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Draining My Own

My farm is in the township of Newcastle, Westchester County, N. Y., 35

miles from our City Hall, and a little eastward of the hamlet known as

Chappaqua, called into existence by a station on the Harlem Railroad. It

embraces the south-easterly half of the marsh which the railroad here

traverses from south to north--my part measuring some fifteen acres,

with five acres more of slightly elevated dry land between it and the

foot of the rather rugged hill which rises thence on the east and on the

south, and of which I now own some fifty acres, lying wholly eastward of

my low land, and in good part covered with forest. Of this, I bought

more than half in 1853, and the residue in bits from time to time as I

could afford it. The average cost was between $130 and $140 per acre:

one small and poor old cottage being the only building I found on the

tract, which consisted of the ragged edges of two adjacent farms,

between the western portions of which mine is now interposed, while they

still adjoin each other beyond the north and south road, half a mile

from the railroad, on which their buildings are located and which forms

my eastern boundary. My stony, gravelly upland mainly slopes to the

west; but two acres on my east line incline toward the road which bounds

me in that direction, while two more on my south-east corner descend to

the little brook which, entering at that corner, keeps irregularly near

my south line, until it emerges, swelled by a smaller runnel that enters

my lowland from the north and traverses it to meet and pass off with the

larger brooklet aforesaid. I have done some draining, to no great

purpose, on the more level portions of my upland; but my lowland has

challenged my best efforts in this line, and I shall here explain them,

for the encouragement and possible guidance of novices in draining. Let

me speak first of

My Difficulties.--This marsh or bog consisted, when I first grappled

with it, of some thirty acres, whereof I then owned less than a third.

To drain it to advantage, one person should own it all, or the different

owners should cooperate; but I had to go it alone, with no other aid

than a freely accorded privilege of straightening as well as deepening

the brook which wound its way through the dryer meadow just below me,

forming here the boundary of two adjacent farms. I spent $100 on this

job, which is still imperfect; but the first decided fall in the stream

occurs nearly a mile below me; and you tire easily of doing at your own

cost work which benefits several others as much as yourself. My

drainage will never be perfect till this brook, with that far larger

one in which it is merged sixty rods below me, shall have been sunk

three or four feet, at a further expense of at least $500.

