What Kept the Erie Canal Full of Water?



For many years, my family has taken advantage of one of the great exercise resources available locally, the Erie Canalway / Empire State Rail Trail.  They are wonderful minimal-slope surfaces, mostly paved, for walking, jogging, running, biking, and dog walks.  Most of them were, at some point in the past, towpaths for the Erie Canal, and the troughs of the canal itself runs alongside them, often still with water in them.  But the canals in many places were set with their water well above the levels of the Mohawk and the streams running to it (just check out what’s left of the old aqueduct across the Schoharie in Fort Hunter).  I kept thinking, a canal has to be kept full of water, so how did they do that back in the day?  When I was asked to do an article on local natural history, this semi-natural question seemed to scream for answers.  Here is what I’ve found out.

            In Great Britain, an extensive system of canals had been built in the late 1700’s to support the burgeoning industrial revolution.  In New York, that seemed like a possible way to “open up” the West (as it was then, Western NY and the Great Lakes region).  A Committee, chaired by not-yet-governor DeWitt Clinton, was put together to look into the options.

            An obvious choice of routes was to use rivers going the right way.  The Hudson was navigable up from New York City, and could conceivably be connected to Lake Champlain, but it was the Mohawk that pointed westward.  The river itself was the first candidate investigated, but it was found that the flow was too unpredictable and the shallow areas could not easily be made passable.  Roads were considered, and a decent amount of trade moved back and forth along them, but it was slow and expensive.  Trains were just being developed, but the technology wasn’t there yet.  Could canals be the answer?

            A canal connecting Lake Erie and Ontario was considered, bypassing Niagara Falls, but the major drop in height over a short course, through the terrain available, didn’t seem feasible (Canada did build the Welland Canal on their side shortly after the Erie Canal was completed in New York).  Canals could carry much larger payloads, and without hilly terrain to deal with could move materials much faster than roads.  A plan was drawn up of a canal that largely paralleled the Mohawk and then struck west to connect to Lake Erie near Buffalo.

            The project was begun (in the middle, considered the easiest stretch for a “proof of concept” construction) in 1817.  From there, it moved westward (where the Cayuga Swamps sicked hundreds of Irish immigrant workers with malaria and cholera – yes, malaria used to be something you could get in New York) and eastward.  Just before its completion in 1825 (the year that Clinton became governor), a report of the “if we knew then what we know now” variety suggested it would never have been attempted “if.”

            The first complete canal ran 363 miles, with 81 locks to lift or drop barges along the way.  Specifications place it as 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, accommodating boats that were 60 to 78 feet long and 7 to 14 feet wide, with a 3.5-foor draught.  The boats could carry up to 30 tons, and at any given time there were up to 2000 in operation (not all on the canal at once, although volume at the locks might run to 100 per day).  At opening, round trip to Buffalo took about 16 days.  Later, increased traffic, especially of boats that were unscheduled, lengthened the trips considerably.           Boats were moved along with 2-man, 2-animal (horses or mules) on a towpath, 10 feet wide.  The opposite side was 5 feet wide.  Many low bridges were built across the canal to allow locals access to the other side, locally useful but an impediment to passenger travel.

            The canal ran seasonally, from late April to early December.  In the off-season, it was common for men from the towing teams to settle in Fonda, get arrested, and spend the winter in what must have been a fairly nice jail (they were allowed out on weekdays).  The initial investment was about $7.1 million.  The benefits of farm and timber resources moving east and manufactured goods moving west are significant but hard to calculate.  Tolls were estimated at $1 million in 1836, $2 million in 1846, very competitive with road travel, but couldn’t compete with rail when that became an option, even after the canal was expanded from 1832 to 1865, enough to hold barges with 240 tons of cargo.  Tonnage peaked in the 1880’s, but by 1899 the Erie Canal was declared obsolete.  It was replaced by the Barge Canal in the early 1900’s, essentially what we still have with the liftable dams on the Mohawk.

            So what about the water?  You can’t float boats without it, and it needed to always be available.  You are constantly dealing with downstream flow (“residence time” was calculated as about 5 days, but the good news there is that such flow dealt effectively with the wastes supplied by canal people and animals), leakage out the sides (our local stretch between Amsterdam and Schenectady lost about 10 inches per day, and a farmer in Fultonville was granted special payments in 1848 due to the flooding of his fields).  In busy times, the barges themselves could displace up to 50% of the canal water with their volumes.  Locks were set up to conserve water by moving it across more than downstream, but significant continuous input was needed.  In many places, the water level of the canal was well above the Mohawk River;  locally, it ran 30 to 40 feet above (just look at the Schoharie Crossing aqueduct).

            Many stream ran across the canal pathway to the Mohawk, about 1 per mile, but they are mostly small with very undependable flows.  For the most part, they were directed under the canal through culverts.  Planning these pass-throughs used data from a major flooding period in 1817, but culverts still were a huge maintenance issue when their flows became floods.  Major, dependable “Feeders” were needed, starting out west with Lake Erie itself.  The first canal in 1825 had 12 such sources, maybe twice that by 1862, up to 40 with canal expansion in 1891.  In several places, dams and reservoirs were set up to both raise the “matching” water levels and provide stable availability.  Many places were set up so significant extra water was routed around the canal locks, and mills were often built to take advantage of that flow.

            Locally, the Schoharie Creek was dammed, just above where Route 5S crosses it today, with a dam, somewhere between 586 and 650 feet wide (reports vary), mostly of timber pilings (you can see some of what remains at Schoharie Crossing in Fort Hunter).  The first canal ran to the east side of the dam, the tow team got on the boat, and it was pulled across to the canal on the other side by ropes.  Later, the aqueduct was built, and the old canal was used to divert Schoharie Creek water to the canal, using a “guard lock” built with stone from the original Queen Anne’s Church (built for the local natives, it was in the way of the newer canal).  The aqueduct was built in 1839, with 14 arched spans, 624 feet long and 41.5 feet wide.  What remains is still impressive.

            Of course, the system wasn’t perfect;  there were periods of drought where water levels dropped below navigable levels and travel was suspended.  Through the 1800’s, it was not known what the extensive clearing of forests for farms would do to runoff, and this was partially used as a rationale for setting up what was the Adirondack Forest Preserve, now the Adirondack Park.  It also isn’t known whether the canal contributed to the invasion of such pest species as alewife and lamprey eels, among others.

            I can’t end this without acknowledging the immense contribution of the Montgomery County Historical Society in Fonda.  The very nice women there have been a great help.  If you have local roots, they have many shelves labeled “Genealogy.”  While I combed through books on the canal, my son laughed out loud at Clinton’s account of a trip along the canal.  Apparently he was not a fan of Amsterdam.



Drago, Harry Sinclair.  1972. Canal Days in America.  Clarkson W Potter.

Garrity, Richard.  1977.  Canal Boatman.  Syracuse University Press.

Langbein, W. B.  1976.  Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of the Erie Canal.  (Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2038)  U.S. Government Printing Office.

Reisem, Richard O.  2000. Erie Canal Legacy.  Landmark Society of Western New York.

Rinker, Harry L.  1984.  The Old Raging Erie…There Have Been Several Changes.  Canal Captain’s Press.



Copyright 2022, Michael McDarby.

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