Erie Canal – Yesterday and Today

The Erie Canal was built at a very high cost between 1817 and 1825. It crossed upstate New York between Albany and Buffalo, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie. At the time it was the nation’s largest artificial waterway and largest public works project.

The Erie Canal connected New York City with the interior of the United States, led to the settlement and growth of Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and many other cities and towns along its route, and made New York City the the country’s principal seaport.

Erie Canal freight barge
Erie Canal boats met Great Lakes freighters at Buffalo

The original Erie Canal was four feet deep and 40 feet wide, had an adjoining tow path for horses or mules that pulled canal boats, and had 83 lift locks to overcome hills along the way. It crossed fields, forests, swamps and rocky hills and mountains. It even included aqueducts where the canal crossed rivers.

Erie Canal aqueduct

Though the Erie Canal is too narrow to be used by today’s commercial barges, it was a major success when built. Before the canal, most freight was moved across the country by ox-cart over rough roads. Moving the same freight (‘lumber, coal and hay”, per the song) through the Erie Canal reduced freight costs by a massive 90%. This provided new markets for midwest farmers, miners, loggers and other businesses.

The Erie Canal also saw heavy use for paying passengers, many of them settlers traveling from New York City to the west. Packet Boats offered a five day trip with food and lodging for a reasonable price.

Erie Canal packet boat replica

As is often true with new technology, the innovative Erie Canal was eclipsed by faster, better, less expensive technology. In this case, the new technology was railroads. In the mid-1800s a growing network of railroads was built across New York. It was far less expensive to build and operate a network of railroads than a canal system. Even after the Erie Canal had been enlarged twice to accomodate larger vessels, competition from railroads reduced its commercial use, and when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 the Erie Canal lost almost all of its business traffic. It now is used mainly by pleasure boats moving from the east coast to the midwest and back.

With commercial barge traffic nearly gone, New York is working to attract new visitors to the Erie Canal. As was the case in 1825, for R&R to get from New York City to the midwest we need to (and get to!) pass through the Erie Canal. We have seen many Loopers and other private boats on the canal and in towns along the way. Erie Canal Cruises offer day-trips to tourists. Restaurants along the way welcome canal boaters with open arms.

New York State Canals also is creating a 400 mile bicycle path along the entire Erie Canal route, from Albany to Buffalo. I joined a group of Loopers on a 10 mile bike ride from the Little Falls town wall to the next lock and back, and was impressed with the recently completed bike trail.

Biking with John and Kathy from Free Spirit

We saw a number of long-distance cyclists riding on this well-built bike path along the canal.

This young man was on a New York City to Los Angeles ride, on a carbon-fiber bicyle with a cargo trailer.

The Erie Canal, a unique piece of history, very enjoyable today, and with plans for the future.

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