Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Ride On the Erie Canal

Sometimes I think that Erie Canal water is in my genes. Maybe that's because my great-great grandfather Jonas Van Slyke was a lock tender in Mindenville many years ago, my great-grandfather Fred Fineour ran a grocery store along the canal in Fort Plain, and my grandmother Minnie spent her early childhood at the shop on the edge of the canal.

Of course, the canal that now runs along the Mohawk River and connects the Capital District of New York State with the Great Lakes region near Buffalo at the western end of the State is very different from the canal my forebears knew. According to New York State Canals: A Short History, by F. Daniel Larkin, the the original canal, completed in 1825, was a hand-dug ditch 363 miles long, 40 feet wide at the surface of the water, and 4 feet deep. It opened with much fanfare in November of that year, when Governor DeWitt Clinton, having traveled the length of the canal from west to east, and then down to New York Harbor, poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean in a ceremony known as "the wedding of the waters."

The canal was so successful in shipping goods along the east-west corridor that it soon became too small for the tonnage it was expected to carry. It was enlarged in the mid-19th century to allow bigger boats to pass and to navigate through the locks in both directions at the same time. The lock that Jonas tended in the late 1860s and early 1870s was probably part of this enlarged canal.  And great-grandpa Fred's store also catered to canalers along this version of the canal.

Around the turn of the 20th century, in spite of competition from railroads, the canal was enlarged once again, to become part of the barge canal system, a 524-mile canal network still under use in New York State, although mainly now for recreational boating.

Gliding along the canal
With my family connection to the history of the canal, I wondered what it might have been like to ride on a packet boat (passenger boat) or line boat (carrying merchandise) in the olden days, and I got a taste of such a voyage by going on an excursion along the canal near Herkimer, NY. In spite of the noise of the motor, it was soothing to be gliding along the calm water lined on both sides with green trees. Of course, in the earliest days of the canal, the boats were towed along at a pace of three or four miles an hour by teams of mules or horses.

Our boat approached a lock, a sort of watery elevator that opened and closed, letting water in and out to enable the boat to be raised or lowered according to the topography of the landscape.

Approaching the lock

Next, our boat entered the lock and the gates were closed. Water rushed out and whoosh! Down we went.

"Going down"

And then the gates were opened to let us out:

Exiting the lock

Our larger boat followed the little white schooner out of the lock. Going back in the other direction, we went through the operation in reverse, and were brought back up to our original level as water rushed in through openings in the gates and gurgled its way into the lock.

"Going up"

Back at the dock, I wondered how many times a day Jonas had run out to the lock to let boats through. Since the canal functioned 24 hours a day, there must have been a team of two lock tenders, one working the day shift and the other the night shift. I wonder who his partner was, and how many times a night his sleep was interrupted to man the lock.

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 For further reading:

Besides the book mentioned above, New York State Canals: A Short History, I also enjoyed reading Marco Paul's Travels On the Erie Canal, by Jacob Abbott. This amusing and informative story about a young boy's travels along the canal was originally published in 1843, and was reprinted in 1987 by Empire State Books. Marco and his cousin Forester meet many interesting folks in their travels, who tell them about life along the canal. You can find a digital copy of the entire book online at the following link: A treasure trove of other online material, including maps, pictures, and historical texts can also be found here: . For more information about the New York State Canal System as it is today, go to:

Happy reading! And happy gliding if you have an opportunity to paddle, peddle, or glide along the canal.


  1. Hi husband's ggg-grandfather Elnathan Keeler was a lock tender on the Erie Canal in tne 1850's....we are in Albany can we contact you?

    1. Hello Anonymous; thank you for your comment! You could submit another anonymous comment including your email address if you like, then I can email you. (I won't post your email address on the blog.)