The Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of its day; America’s greatest canal. It virtually changed our nation’s destiny by giving early settlers a passageway to the west. Today, New York State’s Canal System is a marvel of a different kind. Its revitalization, begun in 1996, has made it a world-class tourism and recreation destination that continues to produce dramatic growth for the state and the nation.
While he was serving time in debtor’s prison in the Finger Lakes city of Geneva, Jesse Hawley, a miller, came up with the idea for the Erie Canal. Between 1807 and 1808 he wrote 14 essays on the virtues of a canal across the state. President Thomas Jefferson thought the idea “a little short of madness,” but New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton was very supportive. When Clinton became governor, he made sure the legislature quickly appropriated funds for the canal’s construction.
At that time, there was no simple way to transport people, raw materials or manufactured goods from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Overland transportation was arduous and expensive. New York State had only a handful of settlers who had braved mile upon mile of wilderness, swamps, mountains, waterfalls, and great inland lakes. A canal would offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to market and to open up the western country to more people.
The Erie Canal was one of the largest engineering jobs attempted in young America. Opponents speculated that the canal, dubbed “Clinton’s Big Ditch” and “Clinton’s Folly” would never be used at all. The saying of the day was, “In the big ditch would be buried the treasury of the state to be watered by the tears of posterity.”
Digging “the ditch”
Construction began in 1817 by crews of untrained men, without the aid of a single professional engineer. Highly skilled surveyors (and very intelligent capable people) were the canal’s designers. They studied the publications and completed works of legendary French and English canal builders, and finally modeled the Erie Canal after the French canals, built beginning in the early 1600s.
The Erie Canal was virtually carved (4 feet deep, 40 feet wide and 363 miles long) through the wilderness. The work was done using picks, shovels, spades, buckets, wheelbarrows, and a new type of plow called the slip scraper, the forerunner of today’s bulldozer. A unique device that pulled giant tree stumps out of the ground almost effortlessly was invented to speed up construction.
Many of the workers were Irish and Italian immigrants who had fled their native countries. The hours were long and hard, and work was done in rough-and-tumble conditions. Disease was not uncommon and would spread into the communities along the canal.
Construction had been relatively easy from Utica to Montezuma. Boating began between those two points in 1820, although the entire canal was not completed until 1825. Montezuma, a small village, took on the air of a frontier town. It became the head of navigation while the building of the canal proceeded westward. The first passage boat was built and launched there. Seventy-six feet long and 14 feet wide, The Montezuma contained an elegant dining room, kitchen and two cabins.
Other packet boats like it would travel to Montezuma carrying about 30 passengers. The price of passage, including meals and lodging, was $4. The packets were drawn by three horses that could cover about 80 miles in 24 hours. Upon the passengers arrival, they would board stagecoaches that would carry them to the west.
It took until 1822 to push the canal through the swamps just west of Montezuma and by 1823, the canal opened from Rochester to Albany. Settlers took advantage of the easy transportation, and small towns sprang up and prospered and became ports of destination. Boomtowns had come to America. The cost to ship goods by canal dropped to $4 per ton, compared to $100 per ton by road in the first decade.
Within 10 years, the canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction ($7,143,789) and maintenance. It showed a profit so large that it offset the state budget by two thirds.
Generations of children grew up on the Erie Canal. Families ate, slept and played aboard their own canal boats. When they turned 12, boys would drive the mules, working two, six-hour shifts – rain or shine – walking miles along the towpath far ahead of the boat.
With thousands of boats traveling 24 hours a day, the magnitude of traffic led to congestion and delays. To accommodate more boats, the Erie Canal was enlarged twice. In 1836 it was widened to 70 feet and deepened to 7 feet. Twisting and troublesome spots were abandoned for a newer or straighter route. The old canal was sold, or otherwise taken over, by people who used it for farming or building space. In 1862, the new construction was completed and the Erie Canal could handle boats carrying 240 tons, compared to the first boats of 30 tons on the original canal.
In the meantime, other visionaries were building railroads, replacing one technology for another. By the 1850s, passengers were going west by train. As new modes of transportation were developed, more and more commerce was taken away from the canal.
But another expansion, this time to take the Erie Canal to nine feet deep, was undertaken in 1895. Called “The Nine Million Dollar Improvement,” the project was halted in 1898 when money ran out. The canal was on the verge of abandonment.
Between 1905 and 1918, the Barge Canal was constructed. It consists of the Erie Canal and the three chief branches of the state system: the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals. To bring the Seneca River into use as part of that system, it was dredged to a uniform 12-foot depth. As a result, thousands of acres of Montezuma marshland were drained, and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge was established. Major course changes were made and most of the original channel was abandoned. The canal took on the structure that it is today with an average width of 125 feet, a depth of at least 12 feet, and 35 locks.
