MoboReader > Literature > The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway

   Chapter 3 No.3

The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway By Archer Butler Hulbert Characters: 16871

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The Mastery of the Rivers

It would perhaps have been well, in the light of later difficulties and failures, if the men who at Washington's call undertook to master the capricious rivers of the seaboard had studied a stately Spanish decree which declared that, since God had not made the rivers of Spain navigable, it were sacrilege for mortals to attempt to do so. Even before the Revolution, Mayor Rhodes of Philadelphia was in correspondence with Franklin in London concerning the experiences of European engineers in harnessing foreign streams. That sage philosopher, writing to Rhodes in 1772, uttered a clear word of warning: "rivers are ungovernable things," he had said, and English engineers "seldom or never use a River where it can be avoided." But it was the birthright of New World democracy to make its own mistakes and in so doing to prove for itself the errors of the Old World.

As energetic men all along the Atlantic Plain now took up the problem of improving the inland rivers, they faced a storm of criticism and ridicule that would have daunted any but such as Washington and Johnson of Virginia or White and Hazard of Pennsylvania or Morris and Watson of New York. Every imaginable objection to such projects was advanced-from the inefficiency of the science of engineering to the probable destruction of all the fish in the streams. In spite of these discouragements, however, various men set themselves to form in rapid succession the Potomac Company in 1785, the Society for Promoting the Improvement of Inland Navigation in 1791, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company in 1792, and the Lehigh Coal Mine Company in 1793. A brief review of these various enterprises will give a clear if not a complete view of the first era of inland water commerce in America.

The Potomac Company, authorized in 1785 by the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia, received an appropriation of $6666 from each State for opening a road from the headwaters of the Potomac to either the Cheat or the Monongahela, "as commissioners … shall find most convenient and beneficial to the Western settlers." This was the only public aid which the enterprise received; and the stipulated purpose clearly indicates the fact that, in the minds of its promoters, the transcontinental character of the undertaking appeared to be vital. The remainder of the money required for the work was raised by public subscription in the principal cities of the two States. In this way £40,300 was subscribed, Virginia men taking 266 shares and Maryland men 137 shares. The stockholders elected George Washington as president of the company, at a salary of thirty shillings a year, with four directors to aid him, and they chose as general manager James Rumsey, the boat mechanician. These men then proceeded to attack the chief impediments in the Potomac-the Great Falls above Washington, the Seneca Falls at the mouth of Seneca Creek, and the Shenandoah Falls at Harper's Ferry. But, as they had difficulty in obtaining workmen and sufficient liquor to cheer them in their herculean tasks, they made such slow progress that subscribers, doubting Washington's optimistic prophecy that the stock would increase in value twenty per cent, paid their assessments only after much deliberation or not at all. Thirty-six years later, though $729,380 had been spent and lock canals had been opened about the unnavigable stretches of the Potomac River, a commission appointed to examine the affairs of the company reported "that the floods and freshets nevertheless gave the only navigation that was enjoyed." As for the road between the Potomac and the Cheat or the Monongahela, the records at hand do not show that the money voted for that enterprise had been used.

The Potomac Company nevertheless had accomplished something: it had acquired an asset of the greatest value-a right of way up the strategic Potomac Valley; and it had furnished an object lesson to men in other States who were struggling with a similar problem. When, as will soon be apparent, New York men undertook the improvement of the Mohawk waterway there was no pattern of canal construction for them to follow in America except the inadequate wooden locks erected along the Potomac. It is interesting to know that Elkanah Watson, prominent in inland navigation to the North, went down from New York in order to study these wooden locks and that New Yorkers adopted them as models, though they changed the material to brick and finally to stone.

Pennsylvania had been foremost among the colonies in canal building, for it had surveyed as early as 1762 the first lock canal in America, from near Reading on the Schuylkill to Middletown on the Susquehanna. Work, however, had to be suspended when Pontiac's Rebellion threw the inland country into a panic. But the enterprise of Maryland and Virginia in 1785 in developing the Potomac aroused the Pennsylvanians to renewed activity. The Society for Promoting the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation set forth a programme that was as broad as the Keystone State itself. Their ultimate object was to capture the trade of the Great Lakes. "If we turn our view," read the memorial which the Society presented to the Legislature, "to the immense territories connected with the Ohio and Mississippi waters, and bordering on the Great Lakes, it will appear … that our communication with those vast countries (considering Fort Pitt as the port of entrance upon them) is as easy and may be rendered as cheap, as to any other port on the Atlantic tide waters."

