Monday, October 31, 2016

The Stone Curse - Halloween Series 2016

The long story of the Erie Canal may have come close to never being told all on account of a phantom that plagued the survey crew.  Surveyor and crew often witnessed the ghastly figure along their path and several times sightings occurred just prior to catastrophe. 

One such instance occurred as the survey reached the outskirts of Rome in 1816.  As the crew set up camp for the evening – on an oddly humid May evening – several members of the group reportedly witnessed a gaunt figure lurking along the edge of the trees.  As the air hung damp and the sun began to set, the sightings aroused greater concern by flickers of lanterns and campfires.  A few sturdy ax men volunteered to take vigilant watch during the night.

It seemed a calm settled into camp by this gesture, along with a hearty supper and a few doses of whiskey.  As the night deepened and the air thickened even more into a wispy fog that descended upon the party.  No one could have imagined what morning would bring…

A remarkably quiet night passed and at daybreak fires were stoked to brew strong coffee.  It took several minutes for the camp to revive into the new day, but it became quickly apparent something was amiss.  Three men were missing, and uneasiness overcame those that remained.  The search did not last long however, as a laborer was discovered curled up behind a large oak tree…shaking, mumbling, and as white as a fresh snowfall.  His hands trembled and when he was taken to the fire for warmth and coffee, his skin turned grey and blood trickled from his eyes.  The rest of the crew watched as his lips turned purple and then to black, his skin darkened and his limbs clenched inward and stiffened.  Everyone stood dumbstruck as they witnessed his body lurch slightly and the poor soul died.

This rattled even the meanest of crew and a silence fell upon the camp.  A moment passed and the group realized two others were still missing, yet stricken by what they had witnessed and fearing for their own safety no man moved to search for them.  When two of the crew began the process of burying the dead man, they noted how his skin seemed to have turned to stone.
Along with several other strange happenings, this terrifying instance during the survey of the canal was never put in official reports and the crew members refused to discuss it.  The only references to these matters comes from a journal kept by one of them that was disclosed to an itinerant canal pastor in 1834.  Upon growing fears and religious fever, the former crewman sought to repent sins and clear himself from what he felt was a curse laid upon them all by disrupting the landscape.  


Read others:

Canal Cat - Halloween Series 2016

   With thousands of tons of grain moving along the Erie Canal each season as cargo destined to far reaches of the world, canal boats had plenty of feline friends.  Much like barn cats, barges welcomed the rodent hunters aboard to avoid rats and mice taking over their holds.  Less companions and more working partnership, these cats ate their fill of furry little intruders. 

    One such cat however, made close friends with a canal boat captain’s daughter, Miss Alice Loman.  About seven years of age, Alice and her friend, Mr. Whizzlers, could be witnessed on deck as the mother did laundry or cooked meals.  Alice had chores too, such as wringing the laundry, sweeping, helping cook and also feeding the horses…with Mr. Whizzlers always in tow.   


   The cat did its dutiful job, keeping the barge free from pests.  Even the old captain didn’t seem to mind the cat underfoot as he moved about the cabin.    On a foggy morning just outside of Buffalo, the captain heard a yowling and scratch at the aft window.  The cats’ cries unnerved the gruff captain and as he walked out on deck, he saw the cat beside Alice’s shawl, but there was no sign of Alice anywhere on the boat!    The barge was stopped, searched up and down twice, three times over and despite the efforts of the captain and his wife, poor Alice was not found.  The crew and other canawlers canvassed the canal, its banks, the berm and towpath, the water…yet…yet…nothing.  No trace was found.
    Thrown into murky sadness, the parents walked away from their boat – never to return to the canal – and leaving Mr. Whizzlers behind as well.    Locals reported for weeks after this tragedy, seeing the cat walking along the bank of the canal, describing it as a melancholy creature that cried and stared at the water constantly.  With each passing day, then week, the cat ever gaunter, slowly starving itself to death while looking for Alice.  Eventually a local merchant, so touched by the feline’s dedication tried to bring Mr. Whizzlers inside his shop.  As he stooped to pick up the boney cat, he saw a shine in its eyes and his hands passed through its thin body.       Stunned, the merchant lurched back, and in the eyes of the cat he saw fire and the shadow of a little girl.  Horrified he ran back inside.  Mr. Whizzlers ran off to the west along the towpath, but that was not the last he would be seen.  For decades locals and canawlers alike have reported the cat along the grand Erie Canal, and at times it finds its way upon boats traveling east… the glow of fire remains in its eyes……

