From the inception of the idea of an internal route to the opening of the completed canal.

The beginning of the Erie or Grand canal, as it was first called, marks a distinct area in the internal investigation of the state. This canal differed from the works of the old Lock Navigation Company in two important respects, – in being a channel independent of natural streams, and in following an interior route from Rome to Lake Erie. The difficulties of maintaining navigation by the old company led to the adoption of the English rule of avoiding natural streams. The importance of an interior route was much more evident at that time than now. At first the chief objection to going by way of Lake Ontario was the fear lest commerce, once started in that direction, should continue down the St. Lawrence, and so out of the country. At that day the great West was not so firmly bound to the United States as at present, and the fear was evidently well grounded. When the practicability of an interior canal was established, the development of western New York by a canal through its midst, and the having of so much lockage as the Ontario route would require, were important factors in determining the route. However, so well established in the public mind was this idea of the Ontario route, that, when in 1808 the first proposition was made in the Legislature to authorize a survey directly from the Hudson to Lake Erie, the members would not take the responsibility of so wild a scheme, and ordered the Surveyor-General to investigate along "the usual route of communication between the Hudson river and lake Erie, and such other contemplated route as he may deem proper."

The works of improvement by the Western Navigation Company served the purpose of awakening public interest, and to a small extent developed the interior, but they fell far short of meeting the needs, and many years were required to educate the people to the point of sanctioning so great an undertaking as the conditions required. The early promoters were not only considered dreamers and visionary enthusiasts, but endured obloquy, abuse and insult. Not until the work of construction had been in progress for three years and the middle section had been opened, did the opposition cease and the people become united in an endeavor to complete the enterprise which they expected to bring prosperity to themselves and to give to their State the controlling power in the commerce of the country.

Standing at a point of time nearly ninety years removed from the beginning of the canal, we can hardly appreciate the duties of the early builders. The nation was young and its monetary resources small. Our whole state had but one-eighth of the population of New York City to-day. To the great majority of the people canals were only a name. Engineering was an unknown profession in America, and of contractors there were none. Excavating machinery was still to be invented, and the track of the canal was an unbroken forest or a miasmal marsh. To add to the difficulties, sectional prejudices were developed, the older and more influential East fearing to compete with the developing grain industry of western New York. The men to champion this cause were necessarily of a strong and determined character, and such as to incite the political antagonism which arrayed itself against the project. The conservative, as ever, were fearful lest it were, as Jefferson said, a century too soon, and lest the State should become bankrupt by the undertaking. The National Government would not aid even by granting its unsaleable western lands, which the canal eventually transformed into flourishing States. And strangest of all, when legislative action to authorize construction was pending, all of the members from New York City, which the canal was destined to make the commercial metropolis of the continent, were bitterly opposed.

But alone and unaided the State began the work and carried it to a successful completion. From among her own citizens commissioners, engineers and contractors were found capable of performing the great task. The solving of any difficulties trained the engineers to such a degree that they were sought for public works all over the land. Contractors, who were so deficient as to need a loan from the State of a few hundred dollars, for purchasing their tools and supplies, accomplished their work with despatch. At the end of eight years, having completed nearly four hundred and fifty miles of canals, many of these men were aboard the first boat that sailed from Buffalo to New York in a celebration such as the world had never seen. And well might they rejoice over a task so perfectly, so economically and so quickly done, and one which was so nearly to fulfill their expectations in bringing added strength and prosperity to the land. As we cannot easily appreciate the difficulties which confronted the builders, neither do we readily perceive how much the opening of such a means of communication meant to the people of that day. Viewed from the conditions of the time, their extravagant rejoicings seem entirely fitting.

When it was seen that the undertaking was to be so eminently successful, the question naturally arose as to the originator of the idea, and many were the claimants for this honor. So great was the contest among these rival claimants that the many books and pamphlets on the subject are marked by sharp invective and stinging sarcasm. Not only during the early years of the canal was this controversy waged, but even as late as 1866, it was reopened. Whatever may be our opinion upon the mooted question we must rejoice that this contention induced the publication of much valuable material that otherwise might have been irrevocably lost to history. Dr. David Hosack, in the Appendix of his Memoir of De Witt Clinton, has treated of this subject most exhaustively, and some papers contained in the second volume of the Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society also ably discuss it. Dr. Hosack has published letters from many men prominent in canal affairs, which give interesting facts about much of the early history not contained in any official records.

  Early canal advocates

Reproduced from an engraving in Dr. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton. They are: Gouverneur Morris, Cadwallader Colden, George Washington, Christopher Colles, Jeffrey Smith, Elkanah Watson, Philip Schuyler, George Clinton, Jesse Hawley, Joshua Forman, Thomas Eddy, Jonas Platt, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Cadwallader D. Colden and De Witt Clinton.

At this late day no one can hope to decide the question, nor, indeed, does it seem of great moment to decide it. After carefully investigating all that has been written upon the subject and comparing the contradictory statements, we are forced to agree with Judge Platt, a man well versed in the early history of the State and intimately connected with the first propositions for a canal, when he says, "As to the merit of the first design of a canal, directly from Lake Erie to the Hudson, it belongs, in my opinion, exclusively, to no person. It was gradually developed to the minds of many who were early acquainted with the geography and topography of the western region of this state." 1

As the beginnings of important undertakings are always of interest and as the services of all of these early advocates of the canal were so great, their zeal amid discouragements so staunch, and their only reward, the plaudits of their fellows and the renown of historical record, it is deemed fitting to enter into the account of the inception and building of the original Erie canal with considerable detail.

This is not the proper place to discuss, beyond a brief review, the relative merits of these rival claimants, but such deeds of these men as influenced public action deserve attention. As told in the previous chapter, Cadwallader Colden, in 1724, suggested the first idea that a canal might be built from the head waters of the Seneca river to Lake Erie and the legislative Journal of 1786 shows that Jeffrey Smith introduced a bill "for improving the navigation of the Mohawk river, Wood creek, and the Onondaga river ... and for extending the same, if practicable to Lake Erie." Mr. Smith probably received his views from Christopher Colles. These men are not usually considered among the claimants for originating the idea of the Erie.

Among the directors of the Inland Lock Navigation Companies, claims have been advanced for Elkanah Watson, for General Schuyler and for Thomas Eddy, as first conceiving a notion of an interior route to Lake Erie. But Mr. Watson admitted that his thought never went beyond Seneca lake. Of General Schuyler’s ideas the following letter gives a clue. The writer says:

"In the year 1797, I was frequently at the Little Falls, where I saw General Philip Schuyler, and Mr. Weston the engineer. I stayed at the same house with them at that place for six or seven days together, and heard almost every day conversations between them on the subject of internal navigation. Their views went far beyond the projects then authorized by law; they frequently talked of water communications, by means of canals, as far as Lake Erie, keeping the interior, so as to avoid the Niagara Falls, provided the face of the country would admit of a different route. Good policy, as it respected our contiguity to the Canadas, as well as the principles of canalling, so well understood, and the benefits arising from it, forbade the route by the way of Lake Ontario. But they considered the period remote, when this great system of canalling was to be adopted. At the time I speak of, it was supposed that neither the infant state of the country, nor public opinion, would allow of any other steps towards internal improvements, than those already sanctioned by law. Their whole views were therefore bent on perfecting the navigation from the Hudson to the Seneca Lake, and the harbor of Oswego, in conformity to the law of 1792." 2

To Thomas Eddy is ascribed one of the first steps in the project. He was treasurer of the Western Company and is said to have first suggested the plan of uniting the Seneca and Mohawk rivers by a direct canal. Through his efforts the board of directors ordered the route to be explored, and estimates to be made. In accordance with this act, in 1796, Mr. Eddy, in company with William Weston, the English engineer, and a party of surveyors, investigated a route and made a favorable report, but for the want of funds there the matter rested. Not until years later did he appear to consider a canal to Lake Erie, but his was probably the first idea of an interior route to begin at Rome.

To Gouverneur Morris has generally been accorded the honor of originating the idea of the Erie canal. Mr. Morris was prominent in National affairs, and was destined to become closely allied with the early canal projects. His biographer, Jared Sparks, gives many facts in support of the claim to this honor. 3 He quotes from a letter of Governor Morgan Lewis to Harmanus Bleecker, in which he said of a conversation he had with Morris in 1777: " ... he announced, in language highly poetic, and to which I cannot do justice, that at no very distant day the waters of the great western inland seas would, by the aid of man, break through the barriers and mingle with those of the Hudson. I recollect asking him how they were to break through these barriers. To which he replied, that numerous streams passed them through natural channels, and that artificial ones might be conducted by the same routes." On December 20, 1800, after returning from a journey to Niagara falls and Lake Erie, Mr. Morris said, in writing to a friend in Europe, Mr. John Parish: " ... one-tenth of the expense borne by Britain in the last campaign, would enable ships to sail from London through Hudson’s River into Lake Erie." It is related that soon after writing this letter, while in company with a number of prominent men in Washington he gave expression to similar views, and suggested the scheme of an inclined plane, which, in after years, he incorporated in a report to the Legislature. Simeon De Witt, for many years Surveyor-General, said in a letter, dated February 25, 1822, to William Darby, who had requested material for an encyclopedia, that his first intimation of this idea came from Mr. Morris, in 1803, when he "mentioned the project of tapping Lake Erie, as he expressed himself, and leading its waters in an artificial river, directly across the country to the Hudson River." James Geddes said that he heard it for the first time, in 1804, from the Surveyor-General. In spite of all this testimony, there is reason to doubt whether prior to the survey of Mr. Geddes, in 1808, Mr. Morris had any idea of the country through the interior, or of any route to Lake Erie other than by Lake Ontario and around Niagara falls by a canal. Mr. Morris had died before this controversy arose, and his friends based their arguments upon his letter to Mr. Parish in 1800, upon an entry in his diary of 1808, and upon the evidence of Simeon De Witt and Governor Morgan Lewis. It should be observed that Mr. De Witt’s evidence was the report from memory of a conversation, after a lapse of nineteen years, and that Governor Lewis’ letter was likewise from memory, fifty-one years after the reported conversation. These letters are offset by the testimony of Charles Broadhead and Benjamin Wright, early engineers, and Thomas Eddy, one of the first canal commissioners, who knew Mr. Morris during the time of his reputed proposals for an interior canal, and who stated as their opinion that his first ideas were of a communication along the natural waterways. The entry in his diary really sustains this same view. The letter to Mr. Parish, in 1800, describes a trip to Lake Erie by way of the Hudson river. Lakes George and Champlain, the St. Lawrence, Lake Ontario, and around Niagara. The language of the letter, "through Hudson’s River into Lake Erie," defines no route, and its evidence as a proof of the claim is entirely annulled by a subsequent letter which Mr. Morris wrote to General Henry Lee, on January 22, 1801, in answer to a request from General Lee that he commit to paper his ideas in full, that the nation might be brought to adopt the scheme. In reply Mr. Morris describes "the navigation between the Hudson and Lake Ontario, by the Mohawk and Wood Creek," and says that as far as he can "judge from observation and information, it is not only practicable, but easy, though expensive." At best Mr. Morris’ idea would have availed nothing without the efforts of someone to induce public action. The consensus of opinion is that Mr. Morris, though brilliant, was visionary and impractical.

Each of the two other men, Jesse Hawley and Joshua Forman, who claim attention as originating the idea of the Erie; did something that materially aided in accomplishing the work. A popular idea that De Witt Clinton was instrumental in inaugurating the project has no foundation in fact. Early in its history, at the solicitation of the projectors, Clinton entered heartily into the scheme and remained the master spirit till its consummation, but although others claimed it for him, he never claimed for him self the original idea of the canal.

To Jesse Hawley belongs the honor of first formulating the definite scheme which culminated in building the Erie canal and probably to him belongs the honor also of first suggesting the idea of the interior route. In a letter to Dr. Hosack he says: "In April 1805, ... I suggested the idea of an overland canal from the foot of Lake Erie, at Buffalo, ... to Utica, and thence down the Mohawk to Hudson River." 4

Mr. Merwin S. Hawley thus describes the occurrence:

"The writer of these pages well remembers, when a boy, hearing Mr. Hawley relate the incident of his first suggesting the idea of the overland canal. He was at Colonel Mynderse’s office in 1805, attending to the shipment of some flour to market, by the circuitous and uncertain route then in use. Himself and Colonel Mynderse conversing upon the necessities for better facilities, Mr. Hawley said, ‘Why not have a canal extend direct into our country, and benefit all – merchants, millers, and farmers?’ To which Colonel Mynderse replied, that it could not be done, for the lack of a head of water. As the head of water was so essential to the idea, Mr. Hawley felt somewhat chagrined at first, that he should have made such a blunder; but, stepping to an old map of the State, which hung on the office wall, he put his finger on the point where they were located, and tracing along on the map to Niagara Falls, and to Lake Erie, said, ‘There is the head, there is the supply of water.’

"The idea thus brought out, being treated as visionary, Mr. Hawley was stimulated to examine it, and he became more convinced of its practicability the more he investigated it, although, as he became earnest upon the subject, his friends ridiculed the idea as visionary or chimerical; and, after publishing one or two of the essays, the printer objected to inserting any more, as the ridicule they received was liable to injure the character and circulation of his paper." 5

Opposed to Mr. Hawley’s positive statement that the idea of the canal was original with himself, is the equally positive declaration of James Geddes that he discussed Mr. Morris’ suggestion of "tapping Lake Erie" with Mr. Hawley prior to April 5, 1805, the day on which Mr. Hawley claimed that the idea occurred to him.

To give expression to his views on this subject, Mr. Hawley wrote fifteen essays on inland navigation, under the signature of "Hercules." The introductory article was published on January 14, 1807, in a paper called the Commonwealth, at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, whither Mr. Hawley had removed. Having returned to Ontario county, he determined to render himself useful to society, as he expresses it, by giving publicity to his suggestion. On October 27, 1807, he contributed the first of a series of fourteen essays, which appeared in the Genesee Messenger, a paper published in Canandaigua. The series was concluded in the following April. They were the subject of much ridicule, and considered, by some, as "the effusions of a maniac," the writer being unknown for some time. He declared his chief object in writing the articles to be "to induce a belief in the propriety of an actual survey," saying: "I intend to point out that improvement which I conceive to be of the greatest importance of any which can be undertaken in the United States; and for the proposition of which these numbers were principally written -- A CANAL FROM THE FOOT OF LAKE ERIE INTO THE MOHAWK." 6

President Jefferson in his second inaugural address, March, 1805, had promulgated the idea of appropriating the surplus revenue of the United States, after the payment of the National debt, to the improvement of canals, roads, etc., and in his message, December, 1806, he had shown that there was a greater surplus of revenue than was anticipated at the time the terms for the discharge of the National debt were stipulated. For the use of this surplus he had suggested its application to the improvement of some great National object, the undertaking of which was to be immediately commenced. In reply to these utterances of the President, Mr. Hawley, in his introductory essay, presumed to suggest that the "improvement, which would afford the most immediate, and consequently the most extensive advantages" in the United States, was "connecting the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers by means of a canal." He then described the route of the proposed channel across the state, and in the subsequent essays he traced this course with considerable detail, calculated the distances and elevations, and even estimated the cost at six million dollars, a very accurate estimate, as the actual cost proved. Indeed, so nearly did the canal, when built, follow the line he had marked out, and so fully and rapidly were his predictions verified in regard to the benefits that would result, that these writings may be regarded as almost prophetic. His plan, however, was that of an inclined plane, which, although introduced in the first canal commissioners’ report, was eventually discarded as impracticable. How much influence these papers exerted in that day of limited circulation of country newspapers, it is impossible to tell. It is certain that subsequently they were duly honored and appreciated. They were finally deposited with the Historical Society of New York City, and may be found, reprinted in full, in Dr. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton.

The last claimant for originating the idea of the Erie is Joshua Forman, the man who introduced in the Legislature the resolution ordering the survey which demonstrated the practicability of an overland route. During the legislative session of 1807-08, Mr. Forman, a member of Assembly from Onondaga county, and Benjamin Wright, a member from Oneida county, were roommates. In describing the circumstances attending the resolution, Mr. Forman said that one evening while reading the article on canals in Rees’ Cyclopedia, and observing the relative importance of canals over improved rivers, he perceived how much more beneficial such a canal would be than the old works on the Mohawk, and the thought occurred to him that, if a canal were ever built between the Hudson and the western lakes, it would be worth more than the extra cost to go directly through the country to Lake Erie. Judge Wright and General McNeil being with him at the time, he discussed the subject with them, and finally it was agreed that Mr. Forman should introduce a joint resolution and Mr. Wright should second it. Accordingly this plan was carried out and it lay on the table for one day by the rules of the House.

In opposition to Forman’s claims to originality and also his declaration that he had never heard of Morris’ schemes or Hawley’s essays, may be mentioned the statement of one of his biographers 7 that he was elected on what was known as the "Canal Ticket," with the avowed purpose of introducing legislative action for promoting canals, and the evidence of one of his neighbors that he had heard Judge Forman discuss Hawley’s essays at the time of their publication. 8

Mr. Forman said that, without much confidence that the National Government would construct such a canal, he framed the resolution to take advantage of the President’s proposition to use the surplus revenues in making roads and canals, for, if the project had been treated as a work for the State alone, it would have been denied attention by the Legislature. Even in that form it was received with astonishment and ridicule, but being ably defended by Judge Forman it was adopted on the ground "that it could do no harm and might do some good." 9

The record of this legislative action is found in the following extracts from the Assembly and Senate Journals: --

In Assembly, February 4, 1808, "Mr. Forman called up the resolution heretofore submitted and ordered to lie on the table; which being read, was agreed to, in the words following, to wit:

"Whereas the president of the United-States, by his message to congress, delivered at their meeting in October last, did recommend, that the surplus monies in the treasury, over and above such sums as could be applied to the extinguishment of the national debt, be appropriated to the great national objects of opening canals and making turnpike roads. And whereas the state of New York, holding the first commercial rank in the United States, possesses within herself the best route of communication between the Atlantic and western waters, by means of a canal between the tide waters of the Hudson river and lake Erie, thro’ which the wealth and trade of that large portion of the union, bordering on the upper lakes, would forever flow to our great commercial emporium. And whereas the legislatures of several of our sister states have made great exertions to secure to their own states, the trade of that widely extended country west of the Alleganies, under natural advantages vastly inferior to those of this state. And whereas it is highly important, that those advantages should as speedily and possible be improved, both to preserve and increase the commercial and national importance of this state. Therefore,

"Resolved, (if the honorable the senate concur herein) That a joint committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of exploring, and causing an accurate survey to be made of the most eligible and direct route for a canal, to open a communication between the tide waters of the Hudson river and lake Erie, to the end that congress may be enabled to appropriate such sums as may be necessary to the accomplishment of that great national object, and in case of such concurrence, that Mr. Gold, Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Forman, Mr. German and Mr. Hogeboom, be a committee on the part of this house." 10

In Senate, February 5, 1808.

