PO Box 122, Boonville, New York 13309
Phone: (315) 942-6763

 

 

 

 

 



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Canal History


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Canal
Chronology


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Canal Today


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1847 Augustus Mitchell Map
(Click here for closeup of Black River Canal area)

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed constructing a canal that would link the Mohawk River with Lake Ontario.  This canal was to make use of the Black River, which rises in the central Adirondacks and flows north, dividing the Tug Hill Plateau on the west from the Adirondacks on the east.  Clinton argued that a Black River canal would serve two purposes.  First, it would open up the sparsely populated North Country to commerce.  It was widely recognized that this isolated region of New York possessed vast forests, iron deposits, and fertile soil that were ready for exploitation. Second, a Black River canal would tap the region’s abundant rivers and lakes.  A reliable source of water would be essential for any expansion of the Erie Canal.


Elevation Profile of the Black River Canal
(Click here for a larger view)

In 1837, after numerous surveys and petitions from residents of the North Country, the state legislature finally authorized work to begin on the Black River Canal.  Although the canal was to be only 35 miles in length, its construction presented engineers with a daunting challenge.  The channel was to proceed north from Rome along the Mohawk River to the junction of the Lansing Kill.  The canal was then to proceed to north through the rugged Lansing Kill gorge, rising 693 feet to its summit at Boonville.  (Topographic Map).  This so-called “alpine” section of the canal would prove to be the most difficult.


Five Combines
(Photo by Don Ryder)

The canal had to be carved out shale, a soft, brittle rock that not only holds water poorly but lends itself to the formation of  sinkholes that might cause a wall or even the bottom of the canal to disappear.  In places, the towpath--which formed one wall of the canal--had to be erected on precipitous hillsides high above the Lansing Kill.  Here freshets threatened to wash out the canal, and landslides threatened to bury it.  At other places, where the gorge was narrow, the canal and Lansing Kill ran side by side, separated only by the towpath.

From Boonville, construction was somewhat less problematic.  The canal would continue north to Lyons Falls on the Black River, descending 386 feet over a foundation of limestone and igneous rock.  From Lyons Falls to its terminus at Carthage, a distance of some 42 miles, the Black River itself was to be made navigable.  Beyond Carthage, the river was too rough for large boats
.

Table 1
Overland Canal Erie Canal Feeder Canalized River
Construction
Authorized
1837 1837 1837
Begun
1838 1838 1854
Finished
1855 1848 1861
     
Length
35.5 Miles 10.0 Miles 42.5 Miles
Width
     
Surface
42 Feet 46 Feet 60 Feet
Bottom
26 Feet 30 Feet 40 Feet
Depth
4 Feet 4 Feet 5 Feet
     
Number of Locks
109 0 2
     
Lock Size
   
Length
90 Feet 90 Feet 160 Feet
Width
15 Feet 15 Feet 30 Feet

In 1840, contracts for the entire canal had been let, but work was suspended between 1842 and 1847 because of the state's growing debt.  Nonetheless, in the spring of 1850, the southern section of the canal between Rome and Boonville opened.  In the following year, the canal was open as far as Port Leyden, and by 1855 the overland canal was fully operational.

The Black River Canal was an engineering wonder.  Though only 35 miles long, it required 109 locks to negotiate a rise and fall of 1079 feet.  The much longer Erie Canal was 360 miles long but required only 83 locks over a rise and fall of 692 feet.  Between Rome and Boonville--a distance of 25 miles--70 locks were built, and between Boonville and Lyons Falls--a distance of 10 miles—  another 39 were built.  (Tables of Point-to-Point Distances on Black River Canal.)

Table 2
Black River Canal Erie Canal
Length
35 Miles 363 Miles
Rise & Fall
1079 Feet 692 Feet
Number of Locks
109 83

Designed to accommodate 70-ton boats, the individual locks were the same size as the original locks on the Erie Canal:  90 feet long with an interior width of 15 feet.  Most locks had a lift of 10 feet, but the lift varied between 4 and 12 feet.  (Table of Lock Lifts.)


Reconstructing the Five Combines
Circa 1850

Built largely by Irish immigrants, the locks were constructed of locally available limestone, much of it quarried in the Lansing Kill Gorge and at Sugar River.  Many of the locks are still extant today, including a five-lock combination in the Lansing Kill Gorge, and four-lock combination just north of Boonville. (How a Lock Works.)  In addition to the locks, various toll booths, bridges, aqueducts, culverts, waste-weirs, and spillways had to be built.