Eerie Orphan - Halloween Series 2016

By the late 1890’s the Erie Canal had less passenger traffic than the decades prior, and cargo was starting to drop as well.  Entering the 20th century would be a canal steeped in generations of company operations which often exploited young labor.  On the verge of a new canal – one that would be constructed with new technologies – there was a sense of renewal, but, as the end of the 19th century turned, remnants of the past seemed adamant to be remembered.

It was not uncommon at this time for those along the canal, upon stopping at lock taverns, to swap tales of their journeys.  Several canal boatmen journal entries explain the oddity of a similar experience many captains began having in 1898 along a stretch of the canal just west of Schenectady

Most common at the break of a new day on the water, captains would notice as they checked the time that their pocket watches slowed down.  The metal would feel cold in their hand as they looked at its face, the hands visibly slowing as their gaze was upon it.  Morning sunlight shining aboard their boats…reflected off the watch face the blank stare of a young boy.

Each description was the same.  The circumstances the same.  The cold, the face, the same.  Captains would often drop their watch, letting it swing from its chain…but in temptation – or an attempt to assuage their own conscience of its fear – they would grasp the watch again to validate their recognition of the child.

Often these captains would tell those who gathered around to listen, as if to warn them of their own misdeeds – fueled by whiskey or rum – that the boy staring back at them was none other than one that had worked as a driver in seasons long since passed.  The old captains would recall with slurred words how that orphan boy was picked up by the company somewhere out near Rochester and had been employed to walk beside the mules for the summer.  Come November he would explain, cold and barefoot the boy was let loose to unemployment – forced to find or forage sustenance and warmth on their own.  More, the boy would be scornfully told his food and clothing had cost the company just about all of his season’s wages.

The boy would be told to leave the company stable and make his own way in whatever town they happened to have ended up at.  The child was let out as the flakes of snow began to fall and the canal closed for another winter.  Common practice to be sure, the boys could sometimes fend for themselves and those that could not were often found, names unknown, frozen behind buildings along the canal.  While each captain nonetheless saw different boys, and recalled different words they used to hustle the boy away, the tale they shared was nearly all the same...  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Where The Blue Line Ends... (Part 1)

   With the approach of the bicentennial of the first spadefuls of dirt turned in constructing the Erie Canal, it may be of interest to explore a bit about the early survey work and the eventual canal construction in the area that is now part of Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.  What was not a given at the time, was the path of the canal from the Schoharie Creek to Albany. When they broke ground on July 4th 1817 in Rome, the canal “blue line” ended at the banks of the Schoharie. 

   Running a canal through the Mohawk Valley was by no means a new concept.  Going back to the colonial era under the then surveyor general Cadwallader Colden, it was noted as a potential global improvement and prudent endeavor for British colonial rule of the continent to at least improve inland navigation.  Travelers for decades between then and the early 1800’s had noted the geological advantages of the Mohawk Valley – even George Washington thought it a great concept, though never would have approved of federal monies to pay for a canal.  

   After a long process of gaining legislative approval for funding, in 1816, Charles Brodhead had been assigned to survey the route from Rome, NY to the Schoharie Creek.  The continuation to Albany would not be settled until the last possible moments before the construction of that fifty mile section.  Brodhead had a long surveying past, even ascending an Adirondack high peak in the 1790’s, before establishing himself in the Utica, NY business world.  Several years pasted before he then heeded the call to Erie work. Brodhead returned to central NY before the completion of the canal and did not advance into the history books with those surveyors turned engineers.   

   As author and historian Gerard Koeppel notes in his work Bond of Union, that stretch of the Mohawk Valley that Brodhead was to tasked to survey was already “a region of merchants, travelers, and crude boatmen, raucous riverside taverns and public houses, with the comforts and discomforts of rough progress” (emphasis added).  It also encompassed many of the most difficult elevation changes of the entire canal route.  Brodhead’s character and experience aligned perfectly for such a task.

