Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on The Barge Canal

Chapter 1 -- History of the Canal

The historical seeds of the Erie Canal were planted in 1808. In that year an all Assembly resolution created a joint legislative committee to study the feasibility of constructing a waterway which would connect the Hudson River and Lake Erie.

Named to the committee were such prominent New Yorkers as Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Robert R. Livingston, Robert Fulton, and the man who name was destined to be permanently linked with the project, DeWitt Clinton.

It was not until 1811 that the committee completed its report. It found that a canal could be constructed, that it would cost some $5,000,000, and would have a cargo traffic potential of $100,000,000 annually. Construction was recommended.

War with England loomed, became a reality and was successfully waged before any definitive action was taken on the report. Finally on April 15, 1817 the Legislature authorized the commencement of work on a four-foot canal channel from Albany to Buffalo. Ground was broken at Rome on July 4 of that year with appropriate ceremonies marking the beginning of actual construction.

The first section of the canal, Rome to Utica, was opened in October, 1819. Work on other sections, including the hazardous segment crossing the Montezuma marshlands, was under progress for the next six years.

The Seneca Chief, drawn by four horses and carrying Governor Clinton as one of its passengers, officially opened the completed canal on October 26, 1825. After proceeding on the canal from Buffalo to Albany, the Governor's party went on to New York. On arriving in New York Harbor, a cask of Lake Erie water was poured into the Atlantic in the historic "Wedding of the Waters" ceremony.

The cost of the original construction was $7,150,000. Traffic on the canal, industry in the communities along its banks, and the whole economy of the areas which it served, flourished almost immediately.

New York which was ranked fourth in population in 1800 rose to first place in 1820. Albany doubled its population within a few years. The population of Utica increased from 3,000 to 13,000 in twenty years. Syracuse, which was described as a "desolate" hamlet of a few scattered wooden houses in 1820, became a city of 11,000 in 1840. During approximately the same period, Rochester changed from "one wide and deep forest" to a prosperous community of 20,000. Buffalo, a wilderness outpost of 200 in 1812, became a gateway to the west and its population reached 18,000 by 1840.

The names chosen for new settlements reflected their ties to the canal and their dependence on its commerce. Lockport, Middleport, Spencerport, Port Leyden, Port Byron, Weedsport and others were among those that put down their roots in the early Erie period and are still thriving communities.

The mass migration to the west also started with the advent of the Erie. Many settlers from New England moved into western New York and the territory beyond. Their ranks were swelled by immigrants from Europe who sought an opportunity to find homes in the newly opened farmlands of New York, Ohio and Michigan. It is estimated that freight and packet boats carried 40,000 people on their Western journey during the first year of the canal operation.

Recognizing the favorable impact of water transportation on the inland regions of the state, plans for the development of other navigable waterways were approved by the Legislature.

The Champlain Canal connecting the Hudson River with the St. Lawrence was built in 1819.

In 1826 a canal linking Cayuga and Seneca Lakes with the Erie Canal was completed.

The Oswego Canal providing a commercial waterway between Lake Ontario and the Erie system was opened for traffic in 1828.

So great was the demand for expanded canal transportation facilities that in 1835 the Legislature saw fit to enact a proposal providing for the deepening of the original Erie channel from four to seven feet. This work was not fully completed until 1862.

By 1845 there was extensive traffic on all the canals. Four thousand boats and barges were in operation and 25,000 men were employed directly in canal activities.

The growth of the State paralleled that of the Erie with the population doubling between 1825 and 1845, reaching an estimated total of 2,500,000 in the latter year.

The industrial and population expansion generated by the canal reached far beyond the boundaries of New York. Dormant port cities on the Great Lakes awakened to the hum of commerce as the gateway to the west swung open, and the industrial upheaval which changed the destiny of our midwestern states came into full play. Mighty forces were unleashed by the completion of New York's canal system. Our Nation was on the march, a march which led it to industrial and commercial supremacy and world power.

The growth of commerce led to further demands for canal improvements. Locks were lengthened in 1884 and in 1895 the famous "9-foot" project providing for a further deepening of the Erie and Oswego Canals was approved at an estimated cost of $9,000,000. Shortly after commencement of the work it was determined that the cost figures had been grossly underestimated and work was abandoned when available funds were exhausted.

Until 1882 tolls were charged for the use of the canal. In that year because of competitive conditions and the loss of traffic to other facilities, a referendum providing for the elimination of tolls was submitted to the people and approved. While sporadic efforts to restore the toll system have been made, especially at the 1908 Constitutional Convention, no affirmative action has been taken and the canal system has been toll free since January 1, 1883.

During the toll assessment period, the Erie produced revenue totaling $121,000,000. The total cost of the canal to 1883, including maintenance and repairs was $78,000,000, leaving a favorable balance on the books of the state treasury of some $42,000,000. In its early years, the Erie was a sound investment. The income it introduced benefitted the whole state and inevitably contributed to its progress.

Commencing about 1900 there was a growing interest at the federal level in the development of canal systems. For economic and defense reasons studies were initiated to determine the feasibility of improving water transportation routes between the Great Lakes and the sea which would be capable of handling large scale navigation tonnage.

The primary routes under consideration were the Oswego-Mohawk-Hudson, and the St. Lawrence. The conclusion finally reached favored the New York waterway because it was wholly within United States territory and had a longer navigation season. Congress took no action on the reports submitted.

