The Erie Canal Passed This Way


There were many half-formed plans for improving the waterway before 1792, when New York incorporated two private canal companies. The Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company began the next year to dig a canal from the Hudson River north to Lake Champlain. but it quickly went bankrupt. The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company also started work in 1793—its purpose being to improve the Mohawk River to the Lake Ontario waterway. In the next several years a canal was cut through the rocks around Little Falls, a mile more was dug to bypass another bad spot, and a channel and locks were completed connecting the Mohawk with Wood Creek. Durham boats as long as sixty feet and carrying sixteen tons of cargo were able to navigate the river in times of good water, where a ton and a half had been a good load before. The freight rales dropped correspondingly.

But the company found that a canal around Cohoes Falls was too much even to attempt, and goods still had to be transshipped I’rom the Mohawk to the Hudson. Stockholders were called on again and again to pay extra assessments; dividends had been sporadic and usually small. The company finally expired in 1820 when its assets were purchased by the state of New York for the Erie Canal.

The difficulties of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company did not dampen the enthusiasm or dim the bright visions of those who believed in the future of a practical waterway to the West. Credit lor being the first to propose that a canal be dug all the long way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, instead of only to Lake Ontario, is often given to Gouverneur Morris, statesman and patriot. In any event the idea, considered fantastic at first, gradually caught fire, and by 1808 a couple of upstate legislators arranged for a survey. The resulting report declared that the route to Lake Erie was superior to the shorter one to Lake Ontario.

By 1810 an Erie Canal was out of the dream stage. A board of commissioners was appointed to examine the possible routes. One of the seven members was De Wilt Clinton, mayor of New York City, later to be governor, and henceforth to be inseparably linked with the Erie Canal. Another commissioner was Gouverneur Morris, broad of vision but impractical in his sweeping concepts. His pet scheme was an “incline plane,” a waterway without locks, sloping gently downhill all the way from Lake Erie to the Hudson, six indies to the mile, flowing just enough to keep the channel always filled with water. As it turned out, the plan would have required excessive excavation and the building of high embankments to (any the canal over low places, and so was soon forgotten.

When the canal commission in its official report recommended a canal to Lake Erie rather than to Lake Ontario, the federal government was asked for help. When it refused, the state decided to go it alone. The War of i8ia intervened, but in March of 1817 the New York legislature at last approved the construction of an Erie Canal, but lor the time being authorized only the digging of the middle section, from the upper Mohawk River near Rome to the Seneca River.

The canal was to be forty feet wide at the surface, sloping in to a bottom width of twenty-eight feet, and having a depth of four feel. Tentative plans had been drawn for the entire route from the Hudson to Lake Erie, but there would be much improvising as construction proceeded, to overcome unforeseen difficulties and to take advantage of the experience being acquired by the engineers. The completed canal, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, would be 363 miles long. To overcome the 565-foot difference in level between river and lake (plus more than another hundred feet in steps up and down because of valleys) there would be eightylour locks, each ninety feet long and fifteen feet wide. While the canal would cross many streams on its route at water level, it would bridge eighteen of them on aqueducts which would be engineering marvels of the time. All this the citizens of the state were to get at an estimated cost of less than five million dollars. At the same time, the legislators approved a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain, for $871,000 more.

Construction started only a few months later; ground was broken on July 4, 1817, at Rome, at the head of the Mohawk. It was not for mere whim that the canal commissioners decided to start work in the middle of the route. In both eastern and western sections there would be much lock-building and extensive cutting through solid rock. Hut in the middle section the land was level, the soil deep and free of rocks. It was a good place to learn the art of canal building, about which no one really knew very much. The twenty-seven-mile Middlesex Canal between Boston and the Merrimack River was then by far the longest of the few American canals. There was no body of hydraulic engineering knowledge in the United States. Two of the Erie’s chief engineers, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, began work with experience limited largely to surveying. They and their colleagues would learn by doing.