The Erie Canal: From Lockport to Buffalo
by John W. Percy
Adjunct Associate Professor of History and Curriculum Director, WNYHI
Edited and designed by Elizabeth Foy
Originally published by Partner's Press, 1979. Western New York Heritage Institute of Canisius Copyright 1993. ISBN 1-878097-09-1. Updated by author, October, 2002
Reprinted with permission of the author
The format has been changed to facilitate reading on the Internet
Of all the construction projects on the Niagara Frontier, the Erie Canal completed in 1825, was the one which most influenced the development of the local area. DeWitt Clinton's "Grand Canal" opened Western New York to large-scale settlement, the establishment of prosperous farms and businesses and industrialization of the Niagara shoreline.
The 363-mile Erie Canal was begun at Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. and officially opened with a grand parade of boats from Buffalo to New York City on October 26, 1825.
The Canal in Tonawanda: Construction of the canal through what eventually became the Town of Tonawanda, a distance of nearly ten miles, did not begin until 1823 when sections of the canal farther east were already completed and in operation.
The western end of the canal presented two of the greatest challenges to the canal's engineers:
- the 60- foot escarpment at Lockport and
- a section several miles long of hard rock between Lockport and Pendleton through which a deep cut would have to be made.
To minimize the depth of the cut, it was decided to design this westernmost "level" of water to equal Lake Erie's water level from Buffalo to the Lockport escarpment. A one inch per mile gradient eastward was designed to maintain a flow of fresh water from Lake Erie to supply the canal from Buffalo to Rochester.
The canal would be dug alongside the Niagara River as far as Tonawanda, then utilize Tonawanda Creek as far as Pendleton at which point a channel would be cut through the rock to Lockport. A double set of five locks was planned to lower the canal to the "upper long level," as the 60-mile distance from Lockport to Rochester was called.
Tonawanda Creek Dam and Lock: The first step in construction of the western sector took place in the little village of Tonawanda, or Niagara, as it was then called, when Samuel Wilkeson and Dr. Ebenezer Johnson of Buffalo were authorized by the Erie Canal commissioners to build a dam of sufficient height to raise Tonawanda Creek to the level of the planned canal.
They supervised the construction of a wooden dam near the mouth of Tonawanda Creek in the spring of 1823 which raised the creek level about four and a half feet. The raised water level not only reduced the amount of rock that had to be blasted out of the rock cut section beyond Pendleton, but also eliminated any need for deepening Tonawanda Creek, because the early canal boats needed only a four foot deep channel. The dam was built just west of the mouth of Ellicott Creek and contained a lock at the north end to allow passage of boats into the Niagara River.
Only sailing ships or steam powered boats could navigate the Niagara as the current was too swift for the animal-drawn canal boats. The lock was built to the standard dimensions of locks along the entire length of the Erie Canal, 90 feet long, 15 feet wide, and four feet deep, and could handle boats up to 75 tons.
Though altered over the years, the old dam stood until 1918, when it was removed to allow lug-pulled boats on the Barge Canal which could navigate the river from Tonawanda to Buffalo.
With the raised water level the creek now flowed toward Pendleton as part of the canal plan to maintain the Lake Erie level as far as Lockport. During spring flooding, however, the creek would often resume its normal flow and spill over the dam at Tonawanda. During these times, the raised creek also inundated much of the surrounding farmland and the little village at its mouth. Ditches were constructed on both sides of the creek to alleviate the flooding. This effort by the Erie Canal Commission did not eliminate the problem, but helped enough to justify maintaining the "State Ditch" in Tonawanda until 1918 when, with removal of the dam, the aggravated flooding from the raised creek ceased.
Tonawanda Creek was the only natural waterway used for any distance on the old Erie Canal. However, when the canal was enlarged in 1918, three short cuts were made along its course to eliminate bends that were too sharp for canal boats to negotiate. Each of the cuts formed an island in the canal, one of which is part of Ellicott Creek Park today. Two others can still be seen farther toward Pendleton. A towpath for the mules and horses used to pull the canal boats was built along the south side of the Tonawanda Creek portion of the canal.
