On July 4, the kids and I went to Rome, NY, to the Erie Canal Village. I’ve blogged about our day there, Part 1 and Part 2. What an adventure it was! One of the best parts was riding the horse-drawn packet boat down the sliver of the old Erie Canal. Here’s a video I made of the idyllic experience. If it wasn’t for the power lines in the meadows and the sounds of traffic on the roads, you’d think you were transported back to 1830 or so, at the height of the Canal’s popularity. The ride was so peaceful and the scenery so beautiful, I wish it would never stop.
You’d never know it today, but before the Erie Canal, traveling west from the eastern seaboard of the United States was almost impossible. The Adirondacks to the North all the way to Canada barred the northern pass, and the Appalachians from Canada down to the Carolinas were impassable until the airplane was invented. The only way west was through Central New York, and that was by oxen-driven carts or wagons.
I wrote a post about the uniqueness of the Mohawk Valley geography and the transportation boom here.
The Erie Canal was the brainchild of decades of inspiration and planning by some of our newly independent and ambitious American forefathers. When the plan was finalized in 1817 and the first shovelful of dirt removed (in Rome, where the Erie Canal Village is located), some scoffed and said it could never be done. President Thomas Jefferson said it was “little short of madness to think of it!” New York State is rugged country– millions of tons of soil and solid rock had to be removed; millions of gallons of water from swamps and rivers had to be reorganized and displaced. Where the Canal had to cross over bridges, aqueducts were created and the waters of the Canal elevated; where mountains stood in its way, dynamite blasted the New York bedrock into movable pieces. This was before bulldozers and cranes. Thousands of men lost their lives to accidents, disease, and exhaustion.
When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for horses, mules, and oxen led by a boy boat driver or “hoggee”. The Erie Canal.org
New York State is not flat land– it’s very mountainous. Our highest point is Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, at 5,344 ft, and we have all mountains and hills in between. If the Erie Canal was to be built straight across the state, all the waters of Lake Ontario would soon drain into the Atlantic Ocean, like a waterfall, lol! Thus, the “canal lock” was created. There’s a good explanation about how the locks work here. I found this cute animated icon that helps.
Some called the Erie Canal the Eighth Wonder of the World. Many had said it couldn’t be done. The completion of the Canal and the burst of business it brought catapulted New York State into fame and riches, earning its nickname, “The Empire State.” All the wealth of the Westward Expansion passed over New York State soil. Before the Erie Canal, New Orleans was the nation’s biggest harbor; after the Erie Canal, Upstate New York thrust New York City into the limelight, and its harbor became one of the largest in the world.
Today, most of the old Canal is in ruins. Some has been preserved for tourist attractions, like the Erie Canal Village in Rome. Some has been modified for recreational boating uses. The canal was rerouted for heavy cargo passage and renamed The New York State Barge Canal, but interest in the Canal waned because of faster methods, like railroad, and then trucks. Interestingly, because of high gasoline prices, transporting of goods by the canal is seeing renewed interest.
We’ve been to a few museums dedicated to the Erie Canal. You can read about them here: