How do you float a barge over a mountain range? That was the challenge in upstate New York in 1817. Navigating a boat over Appalachian Mountains sparked the spirit of American ingenuity, and the Erie Canal was conceived. A waterway from Lake Erie to the Hudson River that would lift a barge 500 feet would provide a way to deliver goods and produce from rural inland farms to the growing metropolitan cities.
Immigrants from Ireland, England and Germany flocked to America, the land of opportunity, to work on the project. They carved the 363-mile-long, and 40-foot-wide canal using picks, shovels and horse carts as it was before the days of motorized equipment.
We recently took a ride on the Erie Canal out of a little town called Lockport, New York. We learned that the canal has a total of 85 locks. A lock is a chamber the boat enters and is locked in by water gates. The lock is then filled with river water, diverted from upstream, until the boat is raised 25 feet. Once the water level in the lock is equal to the water level of the river, the gates part and are opened. It is amazing that no pumps or any kind of machinery are needed to raise the boat. The simple physics of gravity and buoyancy do all the work. Even the weight of the water pressure holds the gates closed until the pressure on each side of the gate is equal. Then they can be easily opened and the boat or barge can continue on its way. As you travel along the canal you can see many churches and homes built with “free stone” which is the material that was excavated during construction of the canal, free to anyone who wanted it.
Barges were the most practical way to move heavy loads from one place to another. They were pulled along the canal by mules at a speed of about 2.3 miles per hour. They covered about 55 miles in a 24 hour period so the trip took about 6 1/2 days. Later the railroad came, and could haul freight at a speedy 30 miles per hour. Competing for business, the railroad even built “up-side-down” railroad trestles over the canal to limit the height of the load a barge could carry. “Low bridge, everybody down” became a familiar call. Ultimately the canal system couldn’t compete and the railroad became the standard way of hauling freight.
Today the Erie Canal is used mostly for recreation and pleasure cruising. People rent houseboats that are replicas of the early canal boats, and cruise for their family vacation. But the canal was one of the key elements in the early commercial success of the United States and an important step in our nation’s expansion west.
(Thanks to my husband John Paladini for this great blog post.)