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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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October 31, 2017

Philip Schuyler’s Last Project

Discovering some important forgotten history

We all know, or at least us locals here in Albany ought to know, that when the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, travel from the east coast of the United States into its vast and mostly wild interior became easier than ever before.  Following the only natural cut through the mountains that run from Maine to Georgia, the waterway made it possible to move goods and people from New York City to Minnesota and beyond without battling the wilderness.  We ought to know this because Albany is the eastern terminus for the Erie Canal and the later Barge Canal, it is one of the big reasons why we are here today.

But did you know that there was a canal of sorts that existed before the Erie Canal?  Actually it was a series of improvements to the natural waterways between Albany and Lake Ontario at Oswego, improvements that included a number of short canals with locks, along with so-called V gates to raise the water level in shallow areas and cuts through the land to shorten travel time.  These improvements not only made travel easier and faster, but also allowed larger boats that could carry much greater loads.

It turns out that this earlier waterway was created because of the efforts of our own General Philip Schuyler, the guy who owned most of the South End of Albany as an estate, and whose house is still maintained as a State historical park right down the street from my own more modest house.  Recently The Wife and I attended a lecture on this subject one evening at the Schuyler mansion in the big downstairs room under the portrait gazes of Philip and his wife Cornelia.  Perhaps this was the very room where he planned this enterprise well over 200 years ago.

General Philip Schuyler In Front Of Albany City Hall
General Philip Schuyler In Front Of Albany City Hall

The lecture was given by Philip Lord, a transportation historian and former curator of the New York State Museum.  Some 20 years ago or so Mr. Lord made his own investigations into this mostly lost story, searching for and finding some of the remaining artifacts and changes to the landscape made by the waterway improvements.  Since then he has given this lecture many times, it was sharp and concise, clearly a labor of love on his part.

In most accounts there is a big gap in accounts of Philip Schuyler’s life history at the end of his life, after the Liberal Revolution of 1776.  The narrative is that he angrily resigned from the Army in 1779 in response to spurious charges of incompetence brought by social climbing fellow general Horatio Gates, who is notorious for leveling charges against George Washington in an attempt to replace him as commander in chief.  Afterwards Philip Schuyler served as an elected US senator and congressman, and tended to his estates.

After the war he developed health problems, supposedly gout but more likely lead poisoning, both of which until fairly recently were often confused due to similar symptoms.  Ironically it was his privileged status that made him vulnerable to lead poisoning, he was said to be quite fond of imported port wine which was actually sweetened with lead, and of course those wigs were powdered with lead.  The line that we usually read is that he retired from politics in 1797 and convalesced until his death in 1804, which is not correct.

Reenactors Use A Bateaux Boat On The Mohawk River Near Little Falls
Reenactors Use A Bateaux Boat On The Mohawk River Near Little Falls

According to Mr. Lord, in 1792 Philip Schuyler started on a new endeavor, the formation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.  Using mainly his own resources and connections, and the support of “subscribers” (investors) he set about transforming the existing waterway that ran westward from Albany into a more reliable route.  That the task was enormous, and that he had no experience building waterways for transportation did not concern him.

His correspondence reveals that it was during the Liberal Revolution that he became familiar with the poor condition of this water route, attempting to move troops and supplies westward to fight the British.  Thus from personal experience he knew where the worst problems were along the route and in those places is where he concentrated his efforts. Despite his growing illness, the records show that he spent much time at these troublesome spots in the wilderness directing operations and dealing with problems.

Last Remaining Piece Of The Original Locks At Little Falls NY
Last Remaining Piece Of The Original Locks At Little Falls NY

Moving upstream the Mohawk River, a big impediment was the rapids at Little Falls, which required portage of about a mile.  This required unloading the boats and carrying the boats separately across land which supported a thriving local business providing portage for hire, which of course added to the overall expenses for the traveller or shipper of goods.  Here in 1795 the company built a canal one and quarter mile long with five locks originally built of wood but later replaced with stone, the first in the nation.  This canal was dug entirely by hand because it was almost impossible to bring draft animals such as oxen out to this wilderness area.

