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How was the Erie Canal Constructed?

August 8, 2021 | By

The Erie Canal is a historic waterway that had to be dug by hand! Connecting New York City and the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, it was able to improve shipping in the 1700s and 1800s. Agneya takes a trip down the history of the unique canal.

Durham boats on the Mohawk River

Durham boats on the Mohawk River

The Erie Canal is a historic waterway that connects New York City and the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie. The entire canal is 363 miles long, and had to be dug by hand! It was built by taking advantage of the Mohawk River Gap in the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1780, plans were made to improve transportation over the Mohawk river. In those days, bateaus (boats) and Durham boats were used to navigate the river. Figure 1 shows Durham boats being pulled through a dam and navigating the river’s rifts and shoals. In 1792, a company called the West Inland Lock Navigation Company was given the right to improve navigation on rivers and lakes in western New York. However, it never completed its plans. Even so, the Mohawk river provided a path from the Atlantic ocean to the Great Lakes. This river would eventually be a path through which the Erie Canal would be built.

Around that time a new canal project was being discussed. The Governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, wanted a western canal. He got approval to build the canal, and was named commissioner of the project. Clinton persuaded the state legislature to authorize loans worth $7 million to build the canal.

The engineers used a typical canal shape, 40 feet wide at the top, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and 4 feet deep. In the early days of the canal, horses walked on the tow-path and pulled boats along the canal. The canal had 83 locks made of stone which allowed boats to move up natural elevation in the river. For a lock to function, steps are needed. First, the boat is towed into a lock. Second, the tow line that connects the boat and the horses is untied. Third, the boat drifts into the lock. Fourth, the gates are closed, and sluices in the gate fill up the water, also moving the boat up. Then, the line to the horses are re-tied, and the boat continues upstream.

Lockport Lock 67

Lockport Lock 67

Since the locks played an important role in navigating across the canal, there exist many souvenirs about them.

A plate commemorating the locks on the Erie Canal at Albany and boats waiting to enter the lock

Another thing that was needed in making the Erie canal was aqueducts. They helped if the canal had to cross rivers, lakes, ravines, and railroads. The aqueduct at Rochester helped the Erie canal cross the Genesee River. The canal ran east and west, while the Genesee River flows north and south — so an aqueduct, which helped direct the flow of water, was built for ease of navigation in that region.

Aqueduct on the Genesee River

Aqueduct on the Genesee River

Clinton officially declared the start of the construction of the canal on July 4, 1817 at Rome, New York. People all across New York were celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal. There was a big parade, in which mechanical companies marched with banners and badges. Jeff Hawley delivered an address. The governor and commissioner of the project, DeWitt Clinton, rode down the canal on his boat The Seneca Chief.

Because of the canal, people could ship goods faster and for less price. It established a connection from the East of New York to the West. Barges carrying farm produce, food, and materials were shipped back and forth.

lockport lock gates and the pump house

(Left) Lockport lock gates and (Right) the pump house

The Erie Canal was able to improve shipping in the 1700s and 1800s. Although the canal would not be used as much when railroads came out, it lowered the price of shipping goods fast. Currently, it is not used to ship cargo anymore, but people can still have a boat ride on it and see the locks. Here are some pictures of the Lockport locks when I rode on a canal boat.

A boat ride on the Lockport locks

A boat ride on the Lockport Locks

(Picture of the Lockport Locks courtesy: Manoj Pooleery)

References:
Erie Canal Images – Lock
Erie Canal | Definition, Map, Location, Construction, History, & Facts | Britannica
Erie Canal 1825 | New York State Archives (nysed.gov)
The Erie Canal

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Agneya Dutta Pooleery is a fifth grade student at Country Parkway Elementary school in Buffalo, NY. He loves to read, write stories, make comics, play the guitar and piano, and hang out with his friends in the neighborhood.
All Posts of Agneya Dutta Pooleery

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