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The Erie Canal Passed This Way

July 2024
16min read

When the Erie Canal was built in the 1820’s, it was the engineering marvel of its time. And, considering the tools and technology of the period, it still appears a rather respectable undertaking. Extending for 363 miles, stepping up hill and down valley a total of nearly seven hundred vertical feet by eighty-four lift locks, soaring across rivers on arched aqueducts, sometimes grooved into the side of a hill or straddling the backbone of a convenient ridge, it overcame formidable obstacles to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie, and so provide the first practical link between East and West.

Such a great engineering work, even where long abandoned, could hardly fail to leave its impress across upper New York state. There remains of it, the truth must be said, little to rival the enduring monuments of imperial Rome, whose aqueducts, many times more ancient, still stand firm and strong, arch upon arch. The state of New York has been more prodigal of its relics, and the wrecker as well as time has demolished many of the old structures. But it is not easy to destroy a big ditch, and abundant traces of the old Erie remain.

That first Erie Canal was not quite the same one that extends across New York today. The original canal was twice enlarged and modernized. and each time considerable sections were rerouted. Many abandoned portions, forgotten and reclaimed by vines and brush, are still easily traceable across cornfields, or through orchards and thickets. Dut even today the attrition against these relics continues. David Plowden, while taking the photographs for this story, learned about an old basin—the canal equivalent of a harbor—where even the crumbling bones of several canal boats were to be seen. Although he set out at once with his equipment, he found a bulldozer grunting about where basin and boats had been only a day or two earlier. And where earth-moving machines have posed no threat to survivals ol the canal, the public has sometimes taken the old ditch as an ideal depository for broken bed springs, beer cans, wrecked cars, and the other ephemera cast olf by man as he aspires to the angels.

The old Erie well deserves to have something of it preserved. The Great Western Canal, it was called, and it was one of the prime highways of empire; this thin thread of water brought the western trade that made New York City into the great metropolis of the nation, and it was the way west that all but emptied entire New England hill towns.

The pre-eminence of the Erie Canal did not come about by happenstance. One of the hard realities with which the young American republic had to cope was that it was split fair in two by the Appalachian mountain range. Once a settler crossed that barrier he severed his old ties with the Kast completely—so completely that some people feared the trans-Appalachian West would form a separate nation. It was extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to ,ship anything across the mountains; though an eastern market might be only two or three hundred miles away, a westerner found it cheaper and easier by far to ship by flatboat down to New Orleans, and then by sea around to the Atlantic coast, a matter of some three thousand miles.

From the St. Lawrence Valley until they dwindle away in Alabama, the Appalachians are broken in only one place: where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers (low through valleys carved by an ice-age torrent. This gap was an ancient Indian way, and then an early route of fur men, used and fought over by Dutch, French, English, and Americans. Fort Stanwix (later the site of Rome, New York) marked the strategic carrying place at the head of the Mohawk where travellers portaged their canoes two miles K) Wood deck, which took them into Oneida Lake, and thence un to the Oswego River and into Lake Ontario.

While this was a way through the mountains, it was by no means a smooth and easy route. Navigation on the Mohawk was completely barred near its mouth by Cohoes Falls. Navigation began at Schenectady, and some fifty-five miles west of that town another cataract, Little Falls, made a mile-long portage necessary. Hut on the river between, when the water was not too low, strong-backed boatmen cotdd pole and haul cralt known as Durham boats, forcing them through shallows and rapids and over stretches of sandbars. After the portage to Wood Creek there were more rapids and other hazards on the way down to Lake Ontario. And beyond that, for goods moving to or from I lie West, there was still transshipment around Niagara Falls. Yet, with all the necessary unloading and carrying and reloading, this was the only practical overland freight route to the West.

