Erie Canal

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The Erie Canal (later replaced by part of the New York State Barge Canal system, which was renamed the Erie Canal) is a canal in New York State, United States, that runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Although the canal was first proposed in 1699, it was not until 1798 that the Niagara Canal Company was incorporated and commenced preparations for building. The first section of canal was completed in 1819, and the entire canal was opened on October 26, 1825. It was 363 miles (584 km) long, 40 feet (12 m) wide, and 4 feet (1.2 m) deep. There were 83 locks along the canal, each 90 feet by 15 feet (27 m by 4.5 m). Maximum canal-boat displacement was 75 tons (68 tonnes). The Erie Canal was the first transportation route faster than carts pulled by draft animals between the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the western interior, and cut transport costs into what was then wilderness by about 90%. The Canal resulted in a massive population surge in western New York, and opened regions further west to increased settlement.

1853 Map of the Erie Canal.
1853 Map of the Erie Canal.



Map of the Water Level Routes of the New York Central Railroad (purple), West Shore Railroad (red) and Erie Canal (blue)

The Appalachian Mountains cut off the interior of North America from the Atlantic Ocean. At their northern end, the Appalachians connect with the equally formidable Canadian Shield. The Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York state are actually an extension of the Canadian Shield although they are often seen as part of the Appalachians.

It was possible to use canoes and pack animals to bring light, high-value products like furs from the interior to the Atlantic coast for export. However, the only way to economically move bulky low-value agricultural and timber products was by water. It was these latter products that formed the majority of North American exports until the 20th century. There are only four navigable water routes through or around the mountain barrier into the interior – Hudson Bay, the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson River and the Mississippi River. Until the development of railroads in the middle of the 19th century, much of North American history revolved around the contest to control these routes.

In some ways, the Hudson River is the least attractive of these routes. Once past the mountains it ends in a cul-de-sac with no access to the rest of the Great Lakes Basin. The Erie Canal addressed this weakness by providing a route from the Hudson River to Lake Erie via the Mohawk River valley. Prior to the construction of the canal, the British colonies north of the Great Lakes expected to be major beneficiaries of the settlement of the American Midwest, since without the Erie Canal, produce from the Midwest would have flowed through the St. Lawrence River, and Montreal, rather than New York, would have become the great exporting and immigration center for North America.

Because the Great Lakes Basin has no great heights of land separating it from neighboring drainage basins, access to the Great Lakes also provides access to other regions of North America. The early French access to the Great Lakes allowed them to become the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River system. Today, the Chicago Ship Canal allows ships to travel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

In the west, fur traders from Montreal were able to portage between the Great Lakes and the Hudson Bay drainage basin which extends all the way to the Rocky Mountains. From this drainage basin, other portages gave access to the Mackenzie River system. These two drainage basins effectively define the western and Alaskan borders between Canada and the United States.


The extraordinary success of the Bridgewater Canal in Britain, completed in 1761 to connect a coal mine to Manchester, led to a frenzy of canal building in England late in the 18th century. The idea of a canal or artificially improved waterway to tie the east coast to the new western settlements was in the air—Cadwallader Colden first proposed using the Mohawk River valley in 1724. George Washington led a serious effort to turn the Potomac River into a navigable link to the west, sinking substantial energy and capital into the Patowmack Company from 1784 until his death fifteen years later. Christopher Colles, who was familiar with the Bridgewater Canal, surveyed the Mohawk River valley and made a presentation to the New York state legislature in 1784 proposing a canal from Albany to Lake Ontario; the proposal drew considerable attention and some action, but the effort would ultimately come to nothing. Gouverneur Morris and Elkanah Watson were other early proponents of a canal along the Mohawk, whose efforts lead to the creation of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which took the first actual steps to improve navigation on the Mohawk; the company was to prove that private financing was inadequate for a task of such scope.

The canal proponent whose efforts would lead directly to the canal was the entrepreneurial Jessie Hawley, who imagined being able to grow huge quantities of grain in the upstate New York plains (then largely unsettled) for sale on the Eastern Seaboard. However he went bankrupt trying to ship it to the coast, and while sitting in the Canandaigua debtors' prison he started pressing for the construction of a canal running along the Mohawk River valley. He had strong support from Joseph Ellicott, the agent for the Holland Land Company in Batavia. Ellicott realized that a canal would add immense value to the land he was selling in the western part of the state. Ellicott later became the first canal commissioner.

