The Erie Canal Museum in in Syracuse, NY. What a terrific Museum! My kids did not want to leave. We spent about an hour and a half enjoying the displays and numerous hands-on activities for the kids. New York State has an education program that teaches the history of the Erie Canal. The Museum is geared toward this; it’s very appealing to children. It’s pretty obvious that my own kids heartily enjoyed it.
I went on a photography blitz here, taking more than 60 photographs. There was just so much to see and do! Of course, I can’t possibly post all the photos and information in one article. I am breaking up our visit into two posts. Be sure to read each one to get a well-rounded virtual visit.
After the massive parking woes, we found a parking spot and piled out of the van. Here’s the landmark, in case you ever need to find the Museum. The Museum is across the street from this statue.
The Museum is housed in the old “weighlock building,” built in 1850 (during the Greek Revival days of Upstate New York). It is the only remaining weighlock building of its kind, in the world.
A weighlock building weighed the canal boats. Tolls were charged for every packet boat that used the Erie Canal, and these tolls were determined by a boat’s weight. The concept of weighing packet boats blows my mind. This is from the Museum’s website at www.eriecanalmuseum.org/weigh_hist.asp:
The weighing process was simple. Boats entered the weighlock chamber. The gates closed, securing the boat in the chamber. Next, water was drained out through an underground culvert to Onondaga Creek. This left the boat resting on a large wooden cradle which was attached to a huge scale mechanism. Tolls were calculated by subtracting the empty weight of the boat from the full weight. Tolls were paid on the difference. Once this was done, water was added to the chamber and the boat was on its way. When all went well, this whole process took about 15 minutes.
The Erie Canal used to run down Erie Boulevard. What a difference it is now.
In 1907, the underground culvert collapsed, sending water from the Erie Canal (not to mention several packet boats) down into a sinkhole.
The Museum website has tons of excellent information. I found this section fascinating, because it gives you an idea of the efficacy of the Canal itself:
By 1883, more than $121 million dollars had been collected. The tolls not only covered the cost of constructing the canal, but also paid for repairs, operation and even the construction of the enlarged Erie Canal. Tolls were abolished…
The Erie Canal remained a vital transportation route throughout the Civil War. But, with the emergence of railroads, the Erie slowly began to decline. Thoughts turned to making a canal that could accommodate large barges. So, the Barge Canal was built between 1905-1918 at an initial cost of $101 million. Unlike the Erie Canal, the Barge Canal System, which is still in operation, makes use of natural waterways and needs no towpath.
The last canal boat passed through downtown Syracuse in 1922. Sewers, waterlines and other public services were laid in the old canal bed and then covered with dirt and blacktop to make the roadways. The section on which the Syracuse Weighlock Building faced became Erie Boulevard.
So was it worth it, building the Erie Canal?
In the 1930s, the weighlock building was converted into office buildings. It became a museum in 1962.
The entrance to the Museum is in a lovely little alley with a great big mural of Erie Canal life. From the second floor, you can see the mural very well through the windows.
We walked in to a pleasant lobby, where we were directed to a media room to watch a video. It was the best video I’ve ever seen about the Erie Canal. It discussed the changing demographics and economics of Upstate New York (and then the rest of the country) before and after the construction of the canal. Before 1817, when the first shovelful was dug, most of New York State (and the country) were of Dutch, English, Scotch, and French heritage. These are the peoples who basically compiled the plans and began the construction of the canal. As the canal was being built, and with the relaxing of immigration laws in 1820, floods of immigrants came to America. The chart below gives you an idea of how the demographics of our country changed in such a short period of time (click to enlarge):
I snapped photos of a few very interesting plaques with more information. I recommend reading them, as they are extremely informative. There’s one here called “Who Built the Erie Canal? and another here called “Labor on the Canal.” Outstanding!
Well, while I was reading plaques about the fascinating demographics, the children had skittered away to the packet boat. I could hear them shouting excitedly, “Hey, Mom, come here!”
Inside the boat were more displays and hands-on displays.
The kids could have spent days on the boat!
We couldn’t stay in the boat forever. I wanted to see the rest of the museum, and promised them that we could return to the boat at the end. Stay tuned for Part 2! Wait until you see what we found! Part Two is here.