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 in 2004, as far as Rome, New York. In 2005, the journey continues."

Canal Talks: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Double-Crossing New York IV

Between the canal commissioners' journey in 1810 and the building of the canal after the War of 1812, the planned route west of Rome shifted. Because of this the routes of our two parties will make like Robert Frost's road and diverge in the wood. Or swamp, actually.

On July 12, 1810, the commissioners all gathered for their meeting at Isaac Lee's hotel. Their leader Thomas Eddy, treasurer of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the organizing force behind the present expedition, had been in favor of extending that company's works westward as far as the Seneca River. But he'd gotten nowhere with that proposal. Now he had an even grander idea, which he floated (so to speak) before his companions. He and a friend, state senator Jonas Platt, had conceived of building a canal all the way to Lake Erie, either directly across the state or via a detour up to Lake Ontario and across by water to the Niagara Portage. Now he was proposing that the remainder of their time be spent exploring that possibility.

After adjourning, their thoughts turned to dinner (lunch) and they dined on a salmon caught nearby. Then Gouverneur Morris and Stephen Van Rensselaer split off from the main party, heading overland for Geneva. Eddy, and the others, prepared to head off down Wood Creek towards Oneida Lake the following day.

Wood Creek had always been a real bear. A 1796 map shows a long, tightly-frizzled line stretching more than a dozen miles westward from Fort Stanwix, emptying into Oneida Lake. If it had any more twists, early travelers would have required a boat that could bend around corners. So many stumps and logs littered the waterway that at times it must have seemed more 'wood' than 'creek'. The situation called for a solution and in 1793 the recently-formed Western Inland Lock Navigation Company made it their top priority. Four years before building the canal at Rome their crews scratched, dug, cut, and clawed a new channel across 13 ox-bows in the serpentine waterway, straightening it somewhat and creating one of the first canal projects in North America.

As our crew made their way west the land they passed on their port side had been reserved by the state for possible future waterway improvements. On their starboard they passed the remains of a old fortification - Fort Bull - named for its commander William Bull. In March of 1756 Lieutenant Chaussegros de Lery lead a 360-man force of French, Canadian and Indian fighters overland from Lake Ontario, brutally took the fort, tossed the English weapons into the swampy water, and torched the works. He got to write the history and claimed to have killed or captured 105 English troops, losing only three men himself. But his Indians soon grew bored of military pursuits and lit out for other parts, forcing the French with their surviving captives to return to Canada. The works themselves were rebuilt the following month and renamed Fort Wood Creek. It was the remains of the latter that Clinton's party saw.

Even with improvements it was a less-than-ideal passageway. From Lake Oneida to Oak Orchard, the uppermost rapids in the creek, the waterway was a formidable foe to bateaux operators. In 1804 ten men poled two vessels half-laden with salt, against the current, taking over a day to make the dozen-or-so crow-mile journey. It was by way of this only-partially-tamed worm of water that Clinton's party headed for Oneida Lake. And it wasn't long before disaster struck.

Clinton: "The ground was miry, and in stepping into the boat, my foot slipped, and I was partly immersed in the creek." As amiable as Clinton seems in most of his published journals, he was often quite blunt and made enemies easily. Some of his Tammany or Federalist foes must have later commented on this momentary pratfall from greatness, for he goes on to add, "This trifling incident was afterwards magnified by the papers into a serious affair." Wishful thinking on their part, perhaps?

Their historian hauled out and dried off, the party continued on their way. When about eight miles from the lake they entered Smith territory. "Smith is not forty years of age, and has been settled here fifteen years. He has six daughters, five of whom are married; two sons, twenty-five grand-children, and one great-grand-child, who almost all reside in his vicinity." None of whom seem overly impressed with a visit from a state senator/two-term mayor of New York City.

After visiting the Smiths and, little further on, the Babbit family, the commissioners pushed on, arriving at Oneida Lake around seven in the evening and settling in for the night at a tavern run by a Mrs. Jackson.

Clinton describes their first view of the lake. "To the west, the eye was lost in the expanse of waters, there being no limits to the horizon. A western wind gently agitated the surface of the waters. A number of canoes darting through the lake after fish in a dark night, with lighted flambeaux of pine knots fixed on elevated iron frames, made a very picturesque and pleasing exhibition. We walked on the beach, composed of the finest sand, like the shores of the ocean, and covered with a few straggling trees."

