Note: Unless otherwise stated, this history comes from Whitford
In 1814, the proposition for a canal through Chenango Valley received its first legislative notice. This was in a report of the commissioners who had been appointed by the Legislature to consider matters pertaining to the internal improvement of the State. After declaring the project of constructing a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie practical, "they add with much pleasure, that it will not be difficult to extend this communication to the fertile vales watered by the Susquehannah and its wide spreading branches. Hence, they presume, that the public spirit which has always characterised Pennsylvania, will, at a proper time, induce her to cooperate."
To connect the Erie Canal with the Susquehanna River, and thus with the Pennsylvania canals, routes through several valleys were considered – particularly two: one up the valley of Oriskany Creek and down the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers to the state line; the other up Seneca River and Seneca Lake and the valley south to Chemung River and down to the Susquehanna. Along a part of the Seneca-Chemung route, State canals were built and in use for many years, and eventually, through private enterprise, the connection with the Pennsylvania system was completed, but along the Chenango-Susquehanna valleys, although a canal was open to Binghamton for a long time and a waterway for the remaining distance was partly built, the communication was never completed.
The early history of the Chenango Canal shows with what persistence its advocates struggled to gain the desired waterway. Defeated again and again, each failure seemed only to incite them to greater activity. Agitation for its construction was begun when the remarkable success of the Erie Canal fired every section of the state with a desire for canals, and it was built before that mania for canal building had largely subsided. However, conservative legislators, partially perceiving the unwarranted extent to which this craze was trending, held in check the effort for this canal for many years. Before the waterway was authorized, three principal reasons prevented its construction: Of these, the uncertainty of a sufficient water supply was considered very important, while the idea that its tolls might not equal the expense for maintenance and interest on original cost was of secondary concern, and an arbitrary limit of $1,000,000 for its entire cost appears to have been fixed by the Legislatures.
Agitation for the Chenango Canal started soon after beginning the construction of the Erie. The following reference to the project, appearing in the Oxford Gazette, in November, 1823, shows the attitude of the people of the Chenango Valley: "Few counties can approach the Erie canal with so much ease and facility as Chenango, that are situated so far from it. We may, therefore, justly consider Chenango as destined, at some future period, to become an important branch of that vast inland navigation which secures to New York a proud pre-eminence among the states of the Union. The Chenango river can be made boatable to its source, and by a short canal, the expense of which would be comparatively trifling, may be united with the waters of the Oneida creek, which leads directly into the Erie canal. This has been pronounced by competent judges practicable and safe; and at no distant day will engage the attention of our enterprising citizens."
The first well-defined effort for the canal took the form of a petition to the Legislature of 1824 from the inhabitants of Chenango County, urging the passage of a law authorizing the survey of a canal route from the Erie along the valley of the Chenango to the Susquehanna river. The canal committee of the Assembly reported favorably and introduced a bill, which was referred to the committee of the whole, but owing to lack of time, was not acted upon. In 1825, another petition was followed by the introduction of a bill, which successfully passed, for it became merged in the "great canal law" (Omnibus Canal Act, which authorized surveys for 17 proposed canals.
James Geddes, the well-known engineer of the Erie canal, surveyed most of these routes, transmitting his report to the Legislature of 1826. The proposed Chenango Canal extended from Chenango Point, on the Susquehanna River, to the Erie canal at Whitesboro, via Norwich. It was 90 miles long with a total lockage of 1,050 feet. It required six miles of feeders and was estimated to cost $715,478. Although the Assembly committee reported a bill for the construction of the canal, petitions for it having been again presented, too much doubt existed concerning the sufficiency of water at the summit level, the possibility of suits for damages against the State for diverting water from mills, and the completeness of the survey for accurately ascertaining the cost, so the measure was defeated.
The canal was so earnestly desired by the people of that vicinity that a survey was made at individual expense during the summer of 1826 in order to solve the difficulties that had arisen. Mr. Owen Forman was engaged for this purpose and he especially examined the several sources of water that could be used to feed the canal at the summit level. According to his report presented to the Legislature of 1827 by the people in favor of the Chenango route, it appeared certain that a plentiful supply could be obtained without the danger of causing any heavy damages to property. This report was strengthened by the favorable opinions of David Thomas and Nathan S. Roberts, two able engineers who had for years been employed on the Erie canal.
At this same session, petitions were also presented to the Legislature, accompanied by surveys, in favor of two other routes, one proposing to take a canal from Binghamton through the valley of the Susquehanna and the Otsego Lake, and the other to start from the same point, but following a more westerly direction and passing through Cortland County, to intersect the Erie Canal in Onondaga County. The Assembly committee on canals unanimously preferred the route through the valleys of Chenango River and Oriskany Creek with a termination at a point between Utica and Whitesboro. Accordingly, a bill for the construction of this waterway was introduced, but not until a proviso was incorporated that put the construction of the work upon the condition that a full supply of water could be furnished. The bill passed the Assembly by a decided vote, but in the Senate the canal committee reported unfavorably, mainly on the ground of the want of detail in the surveys and estimates, but again raising the question of sufficient water supply.