 

Table 3
Canal Structures in 1892

Overland Canal Erie Canal Feeder Other Feeders Canalized River Impoundment System
Aqueducts
6 0 1 0 0
Bridges
66 13 8 6 0
Bulkheads
7 4 2 0 0
Culverts
9 3 1 0 0
Dams
0 1 2 3 12
Guard Locks
0 0 0 0 0
Spillways
4 1 0 0 0
Waste Weirs
3 0 0 0 0


Lock 70 - South of Boonville

In addition to the main canal, a ten-mile, navigable feeder canal from the Black River at Forestport to Boonville was built to maintain water levels in both the Black River and Erie canals and to provide an adequate supply of water for the mills north of Lyons Falls.   (1874 Map of Erie Canal Feeder)  A 200-foot dam was built at Forestport, allowing as much as 16,000 cubic feet of water to be channeled down the feeder canal, with two-thirds of the water flowing south to the Erie Canal and one-third north to Lyons Falls.


Locks 106 - 109 at Lyons Falls

Three smaller feeders were built:  the Delta Feeder (which enters the canal just north of the Mohawk River aqueduct), the Lansing Kill Feeder (near Lock 70), and the Sugar River Feeder (north of Lock 84).

To ensure water levels in drought years, the outlet at North Lake--the source of the Black River--was dammed.  In 1860, Woodhull Lake and South Lake were also dammed.  The Black River impoundment system kept growing so that, by 1885, nearly every river and lake in the region was tapped for water, including Woodhull, Bisby Lakes, Sand Lake, Twin Lakes, Canchangala Lake, White Lake, Moose River (Fulton Chain of Lakes), and the Beaver River (Stillwater Reservoir).  This impoundment system provided some four billion cubic feet of water, without which the Erie Canal could not have functioned.  Upkeep of this system was expensive, however, and although the Erie Canal was the principal beneficiary, expenses were charged against Black River Canal
.


Pine Logs Destined for the Boonville area
(Photo by H. M. Beach)

When the overland canal was finally completed in 1855, the cost had reached 3.5 million dollars.  For the state, the canal itself was never a financial success.  Tolls on the Black River Canal failed to cover the costs of operation and maintenance.  Nonetheless, the canal brought a wave of prosperity to the Black River Valley. Above all, existence of the canal made it profitable to harvest the softwood forests of the western Adirondacks (Lewis and Herkimer counties).  In winter and summer alike, legions of loggers invaded the forest wilderness, and sawmills sprang up on streams throughout the region.

Timber, sawn lumber, and other wood products (pulp wood, firewood, shingles) were by far the most important commodities shipped on the canal, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the tonnage in the early years.  In 1866, 29,000,000 board feet of lumber, 135,000 cubic feet of timber, and 10,000 cords of wood were shipped on the canal, destined primarily for Capital region, the Hudson Valley, and New York City.


Albany Lumberyard

Virgin spruce from the area was instrumental in building the Port of New York.  Giant spars--often more than 70 foot long--were towed through the Black River Canal on multiple cribs.  These water-resistant spars became the pilings for the New York’s wharves and docks. One important by-product of the lumber industry was hemlock bark, some of which was used by local tanneries but most of which was shipped to tanneries in New England, where the hemlock forests had been largely cleared.


Black River Canal in Boonville - Circa 1885

The Black River Canal had a profound economic impact on the North Country.  Warehouses, shipping houses, hotels, taverns, foundries, and harness shops sprang up in villages all along the canal.


Many of the early boats were built at Durhamville in Western Oneida County

Boat-building became an important local industry.  The original boats were “foreign”--imported from other canals throughout the state--but by 1875, most boats were built, owned, and manned by locals. Canal Boat Diagrams.


Building a canal boat in Boonville

Operating the canal itself was an important source of employment.  Lock tenders--political appointees all--were hired.  And large maintenance crews were employed to mend the frequent breaks in canal walls, repair lock equipment, clear landslides, fix sinkholes, and remove fill that washed into the canal.

The new prosperity was evident in downtown Boonville.  In the years following the Civil War, blocks of handsome, three-story brick and wood-frame buildings--many with high false-fronts, cornices, and decorative brackets--replaced earlier commercial structures.  Increased trade, spurred by the canal, led to wealth for many local merchants, and handsome residences in the Italianate Revival style, replete with cupolas, began to dominate village streets.  The Comstock Opera House, a venue for itinerant entertainers, sprang up next to the canal.

