Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Series of Talks Given by David Minor on The Erie Canal

Connect directly to David Minor's radio scripts:

"This project began as a talk to the winter meeting of the Canal Society of New York State in March 2002. I decided to follow two sets of travelers along the route of the Erie Canal - the first group during the planning stages, in 1810; the second group in 1826, shortly after the full length of the canal was opened. The idea was to draw on the journals of the travelers, while also giving some of the historic background of the areas traversed. Occasionally we'd project a bit into the future.

When I put together the first talk I was somewhat surprised to find I'd only covered the area from Albany to Schenectady. Obviously this was going to be a more extended project than I'd anticipated. For the 2003 presentation I got from Schenectady to Little Falls and now, in 2004, as far as Rome, New York.

"Lord of the Rings" was three years in the telling. Now it's a tie. So far."

Second Winter Meeting Talk - 2003

Schenectady! Now I'm sure Schenectady is as good as any place to visit, but we've left several groups of outsiders cooling their heels there for over a year now, although at two different times. De Witt Clinton and his fellow canal commissioners arrived there by Albany stagecoach in 1810, ready to set out to the west, scouting the route for a cross-state canal. In 1826 Professor Amos Eaton and his expedition of Rensselaer students had the advantage of the aforementioned canal, bypassing the Falls of the Cohoes, to arrive by boat.

But first come, first served. The primary source for the canal commissioners' travels is the journal of Clinton himself. This leg of the journey would be by way of the Mohawk River, with the aid of a number of small canals erected by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, formed by Philip Schuyler in 1792, as well as by other private firms. The company had hired surveyor Benjamin Wright seven years earlier to make a map of the Mohawk between Schenectady and Rome, and it was this map that the commissioners followed now as they set out from Schenectady's western suburbs. The first day out they passed three boats and a raft. Perhaps one was the cross-stream ferry owned by the Vedder family. One day the village of Pattersonville would grow here where Schenectady County, formed last year, borders on Montgomery County. Clinton noted that the usual round trip to Rome and back took nine days. His river boat made it to the Amsterdam area that first day, a distance of about 17 miles, and his party made their way up the north bank to a local tavern. Here Clinton seems a bit confused, identifying Cook's tavern as the former Guy Park. But the next morning he refers to passing Guy Park, used as a tavern. Perhaps it was a case of riverboat lag. In the vernacular of our own 21st century - "Whatever."

Guy Park, is the 1763 mansion of Sir Guy Johnson, a son of British Indian agent Sir William Johnson. It's now the site of Barge Canal lock number 11. Before turning in for the night they may have chatted about what they'd seen that day. Clinton mentions dried mullen stalks, young bees in a chrysalis state, and the shell of the common fresh water "muscle". Most impressive was the Indian painting in red ocher on an elevated rock, that Clinton estimated had been there for nearly half a century. Based on a 1888 painting by Rufus Grider, the rocks themselves have been located, but the pictographs have worn away; severe flooding in 1914 may have been the culprit.

Guy Park became a social rendezvous for prominent area Tories in the years just preceding the Revolution and, until the sudden departure of Crown Indian agent Guy Johnson and his family, was often the site of Iroquois councils.

Cook's tavern, located in the Town of Amsterdam, is the nucleus of Amsterdam village, which won't be incorporated until 1831. Even now in 1810 it's a thriving settlement, which had nearly 1100 residents at the time of the 1800 census. Known as Veddersburg until 1804, the village built a Dutch Reformed Church and started a ferry across the Mohawk in 1800, and seven year later had five mills, Cook's tavern, and 15 houses. A charter for a toll bridge was granted in 1807 but somehow the thing never got built. Too much competition for the ferry, perhaps.