Then they tucked into supper (salmon again) and went to bed, some in the tavern and some on the beach near the remains of another old blockhouse. The swarms of fleas and mosquitos and the loud talking of the human night owls made sleep nearly impossible and it was cranky crew that launched their batteaux onto the lake the morning of July 14th. They must have had their own water supply, having been warned against "lake blossom", apparently caused by natural pollutants from decaying matter back up Wood Creek, "which render them unsalubrious, and when drank, operate emetically, and produce fever." Foregoing emetic and fever, they pushed on.

If you look at the outline of Oneida Lake on a map, you may be reminded of a vaguely whale-shaped form swimming east that had bumped into a wall. I've never seen an explanation as to why the eastern end is so squared off. (If you have one, see me afterward).

The massive body of water known as Lake Iroquois had formed as the ice of the most recent glacier retreated northward, close to 12,000 years ago, leaving a truly great lake, looking like a larger and deeper version of today's Lake Ontario. Receiving the waters of the other proto-Great Lakes it eventually rammed through the Mohawk and St. Lawrence river bed ice dams and much of its water drained away, leaving today's Lake Ontario and, to its south, Oneida Lake, with an elevation 115 feet higher.

The commissioners made their way across the northern edge of the lake. They stopped in the town of Bengal, which would becomes Vienna 16 years later, for a brief visit with a family of fishermen - salmon, of course - before pushing on to Constantia, a town that had been named Rotterdam. What with another Rotterdam near Schenectady, that would have meant a duplication in names. This one was changed twelve years earlier. Didn't bother Clinton, he still called it Rotterdam. Perhaps the locals did as well. The party stopped there at George Scriba's - Clinton called him George Sinba - a Dutch New York City merchant who had started a settlement here in 1793. Clinton describes the settlement as, "exhibiting marks of a premature growth." Scriba had built a five-story grist mill and a distillery, but could not make a go of either. Next year he'd try to go into the ferry business, but that would fail as well.

In the meantime Scriba had made a success of a store, the only one existing in the region and there were eight or ten houses as well. Both Scriba and his factor, or business agent, were off elsewhere on various matters, but the housekeeper made the travelers feel right at home, after warning them that fleas were as plentiful here as elsewhere. No one in the Clinton party expected to just sit around and be waited on, at least not with all those fleas around. William North pitched right in and rustled up some chowder for everyone. Although not the oldest in the group he must have been rather tired after a day on the lake; Clinton reports that he, "appeared old and decayed". To the delight of his companions, a seventy-year-old man from the village, "rose from his seat and said, "Old daddy, shall I hand you a chair?". North perked up after eating. Must have been the chowder; just maybe the accompanying port wine had something to do with it as well. Soon they all piled back into the boat and continued on until reaching the Oneida River outlet, where they put up for the night at the home of Oliver Stevens, who was Oswego County's first settler. Stevens had learned of the site though two older brothers, stationed in a fort established here during the French and Indian War.

On this day's trip along the northern shore the commissioners probably spotted two islands off their port side at the western end of the lake, for Clinton mentions them. The larger of the two, 27 acres in size and known as Frenchman's Island, had an attached past right out of a 19th-century romance. A young French couple had eloped and emigrated here to the New World when her noble father objected to her marrying beneath her station. Fearing pursuit they'd sailed up the Hudson to Albany and traveled across the state to Oneida Lake, where they set up housekeeping on the island. Eventually they built a house out there in the lake, stocked with books and musical instruments, spending summers here in seclusion, moving to Albany each winter. When conditions changed back in France - Napoleon came into power, or perhaps daddy died - the couple returned to the Old World. Mrs. Stevens told Clinton she'd visited the couple in France. Her main comment was, "the French-woman had no extraordinary pretensions to beauty." Kind of takes some of the romance out of the story, doesn't it? Forget I told you.

Anyway. Our friends had a pleasant trip across the lake. "We amused ourselves on our voyage over the lake, by trolling with a hook and bait of red cloth and white feathers, and caught several Oswego bass, yellow perch, and pikes." They were lucky the trip had been as uneventful as it was. Oneida Lake is quite shallow and its east-west orientation make it subject to sudden winds out of the west that can unexpectedly and rapidly whip up the water. As late as 1945 a sudden storm broke up a tow of half a dozen loaded barges, sinking several and beaching the rest.