As local forests were cleared, farming became an increasingly important industry. Cheese and butter were shipped on the canal, as were wheat, rye, maize, and root vegetables. Over time, potatoes became the dominant export crop, though it would never rival the export of timber.  In 1880, 152,000 bushels were shipped on boats, each carrying a standard load of 3,000 bushels.  (McCullogh Mural).  Boatmen typically traveled to Albany in October, often leaving their horses there and then floating down the Hudson to
Wallabout Basin in Brooklyn
, where they would secure a berth and sell their produce throughout the winter months.  In the spring, horses would tow a fleet of boats back north.


The Side-wheeled steamer Kahuahco towing canal boats
between Lyons Falls and Carthage

By 1900, tonnage on the canal had fallen drastically, and it had become clear that the canal had outlived its usefulness. There are several reasons for the canal’s decline and demise.  First, the canal was never adequately funded.  Disrepair, constant breaks, and low water made canal shipping a risky enterprise from the very beginning.  Second, even as the overland canal was completed in 1855, the Black River and Utica Railroad arrived in Boonville, providing an alternate source of transportation.  The speed of the train was essential for perishable goods, especially milk.

The principal reason for the decline in canal business, however, was the fact that the region’s vast forests had been largely cleared.  By 1892, when 2.8 million acres were set aside for the Adirondack Park
, at least two-thirds of the area had been logged at least once.  Timber--the mainstay of the canal--was no longer present in quantities large enough to sustain the canal as a viable enterprise.  Although logging remained an important industry, the emphasis shifted to the local manufacture of furniture and paper products.


(Photo by H. M. Beach)

A temporary reprieve for the canal came with the construction of the Barge Canal System between 1903 and 1918.  Massive quantities of limestone and high-quality sand were shipped from Boonville to construct Delta Dam on the Mohawk River four miles north of Rome.  But once the new canal was completed, traffic slowed to a trickle, and the canal was finally abandoned by the state in 1922.

 


A Black River boat being towed across the Delta Aqueduct

This brief history draws on Thomas C. O'Donnell's Snubbing Posts: An Informal History of the Black River Canal, published in 1949 by Black River Books, Boonville, and reprinted in 1972 by North Country Books, Utica.

More on the History of the Black River Canal


Web Design © 2005 - Online! Programming Services
Content © 2005 - Boonville Black River Canal Museum

 

   

 

 

> > > > > > > > Boonville Black River Canal Museum in Boonville - Canal History

PO Box 122, Boonville, New York 13309
Phone: (315) 942-6763

 

 

 

 

 



Home

Black River
Canal History


Black River
Canal
Chronology


Boat Plans

Whipple Bridge

Photo Gallery

Black River
Canal Today


Membership

Links


1847 Augustus Mitchell Map
(Click here for closeup of Black River Canal area)

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed constructing a canal that would link the Mohawk River with Lake Ontario.  This canal was to make use of the Black River, which rises in the central Adirondacks and flows north, dividing the Tug Hill Plateau on the west from the Adirondacks on the east.  Clinton argued that a Black River canal would serve two purposes.  First, it would open up the sparsely populated North Country to commerce.  It was widely recognized that this isolated region of New York possessed vast forests, iron deposits, and fertile soil that were ready for exploitation. Second, a Black River canal would tap the region’s abundant rivers and lakes.  A reliable source of water would be essential for any expansion of the Erie Canal.


Elevation Profile of the Black River Canal
(Click here for a larger view)

In 1837, after numerous surveys and petitions from residents of the North Country, the state legislature finally authorized work to begin on the Black River Canal.  Although the canal was to be only 35 miles in length, its construction presented engineers with a daunting challenge.  The channel was to proceed north from Rome along the Mohawk River to the junction of the Lansing Kill.  The canal was then to proceed to north through the rugged Lansing Kill gorge, rising 693 feet to its summit at Boonville.  (Topographic Map).  This so-called “alpine” section of the canal would prove to be the most difficult.


Five Combines
(Photo by Don Ryder)

The canal had to be carved out shale, a soft, brittle rock that not only holds water poorly but lends itself to the formation of  sinkholes that might cause a wall or even the bottom of the canal to disappear.  In places, the towpath--which formed one wall of the canal--had to be erected on precipitous hillsides high above the Lansing Kill.  Here freshets threatened to wash out the canal, and landslides threatened to bury it.  At other places, where the gorge was narrow, the canal and Lansing Kill ran side by side, separated only by the towpath.

From Boonville, construction was somewhat less problematic.  The canal would continue north to Lyons Falls on the Black River, descending 386 feet over a foundation of limestone and igneous rock.  From Lyons Falls to its terminus at Carthage, a distance of some 42 miles, the Black River itself was to be made navigable.  Beyond Carthage, the river was too rough for large boats
.

