Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883

Volume I, Page 348

Early Transportation in Central New York -- I have already mentioned the navigation of the Mohawk, and the construction of locks at three places to facilitate the use of a larger class of water craft; and resume the subject to speak of some matters then omitted. The trade with the Indians along the great lakes and the St. Lawrence, was carried on by the aid of boats propelled from Schenectada up the Mohawk at great personal labor, in consequence of the rifts or rapids in the stream. The first obstruction of the kind was met with six miles above Schenectada, and was called Six Flats' rift; proceeding west came in course similar obstructions known as Fort Hunter rift, Caughnawaga rift, at Fultonville; Keator's rift, at Spraker's, the greatest on the river, having a fall of 10 feet in a few rods; Brandywine rift, at Canajoharie, short but rapid; Ehle's rift,

(A bend in the river opposite the residence of Peter Ehle, from whom the rapid took its name, was known at one period as Ehle's crank; and opposite the residence of Nicholas Gros, a little below, another turn in the river was called Gros' crank. Here many boats tied up. The last year of river navigation, the boatmen stole almost every thing they could lay their hands on. So did the children of Israel on leaving Egypt, they Borrowed never intending to return what they had taken. --Nicholas Gros.)

near Fort Plain; Kneiskern's rift, a small rapid near the Upper Indian castle, a little above the river dam; the Little falls, so called as compared with the Cohoes, and Wolf's rift five miles above the falls. At the Little Falls, a descent in the river of 40 feet in half a mile, boats could not be forced up the current, and it became a carrying place for them and merchandise, which were transported around the rapids usually on the north shore, on wagons with small wide rimmed wheels, the water craft re-launched and reloaded to proceed onward. On such occasions one of the party usually stayed with the goods deposited above, while the team returned for the boat. Small bateaux, known in early times as three handed and four handed boats, were in use on the Mohawk, which carried a few tons each; and so called because three or four men were required to propel and care for them. These boats were forced over the rapids in the river with poles and ropes, the latter drawn by men on the shore. Such was the mode of transporting merchandise, military stores and Indian commodities to and from the west, for a period of about 50 years, and until after the Revolution. A second carrying place in use at an early day was near Fort Stanwix, from the boatable waters of the Mohawk to Wood creek. Passing through Oneida lake, the bateaux proceeded into Oswego river, and from thence to Oswego on lake Ontario. From Oswego to Niagara, a place of much importance, merchandise was transported in the same boats or on sloops.

The locks at the carrying places, as before stated, were constructed under the direction of Gen. Philip Schuyler, whose memory for services rendered his country in her most trying period, will ever be held in grateful remembrance by the citizens of New York. The locks at Little Falls were completed in 1795. The following original paper, given by Gen. Schuyler to a name sake a son of the Rev. Mr. Schuyler of Schoharie, will show at what time the business was the most actively prosecuted:


"By virtue of the powers vested in me by the directors of the Inland Lock Navigation Companies in this State, I do hereby appoint you an Assistant Superintendent, to superintend, direct and command the mechanics and laborers, and their respective overseers, already employed in the service of the said companies, hereby requiring the said overseers, and others so employed, in all things to pay due obedience to all your lawful requisitions and directions.

"Given under my hand, in the county of Herkimer, this eighth day of May 1793.

"President and Superintendent."

In June following, Gen. S. gave his name sake the annexed very flattering testimonial, which shows the usual caution of that great man in guarding against accidents:
"FALLS, June 22, 1793.

"Dear Sir--I experience so much satisfaction from your attention, and the readiness with which you comprehend the hints given by me for the construction of the works, that I consider it as a duty to give you this written testimony of my perfect satisfaction of your conduct, and to evince my sense of it by a pecuniary reward. Your compensation, from from the original time of agreement, will be two dollars per day; this, however, I do not wish you to mention, least others should conceive that I made a discrimination unfavorable to them, although in reality I do not, for their services are by no means as important to the Lock Navigation Company as yours.

"Least an accident should happen to me, which might deprive you of the benefit of the above mentioned allowance, you will keep this letter as a testimony thereof.
"I am, dear sir,
"Your friend and humble servant,

"President of the Board of Directors,
"To Mr. Philip Schuyler."

(A Bloodless Duel -- The only known duel ever fought in Schoharie county, took place about the year 1820. One of the belligerents was this Schuyler, a man of no little pride of character when free from the influence of alcohol, and a man of scientific attainments. On some occasion a difficulty arose between Boss Schuyler, so called, and Josiah Clark, a man in his younger days of pugilistic repute, and the code honorable was appealed to. Clark, at the instigation of a wag, challenged Schuyler to combat, who took the matter up seriously, accepted it, and named the rifle as his weapon.

Seconds were chosen, and, at an appointed hour on a lovely summer's day, the parties met on the flats west of Swart's tavern, the stone house still standing a few rods south of the old stone church, now called the fort. By the direction of their seconds, at ten paces distant the parties met rifle in hand, and scores of spectators in the secret were also there. Schuyler was somewhat bent by the infirmities of age and the bottle; but at the given signal, he straightened up, the rifles were poised, and simultaneously they sent forth their starting peal.

The smoke cleared away, and revealed the fact that poor Clark was down; and as his friends gathered around his remains, Schuyler, seeing his victim, as he supposed weltering in his gore, clenched his rifle firmly in his grasp, shook it defiantly toward him, exclaiming, as he turned on his heel to retrace his steps to the village: "He would have it so!" On looking back at the distance of a few rods, to mark the effect of his prowess, he saw the body of his victim borne between his friends toward the inn; still muttering, as he moved on, "He would have it so!"

He hastened to the village to strengthen spirits with spirits, and after an hour or two, in which time his conscience had hardly twinged for taking the life of an old neighbor and steadfast friend, he was startled at beholding his supposed scepter in the street for dead he was sure had left him. It soon leaked out that the seconds had forgotten to put bullets in the guns, notwithstanding Clark had given such indubitable evidence of having felt one; and, when the fact came to the knowledge of Schuyler, he was ready to fight "all the world and the rest of mankind." Thus terminated, said Frederick Vogel, the first duel in the Schoharie valley.)

After the locks were built at Little Falls, business on the river greatly increased, and apples and cider were then among the commodities sent west. The clumsy bateau, which had for half a century usurped the place of the Indian's bark canoe, soon gave place to the Durham boat described elsewhere. Boating, at this period, was attended with great personal labor: the delay of unloading at Little Falls had been obviated, but it was found more difficult to force large than small craft over the rapids. Several boats usually went in company, that the untied strength of many men might aid in the labor before them. Those boats were often half a day in proceeding only a few rods, and not infrequently were they, after remaining nearly stationary on a rapid for an hour, compelled to drop below the rift and get a new start. Twenty hands, at times, were insufficient to propel a single boat over Keator's rift. Boat's crews usually did their cooking on shore. Black slaves, owned by settlers in the neighborhood of rapids, both male and female, were often seen assisting at the ropes on shore, when loaded boats were ascending the river.

Along the river road near some of the rapids there were public houses, a share of whose custom came from boatmen. Near those inns, as possible, boats often tied up for the night, a lot of Mohawk sailors having their own jolly times. The late Jost Spraker's tavern, near Keator's rift, was one of this class, having, among its many patrons, not a few who came by water. The old Isaac Weatherby house at Brandywine rift, situated, perhaps, a mile below Palatine Bridge, and below the junction of the Oswegatchie and river roads, was a house favorably known to river craftsmen,when large wagons were their competitors, and canals and railroads were unthought of. After the Erie canal was completed, this house like many other public houses, as the travel left the road, became a tenant house, and went rapidly to decay, no trace of its location remaining; but in its palmy days it was a favorite place for the typing up of great numbers of water-craft.

River accidents sometimes occurred to boatmen, though seldom attended with a loss of life. A three handed boat once struck a rock in Keator's rift, upset, and a Negro was drowned. At Fort Hunter rift a three handed boat upset, when William Hull and Kennedy Failing were drowned, a son of Abraham Oothout, of Schenectada, swam ashore. At the upper end of the island, some two miles west of Fort Plain, near the Palatine shore, a man at a setting pole, on a Durham boat, lost his footing and fell into the river. The current there was quite strong, the man could not swim, the boat fell below him and he was drowned. This was while the canal was building, and was witnessed by Abram R. Fox, who was at work on the flats.

In 1823, says Simeon Failing, Ezra Copeley ran a Durham boat on a rock in Ehle's rift, below the Fort Plain bridge, it was loaded with wheat in bulk, was stove and filled with water. The wheat was taken to Ehle's barn and dried, the boat was repaired, reloaded and went on to its destination. One of the last accidents of the kind, occurred while the canal was nearing completion, to a Durham boat, one of the best of that class of river craft, called the Butterfly. It was descending the river, then swollen, laden with flour, potash and wheat in bulk, when it became unmanageable, swung round, and struck its broadside against a pier of the Canajoharie bridge, and broke near the center. The contents of the boat literally filled the river for some distance, and three hands on the boat were drowned. The name of one was afterward ascertained to be John Clark. His body was recovered twelve miles below, and was buried on the river bank, in the present village of Fultonville. His bones having been disclosed by the spring freshet of 1845, they were taken up and buried in the village burying ground Nicholas Steller, who witnessed the disaster, says that the man steering the boat retained the long tiller (15 or 20 feet long), which was broken loose from the boat; and by its assistance he gained the north shore 80 rods below the bridge. Most of the flour on the boat was saved along the river. The owner of the craft, a Mr. Myers, had its fragments taken to Schenectada and rebuilt, after which it entered the canal, and went into Cayuga lake. Where there engaged, his boat sunk laden with gypsum, and he was drowned. Thus ended the Butterfly and its owner. Boats managed by skillful hands sometimes sailed down the rapids at Little Falls when the river was high, but it was always attended with danger. Several rowboats, constructed expressly to carry some 20 passengers each, from Utica to Schenectada, and tastefully curtained, were in use on the Mohawk, about the beginning of the century. They were called river packets. Myndert Starin, and Jacob Lasher.

An Old River Draftsman.-- The last surviving boatman who navigated the Mohawk in a Durham boat, that I remember, was Benjamin Nihoof, a native of Palatine, whose German ancestry settled there a generation or two back of him. He was not only very successful as a boatman, but also as a raftsman of lumber from different points on the river, one of which was the well known landings of the late Jacob Hees, on the north bank of the river just above Palatine Bridge. The boating, on account of the Cohoes falls, terminated at Schenectada. Probably no Mohawk river boatman ever escaped more perils and successful surmounted more obstinate difficulties on the river, than did Benjamin Nihoof.

"Uncle Ben" loved his pipe and his bitters from childhood, it is believed, though we never saw him drunk; and, under the influence of those stimulants, he did not hesitate to take the helm of a boat in its downward course, and, no matter what obstacles were in the rifts, his craft glided safely on to its destination. He lived to be past 70 years old, and when he became enfeebled, he and his good old wife, who was a Miss Spencer before marriage, became inmates of the county alms-house, where, at the end of several years, they both died about the year 1870. For some ten years before he went to the county house, we saw Uncle Ben as often as once or twice a week, and, in fancy, had many a boat ride with him up and down the Mohawk in all kinds of weather, and in freshets over Little Falls.

In Boating on the Mohawk, sails were used when practicable. Christian Schultz, who journeyed on the river in 1807, spoke of there being three kinds of boats on the Mohawk, the Schenectada boats being preferred, which carried about ten tons when the river would permit. He said they usually progressed from 18 to 25 miles a days, up the stream, by sails and poles. Those boats, modeled much like Long Island round bottom skiffs, where 40 or 50 feet in length, and were steered by a large wing oar of the same length. When the wind favored they set a square-sail and a top-sail. He was informed that one galley, called the Mohawk Register, had gone at the rate of six miles an hour against the stream, and he adds: "During this time, believe me, nothing can be more charming than sailing on the Mohawk." They did not often have a favorable wind, and the curves in the river rendered the course of a boat irregular, and the aid of sails precarious, on which account their chief dependence was upon their pike poles, which it required much experience to use to advantage.

The poles and manner of using them on the river boats, I will quote Mr. Schultz's account of, as his description followed his observation: "These poles are generally from 18 to 22 feet in length, having a sharp pointed iron, with a socket weighing 10 or 12 pounds affixed to the lower end: the upper has a large knob, called a button, mounted upon it, so that the pole man may press upon it with his whole weight without endangering his person. This manner of impelling the boat forward is extremely laborious, and none but those who have been for some time accustomed to it, can manage these poles with any kind of advantage. Within the boat on each side is fixed a plank running fore and aft with a number of cleats nailed upon it, for the purpose of giving the poleman a sure footing and hard polling. The men, after setting the poles against the rock, bank or bottom of the river, declining their heads very low, place the upper end or button against the back part of their shoulder, then falling down on their hands and toes, creep the whole length of the gang boards, and send the boat forward with considerable speed. The first sight of four men on each side of the boat, creeping along on their hands and toes, apparently transfixed by a huge pole, is no small curiosity; nor was it until I had perceived their perseverance for 200 or 300 yards, that I became satisfied they were not playing some pranks.

