapid; Ehle's rift, near Fort Plain; Kneiskern's rift, a small rapid near the upper Indian Castle and a little above the river dam; the Little Falls, so called in contradistinction to the great Falls at Cohoes; Wolf's rift, five miles above the falls.

At Fort Plain, a bend in the river opposite the house of Peter Ehle from whom the rift took its name, was known as Ehle's crank; and opposite the residence of Nicholas Gros, a little below, another turn in the river was called Gros's crank.

At the Little Falls, a descent of 40 feet in half a mile, boats could not be forced up the current and it became a carrying place for them and merchandise, which were transported around the rapids, usually on the north shore, at first on sleds and later on wagons with small wide rimmed wheels. The water craft were then relaunched and reloaded and proceeded on their western journey. On such occasions one of the party usually stayed with the goods deposited above while the team returned for the boat.

The difficulties of forcing the boats over the rifts of the Mohawk increased with their size. As many as twenty men, pulling with ropes on the bank and pushing with poles on the boat, were sometimes unable to propel a single boat over Keator's rift. Black slaves, owned by settlers near the rapids, were frequently employed in this occupation.

An early traveler writes as follows of this waterway: "The Oniada Lake, situated near the head of the River Oswego, receives the waters of Wood Creek, which takes its rise not far from the Mohawk River. These two lie so adjacent to each other that a junction is effected by sluices at Fort Stanwix. * * * * Here [Little Falls] the roaring rapids interrupted all navigation, empty boats not even being able to pass over them. The early portage, of one mile here in sleds over the swampy ground, has been described as it was in 1756, when enterprising Teutons residing here transferred all boats in sleds over marshy ground which 'would admit of no wheel carriage.' * * * Later on, about 1790, we find that the Germans' sleds were out of use and that boats were transferred on wheeled vehicles appropriately fashioned to carry them without damage to their hulls. No great boats could be transferred by such means; this fact had a tendency to limit the carrying capacity of Mohawk batteaux to about one and a half tons." Johan Jost Herkimer, father of Nicholas Herkimer, was a pioneer in this carrying business at "The Falls" and here laid the foundation of a considerable fortune.

Washington mentions the advantages of the Mohawk Valley waterway and after the Revolution efforts were made to improve it and many plans were put forward, some bearing a rude resemblance to the present barge canal dams. To this end the In. land Lock Navigation Company was incorporated March 30, 1792, Gen. Philip Schuyler being elected its president. Locks and canals were built at Little Falls, at Wolf's Rift at German Flats, and at Rome, connecting with Wood Creek. These canals were completed about 1797, prior to which time there were carries at Little Falls and Wood Creek. These river locks and canals continued in use until 1825, the year of the opening of the Erie Canal.

After the river improvements were made the Durham boat was substituted for the unwieldly batteaux. The Durham boat was of ten or fifteen tons capacity and had sharpened bows. Cleats were along the sides to give the polemen's feet better purchase and a small caboose was the crew's storehouse and the cooking was done on, shore, where fuel was plenty. It is related that one of these boats left Utica in the morning and reached Schenectady on the evening of the same day, which was considered a record trip. The expense of transportation from Albany to Schenectady was 16 cents per 100 pounds. From Schenectady to Utica, 75 cents and from Utica to Oswego $1.25, making a through rate of $2.16 per 100 pounds. This would give $43.20 per ton as the freight rate between Schenectady and Oswego, less than 200 miles. In 1913 the rate per ton by lake boats from Buffalo to Duluth, about 700 miles, was 39 cents.

The cost of transportation and Erie Canal plans made business unpromising and the company sold out to the state in 1820. With the building of the Erie Canal the traffic boatmen disappeared from the Mohawk.

Along the river road, near some of the rapids, were public houses, a good share of whose custom came from the boatmen. As near these runs as possible, boats often tied up for the night and here a lot of old Mohawk sailors had jolly times. Jost Spraker's tavern, at Keator's rift, was one of those. Another riverman's favorite tavern was the old Isaac Weatherby house at Brandywine rift, situated a mile below Palatine Bridge, and below the junction of the Oswegatchie and the river roads. The Van Eps tavern, west of Hoffman's, was a famous river and turnpike inn.

