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It was sort of like the Internet of 200 years ago.
Thousands of men wielding shovels took 7.5 years to dig the Erie Canal and when the barges started moving, it greatly increased communication, trade, immigration and knowledge between America’s original 13 colonies and the Great Lakes – and on to the Midwest.
It was 200 years ago in September that the first shovel was plunged into the soil at "the Great Carrying Place" near Rome, New York to start the 584-kilometre-long canal. That site earned its name from being one of the few places that natives had to get out of their birch bark canoes and carry their goods overland when travelling around on the region's network of rivers.
When the canal opened in 1825, it made an impact on the economy of upstate New York and the Eastern Seaboard similar to what the Internet has done for today’s economy, said Ross Levi, executive director of New York State Tourism. Instead of manufactured goods moving west and raw materials heading east on slow-moving ox carts at $125 per ton, canal boats were now connecting those two markets and moving goods at $6 per ton.
Buffalo, a wilderness outpost on Lake Erie, became the canal’s western terminus, which turned it into the world’s busiest grain port. New York became the most prominent harbour on the Eastern Seaboard because of the Erie Canal. Eventually railways, the St. Lawrence Seaway and interstate highways overwhelmed the canal as a commercial enterprise. However, tourists and New Yorkers alike still love it today. More than 25,000 recreational vessels sailed on the Erie this year, and for many the most popular time on the waterway starts this week with its hillsides ablaze in colour.
Canadian boaters access the canal from three locations – entering the Buffalo River where it empties into Lake Erie near Buffalo, following the Oswego Canal in from Lake Ontario or coming down from Quebec on the Richelieu River from the St. Lawrence. The 173-year-old Chambly Canal – a Canadian National Historic Site near St. Jean-sur-Richelieu – allows recreational vessel to reach Lake Champlain in Vermont and from there to the Hudson River to New York City or the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal.
Or you can simply trailer your boat to hundreds of launching ramps along the Erie. And you don’t even need your own boat. There are various tour boat operations along the canal – such as the Sam Patch vessel that sails daily from Pittsford, N.Y. (Sam Patch, "the Yankee Leaper," was America’s first known daredevil. In 1829 he dove off a 125-foot-high platform at the base of the American Falls into the Niagara River. He became famous for diving into rivers from high heights. On Friday the 13th in November of 1829, Patch dove 125 feet off the High Falls of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. More than 8,000 spectators watched the event. Sam was found in April encased in ice on the shore of Lake Ontario, 16 kilometres downstream from Rochester.).
Many communities in upper New York State were born because of the Erie Canal – such as Syracuse, now with a metropolitan population of 650,000. Syracuse sits on a huge bed of salt deposited 500 million years ago by an inland sea. The canal allowed that salt to be distributed throughout the burgeoning nation, and the city grew up around the canal traffic; today it's the site of the Erie Canal Museum, and a 36-mile segment of the canal from DeWitt, just east of Syracuse, to the outskirts of Rome, has been preserved as the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park. For several other towns in the state – such as Fairport - the canal even serves as their main streets, with boat traffic depositing visitors right in the heart of town.
When the canal first opened horses and mules were used to bull barges along the water route. Gasoline and diesel engines eventually took over that role. Today the mule towpath is a paved 584-kilometre bicycle path between Buffalo and Albany. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo intends to extend the trail down the Hudson River by 2020 to create a 1,200-kilometre, traffic-free paved trail between Buffalo and Manhattan.
There are 57 locks and 17 lift bridges on the canal, and to salute its 200th anniversary there are no fees along the canal in 2017.