"Resolved, That the senate do concur with the honorable the assembly in their preceding resolution; and that Mr. Taylor, Mr. Nicholas and Mr. Ward, be of the said committee on the part of the senate." 11

In the Assembly on March 21, Mr. Gold made a favorable report for the joint committee, and offered a resolution directing the Surveyor-General to cause accurate surveys to be made of the routes between the Hudson river and Lake Erie, and maps to be prepared, which should be transmitted to the President of the United States. So firmly fixed was the idea of the Ontario route that the intention of the original resolution was disregarded, the members of the joint committee not being willing to sanction so insane a project, but substituting a joint resolution which directed a survey of the rivers and streams along the usual route and such other route as the Surveyor-General might deem proper.

Six hundred dollars was appropriated for the expense of the survey and James Geddes was appointed by the Surveyor-General to make it. The Surveyor-General was likewise intent upon the Ontario route, for he directed Mr. Geddes to devote his time chiefly to investigations along this route, saying that, although it would be desirable to have a level taken throughout the whole distance of the interior route, the money would probably be so nearly expended that simply a view of the ground, with such information as could be obtained from others, would be all to be required, and that the survey of this route must be left to be undertaken later, if the Government should deem it necessary.

According to instructions, Mr. Geddes made surveys along several routes; one being from Oneida lake directly across to Lake Ontario, by way of Salmon creek; another from Oneida lake to Lake Ontario by following the valley of the Oswego river, but on the west side of the river. A third survey extended from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario around Niagara falls. An exploration was also made for an interior route or one not passing through Lake Ontario. As the money available was nearly exhausted, this last survey was little more than an inspection of the territory. The Surveyor-General had also entered into correspondence with Mr. Joseph Ellicott, the Holland Land Company’s agent, from whom he had received valuable information concerning the western country, which satisfied him that a canal was practicable from the Niagara to the Genesee River by following the valley of the Tonawanda to its summit and descending thence to the east. In December, 1808, Mr. Geddes had made a further exploration for which the Legislature afterward allowed seventy-three dollars in addition to the six hundred. He made his report, accompanied by maps and descriptions, to the Surveyor-General, on January 20, 1809.

As the surveys along the Ontario route are noticed in the history of the Oswego canal, and as the line around Niagara was never utilized, we are now concerned with nothing but the survey for the overland route. The money and the summer had gone in examining the territory between Oneida lake and Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and Mud creek and Sodus bay but the point of greatest difficulty and uncertainty, the tract between Genesee river and Mud creek (the western head waters of the streams entering Lake Ontario at Oswego), was still unexplored. All knowledge of the interior route was incomplete, but this territory remained unknown. It was supposed that there was high land between these two localities, and no source of water to supply a canal at this point was known. It was therefore due to Mr. Geddes’ survey, of December, that the practicability of an interior canal was shown. Near Palmyra Mr. Geddes discovered a singular brook which divided, part running to Oswego and part to Irondequoit bay. Leveling from this point he discovered that it was about thirty-six feet lower than the Genesee river above the falls, with no high land between. But the problem was not solved, for the Irondequoit valley must be crossed. After leveling farther up the valley he found a series of natural ridges, along the tops of which the canal was eventually conducted. In describing them Mr. Geddes said:

"The passage of the Irondequoit valley is on a surface not surpassed, perhaps in the world, for singularity.... Those ridges along the top of which the canal is carried, are in many places of just sufficient height and width for its support, and for seventy-five chains the canal is held up, in part by them, and in part by artificial ridges, between forty and fifty feet above the general surface of the earth; the sides of them are in most places remarkably steep, so that when the work is finished, the appearance to a stranger will be, that nearly all those natural embankments were artificial works." 12

These discoveries established the practicability of a canal without upward lockage from the Genesee river to Cayuga lake. Between the Genesee and Lake Erie no survey was made, but dependence was placed upon Mr. Ellicott’s description and map. Mr. Geddes foresaw the difficulties that might arise in using the channels of the Tonawanda and Black creeks and Genesee river, and suggested what proved to be the final solution. In his report of January 20, 1809, he says:

"It would be important to know whether there is not some place in the ridge that bounds the Tonnewanta valley on the north, as low as the level of Lake Erie, where a canal might be led across, and conducted onward, without increasing the lockage by rising to the summit of the Tonnewanta swamp." 13

Although the public mind was for some time tenacious of the Ontario route, it is worthy of note that this was the last survey along that line, till the agitation for a lateral canal to Oswego was begun.

As was expected, the transmission of this report to the President brought no response, but Judge Forman, being in New York on business in January, 1809 [see errata], made a journey to Washington to see Mr. Jefferson and to explain that, in view of his proposal to expend the surplus revenues on roads and canals, New York had explored the route for a canal from the Hudson to Lake Erie, finding the project practicable beyond the most sanguine expectations. After the Judge had recounted the benefits that would accrue to the nation, the President replied that the undertaking, though desirable, was a century too soon, saying: "Why sir, here is a canal of a few miles, projected by General Washington, which, if completed, would render this a fine commercial city, which has languished for many years because the small sum of $200,000 necessary to complete it, can not be obtained from the general government, the state government, or from individuals -- and you talk of making a canal of 350 miles through the wilderness -- it is little short of madness to think of it at this day." 14

Here the matter rested till March, 1810. Mr. Thomas Eddy tells us that, being in Albany at that time, it occurred to him that he might induce the Legislature to appoint a commission to explore the western country for the purpose of extending navigation from Oneida lake to Seneca lake. Having the interests of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in mind, his intention was to obtain authority for that company to build the canal, if the commission should report favorably. On the evening of March 12, he called on Jonas Platt, a member of the Senate, and proposed his idea. Mr. Platt suggested that the scheme should be extended so as to include the connection of Lake Erie with the Hudson, and unfolded a plan of instituting a board of commissioners to examine the whole route from the Hudson to both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, with the view of making an independent canal, using the rivers as feeders only. As the old canal company had not fulfilled public expectation, he deemed it unadvisable to associate its name with the proposed measure. In reply Eddy said that the Legislature would be frightened to such a degree by the magnitude of the proposal that nothing would be granted. To this Platt answered that he thought that the greater project might be carried if De Witt Clinton would lend his aid and influence, and they both agreed that if Clinton should oppose the measure, it would be lost. Clinton then possessed a powerful influence over the dominant party in the state, and Platt was leader of the minority in the Senate. After discussing the subject nearly all night, it was agreed that Platt should draw up a resolution, and should see Clinton and assure him that there was no political object in the application, and suggest that Clinton should introduce the resolution. Accordingly the next morning, after designating as commissioners such men as would balance opposing political parties and combine talents, influence and wealth, they met Mr. Clinton at the Senate chamber, and handed him the draft of the resolution, proposing that he should introduce it. Clinton listened to the exposition of their plan with much interest and consented to second the measure in blank, (without names of commissioners), saying that although he had given but little attention to canal navigation, the subject appealed to him. When the Senate formed, Mr. Platt offered the resolution, which was seconded by Mr. Clinton, and passed unanimously. The next day the names of commissioners were inserted, and the resolution was sent to the Assembly, where, under the guidance of Stephen Van Rensselaer and Abraham Van Vechten, it received the unanimous concurrence of that house on the same day. The resolution appointed Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Simeon De Witt, William North, Thomas Eddy and Peter B. Porter as "commissioners for exploring the whole route, examining the present condition of the said navigation, and considering what further improvement ought to be made therein." Three thousand dollars was appropriated for the expense of the investigation.

Says Judge Platt: "From that period Mr. Clinton devoted the best powers of his vigorous and capacious mind to this subject; and he appeared to grasp and realize it, as an object of the highest public utility, and worthy of his noblest ambition." 15

The unanimity with which this resolution was passed indicates the change of public sentiment and the quickened spirit for internal improvements which was abroad throughout the whole land. If this spirit were attributable to anyone cause, it might be traced to President Jefferson’s suggestions, but more probably it was due to a general awakening. To it may be ascribed in New York State, besides the essays of Hawley and the report of Geddes, the writings of Dr. Hugh Williamson, and in the country at large, the excellent report of Mr. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, the bill introduced in the United States Senate by Mr. Pope, and the resolution presented in the House of Representatives by Mr. Porter.

Mr. Gallatin’s report, presented to Congress on April 4, 1808, had been the result of a Senate resolution of March 2, 1807. It contained valuable information concerning internal navigation, the route recommended in New York, however, being through Lake Ontario and around Niagara falls. Mr. Gallatin estimated the cost of water communications between the Hudson and Lake Champlain at eight hundred thousand dollars, between the Hudson and Lake Ontario at two million, two hundred thousand, and at the falls of Niagara for sloop navigation at one million dollars. However, he did not believe that sloop navigation to Lake Ontario could be effected for less than five million dollars. Benjamin Wright had supplied "a map and general plan of the country from Albany to Oswego, on Lake Ontario, showing the topography and connection of the waters, and remarks and observations thereon, ... by request of George Huntington, Esq. to whom Mr. Gallatin applied in 1807 for information." 16

Early in 1810, Mr. Pope, a Senator from Kentucky, introduced a bill for facilitating communication by opening canals between different parts of the country. Among the many projects contemplated by the bill, there were three in New York, -- the union of the Hudson with Lakes Erie and Ontario, a canal to pass the cataract of Niagara and a channel between the Hudson and Lake Champlain. For the whole scheme a tract of about ten million acres in Michigan was to be appropriated. The bill, however, was never acted upon.

This bill having failed of attention, Mr. Peter B. Porter, of New York, presented to the House of Representatives on February 8, 1810, a resolution to appoint a committee to examine into the expediency of appropriating public lands for the opening of roads and canals. Mr. Porter accompanied his resolution with an able speech, widely published in the journals of the day, in which he took a broad view of the subject, reciting the needs, the feasibility, the results and the ease of providing funds. A committee of twenty, with Mr. Porter as chairman, was thus appointed and on the twenty-third of the same month reported a bill "for the improvement of the United States by roads and canals," one of the provisions being for "opening canals from the Hudson to Lake Ontario, and around the Falls of Niagara." This bill also proved unsuccessful.

Although no immediately tangible results followed these measures, the effect was soon felt, especially in New York. Colden tells us that "The Legislature had before them, at that Session [1810], memorials from many citizens in different parts of the State, representing that Canada was attracting the greatest part of our internal commerce, in consequence of the facilities which were afforded by water communications, to transport commodities to her markets." 17

During the summer of 1810 the canal commissioners made a journey of exploration across the state. Two of their number, Morris and Van Rensselaer, went by land, the others by boat up the Mohawk to Rome and thence down to Oswego, and up from Three River Point to Geneva, there the boats were sold, the party proceeding by carriage to the Niagara. Mr. Clinton kept a private journal 18 of this tour, which gives an accurate view of the country at that time, a description of the works of the old canal company, and many interesting bits of local history. West of Utica the commissioners were accompanied by James Geddes, who had been employed by the Surveyor-General as their surveyor, and to show them the route he had reported in favor of. The commissioners took with them the report and maps of Geddes’ former survey, Ellicott’s letter and map of the country between the Niagara and Genesee rivers, and Jesse Hawley’s essays. In 1809, General Micah Brooks, a member of Assembly from Ontario county, had borrowed the essays from Mr. Hawley and had taken them to Albany. Nothing was done concerning canals at that session of the Legislature, and he had left them with the Surveyor-General, to investigate the subject. When the return trip was begun by the commissioners, they left Mr. Geddes "to take levels and distances on a variety of points," 19 as directed by them.

His first survey was to determine whether some depression existed in the territory north of Tonawanda creek, through which the canal might be led without too excessive cutting. He was successful in locating the place where the canal was eventually built, although the southern route was twice surveyed in after years, and continued to receive consideration up to the time of beginning work on the western division of the canals.

As the public was deeply interested in the project, the commissioners deemed it wise to make a report without waiting for extended surveys and on March 2, 1811, this report was presented to the Senate. The commissioners were opposed to the route through Lake Ontario, lest traffic should be diverted to Montreal. The report gives a good description of the topography of the state, and the need and practicability of the canal are shown, but the form of canal proposed -- an inclined plane which was to have a uniform slope from Lake Erie to the ridge between Schenectady and Albany and thence to descend to the Hudson by locks -- was an unfortunate suggestion and one that was disappointing to sensible men throughout the Union. By this scheme the canal was to be carried over the mouth of Cayuga lake on an embankment one mile long and one hundred and thirty feet high and at Schoharie creek on an embankment one hundred and fifty feet above the surface. The estimated cost was five million dollars.

Of this report De Witt Clinton says: "If the board had confined their report to its natural and appropriate objects -- the practicability and expense of the Erie canal -- much ridicule would have been averted, and many prejudices prevented. But they had unfortunately committed the preparation of their draft to their president, Mr. Morris, a man of elevated genius, but too much under the influence of a sublimated imagination. Conceiving the sublime idea of creating an artificial river from the elevation of Lake Erie to the Hudson, he digressed into a long exposition of the facilities and advantages of an inclined plane canal, wherein he passed over rivers and lakes by aqueducts, and valleys by mounds, in order to maintain his descent. When the board assembled to consider the draft, they, from motives of delicacy, did not insist upon striking out this part of the report, especially as it was hypothetical from its very nature, and a mere gratuitous suggestion." 20

  Map showing a profile of the proposed canal


Mr. Clinton has been severely criticised for writing thus of his deceased friend and for not being willing to assume responsibility for the defects as well as for the success of the enterprise. This form of canal was approved by William Weston, the English engineer, to whom the profile was sent for inspection, and a modified form of this plan was incorporated in the report of the commissioners in the following year.

The commissioners deprecated further attempt to canalize the natural streams. In beginning their report, "they beg leave to observe, on the present navigation of the Mohawk river, Wood creek, Oneida lake, and the Oswego river, ... that experience has long since exploded in Europe the idea of using the beds of rivers for internal navigation." 21

A letter written from London, August 22, 1772, by Benjamin Franklin to S. Rhoads, Mayor of Philadelphia, is pertinent here. He says: " ... here they look on the constant practicability of a Navigation allowing Boats to pass and repass at all Times and Seasons, without Hindrance, to be a point of the greatest Importance, and, therefore, they seldom or ever use a River where it can be avoided.... Rivers are ungovernable things, especially in Hilly Countries. Canals are quiet and very manageable. Therefore they are often carried on here by the Sides of Rivers, only on Ground above the Reach of Floods, no other Use being made of the Rivers than to supply occasionally the waste of water in the Canals." 22

Perhaps the most valuable suggestion of the report was the protest against making any grants to private persons or companies, lest the contemplated object of cheap transportation should be defeated. Whether the canal should be built at the expense of the State or the Union, say the commissioners, must be left to the wisdom, justice and munificence of the National Legislature.

On April 8, 1811, was passed the act which created a board of "commissioners for the consideration of all matters relating to the said inland navigation." The same men, who had been appointed by the resolution of the preceding year, were made members of this board, together with Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton.

The commissioners were empowered to make application in behalf of the State to Congress or to the Legislature of any State or Territory to co-operate and aid in the undertaking, and aid also to the proprietors of the land, through which the contemplated canal would pass, for cessions or grants. They were also authorized to ascertain whether advantageous loans could be procured on the credit of the State, and on what terms the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company would surrender their rights and interests to the people of the State and to employ engineers and surveyors, $15,000 being appropriated to defray any expenses.

On March 14, 1812, the commissioners made a report to the Senate of their labors. Of their endeavors to obtain the aid of the United States Government they reported that in addition to letters addressed to President Madison and to Congress, two commissioners, Gouverneur Morris and De Witt Clinton, were deputed to convey these messages to Washington and to urge the co-operation of the general Government in promoting the interests of internal navigation. After reaching Washington, the commissioners found that a feeling of jealousy against New York existed among the members in Congress, and they deemed it wise not to ask for an appropriation of money, and to include other States in the benefits to be given. They succeeded in interesting the President sufficiently to induce him to send a message commending the consideration of the subject to Congress. That body referred the matter to a large committee, and a bill was drafted which proposed the grant of lands in the Territories of Michigan and Indiana to several of the States to aid them in building canals. The proposed grants of land were to be redeemed by the General Government after the canal was completed, and in consideration of this aid, no tolls were to be charged above the amount needful to pay the annual expense of superintending and keeping the canal in repair. The committee, after considerable delay, decided to report the bill favorably, but later for some unknown reason reversed its decision.

Of the States and Territories appealed to for aid, nine returned answers, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont declining to assist in any way; Michigan answering that a route around Niagara falls and by way of Oswego should be adopted instead of the inland route from Lake Erie; and Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Ohio saying that their Representatives in Congress had been instructed to favor a proposition for material aid.

The commissioners further reported that notwithstanding the scarcity of money consequent on the war which had so long raged in Europe, they had ascertained that a loan of five million dollars could be obtained there, on the credit of the State, for a term of ten or fifteen years at an annual interest of six per cent. The directors of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company asked one hundred and ninety thousand dollars for the shares held by them, exclusive of the three hundred and fifty shares held by the State. This demand was deemed exorbitant.