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Both Buffalo and Black Rock had been vying with each other desperately for designation as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. Both villages had constructed harbors for ships sailing the upper Great lakes and used every political maneuver to secure the favored position as terminus. Eventually the commissioners decided in favor of Buffalo, yet Black Rock's harbor was also provided with access to the canal. Both Buffalo and Black Rock citizens worked at constructing their portions of the waterway.
Tonawanda Creek to Black Rock: The connecting link from the Tonawanda Creek portion to Black Rock was designed to roughly parallel the Niagara River and to maintain the one inch per mile gradient toward Lockport
- A guard lock was built at Black Rock to protect the canal when winds pushed the water level up at the west end of Lake Erie. Boats normally passed directly through this lock unless a storm had raised the lake level.
- Another similar guard lock was built two miles beyond Pendleton to protect the step locks at Lockport and the upper long level to Rochester from flood waters of Tonawanda Creek during the spring runoff. It also enabled the canal to be drained from that point eastward each winter for maintenance work on the locks and canal banks.
- Tonawanda maps of 1837 and 1857 show a similar guard lock in the canal just west of the Main Street (Military Road) bridge over the canal. No other records show its purpose or the date of its removal.
Construction Labor: When the canal from Tonawanda to Black Rock was constructed in 1824, workers were brought in from the East. Irish immigrants had been hired in large numbers, anxious for the high wages offered in a nation short of labor. Eighty cents a day and regular whiskey rations kept the men at their task until the canal was completed.
Individual contractors agreed to dig the separate portions of the canal and they did the actual hiring of men to do the work. For a contracted price for his section of the canal, the contractor was expected to pay his labor, provide quarters to sleep up to 40 men, feed them, provide a daily ration of whiskey, and supply the necessary horses, scrapers, shovels, wheelbarrows, stump-pullers, and other equipment necessary to build that portion of the canal.
The $.80 a day wage was nearly double the wage paid to unskilled labor in America at that time. Due to difficult times in Europe, most immigrants would have been willing to take $.80 a week for steady work.
The men, both immigrants and native Americans, worked long hours, as much as 14 hours a day in the long days of June and July, and even the scant comfort of a hard board bunk probably felt good at night. The two-tiered bunks had no mattresses; if a worker wanted bedding, he brought his own. T here was no glass or screening in the windows and, along the swampy Niagara flats, the mosquitoes and other insects were attracted to the bunkhouses in swarms. Hearty meals kept the men stoked for work during the day.
Tree Removal: The only power available for building the canal was muscle-power - men, horses, mules and oxen. Ways had to be devised to increase their efficiency without increasing the already heavy workload of both men and animals. The large trees in the path of the canal along the Niagara fell easily, roots and all, to one man thanks to technique developed during earlier construction farther east. A chain was tied high on a tree, the other end attached to a wheel turned by an endless-screw gear. As a man cranked the gear around, the chain wound around the wheel. The man's power, multiplied tremendously by this simple machine, pulled the tree over slowly with an irresistible force that removed the roots too. With a snapping of roots, the tree lay ready for hauling out of the canal right of way. Yankee ingenuity provided a solution for every problem - including stump-pulling machines for removing trees, lasting techniques to remove solid rock between Pendleton and Lockport and aqueducts to provide passage of the canal over swift streams - along the 363 mile route.
Canal Dimensions: The ditch from Tonawanda to Buffalo was built larger than the standard dimensions of four feet deep, 28 feet wide at the bottom, and 40 feet wide at the top with sloping sides. The reason for this was to ensure plenty of water flow from Lake Erie through Tonawanda Creek as this portion had to supply water for the whole line west of Rochester. An 1825 news article describes the nine miles of canal from Black Rock to "Tonawanta" as "remarkably beautiful having been laid out with great haste and judgment, and faithfully executed."