The present-day version of the canal system presents an active waterway offering recreational opportunities, power generation, flood control, irrigation and a glimpse of our rich historic past. Our communities are discovering “the magic of water” as a magnet for tourism, economic growth and environmental restoration.
There are several ongoing efforts being developed at the national, state and local level to promote the benefits of New York State Canal Corridor. One is the planning and development of a Seneca River Canal Trail, a water recreation corridor for canoeists and kayakers to connect Onondaga Lake’s Inner Harbor, the city of Syracuse and destiNYUSA development to Cayuga Lake’s Scenic Route 90 and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.
Another initiative includes a partnership of state agencies and community volunteers who are working to complete what will be a 524-mile continuous land “Canalway Trail,” the most ambitious project of its kind in the United States.
A Four Canals Historic Park has been proposed by the Cayuga County planning department and the town of Montezuma. It would encompass 180 acres of parkland along the Seneca River across from the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and upstream from the Northern Montezuma State Wildlife Management area. Within this area lies the dynamic story of the canal system. Four separate canals were built through the site at various stages in the evolution of the present-day system: the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Enlarged Erie, and the Barge Canal.
Blessed by the vision of earlier generations and ongoing revitalization programs, today’s canal system continues to contribute to the economy and has become an historic playground for New York visitors and residents alike. We’ve come a long way from the days when mules and horses pulled boats through the Finger Lakes region, but ongoing efforts assure us that the rich canal history of our communities will be preserved and enjoyed for generations to come.
Fun Canal Terms
• “Flying Light” – Boats traveling empty
• “Hoggee” – Young boy driving the mules
• “Hoodledasher” – Train of boats formed by tying empty boats to full boats
• “Mud-Larked” – When boats get stuck in mud
• “Muleskinner” – A mule driver
• “Snubbing Post” – Post for tying up canal boats
• “Towpath” – Path where mules walk when pulling canal boats
• “Whittletree” – Bar that linked mules with boats
How to “Lock Through” Canal System Locks
Approaching the Lock
On approaching the lock, hail the lock operator on Marine Channel 13 or sound three blasts on your horn to signal that you are approaching and request service. A red light indicates the lock is not ready. Stop at a safe distance and stand by for a green light. Before entering the lock, check that fenders are properly positioned.
Entering the Lock
A green light means come ahead. Enter the lock slowly and stay in line of approach. In the lock chamber, station vessels alongside the lock wall as directed by the lock operator. During the lockage, keep bow and stern close to the wall by looping line to holding apparatus (lines, ladders, cables or pipes) as provided. Do not tie lines. Serious injury can result from using hands and feet to fend a moving boat off a wall. Use a boat hook, paddle or oar. Do not wrap lines around hands or feet as lines may tighten and cause injury.
Exiting the Lock
Take in lines when lock gates are fully open and shove off away from the wall. Proceed slowly out of the lock chamber in order. Observe “lock limit” speed before increasing cruising speed.
Interesting Facts About the Canal System
• The original Erie Canal begun in 1817, completed in 1825
• Enlargement to 7-foot draft completed in 1862.
• Tolls abolished in 1882
• First Barge Canal work started in 1905. Barge Canal opened to traffic May 15, 1918
• The Barge Canal consists of
1. Erie – across state from Troy on the Hudson River to Tonawanda, Niagara River
2. Champlain – north from Troy to Lake Champlain.
3. Oswego – Three Rivers Point, near Syracuse to Lake Ontario
4. Cayuga and Seneca – branch connecting Cayuga and Seneca Lakes with Erie
• Length of canals
1. Erie – 340.7 miles
2. Champlain – 62.6 miles
3. Oswego – 23.8 miles
4. Cayuga and Seneca – 27.1 miles
5. Connecting rivers and lakes – 347.1 miles
6. Total – 801.3 miles
1. General bottom width in lakes and canalize drivers – 200 feet
2. Minimum bottom width in land lines – 75 feet
3. Usable size of locks – 300 feet long by 441/2 feet wide
4. Clearance under bridge – 51/2 feet
• Construction and operation of locks
1. Number of locks – 57
2. Built of concrete
3. Operated by electricity
4. Gates opened or closed in 30 seconds
5. Average time of lockage – 10 to 30 minutes
6. Lift of locks varies from 6 to 401/2 feet.
Learning More About The Canals
We would like to thank Finger Lakes Tourism and the New York State Canal Corporation for their help with relevant information for this article. Please contact these organizations for in-depth coverage of the canal system.
Finger Lakes Tourism
The New York State Canal Corporation
by Cheryl Longyear
Cheryl Longyear is historian for the town of Montezuma and owner of Lavender Patch Retreat and B & B, a renovated 19th century family farmhouse located near the original Erie Canal in Montezuma. You can reach her at 315-776-8632, or firstname.lastname@example.org.