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Historical Context: The Lateral Canals

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta

The Erie Canal was a phenomenal and almost instant success. It led to a substantial concentration of people and wealth in the corridor between Albany and Buffalo. The booming prosperity along the banks of the Erie was the envy of upstate New Yorkers who did not live near the "Grand Canal.” They lobbied lawmakers in Albany for connections to the Erie Canal and its stream of commerce. By the 1850s, nine connecting, or lateral, canals had been built by the state to tie its northern and southern tiers to the main Erie line. Private companies constructed two more canals through which connections could be made to the Erie. 

The Champlain Canal, the first of New York's lateral canals, was completed in 1823. It had been authorized at the same time as the Erie but was completed two years earlier. The 66-mile Champlain Canal between Waterford and Whitehall connected 125-mile-long Lake Champlain with the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. The Champlain Canal provided an easy all-water route to the eastern Adirondacks, western New England, and Canada. It was second only to the Erie Canal in total tonnage carried and in the amount of tolls collected. The Champlain Canal remains in operation. 

Two other laterals still in operation are the Oswego Canal and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. The Oswego joins the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario. It runs between Syracuse and Oswego. The Oswego River provided slack-water navigation along nearly 19 of the Oswego Canal's 38 miles, which helped make the canal one of the least expensive to build. The Cayuga-Seneca Canal's 22 miles connect the two long north-south lakes of Cayuga and Seneca with the Erie Canal. Like the Oswego Canal, the Cayuga and Seneca took advantage of slack-water navigation along 11 miles of the Seneca River. Opened in 1828, the canal had 12 lift locks, made of wood. By 1847, stone structures with the same dimensions as the locks on the 1836 Erie enlargement replaced the Cayuga and Seneca's wooden locks. In 1918, the Oswego Canal and the Cayuga and Seneca Canal joined the Erie and the Champlain canals in the Barge Canal System. 

The other state-financed laterals were not as economically successful as those incorporated into the Barge Canal System. First, they were usually very expensive to construct. Second, these expensive laterals suffered from lack of traffic, compounded by competition from railroads. New York abandoned most of these canals before the end of the 19th century. Only the Black River Canal between the Erie Canal at Rome and the Black River at High (Lyon's) Falls managed to survive into the 20th century; it operated until 1924. This 35-mile-long canal required 109 lift locks, most of which were needed to traverse the rugged plateau between Rome and Boonville in the Black River valley. Of course, the locks added significantly to the cost of construction. 

Among the most expensive and unprofitable of the laterals was the Genesee Valley Canal.  It ran between Rochester and Olean, near the Pennsylvania border. The canal required 104 lift locks to cross the Appalachian Uplands, bringing the total construction cost of the canal to nearly $5,700,000. 

The Chenango Canal between Utica and Binghamton was an interbasin canal, as were some of the other laterals. Interbasin canals connected two separate watersheds. It was difficult to find a sufficient water supply at the summit level of interbasin canals. Given the natural flow of water, whenever a boat was locked from one level to another, a quantity of water was wasted to the lower level, and there was nothing to replace the water at the top. Such was the case with the Chenango. Seven reservoirs were built to supply the summit level of the Chenango Canal. Some still exist in the vicinity of Hamilton, even though the canal was closed in 1878. Other state-built lateral canals were the Chemung Canal between Seneca Lake and Elmira; the Crooked Lake Canal between Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake; and the Oneida Lake Canal, from the Erie Canal to the eastern end of Oneida Lake. 

Private companies built two canals in New York. The Delaware and Hudson Canal was the more  successful of the two. It ran from the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania to Kingston, New York, on the Hudson River. The other privately owned canal was the Junction Canal, built to connect the Chemung Canal at Elmira with the canals of Pennsylvania.