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Erie Canal, the Ditch that Changed Our Country

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I grew up only about a mile from one section of the Erie Canal.  Although the Erie Canal celebrated its bicentennial on July 4, 2017, I was unable toErie Canal Commemorative Special Edition attend the festivities.  I just moved from Delaware to Florida and all the moving details got in the way.  Therefore, I am going to jump on the bandwagon anyway because I have memories to share.

First, a brief history for anyone who does not know about the Erie Canal.  Many of the details are from my copy of the Scotchman Shoppers Guide. Today the paper is known as the Eagle Bulletin, a local paper delivered to everyone in the area. On October 1, 1975, the Scotchman dedicated the entire newspaper to the “Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Completion of the Erie Canal”.

Brief History

President George Washington was among other prominent Americans who knew the importance of our country’s rivers and lakes.  With the purchase of Louisiana, the United States then had free and uninterrupted navigation of the Mississippi River.  In 1783 when President Washington was in New York State, he suggested creating an East-West waterway. This would provide interconnection between the Mississippi river as well as East and West navigation.

New York Governor DeWitt Clinton proposed building a canal from the Hudson River to the Great lakes in 1808.  Political opponents referred to the idea as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch”.  Others thought the idea of cutting through 360 miles of swamps, rocky cliffs, and forest wilderness was absolutely ridiculous.

Studies were conducted on a variety of potential routes, their advantages & disadvantages and submitted for approval on March 15, 1810.  The result was approval of an Act on April 8, 1811 to begin implementation of the inland navigation system. However, because military operations of the War of 1812 were focused elsewhere, Erie Canal construction was delayed

When the war ended, interest in an international navigation system in New York State was renewed.  On May 17, 1816, the proposed Erie Canal was divided into three sections.  They were to be between the Hudson River, Lake Erie, and Lake Champlain. They were: Eastern, Middle, and Western.  Eastern was from Albany to Utica or 107 miles.  Middle was from Utica to Montezuma or 96 miles.  Western was from Montezuma to Buffalo or 160 miles.

On April 15, 1817, An Act regarding navigable communications between the Great Western and Northern Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean was passed into law.

Official Ground Breaking

Early Transportation Mode Along the Erie CanalThe official groundbreaking for the Erie Canal was in Rome on July 4, 1817.  It was a ceremonial first digging so that the “official beginning” would be on Independence Day.  The actual work began six days later on July 10, 1817.

The nation’s most important holiday was chosen to give the huge project a favorable start.  Rome, NY was selected because no locks or aqueducts would be required for 80 miles.  The plan was to cross New York State from Albany to Buffalo with a 44-foot wide, four feet deep waterway.  It was to be dug by farmers and laborers with their shovels and horse power.

Between July 4, 1817 and January 31, 1818, only 15 miles had been completed.  Therefore, in order to expedite completion and alleviate potential shortage of labor, a legislative provision for the use of prison labor was enacted.  A variety of Acts were approved with one being: “if a prisoner escaped while so employed, he was to be banished from the State on pain of death should he return at a later date”.

Boats were traveling between Salina, Manlius Center, Kirkville, Pools Brook and Utica on October 1819.  By April 1820, the canal was operational from Rochester to Utica.  Tolls were collected starting July 1, 1820 and the Erie officially opened from Albany to Buffalo with a grand parade of boats in October 26, 1825. Success was not a sure thing.  However, within 10 years there was so much traffic that plans were being made to expand the waterway.  New dimension would be 70-feet wide and seven feet deep as seen today at the Old Erie Canal State Park. The park is in the Town of Manlius.  Fayetteville thrived on the canal trade, but Manlius Village, which depended on road traffic went into decline.  The DeWitt area grew on the railroad business that eventually took over the passenger and then the freight of the canal.

On October 26, 1825, the entire Erie Canal from Buffalo, NY to Albany, NY was completed and connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River.  Celebrations were held all along the Erie Canal from Buffalo, NY to New York City.  On October 27, 1825, a fleet of canal boats entered the canal at Buffalo, NY and arrived in New York City on November 4, 1825.

To continue with the momentum of the Erie Canal, on July 4, 1825, at Licking Summit just south of Newark, Ohio Governor Jeremiah Morrow and New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, the man most responsible for New York’s Erie Canal, turned over the first shovels of dirt of what would become the Ohio and Erie Canal. On July 21, work began at Middletown on the western canal route. This canal became known as the Miami and Erie Canal.

