Little Short of Madness

Little Short of Madness

Below is the panel script for the exhibit, "Little Short of Madness" that greeted guests to Schoharie Crossing for many years inside the Visitor Center.

Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, several turnpikes joined Albany to Buffalo.  These roads were mud filled ruts, with tree roots and rocks making travel difficult in any season.  The Mohawk River was as risky to travel as turnpikes.  In spring the currents made journeys dangerous.  In summer the water was so shallow that boat travel was not always possible.  In winter when the river froze, cargo and people were moved by sled.  Even when the weather, water level and currents were favorable, there were other major obstacles-both Cohoes Falls and Little Falls required portage.

Although short canals were dug around Little Falls and the rift at German Flats, they had only a slight effect on the major difficulties of river transportation.  In many areas, the river changed course so frequently that less permanent solutions were not the most practical.  A temporary dam was sometimes constructed of boulders to raise the water level behind it.  When the depth of water is sufficient, a narrow channel will be opened through the boulders and the boat floated down on the rush of water.

For over a thousand years, the benefits from canals had been recognized in China, Egypt, and Europe.  Many of the men who would support the Erie Canal were familiar with the extensive canals in Holland and Great Britain, and believed a canal across New York

State could be dug by following the cut made through the Appalachian chain by the Mohawk River.

General George Washington, following his 1783 tour of New York’s western waterways, wrote of the advantages to be gained:

Extend the inland navigation of the eastern waters…and we shall not only draw the produce of the western settlers, but the peltry and fur trade of the lakes also, to our ports, thus adding immense increase to our exports, and binding these people to us by a chain which can never be broken.

In 1803, a canal connecting the Hudson River and Lake Erie was proposed by financier Gouverneur Morris.  While his initial proposal proved to be impractical, his major contribution was that he aroused the interest of future governor DeWitt Clinton.  But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the idea of a canal.  As late as 1808, when approached for monies from the federal government, President Thomas Jefferson responded:

…You talk of making a canal 350 miles through the wilderness-it is little short of madness to think of it at this day.

Enthusiasm for the canal subsided during the War of 1812, yet the war emphasized the need.  Movement of military stores was shockingly expensive, it was discovered that it cost $2000 to move a $400 cannon overland from Albany to Niagara.  The cost to transport civilian goods was also restrictive.  In 1814 it cost two dollars to send a barrel of flour 130 miles.  The same barrel could be shipped 160 miles on the Hudson River for twenty-five cents.

Once the War of 1812 was over, DeWitt Clinton and his fellow canal promoters moved rapidly to persuade people it was time to act.  Using examples such as the canal that had been opened to connect Wood Creek, near Rome, to the Mohawk River in 1797, it was easy to extol the virtues.  This two-mile canal cut a one-day journey to one hour and dropped transportation costs from $100 to 32 per ton.  If such a short canal could reap such rewards, think what a canal across the state could do!


On July 4, 1817, shortly after Governor Clinton’s inauguration, digging for the Erie Canal began at Rome.  Clinton and the canal commissioners knew that if the excavation started where the ground was fairly flat and the earth was easy to dig, progress would be rapid.  Indeed, as each section opened, the canal proved to be speedy and inexpensive. There were few opponents that could be heard over the praise.


Historians point to the Erie Canal as the first “school” of civil engineering in the United States.  The men who planned the canal were well educated, with knowledge of surveying and architecture, they were not engineers and had to improvise and invent as they went along.  The most famous names in early American engineering were all men who served apprenticeships on the building of the canal.


Canvas White, a young engineer on the canal, discovered limestone comparable to that being imported.  He saved the state thousands of dollars by using the local product to make hydraulic cement.


Early attempts to use construction crews of local farmers failed because their daily and seasonal chores came before digging the canal.  Instead, large numbers of recently arrived immigrants were hired.  During the building of the canal, one quarter of the workforce was Irish.


Creativity was widespread.  The need to meet digging deadlines was made with typical American ingenuity, resulting in the invention of giant stump pullers, ploughs and scrapers.


The canal was finished in 1825, was 363 miles long with a combined rise and fall in elevation of 675 feet.  Eighty-three locks, each 90 feet long by 15 feet wide, had lifts of between six and twelve feet.  So successful was the Erie Canal that even with tolls reduced by a third in 1833, revenue totaled enough by 1836 to redeem the entire canal debt.


By 1836, it was evident that the canal needed to be enlarged.  The tonnage shipped on the canal more that doubled between 1826 and 1835.  Improvements, begun in the 1840’2, deepened the canal bed from four to seven feet and widened it from forty to seventy feet.  Aqueducts were added for passage over rivers, and stone-lined culverts diverted smaller side streams under the canal to avoid washouts.  Rivers, lakes and manmade basins supplied water through channels called “feeders” to keep the level of the water in the canal constant.


Between 1822 and 1829, a rope ferry was used to draw boats across the Schoharie Creek.  In 1829, the Florida Bridge replaced the rope ferry.  The Schoharie Aqueduct then replaced this bridge in 1842.


