HISTORY OF THE CANAL SYSTEM
OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK

TOGETHER WITH BRIEF HISTORIES OF THE CANALS
OF THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA

VOLUME I

BY NOBLE E. WHITFORD



CHAPTER XV.
THE CROOKED LAKE CANAL.

From the inception of the project to the abandonment of the canal.


The Crooked Lake canal began at Dresden, on the western shore of Seneca lake, with which it joined at a point about thirteen miles above the foot of the lake, and extended westerly to the village of Penn Yan and into Crooked (Keuka) lake, from which it took its waters. It rose from Dresden to Penn Yan about two hundred and seventy-seven feet, through twenty-eight locks, in a distance of nearly eight miles.

At the thirty-seventh session of the Legislature, in 1814, a resolution was adopted in the Senate, and afterwards concurred in by the Assembly, authorizing and requiring the Surveyor-General to explore and survey the outlet of the Crooked lake and the ground between the head of the lake and the Cohocton, a navigable branch of the Susquehanna river. He was also directed to report a proper plan to connect, by means of locks and canals, the waters of the Seneca lake with the Cohocton river, together with an estimate of the probable expense of the work and such other information as he deemed useful. Doubtless the Surveyor-General considered the work impracticable, for no report was rendered and the question of a canal between these lakes was held in abeyance.

However, an agitation for the construction of a canal to connect these bodies of water became manifest in 1827, when a petition was presented to the Legislature by the inhabitants of the county of Yates, praying for the passage of a law authorizing the construction of a canal to connect Seneca and Crooked lakes with the Cohocton river. The petitioners, realizing that canals already constructed in other portions of the state had promoted population, stimulated enterprise and produced throughout the range of its influence substantial gains in wealth and all other fruits of productive industry, desired to reap the same beneficial results by the construction of a canal in their midst, and therefore they joined in the cry for canals, which was being heard in all parts of the state. It was stated that the section of the state which would be accommodated by the canal was highly fertile and already settled by a large population and that business would be drawn to the canal from the county of Allegany and the southern part of Ontario. The petition was accompanied by a detailed statement of the surplus farming and other products which were expected to produce a sufficient amount of tolls in a few years to redeem the debt incurred in its construction. The Legislators paid no heed to the request in that year, but in 1828, upon the presentation of similar petitions, by concurrent resolution, they directed the canal commissioners to cause two routes to be surveyed -- one from Seneca lake to the foot of Crooked lake and the other from the head of Crooked lake to the village of Bath, located on the Cohocton river. The commissioners were also ordered to report the results of the surveys and estimates of constructing the canals, to the next Legislature.

In accordance with the resolution, the report of the commissioners, with detailed surveys and estimates of the two routes made by David Thomas, an engineer trained on the Erie, was submitted to the Legislature of 1829. In relation to the Bath canal, the engineer reported that the line would require an expenditure of $150,000, and that a feeder two miles long would be necessary. In speaking of the canal from Crooked lake to Seneca lake, which he called by way of distinction "the Penn Yan canal," Mr. Thomas stated that a pier to prevent the shifting gravel at Crooked lake from filling the outlet, and the removal of a low bank to straighten the channel a short distance below, were all that would be necessary to be done above Penn Yan. The mill-dam in this place would make slack-water navigation one mile up to the lake. The whole of the route surveyed was confined to a deep ravine through which the outlet ran, and the land was found to be of a character that would necessitate much rock excavation.

In his report, Mr. Thomas stated that the canal would have to be supplied with water from Crooked lake, but he questioned the adequacy of this supply, as in time of severe drought it was thought that the mills on the outlet would be deprived of water, if a part should be taken for the canal. It was estimated, however, that by a short dam thrown across the outlet the lake could be converted into an immense reservoir, which would not only furnish the requisite supply for the canal, but would benefit rather than injure the manufacturers. The engineer estimated the cost of the canal at $110,000, to which must be added, if the lake were raised, $10,000 for the cost of the dam and guard-lock, making a total of $120,000. The amount at first appeared unreasonably large for so short a distance, but when the great elevation to be overcome and the difficulties that would be experienced in so narrow and rocky a valley were considered, the cost was deemed moderate. The engineer reported the elevation of Crooked lake above Seneca lake to be about two hundred and seventy feet, and the number of locks required twenty-nine, which he proposed to construct with wooden chambers.

