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Modern ‘Erie Canal’ Gains from Seaway Shutdown

October 25, 1985

WATERFORD, N.Y. (AP) _ On Saturday, exactly 160 years after mules towed the first barge down the Erie Canal, a tugboat will push the first of two barges along the shallow waterway to carry to Ohio cargo delayed by the collapse of a wall in the busy St. Lawrence Seaway.

The seaway, ironically, helped drain commercial traffic away from the nation’s oldest major canal when it opened in 1959.

The tug is expected to take two days to nudge one barge from Oswego, N.Y., on Lake Ontario, to Buffalo, N.Y., on Lake Erie. The boat will then return to Oswego for the second barge. From Buffalo, the barges will be towed in tandem to Cleveland, where the cargo will be off-loaded and trucked 80 miles south.

General Motors officials switched to the lightly used canal, now named the New York State Barge Canal, to get a $13 million, 18,000-ton metal stamping press to an auto plant in Mansfield because their ship was blocked in the seaway, said Dee Allen, a spokesman for GM’s Chevrolt-Pontiac -Canada Group.

On Oct. 14, a 125-foot section of wall in Lock No. 7 in the seaway’s Welland Canal crumbled into the water, keeping up to 100 ships tied up at ports in Canada and the United States. Engineers estimate repairs can be completed and the seaway reopened Nov. 6.

The Barge Canal, which includes the Erie, Champlain, Oswego and the Cayuga and Seneca branch canals, is open toll-free 24 hours a day to commercial shippers, said Gregory Dolan, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which maintains the 525-mile canal system. Recreational users have access to the canal during the day.

Since the wall collapse, ″we have received a number of inquiries from both commercial and recreational users looking for information about the Erie and Oswego canals,″ Dolan said. ″We’ve have also set up a hotline number for commercial barge operators.″

But most of the big ships that regularly ply the St. Lawrence Seaway will not be able to use the Barge Canal because of its shallow channels and low bridges, jsut 151/2 feet above the water.

New York Gov. De Witt Clinton was the driving force behind the Erie Canal. Skeptics tagged it ″Clinton’s Ditch″ and ″Clinton’s Folly,″ but on Oct. 26, 1825, Clinton stepped aboard a barge in Lake Erie to take a keg of lake water to New York City at the end of the Hudson River.

The completion of the waterway brought commerce and travelers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, allowing New York City to overtake Philadelphia and Boston as the young nation’s major seaport. Travel time from New York to Buffalo was cut from six weeks to 10 days.

″The Erie Canal built America,″ said Charles E. Carlson, deputy commissioner of New York state’s transportation department. ″The federal government built the rest of the country, but it wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t built the canal.″

One year after the Erie opened, 13,000 boats and 40,000 settlers had used it to go west. New towns sprang up along its banks.

Buffalo, an outpost of about 200 souls in 1812, was by 1840 a thriving city of 18,000. Rochester had a population of 331 in 1816 and by 1828 had 11,000. The canal also gave Ohio and the sprawling Northwest Territory access to the East. Without it, that region would have been dependent on the Mississippi River and dangerously isolated during the Civil War.

Ninety years after the Erie was completed, officials felt the traffic it carried merited enlarging it into the Barge Canal. Much of the old Erie was abandoned; lakes and rivers were canalized.

The present day Barge Canal, 10 times longer than the Panama Canal, looks much the same today as it did when expansion was completed in 1918. What’s different is the traffic that moves through its 57 massive steel locks.

Railroads, better highways, a growing trucking industry and the St. Lawrence Seaway have combined to make commercial canal traffic rare.

Traffic began to decline in the 1950s. By 1981, traffic that had once exceeded 6 million tons annually had dropped to less than 1 million tons.

But today the waterway is starting a second life as part of the state’s second-largest industry, tourism. Last year, 95,430 pleasure boats were raised and lowered through the Barge Canal. This past summer, the waterway was expected to serve 100,000 tourists and contribute $27 million to the state economy.

″Right now ... the constituency we have are the recreation users,″ Carlson said. ″In the past we discouraged people from putting docks out. We’ve turned that around, and we’re making the locks user-friendly.″

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