WATERWAYS AND CANAL CONSTRUCTION, 1700-1825. Buffalo, N.Y.
Edited by Stephen R. Powell
"Whereas it is thought of great use to the British interest to have a settlement upon the nearest part of the Lake Erie near the falls of Niagara you are to endeavour to purchase in his Majesty's name of the Sinnekes or other native proprietors all such lands above the falls of Niagara fifty miles to the southward of the said falls, which they can dispose off." -Governor Burnet to Captain Peter Schuyler September, 1721
Wood Creek Portage
Surveys of Waterways
Canal Companies Incorporated
New York Appoints Canal Commissioners Wood Creek Portage, 1700-With the Sinnekes, 1721-Cadwallader Colden's Report, 1727-38-General Schuyler Studies Canal Construction, 1761-General George Washington Impressed, I783-Survey of Waterways, 1791-Canal Companies Incorporated, 1792-Gouveneur Morris Predicts Ship Canal to Hudson, 1800-Proposal to Tap Lake Erie, 1803-New York Appoints Canal Commissioners-Erie Route Favored, 1808-New York Acquires Canals, 18I2-The Years of War-Buffalo Petitions State, 1816-Survey Begins, 1816-Ways and Means-Construction Begins, 18l7-Buffalo Versus Black Rock -Buffalo's Future Bright; Clinton's Prediction-Joseph Ellicott Resigns as Commissioner, 1818-Buffalo's Harbor Plans, 1816-Harbor Company Formed, 18I7-Harbor Completed, 1821-Wreck of Walk-in-the-Water-Black Rock Builds a Pier-Final Victory Over Black Rock, 1823-Diggers Busy at Buffalo, 1823-Clinton Removed From Canal Board, 1824-Opening of Grand Canal, 1825.
Buffalo's growth has been so phenomenal commercially, that its history should include a sketch of the agencies and facilities that have greatly contributed to that growth; hence the insertion in this work of this and the succeeding chapters on Waterways, Canals and Harbor Development.
The very able, comprehensive, and reliable review of Waterways and Canal Construction in New York State written by the then Senator Henry Wayland Hill, LL.D., constitutes Volume XII of the Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society. It traces the important series of events in the improvement of waterways in New York State, preliminary to and of some bearing on the projects which eventually brought into operation in 1825 the Erie Canal, or as it was at first known the Grand Canal, connecting Lake Erie at Buffalo with the Hudson River and New York City. Many of the events chronicled in this and the following chapter are abstracted from that work.
Wood Creek Portage
-Touching briefly upon this pre-canal history and the endeavor to connect the Hudson River with the Great Lakes by a system of waterways, Mr. Hill states that the Mohawk River, Wood Creek, Oneida Lake route had been "the highway of trade and travel between the Hudson and Lake Ontario" for a century or more before white settlement at Buffalo began. Robert Livingston, Secretary of Indian Affairs, in April, 1700, made a report to the Earl of Bellomont, to the effect that: "It's far more easie to go from Albany with Canoes to Cadaracqui (Ontario), than to go from Mont Royal to Cadaracqui * * *, that river (the St. Lawrence), being one of the worst for falls, rapids, fords and shallow places in the world." He proposed that Wood Creek be improved, recommending that a dam "for storing waters for canoes and batteaux" be constructed. More than two hundred years later, the New York State Barge Canal was being constructed along the original Mohawk River, Wood Creek and Oneida Lake route.
Wood Creek was visited in 1700 by Colonel Romer, "to see how much less the carrying place could be made." And in July, 1702, Lord Cornbury, "Captain General and Governor in Chief of New York," promised that he would "give directions to have ye Path at ye Carrying Place marked out and ye Creek cleered of old Trees for ye ease and accommodation of all strangers that may be inclined to come & see us."
In September, 1721, Governor Burnet sent Captain Peter Schuyler, junior, with a "Company of Young Men that are willing to Settle in the Sinnekes (Seneca) Country for a twelve month to drive a Trade with the far Indians that come from the upper lakes, and Endeavour by all Suitable means to perswade them to come and Trade at Albany." Governor Burnet's instructions end with the following paragraph:
"Whereas it is thought of great use to the British interest to have a settlement upon the nearest part of the Lake Erie near the falls of Niagara you are to endeavour to purchase in his Majesty's name of the Sinnekes or other native proprietors all such lands above the falls of Niagara fifty miles to the southward of the said falls, which they can dispose off."
All thought of improving waterways lad, fundamentally, one object, the fostering of trade. The French at that time were the competitors, and the Indians the producers, the trading being almost wholly in peltries. The Six Nations, replying to Governor Burnet, under date of September 17, 1724, expressed thanks to the latter for having "been at the expence to mend & clear the carrying place & Wood Creek," and further gave it as their opinion that: "It is most certain that Trade is the cheifest motive to promote Friendship."
Cadwallader Colden, in 1737-38, made a report to Lieutenant-Governor Clarke regarding "the adaptability of the topography of the Province for commercial development;" upon which report Lieutenant Governor Clarke, perhaps, based his own of February 17, 1738, to the Lords of Trade. He traced the waterways through from New York to Oswego, and to "the lakes and rivers even to the branches of Messasippi," adding: "It is from the Indians that inhabit near, and to the northward and westward of those lakes, that we have our beaver in exchange chiefly for goods of the manufacture of England."
Governor George Clinton, in his letter to the Lords of Trade under date of July 25, 1745, points out that the French had exerted much influence over the Indians, to the detriment of the English, by the erection of "Forts and trading houses" "along the Lake in the Senekes Country (contrary to the faith of Treaties)."
In 1755, Captain Bradstreet and his company passed "the great carrying place between the Mohawk River and the Wood Creek" in three hours, with all of his military supplies, "Batoes and Baggage," Lieutenant-Governor DeLancey commenting upon this accelerated passage, which he pointed out took "less time than what the Traders generally take with a single Battoe when they hasten to the Mart at Oswego."
However satisfactory this quickened passage over the portage may have been, it was not long afterwards that General Abercrombie suggested an improvement. In 1758 he mapped sections of the Mohawk and its tributaries, and found that the distance from the Mohawk to Stoney Creek, a part of Wood Creek, was about 5,000 feet, almost a thousand shorter than the road over the carrying place. He pointed out that if a ditch were cut between these two streams, loaded batteaux might pass without any portage.
General Philip Schuyler visited England in 1761, and observed canal construction there. Upon his return to this country, he gave thought to the matter of rendering the Mohawk River navigable by the construction of canals to overcome the rapids at Little Falls and elsewhere. He interested Governor Sir Henry Moore in the matter; and the latter in 1768 recommended the improvement of the Mohawk River, so as to establish water communication with Fort Stanwix, past Little Falls. In 1776 General Philip Schuyler proposed a waterway between the Hudson and Lake Champlain, and was, Mr. Hill found, authorized to "take measures for clearing Wood creek at Skeensboro, constructing there and taking the level of the waters falling into the Hudson at Fort Edward and into Wood creek." General Schuyler was of the opinion that "an uninterrupted water carriage between New York and Quebec might be made at fifty thousand sterling expense." Gouverneur Morris, in conversation with General Schuyler at Fort Edward, in 1777, made the following statement: "At a no very distant day the waters of the great western seas will by the aid of man break through the barriers and mingle with those of the Hudson. Numerous streams pass these barriers through natural channels and artificial ones may be conducted by the same routes."
In 1784, Christopher Colies, of New York City, sought to get the Legislature to remove the obstructions of the Mohawk River. The report of the Assembly Committee, however, deprecated the undertaking of such work at public expense, though it lauded Mr. Colles for an alternative proposal which he had submitted, and was of the opinion that "Mr. Colles. with a number of adventurers (as by him proposed) should undertake it, and that they ought to be recognized by a law giving and securing unto them, their heirs and assigns forever, the profits that may accrue by the transportation." However, in the following year the Assembly "went so far as to grant to Mr. Colles the sum of $125 "for the purpose of enabling him * * * to make an essay toward the removing of certain obstructions in the Mohawk river."
Undoubtedly, the improvement of the waterways of New York State was being seriously considered by legislators and others of the State; and by distinguished far-seeing men of the Nation also. General Washington in 1783 toured along water courses of New York State, and was so much impressed "with the vast inland navigation of these United States" and "with the goodness of that Providence which has dealt its favors to us with so profuse a hand," that he sincerely prayed: "Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them."
