Photograph of the Rochester weigh lock building
Suggested Teaching Instructions
Erie Canal Freight
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
The thousands of boats that plied the Erie and other canals in the 19th century fell into two categories; packet boats and freight boats. Packet boats were designed to carry people and had cabins stretching nearly from bow (front section of a vessel) to stern (rear section of a vessel). Freighters generally had two small shelters at either end of the boat. Often family-owned, the freight bowat housed people in the stern cabin and stabled horses or mules in the bow cabin. Non-working animals rested on the boat between towing shifts. The remainder of the space on a freight boat was for cargo.
New York put the first section of the Erie Canal into service as soon as workers had completed the stretch between Utica and Montezuma. Beginning in 1820, New York collected tolls on the freight moved the canal to help defray the $7,500,000 that would be spent on its construction. Toll collectors used charts listing the toll rates, usually based on weight, for the various kinds of merchandise moved along the waterway. The 1842 listing for the freight boat Equal Rights is illustrative of the variety of goods moved on the canal and the tolls paid.’
Usually agricultural products moved east and manufactured goods traveled west. Before the opening of the Erie Canal, Genesee Valley wheat took 20 days to reach Albany by wagon. The cost to move a ton of wheat was $100. With the completion of the canal, a ton of wheat could make the trip all the way to New York City in just 10 days for only $5 in transportation charges. In 1825, roughly 562,000 bushels of wheat, plus 221,000 barrels of flour, 435,000 gallons of whiskey, and 32 million board feet of lumber helped make up the 185,000 tons of eastbound canal cargo. Only 32,000 tons were shipped west, consisting mainly of manufactured goods.
The total amount of freight moved on the Erie Canal increased in volume as the years went by. Although it took until 1845 for annual tonnage to surpass one million, the two-million-ton mark was topped only seven years later. By 1860, freight totals on the canal had increased to 1,896,975 tons eastbound and 379,000 tons westbound. In 1862, swollen by Civil War shipments, canal freight traffic exceeded three million tons. This high rate of tonnage continued after the end of the war and during much of the next three decades. In fact, in 1880 the Erie Canal experienced its greatest year, with 4,608,651 tons carried.
The huge amount of trade on the canal produced considerable revenue for the state of New York. Tolls collected in 1820 totaled a mere $28,000; four years later, before the canal was officially opened, canal traffic had surged to 10,000 boats paying $300,000 in tolls.
Soon thereafter, the state-owned waterway began to experience competition from privately owned railroad lines. Shortly after the Erie Canal opened in October 1825, promoters of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, New York’s first railroad, began selling stock. They insisted that their line between Schenectady and Albany would complement canal traffic, not compete with it. This railway, which opened in 1831, in fact did not parallel the Erie Canal’s more circuitous route between the two cities. With the completion in 1836 of the Utica and Schenectady Railroad, however, the Erie Canal was clearly challenged. This rail line paralleled the canal for the entire 78 miles between the two cities. The New York legislature reacted to the threat by enacting a law to protect the canal, forbidding the Utica and Schenectady Railroad to carry freight. As more railroads were built, however, attitudes changed. By the 1850s, the legislature eliminated restrictions on the Utica and Schenectady Railroad.
In 1882, New York ceased collecting tolls on its canals. By then, the total amount of toll money that had entered state coffers from the Erie Canal was nearly $121 million. During 28 of the 62 years in which tolls were charged, the annual total surpassed two million dollars. In 1862, the peak year for toll collection, more than $4,500,000 was collected. Unlike many canals built after the Erie, the “Grand Canal” paid off handsomely as an investment.
Art and Nature: Touring on a Packet Boat
Carol Sheriff, College of William and Mary
When Clarissa Burroughs left her New Jersey home in 1835 to travel on the Erie Canal, she brought with her more than a diary in which to record her experiences for her mother. She also brought a host of expectations about what she would see and what her journey should accomplish.
Like so many other middle-class tourists of her time, Burroughs traveled along the Erie Canal to witness the juxtaposition of “art” and the beauties of nature. When such tourists spoke of art, they meant the technological achievements of humankind. There was no greater emblem of human progress than the 363-mile Erie Canal. When they spoke of nature, they meant “sublimely beautiful nature,” associating the splendors of the landscape with the work of God. The Erie Canal allowed tourists like Burroughs to seek a spiritual retreat into nature, in areas that were previously too remote for all but the most rugged adventures.
Burroughs did not set out with blind optimism. By the time she began her voyage, many tourists had already traveled along the Erie Canal and recorded their thoughts in published journals or in personal correspondence. Burroughs thought she knew what to dread as well as well as what to anticipate eagerly. Yet her experiences often defied her expectations. So although she was pleasantly surprised, for example, to find some obliging boat hands and some agreeable fellow passengers, she disagreed vehemently with earlier tourists who had written glowingly about the sleeping accommodations. Burroughs was constantly worried about being tossed from her bed when the boat thumped against the sides of a lock. She frequently complained about the dirty, cramped, and noisy interior. Yet, she had known enough about the discomforts and tedium of boat travel to plan part of her journey on railroads and horse-drawn stagecoaches.
If the delays and other details of packet boat travel were sometimes annoying, Burroughs nonetheless found plenty to celebrate in the slow-paced canal. The Erie Canal was a wonder of human ingenuity. Its “art” represented nothing less than “the powers of mind, the enterprise & industry of man.” People came from all over the world to admire its locks, aqueducts, and artificial gorges, which were the engineering marvels of their day. Where nature had thrown obstacles in humanity’s way, humanity had responded by leveling mountains, lifting an entire waterway into the air, and seemingly making water run uphill. The Erie Canal stood for progress, the ability of humanity to subdue nature and to craft a civilized society out of wilderness. Because of the canal, dense forests and Indian villages had been replaced by what Burroughs and her fellow tourists saw as signs of progress: gardens, churches, paved streets, literary societies and a statehouse.
And yet if humanity’s progress was worthy of celebration, it was also dwarfed by the majesty of God’s creation. If the Erie Canal brought Burroughs past flourishing young towns, it also carried her into the “sublime” or “romantic” landscapes that were God’s works, not man’s. Burroughs was “riveted” by the scenery and by the intensity of her own feelings. She was reminded that she was in places where “the fancies of man cannot reach . . . He may admire & while admire adore the Creator & tremble at His power.”
The mid-1830s was a time of rapid change in the northern United States. Along with the revolution in transportation had come market expansion, industrial growth, and urban development. When boat workers were surly or haggled with passengers, Burroughs was reminded that “in traveling everyone is for himself” and that in society as a whole people seemed increasingly individualistic, competitive, and harried.
As the nation underwent rapid economic growth, many middle-class people like Burroughs worried that social decay would accompany it. She set out on her trip in hopes of finding reassurance that such need not be the case. For tourists who saw a trip on the canal as a retreat from the commercial bustle of the urban Atlantic coast, the Erie Canal’s mixture of art and nature could also affirm what they wanted to believe: that it was not necessary to choose between material progress and a society in which God and nature held sway. Burroughs, for her part, went home secure in the notion that progress could be consistent with God and nature. Indeed, progress, as represented by the Erie Canal, could be awe-inspiring in and of itself.