History will assign to Gouverneur Morris2 the merit of first suggesting a direct and continuous communication from Lake Erie to the Hudson. In 1800 he announced this idea from the shore of the Niagara River to a friend in Europe, in the following enthusiastic language:
"Hundreds of large ships will, in no distant period, bound on the billows of these inland seas. Shall I lead your astonishment to the verge of incredulity? I will! Know then that one-tenth part of the expense borne by Britain in the last campaign would enable ships to sail from London through the Hudson into Lake Erie. As yet we only crawl along the outer shell of our country. The interior excels the part we inhabit in soil, in climate, in everything. The proudest empire of Europe is but a bauble compared with what America may be, must be."
The praise awarded to Gouverneur Morris must be qualified by the fact that the scheme he conceived was that of a canal with a uniform declination, and without locks, from Lake Erie to the Hudson. Morris communicated his project to Simeon De Witt in 1803, by whom it was made known to James Geddes in 1804. It afterward became the subject of conversation between Mr. Geddes and Jesse Hawley, and this communication is supposed to have given rise to the series of essays written by Mr. Hawley, under the signature of "Hercules," in the Genesee Messenger, continued from October, 1807, until March, 1808, which first brought the public mind into familiarity with the subject. These essays, written in a jail, were the grateful return, by a patriot, to a country which punished him with imprisonment for being unable to pay debts owed to another citizen. They bore evidence of deep research and displayed singular vigor and comprehensiveness of thought, and traced with prophetic accuracy a large portion of the outline of the Erie Canal.
In 1807 Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, in pursuance of a recommendation made by Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, reported a plan for appropriating all the surplus revenues of the General Government to the construction of canals and turnpike roads; and it embraced in one grand and comprehensive view, nearly without exception, all the works which have since been executed or attempted by the several States in the Union. This bold and statesmanlike, tho premature, conception of that eminent citizen will remain the greatest among the many monuments of his forecast and wisdom.
In 1808 Joshua Forman, a representative in the New York Assembly from Onondaga County, submitted his memorable resolution:
"Resolved, if the honorable the Senate concur herein, That a joint committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of exploring and causing an accurate survey to be made of the most eligible and direct route for a canal, to open a communication between the tide-waters of the Hudson River and Lake Erie, to the end that Congress may be enabled to appropriate such sums as may be necessary to the accomplishment of that great national object."
In pursuance of a recommendation by the committee, a resolution unanimously passed both houses, directing the surveyor-general, Simeon De Witt, to cause an accurate survey to be made of the various routes proposed for the contemplated communication. But how little the magnitude of that undertaking was understood may be inferred from the fact that the appropriation made by the resolution to defray the expenses of its execution was limited to the sum of six hundred dollars.
There was then no civil engineer in the State. James Geddes, a land surveyor, who afterward became one of our most distinguished engineers, by the force of native genius and application in mature years, leveled and surveyed under instructions from the surveyor-general, with a view to ascertain, first, whether a canal could be made from the Oneida Lake to Lake Ontario, at the mouth of Salmon Creek; secondly, whether navigation could be opened from Oswego Falls to Lake Ontario, along the Oswego River; thirdly, what was the best route for a canal from above the Falls of Niagara to Lewiston; and, fourthly, what was the most direct route, and what the practicability of a canal from Lake Erie to the Genesee River, and thence to the waters running east to the Seneca River. The topography of the country between the Seneca River and the Hudson was at that time comparatively better known.
Mr. Geddes's report showed that a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson was practicable, and could be made without serious difficulty. In 1810, on motion of Jonas Platt, of the Senate, who was distinguished throughout a pure and well-spent life by his zealous efforts to promote this great undertaking, Gouverneur Morris, De Witt Clinton, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Simeon De Witt, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter were appointed commissioners "to explore the whole route for inland navigation from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, and to Lake Erie." Cadwallader D. Colden, a contemporary historian,3 himself one of the earliest and ablest advocates of the canals, awards to Thomas Eddy the merit of having suggested this motion to Mr. Platt, and to both these gentlemen that of engaging De Witt Clinton's support, he being at that time a member of the Senate. Another writer commemorates the efficient and enlightened exertions, at this period, of Hugh Williamson. The canal policy found, at the same time, earnest and vigorous supporters in the American and Philosophical Register, edited by Dr. David Hosack and Dr. John W. Francis.
