The Erie Canal: A Bicentennial Profile

The recent transport of the Genesee Beer tanks along the Barge Canal gave new attention to a long-forgotten element of the state transportation system: New York’s canals. This amnesia is unfortunate as the canal system in general made New York State into the Empire State, and one canal in particular made Rochester into the Flour City: the Erie Canal.

Few roads existed in early New York. Farmers in western New York could not get their wares to the more populated eastern portion of the state and no means existed to transport goods to the new Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota).

The plan for a great east-west canal is commonly attributed to New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, but the idea did not originate with him and was even approved before his first gubernatorial term began on July 1, 1817. In 1784, engineer Christopher Colles proposed a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario, but the idea went nowhere.

In 1807, a new proposal for a canal was offered, and the following year a survey was undertaken, which discussed potential route options. After 1808, debate began within the legislature, which was later tabled during the War of 1812. The final hurdles were overcome through the support of Clinton (who was a member of the Erie Canal Commission as of 1810).  Funding for construction of the canal received final approval April 15, 1817.

erie canal-skaters

Winter Scene: Skating on the Erie Canal, ca. 1874.

Construction of “Clinton’s Ditch” (as it was known) began July 4, 1817. Initial efforts involved the portion between the Hudson River through the Mohawk Valley to Utica, which opened to traffic in the fall of 1820. As the work commenced on the portion between Utica and Buffalo, debate began again, as the 1817 legislation did not provide for a route past the Seneca River.

Questions surrounded whether the western portion of the canal would go through Canandaigua (to the south) or Rochester (to the north)? The ultimate selection of the Rochester route meant that the village became a manufacturing center; its flour, spirits and machine tools could now be transported elsewhere with ease.  Within eleven years of its opening, Rochester grew from a village to a city.

erie canal- palmyra boat

Crew and Passengers of A Boat in an Erie Canal Lock, 1870

Contrary to popular opinion, Rochester’s portion was not built by Irish labor — at least, not initially. The first contractor for the canal was a man named William Britton, who had previously constructed the Auburn Prison. His idea was to use 150 convicts to hew stone for the aqueduct over the Genesee River (what is today Broad Street between the Public Library and the Blue Cross Arena). Some people objected to the use of convicts for such a purpose, fearing the “the sounds of curses and profanities” would pour into the ear of youth and other innocent onlookers.

A bigger problem, however, was security. Barely a monthly after aqueduct construction began, seven convicts escaped from their barracks. A month later, another five convicts escaped; four were recaptured, but one escaped for good. It was only the recurring problem of escaping prisoners that encouraged the contractors to draw on the labors of the newly arrived Irish.

erie canal-aqueduct

Erie Canal Aqueduct, 1855 (now Broad Street, between South Ave. and Exchange St.

The canal was completed on October 26, 1825. Rochester’s portion of the canal opened two years earlier and closed in 1919, when the old canal was abandoned for the newly constructed Barge Canal. Most of the old Erie Canal beds are now paved over and used for automobile traffic (e.g. Broad Street, Interstate 490, etc.), but the diligent observer occasionally can find the old bed and locks. During this bicentennial year, spare a thought for the watery highway that raised Rochester to prominence.

-Christopher Brennan



Published in: on July 3, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment