Erie Canal Facts
Dates of operation: 1825-1918
Length: 363 miles
Eastern terminus: Albany, New York
Southern terminus: Buffalo, New York
Type: Towpath, with lift locks
Width/depth: Originally, 40 feet wide at the surface, 28 feet wide at bottom, 4 feet deep
Locks: Originally, 84 lift locks, 90 feet long and 15 feet wide
Enlarged: 1836-1863 to 70 feet at surface, 56 feet at bottom and 7 feet deep; locks enlarged to 110 feet long and 18 feet wide
Cargo transported: Varied, included grain, quarried stone, flour, salt, produce, manufactured goods, lumber, and passengers
Chief engineer(s): Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Nathan Roberts, Canvass White, David S. Bates, and John B. Jervis
Owner: State of New York
Replacement: New York State Barge Canal (1903-1994) which continues in operation as the Erie Canal
History of the Erie Canal
The Erie Canal was the most famous and successful of America’s early towpath canals. It was able to breach the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains and link Lake Erie with the Hudson River. The Erie Canal also was an integral part of a larger system of New York state canals, which bound together the Hudson River with Lake Champlain and the Canadian canals that flowed to the St. Lawrence River. Branches of this New York State Canal also linked the Finger Lakes and reached the Susquehanna River system.
The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, chartered by the New York legislature in 1792, was the ancestor of the Erie Canal. The goal of this company was the creation of an uninterrupted water transportation route from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario by improving and linking the Mohawk River, Oneida Lake, and the Oneida River. After experiencing immense technical and financial difficulties, the company only created a one mile canal to by-pass the Little Falls of the Mohawk River. Although the company collected tolls for use of its canal, this revenue barely provided enough funds to keep its lock in working order.
Despite the limited success of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, many prominent commercial and political leaders began to call for the creation of a state built canal that would cross New York to link the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Foremost among them was DeWitt Clinton, a former mayor of New York City. Clinton’s advocacy of what would become the Erie Canal won him election as governor of New York in 1817. On July 4, 1817 ground was broken for the Erie Canal at a site near Rome, NY. Few present at this impressive ceremony realized the tremendous task that awaited the canal’s builders. The Erie Canal would be over 363 miles long and its builders would have to overcome rivers, swamps, and hills. Engineers built 83 locks, which overcame 675 feet of ascent and descent. Besides 18 aqueducts that carried the canal over rivers and large streams, numerous bridges had to be built across the canal to accommodate roads and farms that were severed by the waterway.
Local laborers and Irish immigrants combined their efforts to build the Erie Canal. They were each paid 80¢ per day for 10 to 12 hours of work. Since no civilian engineering schools existed in the United States at this time, the men who designed the waterway learned on the job. The most important of these engineers were Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Nathan Roberts, Canvass White, and John Bloomfield Jervis. Many of these individuals later went on to build other canals and make important contributions to the development of American civil engineering. Canvass White was the first to manufacture hydraulic cement on this continent. Hydraulic cement, which hardened and bond underwater, quickly became an essential part of canal and bridge construction. John Bloomfield Jervis developed key innovations that helped to make railroads possible in much of the United States. He also created New York City’s famed Croton water supply system.
On November 4, 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton poured a keg of Lake Erie water into New York Harbor commemorating the completion of the Erie Canal. The “big ditch” soon became a great commercial success. Before the canal’s completion, a person shipping cargo between Buffalo and New York City paid between $90 and $125 a ton. By 1835, the cost had dropped to $4 per ton. Within a year of the opening of the Erie Canal, some 2,000 boats, 9,000 horses, and 8,000 men were employed in the transportation of goods on the canal. Despite the later competition of railroads, the Erie Canal continued to be a great success. The canal made it possible for both New England and immigrant farmers to settle and develop the rich farmlands of the Mid-western states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. These farmers would send their crops to eastern markets via the canal and receive in return manufactured goods. Since much of this trade was centered at New York City, this seaport soon became America’s largest and most prosperous city.
The Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. After the completion of this enlargement, boats that could carry up to 75 tons of cargo rapidly replaced the earlier boats which carried only 30 tons of goods. In 1868, the Erie Canal carried 3 million tons of freight. During 1882, all tolls were abolished on the New York State canals. To take advantage of changes in technology, the Erie Canal and the other major branches of the New York State Canal System were transformed into the Barge Canal System between 1903 and 1918. On this system, boats and barges were pushed or pulled by steam or diesel powered tug boats and the locks were operated by electricity. The New York State Barge Canal carried commercial traffic until 1994, when its relatively small size coupled with rising labor costs brought traffic on its waters to an end. However, during the late 1990s, the federal government and state of New York spent millions of dollars to enhance and increase the recreational use of the New York State Canal System.
Special Feature—The Lockport Flight
The most extraordinary engineering feat on the entire Erie Canal was a series of five locks. Known as the “Lockport Five”, these locks raised and lowered canal boats sixty-three feet through a granite cliff. The only double locks on the canal, the descending, east-bound locks still exist as a sluice-way. The ascending or west-bound locks were combined into two locks by the conversion to the Barge Canal.
Suggestions for further Reading
Ralph K. Andrist, The Erie Canal. New York: American Heritage, 1964.
Ronald Shaw, Erie Water West. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1996.
Carol Sherriff, The Artificial River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
Erie Canal On-line www.syracuse.com/features/eriecanal
New York State Canal System www.canals.state.ny.us
Canal Society of New York www.canalsnys.org