ERIE CANAL HISTORY
THE DITCH THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF AMERICA
by CAPTAIN JERRY GERTZ
The Erie Canal is the most successful waterway in North America. It shaped the course of settlement and commerce between the Atlantic Seaboard and the interior of our country. The Erie not only made New York the “Empire State” and New York City the world’s leading seaport, but also contributed to the creation of the United States as a Superpower and the leader of the world’s economy—not bad for a skinny ditch of only 40’ wide and 4’ deep!!
The dream of opening up the interior of our country, by building a canal, had been discussed for decades prior to the actual beginning of construction in 1817. The Appalachian Mountain Range posed a formidable barrier between the states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the vast, mostly uninhabited “Northwest Territories” on the west side of the mountains. In order for a young America to grow, prosper and indeed survive, it would be necessary to find a way through those mountains and open up those western lands to settlers and commerce.
Luckily, nature had bestowed upon New York State the only low level, natural opening through the Appalachians between Georgia and New York—-the Mohawk Valley. This opening would be the key to making the dream of building the canal a reality!
While the canal had many “fathers”, its foremost proponent and promoter was DeWitt Clinton. A visionary and astute politician, Clinton had been a U.S. Senator and was the ten time mayor of New York City. He believed that his city could only become a major economic force by the building of the Erie Canal. After years of hard campaigning, his tireless efforts promoting the concept of the Erie Canal finally paid off and on July 4, 1817 construction began at Rome, NY.
That first canal was dug almost entirely by hand. The canal was only 40’ wide by 4’ deep. It ran 363 miles across the state from Albany to Buffalo and had 83 locks. The locks raised vessels a total of 565’ between those two cities, an amazing engineering feat for 1825. The first barges were towed by mules or horses along towpaths. These barges (14 ½ feet wide and 78 feet long) could carry 30 tons of cargo while being towed by only one mule.
The canal was completed in only 8 years at a cost of $7,000,000. When completed on October 26, 1825, DeWitt Clinton (by then Governor of New York) boarded a vessel, the Seneca Chief, in Buffalo and headed to New York City. Arriving at NYC on November 4th , the Seneca Chief and Clinton became the first to travel the canal’s entire length. Upon arriving in NYC Clinton poured two kegs of fresh water from Lake Erie into the salt water of the Atlantic (New York Harbor) in a ceremony known as the “Wedding of the Waters”— this was the official opening of the canal.
The canal was an immediate success and reduced freight rates by over 95%. The Northwest Territories experienced unprecedented settlement and ultimately became the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. The cost to build the canal was totally paid off from the tolls collected in the canal’s first nine years of operation.
By 1835 traffic became so overwhelming that it was necessary to improve and enlarge the canal. When the enlargement was finally completed in 1862 the canals capacity had been increased eight fold and was, once again, extremely successful.
By the 1890’s railroads had taken away all of the canals passenger business and most of its cargo business. By 1900 a new larger canal—The Erie Barge Canal—was being planned.
Construction began in 1905 and was completed in 1918. By utilizing “canalized” natural waterways, the new canal would be much larger, faster and better able to compete with the railroads The Erie Barge Canal would be the first canal to use motorized vessels, therefore eliminating the mules, horses and towpaths.
The Erie Barge Canal’s success was due primarily to its transport of petroleum products. Its peak cargo carrying year was 1951. After 1960 more modern technology (oil pipelines, our Interstate Highway System, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway) began to obsolete the Erie Barge Canal as a cargo carrying waterway. As cargo declined, recreational boats began utilizing the canal and in 1992 New York State began a series of improvements and upgrades with recreational boating and tourism in mind.
Today this amazing waterway, still fully operational, has become a “yacht highway”. The Erie Canal now caters to thousands of recreational vessels from all over the world as well as tour boats such as one of the Lil’ Diamond vessels, cruise ships, canoes, fishing boats and kayaks. Some vessels use the canal as a destination. Others use it as a means of completing a popular boat trip known as the “Great Circle Cruise”, a 5,600 mile circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States that typically takes 5-7 months to complete. In 2005 over 1,700 vessels were on this cruise and passed through the Erie Canal.
Today you don’t need your own boat to enjoy this marvelous and historic waterway. Tourists and locals alike can now board a tour boat, such as a Lil’ Diamond vessel, and relive history by taking a 1 ½ hour cruise on the canal while hearing about the canals history and traveling through a lock. Being raised or lowered 20 feet inside the lock walls is an experience not soon forgotten.
The complete NYS Canal System is 524 miles long and consists of four canals– the Erie, Oswego, Champlain and the Cayuga-Seneca. All four canals are contemporary and fully operational.
In December of 2000 the Federal Government designated all of the NYS Canal System the 23rd National Heritage Corridor in the nation. In 2016 the Erie Canal along with the whole NYS Canal system was designated a National Historic Monument.
With these designations and New York State’s strong commitment to the preservation of these four canals rich heritage, the essential steps have been taken to ensure the canals historic legacy will be preserved as a vital resource to be enjoyed by future generations to come.