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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/September 1909/Abandoned Canals of the State of New York

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 75‎ | September 1909


THOSE who have only a partial knowledge of the subject, regard the present time as the age of canals. They overlook the generations of time and the vast sums of money expended by other people who have held to the idea of the canal with a national fixity of purpose that has produced astonishing results. The amount of money expended so exceeds the sums spent in the United States, including the Isthmian Canal, that they appear like trivial things.

France has 3,045 miles of artificial waterways and 4,665 miles of canalized rivers, aggregating nearly 8,000 miles. These cost in the last thirty years five hundred million dollars. Belgium has one mile of canal navigation to eight miles of territory. Germany has spent, since 1900, eighty million dollars and has just authorized the expenditure of eighty-five million dollars more. Austria-Hungary within a few years has expended fifty-three million dollars and is yet pushing the work. The canals of Holland and some of those of southern France were built centuries ago.

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Fish Creek, Opening of Wood Creek, which will be a part of the Barge Canal.

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Wood Creek, the Old Canal, 1795.

These countries are achieving commercial supremacy along lines that parallel the development of their canal systems. One of the most interesting features of international political economy is the great value one nation will place upon a thing that another people will throw away. What makes the canals of France of such value to the people is their contentment in saving money. The Frenchman has a keen sense of the value of a dollar saved. So long as he can get the product of his acres and the output of his factories at their final destination at the lowest freight cost, without time as an important factor, he is content with canal transportation. He realized that a dollar so saved is to be totaled among his profits and not credited to his savings.

The American, working on the credit system, is obliged to earn the quick dollar, and yet feels the attrition of the nether millstone that gives to the corporate trusts the money that belongs to the small producer. He thus abandons canals that in France would pay the individual as well as the state. The American has but one standard, Do the canals pay? He demands immediate returns, not prospective. Canals have their good and bad years. With such a criticism no canal, as a tax earner, is always successful. This, in brief, was the history of the abandonment of the central New York canals. It is interesting to trace this cause in the profligate dereliction of the lateral canals.

The state engineer's report shows the abandonment of 221 miles of canals with their locks and feeders. To this, add a littoral of lakes and rivers of 300 miles and we have abandoned waterways of 521 miles. This covers a region which, in the course of thirty years, has increased 1,500,000 in population and its manufactured products have more than trebled.

The American voter is not the wise man that he thinks he is. He fails to grasp the primary idea of statecraft. He bends an obedient knee to the moloch of the lobby. He obeyed the behest of his party and sold his birthright for something as impalpable as moonlight. When he sold the right of way of the Chemung Canal for $100, he saw neither wrong to himself nor injustice to his posterity. A few dollars of annual tax was worth more than millions in prospective.

For years it was a vexed question in politics, with the democrats on one side and the republicans on the other. The fatal blow was given in the republican stronghold, central New York, by the people who had the most at stake in preserving the canals.

The republican legislature of 1873 officially abandoned them. The results were quickly shown. The year before the abandonment gave a loss in tons of 308,588, while two railways connecting Lake Erie with New York showed an excess in tons of freight over that of 1872 of 1,877,187. This was a direct loss to the farmer and the small producer of $96,693 to save the small sum of $34,000 divided among sixteen counties. A more complete demonstration of the canals as a freight regulator it would be impossible to find.

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Oneida Lake Canal Locks.

The result to the farmers was a harder blow to bear. Real estate value shrank to less than was paid for land forty years before. Central New York was the great wheat-growing region of the state, but by the rapidly moving freight of the railways they were unable to compete with the western wheat. This lost crop was so nearly total that they ceased to grow enough for their own mills. It appears as though they ought to have had business foresight to realize the value of the lateral canals as coal carriers. It was for this purpose that these canals were built.

They awoke from their dream of small economy to find themselves in the grasp of the great octopus of the coal roads, which for thirty-five years has been growing more exacting and oppressive. Throughout this region these roads are not only drawing the coal, but by their own agents they are delivering it at the door of the consumer.

