Erie Canal History

Nostalgia – Siskiwit 8-10-92. Locked thru lock 6 on the Erie Canal and Jerry Giordano was shooting a TV weather spot for WTEN, Albany. Jerry asked if he could shoot us coming out of Lock 7. We affirmed. Rachel and I tied up at lock 6 (Half Moon) for an interview.

Construction of the original Erie Canal began in Rome, New York, on the Fourth of July, 1817. When completed in 1825, the canal was a narrow ditch 28 feet in width at the bottom, 40 feet wide on the surface, and extending 363 miles between Albany and Buffalo. The depth of the water averaged 4 feet. To compensate for the various levels, there were 83 locks along the length of the canal. Twenty-seven of these locks were in the first 15 miles of so between Albany and Schenectady around the Cohoes Falls.

In 1817, the laborers were paid $8 a month and worked 14 hour days. Locals digging at Half Moon Bay were paid 7 cents per cubic yard of earth removed from the ditch and 10 cents per cubic yard for each yard of embankment.

The Eric Canal opened in 1825 and reduced the travel time from New York to Buffalo from six weeks to 10 days and cut the cost of 1 ton of freight from $100 to $5. By 1900 the US had 4,000 miles of canals.

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, appointed a Committee on Canals The Committee’s recommendations led to the creation of the Barge Canal System for New York. This called for, among other measures, the enlargement of the Canal to a 125 foot width and a minimum depth of twelve feet.

Beginning in 1901, President Teddy Roosevelt they called for Congress to revise the depth in order for the Canal to carry ocean going ships. Everyone called it a “political boondoggle.” The Erie Barge Canal was enlarged and deepened between 1903-1918. The towpath was eliminated because it had become obsolete with the rise of motorized vessels. This time, engineers believed they could tame natural bodies of water, relocating the Canal into lakes and rivers controlled by a sophisticated network of dams and locks and virtually abandoning large sections of the original Canal.

When I learned of this Presidential vision, all I could think about for most of the 186 miles from Oswego to the Troy Locks was how different N Y State would be if the Congress had committed to his vision. If the Barge Canal had been built to carry ocean shipping there would likely be no St. Lawrence Seaway.