MOHAWK - Discovering the Valley of the Crystals Copyright 2004
Chapter Ten - The Canals
Erie Canal 1817- 1915
Travel almost any road that crosses the Mohawk River between Rome and Schenectady and you'll see remnants and reminders of the Old Erie Canal. It's almost ludicrous to think that this 40-foot wide ditch---now partially filled with water or overgrown with trees and brush---actually altered the history of New York State and the Nation. But it did. Indeed, it's impossible to overstate the significance of the Erie Canal.
This Erie Canal lock was recently uncovered near St. Johnsville.
After the Revolutionary War several individuals, including George Washington, recognized the merits of a canal that would connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. But it was the vision, talent, and perseverance of Governor Dewitt Clinton that inspired money-strapped New York State to invest more money than the annual budget of many countries---over seven million dollars---in one of the world's greatest public works projects.
Clinton proposed the canal in 1808, but the War of 1812 and "politics" delayed the start of its construction until July 4, 1817. For the first few years the canal was dubbed "Clinton's Big Ditch", but when it was completed on October 26, 1825 all but the most ardent skeptics recognized it as an engineering marvel. In addition to the 363-mile long "ditch" there were 83 locks to raise the water 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Eighteen aqueducts carried the canal over rivers and ravines, and a 10-foot wide towpath was built so horses and mules could pull barges and packet boats.
Schoharie Crossing was one of the major Erie Canal aqueducts in the Mohawk Valley.
Considering its length and obstacles encountered during construction, the Erie Canal was built in record time. Much shorter European canals had taken years longer to complete. What is even more remarkable, there were no professional engineers to plan and direct the work. The one English engineer who considered it, gave up and went home. A small cadre of surveyors, including Benjamin Wright, James Geddes, Charles Broadhead, Nathan Roberts and Canvass White---assisted by hundreds of quarrymen, stonecutters, masons, carpenters, loggers, bridge builders, farmers, teamsters and laborers---developed an enormous, state-wide on-the-job training program that produced America's first civil engineers. Some of them went on to serve as engineers in the construction of other canals and railroads, and to teach Civil Engineering in such schools as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
Under the guidance of the state "engineers" local contractors built sections of the canal. They hired local tradesmen and laborers. As work progressed and more help was required than was available, Irish laborers were brought in from New York City. By the time the canal was completed one-third the work force was Irish.
Ingenuity Was the Byword
Most of the work was done by hand, but as work progressed necessity was indeed the mothers of invention. Horse-driven machines were created to down trees, pull stumps and move soil, sand, stone and mud. Waterproof cement---invented by Andrew Bartow of Fairfield and patented by Canvass White of Whitestown---insured the longevity of the stone locks. When quarrymen couldn't get good gunpowder, they utilized the deep freeze of winter by drilling holes in stone outcrops and filling them with water. When the water froze, huge slabs of stone broke away from the "wall" ready for cutting and transport to lock or aqueduct sites.
Canal Pays For Itself In 10 Years
Long before the Governor's entourage traveled from Lake Erie to New York City aboard the Seneca Chief, and the cross-state cannon relay announced the event, there were boats on the canal paying tolls. The first section to open was in the Mohawk Valley between Rome and Utica. This section was so level there were no lift locks required. The first tolls were collected in 1820. As additional sections were completed, boats and tolls multiplied. The first year the canal was open end to end, one million dollars was collected, and by 1835 the entire $7,770,000 debt was paid. And that was back when a million dollars was a lot of money.
Mohawk Valley Made It All Possible
The Mohawk Valley made the Erie Canal possible; it was the only passage through the Appalachian Plateau. Most of the 155-mile route east of Rome was on the south side of the river. At the sharp bend in the river east of Schenectady the canal crossed on a stone arch aqueduct. From there it ran on the north side of the river to another sharp bend at the village of Crescent where it returned to the south side of the river on an aqueduct, and then descended into the Hudson Valley, eventually terminating at Albany.
This stone-arch structure at Aqueduct once carried the Erie Canal across the Mohawk River.
Built Well Away From Major Waterways
Unlike the previous Inland Lock and Navigation Company waterway and the subsequent Barge Canal, the Erie did not utilize existing rivers or lakes. In fact, other than using the water from tributaries, most sections of the canal were built well away from major waterways, thus avoiding the ravages of spring floods and fall freshets.