Not dismayed by former failures, the people had a careful, detailed survey of the summit level made in July and August, 1827, by Nathan S. Roberts. Gagings were made of the streams that might possibly be drawn upon to supply the canal and calculations were made for large reservoirs in the swamps and ponds and on both branches of the Chenango River. The report of the engineer, accompanied by several petitions, was presented to the Legislature of 1828. Mr. Roberts was sure that the supply of water would be more than ample, and he estimated that the cost of constructing the canal would be less than $1,000,000. Holmes Hutchinson, another well known canal engineer, also made a careful examination of the route and fully concurred with Mr. Roberts’s opinion regarding both the adequacy of the water supply and the course of construction. The length of the line, as surveyed by Mr. Hutchinson, was 92.75 miles and the total lockage, 1,009 feet. He reported that the Chenango would be one of the most important lateral branches of the Erie canal.
The 1828 Assembly canal committee carefully considered the project, but could not agree; therefore, two reports were presented: The majority report was adverse to the canal by reason that the net income would not equal the interest on the original cost. The minority report favored the enterprise, the following reasons being given in its support: first, it was feasible and practical and would afford cheap transportation to a rich and populous region; second, it would promote an extensive trade in coal from Pennsylvania and in return would afford a market for New York products; third, there could be no doubt that the revenue would exceed the sum required for maintenance and interest. The minority report was adopted and a bill authorizing construction was passed in the Assembly by a large majority. In the Senate, owing to the lateness of the session and the earnest desire of the friends of the bill that action be taken at that time, the canal committee deemed it advisable to report the measure without expressing an opinion either for or against it, reserving to themselves the privilege of voting as their judgment should dictate. The bill was rejected by a vote of seventeen to twelve.
In 1829, the friends of the canal continued their pursuit, renewing their applications before the Legislature. In order to make their argument still more effective, they presented a report from Benjamin Wright, chief engineer of the Erie Canal during its construction, who had been employed by the canal agitators during the season of 1828 to make a personal examination of the line. His ideas accorded with those of Roberts and Hutchinson. He was decidedly of the opinion that there was an abundance of water on the summit level without resorting to a secondary supply, and after examining the estimates made by these engineers, he believed the work could be accomplished for less than $1,000,000. In relation to the feasibility of the work, Judge Wright remarked: "The valley of the Chenango river, from the town of Madison, presents a formation of ground most extraordinary favorable for easy excavation of a canal; so much so, that I do not think the whole state of New-York can present a similar continuous distance, where nature has given a formation more favorable for such a work, and more easy and cheaply executed." He concluded: "If a canal is to be made to connect the Erie Canal with the Susquehannah, the Chenango Valley ought to be the place of location for the first work."
It began to look as if the zeal of the agitators was at last to be rewarded, for an act of 1829 authorized the canal commissioners to commence work upon the waterway, if upon examination it was certain that the water supply for the summit level was adequate, without taking any of the waters of either Oriskany or Sauquoit Creeks, and if the whole cost would not exceed $1,000,000, and if for the first 10 years after its completion, it would produce in connection with the increased tolls on the Erie an amount equaling the expense of maintenance and interest on its cost. If a negative conclusion was reached on any of these provisions, the commissioners were directed to report their surveys and estimates to the next Legislature. Under this law, the canal commissioners employed David S. Bates, another engineer having had much experience on the Erie Canal, to make surveys and estimates. From the summit level he ran several lines to the north, intersecting the Erie at Utica, Whitesboro or Oriskany. The route from Utica was 95 miles long and had a total rise and fall of 1,009 feet, requiring 114 lift locks. Mr. Bates concluded that reservoirs would be necessary and his estimates of cost by the routes terminating at the various points were as follows, exclusive of damages: at Oriskany, $1,030,502; at Whitesboro, $979,359; at Utica (Miller’s Basin), $992,307; at Utica (Huntington’s Basin), $983,995. The canal commissioners also examined the routes personally. They visited the sources of water supply and collected data concerning the probable revenue. They reported their findings to the Legislature of 1830, stating that they had not arrived at such conclusions as would justify them in proceeding with the work of construction. Concerning the water, they did not doubt that a sufficient supply could be obtained by resorting to reservoirs, without taking the waters of either Oriskany or Sauquoit Creeks, but they thought that the cost would exceed $1,000,000 and estimated the probable tolls at less than the interest and annual expenses. The Assembly committee on canals rendered an unfavorable report at this session.
