Jamaica Bay-Peconic Bay Canal: Early History: Physical Features: Arguments for Canal: Federal Activities: State Board Created and Directed to Make Examination: One Section Only to Be Examined: Two Earlier Attempts to Promote Scheme: Work and Findings of Board: Board Ordered to Continue Investigations: Second Report -- Gravesend Bay-Jamaica Bay Canal: Board of Conference Appointed: State Prior to Federal Investigation: Discussion of Bridge Problem and Traffic Regulation: Opinions of Board as to Merits of Proposal: Outside Passage Considered Inadequate: Estimates and Recommendation: Value of Jamaica Bay as a Subport: Effect of Project on Barge Canal -- Harlem River Improvement: Importance of Project: Tangle into Which It Had Fallen: Board of Conference Appointed: Physical Features of Improvement: Its Early History: Facts Brought Out in Investigations: Recommendations by Board: Subsequent State and City Action.

Not only have there been these proposals for the State to extend its canal system, but also, since the beginning of Barge canal construction, efforts have been made to persuade the National government to construct canals or improve waterways of large dimensions within our state borders. There have been three recent projects of this character and we shall recount them in turn, noticing especially the part which New York has had in each. The sites of all three are in or near New York city and at least two of them, if constructed, will have more or less bearing on Barge canal traffic.


The first in order of time is the Jamaica Bay-Peconic Bay canal project. To get at the beginning of this specific enterprise we must go back to the 1907 Rivers and Harbors Act of Congress, which authorized an examination in connection with the proposed canal.

But this was by no means the beginning of the idea of a canal along this route nor indeed was it the first survey. We find that as early as 1826 Holmes Hutchinson, a well-known engineer of whom we have already spoken, made a report to the canal commissioners on a proposed water communication extending farther than the project we are about to consider, even from Gravesend bay to Peconic bay, substantially the whole length of Long Island. Probably the idea of a canal along the whole or various parts of this route was current even in colonial days. In fact there is reference in at least one colonial manuscript to an act of crude canal making -- the cutting of a channel from Shinnecock bay in 1652. 1 Moreover, there is reason to believe that one short section of canal on the route we are discussing was built even prior to the advent of white men. The writer of a history of Long Island is authority for the statement that "traces still remain of the canal opened by Mongotucksee-Long Knife, Chief of the Mohawks." 2 These traces were found on the site of what is known as the Shinnecock and Peconic canal, the only salt water canal of the State system, joining the waters of Shinnecock bay and Great Peconic bay, built by the State between 1884 and 1892.

Research shows also that in 1828 the Long Island Canal Company was incorporated with a capital of $200,000 for the purpose of connecting Gravesend, Jamaica and Great South bays as far as Fire Island inlet. And again, in 1848, there was incorporated a second company, having a capital of $300,000, the Long Island Canal and Navigation Company, its object being to connect Gravesend and Jamaica bays with Great South bay and also to cut a narrow neck of land across Long Island and enter into Peconic bay. So far as we can learn the former company never did anything towards constructing a canal, while the second company never went beyond making a survey.

The southern shore of Long Island fronts on the broad Atlantic and its many miles of coast would be severely beaten by the fierce storms that sweep across the leagues of ocean, had not the sea done what it sometimes does -- built a barrier against its own violence. Back of this barrier, this comparatively narrow beach which the waters have piled up, lie bays and channels and islands and marsh meadows, and beyond them, sometimes at a distance of several miles from the beach where the ocean waves are rolling, is situated what may be considered the real shore of Long Island, although at certain localities rather large municipalities have been built on the narrow strips of beach. It is this favorable feature of topography which has brought about the agitation for canals along the south coast of the island. The possibility of building short stretches of artificial channel to connect long reaches of open navigation, all of it protected from the storms of the ocean, has been a bright prospect to lure man's endeavor.

Briefly we may mention the natural bodies of water which a canal clear across the southern end of Long Island would traverse. At the western end adjoining the Narrows, which connects Upper and Lower New York bays, lies Gravesend bay. Proceeding thence easterly we pass first over low land behind Coney Island, on through Sheepshead bay and other channels and marsh land into Jamaica bay, which lies back of Rockaway beach. Beyond this there are some ten miles of small bays, channels and marsh meadows before we reach first South Oyster bay and then Great South bay. This latter bay stretches for nearly thirty miles and is followed by Moriches and Shinnecock bays with small bays or channels between the three large bays. At its eastern end Long Island forks into two long, broad peninsulas, widely separated. Between Shinnecock bay on the south shore and Great Peconic bay, which lies between the forks of the island, there is a low, narrow neck of land, which we have mentioned as the place where the Indian chief is said to have opened a canal. Thus the Jamaica-Peconic project, which we are now considering, together with the Gravesend-Jamaica scheme, which we shall take up next, encompassed the whole plan of waterways along the south coast of Long Island.

We may pause for a moment and consider why the people of Long Island wanted a canal along the southern shore, glancing briefly at the arguments they advanced at the time of the recent investigations. The saving in freight costs and the development of the region along several lines of progress are chief among the reasons.

