Photograph of the Genesee Valley Canal, c. 1870
Suggested Teaching Instructions
The Lateral Canals
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
The Erie Canal was a phenomenal and almost instant success. It led to a substan
tial concentration of people and wealth in the corridor between Albany and Buffalo. The booming prosperity along the banks of the Erie was the envy of upstate New Yorkers who did not live near the "Grand Canal.” They lobbied lawmakers in Albany for connections to the Erie Canal and its stream of commerce. By the 1850s, nine connecting, or lateral, canals had been built by the state to tie its northern and southern tiers to the main Erie line. Private companies constructed two more canals through which connections could be made to the Erie.
The Champlain Canal, the first of New York's lateral canals, was completed in 1823. It had been authorized at the same time as the Erie but was completed two years earlier. The 66-mile Champlain Canal between Waterford and Whitehall connected 125-mile-long Lake Champlain with the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. The Champlain Canal provided an easy all-water route to the eastern Adirondacks, western New England, and Canada. It was second only to the Erie Canal in total tonnage carried and in the amount of tolls collected. The Champlain Canal remains in operation.
Two other laterals still in operation are the Oswego Canal and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. The Oswego joins the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario. It runs between Syracuse and Oswego. The Oswego River provided slack-water navigation along nearly 19 of the Oswego Canal's 38 miles, which helped make the canal one of the least expensive to build. The Cayuga-Seneca Canal's 22 miles connect the two long north-south lakes of Cayuga and Seneca with the Erie Canal. Like the Oswego Canal, the Cayuga and Seneca took advantage of slack-water navigation along 11 miles of the Seneca River. Opened in 1828, the canal had 12 lift locks, made of wood. By 1847, stone structures with the same dimensions as the locks on the 1836 Erie enlargement replaced the Cayuga and Seneca's wooden locks. In 1918, the Oswego Canal and the Cayuga and Seneca Canal joined the Erie and the Champlain canals in the Barge Canal System.
The other state-financed laterals were not as economically successful as those incorporated into the Barge Canal System. First, they were usually very expensive to construct. Second, these expensive laterals suffered from lack of traffic, compounded by competition from railroads. New York abandoned most of these canals before the end of the 19th century. Only the Black River Canal between the Erie Canal at Rome and the Black River at High (Lyon's) Falls managed to survive into the 20th century; it operated until 1924. This 35-mile-long canal required 109 lift locks, most of which were needed to traverse the rugged plateau between Rome and Boonville in the Black River valley. Of course, the locks added significantly to the cost of construction.
Among the most expensive and unprofitable of the laterals was the Genesee Valley Canal. It ran between Rochester and Olean, near the Pennsylvania border. The canal required 104 lift locks to cross the Appalachian Uplands, bringing the total construction cost of the canal to nearly $5,700,000.
The Chenango Canal between Utica and Binghamton was an interbasin canal, as were some of the other laterals. Interbasin canals connected two separate watersheds. It was difficult to find a sufficient water supply at the summit level of interbasin canals. Given the natural flow of water, whenever a boat was locked from one level to another, a quantity of water was wasted to the lower level, and there was nothing to replace the water at the top. Such was the case with the Chenango. Seven reservoirs were built to supply the summit level of the Chenango Canal. Some still exist in the vicinity of Hamilton, even though the canal was closed in 1878. Other state-built lateral canals were the Chemung Canal between Seneca Lake and Elmira; the Crooked Lake Canal between Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake; and the Oneida Lake Canal, from the Erie Canal to the eastern end of Oneida Lake.
Private companies built two canals in New York. The Delaware and Hudson Canal was the more successful of the two. It ran from the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania to Kingston, New York, on the Hudson River. The other privately owned canal was the Junction Canal, built to connect the Chemung Canal at Elmira with the canals of Pennsylvania.
The Delaware and Hudson Canal
Larry Lowenthal, National Park Service
New York built a superb canal system, which reached nearly every major city in
the state. These canals were owned and operated by the state, and any profit they earned went into the state treasury.