Imbued with the hope that their efforts would meet with final success, the people renewed their appeals to the Legislature in 1831 and again in 1832. In the former year the measure was defeated in the Senate, and In 1832 a bill was passed by the senate but was adversely reported by the Assembly committee. The Legislature of 1833 again found the question before it. The Assembly committee rendered a most favorable report. The members of this committee did not entertain any doubt concerning an adequate water supply, this difficulty seeming to have been settled, nor did they apprehend that more than $1,000,000 would be needed to complete the canal. The report gave their estimated annual cost of superintendence and repairs at $87,916. Against this was quoted the revenue as calculated by the canal commissioners in their report to the Legislature of 1830, which was $34,512. However, the tolls estimated by the advocates of the canal amounted to $126,821. The report called attention to the fact that the canal commissioners had made a very important omission – coal transport. Although the use of coal was still something of an experiment, the report anticipated its increasing consumption and predicted that the natural consequence of placing this article on the market would be this increased consumption. The Delaware and Hudson Canal was cited as an example. This canal had been completed through private enterprise in 1829, connecting the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania with the Hudson River for the purpose of carrying coal. The company was then operating the canal successfully and the stock was quoted at 30% above par. It is interesting to observe that in 1859, when coal had come to be quite generally used and the subject of extending the Chenango Canal to the Pennsylvania line was being agitated, the tolls to be derived from carrying coal formed more than half of the expected revenue. The report concluded with a recommendation for building the Chenango Canal.
At last success for the canal advocates was assured. On February 23, 1833, the Legislature passed an act authorizing the construction of the canal "from Binghamton, in the county of Broome, up the valley of the Chenango river, to its head waters, and thence by the most advantageous route, to the Erie canal, without taking any of the waters of the Oriskany or Sauquoit creeks." The act further read: "The said commissioners, in determining the route and termination of the said canal at the Erie canal, shall be influenced by a regard for economy, public utility, and the relinquishment of damages, and the amount of gifts, grants and donations," and continued: "The canal shall be constructed of the same width and depth as the Erie canal; and the locks shall be made of wood, supported by stone walls, . . . unless the said commissioners shall deem locks of a different construction, cheaper, and more useful." The commissioners of the canal fund were authorized to borrow a sum not exceeding $1,000,000 for the construction of the waterway. When the people learned that the canal bill had become a law, there were joyful demonstrations throughout the Chenango valley.
One of the chief causes for the passage of the bill can unquestionably be ascribed to the attitude of Governor Marcy, who, in his annual message to the Legislature of 1833, favored the canal. After reviewing briefly the repeated efforts for this object and the differences of opinion concerning its cost and revenue, he committed the subject to the Legislature to decide whether it came within the rule that he had laid down as justifying the construction of any public work. He said in conclusion: "I commend this proposed work to your favorable notice, with the expression of a strong desire that its merits may be found such as to induce you to authorise its construction." This rule which the Governor referred to as justifying the construction of any canal is worth noticing, as it may fairly be considered to represent public opinion at that time. As with the Erie Canal enlargement, in this same message Governor Marcy had warned the Legislature of the danger of beginning large public enterprises without a sound financial policy. Preceding the last quotation, the Governor had enunciated his rule. Speaking of any proposed canal, he said: "If the revenue promises to be sufficient to keep it in repair when finished, to defray the expenses of superintendence and the collection of tolls, and to meet the claims for interest on the capital expended, sound policy requires that it should be constructed. Even if a less favorable result should be anticipated for a few years, the question of authorizing the construction of a public work may yet be very properly entertained. . . . Improvements that will ensure these results at the time of their completion, or shortly thereafter, should inspire no dread that a general burden will be cast upon the State, to discharge the debt created for their construction; because the gradual growth of the adjacent country, and consequently the extension of the trade, will increase the revenue, until there will ultimately be a surplus to be applied in redemption of the debt contracted on their account."
The canal commissioners on April 12, 1833, appointed John B. Jervis as chief engineer on this canal, and on September 27 he reported to the commissioners the results of his surveys and estimates, which had been completed from the village of Sherburne north to the Erie Canal, the route from Sherburne to Binghamton having been decided upon from former surveys. North of the headwaters of Chenango River surveys were made along 9 separate routes, which terminated in the Erie Canal at Utica, Whitesboro, Oriskany, Rome, Durhamville and the west side of Oneida creek. "The subject of location," said the commissioners, "had excited great solicitude with the inhabitants residing in the vicinity of the several routes, and in the valley of the Chenango. This was manifested by oral and written communications, by relinquishments of damages, and by donations." The engineer in his report also calculated for several artificial reservoirs to be used, in addition to the Chenango river, in providing a sufficient watersupply for the canal. After personally examining each of the routes, the commissioners adopted the line passing down the valley of the Oriskany and Sauquoit Creeks, and terminating at the Erie Canal near the village of Whitesboro. The locks were designed to have wooden chambers, supported by a dry wall of stone masonry on the sides, excepting the portion at the head of the lock from about eight feet below the upper gates. This part of the wall, in connection with that which formed the breast of the lock, was to be laid in hydraulic cement. The three combined locks at Oriskany Falls were to be of masonry, hammer faced, laid in hydraulic cement.