It was said that the canal would carry from 500,000 to 700,000 tons of freight, on which there would be a probable saving of $350,000, and this tonnage would increase with the industrial development that might be expected. By way of produce it was noted that Suffolk county had some of the most productive farms and market gardens in the state, potatoes and cauliflower furnishing the largest crops, the latter product being grown in greater quantity there than in all the rest of the state and requiring three months of the year special trains of from eighteen to twenty-five cars a day to carry it to market. That much of the southern part of the island might be turned into gardens, close to the great New York market, was the hope of the people, and to bring in immense quantities of fertilizer and to carry out the many times greater amounts of produce a cheaper means of transportation was needed. Then there were industries which must be carried on adjacent to the proposed canal and which without it were handicapped by long hauls to the railroads. These were the oyster and fish industries and the raising of ducks. All of them were already large and would grow rapidly with favorable shipping facilities.

The increased valuations in realty that would follow the development of the region were estimated as sufficient to pay the whole cost of constructing the canal. One feature of this contemplated increase in land values was the use for summer residences of the beach which fronts directly on the ocean. For sixty miles this was virtually unused, except at three or four places where boats or bridges gave access, and the direction of the prevailing winds makes it more desirable that any beach along the New Jersey shore. This neck of land is from a quarter to three-quarters of a mile wide and behind it lie the bodies of water which it was proposed to canalize. Along these bays and creeks there is an additional water frontage of 250 miles. Water communication was needed to render these localities easily accessible.

Still another argument was the value such a canal would have as an instrument for military defense. In the event of a hostile attack New York city of course would be the prize most eagerly sought and a waterway along more than a hundred miles of the approach to the city would be of untold advantage, it was pointed out, in preventing its capture. It would pass the smaller types of war vessels, including torpedo boat destroyers, submarines and the like, and would accommodate floating batteries carrying guns of large caliber.

Latterly there has entered a new element into the desire for at least one portion of the proposed canal along the south shore. This is the plan of creating in Jamaica bay a huge waterway terminal, a veritable subport of the port of New York. As we have said, this plan lay at the bottom of the attempt to get the State to build a canal across the breadth of Long Island from Jamaica bay to Flushing bay. Failing in this undertaking, the advocates, as we shall see a little later, essayed to induce the United States to open an inside passage by way of Gravesend bay.

Reverting to the act of Congress in authorizing an examination of the Jamaica-Peconic project in 1907, we notice that under this act the United States district engineer made a report which contemplated the construction of a canal 100 feet wide and six feet deep. The Board of Army Engineers concurred in this report, but on resolution of the Committee on Rivers and Harbors of the House of Representatives a reëxamination of the report was made by the Board of Engineers and as a result it was concluded that a more detailed investigation into the cost of building this canal was warranted. In 1909 an appropriation was made by Congress for a survey and estimate and in 1914 the district engineer submitted his report on this survey. It was not favorable to the proposed construction, but the Board of Engineers, after careful consideration, referred the proposition to the district engineer again, directing him to ascertain to what extent the State of New York and the municipalities along the line of the prospective canal would coöperate in its construction. In 1915 a hearing was held before the district engineer, at which it was brought out that all lands required for what was known as the first section of the waterway, the westerly four and one-half miles, must be deeded to the United States free of cost. At this hearing also the district engineer was promised that a bill would be introduced in the New York Legislature to provide for an appropriation of $995,000 to cover the State's share in constructing the canal. Thereupon the district engineer made a favorable report on the project to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, recommending, however, that the Federal government should construct only the main line of the canal, leaving the building of lateral branches, the furnishing of right of way and the construction of bridges for the State and municipalities to provide for.

The report of the district engineer was in the hands of the Board of Engineers, awaiting determination by the State as to the extent of its coöperation, when the Legislature of 1917 (by chapter 317) created the Jamaica Bay-Peconic Bay Canal Board and directed its members to confer with the United States officials concerning the construction of the proposed canal on the south side of Long Island. The act appointed as members of this new board the State Engineer, Frank M. Williams, who was to act as chairman, the Superintendent of Public Works, W.W. Wotherspoon, and one other, to be named by the Governor. The third member was Joseph E. Bailey, of Patchogue, Long Island. In addition to commissioning this board to confer with the Federal authorities the act directed the State Engineer to determine the cost of building the necessary bridges and also of furnishing the required right of way for the proposed canal. It also ordered the State to proceed with its share of the undertaking after the Federal government should have set aside funds for the project, provided the estimate of cost for bridges and right of way should be not more than $1,000,000, thus in effect stipulating that the State would not consider any coöperation beyond that amount. Another proviso was that the channel constructed by the Federal government should be at least twelve feet deep.