After having had another year in which to consider the subject, the commissioners were still of the opinion, expressed in their former report, that the canal could be built for five million dollars, but lest they should be mistaken they placed their estimate in this report at six millions, although they admitted that they lacked the needful information and the professional ability to make a careful estimate.

The plan of an inclined plane from Lake Erie to the Hudson was abandoned and in its place was submitted the scheme of an inclined plane from Lake Erie to Seneca outlet, a descent by locks to a level suitable for crossing Cayuga outlet, this level being carried to a point where ascent by locks into the Rome level was needful; this level in turn was to be carried to a point convenient for beginning another inclined plane to a basin near the Hudson river.

The commissioners’ report of the previous year, together with Geddes’ map and profile, had been sent to Mr. William Weston, the eminent English engineer who had superintended the affairs of the Western Company. The commissioners quote from his reply, in which he approves of the interior route, and also of the inclined plane for the western section. However, during the season of 1811 the commissioners had caused surveys to be made between Seneca and Cayuga lakes and from Rome to Waterford, which had shown that an inclined plane throughout the entire length was impracticable. Benjamin Wright had been engaged to make the survey on the north side of the Mohawk between Rome and Waterford.

The commissioners had now in their employ two men, Geddes and Wright, who were destined to become the pioneers of a new profession in America. Their abilities were not at first recognized, and the commissioners continued to call them surveyors and to advise the summoning of a capable engineer from England. It is said that out of deference to Mr. Morris’ views much surveying had been done to determine a location suitable for an inclined plane. But with the passing of his influence had gone this form of canal, and also the idea that a foreign engineer must have the direction of the location and construction of the canals.

The report strongly urged the immediate beginning of the work, pointing out that it was absurd to suppose that an expenditure of six million dollars, in ten years, by a population of one million people, would impose a grievous burden on any, and declaring that the needs were such as to demand a canal and that to delay would result in nothing but loss to the State.

In consequence of the failure to obtain Federal aid the commissioners advised an early beginning by New York State alone, saying: "The maxims of policy ... seem imperatively to demand that the canal be made by her [the State], and for her own account, as soon as circumstances will permit.... Whether this subject be considered with a view to commerce and finance, or on the more extensive scale of policy, there would be a want of wisdom, and almost of piety, not to employ for public advantage those means which Divine Providence has placed so completely within our power." 23

At the request of the commissioners, Jonas Platt introduced a bill in the Senate at the extra session of June, 1812, which passed each House by a small majority. On June 19, 1812, this became a law. It authorized the commissioners previously appointed to purchase the rights of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, but the purchase was to be conditional and only to become if absolute when the commissioner should have satisfactory information from some experienced engineer, by actual examination, that the accomplishment of the contemplated canal would be practicable, and when they should be authorized by an act of the Legislature to commence their operation for opening the canal. The commissioners were also directed to procure any voluntary cessions or grants of any lands by persons or corporate bodies, who might be inclined to make the same, and to negotiate a loan of five million dollars on the credit of the State, and to invest this in stock or other funds till needed for the work of construction.

During the season of 1812 Benjamin Wright made two important surveys. One extended from Rome to Seneca lake in an endeavor to locate a canal with a uniform level between those places. The alignment proved to be so crooked and the distance so increased that the plan was abandoned. The other survey was along the south side of the Mohawk between Rome and Albany, with especial attention to the pine plains between Schenectady and Albany, which were searched in vain for any route other than along the side of the Mohawk. The report of these explorations, with maps and profiles, seem to have been lost, as Wright said that he had never been able to find them after they were submitted.

The war between the United States and England turned the thoughts of the people from canal projects and interfered with any active operations. The commissioners made no report of their labors till March 8, 1814, and then they had made but little progress. They say that they had secured an English engineer to make the necessary investigations, but he had not yet arrived in America. On account of the war the attempt to obtain a loan had failed, but several large grants of land had been secured. The remainder of the report is devoted to ridiculing those who advocated the route by Lake Ontario.

While all energy was being engaged by the war, it was not deemed wise to attempt any vigorous canal agitation. On April 15, 1814, the Legislature passed an act repealing the clauses of a former act which provided for the borrowing of money, even a proposed amendment to supply funds paying the English engineer being lost. Although this act has been characterized by De Witt Clinton as the culmination of a long threatened storm of opposition which stripped the commissioners of all substantial power and resolved them into a mere board of consideration, it seems to have been simply the part of wisdom to adopt such a measure, for the act was carried by a large majority in the Assembly and in the Senate without a dissenting voice.

Although the war interrupted the progress of the canal movement, the effect of this struggle was eventually in favor of the enterprise. The passage of troops through the western wilderness brought to light vast fields for development, and the need of improved facilities for transportation to bring about that development. Another fact which the war emphasized above all else was the necessity for providing a better means for conveying the munitions of war. It is said that a piece of ordinance worth four hundred dollars at the foundry had cost the Government two thousand dollars when delivered on the frontier, and that a barrel of pork had cost one hundred and twenty-six dollars. The hardships and disastrous delays, caused by the breaking down of wagons and the wearing out of horses, were potent arguments in favor of canals. The debts that the Nation had incurred for the mere transportation of war materials would have gone far toward constructing a canal.

During the latter part of 1815 the friends of the canal resolved upon another attempt to revive interest in the project. The country was still suffering from the effects of the recent war, and by many citizens grave doubts were entertained of the practicability of the undertaking and of the sufficiency of the State’s resources to secure its completion. The measure was also opposed on party grounds. The same men, Eddy, Platt and Clinton, who had secured the appointment of the first commissioners in 1810, now took the initiative in arousing public sentiment.

In the autumn of 1815, Judge Jonas Platt was holding court in New York, and Thomas Eddy, having invited him to breakfast one morning, proposed to him the plan of endeavoring to get up a public meeting, in order to urge the propriety of offering a memorial to the Legislature, importuning them to construct the canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson. Judge Platt readily agreed and consented to present the subject to the meeting. Eddy called on De Witt Clinton, then Mayor of New York, who heartily joined in the undertaking. It was agreed that cards of invitation should be sent to about a hundred prominent men of the city. The large and respectable assemblage which gathered at the City Hotel, on December 3, was presided over by William Bayard and addressed by Judge Platt, De Witt Clinton, John Swartwout and others. In his introductory speech Judge Platt urged the expediency of a formal and public abandonment of the plan of an inclined-plane canal which had been proposed in the first report of the commissioners. Clinton, Swartwout, Eddy and Cadwallader D. Colden were appointed a committee to prepare a memorial to the Legislature. This able document, known in canal history as the "New York Memorial," was written by Clinton, and from its presentation may be dated the earnest and active progress of the enterprise. " ... this memorial," says one writer, "was the foundation of the present system of internal navigation; ... it effectually exploded the Ontario route, and silenced forever its advocates; and ... it produced an electrical effect throughout the whole country." 24 It was signed by a great portion of the respectable citizens of New York City, and copies sent throughout the state aroused an enthusiasm which resulted in public meetings in almost every city and village between Albany and Buffalo, and in the adoption of similar memorials. This agitation brought before the next Legislature an appeal from more than one hundred thousand petitioners to proceed at once with the work of making a canal. The project immediately became popular. This memorial with its clear and concise style of expression, its forceful arguments, and its large amount of information concerning the whole subject appealed to the multitudes who read it, and turned many of the skeptical to its favor. On the other hand it awakened an opposition which asserted itself when the measure was being debated at the next session of the Legislature, a powerful opposition, which arose from rival interests, both individual and sectional, from political differences, from personal hostility and also from the honest doubts and fears of prudent men. The leaders of the enterprise were still the subjects of ridicule throughout the land.

Governor Tompkins in his speech delivered at the opening of the Legislature on February 2, 1816, said:

"It will rest with the Legislature, whether the prospect of connecting the waters of the Hudson with those of the western lakes and of Champlain, is not sufficiently important to demand the appropriation of some part of the revenues of the state to its accomplishments, without imposing too great a burden upon our constituents. The first route being an object common with the states of the west, we may rely on their zealous co-operation in any judicious plan that can perfect the water communication in that direction. As it relates to the connecting the waters of the Hudson with those of Lake Champlain, we may with equal confidence count on the spirited exertions of the patriotic and enterprising state of Vermont. 25

De Witt Clinton charged that at heart, Governor Tompkins was an opponent to the canals and that these utterances were made merely for political effect, and were prompted by the large number of mass meetings being held throughout the state. However, a host of petitions, nominally in answer to this speech, were sent from all parts of the state to the Legislature of 1816. The most important of these was the memorial from New York, which has just been mentioned.

On March 8, 1816, the board of canal commissioners, which had been created by the act of April 8, 1811, made its final report to the Legislature. Deprived of funds by the Legislature of 1814, the commissioners had accomplished nothing, but they still urged the immediate commencement of operations on the canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and also on a route to Lake Champlain, and recommend employing American engineers. They made their last appeal in the following words: "From the number and respectability of the applications now before the legislature in favor of an immediate commencement and vigorous prosecution of this great national work, it is evident that the immense advantages which would result from its completion are duly appreciated by our fellow-citizens; and it only remains for the legislature to sanction by their approval an undertaking which combines in one object the honor, interest, and political eminence of the state. 26

Mr. Morris did not sign this report. He drafted a report which the other commissioners desired to amend, but upon his refusal to make the changes, another report was drafted by the other commissioners and was presented without Morris’ signature.

A favorable report from a joint committee of the Senate and Assembly was rendered and after many debates and amendments, a bill (chapter 237) was passed on April 17, 1816 which appointed Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Samuel Young, Joseph Ellicott and Myron Holley as "commissioners, to consider, devise, and adopt such measures as may or shall be requisite, to facilitate and effect the communication, by means of canals and locks, between the navigable waters of Hudson’s river and lake Erie, and the said navigable waters and lake Champlain." The commissioners were directed to cause the necessary surveys, plans and estimates to be made, and were given twenty thousand dollars for expenses. They were also instructed to ascertain whether loans of money could be procured, and to apply for donations of land or money to the United States, to interested States and to corporate bodies and individuals.

When this bill passed the Assembly it had provided for the beginning of work between Rome and the Seneca river and between the Hudson and Lake Champlain, and had contained the names of thirteen prominent men as commissioners, but when it was considered in the Senate it was so amended, on the motion of Martin Van Buren, as to strike out all clauses authorizing construction, and eight names were stricken from the list of commissioners. The bill had met with strong opposition throughout its course in the Assembly. An amendment for a local tax on lands lying within twenty-five miles of the canal had allayed some opposition, but this amendment, together with all else directing the work of construction, was stricken out by the Senate, on the ground that more accurate knowledge was required before a law authorizing the work could be justified. When the bill was returned, the Assembly refused to concur in the amendments and the Senate in turn refused to recede. The friends of the measure despaired of its passage. It was the last day of the session, and time was pressing. These advocates thought that simply to order another survey was useless, but finally, lest all should be lost, through the strenuous efforts of a few of its friends, the Assembly was induced to reconsider its vote of non-concurrence, and the measure passed in the form in which it came from the Senate. This act really marked the beginning of the active canal policy which resulted in the passage of an act during the following year, which authorized the construction of the canal.

The commissioners met in New York on May 17, 1816, and appointed De Witt Clinton as president, Samuel Young as secretary and Myron Holley as treasurer. The Erie canal was divided into three great sections, and an engineer assigned to each. The western section, extending from Lake Erie along the north side of the mountain ridge to the Seneca river, was assigned to James Geddes; the middle section, from the Seneca river to Rome, to Benjamin Wright; and the eastern section, from Rome to the Hudson, to Charles C. Broadhead. In the course of their investigations, the commissioners "found it expedient to appoint a fourth engineer, to explore and survey the country from Buffalo to the east line of the Holland patent purchase, on the south side of the mountain ridge, it being represented that this route might be preferable to that on the north side," 27 and William Peacock was the engineer assigned to that work. The surveys of the Champlain canal were under the direction of Colonel G. Lewis Garin, as engineer.

For years the commissioners had been endeavoring to persuade Mr. William Weston to again come to America and take charge, as engineer, of canal affairs, offering him a salary of seven thousand dollars a year. Upon his final refusal the commissioners were much perplexed as to what course they should pursue. As is told more fully in the chapter treating of the canals as a school of engineering, Geddes and Wright came to the commissioners at this juncture, and expressed their confidence in their ability to locate and construct the canal, but desired that the commissioners should feel a like confidence. This confidence the commissioners gave, but with much censure from the enemies of the canal till the engineers had proved their ability.

On November 5, 1816, at an extra session of the Legislature for appointing presidential electors. Governor Tompkins, in his speech, alluded to the subject of canals in what has been called a "negative paragraph." He said: "It is respectfully submitted to your wisdom to make provision at the present session, for employing a part at least of the state prisoners, either in building the new prison at Auburn, erecting fortifications, opening and repairing great roads, constructing canals, or in making other improvements." 28

At a time when people had been aroused on the subject, this brief reference to the canals was interpreted to mean a hostility on the Governor’s part which he later plainly demonstrated. However, it is only fair to Governor Tompkins to remember that the Legislature was convened at this time in its short session, chiefly to appoint electors and not to consider all measures of general welfare.

During the year 1816 the surveys and estimates were so far completed as to allow the commissioners to make a report to the Legislature on the Erie canal on February 17, 1817, and on the Champlain on the eighteenth of the following March. The commissioners had given their personal attention to the work of exploration, and had superintended the operations of the engineers. Before beginning the surveys, two of the commissioners and two of the engineers had visited the Middlesex canal, in Massachusetts, in order to obtain practical information on the subject. In their report on the Erie canal, the commissioners state that in their opinion the dimensions of the canal should be as follows: "width on the water surface, forty feet, at the bottom, twenty-eight feet, and depth of water, four feet, the length of a lock, ninety feet, and its width, twelve feet, in the clear" They say that "vessels carrying one hundred tons, may navigate a canal of this size; and all the lumber produced in the country, and required for market, may be transported upon it." 29 The report consists of a long and detailed account of the plans and of the estimated cost of construction, most of the report being made from the several engineers’ reports, giving the results of the surveys and the estimates, mile by mile. During the early period the commissioners’ reports were largely derived from the engineers’ reports, not under the name of the engineers, however, but under the more imposing title of the commissioners.

The estimates were made from actual surveys of the country between Lake Erie and Schoharie creek, but from that point to the Hudson recourse was had to former investigations. The commissioners were unable to obtain a sixth engineer to undertake this portion, and the five men employed had not had time to do the work. As William Weston, the English engineer, who had been employed in 1795 by the directors of the Western Navigation Company, had investigated this territory, and as Benjamin Wright had twice leveled over the same location, the information gathered by these men was taken as a basis for the estimate. Much pains had been taken to collect all the facts which might affect the estimated cost. Test pits had been excavated to ascertain the nature of the soil. The results of the surveys are found in the following: --



"From Lake Erie to a point 11 miles up the Tonnewanta, $250,877
    Tonnewanta to the Seneca river, 1,550,985
    Seneca river to Rome, 853,186
    Rome to Schoharie creek, 1,090,603
    Schoharie creek to Albany, 1,106,087
Add for general expenses, 75,000
In the aggregate, $4,881,738
But, if the route south of the mountain ridge in the country west of the Genesee river, is adopted, in preference to the northern route, then deducting,  
The aggregate of expense will be $4,571,813


  Miles. Chains.
From Lake Erie to the point up the Tonnewanta, 27  
    Tonnewanta to Seneca river, 136 2 1/2
    Seneca river to Rome, 77  
    Rome to Schoharie creek, 71 27
    Schoharie creek to Albany, 42  
  -------- --------
The aggregate distance is 353 29 1/2


From Lake Erie to Seneca river, a fall of 194 ft. by 25 locks
    Seneca river to Rome, a rise of 48.50 6
    Rome to Schoharie creek, a fall of 132.85 16
    Schoharie creek to Albany, a fall of 126 30
  -------- --------
The aggregate of rise and fall, in feet is 661.35 by 77 locks

"Lake Erie is 564.85 feet higher than the Hudson, and 145 ½ feet higher than Rome.

"The average expense, per mile, of this canal, according to the foregoing estimates, taking the north route beyond the Genesee river, is little more than $13,800." 30

The estimated cost of the Champlain canal was $871,000 and the dimensions adopted were "thirty feet wide at the surface, twenty feet at the bottom, and three feet deep, and the locks to be seventy-five feet long and ten feet wide in the clear."

The survey of the route on the south side of the mountain ridge, from Buffalo to the east line of the Holland Company’s land was made by William Peacock under the superintendence of Joseph Ellicott, one of the canal commissioners. Mr. Ellicott was the sub-agent of the Holland Company, and was the advocate of this route, having sent the Information in 1808, which satisfied the Surveyor-General that a canal was practicable along this line between the Niagara and the Genesee. As the company had made a large grant of land for canal purposes, it was deemed advisable to investigate this route, which extended for a distance of forty miles through the company’s land. The survey showed that an elevation of seventy-four feet would have to be overcome and a supply of water provided from the streams along the route. However, the northern route, notwithstanding its saving of one hundred and forty-eight feet of lockage, and its supply of water directly from Lake Erie, seemed to stagger the canal commissioner and the engineers, on account of its heavy rock cutting at Lockport, and the southern route continued to be considered until the time of final decision just prior to the beginning of construction work.

The commissioners had not ascertained whether a loan could be obtained in Europe, but had begun negotiations for one. They had received some grants of land, the largest being from the Holland Land Company, which offered two tracts of its land in Cattaraugus county, containing upwards of one hundred thousand acres.

The commissioners close their report with these words: "Their investigations have shewn the physical facility of this great internal communication, and a little attention to the resources of the state will demonstrate its financial practicability. And they may be permitted to remark, that unless it is established, the greater part of the trade, which does not descend the Mississippi, from all those vast fertile regions west of the Seneca lake, will be lost to the United States." 31

The whole cost of making these surveys, plans, estimates and reports, together with the necessary expenses of the commissioners and compensation for their secretary and treasurer was only twenty-four thousand dollars.

In November, 1816, the president of the board of commissioners had sent communication to Congress and to the States of Ohio, Kentucky and Vermont, again soliciting aid or co-operation. Ohio alone had responded, offering such help as its resources should justify, after some decisive action should have been taken by New York State, and some plan of co-operation formulated. Again in January, 1817, he had written to Congress saying that the canal commissioners had seen, "with great pleasure, the outlines of a plan for appropriating a considerable fund to the internal improvement of the country," and suggesting that the distribution be made according to the ratio of population in each state. In that case New York would receive about $85,000 or $90,000 annually, and as the interests of Ohio and Vermont were identified with those of New York in the construction of the proposed canals, the sum would be increased to $140,000, if their portions were added.

This communication to Congress was prompted by a bill which had been introduced and advocated in that body by John C. Calhoun, for apportioning among the several states, for constructing roads and canals, the dividends from stock owned by the United States in the National Bank. Pending final action on this measure, it is probable that the commissioners had delayed presenting their report, and that the joint committee, to which it was referred, waited a while longer to learn whether National aid was to be given. This bill passed both Houses of Congress, but finally on the third of March, as one of the last acts of his public life. President Madison vetoed the measure on constitutional grounds. As this action of the President was not only directly opposed to the invariable practice of the National Government, but also the reverse of his policy in sanctioning very similar appropriations for other States, a general feeling of indignation was aroused in New York, which in the end proved friendly to canal interests. Many of the Legislators and also the people in general manifested a determination that the State should undertake the work alone.

During the year 1816 events had transpired which materially affected the canal project. Governor Tompkins had been elected to the Vice-presidency, and the gubernatorial chair would be vacant after the fourth of March. De Witt Clinton had adopted the canals as a party issue, and the plans to elect him to the office of Governor awoke many old hostilities, and his canal policy became in part a test of strength between the two opposing parties. However, the greater portion of early canal history is unusually divested of party spirit.

On March 18, 1817, the joint committee of the Senate and Assembly made a most favorable report recommending the immediate commencement of operations between Rome and the Seneca river and between Lake Champlain and the Hudson. It was deemed wise to undertake only a portion of the Erie canal at first, in order to prove whether estimates of cost were correct. In the event of no more being built, this section would open new and valuable communications, which would greatly benefit the community.

Mr. J. Rutsen Van Rensselaer, who had been influential in pushing legislation through the Assembly in 1816, although not a member this year, was in attendance at this session, and so confident was he of the ultimate success of the enterprise, that he made a proposition, which accompanied the report of the joint committee, to undertake the construction of the whole canal himself, upon condition of receiving a certain portion of the tolls.

This report contained a plan of finance, which had been devised by the canal commissioners at the request of the joint committee, and was embodied in a bill which was introduced in the Assembly on March 19.

Then began a fierce struggle, which at times appeared hopeless for the canal project, till one by one the influential Legislators enlisted in the ranks of its friends. The bitter opposition which it encountered is surprising. The members from New York City were hostile, almost to a man. That they could have been so blind to the benefits which have so largely added to the greatness of their city, is indeed strange.

The bill as first introduced specified that the State should borrow money for prosecuting the work, and directed commissioners of this fund to prepare a suitable plan of finance and present it to the ensuing Legislature. This proposition was not favorably received, but in its place was substituted an able plan of finance which had been carefully worked out by George Tibbitts, a member of the joint committee and a Senator from Rensselaer county. This substitution of Tibbitts’ plan was made by Wheeler Barnes, although the fact is not recorded in the Assembly Journal. This plan "was to establish a fund to be managed by commissioners, the income of which would raise money sufficient to complete the canal in twelve or fourteen years with seven millions of dollars, and leave a sinking fund sufficient to redeem the debt to be created, at a period not far distant from their completion." 32 Thus it was that the State was indebted to Mr. Tibbitts’ ability for a successful and durable plan of canal revenue. This scheme provided that the fund should be raised in such a manner that the greater amount should come from those most benefited. It was considered that the City of New York would be more than compensated for the loss of a part of the auction duties; that the West, where most of the salt was consumed, would pay a heavy tax upon that article; that the towns and counties along the line of the canal would consent to a small additional tax; that a portion of the wild lands might be devoted to this object; and that a steamboat passenger tax might be imposed. The plan also provided for borrowing money on the credit of this fund.

After much debate, the provision for levying an annual tax upon the real and personal estates, in the several cities, villages, towns and counties, immediately to be benefited by the canals, was voted down. It was seen that here was dangerous ground. There was a determined opposition to any form of local taxation, and it was evident that without some such provision the bill would fail. In lieu of this local taxation, a clause to tax lands within twenty-five miles of each side of the canal was inserted, and finally passed.

In the Assembly debates Judge Pendleton, Wheeler Barnes and William B. Rochester came to the support of William A. Duer on the side of the measure, but after Elisha Williams, of Columbia, stepped out in its favor, with his extraordinary powers of eloquence and debate, the battle was won. In a masterly speech, just before the vote that indicated the final victory, "he appealed to the members from New-York.... He conjured them in the most animated and persuasive manner, not to forget that this was in fact an attempt of the people of the state to supply their favourite City, at the cheapest rate, with every production of the soil in abundance.... ‘If,’ said he, turning to a leading member of the New-York delegation, ‘if the canal is to be a shower of gold, it will fall upon New York; if a river of gold, it will flow into her lap.’ " 33

When the measure was considered in the Senate, the most able speech in its favor was made by Martin Van Buren. This was his great speech of the session, and his espousal of the cause was a surprise to many, for he was known to be working to defeat Clinton’s election as Governor. But he rose proudly above party limitations, saying that he had been with regret that divisions had existed upon this subject, apparently arising from hostility to the commissioners. He declared that he should consider his vote for the measure the most important vote he ever gave In his life. At the close of the speech, Clinton, who had been an attentive listener, throwing aside the memory of their political collisions, warmly thanked Mr. Van Buren.

An important amendment was made in the Senate upon Van Buren’s motion. This allowed the borrowing of money on the credit of the State rather than on the credit of the canal fund. The granting of unappropriated lands was stricken out. Finally, on April 15, 1817, was passed this act which authorized the construction of the Erie and Champlain canals, all the members of Assembly and Senate from New York City voting against it.

But it had still to be approved by the Council of Revision, a body consisting of the Governor, the Chancellor, and the Judges of the Supreme Court, which held the power of veto now possessed by the Governor. In the Council of Revision this bill encountered determined opposition, which would have proved fatal, but for the accidental coming Into the council chamber of an opponent of the canal, and the use, on his part, of an unfortunate argument against a measure already lost. The following is the narrative as given by Judge Platt, one of the members of the council: --

"Lieutenant-Governor Tayler, as acting Governor, was then president of the council, and had ever been distinguished as one of the ablest and most formidable opponents of the canal. The other attending members of the board were Chancellor Kent, Chief Justice Thompson, Judge Yates and myself. After reading the bill, the president called on the chancellor for his opinion. Chancellor Kent said he had given very little attention to the subject; that it appeared to him like a gigantic project, which would require the wealth of the United States to accomplish it; that it had passed the Legislature by small majorities, after a desperate struggle; and he thought it inexpedient to commit the State, in such a vast undertaking, until public opinion could be better united in its favor.

"Chief Justice Thompson was next called on for his opinion. He said he cherished no hostility to the canal, ... but, he said, the bill gave arbitrary powers to the commissioners over private rights, without those provisions and guards ... required; and he was therefore opposed to the bill.

"Judge Yates was a decided friend of the canal, and voted for the bill. My heart and voice were ardently engaged in support of the measure, which now seemed at a fatal crisis.

"The president of the council panted with honest zeal to strangle the infant Hercules at its birth, by his casting vote in the negative. A warm and animated discussion arose; and afterwards a more temperate and deliberate examination of the bill and its provisions, obviated in some measure, the objections of the Chancellor and the Chief Justice. Near the close of the debate, Vice-President Tompkins came into the council chamber, and took his seat familiarly among us. He joined In the argument, which was informal and desultory. He expressed a decided opinion against the bill; and among other reasons, he stated, that the late peace with Great Britain was a mere truce; that we should undoubtedly soon have a renewed war with that country; and that instead of wasting the credit and resources of the State, in this chimerical project, we ought immediately to employ all the revenue and credit of the State, in providing arsenals, arming the militia, erecting fortifications, and preparing for war. ‘Do you think so, sir?’ said Chancellor Kent. ‘Yes, sir,’ was the reply; ‘England will never forgive us for our victories on the land, and on the ocean and the lakes; and my word for it, we shall have another war with her within two years.’ The Chancellor then rising from his seat, with great animation declared, ‘if we must have war, or have a canal, I am in favour of the canal, and I vote for the bill.’ His voice gave us the majority; and so the bill became a law.

"If that bill had been rejected by the council, it could not have been carried by two-thirds of the Senate and Assembly.... At no future period could the work have been accomplished at so small an expense of land, of water, and hydraulic privileges. Rival routes, and local interests, were daily increasing and combining against the project; and in my estimation it was one of the chief grounds of merit in the advocates of the Erie canal, that they seized on the very moment most proper and auspicious for that immortal work." 34

This act created a canal fund which was to be managed by a board denominated "the commissioners of the canal fund," consisting of the Lieutenant-Governor, the Comptroller, the Attorney-General, the Surveyor-General, the Secretary and the Treasurer. This board was authorized to borrow money on the credit of the State, to an amount which, together with the net income of the fund, should not exceed four hundred thousand dollars a year.

The canal fund was to be derived from a duty on all salt manufactured, from a tax on steamboat passengers, from the proceeds of lotteries and duties upon sales at auction after certain sums were deducted for other purposes, from the tolls on the canals, from grants and donations, and from a tax on lands lying within twenty-five miles of either side of the canals.

The commissioners appointed by the act of April 17, 1816, were continued in office, and were designated "canal commissioners." They were authorized to construct a canal between the Mohawk and Seneca rivers, and between Lake Champlain and the Hudson river at Fort Edward. The act also provided for the purchase of the rights of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, after the payment for such damages as were adjudged proper by appraisers to be appointed by the Supreme Court.

Early in the spring of 1817 operations were begun at Rome, by a careful reexamination of the previous year’s surveys. Benjamin Wright was the engineer assigned to the Erie canal and James Geddes to the Champlain. It was found that a short summit level at Rome could be avoided, thus making a long summit level from Utica to Salina. Lest some error in taking the levels over this long distance should cause future trouble, a separate line of levels was run by the way of Oneida and Onondaga lakes, and closed with the first levels with an error of less than an inch and a half.

The law authorizing the canal directed that communications should be opened "between the Mohawk and Seneca rivers," without designating the point of junction with either stream. The commissioners, therefore, deeming themselves vested with discretionary power, decided to continue the canal to Utica. Inasmuch as the Mohawk between Rome and Utica was very winding, and so shallow that in time of low water it became a portage and as this river would have to serve as the channel for navigation after the completion of the middle section and before the eastern section could be built, the commissioners considered that public interests would best be served by extending the middle section as far east as Utica.

This part of the line, being in general less encumbered with forests and other obstructions, was the scene of the first operations. But the remainder of the middle section was through unopened territory. If we pause a moment to consider the condition of central and western New York at the time of beginning the canal, we shall the better appreciate the difficulties that were overcome by the early builders. It is not easy now to realize that this region was at that time almost a trackless forest, with large areas of swamps and marshes along the valley of the Seneca river. Benjamin H. Wright, a son of Benjamin Wright, the first chief engineer, said that as a lad he assisted in the survey of 1816, and that he could count upon the fingers of one hand the spots of ground then cultivated along the route of the survey between Rome and the Seneca river, a distance of eighty-six miles. 35 Almost the only towns of any size west of the Mohawk were Canandaigua and Batavia which had been established by the proprietors of large tracts of land, where they maintained their offices for the sale of lands. Throughout the state the most primitive methods of communication still prevailed. Steamboats were yet in their infancy, railroads had not been projected, and even the "Telegraph line" of stages between Buffalo and Albany, in forty-eight hours, was an enterprise of the future.

The estimate of cost, rendered from the surveys of the previous year, had contained an item of $75,000 for the purchase of tools. Following the authority of precedents derived from the best engineers, it was supposed at that time, that it would be expedient for the State to incur the expense of purchasing these utensils. However, after mature consideration, it was thought best to let the work in short sections to contractors, who should furnish their own tools, and be paid a stipulated price per cubic yard for excavation and for embankment. As this was the initial piece of public improvements, the occupation of contracting, as we understand it to-day, was then unknown. By this arrangement of dividing the work into short sections and by the further provision of advancing money for the purchase of tools, many men of various occupations eagerly sought the contracts. In making these sections, the engineers so divided them as to have a brook or ravine at either end, in order that each contractor might properly dram his work without interfering with his neighbor.

The first contract was dated June 27, and on July 4, 1817, work was actually begun just west of Rome in the vicinity of the Arsenal. The people of Rome had arranged to unite the celebrations of National Independence and the beginning of operations on the canal. Accordingly, at sunrise, a large company of citizens, together with the commissioners and engineers, assembled at the appointed place. After a short address, adapted to the occasion, Judge Joshua Hathaway, president of the village, placed the spade in the hands of the commissioners. Then Commissioner Young delivered a short but graphic speech, and handed the spade to Judge Richardson, the first contractor. In his speech Commissioner Young said:

"We have assembled to commence the excavation of the Erie Canal....

"By this great highway, unborn millions will easily transport their surplus productions to the shores of the Atlantic, procure their supplies, and hold a useful and profitable intercourse with all the maritime nations of the earth.

"The expense and labour of this great undertaking bears no proportion to its utility. Nature has kindly afforded every facility; we have all the moral and physical means within our reach and control. Let us then proceed to the work, animated by the prospect of its speedy accomplishment, and cheered with the anticipated benedictions of a grateful posterity." 36

Then Judge Richardson thrust the spade into the ground, making the first excavation. He was followed by the assembled citizens and his own laborers, all eager to join in the labors of this memorable occasion. Thus, amid the acclamations of the people and the discharge of artillery, was ushered in this great undertaking.

During the year fifty-eight miles on the Erie canal and five on the Champlain were put under contract and one job was completed and settlement made. It was estimated that the total amount of work done, if concentrated, would have amounted to fifteen miles of completed canal. The contracts were let within the estimates of the previous year. The dimensions adopted in constructing the Erie canal were the same as recommended by the commissioners in their report of 1817, and these same dimensions were used for the Champlain canal instead of the smaller size recommended in that report.

A few facts from the report of the year’s work made by the canal commissioners to the Legislature are interesting, as showing the influence some of the early experiences had on later practices. It was usually the case, when a contract was made, that the contractor desired an advance in money, in some degree proportionate to the extent of his contract, to enable him to procure teams, utensils, provisions, etc. A sum (three hundred to two thousand dollars) for this purpose was generally advanced, on the security of some responsible individual or individuals, who became jointly and severally bound with the contractor that the job should be finished by the time required, and in the manner specified in the contract, or that the money should be refunded with interest. In December following the letting of contracts, amounts of money, ranging from two hundred to one thousand dollars, were also advanced to most of the contractors, to enable them to take advantage of the market in purchasing beef, pork, flour and other stores and provisions for the next season. The contracts were drawn in such manner that every contractor was compelled to finish his whole job, and have it inspected and accepted by the engineer, before he was entitled to receive any part of his pay. The contractors, however, received a verbal assurance from the commissioners that while the works were carried on in a faithful manner monthly payments should be made, amounting nearly to the value of the labor expended on the job, calculated pro rata according to the prices mentioned in the contract, and deducting all previous advances and payments; but that if any attempt at deception was discovered in the works these payments should be entirely suspended, and a strict compliance with the contract enforced.

"Much useful experience has been acquired in the course of the season," say the commissioners in their report. "Many valuable improvements have been made in the method of grubbing standing timber. It has been ascertained that much labor in excavation is saved, especially in dry ground, by the use of the plough and scraper; and it is found that banks constructed in this way, by being constantly traveled over by the teams with their loads, are much more solid, and less liable to leakage, than those which are made after the European method with the spade and wheelbarrow." 37

During the legislative session of 1818 but few acts were passed relative to the canals. One law authorized a survey of Buffalo creek outlet for the purpose of making a harbor. Another act incorporated the Chittenango Canal Company.

The spring of 1818 was a season of excessive rains, following an unusually severe winter. Not till nearly the first of June were the contractors able to vigorously push their operations. Investigation on the part of the two engineers led the commissioners to make two important alterations in the plans of the Erie canal. One consisted in lowering the level six feet across the Salina plains, and the other established a new summit level from Nine Mile creek to Skaneateles outlet, across the marl meadows situated there. The first change is significant, because it obviated an embankment through the territory which has become the center of the City of Syracuse. Although the new summit level necessitated two additional locks of eleven feet lift each, the change was wisely made. Experiences of all subsequent years in this locality lead us to think that, with their limited knowledge and crude methods of excavation, these early builders would scarcely have been able to succeed in their attempt at a deep cutting through this marl.

After the surveys were completed in 1818, the contracts were eagerly sought. By August all of the canal was let, except a few short sections, necessarily left at structures, and from that time till winter the work was so vigorously prosecuted, that the commissioners estimated that the whole middle section of the canal could be completed during the season of 1819.

In prosecuting their work through the forests the contractors were in need of an easy means of grubbing and clearing and their ingenuity was equal to the demand. Their inventions, though somewhat primitive, were a long step forward and are interesting as the precursors of modern contractors’ machinery. Three of them are deserving of notice. By means of a cable attached to the top of a tree and wound on a wheel worked by an endless screw, one man was able to fell the largest trees. A machine for pulling stumps was made of an axle, twenty inches in diameter and thirty feet long, supported on wheels sixteen feet in diameter; midway on the axle was fastened a third wheel of fourteen feet diameter. When the outer wheels were braced, a chain wound about the axle and fastened to the stump, and horses or oxen attached to a rope which encircled the central wheel several times, a stump was easily pulled and then carried away by the same machine, after the outer wheels had been released. The gain in power was such that, with one machine, a team of horses and seven laborers, from thirty to forty large stumps were grubbed in a day. A plow with an additional cutting blade was invented for use among small roots.

