A Year: Day to Day Men: 26th of October
Slow Moving Water
October 26, 1825 marks the opening of the Erie Canal.
From the days of the birchbark canoe, the early trade routes of the Northeast utilized New York’s waterways. The Lake Champlain-Hudson River Route and the Lake Ontario-Oswego River-Mohawk River Route were utilized by native Americans, fur traders, missionaries and colonizers. The birchbark canoes used earlier were supplemented by longer heavier boats rowed or pulled by several men, which by 1791 was able to haul a two ton load.
In March of 1792, the Western Inland Lock and Navigation Company came into being and improved navigation on the Mohawk River. Also in that year, this company built small canals 3 feet deep with locks of 12 feet by 74 feet around the falls and rapids of the river. By 1796, Durham boats with capacities of 15-20 tons were able to navigate the route. Although business was brisk, maintenance on the wooden locks and channels depleted revenue and the operation folded a few years later.
In 1817 the Erie Canal was established under the management of a New York State Commission. Federal funds were not legislated; so this canal and all subsequent canals in New York State were built and maintained exclusively with state funds. The canal was dug from Albany to Buffalo, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, with stone locks 15 feet by 90 feet. The locks were the limiting factor on boat size and their efficiency of operation dictated the allowable traffic flow.
Additional canals were dug from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain, from Montezuma to Cayuga and Seneca Lakes and from Syracuse to Oswego. This canal system proved to be so successful that almost every community in the state lobbied for a link to the system, resulting in a network of canals. These lateral canals proved to be of marginal value at best:
In 1836, an enlargement program commenced on the main Erie Canal system. The canal was straightened a bit, the channel was increased in size to 7 feet by 70 feet, and the locks were enlarged to 18 feet by 110 feet. This permitted boats of much greater size on the Erie, Champlain, Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego canals, and further diminished the importance of the smaller lateral canals. Most of the lateral canals were closed by 1878 with only the Black River Canal lasting until the eventual close of the entire system in 1917.
The growth of steam power on the canal and steel boat construction eliminated the need for a waterway as protected as the old Erie Canal. A twentieth century canal of grand dimension with cast concrete structures and electronic controls was begun. This Barge Canal system, utilizing canalized rivers and lakes and enlarged sections of the original Erie Canal, opened in 1918. Several of the old routes are still utilized today.