Mr. Colles in due time delivered his report to the Assembly. He proposed "the establishment of a company with a capital Of $13,000 to prosecute the works and to be allowed toll," and also that there be ceded to the company a grant of 250,000 acres of western lands on condition of "completing the inland navigation of the Cahoes the Little Falls, and Fort Schuyler within five years." Mr. Colles was optimistic, but failed to enlist private capital in his enterprise; and definite action was not taken by the Legislature, though Mr. Jeffery (or Jeffrey) Smith introduced on March 17, 1786, "An Act for Improving the Navigation of the Mohawk River, Wood Creek, and the Onondaga River, with a View of Opening an Inland Navigation to Oswego, and for Extending the Same, if Practicable, to Lake Erie." Adjournment of the Legislature prevented final action being taken on the matter. In the same year, however, General Philip Schuyler and two others were appointed commissioners "to examine and report on making a canal from Wood Creek to the Mohawk River."
-In 1791, Governor George Clinton, in his address to the Legislature, referred to the rapid increase in "our frontier settlements," and recommended "the policy of continuing to facilitate the means of communication with them." In that year action was taken in the Senate, Elisha Williams introducing a resolution "to examine * * * what obstructions in the Hudson and Mohawk rivers will be proper to be removed." A joint committee was appointed, which committee advocated the opening of water communication between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek. Surveys were made under the direction of the Commissioners of the Land Office by Major Abraham Hardenburgh in June or September, 1791, he being assisted by Benjamin Wright. The report of the commissioners was submitted by Governor George Clinton to the Legislature on January 5, 1792.
In the fall of 1791, Elkanah Watson, General Van Courtland, Stephen Bayard and Jeremiah Van Rensselaer journeyed from the Hudson River to Seneca Lake, and upon his return from Seneca Falls, Elkanah Watson reported in favor of intersecting canals between the Mohawk River and Seneca Lake. "On January 3, 1792, the Commissioners of the Land Office reported that in their opinion water communication could be established between Albany and Seneca Lake by means of locks and canals, utilizing the natural streams of water, for a SUM Of $200,000." On, February 7, 1792, Senator Elisha Williams introduced a bill entitled: "An Act for Constructing and Opening a Canal and Lock Navigation in the Northern and Western Part of the State." The measure dealt only with the Mohawk River and Oneida Lake proposal.
Canal Companies Incorporated
-General Philip Schuyler introduced a bill in the Senate in 1792 upon the same subject. It modified that introduced by General Williams and resulted in the incorporation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Navigation Company. "They were the earliest canal laws passed by the State of New York." The bill became Chapter 40 of the Laws of 1792. The first-named corporation was formed to open a lock navigation from the navigable part of the Hudson River to Lake Ontario and Seneca Lake, the other company having authority to operate from the navigable portion of the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. General Schuyler "headed the list of the boards of directors of both of these companies."
When the companies had spent $25,000 in the work of construction, the State was to grant to the companies a further sum of $12,500, as a subsidy, which however was to be expended in further improvement of waterways. The Western Company was to provide within five years a connected waterway from Schenectady to Wood Creek, navigable in the locks to boats drawing two feet of water and not exceeding forty feet in length. Subsequent legislation of 1792 stipulated for locks at least 70 feet long and ten feet wide.
General Schuyler passed over the route later in the same year, and work began in April of the following year, 1793, at Little Falls. Wood Creek was "cleared, straightened, and improved, and its length shortened more than seven miles" in 1793, the Northern Company in the same year commencing a canal in the vicinity of Stillwater, intending to extend it to Waterford. In I794 the northern Wood Creek was partially cleared of timber, and "boats capable of passing from the falls of Skeensborough, to near Fort Ann" did so. A few boats passed through the locks at Little Falls on the Mohawk River in the fall of 1795.
The building of five locks by the Western Company at Little Falls in a space of 2 3/4 miles, and a canal 1 1/4 miles long at German Flats, and another canal two miles and three chains long from the Mohawk River to Wood Creek, had entailed a cost far in excess of the original estimate for the carrying through of the whole project, which finally represented an expenditure of $480,000 instead Of $200,000. The first locks built were of wood, an expensive expedient, for they had to be replaced by locks built of bricks and mortar within six years. The canal had a bottom width of 26 feet, a surface width of 35 feet and a depth Of 3 feet, and in the year 1796 "boats of sixteen tons burthen were plying between Schenectady and Seneca Lake." The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company was given a loan Of $15,000 by the State in 1796, and in the next year "was authorized to secure a loan Of $250,000 to carry on its work," Chapter 101of the Laws of 1798 extending by five years the time for completion of the work. In 1798 the Niagara Canal Company was incorporated, with authority to construct a canal from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario; the plans providing for a canal six miles long, and having fifty locks, 70 by 16 feet, and of four feet draught.
