History and Facts about Oswego Canal

Oswego CanalThe original Oswego Canal opened in 1828, three years after the Erie Canal was completed. Today the 23.7 mile Oswego Canal connects the Erie Canal at Three Rivers (Oneida River, Seneca River, Oswego River) to Oswego, a port city on Lake Ontario. The Oswego Canal currently follows the Oswego River its entire course, either using the river basin itself or artificial channels constructed using one bank of the river. Like the Eastern Erie Canal, it has a depth of 14 feet and a width of 120 feet, though it is often much wider. It contains 7 locks: Lock O1 through Lock O8(no Lock O4), which combines for a total change in elevation of 118 feet. The Oswego Canal, along with the Eastern Erie Canal, has an “air draft” of 21 feet at normal pool for taller vessels.

Along the Oswego River a few canal towns occupy the banks. These include PhoenixFultonMinetto and finally the port city of Oswego, each with its own personality. Along the way there are also some remains of the Old Oswego Canal which ran from Syracuse to Oswego as well as Fort Oswego (in Oswego) build by the British in 1755.

Oswego Canal History

The original 1825 Erie Canal bypassed Lake Ontario with the aim of securing an economic stranglehold on the western Great Lakes. It was quickly realized that a connection to Lake Ontario would be beneficial for trade with northern New York and Canada. The Oswego Canal was started in 1825 and would connect Oswego on Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal in Syracuse. The construction took four years and the canal was open for navigation in the spring of 1829. The canal consisted of 15 locks (18 locks when enlarged) and was 38 miles in length.

The Oswego Canal was on of the few canals built that was economically successful, largely in part because it allowed trade between the Atlantic Coast and and the raw-material-rich Canada. The original canal was quickly found to be too small, and was upgraded a few times until it was completely reconstructed under the Barge Canal Act. The new Erie Canal branch of the Barge Canal would not go through Syracuse, but rather north through Three Rivers. This, along with directly using the Oswego River channel, shortened the canal by about 15 miles. One largely forgotten, and the last improvement to the Oswego Canal was done under a federal improvement initiative. In the early-to-mid 1900s, the Oswego Canal and Eastern Erie Canal were enlarged slightly to allow traffic with an air-draft up to 21 feet tall (from 15 feet) and with increased draft of 14 feet (from 12). This largely unknown improvement allows many recreational cruisers to travel from the Ocean to Lake Ontario without issue.

The remains of the old enlarged Oswego Canal are still visible along its route. A prime example of these old remains is Old Lock O5, dubbed Mud Lock due to its unstable soil, located in today’s Long Branch Park in Liverpool. Its wooden doors have rotted away, but the stone work is still in remarkable condition and it makes a good spot to stop and look around.

Unique Locks and Bridges of the Oswego Canal

The locks along the Oswego Canal are unique among those across the state. While four of the seven are normal, three are quite unique. Lock O2 has a swing bridge right across the center of the lock which provides access to the hydroelectric dam. The bridge typically remains stationary for smaller vessels which means the lock chamber size is halved. Lock O1 has a two unique lift bridges, one inside the chamber (obsolete/remains open), and one just a few feet down stream of the lock which opens with the lower gate.

Finally Lock O8 was the most unique of all; it was originally designed as a siphon lock, the only on the canal system. This lock operated without large valves and used the principles of a siphon to fill and empty the chamber. Eventually this lock was converted to valves and now is not unlike the others of the canal system and today the external evidence is all but gone.


The view of the original Lock O8 with the siphons.
The view of the original Lock O8 with the siphons.
A closeup of a lower side siphon, notice how large it is!
A closeup of a lower side siphon, notice how large it is!
A diagram showing the layout of the original siphons.
A diagram showing the layout of the original siphons.

(Courtesy of http://www.nycanals.com/Oswego_Canal)


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