Through the Mire: A Look at the Environmental History of the Erie Canal

By David Brooks, Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site

An examination of the environmental history of Upstate New York and its impact on the Erie Canal

The waterways of New York State have been utilized for hundreds of years but with the arrival of Europeans and the age of colonialism, their ability to effectively support commerce placed the region into a status of increasing global importance. From the early Dutch trade settlement of Fort Orange along the Hudson River, and the British takeover of the colony in 1624, the vast wilderness of the Mohawk River Valley and interior of the continent provided amazing trade resources that “…underscored the need for improvement” by 1700.  After the 1702 negotiations with the Five Nations Iroquois, the clearing of trees and creation of small dams were allowed for the “ease and accommodation” of trade and transport; both of which increased exponentially even though the navigation of the Mohawk River was still difficult (Larkin 10-11).

That waterway in particular was the key to success, as it formed the only natural cut through the Appalachian Mountain range for hundreds of miles that allows access to the continental interior and Great Lakes.  It was difficult to navigate and transport goods even “under normal river conditions,” but the waterway was prone to extreme fluctuations of flooding and to low levels, as well as being rocky and narrow with several concentrated rifts of fast moving currents.  Portages were required around such rifts, falls, and rapids at several points along the journey and the river could only be traveled as far as the “Great Carry” near Oneida Lake and Wood Creek.  Boats had to off load their cargo onto overland wagons a distance determinate on the water levels at the time – being “as short as a mile and a half, but during dry times, about five miles” (Hager 46-48).

“Internal Improvements” and the Western Inland Lock Company

After the American Revolution, there was a migration of New Englander’ “Yankee’s” as well as other New Yorkers into the Mohawk Valley as the original Iroquois inhabitants either evacuated or were otherwise compelled to leave their lands.  Augustus Porter noted in his autobiography some of the “improvements” made in the navigation of the river system at Wood Creek by 1789.  “At the portage, there was a dam for a saw mill which created a considerable pond.  This pond when full, could be rapidly discharged, and on the flood thus suddenly made, boats were able to pass down” (Hager 58).  This evidence of the creative approach by man to manipulate the environment to their benefit, while not a new concept, fostered the rise of the economic stability of the early Republic and the sense that nature – in this form a wilderness – could be “improved” upon.

As that success continued, early canals would be developed to increase the flow of commerce as well as profitability.  The Western Inland Lock Company was formed by Elkanah Watson, Philip Schulyer and other prominent figures of the Mohawk Valley as a private stock company in 1792.  From 1793-1798, with great waste of resources as well as capital, three short canals were completed.  The cuts were made at Wood Creek, Little Falls and German Flats in order to reduce transport time by eliminating portages.  Each extended a length of around a mile and utilized locks and channels to bypass rapid currents as well as falls.  Wood Creek was cleared and straightened; where it meet the Mohawk River a lock was built that operated a ten foot adjustment in water elevation.  On the western end of the canal an eight foot lock was constructed for a similar result.  Water was re-routed by a feeder canal to “maintain a summit level” (Hager 64).

Along with subsequent small and ill profitable ventures, minor improvements to river travel continued in the first several decades of the nineteenth-century.  As traffic continued to increase with those improvements, so did the cargo and therefore the boats required to haul it.  “Mohawk Dunham boats” were constructed to replace bateaux.  In order to construct this new and entirely American style of boat, long portions of white oak as well as planking was necessary.  Additionally, masts for the sails were crafted from timbers thirty to thirty-five feet in length (Hager 77-78) (Larkin 14).  Use of these vessels meant that travel on the Mohawk from Schenectady to Utica and the return – over two-hundred miles in total – took around nine days.  Most often that was five to six days upriver and three back (Hager 78).

Other adjustments to the river itself were being accomplished by small engineering operations.  Chistian Schultz traveled the Mohawk Valley in 1807 and noted obstacles and obstructions that “barely permits” travel through narrow portions of the river.  At times, he recalled,

“…two lines or ridges of stones generally constructed on sandy, gravely or stony shallows, in such a manner as to form an acute angle, were they meet, the extremities of which widen as they extend upriver; whilst at the lower end there is just space left to admit the presence of a boat.  The water being collected…continually pent up…causes a rise at the passage…which affords…an easy passage over the shoal” (Hager 82).

