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Olde Erie Canal Heritage Park preserves a part of New York State’s transportation history

October 2023

Shipping canals have been an important part of water-based transportation of people and goods for centuries. The Erie Canal is a 351-mile long historic canal in upstate New York, running east-west from the Hudson River at Waterford, north of Albany, to Lake Erie at Tonawanda. As with most canals, a series of locks were constructed along the route for raising and lowering ships between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways.

Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal’s original route ran from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, making the combined Hudson River-Erie Canal route the first navigable waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. It’s been called America’s first superhighway.

The canal did come with criticism. Political opponents of the canal’s biggest supporter, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, denigrated the project by referring to it as “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Big Ditch.” However, the canal quickly became a great success after opening to shipping traffic on 26 October 1825, with its construction costs being recovered through toll revenue within the first year of operation.

The original design of the canal allowed for passage of 1.5 million tons annually, but this was quickly exceeded, thus an enlargement of the canal became necessary. An ambitions plan, known as the First Enlargement, began in 1834, widening the canal from 40 feet to 70 feet and lowering the depth from 4 feet to 7 feet. This necessitated the widening of existing locks or the construction of new locks in new locations. Some sections of the canal were straightened and re-routed in some places. This massive project took until 1862 to be completed, with other minor improvements taking place in the succeeding decades.

The most significant improvement to the Erie Canal system involved completely re-locating the canal along a new route 3-miles to the north in 1918, following the route of the Seneca River, from Waterford in the east to Tonawanda in the west.

The abandoned canal route that was created during the First Enlargement is commonly referred to as the “Improved Erie Canal” or the “Old Erie Canal,” to distinguish it from the canal’s modern-day course.

Some of the sections of the abandoned canal route were filled in to create roads, such as Erie Boulevard in Syracuse and Schenectady, and Broad Street and the Rochester Subway in Rochester. A 36‑mile stretch of the old canal from the Town of DeWitt, east of Syracuse, to just outside of Rome, is preserved as the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park. 

The Olde Erie Canal Heritage Park is an 18-acre site opened in 2016 near Port Byron along the New York State Thruway (I-90) that preserves Lock 52, which was a part of the original 1825 canal. Built between 1849 to 1853 as part of the first Enlargement Program of the canal, Lock 52 was constructed with twin chambers for two-way traffic, like all Enlarged Erie Canal locks. The original 1825 “Clinton’s Ditch” locks were not only of smaller dimensions, but 95 percent of them were single chambered structures, much like the locks of today. The lock chamber alongside the towpath chamber of Lock 52 was lengthened for double long tows in 1887 and 1888.

A welcome centre at the entrance to the Olde Erie Canal Heritage Park displays various artifacts and photographs related to the Erie Canal, while the Heritage Park section features three restored original canal buildings, the Erie House Saloon (1895), the Blacksmith Shop (1896) and the Mule Barn (1896), and allows visitors to walk through and alongside Lock 52.

Sources: The Heritage Park (newyorkcanals.org), The Old Erie Canal Heritage Park at Port Byron – Life in the Finger Lakes, Erie Canal – Wikipedia, Erie Canal Lock 52 Complex – Wikipedia.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/olde-erie-canal-heritage-park-preserves-a-part-of-new-york-states-transportation-history/

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