In the year 1800 Gouverneur Morris stood at Fort Erie, near the outlet of Lake Erie, and saw "nine vessels, the least of them one hundred tons," riding at anchor. He was impressed. It seemed "like magic" to him that full-rigged ships should be there, hundreds of miles from the seaboard. But they were needed; and he saw that as the years went by the ships would increase in number, for he reflected, "at this point commences a navigation of more than a thousand miles." He was cognizant of the fact that civilization and settlement were rapidly spreading westward, and that those vast inland lakes would, in course of time, border well-developed lands, teeming with progressive productive men of his own race, men who could and would cause those lands to yield immense harvests and thus create an immense volume of trading, the greater part of the products of which would necessarily have to be borne "on the billows of those inland seas." He recognized that the trading would be world-wide, and realized more clearly than ever before, that ready outlet to be salted seas would come, must come. And, as a loyal American, he could not imagine that that outlet could follow any other water route than through New York State to the Hudson River and to the sea. The cutting of the way would entail much expenditure of public or private money, but, he reflected: * * * "One-tenth of the expense borne by Britain in the last campaign would enable ships to sail from London, through Hudson's river into Lake Erie. * * * The proudest empire in Europe is but a bauble compared to what America will be, must be."
Perhaps even he, who was a few years later accused of being influenced by "a sublimated imagination" in advocating an inclined canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson, did not at that time carry his dreams to so extravagant a point as to picture vessels of one thousand tons burthen passing through that outlet to the sea. However, he had been directing important canal-making projects for some years, and in such work a portentous future may have, seemed to loom ahead, even though ways and means brought him many perplexities.
The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had been carrying through much work under financial difficulty. To relieve financial embarrassment in 1802, an act was introduced and passed, as Chapter 97 of the Laws of 1802, by which the State Comptroller was authorized to accept shares of the company in payment of debts. Further improvements in navigation were proposed in that year, the work being from Wood Creek to Little Canada Creek and covering six miles, with four locks and dams.
Not all "canal" men were satisfied with access to Lake Erie by way of Lake Ontario. Some were convinced that the canal requirement would not be properly met until there was direct access to Lake Erie. Lake Ontario led into Canada, and if all of the Great Lakes trade had to pass from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario to reach Oswego and the inland waters of New York State, some of the commerce might be diverted and pass out to the sea by way of the St. Lawrence, instead of the Hudson. It is recorded that, in 1803, Gouverneur Morris urged the feasibility of "tapping Lake Erie and leading its waters across country to the Hudson River." But at least one good student of Canal history doubts whether Mr. Morris, as early as i8O3, had any idea of planning an artificial waterway directly across New York State from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. Mr. Morris seemed then to be satisfied with the Ontario route from Lake Erie, and it is asserted that it was not until after James Geddes made a survey in 1808 that Gouverneur Morris put forward his plan of an inclined canal.
President Thomas Jefferson gave recognition and encouragement to those who were pursuing canal-making projects in 1806. In his Annual Message to Congress, under date of December 2, 1806, he recommended the application of national revenues to such purposes, deeming them in general to be "most desirable national objects." The most desirable proj6ct at that time was, probably, that of breaking a way into the Great Lakes from the Hudson. The United States Senate concurred with the President. On March 2, 1807, on motion of Senator Thomas Worthington, it was resolved by the Senate of the United States that a plan be prepared "for the application of such means as are within the power of Congress, to the purpose of opening and making canals." Report was made on April 4, 1808, by Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, supporting the finding of financial experts who favored "good roads and canals," the Secretary's report giving the following opinion: "No other single operation, within the power of Government, can more effectually tend to straighten and perpetuate that union which secures external independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty." Congress, however, did not concur in such use of public moneys, which if used as recommended would have called for $4,000,000 for canal construction in New York State alone, to provide for "sloop navigation" from Hudson River to Lake Ontario, thence to Lake Erie.