It was generally understood after the War of 1812 that the ability to move freight through the valley was of great necessity to the security of the American nation and further improvements were required.  Promoters of the idea to create a canal the entire length instead of merely improving the river once again, met opposition in both political as well as funding fronts.  A general commentary prevailed however, as it “tis a true shame to let such a privilege of water lie idle” (Bernstein 335).

Digging the “grand canal”

Without getting bogged down in the years of political debate and controversy over the surveying, the route, and the financial burden, the proposed canal nonetheless was a great magnitude of enterprise on the part of the State of New York.  It would require 363 miles of digging from Albany to Lake Erie, at a width of 40 feet and four feet in depth through swamps, marshes, forests, stone and over valleys, creeks and rivers.  In order to overcome the 565 feet of elevation difference from the lake to the Hudson River, 83 locks would need to be constructed.  Each lock would be 90 feet by 15 feet overall and made of cut and laid stone (Larkin 17-19).

In order to achieve this grand canal, human as well as animal power was implemented.  Their effective use, aided by ingenious machines designed for the tasks at hand meant success was nearly inevitable.  Innovations and technological developments created tree fellers that could topple large standing timbers with relative ease, as well as stump pullers that could rip snarled roots out of the dirt.  These as well as other inventions eased slightly the difficulty of construction by effectively removing trees at nearly three to four times the rate previous with less man power.  Overall the construction of the canal employed a force of over 3,000 workers and 1,200 draft animals – add into that the auxiliary force of logistical supports the numbers were tremendous (Larkin 18).  Canal construction caused other environmental concerns as well, not only did laborers fell trees to assist with building but for heat, cooking and shelter.  Additionally, breaks in the canal walls could flood low laying areas, or generate stagnant pools of water in dams or waste weirs that provided a “breeding ground for mosquitoes” that lead to outbreaks of disease (Sheriff 87).  Computing the effects of the men and animals alone, from consumption of materials and food as well as waste, the landscape would become scarred.  The cut that produced that scar was perhaps healed ever slightly at first by the salve of economic prosperity; as, “the Erie Canal would stimulate economic development on a wider scale and attack the environment in the process” (Bernstein 282).

After the canal opened entirely in 1825, migration and immigration along its path grew as rapidly as the currents now avoided on the Mohawk River.  Frances Trollope, and immigrant from England, traveled the canal in 1828 and commented in particular passing through Lockport, “As fast as half a dozen trees were cut down, a factory was raised up…It looks as if the demon of machinery, having invaded the peaceful realms of nature, had fixed…as the battle ground on which they should strive for mastery” (Bernstein 282).  DeWitt Clinton, the Governor of New York and largest promoter of the Erie Canal had spoken years prior of the nation’s optimism toward cultural prospects.  In view of artistic muses that a country which contained such “’beautiful…wonderful and…sublime…’” wilderness, that in it “’nature has conducted her operations on a magnificent scale.’” He expounded further on its “impression in the imagination” (Nash 70), although the devastation created by the canal was perhaps beyond anyone’s prior imagination.

The reality of the canal era in New York was that “pristine landscape[s]” were being transformed from containing the occasional small quiet community into industrialized mill and factory towns that “polluted air” and water.  A tourist in Buffalo in 1829 complained of the drinking water “as it set my bowels in uproar” (Bernstein 327).  And Nathaniel Hawthorne noted the devastation to the forests of the state by the cutting down of trees, the draining or re-routing of swamps and creeks: much like Captain Basil Hall of England in his commenting on the “murdered forest[s]” of New York.  Hall continued with how Europeans – long since having expended their great forests – would be a gasped by the destruction of such tree stands that had existed along the new artificial river (Bernstein 335).

