Locking Through the Erie Canal takes time, patience, and control as numerous locks gently lift the boater an amazing 420’ in elevation over 110 miles between Albany and Rome, New York then a gradual climb of 150’ by the time your keel touches Lake Erie. Wow! When opened for traffic in 1825, the canal was no more than four feet deep and forty feet wide with a towpath on the north side and an earthen embankment on the other. Horses or mules were connected to cargo or packet (a chartered boat of sightseers or people migrating into the Midwest) boats via strong rope and lead by a footman on shore along a towpath with periodical stops at conveniently located stalls where well rested teams replaced exhausted ones. In 1825 cargo/packet boats pass through 83 locks (built of wood and stone or reinforced concrete) from Albany to Buffalo, New York however, after the final upgrade in 1918 35 locks do the trick.
As the boat approaches, the lock tender exerts muscle power on large tapered beams attached to the lock gates swinging them open. The boat maneuvers in and the gates push closed, panels at the bottom of the gates are removed to allow water in or out once the water level in the lock equals that of the water outside the tender closes the panels, open the gates, and the boat continues on its way. Neat. Commercial success brought changes to the Erie Canal just seven years after opening; single locking through expanded from one lock 90’ long by 15’ wide, to two side-by-side locks of 110’ long by 18’ wide enabling traffic to proceed in both directions simultaneously. Amazing!
Another unique feature of this engineering marvel is the aqueduct (my favorite). These manmade rivers differ from those built by the Roman Empire and the state of California which provide water to large metropolitan areas. Along the Erie Canal thirty-two
navigable aqueducts carry boats over river, rapids, or bypassing difficult terrain. Strip away the water and you find wooden planks laid side by side resting on wooden beams to form a trough with the all-important towpath constructed over stone arches all of this resting on stone piling. Sensational! Just imagine man and horse riding through the countryside relishing nature’s beauty when off in the distance what appears to be a boat floating on air is in fact one steering through an aqueduct that holds up to 400 tons of water! These water bridges are no longer part of the canal system however; arched abutments and towpaths remain as a reminder of the technology that open up the Midwest and the country to commerce and settlement.
Another important piece of machinery from this time is the weigh lock used to assess a cargo boats toll. The original weigh locks operated as follows: a boat enters, the water rises, and by displacement measures the boats total weight then the weight of the boat empty is subtracted thus determining the charge. Shortly after the completion of the canal the displacement locks were replaced with several weigh locks similar to a scale found in a doctor’s office. The boat enters the lock and comes to rest on the scale mechanism, water is drained, the weight is determined, and the correct toll is exacted. Once monies change hands, water refills the lock and the boat continues. By 1883, more than $121 million in tolls is collected, which covers the original construction costs, constant repairs, operation, and enlargement making a nice return on investments. The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York was converted from a weigh lock when the
canal, which once ran through and in front of this building, was rerouted north of the city, and the ditch filled in for automobile traffic. Comparing modern pictures of the building and immediate area with those of the past it is hard to believe the canal actually was here.
With the 1918 update, electronic controls replace manual labor on the Erie Canal to open/close the gates and to raise/lower water levels. “Clinton’s Ditch”increases to 14’ deep and 120-200’ wide and is the current dimensions of the canal today. Locking through has changed as boaters stop outside the lock, then notify the operator by marine radio, cellular phone, or by three distinct horn blasts. The operator replies with either a green light (proceed), red light (stop and wait), no light (tie to approach wall and wait), or six flashes of red or green light (remain stationary and await instruction). Once cleared the entrance gates open and the boat enters at a slow pace then, keeping close to a lock wall, person(s) on the boat will loop, not tie, mooring lines to cable or will hold onto lines hanging down the wall as the water within ascends or descends. Protecting the boat’s hull from damage are fenders or bumpers, shaped oblong or like giant balls made of hard rubber or plastic draped over the outside as the boat comes to rest next to the lock wall. After the proper level is reached the gates swing open, lines are cast off and the boat is slowly throttled up to move out of the lock abiding posted speed limits. In days of yore, a toll was accessed based on weight but todays pleasure crafters on the Erie Canal buy a Seasonal, 10 or two-day pass at nominal fees based not on weight but ship’s length.
I would love to take two months and motor the entire length of the canal from Albany to Tonawanda, NY stopping along the way to explore the many small, history towns that line the waterway. My choice of boat would be the 26’ Nimble Nomad that has all the accommodations as some of the bigger boats yet in a smaller version. The boat is powered by a 50hp Honda 4-stroke Outboard motor that tops out at 10 mph, consumes one gallon of fuel per hour making the 23 gallon tank last when cruising at 7.5 mph. The Nimble Nomad is not only an ideal craft for a trip along The Erie Canal but also makes the perfect pleasure craft to cruise the nation’s inland rivers and lakes. In forthcoming posts I will proceed along the canal on a fictional journey loaded with historical facts as we discover a region once known for innovation and bloody revolution.
Next: The Ditch, Part 3, Albany to Fonda, NY