In 1903, voters in New York State ratified the Barge Canal referendum which provided for construction of our present canal system. The Barge Canal design is an integrated improvement of natural lakes and rivers, with only short stretches of pure canal to eliminate bends and to link the natural bodies together.
The Barge Canal was designed to be used only by motorized vessels. The former canals had been completely man-made, elevated above and across the natural bodies of water. This feature allowed the older version of the canal to nearly eliminate any current, thereby making draft animals practical.
Although many powered vessels were in operation on the older canal system, most commercial boats relied on draft animals. These wood craft were constructed for the maximum dimensions of the locks on the older canal. Most vessels were owner operated, and captains had their entire families aboard to lend a hand. Often times the canal boats were not only a family business, but also a family home and, beside the fee-generating commercial cargo, bore the family’s entire worldly possessions.
Great pains were taken during the construction of the Barge Canal to keep the older canal operational, as along with the enormous amount of commercial cargo shipped, it also moved the materials and equipment needed to build the new canal. As a totally man-made conduit, the existing canal system was susceptible to breaks in the embankments. When a break occurred, the enormous hydrostatic pressure in the canal prism turned the escaping waters into a violent torrent. Breaks occurred as the result of a burrowing muskrat or because of structural failures. These incidents impeded the flow of commerce as well as placing lives and property at risk. Embankment protection and structural integrity were diligent matters of canal maintenance, and “bank walkers” performed regular inspections.
One of the most serious breaks to occur along the Erie Canal took place in Syracuse on July 30th, 1907 when an arch that carried the canal over Onondaga Creek failed. This created a hole in the bottom of the canal. The liberated canal waters scoured away as they thundered into to the creek below. The water in the canal, for miles on both sides, began perceptively moving toward the opening.
The break occurred where many businesses relied on canal transportation. The Syracuse Lighting Company received regular coal shipments; two nearby breweries, Bartel’s and Greenway, received their bulk ingredients and shipped their finished product by canal. There were several mills in the area moving all type of flour, feed, and grain on the canal.
The trouble began about 2:30 pm; the resulting fissure created a vortex that drew every floating thing towards its whirling suction. The vessels MAJOR J. J. BAILEY and the HAWLEY GOODWELL were tied up along the canal’s north bank. The vessels carried 240 tons of soft coal to generate electric power. They had just arrived from Watkins Glen, and secured to the towpath side of the canal, where they waited to unload. The team of horses that had drawn the BAILEY to Syracuse were brought aboard to be watered and fed. Also aboard these craft were the driver and the captain, Fred Davenport, the captain’s wife and four small children, including a newborn.
Another pair of boats were in the process of unloading their cargoes of coal at the Syracuse Lighting power plant. They were the S.G. COWLES of Buffalo and the H. RONSPEE of Higginsville. Captain Frank Foote of New York, the master of the two boats, was on shore supervising the unloading operation. His wife and four children were aboard the RONSPEE while the mule driver and the helmsman, Bert Jeppson, with his wife and son were aboard the COWLES.
The only boat underway in the immediate vicinity of the break was the PETER J. ROHR, eastbound on a local hauling task, moving crushed stone. At the helm of the ROHR was Captain Fred Race, who had his wife, eight year old daughter Pearl, and his eighty-one year old father aboard.
Brewery workers had noticed earlier that the water in Onondaga Creek was roiled and muddy, but unfortunately did not make the connection that the cause was escaping canal water. The nearest staffed canal structure was the lift bridge at West Street. The afternoon shift operator on his way to work, noticed a disturbance in the canal as he crossed the West Street bridge.
The crews of the BAILEY and the GOODWELL sensed the impending calamity and hastily moved everyone, including the newborn, to shore. Children were thrown to the waiting arms of a Syracuse Lighting Company foreman. Captain Foote, master of the RONSPEE and the COWLES, was suddenly alerted by a crane to which they had tied, bending. As the current in the canal had increased, he called to his men to get some lines. The crane gave way, and the boats started to drift rapidly toward the break. The bows of both boats drifted across the canal, and the men tried to snub them by using the iron supports of the mill company’s building, but the posts gave way.
The crew of the BAILEY got away. Their vessel was pulled into the whirlpool and drawn through the break, smashed to pieces, and discharged into the creek. Unfortunately, there had not been time enough to evacuate the team of horses, and they were lost. Following the loss of the BAILEY, the wall of the Amos Mill on the south bank, or heelpath side of the canal near the culvert, collapsed into the waterway. Fifty barrels of flour stored in the mill plunged into the canal. The GOODWELL, trapped in the same violent current, was drawn in, broke in two, discharging its cargo of coal, but not for a moment slowing the water.
Men on shore attempted to snub the vessels, but about 3 pm the RONSPEE was drawn toward the breach. The craft began to sway and reel, drawing nearer the roaring outlet. The bow went down, and the stern rose in the air, until it shattered, and boat and cargo were lost to sight.
A large crowd collected along the banks and brewery workers, organized into teams, attempted to slow the torrent of escaping water by dropping heavy timbers from the edge of the canal across the break. The city police and fire departments could do nothing. The waters of Onondaga Creek rose to flood stage due to the sudden rush of the canal’s water, and flowed in both directions.
Captain Race of the vessel ROHR realized the sudden and strong current in the Erie Canal signaled danger. He attempted, with assistance of others, to secure the boat to the heelpath wall. While in proximity with the heelpath he evacuated his wife and eight year old daughter Pearl, while his elderly father remained with the doomed vessel. The bridge tenders at the West Street lift bridge were between the break and the ROHR’s attempted emergency landing. They made the decision to lift the bridge in an effort to save the span.
The level of the canal dropped below its normal stage and the debris that had accumulated on the bottom of the canal caused the ROHR to jam, with the chasm immediately in front of the stranded vessel. Employees of the Standard Milling Company seized the father of the owner as the boat swung toward the wall. The eight year old Pearl was distraught to realize her doll trunk was left on the ROHR’s deck. The trunk slid and banged about on deck as the vessel buckled. The bow of the ROHR slipped over the break, and broke from the greater portion of the boat, which remained lodged on the canal bottom.
The COWLES also was pulled free of her moorings, with an estimated fifty ton of coal remaining on board. This vessel was the only one involved not to be heavily laden. The COWLES was spared the fate of the other boats because of its increased buoyancy and the decreased water velocity. The vessel’s stern wedged against the wall on the heelpath side of the canal as her bow wedged against the towpath side, preventing the craft from being swallowed up as those previously witnessed. With the boat lodged in this precarious position, the six year old son of the helmsman, Horace Jeppson, realized that his small black and white kitten had been left behind. The piteous cries of the frightened creature could hardly be heard over the din of the whirlpool. A noble crewman leapt onboard the cast vessel, and returned with the frightened feline.
The flow of the water was reduced enough by early afternoon to consider the danger over. Amazingly the horses lost on the BAILEY were the only fatalities. Concern was high over the stability of nearby buildings, as their foundations had been weakened. A section of the Greenway Brewery on the heelpath side of the canal collapsed the next day, so suddenly that pigeons where found in the rubble.
The toll of canal boats lost stood at five; even though the COWLES did not sink, it twisted enough to be a complete loss. None of the five vessels lost were insured. One can only imagine the emotion felt by the families of the canal vessels as they viewed their worldly possessions, as well as the means of their livelihood, lying in shattered ruins.
The Department of Public Works started the repair process immediately, burning and removing the wrecks, but the Erie and Oswego Canal would not open again for seven weeks, making a serious negative impact on navigation.
Read more about the New York State Barge Canal.
Photos, from above: post card of damaged canal vessels being burned to hasten their removal after the Big Break in Syracuse when a culvert over Onondoga Creek collapsed; and the Big Break in the Erie Canal in Syracuse.