The Little Falls Canal

A Documentation Archive

Compiled from the Research Files of the Durham Project in the New York State Museum

This webpage was last updated on May 5, 1999.

The Little Falls Canal was the first real canal built in New York State. It was begun in 1793 and completed in 1795. Its locks were made of wood originally, but were rebuilt in 1802 in local stone. It is that last stage of construction that is evident in the surface ruins at the west end of the City of Little Falls.

This archive of images is intended as a research resource for persons interested in the recent history of these ruins of the Little Falls Canal and for those concerned about the preservation of these ruins as a heritage resource. They are presented in this format to permit ease of access.

Please note that the purpose of this archive is to provide the maximum amount of detail for the viewer. Image sizes are, therefore, large and may take a while to load. You are encouraged to save these images to your local drive in order to refer to them later.

Benjamin Wright Map, 1811

Map by Benjamin Wright, 1811, Canal Museum, Syracuse.

High res image (30K)

This map shows the Little Falls Canal bypasing the rapids in the Mohawk River. At its western end (left) was a guard lock that prevented flood stage river water from rushing into the canal and helped control water levels when the canal was in use.

One can also see the main road through the village crossing the canal just east (right) of this guard lock on a bridge. It is this lock, and the associated bridge, that is the focus of this documentation.

Holmes Hutchinson Map, 1834

Map by Holmes Hutchinson, 1834, New York State Archives, Albany.

High res image (34K)

When the Erie Canal was built, it ran on the south side of the river, but the western end of the old canal was retained as a feeder to the new canal, and so was kept open.

This 1834 map reveals the guard lock and associated features at the western end of the old Little Falls Canal at the time the Erie Canal was operational.

Note that the road still is shown crossing over the canal on a bridge just east of the guard lock.

Laws of New York, 1883

Chapter 448 of the Laws of New York, 1883, New York State Library, Albany.

High res image (77K)

In 1883. when the western end of the old canal was no longer needed as a feeder to the Erie Canal, it was placed in the joint management of the State Engineer and Surveyor and the Village of Little Falls Commissioner of Public Grounds as a historic site to be preserved forever as a relic of this unique and historic age of inland transportation.

This was one of the first sites preserved for this purpose by New York State (Washington's Headquarters was the first, just 20 years earlier) and is the first canal site ever dedicated as a heritage resource.

Schillner Map, 1896

Map by George Schillner, NY State Engineer and Surveyor, 1896, New York State Archives, Albany.

High res image (117K)

Drawn at about the same time as the dedication of this heritage site, the Schillner map records in detail the old stone guard lock of the Little Falls Canal and the stone arch bridge which crossed the canal immediately to the east. It was this area that had been set aside for perpetual preservation in 1883.

Of note is the notation on this map for an area that encompasses much of the old lock structure, as follows: "Abandoned to NYC RR 1874." This notation is peculiar because it is at odds with the later 1883 legislation, which sets aside the entirity of this complex as if it were all state property.

Rufus Grider Drawing, 1897

Drawing by Rufus Grider, 1897, New York State Library, Albany.

High res image (17K)

Probably the first eyewitness view of this lock on record is the drawing made in 1897 by Rufus Girder, an art teacher in Canajoharie, who traveled around the region recording historic landmarks.

This view is made looking westward, and the stonework of the lock and the gate recesses can be clearly seen in good condition.

At the far end of the lock, where the canal makes a turn to the left, the initial encroachment of the railroad tracks onto the site can be seen.

Grider Notebooks, c1897

Clipping pasted in Rufus Grider Notebooks, c1897, New York State Library, Albany.

High res image (42K)

Pasted into Grider's scrapbook, near his drawing, are these two clippings from newspapers of probably about the same date, circa 1897. In each can be seen the stonework of the lock virtually intact, with all the large capstones in place and the walls vertical and aligned.

Grider Notebooks, c1897

Clipping pasted in Rufus Grider Notebooks, c1897, New York State Library, Albany.

High res image (45K)

One can readily see, in these views taken just after the site was set aside for perpetual presrvation, what a unique and magnificent monument to American civil engineering and New York State canal history this complex of strucutres was at that time.

The stone arch bridge mentioned in the law is just dimly seen in the background.

NOTE: It is possible these photographs pre-date 1897 by some significant amount of time, and were either clipped from a much older newspaper, or had been recently re-published from older negatives. A reasonable estimate for these images might be around the time the site was dedicated - 1883.

German postcard, c1890

Postcard printed in Germany circa 1890, mailed in 1908, New York State Museum, Albany.

High res image (72K)

This is perhaps the best image of this early heritage site that has survived. It is a hand-colored postcard view, printed in Germany. It was mailed in 1908. This shows the dramatic nature of this location in the very earliest era of heritage tourism.

All the components of the site can be seen clearly; the guard lock, with the guard gate pivot notch noted in the corner of the masonry at right; the stepped down chamber walls of the lock, and the little suspended stone arch bridge at the back, built right into the canal wall stonework.

However one can see, along the north (left) wall of the lock chamber, the first signs of deterioration, now that the canal is no longer being maintained as part of the state system. Some of the lower slabs are being pushed out, possibly by frost action or unregulated drainage

Gayer Photograph, c1920

Photograph, circa 1920, Canal Society of New York State, Syracuse.

High res image (53K)

This slightly later view from virtually the same spot as the postcard image made earlier, shows continued collapse of the north (left) wall of the lock. However, the rest of the complex remains intact, including the stone arch bridge. Of interest is the fact that water still flows through the canal, perhaps as part of an expanding power (mill) canal system in the City of Little Falls.

The angular concrete wall that always appears in the lower left corner of these early photographs is the retaining wal supporting the expanding railroad line that runs through the Mohawk valley along the north side of the river.

Photograph, 1995

Photograph, 1995, New York State Museum, Albany.

High res image (34K)

At the end of the 20th century, however, the old canal had suffered a great deal of impact, and one standing in the same spot more recently would be hard pressed to recognize the heritage site originally envisioned for preservation.

The railroad right of way has continued to encroach on the site from the north (left) and fill spilling over in the area beyond the concrete retaining wall has covered some of the north wall of the lock and canal beyond. The large capstones have all been removed, at some unknown time, and the guard gate pivot recess that used to appear in the angle of the lock wall (right, center) is gone; with new stone and mortar set in its place.

Water no longer flows through the canal because all of the canal east of this point has been filled in, and a number of years ago a large sewer line, one of the massive manholes of which can be seen, was excavated through the bottom of the lock and canal.

And a long time ago the road that used to cross the old canal on a stone arch bridge was replaced with a modern street running on top of massive fill beds.

Photography, 1999

Photograph, 1999, New York State Museum, Albany.

High res image (38K)

At present the process of development continues to cover up the old canal and make this heritage site more difficult to identify. ConRail has recently filled out further into the canal with gravel and has built a large metal utility house on that fill. Fill has also spilled into the lock in the foreground area, where exposed stonework had previously been visible.

While some of this filling has taken place in areas already impacted by previous filling, the reduction of open canal bed to the east makes viewing of the fragmentary remains of this old canal more difficult.

According to Dan Weiskotten, who as an intern in the State Museum during the early 1990s and who extensively researched the history of the Little Falls Canal, the width of the lock chamber presently preserved in the field is nearly twice the width recorded for the lock when it was built. He suggests that the south wall, which is the most visible part of the ruin, was torn down and rebuilt about 50 years ago further to the south than it originally stood, using much of the original stone. That would account for the details missing that are shown in early photographs.

New evidence