During the fall of 1833, contracts were let on the northern portion of the canal. The estimates made for this part of the canal indicated that the total cost would be nearly twice the amount which the Legislature had authorized the commissioners of the canal fund to borrow, but the canal commissioners, with but one dissenting member, interpreted the act to direct the construction of the canal without fixing a limit to the cost. On March 24, 1834, the Legislature authorized a change of location of the northern terminus of the canal so that it would join the Erie at Huntington’s Basin in the City of Utica upon the condition that satisfactory security could be obtained for paying into the treasury of the State the difference in cost between the two routes. This action was the result of petitions from the citizens of Utica offering to pay this difference in cost, large public meetings having been held in Utica for discussing this project. On April 21, 1834, "the acting Commissioner," said the commissioners’ report, "received a bond in the penal sum of $80,000, duly executed and conditioned according to the act entitled ‘An act to change the location of the northern termination of the Chenango canal.’ " Accordingly, new contracts were entered into on the changed location and operations were actively begun throughout the portion under contract early in the spring of 1834, many of the materials having been delivered during the previous winter. The act which directed the change of location empowered the commissioners to enter into new contracts and to adjust the damages suffered by reason of the change. Five of the contractors had already begun operations and had incurred considerable expense. They were allowed $3,641.46 compensative damages.
This act authorized the change of location upon the condition that Utica should pay the difference in cost, naming the sum of $38,615 as that difference. In 1835, an act directed Utica to raise $41,000 by tax to pay this amount. The tax was assessed, but before it was collected, citizens of Utica petitioned the Legislature to surrender, without payment, the bond of $80,000, which individuals had given as security for the city’s pledge. The legislative committee, after exhaustively considering the matter, concluded: "But upon a view of the whole subject, the committee are of the opinion that the canal ought originally to have terminated at Utica; and that it would be injustice to require her to pay for such advantages as have been freely and properly given to other cities." Probably the matter rested there, for the financial reports give no evidence of the sum having been paid into the treasury of the State. Proceedings of a similar character were instituted on behalf of those public spirited residents of the town of Sherburne who had made their written agreement to pay the sum of $10,890 on condition that the canal should pass through the Forks, on the east side of the river, to the village of Sherburne.
Notwithstanding the magnitude of the undertaking and the difficulties encountered, the time fixed by contract for its completion – October 15, 1836 – saw the canal so nearly finished that water could be admitted, although it was not opened for navigation till the following spring. The canal commissioners reported that it was necessary to build seventeen and a half miles of feeders and seven reservoirs; that the structures on the canal were as follows: 114 composite and 2 stone lift locks, one guard lock, 19 aqueducts, 52 culverts, 21 spillways, 56 road bridges, 106 farm bridges, 53 feeder bridges, 12 dams, and 11 lock houses.
The work of construction had begun in the spring of 1834 and at that time circumstances favored the contractors. Laborers were plentiful and wages about $11 per month for common canal labor. Hay and coarse grain were abundant at ordinary prices. It seemed quite certain that the contracts would be carried out on time and at a profit to the contractors, despite the fact that many of them had taken the work at figures below the engineers’ estimates. The contractors for the excavation of the summit level progressed well with their work and made provisions for its continuance during the winter with a force of about 500 men. The spring of the following year was unfavorable, work not beginning until May. Conditions became less favorable: coarse grain, hay and provisions of every kind became scarce and advanced rapidly in price. These discouraging conditions continued throughout the year, the prevailing prices for provisions being much above the ordinary rates which had prevailed for several years. Many of the laborers who had obtained employment on the canal at the outset left for Indiana and other states where common labor was in great demand and wages unusually high. The construction of the Utica and Schenectady Railroad, which began at this time, also attracted many others. In June, work along the entire length of the canal was pressed vigorously forward, but owing to the scarcity of laborers, wages advanced to $13, $14, and in some instances to $15 per month for ordinary labor. In consequence of these unforeseen obstacles, the contractors were in danger of being required to complete their contracts at a loss to themselves had not the Legislature by a series of acts extending over a period of several years, provided for them gratuities equaling 20% of their original contract prices.
The Chenango Canal was practically completed during the month of October, 1836, as the contracts required, but navigation did not begin thereon until early in May, 1837. Although navigation began under unauspicious circumstances, it was tolerably well sustained throughout the season. Being a new canal, it was considered liable to interruption. Nearly all of the surplus products of the country along the line had already been taken to market and the amount of merchandise taken into the country was much less than usual. Not a single boat was owned on the line of the canal. On account of these circumstances the revenue derived from tolls amounted to only $10,812.72 for the first season. In the next year, a very great improvement was recorded. The commissioners reported that navigation on the canal had been well sustained, and that the structures were evidently in a sound and good condition. The reservoirs, with their walls, culverts and other appendages, appeared permanent and fully answered the purposes for which they were designed. The receipts from tolls amounted to $20,430.87.