Table 1
Overland Canal Erie Canal Feeder Canalized River
Construction
Authorized
1837 1837 1837
Begun
1838 1838 1854
Finished
1855 1848 1861
     
Length
35.5 Miles 10.0 Miles 42.5 Miles
Width
     
Surface
42 Feet 46 Feet 60 Feet
Bottom
26 Feet 30 Feet 40 Feet
Depth
4 Feet 4 Feet 5 Feet
     
Number of Locks
109 0 2
     
Lock Size
   
Length
90 Feet 90 Feet 160 Feet
Width
15 Feet 15 Feet 30 Feet

In 1840, contracts for the entire canal had been let, but work was suspended between 1842 and 1847 because of the state's growing debt.  Nonetheless, in the spring of 1850, the southern section of the canal between Rome and Boonville opened.  In the following year, the canal was open as far as Port Leyden, and by 1855 the overland canal was fully operational.

The Black River Canal was an engineering wonder.  Though only 35 miles long, it required 109 locks to negotiate a rise and fall of 1079 feet.  The much longer Erie Canal was 360 miles long but required only 83 locks over a rise and fall of 692 feet.  Between Rome and Boonville--a distance of 25 miles--70 locks were built, and between Boonville and Lyons Falls--a distance of 10 miles—  another 39 were built.  (Tables of Point-to-Point Distances on Black River Canal.)

Table 2
Black River Canal Erie Canal
Length
35 Miles 363 Miles
Rise & Fall
1079 Feet 692 Feet
Number of Locks
109 83

Designed to accommodate 70-ton boats, the individual locks were the same size as the original locks on the Erie Canal:  90 feet long with an interior width of 15 feet.  Most locks had a lift of 10 feet, but the lift varied between 4 and 12 feet.  (Table of Lock Lifts.)


Reconstructing the Five Combines
Circa 1850

Built largely by Irish immigrants, the locks were constructed of locally available limestone, much of it quarried in the Lansing Kill Gorge and at Sugar River.  Many of the locks are still extant today, including a five-lock combination in the Lansing Kill Gorge, and four-lock combination just north of Boonville. (How a Lock Works.)  In addition to the locks, various toll booths, bridges, aqueducts, culverts, waste-weirs, and spillways had to be built.

 

Table 3
Canal Structures in 1892

Overland Canal Erie Canal Feeder Other Feeders Canalized River Impoundment System
Aqueducts
6 0 1 0 0
Bridges
66 13 8 6 0
Bulkheads
7 4 2 0 0
Culverts
9 3 1 0 0
Dams
0 1 2 3 12
Guard Locks
0 0 0 0 0
Spillways
4 1 0 0 0
Waste Weirs
3 0 0 0 0


Lock 70 - South of Boonville

In addition to the main canal, a ten-mile, navigable feeder canal from the Black River at Forestport to Boonville was built to maintain water levels in both the Black River and Erie canals and to provide an adequate supply of water for the mills north of Lyons Falls.   (1874 Map of Erie Canal Feeder)  A 200-foot dam was built at Forestport, allowing as much as 16,000 cubic feet of water to be channeled down the feeder canal, with two-thirds of the water flowing south to the Erie Canal and one-third north to Lyons Falls.


Locks 106 - 109 at Lyons Falls

Three smaller feeders were built:  the Delta Feeder (which enters the canal just north of the Mohawk River aqueduct), the Lansing Kill Feeder (near Lock 70), and the Sugar River Feeder (north of Lock 84).

To ensure water levels in drought years, the outlet at North Lake--the source of the Black River--was dammed.  In 1860, Woodhull Lake and South Lake were also dammed.  The Black River impoundment system kept growing so that, by 1885, nearly every river and lake in the region was tapped for water, including Woodhull, Bisby Lakes, Sand Lake, Twin Lakes, Canchangala Lake, White Lake, Moose River (Fulton Chain of Lakes), and the Beaver River (Stillwater Reservoir).  This impoundment system provided some four billion cubic feet of water, without which the Erie Canal could not have functioned.  Upkeep of this system was expensive, however, and although the Erie Canal was the principal beneficiary, expenses were charged against Black River Canal
.


Pine Logs Destined for the Boonville area
(Photo by H. M. Beach)

When the overland canal was finally completed in 1855, the cost had reached 3.5 million dollars.  For the state, the canal itself was never a financial success.  Tolls on the Black River Canal failed to cover the costs of operation and maintenance.  Nonetheless, the canal brought a wave of prosperity to the Black River Valley. Above all, existence of the canal made it profitable to harvest the softwood forests of the western Adirondacks (Lewis and Herkimer counties).  In winter and summer alike, legions of loggers invaded the forest wilderness, and sawmills sprang up on streams throughout the region.

