Colonel Corps of Engineers, U, S. Army, retired Member of the New York State Advisory Board of Consulting Engineers, Albany.

[From: Buffalo Historical Society Publications, vol. 13, 1909]

Before the original Erie canal was built by the State of New York efforts were made to induce the General Government to build it or to aid in building it. The movement was unsuccessful and the General Government has never aided the State in any of its canal work. It has, however, through its officials, made various examinations, surveys and reports, some of which have been extensive and of importance in the final settlement of canal questions. It was as a public officer of the United States that I made my first official acquaintance with the great canal problems of the State of New York.

When I first arrived in Buffalo in 1895 to take charge of the river and harbor works of the vicinity, two canal movements of interest and importance to Buffalo, Erie County and New York State were under way.

One was the work of improving the present Erie canal by the State of New York under what is known as the $9,000,000 act, which act was passed in 1895. The improvement contemplated under this act was the deepening of the canal and locks to nine feet and doubling the length of the locks so as to allow two boats connected up tandem to pass through at one lockage. It was soon found, however, that the cost of the work contemplated had been greatly under-estimated and it was stopped after much money had been expended, but before anything of importance to navigation had been accomplished.

The other movement was much more widespread, but had not reached the era of actual work. It was the agitation and demand throughout all the region of the Great Lakes and a goodly portion of the Atlantic seaboard for a ship canal connecting the lakes with the sea. Many letters were written to the press, favoring the project. The news-papers of the region had many articles and editorials in the same line. Numbers of public meetings were held and enthusiastic speeches made for the ship canal project. Orators and writers depicted the magnificence of the future when great ocean ships should leave Liverpool and other foreign ports and proceed directly to Chicago, Duluth and all the other chief cities of the lakes bringing the commercial productions of the world and exchanging them for the grains, lumber, ore, etc., of the Northwest, right in the heart of the continent. Some, more conservative, were content with the idea of a canal which would permit the ships of the Great Lakes to reach the seaboard and there deliver their loads to the people of the coast or exchange their foreign-bound cargoes with the deeper draft ships engaged in ocean commerce. The glamour of the Ship Canal from the Lakes to the Sea, like a brilliant aurora borealis, shone brightly over the whole lake region.

Under the inspiration of the movement the Governments of the United States and Canada created an international "Deep Waterways Commission," to examine and report whether it was feasible to build such canals as shall enable vessels to pass to and fro from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic ocean."

After a year's investigation and study this Deep Waterways Commission reported "that it is entirely feasible to construct such canals and develop such channels as will be adequate to any scale of navigation that may be desired between the Great Lakes and the seaboard," and recommended that complete surveys be made on which to base projects for ship canals from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, and from Lake Ontario to the Hudson river via the Oswego and Mohawk rivers, and via the St. Lawrence river and Lake Champlain.

Following the report of this International Deep Waterways Commission the United States Government took up the burden of expenses and created a Board of Engineers to make surveys for ship canals of various sizes and by varying routes from the Great Lakes to the sea.

The law authorizing these surveys and creating the board for making them was passed June 4, 1897, and is as follows :

"For surveys and examinations (including estimates of cost) of deep waterways and the routes thereof between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic tidewaters, as recommended by the report of the Deep Waterways Commission, transmitted by the President to Congress January 15, 1897, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Such examinations and surveys shall be made by a board of three engineers to be designated by the President, one of whom may be detailed from the Engineer Corps of the army, one from the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and one shall be appointed from civil life."

On July 1, 1898, another appropriation of $225,000 was made and the item making the appropriation contained the following language: "And the said board shall make a report of the progress of the work to the Secretary of War, for transmission by him to Congress at the commencement of its next session, and submit in their report the probable and relative cost of various depths for said waterway respectively, as follows, twenty-one and thirty feet, with a statement of the relative advantages thereof."

On March 3, 1899, a further appropriation of $90,000 was made for the surveys, etc., and in 1900 there was an additional appropriation of $20,000, making the total amount expended for the survey's $485,000.