The people of that region felt that the revenues, although largely increased, had fallen far short of the amount attainable, in consequence of the high rate of tolls established on this canal. Accordingly, a number of citizens of Binghamton presented to the canal board a petition asking for a reduction of the rates and for an equalization of the tolls with those on the Erie. In reporting to the Legislature, the canal board declared that the rates of toll fixed by law on the Chenango Canal had a tendency to diminish the amount of freight transported, diverting it to the Susquehanna River and so to the markets out of the state. Lumber felt this distinction in rates probably more than any other article. The board reported unanimously in favor of granting the petition, and the Legislature responded by enacting laws in 1839 that provided for the same tolls on the Chenango as should be charged thereafter on the Erie Canal.
In view of the early doubts concerning an adequate water supply, the most important item to record for the next few years is a statement by the canal commissioners that the reservoirs had furnished not only an abundance for this canal, but had contributed essentially towards keeping up a supply for the Erie, water having been drawn for this purpose at frequent intervals, generally as often as two or three times a week, for a period of from six to nine hours.
In February, 1842, occurred the first severe breaches in the canal. These were caused by a freshet, which broke down dams, carried away banks and brought immense quantities of earth and gravel into the canal. The legislative enactment of this year, known as the "Stop law," which terminated active operations throughout the state on works of public improvement, affected this canal but little, as the structures had been so recently completed as to need few repairs.
In April, 1843, occurred a very deleterious decision. The Kingsley Brook Reservoir, one of the most important of the system, was so damaged by a flood as to require about $8,000 to make repairs. Believing that this source of supply could be dispensed with, the commissioners failed to restore it, an act which they deprecated in their next annual report, but many years passed before the reservoir was again brought into use.
Nothing of special importance occurred for a number of years. In 1849, a new stone dam was built for the West Branch feeder. The canal commissioners’ reports for several years had been calling attention to the fact that the mechanical structures, being of wood, were fast nearing a condition to require heavy expenditures for repairs. In 1849, the commissioner said that with the exception of its structures the Chenango was the best constructed canal in the state. By 1850, extensive repairs to structures had begun: many locks were thoroughly overhauled and others provided with new gates, the aqueduct over the Chenango River at Greene was rebuilt, and a number of bridges. These repairs were continued until 1855 when the new system of making repairs by contract went into effect on this canal. In 1853, a new trunk was built for the aqueduct two miles above Oxford. In 1854, about 8 miles of towpath was raised and repaired. In 1855, 27,000 feet of new docking was put in on section No. 3.
On December 31, 1855, State Engineer John T. Clark and Canal Commissioner Henry Fitzhugh reported concerning a complaint to the canal board by owners of waterpower on the Oriskany Creek, that its waters were being diverted for the Chenango Canal. The report stated that, as the law authorizing the canal had stipulated that no water should be taken from Oriskany creek, great care had always been exercised to keep within this restriction, by diverting neither this stream nor its tributaries. A personal examination had failed to reveal any violation of this injunction, except possibly one small stream. That the contention that the supply was diminished by intercepting streams was more imaginary than real, so the petitioners received no relief.
The canal commissioners stated in 1855 that they had entered into contracts for all necessary repairs to this canal for a period of five years for the annual cost of $26,675. This change of system led to a comparison of expenditures. The cost for maintenance in 1837 had been $19,508, or $201 per mile, and in 1855 it was $49,187, or $486 per mile. The tolls showed no such increase. In 1837 the sum of $10,812.72 had been collected, and in 1855, $20,036.66, with a maximum of $32,272.80 in 1848. In 1857, the law supplemented this change of system by empowering the contracting board to appoint a resident engineer in the place of the existing superintendent of repairs. Under this plan, the Chenango canal constituted residency No. 5, and in April, 1857, the canal was placed under the charge of Resident Engineer Ogden Edwards. In this year, the commissioners reported that the new system was working satisfactorily, excepting on one section. Here were experienced difficulties which foreshadowed the abuses that later brought the system into such disrepute. The contractor was so dilatory in making needed repairs that the commissioner ordered the resident engineer to take immediate charge and subsequently the contract was declared abandoned. Because of the contractor’s neglect, a thorough bottoming out of the prism, an overhauling of the structures and a puddling of the banks was necessary during the next year, and this was done by an agreement to perform the work at specified unit prices.
In 1857, the engineer recommended the rebuilding of the forty-five bridges, replacing Burr with Whipple trusses. He also called attention to the need of a weigh lock on this canal to protect the State from frauds.
