For the next several years, we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the construction of the Erie Canal. Lockport’s big day will come in 2025, but this year there is another anniversary to commemorate: 100 years since the official opening of the Erie Barge Canal. Although the two new large Lockport locks, E-34 and E-35, had been operating by 1915, the entire system was not completed and opened until May 15, 1918.
The creation of the Erie Barge Canal (an enlarged and expanded version of the original Erie Canal) had its inception more than 20 years before it became a reality. As early as the mid-19th century, railroads began taking passengers and freight away from the Erie Canal. By the time of the Civil War, packet boats that once carried people across the state had all but disappeared. To compete with the railroads, canal freight boats were getting bigger and longer to hold more cargo. This created problems on the canal, not only in tight areas like locks and turning basins, but also for boats just passing each other.
The canal had been enlarged once already, between the 1830s and the 1860s. By the 1890s, if the canal was going to stay competitive, it was going to have to be upgraded again. In 1894, the New York State legislature appropriated $9 million to begin another enlargement of the canal. It was quickly realized that the amount had been grossly underestimated. A decision now had to made: allocate additional funding (about $15 million) or abandon the canal altogether.
To paraphrase a statement later applied to the Panama Canal, “while the debate went on, so did the canal.” Expansion projects on the canal continued to be carried out while New York State officials studied and debated its future.
One option that was explored was turning the waterway into a shipping canal, rather than a barge canal. This would require not only widening the canal but also deepening it considerably to allow ocean going vessels to navigate it. This proposal would also cost quite a bit more and would need congressional approval and funding.
New York Governor Frank Black appointed a committee to explore both options. The panel concluded that the shipping canal would not be feasible or cost effective. It also found that the original $9 million had been mismanaged and that there were “technical violations” in the work being done.
While all of this was going on, the Spanish-American War started in 1898, halting work on the canal and making Theodore Roosevelt a war hero.
In November 1898, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. During the campaign, he had addressed the issues concerning the canal by saying, “If there is trouble in the system on which the canal is administered, I will change it if elected governor, or present suggestions to the legislature for a change. If there is dishonesty or inefficiency, I will punish it.”
In March 1899, Roosevelt appointed a new committee to investigate the problems within the canal system and make suggestions on how best to improve the effectiveness and competitiveness of the waterway. He made it clear that abandoning the system was not an option. The committee presented its findings to the governor in January, 1900.
Among several recommendations, the committee presented two possible options for the canal. The first, a limited enlargement that would address the short-term issues facing the canal, would cost the state an additional $22 million. The second was a complete overhaul of the entire system to create a barge canal using natural rivers and lakes as well as widening and deepening the channel to accommodate larger boats. That would cost $61 million.
The committee overwhelmingly supported the second option. Roosevelt accepted its recommendation and in April authorized the state engineer and surveyor to begin preparing surveys and maps for the new Erie Barge Canal.
By the time the engineering details were completed in 1901, Roosevelt was the U.S. vice president. In the state election of 1903, the voters approved the necessary expenditures (now up to $100 million) to fund the Barge Canal. All non-canal counties voted against it while all but two canal counties (Monroe and Onondaga) voted for it (the Barge Canal would bypass Rochester and Syracuse in those counties).
The construction was ongoing from 1905 to 1918. Work began on the Lockport section in 1910. According to the Historic American Engineering Record report on the Erie Canal, locks 34 and 35 “were serviceable by 1915.”
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.