Erie Canal Commission

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The New York State Legislature appointed in 1810 a Commission to Explore a Route for a Canal to Lake Erie, and Report which became known as the Erie Canal Commission. Before 1817, the reports were submitted by the Commissioners Appointed to Provide for the Improvement of the Internal Navigation of the State, from February 1817 on the actual term Canal Commission was used, and its members titled officially Canal Commissioner. Besides, in 1817 a Canal Fund and Commissioners of the Canal Fund, and in 1826 a Canal Board, of which both the Canal Commissioners and the Commissioners of the Canal Fund were members, were created, and the term Canal Commission was applied sometimes to any of these bodies.

The Erie Canal Commission at first proposed the route for the Erie Canal, then organized the project and its funding, and then oversaw the construction which was completed in 1825. Afterwards the canal commissioners were minor state cabinet officers (from 1844 on elected by statewide general ballot) responsible for the maintenance and improvements of the State Canals.

The office of Canal Commissioner was abolished by an amendment ratified in 1876, and their responsibilities were taken over by the Superintendent of Public Works in February 1878. The Canal Fund and the Canal Board were abolished in 1905.

Origins of the Erie Canal Commission[edit]

As the United States expanded into western New York and the Northwest Territory, the Great Lakes became an essential part of the system of waterways, on which merchants did most of their shipping. The easiest way from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe was by way of the St. Lawrence River, but this was controlled mainly by the French from Canada. After examining the Mohawk River, a canal from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River was proposed. In addition to the control of shipping in North America, the United States would successfully tie the western territories to the eastern states, thus creating a more unified nation. This was an enormous undertaking, so it became necessary to appoint a Commission to oversee the entire project.

The origins of the Commission can be traced back to two men: Thomas Eddy and Jonas Platt. Eddy was the Treasurer of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which had been established in 1792 with the purpose of developing a navigable route up the Mohawk River to Lake Ontario. When he found his company in financial trouble, he drew upon the idea first proposed by Joshua Forman (member of the New York State Assembly from Onondaga County in 1808) of building a canal, rather than trying to navigate the rivers. He turned to his friend Platt, then a State Senator and leader of the Federalists in New York, and the two of them decided to propose the creation of a small group of highly influential commissioners to explore two possible routes of a canal – one to Lake Ontario and one to Lake Erie. They would report findings to the New York State Legislature after their expedition to the west. In order to get permission for this commission, Platt and Eddy knew that each man had to command a certain amount of power and respect, but the whole group had to be politically balanced between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. On March 13, 1810, Platt presented his project for a bipartisan Canal Commission to the State Legislature, and received overwhelming support. On March 15, the State Legislature appointed Federalists Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, William North and Thomas Eddy, and Democratic-Republicans DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt and Peter Buell Porter a commission to explore a route for a canal to Lake Erie, and report.[1]

Expedition and Survey to Determine the Best Route[edit]

In June 1810, the commissioners were prepared to head west to survey the land to determine a possible route for their canal. Though Gouverneur Morris was President of the Commission, the title was mainly ceremonial because all the members looked to DeWitt Clinton for leadership. All of the members except Van Rensselaer and Morris, who traversed the whole state by carriage, traveled up the Mohawk River and as far west as possible by water, where they met two amateur surveyors, James Geddes and Benjamin Wright. From there, they traveled the final one hundred miles from Lake Seneca to Lake Erie by carriage. DeWitt Clinton kept a journal for the entire journey, in which he closely documented their adventures.

After much deliberation, the Commission turned their findings into a report that they submitted in March 1811. Rejecting Porter’s ideas of running the canal either to Lake Ontario, or through his lands to Lake Erie, the commissioners decided that the canal had to run straight to Lake Erie. Otherwise, the St. Lawrence River would still be a primary route of transportation and the West would not be connected to the East. They also rejected Morris’s proposition of a natural waterway created by the overflow of Lake Erie in favor of an entirely artificial waterway. The final and most important section of the report demanded public financing and control of the canal by the State of New York. Citing past failures such as Eddy’s company, and George Washington’s Patowmack Company, the Commission stated that such large endeavors were too expensive for private financing.

