Skip to main content

The Erie Rising

June 2024
16min read

All along its 360-mile route, towns to which the canal gave birth are looking to its powerful ghost for economic revival.

Armed with a faded picture and a dream, we set out from the supermarket parking lot. Our quest: one of the last visible remnants of the old Erie Canal. We check our equipment, hike through the wilderness of SUVs and shopping carts, and toil up a slope. At the summit, a full minute later, we scout ahead. Nothing but trees. We spot some natives. Following their directions, we negotiate our way through a trackless wasteland. And there it is: the Erie Canal, covered with brush and trees and chest-high ferns. We bushwhack along its route perhaps a quarter of a mile and reach our grail, an abandoned nineteenth-century lock. Exhausted with our efforts, we look for a way out—and spy a path leading back to Pittsford Plaza. A large sign reads: LOCK 62.

O.K., perhaps we made this a little more difficult than it needed to be. But if tracking the surviving bits and pieces of the old Erie Canal does not exactly require derring-do, it does reward patience and planning. It is also an excellent way to trawl an astonishing concentration of American history. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened, the 363-mile-long Erie Canal crossed upstate New York, linking Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It was in the words of the historian Paul Johnson “improbably the outstanding example of a human artifact creating wealth rapidly in the whole of history.” By connecting the sparsely settled West to the burgeoning cities of the East, the canal created a new sense of nationhood and of possibility. It was the making of New York City and the beginning of large-scale European settlement of the West. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the Erie Canal made plausible the idea of a country that stretched from sea to shining sea.

Today’s Erie Canal is not the original waterway. There have, in fact, been three or even four Erie Canals. The first, completed in 1825, was just 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide. Built and paid for entirely by New York State at a cost of $7.1 million, it was known as Clinton’s Ditch, after the New York governor DeWitt Clinton, who staked his political career on what proved to be a wildly successful venture. A second canal was soon required by the overwhelming traffic on the first. Known as the Enlarged Canal, this one was finished in 1862 and followed much the same course as Clinton’s Ditch (straightening out some doglegs along the way), but was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep. In the 189Os, the state launched another enlargement—the third Erie Canal—that was never completed. Between 1905 and 1918, Clinton’s Ditch and the Enlarged Canal were subsumed into the Erie Barge Canal. This was much wider and deeper than its predecessors. It also offered electric instead of manual locks, tugs rather than mules pulling barges, and the capacity to handle boats carrying up to 3,000 tons of freight, 40 times more than the boats that had plied Clinton’s Ditch. But by the mid-twentieth century even this very big ditch had been superseded by the railroads, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the ultimate killer, the New York State Thruway. Thence it sank into memory and disrepair.


Now, however, the Erie Canal is beginning to re-emerge as an economic force, thanks to more than a billion dollars of federal, state, and local investment and the stewardship of the New York State Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the New York State Thruway Authority, created in 1993 to oversee the revitalization of the Erie and its lateral canals, the Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca. These waterways are at the heart of a strategy to boost tourism in a region that has been hit hard by military base closures and the decline of manufacturing. The hope is that lightning can strike twice, that the canal again can become—almost two centuries after its debut—a path to prosperity for upstate New York. The early signs are encouraging—hotel receipts are up 12 percent since 1996, and visitors to area National Park sites by 18.5 percent—but it’s no sure thing. Chuck Fortier, who rents pontoon boats to canalgoers, observes that progress is visible but nascent. “All the little towns have really improved their waterfront facilities,” he says, “but even people in Amherst [outside Buffalo] don’t understand that they have a canal in their back yard.”


One reason may be that whether by boat or by car, exploring the area still requires a high degree of self-reliance and pioneering zeal. The historical sites are not well linked, bike and canoe rentals are in short supply, and despite recent investments, the connections between the water and the shore are underdeveloped. But do it anyway. To travel the Erie is to encounter a beautiful new-growth forest as well as the history of transportation, engineering, agriculture, immigration, feminism, abolitionism, Indians, war, industry, and religion. Oh, and a few bizarre things too: JeIl-O Museum, anyone?

The canal is a pleasure boaters’ domain. There are several ways to get on the water: House- and canalboat rental companies have opened along the route, and several outfits offer short cruises for tourists who want to see the landscape from the water or to experience going through a lock. David Edney, a writer and canal enthusiast, commends the Erie to canoers and kayakers. The current can be deceptively stiff, he admits, and it’s an adventure going through a lock in a canoe, clinging to a side rope. But the rewards? Moments in the swamps in Wayne and Cayuga Counties during bird migration season when “you can feel, at times, like you’re alone at the dawn of creation.”

