WATERWAYS AND CANAL CONSTRUCTION, 1700-1825. Buffalo, N.Y.
Edited by Stephen R. Powell
"A bank of ice, which rested on the bottom of the lake and rose several feet above the surface, had been the cause. The ice extended from the western end of the pier to the shore, and arrested the current of the creek. In consequence, an eddy had formed alongside the pier, and in March it was found that the channel had become filled with sand and gravel. Later, it was seen that the obstruction extended "for a distance of more than three hundred feet." The situation was grave. Unless the channel could be cleared, the new steamship, the "Superior," would not be able to leave Buffalo Creek."
Harbor Completed 1821
Wreck of the "Walk-in-the-Water'
The Bird Island Pier
Opening of the Grand Canal
Harbor Completed 1821
-Notwithstanding all such economies, and their good fortune during the freshet, the builders eventually spent more than a thousand dollars above the $I2,000 loaned by the State; and those private citizens who subscribed that additional money were never repaid, excepting in the bettering of their condition, perhaps, by the great general prosperity that came to their city, in handling lake commerce. Major Thomas W. Symons, in his "History of Buffalo Harbor," makes reference to the first harbor work accomplished, and to the first workers thus:
"The early residents of Buffalo did not have much money, but they had abundance of faith and plenty of 'sand' in their make-up, to combat the sands of the bar. Several of them clubbed together and borrowed $12,000 from the State of New York, a large sum in those days.
Then they went to work and dug their channel and to protect it built a portion of what is now the United States piers, of timber cribwork filled with stone, and of piles and brush. Although it has passed through many vicissitudes, this is the entrance channel of to-day."
Buffalonians during these years were necessarily more closely absorbed in those canal and waterways affairs which came directly within their zone; and the most absorbing was the carrying through of the harbor project. And this being a compilation of Buffalo history, it is but proper to more fully narrate those directly local events than those happenings of canal history which only indirectly concerned Buffalo. But to keep the thread unbroken in the general weaving of the canal history, passing mention must be made to some of the happenings of chiefest importance. One of the most important was the discovery of a cement-making process in 1818. Canvass White, a young engineer, assistant to Benjamin Wright, gained the distinction, subsequently recognized by patent right, of having discovered hydraulic cement, or "waterproof lime," as it was first termed. The sub-contractors on the Erie Canal had, in 18I7, used common quicklime for their first works of masonry, but in 1818 some lime was delivered to them that would not slack. Canvass White and judge Wright examined the strange substance and Dr. Barto, "a scientific gentleman from Herkimer county," was called upon to make experiments. He burned some, pulverized it, mixed it with sand, "rolled a ball of it, and placed it in a bucket for the night." In the morning it had set, was solid enough to roll across the floor, and by Dr. Barto pronounced cement, not inferior to the Roman of Puteoli, or the Dutch Tarras of the Rhine." Canvass White had been in England, and had particularly studied "bridges, canals, aqueducts, culverts, &C,
and the materials of which they were made. He made repeated experiments with this new material, and "found it to be an excellent substitute for the Roman cement." It was used on all structures along the canal, after its qualities had been proved, and the discovery undoubtedly contributed to the durability of the work. Benjamin Wright said: "I have no hesitation in saying that the discovery of hydraulic cement by Mr. White has been of incalculable benefit to the State." Its use held the canal construction within economical limits also, for the commissioners had given up all thought of importing cement "on account of the expense."
In 1819, there was much sickness among the laborers. "Between the middle of July and the first of October, about one thousand men, employed on the canal, were disabled from this cause," probably malaria,.
The first boat to move along the canal was the "Chief Engineer," so named in honor of Benjamin Wright. She was towed from Rome to Utica on October 22, 1819. On the next day, the canal commissioners and others made the return trip in her to Rome. One writer described the event thus: "The interest manifested by the whole country, as this new internal river rolled its first waves through the state, cannot be described. You might see the people running across the fields, climbing on trees and fences, and crowding the bank of the canal to gaze upon the welcome sight."
