Erie Canal

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Erie Canal Facts

The Governor Roosevelt on its way eastbound in Lock E22 after crossing Oneida Lake.
Length: 338 Miles
Depth: 14 Feet (Waterford to Three Rivers)
12 Feet (Three Rivers to Buffalo)
Bridge Clearance: 21 Feet
(Waterford to Three Rivers)
15.5 Feet (Three Rivers to Buffalo)
Number of Locks: 34 Locks
Channel Markers: Red buoys on the north side, green on the south side.
Erie Canal Marina Information
Erie Canal Towns
St Johnsville
Little Falls
Sylvan Beach

The 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.

To this day the Erie Canal still serves the boating community in providing safe passage to Upstate New York and beyond. The canal was enlarged and straightened many times and the current version stretches 338 miles from Waterford on the Hudson River to Lake Erie near Buffalo. The canal was originally built as a means for commercial traffic, but it has transformed into a recreational boater's dream. The Erie Canal is lined with dozens of canal towns offering all the services that a transient boater would need.

Today's canal has 34 Locks and is at least 120 feet wide and 12 feet deep. It has a vertical clearance of 21 feet between Waterford and Three Rivers (Oswego Canal junction), and 15.5 feet between the Three Rivers and Lake Erie. The locks are significantly larger than those of 175 years ago at 328 feet long and 45 feet wide, large enough for almost all recreational cruisers as well as large commercial barges to pass through. The largest vessels can be as large as 300 feet long by 43.5 feet wide.


Erie Canal History

In the early 19th-century, the transportation of goods from the eastern seaboard to the west was both time consuming and expensive. The main route was by horse drawn carts, which cost approximately $100 per ton to cross the state. A canal connecting the Hudson River to the west was a bold idea, but some ground work had already been done prior to the Erie Canal. The improved route between the Hudson River and Oswego on Lake Ontario (Mohawk River, Wood Creek, Oneida Lake, Oneida River and Oswego River) had been in use for many years, and the unimproved route was used by Native Americans for much longer. The 1795 Little Falls Canal bypassed rapids and allowed loaded boats to continue up the Mohawk River to Rome. The Rome Canal and Wood Creek Improvement that immediately followed the Little Falls Canal allowed loaded boats to continue on to Oneida Lake and down the Oswego River. Unfortunately these canals and improvements were not the answer. There were many other smaller carries along the route and the route required pike poles and/or sails for power. Furthermore the route was subject to high and low water levels and was therefore altogether not efficient.

DeWitt Clinton, who was mayor of New York City and later Governor of New York State (1817-22 and 1825-28) had the vision and conviction to build the first 363-mile long Erie Canal. It is interesting to note that the first canal across the state bypassed Lake Ontario and only connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The rational behind this was due to the desire to have a stranglehold on the western part of the growing country. It was feared that if the United States did not have a good connection to the west that Canada would connect to the west and enjoy the resulting economic benefits. Even more interesting, the new Erie Canal, which ran right through Rome and over Wood Creek, did not connect to the previous route through Oneida Lake and Oswego.

After many proposals and debates, in 1917 canal construction was authorized at a cost of $7 million dollars. The first shovelful was turned in Rome, at the present day Erie Canal Village, on July 4th, 1817. The same legislative bill that approved the Erie Canal also financed the [[Champlain Canal], connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain.

Canal Construction

The old and new side by side.
The old and new side by side.

The construction of a canal stretching 363 miles is an enormous task, especially without the benefit of today's machinery. The canal would be 363 miles and climb from sea level at Albany to 560 feet above sea level at Buffalo. The canal prism required a minimum width of 40 feet wide at the surface and 28 feet wide at the bottom. The depth of the canal was to be a minimum of 4 feet. The 83 locks along the canal were all built to a minimum of 15 feet wide and 90 feet long. The largest locks had 12 feet of lift and were made out of built of stone, concrete and wood. Lastly, the barges would be pulled by mules which required a tow path. The dimension of the tow path would be a minimum of 10 feet wide to allow mules to pass each other with ease.

The construction of the Erie Canal required many feats in its day. The first feat was that there were no engineers in New York at the time. Rather intelligent people stepped up and using creativity and natural intelligence sorted out problems as they arose. Constructing the canal required enormous man power in areas that had yet to be settled. The first years of construction saw little progress, removing trees and stumps created an enormous challenge in those days. Creativity over came these obstacles and trees were pulled over rather than cut down. A rope was thrown over the high branches of the tree and then mules pulled it over. Removal of the stump required a mule-powered leverage mechanism to lift the stumps out.

Construction on the prism was done by first removing the trees, then loading soil into mule-drawn carts which was then transferred to the lower band to ensure the canal would not breach. Extra soil was also used for the tow path used by the mules. One interesting feature of the canal that is often overlooked today is that the towpath only was on one side of the canal. Towing from the opposite side was not allowed. This has a few advantages, primarily because it required less construction time, and later maintenance would be less. The tow path was generally on the northern shore of the canal which allowed the sun to hit the path and keep it drier than it would on the southern shore.

Even with these streamlined building processes, thousands of laborers were needed. Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland made up the majority of the workforce and work began to steadily progress. Unfortunately crossing the Montezuma Marsh would put these workers into peril and over 1,000 workers died of swamp fever and this caused construction to stop in the area for the season and resumed in the winter.

