- Historic Sites
The Erie Canal Passed This Way
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The middle section was level, but it was not without its problems. It was largely forest land; much of the canal would have to be dug through huge slumps and roots. And supplies of all kinds had to be brought inland along the Mohawk by river and road. Nevertheless, the work went ahead. A sixty-foot path was staked out and cleared of trees and underbrush. Within this was another lane of stakes to mark the forty-foot width of the canal.
The digging was done by private contractors, often local farmers who improved their slack season by excavating a section of the ditch. Contracts were let for sections as short as a quarter of a mile. Within a year or so the use of axe and saw to cut down trees had given way to a quicker and easier method: one end of a cable was attached high on a tree and the other end to a roller turned by a crank and an endless screw arrangement. The crank and screw provided such tremendous mechanical advantage that one man could pull over a tree of almost any size. A stump-puller was devised which made tisc of the multiplied force provided by a huge wheel and axle. The materials for construction seemed to turn up when needed. Seepage of water threatened to be a serious problem when the first sections of canal were opened—but then a clay or muck was found, called “the blue mud of the meadows,” which proved an excellent seal when used as a liner. And a cement which hardened even under water took care of a very pressing need for a strong and lasluig stonework mortar.
The first short section of canal was opened in the autumn of 1819, a little more than two years after construction had started. Water was turned into fifteen miles of channei between Rome and Utica, and a boat made the trip to Utica one day and back to Rome the next, towed by a team of horses and carrying a load of speechinaking dignitaries. Additional sections were put into service that same year, and by the next summer, 1820, the entire middle portion, ninety-four miles long, between Utica and Montezuma, carried water. As fast as sections were opened, boats appeared on them; even a part-way haul by water was better than none at all.
Digging on both the cast and west sections then got under way, the crews working in both directions from the completed middle section, and each year new stretches were opened. In iSag the Hudson River was reached, but it was !»25 before the western end cut through to Buffalo and Lake Erie. Almost overlooked in the excitement of these years was the completion of the Champlain Canal in 1823.
The Erie or “Great Western” Canal was sometimes called Clinton’s Ditch. The nickname was coined in scorn by De Witt Clinton’s political enemies—but, as is the fate of many pejoratives, it was soon adopted as a term of affection.
Bringing the canal along the Mohawk River had created special problems. In its lowest thirty miles, between Schencctady and Albany, the river was so squecved between its rocky walls that at places the canal had to be cut into shelves above the water. And to complicate the difficulty, in this same stretch the river made its most precipitous plunge, so that twentyseven of the eighty-four locks in the canal were in this short and cramped area. Here, too, was the Eric’s longest aqueduct: at Crescent, only a do/cn miles or so up the canal from Albany, the canal crossed from the soutli to the north side of the Mohawk on a “bridge” 1,188 feet long.
An Erie aqueduct was a specialized structure. Its masonry arches were designed to support a water-filled channel or flume of timber, which was, in fact, the canal itself. Usually the towpath on which the tow horses walked was an integral part of the masonry bridge rather than of the flume. The Crescent aqueduct was demolished many years ago, but twelve miles upstream at Alexander’s Mills (now Rexford) the canal crossed back again to the south side of the river on another aqueduct. That aqueduct survived until around 1910, thanks to its conversion for use as a road bridge. And a second and larger aqueduct erected at Rexford about 1840 to carry an enlarged canal stood until just last year, also because it was converted to a highway bridge.