Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Sixteens

One of the most impressive feats of engineering on the Erie Canal was the overcoming of elevation change from the Mohawk to the Hudson River and in particular around Cohoes Falls.  In order to achieve this, a series of locks were required.  Within decades of the canal opening, the canal Enlargement reduced the number of locks to accomplish this, to sixteen.  These locks were notoriously known as THE Sixteen, and they were the last long push to the Hudson for many boatmen at the end of a trick from the west.

   By the 1880’s, the reputation of The Sixteens was akin to the swashbuckling “Barbary Coast,” and had provided layers of scandal for boatmen, politicians, and public works officials for decades.  In the fall of 1883, Public Works Superintendent James Shanahan – namesake of today’s E12 Lock at Tribes Hill – bluntly refuted overall charges that the section of canal was wholly corrupt from the top down.   Being familiar with The Sixteens as former Eastern Section Superintendent, he was aware of procedural corruption by lock tenders, who – for a fee – would illegitimately draw down water from the higher levels to promote a flood push to move boats quicker from lock to lock.

   This was done “when a boat is lowered in a lock it…[could]…be sent ahead by a rush of water from the upper level, so that the towing team is enabled to walk off as briskly as if no stop had been made.  But in order to get this start the upper gates of the lock must be opened…the boat is given a ‘flood send-off’ as it passes out…[of the lock].”

   The Evening Post newspaper, printed in New York City, reported on October 16, 1883 that Shanahan “took measures when navigation opened to stop this practice…” He implanted “special agent[s]” so that within a few weeks the result was the firing of twenty-two locktenders for wasting water, favoring particular boats and/or pilfering cargo.

   The day before that article ran, a delegation of boatmen convened at Shanahan’s office to herald the condition and management of the canals.  One man, who had spent thirty years on New York’s canals, stated he had not known a better season on the Erie Canal than the one just drawing to an end.  “He had just arrived from Buffalo with a ‘double-header’ – two boats in concert,” and all season noted no lack of water or incidental interruption to travel and perceived no favoritism at locks by tenders.

   The Sixteens still carried a notoriety, if not for the dubious nature of tenders, boatmen and other canal workers on the waterway, but for the ill society it kept along its wake.  Efforts to design a new method of transiting the elevation would continue to be made by state engineers, and just over a decade after the Evening Post article, the Plattsburgh Daily Press printed a piece on the concept of a steel aqueduct to replace The Sixteens.  None of the sixteen locks had undergone lengthening improvements like forty other locks on the Erie had due to cost and inconvenience.  A trip from Buffalo to Albany averaged seven and a half days, with at least four hours of this total being consumed with passage through The Sixteens between west Troy and Cohoes. 

Plattsburgh Daily Press
November 21, 1894
   The State Engineer and his assistant proposed a scheme to construct a steel aqueduct that would allow several barges to be raised or lowered 140 feet in a single locking.  Further, the idea contemplated putting two of these massive turbine driven devices side by side; however,  as the 20th Century drew closer it became more obvious that the canal would be re-aligned and primarily placed within the Mohawk River in the eastern section.  A new plan and direction emerged and the flight of locks at Waterford that exist today were created in the second decade of the 1900’s.

   The massive locks that make up the Waterford Flight is the greatest change in elevation in the shortest distance of any canal in the world.  The notorious nature of The Sixteens was a direct result of the topography that had to be overcome by engineers for the Erie Canal to be a success.  Many of the locks that made up The Sixteens still exist in the Cohoes area, however most are not accessible to the public.  A few you can be seen while passing by, if you know what to look for.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

2017 Membership Drive

2017 will be a huge year for the Erie Canal!  As the bicentennial of when construction started, the year will be marked with special events all along the Canalway Corridor! Be a part of the celebration by being a part of something great!

The Friends of Schoharie Crossing!

As a member of the Friends of Schoharie Crossing, you will be a part of supporting the mission of the site in the preservation and interpretation of the Erie Canal as one of the 19th century's greatest commercial and engineering projects as well as sharing the story of the Mohawk community and Fort Hunter in the 18th century.  In addition to that, the Friends group provides other educational opportunities for students and visitors by conducting special programs at the site.  If that was not enough, the Friends group is also active in providing opportunities for recreating visitors as well, and sharing the pride in this great historic park. 
A sure-fire way to help Schoharie Crossing continue to offer great intriguing, entertaining and educational programs and events is to become an active member with the Friends of Schoharie Crossing.  Your monetary membership fee will go to support such programs as the Not Just for Kids Storytelling series, Canal Days, Putman Porch Music, NYS History Month lecture series, professional development for staff & volunteers and to the development of further wonderful programs, educational opportunities and recreational events for the exciting future of the site. 
We are also seeking more than just a membership due; your resources of time and word of mouth about Schoharie Crossing are invaluable!  Share the passion you have for the site with your friends and family.  Help get the word out about the programs, events and fun that can be had on site! Bring your relatives or friends along to meetings, events, or just to the site for a picnic.  As a valued member of the Friends, volunteer for events, and/or help maintain the canal or towpath trails, help with office tasks or promotions, and contribute to the blog and newsletter too!  There really are countless ways to give a little bit of you to further the preservation of history and of Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.

