Bureau Recommended by Commission on Operation -- Recommended by State Engineer -- Character of Efficient Bureau -- Bureau Authorized -- Bureau Established -- Activities of Bureau -- Extension Recommended -- Need of Further Activity

In our review of what was accomplished by the Commission of Barge Canal Operation we said that in recommending the creation of a traffic organization for the new waterway the commission was trying to cure one of the most pernicious ills of the whole canal system. Just why the State was so long in diagnosing this malady is hard to understand. No railroad, as the commission pointed out, could hope to succeed under the methods, or rather the almost utter lack of method, employed by the State. At last, however, the State did come to realize its condition and attempted to provide a remedy, but whether an adequate remedy without further action is still to be seen.

In creating the office of canal traffic agent the State made provision for undertaking a most difficult task. But how difficult and also how important that task really was we doubt whether the public at large or indeed many individuals have any sufficient appreciation. Perhaps we can get a partial conception of both its need and its immensity by listening to something the general manager of the Manchester ship canal said concerning that oft-cited waterway. We quote this remark in full elsewhere, but a brief paraphrase will suffice here. He said that, strenuous and exhausting as was the struggle to carry the authorizing bill through Parliament and great as was the engineering feat, these were as nothing to the tremendous task of diverting traffic from beaten tracks to the new route and only through organization and the employment of trained experts was this done.

There was no immediate response to the Operation Commission's recommendation. That which brought about the necessary legislation was doubtless a recommendation from the State Engineer, which was endorsed by the State Waterways Association and followed by a proposal by the Superintendent of Public Works to appoint a temporary traffic agent and a recommendation that such office be made permanent. These suggestions, reinforced by active support of proposed legislation, secured the desired end.

Let us look for a moment at the State Engineer's recommendation. It was contained in his annual report for 1915, presented to the 1916 Legislature. Mr. Williams said, "Should a railroad be constructed at an expense of $150,000,000 and its officials assume the policy of waiting for business to come to them, the stockholders might well complain. On the completion of the Barge canal and its terminals the people of New York State will have invested this amount in improving the canal system and to realize the full extent on this investment, I earnestly recommend the establishment of a bureau corresponding to that of the general freight agent of one of our large railroads, which would furnish shippers information relative to water-borne transportation, and, to go still farther, would endeavor to encourage shipments whereby the canals might be used to their full capacity, thus insuring the people of this State a handsome return on the investment made."

A few months later in amplification of this suggestion the Barge Canal Bulletin, a monthly publication issued under the direction of the State Engineer, had the following to say in regard to what should be the character of the bureau recommended, which it denominated a State Traffic Bureau:

"As to the nature of the bureau, it may be compared to the general freight agent and the freight-soliciting bureau of a railroad. It would be nearly what these railroad departments are, but it would be something more. One of its chief functions may be described as educational and another as developmental, or assistful. It could not confine its duties to the narrow limits of a freight solicitor nor conduct its solicitations along the lines of a partisan railroad official. As a State organization it would have to be entirely free from partiality toward any one of the boat lines doing business on the canals.

"The primary duty of a State traffic bureau, like that of any traffic bureau, would be the giving of information concerning rates, routes, connections, distances, times of sailing, comparisons between water and rail costs and other allied topics. However, if a State traffic bureau is to fulfill its whole mission this will not be its chief duty.

"That the State and its citizens may derive to the full the benefit inherent in the improved waterways, the people who send and receive freight must have brought to their attention the advantages of water-borne traffic. While this work is educational, it cannot be done at arm's length by the circular method. Someone who knows facts and conditions must come into personal touch with these people. That such a one will get a ready hearing from the transportation superintendents of large concerns and the managers of smaller firms, no one who knows the situation can doubt. The inadequacy of existing transportation systems and the congestion and delays, especially during the past six months, clearly point to the need and opportune advent of the new State waterways.

"Probably the chief beneficial service of the proposed traffic bureau, although its assistance may be soonest forgotten, will be its work of development. By knowing thoroughly the products and markets, not only of New York state, but of a wide adjacent region, the producer and manufacturer may be helped to extend and increase his trade and get his raw materials cheaper, and the consumer may learn how he can secure better goods for the same price he has been paying or the same goods at less cost.

"In a word, a State traffic bureau, to attain its high office, should be what any government bureau would naturally be supposed to be -- an organization for benefiting the citizens of the state by assisting them within the particular field of its activity."

Again in his 1916 report, which was transmitted to the Legislature early in 1917, the State Engineer repeated his recommendation. It was about the same time that the Superintendent of Public Works suggested the new employee in his department, to be known as a canal traffic agent. Several chambers of commerce throughout the state endorsed these recommendations and the Legislature answered by passing an act (chapter 26) which added section 49 to the Canal Law and authorized the Superintendent to appoint a canal traffic agent "to collect and tabulate information and data relative to canal transportation, transportation of freight to and from localities which are feeders to the canal system, and rates and transportation costs to and from points beyond the limits of the canal system, by water and by railroad, when a portion of the route may be by canal." These data were to be so arranged as to be available to the public and also the publication of pamphlets for disseminating canal information, was authorized by the new law.

By July 1917, the Superintendent had established a canal traffic bureau in his department and the work of compiling statistics and conducting an extended campaign of education had begun. In reporting to the Legislature on the founding of the bureau he said that it must be borne in mind that in this campaign the prejudices to be removed were of long standing and that the present generation of business men had grown up with no knowledge of the possibilities of transporting freight by water, since waterways had ceased to be a factor for more than a decade and their use had come to have no place in the business plans of these men.

