Saturday, June 11, 2016

Farrand Benedict’s Abandoned Newcomb-Long Lake Canal

Contemporary Arial Photograph of the Canal photo Rick Rosen 2008Farrand Benedict, “Professor B,” surveyor and professor of mathematics and engineering at the University of Vermont in Burlington, wrote a proposal for a canal across the Adirondacks in 1846. His plan was to use the Black River Canal with its connection to the Erie Canal at Rome and build a railroad from Boonville, on the Black River Canal, to Old Forge. He was then going to utilize the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Raquette Lake, Long Lake, the Raquette River and the Saranac Lakes with various lock systems, dams, and inclines to the Saranac River for canal boat traffic. He also proposed another railroad to Keeseville and on to Port Kent on Lake Champlain. His objective was to stimulate commerce by using the canal to ship mining ores and logs out of the Adirondacks and to bring agricultural and finished goods in. These plans were stalled by the the expansion of railroads, which were faster and able to carry more goods, and the aftermath of the Panic of 1837.

In an 1846 report to the New York State Senate, Benedict fleetingly mentioned the possibility of another plan: “Extensive lines of small boat navigation… Thus the great mineral district of Newcomb may communicate with Long Lake, thro’ the Rich chain of lakes on the upper Hudson. ” Benedict did not expand on the possibility of a canal system to link the iron mines of Newcomb with the Long Lake, but the idea didn’t die there.

By the early 1850s Benedict’s focus shifted to acquiring his own lands for logging and speculation. To that end he wanted the best prices for his logs. Logs going to Glens Falls and sawn for the eastern city markets garnered much higher prices than logs going to the Canadian market through Potsdam. To facilitate moving logs to the Upper Hudson, Benedict began construction of a new canal. A dam was built at the end of Round Pond and digging commenced from Round Pond toward Long Lake. Another dam at the north end of Long Lake (down river from where the Cold River joins the Raquette River), would be necessary to raise the lake level some 20 feet so that it was slightly higher than Round Pond.

When Benedict’s canal project was begun, and when the project was abandoned, is somewhat open to question. What is known is that lumber interests in the Lower Raquette River (Potsdam) were opposed to the dam and canal project on the Upper Raquette (Long Lake). The Potsdam loggers did not want “their” logs going to mills in Glens Falls. By legislative action the Raquette River was designated a water highway. Benedict’s vision for the canal is also uncertain, although it’s long been speculated that the locks and dams were to provide for the movement of boats loaded with iron ore from the Newcomb/Tahawus area, utilizing Harris and Rich Lakes and the “Middle or Adirondack” Branch of the Hudson River.

In August of 1851, Abner Leavenworth, a student of Professor Benedict’s, described a surveying excursion to the vicinity of Raquette Lake, including the area of Hendrick Spring and Fountain Lake (now Round Pond) near the settlements of Lumberville and Pendleton, and the area around Catlin and Rich lakes. In his journal, Leavenworth mentioned the plan to build a dam at the outlet of the lake, and later referenced “Prof B’s company last August [1850] surveying the route for the canal to connect the Lake [Long Lake] with Catlin’s Lake and others heading to North River.”

Contemporary large map of proposed canal, Rick RosenThe proposed canal from Long Lake to Catlin Lake was first surveyed during the summers of 1850 and 1851. But by 1859, Benson J. Lossing noted in The Hudson from the Wilderness to the Sea that the dam and the canal at Round Pond were in a poor state of repair:

“We found Hendrick Spring in the edge of a swamp — cold, shallow, about five feet in diameter, shaded by trees, shrubbery, and vines, and fringed with the delicate brake and fern. Its waters, rising within a half mile of Long Lake, and upon the same summit level, flow southward to the Atlantic more than three hundred miles; while those of the later flow to the St, Lawrence and reach the Atlantic a thousand miles away to the far north-east. A few years ago G. W. Benedict [he confused G.W. with Farrand, both men taught at the University of Vermont, and were related] attempted to unite these waters by a canal, for lumbering purposes, but the enterprise was abandoned. We followed the ditch that he had cut through the swamp nearly half a mile, among tall raspberry bushes….”

“Fountain Lake [modern Round Pond] is the first collection of the waters of the west branch of the Hudson,” he wrote.  “It is about two miles in circumference, with highly picturesque shores. It empties into Catlin Lake through a shallow outlet. . . . A few rods down its outlet, where we crossed, we found the remains of a dam and sluice, erected by Professor Benedict, to raise the waters so as to flow through the canal into Long Lake. . . .”

Although, the canal appears to be complete in several large maps, including in the prospectus of the Lake Ontario and Hudson River Railroad Company: Report and Minutes of the Proceedings and Evidence (London, 1858), the visit by Lossing, and the detailed sketches and notes of 19-year-old student Alfred P. Boller, who visited in 1859, show this was not the case.

The remains of Farrand Benedict’s canal can still be seen today from the air. In 2008, with permission from SUNY-ESF, I paddled and carried a solo canoe from Catlin Lake to Round Pond. We paddled along the old canal bed and the ruins of the old dam can still be seen.

So, what happened?

At some point between 1851 and 1859, due in part to his wife’s chronic illness, Benedict resigned his professorship at the University of Vermont and left his work in the Adirondacks.  In 1855, he and his wife moved from Vermont to Parsippany, New Jersey and from then until 1871 he seems to have made only one trip back into the Adirondacks, in the summer of 1867. It was at this time that he began to sell-off some of his Adirondack lands.

