I attend a family reunion in Ontario NY with my girlfriend. We visit a college she attended briefly-Ithaca College-and I am horrified by the architecture of the campus. Afterwards, we visit the pleasant “Ithaca Commons,” and have lunch at the famous Moosewood Restaurant downtown.
Since she is training for her first marathon, she asks me to run with her while in my childhood stomping grounds in upstate New York. Not having sampled it yet, I choose the Erie Canal “Canalway Trail” just south of Ontario NY. We run 4 miles of the trail where it crosses Rt. 21 south of Ontario-2 miles east and 1 mile west. Portions of the trail in this location are a smooth asphalt surface which is not particularly wide. Most of the trail is a crushed stone surface. To the east, the trail passes through a wooded area along the backyards of homes. Across the canal are active industrial operations (mostly farm-related). Unfortunately, the trail crosses a bridge a then follows a heavily-used, high-speed road to the east. The short section we run to the west, however, passes by an Erie Canal lock and pleasant wooded areas away from the major road.
Overall, the New York State Canalway Trail System is a network of more than 230 miles of existing multi-use, recreational trails across upstate New York. Major segments are adjacent to the waterways of the New York State Canal System or follow remnants of the historic original canals of the early 1800s that preceded today’s working Canal System.
The Canalway Trail System is comprised of four major segments: the 70-mile Erie Canal Heritage Trail that my girlfriend and I run a portion of in Western New York; the 36-mile Old Erie Canal State Park Trail in Central New York; the 25-mile Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway in the eastern Capital Region, and the eight-mile Glens Falls Feeder Canal Trail in the foothills of the Adirondacks near Lake Champlain.
These trail segments and other areas of the Canalway Trail System connect with trails leading throughout New York State, providing one of the most extensive trail networks in the country.
The Erie Canal: A Brief History
Opened in 1825, the Erie Canal was an extremely impressive engineering feat of its day. When planning for what many derided as Clinton’s Folly began, there was not a single school of engineering in the United States. Roads had to be built every step of the way as work progressed to bring in supplies. With the exception of a few places where black powder was used to blast through rock formations, all 363 miles were built by the muscle power of men and horses alone.
More than a feat of engineering, the Erie Canal proved to be the key that unlocked an enormous series of social and economic changes in the young nation. The canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers, gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians and made New York the preeminent commercial city in the United States.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Allegheny Mountains were the western frontier. The Northwest Territories that would later become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio were rich in timber, minerals, and fertile land for farming. But to reach them took weeks of bone-jarring travel on rutted turnpike roads that baked rock-hard every summer and dissolved in a sea of mud after each winter.
Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York envisioned a better way: a canal from Buffalo on the eastern shore of Lake Erie to Albany on the upper Hudson River, a distance of almost 400 miles. As an organ of communication between the Hudson, the Mississippi, the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes of the north and west and their tributary rivers, it will create the greatest inland trade ever witnessed, Clinton wrote in 1816.
Trade would be funneled straight down the Hudson to New York City. The city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations, said the governor. And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.
In 1817, Clinton convinced the state legislature to authorize $7 million for construction of a canal 363 miles long, 40 feet wide and four feet deep.
Eight years later on October 26, 1825, Governor Clinton set out from Buffalo in the canal boat Seneca Chief along with two other boats to open the Erie Canal. As he left, a relay of cannons fired across the state and down the Hudson, carrying the news of his departure to New York in under two hours.
Nine days later, Clinton’s little flotilla arrived in New York harbor, to be greeted by almost 150 vessels and thousands of New Yorkers lining the shore in ranks ten deep. The Seneca Chief had carried two barrels of water from Lake Erie which Clinton emptied into the ocean at New York in a ceremony celebrating the Marriage of the Waters between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.
The effect of the canal was immediate and dramatic. Settlers flocked to the west. The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by canal, compared with $100 per ton by road. In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the canal from Buffalo. By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million.
In nine years, canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.
Prior to construction of the canal, New York City was the nation’s fifth largest seaport, behind Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Within 15 years of its opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.
The impact on the rest of the state can be seen by looking at a modern map. With the exception of Binghamton and Elmira, every major city in New York falls along the trade route established by the Erie Canal, from New York City to Albany, through Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse, to Rochester and Buffalo. Approximately 75 percent of the state’s population still lives within the corridors created by the waterways of the New York State Canal System and the Hudson River valley.
The Erie Canal’s success was part of a canal-building boom in New York in the 1820s. Between 1823 and 1828, several lateral canals opened including the Champlain, the Oswego and the Cayuga-Seneca.
Between 1835 and the turn of the century, this network of canals was enlarged twice to accommodate heavier traffic. Between 1905 and 1918, the canals were enlarged again. This time, in order to accommodate much larger barges, the engineers decided to abandon much of the original man-made channel and use new techniques to canalize the rivers that the canal had been constructed to avoid-the Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca, Oneida and Clyde-and Oneida Lake. A uniform channel was dredged; dams were built to create long, navigable pools, and locks were built adjacent to the dams to allow the barges to pass from one pool to the next. When it opened in 1918, the whole system was renamed the New York State Barge Canal.
With growing competition from railroads and highways, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, commercial traffic on the Canal System declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century.
Today, the waterway network has been renamed again. As the New York State Canal System, it is enjoying a rebirth as a recreational and historic resource. Tens of thousands of pleasure craft ply the canals’ waters each year, and thousands of visitors and local residents alike take advantage of the miles of biking and hiking paths, parks and historic sites along the canals.