On the recommendation of the commissioners a law was passed on April 7, 1819, which authorized the construction of the canal from the ends of the middle section, westerly to Lake Erie, and easterly to the Hudson, also from the main canal to the salt works in Salina. This act also provided that the assessments on adjacent lands, as directed by the law of 1817, should be suspended until the further order of the Legislature and it enacted that men engaged in laboring on the canals should be exempt from militia duty. This last enactment was recommended by the commissioners because so much labor had been lost to the canal by militia interruptions. This law, which authorized the completion of the Erie canal, passed the Assembly without difficulty, but met with much opposition in the Senate, where, but for the loyal support of Mr. Van Buren and Colonel Young, probably it would have been defeated.

After the passage of this law, the State was in a position to accept the grant of lands from the Holland Land Company which had been made in 1814 and renewed in 1817. This grant was made on the condition that the canal be completed for boats of at least five tons burden by 1842. By the act of April 13, 1819, the State accepted this grant consisting of two tracts of land in Cattaraugus county, containing together one hundred thousand, six hundred and thirty-two acres. Another act passed on April 7, 1819, appropriated $12,000 for a harbor at the mouth of Buffalo creek on Lake Erie.

The winter of 1818-19 was a season which added greatly to the difficulty of canal construction. As the roads near the canal were bad in the summer, the contractors were depending on the winter for hauling materials and supplies. There was no sleighing till March and then the snow fell in such quantities as to make the opening of roads and the uncovering of materials difficult. The unusually dry spring which followed was favorable for the delivery of these materials, but the excessive and long continued heat of the summer turned the marsh land along the Seneca river into a cause of much illness among the laborers on the canal: "Between the middle of July and the first of October, about one thousand men, employed on the canal, from Salina to Seneca river, were disabled by this cause.... It was impossible to prevent some jobs from being entirely abandoned for several weeks." 38

However, before the end of the year the middle section of the Erie canal and the side-cut at Salina were completed with the exception of a few trifling pieces of work, which could be finished without interfering with navigation. On October 22, 1819, the first boat sailed on the canal from Rome to Utica. This boat was called the "Chief Engineer," in honor of Benjamin Wright. On the next day the canal commissioners and a number of others made the return trip to Rome. The following excerpts from a letter written by a gentleman in Utica to the editors of the Albany Daily Advertiser, give a good description of the events of these days. The writer says: "The last two days have presented, in this village, a scene of the liveliest interest; and I consider it among the privileges of my life to have been present to witness it. On Friday afternoon I walked to the head of the grand canal, the eastern extremity of which reaches within a very short distance of the village, and from one of the slight and airy bridges which crossed it, I had a sight that could not but exhilarate and elevate the mind. The waters were rushing in from the westward and coming down their untried channel towards the sea.... The interest manifested by the whole country, as this new internal river rolled its first waves through the state, cannot be described. You might see the people running across the fields, climbing on trees and fences, and crowding the bank of the canal to gaze upon the welcome sight. A boat had been prepared at Rome, and as the waters came down the canal, you might mark their progress by that of this new Argo, which floated triumphantly along the Hellespont of the west, accompanied by the shouts of the peasantry, and having on her deck a military band. At nine the next morning, the bells began a merry peal, and the commissioners, in carriages, proceeded from Bagg’s hotel to the place of embarkation." 39

During the season of 1819, exploring parties were employed on both the eastern and western sections. Valentine Gill made surveys to ascertain the most feasible route from Palmyra to Buffalo creek. His line led westerly from Palmyra to a point on the Genesee river, about twelve miles south of Rochester, thence westerly to the Buffalo creek. The commissioners concluded that it would be best to reject the easterly part of Mr. Gill’s line extending from Palmyra to the Genesee river and to decide in favor of the more northerly route as surveyed by Mr. Geddes in 1816. They also deemed it advisable to defer action relative to fixing the route west of the Genesee river until other examinations could be made. The southern route, which ran through the Holland Purchase, was objectionable because it was feared the water supply would be deficient, as the canal would have to be carried far above the level of Lake Erie. The summit level, as located by Mr. Gill, was about ninety-four feet above the lake. Canvass White had charge of a party making surveys between the Seneca and Genesee rivers. In October the canal commissioners met in Utica, and after considering the various routes covered by White’s surveys, decided in favor of the line as originally explored in 1816.

At this meeting it was determined to place under contract this section of about sixty-three miles between the Seneca river and Rochester, on the Genesee river, and also a portion of the eastern section, twenty-six miles long, extending from Utica to Little Falls. Before the end of the year parts of this work were let to contractors, -- twenty miles of the western section, from the Genesee river to Palmyra and eight miles of the eastern section, just east from Utica.

This action of extending the canal in both directions brings to light a condition of affairs which threatened the continuation of the canal to the western lakes. In his speech at the opening of the Legislature, in 1820, Governor De Witt Clinton gives the reasons which governed this action of the commissioners. He says: "The object and tendency of that measure of the canal commissioners must be obvious; and policy as well as justice concurred in recommending its adoption. By operating in both directions, a solemn pledge is given of our determination to finish the whole canal; sectional jealousies are allayed; the advantages arising from pecuniary expenditures are impartially dispensed; and every advance of the work, in either way, will facilitate communication." 40

The opponents of the canal considered this a favorable time to strike another blow, which they hoped would be fatal to the continuation of work. Their plan was to prevent the building of the western section by completing the eastern section first and so adding to their numbers the large population of the east, whose local needs would then be satisfied.

In the speech previously referred to, Governor Clinton had given warning of this plan of attack in these words: "But as there is great reason to apprehend the exertions of insidious enmity, I consider it my solemn duty to warn you against them. As the canal proceeds to the west, the country east will of course be accommodated; and in proportion to its progress to completion, in that ratio, will it be considered more easy to combine a greater mass of population against its further extension. Attempts have already been made to arrest its progress west of the Seneca river; and it is highly probable that they will be renewed when the work is finished to the Genesee." 41

During the legislative session the Assembly appointed a committee to "inquire into the expediency of directing the canal commissioners ... to delay the construction of a canal west of Seneca river, until the northern canal, and the western canal from Utica to the Hudson be completed." 42 Fortunately for the canal interests, the Legislature took the broad view of the greatest benefit to the whole State, rather than the narrow policy of sectional prejudices, and it decided not to interfere with the plans of the canal commissioners. In the language of the commissioners in answer to the inquiries of the Assembly committee, the Legislators were able "to comprehend the interesting truth, that this state can never enjoy a tenth part of the advantages of the Erie canal, till the tide of inland commerce, of which it is to be the channel, is permitted to flow, without a mile of portage, from the great lakes to the Atlantic." 43

On February 18, 1820, the canal commissioners made their annual report to the Legislature. In reporting the completion of the middle section they mentioned some interesting facts in explaining the causes of the increased cost over the original estimate. They say:

"The original estimate of the middle section, extending from Utica to the Seneca river, in the aggregate amounted to $1,021,851. The real cost of its construction has been $1,125,983, making an excess of expenditure over the estimate of $104,132, a little more than 10 per cent." This made "an average expense, per mile, including everything, of $11,792." 44

That the cost should exceed the original estimate is not strange, but on a work so gigantic for the times, through a virgin forest, and executed by men entirely lacking in previous experience, it is indeed strange that the excess was so small.

One of the causes for this additional expense was the change to the standard width of canal in embankment, where it was originally intended to be only thirty feet wide at the water surface. Several changes were made in the plans, adding to the expenses; -- some of the aqueducts were constructed of stone where wood was intended; bearing piles were found necessary in the foundations of locks and aqueducts; and waste-weirs, for which provision had not been made, were added. The greatest source of unforeseen expense was found in hard excavation, for which additional payments were allowed to the contractors. Although the precaution had been taken to determine the character of the soil by boring with augers prior to letting contracts, the commissioners gave the contractors verbal assurances that if "the excavation was manifestly worse than it was represented to be, then they would pay for the extra difficulty arising from that cause, such sum as the engineer should deem reasonable, over and above the stipulated prices." 45

Another cause, which is given as adding to the coat, becomes very interesting in the light of later facts. The commissioners say of it: "The waterproof lime, which has been used, during the past season, for the most of the mason work done on the canal, has contributed to swell our disbursements beyond our original estimates. This material has been discovered in the progress of our exertions; and it will doubtless hereafter be considered as an article of prime necessity, throughout our country, for all hydraulic masonry." 46

Canvass White, an engineer on the work, was instrumental in making the discovery of this lime rock; and to him belongs the honor of producing the first hydraulic cement in America. The discovery came about in this manner:

"The first works of masonry on the Erie Canal, were contracted to be done with common quicklime. Mr. Mason Harris, and Mr. ---------- Livingston, of Sullivan, Madison county, entered into a contract to furnish a quantity of this lime for the construction of culverts, aqueducts, &c., on the middle section of the canal, between Rome and Salina. They burned a large kiln and commenced the delivery of it. The purchasers, upon trial, found that it would not slack; all were greatly surprised who heard of the facts, and wondered at the singularity. The circumstance became common talk among all classes, in any way engaged in canal matters, and finally became known to the engineers, of whom Canvass White was one, and Judge Wright another, who took an interest in the affair. The article was examined, and the ledge from whence it was taken. Dr. Barto, a scientific gentleman from Herkimer County, was called upon to make experiments, to prove what this new substances should be. He came on, took some of the rough stone, and in the trip hammer shop of John B. Yates, at Chittenango, burned a parcel, pulverized it in a mortar, and in Elisha Carey’s bar-room (the present Polytechny), in the presence of Messrs. Wright, White and several others, mixed it with sand, rolled a ball of it, and placed it in a bucket of water for the night. In the morning it had set, was solid enough to roll across the floor, and by Dr. Barto pronounced cement, not inferior to the Roman of Puteoli, or the Dutch Tarras of the Rhine. Mr. White had recently returned from England, where he had been to examine bridges, canals, aqueducts, culverts, &c., of that country, and the materials of which they were made.

"At considerable expense, and by repeated experiments, he found this to be an excellent substitute for the Roman cement, and he sought for and obtained a patent right of the United States for this discovery.... Mr. White devoted considerable time and money in making experiments, and in introducing this cement, amidst the doubts and fears which essentially operated against the general use of it. It was at first used with great reluctance and caution; commissioners, builders and particularly masons, were entirely opposed to its use." 47

Benjamin Wright says: "The canal commissioners made no provision for the importation of cement. They appeared to think, that common quick lime would do for the work, although I suggested to them, in writing, in 1818, the propriety of making provision for cement, against the commencement of the year 1819, either by importing Tarras or Roman cement.... I have no hesitation in saying, that the discovery of hydraulic cement by Mr. White has been of incalculable benefit to the State, and that it is a discovery which ought, in justice, to be handsomely remunerated." 48

John B. Jervis says of Mr. White: "I well recollect his diligent examination of the stone quarries, and his experiments during his search for suitable material." 49

At first, on account of the expense of importing cement, and because of a lack of confidence in the new American product, the structures were built with common lime mortar, but these works soon failed and required extensive repairs or rebuilding. After the merits of the new cement were recognized, it was universally used in the construction of the canal, and was exported from the state in large quantities. Under a promise from the canal commissioners that a just compensation would be allowed, Mr. White allowed the general use of this cement, but finally, after vainly waiting for the fulfillment of this promise, he brought suit against one of the manufacturers and obtained judgment. Then a petition for relief having been received by the Legislature from this manufacturer, an attempt was made to appropriate the sum of ten thousand dollars as compensation to Mr. White for the benefits derived from his discovery, and this measure had the approval of the Governor and canal commissioners. However, this attempt failed, although it was estimated that at least five hundred thousand bushels of the cement had been used in the building of the canal, and the contractors were liable to judgments aggregating sixty thousand dollars, if suits were brought against them.

The commissioners also stated in their report that on the middle section, the inside slope of the banks had generally been one foot rise to eighteen inches horizontal base, but that they had determined to use a flatter slope in the future.

The laws of 1820 in regard to canals related chiefly to their government; the rights and conduct of boatmen and the general public were prescribed; the duty of collectors defined, and the canal commissioners empowered to establish rates of toll and to make regulations.

The subject of collecting the tax on lands lying within twenty-five miles of the canals was again discussed by the Legislature of 1820, but the Assembly committee reported against it, and the matter was allowed to rest where the law of the previous year had left it, and the collection of this tax was never made.

Following the completion of the middle section, which included a lateral cut to Salina from Syracuse, a memorable celebration occurred in Syracuse on July 4, 1820, in honor of the completion of the task, the date being exactly three years from the time of commencing the work. Arrangements of an extensive nature had been made for the event, and on the morning of Independence Day large delegations from the counties of Genesee, Cayuga, Onondaga, Madison, Oneida and Ontario assembled in that city at the basin formed by the junction of the Salina side-cut with the Erie canal. Many of the people arrived in boats, which came on the canal, and altogether seventy-three boats of various sizes, with gay decorations, were present at the festivities, the appearance of the fleet being enhanced by the display of handsome banners in the hands of those aboard the vessels.

One of the boats was the "Oneida Chief," which conveyed Governor Clinton, Attorney-General Oakley, Speaker Spencer of the Assembly, Myron Holley, one of the canal commissioners, and many other distinguished gentlemen from different parts of the state. The crowd, which numbered several thousands, listened to a pertinent address by Samuel M. Hopkins of Genesee county, after which the boats formed in line and the procession moved down the lateral canal to the basin at Salina. At this place the usual festivities incident to great and joyous public occasions concluded the celebration.

As the time approached for interfering with the works of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, the necessary steps were taken for acquiring the rights of that company. It will be recalled that the commissioners appointed by the act of April 8, 1811, had been directed to ascertain the terms on which these rights would be surrendered to the people of the State, and had reported that the demand of the company for $190,000 for its shares, exclusive of the 350 shares held by the State, was deemed excessive. An act passed June 19, 1812, empowered the commissioners to purchase the rights of the company, but the authority was so conditioned as to render it inoperative.

Now as the progress of construction would prevent further use of the company’s works, the provisions of the law of April 15, 1817, were carried out by the appointment of appraisers by the Justices of the Supreme Court. On October 2, 1820, the transactions were closed by the acceptance, on the part of the company, of $91,616, the amount of damages awarded by this board of appraisers. Thus ended the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company -- the hope of the early dreamers, who saw the great possibilities of the western country, and who, like their brothers of all ages, have been called impractical and visionary, because they lived in advance of their time. But their wildest dreams did not attain to the canal which now, after the lapse of little more than a century, is about to follow the course of the old company’s navigation -- up the Mohawk, down Wood creek, across Oneida lake, down Oneida river, then branching and going up the Seneca and down the Oswego to Lake Ontario.

During the year 1820 work on the canal was carried on with greater economy than in any previous year. The number of responsible contractors bidding for work had increased, while the price of labor had been reduced. The work of opening both the eastern and western sections was pushed forward under contracts reduced from thirty to forty per cent.

Two new and more detailed surveys, other than those of Messrs. Geddes and Peacock, were made to determine whether the northern or southern route between the Genesee river and Lake Erie would be the better. The southern route had the advantage of being several miles shorter, of requiring less expenditure in construction, and of passing through those western settlements established by the Holland Land Company. As this company had given such a large tract of land in support of the canal, the commissioners endeavored to do everything in their power to please the company. But when these new surveys had been completed and the quantity of water available for feeders had been estimated, the southern line was deemed impracticable. The summit of this route was found to be seventy-five feet above the surface of Lake Erie, so that not only would the canal be deprived of this inexhaustible source as a feeder, but the supply from any intermediate creeks or watercourses was considered as entirely inadequate to furnish the volume of water necessary to overcome the leakage in embankments and the loss from the use of so many additional locks as this line required. This route was accordingly abandoned and the northern line adopted, which nowhere rose above the level of Lake Erie.

The attention of the canal commissioners was, therefore, especially directed to the northern route, and they appointed David Thomas, as engineer, to make surveys of this line. The results of his examinations were gratifying to the commissioners and confirmed their former favorable impressions of this line. Mr. Thomas’ survey extended from the Genesee river to Tonawanda creek, a distance of about seventy-two miles, including the deep cutting through the mountain ridge. Throughout the survey, the face of the country, the nature of the earth to be excavated and the character of the streams to be passed were so well understood as to make it possible for the line to be speedily prepared for the contractor.

In this year, 1820, from the Genesee river easterly there were fifty-one and a quarter miles of canal either completed or under contract, including the whole distance from that river to Montezuma with the exception of about nine miles. This distance had not yet been placed in a condition to be opened, because the appropriations would not warrant the letting of contracts for the whole distance between Rochester and Montezuma, and because there already extended from near one end of these nine miles to the other, a circuitous and imperfect navigation by means of the Canandaigua outlet and the Seneca river. This work was placed under contract in 1821, ample appropriations having been made by the Legislature of that year.

In these fifty-one and a quarter miles of canal, two important deviations were made from the route traced in 1816, both being considered improvements over the original suggestions. One of them consisted of a new method of crossing the valley of the Irondequoit creek. In place of the original line, which would require an embankment of a quarter of a mile long and sixty-five feet high from the bottom of the valley, it was found that by carrying the line a short distance further north, this great embankment could be divided into two parts, which together would not contain more cubic yards than the one on the first route. This division was deemed prudent because the soil, being chiefly sand and gravel, was not well adapted for embankments, and hence the canal commissioner adopted the new line. However, they again changed the plan, concluding to substitute an aqueduct of wood in place of the larger of the two embankments, the change being made in the interest of economy. Before work was begun on this aqueduct another change of plan was made, as will be seen later. The other alteration consisted in carrying the line on the south side of Mud creek, from a point west of Palmyra to a point west of Lyons, the distance between these two points being about fourteen miles. The line, as explored in 1816, was on the north side of this creek, but the change was recommended, because the new route would be less expensive and would pass through earth more suitable for insuring the canal against injurious accidents when filled with water, and also would shorten the length of the canal by about two and a half miles. The new route was examined and found practicable by Nathan S. Roberts. Mr. Geddes, who surveyed the western section in 1816, at that time had suggested the propriety of examining this new route.

