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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 98: The New York State Barge Canal.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1422-1436 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Waterway development in New York State — The Barge Canal, its usefulness and possibilities — The Mohawk Valley the water gate between the Atlantic and Great Lakes.

By Hon. Dwight B. La Du, State Engineer and Surveyor, 1923-4.

In the history of New York waterways the Mohawk valley has had a most conspicuous place from the very beginning. During all the early years it was the only section to receive any consideration. Until comparatively recent years little has been required to make the Hudson navigable for boats that might penetrate inland from its upper reaches. Also the territory west of the Mohawk was too remote during most of the colonial period to demand any serious public attention. It was the Mohawk, therefore, which up to the building of the original Erie Canal presented the problems in navigation and was the site for most of the improvements.

From a historical point of view there is interest in the fact that the bed of the Mohawk river was the channel for the first waterway improvement in the state and in the further fact that after a century of using an independent channel paralleling the stream, the new waterway, the Barge canal, has returned to the river bed. But this change is more than interesting; it measures in one field the progress of engineering science and it explains what are probably the most conspicuous features of the new canalization in the whole valley, the movable dam. In the early days engineers could not cope with river floods and so they built their canals upon the banks. Now they can regulate largely the flow in streams and the movable dam is one of the instruments used. When the preliminary estimate for the Barge canal was made, dams of the fixed type were proposed for the Mohawk, but before construction began more careful consideration showed that movable dams must be substituted if the problem of canalizing this river was to be solved properly. It was deemed advisable to avert the possible damages which might result from damming permanently a stream that flows through a territory as highly developed and as thickly populated as is the Mohawk valley.

[Photo: Hinckley Dam and Lake]

In the Mohawk valley are situated four noteworthy fixed dams, the largest structures on the canal. These are the dams at Crescent and Visscher's Ferry, built in forming the channel, and those at Delta and Hinckley, constructed to impound supply waters in two great reservoirs. The Crescent and Visscher's Ferry dams are each nearly two thousand feet long and have crest heights of 39 and 36 feet respectively. Power plants to supply power for lock operation were built at these dams early in canal construction, but now additional and larger plants are being installed, with the idea of developing power which may be used for other than canal purposes. The Hinckley dam is 3,700 feet long and the reservoir it creates holds 3,445,000,000 cubic feet of water. While the Delta dam is only 1,100 feet long, it is one of the highest reservoir dams in the country, having a maximum crest height of 100 feet above rock foundation. The Delta reservoir impounds 2,750,000,000 cubic feet.

[Map: State of New York Barge Canal System 1920]

The whole length of the New York waterway system of Barge canal dimensions, including intermediate and adjoining lakes and the Hudson River, totals a little more than 800 miles. All of this stretch has a depth of at least 12 feet. About seventy per cent. of this length lies in river and lake channels and the standard width of such channels is 200 feet. The minimum bottom width in land line channels, earth sections, is 75 feet, the water surface width of such sections ranging from 123 to 171 feet. Land lines in rock have a minimum bottom width of 94 feet. The locks are 45 feet wide and from 338 to 343 feet long between gates. The lock chambers have an available length of 300 feet, or 310 feet if the curve at the upper ends is included.

[Photo: Old and New Canal Barges]

Before the Barge canal was begun, very careful consideration was given to selecting the type of canal best suited to meet the situation. The principle underlying the selection, which was based on thorough studies of transportation costs, was that it is cheaper to ship by the boats best fitted to navigate their respective channels — ocean, canal and Great Lakes — even with the necessary transfers of cargo, than to ship all the way by either ocean or lake boats, which would thus be forced to sail through much of the voyage in a channel for which they are not best fitted. The reasoning was thought sound at the time and there appears little cause for reaching a different conclusion now, but nevertheless for several years agitation has been rife for a ship canal between the Great Lakes and the ocean. For a time in this recent agitation the Mississippi was looked upon as the desirable route for this ship canal, but later this idea gave way to a scheme for a channel in the St. Lawrence and now the Middle West is almost solidly behind an effort to have the United States co-operate with Canada in the latter project. Opponents of this plan are advocating enlargement of New York's waterway to ship canal dimensions, thus securing the same end through an all-American route. There is strong prospect that a part of the New York route, the Hudson River portion, may be undertaken. For the remainder there are two plans, one for a channel to end at Oswego and the other for a canal straight through to Buffalo.