The next voyaging event of importance on the Grand Canal occurred in 1820, following the completion of the middle section and of the lateral cut to Salina from Syracuse. On the Fourth of July, 1820, the third anniversary of the commencement of work on the canal, a grand armada gathered at Syracuse. There were "altogether seventy-three boats of various sizes, with gay decorations." Upon the "Oneida Chief" was Governor Clinton. After a "pertinent address by Samuel M. Hopkins, of Genesee county, the boats formed in line and the procession moved down the lateral canal to the basin at Salina."
On October 2, 1820, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company ceased to have claim to any canal property in New York, for on that date "the transactions were closed by the acceptance, on the part of the company, of $91,616," the amount of damages awarded by the Board of Appraisers appointed by the justices of the Supreme Court.
In 1820 further surveys were made to determine whether the northern or the southern route from the Genesee River to Lake Erie should be taken. The southern route was found to lack good water feeders, and also was, at its summit, seventy-three feet higher than the surface of Lake Erie. It had the advantage, however, of being several miles shorter, and of requiring less construction. Nevertheless, these advantages were not sufficient to induce the commissioners to alter the decision they had made in 1816. So the adoption of the northern route was confirmed.
The State elections of 1820 were watched with anxiety by the people of Buffalo. A letter from Albany, April 2, 1820, to "Joseph W. Moulton, Esqr, Counsellor at Law, Buffalo," from Philip S. Parker, acquaints the former with the grave possibilities of stoppage of all work on the western section of the canal', if Tompkins should be placed at the head of the State Government. He wrote:
"I think the western people ought to know the fact and before they vote to put D. D. Tompkins at the head of the Government of this State they ought to know that these two of his most prominent & efficient supporters (Seymour and Young) are opposed to extending the canal to the west. * * * What then have the western people to hope in the election of Tompkins? You ought and I trust will make a hand bill of your own & publish it in your section of the country & as far East as Onondaga. It is you who are, or will be affected by the Tammany policy if they succeed. * * * Our prospects at the South & North of reflecting Mr. Clinton are more flattering than I had any idea of."
However, it was soon demonstrated that the western section of the canal would be built, though perhaps only not beyond Tonawanda. The middle section was in full operation in 1820, the tolls in that year amounting to $5,244.34, with another $450.56 collected on traffic at the 'Little Falls of the Mohawk. And actually before the year 1820 had ended fifty-one and a quarter miles of the western section had been either completed or placed under contract, the excavation being from the Genesee, River eastward. A small part of the eastern section of the canal had also been excavated.
In 1821, the canal commissioners were authorized to borrow another one million dollars, and in that year contracts were let "for that portion of the canal from the brow of the mountain ridge in Niagara county to the Tonawanda Creek." So that by this time it was clear that the artificial waterway would soon connect with Lake Erie, or with the Niagara River. And, as it came nearer and nearer to the western water, to about the same degree did the struggle between Buffalo and Black Rock become the more strenuous.
