Grand Lodge of New York Masonic Lodge Histories Lodge Nos. 201-230

Notes 1. With reference to DeWitt Clinton's entry for that day in his personal diary. 2. Edge of the towpath on the water side. Bibliography

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1. With reference to DeWitt Clinton's entry for that day in his personal diary.

2. Edge of the towpath on the water side.


  • Editor's File of the Onondaga Register, Onondaga Hollow, NY. Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, NY.

  • Memoir of DeWitt Clinton… (1829) by David Hosack, p. 455.

  • 1834 Blue Line Survey of the Erie Canal, Book 8, Holmes Hutchinson, Engr. Full-size photostatic negatives on file at Rome City Engineer's Office of the Rome sheets. Microfilm, Canal Society of N.Y.S., Syracuse.

  • Laws of the State of New York in Relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals, … (1825) 2 vols. Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse.

  • Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, (1851) by Pomroy Jones.

  • Historical and Statistical Gazeteer of New York State, 1860 by J. H. French.

  • Our Country and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County New York, (1896) edited by Daniel E. Wager.

  • History of the Canal System of the State of New York, (1905) by Noble E. Whitford. 2 vols. Supplement to the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor for 1905.

  • Memorial of Centennial Celebration of the Turning of the First Shovelful of Earth in the Construction of the Erie Canal Held at Rome, N. Y. July 4th 1817. Rome Chamber of Commerce.

  • Erie Canal Abandonment Map, Sh. 154, Rome, N.Y.; N.Y.S. D.P.W. Erie Canal "Blue Line" Map, Sh. 330, (1920); N.Y.S. D.P.W. Copies on File at Rome City Engineer's Office.

  • "Canal Research Notes," No. 11, Spring 1965, Emily A. Madden, Livonia, N.Y.


Appendix III






The copies of the New York Observer containing the accompanying memoir and compilation of the early history of the New York State Canals being exhausted at the office of publication; and also, in compliance with the desire of many to procure this concise history, and in better form for preservation,—have persuaded me thus to present it to the public.


Rome, NY, January 1, 1870.

To the Editors of the New York Observer:

The contemplation of the benefits, beyond computation, conferred by the execution of the Erie Canal, ever and anon, incited by the slightest allusion to its origin, calls forth some advocate of the claims of this or that individual to the first conception of that great project. In a recent number of your paper, Mr. Goodsell, of Oswego county, repeats the claims of Jesse Hawley.

It is well established that Mr. Hawley wrote and published, at an early period,—relatively, however, not so early, —in the Genesee Messenger, printed at Canandaigua, several essays in support of a canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. These essays have been collected, and republished in such form as to rescue them from oblivion. In one respect, they were crude as to the plan they then suggested,—since they recommended an inclined plane, or channel, of regular descent, by which the waters of Lake Erie were to descend to the Hudson River, or to the Mohawk. In other respects, they evince a comprehensive mind, great research, and, in fine, are of very marked ability.

In regard to the influence these essays exerted in the first measures taken, those who, like the writer, belong to a later generation, can well recollect when country papers had a very circumscribed circulation, barely extending outside the township where they were published, or, if at all, most invariably to the westward of their offices of publication. There is no evidence that even one of our active public men of the period of the essays saw the only ones then published, prior to the first legislative action; and they, therefore, although possessing great merit, fell still-born as to any real influence at the time of their publication: they were subsequently duly honored and appreciated. Mr. Hawley himself asserted no claim in these to the first idea; on the contrary, leaves the matter susceptible of an interpretation that the idea might have had its birth during some casual conversation in such a way that he regarded it as new. And Judge Geddes said, moreover, that he conversed with Mr. Hawley on the subject the winter before he wrote his essays. These are the words used by Mr. Hawley in his introductory essay when announcing the project he is about to advocate, viz:— "It is the connecting of the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers by means of a canal. As the project is probably not more than twelve months old in human conception," &c, &c. There is evidence that others of corresponding large views, limited only by their less perfect knowledge of the topography of the western part of the State, had had their thoughts, prior to this period, directed to a navigable communication between the Lakes and the Hudson River, .as far west as Seneca Lake, and thence into Lake Ontario—the latter furnishing an extended natural navigation. After weighing the testimony in my own mind, I-have come to the conclusion that the views of Gens. Morris and Schuyler, Watson, and others, were thus limited. In proportion as the features of the country became better known the independent through route was a natural consequence. Disinterested examiners may be disposed to concur with Judge Piatt, a prominent citizen and well versed in the early history of the State, where he says: '-As to the merit of the first design of a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson, it belongs, in my opinion, exclusively to no person. It was gradually developed to the minds of many who were early acquainted with the geography and topography of the western region of the State.''