The commissioners were up and on the water shortly after 5 AM the next day, July 6th. A few miles upriver Clinton mentions passing Schoharie Creek, which drained the Schoharie Valley waters into the Mohawk to the north. In October of 1780 the two valleys were the scene of several Tory raids led by Sir John Johnson, another son of Sir William. The year before, the Sullivan-Clinton campaign (that was General James Clinton, De Witt's father, George W. (Clinton)'s grandfather) had neutralized the Iroquois Nation as a unified fighting force but a small number accompanied Johnson's Loyalist forces as they moved south out of Fort Oswego along Oneida Creek, many loaded into 18 boats, others marching along the bank, they crossed the Mohawk and set off overland toward the village of Schoharie, about twenty miles further south, near the headwaters of Schoharie Creek. Three forts were spaced out along the Schoharie Creek and Johnson attacked the middle one first. Rebel commander Major Wolsey, described in French's Gazetteer as an "arrant coward" was set to surrender the fort and its 350-man garrison, but was thwarted by his men; Sir John shortly afterward withdrew his forces and headed downstream toward the Mohawk, destroying most of the outbuildings and property as they left. Arriving back at the Mohawk they found Fort Hunter, the lower fort on the west bank, abandoned, and destroyed it before continuing upriver to the west. We'll run into traces of their journey as we continue with both of ours.

Travelers in 1810 were still not entirely out of danger. As Clinton's party continued on, the tranquility of the day was briefly shattered as they passed along the stretch of river between Schoharie Creek and Palatine. Clinton tells the story. "...a wooden pitchfork was thrown at our batteaux, from an elevated bank. It just passed over the boat, and if had struck it, might have killed a man. As it passed close to one of the hands, they felt a proper indignation, and immediately stopped the batteaux. The ruffians, who were making hay on the lowlands, scampered off, and left their rakes and forks to the mercy of the enraged boatmen, who took their revenge in breaking them." So it would seem that throwing rocks off an overpass at cars is not a new concept.

Reaching Palatine (where Johnson had unaccountably spared the church in 1780) they stopped for the night at Dewandalaer's tavern, having covered 34 miles in two days. The tavern provided four beds to a room and there the Clintonian party drifted off. "...cotton sheets, which are generally used in the country, were not so agreeable as linen, yet we passed a comfortable night." Former governors obviously preferred finer things.

While they sleep we'll jump ahead 16 years and collect our second party. You may remember that Rensselaer School geology department head Amos Eaton and 24 of his students, along with a few other professors, are traveling across the state on the year old Erie Canal in the canal boat Lafayette. The main record we have of the voyage is the journal by two students, future State Entomologist Asa Fitch and a sketchier account by George W. Clinton, son of De Witt. Leaving Schenectady Thursday morning, May 4th, 1826, they stop that evening at Plattekill, or Flat Creek, the canal enabling them to travel a distance in one day nearly equal to what took the 1810 commissioners two days. Actually there were several Flat Creeks back then, as noted by H. G. (Horatio Gates) Spafford, in his 1824 pocket guide to the canals [HOLD UP}; Not the oiginal. Fitch refers to the Flat Creek near Canajoharie. That first morning he mentions passing near Amsterdam as their boat crosses South Chuctenunda Creek on a three-arch covered aqueduct. They stop for the noontime meal at Auriesville ("...composed of a few small houses on the south bank of the canal, from which it is scarcely perceptible.."). Here one member of the party apparently succumbs to life ashore. Student Samuel Colackson left the group for a few days to visit parents 20 miles away. Fitch reports, "...owing to some cause, he did not again overtake us, although he might have done it with ease as we did not go very fast & make frequent stops. As far as I am acquainted with him a fine young man, promising talent but does not seem to be very anxious to improve them."

Our argonauts (canalnauts?) resumed their voyage after lunch, soon passing under a bridge at Caughnawaga. It's here the Macomb Mountains swipe across the river, creating geological bumps (that's a technical term) on each side. The larger formation on the south bank was sometimes known as Anthony's Nose but, having the same name as a Hudson Highlands feature, was soon known as Root's Nose. Here Eaton and his geology students could literally have a field day. Two years previously Eaton and James Eights, another professor on this trip, had explored the Nose and some caves inside it. So the group didn't take time to reexamine them, contenting themselves with studying some of the rocks at the base. Fitch reports, "Eaton says to call it Root's Nose and two caves Root's Nostrils, for Erastus Root. It would be very desirable to have a party assemble in one of the nostrils annually on the birth day of General Root and drink at least a quart of brandy each to make posterity acquainted with one of the commendable habits of our first statesman."

Geology professors don't change, do they, Tom?

