Map of the canal system of the State of New York

Map of the canal system of the State of New York.

New York State canals have made much history. Their tranquil waters have borne the commerce which early placed the State in the first rank of the Union and gave to its growth such an impetus as to maintain it in that proud position. They made possible the speedy development of the interior and have largely influenced the prosperity of the whole nation. For many years their monetary struggles dictated the financial policy of the State. They precipitated the calling of at least one convention for constitutional revision, and have occupied a large place in the deliberations of the others. They have occasioned the rise and fall of statesmen and have often dominated the policies of political parties, governing their successes or failures. In short, the story of their existence is so closely interwoven with that of the State as to form one of the most important chapters in the history of that commonwealth.

The need of a book, like the present volume, has long been felt by those interested in the affairs of the New York canals; and the present time, when the State is entering a new era in its canal history, seems eminently fitting for writing the story of the canals, which for nearly a century have played so large a part in shaping the history of the State, inasmuch as nothing of this character has been attempted since the publishing of the Canal Laws in 1825, the nearest approach being the Documentary History of the Canals, by Sylvanus H. Sweet, which is now forty-three years old and was prepared in so short a time as to be deficient in many essentials, especially in the matter of arrangement for easy reference. It cannot be hoped that the present volume will not also be lacking in many details. Indeed the field is so vast that to cover it completely would require both a much longer time for preparation than is now available and a work of many volumes. However, the attempt has been made to record, in historical sketches, the most important events, and to furnish in a chronological résumé and in a general bibliography the means for further investigations. Necessarily this history is largely of a documentary nature, for the records of legislative enactments and of work accomplished have been preserved in the archives of the State, while the causes which produced, and the results which followed this great enterprise are often recorded only in the development of the Nation and in the lives of its people. Fortunately the public documents, the best sources of history, have been kept, and the people of New York State are not open to such criticism as are the builders of the Languedoc canal, the greatest model of canal-building before the time of the Erie. The most authentic history of that undertaking was not written till 1800, one hundred and twenty years after its completion, when many important details could not be obtained, the writers of the time of Louis XIV having busied themselves with describing the intrigues and splendors of the court, rather than with matters of economic and industrial importance. This criticism is also true of the ancient works of improvement, for while historian, orator, and poet join in depicting some gorgeous feast or in singing the praises of a king's favorite, they have left us little but the names of the old canals.

The aim in preparing this volume has been to make a book of reference, which may be used in answering the questions that are constantly arising in the several departments of the State Government, to enable the State officers to know just what the State's rights were to the use of lands and waters connected with the various portions of the canal system, and also to produce a history of the canal system of the State, giving the important events connected with the various canals which can be used by those who do not require the minor details. To serve both purposes at the same time is difficult, but the endeavor has been to emphasize the feature of the reference book. Not to burden the text with too much detail, resort has been made to a table of laws and events, arranged chronologically, and carefully indexed, to make it easily available, and also to a bibliography of publications dealing with the canals. Beyond a few brief statements, no attempt has been made to tell of events relating to the Barge canal after the time when that work was authorized by the referendum of 1903. The history of that enterprise is reserved for some future report. Another field, not exhaustively covered, but one in which perplexing questions are constantly arising in the State departments, is concerned with the acquiring of land and water rights and the awards for damages sustained by reason of the canals.

As far as possible all facts have been traced to original sources of information, and in many instances, especially outside of State documents, these sources are indicated either in foot-notes or otherwise. However, the origin of a large majority of facts, which have been obtained from the annual reports of State officials, is given only by inference. Care has been exercised to make quotations the exact reproductions of originals - in diction, spelling, capitalization, punctuation and all forms of typography except the use of old-fashioned letters, any explanatory insertions or changes of tense being inclosed in brackets.

The book is divided into five parts, the first three dealing with the New York State canals. Part Four is a compilation of statistics relating to canals which have been built in the United States and Canada. Such a work has never been published in English, and its need has become apparent. A book of this nature, entitled La Navigation aux Etats-Unis, was issued as a report to the French Minister of Public Works by H. Vétillart, Engineer-in-chief of Bridges and Causeways. A somewhat similar book has been published in German.

In compiling Part Four all available sources of information have been used, but chiefly National and State reports, the libraries at Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Albany having been visited for this purpose. Dr. Elmer L. Corthell, M. Am. Soc. C. E., has personally collected considerable information from State Governments along this line, and has kindly allowed the use of this material. In investigating the records, there were discovered wide differences in statistics, which were derived from sources that should be considered authentic. Where this occurred a choice was sometimes made, and in other instances the several figures are given with their sources.

To complete the work, portions of a monograph issued by the United States Department of Commerce and Labor in 1905 and entitled "Great Canals of the World," are reprinted in Part Five, permission having been given by Mr. O. P. Austin, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics.

