A history of the events and a study of the causes which led to the abandonment of the lateral canals.

The fact of the discontinuance of certain of the subordinate branches of the early canal system of New York has been given probably undue prominence in discussions of the economic possibilities of canal-building. Some have been inclined to condemn altogether the principle of internal navigation by canals, or at least the particular system to which these abandoned members belonged. Others have distinguished in favor of trunk lines, which tap some source of extensive through trade at their terminals, as against those which depend principally or entirely on the commerce originating along their courses. Familiarity with the history of canal-building in the state is necessary to a clear understanding of the special conditions which governed in this instance and which forbid too sweeping conclusions.

We have seen in previous chapters that while at first the canal project was pronounced impracticable, a mirage, an heroic dream, yet speedily following its material realization and success, its projectors were lionized and their ideas were exaggerated in a blind, popular frenzy over any improvement which outwardly bore a semblance to the Erie canal. Many men sought to share in the glory won by these pioneer statesmen, and many communities clamored for an extension of the branch lines to enable them to benefit more directly and to participate more freely in the splendid profit accruing to the State from its "Grand Canal." The records attest that petitions for canals poured in upon the Legislature from all quarters. The "great canal law" of 1825 (chapter 286) provided for the survey of some seventeen such waterways, aggregating in length many hundreds of miles. Even private enterprise -- not to be deterred from enjoying its share in this glittering El Dorado, this "Broad and ample road whose dust is gold" -- secured charters and launched upon its particular schemes in blissful expectancy.

During this period the canal commissioners and advocates were wise enough to apply a good deal of deliberation, realizing that a misstep and failure in any particular meant a sudden and destructive reverse in the tide of public opinion. Even then there were dissenters to the wholesale extension of the internal water-ways, who protested that the three or four main canals constituted a complete system in themselves. 1 As soon also as the railroads began to parallel the branching lines of canal, the rapid extension of commerce and the stimulating effect of the canals on business commenced to wane. Normal conditions were merely being resumed, but it seemed to the most ardent advocates like retrogression. From the height of enthusiasm some of them fell to the depths of disparagement over the canal-building issue. They intimated that rails and locomotives would do the work of artificial rivers and barges, and the State would be saved thereby the expense or risks involved. Sentiment even prior to 1835 swung to the extreme of proposing to convert the Erie canal into a railroad, and in that year the Assembly passed a resolution requesting the canal commissioners to submit a report 2 treating the subject of the relative advantages of canals and railroads, which should guide the Legislators in their consideration of the proposed expenditures for extension of the system and enlargement of the Erie. The weight of public opinion had not shifted, however, and with the commissionersí favorable conclusions the project to enlarge the Erie was carried. More laterals also were built or purchased, of which the last conspicuous example was the Black River canal, opened to navigation in 1850 or seventeen years subsequent to the completion of the Chemung and Crooked Lake canals -- the first of the subordinate group afterwards abandoned.

As the expense of maintenance on the minor lines of the system rose year by year, it became increasingly embarrassing to make the extensive repairs and renewals. Year by year also these canals, which had never been self-supporting, were forced to surrender more of their revenues to the competing lines of railroad, until, led to take advantage of the elastic term "Ordinary Repairs" to make good the deficiency on their balance sheets, the commissioners not only brought upon themselves the accusation of spending the surplus tolls earned by the trunk canals, which by the Constitution should have been contributed towards the several sinking funds, but for current work on the laterals they were known to have drawn heavily also upon that portion of these moneys specifically assigned by the Constitution to the enlargement of the Erie and the completion of unfinished work. Obviously, the speedy fruits of such a device were delays and shortcomings in the constructive work already authorized, recommendations from the commissioners for further appropriations far in excess of the original estimates, and to these frequent appeals a more and more irritable response.

In February, 1850, the Senate, rasped by such irregularities of procedure, passed a resolution bidding the commissioners to report all recently adopted plans for improving or renewing locks on any State canal except the Erie, together with a statement of the authority under which they operated and the fund provided for the execution thereof. A dissonant voice responded in the minority report presented by one of the three members of the commission who hinted at extravagant expenditures and charged that the term "ordinary repairs ... by a little legislative legerdemain," had been "made to signify the enlargement of the lateral canals, and embellishing them with costly and magnificent bays, basins, and aqueducts -- the constructing of new canals where none have heretofore existed -- the changing of the routes of the old lateral canals, and in short, the entire engulphing, in the lateral canals, the remainder, which the people, in adopting the Constitution, vainly supposed they had sacredly pledged to the completion of the works which had been authorized by law, begun, and abandoned for want of funds." 3

The commissioner continues, voicing, for the first time officially, the attitude which culminated in the legislative abandonment of 1877: "It [the Erie canal] is the aorta of the canal system, bearing the life blood of commerce from its most distant ramifications ... and it can ill afford the gross robbery of the aliment upon which it had a constitutional right to depend."

