Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Series of Talks Given by David Minor on The Erie Canal

Connect directly to David Minor's radio scripts:

"This project began as a talk to the winter meeting of the Canal Society of New York State in March 2002. I decided to follow two sets of travelers along the route of the Erie Canal - the first group during the planning stages, in 1810; the second group in 1826, shortly after the full length of the canal was opened. The idea was to draw on the journals of the travelers, while also giving some of the historic background of the areas traversed. Occasionally we'd project a bit into the future.

When I put together the first talk I was somewhat surprised to find I'd only covered the area from Albany to Schenectady. Obviously this was going to be a more extended project than I'd anticipated. For the 2003 presentation I got from Schenectady to Little Falls and now, in 2004, as far as Rome, New York.

"Lord of the Rings" was three years in the telling. Now it's a tie. So far."

The Erie Canal

First Winter Meeting Talk 2002

Good morning; and welcome. Now that you've gotten some grub under your belts, let's hit the towpath. Some of you easterners may have covered part of the route last night or earlier this morning, but I think you'll find things look a little bit different this time. There are some new folks along. We'll all be moving in two different time periods, almost simultaneously, see a few changes between. Take your Dramamine, we'll be hopping back and forth across 16 years, as we make our way from Albany toward Lake Erie.

The first year is 1810. On March 13th, the State Senate passed a resolution calling for a number of commissioners to explore routes for a canal across the state, and to recommend improvements to Onondaga Lake. New York City Mayor De Witt Clinton, on enforced leave this year, will be our trusty guide for this half of the journey.

In 1810, the population of Albany is 10,762 people. The city has some time ago put it's fur trading days behind it and is now becoming the commercial center for agricultural products from the western part of the state, as well as a rapidly growing lumber center. At this point, the main building that distinguishes it from any other settlement on the edge of the frontier, is the State House, a stone structure at the head of State Street, sitting in a three-acre park. Finishing touches to the two-story building are still being made. The State Library occupies the rear of the building. A few docks, wide streets, the usual assortment of houses, taverns, churches, sho ps, in Dutch or English style, most no taller than three or four stories. The most impressive structure, apart from the homes of the bluebloods, such as the Schuyler Mansion and Prospect house (whose owner, former mayor Abraham Ten Broeck, died back in January), is the 12-year-old First Church in Albany, actually the fourth of that name. This one is still there today in 2002. *St. Peter's Episcopal Church down toward the river on State Street, second of that name, will be replaced in 1859.

The former mayor, accompanied by fellow commissioner Thomas Eddy, catches the Hudson River steamboat out of New York on Saturday morning, June 30th, and arrives early Monday morning, checking into a tavern owned by the Gregory family. This is the only place in Albany considered to be on a par with London's stagecoach inns, fitting for a downstate dignitary like Clinton. Shortly afterwards they meet the other commissioners - Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, William North, and Surveyor-General Simeon De Witt - at the latter's office. One other commissioner, Peter B. Porter, will join them that evening. Clinton writes in his journal, "We employed ourselves in laying up the necessary stores for our voyage, having previously drawn from the Treasury $1500... A mattrass [SPELL], blanket, and pillow, were purchased for each Commissioner; but we unfortunately neglected to provide ourselves with marquees and camp-stools, the want of which we sensibly experienced."

Now there's one important (and obvious) drawback to planning the route for a canal. You don't have the canal to travel on. If your first important destination is Schenectady, you have to contend with the Cohoes Falls, or Great Falls of the Mohawk. Like so many obstacles to transportation, we can blame this one on those dratted glaciers. Or what Tom refers to as Middle to Late Ordovician Cohoes Melange. Because of this melange, the Mohawk tumbles down a total of 218 feet to the Hudson below, which made for a rather rough boat ride. I've heard that some wise guy, toying with the yokels, asked a farmer where the glaciers had gone when they left. The farmer thought for a minute, "I guess back for more rocks." Anyway, it was obstacles like this, that made for freight rates of $75-100 a ton, to move goods from Albany to Seneca Lake. A good practical reason for a canal. They should have listened to engineer Christopher Colles back in 1784, when he proposed one.

