Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chancellor and the Ditch

The First Lord of Livingston Manor
2017 marks the bicentennial of the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal. It was the canal that turned New York into the Empire State. Of course, it took a long time to arrive at the first shovel of dirt. In fact, Robert Livingston, First Lord of Livingston Manor had traveled into what was then Indian territory in what would be western New York. He reported to several successive royal governors that improvements to the natural waterways of the colony would allow access to the abundant resources of the western lands. He was ignored.

The first commission on the Erie Canal was formed in March of 1810. It was carefully assembled to include federalist and democratic-republicans. The committee included Gouverneur Morris, Stephan Van Rensselaer, William North, Thomas Eddy,
DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt and Peter Buell Porter. Gouverneur Morris was the titular head of the committee but it was widely known
that DeWitt Clinton was the driving force behind what would become known as “Clinton’s Ditch.”
Gouverneur Morris
The major accomplishment of the committee was to convince the New York State Legislature that the canal was in face a feasible project. In June of 1810 the entire committee, except for Morris, traveled by water as far as they could on the Mohawk River then, joined by Morris, traveled to Lake Erie by carriage. They then produced a report that spurred the Legislature to act.

On April 8, 1811, the legislature approved $15,000 for the commission to begin their work. They also added two new members to the commission, Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton. Livingston and Fulton. Livingston and Fulton had a monopoly for steamboat travel on the Hudson River and were in the process of building a steamboat to ply the Mississippi River which would give them a monopoly on that river as well. Having them on board would provide an even greater economic incentive for farmers and merchants to use the canal.
Robert Fulton

The Chancellor
Fulton and Livingston quickly found important roles on the commission. Fulton was to help find designers who could build the canal while Livingston would work with DeWitt Clinton to try to find national sources of funding for the project. In October, 1811 they sent a letter to the governments of all American states and territories pointing out that the canal would benefit the entire country and that they should either pay New York to help build it or pressure the federal government to give New York funds to offset the cost of construction.

It didn’t go well.

The states that bothered to respond at all sent resounding no’s.


Shortly thereafter the War of 1812 put the canal on hold although the commission retained its power and in 1812 was legally allowed to create a fund to pay for the canal. (This was repealed in 1814).

Livingston had one more role to play in the commission’s history, which he did by dying in February of 1813. Opponents of the canal in the New York legislature took the Chancellor’s death as an opportunity to challenge the authority of the entire commission, claiming that it ended when one member died and the committee would have to be reformed. Eventually Attorney General of New York, Abraham Van Vechten ruled that the power of the commissioners did not end with any particular member’s end.


It would be another four years before construction on the canal would begin. The canal was not finished until 1825.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How to Blow Up a Gunpowder Mill


I recently received a few letters I had requested from the Gilder Lehrman Center and immediately answered a question that has nagged me for years. We know that in late 1775 the mill exploded.
But why? I mean, yes, it was a gunpowder mill and if you make it right, gunpowder will explode. But what actually happened at Judge Robert Livingston's mill?

As it turns out it was the age old story. Stupidity.


Judge Robert Livingston wrote in a letter dated 15 November 1775 to his son in law, General Richard Montgomery, that

Judge Robert Livingston
"three stupid fellows fired a piece two or three yards from the place where the powder was drying" (The Judge had been sent a load of damaged powder from Fort Ticonderoga to try to salvage but you read my previous blog on the mill so you know this) He goes on "which set fire to the pans & then to the powder mill which unfortunately blew up, & they with the poor powder maker are most unfortunately burnt that they live is very extraordinary about 500 lbs of powder was blown up"

Wow. There's a lot there to dig into. The Judge tells us that the cause of the explosion were three chuckleheads. Its unlikely that they were employees of the mill but more likely militia men sent to guard it. He also tells us that the four men at the mill survived the explosion but were badly injured. We also know that 500 lbs of gunpowder were destroyed. I'm not sure I can fathom what 500 lbs of gun powder looked like when it exploded but it must have been exciting.

Maybe something like this? I don't know. I'm guessing at least one of the guys got burned trying to walk away all slow without looking back.

He also reveals where the gunpowder was supposed to go when it was ready. Again to Montgomery the Judge wrote "I should have been much more affected with my loss had you not met with so lucky a supply." This seems to indicate that the gunpowder was bound for the invasion of Canada. The "lucky supply" was gunpowder that Montgomery had captured from the British during his early successes during the invasion.


So one nagging historical question I've had is answered. The gunpowder mill blew up because of three yokels playing with guns.