The Erie Canal is a waterway in New York that runs about 363 miles (584 km) from Albany, New York, on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York, at Lake Erie, completing a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. The canal contains 36 locks and encompasses a total elevation differential of approximately 565 ft. (169 m).
First proposed in 1807, it was under construction from 1817 to 1825 and officially opened on October 26, 1825.
It was the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard (New York City) and the western interior (Great Lakes) of the United States that did not require portage, was faster than carts pulled by draft animals, and cut transport costs by about 95%.
The canal fostered a population surge in western New York State, opened regions farther west to settlement, and helped New York City become the chief U.S. port. It was enlarged between 1834 and 1862. In 1918, the enlarged canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal.
Today, it is part of the New York State Canal System. In 2000 the United States Congress designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor to recognize the national significance of the canal system as the most successful and influential human-built waterway and one of the most important works of civil engineering and construction in North America. Mainly used by recreational watercraft in the recent past, the canal saw an upsurge in commercial traffic in 2008.
From the first days of the expansion of the British colonies from the coast of North America into the heartland of the continent, a recurring problem was that of transportation between the coastal ports and the interior. Close to the seacoast, rivers often provided adequate waterways, but the presence of the Appalachian Mountains, 400 miles inland, presented a great challenge. Passengers and freight had to travel overland, a journey made more difficult by the rough condition of the roads. That the principal exportable product of the Ohio Valley was grain did not help matters, as grain was a high-volume, low-priced commodity, frequently not worth the cost of transporting it to far-away population centers (this was a factor leading to farmers in the west turning their grains into Whiskey for easier transport and higher sales, and later the Whiskey Rebellion). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became clear to coastal residents that the city or state that succeeded in developing a cheap, reliable route to the West would enjoy economic success, and that the port at the seaward end of such a route would see business increase greatly. In time, projects were devised in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 miles (24 km), from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate the canal would not be finished for thirty years. The main problems were felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil, both of which took longer than expected, but the builders solved these problems. To fell a tree, they threw rope over the top branches and winched it down. They pulled out the stumps with an innovative stump puller. A pair of huge wheels were set loose on an axle. A large wheel, barely smaller than the others, was fixed to the center of the axle. A chain was wrapped around the axle and hooked to the stump. A rope was wrapped around the center wheel and hooked to a team of oxen. The mechanical advantage (torque) obtained ripped the stumps out of the soil. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts.
Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could build a mile in a year. The remaining problem was finding enough labor, and increased immigration helped fill the need. The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices, both as surveyors and as engineers. There were no civil engineers in the United States. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were judges whose experience in surveying was in settling boundary disputes. Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours. Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer who persuaded Clinton to let him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a mathematics teacher and land speculator. Yet these men “carried the Erie Canal up the Niagara escarpment at Lockport, maneuvered it onto a towering embankment to cross over Irondequoit Creek, spanned the Genesee River on an awesome aqueduct, and carved a route for it out of the solid rock between Little Falls and Schenectady—and all of those venturesome designs worked precisely as planned”. (Bernstein, p. 381) Many of the laborers working on the canal were Scots Irish, who had recently come to the United States as a group of about 5,000 from Northern Ireland, most of whom were Protestants and wealthy enough to pay for this caravan.
An original five step lock structure crossing the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport, now without gates and used as a cascade for excess water.
Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. When the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), over 1,000 workers died of swamp fever[disambiguation needed] and construction stopped. Work continued on the downhill side towards the Hudson, and when the marsh froze in winter, the crews worked to complete the section across the swamps.
The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820 and traffic on that section started up immediately. The eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare.
The Champlain Canal, a 64 miles (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.
In 1824, before the canal was completed, a detailed Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveler, Along the Line of the Canals, and the Interior Commerce of the State of New York, was published for the benefit of travelers and land speculators—possibly America’s first tour guide.
After Montezuma Marsh, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with two sets of five locks in a series, giving rise to the community of Lockport. These 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder. The inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.
Two villages competed to be the terminus: Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and grew into a large city, encompassing its former competitor.
Work was completed on October 26, 1825. The event was marked by a statewide “Grand Celebration,” culminating in successive cannon shots along the length of the canal and the Hudson, a 90-minute cannonade from Buffalo to New York City. A flotilla of boats, led by Governor Dewitt Clinton aboard the Seneca Chief, sailed from Buffalo to New York City in ten days. Clinton then ceremonially poured Lake Erie water into New York Harbor to mark the “Wedding of the Waters.” On its return trip, the Seneca Chief brought a keg of Atlantic Ocean water back to Buffalo to be poured into Lake Erie by Buffalo’s Judge Samuel Wilkeson, who would later become mayor.
IMPACT ON THE AREA:
The Erie Canal greatly lowered the cost of shipping between the Mid-west and the Northeast, bringing much lower food costs to Eastern cities and allowing the East to economically ship machinery and manufactured goods to the Mid-west. The canal also made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. Its impact went much further, increasing trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and by enabling migration to the West.
New ethnic Irish communities formed in some towns along its route after completion, as Irish immigrants were a large portion of the construction labor force. Earth extracted from the canal was transported to the New York city area and used as landfill in New York and New Jersey. A plaque honoring the canal’s construction is located in Battery Park in southern Manhattan.
Because so many immigrants traveled on the canal, many genealogists have sought copies of canal passenger lists. Apart from the years 1827–1829, canal boat operators were not required to record or report passenger names to the government, which, in this case, was the state of New York. Those 1827–1829 passenger lists survive today in the New York State Archives, and other sources of traveler information are sometimes available.
