The Erie Canal in New York — from folly to fame

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Traveling in this country during the 16th and 17th centuries was difficult in the extreme. Roads were few and most were unimproved; rough, rutty and ankle deep in dust when dry, or muddy, slippery and virtually impassable in wet weather.

As a result, most folks didn’t stray far; many never traveled more than twenty miles from home during their lifetimes.

Native Americans had for centuries relied on the rivers and streams for transportation and early settlers quickly adopted the practice. There were problems however: often water falls or rapids impeded progress, streams would dry up during droughts, or spring floods would make travel hazardous. For a couple of people in a canoe with just a few hundred pounds of cargo these problems could be managed by portaging, or carrying, the stuff around such blockages.

The river current was another concern — it was easy to float downstream but coming back was work!

Few if any watercourses ran from east to west or vice-versa, so a lot of portaging and zig-zagging was needed to travel cross country. All these reasons made the transportation of large amounts of merchandise slow, difficult and expensive.

The push west

When the United States population was concentrated along the Atlantic coast, which was the case until after the Revolutionary War, sailing ships could carry stuff along the coast from seaport to seaport with no problem.

By the end of the 18th century though, the western frontier  — New York and Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains — had begun to be settled.

The mountains were a huge barrier and there was no good way to ship goods east to population centers like New England, Philadelphia and New York City. People from the western parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, present day West Virginia, began to use the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to ship products down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, then a Spanish possession.

New Yorkers sent their stuff across Lake Ontario and east via the St. Lawrence River, which benefited Canada, who at the time was considered an enemy.

New route

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other American statesmen considered it likely that the western part of the new United States would break away from the eastern seaboard if some reliable means of transportation weren’t established between east and west to tie the two regions together.

Of course, being Virginians, these worthies felt that this east-west artery had to be the Potomac River, which flowed through their state. Besides, George Washington owned thousands of acres of land “out west” that he hoped to profit from.

The western portion of the river had many rapids and falls and General Washington spent much time, energy and money on exploring the river and planning and building short canals around the worst of these impediments to boat traffic.

Being the two most populous states at the time, New York and Virginia competed for this elusive water highway which, besides the lofty goal of bringing the eastern and western parts of the country together, promised to bring huge monetary benefits to the state and its people, not to mention the promoters.

New York tried bypassing the falls and rapids on the Mohawk River in eastern New York and joining various lakes and rivers to reach Lake Ontario. The problem with rivers as part of these systems was not enough water during droughts, bringing boats to a halt, and way too much from spring floods that made navigation dangerous and that carried away docks and other facilities.

Novel plan

Neither the Potomac nor the Mohawk schemes ever solved these problems. As early as 1807, a series of essays were published anonymously by Jesse Hawley advocating a canal across the whole length of New York State, linking the Hudson River, which flowed into the Atlantic Ocean at New York City, to the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes via Lake Erie.

Folks called these essays “The effusions of a maniac.” However, De Witte Clinton, a powerful New York politician, adopted the idea with enthusiasm and pulled strings and pushed buttons to get this gigantically expensive, and to most people totally insane, idea underway.

As a result of his untiring efforts on its behalf, the Erie Canal was known at the time as “Clinton’s Ditch,” or worse, “Clinton’s Folly.”

That the 363-mile long canal was ever completed was a miracle. There wasn’t a single canal engineer in the country, and few engineers of any kind for that matter, and nothing of such a huge scope had ever been attempted either here or in Europe.

Earth moving equipment, other than picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and ox carts, was non-existent. Huge swaths of virgin forest had to be chopped down and cleared of stumps, and many wide rivers and thousands of smaller streams crossing the canal’s path had to be contended with.

Then there was the difference in elevation; from the Hudson River the canal had to surmount a rise of about 556 feet to Lake Erie. To keep the canal level, 83 different locks were built along its path, with a double “staircase” of two sets of five connected locks at the appropriately named town of Lockport to raise the level the necessary 60 feet to surmount the so-called “Niagara Escarpment.”

When completed in 1825, the Erie had cost the then astronomical sum of more than $7 million, but it reduced the cost per-ton of goods shipped from Buffalo to NYC from $100 to $10.

Passengers could make the trip in about four days, as opposed to 10 to 14 for overland travel.

The ease of trade spurred migration to the western states and hundreds of thousands of the migrants traveled via the Erie. The canal was a huge financial success as well; tolls totaled half a million dollars the first year and 12 year later enough had been collected to cover the original building costs.

Into history

Railroads, airlines, automobiles and interstate trucking put the Erie out of business by 1960, although many portions of it are still open for recreational boating.

If you get a chance, visit Lockport and take a ride on a canal boat that will take you through a double lock that replaced one flight of the original five, although the other original flight still exists beside the newer one.

A visit to the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse is well worth the time as well.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Railroads and the interstate highway system did greatly affect the use of the Erie Canal as a means of shipping goods, however the entire Erie Canal, has remained operational and navigable throughout its 189 year history. Today, there is some shipping, but the New York State Canal System, which also includes the Champlain Canal, Oswego Canal and Cayuga-Seneca Canal, is used primarily for recreation and tourism.

    Thanks for the nice article about our favorite waterway!
    http://www.midlakesnav.com

  2. A really great article. We took a trip just two weeks ago to the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse and the curator Dan led the tour – it was Fantastic! The canal has so much to offer in history and commerce, recreation and nature!
    We strongly support Schoharie Crossing in Fort Hunter – Montgomery County, NY as it interprets and preserves the three major phases of the Erie Canal.
    The New York State Parks operated historic site has a Visitor Center with an exhibit called “Little Short of Madness” as well as other information about the site. Its a great place to learn more about the canal and Fort Hunter.
    Thank you Mr. Moore for this wonderful article illustrating the fascinating history of the canal!

  3. While you’re here in Central New York, be sure and save some time for a visit to Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum! Lots to see: the canal and feeder canal, aqueduct, tow path, reconstructed buildings of the 1870 landing where boats were built & repaired in the three-bay dry dock and a canal boat as it would appear ready to launch! Just 17 miles east of Syracuse, don’t miss it!

    • Agreed Michele! Chittenango is a great place to visit! There is just so much to see along the Erie Canal!
      The Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor is providing their grant program again this year too! Lets all spread the word that schools can get that grant to take students to see these great things too!!!

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