HISTORY OF THE CANAL SYSTEM
OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK
TOGETHER WITH BRIEF HISTORIES OF THE CANALS
OF THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA
BY NOBLE E. WHITFORD
Traces of an early canal opened by an Indian chief; the survey by the State in 1826, and again in 1879; the incorporation of private companies in 1828 and 1848 to build Long Island canals; the beginning of the canal in 1884, and its subsequent completion and continued use.
In building the Shinnecock and Peconic canal, together with two neighboring channels, New York opened the only salt-water canal belonging to the State and also the only one constructed for more than purposes of transportation, for this channel was excavated not alone to accommodate the passage of boats, but also to reclaim a waning industry. Although the cost has been large, the renewed fish, clam and oyster industries are said to much more than compensate all expenditures. The canal connects two bays lying on opposite sides of the eastern part of Long Island, the bay on the north being an arm of Long Island sound, while that on the south is an indentation of the Atlantic, which has become landlocked in recent years. Speaking of the place where this canal is situated, a recent writer says: "Canoe Place -- Merosuck, was the portage between the Great Peconic and the Shinnecock Bays, a narrow isthmus, formerly the open channel between two adjacent islands of the once " ‘Gebrokne Landt.’ " 1 The author adds in a foot-note: "Traces still remain of the canal opened by Mongotucksee -- Long Knife, Chief of the Mohawks."
That difficulties similar to those which finally prompted the opening of this canal were of early origin, is shown by the following note in the town records of Southampton, which is entered under date of August 18, 1652:
"It was concluded by the voat of the Generall Court that there shall bee yet another attempt made for the letting out of Shinnecock water, for the regaining of the salt marsh meddow." 2
By concurrent resolution in 1879, the Legislature directed the State Engineer to make "a survey and examination as to the feasibility of making permanent communication between Peconic and Shinnecock Bays, in the county of Suffolk, by means of an opening or canal between them, with the view of aiding in keeping open an inlet into the ocean from Shinnecock Bay, and of navigation between the two bays, for smacks, sail-boats, and other like craft of light burthen," 3 and to report his opinion of the proper place for the canal, and its probable cost and annual expense.
In his report on April 7, 1880, Horatio Seymour, Jr., the State Engineer, referred to a former report, which Holmes Hutchinson had made to the canal commissioners in 1826, on a canal to connect these bays, which was a part of a proposed water communication extending from Peconic to Gravesend bay.
Mr. Hutchinson said in his report: "To accommodate the vessels that usually navigate Southold Bay and the Great South Bay, the canal should be 40 feet wide on bottom, 60 feet wide on the top, and five feet deep. The locks to be 22 feet wide, and 90 feet long between gates ....
"The examination commences in Southampton, and the first canal would be half a mile in length, to join Southold Bay with Southampton Bay at Canoe place. The soil is sand and gravel, and the deepest point of excavation would be 25 feet.
"A lock should be constructed at each end of the canal to retain the water at the elevation of high tide, and make slack water between the bays. The tide rises at this place about three feet, and as there are about three hours’ difference in the time of high water in the bays, the locks will be necessary to prevent a rapid current in the canal, and will permit the passage of vessels at all times of tide." 4
The plan required a draw bridge and the construction of a wharf in Southold 5 bay to form a harbor and to facilitate the entrance of vessels into the canal. Mr. Hutchinson estimated the cost at $30,913.80.
For the purpose of executing a part of this plan, the Long Island Canal Company was incorporated April 15, 1828, with a capital of $200,000. This company was authorized to build canals from Gravesend bay to Fire Island inlet. On April 8, 1848, the Long Island Canal and Navigation Company was organized, with a capital of $300,000, and was empowered to open canals from Gravesend bay easterly to Peconic bay. No results were achieved by either company toward carrying out the purposes for which they were incorporated.
Mr. Seymour adopted the location and general scheme chosen by Mr. Hutchinson. In reviewing the early report, he said: "The place recommended by Mr. Hutchinson seems designed by nature as a route for a canal connecting Peconic and Shinnecock bays, the distance across from one to the other is about half a mile, and the ridge is cut down to such an extent as to make necessary a cutting of only 25 feet.
"It has been for many years a carrying place between the two bays, as its name [Canoe Place] implies, and there is every indication of there having been at some time a water communication between the two.