Wreck of the "Walk-in-the-Water'
-That Buffalo was capable of "holding its own" in the competition was instanced during the winter of 1821-22. As Buffalo harbor neared completion in 1821, Buffalonians were looking hopefully forward to the time when the owners of the "Walk-in-the-Water," the only steamship then on Lake Erie, would compare the harbor facilities of Buffalo with those of Black Rock, and give the decision in favor of Buffalo. Buffalo wanted to be the home port of the "Walk-in-the-Water." This thought cheered the pier builders through the dark days. It was annoying to them to see the "Pride of the Great Lakes" pass them voyage after voyage, on her way to Black Rock. But they found pleasure in imaging that ere long Sheldon Thompson's "Horn Breeze" would no longer have the opportunity of helping the "Walk-in-the-Water" to get out of the rapids of the Niagara. Alas! t'was not to be. The pioneer steamship "was driven on shore a short distance above Buffalo, while on her last trip, in 1821, and bilged." Her machinery, however, was salvaged, and Buffalonians confidently looked forward to the visit of one of its New York owners' who it was hoped would see the advantage of making Buffalo a shipbuilding centre, as well as of recognizing Buffalo's preeminence in harbor facilities. The owners did decide to build another steamship, and contracted with Noah Brown and Brothers, of New York, without delay. Mr. Brown came to Buffalo early in January, 1822, but he passed on to Black Rock, and there engaged ship-carpenters "to furnish the timber." After so committing himself he returned to the Mansion House at Buffalo, where he was to meet the Black Rock contractors for the completion of the legal papers. Samuel Wilkeson and Buffalo citizens in general were incensed. They gathered "in the bar-room of the Mansion House, and * * * resolved to have an immediate interview with Brown." A delegate was sent into him, "with little ceremony," but with the determination to get the contract. "Get that boat built here, and we will be bound by your agreement," he was, to all intents, told. Mr. Brown was somewhat surprised. He told the delegate that while at Black Rock he was told that Buffalo Harbor was "all a humbug," and that if he were to build the ship in Buffalo Creek, she would probably forever remain in the creek. "She could not be got into the Lake in the spring, and perhaps never," he was told. The delegate offered to supply the timber "at a quarter less" than it would cost "at the Rock," and to execute a judgment bond "to pay to the steamboat company $150 for every day's detention of the boat in the creek after the first of May." The offer was accepted, and the next day the papers were signed, and the New Yorker departed. Buffalonians were delighted. This triumph even "encouraged the citizens to send an agent to Albany to represent to the president of the Canal Board, DeWitt Clinton, the fact that the harbor had been completed, and to urge the immediate extension of the canal to Buffalo." Probably their agent was also instructed to convey to the canal commissioners the portentous news of Buffalo's most recent advance in maritime importance, "that Buffalo had established a shipyard."
The shipbuilding proceeded, and there seemed to be little doubt that the ship would be ready to pass out into Lake Erie within the time stated. During the winter, however, natural conditions had created a serious situation; the way out of Buffalo Creek into the lake had become blocked with sand. A bank of ice, which rested on the bottom of the lake and rose several feet above the surface, had been the cause. The ice extended from the western end of the pier to the shore, and arrested the current of the creek. In consequence, an eddy had formed alongside the pier, and in March it was found that the channel had become filled with sand and gravel. Later, it was seen that the obstruction extended "for a distance of more than three hundred feet." The situation was grave. Unless the channel could be cleared, the new steamship, the "Superior," would not be able to leave Buffalo Creek. And if not afloat, actually afloat in Lake Erie, on May 1st, the penalty would be $150 a day, or $24,000 "for the summer," the whole secured by judgment note. Hardest to bear was the thought that Black Rockers would have been vindicated in their assertion. Almost as hard to bear was the thought that this demonstration of the hopelessness of making a harbor at Buffalo would cause the canal commissioners to terminate the canal at Black Rock. The moment was ominous with dreadful forebodings.
Samuel Wilkeson, "superintendent of the harbor," was absent when the enormity of the possibilities first came to the minds of other Buffalonians. As soon as the news of the disaster reached him he hastened home, and arriving about the middle of March, a meeting of the citizens concerned was called. A subscription was opened, to defray the estimated expense, $1,600, of clearing the channel. But only about $300 was forthcoming. However, Wilkeson did not wait for the means; he went ahead with the work, beginning the very next morning. It was necessary; indeed it was found that "work must be continued every working day, without regard to the weather," if they could hope to clear the obstruction before the first of May. Storms, and the breaking up of the ice, however, hampered them. Once they almost lost their indispensable pile-driver. The situation eventually became desperate, especially as more money was not to be had. Wilkeson again called together those who were liable on the bond, and the matter of subscriptions was again taken up. The list was this time desperately circulated, with the result that the sum Of $1,361.25, in cash and goods, was promised. In addition "a certain cow with a white head," and "100 lbs. of pork, when called for," were listed, but not appraised. Still, there was further delay, for from that time until the middle of April, "there were but two days without snow or rain," and work was impossible. From the 15th of April to the end of the month, however, the weather was fortunately good, and great progress was made. "Yet the 1st of May came while there was still a few rods of the channel, in which only about six and a half feet of water had been gained." The agents of the shipowners were at hand and would not give further time, so "the boat was put in motion." The owners perhaps were not unduly apprehensive, knowing that if she stuck in the sand they would draw $150 a day, probably more than she could earn under charter. She did not, however, go aground. Her pilot, Captain Miller, was a Buffalonian at heart, and he took great care to find the deepest part of the channel. The "Superior" was "light," and drew very little water; hence, it happened that she passed out into the lake on May 1st, and the bond was cancelled. Buffalo had once more triumphed over Black Rock.