Pennsylvania, lying between Virginia and New York, occupied a peculiar position. Her Susquehanna Valley stretched northwest-not so directly west as did the Potomac on the south and the Mohawk on the north. This more northerly trend led these early Pennsylvania promoters to believe that, while they might "only have a share in the trade of those [the Ohio] waters," they could absolutely secure for themselves the trade of the Great Lakes, "taking Presq'Isle [Erie, Pennsylvania] which is within our own State, as the great mart or place of embarkation."

The plan which the Society proposed involved the improvement of water and land routes by way of the Delaware to Lake Ontario and Lake Otsego, and of eight routes by the Susquehanna drainage, north, northwest, and west. A bill which passed the Legislature on April 13, 1791, appropriated money for these improvements. Work was begun immediately on the Schuylkill-Susquehanna Canal, but only four miles had been completed by 1794, when the Lancaster Turnpike directed men's attention to improved highways as an alternative more likely than canals to provide the desired facilities for inland transportation. The work on the canal was renewed, however, in 1821, when the rival Erie Canal was nearing completion, and was finished in 1827. It became known as the Union Canal and formed a link in the Pennsylvania canal system, the development of which will be described in a later chapter.

In New York State, throughout the period of the Old French and the Revolutionary wars, barges and keel boats had plied the Mohawk, Wood Creek, and the Oswego to Lake Ontario. Around such obstructions as Cohoes Falls, Little Falls, and the portage at Rome to Wood Creek, wagons, sleds, and pack-horses had transferred the cargoes. To avoid this labor and delay men soon conceived of conquering these obstacles by locks and canals. As early as 1777 the brilliant Gouverneur Morris had a vision of the economic development of his State when "the waters of the great western inland seas would, by the aid of man, break through their barriers and mingle with those of the Hudson."

Elkanah Watson was in many ways the Washington of New York. He had the foresight, patience, and persistence of the Virginia planter. His Journal of a tour up the Mohawk in 1788 and a pamphlet which he published in 1791 may be said to be the ultimate sources in any history of the internal commerce of New York. As a result, a company known as "The President, Directors, and Company of the Western Inland Lock Navigation in the State of New York," with a capital stock of $25,000, was authorized by act of legislature in March, 1792, and the State subscribed for $12,500 in stock. Many singular provisions were inserted in this charter, but none more remarkable than one which stipulated that all profits over fifteen per cent should revert

to the State Treasury. This hint concerning surplus profits, however, did not cause a stampede when the books were opened for subscriptions in New York and Albany. In later years, when the Erie Canal gave promise of a new era in American inland commerce, Elkanah Watson recalled with a grim satisfaction the efforts of these early days. The subscription books at the old Coffee House in New York, he tells us, lay open three days without an entry, and at Lewis's tavern in Albany, where the books were opened for a similar period, "no mortal" had subscribed for more than two shares.

The system proposed for the improvement of the waterways of New York was similar to that projected for the Potomac. A canal was to be cut from the Mohawk to the Hudson in order to avoid Cohoes Falls; a canal with locks would overcome the forty-foot drop at Little Falls; another canal over five thousand feet in length was to connect the Mohawk and Wood Creek at Rome; minor improvements were to be made between Schenectady and the mouth of the Schoharie; and finally the Oswego Falls at Rochester were to be circumvented also by canal. All the objections, difficulties, and discouragements which had attended efforts to improve waterways elsewhere in America confronted these New York promoters. They began in 1793 at Little Falls but were soon forced to cease owing to the failure of funds. Under the encouraging spur of a state subscription to two hundred shares of stock, they renewed their efforts in 1794 but were again forced to abandon the work before the year had passed. By November, 1795, however, they had completed the canal and in thirty days had received toll to the amount of about four hundred dollars.

The total actual work done is not clearly shown by the documents, but it is evident that the measure of success achieved was not equaled elsewhere on similar improvements on a large scale. From 1796 to 1804 the tolls received at Rome amounted to over fifteen thousand dollars, and at Little Falls to over fifty-eight thousand dollars-a sum which exceeded the original cost of construction. Dividends had crept up from three per cent in 1798 to five and a half per cent in 1817, the year in which work was begun on the Erie Canal.