If you float through it in a leisurely manner, the canal takes about a week to traverse. We chose to use a mix of transport- foot, bike, boat, and car—starting near the western end of the canal and making our way east. First stop: Lockport, the last bit of the first canal to be completed.

Before the diggers descended in 1823, the area that became Lockport was mostly forest. The site presented two problems. First, going east from Tonawanda, the canal would have to make its way through the backside of the Niagara Escarpment, a truly nasty ridge of bedrock; second, it would have to drop some 60 feet down the face of the escarpment to continue on its course from Lake Erie to Rochester. So the workers cut a two-mile-long channel through the solid-rock escarpment and built a series of five locks, each lifting boats 12 feet. These took almost two years to finish. One set of the 1859 version of the “Famous Five” locks is left of what had been a dual system. Just how big a deal these locks were at the time—even the Marquis de Lafayette came for a look—can be gauged by the inscription carved into the base of the original: “Let posterity be excited to perpetuate our Free Institutions, and to make still greater efforts than their ancestors, to promote publick prosperity, by the recollection that these works of Internal Improvement, were achieved by the spirit and perseverance of Republican Freemen.” Today’s Lockport is struggling to regain that confidence. The 1970s left an unhappy architectural legacy, and the downtown is pockmarked with abandoned buildings and dusty businesses. But the town has not given up and is vigorously using the draw of the Famous Five to lure tourists. A new Visitors Center provides good maps and a bit of local history; the canal banks are neatly planted and maintained, and a boat service offers guided tours of the locks, while trolley tours rumble through the leafy older bits of town.


As you head east from Lockport, consider hiking along the newly refurbished Canalway Trail, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort by the Canal Corporation to match all 524 miles of the canal network with accompanying hiking trails. The section from Lockport to Palmyra—about 75 miles—is complete and a pleasure to use. Along the way, the towns of Medina and Albion are making earnest efforts to restore the canal to the heart of things. Both communities are rich in Victorian architecture and odd bits of canal lore. Culvert Road in Medina, for example, is the only place where one can drive under the canal. Dozens of newly restored Main Street shopfronts are made of the same Medina sandstone that was used to construct some of the original canal aqueducts- and, oddly, part of Buckingham Palace. In addition, the Pullman Universalist Church in Albion, locally famous for its Tiffany windows, was founded by George Pullman, who lived in the town before making his fortune in the Midwest by designing and making sleeping cars. Pullman got the idea for the railroad berths from the canal passenger boats, in which bedding was suspended from the ceiling and walls. Albion is sprucing up its canal heritage with a waterfront park, complete with nineteenthcentury-style lamps and benches. It is also renovating an 1837 bank building into offices and a hostel for canal travelers.

Like many of the improvements in the 29-county Erie Canal Corridor, these projects were funded through economic development programs run by the New York State Canal Corporation and the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and of Agriculture. But places like Albion illustrate a common problem. In its great days, the canal was the equivalent of the railyard—necessary, sure, but drawing a rough trade. Many communities therefore turned their backs on the waterway, siting respectable shops and offices a few blocks away. A century or more later, it is proving difficult to connect the canal to Main Street. For example, in Clyde, a desperately depressed little town near Syracuse, locals would love to draw some tourist trade, but to get to the town from the boat landing, travelers have to cross vacant lots and a set of railway tracks.


The western half of today’s canal runs on almost the exact course of Clinton’s Ditch and the Enlarged Erie. All along the way, there are intriguing little glimpses of the past. In Spencerport, a section of what is now Main Street was once part of Clinton’s Ditch itself; Brockport was the home of the first factory to manufacture Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, which made large-scale farming a possibility in the Midwest; the goods, naturally, were shipped back East via the canal. The site of that factory is now McCormick Park. Rochester has a gorgeous aqueduct, completed in 1892, that used to carry the canal over the Genesee: Today, a road built on top of the aqueduct carries cars over the river. Rochester was, in the 182Os, the country’s fastest-growing town—indeed, the first boomtown in America. When the canal was paved over in the early twentieth century, the streets that replaced it were given names that resonate of the city’s watery past: Aqueduct, Basin, and Race. Craig Williams, of the New York State Museum, offers one more hint of the original canal: “Go to South Avenue, near Court Street, look south toward the river, and to the left, you’ll see a ditch. That’s it.”