The report of this Board of Engineers was submitted June 30, 1900. It is a large volume of text with a second volume of maps, plans, etc., and contains a large amount of valuable information. In it estimates are made of the probable cost of canals at 21 feet deep and canals 30 feet deep, with properly proportioned widths and by various routes, and the necessary improvements in lake and inter-lake channels.

The estimated cost of a 21-foot canal from Duluth, Minn., to New York, via the upper lakes, the Niagara river, a canal about the Falls from La Salle to Lewiston, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence river, Lake Champlain and the Hudson was stated at $190,382,436. The same 21-foot canal via Oswego, Oneida lake and the Mohawk river would cost $206,358,103. For the 30-foot canal via the same routes the estimated cost was stated at $320,099,083 for the Champlain route, and $317,284,348 for the Oswego-Oneida lake route.

These estimates for the 30-foot canals do not include the cost of deepening lake harbors to accommodate the deeper draft sea-going vessels. This, of course, would be a tax on the individual harbors, but its aggregate amount would be many millions of dollars.

A study of the board's detailed estimates and recent experiences on the New York State barge canal construction, the increased cost of labor and materials since the report was completed, and the infinite complications which would arise to vested interests and properties in doing such a work, indicate very clearly to me that these estimates would have to be largely increased, probably by from 25 to 50 per cent.

The report discusses the advantages and benefits to be obtained from the different size ship canals, but apparently favors the 21-foot canal, saying: "The return of direct benefit from the 21-foot waterway is much greater than the return from the 30-foot waterway."

This elaborate and expensive report on the ship canal question on its presentation and publication fell flat and has scarcely been heard from since except to use some of its findings and statements for contentious purposes, and its maps and data for other canal projects. No official effort to bring it up or to cause its suggestions or recommendations to be carried into effect was ever made. The apparent reason for this practical obliteration of the ship canal official consideration was the fact that while it was in progress the question of the relative economy and efficiency of ship and barge canals was studied and analyzed by the writer and others and found to be largely in favor of a barge canal.

During the session of Congress of 1895-'6, a bill was introduced appropriating $2,000,000 "to widen the locks of the Erie canal so as to permit the passage of modern torpedo boats and other vessels of war of similar dimensions for the protection of the lake cities." The writer of this paper, then stationed in Buffalo, was called upon to make a report on this bill. An examination of the subject was made and a report submitted, dated December 1, 1890. The report contained a description of the Erie canal and the improvements then projected and fairly commenced under the $9,000,000 act which had been approved by the people of New York in 1895. It showed that all the torpedo boats of the navy then built or under contract with the exception of two would pass through the canal as it was then being improved. Also that we had no other "vessels of war of similar dimensions," except a few gunboats, which had a draft of 12 feet and which would not be accommodated in the canal by the widening of the locks alone.

For this reason, in addition to the estimates submitted for the widening of the locks alone, additional estimates were submitted for deepening them.

The cost of enlarging the locks on the Erie canal to a width of 25 feet, length of 250 feet, and depth of nine feet was estimated at $4,287,000. If widened to 31 feet the estimated cost was $4,824,000. If widened to 37 feet the estimated cost was $5,361,000.

The report concluded with an argument for the radical enlargement of the Erie canal on commercial grounds indicating the advantages to be gained thereby. The bill as introduced in Congress did not pass, and the New York State work under the $9,000,000 act soon stopped as previously stated, and New York's great canal question was "up in the air" again.

In the meantime, while this investigation as to widened locks and the $9,000,000 work was going on, an investigation far wider in scope and character and of much greater consequences to the State and the country was being made by the writer of this article.

The River and Harbor Act of June 3, 1896, contained the following provision:

"The Secretary of War is hereby directed to cause to be made accurate examinations and estimates of cost of construction of a ship canal by the most practicable route, wholly within the United States, from the Great Lakes to the navigable waters of the Hudson river, of sufficient capacity to transport the tonnage of the lakes to the sea."