There were many half-formed plans for improving the waterway before 1792, when New York incorporated two private canal companies. The Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company began the next year to dig a canal from the Hudson River north to Lake Champlain. but it quickly went bankrupt. The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company also started work in 1793—its purpose being to improve the Mohawk River to the Lake Ontario waterway. In the next several years a canal was cut through the rocks around Little Falls, a mile more was dug to bypass another bad spot, and a channel and locks were completed connecting the Mohawk with Wood Creek. Durham boats as long as sixty feet and carrying sixteen tons of cargo were able to navigate the river in times of good water, where a ton and a half had been a good load before. The freight rales dropped correspondingly.

But the company found that a canal around Cohoes Falls was too much even to attempt, and goods still had to be transshipped I’rom the Mohawk to the Hudson. Stockholders were called on again and again to pay extra assessments; dividends had been sporadic and usually small. The company finally expired in 1820 when its assets were purchased by the state of New York for the Erie Canal.

The difficulties of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company did not dampen the enthusiasm or dim the bright visions of those who believed in the future of a practical waterway to the West. Credit lor being the first to propose that a canal be dug all the long way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, instead of only to Lake Ontario, is often given to Gouverneur Morris, statesman and patriot. In any event the idea, considered fantastic at first, gradually caught fire, and by 1808 a couple of upstate legislators arranged for a survey. The resulting report declared that the route to Lake Erie was superior to the shorter one to Lake Ontario.

By 1810 an Erie Canal was out of the dream stage. A board of commissioners was appointed to examine the possible routes. One of the seven members was De Wilt Clinton, mayor of New York City, later to be governor, and henceforth to be inseparably linked with the Erie Canal. Another commissioner was Gouverneur Morris, broad of vision but impractical in his sweeping concepts. His pet scheme was an “incline plane,” a waterway without locks, sloping gently downhill all the way from Lake Erie to the Hudson, six indies to the mile, flowing just enough to keep the channel always filled with water. As it turned out, the plan would have required excessive excavation and the building of high embankments to (any the canal over low places, and so was soon forgotten.

When the canal commission in its official report recommended a canal to Lake Erie rather than to Lake Ontario, the federal government was asked for help. When it refused, the state decided to go it alone. The War of i8ia intervened, but in March of 1817 the New York legislature at last approved the construction of an Erie Canal, but lor the time being authorized only the digging of the middle section, from the upper Mohawk River near Rome to the Seneca River.

The canal was to be forty feet wide at the surface, sloping in to a bottom width of twenty-eight feet, and having a depth of four feel. Tentative plans had been drawn for the entire route from the Hudson to Lake Erie, but there would be much improvising as construction proceeded, to overcome unforeseen difficulties and to take advantage of the experience being acquired by the engineers. The completed canal, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, would be 363 miles long. To overcome the 565-foot difference in level between river and lake (plus more than another hundred feet in steps up and down because of valleys) there would be eightylour locks, each ninety feet long and fifteen feet wide. While the canal would cross many streams on its route at water level, it would bridge eighteen of them on aqueducts which would be engineering marvels of the time. All this the citizens of the state were to get at an estimated cost of less than five million dollars. At the same time, the legislators approved a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain, for $871,000 more.

Construction started only a few months later; ground was broken on July 4, 1817, at Rome, at the head of the Mohawk. It was not for mere whim that the canal commissioners decided to start work in the middle of the route. In both eastern and western sections there would be much lock-building and extensive cutting through solid rock. Hut in the middle section the land was level, the soil deep and free of rocks. It was a good place to learn the art of canal building, about which no one really knew very much. The twenty-seven-mile Middlesex Canal between Boston and the Merrimack River was then by far the longest of the few American canals. There was no body of hydraulic engineering knowledge in the United States. Two of the Erie’s chief engineers, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, began work with experience limited largely to surveying. They and their colleagues would learn by doing.

The middle section was level, but it was not without its problems. It was largely forest land; much of the canal would have to be dug through huge slumps and roots. And supplies of all kinds had to be brought inland along the Mohawk by river and road. Nevertheless, the work went ahead. A sixty-foot path was staked out and cleared of trees and underbrush. Within this was another lane of stakes to mark the forty-foot width of the canal.

