Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reform Movement on Erie Canal

Submitted by Richard Palmer

Reform Movement Stemmed Crime and Immorality along the Erie Canal

by Jonathan Anderson

In 1825 New York State's 363-mile Erie Canal was opened from Albany
to Buffalo. Almost immediately, the trans-state canal route fueled an
explosion of commerce and New York State was transformed into a chain
of urban commercial centers. As commerce spread across the state, so
did the lure for illicit activity that preyed on the canal's
prosperity. Nowhere was this more evident than in the canal districts
of the urban centers that developed along the canal route.

The urban canal districts became lined with docks, warehouses,
factories, lumberyards, and the variety of trade shops that supported
the canal system. The canal districts also became lined with taverns,
fight houses, brothels, and all the low haunts that attracted the
criminal sort. The canal districts were said to have harbored such
criminal classes as expert burglars, thugs, confidence operators,
highwaymen, church sneaks, robbers, and murderers. Inevitably the
urban canal districts became notoriously tough crime ridden red light

In the eyes of some, the canal had become a haven for vice and
immorality. After all canal life attracted workers who drank, swore,
fought, gambled, and engaged in worse acts of degradation. These
workers lived a rough transient lifestyle that arguably invited a
mischievous and criminal lifestyle.

During the early canal period the Sabbatarian Reform Movement
exploited the perception of canal immorality and pressed to hold the
canal to moral account. As late as the mid-19th century, this
movement pressed the State Legislature to close canal transportation
on the Sabbath. Petitions to limit transportation, close locks,
boycott Sunday business threatened to slow the current of canal

Supporters of the movement hoped that halting canal business on
Sundays would allow the canalers an opportunity to seek and observe
religious services and saving graces. Tangent to this movement, the
Boatman's Friend Society was formed in 1830 to promote the moral and
religious improvement of the canal folk. Six-day boat lines also were
formed seeking the patronage of Sabbath observers.

Opponents of the movement argued that the boat workers would simply
use the day of rest to pursue their ungodly activities. Ultimately,
the demand for developmental and commercial progress won out and the
canal business continued to flow seven-days a week. The low haunts of
the urban canal districts flourished.

As strange as it might seem at first glance, the policing system of
the day encouraged the canal district / red light phenomenon. What
better way to police a community than to harbor the low haunts to an
isolated district? Where better to locate stolen plunder and the
criminal element than the canal districts? These districts earned
notorious watch-post nicknames by the police and watchmen such as
"Robber's Row" in Syracuse.

Perhaps the most unfortunate victims of the canal district vices were
the young impressionable 'Canal Boys,' many of them orphaned, who
were schooled in a life of crime. For them the canal districts were
their classrooms. It was said that these precarious and resourceful
class of youth learned all the graduations of crime from simple acts
of larceny, pick pocketing, and games of trick, to the more daring
acts of robbery, burglary, and murder. All trades necessary for
survival in the tough urban canal districts.

Their plight worsened upon the approach of winter when the season of
navigation closed. Condemned to wintering the streets, seeking safety
in numbers, these wayward youths formed criminal street gangs
'colonies of waifs,' and practiced their evil trades in the streets
throughout canal urban centers.

The policing system of the canal period was caught unprepared for
this urban juvenile delinquency problem. It offered no relief from
the unforgiving life on the streets other than jail. The hapless,
unfortunate, and homeless canal boys were shrewd to exploit this
refuge as a means for food and shelter. With no regard as to age,
penitentiaries and local jails swelled with ill-clad, unwashed, and
hungry youth.

In response, as early as 1846, blew the winds of reform. Vanguarded
by the citizens of Syracuse, a reform movement pressed for the canal
boy's mental and moral well-being.

Legal appointed guardians, age related registrations, legal contract
reviews, and houses of refuge soon provided a measure of protection
from exploitation. Historically, the movement birthed the beginnings
of a statewide juvenile justice system.

Ultimately, the reform movement influenced the breakup of the urban
red-light canal districts and the low haunts of the communities, like
uncontained weeds, rooted elsewhere throughout the neighborhoods.
Crime and policing would never be the same.

(Jonathan Anderson is historian of the Onondaga County Sheriff's
Department where he is a lieutenant in the Professional Standards Unit.

Jonathan L. Anderson
Lieutenant – Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office
Professional Standards Unit (315) 435-3000
407 South State Street
Syracuse, N.Y. 13202

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