In reporting for 1859, the resident engineer gave an account which is worth quoting, as it describes briefly how existing conditions in the canal had developed. He said: "The size of the prism of the canal when constructed, was 26 feet on bottom, side slopes 2 to 1, surface water width 4 feet above bottom, 42 feet. The locks were 15 feet in width on bottom, and 16 feet on top, and 90 feet length of chamber. The other structures were in the same relative proportion, so that two boats drawing 3½ feet of water (14 feet wide, according to law) could pass each other. It was the duty of the officers to keep the canal in this form, but instead, it has been allowed to fill up in the prism from year to year, and the surface of water raised by putting boards on the aqueducts, spillways, &c., and raising the lock gates until the surface is very near 5 feet above bottom. The consequence of this is, that the water runs over the lining of the impermeable wall built on the inside of the banks, and renders the loss of water immense, which is very disastrous to navigation in dry seasons. The banks have never been kept to a corresponding height. On the contrary, they have been left to be worn down so that danger of breaks in a sudden rise is imminent. The boatmen and forwarders have kept pace with this state of things: every new boat is built a little larger, wider, and deeper. The raising of the water has given increased bottom width and a greater depth so that a boat is not considered loaded unless it can carry from 100 to 110 tons of freight, whereas when the canal was built 65 tons was considered a good load. One difficulty exists in running large class boats on a small canal: the locks are on the composite plan, wood chambers, stone at head and foot. The frost and water by 20 years action have pressed in the sides and wings of some of them to 14 feet, 6 inches, so that modern boats 14 feet-6 inches and 14 feet-8 inches in width find trouble in getting through. This is one of the great causes of complaint by persons navigating this canal, and some remedy should be applied to correct it. There is another difficulty with boats which are not fit to run. Having served their time, they are decayed and worthless, so when a rush of freight comes, they are pressed into service and loaded in some way. After going a short distance, they sink and hinder navigation for days. The remedy for this is easy: Have the collectors refuse them a clearance. The farmers and persons living upon the line of canal have been constantly encroaching upon the banks and lands of the State until in many places the fences are so close to the inner angle of the towing path that it is almost impossible to pass two teams, and they have enjoyed the privilege so long with such impunity, that they consider their rights infringed upon if requested to remove the obstruction, and threaten prosecution to any one interfering with their fences. About two and a half years since a circular was prepared under the direction of the acting Canal Commissioner to the effect that all fences and other obstructions on the towpath side of the canal should be removed to the limits of the State property. Nearly all agreed that as soon as their fences required repairing or rebuilding, they would do so, but there is no abatement of the nuisance, and the remedy now to apply is to direct the contractors to remove the fences, &c., and hold them to pay the expense. If the property is not worth enough, sue and recover damages against the land owners."
The engineer reported in 1859 that the masonry in the aqueduct across the Chenango River near Sherburne was so dilapidated that there was danger of the structure falling into the river. At the same time, he took occasion to say that nearly all of the masonry on the canal was a failure. A poor quality of stone had contributed, but the cement had nearly all disappeared. This aqueduct was rebuilt in 1861-2.
In his report for 1861, Mr. W. H. H. Gere, then resident engineer on this canal, related an experience with the repair contractors, which may be mentioned on account of its legal question. Realizing that the contractors had greatly neglected their work, Mr. Gere ordered them to proceed within a certain time and with a specified force of laborers. Upon their failure to comply, the contracting board canceled their contracts. Thereupon one contractor brought suit against the commissioner. This was the first case to be brought before the courts involving the legal right of the contracting board to annul a repair contract.
By 1862, the need of an increased water supply was felt. Both the commissioner and the division engineer recommended the reconstruction of Kingsley Brook Reservoir, which had been out of use for nearly 20 years. These officials also advised repairs to the locks, the commissioner declaring that unless more than 100 of them were soon rebuilt, navigation must be abandoned. The division engineer recommending an annual appropriation of $25,000 until all were renewed. During the winter of 1861-2, one lock – No. 89 – had been rebuilt on a new plan. The wings and recess walls were made of dressed masonry, and the chamber walls were laid in cement, but, instead of the usual lining of plank on the sides, oak fenders were anchored into the masonry at intervals of about four feet. The cost was only $5,043.94, being much less than for the old style of "composite" lock, and the structure was considered "quite as good for all practical purposes as locks of dressed stone."
In 1863, the rebuilding of six locks was begun as an item of ordinary repair, no special appropriation having been made. The condition of the Chenango Canal was becoming extremely serious. The division engineer said in this year: "This canal with its 116 locks is in the poorest condition, so far as its capacity for business is concerned, of any of the canals in this division. It can only be made useful by the strictest enforcement of the repair contracts together with a steady and uniform annual expenditure of at least $50,000, for the renewal of its locks and other important structures."
The reconstruction of Kingsley Brook Reservoir was begun in 1864. In the spring of this year, a large amount of material was removed from the bottom of the canal, so that the channel was in excellent condition throughout its length. The commissioner made the gratifying statement that the preceding four or five years had shown a gradual increase of business, and that during this season at least 100 more boats had been in motion than ever plied upon this canal before.
By 1865, 8 locks, Nos. 86, 87, 89, 99, 100, 103, 104 and 109 had been rebuilt and six more advertised for the following winter. In March, occurred a freshet that was described as the greatest ever experienced in central and southern New York. This seriously damaged the canals in that section, especially the Chenango. The waters of Chenango River, rising several feet higher than ever before known, poured over and through the southern portion of the canal, completely inundating the whole, demolishing many of its structures, sweeping away about three miles of its banks, tearing off the top of most of the towpath and nearly destroying the Oxford and Stratton feeder dams. By great efforts, repairs were made so as to open the canal about the first of June.