The Mohawk River, a tributary to the Hudson, runs in a glacial meltwater channel across the northern reaches of the Appalachians, separating them in New York State into the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Mohawk Valley was the only cut across the Appalachians north of Alabama, and pointed almost directly from the already widely used Hudson River to the east, to either Lake Ontario or Lake Erie on the west. From there much of the interior and many settlements would be accessible on the lakes.

Profile of the original canal
Profile of the original canal

The problem with this was that the land rises about 600 feet (183 m) from the Hudson River at Albany, New York to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could handle a change of up to 12 feet (3.5 m), so at least 50 locks would be required along the 360 mile canal. Any such canal would cost a fortune even today, but in 1800 such an undertaking was barely imaginable. President Jefferson thought the proposal was ridiculous and rejected it. Nevertheless Hawley managed to interest the governor, DeWitt Clinton, and after surveying the plan went ahead.

The canal was to consist of a forty foot (12 m) wide, four foot (1.2 m) deep cut, with the removed soil being piled on the downhill side to form a walkway on that side. Barges, up to 3.5 feet (1.07 m) in draft, would be pulled by mules on the walkway. When barges crossed there was a quick unhitching and re-hitching of the mule teams while the barges continued due to momentum. The sides of the cut would be lined with stone, while the bottom would be covered with clay. The stone work required hundreds of German masons to be brought in, who would later go on to build many of New York's famous buildings when the canal was completed.

Stonework of Erie Canal lock (abandoned due to route change), Durhamville, New York
Stonework of Erie Canal lock (abandoned due to route change), Durhamville, New York

Construction began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 mile (24 km) section between Rome and Utica opened two years later. At this rate the canal would not have been finished for another 30 years or so. The main problems were cutting the trees through miles of virgin forest, and moving the dirt, which was proving to be much slower than expected. Solutions were discovered, trees were pulled down with a rope thrown over the top of the tree and then winched down, and the stumps pulled out with a huge tripod-mounted winch. Mule-pulled carts were filled from much larger wheelbarrows to clear the dirt. A three-man team with mules could now build a mile long stretch in a year, meaning that the problem now was staffing.

The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices, both as surveyors and as engineers— there were no civil engineers in the United States at the time. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright who laid out the route were judges, who had gained experience in surveying in settling boundary disputes; Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours. Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer, who talked Clinton into letting him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a math teacher and land speculator. Yet these men "carried the Erie Canal up the Niagara escarpment at Lockport, maneuvered it onto a towering embankment to cross over Irondequoit creek, spanned the Genesee River for it on an awesome aqueduct, and carved a route for it out of the solid rock between Little Falls and Schenectady—and all of those venturesome designs worked precisely as planned." (Bernstein, p. 381)

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived, but halted completely when the canal reached the Montezuma Swamp in 1819 at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse, New York, when over 1000 workers died of swamp fevers. Work continued on the "downhill" side towards the Hudson, and when the swamp froze over in the winter, the crews all worked to complete the section right across the swamps.

The middle section from Utica to Salina was completed in 1820, and traffic on that section started up directly. The eastern section of the canal, 250 miles (402 km) from Rochester to Albany, was opened on September 10, 1823, to great fanfare; the 64-mile (103 km) north-south section from Watervliet to Lake Champlain was declared open on the same date.

After Montezuma, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, in order to rise to the level of Lake Erie. The route followed the channel of a creek that had cut a ravine steeply down the escarpment, with five locks in a series, thus giving rise to the community of Lockport, New York. The final leg of the canal had to be cut as much as 30 feet (9 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder. The inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.

Original five step lock structure crossing the Niagara  Escarpment at Lockport, now used as a cascade for excess water. Two modern 40 foot (12 meter) locks are to the left, replacing the original.
Original five step lock structure crossing the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport, now used as a cascade for excess water. Two modern 40 foot (12 meter) locks are to the left, replacing the original.

