Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Canal Discovery w/ Doug Farley

February 6, 2010

CANAL DISCOVERY: New York’s big dig

The expenses for the construction of the Erie Canal began years before Joshua Hathaway turned the first shovel of dirt July 4, 1817, at Rome, N.Y.

Even though the cost for improving transportation on the Mohawk River had began much earlier, the first costs directly related to the Erie Canal can probably be claimed to be the $124 paid to Christopher Colles to conduct a survey of inland navigation on the Mohawk River in 1783. Later in 1809, James Geddes, one of the four principal engineers for the Erie Canal, finished the survey at an expense of $73 of his own money. As canal fever began to catch on, the state legislature approved an expense of $15,000 for the the Canal Commissioners and their planning work. Although none of these amounts were actual construction costs, they certainly were necessary start-up expenses.

Two private canal companies, the Inland Lock Navigation Companies, Western and Northern, though privately held in 1792, ended up seeking financing from the state. So much so, that the state eventually bought the Western Company in 1820. The financial troubles of these companies left the handwriting on the wall that would describe the future funding for the Erie and later canals. Local legend, Jesse Hawley, accurately described the problem in his famous “Hercules” letters published in the “Genesee Messenger” beginning in 1808. He referred to the government as the logical funding source for the canal. He mistakenly assumed that most of the expense would be borne by the federal government. President Thomas Jefferson soon put an end to that dream and told the citizens of New York state that their project was premature and would be better suited in a “century-hence.” Coupled with the pressing problems presented to the nation by the War of 1812, it became clear that if New York citizens wanted a canal, they would have to foot the bill themselves.

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Canal Discovery w/ Doug Farley
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