In making his report in 1914 the district engineer had divided the whole line of the canal into four sections, the aggregate length of which was 76 1/2 miles. The first section, 4 1/2 miles long, crossed the elevation of land known as Rockaway ridge and here occurred the most serious difficulties in securing proper alignment, since this region had been somewhat built up and the property traversed was of considerable value and the streets or railroads intersected would require bridges. The remaining three sections on the other hand involved the construction of the canal within what may be termed navigable waters and presented no difficult problems either as to alignment, the acquisition of property or the building of bridges. So far as coöperation went New York State was concerned only with the first section of the canal and the newly-created Canal Board confined its investigation to this region. The district engineer had considered several routes within this section and the routes now examined by the State board were but modifications of those he had mentioned in his report of 1914.

Recurring for a moment [original text has "monent"] to the promise given at the hearing in 1915, that a bill would be introduced in the New York Legislature to provide for an appropriation of $995,000 for the State's share toward the canal, we observe that such a bill was introduced at the 1915 session, but as this was the time when the measure for authorizing an additional bond issue of $27,000,000 to complete the Barge canal was being brought to public attention, it was thought best to let the Long Island project wait for a year. In the fall of 1915 the State Waterways Association at its annual convention directed a committee to push the proposed legislation. The members of this committee conferred with State Engineer Williams and as a result he made a report to the Legislature recommending that the State coöperate with the Federal authorities, provided the United States would construct a waterway of Barge canal dimensions. A bill embodying this idea was then introduced, in which the extent of State assistance was limited to $995,000. The committee had high hopes of a successful issue, especially as the Governor had accompanied the State Engineer on his trip of inspection over the route and seemed more than favorable. The whole project appeared most promising; for the expenditure of only a million dollars the State was evidently on the eve of securing an addition of nearly eighty miles to its canal system. But opposition developed, from both the Governor and the Legislature, and the bill was never reported out of committee. During the 1917 session, however, as we have seen, a similar bill became law.

We do not need to go deeply into the activities of the newly-appointed State board. It did the work required of it and reported to the Legislature under date of December 27, 1918. The estimates it submitted were along three routes, called the Woodmere, the Hewlett and the Far Rockaway routes. Also three separate estimates had been made for each route, these being based on the prices that prevailed at three periods of time -- before the war, in January, 1918 and in January, 1919. There were twenty-one estimates in all and they ranged from $660,000 to $1,900,000, according to the route, the prices used and the possible elimination of certain bridges.

In reporting the conclusions to which it had come the Board placed itself on record as favoring the extension of the inland waterways system of the State. It stated that, if the United States would construct the proposed canal, excavating to a depth of twelve feet and making its other dimensions correspond substantially with those of the Barge canal, so that the waterway might be considered as an adjunct to the State system, then in the opinion of the Board the State was justified in coöperating to the extent of a million dollars. The cost of building the bridges and acquiring the right of way would depend in large measure on the attitude of the residents in the communities that would be served by the prospective canal. If they should be reasonable in their demands, asking only a fair price for the lands which the State must purchase and not exacting an excessive number of bridges, the State's portion of the cost, the Board thought, could be kept within the million dollars.

There were two particular statements in this report which we must examine in detail, since they gave rise to subsequent legislative action. The Board mentioned a fourth route, the Lynbrook (not included in the district engineer's report), which it had considered but had not investigated with the same care as the other routes. It reported also that one of the lines ran near some fresh-water wells, which were owned by the Queens County Water Company and yielded the supply of water that this company distributed to the neighboring communities. In its estimates of cost the Board had not included any sum for damages which might be sustained by reason of opening a salt-water channel near these fresh-water wells. The report stated, in fact, that the Board had not been able to conduct the exhaustive investigation necessary definitely to determine to what extent, if any, these wells would be damaged by the proposed canal. In order to get information on the two questions left thus unanswered by this first report, the Legislature of 1919 (by chapter 15) ordered the Board to continue its investigations, specifically directing it to examine the Lynbrook route and to determine what effect the construction of the canal would have upon the source of fresh-water supply.

The second report of this Board, presented to the Legislature on February 11, 1920, was not in a hopeful vein. To the two questions of special inquiry it made definite answer, but in each case the prospective expenditure devolving upon the State was not favorable for the consummation of the project. For the Lynbrook route the report submitted twelve estimates and on the problem of salt water from the proposed canal penetrating to the wells of the Water Company it contained the opinions of a water-supply expert and of the Attorney-General on the physical and legal aspects, respectively, of the subject.

In estimating for the new route six conditions as to the number of bridges were assumed. Also two sets of prices were used, pre-war and those prevailing in January, 1920. The six estimates based on pre-war prices ranged from $870,000 to $1,226,000, while the six computed on January, 1920, prices ran from $1,094,000 to $1,675,000. The water-supply expert reported his conviction that sooner or later salt water would reach at least a portion of the wells of the Water Company, if the canal were build on the Lynbrook route, and that the adverse effect would be immediate, should the canal follow the Hewlett route. The Attorney-General, asked by the Board for an opinion, answered that he had come to the conclusion the "the Board should proceed upon the assumption that the State would be held answerable for the damages resulting from rendering brackish the subterranean waters which feed the well in question." The Board did not attempt to estimate the amount of this possible liability, but, to show that it might be a considerable sum, simply quoted a value set in 1915 by one of the New York city departments when there was some thought that the city might acquire the property of this Water Company. That estimate was substantially $1,700,000.

