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Champions of the Canal: Elkanah Watson and Philip Schuyler

portrait of Elkanah Watson – John Singleton Copley

Elkanah Watson (1758-1842)

In 1791, Massachusetts-born Elkanah Watson traveled westward to plot a plausible route for a canal to connect the Hudson with the Great Lakes. Upon his return to Albany, Watson met with General Philip Schuyler, who championed Watson’s proposal in the New York State legislature. Schuyler took Watson’s concept of a western canal and applied it to the Hudson-Lake Champlain corridor, for which Schuyler was the main advocate. The Western Inland Lock & Navigation Company and Northern Inland Lock & Navigation Company were chartered in 1792, with Philip Schuyler as president of both.

Credited by many as the originator of the Erie Canal idea, Watson harbored a long-standing bitterness against DeWitt Clinton, canal surveyor and governor of New York during the canal building era. Clinton claimed that he was the first to conceive of a New York canal system. His name, unlike Watson’s, is inextricably linked to the Erie Canal, snidely called “Clinton’s Ditch” by Horace Greeley.

Philip Schuyler (1733-1804)

The Schuyler “farm at Saratoga”—established in the early 1700s, abandoned, and reoccupied after the French and Indian War by Philip Schuyler in 1760, was located at the junction of the most critical and significant byways of the upper Hudson. The Hudson River, Fish Creek, the Batten Kill, and the old Indian and military trails extending along the banks on the Hudson all meet near present-day Schuylerville. The productive soils of this area were formed at the bottom of an ancient lake and by the alluvial deposits laid down by the Hudson and its tributaries.

Schuyler parlayed the rich natural resources of his farm into an agricultural, light industrial and mercantile empire. Tenant farmers, slaves and indentured artisans and others worked Schuyler’s patent and made him a very wealthy man. Fish Kill (Fish Creek) was dammed to power a flaxseed (linseed) oil mill and a later linen mill. Schuyler’s two sawmills also took advantage of the creek’s waterpower. Herring making their seasonal run up the Hudson were caught, salted and shipped to feed slaves in Jamaica and Antigua. In Schuyler’s general store, both local goods and items bought or traded for in the West Indies and England were available for purchase. The only impediment to increasing his already substantial wealth were the rapids on the Hudson north of Waterford and lack of access to northern markets due to the limitations of the natural flow of the Hudson River.

Schuyler traveled to England in 1760, where he witnessed the English canal system in operation. Schuyler advocated for a canal connecting the Hudson and Lake Champlain, and for a canal to connect the Hudson with the Great Lakes, as proposed by Elkanah Watson. He served as president of both the Western and Northern Inland Lock & Navigation Companies, charted in 1792. The Western Company constructed a series of dams, locks, and short canal segments along the Mohawk River and across the drainage divide at Rome, allowing bateau and durham boats to carry cargo from Schenectady to the Oneida Lake, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Ontario. Despite Schuyler’s land holdings and personal interest in the Upper Hudson Valley, the Northern Company accomplished far less. The Champlain Canal would be another three decades in the making.