Erie Canal


By the time of the Civil War, the Erie Canal had undergone several enlargements from its original construction. Begun in Rome, N.Y. on July 4, 1817 the 363-mile canal connected New York City with Lake Erie; and it's lateral canals, running north and south, connected cities like Syracuse to Lake Ontario and Albany to Lake Champlain. The canal was like a huge man made compass pointing East and West and North and South. It was inevitable then, that the canal would become a part of the Underground Railroad, leading escaped slaves to Canada and freedom. And, at the very center of the "compass" was the city of Syracuse New York.

Using the North Star as a guide, hundreds of fugitive slaves found their way to Central New York. Syracuse, with its central location and proximity to the Erie Canal became a hub of activity on the underground railroad. The "railroad" of course was not a railroad at all; but rather a series of safe houses where anti-slavery sympathizers helped fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada. One of the Erie's lateral canals, the Oswego Canal, followed a direct northwest passage to the Port of Oswego and finally, escape across Lake Ontario to Canada and freedom!

The first shot of the Civil was was fired on April 12, 1861. At the time there were 34 states that comprised the United States of America. Twenty-three of those states remained "loyal" to the union and eleven seceded to become the Confederate States of America. New York State with its nearly four million in population was one of the leading manufacturing and agricultural producing state in the nation. Syracuse, with its proximity to the canal, was poised to become a major transporter of arms, food and clothing to support the war effort. One industry in particular was to become vital to the U.S. war effort: Onondaga salt. In 1862, Syracuse was able to ship over 9 million bushels of salt along the Erie Canal to support troops in the field. Salt, vital to the diets of men and animals, and necessary for food preservation; was also used in the tanning industry, and in the production of ammunition. No wonder then that Syracuse would become know as the Salt City.

The Erie Canal opened in 1825. By 1860, the canal, along with the developing railroads, had altered the nation's trade flow forever. Large cities and industries grew up along its route. The North became more industrialized while the South remained agrarian and more dependent upon slave labor. Canal-side industries vital to the war effort were: Remington Arms in Ilion, woolen mills in Little Falls, and of course, salt from Syracuse. Salt brine pumped up from below the surface was piped to salt vats which operated under the principle of solar drying.

The Oswego Canal, at just short of 24 miles long, connects the Erie (or main line ) Canal near Syracuse with the port of Oswego, New York. Gerrit Smith owned a large portion of property along the east side of the Oswego River. He also was a major stock holder in the Oswego Canal Company. Runaway slaves that came to Syracuse and Peterboro eventually made there way north by traveling along this "underground canal-way." Some were sequestered in the cargo holds of the boats of sympathetic canallers. Other were able to follow the towpath at night from one safe-house to another. Once in Oswego, John B. Edwards, Smith's business agent and fellow abolitionist provided safe passage for the journey to Canada. Today, the Port of Oswego is primarily host to recreational (and sometime historical) vessels.

In October of 1839, the Davenports of Mississippi, arrived at the Syracuse House hotel accompanied by their servant (a slave) Harriet Powell. Encouraged by black employees of the hotel, Harriet decided to flee. Since the hotel bordered the canal, Mr. Davenport suspected that Harriet was seeking to escape by boat. A search of a canal boat, the Oswego Packet, proved futile so he posted a reward for her return. Harriet was a quadroon (one quarter black) and could easily pass for white. For several weeks, Harriet was spirited from one safe house to another, eventually finding her way to the Gerrit Smith estate in Peterboro. Within hours of her departure from the Smith house for Canada, Davenport arrived with marshals seeking the return of his property.

[Syracuse House Hotel, now the site of OnBank.]

From its "Clinton's Ditch opening" in 1825 to today an impressive amount of folklore and legend has become a part of canal history. The canal has been the subject of books, movies and song. Perhaps the most famous song about the Erie Canal was written long after the Civil War. Written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen, the song "Low Bridge, Everybody Down" tells of the special relationship between a canaller and his mule, Sal: "She's a good old worker and a good old pal, Fifteen years on the Erie Canal. I eat my meals with Sal each day, I eat beef and she eats hay."

[Statue of a driver boy (hoggee) and mule. Hoggees were subject to much ridicule. One famous taunt: Hoggee on the towpath, five cents a day. Picking up horse balls, to eat along the way.]