Response to the Report[edit]

In response to this report, on April 8, 1811, the State Legislature passed the first of many laws relating to the canal. The bill added Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston to the Commission. Fulton had developed the first steamboat that ran along the Hudson River and Livingston was his business and engineering partner. It also gave the commissioners $15,000 to finance further activities and granted them permission to take all the necessary steps to finance the entire project. On June 19, 1812, the Commission was empowered to purchase the rights, interests and estate of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.[2]

Eddy and Fulton looked for engineers to design the project. De Witt and Van Rensselaer sought land cessations for the path of the canal. Livingston, with the help of Clinton, devised a plan to secure national assistance. Morris and North looked for the best way to borrow money. The largest duty, however, was assigned to Clinton and Morris, who went to Washington, D.C., to solicit aid from President James Madison and the Federal Government. Unfortunately, after failing to obtain any funds from the government, their situation only got worse with the War of 1812.

War of 1812 and aftermath[edit]

With the outbreak of war, Van Rensselaer became the Head of the New York State Militia, and Clinton ran as the Federalists presidential candidate opposing James Madison and the war. In addition, despite allowing the Commission to create a fund for financing the canal in 1812, the State Legislature repealed the act in 1814, rendering the commissioners essentially helpless.

Finally, after the United States made peace with Great Britain, officials could turn their attention towards the canal, which they did in a public meeting in New York City on December 3, 1815. The board sparked interest by emphasizing the benefits the city would receive from the canal.[3] Despite minor setbacks, the meeting was a huge success. Even though President Madison vetoed a bill that provided funding for one quarter of the canal, the Commission convinced the State Legislature to go ahead with construction.

New Appointments to the Commission[edit]

On April 17, 1816, the State Legislature passed a bill that provided more funds for the project, and appointed Van Rensselaer, Clinton, Joseph Ellicott, Myron Holley and Samuel Young Commissioners to Construct a Canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.[4] Ellicott was well informed about the lands in western New York as well as being an agent of the Holland Land Company, which donated 100,000 acres(400 km²) to the Erie Canal project. Holley, a State assemblyman, was a supporter of Clinton and government-financed public improvements. Young had written A Treatise on Internal Navigation - A Comprehensive Study of Canals in Great Britain and Holland.

On April 19, 1817, the State Legislature created the Canal Fund and the Commissioners of the Canal Fund which were ex officio the Lieutenant Governor, the State Comptroller, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, the State Treasurer and the Surveyor General (until 1847).[5]

The New York State Constitution of 1821 provided for the creation of a Canal Board which was established in 1826. Members of this Canal Board were ex officio the Commissioners of the Canal Fund, the Canal Commissioners (until 1878, then succeeded by the Superintendent of Public Works), and the State Engineer and Surveyor (since 1848).

The Commissioners of the Canal Fund and the Canal Board remained in charge of the control of the Canal System until 1905.

Political Struggle: Clinton vs. the Bucktails[edit]

The project was soon caught up in politics, with either party attempting to receive the credit for the construction; the Bucktails struggled to gain control over the Commission, still firmly held by Clinton in 1817. In 1818, Ellicot resigned from the Commission citing poor health, and to replace him, Clinton appointed one of his strongest supporters Ephraim Hart. Recognizing Hart’s political allegiance, the Bucktail majority of the State Legislature elected a Clinton opponent, Henry Seymour, in 1819 to succeed Hart.

The Commission slipped even further out of Clinton’s control in 1821, when the Bucktail-controlled State Legislature passed a bill that provided two million dollars in funding for the canal, as well as the appointment of an additional commissioner. As Governor of New York, Clinton had to sign the bill so he was not seen as blocking the necessary funds. The Bucktails promptly elected William C. Bouck, another staunch Clinton opponent.

A heavy blow to Clinton came on April 12, 1824, when his opponents succeeded in ousting him from the Commission. Despite words of support in the State Assembly, they voted him out and Clinton stepped down after being a commissioner from the beginning and its president since 1816. A wave of indignation over the politician's short shrift with the man who was recognized as the driving force behind the construction, Clinton was re-elected Governor of New York in November 1824, and had the great satisfaction to preside over the inauguration of the completed Erie Canal on October 26, 1825.