The regulation adopted this year; that is, not allowing boats to pass the locks between sunset and sunrise without special permission, was said to have worked to the entire satisfaction of the canal officials and to have resulted greatly to the advantage of boatmen and forwarders as well as to the canal interests.
The Kingsley Brook Reservoir was completed in 1867, greatly facilitating navigation. Because of a scarcity of laborers, this work had progressed slowly. Another cause of delay was a change of plan. When the original dam was constructed, it was raised to about half of its intended height, making the flow line 14 feet lower than was planned. In beginning its reconstruction in 1864, only repairs to the breaches were contemplated, but later it was deemed economical to raise the dam to the height originally designed. This change increased the cost to a small extent, but added over 100% to the capacity of the reservoir.
Six more locks, Nos. 56, 60, 61, 77, 78 and 79, had been rebuilt by 1867, at a cost of $62,465.29, and material delivered for five others, Nos. 52, 55, 65, 80 and 81. These were completed during the next year, but notwithstanding these efforts the commissioner reported: "The old locks are failing faster than means for their reconstruction are provided."
On March 17,1868, another freshet occurred on this canal, causing considerable damage. The Stratton feeder bulkhead was carried away and its waters suddenly emptied into the canal, to its serious detriment. The Chenango River broke into the canal at Chenango Forks, sweeping nearly to Port Dickinson, breaking the banks of the canal and filling the prism in many places. These breaks were repaired with such expedition as to prevent all but slight detention to the opening of the canal.
The year 1869 was unfavorable for the canal, as 25 locks were damaged during the season. Reporting for this year, the commissioner said: "Where dilapidation abounds, and will abound till a vast expenditure of money is made, it cannot truthfully be said that the condition of affairs is satisfactory." In consequence of damages to Capron Aqueduct, brought about through very high water in Sauquoit Creek, navigation was interrupted for a period of 10 days. Every dam on the stream above was carried away and much of the debris, including a house, was deposited at the entrance to the aqueduct. The walls of the aqueduct were undermined and one side of the trunk destroyed. This break occurred July 8, and interrupted navigation until the 18th. The damage was so serious that the aqueduct was rebuilt during the next year, another span being added, which gave 25% more capacity.
The laws of 1870 abolished the contracting board and the system of repairing the canals by contract, not invalidating existing contracts, however, but providing that contractors might surrender contracts at their option. On this canal, the contractors on sections Nos. 1 and 3 surrendered their contracts to the canal board on April 15, 1870, and the section superintendents assumed general control. On section No. 2, the contractor continued his work as usual. Three more locks, Nos. 18, 19 and 22, were rebuilt during 1870.
From this time forward, the reports of canal officials concerning this waterway are chiefly accounts of the dilapidation existing throughout its length and predictions of enforced abandonment, unless some new policy should be adopted. In the absence of any appropriation or legislative direction, the officials were much embarrassed in determining what course to pursue. Former reports had repeatedly called attention to the deplorable condition of the structures, and yet nothing had been done to authorize their reconstruction or to pay for it, except as an ordinary repair. The officials felt it their duty to keep the canal in operation, and knowing that if a lock or aqueduct should fail utterly during the open season, navigation would be stopped for a long time, they were forced to adopt the makeshift policy of patching and bolstering. Slowly, the locks were renewed from the ordinary repair fund until 1872 when 31 – about a quarter of the whole number – had been rebuilt on the improved plan of cement masonry and fenders. In this year, an appropriation had been made for two locks, and during the year nine – Nos. 7, 17, 27, 47, 51, 101, 107, 108 and 110 – had been rebuilt.
The work of extending this canal from Binghamton to the Pennsylvania line (see below) was still being prosecuted, and the prospect of this added portion strengthened the desire for preserving the older part in a navigable state, inasmuch as a large sum had been expended on the new channel which would be practically wasted if the whole length were not in operation. But it began to be realized that the canal must be abandoned. In 1871, the canal commissioner of the middle division pointedly voiced this sentiment by saying of some of the lateral canals that, although they had originally served their purpose in developing valuable territory and opening new markets, they had been almost wholly superseded by railroads which now threatened their only remaining business – the coal trade. The commissioner said that he had considered it his duty to maintain navigation in these canals at whatever cost, but the sum for ordinary maintenance had been so augmented by the amounts for rebuilding structures that the diminished tolls were less than 3% of the expenditures. He concluded by saying that, if for any cause commerce had deserted these once useful waterways with no rational hope of returning, the question of a proper policy was forced upon the State, which must be met.
