With the opening of the entire Erie Canal in 1825, a call for more canals and other internal improvements arose from all over New York State. People in many legislative districts thought that if the state could build a canal that had already shown its great value, it could also provide infrastructure projects to help regional economies to connect with the artificial river that joined the interior Great Lakes and the global market through Albany and New York City. This was also the case coming from the legislative representatives from Montgomery County and although many lateral canals would be subsequently surveyed, planned and some would even be built, perhaps the most intriguing was one that never had a shovel turned.
As early as 1826, citizens from Montgomery County were calling for a plan to connect the Erie Canal – which already ran through the county on the south side of the Mohawk River – to the industrializing area around the county seat of Johnstown and further into the wilderness to the north for raw materials. Inhabitants of Montgomery and Hamilton Counties formally called upon the New York State Senate through the Canal Commission for a survey to be conducted and a planned canal from Caughnawaga (present day Fonda) up the Sacandaga River Valley (Journal of the NYS Senate 49 Sess 1826). The original intention was to have a canal of over 30 miles and elevation increase of 350 feet that would connect the Erie Canal to the waters of what is now known as the lower Adirondacks. That could therefore be connected to the head waters of the Hudson River and also through a series of lakes to the Raquette River and the St. Lawrence River. Senators knew that in order to populate that region of the state and exploit its natural resources, some forms of improvements would be necessary. However, their concerns grew over the expense and circuitous route the canal would need to travel. The senate forwarded the recommendation to the committee on canals were it apparently lay dormant.
By the early 1830’s, a renewed push for this “Sacandaga” canal emerged from the county and a secondary canal improvement was being considered with the hope of state approval and private funding that would utilize the Cayadutta Creek to connect Johnstown to the Erie Canal. The Cayadutta Canal Company was incorporated in the spring of 1833 (Journal of the Senate of the State of New York – 56th Session 1833). This company was to “…construct a canal and aqueduct at Caughnawaga, and feeder to the said canal…” that would connect Johnstown to the Grand Erie. The Cayadutta Canal Company was a private stock firm that seems to have had little further legislative consideration. Improvements on the creek were done to facilitate industrialized conveyances and the body of water and its branches have a long industrial and environmental history that is worthy of an entirely different exploration.
While the Cayadutta Canal Company received its incorporation from New York, the idea of connecting the Erie Canal to the Sacandaga River lived on but with little actual support in the Senate. That changed however by the end of the 1830’s and even amid the financial woes the country as well as state faced during this time. The State had begun an effort for enlargement of the Erie Canal – due to the extreme success of the waterway – in 1836 and was actively constructing lateral canals to further increase the economic might of the Erie. By 1839, the government of NYS was willing to set forth two surveyors to determine potential routes for a canal that would connect the Erie through Montgomery into Fulton and Hamilton Counties.
This survey would actually be two explorations that would ultimately look at three routes to join the Erie at Fultonville and Fonda, to the Hudson River through the Sacandaga Valley. In the Senate report from 1840, the act of the Canal Board to authorize this endeavor was to “…survey and estimate of the expense of a canal route along the main or middle branch of the Hudson river, from North creek, near the great tannery in Johnsburgh, to the High falls at Corinth: also a survey and estimate of the expense of a canal route along the west or Sacandaga branch, from Murphy’s mills in Northampton, to the said falls; thence by the most eligible route to the Erie or Champlain canal…” But what is most telling and casts the most impact on the future of this canal is the last portion of this statement, “…with an estimate of the benefit to the State lands, by opening such canal routes, and the income to be derived therefrom.”
