On the brink

Drawing by French naturalist Charles Alexander Leseur of the High Falls of the Genesee at Rochester.
This early depiction of the Middle Falls of the Genesee River at Rochester, New York, was sketched by French naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur in 1816. This waterfall at 96 feet was the highest of the area’s four falls, and along with the others was quickly exploited for its industrial potential. The large building at the upper right is a gristmill built in 1807 by Englishman Charles Harford. (Charles Alexandre Lesueur, “Genesee River,” Rochester, New York. Gray wash and pencil — 20 x 13 cm. Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, inv. no. 39059r.)

The Genesee River is the star of the show when it comes to the early history of Rochester. All the other players come and go, but the river is always there.

Rising in the northern highlands of Pennsylvania, the Genesee drops some 2,000 feet on its way to Lake Ontario. Much of the descent occurs over two sets of magnificent waterfalls, one in Letchworth State Park, the other in downtown Rochester. It is named after the Seneca word for the surrounding landscape, often translated as “beautiful valley.” But the Seneca themselves from long familiarity and use had many names for the river. One was particularly appropriate — “river of many falls.”1

“They call this River Casconchiagon,” wrote the Jesuit priest and explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix in a letter home to France in May 1721. He had reached an outpost on the Niagara River and met “M. de Joncaire, Captain in the Troops of New France,” who gave him this first-person account of the river, which lay some distance to the east:

“Two Leagues from its Mouth, we are stopped by a Fall which appears to be sixty Feet high, and one hundred and forty Yards wide. A Musket Shot higher, we find a second of the same Width, but not so high by two thirds. Half a League further, a third, one hundred Feet high, good Measure, and two hundred yards wide. After this, we meet with several Torrents; and after having sailed fifty Leagues further, we perceive a fourth fall, every way equal to the third.”

The good Father Charlevoix, who must have paddled past the river on his voyage west, ruefully wrote that he would have visited it himself if only he “had been sooner informed of its Singularity.”2

Map of the north part of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
In 1788 a syndicate controlled by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham purchased the preemption rights to western New York, allowing them to negotiate the purchase of the land from the Seneca Nation. Short of funds, Phelps and Gorham could acquire clear title to only about 2.6 million acres. This map detail shows the northern part of their purchase, including the Mill Lot Tract west of the Genesee (“Geneseo”) River. The Middle and Lower falls are marked on the map, along with Ebenezer Allan’s gristmill and sawmill. (Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation/River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester)

A hundred acres and a waterfall

The Genesee Country would be opened to white settlement within a couple of generations of Charlevoix’s visit. During the American Revolution the indigenous occupants, the Senecas, were defeated by the Continental soldiers of General John Sullivan, their fields and villages laid to waste. Afterward, when those soldiers returned home, their accounts of the fertile country to the west caught the ears of speculators eager to make another kind of killing.

A group of investors led by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham in 1788 purchased the preemption rights to western New York, allowing them to negotiate with the Senecas who, in principal, still held title to the soil.

The Senecas, unwilling to part with all of their territory, sold everything east of the Genesee, about 2.6 million acres, for $5,000 or a little more than five cents an acre. In a concession to Phelps they included a diagonally shaped tract west of the river, about twelve miles by twenty-four, for use as a “mill lot.” In return, Phelps promised to establish a sawmill and gristmill to serve native inhabitants and white settlers alike.3

An Indian trader named Ebenezer Allan agreed to operate the mills, and Phelps sold or gave to him a smaller tract of one hundred acres on which to build them.

Allan’s tract was adjacent to a stretch of rocky ledges and rapids known as the Upper Falls, so named because they were the first in a series of four cataracts over which the Genesee River tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The Upper Falls dropped a mere 14 feet – nothing compared to the mighty 96-foot-high Middle Falls a half-mile downstream. If you were to visit downtown Rochester today you would find no sign of them. But in the early 19th century the power they could generate was sufficient to drive many mills and factories.4

Allan turned out to be a poor millwright. His crudely constructed mills were inefficient and inaccessible to early settlers, and in 1792 he sold the falls tract and moved away. The tract passed through several hands before being contracted for purchase in 1803 by Nathaniel Rochester, William Fitzhugh, and Charles Carroll, three Maryland businessmen visiting on a tip from a local land agent. Impressed with the tract’s potential, they signed a contract, agreeing to buy the hundred acres for $1,750 to be paid in five annual installments.5

It was a cold-eyed real-estate investment that may have been underwritten in part by Rochester’s slave-trading business back home.6

Hundred Acre Tract Deed
The copy of the deed to the Hundred Acre Tract on file at Genesee County Clerk’s office includes a small thumbnail plan of the property, labeled “Carroll Fitzhugh Rochester 100 a[cre]s.” Partners Nathaniel Rochester, William Fitzhugh, and Charles Carroll in 1803 had agreed to purchase the property from the Pulteney Estate. This contract, signed on Nov. 18, 1811, finalized the deal. (Genesee County Land Records, Liber 3, p. 307/Microfilm scan via FamilySearch.com.)

“A nest egg for Posterity”

At first, none of the three partners was willing to relocate to the new property. Rochester established a large farm, complete with gristmill, sawmill, and paper mill, at Dansville, about 40 miles south. Carroll and Fitzhugh remained in Maryland, leaving to him the hands-on management of their “estate.”

In the late summer of 1811 Rochester surveyed the purchase, plotting it out as a simple grid. He envisioned a mercantile future for his “paper city” and omitted a town square and located property reserved for civic functions (such as a future courthouse) away from the community center. That space instead was filled with narrow, high-priced lots to encourage commercial use.7

All was done in consultation with Carroll and Fitzhugh. In a long, advice-filled missive to Rochester, Carroll urged him to hold back any property suitable for water-powered industry: “We perfectly accord with you in sentiment as to the advantage of laying out a Town & selling building lots . . . & this you are fully authorized to do, but by no means to sell any ground that can in any possible manner or shape injure or interfere with any scites [sic] or situations for water works.”8

Heeding Carroll’s words, Rochester reserved a large undivided parcel adjacent to the Upper Falls that could accommodate several mills and warehouses. He named it, simply, “Mill Yard.”

Nothing “should induce us to divest ourselves of the fee in any part of that Property,” Carroll had emphasized. “We hold it as a nest egg for Posterity . . . & scarcely any given sum would weigh with me one moment to divide or part with it.”9

For the three partners, this was the money lot.

Charles Alexandre Lesueur's 1816 sketch of the village of Rochester
Five years after its founding, the struggling settlement at the Falls of the Genesee remained a motley arrangement of muddy tracks, tree stumps, and free-range pigs. Even so, this first artistic rendering of the Hundred Acre Tract — made in 1816 by French naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur and wryly titled “City on Genesee River at the Fall” — hints at the growth and prosperity soon to come. The view looks southwest from today’s Four Corners in downtown Rochester. The track running diagonally from left to right, grandly named Buffalo Street, is today’s West Main Street. The large building at the left is the original Red Mill built by Hervey Ely and his partners in 1814. A smaller building, drawn across the page gutter, may be the sawmill built by John C. Rochester and Harvey Montgomery in 1815. One of the cascades of the Upper Falls can be seen immediately to its left. (Charles Alexandre Lesueur, “Ville sur Genesee River à la fall,” Rochester, New York. Pencil — 40 x 13 cm. Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, inv. no. 39059v + 39060.)

“Their destroying attention”

The Hundred Acre Tract plays an outsize role in the popular history of Rochester. As the village and then city prospered and grew over the course of the 19th century — and it did, spectacularly — the rough outlines of its early years would be worn smooth by the fading memories of its original settlers and their children. But the fact is that for years after its establishment Rochesterville persisted as a remote, rattlesnake-infested foothold in the wilderness, virtually inaccessible to overland travelers. In more ways than one, it was a community on the brink.

The little settlement’s isolation was eased somewhat in 1812 when a wooden bridge was built across the river along Buffalo Street, its main thoroughfare — just in time for the outbreak of hostilities along the Niagara Frontier.

War with Great Britain commenced with much fanfare and bluster that June with a declaration of war by Congress and an invasion of Upper Canada. The campaign, doomed by poor planning and incompetent leadership, drew to a close in December 1813 with American General George McClure penned up in Fort George on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. The British forces closing in included disciplined regulars who had long experience fighting on the Continent and elsewhere for the Empire. McClure, who could muster only about 100 raw United States regulars and Canadian volunteers, made the reasonable decision to retreat to the American side of the river. But before departing he gave the order to burn the nearby village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to the ground, a criminal act that served no purpose and stranded the village’s inhabitants, mostly women and children, in the freezing cold and snow.10

Enraged, the British pursued the Americans across the river and with a ruthless bayonet attack captured Fort Niagara. They then turned south and in retaliation for the immolation of Newark burned the settlements of Lewiston, Youngstown, Manchester (Niagara Falls), Black Rock, and Buffalo, and many isolated homesteads besides.11

The devastation — and fear of the British army’s Native American allies — sent refugees streaming east toward the Genesee River.

“The sufferings of the unfortunate people about Buffaloe [sic] excite the sympathy of all who have heard them,” wrote Fitzhugh to Rochester in early February 1814. “It would seem if the war should continue that every feeling of Humanity would be put to sleep.”12

That spring the settlers of Rochesterville found themselves under attack — or so they thought — when a British squadron unexpectedly appeared off the mouth of the Genesee River. According to a later account “all the male inhabitants of the village, capable of bearing arms (being 33), turned out with the militia of the neighboring towns,” to prevent a landing. But the village’s remoteness from the lake and a lack of satisfactory targets gave the British little incentive to attempt one. After a desultory volley or two the commander, Sir James Yeo, sailed off.13

In other words, Rochesterville likely was spared the fate of the Niagara Frontier because it was still in such a backward state — a detail that was not lost on Rochester and his partners.