In addition, New York was home to an important privately owned canal. This was the Delaware and Hudson, which began in northeastern Pennsylvania and entered New York through the Delaware Valley. At Port Jervis it turned and went overland to reach the Hudson River at the port of Rondout, part of Kingston. Ships and barges moved coal from Rondout down the Hudson to New York City. This was a circuitous way to bring coal to market, but mountains made a more direct path impossible.
This canal was built mainly to carry anthracite, or hard coal, from mines in the Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania to markets in New York City and New England. Unlike powdery soft coal, anthracite burned hot and clean. It was valued for home heating and industrial use, especially as cities exhausted nearby wood supplies.
The Wurts brothers owned coal mines and conceived the idea of building a canal. Other mines provided too much competition in their home city of Philadelphia, so they looked to New York City for a market. Many New Yorkers understood that their fast-growing city needed a large supply of anthracite and were willing to invest money in the project. They formed the Delaware and Hudson Company in 1823.
It was impossible to build a canal the whole distance between the mines and the Hudson River because a steep mountain stood in the way. The canal could be built only as far as Honesdale, Pennsylvania. From there to the mines, more than 16 miles, the engineers built a “gravity railroad." Horses and cables powered by steam engines and the force of gravity moved empty and loaded railcars up and down the steep track. The total length of railway and canal was almost 125 miles. The cost of building this combination canal and rail system was greater than the company's engineers had expected. The company could not raise additional money, so it requested help from New York State. The state government agreed to loan the Delaware and Hudson enough money to complete the railway's construction. Although the Delaware and Hudson was a private venture, it probably could not have been completed without the help of the state of New York.
The Delaware and Hudson Canal opened in 1828, and the gravity railway a year later. Although the canal was built mainly to carry coal, it was also available to haul lumber and other freight. Originally, there were few people living along the canal route. Soon, however, busy towns sprang up along the canal, creating jobs and opportunities for new businesses.
One of these towns was Honesdale. Before the canal opened, only a couple of families lived at “Forks of the Dyberry.” Five years after the canal opened, the population of the town exceeded 1,200. Honesdale was named for Philip Hone, a wealthy New Yorker who was the first president of the Delaware and Hudson. Other towns such as Port Jervis (named for one of the company engineers) and Wurtsboro carry on the memory of the canal.
Jason Torrey was one of those who grasped the new opportunities the canal created. Born in Massachusetts, he had explored and surveyed large areas of northeastern Pennsylvania and owned much of the land on which Honesdale was built. He was a true “adventurer," a risk-taking investor. He also encouraged others who hoped to make their fortunes in an expanding new land.
For many years the Delaware and Hudson Canal faced challenges from railroads, other canals, natural disasters, and political opposition. Only in the 1840s did the canal begin to produce large profits for its investors. In later years, the Delaware and Hudson Company built railroads and grew into a railroad company that still exists. The Delaware and Hudson Canal gradually shrank in importance. In 1898, the company shipped its last boatload of coal on the canal.
The Delaware and Hudson Company became one of the largest businesses of its day and one of the first to be worth more than $1 million. It was also an innovative company, willing to try new technology and new ideas. For example, the company bought steam locomotives in England for use on the gravity railway. Although this experiment was a failure, it was the first time a full-sized locomotive ran in the United States. Later, the company spent years developing steamboats that could burn anthracite fuel. It also pioneered business methods still in use today by large corporations.
Ely Parker and the Genesee Valley Canal
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY New Paltz
In 1848, Lewis Morgan wrote a letter to Ely Samuel Parker, a young Seneca Indian.
Morgan, who is often referred to as the “Father of American Anthropology," had recommended the 20-year-old Parker for a job as assistant engineer on the Genesee Valley Canal. The letter is one of the few existing documents describing assistant engineers and their pay scale.
