Skip to content
Interpreting the Evidence

Drawing by George L. Schillner, c. 1910, of cross-sections of the Erie Canal, showing successive enlargements

  1. Load Drawing by George L. Schillner, c. 1910, of cross-sections of the Erie Canal, showing successive enlargements in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Historical Context:


The Politics of Enlargement

Ronald E. Shaw, Miami University of Ohio 


Built and operated by the state of New York, the Erie Canal was subject to all the strains of the democratic political processes, particularly since New York’s citizens were passionately interested in their canal. 

The original canal had been adequate for the limited commerce existing in western New York in the early 1820s. Yet it was so successful that a scant 10 years later it could no longer handle the volume of trade it had produced. It was clear that New York needed a larger canal. In 1835 the New York legislature passed a law authorizing the widening and deepening of the canal by roughly 75 percent. Construction began in 1836. 

In 1837, however, the economy went from boom to bust. The financial stresses caused by the Depression of 1837 created political conflicts over how to finance the costs of the enlargement. The Whigs, led by Governor William Henry Seward, wanted to move ahead rapidly, borrowing money to be repaid from anticipated tolls. The democrats charged that the Whigs were saddling the people with a huge “Forty Million Debt '' ($10 million a year over four years), which also involved the construction of new, lateral canals, including the Genesee Valley and the Black River canals. In 1842, the Democrats pushed through the “stop and tax” law. Work on the canal was halted, and a tax was imposed to begin payment on the debt. The “stop and tax” law was written into the state constitution in 1846, requiring that every debt for the canals carry a tax. The 1846 constitution also directed that the enlargement of the Erie Canal, as well as the construction of two laterals, the Genesee Valley and the Black River canals, must be completed on a pay-as-you-go basis from canal revenues. As a consequence of the Depression of 1837, other states passed similar stop laws on their public works. Some states defaulted on (refused to pay) their canal debts. 

The Democrats were divided. The conservative “Hunkers” faction (those who wanted to continue funding the canal enlargement and the lateral canals) supported a slower enlargement of the canal (and supposedly favored remaining in office). The “Barnburners” opposed any further debt for the enlargement and wanted a complete halt to canal work until all debt created by the Whigs under Seward had been paid off. (They were so radical that they would supposedly burn down a barn to get rid of its rats.)

By the 1850s, both the Whigs and Hunker Democrats wanted to speed the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Western trade had grown even more rapidly than predicted. Both candidates for governor in 1850, Democrat Horatio Seymour of Utica and Whig Washington Hunt of Lockport, sought ways for the enlargement to move ahead. The short-lived “Nine Million Bill” was devised to surmount the constitutional prohibition of debt without taxation. Barnburner Democrats believed that it violated the constitutional provision of 1846.

After the “Nine Million Bill '' passed in the assembly, 12 Barnburner Democratic senators resigned their seats to prevent Senate action, denying a three-fifths quorum for voting on the bill. This provoked a firestorm of protest. Typical was a mass meeting at Canastota on May 7, 1851, at which citizens of the Second Assembly District of Madison County gathered to protest the action of the 12 senators. Hundreds of ordinary citizens signed a broadside, which also mentions an additional “one thousand others.” George W. Clinton, one of the speakers, was the son of De Witt Clinton. With more than 4,000 boats on the Erie Canal in the year 1851, the stakes and the emotions ran high.

George Washington Hunt called a special session of the legislature, which then passed the “Nine Million BIll.” A Democratic canal board began canal work. The law never went into full effect, because within a year, the Court of Appeals in New York found the “Nine Million Bill” unconstitutional. 

Finally in 1853, after a prolonged conflict in the legislature, Democratic governor Horatio Seymour approved a compromise constitutional amendment allowing a debt of $10,500,000 over four years to be spent on the enlargement of the Erie Canal and completion of the lateral canals. A large majority ratified this amendment in 1854, and enlargement of the Erie was completed in 1862. 


Enlarging and Improving the Canal

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta


Within a few years of the Erie Canal’s completion in 1825, it was obvious that the canal was too small. The volume of traffic had increased amazingly. By the end of the 1834 navigation season - which ran from April through late November or early December - there had been 16,834 departures from Albany alone.  On a single day, Albany saw 70 boat departures. 

In 1835, the New York legislature agreed to enlarge the Erie to dimensions of 70 feet wide at the surface and 56 feet wide at the bottom, with a depth of 7 feet. Lock size would increase to 110 feet by 18 feet, and most locks would be doubled to allow eastbound and westbound traffic to pass simultaneously. The following year, workers began the improvements.     

