The Beginnings of the Cayuga and Seneca Canal
Part 1 (1787-1819)
By Richard F. Palmer
Private enterprise, coupled with financial assistance of the State of New York, played a key role in the development of the early inland navigation system in the upstate region. Long before the Erie Canal was conceived the chain of natural waterways as well as the interconnected Finger Lakes were utilized to provide water transportation. The bicentennial of the canalized Seneca River between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes will be observed in 2015.
In several cases, local entrepreneurs built short canals around falls and rapids to replace cumbersome and time consuming carries and portages. Income was derived from tolls. Although not overly profitable, they acted as the catalyst for commercial growth and development.
Although the focus of this article is on the early development of the Cayuga and Seneca canal, a brief background will place this story into proper perspective.
The first of these small canal projects were constructed by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Co., established at Little Falls to improve navigation on the Mohawk River and Wood Creek at Rome. This canal, opened on November 17, 1794 and was 4,752 feet in length. Five locks were constructed, each with a lift of nine feet. Meanwhile, during the summer of 1793, improvements were made on Wood Creek, connecting the Mohawk River at Rome with Oneida Lake, a distance of about seven miles. The stream was straightened and cleared of logs and other debris. A one-mile canal was built at Rome to bypass the "Great Carry. " Research on slack water navigation on Wood Creek reveals there was no towpath between the wooden locks, as the creek was very shallow. The Western Inland Lock & Navigation Co. locks at Mohawk (1795-98) were at the ends of dug canals and had towpaths or a flat berm on which men could walk while pulling a boat with a rope. Remains of the towpath along the original canal at German Flatts still exist on state lands near Fort Herkimer.
By an act passed by the New York State Legislature on April 1, 1802, the Bayard Land Company, with the consent of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, was authorized to construct a dam across the river at Seneca Falls, which was done in 1803. The act stipulated the dam could not obstruct the passage of fish or boat navigation. Nothing further was done by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company beyond Wood Creek. An act passed on April 11, 1808 allowed it to relinquish its franchise to improve navigation west of Oneida Lake. From there west, except for a few obstacles, it was essentially clear sailing anyway. Private enterprise once more stepped in and established a short canal at Baldwinsville, then called "Columbia." This canal, opened in 1808, was less than a mile long, and was constructed by Jonas C. Baldwin, a pioneer settler. The single lock was 77 1/2 feet long and 12 1/2 feet wide, with sufficient water depth to pass boats with two feet draft. Tolls were charged. Baldwin also built a dam to provide waterpower for the mills then developing along the Seneca River.
In May, 1789 Augustus Porter, a well-known businessman closely connected with the history of Buffalo, and his party made a journey into the wilderness of western New York. They rendezvoused at Schenectady, were well provisioned and proceeded west in two boats each. He wrote:
"At Seneca Falls we passed our boats up the stream empty by the strength of a double crew, our loading being taken around by a man named Job Smith, who had a pair of oxen and a rudely constructed car, the wheels of which were made by sawing off a section of a log some 2 1/2 or 3 feet in diameter. At. Scoys [cq] we took out about half our load to pass, consisting mostly of barrels which were rolled around the rapids. From he time we left Fort Stanwix until we arrived at Kanadasaga (Geneva), we found no white persons, except at at the junction of Canada and Wood creeks, where a man lived by the name of Armstrong; at Three Rivers Point where lived a Mr. Bingham; and at Seneca Falls, where was Job Smith. Geneva was at that time the most important western settlement, and consisted of some six or seven families..."
Traversing this same route two years later, Elkanah Watson, the "renaissance man" of his day, followed the same route as Porter, but only as far as Geneva. On September 20, 1791 he and his entourage arrived at the foot of Seneca Falls. He wrote: "The carrying-place is kept by one Smith, who has a comfortable log house, and considerable improvements. This transit extends one mile. We transported our baggage by land, and our men stemmed the rapid, with an empty boat, in a surprising manner.
"From our best estimate, the fall, in an extent of three-quarters of a mile, is about twenty feet. Since it is impossible to improve the bed of the river, it results that a canal, with two of three locks on the north shore, will be the only practicable means of navigation; the expense to effect which, will bear no proportion to the importance of the object.
"We walked two miles, by a foot-path, to a place called Scawayas, [cq] where these rapids commence. Here we re-embarked, and ascended the Seneca River to the Seneca Lake, which we entered as the sun was sinking behind the western hills. The distance, between these two delightful lakes, is eleven and a half miles, the current being pretty strong. We found this canal of nature's workmanship connecting the two lakes, generally narrow; in some places obstructed by small riffs; in others, by fallen trees which can easily be removed." (2)
Job Smith, mentioned by both Porter and Watson, is credited as having been the first settler of what would become Seneca Falls. He had an adventurous spirit and arrived there from Ulster County by flat boat through the river system from the east in the spring of 1787. Apparently his flat boat was large enough to bring along a yoke of oxen. He built a log house in the area known as "The Flats" just below the subsequent site of Colonel Wilhelmus Mynderse's upper "Red Mill." His principal occupation was the portaging travelers around the falls and rapids of the swift-flowing river.
