June 1994

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A Glimpse at

Clinton's Ditch

The First Trips 1819 - 1820


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Hidden beneath the gnarled branches of an ancient willow, in a well-grazed pasture just west of the little village of Montezuma, is a unique bit of canal history long since forgotten. It is the moss-covered walls of the "River Lock" on the original Clinton's Ditch, the Erie Canal.

Nearby are the crumbling foundations of the lock tender's house; its dug well still capped by an aged millstone, and beyond, beside the tree-lined towpath, is the site of an old inn that once catered to the boatmen.

Constructed in 1819 from stone quarried near Union Springs and transported by flat boat through Cayuga Lake and down the Seneca River to this location, the old lock has suffered from the ravages of time. Yet it remains essentially intact as it did when abandoned more than a century ago. Its location marked the western terminus of the middle section of the canal, and its construction opened the unfinished waterway to traffic between Montezuma and Utica in 1820.

Of the 83 such structures mat made navigation across the state on the Erie Canal possible, only one other lock has survived reasonably intact—Fort Hunter in the Mohawk Valley. But of all the locales that played a role in the development of the canal, probably Lock 63 and Montezuma are near the top of the list.

In a little more than two years after the first earth was turned at Rome, on July 4, 1817, the canal was nearly completed through the wilderness to Montezuma. Ahead still lay the unknown and formidable Montezuma Marshes—a watery land of swamps, quicksand, cattails, and the threat of disease.

The first part of the middle section, between Utica and Rome, was completed in October, 1819. On October 21, the boat "Chief Engineer," designed by Mr. Ely, made a trial trip between the two points. It left Rome in the morning with 30 passengers aboard. More got on along the way, and there were great public demonstrations along the way. The following Saturday, October 23, the boat left Utica for the return trip, with many dignitaries aboard, including Governor DeWitt Clinton and the Canal Commissioners.

At Whitesboro, a short distance from Utica, the boat was greeted by a 21-gun salute from the local company of artillery. The boat arrived at Rome about 2:30 p.m. and returned to Utica that same afternoon, the average speed with two horses being four miles per hour. One horse was used going, and both returning.

It appears, however, that the canal was actually completed to Salina, as the boat Commodore Perry arrived in Utica from Salina on October 25 with a cargo of salt.1 This discounts any theory that the middle section was not navigated before 1820. Further evidence of this is found in an account of a trip from Montezuma to Jordan on December 9, 1819. The Cayuga Republican of Auburn, Wednesday, December 15, 1819, states:

In this age of wonders, perhaps nothing is more calculated to excite the admiration of the intelligent and reflecting part of the people, than the 96 miles of canal, principally through a wilderness, should be completed in the short space of two years and five months, from the time of its commencement-yet such appears to be the fact.
We have it from authority that from Utica to near Salina the Canal is not only navigable, but has actually been navigated; the navigation there, however, was then prevented by small job of work which was not completed. The western part of the middle section has also been completed and navigated.
Information having been given, that the canal from Seneca River to Salina, would be completed about the 10th inst., a boat was prepared at Seneca Falls, with a temporary cabin and other conveniences, and notice was jjiven that she would leave Montezuma at 9 A.M.
It so happened, however, that on the 9th, the weather, which for several days had been very mild and pleasant, changed suddenly, and at the appointed time for starting, it was very cold and unpleasant; and to add to the difficulties to be encountered in this first voyage, the canal was covered with ice from one to two inches in thickness. A number of gentlemen, with Mr. Holley, one of the commissioners, had, however, collected, and about half past 11 o'clock the boat with two horses attached to her, left Seneca River, in defiance of the inclemency of the season and ice in the Canal. It was found on trial that two horses would propel the boat against the ice at the rate of rather more than two miles an hour.
The party proceeded and arrived at Mr. King's in Mentz, a distance of about six miles, with the two horses, and with from fifty to seventy passengers. At Mr. King's two more horses were added, and arrived at Jordan a distance by the canal of nearly sixteen miles from Seneca River, before 7 o'clock in the evening, having passed on the route three locks and stopped one hour at Mr. King's, which leaves about six hours for travelling sixteen miles. There was two feet of water in the Canal, and the boat sixty feet in length and ten feet in width. On the morning of the 11 inst. it was found that the ice had increased so much during the night, that it was deemed unadvisable to proceed farther; the horses were therefore hitched to the boat, and the passengers returned in the same way to Montezuma.
Much credit is due to Capt. Arnsbury and his associates for their public spirit in fitting the boat so as to make it comfortable and pleasant for the passengers at this inclement season.

As far as can be determined, this is the only record of this trip. The following spring, we find this item in the Cayuga Republican of April 25, 1820:

On Thursday the 13th instant was launched on the Seneca River, the elegant passage boat Montezuma, superintended and built by C. Tyler, Esq. She is 76 feet in length, with a proportionate width and depth, containing an elegant dining room, kitchen, and after cabin, with other conveniences to accommodate the passengers, finished in a style not inferior to any boats of passage on the American waters. She will be ready for running upon the canal in about ten days, and will run back and forth from Seneca river to Utica, a distance of 96 miles in 24 hours. On the day of launching, the Montezuma was taken through the lock on the canal, and drawn by two horses 2 miles in thirty minutes, with 70 passengers on board.