George E. Hoffman, a civil engineer, was appointed by the State Surveyor General O. L. Holley in June of 1839 and conducted his work in August and September of that year. Holley contributed much additional information in the final report given to the NYS Senate in 1840, and Hoffman’s survey’s detail routes that would most benefit four counties: Herkimer, Hamilton, Warren, and Essex. Connecting the Erie to the Glens Falls Feeder Canal or Champlain Canal through this region -it was noted- would increase the valuation of lands. The report also states that if districts opened roads, a similar benefit could be met: “…even common roads judiciously laid out and kept in tolerable repair, so as to enable settlers to go to and from market with such loads as a pair of horses usually draw… [and] thus connect themselves with the daily traffic and intercourse of the country…”
Holley gave instruction that much of the canal route should be on navigable slackwaters either already existing or made with relative ease by damming sections of the upper branches of the Sacandaga River. This would allow for the “products of the forest” to make their way to market and allow for the clearing of farm land which “…would awaken the spirit of agricultural enterprise…” This would, by his arithmetic increase the aggregate value of nearly half a million acres of land by $150,000. He would go on to state that the most substantial and permanent benefit would come only from the use of the streams and lakes interior to the canals as connected by nearly one-hundred miles of navigation.
In his work, Forever Wild: A Cultural History of Wilderness in the Adirondacks, Philip G. Terrie covers the lingering Jeffersonian era mixed with a Jacksonian American republic that meant a revitalized idealism of the people, whom sought to utilize natural resources as a way to rise the empire of civilization into the the “wilds” of the countryside. Ebenezer Emmons, a geologist who was integral in the geological survey of New York State in the 1830’s and also the man responsible for naming the Adirondacks, advocated for the intense use of natural resources. His view of the region was that it was of a “…progressive value..being eminently well fitted by nature for a grazing country…” that could also provide raw materials such as timber, ore, and crops with use of “…an extensive system of canals.”
In 1839, State Surveyor General O.L. Holley and Civil Engineer George E. Hoffman were conducting explorations into creating a such a system as it pertained to the Sacandaga River Valley. Holley’s 1840 report indicates that, “if the canals, of which the routes have now been surveyed, were constructed, and connected with a convenient slack-water navigation along the upper branches of the Sacandaga, on the one side, and the principle branches of the Hudson [River], on the other side of the territory in question, the public lands would doubtless be thereby benefited to some extent: though, even in this case, much the greatest portion of the benefits of such improved means of conveyance and intercourse, would still be limited to the immediate country within which the improvements would be located; or could be extended, at most of the base and in a very few instances where the principle streams come down, up the sides of the bread table land, in the interior of which the chief masses of these public lands are situated.”
Holley states that those benefits, though limited in geographic scope, would be “very considerable,” and any permanent benefit would make use of the streams and lakes of the entire interior of the Adirondacks being connected by “continuous navigation.” He continues that he cannot declare a suitable route and calls for a more “…accurate scientific examination of the whole district.” At the conclusion of his survey, Hoffman reported a more grim finding and also contradicted the estimated increased valuation of public lands that his supervisor calculated; stating there was not enough known to assess the value of the acreage.
Hoffman had commenced his work in July 1839 along the Sacandaga branch of the Hudson River near Murphy’s Mills in the town of Northampton and onward to Corinth Falls. He then explored the route to the Hudson River via the Glens Falls Feeder Canal to North Creek by way of the Schroon River. When he had completed those segments, the crew started a new survey line from the forks of the Sacandaga River near Fish House and southerly to Amsterdam with a terminus at the Erie Canal. The next line was from Barbers Dam, six and a half miles from the mouth of the Sacandaga to the Aqueduct across the Mohawk River at Rexford Flats. In total, his surveys covered over 400 miles.
Hoffman’s report to the New York State Senate is more concise in its estimations for construction costs in order to make comparisons to “…an estimate of the benefit to the State lands…and the income to be derived…” as the legislative authorization implicitly mandated. His report outlines a canal that would require “…locks [of]…rubble masonry, laid dry, and lined with plank” as well as bridges, culverts, and an aqueduct; all of which he indicated were not beyond essential and required for safety.
The survey’s for both the route segments to the Champlain via the Glens Falls Feeder as well as to the Erie via the Sacandaga Valley were thus estimated conservatively at a construction cost of $986,045 & $562,775 respectively by Holley’s calculations of Hoffman’s notes. The valley route would require lockage’s in excess of 164 feet of elevation difference, while the two segments for the feeder canal connection to the Champlain both exceeded that number with a total over 400 feet in lockage’s and a distance of under one-hundred miles. In order to take full advantage of what the lower Adirondacks would have to offer in terms of ore and timber resources, the two segments would need to be constructed and connected to slack-water navigation systems. The cost for the total work figured to be $1,348,820.