In concluding its report the Board deprecated its inability to say that the cost to the State for bridges and right of way on any of the routes examined would be less than a million dollars. In its first report the hope of keeping within that limit had been expressed, but now, because of increased costs, due to war conditions, and also because of the unwillingness of property owners to dedicate their lands, even the possibility of such hope had departed.


The second project proposed for construction by the National government, with coöperation from New York State, was a waterway between Gravesend bay and Jamaica bay. In a broad sense this was simply a portion of the canal which had long been desired across the southern border of Long Island, but, because of recent endeavors to make Jamaica bay a most important part of the port of New York, it had become something more. It was now a scheme which stood out prominently by itself, apart from the rest of the enterprise; it had its own peculiar merits and these demanded for it consideration as a separate undertaking.

One evidence of the long-standing and firm belief in an eventual canal along this route is found in the fact that in 1864 a body known as the Kings County Land Commission, appointed to lay out a system of streets in Kings county, now the borough of Brooklyn, laid out a proposed ship canal 200 feet wide along Coney Island creek, which ran from Gravesend bay to Sheepshead bay (a part of Jamaica bay) and paralleled it with marginal streets, each a hundred feet wide and called North and South canal avenues.

The State's share in the recent attempt to open a canal on this route began with the appointment of a body of men, known as a Board of Conference, by the Legislature of 1919 (chapter 585). This board consisted of the State Engineer, Frank M. Williams, chairman, the Superintendent of Public Works, Edward S. Walsh, and the Commissioner of Docks of New York city, Murray Hulbert.

Unlike the investigation of the route from Jamaica bay to Peconic bay, which had been examined and reported upon by the United States engineers before the State took a hand in the affair, the task set this Board of Conference was one which preceded any authorized action on the part of the Federal authorities. Before finishing its work, however, the Board was able to say that the United States engineer of the district had reported to the War Department favorably on making a survey of the proposed canal and had been instructed to proceed with this survey as soon as convenient.

Assuming that the United States would not undertake this canal unless the usual conditions were met, the same conditions as those mentioned in the discussion of the Jamaica-Peconic project, the Board of Conference made an estimate of the cost of furnishing right of way and building bridges for the proposed waterway. A canal connecting Gravesend and Jamaica bays would of necessity cut Coney Island off from the rest of Long Island and this situation would demand bridges. Whether this area was originally a real island is uncertain, but until recent years there was a channel from Gravesend bay to Sheepshead bay that was navigable for very small boats, and this still exists as a narrow and tortuous waterway, called Coney Island creek, spanned by several low bridges. A large territory on the north side of Coney Island, which formerly was low-lying and poorly drained, had been filled in and made habitable.

To excavate a channel four hundred feet wide and thus to make Coney Island actually an island, cutting off its many people from unimpeded passage to the north, made the subject of bridges across the proposed canal a most momentous question. Travel here was always large and sometimes enormous. Those who crossed the proposed route daily the year around numbered thousands and in the summer months frequently hundreds of thousands of persons visited Coney Island in a single day, coming by surface, elevated and subway cars, taxicabs, automobiles and other vehicles. This traffic was not problematic but actual and it had rights which could not be abrogated nor even neglected.

On the other hand, if this canal should be built and the proposed terminal development of Jamaica bay should become an accomplished fact, and these two projects were so interdependent as to be really a single scheme, then it was essential that navigation throughout the length of the canal should be as free and uninterrupted as possible. Jamaica bay would be a very important part of the port of New York, but nevertheless it would be only a part of the port and would dependent on the other parts as they in turn would be dependent on it. Therefore this connection should be complete and practically continuous in operation, for any delay suffered by ships in loading or discharging cargoes at the wharves or by the industries relying on the commerce of the canal would result eventually in a charge against the consumer and moreover it would become a tax on the commerce of the port which would tend to divert business to other ports.

In making provision for bridges there were, then, the interests of these two groups to consider -- those who crossed the canal and those who navigated the canal, and the interests of the latter class, through the ramifications of business and industry, touched substantially the whole public. Also two other interests had to be taken into account. If the Federal government were to construct the channel, then the requirements of the War Department must be observed. And in addition the interests of bridge owners should be weighed. The Board of Conference judged, however, that these several interests did not conflict so seriously as to prevent adjustment and they considered that by complying with the Federal requirements and establishing equitable regulation of land and water traffic, the problem might be solved with justice to all concerned.

The requirements of the War Department were that bridges should be of some type which would give unlimited headroom when open, that they give clear headroom when closed of at least 24 feet above mean spring flood tide and that the clear horizontal opening be at least 100 feet for a single opening, such as a bascule bridge would furnish, of 70 feet for each of two parallel openings, such as a swing bridge would provide. In making estimates for bridges the Board selected the bascule type and planned for structures which would comply with these Federal specifications -- a headroom when closed of 24 feet and a horizontal opening when open of 100 feet with unlimited headroom. Whether or not the United States should construct the canal, the Board considered that it would be best to conform to War Department requirements.

