Our Erie Canal Heritage

The Erie Canal revolutionized transportation through the Mohawk Valley and across New York State. When construction began near Rome on July 4, 1817, travel across with state was slow and the roads, often little more than trails, were bumpy. Shipment of bulk goods was extremely difficult. The canal took eight long years to build, with some sections easily completed and others taking considerably longer. The section from Sprakers west through Montgomery County was mostly completed in the spring of 1823. A feeder from the Mohawk River to the canal at St. Johnsville was opened in that year.

The opening of the Erie Canal was officially celebrated on Oct. 26, 1825 when Governor DeWitt Clinton poured water from the Atlantic Ocean into Lake Erie. Fort Plain, then a community of about 400 people, joined in the festivities on that day. A procession headed by Dr. G.S. Spaulding marched to the beat of martial music from the public house of Joseph Wagner to Sand Hill. There, a six-pound canon heralded the opening of “Clinton’s Ditch.” An address by Rev. John Wack at Washington Hall (located in Wagner’s Store) followed. Festivities terminated in the evening with a grand ball in the Wagner House (Hotel). Nineteen different toasts were recorded to mark the occasion. A few days later, the village held a reception for Governor Clinton as he made his way back toward Albany from Buffalo.

Even though boats had to travel through 36 locks, the time it took to travel the distance from Buffalo to Albany was cut in half. It was finally economical to ship goods in bulk. Packet boats up to 78 feet long and 14 -1/2 feet across carrying as many as 78 passengers through the Mohawk Valley. At a cost of $7.1 million, the 363-mile, 14-1/2- foot wide four feet deep channel was a bargain, aside from being the engineering marvel of the age.

The canal was soon taxed beyond its capacity and an enlargement became necessary. This $30 million enlargement, which took place from 1834 to 1862 widened and deepened the channel while reducing its length to about 300 miles. To facilitate the flow of boats, numerous double locks were constructed including Lock 33 in the town of Minden, south of St. Johnsville, near where Countryman’s Lock had been located.

Although competition from railroads decreased the importance of the canal as the 19 th century progressed, further enlargements took place from 1889-91 and 1896-97. The Barge Canal, started in 1905 and completed in 1918, bypassed the older canal, using the Mohawk River channel wherever possible. This final major enlargement cost $96.7 million. Commercial traffic on the canal today, called the Erie Canal once again, is a small percentage of what it was in the canal’s heyday. The canal is well used by recreational boaters and fishing is once again viable due to improved water quality.