The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2001

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The Ceremonial First Digging

On The Erie Canal


Daniel J. Mordell

My interest in this ceremony was attracted by the anomaly of a great and memorable event in history and its elusive location. And elusive it has proven to be, I assure you. I am certain, too, that the last words on this subject have yet to be written and no doubt by someone else.

Study of pertinent literature leaves the impression that the only facts certain regarding this highly significant occasion is that it began at sunrise on July 4, 1817, at (or near) Rome, New York, on the alignment of the Erie Canal ("Clinton's Ditch").

Whether the event was located in or near the village of Rome is the primary subject of this paper. It is not entirely an academic question, as the choice of sites is easily resolved to only two discrete points 2.5 miles apart by public highway. For convenience, I have named them "The Ft. Bull Site" and "The Arsenal Site."

There are other less basic questions raised by inconsistencies in the literature: Who attended? Specifically, which and how many canal officers and/or engineers? Were there consecutive ceremonies that day at two different locations? Was the implement used a shovel or a plow? Was a plow used at all? Who actually first used the shovel (or plow)? Was one of the principal participants the contractor for the section on which the ceremony took place? In which contract section was the ceremony located?

In my considered opinion, only one ceremony occurred. It took place at sunrise, July 4, 1817, within the "blue lines" (right-of-way) of "Clinton's Ditch" very close to its eastern-most crossing of Wood Creek. This point was very near the sites of both the ancient upper Wood Creek landing and the fort which tradition tells us was named "Ft. Newport" and which guarded this point in Colonial days on the Great Carry. The newly built U. S. Arsenal was just a few hundred feet to the northeast within sight. Between the Wood Creek crossing of Clinton's Ditch and the Arsenal was the west end of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company's "Rome Canal" completed in 1797. Nearby was one of their two original locks, supplemented by four others on Wood Creek in 1802-03.

Wood Creek was received into the north, or "Berme" side of the completed canal. On the south, or towpath side was a waste weir to spill off excess water to maintain the proper canal level.

The present location of this site is somewhere in the abandoned prism of "Clinton's Ditch," southwest of the Rome Strip Steel Company, approximately 400 feet west of the intersection of the projected centerline of Clark Street with "Clinton's Ditch."

An intriguing characteristic of the more authoritative accounts of the ceremony down through the years as late as 1917 is the total lack of association with the site near Fort Bull. I have taken this negative fact as the starting point in my study.

Primary sources of New York State canal historical documentation for the period of interest are the earliest annual reports of the canal commissioners. These were published individually and also were included in the two-volume "Canal Laws," another primary source.

The report for 1817 is terse and perfunctory. It simply dates the signing of the first contract on June 27, 1817, and the first excavation on July 4, 1817. The portion of Volume 2 of "Canal Laws" which lists expenditures for the canal's construction through 1821 was enlightening. Here was found the unexpected fact that Joshua Hathaway contracted for 1.2 miles of canal construction from approximately Wheeler Creek at Stanwix, westward. He failed to complete his contract and Chapin and Brayton took it over in addition to their contract section joining Hathaway's with Wood Creek. It is interesting that the east intersection with Wood Creek was handled off-handedly, as if a well-known and obvious spot. It was always simply "Wood Creek." Reference to the intersection beyond Fort Bull, if at all, was always to the "Wood Creek Aqueduct."

Lacking a map or detailed description to locate them, references to lettered and numbered sections have so far proven meaningless. The distances specified locate the west end of Chapin and Brayton's contract at "The Arsenal Site." The next contract west was Joseph Miller's. This was 1.5 miles long and terminated, interestingly enough, at "the east end of J. Richardson's first contract." Not knowing the length of this latter contract, one of six contracts listed for Richardson, it is reasonable to conjecture that the west end of this contract, the first awarded, is the location of "The Fort Bull site." The distance of this site from the end of Miller's contract would be about a mile.