Construction also started on two lateral canals: the Genesee Valley Canal in 1836 and the Black River Canal in 1838. The Genesee connected to the Erie Canal at Rochester; the Black River joined the Erie Canal at Rome. The plan changed the route of the Erie Canal at Rome to run through the village instead of a half-mile south of it. The villagers felt that the change would be beneficial to the growth of the community, since Rome’s development had lagged behind that of other canal towns. A portion of the original ditch as well as an operating section of the first Erie enlargement can still be seen at Rome. 

Other significant changes to the Erie Canal included reducing the elevation of one 12-mile stretch near Jordan to eliminate two locks; rebuilding the locks at Lockport; and also improving the lower Mohawk Aqueduct, near the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. In addition to the canal enlargement, aqueducts were built to cross all major streams in the Mohawk Valley, the most important being the Schoharie Creek. Schoharie drains a portion of the Catskill Mountains and enters the Mohawk River from the south at the village of Fort Hunter. Workers had built dams near the mouth of the Schoharie as part of the original Erie Canal, raising the level of the creek to allow boats to pass via guard locks, or slack-water navigation, in their journey along the canal. Schoharie Creek flowed through a narrow passage before reaching the Mohawk, intensifying the water’s force; as a result, high waters regularly washed away the dams. Construction of an aqueduct across Schoharie Creek eliminated this problem. Schoharie Crossing, as the area is known, is one of the best sites to observe many of the changes that have been made to the Erie Canal. Nearly half of the great stone aqueduct can still be seen at Fort Hunter. A rare original Erie lock , several enlarged Erie Locks, and a working lock on the modern Erie Canal are still there, too. A short distance east of Fort Hunter, along the line of the old Erie, a canal store has been refurbished and is open for public inspection. 

Upon completion, the Erie Canal’s first enlargement reduced the canal’s length from 363 miles to 350.5 miles and the number of lift locks from 83 to 72. The work was declared completed in 1862 at a cost of nearly $32 million, or four and a half times the amount spent to build the original canal. Boat builders quickly responded to the Erie’s dimensional changes by launching craft with cargo capacities of 210 to 240 tons, as compared with the earlier 70-ton boats. 

By the end of the 19th century, the Erie Canal was to undergo a third enlargement, to increase the water depth to nine feet. However, another state-authorized expansion superseded this project. In 1903, the Barge Canal Act incorporated four of the five remaining upstate canals - the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga and Seneca- into a new Barge Canal System, with a minimum water depth of 12 feet. The act did not include the Black RIver Canal, which doomed it to closure by 1924. The Barge Canal System’s four canals remain in use today and constitute a 500-mile-long network of waterways. 


Improving Lift Locks

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta


Lift locks are an integral part of the operation of the state’s modern canals. Given the terrain through which New York built most of its canals, lift locks are indispensable, since their purpose is to raise and lower vessels. When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal needed 83 locks (an average of one lock per five miles of canal) to overcome the rise of 565 feet between the Hudson River at Albany and Lake Erie. By comparison, the Black River Canal, built through the rugged Tug Hill Plateau, required 109 locks, an average of 15 locks per five miles of canal. 

Construction crews built New York’s canal locks of wood, wood and stone, stone, and reinforced concrete. During the 19th century, cut stone was the preferred material for lock walls; in the 20th century, it was reinforced concrete. Because wood was plentiful, some 19th-century New York canals, such as the Chemung, had wooden locks. The use of wooden lock walls on the Chemung Canal helped make its 39 miles the least expensive to build of any of New York’s canals. But wooden locks deteriorated rapidly, and the Chemung’s were rebuilt twice during the canal’s 45 years of operation. 

Lock walls varied in height, depending on the elevation to be overcome, along with the need to maintain a water depth of four feet. During the 18th and 19th centuries, canal locks had wooden gates. (Today, lock gates on the modern Erie Canal are made of steel and weigh as much as 300 tons.)  Water entered or exited the lock chambers through paddle gates, which were small doors in the main gates. Lock tenders first opened the paddle gates. Then they pushed against heavy beams mounted on top to open or close the main gates. The meeting edges of the gates were angled, so that the gates closed facing inward toward the chamber. This allowed the pressure of water in the lock to keep the gates tightly closed.  Even so, lock gates leaked profusely. Modern steel gates are operated by electricity, as are the valves that control the flow of water into or out of the lock chambers. Nonetheless, water still enters and exits the locks by force of gravity, just as it did centuries ago. 