Failing federal action, in 1903 a new start on the expansion and improvement of the canal was undertaken by the state. In recommending the project, Governor Theodore Roosevelt said, "The canals cannot be abandoned ; ... the present canal must be enlarged. We cannot afford to rest idle while our commerce is taken away from us, and we must act in the broadest and most liberal and the most energetic spirit if we wish to retain the State's commercial supremacy." A bond issue of $101,000,000 to provide funds for channel deepening was authorized and provisions were made for increasing the length and width of locks. Later bond issues increased construction appropriations to $154,000,000. Final plans called for a minimum channel depth of twelve feet, with the locks to have a length of 328 feet and a width of forty-five feet.

Work on the enlarged Erie was commenced in 1905. The project was not completed until 1918. Between 1918 and 1921, the new canal was operated, as a World War I emergency measure, under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of War. On February 27, 1921, control was returned to the state.

Despite the importance of New York's canal system to the growth and development of the economy and commercial stature of the whole nation, not a single penny of federal funds went into its construction, maintenance or improvement until after 1930. The people of New York dug deeply into their pockets to build their canals. The 1903 bond issue of $101,000,000 to finance improvements was the largest ever approved up to that time by a single state. Yet New York's voters gave their approval even though they knew full well that the most substantial benefits from the enlarged waterway would accrue to other states and that the program was essentially interstate in concept and use and should, therefore, be the basic responsibility of the national government.

Finally in 1929 a congressional report recommended that certain specific improvements be made on the canal at federal expense. The proposal was submitted pursuant to the general responsibility of the United States Government, in the interest of national defense and economic development, to maintain and improve the Nation's navigable waters. The report conditioned the commencement of the work on the transfer to the canal system to the Federal Government.

Acting on the report, Congress in 1930 authorized the acceptance of a grant of the canal and provided for its maintenance and operation. No action was initiated by New York since the state constitution prohibited the proposed transfer.

Acting on further reports calling for improvements by the Federal Government, Congress in 1935 authorized the necessary work without making the action conditional upon a transfer.

The improvements were undertaken in 1935 and have continued more or less sporadically until the present time. To date some $24,000,000 in federal funds have been spent in lowering the channel and lock sills, increasing the minimum clearance at bridges, and channel widening in restricted areas. The estimated cost of the work remaining is $13,500,000.

It should be here noted that immediately after the formation of this committee, its chairman started a collateral investigation to determine the reasons for the lag in completing the federal improvement program. It was discovered that the delay resulted from a lack of coordination between federal and state budget agencies.

Under the federal authorization, responsibility for initiating, constructing, and the first instance financing of the improvements rests with New York State. Upon approval and completion of particular segments of the project, the Federal Government reimburses the State Treasury for money expended. This arrangement worked fairly well until 1950, but since that date the procedure had broken down. In that year. Congress adopted a rigid policy of making only those appropriations which could be realistically spent in any fiscal year. The state, on the other hand, has followed the policy of not using its first instance money until assurances were given that federal money was available for reimbursement. Since Congress would not appropriate monies in anticipation of expenditures, the Corps of Engineers could not advise the state that money was available and the Department of Public Works accordingly would not proceed with the authorized improvements.

Having ascertained the reason for the stalemate, our chairman on December I, 1960, submitted a report covering the matter to Governor Rockefeller. After reciting the pertinent facts the report recommended that a first instance appropriation be included in the state's 1961-1962 budget of sufficient size to finance the cost of the remaining authorized improvements on a "program" basis. Under this plan the Department of Public Works could proceed with the work without regard to immediate availability of federal reimbursing funds but with the implicit understanding that they would be paid on completion of the project.

Upon receipt of the Chairman's report. Governor Rockefeller directed the Department of Public Works and the Budget Director to make an immediate study of the matter. Their conclusions completely confirmed our Chairman's recommendations and on December 22, 1960, the Governor advised Assemblyman Crawford that his new budget would contain the necessary money to proceed with the improvements.

The Governor's budget submitted to the Legislature on February 1, 1961 includes a first instance appropriation of $15,000,000 for canal improvement under the federal-state program. It is assumed that the work will get under way in the current fiscal year.

Thus an administrative log-jam that has delayed the improvement of the canal's facilities for several years has been broken and immediate progress can be expected.

It appears appropriate to conclude this brief historical review of the canal system with a summary of the cost and financial background of the project.

The original cost of the Erie was $7,150,000. The construction of the segments added to the system between 1820 and 1882, deepening operations and related work, cost an estimated $71,000,000; the ill-fated "nine-foot" program of 1895, an additional $9,000,000.

The construction charge for the enlarged canal authorized by the 1903 Legislature, including terminals and other facilities, was $155,000,000. Additional funds totaling some $30,000,000 have also been spent on capital improvements thereby increasing the overall outlay to $185,000,000.

Federal funds spent to date under the Army Engineers improvement program approximate $24,000,000, with an additional $13,500,000 being available for further work.

The bonds issued to finance the original Erie have, of course, long since been paid.

Of the bonds authorized to pay for the 1903 enlargement, $2,000,000 matured in 1923 and the balance of the fifty-year issue of $133,000,000 had maturities extending from 1956 to 1967. A $13,000,000 issue of terminal bonds was redeemed between 1942 and 1946; the amortized $6,800,000 fifty-year issue of 1921 will not be fully paid until 1971. As of April 1, 1961, outstanding canal bonds totaled $92,360,000.

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