Lawrence Van Cleef, of Half Moon, Saratoga County, N.Y., arrived in the spring of 1789. He had served in several engagements during the Revolutionary War, including General John Sullivan's campaign against the Iroquois Indians in 1779. He was familiar with the area. Van Cleef built a double log house, returned with his family that fall. Aside from farming for a time he partnered with Smith in the portage business that stretched up-river to Waterloo. Van Cleef became famous as a boat pilot and later gained considerable prominence during the early days of the village. Van Cleef Lake, created in 1915 to serve as a reservoir for the Seneca Falls locks of the Barge Canal, was named in honor of his son, George Cunningham Van Cleef. As far as can be determined, the portage continued until the completion of the canal. He died July 1, 1830 at the age of 73. (3)
The portage or carrying place appears to have been a lucrative enterprise. The charge for transporting a load or an empty boat from one landing to the other in earliest times was five to six shillings. In later years, as boats became larger, it took several teams to haul one on a large wagon around the rapids, and fees were raised. Between March 13, 1801 to June 24, 1806, $1,492.68 was collected.
About 1791 Smith moved to Waterloo and married Miriam, daughter of Jabez Gorham, an early settler of Waterloo. But she died on December 13, 1792. That same year he built a bridge over the Seneca Outlet. A year or so later he returned to Seneca Falls for a short time before again disappearing. He was gone until 1813 when he returned here to testify in court in conjunction with several lawsuits regarding earlier land transactions. Since he left this area, VanCleef took his place in local history as being the first permanent settler of Seneca Falls.(4)
Beginnings of the canal
On a slip of paper, in historian Orasmus Turner's possession in 1849, Jesse Hawley who is credited with conceiving the Erie Canal had written: "I first conceived the idea of the over land route of the canal, from Buffalo to Utica, in Col. Wilhelmus Mynderses' office at Seneca Falls, in 1805." Hawley and Henry Corl were engaged in the flour forwarding business at Geneva. In his mercantile operations at Geneva, Hawley frequently brought a load of flour to Mynderse's mill to be ground. It was then shipped by Durham boat to Schenectady and Albany. At the time Mynderse's mills were situated at the head of navigation.
While at Mynderse's office one day the subject of better navigation came up. Hawley noted that he was forced to pay higher transportation charges during the summer months when the Mohawk river was shallow. Hawley said he "sat in a fit of abstraction for some minutes - then took down DeWitt's map of the State off the wall, spread it on the table and sat over it with my head reclined in my hands and my elbows on the table, ruminating over it for - I cannot tell how long -muttering a head of water; at length my eye lit on the falls of Niagara which I instantly presented the idea that Lake Erie was that head of water. "
Another version of this story is that Hawley, stepping up to the map of the state on the wall, drew his finger cross country from Utica to Lake Erie, tracing the line of a possible canal. Mynderse said such a canal could not be built for the lack of a head of water. Pointing to Lake Erie, Hawley countered "There is the head of water."
Hawley's business failed in December, 1806 and he found himself in debtor's prison in Canandaigua for 20 months. There he wrote a series of 14 essays describing the canal, and internal improvements in general. The essays were originally published in the Genesee Messenger in 1807 and 1808 and were widely copied. Although no documentation to this effect has been found, Hawley may have sparked an interest in Mynderse's mind that eventually resulted in the creation of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company which followed a few years later. (5)
Mynderse, not yet 30, came here from Albany in 1795 as agent for the Bayard Land Company, a position he held for 30 years. The company owned much of what became the village of Seneca Falls as well as the water rights. Mynderse, considered the "father of Seneca Falls," became a wealthy landowner, industrialist and public benefactor. One history states: "No other single individual had as much to do with the beginning of the settlement here, its subsequent growth to a prosperous village and the location here of early industries as Wilhelmus Mynderse. The year he came here he erected a grist and a saw mill and a double log house, the latter being located next to the present site of Trinity Church. He lived in one end and kept store in the other. The mill was put into operation in 1796. In 1807 he erected the Red Mills on the lower rapids. He also erected a fulling mill and other small industries. His various investments proved profitable and he was a man of strict business methods. His was the very first industry here." (6)
In 1812, the proprietors of the mills at Seneca Falls and "Scoi-Yase Rapids" (Waterloo) applied to the New York State Legislature for aid in rendering the falls and rapids navigable for boats. A side benefit would be development of waterpower through "hydraulic privileges" as an incentive for industrial development. Another story is that the idea for this canal was spawned by Frederick DeZeng. A committee of the New York State Senate, to which the matter was referred, rendered a positive report which stated "the mills then built and hereafter to be established at Seneca Falls and Scoi-Yase, are and ever will continue to be of great public utility in that part of the state; especially as there is no convenient mill site within a large district of country around them.