Anyway, since the Mohawk River is to be used, this part of the route is obvious, and the commissioners can leave it for the engineers. Who will, by the way, build 27 locks to do the job. This is why Clinton writes, "On the 3d July, we set out in carriages for Schenectady...". So, while they're bumping their way over or around the melange, through the pine barrens, on roads just then being stoned and graded, at the cost of $8,000 a mile, we'll meet one more gentlemen. Amos Eaton is a lawyer, with a deep interest in science. Right now he's lecturing in botany at the Catskill Botanical School, down along the Hudson. Next year he'll become involved in some questionable real estate deals and end up in Newgate Prison, in New York City, where he'll do four years before being pardoned, and banished from the state, by Governor Daniel Tompkins. He will meet Governor De Witt Clinton, who will be impressed by the scientist, pardon him and have him deliver six lectures on geology to the state legislature. Another of his patrons, Stephen van Rensselaer, will back him in founding the Rensselaer School (later the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute, or RPI), in 1825. The following year he decides to lead a group of students on a field trip across the state. Now this, in itself, is quite unique, but he tops even that, deciding that they should all travel by canal. Which is my sneaky way of introducing you to our second set of travelers.

Suddenly, it's 1826. The Canal was first opened all the way across the state just last year; although here at the Albany end, canal traffic has been coming in from as far away as the Brockport area for close to two years, now. That village, by the way, will be not be incorporated for another three years.

Albany's population now is somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000; only slightly more than when Commissioner Clinton visited 16 years ago (it will double in just 10 more years). There have been a few changes since. In 1813 the Second Presbyterian Church was erected. Two years later the newly-incorporated Albany Academy (boys only) began holding classes in a wooden former tavern, while, at the same time, construction had started on a two-story Newark freestone, Academy building, reportedly based on an Italian palace. They moved the kids out of the former tavern two years later in 1817, the same year the Albany Gazette was combined with the Albany Daily Advertiser, forming, you guessed it, the Albany

Gazette and Daily Advertiser. Girls got their own academy at about the same time the boys did. Albany's fairly progressive, as befits the Empire State's capital.

All this time, river traffic has continued to grow. It was estimated in 1822 that, at any one time, there was likely to be 200 sloops, schooners and steamboats at the city's docks. And with the canal about to break through the city fathers could see the need for improved port facilities. In 1823 construction began on the city's canal basin, a fixed pier stretching 4/5 of a mile along the shoreline, joined to shore by bridges at Columbia and State streets. A sloop lock was situated at the southern end and the first lock of Clinton's Ditch at the northern end. It was pretty much completed by the time canal traffic began arriving. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited the city in 1824 you can be sure he was not allowed to miss seeing the new structure.

The Canal opened in October of last year and is already a big hit. Along with the connecting Champlain Canal, it brought in $153,000 in that short season. This, its first complete season, will see tolls reach one million dollars. Goods that used to take three weeks by overland freight will make the journey in as little as eight days, occasionally as many as eleven. Freight rates are dropping rapidly - wheat from $100 a ton, to $5. And in this, the first full year of operation of the Erie Canal, competition waits in the wings, as Duanesburg gentleman farmer George Featherstonaugh and Stephen Van Rensselaer obtain the charter for a Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road. But that won't get built until 1831.

But now, it's 1826. Tuesday, the 25th of April. Across the river, in Troy, a stagecoach pulls up to the Rensselaer School and student Asa Fitch steps out. He's been studying zoology and entomology this past year, but has just paid a quick visit home after his classes ended. Now he's back for tomorrow's commencement exercises. Born in 1809, he's been keeping a diary since the age of twelve, a practice he keeps up until the end of his life, in 1879. Twentieth century researchers will be able to view his notebooks on four full reels of microfilm. He's brought along all his gear for the summer's voyage. The day after the ceremonies his professor, Amos Eaton, crosses the Hudson to Albany, to make final arrangements for renting the canal boat LAFAYETTE. Probably named that last year, after the Frenchman's visit. Fitch and his fellow voyagers will spend the next several days studying their various subjects, to be prepared for anything they might expect to find along the way. Among them are future physicist Joseph Henry of Albany, who will one day become the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, and head the Library of Congress. Another student, a future judge with an interest in the natural sciences, who keeps a sketchier diary of the trip, is De Witt Clinton's son George W. Probably not known as Dubya.

On Sunday, April 30th, the LAFAYETTE is towed over to Troy for the loading of passengers, equipment and baggage. Fitch goes along to help maneuver the boat north through Troy's sloop lock, built in 1813 to allow boats to pass the dam across the Hudson. (The twentieth century replacement structure will be built in 1915). When the loading begins on May 1st the process takes longer than expected. Even today delays on the canal are not uncommon, and we'll soon see that the 1810 travelers had their share.