Back when De Witt Clinton sailed along the Mohawk, the settlement of Auriesville had no official status; probably the reason he didn't mention it. Now, as the student flotilla passes, it has acquired enough settlers, perhaps because of the canal's completion, to exist as a named place. It's not likely that either party knew about a young Indian woman named Tekawitha, later given the name Kateri, or Catherine, born near the mouth of Auries Creek in 1656, who became a Catholic nun and started down the long road to sainthood.

The village of Canajoharie, the Indian name referring to a kettle-shaped hole in the rock (more of those later) and dating back to 1788, had a few more of the amenities of civilization. The settlement had twice been nearly obliterated by Johnson and his tories, but sprang back each time. By 1826 the village had a population of a few hundred. Spafford in 1824 lists, "a Post-Office, 27 dwellings, the Erie Canal, 4 stores, and some other buildings". Quarries above the village later would furnish some of the stone for abutments of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the 1840s a young Massachusetts-born schoolteacher named Susan B. Anthony would teach here for a few years before moving on to Seneca Falls.

And now we'll move on. Backwards. We left the canal planners back at their Palatine hostel, betwixt (how often do you get to use that word?) their cotton sheets. Somebody didn't mind the linen service, apparently. Clinton mentions, "Mr. Eddy, who was complimented with the title of Commodore and the conduct of the expedition, disburthened his pocket of a towel, which he had negligently put into it at the tavern where we slept," (some things really don't change) "with particular injunctions to deliver it safely. This trifling incident excited some merriment; and we were happy to catch even at trifling incidents in order to beguile the time, which the slowness of our progress, the sameness of the scenery, and the warmth of the weather, began to make tedious." Actually they managed to sidestep a bit of excitement. " order to facilitate the passage of our batteaux over Kater's Rapid, which extends a mile from this place, and which is among the worst in the river, we walked to the head of it." In other words, they lightened the boats by leaving the rapids to the experts and traveling around the danger by shank's mare, a practice common at the time. Phil Lord of the State Museum explains, "the most feared rapid in the region, if not in the entire Mohawk Valley, was Keator's Rift at Sprakers. Here, thousands of years ago, an island had formed of rock, gravel, and sand discharged into the river from Flat Creek on the south shore. He adds that the spot was rediscovered by State Museum archaeologists in 1982. So, if you wish to have a look ,"public access to the site is best accomplished from the river as it would have been 200 years ago."

Clinton continues, "In order to furnish as much amusement as possible, we put our books into a common stock, or rather into a trunk, and appointed one of the young gentlemen keeper of the library." Since their improvised library seems mostly to have consisted of a treatise on the fallacies of Magic, and a pamphlet on Religion and War (the author was for the former and, naturally, against the latter), it's a bit doubtful how diverting we would find the reading today, but sometimes one gets desperate for distraction. When they arrived at the stage house run by Josiah Shepard, "on the north side of the river, and close to Canajoharie bridge", they stopped for some breakfast. It was not much to Clinton's liking. "It is a large handsome house, dirty and unaccommodating, although much frequented. Here is a small village of two or three stores, two taverns, asheries for making pot and pearl ashes, and about eight houses. We relished our breakfast but very indifferently. The swarms of flies which assailed the food, were very disgusting; and custards which were brought on the table, mal apropos exhibited the marks of that insect as a substitute for the grating of nutmeg."

They didn't stay for lunch.

Next it was on to Fort Plain. As was the case with so many places they visited, the village had fared poorly at Tory hands during the Revolution. John Johnson plundered the area in early August of 1780 and again that October. The two raids had accounted for the burning of more than fifty buildings, the deaths of over a dozen people and the captivity of sixty women and children. The homes of known tories were spared, of course.