“I observed by way of the eastern papers that the Enemy had been at no great distance from our Mill Seat at Genesee Falls,” noted Fitzhugh. “It is well perhaps the village was not improved with mills [and other] buildings which might have claimed their destroying attention.”14

James Geddes Survey
James Geddes and his survey team on July 29, 1816 crossed the Genesee River near Rochesterville, where he recommended taking the canal across the river by way of a slackwater crossing. “It is proposed to pass the Genesee river by a dam ten feet high, with a bridge some distance above it, for a towing path,” he reported. “The place of passing is a few chains south of the village or Rochester.” (Detail from Map 11, Series A0851, New York State Archives. Image courtesy of Craig Williams.)

“They crossed the river yesterday”

The treaty of Ghent was signed at the end of 1814 and within a few weeks hostilities sputtered to a close. By then a few more tentative steps had been taken at the Hundred Acre Tract. A sawmill was raised in 1813, followed the next year by the Red Mill, the tract’s first gristmill since Allan’s failed effort twenty years before.

In the meantime, reports began to filter in from Albany about a new and massive state project. The details were far from certain, but the proposed “monstrous canal,” in Fitzhugh’s words, which would connect the waters of Lake Erie with the Hudson River, had the potential to change everything. “What distance will the canal run from our mill seat?” he asked. “Not far I think by the direction it takes upon the map.”15

Rochester’s reply came a few weeks later: “The route for the Canal . . . crosses the Genesee River on our Land immediately above the falls, about where we forded the River twelve years ago. The advantages that would result to the State of New York, and particularly to this western part of it would be incalculable if it can be accomplished.”16

Hervey Ely letter
In a postscript to a brief business letter, dated July 30, 1816 and addressed to Nathaniel Rochester, mill owner Hervey Ely casually notes that “the surveyors for the great Canal” crossed the Genesee River the day before. (Nathaniel Rochester Papers, Rochester Historical Society)

Planning for the canal had started much earlier, but out of necessity it had been set aside during the war. With the arrival of peace it could resume in earnest. After much political wrangling a skeptical state legislature in April 1816 appointed a board of canal commissioners and instructed them to undertake a new set of surveys. The commissioners wasted no time. James Geddes, who led the survey team east from Tonawanda Creek near Buffalo, was soon approaching the Genesee River.

Hervey Ely, one of the builders of the Red Mill, broke the news to Nathaniel Rochester in a postscript to a letter written July 30, 1816: “P.S. The surveyors for the great Canal are now here, they crossed the river yesterday about 100 yards above the head of the race.”17

Once again the Genesee River was front and center. It wasn’t finished with Rochesterville. Not by a long shot.

  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Genesee River.” Encyclopedia Britannica, June 11, 2008, https://www.britannica.com/place/Genesee-River. ↩︎
  2. Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix. Letters to the Dutchess of Lesdiguieres (London: Goadsby, 1763), 144. ↩︎
  3. Howard L. Osgood, “The Title of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase,” Publications of the Rochester Historical Society (Rochester, NY: Rochester Historical Society, 1891), 1:20–23. ↩︎
  4. “Over the years the change in terminology for Rochester’s three waterfalls (originally four) led to much confusion. Going downstream from downtown, the original Upper Falls no longer exists. The old Middle Falls is now the High (or Main, or Upper) Falls, while the Upper Step-Lower Falls is now the Middle Falls and the Lower Step-Lower Falls is currently known as the Lower Falls.” Thomas X. Grasso, “Geology and History of the Rochester Gorge, Part One.” Rochester History 54, no. 4 (Fall 1992), 9. ↩︎
  5. William Farley Peck, History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York: From the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907 (New York: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1908), 1:32. ↩︎
  6. For a thoughtful treatment of Nathaniel Rochester’s slave-trading past, see Justin Murphy, “Rochester’s founders held people in slavery, but would name changes make up for past injustice?” Democrat & Chronicle, July 20, 2020, https://www.democratandchronicle.com/in-depth/news/2020/07/20/rochesters-founding-fathers-held-people-slavery-does-matter/3256274001/. ↩︎
  7. Diane Shaw, City Building on the Eastern Frontier: Sorting the New Nineteenth-Century City (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), 30–35. ↩︎
  8. Charles Carroll to Nathaniel Rochester, 17 August 1811, Nathaniel Rochester Papers, Rochester Historical Society. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. Lewis L. Babcock, “The Spoliation of the American Frontier,” chap. 8 in The War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier (Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Historical Society, 1927), 115–138. ↩︎
  11. Ibid. ↩︎
  12. William Fitzhugh to Nathaniel Rochester, 2 February 1814, Nathaniel Rochester Papers, Rochester Historical Society. ↩︎
  13. A Directory for the Village of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Ely, 1827), 90, in Franklin Hanford, Notes on the Visits of American and British Naval Vessels to the Genesee River, 1809–1814 (Rochester, NY: Genesee Press, 1911), 11–15. ↩︎
  14. William Fitzhugh to Nathaniel Rochester, 2 February 1814. ↩︎
  15. Ibid. ↩︎
  16. Nathaniel Rochester to William Fitzhugh (manuscript copy), 15 March 1814, Nathaniel Rochester Papers, Rochester Historical Society. ↩︎
  17. Hervey Ely to Nathaniel Rochester, 30 July 1816, Nathaniel Rochester Papers, Rochester Historical Society. ↩︎

There for the taking

David Cusick painting of three Iroquois wearing diverse costumes
Tuscarora artist David Cusick in 1827 painted these Iroquois “in diverse costumes,” with two carrying weapons and one holding a pipe. Cusick is thought to have been born around 1780 on the Oneida reservation in central New York. His younger brother, Dennis, also was a watercolor painter; David Cusick, as well, was a veteran of the War of 1812, a physician and an early student of Haudenosaunee oral tradition. His 1828 “Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations,” the later editions of which he illustrated, is thought to be the first English-language account of indigenous history and myth written and published by a Native American. (Collection of the New-York Historical Society)

Long before European incomers began pushing their way up the Hudson and then west, the interior of what is now New York state had been settled by a Confederacy of five indigenous nations — the Haudenosaunee or People of the Longhouse. From east to west, these were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.

The French called them the Iroquois.

Their territory, embracing the Finger Lakes region of modern central and western New York, was covered with forests teeming with wildlife. Hunting, fishing, and agriculture sustained by the rich alluvial soil of the river valleys provided sustenance. The Confederacy provided protection.

1771 Map of the Six Nations
This 1851 facsimile map shows the territory of the Six Nations confederacy across present-day western New York state and northern Pennsylvania. The original was produced in 1771 by Guy Johnson for William Tryon, the governor of the colony of New York. The Six Nations or Haudenosaunee were allies of the British during their colonial wars with France in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (The New York Public Library)

The Confederacy was “the most powerful and sophisticated Indian nation north of the Aztecs,” notes Woodward A. Wickham, writing for the Institute of Current World Affairs in 1973. He continues:

“Besides securing domestic peace among the Five Nations, the Iroquois eventually dominated all other Indian states from the St. Lawrence River to the Tennessee, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. The Confederacy homeland included the major east-west trail (now the New York Thruway), the eastern Great Lakes, and the headwaters of all four major river systems: the Delaware, Susquehanna, Ohio, and St. Lawrence. When Europeans settled the Atlantic coast, the Iroquois controlled all communication between them and the western tribes. The Iroquois of the Confederacy were the first Indians to acquire guns without being eradicated in the process, and soon grew rich through trade, raiding, and selling protection to Europeans and tributary Indians.”

In 1722 the Tuscarora, an Iroquois-speaking people who had fled their Carolina homeland to escape white incursion and warfare, were accepted into what now became the Six Nations. By then the Confederacy had endured for three centuries. 

But the Haudenosaunee could not prevent European settlement around their perimeter. Caught between the British to the east and the French to the north and west, they were forced to choose sides. Their alliance with the British Crown worked to their benefit during the imperial wars of the 17th and early 18th centuries. But it proved disastrous once the colonies declared their independence.

The Confederacy itself was broken. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras joined the rebellious colonies and turned against their brethren to the west.

Map shows the route of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 and its encampment near present-day Geneseo, New York.
Part of a hand-drawn 1779 campaign map depicts Sullivan’s march through the Genesee Valley from east to west in the vicinity of present-day Geneseo, New York. Six campsites are shown, dated Sept. 9 (right) through Sept. 14-15 (left). Sullivan’s forces suffered their worst setback of the expedition not far from here when a small detachment was surrounded and destroyed by a larger force of native warriors and British Rangers. Undeterred, Sullivan’s main force loitered long enough to complete its grim mission before turning home. “The whole Army was immediately engaged in destroying the Crops,” Sullivan reported in a letter to Washington. “The Corn was gathered and burnt in Houses and in Kilns, that the Enemy might not reap the least advantage from it, which method we have pursued in every other place. . . . I am persuaded except one Town situated near the allegany [sic] about 57 Miles from Chenessee — there is not a single Town left in the Country of the five nations.” (Library of Congress/Geography and Map Division)

Scorched earth

For the Senecas the war all but ended in 1779, when George Washington finally turned his attention to the brutal conflict that had sputtered and raged for years along the New York and Pennsylvania frontier. The escalating cycle of atrocities and reprisals carried out between the Senecas and their Loyalist allies and the white settlers of the region could no longer be ignored. Washington’s response was to send an expeditionary force into the heart of the Seneca’s country. The invaders were to conduct a scorched-earth campaign and show their enemies no mercy.