The public was considerably stirred by the evident costliness of canal work, over and above the estimates, upon which as a basis it was undertaken; and the Governor in his annual message of the ensuing year, 1851, dwelt at length upon the problems of financing the projects for enlargement and completion in such a manner as to expedite that preeminently important matter to a greater extent than the specific terms of the Constitution would allow.

Passing over the succession of acts, measures of relief, repeals and constitutional amendments, whereby the greater canal came to be, in 1862, an accomplished fact, one is more and more impressed with the transition of public feeling from its ecstasy of support of the principle of artificial waterways, even in cases of doubtful promise, to an acutely sensitive state of mind with reference to any further expenditure or application of the principle however conservative. By 1867 the attitude of the people was reflected in the Legislature through the appointment of a joint committee to examine into the management of canal affairs, and the sentiment of distrust came to a head in the further appointment, in 1875, of another joint committee of the Legislature, charged "to investigate ... the question of fraud and collusion," with reference to the administration of canal funds, and to report within thirty days.

Prior to this, however, in the year 1873, a Constitutional Convention proposed, together with numerous other amendments, one which was notable as anticipating the future canal policy of the State. Section 6 of article 7 of the Constitution of 1846 provided that, "The Legislature shall not sell, lease or otherwise dispose of any of the canals of the State; but they shall remain the property of the State and under its management, forever." What the convention now proposed was to amend this section so as to read, "The Legislature shall not sell, lease or otherwise dispose of the Erie canal, the Oswego canal, the Champlain canal, or the Cayuga and Seneca canal; but they shall remain the property of the State and under its management forever." 4 The proposed amendment further restricted the entire expenditures in behalf of the above-named canals for any one year to the amount of "their gross receipts for the previous year." It also provided that the sums accruing from the disposition of any canal should be applied towards the "payment of the debt for which the canal revenues are pledged." And in section 13 of the same article, it was proposed by amendment to forbid the appropriation of the several sinking funds for any use except payment of interest and extinguishment of principal of the public debt and of that particular debt and in the specific manner prescribed.

It is noteworthy that when the resolution of the Senate, which embraced these propositions, was put before the Assembly, the latter body rejected motions which arose successively to include in the reservation the Genesee Valley and the Chenango canals, but inserted, by an amendment passed with a narrow margin, the words, "the Black River canal," thus reserving five instead of four members of the system. The resolution thus amended passed the Assembly by a significant vote, in the approximate ratio of one to seven. The Senate, however, refused to concur in the amended resolution. It was returned, and again referred to the Senate, thence back to the Assembly, which finally agreed to recede from its amendment, and thus to withdraw constitutional protection from the Black River canal, as from the several other laterals. 5

By the ratification of the Legislature of the following year, 1874, these proposed amendments, in conjunction with many others, were brought to the test of a popular referendum. The results of this direct vote, by the people of the State, on legislation in which the issue between retention and abandonment was so clearly marked, must be very instructive, it would seem, as an index of the popular attitude, and of the local feeling as well, in regard to the several smaller canals of the system. The amendment was carried by a popular vote in the ratio of four to one. 6 The smaller majorities were polled in the counties bordering the canals most affected, although no county in the state, with the exception of Schoharie, Yates, Jefferson, Lewis and Oneida, voted against the amendment, and only the last four of these contained portions of the canals, while the last three, polling the heaviest majorities in opposition, lay along the Black River canal and their strong sentiment in favor of the preservation of that waterway was evidently reflected in the vote they cast. Oneida county, which was also very reluctant to have the Chenango canal abandoned and its empty prism left to breed miasma through the City of Utica and near the junction with the Erie canal, expressed decidedly the strongest opposition to the passage of the amendment.

The secret of such unanimity of feeling, aside from the general reversion of the public from an ultra-favorable to an extremely unfavorable disposition towards the canals, may be deduced first, from the fact that the laterals under consideration had never been self-supporting, and gave less and less evidence of becoming so; and secondly, because it was so obvious, as a glance at the auditorís tables of annual movements on the State canals would show, that the internal traffic had been generally diminishing, or at best holding its own, while the bulk of foreign commerce passing through the trunk lines had increased amazingly and become the mainstay of those canals.

The tonnage of forest products passing on the canals from other states to tide-water had, for example, increased rapidly, while the increase of the local shipments was only noticeable up to about 1855, from which year it had fallen gradually to a vestige of its former proportions. 7 The improvement of the output of agricultural products from out of the state was less marked in the later years, although they attained a greater magnitude than the products of the forest and held to it with considerable uniformity. The internal output via the canal had, on the other hand, fallen more or less regularly and had become a mere fraction of its initial amount.

These two classes of products constituted the bulk of shipments on the canals, and thus, although the same law of change is not observable in relation to the shipments of manufactures and merchandise, the figures for total movements on the canal show the amount of domestic traffic to be about the same in 1877 as in the early days of 1835 or 1840, while the proportion of tonnage, entering from and destined to points without the state, had risen from about twelve to some ninety per cent of the total shipments on the Erie, to and from tide-water. While such figures do not take account of the local traffic from point to point on the canal itself, still it may readily be conceived that, because of the evident failure of the lateral canals to pay their way, the people laid hold of them as the first victims of their disaffection and growing economical tendencies.

