Canals of New York

Below is a list of the canals of New York. The first canal (1730!) was not much more than a glorified ditch, but the canals of the 1790s and early 1800s were more of what we consider a canal, albeit they were very small. The Erie Canal, and the canals that followed were much larger and grander in scope. The canals of this era (1817-1903) reached nearly every part of the state, so much in fact that nearly every major city and village today had (or currently has) a canal running within 10 miles of it.

In 1903 the state of the canal system across the state was in peril, many of the canals built in the mid 1800s had closed due to cost of operations and the availability of rail transport. The Erie, Oswego and Champlain Canals were still viable though due to being a highway to the west and north, but barges were outgrowing the canal's dimensions. Therefore the 1903 Barge Canal Act approved funds for the construction of a larger canal system to replace these routes. Before the Barge Canal was even completed, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal section was also added to the list of Barge Canals.


Today's canals

Lock E17 from the downstream side.
Lock E17 from the downstream side.
  • Erie Canal (1817-present) - The famed Erie Canal is an artificial waterway that connects the Hudson River to Lake Erie. This historic waterway, first completed in 1825, is one of the most important projects in the development and success of New York and the United States. Then Governor DeWitt Clinton had a great vision to create a man-made waterway connecting Albany to Buffalo which would allow raw materials from the west to be transported cheaply to the populated eastern seaboard. His idea was met with harsh criticism and his opposition dubbed the idea as Clinton's Ditch or Clinton's Folly, but he pressed on. On the fourth of July, 1817, Clinton's Ditch was started in Rome, where there was a long level section to be dug. The Erie Canal was completed from Albany to Buffalo in the fall of 1825 and was an immediate success; it secured New York as the Empire State. The route was changed slightly a few times until the construction of the modern Erie (Barge) Canal that utilizes natural rivers and lakes whenever possible.
  • Champlain Canal (1817-present) - The Champlain Canal follows the traditional Native American route that connects the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and eventually the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Officially beginning at Waterford where the Erie Canal departs from the Hudson River, the 60 mile long Champlain Canal continues upstream along the Hudson River to Fort Edward. At Fort Edward, the canal branches away from the Hudson River towards Whitehall. Whitehall lies at the base of Lake Champlain, where boaters can continue to travel northwards enjoying the picturesque beauty of Lake Champlain.
  • Oswego (1825-present) - The original Oswego Canal opened in 1828, three years after the Erie Canal was completed. Today the 23.7 mile Oswego Canal connects the Erie Canal at Three Rivers (Oneida River, Seneca River, Oswego River) to Oswego, a port city on Lake Ontario. The Oswego Canal currently follows the Oswego River its entire course, either using the river basin itself or artificial channels constructed using one bank of the river. Like the Eastern Erie Canal, it has a depth of 14 feet and a width of 120 feet, though it is often much wider. It contains 7 locks: Lock O1 through Lock O8 (no Lock O4), which combines for a total change in elevation of 118 feet.
  • Cayuga-Seneca Canal (1821-present) - The Cayuga-Seneca Canal is unique among the four main canals remaining today. Unlike the others, its was built in stages, and went through many enlargements as well as route and lock location changes. The first canal in the area opened in 1821 and only connected Seneca Lake to the Seneca River Outlet at Cayuga Lake and consisted of eight locks. This canal was a moderate success, but locals yearned for a navigable route from Seneca Lake to the then new Erie Canal. Furthermore there was no towpath along the route, which meant that boats had to be self-propelled (oars or pole). In 1825 they got their wish and the canal was to be extended to connect with the Erie Canal. This extension added 4 locks and added 12.5 miles to the length and officially opened in 1828. This route was changes subtlety until the 1903 Barge Canal Act which built today's system.
  • Saranac Lakes Lock System - The Saranac Lakes Lock System has the only remaining hand operated locks in New York. Two locks connect Lake Flower (downtown Saranac Lake Village) to Middle Saranac Lake.

