The Erie Rising


The problem a lock solves is how to get a boat over an »leva- tion. It works by taking the vessel into a chamber, closing the doors, then feeding water in by gravity from the canal on the upstream, or high, side of the lock. This raises the boat to the new elevation, where it can continue on its course. When the water drains by gravity to the same level as the water in the canal on the downside of the lock, boats are lowered. The remnants of old locks that the modern-day canal traveler keeps tripping over don’t have doors, which were made of wood and replaced every decade or so as they rotted away. But the walls, built of stone and masonry, are in great shape and give a good idea of the size of the locks and care with which they were constructed. On Clinton’s Ditch, one man operated each lock, taking about 15 to 20 minutes for each boat. But only one boat could go through a lock at a time, and vessels could be backed up for hours. These delays gave rise to more than a few debates that quickly escalated into brawls, fueled by the 1,500 grogshops that operated along the canal by 1835. The “big ditch of iniquity” also offered many bordellos, and canal workers began to earn themselves a ribald reputation that has proved enduring. In Moby-Dick , Herman Melville, who traveled the Erie in the 184Os, described the typical canal worker as “a terror to the smiling innocence of the villages through which he floats.”


The effect of the Erie Canal on America before the Civil War is difficult to fathom while you are wandering amidst the unprepossessing channels and abandoned locks that linger in its place. But it can hardly be exaggerated. By cutting down the travel time from Buffalo to New York City from 6 weeks to 10 days, the canal helped make New York the nation’s dominant port, swamping Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, all of which lacked highways through the forbidding Appalachians. It further marginalized the region’s Indians, pushed out by new arrivals and unsettled by the Industrial Revolution that came in the canal’s wake. Its greatest effect, though, was in moving people. Work on or along the waterway brought tens of thousands of men and later women, many of them with names like, well, Haggerty and Murphy, to what had been a frontier region with hardly a town of more than 3,000 people. It was the main route for immigrants going off to settle the wild territories beyond; in 1845 alone, 100,000 people passed through Buffalo on their way West. Like the Internet in our own time, the new economy that emerged in the canal’s wake wrought sweeping social change.

Given the phenomenal pace of that change, it is no surprise that there were some intense (and curious) reactions. Whitney Cross, the historian of what became known as the “burnedover district,” puts it this way. “Few of the enthusiasms or eccentricities of this generation of Americans failed to find exponents here,” he wrote. “Most of them gained rather greater support here than elsewhere. Several originated in the region.” Whereas the western section of the canal is richer in sleepy nineteenth-century canal-side charm, toward Syracuse the re- gion’s social and religious history takes center stage. Palmyra is a classic canal town that is trying to reconnect with its past. But the town’s greater claim to fame is that here, in 1820, a 14-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith was praying in the grove near his home when according to Mormon doctrine, he was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ. He was later led to the Book of Mormon on nearby Hill Cumorah (the site of a massive pageant every summer). A number of places related to Smith’s early life and the founding of the religion have been restored or rebuilt by the Mormon church. They include the Smith family farmhouse, the Sacred Grove, and the Grandin printshop, the first publisher of the Book of Mormon.


The fine line between religious and political fervor can be traced in nearby Seneca Falls on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, where a group of Quakers, abolitionists, temperance advocates, and assorted other reformers came together in 1848 to hold the First Women’s Rights Convention in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. The ruins of the chapel, carefully encased in glass, are now the site of a national park. An adjacent museum gives a brief (and polemical) history of women’s rights in America. Down the street are the Women’s Hall of Fame (nominate your mom!) and the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the movement’s first leaders, who was so far ahead of her time that she was barely of it.