Weather was also a factor in the rejection of the plan to route the canal north from the Syracuse area to Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario storms were notorious. Another factor---dramatically illustrated during the War of 1812 when the British fleet controlled the lake---was the vulnerability of navigation on the big lake during hostilities. So, it was decided that the Erie Canal would be totally within the state, away from major bodies of water, and well protected from floods, storms and attack.
Erie Canal Made New York the Empire State.
Considering the speed of travel and communications, the effects of the canal were almost immediate. Shipping costs dropped dramatically, land values skyrocketed, villages became cities and crossroads became villages. New York Harbor eclipsed Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans as the major port in America, and New York became the Empire State. In the Mohawk Valley, established villages like Rome, Utica and Schenectady became bustling cities. Villages formed at crossroads, developing manufacturers, basins (where canal boats turned around and off-loaded) and other points of shipment. Finck's Basin just east of Little Falls, Ilion where Remington Arms grew in leaps and bounds, and Randall where tons of hay were shipped downstate, are just a few examples.
Wheat, oats, hay, potatoes, potash, whiskey, lumber, nails, tools, furniture, cloth, rope, leather plus such military items as cannons, balls and powder, all traveled on the Erie Canal. And in time, thousands of people migrated West. Many of them were New Yorkers or New Englanders; many more were from Eastern Europe. The cost of transporting household goods and families was not cheap, so it was usually the well-off settler that traveled by canal boat. Those who couldn't afford to travel by boat did so by horse, carriage and on foot. Nevertheless, it was the canal that opened western New York and the Midwestern states to trade, creating farms, industry, villages and cities along the way.
The Yankee Lock 2 miles east of Schoharie Crossing features a restored trading post.
Traffic on the canal increased so rapidly and revenues were so great that the canal and associated structures were "modernized" frequently. Between 1836 and 1862, the the Canal was enlarged to a depth of seven feet to accommodate bigger boats. Locks were enlarged and in most locations side by side locks were constructed to speed travel in both directions.
Outcome of the Civil War Could Have Been Different
Prior to the construction of the Erie Canal there were only a few settlers in the Mid West. For the most part they were southerners who had made the long and arduous trip up the Mississippi, Missouri and other mid-American rivers. After the canal brought Yorkers and Yankees west, they became the dominant political and cultural influence in the region. This influence was a key factor when the states in the region supported the north during the Civil War. Some historians believe if it weren't for the Erie Canal there wouldn't have been a Civil War or if there was, the outcome would have been much different.
Many Remnants of the Old Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley
There are many remnants of the Old Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley. One of the longest, practically undisturbed, runs is between Stanwix (near Rome) and Oriskany. This 6-mile section was opened soon after the construction started in 1817. Today the towpath is a hike and bike trail.
Just east of Herkimer is an island created by the separation of the Barge Canal and the river. Lock 18 is located at the lower end of the island, so it's called Lock 18 Island. (Or Plantation Island.) There is a double Erie Canal lock on the island. This is state land but there are no marked hiking trails.
Little Falls is the site of a number of remnants of old canals and locks. Just east of Lock 17 is the remnant of an Old Erie Canal Lock.
Across the river from St. Johnsville is a recently discovered lock that is the centerpiece of a riverside park.
Schoharie Crossing features a number of remnants of the canal. In addition to a stone arch aqueduct, Fort Hunter features remnants of both the 1825 Erie Canal and the 1841enlarged canal. Two miles east of Fort Hunter is Yankee Lock that was built in the 1850s. It features a restored trading post.
East of Schenectady there is a section of the stone arch aqueduct that crossed the river at what is now the community of Aqueduct. Further east, on the north side of the river, is the Vischer Ferry Nature & Historic Preserve that features a 3-mile section of the canal, an iron bridge from that era, and hike and bike trails. At Crescent there is some riverside stonework that once supported the aqueduct, and a riverside park that overlooks the site.
When the Erie Canal was built through Fort Hunter it destroyed the historic Queen Anne Chapel.
As noted previously, it is impossible to overstate the significance of the Erie Canal. Perhaps a visit to remnants of the canal in the Mohawk Valley will create a new appreciation for the vision, talent, labor and perseverance that was required to connect the Hudson River with the Great Lakes way back in the 1820s.
See also: Discovery: Gem in the Rough - Lock 33 Park
Discovery: Island Mystery Unfolds
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