The canal commissioners had no doubt of an abundant and permanent supply of water from Lake Erie, as the canal descended to the eastward until it reached the Seneca river. But as a precautionary measure, they planned to construct the canal between the locks at the mountain ridge and the Genesee river, with a descent towards the east of one inch in every mile. This would save the expense of at least one lock and would permit a current towards the east so as to require but little water from the Genesee river; and it was believed that this necessity could be still further reduced, if expedient, by a feeder from the Irondequoit creek. It had been supposed that this creek could not be drawn upon for the canal, but an examination by David S. Bates, resident engineer, showed that the waters of this stream could be taken into the Erie at Pittsford. Further examination showed that a sufficient supply could be obtained from the Canandaigua lake, Mud creek and several other sources for all the demands of the canal, if the river failed.

On the ninety-six miles of the middle section, which had been completed, navigation began in May, 1820, and from then until the close of the season $5,244.34 had been collected in tolls. In addition to this amount $450.56 was collected at the Little falls of the Mohawk, after the rights of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company were transferred to the State. This toll was charged from Rome to the lower lock at the falls. The following list of the rates of toll is of interest as showing the amounts charged when the canal was first opened and as indicating the staple articles of commerce at that time:

"Salt, 5 mills, per ton, per mile, (7 barrels of 5 bushels, each, or 40 bushels in bulk, being a ton).

"Gypsum, 5 mills per ton, per mile.

"Flour, meal, and all kinds of grain, salted provision, pot and pearl ashes, one cent, per ton, per mile.

"Merchandise, two cents per ton, per mile.

"Timber, squared and round, five mills, per thousand solid feet, per mile.

"Boards, plank, and scantling, reduced to inch measure, and all siding, lath, and other sawed stuff, less than one inch thick, 5 mills, per thousand feet, per mile.

"Shingles, one mill, per thousand, per mile.

"Brick, sand, lime, iron-ore, and stone, 5 mills, per ton, per mile.

"Rails and posts for fencing, two cents per thousand, per mile.

"Wood, for fuel, one cent, per cord, per mile.

"All fuel to be used, in the manufacture of salt, to pass free.

"Boats made and used chiefly for the transportation of property, on each ton of their capacity, one mill per mile.

"Boats made and used chiefly for the carriage of persons, 5 cents, per mile, of their passage.

"Staves and heading, for pipes, one cent, per thousand, per mile.

"Staves and heading, for hogshead, 7 mills, per thousand, per mile.

"Staves and heading, for barrels or less, 5 mills, per thousand, per mile.

"All articles not enumerated, one cent, per ton, per mile." 50

The cost of maintaining and operating this section had been excessive, the embankments, being new, had settled and broken, making the repair accounts larger.

The previous year marked the beginning of construction work on the eastern section and a portion of the line eastward from Utica for thirty miles was at the close of 1820 nearly completed. Eight miles had been connected with the Rome level and was ready to be filled with water. Excellent progress had been made on the remaining twenty-two miles and also on the western section, where the greatest difficulties in excavation were experienced. From Utica to Minden there was a fall of one hundred and five feet, which was to be descended by thirteen locks. During the year the contracts for building these structures were let and the necessary building materials placed at the points where these were to be constructed.

In the following year, 1821, the law-makers were aware of the fact that great advantages were offered in the cheapness and abundance of labor and in the low rate at which money could be obtained for the accomplishment of this work. Therefore, they enacted chapter 36, which empowered the commissioners of the canal fund, in addition to loans already authorized by law, to borrow one million dollars and also the same amount in the year 1822 to defray the cost of construction work, a portion of the money to be also applied towards the work on the Champlain.

Early in 1821 a contract was let for building a culvert to carry the Irondequoit creek under the canal, and the work was completed in October. As originally planned in 1820 the valley was to be crossed on a wooden aqueduct, but it was feared that the winds might have a disastrous effect upon such a structure, and consequently a new method was adopted. The culvert was a structure of very substantial masonry; it was supported by piles, had a semi-circular arch of twenty-six feet span and extended under the embankment, at right angles with the canal, two hundred and forty-five feet. Much difficulty was experienced in preparing the foundation because of the quicksand encountered, and in order to sustain the enormous weight of the stone arch, and the embankment resting upon it, more than nine hundred piles were driven, each about a foot in diameter and from twelve to twenty feet long.

That portion of the canal running through the Cayuga marshes was found to be far more difficult of construction than had been anticipated. Quicksands were encountered, frequent rains drove the contractors from their work and illness broke out among the laborers, making it extremely hard to obtain men enough to make satisfactory progress. But when winter approached the work was prosecuted unremittingly. Also in 1821 contracts were let for that portion of the canal from the brow of the mountain ridge in Niagara county to the Tonawanda creek. Through the ridge the canal required very deep cutting, most of it through solid rock. It was a trifle over seven miles long, and the end nearest the Genesee river was joined to the level extending across that river by five pairs of combined locks which, in the aggregate, had a lift of sixty feet. At the upper lock the excavation was about thirteen feet in depth, and from here the ground rose for a mile and a half to a point where the depth of excavation was thirty feet and six inches. From here there was a gradual descent to the Tonawanda creek, where the depth of cutting was about twelve feet. This depth of excavation would give the canal four feet of water when Lake Erie was at its lowest point.

In June of this year, contracts were let for building a feeder from the Genesee river. It was to be two miles long, being located on the east side of the river, and having a width at water-surface of twenty-six feet, with a three-foot depth of water. An aqueduct was also contracted for, to be built across the same river.

On the middle section in 1821 navigation was interrupted for a short time only, and the total amount of tolls collected was $23,001.63, a portion of this revenue also being derived from the old canal at Rome. During this season work on the eastern section had been greatly extended and contracts entered into for its entire completion to the navigable waters of the Hudson. Navigation had been opened between Utica and Little Falls and from the latter place to Schenectady much of the excavation was completed. In order to accommodate the public a wooden lock was constructed at German Flats, which connected the Erie canal with the navigable waters of the Mohawk, thus affording an uninterrupted boat navigation from Schenectady to Cayuga and Seneca lakes.

The location of the canal between Little Falls and the Hudson caused the engineers and commissioners much solicitude. The engineers, Wright and White, made repeated investigations to discover some route other than that along the valley of the Mohawk. As their efforts were unavailing the commissioners were forced to adopt a line through this valley until the Cohoes falls were reached. Beyond the falls the canal bore to the south and conforming to the gradual descent of the ground, took a direct course to Albany where the junction with the Hudson was made, as well as another connection with this river opposite the City of Troy. The principal difficulties of construction through this valley occurred in the narrow passes of the Mohawk, where the hills terminated abruptly at the water’s edge, rendering it necessary to build the canal wholly in the river or partly in the river and partly in the bank. In either case, high embankments were needed to carry the canal above the floods, and these embankments had their bases in the river and required a covering of stone. The magnitude of these embankments, the quantity of stone required to protect them, the difficulty of excavation, which frequently was of rock, rendered these sections the most expensive of the whole undertaking.

Between Schenectady and Cohoes falls these obstacles were so great on the south side of the river that it was finally decided to cross to the north side and, after passing the most difficult places, to recross the river. After vainly trying to suitably locate the canal on the south side, Canvass White decided to try a line along the other side, and finding this much more favorable he recommended crossing the river twice. Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, the two senior engineers, after carefully examining the situation, corroborated Mr. White’s opinion. Accordingly aqueducts were built, one at a place known as Alexander’s Mills, about four miles below Schenectady, and the other at the locality called Fonda’s Ferry, about four miles above Cohoes. The portion on the north side of the river between these aqueducts was about twelve miles long. The estimates of cost of the two routes showed the economy of constructing the canal for a distance on the north side. They were as follows: south route, $279,949.09; north route, including the two aqueducts, $204,178.18; balance in favor of the latter method, $75,770.91.

While the Legislature was in session in 1822 [see errata], an act (chapter 274) was passed, regulating the speed of boats on the canals. The matter was embodied in section 4, and reads: "No boat or craft, or floating timber or lumber, shall move on either the Erie or Champlain canals, faster than at the rate of four miles per hour, without permission in writing, and signed by a majority of the canal commissioners." The penalty for each offense was to be ten dollars.

In 1822, two hundred and twenty miles of canal were open to navigation. Contracts for constructing a tow-path along Tonawanda creek were let, and also for building a dam at its mouth. The work of excavating in the rock cut at the mountain ridge proved to be more difficult than was at first expected, owing to the shelly condition of the rock and the slight effect of powder upon it. As the work progressed so slowly here, and as complaint had been made that the excavation could not be done at contract prices, the commissioners determined to adopt a new method. The work was divided into smaller sections; the former contractors were retained but were required to employ as many laborers as the commissioners demanded; an assistant engineer was placed on the work to inspect the whole course of operations and to keep an account of all expenses necessarily incurred in the prosecution of the work, and the contractors were paid reasonable prices according to the engineer’s accounting. Under this plan good progress was made and with little more expense.

Some trouble was experienced in building the Genesee river aqueduct on account of the smooth, sloping surface of the rock upon which the foundations of the piers rested. The first pier, which had been partly built on this rock, was carried away by the swift current in the river and those built thereafter were sunk into the rock six inches.

During this entire season the middle section was open to navigation and a larger amount of tolls collected than in the former years. The construction of the eastern section was bring pushed forward rapidly, as it was expedient to obtain all the revenue possible from tolls so as to pay the interest on the canal debt. In November water was admitted to that portion between Little Falls and Schenectady without any serious breaches or leaks following. Shortly afterward navigation beyond a place known as the "Nose" was suspended during the construction of a feeder from the Paper Mill creek, and while the lining of the canal between the "Nose" and Schenectady was in progress. Work between the latter city and Albany was being successfully prosecuted, five of the locks being completed and excavation on the others finished.

At Schenectady a change of location had been made after the canal had been partly constructed. Mr. Jervis’ description of the change discloses an interesting bit of local contention. He says: "Schenectady is built upon a tongue of land that projects from the hill of the south side, to the shore of the Mohawk river. Above this tongue of land, the interval lands of the Mohawk extend about three miles, and in most part about half a mile wide, terminated at the upper end by the hill that strikes the river. The canal was locked down at the upper end of this interval land, so as to carry a cutting or excavation through the central portion of this interval, of one to six feet in depth. As this line neared the city, it curved off to the shore of the river, and so passed the tongue of land between the city and the Mohawk River. This made a cheap line to construct. This piece of canal was nearly constructed over the interval land, and some work was done along the river shore. This line had been opposed, as being liable to damage from river floods, and as there was a local interest in the location, the matter was a good deal discussed among the citizens. One party favored the location as made, and another contended for a line through the center of the city, through the elevated tongue of land above described.

"At that time it was considered the business of the city would center on the canal, and hence the local excitement. One party was led by Governor Yates and the other by R. Gevins, the proprietor and keeper of Gevins Hotel. The commissioners and engineers were guests at the hotel, and Mr. Gevins did not lose the opportunity of influencing, so far as he could his guests, on the question of location, and was very active in looking after the route through the city, which would most probably run near his hotel. At this time a heavy flood occurred in the Mohawk River, rising over the banks of the canal, and gave great force to the objection that had been raised, as to such dangers. This so impressed the engineers that they saw the necessity of some change, either by a new line, or expensive guard banks to protect the canal in time of flood. This circumstance gave energy to the Gevins party, and though much work had been done, they succeeded in impressing on the engineers and commissioners the necessity of a change in the location. Mr. Gevins was a sagacious man, and one that could keep his own counsel; and finally succeeded in inducing the engineers to run a new line through the city, and in getting the canal authorities to vacate the river line, and locate through the central portion of the city. The day after this was done, it so happened that Gov. Yates and Mr. Gevins met at the halfway house, between Schenectady and Albany. Mr. Gevins said to me that Governor Yates called him out privately, and gave him a severe reproof for the course he had taken -- saying ‘he (Gevins) was an uneasy Yankee and could not be kept still.’ Mr. Gevins said he took the rebuke very quietly, knowing the matter was settled.

"The plan this measure gave rise to, was to take up the lock at the upper end of this interval, and raise the canal banks to correspond with the new level. The former excavation was not filled up, leaving the water in the canal, six feet extra depth. The alluvial land was supposed to be water-tight, but it was found afterwards, after water was let in, to be full of holes, like pipe stems, made by the decay of aqueous roots, and gave a good deal of trouble to secure the banks against this difficulty. In some cases long courses of sheet piling was put in, but the method adopted for the most part, was to line the sides and bottom with sand from the hill. It was not until midsummer that this section of canal was so improved as to hold water for navigation." 51

In 1822 the canal commissioners had not yet decided upon the location of the western terminus of the canal, and an intense rivalry existed between the villages of Buffalo and Black Rock as to which place should be selected. In this year the Legislature passed a law (chapter 251) giving aid and encouragement for harbor construction, and the citizens of both places were under the impression that this course was taken in order to determine which village could provide the most advantageous port, and that the decision of the commissioners would be governed accordingly. Consequently there was some vigorous harbor-building and an unremitting warfare was maintained. The newspapers were in the thickest of the fight and championed the cause of their respective villages, each side claiming superior advantages for a port.

At this time Gen. Peter B. Porter, (who in 1810 had introduced a bill in Congress for building canals, and had been a canal commissioner from 1810 to 1816) and other residents of Black Rock proposed to construct a pier, and in June the canal commissioners adopted a resolution, stating that if these people were successful in constructing a certain portion of this pier by a given time and in a satisfactory manner, they (the commissioners) would either construct the canal basin desired, or else recommend that the State reimburse the individuals for the amount expended. This action of the commissioners resulted in the organization of the Black Rock Harbor Company, which built what was called an "Experiment Pier." These proceedings incited the Buffalo people to renewed energy; they made numerous claims that the pier would be destroyed by the first run of ice.

The canal commissioners gave a hearing in Buffalo, in the summer of 1822, relative to the location of the terminus. De Witt Clinton, as chairman of the board, presided and associated with him were Messrs. Van Rensselaer, Seymour, Holley and Young. Gen. Peter B. Porter was the spokesman for Black Rock, and Samuel Wilkeson represented Buffalo. Both men had the welfare of their respective villages at heart and with all the ability they possessed each advocated the merits of his own town as a canal terminus. The outcome of the meeting was the selection of Buffalo, chiefly on the ground that the water could be taken out of the lake at a higher elevation than from the river at Black Rock, thus saving a large amount of excavation along the whole Lake Erie level.

But the decision of the commissioners did not end the controversy. In the spring of 1823, the predictions of the Buffalonians that the pier at Black Rock would not withstand the ice, did not prove true and this fact led some of the commissioners to favor further improvement at this point. Consequently the war of words continued with greater activity. But the question of Buffalo as the canal terminus was definitely settled in the official announcement made by the canal commissioners in their annual report for 1823.

There was a most interesting feature of the contest between Buffalo and Black Rock during the year 1823 and it plainly showed to what extremity either place manifested a willingness to go in order to gain a victory. In Buffalo there was much alarm because it was believed that the commissioners had determined upon Black Rock for the terminus, and the citizens of the former place circulated a subscription paper headed with the following:

"Whereas, The late decision of the Canal Commissioners, terminating the canal at Black Rock, upon the plan proposed by Peter B. Porter, will be injurious to the commerce of Buffalo and, in a great measure, deprive the inhabitants of the benefits of the canal -- in order, therefore, to open an uninterrupted canal navigation upon the margin of the Niagara river, on the plan proposed by David Thomas, 51a from the point where the line established by him will intersect Porter’s basin, to the point where it is proposed to dam the arm of said river to Squaw Island, the undersigned agree to pay to Henry B. Lyman, the sums annexed to their respective names to be for that purpose expended under the direction of the trustees to be appointed by the subscribers." 52 The notice also stipulated that "no part, however, of any subscription is to be called for until the expenditure of the whole shall be authorized by the canal commissioners, upon the plans herein proposed." The amount subscribed was $11,415 and in addition to this amount a half acre of land was donated by one resident.

With the location of the terminus permanently settled, there followed a marvelous growth of the City of Buffalo. Previously Black Rock had eclipsed the former place in growth, but that village reached its most prosperous period with the completion of the harbor improvements. The pier was gradually destroyed, most of the structure being carried away by a freshet in May, 1826, which precluded all hope of the village ever becoming an important commercial port.

The new "Constitution of 1822" took effect at the close of that year. Judge Lincoln, in his Constitutional History of New York, remarks that "the subject of canals occupies only a small space in the Constitution, but it embraced the following propositions: Canal tolls at a rate not less than that already fixed by the canal commissioners were established and continued. The canal tolls, the duties on salt, auction duties, and the revenue raised in lieu of the steamboat passenger tax, were inviolably appropriated for canal purposes, without change of rate or division until all expenses and debts incident to the construction of the canals were fully paid. The legislature was prohibited from selling or disposing of the salt springs, or salt lands, or the canals." 52a

In commenting upon this, the first appearance of the canals in the Constitution -- a concession to their growing importance -- which was not obtained without vigorous opposition in the convention of the previous year, which framed it, the authority quoted says that this was not creative legislation. The canal was then under construction, and the Legislature had already provided funds for the purpose. It was no part of the scheme of Clinton and his associates to resort to direct taxation for the means to build the canals. It was believed that their tolls would pay for their construction and maintenance. The policy was already firmly established. However, to place the matter beyond peradventure, and to pledge the faith of the State to the maintenance of this policy, existing legislation was crystallized in the manner indicated.

The legislature of 1823 passed a law (chapter 111) authorizing the construction of a basin in the City of Albany at the termination of the Erie and Champlain canals.

In the spring of 1823 there were very heavy snow storms and these were followed by copious rains in the fall and an early winter, so that there was only a short season for navigation and work on the canal. The great aqueduct across the Genesee river was completed during the year. It was eight hundred and two feet in length, consisted of eleven arches supported by the necessary abutments and piers, was surmounted by strong parapet walls properly faced on both sides, and protected on the top by a coping of very large and beautiful limestone. The whole work was laid in good waterproof lime and thoroughly grouted. The bottom of the trunk was built of flagstone, well fitted together and bedded in thin mortar, while a substantial but plain iron railing protected the outside of the towing-path.