“Sir,” wrote Washington to Major General John Sullivan on May 31. “The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

The Sullivan Expedition was one of the largest independent Continental operations of the war. That August a force of about 3,200 regulars and militia marched into Confederacy territory. The Senecas, along with their native and Loyalist allies, lost a single engagement at Newtown (present-day Elmira) and then retreated, unable to offer an effective defense. Following Washington’s orders, Sullivan’s force moved into the Genesee country, systematically destroying villages, burning fields, and slaughtering livestock. 

When the campaign ended the native survivors sought refuge near the British forts along the Niagara frontier. That winter their numbers were further depleted by sickness and starvation.

In 1781 the fate of the Six Nations was sealed by the Continental and French victory at far-away Yorktown, Virginia. In signing the Treaty of Paris two years later the British ceded much of their North American empire to their former colonies. The treaty made no mention of the Haudenosaunee, some of whom made their way to join the British in Canada. Those who remained on the United States side of the new border were simply abandoned.

One of the prime causes of the American Revolution had been hunger for western land. British colonial policy had barred settlement beyond the Appalachians. Now the door was flung wide open. Thousands of veterans who had participated in the Sullivan campaign had returned to New England and elsewhere and were spreading word of the fertile country of the Genesee. There for the taking.

Manuscript copy of the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1784.
The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, signed in 1784, one year after the end of the Revolutionary War, was one of the earliest treaties between the new federal government and representatives of the Six Nations. Its four brief articles set out to reward the Oneida and Tuscarora nations, which had fought alongside the Continentals, and to punish those who had allied themselves with the British. The full Six Nations council refused to ratify the treaty, however, and its provisions were overridden by later federal treaties, particularly the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. It might be said that, ultimately, these U.S. treaties were worth little more than the parchment they were written on, as New York state and private interests routinely ignored federal law in their drive to push the Haudenosaunee off their land and, if possible, out of the state. (National Archives)

Interlocking forces

In his book Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State historian Lawrence M. Hauptman defines three “interlocking forces . . . that helped create an urban industrial corridor in the heart of Iroquoia”: land, transportation, and national defense.

Of these, transportation meant roads, of course, but also canals: first, the waterway improvements of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company; later, the much larger and more disruptive Grand Canal that would connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

Many of the men who populate the histories of these canals — including Philip Schuyler, Peter B. Porter, and DeWitt Clinton — were unscrupulous in their dealings with the Six Nations. In their eyes the Senecas and their allies were broken enemies that could be swept aside in the rush to open western New York to white settlement.

They applied the same policy to their nominal allies, the Oneidas, whose territory lay across a natural east-west communications corridor and included the Great Carrying Place, the strategic portage that connected the headwaters of the Mohawk River with Wood Creek and, in turn, the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes.

State politicians and speculators (who were often one and the same) ignored the weak federal government and its laws regulating trade and land sales between settlers and native peoples and set about depriving the Oneidas of their home. The ink had hardly dried on their illegal “treaties” before the surveyors arrived and workers for the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company began clearing Wood Creek. 

On Lake Erie, state and private actors chipped away at the large Seneca reservation at Buffalo Creek — which had also become a home for native refugees from across the Confederacy — clearing the way for the western terminus of the Erie Canal and the future growth of the city of Buffalo.

By the 1820s the people of the Six Nations would be boxed into reservations scattered around New York state, having fought an increasingly hopeless rear-guard action against a powerful array of private and state interests. They had been outnumbered, riven by internal divisions, and betrayed by the very missionaries and agents who ostensibly had been sent to protect them. Vast tracts of forest, lakes, and river bottomland had been surrendered for a pittance.

But they were not entirely defeated. Unlike the indigenous peoples of the southern United States, the people of the Six Nations successfully resisted removal. There would be no northern counterpart to the Trail of Tears. Only the Oneida Nation — which split in two with the larger part moving to Wisconsin and later Ontario, Canada — would consider abandoning their homeland. The rest remained.

But they had been pushed out of the way of the Erie Canal.

Seneca River Crossing

Seneca River Crossing
A lone freighter is towed across the Seneca River near Montezuma, New York. The view looks east from the west bank of the river. (Copyright 2022 by Steve Boerner.)

The towpath bridge at Montezuma stretches across the sluggish waters of the Seneca River in the early morning hours of June 15, 1824. It has been in regular use since the previous season, allowing packets, freighters, and other Erie Canal boats to navigate the entire distance from Albany to Brockport, about twenty miles west of Rochester.

This slackwater crossing carried the Erie Canal west to the margins of the Cayuga marshes, where water levels were at the mercy of the river and the nearby Canandaigua Outlet. Traffic on the canal would be plagued by unusually low water later that year.

As the Canal Commissioners were to report, “[s]ome inconvenience was, however, experienced in crossing the Cayuga marshes . . . on the subsidence of these streams in the latter part of the season, the water in the canal was reduced below its proper height, and loaded boats frequently detained.”

A guard lock under construction on the west bank would help maintain the canal’s water level across the marsh. But problems at the slackwater crossing itself dogged engineers until it could be replaced by an aqueduct in 1856.

Seneca River Freighter
The unshaded freighter model, viewed in Blender’s 3D workspace.

The freighter in the scene is a model of one of the early 19th-century canal boats recently discovered at the bottom of Seneca Lake. The bridge is based on a description published in an early canal commissioners’ report and an 1825 watercolor sketch by John Henry Hopkins. Its southwest-to-northeast alignment, and a date near summer solstice, allowed me to indulge in a long-wished-for opportunity to set a scene at sunrise.

Another river crossing will be the theme of the next scene, one set further west and, for the canal engineers, much more ambitious.

Path across the water

John Hopkins towpath bridge sketch
Episcopalian bishop and packet boat passenger John Henry Hopkins sketched the Seneca River towpath bridge in his notebook in November, 1825, shortly after the Erie Canal opened. The handwritten note reads “Montezuma, the canal and elevated tow path across the Cayuga Marsh.” (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan)

As James Geddes, Esq., found himself exploring the rivers of central New York in late 1808 on behalf of the state legislature, he believed he had come across a unique opportunity.

He already was familiar with the territory. A native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Geddes had settled near Onondaga Lake in 1793. He had been attracted by reports of brine springs in the area, and soon formed a company to manufacture salt. Eventually the community of Geddes grew up around the salt works, and he went on to become a lawyer, justice of the peace, and state assemblyman.

Along the way he had also taken up surveying, and proved to be so adept at this essential frontier skill that he was employed as an assistant to the state surveyor general, Simeon De Witt. So it was in 1808 he was selected to survey potential routes for a western canal.

But not necessarily an Erie canal. Even though the state legislature had directed De Witte to explore a direct route from the Hudson to Lake Erie, the resulting commission dismissed that as impractical. Instead, it allocated $600 for surveys of two other routes: From Oneida Lake to Oswego, and a shorter one to bypass Niagara Falls and connect lakes Erie and Ontario. Canals built along these routes would enable western navigation to the upper Great Lakes by way of Lake Ontario.

Almost as an afterthought, the commission instructed Geddes to explore an interior route west from Oneida Lake to Lake Erie. But the first two surveys, which had higher priority, consumed the entire summer and most of his budget.

James Geddes
James Geddes’ 1808 survey — more of an inspection — from Oneida Lake to Lake Erie proved the practicality of an inland route for the proposed western canal. (Engraving from “Onondaga, Or, Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times,” by Joshua Victor Hopkins Clark, 1849/Wikimedia Commons)

Sustained by a $75 supplemental appropriation, Geddes finished a hurried inspection of an interior route — in the course of which he encountered the Oneida and Seneca rivers and, he believed, a rare opportunity. Here, he reported, there would be no need to dig a canal, because those streams could be improved and made navigable to canal traffic. As he wrote the following January in a report to the state legislature, they comprised an “extensive piece of inland navigation which nature has almost finished to our hand.”

Geddes’ observation, while correct, was far ahead of his time. Such large-scale engineering was well beyond the reach of the early 19th century. With one notable exception — Tonawanda Creek near Buffalo — no natural streams would be integrated into the original Erie Canal. The rest of the distance would be covered by a hand-dug channel.

He did get many things right, including this: An inland route to Lake Erie was practical and perhaps the best option. Any route through Lake Ontario risked diverting commercial traffic to Canadian ports, he wrote, and quoted “a correspondent” to add that “an inland canal would always be safe in the event of a war with Great Britain.”

As if to prove his point, in June 1812 the United States declared war against its estranged mother country. Western New York and its Great Lakes coastline, from Buffalo to Sackets Harbor, became a major theater of the conflict.

Plans for the great western canal were put on hold. But important lessons were learned. During the war, not only was commercial lake traffic disrupted, the American military found out just how difficult and expensive it was to transport arms, ammunition, and other supplies to western New York. Existing roads were woefully inadequate. Improved transportation — such as a canal — was needed.

1816 survey map
By 1816 surveying parties had charted a course for the canal across most of New York. Approaching from east and west, their surveys met at the Seneca River near Montezuma. (Plottings of surveys for the Erie Canal in 1816 and 1817. 1816. Buffalo History Museum.)

East meets west

After the war, as politicians in Albany squabbled and plotted, a consensus began to emerge around the need for an inland route to Lake Erie. In 1816 new survey teams were sent out, led by men who now had a better idea of what they were up against.