New York opposes the St. Lawrence ship canal project. It has been accused of selfishness for its opposition. But the building of the canal which brought into being the Middle West, the maintenance and improvement of this canal for a century and now the construction of a modern waterway at an added expense of nearly two hundred million dollars, all of which have been for the benefit of other states quite as much as New York — these facts refute the charge of selfishness. In a sense New York is selfish; it does not want to be forced to pay its large quota for a project which it thinks will be a failure. And its quota would be large — nearly a third of the United States' share in any event and the whole of this share if the predictions of the advocates are correct.

By way of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario is 1,180 miles from the ocean. Chicago is about 1,300 miles farther, or some 2,500 miles from the sea. The opponents of the St. Lawrence project declare that ocean-going ships, because of their heavier construction and higher cost to build and operate, their method of loading through small hatches and their comparatively slow speed in restricted channels, can never be induced to make such a long trip inland and moreover that smaller boats can far outstrip them in economy in making this trip. Also the possibility of bringing in and taking out full cargoes without stopping to gather them at several ports would be remote. In addition the lake harbors are not deep enough for ocean ships and would have to be improved at a vast added expense. Then, too, there is the short navigation season and the perilous channel of the northern route, a shorter season and a much more perilous channel than by way of New York. The necessity of duplicating port facilities to care for ocean traffic during the months of the closed season is a great drawback. Also there are the difficulties of international control.

[Photo: Waterford Locks]

[Photo: Big Lock from Fall Hill]

In contrast, Oswego, some forty miles above the foot of Lake Ontario, is only 338 miles from the ocean by way of the Barge canal. New Yorkers say that if there must be a ship canal then it should follow the route through their state — the all-American route, the route pronounced by the Board of Deep Waterway Engineers to be the best of all available routes, and this Board gave the subject the most careful and the least biased study it has ever had.

The possibility of New York being forced to pay the whole United States' share of the cost was brought about by adding to the canal project a water power scheme. The power rights proposed to be utilized belong jointly to New York and Canada, and it is claimed that their development and use will produce a revenue sufficient to pay for the cost of the whole undertaking, both canal-construction and power development. To do this the Federal Government would have to take the rights from New York under the guise of need for navigation. Thus New York would lose a most valuable possession without compensation and at the same time would be compelled to stand impotently and watch the revenue from its lost possession build a canal which, it believes, will serve the country no better than the canal it has already spent its hundreds of millions to provide.

[Map of the Mohawk River-Oswego Section of the New York State Barge Canal]

It may happen that before any ship canal is built across the state it will be deemed expedient to enlarge the Barge canal to slightly greater dimensions. In that case it is quite probable that the section in the Mohawk Valley will be the first to be considered. If the Hudson is deepened and ocean-going ships reach Albany or Troy, a larger Barge canal to the Great Lakes might easily follow. The route by way of the Mohawk River, Oneida Lake and river, and the Oswego River to Lake Ontario at Oswego would be the shortest. The builders of the Barge canal took the precaution to plan for such an emergency, making provision for a possible enlargement of the new waterway up to certain dimensions without undue expense. By making bridge spans a little larger, placing excavated material back far enough and acquiring sufficient right of way, all of which could be done at small additional cost, provision was made for increasing the minimum bottom width. Also it is possible to deepen the channel somewhat, say, to fourteen feet, without changing the locks more than to cut down slightly some of the sills. This arrangement would permit boats to load to full twelve feet draft, with a small clearance over the lock sills, and would provide sufficient water in the channel under the keels to allow economical passage. Since both the widening and the deepening could be done without materially disturbing the canal structures, the cost would not be prohibitive. Recently the State Engineer has made recommendation that sections which have only the minimum bottom width, 75 feet, be increased to 110 feet and that the whole channel be deepened to 14 feet and a few other incidental changes be made. Also he has made an estimate of cost for doing this work throughout the length of both the Erie and Oswego canals. The cheapest method of securing enlarged passage to the Great Lakes is by the Mohawk-Oneida-Oswego route. By far the greater part of this route lies in rivers or lake and is already 150 or 200 feet wide.