In consequence of the new amendment to the Constitution, already noted, the way was prepared for radical action when, by the early part of the year 1875, remonstrances against the heavy draught on the public purse in behalf of canals had taken shape in the appointment of the joint investigating committee aforementioned. In his annual message of January of that year the Governor reviewed at some length the subject of canals, and declared that some relief must come whereby the accumulating expenses could be defrayed or curtailed. He then differentiated between the trunk and lateral canals, stating that the maintenance of the latter had in the three years, 1872, 1873 and 1874, not only consumed the entire surplus tolls of the prosperous members of the system, but had in addition burdened the State with an average yearly deficiency of some $77,000, so that, instead of an annual sinking fund set aside for the purpose of canceling the public indebtedness on account of canals, it had now become necessary to levy taxes upon the people year by year to meet the requirements of extraordinary repairs. As the revenues, with past revisions of the toll sheets, were materially diminishing, while shippers importunately maintained that they could not compete with other transporting agencies unless rates were still further reduced, the Governor proposed to take advantage of the recent amendment to the Constitution and, confident that no private enterprise would undertake their operation, he in substance urged the abandonment of the non-paying canals.

Perhaps the gubernatorial attitude with reference to this matter was in a measure a concession to the outburst of popular prejudice against canals in general. It was the canal budget which had become so grievously onerous in the public estimation. It was the canal revenues at large which were diminishing. And these and all imperfections were swept along without distinction in the tide of public sentiment against the very principle of canals and all that related to them. The Governor may have deemed it necessary to surrender the laterals in order to save the main canals, allowing such action as a safety-valve for popular sentiment. It is significant that the same document calls to mind the glorious record of the Erie canal, and asserts that it still possesses latent possibilities of development and its retention is still of vital importance to the interests of the State of New York.

In his so-called "inflammatory" special canal message of March of this same year, 1875, the Governor pursued the thread of his former discourse, but confined himself largely to the matter of frauds in official circles, and urged the cessation of all extraordinary repairs (unless absolutely necessary) until after thorough investigation. Responding to this and the annual message, the Legislature promptly passed resolutions, one of which required the canal commissioners and the State Engineer and Surveyor "to examine the Crooked Lake canal, the Chemung canal, the Genesee Valley canal, the Chenango canal and the Black River canal, and their appurtenances to take such testimony in respect to the same as they shall deem necessary or expedient; ... to report ... on all matters incident to such disposal of the canals as may to them seem expedient," 8 and finally to submit their report to the Legislature of 1876.

Then followed a year during which the public was stirred to a very intense state of agitation by purported revelations of mismanagement. Then, too, a committee of the canal board on tolls reported that, in order to compete with the railroads and the Welland canal, the tolls on the State canals must be reduced, and they advised that this could be aided by reserving to the Erie that portion of its revenues which had gone heretofore towards the maintenance of the laterals. 9

Also, in 1876, the message from the Executive adverted again to the advisability of abandonment, as one of six "future measures" designed to relieve or correct existing delinquencies.

In the spring of 1876, notwithstanding the decease of one of the canal commissioners late in the year previous, which prevented the collective report and opinion requested by the legislative resolution of the preceding year, and notwithstanding the fact that no testimony had been taken as contemplated in that resolution, communications and partial reports from the two surviving members were submitted to the Legislature. These were along conventional lines and recommended, the one a continuance of the Black River canal but the abandonment of the laterals generally, and the other the completion of work and resumption of business on the Oneida Lake canal, and the lease or sale to some navigation company of the Genesee Valley canal, or, at all events, a delay of several years before its abandonment.

The report, thus incomplete and inconclusive, lent force to the original suggestion of the Governor that a special commission of experts should be assigned to the task of conducting a thorough investigation, and accordingly, during the session of 1876, an act 10 in more definite terms was passed, appointing as commissioners, A. B. Waldo, Warner Miller, E. W. Chamberlain and William Foster, who were charged "to visit, inspect and examine the lateral canals, known as the Chemung canal and feeder, the Crooked Lake canal, the Genesee Valley canal, the Chenango canal, and the Black River canal, and each of them and their appurtenances, in order to ascertain:

"1. The condition of each canal -- its direct revenue -- and its contribution to the system, -- the cost of maintaining it and keeping it in use, and probable future outlays for repairs and replacement if it should be kept in permanent use.

"2. Its value for hydraulic and commercial purposes and its usefulness to the business interests of its vicinity.

"3. Its necessity or utility as a feeder to the Erie canal, to what extent it is needful for that purpose, and the annual cost of keeping it in use as a feeder and only for that purpose.

"4. What means, if any, will be necessary to prevent injury or damage from any canal kept as a feeder or abandoned or the reservoirs connected therewith, to adjacent or neighboring property.

"5. What portion of any canal to be disused, or any property connected therewith, can be sold and for what probable sums.

"6. Generally what disposition should be made of such canals; and to report to the Legislature of 1877 ... all facts ... together with their opinion as to whether said lateral canals, or any of them, or any portion of either of them shall remain under the control and management of the State, or be sold, leased or abandoned."