New York Appoints Canal Commissioners
-That the importance of establishing canal connection with Lake Erie was supported by men in other States than New York, is evidenced in the writings of Jesse Hawley in 1807. His letters published in the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) "Commonwealth" and in the Genesee "Messenger" advocated "a direct overland water communication between Lake Erie and the Hudson." In the next year, 1808, on motion of Joshua Forman of Onondaga, the Assembly of New York State adopted a resolution providing that "a joint committee be appointed to consider the propriety of exploring and surveying the most eligible route between the Hudson River and Lake Erie." Regarding this and the circumstances that led up to it, the Hon. Henry Wayland Hill said, in a speech delivered in the New York State Constitutional Convention, on September 10, 1894:
"The Western Company had no conception of the formation of 'a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson.' The names of Cadwallader Colden, Sir Henry Moore, George Washington, George Clinton, General Philip Schuyler, Gouverneur Morris, Jesse Hawley and others have been credited with being the first to suggest a great artificial waterway between Lake Erie and the Hudson.
"Mr. Joshua Forman, in 1808, was first to introduce a concurrent resolution in the State Legislature providing for a survey of such a canal. The commissioners appointed under this resolution in 1810 were Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, William North, Thomas Eddy and Peter B. Porter, and they were empowered to explore the whole route for inland navigation from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario and to Lake Erie. Their report was laid before the Legislature in 1811, and Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton were added to the other commissioners. By an act of the Legislature, passed in 1811, these commissioners were authorized to apply to Congress for cooperation and financial aid ; but the federal government and the sister States declined to assist the State of New York in her great undertaking to connect the waters of the Great Lakes with those of the Hudson River."
The first commissioners named in the resolutions of March, 1810, included DeWitt Clinton and Simeon De Witt, as has been stated in an earlier chapter of Mr. Hill's work, "Waterways and Canal Construction in New York State." Mr. Morris, for the commissioners, reported on March 2, 1811, the report being criticized by DeWitt Clinton, also a commissioner. The latter was of the opinion that Mr. Morris was "too much under the influence of a sublimated imagination, conceiving the sublime idea of creating an artificial river from the elevation of Lake Erie to the Hudson." Mr. Morris's report "digressed" to show the advantages of "an inclined plane canal," which would pass "over rivers and lakes by aqueducts and valleys by mounds." However, Mr. Clinton admitted that "with the exception of the plan of the canal," Mr. Morris's report "established the practicability of an inland canal, and illustrated its advantages." "The cost was estimated at five millions of dollars."
Plans had been crystallizing in favor of what was termed the Erie Route, and in disfavor of the Ontario Route. Mr. Clinton pointed out that James Geddes, Esq., of Onondaga county, and Joseph Ellicott, Esq., "of Batavia...... both practical surveyors, of experienced skill, of investigating minds," had corresponded with the Surveyor-General in 1808, Mr. Geddes, on July 1, 1808, writing: "Some people boldly assert that a canal can be made from Erie to Rome with less labour than any one ever was made for the same distance in so straight a direction." Mr. Ellicott on July 30th wrote in answer to the Surveyor-General that he "opposes the Ontario route, and recommends the Erie communication by a canal from Tonawanta* to Black Creek, a distance of forty-three miles, which, by his estimate of 8,160 dollars per mile, would cost $350,800 and from Genesee River to the navigable waters of Mud Creek $350,880; a total of $701,760."
Interest had been increasing in the national Houses of Congress. In 1810, Senator Pope, of Kentucky, introduced a bill into the Senate proposing ca union of the waters of the Hudson with Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain;" and on February 8, 1810, Congressman Peter Buell Porter, of Black Rock, offered a resolution in the House of Representatives "urging an appropriation of public lands in aid of the construction of roads and canals." Mr. Porter was made chairman of a Congressional committee of twenty, and in due course reported a bill in which was a provision for "opening canals from the Hudson to Lake Ontario and around the Falls of Niagara." Both bills were defeated, however.
Nevertheless, those interested in improvement of waterways in New York State continued their endeavors. A commission discovered that the States of Tennessee, Massachusetts and Ohio favored federal appropriation for such purpose, and President James Madison, in December, 1811, sent a special message to Congress, stating that: "The utility of canal navigation is universally admitted. * * * The particular undertaking contemplated by the State of New York, which marks an honorable spirit of enterprise and comprises objects of National as well as of limited importance, will recall the attention of Congress to the signal advantages to be derived to the United States from a general system of internal communication and conveyance. But federal aid was not forthcoming.
Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.
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