The Erie Canal story

At the most recent meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society, held on March 2nd, the guest speaker was Ray Wigle, development director of the Niagara County Historical Society and director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. He told us about how the Erie Canal came to be and he really put the STORY into hiSTORY. 
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, the Erie Canal brought an influx of people to Buffalo. It truly gave life to Buffalo. Here are some of the highlights of Ray Wigle’s presentation:

  • Ever since the United States became a nation, there was a need for a canal so that goods could be shipped from the coast to the interior of the nation.
  • The Appalachian Mountains served as an effective barrier to transporting goods.
  • It was determined that the best place to create a water shipping route was New York State. However…
    • The Hudson River was navigable
    • but the Mohawk River Valley provided a barrier. It was steep, shallow, and rocky, and, most definitely, not navigable.
  • Solution: build a canal to get past the Appalachian Mountains. The canal would connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie. From there, shipping via water routes could continue through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.
  • The concept of the Erie Canal did not win unanimous support. One of the biggest proponents was DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828). He was the sixth governor of New York and he was largely responsible for building the canal. He felt that the country could be transformed by infrastructure improvements. Opponents, were not impressed by the canal project, referred to it as “Clinton’s ditch.”
  • Construction of the canal began in 1817 in Rome, New York. All construction was done by hand. This project occurred before the industrial revolution.
  • Once construction began, people were able to use the completed portions of the canal immediately, and opposition fell away. In fact, Clinton was actually pushed off of the canal commission because he didn’t move fast enough to get the canal completed.
  • The Niagara Escarpment proved to be a huge barrier to the completion of the canal. It was the edge of a huge plateau/shelf and, in most places, was 300 feet high.
  • Lockport was discovered to be where boats could be lifted, unlike the Niagara Escarpment, where the project of lifting boats would have proven impossible to carry off. In Lockport, the top of the cliff dips down and, at this point, boats would only have to be lifted 60 feet, instead of 300 feet.
  • To lift the boats, huge locks were designed. A standard size lock lifted a boat eight to eight and a half feet. The huge locks that were specially designed could lift boats twelve feet.
  • Five locks in a row were built, called the “flight of five.” The boats were  lifted 60 feet.  
  • The locks were built to accommodate two-way traffic and to eliminate any waiting time.
  • It took two and a half years for the locks to be built. It was a very difficult project.
  • Between Lockport and Pendleton, there were several miles of extremely hard rock.
  • A deep cut had to be made into the hard rock. This was known as the “deep cutting.”
  • The deep cutting was hard work. This small stretch of the canal took three years to build.
  • This image, provided by the speaker to the Grand Island Historical Society, is of one of the locks in Lockport. The below image was also taken in Lockport.
  • The heavy work done for the deep cutting was done with horse-powered cranes. Those cranes were invented by Orringh (“Orange”) Dibble, an engineer. 
  • Nathan Roberts worked as the engineer on the eastern side of New York State.
  • Prior to Dibble’s invention, workers used wheelbarrows to cart away rocks, but that was a slow and laborious process. The deep cutting was considered to be an engineering marvel.
  • The grand opening of the canal was held in 1825. It featured speeches, brass bands, and cannons.
  • Governor Clinton was very excited. He took water from Lake Erie and poured it into the Atlantic Ocean. It was called the “wedding of the waters.”

  • The Erie Canal put Buffalo on the map. It became the terminus for the Great Lakes.
  • New York City became a major seaport, as a result of the Erie Canal.
  • The canal was a source of national pride.
  • The canal network was still going strong after the railroads were built. People used it as passenger transport.
  • The flight of five was modernized in 1835.
  • The canal was animal powered. A towpatch was built alongside the canal, and the animals pulled the boats.
  • The original canal was only four feet deep.
  • The canal was later widened and deepened to its modern state. It is now called the barge canal.
  • There are still two working locks in Lockport.
  • The canal has been designated as a National Historic Corridor.
  • Parks and Trails New York has been working on restoring the towpath. Approximately 85 percent of it has been restored and is usable by hikers and cyclists.
  • Every July, there is a huge bicycle trip. Last year, more than 600 cyclists participated.

5 thoughts on “The Erie Canal story”

  1. I have not been to Lockport, only Fairport – I would love to see one of those Lockport locks in person. I have walked on the towpaths at Fairport and it is so peaceful. I may be taking a couple of days off of work in July to go up and witness the Vote-tilla.What a wonderful collection of facts about the Canal.

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