The Mohawk Valley’s Erie Canal
The Mohawk Valley’s Erie Canal began with a need to create a waterway to ferry people and supplies between the Hudson River and the interior of the United States. The idea of the canal dates back to the 1700s with a formal survey for such a project being conducted in 1808. New York’s Governor, DeWitt Clinton, was the driving force behind the Erie Canal project, even though his efforts were ridiculed with such names as “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Big Ditch” among others. Despite considerable opposition, the New York State Legislature finally authorized construction in 1817 with work beginning July 4th of that year. The canal would take eight years of labor before its completion in 1825, with its official opening for navigation on October 26.
At this time, the canal covered a distance of 363 miles, featuring 83 locks to overcome elevation changes and a series of aqueducts to cross over rivers and streams. The canal’s width allowed for “Erie Canal boats” to transport goods and passengers efficiently. This early version of the canal played a significant role in transforming New York City into a major port and helped establish cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse as thriving commercial centers.
Erie Canal Expansion Project
As the demand for transportation grew, the State of New York initiated an Erie Canal enlargement project from 1835-1862. The project involved deepening and widening the canal to allow larger vessels to navigate its waters. By 1862, the Erie Canal was upgraded to accommodate boats with a capacity of up to 240 tons, significantly increasing its efficiency. During this time, the canal’s main rival was the ever-increasing network of railroads which offered a more direct mode of transportation, and pulled attention away from the canal. Even so, the Erie Canal continued to play a vital role in regional transportation. So much so, that from 1908-1918, another expansion project was soon underway called the New York State Barge Canal System. At this time, the project involved additional widening, deepening, and straightening some sections of the canal.
Originally four feet deep and 40 feet wide, the Erie Canal cut through fields, forests, rocky cliffs, and swamps; crossed rivers on aqueducts; and overcame hills with 83 lift locks. The project engineers and contractors had little experience building canals, so this massive project served as the nation’s first practical school of civil engineering. – Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor
Preservation of the Erie Canal
Despite the widening the Barge Canal system to increase its capacity, construction of interstate highways and the trucks using these highways impacted the use of the canal. With its use in decline, the Erie Canal’s historical significance and preservation of the canal began to take center stage in the late 1900s. In 2000, it received distinction as a National Heritage Corridor, as the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor, and has continued to grow in popularity ever since.
Today, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, gives so much to the many Mohawk Valley cities, towns and villages along the waterway. People from near and far visit this historic canal system with many participating in events like the annual Cycle the Canal Bike Tour, the Great American Loop, along with annual festivals and celebrations in cities, towns and villages all along the canal. The Erie Canal offers a variety of recreational activities including cycling, walking, running, and boating. The Erie Canalway Trail, a multi-use trail that gives residents and visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the scenic beauty of this waterway and the surrounding valley.
This national landmark has played a crucial role in shaping the Mohawk Valley, New York State, and our nation. Today, the Erie Canal stands as an important historic landmark and recreational resource welcoming visitors from around the world to explore and enjoy its beautiful landscape.