This bog or swamp, when I first bought into it, was mainly dedicated to

the use of frogs, muskrats and snapping-turtles. A few small water-elms

and soft maples grew upon it, with swamp alder partly fringing the

western base of the hill east of it, where the rocks which had, through

thousands of years, rolled from the hill, thickly covered the surface,

with springs bubbling up around and among them. Decaying stumps and

imbedded fragments of trees argued that timber formerly covered this

marsh as well as the encircling hills. A tall, dense growth of

blackberry briers, thoroughwort, and all manner of marsh-weeds and

grasses, covered the center of the swamp each Summer; but my original

portion of it, being too wet for these, was mainly addicted to hassocks

or tussocks of wiry, worthless grass; their matted roots rising in hard

bunches a few inches above the soft, bare, encircling mud. The bog

ranged in depth from a few inches to five or six feet, and was composed

of black, peaty, vegetable mold, diversified by occasional streaks of

clay or sand, all resting on a substratum of hard, coarse gravel, out of

which two or three springs bubbled up, in addition to the half a dozen

which poured in from the east, and a tiny rivulet which (except in a

very dry, hot time) added the tribute of three or four more, which

sprang from the base of a higher shelf of the hill near the middle of

what is now my farm. Add to these that the brook which brawled and

foamed down my hill-side near my south line as aforesaid, had brought

along an immensity of pebbles and gravel of which it had mainly formed

my five acres of dryer lowland, had thus built up a pretty swale,

whereon it had the bad habit of filling up one channel, and then cutting

another, more devious and eccentric, if possible, than any of its

predecessors--and you have some idea of the obstacles I encountered and

resolved to overcome. One of my first substantial improvements was the

cutting of a straight channel for this current and, by walling it with

large stones, compelling the brook to respect necessary limitations. It

was not my fault that some of those stones were set nearly upright, so

as to veneer the brook rather than thoroughly constrain it: hence, some

of the stones, undermined by strong currents, were pitched forward into

the brook by high Spring freshets, so as to require resetting more

carefully. This was a mistake, but, not one of

My Blunders.--These, the natural results of inexperience and haste,

were very grave. Not only had I had no real experience in draining when

I began, but I could hire no foreman who know much more of it than I

did. I ought to have begun by securing an ample and sure fall where the

water left my land, and next cut down the brooklet or open ditch into

which I intended to drain to the lowest practicable point--so low, at

least, that no drain running into it should ever be troubled with

back-water. Nothing can be more useless than a drain in which water

stagnates, choking it with mud. Then I should have bought hundreds of

Hemlock or other cheap boards, slit them to a width of four or five

inches, and, having opened the needed drains, laid these in the bottom

and the tile thereupon, taking care to break joint, by covering the

meeting ends of two boards with the middle of a tile. Laying tile in the

soft mud of a bog, with nothing beneath to prevent their sinking, is

simply throwing away labor and money. I cannot wonder that tile-draining

seems to many a humbug, seeing that so many tile are laid so that they

can never do any good.

Having, by successive purchases, become owner of fully half of this

swamp, and by repeated blunders discovered that making stone drains in a

bog, while it is a capital mode of getting rid of the stone, is no way

at all to dry the soil, I closed my series of experiments two years

since by carefully relaying my generally useless tile on good strips of

board, sinking them just as deep as I could persuade the water to run

off freely, and, instead of allowing them to discharge into a brooklet

or open ditch, connecting each with a covered main of four to six-inch

tile; these mains discharging into the running brook which drains all my

farm and three or four of those above it just where it runs swiftly off

from my land. If a thaw or heavy rain swells the brook (as it sometimes

will) so that it rises above my outlet aforesaid, the strong current

formed by the concentration of the clear contents of so many drains will

not allow the muddy water of the brook to back into it so many as three

feet at most; and any mud or sediment that may be deposited there will

be swept out clean whenever the brook shall have fallen to the drainage

level. For this and similar excellent devices, I am indebted to the

capital engineering and thorough execution of Messrs. Chickering & Gall,

whose work on my place has seldom required mending, and never called for


My Success.--I judge that there are not many tracts more difficult to

drain than mine was, considering all the circumstances, except those

which are frequently flowed by tides or the waters of some lake, or

river. Had I owned the entire swamp, or had there been a fall in the

brook just below me, had I had any prior experience in draining, or had

others equally interested cooperated in the good work, my task would

have been comparatively light. As it was, I made mistakes which

increased the cost and postponed the success of my efforts; but this is

at length complete. I had seven acres of Indian Corn, one of Corn

Fodder, two of Oats, and seven or eight acres of Grass, on my lowland in

1869; and, though the Spring months were quite rainy, and the latter

part of Summer rather dry, my crops were all good. I did not see better

in Westchester County; and I shall be quite content with as good

hereafter. Of my seven hundred bushels of Corn (ears,) I judge that

two-thirds would be accounted fit for seed anywhere; my Grass was cut

twice, and yielded one large crop and another heavier than the average

first crop throughout our State. My drainage will require some care

henceforth; but the fifteen acres I have reclaimed from utter

uselessness and obstructions are decidedly the best part of my farm,

Uplands may be exhausted; these never can be.

The experience of another season (1870) of protracted drouth has fully

justified my most sanguine expectations. I had this year four acres of

Corn, and as many of Oats, on my swamp, with the residue in Grass; and

they were all good. I estimate my first Hay-crop at over two and a half

tuns per acre, while the rowen or aftermath barely exceeded half a tun

per acre, because of the severity of the drouth, which began in July and

lasted till October. My Oats were good, but not remarkably so; and I had

810 bushels of ears of sound, ripe Corn from four acres of drained swamp

and two and a half of upland. I estimate my upland Corn at seventy

(shelled) bushels, and my lowland at fifty-five (shelled) bushels per

acre. Others, doubtless, had more, despite the unpropitious season; but

my crop was a fair one, and I am content with it. My upland Corn was

heavily manured; my lowland but moderately. There are many to tell you

how much I lose by my farming; I only say that, as yet, no one else has

lost a farthing by it, and I do not complain.