This is a picture of Syracuse, New York, when it was one of the most important cities in the growing United States. Now it’s a city of few attractions and a difficult climate that depends on a short summer season for recreation and tourism dollars. Its large lake, Onondaga, was once one of the most polluted in the nation. Syracuse does have one outstanding, 5 Compass attraction, the Erie Canal Museum which doubles as a visitor center.
The first thing I wrote down about the Erie Canal was that it’s considered “America’s greatest manmade waterway”. The exhibits that I saw proved this true. No canal of this size had ever been attempted. When President Jefferson refused to fund its construction, the State of New York decided it was both necessary and a good idea and financed it entirely. James Geddes began developing a plan for it in 1808. Construction began in 1817 with a 96 mile canal between Utica and Seneca. The 363 mile waterway that connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie opened in 1825 and was busy with freight and passengers heading west until the 1950s. Once busy with packet boats carrying lumber, grain and manufactured goods, the Erie Canal’s waterways are now largely used for recreation.
This endeavor reminded me of the interest in and nostalgia for old Route 66 after the Interstate System replaced it, but 66 mostly crossed plains and deserts while the Erie Canal crossed The Empire State creating cities that are no longer as important as they once were, like Troy, Seneca Falls, Ossining, and Syracuse. Like states attempting to find or re-create sections of old Route 66, forces are creating a 350-mile-long Canalway Trail from Albany to Buffalo that, when completed, will be the nation’s longest multi-use trail. For now, the Erie Canal Park in Camillus, NY is the best place to see what the original canal was like.
The Erie Canal was actually 5 interconnected waterways that never left New York State. From east to west boats floated the Champlain, Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca, and 2 sections of the Erie before it ended in Buffalo. When it was a working canal, 83 locks bypassed waterfalls and adjusted the elevation. Some of it crossed marshes and flat land. The Seneca River Aqueduct was an engineering marvel with 31 scenic stone arches. Like Boeing airplane designers, Erie Canal engineers learned as they proceeded, and many technology breakthroughs, like a stump puller and limestone cement, were invented. America’s first locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, was tested in 1829 near the canal system. It was opposed by boatmen who saw its potential for competition.
Like the Panama Canal, this system was enlarged to allow bigger boats and more traffic This actually happened 3 times. The last upgrade, however, occurred during World War I. The story of this canal is one of the Great American Tales that isn’t told enough. Syracuse’s Erie Canal Museum does an excellent job of demonstrating what is not emphasized enough in history classes.
In the Weighlock Building that used to be part of the Erie Canal System, this museum with 2 floors of exhibits gives us an exciting glimpse into this canal’s construction, operation, and impact on America.