For regulating the traffic the Board thought that a scheme of operation patterned after that of the Harlem river should be adopted. It was, in fact, the harmony attained between bridge and channel traffic on the Harlem river which guided the Board in its present recommendations, leading it to believe that an equally accordant plan might be formulated for the proposed Gravesend-Jamaica canal. In a recent year the channel of the Harlem had carried a tonnage equal to one-third of that of the entire foreign commerce of the port of New York and at the same time millions of persons and hundreds of thousands of vehicles had crossed the river. The regulations under which the bridges on the Harlem were operated provided for keeping them closed during certain hours each day, the hours of maximum traffic across the river being selected. Not all channel traffic was stopped by this arrangement, since the headroom when the bridges were closed, in come cases somewhat less than 24 feet, was enough to permit navigation by small tugs and unrigged craft at all times. The Board in its report did not attempt to lay down a definite plan of regulation for the proposed waterway, but simply stated its firm belief that upon a detailed study of traffic an operating plan might be predicated which would safeguard the city's large investment in subway and other lines as well as the interests of corporate transit lines and at the same time adequately foster all the various kinds of legitimate traffic.

Concerning the merits of the proposal to build this canal the Board of Conference had some clear-cut and well-considered opinions, and to these it gave free expression in its report. Jamaica bay, it thought, was one of the most suitable localities for development on the New York state side of the port of New York, and this development might with profit be along the lines of either commerce or industry, or both. But in any case the development was contingent on communication with the other portions of New York harbor. If the location had been far enough away, this terminal could be developed like any other independent harbor, but being in Greater New York, it was subject to the conditions which existed in that port. As we have said previously, the various parts of the port were unusually interdependent, perhaps more so than in any other harbor.

Since, therefore, intercommunication was an indispensable requisite, it was essential that efficient means of transit be at hand. There were three possible methods -- by rail, by water and by dray. Rail communication with the remainder of the harbor was decidedly unsatisfactory except with Brooklyn and perhaps with the Bronx. The only available rail route for freight to Manhattan was the long and circuitous course by way of Spuyten Duyvil and the Hell Gate bridge. Since the Pennsylvania and Long Island tubes were practically closed to the transportation of freight, there was no rail connection whatever with Staten Island or any portion of the harbor west of the Hudson river except by car-float, and this procedure, of course, transferred the method from rail to water communication. To depend on drays or various kinds of trucks for connection with other harbor points was out of the question. Jamaica bay was too far removed from most of these points to make such form of communication practicable, even if the avenues for its use had been fully available.

The logic of the situation, therefore, demanded a water connection with the remainder of the harbor that would be safe at all times of the year. To be sure there was already ample communication by water, but, as we shall see presently, this route had the menace of severe storms through much of the year. If Jamaica bay were to be developed industrially, there must be means for bringing in materials and sending out products both to the rest of the port and to its connecting waterways. If the bay were to be developed commercially and to become the great terminal which had been planned, safe water communication was still more essential, even indispensable to the success of the project.

The same practices would necessarily prevail in Jamaica bay as in other parts of the port and there would ensue an extensive use of lighters. By reason of physical conditions the port of New York had become essentially a lighter port, that is, a large portion of the freight was moved within it from point to point in lighters, barges and other harbor craft. To question whether this was the most economical practice was entirely beside the point; the condition existed and had to be met. Authorities who had investigated the leading ports of the world claimed, however, that this custom was beneficial to the port of New York and should be perpetuated in large degree. It was a fact that few ocean cargoes were either loaded or discharged at this port without some part of them being borne by lighters, and this must be the case also with steamship cargoes to and from Jamaica bay. It was imperative for its development, therefore, that a safe passage to it for small craft be available all the year round.

The existing water route to Jamaica bay was an outside passage, south of Coney Island and thence through Rockaway inlet. There was a Federal project on foot to improve the channel in this inlet. From testimony adduced at a hearing at Coney Island and from such other information as the Board was able to gather it appeared that, while the outside passage might be safe during most of the summer and parts of the spring and fall and for a few days in winter, it was very far from being safe at all times and was positively unsafe during a large part of the year for all but the larger craft. There was a probability that in the course of time this route might by natural processes be made as safe as an inside passage. Rockaway beach was constantly being extended toward the southwest, thus gradually approaching Sandy Hook. How long it would take to extend this peninsula to such a point that in conjunction with Sandy Hook it would give adequate protection at all seasons to small craft passing to and from Jamaica bay no one could tell, but at the existing rate of accretion it was estimated the process would require from fifty to a hundred years. This, the Board thought, was too long to wait, since the cost of the canal could be written off in benefits years before this period should have elapsed.

