By Richard Palmer

Long before the advent of the Erie Canal system and its successor,  the Barge Canal, in New York State, there was an intricate system of  natural waterways connecting the Hudson River and the Great Lakes  which, according to local histories, was utilized by a variety of  craft including rafts, batteaux and Durham boats. These early trade  routes date back more than 300 years.

In 1603 the French settled Montreal and soon after established  trading posts throughout the Great Lakes. During the succeeding two  centuries Oswego continued to be a trading and military post. During  the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars a considerable trade was  carried on between this point and Schenectady, from whence  merchandise, baggage, etc., were forwarded in boats for different  points on Lake Ontario by way of Mohawk River, Wood Creek, Oneida  Lake, and the Oneida and Oswego Rivers.

The navigation of this route was difficult and hampered by a number  of portages, where freight had to be landed and transported over  land. The route between Oswego and Schenectady came under the control  of "The Western Inland Lock & Navigation Co." which was incorporated  in 1792. This company constructed a canal from the Mohawk River near  Rome, to Wood Creek which empties into Oneida Lake. They also locked  Wood Creek and built locks on the Mohawk at German Flats (Little  Falls). These improvements were completed in 1799 so that the water  communication was made passable for the boats used in those days.

The Western freight was drawn by teams from Albany to Schenectady and  considerable quantities of furs, which constituted the staple  articles of down freight, were drawn in like manner from Schenectady  to Albany. At about this period the forwarding business at Oswego was  conducted by Archibald Fairfield who owned and ran two small vessels  on the lake, and by Messrs. Sharpe and Vaughn who owned one vessel of  about 50 tons burden called "The Jane of Genesee," where she was built.

Onondaga salt formed was an important item in the commercial business  of Oswego, this being its only outlet to market. Large salt manufactured near Syracuse was shipped through Oswego during  this period. At about this period Messrs. E and D. Alvord of Salina  contracted for the delivery of 1,000 barrels per year, for several  years to a company at Meadville, Pa., at three dollars a barrel.

The salt was forwarded by Oswego to Queenston and thence by teams  around Niagara Falls to Chippewa, or Street's store house two miles  above, and then shipped to Erie, Pa. From there it was transported by  land 14 miles to Waterford where it waited the swelling of streams  from the spring run off and fall rains, where it was carried by arks  to Meadville and Pittsburgh. In 1803 some 16,000 bushels of salt was  manufactured at the Salina works, and 10,000 bushels in 1804. Nearly  all this salt went to market through Oswego. The center and western  parts of New York State at that time was a region of dense wilderness  without markets, roads or means of conveyance.

In April 1802 Matthew McNair came to Oswego and engaged in the  forwarding business the following year. By the late 1840s he was the  oldest forwarder and one of the oldest residents of Oswego, and took  pleasure in recounting the community's colorful past. On commencing  the storage and forwarding business in 1803, McNair bought the  schooner "Jane of Genesee," her name later being changed to "Peggy."

At this time the forwarding business in Oswego received a  considerable impetus from the completion of the improvements of the  Western Inland Lock & Navigation Co. Considerable quantities of  merchandise came through from Schenectady in boats which navigated  the Lake Ontario and carried their cargoes to Kingston, Niagara and  Sackets Harbor, which had just begun to be settled. Some of the  Schenectady boats traded up the Bay of Quinte, where settlements were  made by people (the U.S. called "Tories," who had fled from the U.S.  during the Revolutionary War.

A portion of the merchandise arrived at Oswego and was shipped by  British vessels owned at Kingston, and by the North Western Fur  Company, (later a branch of the Hudson's Bay Company, which date  owned a fleet of schooners on Lake Ontario). Kingston, York (now  Toronto), Niagara and Queenston developed as flourishing Canadian  settlements, while Oswego had but six or seven families; and Genesee  (also called Hanford's Landing) and Lewiston only had a few log cabins.

There was a portage at Oswego Falls (now of Fulton) and most of the  merchandise was landed and carried one mile. The boats were also  drawn around the falls. Sometimes the Schenectady boats were run over  the falls with their cargoes intact. The sail boats were of a larger  class and were always unloaded at the upper landing at Fulton, and  returned to Salt Point (near Liverpool), while the salt was carted  around the falls and transferred to a different class of boats at the  lower landing, which ran between Oswego and Oswego Falls. Matthew  McNair recalled that in 1803, some 5,000 barrels of salt was shipped  from Oswego to Queenston, which was then the port to which all  merchandise going around Niagara Falls was shipped. After this period  there was a rapid increase in the manufacture of salt at Salina and  in the forwarding business at Oswego.