Conceding that in the order of time the conception of the project, although equally original with them, was a little subsequent, those who, spreading before their minds the immense benefit this colossal enterprise would confer,—fully appreciating its magnitude, yet comprehending its practicability,—at once, upon their own volition, initiated measures for its accomplishment—those individuals, when the question comes up who was the originator of the Erie Canal, ought certainly to be thought of, and named, one of both, if not in advance, at least in the foremost rank of those to whom the gratitude of so large a portion of the nation as is now enjoying the benefits is justly due. This claim by no means detracts from that likewise due to those legislators who, when the time had fully come and their incipient measures had culminated, brought great powers of mind and eloquence, and thereby influence, to the accomplishment of the work* And so, too, to that man with giant intellect, who, from the instant the project was presented to him, penetrating the future and picturing to himself the magnificent development,—and could he have foreseen the obloquy, the partisan malice, and personal malevolence, that was to shower down upon him, it would not have deterred him,— threw his whole soul into the enterprise. I mean DeWitt Clinton. Many can recollect how he was the butt of all •the derision its enemies heaped upon this great work. And with what calmness and equanimity he bore it, even the disgraceful ejection from the office of Canal Commissioner, from which position he derived not one particle of emolument, serving the State gratuitously. 'I said he bore all . this with equanimity, and, I may add, with the dignity of true greatness. I remember one of his letters addressed to my father. Although not fully understanding or remembering the particular occurrence that prompted the expression, to this day that letter is vivid in my memory, its chirography, and one of its two sentences. To those who knew the connection those two sufficed. The first sentence was the simple quotation, "The vipers bite at a file." I read in this the character of the man.

Now I wish to show you how feeble a beginning a mighty project of undertaking may have. At the session of the Legislature, the winter of 1807-'8, were found my father,— familiarly known throughout the region of public works as Judge Wright,—a representative from Oneida county, and the Hon. Joshua Forman, the representative from Onondaga county, occupying a room together. Judge Wright, being a subscriber for Rees' Cyclopedia, then in course of publication by Websters & Skinner, of Albany, carried to his room, one evening, the volume just then issued, containing the article, "Canals." Opening to the latter, a conversation ensued between him and Mr. Forman on the importance to the State of improved communications. Limited improvements had been already made, directed toward Lake Ontario. More than one hundred miles of the route of the Erie Canal had been surveyed by Judge Wright before the close of the last century, and locks had been constructed under his supervision on the Wood Creek, a tributary of Oneida Lake. At first, he was naturally attached to this route; but Judge Forman, living west of this, favored an independent canal to Lake Erie; and the advantages to the industry of the State were immediately admitted by my father. It is not a little singular that the route he had previously been pursuing should now, at the present session of the Legislature and in Congress, be urged with no little zeal. Neither of these gentlemen, they have said, had ever heard of Mr. Hawley's essays. If they had, allusion would there have been made to them. Mr. Hawley himself said that "they were commenced in the fall of 1807 (October), and concluded in the following April." Consequently, a considerable part of the series did not see the light until two months or more after these incipient measures taken by these two individuals, unaided and unprompted by any other person. Before going to bed, it was arranged that Mr. Forman should, on the following morning, introduce resolutions for the survey of the route for a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, which resolution was to be seconded by Judge Wright.— This arrangement was carried out. (See Assembly Journal.)

