A lot of memories flooded my head when I was home last week visiting my parents in Western New York. This is the area in which I grew up – outside of Rochester, New York. My parents no longer live in the town where I went to high school but rather in an adjacent town, only a few miles away, the home of one of our “rival” systems while I was in school.
The historic Erie Canal flows through several towns outside Rochester. It was something we learned about in school, always being aware and appreciative of its presence. It was an icon of ingenuity that set the stage for increased commerce in New York State in the early 1800s. Dug between 1817 and 1825, between Buffalo and Albany, the Erie Canal was an early engineering feat for the State of New York and our Country. Similar to other great, naturally occurring rivers like the Great St. Lawrence and Mighty Mississippi, a system of locks was incorporated to allow the boats to pass through the canal. There were 83 lift locks built along the canal to assist the commerce vessels on their shallow water trip across the great state of New York.
At a time of limited technology but great commitment and creativity, the Erie Canal was built on the backs of manual laborers, many of Irish descent. The canal was dug out by hand drills and shovels, assisted by animals as well as their human counterparts. Machines were developed out of necessity as were materials such as a cement that hardened underwater needed to complete the project. It was a seven-year feat of Civil Engineering accomplished in the early days of our country’s development.
The canal not only served to expedite the transport of supplies and materials to the Hudson River where they could be sent downriver to the largest port in the world at the time – New York City – but also largely decreased the time it took for passengers to travel across our state. The time it took to travel from Buffalo to Albany in 1825 was reduced from two weeks to five days when the canal was finished and utilized!
The Erie Canal was recognized in the year 2000 by the US Congress to be significant to America’s development. The canal’s 524-mile expanse is now known as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. It traverses 234 towns, one of which I was traveling through on my recent visit.
One of the subsequent developments that assisted water travel on the canal was the use of lift bridges. When boats became bigger and the development of roads ensued after community settlement, people found they needed a way to pass over the canal. Bridges were motorized to lift the road and allow the boats to pass, continuing on their way. As a child, this was always an exciting moment! You would be stopped by an “arm” much like those at a railroad track, while the bridge lifted up and the boat or boats passed underneath. It was always a sight!
The other memory that passing over one of these lift bridges evoked for me was that of ice-skating on the frozen canal in the dead of winter. It is not something I did often but the few times I did, were memorable. Having no current, the canal often froze smooth. The banks were easily traversed on foot and the canal itself was shallow and posed few dangers in the winter months – certainly less than attempting to skate on a larger pond or Lake Ontario which were also bodies of water within striking distance.
Throughout my childhood, the building of the Erie Canal was as much a part of social studies as anything else. It instilled a love and sense of awe for this man-made waterway that allowed a new nation to increase its commerce and grow its communities. If you are ever in Western New York or anywhere along the way the canal flows, stop and appreciate this marvel of early engineering! And, if you are lucky enough to be there in the summer, maybe you’ll get to see a lift bridge open, too!
Resource: Erie Canalway
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