The commissioners in March, 1811, submitted their report written by Gouverneur Morris, in which they showed the practicability and advantages of a continuous canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and stated their estimate of the cost at five million dollars, a sum which they ventured to predict would not exceed 5 per cent. of the value of the commodities which, within a century, would be annually transported on the proposed canal. We may pause here to remark that the annual value of the commodities carried on the canals, instead of requiring a century to attain the sum of one hundred millions, reached that limit in twenty-five years. . . .
The ground was broken for the construction of the Erie Canal on July 4, 1817, at Rome, with ceremonies marking the public estimation of that great event. De Witt Clinton, having just before been elected to the chief magistracy of the State, and being president of the Board of Canal Commissioners, enjoyed the high satisfaction of attending, with his associates, on the auspicious occasion. . . .
In 1819 Governor Clinton announced to the Legislature that the progress of the public works equaled the most sanguine expectations and that the canal fund was flourishing. He recommended prosecution of the entire Erie Canal. Enlarging upon the benefits of internal navigation, he remarked that he looked to a time, not far distant when the State would be able to improve the navigation of the Susquehanna, the Allegheny, the Genesee, and the St. Lawrence; to assist in connecting the waters of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi; to form a junction between the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario through the Oswego River; and to promote the laudable intention of Pennsylvania to unite Seneca Lake with the Susquehanna, deducing arguments in favor of such enterprises, from the immediate commercial advantages of extended navigation, as well as from its tendency to improve the condition of society and strengthen the bonds of the Union. . . .
On October 23, 1819, the portion of the Erie Canal between Utica and Rome was opened to navigation, and on November 24th the Champlain Canal admitted the passage of boats. Thus in less than two years and five months one hundred twenty miles of artificial navigation had been finished, and the physical as well as the financial practicability of uniting the waters of the western and northern lakes with the Atlantic Ocean was established to the conviction of the most incredulous.
Governor Clinton announced these gratifying results to the Legislature in 1820, and admonished that body that while efforts directly hostile to internal improvements would in future be feeble, it became a duty to guard against insidious enmity; and that in proportion as the Erie Canal advanced toward completion would be the ease of combining a greater mass of population against the further extension of the system. Attempts, he remarked, had already been made to arrest the progress of the Erie Canal west of the Seneca River, and he anticipated their renewal when it should reach the Genesee. But the honor and prosperity of the State demanded the completion of the whole of the work, and it would be completed in five years if the representatives of the people were just to themselves and to posterity. . . .
In November, 1820, Governor Clinton congratulated the Legislature upon the progress of the public works. He urged the adoption of plenary measures to complete the Erie Canal within three years, enforcing the recommendation by the consideration that Ohio would thereby be encouraged to pursue her noble attempt to unite the waters of Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The canal commissioners showed in their report that the Erie Canal was navigable from Utica to the Seneca River, a distance of ninety-six miles, and that its tolls during four months had amounted to five thousand two hundred forty-four dollars. . .
On January 1, 1823, the Government went into operation under the new State constitution, Joseph C. Yates having been elected to the office of governor. The constitution declared that rates of toll not less than those set forth by the canal commissioners in their report of 1821 should be collected on the canals, and that the revenues then pledged to the canal fund should not be diminished nor diverted before the complete payment of the principal and interest of the canal debt, a pledge which placed the public credit on an impregnable basis.
It appeared at the commencement of the session of the Legislature in 1823 that the public debt amounted to five million four hundred twenty-three thousand five hundred dollars, of which the sum of four million two hundred forty-three thousand five hundred dollars was for moneys borrowed to construct the canals. The commissioners reported that boats had passed on the Erie Canal a distance of more than two hundred twenty miles, and that as early as July 1st ensuing that channel would be navigable from Schenectady to Rochester. The tolls collected in 1822 upon the Erie Canal were sixty thousand, and upon the Champlain Canal three thousand six hundred twenty-five dollars. The improvements of the outlet of Onondaga Lake had been completed, and the Glens Falls feeder was in course of rapid construction. Among the benefits already resulting from the Erie Canal, the commissioners showed that the price of wheat west of the Seneca River had advanced 50 per cent. To appreciate this result, it is necessary to understand that wheat is the chief staple of New York, and that far the largest portion of wheat-growing in this State lies west of the Seneca River. Attempts were again made in both branches to provide for collecting the local tax. The proposition was lost in the Senate by a vote of nineteen to ten, and in the Assembly by a division of sixty-five to thirty-one.