The next consideration was the source of water into the sections of dug canal and while the Sacandaga River could be dammed in locations in order to convey a canal through “…fertile and cultivated country…,” the summit elevations above the levels of the Sacandaga as well as the Mohawk River and Hudson River meant that hydrology concerns would be an obstacle to overcome as well. Hoffman states that “…a Canal to Amsterdam would have to leave the Sacandaga about 12 miles above Murphys Mill [Northampton], and be fed from that river the whole distance…” in order to rectify some of those issues.
Hoffman comments in his report that he felt information gained from the survey was “…not sufficient for any estimate of the expense, or difficulties of a canal.” Again, an opposing view to Holley’s report. Though, Hoffman does state later in the 1840 Senate report that, “From the character of the country, I should suppose that the expense would be too great to justify the undertaking, and that a railroad would be much the cheapest and best improvement for that section of the country.”
His opinion continues in terms of the value of benefit being considerably undermined by the expense of – not just construction – but of repair and maintenance of the canal through the Sacandaga Valley; stating, “I do not think that a canal is such an improvement.” The headstone as set then, as expense would be greater than the return. Hoffman goes further by explaining in his report to the Senate that a railroad from Albany to the St. Lawrence would greatly increase the value of lands and even encourage cheaper shipping rates on the Erie Canal; “…passengers and the more valuable articles, which could pay a heavier rate of transportation from that district, and the mineral, and agricultural productions, and increased value of the country through which the road would pass, independently of its importance for National defense, would make it a valuable addition to our State improvements.” And thus, the nail was driven into the coffin for the idea of the Sacandaga Canal.
Though, the idea of canalizing the Adirondacks was not buried. In a 1846 report to the NYS Legislature, Farrand Benedict (a surveyor and mathematics professor at the University of Vermont, Burlington) looked into the “…feasibility of a combined railroad – steamboat route from Lake Champlain to Oneida County.” His survey route crossed the Adirondacks and in the
report it was noted the raw materials of that country as well as an insightful commentary as to the necessity for roads, rail lines and canals as a combination in order to efficiently provide transportation across the mountain range. The conveyance of this route could provide benefit, though Ebenezer Emmons also still saw the value in constructing a canal system from the Mohawk Valley to the Adirondack plateau if the difficulties could be overcome, along with the 1500 feet of elevation difference. While improvements in transportation across the Adirondacks were made, the large-scale system of canals, rails, and roads was never developed.
Carol Sheriff points out in her work, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, how advocates for canal expansion into the northern territory no doubt viewed it in the terms of their right by policy or perceived obligation of the state to distribute prosperity evenly across the state. Independent canal ventures, while not usually soluble, created sections of lateral canals for industry and transportation and therefore further illustrated the usefulness of canals in that era across New York State.
Though the Sacandaga Canal would never be constructed, the river was manipulated by mankind; being used for grist and timber work, and then eventually for the generation of electricity. By the early 20th century, flooding occurrences down the Sacandaga Valley that impacted the low-lying cities along the Hudson River meant that an engineering solution was to be necessary. Construction of the Conklingville Dam flooded a thirty mile stretch of the valley and today the Great Sacandaga Lake provides economical and recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike – much like the Sacandaga Canal inspirational forefather, the Grand Erie Canal of today.
Images from above: Documents of the Senate of New York: 63rd session; map of possible routes of Sacandaga Canal; early map of Sacandaga River and Erie Canal; 1854 map portion of Sacandaga River.
This is an excellent essay and you really ought to get the state or someone to publish this as a pamphlet or publish it yourself as an article in an intelligent journal (if there still are any.)
We really enjoyed this article that David put together and also want to thank John for publishing it on The Adirondack Almanack!
Thank you to John Warren for publishing this article. For anyone interested in the history of the Great Sacandaga Lake, there is a new documentary that will be presented at the end of this month but will also be available for purchase online, called “Harnessing Nature – Building the Great Sacandaga.”