After the American Revolution, the need for an all-American water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast was evident. Political unity, easy and inexpensive transportation, and increased trade (free from Canadian competition) were the anticipated benefits of such a route. Several land surveys followed, and by 1810, the issue was paramount in the New York legislature, where De Witt Clinton lent his political support. A canal commission, including Clinton, Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Thomas Eddy, recommended (1811) a canal to Lake Erie rather than to Lake Ontario. The canal bill, drawn up by Clinton in 1815, was debated in the legislature (1816-17), with New York City and the Lake Ontario interests opposing it vigorously. Although a presidential veto of a national waterway project forced the proposed canal's financial burden on New York alone, the canal bill passed the state legislature in Apr., 1817.
Work on the canal was carried on by gangs made up, in many cases, of European immigrants. The canal's course was entirely enclosed; streams and lakes were not incorporated into the waterway. The middle section (Utica to Salina) was completed in 1820; the eastern section through the Mohawk River valley was finished in 1823. Elaborate celebrations opened the entire canal in 1825; Clinton and other notables sailed from Buffalo to New York City, where Clinton emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. The canal was enlarged beginning in 1835; its most important branches, the Champlain (opened 1819), the Oswego (1828), and the Cayuga-Seneca (1829), were also enlarged. The Erie Canal contributed to New York City's financial development, opened eastern markets to Midwest farm products and encouraged immigration to that region, and helped to create numerous large cities. Its initial success started a wave of canal building in the United States.
Railroad competition, beginning in the 1850s, eventually destroyed the canal's long-haul advantages; however, for many years the Erie Canal was a profitable route. Tolls were abolished in 1882, however, because of its state of disrepair and to lure more traffic. Although some improvements were made (1884-94), inadequate navigability, the competition of Canadian routes, and the disclosure of fraudulent administration (the "Canal Ring") brought about plans for complete renovation and subsequent conversion (1905-18) into a large, modern barge canal. Unlike the original canal, the revamped waterway incorporated canalized rivers and lakes in the waterway; parallel sections of the old Erie Canal were abandoned.
Much tonnage was still shipped via the canal in the 1950s, but the opening of the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway sealed the canal's commercial demise. Traffic in the late 20th cent. consisted almost entirely of pleasure boats, and a five-year overhaul in the late 1990s was undertaken to make the canal a major "recreationway." Commercial interest in the highly fuel-efficient waterway was renewed some in 2008 when energy costs soared to record highs.
See R. K. Andrist, The Erie Canal (1964); G. E. Condon, Stars in the Water (1973); R. Shaw Erie Water West (1996); C. Carol, The Artificial River (1996); P. L. Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters (2005).
Gouverneur Morris and Elkanah Watson were other early proponents of a canal along the Mohawk. Their efforts led to creation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which took the first actual steps to improve navigation on the Mohawk. But the company proved that private financing was inadequate.
In 1798 the Niagara Canal Company was incorporated.
The advocate who finally got the Canal built was entrepreneur Jesse Hawley. He envisioned growing huge quantities of grain in the upstate New York plains, then largely unsettled, for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. But he went bankrupt trying to ship it to the coast. While in Canandaigua debtors' prison, he started pressing for the construction of a canal along the Mohawk valley.He had strong support from Joseph Ellicott, agent for the Holland Land Company in Batavia. Ellicott realized that a canal would add immense value to the land he was selling in the western part of the state. Ellicott later became the first canal commissioner.
The Mohawk River, a tributary to the Hudson, runs in a glacial meltwater channel across the northern reaches of the Appalachians, separating them in New York State into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Mohawk Valley was the only cut across the Appalachians north of Alabama, and led almost directly from the Hudson River on the east to either Lake Ontario or Lake Erie on the west. From there much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.
The problem was that the land rises about from the Hudson to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle up to , so at least 50 locks would be required along the canal. Any such canal would cost a fortune even today, but in 1800 was barely imaginable. President Jefferson, called it "a little short of madness" and rejected it. Nevertheless Hawley managed to interest New York governor DeWitt Clinton. There was much opposition, and the project was scorned as "Clinton's Folly," or "Clinton's Ditch." But in 1817, Clinton got the legislature to appropriate $7,000,000 for construction.