   Within the company of men assigned to execute that survey was Canvass White – noted predominately now in canal lore as not just a surveyor or engineer but the savior of the project in its earliest stages for his reported “discovery” of a particular limestone in NY and the process by which to transform it into hydraulic cement.  That cement was necessary to build locks, culverts and other canal masonry.

   With the foolish idea of the incline plane canal put aside (which would have required an elevated canal prism 150 feet higher than the Schoharie Creek) the survey would necessitate the canal to traverse the creek and overcome the elevation changes that occur across the section and most precipitously toward Albany.
John Jervis
Oneida County Historical Society
   The former ax-man, John Jarvis was the engineer in charge of the Erie Canal division from Anthony’s Nose to Amsterdam when the 1821 construction season began.  While the section required four locks, the most daunting task may have involved the crossing through the Schoharie Creek.  Any ease Jarvis experienced, was gained in this division - according to Koeppel, entirely due to the previous oversight and contracting of Canvass White.  Further oversight of Jarvis by Chief Engineer Benjamin Wright and Canal Commissioner Henry Seymour would provide guidance to build his confidence as the canal inched eastward.  And although his section would leak and need vast repairs in 1822, it was indicative of the nature and conditions of canal construction through the eastern sections of the Grand Canal – the difficulty of traversing a region full of “Flood-prone Streams,” need for aqueducts and the difficult south bank of the Mohawk River that required the construction of dams, guard locks and culverts.

Henry Seymour

   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.

You can discover more on that topic by reading these previous articles:

                    Dam That Creek! - Erie Canal dams of the Schoharie Creek

                    Erie Canal Maps in the NYS Digital Archives Collection

And look for our more in the upcoming Part 2 of Where the Blue Line Ends...


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Visions West: Robert Hunter, Fort Hunter, and the Fur Trade

In 1712, New York Governor Robert Hunter positioned Fort Hunter as a staging point for provincial and commercial expansion westward through the Mohawk Valley.

Before we dig into the meat of that statement, let’s rewind a decade or so (this is, after all, history…).  

The fur trade constituted a major component of colonial commerce on New York’s frontier, and so serves as the basis for contextualizing Governor Hunter and his expansionist agenda. As the seventeenth-century gave way to the eighteenth, invested British officials, merchants, and businessmen maintained access to the rich peltry supply near the Great Lakes through New York’s Mohawk Valley, a major commercial frontier connecting the Atlantic World to the Midwest. As New York’s provincial leaders fought to control the western fur supply through a diplomatic alliance with the Iroquois, the French established a major Great Lakes trading post at Detroit in 1701, effectively cutting off British access to the region. [1] Increased competition and conflict over the fur trade between the British and the French created an economic downturn for New York. The scarcity of beaver pushed the Iroquois toward poverty while London’s imports from the colony dropped forty percent from their 1700 levels. Meanwhile, Albany maintained its fur trading prominence through an informal neutrality agreement with Montreal. This St. Lawrence River port benefited from French exploits near Detroit, leaving Albany’s merchant community to abandon their Iroquois allies on New York’s frontier in favor of impartial (and illicit) commercial relationships with Montreal’s businessmen. [2]

Governor Robert Hunter
Within a few years, New York rebounded economically and a new push for frontier expansion served to benefit the colony’s merchant community. Newly appointed Governor Robert Hunter and Albany merchant and official Robert Livingston actively promoted a return to western trade through the Mohawk Valley to undermine the Albany-Montreal route. In 1712, the Governor established Fort Hunter, some twenty miles west of Schenectady, and garrisoned the position with twenty soldiers. [3] With an adequate frontier post established, the Hunter administration launched infrastructural improvements and maintenance along the interior trade route. These actions brought major trading centers like Albany, New York City, and increasingly, Schenectady, closer to New York’s rural frontier. Additionally, the rise of wheat, flour, and grain as prominent trading commodities contributed to the colony’s commercial expansion. Between 1714 and 1717, political and economic stability under Hunter bolstered New York’s growing trade in extractive commodities. During this period, the colony annually cleared sixty-four vessels filled with the colony’s exportable goods. [4]

