Doug Farley

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. His column runs every Saturday. The Erie Canal Discovery Center is once again open for the season. Hours of operation are now 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Before the first shovel went in the ground, the construction of the Erie Canal would require a great deal of land acquisition by the Canal commissioners, if they were going to succeed in their mission to cut a 100-foot wide swath through 363 miles of New York state.

Many patriotic citizens wanted to see the canal built, and they donated their lands to the Commission. Gideon Granger of Canandaigua donated 1,000 acres. Others donated more, some less. Fifty-six farmers along the Seneca River made a standing offer: wherever the line of the canal touched their property, the Commission could have as much as was needed, at no charge. It was reported that 90 percent of the land-owners were ready to make a deal for their strips of land eight rods wide.

The Holland Land Company, the Dutch conglomerate that owned vast tracts of land in Upstate New York, became interested in the project. Their committee lead by local agents Joseph Ellicott and Wilhelm Willink, made an offer of a free gift of 116,000 acres to New York state. However, they attached two conditions to the offer. The canal must be large enough to accommodate boats of five tons and must be finished, from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, by 1842. At the time of this offer, the Holland Land Company was selling their land for about $1 per acre. A short time after the gift, the land on both sides of the proposed canal route was soon selling for $4 per acre. The Holland Land Company realized a three-fold return from its original “gift” almost overnight.

To encourage land transactions, the Canal Commission printed a standard land deed for owners to sign along the route of the canal. If the landowner reached for his musket instead, a canal agent was called upon to settle the issue. The agents were described as smooth talkers. The reluctant landowner’s typical objection usually focused on the fact that the proposed canal would split his farm land in two. If that was the case, the agent was empowered to offer the land owner a bridge, at the spot of his choosing. New York state would pick up the cost for the land and the bridge. A farmer with livestock might complain about the possibility of his animals falling into the canal. No problem for the agent: He simply promised the farmer a fence. The state would even buy the rails from the landowner himself and he could put them up in places of his own choosing.

If he hadn’t sealed the deal, the agent would also point out other advantages. The landowner could have a dock if he liked. The agent’s argument was sure to mention that canal traffic could almost come right to his door. A farmer could transport his produce to town by simply loading it on a boat. Gone were the long hauls through swamps or rough roads. No more costly upkeep on broken-down wagons. The agents weren’t adverse to using speculation to entice the owner, either. They projected that farm prices would certainly increase once the canal was built and with all his new farm profits, the landowner would be able to spend more time fishing from his new dock or new boat. And speaking of boats, wouldn’t it be nice to take the wife and family for a moonlight cruise on the canal!

For the overwhelming majority of landowners, this “package” of benefits was usually enough to bring even the most reluctant land owner to the table with quill pen in hand. But if all of these enticements failed to generate a deal, the state had one more plan up its sleeve. You see, the state always gets the land they need, one way or another, through the process of condemnation. Once the government decides that the acquisition of land is required for a greater public good, they only need to make a reasonable effort to purchase the land before they exercise “eminent domain.” This legal procedure allows the state to acquire the land without the owners consent. Luckily for DeWitt Clinton and the other Canal commissioners, eminent domain was going strong, even in the 19th century countryside.

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. Contact him at 434-7433. The Erie Canal Discovery Center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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