Clinton mentions the settlement of Salina, twelve direct miles from the Stevens's home, 32 miles by water following the twisting Oneida River, that forms the boundary between Oswego and Onondaga counties. But they wouldn't get to see the future Syracuse on this trip; they had a detour to make. War with the British was two years into the future, Canada was not yet a serious threat, and many thought diverting the canal north to Lake Ontario by way of the Oswego River would save the labor of gouging out the land all the way west to Lake Erie. So we'll leave the commissioners heading north and jump ahead 16 years.

Clinton had no way of knowing that his ditch would end up slipping south of Oneida Lake and heading directly for Syracuse. As our other travelers, Professor Amos Eaton and his crew of would-be scientists, prepared to leave Rome, they would make Salina/Syracuse their next major destination.

We left our hardy band encamped where Oneida Creek entered the canal. In this same year, 1826, a young man from Vermont enrolled at Dartmouth College. His mother's strong religious feelings seem not to rubbed off on him and the current "great awakening" left him strongly unimpressed. It would be another five years before John Humphrey Noyes would be inexplicably moved by a revival meeting, head west to the banks of Oneida Creek, just to the south of the canal and found the Oneida Community.

Right now, as Amos Eaton, Asa Fitch, George Clinton and the others awoke along the canal, on the morning of May 9th, the nearest good-sized settlement would be Chittenengo, off to the southwest. Frances, the cook, made them breakfast at a place Fitch identifies as New Boston (not either of the two New Bostons on today's map). This one was probably somewhere around today's Canastota. The names of villages and towns were still in a state of flux in this part of the state. Actually neither Canastota or Chittenango would be incorporated until the 1830s.

After breakfast the canal party walked the three miles to where the mile-long side cut canal sliced south to Chittenango, and followed it past the three unattended locks and into the village.

When former U. S. Representative John Barentse Yates arrived here just after the war, in 1816, and set up a law practice with William K. Fuller, the community consisted of a tannery, a grist mill, a post office and a few dwellings. Yates seems to have been a visionary of sorts. At the time there was no guarantee that the talked-about canal route would include Chittenango, but Yates rolled up his sleeves and got to work growing the village, with the addition of a large store, a plaster mill, lime kilns, an oil mill (for crushing seeds for their oil) and a woolen factory. But Eaton and his students hadn't detoured down this way to see factories and oil mills.

Yates took an interest in education; two years earlier he'd founded (and funded) a school here with the grand name of The Polytechny Institute. He bought an abandoned tavern dating back to 1815, had several new buildings erected and installed his brother, the Reverend Andrew Yates as its head, presiding over a faculty of six teachers. Courses, based on the Manual Labor Schools model, included philology and ancient languages, natural science - a certain draw for Eaton's boys - and practical agriculture. Yates students would support themselves by working on campus in new mills, machinery shops as well as a dry dock and repair basin being planned for up on the main canal. Plans were also under way to lease outlying land to tenants, who would agree to house one of the students and whose own children would be admitted to the school.

According to George W. Clinton, De Witt's son, the visitors were shown around the school by the professors, who also invited their guests to stay for lunch. Afterwards they were pointed to a nearby natural wonder, remains of trees that had absorbed lime from springs. The organic parts of the plants had decomposed, leaving behind limestone replicas, complete down to wood, bark, leaves, and even snails. Clinton also noted that the local canal lock timbers were playing host to a variety of mushroom.

They moseyed along, passing through the area that would become Green Lakes State Park and a settlement with a few huts called Pleasant Valley - a few locals still used a former name, Satan's Kingdom; near Sodom Lake - then stopped for the night at Manlius Center. It was often referred to then as Fuddletown, supposedly for the heavy boozing that took place. Twenty-five years later the place would have only forty houses, so it's quite likely there were far fewer in 1826. Manlius itself had been founded nearby back in 1794 and named for an ancient Roman clan that had produced great generals. Our party may have split up to sleep in various sections of the village - Asa says he stayed at Reed's Settlement, apparently an unofficial name.

The next day they were all up at sunrise and preparing to head into Salina. We've noticed in the past that George Clinton, ever the dedicated boy naturalist, never paid much attention in his journal to the cities they passed through. Salina was to be no exception. But, Salina and its outgrowth Syracuse, incorporated last year, would become an important player in canal history, so, as the late Arthur Miller wrote, "attention must be paid".