As a result of Robert Hunter’s actions, provincial policy shifted to better cultivate the Mohawk Valley as a viable trade route for New York during the 1720s. In 1719, Hunter became Governor of Jamaica, leaving his former position to his successor, William Burnet. Similarly geared toward guiding commerce through the Mohawk Valley, Burnet began a campaign to remove the French from the commercial equation. The Governor took aim at the Albany-Montreal trade and removed several of the merchants involved from the colony’s assembly, replacing them with similar imperial idealists (for example, Cadwallader Colden). On November 19, 1720, Burnet and his administration formally ended Albany’s export of “Indian goods” to Montreal and enacted a law promising a £100 fine for New Yorkers aiming to “treat trade bargain with Sell or deliver to any Subject of the French Kings.” England’s Board of Trade understood that positive Indian trade relations provided a key method for displacing the French-controlled St. Lawrence River as a preferred commercial route for the fur trade. [5] Echoing the sentiments of both the Board and his predecessor, Burnet actively deterred the Albany-Montreal trade in favor of the English-supported Mohawk Valley route. Burnet’s aim to bolster commercial expansion along New York’s frontier appeared evident in this law, since garrison commanders from the Mohawk Valley’s posts at Schenectady and Fort Hunter could collect these fines as well. [6]
Meanwhile, Burnet’s patronage toward potential frontier settlers awarded German Palatines a home in the Mohawk Valley. The 1723 Stone Arabia settlement and 1725 establishment of Burnetsfield (present-day Herkimer) supported the colony’s frontier economy with a viable population. Albany’s Commissioners of Indian Affairs cited infrastructural maintenance at the Oneida Carrying Place, the gap between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, demonstrating the route’s growing commercial use on all sides. [7] Hunter’s vision of the colony’s expansion westward through commerce served provincial merchants, despite future military unrest and frequent economic fluctuation in the Mohawk Valley and beyond. Ultimately, even before the lead up to and construction of the Erie Canal, New York's frontier proved fertile ground for commercial expansion and entrepreneurship, as well as gradual displacement and dispossession.

Nolan Cool is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His forthcoming article "Pelts and Prosperity: The Fur Trade and the Mohawk Valley, 1730-1776" details entrepreneurship and commercial expansion on New York's frontier. During New York State History Month this November, he will deliver a talk at Schoharie Crossing on the fur trade. 

Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section, or via Twitter @FriendsSXSHS and @Nolan_Cool.

[1] William J. Eccles, “The Fur Trade and Eighteenth-Century Imperialism,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 40, no. 3 (July 1983): 344.
[2] Allen W. Trelease, “The Iroquois and the Western Fur Trade: A Problem in Interpretation,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49, no. 1 (June 1962): 48; Ronald W. Howard, “The English Province (1664-1776),” in The Empire State: A History of New York, ed. Milton M. Klein, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 138, 142-144.
[4] Howard, “The English Province (1664-1776),” 145-46.
[5] Jean Lunn, “The Illegal Fur Trade Out of New France,” Report of the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association 18, no. 1 (1939): 66, 76; Murray G. Lawson, Fur: A Study in English Mercantilism, 1700-1775, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1943), 42; Governor Burnet to the Duke of Newcastle, November 21, 1724, in Documents Relative to the History of the State of New York, 10 vols, (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Company, 1856-1858), 5:734, hereafter cited as NYCD.
[6] The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution, 5 vols. (Albany, NY: James B. Lyons, State Printers, 1894), November 19, 1720, 2:8-9
[7] Ruth Loving Higgins, Expansion in New York: With Especial Reference to the Eighteenth Century, (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1976), 34-35, 63-64; Minutes of the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1723-1748 (microfilm), September 19, 1724, 1:99, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

Image Credits:
a) Herman Moll: John Lord Sommers ... This map of North America, London c. 1712 - Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
b) Portrait of Robert Hunter (attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller) - Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
c) Fort Hunter 1712 - Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site Exhibit


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