(Compiled from data collected by The Durham Project at the New York State Museum and adapted from two previous publications by the author: "Canal Project 4E-15A", a Cultural Resource Survey Report for the New York State Department of Transportation (1/26/83) and "The German Flatts Canal of 1798" in "The Erie Canal, Western Herkimer County", a field guide for the Canal Society of New York State (4/4/91).)
The German Flatts Canal, completed in 1798, was not one of the earliest works of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (1792-1820), but in many ways it was one of the most significant. The last of the Mohawk Valley canals built by the WILNC (seal of that company at left - 79 KB), the German Flatts Canal post-dated the 1795 canal with wooden locks at Little Falls and the 1797 canal with brick locks at Rome. It also post-dated the channel improvements on Wood Creek, west of Rome, completed in 1793, but pre-dated the construction of four wooden locks on that creek in 1803 by almost five years.
More significantly, the building of the locks at German Flatts also pre-dated the 1803 re-building in stone of the locks at Little Falls and Rome. Being originally built of stone in 1798, the German Flatts locks became the oldest unmodified locks in New York State.
The 1.1 mile long German Flatts Canal, with its low dam, guard lock and twelve foot lift lock, was cut across virgin Mohawk Valley floodplain to avoid two rather impressive rapids in the river - namely Wolf Rift and Orendorf's Rift, the latter sometimes known as "Knock 'em Stiff Rift." These rapids are first mentioned in the context of navigation improvement in the 1792 report of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company after a survey of the Mohawk river from Schenectady to the head of navigation at Rome.
"On one half mile, good water, to a strong sharp rapid, formerly called Orendorff's rift, falls a foot in about eighty yards, two feet water, a fine gravel bottom ... on one mile in good water, then arrived at the Wolf Rift, extending about one half mile, bottom fine gravel, shallow, and the channel crooked, occasioned by banks of gravel in the river..."
In suggesting improvements, the survey states:
"From the falls [Little Falls] to Fort Schuyler [Rome] the only impediments of any amount are occasioned by the two rapids called Orendorf's, and Wolf's rapids, these are sharp and extended, and the river here forms a circuit, which lengthens its course beyond a straight line...It is believed that merely a cut through the chord of this circuit of about a mile, in easy digging and of little depth, would effectually surmount these obstacles."
At first the presence of two rapids in a river of 91 rapids in the 1790s seems an insufficient reason to create so major a work as one of only three locked canals built by the WILNC, particularly as the other two canals surmounted such monumental obstacles as the Little Falls Carry and the Oneida Carry at Rome - major blockages to navigation for centuries.
Apparently Orendorf's, cited as having a two foot depth of water in September of 1792, when the water was seasonally low, was not the primary obstacle. It was the Wolf Rift, immediately upstream, that posed the problem, being broader and, therefore, significantly more shallow. A gauge of how critical Wolf Rift was in maintaining open navigation is indicated in a June 1793 letter urgently requesting the WILNC contractor to "clear the Wolf's Riffs as soon as possible" so that the timber and logs being harvested at German Flatts to the west of Wolf Rift could be floated down to Little Falls for the building of the wooden locks there.
But it was not until 1795, after the arrival of the WILNC engineer William Weston from England, that a concrete plan for the improvement of the Mohawk navigation at these rapids was proposed:
...we ascend in good water Orendorff's rift, a very strong rapid; the river being contracted into a narrow, deep channel; half a mile above this is the wolf rift, a wide and shallow rapid... The best manner of improving this part will be to cut a canal from fort herkemer, to the deep water, below Orendorff's rift - the ground is very favorable, being free from rock, and with a gradual and gentle descent...- the length will be ninety two chains; and the fall of the lock at the east end ten feet, supposing the fall of the upper gate level with the surface of the water above the Wolf rift. To obtain the requisite depth of water in the Canal, I propose to throw a dam across the river, to raise it three feet - this will save that depth of extra digging the whole length of the canal, and will also improve the navigation of the two small rapids above Aldridges. The dam, guard, and river locks may be built with stone, to be obtained on the south side of the Mohawk, at the Little Falls - the land carriage will not exceed one mile, and it may then be conveyed in boats to the desired spot - the quality is well adapted for these or any other works, where strength and duration are required - the stones rising in lamina, of different thickness - the beds perfectly parallel, and the dimensions as large as may be required.
Thus the "German Flatts Canal" was born, at least conceptually.