We have been laying this upon the farmer and the people directly interested in maintaining these canals, and justly. There never was a moment when the mass of voters in this republican stronghold could not have dominated the situation. It was the old time-worn adage of a fool and his folly. He has not the negative merit of holding his tongue after he has committed the error. Utica, which could have saved the Shenango Canal, petitioned the state engineer's office and the canal board for the rebuilding of the canal as a coal carrier only a year ago. It was a childish effort and they awoke from the calm repose to find that their fair city was simply reduced to a state of mind and the real Utica was the Lackawanna road.

Before the Erie Canal was a practical waterway the people were keenly alive to the value of the lakes as commercial waterways. The earliest steamboat navigation as a well-developed enterprise upon inland waters was opened in the New York lake region. Upon three of the lakes—Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka—steam navigation appeared in 1820. The people were roused to enthusiasm. The first boats made their landings amid the shouts of the multitude, volleys of musketry and salvos of cannon. Gradually the steamboat service was extended until in 1827 steamboats were a general thing upon the lakes. Many years previous to this sloop navigation was resorted to for both freight and passengers. The first began regular trading trips in 1795 and gradually this form of navigation was extended over all the lakes.

The Erie Canal found abundant supplies of freight and passengers waiting when it passed through this region of the lateral canals. As a method of commercial interchange they never paid; whatever we may think about the ethics of the state making money off the people's enterprise, there was no question about its rights as late as 1873. Neither was any money lost until the people followed like a flock of sheep the bell wether, the political factotum of the countryside, and surrendered its rights to the railways. The face of the country withered, as though stricken by a famine, under their remorseless demands. The fact that makes canal navigation not alone possible but profitable is that speed represents cost.

That which constitutes a profitable canal is not a dividend on the investment, but in augmenting the volume of trade. The profit that accrues is prospective, not immediate, and belongs to the people; a theory of public utilities that the state of New York never adopted.

Let us see what this meant to the farmer and the manufacturer. The manufactured product was of coarsest character, hoops, staves, shingles and sawed lumber, material that could not afford to pay a higher tariff for transportation. This was practically cut out. Farm produce was of a like character; potatoes, cabbage, onions and apples demanded a moderate price for carriage if they were to make a living return to the grower. These were no longer seen by the boatload except within wheeling distance of the Erie; a small supply was received from the Cayuga and Seneca canals. The wheat crop, as already noticed, had disappeared. Barley and oats, in the cheap days of 1870, represented little money to the grower, and hay at six and seven dollars a ton, including the cost of baling, was impossible as freight. It was reasonable to expect that the roads would not work against these products an impossible tariff. The way station received but little notice. It was the fatal long haul, that has caused so many crimes against commerce, that was at fault. It cost more to stop and side-track than to make the continuous trip.

In 1872 the amount carried was 156,999 tons. This did not represent much in commercial value. But, this was only a minor part of its true worth. Imagine the condition had the slight sacrifice been made of maintaining the lateral canals for the past thirty-five years, with over 1,500,000 population added. These derelict canals would have been a treasure-trove to the inhabitants. An English author upon the subject expresses the idea perfectly when he states "that where canals do not pay, they pay by increasing the volume of trade."

The coal transported by lateral canals was 411,918 tons, sufficient to compel the roads to meet the cheap water rate. An instance on the Black River Canal, now used as a feeder to the Erie, illustrates what happened to the people of the lake region. The last station on the canal paid at retail three dollars a ton for coal; the town above, served by the railroad, paid five and a half per ton. The saving on freight, in thirty-five years, had the canals been the rate maker, would have amounted to more than a million and a half dollars yearly.