Considerable anxiety had been felt about the safety of the great embankment across the Irondequoit valley, and on several occasions fears were raised as it was thought to be weakening and about to break. The alarm was caused by the discovery of some leaks, but a careful examination proved that the fears were groundless.

During the fall of 1823 quicksands in the Cayuga marsh level subjected navigation at this point to some inconvenience. This level was connected without lockage with the Seneca river and when the river was at its lowest point it was impossible for heavily loaded boats to clear the bottom and the services of lighters were required. The canal commissioners concluded to make further excavation if the trouble occurred again, and if this proved to be ineffectual, the source of complaint would be remedied by the construction of a lock with a small lift which would sustain the water at an elevation suitable for navigation at all times. This course was subsequently pursued in the winter of 1824-5.

As is told in the chapter concerning the Oswego canal, the locks at Salina were completed in 1823, the side-cut was extended to Onondaga lake, and the lake was lowered by cutting a new outlet, thus permitting navigation from the Erie canal through the lake to Seneca river.

On the Schenectady level it was found necessary to have a greater water-supply. A dam was, therefore, thrown across the Mohawk at Johnsville, raising the river high enough to feed its waters into the canal. While the dam was in course of construction the embankments near Schenectady were lined and strengthened. The dam was completed in September and plenty of water derived for the purposes desired.

The eastern section of the Erie canal and the Champlain waterway were completed by October 1, 1823, thus making a continuous canal navigation from Genesee river to Albany and from Whitehall, at the head of Lake Champlain, to the latter city. The Mayor and other officials of Albany, together with several local societies, made extensive preparations to commemorate the completion of the work and on October 8, imposing ceremonies were held in that city. New York City was invited to take part and a delegation of prominent men engaged passage from that city on the "Chancellor Livingston" and the "Richmond," both of which looked resplendent in decorations of streamers and flags. The boats stopped at West Point, where the party was joined by several officers of that post, the latter being accompanied by the military band.

The day for the festivities was ushered in at Albany by the roar of cannon and the ringing of bells, and during the early hours the people in large numbers were astir. The packet-boat "De Witt Clinton," having on board a committee, proceeded to the junction of the Erie and Champlain canals, where the commissioners, who were descending the former canal, were to be met and escorted to Albany. At the appointed hour the military and civic organizations formed a line and marched to the lock which connected the Erie canal with the Hudson river. All the available space in the immediate neighborhood was thronged with people and an immense crowd congregated along the banks of the canal for several miles.

  Entrance of the canal into the Hudson

Reproduction of an old print, published during the construction of the original Erie canal; design was used also for decorating china.

In the presence of this vast assemblage the aquatic procession, with numerous boats in line and all presenting a beautiful sight with their gay decorations, started on its eventful journey to the last lock, through which these first vessels were to descend into the waters of the Hudson river. The procession was headed by the "De Witt Clinton," which had on board the man in whose honor the boat was named, Governor Yates, the Mayor and other officials of Albany, the canal commissioners and engineers, the committees and other citizens. The flotilla having arrived at 12 o’clock, the "De Witt Clinton" entered the lock, over which a triumphal arch had been erected. Next followed the laying of the coping-stone of the structure with masonic ceremonies. The lock-gates were then opened and the "De Witt Clinton" was allowed to descend into the Hudson, this operation being attended by the booming of artillery and deafening applause by the multitude.

After this part of the ceremony the gentlemen on board the canal boats disembarked and joined the procession, which moved to the capitol, where a spacious pavilion had been built. Here occurred a reception in honor of the several committees and distinguished guests, besides the delivery of a congratulatory address to the canal commissioners by Mayor Dudley, on behalf of the city, to which De Witt Clinton, as president of the board of commissioners, responded. William Bayard, chairman of the New York committee, also conveyed the congratulations of the people of that city to the citizens of Albany, and reply was made by William James, of the committee representing the Capital City. The celebration was closed in the evening with a sumptuous banquet and a pyrotechnic display making that day a memorable one in the history of Albany.

In November, 1823, there arrived in New York a boat from Hector, at the head of Seneca lake, which attracted considerable attention. She had come by way of Seneca lake and Seneca river, through a private company’s locks at Waterloo, from a point seventy miles south of the Erie canal and three hundred and fifty miles from New York. As an indication of the extent and importance of the benefits that would follow the opening of canals into the interior, this event was deemed worthy of notice, and her owners and navigators, two farmers of Tompkins county, were given a public entertainment. As an illustration of home industry this boat was complete. Her owners were her architects and builders; her timbers and cargoes came from the forest and fields near where she was built; her crew was composed of the men who had cultivated her cargo; even her sails and rigging were manufactured by her owners, the materials for them having been grown on their farms.

At the time of beginning the construction of the Erie canal, comparatively little was known of the geological formations occurring in that section of the state through which it was to pass, except in a general way. The enthusiasm of its friends led one of them, Stephen Van Rensselaer, himself a canal commissioner at the time, out of his private liberality to provide for the services of an eminent geologist, Amos Eaton, who, with assistants, in 1822 began a thorough, scientific and connected survey of the rocks lying near the line of the canal, this being the first extended investigation in the state, and, with the exception of one in Albany and Rensselaer counties by Prof. Eaton in 1821-2, under, the same patronage, the first in the state. The results 52b of this survey, which were published in 1824, were of lasting value to the cause of science, and this report has become classic in New York geology. The differentiation of the various geological formations, as determined by Prof. Eaton, still has an important value in the classification of the rocks of the state.

In 1824 a portion of the western section remained to be finished before the canal could be navigated from Lake Erie to the Hudson river. The section from Brockport to Lockport was completed sufficiently to admit water, of which the Irondequoit and Oak Orchard creeks contributed the supply. The embankments were porous and the creeks low, but the canal was navigable from Brockport to the foot of the mountain ridge. The excavations at this place had not yet been completed, but the combined locks at the brow of this ridge were nearing completion. The canal commissioners announced this flight of locks as being "of the first magnitude on the line, and one of the greatest of the kind in the world. The superior style in which it is executed -- its situation at the brow of a perpendicular precipice of about seventy-six feet, overlooking a capacious natural basin, with banks on each side of an altitude of more than one hundred feet, connected with the deep rock excavation, renders it one of the most interesting points on the Erie canal." 53

As told elsewhere in this volume, Nathan S. Roberts was the designer and builder of these locks. So important were these structures considered that the attention of all the engineers was called to them. Although Mr. Roberts attained to considerable prominence in his subsequent engineering career, he said that the proudest moment of his life was when his plan for these locks was adopted.

In order to accurately ascertain the amount of freight with which the boats navigating the canals were loaded, so as to insure the collection of the full amount of tolls, two hydrostatic locks were built, one at Utica and the other at Syracuse. They were found to be useful, their utility becoming more and more apparent with the increase of business. Previously all articles had to be separately weighed unless the collectors and boatmen could agree in estimating the weight, and this system caused much vexation and led to deception and fraud. As examples of the ingenuity developed before the day of large scales, they are interesting and deserve a brief description. The canal commissioners thus reported concerning them: --

"These hydrostatic locks are constructed with a chamber sufficiently large to receive any boat used on the canals. The chamber is on the same level with the canal, and is filled from it by a paddle gate which is fixed in a large gate. On a level below the chamber is a receptacle, into which, by a gate, the chamber can be emptied, and from this through another gate, the water can be discharged....

"When it is designed to ascertain the weight of a loaded boat, the chamber is first filled ... the boat is moved from the canal into the chamber, and the gates closed behind it. The depth of the water in the chamber is then carefully ascertained ... and the cubic contents of the water, with the boat floating in it, is at once obtained from a table constructed for the purpose ...

"The water is then drawn off into the receptacle, and the boat settles down upon timbers, so arranged as to yield to its shape, by which it is supported, without being strained or injured. The quantity of water drawn from the lock is then ascertained ... It is a principle in hydrostatics, that every body which floats in water, displaces a volume of this fluid, precisely equal in weight to the floating body. It appears from the above, that the water, with the loaded boat floating in it, contained ... cubic feet, and that the same water, drawn off and measured separately, contained ... cubic feet, which subtracted from the preceding, will give ... cubic feet of water displaced by the loaded boat.... This is to be reduced to tons, and the weight of the empty boat previously ascertained in the same manner, is to be deducted, and the remainder will be the weight of the cargo. After an empty boat has been once weighed she is numbered, and her weight is registered at the several hydrostatic locks." 54

During 1824 the amount of tolls collected was $294,546.62. In their report of the work for that year the commissioners accord themselves the privilege of predicting future tolls. By a series of calculations they estimated that the Erie canal alone would give an annual revenue of a million dollars, at the end of ten years from its completion, and that within fifty years the income would amount to more than nine millions. These speculations indicate the optimistic tread of public sentiment, and disclose one of the causes that, within the next few years, led to that wild desire for canals throughout all parts of the state, which has been aptly termed the "canal mania."

On the last day of the legislative session of 1824 there occurred an incident which will ever remain a blot upon the page of early canal history -- the removal of De Witt Clinton from the board of canal commissioners. For fourteen years he had been giving unsalaried service as canal commissioner, acting as president of the board for the last eight of these years, and then, without warning and for no reason but to accomplish his political down-fall, he was ejected from the office by the Legislature of the State which he had served as Governor for six years. To be sure, Clinton has probably been accorded more than his due credit for the canals, and for many details that should properly be attributed to others -- the engineers, the acting canal commissioners and other advocates of the project -- and it may be well to glance at that phase of the subject for a moment. There is no evidence to show that he had taken as much interest in the canals as some of the other commissioners up to the fall of 1815, when he wrote the "New York Memorial." During the next winter he was present through the greater part of the legislative session, ostensibly to advance canal legislation, but, when called upon, he was unable to furnish the canal committee with necessary information regarding the contemplated routes, and he departed, leaving the canal measure to its fate, when the prospect for favorable action was very doubtful. In the next year Clinton successfully adopted the canals as an issue on which to wage his contest for the gubernatorial chair. Again, Clinton’s writings, especially the pamphlet entitled The Canal Policy, show a deplorable tendency to belittle the work of others, to appropriate to himself the greater share of credit for the whole undertaking, even to the point of misrepresenting facts and to make to appear as a party measure an enterprise that, during its early history, was remarkably free from party limitations.

However, notwithstanding all these facts, to Clinton is due the honor of being the chief advocate of canals during the period of construction; his was the name associated with their success throughout the civilized world and his would have been the disgrace if they had failed; he had borne the brunt of ridicule and abuse before success was assured. Then, just before the final consummation of this world-famed achievement, this insult of being ignominiously ejected from office was placed upon him, for no reason but because his favorite project had succeeded too well.

Mr. Clinton was supposed to have Presidential aspirations, and his great popularity incited his enemies in the State Senate in 1824 to introduce a resolution for his removal as a canal commissioner, evidently believing that such a course would obstruct his further advancement in the esteem of the people. After a lengthy debate, the resolution was adopted by a vote of twenty-one to three and was immediately sent to the Assembly for concurrence, as the Legislature upon this day was to adjourn sine die. In the hurry and bustle incident to adjournment the resolution was rushed through, the vote being sixty-four to thirty-four.

One historian thus describes the scene: "When the announcement was made gentlemen engaged in packing up their papers paused and stared at each other, as if wondering if they had heard aright. Henry Cunningham was in the act of putting on his overcoat, and without a moment for reflection threw it over his arm and turned to the speaker with flashing eyes and face glowing with indignation ... For what good and honorable purpose has this resolution been sent here for concurrence at the very last moment of the session? . . Sir, I challenge inquiry. We have spent rising of three months in legislation, and not one word has been dropped intimating a desire or intention to expel that honorable gentleman from the board of canal commissioners! What nefarious and secret design, I ask, is to be effected at the expense of the honor and integrity of this legislature?" 55

Mr. Clinton took the matter philosophically, as his persecutors could find no official act of his that would cast dishonor upon his name. He simply invited the most rigid scrutiny into his official conduct. Indignation meetings were held throughout the state, at which the Legislators, who were responsible for his removal, were denounced most bitterly. In New York City there was intense feeling and on April 20, ten thousand persons assembled in City Hall park for the purpose of denouncing the Legislature and expressing their thanks to Mr. Clinton for his long, able and gratuitous services in the prosecution of the New York canals. When this meeting was opened, the speaker said:

"Who stood forth as the triumphant advocate of the Great Western Canal? ... Who placed in jeopardy his hold on public confidence and respect? ... Who, after he became the chief magistrate of this state, identified his administration with this work, and risked its duration on the success of the project? Who aided in obtaining loans for its advancement? ... Who for nearly ten years had presided over the board of canal commissioners? Who had waded through streams and torrents of ridicule, calumny and insult, in the prosecution of this canal? Who, throughout the American union, and who, on the other side of the ocean, was connected as a leading and efficient personage in this splendid work? Need any man stand here and pause like Brutus among the Romans, for a reply? De Witt Clinton is the man! Every tongue utters his name; every heart bears testimony to his services." 56

As a rebuke for Mr. Clinton’s removal as canal commissioner, he was again nominated for Governor in 1824 and re-elected by nearly seventeen thousand majority (large for that time). Public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Clinton’s party, and nearly every man who had contributed to the injury inflicted upon him was swept out of office.

The Legislature had another important subject before it, in 1824, relative to the attempt made by the United States Government to exact tonnage duties on boats navigating the State canals, under the act of Congress of February 18, 1793, and to require such boats to be enrolled and licensed under the United States. The subject aroused much opposition in the Legislature, which received its first notice of the intent of the Government through a letter from Joseph Anderson, Comptroller of the United State treasury. In April of this year the matter was discussed by the House of Representatives, under a proposed amendment to have canal boats exempted from such claim or exaction, but Mr. Newton from the committee on commerce rendered a report which was adverse to amending the law "so as to admit boats to navigate the canals without enrollment or license, or payment of tonnage duties," and the House concurred in the report.

The State Legislature characterized the acts of the United States officials in attempting to impose this tax upon the trade of the canals as unwarranted and unjustifiable, and it passed a resolution requesting the New York State Representatives in Congress "to use their utmost endeavors, to prevent any such oppressive and impolitic exaction for tonnage duties, on boats navigating the canals, from being carried into effect." 57 General Tallmadge, who introduced the resolution in the Assembly, made an eloquent speech which was responsible for the unanimous adoption, by that body, of the resolution. During his remarks he said:

"The proposition which I maintain is, that whatever may be the language, or however extensive the terms and expressions of the act of 1793, yet, that it cannot be construed to extend to, or include within its operations the canals of this state, and cannot justify the exaction of a tonnage duty upon boats within those canals....

"This construction and restriction of the words of the act of 1793, derives great force from the recollection, that so far from the words of the act being intended to apply to canal navigation, our canals have been made long since the date of the act, and under the scoff and hiss of that general government, which laughed at the folly of our undertaking; but which now comes to search into internal concerns, and demand of us tribute for our commercial enterprise. Massachusetts has her Middlesex Canal, but we have not heard of a tonnage duty there -- Virginia has long had her James River Canal, and yet the letter of the comptroller, nor the report of Mr. Newton, do not tell us that tonnage duty has been for years past collected there. Carolina has a canal through the Dismal Swamp, yet it does not appear any requisition has been made upon it for tonnage duty -- while New York has not even yet completed her great work, the justice and policy of a tonnage duty is already discovered, and the act of 1793 is found to be intended for our canals to be made in 1824, and under the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, collectors are now in the interior chasing after boats for forfeiture and confiscation. Under such a state of facts, the report of Mr. Newton is made and adopted by congress." 58

Governor Clinton, in his message of 1825, alluded to the subject, saying: "I cannot pass over, in silence, the attempt which has been recently made, to bring the boats navigating our canals, within the operation of the statutes for regulating the coasting trade of the United States, by requiring from such boats enrollment and license, and the payment of tonnage duties. The canals are the property of the state, are within the jurisdiction of the state, have been constructed by the state, and can be destroyed by the state. They have been made at its expense, after the general government had refused all participation and assistance. It cannot well be perceived how the regulation of commerce with ‘foreign nations, and among the several states, or with the Indian tribes,’ can authorize an interference with vessels prosecuting an inland trade, through artificial channels. The coasting trade is entirely distinct from a trade through our canals, which no state in the union, nor the general government itself, has a right to enjoy, without our consent. The consequences of such assumptions would be, if carried into effect, to annihilate our revenue arising from tolls, to produce the most oppressive measures, to destroy the whole system of internal improvements, and to prostrate the authority of the state governments." 59

These protests were effectual, for the Federal Government abandoned its attempt to enforce the proposed enrollment and collection of tonnage duties.

At the legislative session in 1825 an act (chapter 277) was passed, directing the canal commissioners to "construct a canal from the point where the Erie canal now intersects the Niagara river opposite Squaw Island along the margin of the river, to a point where the canal from Buffalo now enters the said river near Bird Island, so as to continue and complete the Erie canal to Lake Erie at the mouth of Buffalo creek, distinct from, and independent of, the basin at Black Rock, if in the opinion of the said commissioners such canal may be necessary, either from the accumulation of sand or ice in the said basin, or from any just apprehension that the works of the same may not secure a permanent supply of water for the Erie canal, or if for any other reason the said canal in their opinion may be necessary". Section 3 of the act directed the commissioners to "lay out the said canal along the margin of the said Black Rock basin, as speedily as may be," if they deemed that such a canal was necessary.

The work between Black Rock and Tonawanda creek was completed on June 1, when four feet of water was admitted, permitting navigation from the portage at the mountain ridge to Black Rock. This was extended to Buffalo in August. In order to save the expense of pumping, work was suspended for some time upon a portion of the mountain ridge while a drain could be prepared through the unfinished part, as the line had been inundated. This caused considerable delay and the canal was not completed until October 26.