Prior to the transmission of this report, several more petitions in favor of the canal were received by the Legislature, the signatures of residents in adjoining counties being affixed. The legislative committee, to which the report was referred, reported that public policy justified the Legislature in acting in accordance with the desires of the petitioners, and introduced a bill providing for the construction of the Penn Yan canal, the title of the bill, however, being so worded as to read "Crooked Lake Canal."

This act (chapter 120), which was passed on April 11, 1829, directed the canal commissioners to proceed with all practical diligence to construct a waterway of such size as to admit of the passage of boats then navigating the Erie canal, and authorized the locks to be constructed with chambers of wood. The commissioners were also ordered to cause an examination, surveys, levels and estimates to be made by a competent engineer to determine whether, by raising the water in the lake by means of a dam across the outlet, or by deepening the channel at that point, a sufficient supply of water for all seasons could be obtained from Crooked lake without diminishing the supply afforded by the natural stream to the mills on the outlet. However, the law forbade the construction of the canal, unless the commissioners could receive good and sufficient security for completing the canal for a sum not to exceed $120,000, unless a plan was adopted by which the canal could be supplied with water without depriving the mills of their supply and unless the owners of the mills executed a release to the State for all damages which they might sustain by reason of the construction.

Upon the measure becoming a law, the canal commissioners proceeded to carry out its provisions by appointing Holmes Hutchinson to make surveys, maps, and estimates of cost. In 1830 the Legislature, by resolution, requested the commissioners to render a report of their proceedings in relation to this canal. The report showed that the engineerís views coincided with those of Mr. Thomas in reference to the manner of securing an adequate water-supply for both canal and mills, which was by constructing a dam and thus using the waters of Crooked lake. The line of the canal, as located by Mr. Hutchinson, began a little above the upper mill on the outlet, about a mile below the foot of Crooked lake and was conducted down the valley, independent of the stream and disconnected with the mill-ponds or hydraulic works, to the point of its intersection with Seneca lake. This plan was preferable to a slack-water navigation which, if adopted, would have to be connected with the hydraulic works.

The engineer proposed to improve the navigation of the outlet from the upper mill to the lake by deepening and widening a part of the channel. This plan was deemed practicable by some, but was considered objectionable by others, as this part of the outlet was then used as a basin for saw-logs and other private purposes which would cause interruption to navigation. To obviate this difficulty, another scheme was proposed in which it was planned to begin the canal at the lake, and in order to avoid the formation of a bar of gravel or sand at its mouth, to construct a breakwater. In his field work, the engineer found that the valley of the outlet was generally very narrow and at a few points so contracted as scarcely to leave sufficient width for the canal and stream, and as the canal, according to the plans, would occupy the bed of the stream at several places, a new channel would be required for the latter. The cost of the canal as estimated at $119,198, which included an allowance of thirteen per cent for contingencies, appeared to be reasonable, but it did not include the expense of a canal from the upper mills to the lake nor for a breakwater, the probable cost of these being placed at five or six thousand dollars.

The provisions of the law, which required the release of claims for damages or their payment by private subscription, after an assessment by the canal appraisers, not having been complied with, the canal commissioners postponed further action until such time as the appraisers could assess and individuals pay the damages, agreeable to the enactment of the statute.

The commissioners, however, did not fail to perceive the danger of building too many canals nor to sound a note of warning against the overexploitation of the canal policy as it related to costly laterals. To their report was appended a statement that the probable revenue from such a waterway would not be equal to the interest on its cost and the expenses of its repairs.

In the month of August, 1830, the canal appraisers ascertained the damages contemplated by the act authorizing the construction of the canal. Several mill owners readily executed releases to the State, being of the belief that they would not suffer for lack of water, while the amount of damages awarded to those owners of hydraulic works, who did not release their claims, was paid by the persons interested in the improvement, into the Bank of Geneva, to the credit of the canal commissioners, to be paid to the persons entitled thereto when the construction work was begun. Soon after the provisions of the act in reference to damages had been complied with, public notice was given for receiving proposals to construct the canal. The propositions were examined in October, 1830, and the terms offered being found to come within the requirements of the law, the contracts for the execution of the work were awarded at prices which aggregated, after including an estimate of engineering expenses, $95,820.

