The Port of St. Johnsville
Recollections of The Days When The Canal Was A Shipping Factor.
Canal Tolls at This Point Show Activity of Shippers. St. Johnsville shipped Wood Products and Plenty of Whiskey.
Article looks to be from the Enterprise and News, no date apparent on the article, but from the dates mentioned in the article it must have been in 1936. Anita Smith donated this article.(ajb)

We of the older generation can recall the slow moving boats of the old Erie Canal drawn by patient and long suffering mules, or by sorrowful looking galled and jaded old horses. In memory we can see an occasional tow of boats following lazily after an old time tug, and, perchance, call to mind a raft of logs on its way to tide-water. But it is not probably that the oldest of us can remember when St. Johnsville was an important port on the old Erie canal, and the younger generation may not be aware that such was ever the fact. However, many years ago, St. Johnsville was an important center for water borne commerce. Locally manufactured commodities and raw materials were carried to the outer world and there was an overflow of trade items for home consumption, and of raw materials for our manufacturers. Furthermore, it may not be generally known that we had in our midst, for several years, a boat building industry that augmented the flotilla of craft that carried this inland trade.

As bearing on the canal trade of the older day, an official document found among the papers of the late Azel Hough (1796-1856) may be of interest as reflecting the volume of local shipping and the revenues accruing to the State of New York in the matter of tolls. Just a word about Mr. Hough. While residing at Rockwood, N. Y. he was a Member of Assembly (1834) for the district comprising Montgomery and Hamilton counties. When Fulton county was created out of Montgomery county (1838) Mr. Hough removed to St. Johnsville and became one of our pioneer business man. For some years Mr. Hough was engaged in the general merchandise business in "The Old Stone Store" located at the corner of East Main street and Kingsbury avenue. The old store was built by James Averell & Sons in 1831. Mr. Hough was also our local miller and was the builder of the grist mill (1849) now operated under the firm name of Adam Horn and Sons, the property passing to Adam Horn in 1864. In addition to his business interests Mr. Hough was for some years one of the trustees of our village school and also served the community as a justice of the peace. Mr. Hough was actively interested in shipping by canal and handled large quantities of staves for barrels. The staves were drawn to the canal by woodmen who operated on the northern hills then plentifully covered with virgin forest. The old document reads as follows.

Collector's Office, Fultonville, Dec. 28, 1845.

This is to certify that on careful examination of the books of this (office), I find that one hundred and twenty six boats have been cleared from St. Johnsville during the past season and that the amount of tolls received on the same amounts to $1772.24. (Signed) James S. King.
1st Clerk, Collector absent.

The outgoing wares besides the item of staves consisted quite largely, no doubt, of distilled spirits shipped in the early day by james Averell and sons (established 1825) and later by Horatio and Lewis Averell until 1854, the year in which Lewis Averell died, and, for some years subsequently, by successor firms. As the Averells operated a large tannery leather was quite probably anther important item shipped by canal. it is said that the averells and successor firms operated their own boats on the canal.

The distillery operated by the Averells and successor firms was a large stone building located in the rear of what is now the residence property of Mr. George Herning, just across the creek. Later this building was used as a paper mill by the late DeWitt C. Cox and razed several years ago. The tannery was located on the site now occupied by the Palatine Dye company. Great quantities of hemlock bark used in the tanning process found a ready market and farmers and woodsmen north of the village made delivery of bark an important part of their business routine, especially in the winter. As late as fifty years ago considerable quantities of ground bark discarded as refuse could be seen on the old tannery property.

Incident to the distilling business, to utilize the by-product of the used grains in the form of mashes, large numbers of cattle and hogs were fattened for market by the averells and their successors. The sheds and barns housing the live stock were in the vicinity of the old distillery and the old tannery and the crumbling walls of several of these old buildings were in evidence as late as fifty years ago. As raw material for the distillery and as supplementary feed for the live stock, boat loads of grain were received by canal and unloaded at the elevator of D. C. & J. Cox which was located on the south bank of the old canal just west of the roadway which is now the West Shore railroad crossing. Later this business was carried on by J. Cox and Sons which firm was in business late as 1870, and probably at still a later date. That this firm was actively engaged in shipping and receiving goods by canal is shown by their bill heads which show them to have been "Forwarding & Shipping Merchants" and "Dealers in Groceries, Provision, Flour, Grain, Feed, Salt, Coal & C. About 50 years ago the late Daniel J. Storms conducted a coal yard at this point and received coal by boat.

The late James E. Place was the last merchant engaged in business at the old elevator stand. Several years ago the old building burned to the ground and nothing is now left to mark the spot except the crumbling foundation walls.

In 1887 the late Levi Perry, operator of a fleet of boats on the canal, and a practical boat builder, began building canal boats on the south bank of the old canal just east of the roadway building and launching one boat a year for several years. These boats were 97 feet long, 17 feet wide and 8 feet deep, inside measurements, and varied in value from $1900 to $2400. The boats in order of construction were the 'Daniel N. Place,' the 'James E. Place' and the 'James H. Sanders.' A fourth and smaller boat, the 'Nellie Ray' was the last to be built. This was used in transporting a merry go round in which Levi Perry was interested as part owner. In addition to the name of the boat, 'St. Johnsville, N.Y.' was painted on the stern of each boat to show the home port.

In the past few years of active canal shipping, the cargoes were confined entirely to cord wood. The shipments were consigned to manufacturers of brink along the Hudson river for use in firing the kilns in the 'burning' process. Mr. DeWitt C. Leek, general merchant of Lasselsville, handled large quantities of wood, as did Allter Brothers and A. Horn and Sons of this village. A boat would hold 100 cords of four foot wood below the deck and a considerable quantity piled above the deck line.