The Legislature exprest by resolution a favorable opinion of the inland navigation which New Jersey proposed to establish between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. A loan of one million five hundred thousand dollars was authorized for canal purposes, a survey of the Oswego River was directed to be made, and estimates of the expense of completing the canal from Salina to Lake Ontario. An association to construct such a canal was incorporated, and authority given to the commissioners to take the work when completed, leaving the use of its surplus waters to the corporators; and the eastern termination of the Erie Canal was fixt at Albany.
The canal commissioners reported in 1824 that the Champlain Canal was finished; that both canals had produced revenues during the previous year of one hundred fifty-three thousand dollars; and that the commissioners had decided that the Erie Canal ought to be united with the Niagara River at Black Rock and terminate at Buffalo. . . .
On the reassembling of the Legislature in January, 1825, De Witt Clinton, who, in November of the preceding year, had been again called to the office of governor, congratulated the Legislature upon the prospect of the immediate completion of the Erie Canal, and the reasonable certainty that the canal debt might soon be satisfied, without a resort to taxation, without a discontinuance of efforts for similar improvements, and without staying the dispensing hand of Government in favor of education, literature, science, and productive industry. Earnestly renewing his recommendation that a board of internal improvement should be instituted, he remarked that the field of operations was immense, and the harvest of honor and profit unbounded, and that, if the resources of the State should be wisely applied and forcibly directed, all proper demands for important avenues of communication might be satisfied.
The primary design of our system of artificial navigation, which was to open a communication between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, was already, he observed, nearly accomplished, but would not be fully realized until Lake Ontario should be connected with the Erie Canal and with Lake Champlain, and the importance of these improvements would be appreciated when it was understood that the lake coast, not only of this State, but of the United States, was more extensive than their seacoast. The next leading object, he remarked, should be to unite the minor lakes and secondary rivers with the canals and to effect such a connection between the bays on the seacoast as would insure the safety of boat navigation against the tempests of the ocean in time of peace, and against the depredations of an enemy in time of war.
The public debt for canals in 1825 amounted to seven and a half million dollarsall of which, it must be recorded to the honor of the State and the country, had been borrowed of American capitalistsand the annual interest thereon, to three hundred seventy-six thousand dollars. The Governor estimated that the tolls for the year would exceed three hundred ten thousand dollars; that the duties on salt would amount to one hundred thousand dollars, and that these, with the other income of the canal fund, would produce a revenue exceeding, by three hundred thousand dollars, the interest on the canal debt. He stated also that ten thousand boats had passed the junction, of the canals near tide-water during the previous season. Remarking that the creative power of internal improvement was manifested in the flourishing villages which had sprung up or been extended; in the increase of towns; and, above all, in the prosperity of the city of New York. And noticing the fact that three thousand buildings had been erected in that city during the preceding year, Clinton predicted that in fifteen years its population would be doubled, and that in thirty years that metropolis would be the third city in the civilized world, and the second, if not the first, in commerce. . . .
On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal was in a navigable condition throughout its entire length, affording an uninterrupted passage from Lake Erie to tide-water in the Hudson. Thus in eight years artificial communications four hundred twenty-eight miles in length had been opened between the more important inland waters and the commercial emporium of the State. This auspicious consummation was celebrated by a telegraphic discharge of cannon, commencing at Lake Erie, and continued along the banks of the canal and of the Hudson, announcing to the city of New York the entrance on the bosom of the canal of the first barge that was to arrive at the commercial emporium from the American Mediterraneans.
1 Seward, at the time of the building of the Erie Canal, was a lawyer in Auburn, N. Y. In 1838 he was elected Governor of New York, and reelected in 1840. In 1849 he was elected United States Senator from New York, and served until 1861. He became a prominent candidate for President at the Chicago Convention which nominated Lincoln in 1860, and served under Lincoln as Secretary of State, continuing in that office during the administration of Andrew Johnson. On the night of Lincoln's assassination, an attempt on his life was made in his house by one of John Wilkes Booth's associates in the conspiracy, and he was severely wounded.
2 Morris belonged to the well-known family of Morrisania. He was a brother of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Gouverneur Morris served in the Continental Congress, and was a member of the committee which drafted the Constitution in 1787. He served afterward as Minister to France, and United States Senator from New York.
3 Cadwallader David Colden, grandson of Cadwallader Colden, who was Lieutenant-Governor of New York, and acting Governor in the Stamp Act period, and author of a "History of the Five Nations."