Accidents, drownings and wrecks were many. Two which occurred near Fort Plain, shortly before the Erie was opened, are described by Simms [in Nelson Greene, The Story of Old Fort Plain and the Middle Mohawk Valley] as follows: "Ezra Copley in 1823 ran a Durham boat on a rock in Ehle's rift, below the Fort Plain bridge. It was loaded with wheat in bulk, was stove and filled with water. The wheat was taken to Ehle's barn and dried, the boat was repaired, reloaded and went on its destination. One of the best of this class of craft, known as the 'Butterfly,' was descending the river, swollen by floods, when the steersman lost control of it and it struck broadside on one of the stone piers of the Canajoharie bridge and broke near the centre. The contents of the boat literally filled the river for some distance and three hands were drowned. The body of one, named Clark, was recovered twelve miles below at Fultonville. The steersman retained his hold on the long tiller (some 20 feet long) and reached the shore about a quarter mile below the bridge. Most of the flour on the boat was saved along the river. The owner of the craft, a man named Meyers, had the boat's fragments taken to Schenectady and rebuilt. After this it was taken through the newly completed Erie Canal to Cayuga Lake. Here, while making a trip loaded with gypsum, it sank and its owner was drowned. Thus ended the unfortunate 'Butterfly,' one of the last of the freight craft that sailed the Mohawk." Many of the river boats probably found early use on the Erie Canal, after 1825. In the last few years (1821-1825) of canal construction the Mohawk was used in connection with the completed portions of the Erie Canal for the transportation of canal-boats from the west to Schenectady and vice versa, notably from Little Falls and later from Sprakers, to Schenectady.

Several large rowboats, constructed especially to carry twenty passengers each, from Utica to Schenectady, and tastefully curtained, were in use on the Mohawk at about 1800. They were called river packets.

Regarding these river packets, Yates writes as follows in his History of Schenectady County:

"It is a matter of curious history in the travel of the Mohawk Valley, that about the year 1815, Eri Lusher established a daily line of packet boats which were constructed after the model of the Durham boat, but with a cabin in midship, carefully cushioned, ornamented and curtained, expressly calculated for and used to carry from twenty to thirty passengers at a time, between Schenectady and Utica, making the passage between the two places down the river in about thirteen hours, and up the river, with favorable wind and high water, within two days."

For an interesting description of old Schenectady as a Mohawk River port see Chapter on "Schenectady after the Revolution," which is taken from Yates' history.

* * * * *

Christian Schultz, who journeyed on the river in 1807, spoke of there being three kinds of boats on the Mohawk — the Schenectady boats being preferred, which carried about ten tons when the river would permit. He said they usually progressed 18 to 25 miles per day up the stream by sails and poles. These boats, modeled much like the Long Island round-bottomed skiffs, were 40 to 50 feet in length and were steered by a large swing oar of the same length. When the wind favored they set a square sail and a topsail. He was informed that one "galley," the "Mohawk Register," had gone at the rate of six miles an hour against the stream and he adds: "During this time, believe me, nothing could be more charming than sailing on the Mohawk." They did not often have a favorable wind and the curves in the river rendered the course of a boat irregular and the use of sails precarious, on which account their chief dependence was upon their pike poles, which it required much experience to use to advantage.

Of the poles and the manner of using them on the river boats, Mr. Schultz gives the following account:

"These poles are from 18 to 22 feet in length, having a sharp pointed iron with a socket weighing 10 to 12 pounds affixed to the lower end; the upper has a large knob called a button mounted upon it, so that the poleman may press upon it with his whole weight without endangering his person. This manner of impelling the boat forward is extremely laborious, and none but those who have been some time accustomed to it, can manage these poles with any kind of advantage. Within the boat on each side is fixed a plank running fore and aft with a number of cleats nailed upon it, for the purpose of giving the poleman sure footing and hard poling. The men, after setting the poles against the rock, bank or bottom of the river, declining their heads very low, place the upper end or button against the back part of their shoulder, then falling on their hands and toes creep the whole length of the gang boards and send the boat forward at considerable speed. The first sight of four men on each side of the boat, creeping along on their hands and toes, apparently transfixed by a huge pole, is no small curiosity; nor was it until I perceived their perseverance for 200 or 300 yards, that I became satisfied they were not playing some pranks.

"From the general practice of this method, as likewise from my own trials and observations, I am convinced that they have fallen upon the most powerful way possible to exert their bodily strength for the purpose required. The position, however, was so extremely awkward to me, that I doubt whether the description I have given will adequately describe the procedure. I have met with another kind of boat on the river, which is called a dorm or dorem; how it is spelled I know not. [This was the Durham boat and the third boat to which he alludes was the batteau, propelled by oars.] The only difference I could observe in this [the Durham] from the former one, is that it is built sharp on both ends, and generally much larger and stouter. They likewise have flats [scows] similar to those seen on the Susquehanna, but much lighter built and larger. On all these they occasionally carry the sails before mentioned.