The work was begun in April, 1831, and by the terms of the contracts, the canal was to be completed by September, 1832. Arrangements were made to prosecute the work during the winter of 1831-2, and the completion of the canal at the time stipulated in the contracts was confidently expected, but unfavorable weather and scarcity of laborers retarded the progress of the work. The extensive public works, which were in progress in the State of Pennsylvania at this time, attracted the attention of laborers on this canal and many left for that state with the expectation of obtaining higher wages and a more lengthy employment. Undismayed by depletions in their forces, the contractors on this canal appeared to manifest a willingness to prosecute the work with proper diligence and they made efforts to procure men by sending agents and printed notices into other parts of the state, offering liberal wages. They possessed character and responsibility, and a general confidence seemed to prevail until the month of October, 1832, when a contractor for two miles of canal failed in paying his men. He was a foreigner who had great influence with his countrymen, and up to this time had succeeded in obtaining their confidence so as to protract his payments until his indebtedness exceeded $3,000. This occurrence so exasperated some of his men that after taking from him every vestige of movable property and setting fire to his shanties, they left the country.

This affair had an unfavorable influence throughout the whole line of the canal and interrupted the progress of work. A portion of the excavations under the charge of this contractor was very expensive, and he had persevered with an intention of finishing all his work, under the expectation of obtaining an extra allowance on a part of it. The sureties of the contractor, immediately after his failure, made arrangements for the completion of the unfinished work. Another factor which served largely in protracting the work was the presence of hardpan, this material or rock appearing in almost every lock-pit and proving to be expensive to excavate.

The canal was finally completed so as to permit navigation upon it on October 10, 1833, at a cost of $156,776.90. The contracts for work were within the engineerís estimates, but owing to unexpected difficulties the total cost was somewhat increased. The Legislature of 1833 passed an act (chapter 115), authorizing the canal board to make allowances to contractors for extra expenses and labor, occasioned by a change of plan or by work of a different character or description than originally contemplated. The size of the canal prism at completion was forty-two feet width at water-line, twenty-six feet bottom width and four feet in depth of water; the number of locks was twenty-seven lift-locks and one guard-lock, the dimensions of which were ninety by fifteen feet.

In 1834-5 complaints were received by the Legislature from mill owners who had been induced to believe that the construction of the canal would not diminish the supply of water for their factories. They averred that the immediate effect of letting water into the canal in the year 1833 was to lessen the quantity of water in the stream, thereby diminishing the supply to a greater extent than they had suffered in seasons of drought. The Legislature in 1835, by the passage of an act (chapter 276), authorized the canal commissioners to deepen the upper level of the canal two feet and six inches, to construct a feeder from the outlet of Crooked lake into the canal and to reconstruct the existing dam to four feet above the bottom of lower level, the supposition being that these improvements would be effectual in giving relief to the manufacturers.

To carry into effect these provisions, the commissioners advertised for sealed proposals, but only one proposition was submitted for the level-deepening, the bid exceeding the appropriation, while for the other work but few bids were received. It was ascertained that Waggoner and Gillett, the mill owners at the head of the outlet, considered the plan of deepening the level injurious to their mills, and that some of the other owners of hydraulic works on the outlet were opposed to such action.

Several mill owners were of the opinion that the most effectual relief would be afforded if the State should purchase the water-privileges on the upper dam, belonging to Waggoner and Gillett (who had exercised a control over the water of the lake after it had become depressed below the top of their dam), and then if a proper regulation of the waste gates at the dam were maintained, it was believed that the mill owners on the outlet below the mills of Waggoner and Gillett would secure a more uniform supply. However, the commissioners contracted to have a waste gate constructed at the State dam, and to have a feeder built from the outlet of the lake into the canal below lock No. 8.