The account which is the keystone of my argument is from Pomroy Jones' Oneida County history. It was published in 1851 when many of the witnesses of and participants in the ceremony would still be alive. Jones wrote: "On the 4th of July, 1817, the ground was first broken in the construction of the Eire Canal. This was done with appropriate public ceremonies, and the place selected was a few rods west of the United States' arsenal, and the honor of casting the first shovel of earth was assigned to the late Honorable Joshua Hathaway. Wood Creek flows into the canal at this point, and the surplus water passes off by a waste weir over its old channel, following which about three-fourths of a mile, it receives Mud Creek, a small mill stream, from the southwest, and about the same distance below is the remains of Fort Bull."

It epitomizes the story of the ceremony, in my opinion, as no one else has done. It is purported to be from a letter to Jones from Jay Hathaway, Joshua's son. It disagrees with the contemporary account of the Utica Patriot of July 15, 1817, in that the latter gives Richardson, not "Hathaway," the honor of turning the first soil. The straight-line distance to Mud Creek is 1.25 miles from "The Arsenal Site" and 1.6 miles to Fort Bull, but these are reasonable errors. More important is the usage of these two verifiable reference points, and their relative location to the ceremony.

The buttress to Jones's passage is an article in the Onondaga Register for July 23, 1817, quoting the Utica Patriot of July 15th. Rome's first newspaper, The Rome Republican was not published until February 1825, The Register records the oft-quoted speech of canal commissioner S. Young. Hathaway representing the citizens of Rome, passed the ceremonial shovel to Young, the only commissioner present, who passed it to Richardson. The last is duly noted as having the first construction contract. Richardson is specifically given credit for first breaking the earth. It is of interest that he "was followed by…his own laborers…." Nowhere was I able to find that the digging ceremony was located on Richardson's section. I conclude that if workmen to be employed on Richardson's contract were present, they may have been buoyed enough by the day's festivities to incidentally dig at the ceremony. Richardson probably began excavation that day on the west end of his (and the canal's) first contract.

An important clue, in my estimation, in the Register account are these words in the closing paragraph: "Thus, accompanied by the acclamation of the citizens and the discharge of cannon from the U. S. Arsenal,…." Jones agrees with this, if we may assume that "from" means "located at."

Hosack's biography of DeWitt Clinton includes a long discourse by historian W. L. Stone which in turn includes essentially the Observer (or Utica Patriot) article. Stone uses the plural of "Commissioner," although only one was present. The words "from the U. S. Arsenal" are omitted.

The use of the word "excavation" seems to be restricted to "the Fort Bull Site." This leads to the conclusion that the ceremony was ignored by the canal commissioners in their report for 1817 and by Holmes Hutchinson, in mapping his 1834 blue-line survey of the Erie Canal. The canal historian's standard reference is Whitford's two-volume Canal History. On p. 88 of Vol I, Whitford places the ceremony at "The Arsenal Site."

By the time of the 1917 Erie Canal Centenary at Rome, Whitford, as senior assistant engineer of the state canals, had directed a survey based upon Hutchinson's 1834 maps, to locate the exact site of the first digging. This is the site marked by a concrete pylon beside Routes 46 and 49 just east of the "Fort Bull" waste weir, on the Erie Canal enlargement towpath. I have personally seen copies or the originals of three hand-drawn sets of 1834 survey maps for the Rome vicinity. Only one, known as the state library "comptroller's set" has the crossed pick and shovel and the notation "First earth excavated from the Erie Canal July 4th A. D. 1817. At this place." that Whitford referred to. It would seem that all copies of an accurate engineering record would be alike in all respects.

Whitford apparently took this notation and mark at face value and simply located a stake using existing reference points. A record of any other research Whitford may have done, or field notes for his survey, have not come to my attention.

Off-line details on the 1834 survey maps are questionable, such as the course of Wood Creek and the compass orientation of Fort Bull. Comparison was with air photos.

The photostatic negatives of Clinton's Ditch on file at the Rome City Engineer's Office are no doubt from the state library "Comptroller's Set."

Wager's account of the ceremony is credited to the Utica Gazette and The New York Columbian. The Utica paper might more properly be the Columbian Gazette. This account is again a variant of that in the Onondaga Register, credited to the Utica Patriot. Both Utica papers may have quoted the same witness. Wager inserts his own references to associate Richardson with Cayuga County and also date of the first contract, thus implying Richardson's ceremonial digging was on his own contract. Worse still, Young's speech is credited to Richardson.

