Early Months of Erie Canal Navigation in Syracuse
By Derrick Pratt, Erie Canal Museum Educator

Earlier this year, we looked at the early months of 1820 in Syracuse and on the fledgling Erie Canal, which, with the arrival of the Montezuma on April 20, began to offer the small community a taste of the astounding opportunities presented by its waters. This was only the beginning for Syracuse and the canal that would transform it into one of New York’s great cities. Before the year’s end, Syracuse would see sights far more grand, and also more practical, than the entrance of a lone packet boat on its new waterway.

Navigation season opening

On May 1, less than two weeks after the Montezuma’s entrance into Syracuse, official navigation began on the Canal’s 96-mile middle section between Utica and Montezuma. A variety of vessels traveled alongside the Montezuma and its fellow packet boat, the Chief Engineer, both of which were owned by the recently formed Erie Canal Navigation Company of Comfort Tyler and Simon Dexter Newton. These boats were hastily put together by forward thinking farmers and merchants wishing to take advantage of the benefits offered by canal transportation. It was just such a vessel that the great advocate of the Erie Canal, Governor DeWitt Clinton, would see allegedly carrying 440 tons of lumber outside of Utica as he commenced his first tour of the newly completed middle section in late May. 

DeWitt Clinton’s first Syracuse appearance

On May 22, 1820, during his trip aboard the Montezuma, Clinton made his first appearance in the Syracuse square that would one day bear his name. Traveling with the Governor was fellow Canal Commissioner Myron Holley and geographer/preacher Jedidiah Morse. Morse was on his way to investigate the people and places of the nation’s western reaches. Morse’s son Samuel, would initiate a revolution in communication similar to the transportation revolution wrought by the Erie Canal.

This distinguished group of travelers was met in Syracuse by the boom of cannons. The residents of the small settlement did their best to show their admiration for their guests until they set off for the Seneca River the next day. This was not the only time Clinton would visit Syracuse in 1820, however. We will cover his grand Fourth of July celebration in a future article.

A revolution in transportation

While 1820 was a year of celebrations along the Erie Canal and in Syracuse, there were other, far more transformative events happening to the communities along the canal’s middle section. With the beginning of navigation on this stretch, a revolution in transportation was occurring in the state that would turn settlements like Syracuse into booming cities, New York City into the nation’s first port, and New York itself the Empire State. Evidence of this can be seen in the Onondaga Register. The newspaper reported that in June 1820, 146 passages had been made through Lock Number 8 in Montezuma, the westernmost lock on the system. The cargo listed for these boats included 3776 barrels of flour, 2438 bushels of wheat, and 776 barrels of salt, along with many other products in vast quantities. The sheer amount of goods listed in this article would have been practically unthinkable just a year before.

The transformation wrought by the Erie Canal on the region’s commerce was not just in volume. Prices were also being cut dramatically. The Register reported in September that salt was being sold for half the price it had been before the canal’s opening, in spite of the taxes on salt to help pay for the canal. Lower prices, faster travel, and greater carrying capacity would firmly cement New York as the economic center of the young nation, justifying Syracuse’s great celebrations in 1820.