The original Canal was long, from Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo, on Lake Erie. The channel was a cut wide and deep, with removed soil piled on the downhill side to form a walkway. Canal boats, up to in draft, were pulled by horses and mules on a walkway called the towpath. There was only one towpath,generally on the north side of the ditch. When canal boats met the boat with right of way steered to the towpath side of the canal. The other boat steered toward the birm or heelpath side of the canal. The driver or 'hoggee' (pronounced HO-gee) of the privileged boat brought his team to the canalside edge of the towpath while the hoggee of the other boat moved to the outside of the towpath and stopped his team. His towline would go slack, fall into the water and sink to the bottom while his boat continued on by momentum. The privileged boat's team would step over the other boat's towline, and then their boat would pass over the sunken towline without stopping. Once clear the other boat's team would continue on its way.
Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first section, from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate the canal would not be finished for 30 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 obtained ripped the stumps out of the soil. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts.
A three-man team with mules could now build a mile in a year, meaning that the problem now was finding enough labor.
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 talked Clinton into letting 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 for it 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)
Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. But when the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), over 1,000 workers died of swamp fever 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, from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823, to great fanfare.
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 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 lift-locks had a total lift of , exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 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, swallowing 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, which took 90 minutes to travel 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."
The Canal began on the west side of the Hudson River at Albany, and ran north to Troy, where the Champlain Canal branched off. At Cohoes it turned west along the south shore of the Mohawk River, crossing to the north side at Crescent and again to the south at Rexford Flats. The Canal continued west near the south shore of the Mohawk River all the way to Rome, where the Mohawk turns north.
At Rome, the Canal continued west parallel to Wood Creek, which flows from Oneida Lake, and turned southwest and west cross-country to avoid the lake. From Canastota west it ran roughly along the north (lower) edge of the Onondaga Escarpment, passing through Syracuse and Rochester. At Lockport the Canal turned southwest to rise to the top of the Niagara Escarpment, using the ravine of Eighteenmile Creek. The Canal continued south-southwest to Pendleton, where it turned west and southwest, mainly using the channel of Tonawanda Creek. From Tonawanda south to Buffalo it ran just east of the Niagara River, emptying out into the river in downtown Buffalo.
Problems developed but were quickly solved. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed with a newly invented concrete that hardened under water. Erosion on the clay bottom proved to be a problem and the speed was limited to 4 mph (6 km/h).
The original design planned for an annual tonnage of 1.5 million tons (1.36 million tonnes), but this was exceeded immediately. An ambitious program to improve the canal began in 1834. During this massive series of construction projects, known as the First Enlargement, the canal was widened to and deepened to . Locks were widened and/or rebuilt in new locations, and many new aqueducts were constructed. The canal was also straightened and slightly re-routed in some stretches, resulting in the abandonment of short segments of the original 1825 canal. The First Enlargement was completed in 1862, with further minor enlargements in later decades.
Today, the reconfiguration of the canal created during the First Enlargement is commonly referred to as the Improved Erie Canal or the Old Erie Canal, to distinguish it from the canal's modern-day course. Existing remains of the 1825 canal abandoned during the Enlargement are sometimes referred to today as Clinton's Ditch (which was also the popular nickname for the entire Erie Canal project during its original 1817-1825 construction).
Additional feeder canals soon extended the Erie Canal into a system. These included the Cayuga-Seneca Canal south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego Canal from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain Canal from Troy north to Lake Champlain. From 1833 to 1877, the short Crooked Lake Canal connected Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake. The Chemung Canal connected the south end of Seneca Lake to Elmira in 1833, and was an important route for Pennsylvania coal and timber into the canal system. The Chenango Canal in 1836 connected the Erie Canal at Utica to Binghamton and caused a business boom in the Chenango River valley. The Chenango and Chemung canals linked the Erie with the Susquehanna River system. The Black River Canal connected the Black River to the Erie Canal at Rome and remained in operation until the 1920s. The Genesee Valley Canal was run along the Genesee River to connect with the Allegheny River at Olean, but the Allegheny section which would have connected to the Ohio and Mississippi was never built. The Genesee Valley Canal was later abandoned and became the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad.
In 1903, the New York state legislature authorized construction of the New York State Barge Canal as the "Improvement of the Erie, the Oswego, the Champlain, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals". In 1905, construction of the Barge Canal began, which was completed in 1918, at a cost of $96.7 million. Freight traffic reached a total of 5.2 million tons by 1951, before declining in the face of combined rail and truck competition.
Competition also came from inside New York state. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad opened in 1831, providing a bypass to the slowest part of the canal between Albany and Schenectady. Other railroads were soon chartered and built to continue the line west to Buffalo, and in 1842 a continuous line (which later became the New York Central Railroad and its Auburn Road in 1853) was open the whole way to Buffalo. As the railroad served the same general route as the canal, but provided for faster travel, passengers soon switched to it. However as late as 1852, the canal carried thirteen times more freight tonnage than all the railroads in New York state, combined; it continued to compete well with the railroads through 1882, when tolls were abolished.
The New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railway was completed in 1884, as a route running closely parallel to both the canal and the New York Central Railroad. However, it went bankrupt and was acquired the next year by the New York Central.
Because so many immigrants traveled on the canal, many genealogists would like to find copies of canal passenger lists. Unfortunately, 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.
It 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 US 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.
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. 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).
In 1918 the Canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal. The 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 wide and deep. The expansion allowed barges up to 2,000 tons 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 (). 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 (). It then rejoins the old path near North Gates. From there it was again roughly an upgrade to the original canal, running west to Lockport and southwest to Tonawanda, where the new alignment simply emptied into the Niagara River.
Due to the growth of highways, railroads, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, commercial traffic on the canal declined dramatically during the second half of the 20th century. Since the 1990s, the Canal system has been used primarily by recreational traffic, although a very limited amount commercial traffic still uses the it. Erie Canal is open to small craft and some larger vessels for most of the year. During winter, water is drained from parts of the canal for maintenance. The boating season runs from May through November.
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 put under the newly created New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority. Today the Erie Canal Corridor covers of navigable water from Lake Champlain to the Capital Region and west to Lake Erie. The area has a population of 2.7 million, and about 75% of upstate New York's population lives within of the Erie Canal. In 2006, recreational boating fees were eliminated to attract more visitors. The Canal System is operated using money generated by Thruway tolls.
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.
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.
Sections of the old Erie Canal abandoned after 1918 are owned by New York state, or have been ceded to or purchased by counties or municipalities. Many stretches of the old Canal have been filled in to create roads such as Erie Boulevard in Syracuse, and Broad Street and the Rochester Subway in Rochester. A stretch of the old Canal is preserved by the New York state at Old Erie Canal State Historic Park, and in 1960 the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, a section of the canal in Montgomery County, was one of the first sites recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Some municipalities have elected to preserve sections as town or county canal parks, or have plans to do so. Notably, Camillus Erie Canal Park preserves a stretch and plans to restore Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, built in 1841 as part of the First Enlargement of the Canal. In Camillus Park and some communities, the old Canal has refilled with overgrowth and debris. Proposals have been made to rehydrate the old Canal through downtown Rochester or Syracuse, as a tourist attraction. In Syracuse, the location of the old Canal is represented by a reflecting pool in downtown's Clinton Square and the downtown hosts a canal barge and weigh lock structure, now dry.
In 2004, the administration of New York governor George Pataki was criticized when officials of New York State Canal Corporation attempted to sell private development rights to large stretches of the Old Erie Canal to a single developer for US$30,000, far less than the land was worth on the open market. After an investigation by the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper, the Pataki administration nullified the deal.
The creation of a unified, statewide Erie Canal historic trail or greenway to attract tourism has been an elusive goal since it was first proposed in the 1990s. However, many communities along the Old Erie Canal have made progress in establishing parks, improving towpaths, and raising funds for restoration of old canal structures such as locks and aqueducts. Biking, hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, canoeing and fishing are among activities promoted.
The towpath is a good choice for an easy multi-day bicycle vacation. Many towns along the way have B&Bs, motels and campsites. The website of Parks and Trails New York Canalway Corridor has information on the Canal, and sells a guidebook (latest edition 2007) with waterproof trail maps and information on nearby places to eat, sleep, or visit spots of historical interest.
Parks and museums on the Old Erie Canal include (East to West):
The following list of locks are provided for the current canal, from east to west:
Note: There is no Lock 1 or Lock 31 on the Erie Canal. The place of "Lock 1" on the passage from the lower Hudson to Lake Erie is taken by the Federal Lock, located just north of Troy, NY, and is not part of the Erie Canal System proper.
|Lock #||Location||Elevation (upstream / west)||Elevation (downstream / east)||Lift||Distance to Next Lock (upstream / west)|
|14||Canajoharie||E15, data unavailable|
|15||Fort Plain||E16, data unavailable|
|16||Mindenville||E17, data unavailable|
|17||Little Falls||E18, data unavailable|
|18||Jacksonburg||E19, data unavailable|
|19||Frankfort||E20, data unavailable|
|20||Careys Corners||E21, data unavailable|
|21||Rome||E22, data unavailable|
|22||Rome||E23, data unavailable|
|23||Brewerton||E24, data unavailable|
|35||Lockport||Black Rock Lock in Niagara River,|