In 1804, a government contractor, known only as "Mr. Wilson," a built  the 90-ton schooner, "Fair American." In the fall and winter of the  same year,  McNair built another of 50 tons, called the "Linda" and  immediately after the house with which he was connected purchased a  number of Canadian vessels.

Commerce was then unregulated. There were no customs regulations, and  unincumbered free trade existed. No license was then required and no  papers had to be certified by oath. The sharp pointed and keen  scented Custom House officer had not yet appeared on the shores of  the Great Lakes.

McNair built three more schooners in Oswego in 1809 and 1810. Also,  the forwarding house of Bronson & Company built one, as did Porter,  Barton & Company built one. These were vessels of from 80 to 100 tons  burden. In 1806 Porter, Barton & Co. built a portage road round  Niagara Falls (called Portage Road to this day) on the American side  from Lewiston to Schlosser, thus diverting trade from the Queenston  route till it was stopped by the non intercourse and embargo laws of  1808.

(1) First-hand evidence of this is early east-west trade route was  found in local newspapers. The Canada Constellation, published in  Niagara Falls, Ontario, reported on December 7, 1799:

"On Thursday night last a boat arrived here from Schenectady, which  place she left the 22nd ult. She passed the York sticking on a rock  off the Devil's Nose - no prospect of getting her off. A small deck  boat lately sprang a leak twelve miles distant from Oswego; the  people on board, many of whom were passengers, were taken off by a  vessel passing, when she instantly sank, cargo and all lost.

"A vessel supposed to be the 'Genesee' schooner, has been two days  endeavoring to come in. It is a singular misfortune, that this vessel  sailed more than a month ago from Oswego, laden for this place, has  been several times in fight, and driven back by heavy winds."

Further evidence of the all-water, pre-canal days is found in the  Pittsburgh Statesman of Nov. 12, 1822, which illustrates how  adventurous the pioneers were:

"There is now lying at the mouth of Wayne-street, in this city, a  shallop rigged Keel Boat, thirty-five feet long, with several  families on board, who embarked in this boat at the mouth of Wood  creek, head of the Oneida Lake, state of New-York.

"The course pursued to reach Pittsburgh, was by passing down the  Oneida Lake and through the Oswego river into Lake Ontario, thence up  to the Niagara to within five miles of the Falls. The vessel was then  carried round the Falls on wheels, and placed in the river two miles  above the Falls; then pursued her course to Portland, on Lake Erie,  and was again placed on wheels, and carried seven miles along a good  road to the Chatauqua Lake and creek into Conewaga creek-entered the  Alleghany river at Warren, Erie county, Pa. and arrived safe at  Pittsburgh.

"Facts like these are worth preserving and their diffusion may be of  ultimate utility. It is also a practical evidence, that a water  communication between Pittsburgh and New York can be opened without  difficulty."

Another early trade route was via the north-south Genesee River. Long  before the Genesee Valley Canal was built, it was navigated by  shallow draft vessels between Rochester and the Allegany River, or  between 80 and 90 miles. At what is now the hamlet of Portageville,  Durham boats and/or batteaux were carried around the formidable  Genesee Falls. But the Genesee River was only one of many natural  streams used. Only the most artificial improvements such as crude  dams were built to create what was called "slack water navigation."  There was considerable forwarding of flour by long, shallow draft  Durham boats. The primitive land and water systems of the day were  slow, rough going, dangerous and expensive, especially in the low  water times of summer. Products shipped over this route included  potash, flour, lumber and bricks.

(2) In most cases rivers and tributaries in upstate New York were  only navigable during periods of high water resulting from spring run  off. Other rivers besides the ancient Oneida/Oswego trade route  included the Canisteo, Cohocton, Delaware, Genesee, Mohawk, Seneca,  Susquehanna, Tioughnioga, and various tributaries.

There are also many references to batteaux and similar small boats  (later, steamboats) being employed on the Finger Lakes. Later, there  were efforts to improve the natural waterways, but with few tangible  results. As the country became thickly settled, dams and fish weirs  were built which destroyed the use of rivers and streams as water  highways. In some cases, however, sluiceways were built to allow the  passage of boats.