For those whose attachment to the canal does not go as far as hunting down ditches, head for Pittsford, a jewel of a little town that shows how the canal can be used to advantage. In the late 1960s, state officials gave serious thought to paving over the town’s portion of the Erie Canal. Instead, they opted to try to make it pay, with efforts like the development of Schoen Place. The site of still-standing grain and coal towers on the banks of the canal, Schoen Place now offers a number of lively little shops; the coal tower is a restaurant, and excursion boats cruise to nearby Lock 32 from a new landing financed by local businesses. As a result, the canal area bustles. Moreover, just east of downtown Pittsford is one of the more dramatic remnants of Clinton’s Ditch, the Great Embankment, a huge earthwork about 70 feet high and nearly a mile long that carried the Erie across Irondequoit Creek. It remains America’s largest earth embankment. Some compared it with the Pyramids of Egypt.


They needed to be inventive. At the time Clinton’s Ditch was being dug, there was not a single engineering school in America. The building of the Erie Canal itself served that role, educating a generation of talented men who went on to build more and more canals.

For an example of contemporary inventiveness at work, visit the hamlet of Bushnell’s Basin, just around the bend from Pittsford. Vivienne Tellier understood the canal’s recreational possibilities long before the Canal Corporation and HUD came on the scene. In 1978 she bought Richardson’s Canal House, the oldest surviving canal inn on the system. The 1818 building had seen some tough times, serving as a nudist colony in the 1930s and a flophouse in the 1960s and 1970s. Now restored, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers elegant meals, as well as a friendly tavern. It shares a parklike setting with the comfortable and unfussy Oliver Loud Inn, built in 1812 and moved to its present site in 1986. The back lawn sweeps down to a beautiful stretch of the Enlarged ErieErie Barge Canal.

Fairport, four miles east, was a swamp before the canal; after, it became “a wild little boom town that traded in everything from silk to snake oil,” according to a tourist brochure. Today, it is a tidy place that has figured out how to put the water to work, with an excursion boat service, bike and canoe rentals, and canal-side caf»s and shops —surprisingly rare features along the route. The bike trail from here to Palmyra is particularly fine, well groomed and bucolic with the canal a friendly nearby presence. Just before Macedon, follow the signs and take a short tramp through the woods for a peek at an ancient Old Erie Lock 60, built in 1842, and one of the more appealing historical markers. “Through these hallowed gates,” it reads, “passed untold thousands.” Macedon also has one of the few bits of Enlarged Erie Canal that still hold water. Ask the lockkeeper for directions.


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.

In the nineteenth century, boats could head up the CayugaSeneca Canal in Seneca Falls to join the Erie at Montezuma to reach Syracuse, a ragged settlement ("It would make an owl weep to fly over it,” one visitor complained) that the canal turned into a city. Now the canal has entirely disappeared from the city it made, but there is one spot where its past is present: the engaging Erie Canal Museum, housed in an 1850 Greek Revival weighlock building. The only one still standing of the seven weigh stations that made the canal into a financial winner, the weighlock building was almost destroved to make room for an overpass in the early 1960s. Today, the museum, which has a resident ghost (considerately, she appears only after visiting hours), presents a history of the canal.

The canal’s chief purpose was to carry freight, but right from the beginning, there was considerable tourism as well. Visitors would board boats to see the Famous Five, make their way to Niagara Falls, or just go to the next town over, now that travel was so much easier. The earliest passenger boats could sleep upwards of 30 in the long interior cabin, men and women separated by a curtain, everyone, according to the visiting English writer Harriet Martineau, “lying packed like herrings in a barrel.” But by day at least, cruising the canal could be great fun. Passengers would chat, sing, flirt, or just watch the world slip by at perhaps four miles per hour, perfectly safe and without the arduous effort of riding on bad roads. It was cheap too: just three cents a mile, four with bed and board.

From Montezuma east, the old canals and the Erie Barge Canal parted ways, with the latter generally running north of the earlier ones in the canalized Seneca River. The Barge Canal goes through some stunning territory, including the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, and it too has some compelling history on its banks—its builders blasted more rock, excavated more soil, and poured more concrete than did their counterparts on the Panama Canal—but we chose to follow the earlier route. It’s helpful to have a bike strapped to your car at this point. Moreover, a bike is an excellent way to travel the Old Erie Canal State Park, a linear path that runs along the Enlarged Erie from just outside Syracuse to Rome, 36 miles away. The trail, which is wonderful for hiking and biking and has putins for canoeing, cuts through towns like Canastota and Chittenango, the proud birthplace of Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame. Both communities have canal museums, and Chittenango has the only exhumed and restored dry dock on the old canal; on it rests the frame of an authentic canalboat.


