Erie Canal facts for kids

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ErieCanalMohawkRiverRexford
Part of the Erie Canal, in 1907

The Erie Canal is a canal in New York State. It runs for 365 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. It was first thought of in 1808, and it was built between 1818 and 1825. It was the first route between the eastern coast of the United States and the Great Lakes. The Canal caused a burst of population in western New York. It also helped New York City become a large port. Today, the Canal is part of the New York State Canal System.

Operation

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Operations at Lockport, New York in 1839

Canal boats up to 3.5 feet (1.1 m) in draft were pulled by horses and mules on the towpath. The canal had one towpath, generally on the north side. When canal boats met, the boat with the right of way remained on the towpath side of the canal. The other boat steered toward the berm (or heelpath) side of the canal. The driver (or "hoggee", pronounced HO-gee) of the privileged boat kept his towpath team by the canalside edge of the towpath, while the hoggee of the other boat moved to the outside of the towpath and stopped his team. His towline would be unhitched from the horses, go slack, fall into the water and sink to the bottom, while his boat decelerated on with its remaining momentum. The privileged boat's team would step over the other boat's towline, with their horses pulling the boat over the sunken towline without stopping. Once clear, the other boat's team would continue on its way.

Pulled by teams of horses, canal boats still moved slowly, but methodically, shrinking time and distance. Efficiently, the nonstop smooth method of transportation cut the travel time between Albany and Buffalo nearly in half, moving by day and by night. Venturing west, men and women boarded packets to visit relatives, or solely for a relaxing excursion. Emigrants took passage on freight boats, camping on deck, or on top of crates. Packet boats, serving passengers exclusively, reached speeds of up to five miles an hour, and ran at much more frequent intervals than the cramped, bumpy stages.

Packet boats, measuring up to seventy-eight feet in length and fourteen and a half feet across, made ingenious use of space, in order to accommodate up to forty passengers at night and up to three times as many in the daytime. The best examples, furnished with carpeted floors, stuffed chairs, and mahogany tables stocked with current newspapers and books, served as sitting rooms during the days. At mealtimes, crews transformed the cabin into dining rooms. Drawing a curtain across the width of the room divided the cabin into ladies' and gentlemen's sleeping quarters in the evening hours. Pull-down tiered beds folded from the walls, and additional cots could be hung from hooks in the ceiling. Some captains hired musicians and held dances. The canal had brought civilization into the wilderness.

Construction

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Stonework of lock abandoned because of route change, at Durhamville, New York
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An original five-step lock structure crossing the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport, now without gates and used as a cascade for excess water
Erie Canal lock Lockport New York
Erie Canal lock in Lockport, New York

The men who planned and oversaw construction were novices as surveyors and as engineers. There were no civil engineers in the United States. James Geddes and Benjamin Wright, who laid out the route, were judges whose experience in surveying was in settling boundary disputes. Geddes had only used a surveying instrument for a few hours before his work on the Canal. Canvass White was a 27-year-old amateur engineer who persuaded Clinton to let him go to Britain at his own expense to study the canal system there. Nathan Roberts was a mathematics 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 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 began July 4, 1817, at Rome, New York. The first 15 miles (24 km), from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819. At that rate, the canal would not be finished for 30 years. The main delays were caused by felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil, which took longer than expected, but the builders devised ways to solve these problems. To fell a tree, they threw rope over the top branches and winched it down. They pulled out the stumps with an innovative stump puller. A pair of huge wheels were mounted loose on an axle. A large wheel, barely smaller than the others, was fixed to the center of the axle. A chain was wrapped around the axle and hooked to the stump. A rope was wrapped around the center wheel and hooked to a team of oxen. The mechanical advantage (torque) obtained ripped the stumps out of the soil. Soil to be moved was shoveled into large wheelbarrows that were dumped into mule-pulled carts. Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could build a mile in a year.

The remaining problem was finding labor; increased immigration helped fill the need. Many of the laborers working on the canal were Irish, who had recently come to the United States as a group of about 5,000 from Ireland, most of whom were Roman Catholic, a religion that raised much suspicion in early America due to its hierarchic structure, and many laborers on the canal suffered violent assault as the result of misjudgment and xenophobia.

Construction continued at an increased rate as new workers arrived. When the canal reached Montezuma Marsh (at the outlet of Cayuga Lake west of Syracuse), it was rumored over 1,000 workers died of "swamp fever" (malaria), and construction was temporarily stopped. However, recent research has revealed the death toll was likely much lower, as no contemporary reports mention significant worker mortality, and mass graves from the period have never been found in the area. Work continued on the downhill side towards the Hudson, and when the marsh froze in winter, the crews worked to complete the section across the swamps.

The middle section from Utica to Salina (Syracuse) was completed in 1820, and traffic on that section started up immediately. Expansion to the east and west proceeded, and the whole eastern section, 250 miles (400 km) from Brockport to Albany, opened on September 10, 1823 to great fanfare.

The Champlain Canal, a separate but interconnected 64-mile (103 km) north-south route from Watervliet on the Hudson to Lake Champlain, opened on the same date.

In 1824, before the canal was completed, a detailed Pocket Guide for the Tourist and Traveler, Along the Line of the Canals, and the Interior Commerce of the State of New York, was published for the benefit of travelers and land speculators.

After Montezuma Marsh, the next difficulties were crossing Irondequoit Creek and the Genesee River near Rochester. The first ultimately required building the 1,320-foot (400 m) long "Great Embankment," which carried the canal at a height of 76 feet (23 m) above the level of the creek, which was carried through a 245-foot (75 m) culvert underneath. The river was crossed on a stone aqueduct 802 feet (244 m) long and 17 feet (5.2 m) wide, with 11 arches.

After the Genesee, the next obstacle was crossing the Niagara Escarpment, an 80-foot (24 m) wall of hard dolomitic limestone, 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 two sets of five locks in a series, soon giving rise to the community of Lockport. The 12-foot (3.7 m) lift-locks had a total lift of 60 feet (18 m), exiting into a deeply cut channel. The final leg had to be cut 30 feet (9.1 m) through another limestone layer, the Onondaga ridge. Much of that section was blasted with black powder, and the inexperience of the crews often led to accidents, and sometimes rocks falling on nearby homes.

Two villages competed to be the terminus: 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 grew into a large city, eventually encompassing its former competitor.

The entire canal was officially completed on October 26, 1825. The event was marked by a statewide "Grand Celebration," culminating in successive cannon shots along the length of the canal and the Hudson, a 90-minute cannonade from Buffalo to New York City. A flotilla of boats, led by Governor Dewitt Clinton aboard the Seneca Chief, sailed from Buffalo to New York City in ten days. Clinton then ceremonially poured Lake Erie water into New York Harbor to mark the "Wedding of the Waters". On its return trip, the Seneca Chief brought a keg of Atlantic Ocean water back to Buffalo to be poured into Lake Erie by Buffalo's Judge Samuel Wilkeson, who would later become mayor.

The Erie Canal was thus completed in eight years at a cost of $7,143,000. (Equivalent to $140 billion today.) It was acclaimed as an engineering marvel that united the country and helped New York City become a financial capital.

Route

Erie Canal Map 1853
1853 Map of New York canals emboldened, center: the Erie Canal, other lines: railroads, rivers and county borders
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Lithograph of the Erie Canal at Lockport, New York c.1855. Published for Herrman J. Meyer, 164 William Street, New York City.

The canal began on the west side of the Hudson River at Albany, and ran north to Watervliet, where the Champlain Canal branched off. At Cohoes, it climbed the escarpment on the west side of the Hudson River and then turned west along the south shore of the Mohawk River, crossing to the north side at Crescent and again to the south at Rexford. 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 westward into 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 Onondaga Escarpment, passing through Syracuse, Onondaga Lake, and Rochester. Before reaching Rochester, the canal uses a series of natural ridges to cross the deep valley of Irondequoit Creek. At Lockport the canal turned southwest to rise to the top of the Niagara Escarpment, using the ravine of Eighteen Mile Creek.