Impact on the environment

Canal success however, transformed and “affected the environment not only directly, but also by fostering population growth and production for the market.”  In order to provide fuel to operate the steamboats on the Hudson that transported the western and interior goods to the port in New York City (as well as brought finished goods and other supplies from the coast), large swaths of forests were cut; this lead to the rapid deforestation along the expanses of the state in order to support the flow of commerce and traffic on the canal and Hudson (Merchant 161).   If it is considered that people are a part of environment and how it functions – the canal benefited them not just economically but educationally and socially as well.  Even as it “shattered…the ecology of the countryside,” it fostered a prosperity that is undeniable.  The process of this devastation has long been the cyclic nature of civilizations.  The environment disrupted or destroyed to create farmland, to create villages and towns to become cities with industrial or manufacturing infrastructures, roadways and passages – what occurred with the development of the Erie Canal in New York was for the lack of a better term, typical (Bernstein 336).

What more was typical was that the “artificial river provided inexpensive transportation for passengers” and as the population grew and shifted the Mohawk Valley corridor was booming.  Population density moved ever further from the continental coast and during the 1820’s there were staggering increases to cities along the Erie Canal.  Albany saw an increase of 96%, Utica 183%, Syracuse 282%, Buffalo 314% and Rochester an incredible 512% within that time and the numbers only increased further from 1825-1835.  With the cost of transportation reduced and profitability up, the rise in production required to keep up grew as well.  Cargo of wheat, flour, alcoholic spirits, lumber, coal, oats, salt and other goods, produce and manufactured items steadily increased until the 1880’s (Larkin 26-27).  The exploitation of agricultural land for the purpose of this production should also be noted, and that the western portion of the State supplied vast amounts of minerals that were mined from the ground.  Government revenue from licensing of such mineral rights as the Salt Springs was often folded back into operation of the canal (Galie 87).

Goods were not the only cargo hauled by the barges on the canal.  Particularly during the first decades of its success, the canal was a means of transport for passengers as well.  This let myriads of people bear witness to the canal’s impact on the wilderness, “as seen from the deck of a canal boat, the upstate region’s varied landscape highlighted the ways in which the Canal had brought civilization into the wilderness.”  Between the canal towns, locks and ports there could still be still vast stretches of “deep forests” and “endless swamps.”  As such, tourists viewed the canal as a means to access a “previously remote landscape” – one that churned the emotional and religious to invoke the wilderness’ relationship with God.  “Nature was like a temple, a place to commune with God,” and use of the human endeavor of technology to reach that temple brought about conflicting sentiments on human “encroachment on Nature” and “spiritual escape” from the confines of civilized and ever increasing industrial entrapments.  Art – in the creativity and ingenuity of man – rose above restrictions of the natural world; “humanity had tamed the wilderness” (Sheriff 60-62).

New York’s triumph over nature – as seen as wilderness in contemporary views – was illustrated as part of the long celebratory trek in 1825 as the Erie Canal was entirely opened to vessels.  A boat named “Noah’s Ark” was filled with “’birds, beasts, and ‘creeping things’… – not forgetting two Indian boys…’” as a representation of that triumph.  Civilization had conquered untamed wilds of landscape as well as other humans (Sheriff 34-35).  That artificial river was often seen as a divine endeavor that was finishing God’s work where he “left a gap in the Appalachian Mountains” (Sheriff 16).  This ideological – if not solely theological – impression of the work of man’s art on the canvas God provided contained a lasting and resounding echo from the early canal era that at times is resonates today.

After 1825, migration from New England was precipitous.  Yankee’s moving west by 1850 included over 100,000 Vermonters alone, nearly fifty percent of that area’s population shifted westward.  That regional trend has had a lasting impact as many “rural towns in central New England presently have fewer residents than they did in 1840.”  First to be abandoned were the “hill farms” with their poor soils that could not compete with western New York crop production.  Those that remained turned often to dairy and sheep farming on small acreage, instead of crops, due to their proximity to mills.  Abandonment and loss of pasture lands as a result of this migration caused regenerated forests that contain “stone fences, barbed wire and pasture trees” (Wessels 60-61).

That development within the corridor due to the success of the canal also spring-boarded another form of transport: the railroad.  In 1831 a sixteen mile line between Albany and Schenectady was established and within two decades lines ran east to west and north to south in the State.  The canal had shown the prosperity of being connected (Larkin 34).