"And the committee are perfectly satisfied that the quantity of water in said outlet will at all times be sufficient for any number of mills or manufactories, which can be erected at said Falls and rapids, and also an ample supply for the purposes of lock navigation." (7).
After being bantered about in Albany the state legislature approved the incorporation of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company on April 6, 1813 with a capital of $50,000 divided into 2,000 shares of $25 each. A clause of the act reads: "Whenever one thousand shares shall have been subscribed to the corporation, it shall be lawful for the comptroller of this state, and he is hereby required to subscribe on behalf of this state, five hundred shares." Toll rates were not to exceed $2 per ton; tolls upon boats, 30 cents per ton upon the tonnage of the boat, with one-half tolls charged between Seneca Lake and the head of Seneca Falls.
The directors were Wilhelmus Mynderse of Seneca Falls, Elisha Williams of Waterloo, Benjamin Dey and Robert S. Rose of Fayette, Seneca County, and Abraham Dox, Samuel Colt and Herman H. Bogert of Geneva. The law stipulated that the locks were to be no less than 12 feet wide and 70 feet between the gates. The company was given five years to complete the work. The state Surveyor General was to serve as one of the directors.(8)
The following notice appeared in the Geneva Gazette on September 1, 1813:
Seneca Lock Navigation
Sealed proposals will be received by Col. Mynderse, at Seneca Falls, until the 15th Sept.next, for building the Locks and necessary Canals for opening the Navigation between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, agreeable to the act incorporating the Seneca Lock Navigation Company and the Report of the Surveyor General to the Legislature, dated 18 Feb. 1813.
A. Dox, Secretary
A plan of the Locks and the contemplated route of the Canals, may be seen at the house of Col. Mynderse, Seneca Falls.
Geneva, 5th Aug.1813.
Stone for the locks came from the quarry on the farm of Charles Seth Deming near Montour Falls, some 45 miles south of Seneca Falls. The stone was shipped to Geneva on two of his sailing schooners. This is verified by a statement of Engineer James Geddes in his feasibility study of the Chemung Canal:
"At the northern termination of these numerous locks, and close to the line of canal, is the famous quarry which supplied the stone of which the locks at Seneca Falls and Waterloo were built. These stones require but little cutting to make an elegant lock, and their lying nearly on the spot where they would be used, is a circumstance favorable to the building of stone locks, than any other part of the state has presented." (9)
The History of Seneca County published in 1876 states the canal was about 40 feet wide and four feet deep. "The improvements thus inaugurated attracted settlers from abroad and neighboring localities, and population rapidly increased. Oliver Gustin came from Ontario county to Waterloo, then known as New Hudson, on May 15, 1815, to aid in building the locks then being erected by Marshall Lewis and his son, Hazard Lewis." Benjamin Sayre was the stone mason. (10)
Proof that Seneca Falls was a destination at a very early time is this advertisement that appeared for some time in the Albany Argus:
Mohawk & Cayuga
The subscribers, in order more fully to accommodate the public, have determined upon starting a boat from Schenectady for Cayuga and the Seneca Falls, regularly every SATURDAY, during the season. This is intended merely as an addition to their establishment, and will in no wise interfere with their usual business - As boats and wagons will as heretofore be kept in constant readiness to transport from the city of Albany to any part of the Western Country, either by land or water, whatever property may be directed to their care, Gentlemen who reside at a distance from the water communication are informed that their goods will be delivered from the boats at any place they may think proper to designate; and at the Seneca Falls, to avoid delays, wagons are provided to convey the property, if required, to its place of destination. Every effort will continue to be made by the subscribers to afford their customers the most perfect satisfaction, and from their long experience in this line of business, they hope to merit the Public patronage.
Eri Lusher & Co.
Schenectady, August 1, 1814
Eri Lusher had an extensive forwarding business in Schenectady and Utica prior to 1820 and at one time owned the “Ontario,” the first American steamboat on the Great Lakes. Durham boats at the time carried about 12 tons. The smaller bateaus had a carrying capacity of one and a half tons. The first Durham boat ever built in Seneca Falls for river navigation was called the "Adeline," in 1814. The second was named "Miller of Seneca Falls" in 1816. Both were later used on the Erie Canal. The "Merchant" was the first canal boat built here in 1821 by a Mr. Haskell of Geneva. She was run on the old Washington line, by Captain Jacob Hinds, who later became a canal commissioner. Durham boats were open and exposed to the weather. They had runways on each side upon which cleats were nailed. The boats were propelled by six men, three on each side, equipped with long poles and with iron at the bottom. The men placed their poles and, bracing their feet upon the cleats, pushed the boat forward until they reached the stern. Then stepped forward and repeated the procedure.
Several vessels hailing from Oswego were built on Cayuga and Seneca lakes. Built in 1814 were the schooners Sally Ann, 29 tons, at Ovid; Geneva, sloop, 37 tons, at Geneva; and the schooner Mary, 49 tons, at Aurelius (Cayuga);and the Lasister, schooner, 37 tons, at Ulysses on Cayuga Lake in 1816. The spars were not stepped into the vessels until they reached Oswego.
Earlier, Elisha Williams, one of the directors of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company, had constructed a hydraulic canal in Waterloo to create waterpower for milling purposes along the river, which here was more commonly referred to as the "Seneca Outlet." After the company was established they paid Williams $2,000 for the use of the old raceway for the canal. This also included rights to cut into the canal for hydraulic purposes on the north side of the river. The stipulation was that the hydraulic use would not interfere with canal navigation. (11)
Funds raised from the initial sale of stock were insufficient to complete the canal. By an act of the legislature passed on April 13, 1814, the charter was amended to increase the capital stock to $60,000. This created 400 additional shares. But still this was not enough so additional funding was advanced by the state and shareholders were required to pay $6.25 over and above the $25 shares they held.
Finally the day everyone had been waiting for - the opening of the locks in Seneca Falls. The Geneva Gazette of August 30, 1815 reported:
Seneca Locks - We have the satisfaction to state, that on 23d inst., the first boat (about 78 feet in length) went through the two upper locks on the Seneca Falls, loaded with upwards of one hundred persons, in presence of a greater number of spectators, collected from different parts of the country. The boat having entered the upper Guard Lock, went through the new Canal, nearly 3-4ths of a mile in length, and descended the two locks, in 25 minutes; then turned about in the Seneca river and re-ascended the Lock in nine minutes - all which no doubt will be accomplished hereafter in much less time, considering that every thing was new, and managed by hands unacquainted with lock navigation concerns, the architect, Mr. Marshal Lewis excepted, whose faithful exertions deserve the highest praise.
The workmanship of these locks, as it respects solidity and neatness, is probably not exceeded by any heretofore constructed. The locks, canals and dams, as far down as Colonel Mynderse's old mills, will, no doubt, be completed before winter and the remainder near and below the colonel's new mill, will in all probability pass inspection by the middle of next season.
The completion of these locks, will be important - not only as respects the advantages which this village will derive from it, but in particular, the convenience of transportation for the immense country west of this.
The most detailed information on the Seneca Lock Navigation Company facilities is found in a letter written by Wilhelmus Mynderse himself to Canal Commissioner Myron Hawley on February 17, 1817.
Your favour, of the 17th ult. requesting an account of the improvements making in the navigation of the Seneca river, at this place, came duly to hand, and would have been earlier mentioned but for the absence of Mr. Lewis, the engineer and contractor, and Major DeZeng, who has had occasional superintendence of the work. Those gentlemen being unable to furnish the information required, with accuracy, I sent them, immediately on receipt of your letter, a transcript of its contents, desiring them to send me an early answer; but hearing from them, I proceed to give you such information as I possess on the subject. I regret that it is not in my power to be more particular and correct.
There are nine chamber locks, contemplated to be erected in the sole instance, to wit: one chamber lock, of about 2 feet lift, immediately at the outlet of the Seneca lake; two chamber locks at the foot of the canal, at Scawyas, of about nine fee lit each; one chamber lock at the little Scawyas rapid, of 4 feet lift; two chamber locks at the Seneca Falls, of eight and a half feet lift each; one lock at the same place, of eight and a half feet lift, and one chamber lift at the foot of the Seneca Falls rapid, of about five feet lift. There is one guard lock at the entrance of the canal at Scawyas, one at the entrance of the upper canal at the Seneca Falls, and one at the entrance of the fourth canal at the same place.
Of these, three are completed; one guard and two chamber locks at Scawyas, and the chamber lock at Little Scawyas. One guard lock is completed at the Seneca Falls, and two chamber locks, at the same place, are nearly completed, and the site of another is excavated, and the materials for it are on the ground, prepared to be aid up early in the spring. Some progress has also been made towards the three remaining locks.
The materials with which these locks are constructed, are stone; the interface of the walls are of hewn down, neatly joined and well incorporated with the body of the walls, which are laid up with common limestone, found on the spot, in a good lime-mortar and grout.
The walls of the locks are six feet in thickness, and supported with substantial embankments on the outside. I am not possessed of data on which to found an accurate estimate of the cost of each particular lock.
The whole distance of excavation, exclusive of the sites of the locks is as follows:
1st. A canal at Scawyas, on the Waterloo side of the river - This canal is about 250 rods in length. The expense of making it is estimated at about $3,000.
No rock, or other hard substance, was met with digging this canal.
2d. A canal commencing at the dam near the head of Seneca Falls rapid. The canal is 36 rods in length, and is conducted along a limestone ledge. One of its embankments is altogether artificial: it is faced on both sides with stone, to prevent wear by the fall rains or otherwise. Extraordinary expense was incurred in making this canal, owing to the stony nature of the soil. The cost was about $900.
