On May 17, 1816, the State’s Canal Commissioners met in New York City. This was their first meeting since being reauthorized by the legislature on April 17th, just a few weeks earlier. Five commissioners were appointed by the legislature – Stephen Van Rensselaer, DeWitt Clinton, Samuel Young, Joseph Ellicott and Myron Holley. Several of them had been canal commissioners since 1810. During that period they had surveyed much of the route in person and had kept the dream of the waterway alive during the intervening dismal years of war on their frontier (War of 1812). At the May 17th meeting the commissioners initiated actions that ensured that construction of the Erie Canal would begin a year later.
The re-authorization bill mandated that the commissioners “shall choose one of their number, to be president of their board.” They selected DeWitt Clinton, confirming his leadership in the campaign for the Erie Canal. Clinton had embraced the canal, taking a huge political gamble to promote his vision of a waterway he believed would unite the state and nation. The tremendous success of the canal turned the epithet of “Clinton’s Ditch” into a legacy for which he would be praised.
In December 1815, as preamble to the expected debate in the 1816 legislative session, Clinton pulled back together canal supporters. His 1815 memorial to the legislature, which laid out a detailed vision for the Erie Canal, was instrumental to driving passage of the 1816 legislation which authorized funding to prepare plans, including estimated costs, for construction of the canal.
Though Clinton would ultimately be elected Governor in May 1817, from 1816 to 1824 he became a lightning rod for both advocates and opponents of the Erie’s construction. Ironically, it was Clinton’s dismissal from the Canal Board in 1824 that catapulted his career still further, nearly to the White House. A groundswell of outrage against the political dealings that led to his dismissal swept the state. When the commissioners met on May 17th they perhaps had an inkling of all of the risks and challenges that lie ahead.
The April 1816 re-authorization addressed perhaps the most important of those challenges, just what route the Erie Canal would go. The commissioners were given the responsibility to hire surveyors and engineers to prepare the maps and plans needed to launch construction the following year. At the May meeting they made the following appointments: Benjamin Wright of Rome, later to become the Erie’s Chief Engineer, was tasked to survey the middle section of the proposed route, from Rome to the Seneca River; from there west to Tonawanda became the responsibility of James Geddes. Geddes had settled near the shores of Onondaga Lake in the 1790s recognizing the potential of the salt springs. He later became identified with the great growth of that industry.
Geddes had begun working on possible routes for an Erie Canal nearly a decade earlier, exploring the uncharted western regions of the state. His discovery at the time of a way to bring the canal across the Irondequoit remains one of the pivotal events in Erie Canal history. He incorporated that discovery into his new maps of the canal route, guaranteeing that Lake Erie water would fill the Erie’s channels all the way to the Seneca River. His manuscript maps are now cared for at the New York State Archives.
The maps show how Geddes confirmed some of these plans but also left others subject to change. For instance, his design for crossing the Genesee River at “Rochesterville” was based on slack water navigation of the river. Canal boats would enter into a river raised by a dam below. The backed-up water would also, Geddes hoped, provide easier navigation for those coming down the Genesee from the fertile farmlands in the valley to the south. It didn’t happen. Geddes’ plan was replaced with a canal that crossed above the Genesee on an aqueduct, remaining independent of the difficult-to-control river. That aqueduct became one of the engineering landmarks of the Erie Canal.
Geddes, however, eventually had his way a century later when the Erie Canal that we have today was built. The Erie Barge Canal dams up the Genesee about where Geddes planned, providing a slack water crossing further south.
These political and engineering challenges were daunting to the commissioners as they sat down for their May 17, 1816 meeting. They successfully left the meeting with inspiration and plans for the next steps, steps that led to the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal in Rome on July 4, 1817.
Photos, from above: View of the Aqueduct bridge at Rochester; James Geddes’ circa 1816 route for the Erie Canal through Rochester (NYS State Archives); Geddes’ design for a “Great Embankment” to carry the Erie Canal over Irondequoit Creek (NYS Archives).