The digging was done by private contractors, often local farmers who improved their slack season by excavating a section of the ditch. Contracts were let for sections as short as a quarter of a mile. Within a year or so the use of axe and saw to cut down trees had given way to a quicker and easier method: one end of a cable was attached high on a tree and the other end to a roller turned by a crank and an endless screw arrangement. The crank and screw provided such tremendous mechanical advantage that one man could pull over a tree of almost any size. A stump-puller was devised which made tisc of the multiplied force provided by a huge wheel and axle. The materials for construction seemed to turn up when needed. Seepage of water threatened to be a serious problem when the first sections of canal were opened—but then a clay or muck was found, called “the blue mud of the meadows,” which proved an excellent seal when used as a liner. And a cement which hardened even under water took care of a very pressing need for a strong and lasluig stonework mortar.

The first short section of canal was opened in the autumn of 1819, a little more than two years after construction had started. Water was turned into fifteen miles of channei between Rome and Utica, and a boat made the trip to Utica one day and back to Rome the next, towed by a team of horses and carrying a load of speechinaking dignitaries. Additional sections were put into service that same year, and by the next summer, 1820, the entire middle portion, ninety-four miles long, between Utica and Montezuma, carried water. As fast as sections were opened, boats appeared on them; even a part-way haul by water was better than none at all.

Digging on both the cast and west sections then got under way, the crews working in both directions from the completed middle section, and each year new stretches were opened. In iSag the Hudson River was reached, but it was !»25 before the western end cut through to Buffalo and Lake Erie. Almost overlooked in the excitement of these years was the completion of the Champlain Canal in 1823.

The Erie or “Great Western” Canal was sometimes called Clinton’s Ditch. The nickname was coined in scorn by De Witt Clinton’s political enemies—but, as is the fate of many pejoratives, it was soon adopted as a term of affection.

Bringing the canal along the Mohawk River had created special problems. In its lowest thirty miles, between Schencctady and Albany, the river was so squecved between its rocky walls that at places the canal had to be cut into shelves above the water. And to complicate the difficulty, in this same stretch the river made its most precipitous plunge, so that twentyseven of the eighty-four locks in the canal were in this short and cramped area. Here, too, was the Eric’s longest aqueduct: at Crescent, only a do/cn miles or so up the canal from Albany, the canal crossed from the soutli to the north side of the Mohawk on a “bridge” 1,188 feet long.

An Erie aqueduct was a specialized structure. Its masonry arches were designed to support a water-filled channel or flume of timber, which was, in fact, the canal itself. Usually the towpath on which the tow horses walked was an integral part of the masonry bridge rather than of the flume. The Crescent aqueduct was demolished many years ago, but twelve miles upstream at Alexander’s Mills (now Rexford) the canal crossed back again to the south side of the river on another aqueduct. That aqueduct survived until around 1910, thanks to its conversion for use as a road bridge. And a second and larger aqueduct erected at Rexford about 1840 to carry an enlarged canal stood until just last year, also because it was converted to a highway bridge.

Another major aqueduct crossed the Genesee River in the west, where the new village of Rochester was mushrooming. The Genesee was a turbulent river, and the aqueduct piers had to be sunk into the solid rock of the river bottom. The entire structure was bolted and bound with iron into a unit 802 feet long; it had eleven stone arches, nine of them fifty feet across. Not far east of Rochester the canal was forced to cross the deep valley of Irondequoit Creek. Initial plans were to build a wooden aqueduct sixty feet high and a quarter of a mile long, and then, once the canal was operating, to bring in earth by boats and dump it from this structure to build a permanent base. But fears that a wooden trestle could not withstand high winds caused the engineers to substitute an embankment of stone and earth, with Irondequoit Creek carried through a culvert beneath it. In this day of earth-fill dams, superhighway interchanges, and other massive works constructed with huge earth-moving machines, we tend to grow blasé about such engineering projects. But at Irondequoit Creek the only earth-moving machines available for creating a small mountain ridge were horse-drawn scrapers and wagons, and men with shovels. Sweat is a more old-fashioned moving force than gasoline and diesel fuel, but it served the nation well for a long time.

