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The Building Of The Erie Canal [1818-1825]
By William H. Seward

 

History will assign to Gouverneur Morris the merit of first suggesting a direct and continuous communication from Lake Erie to the Hudson. In 1800 he announced this idea from the shore of the Niagara River to a friend in Europe, in the following enthusiastic language:

"Hundreds of large ships will, in no distant period, bound on the billows of these inland seas. Shall I lead your astonishlnent to the verge of incredulity? I will! Know then that one-tenth part of the expense borne by Britain in the last campaign would enable ships to sail from London through the Hudson into Lake Erie. As yet we

1 Seward, at the time of the building of the Erie Canal, was a lawyer in Auburn, N. Y. In 1838 he was elected Governor of New York, and reelected in 1840. In 1849 he was elected United States Senator from New York, and served until 1861. He became a prominent candidate for President at the Chicago Convention which nominated Lincoln in 1860, and served under Lincoln as Secretary of State, continuing in that office during the administration of Andrew Johnson. On the night of Lincoln's assassination, an attempt on his life was made in his house by one of John Wilkes Booth's associates in the conspiracy, and he was severely wounded.

The praise awarded to Gouverneur Morris must be qualified by the fact that the scheme he conceived was that of a canal with a uniform declination, and without locks, from Lake Erie to the Hudson. Morris communicated his project to Simeon De Witt in 1803, by whom it was made known to James Geddes in 1804. It afterward became the subject of conversation between Mr. Geddes and Jesse Hawley, and this communication is supposed to have given rise to the series of essays written by Mr. Hawley, under the signature of "Hercules," in the Genesee Messenger, continued from October, 1807, until March, 1808, which first brought the public mind into familiarity with the subject. These essays, written in a jail, were the grateful return, by a patriot, to a country which punished him with imprisonment for being unable to pay debts owed to another citizen. They bore evidence of deep research and displayed singular vigor and comprehensiveness of thought, and traced with prophetic accuracy a large portion of the outline of the Erie Canal.

In 1807 Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, in pursuance of a recommendation made by Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, reported a plan for appropriating all the surplus revenues of the General government to the construction of canals and turnpike roads; and it embraced in one grand and comprehensive view, nearly without exception, all the works which have since been executed or attempted by the several States in the Union. This bold and statesmanlike, tho premature, conception of that eminent citizen will remain the greatest among the many monuments of his forecast and wisdom.

In l808 Joshua Forman, a representative in the New York Assembly from Onondaga County, submitted his memorable resolution:
Resolved, if the honorable the Senate concur herein, That a joint committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of exploring and causing an accurate survey to be made of the most eligible and direct route for a canal, to open a communication between the tide-waters of the Hudson River and Lake Erie, to the end that Congress may be enabled to appropriate such sums as may be necessary to the accomplishment of that great national object."

In pursuance of a recommendation by the committee, a resolution unanimously passed both houses, directing the surveyor-general, Simeon De Witt, to cause an accurate survey to be made of the various routes proposed for the contemplated communication. But how little the magnitude of that undertaking was understood may be inferred from the fact that the appropriation made by the resolution to defray the expenses of its execution was limited to the sum of six hundred dollars.

There was then no civil engineer in the State. James Geddes, a land surveyor, who afterward became one of our most distinguished engineers, by the force of native genius and application in mature years, leveled and surveyed under instructions from the surveyor-general, with a view to ascertain, first, whether a canal could be made from the Oneida Lake to Lake Ontario, at the mouth of Salmon Creek; secondly, whether navigation could be opened from Oswego Falls to Lake Ontario, along the Oswego River; thirdly, what was the best route for a canal from above the Falls of Niagara to Lewiston; and, fourthly, what was the most direct route, and what the practicability of a canal from Lake Erie to the Genesee River, and thence to the waters running east to the Seneca River. The topography of the country between the Seneca River and the Hudson was at that time comparatively better known.