As there was an insufficient amount of money available to carry out literally the evident requirement of Congress for a survey, it was resolved by the War Department to treat this item as an ordinary preliminary examination, and to have a report prepared giving such information as was then available, such facts as could be secured regarding the worthiness of the improvement and an estimate of the cost of such a survey as must precede the preparation of detailed plans and estimates of cost.

The work was placed in charge of the writer by letter from the Chief of Engineers, dated August 13, 1896, and the report called for was submitted June 23, 1897.

In fixing upon the scope of the investigation the language of the law had to be interpreted.

The term "navigable waters of the Hudson river" was taken to mean waters of equal navigable capacity to those of the canal of which they would form an extension and part of the contemplated highway to the sea.

The most important interpretation was that of the phrase "tonnage of the lakes," for this brought up and made pertinent the economical comparison of ship and barge canals.

The item in the law which requires that the canal shall have "sufficient capacity to transport the tonnage of the lakes to the sea" was interpreted in two ways.

First. That the canal and all its structures should be of sufficient size to pass the largest vessels of the lakes, and to pass enough of these large vessels and smaller ones to transport all the freight desiring to pass through.

Second. It was considered that the law might be interpreted to mean that the canal should have the location and size which would at the least cost for construction and maintenance enable the freight passing between the East and the West -- "the tonnage of the lakes" -- to be transported at the smallest cost. This latter was regarded as the broader view of the subject and its study was deemed necessary in order that a correct conclusion, from a business and economical standpoint, might be arrived at.

Under the first, or large ship canal, interpretation, three routes were considered: First, the present Erie canal route, including the Hudson river; second, a route via canal about Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence river, Lake Champlain and the Hudson; and, third, another via canal about Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario, Oswego river, Oneida lake, the Mohawk river and Hudson river. For reasons stated in the report the last or Oswego route is the only one seriously considered, the others "wholly within the United States" being impracticable for a ship canal.

Under the second, or barge canal, interpretation, but one route was seriously considered, that by the present Erie canal entirely within the land boundaries of the State of New York. Three sizes of canals were considered by this route: first, the Erie canal as now existing; second, the Erie canal as it was then being improved by the State to nine feet depth and with locks doubled in length; and third, the canal improved to what was then designated as barge canal size; that is with locks 12 feet deep, 33 feet wide, and 420 feet long in the clear, with intermediate gates, and a prism 12 feet deep and a minimum bottom width of 82 feet.

The gist and greatest value of the report consists in the careful investigation that was made into the cost per ton of carrying capacity of lake ships and canal barges, and the cost of operating the same. These costs, with the items of transfer at Buffalo, insurance on vessels and cargoes, interest on investment and deterioration, all reduced to a single unit of freight, enabled a comparison to be made between the economy and efficiency of a ship canal and a barge canal.

It was roughly estimated that the ship canal would cost $200,000,000 and the barge canal (Erie alone) $50,000,000. The estimated cost per ton of carrying capacity of steel lake freighters was determined to be from $35 to $50, while the cost per ton of carrying capacity of canal barges, including a steamer with each fleet, all suitable for navigating the canal, was $10 to $20.

With everything reduced to the same basis, it was calculated that the cost of transporting a bushel of wheat in lake freighters of 7000 tons capacity through a suitable canal from Buffalo to New York was 2.28 cents, while the cost of transporting the same bushel in a fleet of barges, each carrying 1500 tons, through a suitable barge canal from Buffalo to New York, and including the transfer charges at Buffalo was 2.07 cents, and if the transfer charges were reduced, as they have since been reduced, was 1.66 cents.

In making this comparison no consideration was given to the cost of the canal or the cost of operating it, the basis of comparison being the interest on the cost of carriers, deterioration thereof, insurance of carriers and cargoes, ordinary repairs, fuel, oil, and waste and the wages and subsistence of the crews of the vessels. If the first cost of the canal and the cost of maintenance and operation were taken into consideration, the showing in favor of the barge canal over the ship canal would have been still more marked.