In 1836 another controversy arose over the water-supply for the mills, when Abraham Waggoner forwarded a petition to the Assembly asking for remuneration for damaged alleged to have been sustained in consequence of the construction of the canal. The petitioner asserted that he was the owner of a sawmill and a grist-mill; that before the Crooked lake canal had been built his sawmill had a full supply of water for at least four months in the year and that the grist-mill had a plentiful supply from the first of March to the end of the fall season. He contended that the dam erected by the State across the outlet above his mill was four feet higher than the bottom of his flume, depriving him of the use of two feet of water from the surface of the lake and seriously interfering with the operation of the mills. The petition was referred to the canal commissioners, and they reported that the purchase of the water-rights of Waggoner and Gillett would probably prove a more satisfactory solution of the difficulty than the adoption of that portion of the plans proposed in the act of 1835, which called for the deepening of the level, for it was thought that the water-privileges could be obtained for a sum considerably less than the cost of the proposed deepening. The report of the commissioners was followed by the enactment of chapter 216 which amended the act of the previous year (chapter 276) so as to authorize the canal commissioners, if they deemed it advisable, to purchase the mills and the water-privileges of Waggoner and Gillett for the purpose of regulating the flow and discharge of the waters of the Crooked lake into the natural channel of the outlet. Shortly afterward the new waste gates on the State dam were completed and conditions were improved, the manufacturers receiving a larger and better regulated supply of water.

For the next few years the locks on the canal required extensive repairing, the structures being of framework and constructed upon the same plan as those on the Chemung canal where so much trouble was experienced. In 1841 they became a source of much vexation and expense and at several points navigation was maintained with difficulty. However, with constant repairing they were sustained through the following seasons until 1845, when the Legislature was forced either to make appropriations for repairs or abandon the canal.

The financial troubles of 1837 and the change of political control in 1842 had brought about the enactment of the "Stop law," (chapter 114, Laws of 1842), which prohibited work on all the canals, except such repairs as were necessary to keep the water-ways in a navigable condition, and thereafter no considerable funds were available until the new Constitution of 1846 provided for the levying of a tax each year for the needs of the canals.

Of course the question arose at this time concerning this water-way, in common with the other lateral canals, as to whether it would ever prove itself a profitable investment for the State. Although the Comptrollerís report of 1842 showed that, since its completion, this canal had cost the State $97,965 more than it had contributed in tolls, the clamorings of interested people for further improvements were too insistent, and public sentiment was still too strongly intent on the benefits that would accrue, if the laterals were properly equipped, to allow their abandonment for many years to come.

The pressing need for repairs led the legislatures of 1844-5 to pass laws for improving the canal, this action being deemed necessary both to put the canal on a better paying basis and to preserve the canal from utter uselessness within a few years. The law enacted in 1844 (chapter 313) required the canal commissioners to improve the lower or lake level of the canal, so as to adapt it to the natural level of Seneca lake by lowering the bottom one foot and thus giving at all times four feet of water in the level. By 1845 the locks were in so dilapidated a condition that the Legislature by an act (chapter 338) directed the commissioners to reconstruct them and appropriated $25,000 for the work, an additional appropriation of $25,000 being allowed by act (chapter 325) passed in 1846.

Upon recommendation of the engineers, the canal commissioners approved a plan for composite locks, and on June 26 contracts were let for eleven structures, the stipulations being that the head of the locks and the sides of the chambers, for a length of six feet below the upper quoins, should be of rubble masonry laid in hydraulic cement and that the remainder of the sides of the chambers should be composed of substantial dry walls, faced with a framework of timber and plank. The locks were completed and first used on the first of May, 1847, and in 1848 the rebuilding of all the locks was completed at a total cost of $107,264. By an act (chapter 218), passed in 1849, the commissioners were authorized, "if in their opinion the interests of the state would be promoted thereby," to rebuild the lock at the termination of the canal, at Seneca lake, and to build it of stone instead of making a composite lock, such as was then authorized by law. In 1850 the new lock was completed, and the work of constructing a pier in Seneca lake at the terminus of the canal was started, the structure being first used in 1851, having been built for the purpose of rendering a convenient and secure harbor for boats.

