The Erie Canal
In an earlier blog, we discussed the Cherry Valley Turnpike, so critical to the 19th-century history of the Sharon Springs region. Railroad lines, developed later that century, also shaped the demographics and economy of upstate New York, as we touched upon in another blog. Also in the 19th century, the Erie Canal, connecting the Hudson River, north of Albany, and Buffalo, north of Lake Erie – at its closest to Sharon Springs, about 10 miles to the north in Montgomery County – had great impact, helping open up lands to settlement and economic development west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Native Americans used the waterways of the Northeast for travel and trade long before non-Natives came to the Americas. In the colonial period, Europeans and Euro-Americans used flat-bottomed, shallow-draft bateaux to haul cargo. But, unlike the Native-designed birch-bark canoes, bateaux were not suitable for long portages, and plans were conceived to alter the waterways. A canal between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario was proposed in 1768, but never received backing. In 1792, the Western Inland Lock and Navigation Company built small wooden channels with locks around the falls and rapids of the Mohawk River, but because of maintenance problems, the operation soon folded.
What was first known as the Great Western Canal – and eventually the Erie Canal – was proposed in 1808, resulting in a number of surveys. The survey of the chosen 363-mile route between the Hudson River and Lake Erie was completed in 1816. Federal funds fell through, but the New York State legislature, with the support of DeWitt Clinton, the mayor of New York as well as the New York Canal Commissioner – and, as of 1817, governor of the state – backed the project. To defray the costs of construction, tolls would be charged for use of the canal. But many were skeptical, and the project came to be referred to as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch.”
Construction began on July 4th, 1817. The first segment undertaken was a relatively flat 94-mile-stretch between Rome, NY, and the Hudson River. The Canal Commission negotiated with some landowners – especially farmers – to do the construction where the route traversed their property. As time went on, more and more laborers from the cities were hired, many of them Irish, German, and English immigrants. Working with hand tools and horse-drawn equipment, they carved a 40-foot wide, 4-foot deep canal – lined with dirt in some stretches and with stones in others – as well as a 10-foot wide towpath for the teams of horse and mules to pull barges. Conditions were miserable. Diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, and pneumonia (called “DeWitt’s Diseases,” again after Clinton) were a problem, especially in swampy regions. Accidents also resulted from the use of gun powder and blasting powder to break through rock. An unknown number of fatalities occurred, victims laid to rest along the route in unmarked graves.
The entire route from Albany to Buffalo had a 568-foot rise in elevation, and 83 stone-walled locks were engineered. Moreover, 18 overhead aqueducts were built where streams crossed the canal.
With completion of the canal in October 1825, boats – both barges and passenger packet boats – could navigate all the way from the Atlantic Ocean around New York City to the Great Lakes. To celebrate the accomplishment, Governor Clinton and other officials made the trip on the Seneca Chief, starting the day the canal opened, October 26th, and arriving in New York City on November 4th. Many communities along the way held celebrations to welcome the dignitaries, one of the largest gatherings taking place in Albany
In 1836-62, the canal was widened to 70 feet and deepened to 7 feet. The number of locks in the “Enlarged Erie” was reduced to 72. As many as 250 boats a day passed through a given lock, and at its peak an estimated 50,000 people depended on the Erie Canal for their income. Entire families lived on some of the boats. “Hoggees” walked alongside the horse and mule teams. “Towpath walkers” inspected the canal walls for leaks. Workmen traveled in “hurry-up boats” to those places where repairs were needed. As shipbuilding evolved, steam-powered boats became the norm, and the towpaths evolved into popular walking paths for the public.
In 1903-18, the Erie Canal was rebuilt, making it 120 to 200 feet wide and 12 to 14 feet deep, with concrete waterways and electronic controls.
It was also reorganized as part of the growing New York State Barge Canal System, including the Oswego Canal, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, and the Champlain Canal.
Use of the various canals declined with increasing rail lines in the late 19th century, and modern roads to carry trucks and automobiles in the 20th century. The opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the north in 1959, allowing ships to travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, furthered the decline of commercial traffic along New York’s canals. The system, renamed the New York State Canal System in 1992, still carries some cargo and is popular for recreational boating.
In addition to various cruises, there are many sites and museums to visit along what is designated as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, which includes branch canals as well as the original Erie Canal, a total of 524 miles of waterways. The Old Erie Canal State Historic Park comprises a 36-mile trail from Rome, NY, where ground was first broken in 1817, to the Butternut Creek Aqueduct in Dewitt to the west. The Erie Canal Village in Rome has three museums in addition to buildings and businesses relating to the time period. The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse is located in a restored 19th-century weighlock building. We’d also recommend visiting Lock 17 in Little Falls, only about 30 miles to the northwest of Sharon Springs, and watch the operation of what for a time was the world’s highest single lift lock, raising boats over 40 feet. And at Schoharie Crossing in Fort Hunter, about the same distance from Sharon Springs but to the northeast, the Schoharie Aqueduct – an Erie Canal National Historic Landmark – is the only remaining location where all three phases of New York’s canals can be viewed at once.
If you would like a source to help keep the fascinating history of the Sharon Springs region straight, you can order our eBook The Sharon Springs Timeline for $4.99 at the link (click here), or from Amazon.com or Kobo.com. Here’s our Authors’ Note from the book:
The Sharon Springs Timeline: A Microcosm of American History with Dates Relating to a Remarkable Village and Neighboring Regions, from the 16th Century to Modern Times is a study aid intended to help in ongoing research. It provides an overview as well as a compendium of easily referenced dates. It is also meant to inspire new studies, giving a glimpse of the area’s rich history to both residents and visitors. The dates of course are secondary to the events listed under them, but they give some order to the disorder of history. The images displayed – as found on early postcards – affirm the theme of the Timeline as a guidebook to a region, with an emphasis on history.
The Village of Sharon Springs is remarkable in its widely varied degree of economic ebb and flow and diversity of people. Understanding its complex history – and that of surrounding regions – helps one understand the history of an entire nation.
The Timeline is divided into five categories: (1) Settlement and Demarcation (2) Politics and Warfare (3) Technology and Transportation (4) Historic Businesses and Buildings (5) Education, Arts, and Entertainment. The events listed under these subject areas range in scope – from world news to village news – serving as a reminder that the world is made up of small communities and their individuals. There are many more fascinating events and enterprises relevant to the region not included. This is a sampling, a starting point.
All the years mentioned in the Timeline are shown in boldface. Cross-references at the end of entries provide historical threads, directing the reader forward in time.
While working on this outline of history, we met many fascinating people who have given us guidance and we extend a warm thanks to all of them. We were also fortunate in having access to invaluable written sources. The dates of the publication of some of these are given in the final section of the Timeline, as are the dates of the founding of some historical societies, museums, and libraries preserving the region’s history.
Learn more about “the ditch that salt built” click here