List of Canal Commissioners[edit]

The number of commissioners varied over the times:

  • The original bi-partisan commission had 7 members (1810–1811).
  • 9 members, the original ones, Fulton and Livingston (1811–1813)
  • 8 members after the death of Livingston (1813–1816)
  • The new commission had 5 members (1816–1821)
  • 6 members after Bouck was added (1821–1824)
  • 5 members after Holley resigned (March–April 1824)
  • 4 members after Clinton was removed (1824–1833)
  • 5 members after Hoffman was added (1833–1836)
  • 6 members after Baker was added (1836–1844)
  • 4 members after Clark and Hooker were legislated out of office (1844–1847)
  • 3 members under the Constitution of 1846 (1848–1877)
  • 2 members remained in office pending the appointment of a Superintendent of Public Works (1878)

Until 1844 the term of the commissioners was indefinite, the Act of May 6, 1844, established a four-year term, the Constitution of 1846, a three-year term.

Until 1844, vacancies were filled by concurrent resolution of both houses of the State Legislature, or - during the recess of the Legislature - temporarily by the Governor.

From 1845 on, vacancies were filled temporarily by the State Legislature[6] or, during the recess, by the Governor,[7] and a substitute was elected at the next State election if there was a remainder of the term.[8]

Name Took office Left office Party Notes
Gouverneur Morris March 15, 1810 April 17, 1816[9] Federalist
William North March 15, 1810 April 17, 1816 Federalist
Simeon De Witt March 15, 1810 April 17, 1816 Dem.-Rep.
Thomas Eddy March 15, 1810 April 17, 1816 Federalist
Peter Buell Porter March 15, 1810 April 17, 1816 Dem.-Rep.
DeWitt Clinton March 15, 1810 April 12, 1824 Dem.-Rep. removed by State Legislature[10]
Stephen Van Rensselaer March 15, 1810 January 26, 1839 Federalist/Clintonian became a Clintonian when the Federalist Party disbanded; died in office; longest-serving Canal Commissioner (almost 29 years)
Robert R. Livingston April 8, 1811 February 26, 1813 Dem.-Rep. died in office
Robert Fulton April 8, 1811 February 24, 1815 Dem.-Rep. died in office
Charles D. Cooper 1815 April 17, 1816 Dem.-Rep.
Joseph Ellicott April 17, 1816 1818 resigned
Myron Holley April 17, 1816 March 30, 1824 Dem.-Rep./Clintonian resigned[11]
Samuel Young April 17, 1816 February 22, 1840[12] Dem.-Rep./Bucktails
Ephraim Hart June 18, 1818 March 24, 1819 Dem.-Rep./Clintonian appointed by the Governor in place of Ellicott until the election of a successor by the State Legislature
Henry Seymour March 24, 1819 May 1831 Dem.-Rep./Bucktails succeeding Hart, elected by the State Legislature in place of Ellicott; then resigned
William C. Bouck March 21, 1821 February 22, 1840 Dem.-Rep./Bucktails/Dem.
Jonas Earll, Jr. May 1831 February 22, 1840 Democratic appointed by the Governor in place of Seymour, then elected by the State Legislature on January 9, 1832, to succeed himself
Michael Hoffman April 4, 1833 May 6, 1835 Democratic resigned
Heman Judd Redfield May 9, 1835 Democratic elected by the State Legislature in place of Hoffman, but declined to take office
John Bowman May 1835 February 22, 1840 Democratic appointed by the Governor in place of Redfield, then elected by the State Legislature on January 9, 1836 to succeed himself
William Baker May 25, 1836 February 22, 1840 Democratic
Samuel B. Ruggles February 18, 1839 February 8, 1842[13] Whig elected by the State Legislature in place of Van Rensselaer
David Hudson February 22, 1840 February 8, 1842 Whig
Simon Newton Dexter February 22, 1840 February 8, 1842 Whig
Henry Hamilton February 22, 1840 February 8, 1842 Whig
George H. Boughton February 22, 1840 February 8, 1842 Whig
Asa Whitney February 22, 1840 February 8, 1842 Whig
Stephen Clark February 8, 1842 May 6, 1844 Democratic legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844[14]
James Hooker February 8, 1842 May 6, 1844 Democratic legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844
Benjamin Enos February 8, 1842 February 3, 1845 Democratic legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844[15]
George W. Little February 8, 1842 February 3, 1845 Democratic legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844
