Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, NY
F. W. Beers & Co. 36 Vesey Street, 1878




Schemes for the promotion of inland navigation, as we have seen, did not at first contemplate anything beyond the improvement of natural channels from the Hudson to Lake Ontario. Efforts in that direction proving unsuccessful, the construction of an artificial channel from the Hudson to Lake Erie suggested itself to commercial and scientific minds. The first proposal, if not the original conception, of such an enterprise is claimed for Gouverneur Morris. In conversation with Simeon De Witt, Surveyor-General, at Schenectady, in 1803, Morris suggested the project of conveying the water of Lake Erie direct to the Hudson by means of a canal so constructed as to preserve a continuous fall to the high lands bordering on the river, which should be surmounted by the instrumentality of locks. The Surveyor-General, in common with most to whom the scheme was mentioned, regarded it as visionary and impracticable, and so represented it to James Geddes, a surveyor of Onondaga county, in a subsequent conversation with him on the subject. Geddes, however, on reflection viewed it differently, and concluded that with some modifications the plan could be carried out, and that the enterprise would be one of great utility. People generally, however, appalled at the magnitude of the suggested work, hardly dared to consider the subject gravely, and for several years after the conception of the idea, nothing was done toward realizing it.

Yet it was not abandoned. Among the ablest advocates of the project was Jesse Hawley, who in a fourteen weeks series of contributions to the Genesee Messenger, beginning in October, 1807, elucidated it, and demonstrated its feasibility. The proposition was first brought before the Legislature by Joshua Forman, member from Onondaga, Feb. 4, 1808. Pursuant to a resolution offered by him, a committee was appointed to report on the propriety of an exploration and survey to the end that Congress might be induced to appropriate the requisite funds. The committee reported favorably ; a survey was ordered April 6, 1808, and a small appropriation made for the expenses of the same. The service was performed by James Geddes. He was directed to examine the route for a canal from Oneida Lake to Lake Ontario as well as that from Lake Erie, eastward. He reported in favor of the latter, which he pronounced feasible. The report excited general interest and made such an impression on the Legislature that a joint resolution was passed creating a board of commissioners to make additional explorations and surveys, for which $3,000 was appropriated, The work was done in the summer of 1810, and a report made in the following spring in favor of the route to Lake Erie. The cost of the proposed canal was estimated at $5,000,000. April 8, 1811, an act was passed continuing and enlarging the commission, authorizing it to appeal to Congress and the Legislatures of other States for aid and appropriating $15,000, for further operations. Precisely a year later, the commission reported that the legislatures of Massachusetts, Ohio and Tennessee only had asked the congressional delegations of their States to vote for the aid requested by New York. The length of the projected canal was estimated at 350 miles, and the cost of transportation six dollars per ton. The report spoke of the project in glowing terms and recommended its prosecution on the credit of the State. The commissioners in compliance with their request were authorized to obtain a loan of $5,000,000, and procure the right of way.

The prosecution of the work was prevented by the war with great Britain, which so engrossed public attention that the canal project was abandoned, and the act authorizing a loan in its behalf was repealed.

Towardthe close of 1815, the enterprise was revived. A large meeting in its favor was held at New York, in December of that year, at which resolutions were adopted urging the construction of the canal. An able memorial from New York, and petitions from all parts of the State were presented to the Legislature. The memorial was a strong argument for the canal, and a rose-colored prophecy of the results that would follow its construction in the development of population and commerce. In spite of many obstacles, the efforts of the canal champions out of the Legislature and in it, especially of DeWitt Clinton, among the latter, procured the passage of an act, April 17, 1816, providing for the appointment of commissioners to take up the work. The men appointed were Stephen Van Rensselaer, DeWitt Clinton, Samuel Young, Joseph Elliott, and Myron Holles. They had the same powers as the previous board, and,were voted $20,000 for the expenses incurred by them. DeWitt Clinton was the president of the commission. The plan of a continuous slope from Lake Erie, first proposed, was abandoned by the commissioners, and that of following the undulations of the surface adopted. They also adopted the estimate of five millions as the cost of the work. April 15, 1817, an act prepared by DeWitt Clinton, was passed, though not without strenuous opposition authorizing the commencement of actual construction. The canal was still considered by many a ruinous experiment, and lamentations were frequently heard on the miseries of an overtaxed people and their posterity.

