ROCHESTER, 24th July, 1828.
I received a letter a few days since from James Rees, Esq. of Geneva, who informs me, that he lately saw you and understood that you were collecting materials for a Discourse on the death of Governor Clinton, and that he had made mention of me to you as probably being able to furnish some facts relating to the Erie Canal, &c. ; and requested me to write you of what I did know, &c. Perhaps I know of but very few of the facts relating to Mr. Clinton and the canal, but what are already publicly known, and they are merely incidental and mostly relate to myself. Such as they are, since Mr. Rees has had the goodness to refer to me, I will narrate, and leave you to judge whether they will be of any service to you.
In April 1805, then a merchant at Geneva and concerned in forwarding flour from Mynderse's mills, owing to the very imperfect navigation of the old Mohawk canal, and various methods being proposed for improving it, I suggested the idea of an overland canal from the foot of Lake Erie, at Buffalo, (as containing a head and great reservoir of water to feed it,) to Utica, and thence down the Mohawk to Hudson River. These impediments to navigation would often call forth the expression of our wishes, that an arm of the North River had been extended into the Genesee country by the Author of nature, for our facilities of transport ;-but no one yet had suggested the idea of effecting this object by a canal! I occasionally mentioned my suggestion to my friends, and was generally laughed at for my whim !
A reverse in my business landed me on the gaol limits of Ontario, in Canandaigua, in August 1807. Fully persuaded of the practicability of such canal ; and having, thus far, lived to but little purpose, I thought I might render myself useful to society by giving publicity to the suggestion, and, in October 1807, commenced writing on the subject in the Genesee Messenger, a newspaper then published at Canandaigua, which I continued to fourteen numbers, in April 1808.
My plan was a canal of 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep, laid on an inclined plane, from Buffalo to Utica, and thence down the channel of the Mohawk, with improvements in it, to Schenectady, and thence over the portage to Albany, for a time-to be constructed by the national government, rather than by an incorporated company of individuals-not conceiving, then, the state treasury, or finances, adequate to the undertaking. These essays were treated with much ridicule, and, by some, were considered as " the effusions of a maniac." The writer was unknown for some time. In 1809, Gen. Micah Brooks, a member from Ontario, borrowed and took them with him to Albany; but nothing was done by the legislature of that session, and he left them with Simeon De Witt, Esq. the surveyor general, to investigate the subject.
In 1810, the legislature appointed the first board of commissioners to explore and report, of which the surveyor general and Mr. Clinton were members. The former took my essays with him on the route. After their return, he sent them back to me with the compliments of the commissioners for their use.
In their report, of 1811, they embraced several leading points which I had advanced in my essays, viz. of its being a national work and proposing to construct it on an inclined plane. The former they applied to congress for, but failed to obtain. The latter, as from Buffalo to Albany, was found impracticable, owing to the great elevation of the hills at the Little Falls on the Mohawk River. I never heard, that, under these circumstances, Mr. Morris made any claim to the original idea of the overland route. I believe Mr. Morris, if alive, would say for himself, that his first idea was the lake route, and the locking up of the Niagara Falls into Lake Erie. Such was decidedly the idea of Messrs. Gallatin, Porter, and Woodward, who wrote on the subject after I had written; and in which Judge Woodward was very tenacious, terming the overland route, then under discussion, a short-sighted and selfish policy in New-York.
In 1812, Mr. Clinton borrowed my essays, through my brother, with whom he had become acquainted as a member of the Masonic fraternity and special business together, and not then acquainted with me-and returned them, through Mr. Granger, in 1820. These are the chief incidents that occurred between us.
I have given more detail than the subject abstractedly required, wishing to rebut an error that some person has fallen into, contained in Mr. De Witt's letter, printed in vol. I. page 39, of Mr. Secretary Yates's Canal History, in which Judge Geddes is made to say, that '° his communication to me of Mr. Morris's idea of tapping Lake Erie was the origin of the subject in my mind, and from which I was induced to write my essays." I saw Judge Geddes at Utica, in April 1804, for the first time--he returning from the legislature, and I going to New-York. I saw him again at Geneva, in the winter of 1806, visiting his relations, with whom I boarded ; this was about ten months after I had suggested the idea: and again at his house in Onondaga, in September 1811-he had then surveyed a part of the route, under the direction of the first board of commissioners, when we conversed on the subject, I believe, for the first time-for I do not recollect that any mention was made of it when we met at Geneva ; if there was, I presume that I first spoke of it ; nor of hearing that Mr. Morris had written on it until several years after I had written and the work was commenced ; and I think Mr. Morris does not use the term, tapping Lake Eric. There was no writer on the idea of tapping Lake Erie, or the overland route for the canal, publicly known in Ontario at the time I wrote my essays. This the ridicule of the day, on the subject, sufficiently proves; for, had any been known, they would have been brought forward against my claims to originality of the measure. I was too disadvantageously situated in life to obtain a better access to the private correspondence of those gentlemen, who had written on the subject, than the generality of the public. Mine was a public correspondence, without obscurity; and I can say with great sincerity of heart, that I knew of no competitor with me for the reputation of both the conception and publication of the idea of the overland route, until after the work was commenced and became a popular theme then it was, the epistolary writings of Messrs. Watson, Morris, and others, were drawn from their private archives and made to claim rank of their primitive dates.