Mr. Geddes's report showed that a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson was practicable, and could be made without serious difficulty. In 1810, on motion of Jonas Platt, of the Senate, who was distinguished throughout a pure and well-spent life by his zealous efforts to promote this great undertaking, Gouverneur Morris, De Witt Clinton, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Simeon De Witt, William North. Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter were appointed commissioners "to explore the whole route for inland navigation from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, and to Lake Erie." Cadwallader D. Colden, a contemporary historian3 himself one of the earliest and ablest advocates of the canals, awards to Thomas Eddy the merit of having suggested this motion to Mr. Platt, and to both these gentlemen that of engaging De Witt Clinton's support, he being at that time a member of the Senate. Another writer commemorates the efficient and enlightened exertions, at this period, of Hugh Williamson. The canal policy found, at the same time, earnest and vigorous supporters in the American and Philosophical Register, edited by Dr. David Hosack and Dr. John W. Francis.

The commissioners in March, 1811, submitted their report written by Gouverneur Morris, in which they showed the practicability and advantages of a continuous canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and stated their estimate of the cost at five million dollars, a sum which they ventured to predict would not exceed 5 per cent. of the value of the commodities which, within a century, would be annually transported on the proposed canal. We may pause here to remark that the annual value of the commodities carried on the canals, instead of requiring a century to attain the sum of one hundred millions, reached that limit in twenty-five years.

The ground was broken for the construction of the Erie Canal on July 4, l817, at Rome, with ceremonies marking the public estimation of that great event. De Witt Clinton, having just before been elected to the chief magistracy of the State and being president of the Board of Canal Commissioners, enjoyed the high satisfaction of attending, with his associates, on the auspicious occasion.

In 1819 Governor Clinton announced to the Legislature that the progress of the public works equaled the most sanguine expectations and that the canal fund was flourishing. He recommended the prosecution of the entire Erie Canal. Enlarging upon the benefits of internal navigation, he remarked that he looked to a time, not far distant, when the State would be able to improve the navigation of the Susquehanna, the Allegheny, the Genesee, and the St. Lawrence; to assist in connecting the waters of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi; to form a junction between the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario through the Oswego River; and to promote the laudable intention of Pennsylvania to unite Seneca Lake with the Susquehanna, deducing arguments in favor of such enterprises, from the immediate commereial advantages of extended navigation, as well as from its tendency to improve the condition of society and strengthen the bonds of the Union. . . .

On October 23, 1819, the portion of the Erie Canal between Utica and Rome was opened to navigation, and on November 24th the Champlain Canal admitted the passage of boats. Thus in less than two years and five months one hundred twenty miles of artificial navigation had been finished, and the physical as well as the financial practicability of uniting the waters of the western and northern lakes with the Atlantic Ocean was established to the conviction of the most incredulous.

Governor Clinton announced these gratifying results to the Legislature in 1820, and admonished that body that while efforts directly hostile to internal improvements would in future be feeble, it became a duty to guard against insidious enmity; and that in proportion as the Erie Canal advanced toward completion would be the ease of combining a greater mass of population against the further extension of the system. Attempts, he remarked, had already been made to arrest the progress of the Erie Canal west of the Seneca River, and he anticipated their renewal when it should reach the Genesee. But the honor and prosperity of the State demanded the completion of the whole of the work and it would be completed in five years if the representatives of the people were just to themselves and to posterity.

In November, 1820, Governor Clinton congratulated the Legislature upon the progress of the public works. He urged the adoption of plenary measures to complete the Erie Canal within three years, enforcing the recommendation by the consideration that Ohio would thereby be encouraged to pursue her noble attempt to unite the waters of Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The canal commissioners showed in their report that the Erie Canal was navigable from Utica to the Seneca River, a distance of ninety-six miles, and that its tolls during four months had amounted to five thousand two hundred fortyfour dollars....

On January 1, 1823, the Government went into operation under the new State constitution, Joseph C. Yates having been elected to the office of governor. The constitution declared that rates of toll not less than those set forth by the canal commissioners in their report of 1821 should be collected on the canals, and that the revenues then pledged to the canal fund should not be diminished nor diverted before the complete payment of the principal and interest of the canal debt, a pledge which placed the public credit on an impregnable basis.

