Guide to Canal Records
Development and Administration of New York State's Canal System
As early as 1768, New York's colonial governor Sir Henry Moore recommended that action be taken to improve navigation on the Mohawk River. However, the General Assembly failed to act on this recommendation, and it was another 50 years before New York State began its first major canal construction project. In the intervening years, only New York's natural streams provided inland navigation, supplemented by limited use of canals constructed by private Inland Lock Navigation Companies between 1790 and 1807.
Over the next ten years, heightened awareness of the need for improved inland transportation led the State legislature to appoint commissioners and surveyors to study the possibility of constructing a canal connecting the Hudson River with Lakes Erie and Champlain. In 1816, five commissioners were appointed to adopt measures to construct such a canal (Laws of 1816, Chapter 237). The following year, these commissioners were officially designated "Canal Commissioners" (Laws of 1817, Chapter 262) with continuing authority to direct canal construction and repairs. The same legislation established the Commissioners of the Canal Fund, comprised of the Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, Surveyor General, Secretary of State, and Treasurer to supervise the receipt and expenditure of canal funds. The receipts came from canal tolls, taxes on lands adjacent to canals, taxes on steamboat passengers, railroad freight tolls, and other sources.
Because canal construction caused damage to adjacent property, in 1821 (Chapter 240) the legislature authorized the Canal Commissioners to act as Canal Appraisers to determine the monetary amount of damages due to property owners. The function of the office (or board) of Canal Appraisers remained the same although the composition of its membership changed several times over the years (Laws of 1825, Chapter 275; Laws of 1836, Chapter 287; Laws of 1857, Chapter 538). The board was abolished in 1883 and replaced by the Board of Claims (Chapter 205). The Board of Claims in turn was replaced by the Court of Claims in 1897 (Chapter 36). The State also established a Canal Board (Laws of 1826, Chapter 314), comprised of the Canal Commissioners and the Commissioners of the Canal Fund, initially to regulate canal tolls and later to appoint canal officers, direct special repairs, hear appeals from decisions of the Canal Appraisers, and enforce canal regulations.
Ground was broken for the Erie Canal at Rome, New York on July 4, 1817. By the end of the year, about 15 miles of canal were completed; by 1825, both the Erie and Champlain canals were completed. Despite being scorned in some quarters as "The Big Ditch" or "Clinton's Folly" (after Governor De Witt Clinton, who championed the project), the canals were an immediate success, with the amount of traffic far exceeding expectations. It quickly became apparent that the canal channels would have to be enlarged and the canal system expanded to accommodate the increasing demand for access to the canals. The State built the Oswego, Cayuga and Seneca, Chemung, Crooked Lake, and Chenango canals, and private companies built the Oneida Lake and the Delaware and Hudson canals.
In 1835, construction began on the enlargement of the Erie Canal (Laws of 1835, Chapter 274). During the next several years, the State also began construction on the Black River and Genesee Valley canals and the Oneida River improvement and purchased the Oneida Lake canal. A fiscal crisis combined with inadequate financial planning and increasing construction costs put a temporary halt to these projects in 1841. In 1847, work resumed under the financial regulations imposed by the new State Constitution of 1846. The State appropriated the privately-owned Baldwinsville Canal and abolished railroad tolls, which had previously been applied to the canal fund.
In the 1850s, canal administration was reorganized and the State began the system of contracting out canal repairs. A law of 1854 (Chapter 329) designated the Canal Commissioners and the Auditor of the Canal Department (established by Laws of 1848, Chapter 162 as chief financial officer of the canals) as a Canal Contracting Board to exercise the powers and duties concerning contracting formerly held by the Canal Commissioners. Legislation of 1857 (Chapter 105) increased the Board's authority over canal contracts. The State also authorized the State Engineer and Surveyor (established by the Constitution of 1846 to replace the Surveyor General) to investigate the possibility of constructing gun boat locks on the Erie, Champlain, and Oswego canals in the event it became necessary to transport United States troops on the canals. The Erie Canal enlargement was completed in 1862 (Chapter 169), but some remaining work was completed in the next few years. The Oswego Canal and the Cayuga and Seneca Canal were enlarged and the Champlain Canal was deepened.
Growing public disaffection with the canals arose during the late 1860s and 1870s. Railroads drew an increasing amount of traffic away from the canals and toll revenues were decreasing. These circumstances, combined with charges of canal mismanagement and contract fraud, resulted in a number of reforms. The Contracting Board and the contract system of repairs were abolished in 1870 (Chapter 55) and the State abandoned the Crooked Lake (1877), Chemung (1878), Genesee Valley (1878), Oneida Lake (1878), and Chenango (1880) canals. An 1876 constitutional amendment established the office of Superintendent of Public Works and conferred upon it all the duties of the office of Canal Commissioner, which was abolished. Canal tolls were abolished by a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1882; thereafter, canal repairs were to be funded by legislative appropriations.
Renewed interest in improving the canals followed this period of reform and retrenchment and was spurred by increasing competition in commercial trade. Locks were lengthened on the Erie and Oswego canals and, beginning in 1896, work began on the second enlargement of the canals. Authorized by Laws of 1895, Chapter 79, this "Nine Million Dollar Improvement" project to deepen the channel to nine feet was cut short by lack of funds and by renewed charges of fraud and overspending. In 1898 (Chapters 15 and 327), the legislature established a commission to investigate the management and expenditures relating to canal improvements. The Canal Investigating Commission criticized the management of the project but recommended that canal improvements continue.
In 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt appointed a commission of seven, including the State Engineer and Surveyor and the Superintendent of Public works, to formulate a policy for future canal management and improvement. The following January, the committee recommended improvement of the canal system to accommodate 1,000-ton barges. The same year, engineers began surveys for this "1,000-Ton Barge Canal." Voters approved a measure to construct the canal in 1903 (Laws of 1903, Chapter 147). Contracting began in December 1904, and construction on what became known as the Barge Canal began in 1905. The improved canal was opened to through traffic on May 15, 1918, and construction continued on additional improvements in the years following.
The constitutional reorganization of New York State government in 1925-1926 resulted in the abolition of the office of the State Engineer and Surveyor and the Canal Board. Responsibilities of these offices relating to canals were assigned to the new Department of Public Works, established in 1923 (Chapter 867). These responsibilities were later absorbed by the Department of Transportation which succeeded the Department of Public Works in 1967 (Chapter 717). The office of Commissioners of the Canal Fund was abolished, and responsibility for the fund was assumed by the new Department of Audit and Control, headed by the State Comptroller, in 1926 (Chapter 614).
The period of construction in the early 1900s resulted in the present New York State Canal System, incorporating the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga and Seneca canals. The current canal system generally uses or runs parallel to the original canals and sometimes utilizes lakes and rivers. Some abandoned canal sections have been paved over as roads; some original canal towpaths are now bicycle paths or hiking trails.
For further information about the history and development of New York's canal system, researchers can consult:
- Annual reports of the New York State Surveyor General, State Engineer and Surveyor, and Department of Public Works.
- Hasse, Adelaide R., Index of Economic Material in Documents of the States of the United States: New York, 1789-1904 (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1907). (See pages 86-157 of this work for indexing of New York State Senate and Assembly documents relating to canals.)
- Shaw, Ronald E., Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1966).
- Whitford, Nobel E., History of the Canal System of the State of New York (Supplement to the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 1905) (Albany: Brandow Printing, 1906).
- Whitford, Nobel E., History of the Barge Canal of New York State (Supplement to the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor for the Year Ended June 30, 1921) (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1922).
- Wyld, Lionel., Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal (Utica, N.Y.: North Country Books, 1986).