The great merit of Mr. Clinton, in relation to the canal, consists in his having put his powerful mind to the investigation of the subject, and, probably with great labour, comprehending the magnitude of its utility and the splendour of its enterprise ; and failing to render it a national work, he conceived the idea of rendering it a state undertaking and property-an idea which had escaped all others, from the supposed inadequacy of the state resources to accomplish it-resolutely shouldering the responsibility of the measure, at the hazard of his popularity and reputation-while others were confronting him with assertions that it would require the revenue of all the kingdoms of the earth, and the population of China, to accomplish it.
Although others claim it for him, yet Mr. Clinton never claimed for himself the original idea of the canal. In his essays to Colonel Troup, written in 1820, he assigned that to me. Also, in his letter to me of 4th March, 1822, he says--" I have no hesitation in stating, that the first suggestion of a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, which came to my knowledge, was communicated in essays under the signature of Hercules,' on internal navigation, published in the Ontario Messenger at Canandaigua. The first number appeared on the 27th October, 1807, and the series of numbers amounted, I believe, to fourteen."-" The board of canal commissioners, which made the first tour of observation and survey in 1810, were possessed of the writings of ' Hercules,' which were duly appreciated as the work of a sagacious, inventive, and elevated mind ; and you were, at that time and since, considered the author. Being called on by an old acquaintance to write you, to have omitted would have been disrespectful to him as well as yourself.
While writing, I ask your liberty to add a few remarks more in relation to myself. I claim the original and the first publication of the overland route of the Erie Canal from Buffalo to the Hudson-that, in it, I have been a benefactor to the public in general, and to the state of New-York in particular and I bless the author of my existence, that I have lived to see it finished, which was almost beyond the hope of my expectations when I was writing my essays-and, as chairman of the Rochester visiting committee, to deliver the first address at the opening of its celebration at Buffalo. But this is all the notice that I have ever received from the state, or people, of New-York, for it in any wise: nor would I complain of that, having in the mean time, by laborious industry, attained from bankruptcy to a comfortable moderate competency, and pleasantly located within a mile of this village and the canal.
I am, respectfully, yours, &c.
Shortly after the receipt of this letter, I was favoured with another communication from Mr. Hawley, bearing date the 24th September, forwarding, at the same time, a copy of the Essays, with the following remarks:-" At your request, I loan you my essays on the canal, having taken them out of their bindings for the purpose ; being the only set, I know of, in preservation, and intending to deposite them, eventually, in the archives of the secretary's office of New-York, in order to preserve the evidences of my claim to the first writings on the subject, I am choice of them. But they are antique-written before the science of canalling was known in American literature, when a treatise was no where to be found among us, and maps the only references that could be obtained-by a native mind, taught only in a country school of Connecticut, common at the period of his childhood ; they will require many of those charitable allowances to be made on their perusal at the present day."
As the following Essays of Mr. Hawley, published in 1807 under the signature of "Hercules," appear to have been the first publication of the plan of a direct overland communication from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and have been found highly useful by the first board of commissioners, as they have publicly acknowledged, when they were exploring the route which Mr. Hawley designated, and which has been adopted as the course of the canal, I am induced to give them a place in this work. Although fourteen of those essays appeared in the Genesee Messenger, a paper then extensively circulated in the western parts of this state, no other entire copy, but that from which they are now re printed, is, at this day, to be obtained. They, therefore, cannot fail to be acceptable, not only as containing much interesting matter, but in connexion with the preceding communications, as illustrative of the well established claims of the author to the originality of the views they develope.
While these papers show in the writer superior sagacity and knowledge, I feel that I perform a duty to the community in attempting to preserve them from oblivion. From these it will also appear, that the merits of Mr. Hawley, by some singular combination of circumstances, have not hitherto been duly estimated. When it is considered, that in these numbers Mr. Hawley points out the track of a canal from the foot of Lake Erie to the Mohawk River nearly corresponding with the route of the present canal, urges the propriety of an immediate survey, and estimates the expense with wonderful accuracy, as has since been ascertained, at six millions of dollars! It is certainly surprising, amidst the numerous publications on this subject, that Mr. Watson and Mr. Colden* are the only persons who have rendered that justice to Mr. Hawley which his merits and services claim from this state.
*See Watson's History, and Colden's Memoir.