The towpath on this section of "Clinton's Ditch" followed the river side of the canal between Black Rock and a point about a mile from the village of Tonawanda where Gibson Street ends today. At this point the mules would cross over the canal on a low bridge designed to allow uninterrupted towing while the change was made. Several "horse holes" were constructed along the towpath to provide an escape from the canal for animals that fell in while towing boats.
Lumber lining the towpath
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Opening Ceremonies: The Tonawanda portion of the canal opened for service on May 3,1825, when water was let through the guard lock at Black Rock. The occasion was celebrated by a festive trip aboard the Buffalo built steamboat Superior down the Niagara to Tonawanda at which point the travelers boarded canal boats for the first haul along the canal to Black Rock. Great festivities at Black Rock occupied the citizens far into the night.
A month later, the distinguished visitor, the Marquis de Lafayette, traveled the canal from Black Rock to Tonawanda aboard the "Seneca Chief" on his way to Niagara Falls.
Canal Boats: The standard canal boat of 1825 carried 40 tons and had a draft of only two and a half feet when loaded. Single tows were the rule then and one horse or mule could handle the light load. A second animal was kept in a bowstable aboard the boat. Every six hours a change was made by running the animals over a horsebridge that was carried on board.
During the early canal days, the drivers often rode on the animal's back. Illustrations often show this and it was common when boats were small and light. After the canal was enlarged in 1862, this practice was forbidden in order to protect the hardworking animals which were harnessed in teams to pull the much heavier loads aboard the larger boats.
Canal Enlargement: Even before the entire canal was opened in October, 1825, there were plans for its enlargement. The success of Clinton's "Grand Canal" was beyond expectations.
Tolls were collected as each station opened. During 1826, the first season the entire canal was open, the Erie and Champlain canals collected $762,000, about one tenth of the cost of constructing the two waterways. The canal was opened in late February that year and was kept open through early December.
Enlargement, especially twinning the locks - only Lockport' s step locks were originally built as a double set - commenced in 1836 and was completed in 1862. By then the canal had been widened to 78 feet at the top of its walls (40-feet at the bottom) and its depth increased to seven feet. Locks were lengthened to 110 feet, width increased to 18 feet, and depth increased to 7 feet. Bridge height was increased to 11 feet, which was still scanty clearance when the larger boats were running light. "Low bridge, everybody down" was still true on the Erie Canal. With the enlargement, boats up to 16 feet in width, and handling 240 tons, could use the canal which had been shortened twelve and a half miles and had eliminated 11 of the original 83 locks.
An 1837 map of Tonawanda shows a lock cut between the canal and the mouth of Tonawanda Creek just below the dam. This sidecut lock, as it was called, allowed canal boats access to Tonawanda harbor.
After the dam was lowered two feet in 1871, the sidecut lock was modernized and by 1874 it was enlarged to allow passage of lumber lighters from Tonawanda harbor to the canal and access to the many lumber companies springing up along the canal and Ellicott Creek. The modernized lock, near Seymour Street, was constructed 110 feet long by 18 feet wide and of standard seven foot depth over the mitre sills. Without this lock, Tonawanda could never have become the leading lumber port of the world by 1890.
Effect on Tonawanda: The opening and improvement of the Erie Canal had far-reaching effects on 19th century Tonawanda. The influx of new people to the area stimulated sufficient growth to cause the establishment of the separate Town of Tonawanda in April, 1836. The original town boundaries included what is now the City of Tonawanda and all of Grand Island as well as its present limits.
Many people came to Western New York on the Erie Canal to take up land offered by the Holland Land Company. Others who settled here were on their way to the Midwest when, either because they saw the promise of this land or they ran short of money needed for lakes passage, decided to settle on the Niagara Frontier.
Nicholas Munch: One of the earliest settlers to arrive was Nicholas Munch, who came by boat on the Erie Canal from New York to Buffalo in 1825. Like many other Tonawandans, he was born in Alsace and had come to America seeking opportunities not available in Europe at that time.
