The Erie Canal, New York State, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Erie Canal, New York State, USA

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A man steering a barge on a canal
I've got a mule and her name is Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie Can-al
She's a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie Can-al
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal and hay
And ev'ry inch of the way we know,
From Al-ba-ny to Buff-a-lo OH

Low bridge, ev'ry body down,
Low bridge for we're com-in to a town
And you'll al-ways know your neighbor,
You'll al-ways know your pal,
If you've ever navigated on the Er-ie Can-al

- American folk song

Widely regarded as the fictional subject of an age-old American folk song, the Erie Canal does in fact exist. Although the canal is now a relatively minor commercial waterway, it is still a popular destination for nature enthusiasts and tourists of all ages. The canal brought about the great westward movement of American settlers, provided access to the rich land and resources found west of the Appalachian Mountains, and it transformed New York into the most important commercial city in the United States.

Clinton's Big Ditch

When New York State Governor Dewitt Clinton proposed a waterway linking the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, President Thomas Jefferson remarked that his plans were 'little short of madness'. The proposal was christened 'Clinton's Folly' and 'Clinton's Big Ditch' by its opponents, and won little popular support. Despite vast opposition, the governor refused to abandon his dream, eventually convincing the state legislature to grant seven million dollars for the construction of a 363-mile long, 40-foot wide, four-foot deep canal.

A Man-made Wonder

When the canal opened in 1825, it was considered to be the greatest engineering feat of its day. At the time of its construction, not a single engineering school existed in the United States. As work progressed, roads were built in order to transport supplies. Remarkably, the entire 363-mile canal was built solely by the muscle power of men and horses, with 'black powder' (gun powder) being used only to blast through the occasional obstructing rock formation. Upon completion, the canal included 18 aqueducts and 83 locks, with a total rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

The Marriage of the Waters

Eight years after construction began, Governor Clinton left Buffalo aboard the canal boat Seneca Chief to open the Erie Canal. When he departed, cannons situated throughout the state were fired, carrying news of his departure to New York City in less than two hours. When the governor arrived in New York harbour, nine days later, he was greeted by thousands of New Yorkers, and nearly 150 vessels. Aboard the Seneca Chief were two barrels of water, taken from Lake Erie, which were emptied into the ocean during a ceremony celebrating the 'Marriage of the Waters' between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

Clinton's Big Success

The canal was an instant commercial success, partly because it reduced travel time from the East Coast to the resource-rich West by half, and also because it reduced shipping costs by 90%1. Barges constantly carried goods, such as wheat, between cities and towns, while lightweight box-shaped 'packet boats' transported passengers to their destinations. The packet boats, which were pulled along the canal by horses (or, more commonly, mules) trotting along towpaths, had space for luggage in the bottom, while passengers sat atop the large, flat roof2. Boats could make the 363-mile trip in three-and-a-half days, making it the quickest mode of travel through the state at that time.

Completion of the canal brought about an explosion in trade. New York City, which had previously been the nation's fifth largest seaport, quickly became America's busiest port, moving more cargo than the other largest seaports combined. The extent of the canal's influence can still be seen today by looking at a modern map of the state. Every major city in New York3 lies along the trade route of the Erie Canal, and approximately 75% of the state's population still live within the canal corridors.

The Erie Canal Today

The increasingly widespread use of the railroad as a quick and efficient mode of travel greatly decreased commercial traffic on the canal. The construction of highways, especially the Thruway, also contributed to the canal's decreasing popularity and by 1980 the grand waterway was virtually obsolete. Many sections of the canal were abandoned, becoming filled with rubbish4 as well as overgrown trees and plants.

In more recent years, there have been many efforts to revive sections of the canal, providing a pleasant atmosphere for both man and beast. Today, the canal is home to a wide variety of animals, including box turtles, snapping turtles, ducks, geese, a variety of fish, and beavers. Long sections of the original towpath have been restored. The 'Erie Canal Trail' spans for miles, and is used for walking, biking, and running, along with cross-country skiing and snowmobiling during the winter months. The water itself is generally used by recreational boaters who come from miles around in order to enjoy a relaxing trip down the canal. Parks and picnic areas located along the way are popular stops for the weary traveller. Some parks are located at locks, where the casual observer can watch as boats are lifted or lowered to different water levels.

Frozen in Time

For travellers who are interested not only in the recreational opportunities which the Erie Canal has to offer, but also in its historical value as well, a quick meander to one of the many canal museums is a must. Conveniently located along the canal, no more than 40 miles apart, the museums offer an enriching and educational, not to mention fun, experience for the young and old alike.

The Erie Canal Village

5789 New London Road, Rome, New York

Dubbed the 'Canal Capital' by its creators, the Erie Canal Village is a living history museum where you can take a walk back in time and experience what life was like when the canal was still new. The museum is located on an original portion of the Erie Canal, and contains 15 historic structures built during the 1840s to the 1860s. Although the village buildings are authentic, none of them originally existed at their current site. Instead, each building was transported from nearby towns.

Visitors can tour the old buildings and watch demonstrations by blacksmiths, crafters and other townspeople, all of whom wear authentic period attire. No trip to the village is quite complete unless you let Sal the mule haul you down the Old Erie Canal in the village's reconstructed packet boat.

The Erie Canal Museum

318 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse, New York

Considered to be the nation's leading maritime museum specialising in Erie Canal history, the Erie Canal Museum is an excellent source of historical information about the waterway. The museum is housed in the 1850 Weighlock Building which is the only surviving canalboat weighing station. Offerings include an orientation theatre programme, a variety of exhibits, a research library (open to the public upon request) and a full-size canal boat which visitors are allowed to explore.

Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum

7010 Lakeport Road, Chittenango, New York

This historic location on the Old Erie Canal in Chittenango was a construction and repair station for canal boats during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The landing features a three bay dry dock, a reconstructed mitre and drop gates, the remains of a sunken canal boat, a saw mill, a blacksmith shop, a woodworking shop, and an interpretive centre. Visitors may also participate in towpath walks or dig for artefacts along the canal.

1Cargo which would cost $100 per ton to haul over land cost only $10 to ship on the canal.2Boat operators typically warned their passengers to duck their heads when approaching towns, as they would have to pass under low bridges.3With the exception of Elmira and Binghamton.4Particularly discarded tyres.

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