The Past Through Ruins

Upstate New York has this ancient-empire theme going on. Cities and towns north of the Catskill Mountains and/or west of the Hudson River include Troy, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Carthage, and Athens. So perhaps it’s fitting that the bridge above, the Schoharie Aqueduct, so much resembles a Roman ruin.

Bridges, of course, are not usually built to be ruins. The aqueduct’s purpose in 1845 was to carry the Erie Canal across the Schoharie Creek, a total distance of over 630 feet. The canal was completed in 1825, and had been in partial use for a few years earlier. Before then, the big cities of the eastern seaboard had been jockeying for position to capture shipping, both coastal and trans-Atlantic; the canal gave New York the first fast route inland, past the Appalachian Mountains. It was the key link in an all water route from NY harbor, up the Hudson River, through the canal, to Lake Erie, and then on through the chain of the Great Lakes. In theory, you had shipping from as far as Duluth, some 1200 miles to the north and west, to New York with only a few hundred feet of elevation change handled by the locks in the canal. (In practice, the upper Midwest was very thinly settled in that era, and the downstream trade, mostly farm produce, came mostly from Ohio and western New York.)

The origins of the canal lay in the idea of channeling the Mohawk River, which runs from the west to the Hudson, but that project was beyond the engineering and construction capabilities of the US in the 1810s. A portion of the channelizing idea was present in the original canal: where the line of the canal crossed natural streams, the canal sometimes joined the stream for that distance. At Schoharie, in the words of the HAER report, “boats crossed the creek on slackwater exposed to numerous hazards and delays.” So less than twenty years after the canal opened, the Schoharie Aqueduct was built to allow the canal to run over the creek.

The thing that looks like a bridge isn’t the main action. The river piers are quite long parallel to the current, with a narrow arched bridge on one side and (now) bare piers on the other. The bare piers are where the canal was, in a big wooden flume that spanned from pier to pier. The bridge is the towpath, for the passage of the mules that pulled the canal boats. The logic of having a stone bridge for the mules (and, of course, their drivers) and a wood bridge for the canals makes sense when you think about it. Ideally, the tow path would be at an elevation to put the mules’ shoulders at about the same height as the decks of the boats, so as to not add a vertical component to the horizontal load the animals had to pull. Since the canal was four feet deep, its bottom would be about four feet lower than the towpath. And the idea was certainly to not add any locks for the water crossing, so the bottom of the flume elevation above the creek was fixed by the surrounding land.

The canal structure – whether a wood flume or a stone channel – was going to age a lot faster than the towpath, and having its bottom closer to the creek meant that it was more likely to be damaged by ice damming or floods. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to replace a wood bridge than a stone one. And, finally, the people building this might have thought to themselves that if they were improving on the canal so soon after it was built, it might be altered again. The canal was more or less continually being tinkered with into the twentieth century, to handle larger boats and have fewer locks. The flume was replaced twice and then the entire bridge was abandoned when the canal was enlarged again in the 1910s. Of course, after the New York Central Railroad was created in 1853, there was a single rail route from the Hudson to Buffalo (on Lake Erie). At that point, the canal was doomed as the main route west in New York state.

For a bridge with such a short life, its ruins remain, to me at least, beautiful and evocative.

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