The Erie Canal Passed This Way

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During the heyday of the Erie, connecting canals laced the state. A waterway was completed to Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1828, finally accomplishing what the old Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had attempted in the 1790’s. Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake were tied to the Erie; the Genesee Valley Canal provided a link to the Allegheny River and thus to the Ohio; the Chenango Canal extended southwestward from Utica on the Erie as far as Binghamton; and the Chemung Canal, running south from Seneca Lake, linked up at the state border to a branch of the extensive Pennsylvania canal system. Most fantastic was the Black River Canal, connecting the Erie at Rome with the Black River to the north; it required 108 locks in only thirty-five miles. By 1877 the state began disposing of some of these lateral canals, which by then had long since outlived their usefulness.

As early as 1869 the tonnage carried by the New York Central and Erie railroads exceeded what went down the canal. A halving of canal tolls had not helped much, and in 1882 the voters, by constitutional amendment, made the Erie a free canal. But it continued to decline and by 1898 was almost in a state of collapse. In 1903 a plan to turn it into a barge canal was approved.

The work was completed in 1918. The towpath was gone; boats henceforth went through pushed by a tug. The minimum bottom width of the channel was now seventy-five feet, the depth twelve feet, and, because the terminals were at Waterford and Tonawanda instead of Albany and Buffalo, the canal was shorter. It is now 338 miles long and has only thirty-five locks, with lifts running as high as forty feet (the highest lock in Clinton’s Ditch was a little over a dozen feet). Most of the middle and eastern parts of the waterway were relocated, sometimes by many miles. The rocky Mohawk, shunned by the two old Eries, is made part of the Barge Canal by a series of dams and locks that tame its turbulence. The Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, and the canal to Cayuga and Seneca lakes were also retained and modernized.

Great parts of the Enlarged Erie were left abandoned far from the Barge Canal, and there they wait for the antiquarian and historian to visit them, as well as for the wrecking crew to come. Many of the old aqueducts have been at least partially destroyed. Massive and built to last, they are nevertheless no match for the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. Sometimes the central arches and piers were knocked out, either to prevent ice from piling up against them during the spring break-up, or to permit passage of the Barge Canal, which in places was rerouted into the streams. Without a center, even the best of aqueducts loses some of its aesthetic appeal.

Some abandoned segments of the Erie canals, being state property, were put to other state uses—as the right of way of a highway, for example. But well over half the total still lie empty and unused, silent reminders of the past. Not all of them are forgotten in distant fields and pastures: the old lock at Pittsford, for one, stands behind a shopping center, easy to see and easy to reach. Other locks and structures are almost as handy, or are being made so: a group of junior historians at Jordan, for instance, has cleared the land around the old lock there in something of a do-ityourself restoration movement.

The canal has often left a stamp even where it has disappeared. Erie Boulevards in Syracuse, Schenectady, Utica, Rome, and possibly other New York communities were not named accidentally; they were the routes the old Erie followed through those towns. But other historic spots have disappeared without trace; Lock Number One at Albany, which separated the early Erie canals from the Hudson River, is now somewhere under a truck parking lot.

Canal history buffs, an unusually dedicated band, have been able to preserve relics of the old canals, sometimes against considerable odds; and in at least one case they have won the co-operation of the highway people, a group often accused of being completely indifferent to historic values. When a state highway route was planned on the line of the old Black River Canal, it was designed so as to bypass and preserve an especially impressive flight of four locks, and picnic facilities and a lookout point are planned to make a small park of the area. Though other locks of the old canal are scheduled for destruction in the same operation, canal historians, who realize that not everything can be saved, are happy with the arrangement.

The matter of period restoration is something else again. There are certain problems of economics involved, and, in the absence of heavy financial support from some charitable foundation, any project to give the public a picture of the old canal in action may have difficulties. Rome, where digging of the Erie began, is restoring a two-mile section of the Enlarged Erie, along which two canal boats, built according to old plans and pulled by real horses on the towpath, will carry tourists. But this is one of the points where economics lays a chill hand on the enterprise. It has been found that the canal boats, which could be built for $3,500 each during the days of the towpath canal, will cost a total of $117,000 to reproduce today. It will take a good many tourist dollars to make Rome’s project break even.