"Within a few years this region has been surveyed by the government and the rise and duration of the tides determined. At certain periods, the difference in elevation of the water in the two bays is 2 38/100 feet, which would cause a velocity in a canal such as Mr. Hutchinson recommends, of 330 feet per minute, nearly five times as great as would be safe in a canal, the banks of which are composed of loose sand. A lock should be constructed of the size recommended by Mr. Hutchinson to protect the canal against the wear of the current. This can be furnished with a double set of gates so as to pass boats at all stages of the tide. A break-water will be necessary in Peconic bay to protect the entrance to the canal.
"To maintain the canal will require a force sufficient to operate the lock and make needed repairs to the structures and prism. Some dredging must be done from time to time to prevent the entrance to the canal from filling up." 6
Mr. Seymour’s estimated cost for construction was $35,000, and for yearly maintenance, $1,500.
Nothing further was done until the Legislature of 1884 appropriated $12,000 (chapter 508) for commencing the construction of this canal, the law providing for the maintenance of the channel by Suffolk county, but investing the title to the property in the State. This sum could be considered but a beginning, for, as we shall see in a later report, the State Engineer estimated the cost at this time to amount to $64,000, with a probability of additional structures, which were found necessary afterward, at an increased expense of about $24,000.
Work of construction was commenced during this year. The next year an additional appropriation of $15,000 was made (chapter 525). In 1886 a like amount was provided (chapter 330). In 1887 chapter 460 appropriated $22,000 for the completion of the canal, provided the State Engineer should certify that this amount, in his judgment, would be sufficient to complete the work. At the next session of the Legislature chapter 270 provided $4,500 for extending the piers on the easterly end, $1,500 for extension of those on the westerly end of the canal and $4,000 for improving the channel. Chapter 302, Laws of 1891, made an appropriation of $15,000 for the completion of the canal.
In reporting the progress of the enterprise in 1890, the State Engineer gave a brief review of the project, which declared the objects sought in constructing the canal. He said:
"The excavation of the channel between Shinnecock and Peconic bays, ... has been in progress for a number of years, Shinnecock bay, with an area of more than twenty square miles, was formerly connected with the Atlantic ocean, but for a number of years the inlet from the ocean to the bay has been closed by the formation of a sand beach; the result has been that this large bay is land-locked, the tide does not ebb and flow in it and it receives only the fresh water flowing from the surrounding hills. Evaporation from the surface about equals this influx of fresh water. It is claimed by the residents in the vicinity that the water of this bay has become brackish, that the fish life in it has been seriously affected and that this has been unfavorable to the health and business of the people living in the neighborhood.
"It was represented to the Legislature in 1884 that a channel between this bay and Peconic bay, which is an arm of Long Island sound, would give a tidal flow between the two bays, would change the unsanitary condition of Shinnecock bay by the introduction of salt water and possibly also would aid in the restoration and preservation of an inlet between that bay and the ocean. My predecessor, in 1884, made an estimate of the probable cost of such a channel, amounting to about $64,000, stating also that it was entirely probable that jetties or breakwaters at the Shinnecock bay end of the channel would be necessary, but not including their cost in that estimate. These breakwaters were found to be absolutely necessary for the protection of the channel and there was also found to be necessary a highway bridge over the proposed channel and also a stop-gate, which were not included in the original estimate. These would cost about $24,000, making the estimated expense of the whole work $88,000, as designed by the State Engineer Elnathan Sweet." 7
In 1892 the State Engineer said: "The close of the present year has witnessed the completion of the Shinnecock canal, connecting the waters of Peconic and Shinnecock bays on Long Island, at a total cost of about $98,000. This work ... has by reason of this policy, of insufficient appropriation cost about $10,000 more than originally estimated.... Several attempts had been made to open and maintain a channel from Shinnecock bay to the ocean on the south, which had thus far resulted in failures, and as a consequence, a great many fishing industries were entirely destroyed and a whole community were obliged to seek a livelihood in other pursuits." 8
Continuing, he said that during the preceding three years water had flowed through the canal at periods of very high tide, with a most gratifying effect upon the oyster growth in Shinnecock bay, and that, whereas three years before there had not been probably a single barrel of these shell-fish in the whole bay, in the previous year 25,000 bushels of seed oysters had been taken out, besides thousands of barrels of mature oysters of the finest flavor, conservatively valued at $100,000. The dredging had been extended to the deep water of the bay, with the result of obtaining navigation for vessels of six or seven feet draught, -- an important acquisition to the inhabitants and summer visitors of the vicinity. In conclusion, the State Engineer said: "Personal observations made through a period of several weeks last summer convince me that the canal will not only restore the shell fisheries to their former condition, but that it will also materially aid in keeping open a channel connecting the Shinnecock bay with the ocean, should one be constructed in the future." 9