Certain further charges were imposed upon the commissioners, particularly in the way of ascertaining the number and importance of concerns dependent on those canals and the extent of such dependence. In addition the commission was empowered to subpúna and take evidence and convene wherever deemed necessary to prosecute their investigation.

A bill was presented during the same session of the Legislature, entitled "An Act to provide for the disposition of the lateral canals," 11 but it was superseded by the act appointing the special commission. Further insight, however, into the indiscriminate peevishness of the public mind, with respect to the whole system of canals, and likewise of the line of argument pursued by the Legislators in their distinction between the trunk lines and lateral ramifications, may be had from an excerpt taken from a report in behalf of the House committee on canals for the year 1876, in the following language:

"Your committee desire to counteract a false impression which they apprehend is sought to be made by interested parties as to the real value of the Erie, Champlain, and the Oswego canals to the treasury of the State.

"They are aware that an impression is being made throughout the State to the effect that the canals are a tax upon the State, and that the Erie, Champlain and Oswego canals are not exempt from this charge. Whereas they respectfully call the attention of the House to the report of the Auditor of the Canal Department for 1875, and particularly to statement "E" thereof, on page 150, wherein it is shown that the revenues of the Erie, Champlain and Oswego canals, after deducting all costs for construction, repairs and maintenance, with interest thereon at six per cent., is over $63,000,000; and clearly showing that instead of being a tax upon the people they have been a source of great revenue.

"Your committee call the attention of the House to the further fact that out of a total tonnage of 3,223,112 tons arriving at tide water during the year 1874 -- a year of great commercial depression -- over the Erie, Champlain and Oswego canals, 2,400,127 tons were from the western States, Canada and Vermont.

"Your committee are not prepared to admit that the water-ways connecting the Lakes Erie and Champlain with the Hudson river, are to be abandoned for want of honest and capable men to manage them." 12

From the foregoing it is easy to conjecture how well assured was the fate of the subordinate members of the system at the hands of the people. It remained only to act with becoming deliberation, to protect the trunk lines from the ravages of popular disaffection, and to ascertain beforehand the precise limits to which the policy of retrenchment should extend.

In January of 1877 there was transmitted to the Legislature the report of the special investigating commission on abandonment of the laterals. 13 The commissioners presented not only the results of a comprehensive study of the physical condition of these canals and their financial possibilities, but also, by a minute examination of isolated and individual interests, they had established the facts relative to their public utility and the probable difficulty and expense of abandonment. The report contained the testimony of forty-six persons, was taken in the course of twelve or more sittings in as many towns and cities situated along the several canals under consideration, and was supplemented by numerous exhibits of private interests and of clearances, disbursements and statements of equipment and property. The following table compiled from data furnished by this commission illustrates forcibly the increasing inability of the canals in question to sustain themselves:

Annual Loss. Revenue in percentage of expenditures. Annual Loss. Revenue in percentage of expenditures. Annual Loss. Revenue in percentage of expenditures. Annual Loss. Revenue in percentage of expenditures.
1865 .... $85,508 32.8 $37,464 13.4 $117,314 15.8 $238,074 9.9
1866 .... 49,306 55.0 3,514 72.4 89,340 28.6 78,803 9.7
1867 .... 91,805 31.8 3,752 54.8 155,724 15.9 74,285 31.8
1868 .... 44,902 39.8 27,439 9.1 128,121 16.6 67,976 37.1
1869 .... 55,978 30.7 45,592 11.1 41,512 34.6 103,134 23.6
1870 .... 101,808 10.6 5,542 34.5 116,197 15.2 313,506 8.6
1871 .... 143,591 7.7 74,594 5.1 195,134 4.5 311,663 7.2
1872 .... 95,633 8.0 11,932 12.2 161,653 3.7 205,169 10.5
1873 .... 45,161 13.3 9,216 16.7 183,428 2.2 95,823 23.8
1874 .... 40,707 10.5 11,842 7.3 65,430 6.7 93,574 16.6
1875 .... 26,257 9.0 * * 26,313 10.0 96,054 12.2
1876 .... 6,782 69.1 * * 5,223 37.2 8,179 65.0
Figures deduced from Tables 1 to 4, of report on abandonment of the laterals. "Revenue" = Sum of tolls proper and tools contributed to the Erie. "Expenditures" = Sum of superintendence, ordinary and extraordinary repairs. "Loss" = Difference of above sums.
Note: -- During the latter years of this period the expenditures for repairs were largely curtailed in anticipation of the abandonment of these canals. This fact accounts for the apparently favorable ratio of income to expense after about the year 1871.
* Figures not ascertainable.

The commissioners reported the total difference between running expenses plus cost of construction, and the revenues up to the year 1876, to be, in round numbers, for the Chemung canal, three million dollars, for the Crooked Lake, eight hundred thousand, for the Chenango, six million, for the Genesee Valley, eight and one-half million and for the Black River, five million dollars. These figures represented, therefore, the total loss to the State, aside from damages and interest on loans and exclusive of the valuation of marketable property.