In 1853, in order to enable steamboats to enter the canal in safety from Crooked lake, $5,000 was appropriated by an act (chapter 620) for the improvement of that part of the canal between the foot of the lake and the village of Penn Yan. This work was imperative, as much serious difficulty had been experienced at times by boats being driven upon the beach whenever high winds prevailed. The work of improvement was put under contract in the spring of 1853 and the contractor prosecuted his work until the sum of $3,900 had been expended, when the contract was abandoned. It was relet in September, 1855, in which year the further sum of $3,500 was provided by an act (chapter 570) to complete the work. The amounts appropriated became exhausted on August 1, 1857, and the contractor, although duly notified of the fact, continued with the work after that date upon his own responsibility, until he had completed the dredging to the Liberty street bridge, as ordered by the acts of 1853 and 1855. The expenditures made for the work attained the desired results, as navigation was so improved that boats were afforded a good entrance from the lake in all kinds of weather.

In 1859 the harbor in Seneca lake at Dresden required much dredging, as deposits had accumulated in the basin to such an extent that loaded boats could not gain access to the warehouses, nor lie at their piers to load or unload their cargoes. The improvement at this point necessitated an outlay of nearly $1,000.

For several years navigation was maintained in a good condition with the ordinary expenditures for repairs, but in 1863 it was perceptible that the canal had been greatly neglected from want of sufficient appropriations, and that it required immediate improvement. The dilapidated condition of the guard-lock at Penn Yan and the difficulty experienced during the dry season in maintaining the requisite depth of water on the old miter-sill made it necessary to construct a new lock, which was built of stone and placed eighteen inches lower than the old one. In July a heavy freshet caused serious damage to the canal and rendered necessary repairs that suspended navigation for two months. The repairs cost the State $3,704.15 beyond the amount required to be done by the repair contractor. At this time the banks of the canal were not properly protected against the outlet of Crooked lake, which flowed immediately in the rear of the towing-path bank, and they were constantly showing signs of weakness, requiring great watchfulness and also large expenditures to protect them.

In 1864 work was started toward deepening the Penn Yan level, in order to conform to the miter-sill of the new guard-lock, a work that for a long time had been very much needed, but only a portion of the work was done at that time. The level was about a mile and one-half long, and the water became so low during the latter part of the season of 1869 that boats could not draw the regulation depth, and the Legislature of 1870, by act (chapter 767) appropriated $2,000 for further work in bottoming out the level.

During the year 1865 the foundations of eight locks were found to be defective; the jaws and lower wings were constantly pressing together, requiring the face of the walls to be dressed off so as to allow the passage of boats, and this had been done to such an extent that the locks were liable to fail at any time. Under an appropriation of $40,000 by act (chapter 715, Laws of 1868), the structures were rebuilt wherever necessary and this work continued until 1872, when other locks were reported to be in a condition that necessitated rebuilding. At the opening of navigation in this year another serious problem confronted the State authorities -- the presence of but twenty-three inches of water on the lower miter-sill of the lock at Dresden. Crooked lake was also very low and for nearly half of that season, boats were limited to a draught of two feet.

For the next few years no work of any description was done. It was impossible to keep the canal in condition without an enormous outlay and the authorities deemed it imprudent to appropriate any considerable portion of the ordinary canal fund to this waterway, when its commerce was so small and steadily diminishing and when the money was so urgently needed on canals that were carrying a much larger traffic. Notwithstanding the condition of the locks during 1872, the repair contractor creditably kept the canal in fair navigable condition with the result that boats made quicker passage upon it in that year than during the few years preceding.

The attitude of the commissioners made it apparent that the canal had served its usefulness, and the question of abandonment arose in the minds of the Legislators in the Assembly of 1872. A resolution was passed requesting from the Attorney-General an opinion, as to "whether there [were] any constitutional objections to the abandonment of the Crooked Lake canal, and the sale of the same by the State." While the Constitution distinctly prohibited the sale of the canal, the Attorney-General was of the opinion that the Legislature could, without violating its constitutional duty, practically abandon the canal by failing to make appropriations for its repair and management, and subsequently could sell the land which it occupied.

This procedure did not produce any immediate result, but soon the first step toward closing several canals was taken. As the lateral canals had not been self-sustaining, people had come to think that the State should be relieved of the burden of maintaining them, and finally public opinion became so aroused as to demand their abandonment. This subject is carefully considered in a separate chapter and need not be mentioned here except as it relates to this particular canal.