Nicholas Munch Homestead
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As the canal boat slowly passed along the Niagara section on its way to Buffalo, Munch surveyed the landscape for a suitable homestead. He noticed a log house in pleasant surroundings where the entrance to Frontier Oil's refinery was later built and reportedly exclaimed in his native tongue, "I'd like to own that place." When he arrived in Buffalo, he again expressed his wish to a fellow Alsatian with whom he was staying The next day the two men drove out the River Road with an ox team and Nicholas Munch purchased the 250 acres for $12 an acre.
The farm prospered, as most did with such excellent transport available as a canal in the front yard, and by 1845, a substantial brick home was erected. The home was made of bricks fired by a German brickmaker from the clay of that farm. The home stood for over 120 years until it was torn down for expansion at the refinery .
Other settlements soon followed as the land along the Mile Strip was sold off. The 1866 map of the town shows farms established along the canal by the following families: Hoyer, Misner, Vanderwort, Palmer, Bacon, Munch, Cherry, Simson, Landell, Breever, Hotchkiss, Flandin, Klepser and Hopkins. Considerable commercial activity is shown on the map at the mouth of Two Mile Creek, including a sawmill.
Cholera Epidemics: The year 1832 brought an unwelcome visitor to the area. That visitor was cholera. The horrible disease was epidemic that year and its presence caused a drastic drop in canal traffic.
It began in the spring in Montreal and Quebec where it killed over 3000 people in 11 days. At that time, no one understood the cause of the disease nor how it spread. Soon it had raced down the Champlain Canal to Albany as well as up the Hudson from New York City. The first casualty in Albany was in mid-June. Quickly, the infectious intestinal disease spread westward through the canal towns as travelers unwittingly carried the bacteria. Victims began their journeys in good health, but suddenly sickened and often died on the way.
Many theories were expounded to explain the epidemic.
- An early explanation was that it afflicted only the shiftless, the ignorant, the drunkards; the lowest level of society. If you avoided strong drink and closed your windows tight at night to keep out the dangerous night air, all would be well, the doctors said.
- But when the disease continued to spread and afflicted all classes of people, other theories were proposed. One theory blamed the disease on tainted soil (to some degree true) and a Utica newspaper proposed that people wear wooden shoes so they wouldn't absorb cholera through their feet.
- The most widely accepted theory was that cholera was spread through some sort of vapor in the air. Some canal towns took to putting large pieces of meat on poles in the hope it would soak up the cholera vapor. Others burned barrels of tar around the clock in the belief that the heavy black smoke would rid the air of cholera.
The air along the canal that year was murky from burning tar. Lime was believed by some to have the same power. Vats of lime bubbled on street corners to fumigate the air in canal towns. Emergency hospitals were set up all along the canal, in warehouses, barrel factories, a poorhouse; every inch of available space was pressed into service.
The sick were laid on beds of straw in evil-smelling, suffocating wards where the windows were tightly closed against the dangerous night air.
By midsummer, traffic on the canal had come nearly to a halt. Some canal towns refused to let boats enter, fearing entrance of the dread disease. Others rushed boats through, allowing no one to debark, not even passengers whose destination was their town.
As cooler autumn weather approached, the disease seemed to have run its course and the canal became busier than ever as boat captains tried to make up for some of the season's lost time. Records of tolls collected in 1832 show them slightly greater than the previous year, but considerably less than expected at the beginning of the year. The next year showed a healthy 19% gain over 1832.
Cholera struck again in 1834, this time causing such a serious loss of business on the canal that tolls were reduced by nearly half the increase of 1833. Buffalo was hard hit, and people who could, fled the city of nearly 15,000. Farmers from Tonawanda and other surrounding towns often refused to transport produce to the city, fearing contact with the dread disease. Stores closed and food was scarce in many of the state's cities.
Though we have no records to prove it, it is likely there were cholera victims in the homes along Tonawanda' s portion of the Erie Canal since it was low and swampy between the canal and the river and travelers from all over the state passed through it daily.
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Modern medical knowledge recognizes that flies and other insects transmit the disease from infected humans through their food and body wastes At that time, canallers used the canal as a place to dispose of all their wastes.
Cholera epidemics were occasional visitors to the area in later years also, particularly in 1849.