The Canal also helped bind the still-new nation closer to Britain and Europe. British repeal of the Corn Law resulted in a huge increase in exports of Midwestern wheat to Britain. Trade between the United States and Canada also increased as a result of the Corn Law and a reciprocity (free-trade) agreement signed in 1854; much of this trade flowed along the Erie.
Its success also prompted imitation: a rash of canal-building followed. Also, the many technical hurdles that had to be overcome made heroes of those whose innovations made the canal possible. This led to an increased public esteem for practical education. Chicago, among other Great Lakes cities, recognized the commercial importance of the canal to its economy, and two West Loop streets are named Canal and Clinton (for canal proponent DeWitt Clinton).
Concern that erosion caused by logging in the Adirondacks could silt up the canal contributed to the creation of another New York National Historic Landmark, the Adirondack Park, in 1885.
Many notable authors wrote about the canal, including Herman Melville, Frances Trollope, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Samuel Hopkins Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette, and many tales and songs were written about life on the canal. The popular song “Low Bridge” by Thomas S. Allen was written in 1905 to memorialize the canal’s early heyday, when barges were pulled by mules rather than engines.
The modern Erie Canal has 34 locks, which are painted with the blue and gold colors of the New York State Canal System.
In 1918, the Canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal. This new canal replaced much of the original route, leaving many abandoned sections (most notably between Syracuse and Rome). New digging and flood control technologies allowed engineers to canalize rivers that the original canal sought to avoid, such as the Mohawk, Seneca, and Clyde rivers, and Oneida Lake. In sections which did not consist of canalized rivers (particularly between Rochester and Buffalo), the original Erie Canal channel was enlarged to 120 feet (37 m) wide and 12 feet (3.7 m) deep. The expansion allowed barges up to 2,000 short tons (1,800 t) to use the Canal. This expensive project was politically unpopular in parts of the state not served by the canal, and failed to save it from becoming obsolete.
The new alignment began on the Hudson River at the border between Cohoes and Waterford, where it ran northwest with five locks, running into the Mohawk east of Crescent. While the old Canal ran next to the Mohawk all the way to Rome, the new canal ran through the river, straightened or widened where necessary. At Ilion, the new canal left the river for good, but continued to run on a new alignment parallel to both the river and the old canal to Rome. From Rome, the new route continued almost due west, merging with Fish Creek just east of its entry into Oneida Lake.
From Oneida Lake, the new canal ran west along the Oneida River, with cutoffs to shorten the route. At Three Rivers the Oneida River turns northwest, and was deepened for the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario. The new Erie Canal turned south there along the Seneca River, which turns west near Syracuse and continues west to a point in the Montezuma Marsh (43.00296°N 76.73115°W). There the Cayuga and Seneca Canal continued south with the Seneca River, and the new Erie Canal again ran parallel to the old Canal along the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment, in some places running along the Clyde River, and in some places replacing the old Canal. At Pittsford, southeast of Rochester, the Canal turned west to run around the south side of Rochester, rather than through downtown. The Canal currently crosses the Genesee River at the Genesee Valley Park (43.1215°N 77.6425°W), then rejoins the old path near North Gates.
From there it was again roughly an upgrade to the original canal, running west to Lockport. This reach of 64.2 miles from Henrietta to Lockport is called “the 60‑mile level” since there are no locks and the water level rises only two feet over the entire segment. Diversions from and to adjacent natural streams along the way are used to maintain the canal’s level. It runs southwest to Tonawanda, where the new alignment discharges into the Niagara River, which is navigable upstream to the New York Barge Canal’s Black Rock Lock and thence to the Canal’s original “Western Terminus” at Buffalo’s Inner Harbor.
The growth of railroads and highways across the state, and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, caused commercial traffic on the canal to decline dramatically during the second half of the 20th century.
New York State Canal System
In 1992, the New York State Barge Canal was renamed the New York State Canal System (including the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego, and Champlain canals) and placed under the newly created New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority. The Canal System is operated using money generated by Thruway tolls.
Route of the current canal. zoom in to see detailed route.
Since the 1990s, the Canal system has been used primarily by recreational traffic, although a small but growing amount of cargo traffic still uses it.
Today, the Erie Canal Corridor covers 524 miles (843 km) of navigable water from Lake Champlain to the Capital Region and west to Buffalo. The area has a population of 2.7 million: about 75% of Central and Western New York’s population lives within 25 miles (40 km) of the Erie Canal.
The Erie Canal is open to small craft and some larger vessels from May through November each year. During winter, water is drained from parts of the canal for maintenance. The Champlain Canal, Lake Champlain, and the Chambly Canal, and Richelieu River in Canada form the Lakes to Locks Passage, making a tourist attraction of the former waterway linking eastern Canada to the Erie Canal. In 2006 recreational boating fees were eliminated to attract more visitors.
Travel on the Canal’s middle section (particularly in the Mohawk Valley) was severely hampered by flooding in late June and early July 2006. Flood damage to the canal and its facilities was estimated as at least $15 million.
There were some 42 commercial shipments on the canal in 2008, compared to 15 such shipments in 2007 and more than 33,000 shipments in 1855, the canal’s peak year. According to the New York Times, the new growth in commercial traffic is due to the rising cost of diesel fuel. Canal barges can carry a short ton of cargo 514 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, while a gallon allows a train to haul the same amount of cargo 202 miles and a truck 59 miles. Canal barges can carry loads up to 3,000 short tons and are used to transport