The 1850 Syracuse Weighlock Building, a small Greek revival building located in the heart of Downtown Syracuse, was originally built for a purpose similar to weigh stations on highways today, collecting tolls on cargo in order to pay for the construction and maintenance of the canal.
In order to assess a toll, the boats were weighed. Boats entered the lock chamber, water was drained through a culvert under the city into Onondaga Creek, and the boat settled onto a wooden cradle attached by rods to a scale. The unloaded boat weight (from its empty weight certificate) was subtracted from the measured loaded weight to determine the weight of the cargo. The weighmaster then charged a toll based on that weight, what the boat was carrying, and how far it was going.
In 1883, New York State decided to stop charging a toll to utilize the canal system, as over $121 million in tolls had been collected, which more than covered the $7 million construction costs. At that time, the Weighlock Building became a dry dock for boat repair and a New York State office building, while other weighlock buildings were torn down. The canal through Syracuse was paved over in the 1920s after the Barge Canal opened to the north of the city.
The Weighlock Building was occupied by the New York State Department of Public Works until 1954. In 1956, two members of the New York State Canal Society, both state legislators, sponsored legislation to give the building to the New York State Department of Education. In a surprise move, Governor Harriman vetoed the legislation over the almost unanimous vote of the legislature saying that a future highway interchange might claim the building.
At this point, the Junior League of Syracuse took notice and was shocked to find drawings at the DPW showing Interstate 81 going right over the Weighlock Building and Syracuse City Hall. The Junior League and others went into high lobbying gear, with intense letter writing and phone calls to Albany legislators and the Chairman of the Onondaga County Board of Supervisors.
The Junior League persuaded the Board of Supervisors to accept the Weighlock Building on behalf of Onondaga County. The transfer from the State was authorized by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Rockefeller.
The instrument of conveyance from New York State provided that the property must be used for a “public canal museum.” Consequently, at the request of the County, the original Board of Trustees started out to create such a museum. Work began in earnest, mostly with volunteers, to clean, paint and revitalize the interior of the building, while County employees made a significant contribution to the renovation of the building. In September 1962, the Board of Regents granted a “provisional charter” and the formal opening in October was greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds. The “absolute charter” of the Museum was issued by the Board of Regents on March 29, 1968.
More information about the saving of the Weighlock Building and the founding of the Erie Canal Museum can be found in this document celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Museum in 1997.