It was not unusual for a good packet to gross between $5000 and $7000 per season.  In 1846, a trip from Albany to Buffalo cost $7.75 with meals, and $5.75 without.  Work on a packet boat paid well.  Monthly salaries were as follows:  captain $30; cook $16; helmsman $14; bowsman $12; driver $7; cabin boy $5.


Despite the popularity of the packets, passengers were often displeased with their cramped quarters, unpleasant foods or traveling companions.  Charles Dickens recorded his astonishment at one of the cabins:


Going below, I found suspended on either side of the cabin, three long tiers of hanging bookshelves, designed apparently for volumes of the small octavo side.  Looking with great attention at these contrivance (wondering to find such literary preparations in such a place) I described on each shelf a sort of microscopic sheet and blanket; then I began to dimly comprehend that the passengers were the library, and that they were to be arranged edgewise on these shelves, till morning.


There were basically three kinds of boats on the canal:  packets, which carried passengers; line boats, which carried passengers, and freight; and freight boats.  Packed boats were in use until the 1850’s when it became faster and cheaper to travel on the railroad than on the canal.  Packets measured between 40 to 80 feet in length and were

14 feet wide, carrying from 40 to 100 passengers.  The trip from Albany to Buffalo took four to six days.  The draft animals were changed every twelve to fifteen miles.  These floating hotels had the right-of-way on the canal, much to the disgust of the freight captains.


Lanterns served as headlights and were necessary since the canal boats traveled all night.  An oil burning light in the center could be focused by moving the side panels with their reflectors and by adjusting the center reflector.


Freighters weighing 75 tons on the original Erie Canal and 210-240 tons on the Enlarged Canal carried merchandise for five cents per tone per mile and produce for three cents per ton per mile.  The cargo was as diversified as the personalities of the passengers on the packet boats.  Lumber, flour, salt, nuts, brooms, pickled fish and fine furniture were just a few of the goods carried on the Erie Canal from 1825 to 1917.


Life on the canal was hard work for all involved.  Both children and adults had specific chores that enabled the boats to run according to plan.  Families of canal boatmen lived on the canal for eight or nine months each year, and their floating homes needed as much care as those with permanent foundations.  Cleaning, cooking, canning, laundry and other domestic chores were carried out by the women and young girls, while the boys and men were responsible for care of the boat.  It was estimated that 5,000 of these children worked on the canal in 1845.  They were well paid, but poorly educated and often abused.


Most boatmen on the canal took good care of their teams.  Mules often wore flynets made of leather strips that moved as the animal walked, driving off flies.


Entertainment was available on the canal in a variety of offerings: circus boats, showboats, tinker’s boats, museum boats and even a floating library that boasted 2,000 volumes.  Church boats were sent out to combat alcohol, prostitution and gambling.


Misfortune on the canal took many faces.  Drowning was frequent, and many canal boat mothers chained their children on deck to keep them from wandering overboard.  Disease traveled along the canal.  Smallpox and tuberculosis were common.  Disasters, such as the collapse of a canal wall, meant long hours of waiting while crews repaired the break.


Life along the canal banks was more stable than on a canal boat.  Canal workers, lock tenders and store owners endured long hours because the canal was open twenty-four each day.  Canal stores, like many canal boats, were family businesses and often a son or daughter took over the lock or store to give parents a rest.  Those who worked at night curled up on the counter with a blanket to wait for any night-moving boats.  Factories, warehouses, and grain elevators lined the canal banks where they were readily accessible to the reliable and speedy transportation.


Freezing temperatures and a low water level in the canal during the winter made ice skating a safe and pleasant pastime on the Erie Canal.


The East Guard Lock of the Original Erie Canal at Fort Hunter helped to regulate the water in the canal regardless of the level of the water in the Schoharie Creek.  This guard lock also formed a part of a feeder system to the Enlarged Canal, and thus was kept in operation until 1918.


Immigrants from Europe and settlers from across the United States came by the thousands on the Erie Canal.  Population increased 50 to 150 percent between 1820 and 1840 in western New York.  Immigrants doubled the population of Indiana and Illinois between 1830 and 1850.


The success of the Erie Canal also spawned other canals.  By 1840, 4500 miles of canals, both in New York and in other states, carried eastern manufactured goods west in exchange for raw materials.  By 1870, the 1840’s enlargement had proved insufficient and the locks were made longer to accommodate a larger number of boats at one time.  Tonnage in 1880 reached a high at 4,608,651.  Once again the canal had become too small.


In 1903 New York State passed a bond issue to finance a canal that would permit the passage of large barges propelled by tugboats.  Still popularly called the Erie Canal, the Barge Canal was completed in 1917 and flows within the banks of the canalized Mohawk River.  Far from the humble four-foot deep by forty-foot wide ditch which was DeWitt Clinton’s dream, today’s canal is 348 miles long, 160 to 200 feet wide and 14 feet deep.  Three hundred-foot long boats carrying up to 3600 tons each now follow the path first spanned by the Erie Canal that made New York the Empire State.