Jonas Earll, Jr. February 8, 1842 October 28, 1846 Democratic second term; legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844, re-elected to a two-year term;[16] died in office
Daniel P. Bissell February 8, 1842 December 31, 1847 Democratic legislated out of office by Act of May 6, 1844, then re-elected to a four-year term, then legislated out of office by the Constitution of 1846
Nathaniel Jones February 3, 1845 November 1, 1847[17] Democratic elected in November 1844 to a two-year term; the Constitution of 1846 extended his term until December 31, 1847;[18] then resigned
Stephen Clark February 3, 1845 December 31, 1847 Democratic second term; elected in November 1844 to a four-year term; legislated out of office by the Constitution of 1846
John T. Hudson December 3, 1846 December 31, 1847 Democratic appointed by the Governor in place of Earll to fill the vacancy[19]
Thomas Clowes November 15, 1847 December 31, 1847 Whig elected by the State Legislature in place of Jones to fill the vacancy[20]
Nelson J. Beach January 1, 1848 December 31, 1849 Whig/Anti-Rent elected in November 1847, drew the two-year term[21]
Jacob Hinds January 1, 1848 December 31, 1850 Whig/Anti-Rent elected in November 1847, drew the three-year term
Charles Cook January 1, 1848 December 31, 1851 Whig elected in November 1847, drew the one-year term; then re-elected to a full term
Frederick Follett January 1, 1850 December 31, 1855 Democratic two terms
John C. Mather January 1, 1851 December 31, 1853 Democratic impeached by the State Assembly in 1853, acquitted by the New York Court for the Trial of Impeachments
Henry Fitzhugh January 1, 1852 December 31, 1857 Whig two terms
Cornelius Gardinier January 1, 1854 December 31, 1856 Whig
Samuel S. Whallon January 1, 1856 July 6, 1858 American died in office
Charles H. Sherrill January 1, 1857 December 31, 1859 Republican
John M. Jaycox January 1, 1858 December 31, 1860 Democratic
Samuel B. Ruggles July 1858 December 31, 1858 Republican appointed by the Governor in place of Whallon to fill vacancy
Hiram Gardner January 1, 1859 December 31, 1861 Republican
William I. Skinner January 1, 1860 December 31, 1865 Democratic two terms
Benjamin F. Bruce January 16, 1861 December 31, 1861 Republican elected by the State Legislature to fill vacancy caused by the death of Samuel H. Barnes who had been elected on November 6, 1860, but died on November 13
William W. Wright January 1, 1862 December 31, 1863 Democratic succeeding Bruce, elected for the remainder of Barnes's term
Franklin A. Alberger January 1, 1862 December 31, 1867 Union two terms
Benjamin F. Bruce January 1, 1864 December 31, 1866 Union second term
Robert C. Dorn January 1, 1866 December 31, 1868 Republican impeached by the State Assembly in 1868, acquitted by the New York Court for the Trial of Impeachments
Stephen T. Hayt January 1, 1867 December 31, 1869 Republican
John D. Fay January 1, 1868 December 31, 1873 Democratic two terms
Oliver Bascom January 1, 1869 November 7, 1869 Democratic died in office
George W. Chapman November 1869 December 31, 1871 Democratic appointed by the Governor in place of Bascom to fill vacancy, then elected for the remainder of Bascom's term
William W. Wright January 1, 1870 December 31, 1872 Democratic second term
Alexander Barkley January 1, 1872 December 31, 1874 Republican
Reuben W. Stroud January 1, 1873 December 2, 1875 Republican died in office; son-in-law of Benjamin F. Bruce
James Jackson, Jr. January 1, 1874 December 31, 1876 Democratic
Adin Thayer January 1, 1875 December 31, 1877 Democratic No successor was elected[22] at the previous State Election, but Thayer's term was deemed to have expired, and he was not holding over until the appointment of a Superintendent of Public Works.[23]
Christopher A. Walrath December 1875 February 8, 1878 Democratic appointed by the Governor in place of Stroud to fill the vacancy, then took office for his elected term, then legislated out of office, office abolished and responsibilities taken over by Superintendent of Public Works
Darius A. Ogden January 1, 1877 February 8, 1878 Democratic legislated out of office, office abolished and responsibilities taken over by Superintendent of Public Works

