The Marriage of the Waters - The Canal is Open



--- -The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 is arguably the most important engineering feat achieved by the new United States. It profoundly changed the future of the United States and its western expansion. New York State became the leading economic power of the new nation and New York City achieved prominence as its foremost seaport and commercial center.


---- -The Erie Canal is all but forgottten today, but for my forebears it was the Grand Canal, and an engineering feat without peer. It took seven years to build, cutting through 363 miles of wilderness. There were 18 aqueducts and 83 locks with a total elevation change of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie -- and it was constructed without a single professional engineer.

Barge Canal Surveyor

---- -The idea for the Erie Canal -- thhat a canal be sliced from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes -- was so ridiculous that it was dismissed by many as Gov. DeWitt Clinton's "Folly." But he persevered in his vision of "a bond of union between the Atlantic and Western states." He saw it as a prevention of the dismemberment of the American Empire. He dreamed of "the greatest inland trade ever witnessed." He visualized New York City to become "the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations and the concentrating point of vast disposable, and accumulating capitals."

Gov. DeWitt Clinton

---- Accused of being an unrealistic dreamer, he proved his detractors wrong -- Clinton's predictions were wrong only in that they didn't go far enough! The Erie Canal was the most important engineering and economic feat of the young republic. The rapid development and success of our new nation was, to no small degree, the direct result of the canal.

---- -The canal was the impetus of the first great westward migration of Americans. Roads westerly, in our country's youth, had to cross the Appalachian Mountains. They were few, costly to use and had many difficulties. After its completion, the Erie Canal was the major trade route to the west and remained so until the advent of railroads. New York City became the preeminent commercial city in the US and the major port for Atlantic trade. Before the opening of the canal, Philadelphia was the nation's chief seaport. It soon surrendered that title to New York City. Massachusetts had long rivaled New York in exports, but within sixteen years its exports were only a third of New York's. In that same time interval, the value of personal property in New York increased four times and manufacturing increased threefold. More than five times as many people were engaged in business in the City as before the opening. New York State became prominent among the new states.

--- -No less a figure than George Washhington, a surveyor in his early years, scouted out a route for inland navigation across central New York even before peace was declared in the Revolution. A private company, chartered in 1791, made improvements along the Mohawk River. There were few settlers to the west of Rome in New York, although the land was fertile and flat. Farmers were reluctant to move inland where it would be very expensive to bring in supplies and costly to ship any produce out. Even though the need was evident, the difficulties on such a massive project as a canal seemed insurmountable.

Even the Simple Task of Pulling a Stump Was Formidable

---- -Finally, under Clinton's insistence, the state began the construction of the canal on July 4th, 1817. Contracts were let to local construction firms, many organized for the purpose. Coordinating the multiple contracts, both for their timing and their ability to undertake their portion of the construction, was an amazing feat of government management for the young state. It was opened for commerce on October 26, 1825. It was four feet deep, twenty-eight feet wide at the base and forty feet wide berm to berm. -As originally constructed, it wass capable of floating a boat carrying a load of 30 tons.

---- -The first boat to travel its fulll length was the Seneca Chief, carrying Gov. Clinton and guests. Cannons were stationed at intervals along the entire length of the canal, and down the Hudson River to New York City. As the Seneca Chief left the dock in Buffalo, the first cannon boomed. The 500-mile long battery relayed the historic event with a cascade of explosions. Within a few minutes most of the citizens of the state knew the canal was open!

---- -When Clinton arrived in New York City nine days and 523 miles later, he poured one of two barrels of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic below New York harbor. This "Marriage of the Waters" officially opened the Erie Canal.

---- -Following the success of the Eriee Canal, the nation was gripped by the fever of canal building. My great-great-grandfather lost his shirt in the collapse of the canal-building "bubble." The Erie Canal, however, remained a success.

---- -In the 1830's, the State Legislatture authorized enlarging the canal, but a nation-wide depression delayed work until 1847. The "new" canal was widened to 70 feet and 1862 the depth was increased to seven feet. It could handle barges of 240 tons. Beginning in 1869, many of the locks were doubled so traffic could operate in both directions without delay. In the early 1860's, the New York Central Railroad took virtually all the passenger traffic off the canal. The Civil War greatly increased the volume of commercial traffic.

---- -Tolls were charged for canal passsage to offset construction and maintenance costs.To determine the toll, there were several weighlocks on the canal. The barge would enter the weighlock building, gates would close, and the water in the lock drained. The barge would settle on a giant cradle attached to a scale and be weighed. Another technique weighed the water displaced from a lock by the barge. In either case the unladen weight would have been previously recorded so the weight of the contents of the barge could be weighed and a toll charged.

Rochester Weighlock with a Barge about to be Weighed

---- -In 1882,the State abolished tolls after earning forty-two million dollars over the original cost, improvements, maintenance and operation of the canal. In 1903, the State again enlarged what was now called the "Barge Canal." Work began in 1905 and was completed by 1918. By World War II the 6 mph speed limit on the canal was too restrictive for the rapid movement of war commerce. Trucking and railroads hauled most commerce and the canal went into decline. But, with the increase in leisure time and standard of living after the War, the drop in commerce was matched by a rise in pleasure boats.


The Original Lock 60 ---- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----Amtrak Beside the Canal -

---- -The Canal utilizes watercourses wwhenever possible. From Troy to Rome, is uses the Mohawk River. West of Rome, it crosses Oneida Lake and the Oneida River, and then the Seneca and Clyde rivers to Rochester. Westerly from that city to Lockport, it is a "land line" canal, following a dug channel. From Lockport, it follows the Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River to Buffalo.

The Land Line Canal

---- --&quuot;Canalizing" the rivers required ingenuity to obtain the necessary depth. A combination of dredging and building dams was required. The rivers were turned into a series of lakes (pools, in canal parlance) with a fixed elevation for the water surface. Dredging obtained and maintained a minimum depth in the channel. In some places, deep cuts had to be sliced through rock or mud. The deepest cut, the Culebra Cut south of Rochester, is 65 feet below the original land surface.

Culebra Cut

---- -The canal runs east-west, but in some western stretches the natural drainage is north into Lake Ontario. Here the canal is often built above the natural land surface and streams flow through culverts under the canal. In a few places, the canal had to cross broad streams, prone to flooding. Here, an aqueduct was built and the canal would cross over the streams enclosed in the 'bridge' of the aqueduct. There were a total of 18 aqueducts constructed for the original canal; some of these were impressive structures and major engineering feats for their day.

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---- -The dams are either fixed or movaable. Some of the fixed earthen dams are almost 40 feet high and a half-mile in length. The movable dams look like steel bridges. Vertical steel uprights are hinged to the 'bridge.' Their bases rest on a concrete sill. Steel plates, called gates, slide down the uprights to impede the flow of water. By adjusting the plates the level of the pool can be maintained. In times of flood, or when the canal is drained in winter, the steel uprights and gates are swung up under the floor of the 'bridge' on those giant hinges. There are eight such structures between Schenectady and Herkimer.

---- -A canal needs water -- an obviouss statement, but finding sources of water to fill a canal almost 350 miles long was a challenge. A lack of water in the dry summer months would stop all traffic in the canal and result in a useless ditch. The western portion of the canal has sufficient water from the Niagara River. However, an adequate supply for the eastern section was one of the most serious problems to be solved in the construction of the canal. Two large storage reservoirs were constructed near the headwaters of the Mohawk River, one north of Rome and the other north of Herkimer, with a combined storage capacity greater than was needed for any known drought.

---- -There must then be controls for the opposite problem -- too much water. Spillways, lined with rock or concrete, are necessary all along the length of the canal.

---- -Another major problem in maintainning a canal is to prevent the loss of all water in case of a break in the canal embankment. Guard gates, that look like giant guillotines, are placed about every ten miles. In the event of a break, or to close a section of canal for repair, they can be dropped onto a concrete sill below the structure.

---- -There are now 34 locks on the Eriie Canal, ranging in lift from 6 to 40 feet. Most are between 16 and 20 feet. They are built of concrete with massive steel doors, weighing more than 200,000 pounds. The doors are shaped like the letter 'V' (called mitre doors).


Mitre Doors - Then and Now

---- It only requires a minute or less to swing the doors open or shut. Electricity now powers all the gates. The lockmaster operates all the machinery from houses sheltering the switches. One can usually complete a lockage within a half-hour.

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---- -Over three hundred bridges spanneed the canal, and a few were lift bridges, still operated today by machinery built in the early part of the 20th century.


Many High Fixed Bridges; One Raised for the Benjamin Elliot; and a Lift Bridge, Down

---- In some areas, the canal channel was within a broad expanse of water. Navigation marks were placed and maintained to indicate the course of the channel.

Red and Green Nav Marks

---- The Erie Canal was our nation's first great engineering and technological feat. It assured the westward expansion of our country and guaranteed its prominence in world commerce. It is a privilege to cruise this journey through American history.

Reference for much of the information on this site: Finch, Roy G., 1925, The Story of the New York State Canals, State of New York

---- (07/05)

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