Diabetes Awareness Campaign: Trekking Along the Erie Canal.
North Tonawanda
Little Falls
St. Johnsville
The Erie Canal
William Coventry Wall, 1862.
William Coventry Wall, 1862
The first time I saw the Erie Canal was 42 years ago when I was an 18-year-old freshman heading to Hiram College in Ohio, We were passing through towns with names like Amsterdam, Canajoharie, Herkimer, Cooperstown, and my favorite, Gloversville.
The canal was the same width as the Merrimac River which runs through my home town, but it obviously wasn’t an ordinary waterway because the embankments were level and well groomed. And of course there were occasional locks. Little did I know how very important this body of water really was to the state of New York.
For four years I made the trip back and forth at least three times a year for school breaks. Eventually I learned from my New York friends just how important the canal was. Not only was it a conduit across upstate New York but was the major pipeline for commerce between the Midwest and the East Coast. It was the Erie Canal which made New York City the major market of the world.
Westward Ho!
As a swamp Yankee from Massachusetts I was confused as a college student in Ohio. Beside the language barrier, there was the problem of geography. The northeast section of Ohio is the called the Western Reserve. That area, between the 41st and 42nd parallel, is due west of Connecticut and claimed as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Okay, that makes sense, sort of. But why to Ohioans refer to themselves as the heart of the Midwest? There is a lot of land between Cleveland and San Francisco. If Boston is in the East and San Francisco the West, shouldn’t the Midwest be somewhere else? Say, around Omaha?
Like most college students, I was ignorant. I didn’t have a good sense of history. I just assumed that America’s amber waves of grain stretched from sea to shiny sea. Not only didn’t I have a good sense of history and geography, but also geology.
Mountains have played an important part in the development of countries and cultures. The Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Caucus mountains all were significant factors in the history of Europe. Similarly, the imposing the Appalachian Mountain chain limited the expansion of the early colonialist settlers. Passage over mountain trails was brutal and required mules and pack horses. Commerce in the 18th century was limited to water travel and commerce is necessary for national cohesion.
Map of North America.
An examination of a topographical map or a satellite image of North America is very telling. Based on natural barriers of the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi-Ohio Rivers, and the Rocky Mountain, there should have been at least 4 countries each with its own boundaries: the East Coast, the West Coast, Mississippi East, and Mississippi West.
The Gateway to the West
Another thing I didn’t understand as a rash and ignorant college student, is why was Albany the capital of New York when New York City was the financial capital of the world. What’s the logic in that?
Well, Albany was a bustling settlement while Manhattan was just a rocky island providing a safe harbor for ships that had just crossed the Atlantic. Albany was near where the Mohawk River dumped into the mighty Hudson. Travel up the Hudson would lead to Lake Champlain. Travel up the Mohawk would lead to Lake Oneida and from there to Lake Ontario, the first of the Great Lakes. These lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior comprised a great waterway which was the North American transportation hub of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. It was the critical passage way for the fur trade.
The Oneida Carrying Place
When Europeans first came, the area around present day Rome, New York was known as the great Oneida Carrying Place due to the proximity of Mohawk River and the Wood Creek which flowed into Oneida Lake which leads via the Irondequoit Creek to Lake Ontario.
The strategic importance of the area is underscored by the fact that the British had built a small fortress, Fort Bull, on Wood Creek. This was razed by marauding Indian allies of the French. A new fort, Stanwix, was built three miles east on the edge of the creek which was the source of the Mohawk River. This new fort protected the area against further attacks from the French and had a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War.

A Brief History of Canals
The trouble with river travel is exemplified by the Oneida Carrying place. The vessel and all its cargo had to be carried across the land to the next navigable spot. Thus the amount of cargo was limited to what the crew could carry on their backs. Portage sites would be necessary at waterfalls or points filled with glacial rubble or even fallen trees. As rivers cut through the mountains of North America most were not suited for commerce. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to build a clean, unobstructed river on which boats fully ladened with cargo could glide along?
Such rivers are called canals and have been built for thousands of years. The early Babylonians, the Chinese, and the Romans were active canal builders. In Europe, the Dutch built canals in the 11th century to be followed by the Italian state and France. By the 1500s canals were common throughout the continent.
