Doing research for this article on the Erie Canal I discovered not only the process of locking through but also different types of technology used to get cargo from here to there so for a better understanding I put together the following synopsis. Enjoy and stay tuned for upcoming accounts of my historical fiction trip on the Erie Canal aboard a Nimble Nomad. And now…
Locking through the Erie Canal takes time, patience, and control as numerous locks are required to achieve the 420’ climb up from Albany to Rome, New York 110 miles to the west. Wow!
When opened for traffic in 1825, the canal was no more than four feet deep and forty feet wide with a towpath on the north side and an earthen embankment on the other. Attached to a cargo or packet boat (a packet boat was strictly for sightseers of the canal, tourists, or people migrating into the Midwest) via strong rope were either horses or mules lead by a footman along the towpath; reserved horsepower awaited in stalls on the commercial boats switching periodically along the route while the packet boat operators located theirs at convenient stops along the canal. In 1825 cargo had to pass through 83 locks (built of wood, wood and stone, stone, or reinforced concrete) to complete the trip from Albany to Buffalo, New York however in later upgrades this narrowed down to 35 where it stands today.
Teams of mules or horses maneuver the boat into the open end of the lock, tenders, using muscle power, push on large tapered beams attached to the lock gates when opening or closing then panels at the bottom of the gates are removed to allow water in or out. Once the water level in the lock equals the water level the boat is traveling into the tenders close the panels, open the gates, and the boat continues on its way. In 1832, just seven years after it opened, the Erie Canal was in need of enlargement due to commercial success so the single locking method where one boat at a time passes through was expanded from 90’ long by 15’ wide to two locks side by side with increased dimensions of 110’ long by 18’ wide, per lock, enabling traffic to proceed in both directions simultaneously.
Whenever I think of aqueducts, those manmade rivers that move water, the Roman Empire and California are foremost on my mind because they were/are used to bring drinking water into large metropolitan areas encouraging growth. Those along the Erie Canal moved water too, but for a different reason. Thirty-two navigable aqueducts where constructed to carry boats and towpath (the towpath was a very important piece of technology) over river, rapids, or to bypass difficult terrain similar to going through a lock but used where locks are not necessary. Strip away the water and all that remains are wooden planks laid side by side resting on wooden beams to form a trough with the all-important towpath constructed over stone arches all of this resting on stone piling. That’s amazing! Just imagine man and horse riding through the countryside relishing nature’s beauty when off in the distance what appears to be a boat floating on air is in fact one being steered through an aqueduct that holds up to 400 tons of water? These water bridges are no longer part of the canal system however arched abutments, stonework for the trough, and towpath remain as a reminder of the technology used to help open up the Midwest to settlement.
Another important piece of technology from this time is the weigh lock that calculated toll charges of cargo boats along the canal. The original weigh locks operated as follows: a boat enters, the level of water in the lock rose, and by displacement the boats total weight is measured. Then the previously established weight of the empty boat is subtracted to determine the weight of just the cargo. Shortly after the completion of the canal the displacement locks were replaced with several weigh locks similar to a doctor’s office scale.
The boat enters the lock and comes to rest on a scale mechanism when the water is drained thus determining the weight and the correct toll is then exacted after which the lock is refilled and the boat continues along the canal; the toll per ton differed in accordance to the boat’s cargo and weighed only once one way. By 1883, more than $121 million in tolls had been collected, which covered the original construction costs, constant repairs, operation, and enlargement making a nice return on money invested. Toll charges were discontinued that year because of the financial success of the canal and to keep pace with the railroads. Of all the weigh stations only one remains which is in Syracuse, New York and most appropriately houses the Erie Canal Museum. This is the original building and location but the canal water that once ran through and in front of this building has long since been rerouted north of the city and the ditch filled in for automobile traffic.
The Erie Canal was last updated in 1918 replacing manual labor with electronic controls to open/close the gates and to raise or lower water levels. “Clinton’s Ditch” was increase to 14’ deep and 120-200’ wide and is the current dimensions of the canal today. Locking through has changed as boaters stop outside the lock, then notify the operator by marine radio, cellular phone, or by three distinct horn blasts. The operator replies with either a green light (proceed), red light (stop and wait), no light (tie to approach wall and wait), or six flashes of red or green light (remain stationary and await instruction). Once cleared the entrance gates open and the boat enters at a slow pace then, keeping close to a lock wall, persons on the boat will loop, not tie, mooring lines to cable or will hold onto lines hanging down the wall as the waters within rise or descend. Protecting the boat’s hull from damage are fenders or bumpers, shaped oblong or like giant balls made of rubber or plastic draped over the outside as the boat comes to rest next to the lock wall. After the proper level is reached the gates swing open, the boaters cast off all lines and proceed to move out of the lock under reduced speed following all posted speed limits for canal travel. In days of yore a toll was accessed based on weight but todays pleasure crafters on the Erie Canal buy a Seasonal, 10 day or two-day pass at nominal fees based not on weight but ship the length of.