An even bigger impediment to travel was where the Mohawk River became no longer navigable at Fort Stanwix, present day Rome.  Here there was another portage, again unloading supplies and carrying them overland.  This portage was also about a mile and a quarter, and the time and expense for the carry the same as at Little Falls.

1790 Map Of The Carry At Fort Stanwix
1790 Map Of The Carry At Fort Stanwix

The problem was that the portage ended at a little stream called Wood Creek, a trickle of water barely wide enough for a small bateaux boat and which tended to get too shallow in early Autumn.  Besides, there was a local miller who had dammed part of the creek.  It was usually necessary to go find the miller and pay him to open the dam so that there would be enough water to float the boats.

After the miller’s dam Wood Creek was joined by Canada Creek and became deeper and fast flowing, but meandered quite a bit before it finally emptied into Oneida Lake.  A canal with a series of locks made of wood and of brick connected the Mohawk to Wood Creek.  Mr. Lord found traces of this old canal inside the present day City of Rome, which ran along a road that today is appropriately called Canal Street.

West of Fort Stanwix (Rome) the company made 13 cuts in the meandering creek which greatly shortened travel time.  In addition there was a great deal of clearing of fallen logs and overhanging brush, thus the name Wood Creek.  From there the traveller entered and crossed Oneida Lake, proceeded down the Oswego River and entered Lake Ontario.

Illustration From 1807 Showing A Durham Boat Passing Through A V Gate On The Mohawk River
Illustration From 1807 Showing A Durham Boat Passing Through A V Gate On The Mohawk River

In addition there were many rapids and shallow areas along this route, particularly in the Mohawk River.  A solution the company used was borrowed from the Native Americans, constructing V gates made of piled stones in the water, with an opening at the point of the V big enough for a boat to go through.  The Indians used these gates to channel fish so they could be caught easily, but the company adopted them to raise the water level inside the V to make the shallow areas navigable.  A clever low tech solution.

It is strange that these pre-Erie Canal improvements to the water route are mostly forgotten, and from what I read are usually dismissed by most historians. Before the improvements made by Philip Schuyler’s company the only boats that could use this water route were small bateaux boats, and just barely.  These craft were more like glorified canoes, rarely more than 24 feet long on this route, no keel and a very shallow draft.  They could barely carry a ton of goods and passengers.

The company’s improvements made it possible to switch to Durham Boats, which were more like small barges.  They were about 50 feet long, 8 feet wide and could carry about 15 tons.  These were moved along by a pair of boatmen using long poles tipped in iron, but on open water such as Oneida Lake were fixed with sails.

Illustration From 1807 Showing A Durham Boat Passing Through A V Gate On The Mohawk River
Tabletop Model Of A Durham Boat, Displayed By Philip Lord

With this in mind it is not hard to imagine how these improvements to the water route vastly facilitated commerce and travel.  The rule of thumb, as any transportation expert can tell you, is that if you improve a road or other kind of travel route then the amount of traffic will increase on that route.  In a very short time the increased traffic on this route led to the demand for more improvements, which led directly to State funding of the Erie Canal.

There were proposals to improve the water route before the Liberal Revolution but they came to nothing.  Philip Schuyler was able to carry out this plan because he had the social standing along with the drive to accomplish this task.  Of course he stood to benefit from this project himself as his land holdings sat at or near the terminus of this route, he was always one to look for and seize opportunities for self advancement.

New Caskets Containing The Remains Of Three Of Philip Schuyler’s Slaves Beneath A Portrait Of Their Master Inside His Albany House, April 2016
New Caskets Containing The Remains Of Three Of Philip Schuyler’s Slaves Beneath A Portrait Of Their Master Inside His Albany House, April 2016

Philip Schuyler was every inch a rich aristocrat, a landowner who owned slaves and was the virtual owner of many more tenant farmers.  His wealth and influence grew even greater after the Liberal Revolution ended in 1783, a war he helped to win, a political and social revolution that ironically sought to do away with the aristocratic pretensions of families such as the Schuylers.  While the Liberal Revolution itself did little to change Philip Schuyler’s manner of living, it did eventually do away with both slaves and tenant farmers in our region, and also eventually dissipated the wealth concentrated in the hands of his descendants.

