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The Erie Canal - a New York State Treasure

August 09, 2013
Timothy McDonnell


Most of us know the song - "Low Bridge, Everybody Down...Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal."

The Great Erie Canal is part of New York (and American) culture. But from the point of view of a geographer, "Clinton's Ditch" (Dewitt, NOT Hillary), is critical to a complete understanding of the Empire State. This 360-mile waterway connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Its enormous success brought prosperty to towns large and small from Buffalo to Albany and down to New York City. It was also America's Information Highway in the 1800s. Reform movements moved along the canal - temperance, evangelism, abolition, and women's rights. It was no accident that the first meeting to advocate suffrage for women was in Seneca Falls, a canal town.

The Erie Canal actually has had three phases. The first canal, Clinton's Ditch, was completed with much fanfare in 1825. It was only four feet deep, but it was an engineering marvel of its time. It was so successful that it needed improvement in just a few years. The Enlarged Erie Canal was worked on gradually for many years. It was completed in 1862 during the Civil War. It was one of the reasons that the Union was victorious because it tied the Midwestern states to the Northeast. It remained an important highway for freight despite the growth of railroads. But, at the end the 19th century, this mule-driven canal was obsolete. Gov. Theodore Roosevelt pushed through a bill to construct the final stage, the Barge Canal. This much deeper waterway uses rivers and lakes for much of its route across the state. It is still in existence today, although pleasure craft makes up most of its business. The old canals might be closed down, but many of their structures are still here. You can see some of them in this collage:

Top Row: Mud Creek Aqueduct in winter, Palmyra; the Medina Culvert under the canal; Modern Lock 30 near Macedon; a hinge on an old lock on the Champlain Canal in Schylersville; a fossil cephalopod on Old Lock 23 near Schenectady. Row 2: Old Lock 59 in Newark, NY; Gilles Roy of the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum demonstrating boat building techniques; the remains of the Lockport "Flight of Five" that took the old canal over the Niagara Escarpment; a Packet Boat at Erie Canal Village near Rome, NY; the "Hoggee" and his mule, a statue outside the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse; a tree root in Old Lock 36 in Little Falls. Row 3: Cohoes Falls, a major obstacle near the eastern end of the canal; Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony "having tea" in Rochester; a beautiful sunset at Lock 18 in Herkimer Iphoto by Lin Butters). Row 4: the old canal prsim in Cohoes, NY; the Skaneateles Aqueduct in Jordan, NY; Bunkbeds on a canal boat at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse. Row 5: A mural by the canal in Lyons, NY; a Squire Whipple Bridge over the old canal at Visher's Ferry; Daylilies grow inside Old Lock 18; the Richmond Aqueduct over the Seneca River in Montezuma. Row 6: the Chenango Canal Museum in Bouckville; the Cobblestone Museum in Childs, NY; "Mother O'Brien (Joan DiGristina) describes life for women on a canal boat; Modern Lock 2 in Waterford. Bottom Row: the Commercial Slips in Buffalo at the Western Terminus of the Erie Canal; a historic photo of the Genesee Valley Canal in the Letchworth Gorge; the Lois McClure from Vermont makes another visit to the Erie Canal; the Yankee Hill Lock in Schoharie Crossing State Historic Park in Fort Hunter.

The New York Geographic Alliance encourages our students to learn more about the Erie Canal, starting with Grade 4. Our Module Development Committee has created a series of lessons on the canal and its geography that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. In July 2013, seventeen teachers from all over the state came to Camillus (west of Syracuse) to try out the module. They are our first "Teacher-Testers." These teachers will be using lessons with their students in the coming school year. We will be modifying them based on their recommendations. Our goal is to have the module accepted as an exemplar on the Engage New York website.

In the meantime you can download some of the module from our Members Only section of the NYGA website. You need to be a member of the Alliance, and we ask you to give us feedback on what works for you and what needs improvement.