Monday, June 17, 2013

Private Railroads v. Public Canals

Erie Canal after 3rd enlargement circa 1920, Baldwinsville, N.Y.
Erie Canal at Syracuse, N.Y.


Cortland Evening Standard, Tuesday, February 24, 1903.


What are the Merits and Demerits of the Proposed Canal Enlargement.

   To the Editor of the Standard:

   Sir -The most objectionable public expenditure which now invites the organized opposition of the people of this state is that for the proposed enlargement of the canals at the expense of the taxpayers. To enable those whose money it is proposed to take by taxation for the purposes of this scheme to understand it in all its bearings, it is desirable to ascertain who are advocating it and why they do so; what are its merits and defects as an engineering proposition; what are its economical, business and financial advantages and disadvantages; what are its ethical merits and demerits; and, lastly, when we have reached a logical conclusion on these points, what ought to be done about it?

   First, then, who are its advocates, and what are their motives? It will be readily perceived that contractors as a class favor it, because it will afford fat jobs and big profits. The same is true of civil engineers as a class and of laborers who follow public works as a business or vocation. Most professional politicians must be included among its supporters, because from this source they expect to derive large campaign funds and much valuable patronage. To this fact may be attributed the utterances of the platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties in this state last fall. They expect to succeed because there is no organized opposition to the scheme and no source from which they anticipate any intelligent discussion of its demerits such as would rouse the people, who are for the most part, absorbed in their own private affairs and usually give little attention to those of the public. In this respect they ought to be and must be disappointed and ultimately defeated.

As an Engineering Proposition.

   Let us consider this canal proposition as an engineering proposition because, if it is physically impracticable for any reason, that should end the discussion. It is a known and generally admitted fact that practically all the sources of the supply of water for operating the present canals have been used and exhausted, and the state has resorted to measures to reforestize the Adirondack mountain region to conserve the water supply for the use of the canals of the state. Notwithstanding the decrease in canal traffic, the supply of water for the canals at their present dimensions and respective capacities frequently proves inadequate to float boats adapted to use thereon. If the canals should be enlarged to the dimensions proposed, the quantity of water required to operate them would be increased in the ratio of the squares of their respective prisms.

   To illustrate roughly the present canal boat draws not more than 7 feet of water, the square of which is 49. When the canal is enlarged so as to float a boat drawing 12 feet, the square of which is 144, nearly three times as much water will be required for the operation of the enlarged canal as at present. No one has informed us where this increased supply of water is obtainable, and we are convinced no one ever will. To enlarge the canals without water to fill them is to render them less serviceable than they are at present, except for the purpose of fattening a canal ring, which is the one infamous purpose this scheme for their enlargement is sure to serve, and about the only one which, in the nature of things, can be realized.

The Canal Obsolete.

   As a means of transportation from an economic and financial point of view, the canals of this state are obsolete, and would remain so after they were enlarged, even if they could be supplied with water sufficient for their operation on the plan proposed. The passing of the Chenango, Chemung and Genesee Valley canals and others of lesser note in this state, and the falling off of traffic on the canals which have remained in use, though freed from tolls and perpetuated as a fruitful source of political corruption and exploitation for spoils by political heelers and contractors, proves that canals of varying levels, requiring numerous locks for their operation, are obsolete in this state.

   They are closed by ice for fully five months in the year. The expense of maintenance, of operation and conducting transportation, is proportionately greater than upon well equipped and well managed railroads with which they cannot successfully compete.

   There has been a revolution in business methods since the canals were constructed, which has tended strongly to render them obsolete. Formerly the merchant went to New York or some other market twice each year and bought a stock of goods designed to supply his trade for six months. The interest account, insurance, taxes, and other expenses incident to his purchase, with his profit, had to be added to the selling price of these goods. Now the merchant carries a small stock, replenished every week, has a line of samples, orders from the manufacturer or jobber by wire for immediate delivery by express or fast freight, and within a week thereafter his customer has the goods, the merchant his profit and the manufacturer his pay for them. It is manifest that a merchant doing business in the antiquated method cannot compete with one pursuing the modern method by which the capital invested, the interest account and charges for insurance, taxes and other incidentals are nearly eliminated, but it is equally manifest that the canals cannot be depended upon for the expeditious transportation necessary to the modern method, which more than any other one thing makes the canals irretrievably obsolete and renders the expenditure of money for their enlargement foolish and criminal.

As a Business Proposition.

   As a business proposition, why should taxpayers of the state of New York maintain a free canal to float the products of their competitors in business in other states to market, when the necessary result must be to diminish the prices they receive for their own competing products? The pretense that it is necessary to continue and enlarge the canals in order to check by competition the tendency of railroads to charge excessively for transportation, is mainly, if not entirely, humbug. Instead of the canals setting the price on freight rates, the railroads have done it, and have practically driven the canals out of business in the race—which shows the impotency of the canals as a regulator of freight rates. The wages of the boatmen upon the canals with no tolls to pay, is starvation compared with the earnings of those engaged in operating railroads, so impossible is it for the canals to compete with railroads as carriers.

   There is no one thing that has so continually and uniformly diminished as rates of transportation in the United States. In this respect we are the surprise and despair of all Europe. But this result is not attributable to the competition of canals, for the same results have followed where canals did not enter into competition with railroads. It has resulted from better road beds, stronger structures, improved and more efficient equipment of the railroads. The same train crew now moves more than four times as much freight as formerly and with greater speed and safety.

Absolutely Unjust.

   It is absolutely unjust to compel the taxpayers of New York state to construct a free canal to float the products of their competitors from other states to market. These competitors have the advantage of cheaper transportation, though situated at a greater distance from market, and are thereby enabled to undersell residents of this state and reduce their incomes and profits. Our candle is thus being burned at both ends by making us build a canal and bear the losses consequent upon the competition which that canal has made possible.

Will Not Defeat Itself.

. This nefarious scheme will not defeat itself. There are organized gangs of plunderers engaged in advocating it—some politicians, some contractors and some others. There should be formed at once, in every town, organizations for opposing this scheme of plunder and they should partake of a political character, because both the Republican and the Democratic parties are committed to favoring the scheme; and therefore another organization must be formed outside the lines of both these parties. The stake to be played for is over a hundred million and the time necessary to organize to defeat the enormous graft is all too short to waste a moment which ought to be employed in preparing for the contest. Yours truly,

Irving H. Palmer.

Feb. 24, l903.


Editor’s note:

   Irving H. Palmer was a Cortland lawyer and president of the Village of Cortland in 1881-82 and 1889. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Erie and Central Railroad in 1903. Despite Mr. Palmer’s plea to reconsider barge canal improvements, the state legislature passed the Barge Canal Act on April 7, 1903. Work on the canal's third enlargement commenced that year and was completed in 1918.
1) Cortland County Standard, 22 Feb 1870.
    PALMER - HUNTER - In this village, at the Baptist church, on the 10th inst., by Rev. A. WILKINS, Irving H. PALMER, Esq., to Miss Maggie A. HUNTER, all of Cortland.
    A young but hard-working and promising lawyer; a genial warm-hearted and wholesome companion, we feel unusual pleasure in welcoming friend Irving to the upper and higher rank of life. Formerly connected with Cortlandville Academy, and, since its commencement to the end of last term, with the Normal school, Miss HUNTER has endeared herself to her associates, and to the scholars and their parents especially. Beloved and respected by all who know them, the warmest congratulations, and the heartiest wishes for their future happiness are extended to the newly married pair.
2) Cortland County Directory 1889.
Palmer, Irving H., lawyer over 89 Main, president of the village, secr. Cortland Top & Rail Co. h 5 James.


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