Having treated each of the canals separately in previous chapters, it is not necessary to discuss in detail the findings of the board. In general it may be said that they ascertained with reference to four of these canals (excepting the Black River canal) that several sections had already fallen into disuse; that extensive repairs would generally be needed in a brief time, the traffic having diminished, partly on account of the inferior facilities provided; that the legitimate claims of manufacturers against the State for hydraulic privileges on these canals were inconsiderable; that, with the exception of the summit level of the Chenango canal, which they proposed to retain, the Erie canal, and ultimately the Hudson river, water-supply [see errata] would not be at all impaired by abandonment; that the means necessary to prevent injury on leaving the waterway exposed to natural forces would not entail unusual expenditures; and that ample and superior transportation facilities had already, for the most part, superseded these canals. The commissioners doubted the possibility, as a business proposition, of selling the canals and the appurtenances intact, especially from the difficulty of exacting from any operating company a suitable guarantee of its future conduct; but as a legal question, they adjudged that the State was owner in fee simple, and, though once bound by a provision of the early Constitution to a permanent occupation, was yet relieved from all claims arising from that provision by the amendment of 1874, passed in conformity with the inherent right of a people to amend its constitutional law. In consideration of these leading facts, and from the further circumstances, that they were unable to discern any prospect of sufficient future development of the resources of the tributary country on which these four canals would depend, they declared in favor of abandonment.

On the other hand, investigation of the Black River canal disclosed the following circumstances favorable to its retention:

No extraordinary repairs were needed at once.

The canal was believed to be self-sustaining, if tolls contributed to the Erie were to be charged in its favor, and if expenses charged against it as a feeder of the Erie were to be transferred to the latter.

The lumbering interests had grown up at its instigation, were thriving and gave prospect of increasing immensely in future, but would be strangled without the canal, since rates by rail were prohibitive and railroad routes were not convenient.

Perhaps most influential of all considerations, -- the water-supply to the Erie canal from the Black river and its reservoirs was essential to the former, and to conduct it by another channel would mean a heavy outlay.

The commissioners thus rendered their opinion in concluding: "In the first instance," they asserted, referring to the southern laterals, "the business of the canal is gone or is fast disappearing, and its necessity no longer exists; in the latter," they continued signifying the Black River canal, "the business is to grow and multiply and the canal to become more and more useful to the people." The prevalent sentiment and the extent to which the popular cry of "Down with the Canals" interfered even with impartial treatment of the subject, is again indicated in the sentence, "Allowing due weight to these considerations and recognizing the spirit of economy and the desire for retrenchment which pervade the people, your commissioners submit their recommendations to the judgment of the Legislature."

Licensed by the logic of this excellent and exhaustive report the Legislators were now prepared to give way to that "desire for retrenchment" which possessed the people and yet it was a testimonial to the merits of the investigation that a statute enacted in June of the same year, 1877, followed closely the recommendations of the commissioners.

In years previous to the adoption of the constitutional amendment there had been some relinquishment of lands owned by the State in connection with the canals, and an act 14 had been passed providing that, when the canal commissioners decided that lands appropriated for State canals had been abandoned, they might sell the same or might, if such lands had been originally granted to the State without a consideration, release the title to former owners, excepting sections valuable for hydraulic purposes which were not to be conveyed in perpetuo. A later statute 15 declared that this act applied to lands owned by the State at the time of their appropriation for canal purposes. The session of 1877 used this old law as a nucleus 16 and built about it the legislation already indicated, which finally abolished the several canals specified, and which, in view of its bearing on the subject under consideration, we shall examine at some length.

The statute 17 passed in 1877 provided for the disposition and sale of certain lateral canals and the lands, rights and other property connected therewith in the following manner:

1st. A portion of the Chenango canal, "commencing at and lying south of ... the village of Hamilton, Madison Co.," after May 1, 1878, and excepting certain reservoirs and feeders (needed for the Erie canal), and reserving the water-supply for the State Lunatic Asylum which was to be maintained by the canal authorities.

2nd. The Chemung canal at the close of navigation in 1878, the water-power and rights on the Chemung river to revert to the former owners or their successors.

3rd. The Crooked Lake canal, on and after the passage of this act, the State to restore or secure permanently the natural flow and hydraulic action of the lake.

4th. The Genesee Valley canal, on and after September 13, 1878.

By the terms of this act the commissioners or the Superintendent of Public Works were to appraise the portion of these canals lying in the several villages for both land and water-privileges, and give the option of purchase to these villages; and the same option was to hold for inlets or outlets or portions desired for hydraulic, hygienic or fire purposes. The villages were required to pay one-fourth of the price down and the rest in six equal annual installments with interest at six per cent. A certificate of purchase was to be given at once in such cases, but no deed until the end of the period, while in event of failure to pay when due, the property and previous payments should revert to the State.

Owners of adjoining estates, from whose lands the canal was originally taken by grant and without payment, were to be given an option on the abandoned territory which had been taken at that time from their holdings. The terms of payment in such cases were prescribed in the act and amendments.

