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Historical Context: 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.