With persevering zeal they effected the introduction to the Supply Bill of an appropriation of $1,000 for the above object, which was reduced to $600 in the Senate. This meager appropriation was suffered to pass, because the object was looked upon as chimerical, and not probably to be attempted when those who supported it should recover their reason. Think of it, Mr. Editor, $600 for a survey from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. The writer was a lad and volunteered in the survey of 1816, from this place to Seneca River, then through an almost uninterrupted forest. According to his recollection now, he can count upon the fingers of one hand the spots of cultivated ground—first, at Oneida Creek; next at Canaseraga and Chittenango; next, with a few rods intermediate, at Syracuse, where there were at the time some half a dozen houses; beyond that, one or two more, in a total distance of 80 miles. This will be understood as applying only to the route of the canal. That survey occupied a large party the entire season.

Under that appropriation, to Mr. Geddes was assigned the examination,—my father's engagements on the St. Lawrence precluding his participation. Mr. Geddes' report was made early in 1809. Then followed the appointment of a Board of Commissioners, and other surveys under direction of Judge Wright in 1810, '11, and '12. The war of 1812 necessarily suspended all proceedings. That war served to further enlighten the public mind as to the importance of the enterprise, for the Government availed of the existing works to transport their war material lip the Mohawk, and through the canal, then existing across this former carrying point, to the waters of Wood Creek, and then into Oneida Lake.

It is exceedingly interesting at this period to recur to the early history of the Erie Canal. One stands amazed at the strong and persistent opposition it encountered. Were it not that New York city has been so often recreant to her own interest in sending mediocre men to the Legislature, and thus rendering nugatory her influence in the councils of the State, it would be beyond surprise that her representatives were the obstinate opponents of the undertaking.— More than once this noble offspring of the State was upon the very verge of strangulation; but, one by one, the great intellects enlisted into the ranks of its friends. "Judge Pendleton," says Wm. L. Stone in his interesting narrative, "was at first opposed, but on the following day, after having examined the surveys and calculations of Benjamin Wright, Esq., the principal engineer, Judge Pendleton came out decidedly in favor of the Canal System." There were others equally worthy of gratitude; but, with a brief allusion to the speech of Mr. Duer, that preceded his, I would like to copy the report of that, made by Elisha' Williams, Esq., of Hudson, on account of its bearing on the course of the New York members. There was every indication that a death-blow would be struck by its enemies. On collateral issues they had outnumbered its friends. In the narrative contained in the letter of W. L. Stone, Esq., to Dr. Hosack, the former says:—"The debate was recommenced by. Mr. Duer, on the morning of the 9th (April, 1817), in his ablest manner. His language was at once persuasive and powerful. His close observation, and his. deep thought upon the grand results evidently to grow out of this momentous question, revealed to his enlightened understanding the immense utility of the work in contemplation and the honorable fame to be awarded, by unborn ages, to those who might now or hereafter step forth as its honest, fearless and successful advocates. He did not hesitate. He avowed his determined purpose, in the course of the debate, to sustain the cause and persevere to the end. .; . •

