Overview of the Erie and Champlain Canals

Erie Canal at Crescent

Horses pulling canal boats along the towpath at Crescent, NY. 

LISTEN as Willard Van Vranken (b. 1894), who lived along the Erie Canal, describes to John Scherer (in an interview conducted in 1980) what the boats carried and how the canal boat captains would cry, "Low bridge! Everybody down!"

The Grand Western Canal, as the Erie was often called, was the Eighth Wonder of the World. The Erie Canal was the longest canal in the world, and was also perhaps the most productive. During its first 40 years it made transportation and commercial history. It not only supplied the western states a route by which to ship their grain and farm produce to market, but also opened the West for settlement, and encouraged growth along the towpath. Across the state towns and cities sprang up, owing their growth, as well as their very birth in some instances, to the canal. 

Erie Canal Map

Map showing the changes in elevation on the Erie Canal. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=257075

Construction of the Erie Canal began in Rome, New York, on the Fourth of July, 1817. When completed in 1825, the canal was a narrow ditch 28 feet in width at the bottom, 40 feet wide on the surface, and extending 363 miles between Albany and Buffalo. The depth of the water averaged 4 feet. To compensate for the various levels, there were 83 locks along the length of the canal. Twenty-seven of these locks were in the first 15 miles of so between Albany and Schenectady around the Cohoes Falls. 

Lock 21 Rexford

Lock 21 at Rexford, NY.

An enlargement to this canal along its length to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep was begun in 1836 and completed in 1862. In Clifton Park, this work was done in 1842.

On the east border of Halfmoon, along the Hudson River, the Champlain Canal carried boats for 64 miles from Waterford north to Whitehall at the south end of Lake Champlain. There were two locks in Halfmoon. "Flynn's Lock" was located where McDonald Creek flows into the Hudson. This canal opened along its entire length in 1823.

Old Champlain Canal Lock

Champlain Canal lock with a boat coming through. Image courtesy of Halfmoon Town Historian, Ellen Kennedy.

Overview of the Erie and Champlain Canals