The Constitution of 1846, prohibiting the sale or lease of any of the canals, was amended in 1874 by removing from certain canals such prohibition, and the Legislature of 1875 enacted chapter 499, requiring the canal board to examine these canals and ascertain whether they should be sold, leased or abandoned. The board rendered a report, but as details such as were desired were not embodied therein, another act (chapter 382) was passed in 1876, appointing special commissioners to make an investigation. In their report they stated that the structures and banks of the Crooked Lake canal were found to be in fair condition; that in 1875 the tolls were $126.09; tolls contributed to Erie, nothing; expended for maintenance, $7,710.15; and estimated to maintain for 1877, considerable more than the amount for 1875.

The commissioners further reported that this canal was not necessary as a feeder to the Erie, its value for hydraulic purposes inconsiderable, and that, although it had been built to afford a section of about three hundred square miles of the best farming lands of the state the privilege of water communication with the commercial marts of the East and had been the cause of erecting some twelve or fourteen storehouses for receiving products of that section of country, and although the closing of the canal would mean the disuse of these storehouses and the deprivation to that territory of suitable transportation facilities, except a railroad that would tend to divert the traffic to Pennsylvania, they were of the opinion that the State was not warranted in maintaining the canal, and they recommended its abandonment.

Acting upon that recommendation there was an official abandonment on June 4, 1877, by act (chapter 404) of that year, although there had been no navigation on the canal since 1875. In January, 1877, the waterway was transferred from the middle division to the western division by resolution of the canal board. The law providing for abandonment also conferred upon the canal commissioners or the Superintendent of Public Works the right to sell the canal, its appurtenances and water-privileges, provided the hydraulic action and the natural flow of the outlet of Crooked lake should not be diverted or changed. In the same year the Penn Yan and New York Railway Company made an application to the canal commissioners for the purchase of the banks and prism at a reasonable price, stating that they desired the property for the bed of a railroad to be constructed, maintained and operated between Penn Yan and Dresden.

In pursuance of the law which became operative in 1877, the canal commissioners advertised for sale the materials of the locks, aqueducts and bridges, but as the sales had to be adjourned from time to time, the efforts to sell the structures were abandoned. The officials also considered the application of the railroad company and favored legislative action to meet the request of the company. Consequently the Legislature in the following year passed an act (chapter 143) authorizing the commissioners of the land office, for the consideration of $100, to release the banks and prism to the railroad company with the provision that, if the railway should not be completed within two years from the passage of the act, the property should revert to the State and be disposed of as specified in chapter 404, Laws of 1877. The latter chapter was amended by an act (chapter 314), also passed in 1878, empowering the Superintendent of Public Works to sell all such portions of the canal as should be desired by adjacent owners on condition that the State should be released from all obligation to maintain the bridges and other structures located thereon.

During 1878 the land commissioners released the banks and prism in pursuance of act (chapter 143) passed that year, to the railroad company, which, in consequence of delay, was granted further extensions of time in which to complete their line by acts (chapter 34, Laws of 1882, and chapter 471, Laws of 1884.

In 1878 the offices of the canal commissioners were abolished and all the powers which had been vested in them in connection with the sale of the canal passed into the control of the Superintendent of Public Works by the enactment of chapter 522 of the Laws of 1879, which was amended in 1881 by act (chapter 157) authorizing the superintendent to advertise for sale all property, privileges or rights intended to be sold, other than those already acquired by adjacent owners and the railway officials.

At present the line of the canal is occupied in large part by the Penn Yan branch of the Pennsylvania division of the New York Central Railroad system, a few vestiges of the old prism and structures still remaining. As this canal was not a link in any great through system, and had not opened the way to extensive lake traffic, its influence was entirely local and limited to a small area. It served a purpose in helping to develop the country and in affording communications until it paved the way for railroads, but its contributing territory was too small to sustain financially a canal built along a route that proved expensive in both construction and maintenance. Therefore, it never could have been a paying investment, and it gave way before the railroads that could be operated economically under the conditions that prevailed in that locality.



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