The plans for betterment by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company; the slight improvements by private enterprise; and the State’s share in providing for navigation, to the present time.

The Oneida river, or the Onondaga river as it was called in early Colonial times, flows westerly from Oneida lake to a confluence with the Seneca river at Three River Point, where the two unite to form the Oswego river. This stream was a link in the chain of natural water communications between the Hudson and the inland lakes, which the first white explorers found the Indian tribes using as their avenues of travel. These watercourses were adopted by the settlers as channels of commerce and when their improvement was systematically undertaken by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792, this river was included in the plan for betterment. However, as has already been told in the account of the first attempts at improving the State’s natural waterways, the company failed to do any work west of Oneida lake, except to make examination and estimates for improvement, and all of its rights west of that lake were relinquished on April 11, 1808, but the stream in its natural state continued to be used for transportation until the Erie Canal was opened.

As we have seen in the account of the building of the Erie, when the project for a canal to Lake Erie was being agitated, the route by the way of these natural streams was very tenaciously advocated for many years. In 1808 the first survey for a waterway to Lake Erie traversed the Oneida river as a part of the popularly accepted course. From the opening of the old Oneida Lake canal in 1835 to the dismantling of its locks in 1863, and again during the short existence of the New Oneida Lake canal in 1877 and 1878, this watercourse constituted a link in a short passage between the eastern part of the Erie canal and Oswego. In the various schemes for barge or ship canals, for which the State or National Government has made surveys, at least a part of this river has usually figured. And now in the construction of the Barge canal this stream is being utilized as a portion of the trunk line of the Erie canal.

In 1809, when James Geddes made his report of the surveys of the preceding year, he stated that the length of Oneida river was eighteen miles, and its fall twelve and a half feet. This waterway seems to have received no further legislative notice till 1824, when, in answer to a petition, the Legislature passed an act (chapter 298) authorizing "Gustavus Jewell, Myron Stevens, and their associates, to erect a wing-dam in that part of the Oneida river which is known by the name of the Caughdenia [Caughdenoy] reef," upon the condition that the water in the river above the reef should not be raised above its normal level, and that the dam should be so constructed as not to obstruct navigation. The wing-dam was subsequently erected and a lock was connected with the structure for the accommodation of navigation.

In 1828 an act (chapter 229) provided for improving the river, saying, "The acting canal commissioners ... are hereby authorized and required to lower the Oneida lake, as far as they shall deem it practicable to lower the same, by excavating and removing the rock and other obstructions that retard the passage of the water near the outlet of the said lake, and between the said outlet and the head of Caughanoy [Caughdenoy] reef, in such manner as to create a passage of sufficient depth and width for boats of one hundred tons to pass, whenever individuals feeling an interest therein, shall raise and place at the disposal of said commissioners for that purpose, a sum of money sufficient, in the estimation of said commissioners, to effect the same." The act also conferred the authority upon James Porter and George C. Schroeppel to construct dams and locks, the former at Caughdenoy, and the latter at Oak Orchard, these persons having petitioned the Legislature for such privileges.

One year later numerous petitions were presented to the Legislature, praying for the lowering of the waters of Oneida lake and for improving the navigation of Oneida river. The report of the Assembly committee, to which this subject was referred, made it evident that the wing-dam, which had been erected by Mr. Jewell, raised the water in the river and also in the lake above the normal level. This was contrary to the provisions of the act which permitted the erection of the dam. In consequence of this report, the Legislature enacted a law (chapter 333), which required the canal commissioners "to remove the dam at Cauchanoy [Caughdenoy] reef, in the Oneida river, and also to remove the obstruction at or near the outlet of Oneida lake, so as to permit the water in said lake to subside to the level which it occupied before the erection of the said dam." This act also ordered investigations, saying: "The canal commissioners shall make such surveys and examinations as they shall deem necessary, and report to the next legislature their opinion of the practicability, expense and utility of lowering the Oneida lake, by cutting down the outlet thereof, and rendering the same navigable." Evidently the provisions of the act of 1828 were never executed, for this law of 1829 repealed that of the preceding year, as well as that of 1824. In this same year a petition from Utica, asking that the lake be lowered, was referred to the canal commissioners, who reported that the lake could be lowered thirty inches at slight expense, and that by the erection of one or two dams and the same number of locks a navigable communication could be effected between Oneida lake and the Oswego canal at Three River Point.

Pursuant to chapter 333 of the laws of 1829, the commissioners assigned Orville W. Childs, an engineer upon the canals, to remove the dam at Caughdenoy and to make the surveys and examinations ordered by the law. In transmitting the engineer’s report in 1830, the commissioners stated that the removal of the dam and the obstructions in the outlet, which consisted chiefly of eel weirs, had been instrumental in allowing the waters in the lake to subside to their natural level. In this report, Mr. Childs said: "The lake may be lowered, say from 15 to 21 inches, by making a cut through Caughanoy reefs, of sufficient dimensions to reduce the water above said reefs 6 inches, and extending said cut upon the same level through the reefs at the outlet, giving it sufficient width to discharge all the water passing in a low time.

"The estimates are made with reference to said reduction. To improve said river for canal navigation, I propose to construct a towing path along its margin the whole distance, and to lower its bed where it rises above the contemplated bottom line, giving a base of 40 feet in width in all places, except where it is designed to lower the water. And to improve said river for steam-boat navigation, I propose deepening the channel sufficient to give a depth of 4.50 feet of water, with a base of 60 feet in all places, except at the outlet and Caughanoy reefs, where a broader cut will be necessary." 1

Of the estimated cost, the report said: "A good navigation from Three-river Point, on the Oswego river, to the Oneida lake, can be made for canal boats, or boats towed by horses, for the sum of $86,398.34, and for steam-boats for the sum of $59,923.10." 2 The survey and estimate was corroborated by the report of E. F. Johnson to the Legislature of 1835 upon a survey made for the Ontario and Hudson Steamboat canal proposed in that year. 3

Almost annually the Legislature was requested to provide for improving the navigation of the Oneida river. In 1836 these appeals resulted in the passage of an act (chapter 443) directing the commissioners to report on the practicability of a steamboat channel of the dimensions specified in the report of Mr. Childs in the year 1830. As no money was provided for the survey, the officials made no effort to carry out the provisions of the act.