The old Erie canal, now abandoned through this section and superseded by the Barge Canal, was undertaken only after a bitter political fight that raged for some years until DeWitt Clinton and his followers finally convinced the electorate of the utility and the far reaching implications of the proposed venture. Work in the old canal was started in 1817 and the first boats from Buffalo to New York passed through the canal in the fall of 1825. Governor DeWitt Clinton and a party of distinguished citizens were aboard the "Seneca Chief," one of the boats in the first fleet to navigate the entire length of the canal, and on this gala occasion carried two barrels of water from Lake Erie which Governor Clinton emptied into the ocean at New York City, in this formal ceremony of the "Marriage of the Waters." It is a matter of history that the old Erie Canal had a wonderful influence on the development of the interior of New York State, and contributed largely to the growth of the states beyond, then rapidly filling with settlers in quest of cheap lands and new homes. Derisively called "Clinton's Ditch" by the opponents of the canal, it was due to prove all that its proponents had dared to hope and the and the high esteem in which governor Clinton was held as a constructive leader is attested by the fact that DeWitt as a Christian name has been given to citizens of this state for more than a hundred years.

As originally constructed the Erie Canal was 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep. To handle ever increasing traffic, the canal was deepened to 7 feet in 1862.

The old canal, from the time the proposition was first debated in the early 1800's until the present day, has been more or less "in politics." In the early days, the sentiment for the canal was confined principally to the so-called "canal counties," and the counties along the proposed route and along the Hudson river. The northern and southern counties of the state were decidedly "against" the idea and at the present time 80 percent of the "canal vote" is counted in these same counties, with Buffalo and New York city furnishing big majorities. Planned as a self-liquidating project, the tolls collected up to 1882, paid the original cost of construction, expense of enlargements, maintenance and operation and showed a profit of forty two million dollars. In that year tolls were abolished after much agitation by the "free canal" advocates. Of course there was much sentiment in both parties for the "free canal" but there was also much opposition, particularly in the non-canal counties and among the farming population. The cities along the route of the canal, of course, favored the idea. To win, it was necessary to "do something for the farmer" and to win his support it was necessary to convince him that he was being "robbed" by railroads and that his only salvation was to vote for the "free canal." In those days sale in barrels used butter making and by local cheese factories of which there were many was an item of considerable importance in trade, and this was one of the times on which the railroads were alleged to be "robbing" the farmer by their freight rates. Salt in those days sold for approximately a dollar a barrel. Well, the propaganda "worked" and we got the "free canal."

Somewhere in the 1890's an appropriation of $9,000,000 was voted to "improve" the canal. A large part of this was spent in building walls of masonry, repairs and enlargement of locks, and in rip-rapping the northern bank with stone. The expenditure was found to be futile as far as any real improvement of navigation facilities was concerned and in view of this futility styled by opponents as the "nine million steal." Then came the agitation for the Barn Canal. The appropriation, $101,000,000 was voted in 1903 and construction was begun in 1905 and the work completed and the enlarged canal opened in 1918, with a depth of 12 feet.

Dredging the Mohawk River 1915, to create the Barge Canal

The building fo the Barge Canal was not a partisan measure but to quiet the objections of the farmers it was again necessary to show that the farmer was being "robbed" by the railroads and that the only hope of reduced rates was an enlarged waterway and there was plenty propaganda to that end. In the cities of Buffalo and New York there were daily speeches at the noon hour from the tail end of drays to convince the citizens that the continued commercial supremacy fo those two ports depended in a large degree on the proposed canal enlargement, and, incidentally, food staples would be reduced in cost to the workers.

Well we have had the Barge Canal for the past 18 years but the volume of traffic anticipated has never been realized, but there is a continued upward trend and during the past season (1935) more than 4,000,000 tons were moved by canal. As part of the equipment, the State of New York owns a grain elevator at Oswego with a capacity of 1,000,000 bushels and another at Gowanus Bay, Brooklyn, with a capacity of 2,000,000 bushels. The elevator on the New York end is for handling grain received by canal for the export market.

As the years have passed, the cost of repair, upkeep and operation has developed into a large figure that has to be met by direct tax on the people. The expense runs around $10,000,000 annually and in casting about for new bases of taxation to help pay the high cost of state government attention is again directed to the possibility and advisability of re imposing tolls on the canal traffic. If only enough toll were exacted to pay the operating expenses, or a sizable portion there of a worthwhile and welcome relief would be afforded. It is said that at the present time, the bulk of the traffic is strictly interstate and that this traffic amounts to a full 90 percent of the total tonnage.

In other words, New York State is providing a free canal for moving commodities originating beyond the borders of the state and for ultimate delivery to points without the state. There is considerable tonnage moved by automobile manufacturing interests and by oil companies but if the attractive freight rates afforded by a free canal have any appreciable influence on the price of automobiles or gasoline to the consumer, it's a question whether anyone is aware of the fact in this locality.

Our representative in the legislature, Senator Walter N. Stokes of Cooperstown and Assemblyman L. J. Shaver of Canajoharie have been working for several years looking to the submission of a constitutional amendment to permit a revival fo the toll system for the canals but without success so far. This bill is being presented to the legislature again at this session and in view of the fact that the state Grange in its recent session at Oneonta went on record as favoring moderate tolls on the canal, there may be some prospect of getting the matter before the people for a vote. Of course the matter as it stands today, unfortunately is a partisan question. it goes without saying that if we ever do vote on his question, all in favor of reviving the tolls are at once to be dubbed the 'reactionaries' and the opponents will at once become the 'liberals'. Just where 'special interests' and 'big business' are to land in the scrimmage will depend on the individual view-point. In the meantime, figure it out for yourself, in case you do not find enough of interest in the national political arena to take up your spare time.


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