When finished the canal was about four thousand feet long, forty feet wide on bottom, fifty-eight feet at water-surface, with a depth of four and a half feet at low tide. Although supposed to be completed, difficulties have since appeared which have necessitated an expenditure greater than the original cost. When the State Engineer reported the channel as finished, there was a part of the enterprise still under construction, but this was speedily completed. This work consisted in the construction of a swing-bridge to carry a highway across the canal near Shinnecock bay. In lieu of the locks suggested by Hutchinson and Seymour, this structure included a stop-gate between the piers of the bridge, which would allow the salt water to enter Shinnecock bay at high tide, but would prevent it from flowing back when the tide ebbed, thus avoiding the swift current and allowing boats to pass at high tide. However, soon after the completion of the bridge, the water, held back by the stop-gate, endangered the abutments by undermining the foundations and cut around through the approaches. A dam of piles and bags of sand was then built, to prevent further injury and to act as a temporary highway, and in 1893, under provision of chapter 726, a contract was awarded for restoring and protecting the bridge and approaches. This was done by driving long, tongued and grooved sheet-piling across the canal against the foundation and by placing rows of piles diagonally from the corners of abutments to the banks, with a filling of stone and sand at the approaches. At this time the stop-gate was removed.
In 1893 the State Engineer reported the permanent opening of the canal at a cost, thus far, of $118,000, but indicated a source of future expenditure in recommending an appropriation for bank protection, saying: "The entire length of this canal was excavated through sand of a very light and unstable nature, and in order to secure a, permanency to this channel, it will probably be necessary to protect its banks by piling for fully one-half of its whole length." 10
Responding to the State Engineer’s recommendations, the Legislature of 1894 enacted chapter 768, providing a fund of $15,000 for piling and protecting the banks of the canal, also chapter 358, appropriating $3,500 for the restoration and protection of the approaches to the swing-bridge over the canal. The work under these laws was begun during 1894, and consisted in driving a row of sheet piling along each side of the canal, to make the channel of uniform width from Shinnecock bay to the Long Island Railroad Company’s bridge, and in adding a fixed span to that swing-bridge, thus giving the full width of waterway at that point.
In reporting progress in this year, the division engineer foreshadowed another source of large subsequent expenditure. Speaking of the railroad company’s bridge, he said: "The abutments of this structure narrow the channel and forms an obstruction which greatly increases the velocity of the current at that point. The foundations are being undermined and they are in a very dangerous condition. When the tides are changing, during severe storms, these obstructions form cross-currents which tend to produce a scour into the shifting sands, causing changes in the courses of the channel. The abutments should be set back and the rows of sheet-piling continued as far as Conkling pond, thus giving a uniform width of channel the entire length of the canal." 11
The work of protecting the channel with sheet-piling, which had been begun in 1894, was completed in December of the same year, but at a considerably increased cost on account of a severe storm which occurred soon after the piling was finished in the vicinity of the railroad bridge. The waters had been driven through the contracted channel at the bridge with such force as to undermine and carry away much of the piling and to wash out the canal bottom to a depth of thirty feet, but the returning tides had filled it nearly to its normal condition. The break was repaired by driving triple-lap sheet-piling to a depth of forty feet.
It will be recalled that in 1893 the stop-gates had been removed from between the abutments of the swing-bridge. This resulted in lowering the water in Shinnecock bay about two and a-half feet and in eroding the banks and bottom of the canal by the strong tidal currents. To remedy this difficulty $12,800 was appropriated in 1895 (chapter 932), supplemented by $5,000 in 1896 (chapter 950), for constructing a set of automatic tide-gates. Under these provisions there were built five pairs of gates, supported on a platform of plank, which rested on piles. The gates spanned an opening of ninety-eight feet, with a navigable passage of twenty-eight feet and a depth of five feet on miter-sills at low water. The work was done with the water in the canal, and was completed in 1896, proving effective in restoring Shinnecock bay to its former height and thus stopping the damage that was being wrought to many hundred thousand dollars’ worth of fine property bordering its shores, by the growth and decay of vegetation along the uncovered beach.