Also, there was great opposition to dam and canal plan by the Lower Raquette River lumber barons. Legislation initiated by Henry Hewitt (1797-1869) to declare the Raquette River a public highway was passed in 1850. Later, other Potsdam lumberman, led by George Sissions and Augustus Sherman, would add additional legislation more than a dozen times over the next 40 years, all designed to support their interests along the Raquette.  Another major factor was likely the Panic of 1857, generally recognized as the first worldwide financial crisis.

Benedict did not altogether abandon his Adirondack interests, but he did scale them back, allowing his younger brother Joel serve as his chief Adirondack representative. It was not until after the death of his wife, Susan Elizabeth Benedict, in 1871, that he became again directly involved with his Adirondack holdings. Little is known of Farrand Benedict’s life in New Jersey, but he and his wife purchased the former home of William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey where they lived until her death.

In 1866, Benedict commissioned the building of a dam for logging at Forked Lake. And in 1867 he traveled to the Adirondacks to discuss his logging interests with his brother Joel and others. He also wrote and re-wrote a long manuscript about the Adirondacks that is now in the collection of the Adirondack Museum.

By 1874, Benedict was again involved with the Long Lake dam and canal to Round Pond scheme. In a report written for the New York State Legislature, Report on a Survey of the Waters of the Upper Hudson and Raquette Rivers in the summer of 1874 with References to Increasing the Supply of Water for the Champlain Canal and Improving the Navigation of the Hudson River, Benedict again proposed that a dam be constructed at the end of Long Lake and that a canal be built from Long Lake to Round Pond. Here again he proposed to “raise the surface of Long Lake by twenty feet, and divert its surplus waters into the Hudson River basin.” According to the report, Benedict and his survey team were “instructed especially to inquire how far these surplus waters might be relied upon for feeding the states canals and to what extent, if at all, they could be usefully employed in improving the navigation of the upper tide section of the Hudson river during the period of extremely low water in the summer and autumn months.”

long lake round pond canal 1874This new plan also called for constructing dams and creating reservoirs on many of the lakes and ponds of both the Raquette River watershed, including at Blue Mountain Lake, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake, Brandreth Lake, Little Tupper Lake and Long Lakes, and in the Hudson River watershed at Round Pond, Caitlin Lake, Rich lake, Harris Lake, Newcomb Lake, Chain Lakes, and Goodnow Pond. Surveys of The Upper Schroon River, Indian River, and the Sacandaga River were also completed, with the objective of supplying additional waters to the New York State Canal System.

In Verplanck Colvin’s Report of the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness of New York, 1874 he wrote of two proposed canals to divert Upper Raquette River waters into the Hudson River watershed. One, a canal at Blue Mountain Lake to flow into the Rock River and thus into the Hudson, and the second a “project which originated over thirty years ago” – Farrand Benedict’s plan from the 1850s.  Colvin wrote about the possibility of “locating a dam some distance below the lake [Long Lake] so as to secure the water of the Cold River, which at times is of greater volume than the main Raquette River itself. . .” Colvin went on to describe in great detail the advantages of the dam and canal at Long Lake to feed the Upper Hudson for the logging industry and for feeding waters to the state canal system. He even described the possibility of additional dams and canals to provide even more water to the “Long Lake Reservoir.”

(Photo of much the older Farrand Benedict - UVM libraryThe opposition by the lumbermen of Potsdam and the Lower Raquette River and the growth of the railroads conspired to shelve Benedict’s and Colvin’s plans – another financial crisis in 1873 didn’t help.

Farrand N. Benedict’s dream of diverting the Upper Raquette River into the Hudson River was never to be realized and he died in New Jersey on July 19, 1880, at the age of 77.

He was described in his obituary as a man whose “character was one of great simplicity, modesty, devotion to high principal, and fidelity to every public and social duty.”

Photos, from above: Aerial view of Benedict’s Canal, with Long Lake in the far background and Round Pond out of sight to the right (photo by Rick Rosen); map of proposed canal (courtesy of Rick Rosen); “Map of the Upper Hudson Canal” (1874); a much older Farrand Benedict (both courtesy of UVM library).

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Mike Prescott is a former history teacher and secondary school principal who found a new retirement avocation in paddling Adirondack waters and exploring their history. Mike is a retired New York State Licensed Guide, and also volunteers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the Raquette River Blueway Corridor, the New York State Trails Council and with the Adirondack Mountain Club. Feel free to contact him at

8 Responses

  1. Dave Gibson says:

    Wonderfully informative short history, Thank you so much, Mike.

  2. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    Thanks for that excellent research, Mike. A fascinating prospect, that canal. It’s great that you were able to see the remains of it, and then write a truly interesting piece.

  3. southcove says:

    Good story. I wonder if you could link the maps so as to better be able to see detail. Very interesting that he kept at this scheme for so many years.

  4. Phil Terrie says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  5. John Sullivan says:

    Mike — What would a map of the Adirondacks look like if all the canal/reservoir projects had been completed?

  6. Mike says:

    A fascinating piece, one has to admire his indefatigable nature and steadfastness. In the end, time and innovation made them obsolete. Imagine however if it had come to fruition. A great look back at history. Kudos to the author.

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