The Glorious History of the Erie Canal

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today, we bring you a brief history lesson on the amazing Erie Canal.

I’ve had many cool experiences in my years as a reporter.

I got a tennis lesson from Venus Williams. I practiced yoga with Deepak Chopra. I traveled to Brazil to meet with a bikini maker.

I will now add to this list hoisting and holding a line around a cable at the side of Lock 3 of the Erie Canal in Waterford, N.Y., which is one of five locks in a “flight” that lifts (and lowers) boats more than 170 feet in just over a mile — the most dramatic water elevation change in the smallest distance in any lock system in the world. (It’s twice the lift of the Panama Canal.)

This was one of many memorable moments from the two days I spent on Geraldo Rivera’s boat as he and his brother Craig Rivera cruised up the Hudson River and through the Erie Canal — the first two days of their eight-day voyage from the Hamptons to Cleveland.

Was it as cool as playing tennis with Venus (if you can characterize my on-court performance relative to hers as “playing tennis”)? Nothing can match that.

But still, I was disarmed by my awe as we headed north from Manhattan on the mighty Hudson as New York state unfurled before us. And I was amazed as we motored across the state, lock by lock through the Erie Canal, a waterway that I previously knew of only from middle school geography class. I now behold it as an emblem of American ingenuity and grit.

Yes, I’m a little obsessed with the Erie Canal — an outcome to reporting this story that I never anticipated.

Because so much of my article about Geraldo Rivera needed to be about Geraldo Rivera, my cutting room floor is covered with details about the Canal. Aren’t you a little curious about Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s 300-mile gully, once derided by the press as “Clinton’s Ditch” (the press’s cynicism dates back centuries) though more recently heralded by Geraldo as “the most important public works project ever”?

Me too, let’s discuss.

In 1817, workers in Rome, N.Y., broke ground on a project that would bring to life a vision promoted and propelled by Clinton: an engineered waterway stretching from Lake Erie’s eastern shore in Buffalo to Albany, on the upper Hudson River. The purpose was to allow for the transport of goods and agriculture back and forth to the Midwest.

The construction was overseen by an Irishman who learned about the engineering of canals in England before coming to America, according to historians, and much of the work was completed by Irish immigrants. It would cost $7 million. The construction was underwritten entirely by the state of New York, with no subsidy from the federal government.

A system of locks, or water elevators, was built to help boats on the canal manage the steep, nearly 600-feet shift in elevation between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. The “gravity locks” were modeled after those invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

When it was completed about seven years later, the Erie Canal was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide and four feet deep, according to “A Brief History of the Erie Canal,” published by the New York State Canal Corporation, which manages and maintains the canal system. (The New York Power Authority has fiscal ownership and oversight of today’s canal system.)

Not only could DeWitt Clinton dig a ditch (or get others to do so in his name), he could also foresee economies. He believed that the greatest transformation from the waterway would be felt about 140 miles south of Albany: in New York City, which he predicted would become the center of commerce and manufacturing.

When the work was done, he celebrated by filling two casks of water from Lake Erie and boarded a boat called Seneca Chief, which was pulled by mules on a towpath, from Buffalo to Albany. He then sailed down the Hudson River to New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

When he reached the harbor, Clinton dumped the Lake Erie casks into the Atlantic to great fanfare. (The visionary Clinton, with a photo-op decades before the advent of newspaper photography!) Crowds gathered. Canons were fired. The spectacle was dubbed “The Wedding of the Waters.”

The Erie Canal’s economic success was almost immediate, according to the Canal Corp., and within nine years the state had recouped its construction costs through tolls paid by boats. In 1837, 500,000 bushels of wheat were transported on the canal, and by 1840, New York Harbor was the busiest port in the country, surpassing Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans.

The Canal’s historical relevance is not merely cemented by its role as an economic driver, according to my colleague Wm. Ferguson, who wrote in 2021 for The Times about cycling the 360-mile Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany. The canal, he wrote, “not only opened up the nation to commerce, it also was a kind of psychic highway that attracted a steady stream of 19th-century freethinkers: Abolitionists, Mormons, Spiritualists, Adventists and suffragists can all trace their roots to this fertile vein of New York State.”

About a century after the original canal’s construction, New York expanded and modernized the locks to accommodate large barges and reconfigured and enlarged most of the canal to integrate rivers and other waterways.

Today, the New York Canal System is a contiguous, navigable waterway that brings together the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, Lake Champlain and the Finger Lakes. There are local communities and tourist attractions throughout. The modern canal system has 57 locks in total, including 35 along the Erie Canal.

These days, the Erie Canal is mostly — but not only, according to its spokesmen — a recreational waterway.

Next summer you may spot me on a boat floating across it.


It’s a mostly sunny day near the low 90s. The evening is mostly clear, with temps around the mid-70s.


In effect until Sept. 16 (Rosh Hashana).

The latest Metro news

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Faking traffic stops: State officials believe that more than 100 Connecticut state police officers may have filed false reports of traffic stops in recent years, possibly to better the internal statistics used to measure their performance.

Migrant crisis: The rapid arrival of more than 100,000 asylum seekers is testing the city’s safety net and turning Democratic allies against one another. Republicans in a half dozen closely watched districts have begun grabbing onto all of it as a lifeline to portray Democrats as out of touch and unable to govern.


Green suede wrap coat

Dear Diary:

At 17, I had saved enough money to buy a green suede wrap coat with a fox collar. To me, it was magnificent.

My hometown, Rockville Centre on Long Island, seemed too small for my beautiful coat. So, I devised a plan to cut school and take the Long Island Rail Road, myself and my coat, into the city, where it belonged.

After getting off the train at Penn Station, I headed east to Fifth Avenue and then north to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I lit a candle and said a little prayer, asking forgiveness for the sin of skipping school.

Saks Fifth Avenue was my next stop. My coat was worthy of a stroll through that beautiful store.

From there, I went to Tiffany. My coat and I stopped at every counter on the first floor before heading upstairs to the silver department to buy a small pen for my purse.

The cost? Seven dollars. It was 1967.

The coat and I visited several other shops, had a grilled cheese sandwich at the Automat and made it back to Rockville Centre without getting caught.

A few years later, we moved to Manhattan and went on to enjoy many adventures over the next many years.

— Carolyn Russell

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. James Barron returns tomorrow. — K.R.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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Katie Rosman is a reporter for the Metro desk, contributing narratives and profiles about people, events and dynamics in New York City and its outer reaches. More about Katherine Rosman

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