Two villages competed to be the terminus of the canal, Black Rock, on the Niagara River, and Buffalo, at the eastern tip of Lake Erie. Buffalo expended great energy to widen and deepen Buffalo Creek to make it navigable, and to create a harbor at its mouth. Buffalo won over Black Rock, and quickly grew into a great city, eventually swallowing its former competitor.

Work was completed in 1825. Officially the event was celebrated by cannon shots along the length, and by Governor Clinton ceremonially pouring Lake Erie water into the New York Harbor in the "Wedding of the Waters."

Problems developed but were quickly solved. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed with a newly invented concrete that hardened under water. Erosion on the clay bottom proved to be a problem and the speed was limited to 4 mph (6 km/h). The original design planned for an annual tonnage of 1.5 million tons (1.36 million tonnes), but this was exceeded immediately. A program to enlarge the canal, notably the locks, started only a year later. This First Enlargement was completed in 1862, with further minor enlargements in later decades. By 1883 the tolls on the canal had raised 121 million dollars, and all fees were waived for future use.

Concerns that erosion caused by logging in the Adirondacks could silt up the canal led to the creation of the Adirondack Park in 1885.

Additional canals (called feeder canals) soon added to the coverage, including the Cayuga-Seneca south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain running north from Troy to Lake Champlain. A short canal, the Crooked Lake Canal, from 1833 to 1877 connected Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake. The Chemung Canal connected the south end of Seneca Lake to Elmira in 1833, and was an important route for Pennsylvania coal and timber to be shipped throughout the canal system. The Chenango Canal in 1836 connected the Erie at Utica to Binghamton and caused a business boom in the Chenango River valley. The Chenango and Chemung canals linked the Erie with the Susquehanna River system. The Genesee Valley Canal was run along the Genesee River to connect with the Allegheny River at Olean, but the Allegheny section which would have connected to the Ohio and Mississippi was never built. The Genesee Valley Canal was later abandoned and became the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad.

The route

The canal began on the west side of the Hudson River at Albany, and ran north to a split with the Champlain Canal at Troy. At Cohoes it turned west along the south shore of the Mohawk River, crossing to the north side at Crescent and again to the south at Rexford Flats. The canal continued west near the south shore of the Mohawk River all the way to Rome, where the Mohawk turns north.

At Rome, the canal continued west parallel to Wood Creek, which flows from Oneida Lake, and turned southwest and west cross-country to avoid the lake. From Canastota west it ran roughly along the north (lower) edge of the Niagara Escarpment, passing through Syracuse and Rochester. At Lockport the canal turned southwest to rise to the top of the escarpment, using the ravine of Eighteenmile Creek. The canal continued south-southwest to Pendleton, where it turned west and southwest, mainly using the channel of Tonawanda Creek. From Tonawanda south to Buffalo it ran just east of the Niagara River, emptying out into the river in downtown Buffalo.


As the canal brought travelers to New York City, it took them from other ports such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland. Those cities and the states containing them chartered means of competition to the Erie Canal. In Pennsylvania, the Main Line of Public Works was a combined canal and railroad running west from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, opened in 1834. In Maryland, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran west to Wheeling, West Virginia, also on the Ohio River, and was completed in 1853.

Competition also came inside New York State. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad opened in 1831, providing a bypass to the slowest part of the canal between Albany and Schenectady. Other railroads were soon chartered and built to continue the line west to Buffalo, and in 1842 a continuous line (which would become the New York Central Railroad and its Auburn Road in 1853) was open the whole way to Buffalo. As the railroad served the same general route as the canal, but provided for faster travel, passengers soon switched to it. However as late as 1852, the canal carried thirteen times more freight tonnage than all the railroads in New York state, combined; it continued to compete well with the railroads through 1882, when tolls were abolished.

The New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railway was completed in 1884, as a route running closely parallel to both the canal and the New York Central Railroad. However it went bankrupt and was acquired the next year by the New York Central.

In 1905, construction of the New York State Barge Canal began, which was completed in 1918 at a cost of $101 million; freight traffic reached a total of 5.2 million tons by 1951 before declining in the face of combined rail and truck competition.