That the practice of canal-building is very ancient cannot be doubted and that the people of a remote antiquity built great artificial channels and were followed by successive generations of canal-builders for thousands of years before the seemingly essential canal-lock was invented, is readily seen from a brief review of their works.

The first artificial waterways in the world's history date from an immemorial past. According to one authority 1 they certainly reach back to 3500 B. C. and more probably to at least 7000 B. C. These were the channels for irrigation and drainage, used to regulate the overflow of the rivers in Babylonia and Egypt. When these were first used for navigation and when the first canals were built primarily for navigation cannot now be told, but probably at a very early date. According to tradition, the Suez canal was excavated prior to 2000 B. C. It was certainly open for the navigation of small vessels by 600 B. C. and remained in operation for fourteen centuries. At about the same time the Royal canal of Babylon was opened between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is generally believed that China had canals before the Christian era, but evidence is lacking. Under the Roman Empire several canals were constructed; one in 102 B. C. from the Rhone to the Mediterranean, built by Marius, and another from the Tiber to the sea, constructed under the Emperor Claudius. During their control of England, the Romans built two canals in that country, the Caer Dyke, and the Foss Dyke in Lincolnshire, of eleven and forty miles, respectively. Of the former, only the name remains but the latter is still in use as a navigable canal, having been deepened in 1121 by Henry I, and restored to a state of efficiency in 1840. In the fourth century, the favorable topography of Lombardy led to the canalizing of that country, and near the end of the fifth century Odoacer's canal from the Adriatic Sea to Mentone, near Ravenna, was constructed. After the cessation of Roman supremacy this form of public improvement slumbered till Charlemagne's attempt to connect the Danube with the Rhine and the Black Sea. The Imperial canal of China, completed in 1289, is said to be about a thousand miles long.

But before the invention of locks, the countries to adopt canals were those having comparatively level surfaces, like Babylonia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Netherlands also, where the channels were branches of the original sea, early instituted a system of canals. It must not be inferred, however, that all these waterways were constructed on one continuous level, for it appears that the early canals of Egypt and China were adapted to the varying contours of the land, having a form of inclined plane for transferring boats to successive levels. Even to-day the same contrivances are used in China on its ancient and extensive system of canals and canalized rivers.

But during all these centuries before the invention of the canal-lock, improvements of great magnitude were impossible, for either canals were restricted to level countries, or the capacity of boats was limited by the rude and costly methods - adopted in a few places - of transferring to differing levels. Viewed from our day of wonderful inventions, it seems almost unaccountable that the canal-lock so long eluded discovery. This is the more remarkable since the principle involved is so simple, the systems of early canals so extensive, the need of an easy means off inland transportation so patent, and the skill and achievements of ancient engineers along other lines so great. Without seeking to explain this circumstance we can simply accept the fact that this, together with the other branches of hydro-mechanics, is a comparatively modern science. Even the development of the canal-lock was so gradual that not only is its inventor unknown, but the land of its first adoption is in doubt, as well. Italy claims the honor for two brothers, engineers of Viterbo, in 1481, also for the versatile Leonardo da Vinci, engineer and painter. By some writers the discovery is attributed to Holland, a century earlier. However, it is definitely known that during the latter part of the fifteenth century locks were in use in both countries. Probably the lock was gradually developed from a form of dam which Robert Fulton describes as being in early use in Flanders. 2 This consisted of a dam located below a natural fall and having buttresses with perpendicular grooves into which gates could be lowered, thus accomplishing the stoppage of the water till its surface rose to the level of that above the fall.

The introduction of locks opened such a wide field for improvements that canal-building rapidly spread throughout Europe, the French being the first to engage systematically and extensively. In 1605 they began the Briere canal, joining the Seine and Loire, and finished it in 1642, completing also the Orleans canal In 1675. The greatest work of that period was the Languedoc canal, connecting the Bay of Biscay with the Mediterranean. This canal, designed by Francis Riquet, begun in 1666 and finished in 1681 was an enormous undertaking for its day, and with its one hundred and forty-eight miles of length, its rise of six hundred feet above the sea, its numerous locks and aqueducts, its tunnel of more than seven hundred feet, and its capacity for floating barges of a hundred-tons burden, it stood as a monument to the skill and enterprise of its projectors, and as a model for canal-building for nearly a century and a half.

The conservative English people waited for almost a hundred years before following this brilliant example of French construction, but, when once aroused by the energy and liberality of the Duke of Bridgewater, the projector of the first canal of importance in England, they pushed the work with exceeding vigor, led by such famous engineers as Brindley, Smeaton, Watt, Jessop, Nimmo, Rennie and Telford. Indeed so prosperous was the era of canal-building that, from 1791 to 1794, speculation in canal shares became a mania in England, and resulted in a financial crash and the ruin of many.