The State Engineer through his corps of engineers surveyed and mapped the route of the proposed canal and estimated the cost of erecting necessary bridges to be $9,500,000. The Superintendent of Public Works caused an appraisal of right of way to be made. This amounted to $882,910.20. In its report to the Legislature the Board stated that in its opinion the interest of navigation and commerce not only warranted by made desirable the construction of this canal between Gravesend and Jamaica bays and it recommended that the State coöperate to the extent of providing the necessary right of way. The channel proposed by the Board was to be at least 250 feet wide at bottom with sloping sides or 400 feet wide with vertical sides and was to have at least 15 feet depth of water at mean low tide. A right of way 400 feet wide was to be provided.

In this account of the Gravesend-Jamaica project we have said but little concerning the necessity of adding Jamaica bay to the port facilities of New York city. The Board of Conference itself said almost nothing on this subject -- possibly because the congestion of the port was so patent as to need no comment. The port of New York in both volume and the value of its commerce exceeds all other ports of the world. Just about half of the foreign commerce of the United States passes through this port. So far as natural facilities go it is most admirably situated to handle not only its present but a much more vast trade, the land areas being so surrounded and divided by navigable waters as to give almost ideal conditions for water transportation. The whole port, that is, the area within the customs limits, which embrace in large part the New Jersey shore opposite New York, has a total water front on rivers, bay, sound and ocean of 444 miles. But with all its natural advantages the port is notoriously deficient in terminal and docking facilities. And for many years the acuteness of this condition has been growing; in spite of inadequate wharfage, commerce has increased amazingly, while accommodations have been added but meagerly. It is easy to see, then, why the Jamaica bay scheme, with its 45 1/2 square miles of land and water area to develop into a mighty terminal, was so well thought of by those in quest of a solution for New York's transportation problems and had become so popular with the shipping public in general.

There is another phase of the Gravesend-Jamaica proposal which we have not mentioned -- the effect such a canal might have upon Barge canal traffic. If the Jamaica terminal plan should be developed, the boats plying on the State canals should be some means be enabled to reach this portion of the port without hindrance or delay. The outside passage could not guarantee this necessity. But of course the Jamaica terminal is so dependent on the construction of some inside passage that it goes hand in hand with the Gravesend-Jamaica canal, the Jamaica-Flushing scheme or other like proposition. Should these proposals come to fruition, therefore, it is plain that the barge canal would have a considerable share in the benefits that are expected to ensue.


The third of the enterprises for waterway improvement within New York state was that for bettering navigation on the Harlem river. This was not a new undertaking; it had long been a Federal project, having been adopted by act of Congress in 1874. Although the State had thus not had a direct part in making the improvements, its coöperation was required in furnishing certain right of way and its interests were involved in several particulars. In the first place the traffic on the Harlem was enormous and doubtless would increase many fold with the completion of the improvements. While this commerce affected New York city primarily, it was of considerable importance to the whole state. Then too, notwithstanding the already available route around the south end of Manhattan and up East river, a short, safe, uncongested channel from the Hudson to East river might open to Barge canal traffic many markets in Bronx and Queens boroughs which otherwise would remain closed. As this region is large and important its active participation might notably augment canal traffic. And again, the construction of the proposed canal terminal at East 136th street was contingent by law upon the improvement under Federal authority of the Bronx kills, a project which could not advance until various conditions on the Harlem had been met.

The participation by the State in the Harlem project at this time was prompted chiefly by two circumstances. First, there was the same desire for waterway improvement and an extension of Barge canal benefits which had given rise to the nine other enterprises we have just been discussing, and this desire by the way was but a part of a wide-spread waterway agitation abroad in the land. Then, this particular project had become so involved, each part in turn so dependent for advancement on some other part, that all progress had been blocked and any endeavor to proceed had been but to work in a circle. In large measure for the purpose of straightening out this tangle, the Legislature of 1919 (by chapter 586) appointed a board which should study the whole situation carefully and report its findings to the succeeding Legislature. This body, too, was called a Board of Conference and it consisted of the same men as those who made up the Board of Conference in the Gravesend-Jamaica canal. The State Engineer, Frank M. Williams, was chairman, and the Superintendent of Public Works, Edward S. Walsh, and the Commissioner of Docks of New York city, Murray Hulbert, were the other members. There were three particular features of the Harlem project which demanded the attention of the Board. These were the straightening [original text has "stranghtening"] of the channel at an especially objectionable bend, the removal or alteration of High bridge and the widening and deepening of the Bronx kills. It will be recalled that the Barge Canal Terminal Commission had made recommendations concerning all of these three questions in its final report in 1911.

The Harlem river is the tidal waterway which separates Manhattan island along its northeast border from the mainland. At Kingsbridge it joins Spuyten Duyvil creek, another tidal waterway, which completes the separation of the island, extending along its extreme northern end. These two streams have a combined length of about eight miles. At the southeastern end of the Harlem river and connecting it with the East river is what is known as the Bronx kills, sometimes called the Harlem kills, a shallow and much-obstructed waterway about 4,000 feet in length, which lies between Randall island and the mainland. About midway in its course the Harlem river is spanned by High bridge. This structure was completed in 1848, a part of the Croton aqueduct improvement, and for years it carried the Croton waters at a height of a little more than a hundred feet above the Harlem river across to what was then the city of New York.