The first section completed was a 15 mile stretch from Rome to Utica in 1819. This initial stretch was expanded to Salina the year after. This first major completion was immediately put to use and gave a glimpse into the future success of the canal. Albany to Brockport was completed in the fall of 1823 and the canal was already in great use. The only remaining work was at the western end which required climbing up 80 feet of the Niagara Escarpment which was made out of limestone.

The famous Lockport Flight of Five Locks climbs the majority of the escarpment. Interestingly these locks were assumed to create a bottleneck along the canal and they were originally built as double locks. Five locks for heading down and five locks for ascending. After much work on this difficult stretch work was completed on October 26, 1825.

The Early Erie Canal

The view down to the old lock 36.
The view down to the old lock 36.

In 1825 a grand celebration was held and the newly completed canal opened. It allowed boats that were up to 7 feet wide, 61 feet long and 3.5 feet of draft. The canal was an immediate success and quickly traffic jams were created. It was deemed necessary to enlarge the canal locks to allow more boats to pass at once. In 1832 an enlargement begin that reconstructed the locks to a larger size of 110 feet long by 18 feet wide. Furthermore double locks, two locks side by side in parallel, were built along the entire length of the canal to allow boats to travel in both directions at once.

The Erie Canal quickly became the most successful and influential artificial waterway in North America. It connected the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo, establishing the first all-water link between the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes. This would allow the raw material of the west to be cheaply transported east to the eastern seaboard which is where nearly all of the United State Population was at the time.

More than just a heroic feat of engineering, the Erie Canal opened the interior of the continent, providing a safe and reliable route for west-bound migrants and manufactured goods and east-bound products of forests, farms, and mines. Connecting places, people, and ideas, it strengthened the Union and fostered social and reform movements. Celebrated in art, literature, story, and song, it helped establish an American identity, both here and abroad.

Although its success sparked a canal building boom throughout the eastern United States and Canada, the Erie Canal remained preeminent. It made New York the Empire State and confirmed New York City's status as the young nation's most prosperous and vibrant seaport.

Enlarged several times during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Erie Canal is still in service today, along with the connecting Champlain Canal, Oswego Canal, and Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Operated by the New York State Canal Corporation, the system is now actively used for recreational boating and fishing as well as hiking and bicycling along the cross-state Canalway Trail.

The Congressional designation of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor recognizes the significance of the Erie Canal to our nation's history. The future of this national treasure will be to serve once again as a key destination and source of revitalization to the 234 canal communities within the Erie Canalway Corridor.

Remains of the Old Erie Canal Today

There are many small parks preserving the remains of the former versions of the Erie Canal across the state. The largest section that has been preserved is along the long level section between Rome and Syracuse. This 36 mile long park preserves the canal and tow path and is part of the Canalway Trail. Along the length of the canal is the Erie Canal Village and Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum where one can learn about the history of the canal and life in the 19th century.

Modern Erie Canal

The terminal wall in Baldwinsville.
The terminal wall in Baldwinsville.

The mule powered days of the former Erie Canal are long gone. In the late 1800's it was clear that railroads were taking over a large share of the transportation market. The Erie Canal had lost is premier status as the best method of transportation of goods to the west.

To remain influential the Erie Canal needed an upgrade. In 1895 the "Nine Million Dollar Improvement" began. This underfunded effort's goal was to deepen the canal from seven feet to nine feet. Unfortunately the amount of money was not enough and to add insult to injury there were issues of money mismanagement. The project stopped dead in 1898 and canal morale hit a new low.

In the next 5 years many events happened, but a few things were clear. First was that New Yorkers did not want the Erie Canal abandoned. Second was that if the canal were to remain in operation it must be improved. This improvement was for two reasons. Primarily was that the canal directly provided shipment of goods to the great lakes. A secondary result of the canal was its ability to keep the railroad rates in check.

What the improvement would consist of was the main issue that was debated. Minimalists wanted just the completion of the "Nine Million Dollar Improvement". This would be the least costly endeavor, yet keep perform the function of keeping the railroads in check. The other side of the argument wanted to see a ship canal capable of allowing ocean going steamers access to the lakes.

After years of debates, failed legislative bills and lobbying by people on both sides of the argument, the Barge Canal Act of 1903 was passed by people of New York. This new barge canal, larger than the "Nine Million Dollar Improvement" and smaller than the proposed ship canal, would utilize the natural waterways when possible and allow the new larger self propelled vessels.

To get enough New Yorkers to favor the bill, rather than improve only the cheapest necessary route (Albany to Oswego and then another canal near Niagara Falls), the bill proposed improvement of the Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, and Champlain Canal routes. The Cayuga-Seneca Canal route would be added later, and the four canal routes are referred to as the new New York State Barge Canal.

After approximately 15 years of construction, in 1918 the new barge canal was finished. The new canal utilized rivers when possible and thus left most of the eastern sections of the Erie Canal to be abandoned. The western stretches of the former canal were enlarged to the new standards of 120 feet wide at the surface and 12 feet deep.

Today the New York State Barge Canal has been renamed the New York State Canal System because the shift of usage from barges to recreational cruisers. The canal routes are again referred to by their original names: the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego, and Champlain Canals. The canal is currently operated by the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority.

Enlarged Erie Canal
Eastern Canal Lock 28Lock 29Lock 30Original Erie Canal Lock 20Original Erie Canal Guard LockSchoharie Crossing Historic SiteSchoharie AqueductLock 33Lock 34Lock 36
Central Canal Old Erie Canal State Historic Park
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