For reasons partly administrative, partly political, the proposed canal was divided into western, middle, and eastern sections. Geddes led the survey team for the western section, starting at the headwaters of Tonawanda Creek and heading east. The team charting the middle section, led by Benjamin Wright, began at Rome and headed west. The surveys met at the Seneca River, the boundary between the two sections.

Boundary — and now a barrier. Instead of being a “piece of inland navigation” generously furnished by nature, the wide river was simply in the way.

Canal aqueduct at Crescent
An Erie Canal aqueduct, built of stone and wood, crosses the Mohawk River near Crescent, New York. (“Bereisung der Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, mit besonderer hinsicht auf den Erie-canal,” von A. Duttenhofer, 1835. Courtesy of Frank E. Sadowski Jr./The Erie Canal, eriecanal.org)

Walking on water

There were two ways to cross a stream that obstructed the canal’s path.

The first, and most common, was to construct an aqueduct. These were sometimes referred to as “water bridges” and were built in much the same way as road bridges. Some were built completely of stone, such as the aqueducts at Little Falls and Rochester. More often the abutments and piers were built of stone but the trunk, or canal channel, was made of wood planks. The aqueduct at Crescent, New York, which crossed the Mohawk River, was built this way. Using wood was less expensive and it worked well enough.

The second method was called a slackwater crossing. A dam was built across the stream, creating a pool of still or “slack” water. A narrow, wooden towpath bridge would then be built across the pool so animal teams could tow the boats across. The Schoharie Creek crossing at Fort Hunter was made this way, and this is how engineers originally planned to cross the Genesee River at Rochester. Guard locks were usually built on either side of the crossing to maintain the water level in the canal itself.

Holmes Hutchinson maps
The elevated towpath bridges across the Seneca River and Canandaigua Outlet are shown on maps prepared during an extensive survey of New York’s canal system in the 1830s and 1840s. Two guard locks, built to protect the canal from the fluctuating levels of the rivers, appear at either end of the maps. (New York State Archives, A0848-77, Canal System Survey Maps, 1832-1843, Map nos. E5-19, E5-20.)

To the early canal planners, the Seneca River must have seemed the perfect candidate for a slackwater crossing. In their 1817 annual report, in which the canal commissioners described the previous year’s surveys, they reported that “[a] bridge 10 chains long, across the Seneca river, is all that remains to connect this [the western] section with that which includes the route between this river and Rome.” The bridge they described was a towpath bridge.

Ten chains equals 660 feet, and the commissioners may have considered this distance too great to be crossed by an aqueduct. Or they feared the muddy bottom of the river was too soft to support one. Or, simply, the slow-moving, shallow waters of the Seneca may not have seemed like much of an obstacle.

So contractors drove pilings and built the towpath bridge. Two, in fact: one over the Seneca River and a second over the nearby Canandaigua Outlet. The projected length of 660 feet for the Seneca bridge turned out to be 1,440 feet. For some reason — perhaps because of the slow current, or because it might complicate plans to drain the adjacent marsh — a dam was never constructed downstream of the crossing.

Towpath bridge pilings
A few disintegrating pilings are all that remain of the early 19th-century towpath bridge across the Seneca River at Montezuma. (Photo by Steve Boerner)

It was, it seems, a compromise. And soon enough it became apparent that it might not have been such a good idea.

The Seneca was a temperamental river whose depth fluctuated several feet over the course of the year. It could flood the adjacent marshlands one month and become too shallow to navigate the next. Even when it was at its “normal” depth, a channel had to be dredged parallel to the towpath bridge to accommodate the 3½-foot draft of the canal boats. This channel constantly silted over and groundings became so common that a lighter — a scow onto which canal boats could offload part of their freight — was stationed at the crossing to keep traffic moving. The crossing became the Achille’s Heel of the canal.

Richmond Aqueduct dismantled
The Richmond Aqueduct over the Seneca River is dismantled in 1917 to make way for the Barge Canal enlargement. (New York State Archives. State Engineer and Surveyor. Barge Canal construction photographs. 11833-97. )

Full circle

The solution was to construct an aqueduct. The Richmond Aqueduct, at 894 feet one of the longest structures on the canal, in 1856 replaced the slackwater crossing and carried the newly enlarged Erie Canal across the Seneca. At last, canawlers would no longer be subject to the whims of the river.

Sixty-one years later the aqueduct itself would be dismantled to make way for the New York State Barge Canal enlargement. By the early 20th century steam power, dynamite, and reinforced concrete had made possible James Geddes’ early 19th-century dream. The Seneca River and its neighbors were tamed, deepened, and turned into navigable streams, becoming at last that “extensive piece of inland navigation which nature has almost finished to our hand.”

The mystery of the missing pumps, part two

De Re Metallica
Georgius Agricola’s richly illustrated “De Re Metallica,” published in 1556, describes various types of pumps in great detail. (University of California Libraries via Internet Archive)

The origins of the lift pump, like those of many other indispensable inventions, are lost somewhere in the distant past.

The principle behind the pump’s operation — atmospheric pressure — was not discovered until the 17th century. But by then lift pumps had already been in use for generations. For miners and seamen, especially, they had long been an essential part of everyday life.

Some time ago I began working on a scene to show workers digging the Erie Canal through Cayuga Marsh. The scene needed to include the hand-powered pumps they used to get rid of the water that constantly seeped into the excavation. I made some preliminary inquiries and could not find a source that could tell me what those pumps looked like. (Maybe no one knows.) So I decided to dig deeper.

In part one, we combed through contractor receipts for clues. This part will show what I’ve learned from the broader technical record, as presented in contemporary documents.

The mechanics of pumping machinery
Diagram of a simple wooden lift pump, showing the (A) pump box, (B) intake, (C) and (D) leather valves, (E) perforations to prevent debris from entering the box, (G) discharge spout, (H) handle, (K) piston, and (S) rod or spear. (“The Mechanics of Pumping Machinery,” by Julius Weisbach and Gustav Hermann, translated by Karl P. Dahlstrom, 1897. Wikimedia Commons)

In its most basic form, the lift pump (also called the piston pump, atmospheric pump, or suction pump) has just a few parts.

The body is called the box. It can be a cylinder or, literally, a box. The lower end is open (though it may be protected by a screen or cage) and extends below the water surface. Inside the box, a piston (a.k.a. the sucker or bucket), is attached to a rod (or spear) and handle (or brake). There are two valves, one at the bottom of the box near the intake, and another in the piston.

When the handle is pushed down, the piston valve opens to allow the water in the box to flow up past it. When the handle is pulled up, that valve closes, lifting the water above the piston, and the intake valve opens to admit more water into the box.

An extraordinary set of woodcuts published in Georgius Agricola’s 1556 treatise De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals) show a series of lift pumps of increasing complexity, some powered by hand, others by water wheels, all used to drain mines. In one (shown in the image to the left at the top of this post), a laborer operates a wooden pump while another cores logs for pump boxes and pipes. Scattered in the foreground are spears, pistons, grates, and all the other parts needed to build the pump.

Agricola’s pumps are functionally equivalent to the simple machine shown in the second image, above. That diagram was published in 1897, more than three centuries later. The hand-operated pump it depicts was used to drain excavations. Not much had changed.

A Digest of Patents 1790-1839
From 1790 through 1838 more than 100 patents were awarded for various types of pumps. Sadly, the records for almost all of them were lost in an 1836 fire. (“Digest of Patents of the United States, from 1790 to January 1, 1839,” Library of Congress via HathiTrust Digital Library)

It wasn’t for want of trying. More than a hundred patents for pumps were granted during the early 19th century. Some were featured in technical publications such as The Franklin Journal and American Mechanic’s Magazine, which may have summarized their collective significance in this review, published in 1836: “there is not in the description any thing that regards construction or arrangement which is worthy of particular notice, or that is in any respect superior to the pumps now in use.”

The diggers excavating the Erie Canal would have to solve the vexing problem of excess water by using simple machines built as they had been built for centuries — from wood, wrought iron, and leather.

The virtue of simplicity

There is little doubt that most of the pumps used along the Erie Canal were made of wood. The raw material was readily available, and there is good evidence that the machines were made and repaired by local craftsmen.

As Thomas Ewbank wrote in his 1849 opus, A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, Ancient and Modern: “The facility with which wooden pumps are made and repaired, the cheapness of their material, the little amount of friction from pistons working within them, and their general durability, have always rendered them more popular than others.”

Ewbank, an English immigrant who briefly served as commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, also described a simple piston used by pump builders in upstate New York. It was a “hollow cone or truncated cone of strong leather, the base being equal in diameter to that of the pump chamber or cylinder . . . When thrust down it collapses and permits the water to pass between it and the sides of the chamber, and when its motion is reversed, the weight of the liquid column above it, presses it out again.”

Picture an inverted parasol that closes and opens as the pump handle is lowered and raised.

The design, Ewbank wrote, “has long been known in some parts of the United States. We noticed it twenty years ago [that is, during the late 1820s] at New Rochelle, Westchester County, in [New York] and were informed by a pump maker here that they ‘always had it.’ It is not however universally known, for in 1831 a patent was taken out for it.”

That patent was awarded to Noble Phelps, of Turin, New York, on October 20, 1831. A review published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute noted that the improvement was a piston or “leather bucket in the form of the letter V . . .”

A Treatise of Mechanics
The fourth edition of “A Treatise of Mechanics,” by Olinthus Gregory, published in London in 1826, includes descriptions of these two simple pumps, which could have been built by local craftsmen on the New York frontier. (University of Michigan via HathiTrust Digital Library)

Other accounts emphasized the advantages of simple machines made from everyday materials.