"The Mohawk is by no means dangerous to ascend, on account of the slowness of the boat's progress; but as it is full of rocks, stones and shallows, there is some risk of staving the boat and, at this season [probably midsummer], is so low as to require the boat to be dragged over many places. The channel, in some instances, is not more than eight feet in width [the boats were long and narrow], which will barely permit a boat to pass by rubbing on both sides. This is sometimes caused by natural or accidental obstructions of rocks in the channel, but oftener by artificial means. This, which at first view would appear to be an inconvenience, is produced by two lines or ridges of stone, generally constructed on sandy, gravelly or stony shallows, in such manner as to form an acute angle where they meet, the extremities of which widen as they extend up the river, while at the lower end there is just space enough left to admit the passage of a boat. The water being thus collected at the widest part of these ridges, and continually pent up within narrower limits as it descends, causes a rise at the passage; so that where the depth was no more than eight inches before, a contrivance of this kind will raise it to twelve; and strange as it may appear, a boat drawing fifteen inches will pass through it with safety and ease. The cause is simply this: The boat, being somewhat below the passage, its resistance to the current is such as to cause a swell of four or five inches more, which affords it an easy passage over the shoal."

The reader must remember that at this time, the waters of the Erie then having their channel in the Mohawk, the river was of considerable more volume than it was after the building of the canal.

This writer says that the Mohawk might be considered 100 yards in width with extremely fertile banks. He speaks of passing through eight locks at Little Falls, whereas two of these were at Wolf's rift, several miles above. He said the Mohawk afforded very poor fishing, since at the end of nine days he had only caught a "poor cat fish, no longer than a herring." He visited Utica, which then had 160 houses, and Whitestown.

Of Rome he says:

"Rome * * * is near the head of the Mohawk. The entrance into this village is through a handsome canal about a mile in length. It is here that the Mohawk is made to contribute a part of its stream towards filling Wood Creek, which of itself is so low in dry seasons as to be totally insufficient to float a boat without the aid of the Mohawk. Rome, formerly known as Fort Stanwix, is delightfully situated in an elevated and level country commanding an extensive view for miles around. This village consists of about 80 houses, but it seems quite destitute of every kind of trade, and rather upon the decline. The only spirit which I perceived stirring among them was that of money digging, and the old fort betrayed evident signs of the prevalence of this mania, as it had literally been turned inside out for the purpose of discovering concealed treasures."

In descending Wood Creek he passed through a range of five canal locks. He spoke of the rate of toll as being too high. He said the toll, in passing the eight locks at Little Falls, was $2.25 per ton of merchandise, and the toll on the boat was from $1.50 to $2.62 1/2 each boat. The toll was at a still higher rate to pass through the Wood Creek locks, being $3.00 per ton on the goods and from $1.50 to $3.50 on the boats.

* * * * *

Some of the serious problems confronted by the pioneer canal builders of New York state are outlined in a letter written by Gen. Philip Schuyler in 1793 to his friend, Robert Morris, appealing for aid in canal construction work at Little Falls. The letter, which recently came to light, is in the hands of Alfred M. O'Neill, secretary to the Erie Canal Centennial Commission.

Complaining that good engineers for canal survey work were very hard to obtain, General Schuyler asked that the English engineer, Weston, then employed by Morris on the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal in Pennsylvania, be loaned to him temporarily to lay out canal work in this state.

Weston did come, and under his direction the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company's canal at Little Falls, promoted by General Schuyler, was constructed and finished about 1796. This canal carried the pioneer travel around the rapids at Little Falls and was an important factor in leading the state twenty years later to begin construction of a through water route across the entire state.

As previously mentioned in this work, General Schuyler was in the Mohawk Valley a great part of the time during the construction work of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which first developed the Mohawk River as an inland waterway. General Schuyler was the president of this company and the chief advocate of internal navigation in the State of New York. At this construction period Schuyler spent much time at Little Falls, and at the home of his sister, Gertrude Schuyler, wife of Gen. John Cochran, who then lived at the Cochran home, now standing, on the Mohawk Turnpike, just west of Palatine Church, Montgomery County.

General Schuyler's letter, dated at Albany, April 16, 1793, reads:

Dear Sir — The directors of the internal navigation companies in this state, labor under a very disagreeable dilemma. They have engaged a large number of men to begin their operations on the 15th of next month, and they have not been able to procure any person of the least practical experience to conduct their operations. This has induced me to take temporary superintendence of the business, until an adequate person can be found.

Hoping that Mr. B. Weston will be permitted by the directors of your company to come to our relief, the enclosed is addressed to him on that subject.

May I entreat your interference on the occasion, and your recommendation to the directors of the Pennsylvania company, to permit Mr. Weston to repair to this place, as early as possible, to avoid the errors we shall otherwise in all probability commit?

He will not be detained longer than is indispensable to make the surveys and to give the requisite directions for the works to be constructed in the ensuing season.

Such permission, as it will evince a friendly disposition in your company, will merit our warmest acknowledgments.

I am, dear sir, very truly,

Your obedient servant,
Ph. Schuyler.

The original of the letter is in the possession of Gordon Chambers of Philadelphia.

* * * * *

[Engraving: Mohawk River Boating, 1797-1825]

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