But Black Rock could not permit Buffalo to thus benight Black Rock's future. Even though Buffalo might have a better site for a harbor, there did not seem any good reason why Black Rock should permit itself to be relegated to a backwater. Politically, Black Rock was strong; and the Porter family made the most of their political influence. Hon. Henry W. Hill very comprehensively covers all of Black Rock's activities in his exhaustive historical work on "Waterways and Canals of New York State." Regarding the important events of 1822-23, in the fight for supremacy between Buffalo and Black Rock, he writes:
"After they (the Buffalo Harbor Company) had expended most of the money in building a harbor at Buffalo Creek, an act was passed on April 17, 1822, limiting the amount of the loan to $12,000, and rendering the collection of tolls, authorized by the original act, impracticable, for the reason that vessels would not enter the port of Buffalo and pay tolls, when they were permitted to enter the harbor at Black Rock, for the construction of which $12,000 had been appropriated by the State, and where no tolls were imposed. This advantage of Black Rock over Buffalo intensified the feeling of rivalry between the two villages and their race to secure the western terminus of the Erie Canal. It culminated in 1822 at a hearing given by the Canal Commissioners, attended by DeWitt Clinton, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Henry Seymour, -Myron Holley and Samuel Young, at which General Peter B. Porter, who had been a Canal Commissioner from i8io to i8i6, presented the arguments in favor of Black Rock, and Samuel Wilkeson those in favor of Buffalo. This hearing was also attended by James Geddes, Benjamin Wright, David Thomas, Canvass White, and Nathan S. Roberts, canal engineers, some of whom had surveyed the sites in controversy. After a most animated discussion of the points involved, and after mature deliberation on the part of the Canal Commissioners, some of whom had given long consideration to the commercial features of the two ports in relation to the western terminus, a decision was given to Buffalo Creek, mainly on account of its higher level, whence an abundant supply of water might be taken to feed the canal, and also on account of its superior adaptability for an extensive harbor to accommodate the commerce of the Great Lakes."
For the third time the Canal Commissioners had decided in favor of Buffalo. But it did not end the efforts of Black Rock to bring about a change in the plan; indeed at one time during the next year, Buffalonians were destined to again feel extreme anxiety on the point, owing to the "lobbying" of Black Rockers. Mr. Hill writes:
"The western terminal matter, however, continued to be agitated for a year after the decision was made. During this time people of Buffalo became alarmed at the rumor to the effect that the Canal Commissioners had reconsidered their action and decided in favor of Black Rock as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. Thereupon they circulated a subscription to raise funds 'to open an uninterrupted canal navigation upon the margin of the Niagara River, on the plan proposed by David Thomas, from the point where the line established by him will intercept Porter's Basin, to the point where it is proposed to dam the arm of the said river to Squaw Island,' and secured subscriptions amounting to $11,415 for that purpose. In addition thereto Louis Le Couteulx donated half an acre of land fronting on the canal for the same purpose. 'One effect of the course adopted by the meeting at Buffalo,' say the Commissioners, in their Annual Report to the Legislature, under date of February 24, 1823, was to postpone the ultimate decision of the harbor question for one year; and this it was thought would not involve any public injury, because the harbor at either place might, notwithstanding the postponement, be completed within the two seasons yet required to complete the canal through the mountain ridge. In the meantime, the citizens of Buffalo have had the opportunity of completing their works; and the people of Black Rock, in consequence of the intimation afforded them by the above determination, have constructed about 16 rods of pier, in the rapid waters below Bird Island, for the purpose of testing experimentally the permanency of a mole which, on their plan of a harbor, must be extended from Bird Island to Squaw Island.
