Historical Context: Navigation Before the Erie Canal
Philip Lord, Jr., New York State Museum
Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the leaders of the new nation began to develop a vision of improved westward transportation. Along with new merchants, settlers, and military commanders, they looked to the existing network of linked inland waterways that crossed New York State. This route had been used extensively during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the Revolutionary War. It was clearly the best route between Albany, an Atlantic port on the upper Hudson River, and Lake Ontario, the nearest of the Great Lakes, at the Oswego Harbor.
In the 1970s, land routes connecting east and west were still woefully underdeveloped. They were often so poorly constructed that they could not support any sort of dependable shipping by wagon, or even travel by horseback, when the weather turned bad. And so natural waterways continued to provide the most dependable method of transportation west of Albany.
However, this was a waterway system plagued by obstructions. It included a 16-mile portage moving the boat and its cargo by land from Albany to the Mohawk River at Schenectady to avoid Cohoes Falls; another mile- long portage to bypass a rocky rapid at Little Falls; and a third three-mile-long portage to get from the upper end of the Mohawk River into Wood Creek, running westward from what is now Rome. In addition, there were nearly 100 riffs, or shallow places in the rivers, where the water was knee-deep or less. To use such a waterway system, boats had to be small enough to be lifted easily and dragged overland at every portage, and light enough to float on less than two feet of water in times when the rivers ran low. The 30-foot-long bateau, which was already commonly used on the waterways, became the workhorse of the 1790s - the “pickup truck” of the period.
Bateau traffic was not adequate to the needs of the new country, however. Settlers were streaming into the previously hostile lands west of Albany. American generals worried about securing western borders against the British presence in Canada. So it was that by 1792, three years after George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, a private company was incorporated by the New York State legislature. The company’s job was to improve the existing waterways and to advance transportation along what was seen as a national corridor of international significance. This group - the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (WILNC) - undertook to make the shallow, interrupted waterway fit for larger boats during a longer season of travel, including building canals the like of which had never been seen before in New York.
Within 10 years, the WILNC had constructed short canals to bypass the portages at Little Falls and Rome. Another canal was built to avoid dangerous rapids in the Mohawk River near Herkimer. Thirteen tiny canals were cut across loops in Wood Creek, to straighten the channel and shorten it by six miles. And large V-shaped rock dams, designed like the fish traps used by the Iroquois Indians, were built on some of the rifts to raise the water levels, thus permitting larger boats to pass.
Some of these works failed; others lasted a while and then had to be rebuilt with new materials and techniques. But in the end the effect was to create a continuous water channel from Schenectady to Oswego, combining rivers and streams, improved natural waterways, and new artificial channels - New York’s first canals.
Boats no longer had to be lifted out of the water, and many of the shallowest places had been deepened. This allowed a new and much larger type of boat - the Durham - to travel from one end of the system to the other. These boats could still float on less than two feet of water, but they could carry seven times as much cargo as the bateaux. They were the “tractor trailers” of the era. In shallow water, men used long poles with heavy iron tips to push these boats along. On deeper water, such as Oneida Lake, they were rowed. Sometimes, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, they could move by sail.
By 1803, about a decade after its creation, the WILNC had revolutionized the water transportation system. However, as new turnpikes were built and a web of improved roadways spread westward across the Mohawk Valley and beyond, competition from land traffic began to take its toll. Teamsters driving wagons could deliver goods as fast and as cheaply as the old riverboats. In addition, the expense of keeping the water navigation system working increased continually.
The idea of a single canal stretching from Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo grew from the need to create an even more effective and dependable waterway across the state. By 1820, construction of the new Erie Canal overran the more than 25-year-old works of the WILNC.
This quarter-century transition period between the time of natural, unimproved waterways and 1820 was crucial. The WILNC was a proving ground for much of the engineering needed to build the Erie Canal. The company’s system further served the state and the nation by carrying produce, manufactured goods, settlers, and U.S. soldiers between Albany and the Great Lakes. The WILNC helped shape the history of the United States - by protecting it from the threat of foreign competition and by moving the frontiers of settlement and commerce into what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.