Building the Canal

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This photograph shows the Rexford Aqueduct on the Erie Canal in 1900. When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal included eighteen aqueducts to allow canal passage over rocky terrain and rapids like those along the Mohawk River. Courtesy of MiSci Museum of Innovation and Science via Capital District Library Council and Empire State Digital Network.

In the Canal Business

Creating an all-water route into the interior from the Port of New York was a dream for many American entrepreneurs, but with limited financial resources, the project proved too large for even the largest private company.

To build and operate a canal all the way across the wilderness, the State of New York would have to get into the canal business. There were physical challenges specific to each section of the route. In the east, avoiding the rapids, waterfalls, and flooding of the Mohawk River required a canal running parallel to the river with several lift locks. For the middle section, the Canal would be dug through swampland, necessitating the drainage of large tracts of land and strong reinforcement of canal banks. In the west, the challenge was to lift the Canal over the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport and then cut through solid rock for the final section.

When the Erie Canal was completed, it was already inadequate to the demands that would be placed on it. Over a century, the state would continue to be involved as the Canal was enlarged, rerouted, straightened, and deepened to accommodate ever-larger boats.