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About this collection

The Canal Society of New York State was formed in Buffalo in 1956 at the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association. In that first year, membership was open to anyone interested in the history, folklore, and engineering of former canals and the present condition of the state’s remaining man-made waterways. This is still the primary focus of Canal Society members today.

DeWitt Clinton, a Buffalo lawyer who was a direct descendant of the famous Governor of New York, was the first president of the new society. Other officers included Secretary Treasurer Richard Wright of Syracuse, who was also president of the Onondaga Historical Society. In 1957, the group began offering two field trips per year to canal sites in different parts of New York State.

More than 50 years later, the Canal Society of New York State has an active membership and still organizes two field trips per year, as well as an annual symposium, regular tours of European Canals, and other, smaller events. The Society has compiled a Smithsonian-quality collection of canal artifacts, artwork, books and papers.

Access to these collections is made possible through a collaboration with the Erie Canal Museum.


Barge Canal Construction: Middle Division

In 1903, New York State decided it was necessary to enlarge the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca Canals, in order to compete against evolving modes of transportation and the growth of railroads. This enlarged system of canals, known as the Barge Canal, was completed in 1918. The enlarged Barge Canal was 12-14 feet deep, 120-200 feet wide, and was able to accommodate larger, self-propelled vessels carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo.

The Canal Society Collection contains a large sub-collection of Barge Canal Construction albums. These albums, which are organized by contract number, were created as official State records documenting construction projects on the Barge Canal as they progressed. It is likely that these albums originated at the Syracuse Weighlock Building (now the Erie Canal Museum) when it was the Middle Division headquarters. The Middle Division of the Erie Canal stretched from Cayuga County to the eastern boundary of Oneida county. The albums were taken by the Canal Society after the New York State Department of Public Works vacated the building in the late 1950s.

These photographs document construction of the Barge Canal and the first few years of its use, from 1905-1925. Coverage encompasses the entire Middle Division of the Barge Canal, between Cayuga and Oneida counties.


Gayer Collection

Albert Gayer (1897-1976) moved as a young child to Schenectady, NY, living not far from the banks of the Erie Barge Canal.  He and his parents had emigrated from Hungary in 1903.  Family tradition says that Gayer soon became fascinated with canal life and lore.  By the 1950s he was collecting historical canal-related manuscripts, photographs, books and other artifacts.  He was among the first directors of the Canal Society.  His collections of historic postcards and photographic glass negatives are among the most outstanding resources on New York State canal history.

This large collection of historic glass and film negatives, prints, and postcards (both printed and real-photo) documents life along New York State’s canals, including the Erie Canal, Black River Canal, and Champlain Canal. The collection covers all of New York, with a heavier emphasis on the eastern half of the state, from the 1830s to the 1960s.


Horne Collection

Construction of the Panama Canal by the United States was completed between 1904 and1914. The Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States from 1903 to 1979. The Zone consisted of the canal itself, and an area extending approximately five miles on both sides of the canal, excluding Panama City and Colón. The workers who built the canal lived and worked in the Canal Zone.

Rollin Peter Burns (1877-1942) of Rochester, NY, reported for duty within the Engineering Department on the Isthmus on November 17, 1907. He began his time in Panama as a Trainman in the Culebra Division, was later promoted to Conductor in the Central Division, and eventually ended up under the division of the Chief Engineer. Burns was employed there through October 24, 1913, near the end of construction on the Panama Canal. He and his wife, Alice, departed Panama on the USMSS Cristobal the very next day, sailing from Cristobal, C.Z. (Canal Zone) for New York, Oct. 25, 1913.

The Horne Collection was donated to the Canal Society by Mary Horne, the niece of Rollin Burns, who inherited his collection of Panama Canal photographs.

These photographs were taken from 1904-1914, during construction of the Panama Canal, in locations throughout and beyond the Canal Zone. The collection documents construction of the canal, cities and towns, daily life for workers and their families, and the surrounding landscape of Panama.


Madden Collection

Emily (1906-1998) and J. Hayward (1905-1987) Madden of Livonia, NY amassed perhaps the largest private collection of canal manuscripts, photographs and other artifacts.  Both had professional careers in social work that brought them to Livingston County, near the route of the 19th-century Genesee Valley Canal.  By the late 1950s they had become well-recognized scholars of New York State canal lore.  Emily Madden was among the first directors of the Canal Society of New York State.  They were also instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Canal Society.

Their physical collection amounts to approximately 600 cubic feet.  It includes hundreds of books and serials related to 19th- and 20th-century canal life.  The Maddens' special interest in the Genesee Valley Canal is especially noted in their holdings.  They collected historic photographic prints and negatives on New York State canals.  For more than thirty years they traveled the still-operating Barge Canal system and the historic now-abandoned canal alignments in New York State, documenting structures and other landmarks.  Their notebooks, 35mm color transparencies and other photographs have proven to be among the most valued portions of their collection.  They often did this work in conjunction with other Canal Society members.  When the work of those colleagues was in jeopardy, the Maddens acquired that material.  The Madden collection incorporates such noteworthy elements as the photographic collections of Canal Society members Dr. David Ennis of Lyons, NY and Robert Rose of Fulton, NY.

This digital collection is but a small sample of the entire Madden Collection. Included are historic glass negatives, prints, and postcards dating from the 1880s to the 1960s. Images cover the Erie Canal, other canals in New York State, and Canadian canals.


Soule Collection

F. Channing Soule (1914-1980) of Fayetteville, NY was instrumental in establishing the Canal Society of New York State and, for many years, served on its board of directors.  That dedication was partly based on a long family association with Upstate businesses and waterways.  The Soule family has long been active in the commercial life in the Syracuse area.  The Merrell-Soule Company had several food-processing facilities along the Erie Canal in the late 19th-century.

Mr. Soule was an avid researcher and collector of canal material.  He extensively traveled the New York State waterways as well as those in Canada and Europe.  While doing so, he amassed a collection of several hundred 35mm color transparencies that documented the structures and activities.  Additionally, he collected approximately 3,000 historic postcards on canal communities.  Most of these images are of canal scenes in Central New York, reflecting his own local area.  There is also extensive coverage of canals beyond New York State.  There are many postcards that came from his special interest in Canadian and European canals.

This digital collection is but a small sampling of the Soule Collection, consisting of historic postcards related to the canals of New York State and Canada, from 1902-1948.

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