Famous Song

Thomas S. Allen wrote the song “Low Bridge, Everybody Down (singer and historian, Dave Ruch, sings the song as he sits by the Erie Canal [scroll down toward the bottom of the webpage]).  He wrote the song to remember the years from 1825 to 1880 when mule and horse teams pulled barges up and down the Erie Canal.  He wrote it after barge traffic was converted from mule and horse-power to engine power.  Dave Ruch also provides a wealth of information on his website. Scroll down on the page and the first recording that was made on the date that Thomas S. Allen copyrighted the song on November 18, 1912 and was sung by Billy Murray.  Scroll down and Dave Ruch debunks 5 myths about the song.  Scroll farther down and he plays the song as sung by Billy Murray and played on a gramophone.

An interview was held with Walter Conley and published in the Eagle Bulletin on October 19, 1988.  In that interview, he said: “Sometimes “low bridges” was not announced and the ones who didn’t see it were hit. I have been hit but not seriously.  It knocked my hat into the canal and it couldn’t be recovered as the boat was going too fast.”  By the way, the Eagle Bulletin has many articles about the Erie Canal.


I remember having picnic lunches at picnic tables alongside the Erie Canal in Little Falls, NY.  My Dad, several uncles, and friends of his used to go deer hunting every year in Long Lake, NY.  They would bring the deer they caught home, string them up to the rafters of our barn, and clean the deer.  I still remember all the laughing and fun they all had.  After the deer were butchered, wrapped in butcher paper, and everyone had their own deer meat to take home, my Mom and Dad would take my brother, sister, and me to get the deer hides tanned.  The tanner lived in Little Falls, NY.  Sometimes we had a picnic at picnic tables that were alongside the Erie Canal.

My son had his own interaction with the Erie Canal.  He had been working on his Boy Scout Cycling Merit badge for months.  The last set of tasks included 7 bike rides.  Two rides of 10 miles each, had to be completed.  Another task was 2 rides of 15 miles each.  His third task was 2 rides of 25 miles each.  The final ride had to be 50 miles in duration, all to be completed away from main highways.  We lived in the country in Delaware and the roads had no shoulders.  The only roads that did have shoulders were main highways.

Therefore, we made 4 separate trips to my Mom’s home, where he completed 4 of the 7 required rides.  We went to my brother’s house in Central Square, NY and he completed the two 25-mile bike rides with my niece, his cousin.  For the final 50-mile ride, since my Dad lived in Oneida, NY, which is less than 20 miles from Rome, NY, the birthplace of the Erie Canal, it made sense for him to complete the 50-mile ride along the Erie Canal.  He used the Canalway Trail along the Erie Canal from DeWitt, NY to Rome, NY.  My Mother, sister, and I drove in Mom’s camper from our home to Rome, NY to meet my son as he completed his trip.  We celebrated by having a picnic lunch alongside the Erie Canal.

Current Events

A collaborative effort dubbed Elevating Erie is currently underway to promote interest in the history and cultural significance of the area.  The idea is to raise awareness to close a 14-mile gap in the Erie Canalway Trail System.  Even though the original Erie Canal through Central New York has been paved for 100 years, the corridor remained significant to the region by transporting people and goods.  This same corridor now has the potential to become part of the longest continuous bicycle and pedestrian trail in North America!  How cool is that?!?!

Additionally, an article was published in a local newspaper, the Eagle Bulletin dated February 22, 2017, regarding “Spanning the Gap”.  In that article, it asked for interesting stories, facts, or historical information regarding the area…  The gap that the Eagle Bulletin talks about is from Camillus to DeWitt.  Because of all the above, it seems the perfect time to share my memories of the Erie Canal.

By the way, for anyone interested, the 2017 World Canals Conference will be held in Syracuse, NY from September 24 to 28, 2017.  The conference will kick off at Syracuse Inner Harbor on Sunday, September 24th from 1pm to 6pm and will be open to the public.  Per the WCC2017 Schedule: “Come one and all to enjoy a day of fun, learning, entertainment, and merriment on the water”.

Consider visiting 2 museums while you are in the area.  Both museums are free and only ask that you consider giving a donation:

  • The Erie Canal Museum, located at 318 Erie Blvd. E, Syracuse, NY 13202, Tel: 315-471-0593.  Although the museum is not located on the canal, which seems strange, it is located in one of the seven weigh stations on the canal.  One other tidbit of information is that the weigh lock building still stands; however, the Erie Canal has been paved over in that area.  Hence the name: Erie Blvd!  The photo on the right is from TripAdvisor.
  • Salt Museum, located at 106 Lake Drive, Liverpool, NY (315-453-6715).  Syracuse became known as “Salt City” because when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, because of improved and lower cost transportation.  That caused farmers to change from wheat to pork production because curing pork required a lot of salt.  The Erie Canal made it possible to get the salt.  Photo is from Onondaga County Parks.








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