"Another effect of the decision of the Canal Commissioners was to encourage the people of Black Rock to apply to the Legislature for immediate legislation and an appropriation for the construction of a harbor at Black Rock upon a plan proposed in the report of James Geddes under date of February, 1821. They were successful, as evidenced by the passage on April 17, 1822, of an act 'To authorize and encourage the construction of harbors of Buffalo Creek and Black Rock,' known as Chapter 251 of the Laws of 1822. By this act, there was appropriated $12,000 for a harbor at Black Rock, and the Canal Commissioners entered into a contract, in 1822, with Peter B. Porter and Sheldon Thompson, who were authorized so to do by the citizens of Black Rock, for the construction Of 530 rods of mole or pier to connect Bird Island and Squaw Island, and 30 rods to unite the latter island with the main land. The pier was to be 16 feet in height and 18 feet in width. They were also to construct 260 rods of embankment along the eastern shore of Squaw Island, which was to be 30 feet broad at the base and 6 feet at the top. They were also to construct a towpath two miles and 27 chains in length on the easterly side of the harbor and a lock between the harbor and the river. The contract price for this work was $83,819, which included the Black Rock appropriation of $12,000. As the pier was constructed there was some apprehension that it would be carried away by the storms of Lake Erie, or by the fields of floating ice in the springtime. * * *
"After its construction the Bird Island pier was damaged on two or more occasions and then repaired, and it has now withstood for nearly a century and will form the outer pier of the improved Black Rock harbor now (1907) being constructed by the United States Government.
"The harbor controversy was set at rest in 1823 when 'the canal line from Little Buffalo Creek to the upper end of the proposed Black Rock harbor, being nearly two miles in extent' was placed under contract in accordance with the unanimous opinion of the canal engineers, Benjamin Wright, David Thomas, Nathan S. Roberts and Canvass White, 'that the canal ought to be continued to and terminate in Buffalo Creek, near the mouth of Little Buffalo Creek.' This conclusion was the logical result of the long controversy of the two villages which had divided engineers and embroiled canal advocates within and without the Legislature. The waters of the Niagara River in the vicinity of Bird Island and Black Rock harbor were shallow and rapid, and rendered their navigation by vessels of moderate draft difficult and dangerous. This was known to the Canal Commissioners, who wisely planned for a much larger harbor than it was possible to build at Black Rock. Shortly after the completion of the Eric Canal, Black Rock harbor began to lose and Buffalo continued to gain in commerce. This was in part due to canal traffic and in part to the superior harbor facilities of the latter port."
It was a happy day for Buffalonians when, on the 9th day of August, 1823, they saw canal excavations actually begun within their village boundaries. For fifteen years they had been waiting for this canal which was to bring them wealth in ever-increasing commerce. For six or eight years they had longed for the canal, had fought for it, had despaired of ever getting it. But now there was no longer cause for doubt. Johnson's "History of Erie County" has a paragraph regarding the portentous event:
"On the 9th of August, 1823, work on the grand canal was begun in Erie county. Ground was broken near the Commercial street bridge, in Buffalo. There was of course a celebration, including procession, speech-making, etc. The assembled crowd were so interested in the great work that they did not content themselves with the formal removal of a few spadefuls, but fell in procession behind the contractor's ploughs, and followed them for half a mile, with music playing and cannon firing. 'Then,' says the account, 'they partook of a beverage furnished by the contractor,' and afterwards dispersed with vociferous cheers."
Judge Forward, who then was chairman of the board of village trustees-, had the distinction of throwing out the first spadeful of earth on that occasion. Thereafter, for a little more than two years the excavation proceeded industriously on the western section of the canal; proceeded steadily to completion.
