The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2006

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Arks Once Traveled

the Canisteo, Conhocton and Chemung Rivers


Richard Palmer

The Susquehanna bridge spanning the Susquehanna River at
Port Deposit is backdrop for this interesting scene of river craft,
including an ark, schooner and steamboat. View is from an 1832 five
dollar bank note of the Susquehanna Bridge and Bank Company.
— Credit to Historic Port Deposit.

As soon as the snow had melted and waters risen two centuries ago, arks loaded with goods headed to distant points shoved off near Bath, headed for adventure. This was one of the earliest enterprises undertaken in Steuben county, as it was along other navigable streams in upstate New York.

The rivers for many years were the only outlets for surplus produce of the new settlements. This article focuses on trade on the Canisteo, Conhocton and Chemung. Upon these streams floated mighty arks, 75 feet long and 16 feet wide.

Although a precarious means of transportation and at best of only short duration each year, there was no alternative. Roads did not exist and the cost of transporting goods by pack animal was prohibitive. The profits made apparently exceeded the risks and appealed to the speculative nature of several gentlemen who bought produce at a figure upon which a substantial profit was realized when sold in the seaboard cities.

Ark navigation in Steuben County began in March, 1800, on the Conhocton River when Messrs. Swing and Patterson left White's sawmill, five miles below Bath, with a cargo of 2,000 bushels of wheat and General George McClure started from Bath with a cargo of wooden pipe and hogshead staves. The same spring, Jacob Burtles and his brother-in-law, a Mr. Harvey, navigated an ark down Mud Creek to the Conhocton and down to Baltimore.

Previous to these initial runs, Col. George Williamson, who desired open an avenue of commerce with the large cities of the east, caused the channel of the Conhocton to be cleared of obstructions to navigation When completed and the channel yet remained imperfect and dangerous, it was considered navigable as far as Liberty Corners. Col. Williamson was much elated at the success of the venture.

General McClure in a narrative describing his experience, relates that six days were required to traverse the distance from Bath to Painted Post. Frequent stops were made to clear the way of obstructions and to repair damage to the ark which resulted from collisions with several of these objects. By the time Painted Post was reached, the water in the Chemung had fallen so low that it was necessary to wait several days for it to rise before he could proceed.

Once the journey was resumed, it took only four days to travel from Painted Post to a point a short distance north of Harrisburg. here, because the pilot was not familiar with the stream, the ark ran upon a submerged rock in the middle of the mile wide river, and stuck. All efforts to dislodge it failed and it was finally sold to a gentleman who rowed out and offered Gen. McClure $600, a saddle horse and saddle, for the ark and cargo where it stood. Although it represented no profit, he was forced to accept it.

In his narrative, McClure states that during the winter of 1800 he built four arks at Arkport and ran them to Baltimore the following spring with 4,000 bushels of wheat and 200 barrels of pork. These, he said, were the first arks to descend the Canisteo River. This claim has been questioned as Judge Hurlburt was credited with navigating arks from Arkport as early as 1800.

Synonymous with this early commerce was Arkport village, north of Hornell. Located near the headwaters of the Canisteo River and at that time the head of ark navigation, the origin of its name is obvious. During the winter months, from the country roundabout as well as from such distant points as Dansville, produce was hauled in on pack animals including wheat, pork, venison, flour, maple sugar, black salts, pot and pearl ash. It was all stored in warehouses to await the spring freshets and transportation down river.

The Susquehanna, an Indian name meaning "the island stream, broad and shallow," was one of the most dangerous to navigate. There were hidden boulders, shoals, sand bars, rapids and other obstacles. Only the most experienced rivermen knew how to avoid trouble, which required constant vigilance. Later, charts were made of the river which showed the danger spots and the safest courses to pursue. The river pilot's job was one of much responsibility which demanded an intimate knowledge of the rivers.

A man named Kryder is said to have designed the pattern for the river ark. It is said he built the first one on the Juniata River, a western tributary of the Susquehanna, in 1792. He floated it to Baltimore with a load of wheat and whiskey which ushered in a new era in transportation. Such arks consisted of a frame of three squared timbers, each 8 by 12 inches, the two on the outside being 55 feet long and the center piece, 75 feet long. These were laid parallel and evenly spaced so that an overall width of 16 feet was attained. They were joined together by shorter pieces and on the bow and stern, similar timbers joined the outside frames with the center, thus making bow and stern sheer to make better sailing.

The frame was then planked completely, caulked as tightly as possible, turned over and placed in the water with the planked side down. Studding four or five feet long was then mortised into the outside timbers and planked on the outside to the ends. The ark, except at the bow and stern and a small place midships for the cabin, was covered with boards which protected the cargo and provided a smooth walk for the crew while operating and steering the craft. They were a crude cousin of the Durham boats.

A solid oak post was placed at each end in which was imbedded a stout oak pin upon which hung the oars which were used to steer the craft but not to propel it. The oars were made from straight, light dry pine pieces, 30 feet long, with a groove in the end into which was inserted a blade made from a plank 15 feet long and 18 to 20 inches wide. The oars were balanced upon the oar pin in such a manner that they could be easily handled. The blade dipped slightly in the water.

The advent of canals, with their safety and longer shipping season brought this dangerous and uncertain mode of water transportation to an end. However, rafting of lumber down to Baltimore continued unabated until the 1840s. Thus, beginning with ark transportation and ending with great fleets of lumber rafts, one of the greatest industries of the early days in a country blessed with navigable rivers came to an end. Accelerating the demise of river rafting was the denuding of the forests which caused unabated flooding at times, changing the water courses, and the construction of dams for waterpower. On some of the rivers, however, sluices were cut to allow the passage of vessels. But ultimately, this as well as the canals were abandoned with the coming of the railroads.


History of the Susquehanna River Ark by Robert G. Sherer, Steuben County Historian

Arks on the Canisteo, Conhocton and Chemung Rivers by John F. Reynolds, Elmira Sunday Telegram, April 7, 1940.

History of the Settlement of Steuben County, N.Y. by Guy McMaster, Bath, N.Y., 1853

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