The study was convincing that for the highest economy in transportation, special types of vessels are needed for use on the ocean, on the lakes, and on the canals, and neither can replace the other in its proper waters without suffering loss of economical efficiency. Ocean vessels could not, as a general rule, engage in the business of passing through a ship canal and the lakes to the upper lake ports, and lake vessels are not fitted for use upon the ocean, and if they made use of a canal they would have to transfer their cargoes at the seaboard, ordinarily by means of lighters, floating elevators, etc., at a higher expense than such transfers would cost at the lower lake ports. For economical transportation through a canal from the Great Lakes to the sea special vessels, differing from and far less costly than ocean or lake vessels, are required.

The conclusion was reached by the writer that even if a ship canal were built, the greater cheapness of barge canal transportation would prevent its use by large ships, and cause it to be used almost entirely by fleets of barges which could be almost equally as well accommodated in a smaller and cheaper canal.

The report concludes with the statement that the construction of a ship canal from the Great Lakes to the sea is not a project worthy of being undertaken by the General Government, as the benefits to be derived therefrom would not be properly commensurate with its cost.

Also that the enlargement of the Erie canal to a capacity suitable for 1500-ton barges, with locks long enough to take in two barges connected up tandem with everything adapted "to transport the tonnage of the Lakes" is a project worthy of being undertaken by the General Government, as the benefits to be derived therefrom would be properly commensurate with the cost.

The report was submitted June 23, 1897, and published in the Report of the Chief of Engineers for 1897. No action was taken on it by the General Government, but it had an important influence in shaping public opinion in New York, in killing the ship canal idea, and in furnishing a standard about which the canal interests of New York could rally. The $9,000,000 fiasco, the dazzling pictures of the ship canal advocates, and the dismal pictures of the enemies of all canals, had produced a state of bewilderment in regard to the canal questions. The report advocating a barge canal for boats of about 1500 tons capacity cleared things up and was a solution of the problem which was received with favor and grew in estimation, until it was finally adopted by the State and, with modifications, is now being carried out.

The adoption of the barge canal plan was brought about largely through the medium of a board or committee appointed March 8, 1899, by Governor Roosevelt to consider "the broad question of the proper policy which the State of New York should pursue in canal matters."

This committee, of which the writer was a member, consisted of engineers, business men, men familiar with transportation matters both by water and rail, and certain State officials. It gave about a year of hard work to the problem. It made a report dated January 5, 1900, which is teeming with statistics and information and which concludes with the unanimous recommendation that the Erie canal be improved by making it 12 feet deep, with locks 328 feet long and 28 feet wide, and that the Oswego and Champlain canals be improved in accordance with the plan of 1895, making them nine feet deep and with locks of the size of the present Erie canal but doubled in length.

This matter was taken up by the Legislature on the recommendation of Governor Roosevelt and an appropriation of $200,000 was made for surveys and preparation of plans and estimates of cost. It was decided by the Legislature to include the Oswego and Champlain canals with the Erie for improvement to barge canal size.

The final estimated cost of the entire work was $101,000,000, and this was approved by the Legislature and finally by the vote of the people.

Subsequently by action of the Legislature and the Canal Board, the locks were required to be enlarged to 45 feet in width, making the capacity of the canal as measured by the size of the locks almost identical with the capacity recommended by the writer in his report to the General Government of 1897.

One of the provisions of the law providing for the construction of the barge canal as it finally passed the Legislature and the people, was a clause requiring the supervision of the work by a board of five expert engineers. Because of his previous connection with the work, the writer was requested by the Hon. B. B. Odell, then Governor of New York, to serve on this Advisory Board of Consulting Engineers. To enable this to be done required a special act of Congress, which was secured, and on this board the writer has continued his connection with the barge canal work up to the present time.

All that which goes before in this article refers to the work of the General Government or officials thereof during the present generation. Previous to this it had caused to be made various studies, surveys, plans and estimates for canals passing wholly or partially through New York State and which will be mentioned here as matters of historical interest.


In the year 1808, pursuant to a resolution of the Senate of the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury submitted to that body a report which included a ship canal about Niagara Falls, from Schlosser's to Lewiston via the Devil's Hole. As far as is known this was the initial appearance of the General Government on the scene.