The waterways of the Iroquois were, from the nature of their distribution, natural waterways; while the Erie connected two termini. The freightage was the natural product of its own littoral. The demand for canals was so urgent that as early as 1768 it was designed to connect Oneida Lake and the Mohawk by the improvement of Wood Creek. In 1792 the legislature passed the act. To this day old wooden locks may be found upon Wood Creek. Central New York was the first stimulus to the canal system of the state. It paid even at that early date. It reduced the cost of transportation from $32 to $16 per ton on the cargo. This great reduction in price "actually doubled the intrinsic value of the lands and produce around our lakes."[1] If the reader were able to see the insignificance of the little ditch of Wood Creek he could not realize the grand total of the result.

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Old Oneida Lake, Wooden Locks.

A few details will prove that the cheapening of carriage and the earning capacity of the canal was under-rather than over-estimated. The toll on a barrel of flour passing 100 miles was 52 cents and for a ton of goods passing the same distance was $5.75. The rapidity with which its earning capacity increased is not less remarkable. The capital stock of the western company was $232,000, which paid to the stockholders a dividend of 3 per cent, in 1798, 3.5 in 1813, 4.5 in 1815 and 8 per cent, in 1816.

The rights of this company were acquired by the state in 1820, for $151,000. The middle division cost $1,125,983. If we add to this double the amount for enlargement, the sum of $2,570,000 was abandoned by the state, the result of an ignorant and weak constituency and an aggressive lobby who represented the powerful railways behind the movement. These canals will be rebuilt on a grander scale commensurate with the magnitude of the barge canal. Already some of the great inland lakes have applied for a renewal of the canals. The history of the lateral canals will insure a favorable response. Even then they will not be money-makers. They will make money for the state only in proportion to the trade developed. It is doubtful if the history of the country can parallel such useless destruction. From the amount of money squandered and the human

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Oneida Canal.

interests involved, it stands alone, not as an object of public plunder, but, worse than that, a colossal blunder.

In going over these old canals it appears among the marvels of time, how quickly they are disappearing. Stones of monolithic size are lying in heaps. Canals, like the Chemung, are simply weed grown ditches, Wooden locks have left scarcely a trace; ruin, measured by the hundreds of miles, disfigures and encumbers the earth.

The Genesee Valley was one of the most important of the subsidiary canals. During the year previous to its official abandonment the total movement of goods amounted to 96,000 tons, in a total of nearly a half million. In 1873, 132 tons of wheat and 245 tons of
PSM V75 D308 Chemung canal.png
Chemung Canal.
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Chemung Canal Extension.

flour moved in the direction of tide water. The total of tolls in the last year of its official life was over 20,000 dollars. The story of the coal moved is better told in the amount carried by the Cayuga and Seneca Lakes Canal, and partly distributed by the Genesee Valley, which was 400,000 tons, now reduced to a few boatloads to accommodate the railroads and not the public. There could not possibly have been serious loss to the state from the Genesee Valley Canal and yet it passed the" way of the other waterways. This canal offers the most picturesque ruins. A railway runs along the bottom for a part of the way. The remains of the works at Dansville have a kind of melancholy grandeur; a sad evidence of the greed and folly of man.

It is only a matter of time when the subsidary canals will be rebuilt. With the increased value of material and labor, it will cost hundreds of thousands while the original represented thousands. It will not be a question of money. It will be an overmastering impulse to equal the best in canal structure. France, Germany, Belgium, Holland will be the criteria. There appears every prospect that the roads will take their normal place as freight carriers.

It is planned to build a canal from the great lakes to Pittsburg, thence to the Gulf. Such a waterway, if constructed with a view of paying interest on the investment, will never be built. As a check to the greed of the railways, as x a plan to place them in normal accord with the transportation interests of the country, it will prove an unalloyed blessing. Of more value than all else will be the vast tide of traffic that will seek the cheap route of the canals. Seen from this point the canals will always pay. The lateral waterways of New York, in their darkest hour, paid the people manyfold. The sin of the abandoned canals rests to-day upon this charming region. The fleets of steamers, sloops and barges have disappeared and the lakes have drifted back to primeval solitude.

  1. State Engineer's Report, 1862.