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BoatUS Special Report

 

Boating On The Erie Canal

By Pat Piper
Published: October/November 2012

America's great canal system offers an inspiring history, friendly locals, a string of charming towns, and vast vistas that will make you want to stop, slow down, and in some cases, duck.



"Can you imagine how audacious this idea must have seemed?" says Peter Welsby, gazing at the rock walls on either side of us, that, two centuries ago, were dynamited to build the Erie Canal. Welsby is at the helm of Stasia Louise, the DeFever 44 trawler owned by friends Tom and Paula Blanchard. We've just crossed the Genesee River south of Rochester, New York, chugging west toward Buffalo, musing about what it must have been like, in 1808, when New York City Mayor Dewitt Clinton first suggested a canal. "It was just forest and Indians out here," says Welsby, "and the mayor was saying, 'Sure, we can do this.' When you look at the political climate now, could we even accomplish something like this today?"

Welsby, a member of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, and Tom Blanchard, chairman of the Erie Canal Heritage Fund, are among a group of professionals donating their expertise to ensure that the history behind the building of this monumental 363-mile canal isn't forgotten in this ramped-up, need-it-now world. In 1808, Mayor Clinton looked past every naysayer a common occurrence when you've got that job and announced he wanted to build a waterway from Buffalo on Lake Erie, to the Hudson River. Clinton knew what he was in for, and soon newspapers had stories about "this dumb idea," calling it "Clinton's Folly" while offering lyrical comments such as: "In the big ditch will be buried the treasury of the state, to be watered by the tears of posterity."

The locks at Lockport, New York, shown in a 1905 postcard
Photo: Erie Canal Discovery Center The locks at Lockport, New York, shown in a 1905 postcard.

For nine years Clinton made his case, trying to convince folks that New York City could become an importer and exporter of goods from America's interior, using a canal. But there was a formidable challenge the "Dumb Idea Club" seized upon: Buffalo happened to be 564 feet higher than Albany. "How would you handle that one?" they carped. Add to this, Thomas Jefferson turned Clinton down as well, telling him to come back in 100 years. The state of New York was on its own. Mayor Clinton eventually became Governor Clinton, and guess what happened next.

Photo of the locks at Lockport, New York, how they look today
Photo: Erie Canal Discovery Center The locks at Lockport, New York, how they look today.

On July 4, 1817, shovels went to work in Rome, New York, with one group facing west and the other group facing east. Eight years later, they completed a canal that was 40 feet across and four feet deep. Clinton made it a point to ride the new waterway to Buffalo, scoop two casks of water from Lake Erie, and carry it back to New York Harbor where he poured Lake Erie into the Hudson River. But the naysayers wouldn't let it go, saying the $7 million cost to build what they were now calling "Clinton's Ditch" was money down the drain. Well, just a few years later, the Erie Canal had paid for itself through the use of tolls. Whereas travel by horse-drawn wagon had once cost $100/ton and taken two weeks on the road, travel through the canal now cost $10/ton and could be completed in three-and-a-half days.

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