In 1835 the President of the United States ordered surveys to be made "for a ship canal to connect the waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario," and detailed Capt. W. G. Williams of the U. S. Topographical Engineers for the work. In 1836 Capt. Williams reported upon five different routes, varying in their lengths from 7¾ miles (from Schlosser's to Lewiston) to 32 miles (from Tonawanda, via Lockport, to Eighteen Mile Creek at Olcott).

The locks for his canal were to be 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The estimated cost of the canals as planned by Capt. Williams varied from $2,568,899 to $5,041,725.


Under date of February 14, 1837, the House Committee on Roads and Canals made a favorable report urging the military and commercial needs for the canal as outlined by Capt. Williams.


In 1853 a State Commission made surveys for a canal around the Falls of Niagara of the dimensions of the St. Mary's canal, then building, for the passage of the largest side-wheel steamers then navigating the Western Lakes. The locks for the canal estimated for were to be 300 feet long, 70 feet wide and 14 feet deep.

The estimated cost varied from $10,290,471 to $13,169,570, according to the route considered.


In 1863 President Lincoln appointed an engineer, Mr. C. B. Stuart, to make a report on proposed canal improvements designed to pass gunboats from tidewater to the Lakes. The canal as reported and estimated for by him had locks 275 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 12 feet deep, the same in width and depth as the barge canal locks now under construction. Various routes were surveyed and the estimated cost for the shortest one was from $6,007,011 for single locks to $7,680,555 for double locks.


In 1867, in compliance with a joint resolution of the 40th Congress, Lieut.-Col. C. E. Blunt of the U. S. Corps of Engineers made surveys and estimates for a canal 14 feet deep and locks 275 feet long and 36 feet wide by various routes from the upper Niagara to the lower Niagara and points on Lake Ontario. His estimates of cost varied from $11,032,000 to $13,993,638.


In accordance with the provisions of the River and Harbor Act of 1888, Capt. Carl F. Palfrey of the Corps of Engineers made a revision of the plans of 1867 and for a larger canal. He considered only the routes by way of Wilson and Olcott to be suited to conditions then existing. His estimates were for a canal with locks 400 feet long, 80 feet wide and 20½ feet depth on mitre sills and his estimates varied from $23,617,900 for the Olcott line to $29,347,900 for the Wilson line.


In 1889 Representative Sereno E. Payne introduced a bill in Congress providing for a commission to select one of these lines and appropriating $1,000,000 for construction upon it. No action was had upon this bill.


Congressional reports were made in 1892 and 1896 on the subject of a canal about Niagara Falls but nothing came therefrom.

The above historical data refer mainly to a canal about Niagara Falls. Other action relative to the general canal routes through the State has been taken by the United States.


During 1863 the State Engineer of New York made studies and estimates for a series of enlarged locks alongside the existing locks so as to pass gunboats from tide water to Lakes Erie and Ontario. The enlargement contemplated locks 225 feet long, 26 feet wide and 7 feet deep. The estimated cost of this enlargement from the Hudson river to Lake Ontario was $10,350,088 and from the Hudson river to Lake Erie was $11,902,888.


Under date of June 23, 1874, Congress called for a report and estimate for the enlargement of the locks of the New York canals to the dimensions last mentioned, i.e., 225 feet long, 26 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and the deepening of the canal prism to eight feet. This report was made by Major John M. Wilson of the Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army.

Major Wilson's estimate of the cost of lock enlargement leaving the prism at seven feet depth, from the Hudson to Lake Erie, was $6,676,231, or with deepening the prism to eight feet included, it was $8,173,596.

Major Wilson also submitted an estimate for a canal from the Hudson to Lake Ontario at Oswego, with locks 185 feet long, 29 feet wide and 9 feet deep. The estimated cost of this work was $25,213,857.


As stated in another part of this paper the writer submitted in 1896 a report required by Congress on the subject of enlarging the locks of the Erie canal for the passage of modern torpedo boats and vessels of war of similar dimensions.

Everything subsequent to this in which officials of the General Government had a hand is given in the previous portion of this article.

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