Only two other events need to be here referred to in order to bring this chapter to a close. The first was sensational, and yet a possibility and misfortune most strong men in public service recognize and accept with seeming equanimity. Most strong men have enemies. The man who is without enemies will be generally found to have accomplished little that would incite envy.
The strongest man in New York State in the early twenties was DeWitt Clinton. He had held-to his great canal policy almost to completion and despite all opposition. His political enemies were by no means scrupulous in their endeavors to defeat him; and when in 1824 it was seen that DeWitt Clinton was good "Presidential timber," an advantage was taken of Assemblymen, at the last moment of Assembly, in the hope that it might bring harm to Clinton. A resolution was introduced in the Senate calling for the removal of Clinton from the Board of Canal Commissioners. "After a lengthy debate, the resolution was adopted by a vote of twenty-one to three, and was immediately sent to the Assembly for concurrence, as the Legislature upon this day was to adjourn sine die. In the hurry and bustle incident to adjournment the resolution was rushed through, the vote being sixty-four to thirty-four." Lamb's "History of New York City" describes the predicament of Assemblymen, on that fateful day, thus:
"When the announcement was made, gentlemen engaged in packing their papers paused and stared at each other, as if wondering if they had heard aright Henry Cunningham was in the act of putting on his overcoat, and without a moment for reflection threw it over his arm and turned to the speaker with flashing eyes and face glowing with indignation. * * * 'For what good and honorable purpose has this resolution been sent here for concurrence at the very last moment of the session? * * * Sir, I challenge inquiry. We have spent rising of three months in legislation, and not one word has been dropped intimating a desire or intention to expel that honorable gentleman from the board of canal commissioners! What nefarious and secret design, I ask, is to be effected at the expense of the honor and integrity of this legislature?' "
Still, the enemy gained the day. However, their triumph was shortlived. The people of the State were indignant. Ten thousand persons assembled in City Hall Park, New York City, "for the purpose of denouncing the Legislature." One of the speakers said:
"Who stood forth as the triumphant advocate of the Great Western Canal? Who aided in getting loans for its advancement? * * * Who, for nearly ten years, had presided over the Board of Canal Commissioners? Who had waded through streams and torrents of ridicule, calumny, and insult, in the prosecution of this canal? Who * * * was connected as a leading and efficient personage in this splendid work? Need any man stand here and pause like Brutus among the Romans, for a reply? DeWitt Clinton is the man! Every tongue utters his name; every heart bears testimony to his services."
It seems strange that people of evil intent never will learn the lesson shown time and time again in national, state, and even in individual history-that bitterness can only be successfully administered in small doses' An overdose of Political Venom, treacherously administered, is apt to bring into play a powerful antidote, Public Opinion, which is basically pure and is able generally to nullify the evil effects of the poison. DeWitt Clinton, by political chicanery, was removed from the Board of Canal Commissioners in April, 1824. In the following November, he was triumphantly elected Governor of the State of New York, and thus was able to be in the place he had well earned, the place of highest honor, in the memorable Canal ceremonies of the next year, when the great unsalted seas, that reach for more than a thousand miles into America, were merged with the salted seas that extend to the ends of the earth.
Opening of the Grand Canal
-As the spring of 1825 passed into the summer, and it was seen that the work of building the Grand Canal was almost at an end, preparations were made throughout the State to fittingly celebrate the great accomplishment. In September, "there remained only the last touches at the Mountain Ridge" at Lockport to bemade. Then all would be ready. On September 29th William C. Bouck, the commissioner in charge of the western section, "gave notice that the canal would be ready for the passage of boats along its entire length on the 26th of October." Plans were accordingly made by all communities and municipal authorities along the route. Obstacles occurred, however, but by desperate efforts they were removed. It was not until the evening of the 24th of October that the guard-gates were opened, and the filling of the Lake Erie level commenced, and not until the evening of the 25th that the entire canal was provided with water.