It appeared at the commencement of the session of the Legislature in 1823 that the public debt amounted to five million four hundred twentythree thousand five hundred dollars, of which the sum of four million two hundred forty-three thousand five hundred dollars was for moneys borrowed to construct the canals. The commissioners reported that boats had passed on the Erie Canal a distance of more than two hundred twenty miles, and that as early as July 1st ensuing that channel would be navigable from Schenectady to Rochester. The tolls collected in 1822 upon the Erie Canal were sixty thousand, and upon the Champlain Canal three thousand six hundred twenty five dollars. The improvements of the outlet of Onondaga Lake had been completed, and the Glens Falls feeder was in course of rapid construction. Among the benefits already resulting from the Erie Canal, the commissioners showed that the price of wheat west of the Seneca River had advanced 50 per cent. To appreciate this result, it is neeessary to understand that wheat is the chief staple of New York, and that far the largest portion of wheat-growing in this State lies west of the Seneca River. Attempts were again made in both branches to provide for collecting the local tax. The proposition was lost in the Senate by a vote of nineteen to ten, and in the Assembly by a division of sixty five to thirty-one.

The Legislature exprest by resolution a favorable opinion of the inland navigation which New Jersey proposed to establish between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. A loan of one million five hundred thousand dollars was authorized for canal purposes, a survey of the Oswego River was directed to be made, and estimates of the expense of completing the canal from Salina to Lake Ontario. An association to construct such a canal was incorporated, and authority given to the commissioners to take the work when completed, leaving the use of its surplus waters to the corporators; and the eastern termination of the Erie Canal was fixt at Albany.

The canal commissioners reported in 1824 that the Champlain Canal was finished; that both canals had produced revenues during the previous year of one hundred fiftythree thousand dollars; and that the Commissioners had decided that the Erie Canal ought to be united with the Niagara River at Black Rock and terminate at Buffalo. . . .

On the reassembling of the Legislature in January, 1825, De Witt Clinton, who, in November of the preceding year, had been again called to the office of governor, congratulated the Legislature upon the prospect of the immediate completion of the Erie Canal, and the reasonable certainty that the canal debt might soon be satisfied, without a resort to taxation, without a discontinuance of efforts for similar improvements, and without staying the dispensing hand of Government in favor of education, literature, science, and productive industry. Earnestly renewing his recommendation that a board of internal improvement should be instituted, he remarked that the field of operations was immense, and the harvest of honor and profit unbounded, and that, if the resources of the State should be wisely applied and forcibly directed, all proper demands for important avenues of communication might be satisfied.

The primary design of our system of artificial navigation, which was to open a communication between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, was already, he observed, nearly accomplished, but would not be fully realized until Lake Ontario should be connected with the Erie Canal and with Lake Champlain, and the importance of these improvements would be appreciated when it was understood that the lake coast, not only of this State, but of the United States, was more extensive than their seacoast. The next leading object, he remarked, should be to unite the minor lakes and secondary rivers with the canals and to effect such a connection between the bays on the seacoast as would insure the safety of boat navigation against the tempests of the ocean in time of peace, and against the depredations of an enemy in time of war.

The public debt for canals in 1825 amounted to seven and a half million dollars—all of which, it must be recorded to the honor of the State and the country, had been borrowed of American capitalists —and the annual interest thereon, to three hundred seventy-six thousand dollars. The Governor estimated that the tolls for the year would exceed three hundred ten thousand dollars; that the duties on salt would amount to one hundred thousand dollars, and that these, with the other income of the canal fund, would produce a revenue exceeding, by three hundred thousand dollars, the interest on the canal debt. He stated also that ten thousand boats had passed the junction of the canals near tide-water during the previous season. Remarking that the creative power of internal improvement was manifested in the flourishing villages which had sprung up or been extended; in the increase of towns; and, above all, in the prosperity of the city of New York. And noticing the fact that three thousand buildings had been erected in that city during the preceding year, Clinton predicted that in fifteen years its population would be doubled, and that in thirty years that metropolis would be the third city in the civilized world, and the second, if not the first, in commerce. . .

On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was in a navigable condition throughout its entire length, affording an uninterrupted passage from Lake Erie to tide water in the Hudson. Thus in eight years artificial communications four hundred twenty-eight miles in length had been opened between the more important inland waters and the commercial emporium of the State. This auspicious consummation was celebrated by a telegraphic discharge of cannon, commencing at Lake Erie, and continued along the banks of the canal and of the Hudson, announcing to the city of New York the entrance on the bosom of the canal of the first barge that was to arrive at the commercial emporium from the American Mediterraneans.