Development: As commerce on the Erie Canal expanded, and particularly the Tonawandas grew to preeminence in the lumber trade, accommodations were needed for canallers.
- Just west of the sidecut lock was built the American Hotel which was popular with canal men until it burned in 1915.
- Another popular hotel was the Bork Hotel, built in 1880 on North Canal Street.
- There was also a Ritz Hotel along the canal at the upper Grand Island ferry landing (where Sheridan Drive meets River Road today) which served that portion of the town until fire destroyed it about 1910.
About a quarter mile east of the Ritz stood five powder houses where explosives, which were transported via canal boat, were stored for blasting and construction uses. The remains of a slip built for the boats to unload their dangerous cargo are still there.
The basic needs of canal men were provided by the notorious "Goose Island" in Tonawanda which was a "red light district" known throughout the United States by canal men until it was finally closed down in the 1930's.
Canal Boats: Boat yards sprang up in Tonawanda to build, dry-dock, and repair canal boats. One of the best known was the Ira M. Rose boat yard on Ellicott Creek, known as Eleven Mile Creek in canal days because of its distance from the Buffalo terminus of the canal.
The Rose boat yard built mule-drawn lumber carriers until 1905 when it was sold to William H. Follette who built steam powered canal boats until 1912.
Each lumber carrier could carry upwards of 175,000 board feet of lumber or up to 299 tons of bulk cargo such as gravel dredged from the Niagara River, sand, stone, pig iron or steel. The boats were usually coupled in pairs after 1862 and towed by a three-unit team or mules which were spelled every six hours by an alternating team kept on board in the bowstable. These boats could make two and a half miles per hour heading east with the current and one and a half miles per hour going west against the current in the canal.
There were several boat yards in the area including the Fredrick Jones shipyard along Ellicott Creek at the mouth of Tonawanda Creek which built a variety of wooden vessels for the Great Lakes trade and the Whitehaven boatyard on Grand Island which built wooden steamboats in the 1830's.
A great many boats called Tonawanda their home "port." Among them was the "William Hengerer," which is shown in the historic painting of the Erie Canal on display in the Town of Tonawanda Historical Building on Knoche Road.
Some interesting experiments were tried on the canal in Western New York in an attempt to make the canal more efficient. Boat owners wanted to be able to haul greater tonnage through the canal at a greater speed than the average two miles per hour provided by mules or horses. Steamboats were too powerful for the fragile earthen banks of the early canal The banks eroded too quickly from the damaging waves set in motion by boats exceeding four miles per hour. Boiler explosions, fairly common in those days, were also a deterrent to steamboat operations, although steamboats were fairly common by the close of the century.
Inventors were stimulated by the offer of a $100,000 reward from New York State for an improved means of propulsion that was practical. Many schemes were hatched and many a curious craft was constructed. One such invention was actually placed into operation on the canal in the 1870's on the Tonawanda section.
Underwater Cable-tow System: Several Watertown, New York businessmen sponsored an experiment in the early 1870's of an underwater cable-tow system, an idea originated in Belgium. A cable was laid from Buffalo to Lockport, a distance of 31 miles. Boats using the cable-tow system were fitted with a low powered steam engine which turned a drive wheel over which the cable passed, guided by other wheels fore and aft of the drive wheel. Each of these three grooved wheels extended over the side of the boat. The boat "crawled" along the cable, lifting it from the water, passing it through the wheels as it moved forward, then replacing the cable in the channel.
A steady two miles per hour pace could be maintained with ease if all went well, as it usually did on long level sections such as Tonawanda's riverside section of the canal, or on the upper long level between Lockport and Rochester to which the system was extended. However, it had some serious shortcomings which prevented adoption of the system along the entire canal or awarding of the $100,000 prize for a practical alternative to mules.
George E. Condon, who wrote about this system in his 1974 book, Stars in the Water, pointed out that on curving sections, such as Tonawanda Creek, the boats sometimes continued straight ahead and were even known to climb the banks of the canal occasionally. In addition, he points out that insufficient play in the cable prevented passing of other boats or lumber rafts at times.