The canal was divided into three sections, from Albany to Rome, Rome to the Seneca river, and thence to Lake Erie. Charles C. Broadhead was engineer in charge of the eastern division, Benjamin Wright of the middle division, and James Geddes, of the western. The canal was planned to be forty feet wide at the surface, and twenty-eight at the bottom, and the depth of water four feet. The locks were ninety feet long and twelve wide in the clear. The commissioners were authorized to borrow on the credit of the State sums not exceeding $400,000 in any one year. Nearly $50,000 had been spent in explorations and surveys before ground was first broken. That event occurred at Rome on the nation's birthday, 1817, in the presence of DeWitt Clinton, the foremost champion of the enterprise, who was then Governor, and the commissioners. John Richardson held the plow in opening the first furrow. It was more than two years before any part of the line was ready for use. On the 22d of October, 1819, the first boat was launched at Rome, to run between that point and Utica, for the conveyance of passengers. It was called the " Chief Engineer ; "was sixty-one feet long and seven and a half wide ; had two cabins, each fourteen feet long, with a flat deck between them, and was drawn by one horse. The next day, the commissioners and some of the most prominent citizens of Utica embarked there for the return trip to Rome, and set off with a band playing, bells ringing, cannon thundering and thousands of spectators cheering from the banks.

On the 21st of July, 1820, tolls were first levied, the rates being fixed by the commissioners ; the amount received that year was between five and six thousand dollars, taken by six collectors. The canal was used between Utica and Little Falls, in the autumn of 1821, the contractor at the latter point availing himself of the unprofitable labors of the Inland Lock Navigation Company ; and the portion east to the Hudson, was under contract. Meanwhile, the river floated the canal boats from Little Falls to Schenectady. The Mohawk Valley below the former point, was thoroughly explored under the supervision of Benjamin Wright, chief engineer, and the intended direct line from Schenectady to the Hudson river near Albany was abandoned in favor of the course of the Mohawk river. The accuracy of the engineering work on the line was considered wonderful in view of the fact that the engineers Wright and Geddes had had no previous experience of the kind, having been only land surveyors before their employment on this great work.

In the spring of 1823, the canal was open uninterrupiedly from Spraker's to the western part of the State, and in September following, the St. Johnsville feeder was completed. The spot at the " Nose," however, was still unfinished, and at that point merchandise was transferred to river boats for transportation past the unfinished section. In the later stages of the great work, unexpectedly rapid progress was made, its success being now assured, and on the 26th of October, 1825, the finishing touch had been given and the canal was thrown open to navigation throughout by the admission of the water from Lake Erie at Black Rock. The length of the canal was 363 miles, and its original cost $7,143,780,86. Its completion was celebrated with unbounded joy which found expression in, extraordinary civic and military ceremonies, and all the'festivities that a proud and happy commonwealth could invent. On the morning of October 26, the first flotilla of boats bound for New York from Lake Erie, entered the canal at Buffalo, carrying the Governor and canal commissioners. Their departure was the signal for firing the first of a large number of cannon stationed within hearing distance of each other along the whole line of the canal and the Hudson river, and at Sandy Hook, by which the momentous news of the opening of through travel at Buffalo was announced at the Hook in an hour and twenty minutes. One of the signal guns, stationed at Spraker's Basin, was fired by the Revolutionary veteran, Goshen Van Alstine. The official voyagers were everywhere greeted with enthusiastic demonstrations. The Advertiser, of Albany, commenting on their arrival at that city, said : " Wednesday last was a proud day to the citizens of the State of New York, and an important day to the Union, for then we had occular demonstration, that the great work of the age is completed and our inland seas made accessible from the ocean. * * * At ten o'clock the ' Seneca Chief' with the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, the Buffalo, western and New York committees on board came down in fine style, and the thunders of cannon proclaimed that the work was done, and the assembled multitudes made the welkin ring with shouts of gladness." Sketches of canal scenery were stamped upon earthenware and various implements in commemoration of the great achievement.

As at first constructed, the canal ran through, instead of over the streams which it had to cross, especially in the Mohawk valley, their waters being raised to its level, as near as possible, by dams. This gave a surplus of water in certain localities, and afforded some fine milling privileges. One of this sort was furnished below Canajoharie creek, where John A. Ehle built a saw-mill to avail himself of it. To carry the canal through a stream of any size required upon both shores of the latter, guard locks, with gates, which could be closed during freshets. Considerable difficulty was frequently experienced at such places by a long string of boats accumulating on each side of the stream where, at times, they were delayed for several days, during which their crews came to be on familiar, and not always friendly terms. Such delays were sometimes caused by a freshet in the creek injuring the dam. The passage of the first boat across a creek on the subsidence of high water, was a marked event, sometimes drawing a large crowd of people together to witness it. The first thing was to get the boat within the guard lock and close the gate behind it. Then, with a strong team-sometimes doubled-the feat was undertaken. It was always attended with excitement and more or less peril. The greatest difficulty was experienced at Schohaire creek, that being so large ; and on the parting of a towline midway of the stream, in several instances, boats were borne by an aggravated current over the dam and into the river-occasionally with loss of life. In such cases, the boats had to go to Schenectady before they could get back into the canal. The passenger packet boats had the precedence in passing locks, and it was readily conceded at creek crossings in freshet times.

