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Interpreting the Evidence

Erie Canal Locks at Lockport, Mules on Towpath, c. 1890s

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Western New York
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Erie Canal Locks at Lockport, Mules on Towpath, c. 1890s in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Erie Canal locks at Lockport, New York, with harnessed mules in the foreground, c. 1890s.
Historical Context
The Erie Canal stretches 363 miles from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo.  Ground was broken in Rome, New York, in 1817 to commence the building of the Erie Canal.  In 1825, Governor Clinton opened the canal, also known as "Clinton's Ditch," by taking a boat ride the entire length of the Erie Canal. Starting out in Buffalo, he filled two barrels of water from Lake Erie; nine days later, he completed his ride in Albany.  Then he continued down the Hudson River to New York City. To celebrate the distance he traveled on the canal, Governor Clinton dumped the two barrels of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. This became known as the "Wedding of the Waters."

The canal carried barges.  Most of these boats had flat bottoms for carrying goods.  Mules and horses on land pulled the barges through the canal using ropes.  Eighty-three devices, called locks, raised the barges on the canal by more than 170 meters from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The cost to ship goods by canal dropped to $10 per ton, as compared to $100 per ton by road. The Erie Canal transformed the towns and settlements along the waterway into thriving centers.  

New York State began to enlarge the Erie Canal in 1836.  The enlargement of the combined Locks 67–71 in Lockport was completed in 1858.  The locks were increased from their original size of 90 x 15 feet to 110 x 18 feet.  This increased the amount of weight that could be carried on the canal boats from 75 to 240 tons.

Essential Question
How does geography impact technology?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain how the geography influenced the development of this technology.
Historical Challenges
Draw a map depicting the geographic changes that resulted from the enlargement and completion of the locks.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Determine the distance in miles between Lockport and Albany. Then calculate how much time it would take to drive the distance if you were traveling sixty miles an hour.
Science: Research which simple machine was used to pull the boats along the canal.