In 1895 another part of the project was authorized. 12 An inlet was directed to be cut between Shinnecock bay and the Atlantic ocean, so as to have a further beneficial effect on the fishing, oyster and clam industries, and to relieve the stagnant condition of the bay. The bay is separated from the ocean by a strip of land from one to two thousand feet wide, which is low and flat, excepting at the beach, where the dunes rise to an elevation of twenty to thirty feet above sea-level. A channel -- thirty feet wide at bottom, six feet deep, with slopes of one on one and one-half -- was cut through the low land to the foot of the dunes, about three hundred feet from the ocean. This had been excavated during 1896, with the intention of completing the cut in the spring, when the high water in the bay and a low tide in the ocean would produce a head of five or six feet to assist in opening the channel. When this was attempted, the neighboring inhabitants donated their services, as funds had been exhausted, but It proved a failure, the waves quickly forming the dunes again, so that few traces of the channel now remain.
In reporting the completion of these operations, the State Engineer said: "But one thing is now needed to complete this otherwise satisfactory job, and until it is done, the very life of the other work is seriously threatened.
"The Long Island Railroad Company’s bridge now spans the canal just north of the tide gates. The present canal has an average width of 100 feet, while the clear width between the abutments of this bridge is only 40 feet. The effect of a northeast gale is to pile the waters against the north side of the bridge and then forcing it through the contracted channel between the bridge abutments, forms a whirlpool at this spot.
"The difference in elevation of the water surface between the northern and southern sides of the bridge, for a distance of about 60 feet, is sometimes as great as five feet, and the water rushes through with astonishing velocity, carrying with it all the sand in its course. The use of these abutments has long since been abandoned by the railroad company, and the present bridge rests on bearing piles exclusively. Immediately after such a storm, 42 feet of water has been found at this spot, and within four days thereafter this has been reduced to 17 feet, showing the extensive movement of sand by the scouring of water at this point. Except in the vicinity of this bridge, the waters of the canal at all stages and at all times are calm and tranquil, doing no damage to the bottom of the canal or its banks.
"Some means must be adopted soon for changing this bridge so as to leave the waterway under it of the same width as the balance of the canal, and it is hoped that the questions of liability and responsibility in connection with the bridge as between the State and the railroad company, which are now before the Board of Claims for adjudication, will be settled in time so that the present Legislature can adopt such means as may seem warranted under the circumstances for settling the present difficulty." 13
In order to gain a more perfect understanding of the legal action brought by the railroad company against the State, it may be well to examine somewhat at length the circumstances attending the building and the subsequent repairing and rebuilding of this bridge. When the canal was begun, this railroad was in operation. The excavation for the channel ran diagonally through the company’s lands and under its tracks, and the State undertook the construction of a bridge. Owing to the topographic conditions at this point, the tracks had been laid upon an embankment ten feet high. The abutments were placed at the edges of the bottom excavation, or so as to give but forty feet clear width between them, thus narrowing the channel at this place. As previously stated, the current resulting from the tidal action and the contracted channel was exceedingly swift and strong and gradually it undermined the abutments of this bridge, till in 1892 it was condemned as unsafe by the railroad’s engineers. Then appeal was made to the State authorities for relief, but, as no funds were available for such purpose, none was rendered. Thereupon, the company from its own funds strengthened and repaired the bridge at an expense of $22,344.65. Suit being brought against the State in the Court of Claims for the recovery of this amount resulted in a judgment in favor of the company for $21,470, which was paid.
The same conditions prevailing produced in 1899 a similar result and the bridge was again pronounced unsafe. The State Engineer also inspected the structure and confirmed the conclusion of the company’s experts. A second appeal was made to the State for relief, but none being afforded the company in this emergency resolved again to undertake the work, but instead of repairing the old structure, to build a new bridge of greater span, setting the abutments back far enough to open an unobstructed channel. This determination was at once acted upon and the bridge was built, involving an expenditure of $21,135.19. Before the actual work of construction was begun, the company submitted the plans and estimates of this new bridge to the State Engineer, who, they aver, approved them and sanctioned their execution. On April 22, 1900, the company filed a claim against the State in the Court of Claims for the amount expended in the construction of this bridge. This resulted in a judgment in favor of the State, dismissing the claim. May 22, 1902. Appeal from this judgment was taken by the company to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Third Department, notice of appeal being filed July 11, 1902. The case is still pending, nothing further having been done towards its final disposition.