The materials of locks, bridges and other appurtenances, with certain exceptions, were to be sold at auction unless it was deemed to be for the public interest to retain them or dispose of them otherwise.

Through farming lands the canal was to be conveyed in full width where the grantees owned the adjacent property on both sides, or the division was to be made along the center line of the prism where conveyed to different parties owning on opposite sides, and these grantees were to release the State from obligation to maintain bridges and from liability for damage. It also devolved upon the commissioners or superintendent, by the requirements of this statute, to restore streams which had been diverted from their old channels and to secure the abandoned prisms against the flow of water, except, in all cases, where the canal was to be retained, or used as a feeder or for hydraulic purposes.

With sufficient guarantees, the commissioners or superintendent, acting with consent of the canal board, were empowered to dispose of abandoned sections to responsible parties for railroad or canal purposes.

The net proceeds arising from this disposal were to be contributed as a sinking fund to redeem the canal debt. And finally no person or corporation was to have any claim against the State by reason of this proposed abandonment.

The passage of this act substantially closed the official history of the four canals named, and in its effect definitely settled the question of reopening the Oneida Lake canal as well. Whether the fate of lateral ramifications to the great Erie system of the State has been sealed for all time thereby we cannot know. There remained the actual execution of the law, and its several amendments, none of which altered materially the sense of the original document. The occasional statutory conveyances to villages lying on the banks of the abandoned waterways, or to abutting land owners, and the transfer now and then, of a short stretch for some railroad location, or claims against the State through a menace to health, brought about by the evacuation of the canal property, although measures of some passing interest, need not occupy our critical attention. The returns from sales of canal rights and property have been, until recently, merged in the general fund, so that no statements are available. It is safe to say, however, that the amounts accruing have been very meagre and insignificant in comparison with the sums which were previously expended in construction and repairs, so that the data accumulated by the commissioners of 1876 and 1877 and already quoted, express substantially the final and unfavorable balance of profit and loss to the State on account of these several laterals.

On November 7, 1882, the people of the State of New York ratified an amendment to section 6 of article 7 of the Constitution which reinstated the Black River canal in the list of those exempt from sale or disposition at the hands of the Legislature. By amendment proposed by the Constitutional Convention of 1894, permission was granted to sell a short section of canal connected with the Erie in the City of Buffalo. The section of the Chenango canal north of Hamilton, reserved by the law of 1877, has since been abandoned also. Otherwise, the status of the system remains to-day as it was left by the legislation of 1877. It may be said, however, that in his annual report of 1900, the Superintendent of Public Works recommended the abandonment of section 2, of the Black River canal, by reason of its diminutive business interests and that the Governor in a subsequent message approved the recommendation.

While another chapter has been devoted to a discussion of the canals undertaken and administered by private interest, it may be briefly noted here that they too have all disappeared, leaving the five lines specified in the Constitution as the sole survivors and representatives of the era of canal-building in this state (the Baldwinsville, Seneca river and Oneida river branches being really parts of the Oswego canal).

The circumstances of the abandonment of these and other contemporaneous canals, here and elsewhere, has been, as we have already stated, a chief stumbling-block in the subsequent advocacy of artificial inland waterways in general. The claim is made, however, -- and it appears to be substantiated -- that this policy of retrenchment did not extend to the vital members of the system, nor vitiate the principles of canal-building. It was simply like a thinning out of the overgrowth, a pruning of the rank or adventitious parts, or better still, the dead branches which had once borne fruit. Such a process does not imply that there can be no vigorous limbs nor that there is necessarily decay in the great parent stem; nor because we have so much use for the pruning knife in arboriculture do we lose courage and cease planting more trees.

We have likened the abandoned laterals to an adventitious overgrowth, and to a large extent this is consistent. The ready flow of population and the public money westward in conjunction with the opening of the Erie, the well authenticated mania for canal-building that followed, evinced, for example, by the very numerous petitions for canals other than those actually built, are facts which would of themselves lead to the presumption that the canal principle was overexploited. The special commissioners of 1876 and 1877 attempted to "ascertain the reason which induced the State in each case to construct these canals ... the public or private interests supposed to be subserved." Apparently they discovered that, in a general way, the promoters of the old Erie, which was to be the trunk of the system, voiced the expectation of the people with respect to the entire system. To be sure the most sanguine prophet could not have anticipated that the inland laterals would exercise any appreciable influence in cementing together the different parts of the Union -- the East and the West, nor that they could intercept and transmit to New York, as to a great distributing center, goods which would otherwise pass through the Welland canal and down the St. Lawrence, even though many declared these to be the chief functions of the canals of the State. Nevertheless, like De Witt Clinton, in earlier times, men predicted that "the enhancement of the profits of agriculture; the excitement of manufacturing industry; the activity of internal trade; the benefits of lucrative traffic; the interchange of valuable commodities; the commerce of fertile, remote and wide-spread regions ... [would] spread the blessings of plenty and opulence to an immeasurable extent." 18

They fancied that wherever the arms of the great Erie should extend, there too, "The wilderness and the solitary place shall become glad ... and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose." 19 It is a simple matter of observation that such a glowing prophecy was not fulfilled with respect to the laterals and no one will presume to claim the contrary.