In 1815 Englishman Olinthus Gregory in A Treatise of Mechanics — Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive described a pump that could be built by “a common carpenter.” The design (above, at left) used a cylindrical bellows made of leather or canvas instead of a piston. The main advantage was that a precise fit between the bellows and pump box was not required, so the box could be cylindrical or square. The lack of friction reduced wear and (in theory, at least) extended the useful life of the machine.

Gregory also described simple butterfly valves (above, right), fabricated from wood and leather, that would fit inside a square pump box.

Elsewhere, he goes into some detail how wood pistons should be lined with leather to create watertight seals with minimal friction — a passage that sheds some light on items found in Erie Canal contractor receipts (such as this one from January 13, 1819: “for Leather to Leather the Boxes for two pumps”).

London Society for the Arts
Jacob Perkins’ award-winning pump borrowed several details, including a square box built of planks and V-shaped valves attached to the piston and intake, from earlier designs. (University of California Libraries via HathiTrust Digital Library)

The London Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1820 awarded a “large gold medal” to Jacob Perkins for devising a ship’s pump built of planks. “The object of the peculiar modification of this pump,” notes the Society’s Transactions, “is that of enabling sea-faring people to construct a pump while at sea from materials always to be found on board; viz. deal boards or planks, leather, nails, canvas, and tar.”

The plank construction eliminated the “necessity of boring the barrel, as in the usual pumps.”

New York State Archives
The body of this simple pump is made from a single, cored log. It likely served as a bilge pump on a 19th-century Erie Canal boat. (New York State Museum)

Cored logs, of course, had been used as pumps since ancient times, as shown in Agricola’s woodcut. They also were used as water pipes, and references to them can be found in Erie Canal contractor receipts. (For example, in 1823 John M. Smith was paid $50.79 for, among other things, “5 Rods of new pump logs laid under Canal.”)

Two are better than one

Over the centuries, builders experimented with various combinations of pumps. Several woodcuts in Agricola’s book show machines made up of two, three or even more pump boxes, arranged side-by-side (see the first image at right, above) or one above the other, like a staircase.

The simplest arrangement combined two pumps with a single lever operated by two men. Bilge pumps on the 74-gun battleship U.S.S. North Carolina, launched in 1820, worked this way, according to Ewbank: “The levers are double, and shaped like those of fire-engines, staves of wood being slipped through the rings whenever the pumps are worked.”

American Mechanics Magazine
In a letter to the editor of “American Mechanics Magazine,” published in May, 1825, a reader provided a description and this sketch of a double lift pump. (Harvard University via HathiTrust Digital Library)

In a letter to American Mechanic’s Magazine, May 21, 1825, a P. Vanryde mentions a double pump that he had “frequently seen working in Holland.” He helpfully included a sketch: “Thus two men can raise an immense quantity of water in a day, as there is a constant stream from one or the other.” The scale of Vanryde’s drawing is not shown, but similar illustrations indicate that the pump barrels were taller than man-height. The lever is operated by pulling on the ropes at either end.

(This may be a good place to insert a reminder that the first European settlers of the Hudson and lower Mohawk valleys were the Dutch, masters of hydraulic engineering who would have brought this technology with them.)

One of the most intriguing examples dates from more than 60 years earlier. In Whole Art of Husbandry; Or, the Way of Managing and Improving of Land, published in 1761, Englishman John Mortimer teaches readers how to mine marl deposits (marl, a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate, was widely used as a soil conditioner) and what to do when the pit became flooded with spring water.

“I shall propose one of the cheapest and best pumps that is for their use; which is to take four deals or other boards, which joint and nail together; and if some plates of iron be nailed over the edges of them, it will strengthen them much; these pumps may be made single, with a common pump-handle to them for one man to work them, or double for two men, as in the figure . . . One man may work one of these pumps that is twelve foot long, and twelve inches square, which will void a vast quantity of water in an hour, with a great deal of ease.”

Whole Art of Husbandry
This two-cylinder pump operated by two men was described in 1761 by John Mortimer in “The Whole Art of Husbandry; Or, the Way of Managing and Improving of Land.” He proposed using this “cheapest and best” pump to drain marl pits. (Harvard University via HathiTrust Digital Library)

Later authors copied Mortimer’s design, which may be evidence of its popularity — and also evidence that it worked.

Could this, or something similar, have been used on the Erie Canal?

The marl reference is an interesting coincidence. The crumbly, stony material was encountered by contractors in several locations along the canal line, where it was notoriously difficult to excavate.

But Mortimer’s pump also satisfies all the requirements for the kind of machine we’d expect to find on the New York frontier from 1817 through 1825: The simple plank design could have been built by any local carpenter or millwright, the finished pump could have been operated by one or two men, and (most important) it could “void a vast quantity of water . . . with ease.”

Something tells me we’re getting close.

If you or someone you know is familiar with 1820s construction technology, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Please leave a comment here or contact me via email at smb (at) steveboerner (dot) com. Thanks!

Moon over Little Falls

Moon Over Little Falls
Early morning, Sept. 8, 1824, looking west toward the Little Falls Aqueduct, with the Mohawk River gorge on the right. (Digital image copyright 2021 by Steve Boerner)

It’s been a long and interesting trip, but the Little Falls scene is finally finished.

This picture is meant to show a few things.

First, the technical challenge of surmounting the 40-foot height of the rapids at Little Falls. That was accomplished by a series of five locks, two of which were placed in quick succession and are shown here.

Second, the Little Falls Aqueduct, which was constructed partly to solve the political problem created when surveyors located the new canal on the south bank of the Mohawk River, potentially isolating the village of Little Falls on the north bank. This compromise resulted in one of the iconic locations of the early canal, a scene repeatedly depicted by artists throughout the 19th century.

Little Falls itself was beginning a rapid growth spurt, represented by the cluster of buildings in the distance.

This part of the canal was completed and successfully watered late in 1823. Passenger service began in earnest the following spring, when four packets operated by the Utica and Schenectady Packet Boat Company began running regular schedules between those two cities. One of the boats is included here.

Then there was the surprisingly difficult challenge of digging up information about the road bridge across the Mohawk. The three-arched wooden bridge shown here, partially visible behind the aqueduct, represents an educated guess as to how it might have looked.

Finally, the early-morning activity will hopefully show just how busy this little place was. Soon the canal would be open along its entire length and things would get even busier. Between 1824 and 1918 the canal would be enlarged, and then enlarged again, and then again. Little Falls, its historic river, and the picturesque gorge would never be the same.

To build a bridge

Hudson River bridge at Luzerne
The carpenter-engineers of the New York frontier experimented with many different bridge designs. This wooden truss, erected across the upper Hudson River, is one example. (Jacques-Gerard Milbert, “Picturesque Itinerary of the Hudson River and the Peripheral Parts of the United States.” Columbia University Libraries via Internet Archive)

The early 19th century was an era of bridge building in the young United States.

White settlers were pushing their way across the Appalachians and the need for dependable overland transportation routes was becoming ever more urgent. Grain and raw materials needed to be sent to markets back east. Tools and other manufactured goods were ready to be shipped west.

State legislatures, wary of spending tax dollars on public infrastructure, instead encouraged private companies to build roads and bridges. In New York, dozens of companies were formed to build turnpikes for which they could charge tolls and, hopefully, turn a profit. Bridges would be needed to span the Hudson, Mohawk, Delaware, and myriad smaller streams and rivers that got in their way.

Map of New York 1808
A network of turnpike roads crisscrosses central New York in this map, published in England in 1808. (New York State Library)

There were no professional engineers in those days, so mechanics, millwrights and carpenters stepped up to design and build those bridges. Their preferred construction material was timber, of which the forests provided an endless supply.

Their efforts were not scientific. Instead they relied on experience and common sense. In the long run, a handful of these carpenter-engineers would revolutionize bridge building and lay the foundations of American structural engineering.

The little community of Little Falls was there at the beginning.

Isaac Briggs map of Little Falls
Erie Canal engineer Isaac Briggs sketched local landmarks, including a mill (lower left) and the Mohawk River bridge (center) when he surveyed the proposed route of the Erie Canal through Little Falls in 1818. (New York State Library)

“A good and substantial bridge”

One of the first bridges across the Mohawk — perhaps the first — was thrown over the river at Little Falls in the early 1790s. The builder was John Beardslee, a Connecticut Yankee characterized by Nathaniel Soley Benton in A History of Herkimer County as a “practical mechanic, architect, and civil engineer.”

But Beardslee’s daring design, a single wooden arch that leapt over the rapids, became unsafe after only a few years. It would need to be replaced with something sturdier.

A group of leading citizens, including postmaster William Alexander and mill owner Christopher P. Bellinger, petitioned the state legislature to allow them to form the Fall Hill Turnpike and Bridge Company. The resulting incorporation act, passed April 9, 1804, charged the new company with two responsibilities: to build a short toll road along the foot of Fall Hill on the south bank of the Mohawk River, and to construct a new bridge.

The legislation instructed the company’s directors “to make a good and substantial bridge; and that said bridge shall be at least eighteen feet wide, with good and sufficient railings on each side of said bridge.” In the event that the bridge was “carried away by flood, or otherwise destroyed” — a regular occurrence in those days — “it shall be the duty of the said president, directors and company to rebuild the same within two years thereafter.”

Fall-Hill stock certificate
Certificate for two shares in the Fall Hill Turnpike and Bridge Company, made out to Adam Roof, dated May 1806 and signed by company president Robert McFarlan and treasurer Christopher P. Bellinger. (New York State Library)

The legislation went on to specify the rates of toll for the various kinds of traffic that might cross the bridge. Drovers would pay 8 cents for every score of sheep or hogs and 18 cents for every score of horses, cattle or mules. Carts drawn by one horse or mule would pay 6 cents. Rates were much higher for vehicles favored by the well-to-do: “every chariot, coach, coachee, or phaeton” would pay 25 cents.

Many users would be exempted from paying, including voters traveling to or from polling places, mourners attending funerals, patients visiting doctors, jurors, military troops, “any person going to or from any grist mill for the grinding of grain for his family use,” and so forth. In fact, the list of exceptions is so extensive that one wonders how the company was expected to make any money at all.

Tolls were also reduced for large wagons based on the width of their wheels. Those with wheels at least six inches wide would have their toll reduced by half; those with wheels at least nine inches wide, to one-fourth; and those with wheels at least twelve inches wide could pass “without paying any toll whatever.”

The Conestoga wagons used to haul freight on the turnpikes were enormous, 18 feet in length and 11 feet tall, and were drawn by teams of up to nine horses. One wagon could carry six tons of cargo. While the narrow wheels of smaller carts and carriages created ruts and damaged the track, the wide wheels of these heavy freight-carriers compacted and improved it. By reducing the fare for vehicles with wide wheels, the state and turnpike operators intended to improve the roadway as well as encourage trade.

Of course, any bridge built across the Mohawk would have to be sturdy enough to bear the weight of these huge, lumbering wagons. Good and substantial, indeed.

Waterford Bridge diagram
Theodore Burr’s arch-truss design, which he patented in 1806 and 1817, was used for his 1804 bridge over the Hudson River at Waterford. (“American Railroad Bridges” by Theodore Cooper, 1889. Snell Library, Northeastern University via Internet Archive)

The mysterious Mr. Burr

The builder of the new toll bridge may have been Theodore Burr, one of the most celebrated bridge builders of the early 19th century.

This is according to Jeptha Root Simms, author of Frontiersmen of New York, published in 1882. Simms was writing many years later, and his information appears to be anecdotal. Still, if he is correct, the connection to Burr would be significant.

Theodore Burr was yet another Connecticut Yankee. Unlike his more famous (and notorious) cousin Aaron, Theodore apparently eschewed politics and instead moved to Oxford, New York, in the 1790s to establish a career as a millwright. He built a home and began raising a family with his wife, Asenath Cook. Eventually they would have seven children.

Over the course of his career, Burr would design and build more than 40 bridges, including major structures across the Mohawk, Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna rivers. But much of his life, including the details of his untimely death, is shrouded in mystery.

Trenton Bridge
Diagrams of Theodore Burr’s bridge over the Delaware River at Trenton, New Jersey show the arrangement of the five wooden arches and the struts and braces that supported the roadway. (“American Railroad Bridges,” Theodore Cooper, 1889. Snell Library, Northeastern University via Internet Archive.)

He began by constructing a bridge across the Chenango River at Oxford, followed by a 400-foot-long bridge across Catskill Creek in 1802. His ambition grew with experience. By 1806 he had finished at least two more bridges: one across the Mohawk River at Canajoharie, and another across the Delaware at Trenton, New Jersey.

The Trenton bridge would be heralded in America and Europe as a masterpiece. Anchored on four masonry piers, its five wooden arches carried a double carriageway 1,008 feet across the Delaware River. The arches were protected by a roof of cedar shingles but their sides were exposed to reduce wind load, a decision that allowed passers-by to admire the intricate interplay of struts and braces. With some modifications, this bridge would remain in service until 1875.

The fate of the Canajoharie bridge would be different. It was constructed as a single 330-foot arch, at the time the longest in North America or Europe. In a 2004 article in Structure magazine, F. E. Griggs describes what followed: “In 1807 . . . the bridge began leaning after a herd of cattle bunched up on one side of it. Burr attempted to correct this lean with supports near the abutments, but the bridge failed shortly thereafter.” The collapse reportedly could be heard for miles.

Breaks Bridge
The dynamics of truss and arch construction were imperfectly understood by early bridge builders. In 1808, French artist and traveler Henriette, Baroness Hyde de Neuville, painted this scene of the collapsed wooden arch bridge at Canajoharie. In the foreground she depicted herself, her husband, and pet spaniel, Volero. (Collection of the New-York Historical Society)

Burr’s later projects would include a 997-foot bridge over the Mohawk at Schenectady and a series of five bridges across the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

His Schenectady bridge was a curiosity, a suspension bridge built of wood. In later years the elegant profile of the bridge’s wooden “cables” was obscured by an unsightly series of barn-shaped coverings. The roadway sagged and needed propping up with additional piers. Each spring, residents held their breath as they expected the flooding, ice-choked Mohawk to carry the bridge away. But it remained in service until 1873.

Unfortunately, Burr’s genius for design and experimentation was paired with a poorly developed business sense. He developed a habit of taking on too many projects at once. He was dogged by poor credit. Advance payments for one project were used to pay for others. He moved workers from nearly completed projects to those he deemed more pressing.

Schenectady bridge
Soon after it was constructed, the details of Theodore Burr’s unusual Schenectady bridge were hidden from view by a series of barn-like covers added to protect the wooden structure from the elements. (Scribner’s Monthly, June 1876. University of Toronto via Internet Archive)

In 1822, the authors of a Pennsylvania legislative committee report complained that during construction of the Northumberland bridge “our bridge builder, Mr. Theodore Burr, having deserted the work, leaving our business to attend to contracts which he had subsequently made, we were under the necessity of finishing the work to save the bridge from perishing, by hiring hands ourselves.” They noted ruefully that “the managers never suspected that the man would have been so imprudent as to take on himself more work than he could attend to.” The company helped investors recover the extra cost by reclaiming $10,000 worth of company stock owned by Burr, which they had wisely retained as collateral.

Soon, none of this would matter to Theodore Burr. He had moved to Pennsylvania while working on his Susquehanna projects, and there, in November 1822, he died at the age of 51. The cause of his death was not recorded, nor was the location of his grave.

Today Burr is mostly remembered for his patented arch-truss, examples of which survive in historic covered bridges scattered across the northeast United States.

Mohawk Turnpike & Bridge Company Ledger
Several cash payments to “Theo. Burr,” from November 1803 to January 1805, are listed in a Mohawk Turnpike and Bridge Company balance sheet. (Buffalo History Museum)

Reconstructing the toll bridge

Did Burr build the Little Falls bridge? We can’t say for certain. No definitive source — a letter, contract, or ledger — has yet to surface. During the period of the bridge’s construction between 1804 and 1807, Burr was involved with several other much larger projects. But as we have seen, he often worked on many things at once.

We do have one small piece of indirect evidence.

William Alexander, the Little Falls postmaster, was on the boards of both the Fall Hill Turnpike and Bridge Company and the Mohawk Turnpike and Bridge Company, which had been organized in 1800. This was the company for which Burr would build the bridge at Schenectady. Another board member was James Murdoch, a Schenectady merchant and sometime business partner and correspondent of Alexander.

Tucked among Alexander’s surviving letters is a single-page balance sheet listing expenses to be reimbursed to Murdoch by the company. The expenses include several cash payments made by Murdoch to “Theo. Burr” from late 1803 to early 1805.

Clearly, Alexander — who at times served as president of the Fall Hill Turnpike and Bridge Company — knew about Burr. They may have been personally acquainted. Could this have been the connection that led to a commission to build the Little Falls bridge?

Even if we could prove that Burr built the bridge, that would not necessarily tell us what it looked like. Throughout his career he experimented with many different forms. The two pieces of visual evidence that we have — the 1829–1830 Holmes Hutchinson survey map and the 1824 James Eights engraving — indicate that it comprised three spans resting on two piers anchored on the rocky bed of the Mohawk River, and that each span was supported by an arch.

Arch Bridge
The model of the toll bridge at Little Falls spans the river with three 66-foot wooden arches. Wooden abutments and two piers, protected by icebreakers, support the 18-foot-wide roadway. The bridge features “good and sufficient railings,” as specified by the charter of incorporation. (Model and rendering by Steve Boerner)

The finished bridge model is based on these sources, as well as a few other contemporary engineering references. The 1838 edition of Dennis Hart Mahan’s An Elementary Course of Civil Engineering, for example, provides detailed instructions for building timber abutments and piers, and describes how those piers would be anchored in a shallow, swift-flowing river such as the Mohawk.

Much valuable information and advice was provided by Ronald Knapp and Terry Miller, whom I contacted via the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Resource Center in Oxford, New York. They have done extensive research on Theodore Burr and his bridges, and I’d like to thank them for their insights on the bridge’s possible construction.

The bridge model will be added to the working scene, which is nearly finished. It will be placed directly behind the aqueduct and thus mostly hidden from the camera. About all that will be visible will be the top of the arches. A small detail, but one that provided yet another interesting detour on the way to Little Falls.

All in the details

J. W. Hill View of Lock No. 43
Watercolor by J. W. Hill looks east along the canal at Lock No. 43 in Little Falls. Profile Rock, a distinctive landmark for canal travelers, appears near the center of the frame. (Courtesy of the Union College Special Collection)

Little Falls was one of the most picturesque locations on the original Erie Canal, and its iconic aqueduct and dramatic Mohawk River gorge became favorite subjects for artists.

One of those artists was the young John William Hill, who had emigrated from England with his parents in 1819. Early on he worked in his father’s New York City shop, mastering the process of aquatint engraving. Between 1829 and 1831 he traveled across the state, painting watercolors to be used as studies for a portfolio of engravings of canal scenes. The portfolio was never published, but the surviving paintings — executed when he was about 20 years old — provide some of our most detailed views of the early canal.

Hill created his landscapes using the techniques of a miniaturist, building them with layer upon layer of tiny stipples. His precise brush captured details not found in other contemporary images.

Among other things, his watercolors depict packet boats and scows, the Little Falls aqueduct and, in the painting shown here, one of the five locks that lifted the canal around the rapids at Little Falls.

In the painting several passengers, including a woman with a small child, watch from the cabin roof of their packet boat while it is being locked. A tandem-rigged team of horses exits the left side of the frame on the towpath behind the boat, indicating that the packet is heading west. The boat is being lifted by the rising water level in the lock.

Near the bow of the packet, a male passenger appears to be describing the operation of the lock gates to his female companion. (Apparently, mansplaining was a thing even in 1831.) To the right is a rarely shown detail — the bypass flume, a ditch that diverted excess water around the lock. A rock-filled wooden crib near the flume’s outlet breaks the fall of the water as it reenters the canal.

In the background, the stony face of Profile Rock — a feature that survives to this day — mutely takes in the scene.

Several details from this painting, including the bypass flume and crib, are examples of the things that can be gleaned from contemporary paintings, sketches, and engravings. Along with other details, they will make their way into the Little Falls digital landscape.

Little Falls Aqueduct
The model of the aqueduct (bottom) is based on several sources, including this 1825 sketch by John Hopkins Sr. (upper left). The model’s bridge railing (upper right) matches his drawing. (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, upper left; Steve Boerner, renderings).

As mentioned before, the aqueduct at Little Falls was constructed in eight short weeks in late 1822 by contractor Ara Broadwell, who was paid $45,532.50 that year for this and various other projects near Little Falls. The wrought-iron railing was installed in 1824 at a cost of $1,552.60. The distinctive spiral design is documented in a sketch by John Hopkins Sr. and in J. W. Hill’s painting of the aqueduct, and appears in at least one photograph taken later in the century.

Little Falls building
This large Greek-revival building appears in John Hopkins Jr.’s 1825 sketch (upper left), John W. Hill’s 1831 painting (lower left), and James Eights’ 1824 engraving (not shown). Also note the aqueduct railing detail in HIll’s painting. (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, upper left; The New York Public Library, lower left; Steve Boerner, right)

The village of Little Falls began to grow quickly after the canal opened. Comparisons of James Eights’ 1824 engraving, John Hopkins Jr.’s 1825 watercolor, and J. W. Hill’s 1831 watercolor show how quickly new buildings were going up on the south bank of the river. I’m planning to include a handful representing the buildings shown in Hopkins’ sketch. One building in particular seems to appear in all three images — a large, Greek Revival-style structure, possibly a public building like a tavern or hotel.

Towpath Bridge
Model of the towpath bridge (bottom) is based on representations in J. W. Hill’s 1831 watercolor (upper left) and James Eights’ 1825 engraving. Also note the Greek Revival building just right of the bridge in Eights’ image. (The New York Public Library, upper left; Library of Congress, upper right; Steve Boerner, bottom)

The feeder channel carried across the Mohawk River by the aqueduct cuts across the towpath before it joins the Erie Canal. A bridge was needed, primarily for the animal teams that towed the boats, but also (judging from the stairs shown in J. W. Hill’s watercolor) for pedestrians. The bridge was constructed in 1822 by contractor John J. Walrath, who was paid $671.54 for building it along with two waste weirs. It won’t be a prominent feature in the digital scene, but it will nice to include it.

Little Falls bridges
Detail of an 1830-31 survey map shows the Mohawk River road bridge next to the aqueduct, and the smaller, east-west towpath bridge directly south of the aqueduct. (New York State Archives)

Speaking of bridges, historical accounts dating back to at least 1792 mention a road bridge across the Mohawk River at Little Falls. The bridge — or a successor — is shown on the Holmes Hutchinson 1830–1831 survey map. It almost certainly was built of wood. But I haven’t been able to find a contemporary image that shows what it looked like.

James Eights bridge detail
The two wooden arches that appear behind the aqueduct in James Eights’ engraving may be the superstructure of the Little Falls road bridge. (Library of Congress)

James Eights’ 1824 engraving offers a tantalizing clue. If you look closely, you can see two wooden arches rising behind the aqueduct — right where the bridge would be. Perhaps these are part of the bridge’s superstructure.

Because of the camera angle, any model of the bridge would be obstructed by the aqueduct in the digital scene. (As it is in Eights’ engraving.) The plan for now is to omit it entirely. But we’ll see.

Sculpting the Falls

View of the Aqueduct Bridge at Little Falls
A rocky ledge extending from the base of Fall Hill, left, parallels the course of the Erie Canal and Mohawk River in this engraving by James Eight. This was one of several engravings that graced the margin of a geological profile of the canal published in 1824. (Library of Congress)

“What a tremendous, awe-inspiring scene! Nature has moulded her works, here, on a grand scale, — and soon we shall see, as we may even now, that Art has caught the inspiration of the scene, and well seconded her efforts, in giving to it a sublime effect, and a finish truly admirable.” — Horatio Gates Spafford, A Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveller, 1824

Horatio Spafford wasn’t the only traveler thrilled by the dramatic scenery at Little Falls. This stretch along the Mohawk River, barely a mile long, was the highlight of the trip along the Erie Canal for many packet passengers.

But things have changed a lot since then. The Mohawk has been walled in and its course altered by two hundred years of development. Hills and islands have been reshaped and removed to make way for railroads, highways, and a modernized canal.

John Henry Hopkins Little Falls
This remarkable view of the Little Falls aqueduct, looking west with one of the adjacent Erie Canal locks in the foreground, was sketched in watercolor by John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopalian bishop who rode a packet boat along the canal less than two weeks after it opened in 1825. The rocky shelf depicted in James Eight’s engraving, above, appears here as a towering, blocky cliff. (Hopkins Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan)

The cliffs that once lined the narrow gorge may be the most conspicuous casualties of all this progress. Those on the north side, including a famous landmark named Profile Rock, were half buried when the channel was raised for the New York State Barge Canal in the early 20th century. Those to the south were cut away, first to make room for the double locks of the Enlarged Erie in the mid-19th century, and later for the even wider channel of the Barge Canal.

The idyllic landscape sketched by John Henry Hopkins is long gone.

Little Falls today
If John Henry Hopkins were to repeat his trip through Little Falls today, this is what he would see. This photo, taken from roughly the same location where he made his sketch in 1825, shows the channel of the modern Erie Canal at left. The Mohawk River gorge, right, is obscured by brush, and the historic center of Little Falls can be seen beyond. The only features that haven’t changed are the hills in the distance. (Steve Boerner)

To recreate the historical landscape, we’ll pretty much have to start from scratch.

The Mohawk River valley narrows dramatically as it cuts through the glaciated, hilly terrain at Little Falls. The 40-foot drop in elevation at the rapids represents a significant step along the river’s long descent to tidewater at the Hudson.

Little Falls DEM
This rendering of digital elevation data available from New York state shows how the Mohawk Valley narrows at Little Falls. The modern Erie Canal bypasses the rapids, just like the original canal did in 1825, but rejoins the river below Moss Island. In 1825, five locks were required to lift the canal around the falls, but Lock No. 17, an unusual vertical-gate lock with a lift of 40.5 feet, eventually replaced all of them. (Digital elevation data from NYS GIS, rendering by Steve Boerner)

Digital elevation data, downloaded from the New York State Geographic Information Systems Clearinghouse and rendered in Terragen, shows how the valley has been extensively altered over the years. The camera position shown here will give us a view similar to the one sketched by Hopkins in 1825.

Little Falls base terrain
Here is the view from the camera after it is placed in the landscape. Nearly everything in the scene has been removed so we can begin to rebuild the historical terrain. Only the hills to the west are retained. (Steve Boerner)

As with previous scenes, we will use the modern elevation data as a starting point, and modify it to recreate the historical landscape. But this time few features can be retained. Only the hills to the west of our position have survived relatively unscathed. We will keep those and remove everything else, including the Mohawk River gorge. The resulting basic landscape is perfectly flat, a digital blank slate except for the distant hills.

Little Falls Cliff
A section of the sculpted rock outcropping, shown in the ZBrush workspace. The structure is based on surviving cliff faces found nearby. (Steve Boerner)

The rocky ledge depicted by Hopkins and Eight has a very distinct structure. After attempting to model it in Terragen and other applications, I decided to create it in ZBrush, a 3D application that allows you to sculpt digital objects as if they were made of clay. The sculpting process is labor intensive, but fortunately we need need only a small section.

Little Falls displacements
The landscape has been modeled to add the Mohawk River gorge (right), the rocky outcropping of Fall Hill (left), and the channel of the Erie Canal, with “excavated” sections for locks 43 and 44. (Steve Boerner)

The flattened digital landscape is then reshaped to add the rocky channel of the Mohawk River. The land surface is terraced and “excavated” to provide homes for the two locks. The sculpted cliff is placed in the scene, and channels for the bypass flumes, which diverted excess water around the locks, are added between the cliff and locks.

Hopkins, whose sketches are generally very accurate, for some reason ignored the bypass flumes. This allowed him to place the cliff near the canal, probably closer than it should have been. He also simplified the scene by omitting a second lock, which should appear in the distance. For the sake of historically accuracy, I’m including the flume and second lock.