In addition to the lock gate hinges, canals often have bumpers on the lock walls to help prevent injury to the boats and to the lock walls themselves. In the 19th century, the bumpers consisted of long pieces of wood attached vertically along the lock walls. Occasionally these can still be seen on abandoned canal locks. Today, older stone and modern iron and steel snubbing posts help secure boats in the lock chambers. 

The water chambers of the original Erie Canal locks measure 90 feet by 15 feet. The size of the lock chambers dictated the dimensions of the canal boats. Locks on the original Erie could accommodate boats of approximately 80 feet by 14 feet. The first Erie enlargement increased lock size to 110 feet by 18 feet. Boat builders reacted almost immediately by making larger craft. Newer, larger boats could not use other state canals, since the locks of the attached lateral canals usually were built to the same dimensions as those of the original Erie. Today, the Erie Canal’s concrete locks measure 300 feet long by 44.5 feet wide, with a lift elevation of between 6 feet and 40.5 feet. 


Maintaining the Erie Canal

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta


The maintenance of canals was an additional major expenditure above and beyond the cost of building them. By the middle of the 19th century, New York was operating nearly 800 miles of state-owned canals. In addition, there were roughly 125 miles of privately owned canals. This meant that more than 900 miles of canal ditch and hundreds of locks, aqueducts, waste-weirs, bridges, and reservoirs required frequent repair and regular refurbishing. 

New York’s weather was the major culprit in damaging canals, but animals and people also played a role. Freezing conditions closed New York canals every year from the end of November or early December until late March or April. During the winter, canal workers drained the ditches of as much water as possible. This reduced the weakening effect of frost heaves - alternate freezing and thawing - on the canal banks. Water was let into the canals in the spring. Then, the increased water pressure plus the turbulence caused by the wakes of canal boats - especially packet boats racing faster than the law allowed - regularly caused sections of the canal banks to collapse. When this occurred, canallers said that the banks had “gone out.” Of course, when a portion of a canal bank “went out,” so did the water and any boats that were navigating that part of the canal. Water drained completely out of a damaged canal section until it reached closed lock gates, which would finally halt the outflow. A photograph of a large number of workers fixing a break in the Erie Canal banks near Sprakers, in the middle Mohawk Valley, captures the effort necessary to keep the canal in good repair. 

The worst break in New York’s canal history occurred in July 1897 on the Black River Canal, when 400 feet of towpath bank went out. More than 1,700 men worked for a month to repair the break. At the time, the repair cost more than $62,000, or more than $2 million today. Laborers repairing the canal break received $1.65 per day, and owners of each of the 250 teams of draft animals leased for the repairs received 35 cents per hour. The first Black River break was followed by two other breaks. Because all the breaks were located in a small area, officials suspected vandalism rather than the climate. Authorities called in Pinkerton Agency detectives and arrested some 20 men. 

Sometimes animals caused canal breaks. Muskrats did the most damage. These mammals live in burrows located in the banks of streams or canals. When the muskrat population grew too large, their burrowing caused the canal banks to collapse. Trapping was the main method used to control the muskrat population. 

An expense account details maintenance work on the Erie Canal during January and February 1830. The document shows the amounts paid to individuals and the purpose of each payment. Routine repairs often took place during the winter months, when the canal was not in operation. Maintenance workers refurbished and replaced locks and other canal structures. They also fixed iron lock hardware and rebuilt wooden lock gates. 

A bill for professional services submitted by John B. Jervis, a civil engineer, to Canal Commissioner WIlliam C. Bouck relates to canal maintenance rather than construction. Jervis was one of the leading engineers in 19th-century America. Bouck was elected governor of New York in 1842. The Canal Commission consulted Jervis on repairing the Erie Canal near Schenectady and on constructing a new dam across Schoharie Creek. Floods near the confluence of Schoharie Creek and the Mohawk River had destroyed a large number of the creek’s dams. In 1836, Bouck asked Jervis to submit a design for an aqueduct to cross over the Schoharie and eliminate the need for dams. Jervis did so, just before leaving the Erie enlargement project to become chief engineer of New York City’s Croton Aqueduct.

Among the costliest of the state canals to maintain was the Genesee Valley. During its 37 years of operation, New York spent $2,815,000 on repairs, against an income of only $860,000. This is one of the reasons the state closed it in 1878. Another expensive canal to maintain was the Chemung. The main canal’s 49 wooden lift locks had to be replaced twice as a result of deterioration. The Chemung Canal was also closed in 1878.