It must have been a time of especial anxiety to Governor DeWitt Clinton, who had arrived in Buffalo on the evening of the 25th, and the next morning was to head the triumphant armada on the initial voyage from Lake Erie to the sea. Buffalo was host to more distinguished men on that evening than she had ever been, and perhaps than some Buffalonians bid thought she would ever be. Buffalo's star was shining brightly.
Next morning, the villagers were soon astir ready to make that day the greatest of their history. It is in the record that in Buffalo "the morn was ushered in by the thunders of artillery, and everybody was soon astir." Again, it is recorded that "the opening of the grand Eric Canal put courage into the hearts of the people. Joy and gladness was to be seen in the countenances of all." Johnson's "History of Erie County" has the following account of the memorable events:
"At an early hour marshals were riding to and fro, soldiers were hurrying to their rendezvous, banners were waving from every housetop, mechanics of every description were assembling at the appointed localities and citizens of every station were preparing to join in the joyful duties of the day. At 9 o'clock, the procession formed at the park and moved down Main Street, headed by a band of music and Captain Rathbun's rifle company. Then came a body of canal diggers with shovels, axe-men with axes, stone-cutters, masons, ship-carpenters, and sailors of the lake with their officers. All the mechanics of the village followed * * *, the representatives of each trade marching together. Then came the citizens in general, then a body of military officers in uniform, members of the village corporation, strangers of distinction, canal engineers and commissioners, followed by the orator of the day, Sheldon Smith.
"Last of all rode one who has been universally recognized as the master-mind of the work then celebrated- * * * DeWitt Clinton, the Governor of the State of New York. A square-built, broad-shouldered man of fifty-six, his stern countenance may have hidden his feelings from the crowd, but he must have been * * * less than human had not his heart beat quicker with triumph as he saw his hopes * * * at last realized. Politicians might outwit him, enemies might assail him, * * * death might soon claim him for its own, but the 'father of the Erie Canal' had achieved a place in the history of his State and Nation, of which neither politicians, nor enemies, nor disease, nor death itself could rob him."
Major John G. Camp was grand marshal, and the procession moved down Main street and thence to the canal basin, where the Governor's boat, the "Seneca Chief," awaited its distinguished first passengers for "the first voyage through to the Hudson." The Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor, New York City councilmen, and committees from Buffalo and other cities, embarked on the "Seneca Chief." Jesse Hawley, who had supported the canal project in 1808, was a passenger. He "made a short address of congratulation on the part of a committee from Rochester." judge Forward responded for Buffalo.
"Precisely at 10 o'clock the boat moved off, and as it did so a 32-pound cannon on the bank was fired." The report of another gun was heard ere the echoes of the first had died away. A "unique telegraph" had thus been instituted, to convey to awaiting communities along the route the gladsome news that the voyage from Lake Erie to the Hudson had been begun. Guns had been placed along the canal, one within earshot of the next, for the whole distance, and within three hours and twenty minutes after the firing of the first gun, Buffalonians, then partaking of a sumptuous banquet at "Rathbun's Eagle" and at "Landon's Mansion House," heard "the return shot," dispatched by the same telegraphic medium from Albany. In one of Senator Henry W. Hill's speeches on canal amendments, he said, regarding this memorable day:
"The roar of artillery, which was repeated at stated intervals across the State on October 26, 1825. Proclaimed the commencement of the voyage of Governor DeWitt Clinton in the 'Seneca Chief' from Lake Erie through the Erie Canal and down the Hudson to Sandy Hook. It was a continuous ovation, unparalleled in the annals of the State. One of the badges worn in New York City had this motto: 'Devised bv Genius, Performed by Industry.' Upon his arrival at Sandy Hook, on November 4, 1825, he poured the kegs of water, which he had brought from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean, * * * to indicate and commemorate the navigable communication which has been accomplished between our Mediterranean seas and the Atlantic ocean, in about eight years, to the extent of more than 425 miles, 'by the wisdom, public spirit and energy of the people of the State of New York."'
As he poured the water of Lake Erie into that of the Atlantic ocean, Governor Clinton said: "And may the God of the heavens and earth smile most propitiously on this work (of the people of the State of New York) and render it subservient to the best interests of the human race."