Finally, on May 2nd, with the loading completed, 24 students and professors, along with crockery, bedding, a cook stove and chemical apparatus, are loaded and spread throughout the LAFAYETTE and she pulls away from Troy. George Clinton describes the vessel, "It is very handsome and convenient, having (judging from appearances) been built for the accommodation of passengers...has uncommonly large decks behind and before, and the cabin was roomy...I was informed that Mr. Cassidy had volunteered a barrel of beef and Mr. Fidler a barrel of beer towards the expedition - a most kind and generous action and peculiarly deserving of gratitude on account of the hearty good will with which they were tendered." Probably the beer especially.

Asa describes the sleeping and storage arrangements, "A box about 7 ft. x 4 is... in one corner of our boat in which the beds are stowed and on which Professor Eaton sleeps at night. The cabin has lockers on each side. Benches are at night placed 7 feet from these, on which boards are placed, one end resting upon the lockers. Upon these boards the beds are to be laid. (This manner of sleeping after we get used to it was as comfortable as the softest bed). I slept very comfortably tonight, in the cabin... my camlet cloak over me." Camlet is either a camel or goat hair fabric.

The waterfalls that presented such an obstacle to De Witt Clinton in 1810 barely get a mention by his son. "Travelled very slowly on account of the locks and no. of boats by which they are thronged. I took advantage of this circumstance and walked as far as Cohoes." Asa was part of the group that did likewise.

The boat is moored for the night west of Cohoes. Before the party turns in for the night Professor Eaton wants to make few things perfectly clear. While the group gathers for tea, he lays down the rules for the expedition. I don't know if the Professor felt himself to be a second Moses, leading his people to the promised land, but there were exactly ten rules, as reported by George; the following among them.

A student assistant, changed daily, shall "cause the morning bells to be rung, control the whole party as it respects order and decorum...".

"Any member of the party may make requests to the captain and Hands, but no one shall give orders excepting professors and daily assistants."

"No member of the party shall whistle, sing, or make loud noises or be guilty of any ungentlemanly or uncivil conduct."

There was homework. "Every member of the party shall collect and label a complete set of the geological specimens of the canal line, and of such other natural substances as he can conveniently obtain, and shall keep a complete journal of every important occurrence, with a description of every interesting natural or artificial object."

And, of course, there was to be no talking in class.

Asa continues, "The boat lay for the night in a small basin the south side of the Mohawk, at the lower aqueduct, in the town of (I believe) Niskayuna. This day has been uncomfortably warm for woolen clothes." Funny he should mention this. The city of Utica, a ways further up the river, has a remarkably near-complete set of weather records, dating back to this year of 1826. The various water supply facilities for the canal will get a good workout as the expedition crosses the state. Today's records show that the month of May 1826 was the warmest (average temperature 65.8 degrees) and fourth driest month on record. May be we'll beat that in 2002.

That night the cabin is crowded so they create a tent on the afterdeck that sleeps four people. It's after midnight by the time they all turn in. As quiet descends on the LAFAYETTE, we'll let them all sleep; dreaming, no doubt, of Ordovician Cohoes Melange, and we'll skip back to 1810, as our coach of commissioners pulls into Schenectady.

De Witt Clinton picks up the tale. "...put up at Powell's Hotel. We found that Mr. Eddy [his fellow commissioner] had neglected to give directions about providing boats, and that Mr. Walton, the undertaker, who is extensively engaged in transporting commodities and merchandize up and down the river, had notice of our wishes only yesterday. He was very busy in making the requisite preparations. He had purchased a batteaux, and had hired another for our baggage. It being necessary to caulk and new paint the boats - to erect an awning for our protection against the rain and sun, and to prepare a new set of sails, we had no very sanguine hope of gratifying our earnest desire to depart in the morning, although we exerted every nerve to effect it."

"July 4th. On consulting with Mr. Walton about our departure, he informed us that this being a day of great festivity, it would be almost impracticable to drag the men away. We saw some of them, and found them willing to embark as soon as the boats were ready..."

