Saturday, June 4, 2016

Farrand Benedict: Crossing The Adirondacks

portraitA few years ago I learned of a fascinating but rather forgotten individual in Adirondack history. Along with his slightly older mentor Ebenezer Emmons and his younger contemporary Verplanck Colvin, he was among the first to accurately survey much of the Adirondacks. His name was Farrand Benedict.

Farrand Northrop Benedict was born in New Jersey in 1803, the oldest of seven. His parents died in the early 1830s and he became something of a father figure for his younger siblings. Graduating from Hamilton College in 1823, Benedict studied law and engineering and taught surveying and mathematics in Virginia and in Western New York before taking a professorship at the University of Vermont in Burlington in 1833. Teaching mathematics and surveying, Professor Benedict was known affectionately as “Professor B” or “Little Ben”.

Farrand Benedict first arrived in the Adirondacks in 1835, exploring and working in the Adirondacks, often bringing his wife and his brothers. He visited every year, often several times a year, until 1855.

By 1837, Benedict had made a name for himself as a surveyor and mathematician. New York State Geologist Ebenezer Emmons asked him to resolve a dispute as to the height of Mount Marcy.  The Emmons survey of 1836 had put its altitude at 5,487 feet, but railroad surveyor Edwin F. Johnson claimed the height was less than 5,000 feet. Benedict’s survey and calculations put the height at 5,344 feet, slightly less than the Emmons measurement. This was later confirmed by Verplanck Colvin’s survey of 1875.

Planning A Route Across The Adirondacks

In the summer of 1840, while Farrand Benedict was surveying a “southern route” for a proposed railroad from Ogdensburg to Lake Champlain he became very interested in the possibilities of a railroad or canal route across the Adirondacks connecting the Erie Canal to Lake Champlain. He was aware of Ebenezer Emmons’ 1840 report outlining the possibilities for constructing just such a canal to allow “slack water navigation” through the Adirondacks. Emmons had written that such a canal was “a matter quite doubtful,” in part because it would require “quite an amount of lockage.”

Benedict was also aware that in 1837 the New York State Legislature had approved a railroad and canal route from the Erie Canal at Little Falls to Ogdensburg through the West Canada Creek valley. The Manheim and Salisbury Railroad (later also the Mohawk and St. Lawrence Rail Road and Navigation Company) was to leave Piseco Lake and cross the Moose River Plains to Raquette Lake. From there the route would continue by slack water navigation through Raquette and Long Lakes, down the Raquette River to Tupper Lake. Either by railroad or boat it would progress to Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River. This project never got beyond the planning stage however.

The City of Ogdensburg was the last flat water sailing harbor before the rapids on the St. Lawrence and if there were a railroad route through the Adirondacks, it could handle passenger and freight traffic between the Great Lakes and Ogdensburg and the cities all along the east coast, in direct competition with the Erie and Champlain Canals (and later the New York Central Railroad). Farrand Benedict’s 1846 proposal for a 176-mile railroad/canal route across the Adirondacks would have been a far more difficult route.

1846 adk canal mapBy 1846, Benedict had acquired a thorough knowledge of the topography of the south-central Adirondacks. He expanded on Ebenezer Emmons’ ideas and proposed a railroad, canal and slack water navigation route diagonally across the Adirondacks. In February he reported to the New York State Senate that his proposed route would start with the partially built Black River Canal to Boonville (which was connected to the Erie Canal at Rome), and then a railroad to Old Forge.

At Old Forge goods would be transferred to boats to travel the various lakes and rivers to Purmoit’s Rapids (Permanent Rapids, north of Bloomingdale) on the Upper Saranac River.  The boats would have used a series of locks, inclined planes, and canals to go from lake to lake, watershed to watershed, from Old Forge to the Saranac River.  From there another railroad transport goods to Keeseville and then on to Port Kent on Lake Champlain.

In his 1846 report Benedict didn’t mention the possibility of a dam at the end of Long Lake, but he did fleetingly mention a canal from Long Lake to Round Pond (then known as Fountain Lake) and on to Catlin Lake (Hudson River watershed). This would be an idea that Benedict would later develop more fully.