We cannot judge him by the standards of today because those standards did not exist when he was alive.  We remember him well today because he fought in a war to bring about those Liberal values which we now take for granted, certainly fighting for his own economic self interest but also for the nation he helped create.  He understood that the future lay not with the feudalistic remnant imposed upon his country by the English overlords, but rather with a then dimly understood notion of equality and opportunity for  all.

The Schuyler family actually owned three estates in the area.  The Albany townhouse that he built, which was the center of a self-sufficient estate that encompassed most of the South End of Albany, is located a short walk from my house and is carefully maintained by the State as a historic landmark.  In the 1700s this building was considered a spacious and well-appointed mansion, today it rates as a larger than averaged sized suburban house.

The House At Schuyler Flatts That Burned In 1962
The House At Schuyler Flatts That Burned In 1962

The family originally settled around 1672 in what is today suburban Colonie, a place that today is called Schuyler Flatts.  A few years ago the remains of nine of the Schuyler slaves were found in an obscure burial ground on this site, they were exhumed and reburied with much honor and ceremony in a nearby proper cemetery.  The old family house on the site burned down in 1962, an unfortunate loss.

The real source of Philip Schuyler’s wealth was his estate up in Saratoga County, that house still stands as a historic site. This was a vast holding of some 24,000 acres that was granted to the family in 1684.  In 1745 this profitable estate was destroyed by a raiding party of French and their Indian allies, who captured most of the 100 slaves and tenants who were working the estate.  Philip’s older brother was killed in this raid, which left Philip as the heir to the family fortune.

The Current Dam At Fish Creek Today
The Current Dam At Fish Creek Today

Fish Creek, which is the kill that drains Saratoga Lake into the Hudson River, is dammed about four miles from the lake.  In a recent post I wondered about why the current dam is there, it seems that Philip Schuyler himself built the first dam after he rebuilt the Saratoga estate in the 1760s.  The dam had a profound effect on the landscape, raising the level of Saratoga Lake and turning Fish Creek into a marshy lake, but no matter because it was all Schuyler land anyway and damn the environmental cost.  From a National Geographic article:

Fish Kill (Fish Creek) was dammed to power a flaxseed (linseed) oil mill and a later linen mill. Schuyler’s two sawmills also took advantage of the creek’s waterpower. Herring making their seasonal run up the Hudson were caught, salted and shipped to feed slaves in Jamaica and Antigua.

One can’t help but be struck by how much the exploitation of slavery was the source of the Schuyler wealth, both on his estates and as a distant market.  One is also struck by what we today would consider environmental damage, the permanent massive flooding of a landscape and the interruption of an aquatic ecosystem for profit.  This is a stark illustration of the intersection between environmental degradation and human exploitation.  I keep thinking of the herring trying to complete their life cycle but baffled by the dam, being easily caught at the artificial barrier and sold as cheap food for humans in a distant land toiling under bondage.

Schuyler House In Schuylerville, Saratoga County
Schuyler House In Schuylerville, Saratoga County

But in the 17th and 18th Centuries slavery and aristocracy was considered the natural order of things, while altering the landscape to turn a profit was considered the proper and best use of the natural environment.  In his day Philip Schuyler was admired for his ability to take advantage of the land in this manner.  And he was equally admired for the fair and just way he upheld the prevailing social order.

He was also much admired in his day for being forward thinking, adapting to the changing world around him.  Thus he naturally threw in his lot with the Liberal Revolution, using his talents and influence to help lead it, and afterwards continued to use those advantages to help build the new nation.  It is for this that he earns our respect today, not for being a man of his times.