This leads us to remark that the canal at the outset, far from being exclusively an artery of commerce, as at present, was the fashionable avenue of western travel. The packets were elegantly furnished, set excellent tables, and outstripped the freight boats in speed by their comparative lightness and their three horse teams. The canal, accordingly, furnished the natural route of Lafayette in his grand tour through this part of the country in 1825. In connection with this event occurred an interesting incident not hitherto published : While the Marquis was at Johnstown, during the Revolution, he was entertained at Johnson Hall by Jacob Sammons, who, for about four years of the war, leased the Johnson farm from the Committee of Sequestration. There Thomas Sammons repeatedly met the French nobleman. In the early days of the canal, Thomas Sammons was engaged in boating on the great highway. He occasionally accompanied one of his boats to Albany, returning, sometimes, on the canal, though oftener by land. Arriving one day at Schenectady with a boat from Albany, accompanied by his boy Simeon-now for many years so widely and well known as Colonel Sammons-he was surprised to find the main street of the town streaming with flags, gay with flowers, and lined and carpeted with evergreens. Mr. Sammons was not long in learning that the staid old place had put on this holiday attire for the fitting reception of Lafayette, who was expected to reach Schenectady that day in his journey through the grateful country which so well honored its illustrious visitor. It need hardly be said that Mr. Sammons resolved to await his coming, confident that he could obtain not only the sight of the great Frenchman that would be vouchsafed to the crowd, but audience with him.

Information arrived, however, that Lafayette would not reach Schenectady until the next day and the disappointed patriot resumed his voyage, consoling himself and his son with the assurance that they would see the Marquis at Fultonville. Their opportunity was not so long deferred. The Sammons craft, in due time, came to the point of crossing Schoharie creek. Where boats now sail high, if not dry above that stream, over a massive aqueduct, they then ran through it as above described, the team crossing on a narrow towing bridge. Mr. Sammons' boat was at the crossing when the packet conveying the illustrious Frenchman bore down upon it, decked with streamers and evergreens, even the harness of the horses bristling with flags, A jubilant crowd upon the tow-path, horseback and on foot, kept abreast of the coming boat. Sammons was exhorted to hurry across the creek and out of the way, that there might be no unnecessary delay to the progress of nobility. He, seeing his opportunity, hastened to comply, and landing with his son, came back to the towing bridge from which he was able to board the packet as it arrived.

Stepping to the door of the forward cabin they were met by the captain who sternly demanded their object. Learning it, he stoutly forbade their entering, saying that the Marquis was resting, and could be disturbed. Mr. Sammans, who was a resolute man and far too intent upon his errand to allow himself to be balked, in it at that stage, promptly convinced the captain that he was going in ; but young Simeon was so overawed by the doorkeeper's menacing attitude, that he would have remained wiihout, and the event would have had no narrator, had not his father turned back, taken him by the hand and led him into the cabin.

Lafayette was reclining on a couch with his head upon his hand. As his visitors stepped up to him, he looked Mr. Sammons in the face for an instant, and then springing to his feet, grasped both his hands in his own, and with his eyes sparkling with animation, eagerly asked ; " Where have I seen you before ? I have met you somewhere." "At Johnson Hall," replied Mr. Sammons ; and as the Marquis with the rapidity of thought recalled his sojourn at the old Johnstown mansion, his next question was: " Is your brother Jacob living ?" and his next, when told that that much tried patriot had passed away : " Is that good woman his wife, alive ?" Being told that she was, and was living in Onondaga county, the Marquis made a hasty note of the fact.

Here the captain had the pleasure of warning Mr. Sammons that if he did not leave the boat, he would not have another chance. " Hold the boat!" cried Lafayette, and the packet was actually stopped until the interview was ended, when Mr. Sammons stepped ashore, as may well be supposed, a proud and happy man, and his son a proud and happy boy, no doubt, or he would never have told the story with such readiness and spirit when on the down hill side of life. On arriving at Syracuse, Lafayette had the committee of reception bring Mrs. Sammons before him, and gave her a purse containing ten guineas, telling her not to open it until she reached home.

The canal early became taxed beyond its capacity, and the necessity of enlarging it was made apparent. By an act passed in May, 1835, the canal commissioners were authorized to have this work performed, including the construction of double locks, as fast as they should judge advisable. Under this act, the enlargement was begun and carried on with more or less activity for more than a quarter of a century before it was completed throughout. In its re-construction, the canal, instead of passing through streams, was carried over them by aqueducts, thus obviating the trouble that had occurred in times of high water. It was reduced in length to 350 1-2 miles, and increased in breadth to seventy feet at the surface, and fifty-two and a half at the bottom, while the depth of water was increased to seven feet. The cost of the enlargement was over $30,000,000. The results of the canal in facilitating communication and commerce, and stimulating the growth of towns along its line, are before the people and need not be commented upon.

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