For all the devastation that can be attributed to the Erie Canal on the wilderness of New York, there are instances in which the environment it manipulated was a key factor in preservation or at least awareness to the ecology of the State.  In 1825 Canal Commissioners were petitioned by the State Engineer to re-rout a section of a lateral (or North/South) canal due to consideration for eel fishing.  The route that had been proposed for the canal would disrupt too greatly with citizens that “fill a niche in the general” function of commerce and that depriving them of eel as a resource would reduce them to “something worse” (Sheriff 39).  While in the context of ensuring economic viability for the eel fishermen, this example illustrates an effort at conservation.

Industrial manufacturing implemented new mechanics as well as labor routines in order to increase the efficiency to meet production for regional, national, and global demands.  Along the canal, excess water was continually released in order to regulate the level and maintain canal walls.  This “surplus water” was permitted by State law to be utilized by private companies for use in operating mills (Sheriff 70) – viewed to be for the “greater good” (Sheriff 127).  By using the water from the canal, mills no longer had to rely on a stream or creek that once dammed or water-wheeled could impact agriculture further down-stream.  However, this benefit did not occur for all farmers, as those “common good” or “public interest” policies lead to conflicts over water rights (Sheriff 79-80).  “The period between 1821 and 1894 is traditionally seen as one in which [State] constitution makers created constitutional order that left the government in essentially a passive role, allowing maximum latitude for individual enterprise while inconsistently providing support” (Galie 180).  Water was a valuable commodity and “…in the early years of the Erie Canal, there was the same kind of tension between industry and quality of life as in our own day” (Bernstein 334).

Often property damage was claimed as continual improvements were made to the canal.  Farm land took years to clear through girdling trees, felling timbers and removing stumps that took a rate of five to ten acres per year on average.   Farmers were often upset about land used for the canal that would divide their fields and required bridges to maintain: as well as the devaluation of the lands ability to produce agriculturally, not the environmental impact per se (Sheriff 88, 79-80).  Americans in the 1800’s viewed nature as essential for life in the most powerful ways; fertile land, the weather, plants, animals, and trees provided sustenance as well as income.  However, the force of nature could also produce devastating blizzards, rain, floods, wind or drought (Sheriff 32), so any threat to the viability of their lands to support themselves as well as their family was a crucial matter to remedy.

Another lasting impact of the awareness to the environment that the Erie Canal produced may be viewed in light of symptomatic display and economics.  By the 1880’s the canal and Hudson River water levels were in decline, which raised concerns that ultimately generated an 1883 campaign in earnest to preserve the northern wilderness of the State.  In 1872 the New York State Park Commission held an investigation into establishing the Adirondack Park that revealed “wilderness ensured a regulated water supply for New York’s Rivers and canals,” thus effecting the transport of goods, at cheap prices on the Erie and lateral canals, as well as Hudson River.  Hinged on economics if not ecology, residents of prosperity in the greater New York City region began to be “incensed at the lumber and mining companies alleged to be stripping the Adirondack forests.”  “In this manner, wilderness preservation and commercial prosperity were tied together” (Nash 117-119).

Within a decade of the opening of the completed Erie Canal – and with continual improvements – the physical, social, economic and political landscape of New York had changed drastically.  Populations soared and the western region “of the state had been transformed into a thriving commercial and manufacturing corridor.”  Cities now existed where marshes seeped or forests stood just years prior.  Along miles of artificial waterway – towns, stores, warehouses, stables, and mills lined the banks between vast fields of crops “where…pine needles [once] had collected on the forest floor” (Sheriff 94-95).  The canal brought a more complex web of economics and nature through diversity of goods that entered into the western part of the State and rest of the country.  Even orchards or other fruit tree’s saw improvement as not “merely…fruits of nature” but as engineered through grafting and nurturing to an investment toward market (Sheriff 97).  Oysters available fresh for the first time from Long Island to western New York towns like Batavia – evidence of an open market westward for coastal goods (Sheriff 3-4).  As the twentieth-century approached, the success of the enterprise was large enough to warrant a sense that continuing the now proven experiment should evolve into the new era – the Barge Canal (Galie 173)(nycanals).  Along with the Mohawk River, waterways lateral to it such as the Oswego, Oneida and Seneca River, as well as the Champlain canal were to be “all canalized, or considerably civilized, by construction of the great New York State Barge Canal System” (Hager 50) thus abandoning the century old Erie.