Clinton was not impressed by the city. "The true reason for this anxiety, was the dullness of the place. Imagine yourself in a large country village, without any particular acquaintance, and destitute of books, and you will appreciate our situation. Schenectady, although dignified with the name of a city, is a place of little business. It has a Bank, a College, and Court-house, and a considerable deal of trade is carried on through the Mohawk; and all the roads which pass to the westward on the banks of that river necessarily go through this place... With all these advantages it does not appear pleasing, and we endeavoured to fill up the gloomy interval between this time and our departure, by viewing the pageantry which generally attends this day."

In spite of the fact that it failed to impress commissioner Clinton, we might want to take a quick look at the city's past and what it had become by 1810. When it was chartered by lieutenant governor Cadwallader Colden in 1765, the site had been inhabited by Europeans for over a hundred years. French and Indian forces attacked in 1690, putting most of the town within the stockade to the torch, slaughtered 60 men, wom en and children, and carried off 27 prisoners. Those who escaped fled, in their nightshirts, toward Albany in the freezing night, a number of them succumbing to the bitter cold. It had been an isolated raid and the war did not return to the area. The rebuilding began. 25 years later the settlement became the destination for all traffic and goods coming down the river. When war returned to New York again, in the mid-1770s, most of the action occurred to the west and east, at Oriskany and Saratoga. The single death within Schenectady happened on July 4th, 1778, when a soldier named Lindley blew himself up. Not a suicide bomber, just an unlucky Independence Day celebrant who placed a cartridge box at the muzzle of an old cannon dug out of the silt, and touched a flame to it. It was his first, and last, glorious fourth.

The town continued to grow. St. George's Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church were completed in 1769, right around the time that Clench's Tavern was opened. Sort of a system of checks and balances. The major streets were laid out in 1799. By 1810 the census for all of Schenectady County reached 10,201, slightly below that of the city of Albany. About three weeks ago the first Medical Society was formed here. For reasons we'll get into later, we have almost no true idea of what the place looked like. Probably not all that different from Albany. It's been described as consisting of a dozen city blocks in a quadrangle centered on the riverfront, with its boatyards and wharves. The college Clinton referred to was Union College, founded in 1795 and at this time located within the former stockade walls. Citizens get their news through the weekly newspaper the Schenectady Cabinet, formed this year out of the Schenectady Western Budget.

Now we better get our commissioner out of this small village before he goes stir crazy. It's 32 years to the day when the unfortunate Lindley went pyrotechnic. Clinton continues, "There were two celebrations, and two sets of orators - one by the city and one by the College. The feuds between the burghers of Oxford and Cambridge, and the students of those Universities, appear to be acted over here....[That old town and gown thing]...On receiving information that our batteaux were ready, we embarked at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Our boat was covered with a handsome awning and curtains, and well provided with seats. The Commissioners who embarked in it, were De Witt, Eddy, Porter, and myself... The Captain's name was Thomas B. Clench, and we were provided with three men, Freeman, Van Ingen, and Van Slyck. In our consort [meaning the baggage boat], were the Captain, named Clark, three hands, three servants, and about a ton and a-half of baggage and provisions. We called, ludicrously at first, our vessel the EDDY, and the baggage-boat the MORRIS. [insiders' joke] What was jest became serious when our batteaux were painted at Utica, these names were doubly inscribed on the sterns in legible characters."

"A crowd of people attended us at our embarkation, who gave us three parting cheers. The wind was fair, and with our handsome awning, flags flying, and large sail, followed by another boat, we made no disreputable appearance. We discovered that our mast was too high, and our boat being without much ballast, we were not calculated to encounter heavy and sudden gusts. These boats are not sufficiently safe for lake navigation, although they frequently venture. A boat went from this place to Missouri in six weeks. The river was uncommonly low. Goods to the value of $50,000 were detained in Walton's warehouses, on account of the difficulty of transportation. After sailing a couple of miles, a bend of the river brought the wind in our faces. Our men took to their poles, and pushed us up against a rapid current with great dexterity, and great muscular exertion. The approach of evening, and the necessity of sending back to Schenectady for some things that were left, induced us to come to, for the night, at Willard's tavern, on the south bank of the river, and three miles from the place of departure.

"The south road leads in front of the house. While here, we had an opportunity of seeing the pernicious effects of these festivals, in the crowds of drunken, quarrelsome people, who passed by. Among other disgusting scenes, we saw several young men riding Jehu-like to the tavern, in a high state of intoxication, and their leader swinging his hat, and shouting. "Success to Federalism." A simple fellow handed me a handbill containing the arrangements for the procession, and was progressing in his familiarities with the rest of the company, when he was called off by the landlord, who, in a stern voice, said "Come away, Dickup;" and poor Dickup, alias thickhead, immediately obeyed."