My final reference is to the centenary booklet published in 1917 at Rome. It is not a primary source but well worth reading despite its errors, conflicting statements and lack of depth. It is basically a collection of the speeches and events of July 4, 1917, relevant newspaper articles and some fine historical nuggets.

A newspaper article of 1917 reprinted in the booklet quotes from Benjamin Wright's field book for his final survey of May, 1817. This is a nugget, but bears no relation to the article's announced goal—proof of the ceremonial location.

Samuel Beach, Chairman of the Centenary, made a speech which in retrospect seemingly indicated sad resignation to the site selected by Whitford. I feel Beach was not comfortable with the solution.

What appears to be a decisive part of "The Fort Bull Site" argument is a sworn deposition by a local life-long resident acquainted with the canal and boating. It's authoritativeness is damaged by the inclusion of detailed reference to the presence at the ceremony of Governor Clinton. For some unexplained reason, the statement was not obtained until eight days after the centenary.

Again and again reference is made to Governor Clinton's presence at Rome on July 4, 1817. Even Senator Hill of Buffalo, a known canal historian, made this error in his speech, as did Oswald P. Backus, and others. The fact that DeWitt Clinton was absent and was in actuality attending the Independence Day celebrations at New York City has already been firmly established by Emily A. Madden in "Canal Research Notes," privately published in the spring of 1965.1 Clinton had just been inaugurated as Governor of New York State on July 1st, 1817.

In conclusion, it seems certain that the proper placement of the ceremony is at "The Arsenal Site." It seems to have been overlooked by early canal records. It also seems certain that the initial excavation by a contractor was on the same day at the west end of John Richardson's contract, near "The Fort Bull Site." It seems probable that Benjamin Wright was the only member of the canal engineering force present. Colonel S. Young was the only canal commissioner present. Joshua Hathaway (spelled Hatheway in the old sources) first held the shovel which he passed to Young, who made the speech preserved for posterity. Young then passed the shovel to Richardson who turned the first soil with it. Incidentally, I question that a plow was used at the ceremony. At which side of Wood Creek the ceremony occurred is a moot question at this late date.

The canal as constructed had a waste weir at the old Wood Creek channel location which clearly shows in the 1834 blue-line survey map. There was a bearing change in the "red line"2 at this waste weir which means a pipe marker may exist in the earthwork at the south side of the old prism still visible at this point. Remains of this structure may still be in place and it should not be confused with the much more elaborate waste weir near "The Fort Bull Site" still much in evidence and from a much later period of canal construction, perhaps the 1850's.

Prepared by Daniel J. Mordell, Chairman, Canals Committee,
Rome Historical Society, February 22, 1966


1 With reference to DeWitt Clinton's entry for that day in his personal diary.

2 Edge of the towpath on the water side.


Editor's File of the Onondaga Register, Onondaga Hollow, NY. Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, NY.

Memoir of DeWitt Clinton… (1829) by David Hosack, p. 455.

1834 Blue Line Survey of the Erie Canal, Book 8, Holmes Hutchinson, Engr. Full-size photostatic negatives on file at Rome City Engineer's Office of the Rome sheets. Microfilm, Canal Society of N.Y.S., Syracuse.

Laws of the State of New York in Relation to the Erie and Champlain Canals, … (1825) 2 vols. Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse.

Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, (1851) by Pomroy Jones.

Historical and Statistical Gazeteer of New York State, 1860 by J. H. French.

Our Country and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County New York, (1896) edited by Daniel E. Wager.

History of the Canal System of the State of New York, (1905) by Noble E. Whitford. 2 vols. Supplement to the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor for 1905.

Memorial of Centennial Celebration of the Turning of the First Shovelful of Earth in the Construction of the Erie Canal Held at Rome, N. Y. July 4th 1817. Rome Chamber of Commerce.

Erie Canal Abandonment Map, Sh. 154, Rome, N.Y.; N.Y.S. D.P.W. Erie Canal "Blue Line" Map, Sh. 330, (1920); N.Y.S. D.P.W. Copies on File at Rome City Engineer's Office.

"Canal Research Notes," No. 11, Spring 1965, Emily A. Madden, Livonia, N.Y.

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