Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Columns

April 24, 2010

CANAL DISCOVERY: Barge Canal expansion

The Erie Canal’s success began a canal-building boom in New York in the 1820s that lasted until the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century, several lateral canals opened, including the Champlain, the Oswego and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, this network of canals was enlarged and deepened to accommodate even heavier traffic. Between 1905 and 1918, the canals were enlarged yet again. In order to make room for much larger barges, the engineers decided to abandon much of the original man-made channel. Instead, they used new techniques to “canalize” the waterways that the canal had originally avoided: The Mohawk, Oswego, Seneca and Clyde rivers and Oneida Lake.

A uniform channel was dredged and dams were built to create long, navigable pools and locks were built adjacent to the dams to allow the barges to pass from one pool to the next. When it opened in 1918, the whole system was renamed the New York State Barge Canal.

The contract to build the Barge Canal locks 34 and 35 in Lockport was given to the Larkin and Sangster Company, and was designated Barge Canal Section 67. It prescribed the location of the two new locks to be built on the south side at approximately the same location as the south tier of the old locks. The contract also required that canal traffic be maintained during construction of the new locks.

A community of workers, machinery and buildings grew up in an area around Hinman Road near State Street. At least nine buildings were constructed there and each was painted blue, which inspired the name Blue City.         

When Larkin and Sangster started work on the two new locks, their first problem was to avoid any interference of canal traffic during the open season. They accomplished this by keeping the north tier of five locks open. The whole enlargement project had been made much more complicated and costly by removing a 4 1/2-foot dam near the mouth of the canalized Tonawanda Creek. This lowered the level of the canal waters to the locks by 4 1/2 feet, so the channel had to be dug that much deeper to obtain the required depth.

From winter 1909 to May 1918, the lock basin was a scene of Herculean activity. Machines were slicing off the rock sidewalls, dynamite was breaking up the rocky bottom and three trains were carrying away the debris to the spoil area in the old millpond between the canal and Clinton Street. More than  a thousand men were kept busy in three eight-hour shifts in the winter months when the water was removed from the canal. The work scene resembled a veritable battlefield, pitting man against nature. Work progressed both on Locks 34 and 35, as well as the Deep Cut from Lockport to Tonawanda Creek.

Most baby boomers alive today remember the heyday of the Barge Canal with its barges laden with raw materials and finished goods. However, with growing competition from railroads and highways, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, commercial traffic on the canal system declined dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century.

Today, the waterway network has been renamed again. As the New York State Canal System, it is enjoying a rebirth as a recreational resource. In 2001, the canal system was designated by the National Park Service as the nation's 23rd National Heritage Corridor and The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor joined the ranks of America’s most treasured historical resources.

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. His column runs every Saturday. The Discovery Center is now closed for the season, but will open by appointment for group tours. Call 434-7433.

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