With such examples throughout Europe and especially with such energy displayed in the mother country, it was but natural that the people of the American colony should perceive the need of similar improvements in the new land, where the field was so large, the coastwise trade so dangerous, and the opportunities for internal development so great. Americans, with their characteristic quickness, began the projection of canals within a few years after the commencement of active canal-building in England and within a half century they were in the midst of constructing extensive systems which were the equals of the best in the world. But though the opportunities were great, the difficulties were greater. The country was chiefly a vast wilderness, the resources were few and money for large undertakings almost unattainable. During the colonial period the restrictions imposed by England were almost prohibitive of any great enterprise. However, it is worthy of notice that several schemes for inland navigation were being agitated during the colonial period. The Revolutionary war interrupted, for a time, all thought of canals, but soon after its close they came to the front again. General Washington took the lead in projecting internal improvements, both before the war and immediately after, and had he not been called to the Presidency would probably have brought some of his schemes to successful fruition.

At certain seasons of the year the early coastwise commerce was carried on under especially dangerous conditions and as the rivers and bays along the coast are in many cases well adapted to the construction of canals to connect them, numerous projects were urged for that purpose. Indeed, by many, such a plan is still considered necessary. Only ten years ago a committee appointed by the City of Philadelphia reported favorably for the building of a coastwise canal of large dimensions.

Probably the first canal constructed within the territory of the United States was a short waterway in Orange county. New York, built in 1750, for transporting stone, by Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden, who in 1724, as Surveyor-General, had made the first report of the natural water communications of New York State. The first canal in North America, however, antedated this by fifty years, being an attempt at Lachine on the St. Lawrence, undertaken by Dollier de Casson, Superior at the Seminary of St. Sulpice.

The routes of navigation into the interior and to the western territory attracted the greater amount of attention and opened the larger field for development. The need of easy communication from the seaboard to the great inland lakes, and to the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi was early apparent. In the attempt to meet this need New York was particularly favored, "for," as said an early writer, "the Allegany mountains which pass through all the States, seem to die away as they approach the Mohawk-River and the ground . . . is perfectly level, as if designedly to permit us to pass thro' this channel into this extensive inland country. "3 After the war, the pushing westward of the frontiers began in earnest, and this was followed by more determined efforts to facilitate the means of communication. The first efforts were generally directed toward improving natural waterways, but, with their imperfect methods of controlling the flow of streams, the results were usually far from satisfactory, and the builders were forced to learn the necessity of following the rule, which the English had adopted, of constructing independent canals. It is interesting to note the tendency of modern engineering practice back to the use of natural streams. In New York the line of the Barge canal follows very closely the old location of first improvements in the beds of the Mohawk river, Wood creek, and the Oneida and Seneca rivers.

At a time when we have ceased to wonder at stupendous engineering feats, which have furnished this continent with the means of rapid and easy transportation, it is difficult to realize the conditions that prevailed in America less than a century ago; we are prone to forget the magnitude of the undertaking which was the chief instrument in retaining for New York the proud title of Empire State; we lose sight of the tremendous difficulties overcome, and the strenuous efforts exerted by the men who gave to the State her canal policy. When we recognize the primitive conditions and review the difficulties, we do not wonder that the people of a struggling republic stood aghast at the vast enterprise, and were slow to begin improvements which have proved to be the making of the State.

Although the need of a canal was generally recognized, the magnitude of the undertaking and the fear of the State's ability to cope with the difficulties developed a strong opposition, which, augmented by personal considerations, political affiliations, and differences of opinion, has marked the history of the canal throughout its entire existence. For years the project struggled along before sufficient public sentiment could be aroused to demand its fulfilment. People denounced it as visionary. Jefferson declared it a hundred years ahead of its time, saying that to think, at that day, of making a canal of three hundred and fifty miles through a wilderness was little short of madness. Madison thought that its cost would exceed the resources of the whole country, and refused to grant any National aid. Sister States, appealed to, sent nothing but their good will. For New York to undertake the work unaided was considered equivalent to dooming the state to bankruptcy. Even after it was begun, appropriations were obtained by the legislature year by year with the utmost difficulty, and in derision it was said that in Clinton's "big ditch would be buried the treasure of the State, to be watered by the tears of posterity." It is well at this period there were men guiding the interests of the canal who had a strong faith in their ultimate success, and who clearly foresaw that benefits to ensue. To their energy, fearlessness, and inflexible perseverance, and dauntless resolution is due the era of prosperity and development which followed the building of the canal. Prophetically did the writer of the "New York Memorial" say, "It remains for a free State to create a new era in history, and to erect a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial, then has hitherto been achieved by the human race." 4


1 Encyclopedia Americana. -- Canals.

2 A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, by R. Fulton, p. 7. (London, 1796.)

3 Christopher Colles' Proposals for the Speedy Settlement of the Waste and Unappropriated Lands on the Western Frontier of the State of New York, and for the Improvement of the Inland Navigation between Albany and Oswego, p. 11. (New York, 1785.)

4 Canal Laws, Vol. I., p. 140.

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