Timber, sawn lumber, and other wood products (pulp wood, firewood, shingles) were by far the most important commodities shipped on the canal, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the tonnage in the early years.  In 1866, 29,000,000 board feet of lumber, 135,000 cubic feet of timber, and 10,000 cords of wood were shipped on the canal, destined primarily for Capital region, the Hudson Valley, and New York City.


Albany Lumberyard

Virgin spruce from the area was instrumental in building the Port of New York.  Giant spars--often more than 70 foot long--were towed through the Black River Canal on multiple cribs.  These water-resistant spars became the pilings for the New York’s wharves and docks. One important by-product of the lumber industry was hemlock bark, some of which was used by local tanneries but most of which was shipped to tanneries in New England, where the hemlock forests had been largely cleared.


Black River Canal in Boonville - Circa 1885

The Black River Canal had a profound economic impact on the North Country.  Warehouses, shipping houses, hotels, taverns, foundries, and harness shops sprang up in villages all along the canal.


Many of the early boats were built at Durhamville in Western Oneida County

Boat-building became an important local industry.  The original boats were “foreign”--imported from other canals throughout the state--but by 1875, most boats were built, owned, and manned by locals. Canal Boat Diagrams.


Building a canal boat in Boonville

Operating the canal itself was an important source of employment.  Lock tenders--political appointees all--were hired.  And large maintenance crews were employed to mend the frequent breaks in canal walls, repair lock equipment, clear landslides, fix sinkholes, and remove fill that washed into the canal.

The new prosperity was evident in downtown Boonville.  In the years following the Civil War, blocks of handsome, three-story brick and wood-frame buildings--many with high false-fronts, cornices, and decorative brackets--replaced earlier commercial structures.  Increased trade, spurred by the canal, led to wealth for many local merchants, and handsome residences in the Italianate Revival style, replete with cupolas, began to dominate village streets.  The Comstock Opera House, a venue for itinerant entertainers, sprang up next to the canal.

As local forests were cleared, farming became an increasingly important industry. Cheese and butter were shipped on the canal, as were wheat, rye, maize, and root vegetables. Over time, potatoes became the dominant export crop, though it would never rival the export of timber.  In 1880, 152,000 bushels were shipped on boats, each carrying a standard load of 3,000 bushels.  (McCullogh Mural).  Boatmen typically traveled to Albany in October, often leaving their horses there and then floating down the Hudson to
Wallabout Basin in Brooklyn
, where they would secure a berth and sell their produce throughout the winter months.  In the spring, horses would tow a fleet of boats back north.


The Side-wheeled steamer Kahuahco towing canal boats
between Lyons Falls and Carthage

By 1900, tonnage on the canal had fallen drastically, and it had become clear that the canal had outlived its usefulness. There are several reasons for the canal’s decline and demise.  First, the canal was never adequately funded.  Disrepair, constant breaks, and low water made canal shipping a risky enterprise from the very beginning.  Second, even as the overland canal was completed in 1855, the Black River and Utica Railroad arrived in Boonville, providing an alternate source of transportation.  The speed of the train was essential for perishable goods, especially milk.

The principal reason for the decline in canal business, however, was the fact that the region’s vast forests had been largely cleared.  By 1892, when 2.8 million acres were set aside for the Adirondack Park
, at least two-thirds of the area had been logged at least once.  Timber--the mainstay of the canal--was no longer present in quantities large enough to sustain the canal as a viable enterprise.  Although logging remained an important industry, the emphasis shifted to the local manufacture of furniture and paper products.


(Photo by H. M. Beach)

A temporary reprieve for the canal came with the construction of the Barge Canal System between 1903 and 1918.  Massive quantities of limestone and high-quality sand were shipped from Boonville to construct Delta Dam on the Mohawk River four miles north of Rome.  But once the new canal was completed, traffic slowed to a trickle, and the canal was finally abandoned by the state in 1922.

 


A Black River boat being towed across the Delta Aqueduct

This brief history draws on Thomas C. O'Donnell's Snubbing Posts: An Informal History of the Black River Canal, published in 1949 by Black River Books, Boonville, and reprinted in 1972 by North Country Books, Utica.

More on the History of the Black River Canal


Web Design © 2005 - Online! Programming Services
Content © 2005 - Boonville Black River Canal Museum

 

   

 

 

> > > > > > > > >