At the Cayuga Marshes the canal was dug under water six inches or a foot deep, but it was not the engineering problems of digging a ditch and raising a towpath in semiliquid muck that gave trouble. The swamps swarmed with mosquitoes, among them the genus Anopheles , carrier of malaria, which laid low entire work crews until cold weather came.

The supreme engineering accomplishment of the western portion was the three-mile cut through solid rock some twenty miles northeast of Buffalo. To raise the canal sixty-six feet up a steep rock face, a double set of five locks was blasted out. Everywhere else on the canal there were only single locks, and east- and westbound traffic took turns going through. But at Lockport (as the town that sprang up at the site was named) the locks were doubled, to avoid traffic tie-ups.

Not all the streams that crossed Clinton’s Ditch were bridged by aqueducts; on a number of the smaller ones a bridge was built only for the tow teams. The stream was dammed below the canal crossing to create a more or less placid pool, and guard locks were built where the canal entered the stream, to prevent the canal’s being flooded in times of high water. A boat was locked into the stream, was towed across, and re-entered the canal through the guard lock on the opposite side.

There was a great deal more to the canal than met the eye. It was laid out so that there were streams or lakes to supply water for operating locks and to replace evaporation and leakage. The feeders bringing in this water required an elaborate system of gates and sluices, and formed a great network of small branch canals on which farmers could bring their butter and bacon by skiff to the Erie. There were waste weirs to discharge excess water in times of flood; there were culverts and fences; there were more than three hundred bridges ' that had to be built where the canal cut farmers’ lands in two; and there were weighlocks to weigh canal boats at principal ports to determine toll charges.

Clinton’s Ditch prospered. Eastern goods and a stream of emigrants with their belongings travelled west, while Great Lakes vessels carried the produce of the Middle West to Buffalo for transfer to eastbound canal boats. Western New York, which had been almost a wilderness, filled with farmers, and a string of towns burgeoned all along the canal.

In 1835, only ten years after the Erie’s completion, the commissioners recommended that it be enlarged to handle bigger boats and more traffic. A program was shortly begun to widen the channel to seventy feet and deepen it to seven feet; the locks were to be doubled to handle two-way traffic, as at Lockport, and increased considerably in size. A number of streams across which Clinton’s Ditch had passed its boats at water level were bridged by aqueducts on the Enlarged Erie, as the modernized canal was known, and existing aqueducts were rebuilt. Some of these structures still stand—at least in part—their massive romanesque arches indicating that the planners had every confidence that the Erie would go on for many generations.

The enlargement program moved by fits and starts, tied to canal revenues, and was not finally completed until 1862, when heavy wartime shipping brought large toll collections. But by then an unforeseen cloud was rising over the future of the canal. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad began operating out of Albany in 1831, and though it and subsequent railroads along the Erie were first complacently viewed as short-line passenger carriers, an awakening came when eight lines joined in 1842 to connect Albany and Buffalo by rail, a union that eleven years later became the New York Central. At first the railroads were not permitted to haul freight except when the Erie was closed in winter, and even then they were forced to pay canal tolls on what they carried; but this restriction was removed in 1851, and the rail lines became full competitors.

During the heyday of the Erie, connecting canals laced the state. A waterway was completed to Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1828, finally accomplishing what the old Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had attempted in the 1790’s. Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake were tied to the Erie; the Genesee Valley Canal provided a link to the Allegheny River and thus to the Ohio; the Chenango Canal extended southwestward from Utica on the Erie as far as Binghamton; and the Chemung Canal, running south from Seneca Lake, linked up at the state border to a branch of the extensive Pennsylvania canal system. Most fantastic was the Black River Canal, connecting the Erie at Rome with the Black River to the north; it required 108 locks in only thirty-five miles. By 1877 the state began disposing of some of these lateral canals, which by then had long since outlived their usefulness.

As early as 1869 the tonnage carried by the New York Central and Erie railroads exceeded what went down the canal. A halving of canal tolls had not helped much, and in 1882 the voters, by constitutional amendment, made the Erie a free canal. But it continued to decline and by 1898 was almost in a state of collapse. In 1903 a plan to turn it into a barge canal was approved.