The Barge Canal opened completely by 1917 and never proved to be as successful as the politicians, engineers and shipping companies had hoped. Today, the canal is once again affectionately called the Erie Canal, and it’s predominate use is recreational.  The New York State Canal Corporation operates it (Willis 520), and one of the underlying functions is actually that of flood control.  By use of the dam system intended to maintain water levels for navigation – much like those narrowed passages Chistian Schultz witnessed in 1807 or the “rapid flood” experienced by Augustus Porter – the State monitors and regulates the flow of water for the Mohawk Valley as well as its eventual effect on the Hudson River.  Along with other canals and dam systems to regulate the state watershed, the modern Erie Canal allows for the continued occupation of lands along the most populated corridors of the State.  Over seventy-five percent of the state’s population lives within the floodplains these regulated waterways.  The Erie’s function today is less of commerce and more mitigation of flood risk to ensure economic security.

Adopted on a vote of 175 to zero at the 1967 New York Constitutional Convention, the Conservation Bill of Rights (Art. VIII, Sect 3) meant to conserve as well as protect “natural resources and…scenic beauty of the state” as they are “important public objectives.”  The bill resulted in pollution legislation, protection of wetlands as well as agricultural and water resources by defining those as natural resources of the state.  It also required the “establishment of a State Nature and Historical Preserve…to be acquired by the State” that would include the “wilderness character” as well as significance to the ecological and historical narrative of New York (Galie 317).    The social and political climate of the late 1960’s brought concerted efforts to preserve for future generations what had created the Empire State.

Those strides continued, as the Canal Recreationway Commission along with other parks, trails and recreational organizations sought to preserve the beauty and history of the State’s canal system.  The Commission was established in the mid- 1990’s to promote recreational use along the historic paths of the canals (Willis 520).  Sites all along the Erie Canal in particular, strive to present this fascinating history while showcasing the natural beauty that now exists along its corridor.

If we look at Ecology as “land…and life [as] a complex organism functioning through interaction of its components,” we can fully “conceive nature as an intricate web of interdependent parts, a myriad of cogs and wheels each essential to the healthy operation of the whole” (Nash 195).  While at times it may seem that some of those wheels need some greasing, or the cog a little cleaning, each has its role.  Humans sought to correct what they saw as squeaky wheels, and early New Yorkers dug deep to clear a path to the future with enterprise, ingenuity and some environmental devastation across God’s canvass.  But what they painted was an industrialized civilization that prospered in its wake for over a century.  The canalway was enough of a success to essentially work itself out of a purpose, by fostering the advancement of other technologies such as the railroad system and proving transportation meant business as well as security and stability.

It could be easily stated that “…the elimination of wilderness was tragic, but it was a necessary tragedy; civilization was the greater good…not a case of good versus evil…but of two kinds of good with the greater prevailing” (Nash 77).  Perhaps the only way to make that true is how we view the environment today.  How we act to conserve resources and preserve the future of our Earth today will show that civilization can be greater by deferring to the cause of proper environmental stewardship. We can embrace this shared history, as we look to the future.

Work Cited:

Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Galie, Peter J. Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York. New York: Fordham UP, 1996. Print.

Hager, Robert E. Mohawk River Boats and Navigation: Before 1820. Newport: Franklin Printing House, 1987. Print.

Larkin, F. Daniel. New York State Canals: A Short History. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain, 1998. Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems in American Environmental History: Documents and Essays. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Mohawk River Floodplain Assessment Final Report.” Department of Environmental Conservation – Mohawk River Flood Management Update. Floodplain Coordination and Outreach Ecology and Environment, Inc., 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <>.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.

“New York State Canals.” Environmental Stewardship. New York State Canal Corporation, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <>.

Sheriff, Carol. The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997. Print.

Wessels, Tom. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Woodstock, VT: Countryman, 1999. Print.

Willis, Alan Scot.  The Encyclopedia of New York State. Ed. Peter Eisenstadt. 1st ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2005,  pp.514-520. Print.