The earliest canals

A mule team on pulling a barge on the Enlarged Erie Canal in Lyons.
A mule team on pulling a barge on the Enlarged Erie Canal in Lyons.
  • Little Falls Canal (1793-Erie Canal Construction) - Long before the Erie Canal was dug through Little Falls, there was a need for a canal around the falls so that loaded boats could easily pass to the west. The canal project was started in 1793 and completed in 1795, a few years before the Rome Canal and 30 years before the Erie Canal was completed. This was the first major canal in New York and marked further progress towards a continuous navigational channel between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. Unlike all canals in Little Falls to follow, this canal followed the north side of the river, rather than the southern side; for this reason, when the Erie Canal was built an aqueduct was built in order to feed water to the Erie Canal and allow boats to access the northern side of the canal.
  • Rome Canal (1795?-Erie Canal Construction) - Rome was the site of the very important Oneida Carry where boats would portage from the eastern flowing Mohawk River to the westward flowing Wood Creek. The unique proximity of the two navigable rivers and the flat land between them allowed relatively easy access to the undeveloped western part of the state, the Great Lakes and the west. The Rome Canal Connected these two watersheds and allowed loaded boats to pass easily.
  • Wood Creek Improvement (1704-Erie Canal construction) - Wood Creek is a small winding creek filled with fallen trees. Prior to the Erie Canal, this was part of and a critical part of the only water route west. Therefore it long meanderings were straighted and parts of the upper river had locks added to raise water levels for boats. These primitive improvements eased passage west, but this route was ultimately bisected and made obsolete by the construction of the Erie Canal.
  • German Flatts Canal (1798 - Erie Canal construction) - The German Flatts Canal was a short canal along the Mohawk River which directly bypassed two sets of rapids, Wolf Rapids and Knock 'em Stiff Rapids, and with an associated dam eased navigation over another rapid. The canal was the third major undertaking of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, and utilized lessons learned during the construction of the Little Falls Canal and Rome Canal.

19th century canals

  • Old Oneida Lake Canal (1835-1863) - The first Oneida Lake Canal was competed in 1835, ten years after the completion of the Erie Canal, and connected Sylvan Beach to the old Erie Canal that ran south of the lake by a few miles. The canal continued until it joined Wood Creek and then it turned west and used the creek to the opening of Oneida Lake. Unfortunately this canal fell into disarray; the locks leaked terribly, the junction between the canal and lake was always being filled in with shifting sand bars and the towpath was in poor shape. It was deemed better to abandon the canal than enlarge it when the Erie Canal was enlarged. 1863 was the last year for navigation on this route.
  • "New" Oneida Lake Canal (1877-1878) -The new enlarged canal, completed in 1877 after many years of governmental issues, would be south-west of the former Oneida Lake Canal and connect to the Old Erie Canal in Durhamville. The new canal ran nearly straight to Oneida Lake which would shorten the distance by about 2 miles. Unfortunately this route was plagued with problems due to poor craftsmanship and quicksand which created many breaches in the canal walls. There were very few boats that used this route as it was closed on and off in 1877 and 1878, and never opened again. The canal was eventually abandoned with the property returning to the previous owners. This is perhaps one of the worst canal failures both financially and in design in New York's history.
  • Oneida River Improvement (1850-Barge Canal Construction) - The Oneida River Canal (also referred to as the Oneida River Improvement) was completed in 1850 after about 15 years of the local people petitioning the State Government to build it. It was used by steamboats to facilitate trade on Oneida Lake, especially when the Oneida Lake Canals were not in use. 1874 saw an enlarging of the canal to that of the enlarged Erie Canal and the waterway was used until the new Barge Canal, using this canal, made this old canal obsolete.
  • Baldwin(sville) Canal (1809-Barge Canal Construction) - Before the Erie Canal was built, boats travelled up the Seneca River through the finger lakes but had difficulty bypassing the Baldwinsville Rapids, therefore Dr. Baldwin, for whom the town is named after, built a canal and lock system that allowed loaded boats to transverse the rapids. The Baldwin Canal originally consisted of one guard lock, one lift lock and a wooden dam across the river. It was opened in 1809 and provided passage for loaded boats up as a far as Jacks Reef. It was a privately owned canal until it was 1850 when it was purchased by the state. It was eventually upgraded to stone structures and a tow path was created from the junction with the Oswego Canal at Mud Lock to Jacks Reef. The construction of the modern Erie Canal made this canal obsolete.

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