During the first year's activities of the bureau efforts were confined largely to the development of intrastate traffic, since the number of boats in service was very limited and joint rates and joint routes between rail and water lines were still to be adjusted. It was in 1917, as we shall see a little later, that the Public Service Commission was given authority over railroad and canal relationships. Pending the establishment of such coöperative rates and routes, it was thought futile to attempt to interest shippers in territory outside the state, inasmuch as the existing rates were prohibitive in comparison with all-rail rates. But considerable educational work by means of canal literature was carried on in these outside fields.

For extending the service of the bureau the Superintendent planned to have each harbormaster add to his terminal duties those of local freight agent and solicitor. Not only would they furnish information to the shippers in their respective localities concerning tariffs, routes and means of utilizing the canal, but they would be in intimate touch with the local situations and would report their findings to the Superintendent, being able to secure accurate data relative to the source of raw materials used by local manufacturers, the points to which finished products were shipped, the character of service shippers required, the rates necessary to attract commerce, the building of new factories in their several communities and the industrial conditions generally.

Not much time has passed since the establishment of this bureau, but already considerable has been accomplished. The vast field still to be covered, however, is appreciated by those in charge of the work. As the Superintendent said in a recent annual report, "The task of reaching all of the many thousands who might advantageously ship their products by the canals is a large one and years of constant effort would be required before the merits of the 'Ship by Canal' campaign could be brought home to the majority."

It is along the lines of publicity and education that efforts are chiefly being directed. Conferences and meetings have been held with important shippers and commercial organizations, not only those of the important cities and villages in New York state but of the Middle West and New England as well. Large numbers of shipping representatives, industrial traffic managers, sales managers and others have been afforded the opportunity personally to inspect the canal in operation and get a first-hand knowledge of the conditions of navigation and the excellence of the terminal facilities. In this way prejudices against canal transportation, conceived largely through ignorance of true conditions, have been removed. As a means of reaching a much wider audience, the many who cannot be taken on an actual trip over the canal, there has been prepared a motion picture film which shows some of the prominent structural features of the waterway; the carrying of cargoes upon it and the handling of freight at its terminals.

To illustrate how even less important details are not neglected in the attempt to bring canal facilities to the attention of the public, it may be said that advantage has been taken of the immense amount of travel on the railways and highways paralleling the canal and large illuminated sign-boards have been erected at vantage-points, bearing matter briefly descriptive of the adjacent structure or channel and also pertinent canal propaganda. A somewhat similar medium of advertising has been a sign-board on boats, telling how many carloads of a given commodity a boat was carrying or such other appropriate words as would tend to arouse interest in the canal. Another form of sign-board has recently been placed rather generously along the highways even to a considerable distance from the canal, pointing the direction to the nearest terminal.

Were it not for the sadly inadequate supply of canal boats, the traffic bureau might have widely broadened its campaign of solicitation, doubtless with considerable success. The bureau has accepted as one of its duties the remedying of this defect. Whenever opportunity has offered, prospective transportation companies have been given all available assistance, in an endeavor to encourage the placing of more boats in canal service. As an instance of this policy there may be cited a pamphlet entitled, "Principal Requisites of Canal Carriers and Potential Canal Tonnage," issued by the Superintendent in February, 1918.

One may get a comprehensive view of the work done by this bureau from a paragraph in the Superintendent's report for 1920. He summarized as follows:

"The activities of the Traffic Bureau are showing results. Constant solicitation has been carried on; shippers everywhere have been aided and encouraged to utilize the canal route; transportation organizations have been fostered and assisted in acquiring cargo; rates have been initiated; routes developed; obsolete practices eliminated; new methods inaugurated; unfounded prejudices overcome; literature descriptive of the canal facilities prepared and distributed throughout the country; articles showing the value of the waterway and how it may be utilized furnished the press and periodicals; the interests of the waterway generally safeguarded; inimical legislation opposed; boats acquired for shippers; cargo obtained for boats and every effort made to rehabilitate commerce on the canals. That such efforts have been fruitful is to be seen in the increasing commerce of the waterways and in the very apparent reawakening of interest among shippers in canal transportation."

The Superintendent went on to say that much more can be accomplished with a larger traffic organization and he recommended that it be extended by renaming the head of the bureau, calling him Traffic Director rather than Canal Traffic Agent, and giving him three principal assistants, one to be located at Buffalo, one at Syracuse and the other at New York city. Such, it is said, was the plan originally conceived and advocated by the shipping interests of the state, and these interests are urging that the time has come for expanding the bureau to this extent, since, if canal commerce is to grow, this organization must keep ahead of it.

We said that it remained to be seen whether the State had provided an adequate remedy for removing the prejudice against the canal and for educating the shipping public to an appreciation of the advantage of using the new waterway. The traffic bureau has accomplished much, probably all that could be expected, and we would not in the least degree disparage anything it has done, but when we learn, as we did recently, with what surprise the Congressmen from the Middle West found a well-equipped, modern canal instead of the shallow, inefficient channel they had expected, and when we see too how ignorant of the new traffic opportunities are the people of our own commonwealth, we wonder whether the State did not make an almost fatal error in waiting too long to begin its campaign of advertising and solicitation and also whether much more vigorous efforts will not be needed before converts to the ship-by-canal idea are added in sufficient numbers and the new waterway comes into its own.

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