One of the iconic names in American history is the Erie Canal in upstate New York. From 1817 to 1825, men and horses dug a 363-mile path from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, providing a faster way for goods to flow to and from the Northwest territories (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio). In providing a waterway to the heart of the continent, the Erie Canal changed history, providing a critical supply line during the Civil War and making New York the financial capital of the country.
First, a short geography lesson. The image below shows the path of the Erie Canal, from Buffalo on the eastern end of Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, where traffic takes a right and heads south to New York City. There are two smaller canals that connect Lake Ontario and two of the Finger Lakes. In the days when roads were dirt (or mud), water was the faster way to travel.
There are actually two Erie Canals, the original brick-lined path that meandered across the countryside and is now abandoned, and the newer, straighter, concrete-lined canal that is still in use today.
Meet one of the oldest locks from the original canal. Lock 60, in the tiny town of Macedon, is now a historic site that is maintained by two dedicated old guys. I met one of them, a talkative guy named Bill, and learned a lot about the old lock system. As you can see, the original canal wasn’t very deep or wide. The tops of those walls were where the mule teams pulled the barges through the water.The indented parts of the wall where were the wooden gates could be pulled flush against the bricks to let boats pass with maximum clearance.
Bill also showed me the odd curved cement pathways that were used by the lock workers to give themselves better leverage as they opened and closed the gates. Here’s a good look at one of them at Lock 59, another old canal stop.
Over time, the canal was straightened, widened and deepened to handle the demands of more commercial traffic. It’s still not that wide, but then most of the cross-country commercial shipping has moved to trucks and trains so there are few working barges on the Erie Canal any more.
Each lock has a control booth although most of the workers seemed to be doing maintenance and not dealing with boat traffic. They do a good job of making things look good, every lock sporting the iconic blue and yellow colors of the New York State Canal System.
The section between Macedon and Lyons had several locks and I visited them all in a day. This was my favorite shot.
At Lock 28B, I walked down to the canal under the car bridge and got this view that shows a set of closed gates. Someday, I’ll see them in action, because watching traffic go through locks is pretty fun. I did that with my Dad in Seattle one time and we had a blast watching the lock team stack up the boats and then pass them through.
There’s also a bikeway from one end of the Erie Canal to the other, and many parks along the path as well, so it’s quite an enjoyable area to explore. It’s a part of American history I have enjoyed exploring. You can start with this link if you want to read more about this wonderful waterway.
History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.