November is New York State History Month!

Brush-Piling: Eighteenth Century English Engineering in an American Wilderness


Philip Lord, Jr [USA] & Chris Salisbury [UK]

This webpage is abstracted from the article of the same title in Industrial Archaeology Review, Volume XIX, 1997, published by the
Association For Industrial Archaeology, Department of Archaeological Studies, Leicester University, UK. Reprints are available from the publisher.
This webpage is being presented in celebration of New York State History Month - 1999.

General Schuyler In 1792 the New York Legislature granted a charter to General Philip Schuyler, a hero of the late war and resident of Albany, to form an enterprise called the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. This company was to undertake improvements in the linked network of inland waterways that crossed New York State and provided access to the Great Lakes decades before the Erie Canal.

In the decade between 1792 and 1802, Schuyler's company cleared channels of fallen trees and boulders, erected low rock V-dams, or "weirs", across rifts to raise water levels, and completed three short canals, with dams and locks, to circumvent the falls at Little Falls [1795], the Oneida Carry at Rome [1797], and two rapids near Fort Herkimer [1798].

The most troublesome of the inland waterways was Wood Creek, a narrow and twisted channel which connected the west end of the 1797 Rome Canal to the east end of Oneida Lake (now Sylvan Beach). This stream was so narrow that travelers often recorded they could jump across it where the boats first entered it, and it was so deficient of water that boatmen often had to negotiate with a miller just above the landing place to release extra water from his pond to get the boats floated and on their way. Yet in spite of its fragility, Wood Creek was the lynchpin of the waterway route to the Great Lakes. And it is in the upper reaches of this tiny stream that we find extraordinary evidence of a direct linkage between American wilderness engineering and English waterway history.

Early river navigation In the late 18th century, American civil engineering was virtually nonexistent. Some of those connected with the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, including Schuyler himself, had heard of, and even seen, the canals of England and France. But few, if any, could claim to fully comprehend the engineering required to produce them.

In the beginning, the work was carried out by contractors, often local persons of some expertise, such as there might be in a rough and unsettled country. These men would employ and direct laborers and craftsmen in the execution of the plans, if the term "plan" can be applied in this case. Concepts for the works to be built were seldom set to paper, although an occasional reference to an odd drawing here and there crops up in the correspondence between the contractors and the company directors.

Durham boat As with any transport system, improvement invites an evolution of use, and soon the smaller, 3-handed batteaux of 30 feet or so and a ton and a half capacity, gave way to the 60 foot long Durham boats, run by a crew of five and hauling 12 tons in good water. Too large to be portaged, these Durham boats had awaited only the completion of Schuyler’s works to emerge as the premier vehicles of the system.

But of course, with bigger boats now in common use, what had been adequate gradually became, again, inadequate. The first place this was felt was in the shallowest section of Wood Creek, from the outlet of the 1797 Rome Canal down to the influx of the waters of Canada Creek from the north; a distance of about 3.5 miles by land, and nearly twice that by water. Boatmen coming down from the west in large boats, laden with the rich produce of the new settled farmlands, encountered nearly intolerable inconveniences, as described by General Schuyler himself in a report dated August, 1802:

A Durham boat deeply laden which I past on the 29th a few miles beyond the west end of the Oneida Lake, and which reached Wood Creek on the 31st, was under the necessity of making three trips to bring her cargo from Dean's Landing to the Oak Orchard, and with the aid of water from the Canal at Rome, she was enabled to come with half her cargo in two trips to Canada Creek, where she arrived on the 9th. Such is the paucity of water in Wood Creek and such the obstruction to laden boats.

In 1802 the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company began to overcome the shalloness of the upper section of Wood Creek by building the first of four wooden dams, with locks, that would impound the shallows of that six miles of miserable navigation into a series of slack water sections; deep enough to overcome the sand bars, rifts and sunken timber that had plagued the route since the beginning of time.

Primitive engineering It is worth noting that when construction began in 1802, the contractors were directed to use as their building material the native timber from the adjacent virgin American forest that flanked every lock site. This was in spite of the fact that to the east work was under way to replace the rotten and leaking timber works of the Little Falls Canal, built just 7 years earlier, with stone and mortar. The untouched forests that surrounded the project area abounded in every species of timber wanted, in the most excellent quality, and so convenient as to cause virtually no transportation problems. It is at the site of the fourth and final of these wooden locks that we find evidence of an unprecedented importation of transAtlantic technology.

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