3d. A canal, together with a low dam, of about 150 feet long, across the river, is about 102 rods in length and cost, including the said dam, is about $1,200.
4th. A mill race was used for part of this canal, by which the expense was considerably lessened.
5th. This canal, which will be about 40 rods in length, much for about one half of its length be cut to a considerable depth into a slate rock. Nothing yet has been done to it. It will cost at least $1,000.
6th. This canal will be about 120 rods long, but from the favorable nature of the ground, it may be easily made. It cannot cost to exceed $1,000.
The canals are to contain, at all times, three feet of water, and are to be 24 feet wide, at the bottom, and not less than 30 feet on the surface of the water.
There are three dams thrown across the river, of from 3 to 4 feet in height, constructed of stone and timber. Each cost about $400. The principal dam is at the head of the Seneca rapids, is about 200 feet in length, 10 feet high and 10 feet thick at the base, demising towards the top to 3 feet. This dam is built of stone, in a neat and substantial manner, and travelled on the upper side. It cost, I understand, $1,800.
The Seneca Lock Navigation Company, are bound to erect two bridges over the canals, where they intersect pubic roads. One of these is completed. It is built with stone abutments, and covered with square timber and plank. It is supposed to have cost $150.
The other bridge is to be built in the same manner, and will probably cost the same sum.
The extent of navigation improved by these locks and canals, from the Seneca Lake, to the lower lock at the foot of the Seneca rapids, is about 12 miles. The aggregate amount of locking is about 4 feet.The length of artificial canalling, will be about 550 rods. The bed of the river is used, where its depth of water is sufficient and where no natural obstructions exist.
The locks are 70 feet in length, in the clear, between the gates, and 12 feet width; and are capable of passing a barge of 20 tons burthen.
The stone with which the inner walls of the locks are faced, are obtained, at considerable expense, form a quarry near the head of Seneca lake, about 50 miles distant.
The whole expense of making this navigation, it is calculated will amount to $55,000. It certainly will not exceed $60,000. The initial toll on this canal.
Mr. Lewis, the engineer, although very capable and competent to such works, possessed no practical knowledge of the subject, when he commenced operations here: Much expense was consequently incurred, which might and would have been avoided, had he had more experience. I feel confident, that the whole work might now, with the experience we have required, be done for $45,000.
I may yet receive a communication on this subject from Mr. Lewis. If so, and it should contain anything useful to you, I will do myself this honor to transmit it to you.
So impressed with Lewis' work, the state canal commissioners engaged his services to supervise construction of canal structures crossing Limestone and Butternut Creeks near Syracuse and at Oneida Creek. It was noted "the mechanical skill of Mr. Lewis, arising from much native ingenuity, and long experience applied in canals and hydraulic structures, has afforded us many advantages." (13)
Local historian George S. Conover wrote that the works of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company in Seneca Falls, on the west end, were south of the outlet of the river. The two upper or west locks were together so that boats passed from one into the other. Lock 3 was located a few feet above the later Cayuga and Seneca Lock 3, and boats floated from there down the river to the turnpike bridge, where the canal was cut from and on the south side of the river. It then ran easterly to Lock 4 which stood near the lower mill. It then passed down the north side of the river to Lock 5, and then into the river. Conover said: “The stone used in the construction of the locks was, like that at Waterloo, of a peculiar quality, having little or no grit, and were in demand in after years for bed stones on which to rest large gudgeons of the large, heavy water wheels.
“The first loaded boat from Schenectady, 16 tons burthen passed the newly constructed locks at Seneca Falls, June 14, 1818. This lock navigation extended five miles, was built by company at an expense of $60,000. The passage of this sized boat was effected through the old company’s locks, while the Erie was under construction. The toll charged for passing these locks (cost equal to six miles of canal) was 50 cents, 9 cents per ton a mile.
“David B. Lum Esq. of Seneca Falls and others have a vivid recollection of the event when the first boat passed through the locks at that place, immediately after which the walls of the first or upper lock fell in and it had to be rebuilt. This incident served to impress the occasion more firmly upon the mind. Mr. Benjamin Sayre was the master mason in the construction of the locks.” (14)
Running short of funds, in 1817, the company petitioned the state legislature and was granted authority to call for an additional assessment of 25 per cent upon the original stock. The company claimed it had exhausted its funds and that more money was required to complete the work. The time fixed for completing all work was extended to December 1, 1819. But then the company again ran short of funds. The state then furnished enough funding that enabled it to complete the work. But during the year the officials, again having been retarded in the progress of construction by a shortage of funds, asked relief of the Legislature, which was granted by an act (chapter 93). The New York State Comptroller was directed to subscribe an additional amount of stock in order to enable the company to discharge all debts and also to complete the whole of the navigation by 1821. In 1816, the state owned 500 shares of company stock, valued at $12,500. By 1821 the state's investment in the canal had increased to $21,003.18.(15)
The following legal advertisement appeared in the Geneva Gazette, December 16, 1818:
On the 12th January, 1819, at noon, will be sold at the Hotel in the village of Geneva, to the highest bidder, so much of the unsubscribed STOCK of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company, as will enable them to discharge their debts. By order of the Directors, H. Bogert, A. Dox, S. Colt, Committee.