The work was completed in 1918. The towpath was gone; boats henceforth went through pushed by a tug. The minimum bottom width of the channel was now seventy-five feet, the depth twelve feet, and, because the terminals were at Waterford and Tonawanda instead of Albany and Buffalo, the canal was shorter. It is now 338 miles long and has only thirty-five locks, with lifts running as high as forty feet (the highest lock in Clinton’s Ditch was a little over a dozen feet). Most of the middle and eastern parts of the waterway were relocated, sometimes by many miles. The rocky Mohawk, shunned by the two old Eries, is made part of the Barge Canal by a series of dams and locks that tame its turbulence. The Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, and the canal to Cayuga and Seneca lakes were also retained and modernized.

Great parts of the Enlarged Erie were left abandoned far from the Barge Canal, and there they wait for the antiquarian and historian to visit them, as well as for the wrecking crew to come. Many of the old aqueducts have been at least partially destroyed. Massive and built to last, they are nevertheless no match for the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. Sometimes the central arches and piers were knocked out, either to prevent ice from piling up against them during the spring break-up, or to permit passage of the Barge Canal, which in places was rerouted into the streams. Without a center, even the best of aqueducts loses some of its aesthetic appeal.

Some abandoned segments of the Erie canals, being state property, were put to other state uses—as the right of way of a highway, for example. But well over half the total still lie empty and unused, silent reminders of the past. Not all of them are forgotten in distant fields and pastures: the old lock at Pittsford, for one, stands behind a shopping center, easy to see and easy to reach. Other locks and structures are almost as handy, or are being made so: a group of junior historians at Jordan, for instance, has cleared the land around the old lock there in something of a do-ityourself restoration movement.

The canal has often left a stamp even where it has disappeared. Erie Boulevards in Syracuse, Schenectady, Utica, Rome, and possibly other New York communities were not named accidentally; they were the routes the old Erie followed through those towns. But other historic spots have disappeared without trace; Lock Number One at Albany, which separated the early Erie canals from the Hudson River, is now somewhere under a truck parking lot.

Canal history buffs, an unusually dedicated band, have been able to preserve relics of the old canals, sometimes against considerable odds; and in at least one case they have won the co-operation of the highway people, a group often accused of being completely indifferent to historic values. When a state highway route was planned on the line of the old Black River Canal, it was designed so as to bypass and preserve an especially impressive flight of four locks, and picnic facilities and a lookout point are planned to make a small park of the area. Though other locks of the old canal are scheduled for destruction in the same operation, canal historians, who realize that not everything can be saved, are happy with the arrangement.

The matter of period restoration is something else again. There are certain problems of economics involved, and, in the absence of heavy financial support from some charitable foundation, any project to give the public a picture of the old canal in action may have difficulties. Rome, where digging of the Erie began, is restoring a two-mile section of the Enlarged Erie, along which two canal boats, built according to old plans and pulled by real horses on the towpath, will carry tourists. But this is one of the points where economics lays a chill hand on the enterprise. It has been found that the canal boats, which could be built for $3,500 each during the days of the towpath canal, will cost a total of $117,000 to reproduce today. It will take a good many tourist dollars to make Rome’s project break even.

Thus, the ramifications of preserving or reconstructing historical sites are complex, especially when the sites are elongated in a thin ribbon for miles. It may be that the problem will be compounded for a coming generation. There is talk about modernizing the present Barge Canal, and if this comes about, sections of it will probably be bypassed and abandoned, and their preservation may some day be an issue. However, the Barge Canal is a placid waterway; its traffic is modest and it can make little claim to being the gateway to the West. Though there is an increasing number of pleasure boats on the canal, many hours can sometimes pass without a vessel going through, while the huge motor transports and tanker trucks roar by, often within hearing distance, on the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway. Who knows what nostalgic highway buff not too long hence will be fighting to preserve for posterity one of the more gracefully tangled interchanges of that thruway?

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