"From the general practice of this method, as likewise from my own trials and observation, I am convinced that they have fallen upon the most powerful way possible to exert their bodily strength for the purpose required. The position, however, was so extremely awkward to me, that I doubt whether the description I have attempted will give you and adequate idea of the procedure. I have met with another kind of boat on this river, which is called a dorm or dorem; how it is spelled I know not. [This was the Durham boat I have mentioned. The third boat to which he alluded, was the bateau propelled by oars.] The only difference I could observe in this [the Durham], from the formed one is, that it is built sharp at both ends, and generally much larger and stouter. They likewise have flats [scows], similar to those seen on the Susquehanna, but much lighter built and larger. On all these they occasionally carry the sails before mentioned.

"The Mohawks is by no means dangerous to ascend, on account of the slowness of the boats progress; but as is full of rocks, stones and shallows, there is some risk of staving the boat, and at this season [probably mid summer], is so low as to require the boat to be dragged by hand over many places. The channel in some instances is not more than eight feet in width [the boats were long and narrow], which will barely permit a boat to pass by rubbing on both sides. This is sometimes caused by natural or accidental obstructions of rocks in the channel, but oftener by artificial means. This, which at first view would appear to be an inconvenience, is produced by two lines or ridges of stone, generally constructed on sandy, gravelly or stony shallows, in such a manner as to form an acute angle where they meet, the extremities of which widen as they extend up the river, while at the lower end there is just space enough left to admit the passage of a boat. [This construction evidently resembled a modern eel-wier.] The water being thus collected at the widest part of these ridges, and continually pent up within narrower limits as it descends, causes a rise at the passage; so that where the depth was no more than eight inches before, a contrivance of this kind will raise it to twelve; and strange as it may appear, a boat drawing fifteen inches will pass through it with safety and ease. The cause is imply this: the boat, being somewhat below the passage, is brought forward with considerable velocity, and the moment it dashes into the passage, its resistance to the current is such as to cause a swell of four or five inches more, which affords it an easy passage over the shoal."

Thus the reader is furnished with a description of river boating on the large boats by an eye witness, which makes it now valuable. That writer said the Mohawk might be considered as being about 100 yards in width, with extremely fertile banks. He fell into an error when he stated that Canajoharie and Little Falls were the only two towns lying immediately upon the river, in the whole distance from Schenectada to Utica, they being upon its opposite shores, as at that period half a dozen or more towns came to the river that that distance. He spoke at passing through eight locks in ascending the river at Little Falls. As I have elsewhere shown, two of the eight were at Wolf's rift several miles above. He said the Mohawk afforded very poor fishing, and amusement he was fond of, since at the end of nine days he had only caught "a poor eat fish not longer than a herring." He visited Utica on the site of Fort Schuyler, then having 160 houses; and Whitestown four miles above. Of Rome he spoke as follows: "Rome, which lies in latitude forty-three degrees, twelve minutes north, and seventy-five degrees, twenty-seven minutes west, is situated near the head of the Mohawk, 16 miles above Utica. The entrance into this village is through a handsome canal about a mile in length. It is here that the Mohawk is made to contribute a part of its stream towards filling Wood creek, which, of itself, is so low in dry seasons as to be totally insufficient to float a boat without the aid of the Mohawk. Rome, formerly known as Fort Stanwix, is delightfully situated in an elevated and level country, commanding an extensive view for about 10 miles around. This village consists at present of about 80 houses, but it seems quite destitute of every kind of trade, and rather upon the decline. The only spirit which I perceived stirring among them was that of money digging, and the old fort betrayed evident signs of the prevalence at this mania, as it had literally been turned inside out for the purpose of discovering concealed treasures."

In descending Wood creek he passed down through a range of five canal locks. He spoke of the rates of toll as being too high. He said the toll in passing the eight locks at Little Falls, was two dollars and twenty-five cents on each ton of merchandise, and the toll on the boat was from $1.50 to $2.62 1/2 each boat. The toll was at a still higher rate to pass through the Wood creek locks, being $3.000 per ton on the goods and from $1.50 to $3.50 on the boats. For a copy of Shultz's letter, I am indebted to the Utica Herald of March, 29, 1878.

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