In 1838 a petition to the Legislature for river improvement became effectual, for, by an act (chapter 284) of that year, the canal commissioners were directed to survey the Oneida river and to report to the succeeding Legislature concerning the practicability of making the river navigable for the smaller class of steamboats, by the construction of locks and short canals. The proposed canal was to be built around the principal reefs between Oneida lake and Three River Point and its depth was not to exceed four and one-half feet.

After a favorable report on the project by Orville W. Childs, who was then chief engineer on the canals, on April 29, 1839, (chapter 284) the Legislature appropriated $75,000 towards the improvement of the Oneida river for the navigation of steamboats, provided that all expenditures could be kept below that amount. With an appropriation so limited, a navigation for steamboats, of the smaller class only, could be provided for. In the plan adopted for this improvement there was given to the cuts a bottom width varying from thirty to eighty feet, and to the chambers of the locks a width of thirty feet and a length of one hundred and twenty feet. A depth of four and one-half feet of water was to be provided in all places during the lowest stages of the river. The length of this improvement was nineteen miles and four chains and the whole fall in the river was 9.14 feet. These plans called for two locks and one dam. As most of the work was subaqueous or wet excavation, the spring freshets delayed its progress considerably. An excavator, operated by horse power, placed upon floats made fast to the shore, constituted principal means employed in forming the cuts. This of itself was a very slow method, but it was considered that this was the only means that could be advantageously employed. In 1840 the lock at Oak Orchard, and in 1841 the dam at this place and the lock at Caughdenoy were completed, so that in 1842 the river was navigable for boats of three feet draught from the Oswego canal at Three River Point to the foot of the rapids at Caughdenoy, a distance of fourteen miles. The number of lockages at the Oak Orchard lock during this season was over two hundred.

As told in detail elsewhere in this volume, work throughout the entire system of State canals was suspended by the act (chapter 114) of 1842, known as the "Stop law." Consequently the completion of the improvement between Caughdenoy and Oneida lake was delayed until an act (chapter 261) of 1847 appropriating $20,000 for the purpose. Pursuant to the provisions of this law, surveys and estimates of the cost to complete the improvement were made and the contracts were let on September 1,1849. Work progressed rapidly on one section, but on the other the contractors abandoned their work and the reletting occasioned a delay of several months.

In 1849 steamboats were under construction at Brewerton so as to be all ready on the opening of the canal. In the spring of 1850 these boats began running on the lake and river. Chapter 267, Laws of 1850, had provided for the construction of a draw in the bridge over the Oneida river at Oak Orchard, by the towns of Clay and Schroeppel. At the opening of navigation the work of constructing the draw had not been commenced, nor had any portion of the old bridge been removed preparatory to the passage of steamboats through the river. The result was a conflict between the boatmen and town officials, which ended in the destruction of one six-foot span of the bridge, and subsequently another span was knocked down by the boats. These forcible measure hastened the construction of the draw, which was completed during that season.

An act (chapter 399, Laws of 1874), authorized the rebuilding of locks in the Oneida river and the lowering of them so as to conform to the depth of locks on the Erie and Oswego canals, providing $60,000 for the purpose. The law also included an appropriation of $40,000 for dredging and removing obstructions in the river. The engineering department estimated the entire cost of the contemplated work at $290,000, and although contracts were let in February, 1875, they were soon canceled and nothing was done.

The Superintendent of Public Works, in his report of 1883, suggested the abandonment of the Oneida River Improvement. He gave as his reasons the fact that it had proved to be an impracticable route from Oswego to Albany for canal boats; also that, while there was little or no trade over this channel, its maintenance called for quite a large yearly expense, and that its abandonment and the consequent lowering of the level of Oneida lake and Oneida river would permit more than one thousand acres of exceedingly fertile land to be reclaimed.

Chapter 568, Laws of 1889, authorized and directed the Superintendent of Public Works "to deepen the Oneida River improvement between Three River Point, on the Oswego canal, and the Oneida lake, by raising the dam at Oak Orchard, and, if practicable by raising the water at Caughdenoy, so that the water in said river at low-water mark shall not be lower than its original low-water mark, and as much higher as is practicable by raising the water as aforesaid, and by dredging out or otherwise deepening said river at such points as in his judgment will most improve its navigation," $10,000 being appropriated for the purpose. Under this law a contract was let in January, 1890, and completed during the same year, to the extent of the appropriation. The work consisted in removing bars by dredging at many places throughout the length of the river, and in driving spring piles that would keep boats in the channels where the current is strong.

The Oneida river is still a part of the State system of navigable waterways, being used to a limited extent for the commerce of the lake and river. Through the central portion of the state, the Barge canal follows the route of the old natural watercourses, utilizing this river, but shortening the distance several miles by cutting across the large bends. It is planned to place a lock a short way below Oneida lake, but the elevation of the remainder of the stream will be governed by the dam at Phoenix, on the Oswego river. Thus this waterway will be again in the main line of communications between the Hudson and Lakes Ontario and Erie.


1. Assembly Documents, 1830, No. 68, p. 5.

2. Id. p. 1.

3. Assembly Documents, 1835, No. 195.

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