On the other hand it is to be remembered that the extreme disaffection toward the canals into which the public mind had come at this time was almost as unreasoning as the former state of frenzy on the subject, and that, with or without excuse, the hand of the Legislature was virtually forced by public opinion, especially in its effort to neutralize this destructive tendency before it extended to the Erie and trunk lines. It is worth while questioning therefore whether these deceased limbs of the great system were absolute failures or did have a period of fruition.

There is little, indeed, to be said of the direct benefits derived at any period of their existence. The fact is not to be disguised in the first place that, as above detailed, there never was a time when the revenues from these canals amounted to as much as the cost of maintaining them. The laterals were not built early enough to attain a basis of self-support before the era of railroad competition began, for the first of them was not opened until 1833 and the Erie railroad was then already chartered. The effects were not so heavily felt as to prevent a yearly increase of activities, however, as we have seen, until 1850 or 1855, from which time the business and returns of these canals hopelessly waned. They were a continual drain on the finances of the system, and the deficit was mistakenly increased year by year.

Aside from immediate and obvious financial considerations the question arises, however, as to whether these waterways had benefited or were benefiting the several communities enough to pay for their retention. The studies made in connection with another chapter of this work indicate that the population of the southern counties situated on lateral canals increased with marked regularity from 1810 until about 1830, but that during the decade from 1830 to 1840 a decline in the rate of increase took place, which not only determined the average rate for the next five years but also that for the ensuing sixty years, from 1840 to 1900. Thus the counties bordering lateral canals lost rather than gained in their rapidity of growth during the early years of operation of these canals. As a matter of some interest in this connection, census returns for 1835 from nine canal towns -- four on the Chenango and five on the Genesee Valley canal -- were compared with similar returns for the year 1845. It appears as a result of the comparison that for the nine towns there was during the decade a slight net decrease in the rural population and also in the value of manufactured articles; there was, with one exception, a sensible increase in the amount of improved land reported for the several towns. At least two villages included were located also on the line of the Erie railroad. The decrease, it may be said, was more marked along the Chenango than the Genesee Valley canal.

The evidence before the special commission on abandonment abounds with references to such industries as were represented by lime-kilns and plaster-mills employing three or four men the year around; but there is a dearth of considerable business interests which would be sure to step forward and make themselves known if they existed. As the commissioners stated, if the evidence was meagre, it was because of the meagreness of the subject, which they believed they had exhausted.

But certain interested parties, who acknowledged in their testimony before the commission, that little of the shipping was actually done by canal, most of the coal even being obtained by rail, still maintained that water navigation as an alternative was necessary to keep down the railroad rates. No doubt the statement was correct that the canals had a rate-regulating potency, but with the limited interests involved, this alone did not justify retention nor did the ultimate abandonment operate to destroy the producers.

It is thus the verdict of research in that direction that these laterals did not at any time extensively develop the regions which they traversed. They did not materially enhance the profits of agriculture nor excite manufacturing industry nor "spread the blessings of plenty and opulence." The need of improved transportation facilities which they were intended to satisfy was in large measure supplied by the railroads, and so meritoriously that those particular canals were no longer required for the public exigency. The early promoters could not foresee the influence and competition of the railroads. Thus while the light of history would not justify the price, it might exonerate the spenders; but in view of the steadily diminishing usefulness of the lateral canals it could not justify their continuance under the economic conditions which then obtained. The commission very pertinently epitomized the situation in its concluding words, namely: "Whatever was their force originally, ... the interests to be subserved by the canals have, in some cases, largely ceased to exist or are otherwise better cared for; and the contribution to a permanent and general system so confidently expected has been a failure from the first and, in unmistakable instances, is decreasing in amount year by year."

In the application of this conclusion to general principles of canal-building, however, we may be permitted to remark that, from the standpoint of the engineer, there were certain disadvantages attaching to these and to similar canals throughout the country which have been abandoned, and that these disadvantages by no means appertain to all canals nor even to all tributary canals. In the first place, it is to be noted that while the locks on the Erie averaged about one in every five miles, the Champlain, one in three, and the Oswego, one in every two miles, locks on the smaller laterals were as frequent as one per mile, two per mile or even exceeded three per mile in some cases, thus implying unfavorable topography for the latter, and a very material addition to the expense and difficulty of construction, operation and maintenance. Moreover, the wasteful, intermittent process of construction of the laterals was a conspicuous factor contributing to their downfall, a factor which might have been averted by more extended and careful preliminary estimates, reinforced by such a fund of experience as we possess to-day, in conjunction with a more businesslike and consistent legislative policy. Not a little of the difficulty experienced in securing suitable materials for lock construction -- their excessive cost and the opportunities for poor workmanship in the case of stone masonry and the necessity for continual repairing and rebuilding of wooden or composite structures, so noticeable in the history of the abandoned canals -- may nowadays to a very considerable extent be obviated by the use of the new material -- concrete.