What such enlargement would mean in boat capacities may be seen by considering for a moment certain craft recently put on the canal. In the latter part of 1923 two boats were placed in service which were 258 feet long by 42 feet beam. The capacity of each at 12 feet draft is 3,000 tons. These boats have about the maximum width permissible in Barge canal locks, but a length up to 300 feet or slightly more may be accommodated by these locks. Perhaps boats utilizing the full length as well as the full width of the locks may be used successfully, but even if these boats represent the maximum economic size, an enlargement simply to make it possible for such boats to load to full twelve feet and to pass similar boats in the narrowest channels would doubtless mean a common use of this type of craft. It should be recalled that each of these boats has a capacity equal to a freight train of some sixty to eighty cars. It is significant, moreover, that these two boats are engaged in a traffic that extends the whole length of the Great Lakes and on to the ocean by way of the Barge canal and the Hudson River, plying between Duluth and New York.

Certain works of improvement are being carried on in connection with the maintenance of the canal. For example, the banks are being strengthened by casting up a protection of coarse gravel; sharp curves are being made straighter; in dredging out silted portions a depth of more than twelve feet is obtained, particularly at stream entrances or where bars are apt to form; trees are being planted on the banks through cooperation with the State Forestry College and the Conservation Commission. These trees both beautify the banks and make them more stable and also the land thus used for tree propagation would otherwise be wasted. There is a plan on foot to plant a certain kind of willow along the sandy banks to the east of Oneida Lake. It has been very hard to keep these banks from sliding into the channel and the proposed treatment is probably the best type of revetment yet devised for such localities.

[Photos: The Mohawk River Barge Canal Removable Dams (at Scotia)]

There is one corporation making large use of the Barge Canal which sets a brilliant example and demonstrates clearly what may be done. This is the Standard Oil Company of New York, an organization sagacious in the extreme and renowned for its strict adherence to sound business principles. This company began using the new canal before it was completed and each year it has increased its use of the waterway. From a distributing base on the Hudson River at Albany, cargoes are carried to cities and villages along all four branches of the Barge Canal, the company having acquired property and erected storage tanks on the banks. At Rochester in 1920 it spent more than $100,000 in providing a harbor and docking facilities for its barges. It has now a sizable fleet and its investment in property and terminals along the canal and in floating equipment has run into the millions. It is said that, during the navigation season, the company does not ship one carload by rail to such of its stations as have both rail and canal connections, all of the supply going by water.

The few years of operating the Barge canal since its completion have shown a rather strange circumstance. It appears that the very persons who naturally should have been the first to use the canal, the citizens of New York themselves, the people who paid for its construction, have been conspicuous in their failure to take advantage of its service. This seems the more remarkable when it is recalled that throughout the period of decline in canal tonnage in the latter years of the nineteenth century and even well through the time of Barge Canal construction way freight over the State canals remained almost constant in volume. It is not generally known but it is a fact nevertheless that the decline in canal tonnage was almost entirely in through freight. The failure of the people of the State to use the canal, however, is not entirely due to their neglect, for boats to give local service have been deplorably lacking. But, while this is so, it is doubtless true that, until there is evidence on the part of the public that such service is wanted and also that it will be used to the point of financial success, boats will not be forthcoming.

