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The Forestport Breaks
A Nineteenth-Century Conspiracy along the Black River Canal

Michael Doyle

Cloth $24.95    |    0-8156-0772-5    |    2004

"Carefully researched and nimbly written, Doyle's account of a 19th-century conspiracy to sabotage part of the Erie Canal system is a delight to read. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was an engineering marvel that vastly improved commercial transportation. In 1856, canal boats carried over four million tons of goods-more that twice the load of the railroads. But by 1869, the tide had turned in favor of New York's railroads; the canal had fallen into disrepair and was subject to costly breaks that flooded the countryside. In 1895, New York voters approved $9 million in improvements-but a subsequent investigation revealed that all but $25,000 of the money had been spent, but only one third of the work was complete. The subsequent scandal made heads roll, including the governor's. After Theodore Roosevelt was elected in 1898, he appointed Colonel John N. Partridge as superintendent of public works. Aware that Forestport in Oneida County (which was along the Black River feeder canal) had acquired an unsavory reputation, Partridge hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. The locals fought the Pinkertons as enemies of the working man, but the latter eventually uncovered a plot that involved nearly every family in Forestport (and, in the words of one prosecutor, had 'no parallel in viciousness') in which the canal was 'the plaything of the politically connected' while the working men assigned to protect it damaged it for a tiny slice of the pie. In the end, 13 men went to jail for sabotaging the canal in an effort to rob the state treasury. History and mystery fans should enjoy this well-told tale. "
dashPublishers Weekly

"For lovers of real-life historical mysteries, it does not get much better than Michael Doyle's The Forestport Breaks. A Washington-based reporter, Doyle began tracing his own family's genealogy and stumbled upon a late-nineteenth-century crime story set during the Erie Canal's waning years. Although Doyle dug deeply in historical sources (newspapers, court records, government reports, official correspondence), his book aims to engage a popular rather than a scholarly audience.

In the late 1890s, the logging town of Forestport (in Oneida County) saw not just one, nor two, but three "breaks' in the side of its local canal, the Forestport feeder to the Black River Canal, which itself flows into the main Erie Canal. The first two breaks, in particular, took a serious toll on the surrounding region: lumbermen could not get their timber to market; water levels dropped in the main Erie Canal, threatening commerce; nearby towns, deprived of access to the canal's so-called "surplus water," had to restrict public water usage. Why, then, did some residents of Forestport curse, even threaten to kill, the man who discovered the second break, the man whose quick thinking prevented a very bad situation from turning into a disastrous one? This is the mystery that Doyle sets out to unravel.

The answer lies in a truism of canal history: one person's (or one town's) misfortune was often another person's (or another town's) boon. After water gushed from the Forestport feeder, as engineers, canal officials, and platoons of state workers converged on Forestport, money streamed into the rough-and-tumble town where the breaks had taken place, lining the pockets not just of state contractors, but also of local saloon keepers, hoteliers, lumbermen, liverymen, and laborers. Talk of conspiracy surfaced, capturing the fancy of politicians as prominent as Samuel J. Tilden and Theodore Roosevelt, and the "patronage rich network known as the Erie Canal" (p. 50) soon fell under a microscope. Pinkerton detectives descended on the town, and as a result of their investigation, thirteen Forestport men faced felony charges for willfully injuring the state's canals. Much of Doyle's book is a courtroom drama, detailing jury selection, testimony, verdicts, and ultimately the fates of the accused and of the state's witnesses against them.

When Progressive-ear politicians sought to make an example out of the Forestport conspirators (no one had previously faced criminal charges for injuring the canals, despite a long history of vandalism), they inadvertently helped create a rich collection of historical sources offering an unusually palpable sense of everyday life, relationships, and values in a struggling turn-of-the-century town. Buried within these sources are clues to how the era's economic strains may have shaken up class, gender, and ethnic identities and interactions. Yet Doyle usually leaves his readers to figure out for themselves the theoretical implications of such evidence. His rendition of the Forestport breaks is one in which the mystery, not the history, takes central stage. If some scholars may have wished for more analysis, even they may find themselves reading until the end, just to find out how it all turned out."
dashCarol Sheriff, New York History

The Erie Canal was dying. Adirondack sawmills were falling silent. And in the final years of the nineteenth century, the upstate New York town of Forestport was struggling just to survive. Then the canal levees started breaking, and the boom times returned. The Forestport saloons flourished, the town's gamblers rollicked, and the politically connected canal contractors were flush once more. It was all very convenient until Governor Theodore Roosevelt's administration grew suspicious and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency began investigating. They found what a lawman called one of the most gigantic conspiracies ever hatched in New York.

In The Forestport Breaks, Michael Doyle illuminates a fresh and fascinating chapter in the colorful history of the Erie Canal. This is the canal's shadowy side, a world of political rot and plotting men, and it extended well beyond one rough and tumble town. The Forestport breaks marked the only time New York officials charged men with conspiring to destroy canal property, but they were also illustrative of the widespread rascality surrounding the canal. For Doyle, there is a story with a personal dimension behind the drama of the canal's historical events. As he uncovered the rise and fall of Forestport, he was also discovering that the trail of culpability led to members in his own family tree.

Michael Doyle, a reporter assigned to the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspapers, was a former Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School.

6 x 9, 256 pages, 13 illustrations, bibliography, index

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