Again, it is a fact that these laterals had not the advantage of being branches of the trunk line in the sense that the auxiliary lines of a railroad are branches of its main thoroughfare and tap the outlying districts. The heaviest freight-car which travels on the main line of the railroad can usually be shifted off on to a branch and continue to its destination; but the full capacity canal barge for the large prism must transfer its goods to a smaller boat, adapted to the navigation of the lateral, or else the smaller boat must ply the large canal to obviate reshipment of its cargo, either alternative greatly increasing the cost of transportation of local freight -- on which the laterals depend -- relatively to through freight, and, therefore, greatly diminishing the serviceability of lateral canals of different prism from the trunk lines.

That the largest unit quantity of shipment, other things being equal, means the maximum economy of transportation, is, we believe, the secret of the inherent advantages of transportation by water. That there is, further, a saving in the case of water carriage, when an increased bulk is conveyed in a single bottom, may be easily demonstrated; for the fact is apparent that a mere increase in size of craft involves far less than a corresponding increase of immersed surface, whence the horse-power necessary for propulsion, being directly proportional, theoretically, to the area of immersed surface, is much less per ton of cargo in the case of the larger vessel. Moreover, if a canal be deepened and widened, the maximum boatload or weight of cargo which it will float increases about as the cube of the depth, while the cost of construction increases less rapidly than the square of the depth, and the cost of maintenance probably in a less proportion still. As no such course of reasoning is applicable to the economics of land transportation, it is clear that the advantages of the enlarged canal prism are very great

It should be borne in mind, however, that without enough traffic to keep the large canal busy, the additional outlay for constructing and maintaining the same is not warranted. Thus in the case of the laterals, if built before the day of railroads, they might have proved worth while, even with a small prism like the original Erie and notwithstanding other disadvantages. They would have furnished the cheapest mode of transportation available, despite high tolls; but when the railroad entered the field, it was impossible to operate them with sufficient economy to compete. If the business interests had been ample enough to admit of the enlargement of the prism, if the laterals had been the outlet of a congested district, or perchance if the agriculture of the interior of the state, upon which they depended so largely, had not already begun to feel the withering effect of western competition, then there is no good reason to suppose that these canals would not have held their own -- as in the case of the trunk lines -- against the innovations of the railroads. The productivity of their tributary areas (so it was deemed) did not permit this course of action and they were, therefore, ultimately killed by the more economical transporting power.

In conclusion, it is fitting to emphasize the fact that the canals were abandoned, not because of the failure or fallacy of the canal principle, but rather from misapplication of it. Obviously there was a distinct difference between the laterals abandoned and the canals retained. The latter were through channels, and by way of them the great West and other regions poured their products to the seaboard at New York City, while they handled as subsidiary the local traffic, the class on which the laterals were forced to depend altogether. Through this combination the trunk lines were able to attain an economy of transportation far superior to that reached by the lateral branches; so that, while the Erie and Champlain and Oswego endure and flourish to the present day, the Chemung and Chenango and Genesee Valley canals have been obliterated by competing forces.


1. Governor Tilden in his annual message of 1875 says: "It is a noteworthy fact that Mr. Flagg [Azariah C. Flagg, Comptroller, 1833-38 and 1842-47 and Secretary of State previously], who so long and honorably conducted the State finances when the Canal Department was a bureau in his office, always insisted that with the four canals now to be retained the system was complete." Assembly Documents, 1875, No. 2, p. 28.

2. Assembly Documents, 1835, No. 296.

3. Minority report of Frederick Follet, canal commissioner. Submitted to Senate March 21, 1850. Senate Documents, 1850, No. 88.

4. See Laws of 1874, Concurrent Resolutions, p. 931 and Revised Statutes, Eighth Edition.

5. Assembly Journal, 1873, pp. 1956-7, 2192, 2271-2.

6. Assembly Documents, 1875, No. 15, p. 15.

7. Annual Report of Auditor of the Canal Department, Assembly Documents, 1877, No. 31, Statement No. 30.

8. Laws of 1875, chapter 499.

9. Assembly Documents, 1875, No. 103.

10. Laws of 1876, chapter 382.

11. Assembly Journal, 1875, p. 556.

12. Assembly Journal, 1876, pp. 337-338.

13. Assembly Documents, 1877, No. 30.

14. Laws of 1857, chapter 267.

15. Laws of 1869, chapter 361.

16. See Section 7 of Statute of Abandonment.

17. Laws of 1877, chapter 404. Amendments: Laws of 1878, chapter 344; Laws of 1879, chapter 522; Laws of 1881, chapter 157. See also Laws of 1881, chapter 288.

18. Speech of De Witt Clinton to Legislature, January 27, 1818. See Assembly Journal, 1818, p. 9.

19. Quoted in the memorial presented by New York City to the Legislature of 1816, which was very influential in accomplishing the passage of a law, the precursor of the Erie canal construction law of the following year. Canal Laws, Vol. I., p. 129.

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