NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Roosevelts who advocated for the Erie Barge Canal

FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARYNew York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the state yacht "Inspector" during his 1930 Barge Canal tour. 

 

While doing research on another topic, I saw a headline that read, “Governor to Tour State Using Erie Canal.” It was from the Medina Daily Journal dated June 27, 1930. This was during the administration of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in office from 1929 to 1933. Doing further research, it was discovered that this “inspection” tour was an annual event during Roosevelt’s term as governor and each year the tour focused on various types of state institutions. Roosevelt, who was fond of boats, wanted to use the canal to show it was still a viable waterway. This tour, however, would not have been possible on the Erie Canal without the efforts of Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, former New York Governor and 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt was elected governor in November 1898. During the campaign, he had addressed the issues concerning the canal by saying, “If there is trouble in the system on which the canal is administered, I will change it if elected governor, or present suggestions to the legislature for a change. If there is dishonesty or inefficiency, I will punish it.

In March 1899, Roosevelt appointed a new committee to investigate problems within the canal system and make suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness and competitiveness of the waterway. He made it clear that abandoning the system was not an option. The committee presented their findings in January 1900. Among several recommendations, the committee presented two possible options for the canal. The first was a limited enlargement that would address the short-term issues facing the canal and would cost the state $22 million. The second option was a complete overhaul of the entire system to create a barge canal using natural rivers and lakes, as well as widening and deepening the channel to accommodate larger boats. That would cost $61 million.

The committee overwhelmingly supported the second option. Roosevelt accepted their recommendation and in April authorized the state engineer and surveyor to begin preparing surveys and maps for the new Erie Barge Canal.

By the time the engineering details were completed in 1901, Roosevelt was the U.S. vice president. In the state election of 1903, voters approved the necessary expenditures (now up to $100 million) to fund the Barge Canal. All non-canal counties voted against it while all but two canal counties (Monroe and Onondaga) voted for it (the Barge Canal would bypass Rochester and Syracuse in those counties). The construction was ongoing from 1905 to 1918.

The first New York governor to use the canal for a state tour after the enlargement was Nathan L. Miller, who did so in 1921. Eight years later, in the summer of 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt used the official New York State yacht, “Inspector,” to travel the Erie Barge Canal on an inspection tour of state facilities including hospitals, colleges, prisons, bridges and other sites.

The journey began on July 5th in Albany and moved west on the canal over the next week. The governor’s yacht made its first stop in Niagara County on July 11th at Middleport, which was not on the original schedule. Inspector docked at the north end of Vernon Street behind the home of former state senator George F. Thompson, who allowed his backyard (previously the site of the Rowley & Eddy Lumber Yard) to be used as a public reception area. The Vernon Street Bridge (now gone) was also crowded with spectators. Although the Governor did not leave the yacht, he did address the crowd and remarked what a “friendly community” Middleport was, a motto which the village uses to this day.

Because of the impromptu stop at Middleport, the Inspector was late arriving in Lockport, but that did not lessen the enthusiasm for the governor’s visit. It was estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people lined the Pine Street Bridge, the Big Bridge and Richmond Avenue (now Canal Street) to see the governor when the Inspector docked above the locks. Again, Roosevelt did not disembark, but many state and local officials boarded the yacht to greet him. While in Lockport, Roosevelt made the announcement that he had named state senator William W. Campbell of that city to a committee to revise a state banking law. The yacht then proceeded to Pendleton where it docked for the night while the governor’s entourage traveling by automobile stayed at the Kenmore Hotel on the Big Bridge.

A humorous incident was reported in relation to Governor Roosevelt’s visit to Lockport. As the yacht was approaching the locks from the east, a group of boys were spied swimming in the canal, several without swim trunks on. Two state troopers on motorcycles were dispatched to the towpath to clear the boys from the water declaring that it was not appropriate for the governor to see boys swimming in the nude. One boy retorted, “I wonder if they think the governor never went in bathing without a suit when he was a kid.”

The state inspection tours that took place in 1930 and 1931 did not include stops at the western end of the Erie Barge Canal and included more motorcade journeys to sites not easily accessible from the waterway. It was on the 1930 tour that Roosevelt spoke of the possibility that the canal might become a federal property and could once again be fully utilized by shippers if it were widened and deepened. With the effects of the Great Depression worsening every day, and state and federal funds dwindling, the Barge Canal remained a New York State property and was not enlarged again, gradually moving from a commercial to a recreational channel.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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