Some canal towns, like Seneca Falls, became natural centers for reform, and some, like Palmyra, grew their own notables. Others had bizarreness thrust upon them. That is what happened to Oneida. In 1848 this little town about halfway between Syracuse and Rome became home to one of America’s odder social experimenters, the Perfectionists. Led by the brilliant, charismatic, and very strange John Humphrey Noyes, the Perfectionists believed that the millennium had already arrived and that to lead a perfect life required them to live in perfect equality and community. They took this belief to its logical conclusion, disdaining monogamy, in Noyes’s words, as “egotism for two.” Instead, he devised a system of “complex marriage,” in which exclusive attachments were banned in favor of variety, based on degrees of spiritual development. Unlike most Utopian groups, the Perfectionists were economically successful, beginning with a steel trap business and later founding the Oneida flatware industry, the kinds of business that could not have existed without the canal to take the goods to market. With these profits, in the early 1860s, the group built the Mansion House, a Victorian Gothic monster of some 250 rooms where up to 300 of them lived together, mostly in remarkable harmony. The group disbanded in 1881, buckling to outside prÀs- sure and the inevitable stresses of their unusual way of life. The Mansion House now contains 40 apartments—some of them occupied by descendants of the Perfectionists—a conference center, and 9 comfortable rooms that can be rented by the night. A stay allows visitors to wander through this gorgeous mess of a place, checking out the library, the meeting hall, the lounge, myriad hallways, and a replica of the rooms of the original inhabitants, furnished starkly, with a single narrow bed. There are regular tours as well.


The Old Erie Canal State Park ends just outside Rome, at the Erie Canal Village, where more than 20 canal-era buildings have been assembled. The canal builders started the digging here in 1817, cutting east to Utica and west to Syracuse along the easiest landscape in the region. The idea was to achieve early success and demonstrate the promise of the enterprise before tackling tricky places like Lockport. There is a waist-high stone monument commemorating where the first shovel of dirt was turned, though this is, at best, an educated guess. There is also a remnant of Clinton’s Ditch and a lovely bit of the Enlarged Canal on which visitors can take a short trip on a mule-drawn packet boat of pre-Civil War design. But the village as a whole is a bit tired, with the buildings in need of paint, the grass in need of mowing, and the museum in need of a dehumidifier and serious updating.


The original Erie Canal ended in Albany; the Barge Canal in Waterford, where the Mohawk River enters the Hudson River. And between these two places is a sad little remnant of yet other social experimenters, the Shakers. Like the Perfectionists, the Shakers believed in living communally; unlike the Perfectionists, they believed that sex was sinful and were therefore celibate. Although the Shakers began in the late eighteenth century, it was during the pr»-Civil War canal era that they came into their own. An ordered, and orderly, existence had its appeal to people troubled by the pace of change. At their peak, around 1850, there were perhaps 6,000 Americans living as Shakers. Their first settlement was in Watervliet, a stone’s throw from the Albany airport. There are eight original Shaker buildings on the site; across the street (and adjacent to a minor-league baseball stadium) is a Shaker graveyard that is the final resting place of Mother Ann Lee, the illiterate English millworker who founded the group. Watervliet is special because it was the first, but the site is shabby and ill marked. For those interested in Shaker history, a better bet is to check out the buildings at the Darrow School in New Lebanon or the Shaker Museum at Old Chatham, both about an hour from Albany.

Can the canal be the catalyst to a second great economic awakening? Perhaps. “People have to see the region differently,” says Susan Christopherson, of Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning and the author of two reports on the effect of the recent investments in the region. “Most think of this area as the rust belt, but it should be described as the tree belt. It has one of the fastest-growing forests in the country and is an ideal recreation environment.” Projects like the Canalway Trail, now 45 percent complete, could contribute to a new image of the area. There are those who envision a thriving Erie canalboat vacation industry—complete with onboard chefs and full pampering—to rival that of Europe. The area’s history is proving fertile in other ways. New industries like photonics that have their roots in the region’s past industrial triumphs are emerging. And true to its tradition of being hospitable to groups that swim against the American mainstream, guess who just turned up near Johnstown to revive the area’s once-thriving cheese industry? The Amish.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.