It was this short-cut channel, by way of Spuyten Duyvil creek, Harlem river and the Bronx kills, which the advocates of the scheme wanted improved, in order that there might be adequate passage between the Hudson and East rivers without going down around the Battery and back again, a distance of about twenty-five miles through a congested, in some places tortuous and not always entirely safe course. This improvement would benefit directly the east waterfront of the borough of Bronx and the portion of Queens borough lying along East river and Long Island sound, a region which had been among the first in the state in rate of recent development.

So much for the geography of the project; now a little concerning its history. Reviewing the events prior to the time of the Board's activities we learn that after the Harlem had been improved under the act of 1874 Congress adopted a new project in 1878 and this was modified in 1879, in 1886 and in 1893, and enlarged by the rivers and harbors act of 1913. The existing project, which was under the authority of the 1913 act, provided for a channel 400 feet wide and 15 feet deep at mean low water from the East river into the Hudson river, except at two points where the width was somewhat lessened. The estimated cost of this project, as revised in 1913, exclusive of the amounts spend on previous projects, was $3,550,000. It was said that about 58 per cent of this work had been done at this time, a full-sized channel having been excavated part of the way and a full depth of 15 feet having been made through the whole length, except at one bridge. The chief remaining obstructions, aside from the partial widths, were High bridge and the place where the channel was to be straightened.

The account of the Bronx kills project shows that in compliance with an act of Congress in 1881 a survey and report were made, the estimates being for a channel 300 feet wide and 12, 15 and 18 feet deep, respectively. Another report was submitted in 1896, with revised estimates, on a channel 300 feet wide and 15 feet deep. In 1897 a third report was made and this contained estimates for a channel of the same width but depths of 18 and 20 feet, respectively. Yet another report was submitted, in 1902, and the estimates in this were based on a channel 300 feet wide and 18 and 20 feet deep, to cost $1,899,480 and $2,514,600, respectively. The Board of Engineers advised the carrying out of this project in accordance with the 18-foot estimate of the latter report; the Chief of Engineers concurred and the Secretary of War transmitted the report and the subsequent actions and concurrence to Congress. There the matter rested until 1915, when it was again brought up in the Rivers and Harbors Committee, and in 1916 Congress authorized a resurvey. This the Secretary of War ordered and work was begun, but the World war prevented its completion, just as it stopped most domestic projects. But a resurvey was being completed as the Board of Conference undertook its task. A report on this survey had not been submitted when the Board made its report to the Legislature, but of one thing the Board was assured -- that the War Department would not recommend the improvement of the Bronx kills until the obstructions at High bridge had been removed.

The United States, the State and the city of New York all had a part in the entanglement into which the project as a whole had fallen. A few words will explain the situation. The Barge canal terminal act made the construction of a terminal at the foot of East 136th street, East river, Bronx borough, dependent on the deepening of the Bronx kills by the Federal government. The improvement of the Bronx kills was an affair wholly within the province of the National authority, except possibly the ceding of a little land by the State, a detail of easy adjustment, but the Federal government seemed to have determined as a matter of policy that, even if the project were adopted by Congress, no part of the appropriation would become available until the pillars of High bridge ceased to obstruct navigation. This structure belonged to the city and its removal or alteration was a task for which the city alone was responsible. But the municipal authorities had assumed the position that they would take steps to remove this obstruction only upon the condition that the objectionable bend in Spuyten Duyvil creek should be eliminated. Congress had authorized the War Department to straighten the channel at this place when the State or other parties should have provided the necessary right of way. Shortly after Congress had adopted this project, March 4, 1913, the State attempted to comply with this requirement by enacting a law (chapter 414, Laws of 1913), but unfortunately for the project certain conditions were inserted which made the carrying out of the act impossible.

This was the situation which confronted the Board of Conference when it assumed office, and, as we have said, its task in part was to devise means for untangling the knotted problems. As the string of provisos seemed to end with certain required action on the part of the State, it appeared to be the duty of the State to make the first move, and the appointment of this Board was in response to such demand. If neither the United States nor the city would recede from its stand, the State was in position, of course, to set the chain of activities in motion by furnishing the desired right of way, but this action was fraught with several difficulties. The lad was occupied by a large industrial plant, the Johnson Iron Works, and to remove it or to change it not only would entail large expense but might result in creating conditions which were not at all to be desired. The law, as it stood, limited the State expenditure to one million dollars, and this amount was insufficient to obtain the right of way. Also there was but little general knowledge on the subject and not enough appreciation of the need of the improvement to create public demand for adequate action on the part of the State; hence the Board of Conference and its task of gathering information, of stimulating general interest and of inspiring to action, if possible.

In its study of the Harlem project the Board made trips of inspection, had numerous conferences with Federal and municipal authorities and officials of interested corporations and held public hearings in the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx and Queens. While considerable that was said on these occasions, at the hearings in particular, did not add materially to the fund of information, except to show personal desires for the improvement, the essential facts were brought out.