The Erie Canal made boom towns out of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica and Schenectady and made an immense contribution to the wealth and importance of New York City and New York state. But its impact went much further—as it increased trade throughout the nation by opening eastern markets to Midwest farm products and encouraged western immigration. It also helped bind the still-new nation to Britain and Europe. British repeal of the Corn Law resulted in a huge increase in trade in Midwestern wheat to Britain.

Its success also prompted imitation: a rash of canal building followed. Also, the many technical hurdles that had to be overcome made heroes of those whose innovations made the canal possible; this would lead to an increased esteem for practical education.

Many wrote about the canal, including Herman Melville, Frances Trollope, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and the Marquis de Lafayette, and many tales and songs were written about life on the canal. The popular song Low Bridge by Thomas S. Allen was written in 1905 to memorialize the canal's early heyday, when barges were pulled by mules rather than engines.

The Erie Canal today

A modern lock at Lockport
A modern lock at Lockport
Several lift bridges cross the canal at Lockport, as well as the Main Street Bridge, once the widest bridge in the world (43.169309° N 78.695101° W)
Several lift bridges cross the canal at Lockport, as well as the Main Street Bridge, once the widest bridge in the world (43.169309° N 78.695101° W)

In 1918 the canal was replaced by the larger New York State Barge Canal. The new canal replaced much of the original route, and sought to 'canalize' rivers along the way that the original canal sought to avoid, such as the Mohawk, Seneca and Clyde Rivers, and Oneida Lake.

The new alignment began on the Hudson River at the border between Cohoes and Waterford, where it ran northwest cross-country with five locks, running into the Mohawk River east of Crescent. While the old canal ran next to the Mohawk River all the way to Rome, the new canal generally ran through the river, straightened or widened where necessary. At Ilion the new canal left the river for good, but continued to run on a new alignment parallel to both the river and the old canal to Rome. From Rome the new route continued almost due west, merging with Fish Creek just east of its entry into Oneida Lake.

On the west side of Oneida Lake, the new canal left along the Oneida River, with cutoffs to shorten the route. At Three Rivers the Oneida River turns northwest, and was deepened for the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario. The new Erie Canal turned south there along the Seneca River, which turns west near Syracuse and continues west to a point in the Montezuma Marsh (43.00296° N 76.73115° W). There the Cayuga and Seneca Canal continued south with the Seneca River, and the Erie Canal began to run once again parallel to the old canal along the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment, in some places running along the Clyde River, and in some places replacing the old canal. At Pittsford, southeast of Rochester, the canal turned west to run around the south side of Rochester, rather than through downtown, rejoining the old path near North Gates. From there it was again roughly an upgrade to the original canal, running west to Lockport and southwest to Tonawanda, where the new alignment simply emptied into the Niagara River.

Abandoned sections of the old Erie Canal were filled by most communities to create parks, recreational trails, and roads such as Erie Boulevard in Syracuse, and Broad Street and the Rochester Subway in Rochester. Some communities elected to keep their sections of the canal in the interest of historic preservation.

Due to the growth of the highway system, railroads, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, commercial traffic on the canal declined dramatically during the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, a series of legislation renamed the New York State Barge Canal back to the Erie Canal, and its use was restricted to recreational traffic. The Erie Canal is open to small craft and some larger vessels for most of the year. During the winter, water is drained from parts of the canal, enabling repairs and maintenance.

Today the Erie Canal Corridor covers 524 miles (843 km) of navigable water from Lake Champlain to the Capital Region and west to Lake Erie. The area has a population of 2.7 million, and it has been estimated that about 75% of upstate New York's population lives within 25 miles (40 km) of the Erie Canal. The current New York State Canal System includes the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego and Champlain Canals.

Locks and crossings

The following locks and crossings are provided across the new canal, from east to west:

There is no Lock 1, though the Troy Lock at the Federal Dam on the Hudson River, south of the 112th Street Bridge, handles Erie Canal boats to New York City

(continuing the list of locks, other details available in the Bridge Hieght Tables below)

There is no Lock 31

See also


  • Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, by Peter L. Bernstein, New York : W.W. Norton, 2005, ISBN 0393052338.
  • The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, by Carol Sheriff, New York : Hill and Wang, 1996, ISBN 0809027534.
  • Bridge Height Tables

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