The problem with canals is that, like rivers, they flow down hill. Early canals were equipped with dams just before an obstruction. The dam would cause the water to back up to a level sufficiently high so when the dam was released the surge would carry the boat over the obstruction. So, going with the flow wasn’t too difficult but going upstream was a real back breaker. While the rush of water was deep enough to allow the boat to pass over, men needed to haul the craft against the force of the deluge. What was need was a mechanism to raise the boat to the level of the dam.
Such a mechanism, the lock, was created by Renaissance engineers. The most famous of these engineers was a man named Leonardo DaVinci. When he wasn’t too busy painting the Mona Lisa or writing codes and notes backwards, he designed mechanical apparati. His basic design for a lock door was utilized for over 300 years.
It is no wonder that Americans of European descent would dream of canals for their new world. One such dreamer was a man named George Washington. After the war with Great Britain was over, he set about to form the Patowmack Company which would build canals and locks around the five falls along the Potomac River. Although it was an engineering success it was a financial failure which dampened the enthusiasm to build further canals.
Fortunately for the young country the dreams of some New York men were not extinguished. Men like Philip Schuyler, Elkanah Watson, and Gouverneur Morris kept the dream alive and eventually convinced an influential politician named DeWitt Clinton. A former U.S. Senator, New York State Senator, and Mayor of New York City, the future Governor of New York caught the excitement. He spent seven years maneuvering, negotiating, and wheeling and dealing. Even when he became governor he kept pushing and staked his political future on building a canal. It was an audacious plan for a 362 mile canal, not just around river obstructions but the entire length of the state—from Albany to Lake Erie!
This time the canal was not only an engineering marvel, but a huge financial success!
Location, Location, Location
If you ask some folk in certain parts of upstate New York, “Where’s the canal?” The answer may be “which one?” If you reply “Erie Canal,” you’ll get the same answer—“which one?” The respondent is not pulling your leg. For example, in Clyde there are three distinct remaining segments of the various incarnations of the Erie Canal.
The original Erie Canal, often called Clinton’s Ditch, was begun in 1817 and completed by 1825. It was so successful that the tolls paid for it within XX years. Soon the traffic became so great that there was an incentive to enlarge the canal and add double locks to accommodate traffic in either direction.
This new enterprise started in 1840 and lasted until 1862, four times longer than it took to build the original canal. The width was increased from 40' to 70' and the depth from 4' to 7'. Not only were many double locks installed, but also the length was increased from 90' to 110'. Thus bigger barges were built enabling them to increase their burden from 75 tons to 200 tons. Another improvement was that many curves were eliminated and actually shortening the canal by XX miles. The new and improved version of the canal is now termed the Enlarged Erie Canal to distinguish it from Clinton’s Big Ditch!
In 1831 the Mohawk & Albany railroad opened, spanning the 16 miles from Albany to Schenectady. Passengers could travel that distance in a single hour as opposed to the full day to traverse all the locks between the tow cities. Although a threat for passenger travel, the rickety railroads were no match for hauling freight. Even by the 1850s, the Erie Canal carried thirteen times more freight than railroads covering the state between Albany and Buffalo which connected to the commerce of Chicago and the Midwest.
Yet by the beginning of the twentieth century, technology had improved to the point where railroads were putting a dent into the canal’s operation. At that point another New York governor authorized a further enlargement of not only the Erie but other canals which feed into the Erie and the Hudson River. That young governor was Theodore Roosevelt and the new canal became known as the Barge Canal.
Begun in 1905 and fully operational by 1918, engineers used steam driven excavators and other modern equipment to increase the width to 75' and the depth to 12'. But more importantly, the locks were trebled in size permitting barges which could haul 3000 tons!
Although competitive with the railroad, the Interstate Highway system enabling long haul tractor trailers was another story. In addition, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was the final nail in the coffin, killing commercial barge traffic.
Let’s Shuffle Off to Buffalo
Buffalo was the western terminus of the canal. Generally the construction of the canal was influenced by geography and geology. But the choice of Buffalo was arbitrary and subjected to the attempts of various special interests to influence the decision. Buffalo was a small village built on the shore of Lake Erie and the Buffalo Creek. Just a few miles to the north was another village, Black Rock on the bank of the Niagara River which flowed into the lake. Both places had factors favorable to the development of the canal and as soon as the project was approved the lobbying began. Eventually, Buffalo was chosen. Because of the canal, the population grew attracting more and more industry to the point that Buffalo has become the second largest city in the State of New York. Black Rock was swallowed up and became a small neighborhood of the victor.