The first loaded boat passed the newly constructed locks at Seneca Falls on June 14, 1818. There were eight stone locks:
Waterloo - Locks 1 and 2, each eight feet; Kingdom (“Little Skoyase”) - Lock 3, four feet; Seneca Falls - Locks 4 and 5, 8 1/2 feet each, just west of Ovid Street; Lock 6, opposite present-day Trinity Episcopal Church, 9 1/2 feet; Lock 7, 5 feet; and Lock 8 at the Seneca outlet, 5 feet. There was 1.72 miles of actual canal dug. The improved waterway allowed the passage of boats through natural streams and later through the Erie canal to the Hudson and tide-water. But the improvements were somewhat crude, consisting chiefly of locks around the falls and rapids. No towpath had been provided along the river. At this time Durham boats were employed that were polled through the waterway. Neither were there towpaths on the slack water sections.(15)
Elkanah Watson was in Seneca Falls on that historic day, visiting his friend, Wilhemus Mynderse. He wrote:
In descending the hill leading into the village of Seneca Falls, I was agreeably surprised, and peculiarly fortunate, in witnessing the first loaded boat from Schenectady, carrying freight of sixteen tons, through the canals and locks just finished at this place, principally by the private enterprise of a few individuals, at an expense of about $60,000. My curiosity was so strongly excited, that I lost no time in examining the whole extent of the work from the first lock, which is situated three miles from the Cayuga Lake, to its termination at Waterloo, a distance of five miles.
The locks excel any in workmanship I have ever seen, either in Europe or America; they are principally constructed with large square hewn stone, taken from a quarry at the south end of Seneca Lake. There are eight chamber locks, averaging each about eight feet lift, being sixty-four feet in all the whole distance; and four guard locks. This canal may be considered a branch of the grand canal, as it opens an uninterrupted water communication, for boats of sixteen tons burthen, from Schenectady, through the old canal and locks, to the south end of the Seneca lake; and when the contemplated canal is affected, from that lake to the Susquehanna river, an inland communication will open from New York to the Chesapeake. (16)
In a letter to Watson on June 18, 1818, Mynderse wrote that previous to the construction of the canals and locks on the Mohawk river and Wood Creek, transportation was done in bateaux from one to two tons burden. These required four men to navigate them. The price of transportation at that time was from $75 to $100 per ton from Schenectady to Seneca Falls, a distance of 212 miles. With the completion of canals, larger boats had been introduced with a carrying capacity of 15 to 16 tons, with only one additional hand required. Originally bateau carried about 1 1/2 tons. Durham boats carried about 12 tons.
"The charges for transportation have been greatly reduced, notwithstanding the high tolls charged on passing the canals and locks, viz: about four dollars on each boat, and five dollars a ton on cargo, being about seventeen dollars per ton from this to Schenectady, and nearly that sum from thence here." (17)
Local historian Harrison Chamberlain noted:
"Thus came about our first canal, the effect of which was at once seen in the public spirit and increased activity in all lines of business, Not alone the people on the outlet felt the stimulus of a new and important factor, but as well the people of Ontario, Yates, Schuyler, Steuben and Tioga counties. For the first time all this broad region of fine producing farming lands found an outlet for their products to tide-water markets. The link joined here made up a chain of trade and commercial intercourse that at once demonstrated the wisdom of its promoters, and the great importance of the work to the whole commerce of the State." (18)
Although in full operation by the spring of 1819, the entire facilities of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company were not actually completed until 1821. But it was not entirely with private funds. The improvement cost a total of $70,000, of which the State had contributed $21,000 through the purchase of stock. (19)
The Geneva Gazette of April 27, 1819 first published an advertisement for the "Western Forwarding Line" established "for the purpose of forwarding merchandise and produce in and from the Western Country…having a sufficient number of boats in their line between Geneva and Schenectady" that would operate once a week during the navigation season. The notice also states:
“The superior style in which their boats are constructed and covered, as well as the industry, skill and fidelity of their Boatmen, are well calculated to ensure the speedy and safe conveyance of all property consigned to their care. Their Boats will not be subjected to detention, at any intermediate place, for the reception and deposit of freight, but run direct from one extremity of the navigable route to the other.” The proprietors were Trotter & Douglas, Albany; Wilhelmus Mynderse, Seneca Falls; W.S. De Zeng, Geneva, J.F. Jenkins, Canandaigua; Silas Smith, Rochester, and Cyrenus Chapin of Buffalo.
These must have been Durham boats as there was no towpath on this canal. They were flat bottomed and double ended and resembled large bateau. Generally they were 40 to 60 feet long and eight feet wide. They were flat bottomed. Some idea of the vessel traffic on the new canal is gleaned from the Geneva Gazette:
May 12, 1819.
