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LETTERS FROM JAIL SPARKED MOVEMENT TO BUILD ERIE CANAL

One person who should be given much credit for the construction of the Erie Canal is Jesse Hawley.

It was Jesse Hawley's letters to a newspaper stressing the need for a canal across New York state and suggesting a route for that canal that inspired the support from legislators in Albany that resulted in the building of the Erie Canal.

Hawley was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1773. By 1796 he had traveled to Canandaigua and was working in the office of Phelps and Gorham, the land speculators who had purchased a huge tract of land in eastern New York state in 1788.

In 1805, Hawley and Henry Corl of Geneva formed a partnership to forward flour and wheat from local farmers to a mill in Seneca Falls. The shipping route was along the water routes, a slow, rough-going, dangerous and expensive journey.

The shipping business of Hawley and Corl failed in 1806, probably because of the difficulties they encountered with their water routes. Corl disappeared with $10,000 of the company's assets and Hawley was arrested.

A friend of Hawley's put up bail for him, but as soon as he was released he fled to Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh he wrote his first letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper advocating a canal across New York state.

However, the letter resulted in no action.

Bothered by his conscience, Hawley returned to Geneva in August 1807, and was sentenced to the Canandaigua jail for 20 months.

While in jail, Hawley wrote 14 letters to the Canandaigua newspaper using the byline "Hercules," outlining the advantages of a canal across New York state.

In 1809 General Micah Brooks, state legislator from Ontario County, took the published letters to Albany and showed them to Simeon DeWitt, surveyor general. DeWitt became very interested.

A Board of Canal Commissioners was established and much discussion and debate occurred but, before any action could be taken, the War of 1812 began. Discussion of the cross-state canal began again as soon as the War of 1812 ended and in 1817 legislation was finally passed. The digging of the Erie Canal began near Rome on July 4, 1817.

In 1802, Col. William M. Bond had married Nancy Ralston and in 1813 Jesse Hawley married Nancy's sister, Elizabeth Ralston. Bond's brother, John, was an attorney in Rochester. Shortly after Elizabeth Ralston and Hawley were married, they moved to Rochester, and in 1817 Hawley became collector for the Port of the Genesee River.

In 1821 Hawley, Col. Bond and John Bond bought a large tract of land in the wilderness where they believed the canal locks were to be built to raise the water level to that of Lake Erie. When the construction of the canal locks began in 1823, Col. Bond began building the first brick house in what would become the City of Lockport. That brick house on Ontario Street in Lockport is now the property of the Niagara County Historical Society and is listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.

The canal locks were finished in 1825 and the first boat, the Seneca Chief, left Buffalo in October to travel the Erie Canal carrying water from Lake Erie to be dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

On board the boat was Gov. DeWitt Clinton, and in a seat of honor next to him was Jesse Hawley, testifying to the important role Hawley had in the building of the Erie Canal.

By 1831, Col. Bond had fallen so deeply in debt that the state seized his holdings and the brick house on Ontario Street became Hawley's property.

It was at this time that Bond Street in Lockport became Hawley Street. Hawley owned the brick house from 1831 to 1835. He remained in Lockport and in 1836 he was appointed treasurer of the Village of Lockport, a position he held until his death in 1842.

Jesse and Elizabeth Ralston Hawley were divorced in 1830. They had one daughter, Julia.

On Jan. 4, 1842, while visiting a friend in Cambria, Jesse Hawley was taken violently ill and died within a few minutes. Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church in Lockport and Hawley was buried in Cold Spring Cemetery.

On June 1, 1842, his daughter Julia, age 11 years, died and also is buried in the Hawley plot in Cold Spring Cemetery.

CLARENCE "DUTCH" ADAMS became active in the Niagara County Historical Society soon after his retirement from the Lockport school system in 1980.

The Niagara County Historical Society's museum and gift shop at 215 Niagara St., Lockport, are open Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. They can be reached at 434-7433.

Local historians who wish to submit a typed article for possible publication should mail it to Anne Neville, The Buffalo News, 8890 Porter Road, Niagara Falls, N.Y., 14304. Please include your phone number for confirmation.

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