Basically, a massive layer of salt and limestone stretches across western New York, from Caledonia and Mumford in the Genesee Valley region to Syracuse, all covered by layers of shale and gypsum. Underground springs at the southeastern end of Onondaga Lake bring brine to the surface, an occurrence noticed by the earliest inhabitants of the area. The story goes that the natives believed an evil spirit inhabited the springs, stinking them up and giving anyone drinking from them a nasty surprise. When the French Jesuit priest Simon LeMoyne came along in 1654 he wasn't going to believe that one for an upstate New York minute. He gave it the old taste test and explained to his Indian hosts that it was only salt. The English came along in the early 1750s, fought off the French, then lost everything to the local whites thirty-some years after that. The lands were returned to the Onondaga people, then bought back from them by New York State which divided more than a million acres among veterans of the Revolution.

Two of those former soldiers, Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler, came along in 1788, re discovered the salt springs, and set out to turn brine into bucks, each with their own operation. They say that Danforth arrived from his home in Onondaga Hollow carrying his kettle inverted on his head. Other enterprising types soon arrived; Danforth went into partnership with six others to form the Federal Company, operating out of a large building containing 42 kettles. Water was pumped by hand from a well near the lake, then boiled off to leave the salt. By 1797 so much salt was being shipped out of the area that New York State began legislating its manufacture and sale. The immediate area was surveyed, lots were laid out and a tax of four cents was levied for every bushel shipped. William Stevens was appointed Superintendent of Onondaga Salt Springs. In February of 1810, five months before the canal commissioners arrived twelve miles to the north, saltmaker John Richardson took over as superintendent. Four years later 226,000 bushels of manufactured salt were shipped out to eager markets.

The village of Salina at the lower end of Lake Onondaga had been surveyed by John Geddes in 1804. Centre Square (later called Washington Park) was laid out as the village green, and the surrounding area began filling up with German immigrants, arriving to work in the village salt blocks and evaporating vats. A schoolhouse was built the following year. Meanwhile a nearby settlement named Bogardus Corners was renamed Milan, then South Salina, then Cossitts Corners, then in 1817, Corinth. By this time the War of 1812 had ended and our friend De Witt Clinton was over at Rome, turning the first shovel of dirt for his grand ditch, which three years after that brought the first boat to the area on the partially-completed Erie Canal. The village of many names here at the end of the lake was finally incorporated in 1825 under the name Syracuse, with Salina remaining a separate village. The name Syracuse had been chosen because the ancient Syracuse in Italy was near ancient Salina. When the two in New York merged in 1847 and were incorporated as the City of Syracuse, Salina would form the First Ward.

By the time the professor and his students arrived here in Syracuse the village, mostly on the south side of the canal, with a population of about 2500 people, contained a "hump-backed" bridge across the waterway - along with the first weighlock in a series of three, a boat house and a dry dock - an oil mill similar to the one in Chittenango, Baptist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, a Public School, a tailor shop, a number of private, one-story dwellings, several stores including General Mosely's Green Store, and two taverns, the Syracuse House hotel, and one built in 1805 later to be known as the Mansion House. An equal numbers of taverns and churches. Syracuse was already a real canal town.

When the Rensselaer group arrived in Syracuse around nine in the morning Asa Fitch had an errand to run. His pocket watch had stopped recently and he dropped into one of the shops, perhaps the Green Store (owner General Mosley had recently moved to Massachusetts) to have it fixed. When Asa checked an hour later his timepiece had stopped again and he - getting into the spirit of canal time - decided to forget about it. He was impressed by the growing village. "A year ago there was scarcely a house in the place. It has now many elegant buildings. It is laid out into streets and has three handsome churches. New buildings are putting up, in every part of it."

They lingered until around noon, inspecting the village and the salt works, then moved on. One of the party stayed behind to give lectures on chemistry and botany. Fitch remarked that he was fine young man but, just maybe, a little too fond of the ladies. "Had heard it affirmed that he often shaves twice in one day! This I should think was once too often." This young man, whose name was either Harris, Harms, or Arms (Fitch's writing is as bad as my own) may have been a student or a member of the party only briefly; he's not listed in RPI histories as being on the staff.

After walking on to meet their boats at the next lock west, Asa concluded, "Above the lock, from the canal, we had a fine view of Onondaga Lake, and the flourishing villages of Salina and Liverpool at a distance."