The Main Room Downstairs At The Schuyler Mansion, Albany
The Main Room Downstairs At The Schuyler Mansion, Albany

In his lecture Mr. Lord presented a very positive view of Philip Schuyler’s accomplishments at the end of his life.  Indeed it is astonishing how a man with a deepening and eventually fatal illness managed to travel to these then remote points in the wilderness and supervise a groundbreaking enterprise with the scant resources that were available.  It is also amazing that he had as much success as he did.

Another problem that Philip Schuyler had to overcome is that essentially he didn’t know what he was doing, and expertise in building locks and waterways was not readily available.  He and his main partner in the enterprise, Elkanah Watson, managed to import an experienced engineer from England named William Weston to oversee the work.  The problem was that there simply was nobody in America at the time who knew the proper way to build canals.

DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton

DeWitt Clinton, who as New York State governor is credited with creating the Erie Canal some 20 years later, was extremely critical of the improvements made by the company.  (He also detested Elkanah Watson, seeing him as a rival.)  In his political commentary Canal Policy he wrote:

General Schuyler was a man of great talents; but he was not a practical engineer... The work was too mighty for his grasp.  At a subsequent period, Mr. Weston, a celebrated English engineer, was employed; but he was totally ignorant of the country and the people. Hence between them both great mistakes were committed... The operations of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, however laudable for good intentions, were unfortunately calculated to dampen the zeal for internal navigation and to arrest its progress. The most popular and the strongest argument urged against the great system of Canal policy, was the failure of their attempts; and it may be truly said, that if that association had never had a being, the most serious obstacles which have been thrown in the way of our present measures would have never existed.

Wow.  Well, history is written by the winners, and the Erie Canal was a fabulous success, a winning proposition that made water travel into the interior of the country convenient to an unprecedented degree.  But DeWitt Clinton’s statements are astonishingly unfair, to say that the work done by Philip Schuyler was “calculated to dampen the zeal for internal navigation and to arrest its progress” just sounds crazy.  To say that the work was a failure smacks of the lowest sort of political rhetoric.

It appears that these statements of DeWitt Clinton, which were echoed by his political allies, are the reason why the work of Philip Schuyler to improve the western water route have been almost completely forgotten.  Clinton’s personal conflicts with Elkanah Watson aside, statements like this were calculated to silence critics who at the time called the canal proposal “Clinton’s Ditch.”  And it worked, today a basic fact of American history taught in elementary schools is that DeWitt Clinton “built” the Erie Canal and that it was an essential part of what made America what it is today.

Schuyler Mansion In Albany
Schuyler Mansion In Albany

But part of the narrative of the Erie Canal is that it just... happened.  What is missing from that standard grade school narrative is that there was a demand for the Erie Canal, and that demand was not an idea or a notion.  That demand was a real on the ground increase in the flow of traffic from Albany westward to the Great Lakes, an increase made possible by Philip Schuyler’s transportation enterprise, his waterway improvements.

And we should not continue to dismiss and forget about the work done by Philip Schuyler in the last years of his life.  The entire enterprise came to a halt when he died in 1804, perhaps if he had lived longer he would have completed more, we can’t really know.  But what we do know is that great things like the Erie Canal rarely if ever just happen, there is a foundation upon which such things are built whether we remember them or not.

 


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Comments:
If you are having difficulties posting a comment, please email Daniel Van Riper. We are experimenting with our spam filters, and we do not want to exclude any legitimate commenters, just spammers!


Posted by:Stan
Posted on:11/01/2017
Comments:
"....in the 17th and 18th Centuries slavery and aristocracy was considered the natural order of things..."

Nonsense. The slaves knew it was 'unnatural' and wrong. Maybe white people considered it natural.


Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:11/01/2017
Comments:
Stan - Not necessarily. Bondage is, after all, a state of mind. But the Liberal Revolution would change the way people saw themselves.


Posted by:Stan
Posted on:11/02/2017
Comments:
"Bondage is a state of mind" seriously?


Posted by:Daniel Van Riper
Posted on:11/02/2017
Comments:
Indeed. Why else do you pay your taxes and obey the law?


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