It appeared from the testimony of boatmen and shippers that two of the pillars of High bridge were a menace to navigation of such hazard that their removal was a positive necessity. Nearly all were agreed on this subject, although some objectors were found to advocate the keeping of this ancient bridge. The attitude of the latter people, however, was characterized by their opponents as sheer sentimentality. The structure had served its original purpose and was then so little used that it could easily be dispensed with. It would cost nearly a half million dollars to make such alterations as would do away with the obstructing pillars, while still retaining the bridge. To remove the structure entirely, on the other hand, would cost substantially nothing, since the salvage of materials would about equal the cost of demolition.

The Johnson Iron Works, it was learned, represented an investment of about ten million dollars and gave employment to seven or eight hundred men. Its market was in near-by places in the city and a suitable new location was not at hand. The United States engineers' plan for cutting through this plant was costly and contained objectionable features. Other plans were presented to the Board by private individuals, but they either were unsatisfactory or involved more expensive construction than the Federal plans. Also the question of suitable rail connections brought the railway company into the controversy.

As to the advisability of the project, it was shown that the region which would receive large, direct advantage, the boroughs of Bronx and Queens, constituted a considerable portion of the population and wealth of the state and so its claim to share in the benefits of water transportation was entitled to serious consideration. Moreover, this section had developed amazingly in the last few years and natural conditions were favorable for improvement and growth of still more vast proportions. The water-front of this region stretches for many miles and steamship companies were planning accommodations for world-wide shipping. Industrial sites were available and there was bright promise, so the residents of the boroughs thought, that this territory would become one of the largest manufacturing centers of the entire country. New York city as a whole would also be greatly benefited and since it paid about three-quarters of all State expenditures its needs could not be neglected.

In submitting its report to the Legislature the Board of Conference recommended such action as was necessary to secure the completion of the Harlem river project and the prosecution of the Bronx kills project, enterprises which the Board considered as highly needful adjuncts to the State waterway system. It called attention to a statement in the 1919 annual report of the Chief of Engineers of United States Army, in which the traffic on the Harlem in 1917 was given as 15,822,342 tons, valued at $1,788,331,171, and 2,642,908 passengers. In this same report the Chief of Engineers said that he submitted no estimate of funds for prosecuting the Harlem river work because it was believed that the obstruction should be removed before any further work was done. Commenting on this statement the Board of Conference declared that no better argument for the urgent necessity of action was needed, and it added, speaking particularly of High bridge, "It is, therefore, quite evident that the project for the improvement of this inland waterway, inaugurated in 1878 and now after 42 years only 58 per cent completed, will never be finished until this obstruction to navigation is removed."

In detail the recommendations of the Board included the following five main items:

(1) In order to clear the way for straightening the channel at the Johnson Iron Works, the State law which had attempted to make provision for acquiring the right of way should be amended by making certain specified changes, one of them being an appropriation of sufficient amount to carry out the United States engineers' plan of alterations. As this sum would exceed one million dollars, resort must be had to a referendum to the people at a general election.

(2) The city of New York should proceed at once to remove the obstructions to navigation at High bridge, either by taking it down entirely or by reconstructing it so as to eliminate the two obstructing pillars. Moreover, the Legislature should require assurance from the city authorities that such action would be taken before any law for acquiring the right of way at Johnson Iron Works should be enacted. The Board was able to report, however, that there was every reason to expect that the city administration intended to act in coöperation with the State and Federal governments and see to it that High bridge ceased to obstruct navigation.

(3) When the city had given assurance that the High bridge obstruction would be eliminated and the Legislature had made possible the acquisition of the necessary right of way for straightening the channel at Johnson Iron Works, the Secretary of War and the Speaker of the House of Representatives should be notified of such action and requested to take steps promptly for beginning the improvement of the Bronx kills.

(4) The fourth item dealt with a subject concerning which we have merely hinted in our discussion -- the railroad problem at the western end of the proposed waterway. The recommendation was that, in any settlement that might be made of the so-called West Side problem, the city authorities and the Secretary of War should be urged to give due consideration to the necessity of reëstablishing the grade of the New York Central tracks at Spuyten Duyvil so that they would pass over the Harlem on a drawbridge with at least 24 feet clearance at high tide or pass through a tunnel under the river.

(5) As soon as appropriate steps had been taken to straighten the bend at the Johnson Iron Works, to remove the obstructions at High bridge and to widen and deepen the Bronx kills, the State Canal Board should proceed to provide a Barge canal terminal at 136th street, East river, borough of Bronx.

It may be added that at last the completion of the Harlem river improvement seems to be on its way toward attainment. The Legislature of 1922 (by chapter 407) appropriated $1,500,000 for purchasing the necessary right of way, and the city has taken the first steps to remove the obstructions at High bridge. It will be noticed that the Legislature made provision for the work by direct appropriation rather by a referendum, such as the Board of Conference thought would be necessary.


    1   The First Book of Records of the Town of Southampton, p. 87. (Sag Harbor, 1874.) Page 105 of original manuscript record.
    2   Early Long Island, A Colonial Study, by Martha Bockée Flint, p. 40. (New York, 1896).

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