Photograph of the Urger at New York City near South Street Seaport, 1994
Suggested Teaching Instructions
A New Canal System
Michele McFee, Historian
It was unheard of. Citizens were turning their backs on their aging friend, the Erie
Canal! On October 26, 1903, a statewide vote on $101 million in proposed canal improvements was just a week away. Many people in upstate New York, including some residents of Binghamton in Broome County, believed that this new Barge Canal, with its proposed 1,000-ton vessels, would not be worth the taxpayers' money. That much money (more than the value of all the public schools in the state) was too much, especially for Broome County citizens. After all, canal traffic had decreased in the last few years, and many more people and goods now traveled by train. Durable rails, large cars, greater loads, faster speed, and more reliable delivery made railroads a better choice. Trains were a common sight in Binghamton, and a number of railroads were well established there by the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the Chenango Canal, which linked the city with the Erie Canal in the mid-1800s, had closed three decades earlier, severing the county's loyalty to canal travel. Even more important, Broome County residents saw no direct benefit from the new canal, located at least 75 miles away.
The Erie Canal, which had once brought settlers, prosperity, and fame to New York State, was old-fashioned by 1900. Those in favor of the 1903 Barge Canal System argued that the new canal would be much deeper, wider, and more modern than the previous Erie Canal and its branches. Boats would no longer have to be pulled by mules or horses. New vessels built for the improved canal would be either self propelled or towed by tugboat. New engineering would allow the canal's improvers to harness rivers and lakes for navigation instead of digging ditches. Concrete, a relatively new building material, would replace cut stone during construction of the larger locks. These improvements would eventually allow boats to carry 100 times more cargo than those on the first Erie Canal. Canal supporters everywhere appealed to the patriotic pride of New Yorkers to maintain their national treasure.
When the vote did finally take place on November 3, 1903, almost 75 percent of the 1,100,000 people who turned out at the polls approved the canal proposition. It had great support in the populous counties at either end of the Erie Canal. Supporters hoped the canal would help New York City remain a commercial giant, because grain and other products from the West would still be brought there. Buffalo would get cheap raw materials for its iron and steel industry. Other communities that benefited from such bulk shipments for manufacturing also voted for the canal.
Although the voters authorized $101 million for the canal at the time, the eventual cost rose to $170 million. The first shovelful of dirt was moved in 1905, and the waterway's improvements were completed on May 15, 1918. Although today the canal is not used for commercial cargo, many New Yorkers remember the days when barges loaded with oil, grain, molasses, fertilizer, wood, sugar, and even automobiles would pass through their villages and cities on the canal. In 1951, when Barge Canal traffic reached its peak, oil was shipped in greater quantities than any other product.
The Barge Canal maintains through living history the traditions of the Erie Canal. Sleek pleasure boats have taken the place of huge barges and rugged tugboats. Boaters today can still ply more than 500 miles of waterway on the Erie, the Oswego, the Champlain, and the Cayuga-Seneca canals, which make up the Barge Canal System. They can rise and descend slowly through the 58 locks, pass under the dozen or so lift bridges, and at a leisurely pace take in the many small villages, wide lakes, and picturesque rivers of this part of New York. Amazingly, much of the same operating machinery installed in 1918 — the lock gates, gears, and control panels, for instance is still used, adding to the historic charm of the modern waterway.
The Recreationway Plan
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
In June 1995, the Smithsonian Institution conducted a tour of the Erie Canal from
Syracuse to Buffalo. It was a fascinating and informative experience. As the scenery passed at a leisurely eight miles per hour, it was easy to observe the detail and diversity of the canal and its environs. Wildlife in the canal and along the water's edge seemed undisturbed by the tour boat as it steadily made its way west. The landscape frequently changed to reflect the variety of forests and fields so picturesque in upstate New York Without the noisy rush of car traffic, it was easy to imagine what travel was like when canals were a principal mode of transportation.
The opportunity to glide along the waterway by tour boat is only one of the many benefits New York canals have to offer as a tourism and recreation resource. Others became apparent as the tour boat continued its westward journey. Passengers encountered fishermen frequently, angling from boats and from the canal banks. The Erie literally abounded with fish — passengers could see them jumping from the water. Cabin cruisers, sailboats, and charter boats passed. The charter boats, some resembling the old packet boats, varied in length from 30 to 50 feet and could accommodate up to 12 people.
As the tour boat neared larger communities along the Erie Canal, it passed dinner boats out for an evening. Passengers on these craft could relax over a meal while taking in canal sights during two- or three-hour dinner cruises.
A few miles east of Rochester, the tour boat approached Fairport. There a canal-side commercial area served tourists both on and off the waterway. There were numerous shops and restaurants, as well as canoe and rowboat rentals offering on-the-water recreation. Such areas are reminiscent of the “canal towns'' and 19th-century commercial areas that sprang up to serve the canallers.
Examples of the state's historical past are ever-present along New York's artificial waterways, especially the Erie Canal. In addition to the special canal sites themselves
— such as the series of old locks at Lockport that parallel the modern locks, or the remains of the Schoharie Aqueduct at Fort Hunter — there are many places of historical importance that can be seen from the boats or accessed easily from the canals. The Mohawk Valley section of the Erie Canal, for example, is rich in Colonial and Revolutionary War history. Since the Mohawk River played a crucial transportation role in the state's early period, some of the relatively rare buildings that predate the struggle for independence in that region are on or near the canal banks. The areas near the Erie Canal west of Rochester are significant to the history of the post-1790 period of New York, as is the eastern region between Albany and Rome.
New York's canals have considerable tourism potential. To better emphasize this asset and to develop the canals more fully as recreational facilities, a New York State Canal Recreationway Plan was prepared in 1995. The plan set forth three fundamental goals: to preserve the best of the past, to enhance recreational activities, and to foster appropriate and sustainable economic development. To create the recreationway, planners recommended a four-part program: First, develop a network of canal landings to provide activities; second, develop enhanced opportunities for recreational boating; third, complete the end-to-end Canalway Trail and associated recreational improvements; fourth, designate a scenic byway on roads along the canals and provide other access improvements.
The plan calls for building canal landings to provide tourists and local residents better access to services and activities. Several harbors are to be constructed and existing ones improved. The principal harbors are planned for Whitehall, Waterford, Little Falls, Syracuse, Oswego, Seneca Falls, Rochester, and the Tonawandas. Also, 96 port and lock locations are to provide sites for visitor services between the principal canal harbors.
It will take time and considerable state and private-sector financial investment to carry out the Recreationway Plan. The canals are an existing resource, however, with an almost unlimited potential for tourism and recreational use.