In 1872, the Legislature gave Binghamton the right to use as a street that portion of the Chenango Canal lying between the north end of Prospect Avenue and the south side of Susquehanna Street. During 1873 and 1874, expenditures, being confined to the absolutely necessary repairs of breaches and patching of locks and bridges, were much less than for preceding years, despite the serious damage of a flood in 1873, which the auditor had asserted would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair. In line with this economy, the canal was placed in charge of one superintendent instead of three by resolution of the canal board on January 21, 1874.
The legislature of 1875 directed the canal board to investigate and report upon the disposition to be made of the lateral canals. The report to this request rendered in February, 1876, was so unsatisfactory and inconclusive as to necessitate the appointment of a special commission by the Legislature of this year. This report, however, although favoring the abandonment of laterals in general, declared the necessity of retaining the reservoirs and a portion of the Chenango Canal as a source of water supply for the Erie. The commissioners appointed by the Legislature of 1876 made a thorough investigation of conditions along the lateral canals, visiting the localities and taking testimony from people concerned in the traffic as well as from those having charge of the maintenance. Their report declared that the business of the Chenango Canal was gone and that the structures were so dilapidated as to be able to last but a few years longer with a possibility of failure at any time, which only a vast expenditure could repair. Accordingly, they recommended that the whole canal – both the existing channel between Utica and Binghamton and the uncompleted extension to the state line (see below) – be abandoned, excepting a portion in Utica for the accommodation of the insane asylum and the part needed to supply water to the Erie. Speaking of this water supply, the commissioners said: "All the engineers connected with the canals insist upon retaining the various reservoirs supplying the Chenango canal, whose waters flow north as feeders for the Erie. Your commission fully concur in this view of their necessity, and hereby recommend that all that portion of the summit level of the Chenango canal which extends between Solsville and the point at which the waters from the reservoirs are received, shall be retained as a conduit for the water; that at Solsville a permanent bulk-head shall be constructed, and the water be discharged through it into Oriskany creek, and thence conducted into the Rome level of the Erie."
The laws of 1877 provided for the abandonment of the canal, including the extension, south of the stone culvert in Hamilton, after May 1, 1878, and for the sale of this portion after the close of navigation in 1878, but stipulated that no reservoir, feeder or property of the State north of that culvert should be sold, nor Madison Brook Reservoir, Kingsley Brook Reservoir, Woodman’s Pond and Leland’s Pond and the feeders from them, and that the waters necessary to feed the Erie Canal should not be diverted, but a supply for the Utica asylum should be maintained.
In 1877, the canal commissioner, whose office also was on the eve of abolition, added a final wail of complaint to the long series of forebodings concerning this canal, saying: "This rather ‘worthless ditch’ has been a source of much perplexity, and an expense of nearly $4,000 for about six weeks’ navigation, in October and November, 1876, and maintenance of bridges and other work necessary during the fiscal year of 1877. . . . There was no navigation upon this canal during the calendar year of 1877, for the reason that no dependence could be placed on the various dilapidated structures holding out for a week without expending an amount of money in its preparation unwarranted by its business of previous years, or prospects of the future. . . . It will be a good riddance for the State when the time arrives for the sale of what is left of the old Chenango canal."
In 1878, Binghamton was authorized to take possession of that portion of the canal lying within the city limits and to fill in and grade this for the purpose of forming a public street to be known as State Street. The city was also empowered to remove all encroachments upon the canal lands, bringing legal action for recovering possession. In 1880, this law was amended to give to the city the power of removing summarily and without legal process these encroachments, and by which the act of obstructing this removal was made a misdemeanor.
At the close of 1878, the division engineer reported that the summit level had been converted into a reservoir by building a permanent dam at its southern end, and turning all waters from the reservoirs into the Erie Canal at Oriskany and Utica. He said that upon the portion not abandoned, the locks were already so badly decayed that boats could not pass, and that this section was in fact as much abandoned as the southern part. There were 194 structures on this stretch of 31 miles as follows: 82 locks, 4 aqueducts, 20 culverts, 9 spillways and 79 bridges. As the canal could never be used for anything but a feeder, he recommended lowering bridge abutments and approaches to the level of the towpath and building new bridges of only 15 feet span, constructing bulkheads to control the water when lock gates should fail. This work was gradually performed. On May 6, 1882, the materials in lock walls (excepting lock No. 1, at Utica and Nos. 76 and 77, at the ends of the summit level) were sold at public auction, the State reserving the lower six feet of the walls.
The State found no purchasers for any great extent of the abandoned canal. The law authorizing its sale was amended in 1879, which fixed another date of sale – as soon after January 1, 1880, as the canal board deemed best. Final disposition was made in 1880, which granted titles to owners of adjoining lands, except portions in Norwich, Oxford and Greene, which were given to those villages for public use. The only parts of the canal that remained open are a short piece in Utica between the Erie Canal and Fayette Street and the old summit level, extending for about five miles from a dam across the canal at Solsville to another dam at lock No. 77, the remainder having been released to villages, railroads or adjoining owners. The open sections were then now counted as a part of the Erie Canal system.