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...