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The first important national waterway built in the United States crossed New York from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Troy and Albany on the Hudson River. When completed in 1825, the canal joined the entire Great Lakes system with the Atlantic Ocean and provided a route over which manufactured goods could flow into the West, and raw materials could pour into the East. The Erie Canal helped New York City develop into the financial center of the country.
Early Canal Proposals
Proposals to link the Great Lakes region with the Atlantic Ocean via a canal were "floated" as early as the early 1700's. 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 1785 until his death. Christopher Colles 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. Although his proposal drew considerable attention, it was never acted upon. In 1792, Gouverneur Morris and Elkanah Watson created the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, which took the first actual steps to improve navigation on the Mohawk River.
Building the Canal
In 1808, De Witt Clinton, a state politician, began drawing up actual plans and blueprints for a canal across New York. In 1812, he and Gouverneur Morris went to Washington to ask for federal help for the project. Unable to convince Congress to take the proposal seriously, the men decided that the State of New York should take on the project. Clinton wrote a petition to be presented before the State Legislature, which in 1816 appropriated the necessary funds. A canal commission was appointed, and Clinton was named its first head.
Construction began at Rome on July 4, 1817. The first 15-mile section between Rome and Utica opened in 1820, and the canal was completed in 1825. On October 26, 1825, the Seneca Chief, with then-Governor De Witt Clinton aboard, embarked from Buffalo on a trip down the Erie Canal. When it arrived at New York City on November 4, Clinton emptied two casks of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean to celebrate the first connection of waters from east to west.
The building of the Erie Canal was paid for entirely by the state of New York. It cost $7,143,789, but it soon paid for itself many times over. Between 1825, when the canal was opened, and 1882, when toll charges were abolished, the state collected $121,461,891.
The Original Canal
The original Erie Canal was 363 miles (584 kilometers) long. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 28 feet (8.5 meters) wide at the bottom, 42 feet (12.8 meters) wide at the top, 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep, and had a ten-foot-wide towpath along the bank. It could carry boats that were 80 feet (24 meters) long and 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide, with a draft of 3½ feet (1.1 meters). With the exception of a few places where black powder was used to blast through rock formations, all 363 miles were built by the muscle power of men and horses.
A larger canal was soon needed, and in 1835 the New York legislature passed a law providing for improvement of the canal. By 1862, the canal was 70 feet (21.5 meters) wide and 7 feet (2.1 meters) deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72.
In 1903, New York decided to enlarge the canal by the construction of what was termed the "Barge Canal," consisting of the Erie Canal and the three branches of the State system -- the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca. The resulting canal was completed in 1918, and is 12 to 14 feet (3.65 to 4.26 meters) deep, 120 to 200 feet (36.6 to 61 meters) wide, and 363 miles (584.5 kilometers) long. The number of locks was reduced to 57. This is the Erie Canal which today is utilized primarily by recreational boats, rather than cargo-carrying barges.
The Modern-Day Canal
The canal system was enlarged between 1905 and 1918. In order to accomodate much larger barges, the engineers decided to abandon much of the original man-made channel and instead "canalize" the rivers that the canal had been constructed to avoid -- the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, Clyde and Oneida Lake. A uniform channel was dredged; dams were built to create long, navigable pools, and locks were built adjacent to the dams to allow the barges to pass from one pool to the next. When it opened in 1918, the whole system was renamed the New York State Barge Canal.
Commercial traffic on the Canal System declined dramatically in the late-1950's, due to improved highways and railroads, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, in 1959. Today, the waterway is known as the New York State Canal System.
Effects of the Canal
Within 15 years of the canal's opening, New York City was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.
Nearly 80% of the upstate New York's population lives within 25 miles of the canal.
Cities and towns along the route
include (from west to east):
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This page was last updated on April 16, 2017.