The Chenango Canal & its Engineers

     On October 26, 1825, at the “Wedding of the Waters”, America’s first civil engineers became legend.  The NYS Historical Marker on the site of the house of James Geddes in the Town of Camillus, on busy Genesee Street near the Fairmount Shopping Center, cannot possibly tell the whole story of New York’s Canal system.  One of the most remarkable facts regarding the building of the New York State Canal system in the early years of the 1800’s was that there was no civil engineer in America at the time.

     The man offered the job of civil engineer of the proposed Erie Canal was William Weston of England.  He declined!  That left 4 men, three of whom were judges with limited surveying skill who had learned the craft of surveying in order to settle boundary disputes in court to do the job.  To this motley threesome was added Nathan Roberts, a teacher and mathematician. Some of these men, however, managed not only to learn their trade with hands on training alone.

     Geddes, who was an early entrepreneur in salt in the Syracuse area and a Court of Common Pleas judge by 1818,  moved from Pennsylvania to what became known at Geddesesburgh or Geddesville in 1794, Geddes who was appointed the Surveyor General of New York State, was given the job of finding the routes for the proposed Erie Canal, the lateral Chenango Canal and others.  Geddes was actually instrumental in getting the NYS Legislature to form a canal commission in 1810.

     Geddes limited knowledge of engineering and surveying but obviously good political connections landed him the job as one of the engineers (1816) to supervise in the construction of the proposed Erie Canal.  In 1825, after a bill was passed authorizing the surveying of lateral canal possibilities.  Geddes was sent to the proposed Chenango Valley canal route.  His survey proposed a route of 90 miles with 1,500 feet of lockage at a cost of $715,474.  The proposal of a Chenango Valley canal was voted down in successive years including after a 1827 survey by Nathan Roberts and a report put together by Forman.  The conclusion was there was not enough water. It was not until 1833 that the Act for the Construction of the Chenango Canal became law.

     Today, as then, the Erie Canal and the Chenango Canal’s remnants, stand as a marvel of early engineering in America and the feat of building them a testament to the early spirit of the workers many of them immigrants, who worked through inclement weather and unopened forests to build what was the most important commerce routes of the day.  There is no doubt that the Erie Canal was the single most important factor that made New York the Empire State and that the “Great Chenango Canal” certainly allowed for the villages and businesses along its way to spring up even though it proved to be a financial failure.

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