"July 5th. We rose with the sun, expecting to start at that time, but we were detained by our Captain, who had gone to Schenectady, until nine o'clock. The high wind then subsided, and it had rained considerably in the night. In the rear of the house, we ascended a high and perpendicular hill, from whence we had a delightful view of Schenectady, and the flat lands forming the valley of the Mohawk."

You may have noticed that Clinton goes into much more detail than does his son or Asa Fitch. After all, he is a politician.

After partaking of the view for awhile Clinton descended the hill and prepared to move on. We'll linger up here for a relatively brief sixteen years before coming down to join his son and the rest of the Eaton expedition. There will be a few changes in those years, some dramatic.

In 1812 Union College buys a piece of property east of the stockade area and begins building a new campus. Two years later the First Hook and Ladder Company is organized (four more fire companies will be organized in 1816) and the Dutch Reformed Church is built at the corner of Union and Church Streets. In November of 1819, the five fire companies find themselves pitted against a sudden blaze in the business district. Spreading quickly, it sweeps along Washington Avenue and the companies can do little more than helplessly witness the destruction of over one hundred buildings. For this reason future generations will have little concept of how Schenectady appeared before 1819. The 1785 Joseph Yates House on Front Street, in its second incarnation, survived into the 1800s, and will remain into the 21st Century (with a few 1880 alterations).

Now, seven years later, we await the arrival of Professor Eaton and his jolly, if well disciplined, crew in this town of about 2800. They left Cohoes this morning, May 3rd, a day that will prove to be slightly accident prone. Further on the LAFAYETTE crossed to the north of the Mohawk at the wooden Crescent Aqueduct and back again at Rexford. Now, it might seem strange for the canal to cross over at one point and back again a few miles further upriver, but there's a perfectly logical reason. The term lobbyist may not have been coined until the Grant administration, but the breed is certainly one of the world's oldest. Remember that serpent in the Garden? In our case it was the owners of the orchards, lumber yards and brick manufacturing plants to the north of the river, that used their influence to bring the canal across to their side.

Asa may have been one of those people who like to make their mistakes early on, get them over with. Whatever his motivation, he managed to baptize himself in the canal today - total immersion, or as near as you get to it, in four feet of water. One other incident occurred as the LAFAYETTE crossed the Rexford Aqueduct, which crosses the Mohawk on 14 stone arches. One of the window shutters on the cabin had not been fastened properly and was knocked off against the side wall of the aqueduct. When informed of this, the captain made a remark to the effect that someone would have to pay for the damage. Professor Eaton quickly set him straight. It was the responsibility of the captain to see that the boat was in proper operating condition, not the students. The boat's owner would have to assume the cost of repairs.

Asa comments, "I should not have mentioned this trifling occurrence, but to show a trait in the character of the captain; who all begin to think will tend much to the unpleasantness of the tour." But tempers seem to have cooled quickly; George doesn't even mention the incident.

If George's father found Schenectady a bit dull, the son only notes, "...we arrived at Schenectady, where we halted some time. Anchored in the evening between 7 and 8 miles from Schenectady." Meaning, to the west. Apparently Asa is not terribly impressed, either, noting only, "At first I had an idea of going to a tavern nearby and begging a small spot in the barroom to lay." But he thought better of it. Four other members of the party, true canawlers already, did bed down at the tavern.

In 1829 another traveler on the canal, Colonel William L. Stone, went to church in Utica. He reports, "...heard the Rev. Mr. Frost, of Whitesborough, on the Unchangeableness of God. It would have been a good sermon, had the preacher stopt when he had done his best. But its effect was killed by its length."

Not wanting to kill my effect, THE END.

© 2002 David Minor / Eagles Byte

David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423

To be put on the mailing list for the weekly TimeMaster radio scripts (WXXI-FM 91.5), as well as a Quote of the Week and a URL of the Week, e-mail me at the address above.

HOME PAGE includes NYNY, a series of timelines covering New York City and State, from approximately 1,100,000,000 BC to 1991 AD.

Visit the Canal Society of New York State page at

"I would undertake to supply your demands if your generosity is equal to them." -John Bartram, U. S. naturalist.

Part Two

Copyright David Minor 2002. All rights reserved. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.