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The New York Civil List compiled by Franklin Benjamin Hough (page 40; Weed, Parsons and Co., 1858)
  2. ^ This sale was concluded only in 1817, the price of $152,718.52 was paid.
  3. ^ The Port of New York became the biggest port on the eastern seaboard based on its navigable connection to the Great Lakes.
  4. ^ The New York Civil List compiled by Franklin Benjamin Hough (Weed, Parsons and Co., 1858; page 40)
  5. ^ The office of Surveyor General was abolished by the State Constitution of 1846, and the succeeding officer, the State Engineer and Surveyor was not a member of the Commission of the Canal Fund but was a member of the Canal Board.
  6. ^ Elected were: 1847 Clowes in place of Jones, resigned; 1861 Bruce in place of Barnes, deceased.
  7. ^ Appointed were: 1846 Hudson in place of Earll, deceased; 1858 Ruggles in place of Whallon, deceased; 1869 Chapman in place of Bascom, deceased; 1875 Walrath in place of Stroud, deceased.
  8. ^ Elected were: 1861 Wright; 1870 Chapman
  9. ^ Morris, North, De Witt, Eddy, Porter and Cooper ceased to be Commissioners when the Legislature appointed a new Commission consisting of Clinton, Van Rensselaer, Ellicott, Holley and Young.
  10. ^ Clinton was removed for political reasons without the appointment of a substitute.
  11. ^ Holley was the Treasurer of the Canal Commission, and resigned after a shortage of $30,000 was discovered in his accounts. See: Erie Water West - A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 by Ronald E. Shaw (University Press of Kentucky, 1990, ISBN 0-8131-0801-2 , ISBN 978-0-8131-0801-8)
  12. ^ The Democratic Commissioners Young, Bouck, Earll, Bowman and Baker were removed by the new Whig majority of the State Legislature which elected Hudson, Dexter, Hamilton, Boughton and Whitney instead.
  13. ^ The Whig Commissioners Ruggles, Hudson, Dexter, Hamilton, Boughton and Whitney were removed by the new Democratic majority of the State Legislature which elected Clark, Hooker, Enos, Little, Earll and Bissell instead.
  14. ^ The number of Commissioners was reduced from 6 to 4, so that Clark and Hooker lost their office.
  15. ^ The Act of May 6, 1844, called for the election of 4 Commissioners at the State election in November who should take office "on the first Monday in February" of the next year in place of the incumbents.
  16. ^ Two Commissioners were elected to a two-year term, and the other two Commissioners to a four-year term. Subsequently, every two years two vacancies should be filled at the State election.
  17. ^ Documentary Sketch of New York State Canals by Sylvanus H. Sweet (Van Benthuysen, 1863)
  18. ^ Article XIV, §3, provided for the remaining in office until December 31, 1847, but no longer, of a number of state officers, among them the Canal Commissioners, who were in office on January 1, 1847. The term of the incumbents with a two-year term (Jones and Earll [deceased]) expired only on February 1, 1847, so that their terms were extended, while the terms of the incumbents with a four-year term (Bissell and Clark) were shortened.
  19. ^ Under the Act of May 6, 1844, there were two vacancies to be filled at the State election in November 1846, and Democrat Hudson and Whig Clowes (who had the indorsement of the Anti-Rent Party) were elected. But, at the same time the voters adopted the new Constitution which extended the terms of the incumbents until the end of 1847, calling for a new election in November 1847. However, shortly before the State election, Earll had died, and Democrat Hudson (the Commissioner-elect who had received more votes) was appointed by the Democratic Governor Silas Wright to fill the vacancy.
  20. ^ Under the Act of May 6, 1844, there were two vacancies to be filled at the State election in November 1846, and Democrat Hudson and Whig Clowes (who had the indorsement of the Anti-Rent Party) were elected. But, at the same time the voters adopted the new Constitution which extended the terms of the incumbents until the end of 1847, calling for a new election in November 1847. Clowes (the Commissioner-elect who had received less votes) could not take office, but was eventually elected by the Whig majority of the State Legislature to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Jones.
  21. ^ The first three Commissioners elected under the Constitution of 1846 were "classified" by drawing lots, so that henceforth every year one commissioner could be elected to a three-year term.
  22. ^ The office of Canal Commissioner had been abolished by an amendment in 1876. The incumbent commissioners Thayer and Walrath, and Commissioner Ogden who was elected at the same time of the ratification of the amendment, remained in office only because in 1877 and early 1878 no Superintendent of Public Works was appointed. The nominee of Governor Lucius Robinson, General George B. McClellan, was rejected by the State Senate, and no other nomination was made until January 1878.
  23. ^ [1] Opinion of New York State Attorney General Augustus Schoonmaker, Jr. in NYT on January 7, 1878

References[edit]

  • Bernstein, Peter L, Wedding of the Waters, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005.
  • Cornog, Evan, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Koeppel, Gerard, "Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire", Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2009.
  • Shaw, Ronald E, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.