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Historical Context: 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.