Erie Canal Bicentennial Offers Historical Opportunities

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Lockport erie canalNew York is fortunate in having a robust history and so many historians, over the years, preserving, writing about, interpreting, and presenting it. But sometimes we concentrate repeatedly on some aspects of history and under-emphasize others that are equally as important.

The history of the Erie Canal and other canals might be a good example.

Next year, the state will mark the bicentennial of the initiation of the Erie Canal in 1817. There are lots of books on the canal, e.g., George Condon’s Stars in the Water: The Story of the Erie Canal (1974), Ronald Shaw’s Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 (1990) and Carol Sheriff’s The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 (1997). But they mostly cover only the period up to about 1875 — the period when the Erie Canal was new, others were being built, and canals were immensely important in developing the state, opening up the West, and making New York City the nation’s leading port.

There are a few works that cover the more recent period, including Daniel Larkin’s New York State Canals: A Short History (1998) and Michelle McFee’s The Long Haul: The Story of the New York State Barge Canal (1999).

But they are the rare exceptions. The last century and a half or so of canal history is largely neglected. In fact, what the state now calls the Erie Canal is actually the Barge Canal, opened in 1918. The most comprehensive recent history of the modern canal may be the document compiled in support of the nomination of the Barge Canal to the National Register of Historic Places compiled by the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in 2014.   But part of that nomination document is based on Noble E. Whitford’s History of the Barge Canal of New York State, published in 1922.

There is a lot of interesting, and largely unexplored, history in the period since about 1875.

* By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Erie Canal and other canals were sliding toward obsolescence largely because the railroads, which the state had chartered, encouraged, and in some cases helped finance, had paralleled them and could move freight and people much faster and cheaper than canals.

* The state lacked an effective way to manage the canals, with responsibility divided between a Canal Commission, the State Engineer and Surveyor, and other offices. Cost overruns and shoddy work by contractors for repairs and enlargements were common. Over-billing led to a political scandal in 1897 that resulted in Governor Frank Black not being nominated by his Republican party. Instead, Theodore Roosevelt, hero of the Spanish American war, was nominated, and elected, in 1898.

* TR appointed a commission to study the future of the Erie Canal. By then, canals were outmoded. But the commission, in a report in 1900, recommended construction of a much larger canal, capable of accommodating huge freight barges, that would follow part of the Erie’s route, partly break new ground (for instance, the Erie Canal went right through Syracuse but the new Barge Canal would bypass the city), and partly follow the Mohawk River, Oneida Lake, and other natural waterways. The price tag was huge, $101 million, the largest bond issue by any state up to that time. Voter approval was required. State officials urged a yes vote, asserting it would have a positive economic impact on the state, would get more grain and other freight flowing through New York rather than down the Mississippi River or by rail to New Orleans, and also help keep freight rates down by competing with the railroads. Voters approved.

* The Barge Canal opened in 1918. By then, though, there had been other changes that made the new canal outdated. The state had found a new way to regulate the railroads, the Public Service Commission, created in 1907, which regulated “public utilities,” including railroads. The PSC aimed to strengthen the railroads. It regulated their rates but made sure the railroads made a substantial profit.. It encouraged them to increase freight hauling capacity within the state. The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, which paralleled the canal from Albany to Buffalo, increased its freight yards at Buffalo and build new track paralleling what it already had under a dynamic new leader, William C. Brown, who became president of the railroad in 1909. New or expanded highways, including Route 20 and Route 5, built or paid for by the state, siphoned off more passenger and freight traffic. Canal tonnage was substantial during World War I but tapered off after that.

* In 1946, governor Thomas E. Dewey proposed the New York State Thruway, calling it New York’s “new Erie Canal” and predicting it would boost the state’s economy in the latter 20th century as the Erie Canal had in the early and mid 19th century. He was right about that. But ironically, the Thruway, completed in 1955, accelerated the demise of the canal, which became an operational burden for the state. In 1992, responsibility for the canal was transferred to the Thruway Authority.

* The canal system is now operated by the Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the Thruway Authority, and is largely used for boating, recreation, and tourism. Proponents document the canals’ contributions to the local economy, particularly through tourism and recreational use. But there is a cloud on the horizon. An association representing truckers who use the Thruway has filed a lawsuit in federal court asserting that the tolls trucks pay to use the highway should not be used to support the canal. The case is expected to be decided later this year. If the truckers succeed, the state will have to come up with a new way to support the canal.

* Abandoning the canals is apparently not an option. That is due to another legacy of history, a provision inserted in the State Constitution back in 1846 that “the legislature shall not sell, abandon, or otherwise dispose of ” the state’s canals. That proscription is still included in Article XV of the current version of the State Constitution. That may come up in discussions this year and next year about whether voters should vote to authorize a constitutional convention in 2017.

Of course, the history of the canal’s history and legacy continues to be promoted, for instance, by the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, administered by the National Park Service and by the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

The state Canal Corporation is soliciting public input about the future of the canal system for the update of its long-term strategic plan, Canal 2025: Canal Recreationway Plan Update.

But as we begin planning for the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2017, we should consider using it to go beyond another re-telling of the canal’s early history, which is already quite well known.

As a minimum, we should consider combining the bicentennial of the Erie Canal (begun in 1817) with the centennial of the opening of the Barge Canal (1918). But going beyond even that would be advantageous, telling the mostly neglected or unknown history of the canals in the last century and a half. It is an interesting New York story, complex, sometimes inconsistent, showing the interplay of economics and politics and the role of state government as supporter, regulator, and occasionally competitor with other forms of transportation.

Illustration: Lockport, on the Erie Canal.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

3 thoughts on “Erie Canal Bicentennial Offers Historical Opportunities

  1. Vicki Krisak

    Great post, and thank you for mentioning the Erie Canal Museum. Our new permanent exhibit, The Erie Canal: From Idea to Present, is now complete and open to the public. We are undertaking a comprehensive revision of our educational materials and resources to align with this new exhibit.


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