Folk hero or folklore: Geneva man outlines details for cross-state waterway inside Canandaigua debtor's prison.

CANANDAIGUA — More than 200 years ago, canal building in post-Industrial Revolution era Europe was all the rage, particularly in England and France.

Many ideas were also floated around New York state to try to improve commercial transportation, but the one that captured the political powers of the time was conceived by a Geneva flour merchant serving time in debtor's prison in Canandaigua.

Jesse Hawley, an early 19th century businessman, ended up in debt, partially because of troubles getting his products to other markets — mainly New York City — in a timely fashion.

Preston Pierce, museum educator at the Ontario County Historical Society, said Hawley and his partner, Henry Corl, used slow-moving, flat-bottomed Durham boats on the Seneca River to get their grains to a mill owned by Col. Wilhelmus Mynderse, founder of Seneca Falls. From there, they moved the milled flour along several different waterways, including Oneida Lake and the Mohawk River, hindered by many travel challenges including rapids and falls.

The primitive travel modes not only presented transportation difficulties, but were expensive and led to financial problems for the duo, prompting Corl to skip town with a large sum of money, leaving Hawley holding the bag. Hawley, facing legal problems after defaulting on his mortgage on property at Main and Seneca streets in the city of Geneva, also originally left town in 1807. But his conscience quickly brought him back and he was sentenced to two years in debtor's prison in Canandaigua, Pierce said.

“He went bankrupt because he could not ship his goods anywhere in a timely fashion,” said Vicki Krisak, director of communications and outreach at The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse. “He landed in debtor's prison. From there, he started writing a series of essays about a better way to ship things. The essays explained in great detail a canal, exactly where it would be cut and how it would be built – lots and lots of really technical details about it.”

Pierce, who is also Ontario County historian and an adjunct social science lecturer at Finger Lakes Community College, said the essays came about at the suggestion of a visiting friend, who urged the depressed Hawley keep his mind engaged. That got Hawley thinking about his failed business and related transportation issues, leading to a series of essays published in 1807 and 1808 in the fairly new Genesee Messenger, the predecessor of the Daily Messenger.

In his writings, Hawley, using the pen name of Hercules, detailed plans for what Pierce said he viewed as “an artificial river” across New York state, connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, with access to New York City. He said a common practice of the time was for publications to reprint each other's articles, so Hawley's gained widespread distribution, eventually grabbing the attention of powerful legislators, particularly DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York City who became governor of New York state in 1817.

Using his political influence, Clinton, in his first year in the governor's office, convinced the Legislature to appropriate $7 million for the cross-state canal, which many opponents thought was a waste of money and referred to the waterway as “DeWitt's Ditch” or “Clinton's Ditch.”

“We think of that as kind of a joking name, but it was a political insult used by (Clinton's) rivals,” Pierce said.

The naysayers quieted as the success of the canal grew, providing much faster and less costly transportation lines credited with making New York City the commercial center of the world; leading to the development of villages into cities, including Rochester and Buffalo; and opening the west for expansion.

The Herculean undertaking began on July 4, 1817 —10 years after Hawley's essays — in Rome, Oneida County, and was dug east and west until its completion in 1825. Sections were opened as work on the whole progressed and toll fees helped finance ongoing construction.

To celebrate the opening, Pierce said Hawley accepted an invitation from then-Gov. Clinton to speak at the inaugural ceremony where Clinton and other dignitaries boarded the packet boat Seneca Chief. They journeyed all the way to New York City where a barrel of Lake Erie water was dumped into the New York harbor in what became known as the “Wedding of the Waters.”

“You know, how you can go from a debtor's prison to riding on the boat with DeWitt Clinton is a great story,” said Kal Wysokowski, president of the Canal Society of New York State. “I think his insistence that this waterway was an important economic tool — that he could see that — is an important, sort of visionary piece to that.”

Hawley, like a lot of canalers, she said, was a colorful character who embodied the colorful nature of the early believers who envisioned how the canal could transform the country.

Wysokowski added it is important to remember there were a lot of people like Jesse Hawley who really wanted the waterway and worked really hard to see it come to fruition.

Pierce said Hawley's estate was sold off in 1812 to pay his creditors. Upon his release from prison in 1809, after serving 20 months, Hawley moved to Rochester, later served in the state Legislature and retired in Lockport where he died in 1842 at the age of 68. A state historical sign recognizing Hawley as the first advocate for building the Erie Canal marks his gravesite in Cold Springs Cemetery

“He came back from this,” said Pierce, referring to Hawley's bankruptcy and imprisonment. “I guess you could say he came back from this even bigger than ever.”

Citing Oliver Phelps, Pierce said it was fairly common in the nation's early years for businessmen to become insolvent and end up in debtor's prison. Phelps, the prominent land speculator, first judge of Ontario County and U.S. congressman for whom the town and village of Phelps are named, actually died in the same debtor's prison in 1809.

Pierce first heard about Hawley from his friend Marvin Rapp, former historian at the Ontario County Historical Society, frequent contributor to the Daily Messenger and author. One of his books, “Canal Water and Whiskey,” includes a passage on Hawley.

“Frankly, at first it seemed like folklore," Pierce said. “For a long time, I was convinced it was more folklore than history. The more you get into it, though, the more it comes across and it's pretty clear, in his lifetime, he was widely recognized as the progenitor of the Erie Canal. He certainly was a significant factor in the development of transportation and the economy in western New York. He's one of those kind of secondhand icons we don't think too much about, which is too bad. I'm afraid there's still a large amount of people who think Jesse Hawley is largely folklore.”

An image of Hawley, on a Coach Street mural unveiled in the city last fall, now overlooks Commons Park, site of the former Pitts Hotel where he served his time in the upstairs prison.

"I was gratified, frankly, when I heard they were going to do that mural," Pierce said. “With Jesse Hawley right there, overlooking the property where he was jailed, is evidence the story is getting a little more attention than it used to get."