It was on April 20th that the Montezuma arrived from its namesake community, at Syracuse. According to contemporary accounts this boat was 76 feet in length, 14 feet wide, and had two cabins. It arrived in Syracuse at 2 p.m. At 4 p.m. about 100 persons went aboard for a ride on the Salina branch which was a mile and a half long. The trip took only 22 minutes, and the procession, led by a band, went to Beach's Inn. A short time later, the crowd, now swelled to 150 persons came on board and returned to Syracuse. The boat, towed by two horses, averaged about four miles per hour. One horse would have been sufficient, it was said. The canal was about two and a half feet deep at this point and the boat, heavily laden, drew only 12 inches of water. On April 24, the boat "Chief Engineer" arrived from Utica for the first time, enroute to Montezuma.2 M. C. Hand, an eyewitness to this event, recalled:

This was the first great event in the place, it had been extensively advertised, and nearly every inhabitant for many miles around had gathered on the banks of the canal, anxious to see the great sight. The large crowd that had been standing for hours, became impatient; from the first, there were many who believed the scheme was not practicable, and this faction was well represented in the assembled crowd, and many who had been standing expectantly for hours became tired and joined the doubters, who were shouting that "tomorrow you will hear that the Montezuma bumped her nose against the bank, and sunk before she had floated a mile, and we wish old Clinton had gone down with her, and sunk in the ditch he has made at our expense."
While all this was going on, at once, there was a shout of 'There she comes! she is coming!" A team of spirited horses had been fastened to the line at Jordan and as they passed the crowd of spectators, the horses were on a fast trot, a wave of water was forced wide over the low banks, and a loud shout arose from the crowd. This successful trip silenced all doubters and the canal was acknowledged to be a success. From that hour dates a new era in the history of Syracuse.3

Exciting times for Montezuma and Lock 63 occurred in the spring of 1820. The place took on an air of a frontier town as it became the head of navigation while construction of the canal proceeded westward. Stagecoaches met the packets to take travelers to their destinations. Montezuma Post Office was established on May 25, 1820, with Richard Smith as Postmaster.4 In July, the line boats Montezuma and Oneida Chief commenced regular trips between Utica and Montezuma. The boats left Montezuma and Utica respectively, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m., and met in the evening at Manlius; proceeding the next day at 4 a.m. and arriving at the respective destinations at 6 p.m. The price of passage, incuding meals and lodging, was $4.00. "Way" passengers were charged three cents per mile.5 These boats were operated by the Erie Canal Transportation Company.

A descripton of these early packets is given in an early-day pocket guide to the canal:6

Fare, including board, lodging, and every expense, 4 cents a mile. Way passengers 3 cents a mile, exclusive of board, &c., and 37 1/2 cents for dinner, 25 cents for breakfast, or supper, and 12 1/2 cents for lodging.
These Packets are drawn by 3 horses, having relays every 8, 10, to 12 miles, and travel day and night, making about 80 miles every 24 hours. They are ingeniously and well constructed, (though there is yet room for some improvement,) have accommodations for about 30 passengers, furnish good tables, and a wholesome and rich fare, and have very attentive, civil, and obliging captains and crews.
It is a very pleasant, cheap, and expeditious mode of travelling, where you have regular meals, pretty quiet rest, after a little experience, say of the first night; and find the time pleasantly employed, in cov-ersation, and the variety of incidents, new topics, stories, and the constantly varying scenery.
The bustle of newcomers, and passengers, with all the greetings and adieus, help to diversify the scene, and to make most persons seem to get along quite as fast as was anticipated. I found it so, while twice traversing the whole extent of Erie Canal Navigation, taking notes for this little thing, which, I hope every body will find an useful, if not an agreeable companion.
Between Albany and Schnectady, 28 1/2 miles, a day is employed, there being so many Locks to pass: but every person is well compensated for the time and expense, of, at least, one trip, passing 27 Locks, 2 Aqueducts, and an interesting variety of natural scenery.

Little did Mr. Spafford know what a valuable record of the original Erie Canal he left behind. The book is a treasure of information, not only commentary, but a running mile-by-mile narrative of communities along the way, mileage and lock numbers, together width their rise and fall in feet.

© 1994, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer


1. Utica Patriot, October 16, 1819.

2. Onandaga Register, April 26, 1820

3. Hand, M.C. From a Forest to a City. 1899, p 10.

4. Cayuga Republican, May 31, 1820.

5. Cayuga Republican, July 12, 1820 (ad dated July 1).

6. Spafford, Horatio G., A Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveller, Along the Line of the Canals, etc., Troy, N.Y., 1825, pp 22-23.

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