Clinton and his comrades continued on. His journal describes the remainder of the day. "At half after one, and forty-five miles from Schenectady, we passed a boat which left Utica yesterday, at 12 o'clock; and five miles further, we overtook and passed a Durham boat, with a load of eight or ten tons, which left Schenectady on Tuesday {this was Friday] for Utica. The Eddy [their river boat] can carry but three tons. We purchased a basket of eggs, at one shilling per dozen, and some fine butter, at fifteen cents per pound, also nine fishes taken by a spear, weighing from one pound to one and a-half each, and eighteen inches long, for four shillings altogether. We shot a fine bittern, and one of our men speared a large snapping-turtle. The wind became fair for a while; the air was cool, the country pleasant, and our epicures were anticipating a fine dinner on shore, when, to evince the fallacy of human wishes, lo! a black vapor, not larger than a man's hand, appeared in the West, and in a short time magnified itself into a dark, portentous cloud, surcharged with electrical matter, and covering the western horizon. We were compelled to encounter the rain-storm by coming to, under the bank, with our curtains down, and in this situation we took our cold dinner and sipped our hot wine. After the rain, which continued until three o'clock, the thermometer stood at 81°. The thighs and fleshy parts of the turtle we caught, were filled with leeches. We pursued our voyage through a damp, disagreeable afternoon, and about evening arrived at Pardee's Tavern in Manheim, on the west side of East Canada Creek."

Ah, the joys of travel !

It was too late by then to continue on to Little Falls so they stayed the night at the Pardee inn, owned by a member of a local family. The popular waystop, "was crowded in the evening, by militia on their way from a regimental inspection. They conducted themselves with great decorum." No one knew it, but two years from now, in 1812, the militia would have more pressing concerns. "Mr. Pardee says that the expense of land and water transportation is about equal, but the former is to be preferred on account of its superior safety and convenience." The party of men in the Eddy would change that before long. Now we'll bring our 1826 travelers here, (it won't take long, they moved very quickly with the aid of the big Ditch) then explore Little Falls.

On Friday, May 5th, Fitch writes of stopping along Flat Creek to examine some Calciferous sandrock and making a side excursion up the creek at Fort Plain to view a metalliferous limestone quarry. A little further on he hopped off the boat and walked along with Professor Eights the remaining distance to Little Falls. He rhapsodized on the occasional view of the turnpike where wagons passed and repassed. "I trust that the beauty and sublimity of the scene is so firmly imprinted on my mind that I shall not soon forget it."

And now the gangs, both of them, are all here at Little Falls. Only Clinton made mention of a two-and-a-half story brick home sitting a distance back from the south bank of the river a few miles east of their day's destination. It would pass out of the hands of the Herkimer family four years later, continuing to deteriorate until restoration efforts began in 1914. It was from this home that Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer set out in the summer of 1777, heading west to the besieged Fort Stanwix, today's Rome, New York. And it was back here he would be carried on August 17th to lose first a leg and then, after reciting the 38th Psalm a few hours later, his life. Clinton adds, "From his house to the Little Falls, the water is deep and still."

On April 16, 1850, the name of Little Falls was changed to Rockton. Two years later, to the day, it was changed back to Little Falls. Perhaps they should have left the name alone after the first change. If you've ever visited it, you will remember the small city perched on a rocky shelf above the Mohawk, climbing up still more rocks. Rock cliffs tower above the river to the east, often festooned with rock climbers in our own time. Two hundred years ago there wasn't much to see here except the rocks.

Local Indians named the spot Astenrogan, meaning 'tumbling waters'. When the Dutch arrived out of Fort Orange (later Albany) to the east, they called it Little Falls, referring to the Cohoes cataracts as Big Falls. They were followed by English and Palatine, or German, frontier traders and then, worst of all, Yankees. Everyone faced the same situation. In Codmon Hislop's 1948 book The Mohawk, he describes the early bateaux operators moving their cargos westward along the river and reaching Keators' Rift. "...The towlines were thrown out and, between the men at the poles and those on the lines, and a wind of Dutch curses, the boats were edged on into deeper water. Boats and supplies had to be hauled out of the river at Little Falls, freighted around the better than half mile of rapids, then reshipped."

And so things remained until 1792 and the coming of the navvies, or canal builders, of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company the following year. The company actually farmed out the contract to a private company and by 1795 a series of five locks detoured boats around the rapids that tumbled down 40 feet in the space of about a mile, just to the south. Clinton will point out that the first locks were made of wood, the builders apparently never noticing that there was a plentiful supply of rock all about them. I'll be sensitive to the feelings of any contractors here today, and say no more. Their efforts did cause a very large change to the economy of the valley. Before their canal was built it cost $100 a ton to ship goods up the river. Now the cost would be reduced to $32 a ton. It would drop to $12 when Clinton's Ditch was completed.