Nothing came of Benedict’s 1846 proposal. For one reason, the railroads at each end of the project, Boonville to Old Forge (on the western end) and Lower Saranac Lake to Port Kent (on the eastern end), had not been constructed.  Additionally, the middle section – the Fulton Chain, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake, Long Lake, and Saranac Lake  section – would need several locks, dams, and planes, including a flight of eight locks at Raquette Falls (each lock could raise a canal boat about 10 feet).  There would have had to be additional lock combinations at Buttermilk Falls and at Forked Lake into Raquette Lake.

canalBenedict’s proposal also included two inclined planes, one from Raquette Lake to Eighth Lake (Brown’s Tract) and another from Stony Ponds to Upper Saranac Lake (Indian Carry); he cited examples of these along the Morris Canal in New Jersey.  Each inclined plane would cradle entire canal boats in a timber frame winched out of the water on rails over these obstructions. (The Morris Canal winches were at first powered by waterwheels, and later steam engines.)  The inclined plane at Indian Carry would have been a mile long; the one at Brown’s Tract, a mile-and-a-quarter.

After more than a decade of political wrangling, construction of the Black River Canal from Rome to Booneville was finally completed in 1850. It reached Port Leyden in 1851, and finally to Carthage in 1855. The Black River Canal (also called the Southern Canal) was originally planned to extend on to Ogdensburg, but by the time it reached Carthage, railroads had already proved to be a better investment.

The other major problem was financing. Benedict estimated the cost for his canal-railroad route at about $1.3 to 1.7 million ($41 to 49 million today).  In 1836, the New York State Legislature had agreed to enlarge the Erie Canal, but the Panic of 1837 (which was felt into the 1840s), combined with extensive graft and corruption lead to the passage of New York’s Stop and Tax Law in 1842. All canal and railroad construction and expansion was brought to a standstill. Some canal building resumed in 1848, but it was not until 1851 that full construction was underway again, and a new project such as Benedict’s Adirondack route was already being superseded by several new proposals.

During the late 1840s and early 1850s Farrand Benedict, along with partners, began purchasing large tracts of land in the Central Adirondacks from New York State for back taxes for logging operations (after Benedict’s death in 1880, many of these lands were abandoned to the State for back taxes a second time).  In the early 1850s Benedict proposed a dam at the outlet of Long Lake that would raise the lake about 20 feet, and a canal from the north end of Long Lake to Round Pond in the Upper Hudson River watershed.

The logs cut on Benedict and his partners’ lands would be cut along the Upper Raquette River watershed (Blue Mountain Lake, Eagle Lake, Utowana Lake, Raquette Lake, Forked Lake and Long Lake) and then floated down the Hudson to Glens Falls, rather than along the Raquette to Potsdam. Logs going to Glens Falls garnered higher prices.

Additional Notes About Adirondack Railroad Routes:  In addition to the northern railroad route from Ogdensburg to Lake Champlain, several similar routes were proposed over the years, including the Sackets Harbor to Saratoga Railroad (chartered in 1848, but only reached North Creek in 1871 under Thomas Durant) and the Schenectady to Ogdensburg Railroad (1853, surveyed but never constructed), via the Sacandaga Valley.

Photos: Portrait of Farrand N. Benedict  from Barbara McMatin, To the Lake of the Skies; an inclined plane on the Morris Canal (courtesy the Canal Society of New Jersey); and a map of the Benedict’s 1846 proposed route by Rick Risen.

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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

6 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    I wonder, Mike, what kinds of discussions we’d be having today if some/all of what was proposed had been built!
    Very interesting article!!

  2. Phil Terrie says:

    Nice job! Work on a canal connecting Long Lake to Round Pond was actually started, under the supervision of Farrand Benedict’s brother, G. W. Benedict. In the late 1960s, you could still see it from the air, a perfectly straight channel in the middle of a swampy flat area. I can only guess at how miserable it must have been to work in such a place. Mill owners and others down the Raquette strenuously objected to the whole thing because they feared that a dam near the north end of Long Lake, which would have diverted much of the Raquette’s flow to the Hudson, would interfere with mills and and transportation downstream. (Donaldson, vol 2, p. 75.)

  3. Dan Way says:

    Great read!! I have never heard of this guy, but what an influence he had on the legendary Colvin, just as Emmons apparently influenced him. Mentorship can be a powerful thing. Even the great Isaac Newton acknowledged it when he said “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Thanks for sharing this forgotten piece of Adirondack history!

  4. Deb says:

    Good one Mike!
    Fyi he did start the canal but there were issues w the workers and of course the funding. Amazing idea man !

    • Mike Prescott says:

      Deb, the follow-up to this article appeared in the Adirondack Almanack on 10 or 11 Jun (last Friday or Sat ). That article is about the canal plans.

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