This year, 1825, was a remarkable one in the history of canal-building in the United States. The Erie Canal was completed by the autumn; never having been interrupted in its construction since the first spadeful of earth was lifted, eight years earlier, on the 4th of July; but pushed on incessantly by the Governor,2 whose good fortune it was to supervise both the beginning and end of an enterprise whose success was due, most of all, to his foresight and unflagging perseverance. In October, 1819, water was first let into the trench, and a large boat drawn by a horse from Utica to Rome and back again, thirty miles, in eight hours. Four years later Albany rejoiced over the passage of the first boat into the Hudson, all but the section between Lockport and Buffalo being then finished, besides the northern or Champlain Canal. In the culminating success and celebration, October 26, 1825, the whole State of New York bore a part. At ten in the forenoon the waters of Lake Erie were admitted at Buffalo, and a flotilla of canalboats, headed by the Seneca Chief, in which Clinton and other dignitaries were conveyed, moved along the unruffled surface of a highway 363 miles in length, day and night, passing safely into the stone aqueduct at Rochester, moored over Sunday at Utica, and by November 2d reaching Albany in safety.
From Albany the novel tour was resumed, under a steam tow, to New York harbor. On the bright, clear morning of November 4th, the ringing of the city bells, strains of martial music, and the boom of cannon announced to the world that the aquatic procession from Lake Eric was on its way to Sandy Hook. Ships at anchor saluted the modest flotilla, while steamboats and light craft bore down to bear it company to the sea. The Seneca Chief bore from Buffalo kegs painted green, adorned with gilded hoops, and filled with Lake Erie water. When Sandy Hook was reached, the procession stopt; and Clinton, lifting high in air one of these kegs, poured its contents into the sea, mingling for the first time the fresh and briny waters.
Through an artificial highway, forty feet wide and four deep, boats, expressly built for the new canal traffic, carried thirty or forty tons, each capable of being drawn, unless heavily laden, by a single horse. A ton of flour, which it had cost $100 to convey from Buffalo to Albany overland, might now be sent for $10. All vessels, whether owned in or out of the State, were allowed to navigate the canal on paying the transit duties; nevertheless, the main traffic, which set in briskly between the West and the seaboard, enriched the State most of all. The debt created by the construction of the Erie and Champlain canals was $7,944,000; paying an interest of 6½ per cent. The fund in 1826 applicable to discharge this debt amounted to $1,057,585; and the whole system more than repaid its original cost out of the profits in a brief space of years, for the tolls collected left a large surplus annually after providing interest on the loan and repairs.
The first faint omen of success in Clinton's enterprise had stirred other States to prosecuting the work of slack-water improvements. The oldest canals in the United States were in Massachusetts; the Middlesex Canal, which connected Boston Harbor with the Merrimack River, and was completed in 1808, being the first undertaking of the kind on this continent in any considerable magnitude. But it was the Erie Canal Which gave the chief impulse to works of this character. Pennsylvania, threatened with the loss of her western trade by the great canal on one side and the National Road3 on the other, projected a system which, by uniting the Schuylkill, the Susquehanna, and the Alleghany rivers, might bring Philadelphia and Pittsburgh into closer relations. Ohio sought a water highway between Lake Erie and the Ohio River; the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was the favorite scheme in Virginia and Maryland. Many works were planned and begun during the excitement of these next few years, works which demanded a State and begged a national appropriation. . . .
In this halcyon day of slack-water enterprises even ship-canals were discust; and whether to cut Cape Cod or the Isthmus of Panama are questions scarcely less interesting now than they were sixty years ago.4 Steamboats made an important factor in this new system of inland transportation; and had not railways checked the use of canals, steam would quite likely have become in time the usual motive power for canal-boats. Of manifold importance, now that Buffalo and Albany were united, the swift carriers which made Fulton's name immortal puffed up and down the Hudson, their first breeding-place, busier than ever. That monopoly for the use of the steamboat in New York waters which the Fulton and Livingston alliance had enjoyed under its thirty years' grant from the State Legislature, the highest tribunal now pronounced repugnant to the Federal Constitution and the power vested in Congress to regulate commerce. Thus, as some scholars lamented, the fortune of the great inventor of his age was scattered to the four winds of heaven. The Livingston and Clinton families, by an accidental association of services, gave to their State, as a last legacy, a cheap inland intercourse, worth more than any gold mine.
1 From Schouler's "History of the United States." By permission of the author and of his publishers, Dodd, Mead Company. Copyright, 1880-1891.