Little Falls foliage
The same view, with ground and rock textures, foliage, and water added. (Steve Boerner)

The landscape begins to look better with the addition of water, foliage, the aqueduct, and locks. There is much yet to be done: More structures, such as buildings and fences, need to be added. Plus boats, of course, along with crews and passengers, teams and drivers, and tenders to operate the locks.

Locks and keys

Elkanah Watson Lock
An early American woodcut of a canal lock in action, from the title page of “History of the Rise, Progress, and Existing Condition of the Western Canals in the State of New-York,” by Elkanah Watson, 1820. (Library of Congress)

The early proponents of the Erie Canal were a remarkable group. Jesse Hawley, Elkanah Watson, and Gouverneur Morris showed great imagination — and risked being labeled as madmen — when in the early 19th century they individually proposed constructing an artificial river from the Hudson to the Great Lakes.

Hawley — a grain merchant with no advanced education — accurately predicted the canal’s route and final cost in a series of essays written while serving time in a Canandaigua jail for bankruptcy.

But these men were not engineers, and one detail they initially could not grasp was how, exactly, the canal would surmount the 568-foot difference in elevation between tidewater and Lake Erie. The general consensus was that the canal would be constructed as an inclined plane that gradually descended as it made its way, west to east, across the state.

The heavily glaciated terrain of New York state presented a serious obstacle to this plan. The canal would have to cross several rivers and valleys, including the wide, flat bowl of Cayuga Marsh. Enormous embankments would be needed to maintain a consistent slope across all of these elevations, and the mere thought of constructing these eventually made it clear that the whole idea was, well, crazy.

Lock 10 ft. Lift
An undated scale drawing of a lock with a 10-foot lift. The triangular frames on the floor of the lock chamber are the miter sills, against which the lock gates were closed. The overall dimensions of the chamber match those of the locks on the first Erie Canal, though most of those had a lift of 8 feet. (John B. Jervis Drawings, Jervis Public Library, New York Heritage Digital Collections)

A more practical solution was the miter gate lock, invented in the late 15th century by Leonardo da Vinci.

A canal lock is basically a long chamber, large enough to accommodate a ship, boat, or barge, with a watertight gate on each end. After a vessel enters the chamber the gate behind it is closed and the water level inside is raised or lowered as needed. Then the other gate is opened to allow the vessel to continue on the new level.

The principle of the canal lock had been known for some time, and various types of gates had been used with varying degrees of success. Da Vinci’s innovation was simple but brilliant. The inside frames of his lock gates were mitered so that, when closed, the gates formed a V with the point facing the upper water level. The pressure of the water against the V forced the gates together, ensuring a tight seal.

Da Vinci’s design subsequently was used throughout Europe and for canals in the United States, including the Erie Canal. It is still used on canals today.

Profile fo the Levels of the Grand Canal
A profile of the Erie Canal, published in the margin of an 1827 map of New York state, shows how the canal climbed, lock by lock, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

By the time work began on the Erie Canal, American engineers had already mastered the basics of lock construction, by trial and error, on earlier projects such as the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts and the canals of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. Both wood and stone had been used as building materials. Over the years the many problems encountered with wooden locks convinced the Erie engineers that all of their locks should be built of stone, despite the higher initial cost.

In all, 83 locks with an average lift of eight feet would be built to lift the canal from tidewater at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. The difference in elevation was 568 feet. But the descent at Cayuga, and a smaller one near Syracuse, increased the total rise and fall to 692 feet.

Original Erie Canal Lock 62
Lock 62 in Montezuma is one of very few surviving locks from the original Erie Canal. This was a guard lock that lowered boats to the level of the Seneca River so they could cross to the other side. Most of the chamber has been filled in with earth, but remains of the stone wall are visible. The dark, notched stone near the center indicates the location of a quoin pier that supported one of the lower gates. (Steve Boerner)

The standard lock chamber size on the first Erie Canal was 15 by 90 feet, which could accommodate vessels 78½ feet long by 14½ feet wide. Most locks had a vertical lift of eight feet (or less), though some had lifts of 9 or 10 feet and, in the case of the famous flight at Lockport, 12 feet.

Original Erie Canal Lock No. 20
Original Erie Canal Lock No. 34, near Fort Hunter, Montgomery County, as it appeared in 1969. The lock is intact, but has since been filled in with earth to prevent the walls from collapsing. (Jack E. Boucher, Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress)

In a few locations, such as Lockport, the lock chambers were excavated out of solid rock. In others they were anchored directly on underlying bedrock. But in most places the bedrock was too deep and out of reach. There, hundreds of piles would be driven. On top of those a timber raft or mat would be laid and reinforced with planking. On top of this the stonemasons would construct the walls of the lock chamber.

Samuel Fenn Drawing
A lock pit for the Enlarged Erie Canal is a hub of activity in this 1855 field-book sketch by canal engineer Samuel Fenn. A surveyor, upper left, and rodman, center right, check levels while workers haul dirt and rubble up a makeshift wheelbarrow ramp to the top edge of the excavation. Three men on the floor of the pit place the timbers that will support the stonework. The ubiquitous whiskey jug is strategically positioned at the lower right. The sitting figure at lower left may represent Fenn himself, busily taking notes or, perhaps, penciling this sketch. (Series B0730, New York State Archives)

The process of building a lock was outlined in an 1826 proposal submitted by contractor David Fitzgerald to the canal commission:

“I propose to construct the Lock which is required on the Eastern section of the Erie Canal near Waggoner[’]s for the consideration of nine hundred dollars a foot lift, of the finding all materials . . . to the excavating the pit, piling and preparing a solid foundation, quarrying cutting and laying the masonry and completing the wood and Iron work and embanking puddling [and securing] the Lock. . . . The Lock to be fully completed in the month of September. . . . Lock 8 foot lift”

C&O Lock No. 55 Miter Sill
The wooden miter sill and floor planking of Chesapeake & Ohio Lock No. 55 in Maryland can be seen in this photo, taken in 1959–60. The lock gates are missing, but a recess in the lock wall for one of the gates, including the rounded pier for the gate’s quoin post, is visible at left. When the gate was closed, water pressure would have pressed it tightly against the quoin pier and miter sill, ensuring a tight seal. Locks for the first Erie Canal were also built this way. (Jack E. Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)

Lock chamber walls were constructed of dressed stone, often quarried locally. For mortar, the masons initially used quicklime but soon adopted a new, much superior hydraulic cement developed by canal engineer Canvass White.

The stonemasons were craftsmen and they built things to last. But time and subsequent development have taken their toll. The remains of several 19th-century Erie Canal locks survive across New York state, but nearly all date from the First Enlargement, 1834–1862, or later. Surviving locks from the original canal are rare, so we have few direct references that can be used to help us create an accurate digital model of an original Erie Canal lock.

Fortunately, there are good, surviving examples of locks from other canals of the same period and a few contemporary drawings that we can turn to.

C&O Lock 4
Vintage automobiles provide a sense of scale in this 1935 photo of Chesapeake & Ohio Lock No. 4 in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. C&O locks were built about the same time as those of the first Erie Canal, and to the same dimensions. (Albert S. Burns, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)

Two other canals in particular can provide the information we need.

Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal began in 1828, a little over two years after the opening of the Erie Canal. It originally was planned to extend from Washington, D.C., to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. But in 1850, after years of delays, labor unrest, and cost overruns, construction ground to a halt at Cumberland, Maryland.

Despite the fact that it was never truly completed, the C&O proved to be an efficient way to move coal from the Allegheny Mountains to the East Coast, and it remained in operation until 1924.

The C&O canal prism and locks were built to dimensions similar to those of the Erie Canal. But unlike the Erie Canal, the C&O was never enlarged. Many of its original structures remain in good condition and have been carefully documented by the National Park Service. Photographs, plans, and reports created by the service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) are kept at the Library of Congress, and most are available online.

Lock and Butterfly Valve
Drawings of early 19th-century lock gates used on the Ohio and Erie Canal, drafted in 1987 by Alan J. Rutherford of the U. S. Department of the Interior, show details such as the quoin post anchor irons, butterfly gate valves, and keys, which were the iron handles used to open and close the valves. Similar gates would have been used for locks on the first Erie Canal. (Alan J. Rutherford, Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress)

Much the same is true for the Ohio and Erie Canal, constructed from 1825 to 1832 to connect Lake Erie at Cleveland to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. Although most of the Ohio and Erie has not survived, sections of it have been preserved and documented by the park service.

My digital lock model is based primarily on a plan and elevation drawing found among the papers of Erie Canal engineer John B. Jervis and preserved at the Jervis Public Library in Rome, New York. (Another drawing from this collection served as the basis of a digital model of the Little Falls Aqueduct.) The drawings show a lock of 10-foot lift, but it is easily adapted to fit the more usual 8-foot lift.

Canal lock in Blender
Model of a canal lock in the Blender workspace. The model is based on a lock diagram found among the papers of canal engineer John B. Jervis.

The model includes many details that will be hidden — below ground level or under water — when it is placed in a scene. These include the counterforts, buttresses that helped support the stone chamber walls; miter sills, which supported the lock gates when they were closed; and the gates’ butterfly valves, which were opened and closed by turning iron handles referred to as “keys.”

Canal lock in Substance Painter
The finished canal lock model, shaded and rendered in Substance Painter.

Once the model is finished, surface detail and color are added in Substance Painter. Two copies of this model will be placed in the Little Falls scene to represent original Erie Canal locks 44 and 45.