The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2006

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Those Among Us

Uncovering the Story of Who Built the Erie Canal


Terry Toscano Shenfield

Exhibit through Sept. 17, 2006, at the Erie Canal Museum
318 Erie Boulevard East in downtown Syracuse
Engineering ingenuity was put to the test when construction reached the 70 foot high Niagara Escarpment. Derricks were constructed every 70 feet to hoist and remove stone debris blasted from the canal chamber. Powered by one horse, each derrick could lift one ton of stone in a single bucket load. It took two years to carve this seven mile stone trench to Buffalo. Illustration from Process of Excavation, Lockport. Memoir of the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals, by Cadwallader D. Colden, 1825. Collection of the Erie Canal Museum.

On July 4, 1817, in Rome, work crews equipped with shovels and basic tools began work on the greatest engineering marvel in American history. The original "Clinton's Ditch" cost $7.2 million and eight years to construct. The Erie Canal was so successful that it had paid for itself within seventeen years and an enlargement was necessary to accommodate the flow of commerce and the industry that grew and flourished along its banks.

The Erie Canal was truly a "portal to prosperity" for our developing nation. This is graphically portrayed in a new exhibition at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.

This great vision was brought to reality by New England's original European settlers and immigrants who came to America throughout the 1800's. The Erie offered not only lucrative employment, but the opportunity for immigrants seeking relief from famine and economic depression in their native land to start a new life in this new country. With strong backs and great tenacity, these thousands of individuals dug an artificial waterway across New York State opening the western frontier to settlement and launching the nation into an era of canal transportation that would continue for more than 100 years. Like many canal companies of the time, the Erie Canal builders made quick use of laborers they saw as "men of action" by employing them as blasters; men who handled explosives with a sense of ease, an air of confidence, and with a copious amount of pride in their work. A few blasters even became legendary by their awe-inspiring use of pyrotechnics. For example, a blaster by the name of Patten earned himself a bonus of $100 by using only one blast to land a boulder on the canal bank that saved his contractor the expense of building an entire embankment! Other blasters with equally amazing feats of skill soon brandished monikers such as "Hercules," "Bob the Blaster," and "Monster Manley." Adapted from Common Labor by Peter Way.

Living life in the fast lane for many canal laborers could run some needless risks. A canal traveler once noted that the Irish laborers were often so nonchalant about the explosions of gunpowder going off about them that instead of running to their designated safety shelters, they'd merely hold their shovels over their heads to keep the small stones from hitting them. Unfortunately, their shovels provided no protection from the occasional boulder that would, every now and then, crush one of them. Adapted from Common Labor by Peter Way.

Crude but effective innovations were born to overcome obstacles to canal construction. The stump-puller, for example, a peculiar looking but ingenious device enabled workers to efficiently clear tree stumps. Want to learn more? See Those Among Us: Uncovering the Story of Who Built the Erie Canal, through Sept. 17, at the Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Boulevard East in downtown Syracuse. Discover the amazing story of canal construction interpreted by historic images, archival materials including journals and maps, and original artwork.

Museum hours: Open year-round, Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 5pm; Sunday, 10am - 3pm; Monday by appointment for
guided group tours. Free admission.
For more information, call (315) 471-0593 or visit
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR