The Erie Canal Passed This Way

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Another major aqueduct crossed the Genesee River in the west, where the new village of Rochester was mushrooming. The Genesee was a turbulent river, and the aqueduct piers had to be sunk into the solid rock of the river bottom. The entire structure was bolted and bound with iron into a unit 802 feet long; it had eleven stone arches, nine of them fifty feet across. Not far east of Rochester the canal was forced to cross the deep valley of Irondequoit Creek. Initial plans were to build a wooden aqueduct sixty feet high and a quarter of a mile long, and then, once the canal was operating, to bring in earth by boats and dump it from this structure to build a permanent base. But fears that a wooden trestle could not withstand high winds caused the engineers to substitute an embankment of stone and earth, with Irondequoit Creek carried through a culvert beneath it. In this day of earth-fill dams, superhighway interchanges, and other massive works constructed with huge earth-moving machines, we tend to grow blasé about such engineering projects. But at Irondequoit Creek the only earth-moving machines available for creating a small mountain ridge were horse-drawn scrapers and wagons, and men with shovels. Sweat is a more old-fashioned moving force than gasoline and diesel fuel, but it served the nation well for a long time.

At the Cayuga Marshes the canal was dug under water six inches or a foot deep, but it was not the engineering problems of digging a ditch and raising a towpath in semiliquid muck that gave trouble. The swamps swarmed with mosquitoes, among them the genus Anopheles , carrier of malaria, which laid low entire work crews until cold weather came.

The supreme engineering accomplishment of the western portion was the three-mile cut through solid rock some twenty miles northeast of Buffalo. To raise the canal sixty-six feet up a steep rock face, a double set of five locks was blasted out. Everywhere else on the canal there were only single locks, and east- and westbound traffic took turns going through. But at Lockport (as the town that sprang up at the site was named) the locks were doubled, to avoid traffic tie-ups.

Not all the streams that crossed Clinton’s Ditch were bridged by aqueducts; on a number of the smaller ones a bridge was built only for the tow teams. The stream was dammed below the canal crossing to create a more or less placid pool, and guard locks were built where the canal entered the stream, to prevent the canal’s being flooded in times of high water. A boat was locked into the stream, was towed across, and re-entered the canal through the guard lock on the opposite side.

There was a great deal more to the canal than met the eye. It was laid out so that there were streams or lakes to supply water for operating locks and to replace evaporation and leakage. The feeders bringing in this water required an elaborate system of gates and sluices, and formed a great network of small branch canals on which farmers could bring their butter and bacon by skiff to the Erie. There were waste weirs to discharge excess water in times of flood; there were culverts and fences; there were more than three hundred bridges ' that had to be built where the canal cut farmers’ lands in two; and there were weighlocks to weigh canal boats at principal ports to determine toll charges.

Clinton’s Ditch prospered. Eastern goods and a stream of emigrants with their belongings travelled west, while Great Lakes vessels carried the produce of the Middle West to Buffalo for transfer to eastbound canal boats. Western New York, which had been almost a wilderness, filled with farmers, and a string of towns burgeoned all along the canal.

In 1835, only ten years after the Erie’s completion, the commissioners recommended that it be enlarged to handle bigger boats and more traffic. A program was shortly begun to widen the channel to seventy feet and deepen it to seven feet; the locks were to be doubled to handle two-way traffic, as at Lockport, and increased considerably in size. A number of streams across which Clinton’s Ditch had passed its boats at water level were bridged by aqueducts on the Enlarged Erie, as the modernized canal was known, and existing aqueducts were rebuilt. Some of these structures still stand—at least in part—their massive romanesque arches indicating that the planners had every confidence that the Erie would go on for many generations.

The enlargement program moved by fits and starts, tied to canal revenues, and was not finally completed until 1862, when heavy wartime shipping brought large toll collections. But by then an unforeseen cloud was rising over the future of the canal. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad began operating out of Albany in 1831, and though it and subsequent railroads along the Erie were first complacently viewed as short-line passenger carriers, an awakening came when eight lines joined in 1842 to connect Albany and Buffalo by rail, a union that eleven years later became the New York Central. At first the railroads were not permitted to haul freight except when the Erie was closed in winter, and even then they were forced to pay canal tolls on what they carried; but this restriction was removed in 1851, and the rail lines became full competitors.