There is little more to record concerning the canal except a few repairs and occasional dredging. In 1897, $5,000 was appropriated (chapter 791) for repairing the tide-gates. Work was also done upon another channel leading from Shinnecock bay, which, although not directly connected with the Shinnecock and Peconic canal, may be regarded as a part of the same general scheme. The old channel between Shinnecock and Great South bays was not large enough to permit a free circulation of water between them -- a condition which resulted in the waters of the upper end of Great South bay (called Quantuck bay at that end) becoming stagnant, and which threatened the destruction of the fish and oyster industries, as well as being a menace to health. A sum of $20,000 14 was appropriated for deepening and widening this passage, and by 1899 this had been accomplished, with the desired effect of remedying the sluggish condition of the water, benefiting the oyster industry and allowing freight and pleasure craft to enter either bay without difficulty. The channel was made thirty feet wide at bottom, five feet deep and with side slopes of one on one and one-half.
In reporting the condition of the tide-gates of the Shinnecock and Peconic canal in 1901, the State Engineer said: "In making repairs to these gates and their supporting platform and timbers during the present year, it was found that the timbers had been entirely destroyed by the teredo, which is active in these waters, and also that the plank platform has been freely undermined. It therefore became necessary either to abandon the works upon which $195,500 had been expended since 1884, or to rebuild them in a thorough manner. To do this, it was necessary to place two coffer-dams across the canal and to build a concrete wall 10 feet deep below canal bottom with triple-lap sheet piles 20 feet deep to prevent undermining, and to build a concrete platform three feet thick and 22 feet wide, resting upon the tops of the piles which were embedded in the concrete; upon this to rebuild a framework and miter-sills supporting the tide-gates with creosoted timber, and to replace the tide-gates in good working order." 15
When these repairs were begun in May, 1901, so extensive a change was not intended, but the exposure of the old gates, after coffer-dams had been built and the enclosed portion pumped out, revealed the ruin that had been wrought by the teredo, and an extra agreement was made with the contractor. Fortunately a sufficient sum had been appropriated ($30,000 by chapter 419, laws of 1900) and the work was completed in February, 1902, at a cost of $16,569.76, thus leaving a substantial amount, which was subsequently expended by the Superintendent of Public Works in necessary dredging between the highway bridge and deep water in Shinnecock bay and from the piers to deep water in Peconic bay.
This canal is now successfully accomplishing the objects for which it was built. Since the channel at the railroad bridge has been made as large as the remaining prism, the trouble at that place has ceased. The piles and sheeting that were driven along the sides of the canal have been undermined and washed away; the banks have assumed a natural slope and, aside from occasional dredging, the waterway should serve its purpose, with few expenditures, for many years.
1. Early Long Island, A Colonial Study, by Martha Bockée Flint, p. 49. (New York, 1896.)
2. The First Book of Records of the Town of Southampton, p. 87. (Sag Harbor, 1874.) Page 105 of original manuscript record.
3. Session Laws, 1879, p. 634.
4. Assembly Documents, 1880, No. 108, p. 2.
5. Mr. Hutchinson evidently applied the name Southold to the larger bay, which is now known as Peconic, rather than to the smaller bay, which at present bears the name of Southold [ See errata ].
6. Assembly Documents, 1880, No. 108, pp. 2-3.
7. Assembly Documents, 1891, No. 66, pp. 23-24.
8. Assembly Documents, 1893, No. 35, pp. 26-27.
9. Assembly Documents, 1893, No. 35, p. 28.
10. Assembly Documents, 1894, No. 21, p. 39.
11. Assembly Documents, 1895, No. 89, p. 206.
12. Chapter 932, Laws of 1895, appropriating $5,200, supplemented by chapter 950, Laws of 1896, providing $5,000 for this inlet and the tide-gates.
13. Assembly Documents, 1897, No. 73, pp. 30-31.
14. $5,000 by chapter 348, Laws of 1896, $5,000 by chapter 790, Laws of 1897, and $10,000 by chapter 207, Laws of 1898.
15. Assembly Documents, 1902, No. 31, p. 42.