Working at the Weighlock Building on the Erie Canal in Syracuse, New York
New York State employees occupied the Syracuse Weighlock Building beginning on July 22, 1850. There was a high turnover rate among them. It’s not known how many employees worked at the Weighlock, but at least in the beginning, they were generally local people. Many came from varied professional backgrounds. This was no disqualifier for success as a Canal employee.
The Weighlock was overseen by the Canal Commission, which consisted of three commissioners, one for each division of the Canal (Eastern, Middle, and Western). In the early 1860s, the commissioner for the Middle Division was Benjamin F. Bruce, who was from Syracuse. He would have made frequent trips to the Weighlock, which was most likely the administrative center of the Middle Division. The commissioner had an assistant, and in the case of Bruce, his assistant was his son, Dwight H. Bruce.
The Weighlock was also the office of the Engineering Department of the State of New York, and particularly, the division engineer, who oversaw and inspected the Middle Division. He had several resident engineers working under him. The colleague he would have had the most contact with was the resident engineer for Syracuse. In 1857, division engineer O.C. Hartwell and resident engineer M.C. Fremyer, resided at the same hotel, in addition to working together in the Weighlock. The division engineer was also responsible for hiring assistants, including levelers, surveyors, draftsmen, and clerks.
Weighing boats, collecting tolls
Another prominent Weighlock employee was the toll collector, whose job was later expanded to include collection of statistics. He was responsible for collecting and keeping accounts of tolls collected. His position was imbued with significant powers, such as examination of accounts by businesses operating boats on the Canal. He had a staff of clerks to assist him. 1850s toll collector Norman Otis had previously worked as a builder and as a deputy clerk for Onondaga County. In other parts of the state, the toll collector was also the boat inspector, but in Syracuse, this was a separate position, supervised by the collector. The job would have been very hands-on, sometimes at the potential cost of the man’s safety. Garrett Putnam, an inspector in 1870, was accidentally thrown into the Canal by a bowline hitting him in the chest; he was fine and returned to work after climbing out.
The weighmaster also worked under the collector, and performed the mechanical task of weighing boats and the monetary calculation of tolls charged. He kept copious records of boats weighed, dates, weights, and other data that was used to keep the other weighmasters informed. Weighmasters had a staff of usually two assistants. This small group did detect attempts to commit fraud occasionally; one such incident occurred in 1866, when Captain C.H. Gifford falsified the empty weight of his boat in order to make it heavier and therefore save on tolls when carrying a load. He was fined $20 for this stunt. Benjamin L. Higgins, who was the weighmaster in 1857, had come to the position after a career as a “daguerreian artist,” or photographer, and later became a fire chief.
Only one left statewide
The Syracuse Weighlock building is the only remaining building of its kind, and was once a vital part of the daily business of New York State’s canal system. There were once 7 such buildings along the Enlarged Erie Canal; the other locations were Rochester, Oswego, Waterford, West Troy, Albany, and Utica, and all were torn down. By the 1950s, the Syracuse Weighlock had ceased operating as a State office building, and was to be torn down. Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens, it was spared and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and became the home of the Erie Canal Museum in 1962. In the history of the building, there is also the reflection of the people who made the Canal a success through their employ.