"Man at the Pump"

“The Man At the Pump”

   There is a really fantastic and bizarre article in the Auburn Journal & Advertiser issue dated Wednesday, October 26th 1842.  The author of which provides an interesting anecdote about a grist mill water wheel that continued to spin under the force of flowing water long after the mill burnt to the ground. “There and thus, like a troubled spirit, rolled the water wheel of the woods— onward, onward, onward—and for all that we know, it is revolving there still,” the article states. 
   But this is just the writer’s set up, to deepen the understanding of his following paragraphs in which he takes on the Albany Regency and their “wisdom” in regards to projects at a standstill on the enlargement of the Erie Canal.  One such project being the great aqueduct “at the mouth of the Schoharie-Kill.”
   The enlargement of the canal was a process that started in 1836 and would last until 1862.  However, by the late 1830’s, New York and the nation was gripped by a financial crisis driving the economy into recession.  By 1839, the NY Legislature enacted the Stop & Tax Law—which simply put meant that they had to stop work on much of the enlargement in order to increase funding to fill the state coffers.  It was difficult to explain to constituents that while they may be struggling to make ends meet, the State could dole out large sums of money to create a larger canal. 
   This affected contracts all across the canal.  One of which, according to the article, created “The Man at the Pump.”  The author notes that, “...in vain did the voice of wisdom and true economy plead that the leaving of unfinished works to fall into premature dilapidation, and the loss of the interest for an infinite period of time upon the millions already expended, would in the end prove the most ruinous policy that ever a State adopted. The party had decreed it — and the works must stop.”
   The article continues in describing the hundreds of dollars of work that stood as the aqueduct over the Schoharie and that only a mere $35,000 may be all it would take to put it into full operation.  Otis Eddy was the contractor for the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct, and though most of construction was completed by 1841, it was not yet part of the canal system.  The fear being that with the stoppage of work, the structure would be subject to ruin.

   “Among other things it is necessary that the bottom of the chamber should be kept flowing, or covered with water—for which purpose it became necessary to erect a hand pump to raise the water. The pump would not go of itself, and of course a man must be procured, to work it. And there stands the pump, and there stands the man.
   The water in the immense basin evaporates or oozes out, about as fast as he can raise it. —   The pump must therefore be plied continually — pump, pump, pump.”

   Within the article, the author makes pointed comments about the truth of such disastrous policy; commenting that “some of the noblest works of masonry on the line of the Canal will sustain greater injury in their unfinished state, in a single year, than the amount required for their completion.”

   We know that the aqueduct did survive that stoppage and operated until the canal was placed into the Mohawk River in 1918. Perhaps this article is also more of a commentary on the political wrangling's within the state at the time then true historical occurrence.  Though, who can ignore…

   “Oh the wisdom of modern politicians! And where is the man having bowels who will not sympathise with that lonely servant of the Albany Regency—“the-man-at-the pump?” Pump, pump, pump.”

Contributed by D. Brooks 
Education Director at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site 

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Celebrating the Erie Canal


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