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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, www.findagrave.com 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)
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.