Ely Parker had planned to pursue a law career, but he found discrimination against Indians a roadblock in his path. The state bar denied him the right to be licensed as an attorney. Seizing the opportunity Morgan had provided in his letter, Parker joined the Genesee Valley Canal project at Nunda, New York. There he quickly learned the fundamentals of engineering from the other men. Two years later, Morgan helped Parker again by recommending him for another engineering job in the Rochester office of the resident engineer of the entire New York State canal system. Parker got the job and began work in the spring of 1850.
The Genesee Valley Canal, one of the lateral, or branch, canals promoted by the New York State Board of Canal Commissioners, was in use for only 20 years, from 1858 to 1878. It was built because Rochester, “the water-power city," had emerged as a major boomtown. Nearly nonexistent in 1841, Rochester grew to more than 36,000 people by 1850. Monroe County, which was not organized as a separate entity before the War of 1812, had more than 60,000 residents by 1840. Most of this growth came about because of the Erie Canal. City leaders pushed for the expansion of the canal network southward, hoping to create a Genesee Valley canal to connect Rochester with the Allegheny River and beyond. This would open up the rich agricultural lands that lay south of the city and secure trade as far as Pittsburgh and the Ohio River.
A sense of urgency gripped Rochester merchants. They feared that the recently opened canal-rail connection between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would threaten their ambitious plans to corner north-south commercial routes to the Ohio River. Greed and “pork-barrel” politics supplanted reality. The canal route chosen in 1836 passed through hilly terrain and had a scant water supply for canal purposes in the highlands near Mount Morris. The construction costs of the venture were ultimately almost $6 million, making it the second most expensive canal project in the history of New York State. It was never profitable.
Construction of the southern section of the Genesee Valley Canal began in 1839. Because of the Depression of 1837 and the resulting New York State budget crisis, canal construction came to a halt in 1842. Construction resumed in 1846. As a result of the difficult, hilly terrain and the project's excessive cost, completion of the canal was delayed until 1858. (Work on an 11-mile extension spur near Dansville was not completed until 1861.) In the late 1850s through the 1860s, canal engineers raised the height of the spillway near Cuba, New York, creating one of the largest artificial lakes in the state, known today as Cuba Lake.
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) was born near Aurora, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1840. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar. In April 1844, while browsing in a bookstore in Albany, Morgan met Ely S. Parker, a 16-year-old Seneca schoolboy who was then serving in the state capital as an interpreter for the chiefs of the Tonawanda Seneca tribe. Morgan, who already had a genuine interest in Native Americans, began to question the young man about the basic structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. Soon after, Parker introduced Morgan to his grandfather, Jemmy Johnson. Johnson was the leader of the delegation and also a great disciple of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. As a result of this chance meeting, the Parker-Johnson family invited Morgan to visit them on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. There, he later witnessed a condolence council, or raising up of chiefs. Morgan continued to visit and collect scientific data. Johnson adopted Morgan into the Hawk clan in 1847. Four years later, Morgan published the book League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, inscribed and credited to Parker. This book is considered the first major scientific work about a Native American community ever published.
Ely Samuel Parker (1828–1895) was one of the most important Native Americans of the 19th century. Born into a leading Seneca family on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation in 1828, he rose to be one of the 50 sachems of the Iroquois Confederacy. He received the name "Do-ho-ga-wa," literally "Open Door," which refers to his role as keeper of the western door of the Six Nations. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he worked to reacquire Tonawanda lands that had been taken by the Ogden Land Company in fraudulent treaties in 1826 and 1838. Commissioned as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, he rose to the rank of brigadier general at war's end. As General Ulysses S. Grant's military secretary, he drew up and transcribed the terms of surrender that Grant offered General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. Parker attended the solemn event in April 1865. When Grant became president of the United States in 1869, he appointed Parker to serve as commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. But Parker's career as an engineer, which later took him to canal work in Virginia and North Carolina, began with the Genesee Valley Canal.