And there we'll leave our eighteen-twenty-sixers until next time. De Witt Clinton and his fellow commissioners have one detour to make - to the nearest Great Lake. They woke up on July 15th at Three River Point, where the Seneca and Oneida rivers combine and flow north as the Oswego River. Clinton describes the place they stopped as part of a gospel lot, or land held in trust for the support of the ministry. In spite of this there was nothing heavenly about their accommodations that night, at a tavern run by a family named Magie. From Clinton's description to call this place a flop house would be unadulterated flattery. Noisy drunks, including Ma and Pa Magie and their son, were strewn all over the dirty interior. He mentioned later that Ann, the serving girl, had been known to toss back three whiskeys in a row.

They're shown to a relatively vermin-free room, or so they're told. "But no sooner were we lodged, than our noses were assailed by a thousand villainous smells, meeting our olfactory nerves in all directions, the most potent exhalation arising from boiled pork, which was left close to our heads. Our ears were invaded by a commingled noise of drunken people in an adjacent room, of crickets in the hearth, of rats in the walls, of dogs under the beds, by the whizzing of musquitoes about our heads, and the flying of bats about the room. The women in the house were continually pushing open the door, and pacing the room for plates, and knives, and spoons; and the dogs would avail themselves of such opportunities to come in under our beds. . . On lighting a candle and examining the beds, we found that we had been assailed by an army of bed-bugs, aided by a body of light infantry in the shape of fleas, and a regiment of musquito cavalry. I retreated from the disgusting scene and immediately dressed myself, and took refuge in a segar."

He took refuge outdoors out by the point, joining commissioner Peter Porter, who had pitched a tent outside. "The moon was in its full orb and blaze of unclouded majesty. . . .The ground on which I stood was elevated; below me flowed the Oneida River, and on my left the Seneca poured its waters, and uniting together they formed a majestic stream. Flocks of white geese were sporting on the water . . .the bellowing of thousands of frogs in the waters, and the roaring of bloodhounds, in pursuit of deer and foxes, added to the singularity of the scene. My mind became tranquillized, and I availed myself of a vacant mattrass in the tent, and enjoyed a comfortable sleep of two hours."

The next morning, July 16th, Porter and Clinton brushed the bedbugs off of their clothes and bodies, and struck the tent. When the rest of the party joined them they all set off up the Oneida River. Clinton is surprised to find the waterway so narrow, since it contains the outflow of Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Canandaigua, and Skaneatelas lakes. Since the river bed is so constrained by its surroundings, there are many rapids all along its length. As the party moves north, Clinton ticks them off - Smooth Rock Rapid, the Devil's Horn, the Six-Mile Rift, the Little Smooth Rock Rapid, the Devil's Warping Bar, the Devil's Horse Race; and the Oswego Rift - all in less than 25 miles. This all, combined with the upcoming war with Britain, will help ensure that the Lake Erie route will prevail in the end. When the Oswego Canal is eventually completed in 1828 it will follow, not replace the river.

The commissioners are not the only ones forced to deal with the user-unfriendly waterway. The only feasible outlet for the production of the Salina-Syracuse salt beds was up through these Horns, Warping Bars and Horse Races of Old Nick. When the level of the water was low the various rafts and batteaux used to transport the salt were forced to either wait for an increase in the flow - not terribly likely in mid-July - or portage their saline cargo around the rapids to other boats. The volume of cargo backed up at each of the major rapids was staggering. Clinton estimated it as 15,00 five bushel barrels, worth tens of thousands of dollars, once they were shipped out the St. Lawrence to Quebec.

However, when there's money to be made, there is never a shortage of those willing to rake it in. At the Falls of the Oswego, it's twelve-foot drop maneuverable only by small boats, a cadre of pilots waited, to guide these down through the roaring, churning waters where, as Clinton put it, "the least miss step would dash the vessels to atoms." He doesn't mention getting the boats back up - they were apparently portaged.

After changing boats themselves our adventurers finally arrive at Oswego, with its three taverns at seven PM and, "put up at a tolerable tavern, kept by E. Parsons, called Colonel." We'll leave them there to explore the town and return back up the Oswego River, then rejoin both parties next time as they head west out of Onondaga County.

David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423
'dminor' 'at symbol' ''

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Part Five

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