This writer would add to Mr. Condon's observations that the system would necessitate disengagement and re-engagement of the cable at locks, and would be hard pressed to provide for the passing of two cable-tow boats on the single cable that was laid. Nevertheless. the steam-powered underwater cable-tow boats were a frequent sight from the porches and fields of Tonawanda's canal-front farms during the 1870's and early 1880's "crawling" their way along the 94-mile route from Buffalo to Rochester and back. The experiment ended in the 1880's and the cables were removed from the channel.
Cable Towers: Another interesting experiment in Erie Canal motive power was constructed on the Tonawanda to Buffalo section during the late 1890's. This, too, involved the use of a cable, although, with this system, the cable was strung between sturdy wooden towers, each built of four timbers, teepee fashion, standing about 12 feet high and placed about 40 feet apart all along the towpath from Tonawanda to Buffalo. Attached to the cable was an electric motor with a seat, dubbed the "electric mule" by Tonawandans of that day. This "electric mule" with a driver seated on it was attached to conventional tow lines and it was expected it would tow as well as conventional mules without having to feed and care for them when they weren't working their shift.
According to Willard Dittmar, director of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, Inc., who has photographs of the contraption on file at the society's museum, the system failed because it wasn't reliable. The combined weight of the motor and drive were too much for the cable. The cable sagged between towers to an extent that the "electric mule" couldn't make the grade all too frequently. In addition. the use of steam tugs was increasing by late century and promised a more practical alternative to four-legged mules.
Barge Canal: After the 1890's, the old Erie Canal had less than two decades to survive. Stiff competition from the railroads caused the disappearance of the packet boat in mid-century, the elimination of tolls in 1882 and the eventual disappearance of the Erie Canal itself. During the early 20th century the New York State Barge Canal was constructed. This much larger waterway, utilizing steam, and later diesel, tugs, replaced the old Erie Canal in 1918. The route was changed and shortened.
Tonawanda became the western terminus as the powerful tugs could easily pull or push their barges up the Niagara and through the Black Rock ship canal to Buffalo. The portion of the Erie Canal from Lockport to Pendleton was deepened with power equipment, the dam at Tonawanda was removed, and the creek channel dredged to accommodate barges with a ten-foot draft.
The entire section of the Erie Canal between Tonawanda and Buffalo was abandoned, though not without local resistance. Enough local pressure was brought to get a bill introduced in the New York State Legislature in 1917 to build a new lock at Tonawanda in order to preserve the canal between Buffalo and Tonawanda. It failed to get support, the canal bed was abandoned and most of it filled in over the years.
- Some of the land was taken for industrial use.
- Some, like Erie County's Isle View and Tonawanda's Niawanda Parks, provide recreational use.
- Much of the canal route between Buffalo and Tonawanda was redeveloped as the Niagara Thruway in the 1950s.
- During the 1980s and '90s, the City of Buffalo, the City of Tonawanda and Erie County converted most of the canal bed along the Niagara River into recreational areas, including the "Riverwalk," which provides hikers, joggers, bikers, skaters and skiers with the opportunity to enjoy the route where mules once pulled canal boats
Much of the section north of the Grand Island bridges was used as a dump by the City of Buffalo and from 1919 to 1925, the Huff Feeding Corporation kept thousands of pigs here to dispose of Buffalo's garbage, The sickening stench from the "Piggery," as it was called, sorely agitated residents of the area, who eventually forced Buffalo to build an incinerator,
Three quarters of a century have passed since the last of the canal boats passed along the Niagara stretch of the old Erie Canal. The sight of a mule driver at the end of a 250-foot towline pulling a boatload of grain or lumber while the steersman guided the boat with his "blade" or rudder are but a dimming memory to our oldest residents Though the canal continues to be used east of Tonawanda, it seldom sees commercial traffic any more. The Erie Canal has become primarily a recreational waterway in recent years. New lock gates have been installed at Lockport and the responsibility for maintenance and upgrading of the canal have been transferred to the New York State Thruway Authority.