"Clinton's Big Ditch"


The Erie Canal is famous in song and story. Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. An engineering marvel when it was built, some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In order to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market, the construction of a canal was proposed as early as 1768. However, those early proposals would connect the Hudson River with Lake Ontario near Oswego. It was not until 1808 that the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, Governor Dewitt Clinton broke ground for the construction of the canal. In those early days, it was often sarcastically referred to as "Clinton's Big Ditch". When finally completed on October 26, 1825, it was the engineering marvel of its day. It included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers, and 83 locks, with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and floated boats carrying 30 tons of freight. A ten foot wide towpath was built along the bank of the canal for the horses and/or mules which pulled the boats and their driver, often a young boy (sometimes referred to by later writers as a "hoggee").



In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The "Enlarged Erie" was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72. Most of the remaining traces of the Old Erie Canal are from the Enlarged Erie era.

In 1903, the State again decided to enlarge the canal by the construction of what was termed the "Barge Canal", consisting of the Erie Canal and the three chief branches of the State system -- the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals. The resulting canal was completed in 1918, and is 12 to 14 feet deep, 120 to 200 feet wide, and 363 miles long, from Albany to Buffalo. 57 Locks were built to handle barges carrying up to 3,000 tons of cargo, with lifts of 6 to 40 feet. This is the Erie Canal which today is utilized largely by recreational boats rather than cargo-carrying barges.

About this Site


This web site is devoted to the history of the Erie Canal in general, but focuses to some extent on the western portion of the canal from the eastern border of Wayne County to Lockport (Locks 34 and 35), and particularly on the area around the City of Rochester. The original canal went right through downtown Rochester and crossed the Genesee River on a major aqueduct. The first enlargement of the canal replaced the original aqueduct, which leaked, with a new, improved aqueduct which still exists in the guise of the Broad Street Bridge. The last enlargement of the canal, the Barge Canal, bypassed Rochester, and now goes through the Genesee River south of the city. Other interesting aspects of this section of the canal include the remains of several early canal structures in the Macedon and Palmyra area, the Lift Bridge in Fairport, which is an engineering curiosity due to the slope and angle of the bridge, and the locks at Lockport, where the current double 24 1/2 foot high locks are adjacent to one sequence of the original 5 lock pairs.

The main sections of this site provide views of the old Erie Canal in three ways:

  • Erie Canal Images -- Old prints, paintings, and postcards
  • Traces of the Old Erie Canal -- Recent photographs of the remains of old Erie Canal sites and structures, primarily those from the Enlarged Erie Canal era (post-1862)
  • Tour the Old Erie Canal -- A journey from Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east by way of a clickable map of the Erie Canal path, and incorporating material from both the Images and Traces sections with additional material.
A good introduction to the history of the Erie Canal can be found on the 175th Anniversary Exhibit pages, which originally accompanied an exhibit put together by the Mandeville Gallery of Union College in Schenectady to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal. More historical information can be found in the materials listed on the Books and Videos page, or by following the Erie Canal Related Links. Historical and recent maps can be found on the Erie Canal Maps page.

For information about the Erie Canal of today, visit the official New York State Canal Corporation web site.
Click the image for a larger view
George Harvey: Pittsford on the Erie Canal, 1837 ... courtesy: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester