The State Canal Corporation has announced the 10th annual “Canal Splash” for August 7 – 15. It is mostly to promote the recreational possibilities of the canal system but some of the events along the canalways will focus on history and culture. “Celebrate the history, culture, recreational appeal, and beauty of the New York State Canal System and Erie Canalway Trail during the 10 days of Canal Splash!” says its website. The celebration is a high point in the ongoing work of promoting the canal.
Ironically, this year’s “Canal Splash” opens three days after the U.S. District Court in Manhattan issued a decision reinstating the case of American Trucking Associations vs. New York State Thruway Authority. The Canal Corporation has been operating under the Thruway Authority since 1992, when canal operation was shifted there as part of the state budget process. The truckers’ association sued in 2013, asserting that the tolls trucks — and others — pay to use the Thruway should not be used to support the canal. The suit was dismissed on a technicality two years ago but is now active again.
“With the ascendancy of the Thruway and other modern channels of interstate commerce, the New York Canal System has faded into obsolescence,” says the court’s opinion. “Now that the Canal System is operated by the Canal Corporation as a subsidiary of the Thruway Authority, the considerable cost of maintaining (and sometimes upgrading, developing, and expanding) the Canal System is funded almost entirely through the collection of highway tolls. No appropriations from New York’s general fund have been needed for many years. When the Canal System needs more funding, the Thruway Authority raises tolls. Approximately ten to twelve percent of Thruway tolls are diverted to canal‐related development projects: about 80 to 100 million dollars annually.”
It isn’t clear when the merits of the lawsuit will be decided. But there is a good deal of historical irony here.
Governor Thomas Dewey (1943-1955), the leading force behind the Thruway, repeatedly compared it to the Erie Canal. Dedicating the main section of the highway on June 24, 1954, he predicted the new road would do for New York in the latter 20th century what the Erie Canal had done in the 19th century — dramatically increase New York’s commercial prominence. Speaking in Syracuse that day, he compared the Thruway’s critics to the short-sighted politicians who had opposed DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal. Now everyone will see it is “the greatest, most useful advance in highway transportation in the history of the world,” he told the crowd. In Rochester, he told his audience that the canal had transformed their area and “history is repeating itself right now” with new enterprises springing up along the route, such as a new TV assembly plant in nearby Batavia.
Tom Dewey reprised DeWitt Clinton in other ways. He built a coalition behind the plans for the Thruway in the late 1940’s using some of the same tactics that Clinton had used. Clinton broke ground for the Erie Canal at Rome on July 4, 1817. That location, rather than either of the terminal cities of Troy or Buffalo, was chosen to increase the likelihood that the legislature would provide funding and support for the entire canal. Dewey followed suit, beginning construction work in 1946 at three geographically dispersed sites: Silver Creek near Buffalo, Liverpool just west of Syracuse, and Saugerties in the mid-Hudson valley.
Carl Carmer, a well known popular historian, added historical perspective in an article entitled “In the Path of the Pioneers” in the New York Times, June 25, 1954. The Thruway followed the water-level route along the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the same route that Indian trails, turnpikes, railroads, and previous major highways, as well as the Erie Canal, had followed for centuries. The impact of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had been “immediate and almost incredible.” Now the Thruway was operating in “the historic route that built the Empire State.” History suggested it would raise New York to new levels of greatness, he said.
Ironically, though, the Thruway helped speed the demise of the canal, which was already in decline by the time the new road opened. The Thruway paralleled its entire length, adding to US Route 20 and New York Route 5 and other highways that paralleled parts of it, and the New York Central Railroad, which also ran parallel to it. The Thruway helped speed the decline of the railroad as a passenger and freight carrier as well as the canal.
Dewey’s state limousine on the June 24, 1954 dedication trip was followed by a cavalcade of vehicles meant to demonstrate the value of the Thruway to all New Yorkers. The trucking industry was very supportive and well represented that day, though they had initially balked back in 1950 when Dewey changed the funding for the road from general revenues to user fees. But trailing along after the governor that fateful day were trucks representing New York businesses, including Genesee Beer, GLF (farm supplies), General Baking Company and even a Babcock Baby Chick Pullman.
Two of the reasons for the Trucking Association’s concerns now are the prospect for increased Thruway tolls and predictions that the toll for the new Tappan Zee bridge, now under construction, will he high for trucks. “The Canal System generates plenty of economic activity for nearby towns, drawing hundreds of millions of tourism dollars to surrounding communities every year,” the ATA said in a press release when the lawsuit was filed. “But those who benefit from the canals pay a tiny fraction of their upkeep,”
Of course, as emphasized in a statement on a statement on “History and Culture” on the website of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, “Now, New York’s canal system has a new life as a venue for water- and land-based recreation and learning about our nation’s heritage.” It is an immensely important cultural, historical, and economic asset. But the lawsuit may lead to a new examination of how it should be funded.
Photos: Above, Thomas Dewey at the NYS Thruway groundbreaking; and below, the Thruway under construction near Buffalo Courtesy NYS Department of Transportation.