In the autumn of 1825, as the canal was nearing completion, the common council of the City of New York, at the instigation of many prominent citizens, made arrangements to celebrate the event with such public demonstrations of joy, as a work so great and so beneficial to the State deserved. This celebration was participated in by nearly all of the cities and villages along the line of the waterway from Buffalo to New York. The twenty-sixth of October had been appointed as the date of the celebration, as the canal commissioners had determined that the canal would be ready for navigation on that day. The arrangements provided for fitting demonstrations to be held throughout the state on that day, and also for the starting from Lake Erie of a fleet of boats which was to traverse the whole length of the canal to Albany and then to proceed down the Hudson to New York and on to Sandy Hook, where the ceremony of uniting the waters brought from Lake Erie with those of the Atlantic was to occur.

Early on the morning of the appointed day the village of Buffalo was thronged with people gathered to see the departure of the first boat. At nine o’clock a procession of the various societies of mechanics was formed at the Court House, and proceeded to the head of the canal. Here the Governor of the State, the Lieutenant-Governor, a committee from the New York common council, and the committees from Buffalo and various other villages embarked on the boat "Seneca Chief," 60 which was elegantly fitted for the occasion, and carried among its articles of freight two kegs of Lake Erie water. The "Seneca Chief" headed a flotilla consisting of the boats "Chief," "Superior," "Commodore Perry," and "Buffalo," which was joined by other boats during the journey to the east, -- the "Niagara," at Black Rock, and the "Young Lion of the West" at Lockport. Another boat called "Noah’s Ark," carried a cargo of "products of the West," which included a bear, two eagles, two fawns, several fish, and two Indian boys. At ten o’clock, as the fleet entered the canal, this event of the embarkation of the first boat from the lakes to the ocean was heralded throughout the length of the state by the firing of cannon stationed at suitable intervals, each of which caught up the message in turn and passed it to its neighbor. Thus was sounded a grand salute, from a battery five hundred miles long, such as the world had never heard before, announcing an event which was equally new in the world’s history. The message was carried from Buffalo to New York in an hour and thirty minutes and then returned again to Buffalo. The cannon used at Lockport were those with which Perry conquered upon Lake Erie and the gunner was a lieutenant of Napoleon’s army.

  The Opening of the Erie Canal -- Turner

(Copyright, 1905, C. Y. Turner.)
A mural decoration in the De Witt Clinton High School, New York, illustrating the passage of the first boats from Lake Erie to the Atlantic.

The journey to New York was a continuous series of ovations. In the country, the banks were lined with the cheering crowds, and at the gaily decorated villages, the boats were greeted by the firing of cannon or the display of fireworks, while the distinguished passengers, after the interchange of congratulatory speeches, were entertained in a royal manner at banquets and balls. At Lockport, "the spot where the waters were to meet when the last blow was struck," and where "nature had interposed her strongest barrier to the enterprises and the strength of man," the celebration was "such as to do honor to the work." When the grand salute from Buffalo had passed, boats laden with prominent citizens had ascended the flight of locks and proceeded to Pendleton where the fleet was met and escorted back to Lockport. At Rochester the boat called the "Young Lion of the West" was stationed at the entrance to the basin, and upon its approach hailed the "Seneca Chief," and the following dialogue ensued:

"Question. -- Who comes there?"

"Answer. -- Your Brothers from the west, on the waters of the great Lakes."

"Q. -- By what means have they been diverted so far from their natural course?"

"A. -- By the channel of the Grand Erie Canal."

"Q. -- By whose authority, and by whom, was a work of such magnitude accomplished?"

"A. -- By the authority and by the enterprise of the patriotic People of the State of New York." 61

At Syracuse the floating procession was met by a large concourse of citizens, and the address of welcome was delivered by Joshua Forman, who in 1808 had introduced the first resolution in the Legislature relative to the Erie canal. "Judge Forman here joined the committees as a representative from the village of Syracuse to New York." 62 At Rome was found the first evidence of dissatisfaction. "The proceedings at this place on the twenty-sixth, were of a singular character, partaking of joy and sorrow, of chagrin and satisfaction. It will be remembered that the inhabitants of Rome contended for the location of the canal through their village, instead of the route finally determined on, not so much as a matter of justice to them, as one of expediency and economy. Their hopes were frustrated, and they have never ceased to feel that they have been dealt by unjustly." 63 To express their feelings, they formed a procession, and bearing a black barrel, filled with water from the old canal, "with muffled drums, they marched to the new canal, into which they poured the contents of the black barrel. They then, in quick time, returned to Starr’s Hotel, where they put aside their ill humor, and joined with heart and hand in celebrating the event which had on that day congregated thousands of their fellow-citizens." 63a When the boats from the west arrived at Rome, they were received with the usual courtesies. At Utica the company was joined by Judge Platt, "who, by his exertions in the Senate and in the Council of Revision, afforded powerful and efficient aid to the cause of the Canals." 63b Next to the work through the "Mountain Ridge" at Lockport, the construction at Little Falls, where the canal bed was excavated in solid rock, was the most formidable labor executed. Arriving here at night, the flotilla was greeted by bonfires on the impending crags, and the usual addresses and banquet followed. At Schenectady was again displayed a feeling of dissatisfaction. Here had been the terminus of the Mohawk traffic and the beginning of the carry to Albany, and the people of Schenectady looked upon the new canal as a menace to their prosperity. A leading newspaper had proposed a funeral procession, and no preparations for a reception were made. However, the distinguished guests were received respectfully, but without enthusiasm, and conducted to a hotel where dinner was eaten in a sober manner. The "College Guards," formed of students in Union College, rose above the local feeling and partly relieved the solemnity of the occasion, by appearing in handsome uniforms and welcoming the boats by a salute of musketry.

At Albany occurred the most elaborate reception yet encountered, a whole day being spent in the celebration. A procession, which included the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, Canal Commissioners, Engineers and Assistants, Judicial Officers of the State and Union, Army and Navy Officers, most of the State Officers, military and commercial societies, and many others, proceeded to the Capitol, where appropriate exercises were held in the Assembly chamber. Then they marched to the elaborately decorated bridge over the Hudson, upon which tables had been placed to accommodate six hundred guests.

In the journey down the river the canal boats were taken in tow by steamboats and joined by several more, so that quite a formidable fleet was presented. No stops were made, and a day and a night were consumed in the passage to New York. From the villages on the banks, salutes were fired by day and fireworks exhibited by night. On the morning of the fourth of November, the passengers awoke opposite New York "to greet the beautiful dawn of a day long to be remembered in the annals of our state and country."

For the final ceremony of uniting the waters of Lake Erie with those of the ocean, the fleet was joined by many superbly decorated boats, forming a naval pageant, which, according to the narrator of the occasion, exceeded in beauty and magnificence any fète which the world had ever witnessed. Arrived off Sandy Hook, the fleet formed a circle and "His Excellency Governor Clinton then proceeded to perform the ceremony of commingling the waters of the Lakes with the Ocean, by pouring a keg of that of Lake Erie into the Atlantic; upon which he delivered the following address: --

"This solemnity, at this place, on the first arrival of vessels from Lake Erie, is intended to indicate and commemorate the navigable communication, which has been accomplished between our Mediterranean Seas and the Atlantic Ocean, in about eight years, to the extent of more than four hundred and twenty-five miles, by the wisdom, public spirit, and energy of the people of the state of New York; and may the God of the Heavens and of the Earth smile most propitiously on this work, and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race." 64

  The Marriage of the waters - Turner

(Copyright, 1905, C. Y. Turner.)
A mural decoration in the De Witt Clinton High School, New York, illustrating a scene connected with the ceremony of opening the Erie canal in 1825.

To complete the ceremony, and to typify the commerce of New York with all nations, Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell then poured into the ocean bottles of water from various rivers of the world; -- the Ganges and Indus of Asia; the Nile and Gambia of Africa; the Thames, Seine, Rhine, Elbe, and Danube of Europe; the Orinoco, La Plata and Amazon of South America; and the Mississippi and Columbia of North America.

On this occasion a toast to the memory of one, who at the time of his death was serving as canal commissioner, fittingly recalled the fact that but eighteen years had passed since the first successful steam navigation. While the steamboats were returning to the city this toast was given, standing -- "The memory of ROBERT FULTON, whose mighty genius has enabled us to commemorate this day in a style of unparalleled magnificence and grandeur." 65

While these scenes were being enacted upon the water, a procession five miles long, the largest of the kind ever witnessed in America up to that time, had been marching through the streets of the city since ten o’clock in the morning and was at the Battery at half past two to receive the returning fleet. The procession represented all the various societies, industries, and educational institutions of the city. The festivities of this memorable day were closed in the evening by the illumination of public buildings and private residences and by a brilliant display of fireworks. The City hall, the center of attraction, was lighted by twenty-three hundred lamps and candles, and the pyrotechnic display is described as surpassingly beautiful and never before equaled on this side of the Atlantic. On Monday evening, the seventh of November, the festivities in the city were appropriately concluded by a ball, at which the decorations were described as being particularly handsome and magnificent. "Above the proscenium were the names of the engineers who have been employed in the construction of the Canal, viz. -- Briggs, White, Geddes, Wright, Thomas; opposite these, and in the center of the circle of boxes, was a bust of Washington, surrounded with evergreens, and around were inscribed the names of the past and present canal commissioners, Hart, Bouck, Holley, De Witt, North, Livingston. Fulton, Clinton, Van Rensselaer, Morris, Eddy, Young, Seymour, Porter, Ellicott ... Upon the supper table was placed, floating in its proper element, (the waters of Erie) a miniature canal-boat, made entirely of maple sugar, and presented to Governor Clinton by Colonel Hinman, of Utica. 66

When the visitors from the West returned home with their boats, they carried with them water from the ocean in a keg, on which were inscribed the legends: "Neptune’s return to Pan", "New York, 4th Nov. 1825", and "Water of the Atlantic," Arrived at Buffalo, the celebration was concluded by pouring these waters from the ocean into Lake Erie. In closing his story, the narrator thus exclaims of the authors and builders of the canal: "Europe begins already to admire -- America can never forget to acknowledge, that THEY HAVE BUILT THE LONGEST CANAL IN THE WORLD IN THE LEAST TIME, WITH THE LEAST EXPERIENCE, FOR THE LEAST MONEY, AND TO THE GREATEST PUBLIC BENEFIT." 67

  Large Erie Canal commemorative medals

Large medals struck to commemorate the completion of the Erie canal.

In commemoration of the completion of the canal, medals of white metal were struck and sent to the invited guests at the celebration, to the committees from cities and villages along the canal, to colleges, historical societies and to many others. Silver medals were sent to Federal, State and Army officers and other distinguished citizens. Gold medals were sent to the family of George Washington, to the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, to La Fayette, the last surviving Major-General of the Army of the Revolution, to the senior officer then living of the Navy of the Revolution, to the President and ex-Presidents of the United States, and to the family of Robert Fulton.

Thomas Jefferson’s reply, upon receiving this medal, is worthy of notice in comparison with the doubts he expressed at the beginning of the canal. His letter was written on June 8, 1826, less than a month before the day when he and John Adams, two of the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of that historic document. He said:

"This great work will immortalize the present authorities of New York, will bless their descendants with wealth and prosperity, and prove to mankind the superior wisdom of employing the resources of industry in works of improvement." 68

It will be remembered that Madison had objected to giving National aid at the beginning of the enterprise. In his reply acknowledging the receipt of the medal he said:

"As a monument of public spirit conducted by enlightened Councils, as an example to other States worthy of emulating enterprize, and as itself a precious contribution to the happy result to our country of facilitated communications and inter-mingled interests, bringing nearer and binding faster the multiplying parts of the expanding whole, the Canal which unites the great Western lakes with the Atlantic ocean, is an achievement of which the State of New York may at all times be proud, and which well merited the homage so aptly paid to it by her great commercial Metropolis." 69

James Monroe said, "The accomplishment of the great work, undertaken by the State of New York, by which the western lakes are united with the Atlantic ocean, through the Hudson river, forms a very important epoch in the history of our great republic. By facilitating the intercourse and promoting the prosperity and welfare of the whole, it will bind us more closely together, and thereby give a new and powerful support, to our free and most excellent system of government." 70

John Quincy Adams said that it was "an event among those most worthy of commemoration, in the progress of human Affairs -- an Event equally creditable to the enterprize and Perseverance of the People of New York; and by the accomplishment of which, in honouring themselves they have reflected honour upon the age and country to which they belong." 71

  Keg carrying water from Lake Erie to the Atlantic

Keg carrying water from Lake Erie to the Atlantic, used in the ceremony of opening the Erie canal;
keg in the possession of the Historical Society of New York City;
photograph furnished through courtesy of Society.

  Small Erie Canal commemorative medals

Small medal struck to commemorate the completion of the Erie canal. Natural size.


1. Letter from Jonas Platt to Dr. Hosack, in Memoir of De Witt Clinton, by David Hosack, p. 381. (New York, 1829.)

2. Letter of Major James Cochrane to Moses I. Cantine, dated Utica, Feb. 10, 1822, in Appendix (p. 1) to Supplement of Troup’s Letter to Brockholst Livingston ... on the Lake Canal Policy. (Albany, 1822.)

3. Life of Gouverneur Morris, Vol. I., pp. 495-500.

4. Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 301.

5. Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. II., pp. 243-244.

6. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, pp. 311 and 313. (New York, 1829.)

7. Joshua V. H. Clark in History of Onondaga county, entitled Onondaga or Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times, Vol. II., p. 72. (Syracuse, 1849.)

8. Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Vol. II., pp. 347-348.

9. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 346.

10. Assembly Journal, 1808, p. 58.

11. Senate Journal, 1808, p. 36.

12. Letter to William Darby. Canal Laws, Vol. I., p. 43.

13. Canal Laws, Vol. I., p. 32.

14. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 347.

15. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 384.

16. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 504. Note: The report of Mr. Gallatin, accompanied by communications from Benjamin H. Latrobe and Robert Fulton, was a most valuable contribution to the literature concerning internal improvements at that time. It was published under the title, Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals, annexed to an anonymous compilation, entitled A Treatise on Internal Navigation. (Ballston Spa., 1817.)

17. Colden’s Memoir, p. 34.

18. Published in full in Campbell’s Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton, pp. 27-204. (New York, 1849.)

19. Id. p. 132.

20. The Canal Policy of the State of New York, by Tacitus (De Witt Clinton), p. 24.

21. Senate Journal, 1811, p. 65.

22. Development of Transportation Systems in the United States, by J. L. Ringwalt, pp. 41-42. (Philadelphia, 1888.)

23. Senate Journal, 1812, pp. 112-113.

24. The Canal Policy, p. 28

25. Assembly Journal, 1816, p. 12.

26. Assembly Journal, 1816, p. 269.

27. Assembly Journal, 1816-1817, p. 313.

28. Id. p. 8.

29. Assembly Journal, 1816-1817, p. 313.}

30. Assembly Journal, 1816-1817, pp. 353-354.

31. Assembly Journal, 1816-1817, p. 355.

32. Letter from Wheeler Barnes, in Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, pp. 492-493.

33. William L. Stone, in Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 450.

34. Jonas Platt’s letter in Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, pp. 387-388.

35. Origin of the Erie Canal, by Benjamin H. Wright. (Rome, 1870.)

36. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, p. 455.

37. Assembly Journal, 1818, p. 67.

38. Assembly Journal, 1820, p. 455.

39. Watson’s History ... of the Western Canals, p. 80.

40. Assembly Journal, 1820, p. 12.

41. Id. p. 11.

42. Assembly Journal, 1920, p. 516.

43. Id. p. 671.

44. Id. p. 452.

45. Assembly Journal, 1820, p. 453.

46. Id. pp. 454-455.

47. History of Onondaga County, entitled Onondaga or Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times, by Joshua V. H. Clark, Vol. II., p. 64. (Syracuse, 1849.)

48. Assembly Journal, 1824, pp. 1007-1008.

49. Facts and Circumstances in the Life of John B. Jervis, by himself. Never published, manuscript in Jervis Library, Rome, N.Y.

50. Assembly Journal, 1821, p. 871. Canal Commissioners’ Report.

51. Facts and Circumstances in Life of John B. Jervis, by himself. Manuscript in Jervis Library, Rome , N.Y.

51a. This plan was substantially the one finally adopted by the canal commissioners.

52.. White’s History of Erie County, Vol. I., pp. 282-283.

52a. Constitutional History of New York, Vol. I., p. 715.

52b. Eaton’s Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District adjoining the Erie Canal, (1824).

53. Canal Commissioners’ Report, Senate Journal, 1825, p. 275.

54. Canal Commissioners’ Report, Senate Journal, 1825, pp. 280-281.

55. Lamb’s History of New York City, Vol. II., pp. 688-689.

56. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, pp. 470-471.

57. Assembly Journal, 1824, p. 1367.

58. Hosack’s Memoir of De Witt Clinton, pp. 402-403.

59. Assembly Journal, 1825, p. 17.

60. One of the passengers upon the "Seneca Chief" was Mr. William L. Stone who wrote a graphic description of the whole celebration which he published under the title of Narrative of the Festivities Observed in Honor of the Completion of the Grand Erie Canal, etc. From this narrative most of the material for the present account is taken.

61. Narrative of the Festivities, etc., William L. Stone, printed in Colden’s Memoir, p. 299 (New York, 1825.)

62. Id. p. 303.

63. Id. p. 304-305.

63a. Stone’s Narrative of the Festivities, in Colden’s Memoir, pp. 304-305.

63b. Stone’s Narrative of the Festivities, in Colden’s Memoir, pp. 304-305.

64. Stone’s Narrative of the Festivities, in Colden’s Memoir, pp. 320-321.

65. Colden’s Memoir, p. 288.

66. Id. p. 328.

67. Stone’s Narrative of the Festivities, in Colden’s Memoir, p. 331.

68. Facsimile letter accompanying Colden’s Memoir.

69. Facsimile letter accompanying Colden’s Memoir.

70. Facsimile letter accompanying Colden’s Memoir.

71. Facsimile letter accompanying Colden’s Memoir.

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