Booms, Busts, and Rebirths on the Erie Canal
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Braving wintry weather (in May!) to explore Rochester and Syracuse, a writer digs up info on the great dig itself, a waterway that had a huge impact on the economic rise of the United States.

Erie Canal bike trail

April showers brought May flowers, with daffodils, lilacs, and cherry trees in bloom beside the trail. The showers paid no attention to the calendar, however. Still frigid upstate New York weather was joined by gray clouds and rain during my May visit. I pedaled along with gloves and a hooded rain jacket on, stopping under overpasses to take photos of the trail and Erie Canal without my camera getting wet.

Along the canal outside Rochester in mid-May, I didn't see one boat go by during the hours I rode along it on a bike. The most action I saw on the water was two mating ducks making a wing-flapping ruckus while flying across the surface.

Boat traffic will pick up when the weather turns for the summer, but these days most of the traffic on the Erie Canal is for pleasure, not for moving cargo. In its heyday though, this man-made waterway turned upstate New York state from a frontier land to a booming manufacturing center.

The USA's Waterway to Progress

Completed in just eight years between 1817 and 1825, the original Erie Canal was 363 miles long and built with men, mules, and horses. With this giant project and subsequent expansions, the canal became a real-world civil engineering school. The builders had to come up with new ways to uproot trees, blast out rocks, and develop hydraulic cement that would harden under water. They crossed rivers and ravines via 18 stone aqueducts.

Boats doing the whole trip rose or fell 675 feet in elevation, so they had to go through a staircase of 83 locks. Just to get boats to Lake Erie in the final stretch, builders had to blast out 300,000 cubic yards of rock to raise boats up the final 60 feet required.

original Erie Canal 1800s

The impact at the time was as profound as the later developments of trains, autos, and planes. The canal from Lake Erie connected to Lake Champlain, which connected to the Hudson River, which reached New York City. Freight rates fell 90 percent for the salt barons who funded The Big Dig, as well as for farmers, mine owners, and manufacturers who saw immediate benefits. A passenger trip from Albany to Buffalo that used to take at least two weeks by stagecoach now took five days.

Over the next 10 years, the state built several other canals to connect to different waterways, the most important being the Oswego canal that carried barges to Lake Ontario and thus the Canadian markets. The system was so successful that the state had to expand the canal several times to make it wider and deeper for bigger boats. By 1882 all building costs were recouped though and the tolls ended.

A Route Away From the Coast

The Erie Canal opened vast areas of the upper Midwest to settlement and commercial agriculture. This was the first time there was a reliable and inexpensive way to transport heavy goods in the 1800s, in a time before trains and roads for automated vehicles. The canal exploited the only low-elevation passage between the Southeast USA and Canada, so now goods could move between the coasts of Georgia and Virginia to the far north interior via New York City, the canal, and Lake Erie.

This development made New York City what it is today because the city became the nation's prime seaport. The Empire State was born when the cities along the canal boomed and all that commerce moved through the ocean terminus of NYC.

Syracuse New York City Hall

When the Erie Canal opened and enabled trade between New York City, the Great Lakes, and Canada, the cities along the route went from nothing to something in a hurry. Buffalo, with a harbor on Lake Erie at the end of the canal, went from around 2,400 people as the canal opened to 81,000 just 25 years later in 1850. Rochester had a population of 2,500 pre-canal. It later turned into "America's first inland boom town" and by the end of the century it had 162,000 residents. Syracuse was barely a town before the construction started, with fewer than 250 people. By 1850 there were more than 22,000. By 1890 that number quadrupled and at the turn of the new century it passed 100,000.

The improvement in both speed and shipping rates is hard to fathom today. Industries that depended on bulk shipping or needed relatively fast transit times just couldn't exist before. They took off when businesses could now ship to cities hundreds of miles away or even the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Syracuse dominated some industries for decades on end after the canal opened. The salt barons who financed the canal to start with were at one point supplying 85 percent of the salt sold in the USA—millions of barrels a year. Since this was such an important commodity for preservation in the time before refrigeration, the wealth led to an infrastructure of banks and investment funds for new businesses. Syracuse became the typewriter capital of the world when that machine took off, supplying three-quarters of the whole world's typewriters in the early 1900s. That technology had a ripple effect around the globe as it impacted the speed of communication, women in the workforce, and the spreading of the word for progressive causes. One prominent display in the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester is her typewriter, flanked by papers and books she distributed while tirelessly fighting for women's rights.

Susan B. Anthony House Rochester

There was also Stickley furniture then his Craftsman houses, the gas lantern industry, the leading "China" dishes producer, and manufacturing of bike gears—later adapted for use in automobiles.

The other cities also saw their fortunes go up like a boat in a rising canal lock. Rochester is where the first camera with built-in photo plates got its start in 1888, soon leading to film cameras by the company that became Eastman Kodak. Rochester also became the birthplace of Western Union, French's mustard, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox.

In Buffalo, the first steam-powered grain elevator went in during the canal era, allowing grain to move on and off barges more quickly. The city later became a cloth manufacturing powerhouse, with industry fed by hydroelectric power. Buffalo was a shipbuilding leader and an early auto manufacturing center. During the two world wars, the city's shift to weapons and supplies manufacturing kept it humming and it was the 15th largest city in the USA in 1950, with more than half a million people. (Even then, 125 years after the Erie Canal opened, Rochester was still number 32 and Syracuse was number 47.)

From Dominance to Decline

We've seen this movie before though and it doesn't end well. Horses and mules pulled barge's along until the early 1900s, when motorized tugboats took over. The four-legged creatures were out of a job. The humans probably didn't think it could happen to them though. It was hard to imagine that, amidst this great progress, the boom times would be coming to an end. Soon after the last expansion of the barge system waterway, railroads started to take some freight business away. The real nail in the coffin was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s. This allowed ships to go directly from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Bigger forces were at play, however. From Detroit to Gary to Cleveland, the "Rust Belt" spread as manufacturing got hit by the double-whammy of robotics and cheaper labor overseas. Ironically, the very force that created the boom towns—easier shipping—was the same force that was their downfall when huge container ships started plying the oceans. As it became easier to manufacture a typewriter, T-shirt, or radio abroad and have it shipped back—or to automate the process anywhere on the planet—the factories that used to be humming emptied out and many people went to look for work elsewhere.

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