The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor spans 524 miles across the full expanse of upstate New York, encompassing the Erie, Cayuga Seneca, Oswego, and Champlain canals and their historic alignments, as well as more than 230 canal communities.
Two hundred years ago, the first ceremonial shovelful of dirt was dug on the Erie Canal near Rome. In July 1817, New York officially undertook construction of what would become the longest artificial waterway and greatest public works project in North America. This year marks the bicentennial of the Erie Canal — a milestone that provides a good reason to look back at our history and appreciate the engineering marvel that is the Erie Canal.
In 1817, the New York State Legislature authorized $7 million for the construction of a canal to run from Albany to Buffalo in an effort to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Ultimately, the canal would open trade routes for the Midwest and enable goods to reach the Atlantic Ocean. Construction began on the easiest, most level sections and eventually traversed to higher elevations and subsequent challenges in Cohoes, Little Falls, Rochester and Lockport.
The original canal traveled 363 miles, was 40 feet wide and four feet deep. It took 50,000 workers eight years to build what became a modern-day super highway. Sadly, an estimated 1,000 people died during the construction of the canal, primarily from hazardous work involving gunpowder that was used to move rock and mountains. Historians say about 11 million cubic yards of rock was moved during the construction—enough to fill the Rose Bowl 26,000 times.
The canal opened in phases and each phase enabled goods to travel further throughout the state. In October 1819, the first part of the canal opened between Rome and Utica. On July 4, 1820, exactly three years after the first dirt was moved, Syracuse celebrated the completion of the canal from Utica to the Seneca River. Shortly after that, navigation from Montezuma to Schenectady became possible when the Little Falls locks were complete. In 1823, the Genesee Aqueduct was completed and it became possible to travel between Brockport and Albany. Eventually, the canal reached the foot of the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport. In October 1825, the canal was complete and to commemorate the long-anticipated event, Governor DeWitt Clinton departed Buffalo to travel the canal to New York City where he poured water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean known as the Wedding of the Waters.
For Central New York, the canal turned small communities into bustling port towns and cities. It transformed New York City into the nation’s principal seaport and historians credit the canal for establishing Wall Street as a global financial center. An estimated $15 million worth of goods traveled the canal each year and through tolls, the state recuperated its initial investment in 10 years. Its success brought additional investments and soon the Oswego Canal, Cayuga-Seneca and Champlain canals were added to connect to the original Erie Canal to create 524 miles of canals. In 2000, the canal was named a National Heritage Corridor and early this year — the canal’s bicentennial year — it was elevated to a National Historic landmark. The system’s channels, locks, lift bridges, dams, power houses, and maintenance shops are worth preserving and this landmark status is well earned and deserved.
While today it is largely a recreational passage, shipments do still travel the canal, such as large turbines and other loads too large to travel roads or rails. This spring, fermentation tanks traveled 225 miles along the canal to Genesee Brewery from Saratoga County to Gates. The journey was well covered in the media and helped draw attention to the bicentennial. The 200-year anniversary provides an opportunity for communities to host community events along the canalway trail to celebrate the heritage. Events are planned this year and will continue through 2025 to celebrate the canal. Also, this year, fees for recreational boaters to travel the locks have been waived. For information on events, visit nycanals200.com or canals.ny.gov/index.shtml and for information about the canal, visit eriecanalway.org/learn.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issue, please contact me. My office can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by email at email@example.com, or by calling (315) 598-5185. You also can friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.