No struggle for the mastery of an American river matches in certain respects the effort of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to bridle the Lehigh and make it play its part in the commercial development of Pennsylvania. The failures and trials of the promoters of this company were no less remarkable than was the great success that eventually crowned the effort. In 1793 the Lehigh Coal Mine Company was organized and purchased some ten thousand acres in the Mauch Chunk anthracite region, nine miles from the Lehigh River. It then appropriated a sum of money to build a road from the mines to the river in the expectation that the State would improve the navigation of the waterway, for which, it has already been noted, an appropriation had been made in 1791, in accordance with the programme of the Society for Promoting the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation. Nothing was done, however, to improve the river, and the company, after various attempts at shipping coal to Philadelphia, gave up the effort and allowed the property, which was worth millions, to lie idle. In 1807 the Lehigh Coal Mine Company, in another effort to get its wares before the public, granted to Rowland and Butland, a private firm, free right to operate one of its veins of coal; but this operation also resulted in failure. In 1813 the company made a third attempt and granted to a private concern a lease of the entire property on the condition that ten thousand bushels of coal should be taken to market annually. Difficulties immediately made themselves apparent. No contractor could be found who would haul the output to the Lehigh River for less than four dollars a ton, and the man who accepted those terms lost money. Of five barges filled at Mauch Chunk three went to pieces on the way to Philadelphia. Although the contents of the other two sold for twenty dollars a ton, the proceeds failed to meet expenses, and the operating company threw up the lease.

But it happened that White and Hazard, the wire manufacturers who purchased this Lehigh coal, were greatly pleased with its quality. Believing that coal could be obtained more cheaply from Mauch Chunk than from the mines along the Schuylkill, White, Hauto, and Hazard formed a company, entered into negotiation with the owners of the Lehigh mines, and obtained the lease of their properties for a period of twenty years at an annual rental of one ear of corn. The company agreed, moreover, to ship every year at least forty thousand bushels of coal to Philadelphia for its own consumption, to prove the value of the property.

White and his partners immediately applied to the Legislature for permission to improve the navigation of the Lehigh, stating the purpose of the improvement and citing the fact that their efforts would tend to serve as a model for the improvement of other Pennsylvania streams. The desired opportunity "to ruin themselves," as one member of the Legislature put it, was granted by an act passed March 20, 1818. The various powers applied for, and granted, embraced the whole range of tried and untried methods for securing "a navigation downward once in three days for boats loaded with one hundred barrels, or ten tons." The State kept its weather eye open in this matter, however, for a small minority felt that these men would not ruin themselves. Accordingly, the act of grant reserved to the commonwealth the right to compel the adoption of a complete system of slack-water navigation from Easton to Stoddartsville if the service given by the company did not meet "the wants of the country."

Capital was subscribed by a patriotic public on condition that a committee of stockholders should go over the ground and pass judgment on the probable success of the effort. The report was favorable, so far as the improvement of the river was concerned; but the nine-mile road to the mines was unanimously voted impracticable. "To give you an idea of the country over which the road is to pass," wrote one of the commissioners, "I need only tell you that I considered it quite an easement when the wheel of my carriage struck a stump instead of a stone." The public mind was divided. Some held that the attempt to operate the coal mine was farcical, but that the improvement of the Lehigh River was an undertaking of great value and of probable profit to investors. Others were just as positive that the river improvement would follow the fate of so many similar enterprises but that a fortune was in store for those who invested in the Lehigh mines.

The direct result of the examiners' report and of the public debate it provoked was the organization of the first interlocking companies in the commercial history of America. The Lehigh Navigation Company was formed with a capital stock of $150,000 and the Lehigh Coal Company with a capital stock of $55,000. This incident forms one of the most striking illustrations in American history of the dependence of a commercial venture upon methods of inland transportation. The Lehigh Navigation Company proceeded to build its dams and walls while the Lehigh Coal Company constructed the first roadway in America built on the principle-later adopted by the railways-of dividing the total distance by the total descent in order to determine the grade. Not to be outdone in point of ingenuity, the Lehigh Navigation Company, then suffering from an unprecedented dearth of water, adopted White's invention of sluice gates connecting with pools which could be filled with reserve water to be drawn upon as navigation required. By 1819 the necessary depth of water between Mauch Chunk and Easton was obtained. The two companies were immediately amalgamated under the title of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and by 1823 had sent over two thousand tons of coal to market.

As most of the efforts to improve the rivers, however, met with indifferent success and many failures were recorded, the pendulum of public confidence in this aid to inland commerce swung away, and highway improvement by means of stone roads and toll road companies came into favor in the interval between the nation's two eras of river improvement and canal building.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top