Much can be said in commendation of a good canal packet service. Now that an ample and modernly-equipped waterway has been built, it is the height of folly for all who may use it with profit, producers, manufacturers and business men in general, not to use it to the full extent of its capacity. It is a fact beyond question that water rates are cheaper than rail rates. Moreover, experience proves that goods are being shipped over the canal more rapidly than the average of those sent by rail.

[Photo: Rome Barge Canal Harbor and Terminal]

[Photo: Twin Ports Passing Palatine Bridge]

There is produced near the canal a tonnage sufficient to keep it well filled. In its final report, published in 1911, the Barge Canal Terminal Commission gave the results of a careful study made to determine the amount of local traffic which might reasonably be expected for the canal. Manufactured, agricultural and natural products were included, but only such as were suitable for canal cargoes, and the territory studied was confined to the immediate vicinity of the waterway — the cities and villages along its banks and a little of the adjoining farm lands. A total of a trifle more than ten and a half million tons was shown to be the amount then available. That was more than at first the new canal was supposed to carry, for, according to the law which authorized construction, its whole capacity need be only ten million tons. It has been so designed and built, however, that under favorable conditions a tonnage well towards twice that amount can be transported.

Because of congestion of railway lines the use of motor trucks for long haulage has grown to considerable proportions. While this means of transport is often convenient and under certain conditions may be advisable, it is so costly that it cannot compete with water carriage for the great bulk of ordinary traffic. But the field for cooperative use of motor trucks and canal barges is large indeed and is capable of almost unlimited development. The State waterway runs through one of the most highly productive and well populated sections in the whole country. Moreover, the canal is so situated that it comes in close touch with the great majority of the people of the State and even with a large part of the area of the State. Within twenty miles, an almost negligible motoring distance, may be found eighty-seven per cent. of the people and forty-six per cent of the area of New York State.

[Photo: Big Lock, Little Falls]

[Photo: Barge Canal Traffic (Fort Plain)]

But, of all those who might use with profit a packet service on the Barge Canal, the one who stands most in need of this service and who also might reap the greatest benefit is the very man who, strangely, for years has been most opposed to the canal. This is the farmer, and probably the majority of farmers throughout the state would at first thought scoff at this assertion. Nevertheless, the truth of the statement is not hard to prove. It is the farmer who suffers most from high railroad rates. Repeatedly he has said that the chief reason for selling his crops at a loss in the local market or allowing them to waste is the excessive rail rate plus the cost of packing so as to meet railroad requirements. If his produce is of exceptional quality and can command a high price, possibly he may send it to the better paying market in New York City. The canal therefore, and the packet line upon it are just the things the average farmer, producing the average crop, needs for the better marketing of his produce. Also the canal and its packet line are just the things the average city dweller needs to get these farm products, which constitute much of his living, at a less cost. The Barge Canal has upon its banks the best markets in the land. There is not in the country another such chain of cities and villages as line its shores. At its ocean terminus stands the metropolis of the hemisphere. Within two miles of its channel live eight million people, three-quarters of the population of the state, one-fourteenth of the inhabitants of the whole land. What more does the New York farmer want than that which he already has — except a cheap means of getting his produce to this vast concourse of people who, if they do not get his products, must seek the like elsewhere?

The very best market for many farm products is doubtless to be found in New York City and its environs, what may be termed the metropolitan district. It is estimated that in a year this district consumes a little more than three and a third billion pounds of vegetables and fruits. Yet it is safe to say that only about one five-hundredth part of this amount comes by canal from the New York farms. The metropolitan district does, of course, consume considerable quantities of state grown products but most of these go by rail. In a certain recent year it received a total of 8,463 carloads of eight commodities — apples, peaches, pears, grapes, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and celery — but not a single boatload of any one of them was shipped by canal. Also of the nearly two hundred million pounds of butter and cheese received not a ton came by canal. As the result of this lack of cheap carriage between the farms and the metropolis New York City seeks outside of the State much that with profit to both producer and consumer might come from within the home commonwealth.

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