                Thank you for your time and continued support.  Here is to a bright 2017!


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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Views & Vistas - Call for Art at Schoharie Crossing

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site has put out this wonderful Call for Art!

To find out more and/or submit your entry online, please click the link HERE

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Where The Blue Line Ends... (Part 2)

Dam That John Littlejohn!
The Schoharie Creek was vital in the hydraulic system of the Erie Canal even in 1822. It was the primary source of water to the fifty mile stretch from its banks to Albany; A section that would require large amounts of flow to conduct passage through the nearly two dozen locks to reach the Hudson River. In order to facilitate this transference of creek water into the canal – as well as ease the crossing of its flowing body – a slack water dam would be constructed and continually maintained in the Schoharie even up into the era of the early 20th century when the canalized Mohawk River no longer made use of the creek’s waters in that fashion.

John Littlejohn was awarded contract #353 to construct the first dam in the Schoharie Creek for Erie Canal purposes. A cursory search of that name brings up a handful of results that may be related to the contractor – of note a John Littlejohn who for a time settled in the Litchfield, NY area and some information illuminates his responsibility for setting up a grist mill in that town around 1806. However, a much more plausible referencing goes to a man by that name that was born in 1790 and fought in the War of 1812 as a Colonel from Massachusetts. This gentleman is noted as having been a principle builder of the inclined plane railroad between Albany and Schenectady as well as his work on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the James River and Kanawha canal. The site, listing for a John Littlejohn, Jr. mentions his work on the Erie Canal as well. To solidify the reasoning that this is indeed the John Littlejohn that constructed the first dam across the Schoharie Creek is that in 1823 he married one “Eleanor Newkirk, of Montgomery county, New York, where she was born November 23, 1799.”

Further investigation leads to the NYS Assembly records from 1834 – particularly No. 274, of March 5th. Jacob Buckdorff petitioned the NYS Canal Commissioners for reimbursement of tolls he incurred at Little Falls while transporting lumber from German-Flats to the Schoharie Creek for dam repairs in 1823. Buckdorff reported that he spoke with John Littlejohn who claimed to be an agent of the State, and was instructed “…that he should receive the said toll back from the State.” The petition filed for reimbursement was accompanied by three affidavits to that understanding, one from Buckdorff and two from apparent witnesses to the conversation. The Assembly remarks repudiate the claim that Littlejohn could act as an agent of the State as he was a contractor responsible for construction & repair of the dam, and regardless he would not have the power of authority to make such an affirmation that the tolls would be returned. (Toll of $38.80 in 1823 – equivalent of nearly $860 in 2016)

From the Collections of the NYS Archives
According to that record of contract #353 in the Canal Commission Fund Reports at the New York State Archives, Littlejohn not only constructed the dam but was tasked with repairs and operation of the locks on each side of the canal from 1821 to 1823. The total cost to the State for the dam as well as his services was paid out at $17,332: Adjusting for the rates of change in the value of the American dollar that would be roughly $342,000 today.
According to the 1907 work A Twentieth Century History of Allegan County, Michigan by Dr. Henry Franklin Thomas, Col. John Littlejohn, Jr. moved with some of his family to Allegan County around 1840. Littlejohn apparently was a prosperous business man in that area, setting up the first large flour mill among other enterprising business dealings. Dr. Thomas states that Littlejohn retired in the late 1850’s due to ill health (possibly a long result of wounds he received at the famous battle of Lundy Lane in 1814). John Littlejohn, Jr. died in January of 1868 during a visit to Omaha.

A special Thank You to Larry B. Massie, Author/Historian & Brandy Gildea, Parks Coordinator Allegan County Parks, Recreation, & Tourism for their additional information regarding the Littlejohn family in Michigan.

*Note - this article originally ran in the Spring 2016 Friends of Schoharie Crossing Newsletter and was posted on the Schoharie Crossing Facebook Page in October 2016.