"At this critical point of the struggle, Elisha Williams, of Hudson, who had not hitherto manifested any particular friendship for the project, having been rather reserved, stepped forward in its favor; and events soon proved 'the might that slumbered in his arm/ * * * * * In the course of the debate in which he now engaged, Mr. W. had occasion for all his powers, and he wielded them with a giant might; contesting the ground inch by inch, and defending the bill section by section. But it was in one grand speech that in the most masterly manner he sustained the motion of Mr. Duer, and argued the question upon the broad ground of its merits. From this time until the battle was fought and the victory won, he was at his post, and upon the floor; now gravely answering the objections of the leading opponents of the measure; now nerving the arms even of the strong, and now dispelling the apprehensions of the timid, and confirming the vacillating and doubtful; now tearing the mask from those pretended friends of the project who were secretly aiming at the destruction of the bill, and now extinguishing in a breath, by same . happy stroke of raillery, the petty objections thickly interspersed by those legislators, who have neither the mind to conceive, nor the judgment to appreciate extensive projects of public improvement. He labored hard to harmonize and soften jealousies and conflicting interests. He, as well as several gentlemen who opposed the bill, represented a county bordering on the Hudson River—a county that might possibly be opposed, for the present, to so great an undertaking. But he relied on the patriotism and magnanimity of his constituents; and he was not mistaken. He appealed to the members from New York, who were almost to a man hostile to the project. He conjured them, in the most animated and persuasive manner, not to forget that this was in fact an attempt of the people of the State to supply their favorite city, at the cheapest rate, with every production of the soil in abundance. The glowing picture which he drew of the future greatness and splendor of New York, when the great channel of inland navigation which was then under consideration should be completed, is yet floating in my mind like the fragments of a bright and glowing vision. 'If,' said he, turning to a leading member of the New York delegation, 'if the canal is to be a shower of gold, it will fall upon New York; if a river of gold, it will flow into her lap.' Adopting now with redoubled emphasis, the remarks of Mr. Stone: "How true have we found this prediction! But, strong as was his belief, and sanguine as was his temperament, his anticipations, though then considered extravagant, have fallen far short of the reality, both on the score of revenue derived from these canals, and as regards the incalculable benefits they have conferred upon the state and country at large."

Mr. Duer's motion to amend was adopted soon after Mr. Williams sat down, by a vote of 91 to 45. Mr. Sergeant then moved to reject the whole bill, which motion, after a brief discussion, was lost, 70 to 30. The battle was now won; and the residue of the time occupied upon the bill in the House of Assembly was in a running debate upon its minor details. The question on its final passage, in Committee of the Whole, was taken on the 10th of April. The vote stood: ayes, 64; noes, 36.

The bill, after another struggle there, passed the Senate, and had then to be subjected to almost hopeless issue in the Council of Revision. Mark on what a slender thread hang great events. The following narrative is given by one of its members:—"Lieutenant-Governor Taylor, acting Governor, was the President of the Council of Revision, and had ever been distinguished as one of the ablest and most formidable opponents of the canal. After reading the bill the President called upon Chancellor Kent for his opinion. He said he had given very little attention to the subject; that it appeared to him like a gigantic project, which would require the wealth of the United States to accomplish it; that it had passed the Legislature by small majorities, after a desperate struggle; and he thought it inexpedient to commit the State in such a vast undertaking until public opinion could be better united in its favor.

"Chief Justice Thompson was next called on for his opinion. He closed a few remarks with the declaration of opposition to the bill. Judges Yates and Piatt were in favor.— And now the President of the Council panted with zeal to strangle the infant Hercules at its birth, by his casting vote in the negative. A warm and animated discussion arose; and afterwards a more temperate discussion of the bill obviated in some measure the objections of the Chancellor and Chief Justice. Near the close of the debate, Vice President Tompkins came into the Council Chamber, and took his seat familiarly among us. He joined in the argument, which was informal and desultory. He expressed a decided opinion against the bill; and among other reasons, he stated, that the late peace with Great Britain was a mere truce; that we should undoubtedly soon have a renewed war with that country; and that instead of wasting the credit and resources of the State, in this chimerical project, we ought immediately to employ all the revenue and credit of the State in providing arsenals, arming the militia, erecting fortifications, and preparing for war.' 'Do you think so, sir?' said Chancellor Kent. 'Yes sir,' was the reply; England will never forgive us for our victories on land, and on the ocean and the lakes; and my word for it, we shall have another war, within two years.' The Chancellor then rising from his seat, with great animation declared, 'If we must have war or have a canal, I am in favor of the canal, and I vote for the bill.' His voice gave us the majority; and so the bill became a law.

"If that bill had been rejected by the Council, it could not have been carried by two-thirds of the Senate and Assembly. * * * . At no future period could the work have been accomplished at so small an expense of land, of water and hydraulic privilege. Rival routes and local interests were daily increasing, and combining against the project; and, in my estimation, it was one of the chief grounds of merit in the advocates of the Erie Canal, that they seized on the very moment most proper and auspicious for that immortal work."