Harbor of Geneva
Arrived - April 27 - Boat, Goodrich master, from Salina, with 192 barrels Salt, to R.M. Bayly.
May 5 - Boat, Graves, master, from Salina, with 160 barrels Salt, to Haskell & Walbridge.
May 19 - Boat Superior, Hollingshead, 10 days from Schenectady, to T. Wickham, with Burr stone, Spanish Hides, Groceries & Drugs, to Cyrus Tanner, Andrew P. Tillman, and Horsten & Tappan, of Geneva.
Will sail this Morning,
Boat Superior, Hollingshead, for Schenectady, with Ashes, Wheat and Glass.
May 19, 1819.
Harbor of Geneva
Arrived - Boat Seneca Sally, Rufus Meech, from Schenectady in 9 days, to T. Wickham, with Drugs, Groceries, Cordage and Sundries, to Horsten & Tappan, Perez Hastings, E. Southwick, Peregrine Hollett, George Clark and S.M. Smith.
Boat Black Bird, Hollingshead, from Schenectady, in 9 days, to T. Wickham, with Burr Stone, Spanish Hides, Groceries and Cordage, to Russell & Beebe, Jessup & Palmer, Hortsen & Tappan, S.M. Smith and D.S. Skaats.
Sailed - Boat Seneca Sally, for Schenectady, with flour.
First on the Erie Canal
The following interesting account of a trip from Seneca Falls to Jordan on December 9, 1819 appeared in the Cayuga Republican of Auburn, Wednesday, December 15, 1819. At the time the canal had been completed eastward but was not open to navigation until the following spring:
“In this age of wonders, perhaps nothing is more calculated to excite the admiration of the intelligent and reflecting part of the people, than the 96 miles of canal, principally through a wilderness, should be completed in the short space of two years and five months, from the time of its commencement-yet such appears to be the fact.
We have it from authority that from Utica to near Salina the Canal is not only navigable, but has actually been navigated; the navigation there, however, was then prevented by small job of work which was not completed. The western part of the middle section has also been completed and navigated.
“Information having been given, that the canal from Seneca River to Salina, would be completed about the 10th inst., a boat was prepared at Seneca Falls, with a temporary cabin and other conveniences, and notice was given that she would leave Montezuma at 9 A.M.
“It so happened, however, that on the 9th, the weather, which for several days had been very mild and pleasant, changed suddenly, and at the appointed time for starting, it was very cold and unpleasant; and to add to the difficulties to be encountered in this first voyage, the canal was covered with ice from one to two inches in thickness. A number of gentlemen, with Mr. Holley, one of the commissioners, had, however, collected, and about half past 11 o'clock the boat with two horses attached to her, left Seneca River, in defiance of the inclemency of the season and ice in the Canal. It was found on trial that two horses would propel the boat against the ice at the rate of rather more than two miles an hour.
“The party proceeded and arrived at Mr. King's in Mentz, a distance of about six miles, with the two horses, and with from fifty to seventy passengers. At Mr. King's two more horses were added, and arrived at Jordan a distance by the canal of nearly sixteen miles from Seneca River, before 7 o'clock in the evening, having passed on the route three locks and stopped one hour at Mr. King's, which leaves about six hours for travelling sixteen miles. There was two feet of water in the Canal, and the boat sixty feet in length and ten feet in width. On the morning of the 11 inst. it was found that the ice had increased so much during the night, that it was deemed unadvisable to proceed farther; the horses were therefore hitched to the boat, and the passengers returned in the same way to Montezuma.
“Much credit is due to Capt. Arnsbury and his associates for their public spirit in fitting the boat so as to make it comfortable and pleasant for the passengers at this inclement season."
Before ending this article, it should be noted the use of the word "falls" in this case is a misnomer. The Seneca River, more appropriately called the Seneca Outlet between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, originally had a 42-foot drop in elevation from Waterloo to Seneca Falls. This took the form of a series of rapids, not waterfalls. Over time, settlers began to harness this swift moving stream to power the early water wheels that ran the mills. As a result man-made dams were created to create a head of water. These falls were used for water power until 1915 when New York State cleared "The Flats" of old mills, factories and other structures to create Van Cleef Lake. This is a reservoir for the locks on the Barge Canal. The former 42-foot drop now furnishes water for Locks #2 and #3.
1. Hill, Henry W., Waterways and Canals in New York State. Buffalo Historical Society Publications Vol. XII, 1908 p. 39; Printed document entitled "In Senate...March 17, 1812; Author’s correspondence with Philip Lord Jr., retired Director of Museum Services, New York State Museum; Men and Times of the Revolution - Memoirs of Elkanah Watson. Edited by his son, Winslow C. Watson. Dana and Company Publishers, New York, 1856, pp 352-3.
