The Erie Canal Passed This Way

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When the Erie Canal was built in the 1820’s, it was the engineering marvel of its time. And, considering the tools and technology of the period, it still appears a rather respectable undertaking. Extending for 363 miles, stepping up hill and down valley a total of nearly seven hundred vertical feet by eighty-four lift locks, soaring across rivers on arched aqueducts, sometimes grooved into the side of a hill or straddling the backbone of a convenient ridge, it overcame formidable obstacles to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie, and so provide the first practical link between East and West.

Such a great engineering work, even where long abandoned, could hardly fail to leave its impress across upper New York state. There remains of it, the truth must be said, little to rival the enduring monuments of imperial Rome, whose aqueducts, many times more ancient, still stand firm and strong, arch upon arch. The state of New York has been more prodigal of its relics, and the wrecker as well as time has demolished many of the old structures. But it is not easy to destroy a big ditch, and abundant traces of the old Erie remain.

That first Erie Canal was not quite the same one that extends across New York today. The original canal was twice enlarged and modernized. and each time considerable sections were rerouted. Many abandoned portions, forgotten and reclaimed by vines and brush, are still easily traceable across cornfields, or through orchards and thickets. Dut even today the attrition against these relics continues. David Plowden, while taking the photographs for this story, learned about an old basin—the canal equivalent of a harbor—where even the crumbling bones of several canal boats were to be seen. Although he set out at once with his equipment, he found a bulldozer grunting about where basin and boats had been only a day or two earlier. And where earth-moving machines have posed no threat to survivals ol the canal, the public has sometimes taken the old ditch as an ideal depository for broken bed springs, beer cans, wrecked cars, and the other ephemera cast olf by man as he aspires to the angels.

The old Erie well deserves to have something of it preserved. The Great Western Canal, it was called, and it was one of the prime highways of empire; this thin thread of water brought the western trade that made New York City into the great metropolis of the nation, and it was the way west that all but emptied entire New England hill towns.

The pre-eminence of the Erie Canal did not come about by happenstance. One of the hard realities with which the young American republic had to cope was that it was split fair in two by the Appalachian mountain range. Once a settler crossed that barrier he severed his old ties with the Kast completely—so completely that some people feared the trans-Appalachian West would form a separate nation. It was extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to ,ship anything across the mountains; though an eastern market might be only two or three hundred miles away, a westerner found it cheaper and easier by far to ship by flatboat down to New Orleans, and then by sea around to the Atlantic coast, a matter of some three thousand miles.

From the St. Lawrence Valley until they dwindle away in Alabama, the Appalachians are broken in only one place: where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers (low through valleys carved by an ice-age torrent. This gap was an ancient Indian way, and then an early route of fur men, used and fought over by Dutch, French, English, and Americans. Fort Stanwix (later the site of Rome, New York) marked the strategic carrying place at the head of the Mohawk where travellers portaged their canoes two miles K) Wood deck, which took them into Oneida Lake, and thence un to the Oswego River and into Lake Ontario.

While this was a way through the mountains, it was by no means a smooth and easy route. Navigation on the Mohawk was completely barred near its mouth by Cohoes Falls. Navigation began at Schenectady, and some fifty-five miles west of that town another cataract, Little Falls, made a mile-long portage necessary. Hut on the river between, when the water was not too low, strong-backed boatmen cotdd pole and haul cralt known as Durham boats, forcing them through shallows and rapids and over stretches of sandbars. After the portage to Wood Creek there were more rapids and other hazards on the way down to Lake Ontario. And beyond that, for goods moving to or from I lie West, there was still transshipment around Niagara Falls. Yet, with all the necessary unloading and carrying and reloading, this was the only practical overland freight route to the West.