The early history of the canals ought not to slumber in obscurity. It ought often to be called up, that the people of this and the Western States may be reminded of the difficulties they encountered, and thus be led to place a higher estimate upon them. It will then be more generally known by the community, to whom they are indebted for the great advantages they possess. It is with this view, at the expense of extending greatly my original object, that I have introduced some little of that early history. Recognizing fully and cheerfully the obligations due to others for their great services, I aver that the name of my honored parent, Benjamin "Wright, if not in advance, should be placed in the foremost rank of those to whom the gratitude of the country is due. Without a candid examination, this opinion will be ascribed to the relation in which" I stand to him. Hence I solicit that investigation and attendant reflection. That he was not, during his lifetime, among the clamorous claimants for honor and fame, is no evidence of lack of title thereto. True merit shrinks from public demonstration. All who knew him, will bear ample testimony that such were his characteristics. Exceedingly diffident, and ever shunning notoriety, he never appeared conscious that he was entitled to equal, if not greater merit. It was the conversation in which he engaged with the Hon. Mr. Forman, that elicited the suggestion, then, of the through route; and it does not require very powerful perception to be satisfied, that, so far as Mr. Forman was concerned, the idea would have gone no farther, had it not been for the presence, practical experience, and counsel of Judge Wright. It was his co-operation that gave form to the abstract idea.

He was at Albany during the entire discussion of the bill. His friends and neighbors, representing this county in the 'Legislature, were found the firm and active supporters of the project, at times saving the bill by their tact and address. It may well be inferred that their convictions were in some measure due to their intercourse with him; else why were the members from Oneida County at all periods so active in support of the enterprise? Of extraordinary intuitive capacity and sound practical judgment, he rested upon these; boisterous pretension was most unnatural to him. His was a quiet influence. Under these circumstances his claims remained hidden and obscured, by the clamor made by others.

To his unswerving integrity the State of New York is largely under obligations, where so much depended on economizing her resources. Not one cent of the money of the State ever sullied his hands; on the contrary, I have the best reason to believe, from other circumstances, and from his complete devotion to the interests of the State, his ardent desire for the success of the work, together with the absolute disregard of his private interests, that considerable sums in the aggregate were expended by him, for which no claim was ever made. He was for a long period in the service of the State, longer than almost any other individual. That service he would not abandon until the success of her public works was secure.

The Board of Commissioners, more than once during the prosecution of the work, publicly acknowledged their great obligation to Judge Wright. One of these testimonials I will copy. In one of their annual reports they said:

"In looking back to the numerous difficulties and responsibilities,—some of them of an aspect the most disheartening,—which surrounded the Canals, especially in their commencement, we feel compelled by common justice to commend the aid which has at all times been afforded by our Engineers. In the selection of all the persons who are now employed by us under this character, we have been eminently fortunate. But to the Hon. Benjamin Wright and James Geddes the State is mostly indebted. Possessing much local information, competent science, long experience in many kinds of business bearing some analogy to canal operations, and well established characters for industry and fidelity, these gentlemen have rendered the most essential service in all the duties of their department. They have unceasingly devoted their, best faculties to the great cause in which they were engaged, and they have hitherto been found equal to the high trusts confided in them."

I have said that his was a quiet influence; and I am able to cite an instance where to this influence an organization in your city is greatly indebted; and, according to my recollection of the critical circumstances in which it was at the time, owes its very existence. When the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company made application to the Legislature for the loan of the credit of the State, the application met with strong opposition, in part because of the general principle involved. The bill passed by a small majority. I was told by a very prominent member,—one who frequently addressed the House, and never failed to influence its vote,— that "he was opposed to the measure; but, out of deference to my father's presence and opinion, he refrained from saying anything. Had he spoken, he knew full well the bill would have failed to pass." So that the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company owe their success to his influence, of which the managers may never have been aware. The member I refer to is still living, and will confirm this statement.


Rome, N. Y., April 20, 1860.

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