The Railroads and New York's Canals
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
At about the same time that New York's canals were being built, American rail 4 roads were in their experimental stage. Initially railroads were seen as a lateral system connecting to canals. For example, the southern end of the Delaware and Hudson Canal was located in the Pennsylvania village of Honesdale. But 16 miles of the Moosic Mountains separated Honesdale from the coal mines at Carbondale. Transporting coal was the whole point of the canal, but it was beyond the resources of the Delaware and Hudson Company to cross the mountain barrier by canal. As a result, chief engineer Benjamin Wright, together with his principal assistant, John B. Jervis, put forth a daring plan to transport the coal from the mines to the canal by railroad. Even more novel was their proposal to use steam-powered locomotives. Such a venture was without precedent in America. It turned out that the Delaware and Hudson's railroad track could not support the weight of the locomotive engine Sturbridge Lion when the machine was tested in 1829.
Jervis used the steam locomotive again, however, when he built New York's first railroad, the Mohawk and Hudson. This time it was successful, and when the railroad opened in 1831, the locomotive De Witt Clinton chugged from Albany to Schenectady. The promoters of the Mohawk and Hudson made a point of informing prospective shareholders that the railroad was constructed to supplement Erie Canal travel, not compete with it. Investors were afraid of challenging the Erie. Instead, the railroad company advertised that passengers could ride the cars in a direct 16-mile journey between Albany and Schenectady and then board canal packet boats for the trip west. This would save 10 miles, since the canal route between the two cities was 26 miles.
When New York's second railroad opened in 1832, its route between Schenectady and Saratoga Springs did not parallel the Erie Canal. The same could not be said of the state's third line, the Utica and Schenectady. Completed in 1836, it ran just across the Mohawk River from the Erie Canal for nearly 78 miles as they both squeezed through the Mohawk Valley. In an effort to protect its canal, the New York legislature forbade the railroad to carry freight. Then, in 1844, state lawmakers permitted freight on the railroad, but only during the winter months, when the canal was closed. Although the Utica and Schenectady was required to pay canal tolls on the freight it shipped in the winter, that did not halt the shipments, nor did it stop railroad construction.
In 1839, the Syracuse and Utica line went into operation and continued the westward expansion of the railroad. This line also paralleled the Erie Canal for most of its route, but legislators did not hinder Syracuse and Utica freight shipments. In the 1850s, legislators removed the restrictions placed on the Utica and Schenectady. The Syracuse and Auburn, Auburn and Rochester, Tonawanda, and (in 1843) the Buffalo and Attica railroads finally spanned the remaining distance between Syracuse and Buffalo. None of the routes of these railroads closely followed that of the Erie Canal, but the railroad challenge had become clear.
On May 14, 1851, a ceremonial train puffed its way westward over the recently completed New York and Erie Railroad. It carried President Millard Fillmore, Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and other dignitaries, who joined in celebrating the first single railroad link between the lower Hudson Valley and the Great Lakes. Two years later, the New York Central Railroad united several rail lines between Albany and Buffalo into one company. Both of the new through lines competed directly with the mighty Erie Canal for the western trade. Yet in 1880, nearly 30 years after completion of the New York and Erie, New York's legendary artificial waterway had its biggest tonnage year of all. Particularly in bulk freight trade, the Erie Canal was still competitive with the railroads. Of course, the same could not be said for passenger trade. Railroads reigned supreme in carrying people.
There were 29 railroads in New York already built or under construction by 1850. This sealed the fate of most of the lateral canals. Very few of these canals had been enlarged after 1836 to the Erie's new dimensions. This prevented larger Erie boats from using the smaller laterals. Railroads could be constructed relatively inexpensively through almost any terrain to canal communities and to towns and cities not served by canals. Only four of the state-owned laterals survived into the 20th century. Neither of the two private canals in New York was in use by 1910. To add to the railroads' triumph and the humiliation of the laterals, some of the railroads laid track in the old canal beds or along former towpaths.