3. History of Seneca Falls, by Henry Stowell, in "Brigham's Geneva, Seneca Falls and Waterloo Directory, 1862", pp 4-5; "The Seneca Falls of David Lum, Seneca Falls Historical Society, 1970; "Lawmaker Runs 300-Acre Farm Owned by His Family 130 Years," Geneva Times, June 10, 1957; "The Cayuga and Seneca Canal," Geneva Advertiser-Gazette, October 15, 1914.
4. The Seneca Falls of David Lum, op.cit.; "Our First Settler," op. cit.; P. Grip's Historical Souvenir of Seneca Falls (Syracuse, 1904), p. 39, 41.
5. Turner, op. cit. P. 699; Buffalo Courier, April 2, 1857; Ontario Messenger, January 27, 1841; Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. II, pp 243-244.
6. Grip's, op.cit. p. 52.
7. "Skoi-Yase" is an old Seneca Indian term meaning "the rapid water." Senate Report, op. cit.; Assemblyman Sterling C. Hadley's remarks regarding improvements to the Cayuga & Seneca Canal, Albany Argus, June 8, 1853; Biography of Baron De Zeng, New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 2 P. 452, 1871.
8. Chapter 114, Laws of New York; The directors of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company were also the directors of the Seneca and Susquehanna Lock Navigation Company, incorporated in 1814 to build a canal from Seneca Lake to the Chemung River. This latter company failed to undertake this project, presumably because their priority was to improve navigation on the Seneca River. However, a notice appeared in the Geneva Gazette on January 18, 1819 asking the state legislature incorporate a company “for the purpose of making locks and canals from the headwaters of Seneca Lake, to unite with the waters of the Chemung River, at or near the village of Newtown, in the county of Tioga, with capital of $300,000.” The petitioners were the directors of the Seneca Lock Navigation Company. This proposal did not materialize.
9. Schuyler County, New York: History and Families. Turner Publishing Co., Paducah, Ky., p. 83; Geneva Palladium, March 22, 1826; "The Seneca Falls of David Lum", op.cit. P. 5.
10. Ibid.; History of Seneca County, New York, Philadelphia, 1876. p. 85.
11. Correspondence with Philip Lord, op.cit; "The Seneca Falls of David Lum", op. cit., P. 15; Clyde Times, October 29, 1921; Enrollments issued in the District of Oswego, 1815-1818. Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, Record Group 421, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Albany Argus, October 26, 1814; Bird, Col. William A., “Early Transportation Between Albany and Buffalo, et. al, A Paper Read Before the Buffalo Historical Society,” Jan. 29, 1846; Chapter 114, Laws of New York, op. cit.; Becker, John E., A History of the Village of Waterloo, 1949. p. 65.
12. Becker, op.cit.
13. Laws of New York, in Relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals, together with the Annual Reports of the Canal Commissioners and Other Documents, Requisite for a Complete Official History of Those Works. Vol.. 11, pp 317-320. Published by Authority of the State, E. & E. Oxford, Printers, Albany, 1825; Seneca Falls had grown sufficiently by this time to establish a post office there on March 15, 1816. Abijah Mann was the first postmaster. From: New York Postal History by James L.Kay and Chester M. Smith Jr.. American Philatelic Society, State College, Pa., 1982 p. 308. Marshal Lewis and his son, Hazard, were early settlers of Binghamton. They were engaged in several local enterprises. Marshal Lewis died Sept. 7, 1847, age 79, at the home of his son-in-law, B.F. Chadwick of Van Buren County, Mich. Hazard Lewis died July 2, 1863, aged 68. Broome Republican, Sept. 30, 1846 and July 8. 1963; Seward, William Foote, Binghamton and Broome County, New York - A History, New York, 1924. Vol. 3 pp 16-17.
14. Conover, George S. Kanadesaga and Geneva, manuscript, 1888, p. 497, Waterloo Library and Historical Society.
15. Chapter 93, Laws of New York, passed March 21, 1817; "Finances of New-York," Niles Register, March 7, 1818 Vol. 14, p. 25; Annual Report of the New York State Comptroller, published in Albany Argus, February 2, 1817; Annual Report of the New York State Comptroller for 1821, published in the Schenectady Cabinet, March 22, 1822.
16. “Annual Report of New York State Canal Commissioners”, January, 1819, published in Geneva Gazette, March 3, 1819; Barben, Arnold H., Cayuga and Seneca Canal 1813-1963. (pamphlet); The Flats including The Canal and Industries.Seneca Falls Historical Society, 1981 P.5.
17. Geneva Gazette, August 5, 1818; correspondence with Phil Lord of Niskayuna, N.Y. who extensively studied Durham boats.Men and Times of the Revolution, op. cit. p. 412.
18. Chamberlain, Harrison, “Seneca Lock Navigation Company”, in "Papers Read Before the Seneca Falls Historical Society", 1913. P. 8.
19. Whitford, Noble E., “History of the Canal System of the State of New York”, Albany, N.Y.,1906, p. 473.