2 De Witt Clinton.
3 The National Road ran through Maryland, and thence westward to the Ohio.
4Schouler was writing thirty years ago.
Of foreign and international topics none at this time excited such deep interest as that of the Panama Congress. The project of holding a council of American republics at Panama to deliberate upon a continental policy and objects of common importance marks the high-water line of that zeal for the Spanish-American cause which under the impulse of Bolivar's splendid victories,2 on the one hand, and Bourbonism and the Holy Alliance on the other, had been lasht into a sort of frenzy which could not at once subside. Lafayette, on his visit, sent Bolivar a portrait of Washington, with a gold medal; and Washington, Lafayette, and Bolivar were now commemorated through America as the three liberators of mankind. Early, then, in 1825 the new American States of Spanish origin planned themselves an assembly of deputiesa modern amphictyonic council, as it were, to meet like that of the old Grecian republics, at an isthmus; or perhaps as a conference of the great powers of America at their own Aix-la-Chapelle, where they might confederate for liberty, as had European monarchs for despotism. The meeting was set for October; and in April, through the Mexican minister at Washington, the United States, eldest sister of the American republics, received a verbal invitation to be present.
Unexpected difficulties occurred, however, in procuring the sanction of Congress, or rather of the Senate, to this unique mission. An increasing minority in both Houses meant to thwart the administration at all hazards; and as the Senate was now constituted, eight or ten members of hostile disposition, who were only restrained by the favor with which their constituents appeared to regard the project, lent secret countenance, without committing themselves, to an opposition which by the aid of their votes would necessarily turn the scales. . . .
It was in vain to attempt thus to quench the popular passion in favor of the Panama mission. The very novelty, the rashness of the experiment captivated our American youth. While the Senate with closed doors deferred action upon the Macon report, the House, which sided with the Executive, called for the papers. Not to precipitate a public discussion in the other branch, the Senate yielded, many members against their better judgment; Macon's report was voted down, and the persons nominated (as to whose fitness there was no objection) were confirmed, after a session of fourteen hours, by a fair majority. The sum of $40,000 was next appropriated f or outfit, salaries, and expenses by a bill which quickly passed both houses and received the President's signature.
Incongruous under any aspect, the whole project proved abortive. To our delegates who were invited, England and the Netherlands added delegates on their part who were not, and the bubble blown out too far speedily burst. The Panama Congress met in June, and after a short session, thinly attended, adjourned to meet again in 1827 at the village of Tacubaya, near the City of Mexico. The United States had not been here represented; for of the two envoys appointed and confirmed, Richard C. Anderson, our minister at Colombia, was attacked, while on his way to the isthmus from Bogota, by a malignant fever which terminated fatally; while John Sergeant, of Philadelphia, delayed by various impediments, had not undertaken to attend. Still imprest with the expediency of the mission, the President dispatched Sergeant to attend the adjourned meeting at Tacubaya; and Monroe having declined a commission, Poinsett, our minister resident of Mexico, was appointed to the vacancy caused by Anderson's death. Among other subjects, Clay instructed Poinsett to propose at this time the purchase of Texas. But the Tacubaya Congress did not assemble at all; and Sergeant, who was a man of dispassionate judgment, reported on his return home in the summer of 1827 the final collapse of a continental council, projected at least a hundred years too early. Close contact with the southern revolutionists had, at all events, the good effect of dispelling that false medium which magnified pigmies into giants. Bolivar, the greatest of them, shrunk in comparison with Washington and Lafayette; and as revolution brought on counter-revolution, new dissensions arising in these volcanic republics, it was forced upon us that friendship but not brotherhood, encouragement but not alliance, was for the present our only honorable relation with Spanish-Americans; for their apprenticeship in the school of liberty was necessarily a long one. And this lesson was, after all, to the United States the only positive gain resulting from the Panama mission.
1 From Schouler's "History of the United States." By permission of the author and of his publishers, Dodd, Mead & Company. Copyright, 1880-1891.
2 Simon Bolivar, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, was born in 1793 and died in 1830. He became general of the revolutionary forces of Venezuela in 1813, and Dictator; then gained a victory over the Spaniards which made him master of New Granada; was elected President of the two states united as Colombia in 1819; defeated the Spanish army at Caraboho in 1822 and added Ecuador to Colombia; became Dictator of Peru in 1823, and in 1824 completed the expulsion of the Spanish as a power in South America. He was made Perpetual Dictator of the Republic of Bolivia in 1825, but later became President of the three countries that formed Colombia.