History of the Erie Canal

erie canalThe Erie Canal is famous in song and story. Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. An engineering marvel when it was built, some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In order to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market, the construction of a canal was proposed as early as 1768. However, those early proposals would connect the Hudson River with Lake Ontario near Oswego. It was not until 1808 that the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, Governor Dewitt Clinton broke ground for the construction of the canal. In those early days, it was often sarcastically referred to as “Clinton’s Big Ditch”. When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for the horses and/or mules which pulled the boats and their driver, often a young boy (sometimes referred to by later writers as a “hoggee”).

Cross-section of the original Erie Canal

In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The “Enlarged Erie” was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72. Most of the remaining traces of the Old Erie Canal are from the Enlarged Erie era.

In 1903, the State again decided to enlarge the canal by the construction of what was termed the “Barge Canal”, consisting of the Erie Canal and the three chief branches of the State system — the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals. The resulting canal was completed in 1918, and is 12 to 14 feet deep, 120 to 200 feet wide, and 363 miles long, from Albany to Buffalo. 57 Locks were built to handle barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, with lifts of 6 to 40 feet. This is the Erie Canal which today is utilized largely by recreational boats rather than cargo-carrying barges.

(Courtesy of http://www.eriecanal.org)


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