The Forestport Breaks

Syracuse University Press, 2004 Hardcover, 238 pages, $24.95
Syracuse University Press, 2004
Hardcover, 238 pages, $24.95

The Black River flows southwest from the Adirondacks, draining North Lake. It takes a sharp turn at Forestport to continue northwest outside the Adirondack Park. I had to convince the Explorer that a review of Michael Doyle’s The Forestport Breaks really belonged in an Adirondack magazine. It does, because the history of Forestport, with its sawmills, tanneries and exploitation of the region’s waterways, cannot be disentangled from the history of the Adirondack Park.

Located just outside the Blue Line, Forestport struggled for survival, just as many small towns in the Adirondacks. Better yet, the book places Adirondack waters in the thick of the story about the Erie Canal and state politics at the end of the 19th century, when Teddy Roosevelt was governor. Best of all, this is a really fun tale, as full of smalltime criminals and government failures as a story in the New York Daily News.

Years ago, when I was writing my guidebook to flatwater paddling in the Adirondacks, I included a description of the Forestport Feeder Canal (I called it the Black River Feeder Canal). It is a great canoe trip. Just west of the start, the canal clings to the side of a sheer hill, some 70 feet above the Black River. Intrigued by the steep slopes and improbable placement, I decided that I would look up the history of the place. I never did, but now I am glad I did not, for someone has done a better job than I could have.

Michael Doyle grew up in Forestport and became a newspaperman. He had the background to write this story—including family connections, insight into the inhabitants, and a sympathetic feel for the community. He includes local newspaper accounts and trial records, whose text he has cleverly woven into dialogue.

A break in the Forestport feeder canal, circa 1899.
A break in the Forestport feeder canal, circa 1899.

The feeder canal was partly designed to connect the Erie Canal to the Black River Canal, bringing in supplies and carrying away wood products. More important, it was to be the means of conveying Adirondack water to the Erie Canal, which never had enough. The Forestport feeder ends south of Boonville, but the water continues to flow via streams and stretches of canal to the Erie Canal near Rome. The feeder and others like it were completed in the early 1850s, but by 1890 the whole Erie Canal system was showing its age: Leaks were common, and the canal was losing the competition with the railroads.

Cities along the canal, especially Utica, were rife with people who charged exorbitantly for work to restore the system. It became a political scandal, and Governor Roosevelt vowed to clean up the mess. Forestport, a rugged frontier town with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, depended on the canal for its survival: It had a small number of bars, inns and hotels, which were sustained by the workers from its sawmills and tanneries and shipping.

The aging of the canal made the town’s future precarious. Forestport’s industries were seasonal, just like those in today’s Adirondack towns. But Forestport’s effort to improve its economic standing should not be an example for modern Adirondack towns—the town’s response was illegal. Several men hatched a scheme to profit from repairing breaks in the feeder—breaks they would create themselves. In the middle of the night they breached the canal wall and the towpath that hung above the river. Water rushed through the gap, widening the break.

The men opened breaks in 1897 and again in 1898. Others sabatoged the canal in 1899 as the state, with the help of Pinkerton detectives, was preparing to arrest and try the first group.

Repair crews work on the Forestport canal, circa 1899.
Repair crews work on the Forestport canal, circa 1899.
PUT-IN: Heading west on NY 28, turn left just before
the bridge over Kayuta Lake in Forestport. (The turn is
less than 2 miles east of NY 12.) Go 0.2 miles and take
the first paved road on the left. Go 0.2 miles to the
canal and park on the left.
TAKE-OUT: The parking area is across from the
Boonville Municipal Park on NY 12. Follow back roads
from the take-out to the put-in if you want to check
water levels. Otherwise, the quickest route is NY 12
south to NY 28.

A trial in Rome sought to pin the first two breaks on Forestport’s saloon owners. Some breakers testified that Dick Manahan—owner of the original Buffalo Head breach the feeder wall, but the jury failed to agree on a verdict. In a second trial, the prosecutor tried to show that much of the town was involved in the conspiracy. A brother of a prosecution witness was shot during jury deliberations. This time, the jury convicted Manahan and six other Forestport residents. All were sentenced to state prison, but Manahan appealed and saw his conviction reversed.

Doyle’s story, constructed from clips from upstate newspapers, reads like modern scandal sheets. The canal system was one of Roosevelt’s biggest challenges, and politicians from upstate who sought to profit from the canal were hard to defeat. Within a decade of 1900, plans were made to replace the old Erie Canal, and by the 1920s today’s Barge Canal, no longer dependent on water from the Black River, was opened.

But the canal system still sends water to the Forestport Feeder in summer, so you can canoe the nearly 10-mile length, imagining the men who depended on this waterway for their town’s survival. The start is west of Kayuta Lake, which was made by damming the Black River for power and to make a mill pond with a boom to hold Adirondack logs, just like the Big Boom at Glens Falls on the Hudson River. The town is very small, but after you pick up your car and complete the shuttle with your canoe, you can drive east to the Adirondack Park boundary and eat at the Buffalo Head Restaurant. It’s on the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad and figures in this entertaining history.