Five Technological Breakthroughs of the Erie Canal

by Jack Kelly

Five Technological Breakthroughs of the Erie Canal

A canal is just a ditch, right? Think again. Artificial rivers like the Erie Canal were dynamic systems that challenged engineers of the 1820s. Water continually flowed in and out to power the hydraulic elevators known as locks. The canal had to be precisely level–a discrepancy of a few inches over a hundred miles meant serious problems. Construction of the Erie Canal, began in 1817 by untrained engineers, was the great technological success story of the early nineteenth century.

Erie Canal

Profile of the original canal. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

1. Waterproof Cement

The Romans had it, but then the world forgot how to make cement that could stand up to water. The secret was still a mystery when the Erie was being planned. Builders had no idea where they would come up with this critical item to hold together stone locks and aqueducts. Andrew Bartow, an educated farmer who lived along the route of the Erie canal, began experiments with a type of limestone found near his home. By heating it to just the right temperature, he was able to produce a cement that would retain its hardness under water. Cement from the same vein was used to build the Brooklyn Bridge more than half a century later.

Heaven's Ditch; Erie Canal

2. Irondequoit Creek

The canal had to pass over the seventy-foot-deep valley carved by this creek near Rochester. A wooden trestle was considered and rejected. A one-time divinity student named David Bates devised a way to firm the soggy soil along the creek with hundreds of log pilings. He built a stone culvert as long as a football field and hired farmers to pile dirt to the level of a seven-story building. This giant embankment would carry the canal nearly a mile. Would it work? Bates didn’t know. He crossed his fingers and gradually filled the channel with water. It held. Soon, astounded Erie canal boat passengers were sailing above the tree tops.

Erie Canal

Aqueduct over the Mohawk River at Rexford, one of 32 navigable aqueducts on the Erie Canal. By Clifton Park Collection. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

3. The Rochester Aqueduct

The Genesee River, which flowed through downtown Rochester, flooded regularly. David Bates again came to the rescue, designing a bridge that rested on nine arches to carry the trough of the canal over the river. It would be the longest stone bridge in the world. The first attempt failed as fists of ice pounded away the foundations. Bates ordered workers set the stones in cavities blasted in bedrock and clamp them together with iron. This time the aqueduct stood. Canal water flowed into the clay-lined channel and mules began pulling barges across the river.

4. The Lockport Cliff

To reach Lake Erie, the canal had to climb the sixty-foot Niagara Escarpment. Nathan Roberts, a former school teacher, was the man who solved this problem. He designed a unique system of five locks, each opening into the next. The abundant flow of water from Lake Erie would provide the lifting power to raise boats up the cliff. Double locks meant boats could travel both directions simultaneously. The amazing engineering feat at Lockport drew tourists from around the world.

Erie Canal

1853 Map of New York canals emboldened, center: the Erie Canal, other lines: railroads, rivers and county borders. By unknown author. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

5. The Deep Cut

Because the lip of the Niagara Escarpment was higher than Lake Erie, Roberts had to cut a thirty-foot-deep trench for almost seven miles to keep the canal at lake level. There was a problem: the path lay through solid rock. Drilling into this rock and setting off gunpowder charges was the only way to carve a channel. The blasts sent showers of stones raining onto Lockport homes. Local inventors came up with extra-hard drill bits to bite into the stone and effective horse-driven cranes to lift debris from the cut. When water flowed into this man-made slot canyon, it completed the final link between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. Amateur engineers had won the day.

Read more from Jack Kelly about the unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War here


Jack Kelly is the author of Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal (St. Martin’s Press), a lively account of the canal and the excitement generated along its banks. He is a journalist, novelist, and historian, whose books include Band of Giants, which received the DAR’s History Award Medal. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, and other national periodicals, and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow. He has appeared on The History Channel and been interviewed on National Public Radio. He spent his childhood in a town in the canal corridor adjacent to Palmyra, Joseph Smith’s home. He now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

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