A like ceremony eventually took place on Lake Erie, judge Wilkeson and the Buffalo Committee having returned with a keg of the water of the Atlantic. Johnson writes: "On their arrival (at Buffalo) there was a final ceremony, which reminds one of the wedding of the Adriatic by a doge of Venice. The sentiment was quite as poetic. * * *
"The committee, with other citizens, went out upon the lakes in a vessel. Then, with appropriate formalities, the water of the Atlantic was poured upon the bosom of Erie. This was the last ceremonial which celebrated the grand wedding of Lake and Ocean."
These happenings were of course not merely Buffalo happenings. They were of consequence to the State, and indeed to the Nation; and the celebrations enacted along the route on the memorable first passage of the "Seneca Chief" were just as thoroughly entered into by other communities as by Buffalonians. And the thoughts of others caused them to blend the romantic with the practical, just as Buffalonians had been stirred to do. As the "Seneca Chief" neared Rochester, she was hailed, and the following dialogue ensued:
"'Who comes there?'
'Your Brothers from the West, on the waters of the Great Lakes.'
'By what means have they been diverted so far from their natural course?'
'By the channel of the Grand Erie Canal.'
'By whose authority, and by whom, was a work of such magnitude accomplished?'
'By the authority and by the enterprise of the patriotic People of the State of New York."'
When the voyageurs reached Albany, they were held there for a whole day, to participate in the celebrations planned, part of which were held on "the elaborately decorated bridge over the Hudson, upon which tables had been placed to accommodate six hundred guests." At New York City, on November 4th, while the romantic water ceremonies at Sandy Hook were proceeding, "a procession five miles long, the largest of its kind ever witnessed in America up to that time," was marching through the streets. The pyrotechnic display of that evening "is described as surpassingly beautiful and never before equaled on this side of the Atlantic."
The rejoicing was justified by the achievement. The construction of the Erie Canal commenced at Rome on July 4, 1817, and was completed on October 25, 1825, at a cost of $7,143,789.86. It was 363 miles long. It was a stupendous undertaking satisfactorily accomplished. Senator Henry W. Hill, in one of his speeches, quoted from an opinion, thus:
"For a single State to achieve such a victory-not only over the doubts and fears of the wary, but over the obstacles of nature-causing miles of massive rocks at the mountain ridge to yield to its power, 'turning the tide of error as well as that of the Tonnewanta, piling up the waters of the mighty Niagara, as well as those of the beautiful Hudson, in short, causing a navigable river to flow with gentle current toward the steep mount at Lockport, to leap the River of Genesee, to encircle the brow of Irondequoit as with the laurel wreath; to march through the rich fields of Palmyra and of Lyons, to wend its way through the quicksands of the morass at the Cayuga, to pass unheeded the delicious licks of Onondaga, to smile through Oneida's verdant landscape, to hang upon the arms of the ancient Mohawk, and with her, after gaily stepping down the cadence of the Little Falls and Cahoes, to rush to the embrace of the sparkling Hudson,' and all this in the space of eight short years, was a work of which the oldest and richest nations of Christendom might well be proud."
It inspired the heart and mind of one Buffalonian so warmly that he penned the following ode, which was delivered during the local celebrations on the eventful day, October 26, 1825:
"Strike the lyre! with joyous note
Let the sound through azure float;
The task is o'er, the work complete
And Erie's waves with Ocean meet;
Bearing afar the rich bequest,
While smiling commerce greets the West.
"Strike the lyre! 'tis envy's knell-
Pallid fear within her shell
Shrinks aghast-while truth and fame
On glory's scroll 'grave Clinton's name.
"Strike the lyre! 'tis Freedom's song,
While the red flash, the line along
Tells to the world with echoing roar,
Matter and space are triumphed o'er!
Gigantic genius led the van
While sturdy toil fulfilled the plan.
What boundless gratitude is due
To those whose purpose, ever true
Pursued their course with daring pride
Till Erie's waves caressed the tide."
Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.
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