When Benjamin Wright first came through on his surveying trip for the company in 1803, he found the village pretty much as you see it on the map of your handout. Seven years later De Witt Clinton described the future Rockton, "built upon rocks of granite - contains about thirty or forty houses and stores, and a church, together with mills. As you approach the falls, the river becomes narrow and deep, and you pass through immense rocks, principally of granite, interspersed with limestone. In various places you observe profound excavations in the rocks, worn by the agitation of pebbles in the fissures, and in some places, the river is not more than twenty yards wide. As you approach the western extremity of the hills, you will find them about half-a-mile apart from top to top, and at least,three hundred feet high. The rocks are composed of solid granite, and many of them are thirty or forty feet thick, and the whole mountain extends, at least, half-a mile from east to west....huge fragments scattered about in different directions, indicating evidently a violent rupture of the waters through this place, as if they had been formerly dammed up, and had forced a passage through all intervening obstacles. In all directions you behold great rocks exhibiting rotundities, points, and cavities, as if worn by the violence of the waves or pushed from their former positions."

The natural beauty of the scenery caused him to wax a bit poetic that morning. "We continued our voyage at six o'clock, and arrived at the Little Falls at ten. It had rained the whole night, and the morning was introduced by the vocal music of the woods. Thousands of birds of different kinds had assembled in a grove near to Pardee's, which they made to ring with their songs. The blackbird and the robin appeared to be the principal performers in this great concert of nature."

He mentions two families, Finn and Ellice, who were the absentee proprietors of the village, having made their money here and then returned to Britain, leaving their affairs in the hands of an agent, John Porteus, who kept a store and several mills here and married his daughter off to local trader William Alexander. What's good for Alexander and Porteus is not so great for the growth of Little Falls. Unlike William Cooper, the cagey judge and founder of Cooperstown, off to the southeast, the village lots can only be leased, not owned outright. Which of course stifles growth. Frontier entrepreneurs move elsewhere.

The following morning Clinton and his party will do likewise. Very little will change between now and when the commissioners' canal project is finally realized, a war and fifteen years later. In 1856 historian Nathaniel Soley Benton, tells us that when the canal opened the nearby buildings consisted of, "a bridge, and a toll house at the south end of the bridge; the Bellinger grist mill, and a small dwelling, for the miller's residence, and the Vrooman house." The Vrooman family, by the way, dates back to the late 1600s here in the valley. Edward M. Griffing started a newspaper, The People's Friend, in 1821. It was apparently almost always a slow news day (Charles Atkinson had lost his Newfoundland dog) and advertisers were few. There was one ad for an "Aquatic Bookstore" that would pass through from time to time. So it was a sleepy little village that Professor Eaton and his crew of rock- and plant-counting scholars entered that May evening.

"Noted circular holes in the rock the size of wells, formed when river a few feet higher." Fitch mentions the geological features that inquisitive visitors notice when they gingerly climb around on Moss Island, forty-plus feet above the level of the Mohawk. As the waters of melting glaciers, still blocked at the St. Lawrence Valley, slammed their way though the Mohawk Valley ten or twelve thousand years ago, they carried sand, grit, pebbles and rocks, sweeping across the landscape, getting caught up in small whirlpools and eddies, then boring downwards until deep natural wells had been gouged out of nearly solid rock. De Witt Clinton, largely unaware of all of this, repeated the local folklore. "In entering from the east into the narrow part of the river at the Little Falls, we saw on the north side large holes dug, which we were told were made by money-seekers from Stone Arabia."

Asa Fitch described their brief visit walking along the old canal. It, "wears a melancholy appearance. The old locks, partly demolished, give interest to the walk and it was not difficult to imagine the boatmen of the Mohawk again passing through them and singing "Faintly as Tolls the Evening Chime" or some other song as they swung the oar or sat the pole." Something about all those rocks seems to bring out the inner poet. It failed to work with George W. Clinton however. "Near Little Falls the gneiss again made its appearance...A short distance above the village the calciferous sandrock overlays it again." Eaton would approve. Asa Fitch continues, " 5 o'clock saw Herkimer. Passed German Flats and Frankfort, stopped around 5.3 miles out of Utica."

We'll continue that voyage with everyone another time.

© 2003 David Minor / Eagles Byte

David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423

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Part Three

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