The canal continued south-southwest to Pendleton, where it turned west and southwest, mainly using the channel of Tonawanda Creek. From the Tonawanda south toward Buffalo, it ran just east of the Niagara River, where it reached its "Western Terminus" at Little Buffalo Creek (later it became the Commercial Slip), which discharged into the Buffalo River just above its confluence with Lake Erie. With Buffalo's re-excavation of the Commercial Slip, completed in 2008, the Canal's original terminus is now re-watered and again accessible by boats. With several miles of the Canal inland of this location still lying under 20th-century fill and urban construction, the effective western navigable terminus of the Erie Canal is found at Tonawanda.

The Erie made use of the favorable conditions of New York's unique topography, which provided that area with the only break in the Appalachians south of the Saint Lawrence River. The Hudson is tidal to Troy, and Albany is west of the Appalachians. It allowed for east–west navigation from the coast to the Great Lakes within US territory. The canal system thus gave New York a competitive advantage, helped New York City develop as an international trade center, and allowed Buffalo to grow from just 200 settlers in 1820 to more than 18,000 people by 1840. The port of New York became essentially the Atlantic home port for all of the Midwest—because of this vital connection and others to follow, such as the railroads, New York would become known as the "Empire State" or "the great Empire State".

Enlargements and improvements

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Derelict aqueduct over Nine Mile Creek north of Camillus, New York built in 1841 and abandoned c. 1918; one of 32 navigable aqueducts on the Erie Canal, it has since been restored.

Problems developed but were quickly solved. Leaks developed along the entire length of the canal, but these were sealed using cement that hardened underwater (hydraulic cement). 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 metric tons), but this was exceeded immediately. An ambitious program to improve the canal began in 1834. During this massive series of construction projects, known as the First Enlargement, the canal was widened from 40 feet (12 m) to 70 feet (21 m) and deepened from 4 feet (1.2 m) to 7 feet (2.1 m). Locks were widened and/or rebuilt in new locations, and many new navigable aqueducts were constructed. The canal was straightened and slightly re-routed in some stretches, resulting in the abandonment of short segments of the original 1825 canal. The First Enlargement was completed in 1862, with further minor enlargements in later decades.

Today, the reconfiguration of the canal created during the First Enlargement is commonly referred to as the "Improved Erie Canal" or the "Old Erie Canal", to distinguish it from the canal's modern-day course. Existing remains of the 1825 canal abandoned during the Enlargement are sometimes referred to today as "Clinton's Ditch" (which was also the popular nickname for the entire Erie Canal project during its original 1817–1825 construction).

Eire Canal, Lock 32
Upstream view of the downstream lock at Lock 32, Pittsford, New York.

Additional feeder canals soon extended the Erie Canal into a system. These included the Cayuga-Seneca Canal south to the Finger Lakes, the Oswego Canal from Three Rivers north to Lake Ontario at Oswego, and the Champlain Canal from Troy north to Lake Champlain. From 1833 to 1877, the short Crooked Lake Canal 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 into the canal system. The Chenango Canal in 1836 connected the Erie Canal 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 Black River Canal connected the Black River to the Erie Canal at Rome and remained in operation until the 1920s. 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 rivers, was never built. The Genesee Valley Canal was later abandoned and became the route of the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad.

In 1903 the New York State legislature authorized construction of the New York State Barge Canal as the "Improvement of the Erie, the Oswego, the Champlain, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals". In 1905, construction of the Barge Canal began, which was completed in 1918, at a cost of $96.7 million. Freight traffic reached a total of 5.2 million short tons (4.7 million metric tons) by 1951, before declining in the face of combined rail and truck competition.

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