Guest Column LogoContributed by Richard Palmer

There is strong evidence that it was planned to operate a steamboat on the Chenango Canal between Binghamton and Hamilton during the height of the Civil War.

The Madison Observer, published in Morrisville, reprinted the following article from the Binghamton Republican on Thursday, March 5, 1863:

“Steamboat on the Chenango Canal. – We have already stated that Mr. Dickinson has presented to the Canal Board, the petition of Abram Bevier and Nelson Orcutt, to navigate the Chenango Canal with a Steam Packet. A steamboat is now being built in this village by Wm. Ogden for this purpose. A twelve-horse locomotive engine and the wheels are now building by Shapley, Dunk & Co. The boat is to be as large as the passage through the locks will admit.

“It is intended to run from Binghamton to Hamilton in 11 hours, and to accommodate 100 passengers, and 25 tons of freight. Is to be ready for launching immediately on the opening of the canal. This will mark an era on the Chenango Canal, and will stir up the sluggish waters of that inland channel. The idea is a good one – the accommodation will be great, and we trust that the project will be entirely successful. It is to be called, we learn, Will-o’-the Wisp, – a light that can’t be caught!”

Unfortunately, no contemporary evidence has yet been found as to the fate of this venture, except an fanciful article published in the Binghamton Press of Oct. 8, 1932 stating in part:

“A company was formed headed by the eminent “Soapy” Orcutt, a citizen who dreamed dreams. After months of hard work, enough capital was raised. The steamboat was built, launched and duly christened Will-o’-the-Wisp, a prophetic name, as it proved.

“Soapy” announced the date of the trial trip – noon of a certainSaturday – and prophesied that the fast craft, if all went well, would arrive at its destination, Port Crane, before dark!

The packet dock, and all-the-neighborhood, was crowded with gaping folk when “Soapy” pulled the whistle cord and the Will-o’-Wisp, with flags flying, tooted a shrill farewell as she backed with stately dignity out of the placid canal. Among the throng of passengers was a present officer of the Binghamton Savings Bank – a stowaway in the hold.

All went well on the voyage until, at a point about a mile and a half from the village, a large stick of floating wood was picked up by the churning paddle wheels. This did the Will-o’-the-Wisp no good and, much to the disappointment of the passengers she had to return to the packet dock for repairs.

After a long delay the repairs were completed, and then the Will-o’-the-Wisp ran into another snag. The canal superintendent ruled that steamboats would not be permitted to use the canal because they washed the banks away. The project was abandoned, the company dissolved, and “Soapy” Orcutt and his brethren mourned the end of a bright dream.”

Note: The Chenango Canal prism was 42 feet at the top and 26 feet wide at the bottom, and averaged a depth of four feet. It was 97 miles long, between Utica and Binghamton. It opened in 1837 and operated until 1878. It included 116 locks, 52 culverts, 19 aqueducts and 162 bridges.


By martha

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