Summer 1998

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Tioughnioga River

Was Once a Public Highway


Richard Palmer

From the very earliest times in Cortland County the Tioughnioga River was used to transport products to market—some as far off as Wilkes Barre and Baltimore—through the Susquehanna River system. Rafts, flat boats and vessels called "arks" carried salt, potash, pork, dried apples, maple sugar, whiskey and other commodities.

This same mode of transportation was also employed through the Finger Lakes Region and Southern Tier. For instance, the Conhocton River was navigable as far north as Bath, and other rivers and streams throughout this region were also navigated, particularly in early spring during high water.

Head of navigation on the Tioughnioga was the village of Port Watson, which is now the far end of Port Watson Street in Cortland where the Route 11 bridge crosses the river. In those days the area was heavily timbered so there was a greater volume of water in the river than there is today—especially at the time of year during "high water." The river was declared by law a public highway in 1814. A veritable fleet of arks all loaded and ready would wait at Port Watson for high water then cast off all at once. The vessels, built in the shipyard at Port Watson, were of shallow draught and carried such names as "Crazy Jane," "Harrisburg," "Dutch Trader," "Navigator," "Columbia," "Gold Hunter," "Indian Chief," "Resolu-tion," "Perseverance," "Phoenix," "Enter-prise," "Lazy Tom," "Sour Krout," and "Yankee Rogue."

Local historian Horatio Ballard, wrote:

The winter of 1818 witnessed long trains of sleighs carrying large quantities of gypsum from the beds in Onondaga to the wharves at Port Watson. On the 6th of April of that year, 14 arks laden with about 40 tons each of that article manned with captains and crews, sailed or floated in high water from Port Watson into the Susquehanna. The pilots of the arks became famous for their skill and acquaintance in the navigation of the river.

At the same period (1821) our mer-chants and produce buyers were loading arks of 40 tons burthen and boats of half that tonnage, with gypsum, salt, oats, potatoes, and pork, and floating them in seasons of freshet from the wharves of Port Watson, for Northumberland and Harrisburg, Pa. on the Susquehanna. Crowds of spectators were accustomed to assemble on the banks of the Tioghnioga just above the bridge at Port Watson and witness the start of the fleet of arks and boats on the swollen current of the river, accompanied with the shouts and adieus of the merry crews as they darted down the river.

As many as a dozen or more heavily-loaded rafts and scows would follow each other. The "Swift Sure," with its 38 barrels of salt aboard, bound for Columbia, Pa., excited more interest than heavily-laden coal trains did in later years.

These voyages occasionally resulted in shipwrecks, swamping after taking on too much freight, passages over dams, and many other adventures with hair-breadth escapes, incidental with the life of the river raftsman. An example of how dangerous the avocation could be is found in an article in the Cortland Republican of April 25, 1818:

Distressing Accident

A few days since, Mr. Luman Rice of this town, left Port Watson for Pennsyl-vania with an ark laden with plaster. On the 14th inst. he endeavored to land at Northumberland. He coiled the rope, one end of which was attached to the ark, round his left arm and put it round a tree that leaned over the river—the other end was seized by his companions in the ark, when unfortunately his arm was caught in the rope, which cut it off instantly, about half way between the elbow and the wrist.
He fell into the river, and the current carried him a considerable distance from the shore. With one hand, and the bleeding stump that remained on the other arm, faint with the loss of blood, and almost exhausted, he succeeded in reaching the shore, after swimming eight or ten rods. It was found necessary to amputate his arm above the elbow—thus he was obliged to endure the pain of having it severed in two places.

The importance of the Tioughnioga as a waterway lasted until about the time the Syracuse & Binghamton Railroad was opened in 1854. By this time, many obstacles such as dams had made rafting a dangerous and cumbersome mode of transportation, although many dams had sluiceways for boats to pass through.

Many an old captain smoked his last pipe while his descendants hovered around the fire winter evenings as he reminisced about the old days. Some of the vessels were 90 feet long and transported enormous cargoes.

The river route south was Port Watson to Chenango Forks, the confluence of the Tioughnioga and Chenango Rivers, which emptied into the Susquehanna River at Binghamton, then west through Owego to what is now Sayre and Athens, Pa., and then south on the Susquehanna to Columbia, Wilkes Barre, Harrisburg and Baltimore.

At their destination the vessels were unloaded and then disassembled and sold for salvage timber because it wasn't practical to return them home.

It usually took at least three men to manage an ark—so far as it could be managed. The vessel was largely at the mercy of the current which acted as motive power. Those familiar with Tioughnioga and its many sharp bends can appreciate a pilot wrestling with a steering oar as long as the ark itself. Arks quite often turned them-selves around and continued their stately progress side-on or stern-first. Also there was no map to show the floating islands or hidden snags of logs and fallen trees slanted upstream on which a boat could become impaled.

In spite of all these dangers, river navigation was preferred over road travel in the days before the railroads.

1998, Richard Palmer
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